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With details coming out left and right about the upcoming seventh season of Once Upon a Time — which has pretty much officially been deemed a reboot — I feel this innate need to pay homage to a show that’s not only one of my absolute favorites, but one that I dare to say is one of the most feminist shows created to date.
Once Upon a Time took our most beloved, albeit incredibly sexist and outdated fairy tales and replaced the Disney princesses we know with strong, fierce heroines. The frail Snow White we’ve seen singing to birds since 1937 was suddenly hitting Prince Charming over the head with a rock and correcting him for calling her a “girl.” The Evil Queen we feared as children suddenly became everyone’s favorite character, whose journey involved learning that her happy ending included loving herself instead of seeking revenge on another woman.
And then there’s Emma Swan, my true reason for writing this. Emma Swan is not only a “feminist” character; she is the most beautifully complex feminist character I’ve ever witnessed in fictional history. When she first appeared on our screens in 2011, we see her — like her mother — correcting a man when he calls her a “bail bondsman” (it’s bail bondsperson, in case you can’t remember) and chasing him down to arrest him — in a dress and heels. From the very first episode, the creators of Once Upon a Time have made their feminist statement: You can’t, and shouldn’t, put women in a box.
Emma Swan is brave but vulnerable. She’s strong but feminine. She’s dark and twisty but would give her own life for her family. She’s technically a princess, but she identifies as a Lost Boy. Emma Swan, along with the other strong women on this show, does not fit into a f*cking box. The women of Once Upon a Time are not damsels in distress; they’re not evil villains; they’re human beings who can save their damn selves.
And they also save their loved ones. In season 5, Emma literally went to hell and back to bring Hook back to life. I’ve heard complaints that the show’s various “ships” have taken up too much airtime, but when you really think about the storylines over the last six seasons, you’ll find even more feminist undertones. Yes, Regina found her “true love” in Robin, but when he died, we saw her not only grieve, but learn to truly love herself for the first time in her life. Emma’s (way-too-long IMO) courtship with Hook illustrated her journey to letting her walls down and learning to trust others.
And again, I repeat — she literally went to hell and back for her man. She’s actually had to save Hook’s life quite a bit on this show. This is “feminist” in the sense that it completely reverses typical gender roles in film. I grew up feeling bored and let down by my Disney princesses and instead became obsessed with Sailor Moon — who, yes, cried all the time, but found strength through her friends (and fellow female badasses). The relationship dynamic on Once Upon a Time is actually pretty similar to the relationship of Sailor Moon and Tuxedo Mask in that the woman has to physically save the man time and time (and time) again.
I didn’t put two and two together before sitting down to write this, but the parallels are probably what made me fall in love with this show. Sailor Moon was a 90s anime; in 2011, we were a bit overdue for a new, complex heroine who gives us hope.
When Jennifer Morrison announced her exit back in May just before the season 6 finale, my heart broke a little bit. Yes, she gave us six magical seasons, and I know there’s plenty of talk about Emma’s “hero’s journey” being complete — but I’ll miss her various red jackets, her “missions” with Henry, her relationship with Hook (team #CaptainSwan forever), and her co-parenting with Regina. Although I know people have had their issues with Emma — she’s “selfish,” she’s “stubborn,” she’s the cliche “reluctant hero” — that’s why I respect her. She is who she is, with zero apologies. She is not a Disney princess, and thank god.
So here’s to Jennifer Morrison, Adam Horowitz, Eddie Kitsis, and the writers of Once Upon a Time — thank you for not only bringing Emma Swan to life, but for creating a show where feminist characters can do and be whoever the fuck they want. We love them and you all for it.
And here’s to the future of Once Upon a Time. May you keep making the fairy tale world a more feminist place, even without our blonde Savior.
If you haven’t watched Once Upon a Time, all six seasons are available to stream on Netflix. Season 7 premieres Friday, October 6. And don’t forget to play our OUAT drinking game!