The "Why" Behind It All...

The "what" of something is always fun, but in reality the "why" is a much more important question.  It's very easy to see the evidence in my previous essay and say that Walt Disney must've had something against parents, mothers in particular, since he killed them off with such frequency.  During my research I found an interesting post about Disney's tendency to have mothers die in his movies (I apologize in advance for the unnecessary pictures of Angelina Jolie, Heidi Klum and Halle Berry at the top of the post), which takes the stance that Disney is doing harm to generations of children with their storylines.  At face value, you might want to agree with those folks who claim that Disney (and by example, Pixar & Dreamworks) has something against parents.  But that's only looking at the part of the iceberg sticking out of the water.  I wanted to go deeper and see if I could find the more substantial meaning.

In reading Neal Gablers lengthy (and excellent) biography on Walt Disney, I read nothing to indicate that Walt ever spoke publicly, or even privately, that he had a deep-seeded hatred for parents, explaining why he would have killed them off as often as possible in his animated features.  I did discover quite a bit about Walt's childhood and his relationship with his own mother and father.  Walt had a complicated relationship with his parents.  His father Elias was a tough, conservative man who ruled the family and put the fear of God into his children.  His volatile temper often resulted in beatings for the sons who disobeyed or disappointed him.  The beatings would be considered child abuse in today's world (and should've been back then) and undoubtedly had a lasting effect on Walt's psychological development.  Often arguing with his father, Walt ended up becoming the target of Elias' wrath.  Finally, at the age of fourteen, with the moral support of his older brother Roy, Walt stood up to his father.  After berating Walt for another moment of insolence, Elias ordered him down to the basement for a beating.  As Walt headed down, Roy urged him to stand up to their father.  Once downstairs, just as Elias was about to strike him with a hammer handle, Walt grabbed his father's arm, holding it in place and removing the hammer.  When Elias tried to hit Walt with his other hand, the stronger Walt was able to grab that arm as well.  Walt's father cried in shame and never touched him in anger again.  When Walt went into animation for a career, Elias thought it was folly, dismissing his son's chosen profession as a waste of time.

Walt's mother, on the other hand, was the flip side of the parental coin.  Neal Gabler has a passage that sums up Walt's mother and her importance to the Disney family:

It was Flora who provided the ballast for the Disneys—Flora who managed the money for Elias, made most of the children’s clothes and sewed their quilts, cooked their meals and encouraged their reading, connived with the children, and always exercised restraint and an even temper, and for all these things she would be beloved in their memories. And it was Flora alone who could tease her husband out of what his children called his “peevishness” and calm his raging storms, though she did so carefully, without confronting or countermanding him. Walt thought her saintly.
Flora was supportive of Walt and his career where Elias was not.  Due most likely to the strains of his childhood and the emotional distance between Walt and his parents, particularly his father, Walt wasn't close to them as an adult.  He rarely saw them and wrote them infrequently.  He and Roy did, however, buy their parents a house in Los Angeles after the success of Snow White in 1938.  Elias, finally seeing that his son's hard work and talent had made him a success, was full of praise for the gift, telling his cousin, "I think it's a great day in my life.  I don't expect to have another like it." 

The house was a nice three bedroom home, that came with the nice feature of a centralized heating system.  Not long after, however, the heating system began to malfunction.  Walt and his brother Roy sent a workman from the studio to fix it, but in the end, he only ended up making it worse.  The recirculating air ended up being sent back into the house, rather than outside.  With that recirculating air being filled with carbon monoxide, the episode ended in tragedy when Walt's mother was overtaken with the odorless fumes and died.  His father and their housekeeper barely escaped with their lives.  Afterward, both Roy and Walt were racked with guilt, since they had been the ones who had sent the workman to fix the problem.  Walt, who normally kept his emotions to himself, was inconsolable.  It was something he never got over for the rest of his life.

