A few years ago, a younger girlfriend of mine lamented her newly acquired single status. She had been having a bad time in the relationship department and turned to me for comfort. Having said some of the usual post-relationship phrases and telling her that she was a strong, lovely woman and didn’t need a man to be happy, I discovered that by being married myself, none of my encouragement mattered to her. “It’s easy for you to say” is something I hear a lot when giving what I feel to be honest advice. To my friend and many other young women, finding The One, their own handsome prince, and getting married is one thing they want above all. I don’t have a problem with their hopes and dreams, but all of them couldn’t really explain why they had them except with a “that’s just what you’re supposed to do.” I’d like to set down right now that I have no problem with homemakers, stay-at-home-moms, or housewives; I’ve been a housewife too and I have an ocean of respect for these women. My irritation begins when it’s done because that’s what is expected because you are a woman, it’s your role. Fulfillment can and does happen without a ring on your finger and a baby in your arms.
Society perpetuates this through the popular culture; baby dolls, play kitchens, and the colour pink are just some of the things that are used to define the gender roles. There is nothing wrong with any of these as long as we can still let our daughters tumble through the mud playing super hero games or Barbie dolls without making them “boy things” and “girl things.” Even some of the most popular fairy tales walk the line of defined gender roles.
We all know the story of “Snow White,” whether told by Disney or the Brothers Grimm; a princess hunted by her stepmother only to be saved by seven little men who keep her safe and warn her away from the queen, but she doesn’t listen winding up in a glass coffin and awakened by a random prince passing through. So enchanted by her beauty (and it seems only her beauty), he marries her straightaway.
Even in tales where the heroine is plucky enough to persevere and earn her own reward, the prize is often marriage to the king or his eligible son; lifted up by a man to wedded bliss and a life of producing fat babies for the royal nursery. What if our plucky heroine would rather return home with riches in tow or if she’d rather take a pass on the prince and marry his charming sister instead? Fairy tales span centuries, their themes originating even further back and laced throughout mythology. The idea of the self-sufficient modern woman is definitely in its infant stages by comparison; the dynamic is shifting, fed by literature, film, and television as we reclaim these archetypes and give them relevance among modern audiences.
Once Upon a Time begins with the happy ending we are all familiar with: delicate Snow White, awakened by her true love’s kiss and the joyous wedding that follows it, marred by the arrival of the Evil Queen, bitter and angry. The writers take us away from what we might expect the instant Snow White grabs her Charming’s sword and thrusts it towards her stepmother herself; it forces us to take notice and know that this is not a princess who is content to stand meekly to one side and let the men “handle it.” She is a fighter, loyal and true, ready to protect herself and all those she cares about.
This theme is repeated in a string of recent film releases: Brave and The Hunger Games are among the most notable in the last year. Merida, who wins her own hand in marriage and through her own mistakes, fights to correct them and realizes the importance of familial love. The brave prince attempting to win the fair maiden’s hand is only a side show in Brave (and perhaps they went too far in portraying the men as total buffoons). Katniss Everdeen, though not a princess, saves her sister through unselfish sacrifice and her own life, and that of Peeta’s through her own skills with minimal assistance.
In the “Snow White” of Once Upon a Time, we are given this incredibly beautiful, kind princess who is, as we peel back the layers, strong, independent and can definitely kick some ass. Snow doesn’t wait for the dashing prince to come to her aid; she helps herself and sometimes, she even rescues him (which we also see in Ever After). This is a woman in charge of her own destiny, who beats back against those who would impose their will upon her and saves herself.
Once Upon a Time is a show that is full of strong, female leads, with honourable mentions given to the Evil Queen/Regina and Emma Swan. Having lost her love and coerced into a match by her mother, Regina takes the darker road on her path to being a powerful woman. Regina is more tightly laced, calculating, subtle and strong in the way that working, single mothers have to be. Despite her wicked origins and her fairy tale counterpart, there is a lot to admire in Regina Mills. In the heroine’s story, Emma is tough, smart and beautiful, and doesn’t need anyone, or so she would have you believe. She’s taken care of herself for so long that a wall formed around her heart to keep the hurt at bay; a beautiful vulnerability unfolds when her friends in Storybrooke begin to knock holes into this wall and she begins to learn that she can be tough and still let people in.
My favourite illustration of the princess taking her fate in her own hands is Belle who, in defiance of her father and fiancé, vows that “no one decides my fate but me.” But it is in the show’s Snow White that I place the banner of hope of furthering positive female role models in popular culture. She’s been hurt and hunted throughout the realms but muscles on, learns from her mistakes and emerges a more complete woman, even finding love along the way.
If there were a princess like Snow White when I grew up, would I be hearing snotty, self-righteous remarks like “You should have children, they’re so worth it” from some of my peers (nullifying the things that I have done)? I don’t deny that children would be a worthy, life-long endeavor, but the impression I’m given is that nothing I’ve done in my life thus far is worth anything at all compared to theirs because they’ve done nothing but procreate. Having grown up in a time when there were so many mixed signals, assemblies in school to teach us that women can do anything and break free of traditional gender roles, but seeing examples of the more domestic life we traditionally led, I think Once Upon a Time would have been an incredible example to have set in front of us.
Let our little girls wear pink and play house if they want to, but encourage all of their play; girls can be princesses and superheroes and find validation in themselves. So the next time one of your girlfriends sighs for her knight in shining armour, take her out to get her own shining armour because prince charming might be stuck in traffic.
Explore the Arthurian legend surrounding Lancelot, take a trip into the woods to discover the mythology behind Red Riding Hood or learn more about a modern day hero called Snow White. Origins provides unique insights and perspectives from talented writers into the characters we know and love, going far beyond the boundaries of Storybrooke.