When you read a lot of fairy tales, the question tends to arise, “Where the hell is this girl’s mother?!” The trope of the absent mother has became so integrated into modern fairy tales that is rarely even explained. Mother figures are fraught with symbolism for all genders, but particularly for women.
But why? What is compelling about having an absent mother to these princess-driven stories?
- The mother represents, for better or worse, the future or the potential of a daughter. In our patriarchal society, feminine qualities are demeaned and sometimes vilified. Aggressive women are castrating and emasculating, while sensitive women are weak and naive. The heroine must separate from her mother to overcome such a fate. She must reject all feminine qualities to embark on a journey of adventure (i.e. a masculine journey) to define her identity as neither a Jezebel nor a martyr.
- Alternatively, the mother can represent something to search for, so that the heroine can redefine her relationship with her mother. Returning to the womb is a common theme in such adventure stories. A recent example is “Pan’s Labyrinth” which bears a peculiarly shaped tree that the protagonist, Ofelia, has to go into and beneath. In this story,
Ofelia’s birth mother, while kind, is dying and otherwise distracted by her difficult pregnancy and tyrannical husband. The mother is a “bound” figure, unable to protect or mother Ofelia. Ofelia’s adventure has her returning to a state of helplessness such that she can emerge reborn as a more powerful young woman.
- Mother, as the quintessential nurturer and protector (and character most likely to say “Don’t you dare do that!”) needs to be removed for the heroine to ever leave home in the first place. Without this role, the story forces the protagonist to become a self-made woman.
- Father-daughter relationships in these stories (most obviously in the Disney retellings) are particularly tight. Without a mother in the picture, the daughter has no competition for a father’s doting love. This often reinforces the idea that the only love that matters is that of a man. Hence the Disney paradigm of the princess leaving the households of her father for the household of her husband. Her completion as a character comes from servitude to her man, whether a father or a prince.
In our time of such great progress towards gender equality, each generation of woman looks to her mother as disadvantaged by the boundaries set upon her by societal norms. And because daughters always have it better than their mothers, daughters can fall into the trap of seeing their mothers’ choices as “failures” (by choosing the only truly sanctioned choice of motherhood and marriage) or, in the case of successful moms, by separating themselves as much as possible from the mother, and attempting to forge a different path.
Society tells women to find joy living through others, that to bear children or support a husband is the end-all-be-all of successful womanhood. Yet, this doesn’t gel with the stories we love to hear of heroes exploring the wilds and battling monsters. To reconcile these two urges, we ascribe the disdainful qualities of womanhood to the mothers (by making them jealous villains or by erasing them for their irrelevance) and give our heroines the masculine qualities we have been taught to appreciate like courage and defiance of authority (while maintaining their palatable sex appeal, a la long hair and a penchant for singing). The feminine goal of marrying is maintained as the reward she reaps for her journey.
On a metaphorical level, the separation from the mother is certainly key in every woman’s development. Regardless of how successful, kind, absent, or powerless a mother is, the daughter must strive to separate herself, to create her own identity apart from the mothers. The mother is the representation of all things feminine. Because society doesn’t value the feminine like it does the masculine, women often achieve this separation by rejecting femininity full-stop. They may deride other women, choose careers based on public status rather than personal joy, and attempt to deny feminine aspects of themselves. The first step on the heroine’s journey is removing oneself from the mother. But as any good story goes, the heroine eventually returns, only to find both herself and her world irrevocably changed.