Amanda Leduc and her book Disfigured
Credit: Courtesy Amanda Leduc; Francesca Roh/Xtra
6 min

How Disney used disability to showcase flaws in its characters

What messages do we internalize, as disabled children, when we see a world that looks so easy on the screen and then struggle with the world in real life?

While many look back fondly on the fairy tales of their childhood, Hamilton-based Amanda Leduc thinks about all the ways that disability was (or wasn’t) portrayed in her favourite stories. By examining her own life, Leduc, who has cerebral palsy, analyses fairy tales ranging from the Brothers Grimm to Disney in her new book Disfigured, and offers readers a way of looking at the stories they love through the lens of disability rights. 

In this exclusive excerpt, Leduc talks about how Disney used disability to play up the comic or tragic effect of its secondary characters.

The “Disneyfication” of well-known fairy tales—wherein the happy endings became even happier, and the darker elements of traditional tales were passed over in favour of less controversial storylines—became a hallmark of the 20th century starting in 1937, with the release of Disney’s first full-length animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Walt Disney, who knew the original tale by the Brothers Grimm, felt that the tale had potential to fill out a feature-length animated film. In particular, Disney thought a great deal of comic relief could be had from the personalities of the dwarfs, who had not been named in the Brothers Grimm version of the tale and offered, Disney felt, a wealth of opportunity for the studio to expand and further endear the story to a modern audience.

And so: Happy, Sneezy, Grumpy, Bashful, Sleepy, Dopey and Doc. Seven dwarfs to make fun of, seven dwarfs to counterbalance the princess and the prince and the evil, scheming queen. Seven bright faces to blot out the darkness. Seven different bodies to distract us from what’s lurking in the healthy ones.

It worked, as a strategy. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs cost almost USD $1.5 million to make—well over the original budget of $250,000. The film grossed nearly $8 million worldwide in its first run. Proceeds from the film allowed Walt Disney to build new studios in Burbank, California, and within a year of the film’s premiere, plans were already underway for Disney’s next two animated feature films, Fantasia and Pinocchio, with other well-known tales—Peter Pan, Dumbo, Alice in Wonderland—soon to follow. Cinderella came in 1950, with Sleeping Beauty appearing in 1959. Nods to other European fairy and folk tales slowly appeared with films like Robin Hood (1973) and The Little Mermaid (1989); storytelling expanded to other continents with Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994) and Mulan (1998).

Storylines for the films were culled from cultures all over the world and pressed into a tried-and-true formula: Plucky hero/heroine, quest, loyal sidekick often used for laughs. There was usually a broken family of some kind—one or more dead parents (Snow White, Bambi, Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, The Rescuers, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast…) and some element of ostracization of the main character through no fault of their own. (Belle in Beauty and the Beast is seen as eccentric because she loves to read; Ariel in The Little Mermaid is set apart from her fellow mermaids and mermen because of her fascination with the world above the sea; Jasmine in Aladdin is set up as a maverick because she does not want to go through with an arranged royal marriage; Aladdin himself is a street orphan and social outcast—even the Genie, arguably, is an outcast, kept as he is from the world due to the confines of his lamp.)

There was also generally some element of disability in the films that was played up for comic or tragic effect. Snow White had her dwarfs; Pinocchio had his nose; even Sleeping Beauty had a condition, magically bestowed though it was, that kept her apart from the world. Ariel could not walk for the first half of her film, though it was true she could move in other ways. Quasimodo, the lovable Hunchback of Notre Dame, was ostra- cized in his bell tower. Scar, the villain in The Lion King, was so closely associated with his disability and disfigurement that he didn’t even have a separate name.

I didn’t notice any of this when I was a child—or, at least, I didn’t notice it outright. I noticed it in the way that children always notice things—faithfully, unquestioningly—content to let the world I saw on television build the world I saw outside, even though I didn’t realize it at the time.

