The documentary Murderball, directed by Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro, is raw, visceral, violent, and beautiful. It is a story of a multi-dimensional masculinity and humanity told from several points of view. It embodies the expression, “in your face,” in that neither the filmmakers nor the subjects feel inclined to leave most topics related to their masculine sexuality or disability unspoken. In that sense, Murderball is like an unrepentant New Yorker who will tell you what s/he thinks whether you like it or not.
Some of the apparent masculinity on screen is seemingly quiet, peaceable, and not typical masculinity as it is defined in the context of Western stereotypes where masculinity is define as exhibiting tendencies towards violence and domination. (Connell 1995: 67). Granted, most of the masculinity on screen is aggression-driven as an outlet for lives that one would not ordinarily associate with aggression: the disabled. And this in itself may be another form of masculinity that defies the stereotyped prejudice for disabled individuals, especially disabled men.
While there is no official main character, Mark Zupan fills the role of alpha male and dominates the screen even when he is not speaking. His stereotypical masculinity overflows from the screen leaving the other characters around him to embody their own varieties of masculinity without being threatened with being less than the stereotypically masculine Zupan who exudes what one could call the essence of Jock. His masculinity is visually embodied in the opening sequence as Zapan removes his pants to replace them with gym shorts as the camera tilts up to reveal Zapan’s blackwork tattoos.
Joe Soares, as the coach of the rival Canadian team embodies the role of the beta male antihero, perpetually angry, aggressive, holding emotions in as only a stoic, proud, wronged antihero can be though his stoicism is far from the typically quiet silent masculinity. Joe’s masculinity has elements of athleticism with his obsession with trophies but even this has a strong strain of violent, unjustly wronged angry masculinity bent on revenge for his masculinity that has been wronged. Joe masculinity dominates his family space and the space that should be taken up by the Canadian team. Because of his presence, they are almost invisible or nondescript.
We do not learn of Joe’s Portuguese heritage until late in the film and it is significant in that my general observation of Latin cultures usually reveals a stereotypical masculinity liberally mixed with emotional sensitivity. Joe does not exhibit this at all. He does not tear down his masculine wall until he has a mild heart attack and realizes through a physical epiphany that life is too short to berate his son constantly to force him into the same mold of masculinity that he possesses. Following his heart attack, he is more emotionally and physically affectionate with his son, even verbalizing an “I love you.” This is rather an overt verification of the fact that male sexuality changes over time (Kimmel 2004: 180). In this case it is predicated on a physical, and perhaps, a spiritual crisis.
Zupan proves to also be the mirror image of Joe in that he is quick to anger if he is screwed with unnecessarily, but he is also quick to forgive those that he is truly close to. In interviews with his high school friends, they admit that his personality is just as hard now as it was before his accident which goes a long way to prove that, though the accident disabled him, it was not going to stop him from fulfilling his mission in life as he saw it and he was not going to engender any sympathy just because he was stuck in the wheelchair. He even went so far as to prove this by inviting Christopher, the friend from high school that was responsible for Zupan’s accident. The wheelchair did not embody or define him as a masculine force. And certainly, this is part of what attracted his girlfriend to him.
The other characters in the movie embody the varieties of masculinity that we see on screen. Bob Lujano is the sensitive Latin, another antithesis of Joe in that he is never afraid to leave his emotions “on his sleeve” where everyone can see them and where no one chastises him for being sensitive and emotional. Scott Hogsett is the ladies man in the bunch and he seems to be only interested in this aspect of his masculinity where he uses his athletic prowess to “get chicks” and “get laid”. Apparently he is effective because he marries by the end of filming.
Keith Cavill does not participate in the games because he is recovering from his spinal chord injury and hopes that one day he will recover his ability to walk, but this is a reflexive psychological desire, given that he is new to his inability to function on two legs. What was interesting to hear from him was his recurring dream of flying with whole arms and legs, a psychological desire for escape from present circumstances. He seems to embody the quiet, shy, sensitive, athletic masculinity that most of the non-primary characters seem to exhibit.
Something must be said about the femininity in the film, which the filmmakers seem to gloss over. They are considered in only the supportive, nurturing roles of mothers or as sex objects to the men in the film, but they do not seem to be objective sex objects that are not supposed to embody brains and emotional depth, but they are not given much more room to exhibit their own defined femininity.
Murderball is a raw exploration of masculinity. In the context of the film, the story is not about disability, not about a group of disabled individuals who play a violent form of rugby. The sport is secondary and minor. This is an exploration of masculine stereotypes and masculine nuances allowed to exhibit themselves in the context of a contextual sports frame. In that frame, the results are almost put under a microscope for all to see without embarrassment.
Connell, R. (1995). The Social Organization of Masculinity In Masculinities (pp. 67-86). Berkeley: University of California Press.
Kimmel, M. S., Hearn, J., & Connell, R. (Eds.). (2004). Male Sexualities In Handbook of Studies on Men and Masculinities (pp. 178-195). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.