But does his relationship with his parents exhibit a hatred strong enough to explain the subject matter of so many of the Disney animated movies.  As far as the relationship with his father, possibly, but probably not.  Even though he was abused by his father as a child, he still maintained a cordial, if somewhat strained, relationship with Elias as an adult.  If anything, I think he felt more pity for his father than outright anger.  For his mother Flora, it's clear that Walt loved her dearly and was devastated by her death.  You would think that he wouldn't want to dwell on those feelings (especially the guilt that racked him) by intentionally making movie after movie that mirrored that storyline.

And later in life, as a parent himself, Walt was considered by his family to be a good father.  Although he was a workaholic of sorts, when he was home, he spent quality time with both his wife and children.  He was considered generally a good person by friends and colleagues, even with his sometimes volatile temper.  He had a good sense of humor about himself and fully acknowledged the dichotomy between his public persona and his private one.  He never really believed his own press, poking fun at himself with business associates and friends alike.

In all of my research, I don't think a reasonable case can be made that the storylines in Walt's movies were some sort of retribution against parents.  There just isn't any proof of that.  So if it wasn't an innate hatred of parents, mothers in particular, then the "why" question still remains.  Why were these stories so filled with parental loss?  Where did it all start?

For the fairytales we know today, it started in Germany in 1812, with the publication of a Children's and Household Tales+ by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, containing eighty-six stories of local German folklore and "fairy tales" that had previously only been passed on verbally from generation to generation.  Jacob and Wilhelm talked to scores of mostly women throughout Germany, asking them to tell the stories they told their own children.  Then they basically just transcribed scores of the ones that were told to them.  Those stories ran the gamut in terms of subject matter, from simple animal stories that contained a single lesson, to much more involved (and sometimes very dark) stories.  So it was here that I started looking to see just how prevalent the idea of parental loss may have been in those stories.

To try and determine how common that theme was in Grimm fairytales, I got out a book I have that contained 78 of the collected stories.  I selected ten to examine, completely at random.  They were:
  • The Adventures of Aladdin
  • [Chico and the Crane]
  • [The Conference of Mice]
  • The Flying Trunk
  • Hansel and Gretel
  • [The Horse and the Wolf]
  • The Little Pear Girl
  • [The Ox and the Frog]
  • Sayed's Adventures
  • The Wise Little Girl
The four bracketed [] stories were all animal allegories and very short, so parents weren't a factor in them.  For the other six, though, every one of them had a situation where a parent was dead or conspicuously absent.  Aladdin's father was dead.  Erik, the main character in "The Flying Trunk," had already lost his mother as the story started and his father dies in the middle of the story.  "Hansel and Gretel" is awash in horrible parental behavior, topped off with the fact that their birth mother is dead, replaced by a stepmother who is truly reprehensible (and who also later dies).  In "The Little Pear Girl," the title character's father is so afraid of coming up short on the required shipment of pears to the king that he abandons his daughter in a basket to make up for the weight.  No mention of her mother, but we can presume she's dead.  The title character in "Sayed's Adventures" loses his mother as a teenager. In "The Wise Little Girl," one of the lead characters, Ivan, has lost his wife and so it's just him and his daughter.

In all honesty, I was a little stunned.  I figured that parental loss would be a theme that was addressed in the stories, but I had no idea how prevalent it was.  So yet again, there was more "what" but no "why."  I did more research and dug deeper.  There had to be a reason these kinds of stories, in particular, were the ones that stood the test of time and became the ones passed on from generation to generation, finally landing on paper thanks to the Grimms.

I found some theories in my research and came up with a couple of my own that might explain why so many of these stories contain tales of parental loss.  If we accept that modern fairytales are still structurally based on the fairytales the Grimms documented, themselves the product of generations of storytellers passing these stories on orally, we need to realize how different the world was in those days.  Here are some of the reasons fairytales mention parental loss so often:


My coworker, Julie, said it best, "It's not interesting if the story is just like normal life."  And she's right.  The thing that makes these fairytales interesting (and worth passing down) is the fantastic nature of the stories.  Conflict abounds, with children and adults being put in perilous circumstances again and again.  Very much like the reality TV that today's America is fascinated with, where we want to watch stories that are compelling.  Reality TV is a bit of a misnomer, because what we really crave is interesting reality TV.  We don't want to watch Kate Gosselin and her kids sitting around the house doing their homework, or watching some other reality TV show.  We want to watch them feeding crocodiles in Australia, or other things we wish we could do, too.  The same thing applies to fairytales.  If the stories weren't compelling, they would've fallen by the wayside through the generations, replaced with other fanciful stories that were more interesting.  In all likelihood, this is exactly what happened through the centuries.


