Why are so many Disney parents missing or dead?
August 31, 2019 9:00 AM   Subscribe

Many Disney movies share a curious detail. Where are the protagonists' biological mothers? Little wooden puppet Pinocchio is carved and cared for by his "father" Geppetto. Peter Pan is forever a motherless lost-boy. The mothers of Belle (Beauty and the Beast), Jasmine (Aladdin) and Pocahontas from the eponymous film are all either absent or deceased. -- Why are so many Disney parents missing or dead?, by Leighann Morris

Delve further into the Walt Disney Studios' extensive archive of feature-length animated classics and similar trends emerge. If maternal figures aren't absent from the start of the story, many are killed, captured, or replaced by a "wicked stepmother" along the way. Even Disney's most high-profile acquisition ever, the Star Wars franchise, follows the pattern: a dead mom and absentee dad, with the Skywalker children being raised by relatives.

Is there a darker undertone to these tales—to the bastion of unadulterated childhood innocence promulgated by the Disney brand? We spoke with animation historians, fairy tale experts, activists and mythographers to explore the trope.
posted by Room 641-A (71 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
 
Cf also the Marxist analysis in How To Read Donald Duck (where, curiously, there are no fathers, no mothers, only uncles and nephews):

As an example, the book considers the lack of descendants of the characters. Everybody has an uncle or nephew, everybody is a cousin of someone, but nobody has fathers or sons. This non-parental reality creates horizontal levels in society, where there is no hierarchic order, except the one given by the amount of money and wealth possessed by each, and where there is almost no solidarity among those of the same level, creating a situation where the only thing left is crude competition.
posted by The Toad at 9:11 AM on August 31, 2019 [13 favorites]


Not Disney but for a long while in our house the Land Before Time series was known as "Littlefoot's Mother's Dies".
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 9:21 AM on August 31, 2019 [4 favorites]


All the mothers died in childbirth, and the fathers died in the war.
posted by I-Write-Essays at 9:22 AM on August 31, 2019 [23 favorites]


Article claims there are no dead parents in Studio Ghibli films. Just off the top of my head, Spirited Away the parents turn into pigs so not dead, sure, but still? Nausicaa Valley of the Winds her father dies. Totoro the mother is absent, and seriously ill, seems like the same trope to me?
posted by Zumbador at 9:23 AM on August 31, 2019


This is pretty tightly argued and observed, but its’ narrowness of scope means that the author does not go beyond fairy tales to examine this trope. As I have noted here and in FanFare, the “orphaned” protagonist (a person who, as a child, is denied access to their biological heritage due to death, parental indifference, insurmountable distance or a combination thereof) is a key character definition feature in genre stories, often used to set aside a specific individual who is somehow Other and displays special characteristics and or powers. It has roots in some of the very oldest stories we commonly retell.

Superman and Batman. Spiderman. Little Orphan Annie. Whorf, on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Arguably, Data (like Pinocchio, obviously). Moses. Jesus Christ and Hercules can be seen as fitting this model as well, their divine fathers being, well, distant, let’s say (The Disney piece focuses on missing mothers, I do note - Simba actually watches his father die in front of him, though so I’m reasonably confident missing fathers count). Frodo, although we do not know the whys and wherefores of how he comes to Bag End.
posted by mwhybark at 9:24 AM on August 31, 2019 [31 favorites]


I don't know. Absent or dead parents are all over all sorts of classic children's literature, not just fairy tales and Disney movies. (And it's even a thing in more recent children's literature. Harry Potter is an orphan. Katniss Everdean's father is dead, and her mother is mostly useless. I don't even read that many contemporary YA books, and I can think of a couple more with dead or missing parents.) I can think of a lot of reasons for that, some of which the article suggests. Attentive parents get in the way of kids having interesting adventures. Kids' lit can be a space to indulge fantasies and/or work out fears about independence and self-sufficiency. To some extent, it represents the actual historical reality of people who grew up in times when a lot of people lost parents when they were still young.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 9:25 AM on August 31, 2019 [50 favorites]




Putting this next to Disney's purchase of the Star Wars universe makes this look even more obsessive.
posted by biffa at 9:30 AM on August 31, 2019


(sorry got a bee in my bonnet about this) regarding the claim that there are no dead parents in the Ghibli movies, the female protagonists of Howl's Moving Castle and Laputa are both orphans.
posted by Zumbador at 9:30 AM on August 31, 2019 [2 favorites]


Yeah, without reading the actual article I'm thinking that the author's being downright myopic in assuming that this is a Disney thing. This is a literature thing. It's simply easier to shove a protagonist out the door to adventure if there's no family they have to take care of, and there might not be room in the story for family members who stay behind.

