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"Once Upon a Time" Rewrites Fairy Tales—But Misses A Big Opportunity

The all-white cast of Once Upon a Time stands in a shadowy forest.

Fall TV season is upon us! Two of the shows I'm cautiously excited for are the third season of Once Upon a Time and its brand-new spinoff, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland

Once Upon a Time is a show about Disney-trademarked fairy tale characters cursed to live in the modern world. That may sound like a recipe for horribleness, but it actually pretty fun. The show is helped by having three great female leads: Snow White, her daughter Emma (who by a time warp is also an adult—okay, whatever), and her evil stepmother Regina. Rather than being the flat princesses you might fear from a show about Disney fairy tales, all three are flawed and multidimensional characters who embody traits that are both stereotypically masculine and feminine. 

In this new version of the classic story, Snow White is simultaneously a bow-wielding bandit and an elementary school teacher who makes birdhouses for fun and Emma is a street-smart sheriff who is opening herself up to being loved by her family. The writers put effort into making "evil stepmother" Regina a complex character—although she flips between "good" and "evil" fast enough to give any viewer whiplash. It's rare to see a cast that has so many dynamic female characters—beyond these three there are Red Riding Hood, Granny, Belle, Mulan, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella.

It would be great to send a feminist high-five in ABC's direction and unabashedly recommend this show to all my friends for its great representation. Unfortunately, it doesn't have great representation when it comes to race. Once Upon a Time has an enormous cast—around 20 regulars plus lots of side characters—and an embarrassingly small number of people of color.

With the exception of Mulan, every single one of the "good guy" characters is white. Each time a character of color is introduced, the countdown begins until they will inevitably die or reveal themselves as villains. Over the course of two seasons, Once Upon a Time has introduced four characters of color (Cinderella's fairy godmother, Lancelot, Billy the Mouse, and The Red Dragon) only to kill each of them off before they've even finished out one episode. Most of the surviving characters of color, Mr. Glass. Tamara, and Regina, are villains. (Although Regina often tries to redeem herself, her telling Henry that she needs to kill everyone in the town so he can finally see her as a hero doesn't make her seem like a very good person.) While having villains of color isn't necessarily a bad thing, it's a little bit ridiculous when all of the non-white people are evil. [Editor's note: Thanks to the readers who pointed out that Lana Parilla, who plays Regina, is Latina. The paragraph has been updated.]

 

The show doesn't need to be some feel-good Captain Planet-style diversity squad, but it would be a more interesting and representative show if some of the many, many storylines revolved around characters of color you could root for.

The token "good guy" character of color is Mulan, who has only featured in a handful of episodes. While the Disney movie version of Mulan is great—in my opinion—Once Upon a Time's Mulan's entire back-story has been erased (no China in The Enchanted Forest). Instead of having her own self-motivated story of becoming a warrior, Mulan in the show is motivated solely by an unrequited love for Sleeping Beauty's Prince Philip. Perhaps most counter to the movie-version of Mulan, she loudly judges Sleeping Beauty for being too feminine and therefore, in Mulan's eyes, weak and useless. Great. 

 

What's so awesome about Once Upon A Time is that it has a chance to reinterpret classic Disney narratives from our childhoods and mess with narrative norms. The original Disney princesses have been criticized for being white, thin, sexualized, and only interested in romantic happy endings. The most fun and compelling parts of Once Upon a Time are when the show rewrites fairy tale expectations and plays on those tropes we all know. It's genuinely exciting when we're introduced to a Red Riding Hood who is also the Big Bad Wolf or an Evil Queen who is also trying to be a loving mother. The show has the possibility of having an interesting, fun, feminist take on fairy tales, and there is no excuse for such a world to be Whites Only.  

The other great thing about Once Upon a Time is that it's all about exploring the contrast between the happy-ending fairy tale world and the real world where the characters have to face modern problems. My favorite storylines in the show are when Cinderella, for example, has to deal with an unintended pregnancy and when Prince Charming has an affair. It would therefore make sense for the show to discuss race—what would it be like if fairy tale characters lived in our racist society? How would good and evil manifest themselves in relation to privilege and oppression? By having such a homogenous cast, Once Upon a Time is missing an opportunity a truly unique show that deals with modern issues we can't ignore.   

