Warning: this post contains discussion of emotional abuse, ableism, and rape. Spoilers through “The Doctor.”
Additional note: Moff’s Law presiding, as usual. If placing Once Upon a Time within a larger social context of racism, ableism, and sexism is upsetting to you, please don’t read and leave nasty comments. I’d hate for you to waste your free time on something that frustrates you so.
About a year ago, I wrote a post about Rumpelstilskin from Once Upon a Time, noting the ableism and racism in his two personas while living in the Enchanted Forrest. If you’ll recall, Rumpelstiltskin the Town Coward walks with a limp and a cane, while Rumpelstiltskin the Dark One is able-bodied with dark, glittery skin. Meant as an introduction to the character, I didn’t say much in that post besides, “You know, racism is the most-likely influence behind one of OUaT’s biggest villains being called ‘the Dark One’ and having the start of his evilness coincide with the darkening of his skin.” In other words, Rumpelstilstkin as the Dark One, while being portrayed by a white man, embodies certain racist tropes that hold up whiteness and lightness as good and darkness as bad or evil.
Today, I wanna expand on that post by looking at how those two personas (Town Coward and the Dark One) relate to Baelfire and the women in Rumpel’s life.
In his villain origin story episode, “Desperate Souls,” Rumpelstiltskin the Town Coward bemoans his inability to protect his son from being drafted into the Ogre Wars. He feels like a bad father because, due to his disability, he can’t fight off the the duke’s men conscripting children from the town, nor can he take Bae and run from those men. The Town Coward sees himself as the Incompetent Cripple Father society has taught us all to fear so much. I mean, you can’t trust a handicapped person with a baby. How will they take care of it? How will they keep it safe? …so they say. And so the Town Coward believes.
The Dark One does a complete 180. With his new powers–powers he acquired to defend Bae–the Dark One goes out and murders anyone who hurts Bae. He has the ability and he abuses it. Afraid of this new version of his father, Bae conspires with the Blue Fairy to create a temporary portal to a Land Without Magic. Bae convinces his father to travel to this Land with him, so that they can live together free of the curse that made the Town Coward into the Dark One. At the very last minute, the Dark One is unable to give up his magic and he lets Bae fall through the portal without him. The Dark One abandons his son to another universe. So, overly-violent, abandons his child, and named, “The Dark One.” Yeah. I’m not seeing how this isn’t playing on racial stereotypes.
The Dark One can add sexually predatory to his great, big list of racialized tropes. The Dark has a long history of preying on younger women. (Which, okay, to be fair, is kind of inevitable given that the Dark One is immortal and the oldest being in the series–but he doesn’t have to prey on anyone.)
First, we find out that he took Belle as payment for ending her kingdom’s beef with the ogres. Belle works as his servant until they fall in True Love. He releases her commitment and kicks her out when her kiss starts to end his curse, which of course has the temporary effect of making his face white again. (Let’s not even talk about how this relates to white women being seen as a form of upward social mobility, giving their male partner some fringe benefits of white privilege. Or how in that transaction women of color are devalued. Someone far better equipped than I can handle that discussion.)
Next, we learn that he was the one who taught Evil Queen Regina’s mom, Cora, how to do magic. Cora refers to herself as a miller’s daughter at one point, possibly making her the Miller’s Daughter and Regina the baby she was supposed to give to Rumpel. Like her fairy tale counterpart, Cora seems to have gotten out of her side of the deal, keeping Regina as her own. But Rumpel collects eventually. Twenty-or-so years later, the Dark One returns to teach Regina magic, commenting that he knew Regina when she was a wee babe. I think we can all agree that’s kind of creepy. Especially when you consider that season 2 has decided to go down the same road as season 6 of Buffy by making magic a metaphor for addiction. OUaT all but says, “Regina is addicted to doing magic.” I mean, she’s going to see Dr. Hopper to help quit magic. Her son will only consider having a relationship with her, if she quits using (magic). She’s about to burn her
stash book of spells, but can’t do it, instead hiding it away just in case she needs to use it.