I appreciate that Americans are freaking out about the monopoly Disney has acquired on American storytelling, but that doesn't mean that narrative tropes are their fault now.
posted by Merus at 9:35 AM on August 31, 2019 [43 favorites]


It's like how private detectives in novels tend to be divorced or widowed. It's more convenient to a fast-moving plot.
posted by acrasis at 9:46 AM on August 31, 2019 [8 favorites]


It's like how private detectives in novels tend to be divorced or widowed. It's more convenient to a fast-moving plot.

In police procedurals, too. I always thought it was hilarious that when Inspector Lewis started, his wife (who we very rarely saw in Morse--I'm not sure she ever appeared in the books, but I think did on TV once or twice) had been killed off because it was clearly impossible that he be married.
posted by hoyland at 9:49 AM on August 31, 2019 [3 favorites]


Parents get in the way of a good children's story. Keeping them in the background or killing them off or making them the bad guys gives children an urgency and agency children don't have when loving parents are hovering by and telling them what to do.
posted by pracowity at 9:54 AM on August 31, 2019 [33 favorites]


I'm guessing the reasoning is this: if they had parents, they'd never get to go on adventures.

Edit: so, basically what the comment directly above mine said already. XD
posted by captain afab at 9:59 AM on August 31, 2019 [13 favorites]


If you have (good/alive) parents, a kid wouldn't be allowed to have adventures. Period. End of question.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:00 AM on August 31, 2019 [13 favorites]


if they had parents, they'd never get to go on adventures.

I guess in the Pippi Long stocking stories, Pippi's mum is dead and while her dad is alive he is absent on the high seas but her neighbour friends, the kids next door, they always go on adventures with Pippi and their parents are most certainly not dead.
posted by Ashwagandha at 10:05 AM on August 31, 2019 [4 favorites]


Yes, this trope isn't limited to Disney but when 56 of the of 104 films you made are dependent on this trope I believe it's a problem, particularly as Disney holds itself up as a family-focused brand.
posted by Room 641-A at 10:05 AM on August 31, 2019


Because no longer having their mommy is a scary idea to little kids (the target audience for most of Disney’s oeuvre), and that helps them bond with the main character?

This is, of course, a broad generalization of the sort used in establishing story lines such as used in Disney movies. Many kids grow up without a mother and do just fine.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:05 AM on August 31, 2019 [3 favorites]




Parents get in the way of a good children's story.
They don't have to, though. There are some children's books where kids manage to have adventures despite having perfectly fine parents. (I'm thinking, for instance, about The Great Brain books, or the Ramona Quimby books. Caddie Woodlawn's parents were both alive, as were Laura Ingalls Wilder's, although in retrospect all the drama in those books comes from the fact that Pa was completely unhinged.) And there are some kids' books that recognize that kids' relationship with their parents can be one of the big sources of drama in their lives. I'm thinking specifically about The Fault in Our Stars which fundamentally is about a terminally-ill kid learning to forgive herself for the pain that her eventual death is going to cause her parents.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 10:07 AM on August 31, 2019 [4 favorites]


Yeah, jenfullmoon beat me to it. Parents—especially mothers—are always dead or otherwise out of the picture, because it's necessary for the plot. Otherwise the first time the protagonist-kid got in trouble, the obvious solution would be "go ask mom". The dramatic tension arises specifically because the protagonist can't do that, and therefore must muddle through on their own.

Disney seems to like killing off parents because it's an inarguable, if lazy, way of removing someone from the story. It doesn't raise the same questions of irresponsibility that you'd have if, say, it was just implied that "mom" was busy. Or off on her own adventures, or whatever.

The implication of this is that, if you're a mother, you can't escape being "mom" unless you are literally dead.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:08 AM on August 31, 2019 [7 favorites]


Toy Story didn't have a dad because they didn't have the budget to animate him.
posted by octothorpe at 10:10 AM on August 31, 2019 [5 favorites]


It’s a trope in anime and manga too, but hardly a ubiquitous one. The media are very youth-focused so even in the stories where heroic kids live in happy, intact nuclear families, the parents (as well as any other affiliated adult authority figures) tend to simply phase out of existence for the duration of the crisis unless they are equally-conveniently used as figures the heroic adolescents must rescue.

