When my daughter (my first child and my husbands 3rd child) was around 4 years old her grandmother bought her the movie Cinderella on DVD … maybe it was BluRay.
My daughter already loved the idea of the animated princesses. She had begun to accumulate a wardrobe of Princess dresses. As her mom, I was a little less sure about the messaging of the princess movies in general. Little girls are was very cute running around in princess dresses so it’s what we did. I mention this because I’m going to come back to this at the end
The animated movie was released by Disney films in 1950.
It’s a long movie for a 4-year old to watch. The movie was a gift from my husband’s mom and I still remember that after the 4-year old lost interest and had moved on to more active play the two grandmothers were happily sitting on the couch watching the movie.
Who wrote Cinderella?
Disney doesn’t create most of their stories from scratch. One of the reasons their films are often global blockbusters is that they often build on well-loved established fables. The concept of a stepparent – specifically a beautiful girl who is raised by a scary stepmother in a fairy tale is not uncommon. In fact, their are lots of these tales.
Because it’s based on a folk tale we don’t know exactly who Walt was inspired by. The origin of the Cinderella Story is most often given to A Grimm Brother’s Tale Aschenputtel, or “The Little Ash Girl” but there are hundreds of similar tales from many different sources and countries. Yeh-Hsien, an ancient Chinese Cinderella, was first published in the Tang dynasty. Rhodopis is a Greek tale from the 6th Century BC that is a similar fable. One of the most alluring of these theories is that the origin is from an Italian named Giambattista Basile in 1634. One reason this seems like a good match is that it’s part of a series of stories called the Pentamerone along with recognizable versions of Rapunzel, Puss in Boots, Sleeping Beauty and Hansel and Gretel.
Disney is smart to pick stories that are all ready familiar and well tested but the reason I like to share that is because the role and identity of stepmother is worldwide and historical. Not just that but it also shows that the idea of the Wicked or Evil stepmother has been around for a very very long time.
One of my missions in 2023 as a life coach for stepparents is to discourage the thinking in my clients that this is some kind of modern phenomenon. It’s clearly not. And yet we often hear about the phenomenon of “the modern family.”
Do you know the story of Cinderella?
Probably most people are familiar with the story of Cinderella.
Cinderella’s mother is dead. Her father marries a widow who has 2 daughters. The widow is named Lady Tremaine. The father dies. Lady Tremaine squanders his fortune and the Wicked stepmother forces Cinderella to do chores and forbids her from anything fun. There is a ball for the Prince and the stepmother tells Cinderella she cannot attend but her daughters can go. A magical figure the fairy godmother swoops in and creates a gown and a carriage. Cinderella goes to the ball, dances with the Prince who falls immediately in love with the beautiful blonde, demure Cinderella.. She leaves the ball in a hurry leaving behind a glass slipper. The Prince tries every maiden in the village to the maiden who fits the slipper perfectly … and once he finds her Prince Charming wisks her away to happily ever after.
It is fiction and while the 3 sentence plot was preset Disney updated and created the characters.
Did you know that the stepmother has a name. She is Lady Tremaine?
The character of the prince is actually Prince Charming.
Most people don’t know the name of the character who is the stepmom. The story is centered around Cinderella’s experience and point of view. This is the norm for fairy tales. The name of the wicked stepmother is not necessary.
Why do we tell children scary fairy tales?
The original tales that inspired the animated movie are much scarier and more violent.
Fairy tales are a safe way to talk to young children about scary stuff. We use fairy tales to teach them ways to avoid scary stuff. In 2023 many people are stepparents because they choose to change marriage partners but several hundred years ago the reason would more often be the death of a biological parent.
That’s scary stuff for a child.
It’s helpful to have a story of a stepchild surviving or thriving the loss of a parent and the introduction of a stepmother. I think it’s worth a nod to say that today in 2023 meeting a stepparent can also be scary. This is why the fairytale still works.
What if we looked at the Disney story from a different angle – as an adult?
What if we look from more of a neutral outsider position. And perhaps even a bit of a modern perspective.
What if we look at the story as an adult and a smidge of historical context. It’s fiction so that’s a little bit ridiculous. The story is supposed to take place in a time when there are no cars or technology. It’s a time when their were kingdoms.
In the fictional past when this story refers to the way women secured their financial safety and position in society was through marriage.
You never hear the stepmother called anything other than Wicked Stepmother in the movie. But what if we were to consider that Lady Tremaine is a single mother of 3 girls. She’s been widowed twice.
She was widowed and married Cinderellas dad. Then he died too.
There could be a whole other story there. Why do her husband’s keep dying? This could be a true crime series or an episode on Dateline.
Anyway Lady Tremaine is older and perhaps not a good candidate to me remarried again herself because she is oldern and no longer wealthy. Part of the story is that Cinderella’s Dad married Lady Tremaine for her wealth but after his death they squandered it and the castle fell into disrepair.
What if she needs to marry off the girls in the hopes that one of the husbands will also take care of her? Is that really so wicked? Today the plight of a single woman raising 3 children would be hopefully seen with compassion. It’s a big job.
