Deconstructing the Wicked Stepmother

It was common in the early days of fairy tales for the enemy of a princess or future princess to be her vain stepmother. There were many reasons for this, most of which are no longer relevant by modern standards, causing that trope to fall by the wayside. One outdated reason is that girls rarely left the house (or "tower" if you will) in the old days because they were expected to do housework and eventually become mothers. Therefore, meeting an enemy outside of their own homes would have been unlikely. Why do you think so many princesses long for freedom? The other reason is that fairy tales are meant to encourage children to love and obey their parents, so it would be counterintuitive for them to go up against their biological caretakers. There are a few rare exceptions, but these disturbing stories about horrible parents never made it into the mainstream media for good reason. Giving them stepparents who were brought into their lives at a later time solves this problem and allows the heroine to have a challenge to overcome.

The first time that Disney openly challenged these standards was in 2007 with Enchanted. Enchanted was meant to be a turning point in Disney's history in which they were ready to admit that they had overcome many of the questionable stereotypes of the stories they had adapted in the past and were moving on to healthier standards for the portrayals of girls and women in the media. Indeed, the princess stories that were adapted following Enchanted, including The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, and Frozen, made much bolder changes to their source material than anything they had done in the past. Although their first two princess movie adaptations, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937 and Cinderella in 1950 included evil stepmothers as villains, Disney has moved on to portray healthier family dynamics in all sorts of unique situations.

In Enchanted, Giselle, a stereotypical princess archetype, becomes a stepmother to Morgan, the daughter of a single father who is struggling to be a good role model. In a key moment of the film, Giselle tells Morgan that it isn't true what they say about evil stepmothers and that Prince Edward has one who is probably lovely. Although Queen Narissa turns out to be the wicked stepmother of nightmares, her defeat represents a new era for modern media in which nice stepmothers can coexist with more realistic portrayals of modern families. The movie Godmothered, a spiritual sequel to Enchanted from 2020, took this a step further by showing that a single parent can be happy with just the love of her child without even needing to remarry. In 2022's Disenchanted, the actual sequel to Enchanted, Giselle falls under a curse in which she becomes the evil stepmother she has sworn to never be. This enforces that the negative stereotypes of the past can be harmful and need to be overcome for a healthier future.

There are many other positive resources available in book format, the new dominant medium for princess stories, including Tales of Virtuous Stepmothers, an anthology of original fairy tales by Georgina Warren, and My Fairy Stepmother, a picture book by Marni Prince. These resources are great for children who are struggling with major changes in their family and still want to feel like the heroine of a fairy tale. Change doesn't have to be a bad thing, and Fairy Godmothers can come from the most unexpected of places. At the end of the day, being a true princess is all about embracing love and kindness, and that includes people who might enter their families unexpectedly. My favorite series, Sofia the First, centers around a family formed by new beginnings. Sofia becomes a princess and gains a stepfather, stepbrother, and stepsister, and Amber and James gain a new stepsister in Sofia and a new stepmother in Queen Miranda. The premiere movie, Once Upon a Princess, places a heavy focus on how being a family means more than just sharing the same blood.

The trope of the evil stepmother has been a relic of outdated societal norms, but these standards have been changed and overcome since the turn of the millennium. By portraying healthier family dynamics and diverse representations of love and kindness, modern media has evolved to showcase the true meaning of being a princess. With resources like EnchantedTales of Virtuous Stepmothers, and Sofia the First, children can find inspiration in stories that celebrate the beauty of blended families and second beginnings. As we continue to strive for a more inclusive and compassionate world, let's embrace the kindness, love, and acceptance that define what it means to be a true princess.


Georgina Warren said…
If readers want to support good stepmothers in media, they might want to check out this petition created by Kelsea Lagreid. She decided to start a petition for Disney to produce more movies with heroic stepmothers. Click on the link below to add your vote!
Sugar said…
Although they are not princesses, let's not forget that the Phineas and Ferb series caused a stir at the time because the protagonists were stepbrothers and Ferb's father married Candace and Phineas' mother.
The series, also under its fun and carefree appearance, had several very cute episodes that highlighted how Candace approached her stepfather to see him as a father and how Miranda treated Ferb the same as Phineas.
In other news, a book that follows the story of Queen Clarion of Tinkerbell with the winter king Milori will be released in 2025, It will allow us to see how they originally fell in love, I still remember how tragic their love story was.
The story will apparently follow canon so it is assumed that it is compatible with the Tinkerbell saga and how they get back together.
Lisa Dawn said…
I heard about that book! Although I'm not usually impressed with Disney Publishing because most of their stories read like fanfiction, that one in particular sounds really interesting!
Georgina Warren said…
You might enjoy this new animated film Over the Moon (2020). It features a young girl in China, who built a rocket to travel to the moon in search of the legendary moon goddess when she discovers that her widowed father is remarrying and she will soon gain a new stepmother and stepbrother. There are strong themes about nostalgia and grief which is great for supporting children that have a deceased parent. It also offers a sympathetic portrayal of a future blended family.
Georgina Warren said…
If you want to explore other children's books with good stepmothers here is a list of my personal recommended titles:

