In Fairy Tales, Goodness Heals Disability. This is Still a Common Story.

Though fairy tales are often associated with images of elves, unicorns, and happy endings, the original stories from the nineteenth century are quite dark. In addition to featuring gruesome deaths or dismemberments, fairy tales often explore questionable themes about beauty, class, and purity. Again and again, they flout that disabilities are healed if you’re “good” and used as a punishment if you’re “bad.” This particularly ruffles my feathers because I live with a chronic illness, one I’ve had for as long as I can remember. Was I afflicted at four years old because I snuck a spoonful of cookie dough when my mom wasn’t looking? At five when I didn’t finish my dinner? At six when I dragged my feet and missed the bus? Yep. That must have been it.

In the Grimm fairy tale “The Maiden Without Hands,” a miller makes a deal with an evil wizard, accidentally promising his daughter in exchange for great wealth. The daughter is described as a “modest and beautiful maiden, and lived in innocence and obedience to her parents for three years, until the day came on which the wicked wizard was to claim her.”

Weirdly enough, the wizard is unable to take her because she has physically cleaned herself. The wizard (or the devil, in some versions), commands her father to keep water away from her so she cannot wash her hands, but because she cries over them, they are washed clean and the wizard has no power over her. He then tells her father to cut off his daughter’s hands, which her dad does (what?). But even that doesn’t help because “the poor girl had wept so bitterly over the stumps of her arms that they were as clean and white as ever.”

The idea that clean hands can keep a demon away may have been taken from the Bible: ”Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully” (Psalm 24:3–4). The Grimm brothers have taken this passage literally. They also focus on the girl’s innocence; it’s not just the cleanliness of her hands that keep the devil away, but the pureness of her soul.

After some time wandering in the wilderness, the girl marries a king who makes her hands out of silver. Then there are a series of misunderstandings that cause her to flee for her life and live in a fairy’s cottage for many years, where she is “so pious and good that her hands, which had been cut off, were allowed to grow again.” The girl gets a happily ever after when the king finally finds her (though he doesn’t recognize her at first without her silver hands because, apparently, he defined her only by her disability).

Goodness, innocence, and cleanliness are lumped together, defining what it means to be righteous in Grimms’ day. The most interesting (and disturbing) part if this tale is the notion that goodness should be rewarded, and those who are “good” will not remain disabled. Other traditional fairy tales reflect this idea as well; in “Rapunzel” by the brothers Grimm, the princess cures the prince’s blindness when her tears fall onto his eyes; in “The Blind Man and the Cripple,” a Russian folktale, two disabled characters are healed through magic well water; and in “The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Anderson, the air sprites get closer to gaining a soul when they see “good” children and further away when they see “bad” children.

In addition, those who are “bad” are punished with disabilities. In “Cinderella” by the brothers Grimm, the stepsisters’ eyes are plucked out by birds; in “The Twelve Brothers” by the brothers Grimm, a girl’s brothers are turned into ravens because she picks flowers she isn’t supposed to; in “The Jelly Fish and the Monkey,” a Japanese fairy tale, all the bones are taken out of the jelly fish because he fails at a task.

“Magical cures are a representation of disability based on the notion of ‘fixing’ or making the abnormal person ‘normal,’” writes Jessica Doberstein in “Once Upon a Time There Was Disability: Disability in Fairy Tales from the Nineteenth Century to Disney.” “We are taught that things that need ‘fixing’ are broken and that this is not acceptable. Disability signifies that those with disabilities are broken people, making those who are ‘broken’ into tragic figures. The resolution of disability by magical cure implies that being disabled is not good enough.”

In effect, sick = bad. Healthy = good. And people with disabilities are not heroes unless they’re healed.

We can laugh at the morals in these fairy tales — of course your hands won’t grow back if you do something kind and you won’t become blind because you do something cruel — and yet, society continues to project these ideas.

“In the nineteenth and early- to mid-twentieth centuries, it was believed in some circles that melancholy patients might have avoided cancer if they had been happier,” writes Amanda Leduc in her excellent book, Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space. “In the eighteenth century, those who were delicate and high-strung and prone to fits of excitability and high emotion might have avoided tuberculosis by practicing a calmer, quieter kind of life.”

Leduc goes on to discuss how our culture still sends these messages, just in subtler ways (many of which I also explore in my book, Super Sick: Making Peace with Chronic Illness).

“Disabled people are still brought to faith healers; they are told to drink more water or drink green tea or do detoxes or try hypnosis to remove barriers of the mind as a way of overcoming physical impairments,” Leduc writes. “Disabled people are encouraged to ‘push through’ and ‘exercise’ and reminded over and over again that the only disability is a bad attitude.”

I can’t tell you how many times an acquaintance has found out that I’m chronically ill and asks me if I’ve been to the doctor. “You should go to a doctor,” they suggest. Oh thanks, random person, I would never have thought of that in all the years of my illness. I’ll just go do that and get cured then, shall I? Never mind all the appointments, tests, pokes and prods I’ve already gone through without results.

Someone once said to me, “You should just address the spiritual problems you have in your life, and then you’d be better.” Um… what?

People have recommended supplements, diets, exercises, vitamins, foods… things that have worked for them or for their niece or for their cousin-thrice-removed. And if I say thanks but no thanks, they look at me as though I must like being sick since I’m obviously not trying hard enough to get better.

It’s easy for me to be facetious and bitter about unwanted advice and the ways people unknowingly suggest that it’s my fault I’m sick, but honestly, the majority of friends and acquaintances who say these things mean well. They want me to feel better. They hear I’m ill and go into problem-solving mode. The majority of disability narratives in our culture have hammered into them that being sick is bad and cures can be found if you look for them.

Historically, Disney’s versions of disabled narratives haven’t been much better than their fairy tale counterparts. Have you noticed how many villains are disabled, disfigured, or mentally ill (e.g. Scar, the Evil Queen, Hook, John Silver, Cruella de Vil, etc.) compared to the number of heroes with similar conditions? The most obviously disabled protagonist from earlier movies is Quasimodo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame and his narrative suggests he is only worthy of a certain type of love (friendship/pity). More recent movies have been expanding to include more protagonists who deal with disabilities and conditions (such as Nemo, Dory, and Elsa), which is wonderful. But this pattern of disabled villains and healthy heroes is not relegated to Disney; it shows up all the time in current books, TV shows, movies, and other media.

This ableist pattern in our fiction needs to change. We need to see ourselves properly represented in stories that are attempting to represent us. This helps us see our own value and encourages others to set aside preconceived notions about what it means to be chronically ill.

Yes, I would love to be healed. I want to feel better. I wish the pain would go away. That doesn’t mean I need to be cured in order to be valued as a person. Often, I just want to live, to exist with my illness, to stop searching for a cure for a minute and be content with my life. My existence is not “less than” a healthy person’s. There is meaning, peace, and happiness here, and I can only hope our fairy tales tell that story more often.

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Allison Alexander is an earthbending bard from Hoth (a.k.a. Canada). She is the incurable author of SUPER SICK: MAKING PEACE WITH CHRONIC ILLNESS.

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Allison Alexander

Allison Alexander

Allison Alexander is an earthbending bard from Hoth (a.k.a. Canada). She is the incurable author of SUPER SICK: MAKING PEACE WITH CHRONIC ILLNESS.

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