Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space (by Amanda Leduc)

Reviewed by Johana Schwartz

The opening page of Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space by Amanda Leduc positions the author as navigating a path in the woods, a classic fairy tale trajectory—except this author-as-protagonist is cognizant of disability’s status over the course of oral and literary history. Coach House Books, the publisher, offered Leduc space in its Exploded Views Series for her reflective book’s heroic journey. Disfigured brings disability to the forefront of the fables discussed, brought out of the shadows of repression. Non-hegemonic media has more room for full-bodied stories in comparison to the top-down pedagogical transmission of cautionary tales.

Leduc’s literary quest is to “unravel some of the more well-known Western fairy-tale archetypes in light of a disability rights framework” in order to inform audiences of the damaging perceptions associated with tired tropes of stigma (9). The goal is to bring heroes with disabilities to sit at the welcome table with the classically well-known characters. Leduc uses several literary devices to invite the heroes to an open discourse; these heroes dance around Leduc’s health progress notes, medical labels, and her personal memoirs of living with cerebral palsy. The interlacing of the literary concepts with the notes about Leduc’s disability encourages a mindset of insertion of characters with disabilities into the stories. Chapter 5 is pivotal; here is where the interaction between the fabled characters intensifies, as the three elements all converge in a tight weave.

The reader is accosted by a chorus of Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen characters with disabilities, for whom “Why can’t I be like everyone else?” (94) is a key question—as it is in many classic fairy tales. By rephrasing this question and others, Leduc offers alternatives to these classic tales’ often binary, cookie-cutter character molds. “Why can’t I be like everyone else?” becomes “Why should I?” and foreshadows the ultimate moral of her book: there is room for infinite experiences.

A weaving of sources approaches a conceit for the book at large, delineating the legacy of the characters and the influences on the society Leduc and her generation inherited. The author’s identification with the Little Mermaid makes this mini-conceit a pivotal point of the book (78). The impact of the sensationally popular 1989 Disney film on her generation was a bookend to Leduc’s perception of disability, by invoking the chorus of other fairy tale characters with disabilities who want to be like the sanctioned status quo. While The Little Mermaid serves as a canonical reference, the Disney film adaptation offers a framework for Leduc’s analysis.

In Disney’s version of the story, Ariel the mermaid surrenders her voice to the octopus-witch, Ursula (the story’s main antagonist and villain), rendering Ariel effectively silenced—in exchange for an otherwise normative life out of water. Ariel’s terrestrial associates regard her as merely “a little dumb foundling,” in Andersen’s words, with minimal influence over her fate (Leduc, 82).

An animated Ariel may have had greater effect over Leduc’s world than the original tale, owing in part to Disney’s delivery system. The Little Mermaid was the first animated feature Disney had released in a while. It took off as a novel marketing package targeting grammar school-aged youth. The cinematic experience further impressed a tween audience, as Disney’s protagonist first has no gait, and then has no voice—once she joins society as “part of your world.” Leduc observes that the animated Ariel has refined her gait on land legs in time for her wedding, after acquiring and acclimating to the desired bipedal adaptation (84).

A lesson conveyed from the big screen, and reinforced by daily VHS viewings, was the persistent moral that people with disabling circumstances are expected to resolve or repress their physical aberration before the happy ending (of a wedding) can be attained. Leduc observes, “It’s never society that changes (or adapts . . . rather, the burden falls on the protagonists themselves) to transform to fit the mold of a society already in place” (31). The mainstream society, or your world, is above ground and able-bodied—the desired default—where the mainstream dominant qualities prevail as the attractive prerequisite to happiness. Disney’s Little Mermaid bolsters this standard by portraying the octopus-witch under a magic spell that makes her ambulatory and vocal as the eligible bachelorette who qualifies to marry Prince Eric, until Ariel regains these faculties (92).

The legacy of the mermaid’s plight, as Leduc perceives it, comes through in the commentary in Chapter 5. If the mermaid’s millennial audience internalized mores like these, then lack of understanding and dialogue remotely lead to the instances of global bullying of kids with severe disabilities cited in this chapter’s discussion. “They’re bullies because they don’t understand,” the author’s parents say, to comfort her (93). No voice means no dialogue and no power. The consequence of this transmission of culture illustrates Leduc’s reference to the disability studies scholar Tobin Siebers’ theory of complex embodiment, where “it’s possible to be disabled both by society and by pain” (37).

In her analysis of The Little Mermaid film, Leduc ponders why the mermaid protagonist didn’t pursue alternative methods of communicating with those in the terrestrial kingdom about the terms of the witch’s spell—namely, the deadline (92). Here, the literary critic imposes my own specialty field of auxiliary communication within speech and language pathology on Leduc’s and my generational cohort’s formative cultural relic. Leduc responds to our heroine’s silent period with a multifaceted tome written in the words of someone who identifies with living with a disability, which presents a balanced model of how we ought to be portrayed. I want to endorse this written weaving, that spotlights rehabilitation and addresses the topic in folklore in the manifold, and that considers the reactions of people with disabilities to the canon of fables in order to emphasize their own voices affecting the social discourse (whereas Ariel had little influence on her homestay).

Leduc’s quest through mythological study evolves into wise and reasonable spirited advocacy for dignified representations of characters with disabilities. A character or a personality can present with an acknowledged challenge, experiment with these circumstances, but still avoid the pitfalls of the lowered glass ceiling associated with patronizing inspirational porn (39).

