What do fairy tales tell us about who we think is less than whole? What do happy endings tell us about who we believe really has worth? And what would these narratives look like if they truly did no harm? With Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space, novelist and essayist Amanda Leduc attempts to answer these questions, and in turn she provides an insightful analysis of the stories we tell and why we tell them. She unravels familiar archetypes – from the Ugly Duckling’s transformation to Cinderella’s glass slipper to The Lion King’s Scar – within the framework of disability justice. “Fairy tales are not real, no,” Leduc writes. “But neither are they only stories.”
Leduc not only mines traditional tales from the likes of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen but also analyzes the influence of pop culture on our collective thinking. She offers an illuminating look at the facial scars of Bond villains, the limitations of Disney princesses, and the more contemporary hero narratives found in the Marvel Universe. She also delves into areas her reader may not have considered: disabled people’s stories acting as “inspiration porn,” or common well-meaning but damaging refrains like “the only disability is a bad attitude” and “look what you’ve overcome.”
This meticulously researched book finds its greatest strength in Leduc’s own generous account of being a disabled person (Leduc prefers to use identity-first language) in a world propped up by fairy-tale thinking. Diagnosed with cerebral palsy as a young girl, Leduc grew up internalizing the kinds of stories she dissects here and is candid about her experiences with bullying, depression, and thoughts of suicide. Told in Leduc’s affecting prose, the memoir elements of her book provide further evidence that the pervasive ideas fairy tales promote are not without consequence.
Leduc adeptly interrogates the ubiquitous idea that fairy tales are harmless and stresses the pain – however unintentional – caused by the language we use and the way we choose to use it. She also emphasizes how vital representation is in what we watch and what we read: because of fairy tales and their contemporary successors, too many disabled people have only ever seen themselves as the bad guy or the moral lesson – or have never seen themselves represented at all.
Ultimately, Disfigured advocates for a place beyond disability-as-symbol. “To envision a fairy tale and a world where the environment isn’t hostile,” Leduc writes, is the goal. “Where the protagonist with a different body and a different way of being in the world can triumph not because of the obstacles they overcome on their own, but because of the community that helps to pull them through.” Leduc wants our shared narratives to become an acknowledgement of collective responsibility, rather than a celebration of individual triumph in the face of adversity. In the end, it’s the generous vulnerability of Leduc’s own story that illuminates the urgency of this vital message.