Stories Within Stories, Texts Within Texts

Stories Within Stories, Texts Within Texts

There was an enchanted forest filled with
all the classic characters we know.
Or think we know.

One day they found themselves
trapped in a place where all their
happy endings were stolen.
Our World.
This is how it happened…(“Pilot”)

In the midst of the new dramas offered this fall, as they are each fall, stands ABC’s new drama, Once Upon a Time. While it shares a similar material source with NBC’s new crime drama Grimm, Once Upon a Time is a different story all together. It is a lot of stories, as a matter of fact, all woven together to create one in an intertextual conflagration that somehow manages to work. Drawing on both fairy tales and classical myths, with sometimes playful but always textual nods to previous remediations of the source material, Once Upon a Time creates a new telling of the stories we thought we already knew and does it with a twist that allows for even more play between the various texts upon which it relies.

The set-up of the plot is as much fairy tale as modern drama: All the characters from every classical tale and myth are real. These characters lived with each other in an enchanted forest where their stories and lives played out as intertwined as any those enmeshed in any other political realm. This, in and of itself, is not a new conceit. Most notably, both the musical Into the Woods and the movie Enchanted come to mind as having drawn on this idea of all fairy tale characters living within the same world and aware of each other and their stories. Upon the occasion of Snow White and Prince Charming’s wedding the Evil Queen informs them that she is going to cast a curse to destroy all their happy endings. Although all the good fairy tale characters come together to try and stop her, in the end the only thing they can do is send Snow White and Prince Charming’s daughter somewhere she will be safe, because it has been prophesied that she will be the one to break the curse (“Pilot”).

The curse is cast on the night the baby is born, and, like the Evil Queen’s curse in Enchanted, it takes everyone from the fairy tale world and deposits them in our world with no memory of their former lives or loves. They are trapped in Storybrooke, Maine, unable to leave, unable to remember themselves, trapped in time eternally unable to move on, each alone in their own way. The Queen—now mayor of Storybrooke and calling herself Regina Mills—adopts a child, Henry, and ten years later he is the one to figure out the curse and go in search of his mother, Emma, who is, as it turns out, Snow White and Prince Charming’s daughter and, thus, the only one who can save the town (“Pilot”).

This paper seeks to analyze this show on a textual, performative, visual and cultural level, looking at each aspect of the work individually, before weaving them back together into a cohesive whole once more. In doing so, it considers theories of text and intertext, remediation effects on the texts with a close look at the literary and cultural tropes in the work, performance choices, visual representation and semiotics and the way in which meaning is made. While I have tried to set each of these separate analyses out in their own section for more careful review, they sometimes do intertwine, like the stories that make up the show itself. An entire project could be conducted solely on a literary-style analysis of the work, but I have tried to limit that to the main themes and leave the closer analysis of particular tropes, themes, symbols or plot choices to another discussion.

Before we go any further, I wanted to include a character reference list, for the main characters thus far in the series (only 7 episodes have aired) because when referring to happenings within the “real” world, I will use the character’s “real” world names, and while referring to events in the fairy tales, their fairy tale names. While I will try to keep things clear, a reference guide never goes amiss.

Fairy Tale Name

Real” World Name

Queen (aka Evil Queen, Evil Witch)

Regina Mills

Emma (Snow White’s daughter)

Emma Swan

Henry Mills (Regina’s adopted son, Emma’s biological son)

Snow White

Mary Margaret Blanchard

Prince James, aka Prince Charming

David Nolan

Jiminy Cricket

Archie Hopper

The Huntsman

Sheriff Graham


Mr. Gold

Red Riding Hood





Ashley Boy

Remediation of Traditional Texts

In “From Work to Text,” Roland Barthes made a distinction between two terms which are often otherwise interchangeable. A work has a beginning and an end. It has a shape and a form. It is finished, after a great deal of hard work, and it stands as it is to be evaluated. It is a commodity with two levels of meaning: literal and symbolic. Text, on the other hand, is a process, the action of production. It is an event, paradoxical and subversive. It has no beginning nor any end. In many ways it is a network of works, and what we are reading when we read a work in a collaborative manner. The text is what came before, what a work echoes, and what will come later, what a work will spawn. It is the conversation the work has entered into. Signifiers mean more than one thing within a text; a text allows for multiple meanings (Barthes).

Once Upon a Time, as a television show, is undoubtedly a “work” in Barthes sense of the word. However, it is one that consciously and deliberately speaks to other texts in a constant intertextual play. Some of these are overt—it is obvious that this is another remediation of the fairy tale of Snow White, as was Disney’s movie and as will be the soon-to-be-released Snow White and the Huntsman. Some of them are more covert and rely upon a viewer’s familiarity with other work in this genre to catch. They are winks, nods, echoes, such as the traces of Enchanted which echo through both the pilot (with the Evil Queen sending the characters she despises to a world where there are no happy endings—our world) and later in the series, when the connection between the two worlds is show to not just be a magical one, but a potentially physical one: if a character fell down the right hole (like Alice), he or she would find himself back in at least the shattered remnants of the fairy tale world (“That Still Small Voice”).

