"Baby Mine - Disney's Missing Mothers"

May 9, 2004
The Reverend Victoria Weinstein

"For All Who Mother" Victoria Weinstein

We reflect in thanksgiving this day for all those whose lives have nurtured ours.

The life-giving ones
Who heal with their presence
Who listen in sympathy
Who give wise advice … but only when asked for it.
We are grateful for all those who have mothered us
Who have held us gently in times of sorrow
Who celebrated with us our triumphs no matter how small
Who noticed when we changed and grew, who praised us for taking risks
Who took genuine pride in our success,
and who expressed genuine compassion when we did not succeed.
On this day that honors Mothers
let us honor all mothers
men and women alike
who from somewhere in their being
have freely and wholeheartedly given life, and sustenance, and vision to us.
Dear God, Mother-Father of us all
grant us life-giving ways
strength for birthing,
and a nurturing spirit
that we may take attentive care of our world,
our communities, and those precious beings
entrusted to us by biology, or by destiny, or by friendship, fellowship or fate.
Give us the heart of a mother today. Amen.

THE SERMON "Baby Mine: Disney' s Missing Mothers"
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

My brother and I were talking about his new role as a father recently. I said to him, "You know you' re not a person to that baby. You' re an archetype. You' re not a regular guy to him. You' re FATHER." "I know, I know," he said. And we both grinned. We know this is how the world works. We spend childhood thinking of our parents as kinds of gods or symbols, and then we spend much of our adolescence toppling them off that pedestal. Then, if we' re lucky, we spend some of our adulthood getting to know them as people, as mere human beings.

This latter part of development never happens for some men and women. I know this from planning funerals with bereaved sons and daughters. "Tell me about your mother," I' ll say. "What really mattered to her? What were her great loves and her great struggles?"

Again and again, distraught grown sons will say, "Well, she just loved being a mom!" "Yes, yes, I' m sure she did," I reply, "But if I' m to really honor her life in a eulogy, I need you to share more information with me. Can you tell me some stories of her life?" "She was always there for us. She loved doing stuff for us. She was just the best mom."

In these cases I always sit sympathetically for a moment with them and then ask for the phone number of a friend. And from that friend I inevitably learn that this was a complicated woman, a woman with secrets and dreams, a woman who loved and hated like any other human. She may have indeed loved being a mom and she may have been unconditionally and generously available to her kids, but she was also a real person. One of the saddest consequences of the mythologies surrounding motherhood is that they can prevent us from even wanting to know our mothers as real women. It just never occurs to us. That' s just … Mom!

This is the third sermon in a series on mythologies. Three weeks ago we revised the tale of The Giving Tree and briefly touched on the mythology of Earth as benevolent Mother. Last week we talked about simplicity and the new consumerism and wondered what myth of ‘the good life" we are buying into with each purchase of another material good.

And today we come to that which is fraught with perhaps the most mythology of all, motherhood. Is there anything else under the sun that is so steeped in unconscious feelings and magical thinking as motherhood? If we are ever to see our mothers as individuals, as women, we must do a lot of work to release them in our own imaginations from under layers and layers of fantasy and tradition. Our assumption this morning is that knowing our mothers would be a rich illumination in many ways, even if not necessarily a painless one.

One of the chief purveyors of fantasy and tradition in this country is the great father of animation, Walt Disney. Now, the tales and stories popularized by Uncle Walt were not originated by him – they came from sources such as the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen and other European and Asian folkloric sources -- but he did personally choose most of the projects that were developed by his studio during the years he was alive.
Disney movies are by far the most popular source of children' s entertainment in the past century (although I suspect that the Henry Potter books and movies are becoming just as important to this current generation). If you did not grow up with "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves" and "Cinderella" and "Mary Poppins," your children most likely did.

Where are the mothers in Disney?

If we review the roster of these enormously popular films, the news for mothers is not good. Cinderella' s mother is dead. So is Snow White' s. Sleeping Beauty' s mom is asleep and enchanted. Belle from "Beauty and the Beast" lives with her widower father. So does Ariel, The Little Mermaid. I can hardly bear to remind you what happens to Bambi' s mother, but I will never forget her last words to her son: "Man is in the forest."

(Coincidentally -- or not -- "Bambi" was Walt Disney' s personal favorite among his films.)

In "Finding Nemo," a smash animated Disney hit from a few summers ago, the little fish Nemo' s mother is killed in the first two minutes of the film. Aladdin from the film of the same name doesn' t have a mother, nor does Pinocchio, and Peter Pan is so desperate for a mother that he tries to make ten-year old Wendy into a maternal figure for his whole crew of Lost Boys. And on and on.

