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The White Mists of Avalon: Thoughts on Morgana's Race
Gwen 1
zahrawithaz

And now for something completely controversial. 

I’ve written before about Morgana’s gender, and Gwen’s race and gender. The problem with that approach is that discussing only the race of people of color reinforces the idea that whiteness is somehow neutral and shouldn’t be mentioned or probed. And lot of the dynamics that play out around Morgana, both in the show and in fandom, are not only gendered but also racial. Whiteness is a presence, not an absence or a neutral zone, and the show often contrasts Morgana and Gwen in racial terms.

 

 


I don't have time to write up all my thoughts at the moment, but I do have to say how much I love you for noticing that Arthur is acting the wife in this show, what with him carrying the keys and all. In my head Morgana totally has them.

(I think the show has switched it deliberately both for plot purposes - the Mordred episode in particular - and because of an underlying message that Morgana isn't to be trusted, even though Uther explicitly says he trusts her. It's also a convenient excuse to shoehorn Arthur into plots where he really doesn't naturally fit.)

I'm curious about your thoughts on Aglain. My first reaction was a kind of low-burn anger after the death watch proved true, so I don't think I was entirely rational about him for a week or so. Now that I think on it, I wonder if there isn't a little bit of a trope inversion going on. Arthur perceives Aglain to be a threat to Morgana and has him killed, but we the audience know that Aglain was not only completely peaceful in his intentions but was also Morgana's best chance at becoming a sane person capable of controlling her powers. The disparity between what Arthur thinks and what the audience knows makes Aglain's death murder in our eyes (by default, I mean - it's very possible to fanwank Arthur's angle to get him out of that charge).

Is that a reversal of the "dangerous black man" trope? Or is there something I'm missing here? *scratches head* This is all complicated by the fact that Colin Salmon is 6'4" and has a deep voice - very much fitting the physical stereotype.

Oh, and this post? INSTA-FRIEND. ^_^

Hey, thanks! Glad to see someone else noticed. I think you raise an excellent point about plot purposes; it has struck me how much trouble the writers have shoehorning Arthur into plots that aren't All About Him. But I would also argue that a deeply-ingrained historical amnesia about women's lives--the fact that women have always worked, and often had plot-worthy duties--is at play. (A pet peeve of mine.)

Re Aglain, my first thought was: Shit. I agree that there's definitely some trope inversion going on (as there is in the following episode; Uther acting in accordance with the "missing white woman" phenomenon provides the rest of the cast a chance to show how important Gwen is), which is notable because it's another case of the show using race, consciously or not, to underline a plot point, despite the ostensibly race-blind world.

But my beef is that they could have had the same effects--Morgana isolation, trope inversion, and all--without actually killing Aglain. Some alternatives:

1) Morgana makes the heroic decision to give herself up to save the druids; Aglain (like the audience) appreciates the enormity of her sacrifice and promises they will meet again

2) Aglain and company use magic to escape but leave Morgana behind for fear of Uther (bonus angst points and trust issues for her, which might help her villain development)

3) Aglain and company use magic to escape and try to bring Morgana with them but Merlin prevents it (which would also kill the bond between Merlin & Morgana (another aim of the episode))

4) Aglain is captured alive because Uther wants to execute him publicly like he did Mordred's first mentor, but a) Morgana comes up with a mix of honesty and lies (maybe they saved her from the actual kidnappers) to exonerate him (this would probably have worked on Arthur, and given him another chance to try to quietly resist his dad), or b) helps him escape, probably with Merlin's help (it's not like they haven't recycled plot points before).

There are many other ways they could have removed Aglain from the scene that wouldn't have involved his death. Note 1 & 4 also improve Morgana's agency and moral development. And any of them could have incorporated Aglain prophesying that he & Morgana would meet again, but not for a very long time--or that they wouldn't meet again, or would be enemies in the future, or what have you. Morgana's a seer, for goodness's sake!

The fact that the way they chose to get rid of the black guy was killing him strikes me as problematic--and because all the other black men on this show have died, it suggests that the show-makes don't value the lives of those characters. (It certainly sends the unconscious message.)

I also thought the fact that Aglain didn't get much of a death scene, or a final heart-wrenching exchange with Morgana--he drops from an arrow while she's unconscious!--undermined some of the pathos of the loss.

