I was still just a kid myself when a friend pointed out that in almost every single Disney movie, sometimes both parents but at least one — almost always the mother — had or would meet his or her untimely death, and therefore almost every Disney protagonist was motherless if not a total orphan.
I asked her why she thought that was and she shrugged. “Disney rules, man. That’s just how it is.” And she was completely right. If both parents weren’t dead, it was definitely always the mom who’d kicked it. Even in my favorite movies at the time. Aladdin was an orphan and Jasmine just had her dad. Belle, too, had a bit of an idiot for a father, and Ariel and Pocahontas were similarly motherless.
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My kid has never been a Disney fan herself, but her all-time favorite movie of all time when she was a toddler was Finding Nemo, a film that she insisted on fast-forwarding until after the post-barracuda blood bath so she could get to the happy times between Marlin and his main dude Nemo. Point being? More dead moms. What the hell, Disney?
There are a whole lot of ways that you can try to suss out the “why” of mothers meeting their untimely demise in kids’ flicks. People have approached it through the lens of critical feminism. They’ve pointed out that most Disney movies require the child to go through some kind of transformation or journey, which is tough to do when your parents are hanging around. They’ve even speculated on whether or not it’s actually a result of Walt Disney’s own mother’s death.
Who knows? All we have is what we end up with, and what we’ve ended up with here is a slew of dads doing it for themselves.
Think about it. Nemo’s father Marlin, for all of his neuroses, was a dedicated dad who ended up following his son to the ends of the ocean to get him back. King Triton ultimately backed Ariel up, and when worse came to worst, even the Sultan of Agrabah finally found a spine (although maybe he could have done that before his daughter was about to choke on sand in nothing but a Leia-style bikini, no?).
It might be sad that all of the moms are off on a farm upstate where they’re free to run and play with lots of other moms, but there’s no denying that images of dads being good at being dads is hardly a bad thing. Kids get to see fictional fathers stepping up to be the opposite of what fictional fathers usually are. Instead of being aloof and stingy with the hugs, Disney dads are typically pretty devoted creatures who don’t mind braving a wall of poison jellyfish to keep the promises they make to the kids they love.
In a world where we’re really trying to make it normal for dads to do what moms are typically expected to, can it really be ultimately negative for some of the first images of fathers that kids see be Marlin types? Images and words matter. If they didn’t, people wouldn’t be so vigilant about what kinds of media their children consume. So it is ultimately beneficial for Disney dads to present words and images that ever-vigilant kids can connect to their own lives.
Case in point: How many times have people complained that when girls are force-fed a steady diet of Princess paraphernalia, that’s all they’ll want to be? It’s more than worth it to demand positive role-models for our girls — looking at you, Tiana, Merida and Elsa — so why not do the same with boys? Instead of presenting them with Disney dudes that are limited to invisible dads (Cinderella) or a man-child for every day of the week (Snow White) why not give little boys a devoted, present dad to watch on the big screen?
There’s another reason that dead and absentee parents aren’t necessarily a bad thing for kids to see. Remember that conversation I had circa Disney’s Golden Age with my friend about “Disney rules?” The realization left an impression on me for one big reason: not every family has two living or present parents. Some don’t even have one. It’s really cool to see a family that looks a little more like yours in the theater sometimes, even if the similarities end where the magical voice-stealing seashells begin.
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