Amanda Leduc reimagines the power of people with disabilities in fairy tales with Disfigured
This interview originally aired on March 21, 2020.
Snow White. Hansel and Gretel. Beauty and the Beast. Many of us grew up with these fairy tales and were enchanted by their world of magic — the brave heroes, the wicked villains and, of course, the happily ever after.
In her nonfiction book Disfigured, Amanda Leduc looks at fairy tale classics with a critical eye, from the classic Brothers Grimm to the modern Disney films, and explores how the representation of disability has informed how we see the world around us. Disfigured makes a case for a new set of tales, ones that celebrate difference and inclusivity.
Leduc is the communications and development coordinator for the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD) in Brampton, Ont. She is also the author of the novel The Miracles of Ordinary Men and was longlisted for the 2019 CBC Short Story Prize.
Leduc spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing Disfigured.
"Those who we would traditionally think of as disabled people don't see themselves represented as protagonists in fairy tales — and able-bodied people don't see disabled people in fairy tales at all. What happens is you see disabled people or disability represented in the villains. There's always an understanding that disability is either something that's temporary — it's visited on someone and it's something that they need to overcome — in order to get their happy ending.
The idea is that disability is visited on someone as a punishment for how bad a person they are. There's a lasting impact when you're exposed to stories like that from a young age.
"When it does happen to the villain, it's the queen in Snow White who transforms herself into an ugly hag or one of the versions of Cinderella when the stepsisters have their eyes pecked out at the end as punishment for how evil they are and how badly they've treated Cinderella.
"The idea is that disability is visited on someone as a punishment for how bad a person they are. There's a lasting impact when you're exposed to stories like that from a young age. It couches and influences how you view disability in the real world, both in terms of yourself as a disabled person if you are disabled and then also if you're someone who's ostensibly viewing disability from the outside as an able-bodied person."
"I don't actually think fairy tales are simple. I think they're very complex and they've always been very complex. They showcase the way that society thinks about certain things. They also showcase different moods and movements within society, going back centuries ago.
I don't actually think fairy tales are simple. I think they're very complex and they've always been very complex.
"At the same time, we hold onto fairy tales because they suggest a simplified time. We hold onto them because they show this beautiful simplified way of looking at the world, which, especially now in the world in which we live, is so incredibly complicated.
"The real world doesn't work that way. But there's still a real desire, on the part of many, to have a world that does work that way — because it's just an easier world to navigate."
Fairy tales for today's world
"I have cerebral palsy. It's quite mild in that it manifests in a slight limp. I am still able to walk. I can run and sort of do most of the things that traditionally able-bodied people can do — but the limp was visible when I was in school. I got bullied about it quite a bit, which increased a certain amount of social anxiety. The effect of that was I tried to pretend like my disability wasn't there.
"I didn't think of myself as disabled and that was kind of a survival tactic on my part. Because I thought if I thought of myself or spoke of myself as disabled I was thinking of myself as a lesser person. And that's internalized ableism. I thought that way because people made fun of me for walking differently.
If I had read story books or watched movies when I was a child that showcased disability in a positive way, I definitely wouldn't have had that span of time where I tried to pretend that my disability wasn't there.
"The only thing that I wanted was to be the same as everybody else. If I had read story books or watched movies when I was a child that showcased disability in a positive way, I definitely wouldn't have had that span of time where I tried to pretend that my disability wasn't there.
"I would have been much more willing and open to accepting and celebrating the way that disability has shaped my life. That's why I try so hard now to push for increased disability representation in the stories that we tell in the media that we consume. It's important for everybody, but for young children especially, to see disability in all of its varied ways portrayed as a normal part of life. Because it is."
Amanda Leduc's comments have been edited for length and clarity.