What If Regina/The Evil Queen from “Once Upon A Time” Isn’t White?

As my internet husband Neo Prodigy will tell you, it’s been firmly established that I really do have A Thing for brilliant, powerful, assertive women, especially the ones with a dark beauty that you never find in the wholesome Goldilocks/Girl Next Door type.

Having said all that, one of the TV shows on my Must Watch list is ABC’s Once Upon A Time. And by Once Upon A Time, I mean Regina Mills/Evil Queen. I am so smitten with this beautiful, brilliant, powerful, damaged woman it’s almost sickening. You know how Gomez is when it comes to Morticia? I so fucking get that now (and envy the fact that their relationship is healthier than the vast majority of heterosexual romances).

Aside from the fact that Regina is the sun around which my viewing this show revolves, the chemistry between her and Emma Swan is so deliciously subtexty in its queerness that the show’s alternative title should be Henry’s Two Mommies.  Granted, if this show was produced by HBO, they’d be fucking by now, I’m willing to give ABC the benefit of the doubt. And when that fails, there’s always fandom and AU fic.

Now that I got that out of my system, let’s talk a bit about race and Regina/Evil Queen.

If you follow the show and the cast, you probably know that Regina/Evil Queen is played by Lana Parrilla, who is Puerto Rican/Italian. She grew up in Brooklyn and identifies as Puerto Rican (see here).

Look, this is Ars Marginal. We ain’t naive. We know that the show wants us to code Regina/Evil Queen as White. Especially since it’s never been explicitly stated that Regina Mills or the Evil Queen is “ethnic” in any way. Storybrooke, Maine is Whitebread, USA. Lana Parrilla is light enough to  pass for something vaguely Mediterranean or even Slavic (That is, if you have never seen a Puerto Rican in your whole life and get your ideas about what Latinos look and sound like from Speedy Gonzales).

Yet, although there is nothing explicitly “ethnic” about Regina Mills, there isn’t anything particularly White either. Nevertheless, the tendency is to default to Whiteness. Isn’t that interesting?

It could be argued that, due to the fact that Regina lacks racial identifiers and that her native land is composed of elements from Germanic and Disneyfied fairy tales, that we’re supposed to assume that she’s White. But in the show, the land of fairy tales is a cultural patchwork, as exemplified by the fact that the genie from Aladdin finds his way into King Leopold’s kingdom and nobody has any remarks about how “exotic and foreign” he is. It’s just, “He’s a genie from Agrabah. King Leopold freed him. He’s our guest.”

(Side note: Considering the history of the Moors in Europe, this is perhaps the most historically accurate element of this obviously fantastical series – and that’s saying something — mainly about neckbeards who act like people in ancient and medieval times stayed put in their little corners on the globe despite extensive evidence to the contrary).

Race, as a category or identity, is functionally meaningless in the Enchanted Forest. But it does mean something in our world. Without even mentioning it, even a show as rooted in fantasy as Once Upon A Time says something about race. Yet, I wonder: How does the meaning of Once Upon A Time change when we take race into account? What happens when we interpret Regina Mills as an educated, fair-skinned woman of color just like the actress who plays her? Is she then just a bad guy who needs to be defeated, or is she a person dealing with her circumstances in the ways she feels necessary?

If you look at the life Regina creates for herself in Storybrooke, it parallels a lot of the things that people of color have done to “pass” into Whiteness. Consider that Regina:

  • Is technically an immigrant
  • Moves to Whitebread USA
  • Takes a name so Anglicized that Shakespeare looks ethnic in comparison
  • Speaks English with flawless diction
  • Adopts a White kid
  • Does everything in her considerable power to keep the secret of her origins hidden

Consider the uncanny parallels between Regina Mills and Irene in Nella Larsen’s Passing.

Interestingly enough, another one of my favorite evil regals, Anna from the 2009 series V, is Brazilian. Many of the things I said about Regina also apply to Anna. Although Anna seems to be going for the Friendly Alien strategy, she still has to work to keep the truth about what she really is hidden from the Earthlings. In a way, Anna embodies the deepest xenophobic fears – that They will disguise themselves to seem Just Like Us then use that to conquer, dominate, and finally destroy us. It is interesting to note that, on V, the Visitors were often played by people of color while the Fifth Column was fairly melanin-challenged. For this reason, and because she treats Ryan’s daughter even better than her own hellspawn, I found myself rooting for Anna even as I cringed at what she did because, although Anna is a lot of things, she ain’t racist. Are the Visitors really bad for humans, or are they only bad for White people?

