The XX Factor

The Orphan Fantasy

The other day, the Guardian published a list of its favorite literary stepmothers, scouring children’s classics for the few that aren’t just pure, unredeemable evil. Here at DoubleX , we asked: Why are stepmothers always pure, unredeemable evil? And why do characters’ biological parents so frequently have to die?

Meredith Simons : Just last week, my mom asked me, “Why doesn’t Disney make a movie about a wicked stepchild?” I’m biased, but my impression of blended family situations is that often stepparents enter a marriage with genuinely good intentions and affection for their stepkids. The kids, meanwhile, feel an almost innate desire to sabotage, undermine, and generally make the stepparent miserable. Yet this doesn’t seem to be reflected in our literary (or at least fairy tale) canon. There’s only one put-upon stepmother on the Guardian ‘s list.

Rachael Larimore : Can anyone think of ANY Disney movie with two parents? It’s a common trope among the old fairy tales, like Snow White and Cinderella . But even the more modern movies almost all have single parents.

Hillary Busis : Mulan had both her parents, but other than that, the only two-parent families I can think of come from much older Disney movies: Peter Pan and 101 Dalmatians .

Jenny Rogers : Sleeping Beauty . But I suppose she’s torn from her parents.

Hillary Busis: Mulan and the kids in Peter Pan also spend most of the movie away from their parents.

Noreen Malone: Isn’t that just the classic kid fantasy? In nearly every single game I played as a kid, we pretended we were orphans. No authority figures that way.

Dana Stevens: It’s an age-old trope in children’s lit-all the big Grimm’s Fairy Tales have dead or absent mothers, replaced by mean stepmothers or bad moms who die in the course of the story, like Hansel and Gretel’s. Even more modern kids’ fiction, like The Secret Garden , A Little Princess , and my old fave Ballet Shoes , dispense with parents, especially female ones, early and unsentimentally.

Hanna Rosin: In all great children’s books, kids used to be orphaned (and in some cases still are, like in Harry Potter and the The Mysterious Benedict Society ). Now at least they get one parent.

Claire Gordon: I think it’s a Freudian thing. In James and the Giant Peach , the wonderful parents die, then James runs away from his abusive aunts and then travels the sea in a giant womb. Rereading the scene where he climbs up the sticky peach hole: awkward.

Dahlia Lithwick: Michael Chabon has a nice riff on this in his fatherhood book. That kids can’t grow unless they are ditched. He says his kids would have to be frogmarched into the wardrobe at knifepoint to meet the lion.

Jessica Lambertson: Do you think the stories cause kids to fantasize about being orphaned or in some way abandoned? Is it just natural to imagine being alone to have adventures? My sister and I always imagined ourselves as parents in the new frontier (Laura Ingalls Wilder style). We turned the couch into a horse-drawn buggy and used our American Girl dolls as our babies, but we always had husbands, imagined though they were.

Dana Stevens: I think it’s the opposite-the fantasies give rise to the stories, or rather, the stories that best speak to children’s fantasies are the ones that survive for generations.

Jenny Rogers: In my childhood games, I was always an orphan and usually a maid. I blame Cinderella for these strange fantasies.