7.03.2010

The Queen of Camelot as a POC

Before I begin, let me make this clear: this is British mythology, British legend, and British fantasy...all tracing deep roots into British heritage and - thank God - is currently under British supervision, from cast to crew.  Under the usual circumstances, I would keep my analyses strictly artistic.  However, this latest incarnation of Arthurian legend decided to include POC actors and characters, and once they did, they entered our domain.  Bloggers such as Moi have to look out for POC actors worldwide whenever they're involved in white productions, because 99% of the time, the white folks hiring, directing, and writing for them sure as hell will not.

First, the good news: Merlin...is brilliantThis, children, is precisely the reason why people should always tell their own stories.  This is one of the best examples of why America should keep its grubby hands off other people's cultures and heritages.

The casting and characterization of Merlin himself was sheer genius.  Twenty-four-year-old, North Irish actor Colin Morgan is a gold mine, an actor destined for greatness.  He's like the innocently sweet lovechild of Daniel Radcliffe and Zachary Quinto.   He really is the true hero of the show, as is a nerd's proper birthright.  And boy, is he a nerd.  And I do mean full-on nerd.  We're talking the Vulcan-like dark hair and similar cut, the very noticeable ears, and an angelically dorky grin. He already has my heart, and had Angel Coulby been playing any character other than Guinevere, they would be the perfect couple.  His chemistry with her is astounding.

Seriously, guys...Colin Morgan - in my eyes - can officially do no wrong.

And now for the bad news: I fear Guinevere's casting is a setup.  So fans of color, do not get your hopes up.  Take out your grains of salt and proceed with caution.

Angel Coulby as "Gwen"
Gwen's Status

Arthurian Legend 101, kids: Guinevere was a white-skinned Welsh princess.  The keywords in that sentence, mind you, are not "white-skinned" nor "Welsh", but princess.  The Brits decided to make her a woman of color?  Hm...interesting.  They decided to make her a maid?  That's when my pygmy sense starts tingling.

Guinevere, or Gwen, is to become King Arthur's wife and the Queen of Camelot.  But in order for this to happen, we're going to have to experience some sort of Cinderella transformation, which begs the question...why?  Why show a woman of color's triumph via the love and favor of a rich white man?

Once again, it shows how white people see people of color.  To them, when telling a flattering story - well, what they consider a flattering story - of a POC, it has to be one of rise and triumph, with the POC's initial state being servile status.  To them, POC are foremost slaves, handmaidens, pages, and so forth, but it's okay..."we shall overcome" through the benevolent generosity and protection and/or desirous affection of white folks.

They can't understand that we're not servants by nature or design.  Before anyone gave two shits about Europe, we ran the whole damn Known World. And while Europeans were slowly crawling through and out of the Dark Ages, our kingdoms and empires were flourishing...right up to the 20th Century, contrary to popular belief.

So the Brits wanted to present us with a Gwen of color?  Fine.  But they're clearly doing it for their benefit.  Had they done it for our benefit, Gwen would've been introduced as a princess, daughter of a king and queen, worthy of open wooing and proper respect at all times from all characters.

From Wikipedia:
Guinevere ("Gwen") portrayed by Angel Coulby is Morgana's personal servant. Morgana and Gwen are more like best friends, however, Morgana describing Gwen as "the most kind and loyal person you would ever meet."

...Due to Gwen's status she has a tendency to be subservient, but she is seen to not be afraid of standing up for her beliefs and speaking her mind; a trait admired by most around her, particularly Arthur.
Lesson the first, children: Only white people (and House Negroes) go all nostalgically warm and fuzzy at the sight of a dark-skinned, doting servant girl who not only bows her head and does their bidding, but does so with a smile and a song in her heart, while shyly crushing on the white man who tells her when to come and go.

Because if/when Gwen finally rises to status of wife and queen on this show, shit is going to hit the fan.

