Oh, Once Upon A Time. I have been vacillating between hatecrush and ragequit on this show since the middle of the second season. It’s become a show that personally offends me on so many levels, at too many moments. It’s also given me some of the most resonant poetic imagery I’ve seen in pop culture. The demonstrative power-play of ripping out somebody’s heart and whispering one’s commands to them is chilling because on some level that is sort of what truly happens when something figuratively like it happens…of course the magic of romantic love is fuchsia and gold, and of course the land of eternal youth will have one island full of death skulls and hourglasses.
Lately, I’ve been wondering about The Evil Queen from Snow White’s fairy tale. This show gave her a name (Regina), a redemption arc, and a long-lost sibling in the Wicked Witch of the West.
Shortly after her redemption arc (that is, Regina turning from apocalyptically wrathful to merely snarky) she began to show her care with such heartwarming lines as, “Nobody is allowed to kill you but ME!” While couched in terms of self-aggrandizement and…uh, threat of homicide…viewers who have gotten to know Regina over the episodes can easily take this as her way of saying that she considers you a friend and will protect you.
It’s difficult for me to understand or accept. To spin vitriol like that into something positive can be a trap. In too many ways have verbal abusers tried to dismiss a victim’s perspective with how the victim is just humorless, or should know the abuser well enough by now to somehow know what’s really meant and adjust their reaction accordingly.
And that’s too bad, because there does seem to be a process to it that I also found paralleled in some rituals of Ancient Rome (from Melissa Mohr’s A Brief History of Swearing):
Bullae, the necklaces containing phallus-shaped fascini, were thought to shield their wearers from the evil eye—they had what is called apotropaic (from the Greek meaning “to ward off”) power. Songs containing obscenities could, in the right context, also protect people from evil forces. They were sung when someone’s good fortune was likely to attract invidia, envy or ill will. They offered protection in two ways—the obscenities themselves contained the power to ward off evil, and the songs’ mockery took their subjects down a peg or two, to a level where they no longer invited individa. Victorious generals were serenaded with fescennine songs—their moment of triumph was also a moment of great weakness.
When Julius Caesar returned to Rome in 46 BC, for example, he was publicly celebrated for vanquishing the Gauls and publicly mocked for being the cinaedus of Nicomedes, king of Bithynia, many years earlier. The obscenity and mockery of these verses were thought to protect Caesar at this vulnerable moment when hundreds, even thousands of people might be watching him with envy.
Okay, I still don’t understand. Maybe ritual obscenities operate like some psychological or spiritual vaccine, but as the corporeal and everything else operate on an increasingly less one-to-one correspondence, I would just as easily say that cussing someone out in any context is spiritually unhygienic. (Maybe I still have a bad taste in my mouth from an argument against trigger warnings that went something like…people who get triggered by things will never learn to tolerate life or to function normally without getting actively triggered as often as possible. Or at least as often as the sort of world and life that got such individuals so traumatized in the first place.) (As far as I could figure out, this was an unironic argument.)
I should also note that the above quoted ritual wasn’t, evidently, very effective. Senators didn’t turn their dagger-like glares and glowers away from Julius Caesar. They just got their hands on actual daggers.
Still, this may have influenced a number of later superstitions about “signs to ward off evil” also being obscene gestures, or statements of forcefully false modesty. I have a feeling that there could be something to it.
The Evil Queen, when originally recorded by the brothers Grimm, had been Snow White’s mother. This is interesting, as this character had started the story off with a wish for a child with “hair as black as night, skin as white as snow, and lips as red as blood” and she basically got the good-looking daughter that she wished for…and then proceeded to enact elaborate and impractical schemes to get rid of (or punish) her daughter for being so good-looking. Even though that was what the queen wished for in the first place.
That’s a definite lot of irony there, that I think is a shame to miss out on in almost all modern versions that turned Snow White’s awful mother into an awful stepmother instead. The implied inevitability of mixed families having more awkwardness settling-in then eclipses any other motivation.
The character of Regina isn’t exactly envious. Her vices are portrayed as some cover-up for grief or loneliness that she believed would be weakness to admit to. She’s been shown as possessive (a slight-but-present distinction) and wrathful…but never covetous.
Zelena—the given name of the Wicked Witch of the West—is the envious one instead. This is why the Wicked Witch of the West, in Once Upon A Time canon, is green. She’s green with envy.
Their respective characteristic vices might not have played off one another in the best way, (and I mean even just on the level of a thematic cohesion,) but when it comes to an examination of the thing and what to do with it, I wonder how it would play out.
It’s less about recognizing the “complex characterization” and more recognizing the “concept characterization” then.
Regina could easily embody the profanity that wards off the destructive properties of invidia.