In researching this sermon I read that a constant theme in Disney is to find a lost parent. On one level, that is true. But not on the deepest level. On the deepest level, most Disney films are about the need to grow up, or to take what scholar of mythology Joseph Campbell would call "the hero' s journey."

In the hero' s journey (which can be undertaken by either a boy or a girl, but in Disney is more often a boy), an individual comes to consciousness and full possession of his powers through trial and struggle. It is a journey we all must make. This is the truth at the heart of so many folk tales and legends, and thus also in Disney films – life is hard, there are witches and spells and bad animal guides who will trick and threaten you – but if you persevere, you will uncover the beauty, or break the enchantment, or get your prince, or learn the answer to the riddle that will save your life, or will find your mother or father, or take your rightful place as king of the beasts. 1

So what does it say that so many of Disney' s most beloved characters must begin their journey without help and support from a mother, especially when Disney films are so well-populated with kindly fathers and father figures?

Historically, Disney isn' t entirely to blame. "Cinderella," for instance, comes from a 9th century Chinese tale (a century when foot-binding was practiced, giving us some insight into the need to stuff feet into tiny shoes –-did you know that in older tellings of this tale, the stepsisters each cut off part of their feet to attempt to fit the glass [or fur] slipper?). Snow White has its origins in a German story, "Schneewittchen" – both of these stories, and others like them, remind us of a time when a very high percentage of births ended in the mother' s death. Stepmothers were extremely common, and historians and folklorists tell us that they were often less generous with their stepchildren than with their own biological children, as all were often competing for very limited resources (And actually, many of the stories that feature wicked stepmothers originally were about wicked mothers. "Schneewittchen" is such a case, as is "Hansel and Gretel." In the oldest versions of that tale, it is Dad and biological Mom who take the kids out in the woods and leave them there. [I' m sure you' ve had those days.] We can' t explore this tradition of "bad mother" stories today, but I thought you should know).

Again, it' s not all Disney' s decision to keep moms out of the story. There just isn' t a living mother in Hans Christian Andersen' s "The Little Mermaid," nor is there in earliest versions of "Beauty and the Beast" – both of which became two of the biggest hits produced by the Disney studio. So we can' t accuse Walt Disney himself of intentionally expunging mothers from his productions. We should know, however, that he definitely had profound mother issues, and they are worth looking at.

Walter Disney was born to Flora and Elias Disney2 in 1901. At least, that' s what we think. In fact, a birth certificate for Walt Disney does not exist anywhere, as he first discovered when he tried to enlist for service during WWI. The Hall of Records in Cook County had no proof whatsoever of his existence. The Department of Vital Statistics recorded his birth as being 1891, which was of course, impossible, and his parents could not produce any documents for him. Later, when Disney became an official Hollywood informant for the FBI during the McCarthy era, even the FBI was unable to locate his birth certificate. To this day, there is speculation that Walt Disney is the son of a Spanish washerwoman named Isabelle Zamora Ascensio from Mojacar, a little village on the Mediterranean coast. His studio, worth untold millions and desiring to protect its assets from those claiming to be relatives, has gone to great lengths to assure that his maternity will never be proven. It is a fascinating mystery.

What we do know is that Walt Disney worshipped his mother, even while having cause to doubt that she was his biological mother. His father was a cruel, religiously fundamentalist, domineering and physically abusive man who beat Walt regularly and brutally as a boy – beatings which young Walt wished his mother would protect him from. She did not. Perhaps she could not. Flora was a gentle and subservient person. She seems to have been a very private, blank slate upon whom her son Walt projected all his ideals of womanhood. It is interesting to note that despite her meek demeanor, she still had a tremendous influence on Walt. When Flora Disney saw an early Mickey Mouse film, she commented that the character sounded like a girl. Walt, who provided the voice for Mickey Mouse, was very upset. The next film his studio made, "Fantasia," is the first Disney film Mickey appears in but remains totally silent.

Flora Disney lived in mysterious circumstances and died under similarly mysterious circumstances in her late years. It may indeed be that a water boiler malfunctioned, spewing noxious fumes that poisoned her. Or it may be that she committed suicide. Walt, having bought her the malfunctioning water boiler, was inconsolable. The first thing he did when he returned to the studio to resume work after her death was to delete all the scenes containing a mother from the current film in production. That film was "Pinocchio." Erasing the character of Geppetto' s wife from the story, Disney, "emphasized the little wooden puppet' s wish to become the flesh-and-blood son to the kindly old man who had created him."3 So we see that the Disney legacy of ambivalence about mothers is not simply due to the source material used, but to some of Walt Disney' s own demons.