And yeah Pinocchio seems like a questionable item on the list. He only has a kindly old dad because he’s a manufacured thing rather than the spawn of conventional biological coupling. Also because Disney bowdlerized the source material, where Geppetto was a horny alcoholic who existed mostly as a slapstick foil; a proper modern day retelling would have him landing in family court.
posted by ardgedee at 10:11 AM on August 31, 2019 [2 favorites]


Disney likes to sell stuff and they know that they have to please kids. They might have to please parents and adults without children also but they have to please kids. The paucity of parents in the children's tales might point to something. Like, those young people that are completely dependent on you for housing and food. They tell that they love you. Maybe they do love you but maybe they don't forgive you for the rules and discipline as easily as you think.
posted by rdr at 10:17 AM on August 31, 2019 [2 favorites]


Are earnest parents bowdlerizing Swallows and Amazons , or do they just not know about it?

(Siblings are allowed to sail on the UK coast, accidentally cross the Channel; IIRC their mother cables their father to keep him posted, and his response is “If not duffers not drowned. Better drowned than duffers.” )
posted by clew at 10:19 AM on August 31, 2019 [6 favorites]


It occurs to me that the alternative to having absent parents is having flawed or inattentive parents, at least according to modern parenting norms. (A hundred years ago, nobody would have expected parents to keep tabs on their kids at all times, so it was more feasible to depict kids having interesting adventures despite having good parents.) And it may be that actual parents, who determine what kids can watch, would object more to depictions of flawed parents than to depictions of absent or dead parents. I'm wondering if part of the issue is that we all recognize absent/dead parents as a trope, but exposing their kids to present-but-inattentive fictional parents makes modern parents more uncomfortable. Also, it might give kids ideas about having adventures behind their parents' backs.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 10:25 AM on August 31, 2019 [7 favorites]




Oh man, this is such a trope in tween and YA fiction. Every young heroine has dead parents. It's an epidemic.
posted by ominous_paws at 10:28 AM on August 31, 2019 [1 favorite]


James and the Giant Peach offs the parents on page 2. Even my kid, who is not well known for his empathy, was like, damn, that's cold.

I find the hemming and hawing about this to be so funny, since I kind of lived this tropr as an adolescent. When I was 12, I went to live in England with my dad while he was on sabbatical. My mom stayed home. My dad was largely absorbed in his research and I had so! many! adventures! that never would have taken place if anyone had been around to, like, make me come home.
posted by soren_lorensen at 10:30 AM on August 31, 2019 [18 favorites]


This is nothing new. Read the original Grimm Fairy Tales or Hans Christian Andersen and there are orphans galore. Disney has just sanitized these very dark stories.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 10:33 AM on August 31, 2019 [4 favorites]


Maybe I can't relate because I had two good parents and ton of adventures as a kid. Then again, we had three months of free-range summer vacation.
posted by Room 641-A at 10:43 AM on August 31, 2019 [4 favorites]


Tangentially, I liked Lilo and Stitch partly because I can watch it as if Lilo has a single teen mother instead of an orphaned older sister. Still good.
posted by clew at 10:56 AM on August 31, 2019 [2 favorites]


Yes, this trope isn't limited to Disney but when 56 of the of 104 films you made are dependent on this trope I believe it's a problem

Wait, this is a problem? For whom? I've seen people try to make arguments over the years that it's somehow a problem, or indicative of something. Usually using a half baked just-so theory. Yet somehow, whole media empires have been based upon such stories. (Interestingly, that very fact is sometimes used as evidence to back up said half baked just-so theory.) The stories are often beloved. And despite the trope being recycled over and over. So, yeah, I'm not convinced there is a problem.
posted by 2N2222 at 11:06 AM on August 31, 2019 [11 favorites]


Mrs. Potts is a single mother. She is a tea pot.

well that certainly explains that
posted by some_kind_of_toaster at 11:06 AM on August 31, 2019 [10 favorites]


Missing parents was such a common trope in Victorian literature that Gilbert and Sullivan made fun of it.

GROSVENOR. (wildly) But you would not do it – I am sure you would not. (Throwing himself at Bunthorne's knees, and clinging to him) Oh, reflect, reflect! You had a mother once.

BUNTHORNE. Never!

