Evil is Part of the Territory: Inventing the Stepmother in Self-Help Books

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The “wicked stepmother” is a popular cultural commonplace, but when women become stepmothers, many find themselves trapped by the cliche with few resources to navigate or resist it. In this article, we examine the rhetoric of self-help books, one of the few print genres aimed at stepmothers. We argue that these texts reify a particular identity by perpetuating cultural stereotypes, reinforcing negative connotations about stepmothers, and providing inadequate solutions to common issues that arise as a result. The books reinscribe the primacy of biological mothering and relegate stepmothers to a secondary status at the same time as they subject stepmothers to the contradictory expectations of intensive mothering. The privilege of motherhood is granted, deflected, and denied across these advice books. We seek to move beyond the negative expectations of this common parenting role and point to the inadequacies of the solutions offered in self-help books to expand and diversify the visibility of and possibilities for alternative familial configurations.

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Women's Studies in Communication