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The first series of 'Once Upon a Time' finished in the UK while I was away in Canada. After catching up I'm here as vaguely promised on Twitter to talk about all things Time related, but mostly about Regina the new female sociopath of my heart:


Spoilers for the first series of 'Once Upon a Time'.

I know, everyone who was around for my capslocked journey into the heart of 'The Vampire Diaries' is SHOCKED that Regina, darkly styled queen of evil, is the 'Once Upon a Time' character who has grabbed my imagination.

Line up of Queen Regina, Katherine from The Vampire Diaries and Isobel from The Vampire Diaries
Absolutely not an attempt to prompt crossover fanfic about a female league of super villains.

I mean, just look at all that evil fabulousness.

Before I talk about Regina and the rest of my favourite things about 'Once Upon a Time', let me quickly explain the premise for anyone who isn't familiar with this recent fantasy program. The program is split between a real life, present day story, which mostly proceeds in a linear direction and a fairy tale flashback narrative line, which follows some characters through linear timelines, but also sometimes skips around in time to follow new fairy tale characters. The present day story line takes place in Storybrooke (geddit?), a town where all the citizens are fictional characters thrown out of their realm by an evil curse that also transformed them into real life, twenty-first century people. With one or two exceptions, no one in the town remembers their fairy tale life. The curse keeps certain aspects of each person's storybook life intact, generally by translating their past activities into modern day job roles and romantic situations, for no apparent reason. Most episodes are split between following events in Storybrooke and exploring the 'past life' of one of Storybrooke's townspeople.

So, who was Regina in storybook land? Why, with those clothes and that house, she was obviously the evil queen:

Regina's home decorated in black and white with a bowl of red apples in shot

Specifically, the evil queen in Snow White's story. In fact, her hatred for Snow White caused her to unleash the realm shifting curse.

And what does she do in Storybrooke? Oh no big thing. She's just THE MAYOR!

Regina looking smug
It's good to be Mayor.

It's common for modern media to play around with the gender roles from traditional fairy tales, giving women more power than in the original tellings, or taking away troubling aspects of the original tales which otherwise make the heroines stories reinforce conservative gender norms. In series one, 'Once Upon a Time' follows this trend and aims to re-write the stories of some of the most prominent women in Western fairy tales, giving characters like Snow White more agency. When I first began to understand that 'Once Upon a Time' was deliberately setting out to flip the traditional roles and endings of many female fairy tale characters1Foz Meadows and Ana have talked about the uncomfortable, anti-feminist ramifications of Regina's dual character role. The evil queen is transformed into the mayor of Storybrooke. Read that again: evil female member of fairy tale royalty is turned into a career woman in a position of power, by a curse which seems to give people careers/lives, based on what it feels their fairy tale traits should translate into in the modern world. Uncomfortable. Couple that translation of character traits with the importance of Regina's role as a single mother and it looks like Regina is the place where all the good work of 'Once Upon a Time' falls over drunk. Foz Meadows breaks the problem down for all of us who were swept away by Regina's fantastic, evil hair and the secrets it surely contains:

'…all the FT characters appear IRL in positions and circumstances that are deliberately reflective of their fantastic origins. Cinderella is a maid; Red Riding Hood and Granny run a bakery-slash-guesthouse; the Huntsman is a Sheriff who also works at an animal shelter; Jiminy Cricket is a child psychiatrist; Snow White teaches primary school; Rumplestiltskin is a pawnbroker. All of those parallels very purposefully mean something: so when I see that the villainous, universally evil stepmother queen has turned into a career-driven single mother, it bothers me a lot…'

And Ana had similar things to say in comments on a ladybusiness post:

'Also, it bugged me that what being an evil queen translated into in the real world was being a single working mother in a position of political power. This is much less of a problem than it would otherwise be because of the sheer number of independent women doing awesome things in the cast, but still, meh :\'

I find their arguments smart and convincing. Regina's role in 'Once Upon a Time' is problematic. And despite the fact that the program passes the Bechdel test, despite other female friendly parts of the show and despite the high level of focus it places on women, it's always depressing when female friendly programs contain areas of feminist trouble. So, I understand why later in her post Foz says that this part of the program was a big deal breaker that kept her from watching further episodes:

'The Evil Queen is, quite literally, the mother of sexist archetypes, and it physically pains me that a show which otherwise takes such care to develop its female characters is content to have Regina simply be evil.'

