Disclaimer: Just because I critique (or snark) something that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it. I critique because I care. Also, if you think I’m “reading too much into things,” please to be getting basic understanding of how symbols function in fiction.
Rumpelstiltskin–one of the classic European fairy tales that never got its own Disney film. Perhaps because of the lack of romance or the complete absence of swashbuckling or maybe it might have to do with the main conflict hinging upon parents selling their children. Who knows? Rumeplstiltskin has finally seen his day. More people are hearing his name than ever before (which, given who we’re talking about, isn’t such a plus for the man) due to his main character status on ABC’s Once Upon a Time, the show where all of the famous European fairy tale characters have forgotten who they are and have been cursed to live in New England for all eternity. Like all of the show’s characters, Rumpelstiltskin is a bit different from how the brothers Grimm wrote him originally.
For the members of my rapt audience (all ten of you) who are unfamiliar with the original Rumpel, here’s the story as it was passed down to me (through storybooks, films, television) as a child…
Once upon a time, there lived a miller who for some reason told the king that his daughter could spin gold out of straw.
The king was like, “Prove it!” and locked the miller’s daughter in a dungeon with a spinning wheel and a bunch of straw. “Oh, bee tee dubs, miller’s daughter (who never gets a name in these stories), if you don’t make me some gold within a week’s time, you’re dead.”
Well, shit, thought the miller’s daughter. So she sat in the dungeon for a week and every night the king would check in on her, “Made me any gold yet? Nope, well you better.” The night before the deadline she’s sweating bullets and absolutely desperate for help.
“Did some say desperate?” a dwarf asked, appearing in her cell. The man promised to spin straw into gold for the miller’s daughter if she promised him her first born son (because people were sexist). She agreed because she was generally opposed to dying.
The next day, the king visited her cell. “Gold. Yay! I’m so happy with you that you can now marry my son (even though I could use my marriageable son to forge stronger alliances with neighboring kingdoms and you’re not of noble birth and as king I could pretty much force you to spin gold for free).”
The miller’s daughter and the prince married and had a baby. The dwarf returned for his end of the bargain. Princess the Miller’s Daughter understandably did not want to give this guy her baby. The dwarf agreed to let her keep the baby if she could guess his name in three days’ time. After guessing all of the common names and still turning up short, Princess the Miller’s Daughter decided to follow the guy around until someone said his name. Lo and behold, it worked. With one word, “Rumpelstiltskin,” Princess the Miller’s Daughter was able to keep her baby. And they all lived happily ever after. The end.
As a kid, this story always struck me as a little weird. I couldn’t put my finger on it until I looked up Rumpelstiltskin on the Wikipedia and saw this illustration from Dean’s Gift Book of Fairy Tales (circa 1967):
Oh my Sybok. Rumpelstiltskin is one giant anti-Semitic stereotype. Think about: he’s greedy, he loves to make deals, he has control over gold, and he steals babies from their Christian parents. I’m not alone in this interpretation. Unfortunately, Once Upon a Time doesn’t do much to remove the aura of anti-Semitism surrounding the character. Rumpelstiltskin still spins gold, makes deals, and steals babies. His New England counterpart, Mr. Gold, is the richest man in town, a pawnbroker, takes babies in shady adoption deals, and hates nuns.
I know what you’re thinking, “When are you going to get to the disability part? This blog is called Spacecrip, not Jews in Space.” Well, in addition to bringing the Brothers Grimm’s anti-Semitism into 21st century Maine, OUaT has given the character a disability. Mr. Gold walks with a limp and uses a fancy cane. I initially took this as a Lucius Malfoy rip-off–rich, evil guy walks with dapper cane. But we eventually learn that the character was disabled pre-Storybrooke back in Fairy Tale Land. In a flashback, we see that Rumpelstiltskin was once an ordinary man without magical powers. Our Rumpel was just a single dad spinning wool to provide for his son, Baelfire. Having seen the horrors of war himself (his disability stems from a battle wound), Rumpel would do anything to prevent thirteen-year-old Bae from being conscripted into the Duke’s army to fight in the Ogre Wars. After failing to run away and being humiliated in front of his boy, Rumpel takes the advice of a beggar man and steals a magical dagger from the Duke. He who possesses the dagger controls the Dark One, a malevolent but incredibly powerful creature. He who kills the Dark One with the dagger gains his power and becomes the Dark One. The Dark One is essentially the Dread Pirate Roberts.