Gwen's Fate

Arthurian Legend 102, children: Guinevere marries Arthur but falls for Lancelot as well, and has a love affair which lasts for years.  She eventually winds up in a convent, so that her husband and her lover can make peace.  Lancelot has already shown up in Season One of Merlin, and sparks have already ignited between Lancelot (a warrior noted for also being dark-skinned, and played by a Spanish actor) and Gwen.  Kisses have already been exchanged, and Arthur is already aware of the bond there.  Lancelot left for their sake...but how long will he stay gone?

If the writers stay faithful to the original aspect of the legends, Gwen will go from being the shy, sweet, darling, tolerable servant girl to "that uppity black whore" who's ungrateful, doesn't remember her place, can't keep her legs shut, and so on.  And Lancelot will go from being that good and true knight to every racial slur for Mexicans in the book.

But...if writers don't go that route and simply leave Lancelot out of the rest of the story, Arthurian fanatics will have a cow and blame "that black bitch" for forcing the writers to leave out a crucial Arthurian element in favor of ensuring her fidelity to Arthur.

And kids, this is what I meant about a "setup".  After the treatment of black people on Dr. Who, and POC in on Torchwood, I really don't trust British TV right now.  Merlin is a British production about British legends - I would've been fine to see an all-white cast in this situation.  But since they've chosen to go this route, they need to get some writers and directors of color on staff to do damage control - STAT.

Gwen's Role So Far

Fetch and carry, heal and comfort, be a good sidekick, and smile, smile, smile - that's been Gwen's role so far when she's not being scenery (and when she weeps or is distraught, it doesn't have nearly the same effect as WWT).  Granted, Coulby is a great actress.  Granted, her character, along with Merlin's, is the most accessible and down-to-earth.  People without privilege usually are; they appear more "real" and respectable because they're not spoiled and worthless.  But we don't have any real backstory on Gwen...you know, human stuff which makes a person appear complete.

However, things have a weird way of working out in POC favor.  Gwen's looks are not emphasized, but two men are already madly in love with her.  I tend to think this was unintentional.  As one blogger writes:
...The creators of Merlin chose...a white woman...as Morgana...[and] go to a lot of effort, through makeup, lighting, costuming, framing, and sometimes even set choices, to play up the extreme whiteness of her skin.

...In a show that puts so much effort into its visuals these decisions can’t be accidental. In this context, Gwen’s blackness is also used as a prop to underline Morgana’s whiteness. (Note that the show also went for a contrasting dark/light visual with the male leads, and that the working-class immigrant, though white, is the darker one.) Strikingly, they don’t play up the color of Gwen’s skin, because it’s not seen as an asset...

...I hope the racist implications of this are obvious. There’s a long history behind white beauty standards...By making such a fuss about Morgana’s looks, the show reinforces such ideas.
And yet...Morgana becomes a villain by the end of Season Two and is not the love interest of either of the main men (she and Arthur are not playing siblings so the writers felt comfortable hinting an initial attraction).  So why play up her looks this much?  For what?  To keep white fangirls from shedding online WWT?  Or is it simply to play divide and conquer between women of different skintones?  Tell women that the white ones are better to look at, but ones of color are better to actually be with?  What the hell?

(Quick Addendum: By the way, what does it say when in order to make a white woman appear more attractive than a woman of color, the WW needs "accessories" - hairstyles, jewelry, makeup, a fabulous wardrobe, and even digital effects - while the WoC is not only prohibited these, but she's deliberately hindered - unflattering dresses, in both shape and and color, a constantly sweaty face for some reason, and the rare chance to do anything with her hair?)

21 comments:

  1. Moi said:

    "If the writers stay faithful to the original aspect of the legends, Gwen will go from being the shy, sweet, darling, tolerable servant girl to "that uppity black whore" who's ungrateful, doesn't remember her place, can't keep her legs shut, and so on. And Lancelot will go from being that good and true knight to every racial slur for Mexicans in the book.

    But...if writers don't go that route and simply leave Lancelot out of the rest of the story, Arthurian fanatics will have a cow and blame "that black bitch" for forcing the writers to leave out a crucial Arthurian element in favor of ensuring her fidelity to Arthur."

