Disability Studies Quarterly
Fall 2006, Volume 26, No. 4
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies

The Disabled Male Gaze: Expressions of Desire and Emotion in
Rory O'Shea Was Here

Michael Gill
Ph.D. student in Disability Studies
The University of Illinois at Chicago
1640 W. Roosevelt Road, MC 626
Chicago, IL 60608
E-mail: mgill4@uic.edu


This essay examines Rory O'Shea Was Here as a male melodrama. Chiefly utilizing theories of narrative prosthesis, problem bodies, and melodrama, a discussion of the disabled male gaze is forwarded. The result is a conclusion that within the film the objectification of Siobhan and the sentimentality of Michael and Rory's lives combine to further damaging gender politics and static representations of disabled characters. Despite the rhetoric of independence and self-sufficiency, Rory O'Shea Was Here employs a narrative of disability that offers an ultimate option of death instead of living with impairment. Rory O'Shea also endorses the view that the only meaningful relationships are authorized via professional routes.


Disability representations in film, problem bodies, melodrama, narrative prosthesis, Rory O'Shea Was Here, disabled male gaze


Disability, representation and film typically have been combined in static and potentially derogatory ways. Most often disabled people are either represented as deformed, such as Quasimodo (Lon Chaney) in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) or evil like Mason Verger (Gary Oldman) in Hannibal (2001). Similarly disabled bodies are often presented in the context of medicine and death. Characters such as Judith Traherne (Betty Davis) in Dark Victory (1939) pervade popular imaginations as a sick disabled character with death as the final solution to escape the "disabling" conditions (Longmore, 1987; Norden, 1994; Pointon and Davies, 1997). Sometimes representations of disability, particularly disabled men, emerge in narratives about veterans including The Men (1950) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989). Particularly in films about veterans the narrative centers on a male character (or characters) trying to reclaim their masculinities often through hired sex workers (Kim, 2003). Films that have perhaps more mundane plots, such as Rory O'Shea Was Here (2004)[1], are not as common.

The film starts as Rory O'Shea (James McAvoy), a 20-year-old radical complete with heavy metal T-shirts and piercings enters Carrigmore Home for the Disabled, an apparent brief stop on his continual tour of segregated Irish living situations. It becomes clear that Rory is trouble and often does not stay in one location because of the incompatibility of his lifestyle with those of the professionals around him. At Carrigmore the professionals are largely a group of middle-aged women. The characterization of the women caregivers and administrators at Carrigmore is problematic at best, while furthering notions of "smothering" females. What is especially bothersome is that the women at Carrigmore are set up as cruel and spiteful — in such a way that suggests to the viewers to align with Rory and Michael at the expense of these women. It is character depictions such as these that contribute to the troubling gender politics within the film.

When Rory enters Carrigmore he meets Michael Connelly (Stephan Robertson), clearly his contemporary despite Michael's somewhat conservative attire. With the encouragement of Rory based on his previously failed attempts, Michael applies for an independent living allowance from the Irish government. A successful application, blackmailing Michael's emotionally distant father (he is a well-known judge) and finding the perfect sexualized and competent assistant, Siobhan (Romola Garai), results in Rory and Michael living independently in an apartment in Dublin. The choice of Siobhan, a young, feminine, and sexy equal (as opposed to an older desexualized male) as a personal assistant is interesting especially considering the interview process when Siobhan says, "No, I am not qualified" to which Rory responds, "You have the best qualifications we have seen in a long time." Rory's response is a clear endorsement of the objectification of Siobhan indicating that he considers Siobhan's figure to be the indicator of qualifications. Despite the objectification of Siobhan, she does provide a high level of care and assistance, further troubling the gender politics as quite literally Siobhan's body becomes a sexual object while her labors reinforce traditional "female" roles. This objectification of Siobhan as a sexual entity drives the remaining plot, as Michael grows increasingly attracted to her while the camera continues to objectify her body. This plot of sexualized desires culminates when Michael tells Siobhan he loves her, only to have her quit and be replaced with a black male assistant, apparently as a signifier of a desexualized body in Michael's world. The remaining narrative has Rory contracting pneumonia and dying in the hospital but only after delivering his final words of inspiration to an increasingly independent but still virginal Michael.

