Dweebs on Disney: Orphans are the New Black

Nuclear families? So over
By Sarah Wolf
April 22, 2005
Somewhere in the bowls of the Disney archive, there has to be a memo from Walt to the nine old men outlining the standard Disney character. After listing standard traits (plucky, can carry a tune, talks with woodland creatures), I imagine it has a final caveat: “Also, must be orphaned; raised by a single parent is acceptable, as long as said parent is of the wicked stepmother variety.”

Orphans, in other words, are in, and have been since the start.

The tradition of the plucky orphan has probably been with us since the cavemen sat around the fire, gnawed on roast mastodon and swapped stories. You’ve got your Moses, your King Arthurs, your Remuses and Romulii. You’ve got the disadvantaged youth triumphing against all odds, and what’s more disadvantaged than being all alone in the world?

It’s a compelling what-if for those safe in their snug nuclear families. What odds would a boy or girl have to surmount to become a man or woman?

Short answer: not much. A petty disagreement, maybe a thousand years of royal law, or a vengeful woman of middle years coming to grips with her mortality pre-Botox. Oh, and show tunes.

Orphans have to improvise, they have to manipulate their environment, work the system and show some pluck to survive. That’s interesting, baby.

I’ve always been intrigued by the orphaned Disney character mystique; even when the characters aren’t technically orphans (Sleeping Beauty was raised by a murder of fairies, the Hayley Mills characters in The Parent Trap). In the magical world of Disney, the loss of at least one parent equals plucky.

And damnit, I want to be plucky, but there’s no getting around it. My parents are alive and married to each other (gee, thanks). I’m slogging through happily ever after, and I can’t sing. My best bet? Die in childbirth, give the next generation a shot at Disney glory.