When my husband was a child, he was so traumatized by the Disney movie “Snow White” that, as an adult, he informed me that no child of ours would ever be allowed to see it. Since my husband’s usually a pretty anti-censorship, pro-Freedom of Information type, this struck me as odd. His reason was interesting, though: what traumatized him was the notion that your mother could want to kill you. As a child, he didn’t really distinguish between mothers and stepmothers, and he found the evil queen overwhelmingly frightening.
As it happens, neither of our kids has ever watched “Snow White” at our house—though my daughter believes she saw it some time in elementary school. And, also as it happens, in his conflation of mother and stepmother, my husband was not alone. In the earliest collections of their famous tales, the Grimm brothers often included maternal villains; in later revisions, though, some of those mothers were transmuted into stepmothers, apparently to soften just the kind of blow that my husband felt.
Why does all this matter? I raise it in part because of Rosemarie Emanuel’s recent revelation about the villain of “Tangled,” a kidnapper/adoptive mother. And I raise it also because I’m so intrigued by the recent transformation of fairy tales in the popular ABC TV series, “Once Upon a Time.” In that series, an adoptive mother and biological mother compete for both the love of their son and, ultimately, control of the town they both live in. The mayor of Storybrooke, Regina Mills, is a domineering woman who — it is revealed early on — is also the evil stepmother of the “Snow White” story. Her competition, and her son's biological mother, Emma Swan, is (in her other life) the daughter of Prince Charming and Snow White.
Regina’s control over Storybrooke is repeatedly demonstrated to be oppressive in the extreme — unbeknownst to the inhabitants, indeed, they are actually living “out of time,” in a town where their pasts as fairy tale characters are unknown to them, though they are destined to live out their fairy tale fates nonetheless.
Why does this matter? Like Rosemarie, I am interested in the depiction of the evil stepmother — not because I’m an adoptive or step-parent myself, but because I’m intrigued by the persistence of fairy tale tropes. Critics have argued over the implications of the evil stepmother trope for years. Bruno Bettelheim, a Freudian critic, saw the competition between the evil stepmother and the virginal daughter as a representation of the daughter’s inevitable separation from the mother in the oedipal stage. More historically-oriented critics note that maternal death was frequent in early modern Europe, when and where most of the fairy tales familiar to us originated, and that often a stepmother would indeed be competitive with her husband’s daughter for his affection and, perhaps more important, resources. (A stepmother with her own daughters, such as the one in “Cinderella,” might quite reasonably be expected to try to advance their fortunes over her husband’s daughter’s, as well.) Feminist critics see in the evil stepmother evidence of the way that a patriarchal system inevitably pits women against each other, sowing the seeds of competition in a system whereby women can only advance through marriage.
While all of these arguments are intriguing, they leave open the question of why such stories still resonate in such different times. One reason, of course, is that they are so adaptable—and can mean so many different things at different times. And here the particular spin that “Once Upon a Time” puts on things is both intriguing and disturbing: the characters who represent the three characters of the stepmother, Snow White, and Snow White’s daughter are, in the Storybrooke world, all relatively close in age. The unknowing Snow White (Mary Margaret, in Storybrooke) and her daughter Emma become friends — Emma even offering advice to Mary Margaret (and vice versa) frequently. The three actresses playing the stepmother, step-daughter, and step-granddaughter were all born within two years of each other, and they look it on the show. So the competition is not generational, as in earlier versions — these are women of roughly equal status competing.
But competing for what? A son, and power — not, as in so many earlier versions, the status of “fairest of them all,” or an advantageous marriage. So here is where things get interesting.
It seems to me that “Once Upon a Time” is actually entering the so-called “Mommy Wars” with this convoluted series. While neither Emma nor Regina is a stay-at-home mother, Regina’s ambition and her clearly time-consuming full-time job as mayor seem to distance her from her son. Dressed in sharp-edged business suits when she isn’t seducing the town police chief, she is in sharp contrast to her primary competition, her son’s biological mother, who is portrayed as a free spirit, dressed most often in jeans and a leather jacket, and possessed of seemingly unbounded time to spend with her son and his fantasies. It’s clear that our sympathies are supposed to be with her, despite the fact that she gave him up for adoption at age 18 (we still haven’t gotten the full story of his origins) and did not see him for the first ten years of his life. Indeed, the series begins with that oldest of adoption tales, his search for his biological roots, when we see him riding the bus from Storybrooke to Boston, where he surprises his mother on her 28th birthday and sets the plot in motion. (It’s perhaps worth saying, as well, that like so many fairy tale characters Henry Mills has no father, or father figure, in evidence, though he will no doubt be revealed ere long.)
It’s too soon to say where “Once Upon a Time” will go, and since it is an invention of the creators of “Lost,” it will undoubtedly become far more convoluted before it all comes clear (if it ever does). But in its depiction of maternal competition and its evident preference for the biological over the “constructed” family, and its stereotypical depiction of the powerful woman, it tells us nothing new at all. And that’s a shame.