[Spoilers through the last episode of Season 1]
Prince Charming states, “You’re a girl.”
Snow White corrects him before knocking him out with a rock, “Woman.”
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been avidly watching the first season of the TV show “Once Upon a Time,” and finished it last weekend. Although I haven’t heard many people talking about this show, it’s really entertaining, beautiful, and gruesome. Of course, I’m always watching for stereotyping and gender roles, and the show seems to fulfill some traditional gender roles while turning others upside down. The premise of the show is that an evil queen (and witch) decides to get revenge on Snow White and other fairy tale characters by transporting the characters to our world. The characters have no memories of their former lives, and the show explores both worlds in the first season. While the story line in our world develops chronologically, the fairy tale world is explored out of order.
As I’ve discussed in previous posts, I appreciate character development and exploration of identity. Since the characters don’t remember who they are, many of them are struggling with aspects of identity and feeling unfulfilled in their lives in our world. Although there are criticisms of Maslow’s hierarchy, the psychological concept, the characters begin to self-actualize and determine who they are throughout the season. However, the evil queen, determined to make them suffer, blocks them at every turn.
Many sociologists and others have critiqued Disney’s movies and heroines for various reasons, including ethnocentrism, racism, and sexism. Speaking to gender, most, if not all, of the princesses reified traditional, US femininity. For purposes of this blogpost, I’m going to focus solely on Snow White, due to the fact that her life is the central focus of Season 1 of “Once Upon A Time.” In the original Disney film from 1937, Snow White is hated by her step-mother for her beauty, and Snow White becomes the victim of her step-mother’s nefarious plotting. Snow White is essentially enslaved by her step-mother and is the target of a murder plot because the magic mirror informs her step-mother that Snow White is the fairest. Although this likely refers to outward beauty, which lends itself to objectification, it may also relate to the fact that Snow White also fulfills many traditional feminine gender roles like being kind, caring, and hard working, at least in terms of cleaning. Eventually, she falls victim to a plot with an poisoned apple and is revived by “true love’s” kiss by Prince Charming.
In “Once Upon a Time,” in the fairy tale world, Snow’s story is woven over the course of the season. It turns out that, as a girl, she fulfilled some of the gender roles of her predecessor, but then her step-mother, the Queen, decides to get revenge for an event that happened when Snow was a child. Snow has to flee the huntsman, but she becomes a warrior and a thief to take care of herself in the forest. She does become friends with the Dwarves, but she doesn’t have the same relationship with them. While she meets her “Prince Charming,” she steals valuables from his carriage. He chases her down and reacts with surprise that she’s a woman, leading to the interaction and dialogue included in the beginning of this post. One of my pet peeves that I occasionally slip into myself is calling grown women, “girls,” which infantilizes us. I think this interaction encapsulates the key components of this incarnation of Snow White. She is action oriented and dominant while standing up for herself and others. She doesn’t conform to the gender roles of her own society, nor our society’s traditional gender roles. Eventually, they both rescue one another from danger. Snow White and “Prince Charming” marry, and the evil Queen comes to destroy everyone’s happiness. The gigantic spell carries them all to our world. They save their infant daughter, Emma, from the curse by sending her to our world. She is raised in the foster care system, has a child at a young age that she gives up for adoption, and comes to Storybrook when he needs her help. Emma is also not a traditional heroine based on US values.
In the fairy tale world, Snow is not shown as a demure person who fulfills the gender roles expected of her. In the “real” world of Storybrook, Maine, she, like all the characters, have no memories of her past. Here, she is a school teacher, fulfilling her gender roles. Occasionally, her old personality asserts itself in startling ways throughout the season. She begins having an affair, and eventually gets called names like “tramp” by the other characters. This looks at how sexism remains in our culture, where women are often censured more than men for their sexuality. (Men are also subject to social control when it comes to affairs.) To spoil the end of season 1, Snow’s daughter, Emma, saves her own son with “true love’s” kiss. Although this is a refreshing change to the traditional idea that “true love” is romantic love, in some ways, it still relates to traditional gender roles. Emma gave up her son at birth, and the show is developing her road back to motherhood. While I enjoyed this plotline, I also think that it reinforces traditional gender roles for women. On the other hand, Emma is shown repeatedly to enact masculine gender roles.
I look forward to seeing how the show handles gender roles in Season 2 as more characters begin to show up. It’d be illuminating to explore the gender roles of villains in the show, too.
What examples of gender roles do you see in Season 1 of “Once Upon a Time”? What examples are there that bend the rules?