Disability in Netflix’s The Dragon Prince

I’m a big fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, so when I heard that there was a new series, The Dragon Prince, streaming on Netflix from some of the same creators, I was psyched. Currently, only one season (Book One: Moon) is streaming, but more seasons are hopefully in the works. There’s a lot of hype about The Dragon Prince, and I think it’s pretty well deserved: it’s a fresh, fun high fantasy series with well-rounded characters, including lots of women and POC, which is exactly what I would expect from the people who made Avatar and Korra. I’m especially fond of Claudia, a young mage with a terrible (and therefore wonderful) sense of humor and purple gradient hair that is #goals, and General Amaya, who I’ll get to in a minute.

Amaya Gren Callum

(Commander Gren, General Amaya, and Prince Callum. Image from Netflix.)

What really stood out to me, though, is the story’s engagement with disability, because it is ON POINT. But beware: here be spoilers!

To explain exactly why it’s so good, I’m going to backtrack to Avatar and the character of Toph. Full disclosure: I love Toph, the blind master earthbender who mentors Aang and plays a crucial role in defeating the series’ Big Bad, Fire Lord Ozai. In a lot of ways, she’s a great character (funny, curmudgeonly, and extremely capable). But she also falls into the extremely common trope of the supercrip (someone who is disabled but has some kind of superlative or magical ability or genius that “compensates” for that disability.) For Toph, earthbending functions as magical sight; she can see just as well (and frequently better) than her companions when her bare feet are touching the ground. Again, I still love this character and her general portrayal, and I do think there are moments in the series that complicate her supercrip status, but in The Dragon Prince, the creators sidestep the supercrip trope, and other common disability tropes, in ways that are incredibly fresh and awesome for a mainstream fantasy series.

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(Toph Beifong. Image from Avatar Wikia.)

Which brings me back to General Amaya. As one of the king’s most trusted allies, she is among the most powerful players in the series – she is on the front lines of the war with Xadia, the magical kingdom in conflict with the human kingdoms. As the aunt of the princes Callum and Ezran (two of the main characters), she is emotionally connected to the rest of the cast. And she is a Deaf woman of color who communicates via American Sign Language. Commander Gren often acts as her translator, but there are a few really beautiful sequences of signing that remain untranslated because the creators decided that “when Gren wasn’t speaking for her, she spoke for herself… [they] wanted it so that understanding what she’s communicating here is for the deaf audience.” Amaya’s Deafness is an integral part of who is she, but it does not define or overwhelm her plot in the story. It is simply part of her character, and there is no bid to magically erase it or justify it. There is an excellent interview with the show’s writers about how they created Amaya, and how they made decisions about representing her onscreen, including ongoing conversations with Deaf and HoH communities and ASL interpreters.

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(General Amaya. Image from Netflix.)

The other major instance of disability in Book One involves Ava, a wolf companion to a young girl named Ellis. Ellis found Ava as a pup whose leg was stuck in a human trap. She rescued Ava, but the leg had to be amputated. When other humans insisted that Ava should be put down due to the loss of her leg, Ellis ran away with her, eventually finding a “miracle healer” who restored Ava’s leg. This is all pretty standard “cure” trope, but a twist at the end of the season reveals that the healer did not in fact restore Ava’s leg; instead, she created an illusion of a leg so that people would accept her, even though she was already perfect as she was. At the end of the season, the illusion is unmasked, and Ava is once more legible as a happy, powerful, three-legged wolf. No fixing or curing required!

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(Ellis and Ava. Image from Netflix.)

I’m so excited to see what happens in the next season! Hopefully, it will involve a lot more Amaya and even more cool representations of disability!

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Not Grimm… But Grim

Not Grimm… But Grim

A review of Willow Dawson and Shelley Tanaka’s White as Milk, Red as Blood: The Forgotten Fairy Tales of Franz Xaver von Schonwerth (Alfred A Knopf Canada, 2018).

By Derek Newman-Stille

When I first read the fairy tales recorded by Bavarian folklore collector  Franz Xaver von Schonwerth, the tales seemed whimsically short and light even though many of the tales featured the grim characteristics of fairy tales like abuse, murder, violence, hunger, and torture. This underscores the power of translation and the influence that it has on the way we read folk narratives. Simple things like word choice, tone, or presentation on the page can shift our readings of fairy tales.

