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How Not To Handle a Woman: The Problem(s) with Morgana
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A post inspired by this conversation:

Morgana has been a favorite in Merlin fandom from early on, for understandable reasons. She's beautiful, she's glamourous, she has magical powers, and she stands up to authority. I like the idea of Morgana, and I see a lot of potential in the character, but I have been more disappointed than most in the development of her character, and in light of the upcoming Morgana-centric "The Nightmare Begins" I thought I'd get out some of what bothers me.

Lots of stories have a token Feisty Girl, who tosses her hair and acts as a sop for women in the audience ("We have a strong female character!") but never accomplishes anything. Morgana is a textbook example.

She joins the hunt for the afanc, then does nothing but flinch. She's a damsel in distress when Edwin attacks. She swears she'll stop Sophia and then does nothing. She tries to get Mordred out of Camelot and is caught. She tries to rescue Tom and winds up getting him killed. She tries to have Uther killed and then changes her mind.

Think about that: Her one moment of effectiveness comes by sabotaging a plot of her own devising! And the epilogue emphasizes that she wouldn't have succeeded without Merlin's help.

Her only useful moments so far have been as assists--throwing Arthur his sword, saving Arthur & fighting in Ealdor--but she's never the real hero (it's Merlin who actually saves the village). Most of her power early on is persuasive--getting Arthur to act--but even that breaks down in "Excalibur," when he won't listen to her and she back down without an argument. The same thing happens at "Le Morte d'Arthur" to even worse effect, and there she's reduced to a caricature of the hysterical woman. (Her recurring "terrified of a nightmare" scenes don't help, either).

This is significant, because she's a seer, and her primary power is pretty much useless if she can't make people listen. In this context, Morgana's complete inability to persuade Uther of anything takes on a different meaning. Yes, we know Uther is beyond difficult and we understand her building (but not helpful) frustration. Uther shoots down Arthur just as often, but it doesn't damage his character, because we see Arthur winning battles, making decisions and following through, and otherwise demonstrating real power and sometimes even capability.

Whenever Morgana is on screen, we see her fail.

So despite a lot of lip service to Morgana's strength, the building picture is of a damsel in distress--someone who needs to be saved from her own (scary) powers by being kept in the dark, as both Gaius and now the Dragon insist. "The Nightmare Begins" looks likely to continue this trend, by giving us a Morgana who needs to be rescued.

I really hope not. The fact that Morgana actually figures out that she's magic and seeks out others like her gives me hope. (I'd like it better if Merlin told her about himself, but I know the show is saving that for series 5.) But the scenes we've seen so far--Morgana's magic out of control (something that's never happened to Merlin), Morgana looking wary of a strange black man (stereotype alert!), and Morgana cowering as scorpions attack, using neither her skill with a sword or her newfound magical powers--make me worry.
I hope to be proven wrong in episode 3.

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(Deleted comment)
Thanks. You raise a good point. I agree that Morgana becoming the villain could be not only an interesting arc, but could make her a stronger (as in more effective) character. But there are two ways that could go wrong.

1) She could be a strong and powerful villain, but Merlin will oppose her, and win, every episode. This will continue the ineffectiveness effect, and may also emphasize a disturbing sub-trend, in which Morgana's independent ideas are bad ones.

2) She could become an antagonist without becoming an out-and-out villain, and retain her "good heart" and some moral scruples. (I actually think is more likely given what we've seen of her so far, but maybe I just have a soft spot for Morgana.) Much as I like this idea, I think a more human Morgana-opponent could easily come off as indecisive or unreliable in stereotypically feminine ways. Problem #1 would also apply.

Neither case would necessarily have to undercut Morgana, but they easily could. So far the villains on this show haven't been particularly, uh, formidable, and they aren't allowed to win even partial victories, so I'm actually worried that a Morgana no longer squarely in the fold of the "good guys" could be even less effective. I do hope I'm wrong...

