When you think of Disney films, you tend to think of light-hearted musical stories where good always wins and our heroes live out their happily ever after in a beautiful castle. But when you look deeper, you’ll see there’s a dark undercurrent to nearly all of their films.
Try to name the mother of your favorite Disney character. Can you? It’s pretty tough since nearly all the Disney moms are dead, evil, or totally forgettable.
Disney protagonists, even though they’re typically female, usually have either no mother figure or a horrible mother figure: the Evil Queen, the Wicked Stepmother, Maleficent, Ursula, the list goes on. So, where are all the moms in Disney films?
We’ll explore the role of motherhood in Disney movies and the fairy tales they’re derived from. And we’ll see how changes in society have been reflected in the development of mother characters in recent Disney films.
Why No Moms?
Walt Disney’s Tragic Backstory
Walt Disney faced a lot of hardship on his road to success. His most famous character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, was stolen from him; his new studio was constantly losing money; and everyone scoffed at the idea of a full-length animated feature. But Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a success beyond Disney’s wildest dreams. So in 1938, he did what every child dreams of: He bought his parents a house.
Less than a month after moving in, his mother complained of a leaking furnace, so Disney had it fixed. Yet, the heater still leaked. A few days later, the housekeeper found Disney’s mother and father unconscious. His father survived, but sadly, his mother passed away.
Disney never spoke of his mother’s death. Since Disney was so involved in every production, it’s been surmised that his guilt over his the death of his mother may have influenced his films and choice of material.
A Little Bit Dramatic
Though we don’t tend to think of Disney movies as “dramas,” they still need to create dramatic action to tell their story.
Disney executive producer Don Hahn told Glamour about one of the reasons that Disney characters lack moms: “One reason is practical because the movies are 80 or 90 minutes long, and Disney films are about growing up… In shorthand, it’s much quicker to have characters grow up when you bump off their parents. Bambi’s mother gets killed, so he has to grow up.”
It might sound a bit brutal, but there’s nothing more dramatic than a loss of a parent. Bambi being thrust into adulthood by his mother’s death is far more climactic than him leaving the woods with a loving mom waiting at home.
The reliance on “wicked stepmothers,” on the other hand, comes from a subversion of the “kindly, maternal woman” trope. A child thinks they’ll find solace in a mother figure’s arms and when that is proved wrong, the character now must continue her journey with a greater sense of drama.
Most Disney films are 90 minutes long at the most, but these movies don’t actually have that full hour and a half to tell their story. There also has to be room for at least five songs (typically), plus action sequences to keep kids’ attention. So, you really have just a little over an hour to tell a tale with sympathetic, relatable characters. An easy way to get sympathy? Kill the main character’s mom.
Since most Disney protagonists are underdogs who get pushed into adulthood, making that child motherless immediately gets the audience’s sympathy. You hardly have to create any other backstory; as soon as we know a child is orphaned or plagued by a villainous family member, we’ll want to see that character overcome and succeed.
Because the Disney stories have to be told quickly in a way that young children can easily understand, a dead or absent mom is an simple way to create a sympathetic hero that the whole audience will be happy to root for.
Look to the source.
Nowadays, Disney has come out with a spate of original stories, but the company’s original success was thanks to its adaptations of fairy tales. If you want to find a genre that’s darker, more violent, and full of worse mothers than Disney’s films, just take a look at the classic fairy tales their adaptations are based on—believe it or not, Disney cleaned up a lot of the darker aspects of the classic French and German stories.
For example, in Aschenputtel, the Brothers Grimm telling of Cinderella, the wicked stepsisters cut off pieces of their feet to try to fit into the glass slipper; after Aschenputtel marries the prince, birds end up pecking out the stepsisters’ eyes. It’s clear Disney toned down the violence in their 1950 film, but they didn’t sweeten every aspect of the original tales in other adaptions.
