Tarzan. Sleeping Beauty. Cinderella. Snow White. Pinocchio. Tangled. Big Hero 6. 101 Dalmatians. The Rescuers. Hercules. Lilo & Stitch. The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Sword in the Stone.
What do all of these movies have in common? They are animated Disney movies, certainly, but dig a little deeper. Do you see the connection?
Tarzan – A child is orphaned and is then rescued and fostered by a mother ape to eventually be accepted and adopted into the gorilla family.
Sleeping Beauty – A young girl is cursed and forced to live in with a foster family for her safety.
Cinderella – A young girl is orphaned and is then fostered by her stepmother.
Big Hero 6 – Two kids are orphaned and fostered by their aunt.
Do you see the connection? The theme of fostering and adoption is prevalent throughout Disney movies. In some of the films, especially the older ones (think Snow White and Cinderella), fostering is not seen in the best light. I suppose wicked stepmothers are not seen as the best choice when it comes to foster care. In other Disney films, fostering is seen in a better light. In the movie Tangled, sure the princess is kidnapped for the witch’s own selfish purposes, but there is no doubt that the foster mom and daughter love each other. Hercules and Big Hero 6 show fostering in the best sort of light—the characters are nurtured by truly loving families.
The movie Hercules shows even more of the adoptive triad. We have birth parents who have to let their child go. This becomes a one-sided closed adoption (the birth parents know where their child is but cannot contact him, and the child is not aware that his mom and dad are not his biological parents). Once Hercules finds out that he is adopted, he has a great desire to “know where [he] belong[s].” He searches out his birth parents and desires to be part of their life. I can only imagine Hercules’ parents’ feelings as they learn that Hercules wants to return to his birth family. This is a common fear for adoptive parents. In the end, however, Hercules is able to have great relationships with both of his families, which is the ideal in the adoptive world.
When an individual Disney film is looked at through the adoption and fostering lens, often these issues are not portrayed in a positive light. If you look at the entire animated Disney canon, however, you’ll have to applaud Disney. Those of us in the adoption community have to take ownership that the issues surrounding adoption and fostering are complex and, sometimes, downright ugly. Disney doesn’t gloss over these issues. In Lilo & Stitch, the realities of social workers and the possibility of having a family member taken away is an important part of the plot line. The possible issue of infertility or the desire to have a child but the inability to do so is part of both Pinocchio and Hercules. The realities of extended family being forced to care for a child is seen as both positive (Big Hero 6) and negative (Hunchback of Notre Dame). Disney also addresses the issues of abandonment (The Rescuers), parental death, sibling death, greed, selfishness, the positive and negative aspects of fostering, birth parents, adoptive parents, sacrifice, love, acceptance, and the need to know your personal biology.
When it comes right down to it, animated Disney movies are all about identity, and figuring out who you are and what you need to be happy is portrayed as a messy business in each film. Sometimes discovering self-identity results in fostering and then adopting many more children than your own biological offspring (101 Dalmatians), or it’s learning that the stories you have been told about your birth family are completely untrue (Hunchback of Notre Dame), or that your adoption is obvious because your race is different, but once you figure out who you are, that doesn’t matter anymore (Tarzan).
Hooray to the Disney company for embracing the stereotypes of fostering and step-families and even adoption, and also showcasing the more complicated issues surrounding the real-life issues of loss, abandonment, identity, and love. These complicated life issues deserve to be acknowledged and addressed and should be talked about with children. So the next time your little princess begs to watch Frozen for the millionth time, instead of rolling your eyes, knowing that a certain song will be stuck in your head for the rest of the day, gather your princess on your lap and, while the movie is playing, ask, “Where do you think Kristoff’s Mommy and Daddy are? Why does he call the trolls his family?” or, “Who takes care of Elsa and Ana after their parents die?” or even, “Why do Trader Oaken’s family all act so much alike?”
So, thank you, Disney, for doing what other movies won’t do. Thank you for tackling the tough, important issues about family and identity. Thank you, from the bottoms of our hearts, for showcasing the human experience in a way that young, middle, and old can all enjoy together.