I love Disney. LOVE it. I mean, it’s freaking magical. But there’s no getting round the fact that Disney has its problems. Sure, in the context of pressing world issues, this probably isn’t top of the agenda. But tackling a few Disney films seems a bit more manageable than attempt to provide some genius solution to Brexit, North Korea or any other number of crises. You have to start somewhere, right?
On many fronts (especially the whole “damsel in distress” trope), recent Disney films are doing a lot better. But I’ve always had a bone to pick with Disney’s approach to its mother figures. Or rather, lack thereof.
Where are all the mothers? Generally:
(a) Dead – one of the more likely fates;
(b) Evil, or at the very least, too weak to resist the villain; or
(c) Even if they’ve somehow managed to escape one of those earlier outcomes, silent – for no explicable reason – for the vast majority of the movie.
Not convinced? Let’s take a look at the classics… (I guess I should say “SPOILER alert” – I would assume this is unnecessary, but after managing to ruin Harry Potter for some people after making the same assumption on previous occasions, I’m not taking any chances.)
Aladdin, Bambi, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas – all dead mothers. Snow White and Cinderella? Each gets a bonus evil stepmother on top of that. Even Pinocchio and The Jungle Book‘s Mowgli get father figures in some form or other – but no mothers.
So what about the lucky ones who get living mothers?
Sleeping Beauty‘s Queen Leah (yeah, I had to Google her name too) may be loving and good and all, but she gets a grand total of 8 words in the whole film. Yes, I looked it up. In fact, in the original script, her brief appearances are attributed simply to “Queen” while her husband King Stefan has the honour of having his 32 lines attributed to his character’s actual name.
Mulan also has the rare privilege of both parents… but while her mother does have a small speaking role, the whole premise of the film is Mulan going off to war in her father’s stead, to save him from almost certain death and preserve his honour. The mother is pretty incidental to the plot.
Sure, you might say, but isn’t it the same for the dads? Take Mufasa…
But – fantastic as it is – The Lion King doesn’t really offer a great counterexample. Sure, Sarabi (another name I had to Google – which says it all, really, when it’s impossible to forget “Mufasa”) is alive, but again has a pretty small role which is limited to capitulating to the evil Scar until Simba returns. Another peripheral role for the mother in a plot which turns on the father figure.
Even in death, the father has an ongoing influence on the main character, whereas dead mothers are simply part of the backdrop. Jasmine’s mother, Belle’s mother – they only get a passing reference, and I’m not even sure if Ariel’s mother is mentioned at all. Sad as Bambi’s mother’s death is, it seems to have only a fleeting impact on her son, with the story quickly focusing on the bond with his new-found dad. There never seems to be much angst about the missing mothers…
But you know, mothers often died in childbirth, so isn’t just a function of the historical context in which these stories were written?
Fair point – but it only really makes sense for the stories where you needed to write in an evil stepmother-type character. I get that it’s an easy way of setting up the scenario.
It’s not like Disney hasn’t fundamentally changed the other fairytales to make them more appealing/family-friendly. I mean, Disney made the effort of drastically re-writing the ending of The Little Mermaid to make it a happy one. It’s much less of a stretch to add in a mother while they’re at it. Similarly, an almost-silent mother in Sleeping Beauty seems hardly necessarily while there’s an inexplicably long scene of the two fathers getting drunk – would it have been so hard to even out the lines?
The only example I’ve been able to come up with – after much research (tough life, I know) – where the mother has more than a peripheral and non-evil(!) role is Brave. But I think it’s fair to say that it’s the exception that proves the rule. Besides, that mother-daughter is not necessarily without its issues either, given that the mother tries to prevent Merida from asserting her right not to enter into an arranged marriage, which causes to Merida (semi-accidentally) turn her mother into a bear…
Disney’s over-use of dead/silent mothers starts to seem, at best, like a lazy plot device, at worst, a consistent failure to develop these supporting female characters to the same extent as the male ones.
Surely the reason we care about the kind of characters Disney shows (whether its gender, ethnicity or body shape) is because we recognise the huge influence it can have on children in formative years. (Side note: I can say that was true for me, at least. When I was little, I genuinely believed that being caucasian – and preferably blonde – was a pre-requisite to being any form of heroine. Being Asian, I was disappointingly neither. Watching Mulan for the first time was pretty mind-blowing.)
Maybe it seems petty – but while there’s a push for Disney to have more diverse and rounded heroes and heroines, can’t we also ask that it also tries harder with its portrayal of familial relationships? I wouldn’t find it troubling if there were just a few isolated instances – but repeated portrayals of absent or passive mothers can’t be helpful, right?
Just a thought.