Bending and Conforming to Gender Roles: “Once Upon A Time” Season 1

[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?




Filed under Fantasy, Sociology, TV Show Reviews

7 responses to “Bending and Conforming to Gender Roles: “Once Upon A Time” Season 1

  1. Octavia

    I’ve loved “Once Upon A Time” since it began airing due to my extreme love of fairy tales and particularly “twisted fairy tales” in which classics are re-imagined in contemporary ways. While I share some of your concerns and annoyances about the gendered depictions, I find that the show is definitely feminist in its viewpoint. The women are the central characters and are seen saving themselves and those around them on multiple occasions. However, “Once Upon A Time” doesn’t simply invert the traditional fairy tale mold and make the women the heroes; instead, it shows them as multidimensional people that have unique strengths and weaknesses which help them to navigate the world around them.

    The more troubling aspect for me is the lack of ethnic diversity and extreme ethnocentrism displayed. While the show works to deconstruct at least some gender norms and present multidimensional women, people of color are practically nonexistent in Storybrook or the Enchanted Forest realm and when they do make an appearance, they are lackeys to their more powerful white counterparts.

    *Spoiler alert* Season two begins to rectify the lack of POC characters by introducing two clearly “ethic” central characters within the first episodes, but still fails to begin breaking down racial/ethnic stereotypes with the same passion with which the show attacks gender issues. Still, I’m pleased to see some nod to racial/ethnic diversity being made.

    I believe “Once Upon a Time” could be an excellent platform to deconstruct several identity issues such as gender, race, class, and sexuality. The show has already started to redefined the highly-gendered fairy tale “heroine” as more than a pretty face in need of rescuing and has even (very briefly) touched on class issues, particularly the desperation that forces many in poverty to make rash choices and leaves few resources for them to turn to when they wish to make changes to their current situation. However, I would love to see them break away from the heteronormative tradition of fairy tales to show a wider variety of sexualities (or even loving beyond romantic and/or familial love).

    The show has a lot of promise and I’m looking forward to see what develops over the next season.

    P.S. I find Ruby/Red and Granny to be two of my favorite re-imagined characters. The show moves them from passive victims to powerful women of action with specialized skill that are unmatched by any of the other characters male or female!

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Octavia. I’m sorry I didn’t reply sooner. I agree with you about ethnic diversity. In fact, I had planned in my “villans” post to discuss Sidney Glass for some of the reasons you mention. At first, I was excited to see what his story line would be and then disappointed. I can’t wait to see how they increase diversity in season 2. I always love to see tv shows with more diversity when it comes to race, sexual orientation, and even disability status. Based on your interests, have you heard of N.K. Jemisin’s books. Her look at sexualities is different than the average fantasy, and I love her main character in the second book. I think that you might like it. Here is a link to her books. I’ve only read the Inheritance Trilogy so far.

      I agree about Ruby and Granny! I particularly liked Ruby’s storyline of reclaiming her abilities in Storybrook.

  2. Awesome post! I am (trying) to teach about gender roles/hero narrative/identity issues in my college comp class-would you be willing to grant me permission to use your entry here as a reading? You’re articulating stuff here my brain is fumbling! Thanks, regardless-I really appreciate finding other people looking at what I can’t help be remain fixated on!

  3. Shelly

    This show has since fallen into serious classic misogynist tropes like No Means Yes. It depicted a man telling a woman not romantically interested, “I will make you want me,” and he does (the means being irrelevant). Women barely have scenes with each other that doesn’t include talking about boyfriends, romance or being interrupted by a boyfriend. They even have a scene where Snow teases Emma about her boyfriend who then disrupt the scenes to complain she’s been avoiding him (when she’s really just been busy). The show runners broke up Belle and Rumple, saying Belle needs to experience life and be independent, and their idea of her doing that is getting a new boyfriend. One of the leads is so obsessed with getting a boyfriend, she talks about virtually nothing else and ropes her child into helping her get him.

    On ethnicity, they’ve had two black villains, and two black heroes who’ve turned out to be white villains in disguise. It’s hard to believe at this point “don’t trust black people as they’re villains either way,” isn’t intentional. They also cast a Hispanic woman to play a teen version of a character and a white woman to play her as an adult.

    • Shelly, thanks so much for updating me on “Once Upon a Time.” I never watched beyond season 1, and, based on what you’ve said, it’s unlikely that I’ll watch any more. Are there any shows that are good on the topic of gender and race that you’d recommend?

  4. Stacie

    I’ve watched the entire and Shelley doesn’t give any examples, and when she does use character names, the scenes are still increibly vauge. Do not stop watching!

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