Ever notice that 99% of the mothers in kid’s movies are dead?
There are reasons for this, I guess—it eases the viewership into a lesson about loss and life, opens the gates for evil stepmothers to stroll in and start wreaking havoc and kind of makes sense given the medieval setting of a lot of the fairy tale-based ones, where surviving past childbirth was rare and only the beginning of your troubles. And, of course, stories about the relationship between female characters are no good and totally don’t sell, so you may as well shuffle off as many as you can to begin with.
Killing off or removing the traditionally steadfast and secure emotional rock of the mother figure is the starting block of plots all over the spectrum, from sitcoms to high dramas. It leads the protagonist, in whatever form, down the “leaving the nest” part of their coming of age story as they have independence thrust upon them, or are caught up in the mess ensuing from their loss (because the mother is often expressed as the sympathetic and wise one who knows how to handle all that mushy stuff, and without her naturally the family falls into disarray. Because of you know, like, motherly reasons. It’s in the female’s hardwiring).
Though it’s not just a case of orphan heroes being the best because fathers are still around, more often than not, creating fun emotional subplots all throughout children’s movies no matter what they’re about. The absence of the mother gets the father-son bonding plotline going—like, off the top of my head, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (widowed father doesn’t understand his son’s dreams to be an inventor, if only Mom were here), Super 8 (widowed father doesn’t understand his son’s artistic passions and his claims the town has an escaped military alien in it, if only Mom were here), How To Train Your Dragon (widowed father doesn’t understand his son’s meek nerdy inability to kill fire-breathing monsters, if only… you get the gosh darn picture).
Which is all well and good, but after a while you get used to the formula and wonder, if only for curiosity’s sake, where on earth the genderflipped version is. Ah, wait, but naturally… the mums are all dead or gone, or have no place in a male coming of age story because the huggy, infant-stage-associated influence of his mother would only hold him back from embracing his masculinity and future. And Heaven forbid you should have a prominent female character and a present and important mother figure!
Which is bullpie of all sorts, because it’s been shown that it can be done and it’s enormously well-received. Pixar’s Brave is a stellar example, not only giving us a genuinely tomboyish and feisty princess but a realistic and believably strained relationship with her mother the queen, who was not only alive but hugely important to the entire movie. There was no real villain in Brave, though that big scary bear proved a pretty worthy candidate, since the message of the movie was that most problems are caused by misunderstandings and people’s inability or stubbornness against sorting them out.
In the end, Merida and Queen Elinor both turned out to be the main characters, and the adventure of the story was about them repairing their relationship and coming to understand one another, with some magic shapeshifting shenanigans along the way. It was a much smaller, more closed story world with lower stakes than we’re used to with Pixar films, which threw a lot of people at first (including me) since the advertising material had made it look like it was going to be an epic fantasy romp through the mythical Scottish landscape. But no, it was a small-scale and in its own way incredibly powerful story about a mother and daughter, which they were clearly terrified of telling anyone for fear it wouldn’t sell.
Having mothers interact with your female protagonists isn’t a death wish, then, guys. For better or worse, of course, since Tangled also had a villainous mother figure present and that worked fantastically as well. Gothel was not Rapunzel’s actual mother, though she tricked her into thinking so, getting all the benefits of a loyal and love-obligated daughter to use for her own selfish gain. She quickly became one of my favourite Disney villains since her relationship with the heroine struck me as quite believable and terrifying. Ultimately, that was the most threatening thing in the story. The hijinks with the guards and thieves came a far second.
Gothel’s goals were not to take over the kingdom or the world, a la your Jafars and Ursulas, but were simply to preserve her own vanity at Rapunzel’s cost, and instead of shooting lightning the main powers she utilised were emotional manipulation. And that, to me at least, made her scarier than any cackling throne-hungry magician. Never dismiss the tension inherent in human relationships, especially family ones.
The Other Mother in Coraline is another example (one out of not many, to be honest) where you have a female hero and a female villain, and familial ties mixed up in there, and the movie was still great. Toe-curlingly eerie on all sorts of levels (how Coraline is classed so easily as a children’s movie I will never know) but great, and again, the playoff between Coraline and the Other Mother was all about mind games and manipulation.
Perhaps this is typically something that appears more with female villains because male ones are more associated with the traditionally masculine and being physically heroic (though we still have plenty of physically unimpressive but trickster-tastic male baddies like Scar and Frollo, they were beaten by the outright goodness and power of their story’s heroes) and that leaves the women and girls with the only thing they have going for them: their brains, and ability to toy with each other’s emotions.
Now, on one level this kind of plays into the “girls are all bitchy creatures of the abyss constantly looking for ways to trip each other up” stigma, on another dealing with manipulative authority figures is something we should be showing kids how to do, especially girls who are growing straight up into a world that’s kind of in the business of screwing them over as a matter of course, and encouraging them that quick wit and standing up for your own wants are just as powerful and important as believing in yourself and following your dreams and picking up that magic sword or whatever we see all over the million and one movies about boy heroes.
These three movies are in their own vein of story drama, which I think is great, as opposed to just transplanting female characters into traditionally male roles. Showing that the girl power thing works even when you’re being sneered at by gender roles from all angles (Mulan was my Disney idol as a kid, probably still is) is really good, but it’s also awesome to emphasise these more localised emotional (while still being magical adventures because girls can have those too!) conflicts and show the different ways you can wriggle out of them. Especially in the case of Brave, where it tells us that the people we think are our enemies often aren’t, and teaming up and hanging out with your mum of all people isn’t inherently a bad thing.
Either way, it has been shown (though they’re the minority) that having mother-daughter relationships, of evil or benign nature, does work and create a fantastic central point for good stories. Maybe more studios will start picking up on this idea, since you know, half of their audience is female, and just maybe the young girls and the mothers watching with them as parents inevitably must do would like to see themselves represented once in a while. Or perhaps even twice! Wonders never cease.