Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Wisdom of Women: Dead Mothers in Children’s Television and Film

Hannah Montana’s mother is dead.

Well, Hannah Montana is a fictional character who’s the alter ego of Miley Stewart, another fictional character played by Miley Cyrus, who’s a real person. Miley Cyrus’ mother is alive and well. Miley Stewart’s mother is dead. In the show, she would come back to her in dreams, played by Brooke Shields.

My daughters watched “Hannah Montana” until it went off the air last season. This means that I watched “Hannah Montana” until it went off the air last season. This is one of the sacrifices of motherhood. Believe me.

The show was about a very well-adjusted young woman who wants to keep herself well-adjusted by not being pulled into the trappings of fame. But she wants to be famous. So she creates an alter ego, who is fantastically famous, while she lives a “normal” life as a teenager.

In the show.

In real life, the character Hannah Montana also became fantastically famous. Unlike the show, in real life Miley Cyrus is fantastically famous, too.

There are a couple of things that always bothered me about the show. The first is that the ostensible premise is to look at the downside of fame, and the trade-offs that get made when one leaves the world of anonymity for the Hollywood star factory. But the show never explored that fascinating premise. Instead, it was a cookie cutter sit-com about being loyal to your friends, and following through, and not cheating, and being responsible—typical storylines for 7-12 year-olds (which, by the way, is younger than the demographic of the teenage characters).

Why set a show around such an interesting premise if you’re never going to use it?

The other issue I had with “Hannah Montana” is that at the start of the show, the 12-year-old Hannah had no mother – and didn’t seem to be bothered by that at all. The kid had no emotional or identity issues as she went through her teenage years – you know, the time when we often measure ourselves against and push away from our MOTHERS.

Name me a 12-year-old who has lost her mother who doesn’t think about her every day? Name me a well-adjusted teenager who, even as she insists her mother is ruining her life, really doesn’t go to her for help or advice, or to buy the prom dress or show her grades to?

This was a show about identity, and having a mother who dies when you’re a child certainly affects your view of who you are. Yet they completely ignored it.

At first I thought this was a good thing, an opportunity to teach my children about death, and impermanence, and living life to the fullest. At first I thought there was some depth to the choice. Then I started noticing that Miley Stewart is not the only motherless character in children’s television and film.

They’re everywhere. Or, should I say, nowhere at all.

In iCarly – which is a pretty well-written show for Nickelodeon –  the family unit is Carly, played by Miranda Cosgrove, and her older, eccentric artist brother Spencer, played by Jerry Trainor. The father is in the armed forces in Afghanistan, and there’s one show in which he gets to watch the iCarly webcast. But the mother is never mentioned. What possible advantage could there be for creating an alibi for the missing dad, but not the missing mom?

My kids pointed out to me recently that the new Disney show, “A.N.T. Farm” has a main character, played by China Anne McClain who has the requisite goofy brother, and a strict but hapless dad – but no mom. It must be noted that my kids didn’t tell me this because they were shocked or wondering. They told me because they knew I was writing this piece, and wanted me to know the latest research, as it were.

 “There can’t be that many writers in Hollywood who’s moms all abandoned them or died or something,” says Sharon Ross, a media critic and professor at Columbia College Chicago’s television department. “If you grew up with a strong mom, wouldn’t you notice that missing in your own representations that you’re creating on what it’s like to grow up?”

Hope Edelman had the same questions. And, not long after her book “Motherless Daughters” came out in 1994, she had the opportunity to put that question to some TV writers.

Their answer: “If you create a sitcom with just a father, it would offer a lot of potential storylines.” Sitcom dads are often hapless, fish out of water, trying to figure out how to relate to their kids. The writers also said that having a single dad presents opportunities for dating to be part of the storyline – though they offered no explanation about why they couldn’t weave a storyline around mothers dating.

This, of course, flies against the experience of most of the kids watching the shows. As both Ross and Edelman point out, statistically speaking, families in America are more likely to be headed by a single mom than a single dad.

Edelman said one writer gave her another reason so many TV moms were dead: “Because there are more roles for men on TV.” She says she didn’t press him on the obvious argument that if more writers wrote about women...there would BE more roles for women.

Sometimes you just gotta pick your battles.

My children and I have talked about this a lot. I am definitely that mother who annoys her kids by pointing out inconsistencies or stereotypes on television. “Yeah, mom, we see that,” is the usual answer I get these days. They are tactful enough to leave the “now shut up” unspoken.

