Perhaps it is because I am a mother now, or because I lost my own mother too soon, that I am a tad sensitive to a lack of maternal characters in television and film. But plunging head-first into Disney princesses as soon as my daughter was old enough to watch cartoons, I began to notice something odd: All of these princesses are being raised by single parents. Single fathers, to be specific. I looked into the other Disney heroines that I’d missed watching myself, likely due to to the fact that I spent much of my childhood in the USSR, only to find more of the same: Pocahontas, Snow White, Cinderella, and even the more recent Rapunzel in “Tangled” are raised motherless.
Except in the case of the most famous motherless heroine, Cinderella, there’s also no explanation to what happened to all these girls’ mothers. Did they all die in childbirth? Is it some sort of plot device to keep the action moving, like making teenage protagonists orphans in YA literature? If every story is about a princess finding love, then what happens to these princesses once they become queens? The only queens in Disney seem to be evil stepmothers.
There are a few theories about this online, like the most obvious — an absent mother creates more freedom for adventure — or that a lack of strong connection to a parent creates an even stronger will to leave the home and see the world. One theory, that it helps the viewer sympathize with the character more, does make sense, especially since a wealthy princess with a happy home life could spark jealousy more than sympathy in many cases.
But the most common theory (and most preposterous, in my opinion) is the one that blames Walt Disney’s guilt over his own mother’s death. Putting aside the fact that guilt over a parent’s death is not necessarily a good reason to keep mothers out of every single film one produces, Walt Disney died in 1966, and most of these films were released decades after his death. Also, it misses a very important point: all of these Disney films, at least the ones with princesses, have been adapted from famous literature and fairy tales. The first references to the story of Cinderella, for example, can be traced back to sixth-century Greece, in “Rhodopis,” a story about a Greek slave girl who marries the king of Egypt. In the 12th-century version, La Fresne (lai), “The Ash-Tree Girl,” retold by Marie de France, a wealthy noblewoman abandons one of her infant twin daughters to a nunnery because she fears she will be accused of infidelity, a common belief at the time. In another version from 860 AD, Cinderella is named Ye Xian, and is the daughter of the local tribal leader who died when she was young. Her mother long dead, she is also raised by her father’s evil second wife.
In none of these versions is the heroine raised by her mother.
The same can be said for “The Little Mermaid,” originally written by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, and Snow White, whose mother famously dies in childbirth in Disney’s version as well as in the original by the Brothers Grimm. In both versions of “Beauty and the Beast,” the original by French author Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve and the abridged one by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, who rewrote the tale to teach young girls a moral lesson, Belle is raised by her father. Pocahontas is supposedly based on a real person, and she is thought to have lost her mother in childbirth. The only mention of both parents is in Sleeping Beauty, and even there, Princess Aurora is raised by three fairies instead of either parent.
I began to wonder about the original authors of these stories. Surely, they must have something in common. Why are all their heroines raised by single fathers? Were their authors unable to write complex women characters? As I researched the origins of the authors, at least the ones whose origins are known, I didn’t expect to find anything too obvious to connect them. But almost immediately I did. I discovered that nearly every single author was raised by a single mother.
The father of the Brothers Grimm died from pneumonia when the boys were only 10, plunging them into immense 18th-century German poverty.
Hans Christian Andersen and Hanna Dyab, the Ottoman-era Syrian orator who first told the story of Aladdin to a French archaeologist, both lost their fathers young.
There is no record of original “Beauty and the Beast” author Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve’s parentage (although her Protestant background in early 18th-century France, where Protestants were deprived of all civil liberties, implies a difficult childhood at the very least, and she was apparently widowed by age 26), but Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, who wrote the abridged and revised version on which the Disney cartoon is based, lost her mother, not father, at a young age. She is the only female author among them, and the only one who was actually raised motherless.
These facts raise a lot of questions. Did the authors not know what it was like to have a father figure around? Was this their way of living out the fantasy of having an easier childhood, a life unlike their own? All of them struggled with massive poverty without fathers, and therefore, it was probably quite enjoyable to imagine a life where their father was around to take care of them financially, so they didn’t need to take care of themselves. A life like the ones they had turns a boy into a man far too soon, and it would not be surprising for them to spend the rest of their lives reimagining a different sort of childhood, and helping others do the same.
There is this, too: To be a young girl without a mother is hard. This absence helps a reader to empathize with someone who, from all appearances, seems to have everything — the castles rendered in Disney cartoons are awe-inspiring, to say the very least. The character has an extra-powerful desire for something bigger in her life; a need to fill the hole a mother leaves. And for every single Disney girl across the board, the thing that fills it is love.
Which brings us to the other common element of the princess stories: marriage: Almost every Disney princess plot is structured around marriage. Specifically, a civilian wanting to marry royalty, or the other way around. Since we have replaced royalty with celebrities, or just rich people in general, the story can be interpreted as being about a person who desires to marry someone out of their world, as Ariel sings. Once this uneven dichotomy is established, the rest of the plot is, generally speaking, created around finding a loophole. Because, after all, as it is in the cartoons and as it was back when kings and queens ruled our cities — royalty must marry royalty. Disney heroes and heroines are very creative in finding loopholes to achieve their marriage goals. They are all beautiful, which certainly helps, in that unrequited love never seems to be an issue; plus, they have magic. In “Aladdin,” the genie makes him a prince; in “Little Mermaid,” the sea witch Ursula gives her legs in exchange for her voice. Cinderella has her fairy godmother (since she is not her actual mother, apparently it is allowed). Only the prince in “Beauty and the Beast” is so hideous that he is allowed to take up with anyone, and this is coincidentally (or not) the only story here written by women, originally as a criticism (and then a moral lesson) of arranged marriage in early 18th century.
