Friday, January 31, 2014

Disabled Disney Princesses

I'm not feeling up to writing a huge essay on disabilities in fairy tales, or the idea that princesses and heroines need to be "restored" to whole bodies and minds by the ends of fairy tales (feel free to link us to a good article if you know of one), but it's no secret that, along with POC (people of color), disabled people feel under-represented by Disney (and most everyone else) with regard to princesses and recognized heroines. And a recent set of images, showing just that, recently went viral.

It's one of the reasons I ADORE the How To Train Your Dragon movie - they didn't shy away from disability, nor make it an excuse for lack of heroism, but instead, used it as an opportunity for a different form of heroism.

But, in this case, it's Disney being under-fire for not providing a decent example to little (disabled) girls in the form of princesses-with-differences and one Italian artist, aleXsandro Palombo, took it upon himself to both bring the lack of representation to people's attention and, in a way, to change that.
"I have decided to portray disabled Disney's characters because they never create a disabled character and I think that they should consider that there are so many disabled people in the planet, it's a fact," he wrote (to The Huffington Post). "Two years ago I had a rare form of cancer and some parts of my body are now paralyzed after surgery to remove it," the Italy-based Palombo continued. "I am now a disabled person, and every day I have to deal with all forms of discrimination and humiliation. Through this series I wanted to give visibility to this problem. I think that disabled people doesn't [sic] match Disney's standards of beauty so my message is very simple: Disabled people have rights and are part of the world."

I do like that the National Disabilities Organization has not only responded but had some good things to add. As reported by the Daily News:
Experts say the artist’s campaign is much-needed.
“One out of every five Americans has a disability of some kind,” Carol Glazer, president of the National Disabilities Organization, told the Daily News.
“So when you portray popular iconic figures, like Disney princesses, without any of them having disabilities, you’re cutting out 20% of the population.”
Glazer applauds TV shows like “Push Girls” and “Glee,” which put stars who use wheelchairs in the spotlight, and slammed the suggestion the shows are exploitative.
“People who call that insensitive are not really seeing the whole picture of disability,” she said. “All you’re saying is that there’s a broad range of people in this world. And that’s an important message.”
Susan Stout, interim president and CEO of the Amputee Coalition, said she would love to see one of Palombo’s princesses on the big screen.
“We want everyone to know it is possible to live well with limb loss,” she told the Daily News. “A Disney Princess would help raise awareness and, in turn, acceptance of limb loss.”
Interestingly, I expected Ariel to be in a wheelchair with a tail, among these images but although she's seated in a chair, there's no tail (which makes me think the artist isn't considering disabled people stories so much as disabilities being represented in icons, if you follow me). It's a shame as I think it's a missed opportunity. Especially considering the banner of "Do You Still Like Us?" written above the group in one of the pics.

One of the first "photos" of a mermaid I ever saw as a child was of one in a wheelchair and it immediately brought home to me how a) difficult it must have been/be for the little mermaid to get along in our world and b) how brave she was to do it anyway, even when it was easier to stay home in the sea.

I'd like to see Marissa Meyer's response to this, particularly the picture of Cinderella with her false/robotic leg. It's very much like her Cinderella cyborg, Cinder, from the Lunar Chronicles series, a Cinderella perspective I feel has a lot to say to this particular concern of "lack of representation among princesses and heroines".

Interestingly, I didn't hear a lot from the NDO (National Disabilities Organization) when How To Train Your Dragon not only hit the big screen but was a great success. I think that portrayal of Hiccup, in such a straight forward manner, is the approach needed, should a Disney (or Pixar) princess ever have special needs - just the facts and the story, together.
Hiccup's false foot (How to Train Your Dragon)

In this vein, it would be interesting to see some fairy tale retellings that used the hero or heroine's special needs (or disabilities via illness or accident) as part of the story the way Ms. Meyer did or Dragon did.

You could actually say that Elsa has "special needs". But she wasn't portrayed as such specifically and I have a feeling it's gone right under the radar of anyone who might like to feel it represents them. Instead her "different-ness" has become a flag for gay rights and equality - another leap in interpretation I find interesting, since the born-differently/disabled parallel is more literal.

What does that say about society - and us - then?There is one excerpt I want to finish with here - part of a post in which someone did some deeper thinking about what various aspects of princesses and characters portrayed by disney might represent, but focusing on Elsa, who most clearly DOES have a disability.

