Thinking About Subliminal Children’s Cinematic Viewing Messages

Or, that was the longest blog title I’ve ever used. I’m not sure what I’m doing here, and I am no statistician, but let’s just for a second look at something:

  1. Snow White: No mother, evil stepmother
  2. Pinocchio: No mother
  3. Fantasia: Disney on crack, so no story anyway
  4. Dumbo: Finally a mother, but she is put in chains and locked away
  5. Bambi: Mother is shot in first scenes
  6. Cinderella: No mother
  7. Alice in Wonderland: No mother, evil queen
  8. Peter Pan: Another mother! But the story takes place in a land where there are only boys.
  9. Lady and the Tramp: Lady becomes a mother at the end.
  10. Sleeping Beauty: Sent off to live with three fairies in the woods.
  11. 101 Dalmations: Another dog who is a mother.
  12. Jungle Book: No mother
  13. Aristocats: never seen it.
  14. Robin Hood: Non issue.
  15. The Little Mermaid: No mother
  16. Beauty and the Beast: No mother
  17. Alladin: No mother
  18. The Lion King: Has a mother, father dies.
  19. Pocahontas: No Mother
  20. Hunchback of Notre Dame: No mother
  21. Hercules: Mother is a god.
  22. Mulan: No mother does in face have a mother, I have been told.
  23. Tarzan: No mother
  24. Fantasia 2000: Crack-tastic revisited.
  25. Lilo and Stitch: No mother

So, out of twenty-five (and this list is not exhaustive) feature-length Disney films, sixteen of them have a protagonist set up with no mother figure whatsoever. Of the remaining nine, two were abstract paintings, four were about anthropomorphic animals where parenthood came at the close of the movie, or was a non-issue, and the remaining three actually had a mother, even if she sent her kids away. Mrs. Jumbo (Dumbo) and Sarabi (Lion King) were the only two functioning mothers, with Mrs Darling (Peter Pan) being only ancillary to the story, while the kids flew off to a land where only boys live.

Next, let’s look at Pixar/Disney:

  1. Toy Story: Andy has a mother!
  2. Bugs Life: The queen is good.
  3. Toy Story 2: Andy still has a mother.
  4. Monster’s Inc: WHERE was Boo’s mother??
  5. Finding Nemo: Mother is eaten in first scene.
  6. The Incredibles: AWESOME mom.
  7. Cars: Do cars have mothers? Nah.
  8. Ratatouille: No mother.
  9. WALL-E: non issue.
  10. UP: Wife dies.
  11. Toy Story 3: Yay for Andy’s mom still being around!

So right off the bat, it’s clear Pixar is doing better than old-school Disney in at least keeping the moms alive. But what does that break down to? In the eleven current Pixar films, a mother is relevant in four of the movies. Three are Andy’s mom (Toy Story). Hmmm. Mrs Incredible is the first honest-to-goodness mom superhero. In two films, motherhood is irrelevant, as there is no humanlike protagonist or even anthropomorphized animal. In the remaining four films, once again poor mom is killed off (Nemo), dies sadly (UP), doesn’t exist (Ratatouille), or never bothers to look for her missing child (Monster’s Inc).

So what? I dunno. Maybe nothing. I love a great many of these movies, and they get shown often in my home. I enjoy them. I am especially fond of the Pixar movies, and their wonderful, evocative stories. But I can’t help wondering what’s the deal? Is the loss of the mother so often what send the protagonist on the Hero’s Journey? Maybe sometimes. Why are the original Disney movies so rich in female heroines, while the Pixar movies, better in so many ways, are almost entirely lacking?

I guess this is what happens when you take an Ethics class and start sitting around thinking all day.

24 thoughts on “Thinking About Subliminal Children’s Cinematic Viewing Messages

  1. I remember hearing an argument that in many children’s stories, there has to be no mother, because children see her as their primary guide/leader/protector. With a mother in the picture, children see security, but without a mother, the author is able to create a sense of real danger.