Considering that many of these stories were written in the early 1700s, it makes sense that so much focus is placed on financial and status inequality.(Just look at the spectacle generated when Prince Harry married an American actress, and that’s in a time where the royal family no longer holds any power.) Being poor before electricity and plumbing? Not fun. None of the authors of these tales grew up rich. So it is not surprising that when authors wrote, they wrote about royalty. And in royal families, parental heritage is vital.
Specifically, the father.
This is why I believe these girls are actually motherless; a royal father is a king. In the past, the king had ultimate power and ultimate riches. A king could remarry; a queen rarely kept power once her king died. Unlike many stories written for children and young adults about teenagers who save the world, and are only able to do so because of a lack of parental supervision, you cannot make these teenagers orphans. In order to make a princess, you need her to be the daughter of a king. Not a queen; a queen is, for the purpose of plot anyway, a superfluous character. (Unless she is an evil queen, in which case she is the antagonist, and therefore entirely necessary—but, crucially, she is not the mother.)
Additionally, a king as a father makes the plot easier to manage; a king is way less likely to notice that his daughter is off visiting humans or sneaking into the bazaar. Ariel would have had a much harder time meeting Eric if her mother was around to keep an eye on her. And Ariel would be less likely to trust Ursula, who is after all a woman on top of an evil sorceress, if she could turn to her own mother for help. So there is something to be said about the absent mother as a plot device.
However, the main reason for all these motherless characters is that a girl needs a father who is king to be a princess; either that, or she needs to marry a boy whose father is king.
Ariel wishes to leave the ocean and be a human so she can marry Prince Eric. Before she meets John Smith, Pocahontas wishes to travel and see the world. Jasmine feels stuck in her palace and wishes to be free to see the world as well; then she meets Aladdin (who does promise to show it to her, but her story ends as soon as they get married, so who knows if they ever actually went anywhere). Belle loves to read and wishes to leave her provincial French town, when she stumbles upon the beast’s castle — then she falls in love with him and gets married. Snow White wakes up when a prince kisses her. Cinderella, after being tortured her whole life by her evil stepmother, falls in love with a prince and solves all her problems by marrying him. Every single one of these stories ends with a happily-ever-after marriage. Every single girl trades one cage for another. Not to say that marriage is bad, or that marriage is a trap, but the message sent to millions of little girls around the world is that marriage is the ultimate goal. But underneath the shiny pink exterior, the stories are really more about safety than love.
Marriage, especially a royal marriage, is a happy ending because it is a safe one. What could be more safe for your children than for them to be or become royalty? You are guaranteed plentiful resources, lots of help with raising children, and plenty of free time to enrich your mind, to read, write, think, have parties and ride horses. That’s why the story of Aladdin is so satisfying. He is a poor orphan who raises himself out of poverty and even manages to marry into royalty by the end. It even makes you like Jasmine more when you see her fall in love with a commoner. The modern equivalent to these sorts of character arcs can be found everywhere in popular culture: from silly Hallmark movies about workaholic lawyers who fall for some brokenhearted construction worker, to every single reality TV star. People love the fantasy of solving all their problems with one simple step. It gives them hope; the illusion of a future with no more problems, financial or otherwise.
I always wonder more about what happens to Ariel and Eric after the wedding. Once she gets to know him, does she eventually become embittered because she gave up her entire family to be with him? He is just some guy, after all. Or what about Belle? Does she wake up to find she actually preferred her husband when he was a wild animal, and not a tame, blonde prince?
I suppose it doesn’t really matter. Children are not capable of understanding what makes a healthy marriage; they cannot wrap their minds around bitterness, financial squabbles, divorce rates. Nor should we want them to. It is better that they continue to believe that the main story of life is about the journey to find their other person, and not the reality, which is that the story only starts if and when you find them. Or it doesn’t include marriage at all.
These days, marriage, if one chooses to pursue it, is just one step in a series of steps in a young girl’s life. It will not magically transform it, and it won’t necessarily make her safe. And who wants to be so safe and protected anyway? Certainly none of these princesses were satisfied with their pretty castles and servants and cocoons if it meant they could never experience any danger. Not everyone wants a safe life. Nor do they all want safe stories. I, for one, prefer an ending that is unexpected, and a story that is hard to predict; both in real life, and on paper. I did not marry a wealthy prince, and I am not unhappy because of it. That said, I enjoy the simplicity of the cartoons; classic Disney has great artistic merit — visually and musically there is much to admire.
But that doesn’t mean I can’t still wonder: Where are these girls’ mothers? A mother would tell Ariel not to throw her life away for a boy she doesn’t know. A mother would tell Aladdin to get a job and Jasmine to make some friends. A mother would tell Belle that marrying a prince in the guise of a beast is not really much of an adventure, when it comes down to it, unless the prince plans on taking you around the world or starting a publishing company so you can be a writer.
Then again, if a mother was around to tell the girls these things, there would be no movie to watch.
Zhanna Slor was born in the former Soviet Union and moved to the Midwest in the early 1990s. She has a master’s degree in Writing and Publishing from DePaul University, and has been published in many literary magazines, including Ninth Letter, Bellevue Literary Review, Midwestern Gothic, Another Chicago Magazine, and Michigan Quarterly Review, which received an honorary mention in Best American Essays 2014. She lives in Milwaukee with her daughter and husband, saxophonist for Jazz-Rock fusion band Marbin. Her first novel, “At the End of the World Turn Left,” will be published by Polis Books in Spring 2021.