Why does Disney hate your mom?
March 12, 2008 5:24 AM   Subscribe

Why are there so few living and loving mothers in Disney films?

I'm referring mostly to the animated films, but the trend carries over to a lesser extent to live action children's movies. Sure, there's the whole 'orphan on their own' trope in children's stories, but I can think of a number of single but caring fathers and very few moms that aren't dead or evil (I can come up with. . . three). Why is that? Does a strong maternal influence make you boring? Not having a mom makes it easier for you to have a wicked stepmother/fairy godmother? Lots of dead moms in Grimm's Fairy Tales, and the trend carried over? Walt had a weird complex?
posted by dinty_moore to Media & Arts (38 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
I'm hardly an expert, but I would note that the mother dying in childbirth would have been a fairly common thing in the age when the Grimm brothers wrote down their fairy tales. Since the father would likely marry again to provide his children with a mother and caregiver, that's where the stepmother comes in (Hansel & Gretel, Cinderella, etc.).

The other thing I would note is that many fairy tales carry strong moralistic overtones, and these got strongly softened once Disney got a hold of them. Witness the little Mermaid, who chooses not to murder her lover in the original story in order to return to the sea kingdom, but sacrifices herself to the waves instead, and gains a soul. So, the 'evil stepmother' character actually served a purpose in driving forward a moral to the story, whereas in Disney films, they're simply portrayed as the Big Bad.
posted by LN at 5:50 AM on March 12, 2008

You might want to look for any books written by Kathy Merlock Jackson, a communications professor who specializes in Disney. If I remember correctly, I think she's the only person who's really been authorized by Disney to write about Walt himself. She's written four books: Images of Children in American Film: A Socio-Cultural Analysis, Walt Disney: A Bio-Bibliography, Rituals and Patterns in Children's Lives, and Walt Disney: Conversations. I suspect the one you really want is the first one listed. I'll drop her a note asking your question.
posted by onhazier at 5:52 AM on March 12, 2008

I don't think you can fully separate it from the orphan trope. A caring father cannot match the protective, sheltering, nurturing, supportive mother, especially in traditional tales where gender roles are so unequal.

For the stories with female protagonists, any mother would also serve as too obvious a role model and source of advice. That would eliminate a lot of conflict. This is really just another extension of the orphan trope, though.

Mothers also serve as moderating influences on fathers. Think of all the stories where one source of conflict is disagreement between the father and the child. How must less exciting would it have been if there were a mother present to stick up for the kid? One could argue that the reverse could have been a source for many a great story (fathers stick up for children when they argue with their mothers, too), but that means that the audience would have to root against the mother (harder to stomach than rooting against a harsh, overbearing, or distant father).
posted by aswego at 5:54 AM on March 12, 2008

For the purposes of narratives involving a female, having an existing love relationship diminishes the value of the discovery of the new one (be it princess/prince, mermaid/prince, beauty/beast, doe-eyed animal/other doe-eyed animal). The father is acceptable in this role as it re-inforces a 'family values' scenario where the female is property that is given away from father to romantic lead, but to have two such relationships reduces the amount of inital pathos available for the female.

In other narratives with a male, mothers are occasionally present in a different form. Mrs Kettle and the Beast, the Blue Fairy and Pinocchio, Bambi and Quasimodo and their dead within frame mums, permitting the pathos to still be generated while also reinforcing a similar family oriented scenario that 'boys need their mothers'

In other situations, they are not really relevent. Nobody cares much what happened to Robin Hood's mother. In still others, it doesn't hold true at all - dumbo has a mother who loves him and Wart in Sword of the stone has 3 dads - dead dad, a gruff but ultimately kind uncle, and a magical buddy Merlin (with only a a squirrel that fancies him for female interaction).
posted by Sparx at 6:01 AM on March 12, 2008

I once read an analysis that the characters needed to be able to be on their own to have adventures as seen from a child's eyes. If they had a protective, nurturing mother, they wouldn't be able to strike out and save the day by themselves. They would be at home doing their homework and eating pie. This is similar as to the character in that Dark Materials series.

Also what aswego said.
posted by bluefly at 6:02 AM on March 12, 2008

Watch the Disney Channel or Nickelodeon. It isn't just the animated films that the mothers have disappeared from - it's the live action tv shows and movies as well. The trend may very well have started for the reasons discussed above, but my theory (and this is only my theory) is twofold:

1 - Moms often watch these shows with their kids, particularly shows where a girl is the main character because moms and daughters watch tv together more than moms and sons. A hot, single dad-type gives the mom a reason to tune in (or at least to not beg to please change the channel).

