top of page

Breath & Shadow

Spring 2020 - Vol. 17, Issue 2

"Happily Ever After, Every Now and Then: A Review"

written by


A review of "Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space" by Amanda Leduc-

“Disfigured” is part memoir, part history of fairy tales (which date back to Renaissance Italy) and part disability-studies primer on some of the dominant conceptions of disability throughout the years. Despite being chock-full, it is a tidy and accessible volume packed with thoughts from disability-studies scholars and contemporary activists. I learned a lot, especially about Wilhelm Grimm’s (of Brothers Grimm fame) and Hans Christian Andersen’s personal struggles with chronic illness which caused them to insert more disability in their tales than in previous versions.

Unlike author Amanda Leduc (who has a less-severe cerebral palsy than mine, from a childhood operation) I still haven’t seen the Disney version of “The Little Mermaid”. Until I read this book, I might have been content to let the twelve years age difference between us stand as the reason, or fall back on overworked stereotypes to account for my oversight, noting that possibly Generation X prefers more irreverent Bugs Bunny-style animation to Disney sweetness.

All of that may be partially true, if slightly shopworn, but reading this book, I remembered something I hadn’t thought about in years. By chance, on a morning talk show I heard “Part of Your World”, and it was like looking in the sun of my yearnings at age seventeen. Even though my yearnings have shifted, I still suspect I’d find it a painful watch. Not feeling that I belong in the world of disability fully, yet knowing that I can’t match the pace of mainstream abled society is still a contradiction that I struggle to make peace with.

While there may be things about me that make this kind of identity crisis more likely, Leduc points out the crisis between the lessons we absorb uncritically as small children and the facts of disabled life are nearly universal. “What do we do,” she writes “When we know our feet won’t fit {Cinderella’s slipper} and if it did, it would be no good for dancing?” Many disabled children feel invisible, or, even more painfully, are seen to be aligned with disfigured villains at a time when both their self-image and sense of themselves in society is forming.

Clearly, therefore, fairy tales, and their modern descendants such as the romantic comedy have a profound influence on our conception of life. Of particular note in this book were the connection of beauty and virtue with physical symmetry(if you think this is not still a factor in movies today, consider how often the dud date in a romantic comedy is signified by thick glasses or allergies, even though we all know people who get together with all sorts of physical imperfections.) and the all-or nothing thinking of the Happily Ever After ending, especially given that the option meted out to antagonists is usually a lonely and friendless death. In real life, of course, we know that most outcomes are far less stark, but stories we experience in our youth affect expectations despite experience teaching us otherwise.

Disabled people are uniquely placed to understand that a life of perfect, pain-free bliss is out of reach, no matter how much stories and media might set up a craving for something that doesn’t really exist. Making space for a disability narrative means that there could be more room for writing about happiness-through-pain without the expectation of perfection through hard work. I liked this book. It is smart, informed, and passionate, even if I had to read it through twice to avoid missing anything. If you have a background in disability studies, literature and film, or both, you don’t want to miss this one.

Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space 

by Amanda Leduc

Coach House Books

248 pages

ISBN: 678 1 33243 393 7

Erika Jahneke is a writer, blogger (visit her Bohemian Crip blog to comment on this or other articles) and progressive activist who gets way too excited about attention on social-media. She lives in Phoenix and is hard at work on a short-story collection between elections.

bottom of page