Without writing off the entire project of Rory O'Shea as damaging to the politics of disability representation, I seek to provide a multifaceted examination of the film and its representations of disability and gender. After my first viewing, I was impressed with the radical representation of Rory; he is a punked and pierced wheelchair user, but I was also dismayed that in the end of the film Rory dies, a plot device central to many representations of disabled characters. Only upon revisiting the film in the context of my Women and Film class a year later was I willing to engage with issues of gender and sentimentality within the film. Specifically, I am attempting to examine how my first viewing of neutrality changed with each subsequent viewing. Why am I increasingly bothered with the over sexualization of the character Siobhan and over sentimentalization of the lives of Michael and Rory? In my examination of the film I do not want to fall into the trap of describing these representations as "negative" while others are "positive". Instead my hope is that, consistent with David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder's claim, I can produce an analysis that "complicate[s] the question of 'negativity' without surrendering a usable politics (2001:16)."

Narrative Prosthesis at Play

Even though Rory O'Shea is an independent film made in consultation with disability activists and loosely based on lived experiences of disabled people at Dublin's Center for Independent Living, this paper seeks to explore Rory O'Shea as a product of typical filmic representations of disability (Haller, 2006). Despite the guise of a progressive narrative with ideas of independent living and the radical appearance of Rory with a pierced nose and spiked dyed blonde hair, my argument is that Rory O'Shea plays off of narratives of disability that offer options of death instead of living with an impairment, as well as endorsing the view that the only meaningful relationships are authorized via professional routes. Specifically in the film Rory suddenly dies as a result of his impairment, an all too familiar plot device of disability used in such films as Philadelphia (1993), Million Dollar Baby (2004) and The Sea Inside (2004). It would appear that death is often the resolution advanced in these films because of the inability of the film itself to imagine a narrative in which the disabled character moves on past the crisis of the plot to navigate their lives with a renewed sense of self-determination. Death often gets confounded with disability in these movies and as a result the presence of disability is seen as a chronic condition in which death or cures are the only options. As a result the message of disability as death or death as the release of disability is forwarded onto the largely nondisabled audience. As a contrast to the narratives of death, Michael, on the other hand, negotiates a relationship in the film with his personal assistant Siobhan and this relationship is ultimately destroyed due to his inappropriate sexual expectations and a blurring of professional boundaries. The only option left for Michael after Rory's death and Siobhan's departure is professionally authorized companionship with his male personal assistant, who suggests Michael attend classes at the local university. Despite the catchy tag line of, "Live life like you mean it," the film fails to offer meaningful agency to any of the characters, instead conventional methods of representing disability in film are employed.

Here Mitchell and Snyder's ideas about "narrative prosthesis" can help to provide a useful framework for examining representation within Rory O'Shea. Narrative prosthesis is defined as:

...situating a discussion about disability within a literary domain while keeping watch on its social context. The phrase tries to capture the myriad relations between the literary and the historical...it acknowledges that literary representation bears on the production and realization of disabled subjectivities (2001: 9).

Narrative prosthesis allows for the examination of representations of disability within the film. This examination simultaneously seeks to understand to what extent the disabled characters' disability status furthers the plot while at the same time this examination also attends to how lived experiences of disability outside the text mirror or contradict the representations. Rory O'Shea has disabled characters central to the plot; a plot that has actions many disabled adults living in nursing homes cannot achieve: moving out into the community. Instead of arguing throughout for increased resources to enable more disabled people to live in homes of their own, the film instead transforms the character of Rory to become a kind of "narrative prosthesis." Rory becomes a metaphor of the will to live independently and as a result Rory's death signifies the passing of this metaphor onto Michael thus continuing the prosthetic relationship between film and disability as Michael becomes the new metaphor of transgressing impairment in order to live a more fulfilling and independent existence. Disability or rather the disabled characters in the film are translated into images of independence for the nondisabled viewer to be inspired. Any realness of living as a disabled person is mitigated by this act of metaphorization; narrative prosthesis has continued. Through an examination of the characters of Rory and Michael, this paper seeks to determine to what extent disability and its representation further the prosthetic movement of manifestation.

Employing the Jerk: The Emotional Responses to Rory's Life

Linda Williams in her influential essay on body genres in film utilizes the term "jerk" to explain pornography ("jerk off"), horror films ("fear jerker") and melodrama ("tear jerker"). Premature death with disability, or rather "because" of disability invokes pity and emotion resulting in "viewers feel[ing] too directly, too viscerally manipulated by the text in specifically gendered ways" (Williams 1991:271). This manipulation that Williams refers to results in an emotional response to actions by disabled bodies within the film. Snyder and Mitchell use Williams's ideas about melodrama and the emotional responses that disability can create, "disabled bodies have been constructed cinematically and socially to function as delivery vehicles in the transfer of extreme sensation to the audiences" (2006:162). Actions that perhaps mundane if done by nondisabled characters, such as moving into apartments or seeking sexual partners, are seen as emotionally charged in this particular film, a sign of the totalizing effect disability can have on a character's development. Any success is read as overcoming while any defeat (even bodily) creates pathos. The goal of this film and perhaps others alike is "measured by the degree to which the audience sensation mimics what is seen on the screen" (Williams, 1991:270). If the nondisabled audience feels emotional after Rory's death then the film becomes a success.

