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. It 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.