Other echoes find themselves in the themes explored, the visual cues given, the choices made by performers. The premise of the show spells out its intertextual nature—these are characters we know (or think we know) placed within a different world and subjected to a new challenge they must overcome. By turning what were once oral stories into a television show, Once Upon a Time has performed an act of remediation upon them. By weaving them together in a coherent, cohesive story, the show has not only remediated them in the technical sense, but it has remediated them in a textual sense as well: in order to make each story unique, what we think we know as familiar consumers of these stories is constantly altered and our sense of what is real and what is not is called into question.

The show contains several levels of remediation, rather than just a televised version of what were once oral tales. That element is there, of course, and is the simplest. Each episode of the show tells either the story of a new character, or continues the story of Snow White and Prince Charming. They have been made the central charcters because while the Queen’s curse was carried out against everyone living in the enchanted forest, her initial vengeance was to have been against Snow White. The inclusion of everyone else was out of a general bitterness at their happiness when it was denied her. Her main target, however, has always been Snow White. Therefore, the show gives the viewers far more of Snow and the Queen’s story than it does anyone else’s, at least thus far. These portions of the episodes which contain matter which happened in the fairy tale world—the “truth” of the stories in the show which no one remembers but Regina—are a remediation of oral literature to a digital audiovisual medium.

The remediation does not stop here, though. It continues into the adaptation of the stories themselves. While the tales stick to the main facts of the stories, several twists are thrown in. Snow is not a helpless maiden who keeps house for dwarves; instead she turns highway robber to try and steal enough money from the queen to escape to another realm (“Snow Falls”). In fact, she and Prince Charming meet when she robs him. Prince Charming is not really a prince, even, by birth or breeding. He is the twin of the baby boy Rumpelstiltskin procured for the King. His brother was raised as a prince, he as a shepherd, He only steps in when his brother is killed and someone is needed to look like him while his knights fight a dragon, so that no one will know the prince is dead (“The Shepherd”). Red Riding Hood’s wolf was most definitely trying to lead her toward a sexual awakening (though the show has yet to provide the details). Regina and Maleficent are best friends and often debate cursing and bemoan the wrongs done them by Snow White and Sleeping Beauty (“The Thing You Love Most”). Rumpelstiltskin does not just ask the miller’s daughter (who will quite possibly turn out to be Regina Mills) for her first born—he collects them for nearly every favor he does: getting the childless king a son, getting Cinderella to the ball after murdering her fairy godmother for her wand, giving Prince Charming’s mother back her farm for one of her sons. He’s a magical baby broker (“The Price of Gold,” “The Shepherd”).

Beyond this, these oral tales which have become portions of the episodes—including all their twists, turns and variants on the original source material—have been recorded in the world of the show in a book. Oral culture has been remediated into literate culture. The origin of the book is unknown, at this point. It is presented as any other book of fairy tales, in many ways, given to Henry by his teacher Mary Margaret Blanchard/Snow White. However, the book, like the show, is titled Once Upon a Time, and the stories within it are the same tweaked or altered versions that we see in the fairy tale world. It is not just a book of fairy tales, then; it is the true biographies of the inhabitants of Storybrooke. Not only does it contain their stories, and the story of the curse, it also contained the prophecy about Emma. Regina was unaware of its existence or the threat it posed to her and she tries to use it to discover any weaknesses once she learns of it, but Henry and Emma destroy any pages that would be of use to her. The book comes into play when Mary Margaret/Snow White in convinced by Henry and Emma to read the story of Snow White and Prince Charming’s meeting to a comatose David in hopes of waking him up. Hearing their story does, in fact, revive him, which is the first concrete demonstration of the power of story in the show—though it is clearly an underlying theme.

The mystery of the origin of the book also lends another layer to the story—since the Queen who cast the curse is unaware of it, and since it is a faithful retelling of the happenings of the fairy tale world—more history than fiction—who gave it to Mary Margaret to give to Henry? No one else is supposed to know about the curse, though Rumpelstiltskin/Mr. Gold seems to know far more than he is letting on, so he seems the most likely candidate. In addition, while the stories are generally faithful histories, they all leave out one key character—Rumpelstiltskin. He is the mover and shaker, the maker of deals, in the fairy tale world. If Mr. Gold is the origin of the book, then the fact that Rumpelstiltskin is absent from most of the stories in the book gives a reason to believe he is operating on his own agenda. The book itself then, becomes both sign and signified, both work and in many ways text, both remediated and remediating.

The third level of remediation consists of the the remediation of the stories into the modern world, the “real” world, or our world as the introduction to the series reminds us. This remediation is no less important than the others—characters are recognizable to the audience, if not to themselves, by not just representation by the same actors, but visual and behavioral clues that tie the “real” world characters to their fairy tale selves. Ruby always wears red, for instance, and has red streaks in her hair, which create the constant effect of a hood. Mary Margaret has an affinity for birds, as Snow White did, and, in fact, as at least all Disney princesses seem to do.

