For those of you that don’t know, Emma Swan is the main character of ABC’s hit show, Once Upon a Time. The show revolves around a series of fairy tale characters are affected when a curse transports them into the human world with no idea about who they once were. Emma – the prophesised saviour, dragon-slayer and sexy-pirate-kisser – is the only one who can restore their memories and get them back home. The series has been very successful – and this has nothing to do with Disney’s involvement in ABC, God you guys, stop asking – receiving rave reviews for its fresh spin on familiar fairy-tale characters. Emma herself has been widely presented as a ‘Strong Female Character’: a departure from the traditional weak-willed princesses we’ve come to expect from fairy tales.
But does she live up to her reputation? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
To a certain extent, Emma’s destiny is mapped out from before she’s even born. When her mother, Snow White, is pregnant with her, she is told that if she sends her child to another realm to escape an oncoming curse, Emma will come back and break the curse on her twenty-eighth birthday. From that moment on, Emma is marked out as ‘the Saviour’: she’s destined to break the curse on her fairy-tale friends and send them home, and this pretty much dictates her role in the story. To a certain extent, it even affects her personality, as in a later episode, Snow White and Prince Charming decide to magically remove all the ‘evil’ from their unborn child because apparently that’s how that works.
This means that it’s often difficult to take Emma’s control over her own destiny at face value. She’s been marked out for a higher calling, and it’s well established that other characters have been trying to shape her for their own ends since before she was even born. She often gets moved through the plot like a pawn across a chessboard: we see her being clearly manipulated by many other characters and for most of the story, she’s carrying out plans that she didn’t make and don’t always benefit her. Much like Clara, she’s a character that’s sold to us as ‘feisty’ but actually ends up doing what she’s told most of the time.
Part of this can be chalked up to the tropes surrounding the traditional ‘Chosen One’ storylines. I touched on this in my Buffy post, but basically the idea that you can be marked out as a super-special saviour often comes with all sorts of limitations on free will and raises questions about the inevitability of fate. However, where Buffy managed to still have some control over other aspects of her life – such as going to college – Emma doesn’t really have a lot of control. A lot of the opportunities she takes are handed to her by other characters – such as her job at the Sheriff’s office, which was initially given to her by Abs Dornan –
– and when you really analyse her actions, most of the time she’s not the one pulling the strings.
SCORE SO FAR: 0
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
As far as hobbies go, Emma doesn’t really have many to speak of. We see her try her hand at many different things in the show, but these are usually one-off activities that are very much dependent on the plot of whatever episode they happen to appear in. We don’t really see Emma engaging in any recurring pastimes aside from spending time with family and friends, which doesn’t really count.
Her beliefs and goals are a little more clearly defined. Emma feels very strongly about families getting separated – a direct result of her childhood in foster care. Her goals are pretty clear, too – she wants to get the fairy-tale characters back to their world, defeat the various baddies, and build a proper relationship with the son she gave up for adoption. Some of these aren’t always goals she came up with on her own – her quest to get the characters back to their own world is something I touched on in the previous question – but some of them are, particularly the desire to have a strong relationship with her son. It’s a pretty patchy spread, so I’ll give her half a point.
SCORE SO FAR: 0.5
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
Emma’s personality is largely consistent. She’s always first into the fray, determined to take care of herself, and can be quite aggressive at times. She does have a softer side – particularly when she’s interacting with her son – but it isn’t shown very often, and is usually displayed in small, subtle ways.
Her skills, however, are completely different. Emma is seen mastering pretty much anything she tries her hand at within the first few attempts. She uses a gun very easily, which I can buy, considering America’s attitude to gun control and the fact that we hardly ever see her use anything heavier than a hand gun. But she uses a sword very easily too, despite the fact that sword-fighting is much more difficult than it looks and she hasn’t had any training.
It’s the same thing with her use of magic. We don’t see her actively using her magic powers until about halfway through the series. Before then, she has no control over them – often seeming to activate without any input from her, usually when she’s in danger. When she finally decides to start to learn how to use them, it takes her all of thirty seconds to master her abilities, and she’s pretty much a pro from there on out. Part of this can be chalked up to her ‘Chosen One’ destiny, but I think it’s much more likely to be the fault of lazy writing. I’ll be generous and give her half a point.