    Can't win for losing. Best for WoC to do whatever they want to do, since they're going to be lambasted from either direction. You can't trust anyone to be honest these days.

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  2. The paychecks better be huge then.

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  3. Haven't seen this version, but isn't Morgana being an unearthly and somewhat evil seductive beauty the whole point of her character? It sounds like the director was going for a bit of a fae thing with the lighting though I can understand it leading too Unfortunate Implications.

    It sounds like they gave the "rise from the stables" role to Gwen this time rather than Arther or Lancelot. Depending on which version we go with, Arther's affair was the one that shattered the kingdom. So there may be some hope here.

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  4. Ok, so Guinevere is a maid? Forget everything I wrote in the other thread- I don't like this casting choice. I don't like seeing a black woman in that role. Make her a princess or forget about it.

    When I heard about this, I assumed Guinevere was a princess, so I though it was an interesting reading of the character (to cast a black actress in this role). It's a fantasy after all. But it looks like they actually tried to be "authentic"- yes, casting her as a maid was supposed to add authenticity.* After all, we do know there were no princesses of colour in England back then, but we don't know about other people. Ok. But, why do this? It's a fantasy after all. Why didn't they make her a princess.

    *I'm not saying black women as maids are authentic. But this is an excuse I read on IMDB board.

    Because this is a well known legend and while yes, it's a fantasy, I think their responsibility was to stay true to the legend- and in the legend, Guinevere was not a maid so I don't understand this sudden need to make her a maid.

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  5. Ok, so Guinevere is a maid? Forget everything I wrote in the other thread- I don't like this casting choice. I don't like seeing a black woman in that role. Make her a princess or forget about it.

    Oh, Mira. *shakes head and chuckles* Mira, Mira, Mira...always knew I could count on you.

    It gets worse. They keep trying to show just how buddy-buddy Morgana & Gwen, to the point of some almost lesbiantastic lines (and I mean a teary, "If anything ever happened to you I couldn't bear it."

    @ akantis

    Haven't seen this version, but isn't Morgana being an unearthly and somewhat evil seductive beauty the whole point of her character?

    Not in this version. When I say she becomes a villain at the end of Season Two, I mean she rebels against Uther's side - who's a total tyrant, by the way - and she doesn't do so until the very end of Season Two...like, the very last episode.

    For two seasons, she's actually a good girl, portrayed in a sympathetic light; i.e., Uther's tyranny drives her to join the other side. She's not cruel or sadistic or a temptress or anything like that.

    As that blogger I quoted goes on to complain, Morgana doesn't really do anything except dress prettily, need protecting, and occasionally stick up for poor dear little darkie maid. Aside for her prophetic dreams, we don't really see her study or practice magic.

    As for the contrast between her and Gwen, other white female characters - princesses, queens, enchantresses, etc. - come and go and they're always made up. So when I say Gwen's looks are downplayed, I mean they are downplayed. Click the picture of her and Morgana to get a bigger version. You'll see what I mean.

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  6. Quick Addendum (added above): By the way, what does it say when in order to make a white woman appear more attractive than a woman of color, the WW needs "accessories" - hairstyles, jewelry, makeup, a fabulous wardrobe, and even digital effects - while the WoC is not only prohibited these, but she's deliberately hindered - unflattering dresses, in both shape and and color, a constantly sweaty face for some reason, and the rare chance to do anything with her hair?)

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  7. Julie Gardner, the executive producer, has quite a history of sketchy race and gender issues. See new Who series 1 - 4, Torchwood, and the Sarah Jane Adventures. I very nearly stopped watching when I found out about her involvement.

    I fully expect Gwen to be fridged (just like Freya) at some point, and I'm not entirely certain we will actually get to see her become queen. Any Robin Hood fan could tell you the BBC is known for deliberately doing radical things with British legends, so it might be interesting to see where the writers go. I expect 180º "character developments."

    I wonder who wrote that Wikipedia entry because I never got the BFF vibe from Gwen and Morgana. Morgana is all about Morgana, which makes for a very one-sided "friendship." Morgana would throw Gwen under the bus to save her own ass any day of the week. Hm, I'm probably being a bit harsh on her, since series two is very fresh in my mind due to the marathon on Syfy yesterday.