I hope that what this shows is how decentering Whiteness – by not automatically assigning it based on what we don’t know – leads to more enriched readings of characters and stories. Do you recall similar cases? What happens when you challenge the tendency to default to Whiteness when it comes to that character?

10 thoughts on “What If Regina/The Evil Queen from “Once Upon A Time” Isn’t White?

  1. It just sounds like Once Upon a Time is following the axiom I’ve been noting in most of my reviews.

    Which is to say that Hollywood casts non-WASPs as villains where they can’t really get away with casting obvious People of Color. While Ms. Mills is Latina, she is light enough that she can be considered “Exotic,” thus she can be cast in roles that don’t necessarily call out those features. But it still means that she will be cast more often as a villain or a foil, rather than as an overarching heroine…unfortunately.

    • That’s a pretty good theory.

      On the other hand, although “exotic” people of color are often cast as villains opposite their WASPy counterparts, they are often the most engaging and complex characters in their respective shows/movies. Not always, but often.

  2. While I knew about Ms. Baccarin being Brazilian, I was not aware that Ms. Parrilla was a woman of color and that’s very cool to discover. I have to second Heavy Armor’s comment in that the problem with casting WOC (even those who can pass for white or exotic Europeans) is that society’s baggage gets dumped on them as well.

    Prime example: Sherry Palmer from 24. Penny Johnson Herald is one of the most beautiful talented actresses you’ll ever find and even though the character could’ve just as easily have been portrayed by a white woman (in fact many conservatives likened her to Hilary Clinton), it played to the evil black b*tch trope.

    In comics and even in Smallville, one of the things I really appreciated about Martian Manhunter is that they have cast him as a person of color. On Smallville he was a black man.It was refreshing to see that white was not the default. Granted, from a strategic standpoint, if you want to infiltrate a society and maneuver unchecked, a cis straight white able-bodied male is the best course of action.

    That’s one of the things I loved about Isabelle from the 4400. She was the golden child per say who had this powerful destiny but those roles are usually reserved for white characters. Having a WOC be the resident badass on the show and change and evolve really showed a lot.

    That’s also why I”m a huge fan of Xavin from Runaways.

    Badass warrior shapeshifter.

    Badass warrior shapeshifter who portrays themselves as black.

    Badass warrior shapeshifter who portrays themselves as black and defies the gender binary and is genderqueer (and possibly trans?)

    Can we say win boys and girls?

    “Are the Visitors really bad for humans, or are they only bad for White people?”

    You know I often find myself asking that same question. Like if say the Cardassians invaded overturned the current power structure, I think they would be surprised by how much support they would get from POCs who are looking for change.

    • “You know I often find myself asking that same question. Like if say the Cardassians invaded overturned the current power structure, I think they would be surprised by how much support they would get from POCs who are looking for change.”

      Funny you mention that I’m just watching Deep Space Nine as we speak….I can’t comment as much (I was too young to understand the show and now I’m watching it from scratch.) But I was a POC who was at the front lines….In fact that’s what made the show stand out.

      But as for Queen from Once Upon a Time, now that i know that She his Boriquen. It reminds me of Kitana from Mortal Kombat Movie…..Now that I think of it in Television shows there is not enough elegant Woman of Color on TV.

  3. She isn’t cast as white… she was cast as a dark-skinned villain – standard fairy tales fare, where dark skin is evil and fair skin is good. Just like the actor playing ‘Sidney Glass’. See Mila Kunis in Oz the Great and Powerful for more of this. Its only in the last few decades that anyone would call either Kunis or Parrilla white.

  4. We know that the show wants us to code Regina/Evil Queen as White.
    I don’t agree that the show wants us to code Regina as white. After hiring Lana Parrilla to the role, they casted Tony Perez as her Dad, Henry Sr., Zak Santiago as Young Prince Henry, and Joaquim de Almeida as her granddad, King Xavier. They are all Latino actors. Altough Rose McGowen and Barbara Hershey, who played Regina’s mom are not Latinas, but in the show they (especielly Rose) looked like one. In The Miller’s Daughter Xavier’s kingdom looked like a “latino kingdom”. So it was strongly suggested that Regina Milles indeed is Latina (or at least half-Latina).
    Not that it counts, because race and racial differencies are not in the center of the show, most characters has universal characterestics, very few are defined by their race.

    • This comment comes waaaaay after the post was written, and it was after it came out that the showrunners told Lana Parrilla that the Evil Queen is Latina.

      So, thanks, but that’s old news.

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