I have really enjoyed the last three seasons of Once Upon a Time. Let’s be clear about that up front. I’ve been watching from the beginning, sure that the whole thing would be a mess. I mean, the premise sounded ridiculous on its surface: “So a magical curse sends a bunch of fairy tales characters to a small town in Maine and the town can only be saved by a bounty hunter and a small boy armed with a storybook.” Instead, we got a show that, while fanciful, had strongly drawn and complex characters (especially in its villains), a storyline that was both involving and far-sighted, and production values that, unlike its ill-fated spin-off, were quite good. Add to that the solid-to-excellent acting, and OUaT has been a most consistent winner. Can you hear the “but…” coming? There is one thing that has bothered me almost from the beginning of the show. The twelfth episode, “Skin Deep,” to be exact. In it, we see Rumplestiltskin take on another of what will be many fairytale allusions he eventually represents—that of Beast in the show’s version of the Beauty and the Beast storyline. In it, Sir Maurice’s small fiefdom is under attack in the Ogre Wars, and he reaches out to Rumple for help. When the Dark One appears, he agrees to save the kingdom for a price: he is looking for a caretaker for his castle and says he wants Maurice’s daughter Belle for the role. She must leave behind her friends and family forever in order to live with him; otherwise, her father’s kingdom will succumb to the Ogre threat. Sir Maurice and Gaston, Belle’s fiancé, object to such a deal, of course. But Belle responds that “No one decides my fate but me,” and agrees to sacrifice herself, partly because, faux-proto-feminist that she is, she feels that women should also be allowed to be “brave”—not recognizing that women have been “allowed” to give up any chance at personal happiness to secure such military arrangements pretty much from the dawn of time. Once at Rumple’s palace, she must deal not only with the demands of cleaning a large castle (although we only see three or so rooms), but she is forced to sleep in the dungeon and is subject to the often-violent moodiness of her new master, complete with his “jokes” about having her complete horrific tasks like skinning those he kills. She, however, kind soul that she is, attempts to bond with the monster who keeps her locked up, and he, touched by that kindness, relents in his wickedness just enough to give her a chance at escape. He sends her to town ostensibly to secure more straw for his spinning, but with the clear message that he expects never to see her again. And it appears he might not have, had Regina not intervened. The Evil Queen, meeting her on the road, pretends to recognize her dilemma. “You’re running from someone. Master or lover?” she asks Belle. When Belle does not immediately answer, Regina does so for her: “Oh…master and lover.” Belle admits that she may have fallen for the monster. “I could love him, but something evil has taken root in him,” she tells Regina, her use of the passive voice relieving Rumple of any personal responsibility for his own misdeeds. The Evil Queen lets drop that such a man might be redeemed by True Love’s Kiss—OUaT’s panacea—but that “I would never suggest that a young woman kiss a man who held her captive. What kind of message is that?!?” What kind of message, indeed? And when Belle, upon her return, does kiss Rumple, thus threatening his status as the Dark One, he responds brutally, shoving her away from him, and tossing her back into the dungeon, screaming at her the whole time. She calls him a coward, but he responds simply that “My power means more to me than you.” Which will, in fact, be the very thing that will end up defining their relationship. Because while Rumple does realize, once Regina has effectively separated the two, that he does love Belle and spends great time and energy trying to find her, once he does, the two fall into a very specific (and fairly recognizable) pattern. And that pattern is one common in domestic abuse: there is an abusive incident and the victim attempts to escape. The abuser then either escalates the abuse or entirely changes his approach—often by rationalizing his behavior, and expressing remorse and a desire to change, thus consciously or sub-consciously lying to and/or manipulating his victim. The victim is initially skittish but, believing the abuser is willing to change out of love for her–or because of her love for him–eventually succumbs and goes back. There is peace for a while, and then the cycle begins anew. [Note: domestic abuse can occur between any genders, but since we are discussing a specific example, I’m using he/him for the abuser and she/her for the victim.] We see this pattern most clearly in “The Crocodile.” By the beginning of this episode, Belle and Rumple are in a relationship (albeit one that isolates her to an extent from most of Storybrooke, who are not as enamored of Rumple as she is). In the earlier “Broken,” when Belle had told Rumple that Regina had imprisoned her for the 20+ years of the town’s existence, she also makes him promise that he will not kill Regina in retaliation. He technically keeps his promise, using a Wraith to carry out his revenge on the Evil Queen, but Belle has