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.)