People of Color in Once Upon a Time

Stacy Whitman photoStacy Whitman is the founder and publisher of Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low Books that publishes diverse fantasy, science fiction, and mystery for children and young adults. She holds a master’s degree in children’s literature from Simmons College. In this post (cross-posted with permission from Stacy’s blog) Stacy reflects on the representation of people of color in the ABC show Once Upon a Time.

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Ever since Mulan showed up at the beginning of season 2, I’ve been pondering on how diversity is handled in the fairy tale world of Once Upon a Time. After Once Upon a Time posterall, this is a fairy tale world that includes (real) tales from China, not to mention the genie from Aladdin, so we’re not limited to the tales of white western Europe (and medieval western Europe was a whole lot more diverse than many people give it credit for). One of the seven dwarves appears Asian, the guy who plays Sidney Glass/the Mirror/Genie is black. Though the actress who plays the Evil Queen/Regina is Latina, she’s not portrayed as Latina, so it’s hard to count that as one in the win column. There are (a few) others, but few who are named and whose backstory we see anything of.

I am enjoying the direction the main storyline is heading in this year in the show’s third season, but I’m highly disappointed with how the show handles its characters of color. Have you noticed how many of them die or get locked away to be forgotten compared to other characters? Sidney (who disappeared to star on Revolution, never to be mentioned again); Tamara, Neal’s fiancée who was trying to sabotage magic and kidnapped Henry (who could as easily have decided to be good and joined up with their team, but no, just got killed off; granted, so did her white partner in crime); Lancelot, who is dead before we ever meet him.

We’ve got a spinoff that just started this week, too (Once Upon a Time in Wonderland). It would have been a perfect opportunity for deeper exploration of the story of one of the surviving characters of color, like Mulan, who seems to exist only as a helper character so far, not a hero in her own right. She’s even in a love triangle with Sleeping Beauty and Prince Philip, rather than with her own love interest from her Disney story, Li Shang. We never see much of her backstory or really anything of her part of the world. In other words, season 2 really dropped the ball on her potential. (Though perhaps we’ll see some chemistry between her and Neil while Emma’s feeling a little drawn to Hook? I don’t know. I’m not really feeling that direction.)Jafar

Mulan is one of the most compelling Disney characters ever, and her origin tale from China is rich source material for a show that likes to take the Disney portrayal and add a few more layers. I’d rather see her be a hero in her own right, rather than a love interest who’s only important because she helps the (white) main characters. Surely there could be some sort of conflict in the Enchanted Forest she could rally to fight for, leading a rag-tag bunch of warriors to save the day?

And all wishful thinking of where a spinoff could have gone aside, there’s the actual spinoff which just premiered yesterday. I could be wrong about the guys who play the love-interest genie Cyrus and the Knave of Hearts (perhaps they are multiracial or of Latino or Middle Eastern origin, but it doesn’t appear so) in the new spinoff, but as far as I can tell, the only person of color in Once Upon a Time in Wonderland is Naveen Andrews, who plays Jafar. Given Once Upon a Time’s track record of trying to redeem bad guys, perhaps this isn’t the cliche “guy of color is the bad guy,” and I hope that’s the case… and I hope that Jafar doesn’t end up dead by the end of the mini-series, the way so many other characters of color have been killed off in the original.

What does this mean for people of color in the Once Upon a Time world? So far, not much good. I’d love to be proved wrong by this season of OUAT or OUATiW, but I have little hope that I will, based upon the track record.

What do you think? Are you looking forward to OUATiW? How do you think Jafar will be portrayed?


16 thoughts on “People of Color in Once Upon a Time”

  1. The issue here is that it seems the actors of color aren’t able to work on the show full time. As your article mentioned, Giancarlo Esposito (Sydney Glass/The Magic Mirror) has a role on NBC’s “Revolution”. He became commited to that so that’s why he vanished after season 1 of OUAT. At least in his case there’s the possibility of a cameo in a flashback (like this week’s episode had).

    The actress who played Tamara also plays a character on AMC’s “The Walking Dead” and she has been bumped up to a series regular for that show this upcoming season. Filming both shows probably wasn’t an option so the writers had to do something with that character.

    The actor who played Lancelot seems willing to return to the show from people who have tweeted him. We know that Cora is a liar, so maybe Lancelot isn’t dead after all? We’ll have to wait and see.

    As far as Naveen Andrews as Jafar: I think he’ll be fine. So far, no villain on OUAT has been truly evil for evil’s sake. I don’t think Jafar, a magic wielding grand vizier, is going to re-inforce any negative stereotypes of people of Middle Eastern decent. Modern society has forgotten the existence of stories like “The Thousand And One Arabian Nights”, which portrayed the Middle East and Asia as a magical place.

    I recommend checking out the BBC program “Merlin”. That featured a woman of color playing Gwenevere in an inter-racial relationship with Prince (later King) Arthur.

    1. I agree it is very sad and obvious that People of Color are Badly Represented in this Show I Still like it the Racism is there and I just started watching the Show this year 2022 I’m just watch a black character who was a mouse approach little red ridding hood to take on a date and 30 seconds later he was dead and she didn’t give him no love . I like the show but I hate seeing how Hollywood treats my people

  2. I highly recommend Merlin, as well—it’s a great show!

    And yes, there are logistical issues as far as the actors are concerned, but I feel like that goes to a deeper issue in the writing. The actors left the show because they have found better work elsewhere. If Once Upon a Time were offering them a compelling role, don’t you think they’d stay?

