We all know Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and others. Disney latched on to these classic fairy tales starting in the mid-20th century, and they began churning out princess after princess—treating these traditional stories as a marketers’ wet dream, resting on the faith that people will continue to not only buy into these stories, but also into the massive amount of marketing and branding that surround them.
But just because these stories remain popular doesn’t mean they’re any less unsettling when you start to pick them apart. Though these tales of adventure and danger were once cautionary and lesson-filled, they now perpetuate stereotypes (mostly thanks to the “Disneyfication” of them). Women are portrayed as wide-eyed, naive, weak girls (always white, cis gender, and heterosexual) that only find their happily ever after once they’re saved by a stereotypically masculine prince. With rare exception, people of color are reserved for villains, servants, or not included at all.
Even with the multitude of remakes (television, movies, Broadway, etc…), very rarely do writers and producers seek to infuse a little imagination and creativity, absolving these stories from the tired tropes they’ve come to push.
So it was with a bit of trepidation and some skepticism that I chose to watch ABC’s new drama, Once Upon A Time. The concept is simple, but intriguing enough that it caught my interest. The Evil Queen cast a spell on all the familiar fairy-tale characters we know and (sometimes) love, forcing them to live in the town of Storybrooke, Maine in present day. Everyone is in the dark about their fairy tale past, except for a little boy named Henry, the adopted son of the town’s mayor (the Evil Queen).
As life unfolds in Storybrooke, we’re treated to flashbacks of the characters’ past fairy-tale lives, and they’re not always as the classics dictate. Snow White was a rogue bandit, living in the forest after something (still unknown) went down between her and the Queen. Unlike the classic tale, we get to see a fearless Snow White steal from James, who she dubs “Prince Charming” in her own cheekily snarky way. While the prince does indeed save her from the queen’s knights, Snow turns the tables and ends up saving the prince from a gang of trolls. In this shaken-up fairy tale, both the prince and Snow White are equally badass (actually Snow might be a touch more badass…).
Familiar tropes do still exist, however—you can’t escape the fairy-tale archetypes we’ve come to know, like the evil stepmother. But at the same time, they’ve taken her for a spin, making the Storybrooke version of the Evil Queen a single working mother with a powerful position as town mayor. Not only is this remarkable for a fairy-tale remake, but for prime-time television in general.
Once Upon A Time also takes on a series of other issues that only occasionally make their way into other TV shows. Young pregnancy, adoption, and what “makes” a mother is looked at when Henry’s biological mother, Emma Swan, enters the picture. In fact, with Emma’s introduction comes a slight feminist twist to the story.
Emma is a bail bondswoman that arrives at Henry’s behest, as he is convinced that she is the only one who can save the inhabitants of Storybrooke. Emma isn’t waiting for her own Prince Charming to save the day, or even help her save the day. She’s not pining over a guy, cleaning up after seven dwarfs, or fretting over what to wear. Instead, Emma trusts her instincts, ability to read people as she attempts to figure out the truth about Storybrooke.
Creating a strong female lead that is equal parts intelligent, beautiful and caring (rather than the cold & calculating stereotype that occasionally befalls “strong” women characters), certainly grabbed my interest, and I can only hope the show keeps on infusing a feminist sensibility that I’ve already seen glimpses of as it continues.
While the show hasn’t worked out all the issues with “Disneyfied” fairy tales, it certainly is a step in the right direction. My son may not be old enough yet to watch Once Upon A Time with me, but the show still gives me a bit of hope that fresh, creative takes on the classics are possible, so that as he grows up he can see that there’s not just one path to that happy ending.