And anybody who has watched Bridgerton or Downtown Abbey or Hamilton knows that the tradition is that the older daughters go first. Marriage is supposed to go in order oldest to youngest. Google tells me that Cinderella was in between the ages of her two stepsisters.
Is she really mean to Cinderella? Well the story we’re told is from the child’s point of view. How old is the character. I mean she marries the prince. Google tells me that she’s 19.
There are two things that I think are interesting about that number. First is that the movie was released in 1950 when many women were married straight after high school … at around age 19.
The second is that I dunno about you guys but when is the last time you gave teenagers chores? Are your teens dramatic? Mine are or were. People tell me that some teenagers are selfless, organized and clean up after themselves but I haven’t seen that it action in my house. When I give my kids and stepkids assignments or chores often they are very upset and dramatic like I am ruining their lives. I can even remember that from when I was a teenager.
In the story Cinderella is distraught that she absolutely must go to the ball. Is it really so urgent…who knows.
Why does the presentation of Lady Tremaine matter: Who cares?
Remember at the start that I said I was going to come back to the fact that I wasn’t sure I wanted my daughter to watch the princess movies?
This is because I think representation is really important.
We see what we expect to see. We become what we think is possible based on what we see.
If girls are told that their only worth is to get married that’s perhaps what they are more likely to do. There will be exceptions and trailblazers but overall this is a phenomenon which is rising to what’s expected.
If we tell children that stepmothers are mean, evil and wicked. What will they beleive?
Here’s another thought for those of us who choose to become stepmoms what do we believe about ourselves?
I can speak a little bit to this based on my experience.
I did not want to be an evil stepmother.
When I was marrying my husband I didn’t want to be considered a wicked or evil stepmom. I figured that since I was a nice person that would be easy. People tend to like me so of course my stepkids would like me.
It wasn’t that straight forward.
I’m pretty fortunate in my draw of stepkids and that my husband’s first wife is a smart and reasonable person. I did struggle to connect with his oldest daughter. I did struggle to figure out my place. I did have to reconcile with my beliefs about what it meant to be a stepmom. And over the years people made assumptions about me and us based on their preconceptions.
In my experience, there is still a stigma when it comes to being a stepmother. Finding positive role models is not always easy.
Lady Tremaine is not just a character she’s the villain of the movie
Cinderella is fiction. The character of the stepmother is the villain. She is portrayed in a very unflattering way as “wicked.” Her daughters are portrayed as mean.
All of them are drawn in unflattering ways. Ugly, mean, wicked. Nobody is dreaming of being the stepmother … everybody wants to be the pretty girl who gets the pretty dress, the fairy godmother and whisked off with Prince Charming.
Here’s another way to look at Lady Tremaine. This is a reframe.
If I was Lady Tremaine’s life coach here’s how I might reframe her situation.
She is an independent woman trying to make her way in a tough situation. She’s got 3 teenage children, no husband and no way to make a living. A huge house that needs constant cleaning and repair. She needs to find husbands for these three girls and somebody to take on this castle. Can you imagine…it’s a lot. She hustles. Things don’t go perfectly but in the end one of the children marries a PRINCE. Not a bad result.
In real life present life many of us encourage our daughters to be independent to be willing and able to do things themselves and it is helpful to have popular culture stories to support this. The movie of Cinderella was released in 1950 which was a different time but I think that this is still one of the most enduring examples of the characterization of a stepmother which is why it’s perhaps worth exploring.
These are my thoughts and ideas. I’m not a literary critique and just a few weeks ago I really did say outloud that I thought school projects learning how to write analytically about fiction were silly. My husband who is an English major disagreed vehemently. My point is simply that if you think I have gotten some of this wrong, let me know. I invite critique of my analysis.
How enduring is the message of Cinderella?
The message of the damaging stepparent is dominant (and luckily false). Sometimes the message from fiction takes hold in the real world. There is something called the Cinderella Effect which is the idea that stepparents are more often emotionally and physically violent to the children in their care.
That’s scary stuff. The potential of the Cinderella Effect has been used by social workers and in real life to support the idea that biological parents are a safer choice than stepparents.
Luckily for humanity since many children need stepparents who are in their live empirical data research does not turn out to support this idea. The reason statisticians tackled it, was because people were making decisions based on this myth. When I read this research I shared it with my husband. He immediately said, “well don’t stereotypes have their roots in truth?” To which I said, or sometimes perhaps in an animated movie based on an old fairy tale. Then we discussed that thousands of children are removed from their biological families due to abuse each year in just the United States. I looked this up to check it before I published this and I found two numbers. One number I found was 300,000 total in the system and one seemed to say 400,000 per year. I dunno if either one is correct. My point is that neither stepparents or parents are automatically perfect. Both are worthy of scrutiny and also trust. That’s tricky.
To wrap this up I think it’s worth it to reflect on the damage that it causes to use phrases like wicked stepmmother or evil stepmother or stepmonster. I even try to avoid the words high conflict stepparent or bioparent.