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Review by Psyche Z. Ready, Email: psyche.ready@uconn.edu

Keywords: fairy tales, Disney, Marvel, activism, pop culture studies, memoir

Amanda LeDuc’s Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space is a rare bird–it is a hybrid of memoir and monograph that is also extraordinarily interdisciplinary, incorporating scholarship from Disability Studies and Disability Activism, Folklore and Fairytales, and Pop Culture Studies. In describing this book, I’m called to textile metaphors: Disfigured is a tapestry of narratives, a quilt of well-selected fragments, pieced together to form something altogether new. The primary threads are vignettes from LeDuc’s own childhood experiences with disability, which are told alongside scenes from different fairy tales, both classical and popular. The reader struggles along with LeDuc as she seeks a space for herself in these narratives; like a prince searching for a perfect, tiny foot for a glass slipper, LeDuc searches for a fairytale role that mirrors her own disabled experience, and finds none. She looks to older sources like folktales and 18th century fairy tales as well as contemporary fairy tales from Disney and Marvel. LeDuc quotes at length from these tales and/or summarizes their plots, with an eye to disabled characters and the role of disability in their plots. She spends more time on the narratives that were meaningful in her life–most notably the Disney princess films, homing in on her favorite childhood film, The Little Mermaid. This retelling of the Hans Christian Anderson tale is at the center, the nexus of her analysis and lived experience. 

She identifies in these narratives the common disabled tropes: “overcoming,” inspiration porn, disability as tragedy or curse, mutants and superheroes, disabled villains. While she does so, she weaves in interviews with other disabled scholars and activists, theory from Disability Studies, and principles from Disability Activism to explain for her reader exactly what is so reductive or destructive about these tropes. In this way, she introduces the reader to the difference between a medical and a social model of disability. She summarizes and gives examples of narrative prosthesis, and comments on the symbiotic relationship between humanity and stories.

In spite of the multiple goals and approaches of this book, it is an accessible read. It is written conversationally, and even the most abstract concepts are explained in thorough but straightforward language–it is as readable as any memoir. In her introduction, LeDuc clearly states that she is not attempting a monograph. If you are a Folklorist looking for an academic treatment of disability in folklore and fairy tales, look to Disability, Deformity, and Disease in the Grimms’ Fairy Tales by Ann Schmiesing. If you are a disability scholar looking for an academic treatment of the role of disability in popular narratives, look to David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder’s Narrative Prosthesis or Ato Quayson’s Aesthetic Nervousness. If you are looking for a disability memoir, know that this book transcends the genre. 

What you will find in Disfigured are questions. LeDuc ends every chapter with a series of questions: Why are disabled characters either cursed by disability or overcoming it? Why are they hollow and uncomplex, as if disability were a symbol rather than a human experience? How do these tropes impact audiences, and what do they say about how humanity views disability? LeDuc does not attempt to answer any of these questions with a central argument or claim, and yet, as the reader progresses through the book, a primary theme emerges: the tension between our stories and our lived experience, between disability as a symbol and actual disabled bodies. 

Disfigured will be a quick but thoughtful read for anyone interested in fairy tales or disability, and will be best enjoyed by those interested in the relationship between humanity and our stories. It would be a welcome–and accessible–addition to courses on Folklore and Disability, as well as an outstanding and unusual example in a course on memoir. 

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