The characters repeat the same patterns of behavior as their remediated fairy tale selves, as well. Ruby is always torn between straying off the path and continuing to take care of her grandmother. Mary Margaret is as forgiving and gracious as Snow White. Regina rules the town with an iron fist and has an over-affinity for bright red apples. Sheriff Graham (the Huntsman) has a killer aim at darts and impressive skills in the woods. Of course, without the portions of the episodes set within the fairy tale world, these patterns of the “real” world characters would be even more pure intetextual references to the oral tales. As it is, while they hold that shape as well, they also reverberate throughout the constructed world of the show.

While reserving a full textual analysis for another day, there are three prevalent themes on which I wish to touch, as they both echo back to themes that permeate the original source material and tie into questions facing society at present. The first is that of discovery, of finding the thing you need most.

This theme is prevalent throughout the show, though it is most stressed in the story of Snow White and Prince Charming. The opening scene of the pilot episode (which can be watched below) shows a familiar scene of Prince Charming racing through the woods to reach Snow White, where she sleeps in her glass coffin with the dwarves gathered around her. Charming, of course, revives her with a kiss, and they have dialogue which seems to set the pattern of their relationship, though we find out later it is merely another repetition of the pattern and theme on the dialogue.

You. You found me.”

Did you ever doubt I would?”

Truthfully? The glass coffin gave me pause.”

You do not ever need to worry—I will always find you.” (“Pilot”)

We discover in a later episode that Charming vowed to always find her the day they met—when she robbed him of his jewels (“Whoever you are, I will find you.”)

He later does find her, capturing her in a net to demand the return of his jewels (“I told you I’d find you.”).

When they have recovered Charming’s jewels and are parting, the following dialogue happens:

Well, wherever you’re going…If you need anything…”

You’ll find me.”


I almost believe that.” (“Snow Falls”)

In the “real” world, the pattern continues to repeat. When David/Charming awakens from his coma, he wanders into the woods lost. He has forgotten his fairy tale life, and his amnesia keeps the curse from working on him to produce new memories. But he goes searching into the woods for that piece of himself that is missing—Snow White. When Mary Margaret finds him, he’s collapsed again, and she has to perform CPR to save him—awakening him with a kiss. The scene echoes the fairy tale, and the opening scene of the series, though the dialogue changes slightly to, “You. You saved me,” after Mary Margaret has begged him to “come back to” her because she has found him–that’s all that is supposed to be needed. 

While the theme of finding what you need is most prevalent with Snow and Charming, it reverberates with other characters as well. All his life, Henry has wondered about his birth mother. He steals a credit card from his teacher to do Internet searches to find her, tracking her down from Maine to Boston when he does and pulling her back into his life. She goes from “I don’t have a son” (“Pilot”) to declaring angrily to Regina: “He’s my son, too” (“That Still Small Voice”). Ashley (Cinderella) and her prince (Shawn) are reunited in “The Price Of Gold” after Shawn was ripped way from her magically in the fairy tale world. Mr. Gold/Rumpelstiltskin seems to hold with this theme as much as Snow and Charming, though not as blatantly in dialogue. He runs a pawn shop in Storybrooke, and within it he has pieces of everyone’s lives—the dolls Geppetto’s parents were turned into, the windmill that David thinks is his, unicorns, tea sets, little trinkets of the fairy tale world that have carried over to exist within ours and are waiting to be rediscovered by their owners as they rediscover pieces of themselves.

That leads us to the second theme that runs through the show: the power of memory and the price of forgetfulness (and perhaps the price of memory). All of the fairy tale characters have forgotten who they are in the “real” world. This leads to changes in their very selves—and some acting challenges for the performers, discussed later. While there is significant evidence that Gold/Rumpelstiltskin remembers the fairy tale world, Regina is the only one who remembers her past explicitly, as revealed in “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.” Not only does she remember, but she has access to pieces of the fairy tale world, still: She knows where it is buried, and her vault containing all of the hearts she collected, which gives her power over their owners, has followed her into the “real” world.

Memory is power—personal and societal. Mary Margaret tells Emma that Regina has been mayor as long as she can remember, and no one has the courage to run against her. How can they? They are devoid of their very selves. No one has complete agency in the “real” world, because they are acting as shadows. Even their “real” world memories are weak—instead of creating full pasts for each of them, the curse left them with a hazy sense of themselves. If asked to remember who they are, or what their childhood was like, no one in town can do so. When Graham (The Huntsman) starts to remember the fairy tale world (due to a kiss from Emma—an awakening of his true self, not just his physical form), he tries to piece together his life in the “real” world to combat the memories of the other. He asks Mary Margaret how long she’s known him, how they met—and she is unable to answer. Graham insists he cannot remember ever meeting anyone, and Mary Margaret dismisses it as just “how life is,” because that complete lack of a past of a true self is too upsetting to face (“The Heart is a Lonely Hunter”).