I've been where Foz is before, turning off a female created, female focused program because srs, what is that thing you are doing over there show?2 Hell, I've avoided even watching female created, female focused programs because of negative commentary before now.3

However, this time with this show the simplistic and dodgy creation of Regina's character wasn't enough to throw me out of the world. This is a reaction that is totally due to my background, which makes it difficult to explain to anyone else because everyone's media/education/personal backgrounds are so different,4 but I can at least explain that this reaction means I've developed an interesting approach to programs which clearly want me to hate female villains. That approach is roughly equivalent to singing 'Lalala, I'm not listening, I do what I want.' and watching vids like this one on repeat:

Yes, I know I already put this up here at lady business once. And here it is again.

So, when it comes to this particular flawed, female focused program, I can personally get around the problems of Regina's set up by ignoring or actively re-configuring her character's story from a sympathetic perspective while watching episodes that don't spend a lot of time supporting such a perspective. I can live in a happy fantasy world that fits with my own ideas about female villains (she seems cool. at least she gets to do things and has plans. awww sympathetic crumb to cling to. smoking wardrobe. great action scene, etc, etc on and on).

Obviously, though this approach works for me, it doesn't change how canon really treats these characters, or how the program's canon relates to the real world. Unfortunately, while my own little mind may be busy loving Regina's character for reasons, the show does not actively encourage this love. As Ana said in her perceptive comments on my post 'Some of Our Ladies Are Missing':

'I LOVE how you continued to empathise with her even when she killed Graham - I did as well, but I got the distinct impression that the show very much didn't want me to; that this was being framed as a situation in which she was the only one being cruel and which was meant to cement her as really, really evil.'

The fact that I think Regina seems extremely cool also doesn't change the fact that her role in the program links up easily with stereotypical ideas about women in power, sexualised women and single mothers. Stereotypical ideas, I might add, which are heavily present in the very fairy tales that 'Once Upon a Time' appears to be desperate to critique. And I can create as much meta-commentary out of the program as I like, but that changes nothing within the canon that so many people see around the world. So, I probably wouldn't urge anyone to watch 'Once Upon a Time' because of Regina's inclusion or story line without putting some canon caveats on that rec.

No, if I were advancing reasons to watch 'Once Upon a Time', I'd concentrate on the way the program deals with the stories of a whole heap of female, secondary characters:

Ruby, Mary Margaret and Ashley clinking glasses in a bar
Wouldn't you love to see this lot fight crime together?

The best thing about 'Once Upon a Time', no question, is that it is so heavily focused on women and their stories. Looking specifically at the fairy tales shown in the first series, several well known stories which contain troublesome, anti-feminist elements are revisited and re-jigged. Snow White's story is remastered, giving its heroine the chance to exist as a kickass rebel on the run, who is just as capable of rescuing her prince as he is of rescuing her. Red Riding Hood's tale is lifted above a dire warning to curious girls, with undoubtedly a little inspirational help from 'The Company of Wolves'.

Seeing Snow White pull a sword may be fun to watch and undoubtedly a feminist subversion of her original story, but it's in the Storybrooke setting where the narrative's inclusion of female empowerment and focus on female stories is most sustained. Sure, the fairy tale narrative tells Snow's story in multiple episodes and evil Queen Regina shows up in many episodes. Cinderella, Red Riding Hood and Queen Regina all get individual episodes explaining their backstory and one of the female fairies shares an origins episode with a male character, as does Belle. But the fairy tale side of the program devotes just as much time to telling the stories of male characters like Charming, The Huntsman, Pinocchio, The Mad Hatter and the nebulous Rumplestiltskin.

