Once Upon a Time’s Obsession with Birth and True Motherhood

28 Dec

I fear that I have far too many posts on this blog that give away my weird obsession with sci-fi and fantasy. Thankfully, geekiness is in (not that it matters, anyway– no one cares about what’s “in” once they’re out of high school). Which is why I feel mostly comfortable writing another post about a fantasy TV show that I watch in my increasingly dwindling spare time: Once Upon a Time.

Once centers around a group of fairy tale characters transported by an evil spell from their land to a world where there are no happy endings and where magic doesn’t exist. Our favorite princesses like Belle, Snow White, and Cinderella all coexist in the same world and in some cases, share adventures. There’s usually two main plots in any episode– one set in the past, in the fairy tale world, and one set in the present, in Storybrooke, Vermont. The major villains are the Evil Queen/Regina and Rumpelstiltskin/Mr. Gold.

Surprisingly, the critical conversation about Once as it deals with issues such as race, class, or gender is pretty sparse, besides the usual pat on the back for reversing the fairy tale trend of helpless women– though I would argue that having aggressive, physically strong female leads with a soft emotional side caused by absent parents isn’t really revolutionary in the post-Law and Order/true crime TV universe.

Still, there has been some conversation about heteronormative culture in the show, especially in regards to Mr. Gold, whose “queerness” seems to be a defining feature of his character.*

Popular culture blogs have also noted the whiteness of the main characters (the show failed the Minority Report Card)– also the unfortunate choice to introduce people of color and then immediately kill them off. If you want to read more about racial politics in Once, check out this extended analysis of Mr. Gold by Space Crip.

Although the intersections of race, ability, and sexuality mentioned here are both interesting and troubling, I noticed another unusual aspect of the show– its preoccupation with birth, biology, and motherhood. The focus may be unintentional, but the made for TV fairy tale stresses bloodlines as essential to effective parenting and expresses a deep distrust of adoption and non-traditional family structures. Because the show’s limited definition of motherhood is presented as a kind of magic in itself, Once also places strong judgement on women who have made the choice to place their children up for adoption, and devalues the men and women who have opened their homes and consider themselves parents to adopted children.

For those of you who have watched Once, my argument probably doesn’t need explaining. The show makes no secret that Emma is scarred from her life in foster care, or that she is the natural choice as Henry’s parent (after all, Henry’s adoptive mother is evil), but I’ll break it down anyway.

Prince Charming and Snow White gave birth to Emma, the only person who can break the curse. In the fairy tale world that was about to be destroyed, Charming and Snow placed Emma in a wardrobe and sent her away so that she would be able to escape and eventually save the day. In the non-magical world, Emma bounces around from foster home to foster home, and her troubled youth leads her to an adult life of crime and bad decision making. The show hints that Emma is tortured by the uncertainty of not knowing the reason that her parents gave her up, suspecting that it was because they didn’t love or want her.

Although undoubtedly the foster system can be a harrowing place for children– and being left on the side of the road is not the same thing as being placed up for adoption– Emma is depicted as emotionally stunted because she lacks a connection to her parents. Emma’s current vulnerability and her phobia of commitment are contrasted with the Emma she would have been if her parents had kept her– loved, cherished, and secure. Both Emma and the show ignore the fact that love or even biological attachment gives no guarantee of safety or happiness.

When Emma learns that Charming and Snow are her parents and sent her away for the good of the universe, she becomes even more angry. Snow defends her decision to send Emma away, arguing that if Emma stayed, she would be cursed as well. Emma angrily retorts that “at least we would have been a family.” In interviews, Jennifer Morrison consistently notes that Emma being “abandoned” has led her to shut down emotionally. We learn that Pinocchio, adopted son of Gepetto, usurps Emma’s mother’s place in the enchanted wardrobe. He is supposed to raise and guide Emma, but he abandons her. The Blue Fairy tells Gepetto that Emma needs her mother, and no other substitute will do. In this instance– and in others in the show– adoptive guardians are inferior to biological parents.

The stronger claim to adoption-demonizing in the show occurs with Henry, Emma’s biological son. Emma gives Henry up for adoption after being arrested and having Henry in jail. Regina adopts Henry, not knowing that Emma is the mother, and raises him as her own. As adoptive parents go, Regina seems pretty great. She’s wealthy, cares for Henry, and really seems to love him. At worst, the local psychologist notes that Regina is a little “too controlling” with Henry– something many helicopter parents are guilty of.

At some point, Henry decides that Regina is an Evil Queen from his book of stories and sets off on a quest to find his birth mother. This unleashes both a exciting fantasy story and a heart wrenching nightmare for adoptive parents everywhere.