Another factor in the absence or death of parents and parental figures in fairy tales is the oral tradition with which these stories were passed down from generation to generation.  Think about it - when you tell a story to someone, you usually rely only on your memory to transmit all of the details.  So you condense the story, making it easier to remember.  Ancillary people, who may have been involved in the story but had no real impact, get lost in the retelling, often completely vanishing from the story.  Other elements may be exaggerated for dramatic effect.  After a few tellings, the story that is told may vary dramatically from the actual events (like the kid's game, Telephone).  Since almost all fairytales were passed along verbally, rather than written down, they could've very well been affected by generation upon generation of "telephoning."  One less parent is one less thing you have to remember when you're telling a story.

At the time the Grimms were putting together their books of collected fairytales, the average life expectancy (this was around 1800) was 40 years*, whereas in today's modern world it's 67 years.  Since all of these tales had been passed down from previous generations, it's most likely that the life expectancy when the stories were actually created was even less.  In today's world, life at 23 can be a time of trying to figure out what you're going to do with the rest of your life, without too much pressure to live in the "real world."  Back in 1800, 23 was an age where, most likely, your third child was about to be born and you were working in a factory or on a farm.  The working conditions in those factories and on those farms were often deplorable (there was no OSHA or unions back then) and safety wasn't much of a concern vs. productivity.  So to project the ideals of a modern society on the age when these stories were created is irresponsible.  Life was very different back then.

Women were most often married in their teens, with children coming soon after.  Many of those women died in childbirth, while many of their husbands may have died in battle.  To put it in perspective, in the United States today, there are on average 15 maternal deaths per 100,000 births.  Back in 1800, mothers died in childbirth at a rate of 1,000 - 1,500 per 100,000 births.  That's a lot less mothers around, especially considering families weren't today's units with 2.3 kids in them.  Average family size was often triple that number.  For fathers, it was the perils of war that often lead to their deaths.  In the Iraq war, in just over eight years, 4452 American soldiers have lost their lives (I'm not discounting Iraqi lives lost, it's just hard to break down how many have died in combat with American soldiers vs. been killed by their own countrymen in terrorist attacks).    At the battle of Gettysburg, around 7,900 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed, and that battle lasted only three days.  The number of American fathers was decimated in just seventy-two hours.  Please understand that I don't mean to be dismissive discussing so many tragic deaths, I'm just trying to illustrate the world at the time these stories were passed down versus our modern world.

Children didn't have the luxury of spending their twenties "finding themselves."  They had the obligation of taking care of their families, both immediate and extended, often in difficult circumstances and at a much earlier age.  Children needed to learn that life was short and hard, because life was short and hard.  There wasn't time to coddle them - too much was at stake.  It's a callus way of treating children, but these life lessons were essential for those young children to learn and these generational fairytales were, in my opinion, one of the least harmful ways of teaching those life lessons.


Alongside the theory about life expectancy is the idea that fairytales were needed to teach valuable life lessons to children that needed to learn them.  The physiology of a child's brain (and the resulting psychology that develops from it) plays a huge role in the structure, emotional complexity and storylines of fairytales.  Adults are able to process intricate emotional complexities in the stories they read, but children's brains haven't developed the sophistication that would enable them to do so.  Because of that, a lesson designed specifically for a child needs to be much simpler at its emotional core and in its storytelling. 

On a psychological level, children don't have the ability to process characters that have both good and bad traits.  It's also easier for them to comprehend simple characters, which is why so many characters in fairytales are one dimensional.  These stories teach children that not everyone in the real world is good, no matter how much they'd like them to be.  Kids are trusting and want to believe the best in everyone, and as adults, we know that's not the case.  Children don't know that yet, and they need to be taught the lesson in the least traumatic way possible.  Fairtytales can often be an effective and valuable tool to teach those life lessons. 