But when we first discovered the “Dead Mother Syndrome” in kids’ television and movies, the girls were completely surprised and as puzzled as I was.

We have a list of numerous children’s films or TV shows in which the mother is dead. Most of them, interestingly, are produced by Disney. And some of them do have a point. The first “Lilo and Stitch” movie, for instance, is about family, and how family doesn’t have to be traditional; how it could be formed, in fact, with your big sister and an alien clone. Extrapolated not very far, it speaks to gay families, divorced or never married families—any sort of non-traditional grouping in which people love and take care of each other.

But most of the movies fall into the “mom’s death has inspired me to prove myself and/or make my dad happy” category. “Herbie Fully Loaded.” “Jump In.” “Life Size.” “Smart House.” I could go on. In each case, either the relationship with dad is repaired, or dad has a new relationship, of which the kids, in the end, fully approve.

At least in those movies mom’s have some role – even if it’s from beyond the grave. In kids sitcom TV, says Edelman, “absent mothers have almost always died of undisclosed illnesses at a distant time in the past.” There’s no talk in the early episodes about starting a new life without mom. There’s no talk about mom at all. It’s as if these pre- and early teen characters were just dropped from the sky, or made from their father’s rib.

“It almost makes me think that there’s a secret rule in a Disney book that says, ‘Kill off the mother,’” says Ross.

I’m not saying that dead moms don’t have a place in the pantheon of storytelling. Lord knows, without orphans, there would be no Charles Dickens, no “Harry Potter.” The “Nanny McPhee” series, in which the mother is missing in at least the first movie, follows a long tradition of 19th century mothers dying in childbirth. And we can’t forget “Cinderella.” Certainly, her real mother wouldn’t have treated her so badly; and if that hadn’t happened, she wouldn’t needed to have been rescued by a fairy godmother and a prince. (This, of course, is an entirely new topic for later discussion.)

“There’s a mythological coming of age [story] to have to go on your own journey without your mother; often vanquishing the evil stepmother,” says Edelman. “It’s a familiar formula. Each of those fables or fairy tales has its own etymology and different versions.” And, Edelman points out, “Some of these stories are coming out of an era where maternal death is much more common than it is today.”*

Edelman posits that some great literary fiction – like that of Virginia Woolf or George Elliot – came about in part because of the early deaths of the writers’ mothers.

So, dead mothers do inspire their children. Hell, Edelman herself lost her mother when she was young, and channeled her grief and confusion into five best-selling books exploring the journey of growing up without a mother.

Thing is, I’m sure she would trade all of that to have her mother still with her.

And, I’m guessing, so would the women who contributed to her second book, which is comprised of some of the mail sacks of letters Edelman received after the first book – from women who had finally found something that validated their experience. They couldn’t find it in popular culture. Sadly, it’s still hard to find.

“You know what message [kids TV} tells a motherless kid?” asks Edelman. “It’s not OK to talk about it.” And in that, the writers are not just choosing characters for the easiest storylines – they’re making death and grief into something that can be wiped away with a laugh track.

I’m not gonna miss any opportunity to point this out to my children – no matter how often they refrain from telling me to shut up.


*According to both the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine and the Digital History Project at the University of Houston, death from childbirth ran about 8 percent in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. That’s 8 out of 100 women. Until recently, according to the RSM, the Church of England had a prayer for “The safe deliverance and preservation from the great dangers of childbirth.”

Today, in the U.S. and England, about .1 percent of women die in childbirth – that’s 10 in 100,000 (though the rate is higher in third world and developing countries - and lower in more civilized nations like Sweden and Australia).


  1. Carrie, Although I alway found/find it troubling, it has also been reassuring to me and thereby to my kids through me. To me, on the surface (where I often like to remain, ha) these shows simply depict real, whole families without two parents. For much of the time, that has been enough for me.

    And, don't forget The Courtship of Eddie's Father. Why oh why did he never marry Mrs. Livingston? :)

  2. I found your blog today because I recently had this same epiphany. My son is only three, so I hadn't noticed it as much on TV. In children's movies though it is rampant. I was trying to find just one animated feature that showed a positive relationship between a mother and child and I couldn't think of one. Why must mother be absent for adventure to take place, but not father? Couldn't Cinderella have been raised by her mom and an evil step father? Couldn't it have been Nemo's mom that traveled the ocean looking for her son? Are these movies subtly teaching our children that they don't need their moms? It's blowing my mind thinking about it this morning.