The Feminist Reimaginings of Once Upon a Time, Season One

(originally posted on 10/2/14)

I know I’m late to this party, but I just started watching Once Upon a Time and I’m pretty over the moon about it. I’ve been warned it takes a huge dive in quality around season 3, but season 1 blew me away for a number of reasons.

I’m a sucker for reimaged fairy tales – I still get a thrill every time I read/see/listen to Wicked. For starters, contemporary adaptations of classic tales are often infused with a healthy dose of feminism inevitably lacking in the original. And, given that audiences typically know the original inside and out, whatever alterations are made to it that allow female characters a wider range of personalities and powers, well, those alterations pop. The changes are so jarring that they make audiences consciously aware of the way women historically have been treated in literature, and how amazing and wonderful it is when they’re given more options.

OUaT grabbed me from the pilot and never let go, in large part because the women in it are such powerhouses. When the Queen disrupts her wedding, Snow White doesn’t cry or hide behind her prince – she grabs his sword. And while Charming might have awakened her with a kiss, she rescued him a dozen other ways before then. Mary Margaret can be a tad saccharine, but Snow rides, fights, schemes, and lives fully in a way that the original character was never allowed to do.

And dear lord, how clever and feminist to reinvent Red Riding Hood and Granny as werewolves. Neither woman is the victim of a male predator – they’re fierce and dangerous beasts who can annihilate Snow’s enemies, right along with all the fairies. Plus, how progressive for the show to avoid devoting scene upon scene – or even a single minute of screen time – to Red wallowing self-pity or self-flagellation after she learns what she is and who she’s killed.

And let’s talk about the queer family that Regina, Emma, and Henry form. I’m not a fan-girl who reads sexual tension between Regina and Emma (although it’s fine with me if you are and do), but it’s undeniable that the Henry has two moms. They might despise each other, but Regina and Emma unite in moments of desperation when Henry’s wellbeing is at stake. There is no traditional nuclear family in OUaT – the closest thing we have to one is these three, with Regina and Emma coming across like divorced parents negotiating custody.

Here we are, in a small town in Maine, with a female sheriff, and a female mayor who wears epic pantsuits. And let’s not for a moment forget one of the best, most feminist lines I’ve ever heard on cable television, said by Regina to Belle about the narrative arc of Beauty and the Beast: “Oh, child, no. I would never suggest a young woman kiss a man who held her captive. What kind of message is that?” It might be exactly what Belle does, but at least now we feel that she is aware of the troubling undertones of her choice and she has more agency when she makes it.

So carry on, Once Upon a Time. I can’t wait to see what these women do in Season Two.

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