Critical responses to this film have centered on the emotional impact that the overcoming and death sequences have on filmgoers. Neil Smith reviewing the film for the BBC opens his review this way:

'It'll all end in tears,' mutters Siobhan (Romola Garai) as she accepts a job caring for the disabled heroes of Irish comedy-drama Inside I'm Dancing [Rory O'Shea Was Here]. True enough, director Damien O'Donnell adds a healthy dose of saline sentiment to his engaging tale of disadvantaged Dubliners striking out on their own (Smith, 2004).

The plot of disabled men moving out into the world on their own is a theme many reviewers have pointed to as justification for the emotional response of the film. Perhaps these responses are referenced in Williams's ideas of the melodrama, "considered as a filmic mode of stylistic and/or emotional excess that stands in contrast to more 'dominant' modes of realistic, goal-oriented narrative" (1991: 269). In Williams's terms the film becomes a "male weepie", a buddy film that has two male characters "breaking the taboos against male-to-male hugs and embraces" (1991:276).The plot of two men moving out an institutional setting is set up as "realistic" and "goal-orientated narrative" that is emotionally charged, a melodrama, overcoming narrative or "weepie" (Williams 1991:269). Another less than diplomatic reviewer for the Philadelphia Weekly faults the plot as playing on traditional narratives of disability to invoke an emotional response:

The problem with Jeffrey Caine's screenplay is that it at first allows Rory to be a prick -- thereby demanding that we see the handicapped as people, complete with their own faults and attitude problems. (Like the scabrous work of Larry David and the Farrelly brothers, this film initially engages the disabled as fair game.) But then along comes a cough fraught with more foreshadowing than that nasty hack Kate Winslet let loose in Finding Neverland, and suddenly Rory O'Shea is no longer just an arsehole- but a treacly emblem of free spirits everywhere. This problematic individual is quickly reduced to cheap, symbolic chump change. Pale martyrdom ensues, and an interesting arsehole gets dulled down and sanctified according to trite Hollywood formulas. Yawn (Burns, 2005).

Burn's passionate review of the film and specifically the film's treatment of Rory's death and its meaning are reminiscent of previous representations of disability and death to invoke emotion and inspire those left behind. Even the New York Times review by Manohla Dargis begins with:

Stuffed with treacle and moral uplift, the new Irish film Rory O'Shea Was Here sounds sweet enough to rot your teeth. Consider the possibilities and try not to wince: two physically disabled young men break free from institutional confines and wheel their way into the good graces of all they encounter (Dargis, 2005).

Again this review is further evidence that the plot of disabled men living alone with adequate assistance is too drastic to be taken seriously without tremendous emotion, despite the reality that many disabled individuals do live in independent living situations with impairments more severe than Rory and Michael. The Chicago Tribune review of the film calls the film a piece of "bad drama" that moves the audience to "tears- shame tears, cries in the dark that we'd rather no one know about, ever" (Benedikt, 2005).

Unlike some representations of disability in a film such as Million Dollar Baby, Rory O'Shea does not provide a "before disability" plot but rather we are introduced to our characters as "broken" bodies, which are already positioned in the melodramatic genre. I would argue that for this reason the death of Rory is not seen as significant like Maggie's but rather as a cruel and intentional ploy to elicit emotional responses from the audience such as "sadism" and "masochism" (Williams, 1991:280-281). There is no mourning for Rory's lost ablebodiness as perhaps there is when Maggie becomes paralyzed. Although Williams here is primarily arguing about the role of pornography and horror films and the objectification of women that results in watching these films, I would argue that Williams's ideas about the role of the melodrama in drawing out emotional responses is a large part of the reason that films like Rory O'Shea Was Here are not seen as critically acclaimed films but rather guilty pleasures and tear-jerkers. Snyder and Mitchell argue that the nature of melodramas includes:

...excessive sensation produced often hinges upon the cultivation of the fear of disability... Such films appeal to viewer concerns about the maintenance of bodily integrity, and thus, the production of disability serves as a site of visceral sensation where abject fantasies of loss and dysfunction (maimed capacity) are made to destabilize the viewer's own investments in ability (2006:165).

As nondisabled people see the disabled characters in the film ideas about personal loss and ability interact with their "fear" of disability. An emotional response to the narrative prosthetic bodies within the film not only determines the success of the melodrama but also reinforces ideas about the cultural meaning of disability.

