I was a Disney kid growing up. My favourites were, Snow White, Peter Pan, The Little Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast. I grabbed onto the social representations in these movies and ran with them in my imagination.
I wanted to be the princess. I wanted my prince to come and sweep me off my feet. As much as I wanted to identify with the Disney Princesses though, I couldn’t, not fully. Mainly because of my disability.
In fact, going off the meagre representation of disability in the Disney films, I should’ve been identifying with Captain Hook the most. An evil pirate captain who’s main aim in life was to get revenge on a young, innocent, (but cheeky) boy called Peter.
I mean, if you want to identify with Captain Hook and wish to be like him, girl or boy, I say all the more power to you. But Captain Hook didn’t represent my #LifeGoals.
The problem was, I had no other options.
That is what I missed as a child with a disability — no positive disabled role models.
Oh how I ached for one.
This ache was evident in my own drawings as a child. My sketchbooks were filled with drawings of handless and legless fairies and princesses and superheroes. I wanted to be able to say “hey, that person looks just like me.”
Well guess what? I have finally, at the age of 40, I have the childhood role model of my dreams.
Her name is Audrey.
According to the Guardian, circa 2015, “Disney and Nickelodeon didn’t feature any prominent disabled characters.” In the article they refer to the lack of disabled characters in current TV shows created by these media companies. And I agree. There are disabled characters in children’s shows, but they are token at best, brought into a storyline to have an impact on the main characters. As opposed to being a main character themselves and the autonomous story that that usually entails.
This tokenism means that disability is seen as something unusual. It implies that in the “real world” there are not many disabled people. Even though this is far from the truth. Current statistics show 1 in 5 people are disabled. Media is not a true reflection of society.
Quite often character’s disabilities are represented in unrealistic ways. Just like in the classic Disney movies, some disabled characters are represented as evil and bad, or just plain angry about their disability. Or the pendulum swings the other way and a disabled character is represented as sad and tragic. Either way, representation in the media doesn’t represent the 1 billion people that are disabled.
As this article from The Axia Group states,
Things have been shifting though in recent years. Recently I discovered a show called Llama Llama, created and produced by Genius Brands International for Netflix, have taken a leap forward in disability representation. This leap forward is so crucially important. Not just in the fact that they have a character that is disabled, but the way that they handled the introduction of the character.
Watching Audrey’s first episode, I wanted to cry, I was so happy.
So who is Audrey and how have Netflix successfully managed to introduce her as a new mainstream character on Llama Llama?
The Netflix show “Llama Llama” is based on book series “Llama Llama” by Anna Dewdney. The main character is called Llama Llama and he is a preschooler who goes on many adventured with his friends.
In episode 1 of season 2 on the Netflix show, Llama Llama discovers that he has a new neighbour. His mother insists that they go and greet them, but Llama just wants to go play with his friends. In the end, though, he agrees to go with his mother and ends up meeting Audrey.
Audrey’s parents ask Llama if he would like to go and play with their daughter. He says yes. We only see a momentary look of shock on Llama Llama’s face. When the shot changes to Audrey we see why — she is limb different. She has a shortened right arm and a prosthetic left leg.
Llama Llama’s shock only lasts a moment before he is asking Audrey “what happened there?”
She tells him that she was born with her disability and that her disability doesn’t stop her from playing. In fact, she tells Llama Llama that her prosthetic leg enables her to jump higher when playing basketball. She illustrates a positive coming from her disability.
Llama Llama and Audrey bond briefly over their love of sports before Llama Llama has to leave with his mum.
Afterwards Llama Llama shows reluctance to play with Audrey, but the reason isn’t what you think. He is reluctant to play with her because he is worried that his friends will like Audrey more than him.
This made my heart sing, my stomach do a flip, and my eyes leak.
Once Audrey had explained her disability to Llama Llama she was accepted wholly. The only reason she isn’t included at the start is because of jealousy and friendship worries. This is such a beautifully refreshing take on the experience of disability. A take that is more reflective on true and desired experiences.
In fact, Audrey’s experience really reflects my own as a child. I went to a mainstream school where I was wholly included and accepted by my peers. My disability was a part of me, but it wasn’t all of me. Whatever my friends did we worked together to ensure that I could participate too.
Why is Audrey so important?
As I mentioned above, authentic disability representation in many forms of media, including children’s shows, has been woefully poor. When there has been representation it has been a salute to tokenism. Disability is either something that causes someone to become angry and evil, or be sad and tragic.
Audrey is the first disabled character that is not defined by her disability. It is a part of her, but she is more than what it represents. In fact, she imbues disability with her own meaning within the first minute of meeting her — “I was born this way… and neither my arm or leg slow me down.”
Her potentiality is not restricted because of her limb difference. She indulges in life with a zest equal to her peers. She plays sport, she loves to be outside, she’s open and accepting and excited to live.
Audrey represents the antithesis of the social perception of disability.
She is not sad or angry or tragic. She isn’t envious or desirous or reaching to be able bodied.
Audrey is truth. She is lived experience. She is the first step towards disability becoming normalised for this new generation of humans.
So if you have Netflix, pop on Llama Llama this weekend (with your children, nieces/nephews, cousins, or sans children) and watch season 2 of Llama Llama and see how disability representation should be done. Discuss it with your children, family members, or friends.
Don’t feel inspired or moved by the representation. Feel proud that we are finally at a point in time where disability is being included fully in a popular story. Feel glad that diversity exists. And support the concept of inclusion in the media by watching Llama Llama and other shows that represent disability in positive and authentic ways.