Get Your Shit in Order (NaBlo: Day 15)
[More Once Upon a Time spoilers.]
The friend who asked me that I catch up with Once Upon a Time so that she had someone to discuss it with was worried about a comment I made to her in email about the show, specifically about the main character, Emma Swan. I said, in essence, that Emma has no right to a relationship right now. And I stand by that.
One of the things I hope to start one day–although I’ve been saying this for years now–is a project where I reread the romances I had as a kid and use them to find parallels to my own relationship decisions. The romances run from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, and there is a huge shift in the content as pertains to gender roles and equality over that time. It’s all young insecure virgins and rich domineering older men when I started reading, and by the time I stopped with the Harlequin formula, the main characters were closer in age and sometimes in wealth and power as well. In a very real way, Harlequins, for all their formulas, are reflective of our culture, just as my early relationships are reflective of what I picked up from the Harlequins.
This said, it’s a loop, one that’s true of most media: the media influences the people, who in turn influence the media. It’s not perfect, and there’s room for change in both, even if it’s a slow change.
Because Once Upon a Time is a modern fairy tale retelling, it has the room for change and growth. Mulan is a good example of that–although kind of an obvious one. Mulan is, at least, bisexual in the television show; it’s growth in that a Disneyfied character is allowed to be something besides heteronormative, but it’s a slow change in that the female character who dresses “like a man” is the one who likes woman, which comes with all sorts of problems. The slow-growth process is made more obvious by the fact that the writers choose to ignore their own True Love rules to even introduce this aspect of Mulan’s character, setting up a sort of “love triangle” rather than creating a scenario in which Mulan can find happiness. (Then again…is this crushing-on-the-unavailable reflective of newly-out women? We can talk about that some other time.)
As I said before, Once Upon a Time reinforces certain stereotypes while believing that it subverts others, and Emma is the strongest example of that. Instead of a soft, naive Disney Princess, we have a tough-as-nails bail bondswoman with a heck of a lot of trust issues that stem from being given up by her parents as a baby. (Something I forgot to mention when I said the other day that the show is traditionally down on non-traditional family: we may have Henry’s evil adopted mother as one example of that, but Emma and August’s treatment in the foster system is another good example.) Look, what a subversion that this Disney Princess doesn’t want to accept her royal birth! That her hair is obviously dyed! That she prefers guns to magic! …Except that none of Emma’s real-world strengths have done her any good over the course of three seasons, and instead have only had to be torn down for her to do what’s needed or be “happy” or “healthy.” Even her gun is meaningless against Maleficent. She is rewarded over and over again for any deviation she shows from the tough-as-nails Emma of the pilot.
On one thing, however, the show and I agree: Emma needs to learn to trust. Because the show does try to keep at least one foot grounded, Emma’s emotional journey from bitter to open is necessary for the character’s, and the show’s, progression. (I don’t think she needs it to be a good mother, though. Henry’s personality is pretty much set. She just needs to do good things for him to be happy with her.) However, it is likely that the show will work on that primarily through the love triangle, because TV, books, and movies cannot be reflective of healthy self-growth because they always need to show, rather than tell.
So much of self-growth is telling one’s self where one needs to grow. I have a very specific idea of how positive changes come about in people’s lives: as a combination of reflection and action. With only reflection, people end up in feedback loops where no change occurs. With only action, there is no time for the types of assessment needed for good and bad things to be judged accordingly.
In resolving a love triangle on television, we usually find that a character chooses one over another, and then goes through the motion of a relationship with that person. If it works, we will know because he or she will inevitably have to reject the other person, who’s often demonized so the audience recognizes that the choice was clear. If it’s not the “right” decision, the audience will be told by the demonization, or utter boredom, of the chosen character. It’s incredibly rare in television for two people to be equally good for a main character, because there’s no action in it. And action is how television gets ratings.
So why is Emma undeserving of a relationship right now? Because she’s messed up, and messed up people make for messed up relationships. If the show wants to keep its foot on the ground, AND keep in mind that there is, according to the universe, only one person “right” for her, she needs to work on being as baggage-free as possible BEFORE she figures out/is told which man is right for her.
This is not to say that if you have any damage or problems, you can’t be in a healthy relationship. You can. But I believe you owe it to yourself and the other person to try to resolve those things BEFORE you start a relationship, as much as you can.
In a real-life, healthy-relationship model, Emma finds real acceptance in her heart for her parents over being left. She accepts that Regina, despite being evil, has been a truly good mother for Henry (resolving her issues with adoption/the foster system). She accepts that part of her reasons for being deceived have been because she’s purposely chosen deceptive people: Neal, for example, stole the car she believed was his, and those watches too. This is not a guy who’s going to do well by you. Hook…is FREAKIN’ HOOK. Emma’s trust issues have brought her in line with some pretty shady guys–even her love interest from the first season had something shady about him, in that we found he was already sleeping with Emma’s nemesis–and she demolishes any possibility of trust by choosing them. So she has to resolve THAT as well.
Only then will she be ready to test out her new-found ability to trust. And it should still be hard, because no matter how much you think you’ve resolved, there will always be weird little triggers. If Emma got a watch from her love, that might trigger insecurity. Or there’s a situation where she catches love talking to Regina about something secret–it can’t be they’re planning her birthday party and she finds out at the birthday party and is like, “Whew! My trust wasn’t misplaced.” She has to make an active decision, good or bad. If bad, she needs to deal with those consequences.
In real life, if you’re shitty to a good person, they shouldn’t keep putting up with it, especially early in the relationship. You can get a pass once, but you don’t get to do it again–you don’t get to keep bringing damage into a relationship. And I feel like that’s where we are with Emma, the ratings-hiking damaging-bringing. I don’t like it.
I think media can be reflective of healthy relationship as well as unhealthy ones, but it’s so rare that they are, because conflict is ratings. But I think if we ask for it, we can change how conflict is portrayed–that it can be exciting, or heartbreaking, AND thoughtful and positive.
Starting with Emma. And with us.