(Deleted comment)
Well, you have a good chance at getting that, I think, because she's had a pretty gradual arc so far. I do think she moves from trying to reason with Uther in early episodes like the Poison Chalice to defying him in underhanded (and increasingly ruthless) ways over the course of the first series. The thing I take issues with is that her plans get worse as she loses patience--and the more ruthless they are (killing a core character), the less likely she is to succeed.

I agree that antagonist!Morgana is too interesting to be throwaway, but I also can't see Merlin ever being allowed to lose.

(Deleted comment)
Yes, it will be very interesting to see if she's ever able to use her own visions to her advantage. But now that they've given her powers outside precognition, they might downplay the Cassandra angle. I'm not sure.

Like that you brought up the parallel, though!

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Wow, thanks for responding, and at length. I'm glad to see that I'm not the only one who goes on about this show for paragraphs and paragraphs...

I think the way that the writers have thrown out any historical expectations in this show, including around gender, put all the problems with her character squarely on her shoulders. I mean, both Morgana and Gwen can handle weapons, without much explanation; they're not going for historical accuracy here. But the show itself often positions Morgana as nothing more than a pretty face--that's another element in the way she's presented. What she does and doesn't do doesn't matter so long as she looks good in her gowns.

Historically Morgana has often been a stereotype (though not necessarily a negative one), and often someone much more interesting. But that's no reason to make her one now.

I would argue that Morgana does hold some power, by virtue of being a noblewoman & beloved of Uther--remember that she offered Tauren access to the king, something they both thought useful--and by her magic. She's much more powerful than Gwen, who would probably be dead if she had challenged Uther verbally the way Morgana did in 1.12. I think the stereotypes that are becoming attached to her character are exactly those applied to women with power.

Your thought about getting revenge for being kept in the dark is a good one; I hadn't thought of that motivation but it seems very possible. And I totally agree with your perception of her as "almost entirely consumed by her own grievances, with hardly a thought towards the well-being of others."

That's completely the impression I got from 2.03. I have more thoughts on it, and on Morgana's character, here:

She may be good and moral, but she is still ignorant of the truth and she is being kept that way by the men around her, and because she holds no power (or at least she doesn't think she does...remember she went to another man to help her kill Uther) she has no recourse, no other way to be.

If she finds out about her magic and then depending on what she does about it maybe we'll see something different from her, but I fear that the writers have already established her path. She'll find out about her magic, find out that Gaius and Merlin knew all along, get angry, and then get "even". Regardless of the fact that she started out as the one character who could get a generally apathetic Prince Arthur to go against the tyrannical ways of his father, this season the writers have switched things up; she may have been moral and good then (if not capable of doing her own good works necessarily), but now it seems that she'll be almost entirely consumed by her own grievances, with hardly a thought towards the well-being of others.

Yes, all of this. You hit on so many of the things that burn me the most about the way that Morgana is written. Why must powerful women (ie. women who seek power OUTSIDE of the male power structures, who aren't given their power by men but take it), why must these women be written as scary, petty, mentally unstable and evil? I'm talking about Nimueh too, of course. It is one thing for a historical story with all of the corresponding biases of the time to be sexist. It's entirely another for a modern take on those stories to be perpetuating the same old tired biases wholeheartedly, whether knowingly or unknowingly.

Yes. And while we're at it, why can't the show give us a woman who DOES get her power from outside male power structures? So far the only one who has has been Nimueh (and maybe the witch from the first episode of the first season), and she's dead. Morgana's class power comes from her birth (her connection to her father) and Uther's love for her as an adopted daughter. Her magic is innate, but the only people with the ability to teach her to control it are men--Gaius, Merlin, Aglain, Mordred. (Though Aglain is marginal & more outside the power structure.) Fail again, show. Sigh.

Most of her power early on is persuasive--getting Arthur to act--but even that breaks down in "Excalibur," when he won't listen to her and she back down without an argument. The same thing happens at "Le Morte d'Arthur" to even worse effect, and there she's reduced to a caricature of the hysterical woman. (Her recurring "terrified of a nightmare" scenes don't help, either).

