As a person who grew up during the early '90s Renaissance Era of Disney, I can specifically remember the point at which I realized (with horror) that none of the princesses that adorned my backpacks and T-shirts had something vital that I, as a child, took for granted -- a mother. Belle had Maurice, Jasmine had her Sultan, and Ariel had King Triton, but a nurturing, motherly figure was entirely absent from the lives of all of my favorite heroines.
Years later, this strange Disney trope has been discussed time and time again -- the widely accepted reason behind it seems to be that heroes/heroines grow up faster without their mothers -- but no one has added more to the conversation than longtime Disney producer Don Hahn ("Maleficent," "Beauty and the Beast," "The Lion King," "The Fox and the Hound"; the list goes on and on) just did via his interview with Glamour: According to Hahn, the absence of mothers in Disney films might also have something to do with the tragic loss of Walt Disney's own mother.
"Walt Disney, in the early 1940s, when he was still living at this house, also bought a house for his mom and dad to move into," Hahn explained. "He had the studio guys come over and fix the furnace, but when his mom and dad moved in, the furnace leaked and his mother died. The housekeeper came in the next morning and pulled his mother and father out on the front lawn. His father was sick and went to the hospital, but his mother died."
Hahn then went on to explain that there's a "theory" among Disney folk that this enormous loss, and the guilt surrounding it, "haunted" the man for the rest of his life.
"He never would talk about it, nobody ever does," Hahn continued. "He never spoke about that time because he personally felt responsible because he had become so successful that he said, 'Let me buy you a house.' It's every kid's dream to buy their parents a house and just through a strange freak of nature -- through no fault of his own -- the studio workers didn't know what they were doing. There's a theory, and I'm not a psychologist, but he was really haunted by that. That idea that he really contributed to his mom's death was really tragic. If you dig, you can read about it. It’s not a secret within their family, but it's just a tragedy that is so difficult to even talk about. It helps to understand the man a little bit more."
Hahn's other response to The Mother Question -- the standard one about Disney movies focusing on characters growing up, and how everybody truly grows up when they assume responsibility from a parental figure -- is easier to swallow, especially since it's been mirrored in everything from "Harry Potter" (R.I.P., Dumbledore) to "Guardians of the Galaxy" (R.I.P., Mama Quill) to "Game of Thrones" (R.I.P., everyone). However, it's still very plausible (and horrible) that this no-moms-allowed trope was adopted early in Disney's history due to Walt's loss, and Hahn's interview is, without a doubt, a fascinating must-read for all Disneyphiles.
Long live Mama Disney, but also, long live a new era in which characters are able to grow and learn with more female influences in their lives.