Why do so many fairy tales (and Disney movies) have dead moms? And no, it’s not misogyny.

 

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At the risk of rolling out a tired subject, I’ve been thinking a lot about dead mothers. (Sorry mom, I’ll call later today). Namely the Sopranos-level morgue filled with dead Disney and fairy tale moms that, in some cases, make an appearance before meeting their untimely demise (Frozen), and in other cases have been pushing up daisies long before we all got there (Cinderella). 

In the novel I’m working on right now, my main character’s mother belongs in the latter category: disappeared under mysterious circumstances before the action of the novel takes place. What struck me as odd is that my “choice” to kill Findan’s mother off wasn’t much of a choice at all; I did it almost reflexively. 

“Why?” asked my nine-year-old. 

“Why?” asked my wife. 

Economics came to my rescue. Writers are on a tight budget when it comes to crafting our stories; we can’t afford extras. Having mother there when Findan is captured and sold into slavery opens new storylines, begs new questions, muddies the intimate conversations Findan has with his father prior to his kidnap and enslavement, and widens the narrative lens when I need it to be more narrow. 

So there. That’s my official statement. There’s already too many folks in the boat. But that’s not quite it. There are other problems with keeping her alive. And when I imagined the story with her in the picture, I realized it wasn’t just about economy; it was about credibility. For example, Findan’s father runs into trouble with the village church and is condemned to be publicly shamed the following day. When I re-envisioned this plotline with his wife standing before him, I realized how likely she would have intervened and gotten her stubborn husband to mend the relationship before it came to that. When Findan is captured and loaded onto a ship to be sold in the markets, he is discovered by his captors alone, hiding out in a cave and waiting for the raid to be over. I tried to imagine a world where mom is alive and kicking and allows her son to be anywhere near a cave, or alone, or taken without much of a fight. I couldn’t buy it, and, I gather, neither would my audience. 

It’s been said that women ruin fun. Women also ruin most attempts to do something stupid and dangerous. My sons often tell me that if something were to happen to their mother, they wouldn’t survive the week. 

“Is it because I don’t stop you from jumping off the roof to see if a hefty bag makes a suitable parachute?” I ask. Yes, it’s exactly the reason.

My character is pitched into a situation where he finds himself always figuratively jumping off roofs with a hefty bag for a parachute, and I couldn’t imagine he’d be in that situation with mom nearby.

Which brings me back to Disney. My sons have a low tolerance for dead mothers. They look away when Nemo’s mother eats it. (Or, in this case, gets eaten). They ask me to fast-forward the part when Littlefoot’s bronto-Mom dies in The Land Before Time. And they won’t even touch Bambi.  So I wasn’t entirely surprised to find myself in a philosophical discussion about all the sad, dead mothers while we sat together in the COVID-19 fallout shelter, known as our living room.  

Why do so many Disney and fairy tale protagonists have dead mothers? I’d read somewhere that the wicked stepmother trope was meant to discourage divorce. But that only holds up for Cinderella and Snow White. The body count is much higher. The more we talked, the more I became convinced that it boiled down to the credibility problem I encountered with my novel. Some examples:

Rapunzle

When a pregnant woman begins to waste away unless she consumes salad made of the neighbor’s rapunzel fruit, her husband’s ill-conceived solution is to go next door and steal it. Back then people borrowed sugar from neighbors all the time; I’m not quite sure why he opted for theft. In either event, the man gets caught by the neighbor, an old sorceress, who strikes a deal with the husband. I’ll let you have all the rapunzel you want, but you have to hand over the child when it is born. 

Why is mom out of the picture?

In what world would a mother make that deal? I couldn’t even get my wife to take an aspirin when she was pregnant because she feared it would harm the baby. Here, mom would have told the husband to run off with a bit of the plant’s root so they could grow their own rapunzel. Then, maybe only he’d be stricken with boils from head to toe, or turned into a garden slug, but the baby would be safe and sound in her bosom. Therein lies the difference in how the man understands his new place when a child enters into the relationship. He probably imagined his wife would make the same deal if he was in bed wasting away. She wouldn’t. He doesn’t realize that when a baby comes along, he falls to second chair. Take heart men. Think of it as a kinder fate than that afforded to male praying mantis. 

Snow White

In the Brothers Grimm retelling, trouble pops off when a vain stepmother enters the picture and needs to get rid of her beautiful stepdaughter because Oedipus. She sends Snow White off with a stranger to be killed, but the attempt fails. Her mirror (think of the worst Twitter snitch getting people fired right now) tells her that Snow White is still alive. She tries three more times and finally succeeds on the last attempt when she poisons an apple. A prince comes along and revives her before he marries her and they live happily ever after. 

Why is mom out of the picture?

Two reasons. The vain stepmother’s vanity would have been sniffed out immediately if mom was dropping in on visitation rights. She would have given her ex-husband a look the moment stepmom opened her mouth and the message would have been received. Secondly, the stepmother initially sends Snow White on a date with a woodsman and they wander off into the forest alone. If mom was alive, how would that play out? She went where, now? With who, now? Oh hell no. 

Let’s take a moment also to acknowledge the complete lack of intellectual curiosity so common in men. The father doesn’t have any questions for his new bride when his daughter goes off into the woods with a stranger? Doesn’t think to inquire where she might have gotten off to when stepmom tries to suffocate her with a bodice? Isn’t a little curious as to Snow White’s whereabouts after she’s gone another night, felled by a poison comb? Doesn’t say, “honey-dear, have you heard at all from Snow White since that night we let her go into the woods with an armed man?” after she ate from a poisoned apple? Snow White is just parachuting with a hefty bag, time after time, roof after roof, and dad is in his chair reading the funnies. 

Aladdin

A street-dwelling thief is charged with stealing a magic lamp at the behest of the grand vizier, but uses the lamp to suit his own ends. He wins the heart of the princess and retires to a life of luxury. 

Why is mom out of the picture?

What drags Aladdin into the current of this particular story is his skill in thievery. He is discovered by the grand vizier pick-pocketing merchants and citizens all over Agrabah. His ability to slip into windows and disappear into throngs of people without being noticed is what qualifies him to get the magic lamp in the first place. The vizier thinks he can successfully cat-burgle the Cave of Wonders. When you go out to your car in the morning and discover the passenger door slightly ajar and all your stuff has been stolen from it during the night, you curse and wish you could have caught that creep doing it. Aladdin is that creep. And he became that because mom wasn’t there with a bit of moral guidance to the side of the head. During the 2015 riots in Baltimore, a video went viral depicting what happened when a 16-year-old boy showed up at the riots intending to throw rocks at police officers. His mother, donned in a bright yellow shirt, grabbed him up and slapped him all the way across the city. His participation in the riot was over. He never even got off the roof with the hefty bag. 

That boy is Aladdin, if Aladdin’s mother was around. 

Not convinced?

I’ll leave you with this assignment. If you haven’t already become a fan during this pandemic, binge-watch The Amazing World of Gumball. In nearly every episode when young Darwin and Gumball find themselves in a fix they can’t get out of, they turn to their inept father. And it gets worse until mom shows up. Without fail. When they get bullied by Tina the T-Rex, mom dismantles Tina’s father. When the neighbors take over their house and turn it into a never-ending frat party, mom not only breaks up the party in two seconds flat, but she has the neighbors clean the house top to bottom. Why do so many fairy tales have dead moms? It isn’t misogyny. Moms know how to shut it down before anything gets out of hand. 

 

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