Gender and Fairy Tales

Detectives and bail bonds "persons" as fairy tale hero/ines: A feminist antimilitarist analysis of Grimm and Once Upon a Time

Nancy Taber, Brock University, Canada

1In 2011, two television programs based on fairy tales premiered: Grimm and Once Upon a Time. These programs continue the long-standing tradition of building on, expanding from, and altering "original" tellings of fairy tales resulting in complex performances of genre, context, plot, and characters (Zipes, Fairy Tale, Sticks and Stones). The ways in which gender is taken up in these programs is similarly complex, with characterizations both mirroring and challenging representations common in fairy tales (Bacchilega; Haase; Harries; Parsons). Although both based in fairy tale lore, these programs at first appear strikingly different; as the Fall 2011 line-up was introduced and two competing programs introduced, I was immediately intrigued with how gender would be performed. These programs are not the only ones based on fairy tales (for instance, Beauty and the Beast began airing in Fall 2012), but they are distinct in that they draw on a multitude of fairy tales for their content, not just one. For instance, Grimm has explored tales and characters such as the big bad wolf and Little Red Riding Hood, the three bears and Goldilocks, Rapunzel, the Pied Piper, ogres, dragons, and step-mothers, while Once Upon a Time (hereafter referred to as Once) has done the same with Snow White, the Seven Dwarfs, Little Red Riding Hood (who is also the big bad wolf), Rumplestiltskin, Beauty and the Beast (the latter of whom is also Rumplestiltskin), Hansel and Gretel, the Evil Queen, Prince Charming, Jiminy Cricket, and Pinocchio. In the second season, characters such as Mulan and Captain Hook are also being introduced. Grimm focuses on more traditional Grimm stories while Once focuses on tales made popular by Disney (indeed, its publication company, ABC studios, is a division of Disney-ABC Television Group). Each of these programs makes the tales their own, mixing and changing characters and elements as required. Both programs also represent mothers as absent or evil. However, Grimm is firmly ensconced in the horror genre (rated 14+ in Canada), and Once in that of family (rated PG).

2In this article, I discuss the ways in which gender is performed in Grimm and Once, as modern fairy tales, through my theoretical framework of antimilitarist feminism. I argue that gender, violence, and militarism are represented in complex ways (Enloe, Maneuvers, Curious feminist, Globalization) that variously position ideas of good and evil (Butler, Precarious Life), protected and protector (Young), masculinity and femininity (Butler, Gender Trouble; Connell). I explore how each program re/writes gendered scripts which interconnect with each other and with societal performances of masculinities and femininities through the programs' characterizations of heroic hunters and saviors, who are also estranged mothers and sons.

Grimm and Once

3As a basic introduction to the stories, the programs' websites are the best explanation, as they also demonstrate how the network intends they be viewed. For instance, Grimm "is a drama series inspired by the classic Grimm Brothers' Fairy Tales" (NBC Universal Media, LLC para.1). The male protagonist, Nick Burkhardt, is a homicide detective in Portland, Oregon, who "discovers he's descended from an elite line of criminal profilers" (para. 1). In this program, the Grimms search out and destroy all "wesen" (German word for "creatures," pronounced vessen) who represent "all manner of ancient evils" (para. 3) except for two "reformed Grimm creatures" (para. 3), Monroe and Rosalee. In his work, Nick "attempts to shield his new fiancee, Juliette...and his partner, Hank...from the hazards of his new life" (para. 2). As such, despite a few exceptions, the program's description is presented as supporting a contrast of good (Grimms) and evil (creatures) as well as protector (Grimm, a white man) and protected (Juliette, a white woman; Hank, a black man; innocent civilians). Part of the storyline revolves around Nick's parents' death in a car crash, as it is revealed that, not only were they actually murder victims, but his mother is secretly alive.

4Once's description is titled, "It's Not Always Happily Ever After," wherein "fairy tales and the modern-day are about to collide" (Bell Media, para. 1). The story revolves around female protagonist Emma Swan, a bail bonds collector who was orphaned as a baby. "When the son [Henry] she gave up years ago finds her" (para.2), Emma is introduced to "an alternate world" where she "is Snow White and Prince Charming's missing daughter" (para. 3). She had been "sent... away to protect her from the Evil Queen's curse, which trapped the fairytale world forever, frozen in time, and brought them into our modern world" (para. 3) via a town called Storybrooke, Maine. As the series opens, the characters in Storybrooke have lost their memories due to the curse, forgetting who they were and who they loved in the fairytale world. The Evil Queen is the mayor of the town (as well as Henry's adoptive mother) while Rumplestiltskin (Mr. Gold) owns the town. Show White and Prince Charming are separated, and Emma is viewed as a saviour for their true love and the town itself. "The epic battle for the future of all worlds is beginning, but for good to win, Emma will have to accept her destiny and fight like hell" (para. 5). Good and evil are positioned as opposites, but are also made complex as viewers learn the backstories of villainized characters such as the Evil Queen and Rumplestiltskin as well as victimized ones such as Little Red Riding Hood.

Re/writing Gendered Scripts

5As protagonists, both Nick and Emma are employed to search out criminals. As such, they are on the side of the good guys, although Nick's position as a detective is more institutionalized and a greater part of the plot than Emma's as a bail bonds collector. (Emma later becomes the Sherriff of Storybrooke.) Additionally, Nick is characterized as a "hunter" of wesen while Emma is the "saviour" of fairytale land. They are the hero/ines who work to protect others from danger, creatures, and curses. These representations lend themselves well to a feminist antimilitarist analysis, which focuses on the ways in which militaristic ideals are embedded in societal notions of gender.

Militarization is a step-by-step process by which a person or a thing gradually comes to be controlled by the military or comes to depend for its well-being on militaristic ideas. The more militarization transforms an individual or a society, the more that individual or society comes to imagine military needs and militaristic presumptions to be not only valuable but also normal. Militarization, that is, involves cultural as well as institutional, ideological, and economic transformation. (Enloe, Maneuvers 3, italics in original)

Militarism values conflict and violence as well as binaries of good versus evil and masculinity in opposition to femininity. It is interconnected with gender, giving preference to forms of masculinity and femininity that emphasize difference and deficiency. Men and women are divergently situated as strong protectors and weak victims respectively (Messner; Young), disregarding the ways in which their actual lives may challenge these constructed positions.