On Once Upon a Time, there are a multitude of female characters that are strong individuals in their own right, apart from their gender, which often leaves women to serve as a token female character. There is Emma Swan, the main character, Regina Mills/the Evil Queen, Snow White/Mary Margaret and Belle.
The main character, Emma Swan, is a good example of a strong character and the one we will discuss. She is independent and self-sufficient, yet still has considerable flaws, among them being deeply cut off from other people. She doesn’t depend on men in any way, and doesn’t make decisions based on possible repercussions with a love interest, which is very rare on television.
Emma starts out in the pilot episode as a very tough person who isn’t easily pushed around, yet also has no one. We see her celebrating her 28th birthday alone in her apartment. When a young boy shows up at her apartment and says he is the son she gave up for adoption, she is surprised, but takes him back to his home more out of a sense of obligation than a desire to create a relationship with him.
It is in this change of heart, as Emma begins to open up to the possibility of forming a relationship with her son, Henry, that we start to see both her vulnerable, maternal side and her strength of character as she takes it upon herself to protect him from his adoptive mother, Regina, the town mayor, who also, unbeknownst to Emma, happens to be the Evil Queen. When Henry tells Emma that everyone in town is really a cursed fairy tale character, and that Emma is the savior that will let everyone remember who they really are, she becomes very concerned about his psychological state, and makes the decision to put her son first and stay in Storybrooke.
It is at this point that Emma’s strength as a character becomes more multi-dimensional and really begins to develop layers. Regina sees Emma as a threat to her relationship with Henry and wants to get her to leave town. This creates a constant back and forth between the two women, and it shows their true natures, as Emma always wants to do the thing that is best for Henry, while Regina always wants to do the thing that is best for Regina. This is demonstrated when Emma tells Henry that she gave him up as a baby because she wanted him “to have his best chance.”
At the end of season one, Emma has to demonstrate a different kind of strength when Henry eats an apple pastry with a sleeping curse in it that was intended for Emma. This forces Emma to accept that Henry’s story about the sleeping curse is true, as it’s her only option to save him, as the doctors can find nothing wrong. In an attempt to cure Henry, Emma ends up fighting a dragon with a sword, only to have any cure lost as she is betrayed. When she finally breaks the curse with true love’s kiss, born of true love for her son rather than a romantic partner, it breaks the curse on the entire town.
Season two brings a new set of challenges for Emma. She is reunited with her parents, but has many issues with them because she grew up thinking she was abandoned. Her parents are the same age as her physically, as a result of the curse, and that has to be awkward. That’s weird enough for anyone to adjust to without any other predicaments to address.
The next challenge comes when Emma and Snow White are sucked into a portal and transported back to Fairytale Land, where Emma finds herself out of place and forced to adapt to the new situation. She is able to do so and maintain her strength of character and sense of leadership.
When Emma and Snow White do make it back to Storybrooke, there is a yet another challenge for Emma, as Mr. Gold wants to find his son, who Emma doesn’t realize is also Henry’s father, a man she told Henry was dead.
This brings Emma’s very human faults to the forefront as Henry is understandably upset that he was lied to and feels like Emma has treated him the same way Regina did, leaving him feeling betrayed by both of the mothers in his life.
Emma seems to still have feelings for Neal, Henry’s father, but she doesn’t really let on about them, and when she find out he is engaged, she just ignores the entire situation. Whether that is the best reaction is debatable, but it doesn’t turn into some ridiculous soap opera with a lot of relationship drama between Emma and Neal.
Emma does go searching to find out what Neal’s fiancé, Tamara, is up to, as she suspects Tamara has a secret. As it turns out, she is correct, so it doesn’t really fall into the category of crazy behavior, but rather good intuition. As the saying goes, you’re not paranoid of someone is really out to get you. This speaks to the show maintaining continuity, as Emma’s ability to read people was first established in the pilot.
In the season two finale, Henry is kidnapped and brought to a fairytale land, likely NeverLand, and now Emma, with help from her parents, Hook and Mr. Gold, has to find him, which is where we have left off with Emma.
This post was originally posted before season three premiered and will be updated to reflect recent episodes.