Missing Moms and the Fairytale Characters Living Without Them
The fairytale genre is one of the most well-known. It’s the first one most of us are introduced to as children, and whether we know it or not, it’s our first exposure to many tropes and archetypes. Fairytales have many conventions in common, such as clear delineations between heroes and villains, the use of magic, and the use of tests the hero must pass to prove worthy of achieving a goal. However, even if a fairytale doesn’t use one of these tropes, chances are it will use another common one: the lack of a mother or mother figure. In almost every classic fairytale, the hero or heroine has no biological mother, often due to her death. While this isn’t heavily discussed in most stories, the lack of a mother has a significant impact on every fairytale hero or heroine, for good or ill.
Say the word “fairytale,” and Cinderella likely comes to mind immediately. The story has been a favorite for generations. It has undergone countless retellings in books, film, and other media, and been critiqued from almost every angle. Most critiques focus on Cinderella’s desire for a prince and whether she is a positive female role model. Yet not much attention is paid to what shaped her desires or influencing ability. Cinderella grows up without a mother, which arguably shapes her more than any event in her life, including her triumph at the ball.
Readers and viewers know Cinderella’s mother died, although how is not specified in many versions. The 2015 live action Disney remake shows the mother succumbing to an illness, perhaps tuberculosis if we go by her constant cough. Other versions state she was ill for a long time without specifying the sickness, but most versions simply show Cinderella growing up with a single father. This arrangement persists for an unknown period until the father, who travels frequently, brings home a stepmother and her two daughters.
The word “stepmother” immediately connotes “villain” for fairytale aficionados. According to the SurLaLune annotated version of Cinderella, the stepmother figure is always “associated with jealousy and cruelty.” According to masculine psychology, she is “a symbol of the unconscious in a destructive role,” and according to Jungian psychology, she is the archetype for a destructive mother or inner tyrant. “Better a serpent than a stepmother,” Euripidies said in 437 BC, and in Cinderella’s case, he was correct. Cinderella’s stepmother instantly takes over the household, using her new husband’s absence to her advantage. She privileges her biological daughters over Cinderella, abusing and demeaning her stepdaughter at every turn. She gets away with it because during the story’s time period, the house was considered a woman’s domain. Cinderella’s father would not have paid much if any attention to what took place there.
In making Cinderella a servant, the stepmother strips her stepdaughter of her rightful place as lady of the house. She does not provide instruction on running a household correctly as a biological mother might have. Cinderella has no opportunity for education or socialization; her stepmother does not teach her the social graces a lady of her time would need to know. Instead, Cinderella’s position in her own household is that of scullery maid. She does “the meanest work of the house”–scrubbing floors, emptying chamber pots, and most famously, cleaning chimneys. With every chore, Cinderella’s stepmother silently sends the message, “You are not a lady. You do not deserve the role you were born into. I am in control, not you.” In the 2015 remake, Lady Tremaine drives this home with the declaration, “A ragged servant girl is what you will always be.” Indeed, Cinderella apparently has no way to escape her new role or change her future.
Cinderella is not hopeless or helpless, though she appears to be. Her lack of an attentive mother figure has stunted her emotional, educational, and social growth. Yet in most versions, she doesn’t seem aware of that stunting. If she is, she doesn’t let it affect her kind, patient attitude, or her dreams for a better future. Without a mother, Cinderella has learned if she wants to be a lady, she’ll have to teach herself. Much of that teaching comes from inner strength. She remembers she is a gentleman’s daughter, even when her father dies, leaving her with no family other than her abusers. That memory informs her every word and action. She may not know how to dance properly, set a fancy table, or converse in multiple languages, but she does know how to be kind. She knows how to treat those less fortunate, tackle hard work with grace, and conduct herself no matter who is in her company. In many versions, Cinderella treats the prince as a person rather than a royal, perhaps because she lacks a noblewoman’s traditional education. For his part, the prince finds this refreshing and attractive.
Most versions don’t give Cinderella’s mother much, if any, time to teach her daughter these crucial lessons. What is there shines through, however. The adversity Cinderella faces from the woman who was supposed to step into her mother’s nurturing role only enhances her abilities.
