Once Upon a Time and Pseudo-subversion (NaBlo: Day 13)
[This is a Spotlight. Spotlight posts contain spoilers. Spoilers for the show include all three seasons up to the most recent episode.]
I wrote the other day about historical romances and sexism in context, and how it’s a lot easier for me to deal with than modern romances with the same sensibilities. This is why I’m capable of enjoying the television show Once Upon a Time, although it perpetuates ideas I’m completely uncomfortable with, at times I think entirely unknowingly.
The problem with the show is that it’s trapped by its own framework: the Disneyesque universe from which the characters are derived. Although the show tries to subvert some of the Disney versions of romance, at the same time it sends constant messages of reinforcement.
My husband and I have had more than one discussion on the show’s concept of True Love’s Kiss. After all, that is the hinge of the entire first season: Charming uses it to wake up Snow White, of course, but Emma also uses it with Henry to break the town’s curse. But what is True Love’s Kiss, really? We learn that Belle tries to plant one on Rumple to break his curse, but he breaks off, and every subsequent kiss since hasn’t done a thing to break his curse. So is True Love’s Kiss intent?
My husband and I pondered whether True Love’s Kiss could be used as a litmus test for compatibility, or if, as with Belle and Rumple, it is the intent at the time of the curse-breaking. Do Belle and Rumple’s compatibility break at the moment they stop having the same goal: their shared happiness? Is this why David and Mary Margaret’s kisses also seem to lack power while they’re under the curse, because the curse is designed to underscore their love at any moment?
But David and Mary Margaret are Charming and Snow White–surely their kisses are the result of True Love, since they’ve broken curses before, and will again in the future, when David is trapped in his own sleeping curse. But while they are deceiving David’s real-world fiancee, their kisses have no power. So True Love can be tarnished?
If so, every time your intent isn’t completely pure–but what is purity?–you no longer have True Love? Can a bad day thwart True Love? If you come home and grumble about how work was stressful and your feet are killing you, and maybe you don’t really want to kiss your supposed True Love until you’ve brushed away the onions from that burrito you had for lunch–does our Disneyfied version of what love lose its potency? The show suggests yes. While Belle and Rumple are at odds about their intentions–at first, because he wants power, and then because he’s decided he’s got to go do things all by himself and redeem himself or whatever the hell he’s trying to do with Henry right now–they have no True Love’s Kiss. Otherwise, no one would have to worry about Rumple; he’d have lost his powers a long time before.
In the first season, the show spends an excruciating amount of time on the plight of Mary Margaret and David–two people who are instantly in love with one another (not knowing of their shared history) and yet David has a fiancee, Kathryn, and we have forced upon us that somehow, Mary Margaret and David’s relationship is more important than the one he previously for reason after reason–because they’re Snow and Charming, because he had amnesia, because it’s TRUE LOVE and of course that’s the most important thing of all.
Charming, however, decides to keep mum about this secret relationship even when Mary Margaret begs him to come clean to Kathryn. We’re given to believe by the end of the first season and the beginning of the second that David’s actions are entirely the work of the curse, that he’s consistently choosing the wrong choice because he’s meant to–disrupting their True Love, of course, and therefore their ability to break the town’s curse. But in the newest season, we’re seeing over and over again that this is actually who David is: a man who makes incredibly poor decisions, shutting out the people he loves in the process. This is our Prince Charming?
Complicating all of this is Tinker Bell’s conversation with Regina that she has love waiting for her. Of course, Regina chooses power, hate, and revenge over the possibility of love (and being hurt again, one has to guess), but the important part here is that Tinker Bell is telling her there is a person, a specific person, Regina can find love with, because her first True Love died. This reinforces the idea that True Love is a specific thing to two specific people.
This leads to the problem of Mulan.
In a world where True Love can and has been proven with a kiss, what is the point of having feelings for someone who has proven True Love with someone else with a curse-breaking kiss? Why would you tell that person you have feelings for them? What was Mulan hoping for? None of this makes any sense. It was an attempt by the writers to implement a queer character, but they ignored or forgot that their hands were tied when they wrote in her feelings for Aurora.
However, this is not a world where every couple has True Love. Rumple’s first wife, Milla, never loved him, or so she says. If intent is indeed the important part of True Love’s Kiss, they could’ve had it at one point–maybe. We’re never allowed to know for sure. We’re kept ignorant of the rules, likely because the writers themselves haven’t figured them out yet. Now, admittedly, no one ever asked Rumple and Milla to break a curse together, but knowing there is such a thing as True Love in the world, you’d think people would be begging for a Blue Fairy Dating Service or something. Why marry anyone else if you can find the one person that the universe has meant for you, thanks to the aid of some fairy dust?
The show twists our perceptions of fairy tales and fairy tale characters, and no character is supposed to represent that more than Emma Swan, the show’s supposed lead (eclipsed long ago by Regina until the writers remember that Emma’s the heroine). Emma is tough as nails, letting no one in except her son. Because if there’s one thing the writers refuse to subvert, it’s the idea that family is more than blood. Emma is always given preference over Henry’s adopted mother under the umbrella of “But Regina’s evil!”, but that only goes so far. Henry is the only character who gives characters worth beyond the blood connection–even Snow White has a tendency to ignore the previously-existing bonds between herself and the dwarves when blood relatives come into the picture. Rumple is willing to break his promise to himself to destroy the boy in his fateful prophecy when he finds that the boy is his grandson. And, getting back to Emma, Emma’s connection to Neal is solidified by them having a child together–him sending her to jail can’t break the bonds of their possible True Love, because, well, it’s True Love, and blood tells.
So now Emma’s in a love triangle where Neal uses Henry’s existence to try to make Hook feel he has no shot, and Hook is telling Emma that he’ll win her–oh, yeah, talk about refusing to subvert tradition. There’s nothing more “traditional” in our romantic tradition than a sense of ownership by the male over the female (with a sense of ownership by the female over the male a close second). We can hand-wave all of this using the characters’ backstories or now-stories (“he’s a pirate!”) but in the end, the writers have the choice to subvert or not, and most of the time they don’t.
But can’t Emma just go to a fairy and ask the universe to decide for her? Hasn’t that been determined that there is, of course, only one person for you at any given time, until that person kicks it? Does Emma even care? She says she’s focused on Henry, but what she’s really focused on is actively not making a decision, because this is a world where love matters, where she has only one shot at happiness, because even if True Love is intent, it’s still intent between, for lack of a better term, soul mates. Well, between two specific people. Emma spends most of the first season denying magic, and a lot since then denying that magic has a purpose. As Emma learns to light fires with the power of her mind, she’s also going on a road toward a world that believes that not only does she has to choose between Hook and Neal, but that her happiness is dependent upon it, and, finally, that it’s not her choice at all. Regina certainly didn’t choose her second suitor…
Again I have to ask, where does that leave Mulan?