Problem Bodies All Around

In an attempt to understand how the characters of Rory and Michael elicit emotional responses, Nicole Markotic's innovative ideas about the problem body can help explain the emotional reactions to this film. Markotic argues:

So as not to prioritize the disabled body and thereby elide other equally critical factors determining the body, I shall use the term problem body to address variable determining factors defining the problematic relationship between 'normal' and 'abnormal' bodies. So the disabled body is not merely added as the next overlooked critical frame to the burgeoning literature on the body, nor does the problem body isolate the discussion to focus on either this [adjective] body or that [adjective] body (1999:7, original emphasis).

This film positions a multitude of bodies that could be read as "problem bodies." We see Rory's body as the problem body -- he has always been disabled- and his death creates pathos. When watching the film, the nondisabled audience members are comparing Rory and Michael's bodies to Siobhan, other non-disabled characters in the film and their own personal understandings of what disability means. Since Rory is seen as broken and deficient, a kind of prosthesis of disability — I would argue audience members can see his successes as inspirational while his death discouraging. Williams' discussion of Italian critic Franco Moretti on the role of shedding tears in literature helps to illuminate how Rory O'Shea works to deliver the emotional effect of the melodrama:

Italian critic Franco Moretti has argued, for example, that literature that makes us cry operates via a special manipulation of temporality: what triggers our crying is not just the sadness or suffering of the character in the story but a very precise moment when characters in the story catch up with and realize what the audience already knows. We cry, Moretti argues, not just because the characters do, but at the precise moment when desire is finally recognized as futile. The release of tension produces tears- which becomes a kind of homage to a happiness that is kissed goodbye (1997:279).

Expressions of tears and similar responses create an impression that the film is not intended to be a realistic representation of independence but rather a trite and sugary reminder of our individual ability to transgress our bodily limitations and live with a freer spirit. The moment of Rory's death and Michael's "awakening" as a more independent man is the exact moment when the character's knowledge coincides with that of the audience, and much like Moretti's claim above, the audience recognizes that the narrative has been rendered futile as one character dies and the other fully symbolizes independence.

As a contrast to the apparent brokenness of Michael and Rory's bodies, Siobhan likewise is a problem body that helps to create the emotion in the film. Primarily Siobhan is set up as feminine and as a result of this femininity she is seen as predisposed to provide care labor, a role she does quite well in the context of the film. The inscribing of her gender as feminine and especially nurturing is combined with the sexualization of her character. Because she is sexualized and set up in the film in contrast to Rory and Michael, Siobhan's "problem body" is supposedly predetermined to be consumed in heterosexual relations. Markotic explains the relationship of femaleness to her ideas of problem bodies:

Whereas in normative discourse, 'real' bodies are conveniently used to express a corporate alliance or collective ideal, providing a shared agreement of what bodies mean, what bodies tend to mean for these writers is complicated textured layers that deconstruct previous givens at the same time as they conceive and reconceive how to write that "real" meaning. Such reconceptions or reconfigurations of bodies overly-coded by social determination are especially welcome when writing about female bodies- bodies that are always already coded with 'lack' and as 'other' (Markotic 1999:14, original emphasis).

Siobhan is "overly coded" as sexual in the film. Intended viewers of the film (largely heterosexual) become acutely aware of Siobhan's potential sexual nature. For viewers her femaleness not only signifies a labor of care but also her femaleness becomes "justification" for the objectification. In a similar way, the disabled male bodies are "overly coded" with a comprehension that their disability will comprise their masculinity. Their bodies will forever be problematic as "feminized" and potentially "asexual". Similar to the determination of Siobhan's body within the film to be sexualized, both Rory and Michael are also scripted to live a life of determination: death (for Rory) and new awakening (for Michael). Not only does it seem unlikely that these bodies can escape the trope of determination but also this same trope expects emotional responses. We expect Rory to die all throughout but still we are caught off-guard when he does. We do not expect Michael to be voted as President of Ireland but rather to learn a beneficial life lesson. These characters' problem bodies script out our emotional responses.

Consider one of the final scenes in the hospital. Rory has recently contracted pneumonia and the physicians have given him only days to live. Michael clearly distressed at the forthcoming loss of his friend participates in a vigil outside Rory's room. This is the only setting in the entire film where a character is linked with medical procedures pointing perhaps to the filmmaker's attempt to "free" disabled bodies from the purview of medicine. However, because the resolution of the plot occurs in the medical space, as I will explain below, all previous attempts to erase medicine in the film are broken, as Rory and Michael must re-enter the hospital space and its authority.

