A Complicated History: Snow-White and the Queen

I am trying to remember how I looked at Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs (or Schneewittchen und die sieben Zwerge, as I came to know of it as a kid) before the most recent interpretations that have popped up on tv and the movies – and I can’t. The brothers Grimm are an important part of German culture and as I grew up in it, I was always aware of them but I can’t even remember if one of my parents read the fairy tales to me and somehow I don’t think so. Maybe someone did it in kindergarten, I’m not sure, but I always seemed to have known them (or some of them). And I’ve always seemd to have known about Snow-White, and in retrospect it actually seems one of the most important of all the Grimms’s fairy tales.

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It certainly is one I remember well. And I’m not talking about Disney’s interpretation, either, because I’m pretty aure I never watched the movie. And it confused the hell out of me when I heard people mention that the dwarfs had names and the prince kissed Snow-White awake because that’s simply NOT what happens in the original text. If you think about the things that Disney kept in the story, and the things that they changed, you certainly detect an agenda (one that keeps vanity in women very much alive and adds heterosexuality/true love to it) but that’s not what I want to discuss here. I want to talk about the relationship that makes this story relevant, the one that gives it meaning, a purpose: the one between Snow-White and the Queen, between a little girl and her stepmother, the one between two women destined to be adversaries, and between innocence and witchcraft.

While this post is merely an introduction to this topic, I want to look more closely at the following texts: the Disney movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)(as it is an important part of American culture, probably more so than the original fairy tale), Mirror Mirror (2012) and Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) which came out the same year (one as comedy, one as drama), and Once Upon a Time (2011), a tv show that has discussed the relationship between Snow White and the Queen (Regina Mills) for almost three years now, most elaborately (adding layers to both the story and the characters). Additional texts will be the original fairy tale in an English translation, Emma Donoghue’s interpretation of the story in Kissing the Witch and Snow White: A Tale of Terror, probably my favorite interpretation of the text as it is a horror movie.

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You may wonder at my fascination with this relationship, I have thought about this, too. But it is not only ‘my’ fascination, obviously, since Hollywood can’t seem to get enough of it either. The brothers Grimm have left us with a mere skeleton of a story: this happens, then this, and in the end this. They did not draw characters, putting up mere stereotypes to drive their lectures home. You are never told what happened to Snow-White’s father, he’s never mentioned beyond the fact that he marries a second time, you don’t know how Snow-White got along with the new mother before that woman’s envy of the girl’s beauty drove her to desperate measures (and let me remind you that Snow-White was seven at the time she exceeded her stepmother’s beauty). We don’t know how long she’s been living with the dwarfs or how long she lay dead in the glass coffin before the prince found her. These holes in the narrative can, have been and will be filled with new interpretations for a long time to come. And to build a whole tv show around this tale… yes, I am fascinated by ABC’s Once Upon a Time, I’m also frustrated with it and the way it handles some of its narratives. But at the center, there’s Snow White’s (Ginnifer Goodwin) tale, her relationship with Regina (Lana Parrilla), her stepmother, who wasn’t always evil, whom circumstances changed… and I’m going to talk about it at length.

You may have noticed that I sometimes write Snow-White and sometimes Snow White. Recent interpretations seem to have adopted the latter version but the translation of the fairy tale uses the first one. I will probably do the same, using the hyphoned version for the original text. It does make sense since to me she had been Schneewittchen before she became Snow-White. Some of you may also know that there is a second Snow-White in Grimms’s tales but I will not concern myself with her as in the German version she is actually called Schneeweißchen and is not the same character.

I think this is all I wanted to say in this introduction. I hope I will be able to shed some light on this relationship, or at least discuss it knowledgable. I feel like I should begin with the Disney film but I still haven’t watched it… we’ll see.

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Let’s Talk ‘Queerbaiting’ – An Inquiry into Queer Shipping on ABC’s “Once Upon a Time”

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I was never sure about the validity of the concept of queerbaiting. As I understand the term, the powers that be put something queer in a movie or a tv show to get queer people to watch. They may not be following through on a story line, they may not make your OTP canon but something queer is happening which to me always meant: exposure, discussion, visibility. A win-win situation. That was until yesterday (Monday) when the strange intricacies of Once Upon a Time‘s (love) story lines hit me over the head and asked: do you think that’s okay?

I obviously didn’t or I wouldn’t be writing about it. What happened? SleepingWarrior happened, or maybe – more accurately – they didn’t happen, per se.