    Lancelot (Santiago Cabrera) is currently contracted for one episode each series, so we'll see him again. I think the writers have planned a four series arc.

    Angel really is the best thing about the show. She manages to pack so much into the very limited material she's provided. I hope Merlin leads to lots of opportunities for her like Who did for Freema Agyeman.

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  8. @ mojitochico

    Julie Gardner, you say? Thanks for the heads up.

    I wonder who wrote that Wikipedia entry because I never got the BFF vibe from Gwen and Morgana. Morgana is all about Morgana, which makes for a very one-sided "friendship." Morgana would throw Gwen under the bus to save her own ass any day of the week.

    I honestly don't get the "BFF" vibe either. I'm sick of reading that shit. They are not "friends". Class prevents them from being "friends". If I have to clean up after a woman, take care of her needs 24/7, answer to her, and obey her, then she and I sure as hell are not "friends".

    I seriously think some delusional white chick with White Mistress/Black Maid Fantasy Syndrome wrote that bullshit. Or a desperate PR agent.

    Hm, I'm probably being a bit harsh on her, since series two is very fresh in my mind due to the marathon on Syfy yesterday.

    Watched it too. Still not seeing the whole "BFF vibe".

    I'm not entirely certain we will actually get to see her become queen. Any Robin Hood fan could tell you the BBC is known for deliberately doing radical things with British legends, so it might be interesting to see where the writers go.

    If they seriously fuck up that part....

    Wow. I'm not sure how else to finish that.

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  9. @Moi 7:23 You don't want to watch anything by Russell T. Davies either. He's got a serious kink for POC/white people in unrequited love scenarios. See the original Queer as Folk, Casanova, new Who 1 - 3, and Torchwood. Twice is a coincidence, five different POC characters in the exact same lame-ass storyline equals fuck you RTD & co.

    I seriously think some delusional white chick with White Mistress/Black Maid Fantasy Syndrome wrote that bullshit. Or a desperate PR agent.

    Merlin fandom is full of delusional white chicks on this and many other scores. In this instance I think a lot of it comes from trying to make the femslash plausible.

    If they seriously fuck up that part....

    Well BBC's Robin Hood fridged Marian and survived for an entire season after it, so really anything is possible. Merlin is all ready radically different from the legend, so they could go for ultimate shock value.

    Wow. I'm not sure how else to finish that.

    I'll go with never watching anymore BBC television series with POC. Seriously I'm all ready 1 (Merlin for now) for 3 (New Who & Torchwood) with recent BBC series.

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  10. @mojitochica,

    Thanks for the info on BCC. For some reason, I assumed British production tries to stay as true to British legends as possible. But I guess that's not the case.

    If they like to mess with known myths, then yes, I bet we can expect anything. Even Guinevere fridged. But I won't trash the show before that actually happens (or before I actually watch it).

    I must admit, the guy playing Lancelot is hot so I'd really want to watch the show (shallow, shallow, I know). But he is.

    @Ankhesen,

    I am not against lesbian reading of the characters per se (be it interracial or not), but I am not sure if that's the vibe they wanted to send. I think it's part of the "best black friend" trope, which is a really popular one among white audience, especially white female audience, I believe. It's so popular that I do think it deserves a post. What do you think?

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  11. I am not against lesbian reading of the characters per se (be it interracial or not), but I am not sure if that's the vibe they wanted to send.

    I don't think it was either, but white fangirls are going to go with it anyway. I foresee cast iron shackles and questionable mercy words.

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  12. And yes, Mira. It DOES deserve a post.

    Care to do the honors? You have my email.

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  13. They can try all they want to embellish Morgana to make her more attractive than Gwen. After watching some clips of the show on YouTube, I have to say (without bias) that it didn't work. Even with all of Morgana's "extras", she still couldn't hold a candle to Gwen.

    They try, but it never works.

