Wickedly Rational or Spiteful (Cinde-really? Part 3)

Traditionally, fairy tales are short, fitting neatly into the brief time twixt bath and bed, where they induce nightmares about witches who eat children. In order to achieve this, fairy tales often dispense with time consuming things like character development, complex plot twists, and, you know, having things make sense. We do not need to know why the Evil Queen in Snow White is obsessed with being the “fairest of them all” (childhood beauty pageants?), we simply need to know that she is evil.

When one decides, however, to use a much beloved fairy tale to generate a cash cow, feature length film (BIPITI-BOPITI-BOO!) without having to bother with developing your own plot, one has an obligation to fill a few of those extra minutes with some depth of character.

After all, compelling villains are plausible villains. Good villains (er?) have a reason for villainy. They do not just enjoy being evil for the sake of being evil[1].

Which makes me wonder, why did the Wicked Stepmother choose to imprison Cinderella during The Great Slipper Test?

Throughout the film, we are shown a shrewd, calculating, and capable Wicked Stepmother. She ensnared Cinderella’s father, despite being a less than desirable bride, with two small daughters of her own. She can sing and play. She outwits Cinderella in giving her permission to attend the ball. She is the only character to deduce that Cinderella is the Prince’s mystery girl.

As is my wont, let’s try to break this down to some variables:

D is the benefit her daughters will receive if one of them successfully puts on the slipper and marries The Prince.

C is the expected benefit to her daughters if Cinderella marries the Prince.

We can reasonably assume that D > C. Based on the Wicked Stepmother’s wicked (duh) treatment of Cinderella, one might assume that C = 0; but Cinderella is legendary for her kindness. Especially with a little fence mending by the Wicked Stepmother, we can also reasonably assume that not only is C > 0, but that C is a significant fraction of D.

Let’s also say that P is the probability that one of the stepsisters will successfully put on the slipper. From the animation of their foot sizes, it is pretty obvious that P = 0.

Q is the probability that Cinderella will successfully pit on the slipper. Fo the purposes of the Wicked Stepmother’s calculations, she has obviously concluded that Q = 1.

Therefore, it is outstandingly obvious that QC > PD for an extremely wide range of values of C (all values where C > 0). The rational move is not for the Wicked Stepmother to lock Cinderella in the tower, but to apologize to Cinderella and try to reap the rewards of being the future king’s in-laws (like the Middletons here in the UK).

So, the question is why did the Wicked Stepmother adopt a strategy almost certain to guarantee no benefit for either her or her daughters? It certainly was not a coldly calculating decision. Maybe the Wicked Stepmother was more spiteful than selfish?

We call this “cutting off your nose to spite your face”. Indulging one’s vindictiveness over one’s self-interest sounds pretty human, and “pretty human” sounds pretty believable. On second thought,  maybe a little less “every man” from our villains would be good. I know, we want both plausible and exceptional. Not very consistent; but, after all, we are only human.


  1. Which was always my problem with the Captain Planet villains. They seemed to just enjoy being evil and polluting. There was no rationalization like, “We’ll make a lot more profit if we don’t use the proper procedures, but it’ll hurt the environment.” Rather, they incur substantial costs (even before they get their asses kicked by Captain Planet) for the simple pleasure of making the waterways of small, island nations unsuitable for river otter frolicking.

Author: Josh Witten


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