Editor’s note: Spoilers for seasons 1-6 of Once Upon a Time.
Like most young girls growing up, I was obsessed with Disney princess movies. Living in a castle and falling in love with a Prince were my biggest priorities so as far as I was concerned. Cinderella, Snow White, and Belle from Beauty and the Beast had it made.
But that was then.
As I got older and learned about feminism, I couldn’t help but view the movies through a different lens. I noticed that a recurring theme in princess movies centered on the women being oppressed, whether they knew it or not, and living in the shadows of the men in their lives.
Belle and Beast’s relationship, for example, was a captive story in which Belle developed a case of Stockholm syndrome. In Snow White’s case, her misery was brought on by the fact that she was beautiful, furthering the notion that women only see each other as competition. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Considering that the stories had been largely adapted from tales that were written by the Grimm Brothers in the 1800’s I wasn’t exactly shocked that the stories reflect the antiquated values of that time.
What is shocking, however, was that these stories had been marketed to impressionable young girls.
That’s why Once Upon A Time’s (a fantasy-drama series on ABC) portrayal of strong, female characters has been like a breath of fresh air.
For those of you who aren’t aware, Once Upon A Time is a show that flips the script on the classic fairy tales that we know and love. For starters, it’s about fairy tale characters who were stripped of their real identities and brought to a town called Storybrook in our world by a curse cast by The Evil Queen. Aside from the Queen, the only person who knows what’s really going on is her 9-year old adopted son, Henry Mills.
Since its premiere in 2011, OUAT has been praised for its representation of strong independent female characters, which is a far cry from the source material.
Let’s start with Emma Swan, the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming. She was born in the Enchanted forest and shipped to our land through a portal shortly before the Queen cast her curse. As such, she grew up without her parents and in our world’s system for abandoned children. Her early life was riddled with hardship and she eventually ended up in jail for theft. Despite Emma’s rough upbringing, she managed to turn her life around. After she gave her son up for adoption, she became a bail bonds-woman, which is where we’re at at the start of the show.
Once Henry comes to find her, she eventually (after a lot of self-doubt) embraces her destiny to become the “savior” and break the Evil Queen’s curse.
Then there’s Snow White/Mary Margaret. Our world’s version of Snow White was a beloved school teacher, but in her world, she was a sword-wielding bandit in the enchanted forest who could kick anyone’s butt if needed. Her skills were acquired by necessity because she was being chased by her former step-mother, the Evil Queen, but unlike the original tale, it’s not because of vanity, but because she told one of the Queen’s secrets.
She went from being the heir to the throne to living in the wild, but she didn’t sit around and cry. She adapted and did what she had to do to survive. She eventually fell in love with a Prince whom she nicknamed “Charming,” and even had to save him a time or two.
There are other examples, like Red Riding Hood. Instead of battling hungry wolves, it’s revealed that she herself becomes the wolf at sundown. At first she’s terrified because she doesn’t understand what’s happening to her, but eventually, she stops suppressing her true self, she learns how to control her phasing.
These are just a few examples of characters who may not be perfect but are living life on their own terms.
Of course, feminism isn’t about female domination, but equality among both genders and Once Upon a Time has its fair share of powerful men, some good and some evil. Like the powerful trickster, Rumpelstiltskin (known in our world as Mr. Gold), who has a hand in nearly every conflict that arises. Or Prince Charming and the (later) reformed Captain Hook.
There’s also Belle, who is Rumplestiltskin’s lover. Long before the curse hit, she gave up her freedom in exchange for Rumple saving her father’s kingdom from Ogres in a war. Similar to the original tale, Belle always saw past the Dark One’s bad side and instead, focused on his good qualities.
But that didn’t negate the fact that he was a murderer who had little regard for human life and didn’t respect Belle enough to ever tell her the complete truth.
In the early seasons, she was really meek and forgave his behavior over and over again, which drew criticism from the viewers. But by the fourth season, she was finally able to stand up to Rumple and demand that he either change or she’s going to leave him. Belle’s evolution proves that even if you’ve been in an unhealthy relationship for years, it doesn’t mean that you have to stay in one. I think that makes her a great example of a strong woman.
Once Upon A Time is not the perfect representation of feminism, but what is? It’s a far cry from the Disneyfied tales that we grew up watching. Instead of women being depicted as meek and helpless, they’re right on the forefront. They’re not portrayed as perfect little damsels; they’re flawed, multifaceted woman who take responsibility for their mistakes and try to make good. Once Upon A Time shows that women are not just meant to be sheltered and protected. They can be just as strong, resilient, tough and determined as any man and therefore should gain the same respect. For that; it should be applauded.