Unconventional Mothers on Once Upon a Time

Mothers and daughters (and parenthood in general) are a major, driving theme inOnce Upon a Time, from Emma’s initial journey to Storybrook through Regina’s descent into evil and Snow’s reunion with her grown up daughter… and while these relationships are moving and compelling, not a single one could be called “conventional.”

Considering that the show is based on tales where motherhood is either entirely traditional, twisted and corrupt or completely absent, this is admirable.

The most prominent mother figures on Once Upon a Time are protagonist Emma and “evil Queen” Regina, both of whom feel love and affection for their son Henry. Their son Henry, because (at least, until his relationship to Charming was revealed) Henry has no father figure in his life. Just two mothers with radically different backgrounds and perspectives who both want the best for him. One is his adoptive mother, the other his birth mother who felt compelled to give him up for adoption so he could have a better life. Both love him and are wiling to fight for him and protect him. And although Regina isn’t exactly the best mother figure, as an evil fairy-tale queen, she’s never treated as “lesser” because she is not his mother by blood, and once it got over Emma’s initial lie-detection test, the show does not suggest that she loves him any less. Meanwhile, the show never attempts to criticize or shame Emma for her own decision or suggest that she is a bad mother. Neither is a perfect mother figure for Henry at the start of the show… but that is part of the compelling nature of the story. Motherhood is certainly a part of their story and one of the factors in their decisions, but it is a part only. They have lives and needs and flaws outside of it.

Then there’s Snow White and Emma… a woman who was forced to give up her child, and a child who grew up believing she had been abandoned. Oh, and they’re now the same age as each other, and became close friends and roommates before they realized they were related. How much more unconventional can you get? And although they love each other, they didn’t immediately adopt a mother-daughter relationship when they found out the truth. Emma still has scars from the past, and they have a lot to talk about… they protect each other, and care for each other, but that is a relationship that is never going to look “normal.” And that, in the context of the show, is OK too. Because no parental relationship is normal. Ruby lives and works with her grandmother. Charming grew up with only his mother, who he lost so that he could have a chance for children of his own, and is now acting as grandfather to a child when, from his perspective, he only had a baby daughter a few weeks ago. Belle only has her father, who doesn’t trust her to make her own decisions, and even Aurora, who has no family left, develops a kind of little sister bond with Snow over their shared nightmares.

And that’s not even getting into the mess between Regina and Cora.

Motherhood is really important in fairy tales, mostly because of its absence. “Real” mothers (aka birth mothers) are usually dead or unmentioned, and many female characters get their happily ever after by marrying and becoming “real” mothers themselves. Other “mothers,” especially step-mothers or simply older female characters, are witches, jealous of the younger girl’s beauty, desperate to punish them and ultimately irredeemable villains. Yet in Once Upon a Time, the only purely “traditional” mother we see is Cora, the irredeemable villain figure desperate for power and advancement. Everyone else has something unconventional about them… and although they are not perfect angelic mother figures, they are caring and compelling characters. In many ways, the most unconventional aspect of motherhood in Once Upon a Time is that it turns one of the most pernicious — yet subtle — sexist fairy tale tropes on its head, allowing women to be both mothers and people, without criticizing them for their independence.

06 comments on “Unconventional Mothers on Once Upon a Time

  • G.M. , Direct link to comment

    I read your blog intermittently here and there, and I know you’re also critical of Doctor Who and share concerns I have with that series. Wanted to get your thoughts on a scene, maybe 2 or 3 episodes back on OUAT between Snow and Emma about their relationship – couldn’t help but think, “Hey, wasn’t a scene like THIS supposed to happen between River and Amy?”. Wondered if that hit you too the moment it happened.

    • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

      It didn’t, but that’s a really interesting thought! I hadn’t noticed the similarity between their situations before, partly, I think, because the relationship is so underdeveloped on Doctor Who that’s it’s easy to forget that River grew up basically parentless and that Amy is one day presented with her grown up, lost daughter. I love that Once Upon A Time was willing to acknowledge that, as happy as they both would be to find their family, there would also be a lot of difficulty in accepting it and getting over the past. I’d say “if only Doctor Who would do the same,” but it’s too late for that… hopefully with the new companion, Moffat will choose a less emotionally complicated plotline, so that it doesn’t seem so flat when it fails. Unlikely, but I can hope.

  • RVCBard , Direct link to comment

    she’s never treated as “lesser” because she is not his mother by blood

    Unfortunately, I disagree.