In the Storybrooke setting, on the other hand, women rule and it is unusual to see much narrative focus given to the male characters. The women are empowered, even though their lives may hit bumps that cause them problems. The viewer frequently sees women working out their own issues, or helping other women. Heroines hold down jobs and reject caddish men who aren't as charming as they may have previously appeared. They have dreams and we get to hear about them. The program also often indicates that many of the women in Storybrooke are to be treated sympathetically; in fact it feels a lot like the creators are actively applying a feminist focus which in a lot of cases urges support for women in difficult situations. Ashley (Cinderella in her fairy tale life) is brought into the show unmarried and pregnant, but the program creators don't make the narrative attack her for that. Snow White's Storybrooke doppelganger, Mary Margaret, is cast off by the town as a home wrecker and yet the program encourages the viewer to remain sympathetic towards her.

Perhaps even more important is that in the Storybrooke setting women spend a lot of time interacting with each other, both positively and negatively. Sure, positive interaction between women is more of a rarity that negative interaction between women, but if you think about some popular programs and films from the past couple of years, any kind of in-depth interaction between women which doesn't involve men can be scarce in visual media. Piece after piece of media fails The Bechdel test, even though the test doesn't care if female characters shout at each other, as long as they talk. So when 'Once Upon a Time' really gets behind the idea that women should talk at all, it is doing something special.

In any case, both the real world, present day story line and the fairy tale flashback narratives concentrate on telling women's stories. Sounds simple right? But I bet you can think of plenty of big name programs and films focused on men where women barely exist, and the production of visual media that focuses on men to the exclusion of women never really seems to slow down. To put this achievement of 'Once Upon a Time' in fanish terms, it's a true marvel to see a program where it is much more difficult to ship male characters together than it is to ship female characters together. The men barely ever speak to each other, while the women spend scene after scene talking and forming connections of importance - ships ahoy.

And if I were seriously trying to get you hooked on 'Once Upon a Time' I might mention another female main character:

Emma Swan in red leather jacket

Again, for those of you who haven't watched the show, that is Emma Swan and she's destined to save Storybrooke. She just doesn't quite believe that for most of the series.

Emma is the child of fairy tale characters Snow and Charming who smuggled her out of their land just before the curse struck. She then had her own child, Henry, who she gave up for adoption:

Henry grinning
I know you're not supposed to judge children but Henry is kind of a pill.

At the beginning of series one Henry arrives on Emma's doorstep, determined to bring her to Storybrooke, where he lives as Regina's son. Sounds kind of implausible right? I'd just roll with it, things are about to get soooo good.

Emma follows Henry home, to return him to his adoptive mother, but ends up embroiled in Storybrooke life and stays in town for, um, reasons. The lack of plot plausibility here isn't really important, just know that she stays and that Henry keeps bugging her about how she's the only one who can break the fairy tale curse. Being a realist, Emma refuses to believe him, but plays along mostly, again for rather unconvincing reasons. Now she has to interact with people and do things in Storybrooke. Good job narrative team, you've put your heroine in the place she needs to be to have a part in the story and most importantly in a place where viewers can marvel at her wonders.

Because Emma is kind of wonderful. She is first introduced into the story pulling your regulation #strongfemalecharacter ass kicking in a skin tight dress, while on the job as a bounty hunter. That display of physical strength and smarts is cool, but if that strength were the only side to Emma's character she might be fun to watch but she wouldn't be that interesting to think about. So aren't we all lucky that Emma is both a high functioning lady and a complex, at times messy character! Over the course of the series she becomes Sheriff, solves mysteries, spits out harsh, dead-pan one liners (feminist and otherwise), punches people andtries to make a run out of Storybrooke/ away from Henry, makes friends with other ladies, freaks out about romance and is generally just a person, a really interesting one at that.

Character change is something the audience often looks for in fiction; an arc that takes character from A to B, maybe back to A again and then to final destination C where the audience must leave the character (until the fanfic is written) because the canon story is over. The biggest change in Emma's character over the course of the first series is her transformation from a woman who didn't want to keep her child and felt she had made the right decision, to a woman who wants to fight for custody of that child, at first because she believes he is in danger and then because she learns to love him. Fairy tales often contain complicated family relationships, from the daughter hunted by the stepmother (Snow White), to the children sent away by their parents (Hansel and Gretel). Most commonly the important familial relationship centres around mothers. The creators of 'Once Upon a Time' have implanted complicated mother/child relationships, like those you might find in traditional fairy stories, into their first series and use those relationships as the driving force for large parts of the Storybrooke plot. In some cases, like Emma and Henry's relationship, the program's creators have tried to break the fairy tale curse that seems to affect mothers in the traditional stories. In the context of fairy tales, it's a departure from tradition to examine what might happen when the biological mother in a fairy tale isn't dead (hurray) and is pushed into a situation where she spends time with that child and his non-biological mother.

