Lisa Wilson: Cinderella and Her Still Evil Stepmother

A History of Stepfamilies in Early America, by Lisa WilsonWe welcome a guest post today from Lisa Wilson, author of A History of Stepfamilies in Early America. Stepfamilies are not a modern phenomenon, but despite this reality, the history of stepfamilies in America has yet to be fully explored. In her book, Wilson examines the stereotypes and actualities of colonial stepfamilies and reveals them to be important factors in early United States domestic history.

In today’s post, Wilson explores the history of the “evil stepmother” trope in Western history.

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Why do we need to have evil stepmothers?  After two recent remakes of Snow White—Mirror, Mirror (2012) and Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)—we are now turning to Cinderella (a non-animated Disney film) due to come out in the spring of 2015. Fairy tales with evil stepmothers have become a bit of a cottage industry in the film industry as of late. Why do these stories and in particular the characters of evil stepmothers still have an audience?

Looking at the history of the evil stepmother stereotype I think explains some of the staying power of these familiar tales. Although stepmother characterizations have been negative since as far back as ancient Greece, in Western culture the need for evil stepmothers became more urgent in the United States in response to a new idea of the proper family in Enlightenment Europe. Sentimental families, as they were called, became the ideal for the rising middle class in Western Europe. A sentimental family was a child-centered one with a loving companionate couple at the helm. Mothers took on an increasingly important role in society as middle-class families found a new way to display their social status. The nineteenth century brought a new layer of similar priorities centered on a loving home and the woman who made it, as her husband toiled away outside this new domestic haven thanks to the Industrial Revolution.

So what does the cultural rise of loving mothers have to do with stepmothers? I would argue that as mothers became idealized as loving they could no longer be associated with inferior parenting. Accordingly, their wicked ways were absorbed by stepmothers. For example, in Revolutionary America the mother country had begun to be a poor parent to her colonial children and thus earned the moniker “Stepmother England.” In the early nineteenth century familiar stories such as Snow White and Hansel and Gretel, propagated most notably by the Grimms Brothers, were revised with the formerly cruel mother characters morphing into cruel stepmother characters. Mothers could no longer try to poison their children, or abandon them in the forest. Cruel mothers had evolved into evil stepmothers.

If mothers are to remain idealized as they still are today, they will continue to need a demonized other, the wicked stepmother. With yet another remake of a fairy tale with an evil stepmother character on the horizon maybe we should revisit the history of this stereotype. Reality of course makes clear that mothers and stepmothers are more complex than such images suggest. Can realistic expectations of motherhood allow stepmothers to shed their wicked ways? Can we find other stories to tell our children?

Lisa Wilson is the Charles J. MacCurdy Professor of American history at Connecticut College. A History of Stepfamilies in Early America is now available. Read her previous guest blog post, “Stepfamilies Are ‘Traditional’ American Families.”

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