thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Two All-too-Similar Tales of White Womanhood in Once Upon a TimeGrimm

In gender, race on November 6, 2011 at 9:01 pm

Phoebe Bronstein

A few weeks ago, I watched the pilot episode of Once Upon a Time (ABC), one of the two new fall fairytale shows (the other Grimm (NBC), premiered on Friday of the same week). The basic plot goes like this: Snow White and Prince Charming and all of their fantastical kingdom replete with a myriad of magical characters—from Rumplestiltskin and the Seven Dwarves to Red Riding Hood and her gran—are cursed by the Evil Queen. The terrible curse sends the whole magical world to Storybrook, Maine on the very day that Snow White and the Prince’s child is born. But not to worry, the child is saved! Which is a good thing, as she (named Emma) seems to be the only cure for the terrible curse. In present day Storybrook (dubbed by the Evil Queen to be the worst place on earth, which seems a little unfair to Maine), the residents of the fairytale world forget who they are while remaining trapped in a world and town with no happy endings.

Once Upon a Time Cast (Snow White in White, Emma in Red, and Henry in the front)

Then on Friday of that same week, I came home from happy hour with high hopes (that I was fairly sure would be dashed) and turned on the new fairytale mystery Grimm, set in Portland, OR. This show maps Grimm’s fairtyales like “Red Riding Hood” (the topic of the pilot) and “Goldilocks” onto modern day Portland, with a crime drama twist. The main character, Nick, is the last of the “Grimms,” an ancient bloodline it seems bread to hunt down the evil creatures of the Grimm’s fairytales. So it turns out, that in this fantastical world, all the gruesome Grimm’s tales are true. Eek!

The Grimm Detective Duo

Okay so they are both modern day TV adaptations of fairytales, but what are they doing in the same post? Fair question. But here is why: They both participate in the cultural politics of elevating the white female body as both victim and martyr. Both shows, at least in their early episodes, rely on the presumed power of the white female body to enact sympathy, but also as the last hope of civilization. Put another way, she is the body that is most in need of protection, as she is the most productive body and thereby the hope of the future.

Snow White & Emma

In Storybrook, thus far, it is all about the women, which in and of itself might be grand; we have Snow White, the fairest (and whitest) of them all; the Evil Queen (also white); and Emma, who is actually the most white because of her very blonde hair. Following the fairytale, it seems Snow White ruined the Evil Queen’s life by stealing her kingdom (and potentially the show plans on complicating this relationship which should be interesting), then the Queen destroyed Snow White’s life, and as a result Snow White is the picture of perfect white female suffering and sorrow. And in her present-day Storybrook incarnation she is probably the nicest person EVER, so we have to have sympathy for her. Then there is her daughter, Emma (a name I love I might add).

Emma has come it seems, after escaping her cursed fate, through the foster care system to become a rather good-looking bounty hunter (very different than my images of bounty hunters mostly drawn from Dog the Bounty Hunter and company). But she ventures to Storybrook from Boston, at the request of her biological son, Henry. So not only does the show rely on the image of the white child as the saving grace of a society, but it is the child’s (Emma’s) child (Henry), who guides her to her revolutionary fate. This fate entails saving Storybrook and bringing back all the happy endings. Within the scope of the story, only a child could convince Emma, who has grown up outside fairytales and is now an adult, that these stories are true. That is, Henry must restore Emma’s childhood and make her believe.

The images of Snow White, as the lone white female, who suffers quietly at the hands of her evil stepmother constructs her as the perfect victim. Her present-day name Mary Margaret Blanchard reinforces this picture perfect, and even saintly, image. The narrative suggests the goal is not to restore happy endings for everyone, but specifically for Snow, as the show fondly refers to her (which I might entails reuniting with her Prince). Restoring her happiness via her romantic coupling with Prince Charming drives the plot of the show, and their coupling will be restorative for the whole magic kingdom. At the same time, the narrative relies on the productivity of the white female body, both Snow White and Emma’s, as the producers of the happily ever after ending, at the exclusion of other marginalized bodies. That is, white heteronormativity in Once Upon a Time will once again save the day in Storybrook world.

Red Riding Hood & the Grimm

Similarly, Grimm mobilizes tropes about the white female body as a means to kick off the series and seemingly initiate audience interest and sympathy. The episode begins with the brutal killing of a young white sorority girl in a red hooded sweatshirt and ends with the rescue of an elementary aged white girl in yet another red hooded sweatshirt. The death of the sorority girl initiates the hunt for the wolf, but also initiates our last Grimm Nick into the magical world of Portland monsters. Simultaneously, the final save of the little white girl narratively indicates the promise and future of the show. The violence committed to the first white victim propels the investigation and a sense of purpose, while the child saved indicates hope for the future of our half-magic detective duo. It is also worth noting (and perhaps expanding upon at a later date), that in the tradition of I Spy, Miami Vice, and many more cop shows, our detective duo is black and white, with the white cop (the Grimm) as the center of the show.

