Imagine Disney’s Belle at midlife. Two decades after her film debut in "Beauty and the Beast," where might we find the book-loving heroine who aspired to “more than this provincial life”? At the helm of a publishing company or metropolitan library system? On the board of a research foundation established in memory of her inventor father? Alas, according to Disney’s own storytellers, 2015 finds a grown-up Belle on the sidelines of a school event dancing awkwardly to an a cappella rap version of the song “Be Our Guest.”
This is Belle’s future as depicted by the Disney Channel original movie "Descendants." For my sins, I was among the 12.2 million viewers who made "Descendants" this year’s most watched cable TV movie and the #5 cable movie of all time. I tuned into the premiere with my kids, gritting my teeth through the illogical backstory, inane dialogue and incongruous soundtrack. Of all the movie’s faults, I found its portrayal of Belle the beastliest offense of all.
Belle may have royal status in "Descendants"—she and King Beast reign over a kingdom called Auradon—but gone is the independence that distinguished her as an animated character. Gone too is the glammed-up Belle made over by the Disney princess marketing machine. Instead, "Descendants" gives us an insipid woman who hangs on her husband’s arm and keeps mum when he jokes about their marriage, “It was either you or a teapot.” She dresses, inexplicably, like a 1960s TV mom, with a flip hairstyle and yellow pleated swing dress. When she hears upsetting news, she falls into a swoon. Even my 12-year-old son, who rarely weighs in on princess matters, said, “Is that supposed to be Belle?”
What became of the character reviewers once hailed as “a feminist heroine” and “an icon of self-reliance”? What turned her from bold to blah? What impeded the folks at Disney, a brand synonymous with imagination, from envisioning a future less bland for Belle? In a word: motherhood.
On its surface, "Descendants" is a cheesy musical about the teenage children of iconic Disney characters. At its core, it’s about children eclipsing their parents, especially their mothers. The story opens with Belle and Beast’s son, Prince Ben, preparing to ascend the throne. We’re not told why the middle-aged monarchs are abdicating authority to their son. It’s enough to know that Auradon, like the Disney Channel itself, is a kingdom where kids rule.
Prince Ben asserts his sovereignty by releasing four junior villains—the offspring of Maleficent, Evil Queen, Cruella de Vil, and Jafar—from the island where they’ve been exiled. The citizens of Auradon are particularly scandalized by the release of Maleficent’s daughter, Mal, because Maleficent is “the worst villain in the land.” The movie’s central question is whether Mal can overcome her mother’s evil legacy. (Spoiler alert: She does. And turns her mother into a newt for good measure.)
Belle, meanwhile, defers to her son’s judgment. She approves his proclamation with a “well done” and advises him on his coronation day, “Keep listening to your heart.” Belle’s missing mojo is irrelevant because her primary role is to nurture her son’s aspirations and step aside to let him take his crown.
That’s a pretty good summary of the mother’s role in any Disney Channel program. The Disney Channel routinely attracts more viewers than any other cable network, but its comedy lineup is probably under your radar unless you’re parenting a tween, hanging out with tweens, or reliving your own tween years. Having suffered through more Disney sitcoms than I care to admit, I’m confident you’d recognize the formula on which they rely.
If you think I’m referring to the traditional family comedy, think again. It’s true that Disney Channel kids often share the screen with their parents and siblings. Yes, moms and dads are recurring characters and sometimes main cast members. Mothers don’t merit top billing, but they are on the scene—which counts as progress in the House of Mouse, where the good mothers of the silver screen are mostly dead.
Publications ranging from Time and The Atlantic to Glamour and Entertainment Weekly have noted Disney’s tendency to kill off mothers in its feature films. Snow White, Cinderella, Bambi, Mowgli, Ariel, Belle, Lilo and Nani, Elsa and Anna—all of their mothers are dead. Commentators have attributed this motif to folkloric tradition, Walt Disney’s grief over his own mother’s death, and outright misogyny.
Whatever explains the ubiquity of dead matriarchs in Disney films, the Disney Channel looks like a refuge for mothers by comparison. Mothers with prominent roles in Disney Channel comedies include Ellen Jennings (Beth Littleford) in "Dog with a Blog," Amy Duncan (Leigh-Allyn Baker) in "Good Luck Charlie," Karen Rooney (Kali Rocha) in "Liv and Maddie," Kira Cooper (Tammy Townsend) in "K.C. Undercover" and Topanga Matthews (Danielle Fishel) in "Girl Meets World."
