Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space By Amanda Leduc

Part literary and cultural criticism and part memoir, this book is engaging, readable and will certainly make readers think. I have arguments with many of the author’s ideas, but to an extent, this type of work exists as a starting point for debate. It will probably be most valuable to those who either have a deep personal investment in these issues or who haven’t ever engaged with disability activism or thought about disability representation in media before, but despite not falling into those categories, I still appreciated the memoir portions and found the book to be worthwhile food for thought. That said, this review will largely consist of the arguments because those take up more words!

Leduc, who has cerebral palsy and has suffered from depression, has a lot to say about fairy tales and how they represent people with disabilities: often the disability is a punishment, or is magically cured as a reward for virtue, or is the source of special powers. From fairy tales the book wanders into Disney movies—Leduc is really into princesses—and also, toward the end, superhero movies and the Game of Thrones show (heads up: she spoils the end without warning). Moving away from fairy tales to make sweeping statements based on only a narrow range of media seems to me a weakness, though her fairy tale criticism generally strikes me as solid. There are indeed many unfortunate messages in those old stories.

But what Leduc really wants to see in media is the realistic portrayal of the dailiness of living with a disability, without the disability meaning anything, being related in any way to magical powers, or being cured at any point. And I couldn’t help thinking, as I read all this, “have you considered realistic fiction?” Which on the one hand is a bit dismissive—just because fantasy contains unrealistic elements doesn’t mean all elements of any given work should be unrealistic—but on the other, she actually writes, “As a disabled woman, I don’t know what it means to have your body represented onscreen in a way that isn’t somehow tied to magic.” Which suggests an extremely narrow range of media exposure. Since we’re going beyond fairy tales, I can think of a lot of fantasy fiction including disabled protagonists whose disabilities aren’t tied to magic—of books I’ve actually read (search for recommendation threads online and you’ll see many more), there’s A Game of Thrones, The Mirror Empire, and Flame of Sevenwaters, for instance. So I think a lot of the type of storytelling Leduc is seeking already exists, though she evidently hasn’t found it.

And just as the book seems to choose the media it engages with somewhat arbitrarily, its notion of “disability” is idiosyncratic, if broad. It includes physical, mental and cognitive disabilities; disfigurement, including scars; lack of physical attractiveness; and being turned into an animal, monster, etc. There’s logical connection among these, as all relate to having a body that diverges from the societal ideal, and it fits to engage here with the many ways imperfect bodies are used as shorthand for villainy in fiction. (This is so common with facial differences that a UK group actually started a campaign called “I Am Not Your Villain.”) That said, I question some of her examples—she takes major issue with Scar in the Lion King for instance, whereas to me, a scar that might have been gained in a fight seems like a fairly legitimate way to communicate a villain’s toughness visually, with other types of disfigurement being much more egregious. Meanwhile, in the mental health chapter she suggests that it’s too easy to map personality disorders onto villains. But personality disorders, to my understanding, aren’t actual illnesses so much as descriptions of patterns of behavior seen as disruptive or antisocial (medicalized for purposes of receiving therapy to change them)—and what is a villain if not disruptive and antisocial? There are stronger points to be made here, such as that Disney is apparently more likely to represent an evil old lady with a cane than a good old lady with one.

But the biggest issue that troubles me with this vein of criticism is the “disabilities shouldn’t be healed in fantasy” argument, which Leduc endorses. Certainly, I see the issues with stories implying that only people with perfect bodies can be happy, or that if you have a disability, you must deserve it (or you aren’t working hard enough to “overcome” it). That said, I think Leduc goes much too far in claiming to speak for people with disabilities generally and then arguing that they don’t want their disabilities cured, they just want greater accessibility.

This is a complicated issue, and I suspect a more accurate summation would be, “Many people with disabilities are realistic about the fact that they aren’t likely to be cured, and find that other people’s behavior and lack of accessibility can make living with a disability much harder than it needs to be and in some cases is worse than the disability itself. Therefore, people with disabilities may find it offensive when able-bodied people focus on potential cures while overlooking issues of inclusion. Also, some people—especially those who were born with their disabilities and consider them part of their identities [for instance, members of the Deaf community, some people with autism, etc.]—do not want to change this part of themselves.” The author doesn’t take this more nuanced approach however, seeming to lump everyone together in her insistence that disabilities are barely a medical issue at all and should be embraced as is. Given that the preponderance of disabilities are acquired with aging and an awful lot of disability involves issues nobody wants—pain, fatigue, depression—I suspect this is an area where activists don’t represent the majority. Even from the author’s story, while after decades of struggle she seems to have come to terms with her limp, I don’t get the sense she’d necessarily reject magical healing if it existed (she really wants to wear high heels).