The spinoff show Once Upon a Time in Wonderland is premiering this fall, and it appears to be a mix of Alice in Wonderland and Aladdin (with Alice being in love with the Genie). Unfortunately, it looks like it's going to run into a similar problem as its predecessor. The cast of characters appears all white except for Naveen Andrews who has been cast as Jafar: another villain of color, and another white heroine. Seriously, where are Aladdin and Jasmine or…anyone else besides Jafar?


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Comments

34 comments have been made. Post a comment.

This article spot on.

This article spot on. However, you forgot to mention that Lana Parrila is also a woman of color on the show (and also a villain).

Thank you! It's not like the

Thank you!

It's not like the fact that Lana Parrilla (and, by extension, Regina Mills) is a woman of color is hidden or hard to find. People who are trying to downplay their Latin@ identities don't win ALMA awards.

Thanks

I'm sorry I missed that, thanks a lot for pointing that out.

Hannah Strom 

Yep!

We just added a correction and note. Thanks for letting us know about the error.


Bitch Media Online Editor

Problems? Email [email protected]

no, she isn't. Just because

no, she isn't. Just because her father was from Puerto Rico this does not make her a woman of color. She can be of Spanish descent and Spaniards ARE WHITE.
"Latin" ISN'T a race, but a geographical origin. You can be born in Latin America and be of any race.
I'm from Brazil and I'm very white (if you want to check my background, my mother is of Portuguese, Polish and German descent, and my father was a Brazilian born Frenchman, I have red hair and gray eyes). Oh, and "hispanic" is a demeaning term, because it only applies to Spaniards. Most white Brazilians are Portuguese, Italian or German for example. IIRC Puerto Rico, alongside Argentina and Uruguay have a majority of whites (most of them being Spanish, Italian or German, which are the biggest European immigrant groups).
And seriously, look at Lana, she has fair skin. Brown eyes and darker hair don't make a person of color, or are you saying most Europeans aren't white too? Only blue eyed white counts? That would make the british actot that plays Rumple a man of color too then.
And Cameron Diaz? what is she?
I'm saying all this because: 1) the American census isn't the universal racial standard; 2) saying EVERY Latin is a person of color erases actual black, mestizo and native Latins, because they aren't as represented as white latins, and are victims of racism in their respective countries.

You should read more about race relations outside the US. (I have some reading material from my college and I'm willing to share). Also check the wikipedia's article about "Latin american people".

I have heard of the

I have heard of the possibility of them adding Tiana from Princess & The Frog to OUAT. And just because there's no Aladdin or Jasmine in the spinoff as of now, doesn't mean there won't be. It's only the first season of the spinoff, and I imagine a smaller cast is a smarter way to test the spinoff with viewers. If the spinoff does well, I'm sure we'll see those characters. I thank the previous commenter for pointing out Lana Parilla. She is latina/Hispanic.

Latina isn't a

Latina isn't a race.
Hispanics are white. Hispanic = people of Spanish descent. Spaniards are white.

AND latin =/= hispanic, because not all people in south and central america have Spanish ancestors.

The Evil Queen is Latina

"Why can't she be from Brooklyn? [laughs] Why can't she be Puerto Rican? [laughs]" --Lana Parrilla

"Yes, the Evil Queen is Latina." --Lana Parrilla

And then there's this Nuevo Impact interview

which doesn't make her a

which doesn't make her a woman of color at all. This is Ms. Parrila's father country/continent of origin.

what if she was saying "The evil queen is European, Why can't she be Italian?" (since her mother is italian)

nationality does not make one's race.

Giancarlo Esposito was born in Denmark. According to this logic, while Lana is a woman of color, he should be white. which of course is ridiculous.

