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Favorite Feminist Characters

Last Friday was International Women’s Day! And, in less serious and significant news, Fandom March Madness is underway, where people bicker, and post gifs, and get really intense in support of their favorite characters. And miracle of miracles, 59 of the 64 nominated characters are women.

So, in celebration of both, here is a list of some of the most fabulous and feminist female characters currently on TV. It’s far from exhaustive (God knows I don’t watch everything worth watching, and if I listed every character I loved, we’d be here forever!), but I hope it gives at least a taste of some of the wonderful characters around right now.

Sansa Stark (from Game of Thrones)

Sansa Stark

She’s not exactly one of the most popular characters in the series, and I’ve written extensively about the problems with “Sansa hate.” Yet she is, I think, a really important, refreshing take on a young-teen fantasy character, because she’s all the things that a likeable female character is not supposed to be. She’s feminine and naive, buying into all the stories she’s been told. She’s a bit of a romantic and a dreamer, and can sometimes be a bit selfish. And then people begin to try and destroy everything she loves and everything good about her. Except that she’s not destroyed. She becomes a total badass, in a very calm, collected, subtle sort of way. She learns how to survive, how to say the expected lines and give the needed smiles while plotting her own escape underneath. She learns how to use her courtesies to protect herself and to save others, when no-one else is willing to do a thing to help. And despite all the horrible things that happen to her, she remains who she always was underneath — a sweet, kind, if somewhat naively optimistic young woman who is still willing to care for others and determined to make it through this alive.

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Once Upon A Time: In the Name of the Brother

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After last week’s dramatic episode of Once Upon A TimeIn the Name of the Brother was more low-key, as it moved characters and plots into place for the long run-up to the season finale.

But “low-key” doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth the watch. In the Name of the Brother is full of quiet, revealing character moments, making it fairly heart-wrenching. It is an episode of adjustment, and these characters, we see, have a lot to adjust to.
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Once Upon A Time: The Outsider

Belle episodes are the best episodes.

This week, Hook finally makes his move against Rumplestiltskin. And, in true vengeful villain fashion, this means going after Belle. Meanwhile, long ago in Fairytale Land, Belle signs on an adventure to find and slay a fearsome beast that has been terrorizing the villages, and finds an unlikely ally in the wandering warrior woman, Mulan.

And shit goes down.

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Once Upon A Time: Queen of Hearts

How did we get to the mid-season finale already?

This episode was a great culmination of what I have been calling “the adventuring Disney Princesses.” Part of me didn’t really want Emma and Snow to get home, simply because I enjoyed the Fairytale Land adventures so much, but the final battle, with swords and bows and arrows and lots of badass defiance (along with some cringe-worthy lines) was too fun to pass up. Plus we continue along Regina’s fascinating redemption arc, with the idea that she does the right thing, saves the day (albeit from herself), and is still left on the outside, separated from her son. Meanwhile, we discover that Cora is not being the stereotypical evil mother figure, out to kill her child, but is actually hoping to be reunited with her so that they can wreak havoc together.

But the best thing about this episode, to me, was all the fairy tale inversion going on. On the more obvious side of things, Snow White must fight her way through evil in order to kiss the prince and awake him from the (not-so) wicked queen’s spell. Once Upon A Time is apparently all about equal-opportunity true love rescues.

And then we have Aurora and Mulan. I am not sure whether we are on a “two women who are entirely different, but learn to respect one another and work together” arc, or a “two women who are different, love the same man, and then fall in love with each other” arc, but both are fascinating and powerful narratives in a genre that has traditionally made women into the agentless victims, and which has more recently favored kickass, sword fighting “Strong Female Characters” over other possibilities of femininity. The message that both can respect and love and fight for one another, because both are worthwhile in their own ways, is an important one. Aurora’s heroism in this episode is a kind of stubborn fearlessness, as she offers to be tied up and left behind to save the others, while Mulan’s is a more overt sword-wielding heroism, but both have immense value and bravery in the story. Meanwhile, this episode was full of barely-concealed metaphors for their relationship. Often, fairy tales and fantasy stories have princes fighting for the hearts of princesses, either performing impossible tasks to impress them, or busting out their heroism in order to save and marry them. Instead, Once Upon A Time had Mulan, another princess, fighting for Aurora’s literal heart, to save Aurora from a horrible fate. When, at the end of the episode, Mulan restores Aurora’s heart, the scene seemed reminiscent of Buffy Season 4, Willow-and-Tara scenes. At the very least, it made a powerful inversion of the usual fairy tale tropes by having women save one another and then team up, go on and save a prince together.

If we don’t continue to see the two worlds simultaneously and follow Mulan and Aurora in their quest to save Philip (and fall in love with one another in the process), I will be pretty heartbroken.

 

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Once Upon a Time: Into The Deep

In this week’s Once Upon A Time, Aurora and Mulan finally got something to do!

After an excellent start on the show, the two new Disney princesses have fallen into the background somewhat, but they came into the forefront this week, as Snow and Emma struggled to find a way to communicate with (and return to) Storybrook.

Interestingly, Aurora and Mulan’s storyline this week fell into the traditional “princess” storyline: the damsel is kidnapped and held to ransom, and the hero must come to save her. The most obvious twist was that the “hero” was in fact another Disney princess, Mulan herself, and although I wish that the actress could have brought a little more subtlety and believability to the performance, I think there was a mixture of duty (I promised Philip!) and genuine desire to protect and save her in her actions. However, I was even more pleased by the way they presented Aurora. Considering that many viewers have dismissed her as a weak and whiny sort of character (because, perhaps, she was upset over Philip’s death and struggled to keep up to the others while in a dress), it was great to see her showing her intense personal strength and determination to do good. She covered up her burns without complaint, because she wanted to help them go home. As Cora saw, she also hoped that this new world would provide a new home for her, after her own world was entirely destroyed. Yet she has no false notions of dramatic rescue, or even the idea of being precious to anybody. She will not betray the others, even though she has no hope of rescue. She will not fall for Cora’s lies and manipulations, even if they are exactly what she would hope to hear. And she is strong-willed and stubborn in the face of kidnap and death. She’s not a fighter, but she is certainly a strong and interesting character.

Of course, her reward is that she’s now completely under Cora’s manipulative power. But I’m intrigued to see where all of this goes, and how Mulan will react when she discovers the spell. Because, despite their initial distrust of one another, the two characters have a connection. Mulan is all about honor and duty, but she did not think twice about stealing the compass from Snow and Emma to trade for Aurora. Aurora, meanwhile, doesn’t think there is anyone left who cares enough to fight for her… how will she react when she finds out that isn’t the case? Although we’ve had some brilliant scenes with Aurora and Mulan interacting with other characters — Snow in particular — I really hope we get to see them talk to each other soon. I think they would have some interesting things to say.

Meanwhile, Snow and Charming are stuck in another fairy tale inversion, as he sacrifices himself and becomes stuck under a sleeping curse, trusting that she will return to save him. Looking forward to seeing all this develop next week! (Although, I must admit, a different writer would be welcome. Some of the dialogue was cringe-worthy this week).

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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.

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Once Upon a Time: The Not-So-Evil Queen

Over the past few weeks, Once Upon a Time has changed from a fun, but frequently sub-par, piece of entertainment to one of my favorite shows on TV.

And one of the reasons for that, I think, is the development of Regina Mills. Although I’m rolling my eyes over the repeat of Willow Rosenberg’s “magic is like an addiction” storyline, I love that the show is giving Regina both depth and struggle.

Because Evil Queens have feelings too.

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Once Upon A Time: Family, Feminism and Disney Princesses

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.

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