just a puppet who can see the strings
and_i
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January 2011
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just a puppet who can see the strings [userpic]
Thinkings

Forgive me, f'list, for putting this here. I have nowhere else to put it and I wanted to formalise some thoughts that have been brewing.

Thoughts on Colourblind Casting in Merlin
Or I'm finally a fucking princess*.

It seems strange to want to write a piece about the diverse casting of Merlin. when it's so much a non-issue in the show. In fact, it's so much not an issue, and there are people of so many different ethnicities in Merlin that their fantasy land might be quite refreshing to live in after this one on those terms.

However, I don't want to let it pass by without comment, because there seem to be a couple of trains of thought on the subject that invite reflection. If you don't mind, I'll largely just use the example of Angel Coulby (who is of mixed race) as Guinevere to illustrate, as she's obviously the most prominent relevant figure.

One idea is that if you think casting a non-white Guinevere is a non-issue or a positive thing, then you don't mention it. It's a non-issue. Angel Coulby was the best person for the job, that's the end of it. Which is fine, for the most part. I just would consider it a shame to not have the fact that, as so rarely has happened in television history, a non-white actor is in a leading role of a traditionally white mythological figure. Angel may have been considered the right person for the job, but she was considered without being hindered by the preconceptions of Guinevere's inherent whiteness. That is pretty damn special..

A lot of the time when "We cast the best person for the job!" is used, it's used as a shorthand to deflect any complaints about not casting out of the traditional White Hero mould. Personally, I don't always believe it, although I don't believe it's necessarily a lie. I think people are clueless to their own preconceptions sometimes. That they don't understand that their brains have a shorthand for fitting certain physical characteristics into certain archetypes and cast accordingly. Either that, or they don't expect their audience to understand. I'll take cluelessness over cynicism any day, but I imagine that both play their parts to some degree. So for the creators of Merlin to go ahead and say you know what? We don't give a fuck! Let's cast who we want to cast because she's a damn fine actress and we think she's perfect is leaps and bounds ahead. It's very sad that it's so, but it is.

So I want to celebrate the fact. I don't want it to be a non-issue just yet. I want to pat these kids on the back and say well done and thank you. I think it's important to do so. I'd love to think we live in a society where we don't have to think about it, but that's a luxury some of us just can't afford still.

The other reason I want to vocalise support is because the other faction are fairly vocal in their opinions. I don't advise anybody spend much time on the IMDB boards, but they're a perfect example of what I'm talking about. There are people who don't like this new "politically correct" BBC who cast willy nilly with no regard for historical accuracy or what their previous images of Guinevere are or because of, I don't know, bunnies or something. To be honest, I tune it out. Historical accuracy notwithstanding (I think you'll find there were definitely non-white people in Britain from, at the very latest, Roman times and yes, in Arthurian literature, there are a few black knights - not to be confused with Black Knights - running around with the rest of them), this whole idea that the BBC ought to cast their medieval fantasy to the images they have in their heads... well, that's just plain daft. I'm not complaining because, say, Uther doesn't have a big ginger beard like my Uther does. Anthony Head is great at the role. That's what's important.

And as for the minor characters and the extras, I seem to recall that Robin Hood suffered a few attacks because it did as Merlin has done, and cast people in roles regardless of their ethnic background. In Merlin, we've had Pellinore as a young, black knight, we've seen noble Oriental ladies and the feasts at the court feature a mix of races. Perhaps such diversity is a little unrealistic, but this is a show with a talking dragon in it. I don't see why my fantasy has to be all one colour.

There's nothing wrong with a little "political correctness". People who use the phrase in a derogatory fashion tend not to know what it means. What it means is that you work to not be offensive or dismissive to people who fall outside of the Straight White Middle-Class Male demographic (and in fact, not to be offensive to those within it. Equality is fun!). It's to do with helping us create a society where equality is the norm. And here, if the results of the evils of political correctness gone mad is to allow non-white actors the same chances as everybody else then sign me straight up for that newsletter.

