Once Upon a Time–Season 2 opener (BEWARE OF SPOILERS)

I just finished watching the first episode of this season of Once Upon a Time. I enjoyed the first season of the show, but did wonder why “all” the fairy tales seemed to include only tales from Europe. (However, I actually don’t wonder why it was at least tokenly diverse, as I’ve seem some wonder; actually, Europe in the Middle Ages was probably more diverse than we usually imagine it. Shakespeare wrote of “blackamoors” and the Romans were a diverse lot who ranged all over the continent and made soldiers of all their conquered foes, not to mention the Huns in Eastern Europe (I’m not well-versed on how far west the Huns got, though), and Middle Eastern cultural exchange/influences, including the Jewish diaspora. There’s another post there about how often what we’ve been taught/shown in common media contributes to these assumptions about the whiteness of history, but I digress. My point is that though diverse populations perhaps weren’t nearly as large in Europe in the Middle Ages and Renaissance as they are today, people of color were also not unheard of in places usually thought of as ethnically white.)

My point here is that it was refreshing, then, to have Mulan show up in the first episode of the season. Yay for strong Asian female characters!

Well, character. Singular. It’s only the first episode of the season, so it remains to be seen whether we’ll see more people from Mulan’s world. But this episode brought up a lot of questions that I wanted to just make a list of, in hopes that there will  be answers eventually; I’ll try to remember to revisit this later in the season to see if they’ve been addressed. The show has done a pretty good job, after all, of answering the questions it raises, if excruciatingly slowly.

Reminder: here be SPOILERS. You’ve been warned. Check out a clip in which Mulan is revealed:

Only the first few questions are actual concerns.

  • Why was Mulan in a love triangle with Prince Philip? I am very happy Mulan didn’t end up sacrificing herself so the white couple could get together (see Vasquez Always Dies), but I have a bad feeling overall about the dynamic between these three. (I don’t mind love triangles per se, but given the next question…)
  • Where is Li Shang? Maybe something tragic happened to him, which would be interesting yet not at the same time because…
  • Will we see an Asian male love interest? Will they beat the stereotypes Hollywood has created of Asian men, or continue to play into them with Asian women (woman) only paired with white men? I mean, if Mulan broke up with Li Shang and he found someone else who we’ll meet later, cool. But I have my doubts, and not just because that’s adding a bunch of characters they probably don’t have room for.
  • Not Mulan related, but it does actually make me wonder if we’ll see more diversity in our other secondary characters with love stories—will we ever meet Tiana and Prince Naveen? Aladdin and Princess Jasmine?
  • Can anyone tell me where that armor Mulan wore is from? This is just my initial gut reaction and might be wrong, but why is Mulan wearing what looks to me like some form of Middle Eastern armor rather than Chinese armor? Maybe it’s just the helmet that gives off that impression. Actually, I think it’s just the helmet—the other picture below looks a little more like the armor from the animated movie and, for example, the Yuan dynasty-tributary Goryo-era warriors in Faith have similar armor (though for all I know that could be way off, historically—I am by no means an expert in this area and I’m just judging based on things I’ve seen in modern-era productions, which could have been poorly researched for all I know and which of course don’t cover the full array of possibilities). So what it boils down to is that her helmet doesn’t match my expectations. There could, of course, be a perfectly reasonable answer to that, particularly one that involves my own ignorance, but it’s making me wary. Perhaps this is armor from a different era of China’s history? Armor experts, speak up!
  • I’m not a fan of her hair—most of the rest of the fairy tale characters in fairy tale world had hair that looked at least roughly like their animated counterparts, and Mulan’s hair in the military was the sensible topnot above—but that’s a minor quibble. But I am curious how that hairdo is in any way compatible with hanging mail around your face. When she’s first revealed, her hair is completely hanging loose—under a mail veil. What?? If that helmet is historically accurate, I can see why a topknot would be vitally important, aside from other possible reasons to wear one.
  • Also, how does hanging mail around your face make it in any way possible to SEE? Those eyeholes were TINY. But perhaps this (the mail, not the hair) is actually historically accurate for a Chinese warrior of Mulan’s era, so I’d love to hear from anyone who might know one way or the other.
  • This is just my own curiosity speaking now, nothing problematic. What is a qui shen? Linguistically, I mean. Is it any relation to a gwishin (Korean ghost)? I’m curious if that’s a Sino-Korean word. Or perhaps it’s just made up entirely for the purposes of this show. Unless, of course, a qui shen isn’t Chinese and again we’re somehow melding cultures for some reason, which would be problematic.
  • This last one’s just a minor quibble, and will likely be developed over time, or at least I hope so, given the events of this episode seeming to set us up for some good exploration of these new characters. From what I can tell from Wikipedia (not the best source, but the internet isn’t very helpful tonight), in the original Ballad of Mulan, Hua Mulan fought for 12 years in her father’s place, cross-dressing the whole time; no one found out about it until after she retired home. In the Disney version, she stopped being a warrior after she saved the country and returned home, but her gender was discovered before that.  So perhaps she’s the Disney version (all the others have been) who is from sometime after her gender was discovered but before returning home, which could be either before or after saving her nation from the Huns; her story might have been detoured given the curse. Fair enough, if so, but that takes us right back to the beginning: where is Li Shang? Where are her friends from her unit? She wasn’t a lone warrior woman. But of course, perhaps that’s in her backstory TBD, and I’m willing to give the show the benefit of the doubt.

About The Author

Stacy Whitman is the publisher of Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low Books. She specializes in fantasy, mystery, and science fiction for children and young adults.

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