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Wishes, Punishment and the Crip Villain: The Role of Disability in Fairy Tales


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I vividly remember the first time I read some of the Grimm brothers and Hans Christian Andersen’s original fairy tales. Frankly, their graphic details are difficult to forget: the prince in Rapunzel was blinded by thorns, cursed to wander the world aimlessly; a beautiful maiden in The Girl Without Hands lost her hands in atonement for her father’s sins; the stepsisters in Cinderella had their eyes pecked out as punishment for their wicked behaviour. As per the nature of fairy tales, this treatment is justified, and outcomes deserved. The blind prince finds his love and her tears heal his eyes. The girl regains her hands and marries the king. The sisters are punished for their selfish behaviour. Fairy tales are all about wish-fulfilment and rewarding good behaviour to imbue a moral lesson.  

 

What I didn’t remember so clearly was the frequency with which disability is featured in these stories—and the negative connotations which follow. A more explicit example is Andersen’s The Cripple, about a boy born without legs. His parents refrain from providing any educational opportunities for their son, despite him being a clever boy, until the day he miraculously walks again. Only then is he able to fulfill his wishes, go to school and begin to dream of becoming a schoolmaster. The story concludes with his parents discussing his good fortune, “And to think that this should have happened to the Cripple!” [1].  

 

The issue that emerges with these portrayals of disability is the impact they have on societal perceptions. In the examples given, disability is either acquired as a disadvantage for a strong protagonist to overcome, to elicit sympathy from the readers, or to punish characters with poor morality. When we look for it, disability representation is rampant in fairy tales, but only to show a failure or disadvantage that must be prevailed over.  

 

It is no secret that most portrayals of disability in media are less than positive. Modern critical disability studies, and the subsequent emergence of “crip” (a term in the process of reclamation by the disabled community) theory, explore the experience and exclusion of disability in media, as well as its intersections with other social oppressions [2,3]. Disability is largely ignored or underrepresented, and in the rare instances where disabled characters are present, they are frequently typecast or fall into stereotypes. There are three common archetypes: the victim, the hero or the villain. The Canadian Centre for Digital Media Literacy describes these archetypes as follows:  

 

The disabled victim is a symbol of pity and helplessness. They are used to weaponize sympathy from the audience or to create comedic situations which alienate a disabled character. Examples of the victim include Tiny Tim in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol or the titular Forrest Gump’s intellectual disability.  

 

The disabled hero is situated to overcome their disability. Their story arc concludes when they become more “normal” by triumphing over their perceived abnormality, or otherwise acquiring extraordinary abilities that “cancel” out their disability. Examples of these include Marvel’s Daredevil and blindness, or The Good Doctor’s representation of autism.  

 

The disabled villain is portrayed as morally amiss due to their disability. This may include physical disfigurement shown as a metaphor for internal monstrosity or, frequently, mental illness to explain corrupt or violent behaviour. Examples include The Joker’s schizophrenia, or several James Bond villains’ physical disfigurement [4].  

 

These stories seem to teach us that the disabled cannot win, or if they don’t, they simply are not trying hard enough. Worse yet, the disabled are somehow evil for being disabled. These narratives are found in practically every form of storytelling but are particularly damaging in children’s media, which is foundational in socializing and shaping their view of the world [5]

  

Contemporary children’s content has not made vast improvements in this viewpoint. A study by Hopster, a children’s entertainment company, saw that of 50 television programmes aimed at kids aged under 5, just 16% of the shows featured disability at all [4]. Further, over half of these programmes depicted the victim stereotype, and characters were used to provide a moral lesson on bullying. Other characters were made threatening for their bodies, such as a recurring villain in a LEGO television show being given prosthetic limbs to create a more sinister appearance in later seasons [6]. Similar narratives are seen in recent Disney films, where only 3 of 20 films surveyed portrayed disabled characters as ordinary or having a positive impact, according to the study’s authors [5]. All 20 films represented disability, however, most reiterated the portrayal of crip characters as pitiable, evil or an object of ridicule. Ultimately, even contemporary media, while featuring crip characters, continues to lack any positive representation.  

 

I was introduced to the potential for a restructured perspective through Amanda Leduc’s Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability and Making Space. The book describes her viewpoint as follows: 

 

By examining the ways that fairy tales have shaped our expectations of disability, Disfigured will point the way toward a new world where disability is no longer a punishment or impediment but operates, instead, as a way of centering a protagonist and helping them to cement their own place in a story, and from there, the world [7]. 

 

With Leduc’s viewpoint of restructuring the portrayal of disability in fairy tales in mind, what is the end goal for including disabled characters? Like Leduc, writer Kari Maarten proposes that reframing the notion of disability leads to better storytelling. She notes that traditional fairy tales are a product of oral tradition and as such, are mutable [8]. Oral stories are dynamic and take on a different life depending on the teller. Through retellings, we can restructure the perception of disadvantages, and what it means to have a wish granted. A story can end without “fixing” the protagonist’s disfigurement. The blind prince can stay blind and be happy. The handless maiden can be pious and beautiful without her hands. A boy who can’t walk deserves opportunity and love as he is. After all, disability exists beyond the value judgments assigned to it and if we frame it as such in our lives, media follows suit. In every story, crip characters deserve their happily ever after.  

 

 

 

References 

[1] Andersen HC. The Cripple. 1872. 

[2] McRuer R, Berube M. Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. New York: NYU Press; 2006. 

[3] Hutcheon E, Wolbring G. “Cripping” Resilience: Contributions from Disability Studies to Resilience Theory. M/C Journal 2013;16. https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.697. 

[4] Canadian Centre for Digital Media Literacy. Common Portrayals of Persons with Disabilities. MediaSmarts n.d. https://mediasmarts.ca/ (accessed January 21, 2024). 

[5] Holcomb J, Latham-Mintus K. Disney and Disability: Media Representations of Disability in Disney and Pixar Animated Films. Disability Studies Quarterly 2022;42. https://doi.org/10.18061/dsq.v42i1.7054. 

[6] Kids S. Hopster reports on representation and screen stereotypes in kids TV. Hopster 2019. https://blog.hopster.tv/2019/07/17/is-kids-tv-making-your-child-prejudiced/ (accessed January 21, 2024). 

[7] Leduc A. Disfigured. Amanda Leduc n.d. https://amandaleduc.com/books/disfigured/ (accessed January 21, 2024). 

[8] Maaren K. The Blind Prince Reimagined: Disability in Fairy Tales. Uncanny Magazine n.d. https://www.uncannymagazine.com/article/the-blind-prince-reimagined-disability-in-fairy-tales/ (accessed January 21, 2024). 

 

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