From time to time, my friends and I go back to visit a topic near and dear to our curiosity: Disney movies and the family structure. Even just looking at the animated summer blockbusters, there’s something a little strange there when you actually look at the families. For example:
Belle, from Beauty and the Beast? Dead mom.
Beast, from Beauty and the Beast? Both parents dead.
Snow White? Dead mom.
Quasimodo, from Hunchback of Notre Dame? Dead mom. We assume dead dad as well, but he could have just been imprisoned.
Aladdin? Both parents dead.
Jasmine? Dead mom.
Simba, from Lion King? Dad dies. Rather horribly.
Ariel, from Little Mermaid? Dead mom.
Hercules? At the least the really screwed up Disney version anyway? Two sets of parents.
Nemo, from Finding Nemo? Dead mom.
Tiana, from The Princess and the Frog? Dead dad.
Tarzan? Both parents dead.
Cinderella? Both parents dead.
Even frickin’ Bambi’s mother dies.
Aurora from Sleeping Beauty and Mulan seem to stand out as significant exceptions when you list them with their friends, because they actually have happy, whole family units. Where our debates usually centered was whether or not Disney had this trend on purpose, to either reach out to the broken family homes and say it’s okay you still get your happy ending someday, or if Disney studios just really had a thing against intact families, like it’s some kind of personal affront to their broken, battered, bitter hearts.
But Disney being the springboard for many improbably conversations, it got me to thinking about families in fiction. For this week, specifically the mothers.
In Young Adult and Middle Grade fiction, adult family members have a sometimes precarious position. The story isn’t about them, usually, so sometimes it’s like the parents don’t even exist. We’re aware the characters have them, we even see them peripherally from time to time, but they just don’t have much an impact. Then, other times, they’re a HUGE impact. While each mother should always be distinct from others, as every character is hopefully distinct, they do tend to fall into types.
The Departed Saint
Lily Potter. Throughout all seven books of the Harry Potter series, we’re given only the best things to hear of Lily. Even Petunia, who hates her sister, still talks about how wonderful Lily was, how pretty, how clever, etc. You never hear a bad word about her. Then, the information that overreaches everything else: she laid down her life to save her son, and her love temporarily killed the Dark Lord. Let’s face it, that kind of action doesn’t create a mother; it creates a martyred saint. There’s no flaw, no detracting deficiency, so we (and Harry) are led to see her as part of a marble pantheon of saints. Do we ever doubt her goodness? No. Do we ever doubt her love for Harry? No. But do we ever get to see her as a real person? Not really. We come a little bit closer with Slughorn’s reminiscence, with Snape’s memories, but Lily Potter is like the Dead Mommy of all Dead Mommies.
This is the one who takes in strays, adopts adopts adopts, mothers everyone more or less impartially regardless of age, gender, race, or creed, the one who exists as a sort of monument to the institution of motherhood. In other words? Molly Weasley. She’s plump and a little disheveled, goes without to make sure her kids have what they need for school, and exists to mother other people. It’s not just about pampering and gushing, though, because she also lays down the hard discipline. No matter what else is going on, she can be counted on to predictable and steady, a rock who will probably make a cup of tea as soon as she can get half a hand free during the crisis.
The All-Consumed Mother
This is the type of mother for whom the entire world revolves around her son. There is absolutely nothing she wouldn’t do for her son, no matter what it was, and depending on the rest of her personality the rest of the world may or may not be invited to piss off. Narcissa Malfoy is one example of this; she’s vain and arrogant, prejudiced, perhaps bigoted, thinks herself far superior to others in terms of purity of blood, wealth, social status, and beauty, but perhaps the strongest single trait of Narcissa Malfoy is that she’s Draco’s mother. Politics? Allegiances? Screw them. She’ll forsake anything if it means keeping her son safe. You know the saying that there’s nothing more dangerous than standing between a lioness and her cub? (though if you watch enough nature documentaries you know that’s not precisely true anyway) Well, forget that: standing between Narcissa and her son is far, far worse. But there’s a less Oedipal, gentler side to the all-consumed coin. For example, the mother from John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. (Forgive me for not knowing her name; I borrowed a copy and already gave it back so I can’t check it) Her entire world revolves around caring for her daughter. That is her life. BUT, she also had flashes of a life outside of it. We see glimpses of the past, but also of the future. For the present, she will do everything she can to make her daughter comfortable, to keep her as healthy as possible for as long as possible, but unlike Narcissa she knows when to let go. Her world revolves around her daughter, but she also has other stationary points to keep her focused, like a husband and something good she can do.
