Disability in Once Upon a Time

(The following contains major spoilers for Once Upon a Time episode 8, Desperate Souls.)

Sure, it’s a bit cheesy, campy, and some of the characters’ acting makes you wince at times (I’m looking at you Regina), but since the first episode, I’ve fallen in love with ABC’s Once Upon a Time. I have a weakness for fairytales and a thirst for ones that are retold and I find that this show retells it quite imaginatively. The show switches between a modern day world and a complete and utter fantasy land. Characters like Red Riding Hood, Jiminy Cricket, Cinderella, and Snow White populate both worlds.

As does a certain man called Rumplestiltskin in the fantasy world and Mr. Gold in the modern day world. Since the first episode, Rumplestiltskin is a wiry man with an eerie smile who looks completely able-bodied. But in the modern world, Mr. Gold is a wiry man with an eerie smile who walks with a cane. The cane is obviously not for show and the way the actor moves with the cane it is very convincing that Mr. Gold is not an able-bodied man.

I’ve been withholding my judgment and thoughts about Gold’s cane. I have been worried that the cane was the sign of his evilness in the modern day world (and I’ve never been convinced that he’s completely evil either). I’m glad that I’ve kept from a knee jerk reaction, and I have appreciated that in the modern day world, Mr. Gold has a cane and the people around him treat it as a perfectly natural thing. Gold is shown going places and at one point he’s even deep into the woods. There’s no mess and fuss about how Gold doesn’t let his disability stop him. He’s not portrayed as a ‘supercrip’. He’s not portrayed as a bitter man, upset that he’s disabled.

He’s a man who uses a cane. The cane is secondary.

But of course, this is a fairy-tale retelling. If there’s anything slightly out of the ordinary, there’s going to be a reason for it. And by “Desperate Souls” we finally learn why Mr. Gold is shown with a cane but Rumplestiltskin is not.

Sort of, anyway.

The episode begins and we see Rumplestiltskin who looks a lot less creepy than usual. In fact, he looks downright normal. (Up to this point, there’s been something really strange about Rumplestiltskin’s skin texture.) And we find him leaning heavily on a walking stick. I’m rather proud that I didn’t immediately assume that Rumplestiltskin was soon going to find a miracle cure. The episode never allowed that thought to grow.

We learn the Rumplestiltskin ran from war and that he’s a single father desperate to keep his almost fourteen-year-old son from being taken to fight. He takes his son and runs. And here’s another thing I appreciated about this episode, even though Rumplestiltskin couldn’t physically run, there’s no awkward mish-mash of words to describe what they’re doing without using the word ‘run’. Nope. They are running.

When they’re caught by one of the king’s men, the first insult is based on Rumplestiltskin’s name. Only the second insult (“hobblefoot”) is based on his disability.

Rumplestiltskin is not angry because he’s disabled, he’s angry because he has no power to save his son. He has no money, no status, and no power.

Where most stories would focus on the limiting factor of disability, Once Upon a Time does not. Rumplestiltskin searches for a dagger that would give him power, power to protect his son. There’s no mention of curing his disability.

And when he steals the dagger and does get the power, he is healed, but once again, it’s considered a secondary thing. And there’s no fuss raised about how he is healed. In fact, no one explicitly mentions it. There’s no hurrahs, there’s no awe and no shock.

It’s rather brilliant, really. In Once Upon a Time, disability just is. It’s shown as a perfectly normal part of life. The character who is disabled is a recurring character who plays a rather large role. He’s not a one-off character. He’s not teaching any lesson. You’re not supposed to pity him for having a disability. And even if he is shaping up to be more of an evil character (I’m still thinking of him as a morally gray character) he’s still very human. He’s not a cardboard cut-out of offensive stereotypes.

While in the fantasy world, Rumplestiltskin is healed (and becoming darker), in the modern world, Mr. Gold is still using his cane as if it is the most natural thing in the world.

Which it is.

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7 Responses to Disability in Once Upon a Time

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