This season, one of the most frustrating themes that has emerged on Once Upon A Time is their reduction of women to the roles of subservient lover and baby surrogate.
In fact, it’s so frustrating because I don’t think those involved in the show see the issue. When we get comments about Emma as a character, for example, it’s statements like “she’s just focused on Henry”. Just recently, in fact, Jennifer Morrison (who I admire and respect, for the record), noted in Bello Magazine that she wanted to play Emma in the first place was because she was an independent, self sufficient character in a departure from the traditional “damsel in distress” narrative that Disney employs. And that’s what Emma (and Regina, and Snow) started out as. That’s what made the show so good.
But as we’ve progressed through season two, and now into season three, we’ve seen those traits drastically reduced, mostly in Emma Swan, who was the show’s admirable, relatable, lovable protagonist. In season two she was a convenient sounding board for the Charming’s ideas of a new Storybrooke order (who even the dwarves pointed out tonight did NOT go well), and in season three, she’s been the silenced love interest of the two most underdeveloped, undeserving love interests Once could have drummed up.
Emma has her moments of clarity. She stated more than once tonight that her sole focus is finding Henry. And while it’s nice to be told that, it needs to be matched by what actually happens. Are we supposed to believe that Emma would abandon her quest, for a second, to find Henry in order to rescue a possibly alive ex boyfriend? Beyond that, the fact is, Emma had to lecture Hook and Neal multiple times in this episode about fighting over her like she’s an object. And yet with every objection, they return with even more force, eventually devolving into actually acting like my sisters and I did when we were toddlers fighting over our favorite toy, shoving and namecalling and all. When Emma is the one to be successful and actually complete their objective (capture the shadow, using magic Regina worked on with her, by the way), Neal and Hook promptly take the credit - Neal shows up with the coconut when they rejoin Tink, and Hook touts “their” success. No points for Emma this round, except the next instance of her having to beat back advances…again.
If I may remind everyone, just in case it wasn’t clear, Emma is not an object. This immature fighting and outright rejection of Emma’s voice is, simply put, nothing short of a disgusting representation of how women are viewed in this society. The rule is, men ignore what women say, because what she truly wants is one of them - she just doesn’t know it yet. As Hook describes it, once we’re done with this side mission of rescuing Henry, then the “real fun begins”. The heart isn’t something to be won, especially from an unwilling participant. It is something to be given freely when the holder decides they want to offer it.
And the’s just one example of many this season of how Emma has been stripped of her agency.
Regina and, as much as I’m loathe to say it, Snow, have been stripped of this as well. We’ve seen, twice this season, instances where David deliberately robs Snow of her free will and choice by hiding crucial information from her. Note to anyone who thinks this kind of self-sacrifice is noble and sexy and loving: it’s not. It is simply a lie by ommission, an action designed to take away a person’s ability to make their own, informed decisions.
And Regina, as per usual, has been stuck in to a box. Nevermind that less than a week prior she was tortured within an inch of her life, and then nearly gave her life to stop the trigger. She is still regarded as a purely evil spirit. Every suggestion she makes is rejected simply because she makes it. On the couple occasions where no other choice has been present, Regina’s methods may not have been Disney level shiny and pure, but they’ve worked. They’ve advanced the group in their quest, which is, in fact, to FIND HENRY. She has been the only one for whom this end has been their whole focus. She’s taught Emma magic. She’s made more progress with Rumple in five minutes than she did in four days with the other group.
And yet, despite this success (when it’s allowed because the plot has to advance eventually and thus far, Regina is the only one who does that), Regina is on a path to be reduced to a love interest as well. The idea that Regina’s decision to not meet Robin Hood ruined his life (and that this is somehow a “selfish” decision that makes her responsible for that and for Tink losing her wings) is absolutely preposterous. Repeat after me: a woman is NOT responsible for any man’s happiness. A woman should not be expected to set up shop with a man she has never met because an arbitrary system declares that they must be together. And yes, Regina may be lonely. She may be jealous of Rumple’s connection with Belle (which, another point of contention for another time), but this cannot be used as a catalyst to rush Regina into a situation where a relationship can develop simply for the benefit of that relationship developing.
Now, some will argue that these ships are worth pursuing, that the writers/creators can tell whatever story they would like, that Emma, Regina and co are doing just fine. I am not saying that Emma or Regina should never have a love interest, that they should be alone forever - but this is moving too fast, is too underdeveloped, and is much less than these women deserve. I would argue this: this show proports to be the modern interpretation of fairytales. The story was centered around this woman, this Savior, who perservered through the greatest challenges life can pose, because her fate was decided for her. Emma Swan was introduced as a woman who was alone, battered, but not broken, and capable of doing amazing things: learning to love her son being among the greatest. That this character, among others equally as important (an Evil Queen with her own devistating story to tell - who knew?), has now been inserted as an object incapable of making her own decisions, beholden to the whims of misguidedly persistent men - this is something women should be concerned about. This is something people who care about women should be concerned about. Because if this is a modern interpretation, what does that say about the definition of “modern” that we’re being asked to work with? Where, as women, are we being relegated to in the narrative?
Emma Swan, as this idea of a complex emotional, capable, defiant woman, is meant to be more than this. She is meant to be us, the real-life woman, if we were all in this fairytale.
Bonus commentary: let’s also resolve something once and for all. Regina is Henry’s mother. She raised him for 10 years, loves him, and fights for him. Emma, while named as mother, has barely earned that title. Yes, she birthed him, but she wasn’t a mother for 10 years. The simple fact that she was backed into a corner (allow me to point out that this was because of Neal, by the way), and gave Henry his best chance, not for her, but for him, is the only reason she even has points in the mother column. Neal has not earned the title of father. While Henry is biologically his, that is where the connection ends. He has no more right to call Henry his son than Hook does (I’m surprised that Hook hasn’t tried, at this point, it would make about as much sense.) That Emma reaffirmed this (she called Henry “their” son when referring to Neal) is nothing short of ridiculous. This has to stop as well.
Bonus bonus commentary: if next week’s episode actually turns out like it looks in the previews, we may have the most honest, real episode, with Regina and Emma working together to rescue their son in an actual efficient manner.