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  14. By the way, what does it say when in order to make a white woman appear more attractive than a woman of color, the WW needs "accessories" - hairstyles, jewelry, makeup, a fabulous wardrobe, and even digital effects - while the WoC is not only prohibited these, but she's deliberately hindered - unflattering dresses, in both shape and and color, a constantly sweaty face for some reason, and the rare chance to do anything with her hair?)

    It says that maybe White beauty isn't as superior as its PR is pushing. That's like a scenario Carl Lewis making me put 50 lb weights on my legs for a footrace. Carl Lewis doesn't need to do that to me. Even in retirement, Carl Lewis can run me into the ground. He's CLEARLY the better runner between us. Basically, Carl Lewis not only wouldn't put weights on me, but dude'd give me a 50 yr head start and still whoop my ass running.

    The truth comes out even as they try to make the lie veritable.

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  15. @ witchsistah

    It's about time I heard from you!!!!

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  16. Am I wrong for wanting some of these COCs to have a Negro Moment wherein they show Speshul White Folx what we really think of them?

    Could you imagine Gwen saying to Morgana:

    "Why the fuck you touching me? Seriously, why the fuck you all up in my shit all the time? You got a crush on me or something? Friends? Bitch, you ain't my friend! As long as my job is to do what you tell me to do, we ain't friends! Now go somewhere and faint and get outta my face."

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  17. Hmm. I'm very late to this, but I'll add my two cents anyway.

    One of the things I like about Merlin is how they seem intentional about casting people of color in the show and not making a big deal about their race. It is ok with me because it is a fantasy show and because blacks have been in Britain since the middle ages. For instance, random townspeople, knights and people in the court will be black. In one episode, the main villain was a black assassin. We got a bit of a backstory with Gwen in season 1 when they showed her relationship with her father, the king's blacksmith.

    I guess I was never bothered by Gwen being a maid and not a princess because I like the whole Cinderella story and although Gwen is shy, she is never a push over. She often stands up to Prince Arthur and speaks her mind and she has sort of been cast as the prince's conscious. Within the world they have created, skin color doesn't seem to be a defining or determining factor for how one is judged. In one episode, Gwen and Morgana were kidnapped. Gwen was passed off as Morgana by her hired kidnappers to their boss. It wasn't Gwen's skin color that later tipped him off to her identity or even her behavior not being queenly enough. Rather, it was her work roughened hands that clued him in.

    I guess I am willing to not read into the casting choices with the racial filters that I examine other things with because this is a fantasy story full of magic, talking dragons and the like set in a place completely divorced from the racial history which shapes how we live today. It differs from Doctor Who and Torchwood in that regard. There overlooking these racial issues was not just problematic in a PC sense, but sloppy and/or lady writing.

    I am really enjoying Merlin. Plus, we don't know for sure what set of Arthurian legends they are following. The one that most people know is notoriously misogynistic and Guinevere is a total whore. But, others don't have the Lancelot affair. I'm hoping they either don't carry the story all the way to Arthur's kingship (which, at the pace they are going, seems likely) or they choose the Gwen friendly narratives.

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  18. At the "Quick Addendum"

    So bloody true. I watch True Blood and the only black woman on the show Tara played by Rutina Wesley is always looking rough only a few times she looks how she does when she is out of the show and she is super goregeous.

    I know why they do it though so in comparison her blonde haired white friend star of the show looks way better in comparison.

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  19. I guess I am willing to not read into the casting choices with the racial filters that I examine other things with because this is a fantasy story full of magic, talking dragons and the like set in a place completely divorced from the racial history which shapes how we live today.

    The characters live in the fantasy world; the writers do not. Thus, their writing will never be fully "divorced"; we see this trope all the time. Remember M'Lila from Xena? She taught Xena a lot of her fighting moves, taught her acupressure, and even inspired her armor, but the only reason they met is M'Lila was a runaway African slave from Gaul. Because that was the best the white writers could do.

    Like I said, we're always servants, slaves, generous teachers, and selflessly sacrificial lambs to them.

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  20. ***comment moderation***

    Anonymous, use a name.

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