From The Word/ copycollective:
Disney has depicted a range of characters with disabilities in Princess films over the years, namely
·         Seven men of short stature in Snow White (achondroplasia or dwarfism is a recognised disability)
Ariel - The Little Mermaid (C) Disney
·         Ariel in Little Mermaid (at times she can’t walk and at others she can’t talk)
·         Aurora in Sleeping Beauty (she’s in a coma for much of the film and may have brain injury)
·         the Beast in Beauty and the Beast has a debilitating disease that causes dysmorphism or physical malformations
·         Pocahontas believes she can talk to animals, commune with spirits and understand unknown languages, which makes her a savant, possibly on the autism spectrum or she may be delusional
·         Cross-dressing Mulan is very clumsy and may be living with ataxia, a movement disability
·         Tiana in The Frog and The Princess believes she turns into an animal. This may be psychiatric therianthropy or delusions associated with schizophrenia.
·         Rapunzel in Tangled clearly had a form of polycystic ovarian syndrome that resulted in excessive hair growth
·         Merida’s mother Elinor from Tangled and her brothers Harris, Hubert and Hamish all turn into bears – a similar dilemma to Tiana in The Frog and The Princess. These may be just delusions created by drug abuse but they also may be symptoms of mental illness. 
These disabilities are usually “inflicted” on the characters by a “wicked witch” or a “curse” and are often resolved (cured) at the end of the film by true love (a different form of magic). 
Yet it is in Frozen that we see Elsa, the character with a disability that is both a “power” and a “curse”, as being the subject of two very different treatments as a result of her condition. 
Elsa has a condition that makes things she touches become frozen, which can be a good thing – she can create ice castles in the air – and causes problems (she accidently puts ice into her sister’s brain).
Elsa the Good, (C) Disney
Her parents’ response is to lock her away, to not let anyone see her, to have her learn to control her emotions and to be a “good girl”. She and her family become very isolated. 
It reminded me of how families with children with disabilities would put them in institutions, send them to special schools (we don’t see how Elsa was schooled) and generally cut them off from mainstream society. Both Elsa and her sister, Anna, suffer loneliness as a result of Elsa’s isolation – much in the way that families with members who had a disability did in the past. 
Elsa runs away to the mountains and embraces her condition and the power it gives her. Interestingly, when she does so, she becomes much more womanly. She sheds her “good girl” clothes and walks with a wiggle; she creates a beautiful palace and becomes more queen-like.
Elsa - the Snow Queen (C) Disney
However, she is even more isolated than when she was shut in a room by her parents. In her room she could talk through the door to her sister or the servants. In the ice palace, she is alone except for the snowman and a Yeti-like beast that she creates. Clearly, in the Disney cosmos, disability is a reason to isolate people in the most extreme way. 
Anna, when she learns of Elsa’s “power” (curse) wants to investigate what can be done, she wants the condition out in the open and she wants to use relationship to address it.
It seems odd to me that Elsa’s parents don’t ever try to get help for her to learn to control her emotions (psychiatric treatment) so that she can manage her condition. They seek advice from a troll when she is a child but no further intervention is sought until she comes of age. 
The intersection of sexuality and disability in Elsa’s life is like a double threat and echoes the experience of many women with a disability. The disability may be tolerated when they are children but when they become women the disability needs to be dealt with more strictly. In extreme situations (in real life) this has resulted in many women with intellectual disability being sterilised. In Elsa’s case, she has to run away to become a woman but is seen by some as a “monster”.
Anna works to get Elsa to return to the city so that it can be removed from the permanent winter she accidently created by letting her emotions loose. By Anna’s self-sacrifice – she takes an injury meant to kill Elsa – Elsa’s heart melts and she is now able to control her condition. She uses it to create beauty.
You can read the rest of the article HERE.

There's so much more I would like to write on this  - like the athlete/model who has those beautiful false legs and the disabled sports heroes and service people of all kinds who keep serving in new ways , despite serious and permanent injuries but I simply don't have time. (If you're inclined, feel free to add your thought in the comments - I'm sure many people, though quiet and unlikely to comment in return, would be interested to read them, particularly on this topic!)

I have a feeling if Disney purposed to do something about "disability representation" it may be too specific and focused, making it seem more unusual, in a way, than it is. What do you think? How would you like to see Disney deal with representing disabled peoples?

Additional sources: HERE & HERE



  2. This reminds me of the Grimm tale " The Girl without Hands".

  3. I guess you are referring to Aimee Mullins: athlete, model, walked the runway for Alexander McQueen wearing wooden legs, portrayed a Cheetah woman in Matthew Barney's art movie "Cremaster". She also did at least two very interesting TED talks which are available on TED website.
    There's also Viktoria Modesta, a singer/model who played the ice queen at the london 2012 paralympic closing ceremony

  4. I think Finding Nemo did a great job of addressing disability, physically in Nemo, mentally in Dory, and emotionally in Nemo's dad. It's just one movie and it sucks that they were fish not people (Disney usually turns "other" people into creatures rather than have them on-screen in human form) but I was impressed with it for that reason.

  5. I still like the princesses if they are disabled or not!