To hear this episode or read more about it, visit theallusionist.org/step
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, tell language to stare right at the camera and say ‘cheese’. Coming up in the show:
[clip of Disney’s Cinderella:
CINDERELLA: Coming, stepmother.]
Let’s prepare ourselves with a little word history, sponsored by Hello Fresh. Listener Shannon wants to know whether "pilot" referred to a specific role/job/person before airplanes? Yes, Shannon, it did: about 400 years before the first flight, in the early 1500s, the word appeared in English to mean ‘one who steers a ship’, from Italian ‘piloto’, which was from the Greek ‘pedon’ meaning a rudder, or by extension the person who controls the rudder, etymologically with their foot. From the mid-1800s pilot denoted people who flew balloons, and the first recorded use for someone flying a plane is from 1907. Because the pilot was leading or guiding, that eventually begat the sense of a pilot being a prototype, like a TV pilot.
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On with the show.
PERSON 1: I’ve got somewhat complicated family and several step-parents. Although I’ve never called them that; always just known them as first name. It can be a bit jarring to describe how you’re related to the person who lives in your house and you refuse to call ‘dad’.
PERSON 2: I am a stepchild and also a stepmum, yet I find I try to avoid the term altogether. Probably got lots of other words I use - my partner’s children, my dad’s partner etc. There isn’t a good term for it, as far as I’m concerned; because whilst I might want to explain that that person is not my child, out of respect for the fact that they already have parents. Also the term ‘step’ makes them feel as though they’re of less importance. These people are really important in my life, but they don’t need to be MY children or My parents.
PERSON 3: Hi Helen. My step daughter, is as close to being my own daughter as I could wish for; she and I are extremely close. Using the term step is difficult as it feels like we are verbalising a great divide when we say it. Like we have to make sure anyone knows we are not blood related.
PERSON 1: It gets really complicated when I try to go a generation back. My stepfather’s mother has a husband who’s not my stepfather’s dad, which makes him my step-stepgrandfather, I think. But to be honest, it doesn’t matter, because I don’t use ‘step’. I just use their first names. It’s just easier.
PERSON 4: I was grateful for the 'step-' as it reiterated that in reality my stepmother had nothing to do with us!
PERSON 5: My mum about 10 years ago got remarried, so I have a stepdad, who we refer to as the ‘silver fox’. Never referred to him as my stepdad; it in no way fits the relationship I have with him.
PERSON 6: In terms of the word itself, I don’t mind it; I had a nice stepmum, so that worked out. But I don’t like it when people call my half brothers my step-brothers; feels like they’re dwindling it.
PERSON 5: And it just seems a completely pointless differentiation to make - the idea I’d introduce him as my stepdad rather than by his name; or his son as my stepbrother, or his girlfriend (one of my favourite people) as my stepbrother’s girlfriend seems ridiculous and slightly cruel. It just feels contrary to what family should mean. Only time I’d consider referring to them as my stepfather or stepbrother is in some medical situation where they needed to know if there’s a genetic link. I really really hate it, actually.
HZ: Since 'step-' indicates the biological and possibly emotional distance between relations, I had assumed that etymologically, that was where the term originated - the idea of someone being a step away from the family. But step the family word, and step as in to tread, have totally different roots - and very different meanings.
AM: The word 'step-' is a prefix, and is an Old English word that has a counterpart in a ton of old European languages - high and low German, Icelandic, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian -
HZ: That’s Aaron Mahnke, of the podcast Lore, which is about the history behind scary stories and folklore.
AM: and it has the connotation of ‘bereave’ or ‘mourn’.
HZ: Divorce was pretty difficult or impossible in most places until relatively recently, so it makes sense that for there to be remarriage and hence step relationships, someone would have had to die.
AM: So the word actually came about not in relation to ‘stepmother’, but in relation to the stepchild; the kid who lost her parents, the child who was mourning the loss of her caretakers and the people she loved. Over time, they needed a term for people who took over the care of these stepchildren, and the natural order was to call them stepmothers and stepfathers.
At that point, the meaning gets diluted, because obviously the stepmother isn’t mourning the loss of the girl’s parents.
HZ: And the loss of a biological parent wasn’t the only sort of death that stepchildren had to worry about.
AM: There was a study in 2013 in Germany, and they looked at 14,000 children between 1770 and 1880 in Germany, and they found the father’s remarriage actually reduced the survival chance of the children born to his previous marriage. Categorically across the board. If there was a kid and the mother died and the father remarried, their chances of survival plummeted.
