A slew of strong female characters have spread rapidly across movies and television shows in the last few years. They’re smart, they’re sexy and they can beat up just about anyone — including the majority of the male cast. A prime example of this trend is ABC’s Once Upon A Time with the show’s cast of warrior women.
Once Upon A Time places many of the fairytale characters viewers are familiar with, from the Grimm brothers’ and Hans Christian Andersen, into a small town called Storybrooke, Maine. Emma Swan, an original character, is brought to Storybrooke by the son she gave up for adoption years before, who tries to convince her that she is the daughter of Prince Charming and Snow White.
Snow White is great with a sword and even better with a bow, Little Red Riding Hood is a werewolf and Emma used to work as a bounty hunter with no qualms about using violence to catch her target.
Natalie Portman recently told ELLE U.K. magazine, in an interview for their November issue, “The fallacy in Hollywood is that if you’re making a ‘feminist’ story, the woman kicks ass and wins. That’s not feminist, that’s macho. A movie about a weak, vulnerable woman can be feminist if it shows a real person that we can empathise with.”
Once Upon A Time is an unfortunate product of this fallacy.
Many of the fairytales involved in the show have got points against them, as the original stories and the Disney adaptations promote the idea that a woman’s only goal in life is to get married.
In Once Upon A Time, there is something after marriage: motherhood. The show revolves around the themes of true love, family, motherhood and women who kick ass. It’s a fictional world where true love and a sword solve all problems.
It was possible to see past these themes during the first season, despite the only female character with a financially successful career being the mayor of Storybrooke, the evil queen. The other women fell into various archetypes: school teacher, nurse, waitress, cook and librarian. But Emma Swan, the bounty hunter began to establish herself in the community and became sheriff. It seemed for a time like she was positioned intentionally to break these stereotypes.
Over the first two seasons there was a curse to deal with, parallel worlds and a secret group out to destroy magic. The gender tropes could be ignored to an extent despite Emma and the evil queen, Regina, fighting over who was Henry’s true mother — Emma as his biological mother, Regina as his adoptive mother.
But now in season three, the various impediments have been removed, the curse is mostly gone, the main villains have formed a truce with the good guys. The main thread of the story is driven specifically by the themes of motherhood and children as the characters travel to Neverland and confront Peter Pan and the lost boys. Emma’s position as sheriff has become irrelevant to the story. She is a warrior mother concerned for her son.
The characters have become entirely one-dimensional representations of gender stereotypes, with one exception: they can fight. They are no longer relatable.
There are many ways to create character depth. The show needs to step back and re-evaluate how it approaches these characters.
Sean Sullivan watches more TV than is good for him. To prove his time was well wasted, he writes a bi-weekly column looking at television and movies.
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