GROSVENOR. Then you had an aunt! (Bunthorne affected.) Ah! I see you had! By the memory of that aunt, I implore you to pause ere you resort to this last fearful expedient. Oh, Mr. Bunthorne, reflect, reflect! (weeping)
posted by kyrademon at 11:18 AM on August 31, 2019 [12 favorites]


Tragic parents backstory is so common in storytelling. There’s a good meme that D&D backstory hard mode requires that your character’s parents are still alive.
posted by sleeping bear at 11:30 AM on August 31, 2019 [10 favorites]


Mei's lost sandal: according to my aunt, I screamed and cried when I saw Bambi's mother shot in a movie theater in the late 1950s, so I took it personally when my kids repeatedly watched the T-rex take down Littlefoot's mom without shedding a tear.

And one of my son's favorite books was "Trade-in Mother". Kids, man, they'll break your heart without batting an adorable eye.
posted by she's not there at 11:33 AM on August 31, 2019 [5 favorites]


There's a show aimed at toddlers called "The Cat in the Hat Knows About That" that subverts/dodges the parent issue neatly by having the kids call their parents and explicitly ask permission to go on every adventure. It's kind of a running gag that the parents always agree, so the kids might call a parent and say "Dad, can we go with the The Cat in the Hat to Deathland to learn about death?" and the parent will be like "oh, of course, that sounds educational, have fun!" And then the kid says "we can go, we can go!" and the cat says "I know, I know!" and then they go go go go on an adventure to Murdertown to learn about how knives work or whatever free of parental entanglements.

I hate this show so much
posted by phooky at 11:33 AM on August 31, 2019 [30 favorites]


T Kingfisher’s Minor Mage is a solid little adventure story with a competent and loving live mother - but she has multiple responsibilities, as does the child on the adventure. V satisfactory.
posted by clew at 11:36 AM on August 31, 2019 [2 favorites]


Deceased Parents Are the Best

You'd think people would look up to find the relevant TV Tropes page.
posted by zabuni at 11:46 AM on August 31, 2019 [10 favorites]


subverts/dodges the parent issue neatly by having the kids call their parents and explicitly ask permission to go on every adventure

I always got the impression that they didn't believe the kids were actually going on an adventure and their fanciful requests were met with something along the lines of "that's nice dear be home for supper". And the Martin Short's Cat always has things covered and has a song in his back pocket so there's never death going on. One of the few shows I actually liked from that 6 and under range.
posted by Ashwagandha at 12:02 PM on August 31, 2019 [5 favorites]


Mrs. Potts is a single mother. She is a tea pot.

Is there any in-text justification of this? Just 'cause we don't see Dad doesn't mean he's not there. I mean, Potts is a teapot and Chip is a tea cup, so Dad might be, I dunno, a kettle? If he's a kettle he probably stays in the kitchen rather than coming out into the dining room, 'cause that's just good manners.

brb writing Beauty and the Beast erotic utensil fanfic
posted by jackbishop at 12:07 PM on August 31, 2019 [26 favorites]


Chip is the illegitimate son of the Beast and will one day inherit the castle
posted by captain afab at 12:15 PM on August 31, 2019 [6 favorites]


Article claims there are no dead parents in Studio Ghibli films. Just off the top of my head, Spirited Away the parents turn into pigs so not dead, sure, but still? Nausicaa Valley of the Winds her father dies. Totoro the mother is absent, and seriously ill, seems like the same trope to me?

Not a lot of parents in Princess Mononoke and being an orphan was a major part of When Marnie Was There. And I know Studio Ghibli has produced more than 6 films--at this point, it has to be around 20, and even if they're limiting it to ones directed by Miyazaki, that has to be more than 6.
posted by betweenthebars at 12:33 PM on August 31, 2019 [1 favorite]


I know the neverending popularity of Harry Potter can be off-putting, but it's very funny to watch all the kids who grew up reading Harry Potter "graduate" to an age that they're extremely upset that Dumbledore and the Dursleys never got put away for neglect. The uselessness of the adults in Potterverse is the baked-in reason why Harry and Co are always making extremely reckless decisions that launch them onto adventure. Their experience is that Snape is the only person who is ever around, and there's always a strong chance that he's working toward their deaths (or worse, expulsion).
posted by grandiloquiet at 12:44 PM on August 31, 2019 [11 favorites]


in D&D, dead parents means that DM generally can't mess with your family. I mean only generally, because undeath and captured souls and making deals with forces beyond the ken of the known realms are all things, ofc.
posted by bonehead at 12:58 PM on August 31, 2019 [1 favorite]


Are earnest parents bowdlerizing Swallows and Amazons , or do they just not know about it?

