Why Are All the Cartoon Mothers Dead?

The dead-mother plot is a classic of children’s fiction, but animated movies have supplied a new twist: the fun father has taken her place.

Zohar Lazar

Bambi’s mother, shot. Nemo’s mother, eaten by a barracuda. Lilo’s mother, killed in a car crash. Koda’s mother in Brother Bear, speared. Po’s mother in Kung Fu Panda 2, done in by a power-crazed peacock. Ariel’s mother in the third Little Mermaid, crushed by a pirate ship. Human baby’s mother in Ice Age, chased by a saber-toothed tiger over a waterfall.

I used to take the Peter Pan bus between Washington, D.C., and New York City. The ride was terrifying but the price was right, and you could count on watching a movie on the screen mounted behind the driver’s seat. Mrs. Doubtfire, The Man Without a Face, that kind of thing. After a few trips, I noticed a curious pattern. All the movies on board seemed somehow to feature children lost or adrift, kids who had metaphorically fallen out of their prams. Gee, I thought, Peter Pan Bus Lines sure is keen to reinforce its brand identity. The mothers in the movies were either gone or useless. And the father figures? To die for!

A decade after my Peter Pan years, I began watching a lot of animated children’s movies, both new and old, with my son. The same pattern held, but with a deadly twist. Either the mothers died onscreen, or they were mysteriously disposed of before the movie began: Chicken Little, Aladdin, The Fox and the Hound, Pocahontas, Beauty and the Beast, The Emperor’s New Groove, The Great Mouse Detective, Ratatouille, Barnyard, Despicable Me, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, and, this year, Mr. Peabody and Sherman. So many animated movies. Not a mother in sight.

The cartoonist Alison Bechdel once issued a challenge to the film industry with her now-famous test: show me a movie with at least two women in it who talk to each other about something besides a man. Here’s another challenge: show me an animated kids’ movie that has a named mother in it who lives until the credits roll. Guess what? Not many pass the test. And when I see a movie that does (Brave, Coraline, A Bug’s Life, Antz, The Incredibles, The Lion King, Fantastic Mr. Fox), I have to admit that I am shocked … and, well, just a tad wary.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The dead-mother plot has a long and storied history, going back past Bambi and Snow White, past the mystical motherless world of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, past Dickens’s orphans, past Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid, past the Brothers Grimm’s stepmothers, and past Charles Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. As Marina Warner notes in her book From the Beast to the Blonde, one of the first Cinderella stories, that of Yeh-hsien, comes from ninth-century China. The dead-mother plot is a fixture of fiction, so deeply woven into our storytelling fabric that it seems impossible to unravel or explain.

But some have tried. In Death and the Mother From Dickens to Freud: Victorian Fiction and the Anxiety of Origins (1998), Carolyn Dever, a professor of English, noted that character development begins “in the space of the missing mother.” The unfolding of plot and personality, she suggests, depends on the dead mother. In The Uses of Enchantment (1976), Bruno Bettelheim, the child psychologist, saw the dead mother as a psychological boon for kids:

The typical fairy-tale splitting of the mother into a good (usually dead) mother and an evil stepmother … is not only a means of preserving an internal all-good mother when the real mother is not all-good, but it also permits anger at this bad “stepmother” without endangering the goodwill of the true mother.

You may notice that these thoughts about dead mothers share a notable feature: they don’t bother at all with the dead mother herself, only with the person, force, or thing that sweeps in and benefits from her death. Bettelheim focuses on the child’s internal sense of himself, Dever on subjectivity itself. Have we missed something here? Indeed. I present door No. 3, the newest beneficiary of the dead mother: the good father.

Here’s a challenge: show me an animated kids’ movie that has a named mother in it who lives until the credits roll. Not many pass the test.

Take Finding Nemo (Disney/Pixar, 2003), the mother of all modern motherless movies. Before the title sequence, Nemo’s mother, Coral, is eaten by a barracuda, so Nemo’s father, Marlin, has to raise their kid alone. He starts out as an overprotective, humorless wreck, but in the course of the movie he faces down everything—whales, sharks, currents, surfer turtles, an amnesiac lady-fish, hungry seagulls—to save Nemo from the clutches of the evil stepmother-in-waiting Darla, a human monster-girl with hideous braces (vagina dentata, anyone?). Thus Marlin not only replaces the dead mother but becomes the dependable yet adventurous parent Nemo always wanted, one who can both hold him close and let him go. He is protector and playmate, comforter and buddy, mother and father.