But the mere presence of a mother on a tweencom is not necessarily worth celebrating. After heaving a sigh of relief that her life has been spared, a Disney Channel mom might observe that the terrain she’s given is a small world after all. She might discover that she is not in a traditional family sitcom (a formula with its own mommy issues) but in a buddy ensemble. She might conclude that her children and their pals are like nothing so much as stunted versions of the cast of "Friends."
Here’s a description of any Disney Channel comedy: A tight-knit group of adolescents, some of whom may be siblings, navigate love and life, largely without adult intervention. Disney Channel kids sport trendy wardrobes and hang out in brightly colored snack shops and living spaces reminiscent of Central Perk and Monica Geller’s apartment. They speak a snark dialect worthy of Chandler Bing, their sarcastic comments punctuated by canned laughter at the approximate rate of once every three seconds. Though perhaps more ethnically diverse than the "Friends" ensemble, in the way that stock photography represents diversity, Disney kids remain fundamentally unconcerned with the world outside their circle. That circle does not encompass their mothers.
It’s no surprise that mothers are sidelined in shows for tweens. In a sense, the Disney Channel is carrying on a tradition that began with the 1955 debut of "The Mickey Mouse Club," a variety show that excluded parents altogether. But there’s something insidious about bringing a mother onto the stage while her kids command the spotlight. She becomes a device—a punchline reinforcing the supremacy of youth, a symbol of the past against which the present generation defines itself.
Put another way, parents embrace the Disney Channel for what it is not. They know what their children will not encounter in a Disney sitcom: sex, violence, profanity, or anything resembling an adult situation. But what happens to adult characters when you wipe away any adult perspective? These characters are simultaneously infantilized and made obsolete.
Consider the mother in "Dog with a Blog." Ellen Jennings is portrayed as a buffoon who responds to her own corny jokes with the catchphrase “Good one, Ellen.” A stay-at-home mom whose claim to fame is the odor in her car (the other moms call her “Smellen”), she spends her downtime trying to conquer her fear of cartwheels. In an episode where Ellen’s daughter, Avery, dumps an unpopular friend to protect her spot on the cheerleading squad, Ellen is too busy trying to impress the cheerleaders to set her daughter straight. It’s up to a younger sister and the family’s talking dog to show Avery the error of her ways.
Or take "Good Luck Charlie’s" Amy Duncan. Because "Good Luck Charlie" was written to attract adult viewers as well as kids, Amy is afforded more screen time than other Disney Channel moms. In theory this is a boon for momkind, but in practice it means Amy has ample time to make a fool of herself. A nurse turned stay-at-home mom, Amy constantly revisits the glory days of her youth. “I want to show you something exciting from mommy’s past,” she tells her middle child, who replies, “Teddy told me if I ever heard those words, I should just keep walking.” But there’s no escaping Amy’s ridiculous exploits. She recites a poem about her high school locker combination and attends an athletic event dressed as her high school mascot. She’s desperate for applause, taking credit for her child’s artwork and treating a preschool music class to a cabaret performance.
On the Disney Channel, mothers are alive but their dreams are dead. For Ellen and Amy and their counterparts across the network, ambition is a tragic flaw. The Disney Channel is quintessentially aspirational—you hear it in the lyrics of "Descendants" songs like “Set It Off” ("I’ll make my own future, ignore the rumors / Show ’em my passion sound") and “Believe” ("Don’t be afraid to be who you are / Just dream out and shout and follow the stars")—but silly mommy, dreams are for kids. With rare exceptions, Disney Channel mothers exist only to support their children’s extravagant lifestyles and, more importantly, their lofty aspirations.
This dynamic plays out again and again. In "Liv and Maddie," Karen Rooney helps one of her twin daughters audition for a Hollywood role and the other twin try out for the Junior Olympic basketball team. In "Austin & Ally," a show about teenage pop stars, mothers offer their children career advice and wear fan apparel to their children’s award shows. In "Jessie," fashion mogul Christina Ross abandons her career and becomes a stay-at-home mom so that her children’s nanny can pursue her acting dreams.
