Fangirl Fridays: Rose Red

I know, I know. Technically this is a Fangirl Saturday post. Blame Katie! I was totally going to post last night, but then she invited me over to watch America’s Next Top Model (which is as hilariously awful as ever, but Ashley and Sophie are too cute) and I ended up sticking around for an encore of the Walking Dead season finale and by the time I got home, I was exhausted. Clearly all her fault.

Anyway. I mentioned in my first Fangirl Fridays post that the changes to Wonder Girl, a.k.a. Cassie Sandsmark, caused me to hit my wall and stop reading DC Comics. What I didn’t say at the time was this: I was pretty much heartbroken. I’d seen too much shit coming out of my favorite comics lately, and I was totally burnt out. Even though there were still some series that were going strong, series I still enjoyed, I turned my back on comic books altogether for a while. But slowly, ever so slowly, I’ve been dipping my toe back into the comic book world. Catching up on series I missed. And Fables was at the top of my list.

If I went into all the reasons why I love Fables, we’d probably be here all day. But, unsurprisingly, I’m an especially big fan of all the amazing female characters in the series, each of them strong and capable in their own ways, each of them unique individuals with their own voices. From Snow White to Cinderella to Beauty to Frau Totenkinder…I love them all. But the one I love most is Rose Red – because of all the women in the series, and (with two notable exceptions) of all the characters of either sex in the series, Rose has grown and changed the most.

WARNING: SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST FEW ARCS OF FABLES FOLLOW.

Rose Red, as described by Snow White

While perhaps not one of the main characters, Rose is a central figure from the very first issue of Fables – when her apartment is found trashed and covered in blood, and Fabletown’s sheriff, Bigby Wolf, is called in to her investigate her apparent murder. Thus, when we first ‘meet’ Rose, she doesn’t get to speak for herself – rather, she’s described by others, most especially her big sister, Snow White, Fabletown’s deputy mayor. In Snow White’s eyes, Rose is the black sheep of the family, and has been since before the fables fled to “our” world and established their settlement in New York City. She’s an unrepentant wild child, a party girl, a troublemaker. Her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Jack (of beanstalk climbing, giant killing fame) describes her in much the same way. She’s his lover, his partner in crime, and even the people who view her most sympathetically wouldn’t exactly describe her as an angel. It eventually comes out that Rose faked her own death, with Jack’s help, and naturally they’re both punished for it. In Rose’s case, that means moving upstate for a period of hard labor on the Farm…and that’s where her life begins to change.

The Farm, you see, is where they keep the fables who can’t pass for human at all. Beast (as in Beauty’s husband) is threatened with life on the Farm a few times when his curse becomes too much to bear and he can’t stop transforming into a monster over and over again. And the Farm’s current residents include all the animal fables that are unable to assume human form, as well as a whole society of miniature people, a dragon, some giants…you get the picture. It’s completely closed off from the outside world, protected by its remote location and a whole mess of spells to distract the “Mundys,” no one is allowed to leave except under very select circumstances, and the whole place is pretty much managed by the human fables without any real input from their non-human counterparts. If this sounds rather unfair, remember that, because it becomes important.

Rose's ignorance in action.

When Rose first heads up to the farm, escorted by her sister, she clearly views the whole experience as the punishment it is, and she’s not terribly kind to the non-human fables she meets. Indeed, she’s clearly ignorant and frequently obnoxious. Then it turns out that the Farm is on the point of open rebellion, led by none other than Goldilocks, who still lives with the Three Bears and has become a violent political radical. When Rose ultimately chooses to join the revolution, it’s a bit of a shock – but, unsurprisingly, she throws herself into the fight with her usual careless, rebellious glee, and soon she and her sister are at war yet again. But there’s another twist yet to come: it turns out at the very end that Rose joined the rebellion to keep Snow White safe, and that she ultimately played a key role in bringing those responsible to justice. By the end of the arc, Rose wholeheartedly accepts her place on the Farm…and, moreover, she rises to become its administrator, working with all the resident fables to make their lives better.

Don’t be fooled, though: Rose isn’t exactly perfect from this point on. And, honestly, that’s kind of what I love about her. She screws up. She makes some serious mistakes. While she proves herself to be a competent administrator, her relationship with her sister remains strained and her personal life is kind of a mess. In later issues, she’s put through the emotional wringer, and she ultimately retreats into herself completely, slowly but steadily self-destructing, pining for everything she’s lost.

Rose and Snow in a nutshell - but there's a lot more to it than that.

