Rumplestiltskin and Regina: Gender and Villains

Over the weekend I was at CONvergence, a delightful convention about sci fi and fantasy. While I was there I sat on a panel about Once Upon a Time, and an interesting question came up: Rumplestiltskin is far more compelling, relatable, and interesting than Regina. Many people found that in the second season they just got sick of Regina who spent the whole season flip flopping between good and evil. These observations ring true to me: Regina is a less interesting, engaging, and compassionate character than Rumple, and in general people don’t seem to root for her the way they do Rumple. She’s often written awkwardly and unbelievably, particularly in the second season in her relationship with her mother. The question that was asked was whether this could be related to gender: are the writers better at making Rumple a good character because they’re better at writing men?

At first I felt at gut level that this was wrong. The show has so many varieties of women written both strong and weak, good and evil, many of them extremely compelling and interesting. How could the writers have fallen down on gender lines here? And I think that there are a few elements that differentiate Rumple from Regina that are not about gender that make him a much stronger character:

1.Rumple has a clear core, a clear motivation, and a clear path to redemption. We have known what drives Rumple from the very beginning: he does not want to be weak and magic is his way out of being weak. His motivation has always been to regain Baelfire. Of course the introduction of Belle complicates this, but she becomes his path to redemption to regain Bael. His character is clearly set out and he doesn’t deviate from these motivations.

2.Regina’s motivation is always shaky. While the core of her character has always been betrayal of trust (when Snow told her mother about Daniel), she hasn’t had a clear path since then: the writers haven’t made her WANT anything except for Snow’s death, and that they’ve gone back and forth on. It makes her shaky and unclear. In addition, they’ve introduced smaller desires along the way that have muddled things up: Henry, her mother, her father, and the kingdom.

3. Rumple grows while Regina flips back and forth. Rumple moves clearly forward. He has a progression from weak to powerful to crazy to compassionate (and then back to crazy after he loses Belle). Regina is innocent then evil then more evil then psych maybe good no evil haha you think you know what’s going on.

4.Regina seems to be trying to figure out who she is, and this is reflected in the way she’s written. She is very human in this regard: people don’t go through nice clear narrative arcs in real life. They do flip flop and make mistakes and change their minds back and forth.

So Rumple has been written in a very clear way that gives his character strength, whereas Regina has a lot stacked against her. However I do wonder if gender plays a role in how these two characters were written. Rumple’s character was written around his self-image and the kind of person he wanted to be. This is the kind of motivation or struggle that can keep going and make sense no matter what the setting: it makes you the hero of your own story. Men in media tend to get stories like this: who am I and how strong am I and how do I fit in the world? They are the protagonists. Regina on the other hand started out as a love story. Her motivation was centered on another person, and that person was removed from her story early on. She is not the hero of her story. In fact she was set up in such a way that there is no story without the man, all there is is a lost, floundering woman with nothing to love.

This is what seems horribly unrealistic to me about Regina’s character and where I think the writers fall down in their presentation of different genders. When Rumple loses his wife his struggle is about himself, not about her. When Regina loses her love, the struggle is not about her and her personality, it’s about a loss and nothing else. Regina doesn’t stand on her own. In reality, it seems unlikely to me that Regina would have blamed Snow and cut herself off from the people who were trying to care for her. If we were to look at Regina’s original character, she was kind and clearly looked past class and expectations to pay attention to people’s personalities. She would have doubled down on her ability to do that: she would have looked to where she could find friends. She would have known that her mother was the reason Daniel was gone.

This seems to be another instance of “hysteria” stereotyping and female infighting presented by the media. Women cannot be angry, fierce, or terrifying without being bitchy. Even Snow never gets angry: she just “does what’s right”. And so when Regina was placed in a situation where anger was justified, the writers warped it into something wrong and ugly. This does seem to be gendered to me, and it’s one of the reasons why female villains often get written as more shallow than male villains. I do think that men are allowed to be “bad” in more realistic ways than women are. Women are stereotyped as bitches or whores when they’re “bad”, whereas men can be jerks or assholes or dicks or just mean. Men can be tragic, fallen heroes. Women don’t get these options.

