Log in

No account? Create an account

Previous Entry Share Next Entry
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.


Oh, this post. I want to have its babies. ♥

Gwen's one of the reasons I keep watching as well. Even when they marginalize her and mistreat Morgana, even with the skeevy gender and race issues and power dynamics that keep getting worse, Gwen's there charming my socks off every week, being real and non-stereotypical and growing and having actual desires (and romantic prospects, what?) and hopes and fears, even if they aren't as explored as fully as for other characters. I can still grab hold of what's there and extrapolate.

Relatedly, there's a black girl on the new show Vampire Diaries who I love. She isn't stereotypical either, a nice girl, sweet, even with her own subplot surrounding her magical powers. But it's four or five episodes in and she's spending a lot of time helping her best friend deal with the three men in her life, but no guys ever seem to notice her. She's even been a third wheel once, and a fifth wheel twice. Alas.

(Deleted comment)
(Deleted comment)
Thank you! I agree that it would be great to see more of Gwen outside her romances....I particularly wish they had kept up her friendship with Merlin after she gave up on her crush, because I liked seeing her in that role--or better yet, given her a mother or sister. (Guinevere does have an identical sister in some medieval versions--now that would be fun!)

On Zoe, while I think she was very well-acted and hence well-characterized as an ex-soldier and loving wife, which is a cool combination, I do think all her war experiences were reflections on Mal's inner life, and her relationship with Wash was always presented from his POV. (Especially in the Wash-is-jealous-of-his-wife's-relationship-with-Mal arc.)

Her desire to be a mother, I agree, was intriguing and Zoe-centered, but it was mentioned once & didn't get explored (I like to think it would have if the series have continued). Of all the characters, she had the least arc (as in character development & change) in Firefly (and sadly the other contenders for the title are Book and maybe Inara, the other two characters of color).

Gwen was shy, and awkward, and endearing.

Thanks for this perspective.

(Deleted comment)
Thank you! You're very welcome. I hadn't seen anyone else talk about it either, so I really wanted to point it out.

Glad to see this, and I strongly agree with it -- it needs to be said, and said again until more people notice the discrepancies. Especially, Gwenivere as a maid made me wonder about the initial set-up, even more than the other characters' changes from the best-known versions of Arthurian lit. Merlin's role, however exalted, is always service to Arthur; Gwenivere doesn't come from that direction at all.

On the other hand, how does Gwen get from maid to queen, which *has* to be more interesting than getting from princess to queen? But, I haven't seen the show do much about it (as far as I've seen, which is end of first season).

Interesting post - I totally agree it's wonderful that Gwen is shy and hesitant. Female black characters on British TV are also too-often confident and "sassy" (when they're there at all, that is...)

I do think you're bringing a lot of American-specific stereotypes and "baggage" (for want of a better word) to the analysis. Of course, there's nothing wrong with that, but it might be worth bearing in mind that while a lot (most?) of these stereotypes will exist in British culture, they play out differently. The historical perspective is another thing - obviously slavery is a major event from which a lot of these stereotypes originate. However, the majority of Black British people do not have their roots in slavery, but in later emigration to the UK. Sadly, racist stereotypes against black people in Britain are likely to relate to illegal immigration and/or inner city gangs and criminality.

The fact that Gwen would never hurt a fly, and better still, clearly belongs in Camelot (as opposed to being an outsider/immigrant) is amazing in itself.

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!

(Deleted comment)
(Deleted comment)
This is a great post! Thanks for making it.

I love this post. I'm go glad I read it. You have said everything that I've been saying for years. One of the reasons I started watching Merlin was because of Angel Coulby, who I saw in a show they had on BBC America called "Conviction." I was like, "who's that sweet black woman who's NOT a sassy best friend?" In the USA the stereotype of a "sassy, loud black woman" is all over TV and especially in reality shows. It's so refreshing to see someone who's NOT like that.

Wow, thank you for saying this. And can I tell you how envious I am that you discovered Angel Coulby before Merlin?

What a great post! I hadn't really thought about the lack of sweet and shy black women characters on TV but that's such a good point. I've also loved seeing Gwen's confidence and her general presence growing in the latest episodes.

And I cosign this post very much, yes.

Thanks for this post! :)

Excellent points. Thanks for making them. It may be that I know more shy, retiring, reticent and cautious black women than sassy, outspoken, bold, and making-their-lives-all-about-helping-their-white-bff's. I'm black, from a large, extensive black family that, like many black families, spans states, provinces, oceans and continents (for what it's worth).

Narratives about black women, be they European or European settler, tend to be distortions based upon European and white longings and fears (and lies). It's nice to see that Gwen is neither Saphire nor Jezebel though I do dislike seeing her in the role of servant since the (white) British seem to be mostly comfortable with black women as servants, if at all. With women such as Seacole or the current governor general of Canada being seen, by whites all over the Commonwealth, as exceptions to the rule.

Thanks again.

Edited at 2009-10-15 12:30 am (UTC)

Thank you for reading, and for all your comments here. I particularly appreciate your point here:

"Narratives about black women, be they European or European settler, tend to be distortions based upon European and white longings and fears (and lies)"

It matters a lot who gets to tell the story.

Thank you for this - you've summed up a lot of what I love about Gwen.

Thanks for this post - I don't watch the show, but the distinction about a shy Black female character from sassy best friend was enlightening for me.

(Deleted comment)
Wow, really? I'm really flattered to hear that this post got you to watch Merlin, and glad you're enjoying the show.

I'm not an Excalibur fan myself, but I agree that Nicol Williamson deserves to be inducted in some hall of fame somewhere for his staccato delivery. It's certainly iconic.