In the parlance of Helen Gurley Brown, he has it all! He’s not only the perfect parent but a lovely catch, too. (Usually when a widowed father is shown onscreen mooning over his dead wife’s portrait or some other relic, it’s to establish not how wonderful she was but rather how wonderful he is.) To quote Emily Yoffe in The New York Times, writing about the perfection of the widowed father in Sleepless in Seattle, “He is charming, wry, sensitive, successful, handsome, a great father, and, most of all, he absolutely adores his wife. Oh, the perfect part? She’s dead.” Dad’s magic depends on Mom’s death. Boohoo, and then yay!

In a striking number of animated kids’ movies of the past couple of decades (coincidental with the resurgence of Disney and the rise of Pixar and DreamWorks), the dead mother is replaced not by an evil stepmother but by a good father. He may start out hypercritical (Chicken Little) or reluctant (Ice Age). He may be a tyrant (The Little Mermaid) or a ne’er-do-well (Despicable Me). He may be of the wrong species (Kung Fu Panda). He may even be the killer of the child’s mother (Brother Bear). No matter how bad he starts out, though, he always ends up good.

He doesn’t just do the job, he’s fabulous at it. In Brother Bear (Disney, 2003) when the orphaned Koda tries to engage the older Kenai as a father figure (not knowing Kenai killed his mom), Kenai (who also doesn’t know) refuses: “There is no ‘we,’ okay? I’m not taking you to any salmon run … Keep all that cuddly-bear stuff to a minimum.” In the end, though, Kenai turns out to be quite the father figure. And they both live happily ever after in a world without mothers.

So desperate are these kids’ movies to get rid of the mother that occasionally they wind up in some pretty weird waters. Near the beginning of Ice Age, (Blue Sky/20th Century Fox, 2002), the human mother jumps into a waterfall to save herself and her infant, drags herself to shore, and holds on long enough to hand her child to a woolly mammoth. To quote an online review by C. L. Hanson, “She has the strength to push her baby up onto a rock and look sadly into the eyes of the mammoth, imploring him to steady her baby with his trunk,” but—hold on—she doesn’t have the strength to save herself? And by the way, if Manny the woolly mammoth is such a stand-up guy, why doesn’t he “put his trunk around both of them and save them both” rather than watching her float downriver with a weary sigh? Because, as the reviewer noted, “the only purpose of her life was to set up their buddy adventure.” Her work is done. Time to dispose of the body.

Many movies don’t even bother with the mother; her death is simply assumed from the outset. In Despicable Me (Universal/Illumination, 2010), three orphaned girls, Margo, Edith, and Agnes, are adopted from an orphanage by Gru, a supervillain. Gru adopts them not because he wants children but because he plans to use them in his evil plot. He wants to shrink the moon and steal it. (Hey, wait, isn’t the moon a symbol of female fertility?) But by the end of the movie, Gru discovers that his girls are more dear to him than the moon itself. And, as if this delicious father-cake needed some sticky icing, Gru gets to hear his own hypercritical mother—remember, it was her negativity that turned him evil in the first place!—admit that Gru’s a better parent than she ever was. The supervillain becomes a superfather, redeemer of all bad mothers.

Quite simply, mothers are killed in today’s kids’ movies so the fathers can take over. (Of course, there are exceptions; in Lilo and Stitch, for instance, both of Lilo’s parents die and it’s her big sister who becomes the surrogate parent.) The old fairy-tale, family-romance movies that pitted poor motherless children against horrible vengeful stepmothers are a thing of the past. Now plucky children and their plucky fathers join forces to make their way in a motherless world. The orphan plot of yore seems to have morphed, over the past decade, into the buddy plot of today. Roll over, Freud: in a neat reversal of the Oedipus complex, the mother is killed so that the children can have the father to themselves. Sure, women and girls may come and go, even participate in the adventure, but mothers? Not allowed. And you know what? It looks like fun!

