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Rewriting the fairy tales of disability



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.

Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability and Making Space, by Amanda LeducBeginning 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 whispering darkness that sits on the edge of the perceived order of the world.

'In short, in the medical model, disability is almost always the villain. Disability is different because there is an assumption that there is one way of moving through the world — one way of walking, one way of seeing, one way of smell and touch, of processing information.'


"Perhaps the autistic heroine's power of concentration enables her to overcome the enemy mind-stealer. Perhaps the fact that the quadriplegic feels no pain is key to his survival."


As Leduc points out, stories create expectations which, in turn, condition us into this view of the world. At a pre-conscious level, they shape the view of the playground bully, such as those who made Leduc's world (and mine) excruciating as we moved through school and society in which, from an early age, we were 'other'. The princess, after all, is never a wheelchair user and the hero never blind.

By juxtaposing the fairy tale tropes and their development from Renaissance Europe to Nazi Germany to modern comic franchises, with the impacts on each stage of her own life, Leduc is able to trace this shaping process in a way that is both convincing and moving.

Leduc is right to point out that 'happy endings' in the traditional sense are in short supply in the real world. This is not to say that narrative is a bad thing, but, as she notes, perhaps the stories we need are different ones. The fairy tale has a long history of being used to subvert established norms and tell the stories which cannot be told otherwise — a history which is also told in her book. Disability, however, remains the great taboo.

Leduc argues that, if we are to heal our narratives of disability, then our stories must move away from the triumph of the individual over them (something which makes no sense when they are as much a part of us as any other attribute). In short, we must move towards a social model of disability — one which understands the human body and mind in all its variety as good but which is clear about the need for building a society that recognises this:

'It is time for us to tell different stories. It is time for a different world. Give me a story about a disabled man or woman who learns to navigate the world and teaches the world, in turn, to navigate its own way around the disabled body. Give me power and also weakness, struggle but also reams of joy. Our lives are made of this fabric — our stories deserve nothing less.'

How this might look is, like any good fairy story, limited only by imagination. Perhaps, for example, the autistic heroine's power of concentration enables her to overcome the enemy mind-stealer and change the awareness of society at large. Perhaps the fact that the quadriplegic feels no pain is key to his survival and engenders a new understanding in his enemies.

And indeed, once we are free to tell ourselves different stories about who we are — and which reflect reality better — who knows where our imagination might lead reality?



Justin GlynFr Justin Glyn SJ has a licentiate in canon law from St Paul University in Ottawa. Before entering the Society he practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a PhD in administrative and international law.

Topic tags: Justin Glyn, Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability and Making Space, Amanda Leduc



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Existing comments

Ah, Quasimodo, each day from the square I admire you there in the tower, rollicking on your hump, booting the great bells to rapturous pealing, my admiration tinged with envy - for from your swollen affliction you make a city's music, its soul's daily symphony, filling your parish with aspiration as uplifted eyes, ashine with the heart's deepest longing, search beyond the highest masonry, roaming the heavens . . . You are memorable for yourself, Quasimodo, etched immortally in the only history that endures, that of God's humble . . . - I was particularly struck by Amanda Leduc's quotation you include in the third-last paragraph. Excellent review, Justin. Thank you.

John RD | 08 October 2019  

loved your review, Justin. Thank you.

Alison | 10 October 2019  

Thank you for this thoughtful review which resonated with my own observations and experiences. I will certainly seek out this book.

Cath | 10 October 2019  


Pamela Glyn | 10 October 2019  

Justin, this is more than a review. It is an illuminating, insightful and engaging opinion piece. Thank you.

Micheal Loughnane | 10 October 2019  

My three 10 year old granddaughters all love stories. One is an accomplished reader who loves Harry Potter, Anh Do and lots of non-fiction, one has had some difficulties with her sight (now helped by glasses) and is discovering a new confidence with reading, and one now knows all 26 letters of the alphabet and their sounds and loves the family sharing our love of words with her. Thanks for this very thoughtful review.

Pam | 11 October 2019  

We need to reflect critically on our social world if we are to value all of us in our God-given beauty and diversity. If you enjoyed Justin's review (as I did), may I suggest that you check out his Catholic Social Justice Series paper on disability and Catholic theology and social teaching? You can order it here https://www.catholic.org.au/shop/acbc-shop#!/%E2%80%98Us%E2%80%99-not-%E2%80%98Them%E2%80%99-Disability-and-Catholic-Theology-and-Social-Teaching-Catholic-Social-Justice-Series-Paper-No-83/p/140544377/category=4727032 and it is available as an eBook on Apple Books, Kindle and elsewhere.

Sandie Cornish | 13 October 2019  

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