2 - Dads are more often portrayed as total bumbling idiots, allowing the kids to be seen as the real adults and to get into situations that a sharp-eyed mom would put the kibbosh on in 2 seconds flat. (No flames please - I'm speaking in tv land only - my own children convinced me that the lead singer of blink 182 was the voice of sponge bob square-pants and then sat by and let me repeat that interesting fact to a whole party of people.)
posted by katyjack at 6:11 AM on March 12, 2008

I once read an analysis that the characters needed to be able to be on their own to have adventures as seen from a child's eyes.

Absolutely. You'll notice that in the vast majority of children's fiction that have children (or at least young people) as protagonists, the parents are either dead or absent. Everything from the Chronicle of Narnia to most Disney films to Harry Potter.

It's a trope sure, but it's also an important convention that allows the young protagonists in the fiction to go on their own journey, be cental to the story, etc. Children don't want fiction that has kids triumph with support from their loving and nurturing parents, they want stories about kids succeeding largely their own.
posted by Nelsormensch at 6:12 AM on March 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's archetypal. And not just Disney. Losing one's parents (literally or metaphorically) is near-essential for coming-of-age stories (of which many Disney animated stories are).
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 6:14 AM on March 12, 2008

Disney likes to base movies on fairy tales (thus raping our cultural heritage so that they can make money without actually being that creative, and subsequently suing anyone who tries to take these public domain characters and make competing films, and then to put the icing on the irony cake, refusing to allow their own products to become public domain - but that's another rant entirely). Fairy tales are harsh stories. They were significantly harsher in the original incarnations, and much of what we see today is a reflection of tales rewritten to align with changing cultural values. For example, in the originals, most stories didn't feature an evil stepmother, the stepmother comes in because later authors felt that an evil mother was much too harsh. But Mommy Dearest was the original villain in a lot of tales.

LN writes "sacrifices herself to the waves instead, and gains a soul."

Well, gains the possibility of eventually maybe earning a soul. After spending a really, really long time as sea foam. Again, Hans Christian Andersen wasn't writing a feel-good story the way Disney wants modern versions to be, he was writing a fairy tale. In fairy tales, it's not wise to attempt to rise above your current situation. It's not wise to lack respect for your elders. It's not wise to wander in the woods alone. Fairy tales were cautionary, for the most part; like medieval versions of To Catch A Predator. The entertainment value was always there of course, but the warnings embedded in the stories have been downplayed over the centuries.

Disney does seem to have a particular penchant for killing off the mother though, but I think it might be two things: First, it is a classic fairy tale device (now that the Evil Stepmother is needed to fill the role originally played by Mother); second, it immediately generates sympathy for the character. No long, drawn out backstory is necessary for us to feel emotionally involved with Nemo. His mother was eaten! How could we not feel sorry for him? How can we not care about Bambi after his mother was murdered?

A lot of psychological analysis of Disney culture could be (and most likely has been) performed here. Why does the company focus so exclusively on the young versions of its cartoon stars? Simba grows up, Todd the fox finds a mate, Bambi becomes the new regal king of the woods, and so forth - but the company rarely if ever misses a chance to exploit the baby character in multiple straight-to-video money grabs. Why? Children don't aspire to be children, they want to be adults. Adults buy the damn videos because they think the baby animals are cute. Disney markets to the demographic with the cash, not to the assumed target audience of children. Why do Disney theme park commercials invariably feature a young, attractive, thin wife, a precociously cute child (or pair of kids), and a balding, middle-aged, overweight father? Are they consciously or subconsciously creating commercials that make the wealthy Disney executives feel comfortable? Is it a reflection of the luxury of the boardroom and the associated trophy wives? And don't even get me started on the commercials that feature minorities. Just watch and compare the family structure chosen for each ethnic group featured in a Disney ad.

I don't think the company wants us to think that much about the messages they send, really. They just want us to buy the pap and pretend it's half as good as what Walt originally created in the early days of animation.
posted by caution live frogs at 6:14 AM on March 12, 2008

Also, thinking about loving mom's in Disney films made me come up with this list.

