Content warning: This article describes stereotyping, systemic aggression against people with disabilities, and antisemitic violence.
When was the last time you opened your eyes?
I’m not talking about the literal action; I’m talking about the metaphorical idea of having an epiphany. Perhaps it was when you were young and the facade of innocence was peeled away, revealing how ugly this world can be sometimes. Maybe it was the realization that the celebrity whom you idolized wasn’t a good person off screen. It could have even been the time when your family finally came to terms with its generational trauma, as the fictional Madrigal family did in the Disney film Encanto.
The last time my eyes opened was when I was half-heartedly scrolling through Instagram. I came across an article named “Peter Dinklage Slams Disney’s Snow White Remake.” My gut reaction was to groan with displeasure and roll my eyes excessively. Another remake? Seriously, Disney?
I could have left my reaction at that, but Dinklage’s photo reminded me that the famous Elf and Game of Thrones actor had dwarfism. I, being a disabled person, instantly understood his gripe with Disney’s decision to retell “Snow White.” My gut feeling was confirmed as I read Dinklage’s interview; he mentioned that Disney was “progressive in one way, [yet they’re] still making that… backward story about seven dwarves living in a cave together.” Dinklage also expressed that his advocacy for actors with dwarfism to portray non-stereotypical roles in Hollywood hadn’t been successful.
Dinklage’s comments may not have been a catalyst for change, but they opened my eyes to the ugly truth surrounding Disney and most of the mainstream media. The truth is that everyday media is laced with ableist messaging, and it consistently vilifies disabilities as being outside the norm. The media wants us to see disabilities as something to fear, something to cure, and something to eradicate. They make this messaging clear by portraying people who have disabilities as nothing more than monsters, villains, mythical creatures, and individuals who don’t deserve a ‘happily ever after.’
This issue delves deeper than just good and bad representation in the media. The problem is about how society inherently treats the concept of disabilities with a negative connotation. This misconception is first taught to children in the form of fairy tales and is then reinforced through the modern films we watch as adults, subconsciously influencing how we treat people with disabilities in the real world.
“Dis-ability”: The etymology of the negative connotation
According to the study of etymology, the word “disability” can be further broken into two parts: “dis” and “able.” These smaller words can easily translate into meaning “to do the opposite of” and “able,” respectively — as in not able to see, hear, walk, et cetera.
It’s only after splitting the original word up that one can realize that the prefix “dis” has a negative connotation. It is used in other words to demonstrate the opposite of the positive. Other examples of words containing this prefix include “dishonest,” “disobey,” and “disagree.” Do you see the pattern?
Since the word has a negative prefix, society is bound to view the concept of disability negatively — especially in the medical field. According to Amanda Leduc’s Disfigured: On Fairy Tales Disability, and Making Space, the point of medicine is to uphold the “gift of abled-bodiness.” This definition of medicine instantly casts disability in a negative light.
The historical treatment of people with disabilities enforces the standard. The ancient Greeks saw having a disability as a curse from the gods, and used that notion to justify infanticide. The Nazis gassed and experimented on people with disabilities during World War II; and in the 2000s, people with disabilities were sent to Canadian asylums where they experienced sexual, physical, and mental abuse. This treatment encouraged the perception that having a disability warranted abuse, discrimination, and less-than-human treatment.
Of course, in Canada and in many other Western countries, people with disabilities are treated far better than they were decades ago. Still, it is difficult to change a societal bias.
Regardless of how modern individuals treat people with disabilities, our culture’s media still demonstrates that we have not given up on portraying disability as being evil or mythological — especially when it comes to modernizing our favourite Grimms’ fairy tales.
An issue of morality
I’m sure we were all told at least one fairy tale when we were children — whether it was that fairy tale’s original, a messed up version, or if it was Disney’s tamer version.
By now, we must all know the general plot of “Cinderella,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” and “Jack and the Beanstalk” by heart. Most of us also know that in each of these tales, there was a moral to be learned. Though it has always existed, the idea of teaching morality to children through fairy tales was popularized by writers such as the Grimm brothers, Wilhelm and Jacob.
Fairy tales were told orally at the time of the Grimm brothers, which meant that the stories’ details could be forgotten when being retold. Thus, the Grimm brothers created their collection of fairy tales in their book Kinder-und Hausmärchen (KHM), with the intention of preserving them before the tales were lost forever due to the capriciousness of oral storytelling. In their versions, the Grimm brothers also added clear morals such as hard work, as seen in “Cinderella” and “Jack and the Beanstalk” respectively.
In her book Disability, Deformity, and Disease in the Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Ann Schmiesing wrote that the Grimm brothers edited the second version of the KHM to introduce scars, blindness, and deformities as the identifying characteristics differentiating the ‘healthy-able-bodied’ heroes and the ‘disabled’ villains. Schmiesing added that the Grimm brothers made this edition to create a stark contrast between good and evil.
Disability: A vilified beast
In the first edition of the KHM, the story of “Hansel and Gretel” describes the character of the witch as a little old woman with cannibalistic tendencies and “weak eyes.” Since the witch is an old woman, the idea of her having weak eyes isn’t treated as a disability, but as an ailment of old age. However, in the book’s second edition, her blindness is played off as an indicator that she is a witch: “Witches have red eyes and cannot see very far, but they have a sense of smell like animals, and know when humans are approaching.” In this quote, her nearsighted blindness is entangled with her villainous character.
