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

1 comment:

ellenstohl4u said...

WI appreciate your willingness to bring this issue into question. It is a valid point but it needs to be looked at in the proper perspective. You should know that
21 years ago I was a not only a new new injury but a mere 23 years old. The Playboy article was designed to acknowledge I was in a chair but its focus was on the fact that I was a sensual women. Most of the nudes were of me in bed were I am more likely to be naked. Most shots included very little background. At that time I needed to go to the extreme to get the focus on me as a women not a wheelchair. But the truth is I am both and 7 years later I was the subject of a new mobility article that discussed that issue and that story definitely combined both elements of my identity. Since then all stories, including a recent cover of RYK Magasine and a segment of Vanity Insanity celebrate the fact that I am a woman, I am a sexual and I use a wheelchair.
I am a number of things and I am glad that what I have done and continue to do raises questions and promtoes discuaaions. Kudos to you for continuing to keep the discussions going!