There are hints that Gold may remember, as well. He often acts like he is trying to make the others remember, and he watches Emma with a sort of hidden glee, as if trying to figure out what she will do next. He collects items from the fairy tale world, as mentioned before. He prods Charming toward memory, though the ones he recovers are the wrong ones. Even more telling, when Graham tells him he is dreaming about a wolf, Gold responds, “You know, they say, Sheriff, that dreams are memories—memories of another life.” When Graham asks what he means, he says, “I never rule out anything. Good luck, Sheriff. I do hope you find what you’re looking for” (“The Heart is a Lonely Hunter”). Through the conversation, Gold has a look in his eye that says he knows more than he is telling. The curse originated from Rumpelstiltskin—he was the one who gave it to the Evil Queen. When telling her that all curses can be broken, and that it is Snow and Charming’s child who will do so, Rumpelstiltskin exacts a price from her that in the new world, she has to do anything he asks of her, so long as he says please. She agrees, thinking he won’t remember, but Gold comes to her for a favor, pausing before asking “please” in “The Thing You Love Most,” so it is quite possible that he, like she, remembers everything. If so, the game he is playing is one no one sees coming, including the audience, yet. He was the one who brought Henry to Regina. If he remembers, then he is the only one who knows who Emma is, truly. Rumpelstiltskin had the ability to see the future—if Gold, like Regina, still possesses his magic, then he seems to be working to engineer the breaking of the curse, while Regina fights to hold it—the two with the memories are the two vying for power. Those who do not remember remain in their daze. However, while Henry seeks to have Emma help everyone remember, to take back their own power and agency, there is a price for memory in the real world, as much as there is one for magic in the fairy tale world: the only character to fully remember was summarily killed before he could tell anyone (“The Heart is a Lonely Hunter”).

The final thematic element that also reflects cultural issues is the dichotomy of the good mother and bad mother. The figure of the witch or wicked stepmother has always been representative of the “bad” mother within fairy tales. There are no good stepmothers in that world. There are very few good biological mothers. If there is no mother or step-mother present, then inevitably there is still the character of the witch to stand against the hero or heroine. Regina is the obvious choice to fill this role, but the examination of this role is not as clear-cut as it is in the original tales.

Regina as a bad mother figure fits in many ways. For one, of course, she is the actual evil stepmother/witch in the story. She was Snow’s stepmother and engineered both Snow’s father’s death and the death of her own father. She tried to kill Snow on multiple occasions. She released the curse that doomed everyone in the enchanted forest. In the “real” world, she is often verbally abusive to Henry and it has been strongly implied that she does not love him. She tries to keep him from Emma. She puts him in therapy rather than parenting him.

On the other hand, on a surface level that bites down into the hearts and fears of many women today, Regina represents the single, working mother of a certain age. She is professional, she is successful, she has decided not to wait for a man but to adopt a child and raise him on her own. Many of her struggles can be seen through this lens, and if it was not obvious that she really is evil, many of her actions could be placed down to a woman trying to adjust to handling a growing boy. Her hostility to Emma is a natural reaction of an adopted parent who feels her parental rights are being challenged by a birth mother newly arrived on the scene. Her desire to “fix” Henry is a way she is overcompensating for trying to run an home and a town. As Emma says when trying to defend her to Henry in “The Thing You Love Most,” Regina is just trying to do the best she can.

Further adding to her complexity and defiance of simple categorization is the fact that where the evil stepmother rarely has any reason for her evilness in the oral tales beyond jealousy, Regina was truly wronged by Snow White. No simple spite, this, either—Snow White told some secret entrusted her by Regina which cost Regina the thing she loved most in the world. Her love cannot be recovered, either, as those stricken by the curse can hope—he is dead and not even magic can raise the dead (“The Thing You Love Most,” “The Shepherd”). Snow White’s complicity in this removes her from the position of purely innocent victim, though the show has yet to reveal exactly what it is that Snow did. However, Regina may be acting from vengeance and hatred, but it is implied she has just cause. Even part of Snow White agrees with this. When Prince Charming asks her why the Queen hates her so, Snow answers, “She blames me for ruining her life.” Prince Charming asks her if she did so, and Snow is quiet for a moment before telling him, without elaboration, “Yes” (“Snow Falls”).

On the other side of this spectrum stands Ashley Boyd. Ashley is a nineteen year old maid whose boyfriend—as far as she knows—abandoned her when he found out she was pregnant. Without any support, Ashley agreed to sell her baby to Mr. Gold, to give her the best chance. However, as her due date grows near, Ashley has second thoughts, and decides she wants to keep the baby. Her plight draws in the third mother figure, Emma. Emma was eighteen when Henry was born and she had no one either, so she gave him away. Ashley’s determination to keep her baby strikes a chord with Emma who fights for Mr. Gold to release her by striking her own deal with him. However, it isn’t for Ashley that she acts as she does—but for the choice that she did not make (“The Price of Gold”).

Having been found, presumably abandoned, on the side of the road, Emma was raised in the system. She led a rootless life, moving seven time in the ten years since she gave Henry up. She has walls up that she refuses to let in. She will not let Henry call her “mom,” and insists in the beginning that Regina is his mother. However, although she does not believe Henry about the fairy tale characters, once she has met him, she cannot leave. She pits herself against Regina and while she has not attempted to regain Henry, the struggle is set up between them as the two mothers fighting over a son as much as they are representative of the conflict between a world without happy endings and the restoration of everyone’s rightful place in the world.

