Around this time last year I read a controversial article in The Atlantic entitled “Why Are All the Cartoon Mothers Dead?” More than 350 readers fulminated about it or supported it, but it stuck in my mind. Sarah Boxer’s observations have become, for me, a yardstick to measure certain aspects of characterization in fiction, particularly in the realm of speculative fiction where youthful heroines and heroes (and readers with mothers) abound.
Boxer’s article notes that many have analyzed the meaning of fairy tales and Disney movies in which motherless or orphaned protagonists often have evil stepmothers. Versions of Cinderella are, apparently, at least as old as 9th-century China. Critics have long argued that killing off the protagonist’s parents is a shortcut that thrusts the orphan into difficulties most children are protected from.
As I read, my stomach went cold as I reconsidered the fictional world I am creating in my own fantasy tetralogy. Was I adding to this problem? In my Earth-like world, so many women of the ruling class have died in birth that a tipping point has been reached, enabling the remaining women to bargain for political power and freedom because of their scarcity. I was thinking “female empowerment,” but apparently I was falling into the pit of devaluing the importance of motherhood. Or is the fictional world falling apart precisely because there aren't enough mothers with power?
Boxer’s article goes further, bringing the old fairy-tale discussion to the world of modern entertainment:
The dead mother plot is a classic of children’s fiction, but animated movies have supplied a new twist: the fun father has taken her place. ...
In a striking number of animated kids’ movies of the past couple of decades (coincidental with the resurgence of Disney and the rise of Pixar and DreamWorks), the dead mother is replaced not by an evil stepmother but by a good father. He may start out hypercritical (Chicken Little) or reluctant (Ice Age). He may be a tyrant (The Little Mermaid) or a ne’er-do-well (Despicable Me)….No matter how bad he starts out, though, he always ends up good. He doesn’t just do the job, he’s fabulous at it.
She cites many examples, but Finding Nemo seems spot on:
Before the title sequence, Nemo’s mother, Coral, is eaten by a barracuda, so Nemo’s father, Marlin, has to raise their kid alone. He starts out as an overprotective, humorless wreck, but in the course of the movie he faces down everything—whales, sharks, currents, surfer turtles, an amnesiac lady-fish, hungry seagulls—to save Nemo….Thus Marlin not only replaces the dead mother but becomes the dependable yet adventurous parent Nemo always wanted, one who can both hold him close and let him go. He is protector and playmate, comforter and buddy, mother and father.
and she concludes that
The old fairy-tale, family-romance movies that pitted poor motherless children against horrible vengeful stepmothers are a thing of the past. Now plucky children and their plucky fathers join forces to make their way in a motherless world. The orphan plot of yore seems to have morphed, over the past decade, into the buddy plot of today.
“Do the fathers of my fictional world fit the pattern?” I wondered, as the magazine (yes, real paper!) fell to my lap. My fictional father characters are forgiving and empathetic, or demanding and honorable, or demented (bummer), but most are surviving quite handily since losing their wives. If the fathers remarry, the stepmothers don’t have to be evil because my protagonists are adults, which grants them some immunity to the evil stepmom. Can I claim at least some redemption points for diverging from the unsavory Pixar Pattern, because my protagonists’ fathers are not fun? They’re certainly not easy-going “buddies.”
Let’s leave cartoons behind to consider blockbuster speculative fiction: Harry Potter – check, dead parents. Game of Thrones – check, orphans stacking up everywhere. Luke Skywalker – mom dead, check… but Dad is no buddy so far, although Vader still has a chance to redeem himself in the final trilogy as an advising ghost. The Hunger Games – twist! Katniss’ dad is dead but her (weak) mom is around. Alice in Wonderland – Did the real Alice have a mother? I know she had sisters and a father. Does anyone know?
Turning to recent speculative fictional releases, The Kingkiller Chronicle, the fantasy trilogy by Patrick Rothfuss, features Kvothe (magician-musician orphan), Denna (struggling-kept-woman orphan) and Auri (subterranean orphan). Auri is the protagonist of Rothfuss’ recently-released novella “The Slow Regard of Silent Things” which I enjoyed even though die-hard followers of Kingkiller were as mystified by the slow interiority of the lovely novella as Rothfuss feared they would be. While I commend his bravery in penning "Silent Things," is it too much to ask that some pivotal character in Tarbean have a mother? Mr. Rothfuss, may the third and final novel of your amazing trilogy break this stubborn pattern!
The Queen of the Tearling trilogy, which Fiction Unbound is blogging about as it is released, hints that the plot may ultimately follow the newest, absent-mother/friendly-father pattern: Kelsea, the young heroine, is hidden by her mother, a beautiful but ineffective queen, and raised as an orphan by a tutor and guard. One of Kelsea’s most burning questions is her father's identity. Will he turn out to be The Fetch, her handsome, charming and ruthless protector? Or William Tear, come forward in time? Or will Johansen break out of the Disney/Pixar rut and reveal that Kelsea’s father was an irrelevant nobody and that Kelsea is powerful enough to succeed on her own without the daddy-as-buddy? Well… we can hope.
Finally, and because I always must, I consider Frank Herbert’s Dune, one of the most brilliant examples of fictional world-building. I am thrilled to report that Paul’s mother, Jessica, is an independent and powerful Bene Gesserit who is also politically savvy, physically capable and wise. Best of all, she outlives Paul’s father’s assassination and survives with Paul in the harsh desert of Arrakis. Once again, Dune proves its superiority.
Let’s break the pattern and value the importance of women in the family. It didn’t take Boxer’s pointing it out in her article to make me exclaim, “How many single-father families are there compared to single-mother families? Who’s really doing the child-rearing work out there?” Bring back the Grendel’s-Mother/female-warrior/protector archetype!
Fellow writers, join me now in the following vow: “I resolve that I will not write another novel or story in which the mother is dead, even if her death is a primary motivator for the protagonist’s actions.” (Okay, so we can finish that novel or story we’re working on right now, of course, because we’re in way too deep.) Thank you.
Furthermore, I'm warning our readers that any book review I write going forward will be unapologetically swayed by the presence of strong mothers and the absence of evil stepmothers or buddy-buddy fathers.
Authors, you have been warned.