Once Upon a Time: A Feminist Manifesto?

I don’t think I’ve made this a secret around here but I’m a bit of a nerd. Yes, it’s true. In particular I can be a junkie for certain TV shows (Anything by Joss Whedon…). And lately…well lately it’s been Once Upon a Time, which I cannot get enough of. I think I’m going to tone down a few of my next posts and do some pop culture things, a little bit of Dr Who, a bit of Buffy, and a bit of Once Upon a Time: some analysis and some feedback. It should be good. And so today I want to build a bit off of my dark fiction post and explain one of the reasons I absolutely totally and completely adore Once Upon a Time.

Once Upon a Time is possibly the most feminist show I’ve ever seen in my life. This might seem unexpected from a show that is both a reimagining of fairy tales and on prime time TV, but I think it does the strongest job of portraying all genders as complex, varied, autonomous individuals with motivations and histories. Women on this show do all kinds of things. They rule. They give birth. They adopt. They kill. They rescue. They show mercy. They use magic. They capture people. They inspire. They make mistakes. They suffer trauma. They recover. They are kind. They are motherly. They are vicious and selfish.

Women take on all sorts of roles. Off the top of my head: a nun, a mayor, a cop, a mother, a teacher, lovers, rescuers, queens, millers, peasants, pampered noblewomen, warriors, friends, sisters, daughters…the show passes the Bechdel test over and over, with women talking together about their children and their lovers yes, but also their enemies, their kingdom, their hopes, their guilts, their frustrations, their plans. And just as the women spend some time on their family life and their lovers, so do the men, AT LEAST as often as the women. For every scene we see Belle or Snow talking about trying to reconnect with her lover, we see Charming looking for Snow, or Rumplestiltskin wondering how he can continue without Belle. The refrain of Charming and Snow is “we will always find each other”. It’s mutual. They equally contribute to the well-being of the couple, and they have equal say in what happens in their kingdom. In our world, they always consult each other when trying to make plans for the future of their family and their subjects. They even allow their child and grandchild to express their opinions and take those opinions into account when they’re making decisions.

But the biggest reason that I love this show and the biggest reason that I believe it treats women more fairly than many other shows is that it gives each and every one of its characters complex backstory. No one’s history is ever set in stone. It is always possible for the show to flash back even further and show you a facet of their character that you never expected. This means that you can never become stuck in your stereotype of an individual and many of them continue to surprise you or gain your sympathy when you hear their story and motivation. I love that I never can fully peg a character, just like I can never fully peg a person in real life because there will always be elements of their history that I don’t know. I think that this humanizes the characters in a really relatable way, and it’s done for everyone across the show.

The fact that this story continually reinterprets the traditional stories and continues to interweave them in new ways that create different relationships and histories that you never expected is wonderful. When you thought Regina was evil, you found out that she has a lost love and fell into darkness afterwards. And once you start feeling some sympathy for her, you find out that she abandoned Rumple after saying she loved him. And when you start getting angry again, you find out that she is still working to protect her grandson and is always trying to earn the approval of a mother who never approved. That’s human. We all have hundreds of experiences of being broken and trying to take power back again, and being broken again. We try to protect ourselves and become “evil”. But none of us are truly evil, and each of these stories helps to make us who we are, to give us the autonomy we have, and to break away from any stereotypes people might have of us. These ongoing histories that develop as we see the characters develop are a way to allow us to get to know the characters better. It’s just like hearing your friends tell you stories: it helps you understand them better. And because OUAT allows every character the chance to tell their story, I see it as one of the most humanizing shows I’ve ever watched.

One thought on “Once Upon a Time: A Feminist Manifesto?

  1. Lee says:

    Fantastic commentary! I love this show for these very reasons. I also love that not once but TWICE female characters have corrected someone who called them a girl instead of a woman.

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