True love isn’t easy, but it must be fought for. Because once you find it, it can never be replaced.
Once Upon a Time doesn’t play by the centuries-old rules of fairytale lore, and the show takes pride in that. Rumplestiltskin is also Belle’s Beast, Jack who climbs the beanstalk is actually a woman, and Snow White threatens the Evil Queen with a sword at her wedding ceremony. But perhaps the most important fairytale makeover this show has presented to audiences is the way it handles the concept of “true love.” The way true love is defined on Once Upon a Time—as an empowering force for good and something that requires effort and acceptance to achieve and maintain (and as something that doesn’t have to be romantic to be true)—should be one of the show’s enduring legacies.
The entire premise of Once Upon a Time is built around the idea of what happens after the “happily ever after.” What happened after Prince Charming woke Snow White from the queen’s sleeping curse? It turns out, a lot of things happened—even before their wedding—that tested and strengthened their love. On Once Upon a Time, true love isn’t something that is achieved and makes everything perfect in both your relationship and your life in general. True love requires teamwork. That’s what Snow and Charming are; they’re a team. They fight side-by-side for more than just their love; they fight for their kingdom. They don’t always agree, and their love isn’t a magical solution to all of their problems. But the support they give to one another is a defining part of their “true love.” Even when things are falling apart around them, they can rely on each other, knowing that the other has their back. True love doesn’t conquer all, but it gives you someone to take on life’s challenges beside you. And that’s a much more realistic story than one in which a prince and princess ride off into the sunset and never have any problems because they have true love.
The reason why Snow and Charming are able to both win so many battles and withstand so many losses is because they have someone who they know is by their side in both victory and defeat. Their true love is unconditional—it’s a love between two people who accept the other for who they really are, both the good and the bad. Charming and Snow met at a time when she was at her most cynical, and he still fell in love with her after she robbed him and hit him over the head with a rock. Even when Snow confessed her “darkened heart” to Charming in Season Two’s “Selfless, Brave, and True,” he didn’t judge her or stop loving her. Instead, he promised to help her believe in her own goodness again because that’s what true love is—it’s something that inspires both parties to be their best selves.
The same can be said of Rumplestiltskin and Belle’s true love. Rumplestiltskin’s phone call to Belle in Season Two’s “The Miller’s Daughter” was one of the show’s most romantic moments because it showed the way true love is built upon seeing a person for who they really are, even when they have lost their sense of self:
You are a hero who helped your people. You are a beautiful woman who loved an ugly man—really, really, loved me. You find goodness in others, and when it’s not there, you create it. You make me want to go back—back to the best version of me… And that’s never happened before. So when you look in the mirror, and you don’t know who you are—that’s who you are.
Belle is not a hero in the sword-wielding, warrior way of many princesses in the Once Upon a Time universe, but she is still a hero to both her people and to Rumplestiltskin. In this moment, we are presented with a man who not only understands but appreciates this woman for who she is at her core. And he also appreciates the impact her love has had on him. Loving Belle makes Rumplestiltskin want to be his best self. He’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, and Belle has seen his flaws firsthand—but she still chose to love him for the good but broken man she knew he once was and could be again. That was the real tragedy of the “Lacey” storyline—both Belle and Rumplestiltskin lost themselves, tainting their true love with an attraction to the worst parts of who they were instead of the best.
Letting Lacey fall in love with his dark side was an easier path for Rumplestiltskin, but true love in the Once Upon a Time universe isn’t easy. It’s not as simple as a guy sharing one dance with a girl at a ball and the glass slipper fitting the right foot. True love is about the journey—Snow and Charming getting to know one another on the road to the troll bridge, Belle and Rumplestiltskin bonding during the time she was in his castle, and Emma and Henry spending a whole season working on Operation Cobra together.
The journey to true love is also about the journey to believing you’re worthy of true love, and that’s not something most fairytales want to talk about. Emma’s whole journey as a character is about accepting love from others, and that began with believing she could both love and be loved by the son she gave up for adoption. Rumplestiltskin’s curse began to break when Belle kissed him because, for a moment, he finally believed someone could love him for exactly who he was. But the moment he let his fear and self-loathing take over his thoughts again, he pushed her away, and his curse remained. And when Snow took the potion to remove Charming from her memory in Season One’s “Heart of Darkness,” she lost all memories of being worthy of love, which caused her to embrace the darkest parts of her heart. It was only when Charming proved that he was willing to die for her that she began to believe someone could love her as much as he did. That’s why their kiss awakened her memories of her true self—because she believed she was worthy of love, and she chose to accept that love from Charming.
