You know the story of Cinderella. She’s a princess, dearly loved by her father, the king. When her mother dies, her father eventually marries a widow with daughters of her own. But nothing much changes for Cinderella as long as her father lives and continues to protect her and treat her like the princess she was born to be.
But then the king dies, and Cinderella’s stepmother, the new queen, gains control of the kingdom and the palace. She banishes Cinderella to a life of servitude in the kitchen and presents her own daughters as the princesses of the land.
Yes, we know how the story turns out: the fake princesses are unmasked, Cinderella shines like the true princess she is, and then marries the prince and lives happily ever after. But what I want to focus on here is the stepmother, the one who usurps power and raises her own daughters’ station above that of the true princess, whom she treats like a servant.
Fables and fairy tales supply many examples of the archetype of the wicked stepmother. Often she appears as a witch, such as the one who is jealous of Snow White’s beauty. But there is no male counterpart to this villainess. Why?
The reason arises from the medieval system of laws and customs that gave rise to many of our enduring literary tropes, such as the wicked stepmother archetype. At that time women had very few rights and were dependent on a man to protect them and provide for them. A widow left with children to support—particularly daughters who would need substantial dowries to obtain powerful husbands of their own—would need to remarry. The widow in the Cinderella story would have considered herself quite fortunate to marry a widowed king.
Once a woman was married, she and her children became her husband’s property. A man could treat his wife and children however he pleased. No matter how badly he treated them, he would not be thought of as wicked. He would simply be exercising his rights as a man to use his personal property in whatever way he wished.
No wonder women like Cinderella’s stepmother were so quick to seize power and use it to their own advantage if the opportunity, such as the death of the king, arose. The stories that develop from a particular culture not only describe that culture’s values and beliefs, they also prescribe how people should live their lives. Cinderella’s stepmother would probably have gladly accepted the epithet wicked to describe her actions, as long as she could get what she wanted for herself and her daughters. But she also would have learned, along with everyone who heard this fairy tale, what happens when someone tries to dethrone the rightful heir. She gets her comeuppance in the end, when the glass slipper will fit only the dainty little foot of Cinderella, the real princess. The king may be dead, but his interests prevail in the end.
We have patriarchy to thank for the lack of a wicked stepfather archetype. Those who hold the power control the kingdom, including the cultural narratives. The king is dead. Long live the king!