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What It Means to Me to Have a Black Guinevere
Gwen 1

Lately I've seen a number of people (including this old but excellent post) start to speak openly in favor of the casting of Angel Coulby, a biracial black-white actress, in the role of Gwen in BBC's Merlin--mostly in response to those who use the "anachronism" battlecry to disparage the inclusion of black character in a fantasy show. I'm chiming in.

Soon after I started watching Merlin, I realized something: I've been looking for a character like Gwen for years. Not just because she's a black character in a white-dominated fantasy world--but because she (when we first met her) was quite shy.


I've met many shy black women in life, and never once seen one on screen. What have I seen? The Sassy Black Best Friend (hello, Original Cindy on Dark Angel; hello, Kit on The L Word!), whose own story is always subordinate to that of her white hero buddy and the need for comic relief. The tough Amazon fighter (hello, Zoe from Firefly!) whose inner life gets no exploration.

And...well, actually that's pretty much it, with small variations. I can think of a few others, but they are dwarfed by the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of complex white characters I have seen on screen over the years.

But Gwen--Gwen was shy, and awkward, and endearing. She was sweet. I haven't seen a fictional sweet black girl in...well, maybe never, except in all-black productions.

This isn't a coincidence. The idea that black women are inherently loud and outspoken and SASS-SAY!--as opposed to, say, varying by personality in the way that white people do--is a common stereotype. Like most black stereotypes, its roots go all the way back to slavery, but its persistence and widespread range is due to media in the present day.

There are other stereotypes for black women, of course--the most obvious being the subordination of their characters to white ones. I don't mean just in terms of power and authority within the fictional world (though that certainly happens), but also in their degree of importance in the narrative, whether their conflicts and inner lives matter. (Does anyone remember the name of the women on Ally McBeal whose role was to hand Ally tissues?*)

There's also a deeply-held racist belief that black women are undesirable, or ugly, or good for sex but not real relationships (and boy does this have roots in slavery). So while the Sapphire stereotype (the over-sexed black woman) often appears, it’s still radical to cast a black woman as a leading love interest.

So by casting a black woman as Gwen, the show did a potentially radical thing. It said that the black girl-next-door, who’s constantly being overlooked in favor of a glamourous white woman, is going to grow up to become one of the great romance heroines of all time, and the focus of the most legendary love triangle in Western literature.

That’s powerful. That potential really drew me into the show.

But then the creators undid a lot of that by making her a maid. Because black woman as maid? A little bit of a stereotype. A little bit of we-can't-imagine-black-people-actually-in-charge, even in a fantasy world.

And the show has continued with this two-steps-forward, one-step-back approach. I think it’s fabulous that Angel Coulby was cast in this role (in part because she’s far and away one of the best actors they have), and I want to celebrate it.

But I don’t want to forget the way that the show consistently sidelined Gwen during the first season, the way she was given far less air time and character development than the white characters—even less than Morgana (whose own role has been restricted by sexism), even less than Gaius and Uther (on a show with a clear bias toward youth). I don’t want to forget the way the show papered over her father’s death, and the way Gwen is consistently used to do “emotional work” for white characters like Morgana and Arthur.

I don’t want to forget that all of these things are recurring tropes of racism, and that they shape what real people of color have to face in a white-dominated world far beyond the range of this show.

I do want to hold onto what is lovely, and counter-stereotype, in Gwen’s character. For me, seeing Gwen mature into a woman—sadder, stronger, and more willing to stand up for herself and her beliefs—has been for me one of the show’s greatest pleasures. Gwen, as she has evolved past her shyness, hasn’t become a stereotype. She is exactly as I would imagine a shy young girl who slowly gains confidance in a fiercely dangerous world.

And she’s one of the reasons I keep watching.

 *Shout-out to the Love of My Life for this example.


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Thank you for saying this. You're completely right about my American baggage; I've been working on a sister-post on Morgana's whiteness, and that baggage is becoming increasingly obvious, even to me. I appreciate your pointing it out.