(Siblings are allowed to sail on the UK coast, accidentally cross the Channel; IIRC their mother cables their father to keep him posted, and his response is “If not duffers not drowned. Better drowned than duffers.” )


I think you're mixing up several books: the duffer line is on page one of the first S&A book - the mother has written to the father (who is in the navy) to ask whether the kids can sail across the lake and camp on an island (again, according to my memory this book is set in the Lake District), and that's his reply. Journeys further afield are in later books.

(I had a thing for Nancy Blackett, but she was way out of my league. And, of course, fictitious and born in about 1910.)

The characters in most of the classic children's adventure stories - E. Nesbit, Enid Blyton, Arthur Ransome, C.S. Lewis - usually have parents, but who are careful to keep out of the way. I mean, how can you have an adventure with your parents there?
posted by Grangousier at 1:07 PM on August 31, 2019 [7 favorites]


I grew up in a single parent family back in the 60s and 70s. And I appreciate Disney normalizing the single parent family.

Kids get scared by the idea of the absence of parents. They get scared when you tell them your father died, sometimes, because they had no idea that could happen. That resulted in some othering, some shunning, some bullying.

There never used to be Mother's Day cards for dads, or Father's Day cards for moms. There wasn't much consideration or support for the different challenges of single parenting.

I'm not sure how much of a difference Disney made in making things easier on single parents, but I think it's important that kids be shown that some kids don't have two parents, and that's okay.
posted by MrVisible at 1:11 PM on August 31, 2019 [6 favorites]


> brb writing Beauty and the Beast erotic utensil fanfic

AO3 lists 15 stories with Mrs Potts / Jean Potts pairings. So you've got company.
posted by ardgedee at 1:29 PM on August 31, 2019 [2 favorites]


Article claims there are no dead parents in Studio Ghibli films. Just off the top of my head, Spirited Away the parents turn into pigs so not dead, sure, but still? Nausicaa Valley of the Winds her father dies. Totoro the mother is absent, and seriously ill, seems like the same trope to me?

We’re still all pretending Grave of the Fireflies never happened, right? Dead parents. Dead starved toddler sister. Lots of death.
posted by tinkletown at 1:37 PM on August 31, 2019 [7 favorites]


Good Lord, people, the whole point of My Neighbor Totoro was that Mei and Satsuki thought that their Mom was dying. Satsuki's breakdown when she admits this always leaves me in tears. Her Mom isn't some inconvenient plot point; she's the whole point of the story.

And then when you learn that Miyazaki's own mother suffered from tuberculosis, like Satsuki's Mom. This not a Disney fantasy; this is truth that strikes at the heart.
posted by SPrintF at 1:49 PM on August 31, 2019 [9 favorites]


There is a school of thought which believes that the dead or absent parent became a theme when childhood because less autonomous. A long time ago a kid could get enough of a grasp of basic life skills to seriously embark on autonomy at what we consider an astonishingly low age - In Quebec a girl could get married at eight years old. In Medieval times many children were sent out into the world at the age of seven. Children in hunter-gatherer tribes may go for trips that are ays long without consulting their parents. It civilized societies it was very much not considered optimal, but if circumstances made them feel it was necessary they did it. Nowadays, and rightly so, we would never allow an eight year old the right to consent to a marriage, or send them to work at a job where they were expected quite possibly to never come home, such as with a midshipman in the British Navy, or an apprenticeship, or transport them to Australia as a convict, but they did then.

The restrictions on children - having to ask to go out, having to be obedient etc. were the same restrictions as on someone with lower status. A ships boy might be an eight-year-old, but he also might be forty.

But then, sometime around the Georgian era/ American Revolution technology and available resources meant the standard of living went up enough that we were able to keep our children out of the labour market and allow them longer to learn their trade and adult skills before they were expected to survive on them. Just how big a change this was is debatable. parents have always tried their best to support and protect their kids and give them a chance to be kids, and there is no society I know of who did not feel that a child's primary task is play, but there was a steady change from children having to work as soon as they could and as much as they could to children being kept out of the labour market, in the case of children with higher social status until they get their doctorate around the age of thirty.

