zahrawithaz (zahrawithaz) wrote,

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

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.


So here are some places where I think Morgana’s whiteness matters, in her portrayal and in her reception by fans.

The palest of the them all. The creators of Merlin chose to cast a white woman (they could have done otherwise)—one with exceptionally pale skin—as Morgana. Presumably other factors loomed larger in their choice, but they go to a lot of effort, through makeup, lighting, costuming, framing, and sometimes even set choices, to play up the extreme whiteness of her skin.

Morgana often wears deep rich colors that contrast with her pallor. Though they often darken her lips, she never wears blush (even Sophia, also played by a very pale actress, had color in her cheeks). In a show that puts so much effort into its visuals these decisions can’t be accidental. In this context, Gwen’s blackness is also used as a prop to underline Morgana’s whiteness. (Note that the show also went for a contrasting dark/light visual with the male leads, and that the working-class immigrant, though white, is the darker one.) Strikingly, they don’t play up the color of Gwen’s skin, because it’s not seen as an asset—and they cast a light-skinned black actress.

The emphasis on Morgana’s pallor is linked to an emphasis on her beauty. The moments when the camera lingers lovingly on Morgana are inevitably the ones in which she has been lit, framed, and costumed to accentuate her white skin.

White woman as ornament: This is important, because showcasing her beauty has been from the beginning of the show one of Morgana’s main functions. (Frankly, it’s too often her only function *cough2.02cough*) She has been consistently played up and acknowledged in fandom as fanservice with low-cut, glamorous dresses; the camera signals her sexiness with slow sweeps and a reverse blazon in the first episode. Merlin, Arthur, Gwen, Valiant, and Morgana herself also comment textually on her beauty.

Meanwhile, no one except Lancelot (who is racially ambiguous, being both played by a white Hispanic actor & the only character whose race has ever been commented on in the show) has ever told Gwen that she’s beautiful, and the camera only noticed her when Arthur did. It’s not until a white male character acknowledges her beauty that it matters, or that the costume and makeup deparments decide to work with it. Notably, when they do, they light her to make her skin look less dark—both in promo photos & in the famously sunlit kiss scene.

I hope the racist implications of this are obvious. There’s a long history behind white beauty standards—which not only confine white women to an ornamental role, but demean women who aren’t white. Black women in particular face the legacy of slavery, in which the ability of white men to sexually abuse female slaves led to social anxiety, and the insistence that black women couldn’t be attractive/white beauty is the only real beauty. By making such a fuss about Morgana’s looks, the show reinforces such ideas.

On a meta level, I’ve read many reviews that called Katie McGrath the show’s weakest actor and speculated that she was cast for her looks alone (often with the requisite Keira Knightley comparison). Whether or not this is true (NOT my interest), the “talentless white woman cast for her looks” is a real-life trope that contrasts with the notorious difficulty black actresses have finding work. Think for a minute about all the opposition to Angel Coulby’s casting on “anachronism” grounds. The idea that looks count for a white actress and against a black one is part of the show’s context, and one that many viewers bring to the show.

White woman’s work. The emphasis on Morgana’s looks is intensified by how little else she has to do. I normally let the anachronisms on the show lie (for obvious reasons), but the fact that Morgana does none of the work—cloth-producing and managerial—a medieval upper-class woman would do is significant. (In fact, the show gives all traditionally female household tasks—including keeping the keys—to Arthur.) Besides getting dressed and undressed with Gwen’s help and tending the injured during battle (notably over Gaius’s objection) the only work Morgana does is sword-fighting. The latter is great & counter-stereotypical, but it’s also a self-conscious anachronism, one the audience knows isn’t real. Gwen, meanwhile, does some manual labor and is implied to do much more (Hengist comments on her servant’s hands).

Obviously in the context of the show this is largely a class difference, but the choices to cast a white woman as noblewomen and a black woman as a maid gives it a racial cast. Race and class are deeply linked, because both of them are linked to power. In fact, the show often uses race as a shorthand for class and to reinforce class themes. (The interracial aspect of Gwen and Arthur’s relationship, for example, visually represents the class divide that keeps them apart, by implicitly linking it to a greater social taboo.)