Like Cinderella, Snow White suffers under the wrath of a wicked stepmother. In the Disney version, the stepmother, also known as the Evil Queen, does make Snow White a scullery maid, but this is not her ultimate plan. The Evil Queen does not simply want to humiliate Snow White; she wants to murder her. The Queen has long been “the fairest in the land,” but Snow White has taken the title. This is partially because Snow White is beautiful; she’s described as pale-skinned with “lips red as the rose” and “hair black as ebony.” Such a striking combination is rare in fairytales, where many princesses are blue-eyed and fair-haired. It’s also rare genetically, making her more of a marvel. Like Cinderella though, Snow White is mostly “the fairest” due to her kindness, gentleness, and patience. The Queen cannot or will not emulate these traits, and seeing them acted out day after day rankles her. In many adaptations, such as Once Upon a Time’s version of Snow White’s story, the princess’ goodwill earns her the love of her kingdom’s people, increasing the Queen’s thirst for blood and vengeance.
If Snow White’s biological mother had lived, would the princess be the focal point of murderous plots? Readers and viewers might say yes, but evidence suggests otherwise. In the original Grimm fairytale, Snow White’s biological mother was the villain. Rather than nurturing her flesh and blood, she chose to murder Snow White because the princess stole her mother’s beauty. This puts Snow White at a distinct disadvantage over Cinderella. She has never had a loving mother of any description. Whether biological or a stepmother, the only female figure she knows and trusts does not even want her alive. As for Snow White’s father, he is barely mentioned; like Cinderella’s father, he dies early in the tale.
Snow White is left with no one to trust, no one to care for her, and no one to nurture her. She must fend for herself from an early age; the Disney version paints her as young as fourteen. She ends up living in a cottage of seven dwarves – all men – who cherish her but expect her to be their housekeeper and caretaker. The dwarves’ intentions are not sexual. In the Disney version, Snow White thinks of them almost as her children. In Once Upon a Time, the dwarves act as overprotective brothers, and cannot have relations with Snow White because their culture demands they remain celibate. That said, it is disturbing for Snow White to seek refuge exclusively with men once she’s on her own. This suggests that while she knows how to do house chores, she has no concept of what it means to embrace womanhood. She’s never been taught that women are fundamentally different from men, or that there are things women know that men are not meant to probe into. Without a mother figure, Snow White arguably doesn’t truly know she’s a woman.
This deficit comes to the forefront when Snow meets her prince. The tale of Snow White, especially its Disney adaptation, has long been criticized because its heroine begins a serious relationship with, and ostensibly marries, a man she just met. They’ve never had a real conversation, and Snow’s first kiss occurs when she is comatose. In other words, though lovingly, the prince takes advantage of her weakened state. Yet Snow White never questions any of this. She doesn’t get to know the prince or ruminate on what life with him would be like. She accepts him because he’s handsome and seems kind. Arguably, she also accepts him because he is male, and she has absorbed the message she needs males to survive. Readers or viewers are meant to understand Snow White will be okay, even happy, with her true love, but in real life, the story doesn’t translate well. Her lack of a mother has taught Snow that she can’t make it on her own – that in fact, without a man, she is in constant danger. Unlike Cinderella, whose motherlessness makes her stronger, Snow White becomes emotionally weaker, constantly floundering in a world too big, complicated, and frightening for her to navigate.
Belle, protagonist of Beauty and the Beast, is a third motherless fairytale heroine. In many versions of her story such as the SurLaLune annotation, Belle (or Beauty, as she’s sometimes known) never mentions having or missing a mother. The mother’s absence goes unexplained in many incarnations of the story, although more modern adaptations have given her a backstory. Whether or not her mother has a backstory though, Belle is always given an attentive father. Belle and her father are always close; if Belle has siblings, she is painted as her father’s favorite.
