OK, Mom, Now Get Out of the Story

COMMENT

July 09, 1995|By ELISE ARMACOST

Has anybody noticed that mothers are an endangered species -- no, make that an extinct species -- in these Disney films that little girls are lining up at the theater to see?

I have a little girl now, so I'm sensitive to these things. I figure it's only a matter of time before we're drinking out of "Little Mermaid" mugs, buying harem-style Jasmine jammies and clearing out the Beatrix Potter bunnies to make room for Pocahontas. And, hey, that's OK. A kid who loves Disney is nothing to complain about. Better Belle than the Garbage Pail Kids, for heaven's sake.

As pointed out by my brother, the father of a girl who sleeps in Cinderella nightgowns and insists the mud always be wiped from her Snow White shoes, who cares if Disney makes a zillion dollars off these cartoon blockbusters? "People want quality entertainment for their kids," he says.

At the Sony theater on B&A Boulevard in Glen Burnie, "Pocahontas" is showing 11 times a day. Eleven showings! And they're all nearly full. The salespeople at the Disney Store in the Marley Station Mall say Pocahontas stuff is moving faster than you can say, "MasterCard or Visa?"

Belle, Ariel, Jas, Poca -- no wonder little girls love them. They all have faces to launch a thousand ships and bods over which wars could be fought. They're spunky, adored by some hunky guy -- and their mothers are all dead. Either that or she's run off to join a rock band to find herself. The stories don't always say why she's not around, though childbirth seems to take a heavy toll in bona fide fairy tales like "Beauty and the Beast."

I checked the Brothers Grimm the other night, just for kicks. In the original, uncensored Cinderella, whose gory scenes include pigeons pecking out the eyes of the wicked stepsisters, Mom is alive when the story starts. She lasts for two one-sentence paragraphs. "And then she closed her eyes and died."

Snow White's mother, the Queen, is similarly short-lived. She gives birth to Snow White. "And when she was born the Queen died."

It's not just in fairy tales that mothers have a black cloud hanging over their heads. They're pushing up daisies in most stories for girls.

The mystery of Nancy Drew's mother is that no one knows what she died of, only that she's history.

Anne of Green Gables? No mother.

Sara Crewe? Ditto.

Jane Eyre? Sans mere.

What is this telling me? That girls harbor some sort of secret death wish against mothers? That it's tough for a girl to have a life worth writing a story about with mother around? There's something to that last one. If Cinderella had a mother -- well, she wouldn't have become Cinderella. And how could Jasmine have sought adventure and romance outside the palace walls with a mother saying, "You are not going out with some hoodlum on a flying carpet!"

But I can't chalk up this absence of mothers to poetic license alone. Why? Because if a good story demands that heroines be free and on their own, then it's not just mothers who would be written into oblivion. Fathers would disappear, too. But they don't, not in many stories, and not in any of the four Disney biggies.

Belle has her eccentric old dad, who spends his spare time making nutty inventions. Ariel's father, King Triton, rules the ocean. Jasmine's daddy is a royal sultan. Pocahontas is -- and really was -- the daughter of Chief Powhatan.

Now, how is it that none of these girls can have mothers because a mother would spoil their adventures and hence the story, but Pops can hang in there and Disney still makes a mint? The men with whom I discussed this pressing question say it's not mothers who are getting a dirty deal in these stories; it's fathers. Sure, their daughters love them. But they're not exactly what you'd call involved parents.

The noble Powhatan's the best of the lot, and even he is more busy doing chief things than parenting. Belle's father is a lovable goof, and Triton and the sultan are downright clueless about their little darlings' exploits, which is why their presence doesn't ruin the stories.

"Look at them," my brother said. "They're not any peaches. They're almost aloof. I would say they're somewhat incompetent. They're not dead, but they're buffoons kids don't have to listen to. It's not exactly insulting, but it's easier for people to accept a father as an incompetent parent than a mother."

Point taken. Of course, that doesn't explain Carson Drew, the greatest fictional father of all time. He wasn't a buffoon. He was smart, a famous lawyer never too busy to know what Nancy was up to but never too strict to put a crimp in her style. Plus, he liked her boyfriend and gave her a neat little Roadster.

I ask you: Why couldn't Carson Drew have been a mother? Is it so unbelievable that a bright, adventurous girl could have a good Mom, never too busy to know what she's up to but not a kill-joy who puts on the brakes every time she heads for Larkspur Lane or the moss-covered mansion? Who likes her boyfriend but doesn't want him herself? Who gives her a neat little Roadster without whining, "Now, Nancy, remember what I said about obeying the speed limit"?

You wouldn't think this might strain credulity. But in fiction, it seems, mothers are good only to give birth. And bite the dust.

I certainly hope life doesn't imitate art.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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