The Dead Mother Cliche: A Counter Argument

Photo by Andrew Evans

A few days ago, the Cartoon Brew made a post about one of the cliches of animation, the dead mother cliche to be exact, which brought me over to the original article by the Atlantic. To summarise, they made the observation that a large amount of children’s movies started off, or somewhere in the middle, killed off the mother of the protagonist (or a significant character who is also a mother). I do agree with this. There has been quite a lot of movies over the last few decades or even longer with the same plot point and I’m sure it has not gone unnoticed by many others too. But both of them in the end closed with the acknowledgement that it was an intentional decision with the intent of portraying mothers as less or no importance while glorifying fathers, and it is this statement which I have to strongly disagree with. It is true that writers could handle this better, but I’m here to argue that the mothers are just as important if not more than the fathers. And that is why they chose to kill them off.

Let’s take a look at the traditional family unit. It’s a rule but not a law, and it tends to be followed because that’s what we’ve been thought about, how it’s an effective working formula, and there’s either no real need to change it or hasn’t been another one more efficient. The traditional family unit consists of a strong father figure and a strong mother figure.

The job of the father figure is to provide protection for the whole family. The job of the mother figure is to provide love for the whole family. What this means for the child is that they get both the physical and mental safety that they need to grow up. That’s the traditional family unit (sometimes there’s a dog, the dog’s just there for fun). If there’s a giant rampaging bear headed towards them, they’ll look to the father to punch it right between the eyes. If he accidentally broke his fist in the process, he looks to the mother to say it’s going to be all right, it’ll heal and thank you for saving the family.

The mother figure is important in that she provides the whole family emotional support. A father does not know how to teach his child how to handle a breakup, or give them a gentle reassuring hug without crushing their bones. What he knows is how to smash giant cats with rocks and how to carry his family across a ravine; how to protect his family. That is the traditional father figure.

So if a story does discard a father figure, there’s no big loss story wise. Maybe a family unit without a father figure could not protect themselves and perishes, but to not have a guiding mother figure to provide a strong emotional support would leave the child vulnerable. They may grow up not knowing love and in turn not knowing how to love. They may grow up to be a villain possibly. Now you see where this becomes a very delicious ingredient for storytellers. A family loses the father, options are they live or die. A family loses the mother, chances of the child growing up is higher than the former because the father is there to bring him up physically, but the child encounters many emotional dilemmas and moral choices that would otherwise have been easily settled by the guidance of the mother figure and it is this progressive journey of how the world treats the child and how the child reacts to the world that we like to see. It engages us because we like to know; can they be an exemplary member of society ? Do they become the villain ? Will they end up being a sort of anti-hero ? You’ll have to read the story to find out.

There was a saying in writing class to help make a story more exciting, “What’s the worst thing that can happen to your character, make it happen”. And so the mother of a little deer dies (spoilers). When Bambi’s mother died in the first movie, Bambi was brought up by his father in Bambi 2. You can see this father has no clue at all how to bring up a fawn. He can provide food, give shelter, tell him of places where he will be safe from harm, but he ultimately could not give Bambi the sense of belonging and being accepted. And through his frustration of the need he could not provide he distances himself from Bambi and focuses more on his work (or whatever it is the prince of the forest does) which in turn makes Bambi feel he is of no importance to his father, not accepted, and further estranges the relationship. It’s a very good story about not only father and son but ultimately parent and child, and that’s why Bambi 2 was made.

A lot of writers and storytellers tend to get the same advice and in turn give the same advice, because of that they also tend to come to the same solutions for problems and questions. This results in us noticing recurring themes that may not work anymore or feel outdated. The common advice is to usually push situations to the extreme, but you really can’t get any more deader than, well… dead.

From a storytelling point of view, what’s the best a story can be told. Rags to riches, David and Goliath; the greater the difference or obstacle to overcome the better the story. You start from the very bottom and rise to the very top, and what’s the most lowest point you can go when telling an emotional story ? Definitely not with the mother figure, not the very embodiment of emotional comfort and stability. So by process of elimination it would usually fall onto the male character, usually the father, to take on a role very unfamiliar to him, while protecting his child, while coping with the distress of having lost the love of his life. The whole process not only broke him, but continued to step and spat on him, and you could not get any lower than that. And if he does rise through, to bring his child up happy and healthy, then it is a story worth telling.

In a way, I would even argue that all those stories we’ve been getting about fathers and sons are very ‘female stories’. It’s very easy to tell ‘male stories’. The premise would simply be the protagonist has to become physically stronger so they wouldn’t get hurt or so they could defeat someone. But female stories on the other hand are about relationships, acceptance, moving on and dealing with emotions. Stories that we would tell in this day and age because we all (for the most part) live in a society that’s ‘physically safe’ (as in we don’t have wild animals out there trying to kill us at night) but we all also need to learn how to fit into that society on a social level and still do.

Now I would like to clarify that it is a real legitimate problem in the way we’ve all been treating the female half of all of us. But over the past few years I feel we have become so obsessed with this patriarchy agenda, or everything’s done in secret for the benefit of men, that we tack it onto everything and anything just because we can (soon we’ll probably be telling our kids that the sky is blue because blue is the colour of boys and oooo women are oppressed, down with patriarchy !). But stories are not written that way, they’re written to give the audience the most emotionally engaging aspects of our culture and lives. How we handle emotions, how we handle ourselves, internally and externally. It just so happens that killing off the one symbolic safety blanket of emotional protection a common plot decision that’s made. The dead mother cliche is an effective formula tried and true, but all the same I’m very open to anyone willing to try something new and challenge it, and I’m sure everyone else is too.