Doesn’t this look like the face of an anguished mother?

Henry lashes out at Regina constantly, accusing her of not really loving him and of not being his real mother. Meanwhile, Emma slowly starts to want Henry back. She decides that Regina is not “best” for her son anymore, asserting her right as Henry’s biological mother to make decisions in his interest. The weirdest part is that in the early episodes of the first season, Regina doesn’t even seem that evil. She seems upset, clearly, that her son hates her so much and that his biological mother is sticking around, but she does not seem evil. I find it disturbing that the writers decided to make Henry’s adoptive parent the Evil Queen– as though that makes her anguish at losing her son any less painful for the viewer.

There are many instances in which Regina is lambasted by Henry, seemingly unfairly, and then it turns out she really was plotting something sneaky and evil. The problem is, it makes no sense that Regina would create a convincing facade of stern mayor and loving mother while doing weird evil things around town. She never cared about people thinking she was evil in the enchanted world, so why would she go through such lengths to act fairly nice in Storybrooke? Mr. Gold certainly doesn’t care to try.

A less central character, The Mad Hatter, leaves his daughter for a short trip in order to gain gold to build her a better future. He is trapped on this trip, eternally separated from Grace, and Regina informs him that if he loved his daughter, he shouldn’t have left. This becomes the third instance in Once where characters are punished for giving up their children, even if it was for noble reasons (breaking a curse, giving them a better chance at life, providing for them).

The bond between parents and their biological children, especially between mothers and daughters, is magnified in Once. Regina’s mother, a very very evil witch, does not kill her daughter when she has the chance because she hopes her daughter will need her again someday. Snow is quoted as telling Emma, “That’s what parents do… They give their lives for their children’s happiness. Someday you will understand.” Shortly after, Emma risks her life to get back to Henry, and cites him as the reason she has such an interest in going home. Even her perfectly acceptable choice to give her child up for adoption cannot suppress the instinctual mommy-instinct all women have. Barf.

I’m not sure that fantasy stories will ever be able to fully represent families in their most complex and real forms, which for me is very troubling. Though I love Harry Potter, I can’t help but see the same issues with adoption and orphaning. So many fairy stories rely on the trope of a missing, heroic parental figure and their evil, uncaring replacements. I don’t know if these representations are at all damaging to adopted children or their parents, but I do believe wholeheartedly that traditional depictions of love, families, and motherhood need to be challenged in order for our society to fully accept (1) the right of women to chose and (2) non-nuclear, non-traditional loving family relationships. I hate to say it, but Modern Family wins the love-celebration contest, no matter who the mommy is.

*I find queerness as it appears in Disney villains to be fascinating– I had never noticed its prevalence until one of my cohorts in grad school wrote a paper on the trend. Think about it– Gaston in Beauty and the Beast, the creepy mouse in the Great Mouse Detective, even the witch in The Little Mermaid. Now that I know, I can’t stop seeing it!

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4 Responses to “Once Upon a Time’s Obsession with Birth and True Motherhood”

  1. Elizabeth R December 28, 2012 at 11:19 am #

    This issue is why I had to stop watching Once Upon a Time – the whole “adoptive & foster parents are EEEEVIL” thing finally got to be too much for me. The last straw was an episode (season 1, episode 9 – “True North”) where Emma asserts that *all* foster parents are *only* in it for the money. I knew a few foster parents in my home town, and I can guarantee you they spent way more on those kids than what they got from the government (i.e. they clearly *weren’t* in it for the money). Ugh, even thinking about that still makes me really angry.

  2. Angel December 28, 2012 at 6:15 pm #

    This is an interesting and perceptive argument, but i also think we’d also need to consider other parental relationships: What about the Regina/Cora dynamic? Cora is clearly a selfish, manipulative woman who uses her daughter for her own gain. Although we could argue that Cora, essentially, loves her daughter (in her own way), I doubt we could say that even the biological connection drives her to treat her daughter well. We also see Jimminy in his human form with his biological parents who use him to pickpocket although he is clearly unhappy. In these two instances, the biological connection isn’t the bond that makes these people happy —instead, it’s used as a device to control and manipulate children.

  3. Tyler September 7, 2014 at 4:07 am #

    What’s up, I rrad your nnew stuff daily. Your writing styyle iis witty, keep dokng what you’re doing!

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  1. Tropes Used in “Magical Compositions~by Claire Violet Thorpe | The Write Stuff - January 17, 2013

    […] Once Upon a Time’s Obsession with Birth and True Motherhood (sustainedenthusiasm.com) […]

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