Representations of Parenting and Parenthood in Disney-Animated Films
Nearly all Disney-animated films feature themes of familial love, strength, and bonds that cannot be easily sundered by displacement, imprisonment, or death. In particular, the relationships forged between parents and their biological or surrogate children play prominent roles in the studio’s most celebrated animated films, from the studio’s Golden Age classics such as Dumbo (1941) and Bambi (1942) to the Renaissance-era blockbusters The Little Mermaid (1989)and The Lion King (1994) and the films of Disney’s post-Renaissance and Revival eras, including The Princess and the Frog (2009), Frozen (2013), and Moana (2016). The sheer range of parental roles depicted in the animated Disney canon suggests that effective parenting can be shown by anyone to anyone. Seven dwarfs can provide refuge for an exiled princess, who, in turn, can provide her rescuers with motherly affection and domestic care. A single male or female can fulfill the roles of both parents as needed, and when no humans are available to care for a child, animals and magical entities can provide such care in their stead.
Although portrayals of parents are fluid in form (with humans, animals, trees, fairies, and even genies serving in this capacity), the functions of parents are more rigidly defined. Whether an impoverished puppeteer or a singing meerkat-and-warthog duo, all true Disney parents assume responsibility for their children’s safety and physical well-being, as well as nurturing their psychological needs for acceptance and emotional security. Disney parents are almost always portrayed as kind caregivers and fierce protectors who willingly risk their lives to save their children. But good-hearted as they may be, they can become tired or frustrated. They may struggle to express their emotions or show warmth to their children. They may cling too tightly to their children because they fear what might happen otherwise. And they may become so hyper-focused on certain aspects of their children’s upbringing that they neglect others. In short, Disney parents are arguably analogous to actual parents watching these films with their children: caring, compassionate, and considerate of their children’s needs, but not indefatigable or infallible, because, after all, no parent is.
This parental analogue is made even more obvious by the inclusion of another popular Disney trope: the anti-parent. By circumstance or design, anti-parents are placed in caregiver roles for which they are ill-suited and thus either outright reject or exploit for their personal gain. In many Disney fairytale adaptations, the anti-parent is a stepparent or shunned relative who is given all parental responsibilities after the untimely death(s) of the child’s biological parent(s). Having no emotional connection to the child, the anti-parent feels no moral responsibility for the child’s welfare and so seeks to maximize the child’s utility through hard physical labor. In some Disney films, the anti-parent may abandon the child to rid themselves of any further responsibility. Anti-parents may also perceive the child as a direct threat to their power and thus attempt to exile, imprison, or kill the child to remove the threat. To prevent the child from discovering and thwarting such schemes, the anti-parent may also gaslight and psychologically abuse the child into believing that the anti-parent’s abhorrent behavior is morally justified and/or that escape is impossible.
Edited Anthology Scope and Chapter Topics
While a considerable amount of scholarship has been devoted to Disney films’ impact on younger target audiences, their messaging for parents, who often watch with their children, is equally important for recognizing familial values incorporated in these films, as well as how these values reflect shifting societal beliefs regarding parenting and parenthood over time. The aim of this edited anthology, therefore, is to synthesize different interpretations of these messages in the animated Disney films featuring parents and/or anti-parents. Related questions may include (but are not limited to) the following:
- How do the Disney filmmakers define the roles of mother, father, and/or caregiver in the studio’s earliest animated films (specifically, those released during the studio’s Golden Era from 1937 to 1942)?
- How have the definitions of these roles changed over time as per each of the studio’s major eras: the WWII and post-WWII eras (1942-1966), the Walt-less era (1967-1988), the Renaissance (1989-1999), the post-Renaissance (2000-2008), and the Revival (2009-present)?
- What core values and/or qualities associated with good parenting transcend the many decades separating the studio’s first feature film (Snow White in 1937) and its most recent releases? How do the studio’s most popular animated films convey these values and/or qualities to audiences?
- What effects might such core values and/or parenting qualities have on viewers, especially parents and their children?
- What are some of the most enduring forms of parental figures in Disney films (e.g., non-human surrogate parent of human child), and what makes these figures so appealing?
- What are some cinematic manifestations of the anti-parent during the studio’s Golden Era (1937-1942)? What specific qualities of the anti-parent were established with these early films?
- How has the anti-parent changed since 1937, and to what extent do these changes correspond with audiences’ increased knowledge and understanding of basic human psychology and mental health?
- What aspects of the anti-parent distinguish this character trope from the well-intentioned, albeit imperfect Disney parent?
- How might this dichotomy of good but flawed parents versus vice-driven anti-parents in Disney films provide moral instruction to adult viewers on how to be good parents and/or reassurance that they are good parents themselves?
- To what extent are mothers and fathers in Disney’s films (particularly those of the studio’s Golden Age) representations of Walt Disney’s own parents—his strict, overbearing father and his mother, whose death Disney inadvertently caused?
- How do the studio’s more recent films’ representations of domestic tranquility (e.g., same-sex couples) challenge and/or reinforce conventional notions of familial unit structure and parenting tactics?
In addition to or in lieu of addressing the above questions, contributors may also analyze parental roles and themes in any Disney-animated film(s). Of particular interest are films that fall into one or more of the following categories:
- Two-Parent Families: Peter Pan (1953), Lady and the Tramp (1955), 101 Dalmatians (1961), Mulan (1998), The Emperor’s New Groove (2000), Zootopia (2016), Moana (2016)
- Single-Parent Families: Pinocchio (1940), Dumbo (1941), Bambi (1942), The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), Pocahontas (1995), Chicken Little (2005), The Princess and the Frog (2009)
- Anti-Parent Households: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Cinderella (1950),The Sword in the Stone (1963),The Rescuers (1977), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Tangled (2010)
- Parental Death and Familial Healing: Bambi (1942), The Fox and the Hound (1981),The Lion King (1994), Lilo and Stitch (2002), Frozen (2013), Big Hero 6 (2014), Encanto (2021)
- Surrogate Parents and Makeshift Households: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Cinderella (1950), Sleeping Beauty (1959), The Sword in the Stone (1963),The Jungle Book (1967),The Fox and the Hound (1981), Oliver & Company (1988), Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994), Hercules (1997), Tarzan (1999), Lilo and Stitch (2002), Meet the Robinsons (2007),Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
Please submit abstracts of 300 to 500 words, along with 100-word bios, to email@example.com by April 30, 2023. Contributors of accepted proposals will be notified by June, with full drafts of 6,000 to 8,000 words (including notes and references) due November 30, 2023.
For additional information regarding this edited collection, please contact Dr. Brennan Thomas, Associate Professor of English at Saint Francis University (Loretto, PA) via firstname.lastname@example.org.