Psychoanalyst Carl Jung wrote extensively about the idea of a collective unconscious, which refers to a universally shared unconscious knowledge.  This theory would explain the lasting popularity of fairytales, since the subjects they address are unconsciously attractive to those who hear them.  It would also explain why different cultures all over the world have fairy tales with similar themes.  I found an interesting masters thesis by Amy Dorsey that discusses this.  She writes, "Fairytales give children an outlet for, as well as a way to work through, many of the unconscious drives that cause dilemmas in their lives."  So they teach children that hardships and trauma will happen, but that these obstacles are not insurmountable (a lesson a lot of adults would benefit from learning).

Oftentimes, children only learn when there are dire (to them) consequences.  In their real lives, it may be as simple as losing a toy for the afternoon or a trip to time out, but to them, each of these is considered a horrible punishment.  But in story form, since children aren't living out the stories themselves, the consequences have to be even more severe in order for them to relate.  Everything in a child's mind is emotionally black or white, and sometimes a death in a story can be seen in much the same light as something much less severe.  There are no shades of black.

The emotional life lessons learned from fairytales are important.  Amy Dorsey again writes, "The psychological content of fairytales can help young children deal with fears, feelings, and impulses they may have no other way of working through.  By relating different parts of his own personality to different characters, a child can begin to sort them out and understand himself."  The fact that some of these stories may cause a certain amount of trauma to a child, while undeniably a negative initial effect, can end in an overall positive result, because children will eventually face some sort of trauma in their lives.  Fairytales give children the opportunity to go through some of these traumas vicariously through other characters, and may help them work through their own traumas in a (hopefully) more constructive way.

All of the above theories try to explain the "why" of fairytales, but one thing they don't address is the potential negative effects that these kinds of stories can have on children.  I've always thought that one-sided arguments do a disservice to the overall debate, because they immediately polarize people into the "agree with" camp and the "disagree with" camp.  I think a healthy and reasoned debate, presenting both sides, is essential to actual resolution to a subject.  I would be doing a disservice if I didn't address that as beneficial as the life lessons learned in fairy tales and animated movies can be, the negative flip side has a reasonable argument, and deserves to be presented as well.

I found dozens of comments on different discussion boards and forums where people have not learned life lessons from these fairytales and animated features, but instead have been traumatized by them.  Here's a brief sampling of some of them:
  • I was traumatized by Bambi as a child.  As a result, I have never seen it since, nor has my son seen it.  Studies show the #1 fear children have is their parents dying or leaving them.
  • I have just taken my daughter to the umpteenth Disney film that begins with the death of a mother, and this time they threw in a dead brother, too.  She was distraught all the way home, and the only way I could calm her down was to have her write a letter to the Disney Co. complaining about their unceasing insistence on killing off moms mostly, or other loved ones.
  • So what does Disney have against parents? If the main character isn’t an orphan at the beginning of the movie, odds are they will be by the end. I'm a little scared to go to Disney World now, for fear that one of us won't come back alive...
When I saw Bambi as a child, I wasn't traumatized, but I do find it entirely reasonable for someone else to have been.  Emotionally sensitive children have an empathy with these characters and so when someone dies, they take it to heart.  They relate so much that they begin projecting the events of the movie onto parts of their own life.  Often it ends with a question similar to "Mommy, are you going to die?"  It's completely reasonable for a child to make these connections, so many people in society are crying out for an end to telling our children these kinds of fairytales.

Another criticism of fairy tales (and the resulting animated movies) is that they generally portray women as people in need of protection and saving, not able to provide for themselves.  Again, it's a valid criticism.  Looking at especially the early Disney animated features, since both Snow White and Sleeping Beauty needed princes to save them, you see women who are completely dependent on men.  What's interesting is that in the original Grimm stories published, there were a number of tales with strong leading women.  I found that to be true in my research, particularly with the story "The Wise Little Girl."  The girl in the title is smart and confident, and the most moral character in the story.  Even a modern girl would find an exemplary life to emulate in that story.  It was only with later editions of the Grimm stories where these characters were removed to suit the patriarchal norms of the time.

