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  • Thandiwe Ntshinga

The Evil Stepmother trope—a representation of fragile masculinity.

Fictional depictions of the Evil Stepmother have been recorded in popular culture from as early as the time before christ in ancient Greek plays. The Evil Stepmother has continuously been depicted as the greedy, jealous and abusive woman, a single father decides to marry. Personally, I have seen that the Evil Stepmother is not only a fictional character. There are real Evil Stepmothers out there.

Listening sympathetically and attentively to many real-life accounts on wicked stepmothers has not been a rare occurrence for me. I have heard of stepmothers who have kicked their stepchildren out of their homes whilst her children remain in the house. There are stepmothers who insist that their husbands discontinue financial support of stepchildren whilst her children are still provided for. At its most dire, death becomes the chosen escape from an Evil Stepmother. I have been told of stepchildren committing suicide because of the abuse suffered at the hands of their father’s wife.

A couple of years ago, I found out that my family is no different. During a family lunch a few years ago, I learned of an Evil Stepmother in my familial history. This wicked parent was my great grandfather’s stepmother. My father told us of my great-great grandfather’s second wife whose abuse towards her stepchildren—particularly her young stepdaughter—resulted in an aunt intervening by offering a safe home for the youngest of her brother’s children. Unfortunately, this intervention was not in time and could not counter the physical toll of abuse and neglect experienced by this 5-year-old girl in her father’s home. My ancestor, the 5-year-old little sister of my great grandfather, died not too long after she embarked on her journey to refuge at her auntie’s home.

That a grown adult, let alone a parent, can be so cruel as to result in the unnecessary and premature death of a child is obviously disturbing. While listening to this family story, however, the only question I had was, what was my great-great-grandfather doing while his wife was mistreating his children? If this woman was so horrible that my family refused to bury her next to her husband in the family graveyard, why did the biological parent of these children allow the abuse to happen? How did he permit his daughter's untimely death by turning a blind eye?

What troubles me about the Evil Stepmother trope is that it lacks any sense of male accountability. Somehow, while the Evil Stepmother is the fiercest mama bear, her husband falls short in protecting his own children in the same manner. Instead, I have heard every excuse used to defend weak fathers. These have ranged from fathers being bewitched by their spouse, the idea of “a happy wife, a happy life” or simply culture. In literature, I came across an interesting suggestion that the Evil Stepmother is an acceptable representation of the "bad" Mother. It finds its acceptability in that it conforms to the taboo of speaking ill about one’s Mother. When conversing about my family’s Evil Stepmother, I expressed to my dad that a man can only be seen as weak for facilitating a situation that negatively impacts his children. My father was quick to turn to culture as a valid justification. “Thandiwe is here saying “weak weak”” he began his rebuttal “you must remember that this is our culture. Especially back then (circa 1900), womxn were in charge of the home”.

Yes, one can consider culture when justifying the sufferings of children and ignoring their vulnerability. But as Stellenbosch academic Steven Robbins once highlighted, concerning the twisted logic of the ‘corrective’ rape of lesbian womxn, culture is often appropriated as a weapon of (mass) destruction. The issue I have with the exhausted social use of the culture argument in (not only) the Evil Stepmother trope is that its misappropriation only serves to excuse weak men and promote fragile masculinity. Patriarchy, evident in almost every society, dictates that at the very minimum, a man must provide and protect. What then does it mean when a man cannot provide safety for his children in their own home? What is a man if he cannot protect his children from the threat he brought into their lives? I see no logical answer other than weakness and fragile masculinity.

They say that behind every man is a strong womxn. I say that behind every Evil Stepmother is a weak fragile man who has failed his children.


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