A little Othered Evil This Way Comes

Amidst our white victims and heroes, a little evil this way comes. And this particular evil, in Once Upon a Time, is the Jewish Mr. Gold (he was Rumblestiltskin in the fairytale world). Mr. Gold it seems runs the town, and even controls the Evil Queen, for it was him that gave her the spell that sent the magic kingdom into a world with no happy endings. He is the money-man of Storybrook with a hooked nose and more olive skin, who too closely resembles his older Shylock-esque counterparts. In this way, he is in many ways at fault for the curse, for he invented it, and now profits from the Queen’s evil doings. And next week, to make matters worse it looks like Mr. Gold might collect his debt in the form of a child. Oh dear.

Not so unlike other renditions of the Big Bad Wolf and Red Riding Hood, the wolf in Grimm is figured as a sexual predator and a pedophile. Simultaneously, his sexual deviancy is conflated with queerness, which is indicated through his attire, his neatness, his manners, his cooking, and his status of living alone as a middle-aged man. As opposed to the white woman he kills and the white child he kidnaps, he is figured not only as an unproductive member of society, but a threat to that very productivity embodied in the child. The show then reiterates problematic discourses that frame non-hetero relationships as deviant, unproductive, and therefore not valuable—rhetoric that we hear time and again, for example, in debates about gay marriage.

And a few final thoughts and thanks …

This post was inspired by, and is indebted to, Rebecca Wanzo’s wonderful book on African American female sentimentality, The Suffering Will Not Be Televised. In the introduction, Dr. Wanzo discusses the captivity narratives surrounding the POW Jessica Lynch, in order to suggest that the white female body is consistently mobilized as the location of sympathy in U.S. culture, a formulation which problematically excludes African American women and other marginalized bodies as potential objects of sympathy. This narrative, it is safe to say, much older than Jessica Lynch (as Dr. Wanzo and many other cultural critics explain). In fact, the (supposedly) victimized white female body has oft been the justification for violence against bodies of color. For example, the narrative of Jessica Lynch’s victimization functioned to justify US military involvement in the Middle East and “the War on Terror.” (Aside: I am not suggesting, nor is Dr. Wanzo, that Lynch did not suffer or undergo trauma as a POW, but rather the story that was told about her functioned along particular narrative conventions).

Jessica Lynch after her return state-side

Both Once Upon a Time and Grimm reiterate narratives of white female suffering as the most deserving of sympathy, the most in need of protection for they are the hope of society, and as the justification for violence. These shows (like many others) then attach white heteronormativity and white women to the productivity of society. Week after week, like the rest of the Fall line-up, these shows exclude and erase bodies of color, queer bodies, and all other marginalized bodies, and instead problematically champion the white female body as the consummate victim, martyr, and hero.

I had high hopes for these fairytale shows as I see the reworking of fairytales as having radical possibilities for storytelling and social commentary, for example Wicked or even Into the Woods. Although, I do give Once Upon a Time points for its campiness I suppose. But alas, at least for the moment, I shall have to listen to my Wicked soundtrack in order to fulfill my re-written radical fairytale quotient.

PS Clearly I need to start reading/watching some science fiction/fantasy as this Racialicious article clearly demonstrates!

  1. You should seriously read No Future by Lee Edelman.

  2. This article is so smart. You are so smart! I was really interested in your reading of Rumblestilskin (I haven’t watched the episode you’re referring to yet) and it led me to do a little Googling of that character and Jewish stereotypes. I came across this snippet from an interview with a fantasy author that made me think of your article:

    Fantasy is often accused of following the mechanics of racist stereotyping in establishing its fantasy races. How does your own use of these stereotypes relate to that?

    I think fantasy is often very responsible for perpetrating what is fundamentally racial stereotyping. The classic Tolkienesque or sub-Tolkien fantastic form, which I deliberately pirated and subverted in Vellum and “The Chiaroscurist,” works on the principle that there are different races of man and each of them has different characteristics. Actually, you can find this in the classic fairy tale: the story of Rumpelstiltskin, for example, can be read as an anti-Semitic slur. The dwarf Rumpelstiltskin is portrayed as someone with great tailor skills — he can turn straw into gold thread. That links to the stereotype of the Jewish tailor who’s out for money. And what does Rumpelstiltskin want in the original story? The baby, of course. That’s straight out of the medieval imagery labelled onto the Jew: the hunchbacked, crooked-nosed evil little person out to steal Christian babies.

  3. […] – Examining White Womanhood in Once Upon A Time and Grimm. […]

  4. […] justify white on black violence. For more on this, I wrote about this a little on GLG a while ago: Two All-Too-Similar Tales of White Womanhood and also Rebecca Wanzo’s great book, The Suffering Will Not Be Televised. But this is all to […]

  5. Just a MAJOR correction, the main character’s name in Grimm is Nick, not Ben.

    • Thanks for that catch … I clearly was confused about his name when I initially wrote this. I got it right/corrected in the rest of the post, but definitely missed the first one!

  6. […] there has been some conversation about heteronormative culture in the show, especially in regards to Mr. Gold, whose “queerness” seems to be a […]

  7. Regina, the “Evil Queen” is portrayed by a Latina actress. Even her male relations – her father and grandfather – are portrayed by Latino actors.

  8. How is Mr Gold remotely Jewish with a Scottish accent?

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