Whether you grew up watching Disney classics on VHS or you’ve binge-watched the “Fairy Tales” film collection on the new Disney+ streaming service, chances are that you’ve noticed a common thread in many of the pre-1990s Disney animated movies:
The Wicked Stepmother.
It’s Sinister September here at FashionEarsta, and today I thought I’d pull on my Literature Professor cap and take a look at this trope as a part of our examination of Disney villains. We’ll take a look at some classic Disney stepmothers and dive deep into a few explanations for why they keep popping up as the “bad guys” in these tales as old as time.
First Things First…
Let’s start with the modern classic, Wreck-it-Ralph 2: Ralph Breaks the Internet. In the endlessly-memeable scene where Vanellope chats with an entire cast of lounging Disney Princesses, they grill her on whether she conforms to pervasive “tropes” (common or overused themes or devices) of a Disney Princess.
“Do animals talk to you?” ask Jasmine, Cinderella and Pocohantas. “Were you kidnapped or enslaved?” query Rapunzel and Belle. When Vanellope shouts “I don’t even have a mom,” a veritable chorus of Disney icons (Anna, Elsa, Cinderella, Belle, Jasmine, Snow White, and Pocohantas) sing “Neither do we!”
Let no one say that Disney doesn’t know how to poke fun at itself.
This is not just a Disney thing: as Sarah Boxer pointed out in the Atlantic article “Why are all the Cartoon Mothers Dead?” this is common across the spectrum of children’s animation – Despicable Me and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs are equally guilty of quietly disposing of a mother figure before the credits roll. “Show me an animated kids’ movie that has a named mother in it who lives until the credits roll,” Baxter challenges. “Guess what? Not many pass the test.”
But Disney Animation, as the pioneer of animated children’s films and adaptor-in-chief of fairy tales for mass consumption, got a head-start on making popular and influential movies about princesses, and so got to set the tone for decades of children’s stories to follow. And because Disney got its big break with new versions of folk and fairy tales, these stories determined animation’s recipe for success that persists to this day.
A Brief History of Stepmothers (Disney Style)
Disney’s fixation on “wicked” stepmothers begins with the first ever feature-length animated film: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). The villain of that film, the unnamed Evil Queen, is introduced as Snow White’s “vain and wicked” stepmother who persecutes and attempts to kill her stepdaughter to remove the threat of being usurped by a younger and more beautiful woman.
The Evil Queen is followed by Lady Tremaine, the wicked stepmother of Cinderella (1950 and remade in 2015). Perhaps the best-known of Disney’s stepmothers, Lady Tremaine and her biological daughters persecute and eventually imprison [Cinder]Ella to give Anastasia and Drisella a better chance at marrying Prince Charming. 2004’s Ella Enchanted features a similarly-motivated stepmother, as does 2014’s Into the Woods.
Moving away from animation, The Parent Trap (1968 and 1998) features gold-digging stepmother-wannabe Meredith, who wants nothing more than to send the story’s twins away to boarding school (and banish their biological mother) so that she can enjoy newlywed bliss with their wealthy father.
And in 2007, Enchanted got metatextual with its critique of how well Disney Princesses would function in the gritty “real world,” but strangely kept the wicked stepmother trope entirely intact. Queen Narissa exiles Giselle from her own world to New York City and later attempts to kill her in the guise of an old witch and a dragon.
In recent years, Disney seems to have heard our refrain of “why are all the mothers dead” and gone with a different tactic. In both Tangled (2010) and Maleficent (2014), the princesses’ biological mothers live, but Rapunzel and Aurora are stolen away and raised by pseudo-stepmothers who curse or abuse them while posing as their biological mothers. While Maleficent is more nuanced, Mother Gothel is a straightforward evil (almost)-mother.
Disney’s Folk Origins
So… why does Disney keep coming back to the evil stepmother?
The dead/absent mother who is replaced by a wicked step/pretend mother is such a common trope that Disney might as well put it on a t-shirt and sell it in its theme parks.
Well, we can’t only blame Disney. After all, they lifted much of their source material from folk and fairy tales. The Brothers Grimm (Snow White, Hansel and Gretel) Charles Perrault (“Cinderella,” “Little Red Riding Hood”) and Hans Christian Andersen (“The Little Mermaid”) are the best known Western European authors to be adapted by Disney, but each of these stories are merely one version out of hundreds of similar stories passed down in the oral and written tradition for hundreds of years. One study of “Cinderella” found 345 versions of that tale alone, and that study was written in the 1800s!
The Brothers Grimm were not authors but scholars who originally started interviewing German peasants and writing down their folk stories in order to compile and preserve them for future study. It was only when they realized that they could make money from marketing these folktales as literature specifically for children that they began to rewrite their tales to make them more child-friendly.
And, believe me, the “original” fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm are heavily edited. You may have heard some of the grisly endings from their stories. In the Brothers’ Grimm version of “Cinderella” (not the one that Disney adapted) her stepsisters cut off parts of their feet so that they could fit them into the glass slipper. Doves also peck out the stepsisters’ eyes, leaving them to spend the rest of their lives as blind beggars.
In the Grimms’ “Snow White,” the stepmother wants to eat Snow White’s heart, lungs and liver, and is eventually punished by being forced to dance to death in hot iron boots. In their version of “Rapunzel,” Rapunzel’s hair is shorn off by the witch before she is cast out to starve in the wilderness, and the prince is blinded and pushed out of the tower window.
