In the July/August issue, Sarah Boxer asked, “Why Are All the Cartoon Mothers Dead?” She hypothesized that “mothers are killed in today’s kids’ movies so the fathers can take over.”
Despite the interesting observations in this article, there is no conspiracy, subconscious or otherwise, to negate mothers. The elimination of mothers in fantasy stories is a disguised compliment to motherhood.
The understood principle is that a good mother makes life so easy that nothing is impossible. If you have a mother’s ever-present guidance and wonderful encouragement, you can do anything. There is no challenge to build a story around if Mother stays, so Disney tells her to go.
Dads, on the other hand, are often viewed by children as aloof in real life. Kids secretly hope Dad would prove fun, caring, and plenty strong if circumstances forced him to get involved, so Disney makes their dreams come true. Using the simplest plot device (killing Mom), Disney both brings forth a darling Daddy and allows a nearly impossible quest to take over the narrative.
In Sarah Boxer’s musings on the high mortality rate of cartoon mothers, she correctly identifies this interesting fact, but completely misunderstands why it is so. She describes cartoons as “reality-denying” for leaning on the device of a capable, caring father to advance the story, while offing the mothers. Does she really think cartoons are intended to be reality-affirming? What these motherless stories represent is the novelty of the capable and present Dad. By her own statistics, fathers are exclusively in charge of only 8 percent of U.S. households. In the real world of kids, the primary ruler is almost always Mom. So how can you have kids find the courage to face peril—the hallmark of cartoons—if Mom is there to make everything all right? She has to be done in! This is not “misogyny made cute.” This is coming-of-age Storytelling 101, and a recognition of the central role mothers play in real life.
If you’re looking for an archetypal story of the absent-mother plot, look no further than the Bible, often referred to as the greatest story ever told. The Christian religion is based on the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost—not a divine mother in sight. We learned centuries ago that mothers are not essential. Even holy ghosts carry more weight than mothers.
Sarah Boxer replies:
The first two letters, both written by men, are lovely examples of what is now popularly known as mansplaining. (See Rebecca Solnit’s book Men Explain Things to Me). Both drip with condescension; both damn with faint praise (using interesting as an accolade); and both employ declarative sentences to tell me how it really is. What’s more, both use faulty logic: Though the elimination of mothers may be “a disguised compliment to motherhood,” that doesn’t mean that’s all it is. (By the way, if mother-killing is a compliment, I don’t want to see an insult!) And just because the elimination of mothers is one of the basics of Storytelling 101 (as I myself suggested), that does not mean it’s not also misogynistic. As the third letter writer points out, such narratives are as old as the Bible.