Just Keep Swimming: Representations of Disability in Finding Nemo


“When my son was five, I remember taking him to the park. I had been working long hours and felt guilty about not spending enough time with him… but I spent the whole walk going, ‘Don’t touch this. Don’t do that. You’re gonna fall in there.’ And there was this third party voice in my head saying, ‘you’re completely wasting the moment you’ve got with your son right now. I became obsessed with this premise that fear can deny a good father from being one” (Price, 208).  This experience of fatherhood is what planted the idea that would eventually evolve into the Pixar classic, Finding Nemo, in Andrew Stanton’s head. Stanton would go on to co-direct the film with Lee Unkrich in 2003. This movie was an instant classic, beating it’s predecessors, Toy Story I and II, and Monsters Inc. as the largest grossing animated film of all time at the time of it’s release (Disabilities) and by winning an Academy Award for best Animated Feature film in 2004. The film has had no issue in receiving praise for its technological and thematic accomplishments. One element of the story seems to go unnoticed by the majority of the film’s audience: it’s portrayal of disabled persons.  To understand the impact of this element, one must explore how disability has been represented in popular culture, how it has been represented in Disney’s past filmography, and how Finding Nemo represents it comparatively.

“Disability can be seen essentially as a limitation provoked by a physical or mental impediment that prevents certain activities being carried out” (Duran). In history, disabled people served one of two purposes in storytelling. One was to represent the ‘bad guy’ and the other was to evoke sympathy from the audience. “In Classical drama, the villain had red hair; in Victorian children’s books, crippled young people teach messages of courage, forgiveness and generosity; witches were always ugly, and villains generally have had impairment-Captain Hook, Long John Silver and all” (Barton 217). This is, of course, when they are featured at all in popular culture. Today, “ Disabled people are either absent from the `TV population’ or else occur in a limited number of roles” (Barton 219). Yet when they do appear they are instantly attributed with the idea of otherness, or being profoundly different from the ‘normal’. This otherness comes from a place of fear of being reminded of our own vulnerability and morality. “It is not just that disabled people are different, expensive, inconvenient, or odd: it is that they represent a threat […], to order, or, to the self-conception of western human beings- who, since the Enlightenment, have viewed themselves as perfectible, as all- knowing, as god-like: able, over and above all other beings, to conquer the limitations of their nature through the victories of their culture” (Barton 226).

This fear fosters social standards that are undesirable to those who are disabled. It objectifies them to keep them distanced from abled bodied people in terms of similarities. It is no surprise that this kind of rejection from society is harmful to an individuals mental health, but it is not only rejection they are experience. Society assumed “that disabled people are passive, akin to animals, objects rather than subjects. In seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth century British society, the freak-show is a clear example of the way that human beings were seen as non-human, as potential exhibits in what was perhaps a cross between a zoo and a museum”  (Barton 233). This objectification is closely tied with the prejudice aligned with disabled people. Society fears what disabled people represent to them and they address these fears in harmful depictions of disabled people. “What we fear, we often stigmatize and shun and sometimes seek to destroy. Popular entertainments depicting disabled characters allude to these fears and prejudices or address them obliquely or fragmentarily, seeking to reassure us about ourselves” (Barton 230). These depictions are everywhere, including Disney films.


The Disney Studio has had a dark past concerning the depictions of minorities, as does most of the studios who made films in the past. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves depicts the dwarves as having one defining trait that motivates their entire being.  These dwarves are incredibly two dimensional in their characterization. Dwarfism is identified as a disability in the United States, the country of which this film was made in.  In the book, Captain Hook of Peter Pan fame, is the main villain, as indicated by his amputated hand which had been replaced with a hook. In the film, he is a buffoon of a villain who is constantly causing some kind of destruction with his hook. The Hunchback of Notre Dame directly addresses the disability of it’s main character and the other characters reaction towards him. The villain in the film even says “This is an unholy demon. I’m sending it back to hell, where it belongs … I’m to be saddled with this misshapen [monster]… [But] who knows? The Lord works in mysterious ways … You may yet be of use to me” (Trousdale 1996). But wait, you say, he is the villain and Quasimodo beats him in the end! That may be true but he doesn’t win the leading lady (which using females as trophies in film is a whole other can of worms) when any abled bodied main character would.


Pixar has ushered in modern thinking into the Disney corporation since it’s partnership with them. It not only started the computer generated animation technique that now dominates the market, but it also introduced more progressive storytelling, such as princesses who are independent or that adventures don’t stop when you’re old. Finding Nemo introduced the idea of positive representation of disabled characters.

One way in which they do this, is the sheer number of how many disabled characters there are in the film.  “The small clown fish Nemo […] has a fin that has not developed, and Dory […] forgets everything after a few minutes. In parallel, we can find other fishes with different disabilities: the small fishes in the school, Pear and Sheldon, or some fishes in the fishbowl, Gill and Deb. Also we can find some humans as the niece of the dentist, Darla, who have not anything in common with Marlin, but they are related with Nemo. Additionally, there are “extras” without any relevancy in the history with certain disabilities as Mr. Johannsen or Blenny” (Duran). In the article “Pixar Animation Studios and Disabled Personages. Case Study: Finding Nemo” written by James Duran and David Fonseca, they include the following charts.

chart chart2

These charts compare the amount of disabled people in the selected Pixar films to Finding Nemo.  This makes it evident that this film had the intention of addressing disability due to the large number of characters who could be considered to have a disability. This directly ignores the earlier remark by Burton that disabled characters are hard to find in entertainment, or at least in this film. It is also important to note that even in Pixar’s other films, the representation of disabled people were positive. “In all the full-length films of Pixar Animation Studios between 1995 and 2006, the presence of disabled personages does not affect personal development of the hero, but in a great number of cases it influences changes in the hero’s behavior” (Duran).

