I just finished binge watching Jane the Virgin on Netflix, a show which I’ve quickly become obsessed with, and with so many cliff-hangers I need to physically force myself to stop watching it. But as I was finishing the fourth season, I found myself reluctant to finish it. I wasn’t trying to bide my time for the new season (which isn’t coming out until 2019 apparently?! What is this nonsense?), or because I was already spoiled about that surprising last episode reveal and cliff-hanger. It was because in the last few episodes of the season Jane’s mother Xiomara is diagnosed with breast cancer. Luckily one of my friends warned me about this as well, but it didn’t make it any easier to watch.
We see Xiomara have to choose between a double or single mastectomy, we see her undergo chemo and the show does an amazing job with their make-up making her look tired and like an actual chemo patient, tubes and all, as does Andrea Navedo’s excellent acting. We see her struggle, we see her fight and her family fight with her, and of course it struck a chord with me but by this point I’m sure you’re all tired about me talking about my dead mom, and while the season ended and Xiomara was still fighting and attending chemo, it makes me anxious for what will happen next season.
Because I need to know that she’s going to be okay.
And I know it’s just a T.V. show, and I know that she’ll probably be fine and even if she isn’t, it’s just a T.V. show, but there are certain things that are hard for me to watch now. I can’t watch when Littlefoot’s mother dies and says goodbye to him in The Land Before Time. I literally felt my heart rate increase when small Peter Quill (a.k.a. Starlord) sees his bald cancer stricken mother in the hospital at the beginning of Guardians of the Galaxy. I watched Happy Death Day expecting to be scared and ended up nearly crying when the main character begins to process her feelings of her mother’s death three years before, right before the three year anniversary of my mom’s death. The Land Before Time was a more shocking reaction because it’s one of my favourites and I used to watch it with just sympathy, but now it’s a little too real. The other two shocked me though, I went in for a superhero movie and a horror movie and dead/dying mom’s came here out of nowhere!
After finishing Jane the Virgin I decided to watch something that would make me happy, again not because the season four finale of Jane the Virgin is sad (it really isn’t) but because I could stop thinking of fictional Xiomara and her fictional cancer. So I decided to start Disenchantment, Matt Groening’s newest cartoon, and was met with ANOTHER dead mom!
So with all these dead moms on my mind, I started to think about all the books, T.V. shows, and movies I know that have dead moms in them and came up with a list:
- The Land Before Time
- Happy Death Day
- Guardians of the Galaxy
- The Fox and the Hound
- The Rugrats (Chuckie)
- Harry Potter (both parents)]
- Batman (both parents)
- Finding Nemo
- Most Disney Princess Movies
- Many Fairy Tales
- A Weird Number of Mary-Kate and Ashley movies
- A Series of Unfortunate Events (both parents)
- A Little Princess
- Hannah Montana
- Star Wars
- Steven Universe (yep, even my favourite show!)
And that’s only the one’s I could think of! I’m sure you could probably think of a dozen more to add to the list.
So what’s up with all these dead moms?
Part of it of course could be an issue of time. If you’re reading an older classic novel, or even an adaption of one a dead mother would be a common enough occurrence since many women died in childbirth. But a lot of the examples I was thinking of were pretty modern, and worse it’s a trend that doesn’t seem to be stopping.
I ended up doing a bit of research (i.e. googling) and found that the Dead (or Missing) Mom isn’t an unknown trope. It has its own Wikipedia Article, a couple of pages on T.V. Tropes, a “fun” listicle on motherless Disney characters, and an informative article by Sarah Boxer looking at dead cartoon mothers.
The Wikipedia page on “Maternal Mortality in Fiction” describes it as a common theme where “[t]he death of a mother during pregnancy, childbirth or puerperium is a tragic event. The chances of a child surviving such an extreme birth are compromised. In fictional literature the death of a pregnant or delivering mother is a powerful device: it removes one character and places the surviving child into an often hostile environment which has to be overcome” (Wikipedia). I had never really thought of the trope as such, but reading the page found that a lot of the shows and movies I liked followed this theme, my own favourite Steven Universe follows Steven searching for his destiny in his dead powerful mother. This of course is troublesome because it implies that only through the death of the mother can a character discover their own destiny and worth in life.
The T.V. Tropes page on the trope “Missing Mom” explains that this was an incredibly common plot point in American television in the pre-1970’s “where it was frowned upon to talk about divorce. Most plots to stick to a two-at-a-time one-off character scheme where writers would find it hard to write for both parents and usually limit themselves to the one who is relevant. Such plots generally involve a less-than-ideal parent and a troubled child and the one parent who could solve the conflict is dead or absent, with the mom or dad being the toss-up depending on the gender of the child” (T.V. Tropes). And look, I don’t know about you but that just seems like lazy writing. It was hard to write for both parents for television? How? While T.V. Tropes look at T.V. writing and the trope before the 1970’s, it’s still a strange excuse for creating dead moms.
I then started thinking about how the role of the dead mother affects other characters. As it’s been mentioned, the dead mom puts the child in a new and scary situation in which they often need to overcome obstacles and learn to survive without a maternal role, but then I started thinking of the fictional dads. While fictional dads do die in stories (A Cinderella Story…that’s all I can think of right now but I know there are more) it isn’t as common as the dead mom’s, nor does it seem to affect other characters or the story as a whole as much as the dead mom does. Is this because women are generally expected and written as the caregivers, wives, and mothers while men are rarely given this role, or are able to opt out of fatherhood? After all, absentee dads are common in many forms of media, but it again doesn’t affect much of the plot, or may for a small character arc before being quickly resolved. But when you have a dead mom that also means you have a dead wife, and a dead wife means a widowed father and now we have a whole new trope. With the dead wife, we see the husband take on the role of the household. We see him care for his children, cook meals, be a strong presence and guiding force in his child’s life now that mom’s dead. So does killing the mother allow for the father to inhabit a role that is not traditionally masculine?
Boxer believes so in her article examining the dead mom trope in many children’s movies. She asks, “Is the unconscious goal of these motherless movies to paper over reality? Is it to encourage more men to be maternal? To suggest that fathers would be better than mothers if only they had the chance?” (TheAtlantic.com). Boxer’s criticism seems to ring true, as dead mom’s allow for widowed dad’s to inhabit an entirely new range of emotions that male characters generally don’t get to inhabit. Dead moms allow dads/characters to be sensitive, caring, sad. Widowed fathers are allowed to escape the macho-ness, the lack of emotion, the violence, and alpha role male characters generally inhabit in media. But is killing the mother really necessary to let the father characters adapt, to let their children find their way in life?
Why does a woman have to die to make everyone else’s lives better in the end?
I really don’t have an answer for why this trope continues to exist, or why we seem to be so fascinated with dead mom’s (and women, but that’s another discussion), all I know is that it has to stop. And it isn’t my own discomfort causing it, it’s the fact that dead moms have become almost necessary for a good character arc and an interesting protagonist. Why can’t we have more mothers in media that live and can still evolve the arcs of their children? Why can’t we have more fictional fathers who inhabit the caregiver role without a dead wife being necessary? The death of women shouldn’t need to make an enjoyable story.
(Picture of Littlefoot and mom found here.)