Though Grimm seemed pretty, well, grim, the brothers’ tales were actually “Disney-fied” from their original versions. Both Snow White and Sleeping Beauty were persecuted by their biological mothers in the stories from the 17th century. But the Grimms didn’t like the idea of dishonoring the role of motherhood, so they changed the evil moms into evil stepmothers and the stories have stayed that way ever since.
Still, is the idea of taking mothers out of the picture or making females the frequent villains a comment upon the role of women in society? Some argue that fairy tales reinforce the idea that women are either motherly and pure or child-hating and evil, with no shades in between.
But Jared Miracle, PhD folklorist/anthropologist, says that motherless fairy tales are just a function of story structure: “We can armchair psychoanalyze as much as we want, but story mechanics demand a problematic past and/or flawed home life for protagonists.”
Miracle continues, “That’s why we see stories from around the world featuring this same tendency. If our main character comes from a happy home with no domestic troubles, then mom and dad will just fix the problem. Consequently, one or both of them needs to be taken out of the picture.”
Sign of the Times
Usually, literature and film are in some way a reflection of their time. And when the Grimms’ tales became popular, it was fairly common to grow up without a mother. Women died in childbirth at a horrible rate and the men would often remarry as they felt unable to take care of a child and home.
Since women were utterly dependent on men for financial stability, they weren’t afraid to fight to keep what they felt was rightfully theirs. It wasn’t uncommon for a stepmother to scheme against the children to try to get the husband’s wealth to herself. Also, at the time, children weren’t treated with warmth and affection like they are today. So, it’s not surprising to think that an 18th-century stepmom might not be incredibly loving.
Orphans continued to take center stage as novels rose in popularity in the Victorian era. Writing for the British Library, John Mullan, professor of English at University College London, says that since an orphaned character is immediately out of place in the world, it’s easy to put them in a variety of dramatic situations. If Oliver Twist, for instance, had asked his mother for more food, at worst he would have got a smack on the bottom. Instead, motherless, Twist is forced to explore the underworld of London and take readers on an adventure they could never really experience.
An orphaned character can leave home easily to have an exciting journey. Would Harry Potter have hightailed it to Hogwarts that fast if it meant leaving his loving parents behind? Sure, he certainly might have, but it’s far more exciting to know that Harry’s only choice is to leave life behind and enter the world of magic.
Though orphans and motherless children are less commonplace today, they still create the perfect protagonist for a journey of discovery.
The Changing Role of Moms
No Moms, but Good Dads
In most older Disney films, the dad either wasn’t around or didn’t seem to do much of anything.
Cinderella’s dad always seemed painfully naive at best for letting his new wife treat his daughter so poorly; after his death, she ended up doing all the cleaning for her and her children.
But, in some of the more modern films, like Finding Nemo, the mother is still killed, and the father grows to take her place as a parent. The Atlantic finds this semi-trend of “killing the mom to make the dad great” incredibly condescending. Their article posits that female characters are only around to be an idealistic version of womanhood, who must die quickly so we can learn how great the dad really is. The father character always gets a lot of screen time; he gets to learn, grow, and—most importantly—stay alive.
But, the trend toward leaving the father around may not be so insulting. Yes, it is a shame that there are fewer fleshed out older female characters in Disney films, but they often make up for it by providing an array of wonderful female protagonists. Even in Finding Nemo, the breakout character was Dory, who later got her own movie about a journey to find her parents.
When asked his opinion on why the mother is typically the one to die in these films, Miracle says, “I propose that we have a societal bias in which single moms are the norm, but when a man proves to be a competent parent all by his lonesome, then it is something extraordinary. Let’s call it the Homer Simpson Effect.”
It’s true that there are a lot more single mothers raising a family than single fathers. And though we might be underestimating men’s ability to raise kids, a man who raises a family on his own is always praised as an amazing anomaly, whereas, a single mom is “just doing her job.”
Miracle is right that a single father is more interesting dramatically because we naturally (though probably unconsciously) believe that he won’t succeed. In a way, women are seen as too capable. They’d probably fix most of the protagonists problems before the first act was through.
