Do you ever watch something – a movie, or a tv series, or read a book – and suddenly you’re seeing patterns and themes that you’re not sure were the intention of the authors? Because that’s how I’m feeling about Once Upon a Time this season. Especially after this past episode. So much of Season 4B has been positioned as this look at darkness and light, good and evil, heroes and villains. And if you read my last episode reaction, you’ll know the problems I’ve been having buying into those themes.
No, instead – and like I said, especially in light of this most recent episode – what I’ve really been getting out of this season is questions and issues of consent.
It’s funny, I’ve actually been planning a post about this same issue just with a different show. A good number of people on my tumblr dash seem to be gearing up for Season 5 of Teen Wolf by rehashing two of what I feel to be the most controversial/divisive moments in the show – that of Scott using Derek to administer the bite to Gerard in the finale of Season 2, and the beginning and continuation of the Stiles and Malia relationship in Season 3B and 4. I was planning a Throw Back Thursday where I threw my own two cents in, and to be honest, I think I still will. But I might as well get the consent ball rolling with a slightly more topical discussion.
So. To begin with, I’ll quickly mention the most recent as well as most blatant disregard of a character’s consent. And that’s obviously Zelena and Robin Hood. When she was first revealed last week, the exact nature of their relationship was certainly hinted at, but nothing was confirmed. It hasn’t been that long since Robin and Marian left Storybrooke, and though she may have been his wife, Robin’s heart was still with Regina. Maybe he was taking some time to ease that heartache before he resumed all husbandly activities. This week, however, when her pregnancy was announced, there were no more maybes.
What I’ve found a little bit disturbing in reading other people’s reactions to that reveal, is that most people only seem to want to talk about Regina. Poor Regina. Regina doesn’t deserve such a betrayal from her sister. Her first love was murdered and now her second love has fathered a child with her sister. And while, yes, I do feel for Regina, I’m flabbergasted that so few people are talking about Robin Hood (other than one person who was mad at him for not believing Regina right away).
Guys, Robin Hood was raped. And no one seems to care.
I don’t say this to be glib or shocking. Sure, he wasn’t held down while someone violently violated him, but the deception Zelena used in order to sleep with him – taking on the persona of his wife – was tantamount to rape. He did not consent to sleeping with Zelena. He did not consent to fathering a child with Zelena.
Consent issues are usually tied up in discussions around sex and sexual violence, but in reality that’s only one aspect of it. Consent is control. Consent is having bodily autonomy, it’s having the agency to make your own choices – not just about sex, but about all aspects of your life. But it was this completely non-metaphorical rape story line that really brought the theme of consent to the light for me. And I began to notice just how many times this theme has arisen throughout Season 4B.
The main antagonistic group was formed because Rumpelstiltskin had finally, truly lost control over himself. Yes, he’d lost the dagger a time or two before, but this time it was to a different sort of person. He had no qualms killing Zelena if he was able, in order to regain his own person-hood, but not Belle. No, Belle had power over him in a different way, she had his heart. He couldn’t kill her, he couldn’t hurt her. He couldn’t fight against the power she held, both as the woman he loved and the woman who wielded his dagger. And she used that power to get him to leave; forced from his home, from his family, from everything he knew. And without that dagger, he was powerless to stop it.
Now that we’ve gotten to the end of the story, Belle’s own lost heart is a nice little bookend to Rumpelstiltskin’s lost power. Regina stole Belle’s heart in order to manipulate her actions, and used her to discover Rumpelstiltskin’s ultimate plans as well as to crush and humiliate the man. She then kept Belle’s heart as leverage over Rumpelstiltskin, threatening to crush it and kill her should he attempt to move against her. To be honest, I was a little confused by how this turned out. I assumed that the scene where Regina went to Belle and asked for her help was proof of Belle’s complicity in Regina’s scheme, but when Rumpelstiltskin and Will Scarlet returned her heart, she seemed shocked by Regina’s actions and grateful to Rumpelstiltskin and Will. Perhaps this just goes to show that consent and agency can’t just be implied or given lip service to, they need to be explicit.
All three of the women Rumpelstiltskin assembled as his Queens of Darkness were seeking something more in common than just simply a “happy ending.” Their varying levels of inherent darkness and villainy aside, all three were looking for something to be returned to them, something important that was taken from them without their permission. For Ursula, it was her singing voice – the only thing she had that connected her to her mother and a very real part of her personal identity. Without it, she felt she could no longer allow herself to remain a mermaid and so forced herself to become something new. For Maleficent, it was her child. Snow White and Prince Charming saw Maleficent, and subsequently her child, not as a person, but as a monster, and so they had no qualms in forcing all of their own child’s darkness onto Maleficent’s and then banishing the infant to another world without its mother. And for Cruella, it was her ability to kill. Sure, we can all say that killing is morally wrong and Cruella is an evil woman because of her enjoyment in the act, but that ability, that part of herself, was still something that was stripped form her by the Author.
Which brings me to the Author himself, and the crux of the two biggest consent story lines this season. We’ll start with the more focused of the two.
Lily and Emma never had a chance to be anything in life other than what they’ve become. Their lives, their destinies were already decided by the Author long before they were even born. Not content with a child who had potential for both great goodness and villainy – not confident enough in her own abilities as a mother to guide and nurture Emma into her goodness – Snow White made the decision to separate Emma’s light and dark sides, forcing all of Emma’s darkness onto Lily and then banishing the child to another world. Emma is the Savior, a Hero – not by choice, but because her mother forced the role onto her. Lily, on the other hand, is nothing but chaos. Her life has been one bad decision after another, no matter how hard she tries, no matter what she does to better herself. Neither of them really got to be real people. Neither of them got to grow up with their families, with the love of their mothers, because Snow White and Prince Charming decided for them that they would be tools first (Emma the Savior and Lily the Keeper of Emma’s Darkness) and children second.
And moving on to the more broad – of course, again as I said in my last Once Upon a Time episode reaction, how much blame can we really place on Snow White and Prince Charming when the Author himself has been manipulating the stories instead of simply recording them? Can we blame any of the characters for their actions? With the Author as someone who writes the stories himself – can take away Cruella’s ability to kill with just one simple line of prose – these characters, for as long as he’s been writing them, have completely lost their agency, no different than Rumpelstiltskin being under the control of Belle as she forces him from Storybrooke or Belle being under the control of Regina as she uses her against Rumpelstiltskin. We know for sure that he is the reason for Maleficent losing her child. That he is the reason for Emma and Lily’s entwined destinies. But when did he start? Is he the reason for Snow White and Regina’s initial falling out? Did he cause the feud between Maleficent and King Stefan? Did he decide Belle and Rumpelstiltskin should fall in love, that Snow White and Prince Charming were soul mates? Could he even go back so far as to be responsible for Rumpelstiltskin becoming the Dark One?
I agree with Snow White and the other Heroes that the Author needs to be stopped, that he can’t just rewrite the stories and give the Villains their happy endings. But not because they don’t deserve them. But because they deserve their free will. Like I said, I don’t know if this is what the writers at Once Upon a Time want me to get out of Season 4B, but it’s what’s become most prevalent to me. Both the villains and the heroes, both Lily and Emma, deserve their free will. They deserve agency and control. They deserve to make their own choices and live by the opportunities and consequences afforded them by those choices. Some may still choose darkness. Some may still choose evil and villainy. But it will be their own choice.