Where Are Their Mothers?

The 7yo Original Pigtail Pal asked me an interesting question while she was playing mermaids in the bath tub last night. She was deeply concerned that most of the Disney Princesses did not have mothers. She had just checked out a book about Ariel from the school library (groan, another post for another day) and apparently had been giving it quite a bit of thought. She was upset and quiet, asked me to come and sit by her tub, and close the door because she didn’t want her little brother to hear.

I said that I had noticed that too and that it made me sad because family is so important. I reminded her that Merida and her mother Queen Eleanor loved each other very much and nothing could take them away from each other. And in “Tangled”, Rapunzel was reunited with her mother. We haven’t really watched any of the other Disney Princess movies, but she knows most of the princesses do not have living mothers.  In OPP’s library book it features the story of how Ariel lost her mother and why King Triton bans music from the kingdom.

I told her that I think the story writers know how very important mothers are, so that is the element they take away in the story to draw the reader in. Amelia said she understood, but didn’t like it. I then reminded her that this is one of the reasons that our family focuses on other stories.

“It just feels like they are trying to break apart the girls, like they are trying to split us up.” -OPP

“Honey, the world has known for a very long time that the most powerful place to be is in the center of a circle of women. There are many, many examples of people trying to break apart or control women. Our family doesn’t believe in that. That is why you see me being connected to Gigi and our aunties and cousins, and why I love my girlfriends so much. You may have boys that are your best friends or you may even fall in love with a boy some day, but I think you will find there is nothing like an awesome group of girls to surround yourself with. Your girlfriends will feel like sisters.” -Me

“Well I don’t really like stories where the girls are broken apart. I like to be in circles. Animals do that. But I guess the guys who write stories are scared of groups of girls.” -OPP

“I think that is one of the reasons why we need more girls writing the stories.” -Me


I’d be interested to hear how you explain to your kids the absence of mothers in so many of Disney’s stories. Taking into account the role of women in society during the time these stories were originally written, do you approach the idea of women being used as cautionary tales with your kids? Why are so many of the stories about women being cruel to each other and jealous of each other, specifically over the ideas of youth and beauty?


  1. It’s not just a Disney thing. The stories are based on the original fairy tales (even though they are rather loosely based on them in some cases, like Rapunzel), where the mothers are not present. There are a number of theories, but the most common is that removing the mother forces the child to independence and adulthood. They must make their own mistakes and learn from them, with no mother (and/or father) to help guide them. It also allows the girl to be less “womanly” since they did not have a woman to guide them (as in the case of Disney’s Beauty) on how to be more feminine, as, to use the example given, Merida’s mother does.

    This is a good discussion of the topic:

  2. I work on a show every year at Christmas where Dickens tells how he wrote “A Christmas Carol.” There’s a line in the play that goes “I like to kill off the parents – it gives just the right woeful note at the start.”

    I haven’t had to have discussions with Gummi Bear about the lack of mothers in books/movies yet, but it’s comments like that line that seem to hit me as a good way to start. What better way to make it obvious that your protagonist is going to have a troubled start than to deprive them of a parent – especially if it is the one who is viewed as the traditional source of nourishing love and affection? What always bothers me is the number of “evil step mother” characters there are – like women only exist to trap a man and treat his offspring like servants. What kind of message does that send to a child who’s grandparents may be divorced?

    I think it is amazing the number of stories that exist that seem to have absent parents in general – either actually not there or not participating in their children’s lives.

  3. When my daughter (now aged 14, then around age 6) asked the same question, I said, “Because if her mother was still alive, this story never would have happened. And if any of these mothers were still alive, their daughters would grow up knowing that their accomplishments and talents are the most important thing about them. Cinderella wouldn’t be slaving away for her stepsisters. Belle wouldn’t have to be primary caretaker for her father. And so on. A mother-daughter relationship is very powerful – and the writers probably felt like they needed the girl to be powerless, otherwise, she would just handle the things life threw at her, with loving parents by her side to support her.

    Then we went and read Munschworks (stories by Robert Munsch) to look at girls who were smart with parents who were smart – and see how good stories could happen without taking away anyone’s power.

  4. In the “hero’s journey,” the first thing you do is kill off the parents. Or, if the parents are around, they are absent most of the time. Parents, especially mothers, are usually seen as protectors. How can the hero go off on her own with parents watching over her shoulder? Even in more modern stories, like Petronella, the parents have to be offstage for there to be an adventure. In that case, they don’t die, but she takes off in spite of their attempts to keep her at home, and although she heads back after her adventure is over, her parents have become mostly irrelevant. These stories are supposed to be about claiming independence and growing up– there’s not a lot of story if Mom and Dad are there to pick up the pieces and fix everything for you.

    • Kirsten –
      I don’t see Sleeping Beauty or Snow White as heroes, nor are they stories about claiming independence. In fact, they are the exact opposite. Your theory works for Finding Nemo or A Bug’s Life (and I agree with it), but not for these princess stories I am addressing in this post.