Belle’s closeness with her father gives her a distinct advantage over Cinderella and Snow White. She is one of the only fairytale heroines, especially in the Disney canon, who has a close relationship with a biological parent. Readers and viewers can infer this connection gives Belle more security, although her story doesn’t delve into that. This security gives Belle room to develop not only kindness and patience, but a definite sense of personhood and self-respect. In her book Captivating, author Stasi Eldridge explores this concept more fully. She argues that all girls want to be “the Beauty” worth rescuing, whether or not they act like “damsels in distress,” so to speak. This desire to be the Beauty often starts with the father. Eldridge explains girls often will twirl, dance, or otherwise perform in front of their fathers. Daughters want their fathers to affirmatively answer their hearts’ question, “Am I pretty, Daddy?” Here, “pretty” means both physically beautiful and inwardly valuable. Belle’s father consistently gives her an affirmative answer, even when others do not. Thus, Belle grows up knowing she can do and be whatever she is meant to, because she is treasured in her father’s eyes. She might well miss her mother, but Belle recognizes Papa doing his best to fill that void. She rewards him with unconditional love, loyalty, and intuitive understanding of what he needs.
Her strong sense of security and understanding of men serve Belle well when she encounters the Beast. At first, the Beast rebuffs Belle’s attempts to be patient and subservient with him. As befits his animalistic personality, he roars, stomps around, intimidates others, and insists on his own way. In many versions of Beauty and the Beast, he also treats Belle as a servant, or at least underappreciated subordinate. Belle eventually reaches her limit and lets the Beast know she won’t tolerate his temper. Yet she doesn’t do so with petty anger. Instead, she stands up for herself as she has learned to do with the help of a wise and caring dad. In short order, Belle also mixes firmness with compassion. She learns to see the good in the Beast because her father, and perhaps her mother, were there to teach her how to look for the good in everyone. Belle is a prime example of a motherless heroine whose other family has stepped up to continue the lessons Mom did not get to finish teaching, and she flourishes because of it.
The Little Mermaid (Ariel)
So far, we have examined two heroines whose motherlessness has shaped them for good, and one whose lack of a mother figure has negatively influenced her. Our last heroine, the Little Mermaid, has a different relationship with motherlessness. The Little Mermaid has gleaned positive and negative traits from her lack of a mother figure.
In the original Hans Christian Andersen story and some other adaptations, the Little Mermaid has something of a mother figure in her dowager grandmother. Grandmother is a source of wisdom for her granddaughter, answering her questions about humans and teaching her the differences between humans and mer-people. Additionally, Grandmother is a source of encouragement. She knows her youngest granddaughter longs to see the human world, as each mermaid gets to do on her fifteenth birthday. Yet because the Little Mermaid is the youngest, she has the longest time to wait. Her grandmother understands the Little Mermaid’s frustration but consistently encourages her to be patient. In the adaptations of her story where her grandmother is present, the Little Mermaid has ample opportunity to cultivate that patience, as well as kindness and prudent curiosity. In addition, the Little Mermaid’s grandmother plays a much bigger role in these adaptations than her father, acting almost as a parent rather than a grandparent. She provides her granddaughter a much-needed female confidante, as well as the courage she needs to act on her desires once she is old enough to see the human world for herself. Grandmother cannot ultimately save the Little Mermaid from her fate; the Little Mermaid still despairs because her prince does not love her, and commits suicide. However, her grandmother’s presence arguably gave her a fuller life and nobler motives than are seen in other adaptations.
More recent adaptations of The Little Mermaid, most notably the Disney version, eliminate the grandmother and any trace of a mother figure. In the Disney version, our little mermaid, called Ariel, has six older sisters, as in the original tale. However, they pay her little to no attention and do not provide sisterly guidance when it comes to the human world or anything else Ariel might need help understanding. The only guidance Ariel gets is from her father, King Triton. Triton is well-intentioned and loves his daughter dearly. Yet he is responsible for an entire kingdom, leaving him little time to help Ariel grow up. More importantly, his negative experiences with humans give him deep-seated prejudices that blind him to Ariel’s need for knowledge and a life outside her sheltered sea palace.
By the time we meet Ariel and Triton in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Ariel is sixteen, headstrong, and independent. Without consistent parental guidance or rules, Ariel has learned to navigate the world largely on her own. She is unfailingly curious, possessing an admirable zest for life, and sees the world as a huge yet fascinating and wonderful place. She is fearless, exploring shipwrecks and facing sharks with enviable confidence. Like Belle, she may miss her absent mother, but is comfortable in who she is even without her. Unlike Belle though, Ariel has not absorbed unconditional love or security from her father. If anything, she has learned her father is an adversary because he keeps her from fulfilling her goals. Thus, her admirable independence, confidence, and fearlessness are not tempered with appropriate caution. They quickly become rebellion and recklessness.
