Bully Pulpit: Wish vs. Reality

Tim GilmerSex and disability used to be strange bedfellows, but no more. After decades of declaring that cultural stereotyping is responsible for the misconception that disabled people are mostly asexual, maybe it’s time we changed our tune. Two television series, Push Girls, and now the remade Ironside, have been hawking sexuality like peanuts at Yankee Stadium.

With apologies to Jeff Shannon, who will explore the demise of the new Ironside in an upcoming New Mobility issue, this is my mini-take on the sex and disability media revolution — with Ironside anchoring both ends of a 45-year timespan.

Raymond Burr as the original Ironside was anything but alluring. His game was mental, his electric wheelchair nothing more than a standard 1970s manual chair with a toggle switch and a battery — which he somehow needed as a low para. He moved awkwardly on institutional tires, a stiff in a suit when he rolled, more at ease being pushed. His character was a construct of low societal expectations and ignorance of spinal cord injury rather than the work of a knowledgeable screenwriter. Blame it on culture.

As for sex, Burr’s Ironside never rubbed elbows with anything remotely resembling it. He played a cross between Mr. Wizard and the Pillsbury Doughboy — no love interest needed.

But something funny happened in America this past half-century. The first Ironside, which debuted in 1967 and enjoyed an eight-year run, worked as a diversion from Vietnam body counts on the news and something called the sexual revolution. Three years after the series ended, Jon Voigt, playing a para/vet returning stateside in Coming Home, steamed up the screen in an explicit sex scene with Jane Fonda.

Then came Born on the Fourth of July (1989), The Waterdance (1992), and NM’s yearly Sex, Wheels and Relationships issue. It was coming-of-age time for disability and sex in America. Well, almost.

Women wheelers were left out of the media world’s sexual equation. But a huge barrier fell when Ellen Stohl, a low quad with good old-fashioned sex appeal plus brains, appeared in Playboy. By the time the Push Girls arrived in their contemporary reality show, the pendulum had completed a 180-degree arc.

Riding that momentum came Blair Underwood, the new Ironside. Black and buff, he was continually moving in his Whirlwind Rough Rider (USA version), spinning and wheeling, starting and stopping like a tennis player trying out a high-performance chair. But sex, not sports, seemed to be standard fare for this Ironside, who is no stranger to bedroom scenes.

What now? Will sex appeal become the predominant casting criterion for disabled characters? Will the box office demand it? What about the real wheelers who keep running into closed doors or getting turned away? When will we see them in the juicy new roles?

What we have now is the appearance of progress. Let’s hope it’s not another beware-what-you-wish-for trap.

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