Consent: the voluntary agreement of the complainant to engage in the sexual activity in question. Conduct short of a voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity does not constitute consent as a matter of law.
This has been on my mind for a long time; and I’ve debated how to get it out, and if I even had the words to express myself correctly. At this point, though, I’ve decided that it doesn’t truly matter if I find the right words — I will try, of course — but it matters more that I finally say something about the issue of consent and how Once Upon A Time has handled it during the entirety of its run.
Covering Once Upon A Time, I’ve written a few lines here and there about my issues with the way the show handled Regina/Graham, ranted about the lack of basic math skills that turned Emma/Neal into something illegal, cringed at a few lines they’ve put in Hook’s mouth and basically wanted to bang my head against a solid surface at the whole “Rumple traps Belle in the Jolly Roger” story-line, not to mention Rumple’s deceit and manipulation.
I’ve also gone a bit more in-depth about how the show basically just took the Regina story-line and made it worse with the whole Zelena/Robin thing. However, at this point, I don’t want to go into the numerous examples (oh, I wish it was just one); instead, I want to examine what the combination of all these things says about Once Upon A Time as a whole and what messages the show is sending, whether they realize it or not.
Warning: It’s not good.
Chronologically, I guess I should start with Regina and end with Zelena. Instead, I’m going to start with Hook and Rumple because even though the way the writers have presented all these characters (and Neal) is, at times, a sign of the very same disease, they’ve done so in different ways that must be examined separately.
Hook was, especially at first, a stereotype of the hyper-masculine, chauvinistic, misogynist…well, pirate — with the unfortunate result that, at times, the character’s behavior clashed with the words and insinuations coming out of his mouth. Because how could a man with his backstory turn, not just pirate, but womanizing, bloodthirsty-kill-men-for-no-reason pirate?
The right answer? In a show with consistent writing that follows an actual character arc, he couldn’t. But, if that were the only problem, we might even manage to look the other way. Except, of course, it’s not. This isn’t about the numerous writing issues with Once Upon A Time’s many characters; this is, particularly, about their problems with consent. So, let’s examine that.
The most damning piece of evidence in this regard is Hook’s suggestion to Emma in season 3, when she is, indeed, trying to get him drunk, that she’s stealing what’s usually his tactic. “His tactic for what,” you ask? There’s really only one answer that really fits here, even if you want to give Hook the benefit of the doubt: He’s offering alcohol to women to make them more likely to sleep with him.
“Why is this a problem,” you ask? (If you’re seriously asking, hello, Once Upon A Time writers! It’s good to have you here. I hope you learn a thing or two.)
The problem with this is that an intoxicated person cannot give consent. I repeat: An intoxicated person cannot give consent.
Of course, this is a vague reference. We have no way of telling a) how much alcohol, b) if this is just bragging or part of the “pirate” persona the writers have crafted, and c) if Hook actually did sleep with a woman incapable of giving consent, but the fact remains that it’s a troubling sign that the people in the writers room didn’t go, “hmmm….we shouldn’t have a character on a path to redemption say this, because even an insinuation of this type of behavior is WRONG.”
You think that’s bad? I’m just getting started.
Let’s go over to Rumple, another character whose story-line proves that the writers care nothing about consent, even if his greatest offense was not of a sexual nature.
Rumple’s thing has always been power, and for the sake of it, he’s often lied, manipulated and outright tricked Belle — the person with whom he’s in a consensual relationship. Now, even if I were to bypass to obvious issues surrounding the fact that Belle probably wouldn’t have consented to a relationship had she been privy to all that was going on, there’s that absurd story-line in Season 6 where Rumple basically traps her on the Jolly Roger for “her own good,” a fact that almost kills her.
This is wrong. This is abuse. This is in no way the behavior of a man in love; this is the behavior of a man who thinks a woman is a possession, the kind you can put in a safe and just throw away the key because that’s what he thinks is best.
You know the worst part? Hook’s line is brushed aside, which is bad enough, but Rumple’s behavior is almost celebrated. If it weren’t that Belle almost got killed, the characters would basically have been like: “Meh, it’s understandable. He was just worried.”
But it’s not understandable. It’s not right. It’s just one more example of these writers’ very tenuous relationship with the word consent.
And we’re just scratching the surface here. It gets better — or worse, depending how you want to look at it.
Oh, yes. We’re now into the portion of this article with actual legal, proven ramifications. GET PUMPED!
Let’s start with Neal. “With Neal,” you ask? “What does Neal have to do with this?” Oh, a lot. Probably more than you’ve realized. Maybe more than the writers realized when they wrote his story the way they did. But hey, they’re the ones earning the big bucks, so yes, we are going to hold them accountable for not being able to do basic math.