Ariel’s lack of a mother or mother figure has also left her unable to distinguish needs from wants, or communicate those properly. She has subconsciously absorbed the message, “Look out for yourself and take what you want no matter the cost. No one else will do it for you because no one else understands you.” Consequently, Ariel and Triton constantly butt heads. “Do you think I want to see my youngest daughter snared by a fish-eater’s hook?” he laments. Yet Ariel doesn’t see this question as loving or protective; she sees it as more evidence of unreasonable prejudice. Triton only drives the knife in deeper when he rages at Ariel and destroys all her human treasures, including the statue of Eric, the prince she claims to love. Ariel breaks down, and throws herself into the grasp of Ursula the sea witch, arguably because she is desperate for someone, anyone, to understand her point of view.
With a mother figure, Ariel might have been saved from the travail that results. A mother, grandmother, or aunt might have shown sympathy and offered to be an intermediary between Ariel and Triton. Moreover, the grown woman in Ariel’s life might have urged her to think through what she was doing. “Yes,” this figure might have told Ariel, “independence and knowledge is important, but not when your means of getting it hurts someone else. Yes, first love feels wonderful and it’s possible Eric could love you, too. However, you both need time to figure out how you feel.” Without such a person in her life, Ariel continues to navigate the world as a rebellious, angry pseudo-orphan. She continually makes poor choices and others, especially Triton, pay the price. Ariel gets what she wants eventually–a chance at love and the ability to make a self-determined decision about the rest of her life. She and Triton make up, and the kingdom seems happy with her choice. However, viewers are left to wonder how much Ariel has truly grown. Does she possess the maturity she wanted her father and others to credit her with, or is she still a selfish and headstrong girl? Opinions vary, but it is not far-fetched to say Ariel will continue to flounder as an adult because she missed out on crucial guidance during her formative years.
The Final Verdict
Many fairytale protagonists, especially females, lack mothers or mother figures. How this lack influences them is often up to the writers of their stories. Some protagonists come out of motherlessness much stronger, while others make choices that indicate they suffered from this lack. However, it cannot be denied motherlessness shapes beloved fairytale characters in ways that are sometimes less than obvious. They may be absent, but fairytale characters’ mothers often carry the strongest presence in any story. The lessons with which they leave their children, no matter how briefly those lessons were taught, inform everything those children do, even from beyond the grave.
Andersen, Hans Christian. “The Little Mermaid.”
Disney, Walt prod. Beauty and the Beast. Walt Disney Films, 1991. Film.
Disney, Walt prod. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Walt Disney Films, 1937. Film.
Disney, Walt prod. The Little Mermaid. Walt Disney Films, 1989. Film.
Eldridge, John & Stasi Eldridge. Captivating. Nelson Books: April 5, 2005.
“Inner Tyrant: The Evil Stepmother Archetype.” August 20, 2013. https://livingintheforest.com/2013/08/20/inner-tyrant-the-evil-stepmother-archetype/
Sur La Lune: The Annotated Beauty and the Beast. http://surlalunefairytales.com/beautybeast/index.html
Sur La Lune: The Annotated Cinderella. http://surlalunefairytales.com/cinderella/index.html
Sur La Lune: The Annotated Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/sevendwarfs/
“The Wicked Stepmother.” http://www.inter-disciplinary.net/at-the-interface/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/porterewpaper.pdf
What do you think? Leave a comment.
Japan’s Studio Ghibli has produced plenty of films with living mothers or strong maternal characters who help (or at least don’t hinder) the child characters’ growth.
In My Neighbor Totoro the mother is recuperating in a hospital. While her absence is what enables her daughters’ freedom to explore (and is also the source of their shared anxieties) she survives in the end.
In Ponyo, Sosuke has a very strong mother who essentially raises him as a single parent while his father is away at sea. She too goes temporarily absent during the tsunami, which allows Sosuke and Ponyo to have an adventure, but the family is reunited at the end.