Dear reader, I hear your objection: So what? Hollywood has always been a fantasyland. Or, to quote the cat in Bolt (Disney, 2008), a kids’ movie about a dog who thinks he’s actually a superhero because he plays one on TV: “Look, genius … It’s entertainment for people. It’s fake! Nothing you think is real is real!” Get over it. It’s just a movie. Or, to quote the empowerment anthem from Frozen (in which both parents die), “Let it go.”

Okay, I will. But first, a brief dip into reality. Did you know that 67 percent of U.S. households with kids are headed by married couples, 25 percent by single mothers, and only 8 percent by single fathers (almost half of whom live with their partners)? In other words, the fantasy of the fabulous single father that’s being served up in a theater near you isn’t just any fantasy; it’s close to the opposite of reality. And so I wonder: Why, when so many real families have mothers and no fathers, do so many children’s movies present fathers as the only parents?

Is the unconscious goal of these motherless movies to paper over reality? Is it to encourage more men to be maternal? To suggest that fathers would be better than mothers if only they had the chance? To hint that the world would be better without mothers? Or perhaps we’re just seeing a bad case of what the psychoanalyst Karen Horney called “womb envy.” Or maybe an expression of the primal rage that the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein described as the infant’s “uncontrollable greedy and destructive phantasies and impulses against his mother’s breasts.”

Consider Barnyard (Paramount/Nickelodeon, 2006), a deeply lame reworking of the Lion King plot, in which the father bull, Ben, teaches his reckless, motherless, goof-off son, Otis, how to be a man. (“A strong man stands up for himself; a stronger man stands up for others.”) As pathetic as Barnyard is, there’s something truly staggering in it. Whenever the bulls stand up on two hooves, they reveal pink udders right where their male equipment should be—rubbery teats that resemble, as Manohla Dargis described them in The New York Times, “chubby little fingers waving toodle-oo.”

Mothers are killed so fathers can take over. And when plucky kids and plucky dads join forces, it looks like fun!

In the whacked-out, reality-denying world of animated movies, these chubby, wiggly four-fingered udders, which appear on both females and males, are my favorite counterfactuals, bar none. I love, love, love them. The first time I laid eyes on those honkers, my jaw dropped. Even Walt Disney himself, who cooked up pink elephants on parade, never tried this. It was as if the comical leather phalluses of ancient Greek theater had come back to life. As if the directors’ very ids were plastered on the screen. Not only do Barnyard’s bulls have bizarre phallic teats, but Otis rudely swings his out the window of a speeding stolen car while drinking a six-pack of milk—yes, milk—and, as the police chase him, shouts, “Milk me!” Is he saying what I think he’s saying? In a kids’ movie? Could udder envy be any more naked?

When I finally shut my jaw, I realized that Barnyard isn’t the only kids’ movie with a case of udder confusion. (In the third Ice Age, Sid the Sloth, while trying to feed the three baby dinosaurs he’s adopted, starts to milk a musk ox before discovering that it’s a guy—ack!) But as far as I know, the Barnyard scene is the most violent instance; when the teated bull yells “Milk me!” it’s like he’s shouting at women everywhere: “You think you’re so hot with your tits and your babies. Well, suck on this! (And then die.)”

That’s how I see it, anyway, and I don’t think I’m alone.

In How to Read Donald Duck (1975), Ariel Dorfman, the Chilean American activist and writer, and Armand Mattelart, a Belgian sociologist, discuss the insidiousness of “the absence of woman as mother in Disney.” Rather than presenting any really maternal figure, they say, Disney offers up only “the captive and ultimately frivolous woman,” who lacks any tie to “the natural cycle of life itself”—Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White. And in the natural mother’s place, they note, Disney erects a “false mother Mickey,” a creature of “chivalrous generosity” and “fair play” whose authority looks benign and cheery. The absence of a real mother thus makes way for a new authority, a new “natural” order. The road to social repression, in other words, is paved with Mickey Mouse.

In today’s movie fathers, there’s plenty of Mickey Mouse. They’re magnanimous, caring, and fun. And I imagine these animated fathers look great to most kids. But let’s call a spade a spade. The ineluctable regularity of the dead-mother, fun-father pattern is not just womb envy at work, and not just aggression against the breast; it’s Mickey’s glove displacing the maternal teat. It’s misogyny made cute.