Duchess in The Aristocats
Mother in The Rescuers Down Under
Widow Tweed (?) in The Fox and The Hound - While not a fox, the old woman takes on a mother role for the little fox.
Perdita in 101 Dalmations
Mrs. Banks in Mary Poppins
Queen Sarabi in The Lion King
There are 2 mom figures in Meet The Robinsons. 1. The woman who adopts Lewis. 2. Future Lewis's wife.
Elastagirl in The Incredibles
The woman who raised Hercules in Hercules.
Mrs. Jumbo in Dumbo
Helen Freeman in Flight of the Navigator
Fa Li in Mulan
Jetstream in Sky High
posted by onhazier at 6:26 AM on March 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

I forgot to add that Mrs. Darling and Lady both are loving moms in Lady and the Tramp.
posted by onhazier at 6:38 AM on March 12, 2008

Wasn't Dumbo's mom chained up/shot because they took Dumbo away and she became enraged/wouldn't do tricks? It has been a very long time since I've seen this one.
posted by jrishel at 6:57 AM on March 12, 2008

If you google "Disney missing mothers" you can find a lot of discussion on this topic. There is also this and this.
posted by sweetkid at 7:04 AM on March 12, 2008

Disney loves dead parents. In the Lion King the mom isn't dead, but the dad is. It makes for great drama I guess. I think this issue goes back to most fairy tales being somewhat disturbing and often lacking a parent. Anyway, Dead Parent Disney cartoons are pretty awesome entertainment.
posted by caddis at 7:18 AM on March 12, 2008

The opposite is true: Why are action heroes usually single men and not dads? The idea here is that you cant go on some adventure when you have parents watching you or when you have responsibilities at home. I think this is tied to the orphan idea and that a protective mother isnt the same as a protective father. "Dad lets me do this, but mom doesnt."
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:27 AM on March 12, 2008

I once read an analysis that the characters needed to be able to be on their own to have adventures as seen from a child's eyes.

This is quite true. The idea of being without parents is both a child's wildest fantasy and worst nightmare. A good parent would never let his or her child take off on some dangerous adventure, so for a child's adventure story the creator must either kill off or absent the parents by some means or other.
posted by orange swan at 7:45 AM on March 12, 2008

Wasn't Dumbo's mom chained up/shot because they took Dumbo away and she became enraged/wouldn't do tricks? It has been a very long time since I've seen this one.

Some red-headed kid (a cousin to Lampwick from Pinocchio from the looks of him) was picking on Baby Dumbo, and when she gave him a well deserved ass whipping she got locked up.
posted by Scoo at 8:09 AM on March 12, 2008

I think dead parents esp. mothers strike a kids deepest fear and emotionally bonds them to the character which in turns leads to the purchase of plush action figures, licensed Halloween costumes and themed fast food kids meals.
posted by Keith Talent at 8:46 AM on March 12, 2008

This is one reason why I love Shrek... Fiona stayed fat.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 9:05 AM on March 12, 2008

I once read an analysis that the characters needed to be able to be on their own to have adventures as seen from a child's eyes.

Heh, most definitely: This book was the one I consulted at the time for my essay on heroes in children's literature, but I imagine the idea is a common one. In classical Joseph Campbell schema, heroes for children's novels are equipped instead with a 'mythical guide/guardian' who nudge heroes in the right direction rather than preach about morals, which allows said heroes to then learn and grow on their own and take responsibility for their own actions. If there's the safety net of the parent hanging in the background, well, the hero is that much less interesting then, isn't he?
posted by Phire at 9:15 AM on March 12, 2008

Many superheroes are orphans or otherwise parentless too:

Wonder Woman

which seems to fit with orange swan's theory....
posted by Scoo at 9:15 AM on March 12, 2008

I think dead parents esp. mothers strike a kids deepest fear and emotionally bonds them to the character

Actually I think most kids secretly dream of being rid of their parents, hence the popularity of orphan stories.
posted by Space Coyote at 9:20 AM on March 12, 2008

As many posters have mentioned, the dead mother trope predates Disney by centuries. One of the few things I've retained from my 18th century novel seminar was that Arabella's dead mother was significant in Charlotte Lennox's The Female Quixote. Lots of folklorists have written on the subject, but the one that's freshest in my brain is Marina Warner. You can see part of her lecture The Absent Mother, Or Women Against Women in the "old Wives' tale" through Google Books.
posted by bibliowench at 9:34 AM on March 12, 2008

Perdita in 101 Dalmations

Let's not forget the irony of her name's meaning: "lost."
posted by kittyprecious at 9:47 AM on March 12, 2008

I just heard back from Kathy Merlock Jackson. She has been pointed to this discussion and writes this in response:

