No, this isn’t a post about Seungri, although if I were to talk about his latest mini-album, I could go on at length about its flawlessness. Go listen to it. Thank me later.
What I’m here to write about is the subject of love in popular fiction. This post was inspired by my reaction to the Once Upon a Time: In Wonderland pilot episode. Now, one of the most frustrating things about OUAT (and, so far, its spinoff) is the wasted potential. I suppose that’s what keeps me watching despite my frustration. The show had a very promising premise—fairy tales in the modern world. Being a TV series, OUAT had literally endless possibilities (barring cancellation, but that didn’t happen). Yet its continued refusal to engage the source material on any more than a surface level prevents the show from bringing anything meaningful or compelling to the table.
Part of the allure of bringing fairy tales into the modern world and an ostensibly more mature audience is the opportunity to flesh out the characters and grey-up the black-and-white, good-vs-evil mentality of the most well-known (read: Disneyfied) versions of them(as an ironic aside, pre-Disney versions of many fairy tales were frequently darker, more complex, and far less family-friendly despite being tales supposedly for children). Yet for the most part, OUAT keeps its iterations of the characters and their relationships stubbornly simplistic. The only characters on the show with any real depth or development are, ironically, the villains—and it’s no surprise that Regina and Rumplestiltskin seem to have the biggest online fan followings. This tendency suggests an attitude among the writing staff that villains must necessarily be more layered in order for audiences to accept them, but heroes will be accepted at face value purely on the basis of their being the heroes.
This attitude carries over to a central plot thread of OUAT, and that thread is love—be it romantic, familial, or platonic. Love is redeeming when it is selfless and when it is kind; it is tragic when it is selfish or misguided. Villains and heroes are sorted out primarily due to this distinction. After all, both Regina and Rumple started out as good people. They only became villains after a relationship ended in tragedy, usually due to their own misdeeds. Ironically, this loss, and the way it changed them, humanizes them more than the protagonists, whose unfailing goodness, kindness, and selflessness prevents them for being much more than two-dimensional props. Snow’s complicity in Cora’s death is pretty much the only ambiguity or nuance we are allowed to see in our heroes, and as far as I am concerned, it was too little too late and was glossed over far too quickly.
One of the driving forces of the early seasons was Snow White and Prince Charming’s star-crossed love, which the writers wisely wrapped up given how tedious their “I will find you” routine eventually became. I believe the reason Snow and Charming’s relationship failed to resonate with fans is because it was taken too much for granted by the writers that fans would accept their love as epic because… well, because. Everyone knows the story of Snow White. Everyone knows Snow and Charming are True Luv with a capital L. However, I remain firm in my belief that that doesn’t give the writers a “get out of jail free” card for developing the characters or the relationship. They were more than willing to embellish the characters of Regina and Rumple, after all. So why are our supposed heroes locked firmly in the most shallow and two-dimensional of interpretations?
And this is exactly what went wrong with OUAT: In Wonderland, dialed up to 1000. The writers have clearly shown how limited their perspective and abilities are, considering that the main OUAT: In Wonderland romance is basically a rehash of Snow/Charming. Since Alice’s story isn’t centered around romance the way Snow White’s is, the writers shoehorned in a love story in the most obtrusive and contrived manner. A love interest was created for Alice, a genie named Cyrus, and their star-crossed romance supplies her primary motivation—Alice literally has no will to go on (she submits to a frontal lobodomy in a gothic, throwback mental institution like something out of a horror film) until a male character rescues her and informs her that Cyrus might still be alive. Then she fights back. OK. Despite the obvious anti-feminist implications, it’s just lazy writing. We are supposed to be invested enough in Alice and Cyrus’s romance to feel any emotional impact based upon what? Two scenes together? No, really. The show gave us two scenes to establish this epic romance—one in which they meet, and one in which he proposes (and is subsequently killed by the evil queen). We are told, not shown, that they are in love, and expected to accept this as the show’s central premise.
This is a phenomenon frequently referred to within book reviewing circles as “Insta-Luv.” Unfortunately, Insta-Luv is all too frequent in popular fiction as well, particularly YA. It seems the author is so eager to get to the external obstacles cruelly tearing this couple apart that they can’t be bothered to actually show us why we’re supposed to care. We’re seldom shown any significant interaction between them, any signs of compatibility or chemistry beyond physical attraction. It’s assumed that because we know these people will be in love—either because they’re fairy tale characters embedded in public consciousness or because they’re the two leads—that we will just accept it. This is why I remain convinced that the resonance of romances based upon Insta-Luv—Twilight’s Bella and Edward being the most recent example—is because of the idea they present, and not the actual characters. Fans are enamored of star-crossed romance in general, not these particular characters. And I guess that’s OK, if it’s what they like. But as a reader, I’ve never been willing to just accept things because I’m told that they’re so. I need textual evidence that this universe is plausible, that this scenario makes sense, that this couple are compatible in more ways than simply being meant to be. You need to sell it to me or I’m not buying.
And that’s why Insta-Luv-based romances in popular fiction fall flat to me. While I do understand the allure of the soulmate trope—that everyone has a partner they’re destined to be with—simply being “meant to be” isn’t a good enough foundation to build a romance on. In real life, relationships are complicated, and even in fairy tales, I don’t believe it’s asking too much for that kind of complexity to at least be partially reflected. To give an example of a fairy tale adaptation that gets it right, the movie Ever After does an excellent job of engaging the soulmate trope without resorting to Insta-Luv. The idea of Danielle and Henry being soulmates is floated to the audience via dialogue between the characters, but we are given many scenes showing why these two are such a good match for each other. In a wonderfully constructed scene, our fairy godmother (Leonardo DaVinci) explains this to Henry (and the audience). Even though we know how the Cinderella story goes, we invest in and care about these characters because the writers have made them feel like real people, and thus their relationship feels real as well.
I can see why so many writers resort to Insta-Luv. Maybe the writer themselves knows the characters so well, the romance makes sense to them, and they forget that the audience doesn’t know these characters the way they do. Or maybe, as I suggested earlier, they just want to write a story of star-crossed love without actually developing the romance, because writing a love story is hard, y’all. And while this might work for some readers (or viewers) who are enamored enough of the idea of star-crossed love that the particulars aren’t all that important to them, it gets really old for the rest of us, and I don’t believe it’s too much to ask to expect more. When the villains (and their romances) come off as more well-drawn and believable than the heroes, I think it’s safe to assume the writers are dropping the ball. Maybe the mainstream success of shallow, Inta-Luv romances like Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey have set the bar really low, but that’s no great feat to aspire to. Set the bar higher, writers (and readers). All y’all are better than that.