Before this change there was no children's literature because in many ways the life of a child was no different than the life of an older person who had few resources and was dependent on their society and kin. One way this changed was that for the first time there was clothing that designated children as different than adults for reasons of fashion rather than function. An Elizabethan era child might wear leading strings or a pudding and go without any drawers until they were toilet trained but their gown was the same as an adult in as many respects as possible. But once this transition started it was a big one that effected many things.

Before children's literature fairy tales, as they are now, were the literature of ordinary people. For some years stories about dragons and dwarves were reserved for little kids. A fairly recent backlash means that we have Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings. Currently children's literature is chiefly notable as having children as characters. And once there came to be a market for children's literature it quickly developed tropes so that the children in the stories could have the same kind of adventures that adults did.

Magic is one of the means that children's literature gives children scope for adventure. In real life your parents send you to school and you have to be home by teatime. In fiction you hold up an amulet and it becomes a gate and you walk through and explore different eras of the past and yet still somehow get home by tea time.

The trope "Secret Garden" is this one where children somehow evade their ordinary lives to have interesting events happen to them enough to make an engaging story. Thousands of ways have been found to do this, and if you can't take the kid away from his or her parents, you take the parents away from the kids. In Kidnapped the heroes father is killed. In the book after which the Secret Garden is named her parents die of cholera in India and she is sent to England to live with a mad uncle. Just enough parenting is retained to make the story slightly plausible. Pippi Longstockings breaks this trope somewhat because she has super powers, but it is often harder to find stories that have active parents instead of absent ones.

There are of course numerous reasons why you need to take the parents out of the story. I think one very important one is that it is hard for a child to enjoy a story where the parents are powerless or miserable. Ballard's memoir about childhood in a Japanese prison camp takes them out because the idea of parents who are there and still can't protect you or parents who are good parents but can't control you is disturbing. Where were Ballard's parent when he was sent into a minefield to use his own pre-adolescent body to find out if there was a safe path for some other adults to use to get in and out of the camp? it was easier for Ballard to pretend they were in a different camp altogether than to depict the conflict in his family where they tried and failed to protect him. Katniss's mother is alive, but she gets very little page space, and her distress is depicted in a few mandatory lines because if there isn't a quick mention of how devastated she was she would be a bad guy. But she doesn't spend every chapter on screen crying and begging Katniss to do her best to stay alive. If you did write the story that way it becomes a story for adults as with Cormac McCarthy's story "the Road" where the adult is the main character who ensures the boy's survival even though he himself dies. An adult's job is to keep the kids alive at all costs. That would take the focus away from the child and take away from their autonomy. The kid needs to have an active role to be a hero, and they have to act as a child to be at least somewhat believably a kid so that children reading the book will identify with them.
posted by Jane the Brown at 1:57 PM on August 31, 2019 [27 favorites]


I feel like there's a non-trivial number of stories that get around this by having the adventure involve whisking the kids off to another dimension, and then right before they return home, the fairy godmother or wizard or Jesus-lion or whoever tells them "Time flows differently in this world than in your own," so that they get back at most a few hours after they left, right as the parents are opening the door to their room or walking onto the main thoroughfare of the amusement park shouting their names.

But I vibe with those theories that speculate that the missing/gone parents helps children relate to the characters. I loved my mom and dad, but I know that from about age 5 - 8, I held out hope that they weren't really my "real" parents and that I was secretly the direct-though-lost heir to an ancient hidden kingdom, and I awaited rescue by the last loyal retainer to My House so that I could find or avenge those missing real parents.

Even now in middle age, there are days where I still find myself awaiting that rescue....
posted by lord_wolf at 2:02 PM on August 31, 2019 [7 favorites]


As others have said, the purpose of this trope is to clear the decks of inconvenient relatives and force the protagonist to rely on their own resources. It's certainly not unique to Disney, or English language literature. It's everywhere.

6. Single Parent Rule
RPG characters with two living parents are almost unheard of. As a general rule, male characters will only have a mother, and female characters will only have a father. The missing parent either vanished mysteriously and traumatically several years ago or is never referred to at all. Frequently the main character's surviving parent will also meet an awkward end just after the story begins, thus freeing him of inconvenient filial obligations.

Related:
2. "No! My beloved peasant village!"
The hero's home town, city, slum, or planet will usually be annihilated in a spectacular fashion before the end of the game, and often before the end of the opening scene.

From The Grand List Of Console Role Playing Game Clichés
posted by Slithy_Tove at 2:13 PM on August 31, 2019 [2 favorites]


Because kids fantasy lives largely rotate around two ideas: 1) all these stupid adults who tell me "no" disappear and I can do whatever I want from then on and 2) I can NOT really be related to these dull-witted, pedestrian, timid people and one day my real, probably super powered, family will show up and I will become also a magical / powerful being.