Disney kids aspire to excel in acting, music, athletics, fashion and other performance-oriented fields. They don’t dream of becoming teachers or service professionals, and they certainly don’t aspire to motherhood. Why would they? According to the Disney Channel, mothers are clueless fossils who have laid aside their aspirations. The mothers who break the ambition rule are either ridiculous—like Ellen Jennings, Amy Duncan, or Karen Rooney, who secretly records her own audition in a Cockney accent—or evil. In "Descendants," Maleficent is the most ambitious mother by far. She plots to overthrow Auradon by instructing Mal and her friends to steal the Fairy Godmother’s wand. As a mother, Maleficent’s most vile act is to impose her personal agenda onto her child, rather than supporting her daughter’s goals.
If I’m honest, Disney’s treatment of mothers’ ambitions bugs me because it hits close to home. I grew up on Claire Huxtable and Enjoli commercials, pop culture promises that a woman could have it all. Ask any Gen X mother how that promise panned out. For me, motherhood meant postponing career goals that I now fear I’ve waited too long to achieve.
While their mothers are evaluating the trade-offs they’ve made, today’s kids are hearing a different message: Specialize and excel. Find the one thing you do best, and be the best at it. The Disney kids may not be familiar with Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule, which says that excellence in any field requires 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, but they are products of the same zeitgeist that popularized Gladwell’s ideas.
It’s hard to see how the equation for elite performance accommodates motherhood, unless you’re the mother facilitating your child’s 10,000 hours of practice. (Remember Procter & Gamble’s “Thank You, Mom” commercials, which aired during the 2012 and 2014 Olympics?) Small wonder in our culture of specialization that one-third of millennials don’t want children. Coming of age in their wake, the "Descendants" generation won’t even try to have it all. And given a choice between career aspirations and motherhood, it’s obvious which path the Disney Channel recommends.
Time will tell whether tween viewers take this recommendation to heart, but they do seem to be getting the message. A UCLA study found that fame was both the number one value communicated in preteen television and the primary ambition of preteens themselves. My own mother’s observations as a recently retired fifth grade teacher align with the research. In her final years of teaching in a middle-class district that’s about as ethnically homogeneous as the Disney Channel, she noticed a shift in how her students described their goals for the future. Compared to students of previous years, who imagined themselves with everyday careers and families and hobbies, contemporary fifth graders were more likely to dream of becoming famous for their accomplishments and less likely to mention parenthood.
I alluded to an exception to the Disney Channel’s diminishment of mothers. In fact, the network currently features two mom characters whose identities are not subsumed by motherhood. One is secret agent Kira Cooper in "K.C. Undercover," the matriarch in a family of spies. Kira is also the only African-American mother in the main cast of a Disney Channel sitcom. Although at risk of being superseded by her genius daughter, K.C.—by the series’ fourth episode, she needs K.C. to rescue her from an evil inventor—she manages to retain both her career and her dignity.
The Disney Channel’s greatest credit to motherhood, Topanga Matthews of "Girl Meets World" is not a Disney creation at all. Topanga and her husband, Cory (Ben Savage), first appeared on ABC, as adolescent characters in the 1990s sitcom "Boy Meets World." Young Topanga was an academic standout who, in the final episode of "Boy Meets World," accepted an internship at a prestigious New York City law firm. In "Girl Meets World," Topanga is a practicing attorney and owner of a Ukrainian bakery.
"Girl Meets World" is far from perfect, but if you look past the melodramatic situations and relentlessly earnest characters, you’ll find a mother who pursues her passions and earns her children’s respect. I can’t help thinking that Topanga escaped the Disney Channel’s slapstick treatment only because she was a pre-existing character with an established fan base. The initial concept for "Girl Meets World" had Topanga owning a pudding shop. Rewriting her as a lawyer was an apparent concession to disgruntled fans.
"Girl Meets World" trades heavily in nostalgia. There are parallels and flashbacks to the original series. There are guest appearances by "Boy Meets World" actors who enter the scene to riotous applause. But the show’s greatest throwback may be its vision of motherhood. The blueprint for Topanga Matthews as a mother resides in the 1990s, in the imaginations of young Topanga and her fans. The imaginations of today’s exceptional Disney kids harbor a different blueprint—one that eschews motherhood altogether.