Some of my best friends and I were camping last month, and as we were traipsing through the woods in sub-zero temperatures, we stumbled upon a curious phenomenon about Disney and their non-traditional approach to families. That discussion wound up being a great conversation-starter for my students, so feel free to make the same observations to your own classrooms or friends. To start it, pose this question:
How many animated Disney movies can you name in which the protagonist is part of a traditional, nuclear family—that is, having a mother and father who are still married and both still alive?
It’s harder to come up with them than you think. We began to rule them out, one-by-one. (I’ve largely avoided sequels and made-for-TV movies, as I consider these apocryphal.)
- Snow White only has a mother, and she’s a real witch who wants to kill her. Her father is no longer among the living, and he’s probably better off for it.
- Pinocchio, while only a puppet, has only a father, Geppetto.
- In Fantasia, Mickey has no family at all, traditional or otherwise.
- Dumbo’s only got a ma, poor little guy. Same with Bambi. Presumably, some males knocked their mothers up, but they’re not around.
- Cinderella’s old man passed away, and her real mom before that, leaving her with a step mom, who treats her like a servant.
- As far as we know, Alice from Alice in Wonderland only has a mother, who is absent for most of the film.
- Peter Pan’s parents are long gone and his family is a bunch of other orphans; Wendy, John, and Michael have two parents, but they’re not around. Tigerlily has only a father.
- Lady and the Tramp do start a family, but they are not part of one—at least not one of the same species—until the end.
- Aurora from Sleeping Beauty is part of a traditional family, rent asunder by Maleficent. She has little contact with them.
- In 101 Dalmatians, Roger and his wife don’t seem to want to have a child, but instead adopt a shit-ton of puppies to go with their Dalmatians. Talk about a non-traditional family.
- In The Sword and the Stone, Arthur has only his uncle and cousin for support, heartless sluggards that they are.
- Mowgli from The Jungle Book is an orphan raised by wolves and mentored by a bear and a black panther. About as non-traditional as one can get.
- The Aristrocats only have a mom for most of the movie—the tomcat presumably getting together with her in the end.
- Robin Hood has no family beyond his non-traditional and man-tastic merry men; the little rabbit guy, though, who is sort of a younger double for Robin Hood, has only a mother raising him and his many siblings.
- The girl from The Rescuers is an orphan, who does find parents in the end. Cody from The Rescuers Down Under only has a mom as far as we know.
- The Fox and the Hound has no real families, although the fox does fall for another fox. It’s about unlikely friendships, though.
- Olivia Flaversham from The Great Mouse Detective only has a father.
- Oliver and company are all a bunch of strays.
- The Little Mermaid only has a mer-dad, poor unfortunate soul; and Belle from Beauty and the Beast only has a father to care for her in her unbearably provincial life.
- Aladdin is a street rat, and Princess Jasmine only has the Sultan for her father.
- Simba from The Lion King has both a father and a mother at the start of the film, but shortly into it (spoiler alert!), Mufasa is stampeded into the earth.
- In A Goofy Movie, the goof troop consists of only Goofy and his son, Max.
- Pocahontas only has Powhattan for a dad.
- Esmerelda and Quasimodo—a gypsy and freak—have no families.
- Andy Davis from Toy Story only has a mom. His next-door nemesis, Sid, also is fatherless.
- Hercules “technically” has a father, but he’s Zeus—and Zeus isn’t exactly a model father for child-support. And the movie makes his mother the goddess, Hera, which is totally wrong. Zeus always ignored Hera sexually. Hercules real mother was Alcmene, a mortal. I don’t know why Disney made this change, because it sucks all the drama out of Hercules’ plight—that is, if he’s fully divine, there’s no way he can actually die. Duh. Anyway, criteria not met.
- Mulan actually has a mother and father, who stay married and alive throughout the whole movie. Traditional family number 1!
- Flick from A Bug’s Life has no known family. The Princess and Dot have a queen for a mother, but no father. Flick’s family mainly consists of a bunch of other bugs from other species.
- Tarzan, like Mowgli, is raised by animals in the jungle. Jane, though, only has a father.
- Pacha from The Emperor’s New Groove is a family man, married with kids. Traditional family number 2!
- Monsters Inc. has no real family in it. The girl presumably has one, but we never see them.
- In Lilo & Stitch, Lilo is raised by her sister, and they adopt a space alien.
- The beginning of Finding Nemo shows a barracuda eating Nemo’s mom.
- Brother Bear is about three brothers, who have no mother or father.
- The Incredibles meet the criteria, even if they don’t get along very well: Traditional family number 3!
- Cars and WALL-E are about machines, so they’re out.
That sums up all the ones I have seen. My students inform me that recent films, Brave, Tangled, and Frozen all meet the criteria, and I believe them—they don’t lie about things as important to them as Disney animated features. Which give us three more traditional families in total. All of them, moreover, come after 1998. It is as though the writers at Disney realized what they were doing, and said, “We haven’t included a traditional family in one of our animated features since never! And now we’ve got these conservatives giving us guff about our gay-day, claiming we’re anti-family. We’ve got to do something to save our image!” etc.
Did I write this to prove Disney is anti-family? No, of course not. They’re neither pro- nor anti-family; they’re pro-money. And it is a reasonable enough plot device to make your protagonists pitiable somehow,—we relate better to protagonists who don’t have everything going their way all the time—and what better way to do it than to put them in the disadvantaged state of not having a traditional family to help them out? It’s reasonable enough, that is, up to a point. I think sixty years of animated films is probably a bit too long to use this tired trick over and over again.
Looking more closely at the family make-up, though, reveals something far more depressing—though not a bit surprising: We see many father-son relationships, father-daughter relationships, and mother-son relationships. They all include at least one penis. Very few mother-daughter relationships turn up in these movies, and, when they do, they are dysfunctional as hell and unrealistic to boot.
And why would that be? you ask. Pretty obvious, isn’t it? Most all the writers for Disney have been men, and they can realistically conceive of only father-son, mother-son, and father-daughter relationships, because they’ve experienced those relationships in reality. Only in recent years has Disney tried to be more egalitarian on this front, which I guess is admirable—but then again, I don’t believe in praising people for doing something they ought to already do.