Mom & Pop Culture: Once Upon A Remake

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.


Promotional poster for ABC's new drama, Once Upon A Time. A Close up shot of Emma Swan, a white woman with blonde hair, played by Jennifer Morrison.


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.

Further reading:
Why Are The ‘New, Modern’ Interpretations Of Snow White So… White? [Jezebel]
What a Difference a Strong Snow White Makes [Ms. Blog]

Previously: When (My Little Pony) Remakes Get it Right, Remakes—Why Do They Have To Ruin Everything?

by Avital Norman Nathman
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Avital Norman Nathman is a freelance writer and fulltime feminist killjoy. Find her tweeting @TheMamafesto

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10 Comments Have Been Posted

The posters

I really, really like that they didn't sex up the female characters in the marketing posters!

Once Upon a time is very

Once Upon a time is very enjoyable but the story line is a bit predictable and there are plot holes that are beginning to form over stupid, easily fix able things. Still, it's a fresh revamp of the same old thing. Snow White's kick ass remodel was cool to see and it's nice that they have the struggle between bio-mom and the adopted mother, something that actually happens in real life. Red ridding hood or as my mom says little riding hoe, has turned from member of the highest fairy tale council to showy teenager brat.I didn't personally like that.

Show has alot of promise and i hope they break from the Disney mold completely. Lovely article.

America: Land of the Fairy Tale?

Admittedly my biggest annoyance with this show is the Americanization of what are essentially European fables - it's bad enough that Beauty and the Beast has only one character with a French accent (how does that even happen, exactly? Weren't they all French?! Why give any of them an accent?). To me this is just nonsense - if you want to talk about how non-white people tend to be villified, isn't it equally problematic that American media not only claims any story that suits their fancy as their own and that Americans are more often than not portrayed as the heroes? Plus, I cannot get over Jennifer Morrison with blonde hair... which is neither here nor there, but it is just not working for me.


I have only seen two or three episodes of this (and not the one with the scene you describe with a Snow White with agency), but I have come away with a very *anti* feminist slant.

In particular, the scene <<HUGE spoilers ahead>>

where the Evil Queen (the one character who embraces her adult sexuality, as evidenced in her costuming) is desperate to get revenge on Snow White for taking away something she felt was hers, and discovers that the all-powerful curse spell she took from Pam the vampire (oops, this isn't True Blood) requires a sacrifice of something she truly loves. This turns out to be the heart of her father, who is portrayed as a kindly old man who does his best to take care of and serve her. In fact, the Queen herself says something to the effect that he is the only one who really looks out for her. So she kills him and sets her spell in motion.

Now, the Queen is (as far as I've seen) given no redeeming qualities. There is no question that she is meant to be the villain. I think in the scene above she can be seen as the embodiment of what a certain kind of conservative thinks a feminist is - a bitter woman who is jealous of a what a good girl got that she didn't, who teams up with other non-normative people to get her revenge, and eventually literally kills the patriarchy. Then she is transported to the modern Storybrooke and becomes a single mom with a career that gives her real power, and she is still the villain - cold and manipulative.

So far, only the women who behave themselves are portrayed as deserving of our (the audience's) sympathy. The good guys are thin and white and pretty, and the villains dress in black and are frequently dirty, old, deformed, or inhuman. This show isn't challenging stereotypes at all.

I definitely suggest checking

I definitely suggest checking out the episode where we get more back story on Snow White & the Prince (episode 3, I think?). While I don't think this show is revolutionizing television, I do think (amidst all the crap that's out there) they're at least attempting to change some things.

Re: the Evil Queen. I actually thought it was somewhat refreshing that when she was told to get the heart of somebody she loves, that she went for her father rather than a "true love." It made it less about her seeking revenge because she's a jilted lover, and more because of a personal vendetta (whatever that is).

I'm especially curious to get more back story on the Queen and the hunstman, especially after the ending scene in the latest episode. It definitely hints at multiple layers to the Queen/Mayor and I'm cautiously curious as to how that will play out.

I agree that the show maintains some stereotypes, and even when they try to break out of it (Cinderella's godmother was black) it falls a bit short (...but only lasted all of 2 minutes before she was killed). However, I'm still a fan of a show that will have a lead female character that doesn't trade on her looks but rather her skill to become a heroine.

Hmm... I guess I only watch

Hmm... I guess I only watch shows that have a lead female character that doesn't trade on her looks but rather her skill to become a heroine. Castle, Bones, Haven, Parks and Recreation. There are enough of them out there that that alone isn't enough for me. Certainly a lot of this is a matter of taste. I don't care for fairy tales much to start with, so I'm not likely to cut them a lot of slack. Maybe if I run out of things to watch, I will give this a second chance.

Speaking of fairy tales

Speaking of fairy tales remakes, there's an interesting one coming out - Sleeping Beauty by Julia Leigh. Quite overwhelming piece of cinema.

Motherhood competition

I have actually found the dramatic competition between Emma and the "Evil Stepmother" for the right to mother to be very troubling. Any real child facing this kind of adult competition would be very insecure and depressed. The only thing keeping the poor little boy sane is his belief in an alternate reality, and that only works in this case because his belief happens to represent reality - it's everyone else's experience of reality that is incorrect. It seems like a very unhealthy dynamic for that poor child. Even though there is no "Prince Charming" coming forward for either woman, and the single mother angle is an important innovation for the Mayor, there is no single adult saying "You are my son, and I will protect you no matter what." Emma, set up as the good "Mom," cannot provide protection for her son, and the boy's legal guardian and the woman who has put her time and energy into supporting, protecting, and loving him is constantly portrayed as restricting him and keeping him from the truth, as well as being "evil." Neither woman is portrayed as being capable of providing a loving, stable home for him *by herself.* I find the competition creepy and misogynistic.

I realize this is an old thread, but I'm just Netflixing this...

And the show really bothers me.

I'm with of the most central relationships in the story is this whirling subtext of Who Makes The Better Mother for Henry? The show obviously points to the newcomer, the birth mother, our heroine. It's nice that she is portrayed as compassionate and strong, yay. In the first episode, the adoptive mother states that Henry is her son and points out that she changed every diaper, fixed every boo-boo. And this is true. Yet, you are shown over and over and over again that the birth mother is clearly the best person to take care of Henry.

I really hate this in fiction. Because it is fiction. And it feeds this crazy idea that women, through the act of giving birth, are somehow magically transformed into fit, perfect mothers. And that non-birth mothers such as adoptive parents and stepmothers, are just evil and inferior.

I love fiction. I'm as sick of the Golden Uterus Theorem as I am of princesses.

This bugs the crap out of me.
Yours truly,
Stepmother Who Loves her Skid, thank you very much

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