Once Upon a Time and the Villainization of Women
We have seen eleven major villains in the four seasons of ABC’s Once Upon a Time, slated to return from mid-season hiatus on March 1, 2015. As the return of the show promise more of the three Queens of Darkness, whom audiences were introduced to just before hiatus, it makes one wonder about the show’s continued use of female villains. Of the eleven major villains on the show, only three of them have been male. This means there have been almost twice as many female villains as male ones. These villains have consisted of Regina, the Evil Queen; Rumpelstiltskin; Cora, the Queen of Hearts; Tamara and Greg, magic hunters; Peter Pan; Zelena, the Wicked Witch; Ingrid, the Snow Queen; and finally Maleficent, Ursula, and Cruella De Ville, the Queens of Darkness.
The show, which tells the story of fairy tale characters crossing over into our world through a magic curse and now residing in the town of Storybrooke, Maine, originally started by adapting the story of Snow White. In this instance, having the Evil Queen as a villain is necessary. However, the continuing pattern of using women villains, as well as how they are portrayed, are increasingly problematic. It seems that the writers go out of their way to either create new female villains – like Cora and Tamara – or bring in ones that are irrelevant to the traditional fairy tale approach – like Zelena and Cruella. Although having strong women characters on television shows is empowering, creating them as villains only allows the media to further the stereotypes of women’s negative traits, the sexualization of women in entertainment, and reduce the respect of women in power.
By portraying so many of their female characters as evil, Once Upon a Time dwells on the many negative stereotypes of women. Traits like vindictiveness and manipulation are especially prevalent in the female villains. As it turns out, each one of the female villains is out to avenge someone they lost. For example, Regina wants revenge on Snow White for inadvertently leading to the demise of Regina’s first love, Daniel. Another villain, Zelena, wants to go back in time to destroy the woman who forced Zelena’s mother to give her up at birth. This vindictiveness, and the willingness to sacrifice anything to achieve their revenge, makes them appear incapable of forgiveness, or rationality.
Manipulation is another negative characteristic of women that appears frequently in the villains on Once Upon a Time. Although almost all of the female villains have incredible magical powers, they can wreak just as much havoc using only their words. For example, after a traumatic incident in which Snow White kills a person in order to save her family, Regina convinces Snow White that she is evil after just one conversation and sends Snow White into a debilitating depression. Despite the female villains’ power of words, the most notable manipulative women are Cora and Ingrid. Cora can turn people into her henchmen by ripping out their heart and using it to control them, and Ingrid knows how to get into anyone’s head by using a magic mirror that makes people see the worst in themselves. Their methods are so underhanded, that the heroes often get roped along for an episode or two before finally realizing they have been tricked.
Interestingly, Peter Pan, the only male villain to receive his own half-season plot arc, is the only villain with no real motivation for being evil. Unlike the female heroes who are blindly fighting for vengeance, Pan simply is evil because he thinks it is fun. To Pan, everything is a big game, including his murderous plot to keep the magic in Neverland so that Pan can maintain his eternal youth. Similarly, because Pan has no one that he loves, it appears he has no weaknesses, and is one of the most powerful villains that the show has seen. Therefore, the vindictiveness which the women use to drive their plans, is actually quite trivial when it comes to being evil. By showing how powerful Pan is without any form of motivation or vindictiveness, it undermines the women who have been fighting so long for vengeance. For example, because Pan has nothing to hold him back, he establishes himself as even more powerful than Regina by taking away the person she cares about most.
In addition to his lack of vindictiveness, Pan’s form of manipulation is decidedly different from the females as well. Pan maintains his control over the heroes much more overtly than the female villains. Unlike the female villains, where the manipulation is subtle and secretive, Pan simply kidnaps someone the heroes care about and hides him in Neverland. By having such glaring leverage over them, Pan is able to get the heroes to do whatever he wants. Although he tries to subtly manipulate his kidnapping victim, the way the female villains would have, he is much more unsuccessful than they would be. The fact that Pan cannot act as underhandedly as the females makes it appear their trademark, and furthers the idea that manipulation is predominantly a trait solely for women.
The female villains are sexualized, both in their costumes and in their behavior. All of the female villains with magic powers wear dresses cut to allow copious amounts of cleavage. In fact, there are entire sections of the fandom on Tumblr dedicated to the “Evil Cleavage” because it is such a glaringly obvious part of the show. Occasionally, the outfits can even be distracting and take away from a scene.