It is so nice to finally see

It is so nice to finally see something in a major publication address this issue within this show. They are missing all sorts of golden opportunities, particularly with race and LGBTQ inclusion, and the network/showrunners seem to not quite get it, or seem to flat out ignore constructive criticism when it comes from fans. So it's really great to see articles such as these coming out in the press, rather than just being discussed on social media. Thank you!

Very true. Kitsis and

Very true. Kitsis and Horowitz seem to be utterly oblivious when it comes to these things. Like the token promises of 'we'd love to include a gay character at some point', but only after pissing off all of the Emma/Regina shippers at SDCC with their poorly chosen comments (meanwhile, Bryan Fuller was doing it RIGHT at the Hannibal panel). Or the 'we have two whole POCs on OUATIW now (never mind that one's a villain)!' And let's not get into how Hook can commit repeated acts of violence against women--punching and shooting Belle, ripping out Aurora's heart, helping shock-torture Regina, pinning Emma to the ground with his sword while making a this-isn't-rapey-at-all crack about his penis--and yet his promo poster for Season Three touts him as a 'hero'. When called on the rape joke, Horowitz apologized and insisted it was never meant as such--really, dude? You have a man commenting on how much he'd love to bang a woman whilst simultaneously threatening her with bodily harm, and you didn't see anything problematic about that at ALL? Maybe he should hire someone to point these things out to him while the episode's still in the writer's room, so he won't have to do damage control on Twitter so often.

Unless the show changed

Unless the show changed dramatically in its second season (I stopped watching after the end of the first), I found OUAT to be one of the most bland shows on TV, both in terms of storyline and diversity of actors.

White until proven Other

I do think it's a bit ironic that an article that aims to talk about race on OUAT casually ignores the fact that a major character is herself a woman of color, but it's not unusual for the default stance to be, "White until proven Other." It is, however, disappointing to continuously encounter that.

That said, there is a lot about OUAT and race that I and others have analyzed, particularly when it comes to Regina, some of which can be found on this Tumblr and on this blog

sigh, latina isn't a race.

sigh, latina isn't a race. I'm not latina. I'm not hispanic.
Race does not exist btw, there are racism, racial dynamics based in cultural categories.
I'm white (which is my skin color and social category as a person who was never affected by racism) and brazilian (which is my nationality).

Regina is a woman of color

Regina is a woman of color too... Can you correct your article please? It would have been a good one if you haven't whitewashed lana/regina

No, she isn't. She's a white

No, she isn't.
She's a white Puerto Rican.

She can represent immigrants FROM latin america if she want to, or people from Puerto Rico in the US. but this does not make her a woman of color. Stop it.

Lemme throw the spanner into the works here....

Just to play devil's advocate:

OUAT is based, primarily, on European folk and fairly tales. And folks are upset because it's not diverse enough? Let's put the glass slipper on the other foot.

If there were a show called "Tales Of Our Ancestors," and it was based on African tribal stories, my guess is that folks would be screaming if the actors were anything but black.

Just some food for thought.

Most of those fairy tales

Most of those fairy tales don't hinge on their location of origin, so there should be quite a bit of flexibility in casting a series that prides itself on reinventing fairy tales (like Jack being a woman). And while there has been some race-blind casting with characters like the Fairy Godmother and the Evil Queen, the problem (as the article clearly states) is that all of these characters, with the exception of Mulan, are either villains or dead.

interracial relationships/ the genie

I thought this was a great article, and I have to admit I love the show and that they do use people of color. But in my opinion, what the show did with the queen and GianCarlos Esposito/the genie was freaking brilliant under a lens of postcolonial theory. He is a good virtuous man until he is duped by the queen-and through the black slave she gets her political power, and he chooses imprisonment (one prison for another---the lamp to the mirror) and his face, his blackness, is a constant reflection of her superior power.

I mean to me it was AMAZING, especially the idea that mirror was actually a person, and now we know he was a freed slave. I actually met GianCarlos Esposito at Comicon and I told him that the episode truly brought race to the forefront and it was an excellent portrayal of racial symbolism. That was a truly WOW episode, and the writers didnt have to go there.