It also makes me wonder whether writers have a hard time imagining what a woman would be motivated by unless it’s love or petty jealousy. We know that women are more complex than that and have just as many motivations as men, but unfortunately even in a show as good as this one, these are the motivations given to a woman who is “bad”, while the “bad” man has a deep and complex range of emotions.┬áIt seems clear to me that the writers are working very hard to give Regina more of a backstory and make her a more believable character, but it does look like they may have fallen prey to some subtle stereotypes about what could make a woman mean.

I dearly hope that in season 3 they clean it up.

 

Media: A Love/Hate Relationship

So all y’all really need to step up your game. I got one whole response to my question post. ONE. But my dear and wonderful Barrett asked me about my opinion on something and who am I to deny my single, wonderful, amazing, lone commenter her request?

Barrett asked me about media and how I interact with problematic media/do I have any suggestions of non-problematic media. Oof. Big question. Well first of all I think it’s almost impossible for there to be non-problematic media because all the producers of media are human and there is probably no single human on this planet who has completely unproblematic beliefs. HOWEVER there are a few things that I can suggest that treat difficult topics with integrity.

First of all I can think of very few fictional creations that are kind or understanding to atheists. If any of my readers have suggestions, please suggest away, but I’m drawing a bit of a blank. Tim Minchin is fab of course if you’re looking for standup, but I can’t think of many books or movies or TV shows that are atheist friendly. I mean there are a huge number of movies and books that simply don’t touch on the religion of their characters at all, but I know of very few that explicitly address atheism and do it in a positive way.

One area that’s done far better is media that’s better to women. Joss Whedon is generally pretty damn good (a classic of course), and lately I”ve been on a major Once Upon a Time kick (I might expand upon why I think this is such a great show for women in the near future). Generally I like shows that allow women to flourish in a variety of roles. My Little Pony is actually fantastic about this. I also find that in general documentaries are a bit better at being non-exploitative than traditional movies and so on. As for books, I think that Tamora Pierce is GREAT for kids and teens, Mercedes lackey (although I haven’t read her in ages) has a wide range of women if I remember correctly, and JK Rowling. I think there’s a lot of resources for feminist friendly media, so I’m not going to go too far into it.

Mental illness is a much harder one to find good media. In general mental illness is treated HORRIBLY in media. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is one of the best I’ve read, and most of John Green’s work as well (particularly The Fault in Our Stars). Oddly enough, I’ve found young adult fiction is actually often the most sensitive to mental health concerns because that’s a time when lots of individuals struggle with some depression, anxiety, or other issues. In terms of TV I can’t think of a single show that I’ve seen that deals appropriately with mental health. I’m not a big TV nut though, so if anyone else has ideas let me know. In terms of movies, Rachel Getting Married is AMAZING. It portrays addiction and mental illness in a disturbingly real fashion, but does so without a lot of judgment.

I’m not really qualified to speak on race or homosexuality or any other minority, so to find media that is positive about those demographics you’ll have to go elsewhere (sorry). But that’s just the first half of the question. The second half is how I deal with problematic media. Well that’s an easy one. To be clear straight off the bat: I am still figuring this out. I’m relatively young, and still trying to understand a lot of things about social justice, media, and society. So these are mostly preliminary thoughts that I’m still trying to work out. ALSO they do not apply to everyone in every type of marginalized group, nor are they necessarily suggestions for all of you. SO, without further ado: what do I do with problematic media?

