home Arts & Literature, Commentary, Fantasy, Feminism, Racism Once Upon A Time twists the fairy tale… but not far enough.

Once Upon A Time twists the fairy tale… but not far enough.

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.

13 thoughts on “Once Upon A Time twists the fairy tale… but not far enough.

  1. Seriously? Don’t you think the fact that Rumpelstiltskin’s name in the real world is Mr. Gold might not be because he’s supposed to be Jewish, but because in the fairy tale, he spun straw into gold? And wouldn’t this ability to transmogrify a substance into gold equate into being very wealthy? Honestly.
    ALL of the real world characters have names that equate to their fairy tale selves (e.g. “Regina” (the Evil Queen) means queen, a “Ruby” (Little Red Riding Hood) is a red-colored gemstone, etc.), not JUST Mr. Gold. If he dropped Yiddish words all over the place, yes, that would indicate that he’s an offensive Jewish stereotype, but as it is, I’d say “Gold” is just a clever tie-in to his fairy tale character.

  2. I enjoyed the pilot episode until the last moments when the greedy landlord was addressed as Mr. Gold. Then, my heart sunk. I watched episode 2 and the antisemitism was worse, so I’ll watch no more. This is an example of how hatred and vile stereotypes get passed down and stay alive over thousands of years. Many viewers won’t even consciously know that an ancient Jewish stereotype is being reinforced by these writers.

  3. Lalala is correct. In many older versions of the story his name is actually spoken of as Rumpelstiltskin Geldmacher (Gold Maker) and like the other characters Mr. Gold is simply a play on his character name. I abhor antisemitism as well; but that is not the case with his name.

  4. OMG You guys need to get a grip and stop trying to THINK you can read between the lines and maenings of a frickin TV show meant for entertainment. Rumple could spin gold into straw, not becasue he is Jewish and is a stingy man im so sick of everything going down a racist road. You are really stretching this one…. Get a Life and worry about your four walls instead of trying to see evil in everyone….

  5. There’s a whole lot of fail in this article. Fail at trying to stir up racism. Fail at actually knowing about Rumplestiltskin and his gold spinning ability. Fail. Fail. Fail.

  6. I just watched the first 5 episodes and was so disgusted and freaked out by the anti-semitism that I thought articles must have been written about it by now. I just did a search that lead me here. I’ll bet everyone who says they didn’t see it in the pilot is feeling pretty lame now! It’s sickeningly obvious! This show is trash.

  7. I have to say that I had not noticed any such thing as racism. I wasn’t looking for them, but I had not noticed them. Not being of a specifically Hebrew backgroud, I can’t speak personally on how hard it must be with a history as blatantly and wrongfully, yet not surprisingly hated as the Jews. I only say “not surprisingly”, because God speaks about it in the Bible repeatedly.
    What I can say is that regardless of how it may look, a villain has to be portrayed somehow. They may be of a Jewish, African, English, Islamic, or any other national, religious, or ethnic appearance. No matter, whatever the story, if it has a villain, it will be portrayed somehow. Regardless of what that may be, people are bound to be offended. My point being, somewhere along the line every culture is represented somehow. If we take offense every time an IMAGINARY character looks like us, or what our particular branch of humanity is stereo typed as it will just breed more of the same. The truth is that in every culture there probably have been “villains” to varying degree’s. Every culture! Offense can not be taken when the villain in a given day is something akin to the worst side of our own history. And sometimes… fear makes us see demons. I enjoy the show. I love the Jewish people as a whole, and I personally don’t see antisemitism. Having said that, I’ll also take a closer look as I go along. But I welcome you to take another look yourselves.

  8. I would also like to point out that the actor who plays Rupelstiltskin is decidedly Irish. When you hear him speak, it comes across fairly strongly. I only ever see that when I watch. I see him as more of an Irish leprechaun than a symbolic Jew.

  9. Also, when Snow White (as the teacher) gives a speech about hope she’s wearing a silver cross–seriously??

  10. He has a scottish accent his character is not Jewish at all. Not a single hint. I have to think people that went the anti-semitism should question their own thinking. Because they saw a greedy devil like deal making character and assumed he was jewish. Thats the problem with an extreme PC social engineered world. Apparently it makes people so afraid of offending anyone they actually make the racial and and prejudice statements they hope others would avoid.

    Greed is NOT restricted to group of people by a long shot.

  11. Hey, I was watching once upon a time and stopped exactly when the bankers name was gold – i could not belive this….and to TOM and CHRIS ….OMG? really? the medival Rumpelstilzchen is the stereotype of a jew per se, a person who spins straw into gold, robs children, is portrayed as small, dirty, big nose….and so on. Same in Once upon a Time and the name is even Mr. Gold? wtf? so i stop now and start with Grimm…bye from berlin….

    oh and one question: the name of this page is ” global comment: where the world thinks out loud” it’s all in english. Do you think that this idea is colonialist?

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