      • Melissa, I agree that Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are not great examples of the hero’s journey, but other Disney princess stories are structured that way. Ariel is one of my least favorite princesses but she does strike out on her own and attempt to claim independence (she fails, but that’s because her dad and the prince rush in to save her– that doesn’t happen in Andersen’s story, although his ending is massively depressing). And there are Grimm’s stories where the mother’s death is a necessary part of the plot, like Donkeyskin.

        I’ve seen Snow White and Sleeping Beauty redeemed in fiction and on television, too. The Princess Chronicles by Jim Hines and the television show Once Upon a Time both do a nice job of bringing some life back to these stories. But parents, especially mothers, are problematic there too.

  5. I think I agree with your other readers. They have to create an underdog, and kids know very well how important parents are to their daily lives. It’s hard to create an underdog to cheer for with two loving, resourceful parents helping them along. Most kids’ stories either have parents who don’t know what’s going on or parents who aren’t there – in order for the child to see the child as the hero or the underdog or the star. Most children are “me” centered and will relate to stories centered on the kids.

    That being said, this is why I want to spare my 2-year-old from stories like this for a good while. Her world is a beautiful one with two loving parents, and I want her to get to enjoy the world that way for a while. I get frustrated that so many media companies create drama to sell to young kids, drama that is centered around fear, hate, anger, mistrust, miscommunication, etc. I would rather my child learn from positive role models than negative ones.

  6. The absent mothers are generally what makes the story possible (i.e. the child would be fine and life would proceed as normal if the mother was there), and this is a recurring theme in many fairy stories / cautionary tales and even older novels from a variety of cultures (from the legend of Baba Yaga to Heidi to The Secret Garden to Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz). Fact is that when most of these were written, people died of random illnesses a lot more often and at much younger ages. Many children would indeed have been in such a position. We were given a compilation of shortened, “little kid” versions of 5 classic (non-princess) stories – 3 of 5 involve at least one dead parent. Great bed-time reading! It’s often hard to see the original tale through Disney-fied version. Many started as cautionary tales regarding bad values (vanity / jealousy / meanness) or illustrations of good values (not judging frogs or beasts by their appearance). And back then, the one thing a girl had to be jealous of was her appearance and the best she COULD hope for was a prince / knight in shining armour. I think the sad part is the reluctance / inability of the entertainment industry to move on to create modern classics with strong values told in a way that has greater relevance to today’s world.

  7. Cynthia Samuels says:

    This is a great conversation! I would add, as someone who has raised two boys and now have a grandson that boys also need to understand the strength of circles of women WITHOUT FEAR — too often men fear the power of women instead of valuing it. I’m also with those who remind us that BOTH parents are mostly absent in these stories. I once read a piece about JR Rowling and all the memes she incorporated into Harry’s profile. The abandoned/orphaned child was prime among them. So was the “differentness” that makes us alone. Look at Ender, whose trainers kept him isolated and lonely because he believed it was the only way he could learn to lead. And remember the old spiritual line “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.”

    I have always believed that one of the reasons men treat women as they often do is a terror of the power of women together. I remember in the late 70’s when I worked at CBS News two friends (female) and I were talking in a hallway. One of the executives walked by and said “OH – a women’s lib meeting?” See.

  8. I would love to hear your thoughts on Women Who Run With The Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype by Clarissa Pinkola-Estes. One of the chapters deals with the missing mother trope, but the book is so much more than that. Every time I read it, I get something new out of it.

  9. When I was middle elementary school the fact I perfered books about orphans became a concern (tied in with the extreme bullying and the fact my parents had to threaten a lawsuit and filing criminal charges to protect me).

    When asked I explained that real kids with parents had adventures like finding arrow heads at the farm, and going on bike rides around the Houston Bayous (nicer than it sounds), swimming at Galveston (ok not so pleasant when you can’t see your feet in calf high water), or traveling to Canada. But pretend kids didn’t have parents so they got to chase down smugglers/murderers/kidnappers and prove that the grown ups around them weren’t real adults – because real adults kept kids safe. No-one would believe that kids with decent parents would get away with that type of behavior. (exception of course being when kids are actually aliens refugees on Earth seperated from their people by the nasty government types or evil billionaires who must figure out their secret so they can join their families in a hiding place.)

    That if the real kids had grown ups like the people in books instead of adults they were miserable and acted like jerks not heroes. Dad said that conversation made him aware of how observant I was of the people around me. (that and the fact I pegged 3 neighbors as crooks long before the FBI or DEA arrested them. )

  10. I don’t know if you realized it or if it would somehow help talking to your daughters, but some major superheroes don’t have parents. Batman, spiderman, superman, their parents were killed. I just thought it interesting. I know mellisa that you were talking about the more helpless princesses, but I think its awesome that those certain princesses can climb out of the darkness and return victorious. No, its not fair that a prince has to be involved, but I know that I’ve set an example for my son, that if I’m in trouble, I can save myself.

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