The Myth of the Missing Mom – Disney’s (and Pixar’s) Canon (1937-2013)

Disney cases (not mine)(Photo credit: Someone with a much more complete and organized Disney collection than me.)

It has been said that Walt Disney had issues with his mother. It has been said that writers could not adequately animate adult women. It has been said that fairy tales are inherently misogynistic. It has been said that if mothers were present in Disney movies, the heroes would not get much beyond the front door and never go on their adventure.

Regardless of the reason, it is almost universally acknowledged that in nearly all of the films in the Disney/Pixar animated canon, the hero’s mother is missing.

However, time and again, only a few movies were cited: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Cinderella (1950), Bambi (1942), The Little Mermaid (1989), and Beauty and the Beast (1991). That’s only five of the more than fifty movies considered part of the Disney canon. Why only the above five?

I decided to test the theory of the missing mom on the entire list of the Disney Animated Canon (as per Wikipedia), as well as some associate films and the Pixar Animated Canon.

My conclusion? See the title of this post: the “missing mom” is a mere myth, perpetuated by a few movies that support it and disregarding the rest of the family.  At the most, it is a normal storytelling convention that is not very notable.

First of all, a lot of the Disney canon feature films that have no parental figures whatsoever. These films thus neither support nor detract from the myth. Rather, they simply point to there being no inherent conspiracy in Disney’s portrayal of women and families. Films in this category include: Fantasia (1942), Saludos Amigos (1943), The Three Caballeros (1944), Make Mine Music (1946), Fun & Fancy Free (1947), The Adventures of Ichabod & Mr. Toad (1949), The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977), The Rescuers (1977), The Rescuers Down Under (1990), Fantasia 2000 (1999), Home on the Range (2004), Bolt (2008), Winnie the Pooh (2011), and Wreck-It Ralph (2012), as well as Pixar’s Monsters Inc. (2001), Cars (2006), Ratatouille (2007), WALL-E (2008), Cars 2 (2011), and Monsters University (2013). To this category, I might also add The Black Cauldron (1985), but I have not seen that one. In these films, parental characters may exist, but they are not the focal point of the story and they or their absence do not define the heroes in a significant way. As for the peripheral mother characters in these films, such as Kanga in Winnie the Pooh, they are generally portrayed positively and as being as present as mothers as they are needed.

I will admit that I may be mistaken about some of the films that I have placed in the above category, as I have a dim memory of some of them, have not seen some of the early ones, and have not seen some others (although The Black Cauldron is the only one for which I have not only not seen, but have had no peripheral knowledge of). However, out of 70 films that I analysed, 21 of them fall into this category – 15 of those in the Disney Canon proper. Therefore, my analysis will primarily concern the 49 films that remain.

Of the remaining films, several patterns emerged. To start, I will list some simple facts:

The number of films featuring dead mothers, including those that die during the story? 25.5 [There are really two protagonists in Tangled (2010), and only one of them is an orphan.]

The number of films featuring dead fathers, including those that die during the story? 27.5

In other words, more fathers than mothers die or are dead by backstory in Disney and Pixar films.

Yes, a lot of the dead fathers are because many Disney and Pixar heroes are orphans. However, that also accounts for a lot of the dead mothers.

The number of films featuring orphaned protagonists? 17.5 This includes such off-cited “dead mother” examples as Snow White and Cinderella.

That leaves us with a mere 8 films featuring dead mothers alone (compared with 10 films featuring dead fathers alone). That is not an usual number at all. In fact, that is quite ordinary when considering that orphans or missing parents form a considerable plot point or character trait in a story.

Losing a parent is a traumatic experience whether one is five, fifty-five, or seventy-five. Losing both parents, either at once or separately, is doubly traumatic. Even well-established adults feel a terrible sense of loss at being orphaned. Younger adults and children feel the loss more acutely because they lose stability and security. They have to struggle in life moreso than children whose parents are alive and present in their lives, so their stories are extraordinary – the perfect quality for a hero. Hence, the prevalence of orphaned or single-parent heroes in stories.

What also must be taken into consideration is the source material for many of Disney’s stories. Whether they come from fairy tales, poems, short stories, or folklore, many of these sources were created at a time when children were a lot more likely to lose their parents than in the modern era (post 1950). Nowadays, with the average life expectancy in the high seventies or low eighties, it is rare to meet people under the age of thirty whose parents are deceased. However, it was once not unusual for a woman to die in childbirth (hence missing mothers), nor was it unusual for a man to die in a workplace accident or in battle. Both parents, not to mention the children themselves, could easily die of infection or disease. A child who lost its mother was considered unfortunate, while a child who lost its father was considered an orphan; a child who lost both was an unfortunate orphan most likely to end up a statistic. A child who beat the odds, usually thanks to extended family and friends, was to be celebrated.

Disney used these stories as the source material for their films and did not change the heroes’ backstories involving lost parents. If the mother was missing in the source story, she was missing in the Disney movie. If the father was missing in the source story, he was missing in the Disney movie. In cases where some versions have one parent and some have two, the Disney movie may have selected one parent in order to streamline the story. Would it have mattered if Ariel in The Little Mermaid was arguing with both her mother and father, rather than just her father? Not one bit.

