Gender-Swapping Heroines? On Network Television? Lead the Way!

In other words, "Revenge" is the television show people would make if they were sitting around listening to me tell bedtime stories to coax myself into sleep.

Nov 3, 2011 at 4:00pm | Leave a comment

Like Lesley, I’m not exactly delighted with the state of network television in the US right now1. US television is not the place I look for artful storytelling, let alone plays on pop culture tropes, which is why I’m pleasantly surprised to see not one but two shows with fascinating gender swaps airing right now. "Revenge" takes on "The Count of Monte Cristo" with a female heroine, and "Once Upon A Time" puts Prince Charming in a coma while Snow White has work to do.

"Once Upon A Time" kind of reminds me of those feminist fairy tale books my middle school history teacher used to keep on her shelves, thrusting into your hands periodically to “inspire” you. The lead who needs to save the world by waking everyone up from the Wicked Witch’s bad dream is a lady! Instead of a dude! And just in case anyone missed the Snow White metaphor, her parents are Snow White and Prince Charming, with a delicious role reversal where it’s Charming who’s lying asleep, waiting to be stirred to life by the kiss of his beloved.

This is some reversal of tropes that I can really get down with, because Emma is an actually complex, interesting heroine, and the Wicked Witch isn’t quite the one dimensional baddie the stories all make her out to be. We meet Emma in the form of a bad-ass bondswoman tracking down a guy who failed to appear in court, and she could easily be just another “strong female character” who bounces around beating people up, with the emotional depth of a pack of paper towels.

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Instead, she has a past; she gave a baby up for adoption, but she hasn’t let it rule her life. She’s pretty steadfast that this was the right decision for both of them, which is one the reasons she’s not exactly stoked when her son pops up and drags her to Storybrooke, Maine, informing her that fairy tales are real.

She meets the Wicked Witch, who could be a caricature, but she’s also got very real fears, as the adoptive mother of Emma’s son. She may be a bit nasty about it, but she fears losing her son; whom, I suspect, was not adopted coincidentally, so clearly she’s got a bit of an agenda here, but I’m really crossing my fingers that the show is going to take the narrative somewhere interesting2.

Now, in all fairness, I don’t really care for "Once Upon A Time." I think it’s taking itself entirely too seriously and the scenes in fairyland or whatever the heck you want to call it are just painful to watch. It’s a bad sign when the actors seem embarrassed by their lines, and I kind of wanted to put a paper bag over my head through many sections of the pilot, in that way where you start to overidentify with the people around you and feel awkward and kind of sad on their behalf. (And I could have done without the anti-Semitic stereotype in the form of Mr. Gold, I really could have.)

But the point is, the show is at least trying to break out of something here. It’s playing with fairy tales instead of just repeating the status quo; it’s women waking men from their slumber and giving them some kind of meaning in life, instead of the other way around. And that, I can kind of dig, even if I’m not that invested in the show as a whole.

Now "Revenge," though, here is a television show, my friends. Let me tell you. It’s almost operatic in terms of the sheer complexity of the plots, which apparently some viewers are complaining about, because they are spoilsports who do not fully comprehend the delight of a show you actually need to watch every week if you want to keep up with what is going on, and who clearly have no appreciation for grand drama3. It’s supposed to be byzantine in its complexity. For Pete’s sake, people, have you even read "The Count of Monte Cristo"?

The person at the center of the drama, instead of being some boring dude disappointed in love and immured inside a dank, dark prison for an extremely long time4, is instead the lovely Emily Thorne, determined to wreak vengeance on the people who destroyed her father’s career, and life. One by one, she takes them down, with each episode adding to the layering in the story as she weasels her way into the upper crust of Hamptons society to position herself. She’s crafty, she enlists capable assistants, and she’s unwavering in her mission even as a part of her understands that she’s also destroying herself.

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In other words, "Revenge" is the television show people would make if they were sitting around listening to me tell bedtime stories to coax myself into sleep. Which is probably why I love it so very much, because there are few things in this world that I am quite as hot for as revenge.

But really, I think you’d like it.

Both shows are helpfully available in online streaming if you have a hankering to catch up, or you’re like me and you don’t own a television; and for those who like to catch their television on television, "Once Upon A Time" airs on Sunday nights at 8 on ABC, and "Revenge" after the little ones have gone to bed at 10 on Wednesdays, also on ABC.


1. And I agree that when it comes to masterful television, the Brits really do have it down. Short seasons and defined ending points spare us endlessly unspooling drama to no apparent point, or, you know, 12 seasons of CSI.

2. Why on earth I think network television would suddenly decide to be nuanced and interesting, I have no idea, but hope springs eternal, etc.

3. It’s possible that I have an unfair advantage in this department, seeing as how I grew up steeped in opera and find few things as enjoyable as a full-length production of Turandot, an opera so long that even most hard core opera houses don’t attempt it in full.

4. Snoreasaurus, am I right?