I like you; that doesn’t make you perfect

I have been watching the tv show Once Upon a Time. It’s a re-visioning of classic fairy tales. The story goes between a modern setting and a fairy-tale one, parceling out the back-story of each character from the stories I know. There’s a lot I like about this show.

I like, for instance, what the show did with The Huntsman. I love what it’s done with Little Red Riding Hood. I am liking the Evil Queen in both her forms, I am liking the Snow White in the past story. The adoption story is not progressive, certainly, but I find all parties sympathetic. I like the coherent fairy-tale world being built. I am, in general, a big fan of fairy tales in all their forms.

That doesn’t mean I think fairy tales are perfect stories. Nor do I think OUaT is a perfect show.

A Twitter-friend of mine gripes, after almost every episode, that for a “modern” retelling of fairy tales the show is oddly devoid of queer characters. I can explain this away — it’s set in a very small town, if the characters are all fairy tale residents the original texts are pretty much straight, etc. But then I started wondering. Are the defenses and justifications I mentally offer even true?

Thinking about the communities in which I move, they all have queer people in them. By simple virtue of the fact that I am in them. But I don’t know — is it really that likely that an average small town would have not a single gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender person in it? Granted, a lot of QUILTBAG folks move out of the small towns of their origin. But the people there would know them. They would come home to visit. Is it plausible for any town in the U.S. to have no queer presence?

And, my other justification — that there’s no queerness in fairy tales.

Well, that’s just not true. There’s little such representation in the Disney versions of such tales (though you can make it exist if you squint right) but the original stories are … not written to the currently fashionable definitions of human sexuality. The stories are malleable, and fluid, and they meet people’s needs in different ways at different times. An argument can be made for all sorts of sexual and gender representation in fairy tales. You just have to read a lot of them to find it.

And, as much as OUaT fails on queer issues, let’s not even mention the representation of people of color. Okay, no, let’s mention it. Yes, these stories are drawn largely from a Northern European – Germanic tradition. However, if you are changing the stories the way you already have, GO AHEAD and add more people of color. Besides, there’s considerable historical evidence that the cities of Northern Europe, even in the so-called Dark Ages, were cosmopolitan hubs where small communities of Jews and Moors lived. People of color; not as scarce as you might think.

Yet …

Yet I am used to living in a world where I don’t exist in fiction. I am accustomed to not seeing lesbians, or butches, or multi-ethnic familes on my television, in my comics, or in my movies. Sometimes this makes me very angry. Sometimes, I shrug and ignore it. Sometimes I walk away from a creative property over these issues. Sometimes I defend the story and can justify its flaws.

But sometimes, sometimes I can like a thing a lot for what it does, and be angry at it at the same time. Once Upon a Time is one of those latter cases. There’s a lot to like. There’s a lot that makes me grind my teeth in frustration. I don’t know, overall, how long I will keep watching.

It’s hard for me to sustain anger at every damn thing in the world that promotes messages of misogyny, queer invisibility, and white-washing. That’s most of my culture, there. I would be angry all of the time. I know of people who are like this, who sustain outrage and anger at manifest injustices, and I admire their stamina. Yet I don’t share it.

I can’t stay angry at Once Upon a Time for being what it is. I’m not even disappointed, really. And I like much of what it tries to do. But that doesn’t mean it gets a pass. It’s still screwing up some pretty important things, and I notice every time.

2 Responses

  1. Something fairly obvious to point out is that the version of the fairy tales used is not going to vary too heavily from the mainline version that Disney has been producing for nearly a century since the production company is ABC Studios, a wholly owned Disney subsidiary. (There’s a reason they were able to use the dwarven work song in the episode the other week.)

    Given Disney’s very mixed history with GLBT culture in general I would honestly be kind of shocked if any character besides a villain showed up who existed anywhere in the GLBT spectrum.

  2. You are the second person to point that out to me! And it was made more obvious by this week’s episode.

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