See this is why she had such potential as a character for me, intially, because within the constraints of her gender in a historical, feudal, sexist society, she was an intelligent, independent thinker; strong-willed and able to effect positive change through the avenues allowed to her as a woman: Arthur and Uther. And she did. So reducing her to a Cassandra in that particular episode in season 1 was, for me, epically bad writing.

I feel for her soooo much in season 2, because she is being lied to by everyone-- being denied her own power and made to mistrust herself. I was happy that she managed to see a different way to live through the druids, but then her despair at the end of the episode was particularly painful: to have such a small glimpse of hope and then to have it cruelly snatched away.

Morgana's my favourite Merlin character, and I really thought Nimueh was hard done by too. Her actions aren't any more or less defensible than Uther's, in my opinion, and the show made a mistake in painting her as a stereotypical evil villainess and then killing her off. A bad case of: "Look what happens when women have power!! Kill the witch!" Ugh. Uther murdered horribly everyone she loved, for crying out loud. How can her pain and her madness be purely evil, and not understandable on some level?

I wrote a feminist manifesto as fic about this after the season 1 finale. I completely missed the other feminist discussion that was happening at the time on livejournal, but luckily enough the writers are providing season 2 with enough fail that I'm not too late for this particular party! ;)

Thank you for commenting! I agree with you that this season is really hurting Morgana; just at the point I thought she might become more powerful, she's more than ever crushed by despair. (The keeping her in ignorance is maddening.)

I do want to point out that your description of Morgana as a smart & strong-willed woman effecting change through the channels she has fits Gwen exactly as well. So often I see the girls do the same thing in standing up to the men on the show, but only the white one get the credit for it, and it bothers me. (Not that you're necessarily doing this.) And I agree wholeheartedly that Nimueh was hard done by. It was a real loss to the show that they never really explored her legitimate grievances--there was a moment in 1.08 when I thought they might, but alas.

A commentary on Buffy the Vampire Slayer I once read described the show as taking the character of Spike and bit by bit filing him down to fit the Angel-shaped hole left by the creation of the spinoff. I suspect that this show might do the same with Morgana, shaping her gradually to fit the hole left by Merlin's killing of Nimueh and providing the show (which--let's face it--doesn't really do Villain of the Week stories well) with another young, sexy, female recurring villainess. The only way we'll ever get anything like Nimueh's perspective now is by using Morgana as her analog.

Thank you for that link to your fic! I really enjoyed it. Although it did make me long for a love triangle in which Morgana has to choose between Nimueh and Gwen...I'm an G/M shipper.

Thanks for this great post.
I friended you; hope you don't mind.

Thank you very much! I certainly don't mind at all, and will hasten to return the favor!

(Deleted comment)
You know, I very much hope Morgana will become more powerful. I'm a bit surprised that she hasn't so far--I was expecting her to do something deliberately with her magic in the episode where she figured it out. I kind of wish we were getting scenes of her practicing it now.

You make a really good point about the problem if Morgana becomes an outright villain or antagonist to Merlin--he's definitely going to beat her every episode. I'm hoping they make her more of a third side figure, but I'm not sure they're going to.

The token action girl who doesn't actually get to do anything! Oh boy, that's a familiar trope, and Merlin plays it to the hilt. I feel like she has so much potential as a character, yet the narrative itself is determined to cut her off at the knees so it can focus on the boys.

In other words: I don't have anything actually useful to add, since you summed it up so eloquently and intelligently. So I'll just shout praise and encouragement from this corner.

Glad to hear from you anyway! Yes, she's totally a Faux Action Girl. At this point I'm wondering whether making her a villain would increase or decrease her power. And I'm with you on the squandered potential. She would be much more compelling--and her eventually turn to villainy (if that's what it is) would be more powerful and threatening--if she were established as someone who could be formidable in securing her aims.

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