In almost every one of my Once Upon a Time reviews, I get called out in the comments for talking “too much” about Swan Queen (the subtextual romance going on between Emma and Regina). If you knew how much I THOUGHT about this dynamic every episode, you’d praise my restraint. I’ve never wanted to be a shipper, or as our own Price Peterson memorably put it, someone who picks a couple on a TV show and “roots for them with the intensity of a Green Beret,” but the recent representation bait-and-switch with Mulan’s bisexual reveal and the aggressive pairing of both Regina and Emma with super-masculine love interests (seriously, Season 3 could just be called Once Upon a Dick) has sort of forced me into DEMANDING JUSTICE for the big ghost ship in the room that OUAT refuses to acknowledge, yet in the face of falling ratings is certainly trying to placate. Guys, let’s talk Swan Queen: intentional or unintentional, why Mulan kinda sorta came out, and how the show refuses to let the Swan Queen flag fly but still tries to keep the ship from sinking.
First off, I want to make it crystal clear that no one who's rooting for Swan Queen is saying that the actors are having a relationship with each other. While both JMo and Lana Parillz are super cool ladies and gay allies, they’re big ol’ heteros in real life, and they're both in committed relationships with anatomically male folks—no one is arguing they're not. Blessed be! That doesn’t change the fact that every time their characters Emma and Regina have crossed paths since the start of Season 1, they've stood nose-to-nose and whispered hot nothings to one another. I seriously doubt that OUAT has only the one boom mic to record its actors with, so why do these two stay close enough to smell each other’s hair in literally every scene? Re-watch the first four episodes of OUAT Season 1 and watch any sense of “personal space” disappear as Regina and Emma fight over their son.
If you’re a little old biddy like me, this kind of dynamic—passionate enemies who are total opposites but share a common goal—harkens back to classic “Sam and Diane” style of relationship-building. (Those were characters from an olden-times stage show called Cheers, available on microfiche at your local library. What great romance DOESN'T involve the love interests hating each other immediately? (Holla at me, Darcy and Lizzy!) When two people antagonize each other to the tune of sneaking into each other's houses/offices and confronting each other on a daily basis, stealing each other's clothes, and having insanely vivid dreams about tying each other up, the line between love and hate can look awfully thin.
OUAT showrunners Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz have said that all the early lingering looks and double entendres between their two female leads were/are unintentional. And they are the showrunners—this is their barbecue, and what they say goes. But either their directors and editors had a whole 'nother perspective, or they were obliviously operating in the old-world paradigm where two hot ladies hating each other is the default expectation of the audience, where two strong female characters with the same goals must necessarily see each other as threats. (Hi, Dynasty!) Thank God, we now live in slightly more enlightened times, times where in more and more cities, same-sex couples can just enjoy brunch without being sneered at, so A LOT of viewers (especially younger ones) didn’t see Emma and Regina and think, “Classic! Bitches hate bitches! I love a good catfight!” Instead, they saw a show about a world of people silently suffering because their true identities were being repressed, and they thought, “These two moms are INTO each other... and they’d be great parents together!” And I think that’s kind of beautiful.
Usually I'm too busy obliviously sucking down the hundreds of books, shows and movies catering to
YA audiences my age group to notice the lack of LGBT representation in pop culture, and that's my bad. But the thing that always gets my attention and makes me hot under the collar is story logic. Good structure and plot and complicated character
dynamics and getting the most out of a premise MATTERS DEEPLY. And that’s why I care so much about Swan Queen: Not only would it make the show infinitely better, it would justify so many aspects of the show’s otherwise wobbly premise. That Emma and Regina are two ladies is
incidental, that they’re written as perfect soul mates is what gets to me.
Like anyone who’s written something, I can also totally understand
Kitsis and Horowitz feeling territorial about their show, their
characters, their intentions. OUAT,
much respect, was a very risky idea they gambled their careers on, and they won big. It
must suck to have several thousand strangers who didn't come up with the idea in
the first place step in and say, “Wait a minute, THIS interpretation would be better
than what you had planned.” But in making a show about pre-existing Disney
characters, Kitsis and Horowitz traded on the fact there would be a built-in audience of viewers with deep, visceral reactions to the fates of the characters they grew up with. That sword cuts both ways. These
characters resonate in ways that Kitsis and Horowitz didn’t create and aren’t responsible for,
and they shouldn’t be surprised when fans try to collectively interpret and modernize a
decades-old, deeply engrained American mythology that preceded their show by
about 80 years.
Frankly if they were real hustlers they'd CLAIM they thought of Swan Queen
even if they hadn’t, because it makes a lot of their crazy-ass hot porridge of
a premise look suddenly considered and deliberate. In a show where magic is regularly
equated with sex/romance feels/true love, Emma and Regina have the best magic.
Emma is the product of True Love and the Savior, Regina is warped from a lack
of love and needs saving the most. Henry
just wants his family back. They both just want to be a family with Henry. AND
THINK OF SNOW’S REACTION! God I want to see that episode so bad.
Fans and bloggers built this ship long before I got on board,
but they’re rarely mentioned in media, let alone by the official OUAT media streams. Maybe that's part of their grassroots appeal to me; Swan Queen is kinda punk rock. While the show keeps pushing a very hetero, cookie-cutter love triangle at the audience and making the dialogue and romantic pairings more and more didactic, Swan Queen fans are collectively weaving and believing a much more interesting, modern, and heartbreakingly romantic narrative, independent of what The Man keeps telling them to feel.