AM: Part of it is, there’s the mother instinct - 'I want to take care of the child I gave birth to' - and children were a lot of work, and life wasn’t as easy back in 1750 as today, and it was easy to shirk off that responsibility that we see as normal today, to take care of your stepchild like your biological child. But they didn’t see it that way back then. So if you have a stepmother who is neglecting children, they can take on that connotation of not being the nicest lady on the block.
HZ: And that’s an idea that has been reinforced over centuries of culture. ‘Godmothers’ get to be ‘Fairy’. Whereas stepmothers - well, you don't get fairy stepmothers, you get wicked stepmothers.
AM: The word came out when women had no rights at all, or very little rights. But I think it’s a pretty bad position to be in as a person in a family: you’re not the mother, you’re the replacement; usually the father has lost or divorced his wife, so he’s overcompensating by being the hero and the nice guy; the stepmother comes in and has to be the discipline person, so, you know, evil.
HZ: Also the contrast between wicked stepmother and biological mother who is dead, so can be perfect forever.
AM: Exactly. Stepmother is left to dish out discipline, she has to assign household chores. You see this in the folklore - Cinderella having to sweep all over the place and clean up the soot.
[clip of Disney’s Cinderella:
STEPMOTHER: Now, let me see... There's the large carpet in the main hall. CLEAN IT. And the windows upstairs and down. WASH THEM. Oh yes, and the tapestries, and the draperies -
CINDERELLA: But I just finished -
STEPMOTHER: DO THEM AGAIN. And don't forget the garden. Then scrub the terrace, sweep the halls and the stairs, clean the chimneys - then of course there's the mending and the sewing and the laundry...]
AM: So to an outsider, it always looks cruel, for the stepmother to make the kid work like this, even though if the biological mother was in the house running the show, the same discipline and assignment of jobs would probably be handed out. Then she’d be seen as doing her job as a mother. It’s societal stigma.
HZ: In Cinderella, the contrast is particularly highlighted because the stepsisters have a pretty comfortable life. So you wonder why the dad isn’t intervening in this situation.
AM: Exactly. The stories to some degree - there’s more nuance in reality. In reality the biological kids of the stepmother probably would have been given chores too. It's a trope, you know? Stepmothers are a trope. It’s a tool hauled out by writers to make you feel emotions, whether that’s hatred towards an authority figure, or a reason to feel pity towards a hero who needs to break out on her own and do better than she’s done.
HZ: Do you think the fathers chose wicked stepmothers because they were bereaved and didn’t know what they were doing, or because they needed someone to do the childcare and housework and therefore weren’t too picky?
AM: Probably the latter. You think about some poor schmuck in 1705 whose wife died in childbirth and now he has a baby to take care of - I mean, my wife was around when our first child was born and I was desperate for help! I’m trying to imagine 1705 me with no mother to help out and that’s pretty scary. So I can see men marrying quickly, like hiring, just to fill the position. And sometimes you hire badly. Maybe sometimes that’s where these evil stepmothers come in.
I actually don’t know of any with a scary stepfather. There are something like 350 versions of Cinderella story across the globe; nearly all of them include a non-related mother figure who is evil towards the girl.
There’s even a classified fear of stepmothers, novercaphobia.
HZ: Can you think of any examples of good stepmothers?
AM: Hmm. I can’t. I did a lot of research, into the concept and the words and the fairy tales, and I can’t. Sometimes I feel the stories went so far as to double-reinforce the concept of the evil outside woman idea. This isn’t a European middle ages concept either; the Romans had a negative connotation in regard to stepmothers as well. The word for stepmother had the connotation of being the outsider, that she didn’t belong; and they believed that even if she wasn’t outwardly cruel, if nobody saw the stepmother being cruel, they still assumed her intentions would be oppressive to the children of her new husband. So even in Roman times, stepmothers weren’t seen as nice people. So it goes deep.
But it’s interesting - the story of Hansel And Gretel, the witch and the stepmother are given the same personality types throughout the story. You could literally interchange their characters. And at the end of the story -
HZ: SPOILER ALERT!
AM: - the children successfully kill the witch; then when they find their way back home, they find their stepmother has also died. So even in those roles, the defeating of the evil woman who’s an outsider is repeated in both the witch and the stepmother.
I don’t find any examples where anybody has gone out of their way to make the stepmother nice. It’s as if they’ve really tried hard to say, “She’s evil.”
PERSON 1: I think there’s a strange, odd connotation of the term ‘step-’, as in evil stepsister. It’s completely ridiculous, but it’s something you don’t want to bring up. People assume you don’t like your stepmother or stepsister, for no particular reason.
