It is well-known that I am a huge fan of Disney films. It’s the music, and the beauty and the fairytale happy endings. I’m afraid that it’s a shameless escapism for me.
I started thinking recently about the role of motherhood in Disney. And I realised pretty quickly that it’s not a great picture. Let’s have a look at the following princesses and their mother figures: (and pre-warning there are spoilers from ‘Brave’)
Snow White- no biological mother and a stepmother who hates her and tries to have her killed
Cinderella- no biological mother and a stepmother who hates her and forces her to be a servant
Sleeping Beauty- loving parents who are forced to send her away to be brought up by fairies (what could possibly go wrong?)
Jasmin- mother not around (as in it’s never explained but the assumption is that she’s passed away)
Ariel- mother not around
Belle- mother not around
Pocahontas- mother not around
Rapunzel- brought up by an insane old (old, old, old) woman who pretends to be her mother and then systematically demeans and demoralises Rapunzel in the name of friendly teasing. Yeah, fantastic motherhood example.
Mulan- ah ha! Finally, a mother. But one who pushes her daughter to be someone that she isn’t and is very much in the background of the story. Hhmm, not a great example either.
Merida- ok this one’s interesting… the film opens with a loving and playful scene with Merida and her mother Elinor- off to a great start. Though if you look closely there is a foreshadow of conflict to come over Elinor’s disapproval of Merida (the princess) having a bow and arrow. ‘Princesses do not use weapons.’
But then almost immediately the film jumps to Merida’s enforced ‘princess training’ and the discord that has arisen between mother and daughter. Elinor repeats over and over again ‘a princess must be…’, ‘a princess does not…’, ‘a princess should always…’.
Elinor feels bound by historical customs to bring up her daughter to be a good princess and therefore marry a good suitor bringing security to their land. While Merida feels trapped and ignored as she is carried along on other people’s wishes and desires feeling as though there is no regard at all for her own.
My favourite scene in the film is at the archery competition when a hooded competitor pulls back the cloak, revealing Merida’s enviably vivid and free flowing hair as she states that she will be shooting for her own hand. There is a lovely thread running through the story of young people wanting to be free to make their own choices away from their parents’ decisions for them.
But the main story running throughout this film is the mending of the relationship between Merida and her mother. “Mend the bond torn by pride” recites the crazy old witch. Perhaps this isn’t such a bad example of some aspects of motherhood after all as both sides learn to see things from each other’s point of view.
I am finding myself in a really interesting position at the moment as I am encountering all those times where I just know that some things must be so because they are best for my little girl. Even if she hates it. Nappy changes for example are becoming more and more of a struggle. Likewise with wearing clothes appropriate for the weather- while she is a big, big fan of her grandma’s knitted woolly hats, there is absolutely nothing I can do to keep a sun hat on her head!
I am also looking back through my own story where I can see time and time again that my mum (and my dad- it’s just that the focus of this writing is mums) didn’t try to force me to do what she thought was best for me. I have been given the freedom to learn to make my own way and my own decisions both good and bad. And my mum has always been there for me to celebrate or commiserate without ever a hint of ‘I told you so’.
It takes being changed into an actual bear for Elinor to realise how important it is to let her daughter be who she is and not a mini-Elinor. And it is also clear that Merida comes to see how selfish she has been in ignoring her mother’s knowledge, wisdom and priorities.
So after all these long and rambly thoughts I have come to the conclusion that Disney has had a really poor show of mums. But that maybe Brave is quite redemptive in this aspect because it shows (perhaps unusually for Disney) something of real life mum and daughter struggles and loves. I highly recommend the film, it hits my top 3 all time favourite Disneys.
*The Pixar Times published this article in 2012 on much the same subject as this.