LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Fairy Tales and Alternative Families

on January 24, 2013 2:11pm

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.

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2 responses to “Fairy Tales and Alternative Families

  1. mrmg0 says:

    I was intrigued by your concept of “fairy tales as an indictment of parents/stepparents” and have to agree with your assessment. Parents (Including stepparents) fail pretty miserably when it comes to the actual act of parenting and two further examples come to my mind that should be added to your idea: The mother from “Little Red Riding Hood” and all of its variations and the father in “Hansel and Gretel.”
    The mother in little Red Riding Hood is shown to be neglectful in nearly all variations of the story. She constantly sends out her young daughter alone, through the woods that have both wolves and grown male woodcutters, to deliver food to her grandmother. In some versions, she doesn’t issue a warning either showing a blatant neglect for her child or an astonishing lack of awareness of her surrounding area. In other versions, such as the Grimm’s, the mother warns her daughter to stick to the path, thereby showing her knowledge of some danger, and, even more concerning, still sends her daughter out into this danger.
    The second case that was called to my mind by your blog was “Hansel and Gretel” in which the father, a true pushover to the children’s stepmother, bows down to her whims and decides to just abandon his kids in the woods. The father, admittedly, eventually feels regret but the fact that he had valued his step-wife (an evil woman who is probably the witch in the story) and her opinions over his own flesh and blood.

  2. viceligar says:

    You bring up a really interesting point. Most of the fairytales we have read, or the ones that include alternative family members as being the villains, are functioning within a system that highly values the nuclear family. By positioning the stepparents or new family members as evil the authors reinforce the notion that divorce should be avoided at all costs and even vilified. The stepparent who tries to ruin the life of the stepchild tells the biological parent that he or she is to blame for their child’s misery because of his or her poor choices. Fairytales like Snow White and Cinderella greatly skewed my idea of the relationship between children and their stepparents. My parents are still together, but as a child the idea of them getting a divorce was probably my greatest fear. I thought all kids were supposed to feel either like their stepparents were encroaching onto their lives or were distant and cold. The prospect of having a stepparent terrified me because they got such a bad rap. Obviously, the reputation that fairytales espouse is rarely the case. As the definition of family changes, so do our misconceptions about the relationship with alternative family members. Something to think about is how these fairy tales will stand the test of time considering how prevalent divorce has become. I cannot imagine that stepparents in 2013, who consider themselves to be important parts of their spouses’ children’s lives, appreciate having the epithet of “Evil.” Would it even be possible to change the stories or include disclaimers protecting the integrity of all family members? That is probably way too politically correct, but to be honest, if I were someone’s stepmother Cinderella would probably offend me.

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