In Spirited Away, Chihiro is left parentless (they’re turned into pigs) for most of the movie, but she is able to recover them through arduous adventures aided by several strong women who work in the bathhouse and the grandmotherly Zeniba.
Perhaps the strongest female character in the Ghibli line-up, San from Princess Mononoke, was abandoned by her parents only to be raised by Moro, the wolf goddess. San is the fiercest human defender of the sacred forest. All this is to suggest that you don’t have to kill off mothers for child characters to have adventures. The mother’s absence may be temporary (as it often is for children when parents are off at work and they are at school), but killing off mothers isn’t necessary step for children’s growth (pretty much what most Ghibli films are about) in fantasy or reality.
Maybe it’s a Japanese thing.
Maybe it is, in which case the U.S. can and should learn from Japanese culture. Disney, I’m especially looking at you. As the Nostalgia Critic puts it, it seems like every time Disney even hints at the presence of a mother figure, they have to get rid of her.
Excellent reply. Thank you for sharing.
Here’s another thought on this: while I can think of many storis that include mothers and single mothers (you can argue about how common they are), I can’t think of ANY that have a single father where the mother hasn’t died. Is the only way we’ll allow dad to have the kids on his own is if mom dies?
Why can’t dad just be the sole parent without an excuse? I agree that gender expectations play a role in creating these animated characters.
Maybe a topic that should be posted here on The Artifice…? 😉
Hmmm, that is an interesting thought! I think nowadays judges, social workers, what have you are trying to give single fathers better chances at raising their kids, whether or not the mom is in the picture. That said, there is still definitely a negative gender bias toward men. As you say, it’s almost like, “If there is a woman in the picture, she should automatically take the main role in raising the children.” (While we’re at it, that’s a case of positive discrimination against women). If society’s “ideal” is for children to have two parents, why does only one parent so often get the credit while the other gets the shaft?
In E.T., the father has run off with a younger woman. In Miracle on 34th Street, way back in 1947, the father’s departure casts a long shadow; it is Doris Walker’s motivation to teach her daughter not to believe in Santa Claus or other children’s fantasies–she wants her daughter clearheaded and better prepared for the harsher realities of adult life. Admittedly these are both live action, but they are also perennial family films.
Good point. Anecdotally, I know 3 single fathers who have their children and only 1 single mother.
I can’t think of a kids’ movie with a non-widowed single mother, either, but my knowledge of the genre is admittedly dated. Maybe there is one?
This is an interesting point. Although, for these tales, age plays a role. Definitely something to consider for those who love to do retellings.
For better or worse, moms have the perception of being legitimate authority figures, and authority and adventure mix like oil and water.
That’s a really good point. I once read a memoir piece written by an author whose mother died when she was very young. She points out that in many fairytales and children’s stories, the mother’s absence forces the child (ren) she left behind to grow up fast, seek their own fortunes, etc. While independence is a great thing (at least in American culture; don’t get me started), I wonder why it is so often sought and found at the expense of stable, loving parents.
Yes, in fact, these movies could portray the presence of a mother who is loving and, at the same time, eager to live the adventure with her child and give her the taste of independence. How can a mother prepare her child for the world, make her strong, independent, while giving her all the love she needs? This subject is beneficial for parents and children alike.
Nicely worded article.
This is a very interesting trope. I do wonder if in relation to fairy tales it perhaps often came about as a reflection of the difficulty and dangers of childbirth and the number of children who grew up without mothers, so the stepmother was a common occurrence. Or perhaps it is part of the morality of the story telling, that girls who grew up in households with strong mother figures present would not become embroiled in such adventures. Interestingly in the original Cinderella story it is the mother’s spirit that actually gifts and protects Cinderella rather than a separate fairy godmother. Also interesting I think is the story of Sleeping Beauty, where Aurora did have both parents (in the Disney version) but was removed from them to be raised by fairy godparents. Is all of this simply part of the orphan mythology – the idea that to seize on autonomy a person must be separated from their filial obligations? A great read Stephanie that poses some interesting considerations.
