Tell me if this sounds familiar: Joey/Lisa has become detached/has striven on without/has had to overcome some obstacle because Mom/Dad got cancer/into a car accident on the way to their basketball game after a guilt trip/shot in a convenience store trying to buy gum and gas/just kind of got ill from being so ninetiestastic and died/disappeared/turned into a symbolic framed picture on the mantel.
And it’s not only movies, it’s books too! Check out all of these children’s stories that have one or both parents dead or missing or just out of the picture:
WALL O DEAD, MISSING, OR SEPARATED:
The Lion King
Beauty and the Beast
A Wrinkle in Time
A Series of Unfortunate Events
Lord of the Rings (Bilbo is incapacitated)
Island of the Blue Dolphin
Music of the Ocean
Wizard of Oz
Alice in Wonderland
The Great Mouse Detective
An American Tail/Fivel Goes West
Once Upon a Forest
The Jungle Book
All Dogs Go to Heaven
Lassie (90′s Lassie)
Why is this? Why is it in children’s stories, do we not have a parent?!
The adventure story The Brilliant Adventures of Nelius Hogg explains it pretty well in its opening chapter:
Many stories such as these start off with parents dying. I don’t know why, it just is how it goes. Without the parents dying, the children can’t go on any real adventures, now can they? Parents are stubborn, annoying little pests like that; they always are asking things of you, telling you where to go, how to dress, when to return from where you’ve been. Without parents, children are free to do as they please. This is why many books write them out altogether.
This book is no different, but in a way it is different. Cornelius Hogg’s parents didn’t die; they just simply disappeared.
Children are not like usual readers; they may be reading for another reason. In the real world, children have no power. They are usually always supervised or somehow on their way to being supervised. They don’t get to choose what they eat every night, where they sleep, what they do with their time. They are in school, then at home, then back to school and home, living in a place they can’t change, being influenced by an income they have no control over.
But when these kids can turn to stories, those authority figures can go to the wayside, and they have their freedom to adventure.
While a parent also works as a foil for a child and stands as a symbol for growing up and breaking the bubble, this emancipation almost always leads to some kind of fantastical journey (and usually, we’re reading the book for that journey). Even when Simba’s traumatized over Mufasa’s death, he is forced to venture out on his own and find the oasis where he has many crazy awesome adventures with Timon and Pumbaa. Dorothy leaves her aunt and uncle to go meet the scarecrow, tinman, and lion. Alice is pulled from her sister by a white rabbit. Harry Potter’s parents’ death, no matter how terrible it was and how he wishes for them to be alive, are in fact the reason why he is the boy who lived. The characters may not be happy about this decision to toff off their mom and dad, but we sure are. Imagine how boring and/or nonexistent a good eighty five percent of our YA literature would not exist if James’s parents weren’t eaten by that rhinocerous, or Mowgli’s parents hadn’t been eaten by Shere Khan … (oh man, there’s a lot of eatery here).
It is through literature kids find some kind of freedom. But in order to do such adventures, the authority has to be out of the way. It removes them from obligation and it also removes them from supervision.
See? The Rugrats parents weren’t being irresponsible and worthy of child protective services! They were just liberating their children to explore imaginative independence!