When I encountered Willow Dawson and Shelley Tanaka’s White as Milk, Red as Blood: The Forgotten Fairy Tales of Franz Xaver von Schonwerth, my reading of von Schonwerth’s tales changed drastically, and I attribute the way the stories were read in this collection with that shift. The tales suddenly took on darker tones, words stood out like blood, witch, wolf, hunt, strangled, and death. Despite the way that words suddenly spoke themselves suffused with melancholy and anger, it wasn’t Tanaka’s translation alone that triggered the shift in reading. Rather, it was the magical binding of Tanaka’s words to Dawson’s art. Dawson’s illustrations of the tales were able to play with the intrusion of the inhuman into the human world, underscoring the threatening potential of these tales. She evoked a beauty tinged with tragedy in her art, interweaving flowers with bodies and blood.

Text is scattered across Dawson’s images, which gives them a weighty presence in the narrative, making them part of the story rather than a side note, addendum, or marginalia. Dawson is able to pull words out of Tanaka’s translation to emphasize parts of the tale that the reader might disregard.

Dawson’s art incorporates aspects of folk art, giving the work a timeless quality, and reminding the reader that this is folklore in motion – always shifting and changing, but maintaining its roots.

Although Tanaka and Dawson don’t use all of von Schonwerth’s tales, they create a representative sample, a tasting of the folklore that von Schonwerth was able to collect. By incorporating the visual with the textual, Tanaka and Dawson are able to capture some of the multivocality and mutability of fairy tales, highlighting the way that fairy tales can take on new meanings through their contexts.

to find out more about White as Milk, Red as Blood: The Forgotten Fairy Tales of Franz Xaver von Schonwerth, go to https://penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/546931/white-milk-red-blood#9780345812186

To discover more about Willow Dawson, go to https://www.willowdawson.com

to discover more about Shelley Tanaka, go to https://www.writersunion.ca/member/shelley-tanaka

Telling Silences

Telling Silences

Telling Silences

A review of Margaret Yocom KIN S FUR (Deerbrook Editions, 2018)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Margaret Yocom was the person who first introduced me to erasure poetry, so I am extremely excited that her erasure poem KIN S FUR has been published. KIN S FUR transforms the fairy tale All Kinds of Fur, revealing the voice of the daughter between the lines, in that interstitial space where ideas are formed. Yocom sorts through words, sifting them until she finds the silenced voice within the fairy tale.

Fairy tales have power and part of their power is their ability to adapt, to transform, to shift and change, and Yocom combines the metamorphosing power of these tales with the transformative quality of erasure poetry. Yocom searches through the fairy tale All Kinds of Fur to find what is left unspoken and devoiced and she finds that voice at the margins, hidden within the words fo the fairy tale and pulls these words to the surface, casting her own spell of discovery over the text.

Yocom brings up the voices of women, highlighting words like wife, daughter, mother, she, and her, focussing the reader’s attention on the role of women and their significance to fairy tales (even ones like All Kinds of Fur where female characters remain unspoken). Yocom proves that even the seemingly silent speaks and that sometimes the oppressed speak their strongest through silence.

To discover more about Margaret Yocom, visit https://margaretyocom.com

To find out more about KIN S FUR, visit http://www.deerbrookeditions.com/kin-s-fur/

Saved From The Music

Saved From The Music

Saved from the Music

A review of Jay Asher and Jessica Freeburg’s Piper (Penguin Random House, 2017)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Fairy tales have frequently invoked disability, often using the disabled body as a motivating point for stories of change and transformation. Jay Asher and Jessica Freeburg’s graphic novel Piper explores the question of what would happen if the Pied Piper of Hamelin encountered a young woman who is Deaf and therefore couldn’t hear the allure of his magical pipe. Maggie, a young Deaf woman who has been ostracised by her village, becomes a foil for the Pied Piper, a person who has a strength that counters that of the Pied Piper. She has the ability to resist control because of being Deaf.

Maggie became Deaf when children put her in a barrel when she was a child and throughout her life she experienced ostracism and violence from the rest of her community. When the Piper arrives in her town, the first thing he notices is the prevalence of violence and oppression in the community and the power that those in positions of authority or wealth exert over the rest of the community. He notices that the town has a rat infestation, which is has the ability to counter with his ability to summon rats with his pipe, but he also reads the imbalance of power in the town and wants vengeance for those who are attacked by the community. His own father died as a result of violence from a community that ostracized him and this has left the Piper aware of the violence that ostracism can visit on those who don’t conform.

