[Author’s note: J.G. Hovey has had to take a short hiatus from writing her Tidbit Tuesdays posts. I have taken advantage of the break to sneak one of my own in. Enjoy!]
Ah, the Evil Stepmother. A trope so entrenched in so many cultures that it needs no explanation.
Better a serpent than a stepmother! — Euripides
A trope that has endured for thousands of years, through the rise and fall of mighty civilizations.
A day is sometimes our mother, sometimes our stepmother. — Hesiod
The association of stepmothers with wickedness and evil is so pervasive, so opposite of the loving, nurturing mother archetype that the word “stepmother” is even used metaphorically to represent greed, vanity and duplicitousness.
Nature, more of a stepmother than a mother in several ways, has sown a seed of evil in the hearts of mortals, especially in the more thoughtful men, which makes them dissatisfied with their own lot and envious of another’s. — Desiderius Erasmus
You can find the wicked stepmother in folktales from almost any culture. There’s the Tibetan The Wicked Stepmother, the Armenian The Wicked Stepmother and the Nigerian The Wicked Stepmother. Folktales become fairytales, and thus we get the Brothers Grimm and their tales of Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella and Little Snow White, as well as the Russian Vasilisa the Beautiful and the Chinese story of Min Ziqian from The Twenty-Four Examples of Filial Piety.
In modern culture, the stepmother trope seems to take three separate forms. There’s the out-and-out “Evil Stepmother”, as seen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and other variations on the same story. In this form, the stepmother is vain, jealous or just outright evil and usually attempts to kill or exile the stepchild. Next, there’s the “Abusive Stepmother” who, again through jealousy or greed, ignores, mistreats, or otherwise abuses the stepchild or children. This form is exemplified in the many modern variations of the Cinderella story. Finally, there’s the newest branch of the stepmother trope–the “Inept Stepmother”, usually coinciding with the “Trophy Wife” trope. In this case, the stepmother is usually much younger than her husband and inexperienced in the art of motherhood. The film Stepmom and the television show Trophy Wife aptly depict often bumbling attempts of the young stepmother to care for and connect with their husbands’ children.
Now, as a stepmother myself, I have to report that I don’t feel particularly evil. But, that’s not to say that there isn’t a kernel of truth in this trope, especially if we look at it from an historical context. Often, the stepmother myths involve competition for resources between the stepmother and the stepchildren, or preferred treatment of the stepmother’s biological children to the detriment of the stepchildren in the household. According to one recent study, resource availability has had a direct impact on the survival of stepchildren under a stepmother’s care. Evolutionary psychology suggests that the stepmother has a genetic interest in neglecting her stepchildren in favor of her biological children.
Then again, perhaps stepmothers are simply unjustly characterized. It is interesting to note that the original Brothers’ Grimm versions of “Snow White” and “Hansel and Gretel” featured an evil biological mother who was changed to a stepmother in subsequent versions.
The fantasy of the wicked stepmother not only preserves the good mother intact, it also prevents having to feel guilty about one’s angry wishes about her. —Bruno Bettelheim