True love cannot be forced in the world of Once Upon a Time. That’s the reason why true love’s kiss doesn’t work when one of the parties has lost their memory. Both parties must love each other in order for it to work. Consent matters in the world of Once Upon a Time, and when the male characters try to use true love’s kiss on female characters without their consent, the result is disastrous. From Charming getting knocked out by Snow and Belle screaming in Rumplestiltskin’s face to Emma kneeing Hook in the groin, the ladies of Once Upon a Time don’t take kindly to being kissed without their consent, and that’s the way it should be.
The ladies of Once Upon a Time get to do plenty of the true love’s kissing themselves, too. In fact, the majority of curse-breaking kisses on this show have been ones initiated by women. It’s Snow’s decision to accept Charming’s love and to kiss him in “Heart of Darkness.” It’s Belle who kisses Rumplestiltskin for the first time. And it’s Snow again who wakes her husband from his sleeping curse in a scene that is a direct parallel to the moment in the pilot episode when he wakes her—from the dwarves to the dialogue. That moment more than any other highlights Once Upon a Time’s focus on the equality between the halves of a “true love couple.” Snow and Charming are equals in every sense of the word. They’ve both needed to be saved, and they’ve both gotten to do the saving, too. There is a balance and a sense of equal partnership to this couple, which is such a rare thing to see in a fairytale.
The most powerful curse in the show’s history was broken by a kiss from a female character to a male one. Even better—it wasn’t a romantic kiss at all; it was a maternal one. Emma Swan might end up with a romantic true love before the show’s run is done, but it should never be forgotten—and the show thankfully never seems to forget—that her first true love was her son. It was extraordinary to watch the main female character on a major network drama go through a character arc that ended not with a romantic interest but with the acceptance of her love for her son. Not every love story is a romantic story; familial love and self-love are incredibly important in the real world. And that’s what Emma’s arc is about: her journey towards accepting love from her family, loving herself for her true identity, and reaching a point where she is comfortable enough with both of those things to possibly accept romantic love as well.
For both Emma and Regina, their son is the truest love in their lives and serves as a chance for them to learn about a kind of love that is healing instead of destructive. Love doesn’t always end in happily ever after. Sometimes you have to move on from love—no matter how true you might think it was—because it’s too painful to continue to hold on to it. It’s the reason why Hook finally had to let go of Milah; his grief over her death turned him into the darkest version of himself, while moving on and loving Emma has helped him become something much closer to his best self. Emma also faced the reality of letting go of love when she confessed to Neal in the Echo Cave that she wished he was dead because then she could finally begin to move on instead of constantly reliving the pain of their relationship.
Regina’s love for Daniel defined her for so long that she didn’t know who she was without it. Like Hook, her grief was something she clung to like a security blanket. It’s the reason why she didn’t take the leap of faith needed to find the man Tinker Bell said would help her love again. Regina’s lost love turned her into a dark, damaged woman, and she never let herself attempt to move on. But when Daniel was resurrected by Victor in Season Two’s “The Doctor,” he told Regina she needed to love again—to finally move on from the pain she had been carrying for so many years. Moving on from love that causes you pain is just as important a lesson as embracing love that makes you your best self, even if it’s a lesson that’s often left out of more conventional fairytale romances.
Both moving on from love that hurts and accepting love that heals require the same thing: bravery. For the characters of Once Upon a Time—princes, princesses, saviors, queens, and pirates who wield weapons and wage wars in basically every episode—real bravery is manifested in having an open heart, even when you’ve seen the worst in the world and in yourself. To love is to be vulnerable, and vulnerability is a terrifying thing. Snow drinks a potion that wipes her memories because she’s afraid of the continued pain she might feel over losing Charming. Rumplestiltskin destroys his first chance at a relationship with Belle because he’s afraid that loving her means giving up his power. Regina runs away from a second chance at love because she was scared of loving again after losing Daniel in such a horrible way. And Emma struggles to open her heart to anyone after years of believing she was abandoned by everyone who could have loved her.
To love is to take a leap of faith, to believe in the person you choose to love and to believe in yourself. On Once Upon a Time, to accept true love is to accept that you can be happy and hopeful even after life gives you every reason to be angry and cynical. As Snow said to Emma in Season Three’s “Ariel”:
…happy endings always start with hope.
So many love stories in today’s media choose to glorify angst. But Once Upon a Time chooses instead to glorify the ways that love can make us happy. Snow and Charming’s love story—the foundational love story for the entire show—is one that some have called “boring.” It’s stable instead of volatile; it shows itself in warm smiles instead of dramatic outbursts. But should we really be glorifying love stories that feature people who make each other cry and feel miserable more often than not? Shouldn’t we instead be teaching young viewers—especially young women—to reach for the kind of love that makes you feel supported and genuinely good?
“Love is strength” has become a kind of mission statement for Once Upon a Time, and that’s a brave mission statement to take on in today’s jaded media landscape. But the kind of love that represents strength in this show isn’t the love of fairytales of old. It’s a kind of love built on equality, acceptance, and courage. And that’s the kind of true love I can truly believe in.