Once Upon a Time: The Progression of Women in Fairytales

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By Rachel Lambert, Editorial Staff Writer.

Female characters in fairytales, while set in environments of fiction and fantasy, have begun to express truer-to-life traits. They are expanding beyond a reliance on princes on handsome steeds and breaking gender stereotypes. Once Upon a Time, an ABC television series created by Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, joins many characters, some new and some from well known fairytales and Disney films, in a creative plot set predominantly in Storybrooke, a fictional town in Maine. The storyline is intriguing, from its plot twists to its cleverly intermingled character relationships, and it provides a very empowering view of women through its multiple strong, female characters.

The main character is Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison), a woman who discovers that she is the daughter of Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas), and that she is the “savior” who can break the curse over Storybrooke. Emma exhibits remarkable fortitude, intelligence, and independence, and despite the obstacles that stand before her, continues to persevere and protect the town and her family. She is not perfect; for instance, she made mistakes when she was younger when trying to cope with being an orphan, but this again reveals the fine line between fantasy and reality. Magic comes with a price, and so do our decisions. The characters, like us, are multi-faceted and subject to the challenging situations life propels at them. Their perseverance through these situations, willingness to learn from their mistakes, and readiness to be the rescuers rather than the rescued is what makes them so motivational and relatable.

The show’s central antagonist, as much as the protagonist, breaks stereotypes as well. We are all familiar with the “evil stepmother” concept, but Once Upon A Time’s Regina Mills (Lana Parrilla), the queen who released the curse over Storybrooke, reveals that villains too are complex. They become evil not by an inherent desire to cause suffering, or by a devotion to vanity (as it is commonly portrayed), but by struggling to cope with their personal tragedies. Regina actually saved Snow White’s life when she was a child; however, Snow’s failure to keep a secret about Regina’s lover, a divulgence that led to his murder, was part of what sparked Regina’s villainy. In the series, Snow White and the Evil Queen are more than symbols of either virtue or vanity; instead, they are both human.

The same is true for other characters. Belle (Emilie de Ravin) exercises empathy and curiosity but sometimes lacks self-confidence. Red Riding Hood (Meghan Ory), who transforms into the Wolf, is tough but must also battle her inner beast, and her granny (Beverley Elliott), sharp-tongued and crossbow-bearing, is far from defenseless. The series has featured many other women as well, from Ariel (JoAnna Garcia Swisher) to the Wicked Witch of the West (Rebecca Mader), Tinker Bell (Rose McIver), Elsa (Georgina Haig) and Anna (Elizabeth Lail) of Arendelle, and more. Each woman has a goal that defines them and a past that built their identities. Some make more admirable decisions than others, but they all show that women are far from delicate damsels.

The characters in Once Upon a Time are independent, but that does not mean they reject love. Yes, the idea of “love at first sight” is challenged, but the characters still have lovers, families, and friends that they fight to protect. The relationships between characters grow over time, as love often does in the real world, evidencing a shift towards a more authentic perspective on romance. The performances by the many brilliant actresses in the cast are fantastic. Viewers empathize with the characters, want to see them find their happily ever afters, and join in every episode’s adventure.

Once Upon a Time fuses imagination with reality. Physical magic exists in the show, but it symbolizes and makes visual the magic we all possess. Some of the characters are afraid of their powers in a way that is similar to how many of us suppress what makes us unique, but they move past this fear. It is inspiring to see characters like Emma Swan, savior, mother, and sheriff, who reveals how tough, inventive, and brave women are. Women can sword fight, care for children, battle dragons, and save towns. They can be nurturers and protectors, fighters and peacekeepers. All stereotypes can be shattered, and everyone can be a hero.