In this hospital scene Michael is situated next to Rory. Rory is lying down in his hospital room and he is receiving breathing assistance from a ventilator. As Michael approaches the bed, Rory exchanges some small talk with him but the mood quickly turns somber when Rory proclaims, "Rory O'Shea was here" to which Michael responds while pointing to his own chest "Rory O'Shea is here." Michael is portrayed as a character with a speech impediment due to a diagnosis of cerebral palsy. Throughout most of the film Rory serves as the interpreter repeating or rewording much of what Michael says. However at this point, partially because the audience has become familiar with Michael's speech style and because I would argue the director wants the audience to understand Michael's words, the "Rory O'Shea is Here" is delivered in a meaningful and direct manner, all while tears are forming in Michael's eyes. Rory receiving Michael's promise to keep him in his heart replies, "Michael you need nobody. You are your own man." It is at this point the central goal of the narrative becomes clear. Michael is learning how to become a man (problematic in its own right) as well as finding his own way in the world outside of Carrigmore. The violin begins to play, Michael starts to cry as he reaches out for Rory's hand and the audience begins to cry along with Michael. No wonder many reviews expressed dismay at the plot and its emotional appeal. Here lies another disabled character whose death is supposed to teach us a lesson.

Employing the Jerk-Off: Sexual Objectification of Siobhan

Along with the increased emotional response to the plight of Rory and Michael in the film, Rory O'Shea also utilizes increased sexual objectification of Siobhan in order to highlight the inappropriate sexual advances and desires of Michael. Within the film itself there are a few key scenes that signify the improper and potentially abusive sexuality of Michael combining with the continual objectification that occurs in the film of Siobhan's body, specifically her chest. One problematic review of the film describes the relationship between Michael and Siobhan as:

Michael clearly has it hard for Siobhan and probably believes this is his best chance in a life filled with older nurses and women who wouldn't give him a second look because of his condition. It's to the movie's strength that it doesn't reduce this area to just simplistic romanticized terms. There's a harsh reality awaiting Michael and we feel his pain even as he goes about expressing his love in the worst way (Childress, 2005).

The relationship between Michael and Siobhan does not end in a romantic pairing based on false pretenses, although such an ending advances a more multifaceted plotline. I am however weary of an analysis of Michael's affections that does not take into account his role in sexually objectifying Siobhan. My analysis below hopefully will point to Michael's part in the continual objectification of Siobhan.

Before I continue, however, with the exploration of the objectification of Siobhan within the film, I do want to acknowledge that the film has many tender moments between Michael and Siobhan that are not overly sexual, abusive or potentially threatening. The complex nature of the relationship between Michael and Siobhan not only drives the plot as the inevitable confession of feelings occurs but also the nondisabled audience views moments in which Michael and Siobhan are in arguably equals in a fulfilling relationship, included here are the moments in the film when they hang laundry together or practice pronunciation with the aid of a dictionary. Their relationship is complex and at times confusing given the many different roles that the characters are required to play or that are assigned to them: disabled, male, female, sexualized, carer, professional, friend, and interpreter. This potential conflict of interests between the personal assistant and disabled man points to how when multiple identity categories interlock previously oppressed people can begin to participate in the oppression of another (Razack 1998: 13-14). The film narrative demonstrates that despite Michael's marginal social status and Siobhan's objectification as a woman, the nature of the relationship results in reinforcing systems based oppression. Given the apparent complexity of the relationship between these two, it becomes even more painful to watch the sexualization and abuse of Siobhan.

Disabled Male Gaze

Because both Rory and Michael are wheelchair users, the camera often will shoot them at eye level, a camera angle that accentuates Siobhan's chest at the expense of showing any other part of her figure. Quite literally the camera appropriates most often Michael's gaze, what I will call the disabled male gaze, and this gaze continues to objectify Siobhan in her many entries and exits into the film's narrative progression (Mulvey, 1975:60-61). The idea of the disabled male gaze is very similar to the male gaze that Mulvey theorizes; however, there are a few key differences. Even though the disabled male gaze acts in objectifying Siobhan much like the male gaze but because the camera "takes on" Michael and Rory's viewpoint as disabled men, the largely nondisabled heterosexual audience not only sees the objectification through their eyes but also the audience in consuming the objectification through the disabled male gaze (by way of the camera) is given the chance to confront their biases and views about disabled male sexuality. What I mean is that instead of merely calling this gaze a male gaze, I intend to point to how this disabled male gaze becomes a device that allows for the nondisabled audience's consumption of Siobhan while creating distance from the disabled male bodies that are performing the gaze. The disabled male characters within the film are not allowed to participate in sexual relationships based on their male gaze (although Rory is alluded to as having past sexual encounters) but instead the heterosexual nondisabled audience becomes the "benefactor" of the male gaze while the film itself punishes the gaze through inaction.

