/ tv

Class & Classism on TV: Once Upon a Time, First Against the Wall

I’ve been meaning for a while to write a few things about class on television. It’s a rich set of topics, and there are a lot of possible places to begin. I’m going to start with Once Upon a Time, not because it’s the most logical entry point, but because I’m tired of hatewatching it and I need to get this posted quickly so that I don’t feel obliged to watch the show when it starts its new season.

As to the approach: Once Upon a Time is one of the most classist pieces of garbage on tv, and many thousands of words could be written explaining why. I’m going to try to curb my natural tendency towards the verbose, and just zero in on one or two ways classism is baked into the show’s universe.

Let’s get racism out of the way

Oh, hey, the show is also pretty racist. People of color have a life expectancy of about five minutes, and are usually evil or racist caricatures or just awful, or all at the same time. My favorite is Lancelot, who is already dead and replaced with a white woman in disguise when we first meet him.

This all goes double for the doomed spinoff Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, where there are good and evil main characters from Agrabah, and the good one (with the white woman love interest) looks like this while the evil one looks like this. (Of course, neither is of middle eastern descent.)

So yeah, OUAT is very racist. That’s not what this post is about, but it seems like something worth acknowledging.

Working Class Villains

The biggest problems with class on OUAT can be boiled down to its characterization of heroes and villains. Consider the roster of major villains we’ve seen so far:

  • Regina
  • Cora
  • Zelena
  • Rumpelstiltskin
  • Pan

Not all of these characters are antagonists; Regina and Rumpelstiltskin are often sympathetic protagonists or anti-heroes. But they are all defined as villains in terms of the show’s moral universe, and everything they do is read in terms of their relationship to villainy.

Of these, all are people from originally lower-class backgrounds (i.e., peasants), and they represent the majority of lower-class main characters.

In their origin stories, certain themes recur, to the point of tedium[1]:

  • Upward social mobility
  • The acquisition of political power
  • Seeking knowledge/education (i.e., magic)
  • A desire for a life beyond being a parent

For even the most simplistic and uncritical kinds of egalitarian ideology, these would be considered virtues—people striving to learn, to “make something of themselves,” to lead a full life. Education as a path to individual advancement and social reform is perhaps the central myth of American civil life.[2]

And yet, such motivations are consistently treated as evil throughout OUAT. All ambitions are suspect, all acquisition of knowledge for the pursuit of power lead to the dark side, any woman with aspirations must eventually learn how wrong she was not to center motherhood in her life. (Not to mention the implicit stigmatization of cross-class romance as marrying up/gold-digging.) And Pan as a father figure is a stereotype of the drunken, neglectful, non-job-seeking poor man that would probably have struck even the most paternalistic Victorian temperance advocate as over the top.

Secret identities and sanitization

I suspect a fan might come back with the show’s main protagonist, Emma, who grew up an orphan, blah blah blah. The catch here is that Emma was born royal. Making your hero secretly upper-class is the classic way to de-fang and sanitize a story about social mobility for consumption in a society where such mobility is discouraged. A rags to riches story is thus cleansed of any taint of subversiveness.

Also note that Emma is the only main character whose magic is not considered evil, and she is the only main character for whom magic is tied to a birthright. Implicitly, it is because she did not seek an education to change her status that it is acceptable for her to receive one.

Our notional fan might also bring up Charming, who is the reverse: a royal who is secretly a poor. But because his election is not only secret but random (or, worse, destined), and occurs through no notable ambition or effort on Charming’s part, it is still pretty well sanitized.

His is essentially a lottery story—one in which getting a larger place in the world is in no way connected to striving for one. Such striving is only ever associated with moral corruption on OUAT. This is, again, consistent with storytelling that reinforces existing class divisions. Lotteries are a tool for disconnecting the dreams and actions of the lower classes.

(This has nothing to do with whether the character is hard-working and active in pursuing his goals—the point is that the goals he sets, the choices he makes, are all defined within a horizon set by circumstances decreed from without and above him.)

Source and adaptation

It is tempting in talking about something like OUAT to offset some of the blame onto the source material. Disney’s stories are often terrible, and the underlying fairy tales are often worse. But OUAT is largely about rewriting those narratives, and most of the villains’ backstories are original to the show.

They could have told different stories; they chose to tell these stories. These repetitive, obnoxious, regressive, boring stories. It’s hard to imagine that nobody in the writer’s room has pointed out how tedious it is to tell what is essentially the same story over and over again—and indeed, the “uppity poor” villain origin is frequently a central reveal that is built up over a season.

That the writers and showrunners believe this can possibly be compelling storytelling shows that they are (a) awful, (b) stupid, and[3] (c) deeply classist.

I kept watching through last season in large part because I knew I wanted to write a post like this, and I didn’t want to miss relevant (who knows, maybe even exculpatory) material. And partly also because I couldn’t help marveling at the utter shittiness of it. But I’ve had enough, and I’m making sure to knock this out well ahead of the season premiere, so I don’t have to watch any more of it.

It’s too bad, because there are some solid actors on the show, and even some decent characters. (I actually like Regina a lot.) So hey, let me know if they let up on the classism and racism at some point. I might tune back in.

  1. I could go into the specifics, but honestly—it would take up a lot of space and probably bore us all. If you don’t believe me, watch the show, or peruse a wiki.  ↩

  2. It is in many ways a terrible myth, of course. Increasing access to education does not address most underlying social ills. Economic oppression is not something that happens to people merely because they are underinformed. Nor do higher education credentials do much to offset the unearned advantages of those with economic, racial, or other privilege.  ↩

  3. Not “or.”  ↩