Once Upon a Bait-and-Switch

I want to point to this recent Peter David post only to acknowledge it as sparking inspiration. Before that goes anywhere, though: this isn’t a response to David’s point, but I didn’t want to pretend this particular post sprang out of thin air. David is largely discussing slashfic writers who seem to be insisting on the wholesale rewriting of Once Upon a Time characters–in directions that don’t really make much sense for them–under the auspices of diversity. I agree, I find insisting that two heterosexual female characters suddenly fall in love with each other is stretching, to put it mildly.

That said, the mention of diversity in general with regards to Once Upon a Time does bring up an old itch I’ve had with the show. Setting aside fan pairings, this little series about fairy tales come to life does have what strikes me as a fairly problematic relationship with diversity. Insofar as I can spoil events which are several seasons from having happened, consider this a warning.

There’s really not much to tell when it comes to LGBTQ characters in OUaT. There’s exactly one: Mulan (Jamie Chung). In terms of characters, she’s not a bad one to have. The show positions her as a warrior. Much more of one than the prince and then princess with whom she travels. Mulan isn’t anyone’s sidekick; she’s hanging around to Get Things Done.

So, thumbs up for agency. Mulan originally develops a pretty clear crush on Prince Phillip (Julian Morris), with whom she’s been questing following the events of a curse. Mind you, a good 80% of the plots on this show involve characters of both sexes pining after other characters who may or may not reciprocate those feelings, so I’m not making a “defined by the man she loves” complaint here. That Mulan is quickly thrown into the position of having to protect Princess Aurora (Sarah Bolger, whom Phillip really loves) after unpleasantness temporarily befalls Phillip twists things well enough to keep them interesting.

Then Phillip wakes back up, and there is still pining and moping, but, we eventually discover, it’s not for Phillip anymore. It’s for Aurora. I might be persuaded to believe that she really loves both members of that fairy tale duo, but given how cagey the writers were in revealing Mulan’s bisexuality,1 I’m not inclined to think they were also positioning her as polyamorous.

Though you can think what you like, since the scene revealing Mulan’s LGBTQ status is also the last scene she’s appeared in since. The series has a bisexual character just long enough for someone to notice, then she’s gone to make room for the heteronormative couple.

Some searching online suggests that part of this may be due to problems with Jamie Chung’s other commitments, but the problem is, Once Upon a Time sort of has a history of this kind of replacement of minority characters. By my count, there’s been a grand total of four other POC on the show who have had a significant impact,2 so let’s just take a look at all of them. It won’t take long:

Cinderella’s fairy godmother: In a flashback to the Enchanted Forest, the story of Cinderella starts out just like you remember it, as a young girl meets her fairy godmother. Said godmother, in a pleasant surprise, is played by an African-American actress (Catherine Lough Haggquist). But before the two women can even have a full conversation, Rumpelstiltskin (Robert Carlyle) destroys her with a flick of his finger and takes both her wand and her place in the rest of the story.

Lancelot: African American actor Sinqua Walls shows up in the second season to portray the classic, valorous knight in a flashback. The good news: he makes it to the end of the flashback alive. The bad news: in the present, he’s been murdered off-screen by Cora (Barbara Hershey), who’s taken his place using an illusion spell.

Tamara: Sonequa Martin-Green’s character lasts longer than the two above, but given that her spy mission essentially turns her into a prostitute (she’s the fiancee of her mark at the behest of her employer) and said employer–Peter Pan (Robbie Kay)–only keeps her alive long enough to get him the little Caucasian boy he’s actually interested in, I’m not sure it’s an especially impressive run.

The only POC other than Mulan who manages to live through a run on Once Upon a Time, in fact, is Sidney Glass (Giancarlo Esposito). In the context of how disposable most other POC characters have been, however, it’s especially troubling that Glass’s fairy tale counterparts are not one, but two slave selves: first, he’s “Genie,” who is freed not by Aladdin, who then would have been the show’s first Middle Eastern character, but by yet another Caucasian male character. “Genie” is free just long enough to be manipulated into committing murder and subsequently re-enslaved by the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla), this time as her magic mirror.

Look, I don’t think that every character who falls into some kind of minority must instantly become The Most Important Awesome Flawless Character Ever. That’s not my intent here at all. I want real, human characters as much as anyone else–even in my fairy tale-inspired fiction.

And I don’t think that the writers and producers of Once Upon a Time are secretly a gaggle of racist homophobes. I’m not trying to ascribe malicious intent to the examples above any more than I’m trying to insist on paragon status for minority characters.

What I am saying, or trying to say, is that the smaller the nod to diversity, the more impact the event surrounding that diversity are likely to be. Killing off an African-American character doesn’t in and of itself send a message. Killing off three out of four (two of them in their first appearance) for the sake of developing your Caucasian characters, then making the fourth a double slave…. I should hope it’s clear that this starts to generate a pattern for the place of POC in your narrative which is, at the very least, problematic.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that when the details of the first nod toward LGBTQ inclusion seem to fit that same pattern of bait-and-switch which has plagued the inclusion of POC (and when the disappearance of Mulan not-incidentally marks yet another POC stepping aside for the sake of Caucasian character arcs), folks might be inclined to make some negative assumptions.

Yes, people like to see folks like themselves in their entertainment. But I think, sometimes, being repeatedly teased with that representation can have a far more negative impact than not seeing it at all.

