Written by Erica Smith, one of our new team members!
The traditional fairy tales which Once Upon A Time adapts often cast women in the role of damsel-in-distress. Since Once Upon A Time is structured around empowering the adult woman, Henry, a male child, steps in whenever the story calls for a “damsel” character. Targeted at older viewers, the show’s core cast is built mostly of adults in their thirties. Snow White and Belle (Beauty), vaguely youthful in storybooks and teenaged in Disney’s trademark adaptations, are adult women with children of their own. “Little” Red Riding Hood is aged up, played by twenty-nine-year-old Meghan Ory at the series’ beginning. Pinocchio is only a boy in flashbacks. And though OUAT’s structure relies heavily on flashbacks to former lives, they rarely focus on adult characters as children. The only child to consistently feature in the main cast is Henry Mills, son of Emma Swann, the show’s protagonist, and adopted son of Regina, villain-turned-ally.
The series pilot kicks off with Henry tracking down his birth mother, barging into her apartment, and recruiting her to break the amnesia curse that binds the people of Storybrooke. He is ten at this point. His status as a child forces Emma to get involved in his life, driving him home to Storybrooke rather than simply kicking him out of her apartment. Once Emma arrives in town, Henry serves as both a bridge and a barrier between her and Regina. His two mothers fight over him and for him. He knows his status as a child makes him vulnerable and he purposefully places himself in danger to force the adult characters to cooperate.
In the season one finale, Regina attempts to curse Emma with a poison apple pie. Henry foils her plan by eating the pie himself. Emma then wakes him from the sleeping curse with a maternal “true love’s kiss.” This gender swaps a classic fairy tale trope and puts Henry in the damsel role. Unlike most classic fairy tale heroines, Henry curses himself by choice, making him a self-sacrificing hero rather than a victim.
Though Henry proves himself capable whenever he’s given the chance, his family try to protect him, leaving him out of the action whenever possible. Adults aren’t entirely to blame. Sometimes circumstances outside his control place Henry in a powerless position. A portal sucks Emma, Snow, and Regina into adventures in the Enchanted Forest in the second season, leaving Henry behind in real-world Storybrooke. In the third season, Henry is kidnapped by child villain Peter Pan, and the adults spend most of the season on a quest to get him back. Every adult woman in his life is competent with either a sword, bow, or magic. Henry is rather useless in a fight.
Eventually he takes on the non-combatant role of Author, gaining the power to make or break any fairy tale character’s happy ending. But the pen isn’t quite mightier than the sword. Instead of empowering him, his newfound writer abilities motivate adult characters to kidnap or manipulate him in order to write their stories their way. By the middle of season five, he’s fed up. “I’m sick of sitting on the sidelines,” he complains in season five, episode fifteen. “I want to be a hero, I want to help my mom.” Later in the same episode, he tells his mother Emma, “I have all this power and I ignore it. I live in everyone’s shadow. I want to be the hero instead of the one the heroes rescue.”
Those lines wouldn’t sound out of place if spoken by a princess in any feminist fairy tale retelling. Disney (parent company of Once Upon A Time’s ABC) is famous for putting rebel princesses in a man’s world. Male heroes are the status quo, and Disney heroines take a stand by rejecting arranged marriages or slaying their own dragons. But every time a princess declares she is “not a prize to be won” (Jasmine) or “I’ll be shooting for my own hand” (Merida), she reminds audiences that she inhabits a world where strong female characters are the exception, not the norm.
In Henry’s world, battle-ready women are the status quo. As Henry matures into a teenager, he tags along on quests with his parents and grandparents, though he’s still helping them achieve their goals instead of pursuing his own.
Everything is due to change in the new season seven, which starts a new reset and a new generation of the show. Watch the trailer below.
Henry is now an adult and most of the women who raised him are no longer part of his story. The teaser for season seven explicitly mirrors Once Upon A Time’s pilot episode. Henry’s long-lost daughter Lucy knocks on his door and recruits him for a brand new adventure. We’ve seen this story before, but this time, it’s gender swapped. Grown-up Henry is now the hero of his own story, stepping into the role his mother played for the last six seasons. Will OUAT’s commitment to female empowerment extend to Lucy, or will her age make her the new child in distress, a plucky, resourceful kid playing second fiddle to the adults in her life?
We will begin to be able to answer these questions when the new season premieres on October 6th, and our own FTTV group will be having a screening activity the following week, stay tuned for updates on this awesome event!