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In fiction, stepmothers are often portrayed as being wicked and evil. The character of the wicked stepmother features heavily in fairy tales; the most famous examples are Cinderella, Snow White, and Hansel and Gretel. Stepdaughters are her most common victim, and then stepdaughter/stepson pairs, but stepsons also are victims as in The Juniper Tree—sometime, as in East of the Sun and West of the Moon, because he refused to marry his stepsister as she wished, or, indeed, they may make their step-daughters-in-law their victims, as in The Boys with the Golden Stars. In some fairy tales, such as Giambattista Basile's La Gatta Cennerentola or the Danish Green Knight, the stepmother wins the marriage by ingratiating herself with the stepdaughter, and once she obtains it, becomes cruel.
In some fairy tales, the stepdaughter's escape by marrying does not free her from her stepmother. After the birth of the stepdaughter's first child, the stepmother may attempt to murder the new mother and replace her with her own daughter—thus making her the stepmother to the next generation. Such a replacement occurs in The Wonderful Birch, Brother and Sister, and The Three Little Men in the Wood; only by foiling the stepmother's plot (and usually executing her), is the story brought to an happy ending In the Korean Folktale Janghwa Hongreyon, the stepmother kills her own stepdaughters
Fairy tales can have variants where one tale has an evil mother and the other an evil stepmother: in The Six Swans, the heroine is persecuted by her husband's mother, and in The Twelve Wild Ducks, by his stepmother. Sometimes this appears to be a deliberate switch: the Brothers Grimm, having put in their first editions versions of Snow White and Hansel and Gretel where the villain was the mother, altered it to a stepmother in later editions, perhaps to mitigate the story's violence. The Icelandic fairy tale The Horse Gullfaxi and the Sword Gunnfoder features a good stepmother, who indeed aids the prince like a fairy godmother, but this figure is very rare in fairy tales.
The stepmother may be identified with other evils the characters meet. For instance, both the stepmother and the witch in Hansel and Gretel are deeply concerned with food, the stepmother to avoid hunger, the witch with her house built of food and her desire to eat the children, and when the children kill the witch and return home, their stepmother has mysteriously died.
In many stories with evil stepmothers, the hostility between the stepmother and the stepchild is underscored by having the child succeed through aid from the dead mother. This motif occurs from Norse mythology, where Svipdagr rouses his mother Gróa from the grave so as to learn from her how to accomplish a task his stepmother set, to fairy tales such as the Brothers Grimm version of Cinderella, where Aschenputtel receives her clothing from a tree growing on her mother's grave, the Russian Vasilissa the Beautiful, where Vasilissa is aided by a doll her mother gave, and her mother's blessing, and the Malay Bawang Putih Bawang Merah, where the heroine's mother comes back as fish to protect her.
This hostility from the stepmother and tenderness from the true mother has been interpreted in varying ways. A psychological interpretation, by Bruno Bettelheim, describes it as "splitting" the actual mother in an ideal mother and a false mother that contains what the child dislikes in the actual mother. However, historically, many women died in childbirth, their husbands remarried, and the new stepmothers competed with the children of the first marriage for resources; the tales can be interpreted as factual conflicts from history. In some fairy tales, such as The Juniper Tree, the stepmother's hostility is overtly the desire to secure the inheritance of her children.
In Classic of Filial Piety, Guo Jujing told the story of Min Ziqian, who had lost his mother at a young age. His stepmother had two more sons and saw to it that they were warmly dressed in winter but neglected her stepson. When her husband discovered this, he decided to divorce her. His son interceded, on the ground that she neglected only him, but when they had no mother, all three sons would be neglected. His father relented, and the stepmother henceforth took care of all three children. For this, he was held up as a model of filial piety.