Less discussed as a mother is Snow White. As Emma’s mother, she made the ultimate sacrifice to give her baby up and send her away so that she would not be affected by the curse. Mary Margaret wants children desperately, but she has none. She fills that ache by teaching fifth grade and nurturing each of the children in her class, but there is obviously a hole in her life. When Emma comes to town, the two women attach and bond, but as friends. Emma knows that if Henry is right, Mary Margaret is her mother, but she is too scarred from years of believing herself to be abandoned to allow for this possibility yet.

So with all of this in mind, let us turn to the elements which help bring this intertextual world to life, which in a audiovisual medium are texts within themselves: the performances and the visual elements.

Performative Analysis

Every actor in Once Upon a Time, with the exception of those playing Emma (Jennifer Morrison) and Henry (Jared Gilmore), are playing dual roles. They play their fairy tale character, and they play the real world character. Arguably, since she remembers the fair tale world and engineered its transmission to the fairy tale world, Lana Parilla could be said to be playing a single character in Regina and the Evil Queen, but even she makes some variations in acting choices between playing the Queen in either world.

In portraying Snow White and Mary Margaret, Ginnefer Goodwin has made some very interesting acting choices—possibly the most drastic difference between any character, besides perhaps Rumpelstiltskin—are in her two performances. Snow White has an air of innocence about her in her early (chronologically) scenes, mostly in “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.” We see a more fragile girl here, a delicacy of grief which Goodwin portrays with grace and charm. Her body language is compact, her eyes often downcast. She is the princess we expect to see. However, she is smarter than what we expect—something that has already been shown in earlier episodes set later in time. When Snow challenges the Huntsman on his mission to kill him, Goodwin injects a change in her posture, a defiance, a spark—the beginning of the thief who will steal Charming’s jewels and heart. In the episodes where Snow is living in the forest, Goodwin injects an almost cocky walk. She moves with fluidity, compact not from unsurety but a need for stealth. She runs freely, not constrained as a princess must be. Her head is always high, her smiles by turns sweet and cynical. The lack of trust she has in a world that has betrayed her is clear through sharper gestures, harder eyes. In the “real” world, Mary Margaret takes meekness to the next level. While she will occasionally speak up for herself, she is a beaten creature. It is as if part of her truly knows everything she has lost, and though she tries to give hope to the children she teaches, she has none left for herself. Goodwin retreats to the constrained behavior of early Snow—Mary Margaret often walks with her hands clasped in front of her, but supplicant and trying to be as small as possible. Her gaze is almost always downcast or to the side—only in defense of others will she raise a challenging glance to anyone. Otherwise, she tends to shrink in on herself, a timid mouse in a world of hawks. Even when a little lost, Snow never shrank. She faced her destiny head on, chin up. When I watched the pilot, so complete was Goodwin’s transformation from the girl who grabbed her husband’s sword to fight off the witch to the soft-spoken schoolteacher who looked no one in the eye, that I literally had to go check to see if they were played by the same actress.

Likewise, Josh Dallas brings to the role of Prince Charming and David several levels of performance. In the fairy tale world, he actually plays twins: a brave, noble somewhat cocky prince who dies because he fails to heed his own advice to check if his adversary is actually dead, and a gentle shepherd who wants nothing more than to save his mother’s farm and marry for love. The prince portrayal we only see for a few moments. He is a warrior, focused on his target, serious in his pursuits. He is not above trickery to win, but has no clever gambits. He carries himself as a prince, head high, sure of his position in the world. The shepherd is different—in his portrayal, Dallas brings a raw earthiness. He is just as good of a fighter as his brother, but for different reasons—surviving off the land and defending his home and sheep from predators. He is wily and conniving in his hunting—able to trap girls and sheep and dragons as easily as the others. Dallas carries himself differently, even when the shepherd becomes the prince—his posture is not as perfect, his gestures not as broad. He gives us a man more at home in the woods than a carriage, sunk down lower to the earth. As David Nolan in the “real” world, he is even more fragile than the other characters. His amnesia takes from him not just his memories of the fairy tale world, it also keeps the curse from giving him new ones. There is no swagger in his walk. His movement is hesitant, unsure. He is even more lost than the others, reaching out for an anchor in emotion when memory fails him. He is still gallant, but the gentleness is heightened. His smile asks for approval. Like Mary Margaret, he folds in on himself, hands unsure what to do, eyes unsure what to focus on. When he finally takes hold of fake memories in the “real” world, his posture straightens some, but the sense of loss still pervades the more delicate movements.

