Once Upon a (Feminist) Time

I’ve gotten sucked into the new ABC show Once Upon a Time. For one thing, I’m a sucker for fairy-tale stories with a twist. (OUAT is about fairy tale characters who have been cursed, sent into the future, and forgotten who they are. Yes it sounds ridiculous; watch it and you’ll love it!) For another, from the very first episode I was struck by the show’s feminist undertones. I have no idea if they are intentional, or if maybe TV’s representations of women are getting just a little bit better. Either way, it’s making this show very enjoyable for me.

The main character is Emma Swan. She is an orphan, raised in the foster care system, who now (at 28) works as a badass bail bondsman (ahem…”bondsperson,” as Emma often says). She is also the daughter of Snow White who was magically sent out of the kingdom (and into Boston? Whatever I don’t question the fairy tale/modern world continuum too deeply), as a baby, before the curse took hold of all the characters. She has been brought into Storybrook, Maine, (clever, right? no? oh well…) where the characters are, because Henry, a young boy, has discovered the curse and needs her to help him save the characters.

Whew! Enough exposition. Things I like about Emma Swan.

First, she’s a badass bail bondsperson. In her first scene, we see her enter a restaurant dressed in a small, sexy dress, for a date with an attractive man. Then, when she reveals that she is the bondsperson who got him out of jail and who needs her money back, we get to see her chase him down and kick his ass. Awesome.

Second, we discover that she became pregnant at age 18 and gave her baby up for adoption (spoiler alert but only for the first episode), the baby who turns out to be Henry from Storybrook. Anyway, Emma often talks about making the right decision in wanting her child to have the best shot at life, and about recognizing that his best shot would not be with her. But she also talks about the right to be a mother. When a teen in Storybrook has been convinced by everyone that she’s too young, that she can’t handle a child, Emma stays confident that “anyone who wants to be a mother should be allowed to be.” She doesn’t push the girl to keep the child, but she does encourage her to do what she wants. She’s very adamant that women be able to make their own decisions about their lives and their children.

Third, she’s clearly a well-rounded character that doesn’t fit into any categories. She’s feminine, but not “girly”. She is sweet and caring, but not very sentimental or emotional (she tends to be more of a closed-off, my-life-was-so-messed-up-I-stopped-expressing-emotion-long-ago character). She’s smart. She’s good at her job(s). She’s lonely. I just can’t help but continue to get excited about female characters on TV who are also real people.

And she’s not the only good character on the show. Gretel is a smart young girl who leads and directs her brother (who seems to be slightly spineless). Jiminy Cricket/Archie Hopper is wonderfully written, filled with regret from his past and uncertainty of his moral character. Rumpelstiltskin has an incredible backstory that provides this normally evil character with much more humanity than I ever expected. And the evil queen/mayor of Storybrook is soooo fun to watch! She’s evil, but she’s not only evil; we can see that she has her own emotions and backstory which have determined the person she has become.

I don’t think that the show’s creators necessarily intended to create a feminist show, nor would I say that the entire show is, in and of itself, feminist. But I do think that this show has wonderful characters with feminist tendencies, and it portrays strong women as smart and capable, without being catty or backstabbing (except, of course, for the evil queen). Basically, I’m enjoying this show, both for the mixing of and playing with fairy tales, and for the well-written characters that bring those tales to life.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted January 19, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    So glad I’m not the only one who enjoys this show. Love it!!

  2. Posted January 19, 2012 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for writing this! I have been thinking about writing an article on this show for a while now because of its feminist undertones and you’ve done a great job in doing so. Emma Swan is a brilliant character and the show is very fascinating because of complex characters like Rumpelstiltskin (he’s quickly becoming my favorite!). Gretel was awesome too, in how clever she was with the blind witch as well as the mayor’s witch persona. One thing I would add to the Emma Swan Awesomeness list is her “savior-heroine” moment of saving her son from the underground mine(I believe that’s what it was?) It didn’t seem to even occur to anyone to let a male go down there, and Emma is always in the forefront of physical action that is stereotypically handled by males. I like that she has flaws and nuance to her character as a certified bad ass!

    I would like to see more nuance on the mayor’s character. For me, even though I do see moments of agony and regret, I feel like the mayor is still depicted as straight out evil and irredeemable. I would like to learn more about why she adopted Henry and whether it’s part of the evil plan/or an actual instinct to recreate the family she destroyed, i.e. her father.

    • Posted January 19, 2012 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

      I think we’ll get more about the queen in episodes to come. Ultimately, she may still be irredeemable, I don’t know, but I definitely think there’s more to her story that will round her out a little. I’m dying to know what Snow White did to her!

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