A snow day is a perfect family movie day. My family and I used the snow day as an opportunity to snuggle up for a movie the kids have been talking about, one I had never heard of: Disney’s Descendants. The movie came out in July of 2015 and stars actors kids will recognize from the Disney Channel. It’s the story of the children of the evil villains from four classic Disney movies—Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty, the Evil Queen from Snow White, Jafar from Aladdin, and Cruella de Vil from 101 Dalmatians. The children are in training to become as evil as their parents as they come of age on an isolated land segregated from the rest of the Disney world.
My kids loved the music and seeing the lives the princesses were living in their happily ever after, but I was fascinated by one main theme as I watched it play out in the movie: the struggle for identity.
Identity is something all children grapple with in their growing up years, but it can be especially difficult for motherless daughters. If a girl loses her mother to death or misses out on the nurturing she needs, she may find herself all grown up with an identity entangled with her mother. As emotionally healthy adults, we see ourselves as individuals separate from our parents and other loved ones. But when we miss out on the opportunity to develop a healthy identity during our growing up years, we can become unclear about the separation between our mothers and ourselves. This is one reason we hear people verbalize their fear of “becoming just like my mother” or “never being as good as my mother.”
In the case of Maleficent’s daughter, the struggle is “never being as evil as my mother.” Mal begins her journey wanting to please her mother. She entices her friends to embark on an adventure by telling them, “This is our chance to once and for all prove ourselves to our parents.” But, as those who have done the difficult work of separating from entangled relationships have learned, it is impossible to ever prove ourselves to our parents. When we try to do this, we are fighting an unwinnable battle.
There is a poignant moment in the movie when Mal is mixing cookie batter with her friends and Mulan’s daughter joins them and reminisces about the times her mother used fresh-baked cookies and hugs to bring comfort. The blank faces of Mal and her friends make it clear they have not had this type of nurturing experience with their own mothers. As the movie progresses, Mal is exposed to healthier relationships and begins to see what all children must learn: “We are not our parents. We are not automatically like them. We get to choose who we can be.”
I enjoyed this movie, and I believe daughters everywhere can relate to the struggle to figure out who we are and who we are not. We are not our mothers. We may find pieces of our mothers in us, but we get to choose how we use those experiences to shape us.