Ellen Stohl

One controversial use of disability in mainstream media that I came across was the story of Ellen Stohl who posed nude for Playboy in 1987:

Stohl was paralysed in a car accident in 1983, and was included in the magazine after she wrote a letter to the editor Hugh Hefner which said that “sexuality is the hardest thing for a disabled person to hold on to,” and that she wanted to send the message, “Look at me! I am a woman more than I am a wheelchair and you need to see that about me.” Although the magazine is clearly accused of exploiting women, Stohl’s right to be included in the magazine is also a pertinent argument. In an interview, Stohl makes the following observation: “…I didn’t pose for Playboy to please men. I posed for Playboy to discover my own sexuality, to celebrate that part of me that was stripped away by a disability because our society doesn’t put sexuality and disability together. They’re completely non-existent. Playboy was my forum to explore that.” Since Hefner’s credo is to expand people’s ideas about sex, he was naturally convinced that to run a feature on Stohl would do exactly that: challenge people’s accepted ideas about sex and force them to reconsider the limitations of what is and is not sexual or desirable. In a later interview, Stohl said she had no regrets and would do the whole thing again: “Disability is not going away, and if we can’t deal with the changes in our bodies and the changes in our physique, whether it’s from aging or catastrophic injury, we limit what we can do.”

People become limited by their stereotypes, and tend to adopt certain modes of behaviour and attitude without really questioning where they originally came from. In this sense, Playboy could be seen as performing a similar role to Postmodernist art. Stohl is quite vocal about attitudes to disability by society as a whole: “People with disabilities are not subhuman, they are not less than, they are not less able. They are different, they come in different packages, but they are people. Basically, whether you’re Russian, you’re fat, you’re black, you’re tall, you’re short, I believe that people are more alike on the inside than different. They need to interact, they want to have an impact on the environment around them. They want to connect, they want to create a symbiosis with somebody.” These are some of the ideas that I want to get across in my project; the best way to challenge stereotypes is to force people to think, to challenge their own preconceptions. Simply pointing out facts and statistics and repeating truisms does not work.

In the same interview, Hefner is quoted as saying: “…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. It is perfectly clear, there are many darker sexual connections to be found in things related to people with disabilities. The whole bondage and S&M thing has that kind of kinky side.” I have also noticed this kind of fetishism around the use of wheelchairs and straps and braces, as well as ‘wheelchair-bound women’ being portrayed as sadistic dominatrices. How much of this is to do with disabled people reclaiming their bodies as sites of desire and sexuality and how much to do with the erotic fantasies of the photographer?

In another interview on the subject, the Associate editor Kate Nolan admitted, “On the surface, it’s a noble statement: People with disabilities still have their sexuality. But do you think we’d run pictures of someone who was really, seriously deformed? Of course we wouldn’t. This is a safe kind of exploitation. We’re saying, ‘We’ve got pictures of someone who is disabled. Buy our magazine and look at the pictures.’ But the woman looks ‘normal.’ So we’re protected, in a way.”

And editorial director Arthur Kretchmer agreed: “I agree with Kate Nolan that this would all be different if Ellen Stohl was terribly disfigured. In that case, we would be putting on what would be called a freak show. We’re not doing that.” So the idea that Stohl was not physically disfigured and her body still fit in with the norms of attractive feminine beauty meant that her nudity did not offend.

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