Specifically when Siobhan is doing various job-related duties such as transferring Michael or helping him feed himself, the camera focuses on her segmented body in a similar sense that Mulvey describes as, "taking other people as objects, subjecting them to controlling and curious gaze" (1975:60). The continual disabled male gaze of the camera forces viewers to "learn" more about Siobhan's body as a sexualized object instead of Rory and Michael's bodies traditionally objectified through medical interventions and modes of rehabilitation. Disabled people often report feelings of drastic violence and objectification by medical professionals sometimes even being photographed or paraded naked in front of a group of medical students or other professionals. I would argue that this film does not acknowledge the history of these narratives of objectification and instead chooses to employ familiar methods of objectification of the female body by way of the male gaze. Despite freeing Michael and Rory's bodies (for the most part) of medical authorities and gazes in the film, these two characters continue with the help of the camera to exploit the female form of Siobhan, a move consistent with Mulvey's argumentation that, "Traditionally, the woman displayed has functioned on two levels: as erotic object for the characters within the screen story, and as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium" (1975:63). What is of note in this film is the repeated objectification of Siobhan while at the same time denying and even punishing Michael for his sexual desires. Instead of rewarding him or sanctioning this union, the film still allows for the objectification (apparently for the nondisabled heterosexual viewer's sake) while denies any potential for sexual union with disabled and nondisabled characters. Eunjung Kim in her analysis of disabled men in cinema remarks that:

The cultural location of gender in able-bodied norms creates a gap between individuals with disabilities and their cultural mapping to be fully gendered. Film representations of disability seize the imagined desire to fill this gap as if the narrative can rehabilitate its characters with the gender qualifications they pursue. Sexualization has therefore succeeded, to some degree, in transforming disabled people into (heterosexual) disabled men or women, thereby reflecting a tendency to think of gender expressed in normative sexual practices (2003: 3).

Kim's analysis is that when sexual actions occur in the film often these actions are seen as rehabilitative and transformative of disabled people by forwarding heterosexual desires. Although Rory O'Shea does not allow for any sexual pairings to occur for the disabled men in the film, the gaze of Michael still creates a desire within him, perhaps even "transforming" him to a more appropriate representation of masculinity, although the gap between his masculinity and heteronormativity is reaffirmed. The gaze of the disabled male is assumed as innocent — that disability fails the action to be recognized sexually. Disability only disqualifies his authority to act, not his desires. Within the film we see Michael's increasing sexual attraction to Siobhan as situated in pubescent terms: his virginity and lack of knowledge as to how to express his emotions is judged as benevolent. This benevolence only continues, however, until Michael sexually harasses Siobhan (discussed below), once this occurs, the disabled male gaze morphs into strictly a male gaze although disability hides its violating nature from the viewers.

The disabled male gaze upon Siobhan's body is not further actualized through action. Instead when Michael confesses his love to Siobhan, in an equally emotional scene similar to the hospital scene described above, Siobhan reappropriates Michael's love as "gratitude." Essentially Siobhan is unable to consider Michael as potential partner and responds, "I am paid to do what I do for you. That's my job. That's not love. And what you feel for me is not love either. It's gratitude." Michael's attempt at expressing his feelings vocally to Siobhan only create further distance between the two of them, and she shortly quits her position as personal assistant to Rory and Michael. Her replacement is a black male (another problem body in the film), assuming that there is a non-threat of sexual attraction between any pairings of these men who are left after Siobhan's exit. Although the film clearly endorses heterosexual pairings within the film there is still no possibility of a meaningful sexual pairing between a Michael and Siobhan.

Politics of Personal Assistants and Sexuality

Previously in the narrative of the film, however, there are a couple of scenes that lead up to the act of sexual violence enacted by Michael on Siobhan's body. In both scenes I would argue that Michael is punished in the film narrative for his transgressions. The first occurs quite early on after Siobhan decides to work for Michael and Rory. She is giving Michael a shower, a highly personal experience for anyone and the camera focuses on Michael's soap covered body as Siobhan helps to clean him. Apparently at some point in the shower process, a touch (strictly professional but still caring touch) occurs and Michael becomes aroused and has an erection. Although the camera does not focus on his penis, the viewer becomes acutely aware of Michael's arousal through a pained look on his face and then in the next sequence of the film Siobhan rushes out of the apartment because she is uncomfortable at what just transpired in the shower room. Although Rory chides Michael for his erection, the nondisabled audience takes the humor of the situation as a sign that something is developing between Michael and Siobhan but that ultimately any potential pairing will not work out because of the incompatibility of their desires; Michael is aroused and Siobhan leaves the apartment space. In a situation in which Michael's identity as a disabled male collides with Siobhan's sex, both characters are placed in an uncomfortable location. Michael becomes aroused in the highly personal space of a non-private shower while Michael's erection reminds Siobhan of her identity as a female, a sex object for many. This scene points to the potential conflict that intersecting identities can create as well as representing the politics of personal assistants.

