I’d like to talk about snark today, specifically snark as used by fictional characters. No matter how it’s labeled, “snark,” “sarcasm,” and “sass” all have the misfortune of being used really badly by poor writers and even used to justify the rudeness of certain character with “they’re just being sassy” like with Regina Mills of Once Upon a Time. What do I mean?
Well, snark does not exist in a vacuum. When a character is snarky, they generally have a reason. Daria, queen of snark, is usually dissatisfied with things she encounters but also generally not motivated to do much more then comment, so sarcasm is her passive aggressive way of dealing with it. She also uses sarcasm to insult people, since a lot of characters she encounters are dumb enough to be blind to it, or there is someone she is trying to amuse with her wit. Generally speaking sarcasm is how she vents, it just sounds funny to the audience.
Sarcasm is also used to voice disapproval even when you know the person you’re disapproving of can hear you and gets the message. A lot of Damian Wayne’s snark as Robin was directed towards Dick Grayson and Stephanie Brown, letting them know that he didn’t think much of them. It was incredibly immature and passive aggressive…which made sense, given that Damian was all of ten years old.
Other reasons for sarcasm? Well, sometimes you’re trying to upset the person. Spider-Man’s quips, both sarcastic and snarky, are generally done both to enrage his enemies because then they make mistakes he can take advantage of, and to cover the fact that Spidey, especially in younger incarnations, is scared or at the very least nervous because a lot of villains are stronger than him. Since he’s going to fight them anyway, he needs to cover up that fear. The humorous side of the sass is to cover his fear, while the biting side is meant to push villains over the edge.
Now let’s circle back to Regina. Why is she snarky? “She just is” is not an acceptable answer becuase again snark does not exist in a vacuum. I think she falls mainly into the “passive aggressive” reason for snark, generally speaking, but Regina has the issue many characters who are poorly written snarkers have: she’s sarcastic even without reason. What was that quip about Mary-Margaret’s weight supposed to say other than “just a reminder, I do not like this person”? Regina’s snark is based in bitterness, not wit or “attitude” or anything else.
And then there’s the name calling. Yes, there are plenty of characters who have used the term “idiot” affectionately, however there are usually one of two qualifiers. 1) it is very, very obvious by their tone and expression that it is meant to be a term of endearment, because they are generally shown to be friends and/or 2) in the event another character starts acting like their “idiot” is actually stupid to where it hurts their feelings, the snarker will defend them. Regina has never given any indication she thinks the Charmings as anything but idiots. I cannot see the leaked line about her calling Emma “stupid” as being an unusual insult borne of grief because Regina seems to genuinely find Emma stupid most of the tie. There is no indication otherwise, Regina seems to genuinely not like these people, and so any “it’s an affectionate term” argument falls flat.
Let’s go back to Damian on this one. For all his snark, all his backtalk, all his complaining, he still thinks Dick is a good Batman. When Damian’s mother insults Dick in front of him, Damian instantly comes to his defense and protests that she doesn’t know Dick as well as he does and therefore doesn’t see how Dick is actually good at his job. Long after Dick’s given up on being Batman and is back to Nightwing (sticking Damian with Bruce) there’s a scene where Damian outright tells Dick that he thinks they were the best Batman and Robin duo.
Regina has never been shown to have those sorts of feelings for the Charmings. I’d honestly call “grudging respect” a long shot as of season 4, and so wonder why we’re supposed to consider her insults charming instead of, well, insults. Regina is still clearly very bitter and acting on that bitterness, not trying to be funny to amuse others or cover her own fears. Honestly I think the latter could have worked really well, but there’s been next to no foundation for it and so that goes out the window. So that is why Regina’s snark in general falls flat and frankly paints her in a worse light instead of a better one.