For the sake of completeness, here is a list of the Disney and Pixar Animated Canons (excluding those mentioned above as not relevant) and how they portray the heroes’ parents:

Film Mother Father Other Parental Figure(s) Reasoning Result
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) Stepmother (antagonist) Source material Orphan
Pinocchio (1940) None (hero is a puppet) Alive Blue Fairy, Jiminy Cricket Source material No mother
Dumbo (1941) Alive Dead (backstory) n/a Source material; Elephants don’t marry Lost father
Bambi Dies in story Alive n/a Source material Lost mother
Cinderella Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) Stepmother (antagonist) Source material Orphan
Alice in Wonderland (1951) Alive Alive n/a Source material
Peter Pan (1953) Alive Alive n/a Source material; Peter Pan is orphaned by choice
Lady and the Tramp (1955) Alive (adoptive) Alive (adoptive) n/a Source material; main character is a pet
Sleeping Beauty (1959) Alive Alive Father-in-law; Good Fairies Source material; Prince Philip’s missing mother is also true to setting Aurora has both parents; lost mother for Philip
101 Dalmatians (1961) Alive (Pongo) Alive (Perdita) Roger & Anita (dog owners) Source material; other puppies may have been orphans
The Sword in the Stone (1963) Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) Stepfather (antagonist) Source material Orphan
The Jungle Book (1967) Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) Adoptive animal parents Source material Orphan
The Aristocats (1970) Alive (adoptive) Unknown Heroine also a mother Source material; main character is a pet Lost father
Robin Hood (1973) Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) Nursemaid (ally) Source material; main character adult Orphan
The Fox and the Hound (1981) Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) Adoptive Source material; main character is a pet Orphan
The Great Mouse Detective (1986) Dead (backstory) Alive n/a Source material; missing mother true to setting Lost mother
Oliver & Company (1988) Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) Adoptive owner Source material; main character is a pet Orphan
The Little Mermaid Dead (backstory) Alive n/a Source material Lost mother
Beauty and the Beast Dead (backstory) Alive n/a Source material Lost mother
Aladdin (1992) Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) Father-in-law True to setting Aladdin is an orphan; lost mother for Jasmine
The Lion King (1994) Alive Dies in story Adoptive parents Main characters are animals Lost father
Pocahontas (1995) Dead (backstory) Alive n/a Source material Lost mother
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) Dies in story Dead (backstory) Stepfather (antagonist) Source material Orphan
Hercules (1997) Alive Alive n/a Departed from source material
Mulan (1998) Alive Alive n/a Source material
Tarzan (1999) Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) Adoptive mother Source material Orphan
Dinosaur (2000) Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) Adoptive parents Orphan
The Emperor’s New Groove (2000) Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) Secondary protagonist & his wife True to setting; main characters are adults Orphan
Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) Dead (backstory) Alive n/a Main characters are adults Lost mother
Lilo & Stitch (2002) Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory Older sister True to setting Orphan
Treasure Planet (2002) Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) n/a Source material Orphan
Brother Bear (2003) Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) n/a Source material Orphan
Chicken Little (2005) Alive Alive n/a
Meet the Robinsons (2007) Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) Adoptive family Orphan
The Princess and the Frog (2009) Alive Dies in story n/a Source material; true to setting Lost father
Tangled Mixed Mixed Adoptive mother (antagonist) Source material; true to setting Rapunzel has both parents; Flynn is an orphan
Frozen (2013) Dies in story Dies in story n/a Source material; true to setting Orphans
Mary Poppins (1964) Alive Alive Nanny Source material
Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) Dead (backstory) Dead (backstory) Adoptive mother Source material Orphans
Enchanted (2007) Dead (backstory) Alive Stepmother; potential stepmother Lost mother
Saving Mr. Banks (2013) Alive Dies in story n/a Main character is an adult Lost father
Toy Story (1995) Alive Dead/Missing (backstory) n/a Lost father
A Bug’s Life (1998) Alive Dead (backstory) n/a Main characters are insects Lost father
Toy Story 2 (1999) Alive Dead/Missing (backstory) n/a Lost father
Finding Nemo (2003) Dies in story Alive n/a Main characters are animals Lost mother
The Incredibles (2004) Alive Alive n/a
Up (2009) Alive Dead/Missing (backstory) Adoptive grandfather Main character is an adult Carl is orphaned due to age; lost father for Russell
Toy Story 3 (2010) Alive Dead/Missing (backstory) n/a Lost father
Brave (2012) Alive Alive n/a

Rather than portraying motherhood negatively or sweeping it under the rug and devaluing it, Disney and Pixar films overwhelmingly portray mothers as positive characters that are essential to the heroes’ successes. Their absence is keenly felt. Parental figures are praised for raising the heroes (or adopting them) and shamed for not doing so, such as “evil stepmothers”. All of the dead mothers have a historical basis for being gone. Furthermore, many of these stories involve animals, whose different life expectancies and life trajectories make lost parents a lot more likely.

A large number of these films feature no lost parents at all. Some of these parents are non-existent in the film (such as in Alice in Wonderland), but others are the main characters, such as in The Incredibles. Looking at this list, it seems that Disney/Pixar have a record of balanced stories: some missing fathers, some missing mothers, some missing both parents, and some missing no parents. Whether or not a hero’s parents are deceased depends largely on the story being told.

My question is, therefore, how did the myth of the missing mom get started? Was it really just The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast that got audiences noticing the lack of mothers? How do they notice the lack of mothers, but not the lack of fathers? Also, just because the mother has few to no lines doesn’t mean she is non-existent, as those who would lump Sleeping Beauty into the missing mom category.

There is no conspiracy against moms in Disney films. There is just beautiful animation and fun storytelling.

Disney thumbnails

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One Response to The Myth of the Missing Mom – Disney’s (and Pixar’s) Canon (1937-2013)

  1. Pingback: Update on Disney’s Missing Mom Theory | Katy by the Fireplace

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