The Heroine's Journey: What about that wicked Stepmother? Carolyn
Think of Private Benjamin. Adored, wealthy, and spoiled. Until she gets kicked out to make her own way among people who don’t value her one little bit. Eventually she reveals that she’s plenty smart and valuable, but initially even she doesn’t know who she truly is.
Our heroine Cinderella isn’t spoiled, but she probably was before her mother died and Daddy married the Witch of the Western World. Don’t you wonder about men, though? When he sees what’s being done to Cinderella, wouldn’t you think he’d step in and put his foot down? But he goes off to the tavern and ignores the situation. His wimpishness and his wallet are no doubt the reasons the witch married him.
I must admit to a certain amount of sympathy for Stepmother. She’s got two or three ugly, nasty-tempered daughters who are never going to be married unless they bring substantial dowries with them. Even then it won’t be a piece of cake finding men willing to take them.
Step daddy isn’t made of money. Any available funds must go to her daughters and not to this kid she’s stuck with. This gorgeous stepchild can probably marry well without a dime in dowry, but she’s not going to have the chance until Momma has her little darlings married and settled. Momma is not about to allow a suitor into the house unless Cinderella is filthy, smelly, ragged, and down on her knees scrubbing floors with her face in a bucket. Even then she’s going to make the suitor do his courting in the garden.
Why does Cinderella put up with it? She has no safe alternatives. She’s a young and beautiful virgin. If Daddy Dearest disowns her, she’ll probably wind up in a brothel. In the early stories, the heroine does run away in disguise and hide far away from home, but only after her life or her virtue is threatened. Our Cinderella runs away in disguise as well—straight to the prince where nobody knows her, but boy, does he recognize her worth!
She’s not hanging around accepting her situation. She’s enlisting the help of a powerful ally. That ally is sometimes a spirit in a tree, sometimes her mother speaking from the grave, sometimes a sprite. We call her a fairy godmother.
That entity is nearly always an older and extremely powerful female. Moreover, she doesn’t have a husband, so there’s nobody to tell her what to do. She’s independent of societal pressures. The only women with any power back in the day were rich widows. That’s probably why so many of them slipped a little arsenic into hubby’s roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. And got away with it.