Part of my blind spot is that I'm from a part of the US where slavery existed on a very small scale, but the slave trade was absolutely critical economically, and the UK history seems so similar. So I've presumed too much crossover. I also tend to think that because Merlin is co-produced (and half paid for, I believe) by NBC for the American audience there's some US influence in the show. (The fact that we keep getting throwaway black characters but have yet to see anyone of South Asian descent seems typical for US, but not British, media, in my very limited experience, but I could be completely wrong here.)

Your point about anti-immigrant bias is a really good one; the fact that Gwen belongs in Camelot, even more than Merlin is a good point. Of all the characters on the show, only Myror fits the stereotype you mention.

Thanks again for commenting, and for helping me better adjust for one of my blind spots better for my next post!

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Not to mention that Britain was very heavily involved/invested in the Transatlantic slave trade so Britain is one of the main architects of these stereotypes that still pervade Western society today.

And I'm sure you just don't mean south Wales.

Not even the tip of the iceberg of who I mean...

But I bet that iceberg is/was British/Commonwealth.

Edited at 2009-10-15 04:07 am (UTC)

Iceberg is flat-out European, but Britain is a big hunk of that iceberg. So are Portugal and France, and Spain has a smaller one, but just as deadly to passing ships...

Iceberg is flat-out European.

Ugh, Portugal. Nothing says black quite like fado, eh? I'm so, hrm, bemused, maybe? Bemused by Portugal and France's roles in spreading lies about black people and African nations all over the globe.

I see you're neglecting the Dutch, and they were oh so very busy exporting misery while enriching themselves as the diasporas' expense, too. I'm sure you know though. Just pointing it out for little pitchers and all.

Hey, no need to apologize! I REALLY appreciate your bringing the facts here.

I know very little about 20th-century UK migration & immigration history, and appreciate all your links. Based on what you're saying there seem to be parallels between the Great Migration of African-Americans from the Southern US to other states and the migration of Black British within the Empire. There are even more obvious parallels in terms of hate crimes and police brutality and institutional racism.

Thank you as well for making the point about the similarities between colonialism & slavery. it seems quite obvious now, but I appreciate your pointing it out.

And this post got picked up in the newsletter? Really?

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When I see words like 'immigrants' and 'outsiders' being used to described Black British of West Indian descent, it's actually painful to me...

Hey, I'm sorry if my words caused you pain. Unfortunately, these exact wordss are often used against the black community, as I am sure you know. Hopefully it came across in my comment, but I wasn't using the terms as a way of espousing my own opinions on the subject, but indicating the context that a lot of racist insults spring from (which are, of course, not based on reality.)
Anyway, I'll try to be more careful of my phrasing in future.

This is a bit belated (I've been caught up responding to comments on my other race-in-Merlin post), but I wanted to thank you for the book recommendation and say that if you're interested in an earlier period in history, I recommend Black London: Life Before Emancipation by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina. It's smart and readable, and while it's mostly focused on the late 18th/early 19th century, when the abolitionist movement was in full swing, it covers a lot of turf. (I'd studied the racism and Orientalism of Othello several times, but my perspective on the play changed considerably when I realized how many black people were living in Shakespeare's London.)

(I love book recommendations, and I like to return the favor when I can.)

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I was talking about racist stereotypes and insults that I had personally come across, rather than history facts. Of course these insults are very rarely based on reality. Sorry, I should have made myself clearer.

I also tend to think that because Merlin is co-produced (and half paid for, I believe) by NBC for the American audience there's some US influence in the show.

I'm a Brit and tried to watch Merlin but couldn't, because I found it to be too American. I even told a few friends that a lot of the BBC programming seems to be destined for export (fair cop to them, because Americans aren't afraid to shell out monies for shows to be successful, etc) but as a Brit I can't really enjoy the shows as much (Torchwood, the new Dr Who, Merlin, Robin Hood) because they seemed to be geared towards American tastes.


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