Academic journal article Italian Sociological Review

Fairy Tales and Stepmothers: The Extended Families in a Legal Perspective

Academic journal article Italian Sociological Review

Fairy Tales and Stepmothers: The Extended Families in a Legal Perspective

Article excerpt

1. Family archetypes in fairy tales: mothers and stepmothers

Fairy tales, like myths, have always been the symbolic expression of our interior world, allowing us to expel evil, to deposit it outside of ourselves. They sometimes delineate caricatures and stereotypes; instead, at other times, on the allegorical plane they propose archetypal figures, such as those in parental roles.

Notably, in the clear-cut opposition between mothers and stepmothers, a fundamental theme in traditional fairy tales is worked out, where the stepmother is a convenient figure to which all the negative aspects of mothers2 can be attributed. Thus it happens that the mother is always good, moral and very beautiful, and gives birth to a daughter, just as beautiful. Then it happens that the good mother dies (as happens, symbolically, in the approach of adolescence or in conjugal separations). Then stepmothers become the depositaries of the inexpressible and the unthinkable: in fairy tales the stepmother is always bad and immoral; sometimes she is a witch, pervaded by jealousy and distressed by the beauty and rivalry of the daughter becoming a woman3. She humiliates and hurts, often in the collusive silence of the father: from a symbolic view, the father is the hunter in "The Little Snow White"; he is incapable of opposing the queen and so he takes the girl to the woods.

The stepfather and the stepmother are not the same in this way; the stepfather does not carry with him such negative collective archetypes as the stepmother: symbolically he guarantees a patrimony, is loved by the mother, has a daily life with the minor, but does not have to perform those intimate functions of care that belong to the mother: indeed, the most famous stepfather is St. Joseph4.

Likewise, the father does not appear in the fairy tale of "Cinderella", which is all played out in the female. Cinderella has lost her mother and her father soon remarries, to a woman with two daughters of her own. This does not make her less evil, disproving the stereotype, according to which the stepmother is "incapable of procreating", has no children and steals the father: generally, the stepmother is not only a person that has not given birth, but also one that has not given birth to her husband's children. In Cinderella, then, the symbolic opposition is heightened by the two stepsisters, also evil and envious of the girl. Thus confirming another archetype, according to which the lack of consanguinity among the stepsiblings provokes rivalry, if only over succession issues.

In the original version of "Hansel and Gretel", the person that suggests to the father that he should abandon his children in the woods, because they are so poor they do not have enough to eat, is the stepmother, who, on their return, and without explanation, dies.

This symbolic opposition of roles is often reproduced etymologically and semantically. In countries with a strong Latin tradition, the strong negative projection persists in the denomination of the third social parent: in Italy, matrigna; in Spain, madrastra; in Portugal, madrasta. The word originates from the etymon mater, joined with the suffix -ineus, which indicates something inferior, smaller, belittling. In effect, the stepmother is less than a mother, a step back from the mother, and is imperfect, not omnipotent: certainly with the term there is socially associated a pejorative sense.

In other countries, Anglo-Saxon and Germanic ones, the term with which the third parents are defined is associated with a prefix: step, in English; stief, in German and Dutch; styv, in Swedish; it also indicates a loss, where it is associated for instance with the word "child" (the stepchild is an orphan); if correlated with the words "mother" and "father", it takes on the original meaning, indicating the man and the woman who become parents following the death of the biological parent, but also extending to those that take on the parental role after the breakdown of the original family. …

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