made it clear that she feels betrayed and sees his need for magic as the root of his problem. When “The Crocodile” opens, Belle is dreaming of Rumple promising to take her out for a romantic evening, but then turning violent when Dreamy shows up at the shop looking for something. She tries to stop her lover, telling him that this is not who he is anymore, but he turns to her, in his Dark One face, and tells her this is exactly who he is, “Always have been. Always will be.” Belle wakes up and goes in search of Rumple only to find him in the basement doing magic. She later confronts him, but he does not take her objections seriously, and she leaves. Near the end of the episode, Rumple arranges for her to take over the library—which, of course, appeals greatly to bibliophile Belle—and shows up to apologize, explain his actions, and tell her that he does, indeed, love her (despite his many actions to the contrary). And before he can even leave the library, she relents, inviting him out on a date, and soon after, they are back together. Now I recognize that Once Upon a Time is a show about redemption, and specifically, redemption of characters generally seen as villains. And of course, any healthy relationship has misunderstandings and moments when forgiveness is necessary. So had this been the end of it, perhaps there would be no reason to be concerned about the Rumbelle relationship. But that has very much not been the case. Rumple has continued to lie to Belle, either directly, or through omission, for most of the show. In fact, this recently culminated in perhaps one of the biggest, and certainly the most personal, of all betrayals on the show. Rumple’s magic is tied to a dagger that bears his name. Whoever possesses that dagger essentially controls him (or at least the power that he has). When Regina, near the end of the third season, gives Belle the dagger, Belle turns around and gives it to Rumple. He is supposedly so touched by her trust in him, he gives the dagger back into her safe-keeping (effectively placing himself under her control) and proposes. Except that the dagger in Belle’s possession is not the true one. Rumple has kept that for himself, giving Belle a copy, and uses the real one to deal with Zelena in a deadly fashion. When he and Belle eventually marry, he says his vows with full knowledge that he has deceived her and with the intent to continue to do so, all while fostering the belief in her that she has reformed him. Her earlier comment to Red that she is something of “an expert on rehabilitation” is, in retrospect, a frightening indicator of just how delusional she is when it comes to her lover. Now, I am not against portraying such unhealthy relationships on television. In fact, I think it’s important to do so. With so much misunderstanding about what domestic abuse is, and so many people still willing to engage in victim-blaming by demanding to know “if it was so bad, why did she stay?” it’s vital that we as a culture gain better insight into how these relationships work in order to be able to recognize them when they occur in our own lives and to create attitudes and infrastructures that help empower victims to get out. So am I saying that the Rumbelle relationship is domestic abuse? Not exactly. What I am saying is that it contains some of the features, especially early on, of classic domestic abuse. I am also saying that it portrays the cyclical psychology of such a relationship. And while Rumple has not been physically abusive of Belle since early on in their relationship, he has surrounded her with his violence (his beating on Hook particularly stands out). He puts her through emotional trauma as he moves back and forth between his better and worse halves. And he has, and continues, to manipulate her. And all of this while professing to love her. The commonalities are disturbing. But what is perhaps most disturbing is that Rumbelle is the most popular romantic pairing on the show. It is held up as aspirational, and Rumbelle fans are sometimes vicious in their defense of the pair. And I am not judging those who love the relationship. I can’t, because I am one of them. I see much of what they see. A good deal of it is the magnetism of Robert Carlyle and the admirable way he portrays a deeply flawed and deeply human character. There’s also the bad-boy element which, when combined with actual love (there’s no doubt that Rumple loves Belle, only in how healthily he does it, and what priority it has in his life), is hard to resist. And Belle, despite her possibly damning naivety, is such a kind and understanding soul, someone whose essential goodness is really admirable. But again, we are idealizing a relationship founded on enslavement, rife with unhealthy drama, and now cemented in manipulation and lies. And one that seems essentially unsafe, even to the actor playing Rumple. This summer, I was able to ask Robert Carlyle about this very thing, pointing out that the relationship shows some elements of domestic abuse and asking him if he feels that Belle is safe with Rumple. He responded, “No, nobody is. He’s an addict. He’s addicted to the dagger/the power/the magic/whatever it is, and he’s been practicing that for hundreds of years. I don’t think he doesn’t mean the things he says. He loves