I think I had a mother once.
What was she like?
- Peter Pan (1953)
Mothers in fairytales are often absent, dead, or missing without even a mention of them being gone. Considering mothers are pretty much everywhere, their absence is glaring to the audience. A major impetus for many fairytale plots is the death or absence of a parent, which accounts for many of the missing mothers, but many of them are hiding in plain sight; in subsequent editions of the Grimm brothers' Kinder- und Hausmärchen, cruel and abusive mothers were often changed to stepmothers to avoid depicting mothers as capable of doing harm or evil to their children. Victorian fairytale anthologies kept these changes, and most modern fairytale translations and adaptations continue the stepmother trend, and of course the Disney fairytale films are based on modern editions, not the originals.
In the Grimms' 1810 and 1812 editions of "Schneewittchen," the heroine's own mother is the queen pursuing her death. It isn't until 1819 that the prologue includes the death of Snow White's mother "shortly after the child was born," followed by the king's second "beautiful...but proud and domineering" wife.
Some stepmothers, like Cinderella's, seem to have always been stepmothers rather than converted mothers; the high rate of mortality in childbirth meant stepmothers were just as much a part of life for many children as mothers for other children, so their inclusion in some fairytales was in the story to begin with. As far as I can tell, Cinderella's stepmother was always a stepmother, and in fact many versions of Cinderella actually include the mother, albeit dead, as a supernatural guide to the heroine. Disney's Fairy Godmother comes from Perrault's "Cendrillon," along with the rest of the movie, but the Grimms' "Aschenputtel," the Russian "Vasilisa the Beautiful," and many other versions have the dead mother's spirit guide the heroine from a tree, a doll, a fish, etc. etc. (The Fairy Godmother in both Perrault and Disney is not mentioned as having any connection to the dead mother - whether or not that was the intention is up to the audience, but the prevailing notion is that without explicit mention of the mother, that is not the intent. I would argue Disney's is definitely not intended to have anything to do with the mother, and while I think a case could be made for Perrault's, I don't think the godmother is related to the mother.) The second wife in all these stories, however, is definitely cold-hearted.
Fairytale stepmothers' cruelty has been attributed to jealousy: either jealousy of the father's attention to his daughter or jealousy of youth and beauty in general as epitomized by the daughter. It's interesting in many cases that the father disappears or dies after marrying the stepmother. In both the Disney films, the father dies. In "Schneewittchen," the father is never mentioned past the sentence introducing the stepmother, but Cendrillon's father still seems to be around; Cendrillon "dared not tell her father" about the stepmother's cruelty, and though that is the last mention of him, it's implied that he is around but not intervening because he doesn't know it's happening (which...okay, dude, she's wandering around in rags and sleeping in the fireplace? pay attention). At any rate, in these stories the father is out of the way and more or less incidental to the story. He's needed to facilitate the stepmother's appearance, and after that, he is useless and discarded accordingly.
Of course, this saves the father from suffering a moral ending. If the father was turning a blind eye to Snow White's plight, if he was dead, if he never wondered why his daughter had disappeared mysteriously and his new wife was happily eating boiled liver for dinner, whatever it was, he has no ending. Disney's Cinderella was based on Perrault's "Cendrillon," not Grimms' "Aschenputtel," and Cendrillon's father simply disappeared. Aschenputtel's father, however, is present throughout; he tells the prince at the end that he does have another daughter to try the shoe, but she cannot show her face because it's "much too dirty" - and that's the last we hear of him. Aschenputtel's stepsisters have their eyes pecked out by doves (fun!) but there is no specific mention of the father's or stepmother's fate. Ignoring Disney's sequels to Cinderella, we don't really hear the end of the Tremaines in the movie, although Cendrillon invites the stepsisters (not the stepmother) to live in the palace with her. Essentially nothing awful happens to Cinderella's stepmother other than not getting what she wanted, but Snow White's stepmother isn't so lucky. Which is not to say either of them should be lucky - obviously both are guilty of terrible child abuse, and in Snow White's stepmother's case attempted murder. The lesson to act more like Snow White and Cinderella - kind, compassionate, helpful, patient - is reinforced in "Schneewittchen" and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by the death of the evil stepmother and in "Cendrillon" and Cinderella by the happy ending for the heroine. Different kinds of endings, but the same moral lesson in the end.
I'm going to talk more about Mother Gothel in a later post, but I didn't want to leave out Rapunzel's mother, who, though silent, is one of the only Disney fairytale mothers we actually see. Tangled is a large departure from the Grimms' "Rapunzel," in which the girl is traded for stolen herbs rather than stolen herself. In the Grimms' version it is actually the father who trades the child in order to procure the herbs his pregnant wife desires, and the wife's reaction to her newborn being taken from her is not mentioned in the 1812 edition or any subsequent editions. We know nothing about her except she had pregnancy cravings for rampion; we don't know if she cared that her child was traded away, we don't know if she was happy to be rid of the child or if she was devastated by the loss. Rapunzel's mother in Tangled has even fewer lines than in the Grimms', but she is portrayed as a loving mother devastated by the loss of her child, holding an annual ceremony in her daughter's memory, and eventually being overjoyed at her return.