  2. Off the top of my head, Alice has a mom, Hercules has a mortal mom who raises him in addition to Alcmene, Tarzan’s mom does die but he’s then raised by his adoptive mom and she plays a huge role in his life…

    • The woman reading to Alice at the beginning of the movie is her older sister. I’ve read the book, but it’s been absolutely ages, so you could be right.

  3. I always thought that Boo’s mom was around, but that everything that happened in the movie happened during one night after Boo had already gone to bed. Perhaps that’s just my opinion though.

  4. I know, it’s crazy. Shakespeare is the same way. Is it because stories need conflict and underdogs and who’s more of an underdog than a child without a mother? I don’t know either. I like that Pixar is doing better, it will be interesting to see how the future trends.

    Side note: I thought Mulan had a mother??

    • Maybe she did- like I said, this was tossed off the top of my head. I only remember Mulan interacting and having conflict with her father.

      It’s a valid point, and probably a certain device in storytelling. Not having a mother creates tension and suspense, and certainly the underdog situation.

      I honestly wasn’t trying to say anything in particular. Just musing on what I had noticed.

      Up next for Pixar is Cars 2, Incredibles 2, and Monsters Inc 2, so we’ll get to see more of stories and characters we already love.

  5. Mulan has a mom & dad and I love her grandmother. In the aristocats it’s a mother cat and her 3 or 4 kittens trying to find their way home with the help of a tom-cat, who ends up staying as their dad in the end.
    Love Mrs. Incredible, I want to have her super-power. Can you imagine being able to reach out and touch your kids like that.
    Not sure why so many don’t have moms, I wonder if that is diseny’s take on it. I know that several of their “fairy-tale” movies are pretty off from the original story.

  6. From a literature standpoint, classic stories of heroism generally involve a protagonist with parentage in question (orphan, one parent dead, absent etc). If I am remembering correctly, this is so the heroic acts the protagonist eventually will accomplish can be partially explained through strength inherited through that mysterious parentage. The hero then must leave their place of origin and undergo a cyclical journey ending in their return to their place of origin.

    I do think it is interesting to contemplate what kind of message our children glean from these stories, and the family situations contained therein.

  7. I know this isn’t relative to this discussion, but I just finished reading Tuck Everlasting (juv fiction) for our Mother/daughter book group and one of the many subliminal messages that bothered me: a little girl was kidnapped and shel LIKED being kidnapped and LOVED her kidnappers. Blech. Left me with a pit in my stomach.
    Loved your list. I hadn’t even thought of it.

  8. I noticed the same Disney phenomenon when my kids were young, when The Little Mermaid came out. I think its sad it is still happening.

  9. I love the Baby Blues comic where the family is in the video store and the parents are talking to the clerk who says, “Hmm. A kids show where both the parents survive? That’s a tough one.”

  10. Funny, my Dh and I have talked about this many times. Although both Mulan and Hercules have mothers (Hercules has two), may of the stories, especially the “Princess” stories, have the mother as either dead or just gone. It has bothered me since the Little Mermaid came out and I really began to notice it.

  11. In “Up” Russell has a mom who loves him, it’s his dad who used to be a good dad but got a divorce, remarried and doesn’t have anything to do with him any more. That’s why Mr. Fredricksen is there for him at his scout ceremony at the end…Russell’s mom is there too.

    • Yeah, Russell has a mom- but she’s not part of the movie, and Mr. Fredrickson’s wife Ellie is, and her dying is integral to the whole story-arc of the film. That’s why I focused on it. But yes, Russell has a mom.

  12. The lack of functional family units in commercial narratives is one of the biggest thorns in my side. You think there’s no substance for growth, conflict, or archetypal growth in a functional family unit? WHATEVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  13. Em, I’m not sure that answer to your question is “yes”, or at least, the drama has to happen in a different way. I mean, it’s not really Disney’s fault that there are no mothers—they are going off the original stories, where mothers are lacking, and, like it has been mentioned, the lack of a parental figure is often what drives the story.

    Also, having no mother is something simple enough that kids can be emotionally affected by it and be drawn into the story. It’s hard for a kid to figure out why Lightening McQueen is so ticked off by having to hang around in a hick town, beyond the simple idea that he’s missing his race. But Cinderella, having no mother, who can’t go to a ball? Kid can immediately emotionally connect to that, at a very young age. And story telling is about emotionally connecting.