Except racist. You see, the whole dark = evil, light = good thing perpetuates some nasty ideas about race and skin color. Heroes and heroines in fiction are often protrayed as–to borrow a phrase from the Book of Mormon–”white and delightsome,” while the villains are often darker skinned. See the film adaptation of the Avatar: the Last Airbender, where the villainous Zuko and Commander Zhao are played by Indian actors and the heroes (Aang, Katara, and Sokka) are played by white actors, despite Zuko and Zhao being much paler than most of the other characters in the cartoon. OUaT isn’t free of this casting trope. The main villain, the Evil Queen (who, like the miller’s daughter, doesn’t have a name in Fairy Tale Land) is played by Lana Parrilla, whose father is Puerto Rican. Her right hand man, the Magic Mirror is portrayed by Giancarlo Esposito, whose father is Italian and mother is Black American. And if this wasn’t blatant enough, well, hold on to your seats it gets worse.
To protect his son, Rumpel summons the Dark One and stabs him with the dagger. The Dark One, with his dying breath, reveals that he was pretending to be the beggar man earlier to persuade Rumpel to kill him. Why? Because power makes you miserable. That’s why. The second the guy bites it, his power transfers over to Rumpel, making him the new Dark One. And, boy, did the writers take that literally. As the evil, magical powers flow into Rumpel’s body, the skin on his hand grows darker, the darkness spreads up his wrist, his arm, and eventually covers his whole body.
What. The. Frell. How much did ABC spend on that CGI blackface? In previous flashbacks to Fairy Tale Land, Rumpel had the same darkened, sparkly skin, but up until this episode, I honestly thought it was soot from being locked up in a dungeon, not a symptom of being cursed. Hmm. A curse that makes someone’s skin darker… where have I heard that before…? This is wrong, wrong, wrongity, wrong, wrong, WRONG.
Oh and it gets better. Of course, I’m using the archaic definition of “better” listed in Ye Olde Oxforde Dictionarium which defines the word as “worse, much worse.” Newly minted Dark One!Rumpel not only has noticeably darker skin, but he is also able-bodied. His limp has disappeared. He’s cured. (For those of you keeping tally at home, we have a villain who is sometimes black, sometimes disabled, and always an anti-Semitic stereotype.) Which, at first glance, might seem like kind of a positive thing. At the very least, we avoid the trope of the disabled villain. However, it’s pretty problematic for his disability to be supplanted by blackness.
Rumpel loses one distinguishing characteristic (limp) and gains another (darkened skin), making this an exchange. At any given time on the show, Rumpel is either disabled or has dark skin. He can never be disabled and (symbolically) black at once. This feeds into the erasure of disabled people of color which is evidenced by the Oppression Olympics (Oppression Paralympics? Oppression Special Olympics?) I see played by some of my fellow white people with disabilities. It is much worse, they affirm, to be disabled than it is to be black. Family Guy codified this either-or ideology in a game of “Would you rather?” wherein Peter asks, “Okay, black or crippled?” Like there aren’t any black people with disabilities. (Given how many times Cleveland has fallen out of his second-floor bathroom in the tub, it’s amazing that there aren’t any in Quahog already.) The stereotype of black people as athletic and physically tough doesn’t mesh with popular conceptions of people with disabilities. And our Rumpel certainly falls into the athletic stereotype after he becomes the Dark One. He easily murders a group of soldiers as his son watches on. He physically dominates the soldier who once made Rumpel kiss his boot. Our weak, incapable Rumpelstiltskin has been replaced by a strong, violent Dark One.
What does this mean for his relationship with his son and with *eyebrow wiggle* the ladies? That, my friends, is a story for another day.