Once Upon a Time is a complicated story, I cannot go into the details of all the story lines, let’s just say every character has a complicated history with every other character and it so happened that Neal Cassady/Baelfire (Michael Raymond-James) came back to the Enchanted Forrest, met Mulan (Jamie Chung) and Robin Hood (Sean Maguire), talked about his love for Emma (Jennifer Morrison) and got Mulan to go seek her love to tell them how she felt. The next time we see her she is smiling at the sight of Princess Aurora (Sarah Bolger) and the hearts of SleepingWarrior shippers everywhere soared but weren’t quite sure whether it would happen, since there was – since the beginning of this story line – Prince Philip (Julian Morris) lurking in the shadows. But here, the producers followed through (kinda), they made Mulan almost confess her love to Aurora but before she can, happy Aurora tells her that Philip and she are going to have a baby.

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Mulan’s heart breaks (as do a gazillion shipper hearts still in flight) and she leaves to join Robin Hood’s merry men.

I guess, I could as well put an ‘the end’ at the end of this short paragraph. Because what else is there to happen? Aurora and Philip have their happy ending as those are still possible in the Enchanted Forrest and it is, after all, the plot device to end all other plot devices. At least, in fairy tales it is so. The question would therefore be: does Once Upon a Time follow the rules of fairy tales? I wouldn’t say so, at this point, I think, it is safe to say that this will turn into a Neverending Story – pun intended. And as we already know that Philip is prone to being cursed or disappear, Mulan might yet get her chance to become Aurora’s one true love…

This would mean, there is hope for SleepingWarrior, yes? I guess there would be if this wasn’t exactly the point where for the first time in my life I see queerbaiting. Before you, a valiant SleepingWarrior shipper, start throwing rotten apples, remember that this is a subjective opinion. I don’t own the copyrights to indisputable wisdom, and I’ve been wrong more times than I can count (and I would be happy to be wrong in this case). But let’s discuss this:

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Mulan as a character in her own story certainly has the potential to be a queer character – all gender-bending and cross-dressing characters are basically queer. But queering gender and having a queer sexuality are two different things. They are not necessarily exclusive but they are not the same thing. The gender bending, cross-dressing aspect holds true for the Mulan in Once Upon a Time. With her body armour and helmet in place she’s still able to pass, though once the helmet is taken off, there is no mistaking Mulan for a man – which is the desired effect for Mulan, her days of deliberately masking her gender are over. While she might still be queering the gender-range with her garb, her sexuality is supposedly straight (I’m referring to Aurora’s supposition that Mulan is in love with Philip. While Mulan denies this accusation, it is strongly suggested that she lies to keep her peace with Aurora and probably also because she knows that Philip loves Aurora and could never love her).

I’m talking about ‘assumed sexuality,’ here, and should know better. If I learned anything from being a fan and walking through fandoms it’s that any given character’s sexuality is fluid, if not in the canon then in the fandom. With Mulan, there are even more indicators (one might even talk of a stereotype) that she might be gay: the fact that she adopted a male identity in the past, that she is still cross-dressing to possibly appear as a man at first sight, and also the fact that she is Asian. I’m not trying to be racist, it’s a mere fact that women of color are more likely to be chosen as lesbian (or bisexual) characters by story tellers (at least in movies and on tv, I’m not sure if this holds for literature), and especially Asian (American) women have a tendency to be bisexual – or at least, assumed to be bi.

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The possibility of Mulan being indeed queer is great, even though the story-tellers (writers and creators of Once Upon a Time) have been coy to actually let her come out – until Sunday. Because on Sunday they basically shoved her out of it in what seemed like an aweful hurry. If you think about the whole plot device that led Mulan to (almost) confessing her love to Aurora, it seems really constructed. Neal gets shot, tells Emma he loves her and awakes… in the Enchanted Forrest. He explains that he thought of the Enchanted Forrest while falling into the portal but that seems awefully convenient. He’s about to die, has just told the mother of his child that he still loves her and then he thinks of the Enchanted Forrest with all the bad memories of his dad (Robert Carlyle)… well, I guess you can’t control your dying thoughts even if you’re not really dying. He meets Robin and Mulan (is it even explained what Mulan is doing in Rumple’s castle?), recovers really quick from his bullet wound and talks Robin into using his son as bait (which is so unbelievably stupid, I’m still trying to forget it ever happened). Then he releases his speech on love and how he wants to be with Emma because she’s the only one he’s ever loved, yadda, yadda and disappears with Pan’s shadow.

