Lost and masculine mobility

Locke, a middle aged, bald white man in a wheelchairLast night’s episode of Lost focused on John Locke – three versions of Locke, to be precise. Spoilers follow!

The Locke we first met on Oceanic flight 815 – a wheelchair user who regained his mobility on the island – is dead, his body is being inhabited by another being, and in an alternate universe, Locke is back in his wheelchair and living a different version of his life back in Los Angeles. This Locke is engaged to lost love Helen, and loses his job and begins substitute teaching (meeting Ben Linus), while debating a visit to Dr. Jack Shephard. For analysis of the episode itself, head over to Jason Mittell’s post on Antenna, or Myles McNutt at Cultural Learnings. My interest is in how Locke deals with his disability in this episode, and how he fits into a larger cultural trope of men with mobility impairments.

Locke, in his original timeline, was positioned as trying to overcome his disability, trying to prove he could do the Australian walkabout, trying to assert mastery over nature and his own body. He was denied the chance, until the crash allowed him to regain the ability to walk and take on a leadership role among the castaways. In his new timeline, Locke was still trying to overcome – when he loses his job, he asks for a position in construction work. Alternate-universe Rose tells him to be more realistic, and accept his limitations. But, as the episode makes painfully clear as he mourns his inability to walk down the aisle (literally) with Helen, this version of Locke is a man who no longer hopes for miracles.

Locke’s persistent desire to overcome his disability is presented in strongly masculine terms – he hopes to go on the walkabout to overcome nature and find himself, he asks for a job in manual labor, he wants an able body to go through with his marriage. He perceives his body as an impediment, preventing him from a properly masculine self-actualization. As is so often the case, then, disability is linked to femininity, and understood as less valuable than a traditional masculinity.

Importantly, though, Locke is only one of several current cultural representations of a man with a mobility impairment. Mobility and proper masculinity seem to be increasingly linked, even as popular culture offers cases in which that link is broken or must be reestablished. As eloquently argued at Flow, the lead character in Avatar uses a wheelchair and is given his mobility through the avatar system and then regains it permanently in the form of a Na’vi by the film’s end. Jake in Avatar, like Locke in Lost, begins the narrative with a mobility impairment that is removed during the course of the narrative, leading these men to assume leadership roles in which they master (and coexist with) nature. I’ve blogged before about other media men with mobility impairments, most notably Dr. Gregory House of House, M.D.. House also lost his disability for periods of time, in seasons three and five, though his chronic pain and case reappear in fairly short order.

Even the Dodge charger ad, the most egregiously misogynist ad of this year’s Super Bowl, links true masculinity to mobility, as static, medium shots of men complaining about the sacrifices they make for women are replaced by the fast movement of the car and its driver, unaccompanied by voiceover.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about men and mobility impairments, particularly in dramatic television, is how often they are seen struggling against disability and attempting to overcome it to regain a properly dominant masculine identity. Disability as narrative obstacle, as it were. How much more novel and relevant would it be to watch a character adapt, craft alternative forms of masculinity, and resist cultural narratives of cure and exceptionalism? If alternate-universe Locke develops in this direction, making sense of his life with a disability and pursuing goals other than traditionally masculine forms of success, I’ll certainly be along for the ride.

Comments (3)

  1. Lindsay H. Garrison

    Great post, Liz. As I was watching the episode, I was wondering what you were thinking about it and hoping you’d take to your blog! I like your point about alternate-universe Locke and disability as a narrative obstacle for male heroes. It’s something I was also thinking about as Ben was giving the (awkward) eulogy for island Locke, saying “Locke was more of a man than I’ll ever be.” I was thinking, is it because of his (Locke’s) ‘faith’? Is it because of his optimism? And did he become this ‘better man’ only on the island, after he regained his mobility?

    Also, interesting read of the Dodge Charger commercial – hadn’t seen it that way until reading it here. Great point.

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  2. Rebecca

    I think the end of the episode when Helen and Locke ripped up Jack’s card did start to touch on resisting a cure narrative– good for them. Certainly alternate universe Locke is the one who got the girl. I noticed in a Lost message board that at least some people were very uncomfortable with his decision not to be “fixed,” which leads me to believe that this episode is resisting cliches and stereotypes, at least more than the average TV show.

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  3. uomoartificiale

    Ok, I clearly see that ‘The tragedy model of disability’ is still the common prime-time TV view. Still, in the 6th Lost season Locke’s disability has been pictured once again. Now he’s married, and his wife begs him to accept himself. She convinces him not to fantasize anymore about a miraculous cure because she loves him as he is.

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