Dear reader, I hear you objecting again. Perhaps you’re getting irritated. Perhaps you like Pixar. Perhaps you’d like to remind me of some living mothers in a few animated movies: Isn’t that a single mother raising two kids in Toy Story? (Yes, she’s the one who keeps trying to give away the toys.) And isn’t that a mother at the end of The Lego Movie? (Yes, she’s the one who cuts short the nascent father-son bonding moment in the basement by announcing that supper is ready.)

What about Fiona, the ogre-princess in Shrek (DreamWorks, 2001)? She certainly seems to be someone’s caricature of a feminist—tough, competent, belching earthily with the boys. By Shrek the Third (2007), she’s pregnant. At her baby shower, she makes all her beautiful, single friends—Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Rapunzel—seem like spoiled, materialistic wimps. But when it comes time for Fiona’s own father, a frog king, to pass down the crown, he offers it not to her but to her ogre-husband, Shrek—who eventually turns it down because he has “something much more important in mind.” (He’s going to be a father!) That’s right: the male gallantly refuses all that power (sweet old Mickey) while the female, who should have been next in line for the throne, isn’t asked, and doesn’t complain.

Patriarchy is slyly served. We’ve been slipped a Mickey!

A similar thing happens in Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (2009). When Ellie, a sassy woolly mammoth, goes into labor, she’s stuck on a cliff and her man, Manny, is off fighting predators. This leaves Diego, the saber-toothed tiger, to play birth coach. At one puzzling point, Ellie, the very picture of strength, yells to Diego, “You can do it! Push, push!” as if he were the one giving birth. He snaps back: “You have no idea what I’m going through!” (He’s fending off vicious blue dinosaurs—more work than childbirth, from the looks of it.)

It’s funny! The filmmakers, after all, don’t really think Diego is working harder than Ellie. (Sexism always slides down better with a self-ironizing wink and giggle.) But once the baby pops out, we get patriarchy in earnest: the father, Manny, fresh from his own heroics, reenters the scene. Ellie hands him the baby, which he secures with his trunk and declares “perfect.”

This cozy family scene reprises the original Ice Age, when Manny the woolly mammoth saved the human baby—and not the mother—with his trunk. This time, though, the mother is allowed to live. Why? Because she never upstaged the buddy plot. Her death would have been, well, overkill.

Have we moved beyond killing mothers, to a place where it no longer matters whether they live or die? From the newest crop of kids’ animated movies, which are mostly buddy movies—Planes, Turbo, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2, Monsters University, Free Birds, The Lego Movie—it sure looks that way. It seems as if we have entered, at least in movie theaters, a post-mother world.

In March, when I took my son to see Mr. Peabody and Sherman (DreamWorks, 2014), I suspected that we’d be watching a buddy movie, pure and simple, in which the presence or absence of mothers was immaterial. I was wrong.

Apparently, it was finally time to blast mothers out of history. At the start of the movie, Mr. Peabody—a dog, a Harvard graduate, a Nobel laureate, and the inventor of Zumba, the fist bump, and the WABAC (pronounced “wayback”) machine—says his dearest dream is to be a father. He adopts a human boy, Sherman; vows “to be the best father”; and is wildly successful at it. (He uses the WABAC to teach his son history by introducing him to figures like Benjamin Franklin, Vincent van Gogh, and William Shakespeare.)

The movie thus begins where other kids’ movies end, with the perfect father-son relationship. Nothing can threaten them—except, alas, two gals, Ms. Grunion, an ugly social worker (the evil-stepmother figure), who wants to tear dog and boy apart, and Penny, a bratty girl who is jealous of Sherman’s knowledge and gets him to take her on a trip in the WABAC. And there the adventure begins.

They go to Leonardo’s Italy. (Why won’t the Mona Lisa smile?) They go to ancient Troy. (“Don’t even get me started about Oedipus. Let’s just say that you do not want to be at his house over the holidays! It’s awkward.”) And they go to ancient Egypt, where Penny herself is inserted into history. Tellingly, she’s not given the obvious, powerful role—Cleopatra—but instead becomes the bride of King Tut, who’s destined to die early. (Her reaction to learning this bit of history? Vintage Valley Girl with a hint of gold digger: “Oh, trust me, I’ve thought it through. I’m getting everything!”)

