Something wicked this way comes: How real life stepmothers are battling centuries of fiction to overcome stereotypes
From a young age, fairy tales teach children to fear the Big Bads in life: wolves, ogres, giants and stepmothers. While the former are mostly contained to the pages of storybooks, the wicked stepmother elicits a special sort of fear because she could very well come for your family next.
The Brothers Grimm favoured spectacularly evil stepmothers as villainesses. In The Twelve Brothers, a stepmom slanders a young queen until she’s burned at the stake. In a similar tale, The Six Swans, the stepmother steals newborns and smears her stepdaughter’s mouth with blood to imply she cannibalized her own children. In Hansel and Gretel, the stepmother encourages a father to abandon his offspring in the woods, while Snow White’s stepmom recruits help to murder the princess. Cinderella’s stepmother seems downright angelic by comparison, simply subjecting her to household servitude and a life of loneliness.
Disney picked up where the Grimms left off, albeit with less murder, infanticide and cannibalism. The studio didn’t do much to revamp stepmothers’ reputations though, creatively naming Lady Tremaine’s miscreant cat “Lucifer,” and bringing the the wicked archetype into live-action films like The Parent Trap, Enchanted, Into the Woods, Ella Enchanted and 2015’s Cinderella remake.
It’s rarely mentioned, but in the first editions of Grimms’ fairy tales there were no stepmothers – just moms. Evil mothers were quickly replaced with wicked stepmothers, most likely in order to preserve the ideal image of the mother. In Freudian interpretations, the mother/stepmother split is therapeutic and allows for channelling mom-related anger and frustration without the guilt associated with actually thinking negatively about the woman who gave birth to you. For children in particular, the idea of a cruel or murderous mother may simply be too terrifying and disturbing to tolerate.
Enter the wicked stepmother. Closely associated with witches, the stepmother often dabbles in the dark arts. Both were typically older women, depicted as selfish and manipulative, working against God and lacking the qualities of a saintly mother. They were both often accused, in fiction and reality, of harming other women’s children. As fear of witchcraft lessened in everyday life, stepmothers became the main archetype on which to project anxiety over female agency, creativity, self-empowerment and maternal ambivalence.
While stepmothers were often villainized in fiction, they were the only female characters to actually drive narratives and possess control over their own decisions and actions. Some commentators have, in retrospect, dubbed the wicked stepmothers of Grimms and Disney “iconic feminists” for being the original fictional women able to take charge and act powerfully to achieve their goals (for better or worse) in male-dominated societies.
Unfortunately, the modern-day stepmom isn’t feeling so liberated. The pervasive image of the malefic stepmother has real-life consequences and, even though research and psychologists reject the notion, age-old stereotypes are hard to break. A three-year study by Auckland University doctoral candidate Anna Miller found that a majority of stepmothers felt they were treated as if they played a negative role in their stepchild’s life. Miller found this to be due to their awareness of negative stigmas and accompanying societal pressures.
Experts say a stepmom is often the most powerless and vulnerable member of a blended family. Her fear of being branded “wicked” leads her to take a backseat role in parenting, striving to act as a friend and shower her stepchildren with endless love and generosity rather than establish herself as a respected authority figure. She also often makes excessive efforts to appear perfect in her new role. This often leads to her staying quiet as she’s subject to hostility, isolation, verbal and even physical abuse in her own home.
Despite cultural depictions, there are no hordes of stepmothers set on ruining their stepchildren’s lives through sinister plots. In fact, rather than being cruel, distant and petty, research by Athabasca University in Calgary shows they often serve as the glue that holds a family together after a divorce, providing essential support to children, improving family function and smoothing potentially tough transitions.
Nonetheless, second wives wary of being suspected of unscrupulousness are also more likely to sign pre-nuptial agreements that waive some of their economic rights while also feeling pressured to contribute financially to their stepchildren’s upbringing, travel and tuition. They may also refrain from asserting themselves in family financial matters and estate planning to their detriment.
Stepmothers are actually prone to “significantly greater anxiety and depression than biological mothers,” according to a study by Lisa Doodson, a psychologist who teaches at Thames Valley University. Divorce rates in remarriages is also higher than average, clocking in at 67 per cent for second marriages and 73 per cent for third marriages. This is, in part, attributed to the challenges and tensions of stepparent relationships.
The effects of this stereotype on both stepmothers and their families are far-reaching. The U.S. Bureau of Census reports over 1,300 new blended families are formed each day, and over 50 per cent of families are now remarried or re-coupled. Over 30 million American children live with one biological parent and that parent’s current partner. Experts predict that blended families will soon become the dominant form in North America.
But, taking a cue from the strong-minded stepmothers of Disney lore (minus the nefarious plots), this new generation of stepmothers is determined to fight back and band together to overcome their evil reps. They strive to rebrand stepmothers as dedicated, caring and generous. They even have a new name for themselves: “bonus moms.”
While there are countless support systems for mothers and more mommy blogs than the internet knows what to do with, stepmothers have scarce resources. It’s increasingly acceptable for biological mothers to publicly discuss their challenges and mixed feelings, but it’s still largely taboo for stepmothers to seek help, lest anything but exuberant positivity group them with the Evil Queen and Lady Tremaine.
Social media has provided much needed networking, support and visibility for the stepmom community, with hashtags such as #bonusmom, #stepmomtwitter and #stepmomlife gaining popularity. Sarah Patterson, a Toronto-based step-parent to five kids amongst two other biological moms, aims to further change the reputation with her online portal, Social Stepmom.
Articles and videos feature fellow prominent stepmothers, such as Ainsley Kerr and Christine Rezvanian, discussing issues like what to do when your stepchildren stand you up, the eternal mom/stepmom wars, how to manage Mother’s Day, feelings of loneliness and even when it’s appropriate to call yourself a “stepmom.” In her introductory video, Patterson candidly admits she sometimes wonders, “What was I thinking? It’s really, really tough.”
StepMom Magazine has also gained popularity as a monthly digital publication, offering a private online support group and advice on taboo topics like child support cheques, dealing with jealousy, ex-wife relations, practicing self-care without feeling selfish and protecting your assets. Each issue features a smiling stepmom on the cover– no pressed pouts or poison apples in sight.
It’s increasingly clear that stepmom reality doesn’t match up with centuries of fiction as women work to reclaim the term. Disney has recently produced films starring empowered princesses, diverse body types and familial love rather than ooey-gooey romantic happily-ever-afters. If they’re as determined to keep up with the times as they seem, they would be wise to bring a virtuous stepmom to a theatre near you. The sooner the better.