However, the show also displays a discomforting tendency to reinforce typical ideas about adoption and motherhood, especially with regard to the pattern of bad or evil 'unnatural' mothers that are scattered liberally through fairy tales in the guise of stepmothers. Viewers can discard the possibility of reading Emma's growing attachment to Henry as a reinforcement of a traditional, conservative cry that adoption is something mothers will regret, if they feel Emma's story is too individual to act purely as a re-enforcement of that particular negative representation. 'Once Upon a Time' is certainly clear about the fact that women have the choice to give up their children for adoption and that it is a perfectly fine choice to make, as it has Emma, the heroine, make statements reinforcing the right to choose when Ashley is wondering whether to give up her baby. My own problem with the way this program portrays motherhood lies in two places. It is a reinforcement of dominant traditional narratives to create a failed adoption storyline (traditional narrative number one). And making a non-biological mother who is also an evil fairy tale queen (traditional narrative number two) the antagonist in this failed adoption storyline shows a lack of awareness of the multi-layered ways in which fairy tales represent troubling stereotypes of women. In other words, the program demonstrates an understanding of some typical feminist concerns surrounding princess narratives, by making changes to traditional fairy tale princesses and their stories which gives the heroines of these stories more control over their lives. However, it does not show an understanding of the problems associated with the narratives of other types of women who appear in fairy tales, as it presents these women traditionally, without making any changes to particular problem areas of their stories.

I have to mention Regina's origin story while we're talking about the programs attitude to mothers, partly because I know Ana hasn't seen it yet and I want to convince her to watch that episode so we can talk about it. Eventually, in an episode where young, pre-evil fairy tale Regina is shown to the viewers, we see what made Regina dislike Snow so much that she set her heart on, well, cutting out Snow's own bloody heart and cackling maniacally over it. Regina grew up controlled by a mother who uses magic to make her change a dashing coat and breeches she so admires, for a dress so that she can become an object for an important man's eye. When Regina rides energetically and confidently, her mother sighs, reminds everyone that Regina is growing into an old maid and physically binds her daughter with magic when she dares to argue. While Regina's power crazed mother may be her biological mother, which makes her slightly different from the traditional evil step-mother figures, she absolutely fits a broad trend that exists within traditional fairy tales: mothers are dead saints or evil witches. Importantly the controlling actions of Regina's mother lead to Regina first taking the role as a non-biological mother, when she becomes Snow's stepmother. So, although it's difficult to say that her mother's own scary personality directly warps Regina into the bitter, revenge seeking wearer of gothic clobber that she becomes, when we look at the canon material closely, there's a possible implicit and intriguing link there — wicked (and crucially alive) natural mothers eventually make for wicked daughters who turn into wicked 'unnatural' mothers. Interesting that it never seems as if Henry is in danger of being warped by Regina's personality...

Although the inclusion of Regina's mother and her origin story contain feminist concerns for me, that whole episode was so affecting (except for the child actor playing small Snow, who was unnecessarily earnest about everything). It's a very strong reinforcement of the horror of being controlled by someone with so much more power than you possess5. That message is reinforced by Regina's mother's power being supernatural, the kind of force that is often difficult for a non-magical mortal to circumvent. And of course, being the Regina fangirl that I am, this episode was just the kind of material I've been waiting for. Villains with sad pasts, especially sad pasts which contain people being all anti-feminist, oh you have my heart forever:

Spike and Faith from Buffy
Characters like this are my fantasy media watching origins. There is no hope for me, I'm afraid.

Which I suppose leads me nicely on to:

image manipulation which shows half Mr Gold and half Rumplestiltskin joined together
Finally understand what people mean by the phrase 'disturbingly attractive'.