    That said, there are of course examples where a mother plays in the story, like Incredibles, but even then, one of the whole points of The Incredibles is that their family WASN’T functional, even though both parents were around. The mom wasn’t exactly loving and perfect, either. Lots of yelling and criticizing in that family.

    I’m not saying I’m a huge fan, but one of the reasons why no mother works is because it’s a formula kids can engage with. And what’s that quote about happy families? Happy families are all the same, but every dysfuntional family is dysfunctional in their own way. And let’s face it, dysfunction is what drives a story.

  14. Good points, Heather. And Em, that’s a reasonable questions, and one I would like to answer with a YES.

    I think it’s interesting how much more apparently powerful the absence of Mother is, as opposed to the absence of Father. How many of these movies are lacking a father (at least where one would be appropriate)? Hold on, let me count:

    5 of the Disney original moves there is no father, or the father is killed.
    5 of the Pixar movies- three of which are Toy Story, where Andy’s mom is apparently a single parent (who raises nice, happy kids, I have to point out. ;) )

  15. Aristocats- Classy intelligent single mommy cat who goes on an (unintentional) adventure with her little kitties and they learn about all sorts of people while making their way back to a loving (female) owner.
    Plus there’s that rockin’ “Everybody wants to be a cat” song that my kids rock out to…
    And yes, I said “mommy cat” and expected you to take it seriously

  16. I’ve thought about this a lot actually (four kids, stay at home, feeling like my psychology/English degrees are useless). I agree that especially in the early Disney princess movies there is always a mother lacking. But I don’t believe that it’s necessarily bad for moms. The missing link of a mother is HUGE part of what the heroine has to overcome. She is at a severe disadvantage because she has no mother. And then she has to go through a great triumph over adversity. Boom — you’ve got your heroine. Rarely does my 3 year old daughter watch one of those films and not squeeze my leg and say, “I’m so glad I have a mommy.” You should read Barrie’s Peter Pan. Better yet, read it to your kids! It’s all about how everyone needs a mother — that’s probably evident in the movie, but it’s clear as a constant ringing bell in the book. However, I do have a bone to pick with Disney and it’s most recent films (well, 1988 and 1992 — is that recent?) . With Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast in particular, there is no mention of a mother — she’s not dead, she’s not missing; she just doesn’t exist. Their life before the introduction of foil is missing nothing — other than a lover and a little adventure. So I think the later Disney movies are more insulting to the institution of motherhood.

    But I agree that Pixars are my absolute favorite, too. Love your posts! Long time lurker, first time commenter. Go Andy’s mom!

  17. Michael and I talk about this a lot. Little Mermaid doesn’t bother me so much because we don’t know what happened to the mother, I always assumed he was a widow.

    The same with Cinderella, she had a mother, she died and father remarried, and thus we get a view of what can happen in a family when a parent remarries and the difficulties on children.

    You mention Lady and the Tramp, but the owners are married. Dogs lives are much different. :)

    Mulan has parents. Even Bambi has a mother through the first 1/2 of the movie and then a father steps in, you don’t see fathers and important part either sometimes.

    We don’t know what happened to Bell’s mother but I bet she died when she was a young women, I don’t think Bell would have her strength of character from her father.

    Robin Hood has many mother’s in the different sub characters, and Even Prince John calls for his mother.

    What does bother me though are some shows on PBS and other kids stations.

    Word Girl, all the adults are stupid, dumb, idiots. There is not one intelligent role model in the adults. Word girl is the only one with any sort of common sense and she is a bit self centered.

    Miss BG, The mother is home but always too busy to help her daughter when she needs it. Often this leads Miss BG to always get in trouble because of lack of supervision.

    Sometimes a missing parent can be made up by a strong parent, although King Triton does loose his temper, he would do anything for his daughter in the long run. So sometimes there is a bigger picture to look and perhaps, what do the different stories have to do with society at large and how do we view it?

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