But the key moment comes at the end of the movie, when we get to see George Washington muttering about changing the Declaration of Independence. I held my breath. Would the Founding Father (yes, Father) correct one of the most famous, glaring faults of the document? I listened for the magic words, and this is what I heard: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men—and some dogs—are created equal.” What?!?! (Insert spit take.) Given the chance to rewrite history, the filmmakers give rights to some dogs? But not to the bitches (I mean to the women)? Sure, it’s funny. Funny like udders on male cows. Funny sad. Funny infuriating. Funny painful.

With animation, you can suspend the laws of physics and the laws of society. Yet we keep getting the same damned world—a world without mothers.

The power of the WABAC to rewrite history, if only in fantasy, made me remember why I like animation so much. Just as time travel imagines the way things might have been, so does animation give the creator total omnipotence. With animation you can suspend the laws of physics and the laws of society and the laws of reason and the laws of biology and the laws of family. You can have a dog adopt a boy. You can turn a rat into a French chef. You can make male cows with big pink udders. You can change the Declaration of Independence. You can have a family in which every member is a doggone superhero.

As the Soviet film director and theorist Sergei Eisenstein wrote of Disney’s early work, you can have “a family of octopuses on four legs, with a fifth serving as a tail, and a sixth—a trunk.” You can do anything. Eisenstein marveled, “How much (imaginary!) divine omnipotence there is in this! What magic of reconstructing the world according to one’s fantasy and will!”

And yet, in this medium where the creators have total control, we keep getting the same damned world—a world without mothers. Is this really the dearest wish of animation? Can mothers really be so threatening?

I’d like to end on a hopeful note, with a movie that passes my test with flying colors—The Incredibles (Disney/Pixar, 2004), which happens to feature not only three major female characters, including a great mother figure, Elastigirl (a k a Helen Parr), who lives for the whole movie, but also a pretty credible father figure, Mr. Incredible (a k a Bob Parr). Unlike just about every other movie dad, Mr. Incredible is far from perfect. He daydreams during dinner. He is more interested in getting back to hero-work (he has been forcibly retired, along with all the other heroes) than in how his kids are doing at school. He even lies to his wife about where he’s going and what he’s doing. He is super-angry. When his car door won’t shut, he slams it so hard that the window shatters.

The hero of the movie isn’t Mr. Incredible, but the mother, who turns back into Elastigirl, a really flexible, sexy, and strong superhero, in order to save her husband. (“Either he’s in trouble or he’s going to be!”) At one point during the rescue mission, the plane that the mother is flying is hit by missiles and she and the kids have to eject. The mother uses her elasticity to reach out and grab her children and parachute them, with herself as the chute, to the ocean below. Then she transforms her body into a speedboat (her son, who has super-speed, is the motor) to reach the shore. It’s a view of what animated movies could be—not another desperate attempt to assert the inalienable rights of men, but an incredible world where everyone has rights and powers, even the mothers.

I should point out that Elastigirl’s superpower—flexibility, stretchiness, or what Eisenstein, back in the 1940s, termed “plasmaticness”—happens to be the very attribute he singled out as the most attractive imaginable in art, a universal sign of the ability to assume any form. He found this elasticity not only in his beloved Mickey Mouse but also in Lewis Carroll’s long-necked Alice, in the 18th-century Japanese etchings of “the many-metred arms of geishas,” in the rubber-armed snake dancers of New York’s black nightclubs, in Balzac’s La Peau de Chagrin, in Wilhelm Busch’s Max und Moritz, and in the stretched noses of the Tengu. Elastigirl, then, is not only a great character and a great mother, but the very picture of protoplasmic freedom.

For some reason, though, what really sticks in my mind is not Elastigirl stretching the limits of plasticity but rather a scene from Ratatouille (Disney/Pixar, 2007). Colette, the sole female in the kitchen of Gusteau’s restaurant, is trying to teach the basics of cooking to Linguini, the bumbling orphan boy who gets a job in Gusteau’s kitchen only because his mother slept with the great chef before she (yes) died.

As Colette chops away frenetically at some celery stalks, she shouts: “You think cooking is a cute job, eh? Like Mommy in the kitchen? Well, Mommy never had to face the dinner rush, when the orders come flooding in … Every second counts—and you cannot be Mommy!” Who is she shouting at? Linguini the lucky orphan? Herself? Men in general? Men who want to have it all? Women who want to have it all? Animators? Fathers? I really don’t know, but it’s a fantastic moment of pure rage. And it sure rings true.