It’s 2017 and Once Upon a Time continues to deliver the female empowerment stories we need to see more of on television.
Once Upon a Time opens the second half of season 6 with two women working together to escape an alternate universe. While that baseline in and of itself is not exactly praiseworthy, the history of the relationship between these two women is.
Emma Swan and Regina Mills began their season 1 journey as the unlikely hero versus scorned villain. Checking back in six years later and the overarching story feels familiar — Emma Swan still questions her commitment to the title of Savior, Regina Mills continues her struggle with separating her present self from her past life — but instead of working against one another, Emma and Regina work with each other to tackle both universal and personal problems.
Although it is set in the Enchanted Forest and a tiny hamlet in Maine, Once Upon a Time carves out its place among its contemporaries. American Crime tackles the microscopic examinations of racism and hate crimes in small town America. Recently, the network dedicated an entire week to air the eight-hour miniseries When We Rise tracing the history of fight for LGBTQ rights in America.
The thread connecting OUAT to these heavier series is simple — tales of activism that lead to the dismantling of evil. Promoting understanding, leads to unity.
Whether the paths of these real and fictional characters run through the Oval Office, or an operating room in Seattle, or a trail in a magical forest, they pave the way for change.
And in 2017, these stories mean more than ever before.
Emma and Regina: From Enemies to Partners
The most fascinating relationship on Once Upon a Time is between Regina Mills and Emma Swan. The duo not only share a son, but each has enough baggage to make even Atlas’ knees buckle.
From the Enchanted Forest to Storybrooke, Regina and Emma face everything from world-ending curses to missing children to who brings whom back from the dead to live in the present. Can you believe that last one happens more than once?
In the course of five and half seasons their story takes on a newfound importance in today’s television landscape. They do not come together or get torn apart over a man. Refreshing, right?
Trust is not something that comes easily to either woman. There are still moments where one or the other will question a decision, or steal away to work independently. But their intentions are no longer guided by jealousy or anger. Instead, they both tend to act for the greater good.
Both parties are quick to jump to self-sacrifice as the first resort. Though admirable, there is still room for the two to grow their trust and come together.
Collaboration over conflict
Emma and Regina’s relationship reaches a turning point in season 5. When Emma Swan sacrifices herself and becomes the Dark Swan, Regina leans on her personal journey to help Emma navigate. Regina has plenty of experience when it comes to working through her complicated relationship with the residents of Storybrooke.
When Emma Swan returns from Camelot as the Dark Swan, she hides herself away. Regina recognizes the isolation tactics that Emma chooses to adopt and urges her to let in the people who love her. Despite feeling misunderstood, feared, and outcast, hope lives. There are people who are rooting for her to fight the darkness. And the sooner she lets them in, the sooner she can find a way back into the light.
The Underworld was a detour that left many fans with a bad taste in their mouth. However, the finale of season 5 does great work to get Emma and Regina to a place where they finally stand on equal ground.
Neal’s apartment, a place that reminds Emma of great loss, provides the setting for Regina to work through the pain of losing Robin. The physical space intentionally reminds viewers that these two are not so different. They battle many of the same demons. Both struggle with the idea of what it means to be a hero. Both want to save their son, their town. And both want to find their happy ending.
In the silence of the apartment, Emma and Regina plateau.
There’s still room to grow
No show is perfect. For all the complex and positive female-driven storylines that Once Upon a Time produces, there are a few plot lines that hold it back from being the best version of itself.
For example, using Marion’s resurrection as a long endgame for Zelena to become pregnant with Robin’s child is tasteless. The decision to let this plot play out and never address the fact that Zelena essentially raped Robin to benefit her own interests, tarnishes the message of the show.
All of the work that is done to get Zelena back into the good graces of her sister, and the larger optimistic vision the show portrays, is tainted by this giant misstep.
Another example is the relationship between Mr. Gold and Belle. It’s high time for Belle to gain some ground on her counterpart. Their relationship is messy, complex, and difficult to break. But more often than not, the show takes away Belle’s authority and has her slip into the submissive role under Rumpel’s power play.
There is an opportunity for Once Upon a Time to empower Belle, to portray her as an agent of her own well-being. The final petal of their Beauty and the Beast love story fell a long time ago. The prince is never coming and Belle needs to get out of this castle.
Despite the shortcomings of Rumbelle and Zelena, the show continues to promote the idea that taking action in the face of seemingly insurmountable evil produces results. In light of the current news cycle perpetuating nothing but chaos, it is refreshing to see the stories of women coming together to lift one another up.
What is your favorite ‘Once Upon a Time’ story of empowerment?
Once Upon a Time season 5, episode 12, “Murder Most Foul,” airs Sunday, March 12 at 8:00 p.m. ET on ABC.