The other more explicitly violent sexual encounter between Siobhan and Michael occurs at a costume party. At this point in the film, it has become obvious that Michael is attracted to Siobhan, so much so that she is beginning to catch on to his advances. At the party Michael asks Siobhan to dance with him — and almost immediately she becomes uncomfortable as Michael literally grabs tightly on to Siobhan's body and puts his face into her clothed breasts. As Siobhan tries to create more space between her and Michael, his grasp gets even tighter. Finally, after a few moments of this violent and painful interaction between this pair, another man, Declan, who is a past lover of Siobhan steps in and frees her from Michael's grasp. Unlike previous scenes where there has been some ambivalence about Michael's actions in this sequence he is clearly transgressing Siobhan's body in a violent and inappropriate manner. This uncomfortable scene displays how Michael uses his body (and position in his wheelchair) to perpetuate the abuse on Siobhan. By placing his face in her chest and grabbing on tightly the viewer sees how Michael's sexual desire and disability status combine at this moment to create a sexually abusive situation.

The harassment or assault that occurs between Michael and Siobhan within the film is difficult to put to words. Primarily since harassment or more appropriately assault and abuse assume an ablebodied perpetrator, what happens between Michael and Siobhan becomes complicated to put into more familiar terms of sexual objectification. Even though the interaction between Michael and Siobhan is most likely read as benign or at the very least misguided by some disabled and nondisabled viewers of the film, there still is some level of abuse inflicted by Michael onto Siobhan. Perhaps my choice of words to describe these moments in the film fails me; however, I consider that the interaction between Siobhan and Michael at the costume party to be extremely problematic and violent. Maybe the goal of the film is to make the viewers feel upset and perplexed about this interaction?

Although the film does not offer any solution to these acts other than to have Siobhan leave the narrative, I would guess that many viewers of the film are simultaneously relieved that Michael and Siobhan will not have intercourse but also dismayed that she is leaving the narrative and so any future objectification by the camera will cease as well. Although Siobhan returns briefly to the narrative when Rory is ill, she is clearly nonsexualized and is essentially only an interpreter for Michael when he applies for the independent living grant on behalf of Rory- another symbolic gesture that creates an emotional response from the audience. Michael and Siobhan are able to patch up their relationship at the end, although no real meaningful apology or resolution occurs between the two of them. Instead, Michael talks in the abstract about respecting others, individual rights and learning from mistakes.

All we are left with is the hope that is confirmed in the hospital scene: that Michael will continue to live outside of institutions and find out successful ways to navigate the world. The threat of a sexual encounter between Michael and Siobhan has been avoided and the audience is fairly certain at the end of the film that Michael will continue on his path of self-actualization. All is well in the Rory O'Shea Universe, or as one reviewer called it "heaven on wheels" (Puig, 2005).

Conclusion: The Politics of Disability Representation

Rory O' Shea demonstrates how multiple "problem bodies" combine in not only generating emotional responses under the guise of melodrama but also how these multiple identities, which previously might have been oppressed, can maintain that original oppression from white able-bodied norms while participating in a new domination of alternate identities. Notwithstanding representing disability as a narrative prosthesis, Rory O' Shea provides an appealing narrative of conflicting and competing agencies of characters as they navigate the space of the film narrative.

It is my hope that this essay examined the nature of disability representation in Rory O' Shea while maintaining a critical lens aimed at other identities being represented in the film. Even though the film could be seen as challenging traditionally held beliefs about disabled people living alone in the community or maintaining independence, the resolution of the film helps to reinforce more conventional representations of disability that result in death or inspirational life changes. What this film does put forth is that Michael, with the aid of the camera, participates in the continual objectification and potential abuse of Siobhan, while Siobhan's status as an able-bodied woman results in increased power over the disabled men. This examination of how disabled characters can participate in the objectification and subjugation of other characters of marginalized identities based on their gender is important to consider. Disability or the status a disabled person is given within the film can hide how this mutual objectification happens; however, the reality of this power dynamic still occurs even if the potential biases of the audience members deny the agency of the disabled characters in furthering this abuse. Nevertheless, Rory O' Shea maintains that these potentially competing identity categories can participate in reinforcing the marginalization of others.