ETA / Related: As fate would have it, Abigail Nussbaum just posted a far more in depth look at racial issues in another ABC/Disney property: Agents of SHIELD. Take a look.

1.Mulan never quite comes out and says she loves anyone, though I think the intention’s clear

2. There’s an African-American vet in Storybrooke who serves as an expository device in one episode. And one of the dwarves is played by a Phillipino actor, but given that the writers largely use the dwarves as “Grumpy and sometimes six other guys,” I’m not inclined to call him a full-fledged character at this point.

Advertisements

Selling Women Online

It’s probably incredibly understated to say that I’m really not an American Football guy. I’m not much of a traditional sports fan in general. So I definitely don’t follow much of the media surrounding sports, either. It was only via Rebecca Eisenberg on Upworthy that I ran across Katie Nolan’s recent discussion of the place of women in sports and sports media:

It’s worth a watch, and a lot of thinking and talking and thumbs ups. Then I Googled Nolan to see what responses might be out there to her piece, and I found myself fairly disheartened by the headlines:

 photo GoogleSearch_zpseec26c23.png

I mean, you have to get to the third article in the list before the headline is about the primary content of the video, and not “Don’t boycott the NFL!” which, you know, seems to spectacularly miss the point.

I was wholly prepared to start taking people to task for headlines which so clearly buried the lead in something that looked like nothing so much as corporate shilling. Except that clicking through, I saw that both of those articles pretty evenly move from the “no boycott” into the larger commentary on women in sports / sports media.

And then I realized my Google search is ordered by “relevance,” which in Google terms largely relates to how many people link to / click links to the articles in question. A realization which was, honestly, even more depressing.

Because that means those first two articles got more attention than any of the others with headlines that directly address the feminist concerns of the video. While I’m not especially keen on manipulative headlines that feed web hits, it’s an even more sobering realization that, apparently, the very mention of feminism and/or sexism in relation to sports media is a whole lot less interesting than “This lady says it’s okay to keep watching our sports!”

Which pretty much makes Nolan’s point for her, I think. When you have to sideline the very topic of sidelining women, the double-secret probation becomes rather painfully clear.

And yes, that’s exactly why I titled this blog post the way that I did.

Just Love Me (but Not On the Lips)

I’m still ambivalent about a The Last 5 Years1 film, largely because its concept has always seemed so tied to live theatre. Mind you, I don’t mind adaptation. It happens all the time. Filmmakers adjust stories to better fit the new medium and I totally think they should.

That said, the central conceit of The Last 5 Years–that Cathy is moving backwards through the relationship as Jamie moves forward–feels both essential to the material and all wrong for film. In all honestly, while there are a lot of songs I love in the show, I think the reason you sit through those songs all at once is the time juggling. It’s a device that engages your mind in a different way than a linear narrative, and by around the midway point, starts encouraging you to try fitting songs back together internally. The intellectual exercise of figuring out who is when keeps your brain working to put together what is, on its face, a fairly standard relationship narrative.

And, in a theatrical setting, no one really balks at just having two people performing a series of musical monologues. We’re used to folks getting up on a stage and doing just that. It’s the buy in. We don’t need anything cinematic. And, again, that intimacy seems kind of crucial to what this particular story is trying to accomplish. As, effectively, an elaborate he said / she said story, forcing the audience to lock in on whomever is currently doing the saying is important. It’s not a tug of war if you aren’t being yanked from deep within one person’s perspective to deep within another’s. Film tends to want to be far more immersive with its environments, and rightly so.

So, yeah. Given that the two things that I think make The Last 5 Years, you know, The Last 5 Years are both elements which I think don’t work especially well in cinema, I’ve been apprehensively curious about how things are going to work in this new film.

The first clip from the film feels a bit like my concerns are at least reasonably valid2:

So, in an effort to help things move, to give the world of the film that immersive environmental element I was talking about above, we have our lead characters in a car. We get wind, we get scenery, we get all that wild, fun energy of being out on the road with the person who gets you going, which of course leads to pulling off said road in order to get going with said person.

But because Cathy has to keep singing the whole time, the scene plays really awkwardly for me. There’s no real musical break to let Anna Kendrick fully connect with Jeremy Jordan. She manages to sneak in one, very quick kiss, but the rest of the scene, which is attempting to build to some spontaneous roadside nookie, keeps fighting with the need for Kendrick to keep singing. I count three or four different spots where it’s clear that the actors’ instincts (which I think are spot on) are to be kissing, but: Must. Keep. Singing.

So instead we have Jordan going to town while Kendrick sings about how into it all she is without being able to actually be into it. It’s kind of a perfect example of the tension between the needs of the filmmakers and the needs of the show they’re adapting.

Maybe this is just a particularly off example of the rest of the film released because “look, we made it full of sexy stuff!” or something. Still, it’s not doing much to reduce my ambivalence.

1. I thought for half a second about going back and forth between 5 and Five in the titles to distinguish film from stage show, but it just became confusing, not least of all because, while MTI lists the title with Five-the-word, the poster just about everyone associates with the show uses 5-the-number, and I’m done with the headache, so this is what you get.

2. The original clip is actually from Entertainment Weekly, but after much screaming and gnashing of teeth, I cannot get that into WordPress. Thus the YouTube.