Most kids books also tend to feature bullies and older siblings receiving their comeuppance and a new kid from another school or town or talking animal from the forest as a friend who finally understands the protagonist.

Kids authors understand kids. No mystery or conspiracy there.
posted by fshgrl at 2:22 PM on August 31, 2019 [3 favorites]


Hergé's Tintin has no parents or family— or perhaps he has but never speaks of them, just as he never speaks of whoever employs him as a "reporter".

But Hergé's publishers were disturbed by this and pressured him into creating a comic with children firmly provided with two parents. He duly did so— Les aventures de Jo, Zette, et Jocko. Naturally, each book has to convolute its plot to get rid of the parents— e.g. in the first book, their father is in the hospital, then in jail, while the kids get lost after a plane crash. (Hergé got tired of the necessity of doing this and went back to Tintin.)

Or there's Narnia, where the kids all have perfectly nice parents, but get transported to a dangerous realm without them, due to the British lackadaisical policy toward safety labelling of interdimensional portals.

Parents don't let you have really fantastic adventures.
posted by zompist at 2:53 PM on August 31, 2019 [6 favorites]


Frodo, although we do not know the whys and wherefores of how he comes to Bag End.

his parents drowned in a boating accident and bilbo took him in
posted by pyramid termite at 3:08 PM on August 31, 2019 [4 favorites]


I hear what is being said here with regard to parent-dispensing increasing the narrative momentum of kids’ stories. But I don’t feel this analysis adequately takes into account motherless (and or fatherless) children in older literature in which the stories were not constructed as commercial objects and, indeed, in easily notable cases, function as foundational religious texts. Severing parental relations to a protagonist is a profound and persistent storytelling trope that evidently predates the development of commercially-oriented children’s narratives and which crosses cultures as well as time (if you missed it and think my thoughts here have merit, you might be interested enough to scroll up and read my earlier post in-thread).
posted by mwhybark at 3:12 PM on August 31, 2019 [2 favorites]


motherless (and or fatherless) children in older literature in which the stories were not constructed as commercial objects

Er, are there a lot of such texts? A lot of early religious/mythological texts draw explicit familial connections among the principal characters, so texts such as, say, the Mahabharata or the Bible involve an awful lot of genealogical connections and most of the stories involving the principals as children (Isaac as the sacrifice in the Bible, for instance) are contextualized by parental relations. There are a few characters whose parents are quickly excised from the story (young Samuel is taken to the Temple, young David joins Saul's retinue) but even then they exist, and aren't so much removed from the story as irrelevant to it. I don't think there are a lot of mythological or religious stories which are of a child (of an age when they wouldn't reasonably possess independence) going out on their own because they're orphaned. OTOH, the "mystery parent", who comes back as an important plot twist, has currency from Oedipus to Moses, but that's practically the opposite of shuffling inconvenient parents offstage.
posted by jackbishop at 3:27 PM on August 31, 2019


practically the opposite of shuffling inconvenient parents offstage.

I believe we differ in this, as I identify Moses and Jesus as exemplars of my argument.

And, yes, there are many examples, as I cite upthread. It’s a fundamental way of marking a protagonist as both other and privileged in certain ways, usually with regard to either or both exceptional abilities or exceptional social (or divine) connections, enabling actions otherwise not possible for others in the narrative.
posted by mwhybark at 3:43 PM on August 31, 2019


To some extent, it represents the actual historical reality of people who grew up in times when a lot of people lost parents when they were still young.
Indeed. The percentage of orphans in Africa was close to 12% in 2001, and 6-7% in Asia and Latin America. A rough estimate in the US (500,000 kids in foster care for a total of 74 million children) would be 0.6-0.7%. We can guess that most humans societies, being in a constant state of warfare and subject to epidemics, malnutrition and general poor health, have always been producing large numbers of orphans, so their presence in stories was less remarkable than it is now in developed countries.
posted by elgilito at 3:54 PM on August 31, 2019 [4 favorites]


Personally, I had as many, if not more adventures before my parents does than after, but it was the 80s. The "tell me exactly where you are going/will be at all times" and "you can't go anywhere without a parent taking you" was just beginning to filter down into the small(ish) city I grew up in, but remained far from the norm. A couple of my friends had serious helicopter parents, and I even used the term when I was still single digits in age, but the situation was considered weird among my classmates.