In the face of a very vocal
faction of Swan Queen fans, the show responded by promising a gay character, as
if any old gay character was what fans wanted, as opposed to a very specific pairing. Because that’s how it works for hetero couples on TV; Ross and Rachel
could easily have been replaced by Phoebe and some male extra, right? That's a reference to Friends, available on VHS in thrift stores everywhere. So OUAT, in a nod to representation, had the extremely minor
character Mulan almost-but-not-quite come out to minor character Aurora, who interrupted her with baby news. BABY NEWS. HAHAHAHA
no seriously that’s sad. Sad, but hardly unexpected from a show that regularly
depicts adoption as futile and biological parents as better human
beings, even if they throw their day-old baby onto a highway via a magical tree
Another layer of problems on top of Mulan getting baby pwned is that on OUAT, POCs (people of color) NEVER get ANY kind of happy ending ever, not once, in three seasons. POCs are either guardians (Lancelot, Mulan), victims (Gus, Sydney Glass), or villains (Tamara, Regina). Like, where the hell are Tiana and Jasmine? WHY ARE ONLY THE WHITE PRINCESSES HAPPY?!
But let me handle one thesis statement at time: Recently, Regina and Emma have been getting hella straight-washed. We were told in no uncertain terms that Regina’s True Love is Robin Hood, no room for argument, no time to show character development—meet Robin Hood, he is IT for the most complex character on the show, period. Then in the next episode, Emma burst out crying about having always loved Neal, and she made out with Hook in the episode after that... with a kiss that was highly promoted, despite being written as though it was meant to be a surprise ending. People who ship Hook and Emma were totally cheated out of a really cool moment, and you have to wonder if, after OUAT's plausibly bisexual Mulan-outing made headlines, ABC decided to aggressively market some classic hetero smoochin'. And YET, simultaneously, Emma and Regina have been acting more like a couple than ever, teaching each other magic, and teaming up to save their son.
OUAT experienced a fan drop-off between Season 2 and Season 3, and it seems quite clear that the show has no intention of alienating its thousands of rabid Swan Queen fans. As long as the writers can feed Swan Queen viewers subtext and keep everything looking hetero on paper, they will. But apparently they can’t afford to alienate viewers who consider LGBT relationships to be somehow incompatible with fairy tales.
The problem is as much with the audience as with the show. I seriously doubt that ABC or Disney or OUAT's showrunners are full of hateful bigotry (vintage Disney notwithstanding). Similarly, I don't believe Kitsis and Horowitz have any more of an agenda than "let's get several more seasons and keep our awesome, awesome jobs." That would be my attitude! What I believe is that restricting Swan Queen to subtext, not even discussing it as a notional plotline in a show that will portray literally ANY whacked-out story reconfiguration, is a systemic issue.
tends to hyper-sexualize gay relationships. Hence, many OUAT fans argue that you can’t
have a gay couple on a family show about fairy-tales (often in very misspelled social media posts). But um, nope, that's just not true. When viewers say they want to see Swan Queen, it’s not a request for the show to become sexually explicit, to be Once Upon a Time in My Pants, it’s asking the show and the show’s audience to recognize that all those idealized elements of true love—authentic connection, sacrifice, and loyalty—also happen in LGBT relationships. LGBT romances deserve an idealized,
flowers and hearts, aspirational depiction that parents and kids can watch together and sigh
and say “Awww!” the way they do currently with hetero ones.
I'm no folklore professor, I don't own an amulet or Tevas, but even I know fairy-tales are one of the earliest ways we teach kids basic life lessons: what is good, what is bad, don’t talk to strangers, someday you're going to find someone who will make all the terrible stuff worth it. If we can’t talk about gay relationships in fairy-tale terms, then we’re teaching kids who grow up to be gay that there isn’t a happy ending for them. Like, what other message does it send when Mulan walked away, sobbing, before she could even tell Aurora how she felt? “Believing in even the possibility of a happy ending is a powerful thing” is the show’s own thesis statement.Why not let gay kids, gay teens, and gay parents aspire to a happy ending too?
Look, I ain't Kathy Bates in Misery over here. If for story reasons the writers have something better than Swan Queen up their sleeves, cool! I hope we see it soon! It's just that while I love watching a show that has passionate fans who are willing to fight for the couple they root for, sometimes it's hard to watch a fight that's not fair. Sometimes it's hard to watch the show play both sides—to subtextually seed in Swan Queen while shouting about a hetero love triangle—and in the process, to be complicit with the bad guys who regularly oppress some of their most devoted fans IRL. Mulan's bisexual reveal kind of/sort of felt like that? I know even if the show desperately wanted to make Swan Queen a storyline, they could probably only do it if the audience ratings would support it. And so we're left with a debate that is getting more and more pertinent: Is it the duty of a progressive audience to demand that TV change, or does TV have the responsibility to progress its audiences’ thinking? Who is in control of normal? Who decides what "happy ending" really means?
... Regina and Emma: Intentionally getting a subtext in Season 3?
... Mulan and Aurora: Any hope of a happy ending there? Or at least a freaking follow-up episode?
... Do you think ratings would take a nose dive if Regina and Emma became a thing, or do you think it'd find a ton of support? Was the show testing the waters with Mulan, or just throwing fans a bone?
... OUAT and race: What's up with that?
... Has a work of fiction (especially a televised one) ever changed your beliefs about something?
Editors' note: Feel free to disagree about Emma and Regina in the comments, but please defend your opinions with story logic and civility, not hate. Hate will not be tolerated.