For Once Upon A Time, “The Tower” is a step in the right direction.
ABC’s hit show cast African American actress, Alexandra Metz, as Rapunzel for this week’s episode, “The Tower.” One would hope that a dash of racial diversity in a show that features multiple realms, heart storage and dragons would be completely unremarkable. As it is, however, OUaT has spent three seasons killing off (or writing out) its few black characters and so this really is a significant milestone for the show.
As an episode of television, “The Tower” is … fine. It’s a perfectly adequate 43 minutes of entertainment. Amidst several subplots, the story focuses on David confronting his fear of impending fatherhood and on his past, now forgotten, encounter with Rapunzel. At this early point in the season, OUaT’s priority seems to be planting plot seeds for future episodes and “The Tower” does little to speed this tedious process along. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that Rapunzel really is the best part of the episode.
Unlike similar OUaT episodes like “Skin Deep” and “Ariel” which also draw upon fairytales best known for their animated adaptations, “The Tower” is mercifully void of Disney references. Rapunzel’s dress is not pink, she does not have a chameleon and there isn’t a skillet in sight. This is probably because Tangled isn’t old enough to have defined the story of Rapunzel for the public the way Snow White and Cinderella have. Regardless of the reason, it was pleasant to watch an interpretation of a fairytale that didn’t have Disney’s fingerprints all over it.
Disney’s shadow set aside, “The Tower” offers an interesting take on the Rapunzel story. OUaT has been very deliberate in subverting the damsel in distress trope and revamping traditionally passive princesses as kick-ass women. Rapunzel posed an especial challenge as her sole function in the original fairytale was to sit in a tower and be victimized. Turning the witch/Mother Gothel into a manifestation of her own fears and the tower into a metaphor for hiding from responsibility was a clever way of empowering an otherwise submissive character.
In terms of viewing “The Tower” as a remedy to OUaT’s diversity problems, though … well, as stated above, “The Tower” is a step in the right direction but it isn’t much more than that. To its credit, “The Tower” is a very good example of colorblind
casting. The show deviated from the source material by making Rapunzel black but didn’t feel the need to “address” it, thus demonstrating that diversity doesn’t have to dominate a story’s theme or plot or … whatever it is naysayers to colorblind casting argue. However, OUaT’s diversity problem has never been that the show is self-conscious about race or that characters of color are portrayed poorly. It’s that characters of color are hardly portrayed at all. This is a problem that one episode simply cannot resolve.
I haven’t mentioned the portrayal of South Asian, Native American, Hispanic etc. characters currently on OUaT because there are none. Apart from Chinese folk hero, Mulan (who’s played by a Korean-American actress) all reoccurring characters on the show are white.
OUaT needs to diversify its cast but it needs to do more than scatter a few short-lived (literally) characters here and there throughout the show. It needs a diverse leading cast. The easiest way to start would be by making Rapunzel a series regular She was an interesting character and I’d like to see her again, anyways.
Your move, OUaT.