Why Do Movie Moms Keep Dying?!

How can women envision their future when our media is obsessed with killing moms?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

What do Elf (2003), Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), and Beauty and the Beast (2017) all have in common? Dead moms. Sleepless in Seattle, Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope, To All the Boys I Loved Before, Clueless, Finding Nemo, Snow White, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Full House, The Kissing Booth, and many more also feature the death of a mother. And though there are more differences than similarities between these films, the death of a mother is almost always handled in the same way. She is mourned, yes, but ultimately, her demise advances the plot and builds the characters of those she leaves behind. For writers, deaths are often the instant ramen, the box-cake mix of character development by giving characters a trauma, but one that is relatable, common, and, to a degree, fixable. But why so often mothers? And why do our children’s stories keep perpetuating this seemingly overdone tale?

Historically, there may have been multiple reasons that the deaths of mothers were a key element of fairytales and folklore. For starters, in the 17th and 18th centuries, maternal mortality is estimated to have been around one to 1.5 percent, compared with 0.0329 percent in the U.S. during 2021. And that does not account for the number of mothers who died young due to disease or infection, an issue greatly diminished with the advent of penicillin and other modern medicines. The tale of a motherless child was a much more common reality back then than it is today. It is likely that these classic Western narratives of children who overcame the loss of a mother not only served to validate the reality for many adolescents but also gave them the ability to dream of a fairytale ending to their struggles. But there is another explanation, perhaps more important than the first. 

In the 18th century, philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau promoted the idea of the “feminine ideal”: a woman so moral and pure that she had the ability and duty to influence those around her. Every woman was meant to attain this state of perfection so that she might be able to quietly guide her husband and children. The feminine ideal was never supposed to interfere with the government, the church, or any other public source of authority. Her power was through her influence on the men around her, who in turn would take her influence with them into the public sphere. But this stability of character, someone who never grapples with her own trials and tribulations and is in every regard flawless, is simply impossible. A mother is human, just like anyone else, and she cannot be this unchanging force who acts only for the sake of others. Only in death can she be eternal and thus romanticized—she becomes a symbol without her own wants and needs that might conflict with the people she is supposed to support. Therefore, by killing off a mother, an author provides a moral compass to guide the characters, yet one who cannot interfere and thus complicate the narrative.

As one watches the movies listed above, one notices that the death of the mother becomes more about how that event has affected those she leaves behind as they grow from her death and connect with others because of it. There is something especially cruel and dehumanizing about casually killing off so many mothers only to use their deaths not as a true source of sadness but as motivation for their children to get out into the world or a new chance for their husbands to find love later in life while their adorable young child cheers on this new union. Mothers are still just a tool for storytellers to provide films with an emotional appeal, a persistent reminder of the disposable quality of women who are no longer considered sexual beings. After all, their status as mothers removes them from the male gaze, diminishing their value and appeal in our male-dominated society. Historically, motherhood was a source of empowerment for a woman and, as discussed above, often symbolized her entrance into a realm of moral purity and overall simplicity. Thus, with the removal of the mother, the father is restored to complete power over the domain of the home and children, where he is free from the moral commitment to a wife, allowing him to have opportunities with other, more appealing, women, while her children have the stability of a mother who will never change.

Today, a growing number of children are being raised by single mothers—our storytelling needs to reflect this changing world. And for mothers and daughters everywhere, we need more stories that reflect our experiences of the incredible bonds between women, exploring how they can be tested and how we should fight to maintain them. Motherhood is, for many women, a defining aspect of their identity. Working mothers pride themselves on breaking tradition and balancing lives both inside and outside the home. Stay-at-home mothers devote themselves to the care of future generations, a difficult task women have undertaken for centuries without the appreciation it deserves. No matter how one takes on the joys and burdens of motherhood, they should be celebrated because there is an unrecognized power in the very presence of a living mother. She defies sexism simply by being alive and allowing herself to embrace a full, complicated life. From The Incredibles’ Elastigirl to The Simpsons’ Marge Simpson to Pixar’s Brave, our media is increasingly showing strong mothers. But we need more. And we need our on-screen women to live so that we, as a society, can see mothers as flawed, complex, and yet still powerful and important.