For whatever nefarious purpose, the Dark One has gotten two generations of women hooked on magic. He’s the Enchanted Forrest equivalent of a drug pusher. In the US, people of color, particularly Black and Latin@ people, are seen as more likely to be drug users and dealers than white people. This is in no way true, but people still believe it. The tightening and enforcement of drug laws in the US has everything to do with racism. The War on Drugs was justified by the alleged proliferation of “crackheads,” “crack babies,” and “crack houses,” in inner-city (read: Black) neighborhoods. The criminalization of marijuana ouccurred under the political pressure of newspapers, which published things like, “Marihuana influences Negroes to look at white people in the eye, step on white men’s shadows and look at a white woman twice.” In other words, Black men are getting high and coming for yer white women. Metaphorically, this has been the Dark One’s modus operandi. He’s high on magic and he’s coming for Belle, Cora, and Regina. (Regina is, of course, half-Latina. But in her interactions with Rumpel, the focus is placed on the white side of her ancestry, as she is referred to as Cora’s daughter. Her white mother is mentioned often (and the entire reason Regina learns magic), but neither of them speak of her Latino father. It is worth noting that of the women he preys upon, Regina is the only one who comes close to the Dark One’s level of power.)
It’s a safe assumption to say that the Dark One’s relationships with Belle, Cora, and Regina have been influenced by his main goal of finding Bae. He breaks up with Belle because their True Love’s kiss would rid him of the magic he needs to get his son back. He cultivates magic in Cora and Regina as part of a long con to get Regina to use the curse that sends Rumpel and co. to Storybrooke. However, his selection of young woman as his means to an end might be influenced by resentment he feels towards his ex-wife, Bae’s mother.
Following Rumpel the Town Coward’s desertion from the Ogre Wars, Milah is dissatisfied with the monotony of village life and her accompanying loss of social status as the wife of the Town Coward. She takes out her frustration on Rumpel, repeatedly berating him for being a “coward,” which I’d argue is coded language for “cripple.” After all, when it comes to the Ogre Wars, cowards come home crippled; heros die in battle. She doesn’t like being married to the Town Coward/Cripple, so she runs away with the future Captain Hook to become a pirate.
Good for her. I really can’t begrudge a woman for leaving a loveless marriage (especially if she is verbally abusive to her spouse), but I take issue with her having Hook lie to Rumpel, telling him that his crew kidnapped Milah so that they can rape her to death. That’s a messed up thing to leave someone with. Particularly when you consider this next bit: after telling Rumpel his fabricated intentions for his wife, Hook challenges Rumpel to a swordfight. If Rumpel wins, Milah is free to go. If Hook wins, Rumpel is dead. The episode’s focus on Cowardice is Bad tells us that Rumpel refuses to fight for Milah because he is a Coward. This is one of those situations where Coward = cripple again. In his own estimation, as a person with a disability who knows their disability better than anyone else in the world, the Town Coward believes he will lose a swordfight against the younger, fitter, and able-bodied Hook. Romantic fairy-tale logic tells us that Rumpel should have fought regardless and would have won because men fighting out of love always win. But Rumpel’s life doesn’t fit into the fairy-tale narrative because he’s disabled. He’s not the dashing Prince Charming, he’s the Town Coward. If he fights, he will lose and leave Bae an orphan. So, the Town Coward returns home to take care of his son and live with the guilt of being too cowardly/too crippled to save his wife from being gang-raped for the rest of her life.
It’s no surprise that the Dark One is a little pissed off when he finds out that Milah was fine this whole time and has been living it up as a pirate. Not content with merely ripping Milah’s heart out and crushing it into dust, the Dark One seems to be taking out his anger at Milah on other young brunettes–Belle, Cora, and Regina.
There is hope, though, for Rumpelstiltskin to move past his anger and beyond the Town Coward/the Dark One binary (and it’s accompanying ableist and racist stereotypes) in the newly de-cursed Storybrooke. Like everyone in town, Rumpel/the Pawnbroker Formerly Known as Mr. Gold has the chance to learn from the mistakes of his past lives and become a better person. Just the same, the creative staff at OUaT have the opportunity to learn from stereotypes they unknowingly supported through the Town Coward/the Dark One and make Rumpelstiltskin a unique, even groundbreaking character.
And we have indication that this is already happening. In Storybrooke, Belle and Rumpelstiltskin are giving their relationship another shot–this time with both on more equal footing. Belle is building her own life away from Rumpel as librarian, friend of Ruby, and diner food connoisseur. She’s choosing to share part of this life with Rumpel by inviting him out on a date for hamburgers. Rumbelle is quickly shaping up to be the Beta Couple of the series–and its legions of ‘shippers couldn’t be happier. All of this (Rumbelle becoming more developed and canon and a fan-favorite) is kind of a big deal. When was the last time a character with a disability became one-half of a network television series’ most fervently shipped, canon pairings? Without that character having to be cured? (Can I just say how relieved I am that breaking the curse didn’t magically cure Mr. Gold?) In the Enchanted Forest, the Town Coward/the Dark One might be rehashing tropes from the past; but, in Storybrooke, Rumpelstiltskin is pointing toward a better future.