“I would never suggest a young woman to kiss a man who held her captive. What kind of message is that?” When Once Upon a Time’s Evil Queen Regina uttered this line last Sunday, I all but leaped out of my chair and did cartwheels. It was the blunt and hilarious culmination of something that has been building for months on that show, even if it was rather clumsily handled in the past.
I’m talking about how a modern show handles gender relations in a story that uses classic fairy tales as its groundwork. Fairy tales are not generally kind to women. They are often the epitome of gender stereotypes, and today are one of society’s basic ways of instilling traditional values in youngsters. Fairy tale women are often merely vessels of beauty and purity to be rescued or fawned over by dragon slaying princes and/or knights, and their worth is based on if they are married or not.
Take the story of the Miller’s Daughter, though it hasn’t been used yet on OUaT, I have my suspicions, like many others, that it will be. The miller’s daughter is taken from her home by the king after her father drunkenly boasts of her spinning abilities, claiming she can spin straw into gold. The king imprisons her in a tower and tells her if she does not do what her father claims, she will be killed. Rumpelstiltskin arrives to help her, for a price, of course, and her happy ending is that she is removed from the tower and promptly married to the king. She has to spend the rest of her life with the guy who kidnapped and threatened her. Her one consolation is her firstborn child who she has to fight to keep from Rumpelstiltskin. I imagine back in the day this was considered a wonderful ending. Now I imagine it makes most people want to vomit. At least I hope so.
As such, the writers of OUaT had a lot of work to do. How do you spin these tales into stories that aren’t, at the very least, horribly offensive, and at best, attractive to a modern audience that wants to see strong female characters? Because, let’s face it, OUAT’s target audience was never men, though I’m sure plenty are watching. They’ve done a pretty good job with the main character, Emma Swan, and Snow White is enjoyably rugged. I’m a little miffed about Red Riding Hood (possibly Rose Red, yet to be confirmed). Ruby seems like a pretty great character so far, but she is so heavily sexualized. Like that hasn’t been done before.
OUaT sealed the deal last Sunday, however, with their heavily anticipated take on Beauty and the Beast. Rumpelstiltskin – who has become a fan favorite due most likely to Robert Carlyle’s hamtastic performance as Rumpel, and his more understated, darker even, take as the real life counterpart, Mr. Gold – takes on the role of the beast, and Belle is a lord’s daughter who agrees to live with him in order to ensure the safety of her people. I was as excited as anyone else, but I began to get a little worried as the plot began. Rumpel and Belle spent a lot of time casually chatting and snarking at each other, which was entirely new for the Rumpel character. We know his history, and we know his future as Mr. Gold, but we hadn’t really seen his hammy self handle the repercussions of his past. As far as we could tell Rumpel is perfectly happy with his transformation from man to monster, he certainly seems to be enjoying himself, after all. But Belle begins to tease out the humanity left in him, and even with how awesome Carlyle is as an actor, it’s a little awkward to watch him make googly eyes at Emilie de Raven when he’s covered in glittery green makeup
When the shit hits the fan though, that’s when things get really good. Coaxed by Regina, Belle decides to try her hand at True Love’s Kiss. While her intentions are pure, Rumpel immediately recognizes Regina’s manipulation and flies into a rage, screaming into a mirror (this isn’t explained, one can assume he knows Regina can see/hear him, but nonetheless it’s a pretty fantastic image of Rumpel shouting angrily at himself), claiming that Belle was in league with the queen in an attempt to rid him of his powers.
While Beauty and the Beast is one of the few classic tales that is quite positive and has a happy ending, it has a well-documented message that negatively affects girls. The story’s suggestion is that if you love a man enough, and well enough, you can change him. The reality is far from this, and as many women today so cruelly discover, as bad boys age and settle down, they don’t always lose their tempers or destructive tendencies. It’s this fallacy that Regina tempts Belle with, that all dear Rumpel needs is a nice girl to love him, and she finds out the hard way how much of an illusion that is. Rumpel refuses her advances and sends her from the castle, and when she returns home no one wants anything to do with her because of her association with him. Her father attempts to remove the stain of evil from her by locking her away and sending “clerics to cleanse her soul.” Eventually, she throws herself off the top of a tower.
Believe it or not, the real world parallel story is darker and even more fascinating, perhaps because we never really know what happened, only how things ended up. In modern day Storybrooke, Mr. Gold is burgled by a flower seller, Moe French, who he collected a debt from earlier that day, a man we can recognize as Belle’s father. Though Sheriff Swan is on the case, Mr. Gold insists on taking matters into his own hands, and abducts the man and takes him to a remote cabin in the woods. (And can I just say, this is preceded by what is a retrospectively hilarious scene where Gold chats casually about love and relationships in a convenience store where he is buying duct tape and rope.) Here, Gold – or Rumpel, the characters, who are near unrecognizable as the same man sometimes, are becoming more meshed with every episode – takes all his frustration and anger out on French, beating him with his cane, at one point forcing it into his throat (gee, that’s not phallic at all), and screaming, “She’s not coming back… And its your fault, not mine.” Earlier he even went so far as it say of Mr. French, “Bad things tend to happen to bad people.” At least, he was supposed to be talking about French.
Of course, it was Regina who encouraged French to steal from Gold – where Rumpel deals and deceives, Regina sways and persuades. The Regina/Rumpel dynamic is quickly becoming my favorite in the show, especially when you consider that her real world surname is Mills. If Regina really is the Miller’s daughter, it puts all the evil she does and her rivalry with Rumpel into a whole new fabulous perspective. How’s that for a strong female character?
Oh, and then there’s Belle, who in Storybrooke is not dead. Instead, she’s locked away in a concrete mental ward. The final shot is of Regina peaking in on her through the slat in the metal door (all you need now, Regina, is an eye patch) and smiling triumphantly. Of course, this is a story that isn’t particularly good to women either – Belle is wrongfully punished for following her heart, even though it was a moment where she decided to take control of her life. Belle tells Rumpel at one point that she chose to go with him because she wanted to be brave, be the hero, as it is an opportunity that so rarely comes to women in her world. When her attempt to break his curse fails, he says, “Is this you being the hero? And killing the beast?”
The ranks of literature, movies, television and music that all appeal to OUaT’s target audience are swollen with aggressive, possessive, straight up scary male love interests, and I think OUaT’s writers were taking a much needed opportunity to change that narrative. It won’t change the fact that fans still love Rumpel, why would you want to? But rest assured, they do not love him for the same reasons they or others might love Edward Cullen or Patch Cipriani. The fact that Rumpelstiltskin never directly hurts Belle is probably only a consequence of the fact that the show airs at 8 o’clock (they did manage a “Shut the hell up” which was hard enough to watch), but nonetheless “Skin Deep” got its message across – women can make decisions for themselves, be the hero, have strength and agency over their lives, but if a man is going to change from a monster to a decent human being, that’s up to him and no one else.