I think the depiction of Mother Gothel in Tangled was actually very well done, though I've read a lot of commentary that missed why it was so good. Gothel is consistently shown in Tangled to be addressing Rapunzel's hair, the power for which Gothel kidnapped her, when seemingly speaking lovingly to Rapunzel herself. She refers to Rapunzel as "flower," emphasizing again the power for which Rapunzel was kidnapped. Gothel's isolation and containment of Rapunzel is selfishly motivated and indicates no regard whatsoever for Rapunzel as a person; she's keeping her prize in a locked box for her own use, as it were. She does not love Rapunzel, she feels no motherly feeling toward her, she does not care about anything except continuing to use the flower's power to keep her youth and beauty. In the fairytale, Rapunzel has no magic powers which the enchantress or witch is attempting to protect or keep for herself; the witch simply keeps her locked up. Though some tellings suggest the witch kept her for help with housework, most mention no housework or anything of the like and simply say the witch has no motivation for keeping Rapunzel locked away; she's just evil. Tangled brilliantly masked Gothel's indifference to Rapunzel as a person in her loving language directed solely at the magic power Rapunzel possessed. It's a great use of a villain in its realistic depiction of an emotionally abusive parent.
This one is the most fun. It's also awful. You can't say I didn't warn you. But stick with me, it's really great.
Oddly, the opening credits to Disney's Sleeping Beauty attribute their source material not to a fairytale but to Tchaikovsky's ballet, The Sleeping Beauty. The 1959 film almost definitely used Tchaikovsky for their primary source, but the interesting tidbit is that Tchaikovsky claimed to base the ballet on Perrault's "La Belle au bois dormant" while instead more accurately depicting the Grimms' "Briar Rose." Normally the Grimms have a bloodier ending and Perrault's is cleaned up, but in this case the exact opposite is true, and any Sleeping Beauty that claims to be based on Perrault's but does not end with cannibalism is in fact based on the Grimms, not Perrault.
Yes, cannibalism. Stick with me, it's just getting good.
The Grimms' "Briar Rose" is the Sleeping Beauty with which you're already familiar: the long-wished-for princess is cursed to die by an evil fairy, the good fairy changes it to a long sleep, prince wakes her up with a kiss, they live happily ever after. It is the Disney movie from beginning to end. The queen is only mentioned twice: once giving birth to the princess, once falling asleep as the princess does. While this mother is present and, as far as we can tell, good, there's really nothing to her. She's necessary to give birth to the protagonist but she's otherwise ignored.
The real motherhood plot comes in with Perrault's "La Belle au bois dormant." But the sleeping princess's mother is not the primary mother nor even the secondary mother in the story.
Perrault's Sleeping Beauty begins much the same as the Grimms', though rather than waiting for a prince's kiss, she will be awakened in 100 years when a prince approaches her castle. She awakens when he enters the room and kneels before her, not waiting for the kiss. However, instead of taking her back to his own kingdom, he weds her secretly and keeps her hidden away from his own parents. During this time, Sleeping Beauty has two children, a boy named Day and a girl named Dawn. When the prince's father dies and he succeeds his father as king, he reveals his secret family, much to his mother's dismay. His mother, an ogress, attempts to kill and eat Sleeping Beauty and her children when the new king is called away to war. The cook hides the children away instead of cooking them, and the king returns just in time to see his mother preparing a pot to cook Sleeping Beauty in. The mother throws herself in the pot, and everyone else lives happily ever after.
So now we have two very different depictions of motherhood in Sleeping Beauty and her mother-in-law. Sleeping Beauty is a very loving mother. When she is brought to the cook to be killed for her mother-in-law's dinner, she cries out, "Once more I shall see my children, my poor children that I loved so much!" On the other hand, we are told that even the king fears his own mother and we see he has good reason. Her jealousy of her daughter-in-law and her fear of being supplanted in her son's life lead her to attempt to literally consume her enemies.
Disney's Aurora clearly bears no resemblance to Perrault's Sleeping Beauty, though Aurora's mother is a similar non-entity to Sleeping Beauty's mother. Philip's mother is never seen nor mentioned in the Disney film, but it's probably a safe bet Disney didn't intend her to be a baby-eating ogress. Not that we have any other mothers-in-law in Disney films to base that on. Call it a hunch.
Overall, Disney sticks with the fairytale tradition of evil mother figures being stepmothers and good or neutral mother figures being actual mothers. Absent mothers are prevalent in Disney's films, fairytale-based or not, much like the many absent mothers in fairytales. The mothers we do see, though, are generally kind, loving, and good, while stepmothers are selfish, conniving, and abusive.