Single books

The Truth About Stepmoms - Renee Bolla
The Totally Not Wicked Stepmother - Samantha Berger
The Not-So-Wicked Stepmother - Lizi Boyd
The Wicked Stepmother Helps Out - Tony Bradman
Stepmothers and the Big Bad Wolf - Madeline Smoot

YA Series

Magic in Manhattan - Sarah Mlynowski
Sweep - Cate Tiernan

Georgina Warren said…
I will also share a list of family movies that depict good stepmothers or future stepmothers.

Good Stepmoms in Family Movies

1. South Pacific - (1958)

2. The Three Lives of Thomasina - (1963)

3. The Sound of Music - (1965)

4. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang - (1968)

5. My Stepmother is an Alien - (1988)

6. Beetlejuice - (1988)

7. My Girl - (1991)

8. It Takes Two - (1995)

9. All Dogs Go to Heaven 2 - (1996)

10. Toothless - (1997)

11. Smart House - (1999)

12. Rugrats in Paris: The Movie - (2000)

13. An Extremely Goofy Movie - (2000)

14. Life-Size - (2000)

15. The Santa Clause 2 - (2002)

16. Nanny McPhee - (2005)

17. Enchanted - (2007)

18. Spy Kids: All the Time in the World - (2011)

19. Disenchanted - (2022)
Lisa Dawn said…
I have seen most of those movies! Many were excellent, but I am still the most partial to Sofia the First. :)
Georgina Warren said…
Sofia The First is a TV show with multiple episodes. The titles I have listed here are mostly standalone features and sequels. I would love to hear which of these titles you would like to watch next!
Georgina Warren said…
Giselle has always been special to me for being the first Disney princess to become a good stepmother. Personally, I liked the first movie better than the second one. For me, there were aspects of the plot execution that fell flat in Disenchanted. Giselle‘s kind words about good stepmothers in Enchanted resonated with me and I have mentioned her in the afterword of my book when you read it.
Lady Culturina said…
Interestingly, in french (my mother tongue), a stepmother was a "marâtre", and a mother in law a "belle-mère" (literally "beautiful mother", the respectful way to address them). But marâtre slowly became a synonymous of "wicked stepmother" and is now mostly used in fairy tales for this reason. To name stepmothers in real life, "belle-mère" is now used too, you must be careful of the context to get who is referred to in conversations. Meanwhile, "parâtre" (stepfather) has faded in obscurity in favor of "beau père" (same word for "father in law", once again). A perfect demonstration that stepmothers (more than stepfathers, that it).

There are historical reasons for that, starting with the fact that girls should found their enemy at home effectively. Others reasons are, that women often died by childbirth (and having kids was not an option before contraception days), starting with puerperal fever. The widowed husband ended alone with a baby (who survived her or his mother), or small children (the eldest kids). As only women were thought to know how to take proper care of children, and hiring a nurse was reserved for high society, the only resort was, for the father, to remarry quickly. In case they were noble, and had no son yet, they need a wife to father one. Meanwhile, widowed women (and even more widowed women with children) needed a husband to take care of them as women could mostly not work.

As a result, widowed persons remarrying quickly was made for practical reasons, and women did not necessarily loved their husbands, nor his kids. In noble and/or rich families, there was an extra layer: inheritance. Stepmothers tended to like their kids more (whether they were from her first or second husband), and hoped they would "have it all" (title and riches) at the expense of the husband's kids. Stepmothers often tried to make the latter look bad in comparison, in order to make them disinherited. In case they could not be sure of that, stepmothers would just take it out on the husband's children. And it was worse if the husband died, was absent, or henpecked.

Today, having a stepmother is often the result of a divorce or a separation. Fathers remarry with women they like more, and as most marriages nowadays are love ones, the future stepmom get engaged into this if she is sure (the most often) that she will like her husband's kids.

Another example of loving stepmothers (it's now a trope: was in the last version of "Cheaper by the Dozen", where the number of kids is explained by the fact it's a blended family. The original mom and the new one are such good stepmoms, that they both call "my son" one of the boy in front of the headteacher, much to her confusion.

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