Okay. It is time we had a serious conversation about maternal antagonists. There are two main things going on here, and the first one actually makes sense, so we’re going to get that out of the way, and then I can rant properly about the other thing.
The first thing concerns the position of women in the societies where most fairy tales take place. Honey, you had better be the fairest of them all, because that is the only card you have to play. Your son comes home with a pretty new wife? This isn't a new daughter to you; this is a threat. Your son is married, he’s a man now, he has more power in this household than you do. And so does his wife. You marry a guy who already has a daughter? Everything she has is something your kids won’t, because resources are pretty scarce, and being the oldest gives you power. It’s not pleasant, it’s not okay, but it’s a real part of a real world, and it deserves some measure of understanding. These women aren’t vain and evil. They’re scared and desperate. And that doesn’t make their choices forgivable, but it makes them real people, not gross caricatures.
The second thing it just stupid. And that makes it so much fun to talk about.
I remember watching a lot of Disney sequels as a kid, and feeling really uncomfortable about them, but it was several years before I understood why. In a story about, say, a sixteen year old mermaid who clashes with her father, it’s understood that, though not a bad guy, the father is an antagonist. For stories about kids, parents are there to get in the way. So when I watched The Little Mermaid II, suddenly Ariel was that parent who got in the way—Ariel was the antagonist. And it freaked me out, because that was Ariel. The same thing happened with The Lion King 2. Never make your child heroes parents; it undermines the entire storyline. I mean, it doesn’t have to, but making it work requires a certain level of nuance that just isn't going to fit in a one hour cartoon for little kids.
If the story is being told from the perspective of an unruly child, the parent is going to be perceived, to some extent, as the bad guy.
So let’s look, with that in mind, at some of our evil moms.
I’ve always had a soft spot for the prince’s mom in the Italian version of Snow White. To recap, he finds Snow’s body in the woods—and when I say body, I mean body, okay, we’ve got a literal corpse here—brings it home, plops it on his bed, and announces that this is his wife.
So our evil mom waits until he’s distracted, and prepares to dispose of the body. And the narrative treats it as if this is something condemnable, when in reality, if your son spent several days sleeping with a rotten corpse, you would probably take much more extreme measures, for his health and safety, than to bury it in the garden.
Or East of the Sun, West of the Moon. I’ve always been utterly baffled by this one, because again, it plays it like she’s in the wrong, but what she’s doing seems totally reasonable. She finds out that her daughter is spending nights with a mystery man, and man is a generous description, okay? We don’t know. We can’t see him. It could be a troll. So she says hey, honey, how about I send you a flashlight, so you can figure out who or what you’re sleeping with.
The mom doesn’t know that this is violating the terms of some spell. The daughter doesn’t even know; she wasn’t explicitly told not to look at the guy. She probably doesn’t even know there’s a spell.
If your daughter is sleeping with a guy whose face she’s never seen, and you don’t offer a light source as the absolute least you can possibly do, I’m seriously skeptical about your parenting capabilities.
Not all the fairy tale moms are being vilified for attempting to protect their children, but even one is too many. Fairy tale heroes and heroines have never been known for their decision-making skills. Respect the moms. Respect them.