So first of all I’m not going to deny that I consume problematic media. I like media, and as someone with a mental illness, oftentimes a little escapism is the only way I can make it through the day. I’ve always loved books and I’ve started to get very TV show addicted as of late, so I consume a fair amount of media. This means that a fair amount of it is problematic. I do try to avoid the worst things, the things that I think are actively promoting negative conceptions of women, of mental illness, of people of color…so I avoid most magazines, I avoid Spike TV, I watch very few primetime and super popular TV shows (partially just because I don’t like most of them), and I avoid 50 Shades of Gray and Twilight. Now that being said, I do watch things like Say Yes to the Dress, I watch some reality TV shows, I watch Project Runway, I enjoy teen lit which is often problematic in its portrayal of relationships, I watched Make it or Break It for a long time, I watch Dance Academy (oh so addicting), and I do see mainstream movies fairly often. I love Ender’s Game, I love Lord of the Rings, I love Dr Who…I love all sorts of things that I know are problematic.

So what do I do with that? Well first of all I try not to get pissed at myself. I think that any time we try to make ourselves ashamed or guilty, we’re not helping at all. I accept that I want to engage with media, and I accept that media is almost always problematic. The first and most radical thing that we as minorities can do is take care of ourselves. I firmly believe that. The personal is always political, and if I can be someone who is female, struggles with mental illness, and is an atheist, but still manages to be healthy and happy and break some of the stereotypes of those roles, I will have done a lot. So I accept that this is part of what I need to feel happy. But I also try to engage with them critically. When I’m watching things like Dr Who, I let myself enjoy it, but afterwards I discuss with people and reflect to myself about what messages it was sending, to try to dissect them and keep myself safe from any bad ones that might sneak in.

So I generally try to separate my enjoyment of the media from my critical mind, which I engage after or at a different level from the media. Because I think I deserve to be able to enjoy things without always being critical. I think that’s ok. But I also then go on to talk to people about what I like about those things and what I dislike about those things. I think it’s really important to be vocal and to be involved when you’re consuming problematic media: to both tell yourself and to tell others what you’re worried about with that media. I try to engage with it critically. I try to write about it, to discuss it, to hold it to high standards because I enjoy it.

I also try to learn from it when I’ve done poorly at being a critical consumer of media. Looking back, I can see that my teenage obsession with America’s Next Top Model did not serve me well. By no means did it cause my eating disorder, because no amount of media can do that, but it certainly helped push my neuroses in a particular direction, and it certainly gave me images of thinness to aspire to. It taught me that what someone looked like was incredibly important, and that competition was important, and that if you could be the prettiest, nothing else mattered. Looking back now, I don’t like to watch that show. I don’t like to promote the show. I would ask others why they like the show. I’m going to be a lot more discerning about similar shows in the future. I’ve learned. And I’ve also learned to be as careful as possible about similar shows, for example The Biggest Loser (which I refuse to watch, and which I’ve told many people is hugely problematic for many reasons).

Now I know that I should go a bit further and try to engage the producers of the media in the discussion, let them know what I dislike about the way they’re producing. If I was going to be truly responsible I would send letters and tweets, I would boycott all the bad products. But here’s the thing: if I’m going to advocate for women and atheists and people with mental illness, I also have to advocate for myself because I am all of those things. And the first way I can advocate for myself is by doing things I enjoy. And engaging with media without freaking out is highly enjoyable to me. I do enough freaking out. I get into facebook discussions often enough. I write angry blogs often enough. I tweet in a pissed off manner often enough. I’m ready to say that I am co-opting the shit out of that problematic media when I let it be a balm to the wounds of my life.

So that’s my relationship with problematic media. I use it as best as I can to treat myself well, and where I can’t, I criticize and I avoid. It may not be the best method, but it’s the best I can muster right now. My relationship with problematic media is far more about myself than about the media. And maybe that’s selfish, but I am strongly of the opinion that all minorities can afford to be a bit more selfish right now. And if that means allowing ourselves the personal time to enjoy shitty media, then more power to us. As long as we also take the time to point out that it’s shitty, then why not?

All of that said, I try to hold reporting to higher standards because it’s not there for our enjoyment it’s there to be accurate. I will write about it and call you out if you report something in an offensive manner, I WILL turn off Fox news because it sucks at portraying any minority well, and I WILL get pissed off if you say something about “anorexics”.