Desiring Disability

Brothers of the Head is a revolutionary film because it simultaneously epitomizes and shatters the ideologies surrounding queer and disabled people. Through the explicit sexualization of the brothers, as well as the concept of  “desiring disability” Tom and Barry are able to show how audiences view queerness and disability but how they are also able to defy those preconceived misconceptions.

The depictions of Tom and Barry throughout the film illustrate both of them as sexual beings, which is unheard of for characters who are disabled. In a photo shoot conducted with two girls, the brothers are seen not only exploring their sexuality with the girls but with each other thus establishing the brothers’ identity as sexual beings. As McRuer and Wilkinson point out in their article, “People with disabilities are told in a thousand ways that their sexuality is unseemly when it’s not denied altogether” (9). However, their sexuality is not only expressed through the brothers’ actions and dialogue. It is also depicted in the way the camera exploits the bodies of the brothers throughout the film. In a scene where Laura, Tom’s love interest, and Tom are laying in bed canoodling and kissing, the camera plays a voyeuristic role by letting the audience into their personal space. At first, the picture is distorted and it is difficult to tell what exactly is happening on screen but as the picture becomes more clear, the audience is able to see Tom and Laura’s naked bodies laying on top of each other while Barry also acts as voyeur because he is in bed with them as well. While queer and disabled are sometimes victims of the privatization of sexuality because of a need to adhere to heteronormative norms about sexuality, Tom and Barry deviate from this by having their sexuality explicitly portrayed (McRuer & Wilkerson, 9).

The idea of the exploitation of the body is taken even further in the film through the concept that Wilkinson describes as “desiring disability.” While McRuer and Wilkerson say that the are critical of “fetishistic appropriations, to disability, from tokenistic cultural representations designed to make able-bodied consumers feel good to some variants of sexual devoteeism,” Brothers of the Head exemplifies this definition of “desiring disability.” Throughout the film, the “disability” (whether it’s interpreted as their queerness or the fact that they are conjoined) of Tom and Barry are exploited by the camera. For example, because of Tom and Barry’s public displays of affection, the audience feels like it is intruding in many of their special moments. The camera takes the audience to the brothers’ bed and to their special moments together, which are usually filled with embraces. While the relationship between Tom and Barry is up for interpretation in terms of sexuality, the camera sets the audience up to be these “variants of sexual devoteeism” by allowing them to experience these moments with Tom and Barry. The actual disability is also exploited when the camera zooms in on the piece of flesh that connects Tom and Barry. Often times, fans, especially women, are seen touching the flesh which is literally fetishizing exactly what makes them disabled. While, this can be interpreted as a fascination because of how different Tom and Barry are, it can also be a way to “make able-bodied consumers feel good.” Audiences get to see that Tom and Barry do not and cannot exist mutually exclusively from one another and see how physically and mentally straining it is to have another human being attached to you. This could serve the function of  “desiring disability” because the audience is able to be grateful for the fact that they are not Tom or Barry.

While the idealization of bodies can be seen as exploitation by the camera, it can also be seen interpreted as a cultural movement in how disabilities and queerness is portrayed in the media. One of the other ways to define “desiring disability” is a “politicized disability rights movement” that would continue to expose contradictions in the system while engaging in “’practices of freedom’ that would work to realize a world of multiple (desiring and desirable) corporealities interacting in nonexploitative ways” (McRuer & Wilkinson, 14). Tom and Barry really begin this idea of “practices of freedom” by having their sexuality be as fluid as possible. The fact that they are conjoined does not make them less sexually desirable, as shown by Tom and Laura’s relationship, but it also does not make them have to abide to sexuality binaries. The kiss the brothers share could be confusing to the audience, but it also shows how the brothers are engaging in their “practices of freedom” Tom and Barry are also comfortable with their disability. It is not something they try to conceal but rather embrace (literally, because so often they are seen embracing one another) it and call attention to it. In solo interviews conducted with only the brothers throughout the movie, they are always joking about the fact that they are conjoined and make funny remarks as to how they would react if they had conjoined children. They also encourage people to touch the flesh that joins them both and instead of trying to conceal their disability, they spend a significant amount of time shirtless in the film. It is also true that the brothers do not see themselves as disabled. When Laura first comes to write an article about the exploitation of the disabled, they joke that one of the band members has a “dodgy ankle” and she should be writing on him. Interactions like these allow people to be at ease when addressing the disability and see past it. In Laura’s case, she sees past it enough to begin a physical and sexual relationship with Tom.

Works Cited

McRuer, Robert, and Abby L. Wilkerson. “Introduction.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies (2003): 1-24. Print.


One thought on “Desiring Disability

  1. channabach

    Your reading of the film’s treatment of disabled/queer sexuality is great. The close reading you provide of the scene with Laura is great, and your attention to cinematography and framing here makes your claims strong and well supported.

    Your critique of the film’s fetishistic treatment of Tom and Barry is intriguing. What do you make of the multiple frames or audiences the film employs on this topic? The feeling of intrusion and voyeurism does seem to be produced in the ways you note, but I’m curious if you think the film is encouraging that voyeurism or citing it in order to critique it? Is the film advocating fetishistic voyeurism, or condemning it? (I admit, I’m a bit split on this myself—perhaps it is doing both simultaneously?)

    You do a wonderful job of exploring how the different models of “desiring disability” are at work in the film, including both the more ableist ones and the resistant ones. Perhaps there is something to be said here about the interplay of power and resistance?

    When introducing authors or texts for the first time, make sure to use their full names (ie: “In their introduction to Desiring Disability, Robert McRuer and Abby Wilkerson point out…”). This orients your reader, and allows them to understand your arguments/analysis even if they are not part of our class.

    Great job.

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