So I mean, yeah the show could just have more characters of color and some good and some bad, but simply having them is ineffectual if it is just color on tv without meaning. Give them some time, they'll get there.

I wonder how the heck can

I wonder how the heck can Lana Parrilla be a "woman of color" when:

1. She's white as milk.
2. Being "Latina" is not a physical limited race (I have family living in Mexico and many of them even have blue eyes and blond hair)
3. White is a color so stop already using that term, especially when white people don't exist only in the US.

Now I'm Spanish, I really don't care if I'm being ignorant about a matter which probably I don't fully know about (I don't even know if I'm making sense) but I don't f*** care. If the U.S. is a racist society, fine. But people who are against it should stop talking as if "Latinos" and even european people aren't Caucasian races.

It makes you ignorant just as racists are.

yeah mate, americans are

yeah mate, americans are weird. For some reason a white person with darker complexion isn't white anymore. lol That would make 70% of Europeans not white. I guess for some people anything is better than admitting they are white and have white privilege.

but mostly americans are just too racist and as such, ignorant about other countries.

The Mother/Whore Duality

Even though this show does present the old characters with a new twist, some issues are still very old. For example, when the town found out Snow-White was having an affair with Prince Charming (before they knew their real identity), she was shunt. The town's people treated her horribly and put the entire blame on her as a "Home Wrecker". No one blamed Prince Charming's character for cheating on his wife. No one even questioned his motives. I found that to be extremely infuriating and "old fashioned".
In addition, the two main female characters, Regina and Emma, fight for the right to be mother to Henry, Their entire sour relationship is based on this "maternal instinct". As if their lives couldn't have been complete without the need to be a mother. As if Motherhood is to one thing worth fighting for.
These two examples position women once again in the the mother/whore duality. As if these are the only "choices" women today have.

Well even though it seems old

Well even though it seems old fashioned in reality that still happens. Things are double standards. And as for motherhood, it is something worth fighting for.

Lana Parrilla and Tamara's Death

Not all Latinos view themselves as "white". A good number of them view themselves separate from other European whites. And this is because Spain has been more open about mixing with non-whites during the Spanish Empire than other European powers.

By the way, Rumpelstiltskin just killed Tamara. And we have no idea what drove her to become part of Pan's fake "anti-magic" campaign.

it depends on which latinos

it depends on which latinos you're talking about.
Are you talking about immigrants in the US that are confused because they face xenophobia?

Are you talking about hyper post-modern people that want so much to show a different and unique identity?

Are you talking about anti-racial quota conservatives in Brazil (which was colonized by Portugal, not Spain, btw) that promote the "racial democracy" mythology to deny their white privilege while actual people of color don't have space in universities?

Are you talking about which country? Mexico has 80% of mestizos, while Bolivia is a country of Quechua ethnicity, and Argentina has 80% of whites (most of them being Spanish, Italian or German).

You know nothing about Central and South America.

Typical Disney

Sadly, ABC (also known as Anything But Color) is notorious for white-washing it's shows and movies especially since Disney took over. OUAT's glaring lack of diversity has been obvious since season one, and is one of the main reasons I can't fully enjoy it. I didn't even bother getting excited when the last woman of color came onto the show (yes, as a villainess) because I knew she'd be dead within a few episodes.

While I get that many of the characters in many of these stories were white (for many reasons i.e. the Grimms were German and would write for their audience at the time etc.) there's no reason to continue this monoracial pattern in the 21rst century. Children of color should have someone familiar to look up to on television as well.

Find shows

It's true so maybe someone in the industry should step it up!!! But there's some shows that are diverse on Disney channel. People need to stop focusing on the negative. There's shows like ant farm and pair of kings that have diversity. There were also shows like that's so raven which was Extremely popular. and Cory in the house which also had diversity. Instead of focusing on the shows that don't have diversity find shows that do.

Miss Strom-

As a folklore fanatic, I was happy to find an article such as yours, which elaborated on the characters and delved into the contemporary issues that come about when fairy tales fail to meet our modern standards of political correctness. I agree with you on many points—the writers of the show could have done a better job of diversifying the cast, and the length for which most of the non-white characters last is much too short. I’m hoping that that is something they mitigate in this upcoming third season.