SCORE SO FAR: 1
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
A determined, independent young woman destined to break a curse and restore fairy tale characters to their true home.
SCORE SO FAR: 2
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
Most of Emma’s decisions aren’t influenced by her love life. Throughout the story as a larger whole, the one thing that motivates her the most is her desire to build a relationship with her estranged son and reconnect with her long lost parents. She has several relationships with various different characters, and some of them do have a real impact on her actions, but never to the extent where they eclipse her other goals.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
Emma’s development over the course of the story is a bit patchy. Over the course of the first season, she eventually comes to accept her role in the ‘fairy tale’ and starts working towards becoming a more responsible parent, building relationships with her family and friends and eventually coming to terms with her role as ‘the Saviour’.
This would be all fine in terms of character development if she didn’t keep doing it. Throughout the various seasons, Emma’s story goes through an extremely similar arc: instead of taking her character in a new direction, she almost always ends up learning the same thing over and over again. She’s constantly re-affirming her role as ‘the Saviour’ and always coming to terms with her abilities even when they aren’t changing. I can believe that becoming a responsible parent is something that she would continually want to work on because parenting is difficult and as your child grows older you’re going to have to deal with a bunch of new issues, most of which are caused by all the endless hormones. But I have real trouble buying into her character development in the other areas of her character. Sailor Moon had the same problem: if she’s learning the same lesson over and over again, it doesn’t really feel like she’s learnt that lesson at all.
SCORE SO FAR: 3.5
- Does she have a weakness?
Emma does actually have some pretty well-established weaknesses. She often rushes into things blindly without thinking through the consequences, which winds up putting her in dangerous situations pretty often. She also has real trouble letting people get close to her – a direct result of her troubled past, where many different people ended up letting her down in many different ways. Again, this brings up problems for her in the narrative, as it makes it very difficult for her to form a happy, healthy relationship. These are both well-written weaknesses that have a consistent impact on how she travels through the story, so she passes this round with flying colours.
SCORE SO FAR: 4.5
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
Emma is another one of those characters who can effectively stand still and allow the plot to generate itself around her. Because she’s the prophesised ‘Saviour’, even if she decided to stay in bed and eat pizza and ice cream for the entire series, other characters would still be seeking her out and getting her involved in the story.
Although the aforementioned pizza/ice cream extravaganza is an excellent way to spend a television series, this isn’t what Emma does. In most of the episodes, she’s at the forefront of the action, and in her role as Sheriff she’s always the first on the scene for the many crimes she ends up investigating. However, just because she’s first into the fray doesn’t mean she’s actively influencing the plot. The fact that she is the Sheriff means she has to be the first one on the scene – and it isn’t even a role she really wanted in the first place. She may be the first one rushing into danger, but it’s always a danger she’s reacting to. The situations she finds herself in are usually engineered by the show’s villains, who are by far the most proactive characters on the show. More often than not, Emma spends most of the story being placed into situations that she didn’t create and that she has absolutely no control over.
The one area of her life where this isn’t the case is her relationships with her family. Emma actively tries to build relationships with her son and her parents, and when they are in danger, she will take drastic steps to protect them. Most notably is the moment in the series four finale, when to stop evil magic consuming everyone she cares about, she voluntarily absorbs it. She becomes ‘the Dark One’ – Once Upon A Time’s personification of evil – even though it goes against everything she believes in to do so. This is partially undermined by the incredibly simplistic way the show handles good and evil – come on guys, you can’t just syringe all the evil out of someone’s personality – but it is still nevertheless a huge impact on the plot that will hopefully allow her a little more agency. I’ll give her half a point.
SCORE SO FAR: 5
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
In many ways, Emma is a character designed to deconstruct a lot of preconceived ideas about gender. Whereas the traditional fairy-tale heroines were meek, good, innocent and passive, Emma is loud, brash, aggressive, has a criminal past and fights her way out of trouble on more than one occasion. She insists that she doesn’t need anyone else to save her – despite how many times she ends up almost dying – and the marketing makes a point of showing how she’s not like all those other princesses.
