On Friday night, the season 7 debut of Once Upon A Time will look very similar to the long-running ABC drama’s previous season premieres, despite news of the series’ soft reboot. Veteran cast members Lana Parrilla, Colin O'Donoghue, and Robert Carlyle will all be present during opener “Hyperion Heights.” There will be travel through realms, a curse, and reimagined classic Disney characters. The latter of those three OUAT staples is what fills my heart with hope. When Once returns, it will have a brand new Cinderella. And, that Cinderella (Dania Ramirez) will be a sword-wielding, ass-kicking, motorcycle-riding Latina woman. The new Cinderella will be everything I, as an Afro-Latina millennial, could have ever wanted as a little girl.
The original six seasons of Once had a Cinderella (Jessy Schram) of its own. She was one of the cursed fairy tale characters residing in Storybrooke against her will. In the Enchanted Forest, Cinderella was a beautiful young blonde woman who went to a ball and fell in love with a prince; you know this story. The traditional OUAT twist is Cinderella ended up getting to the ball by way of Rumpelstiltskin's magic, instead of her fairy godmother’s, because Rumple (Carlyle) murdered the kindly fairy (Catherine Lough Haggquist) with a fireball. While that curveball was a very-Once update to the traditional Disney tale, there is nothing revolutionary there. Dania Ramirez’s brand-new Latina Cinderella, however, comes from entirely different realm and "book," in OUAT parlance, than the one fans have seen over the last six years. This Cinderella might not even be going to the ball to find her romantic happily ever after.
"We’re going to take a completely different perspective. Like why is Cinderella going to the ball?" the Dominican Republic-born, onesie-clad Ramirez asked during a roundtable interview with journalists on the OUAT set in Vancouver, Canada. "This is a different Cinderella. She’s had different struggles in her life. She’s a badass — and edgy."
Just how edgy is this Cinderella? As the unexpected season 7 poster shows, she's going to hop on Henry Mills' motorcycle and ride it through one of the dreamy, vaguely blue forests we’ve seen in Once promos since 2011. While the hog belongs to an adult Henry (Andrew West), the aged-up character is conspicuously missing from the shot; Cinderella is alone with the wind blowing through her decidedly thick, curly, brown hair.
I don’t want to toot my own horn, but you don’t want to mess with me. Especially when I have a sword.
When I was a little girl with similarly thick, curly, brown hair, my parents, like many parents in the mid-to-late 1990s, took me to Disney World. As we walked through the park, all I wanted was to meet Princess Jasmine. At that time, she was one of the two "official" princesses whose melanin levels came close to that of my permanent Afro-Latina tan. It's not like Brandy's 1997 version of Cinderella was wandering around Magic Kingdom. But, Jasmine wasn’t available, and I spent a major chunk of my time in the Happiest Place On Earth sobbing. That’s because representation matters. Seeing yourself in Disney royalty — even when you know it’s magic that only lives in TV screens and books — matters. While it’s great that young white girls prone flights of princess fancy in the '90s grew up choosing if they wanted to be Cinderella or Snow White, Belle or Ariel, children like me were desperate to see any piece of themselves in the characters onscreen, no matter how small the similarity.
That’s why Ramirez's Cinderella is such a welcome sight on Once Upon A Time. She’s unabashedly Latina, with her slight Dominican lilt that producers clearly never told her to hide, and her cursed, real-world bound altero-ego’s name, which is Jacinda. When Ramirez herself speaks about her character, she even pronounces it with the Spanish version of the "J," which makes an "H" sound for us Americans: Hacinda. With the introduction of Cinderella-slash-Jacinda, little Latina girls will not only get a princess who looks like them, but one who shows them princesses, and therefore women at large, are a force to be reckoned with too. After all, fairy-tale princesses are simply one of the first forms of hyper-femininity society introduces us to.
"It’s about her standing up to how she’s been wronged instead of being a damsel in distress," Ramirez explained in Vancouver. "She’s more empowered; that’s really relevant in today’s world with girls and women … It’s not just the princess trying to get married to a prince. It’s really [Cinderella] standing up for herself and figuring life out." If you’re already getting Kill Bill vibes from this description of the new Cinderella, you’re not imagining things. Sounding an awful lot like Beatrix "Black Mamba" Kiddo, Ramirez added, "I get to sword fight and be a badass … I don’t want to toot my own horn, but you don’t want to mess with me. Especially when I have a sword."
Ramirez’s co-stars seem equally excited to see this feminist version of the character kick butt through season 7, all while rocking a massive ball gown. Reformed Evil Queen and original Once star Lana Parrilla mused over the idea of a little girl who already loves Cinderella tuning into OUAT and seeing the princess portrayed as a Latina woman riding a motorcycle and "kicking ass." The Brooklyn-born Puerto Rican actress said, "Cinderella becomes not only her favorite princess, but now, Cinderella is a badass, confident, strong princess. A strong woman ... It’s critical we show and inspire the young Latinas you can be a badass princess too. "
Some might question whether seeing Ramirez’s “turned on its head” edition of Cinderella, as new OUAT villainess Gabrielle Anwar put it, really has the ability to influence young women’s lives, but those people probably haven’t spoken to a Once fan. Parrilla pointed out the fact that young women who grew up watching the series, and the complicated journeys of its many heroines, have been changed by these complex portrayals of womanhood. “I love seeing these young girls who have grown up watching the show and have found an inner strength and confidence and power within [because of it],” the first series villain-turned-leading lady said. “I’ve talked to so many of them over the years and ... I’ve seen them succeed and really pull out of really tragic, unfortunate circumstances. They have blossomed into independent strong self-reliant women. It’s amazing, and they do credit the show.”
It's time to wish upon a star this means there will be a legion of young Latina OUAT fans waiting to drive their own motorcycles, fight their own battles, and chase their own dreams. That's a future even the most evil of queens can get behind.
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