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Monday: October 3, 2011


The distinction between Stereotypes and Archetypes: Mother -v- Step-mother


In previous blogs we have explored concepts relative to Archetypes, the central role they play in storytelling and the manner in which they

shape our human lives. We’ll revisit this concept now and expand our analysis to compare the difference between Archetypes and another

familiar concept of Stereotypes. 


At first glance Stereotypes and Archetypes could be mistaken for being essentially the same thing. However, Archetypes - as defined in

Jungian psychology - are defined as a collectively inherited unconscious idea, pattern of thought, image or the like, universally present in

individual psyches. Stereotypes also relate to a pattern of thought but these thoughts are typically oversimplified, exaggerated or biased

mental picture - which is often offensive - held to characterize the typical individual of a group.


To demonstrate the difference, consider the Archetype of Mother versus the Stereotype of

Step-mother. In Archetypal terms Mother is an innate pattern of being present from the time of

infancy. From the time we are born we are seeking to be cared for by mother and to relate to

her as an extension of ourselves. In mythology Mother is epitomised by Eve and Mary in Western traditions, is symbolised by Gaia or “earth mother” and by the less personal symbols of the nation, the church, an ocean or a forest.



On the right, we show 'Eve' by John Bauer.



Mother has a light and a dark side. On the light side she is nurturing, loving and self-sacrificing

but on the dark side she is ego-centred, domineering and unloving. This dark side of Mother is

epitomised in traditional story-telling as Step-Mother. The wicked step-mother is a central

antagonist in many childhood fairy tales such as 'Snow White', 'Cinderella', 'The Six Swans'

and 'Hansel and Gretel' - the subtext of those representations being to the effect that "no-one

could love you like your real mother does and any substitute is out to steal your very life-force!”

Such persistent grooming of ideas from a young age has created the Stereotype of Step-Mother.

As if forging a blended family is not tough enough, we then have to overcome the preconceived ideas that threaten to undermine the relationship well in advance of ever actually meeting the future candidate for the role of substitute mother. 



Frank C Pape illustration to Psalm 113, Verse 9 of ''The Book of Psalms'' (1912)


This Stereotype is rarely challenged even in modern story-telling. One exception that could be identified was

the movie "Nanny McPhee" which was a very deliberate recasting of the Step-Mother story wherein a widower

with many children is seeking to re-marry. The children are confident that step-mothers are a wicked breed

and set out to spoil his efforts. They are relieved when he decides to wed the kind scullery maid, causing one

child to comment that the evil Step-mother personification does not apply to her. While this makes for a nice

change at dispelling Step-mother Stereotypes it is still limited to one man’s need to get married after the

death of his wife and due to being forced by circumstance. It is not exactly art imitating life. 








To the left, we show a rather less-than-typical representation of a Step-mother - an illustration

by Frank C Papé for Psalm 113, Verse 9 of The Book of Psalms (1912):


"He maketh the barren woman to keep house,

and to be joyful mother of children".


Typically a man remarries due to the failure of his relationship with his previous wife. There may be offspring from that union who now are the

subject of a shared care arrangement. As Homer Simpson commented sardonically in an episode of "The Simpsons" with reference to a

Step-mother being the subsequent wife, "the first wife is always the better wife!" The idea that a man might always "trade-down" in subsequent

marriages is, of course, ludicrous but the leverage that comes from the stereotype of the wicked Step-mother does compromise the future of

any relationship that might otherwise be forged without such poisonous ideas for all stakeholders involved.


We are all vulnerable to applying Stereotypes, with all their inherent pitfalls and prejudices, in how we perceive the world. It is natural to create

categories of thought as a means of being economic in our thinking processes. We don’t tend to take in every sensory detail when absorbing

stimulus. We process things very quickly and efficiently by noting broad detail then categorise accordingly. This can then result in attributing

qualities to that being processed, as may be the case for an individual who belongs to the category but does not actually possess those

qualities - for example, making the assumption that a person is unloving, wicked and domineering because they are a Step-mother. 

Unfortunately, the trade-off for efficiency is accuracy.   



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Blog Archive


Friday, 22 July, 2011

Masculinity and Femininity (Part 2)


Saturday, 16 July, 2011

Masculinity and Femininity (Part 1)


Monday, 27 June, 2011

Heroes (Part 3)


Friday, 20 June, 2011

Heroes (Part 2)


Tuesday, 14 June, 2011

Heroes (Part I)


Friday, 7 June, 2011



Friday, 27 May, 2011

Morality through Narrative


Monday, 16 May, 2011

"The Sea Battle" by Arthur Rackham

and comparisons between Buccheim's

variant and the description of Thor's

battle with the Midgard Serpent in

the original from the "Norse Edda of

Snorri Sturluson"


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