The greatest change in physicality and vocal use and utter performance comes from the other character who likely remembers who he is: Rumpelstiltskin into Mr. Gold, played by Robert Carlyle. Prince Charming refers to Rumpelstiltskin as “an imp” in “The Price of Gold,” but it is uncertain exactly what he is. His body is covered in paint, his eyes strange. He is clearly not human, and he does not speak or move like one, either. His voice is high pitched and sing song, always containing a mocking tone. Carlyle modulates his voice constantly, making Rumpelstiltskin speak in different voices as a part of his characterization. Examples of this can be seen in this scene between Prince Charming’s father and Rumpelstiltskin: (“The Shepherd). Even in the voice of Rumpelstiltskin, Carlyle goes through more than a few vocal modulations, including a high pitched giggle that appears more than once. Mr. Gold speaks with none of these traits, but speaks in a lower tone, evenly modulated, accented not by vocal tics but only by Carlyle’s natural Scottish accent. He voice is restrained, elegant, soothing, not the harshly jarring tones of Rumpelstiltskin. The only vocal delivery that carries between the two worlds is the mocking tone, occasionally snarky, though even there, as Gold, it is far more restrained and faint, not so overt.

Beyond vocal alterations, Carlyle includes major physical modifications in his portrayal of the two characters. Rumpelstiltskin is almost never still. He gambols and cavorts. He gestures with his hands to make his point, often over emphatically, especially when speaking in truisms (the same gesture always accompanies “magic has a price” which can be seen here: (“The Price of Gold”). He moves lower to the ground, in ways clearly not human. As Gold, however, like with his speech, Carlyle is far more restrained. For one, Gold is human. He doesn’t cavort, he doesn’t gambol, he isn’t quirky. He is occasionally creepy, but he is always a gentleman, always refined. His threats do not come with crazy gestures, but quiet certainty. There is nothing that seems to carry from one to the other except his propensity for making deals. An example of Carlyle’s performance as Mr. Gold, different in tone and physicality, can be seen here, from “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter”:

These variants in performance both tie the two worlds together and help to further differentiate them. It lends credence to the earlier theory of Emma’s, Mary’s and Archie’s that Henry is just making up the idea of the fairy tale world and the curse as some sort of method of coping. It forces us to question the premise of the show: are fairy tales really in this world (even if the intro tells us so), or is this all some sort of dream? Is it reality or metaphor? Is Emma the savior or what she really seems? Does destiny exist? Does magic? These are all questions raised by not just the work, but the text, and the actor’s performance of them heightens the tension between reality and not—and the question of just which is which.

Visual Aesthetics

The next element of Once Upon a Time to consider is an analysis of the visual elements that make up the show and both worlds. These are all paradigmatic choices on the part of the director, and as the episodes go on, we see them slowly start to break down as distinctions fade and the fairy tale world more and more intrudes into the “real.” This heightens the tension with the audience in asking what is real, what the truth is, as well. Further posing this question to the audience is the fact that nearly all of the filming, at least indoors, in the fairy tale world is done against multiple green screens. The vastness of the sets needed and the world created could not be managed using “real” sets on any sort of reasonable budget. Sweeping castles, an enchanted forest of brilliant color, vistas only seen in a fairy tale—all of these are computer generated to some degree. While the show is broadcast via traditional television, the art that goes into creating it is composed of new media.

The hyper reality of the fairy tale world makes it seem almost like a dream—the computer animation is almost too perfect. Can such a place be real? The audience is asked to believe, ultimately, that, yes—it is not just a place in story books, but is an alternate reality that is more fantastic but just as real as our own. Unicorns are rendered as delicately as sparkling glass coffins, and unlike an animated fairy tale which keeps the distance of the medium imposed upon us, the virtual reality created for Once Upon a Time demands a deeper suspension of belief, an acceptance of the possibility of magic, if only through technological means. Though their conceits are similar, where Enchanted kept the fairy tale world a brightly colored animation, Once Upon a Time renders it as graphically real as the real world it contrasts with.

Part of the hyper-reality of the fairy tale world, as opposed to the “real” world, is created by the color choices. In the fairy tale world, every thing is brighter, more vibrant, more alive. In the “real” world, this vibrancy is muted both in attitude and color palette. Our first view of Storybrooke is at night, and it does not get much brighter when a gray day dawns the next morning. The only spot of color in the town is the mayor’s house—in vibrant white and black, with a garden outside that blooms in full color, there is a sense that with Regina’s memories, her home retains a sense of the other world:

Fairy Tale World


While this distinction is absolute in the early episode, it slowly starts to break down, with Storybrooke taking on a brighter quality the longer Emma stays and the more pieces of the curse that start to shatter.

The color contrasts continue into the presentation of characters and their clothing choices. Part of the costume design of the show, they too continue to be visual reminder and link, though they, too begin to shift in later episodes. Regina, for instance, always wears black or gray. These colors surround not just her clothes, but also the space that she calls her own:

As she darkens, moving from the Queen to the Evil Sorceress, her space in her castle changes, moving from the white it was in the time of Snow’s father’s reign. In keeping with the ambiguity of her position and motives in Storybrooke, her office as mayor embraces both colors, as she does in her eternal shades of gray clothing options:

However, like her office incorporates the contrast, her clothing begins to change as the episodes progress. She begins to wear a little more red, and, in one scene, even appears—very briefly—in blue. Of course, red is a power color and also highly associated with the apples that the Evil Queen is known for poisoning. It is also the color of the hearts she rips out. Black has long signified evil in visual representations—the bad guys wearing black is a cliché. More interesting is the fact that she only rarely wears pure black. With the moral ambiguity cast upon her—the fact that Snow harmed her which set her on this path of vengeance—Regina dresses more in gray than black. Sometimes she goes so far as to wrap herself in multiple shades of gray, a clear symbol for moral ambiguity that also hints, when combined with the softer aspects Parilla brings to the performance, at a possibility of redemption.