In addition to the occasionally ridiculous outfits, the behavior of the female villains leads to their sexualization as well. Regina, Cora, and Tamara all had affairs that got them into positions of power. Tamara’s affair was particularly drastic because she was using the man she was engaged to, in order to gain access to Storybrooke so she could destroy its magic. By using her femininity and physical attractiveness to get what she wants, it undermines her intellect and other characteristics that allow her to complete her mission.
The female villains’ promiscuity is so well known that not only do they use it to their advantage, but the men in the show do as well. While Zelena is holding a magical Storybrooke resident prisoner, he is almost able to escape by showing her affection and having a passionate moment with her. The fact that a character who is so scheming can be almost foiled by a little attraction and attention, invalidates her ability to come up with such a maniacal plan in the first place. Therefore, not only are the sexual desires of the female villains used deceitfully in order to gain power, but they are also portrayed as a source of weakness for these women as well.
Positions of Power
The continued use of female villains portrays women in power in a negative light. For starters, the fact that a majority of the female villains are queens – the Evil Queen, the Queen of Hearts, the Snow Queen, and the Queens of Darkness – sets up a direct comparison between women in power and villainy. The argument is furthered by the ways that these characters came into power. As previously mentioned, many of the female villains had affairs to get into their position. In order to succeed in these positions, these women had to become ruthless and heartless – some quite literally. Both Regina and Cora ripped out their own hearts in order to prevent it from making them vulnerable. However, the corrupt and manipulative ways of gaining power are not restricted to just the villains. The audience sees Snow White’s mother, Ava, break an engagement between Cora and Prince Leopold by telling Leopold one of Cora’s scandalous secrets, thereby earning the Prince’s affection for her own.
Not only do the female villains possess political power through their position as a queen of some sort, but they also possess magic powers. These magical powers, infinitely more important than their political power, were honed with the help of Rumpelstiltskin. Although Rumpelstiltskin does not have an entire plot arc where he is the major villain, he has been using dark magic for the entirety of the show. He has been known to change sides between good and evil solely in order to support whichever side will benefit him the most. Arguably the most powerful character on the show, Rumpelstiltskin has trained, or at the very least, aided, every single magical female villain throughout the show. Regina, Cora, and Zelena were all his students, Ingrid owes him for magical items that help her control her powers, and Ursula, Maleficent, and Cruella have all worked with Rumpelstiltskin in the past. Therefore, not only are women in power evil, but they owe their success to a man anyway. Despite their appearance of authority, Rumpelstiltskin still holds all the strings. He often remains several steps ahead of the villains, and negotiates with them to make sure that he will end up okay in the end, regardless of what happens to the other characters.
The Queens of Darkness, who will be the focal villains in the second half of season four, appear to be more of Rumpelstiltskin’s pawns. The final scene in the episode “Heroes and Villains”, which kicked off the show’s mid-season hiatus, showed Rumpelstiltskin going to Ursula for help and telling her that, if the Queens of Darkness agree to work with him, he will help the villains get the happy endings they desire. This begs the question, why did the writers choose three unconnected female villains, only to have them become Rumpelstiltskin’s henchmen? Although it is unknown at the moment what motivated the Queens of Darkness to become evil, the Queens of Darkness only further the argument the show seems to make that women in power are dangerous and villainous.
So, does having too many female villains undermine the show’s use of strong female characters? Although there are female heroes to attempt to balance the use of female villains, the female heroes are often too one-dimensional in order to be truly interesting. They fight solely for true love, and are good for the sake of being good, which often makes the villains more interesting than the heroes. The female villains are incredibly cunning and tactical, and are several steps ahead of the heroes at all times. The audience loves to watch as more of the villains’ plans and back-story are revealed. However, by making powerful women villains, the show is creating the idea that for a woman to be in a position of authority means she is, to an extent, evil. This is a common theme that we see in popular culture: women leaders in television are portrayed as icy, heartless, manipulative, and vindictive. Take a look at Jessica Pearson from Suits, Annalise Keating from How to Get Away with Murder, C.J. Cregg on The West Wing, Emily Thorne on Revenge, and Olivia Pope and Mellie Grant from Scandal just to name a few. This sets a dangerous precedent about assumptions of women in power today, and as an audience, society should demand more strong women characters they can respect, instead of love to hate.
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