But I’ve seen authors do contortions to avoid exactly that. Take Flame of Sevenwaters for instance (I’m about to partly spoil it but it isn’t a great book). The novel features a teenage girl, Maeve, whose hands were severely burned in a fire when she was about 10, such that she can no longer use her fingers. She goes on an unrelated quest, and the fae ultimately offer to repair her hands. Maeve refuses, because “it would be too easy.” Um. Too easy for our current world perhaps, but just another treatment option in hers, and people typically view “easy” as a major plus in treatment options. It comes across as an author forcing an inorganic and unbelievable choice on a character to forestall reader criticism. Storytellers should of course respect their audience, but they should respect the integrity of their story too, and if you’ve created a world and a plot where this is a possibility (which is by no means true of all fantasy) maybe you need to let it happen—just because the real world isn’t so easy doesn’t automatically make something offensive. Plenty of fantasy elements are out of reach in the real world (her disability isn’t actually why Leduc isn’t a princess, after all. Money and power, however, are easily come by in fantasy).

There’s also a bit of goalpost-shifting in pursuit of criticism. For instance, Leduc takes being an ogre as a metaphor for disability, but is nevertheless displeased with the happy ending of Shrek, in which Fiona embraces her ogre form, because she needs Shrek to tell her she’s beautiful. Look, beauty is in the eye of the beholder—which is another way of saying that beauty is socially defined. Everyone needs to be told that they’re beautiful. It’s just that the closer someone is to their society’s ideal, the more they’ve picked up that message already and so may not need to hear it from their current love interest. Fiona has never had anyone react positively to her ogre form, so of course she needs to hear it, and I don’t see how this takes away from the ending. Leduc also seems to take issue with the whole notion of a happy ending, because not everyone’s life trends toward happiness—which is fair, but muddled since she also wants disabled characters to get them.

All that said, I did appreciate the book; considering issues of representation is worthwhile even if you don’t agree with everything a particular activist says, and it’s important to listen to different voices. This book didn’t convince me on every point, but the writing is good, it doesn’t take long to read, and I enjoyed the memoir sections. Probably most eye-opening for those new to disability criticism, to whom it should prove accessible. Amanda Leduc i don't typically give star ratings to autobiographies/memoirs that i have mixed feelings about; to be clear, my rating for this book doesn't reflect how i feel about the author's personal disclosures. in fact, i related a lot to what she shared - particularly as someone who grew up in canada around the same time and who also has a condition affecting her leg. reading about the author's personal experiences was deeply affirming for me. moreover, i think it's so incredibly important to have more books published by and about disabled creators - books about justice, representation, and community and the role of storytelling across each of these areas.

that being said, i was disappointed with my overall experience with disfigured :( i think i was expecting a deeper (or clearer, or more groundbreaking) analysis of the thematic material, as the book itself comes across somewhat haphazard, disjointed, and repetitive to the point of feeling hazy or superficial - particularly in the moments when a random paragraph would be thrown in about a specific anecdote or statistic that, to me, wasn't clearly connected to what was just being discussed. i also felt weird about pocahontas being named as an Indigenous disney princess (and heralded as an icon of Indigenous representation in the franchise) without discussion or even mention of how problematic her disney story is.

lastly, i can't believe there were explicit, non-tagged, MAJOR spoilers for the game of thrones ending! i've worked so hard to keep away from spoilers, and they were just thrown into this book casually and without warning - it was maddening and disappointing. for anyone who doesn't want to read spoilers, i'd recommend avoiding the end of chapter 7 and also the afterword. Amanda Leduc A brilliant young critic named Amanda Leduc explores this pernicious power of language in her new book, “Disfigured.” Her focus is fairy tales, those make-believe stories gathered hundreds of years ago in the forests of France and Germany, pruned to satisfy the tastes of Victorian audiences and finally polished to a high sheen by Walt Disney. They are, of course, just stories — in the same way the R-word is just a word.

Leduc follows the bread crumbs back into her original experience with fairy tales — and then explores their residual effects. Her daring approach is a hybrid of memoir, literary criticism and cultural commentary. She moves fluidly between grade-school memories and scholarly analysis. She quotes from medieval texts and TV shows. She’s equally familiar with the Brothers Grimm and the X-Men.

As a child, Leduc’s imagination was led into the magical land of beautiful princesses and princes. Like kids everywhere, she learned that good people are beautiful or, after some hardship, become beautiful, while wicked people are mad, scarred or disabled. Such are the universal narratives from which most of us construct our first aesthetics, our fantasies, even our. . . .

To read the rest of this review, go to The Washington Post:
Amanda Leduc I'm not totally sure that all the different elements of this book came together as a whole to my total satisfaction, but in terms of content and writing, A+! Very interesting and provided a very helpful grounding in theory of understanding disabilities Amanda Leduc this book is basically about how disability (or lack thereof) is portrayed in disney/folklore/fairy tales or just stories in general as we grow up. It really made me reflect and understand how I viewed the types of fictional stories that we consume as an audience... especially as kids.