The other chief villain of Storybrooke is Mr Gold, who has been transformed by the curse from Rumplestiltskin (in this version an evil character who has powers that go way beyond turning straw into gold), into a prosperous, influential antiques dealer. While the curse fulfills a lot of Regina's wishes, it's worth noting that while Mr Gold was also an evil fairy tale character who appeared to collaborate with Regina, the curse is not a perfect fit for him. In the fairy tale world, he's the one people bargain with because he holds the highest power, which is higher even than Regina's. He can always twist a situation to his advantage. In Storybrooke he's still a player, but he's not as in control without magic and he has to work a lot harder to get his schemes to triumph over Regina's than he would if he were in possession of all his magic.

At least…this is the official line that Gold seems to believe and that viewers are encouraged to agree with for a time. In my opinion this line is a total crock; Gold's lack of power vs. Rumplestiltskin's security in power is a fantasy that Gold sadly buys into, despite all indications to the contrary, because he's convinced himself that magic brings total power and, more importantly, that its absence brings total weakness. This belief comes out of the fear about being returned to the good but frightened, abused man he was before he gained magic. He doesn't want to be the man who ran away from war, or the man who literally licked another man's boot because he was threatened. He is ashamed of the man he was before he was filled with dark magic and as a consequence has become addicted to magic as a source of power, to the point where he cannot be satisfied with the very high level of non-magical status he achieves in Storybrooke.

In reality Gold is anything but powerless in Storybrooke. Yes, Ana this is my way of saying 'I agree, Gold was always running the show behind the scenes'. There are few things that he can't control (although there is one major incident that gets past him). Regina is not the biggest dog in the Storybrooke park and, as Ana so rightly said earlier this year, that has gendered implications. I think those implications are largely generated by the culture the program exists in and the media trends it's surrounded by, but it would still be nice if, as the program has set up a powerful evil lady who achieves a real world position of authority, she could be the most powerful, evil person in all the land. Why undercut her authority by giving her mayoral power and magical power, but making it impossible for her to triumph because of an all powerful male character who can beat her even without magic? Gold's character may fascinate me, although probably not quite as much as his fairy tale incarnation Rumplestiltskin, but it's hard to deal with his ability to win at everything even when the viewer thinks he's lost. Sure, Regina manages to get a significant one over on him until right at the end of the series, by hiding his true love's Storybrooke incarnation in a basement, but that is nothing compared with the clever series of manipulations that Gold effects throughout the series.

It's also really disappointing that Rumplestiltskin gets several episodes which generate a certain amount of sympathy and understanding for his character, while Regina is afforded just one sympathetic episode. Why the imbalance? When I said at the start of this post that Regina captures my imagination, I partly meant that I have to imagine her, because she is so far the most underdeveloped main character in this program. I seem to spend a lot of time talking and thinking about how people could write female characters who remain evil without making them the same pale, sexist cut outs we've seen for years now, and one of the things I think would really help is if writers spent more time showing their audience more about these female characters. By the end of series one Gold is still an antagonist, a sympathetic one yes, but at the same time, a disturbing character who is still aligned with evil. And that delicate blend of viewer sympathy and fear was achieved simply by devoting multiple episodes to his back story where every aspect of his character could be explored. Doing something similar for Regina would have given viewers a fantastic character, without taking away her evil streak and robbing the story of a marvelous villain.

There are still a lot of questions to be answered in this program, before we can determine who has really won in this game of evil. Why did Gold give Regina the curse even though he knew this would strip him of the magical power he craves? How did both characters preserve their knowledge of the curse, when really they should have forgotten all about it just like every other magical person in Storybrooke? And crucially, how will the narrative confirm a winner? Will it elevate the person who ends up with the most power, or the one who ends up with the most humanity? All that aside, at the end of series one it seems like Gold is winning and Regina is losing by miles. The evil ladies pf TV are already generally losing to the golden haired male heroes, they really don't need creators to be foisting evil, unbeatable male competition on them as well.