The What Kid? Mother
Perhaps it’s partially that teens are angsty with Mommy and Daddy Issues anyway, or it’s a reflection of the tiems, but this is one that we see a fair amount. The mother who’s so wrapped up in whatever that the fact that she has a kid or kids is an afterthought at best. The other side to that is the mother who’s so consumed with something else- work, a purpose- that the kid doesn’t always (maybe ever) get to come first. Jeanine Hathaway from Vampire Academy fills that second part. She’s a Guardian and Guardians protect, so she has only intermittent contact with her daughter, and when they do meet, neither really knows how they stand. It’s not that she doesn’t love her daughter- because she does- but that she doesn’t really know how to treat her like a daughter. Then there’s the mother from Kody Keplinger’s The DUFF, driven by a need and an emptiness that keeps her running away. She loves her children but doesn’t have it in her to be there for them. Or how about Rena Malik, from Every Other Day by Jennifer Lynn Barnes? Now this is a woman who will never be nominated for Mother of the Year award, but I’ll leave it to you to learn the reason why (spoilers). Final example for now, the Queen from Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl. Cold and driven, ruthlessly pragmatic, she feels no compunction in shoving her daughter and heir to a distant marriage so she can get rid of a disappointment and name a new heir more in line with what she expects. We never particularly hear of Isi going back to Kildenree for a visit- is it any wonder why?
The Zen Mother
This is the type of mother who is ready for anything, who can be shocked only momentarily, who is supportive and loving and can usually surprise the hell out of you. Like Sally Jackson, of the Percy Jackson books. Sally has this awe-inspiring and somewhat frightening ability to wade through trouble. Smelly Gabe? It’s keeping her son safe. Minotaur? Well, she’s rescued later, so at least she got her son to camp. No matter what hurdles come her way, she clears them and adapts to the aftermath, never blaming her son, never discouraging him, and instead supporting both him and his friends. The mother from Veronica Roth’s Divergent also fits this mold. She has this beautifully (and bafflingly) serene reaction to the world, but she does what she can for her daughter and ultimately pays a high price to try to keep Tris safe. In this case, still waters run very deep. Same with the mother from Ally Condie’s Matched. Would she agree with everything Cassia’s doing? No. But she would understand the reason for it, and even without knowing the reasons she support her daughter.
The “Oh My God My Mother is Ruining My Life” Mother
Prime example of this is Jacinda’s mother, from Firelight. Is she doing what she thinks is best? Yes. Is she being extremely selfish and more than a little cruel? Yes. Is she favoring one daughter at the expense of the other? Yes, though she probably doesn’t think so. Her shortcomings, her needs, her fears, mean that she puts Jacinda through hell simply so she and Tamra can feel like they belong somewhere. It still springs from love, but a lot of terrible things do. Mabis, from Lena Coakley’s Witchlanders does a great deal to burden her son. It isn’t just that she’s pretty much insane, but the insistence and force of her fractured beliefs batter at him, place him in a position outside of both belief and disbelief, and that place can be very, very lonely. All his life she’s taught him one thing, now she’s shattering him by insisting he believe another, even though she’s railed against that course for years. Rather than caring for her children, she’s put them in a position where they either have to care for her or walk away; either way, she’s forced them to grow up far too quickly.
The “When Did My Mother Become a Real Person?” Mother
We have a tendency to think of our parents as just…you know…our parents. Their lives began when they had us, right? Eventually we learn that no, they had a full life before us and most will have a full life after we leave the nest, and some even maintain it while we’re there. It’s always a shock, that moment of realizing your parents are real people too. Especially if they’re *gulp* kind of cool. Cammie Morgan, from Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls series, has to come up against this more than once. Her mother is her mother, and also her headmistress, but she’s also *gasp* someone men might find desirable! And while she knows her mother was a spy, there’s something different about knowing that and actually seeing it in action. Clary Fray, from Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series, also comes up against the enigma of a mother with a past. In this case, it’s a mother with a hell of a whopper for a secret, but as she’s learning these pieces and trying to fit them together, she doesn’t even have the benefit of having her mother there to help. It can’t do anything but change their relationship, and they both have to come to grips with how the other is changing/has changed before they can really mend things.
This is only a sampling of types- there are so many patterns that people fit into, and some mothers that fit more than one category. Plus, there a ton of mothers in YA and MG that I haven’t gone anywhere near. BUT- if you help me fill in some holes, you could win a book that demonstrates some of the more screwed-up parent/child relationships I’ve seen recently. Comment below with either a Type and example, or an example that fits into one of the above Types, and you’ll be entered to win an ARC of Harbinger, by Sara Wilson Etienne. The giveaway is going to stretch across next week’s post about fathers, too, and you can comment on both to be entered twice. Giveaway will be up through Saturday, 4 February. Just comment below!
Until next time~