Once Upon a Time in queer fandom

Sandra Strauch

Humboldt University of Berlin, Berlin, Germany

[0.1] Abstract—I approach the topic of queer female fandom through the television program Once Upon a Time (2011–) and its femslash fan fiction in order to investigate how fans explore queer scenarios and deal with narrative weaknesses of the canon story line.

[0.2] Keywords—Fan fiction; Femslash; SwanQueen; Television

Strauch, Sandra. 2017. "Once Upon a Time in Queer Fandom." In "Queer Female Fandom," edited by Julie Levin Russo and Eve Ng, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 24.

1. Rediscovering the Evil Queen through fan fiction

[1.1] Fandom can mean many things: community, creativity, agency, freedom, sexuality, queerness, and so much more. We are fans, collectively and individually; some of us are even brave or foolish enough to devote not only our free time but also a part of our professional lives to fandom. Here I explore the SwanQueen fandom of Once Upon a Time (2011–) and its potential to bridge the gap between fan and scholar, for me personally and perhaps for other (aca)fans as well. I explore the relationship between SwanQueen femslash fan fiction and its reimaginings of the Evil Queen we know from fairy tales that we may have encountered as children and that still accompany us today. I ask questions of how fannish lesbian or queer versions of Regina Mills, the Evil Queen, and her relationship to Emma Swan, the Savior, can take on issues of sexuality and consent. In this sense I am not introducing entirely new concepts or theories of fandom studies; rather, I am attempting to explain how femslash fan fiction is a way to enter into a complicated, passionate, and ambiguous relationship with the material we are presented with. I also attempt to explain what queer female fandom means to me and where I see transgressive potential that has changed my view on something as traditional and patriarchal as fairy tales.

[1.2] The character of Regina Mills is a fan favorite. This popularity is in part due to the versatile interpretations fans can ascribe to this new incarnation of the Evil Queen. Even in earlier versions of the Evil Queen, I and many other fans were more fascinated by this character than any of the princesses. As one critic noted of the Disney films Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Cinderella (1950), "Both films concentrate with exuberant glee on the towering, taloned, raven-haired wicked stepmother; all Disney's powers failed to save the princes from featureless banality and his heroines from saccharine sentimentality. Authentic power lies with the bad women, and the plump cozy fairy godmother in Cinderella seems no match for them" (Warner 1995, 207). The audience of Once Upon a Time is presented with a new version of this bad woman, the powerful Evil Queen.

[1.3] This time, however, the TV program also provides a multilayered backstory that has not only turned Regina into a fan favorite but also attempts to explain how she even became the Evil Queen and why her hatred for Snow White runs so deep. For several episodes of the first season, fans waited patiently for the explanation of why Regina went as far as killing her own father in order to enact the Dark Curse, only to be presented with a story of puppy love and yet another evil mother. Young Regina was in love with the stable boy, but her mother, a vindictive woman hell-bent on climbing the social ladder, did not agree with the relationship. Instead she arranged a marriage between Regina and the king, using Princess Snow White as bait in her ploy. Regina had no interest in marrying the king and planned to run away with her stable boy. Snow White caught them in the act, and Regina made the young girl promise to keep her affair with the stable boy a secret. Of course nothing went according to plan. Snow White spilled Regina's secret to her villainous mother, who then killed the stable boy and robbed Regina of her one true love.

[1.4] Fans did not seem satisfied with this explanation, and, as is often the case with disappointing and incomplete narratives, other writers took it upon themselves to expand on these ideas and shift the focus from the spilling of a secret by a young girl toward the abusive relationship between Regina and her mother, as well as the marriage into which she was forced. Elizabeth Wanning Harries's theory of transliteration as a mode to transform old narrative patterns is instructive here. By using transliteration, authors "play, rather, on our memory of salient images, often apparently peripheral details, transforming them into new centers of meaning" (2001, 136). These new centers of meaning are the dark yet intriguing scenarios that Once Upon a Time fan fiction and femslash authors use to delve further into untold depths of the story and attempt to explain and underscore Regina's transformation into the Evil Queen. As a result of her own mother's meddling, Regina was forced to marry a man, the king, three times her age to become Snow White's stepmother. The TV program completely ignores the implications of such a medieval marriage between an old king and his young bride. But fan fiction writers do not shy away from exploring this particular family constellation, which has been at the center of many a fairy tale. How much must Regina have suffered finally to plot and orchestrate the king's murder? What happened to drive her to such extremes? Fan fiction writers logically extrapolate the clues provided in the program through the lens of femslash, uncovering parallels to same-sex desire in that they explore the differences between being forced into a "proper" union versus the desired improper one.

