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.

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