On Sunday, ABC's fairy tale drama Once Upon a Time began its new season. The show's writing swings from addictive and brilliant (anything involving Emilie de Ravin's Belle) to cringeworthily awkward (anything involving the fairies), but the series does excel at its big hook: re-imagining fairy tales. It throws up fairly complex characters, dark twists, and unexpected yet compelling combinations week after week. Not every week, mind you, because this is still a very hit-or-miss kind of show. But frequently.
So I was excited about the introduction of two new Disney princesses: Aurora/Sleeping Beauty and Mulan. The show did not disappoint.
Like all the other princesses, Once's Aurora and Mulan do not quite fit their Disney-movie personas. Mulan is less feminine and kind and more of a straightforward "action girl," and Aurora... well, Aurora has more of a personality, period. But I am really excited to see them interact and watch their story unfold, because they represent two different kinds of "strong female character." Mulan and Aurora are the Arya and Sansa Stark of the series. They are the action princess and the traditional princess, the traditionally masculine and the traditionally feminine, who circumstances have forced to work together. And, unusually, they're both shown to have value.
Mulan's strengths, as traditionally masculine strengths, are easier to spot. She's a warrior, a fearless fighter who will go to rescue Prince Phillip and believes she knows all about sacrifice. She's a "woman," not a "girl." But she also has one major flaw: she is dismissive of Aurora. She believes that the princess she helped Phillip to rescue is, well, too princessy. That she cannot fight, must be protected or left behind, that she knows nothing about sacrifice and expects everything to be handed to her on a silver platter. But as they are forced to work together over the weeks, I hope that Mulan will continue on the path she's already begun, and come to see Aurora's worth.
Because Aurora is not weak or spoiled. Not by a long shot. She wakes up to find that the world has been destroyed by a curse, and she continues on. She finds out that the love of her life is marked for death, and she refuses to be left behind. She wants to fight to save him too. She is perceptive, spotting that Mulan loves Phillip almost immediately, and she is determined and brave. She understands what sacrifice means. And she will fight, in her own way.
Normally, any story with an action girl, like Mulan, will (like Mulan) dismiss the traditional and the feminine as ridiculous and weak. In the guise of "girl power," it will contribute to expectations that feminine = bad, and that most girls are ridiculous, but a few, masculine-esque ones can transcend their gender and be badass instead. But it doesn't seem like Once Upon a Time is doing that here. It has the traditional and the action girl, the 1950s and the 1990s, Aurora and Mulan, and it has thrown them together, not to say that one is better than the other, but to show that both have worth, and that perhaps they are strongest and most successful when they work together.
And that is definitely a plotline I can get behind.