But in the end, with a little outside help, she turns things around. A trip down memory lane reminds her how her feud with Snow White got started – and shows her exactly what they once were to one another, and could be again. I won’t spoil it, but suffice to say that the story of Rose Red and Snow White is fascinating, heartbreaking, and powerful, and Rose’s decision to embrace their sisterhood once more feels like a real moment of triumph. So, too, does her decision to rejoin the world, to fight off her grief and sorrow and self-pity and take a stand in one of Fabletown’s darkest hours. She doesn’t save the day – not all on her lonesome – but she retakes the reins of leadership just when she’s needed most, and that decision impacts everything to come.

In fact, in the most recent issues, Rose’s life has changed again: again, without spoiling anything, she’s accepted new responsibilities and seized a vast new destiny. For good or ill, she’s becoming something more than a minor character in Snow White’s tale, a footnote in the fables’ tumultuous history. She’s becoming more than herself – or perhaps she’s becoming the person she was meant to be all along. I’m sure Rose has many trials ahead of her. But she’s already come so far, been to Hell and back and returned in triumph. Her story’s far from over. And I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Rose Red, taking control and returning in triumph.

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Media Mondays: Once Upon A Time

As you may have noticed, I got a little sidetracked yesterday, and then I was distracted most of the day today, so this week’s Media Mondays post is extremely late. It’s also a bit of a cheat: Once Upon A Time‘s first season is already over halfway done, and most of the reviews are already in. But I’ve been spending most of this time trying to decide whether or not I like it, and why I feel that way, and those thoughts have only recently gelled.

So, short version: yes, I like Once Upon A Time. But not without reservations.

Let’s briefly recap the premise of the show: long ago and far away, the Evil Queen of Snow White fame unleashed a vicious curse upon the fairy tale world, creating new lives for all of the characters we know and love, good and bad alike, and casting them into our world, and more specifically the town of Storybrooke, Maine. The curse would not only change their lives and destinies, but warp their personal stories to prevent anyone but the Queen herself from finding their happy endings. Faced with this terrible curse, the people of the fairy tale world found one small glimmer of hope: the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming, who would one day break the spell and set their world to rights. Using a magic wardrobe which could send one, and only one, person on to our world, whole and unscathed, Prince Charming and Snow White sent their infant daughter ahead, hoping against hope that she would find and save them. Years later, that daughter, now grown and going by the name Emma Swan, is confronted with her own son, who she gave up for adoption years ago. This young boy, Henry, has learned all about the fairy tale world and the curse that destroyed it, and he persuades Emma to come with him to Storybrooke, Maine. After some memorable encounters with various people in town – including the Evil Queen, who is now Storybrooke’s Mayor and Henry’s adopted mother – Emma decides to stay and try to bond with her son, despite the Mayor’s opposition and her own distinct skepticism regarding Henry’s beliefs. The story in each episode flashes between our world and the fairy tale realm, gradually revealing more about the show’s characters and their world before and after the curse.

Emma Swan, Hero of Storybrooke

Let’s start with what I like about the show. First and foremost: I love Emma Swan.

This woman is a complete and utter badass. She’s the only one on the show who seems at all willing to stand up directly to the Mayor/Evil Queen. This is not to say that she is without fear, or without emotion: her friendship with Mary Margaret (a.k.a. Snow White) is genuine, and her love and concern for her biological son, Henry, is obvious. Though she was initially reluctant to become involved in Henry’s life, their relationship has grown organically over time, and the thought of losing Henry now is clearly among her worst fears. But she does not let her fear rule her, or sway her from doing what’s right. Whenever Henry has been placed in danger, Emma has conquered her fear, marched right in and saved the day.

And she has never, not once, needed some man to come running to her rescue. Emma Swan is not a damsel in distress. She’s a knight in stylish leather armor. A Big Damn Hero. Not that she’d ever call herself that – from her perspective, she defends the helpless, upholds the law and chases down criminals simply because it’s the right thing to do. Though circumstances have sometimes prompted her to compromise her principles, she always questions herself, always accepts the consequences of her actions, always shows genuine remorse in the face of her mistakes. She isn’t perfect. She’s certainly made more than her share of mistakes. But she accepts those mistakes, learns from them, and moves on. If you ask me, that’s true strength – true character. For all her faults, Emma Swan is an amazing role model, and possibly one of the strongest, most genuine characters on television today.

I. Want. That. Hat.

I also have to give serious props to Regina, the Evil Queen of the fairy tale world and the Mayor of Storybrooke. She’s wonderfully manipulative and deliciously malevolent. Her costumes (particularly in the fairy tale world) are ridiculously awesome, and her plots are intelligent, ruthless, and horribly effective. As Henry’s mother and the town’s Mayor, she makes an excellent foil to Emma; in the fairy tale world, she is omnipresent, weaving in and out of one tale after the next, spreading her dark influence.