    The first time we see Henry and Regina share a scene, the first words out of his mouth are, “I found my REAL mom.”

    The show seems to treat Regina as the nanny who won’t give up the baby after the parents come back from vacation rather than the major parental figure in Henry’s life. The fact that Regina is Latina, and the child and biological family in question is white, adds another layer of unfortunate implications that I’ve discussed at length elsewhere.

    She is the only parent who has to earn the love and respect of her child, contrary to biological parents where it just seems to happen of its own accord no matter what that parent does. Yes, she did some messed up things, but so did Granny when she didn’t tell Red the truth about herself (which wound up getting poor Peter killed). Yet the show doesn’t undermine Granny’s role as Ruby’s parent figure and caretaker as a result of that. And let’s not even get into how Rumpelstiltskin murders people right in front of his son, and how people’s fear of the Dark One means that Baelfire doesn’t have any friends he can even play a simple ballgame with. Yet the show does not act as though Rumpelstiltskin is less of a father because of it.

    • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

      I think it gets complicated because Regina is, objectively, not a nice person in the first season. She curses everyone. She locks Belle up for almost 30 years, she frames Snow for murder and kills Graham and is generally presented as “pure villain.” Now that they’ve decided to give her more depth and explore a potential redemption arc for her, I don’t think her love for Henry is presented as lesser — although she does have to prove that to him and to his birth family, because she has done many horrid things and had a huge vendetta against them in the past.

      • RVCBard , Direct link to comment

        Of course Regina does horrible things, but she’s not the only parent who does so. We have a male counterpart in Rumpelstiltskin. He does horrible things like murder people right in front of his son, but that doesn’t seem to indicate that he’s less worthy to father Baelfire the way the show often went out of its way to indicate that it made Regina a less worthy mother for Henry.

        Not to mention, before the things she did came to light, the show was undermining her role as Henry’s mother from the very first episode. The whole story gets kickstarted because Emma doubts Regina’s love for Henry.

        It seems to point to this weird double-standard where a man can be and do all kinds of bad things and still be a seen as a great father (case in point: every Mafia film/TV show ever) whereas a woman (especially a woman of color–can’t ignore this) cannot be and do the same without her fitness as a parent being called into question.

        It’s not the fact that she does bad things. It’s that the same standard is not applied to other characters who also make bad choices with serious consequences.

        • Alex H , Direct link to comment

          ehh… I respectfully disagree.

          I think the point of the first season- everything from the lie detector test to the final scene in A Land Without Magic- was that by focusing on her revenge above all else, Regina had lost her ability to love, and her character arc was getting this back, culminating with the scene where Emma breaks the curse saving Henry, and Regina’s happiness at Henry being okay is stronger than her horror at the curse being broken- in fact, we see when she cries over Henry’s pillow at the end that she’s grown to a point where her response isn’t rage, but grief and fear.

          Regina’s story revolves around the priorities in her life: her power or her son. As the story moves forward, we see her prioritize Henry more and more (like in the scene this week, where Henry and Regina had a heart to heart about Regina’s use of magic, which despite the episode’s shaky dialogue was a really fantastic scene). Of course, my interpretation may be partially due to how well they’ve portrayed the Regina-Henry relationship this season.

          I also think it is shown that Rumpelstiltskin is not a good father to Bae- I always viewed it as a parallel to Regina’s situation as Henry. While Regina goes from being an unfit parent (because at the beginning of Season 1, when she’s sending Henry to therapy and convincing him he’s delusional just to preserve her curse, I’d argue she is this) to a loving mother who, while flawed, will put him first, Rumplestilktskin goes from being a loving father who puts his son first despite his own character flaws to being a nasty, power-hungry man unsuited to parent Bae. (In the Untold Stories facebook app, a letter from Bae was released, confirming that he becomes terrified of Rumpelstiltskin, is convinced his father will one day become abusive, and no longer views the man as his ‘Papa.)

          Of course, this is just my two cents, and I’m almost definitely influenced by the fact that I’ve seen a season and a half of the show and played this facebook game. I also think Regina was presented extremely unsympathetically in the first episode, due to the fact that it was a pilot and to draw people in (and because Disney movies themselves are very black and white) and they needed to set her up a ‘bad guy’ for the show to make the viewers automatically root for Emma.

          The show is definitely flawed in some of its early approaches to adoptive parents (*cough* Hansel and Gretel *cough*) but it’s also come a long way, and created some very satisfying character arcs in doing so.

What do you think?

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