Fairy tales shape how we see the world, so what happens when you identify more with the Beast than Beauty?
If every disabled character is mocked and mistreated, how does the Beast ever imagine a happily-ever-after? Amanda Leduc looks at fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm to Disney, showing us how they influence our expectations and behaviour and linking the quest for disability rights to new kinds of stories that celebrate difference.
Discover Disfigured through the excerpt below, followed by Amanda’s thoughts on the passage.
Years after I first saw the Disney film, I read the Hans Christian Anderson version of ‘The Little Mermaid.’ Now, all these years later, I find myself focused on this image: the mermaid, mute and heartbroken, arcing that one long dive into the sea. She has been mutilated in a number of ways: her tail and tongue taken from her, her ability to connect with others stolen from her as a result of the witch’s machinations. She has no hope of convincing the prince in this story, bedazzled as he is by the beauty and charm of his new bride. She is made, by virtue of her disability, less than what he might desire.
How should we take this, in this world of modern-day story- telling? Perhaps it’s unrealistic to think that a different outcome could have visited this story, especially given the era of its provenance. (The rudimentary beginnings of European sign language were just entering infancy during Andersen’s time.)
Still. Surely the Little Mermaid and her prince could have learned sign language, of a kind, or communicated through gestures? Did no one in the palace think to teach the ‘little dumb foundling’ how to read and write? In the Disney version, Ariel physically signs a contract with Ursula in order to give up her voice. Couldn’t she have written Prince Eric a note?
But fairy tales have historically been concerned with morals – and historically, morals have concerned themselves in a very particular way with the disabled. Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid, as we’ve seen, is one of those people who might never reach the top of the social ladder, no matter how much they try. (The glimmer of hope at the end of ‘The Little Mermaid’ seems to me so faint as to not be a glimmer at all.) Disney’s Ariel, by contrast, not only manages to regain her voice; her other disability – the immobility afforded by a mermaid’s tail on land – is eradicated by her version’s happy ending. At the end of the Disney version, Ariel has legs, her voice, and her prince. The original mermaid, by contrast, dies with none of those things.
So, suddenly we have two versions of the tale: one in which the disability is vanished and the abled body reigns supreme, and another in which the disability is permanent and leads to grief and suffering. Where is the space for disability as a simple fact of life in a scenario like this? If Ariel couldn’t hope to get her prince when she didn’t have legs and/or a voice, what hope could a disabled girl like myself have for a life that was free of torment and bullying unless she was free of a limp and had all of her faculties intact?
In this excerpt from my book, Disfigured, I’m exploring what it meant to me to become acquainted with the Hans Christian Andersen version of ‘The Little Mermaid’, after having grown up on the Disney version. Specifically, I’m looking at the ways in which the Andersen tale highlights so many things about the disability experience without ever explicitly treating TLM as a disability story—the Little Mermaid is made to suffer, and undergo trial through virtue of experiencing disability, in order that she might one day shed her mermaid’s tail for good and walk permanently on land as a human.
So many of the narratives that we tell in our fairy tales, Hollywood stories, and other mainstream media follow this same kind of structure, where people are made to experience disability as a kind of “flaw” in their character or as a kind of punishment. And often, the only way that we’re made to understand someone’s triumph in a story is through eradicating the disability in some way. In the case of the Disney version of the Little Mermaid, Ariel gives up her life at sea—her family, her friends, and all she’s ever known—in order that she might be a human, that she might walk on two legs. In the Hans Christian Andersen story, she gives up her very life itself in order to protect the human man she’s come to love. The understanding in the Andersen tale is that she is broken because she is disabled and can’t speak. In both stories, even though they have very different endings, it’s taken for granted that the Little Mermaid cannot have what she wants with the body that she has—she must change in some crucial way in order to get her happy ending.
When people read my book, I’d like them to think about the ways in which we often ask characters to do or say or fit into impossible ideals in order to achieve their happy endings. All too often, we associate a happy ending with a certain degree of physical prowess—someone is pretty, or walks on two legs, or doesn’t have the kind of “difficulty” in their life that we often associate with disability—because we assume that a difficult life is somehow not worth living, or not worth as much happiness as a life that is free of these complications. But what does it mean when we re-imagine what a happy ending might look like? What happens when we read and tell stories and understand that happy endings and happy lives are not made less so because of complications—but that, instead, a story becomes all the richer for the specific disabled joys that might live inside it?
To continue reading, purchase Disfigured here!
Amanda Leduc’s essays and stories have appeared in publications across Canada, the US, and the UK. She is the author of the novels The Miracles of Ordinary Menand the forthcoming The Centaur’s Wife. She has cerebral palsy and lives in Hamilton, Ontario, where she works as the Communications Coordinator for the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD), Canada’s first festival for diverse authors and stories.