With all the questions around the circumstances of his birth, it is obvious that a huge aspect of Walt Disney' s own heroic journey was to gain some acceptance of the question of his maternity. How unfortunate that there never was a strong mother figure who could tell him the truth, either to say, "Yes, Walt, another woman gave birth to you, but you are absolutely my son and I love you as my own," or "Walt, you were my illegitimate child and society' s standards made it impossible for me to raise you. I gave you up for adoption out of love and the desire for your happiness." Perhaps then Walt could have stopped worshiping his mother or mothers as distant goddess figures and appreciated them as ordinary people with complicated struggles of their own. Perhaps then we would have met Geppetto' s wife, or Bambi' s mother might have lived to help her little fawn learn the ways of the forest.

We all have mom issues. As we started out on our own hero' s quest, Mother may not have been there for us. Perhaps she was asleep and enchanted. Perhaps she was under a terrible spell… or just gone. Perhaps she was too much there for us: "Happy Smother' s Day!" a friend of mine joked recently. If we cannot reach out to her as adults, if we cannot forgive her, perhaps we can simply recognize her humanity and recognize that her life was (or is) so much more than we as her child can ever know.

We' ve been hearing wonderful tunes today that were written for Disney films. It has been delightful to hear them, sappy as some of them are, they are associated with good memories for me. I adore them. But were any of them sung by mothers? None of them were. Fairy godmothers, perhaps. Biddedy-bobbedy-boo. Magical surrogate mothers like the effervescent Mary Poppins. In all my searching, I found only one song written for a Disney mother. Maybe there' s another. Maybe I missed one.

But as far as I know, only one written for a mother out of all the great Disney canon. You remember Dumbo, the little circus elephant who was born with comically large ears? He is ridiculed and exploited and one night under the Big Top, his mother has a fit of temper trying to protect him. She is captured during her rampage, put in shackles, imprisoned and labeled "mad." In one especially tender scene – tender even by Disney standards -- Dumbo' s friend arranges to have the little elephant visit his mother. They cannot be together, but she puts her trunk outside the bars and reaches down to cradle her son. And as she rocks him, voices sing this lullaby, with words by Ned Washington and music by Frank Churchill. I have always loved this song. It is the lullaby we all deserve to hear, mothers and children of mothers:

Baby mine, don' t you cry
Baby mine, dry your eyes
Rest your head close to my heart, never to part,
Baby of mine.
Little one, when you play
don' t you mind what they say.
Let those eyes sparkle and shine
Never a tear, Baby of mine.
If they knew sweet little you
They' d end up loving you too.
All those same people who scold you,
What they' d give just for the right to hold you.
From your head to your toes
You' re not much, goodness knows.
But you' re so precious to me,
Cute as can be,
Baby of mine.

Who wouldn' t want to be cradled by the gargantuan love represented by this elephant mother? Who wouldn' t want to be treasured and protected by this greatest of creatures, who evoke qualities of physical protectiveness and of memory? Our mothers are so small and fragile by comparison. But we must include them in our stories nevertheless. They belong there, human and complicated -- not archetypes, not goddesses, not legends, just women. Just women, who belong in our stories if we are to make the most of the lives they gave us. The heroic quest is not to find the mother one longs for. We all learn, mothers and children, too, that the endless yearning for mother is part of the human condition which never gets resolved. No human woman is big enough to fulfill that ideal. Perhaps the real heroic quest, as Walt Disney never learned, is to finally accept the mother we do have. I hope that we will, and therein find, in the words of another beautiful Disney lullaby, "the sweet fulfillment of our secret longing.'

So may it be, world without end. Happy Mother' s Day.

1 My disgust for the underlying mythos of"The Lion King"is worth another entire sermon! I am most disturbed by the literal worship of the "King of the Jungle," as though those animals who are lion' s prey are happy to be their victims, as it is all part of the "circle of life." This message certainly has implications for America, which was at the time of "The Lion King' s" production in the midst of an unprecedented economic stratification. Furthermore, the casting of the hyenas' voices with very famous and recognizable African-American and Hispanic actors makes a racist statement about who are undesirables and threats to the Pridelands (ie Utopia). I am further disdainful of the primary message about how to achieve maturity taught by the protagonist Simba' s comic sidekicks Timon and Pumba, and popularized by one of the hit songs from the film, "Hakuna Matata," which amounts to "Don' t worry, Be Happy." I consider "The Lion King" to be among the most entertaining but most spiritually repellent of the Disney offerings. It is not surprising that the story was not, as in most other cases, taken from far older, richer folkloric material.

2 Thanks to Larry ("Who' s Afraid of the Big, Bad") Wolfe for loaning me Marc Eliot' s biography, Walt Disney: Hollywood' s Dark Prince. 1993, Birch Lane Press.

3 Eliot, p 112.