Asher and Freeburg give us a modified version of the tale, giving further context to why the Piper eventually lures all of the children away from the village beyond the fact that the town doesn’t pay him for removing all of the rats.

The tale evokes disability again when the kidnapping of the village’s children is discovered after a disabled child is unable to keep up with the rest of the children and therefore escapes the Piper’s abduction, therefore situating this tale as one that uses disability and Deafness as symbolic media within the context of the tale, associating bodily difference as a way to demonstrate the town of Hamelin’s abuse toward disempowered groups.

This is also a fairy tale within a fairy tale since Maggie creates stories about those who have been violent toward her. She shifts the narratives that are imposed on her and remakes herself into a position of power by retelling her experiences as fairy tales. Ultimately, she shifts the tale of the Piper of Hamelin, her own tale, in order to modify it, remaking the story into the one that is familiar from legend and obscuring the reality of the tale.

To find out more about Piper, visit https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/539282/piper-by-jay-asher-and-jessica-freeburg-illustrated-by-jeff-stokely/9780448493664/

Slavic Myths and Human Monsters

Check out my review of David Demchuk’s “The Bone Mother” originally posted on my other site Speculating Canada. Demchuk’s novel features fairy tales turned dark, highlighting the freakery embodied in folklore

Speculating Canada: Canadian Horror, Science Fiction, and Fantasy

A review of David Demchuk’s The Bone Mother (ChiZine, 2017)
By Derek Newman-Stille

David Demchuk’s The Bone Mother brings together snippets of strange lives into a tale that hints at connections between these individual stories and provides shadows of a larger narrative tying them together. Each of Demchuk’s tales ties in with a snapshot shown at the beginning of the story and diverts into the mythical, magical, mysterious, and monstrous. These images of the normal are interrupted by tales that Other them, transforming them into something complex and uncertain. The unexpected is a stream that runs through Demchuk’s narratives, complicating them to illustrate the way that stories always hold complex truths that are always part fiction.

The Bone Mother features fairy tales turned dark and infused with the mechanical, featuring an ever present factory standing as a symbol of industry intersecting with myth to create a landscape of smoke and…

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Island Resistance

Island Resistance

Island Resistance

A Review of Melissa de la Cruz’ “The Isle of the Lost” (Disney Enterprises Inc, 2015)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Although The Isle of the Lost is part of Walt Disney Studios’ Descendants franchise, there are elements of the book that allow for a counter-hegemonic readings. De La Cruz highlights the potential dangers of a kingdom that pushes its particular brand of “good” on everyone and exiles anyone who is against the norm to an island prison.

The Descendants franchise focusses on the children of the Disney villains, particularly emphasizing characters Mal (daughter of Maleficent), Evie (daughter of the Evil Queen), Jay (son of Jafar), and Carlos (son of Cruella De Vil). In the franchise, the Beast from Beauty and the Beast has united all of the different Disney movie kingdoms into one united community and all of them have exiled their villains to an island called The Isle of the Lost, where not only are the villains imprisoned, but also their children. The Descendants film portrayed Ben, the son of Beauty and the Beast deciding that he wanted to allow Mal, Evie, Jay, and Carlos to come to the exclusive prep school for all of the royalty of the Disney films. They are separated from all of the other children on the island who are left there still and they are taken to Auradon Prep where they eventually decide to become good.

Melissa de la Cruz’ The Isle of the Lost is a prequel to the Descendants film portraying the lives of the characters on the Isle of the Lost before Ben brings them to Auradon. The novel features Mal, Evie, Jay, and Carlos trying to live up to their parents’ expectations, always feeling like failures in the eyes of their parents for not being able to live up to the evil destinies their parents want for them. The novel centralizes ideas of isolation in families, illustrating characters who feel so trapped in their destinies that they can’t connect with others. Even Ben is unable to escape from his destiny to be king, which has trapped him in a narrative that makes him believe that he needs to be exactly like his father, the Beast.

