In studying fairy tales, there is certainly no lack of revealing and fascinating themes to discuss. Both culturally informative and literarily significant, fairy tales provide ample fodder for academic discussion of their text.
Of all of these themes, however, the one that most stands out to me is the recurring representation of alternative family members (particularly stepparents) as evil or intentionally harmful. Stepmothers in tend to me presented as antagonists, directly working against the protagonist in the central conflict of the story. Often, it is a young princess who is the victim of her stepmother’s wickedness; from “Snow White” to “Cinderella”, across geographically and culturally divergent interpretations, princesses battle with their fathers’ spouses for life and love.
This trend is one that presents a very telling trepidation and resentment towards replacement parents. Not only are the portrayals of stepparents incriminating of the parental figures themselves, but also they criticize the “natural” parents for their passivity, poor choice in mate, and failure to protect their own children. Far from merely an indictment of the struggles a child goes through in readjusting to a new family, fairy tales with this strain of commentary indict both stepparent and parent as falling short in parental responsibilities.
Another very interesting aspect to the stepparent trend in fairy tales is the way that Disney films (and other modern retellings) do not edify this particular unpleasant aspect. While details of violence and certainly of sexuality have been largely eliminated for a more child-appropriate audience, stepparents, even in modern versions of stories, maintain their vilified roles and evil agendas. In a modern age where the concept of “family” is in constant evolution, and a traditional nuclear structure is increasingly rare, it is remarkable that these figures are still positioned as intruders and wrongdoers. While sexuality is censored and violence tailored, it is still acceptable to treat alternative family solutions as harbingers of doom.