Sherene Razack illustrates perfectly what happens in Rory O' Shea as well as the importance of constantly examining how interlocking systems dominate each other:

Identifying as part of a marginalized group allows each of us to avoid addressing our position within dominant groups and to maintain our innocence or belief in our non-involvement in the subordination of others. Knowing the difficulties involved in confronting our own role in systems of domination, we may find that being anchored on the margin is more preferable. Yet, if we remain anchored on the margin, the discourse with women subordinated to ourselves stops, and various moves of superiority, notable pity and cultural othering prevail. We become unable to interrogate how multiple systems of oppression regulate our lives and unable to take effective collective action to change these systems (1998: 132).

Confronting multiple systems of oppression can occur once complete recognition happens about how people within multiple identity categories participate in the subordination of others. Even so, recognizing disability in film studies is not as common outside disability studies circles. While recognizing disability as an important factor of filmic grammar which is connected with the social reactions to disabled people's lives and experiences is crucial, it is equally important to not undermine other social/political relations displayed through bodily markers of race, gender, and class.


Benedikt, A. (2005, February 18). Rory O'Shea Mines Cheap Tears from Cliches. The Chicago Tribune.

Burns, S. (2005). Review of Rory O'Shea Was Here. Online: http://www.philadelphiaweekly.com/view.phd?id=9002. No longer online.

Childress, E. (2005). Review of Rory O'Shea Was Here. Online:

Dargis, M. (2005, February 4). An Irrepressible, Irresistible Rebel on a Roll. The New York Times.

Haller, B. (2006). Review of Rory O'Shea Was Here. DSQ, v. 26, n.2.

Kim, E. (2003 June). Medicalizing Sexuality, Sex Surrogacy, and South Korean Contexts. Revised manuscript. Paper presented at the Society for Disability Studies Annual Conference, Bethesda MD.

Longmore, P. (1987). Screening Stereotypes: Images of Disabled People in Television and Motion Pictures in Images of the Disabled, Disabling Images. A. Gartner and T. Joe (Eds.) New York: Praeger: 65-78.

Markotic, N. (1999, Winter). Coincidence of the page: Introduction to a special issue on the Problem Body. Tessera, v.27: 6-15.

Mitchell, D. and Snyder S. (2001). Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Mulvey, L. (1975). Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema in Feminist Film Theory: A Reader. S. Thornham (Ed.) New York: New York University Press: 58-69. (1999)

Norden, M. (1994). The Cinema of Isolation: A History of Physical Disability in the Movies. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

O'Donnell, D. (2004). (Director) Inside I'm Dancing [Rory O'Shea Was Here] [Motion Picture] Working Title and Momentum Pictures.

Pointon, A. and Davies, C. (Eds.). (1997). Framed: Interrogating Disability in the Media. London: British Film Institute.

Puig, C. (2005, February 3). Rory is heaven on wheels. USA Today.

Razack, S. (1998). Looking White People in the Eye: Gender, Race, and Culture in Courtrooms and Classrooms. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Smith, N. (2004). Review of Inside I'm Dancing. Online: http://www.bbc.co.uk/films/2004/10/07/inside_im_dancing_2004_review.shtml

Snyder, S. and Mitchell, D. (2006). Cultural Locations of Disability. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Williams, L. (1991). Film Bodies: Gender, Genre and Excess in Feminist Film Theory: A Reader. S. Thornham (Ed.) New York: New York University Press: 267-281. (1999)


This project is the product of a collective intellectual process fostered in me by many more established film theorists around me. I am in debt to Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell for introducing me to the world of disability film and encouraging my exploration. I am grateful to Virginia Wright Wexman for shepherding me through the process of incorporating feminist film theory into my examination of disability in film. Thanks to Nicole Markotic for giving me the courage to put my work out there and I appreciate the assistance Eunjung Kim has given me as I continue exploring intersections of feminism and disability studies. Finally I am especially appreciative of the anonymous reviews I received on an earlier version of this essay, the editorial help given by Beth Haller as well as the guidance given by Sharon Snyder on the revision process.


1 The film was released as Inside I'm Dancing in the United Kingdom and Ireland, while the film was titled Rory O'Shea Was Here for the U.S. release. Both titles speak of central components of the plot, whereas the dancing points to a scene where Rory and Michael are dancing at a club while the "was here" highlights the ending in which Rory dies in a hospital with impairment related complications. Directed by Damien O'Donnell.
back to text

Copyright (c) 2006 Michael Gill

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

If you encounter problems with the site or have comments to offer, including any access difficulty due to incompatibility with adaptive technology, please contact the web manager, Maureen Walsh. Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

ISSN: 2159-8371