Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Discomfiting Case of Ellen Stohl

Don't Google it. Not yet.

In due time. But doing it first is sort of like reading the last chapter of a book before the beginning. Really blows the story.

Don't worry. I'll tell you what you need to know to understand the title of this post. Right now you're probably wondering a few things from the title. Who is Ellen Stohl? Why is there a case? And why is it discomfiting?

First things first. Ellen Stohl is an actress, model, lecturer, and owns and operates Chasing the Moon Productions, a media company. That's a start. Has to be more, right? From Stohl's website:

Ellen Stohl was injured in car accident in 1983. She sustained a C-8/T-1 spinal chord injury that left her an incomplete quadriplegic. Ellen functions primarily as a paraplegic and uses a manual wheelchair from Quickie for mobility.

But we're not setting up a feel-good Reader's Digest bravery in-the-face-of adversity type story here. Not intentionally anyway. We still have 2/3 of the title left to explain! So we should move on.

Which is exactly what Stohl did. A few years after her accident she wrote a letter. A letter many aspiring actressess/models write. The recipients of the letter expressed concerns about the services she offered, but ultimately a decision - and history - was made.

Ellen Stohl appeared in a 8-page layout in the June 1987 issue of Playboy.

Now you can see where discomfort enters this story.

Not for the reasons folks likely guess given the story so far. 5 or 6 dozen women do nude or semi-nude spreads in Playboy each year. Not something that grates on me at all. Some others do feel uncomfortable with this. Whatever. I'm willing to listen to why, and certainly allow for a diversity of opinion, but that being said I don't see myself jumping on that train anytime soon.

But still I'll admit to discomfort. Discomfort not so much with the questions asked, but with the very fact that a question exists. Why is "should Ellen Stohl have posed" asked specifically? The question - the asking of the question - reeks of the same assumptions as infantalization and desexualization of the disabled.

There are specifics here, though, that I'm not comfortable with. It's all about the image being presented. The layout included photos from everyday life. In these photos she is using her wheelchair. Makes sense. Ellen uses a wheelchair in her normal activities. She is also fully clothed. Again, makes sense. Most of us do our everyday activities while being clothed.

The 'sensual' or 'sexy' photos are different, though. No wheelchair in sight. This was a concious decision on the part of the folks designing the layout. Hugh Hefner was asked about this by an Ability magazine interviewer:

Chet Cooper [Ability]: At the time of the photo shoot was there a conscious effort not to have the wheelchair within the pictorial?

Hugh Hefner [Playboy]: The decision was consistent with not associating her disability. It is down that road that takes you into a exploitative kinky type of thing. In other words, a part of what this is all about is her disability and the chair began to define who she was, and that she was not perceived as a human sexual being. Therefore, if the pictures connected the two, we would fall into the same trap.

Hef fell into the trap himself. The wheelchair's absence as even an incidental background prop reinforces the false perception he talks about. The viewer has to choose which image to look at. Ellen as someone who uses a wheelchair, or Ellen as "a human sexual being". I'm uncomfortable with there being a seperation between the two.

And I'm uncomfortable with being uncomfortable. What exactly am I looking for in the images?

I don't really have an answer. I'm not sure I'm really looking for anything. The layout is what it is. Whether one thinks Stohl appearing in the playmate context is good or bad (or none of the above) the fact remains that she was the first person with obvious physical disability to appear in that magazine in that context. 21 years have passed and I'm not sure we have answers to the questions raised. Or even know what the questions are.

At this point in a post I usually try to segue into the next. I've attempted several times to craft an elegent way to transition between this post and the next, but trashed them all. Pity, because there is a common thread, of sorts. Some things I mentioned here are realized in the next story I have for you.

But I'm just too angry for elegance.


I started off talking about search engines. Let me save you some time if you're curious about things mentioned in this post. Here are some links:

Ellen Stohl
Article in New Mobility
Another Stohl interview
Nadina LaSpina speech - only mentions Stohl tangentially
Ability Magazine interview with Hefner and Stohl
NY Times article

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

More Kelly Sutton

Sort of breaking into the middle of something here, but I wanted to get this up before I let it slip aside. I'll fill everyone in on what has me all uncomfortable NEXT post ...

Showing what a little perserverance can accomplish, I finally found more recent information about Kelly Sutton. Very recent. Like from yesterday. Link here.

Apparently the search for a major sponsor did not go as well as one would like, and Kelly will indeed be racing a reduced schedule in 2008. The creator of the post with this information promised a schedule soon. Kelly's deal with Teva Pharmaceuticals in 2007 included 4 2008 races as well, so we'll probably only be seeing her in 4 races this season.

Also, a movie about Kelly is in production.

Sunday, March 9, 2008


I'm kinda a holistic-type guy.

Not in the new-agey sense. Conversations with those folks tend to go like this:

Other Person: "Who am I?"
Me: "Uhhh ... I'd guess ... you?"
O: "What is my place in the universe? Where am I?"
M: "Right there. That'd be my guess."
O: "I need to find myself."
M: "Dude, I already told you. You're RIGHT THERE."

And so on. Not a huge peeve, but it does irk me a little.

So in what sense do I mean? It's very important to me that something like the whole of the thing is seen, especially where people are concerned. Especially where I am concerned.

I'm not talking about baring all one's secrets or airing dirty laundry in public. I'm talking about not hiding. Or being hidden. Every one of us has characteristics or experiences that might cause others discomfort. So be it. Not our problem.

Something that is a huge peeve of mine is when folks try to make it our problem. I'm always suspicious of people that are overly concerned about how a third party might react to something said or done by someone else.

A couple caveats: One shouldn't pour gasoline on a fire. That's just common sense. And causing discomfort in others isn't often something you want to do on purpose. It can be a powerful weapon, though.

Like I said, I'm a holistic-type guy. I'm not thinking about this stuff in a vaccuum. I mentioned in an earlier post that I was activly looking into theories of disability. Been reading lots about various questions that the whole topic brings up. But what happens when the answer makes you uncomfortable? Or even the question? Or (worse yet) the fact that there is even a question?

In this modern world, you write a blog post about it.

But not this post. The next one. This one is introduction. I wanted to set the stage without weighing down my next topic. Or case study. Lots of questions in that one. Scant few answers. Except one I'm pretty sure I'm getting right:

Hef got it wrong. A lot of people did.