Despite her villainy, she is not without a certain human element. Her deep love for her aged father is obvious in the pilot, and while it’s not entirely clear what she has planned for her adopted son Henry (named, notably, after her late father), she does seem to feel some genuine affection for him, and sometimes seems genuinely frustrated and baffled by his open hostility toward her. Her animosity toward Emma Swan seems to have as much to do with Emma’s role as a rival for Henry’s love as any actual threat Emma poses.

Leaving the main characters aside, I love the way the show toys with and reinvents the Disney canon. Their close association with ABC allows them to play freely with Disney’s interpretations of classic fairy tales; thus, their retelling of Beauty and the Beast features Belle and Gaston, Jiminy Cricket is a recurring character, and Maleficent is one of the Evil Queen’s buddies. And yet none of these characters are quite like their counterparts in the animated canon. Even in areas ruled by ostensibly ‘good’ kings and queens, the fairy tale world is not an idyllic paradise. People are routinely pressed into wartime service, or forced into loveless marriages, or faced with all kinds of destitution and suffering. Prejudice, violence and oppression are not the sole province of the villains. Power corrupts in the fairy tale world, just as it corrupts in real life, and while the reign of Snow White and Prince Charming seems peaceful and relatively equitable, they are an island in a sea of chaos. As our understanding of the fairy tale world grows, we are forced to question, again and again, if it’s actually any better than the reality of Storybrooke.

Then, too, there’s this: for good or ill, the women of the fairy tale world seize their own destinies. Cinderella doesn’t simply accept the help of a fairy godmother who miraculously appears out of nowhere – when her tale goes wrong, she makes a deal with the devil to win her happy ending, and has to face the consequences of those actions down the road. Snow White doesn’t simply flee into the wilderness and stumble upon a band of merry dwarves; she spends years surviving in the wild as a thief before she even meets the dwarves, let alone Prince Charming. Belle chooses to go with the ‘Beast’ of her piece to save her father’s realm from annihilation, and rejects the possessive, controlling overtures of her betrothed, Gaston. Red Riding Hood has appeared in a few tales now, offering a few glimpses of her role as a kind of courier or scout and a friend of Snow White’s; her real-world counterpart, Ruby, is similarly omnipresent, tying a number of the characters together. We’ve been promised a Ruby/Red story in an upcoming episode, and I can’t wait to see exactly what her tale might be.

So what’s not to like about the show? Well, the storylines are still somewhat contrived, and some of the writing can be awkward. The show has steadily improved, to be sure, and I’m more than willing to give it a chance to find its footing – lots of series have awkward first seasons. With such luminaries as Jane Espenson on the writing staff, I have high hopes for Once Upon A Time‘s continued evolution. Even so, some stories are still distinctly lackluster. This past Sunday’s retelling of Beauty and the Beast was particularly disappointing; though I enjoyed some aspects of the tale, I was left wondering exactly what Belle saw in her love interest and exactly what kind of message the show was trying to send. The Beast flirted with Belle, to be sure, and was not always horribly unkind to her, but he also threw her into his dungeon upon a whim, and generally treated her too poorly to be worthy of her affection.

And as much as I love the way the female characters of the fairy tale world are portrayed, I find their counterparts in Storybrooke similarly aggravating. Snow White is a badass. Her real-world counterpart, Mary Margaret, is horribly passive, rarely showing Snow White’s backbone in any respect, and hewing closer to the animated Disney princess than her own true self – for heaven’s sake, the pilot even had her releasing a bluebird out a window! I certainly don’t think there’s anything wrong with kind, gentle female characters, but I’d like to see Mary Margaret stand up for herself more and show a little more inner fire. Ashley, the counterpart to Cinderella, was very much a damsel in distress when we met her, and her legitimate problems with her boyfriend are all forgotten when he surprises her with a proposal. Belle’s real-world counterpart isn’t even really present in her showcase episode. And Ruby’s omnipresence in the town – at the diner, at the bed & breakfast, as Ashley and Mary Margaret’s friend – is virtually her only defining characteristic, aside from her distinctly racy attire and her contentious relationship with her grandmother (whom we haven’t even seen outside the pilot). While I accept that the Evil Queen’s curse distorted their histories and their destinies, I’m not sure I love the way it’s seemingly changed their personalities and left Emma and Regina as the strongest, most active, most interesting female characters on the show.

Still, all in all, I’m still watching, and I expect I’ll finish out the season. While I had slightly higher hopes for Grimm (which has completely failed to hold my interest, to be honest), and I still wish ABC had gone ahead with the proposed adaptation of Fables, Once Upon A Time has turned out to be far more compelling than I expected, and I’m eager to see where it goes. The show has a great premise, fantastic characters, and a hell of a lot of potential, and I truly hope it lives up to its promise.