Who doesn’t love a Hollywood makeover? Especially when well-worn stories that once featured the helpless damsel in distress are retold with a more empowered, feminist point of view.
Case in point, the two upcoming releases featuring retellings of Snow White. Both feature sword-wielding protaganists determined to take control of their fate and reclaim their rightful kingdoms all the while looking amazing. So what can be anti-feminist about kick-butt versions of classic fairytale princesses? Enter the villian.
In order to become heros in their stories, both Snow Whites must face off with their respective Evil Queens who both perpetuate the evil stepmother archetype: one played by Julia Roberts and the other by Charlize Theron. While the classic Disney version of the tale never made the Queen’s connection to Snow White clear, both remakes in question explicitly cast the villain in the stepmother role.
So why is this a feminist issue? This archetype perpetuates the notion of stepmoms as hateful, controlling interlopers who do nothing but seek to fulfill their own desires even if it means crushing their stepchildren in the process. An archetype that in most cases could be nothing further from the truth. According the Wednesday Martin, author of the book Stepmonster, stepmothers are often the most powerless and vulnerable members of the stepfamily system.
To those outside of stepfamily life, it is difficult to perceive the differences between a stepfamily and a first family. As a result, roles within the stepfamily are judged by a first family standard. To an outsider, the situation appears simple, the new wife fills the former wife’s role in the household. If she loves her husband, loves the children, attends to their needs and is nice, everyone will get along and be a happy family. If she fails to show anything other than enthusiam for her role or his kids, she is judged harshly for it. “You knew he had kids when you were dating him, what did you expect?”
In reality, stepfamilies are complex situations that are based in loss. Remarriages bring together individuals who bring their different histories and past hurts into the situation. The child inevitably hurts from the disentigration of his first family. The parents feel guilty about the hurt they’ve caused their children, which often leads to overcompensation by way of lessened discipline, increased privileges, or even treatment of the child as an equal, blurring the line between adult and child. Adding another person to the mix is not as simple as snapping a puzzle piece into place. It does not make what is broken whole again. It creates choas which doesn’t resolve easily. Boundaries must be re-established, discipline needs to be addressed, old wounds are opened… all related to issues that existed before the stepmom came along, but are attributed to her as her presence brought change about. Very often, she feels responsible for fixing what she didn’t break. It’s part of what makes her role so difficult.
The perpetuation of the evil stepmother archetype continues to cast a shadow on a greatly misunderstood role. It creates more stress. Stepmoms seek to avoid the label even to their detriment. According to Martin:
“Canadian researchers have found that, owing to their conviction that they must “blend” the family, and owing also to their fear of being perceived as wicked, stepmothers tend to take on the role of family counselor and marital therapist, and to bend over backwards to be “perfect.” The result is feelings of exhaustion and burnout. And such feelings, combined with the hostile environment she often finds herself in when the kids are around, prime her for anxiety and depression.”
Not exactly the stuff of female empowerment.
As a stepmom, I long for the day when stepmothers are portrayed against the archetype as someone sympathetic you can cheer for instead of distain. Until then, the closest we’ll get is Alison Janey’s character in Juno who passionately defended her pregnant teenage stepdaughter to an insensitive ultrasound technician and, of course, Julia Roberts, in the somewhat unrealistic Stepmom.