Say what you will about Once Upon A Time (and there are lots of mocking and critical things to say), but it’s typically been a show with very progressive views on family and on its female characters. It has to be, considering how tangled its family trees are. But in the past couple of weeks alone, it’s featured a curse-breaking “kiss of true love” of an adoptive mother for her son, and Emma “ruining” Hook’s dashing rescue by escaping herself before he had chance to show up.
So why has the show dropped the ball so horrifically with Belle and her relationship with Rumplestiltskin? Since her first appearance on the show, Belle has gone from an interesting and intelligent character to a figure who literally only exists to worry about Rumplestiltskin and to blindly insist, despite all evidence, that he’s a “good man.” She rarely even speaks to any other character (at least, not when Rumplestiltskin is alive), and when she does speak to others, it’s almost exclusively about Rumplestiltskin. Finding Rumplestiltskin. Saving Rumplestiltskin. Helping Rumplestiltskin. Doesn’t she have anything else to offer? You’d think all that book learning and those research skills would prove useful in cases that don’t involve her “true love.” After many episodes of Rumplestiltskin screaming at Belle, of her defending him after he tortured people, of so many incredibly creepy things, I didn’t think it could get any worse.
And now they’re married. With a bit character officiating and tearful romantic speeches about how nobody is perfect and a really ugly hat, they declared their eternal love and tied themselves together forever. And pretty much every moment of it reinforced how and why their relationship is horrifyingly problematic.
Rumplestiltskin proposed to Belle by giving her the dagger that can be used to control him, symbolically suggesting his commitment to being a good person while literally giving Belle the power to stop him whenever she chooses. He does this, he says, because he trusts her, and because he wants to be worthy of her, and then he proposes. And that’s all very nice, except that he is knowingly and wilfully deceiving her. He made a copy of the dagger so that he could trick Belle into believing him (not that it was necessary, considering her naivety and lack of backbone), while still doing whatever evil he chooses, including killing someone she and everyone else specifically asked him not to kill. He’s not only tricking Belle, he’s also using her in part of a scheme to protect himself and to deceive everyone else. He lies to her, and he manipulates her, and he has absolutely no intention of following her wishes. In fact, this act frees him from her wishes, and also from her disapproval, since she will believe he can’t do anything she disapproves of again.
And that’s not even touching on the unhealthy idea of one half of the relationship having complete power over the other. It would be creepy even if it hadn’t been a fake. But the lie of it is skin-crawl worthy to an even high degree.
Then we have the wedding itself, which was not only a rushed affair but seemingly secret. They got married in the woods, during a big event that involved pretty much every other person in Storybrooke, with no one else around except her father. Their “heartfelt” vows contrasted with the very open, very joyful scenes of Snow and Charming introducing everyone to their new son, as Rumplestiltskin and Belle stood isolated from everyone. And we’re supposed to believe that they’re kicking off a healthy, totally-non-abusive marriage this way?
And then there are the vows themselves. Both of them speak about Rumplestiltskin’s “darkness,” about how Belle is the one who saved him, how she sees “the man behind the monster,” while the show once again emphasizes that all of this is based on the lie of the dagger. She says she loves him for his flaws, because everyone has flaws, suggesting that trying to skin Robin Hood, and having a penchant for murder, and shouting and lying and violence are all perfectly normal, perfectly healthy. And the show, I think, does want us to believe that. This isn’t a play on Beauty and the Beast where the relationship actually is messed up and we’re supposed to hope Belle escapes and becomes her own person again. It’s simply meant to be Beauty and the Beast, with all of its potential issues, and plenty of new ones, laid bare.