As you might notice from these examples, in many stories the most graphic violence is heaped on the evil mother. Fairy tales often described her demise in horrendous detail. Mother figures are drowned, burned to ashes, torn to pieces by wild animals, or placed in a casket filled with boiling oil and poisonous snakes.
“Good” and “Evil” Mothers
So, yeah… these are some pretty R-rated children’s stories. But Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm figured that 19th century German children could handle blood and gore. What they did change were two very interesting themes: sexual material and the concept of motherhood.
The first change is easier to understand, since many parents would probably agree that young children shouldn’t be exposed to material of a sexual nature, and many of the folk stories that eventually became children’s literature were originally raunchy, humorous tales told by and for adults at a royal court or even around the fire at a pub. For an example, see Perrault’s version of “Little Red Riding Hood,” which is a much more suggestive tale than the one with which you are probably familiar.
But another major change that happened in these stories’ transition from adult folktales to children’s stories was the re-writing of mothers as stepmothers. For instance: in the Grimms’ first published version of “Snow White,” the Evil Queen was Snow White’s biological mother. It was only in later publications that she became her stepmother. The “bad mother” has always been a feature of mankind’s stories, and she is much more prevalent than a “bad father.” (Although evil fathers certainly exist in folk and fairy tales, they are less prevalent and often touch on much more controversial subjects that Disney wasn’t going to touch with a 10-foot pole).
In stories such as “Snow White” and “Hansel and Gretel,” in which the villain was originally the children’s biological mother, it is possible that these tales mirror real-life situations of abuse and famine. In “Hansel and Gretel,” the mother (and later, stepmother) convinces the father that if the children stay the entire family will starve to death and so he abandons them in the woods (multiple times).
The history of Europe is rife with periods of famine and mass starvation, and it is not out of the realm of possibility that large families in these times did have to make terrible decisions about the allocation of food. And, sadly, there are parents who—for a variety of reasons—abuse and neglect their children as does the Evil Queen in Snow White.
But, more commonly, a fictional mother is “bad” because she has died and “abandoned” her children. The reality of life before modern medical care was that—among other factors—women died during childbirth at much higher rates than they do today.
Widowers often remarried in order to sustain their household, and the new wife (the stepmother) may have seen his children as competition for the family’s resources and a threat to herself and her own children. This is certainly the case in “Cinderella,” in which her father dies and beautiful, kind Ella must be humbled and imprisoned so that the stepmother’s own children can have beautiful dresses, good food, and the chance to marry the prince.
What is interesting is the 19th century decision by Wilhelm Grimm and other authors to deliberately erase or rewrite “bad” biological mothers from stories for children. In her fascinating book The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Maria Tatar explains that “”Wilhelm Grimm recognized that most children (along with those who read to them) find the idea of wicked stepmothers easier to tolerate than that of cruel mothers.” Authors turned the monstrous mother—who was sometimes a cannibal or enchantresses—into stepmothers, cooks, witches, or mothers-in-law.
The Psychology of Evil Stepmothers
Why was this choice to transform the mother into a stepmother so popular that we’re still seeing Disney include wicked stepmothers in their 21st-century films? The most popular explanation comes from psychoanalytic (read: Freudian) scholar Bruno Bettelheim:
“The fantasy of the wicked stepmother… prevents having to feel guilty about one’s angry thoughts and wishes about [a child’s biological mother] – a guilt which would seriously interfere with the good relation to Mother.”Bruno Bettelheim
Putting all the blame on a stepmother, he claims, is a way to provide children with a means of handling the troubling emotion of anger toward a beloved parent.
If the fairy tale mother is always good (and often literally angelic, having died young and providing wisdom or inspiration from beyond the grave), then the stepmother can be unabashedly and completely evil, since there is no danger in children seeing any of her characteristics in their biological mothers.
Of course, there is a huge problem with casting stepmothers as evil: if children can’t think of a single “good” stepmother in the stories and movies they love, they may come to see strife with and hatred of real-life stepmothers as natural and good. In 1856, fairy-tale author Ludwig Bechstein pointed this out:
“There is nothing that children would rather read than fairy tales. Among the thousands of children who every year get their hands on books of fairy tales, there must be many so-called stepchildren. When such a child-after reading many a fairy tale in which stepmothers appear (the stepmothers are all uniformly evil)-feels that it has been somehow injured or insulted … by its own stepmother, then that young person makes comparisons and develops a strong aversion to his guardian. This aversion can become so intense that it disturbs the peace and happiness of an entire family.”Ludwig Bechstein
The Future of the Disney [Step-]Mother
The reality is that in the modern world many, many families don’t include a child’s biological mother. And many of them are better for it! Teaching children to deify an absent mother and vilify a stepmother can have harmful real-life consequences.
We have to hope that Disney is thinking critically about this as they move forward. The Mickey Mouse Monopoly on children’s films seems unlikely to end any time soon, so I believe that its storytellers have a responsibility to think critically about what kinds of villains they put onscreen.
I recently binge-watched the Disney+ documentary series Into the Unknown: The Making of Frozen II and was impressed by the time and effort that the creative team put into the character of Queen Iduna. While in the first Frozen movie the queen dies offscreen and is frozen in time as a perfect memory for the princesses to miss, Frozen II complicates her character and gives her complex—possibly misguided—motivations for keeping important secrets from her children.
Now I’m hopeful that we’ll see more positive stepmothers, stepfathers, and all sorts of other family structures that don’t vilify parents in order to sell movie tickets.
Pixie dust and glamour!
The Fancy Floridian