Fewer Wicked Stepmothers
The wicked female figure has seemed to fall out of fashion in recent Disney films. Though Tangled still featured an evil adoptive mother, there’s an actual reason for her malicious actions. This is a big change from Snow White or Cinderella where the mother figure just wants the girl dead or gone with no apparent motive besides jealousy.
In Frozen, the only villains are male and the only truly dependable figures are female. Though there are male characters around to help Anna, the women are the ones that cause all of the story’s action and resolution. Instead of waiting for a prince to come, the sisters win despite a prince showing up. Their love as sisters is proved more important than the love of a man they barely know.
Though that idea may not sound revolutionary, it goes counter to most previous Disney films and is a stronger feminist statement than most romantic films of the last 30 years.
Even the outright villains are becoming sympathetic. With films like 2014’s Maleficent, there’s been a move to humanize villains of all types. In modern Disney films, you’re less likely to find a character fueled by plain old evil and more likely to find that all the characters have layered motivations.
The Rise of the Single Mom
Though the number of single dads in real life is on the rise, Disney films instead has chosen to focus on more solitary mother figures in their films. Sadly, the mothers rarely feature much into the story.
Andy’s mom in Toy Story, for example, is definitely a single mother, though we learn little about her. (To be fair, though, we learn literally nothing about Andy’s dad and Andy isn’t even technically the protagonist of the film.)
Throwing it back to 1941, Dumbo’s mom is on her own but does little more than try to comfort her big-eared child. In The Lion King, Simba’s father is killed and we barely see him ever again.
There’s a bit of encouraging progress in 2009’s The Princess and the Frog. Tiana’s mother, Eudora, is not only alive, she’s a wise, hard-working character who plays an important role in encouraging Tiana’s dreams—what a welcome change! But even though Eudora is one of the more present mothers in Disney history, in the film, Tiana spends a lot more time thinking about the memory of her dead father.
Though it’s nice to see a living mother in Disney films, these characters actually often have less characterization than the dead moms of films past. This may not be because Disney is trying to minimize the importance of female characters, but it does prove that an alive mother is often less interesting dramatically for the protagonist. Some moms might make it out alive, but they don’t do much more than that.
Mothers Becoming Integral Characters
Despite the trends against major mother characters, in most recent years, we’ve begun to see some strong moms in the world of Disney.
The best example is 2012’s Brave. The entire story revolves around the complicated relationship of mother and daughter. There’s little romantic plot; instead the film focuses on the exploration of the deep, but not always happy bond between a mother and her child.
In Pocahontas, Grandmother Willow provided advice and maternal support for the main character. She was a source of wisdom and guidance, who helped Pocahontas far more than the other male characters.
A rare early example of a strong mom is Perdita of One Hundred and One Dalmatians. She fights just as hard as dad Pongo to save their puppies from Cruella De Vil. She even winds up hauling her children through the snow so they can be safe. Perdita is treated with more importance than the puppies’ father and is an overlooked mother of note in the Disney canon.
To find another incredibly active mother, look to The Incredibles. Elastagirl, or Helen Parr when she’s not a superhero, is a necessary part of the team. She’s still a mom who takes care of her family, but she also goes out and fights like everyone else. The story wouldn’t work without Helen, which is a rare feat for a Disney mom.
One of the most recent Disney films gives us a wonderful example of a well-rounded mother. In Inside Out, we see both the mother and father for all their strengths and weaknesses. The mom isn’t always right, but she’s caring, quirky, gets understandably annoyed by her husband, but still loves her family with all her heart. Though the mother is just a supporting character, Inside Out does an incredible job of giving her a life of her own and still telling an intriguing story.
It’s doubtful that Disney will ever completely shy away from stories about motherless children. But, it’s clear that Disney is moving toward making their maternal characters more than just idealized beacons of femininity.
Maybe in the future, we’ll get more varied villains, nicer stepmothers, and maybe—just maybe—some additional moms who stay alive for more than 90 minutes.