"You have, indeed, happened on one of the pervasive themes in Disney: the absent or cold and distant mother. This is not just true in Disney but in fairy tales worldwide from which Disney drew his source material. However, Disney popularizes the concept, and audiences accept it, reflective of the sexist society in which we live. In the Disney world, men rescue and solve problems, and women look to men for answers. The power lies with men. To provide strong, loving mothers would designate a shift in thinking. I'm amazed at how popular the Disney princesses theme has become, and an underlying concept of it is men taking care of women and making them feel special and loved."
posted by onhazier at 9:57 AM on March 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Thanks, onhazier. I personally detest the princess thing, and plan on encouraging any daughter I might have not to wait around for some guy to come and rescue her.
posted by caution live frogs at 10:22 AM on March 12, 2008

While the idea that a loving mother would keep a child from adventuring makes sense, I have to say that in my view, Michael Eisner is responsible for many of the later Disney movies choosing to kill off the Mothers and yet still have fathers, and I have always personally blamed him for this motif after hearing that Aladdin originally had a Mother in the screenplay, but he vetoed her out of the film. He also, in the guise of promoting a conservationist message for the Animal Kingdom safari ride, strongly supported the inclusion of a Mother elephant's corpse at the end of the ride, though the baby elephant, Little Red, is saved from the poachers, and was only dissuaded after initial riders, disgusted, were heard to say they would never go on the ride again after seeing the gigantic carcass.

It's true that traditionally in Fairy Tales, children are either orphaned or there is a disruption in the family (usually the death of the Mother and the remarriage of the Father) that makes the situation ripe for the children to run into trouble. Still, in classic films like Disney's Cinderella, when the Mother is dead, she is still viewed lovingly (as when Cinderella opens her box of keepsakes, taking out the dress she will remake for the ball, which she refers to reverently, "Isn't it lovely? It was my Mother's"). And of course, in Bambi, the loss of his Mother is devastating, as she has been depicted as the loving, nurturing guardian throughout the first half of the film. Sometimes, such as in the Aristocats, the Mother even goes on the adventure with the children.

But in the newer films, while Eisner was at the helm, although the convention is followed in that the Mothers are still missing from the picture, the Dads are frequently written into the story even while adding no real value to the film (with the notable exception of the Lion King movie). The Dads are either loving but clueless (Jasmine's Dad in Aladdin, Belle's father in Beauty and the Beast, Elizabeth Swan's Dad in Pirates of the Caribbean) or went out adventuring on their own at an early age rather than choosing to stay home and parent (Aladdin's Dad, Will Turner's Dad in Pirates of the Caribbean). Still, the Fathers are fondly represented, while the absent Mothers are never even mentioned in the later films.
posted by misha at 10:24 AM on March 12, 2008

The opposite is true: Why are action heroes usually single men and not dads? The idea here is that you cant go on some adventure when you have parents watching you or when you have responsibilities at home.

I would like to point out for the record, here, that within the action genre (which I know much more intimately than Disney) that is sometimes true, and many times not. As for the point about the dead mother, stepmothers, etc in Disney movies, these same themes come up in action films as well. Sort of. What I take out of this is that it is a convenient narrative device that is used across the board.

In "Hard to Kill", Mason Storm's (Steven Seagal) wife is killed but his son (secretly) gets away and as a single parent he goes out for vengeance eventually taking Senator Trent "to the blood bank". In "Commando", John Matrix (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a single father who is forced to rescue his daughter after she is kidnapped.

On the other hand, in "Over the Top", Lincoln Hawk's (Sylvester Stallone) wife dies, and he is forced to reconcile with his son, with whom he has had little or no contact for years. It is because he takes his son to the armwrestling national championships in Las Vegas that he has the strength to go "over the top".

In fact, with very few exceptions, unless the Action Hero is a complete "loner" (a trope of its own) very often the hero is a single father.
posted by indiebass at 10:25 AM on March 12, 2008

In fairness to Disney, Disney did not kill the father figure in The Lion King. Shakespeare did.
posted by The World Famous at 10:50 AM on March 12, 2008 [3 favorites]

As the trad. blues song says: "Motherless children have a hard road when your mother is dead."

And a hard road is what exciting stories are all about.
posted by roombythelake at 11:59 AM on March 12, 2008

Fairy tales were cautionary, for the most part; like medieval versions of To Catch A Predator.

I laughed at this for about five minutes. Good one!

For those of you who are interested in other fairy tale-related analysis, Marina Warner's From the Beast to the Blonde is good, too. I also just picked up The Owl, The Raven & The Dove, an analysis of religious themes in Grimm (I'm only a few pages in at this point, but it's by Ronald Murphy, who's written some other stuff I love, so I bet it's going to be good)....
posted by bitter-girl.com at 12:09 PM on March 12, 2008

Total amateur opinion here, but I think that part of it might also be male screenwriters defaulting to male characters and father/son conflicts in their storytelling.

