Thursday, November 19, 2015

Magic Mirrors, Pretty Princesses, and Daddy Issues

When it comes to the hottest TV shows, I'm frequently late to the game.  I didn't start watching "The Office" until a few years after the series finale.  (I missed a LOT of co-workers' show-related jokes during that time.)  I didn't tune in to "Doctor Who" until well into Matt Smith's reign (although I did start with Nine).  For most of our marriage, Ross and I never had cable, but we consider the monthly commitment to Netflix well worth it.  We've found some gems on there ("Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries" is a well-written and witty favorite, plus a costume designer's paradise).

So, it's no surprise that I waited until a few seasons of "Once Upon a Time" were available to stream.  I knew I'd like the show; I've loved the idea of "fractured" fairy tales for almost as long as I've loved the Disney treatment of them.  I wanted to share some of my thoughts on the way the series is going.  So, with that in mind, I'm going to be courteous and state right now that there are most definitely SPOILERS ahead.  I've just finished watching the third season, so if anyone hasn't gotten there yet, please don't read ahead.  Likewise, if you're into the fourth or fifth season, please respect my desire to be surprised and don't include any spoilers in YOUR comments.  Thanks.

First, this being a Disney production, I think it's fabulous that the star couple on the show are Snow White and Prince Charming.  That was Disney's first animated feature, and so it's perfectly fitting that the pair should be the power couple (at least in the beginning) on the series.  

Image from
While I often struggle with anachronisms in historical drama (yes, "feminist" screenplay writers, I'm talking to you, because many of the sassily-written females contemporary audiences so admire are as much a myth as the Golden Fleece, due to their respective status quos), I think it's appropriate in the context of this series.  First, fairy tales themselves have evolved with the times in which they were shared.  It's no surprise that many of the female characters are as heroic as the males, as daring, as brave, and as smart.  I love that this does not demean the male characters, either.  One challenge I've seen with certain aspects of modern feminism is that men have the be put down in some way for women to rise up.  I hate that.  Hate it beyond belief.  I'm so sick of seeing the nuclear family portrayed with a beautiful, brilliant wife and a dopey, clueless dad.  In OUAT, Snow White can rescue her prince without emasculating him.  For his part, Charming can accept that rescue and not perceive himself as "less of a man" because a woman saved his life.  Yes.  This.  So much this.  I also love that the strong female characters aren't simply written as "sassy".  We see that a lot in film and television.  We are told that a series features a "strong" female lead, but why is she strong?  Is she written in a respectful way in order to explore her many complexities?  Is she physically or emotionally powerful?  Is she manipulative?  Does she have some type of gift or talent?  Does she have to overcome unbelievable obstacles, or struggle with a troubled past?  Does she grow at all during the course of the series or movie?  Or is she "just" pretty and mouthy?  That alone a "strong female lead" does not make, in my opinion, but I think that's what we are often told by the entertainment industry. 

OUAT has some very interesting and strong female leads.  While Mary Margaret/Snow White's driving forces are love and hope, she is called upon to make very difficult decisions that question her very nature.  Most often, she makes the "correct", selfless choice.  Sometimes, she doesn't, and we are left to watch her as she struggles through the consequences of her actions.  We watch Emma go from a physically strong but emotionally conflicted - and often scared - woman to one who begins to allow herself to be vulnerable, to love, and to admit to her fears.  Regina/The Evil Queen, too, is given a backstory that explains, but does not excuse, her actions.  We learn that the darkest characters are still capable of love and sacrifice, and the kindest ones still possess the potential for great evil.  

I was also pleasantly surprised with the way some of the other characters evolved.  When Neal/Baelfire was introduced as an adult, I really expected him to be a "throwaway" character, good for a plot twist or two, then not much else.  I love, love, LOVE how he got the chance to redeem himself as a father and friend, but that it was still a process for him.  It wasn't that he burst onto the scene like a hero and saved the day.  He tried, and failed, and fumbled around for some time before he got things right.  So, of course he had to die. The role of the good guy on the show is played by Charming, the bad-guy-turned-good is already being fulfilled by Hook, and the good-guy-turned-bad-turned-good-turned-bad is Rumple/Mr.Gold, so that really left no place for Neal.  It would have been too perfect a happy ending to have him permanently reunite with his precocious son and the mother of his child.  Even Snow and Charming's happy ending is still riding out some bumps.  Sorry, Neal.  I had really, REALLY gotten to like you.

