Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Terrible Mother

This should be considered part two of my first post The Witch Must Die.

In my post The Witch Must Die, I talked about Sheldon Cashdan’s theory that the witches and evil stepmothers in fairy tales are really just projections of the bad parts of the protagonist as well as ourselves. Whether or not you agree with Cashdan’s “self theory,” the point I was trying to make is that the wicked stepmother is not just a flesh and blood person in these stories.

She is also an incarnation of the Terrible Mother.

From Spinning Straw into Gold by Joan Gould:

In most of the stories, although the girl never suspects the truth, it’s Nature as the Terrible Mother, taking the form of the wicked stepmother, witch, or thirteenth fairy, who is the agent of growth, propelling the girl out of maidenhood and forward into sexuality, which is something the Good Mother – who wants her child to remain a child forever – could never do.
It is the Terrible Mother who is an agent of growth. The Good Mother tries to keep her daughter a child by her side forever if she can, but the Terrible Mother pushes girls from adolescence into maidenhood with no regard to happiness or readiness.

Unfortunately, as all women can attest to, the heroine can’t move directly from childhood into sexuality without passing through a period of difficulty and hardship. In fairy tales that struggle often takes the guise of either work or sleep. Cinderella works while Sleeping Beauty sleeps a hundred years. Snow White does both. (The apple and the finger prick can be seen as symbolic for Snow White and Aurora gaining sexual knowledge and the sleep that follows is essentially the metaphorical time it takes them to absorb and understand that knowledge before they’re ready to “wake up” and join the word as sexual adults.)

My point ultimately, is that fairy tales are (at least in part) about the heroine’s transformation from one part of her life into another. Unlike the hero, who wants to grow more powerful and conquer things, the heroine embodies metamorphoses. And true transformation requires pain. The prince isn’t supposed to save the day like we’ve been lead to believe. He’s merely proof that the heroine is ready for love and marriage. He’s not supposed to be a flesh and blood person who occupies the heroine thoughts and saves her from the world. If anything the prince if an embodiment of the future that awaits the newly sexually liberated heroine as a mother and a wife.

But though the Terrible Mother is a catalyst for change, the women who embody her in the fairy tales is also devoid of growth herself. These wicked stepmothers and witches haven’t developed. Snow White’s stepmother can’t accept that she is getting older and her stepdaughter is more beautiful. The witch refuses to see Rapunzel as the grown sexual being she is. Though the witch propels the heroine on her journey, the witch is also fearful of that journey because growth leads to old age and death.

When we put together the two ideas that the witch represents negative aspects of the hero/heroine as well as the idea that fairy tales also explain the transformation women go through I think we get a much more nuanced and flavorful version of these old tales. Of course the problem is that most people aren’t exposed to these sorts of theories unless they go out of their way to learn them.

Instead our children are read watered down versions of stories that may not be sending the right messages. In place of the difficult transformations young girls go through in order to become women we get stories from Disney where romance is the most important thing. Instead of learning about how vanity or envy can hurt growth and destroy relationships we hear our heroines singing songs about the day their prince will come to save them from their dreary lives.

I can’t help but think of this as a great loss to our children and it makes it that much more important we embrace fairy tales in all their gruesome glory so children can learn a more complex way of looking at things.

Up next: What fairy tales tell us about women and society.


  1. These have been so interesting to read! I love the theories you've explored about the Terrible Mother and her role in the stories. I'd never thought of it that way.

    Now, if I ever have a little girl, I'll let her know the Disney versions, and then, when she's ready...LOL

  2. I'm glad you're enjoying them. It's been kind of a pain to be honest and I wish I could have put more planning into it.

    I'm glad it's almost done though. :)


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