Belle and he does mean what he says. On the other hand, it’s very, very difficult to give up (that power). A leopard doesn’t change his spots, certainly not overnight. I think this relationship has got a long way to go to come out the other end.” [Note: To be fair, I have also asked this question of one of the regular writers of the show who said she feels Belle is safe with Rumple, but that was two seasons ago, so I’m not sure whether her answer would still hold at this point considering some of the things we’ve seen since the second season. I suppose only Kitsis and Horowitz know for sure.] But it is certainly telling that Carlyle brings up addiction, since it should surprise no one that there is a strong correlation between domestic abuse and addiction. So is the Rumbelle relationship dangerous in and of itself? That is, does the way the show portrays the pairing give us a potentially harmful view of what constitutes an acceptable romantic relationship? I think that depends a lot on how you look at it, literally. Because the writers on OUaT don’t pull punches when it comes to depicting Rumple’s weakness and temper. It’s all on display, as is his tendency to lie and cheat to avoid taking responsibility with Belle. Rumple gives excuses, but it is entirely up to us as viewers to decide whether we, knowing what we do about him (which is generally a good deal more than Belle), are willing to forgive him. If I were to describe to the average Rumbelle fan the behavior that this character has indulged in as what my boyfriend had done to me (minus the magic, of course), I firmly believe that she would tell me to run fast and far to get away from someone who would treat me in that way. But the very fact that I even mentioned domestic abuse in reference to the Rumbelle relationship in my question to Carlyle sent many fans into internet apoplexy, all of them quick to defend that pairing by pointing out that she can leave whenever she wants to, thus it can’t be domestic abuse. The idea that a victim’s ability to leave is what defines something as domestic abuse is shocking when we look at the reality of such relationships. While some victims have very real reasons not to leave (threats of violence, financial issues, paralyzing fear of losing custody of their children, etc.), in other cases, they absolutely can. What keeps them from walking out the door isn’t the practical considerations. It’s love. It’s the belief that their partner can, and will, change. It’s the hope that the person they love will eventually come to his senses and find redemption in that love. It’s what Belle and Rumbelle fans so much want to believe of Rumple. Even me. Even now. At the end of this year’s mid-season finale, “Heroes and Villians,” we got to see Belle ostensibly come to her senses when she realizes that the dagger he had given her was not the real one. Using the actual dagger, she forces Rumple out of Storybrooke and over the line that will keep him from ever returning. Belle: I thought I saw something (in you), something good. I found that gauntlet today, and that’s when I finally realized that all the signs I’d been seeing were correct. You’d never give up power for me, Rumple. You never have. You never will. (Notice how her words here play off the Dark One’s in Belle’s earlier dream in “The Crocodile”: “Always have been. Always will be.”) Your true love is the power. Rumple: I like the power. And there’s nothing wrong with power when it means that I…that we…can have it all. Belle: I tried to be everything for you, Rumple. But I wasn’t. And I lost my way trying to help you find yourself. Not anymore. Rumple: Please, Belle, I’ll make it up to you. I’ve changed once before. I can do it again. Belle: You’ve never changed. Rumple: Please. Belle: No, it’s too late. Once I saw the man behind the beast. Now, there’s only the beast. Rumple: I don’t want to lose you. Belle: You already have. Except we know that he hasn’t. No one who watches the show believes that he won’t be back, that he won’t truly learn the error of his ways, and that he and Belle won’t eventually be reunited in happily-ever-after bliss. It is almost certain that–baring an eleventh-hour cancellation–Kitsis and Horowitz will give Rumple (and Regina, for that matter) that longed-for redemption. The problem is what this redemption suggests about such relationships in real life. It is possible for real situations of domestic abuse to end well. Abusers do sometimes recognize the error of their ways, get help, and go on to have healthy relationships. But such things are exceedingly rare. Which is why we, as viewers, have to remember that OUaT is not reality. It’s a fairy tale in which magic is a real and vital force, and love solves everything. Neither of those is true outside of Storybrooke; there is no magic, even in love, that will save the women and men who suffer actual abuse at the hands of someone they care for. When we look at Rumbelle and wish ourselves into that fantasy, we have to acknowledge just how much of a fantasy it truly is. Because all too often, outside of Storybrooke, it’s the very fantasy of what-might-be—this time he might mean it, he might finally change–that helps keep people victims of all-too-real abuse. Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.