Ruby/Red fascinates me.  We don't see much of her in seasons 2 and 3, but I love how the concept of the female as an unpredictable force/monster is addressed and played out. When you add the color red, the wolf, the moon, it's a symbolism-laden tale.  Her story is a coming-of-age one, and it also is an interesting juxtaposition of the original fairy tale.  Talk about a woman embracing her destiny!

Belle is a personal enigma to me.  I find myself both loving her relationship with Gold and wanting her to end it.  Which would show more strength?  Loving and supporting a deeply flawed and volatile man, or giving that up for your own safety and emotional well-being?  Belle is the character I always end up with in those online quizzes, you know - Which Disney Princess Are You Most Like? and so on - so I feel I have something invested in this character.  Her love is both innocent and pure - perhaps even more so than Snow White and Prince Charming's, but it continues to blind her.  I'm interested to see where this leads her.

I have always loved the question "what happens after happily ever after?" and I think that. most times, we don't want to know.  We like the idea of riding off with a lover into the sunset, or a neatly-packaged conclusion.  But, even as we in the real world find our true loves, or welcome a long-awaited child, or accept that coveted promotion, there is still life to live after that.  And life comes with challenges, consequences, fear, disappointment, and loss - even for beloved fairy tale characters.

One thread that has been woven carefully and continually throughout the series has been abandonment - specifically, abandonment by one's father.  I think it's a bold step to address, and keep addressing, something so relevant to society today.  It's one thing I see in common with many people I know, regardless of their race, age, sexual orientation, or religion.  MANY of them lack fathers or healthy father figures.  MANY of them have been left or abused by the men in their lives - husbands, fathers - for different reasons.  I won't speculate on them here, but I love that the ultimate statement made by the series is that yes, you've been hurt, and yes, it was by someone who was also hurt, but you can still CHOOSE to be happy.  You can CHOOSE not to hurt another person, specifically, your own child.  In particular, I love that Neal was able to act out that choice before he died; he forgave his father (and grandfather) and physically laid down his life for his family.  

(There's a Bible study lurking around in there somewhere, but I'm not going to root it out right now.  Just don't be surprised if someday I release a devotional about finding God in fairy tales...)

Something that I both love and hate is the phrase and concept that "There's got to be another way."  I love that it reinforces the idea that hope is a living thing that stirs in our hearts, that forces us to search for decisions that don't hurt the ones we love, but as a plot device, it's trite.  In every other episode, a character in an awkward or dangerous situation is given "the only way" to escape or remedy it, but decides immediately that the price is too steep.  By the end of the episode, or within a few more, we learn that there IS another way, of course, and sometimes its consequences are harsher than the first option.  It's a bit tedious.  

I love that magic always comes with a price.  As a Christian, I suppose I COULD condemn the show entirely, and in fact all fairy tales, movies, books, and media that involve magic or fantasy in any way (buh-bye Star Wars, Doctor Who, and probably 75% of what I watch and read).  But I'm not going to do that.  I think that it can be very healthy to engage in make-believe, and since the biggest part of make-believe is being able to do what we normally cannot do, it's only natural that we like to imagine we can fly and perform feats with our minds and understand the language of animals.  The reason that desire exists within us at all is because God put it in our hearts to want the supernatural - the things that we cannot do with our own minds or hands.  I'm not going to travel down the OMG HARRY POTTER IS THE DEVIL road because I'm hoping that most Christians who choose to engage in that (now quite hackneyed) debate are looking at the whole picture and not just what they are told by social media and conservative sources.  I'm also not going to get into a flame war about that right now either.  But as I said above, "Magic comes with a price".  Even the things that blow our minds - conjuring fireballs out of nowhere, locking doors with spells, enchanting objects - come at a cost to the user.  Power of any kind comes at a price.  Whether it's the training we put into improving our bodies and minds, or it's the loss of privacy and increased scrutiny as we enter into the spotlight, power is never really free.

What a thought.

Anyway, I'm probably going to binge-watch the fourth season this weekend. Actually, I think I'm going to go pop some popcorn right now...