From Understanding Mother to Hero Father: the Story of Ferdinand the Bull

Curator's Note

In 2017, Disney released a new, feature-length version of Munro Leaf’s 1936 anti-war tale The Story of Ferdinand. Disney’s 1938 version follows Leaf’s story quite closely, about the calf who prefers smelling flowers to fighting. As an adult, Ferdinand is accidentally picked to fight in the ring, but refuses to do so, depriving the matador of the opportunity to show off his bravery.

The new film is by necessity quite different. But format and animation style are not the only differences between the two re-tellings of the story. Ferdinand’s mother is no longer a part of the narrative. Instead, all the calves now have fathers, who show off their strength and teach their offspring that a bull’s goal in life is to fight in the ring.

In the earlier version, the mother is concerned that Ferdinand might be lonely, and encourages him to play with the other calves. But realising that he is happy, she leaves him alone, since she is an “understanding mother, even though she was a cow.” In the new version, Ferdinand is proud of his big and strong father, Raf, who “is going to fight for glory in the ring,” but wants a different, peaceful, life for himself. Raf acknowledges Ferdinand’s concerns, but is confident that as a grown-up, Ferdinand will not only want to fight, but that he will be “bigger and tougher than your old man.”

Disney has a long history of getting rid of mothers, seemingly privileging fathers over mothers, as has frequently been pointed out both by scholars and viewers. Here though, removing the mother allows for a narrative that questions a lifestyle where there are only two options: “you’re either a fighter or you’re meat,” as one bull says. Ferdinand suggests a third option, a life where a bull is not sent to “the chophouse just for being yourself,” offering friendship instead of competition. Disney turns Leaf’s anti-war story into an indictment of restrictive, aggressive masculinity, promoting a kinder way of life, where alternative lifestyles are accepted. Ferdinand does not try to live up to his father’s expectations. Instead he saves his friends from their fathers’ fate, a violent death in the ring.

But, unlike 1938 Ferdinand, the new one does fight, and defeats the matador (but refrains from killing him). Just so we know that although peaceful, he is not a coward and a weakling. In fact, he is bigger and tougher than his father.


I haven't seen this adaptation, but this is an interesting way of reading Disney's choices about (not) representing mothers. Do you think they were trying to reach fathers specifically, or promoting a new version of masculinity to young boys (and girls -- and mothers?)

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