[This post was originally published on Bitch Flicks.]
Once Upon a Time, last year’s big ABC hit now in its second season, is like Lost with fairy tale characters. Created by two former Lost writers, Once Upon a Time is also a show about strangers in a strange land, with only a few key characters aware of the world’s rich history. Both shows combine flashbacks and present-day stories to portray how characters have changed over time. Both shows slowly reveal bits and pieces of the mythology and backstory in a non-chronological fashion. Both shows combine fantastical situations with real-life emotions, and emphasize the importance of community.
There is one way, however, where Once Upon a Time is far superior to Lost: its portrayal of female friendships. As the show becomes more complex in its mythology and introduces more characters, we see even more positive interactions among women.
One of the first relationships we’re introduced to is the strange friendship between Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison) and Mary Margaret Blanchard (Ginnifer Goodwin). Their friendship is a little unusual because Mary Margaret is, in fact, Snow White with an altered memory, and Emma’s mother. (Mary Margaret/Snow has been frozen in time while Emma has not, which explains why the mother and daughter are the same age.) They strike up a friendship when Emma moves to the town of Storybrooke at the request of her biological son, Henry. Neither woman believes Henry’s fantastical tales about every person in Storybrooke being a fairy tale character, but they quickly grow to like each other. Mary Margaret provides Emma with a home when she needs it, they discuss their failed relationships with men, and when the town turns against Mary Margaret when she is accused of murder, Emma alone continues to defend her.
Now that the spell on Storybrooke has been broken, Emma and Snow are aware of each other’s identities. Snow’s maternal instincts have kicked in, and she is much more protective of Emma, but neither woman has forgotten their previous bond. Their mother-daughter relationship is now on even firmer ground because of the friendship they established before the spell was broken, and watching them rediscover each other has been a heartwarming joy to watch.
Still, it’s no surprise that Snow White is able to have a good relationship with her daughter, because she has a history of valuing her friendships with women. Several flashbacks on Once Upon a Time have shown that Snow has a casual but supportive friendship with Cinderella (Jessy Schram), and a deep and fulfilling friendship with Red Riding Hood (Meghan Ory). When Once Upon a Time throws a twist in the traditional fairy tale and reveals that Red and the Big Bad Wolf are, in fact, the same person, Snow supports her friend through her changes and doesn’t judge her for her wolf side. Red, for her part, helps Snow in her quest to rescue Prince Charming. (Another cool thing about Once Upon a Time? The women rescue the men just as often as the men rescue the women.)
Red, for her part, is also loyal to Cinderella’s Storybrooke counterpart, Ashley (see what they did there, with the naming?) While Snow and Emma are briefly trapped in the enchanted forest, Red quickly bonds with Belle (Emilie de Ravin), helping her ease the transition into a more steady, normal life. Red may be separated from her bestie, but she still makes new friends.
Perhaps the best example of the complex female relationships on the show can be found in the first part of this sophomore season, where four women traveled through the forest on a quest together. Two new characters,Princess Aurora (Sarah Bolger) and Mulan (Jamie Chung). The women, at first, are rivals who are both in love with Prince Philip, but after a wraith sucks out his soul, they quickly bond in a shared goal to punish the people who let the wraith into their world – Snow and Emma.
The outlook is bleak for this new friendship, as Mulan and Aurora first see Snow and Emma as enemies, but this changes very quickly. Aurora soon understands that Snow is not at fault for what happened to her beloved Philip, and the women find common ground, as they have both been victims of the terrible Sleeping Curse. The mother-daughter team and Aurora/Mulan trek across the forest, with different goals that sometimes clash with each other – Snow and Emma want to return to Storybrooke, and Mulan wants to keep Aurora safe – but in the end, they all succeed by working together.
The quest across the forest was satisfying to me on so many different levels. I loved seeing four women travel together as a group. I loved that Aurora and Mulan’s love for the same man bonded them together instead of tearing them apart (though, to be honest, I’d rather see the two women as a couple at this point). I loved that each woman had different ways of contributing to the mission – Snow and Mulan through fighting skills and physical dexterity, Emma through strategizing and working with the enemy (the disturbingly sexy Captain Hook), and Aurora through communication in the netherworld. I loved that their conflicts were organic to the characters and situations, not stereotypical catfights among competitive women.
Most of all, I loved that Once Upon a Time took characters from different fairy tales and classic stories, characters who have traditionally lived in male-centric stories with female villains, and made them discover complex and varied female bonds. They find strength in themselves and with each other.
The trek across the forest is now over, and I’m happy to see Snow/Emma reunited with their family, but I hope this isn’t the end of female bonding in Once Upon a Time. I hope and trust that the writers are only going to show more examples of women interacting positively with other women.