While the witch’s disability is iconic to her villainess, other characters who are casted as villains in the Grimm brothers’ collection all have abnormal features that would not appear on a ‘healthy, able body.’ Think of the devil in Bearskin who has a cloven foot, the Evil Queen who transforms into an old hunched-back woman, and Ursula who has tentacles contrasting to the rest of the merfolk. Even today, famous villains such as Scar from The Lion King, who has a scarred eye; Captain Hook from Peter Pan, who has a hook for a hand; and Darth Vader from Star Wars, who has severe facial burns all have some form of disfigurement that marks them as different. that disfigurement gives these characters a cool ‘villain’ look, these marks ostracize them from society.
No happily ever after
I would like to briefly mention that not all of the villains in fairy tales have such identifying features — at least not at the beginning of their stories. While sometimes the disabled characters, such as the seven dwarves, are presented as being good throughout the entire fairy tale, other times, the villains obtain a disability through harsh punishment.
A great example is the original Grimm version of “Cinderella.” While the Disney version ends the story with a happily ever after for the abled-bodied heroine, the original story shows her evil stepmother and stepsisters being inflicted with the worst pain imaginable. You’ve probably heard that the stepsisters intentionally chopped off their toes and heel in order to fit into Cinderella’s glass slipper — but what’s less known is that the pigeons who helped Cinderella transform for the ball viciously pecked out her family members’ eyes, making them blind. Another example is “Rumpelstiltskin”: in the original tale that featured the miller’s daughter who could spin gold, Rumplestilskin grows irritated that the princess guessed his name correctly and ends up “tearing himself in two” after stomping his feet into the earth below.
A curse not cured
It is harmful to depict popular villains of fairy tales and modern media with disabling features because that leads actual individuals with disabilities to be ostracized even more. However, I would argue that stories perpetuating the idea that a disability is a curse that must be broken are far more damaging.
Schmiesing explains the origin of these “curse to cured” stories drawn from medicine: “While championing health and able-bodiedness as the ideal, tales [by the Grimm brothers] frequently suggest that this ideal is unattainable, at least without divine intervention.” In these stories, disabled, monstrous characters become protagonists who, over the course of the story, transform back into a healthy, able-bodied human with the help of magic.
In “The Girl Without Hands,” the father cuts off his daughter’s hands, as requested by the devil. She is later given silver hands as a replacement; however, at the end of the story, her hands magically regrow.
In the first edition of “the Frog Prince,” the frog constantly asks for the princess’ assistance to lift him to the table or to her bed. This makes sense — of course, since he is a frog, he wouldn’t be able to jump very high. However, in the second edition, the Grimm brothers treat the character’s frog nature as disabling due to a lack of mobility. To cure him of his misfortune, he is accidentally smacked against the wall when he transforms into another dashing prince.
The last story worth pointing out is “Hans my Hedgehog.” Hans was born to human parents with the lower body of a human and the upper body of a hedgehog. Ashamed of his monstrosity, his parents hid him behind the stove for eight years, until he decided to venture out and become a famous musician. During his travels, he is betrothed to a princess. However, the princess despises him because of his true form. So he stabs her with his quills and she runs away. Eventually, he finds another princess — vowing not to hurt her with his quills, he requests the princess’ father, the king, to start a fire and burn his hedgehog skin the moment he takes it off to sleep. The king accepts Hans’ request and gathers men, who throw Hans’ shedded skin in a fire pit. This is probably the most disturbing scene I ever witnessed. As you may extrapolate, the idea of Hans’ parents hiding him could refer to children who are intentionally hidden from the world and neglected because of their disability.
These iconic stories may reflect a desire for safety and normalcy that both the Grimm brothers sought after. One could argue that their first goal in creating these collections was to simply canonize beloved folk tales in Germany and promote better morals for children. However, their tales’ experiences with disabilities, illness, and death offer a more captivating story, one nearly every individual in the disabled community fantasizes about: normalcy and the desire to “fit in” within society.
Even though the Grimm brothers created stories that featured disabled characters or villains who had abnormal features, this tendency was probably rooted in their own experiences, frustrations, and fantasies. Nevertheless, the cure trope is harmful because it ignores the plain reality that you can’t simply “cure” most people of their disabilities. It ignores the fact that there will always be individuals who are disabled, regardless if they were born with a disability or if they developed it later in life. No disability needs to be cured; instead, we must expand our outlook of ‘normal’ bodies to include ones with disabilities.
One could argue that the point of these fictional stories is to give a sense of escapism from a broken world and that criticizing characters with “disabling features” who may or may not exist is simply a waste of time. After all, “it’s just a story.” However, I would like to mention that everyone — including people with disabilities — has the right to see themselves represented in these stories in a better light, one in which they get a happy ending without having to compromise who they are. If we continue to portray people with disabilities as villains, as mythological creatures who deserve to be punished, or as having to resort to wishful magic to achieve normalcy, it will only ostracize them more to the point that the idea of their achieving happiness is unfathomable.
After all, Leduc phrased it best: “A princess in a wheelchair? Whoever heard of such a thing?”