Some people had more strict curfews or were expected to call their parents on the telephone and ask for permission to leave the neighborhood, but that didn't feel like nearly as much of a leash. I wasn't the only one who walked or rode a bike 3/4 of a mile each way to/from school every day. That seems nearly unthinkable now.

I guess my point is that I don't really see how dead or absent parents were necessary for a child in literature to go on an adventure, at least until fairly recently. It seems anachronistic to my mind, applying modern sensibilities to explain works that predate that way of thinking.

I will concede that the adventures were larger in scope once my parents were out of the picture, but I believe that to be a result of an increased capacity due to greater age more than anything else.
posted by wierdo at 4:39 PM on August 31, 2019 [1 favorite]


I don't remember where I read this, and I can't do it full justice, but one of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's producers said Jennifer Sisko was killed off to upset the natural family balance. It was meant to weld an even tighter bond between father and son. It did other things for the storyline, too, of course, but that was a main consideration.
posted by bryon at 9:41 PM on August 31, 2019


Amazing how autocorrect turned "died" into "does" and I didn't even notice. Smartphones are rotting my brain, clearly.
posted by wierdo at 12:57 AM on September 1, 2019


I don't know how much helicopter parenting gets into it, because even a free-range, laissez-faire parent of the 50s isn't going to go, "ok, have fun with the dragon past the magical portal!" They'd be, " wait, there's *dragons?* Call the Smithsonian! Let me get my camera! We should call the press and alert authorities, just in case!"

And then it's a very different kind of story. Not necessarily a bad one, but not the one that the kids want to hear.
posted by pykrete jungle at 7:11 AM on September 1, 2019 [1 favorite]


In the Lion King, the author seems to have missed the point that, as members of the same pride, Nala and Simba share the same father.

Alls far as Finding Nemo...Nemo hatches as an undifferentiated hermaphrodite (as all clownfish are born) while his father transforms into a female now that his female mate is dead. Since Nemo is the only other clownfish around, he becomes a male and mates with his father (who is now a female). Should his father die, Nemo would change into a female and mate with another male.

Puts the frantic search in a different light, doesnt it?
posted by ananci at 9:17 AM on September 1, 2019 [7 favorites]


To build on some comments above - I'm writing a fantasy where the protagonist's parents are very much alive and a part of the story as more than mere barriers to adventure. And I can see why they are usually dispatched, because the more that I have to have my protagonist suffer real fear, pain, loss, etc., the more complex the inability of her parents to protect her, and the consequences to their relationships to each other, becomes.

As a result, my story's potential ideal audience has moved upwards in age, because the chances that a truly YA or older-kid audience would suffer through understanding the parents' motivations and experience seems slimmer. And in fact their backstory will eventually be a book on its own, fate willing.

So I guess having written through some of these issues, I am going to land in the camp that it provides narrative elegance to just dispatch the parents early and move on.
posted by warriorqueen at 9:42 AM on September 1, 2019 [1 favorite]


It's like how private detectives in novels tend to be divorced or widowed.

Unless your Hammett’s Nick and Nora and are married...to each other.
posted by sideshow at 11:26 AM on September 1, 2019 [2 favorites]


I think the fun counterexample to this would be Goonies or Stranger Things, where the kids clearly have loving families, but get into adventures anyway because it's the early 80s and they're allowed to roam around and play instead of being locked in their houses and shuttled off to various "lessons."
posted by panama joe at 6:26 PM on September 1, 2019 [1 favorite]


Unless your Hammett’s Nick and Nora and are married...to each other.

and have an infinite playlist

Stranger Things is an interesting case study, actually - the Wheelers are disengaged or easily bamboozled, and in the first season the sudden arrival of The Bad Guys throws them for a loop. The Byers are involved, to the point that Joyce is a major character. Eleven's mother is out of the picture. The Hendersons and Sinclairs aren't seen until later seasons, and we're led to assume that they're just as inattentive as the Wheelers are of their children.
posted by Merus at 6:47 PM on September 1, 2019


I appreciate that Americans are freaking out about the monopoly Disney has acquired on American storytelling, but that doesn't mean that narrative tropes are their fault now.

But they are if they keep doing them to the exclusion of all else. If they want all the profits they get all the responsibility that comes with it.
posted by srboisvert at 12:25 PM on September 3, 2019


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