Re-thinking Hansel and Gretel

Cleaning up the step-mother's reputation

Posted Oct 13, 2008

I have a particular fondness for the story of Hansel and Gretel. First, there is that soul-warming image of sibling love and protection. Second, there's that feisty young girl, who scouts out every plot against her, solves every problem, and saves her brother. Third, there's that underlying justification of dislike for the step-mother which, for reasons I won't go into, strikes a chord in me. But recently, I've been challenged to re-think this fairy tale. A novel by Fay Weldon, The Step-Mother's Diary, takes a new look at the familiar conflict between step-daughter and step-mother. Novelists and playwrights are often ahead of psychologists in identifying templates of unconscious emotion, and Weldon's chilling re-location of the wickedness in this relationship lhas got me wondering whether Gretel was really so innocent, after all.

Time and time again we are reminded that there is more than one "normal" family structure, but a new register of patterns to mark out common dynamics has been slow to establish itself. Now that families where at least one parent is a stepparent is so common (in the US 8% of children live with a step-parent), it is high time to reconsider the meanings of "stepmother". The associations of "stepmother" with mean, grudging and excluding behaviour have ancient roots in fairytales, and are a source of fascination for psychologists. Bruno Bettelheim believed that the harsh features of the step-mother were shaped by the ambivalence towards the biological mother; the wicked step-mother represented unconscious hatred, fear and resentment towards the mother, who was also loved and idealized. So incompatible were these two images, that the unconscious split them apart, and presented one as the good real mother, and the other as the bad woman who usurped the good mother.

More recent readings of the "wicked step-mother" have been grounded by evolutionary psychology. Here it is suggested that a step-mother has a genetic interest in ousting those children in her family with whom she has no genetic bond. Instead, she wants to clear the decks for her biological offspring, who will then secure all family resources for themselves. While there are many exceptions to this evolutionary "rule" (many step-parents really love their step-children, and being an adoptive parent does not diminish love) there is no doubt that the step-parent/step-child relationship has special complications; while parental abuse is by no means confined to step-parents, but it is more common.

The image of helpless lion cubs being strangled by the male lion who oust the biological father and stakes the position of the alpha male comes to mind. But human children are not helpless. When a new wife enters a family, a teenage daughter may resent her for many reasons. Perhaps she fears her as a potentially wicked step-mother. But perhaps, too, she sees her as a rival for her father's love and attention, and uses all her power of distortion and innuendo to undermine the status and confidence of the unwelcome newcomer. The model offered by the selfish gene is not enough to make sense of conflict in this relationship; we have to bring in the Oedipal story, too, and consider how the step-daughter may be doing her utmost to make the step-mother look bad. This pattern certainly makes sense to the many step-moms whose generous efforts to offer love and warmth are repeatedly spurned. That clever Gretel overpowered two women in order to get back to her loving father, and it may have been only her cunning that made them seem like "witches."