I came of age just before Disney expanded its franchise in several crucial ways. I was 13 years old the year the Disney Store opened in my local mall. I never went to Disneyworld or Disneyland. Because my world wasn’t inundated with Disney merchandise or trips, the tales I saw onscreen mostly remained stories—stories my siblings and I were happy to act out in our backyard, yes, but stories all the same. The world of Disney merchandise—and, arguably, the world of Disney we all now know and see—had not yet become quite a thing.

But still, the lessons were there. You don’t watch The Little Mermaid hundreds of times without learning a few crucial things: How important walking is, the desperate measures one might take to be with the person they love. What is and is not acceptable in polite society. Ariel walked toward her happiness in the end. Pinocchio’s happy ending came with a nose that was “normal.” Quasimodo had friends at the end of his tale but he didn’t have romantic love. After all, how could he? Would Quasimodo fit in a Disney Princes line of merchandise if ever there was such a thing? Wouldn’t he spoil the effect, sticking out as he does in a line of princes all so bland and boring?

And Scar, the erstwhile villain who embodies disfigurement of both the body and soul? He dies in the end, eradicated in the way that all true evil should be.

Except it isn’t evil, really. Scar as a character is second in line to the throne, condemned to live in his older brother’s larger, more powerful shadow. (His original name was Taka, which means “dirt” or “filth” in Swahili. As legend has it, he took the name Scar to remind himself that jealousy and hate almost cost him an eye—but Jealousy doesn’t have as much of an impact as a name, does it?)

Who’s to say that the Beast in Beauty and the Beast isn’t made precisely as terrible as he is as a result of the world’s reaction to his disfigurement? It is the world’s shunning that causes so much of the problem—the social ills that Hans My Hedgehog so determinedly pushed against, the social pressures that made the princess Mama recognize herself as inferior and choose intelligence at whatever cost. The world did this.

The world does this.

But what’s the big deal? everyone says again. Everyone knows that Disney movies aren’t real. 

It’s just a movie. 

Grow up. Get over it. 

“Remove imperfection from the body,” says Tobin Siebers, “and one discovers the perfect recipe for what does not exist for the most part in the human universe.”

This is a paradox at once unique to both human nature and fairy tales. You cannot reach for a better society without recognizing that the society in which you live is also itself imperfect—the two go hand in hand. So if you’re going to tell an idealized story about a father who wishes for a child or a princess who wishes for intelligence or a son who wishes to go out and seek his fortune in the world, and if the fulfillment of that quest symbolizes perfection, the here and now of the characters themselves must somehow show the flaws through which they begin to shape their quest.

And what better, faster, easier way for a storyteller to show this so-called imperfection than through the metaphor of disability, an idea that is already so ingrained in society as emblematic of the imperfect?

I hear so many stories from disabled women and men who used to be little disabled girls and boys. The stories all hurt in the same way.

I was never there in fairy tales. I never saw myself. 

I saw myself, but I was always the bad guy. You never get to be the princess when you look different. 

There’s the story of Irené Colthurst who, like me, has cerebral palsy and as a young girl watched Cinderella put her foot into a glass slipper. Irené got her shoes from Nordstrom, the only store that allowed you to mix and match shoes of the same style but different sizes. “Some of the most unpleasant memories I have,” she tells me, “are of sitting in the shoe department…the shoes rubbed so much that they could and often did rub sores in my feet. Sometimes to the point of bleeding.”

But Cinderella, Irené notes, never had trouble like this. “Nobody else fits into the dainty-foot shoe, and this is how easily she slips back into it? Voilà, happily ever after?

The story of Dominick Evans, a disabled trans filmmaker, who never saw himself in these stories growing up. “I wasn’t a pretty little girl,” he remembers. “And all of those stories were about pretty little girls—never mind trans or disabled characters!”

The story of Sarah Jama, a Somali-Canadian disability organizer and co-founder of the Disability Justice Network of Ontario, who identified with the heroes in fairy tales because she was afraid to identify as the princess and the damsel-in-distress. “As a disabled immigrant, you can’t be weak, because weakness then translates into being a burden on the system.”

What messages do we internalize, as disabled children, when we see a world that looks so easy on the screen and then struggle with the world in real life?

Disfigured is available through Coach House Books.