2. Reading between the lines

[2.1] In SgtMac's story "Stop" (2016), this particular phase of Regina's past is discussed when "a night of passion between Regina and Emma ends up turning into an opportunity for the two of them to discuss the traumas of their sexual pasts and to then set boundaries in their still very young romantic relationship with each other." Already in the author's notes the reader is warned of the content of the story and the nonconsensual relationship between Regina and King Leopold. This so-called trigger warning is not only a sign of awareness and willingness to deal with the underlying issues of a television program but also hints toward fans' own experiences and care for fandom and potential readers. Furthermore, Regina's history with the king and her loveless marriage is often used as a backdrop in femslash for explaining her actions, her issues with relinquishing control, and specifically her reservations or dislikes in sexual situations. In "Stop," Regina interrupts her moment of sexual pleasure with Emma because Emma has been restraining Regina bodily, not knowing that this passionate embrace would bring back painful memories:

[2.2] Yesterday, she would have just closed her eyes and told herself to focus on the feel of Emma's warm reassuring hands, and the softness of her lips as they traced their way down, and both of those things would have been easy for Regina to do. Today, though, she sees flashes of something behind her eyes every time she closes them.

[2.3] Tonight, she hears a door closing and hears footsteps approaching, and they're too heavy to be Emma's—Emma doesn't walk softly or gracefully, but she has never walked like that. Tonight, the hands holding her wrists above her head send her back forty-five years and she can't.

[2.4] She just can't.

[2.5] "Stop," Regina whispers. And then says it again. Louder, almost frantic. Pleading, even.

[2.6] Emma ceases her movement and her touches almost immediately, frowning (perhaps no one is as attuned to that word as Emma is, and it makes Regina wonder about all of the things in her lover's background and history that she's never really had the courage to ask her about). (chapter 1)

[2.7] The topic of consent is of utmost importance here, and "Stop" illustrates how fan fiction can deal with it in a self-aware fashion. In the canonical story line, Regina enters into heterosexual relationships, first with the Huntsman and later with Robin Hood, but her arranged marriage is never a topic that is brought up by either party. Even when her mother returns for one last attempt at regaining her former glory, the fact that she forced her daughter to marry a much older man remains a nonissue. Of course, a television program on ABC dealing with fairy tales—a program that is supposed to attract audiences from a wide range of age groups—will likely never attempt to disentangle all the subtext that has been hinted at in canon; yet the gaps obviously leave fans unsatisfied as they take it upon themselves to explore these silences. Femslash is not only an outcome of this dissatisfaction but also a hopeful glance at how fans deal with veiled topics. SwanQueen creates a space where female concerns, even queer distress, are not merely brushed aside but discussed and dealt with—discussions that I and other fans find pleasurable in many ways.

3. The wicked stepmother

[3.1] Although Regina's past as King Leopold's young bride is frequently acknowledged and discussed in femslash fan fiction, Regina is also coded as an erotic character, charged with dark sexuality and the potential for more than vanilla sex. One fic that well addresses the loss-of-innocence trope and the imagining of "deviant" sexualities is "The Wicked Stepmother" by seriousish (2012), which is rated mature. It breaks with conventions even as it bends them forward and backward; readers' comments note that it is "strangely appealing," with readers who "simply could not stop reading." The crossing of queerness, fandom, and sexual identities is especially vivid in this story. Teenage Emma is seduced by an older, stepmother-like Regina who wants to spite her cursed nemesis, Snow White. Emma is drawn into a romantic and sexual relationship that cannot be easily defined; it leaves the reader wondering what exactly the nature of their liaison is. Red Riding Hood, or her Storybrooke counterpart, Ruby, is also a part of this threefold affair as she serves as a catalyst for Emma's eventual surrender to Regina's charms. This fan fic plays with many popular tropes, from the age gap between the three women to the BDSM scenes; it does not shy away from reimagining these characters as sexual beings who take and grant pleasure. By staying within canon boundaries and depicting Regina as a strong, villainous woman who acts completely outside of stereotypical and heteronormative ideals, the characters explore deviant sexualities in the form of varying BDSM practices. Additionally, the author's notes provide a few tongue-in-cheek comments and show that the story is a kink fic that doesn't take itself too seriously with its canon-bending reimagination of the Evil Queen.

