Hapless, helpless, hopeless: An analysis of stepmothers’ talk about their (male) partners

Roper, Sandra and Capdevila, Rose (2020). Hapless, helpless, hopeless: An analysis of stepmothers’ talk about their (male) partners. Feminism & Psychology, 30(2)

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0959353519900212


The identity of stepmother is, in many ways, a troubled one – constructed as ‘other’ and often associated with notions of ‘wickedness’ in literature and everyday talk. This paper reports findings from a study on the difficulties faced by stepmothers and how they use talk about their (male) partners, often constructing men as hapless, helpless or hopeless, to repair their ‘troubled’ identities. The data were collected from a web forum for stepmothers based in the UK and thirteen semi-structured face-to-face interviews with stepmothers. The analysis took a synthetic narrative-discursive methodological approach, underpinned by feminist theory with particular attention to the discourses that were drawn on by participants and the constraints that these imposed. This paper presents these findings in relation to three constructions of their partners through which repair work was attempted: men as in need of rescue; men as flawed fathers; and men as damaged. The paper concludes with some suggestions for supporting stepmothers by challenging dominant narratives around families in talk, in the media and in government and institutional policies.

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