Once Upon A Time is one of the most feminist shows on American television right now.
Week after week, story after story, Once Upon A Time passes the Bechdel test without even trying. It's a show where different kinds of femininity are celebrated, where female friendships take center stage, and where everyone from traditional damsels-in-distress to traditionally jealous older villains are given backstories, emotions and respect.
In the Fairy Tale Land, Once is inverting a common, pervasive fantasy trope: the all-male adventure quest. Four women are fighting their way through the wilderness on a quest, using their assorted skills and knowledge sets to protect one another and move towards their goal. And they have not all been turned into "Warrior Princesses" or "Strong Female Characters (TM)", as we might expect. They are three Disney princesses, and a Disney princess's daughter, who can all handle themselves, but who are also determined, and honorable, and feminine, and flawed.
Mulan, in this adaptation, is a very skilled warrior and a tough, practical sort. Aurora, meanwhile, remains far more traditionally feminine, with her flowing dresses and inexperience in battle... but she is also fierce and brave in her own way, determined to get vengeance for her dead love, and unwilling to be dismissed or left behind. The result is resentment-turned alliance-turned friendship that promises to develop into a relationship that shows the value and importance of all kinds of femininity. Snow White, with her kindness and skill with a bow, and Emma, brave yet emotionally distant, add their unusual friendship/mother-daughter relationship to the mix, and the four of them clash and disagree, but ultimately use their very different backgrounds to protect one another and work together as a team.
Both inside and outside Fairy Tale Land, we also see the importance of family and mothers, but unlike recent Doctor Who efforts, Once Upon a Time allows this to be one element of its female (and male) characters, rather than the defining feature. Snow will do anything for Emma, and Emma will do anything for Henry, but they are still characters in their own rights, with other relationships and needs and goals and flaws. Regina manages to be the Wicked Queen, a complex and frequently sympathetic character (at least in recent episodes), and a mother who does love her son and suffers under his mistrust. Due to adoptions, separations, and magical curses, no family on this show could be considered "traditional," but they are all emotional and compelling. Family becomes a central theme and concern of the plot, but it is not only represented by women, and it is not the only role these women play.
Even the latest episode, which focused on Rumplestiltskin, managed to include female interactions and friendships, even as it focused on Rumple's own romantic relationships, his cowardice, and the origins of Captain Hook. Ruby reaches out to Belle, without knowing who she is, because she is concerned that she needs help. She offers her a place to stay and suggests a job, helping Belle gain the power to tell both her father and Mr Gold that their treatment of her is unacceptable and set out on her own. As a woman who has been a captive, in one way or another, for most of her time on the show, this is a major step. Perhaps she will reconcile with Rumplestiltskin, and perhaps she won't, but we are not treated to any terrible cliches like "a good woman makes the bad man good too" or a patient, matyr-like Belle. With the help of a female friend, she will set out on her own, build a life for herself, and then, if it is right, rebuild her relationship from before in a healthier way.
Once Upon a Time is a modern, feminist take on many traditional tales, but it does not celebrate or value one kind of womanhood over any other. Aurora is as valuable as Mulan; Ruby as important and likeable as Snow White. Despite being fairy-tale fantasy, Once Upon a Time presents some of the most well-rounded, realistic female characters on American television. And I can't wait for more.