When I was young, I loved fairy tales. I still own the copies of The Chronicles of Narnia my grandmother gave me before her passing. I could immerse myself in the stories for hours, but like every child, I eventually put down fairy tales and moved on. Last year, I saw a copy of Leduc’s Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space on a library shelf at university and wondered how disability and fairy tales intersected. I decided to re-read some of the stories, using the knowledge from my disability studies course and my lived experiences as a physically disabled adult.
I read a few and came to a realisation. Princesses don’t use walking frames because (if they were anything like me) they would constantly roll over their floor-length dresses and trip; Red Riding Hood wouldn’t have made it far in the forest with her wheels constantly getting filled with mud and leaves. Cinderella wouldn’t have got away as the clock struck midnight because she would be searching for a ramp, or trying to get down the staircase and need a rest break every few steps, never mind walking in glass-heeled slippers. I am the creature that handsome princes fight, I lurk and plot and scheme, or at least that is what fairy tales want children to believe.
As a child, people my age would run away from me screaming because I have cerebral palsy and walk with a walking frame. I have a scissoring gait and awkward hands; I can be difficult to understand if I’m feeling incredibly upset or angry. It was easy for them to make me into something different, to run away screaming, “it’s going to get us!” and leave me alone, wondering why. As an adult, I have had parents tell their children not to get close to me in sharp tones, and children hide behind their parents at the sight of me. In the most extreme cases, I have had people cross themselves or refuse to touch something that I have touched. These experiences are entrenched in societal and cultural prejudices, but where do children, new and learning about this world, gain these notions?
Literature provides a lens for children to understand the world we inhabit, it is their first interaction with the terms “good” and “evil”, the “normal” and “abnormal”, the initial introduction to what is considered “right” and “wrong”. Fairy tales provide “morals on how to be a proper citizen in society” (Seider, 2020). In her review of Leduc’s book, Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space, Kuitenbrouwer (2022) states plainly, “In some way, it is story that gives us world at all” but the worlds of fairy tales are steeped in stereotypes and societal prejudice beneath their mystique. Beyond the knights in shining armour or the fanciful princesses and mystical creatures, there is a message. Disabled people are evil, disabled people are abnormal, disabled people are wrong, and disability is a punishment.
The good characters are always perfect. Princesses are beautiful beyond compare; princes are handsome and charming. Their legs don’t bend inwards like mine, they do not have limp wrists that twist their hands in awkward ways. Their mouths do not have difficulty forming words, or problems with drooling. Their hearts don’t beat too fast when standing or cause them to feel faint or dizzy. Without the love of the perfect ones, the disabled person cannot be transformed into being as beautiful on the outside as they are on the inside. As a child, I wondered if I needed to be defined by the love of others to be seen as something other than Other. Doctors had tried to transform me into someone almost “normal”. They taught me to walk because they thought it made me “more human”. I had to learn to twist my hands in “normal ways” and force myself to learn how to hold cutlery and write and type in ways that caused me pain because I needed to be something “other” than myself. My transformation was not complete, it could never be complete because I did not need to be transformed to have worth.
Disability as a punishment is a recurring theme. The prince becomes the Beast because of his poor behaviour, and the evil stepmother and stepsisters in Cinderella have their eyes pecked out by the pigeons who helped Cinderella, blinding them. Aslan wounds Avaris’ back to remind her of her wrongdoing and can remove speech from any Talking Beast in Narnia. What does that teach children? If someone is disabled, what have they done to deserve it? If that person exhibits what society considers “good behaviour”, they’ll be cured of their disabilities. If you are not good or on your best behaviour, you will end up disabled and be forever marked as “bad”, “wrong”, or “evil”?
In fairy tales, disability can be “cured” with acts of kindness or immense love. The prince in the original Sleeping Beauty tale was “cured” of his blindness when the tears of the beautiful princess fell on his face and he was suddenly able to take up his former mantle and self after years of wandering a forest eating berries in despair. The disabled person would be “transformed” to escape their disability; the Beast turns back into a handsome prince, the Little Mermaid ends her life and her consciousness floats away in the hopes of gaining an immortal soul, and the ugly duckling becomes a beautiful swan, Hans the half-hedgehog, half-human becomes wholly human after he falls in love with a princess, the woman who has her hands cut off by the devil in “The Woman Without Hands” wanders the world surviving on pity and the charity of others and is cured of her disability as a “reward of faith” when she marries a king. Hodkinson and Park (2017) reflect on the theory of Harnett (2000), “This transformation of the disabled character, it is argued, shapes children to believe that disability is unrealistic and also that disabled people can be magically healed or cured.” Further, their research found that “the disabled character was either killed, missing or transformed into a ‘normal’ person within the majority of the books employing this form of ending”. This ending refers to the immortal words ‘happily ever after’, present in four of the five books Hodkinson and Park analysed to research normalcy and the perfect physical appearance.