Although I'm planning to come back for series two of 'Once Upon a Time', I do so with hopefully a much more farseeing eye thanks to two great commentators. But I will also return with a lot of love in my heart and probably with unreasonable expectations. Mulan is going to be in the second series! How could I not be in for Mulan? For now I will be getting on with productive things until the new series turns up. You will absolutely not find me watching angsty Swan Queen videos:


Top five moments


Rumplestiltskin catching Belle, she looks at him with love
This may be most confusing ship I’ve ever committed to.

The romance between Rumplestiltskin and Belle has to be a contender for my favourite romance. He kept a chipped teacup because she dropped it! That may actually be my nomination for most romantic moment of the series.

It feels intensely weird to ship such an evil character, with such bad teeth, and one of my favourite princesses, but apparently this is a thing I am doing now. I think part of my love for this pairing is down to actor choice. It’s Tess from Roswell kissing Robert Carlyle from amazing British cinema, after all. But I’m also fascinated by Rumplestiltskin’s character and kind of desperate for him to have something close to a redemptive storyline. I just want all my villains to be happy, ok! Plus, Belle chooses a life with him and then chooses to fall in love with him, despite the restrictions of this life, because she thinks it will be and adventure. Her reasons for making this choice go beyond ‘sacrificing self for others’ and maybe I swooned a little at a lady making a tough choice with relish in her eyes, instead of fear. Can she save him? I don’t know and I don’t really care. I’m not even sure Belle really cares (prove me wrong second series). I just want them to be together. I’m so excited that she accepts him for what he is and I love that he worships her wonderfulness. I know, I know, I have no morals when it comes to media.

2.) ‘Snow Falls’ shows the first meeting between Snow and Charming. Their relationship begins with snark and hatred, but by the end of the episode they both respect each other and love is beginning to grow between them. I know that love comes on quite fast between Snow and Charming, but even so I find their story adorable.

3.) When Emma saves Regina from the fire in ‘Desperate Souls’. Yay, my ship is on track!

4.) ‘Hat Trick’ is kind of a bizarre episode in terms of the show’s continuity. In a sudden departure from its core concept, the creators decide that it’s not just fairy tale characters that got dragged into Storybrooke by the curse, but also characters from ‘Alice in Wonderland’. Jefferson knows about the curse, but the program doesn’t deign to explain why he’s so much more aware than the rest of Storybrooke. At the same time, I really enjoyed the pacing and feel of the episode, probably because it’s full of disturbing tension. Oh and Emma gets to knock out Jefferson the creeper. I always enjoy episodes where Emma hits someone.

5.) To finish, a tiny moment of little significance, but one that makes me happy. In ‘An Apple Red as Blood’ Red comes out of the forest and Grumpy points out that she has ‘something on her chin’. She quickly wipes away blood and we’re reminded again that Red is the awesome lady werewolf of this series. In ‘Red-Handed’ she discovered that she was the wolf everyone in her village had always been afraid of. While she was initially horrified by the knowledge (when she finds out, she has just murdered the love of her life), in later episodes she begins embracing her wolf skills in small ways that help her friend Snow. This casual swiping away of blood, made me feel like she was getting closer to being happy as a wolf


1 I'll come back to this later.

2 'The Hour' if anyone is wondering. I did go back and watch it eventually, but that first episode had too much male special snowflake and dead-girl-as-plot for me to really see the 'ladies, starting a news program' aspect clearly.

3 'Girls' and 'Two Broke Girls' spring to mind.

4 Pretty illustrative of how I feel about evil ladies.

5 I wonder why I've never seen a novel that examines what happens when your parents have magic and you don't, as it seems like that would be ripe pickings for a novel full of conflict. Maybe this novel already exists? If so, let me know please!

Further Reading

'Once Upon a Time' team: We show women who aren't afraid of power
The Evolution of Snow White

Date: 2012-11-19 09:17 am (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
"When I said at the start of this post that Regina captures my imagination, I partly meant that I have to imagine her, because she is so far the most underdeveloped main character in this program."

I know just what you mean, and yeah, the imbalance is really common :\ Even in Buffy, Drusilla and Darla never get anywhere near as developed as Angel and Spike. And in Avatar Azula was better, but Zuko still steals the show. I love me some complicated male villains, but can we please have some ladies too?

Going through your favourite moments, I realised I stopped watching before most of them. Really curious about the whole Red thing now. And Belle too!


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