Once upon a time, in the not-so-faraway land of Hollywood, a studio named Disney built an empire of magical fairy-tale films for children. But amid all of the cheerful talking squirrels and bippity-boppity-boos and eventual happily ever afters (usually involving impossibly small-waisted princesses), Disney decided that all of the mothers must die. Or, at the very least, that their young heroes and heroines should be torn away from their moms, as seen in the trailer for Tim Burton’s live-action Dumbo, in theaters Friday.
While baby Dumbo screeches in anguish, eyes watery, his mom is locked up and carted away, branded mad for trying to protect him.
“But she’s his mom,” says a wide-eyed Finley Hobbins, who plays Dumbo’s friend Joe. Oh, dear, sweet Joe. Welcome to the wonderful world of Disney.
“Ariel has no mother,” Bonnie Rudner, an associate professor of English at Boston College who teaches a popular course widely known as “the Disney class,” told Vogue. “Belle has no mother. Jasmine has no mother. Aladdin has no mother.” Cinderella’s mom: dead. Snow White’s mom: also dead. The mother in the new Mary Poppins: definitely dead. Bambi’s mom: shot dead just offscreen in a scene that, I can confirm having just re-watched it, is still devastating.
From its earliest animated films—Snow White debuted in 1937—it has been Disney’s practice to “eighty-six the mother,” as Lynda Haas, an English professor at the University of California at Irvine, put it in a chapter of the 1995 book From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture.
The most generous theory as to why a studio attempting to bring joy to children habitually murders moms: It’s a quick and dirty way to set a young hero or heroine on a path of self-discovery and adventure (never mind the trauma). They didn’t invent this practice, of course; many classic fairy tales, like Hansel and Gretel, eliminate the parents in some capacity, in the interest of the child’s growth. But Disney brought it into mass-market popular culture. As Rudner says: “We call that, in my class, the Disney shortcut.”
Aren’t there any other ways to create a compelling coming-of-age story that don’t involve a gunshot and Bambi screaming “Mother!” into the silent forest? Couldn’t the parents maybe just have a night out, say, like in Adventures in Babysitting? As the mother of a Disney princess–obsessed little girl, the nebulously dead mothers have been personally irritating me for years, forcing premature questions about death from my then 2- or 3-year-old, who would regularly ask: “Where’s Ariel’s/Belle’s/Cinderella’s mommy?” For a while, I stalled: “Um, she’s at work.” By age 5, however, her heart’s been hardened, and she’s hip to Disney’s game. Watching Elsa and Anna’s mom’s (and dad’s, for once) ship be subsumed by a tidal wave in Frozen, she now blinks stone-faced at the TV and deadpans: “They’re dead.”
Another even less palatable theory: Maybe “Disney just doesn’t seem to think mothers are important,” Rudner says. Consider that the few moms permitted to live typically have few to no lines: “Mulan has a mother, but she doesn’t seem to open her mouth at all,” Rudner laments. Sleeping Beauty’s mom, she informs me, doesn’t even have a name. “Of the 300-and-some films Disney has produced in the last 60 years, mothers, when represented at all, are more stereotypically (and ideologically) drawn than any other character,” Haas wrote in From Mouse to Mermaid.
At times, Disney seems to go to great pains to marginalize mothers, even when the story line is disconnected from reality. “If you look at Lion King, he has a mother, but she’s completely useless,” says Rudner. In real life, “lionesses are mean. In what world would they allow Scar to dominate them?”
Look closely, and, like the rumored (though debunked) penis hidden on the front cover of The Little Mermaid VHS, the patriarchy starts to reveal itself in the Disney canon. According to Haas, it is a long-standing Disney trend to “excuse the mother figure in order to replace her with a kindly—and often more competent—patriarch.” See: Belle’s dad, Maurice, or Ariel’s protective but fiercely loving father, King Triton, who hooks her up with human legs. No matter that, in the real world, mothers are responsible for the majority of childcare. It’s almost as if Disney doesn’t think adult women—with the exception of Mary Poppins, Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother, and the three good fairies in Sleeping Beauty—are worthy heroines. (And notice that all of those women are endowed with supernatural powers.) Rather, they are often the villains, from Snow White’s Wicked Queen to Ursula in The Little Mermaid and the infamous Maleficent.
“Disney, actually, is really sexist about all women,” Rudner says, noting that it’s rare to see a Disney movie “in which any female character gets any support from any other female character.” She points to a glaring lack of female friendship among the princesses in particular: Ariel’s trio of friends, Flounder, Sebastian, and Scuttle; Jasmine’s tiger, Raja; in more recent films, Anna’s supportive pals (Kristoff, Olaf, and Sven) in Frozen and Moana’s sailing buddies, Heihei the chicken and Maui (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), are all male. “It’s perpetuating this myth,” Rudner said, “that women are never allies to each other.”
Whether Disney’s sexist storytelling is rooted in a lack of female creators or an unwavering commitment to the aforementioned shortcut is up for debate. (Another fan theory is that Walt Disney lost his own mother early in his career, leading to a lot of art imitating life.) But with ever more live-action adaptations of the classics, like Dumbo, coming to theaters, the old formula could use an update. As pop culturally pervasive and often wonderful as Disney still is—32 years apart, both my daughter and I twirled around singing to “Part of Your World”—it would be a new kind of magic for the all-powerful studio to not only let mothers live but draw them better.
"I would like to see women presented as more fully rounded,” Rudner says. “I’d like to see women support each other.”