PERSON 7: when I was about 6, my dad got married to a woman who’s not my mum. Pretty easy to explain: I had a dad and a stepmum. But I had a vaguely Disney-influenced sense that I shouldn’t call her that, because to be a stepmum is to be really mean, really terrible, and this lady was neither of these things: she was sweet, and she loved me a lot.
Things got more complicated when she and my dad got divorced, and suddenly I had to explain to people that I was going to spend the weekend with my ex-stepmum. It got even more complicated when she married a new guy, who was now my ex-stepmum’s husband, which most folks thought should add up to him being my dad. To solve that, we started calling him my 'fake daddy'. It would take people aback to hear I was going to see my ex-stepmum and fake daddy; they'd want to hear the Jerry Springer side of things. It probably would have been more straightforward just to say ‘family friend’ at that point.
PERSON 8: when we were kids we referred to my dad's girlfriends as 'slut-mothers' instead of stepmothers. Now, in my head, this is the term I use for my ex's girlfriend who would like to meet the kids next month.
PERSON 9: There have been occasions where I’ve felt judged because of the way I describe my relationship with my stepchildren. Eg in a conversation once I consciously decided to refer to them as ‘my children’, as I’d got bored of calling them ‘stepchildren’ or ‘my partner’s children’ as that undervalued our relationship. Later on in the conversation, I had to explain they weren’t my children, and the woman in conversation looked at me like I’d handed her a plate of poo and like I’d been lying throughout the conversation. That wasn't fun. Then I went back to not knowing what to refer to them as, and not finding a term that worked.
PERSON 10: I’ve had several step-parents and I almost never use the term ‘step’ as it feels like a put-down, derogatory. However I did used to refer to my father’s wife as my ‘stepmonster’.
PERSON 11: I don't really have strong opinions on what my stepdaughter calls me, as long as it isn't "that twat my father married".
PERSON 1: It’s quite tricky referring to parents, because I can’t say ‘my parents’, because obviously they're not my parents. So I tend to use ‘parental units’. Worked quite well for me, most of the time.
PERSON 9: So, find a better word - that’s our quest!
HZ: Do you think the word would benefit from being updated now? It’s quite a severe-sounding term.
AM: It is. Words are so fluid. Over time it’s changed - originally 'step-' would have had the connotation of someone who had mourned the loss of parents; then step took on that evil connotation. Yeah, maybe we need a new word for it, just drop it all and leave all that history behind. But I don’t know what that word would be.
HZ: We could put it out to tender.
AM: Just open your dictionary and pick a new word.
[HZ rifles through dictionary:]
HZ: Biomorph... Inago... Bonito...hmm, I don't think so... Chabazite... Emir...? This is difficult! Forkball... Shemozzle...that's never going to work... Ricer...if anything, that's worse....
Aaron Mahnke’s podcast Lore can be found at lorepodcast.com. And he's a writer: he has a new book out this week, Grave Suspicion - it’s a supernatural thriller, which he promises is 100% wicked stepparent-free.
I don’t have any step-family myself, so I’m hugely grateful to all the listeners who contributed their feelings to this episode; and if you have some you want to share with me, Twitter and Facebook slash allusionistshow, but also! You can join me for an online discussion about this show on spoken.am - it’ll be like a Reddit AMA, only not on Reddit, and especially for you listeners. Go to spoken.am, request an invitation, then on the day, come and hang out with me and Aaron on the discussion board. You can tell us your response to the show, and ask me whatever you want about the Allusionist. This is all happening on Tuesday August 4th 2015, 8pm London time, 3pm East Coast US, noon West Coast, sorry Australia, middle of the night for you. But you can catch up afterwards on spoken.am. It’s all text-based, so you can pretend you’re working.
If you want to get a sense of what this is going to be like, on Spoken you can check out their recent event with my Radiotopisibling Benjamen Walker of Theory of Everything, who was on there to discuss his miniseries Instaserfs, about the sharing economy. If you haven’t heard that yet, three brilliant episodes await you. I can’t wait to hear what he’s working on now - I don’t know what it is, I just know that it’ll be brilliant, and like nothing I can conceive of myself. Visit radiotopia.fm to find the links to Theory of Everything, and the rest of the magnificent shows in the Radiotopia collective from PRX.
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This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman. Thanks to Martin Austwick for the music, and the editorial advice. Apologies for the surprise gap in the schedule this month. I was on holiday, and I didn’t have enough internet connection to upload the show. But I’m back now, no more holidays, so there’ll be another show in a fortnight. In the meantime, come and chat with me on Spoken.am next Tuesday, and pay me a visit at theallusionist.org.