Today I like: Half-hour naps.
Not so much: The movie HOP. It’s no Tangled. It’s not even Gnomeo and Juliet.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking on the topic of sympathy and unlikeable characters, probably because so many of my characters are archetypal. Creating conflicting emotions toward such characters is vital, as they’re drawn in black and white in traditional stories. Fairytale heroine, Prince Charming, fairy godmother, big bad wolf, troll at the bridge. We all know what side each in on.
Today I’d like to tackle that most hated of fairytale culprits: the Wicked Stepmother. I’ll start by saying that, individual personality traits aside, the stepmother is an intrinsically sympathetic character.
I hear you already. Huh? That nasty woman who forced sweet Cinderella to mop and sew and then tried to sabotage her happily-ever-after when it came calling?
Yes, her. I’ll lump Snow White’s stepmother in with Cinderella’s, and I’ll vouch for other stereotypes of the cruel, calculating older woman. Here’s why.
In the case of female beauty, young is it, and always has been. Our most familiar fairytales emerged when a woman’s beauty was her most prized asset. Barring some fabulous wealth or family connections, it could be her only asset. Her worth was beyond her control, tied up in genetics, ease of life, and time itself.
In the case of Snow White’s stepmother, the prototypical “Evil Queen” who longs to be “the fairest of them all,” you have a woman holding onto the trait that has always defined her, even as it fades. In the face of such a threat, and with no other means of creating an identity or worth, she lashes out at the competition. Snow White becomes the victim of the Queen’s diminishing prestige.
Cinderella’s stepmother takes a similar track. In the most popular versions of this story, she’s twice a widow with two children to support. She may have lost the upward mobility of her own attractiveness, but she has her daughters. If they are to advance, the stepmother must also eliminate possible rivalries. Hence Cinderella gets the short end of the stick…or broom.
These woman are not nice. They’re vengeful, deceitful, and just plain cruel. But I still sympathize with them. In their existence, a narrow definition of physical beauty is the means to self worth (the admiration of men) and even physical security (marriage). Perhaps if Snow White’s evil queen were a conquering general or a famous artist she wouldn’t be so concerned with the opinion of the magic mirror. Maybe if Cinderella’s stepmother could send her daughters to Harvard she wouldn’t care if one of them nabbed the Prince.
The emphasis on youthful beauty and the relative powerlessness of these characters creates the conflict between fairytale heroines and their oppressors. This dynamic played out before earlier audiences in real life, most famously with the ousting of Katherine of Aragon for the younger, more “beautiful” and assumedly more fertile Anne Boleyn. Women of the time railed against Anne for myriad reasons, many of them religious, but predominantly because they sympathized with Katherine: the long-suffering wife, ousted because her husband wanted a newer, fancier model.
Fortunately for modern (Westernized) women, we have options. We can take care of ourselves, and unlike the Wicked Stepmother and her daughters, we don’t need marriage to Prince Charming to set us up for life. That doesn’t mean, however, that notions of what is and is not beautiful have changed, or that they don’t affect us. If anything, the media barrage of slim, perky, pouty, pre-childbearing beauty is more in our faces than ever.
The attractiveness of men is not reliant on the blush of youth and the fickleness of fecundity. Power, wealth and prestige all contribute to a man’s supposed appeal, and these things tend to increase with age. We hear talk of “cougars,” but Demi-and-Ashton couples are still the exception to the rule. Many of us know a woman who’s husband left her for a much younger woman, and I have single friends in their thirties who bemoan the tendency of single thirty-something men to date much younger women. We don’t need marriage, but if you are so inclined, at some point in your life you may be one one or the other side of the Battle of the Ages.
I’m not talking about Waterloo, or a WWF cage match. I’m talking about beauty standards that pit women against one another based on age, and result in jealousies and resentment and way too many bad facelifts. The solution feels complicated, but on an individual level it’s simple. Value women at all stages of life, for their experiences and wisdom and the hard work their bodies have done in bearing burdens and bearing children. I’m convinced that if she’d had a strong sense of her own value, and the options we have today, the Wicked Stepmother wouldn’t have been so wicked. What do you think?