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Can I just say thank you for this? So much? This whole post is just so lovely. And it acknowledges the intersectionality of these issues, which so many people are determined to deny.

I had so much trouble getting attached to Morgana at all. I liked the idea of her, and certainly didn't dislike her, but Gwen (and Mordred) were the only characters in the whole cast I'm truly attached to. And I think part of that is having had some exposure to fandom before encountering canon--they treat Morgana like this faultless feminist angel, and I wasn't really seeing it, and thus was having trouble connecting with her on the basis of the conflicting perceptions. Gwen barely seems to exist within fandom perception, so she was free to charm me from her first second on screen without any cognitive dissonance getting in the way.

I could barely begin to express my outrage and fury over Gaius lying, drugging and manipulating a vulnerable girl who trusted him being portrayed as 'taking care of her' and 'caring for her.' Because she just couldn't handle the truth, shall we protect the poor little wimmenz? Of course, after hearing him tell Nimueh that she had to make amends for granting her friend a favour--essentially trying to lay murder and genocide on her shoulders so he could pat himself on the back for his support of an vicious tyrant--I feel nauseous whenever he comes on screen.

Yes, you can! In these parts appreciation is always appreciated! I am also delighted to see others care about intersectionality, as I think it's actually become more and more important to these characters. (Or maybe just more and more obvious to me.)

I also like the idea of Morgana much better than what we've seen on screen, and I completely agree with you on the fanon/canon disconnect on her character. Morgana seems easy for many people to project their ideal female character traits onto, and I've always found this curious. I suspect her race has a lot to do with it--both in that many people drawn to female characters found it hard to identify with a black woman, and that Morgana was initially introduced as beautiful & glamourous enough to be fun to identify with. I don't think fandom's neglect of Gwen is all that benign, though it does leave her free for some of us to come to without preconceptions. (Plus, she is charming.)

And Gaius....oh, I'm not sure I have the stamina to express all my rage about Gaius. I can't stand his character, and the periodic attempts at warm and fuzzy moments with Merlin make me retch. His backstory as a turncoat and supporter of the magical genocide, his manipulation of Merlin and Morgana both, the drugging plotline...it's all bad. Worse, I think, is that if a female character had done half of what he has, she would probably be a villain.

It really frustrates me, Morgana's portrayal. Because honestly, I feel like giving us a token powerful girl and then undermining her at every turn is more frustrating than giving us a weak female character. At least then I'm not hoping and expecting and rooting for her to get to do things and then getting kicked in the face. My interaction with fandom is usually fairly scarce (after some rather unpleasant experiences when I first started interacting online), but I remember being very frustrated with the dearth of Gwen icons while Morgana imagery abounded. I just didn't find her as interesting as I did Gwen.

Oh, I don't think fandom's neglect of Gwen is at all benign--rather frustrating, actually--I just meant to compare my perceptions of them. Frankly, I think with the vivid personality Angel Coulby brings to the scant time she's given, she would have charmed me regardless. Gwen is just lovely. I actually like Morgana's canon version better now that I have a fuller grasp of the character and her flaws, or rather I would if I thought the canon was going to deal with or acknowledge those flaws (and strengths) in a way that wouldn't reduce me to banging my head on my desk.

I haven't really read a fic about Gwen/Morgana that I'm entirely comfortable with. They never really deal with the class divide that is obviously there, friends or no, and Gwen--as aware of her own position in life as she is--can hardly be oblivious to. I feel like the whole episode where Morgana turns Gwen's tragedy into her own offense over a man long dead really drives home, unwittingly or no, her perspective on their status and situations. Racially problematic and also a very accurate reproduction of older views about servants--that they exist as extensions and belongings of the nobility, that they are important for how they affect their masters/mistresses. She's certainly better about it than Arthur, but to me it seems like she's unquestioning of that assumption of natural privilege, and it's hard to imagine Gwen truly being as blithe. I mean, maybe I'm being too sensitive, but it just leaves me uncomfortable.

Excellent post. Thank you.

the same dynamic took place in Britain’s South Asian and African colonies and I believe it is present in the UK today, often coded in terms of crime. Please tell me if I’m wrong.

You are very much correct as the overt lies of BNP politicians, amongst others, demonstrate.

