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Rewriting the fairy tales of disability

  • 07 October 2019


Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability and Making Space, Amanda Leduc, Coach House Books, Forthcoming (Feb 2020) This book is as unusual as it is timely. It is at once both autobiography and social history. In it, Amanda Leduc considers the way in which fairy stories (and their modern kin: Disney films, superhero and fantasy movies) imagine disability — and how that imagination, in turn, shapes societal perceptions of disabled bodies and minds. She does this by expertly braiding the history of the genre and the various tropes it has spawned with the story of how these have shaped her own life as a disabled woman.

Beginning with the origins of the fairy story in the classical world, and with her own diagnosis with cerebral palsy, Leduc begins with the question of why disability in fairy stories is a trope or symbol when, for so many of us, it is nothing of the sort. It just is — a fact of life along with skin or eye colour.

What follows is a fascinating exploration of how fairy stories socialise us into particular expectations — of ourselves and of society. Disabilities there are either hard-wired to designate villains (the misshapen Rumpelstiltskin or the green skinned witch) or they are character devices which, with enough hard work, pity and perseverance by the relevant character (often aided by magic) can be miraculously overcome to allow the individual to take their earned place in society.

As such, the fairy story both parallels and reinforces what has become known as the medical model of disability — that it is a problem with an individual which needs to be 'fixed' if the individual is to play a meaningful role in the community. In Leduc's words:

'In the medical model, disability is both a reality of life as well as a kind of storytelling. Every disabled story becomes a narrative story — a story that has everything to do with what culture perceives of as good (able-bodiedness, beauty) and bad (disability, disfigurement), and how we, as a society, are supposed to act toward one another — and what society, or the higher powers that be, will do to us in return.

'Quite apart from its own physical realities — from the disabled person's own physical realities — a disability thus becomes a symbol for everyone else, an "other other", in Siebers' words, operating as a kind of intellectual bogeyman for the well — a