There has been a fair bit written about Brave and how it provides us with a princess character who is active, who guides her own fate and who is shown fighting and doing other things. It has led me to think a bit more about Once Upon A Time and how it presents strong women characters guiding their own destiny. I still haven’t finished season one, and I haven’t watched every episode, so my analysis may be bounded by this. However, there are some key aspects of the show which make it an interesting addition to both the “princess” genre, and also mainstream television in general.
Firstly, this is the story of three women. Overwhelmingly, the story is about the SnowWhite/Mary Margaret – Evil Queen/Mayor – Emma relationship and the struggle between the three women. While Prince Charming/David gets a look in, his character is more about enabling the Snow White/Mary Margaret story than being important in his own right. In fact, his Storybrook character is actually unconscious for the first few episodes. These three characters are the heart of the story and the conflict between Emma and Regina the Mayor/Evil Queen is the driving narrative force. Even when Rumplestiltskin/Mr Gold is about, he is usually enabling or assisting the main characters.
Secondly, all these women are strong and active. While Mary Margaret in Storybrook can be a little on the passive side, in her alternate and original life as Snow White, she is a skilled archer and fighter who can look after herself, trade with trolls and generally make a life for herself in the forest. She seeks solutions to her own problems and certainly does not sit around waiting for a man to help her. She and Prince Charming trade rescues and assistance – she is definitely not always on the receiving end.
Emma is central character of the show and she is definitely not a passive princess. As someone who has had to tke care of herself all her life, she presents a strong, independent character who will fight for what is important to her. As Henry’s birth mother she is intially reluctant to bond with him, but she manages to combine maternal ferocity with single independent woman strength. As Snow White’s daughter, she demonstrates the same characteristics as Snow, resilience and determination, a fierce sense of right and wrong and ability to fight for what she believes in.
While Regina is definitely evil, she still represents another strong woman character. She does not rely on men – in fact she is more likely to kill them off if they get in her way. She knows what she wants, and while what she wants is pretty awful, she works hard to achieve it. Her evil does not make her bereft of maternal instincts and she cares for Henry her adoptive son. She does show a determination which is admirable, even if we can’t admire the ends she strives to appear.
Interestingly, some of the other female fairy-tale characters who pop up have been rewritten to take on much more active characteristics than they have had traditionally – Red Riding Hood is a werewolf who learns to control her powers while her Granny wasn’t eaten by a wolf – she was the wolf. This retelling of fairystories to children who haven’t necessarily been exposed to the traditional versions of these tales as thoroughly as generations before them could help to reset ideas about princesses and women characters more generally. Once Upon A Time may not be Game of Thrones in terms of televisual and narrative quality, but it is a program one can watch with one’s children and which can promote an idea of woman characters as strong and self-determining. I’m hoping the rest of the season doesn’t change this.