The more modern Disney animated features shine as a more positive example for children in general, and little girls in particular.  Ariel in The Little Mermaid showed signs of independence, and it was Ariel who did the saving when she dragged Eric ashore after his ship sunk.  My wife, Jennifer, said that it was really Belle in Beauty and the Beast who became the first leading lady who was a shining example to little girls all over the world, and I heartily agree.  Belle was the emotional center of her family and the cornerstone of the household.   It was her emotional strength that eventually showed the Beast that true love could be found.  She was an avid reader, curious and intelligent, all ideals that were in contrast to the subserviant role that society put young women in at the time.  She was different, and she was okay with that.  She wasn't going to bend to a society that told her that Gaston was the proper husband for her.  She held out for what she wanted and what she deserved, and she was rewarded in the end.  The trend of stronger female characters has continued in the newest Disney animated features as well, with the hard working and morally strong Tiana in The Princess and the Frog, and even the naive, yet sure of herself Rapunzel in Tangled.

While the negative criticism I found has some validity, I think that in the case of fairytales and animated features, the positive impact that these stories have on children outweighs these negative aspects.  To use a personal example, our own two boys watch Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks animated movies, and I think they learn valuable life lessons in them.  They learn that life can be difficult, but that through hard work and perseverance, a "happily ever after" ending is within their grasp.  Even at a young age, children can experience loss.  Usually it's grandparent or a pet, and for them, it's a substantial emotional blow that they have to deal with.  These stories help them deal with those emotions and realize that the children in these stories have experienced what they have, and emerged through the trauma stronger, and better prepared to deal with the rest of life's difficulties.

So for those looking for a comprehensive explanation as to why fairytales, and by extension, animated features, have such a prevalence of parental loss, I think it's clear there isn't one "magic bullet" theory that covers it all.  Just like in real life, the cause is multifaceted and complex, even if the stories are not.  It's a combination of various factors that existed when these stories were created and passed down as well as the nature of storytelling itself.  Each of the theories detailed above is a part of the puzzle that, when completed, explains why our fairy tales are the way they are.

Whether it's the collective unconscious that propels these kinds of storylines forward or a more conscious nod to tradition, it's clear that the structure of fiarytales has been around for centuries and will most likely be around for centuries more.  But it's also conceivable that just as the patriarchal societal norms that excised many of the stories that featured strong female figures from some editions of the Grimm's fairytales, today's more progressive views may lead to another shift in some of the characteristics of fairytales to be passed on to future generations.  So instead of the more meek Snow White and Sleeping Beauty that needed saving, the stronger characters of Belle from Beauty and the Beast and Tiana from The Princess and the Frog may be the ones passed on to our children's children and so on.

No matter what the future holds, it's clear that fairytales will continue to be passed on to our descendents all over the globe.  While there may be a better way to teach these life lessons to children, fairytales have become an ingrained part of the human experience.  All we can hope, as a society, is that the children that hear these stories decades or even centuries from now will learn the valuable life lessons they contain. 

+ Disney, both Walt and the animation studio after his death, have used Grimm's fairy tales as the basis for their movies.  Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Princess and the Frog and Tangled were all based on Grimm tales.

* People often use these numbers to portray that everyone dropped dead on their 41st birthday, and if you lived to 67 back then, you were ancient.  That's not entirely true.  I did a fair amount of research on this (darn you, thoroughness!) and discovered that the 40 year life expectancy in Europe in 1800 included infant deaths as well.  Early childhood was perilous in those days, and many many children unfortunately didn't live to see their fifth birthday, due to tough conditions, lack of food, and disease.  If you did make it past your fifth birthday in 1800, your life expectancy jumped to 48 years.  Even more interesting is the fact that if you lived in an upper-class English household and you made it past your 21st birthday, life expectancy matched today's 67 years!  So while life expectancy was much lower back then, it's helpful to look at the complete picture.
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