Once Upon a Time and the Fairy Tale Stereotype

Once more, here is a guest post from Dr Rudy’s 394r Applied English class, this time from Cortlyn Mckay.


Prince Charming wakes Snow White with a kiss in the first minute of OUAT's pilot episode.
Prince Charming wakes Snow White with a kiss in the first minute of OUAT’s pilot episode.

In contrast to many fairy tale adaptations being made today, the TV show Once Upon a Time begins with the happily ever after: the pilot episode opens with Prince Charming kissing Snow White, awakening her from her sleeping curse. The couple is then married, an event that usually ends the fairy tale rather than beginning it, breaking a stereotype that originated with Disney and has been perpetuated ever since. Disney’s massive media presence has allowed them to corner the fairy tale market, forever altering the genre.

From left to right, Disney's Beauty and the Beast 1991, Beautician and the Beast, Simsala Grimm, Beastly, Once Upon a Time, and Disney's Beauty and the Beast 2017
Disney’s influence is clearly visible here; Belle’s appearance has changed little since the original Disney film was released in 1991.

Given Disney’s massive success, many other media companies have followed their lead, giving fairy tales a rosy glow that differs from the dark, gruesome tales of the past. The 1996 show Cinderella Monogatari doesn’t show the wicked stepsisters cutting off parts of their feet to fit in the slipper. Happily Ever After: Tales for Every Child‘s 1995 version of Sleeping Beauty departs from earlier versions by cutting out both the rape of Sleeping Beauty in Basile’s narrative, and the prince’s mother’s attempts to cook and eat her son’s children found in Perrault’s version. These are just a few examples, but they illustrate the point that fairy tales have been sanitized almost beyond recognition. Although Once Upon a Time (referred to from this point on as OUAT for the sake of brevity) also leaves out these particular narratives, the show refuses to shy away from other difficult story lines. OUAT breaks the traditions formed by Disney, not only by working in a world without happy endings, but also in its portrayal of women as powerful agents, and giving characters of both genders stronger arcs.

OUAT updates the tales by giving us an accurate picture of the world we live in. It deals with issues surrounding kids in the foster system and kids who were put up for adoption, like Emma and Henry. Both of these characters deal with their abandonment in different ways; Henry uses fairy tales to escape the world he lives in, and Emma pushes both her feelings and other people away in order to protect herself from getting hurt. Other characters must deal with similar challenges.

Snow White and Prince Charming’s wedding should be a happy time for them, but immediately following their vows they are told that the Evil Queen has a plan to destroy their happiness. Nine months later when Snow gives birth to Emma, their child is immediately taken away from them, yes it is out of necessity, but the curse that takes away their memories follows soon after, meaning that they barely even get a chance to grieve the loss of their child. Instead they have to make up for their own pain, as well as Emma’s abandonment issues, twenty-eight years later.

Snow grieves for the loss of Emma after sending her through the wardrobe.
Snow grieves for the loss of Emma after sending her through the wardrobe.

Both Emma and Cinderella have to deal with unplanned pregnancies and the decision of whether or not to keep their children. Both women come to different conclusions, but their struggles, and the struggles all the characters face, are true to life. The trials they face mimic our own, and the different ways each character responds let us know that it’s okay that we all make different choices and act in different ways.

Many people have taken to the internet to express their outrage over gender stereotypes perpetuated in fairy tale films and television, and even fairy tale scholars like Marina Warner have discussed the harm of fairy tales portraying women as weak, non-actors in their own lives. Passivity in women has been a common trait throughout the history of fairy tales, but then again, many of the original tales included powerful women (not just the “monster-women” of Gilbert and Gubar’s feminist studies.) Villeneuve’s original tale of Beauty and the Beast portrays Belle as a surprisingly feminist woman, and it is she who rescues the Beast with her own magic, rather than waiting around for the curse to be broken as she does in later versions.

OUAT brings us back to those powerful women before other, more recent fairy tale adaptations. The first female character we are introduced to is Snow White; in typical fairy tale fashion, she is kissed awake by Prince Charming, and then marries him. Both scenes might have fairy tale haters in an uproar, but just moments after marrying Prince Charming, Snow pulls the sword from his belt and threatens the Evil Queen, demonstrating both her confidence and the power she holds in her relationship. She is not just a wife, she is a warrior.

Snow threatens the Evil Queen in the first episode.
Snow threatens the Evil Queen in the first episode.

Snow is not the only powerful female character in the series, when we first meet Emma Swan she’s chasing down a guy who broke his bail. She proceeds to knock him out by smashing his face into the steering wheel of his car. Upon entering Storybrooke, Emma quickly makes herself invaluable to the other residents as the sheriff and the “savior.” The Evil Queen, or Regina, is another powerful female character who goes against the grain. She might be initially characterized as a “monster-woman,” but the show quickly disabuses us of that idea as Regina opens up to us, helping us to understand why she is evil. A few of the women, like Sleeping Beauty, can be considered the typical damsels in distress. They clearly need someone to save them from their situations, but there is nothing wrong with this; not all women can be strong and capable in every circumstance, there are some things you just can’t do on your own. Here, once again, OUAT imitates reality in its portrayal of both capable and struggling women.

Aurora watches as Philip and Mulan fight the wraith.
Aurora watches as Philip and Mulan fight the wraith.

Along with these strong women come more believable character arcs. Instead of static characters who do little and change even less, we see characters who grow as they face challenges. Regina changes from being the Evil Queen who only seeks revenge, to a woman who seeks her own happy ending, and ends up fighting with the good guys instead of against them. Captain Hook follows a similar course, attempting to put his days of wrongdoing behind him in order to be a better man for Emma. Even good characters have to change over the course of time; Cinderella faces the consequences of dealing in dark magic, and Belle learns that a beast doesn’t always become a prince just because you love him.

While its premises may not be entirely original, OUAT has simultaneously brought us back to the original tales and revitalized them for a modern audience. OUAT shows, as did authors of the past, that fairy tales are not just for children, but that they can imitate real life in a way that is powerful and poignant. OUAT has brought back the idea that fairy tales embody the way we think and act, providing both a means to escape the world we live in, as well as a means to cope with the difficulties we face.

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