In contrast, Emma is nearly always surrounded by primary colors. Her standard costume through the first few episodes is jeans, a white shirt and a red jacket. When she is not wearing red, in early episodes, her jacket of choice is blue. These are, of course, patriotic colors, colors of super heroes, colors symbolizing within our culture the advent of someone who might save the day. Beyond this, white also symbolizes purity, red provides a passion of purpose (one she shares with Regina) and blue is the color of her mother—calming and grounding. Even further, the car Emma drives is bright yellow, the only car of color in the town except Ruby’s, which, like everything Ruby wears and surrounds herself with, is red. Regina drives, naturally, a black car, and these are the only three identifiable within the town. Like the town, all the others fade into a nondescript background. The punches of primary color which surround Emma set her apart from the other characters, signaling the symbol of change which she is for them. However, it is interesting to note that Emma’s jeans are usually black—which makes her base clothing black and white, highlighted by the primary color jackets, where Regina wears black or gray outside, and highlights hers with red underneath. The only time we see things start to change for Emma is in the most recent episode, “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” wherein she and Regina were actually exact opposites: Regina wore a black suit with a red top, and, for the first time, Emma wore black all over, with only her red jacket to break it up:

Thus, by color we are both given clues about character and about the opposites and dichotomies set up by the text. By color we are clued into the reality and nature of the world. And by changes in color, we see how those worlds are starting to collide.

Cultural Codes

The final area to consider is the deeper message all of the textual, performative and visual elements are trying to convey, or at least my take on them. While some may argue that television conveys dominant messages, I find far more coherency in the argument that television may have a central message, but it is more likely to pose a question than give an answer. It is the audience that takes what is posited by the television show and makes their own meaning, so while trying to consider what message the show may be trying to send, my own interpretation is likely necessarily wrapped up in it (Newcomb and Hirsch, 562).

A gendered message of some sort rests within Once Upon a Time. The only characters with true agency are two disparate women, both mothers to the same boy, both fitting within different constructions of “good” and “bad” mothers. As discussed earlier, Emma gave Henry up, walked away from him and ran away from her role as a mother. Regina, on the other hand, has been there for every illness, tended every bruise, fed him, sheltered him and been the only person in his life he can depend upon. On the surface, she is the face of modern motherhood, and Emma’s irresponsibility is something that Regina throws against her. Neither of them are the traditional image of a mother. Emma was a teenager who got pregnant and never even told the father. Regina is single, as well. There is no traditional family structure posited within Once Upon a Time, at least none that remains. All families have been ripped apart, mothers torn from their children, couples separated. Thus we are left to contemplate what it is that makes a mother, what makes a good one, what we expect of women today. Emma and Regina are two images of modern women: both sexually liberated, one with a career, one with no path, neither choosing to allow anyone close enough to love them, including the son they share. No solution is presented to this dilemma. In fairy tale dichotomy, Emma is clearly meant to be the good mother—or the woman who is on the journey toward it—while Regina is the image of bad motherhood, but the only thing that separates them, truly, is their love for Henry. Emma loves him. Regina does not. All the other surface trappings of modernity seem to fall away at this single fact, but the fact that the two main characters fight so often over the definition of being a good mother echoes a societal question that has been posed more and more as women choose careers over family and seek to redefine notions of motherhood.

The themes of memory and remembering can also have cultural significance attached to them. A familiar piece of political rhetoric is the call for us to remember who we are, an exhortation that we have fallen into being lost because we have lost sight of that. It is used by both sides in political debate, not solely a call to return to an image of America which probably never existed outside of television. We are exhorted to remember our compassion, our country’s greatness, that we are a nation of immigrants, that we are a bastion of civil liberties, that we are a country under God. Whatever the political rhetoric, the exhortation to remember is continual. Remember our soldiers, remember the fallen, remember the homeless, remember compassion, remember our family values, remember we are a country that embraces equality for all—remember, remember, remember. The characters in Once Upon a Time cannot remember, and in doing so, they lose all power and agency. A message of the show could be seen as the power of remembering who you are, what you stand for, what you believe, and embracing it as the only way to reclaim your power.

