I was tanning under the beautiful sun of Tulum, Mexico, and my nine-year-old stepdaughter was lying on the lounge chair next to me, munching on some chips and sipping her lemon soda. Out of nowhere, she came up with, “You know what, Sara? I think Disney is unfair showing stepmothers as evil people. You are not evil. I love you, you’re nice.”
What a shocking statement! Never have I ever thought of that, not in a million years because, 1) this is the first time for me as a step mother and, 2) I don’t like Disney movies. Or let me put it in a way Disney fans would understand; “I let it gooooo, let it goooo”.
The portrayal of stepmothers as villains in Disney movies is such a common concept that anything else sounds and looks unreal. As a child, I read Cinderella and as a grown up, I was pinned down to watch the movie because my stepdaughter wanted me to, both of which show how horrible Disney depicts stepmothers; how detestable it envisions us and how abhorrent we become in the eyes and minds of stepchildren and children in general.
I don’t recall forcing my stepdaughter to sleep in the basement, throwing a broom at her to swipe the floors or locking her up so she wouldn’t go to a birthday party, since she’s still nine and no fancy ballrooms or a prince charming are involved in her life yet. As a matter of fact, the total opposite is what I customarily do. I shop for her, I plan vacations with my husband to places that are kids-friendly to make sure she’s part of our holiday, I buy her birthday and just-because presents, I take her to my nail and hair salon for a girls’ day out, and I also did some hair highlights for her as a birthday treat last year, of course after consulting with her mother. One doesn’t just take someone’s child and color their hair.
But why? Why does Disney hate us, stepmothers, so much? Let me begin from the start. Disney is not all to be blamed for such an image, because before Disney there were fairy tales and children’s books from which Disney adopted that also depicted the idea of the evil stepmother. Disney just tweaked it to look modern and believable, and voila! We have the perfect formula of how to hate a stepmother. To name a few, we have Lady Tremaine, Cinderella’s stepmother, who married her father for the money. Frieda, Ella’s stepmother, is another variation of the story of Cinderella. Mother Gothel, Repunzel’s adoptive mother, is jealous of the daughter and wants to always look young and beautiful. So is Evil Queen, Snow White’s stepmother, who wants to be the fairest of them all.
If you took the step of marrying someone or are about to marry someone with children from a previous relationship, you have already agreed to a non-negotiable addendum to your already life-long contract. You might be wondering what you got yourself into and how you’re going to survive this whole new world. It’s the time when you actually put the ‘love conquers it all’ concept to the test, because it might not be a tale as fairy as you imagined.
When I first met my stepdaughter in 2014, she was five. She cried her lungs out the entire ride from the airport where her father picked her up to take her to our house. My mother-in-law called me a couple of times to soothe things for me and to justify the child’s behavior as being childish, expected, and ‘really doesn’t mean she hates you’. I had already raised my hands and prayed for help.
She wouldn’t eat the food I cooked, she wouldn’t wear the clothes I bought her, she wouldn’t open the gifts I wrapped for her, she wouldn’t talk to me, she wouldn’t walk next to me in the park or even in the middle between my husband and I. She would rather walk next to him as if seeking shelter from a monster. Every time she asked a question and I answered, she would shut me up by saying, “I’m talking to my dad.” It was Christmas and we planned a skiing trip to the mountains. I hated the entire trip and mostly cried in the cabin we rented or watched Friends.
It wasn’t until the last few days of the entire vacation that she started loosening up to me and allowing me to braid her hair the way I braid mine. “Sara? You’re not as bad as they said you would be,” she said. That was when I realized she had been told to act that way, she had been a victim, just like myself.
Children are walking parrots. They repeat anything you say in front of them. And stepchildren, in particular, are parrots and cassette recorders. They’d memorize anything said and retell it. That could be good and bad. Good because anything you do for them is communicated to their mothers. Bad because anything you do to them or do at all is communicated to their mothers. Seemingly, my stepdaughter had put on a good word for me to her mother because the next time she visited, she was so different that I thought she was another child. She would request certain dishes from me to cook for her, she would prefer me over her father to go out shopping, only the two of us. She would keep me company when I read and ask me to tell her about what I was reading. She would even ask me to read to her at times. She would ask me to scratch her back, which is her way for getting ready to sleep and needing a moment of serenity.
When her mother asked to meet with me and her for lunch, I welcomed the idea without a second of hesitation, so much so that my husband, her ex, was shocked! “You’d do that? Why?” he asked. Well, part of the reason is because I wanted the child to trust me and to see that her mother and I can get along just fine. If I wish for that child to respect me and listen to me, she needs to see that between us, the mothers. She needs to see that I can sit with her mother in the same place, at the same table, and the father with us, without arguing. Rather, laughing, sharing stories, taking pictures and discovering we even had common friends on social media.
I never foul-mouth the mother, but rather bring her up as a role model to be followed. I said yes to that lunch invitation because I want to have a healthy family. The child suggested to call me Mother, which I objected to because a child has only one mother and it should always stay that way. If one is lucky enough, they can have an older and wiser good friend they can trust, and that is what I sought.
On my birthday following that lunch, I was surprised when the mother called me and was even more surprised that she wrote a Facebook post about the outing. We don’t follow each other on social media, although she’s quite a celebrity for her revolutionary opinions and charity campaigns, but I only knew that when friends sent me Twitter direct messages about it. Until then, no one had known I had a stepdaughter.
Stepchildren come with readymade notions and misconceptions about their stepmothers. They don’t give her the chance to prove otherwise because they have already judged her to be wrong and wicked. Disney, exes, the entire society put a lot of pressure on stepmothers. Instead of carrying on their role as a guiding parent, they have to first prove they are good, nice and innocent, stripping their names and reputation from all the false accusations stoned at them. I fail to recall the countless times I stood in defense of a particular word or action because the child thought there was another hidden agenda behind that word or action. My behavior was always amplified under the magnifying glass of the child and society: Is she doing this to look good, or because she’s really good?
To put the ball back in Disney’s court, I personally think the multinational media conglomerate is capable of changing such a hideous image. If it did add a human and kind touch to the Queen in the Sleeping Beauty story, remade as the contemporary Maleficent, it can retell Cinderella’s and Snow White’s without perpetually antagonizing the stepmother. My stepdaughter deserves a better version of her good stepmother. I deserve a better version of me to be told to my stepdaughter. If Lady Tremaine is a product of her own time, she doesn’t represent me and the millions of good stepmothers who are being wrongly stereotyped on the big screen for children to laugh at, look down upon and hate.
Disney, I’m no housewife who feeds on my husband’s income. I’m not a gold digger nor am I seeking fame, not to mention that my husband lacks both. I’m a modern, independent, 33-year-old woman who works nine hours a day as a linguist, studies for her third master’s degree in a prominent New York creative writing school, is currently writing two books simultaneously and is outspoken and opinionated. I’m an active human worker, engaged in sports and fitness, and I am a hell of a cook. I’m beautiful and sexy, and blessed with a devoted and loving husband. I share this with a huge number of stepmothers in his country and around the world.
So, no, Disney, we don’t want to kill our stepdaughters because we feel at competition with them. We don’t want to be the fairest of them all, because we’re pretty in our own ways and we’re even prettier because we have loving and appreciative stepchildren. We don’t force them to wear dirty or torn clothes because they are family and their image is our image.
Recast your stepmoms, Disney! We are reincarnated!