There’s a few areas where this doesn’t really hold water. The first I’ve already touched on: Emma may be a strong presence in the story, but she isn’t an active participant in her own story. Most of the time she’s reacting to other characters’ actions, rather than acting for herself. The second is that this characterisation is actually incredibly typical for women in media: as a way of ‘proving’ that their female characters are strong, writers will often give them exactly these kinds of traits. Emma Swan is a pretty generic Action Girl – just like the rest of them, she’s brave, a capable fighter, and rarely engages in feminine pastimes. This would be fine, if it wasn’t for the fact that if you describe Emma’s story leaving out the specific details, you could be describing pretty much any female character from the past thirty years. This has become a new cliché in the way that women are written, and it often comes at the cost of proper character development in exactly the same way as the old ones do.
The other area that gender stereotypes affect Emma’s character is her attitude to family. Emma gives birth to a son, Henry, and decides to give him up for adoption – mainly because she has him while she’s in jail. Ten years later, when he comes to visit her, she decides that she wants to build a relationship with him. This is all pretty understandable: it gets tricky when you look at the way the show compares her with her son’s adoptive mother, Regina.
Emma is consistently portrayed as the better parent – even though she showed absolutely no interest in her son until he turned up on her doorstep. Even when she’s living out of a car, hasn’t seen her son in ten years and lies to him about his father, the show is always keen to stress that she is a better parent than Regina. Henry thinks so too – he runs away to try and find her, and continually rebuffs all the attempts that Regina makes to take care of him. Regina, on the other hand, has raised Henry since he was a baby, buys him books and toys to keep him entertained, is continually checking in with his doctors and teachers. Regina’s relationship with her son is far from perfect – in the first series, in order to keep the curse a secret she tries to convince everyone that Henry is mentally ill. But even though some of her methods are frankly disturbing, Regina is always shown making a lot more effort in her relationship with Henry than Emma does.
The show consistently portrays the relationship between Henry and his birth family as more important than Henry and his adopted family, despite the fact that we see Regina acting a lot more like a responsible parent than Emma does. The idea of a mother’s love is a constant theme on the show, but in this particular instant it has a nasty twist. Frequently, Emma is seen as the mother and Regina is seen as an interloper, and all that she has done for her adopted son is completely set aside. In casting Emma as the better parent and actively ignoring Regina’s efforts, the show is sweeping adoptive relationships under the rug and implying that the bond between birth mothers and their children will always be stronger. This just isn’t the case. It takes a lot more than having the right biological equipment to actually be a mother. It implies that just seeing a child can make long-buried maternal instincts re-surface in just about anyone with a uterus, and more importantly, it does a real disservice to people who do choose to adopt children in order to give them a happier, more stable environment.
SCORE SO FAR: 5
- How does she relate to other female characters?
Emma has a lot of really interesting relationships with a range of different female characters. She becomes friends with Snow White, and then later finds out that she’s actually her long-lost mother. She becomes friends with Red Riding Hood – who it turns out, is a werewolf – and must help her control her condition. She takes an instant dislike to Regina, the Evil Queen, which eventually evolves into an uneasy respect and ultimately friendship. What’s really great about all these relationships is that they’re given the time to develop, so she passes this round with flying colours.
FINAL SCORE: 6/10
Emma is a bit of a tricky character. She’s presented to the audience as a ‘Strong Female Character’: as someone who can take care of herself, doesn’t need someone else to come and rescue her, and isn’t completely dependent on her boyfriend.
This is all true, but it isn’t enough to make her a truly strong character. While she may have a range of relationships with other female characters, have some very well-developed weaknesses, and is never defined by her romantic relationships, she doesn’t change much over the course of the story and when you really examine it, she doesn’t have much of an impact on the plot. She’s consistently sold as a ‘Strong Female Character’ – just look at the marketing – but when you get right down to it, she’s nowhere near as strong as the posters make her out to be.
Next week, I’ll be looking at a more recent work – Jurassic World. Claire, I’m coming for you.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.