Canon, SwanQueen, and Chemistry, or, the Difference between Writing and Performance

(originally posted on 10/5/15)

I’ve blogged about Once Upon a Time before, and that post was mostly focused on the feminism of Season One. Having now caught up with the show, and spent a wee bit of time internetting about this SwanQueen fandom that people have so many strong opinions about, I’m wading into the debate about the nature of Emma and Regina’s relationship.

The showrunners of OUAT have stated unequivocally that Regina and Emma will never be a romantic couple, and yet a massive number of the show’s fans consider themselves SwanQueen shippers—they believe that the two should be a couple, or subtextually already are.

Now, as I writer, I believe in text, and I’m not a big shipper generally or someone who spends a lot of time reading into (or manufacturing) subtext. But SwanQueen shippers have picked up on something that the writers have no control over: chemistry.

Because let’s be real here. Mary Margaret and David have the chemistry of a brother and sister who are five or six years old building forts in the backyard. Regina and Robin have minimal chemistry—at best, they might be an awkward couple at homecoming who tacitly agree that if they ever have to spend time together again, it will be in the context of a group hang (seriously, did they forget to screen test those two before they cast Robin?). Emma and Hook, they do okay—maybe they’re the high school couple that’s so cute together until college starts and they realize there’s a whole big world of interesting people out there to explore.

But really, the only times sparks fly on this show (magic or otherwise) are when Regina and Emma are on screen together. Writers can write whatever they want when they’re huddled together with a bunch of laptops, but once those words are in the mouths of living, breathing people, the writers lose their control over the meaning of them.

In performance genres, chemistry is right up there with remembering your lines—it’s everything. This is why Scandal falls so flat for me—Fitz and Olivia have zero chemistry. This is why it surprised no one who saw Mr and Mrs Smith when Angelina and Brad became a real-life couple. Every time they touched on screen—hell, every time they looked at each other—you felt like a dirty voyeur for watching. Buffy and Angel? Great chemistry. Buffy and Riley? Co-workers who have nothing in common.

And Regina and Emma? They’re hot together. They stare at each other’s lips, and they piss each other off, and they feel things for each other. Never mind how many times they’ve tried to sacrifice everything for each other, how they so clearly understand each other better than anyone else, how they share a son. All of this creates truly excellent subtext. But the chemistry between them—that’s what seals the deal for SwanQueen shippers.

So, if we’re being real, we’ll admit that it’s never going to happen. And maybe it’s in part because of the chemistry between them. Maybe this Disney show on ABC is totally afraid of chemistry, straight or otherwise, and that’s why the producers are okay with Snow White and Prince Charming, who are supposed to represent the ultimate true love, lacking it entirely. There’s a whole lot we can say about this possibility—a whole lot about puritan values, our fear of female sexuality, and the plethora of things that get hidden behind the phrase “for the children.” But that’s a conversation for another day.

For now, I’ll just leave you with this image of steamy on-screen chemistry and go imagine what kind of shenanigans Regina and Emma got up to when that dagger changed hands.

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