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Radomisli, M. (1981). Stereotypes, Stepmothers, and Splitting. Am. J. Psychoanal., 41(2):121-127.

(1981). American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 41(2):121-127

Stereotypes, Stepmothers, and Splitting

Michel Radomisli, Ph.D.

Stereotypes survive because they serve some adaptive function in the society which fosters them. Stereotypes may well originate through the myth-making needs of humankind; esthetic considerations no doubt play a part in their formation, but they persist only because they “work,” in the sense of meeting social needs such as regulating social behavior, facilitating social cohesiveness, or teaching the growing child something about the culture of the immediate environment. When a stereotype has a negative emotional valence, the individuals so stereotyped become the object of prejudice. They then pay a price presumably acceptable to society, because it is out-groups, or those without power, or minorities who suffer for the benefit of the in-group, or the powerful, or the majority.

For many generations, children have been indoctrinated with the wicked stepmother stereotype: the adaptive aspects of such indoctrination must have outweighed the pain it has caused to stepmothers and stepchildren alike. However, cultural as well as biological traits which are adaptive under some conditions sometimes become maladaptive when conditions change. The number of people directly injured by the wicked stepmother stereotype has increased immensely. In the United States, more than a million marriages are dissolved each year; one out of three marriages ends in divorce. Four out of five divorced men and three out of four divorced women marry again. More than a million children are affected each year by the remarriage of a parent.12 It is estimated that 15 million children are currently living in stepfamilies and that there are 25 million stepmothers and stepfathers; all have been exposed to the stereotype of the wicked stepmother through fairy tales, children's books, films, and television. This is not a negligibly small minority-not that, in terms of subjecting them to inhumane treatment, there is such a thing as a negligibly small minority.

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