My junior year roommate loved cheesy Disney films. I remember one night, she had put on a movie called “Geek Charming,” which had one of the most basic, empathy driven plots that I’ve ever watched. During one scene, the rich white girl talks to her "nerdy" crush about how she misses her dead mom, and that her dad is never around, in one of the most vomit inducing confessions I’ve seen in a while, with sad background music, intimate closeups and all. So, this got me thinking about how many other movie / TV shows have a “dead mom trope,” and what they really mean.
In reality, having a dead mom is a tragedy, and a very difficult experience. I lost my own mother due to heart disease when she was in her late 40's, when I was almost four years old. From my experience, I didn’t think my family was any different than my peers growing up – it was me, my dad and my twin sister; we were a family of our own, we each did whatever chores or housework we had to do together, and it worked (for the most part) like any other family. My father never talked about my mother, and I almost never asked – it’s how we coped. Friends of mine who have also lost their mothers handle things much differently – some have donations to cancer funds in memory of their passed away moms, others try every way possible to hold on to whatever memories or items of them.
In films, however, the topic of “dead moms” is treated much differently. In movies such as “Finding Nemo,” “Atlantis,” “The Little Mermaid” or most other Disney movies, to tell the truth, the role of the “dead mother” is used as nothing more than to add a sense of empathy to the characters, or to change their upbringing. We never get any sense of what the mothers were like, how they treated their children, or how they affected their children (aside from their death). In each “dead mother,” we get nothing more than happy memories connected to them from the protagonist, where they are immortalized, or “almost always remembered in a positive light.”
The “dead mom” trope is very similar to the “women in refrigerators” trope from comic books, which is used very regularly (looking at you Gwen Stacey). As described by comic book / feminist / actual goddess Gail Simone, “fridging” a woman means that they are “’either de-powered, raped, or cut up and stuck in the refrigerator’ in an effort to illustrate that female superheroes are disproportionately likely to be brutalized in comic books,” thus creating incentive or characterization for protagonists. These women shown in an onslaught of media – from the movies listed above, to television shows such as “Full House,” “Teen Wolf,” “iCarly,” “Pushing Daisies,” “Supernatural,” “Hannah Montana,” “Sabrina the Teenage Witch,” “The Nanny” and so, SO many more. In any of these television shows, you could replace the mom with a cardboard cutout, and that’s if they were shown at all.
Growing up, these representations of “dead moms” were harmful to me. I only have a few broken memories of my mother, and therefore, didn’t particularly have an opinion about her. From watching these shows, however, I felt as if I was obligated to replicate the same emotions that these characters were feeling. While I’m sure the intent of the writers for these shows were to say “it’s okay to feel sad about someone’s death” or “it’s okay to talk about it”, these scenarios were few and far between. If the mothers in these chows were depicted as something other than a stereotypic “angel watching over you“ type, it would have been more palpable and more dynamic to work with, giving the “dead moms” themselves more meaning as opposed to their deaths.
As my favorite show “Steven Universe” always says – “fusion is a cheap tactic to make weak gems strong!”, I have adapted this phrase in regards to parental deaths in media; “parental death is a cheap tactic to make weak characters strong!” So don’t be fooled by the one dimensional characterizations by shitty media writers, to force you to feel a certain way. Question what you watch, and think deeply about why characters are shown in certain aspects.