[3.2] However, the value of this interpretation lies in the reversal of traditional roles women traditionally occupy in fairy tales. Purity—a virtue in the stories of Snow White or Red Riding Hood—is subverted in favor of an exploration of queer sexualities that defy normative traditions and frameworks. "The Wicked Stepmother" is also an example of how Once Upon a Time has opened up traditional fairy tales for queer readings and transformations, whether to explore deviant sexualities or to reinterpret the wicked stepmother as a queer trope with erotic dimensions. In a few lines, seriousish has wonderfully combined both the queer reinterpretation of Regina's character and the notion that other Enchanted Forest inhabitants are in some respects no less deviant than the Evil Queen herself:

[3.3] "I am the Evil Queen," Regina retorted, almost wistfully. Like someone would say they were an amputee. "I always will be. I'm just something else as well."

[3.4] "What?"

[3.5] "Yours."

[3.6] Emma buried her head in her hands for a long moment before standing. "God. I'm so fucking pissed at you. This is like finding out I live in a town full of psychos and no one ever told me. The next-door neighbors have sliced people's heads off and think thirteen-year-olds should be married off to fucking Prince Humperdink, they just don't remember it, do they?" (chapter 36)

4. Conclusion

[4.1] SwanQueen femslash challenges the unspoken assumptions of heteronormative marriage and the innocence or purity of heroines versus the poisonous evil of their wicked counterparts. Stories such as SgtMac's "Stop" or seriousish's "The Wicked Stepmother" provide insight into the diverse positions of a character and explore these versions as queer multiplicities of sexuality and trauma. These literary engagements with the canon text are part of queer world building and challenge notions of identity and sexuality by creating new contexts. Fleshing out characters with meaningful backstories is one aspect that fan fiction excels at. I sometimes find it difficult to distinguish between canon and fan fiction: the fan fiction stories supply important facts that explain situations, behavior, and tropes in such a way that they enrich, even improve, the canonical story line.

[4.2] SwanQueen fandom provides a space for diverse queer female explorations. Queer female fandom has inspired me and encouraged me to see that thoughtful discussions and depictions of sexuality and trauma are possible. I wasn't born at the right time to understand the chemistry between Xena and Gabrielle when Xena: Warrior Princess (1995–2001) first aired, but I enjoy going back and looking at how femslash writers before me have opened up these ongoing discussions of queer female love—and, perhaps following in their footsteps, I continue in their vein, writing about women on television who are queer in my eyes and in my stories. I inhabit my fandoms, including SwanQueen, Bering & Wells (from Warehouse 13 [2009–14]), Jessica Jones (from Jessica Jones [2015–]), and Lexa and Clarke (from The 100 [2014–]) and their depictions of strong, multilayered women. I read Tumblr posts talking about queer female fandom and find acceptance. And I hope that the future holds more queer women on screen, with less violence enacted upon them and more kisses, smoldering glances, and everything in between.

[4.3] Looking at SwanQueen femslash is only one way of combining my fannish interests and my academic aspirations. As an academic, I want to encourage and be encouraged to work in this field. As a fan, I want to read stories and share my arguments and thoughts. Once Upon a Time and SwanQueen fic provides me with an access point to start writing new versions of old tales and to show that each new reiteration is another new beginning—a new "once upon a time."

5. Acknowledgments

[5.1] I would like to thank Beth Capper, Lynne Joyrich, and Ramsey McGlazer for their invaluable insights on the first version of this article. I also want to express my appreciation to the Once Upon a Time and SwanQueen fandoms; thank you for all those wonderful fics that have kept me up at night.

6. Works cited

Harries, Elizabeth Wanning. 2001. Twice Upon a Time: Women Writers and the History of the Fairy Tale. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

seriousish. 2012. "The Wicked Stepmother." Once Upon a Time fan fiction., November 21.

SgtMac. 2016. "Stop." Once Upon a Time fan fiction., February 27.

Warner, Marina. 1995. From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.