Today's the day, ladies- it's officially socially acceptable to be the archetypical "wicked stepmom" that we have all heard of many times before! That's right, October 31 marks All Hallows' Eve and along with all the ghosts and goblins wandering into events and Halloween festivities, we will also be seeing a number of Disney characters. Perhaps the most ominous of them all is the formidable and foreboding Wicked Stepmother, who has set fear in the hearts of many princesses, and also inspired a real life stereotype for women leading blended families. No matter how great a job you are doing with your stepchildren, it's hard to get the wicked stepmother out of your head. It’s so frustrating, but it’s made even more frustrating if you don’t understand it yourself.
So in the interest of dismantling the wicked stepmother trope, let’s take a closer look! When we think of the wicked stepmother today, the first thing we think of is the Walt Disney stories we grew up with. Beloved childhood stories like Cinderella, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel were all plagued by stepmothers bent on making their stepdaughters' lives miserable. If they weren’t stepmothers, women who didn’t have their own biological offspring got a super sexist treatment as well, and we can see this when we look at the likes of Cruella de Vil, Ursula and most recently Maleficent. In an interview, Don Hahn, a longtime Disney producer, explained why Disney movies are so rife with absent or evil family situations. “Disney films are about growing up. They're about that day in your life when you have to accept responsibility. In shorthand, it's much quicker to have characters grow up when you bump off their parents,” he says. It makes sense that it ups the ante if the main character can’t make a collect call and have Mom and Dad come running, and therefore, we can also see the victim card. But, in the age of #girlbosses and girl power, why are stepmoms being seen as forces of evil, instead of the strong, balanced, loving and powerful women that they often are? In a fairytale context, wicked stepmothers give the story a greater sense of urgency— not only is the kindly maternal figure gone, but now the villain is coming from inside the house.
But why the wicked stepmother?
On the other hand, it's worth noting that stepdads are either seen benevolent or just don’t exist at all. So, why are the boys given special treatment? A huge part of it is that Disney and other classic kids' stories use stories from Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm as their source material. Both wrote their collections of stories during the late Gregorian and early Victorian periods. When we look at the reality of family life back then, the pieces start to come together.
If we look at history, in the 19th century, women dying in childbirth was very common. Fathers would then be pressured to remarry as quickly as possible. Since women had little agency of their own and very few opportunities to advance economically, young women of a lower social stature, sometimes just slightly older than the eldest child, seized the opportunity to marry into a better life for themselves. As a result, the stepmother might be an awkward parental age and struggling to find her place in the new home, and frankly, might not have warm and fuzzy feelings one way or the other about her new spouse and his children.
If a stepmother wasn’t in the business of marrying up from a lower social position, then chances are good that she was a widow remarrying with children of her own. Since her whole family’s livelihood depended on staying in the good graces of the father, she had a lot of incentive to present her children as deserving of inclusion in any family benefits. For boys, this meant hoping to catch a little extra nepotism in a family business, but he still had the opportunity to set out on his own as an adolescent. Since this isn’t particularly dramatic, it makes sense that the evil stepbrother never really caught on, and the fairytale focus has always been on stepmothers and stepsisters.
For girls, the situation was dire. They had to be presented as worthy enough for inclusion in their stepfather’s social circles in hopes of nabbing a good suitor. Grounding Cinderella for the night was more than just sour grapes, it was looking out for her daughters who didn’t have a sweet inheritance coming their way. But while all of this might have been acceptable back in the day, it's 2018 right now and we are looking at a completely different, post #MeToo world for women. As a result, the trope of the terrifying stepmom needs to be updated. We're all about Cruella's fabulous white streaks and killer faux fur and we're coveting the eyebrow game from Snow White's Evil Queen, but we don't want to be these ladies- we're better than that! Right, girls?