    I’d love to see Lancelot come back. Great point that Cora could have been lying. And I also agree that Jafar will likely be complicated. But I would still like to see the Genie/Cyrus portrayed by someone who looks like/has roots in the Middle East (anyone know if the actor does? Middle Eastern genetics do have a wide range, so I could be wrong on whether he does or doesn’t).

  3. Though the actress who plays the Evil Queen/Regina is Latina, she’s not portrayed as Latina, so it’s hard to count that as one in the win column.

    I’m confused as to what “portrayed as Latina” is supposed to mean without drawing on stereotypes about what Latinas look, act, and sound like.

  4. Though the actress who plays the Evil Queen/Regina is Latina, she’s not portrayed as Latina, so it’s hard to count that as one in the win column.

    How is someone portrays a character as Latina? Would Tamara would be a different character is she would be white? Or Lancelot? Sidney Glass? They are also don’t portray their characters as a person of color, only their color is more recognizable. But their acting choices were universal.

  5. I don’t think she’d have to be a different character to be portrayed as Latina. I just think that it needs to be more visible (even if subtle) to be clear when the Hollywood white-as-default is working so hard against most viewers seeing her as such.

    Lancelot was a lost opportunity, in my opinion. Kill off (before he even came on scene–we never saw his backstory) the character who would clearly show that this land has POC in the fairy tale world (not just the other lands where Genie/Sydney, Mulan, and others clearly marked as POC came from). As it is, the land that Snow/the Prince/Regina come from is presented as a white European monoculture with POC being outliers from other countries within the fairy tale world.

    Not even medieval Europe was a white monoculture (not all-white, not monoculture), and it would have been nice to see small but significant cultural markers to show this being so.

  6. RVCBard, I just saw your comment, sorry! I don’t think we need to rely upon stereotypes for her backstory or her home to have small unstereotypical cultural cues. I think it can be done well.

  7. I am curious about the lack of characters of color too. I mean why could Tiana (Princess and the Frog), or Pocahontas. So very disappointing

  8. Seems like 2015, they’re starting to listen a little bit more. I think they HAD to start VERY cannon, because the pilot usually has to pass producer ratings, rather than viewers. Once they got that vote, and contracts to sign on, they could go more creative route. That’s why Rapuntzel is a POC. Maybe we will see more, but wouldn’t everyone FLIP if Tiana wasn’t black? Think about that.

    1. I do disagree with the “fact” that POC would not exist in that part of “Europe.” First, it isn’t Europe — it’s the Enchanted Forest. It does not exist in OUR world. That’s the whole point. So, if someone like Marian exists (and her race has not been declared by our terms) then any skin color can. We are assuming it’s European decent because of the main bulk of the cast. If they were mostly black, or Asian, or Indian, or a super blend, then we might not assume. And then there’s the settings — wooded, evergreen forests. Yes, those exist in other parts of the world, aside from Europe. And not all African people are from Africa. So, in final, I say, read Othello if you think there were no black people in Europe… even in old times. Or just watch anything on BBC.

  9. I realize I’m coming to this obscenely late, but I was searching the topic and came across this entry. I agree with most of what is said here, though I was disappointed to see that Mulan is mentioned only in the context of a person of colour, followed immediately by the author’s wish that she be featured more with her (male) Disney love in tow, or helping out in some other way.

    Yes, she had a small role, but what about the fact that her love interest in the “love triangle” wasn’t the prince? I thought that little arc was handled very gracefully and added another facet to the diversity question. Of course, I will admit that making the hardened female warrior who dressed as a man be the one GBTLA character might have been a bit on the nose.

    (I withdraw my disappointment if this was published before Mulan’s orientation was revealed.)

  10. It might help if they drew on more fairytales or fairytale-like stories that are not European in origin. Maybe some Anansi stories, Egyptian gods using actual Egyptian actors, etc.
    Anyway, real headway would be making the main cast more diverse and introducing other princes of color to save the day.

  11. I’m sadly wrapping up the final season. I, too, had mixed emotions about the representations of characters that were portrayed by POC actors. I suppose logistics of other acting commitments do make up for quite a bit of the explanation of that.

    I did want to bring up a few other major characters not mentioned here though, granted the last comments were from 2017:

    – Ariel
    – King Triton
    – Ursula
    – Cinderella
    – Lucy
    – Tiana
    – Eudora (not a major role, but it’s freaking Robin Givens)
    – Prince Naveen
    – Dr. Facilier
    – Roland
    – Aladdin
    – Jasmine
    – Guinevere
    – Merlin
    – Nimue
    – Captain Nemo

    All in all, I was at least pleased to see that OUAT was not afraid to break the mold of imagination with what we all previously perceived most any of the characters to be, whether it was breaking gender roles biases, racial types, or LGBTQ relationships. I was glad to see it all, wrapped up in the magical fairy tales I had grown up with, and to see the stories had grown up in their own ways, too.

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