There’s a reason my favorite Disney film is Dumbo. Sure, the mother is imprisoned, but she survives and sees her bullied, big-eared son turn lemons into lemonade. She’s a noble, tragic figure, Dumbo’s Mom. I cried all 72 times I watched it with my kids, and I wasn’t crying out of boredom (at least not the first ten times).
It’s been on my mind a lot lately. Last night, I went to see X-Men: First Class with my son and – SPOILER ALERT — damned if Magneto’s belligerent attitude, his anger issues, didn’t stem from watching a Nazi shoot his mother when he was helpless to save her. That little orphan grew up to be one magnetic tough Jew.
Sure, Bambi, Nemo and Snow White all lost their mothers. It’s so much a part of the fabric of cartoons that it wasn’t until after I watched Kung Fu Panda 2 that I stopped and thought ‘wait: that’s a family film which includes an extended scene of panda genocide.’ Genocide? The titular panda, Po, spends the entire movie trying to dig at a suppressed memory of his mother leaving him on the doorstep of the bird that became his father. And when he does remember – well, it’s not pretty.
One theory is that in the Disney movies, Walt’s fraught, tragic guilt over his mother’s death leeched into the children’s cartoons. When he and his brother Roy finally made their mark with the feature-length Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1938, they bought a studio – and a North Hollywood house for their beloved mother Flora. One month later, a faulty furnace led to her death by asphyxiation; she was literally smothered by her sons’ success.
But that still doesn’t explain why Snow White didn’t have a mother, or why so many children’s stories throw mama from the train: Dorothy has Auntie Em; go ask Alice where her parents are; and Belle has a beast, a beloved father and no mom. We could go on and on, and I’m sure we will.
Nell Minow, the Movie Mom, told me “This is the second-most frequent question I get asked by parents (first is: I am so careful with my kids, but what do I do when they go over to someone else’s house?)”
The answer, Minow continued, referencing Tom and Huck, Pippi Longstocking, and David Copperfield, et. al., is that “if the parents are there, the child can’t have an adventure. They’d be saying, ‘You can’t go on the yellow brick road today — you have homework, and you need a sweater!’ The satisfying fantasy of the story is that the child is able to do what the child in the audience would like to feel he can do — to master the scary adult world.”
I respect Nell’s insight, but cinematic matricide still freaks me out. When I see a movie that dispatches the mother to launch the plot – and there’s another biggie on its way this week – it gnaws at me. I’m sure it irks many mature actresses that see potentially juicy roles thrown under the bus to jumpstart the narrative.