The first of two fairytale retellings slated for network television charged out of the gate on Sunday night at ABC, where Once Upon A Time put viewers in a world where fairytale characters have lost their memories and been forced to live like mundanes. It’s a neat twist on an old story; memory loss and redemption is hardly new in fairytaleland, but forcing all our characters, including the wicked witch, into a state of mass amnesia adds a new level of intrigue. The residents of Storybrooke, Maine are relying on one person, the child of Snow White and Prince Charming, to wake them after a 28 year hiatus and return them to the immensely cheesy and twee world of storyland, which we will hopefully be spending less time in now that the story is set up.
Here’s where the real twist comes in: The saviour of Once Upon A Time is a girl. Emma Swan’s introduced to us as a tough, no-nonsense bounty hunter drawn into this world by the son she gave up for adoption 10 years ago in the hopes of giving him a better chance at life. This, in turn, is a recursive reference to the effort made by Emma’s own parents, who spirited her away in an enchanted wardrobe (yes really) to rescue her from the curse that struck the rest of the enchanted population.
This is easily a story that could fall out along old, familiar lines. We have a wicked witch who wants her happy ending and is happy to trample on everyone else to get it, and the obligatory evil stepmother (who happens to be the same wicked witch in a mundane role), for example. Women on Once Upon A Time could be hapless princesses in search of rescue, as seen with Snow White in the opening sequence, or evil monsters bent on destruction, but they aren’t. And that’s pretty refreshing for Sunday nights on the networks.
A story where the girl is the saviour turns the stereotypes of fairytales and who gets to be the hero on its end and pushes viewers in new directions. Emma may be lonely and wishing for someone to share her life with when we see her alone in her kitchen on her birthday, blowing out a single star-shaped candle, but she’s no wilting lily. She’s aggressive and confident, with a career she’s built around being able to seek people out, tell when people are lying, and, sometimes, move quickly to apprehend someone who’s skipped bail.
There’s a mix of the confident and fragile in her which allows her to sidestep the one dimensional strong female character archetype that seems to dominate when creators try to make women more complex in pop culture narratives. In the pilot episode, the writers struck a solid balance to create a character with some depth and intrigue, who draws viewers in and brings some complexity to the story. Emma has a past which becomes central to the story, but she’s not overwhelmed by it, either.
Snow White, meanwhile, is tasked with a pretty critical mission. Her husband is comatose in the hospital, and she not only has to remember who he is and why he’s important, but wake him up. Yet another twist on the original story, one that puts Snow White firmly in the driver’s seat of the narrative. She is not a cipher waiting to be broken, but a school teacher who has a sharp eye for troubled kids and likes to make sure they get a little nudge in the right direction, and spends time volunteering at the local hospital. The wicked witch, too, in her own way, is complex; we’re seeing her as a caricature in the pilot, but I suspect there’s more to her, and her desire to have a happy ending too, and I hope the show brings that out instead of relegating her to stereotype status.
Alas, a show that managed to bring considerable complexity to its women in the pilot, and managed to confront or dodge a lot of stereotypes surrounding women in fairytales, didn’t fare so well on other fronts. Rumplestiltskin, introduced to viewers in the fairytale reality as a dangerous criminal, turns out to be a hook-nosed, greasy-haired banker who owns, and controls, the town in the mundane world. He flashes by in the last few minutes of the pilot episode to bring doom and gloom to Granny’s Bed and Breakfast, where nice hardworking people who just want a chance at life are forced to fork over fistfuls of cash to the vile banker.
Oh, did I mention his name was Gold? It’s hard to tell if Once Upon A Time just threw out this casual antisemitism because it could, or the writers didn’t want to actually bring some creativity into the depiction, or if they’re setting viewers up for a commentary on the origins of the Rumplestiltskin story. Some readers interpret it as an antisemitic narrative; author Jane Yolen has argued for this interpretation, for example.
If the show is planning to set up for an extended commentary, kudos to them, but I doubt it. I think it’s more likely that they fell into the stereotype hole, which is a pity, because Rumpelstiltskin-as-evil-banker is actually not necessarily a bad modern interpretation of the story, if one can avoid also making him into a Jewish stereotype. Given the widespread social and political unrest surrounding the banking industry at the moment, the role could have turned into a nod to viewers, instead of a sour note that left me, and some other viewers, seething after viewing the otherwise quite sweet and interesting pilot episode.
Meanwhile, I’m staying tuned for Grimm this Friday night, to see where NBC decides to take this particular television fad. Given the network’s ratings slide, it had better pull something pretty spectacular out of the hat. Early reviews seem to suggest that Grimm is the stronger show, and I suspect that we’re going to be seeing the two in a cage match by mid season, because I think there’s only room for one reinvisioning of the fairytale on network television right now.