Scott Mendelson, writing at Women and Hollywood, spots an entirely fascinating trend: the tendency of movies to treat the death of characters’ fathers as much, much more significant than the death of movie mothers, even if both of a character’s parents are dead:
When Mufasa falls off a cliff at the halfway point of The Lion King, it’s a devastating moment for both Simba and the audience, since Mufasa is a full-blown supporting character who is basically the second-lead for the first third of the picture. Yet the countless dead mothers in prior and future Disney animated films (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Finding Nemo, etc.) merit at best a cameo in the prologue before being bumped off before the title card comes up (Bambi is the rare exception, where the doomed mother sticks around long enough to be mourned). Even The Princess and the Frog, another rare animated feature to spotlight a dead father and a living mother, makes a point to keep the deceased dad in the audience’s minds throughout the narrative, including a climactic flashback that concludes Tiana’s character arc.
The recently deceased mother of Super 8 merits a photo and a name, while the dad in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is played by a major star (Tom Hanks) who has a supporting role throughout the drama despite dying on 9/11 in the opening moments. Bruce Wayne loses both of his parents in Batman Begins, yet it is only his father (Linus Roache) who gets a real character to play and more than one or two lines. It is his father whom Bruce Wayne holds as a role model and his father who Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) and Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) constantly refer to when discussing Bruce’s actions and his moral worldview. Martha Wayne is played by Sara Stewart, but that’s all I could tell you about her.
I think that’s one of the reasons Brave feels so striking, something Lili Loofbourow lays out in a terrific essay about Brave and the need for a Disney princess who thoroughly vanquishes the ghosts and tropes of her predecessors:
I wonder, though, whether any of the foregoing critics who’ve tolerantly yawned at Pixar’s latest effort could name a Disney princess besides Mulan whose mother is alive, let alone named. And yet, in Brave, there is a live mother, named and all. And then a remarkably boring thing happens: this interloping mother who has no place in this ordinary, predictable princess story suddenly becomes central to it. She gets turned into something that keeps on getting misread as a monster, something her loving and well-meaning husband has dedicated his life to tracking down and killing for the sake of his own story, which is built around victory and revenge…for our hero, Merida, courage doesn’t achieve the victories we expect fictional bravery to produce. She doesn’t slay Mor-du. She’s no Mulan; her archery, despite her skill, is unhelpful. All this, in a story featuring a warrior princess, should make the mind boggle: Why would a studio create such a character in order to make her real crisis be her relationship with her mother?
The corollary to Disney’s—and animated movies more generally—dead mothers are the fathers and father figures who fill in for them. Rather than female mentors, or aunts, or grandmothers, or older cousins, women with dead mothers in animated movies often are often coached in strength and femininity by men. In Beauty and the Beast, Belle’s father fills the place of her absent mother as best he can, and when he is unable to protect her, her allies and companions in the Beast’s castle include a male clock, candlestick and teacup, matched by a motherly teacup and a feminine wardrobe who doesn’t speak. Cinderella treats male mice tenderly, and they are more personified, even if female mice help make her ballgown. In Anastasia, after Ana loses her family and her memory, it’s men who teach her how to be both an elite woman in general and a specific woman in particular. Animated orphans don’t lack for surrogate parents, but there’s a strain running through them that suggests men can teach women both how to be strong, and do just as good a job handling femininity as their absent mothers. Learning courage and the skills to implement it are hard, the kind of things that can only be imparted by a male master. But learning to dress well, be confident, present yourself like a lady, these are all apparently things that men can pick up on the side and pass along to a woman.
It’s one of the reasons I love Mulan so much—it’s one of the only movies where a heroine, after learning from a bunch of men in her military camp, gets to teach them something in return. Specifically, she gets to teach them that femininity, subtlety, and social blending, feminine values that are placed in contrast to brute force and direct confrontation, are enormously valuable, something Mulan has been able to repurpose from her training in how to be an acceptable bride, and something the men around her wouldn’t have just picked up intuitively thanks to their smart maleness:
It’s awesome to see women get molded into action stars and superheroes and unconventional Disney princesses. But once we’ve got a cadre trained up, once we’re used to the sight of action princesses, once Chloe Grace Moretz and Saoirse Ronan and Hailee Steinfeld are all grown up and acknowledged both as beautiful women and hugely credentialed action stars, can’t we let some of them live to pass their wisdom down to their daughters—and to their sons?