The series starts the day Emma Swan turns 28. We meet her the day of her birthday, when Henry waltzes into her apartment. At that point, Henry is 10 years old. We’re not guessing this: he says it himself. He’s 10 years old. Which means Emma Swan likely gave birth to Henry before she turned 18; and unless she met Neal and got pregnant in a month or so, she could have been as young as 16 when she was sleeping with Neal.
Now, of course, we don’t know exact dates here, but even if Emma gave birth to Henry prematurely — which seems unlikely, considering he didn’t have to go into an incubator or anything and was adopted by Regina just weeks after — she would have still been, at most, 17 when she and Neal were in a relationship.
How old was Neal at the time? We’re not sure. Chronologically, maybe 20-something. His wanted poster puts his date of birth at 1977. Remember that, because it’s important, even if it’s not accurate, because we know Neal spent many years in Neverland and — one way or another — was way more mature than at-most-seventeen-year-old Emma Swan.
Now, this is where it gets legally dicey. Neal and Emma are shown to be in Oregon during “Tallahassee” and are never mentioned to be in any other place but Oregon. The age of consent in Oregon is 18. Emma could not have been 18, unless we’re going with the “Neal is not Henry’s father” theory. Since he is, then he was sleeping with someone below the age of consent. And — here is the important part — he was six years older than her, which makes this, in Oregon, a crime.
Legally it’s a misdemeanor, and not a felony, because she was 17, but… once again, we’re in the gray area where we have to discuss consent and if 17-year-old Emma really wanted a relationship with Neal. Either way, even if you think she did, there was a simple solution to this problem, and it’s not just about learning to count: Educate yourself on what consent really means.
Obviously, the writers did not go — and have never gone– in that direction, and as proof I present Regina and Zelena, the two rapists of Once Upon A Time.
Yes, I’m using the word. Rapists. That’s what they are, and I’m not taking it back.
Let’s start with Regina. Obviously, the writers have never admitted that what went on with her and Graham was actually rape, probably because they didn’t mean it to be rape, so they tried to hand-wave it away. But if we look at the definition of rape — and we really, really should — we’ll see that the most important part of the definition deals with the issue of consent.
I don’t think anyone’s gonna argue with me that Regina and Graham had sex on multiple occasions, so let’s look at whether or not he consented.
She had his heart. He had no free will. She was holding his life captive, literally, in her hands. That’s it, I’m done looking. The power dynamics imbalance is such that he couldn’t have consented.
Which makes Regina a…what? Yes, a rapist.
And she’s not the only one. Her sister is also a rapist!
Once again, I’m going to preface this by saying that I’m pretty damn sure the Once Upon A Time writers didn’t realize they were writing rape, but that doesn’t really matter, does it? It’s not our responsibility to judge what they wanted to give us, but what they actually did; and just like with Regina, no one can deny that the situation they put Robin in is a situation where consent is not possible.
He did not know he was sleeping with Zelena. He did not consent to sleeping with Zelena. She took away his consent. If there is no consent, then it’s rape.
Maybe the Once Upon A Time writers and many viewers, for that matter, didn’t recognize it as such because we’re stuck in the idea that rape is only violent and that only women get raped, which is a lie. Men get raped too, and even if this is a fictional world that pushes the boundaries of what’s possible, one boundary they shouldn’t be pushing is consent.
It’s not okay to make jokes about giving women alcohol to make it easier to sleep with them. It’s not okay to treat your significant other like a belonging and decide where he/she goes. It’s not okay to have sex with a minor who might not be able to give consent.
And it’s certainly not okay to have sex with people who are placed in a situation of not being able to give their consent, for whatever reason that is. Magic doesn’t change that. Morality is not a thing you can bend to fit your story.
Consent is a necessary part of a relationship, whether you go into the sexual aspects or not. The Once Upon A Time writers either don’t know this — or most likely, just never cared to educate themselves on what the word actually means, and therefore wrote most of their characters into situations that make them very hard to root for.
This is especially troubling when you consider this is a show about Disney characters, a family-friendly show that many young, impressionable kids are watching, and particularly disturbing because at NO point in the history of this show have any of these characters acknowledged or apologized for what they did.
Hook was allowed to go on with his redemption, despite that comment, and we were just meant to forget how troubling it was. Rumple was allowed a happily ever after with the woman he so often manipulated. Regina never even confessed she killed Graham, much less raped him, but it’s okay cause she’s now good and friends with everyone, and Zelena was allowed to raise her child with Robin — the product of rape — without any repercussion whatsoever.
The Once Upon A Time writers failed, big time, in a basic issue no show should fail at; and they failed again by assuming we, the viewers, were not educated enough to notice their mistakes and call them out on them.
But we are. And it’s time they catch up. Because there are plenty of shows out there whose writers not only know how to do actual, coherent character arcs, but that understand that the absence of no is not the same as a yes. And those are the shows we should be supporting.
Once Upon A Time airs Fridays at 8/7c on ABC.