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Cinderella

According to Morrison and Thompson-Guppy, the difficulties of being accepted into a ready-made family can bring about a number of psychological issues yielding "a clinical picture similar to depressive illness," (521). Read through the lens of modern psychological research, the story of Cinderella and her "wicked stepmother" might be viewed in a new light. Given the purely powerless role of women in the Grimm version of the Cinderella story, it may be no wonder the stepmother immediately scapegoats her stepdaughter and clings as hard as she can to a position of power within her new family. Likewise, the two stepsisters only learn from their mother and can be forgiven on her behalf. Research in the economic theory of families supports the view that stepmothers behave as wickedly as the one in Cinderella out of biological instinct. Being a wicked stepmother is a matter of survival; there are biological and Darwinian reasons for shunning Cinderella (Case, Lin and McLanahan). Given that the stepmother herself was "taken," rather than loved, she could emerge as a more sympathetic antagonist. The Grimm story, however, falls prey to literary tropes that oversimplify characters. Women, even the protagonist Cinderella, remain powerless. Cinderella is the embodiment of all that is pure, chaste, and good; her stepmother becomes the epitome of pure evil. The Grimms' oversimplification of their characters has led to an unfortunate misunderstanding of the role of all women in their domestic spheres.

Stepmothers grapple with their "position in the family, feelings of anxiety, rejection, ineffectiveness, guilt, hostility, and exhaustion," according to empirical research (Morrison and Thompson-Guppy 521). The stepmother in the Grimm brothers' version of the fairy tale is no different. Remaining nameless, and therefore completely bereft of power, the stepmother has no means by which to assert herself other than to exert power over her new household. She was "taken" as a wife by a man who most likely does not love her, mere months after the death of his first wife. The situation may have easily led to her "loss of self-esteem," and her "overcompensation" by abusing Cinderella (Morrison and Thompson-Guppy 521). Morrison and Thompson-Guppy would have found the stepmother's condition "normal within the context" of her "adjustment reaction," (521). Because the Grimms' tale focuses on Cinderella, though, the perspective of the stepmother is never told. Her voice is only heard through the ears of the narrator, who is sympathetic to Cinderella.

The so-called Cinderella syndrome may have evolved as a biological instinct. As Case, Lin and McLanahan posit, "psychological mechanisms have evolved to promote altruism toward one's own offspring and aggression and hostility toward other people's offspring," (234). The stepmother in Grimms' "Cinderella" behaved as she did out of an unconscious biological instinct toward self-preservation and toward the preservation of her two biological children. In treating Cinderella poorly, the stepmother is doing her instinctual maternal duty of looking out for her offspring. She does not necessarily intend to be mean, even though her actions are most certainly harmful and abusive to Cinderella. Because Cinderella succeeds to escape the family in the end, the stepmother also gets what she wants, which is the ousting of her stepdaughter from the family. Interestingly, only the two stepsisters are punished at the end of the tale, not the stepmother. Grimm and Grimm have pigeons peck out the eyes of the stepsisters, blinding them for life, but they spare the stepmother as if in subtle sympathy with her. It is as if the stepdaughters are expected to behave better and to know better because their psychological dynamic is different. They are not spared because they do not have the excuse of "stepmother syndrome."

From an economic standpoint, the stepmother's behavior makes perfect sense. Economic research has shown that stepchildren have "negative utility," (Daly and Wilson). The stepmother to Cinderella sees only her two biological daughters as having "positive utility." Indeed, the first line of the Grimm and Grimm version of the tale states outright that the father was "rich." The stepmother must act in the best interests of her daughters in order to secure as much money as possible for them, which is also why the stepmother is determined to showcase her daughters at the prince's ball. Ensuring Cinderella's failure makes it more likely that her daughters will succeed. The daughters could have chosen to bond with their stepsister, but they have "evil and dark hearts," (Grimm and Grimm). The stepmother is never described in terms that would directly incriminate her in this way.

The stepmother in Grimms' "Cinderella" does not need to be completely exonerated; she does treat Cinderella poorly and could be described easily as emotionally and psychologically -- even physically -- abusive. As Daly and Wilson note, rates of child abuse are high among families with a stepparent. In "Cinderella," the stepmother turns Cinderella into a "household slave," and she is powerless over her situation (Daly and Wilson 2). As Grimm and Grimm put it, " she had to do hard work from morning until evening, get up before daybreak, carry water, make the fires, cook, and wash." Cinderella requires "supernatural intervention" and a magical prince to rescue her (Daly and Wilson 2). Interestingly, though, the Grimm brothers place most of the blame on the stepsisters. When phrasing the matter of Cinderella's household chores, the voice is passive, as when "she had to do hard work from morning until evening, get up before daybreak, carry water, make the fires, cook, and wash." There is no clear indication that the stepmother was the one who made Cinderella work this hard. However, Grimm and Grimm do state "the sisters did everything imaginable to hurt her." Furthermore, it was the stepsisters, not the stepmother, that gave the title character her name because she was as dusty and dirty as cinders. The father is also to be blamed for Cinderella's abuse, for his role is far too passive. If the stepmother is accused of being abusive, then surely the stepfather must be characterized as neglectful. When he goes off to the fair, he asks the stepdaughters what they want first, and Cinderella last.

The stepmother does abuse Cinderella, as when she scatters lentils and makes her pick them up; or when she does everything in her power to prevent Cinderella from appearing at the ball. However, the stepmother's behaviors can be viewed as the only reasonable means by which she can protect her two daughters. Even if financial security was not foremost in the stepmother's mind, there may have been other reasons for her hostility. Cinderella herself is described as being "pious and good," and may have been haughty, holier-than-thou, or utterly resistant to any attempts at reconciling herself with her new family. The Grimm brothers' tale is too thin and open for interpretation to assume the stepmother is categorically evil. In Seriously, Cinderella is SO Annoying! Shaskan goes a step further and claims that from the stepmother's perspective, Cinderella was, in fact, hard to live with. Being annoying is no excuse to abuse a child, but the Grimm brothers do a poor enough job with characterization that a deeper analysis of the stepmother can yield greater understanding of the unique dynamics at play in the Cinderella household.

"Cinderella" also brings to light the universality of sexism within patriarchal societies. As Daly and Wilson point out, there are "hundreds of variants" of the "abused stepchild" trope (1). The trope is universal because women like Cinderella are born into patriarchal societies that stifle their power. The stepmother clings to her position of power because she would have no other way of supporting herself and her two daughters. Not knowing her backstory, the audience has no way of knowing who her previous husband was and why he is no longer in the picture. Regardless, she needed to remarry for financial reasons just as Cinderella's father needed to remarry in order to have free childcare and household labor. The stepmother is a victim of her patriarchal circumstances, as is Cinderella. Unlike Cinderella, the stepmother does not wait for a magical godmother or a prince to rescue her; she paves her own path in life even if it means being portrayed as a bitch.

The stepmother in Grimms' "Cinderella" has been misunderstood. She has been portrayed in a negative light to avoid the moral ambiguities inherent in the deeper, underlying narrative. Yet a close textual analysis of the Grimms' tale shows that the two stepsisters are more genuinely evil than their mother. Grimm and Grimm overtly describe them as "evil," and finish the story by having their eyes gouged out. The stepmother emerges as an antihero, one who serves as an ironic catalyst for Cinderella's growth as a character and her liberation from her father's home. Cinderella may never have met the prince had she not been so strongly motivated by the situation at home. The stepmother acts in her best interests, and in the best interests of her daughters. She acts out of a biological instinct for self-preservation, rooted in… [END OF PREVIEW]

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