Gold and Powerlessness:
Looking at Masculinity in Once Upon a Time’s Rumplestiltskin
Looking at Masculinity in Once Upon a Time’s Rumplestiltskin
“I came because... you're right... about me. I am a coward. I have been my entire life. I tried to make up for it by collecting power; and the power became so important that I couldn't let go. Not even... when that meant losing the most important person in my life.” (Kitsis, 2011). This quote is from the character Rumplestiltskin, also called Mr. Gold, in the television series Once Upon a Time. Once Upon a Time is produced by ABC, owned by Disney, and takes characters from fairy tales, fables, and more modern stories, like The Wizard of Oz and Frankenstein. As Rumplestiltskin is one of the main characters and acts as an occasionally antagonistic character for the designated protagonists, Rumplestiltskin demonstrates an interesting concept of masculinity and the masculine persona, and can have his character broken down and observed through the lenses of symbolic interactionism and queer performance theory.
In regards to symbolic interactionism, it claims that people use labels to create roles for themselves and others, and often associates with symbols or traits to create that role (Wood, 2011, p. 50). Rumplestiltskin’s role in the series is an occasional antagonist, and in this he possesses three roles that can be observed: the Dark One, a magical entity that is incredibly powerful and malevolent, Rumplestiltskin, before his transformation into the Dark One when he was a father and a husband, and Mr. Gold, when he was moved to the world without magic in Storybrooke (Kitsis, 2011). Looking in how his character is created in both the real world of Storybrooke and the world of the Enchanted Forest and the symbols associated, one can determine how Rumplestiltskin is made more masculine. In the Enchanted Forest, he is symbolized by the Dark One’s dagger, a magical artifact that had cursed him, but had given him great amounts of power and near-immortality (Kitsis, 2011). From this, it connects to an idea of masculinity to “be aggressive” as like other males in media, and falls into the stereotypical portrayal of men as violent, and unafraid (Wood, 2011, p. 153, 235). The dagger, which symbolizes power and the only way that Gold can be killed, can also be taken as a sign of masculinity in a setting where firearms would be out of place. Furthermore, as he continues his time as the Dark One, his own body becomes less human and more monstrous, reflecting a sicker persona, and one that becomes progressively more violent and deranged till the curse that set the story into motion occurs (Kitsis, 2011).
The violent aspects of his character as the Dark One are just part of what defines his masculinity under symbolic interactionism. Before becoming the Dark One and when he is Mr. Gold, the way in which his masculinity is labeled differs, as do the symbols by which he is seen as masculine. Before his transformation, Rumplestiltskin’s labeling is frowned upon by his fellow villagers, and is what pushes him to become the Dark One, as he is deemed “too weak” for injuring himself to make sure his son had a father. While this is an atypical portrayal of men as fathers in itself, it is also something that goes against a requirement for being a man, and thus labels him in a poorer light by his wife, who calls him the village coward, and laments being attached to him (Kitsis, 2011). Because of this, it pushes Rumplestiltskin to become more masculine as a character and pushes him towards violence in a way to express himself as a man. As Mr. Gold, the symbols used to create his masculinity are subtler, as the knife is missing, along with his magic. However, his cane and suit are used to create a powerful presence and takes cues from businessmen in how they create a sense of authority. While this lacks the same emphasis on masculinity that his dagger has as Rumplestiltskin, it carries a different interpretation of masculinity as the business man, and is even reflected by how he’s described when he is introduced, as it’s said he “owns this place (Storybrooke)” (Kitsis, 2011).
Rumplestiltskin’s character under an interpretation of Queer Performance, seeing how he violates norms of masculinity, is even more complex in determining gender. Going back to the quote used to describe himself, Rumplestiltskin states his cowardice (Kitsis, 2011). Immediately, this is shown as admitting vulnerability, something that is usually seen as more feminine and less masculine in nature (Wood, 2011, p. 151). He does this other times through the second season, basing his worth on his relationship with other characters, like Belle and his son, Neil. There are multiple moments where he admits that his use of magic is a crutch, and his adoption of the violent and stereotypically masculine persona of the Dark One were bad ideas, and that it costs him relationships that he cares about (Kitsis, 2011). Essentially, he is admitting to his outward appearance and actions as a façade, and is debatably comparable to the examples Wood uses of Spiderman or Tom Hanks in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, as Rumplestiltskin is played in slightly redeeming views, both as a father that wanted to save his son and as a loving grandparent willing to give up his life for his grandson (Wood, 2011, p. 233; Kitsis, 2011). In addition, his role is less overtly sexual like would be expected of a villain in a series. While he does have relationships with three women at various points of the show’s chronology, a strong show of sexuality is debatably only shown in one of them. In contrast, a different relationship is largely devoid of shows of sexuality and is more centered on keeping himself morally grounded and emotionally healthier, as he describes that she’s the only one that can see “past the mask of the monster” (Kitsis, 2011).
Rumplestiltskin is an interesting example of masculinity in media, and he enjoys a complex portrayal due to the multiple roles created for him, and the ways that he defies traditional masculinity. As an antagonistic character this is even more impressive as while he is threatening at times, especially when performing his role as the “Dark One” his moments of weakness and admittance of vulnerability is even more striking, contrasting with other villains in Disney’s repertoire and allowing for the creation of a fully human and emotive character that demonstrates different and varying aspects of masculinity throughout the series.
Kitsis, E. (Executive Producer). (2011). Once Upon a Time [Television series]. Hollywood: American Broadcasting Company.
Wood, J. T. (2013). Gendered lives: communication, gender & culture (11th ed.). Stamford: Cengage Learning.