The two reasons why Neal ends up in the Enchanted Forrest are: 1) so that Mulan is discovered to be in love with Aurora and 2) to give the audience another look at the lion tattoo on Robin Hood’s arm, telling us that he’s a supposed love interest for Regina (Lana Parrilla). Holy plot device, Batman! Did the Once-creators just turn one character gay to ensure that another character is definately not gay – especially not with the lead character, and NO SWAN QUEEN, SUCKERS! (I’m sorry, sometimes tumblr-speech just takes over. Or rather: sorry, not sorry at all.) That’s how it looks like to me, at least.
You may ask: okay, what has Mulan’s coming out to do with SwanQueen? Maybe nothing at all. But while there are a lot of SleepingWarrior shippers out there, there seems to be a whole SwanQueen fleet that is slowly but surely taking over the fandom because the creators have failed to give Emma and Regina both a believable (and alive) love interest. Chemistry is a tricky thing but it’s painfully clear that Emma never had it with August (Eion Bailey) or Hook (Colin O’Donoghue) and I’m also pretty doubtful about whether she has it with Neal. And Regina may have had chemistry with Daniel (Noah Bean) but he’s dead and I doubt he’ll be raised from the dead a second time. But then Emma and Regina have chemistry together, which is something that is wanted and needed on the show. Without this chemistry, most of their actions would seem stupid and questionable, they wouldn’t be able to make magic together. But here is where it gets tricky: making magic together has become a wonderful euphemism for… being in lesbians with each other.

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The fandom is split on this issue, for sure. There are those who do not want Emma or Regina to be gay, and there are those who want them desperately to be together because it would ensure a happy ending for Emma, Regina AND Henry. There’s a shipping war going on but since the side of SwanQueen-opposition is devided into multiple ships, SwanQueen is relatively dominant. This poses a problem for the creators because they do not want Emma and Regina to be together either (this may be a supposition on my part but I really haven’t seen any indication that the creators are in favor of this ship – if I’m wrong, prove me so). What to do? Give the queer audience another queer character. And here we are back with Mulan and her broken heart. By giving us Mulan, they draw (bait) our focus from SwanQueen while introducing another love interest for Regina in the same plot device and have Neal profess his love for Emma – don’t tell me they did not do this on purpose, it’s simply a too convenient muddle of plot device to not be connected.

While giving us Mulan as a queer character, the creators are not giving us SleepingWarrior as a canon relationship. Given, at this point of the Aurora/Philip/Mulan story line it would have been stupid to do so. Aurora and Philip are a canonical item on the same level that Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) are – their story as fairy tale alone gives them this status. Of course, if the creators had really wanted to create a lesbian relationship and had thought this through and not just jumped into it, they could have left Philip lost. But it really doesn’t feel like they ever wanted to do that – whether the story line was well thought-through or not. And here is where I come back to the queerbaiting aspect of this whole story line – a possible queer character, yes, a canonical lesbian relationship, no. And we all know how much queer action characters get once their status as gay/lesbian/bi/other is established: 0, that’s how much (I don’t think we need to dwell on the reasons for this, we have discussed those at length and the most common [and commonly stupid] for Once has always been the ‘family show’-exclamation of sensitive heterosexualists’ souls).

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There is one aspect in this whole story line that might actually become a redeeming factor for the whole show. When Tinkerbell (Rose McIver) uses pixie dust to conjure up a new love for Regina, one of the fundamental truths of fairy tales is put into question – that of one true love. Daniel has been introduced to us as Regina’s one true love, if there can be another, however, who is to say that this wouldn’t also be true for Aurora (or even Snow)? Of course, this could just be one of those not very well thought-through plot devices that the creators of this show like to throw at us – like how true love’s kiss sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t (unless, of course, as I am kind of hoping Rumple is not Belle’s [Emilie de Ravin] one true love). I would like to see this followed through, however. Not because I want to see Regina with Hood but because I like to see the fairy tale myth questioned and ultimately broken. The myth of one true love has created a standard human beings are not really born to live up to, it also holds us all hostage to a repetitive Hollywood theme that allows a whole industry to become lazy. And it makes Once Upon a Time cling to Snow and Charming as a representative tool for advertising heterosexuality as the norm – when the show could do so much better than this.