Re: Here via metafandom

Hey, thanks for confirming. Though it is depressing to see just how common such lies are...

This was such an interesting and eloquent post, thank you! I'm totally guilty of ignoring whiteness as a racial issue, but I loved the points you made - especially about the "white woman's tears" phenomenon, which is definitely problematic, and something I agree the show was guilty of. (You also managed to incorporate the use of 'metaphorical' whiteness and blackness - lighting, costuming, Merlin vs Arthur, etc. - in a way that made sense to me and was relevant to the discussion; it's something I've seen overwhelm discussions about actual race elsewhere, but its inclusion in your post was very well done.)

Hey, thanks for the feedback! It is appreciated. I believe that those metaphorical uses of whiteness & blackness are important to note, but it's important that they don't overwhelm the discussion of how actual characters and people of color are treated.

I don't, at least currently, watch this show, but I am interested in it, and I am bookmarking this post for future chewing.

Thanks for the peeking! I do things like that all the time, so just wanted to say I appreciate you noting your possible future interest.

Again, with another really excellent post. I like the way you broke this down. I also skimmed the comments and saw that someone brought up the race vs. class issue, and I do think that there is so much that needs to be said about race in this series, separately from class, and that you (and others) are addressing this need.

I would not have thought to talk about Morgana's race (my own blind spot showing here), and I'm very glad that you did. It was very useful to reconsider from a racial perspective the problems with Morgana's characterization that were distressing me so much from a feminist perspective. They intersect in alarming ways. You are right about the 'weak white woman' stereotype doing no one any favours.

I've noticed some weird costuming things going on with Morgana, following on to what you said with her extreme pallor and the richly-hued dresses. The Morgana-centric episodes often have her in very bright red or green. She wore that Little Red Riding Hood/Scarlet Letter cloak in the one where she helped Mordred escape in season 1, and again when she wandered the forest to meet the druids in season 2. And she wore Poison Ivy/Shades of Envy green in the one where she was contemplating killing Uther, and again in the season 2 druid one, where she was all quiet and despairing in that very last scene with Merlin in her room. Some weird colour symbology going on there? I noticed because she kept wearing these bright, bright things only in the scenes where she was supposed to be sneaking around in the dark or the woods, being stealthy.

Maybe the colors only come out when she's being who she really is?

Thank you for this excellent and insightful post!

What a great post--thanks for sharing. I did read all of it, because you're right not to take whiteness as neutral and your interrogation of it is great. (Here via metafandom, btw.)

Hey, thanks! Hadn't seen the metafandom link at all, so it's much appreciated.

I too am from metafandom, and this is a great post. It's interesting to see where and how our racial assumptions intersect with the needs and stereotypes of narrative-- like the "White woman's tears" episode, which takes on a different cast in different situations (I've certainly seen 'master goes to bat for his/her servant before).

Thanks! Glad that you liked it! You're right, the "white women's tears" episode is using a familiar trope. It would be interesting to see how often the servant is utterly forgotten or dismissed by the narrative at the end in those stories, and see how this episode compares...I do think the races of the players, and the severity of Gwen's loss, casts the problems into relief.

This is a really great post, and I love the ways you analyzed the show. This is just the sort of meta that I wish more people would write. I'm sorry I don't have any thinky thoughts to add, but I just wanted to say that you seem really interesting, and so I friended you!

Thanks! No thinky thoughts necessary--I'm just glad to hear that you liked it.

And friending returned!

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Thank you so much! I will do my best to keep the juicy meta coming.

And thank you for appreciating the point about the deliberate choice to cast a white Morgana. Too often these conversations elide these unspoken assumptions, so I thought it was important to note at the start.

And yes, the "Morgana's personal is political" aspect of the show is a really troubling one, in part because as much as racefail abounds on the show, I think the show, and certainly the actress, as another commenter noted above, are actually making a point about Morgana's self-interest not being a good thing, and fandom is actually de-problematizing it.

I don't even watch Merlin but I love this post for the well-written way you handled race and gender and made whiteness non-normative.

Thank you so much! I think there needs to be a lot more making white non-normative in most fandoms...

This post was really interesting. I've been looking over all the things you post on Merlin and I've liked your book reviews. Would you mind if I friended you?

Not at all; go right ahead! There are more book reviews coming, I hope!

And glad you enjoyed!

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