Twentieth-Century Animated Films - Fathers and Daughters

The Little Mermaid, Beauty and The Beast and Aladdin all belong to what has been referred to as ‘the second wave of the Disney canon’, starting around 1990 (Byrne and McQuillan 1999, 66). One difference compared to earlier films is the choice ofmain protagonists, which in these films are ‘a new breed of newly born women’, chosen, Eleanor J. Byrne and Martin McQuillan suggest, as a response to changes in women’s roles after World War II (1999,66). In Mermaid, Beauty and Aladdin they are teenage girls, on the cusp of adulthood.2 At the beginning of the films Ariel, Belle and Jasmine all express dissatisfaction with their present lives. Ariel is curious about life on the surface and sings about being ‘part of that world’; Belle, seeking escape through books, devotes a song to wanting more than ‘this provincial life’ ; Jasmine wants to see what lies outside the palace walls and comments: ‘I can’t stay here and have my life lived for me’. They all voice a desire to leave home and seek out a new life. Initially, however, these three motherless girls find their desires thwarted by their fathers.

The three fathers in many ways reflect a cultural image developed in the post-war period of ‘bumbling, irrelevance and ineffectiveness’ when it comes to parenting (Day and Mackey 1986, 371). Ariel’s father Triton is the powerful ruler of the sea but he cannot control his daughter. Although the six older daughters present no problem, Triton confesses to Ariel: ‘I just don’t know what we are going to do with you, young lady’, admitting that her disobedience is more than he can cope with. Belle’s inventor father Maurice is oblivious to the rest of the world, including his daughter, and Belle becomes his carer, who makes sure that he eats, sleeps, and does not blow himself up. When she turns to him with emotional concerns that there might be something wrong with her, he dismisses her fears, stating that with the completion of his invention, all their problems will be solved. Jasmine’s father, the Sultan, prefers playing with his toys to ruling his realm, and is confused when Jasmine refuses to do what she is told. The Sultan insists that Jasmine marries, partly because it is the law, and partly so that she will be ‘provided for’. When she protests that she wants to do something on her own, he dismisses her with an aside to her pet tiger: ‘Allah forbid you should ever have any daughters!’, suggesting that this demand is outrageous.

The Sultan’s concern is thus that Jasmine must be taken care of once he is dead. Of the three fathers, the Sultan is the only one to state explicitly his desire that his daughter marry, but the message in all three films is that as the girls are growing up, they need to be transferred from their fathers to spouses, in an attempt to provide what Marjorie Worthington has called ‘husbandly control’ (2009, 32). The young women cannot be trusted to enter the world on their own terms and create their own destinies. They must remain within the patriarchal exchange economy, as described by Gayle Rubin (1976).

Ariel, Belle and Jasmine all express a desire to transcend their current lives, to find new identities for themselves. Yet the search for identity ends in the finding of a husband. Jasmine wants the world, but only receives it mediated through Aladdin, who takes her on a magic carpet ride, singing ‘I can show you the world’. As Byrne and McQuillan point out, Belle ‘doesn’t escape “provincial life”’, but by marrying the lord of the castle, she ‘avoid[s] being a provincial wife’ (69). Her escape to another life ends not far from the village she wanted to leave. Ariel’s fate is perhaps the one closest to what she wanted: to be near humans and learn about their way of life. But again, this is mediated through a husband. It is only through him that she has access to the world above the sea. All three girls trade in their dreams of adventure for marriage. It appears that this transaction is predicated on a motherless protagonist. Ariel’s and Belle’s mothers are never mentioned. There is one brief reference to Jasmine’s mother, when her father complains about her reluctance to choose a suitor: ‘Her mother wasn’t nearly so picky’. The maternal absence is thus reduced to a joke at the Sultan’s expense. By leaving out the mothers so completely, the films represent them as ‘not relevant to the lives of young girls’ (Worthington 2009, 41). They are simply not needed.

Although none of the girls in the original narratives have mothers, there are maternal figures, which Disney chose to not include in the adaptations. The unnamed mermaid in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale has a grandmother, ‘a very wise woman’, who is ‘deserving of very great praise’ in particular for the way she cares for the granddaughters (Andersen 1872, n. p.). In Aladdin, Disney chose to remove Aladdin’s very influential mother. A prominent character in Arabian Nights, she woos the princess on Aladdin’s behalf (1997, 157ff.). Initially, the mother was to be included in the film and a song was written for her. In the end, however, it was decided that the ‘mom’s a zero’, as the studio head claimed, and the character was cut (Haas 1995, 209, n 3). Considering the effect of Aladdin’s mother in the original story, it seems that rather than being irrelevant, the mother was removed because she would diminish Aladdin’s hero status. As Worthington suggests, ‘mothers are unpredictable and powerful figures’, and, in the case of daughters, mothers may cause their daughters to ‘explore options beside marriage’, or to question whether it is even possible to live ‘happily ever after’ (2009, 41).

Removing mothers and maternal substitutes can thus have a great impact on the story and the characters. One effect is a stronger focus on the remaining parent. Burney and McQuillan point to the ‘preoccupation with father/daughter relationships’ in the second-wave Disney films and posit that it is ‘suggestive of the crisis in masculinity’ (Byrne and Martin 1999, 67) which many felt was taking place in the 1970s and 1980s (Gavanas 2004). Societal changes left many men feeling that they were increasingly excluded from the family, and Stella Bruzzi has noted how Hollywood 1990s melodrama addressed ‘anxieties about masculinity and masculine genealogy’ (2005, 158). These animated films appear to have addressed anxieties about father-daughter relationships as well, reflecting a need to reinstate the central position of fathers in the family.

The daughters in the films may be of a ‘new breed’, but the fathers in Mermaid, Beauty and Aladdin resemble more closely the earlier idea of the ‘New Father’, a concept of fatherhood, which developed over a long period but was formalized in the 1920s and 1930s (LaRossa 1997) and which remained more or less unchallenged until the 1970s (Gavanas 2004). Unlike earlier, authoritarian ideals of fatherhood, the New Father was more involved in his children’s everyday lives, a ‘pal’ as well as a breadwinner (LaRossa 1997). Indeed, as the films demonstrate, the fathers are close to their daughters, but wield very little authority over them.

Part of the New Father’s responsibility was to provide his children with a good sex-role model so that they could develop into well-adjusted adults, ‘preventing] both boys and girls from becoming unduly fixated on their mothers’ (Griswold 1993, 94). Medical and sociological discourse increasingly constructed mothers as dangerous for children of both sexes, and some commentators argued that mother love was ‘narcissistic, possessive and pathogenic’ (Plant 2010, 8). In the case of young girls, the father should re-direct the daughter’s affection from the mother onto himself, so that she could ‘discern for herself qualities valuable in a future husband’, as one commentator wrote in 1936 (Griswold 1993, 62). This task is made easier for Triton, Maurice and the Sultan, since the mothers are all absent. These ‘flawed and endearing’ fathers (Byrne and McQuillan 1999, 67) do in the end succeed in transferring their daughters’ affection onto suitable husbands, who will take care ofthem. In short, Triton, Maurice and the Sultan may be characters in films that form part of the ‘second wave’ of Disney films, but they themselves exemplify an earlier kind of fatherhood that was losing its place in society.

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