In my new novel HOUSE ON FIRE, a happily blended family falls apart when the wife’s daughter dies after a road accident and the husband’s son is charged with vehicular homicide. Leigh, the wife, is devastated and grieving; Pete, the husband, is devastated and desperate to protect his son. Before long, the fault lines in their perfectly blended family open up, and Pete takes his son and moves out. Leigh can’t help but imagine the accusing whispers among their friends and neighbors: wicked stepmother.
The term is familiar to everyone from nursery to nursing home, but even as I wrote the words, I had to wonder where the notion came from. Of all the players on the family stage, why is the stepmother so often cast as the villain?
The question is more than academic. According to the Census Bureau, half of all women in the United States will play a stepmother role at some point in their lives. The wicked label seems particularly unfair considering that there’s no male counterpart. No one ever says wicked stepfather, even though statistically a child is more likely to be abused by a stepfather than a stepmother. So why the archetype of the wicked stepmother? What psychological underpinnings give it so much traction?
The answer would be easy if the term was of recent origin, when stepfamilies are usually hatched out of divorce: children naturally feel loyal to their still living mother. But the wicked stepmother trope isn’t at all recent; it dates back centuries, to the days when death was the only real route to remarriage. The notion took root in countless folklore tales, and after the Brothers Grimm collected and popularized those stories in the 1800s, the trope of the wicked stepmother became part of the preschool canon. Think Cinderella, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel.
These classic fairy tales have enjoyed an enduring hold on the minds of small children. One explanation is that the Grimm (and grim!) fairy tales with all their dark themes and brutal violence help children face their worst fears––the metaphorical monster under the bed. Thus, the common origin theory of the wicked stepmother trope is that the stepmother poses a threat to the child’s inheritance and property rights.
This seems unlikely to me: how many small children have estate planning on their preschool minds? And a stepfather would pose the same threat to inheritance, yet, as noted, there’s no corresponding male archetype.
No, what seems more likely is that a small child fears the father’s shifting affection to his new wife. Or more to the point, his sexual thrall. The wicked stepmother has used her sexuality to enslave the father and drive away all concern for his children.
Consider the role of the father is the classic fairy tales. Cinderella’s father marries a woman who installs her own daughters as the favored children while banishing Cinderella to the kitchen to work as a household slave. Her father is apparently content with this new world order; at any rate, he says not a word. In Hansel and Gretel, the stepmother contrives to strand the children in the woods to fend for themselves, and their father meekly submits to his wife’s scheme. And in Snow White, the king takes a beautiful, narcissistic new wife who is so threatened by her stepdaughter that she orders the huntsman to take the girl into the woods and kill her. Meanwhile, the king lives on in the castle and never seems to wonder what became of his daughter and why she no longer graces at his banquet hall of an evening.
Where was the father? one might ask (a nice subversion of the more typical finger-pointing at the mother). Oh, he’s there, but he’s so weak or besotted or indifferent to his children’s fate that he does nothing to shield them from harm. So the children must either find surrogates (the Seven Dwarves or the fairy godmother, for example) or step up and save themselves (ala Hansel and Gretel).
Traditionally the one person charged with the duty to protect the family was the father. The child’s darkest fear is that he can’t or won’t. These fairy tales teach him how to face that fear.
The archetypal wicked stepmother is simply a stand-in, a convenient scapegoat for any danger that might threaten the family. For centuries, she’s been taking the rap for the real monster under the bed: the neglectful father.