However, I also believe that we can’t write off the quality of a show simply based on the race of their characters. I think, especially when analyzing a show, it’s much more important to focus on themes, and the overall morals, that the characters and writers teach. And from what I’ve gleaned from my watching of the show, it stays very true to its older counterparts in that it preaches the ideas of love, acceptance, and family. The fact that many of the minority characters have died is, I will admit, a pattern they need to fix, especially if they want to keep and expand their viewer audience. But I wouldn’t write off what I believe to be a good show simply because a large portion of the main cast is white. If this were much more grounded in reality, or took place in a specific area in which a diverse population came hand in hand with the location (I’m pointing towards The Wire, in Baltimore, and Orange is the New Black in Queens, NY) the glaring lack of minority characters would be hugely detrimental. But as there are many regions in which the landscape itself is simply lacking in diversity, I don’t want to demonize a show for having fewer minority characters than their Caucasian counterparts.

For what it's worth, the

For what it's worth, the casting call for Cyrus, the Genie who Alice falls in love with, apparently specifies that they were looking for a Middle Eastern actor to play him. I can't find much information on the actor who got the part Peter Gadiot, but if he is Middle Eastern that's at least one other POC in the show who isn't a villain

Stop focusing so much on the color of their skin

Well the writers decided to write the story how they wanted and it's their story to tell. How can they write about something they don't know anything about. If a white person writes about racism they will not know how to interpret that type of feeling. For example There was a show called "the game" back then which was the only show on cw that had a mostly "Colored" cast but got cancelled (big mistake) and BET brought it back but yet they slowly started to take out all the white people. It was their story to tell and their show so they can tell the story how ever they want. Then the show turned into a downer with all the stereotype dialog. I watch once upon a time because it's interesting and I watch the show and see characters and never really focused on the color of anyone's skin. With that being said I am mixed! My dad is black and my mom is white. People need to drop this racial crap it is ridiculous. I really don't want to watch that stuff on tv. Television is a way for some to escape reality I already lived through enough racial ignorance! If the actors don't mind being villains then why should anyone else? If people feel like there isn't enough color on television people of color in the industry should put their heads together and come up up good shows instead of wanting to piggy back on someone else's show. They should make shows with real people and a variety of different cultures. But instead people will continue to complain!

Yes Focus on Race

It's important. The issue isn't going to disappear just because it makes you uncomfortable. The fact that the show is viewed by many people other than just white people is enough for it to think about representation. It's a modern world story. The modern world does not only include white people. It includes a lot of races, and the ones in between, yourself included. The media shouldn't be portraying a world that that doesn't reflect reality. If it wants to ignore how it truly easy, of course people are going to complain.

It's important. The issue

It's important. The issue isn't going to disappear just because it makes you uncomfortable. The fact that the show is viewed by many people other than just white people is enough for it to think about representation. It's a modern world story. The modern world does not only include white people. It includes a lot of races, and the ones in between, yourself included. The media shouldn't be portraying a world that that doesn't reflect reality. If it wants to ignore how it truly easy, of course people are going to complain.

A Diferent Realm

Now all this talk about white, black, orange with pink spots......don't you guys think it is all a little to much? OUAT it is about fairy & folk tales, not about human races & ethnicity's. Racism is bad and wrong in all forms & spectres of light, but all this talk about "it is more red than blue" isn't doing any good either. Fairy tales are about make the imaginations travel to another reality, the realm of dreams, fantasies, where every one can actualy slay a dragon or jus befriend him and take a ride with him. People was, is & will be always good and bad in equal way, that's what everybody as to face in life, but the show it's a portal to take us to that fantastic realm of fantasy were all of us spend uncontable days, when we were children, having the most amazing adventures. Either you like the show or not, should be simple as that, but is just my opinion. English isn't my 1st language, please overlook grammar. Happy adventures Humans.

agree shaniqua

amen