(1)how we should stop making characters that the world would accept but letting the world accept characters that portray real, breathing people
(2)how it affects the way we see ourselves or how we perceive disabled people
(3)how representation in fairy tales is important growing up because those are the stories that we dream about, and if all these princesses are perfect... what will we think of ourselves when we realize that we cannot always be these very able bodied females that are perfectly molded to society?

i feel like any review i write won't match up to the level of importance i think this book is so just read it for yourself.

“A world where disabled bodies are as common as fairy godmothers”

i don't usually read memoirs but after this one i just might start scavenging for more because maybe i just haven't found a lot that focus on topics that i am highly interested in :>

my heart is just bursting... with sadness or joy or contentment, go figure.

the storytelling and ideas were so well presented and the examples were relatable on a highly personal level. i could not recommend this more to anyone.

everyone needs to consume this. an #ownvoices memoir on disability and disney.

This book just gave me more concrete examples to push me towards reading more diverse books. There are so many types of people with even more books/stories to represent them (us) if we just actively try to find them.

instagram | blog | ko-fi | booksirens Amanda Leduc


Download Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space

In fairy tales, happy endings are the norm—as long as you're beautiful and walk on two legs. After all, the ogre never gets the princess. And since fairy tales are the foundational myths of our culture, how can a girl with a disability ever think she'll have a happy ending?

By examining the ways that fairy tales have shaped our expectations of disability, Disfigured will point the way toward a new world where disability is no longer a punishment or impediment but operates, instead, as a way of centering a protagonist and helping them to cement their own place in a story, and from there, the world. Through the book, Leduc ruminates on the connections we make between fairy tale archetypes—the beautiful princess, the glass slipper, the maiden with long hair lost in the tower—and tries to make sense of them through a twenty-first-century disablist lens. From examinations of disability in tales from the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen through to modern interpretations ranging from Disney to Angela Carter, and the fight for disabled representation in today's media, Leduc connects the fight for disability justice to the growth of modern, magical stories, and argues for increased awareness and acceptance of that which is other—helping us to see and celebrate the magic inherent in different bodies. Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space


I really wish I loved this more - this is about Disability and Disney, aka an entire chapter of my thesis. While I loved Leduc's conversation on Disability (SO much amazing information in this book such as definitions, discussions of what is currently happening in the Disability Rights movement and the Disability community as a whole, and personal stories from many different disabled people) I found her conversation about Disney and fairy tales very roundabout and lacking. She talked about The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast absolutely to DEATH but, during those conversations didn't even mention other characters who aren't as popular (say, Hook when discussing characters who are identified only by their disability??). I found her conversations to also be quite repetitive and never really come to a THESIS - it was more just a discussion and exploration, which is fine, but I wish it had that this is important BECAUSE moment.

Still very enjoyable and VERY accessible for able-bodied and neurotypical people who want to read about disability! Amanda Leduc It was enlightening! Amanda Leduc Everyone should read this. And think deeply about how the ideas we have about disability, how the stories we tell shape the realities of both disabled and able-bodied children, and about how we might make the world into a more inclusive, accessible place. Disfigured combines personal memoir, fairytale analysis, and disability theory into a brief but compelling book that will probably make you stop and think about things you have taken for granted.

Why does goodness lead to magical cures for disabled characters in fairytales? Why is happily ever after equated to beauty and able-bodiedness? Think the Beast or The Little Mermaid. Why are villains so often disfigured or disabled in some way? Why is Scar from The Lion King reduced to his facial disfigurement? And what does it do to disabled children to never see themselves represented in the stories and films they consume, or only see themselves in villains or noble yet pitiable characters? When do we get a princess in a wheelchair?

The author raises important questions and offers a great deal of insight into where these stories originated, how people used them to make sense of the world, but also how dangerous they could be. For instance, the idea of changelings led to many weak or disabled children being left to die because their parents were convinced they were actually fairies in disguise and their real child had been stolen away. There are real world consequences to the stories that we tell. So go read this! Let it make you a bit more thoughtful, let it challenge some of your misconceptions or wrong subconscious beliefs. It's definitely worth it.

And as an added note, I appreciate how the author recognizes her relative privilege as a white disabled woman, and discusses how the intersection of disability and race can bring an added layer of discrimination. Amanda Leduc Really interesting and informative. Helped me take a closer look at how disabilities are portrayed in fairytales and how these concepts transfer to real life. I was already familiar with how villains often have disabilities, but thought the author made great points about how heroes often overcome disabilities as if that is the reward for being a good person. Another great point the author makes is how positive change in fairytales is individualistic, rather than systematic. I would recommend this to writers to challenge the way we depict “good” and “evil” characters in stories and how happy endings are earned. Amanda Leduc i read approx 2 nonfiction books per year, but i always really wish i could read more when i do.

this is an excellent read and i really recommend it!

bottom line: maybe it's for the best if i don't read more nonfiction. this reviewing process is unsustainable. Amanda Leduc