One might wonder, as Tamar Mortensen does, why ABC’s hit show Once Upon a Time does not include more people of color (POC). Mortensen’s main complaint is that POC on the show “...are either villains, dead or forgotten.” She continues her argument by explaining, “For three seasons, the fans have waited patiently for at least one POC who doesn’t get shafted.” Her opinions have led her to start a petition to “Put Princess Tiana in Once Upon a Time” through Change.org’s website.
I agree that Tiana is an amazing, strong, and admirable character, like Emma in many ways, that has to endure hardships and failures before attaining her princess status. She is a great role model for all, especially young girls of color. One supporter of the new petition commented that Disney did not have a princess her daughter could relate to until they incorporated Tiana from The Princess and the Frog. Mortensen’s petition has so far garnered 174 supporters that seem to have the same basic concern: How can we ensure that viewers have characters to whom they can relate?
To be honest, my initial reaction to Mortensen’s petition was somewhat defensive as I thought of all the POC that have been on the show. Namely, Sidney Glass/the man in the mirror (Season 1), Cinderella’s fairy godmother (Season 1 Episode 4: "The Price of Gold"), Mulan (first half of Season 2), Lancelot (Season 2 Episode 3: "Lady of the Lake"), Gus/Billy the tow truck driver (Season 2 Episode 7: "Child of the Moon"), and Rapunzel (Season 3 Episode 14: "The Tower"). Then, I realized what the petitioner meant when she said that they were villains or forgotten. The fairy godmother lasted no more than a minute, if that long, while Lancelot, Gus and Rapunzel were each limited to a single episode. Rapunzel was the only one not killed off. Sidney Glass was featured throughout Season 1, and Mulan made it through the first half of Season 2, with an occasional appearance afterwards. However, the same could be said of other characters that are not POC, such as Aurora and Phillip, Cinderella, Princess Abigail, King Leopold, King Midas, etc.... Also, Aurora, Mulan, and Red seemed to be forgotten in Season 2, but brought back in Season 3, so perhaps the trend will continue and we will not only see more of Mulan, but also get to see more of Rapunzel’s story in Season 4.
In an attempt to understand why there are not more POC featured in the show other than the fact that most of these stories are based on Western European tales, I researched some of Kitsis’ and Horowitz’s interviews. When asked, “With some of the changes that you make to these fairy tales, is there anything in fairy tale land that you think is just off-limits? Are there any stories that you just wouldn't feel comfortable changing?” by Rolling Stone correspondent Scott Neumyer, Horowitz had this reply, “It's funny because we try to challenge ourselves to find the coolest spin on these stories...we haven't thought about it in terms of something being off limits. It's more about thinking about what's the surprising way into these stories.” It is just this thinking that allowed them to take the predominately European fairy tales and spice them up by making characters such as Lancelot and Rapunzel POC, as well as combining tales from different cultures, such as including Mulan.
In the same interview, Kitsis replied, “...Once we added an eighth dwarf and killed it, at that point, we realized it was just a matter of finding the right story for the right character. It's taken us two years to do Ariel, but that was because we always wanted to save her for Neverland, where we know there are mermaids.”
In a WonderCon interview by Rebecca Murray (showbizjunkies.com), Kitsis explains that “there’s no greater stakes than family. I think family is a very universal theme and I think the things that are interesting about fairy tales is they tell us how to live our life or be with our family, or how we deal with the loss of a family member. And for us this was always about a dysfunctional family trying to come together and get their happy ending....” With that being said, adding a character such as Tiana and expecting her to be more than just a passing story means that she would have to somehow become part of the family. I do not think it is unreasonable to hope for the inclusion of Tiana, with the understanding that we may have to be patient for her arrival to be tied into the story line. However, this might prove difficult considering the only people who appear to be “available” are Emma and Henry, and possibly Regina. Although, if Robin Hood is Regina’s true love then I think it will come to fruition regardless of their recent complication.
On the other hand, Horowitz is quoted as having said, “You know, it’s not to say that everybody has to be related or anything like that. It’s that that kind of bond, the familial bond, is so strong, so powerful, that there’s no greater state at least for us to think about when you’re writing which is how do you interact with your family? How do you raise a family? How do you be a part of a family? Or, how do you find a family, because you’re [sic] family doesn’t have to be blood? That’s the greatest thing you can see with the characters is when they find each other and come together and form their own family.” So, I suppose it is possible for Tiana to be added to the family without being romantically involved.
Should Horowitz and Kitsis decide to include more POC, they could possible draw from fairy tales of other cultures which are sometimes stand-alone stories, and sometimes variations of their European counterparts. Their focus has been predominantly on Disney princesses, which does include Mulan and Tiana. However, they have also included or eluded to other popular stories such as Hansel and Gretel. If they were to refer to some other stories, they may want to use Leola from Melodye Benson Rosales’ Leola and the Honeybears, which is an African-American version of Goldilocks, who although not a princess is a well-known fairy tale character. Another option could be to incorporate “relatives” of Red or Ella by using a variation of their story. For example, Lon Po Po is a Chinese version of Little Red Riding Hood written by Ed Young. There are also several versions of Cinderella. The idea of rags to riches is a common theme, and the Chinese have told it in Yeh-Shen by Ai-Ling Louie. Robert D. San Souci told it in his story entitled Cendrillon, a Caribbean Cinderella, and Rafe Martin told it in The Rough-Face Girl which stars a disfigured Algonquin girl.
Overall, I think that Tamar Mortensen and her supporters have a valid point. It’s not that Kitsis and Horowitz have ignored the use of POC, rather they have embraced it through the changes that they have made. However, it is important for an audience to be able to connect to the characters that they encounter, and one way to do that is culturally or ethnically (though the two are often confused).
Based on all the interviews I have seen and read, Kitsis and Horowitz strike me as the type of writers that really want to please their viewers, but admit that it’s a “balancing act...want to know what the fans think and feel [but] we would still be writing episode 102. We’d still be trying to figure out what to do, based on millions of opinions.” That quote from Murray’s WonderCon interview sums it up. As fans, we need to let them know how we feel, but we must also understand that if we don’t see it, it’s not necessarily a reflection of their disregard for POC.
If you’re interested in reading more about, or signing Mortensen’s petition to include Tiana in Once Upon A Time’s retinue of princesses, head on over to Change.org.