Like most of us, I came to feminism later on in life. I wasn't born fighting for equality, nor was I born viewing all television and films through a feminist lens, so it's no surprise that I used to watch Disney movies unquestioningly and fanatically, like many little girls. I was particularly fanatical about two of those Disney princesses, Ariel and Belle. For me, as with many young girls, these were my roles models. I loved Ariel's rebelliousness, and Belle's love of books. But for all the good that Disney taught me (yes, rebelliousness is a good trait...), they also taught me a lot of bad.
For example, I thought it was okay to fall in love with your captor. For years I thought it was even a romantic notion. That is, until I realized it's called Stockholm syndrome and that we should be super aware that this is not a good thing and shouldn't be supported. I also thought that Ariel changing herself for Eric was brave, and again... romantic. Until, years later I would come to realize that someone should really love you for being you, and not be okay with ripping you away from your family, taking you to a new world, and making you physically change your body in order to be with them.
So, yes, fairy tales (and Disney's versions of them) gave us rebellious women and smart women, but they also gave us horribly oppressed and obedient women. When I came into feminism as a young adult, I was suddenly struck by how un-feminist my favorite characters really were, and almost felt a traitor to the cause for ever liking them.
I was stuck in this limbo for a while, caught between my love for Disney and my love of feminism. And I'm not the only one. (As a quick Google search will show you). But when ABC's Once Upon a Time (OUT) aired, I felt I could breathe again. Suddenly the characters were complicated and interesting and... well... real.
This breathing of new life into old characters inspired me to really critically look at the one dimensional aspects of the Disney versions, and how they would translate into real life. Could Snow White really exist? And if she did, how would her struggles actually affect her? Would Aurora be so content with being left unconscious in a tower awaiting a stranger to come and sexually assault her in her sleep? Or would she want revenge? Would Mulan easily slip into role of "wife" once all was said or done? How would her gender-bending actually be received by an ultra-conservative family? Would Pocahontas really fall in love with a man set on destroying her land? However devishly handsome he was? It always sits a bit funny with most people (and I think most white people watching it had at least some sense that white colonialism really couldn't be construed as a positive thing, no matter what beautiful songs accompanied it).
OUT plays out these ideas on screen, puts these characters, hopes, fears, ideals and all, smack into the center of reality and challenges the audience to really think about what these characters humanity does for them.
Snow White / Mary-Margaret
The Disney version portrays Snow White as an animal-loving and hard-working character but…
- She's overly trusting (for no good reason).
- Her value to the seven dwarfs is based on her domestic skills.
- She relies on a man (actually, several men) to first let her go (the Huntsman), then help her survive (the seven dwarfs) and then to rescue her (the Prince).
OUT's Snow White is viewed as trusting as a child but who, after being mistreated and made outcast from the kingdom, has grown a tougher shell. While initially portrayed as a struggling princess (she was), her new-found friends the Dwarfs actually teach her how to fight for herself. While her “Prince Charming” does rescue her once, he is portrayed being her partner in her fight against the Queen, rather than her savior (yay for equality), and is just as often in need of her help as she is of his. This is good people, this is healthy.
OUT makes sure that Snow White is still Snow White, however. She's still good, and still tries to see the good in everyone. She motivates others to hope for good too, but even her resolve that this is so is sometimes shaken because, well, she's real and complicated and no frickin' person is always that optimistic.
Belle / Lacey