I hope it’s clear that the idea that a white woman should stand helplessly on a pedastal and the black woman should be doing her laundry insults both of them, but is a lot worse for the black woman. Those of us who are white (like me) forget this at our peril.

The weak white woman. The ways that Morgana has and does not have power are complicated by both her race and gender. I’ve written at length about Morgana’s incompetence, and the second series of the show has continued this theme while eroding much of Morgana’s confidance and her connections to other characters. It’s significant, I think, that Morgana consistently wore flattering (and sexy) deep rich colors early in the first series, when she was stronger and had a role as potential love interest, and that as she has grown weaker, more isolated, and more magical, she increasingly wears white, which washes her out and makes her look more fragile.

Fragility is also a trope of whiteness, and one that has both gendered and racial implications. Obviously, the idea that white women are delicate little things and need to be protected has terrible implications for said white women, and facilitates their being controlled by white men. But it has has also been used repeatedly to terrorize and control people of color—because they are positioned as the threats from which white women need to be protected. (This has a very particular history, including both lynching & the death penalty, vis-à-vis black men in the US, where I live, but 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.) The show isn’t doing this outright—I’ve yet to see Morgana menaced by a scary black man the way that, say, Kaylie was by Jubal Early on Firefly—for which I say thank you, but the fragile white woman meme still carries this history. (Arguably this is why Aglain died.)

The corrollary is the idea that black woman are tough and rough and don’t need protecting. In 2.04, for instance, when both Morgana and Gwen are grabbed by kidnappers, Morgana lets out a few high-pitched shrieks while Gwen is silent. Gwen then waits for her assailant to be distracted and fights herself free, while Morgana has to be rescued by a knight who cuts her attacker down—despite the fact that Morgana knows more about fighting that Gwen does. Yes, it makes sense that none of the knights (whose job is to die protecting Morgana) is going to fight for Gwen, and she has to rely on herself. I’m just pointing out that this dynamic has a racial dimension.

The rest of the episode is actually a vindication of this moment. Morgana actively participates in her own escape (though notably she needs Gwen to not only get her a sword, but sacrifice herself & mow down a pursuer), and Gwen actually gets three men trying to rescue of her. This is why the fact that both Arthur and Lancelot shield Gwen in the final cage-fight scene doesn’t bother me, personally; it’s still rare for a black woman to be deemed worthy or in need of protection, physically or emotionally.

In contrast, characters on the show are always protecting Morgana, even when she doesn’t need it—and even from herself. So Arthur apologizes for not checking on her safety during the 1.04 banquet, when she’s in no danger, and Gaius insists on keeping the knowledge of Morgana’s magic from her, even trying to control her latent powers with drugs. (In fact, that the person who needs to be kept ignorant is Uther.) When a pallid and hysterical Morgana tries to warn Arthur not to hunt the Questing Beast, she is patronized in a classic white-woman way, as someone who needs saving from herself.

Even the plot of episode 2.04 revolves around “missing white woman syndrome,” in which white women who are the victims of violent crimes receive extensive attention, while women of color in the same situation do not. Because the white girl is no longer missing, Uther sees no need to mount a rescue. Although Gwen ultimately does get the physical protection she needs, no one but Lancelot shows any interest in her emotional hurts, and he inflicts a terrible one when he leaves without speaking to her. 

The personal and the privileged. Many people love Morgana’s outspokenness, but it depends upon her explicit class and implicit race privilege. When she talks back to Uther, she is either ignored or (in one case) spends the night in the dungeons. The latter is bad, but black commoners like Gwen or Tom are killed or threatened with execution for far less. In fact Morgana’s characterization thus far is all about being white enough to speak her mind freely, but too female to get anything done.

(Morgana is about to lose some of the privilege she doesn’t know she has, because she’s just discovered that she’s a magical minority. But she’s never going to lose the privilege that comes from being raised to believe that she’s the most beautiful girl in the room, and that kings should listen to what she has to say.)

