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-i
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.