The advocacy across these pages credits the medical model with trying to compensate with treatments that may benefit some people but align with the morals of the traditional fairy tales, wherein correction is the goal. In this formulation, an individual’s potential for self-improvement is more important than the collective efforts made toward creating increasingly equitable and enduring social structures. The author proposes a society that makes room for difference with a move toward implementing aspects that benefit a wide swath of people. A ramp to the stage at Radio City Music Hall has greater potential to usher up more personalities to prominence than an individual’s specific surgery to help that person ascend the stairs, in essence (25, 162). Contemporary society and media have room for inclusion and nuances, as Leduc asserts.

In my memory of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, U.S. society adapted to make room for inclusion. I joined my cohort of millennial youth who flocked to The Little Mermaid franchise. We young Americans celebrated this particular princess’s adversity, as the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed, within the following year. I recall the trends of affirmative action shaping my personal bildungsroman, where adaptations and diversity were attractive. Just as I reached the age of majority, the Olmstead v. L.C decision of the SCOTUS ensured that adults with disabilities should be enabled to live in their own homes where they can craft their own life storylines. I consider the Olmstead Act of 1999 to be a benchmark milestone in society changing to increase material—albeit inadvertently, arguably—for varied media and other narratives. Think of the seven dwarves going their separate ways from their shared experience in a managed care residence where they are collectively symbolized by their short stature. Olmstead would have dispersed these characters to go forth, live individual lives in the real world, and contribute seven more unique narratives that reveal their determined choice of vocations and relationships.

The legal developments that empowered Americans with disabilities provided substantive material for cinematic storylines. Simultaneously, technological advances provided the means for us to regale our receptive audience. The convergence of technology and policy realized a legacy that flowed from grappling with the Disney princess trope. A manifestation of my perceptions of this inherited legacy is articulated strongly by titan activist, Ed Roberts: “If we have learned one thing from the civil rights movement in the U.S., it’s that when someone else speaks for you, you lose.”

When people can tell their own stories, and speak for themselves, a society comes closer to truth and justice. Leduc confirms that people with disabilities took Ed Roberts’ moral to heart by jumping on the bandwagon of technology. She traces an emerging explosion of grassroots movements across an ever-expanding list of social media forums as “providing an accessible leveling of platforms”—safe or emboldened spaces where we can share unique narratives, through the cultural phenomenon of surround sound (30). Within my lifetime, I saw society hasten to purposely and proactively “make space” for people like the famed aquatic princess, while the advent of social media likewise gave us a platform to reclaim and cast our varied narratives with pride. Disability did not have to be liquidated, but it now could be addressed openly and with dignity in the cultural discourse.

Leduc presents examples of media where the artists portray disability in its complexity. Building on the foundation of social media, internet channels like Netflix provide a democratic platform that grants small-scale creators with more capability to develop their own stories. Independent films, including those made by people with disabilities, allow for the realistic, well-rounded, rich portrayals of lives with disabilities that Leduc recommends. Netflix’s varied selection can relinquish binary, absolute terms of sanctioned/not sanctioned molds for the characters.

The media is as multi-faceted as the characters can be. A range of nuances could eventually exist on Netflix. For example, Leduc compliments the 2019 series Special for reasonable portrayals created by Ryan O’Connell, a gay man living with cerebral palsy. Special reveals people with disabilities who illustrate O’Connell’s objective to redirect viewer responses of pity (145). The audience should put away their “kid gloves” when approaching characters in Special and their counterparts in public, who conduct complex social lives not akin to “little foundlings.” Leduc likewise appreciates the epic character arc of Bran the Broken from Game of Thrones notoriety. Bran, who would be king, experiences something of a back injury after a fall (perhaps from metaphorical grace, per the traditional trope), survives a coma, and ultimately rises to prominence to rule from the throne of his wheelchair (148). Folklorists with Arthurian specialties would note how this story arc subverts the trope where the king has to be of sound body and mind and thus the accompanying image of prosperity across the kingdom. In the context of accumulated mythological cycles, Bran has accomplished something legendary. The quest through storytelling that Disfigured undertakes leads us to possibilities for some happier outcomes for people and characters who live with disabilities. Bran assimilates to the highest office in a kingdom that makes room for him. Ryan O’Connell and his contemporaries can find fulfillment in taking charge of their narratives; they can then cast these stories via the talisman of accessible media to reach increasingly receptive audiences.

Leduc cites the older versions of Western fairy tales as functionary lessons of empowerment for members of the mainstream culture—once upon a time. I find empowerment in the chance to broadcast my tale through the wonders of technology that granted me with synthetic speech. The material for these individual narratives will vary in accordance with the extent that society has adapted for inclusion. Personal narratives about our lived experiences refocus the “Mirror, Mirror on the wall” onto the aggregate human condition.

Title: Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space
Author: Amanda Leduc
Publisher: Coach House Books
Date: 2020

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About the Reviewer

Johana Schwartz holds a baccalaureate degree in English and Irish literature from Stanford University. They workshopped this book review at Ability Write Now, a writing workshop offered by Ability Now Bay Area to poets and writers with disabilities in the San Francisco Bay Area. They acknowledge the support of the members of this workshop.