When Morgana does speak her mind, she invariably represents a very personal position rather than a larger political stance. In her key episode “To Kill the King,” Morgana challenges and rebels against Uther over his imprisonment and killing of Tom, Gwen’s father. But the script signals that the loss of Gwen’s father has reawakened Morgana’s own feelings of grief for her own father’s death, for which she blames Uther. So her righteous indignation is more about her personal vendetta than actual injustice, which Uther at once point recognizes; he expresses regret not for killing an innocent man, but for failing to anticipate that this death would upset Morgana. This is a common phenomenon, in which black characters are used to do “emotional work” for white ones. Tom and Gwen matter not as people experiencing human loss and tragedy, but as entry-points to the white characters’ drama.

Notably, Uther is redeemed—both for Morgana and implicitly for the audience—when he apologizes to Morgana and promises to listen to her more in the future. He never does anything to admit fault, much less make amends, to Gwen, the sole surviving victim, because the episode has so completely prioritized a white woman’s feelings over a black character’s life as to utterly forget the latter. (That same episode closes with two white father-figures embracing & supporting their white charges; Gwen is notably absent.) Morgana doesn’t use Uther’s newfound respect for her to benefit Gwen or improve standards of proof in the kingdom.

In other words, 1.11 is an episode-long demonstration of the dreaded “white woman’s tears” phenomenon, in which a white woman’s emotional upset about an injustice against people of color of takes precedence over the original injustice and its victims.

Whose personal is political? With regards to Morgana, this is part of a larger pattern, in which her choices to disrupt the social order are always intensely personal. (The idea that women are motivated disproportionately by personal grounds is, to my knowledge, not racially specific.) Yet fandom often extrapolates from her personal position to a more general political one, holding her up as an activist or feminist in more general terms.

So far we’ve seen Morgana speak up or take action on behalf of herself—she rightly calls out Arthur’s sexism when he tries to deny that she helped save his life—or others with which she feels a strong personal bond (Mordred, Merlin, and Gwen (in 2.04)). That’s great. That makes her a good friend and decent human being. That does not make her an activist.

While I enjoy Morgana’s moments of righteous fervor, I find it strange that anything Morgana does for herself is seen to be for all women. Of course many people experience discrimination personally and extrapolate out to the general cause. That’s great, and I would LOVE see Morgana do that—for women, or magic-users, or another group. But she hasn’t.

You know who has? Gwen. In episode 1.10 she successfully argues Arthur into letting the women of Ealdor participate in their own self-defense. It’s the one general argument for women we’ve heard on the show so far, and it comes from a character who repeated refers to general principle when making decisions. It disturbs me that much of fandom has ignored this or transferred the quality to Morgana’s character. It reminds me too much of the recasting of feminism as a white, middle-class women’s movement, which historically it never was.

I think  that when Morgana speaks about herself personally, it’s somehow seen as universal because she’s white—and one of the main tropes of whiteness is the idea that it is a neutral backdrop with which we all identify, while the experiences of people of color are too specific to relate to.

That is of course the idea I’m attacking in this piece. Too often, fans (myself included) talk about the ways that Morgana has been constrained by her gender without referencing her race, but it’s very much at play. Morgana is both privileged by her whiteness, and confined by gender stereotypes that have a specific racial cast.

The idea that women are weak or in need of protection, for instance, is most often applied to white women, and describing it only as a trope of sexism implies that white women’s experiences are the template for all gender oppression, when in fact they are no less racially specific than any other group’s. There’s more to say here, but this piece has gotten long, so I will save the rest for an upcoming Gwen-centered post.

It is interesting that as series 2 has further developed both female characters, it’s broken the mold far more in regards to Gwen. Recent episodes have emphasized her beauty, her role as a love interest, and brought her into a more central place in the narrative (albeit one which emphasizes the function she fulfills for Arthur)—all of which undo earlier problems specific to black women in her treatment.

But while Morgana’s purely decorative role has lessened and she’s gotten a second chance to sword-fight, her white female fragility has been very much emphasized (and the white gowns just keep coming—see the promos for 2.05). This is the opposite of what I expected from a character developing her magical ability and growing into a potential antagonist. It remains to be seen what they’ll do with her next, but the show hasn’t shown any signs of stopping using the woman as contrasts to each other.


Tags: merlin, merlin meta, race, racism
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