I have a love/hate relationship with the ABC television show Once Upon a Time.
If you haven’t seen it, it’s basically a series of fractured fairy tales that have to be resolved in the real world, because the characters are under a curse and don’t remember who they are. At least for the first season, which was probably the writers’ best work. It gets progressively more convoluted (and campy) from there, but as I love camp with my whole heart and soul, that works for me.
The third season has not been great, and the writers have kind of worked themselves into a corner with the story they’ve written. But the premise of the show is still intriguing and I can’t quite quit this show, so I keep watching, supplemented with weekly rage emails between myself and my college roommate, Nicole. (We used to hate watch a LOT of ABC Family together, so this is a pretty standard operation for us.) This led to our most recent exchange:
A: Since when is Glinda the good witch of the South? And did you notice: One black witch! Because now that Rapunzel is gone, we’re short a black person!
N: The Only Black Woman in Oz! Was the other witch Latina? Did either of them even speak?
A: Yes. Black witch spoke one time to tell white witch to continue her plot exposition. POC exist in this show to literally advance the storylines and motives of white people. Which means that OUAT might be one of the most accidentally racist shows on television.
You see, OUAT, while a delightful romp through the campiest of camp, with lines like, “After true love, there is no magic more powerful than footwear. It has to be protected,” might have a problem with whitewashing. As in, the entire cast is white. (Okay, fine, Lana Parilla is Puerto Rican and Italian, but her character is born to white parents, in an entirely white kingdom of people.)
I won’t argue about whether characters of fairy tales of mostly western European persuasion should or should not be POC. (I am willing to concede that it makes sense for Snow White to be white. That’s, like, her defining character feature. “Skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood, etc.”) They’re fairy tale characters! The color of their skin is totally irrelevant as to the content of their characters! (See what I did there? I’m so clever.)
Typically, there is one person of color on the show at a time. And that character usually has to die, or ride off into the sunset, for us to see another one. Lancelot, we hardly knew ye. (And you weren’t really Lancelot, anyway. You were just a glamour that was being used by a *surprise* white lady.) And once Prince Charming worked out his own issues with his courage, we didn’t need Rapunzel or her story line anymore.
Mulan was a recurring character for a while. But mostly she just moped over whoever she was hanging out with. First, she was helping Prince Philip wake up Sleeping Beauty and was secretly in love with him, and then she had to help Aurora rescue Prince Philip and fell in love with her instead. (Which, when she confessed her love to Aurora? Aurora was all, “I’m having his baby. But what a lovely way to say how much you love me!” I’m just so freaking clever.)
Last time we saw Mulan, it was about ten episodes ago, and she was just hanging out with the (entirely white clan of) Merry Men by the fire.
And when Ariel made a deal with the Sea Witch? They didn’t even hire an actress for the part of the Sea Witch! They just used CGI! And Tamara, who was a recurring character, and we thought was the Season 2 Big Bad? Just a pawn. For Peter Pan. She promptly dies once she’s done all she’s been ordered to do. Again, Tamara, as a character, totally lacks agency. (Or character depth, really, but that’s just bad writing, something this show is full of.)
I think this type of “throw it a bone” casting is worse than having an all-white cast. It’s as though the network (and casting director) realizes that there’s a problem here, but doesn’t know how to, or doesn’t care to, fix it. Rather, they just hire a person of color now and then and call attention to it. “Look! We have Rapunzel! She’s African American! We’re subversive!” And then we never saw her again. Are POC so hard to find, ABC? Do you not know where to find, like, 75% of the population? (Answer: Everywhere. You can find them everywhere.)
You know what would really be subversive, ABC? If you let people of color have an actual plot and stake in the larger outcome of this family show. After all, if the Blue Fairy can be real, why can’t the imaginary world you’ve created look like the one we actually live in?