The death of the mother represents the end of childhood. A mother’s role is to protect and nurture the child, which means they wouldn’t be going on a life-threatening adventure if she were around. So the story begins with her being removed from the protagonist’s life so they have to fend for themselves for the rest of the story. You might notice that in movies with a dead mother, the father tends to be a bad enough parent to allow the story to continue uninterrupted, whether it’s King Triton being a bully who pushes Ariel away or Luke and Leia’s father being the outright villain of Star Wars.
Also, Single-father heroes learning the ropes of parenting are such a recent narrative development in comparison that it’s not really the same topic, but it’s hardly a surprise that, in a culture where the role of fathers is in the process of being redefined from what it was a generation ago, we see the issue being explored in current movies. Thought it is something interesting to bring up.
Movies that enlist the “dead mother” trope are simply based on the premise that a mother’s death is the most unmooring, dislocating event possible in a child’s life, which research supports.
Hard to have a movie that lets kids envision taking on larger, grown-up roles if the grown-ups are still around.
It’s kind of a given that the mother in most societies classically represents the nurturing safety of home. Removing the mother is removing that big aspect of warmth and nurturing from the character’s life. This is not to say that fathers don’t have those qualities, but they’re deeply embedded archetypes. The mother addresses the character’s emotional life more than the father, and therefore the dead or dying mother leaves them in an insecure place, emotionally.
The challenge for a screenwriter of children’s films is to get the young audience to suspend their disbelief and accept kids much like themselves having fantastical adventures. Removing the mother (and often the father as well) provides a short-cut to do that. To those who haven’t experienced it, the loss of a parent at a young age is pretty unthinkable, therefore it provides an easy route to make-believe. Notice how many kid heroes are orphans- virtually all of them. Even Bruce Wayne wouldn’t be Batman if his parents were alive- but no one is tuning in to “Well-adjusted Billionaire Rising”
I do think the kid could be separated from parents without killing them off. Stories like “Home Alone” allow the child to match himself against the adult bad guys, then have an emotional reunion with parents at the end.
“Wizard of Oz” has a similar structure, but Dorothy is ALREADY orphaned and livew with Auntie Em.
Batman is an interesting example. It made me think how the dead/absent parent trope functions in comics in parallel ways to how it is taken up in fairy tales (for example, Spider-Man, Superman, Daredevil). Mostly, it is adult or near adult characters in comics (rather than children as protagonists). Many characters found heroics (or had a major story arc) in the face of a parental death. This seems to be less about the necessity of suspending disbelief for children’s fantastical adventures, and more about the significance of a life event that changes folks in an extraordinary way.
This is a well-written and thoroughly researched article.
You’ve really fleshed out some ideas that I’ve noticed before but never really was able to articulate. Now when my daughter asks me (again) why the moms always die in the books I read to her, I’ll have some interesting thoughts to share.
@Alexious: Glad I could help. 🙂
The common trope of the dead mother is NOT a patriarchal plot to kill women and negate their existence and value, it’s for convenience. Look at the broad picture and you’ll see that kids in stories, both classic and modern, are orphans, or raised by figures with what’s perceived to be limited authority or oversight (think boarding schools, extended family, etc.) That’s because people need a reason to suspend their belief that these kids are able to go on these fantastical adventures. By having at least one parent die, storytellers are able to take a quick and easy shortcut to not only suspend the audience’s belief more easily, but to also add drama to “develop” the characters who are left alive (the children, and the spouse.)
There aren’t enough women writers getting hired for scripts.
For what it’s worth, Frozen is the top-earning animated movie and I believe was written by a woman. That film seems to be widely considered feminist, but still doesn’t stray all THAT far from the working formula (it has princesses, both parents dead, and ends with the pretty female lead kissing the handsome male lead.)
There’s just not much motivation to monkey with the formula for children’s movies, because of who the buying audience is. Your average six year old has literally no idea whether what he’s watching is cliche or not, and your average parents of a six year old just don’t care so long as the movie is giving them a break. As a genre, financial success seems to be more based on the likability of the characters and quality of the songs then narrative originality…hence the laziness.
Most fairytales date from a time when women routinely died in childbirth and even though this is no longer true, newer fairy tales tend to stick with the traditional fairy tale elements.