I see this in movies like Ratatouille - the story is driven by the stories of Remy and his father and Linguini living up to his father's potential and image. Not only are the mothers unseen, hardly any female characters are featured, period.
posted by cadge at 12:43 PM on March 12, 2008

Just weighing in on the "lots of kids' stories are like this, not just Disney" side of things. I run a Roald Dahl fansite, and most of his most popular books feature absent/dead parents. Sophie from The BFG is an orphan. Danny (the Champion of the World) just has his dad and his mom is dead. James (and the Giant Peach) has loving parents who are killed by an angry rhinoceros within the first page. The nameless hero of "The Witches" loses his parents to a car crash. Matilda has parents, but they're horrible people and she ends up divorcing them at the end. The only one that has loving parents is Charlie Bucket (interestingly, they killed off his Dad in the film), but for the bulk of Charlie's adventures at the factory, he's on his own with his Grandpa.

In pretty much all these cases, the hero/ine wouldn't have been able to have his adventure if he'd still had a mother looking over his shoulder.
posted by web-goddess at 3:01 PM on March 12, 2008

I've heard again from our helpful professor. She recommends the book _From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture_ by Bell, Haas, and Sells.
posted by onhazier at 6:11 PM on March 12, 2008

It's important to be careful about choosing examples. Pirates of the Caribbean -- a live-action trilogy -- is supposed to count as classic Disney, but Lilo & Stitch (with its exclusively female caretakers) isn't mentioned in a single comment? In Tarzan, it's true Jane has virtually the same family setup as Belle, but Tarzan's adoptive mother has to count for something.

I'm not denying that Disney's messages have often been problematic, but it seems like their attempts to change the old image are being ignored. Mulan may not be perfect, but it's better than Cinderella, and I think that's on purpose.
posted by booksandlibretti at 4:30 PM on March 13, 2008

In terms of what booksandlibretti is talking about - I think Disney puts such a heavy focus on the Princess line (and lately the supposedly more rebellious 'Fairy' line) that all the unconventional but, well, touching stories get more or less ignored in favour for the traditional Prince Charming and Damsel In Distress archetype. My final exam for one of my Business courses last year was actually an essay commentary on an article discussing the brand image/value of the Princess line, which isn't only for little girls, but also targets parents heavily in terms of baby clothing, decoration, etc. And one of the really interesting points that the article brought up was that stronger female characters that actually, y'know, fend for themselves rather than just sit there and look pretty (Jane, Mulan, Pocahontas) aren't actually included in the Princess line, because five-year-old girls should not be thinking of independence, they should be thinking of dresses. [/sarcasm]

So maybe in that sense it's a conscious marketing decision by Disney to more heavily promote the traditional roles to appeal to the conservative side, hoping that the more indie/rebel characters will get noticed regardless. *shrug*
posted by Phire at 7:57 AM on March 14, 2008

Ah Mulan. Teaching young girls that the best way to get your foot in the door is to...pretend to be a man. And doesn't she leave her family for this shenanigans? I say it counts as fitting in the absent parents, even though she absents herself from them.
posted by bilabial at 7:50 PM on March 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Tarzan was written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Jane was a grown-up who did not need her father tagging along in the book. In Disney, they added him for the comically-clueless factor (#1 under the Disney list of acceptable parents). In the Burroughs book, yes, the adoptive mother gorilla cares for Tarzan and protects him. In the Disney movie, her place is largely supplanted by a friend, voice-acted by Rosie O'Donnell, playing a boy ape. Figure that one out. I suppose it made sense to some Disney genius.

Lilo and Stitch has some great female characters, but again the parents are dead, and the big sister is having a horrible time raising her sister until the boyfriend comes along.

Pocahontas has no Mom, has grandmother Willow (a rare positive female role model), and her father is again portrayed as sensitive, caring dude bound by tradition (#2 on the Disney list of acceptable parents) even though he was going to kill John Smith. [In real life, of course, Pocahontas was just a girl, not some sultry seductress in Frederick's of Chippewa clothing, when she met John Smith, and she DID go back to the colonies, where she later married someone completely different.]

Mulan has a sensitive, understanding father bound by tradition (see #2 above) and a shrill, match-making Mom who I wish they WOULD have left out.
posted by misha at 10:33 AM on March 18, 2008

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