Let’s name all the Disney mother casualties, shall we?
Cinderella/Snow White/Sleeping Beauty: Mother dead on arrival
Bambi’s mother: Dead midway through movie
Fox and the Hound: Gun shot in beginning of movie signifying mother gone
Finding Nemo: Mother swiped in first scene.
Brother Bear: Mother bear dies in first act.
The Little Mermaid: No mother mentioned at all.
If I go on, I’ll spend the morning in tears.
Where are the mothers? Disney’s treatment of mothers has forever been suspect–even when the mother isn’t gone entirely, she’s treated horrifically (think Dumbo).
While Disney isn’t the only perpetrator of absent mothers. The Brothers Grimm tales which include the original Cinderella and Snow White (and others) ditched mom long before Disney adapted them (I highly recommend the Brothers Grimm tales, especially if your children like gruesome tales like mine do). Babar the Little Elephant loses his mother when she’s murdered by “hunters” on page 5. She’s left dead in the jungle and Babar escapes to the city where he finds a rich old sugar mama who dolls him up with green suits.
Hummm. The more write about Babar’s orphan upbringing, the more suspect it becomes. But anyway…
There are countless other orphaned main characters who have found an enlightened path without a mother. Harry Potter. Oliver Twist. Little Orphan Annie. Scout from To Kill A Mockingbird. Pete from Pete’s Dragon. (My personal favorite movie as a child.)
In her article “Knocking Off Mom” (or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love G-Rated Murder), author Rachel Kadish makes an excellent point about the mother knock-off being just a mere plot infusion. That when you take the mother out, it magically allows the child to take on an adventure or character building crusade of individuality and courage that he/she wouldn’t have been able to endure without the loss of mommy’s influence. Writes Kadish:
How can a child (fish/mermaid/alien) possibly prove him(her/it)self through adventure if mom isn’t dead? Adventure is what happens when mom’s out of the picture, and the child/alien/robot sets off on a quest…preferably against the wishes of an over-controlling father/mer-king/clownfish! Adventure concludes when that quest is, against all odds, accomplished…and reconciliation between child and father is achieved amid towering music and the father’s tearful realization that he really ought to spend more time with his kid.
The exceptions to this formula are breathtakingly rare. I have searched and searched for a movie in which mom not only lives, but gets to be part of the adventure. (I was so happy to find Elastigirl, the reluctant-superhero mother in Pixar’s The Incredibles, that I let my kids watch it approximately one billion times.)
Kadish says she’s reconciled herself with the idea that the losing mom is a plot issue only, but wishes to see a child find the adventurous side of life under her mother’s tutelage. After all, says Kadish, “Someone dropping in from another planet just might mistakenly think we’re training kids for a lifetime of watching women be threatened, assaulted, and murdered on screen.”
My own mother has commented about my own mother-bashing in my writing–she wishes I would just make a mother who uplifted her daughter instead of a mother who drags her daughter into the pit of despair. (Plot, Mom. It’s all about the plot!)
But Kadish AND my mother are right. A smart, well-rounded mother who doesn’t stop you from exploring, but rather encourages you, or a mother who doesn’t worry constantly about you being alone for a bit so that you can explore in the world would be a welcoming invitation to a Disney story–or any story. It would be refreshing to see an element of fiction that allows a child to flourish under the care of its mother–instead of flourishing out of the barracks of hardship and despair.