While Mal, Evie, Jay, and Carlos question their narrative of evil, they also critique the actions of the “good” community of Auradon, pointing out the issues with the control enforced from this mainland community. Auradon forces the residents of the island to watch propaganda as their only TV channel, constantly being bombarded with images of how good things are in Auradon and how terrible it is not to have the privileges of Auradon. The island only receives the garbage from Auradon to survive off of, living on the remains and waste of the mainland. This narrative allows for an Island Studies reading, portraying an island as a place dependent upon a mainland while also locked into a constant pattern of similitude. The mainland also exerts its power over the island as a dependent, pushing their narrative onto island culture. But the island also exerts its counter narrative, resisting mainland control and making its own narrative.

The island narrative is paralleled with the narrative of youth. Youth, like the Island of the Lost are portrayed as resisting the control of a larger power structure (in this case, their parents and ideas of destiny). The island is also codified as loneliness and the youth are portrayed as relating to each other through a shared loneliness, an isolation that comes from the notion that islands are lonely places. Characters and the island both resist hegemonic power imposed from without, resisting not just exertion of power, but also resisting the writing of a narrative over their own destiny.

Readers are given a glimpse into the power structures of the mainland when given flashes of Ben trying to rule and perpetuating the union-busting of his father (upon the former sidekick figures). Readers are able to see that “good” is controlled by a central authority that puts certain people with certain pasts into positions of power. Magic is strongly discouraged in Auradon, meaning that they have had to shift a lot of cultural expectations and their lifestyles.

The Isle of the Lost is a narrative of change and resistance, a counter-hegemonic voice for Disney’s far to easy binary of good/evil.

To discover more about Melissa de la Cruz, visit http://melissa-delacruz.com .

To find out more about The Isle of the Lost, visit http://books.disney.com/book/the-isle-of-the-lost/

Prophetic Stories or Spells of Destiny?

Prophetic Stories or Spells of Destiny?

A review of Mistress of All Evil: A Tale of the Dark Fairy by Serena Valentino (Disney Press, 2017)

By Derek Newman-Stille

 

With Mistress of All Evil: A Tale of the Dark Fairy, Serena Valentino once again adds moral complexity to a Disney villain, providing a backstory that allows the reader to see how her choices were made. Mistress of All Evil examines one of my favourite Disney villains, Maleficent, the villain from Sleeping Beauty. Rather than turning Maleficent into a hero as the film Maleficent did, Valentino makes her a villain with a complicated morality and provides more context for why Maleficent feels justified in her actions.

 

Valentino’s Maleficent is a character whose life has been shaped by loneliness, isolation, and rejection… and along with all of that, a fuse that, once lit, causes her to lose control. Although this Maleficent was born in the fairy realm, she was born from a tree covered in ravens and rather than having wings, she was born with horns. She was rejected by the fairy community and teased for her difference. Even the Fairy Godmother from Cinderella and the three “good fairies” from Sleeping Beauty have sought to reject and isolate her from the rest of fairy kind. Maleficent buries herself in books and accepts her isolation until she discovers Nanny, a figure that has appeared in all of the other Valentino Disney books. Nanny gives Maleficent a sense of belonging and a sense of family, but like most things in Maleficent’s life, this sense of comfort is short lasting and she loses her connection to Nanny for many years as Nanny loses her memory and Maleficent thinks she is dead.

 

Valentino constructs a meta narrative about storytelling, linking tales to ideas of fate and toying with the idea that Maleficent’s story has already been written. Snow White discovers a fairy tale book that already has Maleficent and Aurora’s tale written down and characters start to wonder whether the book is a prophetic book or whether it is a spell, locking characters into a narrative that was written to control them.

 

Like most of Valentino’s book, every character thinks that they are doing the right thing, believing that they are making things better for others and protecting others from terrible truths, but, of course, secrets and lies are dangerous in fairy tales and they always have consequences.

 

Mistress of All Evil: A Tale of the Dark Fairy, although written for young adults, is a complex exploration of fairy tales and ideas of tradition, challenging ideas of the simple Disney narrative and the easy morality of fairy tales for children and providing an engagement with ideas of “best intentions” to explore how even people who think that they are doing the right thing can end up harming others.

 

To discover more about Serena Valentino, visit http://www.serenavalentino.com

 

To find out more about Mistress of All Evil: A Tale of the Dark Fairy, visit http://books.disney.com/book/mistress-of-all-evil/