On an individual basis, the two main characters with disabilities, Nemo and Dory, represent the two sides of disability, physical and mental. Nemo has a deformed fin due to an attack that had killed his mother. According to “‘Other’ Fish in the Sea: Finding Nemo as an Epic Representation of Disability” by the Disabilities Studies Quarterly,  his deformed fin is a “a corporeal characteristic that the story surrounds, yet does not drown in” (Quarterly). This means that while his fin does play a role in the film, it is not his main motivation or obstacle. “His disability plays a role in his fate, yet not because he is inherently deficient or vulnerable, and that same disability enables his return home, for his marking identifies him for those who search—it makes him memorable. Disability becomes part of Nemo’s personal history and social identity, visually marking him as a survivor” (Quarterly). When Nemo first meets his peers, they express an interest in his fin. This would have been an obvious moment to gain sympathy for the character by having him become the subject of ridiculed for it. I feel as though many different studios would have taken this scene in that direction. However, Nemo’s peers are not so cruel. “ In an aquatic natural world where species maintain characteristic, standardized appearances, Nemo is marked as visually and socially different, yet hardly inadequate. He explains that he has a “lucky” fin when questioned by his classmates, who then offer their own explanations of distinctive physical quirks: a squid confesses to having a lazy tentacle, a seahorse boasts of his “H2O intolerance.” Nemo’s peers accept him, even admire his self-confident attitude and plucky spirit, because in this diverse “school” of fish, everybody’s different. Considering such characteristics as “disabilities” may seem absurd; however, this makes a valid parallel point about many physical differences and their assumed consequences” (Quarterly). This seemingly small division from the storytelling expectation may prove to have an influence over the millions of children who watch this film. In their developmental minds, they are seeing a character with a physical difference from his peers included rather than forced away. Nemo doesn’t allow his disability to define him either. He actively rebels against his father’s overbearing rules. “There is suggestion in the film that Nemo may not be able to swim as well as other fish, particularly by his father, but no evidence supports this, or at least Nemo swims well enough with his own adapted methods to get where he needs and wants to go” (Quarterly).

Dory has a different type of disability that affects her life. “Stanton wrote the part of Dory, Marlin’s sidekick, with Ellen Degeneres in mind. While Stanton’s wife was watching  DeGeneres’s television show Ellen one evening, he had happened to see her character ‘doing her schtick of changing her mind five times before a sentence finishes’. he recalled. from that moment onward, Dory and DeGeneres were inseparable in  his mind” (Price 209).  Dory has chronic short term memory loss. “Dory’s chronic condition causes pitfalls, yet she can also read written English and speak whale, and due to her openly sociable personality and penchant for adventure, Dory initiates communication with many other species that results in progress for the journey. Dory assumes agency in the plot, can remember through adaptive problem solving when it is vitally crucial, and displays her “abnormality” as comical charm. Further, she professes an overall consciousness for the film that life is inevitably a series of obstacles, as well as opportunities for adventure, and that one must, as Dory joyfully expresses in her repeated slogan, ‘keep on swimming’.” (Quarterly). Dory’s disability did not inhibit her from becoming an active member of the film, working towards the same goal. She was not so much an obstacle for Marlin, as she was a lesson for him. “Dory’s character was more than comic relief; as Stanton saw it. her memory loss made her innocent like a child- a substitute child for Marlin during his quest. Dealing with her would force him to learn a modicum of patience and tolerance for her venturesome risk taking, preparing him to be a better father when he finds his son” (Price 210). Is is through his interaction with Dory that Marlin is able to learn how to treat his disabled son not as a fragile being but as a normal individual.

In the unstoppable, albeit slow, advancement towards a more accepting society, we continue to see more and more mediums of popular culture adhere to progressive beliefs concerning minorities. It is an invaluable tool in creating an ideal future for humanity, that our art may not only reflect our views in society, but influence it as well. Finding Nemo is one of the first small steps in changing how Disney portrays disabled people, as well as how modern popular culture portrays disabled people.


Works Cited

Barton, Len, and Michael Oliver. “Chapter 13-Cultural Representation of Disabled People: Dustbins for Disavowal?” Disability Studies: Past, Present and Future. Leeds:    Disability, 1997. 217-33. Print.

Duran, James, and David Fonseca. “PIXAR ANIMATION STUDIOS AND DISABLED PERSONAGES. CASE STUDY: FINDING NEMO.” (n.d.): n. pag. Web. Nov. 2014.

“Finding Nemo | Millett | Disability Studies Quarterly.” Finding Nemo | Millett | Disability Studies Quarterly. The Society for Disability Studies, Winter 2004. Web. 07 Dec. 2014.

Price, David A. The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. Print.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Dir. Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise. Perf. Tom Hulce, Demi Moore. Disney, 1996. DVD


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