I was just going to write this. We take for granted today that women survive childbirth (and if any feminists are reading, the reason for that is men’s ingenuity with science).
Losing your mom at an early age is practically the worst thing that could happen to a person, so it immediately provides an immense challenge to the characters and profound feelings from the audience. It is a backhanded compliment, really…
Yeah, except it doesn’t seem like mother’s death affect these fictional children in any way, they just move on without mom in the picture, therefore your argument is invalid :-> When for example Simba’s dad died, it was a different story – trauma, revenge, growing up without a parent. None of these characters (AFAIK) decided to do anything because of their moms dying.
Beautiful article. I always enjoy reading your perspective.
I think Disney makes a conscious effort to attempt to influence culture via children. I think that what we are witnessing is its attempts to portray fatherly involvement as the norm in an effort to combat absentee fathers.They don’t feel a need to advance positive portrayals of mothers since that’s the cultural norm.
The first step for any children’s adventure is to get rid of competent authority because competent authority wouldn’t let kids get into trouble in the first place. Moms are viewed as competent authority. So getting rid of them lets you get the kids in trouble/in an adventure.
It’s unfortunate that many writers of fairy-tales fall into the easy trope/trap of writing the mom or both parents into oblivion rather than doing the harder work of making a believable mother-and-children adventure.
Fairytales tend to stick with fairly basic narrative structures, and killing off the mother is a quick way to both have the child lead character “on his/her own” and create a major emotional moment. In the Lion King, where the father was the bigger presence in the child character’s life, they offed dad in spectacularly emotional fashion instead. It’s the same reason why so many child protagonists are orphans completely.
I think it’s interesting how you argue the different influences parents of either gender have on their daughters. I am particularly intrigued by the part in which you asserts that Snow White “doesn’t know she is a woman” and the Eldridges’ quotations. I wonder how this article can be expanded with psychanalysis theories in child development, as well as performance studies.
Hello. There are many very interesting points in this article. Fairy tales were originally written for upper class adults who could read and not for children. They have many lessons about what dangers women should watch out for. The life journeys of the young women in these tales share the teaching of good behavioral morals, for example Cinderella’s good behavior compared to her step-sisters bad behavior. Disney and others have adapted these stories over the years to suit children.
Even though it’s a sequel that isn’t based on the original fairytale, after reading this article I couldn’t help but be reminded of The Little Mermaid 2: Return to the Sea. This movie follows Melody, Ariel’s young daughter. Melody proves to be just as headstrong as Ariel was in her youth. However, Melody does have the love and support of both of her parents. Despite this, Melody still rebels in much the same way that Ariel did. It makes me wonder if Ariel would still have rebelled, even if Disney had decided to include a mother figure in the movie. I think Ariel would not have rebelled, at least not as extremely as she did in The Little Mermaid or Melody does in the sequel if Disney did provide her with a mother figure. In the original Hans Christian Andersen fairytale, it is The Little Mermaid’s mother figure, her grandmother, who encourages her to be more patient and helps her to mature. Therefore, by writing a sequel in which Melody rebels in a very similar way to which Ariel rebelled in the first movie, despite having the support and guidance of her mother, unlike Ariel did, is Disney focusing more on the behavior of adolescents, rather than behavior brought on by the lack of a mother? Of course, this train of thought can only be followed with the consideration of the second movie, the plot of which is not based on the classic fairytale.
Nonetheless, the exclusion of mother figures is a notable and perplexing commonality in fairytales. This is especially evident in Disney adaptions. Thank you for the intriguing read!
Beautiful essay with amazing points.
Sometimes, when I would watch these Disney movies as a little girl. I would find certain traits about the princesses that I wouldn’t understand. One of these was that Ariel had no respect for her father’s wishes. Of course, when I got older I understood the backstory of The Little Mermaid more, and reached a similar conclusion discussed in the article.
I loved that you explored the psychology behind the lack of maternal influence in fairy tale characters. I have had conversation with my friends looking back on our childhood films wondering how we could have held the princesses in such high esteem. Snow White, for example, mystified me because I don’t consider myself naive enough to run off with some boy I just met. To break down the reasoning behind her and other characters’ actions was fascinating and an enjoyable read.
