Problematic Motherhood: Disney Princesses and the Missing or Overbearing Mother

Curator's Note

When considering the pantheon of Disney Princesses and the presentations of femininity found within its parameters, it is equally important to consider it alongside the “missing mother” trope that has been observed within the framework of most Disney Theatrical Animated Classics.

If we were to take the musings of popular culture at hand in reference to this lack of maternal presence in Disney films, we might note the historical circumstances quoted about Walt Disney’s personal desire to avoid the subject, or potentially consider an obvious line of post-Freudian argumentation--that the character’s ego formation and a sense of autonomous self is best formed in a vacuum away from the subject’s parents no matter the figure’s gender.

This line of argumentation falls short when we consider the virgin/whore binary present in many films with a female villainess. When we split feminine presentation into the dichotomy of light and dark, it seems, the cultural associations associated with such an exercise run deeper than these musings often presume. It may be that they reflect particular facets of familial culture that cultural anthropology and humanities studies have already documented well. Therefore I posit that a closer look at what presentations of femininity are present in the “Disney” absence aids in teasing out potential significations.

In this clip curated from the Disney Computer Animation film Tangled, we find that Rapunzel’s mother-figure, as depicted in this sequence, has some quite unhealthy ideas for her “daughter's” future. Instilling fear in her teenage charge, the character Mother Gothel urges, “ . . . don’t ever ask to leave this tower again.” Other lyrics in the song present the rationale that being “sloppy, under-dressed, immature, clumsy,” and the situation that is “gettin’ kinda chubby” are reasons for Rapunzel to stay locked in her tower. Rapunzel, thankfully does not accept this broken line of argumentation as she gazes into the mirror, and eventually dares to leave the tower to pursue the imago she formed in early childhood.

It may be the most cogent argument to be made about the situation is as follows: Even if the problematic behavior is portrayed by a villainess, and is assigned to the unfavorable side of the dichotomy presented, if the desired behavior of a devoted, attached parent is barely presented in the film, (or any of the films really) theories considering the cultivation effects of media and an attempt to portray better models might be worth an exploration.


The D.O.A mother in Disney is a trope that unnerves me, and has done so for several years now. Many of these films are based on older fairy tales in which the mother was not present or had minimal influence, and thus it was likely not a conscious choice by Disney to excise a fully realised character. However, when you think about the influence that fathers, alive or dead, have in the Disney canon, it shows a definite lean towards the traditional patriarchal nuclear family in which the male is the distributor of power and knowledge: see Mufasa, Triton, any narrative in which a princess inherits the crown. Disney isn't devoid of mothers (Toy Story, Brave, Mulan), but aside from these notable exceptions, there is not real trend in representing motherhood aside from absence. It's unpleasant to see that in Tangled, one of the few times Disney shows a maternal influence upon a protagonist, said influence is highly negative. As you say, it is problematic behaviour performed by an unrepentant villainess. Is it just easier to use a father in the parental role because it saves on having to explain why a woman raised a child alone/reigns alone/has a greater influence on her child?

It might be. It might be that a largely male animation world doesn't even have the semiotic language to attempt it appropriately--at least in the case of the classic animation. I know that current efforts I've been involved in (or have followed) to highlight and feature women's presences and voices in film have been considering that question heavily. My larger point I think, which I will be elaborating on in a few days at The Electric Feast, for my own exercise, is that we can't have the narratives we really want without proper representation behind the scenes. Not knowing the demographics of the writing, animation, and production teams behind Tangled, I can't properly play with the notion that women themselves might still be struggling for the appropriate languages to represent women in media in a positively concrete way. If I consult many of theories I cited in my musing we're referring to, I undoubtedly can in a more abstract one. Thank you for your comment. It was thought-provoking.

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