How many disabled children feel that they can have a “happily ever after” reading about what happens to those society considers “abnormal” and “ugly”? Leduc’s book argues that fairy tales condition disabled children to look at themselves as “other”. How did those children feel when I was a child, seeing me, the “other”, a figure from a fairy tale brought to life and walking among them? How did that early lens of morality interfere with their understanding of me as a person?
Fairy tales tell me people like me will never have a happy ending. There will be no handsome prince or beautiful princess to love me and magically “cure” me, not that I needed transforming or curing in the first place. One cannot reduce the internalised negative messages towards disability to literature alone, but let’s change our outlook and make fairy tales with young disabled people as the heroes of their own stories, not through magical transformations or immense “healing” love, but through their character development and growth. We are representing ourselves in books, films and television now more than ever, and I hope that we will continue to expand in the media to truly show accurate portrayals of lived experiences of disability, so that every disabled child can have a character they can relate to and admire, so they will never feel how the disabled people before them felt.
Disabled people might not get a happy ending in the old stories, but we are writing our own stories, our endings, on and off the page.
Our stories are defined by us.
Hodkinson, A. and Park, J., 2017. ’Telling Tales’: An Investigation into the Representation of Disability in Classic Children’s Fairy Tales. Educational Futures, 8(2), pp.48-68.
Kuitenbrouwer, K., (n.d). Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer Reviews Amanda Leduc's Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space. Available at: http://hamiltonreviewofbooks.com/blog/2020/5/15/kathryn-kuitenbrouwer-reviews-amanda-leducs-disfigured-on-fairy-tales-disability-and-making-space. [Accessed on: 17th January 2023].
Leduc, A., 2020. Disfigured: On fairy tales, disability, and making space. Coach House Books.
Seider, A., (2020). EXPOSING A MISINFORMED AND DISABLED FAIRYTALE. THE SOSLAND JOURNAL 2020, p.73.
About the author:
Melanie Kennedy-Diver holds a master’s degree in Disability Studies from Liverpool Hope University and a BA (Hons) degree in Politics, Philosophy and Society from the University of Central Lancashire. She has an interest in literature and disability representations.
Thank you to Sarah for reminding me about the importance of ending this essay with optimism and to another close friend for reminding me about the necessity of maintaining hope. To you I say, thank you for everything.
‘In his despair the prince threw himself from the tower. He escaped with his life, but lost both eyes.’
The above quote comes from The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm (translated by Jack Zipes). In the first version of this tale recorded by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (published in 1812), Rapunzel conceives a child with her prince. It is only when Rapunzel asks why her clothes are becoming too tight that Mother Gothel learns of her relationship with the prince. This betrayal causes her to banish Rapunzel to a ‘desolate land’. When Mother Gothel tells the prince that Rapunzel is gone forever, he jumps from the tower as described above.
This holds several points of interest. Firstly, we have a very clear example of disability being used as a symbol for sadness and suffering. The prince is heart broken and grieving. But he could have roamed the desolate lands looking for Rapunzel ‘eating nothing but grass and roots, and [doing] nothing but weep’ whether or not he was blinded by thorns.
The prince’s blinding is included to emphasise his misery based on the ableist assumption that to be blind is to be unhappy.
The symbolic nature of the prince’s disability is further implied because the chances of falling from a tower and landing precisely on one’s eyeballs has to be very small. Arguably, it would have been more realistic if he had jumped from the tower and broken a leg, maybe even his back. The fact that the prince is described as having ‘escaped’ with his life demonstrates how deadly that fall might have been. But no— he goes blind at the very moment he is separated from Rapunzel.
What’s more, his blindness is miraculously cured when he is reunited with Rapunzel. Once again, this hammers home the association of blindness with despair, and sightedness with joy. The prince recognises Rapunzel’s voice and she recognises him in return. But it is only when two of Rapunzel’s tears land on the prince’s eyes— in keeping with the theme of unlikely aim!— that the prince’s vision is cured. Are they happy tears? Pity tears? Who knows. But Disney’s Tangled replaces this prince’s blindness with a stab wound to the heart: I.e death. But luckily, again, Rapunzel’s tears have unexplained healing powers here too! On a serious note, that blindness and death are used interchangeably speaks volumes for the ongoing representation of blindness as a tragic state.
The problem with this is the single emotion (sadness) attached to being blind. It takes a complex lived experience and reduces it to an assumption made by sighted people. As a child growing up, this was one of the few representations of visual impairment I had and I didn’t want to be a miserable prince crying my way through a boggy landscape. Representation is important. It’s not about removing disabled characters from fairy tales, it’s about having them there as rounded people. It’s about separating the assumption that happiness is only achievable after a cure.
Let me know what you think about this? Maybe your go-to version of Rapunzel is different to mine? Is Mother Gothel a fairy, a witch, or ogress? Does she curse the prince, or is he blinded by thorns? Is he cured at the end?
About the author:
Beth O'Brien is a writer and PhD student, researching the (mis)representation of disability in contemporary fairy tales. You can follow her on twitter: @bethobwriter
Discussing disabled characters in fairy tales and folklore!