Coincidental to that is the theme of discovery, of finding that thing you love most. Where before in America, generations were told to find a job, settle down and support their families, there is a movement toward finding your happiness afoot around, toward following the dream we were given as children—that we can be anything we want to be. People are taking the economic downturn and potential layoffs as an opportunity to reassess their lives, to find out what is important, to seek it out and to reinvent themselves. Personal development has never been at this much of a cultural high. People are realizing that money does not make them happy, and looking for what can—and all of this is reflected in the stories of Once Upon a Time. Everyone is searching for something on the show—that elusive happy ever after. It isn’t money, it isn’t status. Only the “villains” of the piece seem to care about that. No, everyone else is focusing on love, on family, on honor, on the truth, on self-knowledge. They are seeking to discover who they are, where they fit, and the message conveyed is that when they do so, they will finally have their happy ending. It does not come from outside, but inside, not from things, but from people. These are all messages that may be prevalent in religious discourse and self-help literature, but they are not always as obvious in television shows. Ambition runs rampant and fluffy feel-good stuff is often reserved for kids’ shows. Once Upon a Time does not sugar coat it, for all it is in fairy tales. Instead, it “allow our monsters to come out and play, our dreams to be wrought into pictures, our fantasies transformed into plot structures” (Newcomb and Hirsch, 564).

Newcomb and Hirsch make a claim that television, and those who create for it–”seek and create new meaning in the combination of cultural elements with embedded significance” (563). They respond to real events, changes in social structure and organization and shifts in attitude and values (563). The dominant theme of the show clearly rests upon the power of story. Given the economic and political climate in America and the world, a simple message posed by the show is one of hope. Mary Margaret perhaps, says it best, when Emma asks her why she gave the book of stories (a possible symbol for the show) to Henry (the audience/receptor): “I gave the book to him because I wanted Henry to have the most important thing anyone can have—hope. Believing in even the possibility of a happy ending is a very powerful thing” (“Pilot”). The world is in desperate need of a message of hope right now. Unemployment is high, debt is high, money is low. Our view of the ability of politicians to fix anything is sinking—even Obama’s promise of change seems to have fallen flat. People need hope. They need to believe that there is a possibility that everything that has gone wrong can be fixed and they can have a happy ending. In taking away that world from the fairy tale characters, Regina sent them into a world that’s unhappiness seems to echo that of the world outside the screen, but every episode delivers a little more hope. Like the rich and powerful, Regina seems to have everything, including agency in her own life, but it is slipping, and the disempowered are finding their own power and their own agency and stepping forward.

The curse can clearly be seen as a metaphor for what has befallen America and the breaking of it a reminder that the bad times can go away. It is even possible to see it as an empowering message to people to take control and regain their lives. In fact, this is a direct message in Cinderella’s story, given to her both by Rumpelstiltskin in the fairy tale world, when she says how much her life sucks, and by Emma in the “real” world:

Rumpelstiltskin: All magic comes with a price.

Cinderella: My life, it’s wretched.

Rumpelstiltskin: Then change it. You can’t handle this. *waves magic wand*

Later in episode:

Emma to Ashley/Cinderella: You want to change something, you’re going to have to go out there and change them yourself, because there are no fairy godmothers in this world. (“The Price of Gold”)

Here the message seems to be one of personal agency. There is no magic pill that will make it all better. The curse can be broken, but you will have to step up and save yourself. Asking for someone else to fix it with a wave of a magic wand comes with a price (your agency, your freedom, your voice, your firstborn son) that many are not willing to pay. So, a message of personal responsibility can be read within the message of hope.

If we truly do define ourselves through our arts, then Once Upon a Time stands as a piece calling for people to have hope, to dream, but to take responsibility for their lives. Blaming others for your troubles does not bring you happiness, only bitter revenge and loneliness. Forgiveness and kindness will help, but to go further you have to take action. It is not a blind message of hope that everything is just going to be okay. It takes wishes out of dreams—Rumpelstiltskin killed the fairy godmother and all magic comes at a price. Each person is responsible for their own choices, and must fight to regain their own happy ending, but the story assures us that it can be done. In this way, a lot of the message of the show is that of the message of fairy tales. As G.K. Chesterton said, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” Once Upon a Time does not tell the world that misery exists. The world already knows this. Once Upon a Time tells the world that misery can be defeated—but you have to stand up to it and try.

At least that is the meaning I make of it, and the one that I offer to you.

[For self evaluation of this project and where I would like to go in the future, please go here]

 Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. “From Work to Text.” Trans. Stephen Heath. 1977. Web.

 “Color Symbolism and Culture.” Incredible @rt Department. Web. December 12, 2011.

 Newcomb, Horace and Paul M. Hirsch. “Television as a Cultural Forum.” Quarterly review of Film

Studies. Summer 1983.

 “Pilot.” Once Upon a Time. ABC. 23 Oct. 2011. Television.

 “Snow Falls.” Once Upon a Time. ABC. 06 Nov. 2011. Television.

 “That Still Small Voice.” Once Upon a Time. ABC. 27 Nov. 2011. Television.

 “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.” Once Upon a Time. ABC. 11 Dec. 2011. Television.

 “The Price of Gold.” Once Upon a Time. ABC. 13 Nov. 2011. Television.

 “The Shepherd.” Once Upon a Time. ABC. 04 Dec. 2011. Television.

 “The Thing You Love Most.” Once Upon a Time. ABC. 30 Oct. 2011. Television.