The ubiquity of the wicked stepmother has made it a frequent theme of revisionist fairytale fantasy. This can range from Tanith Lee's Red as Blood, where the stepmother queen is desperately trying to protect the land from her evil stepdaughter's magic, to Diana Wynne Jones's Howl's Moving Castle, where, although it is known that stepmothers are evil, the actual stepmother is guilty of nothing more than some carelessness, to Erma Bombeck's retelling where Cinderella is lazy and a liar. More subtly, Piers Anthony depicted the Princess Threnody as being cursed by her stepmother in Crewel Lye: A Caustic Yarn: if she ever entered Castle Roogna, it would fall down. But Threnody explains that her presence at the castle caused her father to dote on her and neglect his duties to the destruction of the kingdom; her stepmother had merely made her destructive potential literal, and forced her to confront what she was doing.
Despite many examples of evil or cruel stepmothers, loving stepmothers also exist in fiction. In Kevin and Kell, Kell is portrayed as loving her stepdaughter Lindesfarne, whom her husband Kevin had adopted during his previous marriage. Likewise, Lindesfarne considers Kell her mother, and has a considerably more favorable view of her than Angelique, Kevin's ex-wife and her adoptive mother, due to feeling neglected by Angelique during her childhood. The Disney film Enchanted also makes references to the "evil stepmother" belief, as the villianess is a stepmother, but her wickedness comes from her selfishness and power hungriness rather than the simple fact she is stepmother. When a little girl tells the heroine, Princess Giselle, that all stepmothers are evil, Giselle reminds her that she personally knows some wonderful women who were good stepmothers, and the fact a woman is a stepmother does not suddenly change her personality. This is shown later on when Giselle gets married to a man with a daughter from a previous marriage, thus becoming a stepmother herself. As Giselle is a sweet and caring woman, she makes a good wife and mother.
Though rarer, there are also cases of evil stepfathers, such as in the fairy tales The Gold-bearded Man (in a plot usually featuring a cruel father) and The Little Bull-Calf, Claudius in Hamlet (though his role as uncle is more emphasized), Murdstone in Charles Dickens's David Copperfield, the classic Twilight Zone episode, "Living Doll" the King from the movie Radio Flyer,and Gozaburo Kaiba (who adopted Seto and Mokuba Kaiba) from Yu-Gi-Oh!, as well as The Stepfather films.
In his opera La Cenerentola, Gioacchino Rossini inverted the tale of Cinderella to have her oppressed by her stepfather. His motive is made explicit, in that providing a dowry to Cenerentola would cut into what he can give to his own daughters An analogous male figure may also appear as a wicked uncle; like the stepmother, the father's brother may covet the child's inheritance for his own children, and so maltreat his nephews or nieces. Modern films, however, seem to cast stepfathers in a somewhat kinder light, implying honorable men who marry divorced women or single mothers make good stepfathers.
Step- and half-siblingsEdit
In fairy tales, stepsiblings and half-siblings can but need not take after their mother. Cinderella and Mother Hulda feature wicked stepsisters and The Wonderful Birch a wicked half-sister, but The Rose-Tree and The Juniper Tree feature loving half-siblings, and Kate Crackernuts loving stepsisters.
Many romance novels feature heroes who are the stepbrother of the heroine. The step-relationship generally stems from a marriage when the hero and heroine are at least in their adolescence.
Some family films and television sitcoms feature a stepfamily as the center premise. In many cases, the stepfamily is large and full of children causing situations such as sibling rivalry, rooming, and getting along amongst the children as popular plotlines. The stepfamily premise dates back as far as the 1968 film Yours, Mine and Ours. This film gave way to a classic family television sitcom about a blended family known as The Brady Bunch. Some contemporary family sitcoms have made the blended family sitcom more popular with the TGIF show Step by Step bringing about other shows such as Aliens in the Family, Life with Derek, Drake & Josh, and the short lived NBC family sitcom Something So Right. Kevin and Kell is a comic strip that focuses on a blended family.
- Papernow, Patricia L. (1993). Becoming a Stepfamily: Patterns of Development in Remarried Families. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
LeBey, Barbara (2004) REMARRIED WITH CHILDREN, Ten Secrets for Successfully Blending and Extending Your Family. New York: Bantam.www.barbaralebey.com
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