Once Upon a Time is a show about Disney-trademarked fairy tale characters cursed to live in the modern world. That may sound like a recipe for horribleness, but it actually pretty fun. The show is helped by having three great female leads: Snow White, her daughter Emma (who by a time warp is also an adult—okay, whatever), and her evil stepmother Regina. Rather than being the flat princesses you might fear from a show about Disney fairy tales, all three are flawed and multidimensional characters who embody traits that are both stereotypically masculine and feminine.
In this new version of the classic story, Snow White is simultaneously a bow-wielding bandit and an elementary school teacher who makes birdhouses for fun and Emma is a street-smart sheriff who is opening herself up to being loved by her family. The writers put effort into making “evil stepmother” Regina a complex character—although she flips between “good” and “evil” fast enough to give any viewer whiplash. It’s rare to see a cast that has so many dynamic female characters—beyond these three there are Red Riding Hood, Granny, Belle, Mulan, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella.
It would be great to send a feminist high-five in ABC’s direction and unabashedly recommend this show to all my friends for its great representation. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have great representation when it comes to race. Once Upon a Time has an enormous cast—around 20 regulars plus lots of side characters—and an embarrassingly small number of people of color.
With the exception of Mulan, every single one of the “good guy” characters is white. Each time a character of color is introduced, the countdown begins until they will inevitably die or reveal themselves as villains. Over the course of two seasons, Once Upon a Time has introduced four characters of color (Cinderella’s fairy godmother, Lancelot, Billy the Mouse, and The Red Dragon) only to kill each of them off before they’ve even finished out one episode. Most of the surviving characters of color, Mr. Glass. Tamara, and Regina, are villains. (Although Regina often tries to redeem herself, her telling Henry that she needs to kill everyone in the town so he can finally see her as a hero doesn’t make her seem like a very good person.) While having villains of color isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s a little bit ridiculous when all of the non-white people are evil. [Editor’s note: Thanks to the readers who pointed out that Lana Parilla, who plays Regina, is Latina. The paragraph has been updated.]
The show doesn’t need to be some feel-good Captain Planet-style diversity squad, but it would be a more interesting and representative show if some of the many, many storylines revolved around characters of color you could root for.
The token “good guy” character of color is Mulan, who has only featured in a handful of episodes. While the Disney movie version of Mulan is great—in my opinion—Once Upon a Time’s Mulan’s entire back-story has been erased (no China in The Enchanted Forest). Instead of having her own self-motivated story of becoming a warrior, Mulan in the show is motivated solely by an unrequited love for Sleeping Beauty’s Prince Philip. Perhaps most counter to the movie-version of Mulan, she loudly judges Sleeping Beauty for being too feminine and therefore, in Mulan’s eyes, weak and useless. Great.
What’s so awesome about Once Upon A Time is that it has a chance to reinterpret classic Disney narratives from our childhoods and mess with narrative norms. The original Disney princesses have been criticized for being white, thin, sexualized, and only interested in romantic happy endings. The most fun and compelling parts of Once Upon a Time are when the show rewrites fairy tale expectations and plays on those tropes we all know. It’s genuinely exciting when we’re introduced to a Red Riding Hood who is also the Big Bad Wolf or an Evil Queen who is also trying to be a loving mother. The show has the possibility of having an interesting, fun, feminist take on fairy tales, and there is no excuse for such a world to be Whites Only.
The other great thing about Once Upon a Time is that it’s all about exploring the contrast between the happy-ending fairy tale world and the real world where the characters have to face modern problems. My favorite storylines in the show are when Cinderella, for example, has to deal with an unintended pregnancy and when Prince Charming has an affair. It would therefore make sense for the show to discuss race—what would it be like if fairy tale characters lived in our racist society? How would good and evil manifest themselves in relation to privilege and oppression? By having such a homogenous cast, Once Upon a Time is missing an opportunity a truly unique show that deals with modern issues we can’t ignore.
The spinoff show Once Upon a Time in Wonderland is premiering this fall, and it appears to be a mix of Alice in Wonderland and Aladdin (with Alice being in love with the Genie). Unfortunately, it looks like it’s going to run into a similar problem as its predecessor. The cast of characters appears all white except for Naveen Andrews who has been cast as Jafar: another villain of color, and another white heroine. Seriously, where are Aladdin and Jasmine or…anyone else besides Jafar?