In Charles Perrault’s 1697 “Cinderella, or the Little Glass Slipper,” daughters innately take after their biological mothers. The stepmother had “two daughters of her own humor, who were, indeed, exactly like her in all things” while Cinderella is “of unparalleled goodness and sweetness of temper, which she took from her mother, who was the best creature in the world.”
Modern adaptations tend to expand the character development within the structure of a familiar tale, but in the original context of a moralistic fairytale with clear-cut one-dimensional characters, Cinderella’s missing mother seems to be only a plot device to emphasize children’s duty to obedience and goodness. At least, that’s my interpretation of the original — I’d be curious to know other interpretations of absent-mother device in fairytales (prior to Disney-fication).
I think that it is interesting and important to investigate the evil stepmother trope that prevails in most fairytales a little more closely. In relation to the death of the mother (one subtle way of the reader/viewer to be told that only the main character is the only female that matters), it insists that nothing would be better if you can’t have the original. However, that original is stripped from the story, leaving us feeling as lost as the main character. I believe that this is one way to limit the amount of female characters displayed in stories. It also takes away any chance of depicting a healthy mother-daughter relationship.
The maternal female carries the ideal of stability. In many fairytales, that absent is needed to create either a void or a conflict. It is formulaic and an interesting way of thinking about plot development in fairytales. The “what if” factor is huge. What if Cinderella had a loving mother? What if Ariel had her mother’s support?
This is such an interesting piece!
Orphans in literature serve as fantastic story telling devices, particularly in novels, because they are forced to make their own way in the world, and therefore are more susceptible to circumstances which lead to adventure and to an interesting story. The motherless heroine in fairytales is an interesting trope. I do think it exist partly for the same reasons that orphans in other literature (Oliver Twist, Harry Potter, Anne of Green Gables) exist. However, we cannot ignore the points made by others about the traditional role of the mother as opposed to that of the father. In fairy tales, the father is often presented as loving but unable to care properly and completely for the daughter, who eventually finds stability by marrying a prince. What does this say about our expectations of mothers vs fathers?
As a girl who was raised by her father, I found this article extremely interesting. Your lines here capture my relationship with my father perfectly: “She might well miss her mother, but Belle recognizes Papa doing his best to fill that void. She rewards him with unconditional love, loyalty, and intuitive understanding of what he needs.” My father did everything he could to encourage me and show me love. We were very close, more like friends than parent and child, most of my life. He passed away six years ago now, and I’m seeing more and more how much of an influence he was on me. I wish I could tell him.
Interesting and well-researched article. It would be interesting to compare the death of the mother to the trope of the ‘evil’ stepmother in many of these fairytale stories.
Very well done and it is so interesting to see how all of these stories have that same trope and what that may mean!
I like this essay. My children, particularly my daughters, might find it interesting since their mother died when they were young.
I really enjoyed this article. This a trope that I’ve always found fascinating.
I’ve always noticed the (Disney) princesses having a lack of parental figures– would be interesting if you constrasted with the other ones who DO have motherly figures (i.e. Sleeping Beauty, Mulan, etc. if just taking in mind the Disney adaptations). I especially find your analysis of Belle and Ariel interesting. Ariel has never been a favorite of mine, but this article really showed me a different view of her.
I know that in the older Disney films, Walt Disney deliberately made his protagonist characters as not having one parent, because he wanted children who did not have a two-parent household to be able to relate to the character.
It is reported there are twenty seven Disney fairy tales in which the mother had died, including the standard classics, as Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast. In addition there is a whole group of tales in which the child protagonist is an orphan, for example Dorothy in, The Wonderful World of Oz. One should take into consideration that many fairy tales characterize the Father as a neglectful and passive, as seen in Little Snow White.
In any case, Walt Disney used pre existing folktales / fairy tales as the literary foundation of his animated films, so he didn’t invent the trope of the absent mother. From my point of view, ( I am writer working on a book of fairy tales), the trope or motif refers to the need of the psyche ( personified by the child) to be free enough to develop an personal identity, which starts with the separation from ones parent’s expectations, and psychological programming.