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Monthly Archives: February 2014

So I discovered ABC series Once Upon a Time recently. As it’s midway through its third season, I’m relatively late to the party, but in my defense I don’t have a TV even if I am kind of a TV scholar and I rarely like major-network TV anyway. But I love this show. I don’t even want to admit how fast I blew through all 55 episodes in existence.

And, I’ve been doing that thing I theorized in my dissertation as promotional labor and tele-fan-gelizing the show all over, ‘cause fans, unlike gays, do recruit. But also, as an academic, amidst all my adoration is analysis. I have too many projects on my plate already but I want to propose an edited collection because I want there to be an analysis of so many things about this show but cannot scrape up the time to do it myself.

Hence, I love my job as a media scholar because it makes everything so totally interesting, but I don’t have time to be interested in everything and hate that I am anyway.

Some of the things about which I wish I had some analysis:

-The show fails the Bechdel Test weirdly often: Once has seriously strong female leads in Emma and Regina, but they almost only talk to each other about their son Henry, particularly early on, and he continues to be their one-note motivation throughout.

-The racial politics are super problematic: The one African American character is a sniveling toady with an out-of-his-league crush; the one Asian American is also the one canonically, if half-heartedly, queer character (Twofer! Bonus, character is from Chinese folklore and actor is Korean American); and, as my friend put it, “The one vaguely Latina lady is the villain” (which is commentary on the character’s ambiguous category-belonging, not on Lana Parrilla who plays her one way or the other).

-What are they saying about intergenerational class mobility? Cora is completely ruthless in her schemes to marry the prince and subsequently to make her daughter queen; Emma goes from a birthright of princess to being culturally working class and putting up her kid for adoption into the middle class.

-The politics around adoption are also super problematic: There’s a refrain of bio-parents as “real” parents; adopted children are sometimes treated as tools to an end rather than loved (though see above; bio-children are used as leverage too).

-The show has some fascinatingly queer family trees: There’s a proliferation of mothers on one side (Henry has two mommies; Snow had two mommies after a fashion; Henry has two grandmothers in the maternal line) and three generations of nothing but fathers on the other (Peter Pan, Rumplestiltskin, Baelfire/Neal); Regina is not only Henry’s adoptive mother but his step-great-grandmother.

-The Once team is fairly obviously queerbaiting with regard to the interpretation of the Emma-Regina relationship as romance or desire (known as SwanQueen, see the recommended reading I put together to teach shipping as a way of seeing), wherein they give and take away and maintain plausible deniability like they’re Xena and this is 1995.

All of these things are incredibly interesting to me, and I want to go through and do the close analysis of what’s happening with each and every one of them. In that I’ve been plotting this blog post for over a month now, I am not optimistic that I’ll get to it anytime soon, but here’s a brief take on Point 1: Gender.

The hero is a woman! The villain is a woman! (At least, in the first season; it gets more complicated after that. The villainy, not the gender identity.) These two major female characters are both strong and complex and scarred and morally gray and we are allowed to love them anyway and this should be a dream come true for more rounded portrayals of women! (cf. the hundreds of thousands of Google results for “Skyler White hate,” which is an autocomplete option)

And for all of this otherwise amazing gender progressiveness, the damn thing barely passes the Bechdel Test a lot of the time (itself an extraordinarily low bar, to be sure) because Emma and Regina are only allowed to be so complex as mothers. No, strike that, I understand that it’s the one time women are culturally allowed to be tough (call it the Sarah Connor Principle), and this is network TV after all.

What I mean is that their existences are routinely reduced to motherhood, contracted down to that single facet, or that facet opens up and swallows those rich, complex characters I otherwise love. There are little moments of more, but like a villanelle or a particularly hook-y pop song it always cycles safely back to the son who’s the biological child of the hero and adopted by the villain. To break out that hoary actor joke “What’s my motivation in this scene?” the answer is always, always Henry.

(So perhaps it’s not surprising that the one-note motivation has produced “There must be something else really going on! Slash it!”, but that’s Point 6.)

Regina is Richard III, vicious because wounded and determined to make everyone despise her because she can’t believe anyone can love her.  There’s so much in the flashbacks: she endured child abuse from her mother; she saw her fiancé killed in front of her; she was coerced into marriage. Ultimately, she found human attachments unattainable but power there to be grabbed and saw it as the one thing that wouldn’t abandon her.

She is incredibly, delightfully rich as a character despite the show’s frequent efforts to flatten the moral landscape to a black-and-white of good-and-evil. Long story short, people may shrink away from Lana Parrilla on the street (which she said at Comic Con at some point but I can’t find a good video now), but she also spends more time crying than every other actor on the show put together.

And I get that Regina’s love for her son has at times been the only redeeming thing about her, but for the love of whatever let the woman branch out. (Yes, she’s my favorite. I think the argument stands, though.)

Emma is similarly damaged: abandoned on the side of the road as a child, her backstory is rich with examples of neglect she experienced in the foster system. And yes, it’s the love of her son that lets her find her heroism, I get that. But again, maybe she could have something else drive her for a hot minute, ever?

(Granted, I’m far down the rabbit hole of fanon at this point in my personal enjoyment of this show, but I don’t think any of what I’ve just described contradicts the characters in canon.)

So, yeah, I don’t know what it means that this show does complex women both so well and so poorly. It may be a reflection of the limits of network television, the iron grip of the contemporary gender system on our thinking, or just failure of nerve or imagination on the part of the creative folk to push the envelope. Probably more than one of those.  But it is really interesting.