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Today’s Women in SF&F Month guest is Vaishnavi Patel! She’s the author of “Logic Puzzles,” “The Sister Line,” and Kaikeyi—the latter of which comes out next week! Her debut novel, available on April 26, “reimagines the life of the infamous queen from the Indian epic the Ramayana, weaving a tale of fate, family, courage, and heartbreak—and an extraordinary woman determined to leave her mark in a world where gods and men dictate the shape of things to come.” (And on a personal note, I am reading it now and loving everything—the writing,  the story, and most of all, Kaikeyi herself.)

Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel - Book Cover

Divorcing the Evil Stepmother

The character of the evil stepmother is ubiquitous in myth, folktale, and fiction across the world. From stories like “Cinderella” and “Snow White” to modern plot lines in movies and TV shows, the evil stepmother character remains a popular villain archetype. But why is that? Why are we so eager to villainize women who, to our eyes, do not fit into the neatest possible category of motherhood?

To be sure, the actions of evil stepmothers in these stories are deplorable—and by stepmothers, I mean women married to a man with children from outside that marriage. Cinderella’s stepmother is downright abusive and genuinely evil, given the story as we know it. But Cinderella and all the other myths and legends I discuss are stories. In telling stories, authors make decisions about how to portray characters—they are not merely recounting objective biographical facts. Even when basing stories on real events, authors choose whose perspective to give, whose thoughts to privilege and whose motivations to assume the worst about. And of course, stepmothers in real life are just normal humans, on some shade of the good and evil spectrum. So why, then, is the evil stepmother the classic trope?

Stepmothers are, by definition, not the biological mother of the child they are parenting (my analysis is limited to portrayals of straight couples, but of course this trope also implicates judgments about any societally “atypical” family). Because they are marrying a man who has a child old enough to be the hero of a story, these fictional stepmothers usually fall into one of three categories: they are either entering a subsequent marriage themselves, they are unmarried and of an age that marks them as undesirable, or they are younger than the father by a significant margin. All of the stepmother figures are united in hating their stepchildren, and the different versions of the trope are generally used to feed into specific stereotypes about women, none of them kind.

The first category, which we might think of as the Cinderella type, is a stepmother that is either a shrew whose husband left her or perhaps is responsible for the demise of her husband. The second category, of Snow White or Hansel & Gretel fame, features women who are of the same age as their husbands but previously unmarried; impliedly because something may be wrong with them. And the third category, seen in one of my favorite childhood movies, The Parent Trap, is the young gold digger. There are countless other evil stepmothers out there across the fictional universe who themselves fit these categories, from the stepmother in Vasilisa the Fair (previously married) to the disguised troll in an episode of the TV show Merlin (both unmarriageable and a gold digger!). The woman who almost marries Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music also falls into several of these stereotypes, in contrast with Maria, who does not want money or marriage and simply happens upon it. Maria, by virtue of her penitent background in the abbey, is seen as far more sympathetic than the worldly Baroness.

Of course, we know that real people’s marriages fail all the time for reasons that don’t have to do with the woman being a bad person. Women choose not to marry for a variety of reasons. And often in straight couples with a much younger woman, if there is fault to be found among the parties, it does not lie with the woman. But the evil stepmother trope allows us to instead project our worst stereotypes of women—women are vain, women only care about a man’s money, women are jealous and petty, and on and on—onto these characters and show that these stereotypes are deserved. And these women, we are told, are decidedly evil because they commit the worst sin of all: they are bad mothers. Never mind that the fathers in the situation were perfectly fine marrying someone who despised their child. We are to vilify the woman.

My personal interest lies in an even more ancient source: mythology. There are several examples of “stepmother” characters in mythology. One of the most prominent examples might be Hera from Greek mythology. Hera and Zeus have their own children, who Hera sometimes loves (Ares) and sometimes rejects (Hephaestus). But Hera goes out of her way to be cruel to Zeus’s other children, rendering their lives into horrible tragedies. And while Zeus isn’t portrayed as a perfect god, the fact that he goes around having his way with women without regard or care for his children does not really mar his rule of the gods. Hera, on the other hand, is often the picture of a stereotypical jealous shrew—we look at her and think there is a reason that Zeus is straying; her unhappiness about her husband’s infidelity is her own moral failing.

Kaikeyi is another example of this trope, from the Indian epic the Ramayana. Kaikeyi is the hero Rama’s stepmother in the sense that she is married to his father but is not his biological mother; Rama’s real mother is also present in the story. Even given this minor distinction, Kaikeyi falls into the evil stepmother trope quite neatly. In the myth, Kaikeyi exiles Rama to put her own son on the throne. She is interested in keeping power as Queen Mother and accruing power to her biological son. Despite the fact that she is a warrior and well-respected queen prior to the exile, none of that changes Kaikeyi’s pure evil stepmother portrayal in most versions of the Ramayana today. Kaikeyi is often contrasted not just with her fellow queens Kaushalya and Sumitra, neither of whom try to seize power, but with Yashoda, the foster mother of the god Krishna. Neither Yashoda nor her husband are Krishna’s biological parents, but they choose to save him from death at great risk to themselves and raise him as their own. So Hindu mythology has examples of kind stepmothers and adoptive mothers—what sets Kaikeyi apart, in a way, is that she is too ambitious.

In particular, the evil stepmother trope serves to villainize atypical mothers. The stepmothers of stories often have multiple failings—they’re not just cruel to their stepchild but also interested in money and power, things that, these stories may posit, women should not crave. All of the “evil stepmothers” discussed above have characteristics that render them atypical for the purest form of a stereotyped ideal woman. Snow White’s evil stepmother in the Grimm fairy tale is a practitioner of the dark arts; Cinderella’s evil stepmother is prideful of her own daughters; Hera was too stubborn and willful to marry Zeus despite his repeated advances; Kaikeyi was a warrior before she became a mother, and was even gifted boons by the king for her service, something he ultimately came to regret when she used them to exile Rama.

By choosing to portray stepmothers as unloving people who commit these horrifying deeds, we are often giving in to age-old sexist stereotypes. There’s nothing inherently evil about stepmothers. In recent memory, blended families have become more common and socially accepted. I think many of us probably know more wonderful stepmothers than bad ones. So perhaps it is time to move past uncritically using this trope. In my novel Kaikeyi, Kaikeyi is a loving stepmother who is nevertheless deeply imperfect. While many of her actions are the same, and she is certainly flawed, she is not motivated by a preference for her biological children. By exploring her journey beginning in her own childhood, her triumphs and failures are part of what makes her a whole person. Portraying women in fiction as complicated and flawed not only allows us to defy the “mandated” role of women as a wife and mother but also makes for a more interesting and truthful story—and that, ultimately, is the point of fiction.

Photo of Vaishnavi Patel Vaishnavi Patel is a law student focusing on constitutional law and civil rights. She likes to write at the intersection of Indian myth, feminism, and anti-colonialism. Vaishnavi grew up in and around Chicago and, in her spare time, enjoys activities that are almost stereotypically Midwestern: knitting, ice-skating, drinking hot chocolate, and making hotdish. Her debut novel Kaikeyi, a retelling of the Indian myth the Ramayana from the perspective of the evil stepmother, is out April 26, 2022.