“Real” Men: Compulsory Able-Bodiedness & Heroic Injury

Curator's Note

          Bodies are not neutral. Neither are their representations. One example of this is the “heroic” body, which is generally conceptualized as muscular and masculine (Shaw, 2011).  Heroes – in the traditional sense of people who fight villains – remain a popular cultural archetype, and can be easily identified in both the super-hero and historical fiction genres.  Of course, their fights often result in injuries.  Below I will trace how the tendency to resolve these injuries through superficial (although extensive) scarring, rather than permanent disability, reinforces the cultural importance of a “whole” and “non-disabled” body as a necessary element of performing hegemonic and heroic masculinity.

          Hegemonic masculinity promotes “strength, resiliency, and the capacity for rehabilitation from injury” as requisites (Hldaki, 2020, p.457-458). Scars are one way of visually representing these traits.  Because scars are the result of surviving some trauma, they symbolize overcoming one’s injuries, defeating that which would threaten them.

          While scarring in general is not associated with masculinity or attractiveness, when one’s wounds symbolize some heroic action, they are categorized differently from congenital impairments or those resulting from accidents (Samuels, 2017).  Thus, posttraumatic scars which are acquired through heroic action such as combat can be interpreted as embodiments of desirable masculine traits (Burriss, Rowland, & Little, 2009).  Unsurprisingly, scarring is thus used as a visual representation of masculine vigor, as seen in Oliver Queen (Arrow) and Oenomaus (Spartacus) each of whom collect extensive scars without facing any true challenge to their able-bodiedness.  Since the classic hero is often defined by his physical strength, it has become an expectation that he will be visibly muscular, with very little body fat and noticeable “six-pack abs.”  The placement of scars on each character’s torso further ensures that every reveal of their scars is inherently accompanied by a reveal of a hypermasculine, “ideal” male body type.  

          In stark contrast to scars, which are presented as primarily aesthetic entities, heroes facing functional difference as a result of their heroic action are far less common and tend to have more dramatic consequences for their characterizations.  This makes sense considering the idealization of a naturalized body which is viewed as “whole,” in contrast to bodies with limb difference or amputation which are conceptualized as incomplete and lacking (Norman & Moola, 2011). In a culture which already promotes compulsory able-bodiedness (McRuer, 2006) and marks disability as Other, disabilities are often signifiers of villainy or victimhood (Leduc, 2020), precluding people with disabilities from heroism.  Additionally, disability is often associated with the inability to perform many traditionally masculine tasks such as physical feats of strength and living independently, and thus it is viewed as emasculating.

          Therefore, even when heroes endure striking levels of physical violence, they must remain strong and capable, without lasting physical disability, a balance which confers upon them assurances of resilience and a physical healing which ensures that their masculinity is not marred by any permanent alteration of their abilities.  Both Jamie Fraser (Outlander) and Agron (Spartacus) endure injuries to their hands which could potentially impede their function, and yet, soon they are shown fighting valiantly alongside their comrades.  Their visible “wholeness” signifies their enduring ability to perform heroism. The focus on maintaining a heroic body might also account for why mental illness is “significantly more common” in fan representations of heroes than physical disability (Raw, 2018).

          Finally, it is useful to acknowledge a case where a heroic character is truly impacted by his injury long-term.  Bucky Barnes (MCU) is a notable figure here, since his heroic injury at the end of Captain America: The First Avenger results in limb loss, a visible and permanent disability.  This amputation coincides with his transition into villainy as he becomes the brainwashed Winter Soldier, and scenes which depict him without a prosthetic tend to characterize him as a victim.  His redemption to heroism thus requires rehabilitation: regaining a “whole” body and eschewing the notion of dependence. True heroes must always be healed. Otherwise, they’re letting the bad guys win.



Burriss, R. P., Rowland, H. M., & Little, A. C. (2009). Facial scarring enhances men’s attractiveness for short-term relationships. Personality and Individual Differences46(2), 213-217.

Hladki, J. (2020). Hazardous futures and damned embodiments: Disability and white masculinization in science fiction film. Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies14(4), 453-467.

Leduc, A. (2020). Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space. Coach House Books.

McRuer, R. (2006). Introduction: compulsory able-bodiedness and queer/disabled existence. Crip Theory: Cultural signs of queerness and disability, 1-32.

Norman, M. E., & Moola, F. (2011). ‘Bladerunner or boundary runner’?: Oscar Pistorius, cyborg transgressions and strategies of containment. Sport in Society14(9), 1265-1279.

Raw, A. E. (2018). Normalizing disability: Tagging and disability identity construction through Marvel Cinematic Universe fanfiction. Canadian Journal of Disability Studies8(2), 185-200.

Samuels, E. (2017). Prosthetic heroes: Curing disabled veterans in Iron Man 3 and beyond. In E. Ellcessor & B. Kirkpatrick (Eds.), Disability Media Studies (pp. 129–151). New York University. 

Shaw, G. (2021, November 11). 8 celebrities who got ripped to play superheroes in the marvel cinematic universe. Insider. Retrieved August 27, 2022, from https://www.insider.com/mcu-superhero-physical-transformations-2020-10 

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