It's a momless summer, if you believe the current crop of children's films.
In four of this summer's hits for kids -- "Pocahontas," "A Little Princess," "Casper" and "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" -- the mothers are either missing or dead, with no mention of what they were like or what became of them.
But the truth is that mothers, far from being absent, are the anchors of most families. What's going on here?
Child psychologists say the motherless theme taps a child's deepest fears about death and loss. Feminists say it's subtle sexism. Historians see it as American obsession with the self-made individual.
Filmmakers say that removing the mother is just a dramatic device that lets children follow an adventure without a parent nagging them to be careful. As Warner Brothers' Mark Johnson, who produced "A Little Princess," said in a phone interview from Hollywood, "It's plot convenience."
Film aficionados are quick to note that films featuring a motherless child or an orphan are nothing new. In many children's films of past decades -- "Snow White" (1937), "The Wizard of Oz" (1939), "Cinderella" (1950) and more -- parents are deceased or inexplicably absent.
But the motherless genre is more pervasive now than ever. Not only are fewer films showing vibrant mothers, but the new momless movies -- even the remakes of old stories -- are having "a much bigger impact on children's lives," according to child psychologist Carolyn Newberger of Children's Hospital in Boston.
"They're exposed and re-exposed" not just through the original filmsbut by replays of soundtracks and videos, which have become "electronic baby sitters," Dr. Newberger said. "For young children, these films are the pop culture."
For kids to see parents missing in films may also reflect their reality -- especially if divorce or out-of-wedlock birth, not necessarily death, explains an absent parent.
"It's a very contemporary theme with more relevance now -- when there are so many more single-parent families," said Marvin Levy, a consultant for Amblin Entertainment, which produced "Casper."
Film analysts say it is striking just how many children's movies this summer have a missing mother.
In "Pocahontas," the heroine misses her mother and wears her mother's wedding necklace, but the viewer has no idea how she died. "Casper" the friendly ghost doesn't remember his mother.
Sara, the heroine of "A Little Princess," has also lost her mother. She wears her parents' photos in a locket, her prized possession.
The only parents in "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" have been turned to zombies by evil Ivan Ooze.
Winning the audience
Having a main character who has lost a parent assures a sympathetic audience, especially if the target group is young children. Among the most memorable scenes for children are when the mother dies in "Bambi" or when the father is killed in last year's hit "The Lion King."
Kirsten Vouwie, 8, who was watching "A Little Princess" with her mother and sister at an Arlington, Mass., theater last week, said such films "make me feel lucky that I have parents and sad that [the film characters] didn't have anyone to love them. When I see a movie like this, it really touches my heart."
Eva Peel, a children's screenwriter and film-industry observer, said in a phone interview from Santa Monica, Calif., that filmmakers discard mothers to quicken the pace.
"Hollywood filmmakers are looking for more action per square minute than they used to," Ms. Peel said. "Mothers are typically viewed as dramatic deadweight from the standpoint of constructing a fast-paced action film. The general perception is that the man is more action-prone. You have to come up with things for the mother to do. So it's easier to get rid of her."
Triumphing over adversity
A motherless theme allows kids to take matters into their own hands, said Inga Boudreau, youth services coordinator at the Boston Public Library.
"Most children's stories show children triumphing over adversity, and the easiest way to put a child in a really negative situation is to remove the mother," she said.
As Bruno Bettelheim observed in his seminal book, "The Uses of Enchantment," the absence of one or both parents permits the child to have an adventure "in its most essential form, where a more complex plot would confuse matters for him."
Many films feature a dead, idealized mother and a stepmother or other female authority figure who is ineffectual or evil -- such as Miss Minchin in "A Little Princess" or Carrigan Crittenden in "Casper." By splitting the female image, the tales provide a way for children to manage contradictory feelings toward mothers, Bettelheim wrote. A child can feel anger at the bad stepmother without endangering the good will of the true mother.
Others worry that the popularity of these films reflects an anti-feminist backlash, in which male filmmakers easily dismiss a powerful female figure or idealize her in nonthreatening ways.