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It would seem our much ballyhooed entrance into a “post-feminist” reality would translate into more positive and widespread depictions of females in popular culture. Though mainstream representations of women have improved quite a bit, one type of character is still disproportionately evil, missing, and/or killed off – the mother. The mother has been particularly ill-treated and under-represented in animated films, especially in those of the Disney variety.
The mother’s absence or death is often attributed to the fact many animated films are adaptations of fairy tales. Various studies of such tales argue that the lack of mother figures is based in historical reality, as childbirth was a major cause of death before the nineteenth century (see, for example, Sheldon Casdan’s The Witch Must Die or Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment). However, even contemporary films with little to no basis in older tales are still inordinately fond of leaving (or forcing) the mother out of the picture.
With the rate of release of children’s and family movies, one would assume that mom characters might finally be able to get a fair shake. Alas, as in the bad â€˜ole Disney days, most moms are either silent, dead, or wicked. Most don’t even have names (as with Andy’s mom in Toy Story – maybe in film three she will finally get a moniker…). A few mothers get to hover in the background, occasionally saying something useful, as in Diary of a Wimpy Kid. But, for the most part, modern kids’ movies, the fairy tales of today, still present us with usually absent mothers and all-too-present fathers. While mom is gone, dad is here to stay – doling out advice, jokes, aid, and adventure.
In the recent How to Train Your Dragon, mom is dead, but she kindly left behind one of her breast plates to serve as helmet for the (male!) protagonist, Hiccup. Yup, mom might be under the ground, but at least we can still joke about the size of her mammary glands. How sweet. In a comment thread about this film at Two Peas in a Bucket, someone queried “I really wonder what the makers of kid movies have against moms.” Yeah, me too.
The post entitled, “Mommy, why is the mommy dead?” offers a long list of dead mothers. Similarly, the post Motherhood in Disney Films argues that animation is a patricentric world noting that “Since The Little Mermaid, single fatherhood has risen dramatically in Disney films, as has the death of mothers. More mothers have died in the fourteen years since The Little Mermaid than in the fifty-one years before.” Well, there goes the historical reality theory – at a time when we have far more single mothers and far fewer deaths from childbirth, we have more single dads and dead moms in animated films. Go figure.
When mothers are present, they are treated far differently than fathers. Fathers are the center of a child’s life – not only way back when in Lion King days, but also in recent films such as Nim’s Island, Kicking and Screaming, Elf, even Twilight. Meanwhile, dead or bad moms abound –Â Finding Nemo, Nanny McPhee, Coraline, Ice Age, Over the Hedge. Even when the mom is part of the storyline, as in The Princess and the Frog, she rarely remains front and center.
Danae Cassandra, author of Brilliance, a blog dedicated to analyzing gender in animation, offers the following rational:
“The only conjecture I can offer to this depiction of motherhood in American animation is backlash. With the decline of two-parent families and the rise of single motherhood, perhaps Disney and other studios are feeding a conservative, patriarchal reaction to the decline of the role of fathers in the lives of their children. …With the exodus of women from the home, perhaps the backlash in popular entertainment is to exalt the status of a single father, eliminating the mother from the picture as someone who would normally have the custodial rights by killing her off. There is no messy divorce, no custodial battles, and the father comes out as the good guy.”
Sounds plausible to me. Though I don’t feel there is necessarily a “decline in the role of fathers” nor a new mass “exodus of women from the home” – rather, there continues to be a decidedly unequal approach to parenting specifically and gender more generally. Or, in other words, we are nowhere near the neighborhood of “post-feminism.” However, our steps towards gender equality do seem to be engendering a conservative backlash (one recently and brilliantly explored in Susan Douglas’ new book, Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism’s Work is Done).
Whatever rational one uses, the father certainly continues to be the good guy in most children’s films, especially in those stories with a girl child at the helm. These narratives always seem to involve kindly males ushering girls through a strange and dangerous world filled with monstrous females. Think Wizard of Oz. Coraline. Alice in Wonderland. The Golden Compass.
One of my mom’s favorite quotes is “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.” Ah, would this were true. Seems more like the hand that pens, produces, and animates the films rules children’s imaginations – teaching them that mothers disappoint but dads deliver.
This mother’s day, why not rock your child’s world – find a film to watch together that portrays a strong, intelligent, wise, funny, courageous, and ALIVE mother. Good luck.