My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Everyone loves fairy tales. We've grown up longing for, and dreaming of, our own fairy tale endings. Some of us can and do end up getting some version of happily-ever-after, but Leduc asks a harder question: must fairy tales and happy endings be solely hinged on the magical healing of physical disability or disfigurement, of things that are ugly or broken being made pretty and whole again?
Why can't those who live with disabilities be happy and whole even if they never find a cure?
Throughout Disfigured, Leduc explores the history of fairy tales and their current manifestations, ranging from the earlier compilations by the Grimm brothers and Hans Christian Anderson's original tales, up to Disney retellings and modern superhero or fantasy stories as their new reiterations. She expounds on this in tandem with scrutinising her own lived experience of growing up with cerebral palsy, and how, whilst she loved fairy tales and their magical endings, it eventually seemed like they were not for her.
Because the magical happily ever after always involved a cure or a fix, one that she, and many like her, has not and will likely never receive.
...the focus of fairy tales...has always been on finding magical instruments, extraordinary technologies, or powerful people and animals that will enable protagonists to transform themselves along with their environment, making it more suitable for living in peace and contentment.
Leduc quotes fairy-tale scholar Jack Zipes, putting into focus why fairy tales resonate with so many--there's always that hope that something (God, the universe, karma, fairies) will happen to fix what's wrong and then we can go on to successful, fulfilling lives. In the past, fairy tales were a way to justify mysterious illnesses and wish for miraculous cures, things that science can now explain and medicine can help.
Why then, if technology and medicine, have opened new frontiers and magical possibilities for everyone, do our storytelling and narratives still imply that one needs to be "normal" and "healthy" to live a blessed, happy life?
Why do modern fairy tales still so often rely on the erasure of disability?
This is honestly something that I have never thought about. Who doesn't want limbs to regrow or cancer to disappear, the deaf to hear, the lame to walk, and the blind to see? It's what we are taught to pray for in church; it's this hope of the miraculous cure that fuels faith-healing rallies.
Just as media portrays people of colour as "odd and exotic" or just "wrong", it's not a huge leap to see that the media does this to the disabled as well. The evil witch is a hunched old crone with warts on her face, waving a cane; the villain is ugly or disfigured in some way. The quest is completed, or evil vanquished, when the Beast is transformed back into the handsome prince, or when the mermaid walks down the aisle with her brand new legs.
Disability is something I live with, not something I've vanquished as if it's a villain. The stories I now tell try to show this. The stories we all tell, now, should try to make space for this truth in some way.
Disfigured offers a dissection of the impact of familiar fairy tales on Leduc's own experiences and lays bare the insidious narrative that disability--or anything that makes us different--is a villain to be vanquished. As writers--and readers--we are often blinkered to the experiences of people who are not like us, people who are not able-bodied, and this shows in the stories we tell and the language we use; my first instinct was to say that we are "blind" to those experiences, but are we? Or do we just refuse to listen, refuse to try to understand?
Going back to faith-healing rallies, we want people to be healed, but what happens when they are not? What happens when the dreamed-of fairy tale ending is just another huge disappointment? In what ways do we, does society, change to allow them to live and thrive independently instead of just blaming them for their perceived "lack of faith"?
How should this be reflected in our stories and in our societies?
Society, we have seen, does not change in fairy tales. The transformation is individual, never systemic.
Just as stories shape society and society shapes stories, how disability is portrayed in fiction (whether fairy tale or not) is important. If fairy tale endings are about transformation and triumph, it can surely also show the transformation of society and the triumph of the disabled protagonist even if the disability never goes away.
I've shelved this under "Writing and Publishing" because it speaks a lot to my interest in writing new fairy tales (as well as retelling old ones), but really, it's a thought-provoking read for any fairy tale who is interested in understanding and unlearning the narratives around disability/difference that's coded in these beloved tales.
Note: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Coach House Books via Edelweiss. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.
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