The Evil Queen
by Paola Paleari
One morning when I was seven years old – the same age as my stepson Benny now – our teacher Gianni came to class and announced that we were supposed to have our first public school play in a couple of months, friends and families invited. We’d had theatre lessons, but mostly short scenes so far, and only in the presence of our classmates. This was an entirely different story; our dramaturgical debut, on a real stage and with real costumes and in front of a real public. Squeaks of joy and delight! As though the news wasn’t exciting enough, Gianni informed us that he picked Snow White as the script for our performance – and, I mean, who hasn’t enjoyed this story as a toddler?
The enthusiasm faded abruptly as soon as I was assigned my role: I was the Evil Queen. Warm tears of disappointment secretly run down my cheeks at the idea of having to impersonate the most ruthless female villain I knew.
“Mamma, why did I get to be the Evil Queen? She’s mean and nasty, and I hate her”, I erupted in frustration once home. Since my mum tended to invalidate any negative feelings caused by a specific situation by pointing the attention towards an even worse situation, I did not expect a sympathetic acknowledgement of my dismay. In fact, her response surprised me a great deal.
“Well, would you prefer to be Snow White instead? She is so dull and uninteresting,” my mum replied distractedly while chopping an onion. “The Queen might be wicked, but she’s sassy at least. With no Evil Queen, there’s no Snow White.” The boldness of the remark left me inarticulate – as if the turn of the tables was too big for my intellect to grasp at once. From as far as I could remember, fairytales taught me to cheer for the righteous ones and to fear the Big Bads: wolves, ogres, giants, and stepmothers. That was the first time in my life where the stereotyped, reassuring images of Good and Evil got stressed and shuffled and even inverted.
Flash-forwarding twenty-nine years after this episode, I find myself in a similar situation: at times I feel like weeping for being assigned the stepmother’s role. Firstly, I did not ask for it. Secondly, the stigma and prejudice around it are more profoundly rooted than one might imagine, and difficult to eradicate even within societies where the number of blended families surpasses that of traditional ones. It is a social issue that starts in language – a child’s earliest personal acquisition, and the common factor we share and use to define identity.
In Italian, the word for stepmother is matrigna. While the word’s root is the same as mater (mother in Latin), the suffix -igna indicates approximation, impurity and unpleasant quality. In my mother tongue, the corrupt and defective nature of this role is embedded in its own definition, hence making it almost impossible to receive it with a positive attitude.
In Danish, Benny’s mother tongue, one of the expressions for stepmother is pap mor. It translates to cardboard mum – which, in my eyes, equals the image of a motionless and soundless cut-out figure in the background, possibly with a stiff smile on her lips.
I have had – and still have – my struggles with the stepmother’s ready-made archetype, concept, and names attached to it. I don’t like it when Benny calls me pap mor in front of his classmates while I pick him up at school. It leaves a dry taste in my mouth, as if I am really turning into one of those paper-doll figures. I tried to suggest changing it for bonus mor, but with no success so far, and after all, that sounds pretty artificial, too. The best remains to stick to my name, Paola, which is who I am beyond my role as dad’s girlfriend or stepmother or whoever I might represent.
For the sake of truth and completeness, there are also astonishing things about being a stepmother. In my position, one learns not to give love for granted. Every little step forward towards confidence and affection feels like a colossal milestone conquered with effort. Plus, talking about formats: if fairytale stepmothers are always twisted, selfish and manipulative, mothers don’t seem to have a much better destiny, being way too often depicted as all-loving, patient, caring and kind, with no trace of ego whatsoever. Which kind of woman wants to walk in those shoes in real life?
One morning a few weeks ago, I happened to be telling Benny about the school-play thing and my role in it. I told him about the initial excitement, the subsequent setback, and I confessed how happy I was, in the end, of my shiny black cape, my heavy make-up, my dramatic poses, and of the applause I received at the curtain call.
Benny relishes short real-life stories like this simple one, and he smiled while hearing it. Beyond the temporary enjoyment, I wonder if a message has made its way through his little brain – the same size as my brain at the time – and reached that place where we build the images, standards and patterns we apply to navigate existence. If yes, dear Benny, save it for later in life. We need the Evil Queen as much as Snow White. Or better: we are the one as much as the other. I pass you the baton which my mum, with no conscience of its long-term effects, handed me at your age. With no Evil Queen, there’s no Snow White.
Published in Photographs for Illustration Purposes Only, Rostfrei Publishing, December 2020