I'm not saying I agree with everything about the BBC's Merlin, but it represents a move forwards. So I will say I approve. There are other reasons why it's a show I love and a show I love to talk about, and they're all to do with story and style and myth and performance, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that there's nothing interesting about the "colourblindness" of the casting.



*Gwen isn't a princess, I know (see my aforementioned disclaimer about not supporting every creative decision wholeheartedly). But she's important in the royal court and in the show and, as long as they do go there sometime, she's going to be queen. Which would be, you know, totally awesome.

(ETA: lotesseflower rather fabulously puts into words what I was alluding to in my final paragraph in this comment thread here.)

Comments

My thoughts on this are nowhere near as coherent as yours, but the colour blind casting in Merlin makes me ridiculously happy, and I agree that it should be celebrated.

I do wonder what the, ah, critics on IMDB would say about the times when white actors are cast into traditionally non-white roles, but I'm not sure my brain would be able to cope with the answer.

It was such a pleasant surprise and I hope more shows follow suit. I think they're beginning to now.

I should learn not to visit the IMDB. There are so many ...interesting... threads there.

*nodnod* I like this argument muchly.

Oh, and yes. IMDB boards are about as rational and thought-out as the Have Your Say forums on the BBC website. *rolls eyes* Good gods.

Oh, God, Have Your Say. I tend to have to visit the Speak Youre Branes website as soon as I've read that.

*grins* I like that blog too. I used to attempt intelligent argument with HYS, but... damn. No. I have too many hours in my life where I could be doing other things.

Is that a bit like poking a sleeping cobra with a stick?

I found this meta very interesting and I would say something pithy here, but I"m rather hung over, so instead . . . *friends*

Thanks for the comment.

stumbling in from merlinmeta -

while I love the so-not-a-big-deal attitude the show's taken toward race, it maybe kind of bothers me a little bit that black!Gwen isn't a princess. I don't know, on the one hand making her a servant gives her a level of textual freedom - not to mention a really interesting storyline - but on the other, the show really has, through colorblindness, recreated a racially-traditional image - the black servant of the white mistress.

This bothers me. Just a little. Even though Angel Coulby is absolutely excellent.

That's one of the aspects I didn't go into (which I was alluding to in the final bit), although I wholeheartedly agree. I do find it somewhat insensitive that when Guinevere is for the first time non-white, she's also a maid. It works very well within the context of the show, but you're entirely right about the image that's portrayed here. Dr Who suffers from similar issues with Martha especially.

Yeah, the issues with Martha really bothered me. On the one hand, EXCELLENT to FINALLY have a non-white lead on the show... on the other, they basically wrote the doctor as rejecting a black character in favour of a white one, and a LOT of the fandom ALSO rejected the black character in favour of the white one.

I think I would be more comfortable with a black Gwen as a servant if a bigger deal was made about her physical attractiveness, and if she was made a bit bolshier and interesting and given more to do (and I think it's a sad comment on the way writers work that they cannot find it in themselves to write a show with two female leads who are BOTH strong, 'feisty' and attractive without it coming off as them basically having written the same character). It makes me uncomfortable that so much is made of Morgana's beauty on the show and in the publicity for the show (it's in ALL of her official character descriptions) but nothing is said about Gwen's. Ideally, I'd rather NOTHING be said about their physical attractiveness unless it's said about ALL the cast including the men (hey, Arthur's pretty enough too, right?) But the fact that basically, Gwen is the ugly duckling, is not good given that she's ALSO black.

Martha came off as the ugly duckling when compaired to Rose, too - I mean, it keeps happening, and while I doubt it's ever deliberate, people need to be catching these things because it speaks to the underlying problem where by black people are still basically considered undersirable by the mainstream media.

Mickey also suffered from being passed over in favour of Rose, but since Martha was awesome from the outset, it was much more apparent with her. It turned into a rather disturbing pattern, especially since both of them proved themselves to be so very competent and intelligent when really allowed to shine. I have to admit, there's a Martha line in the last (or penultimate, I forget which) episode that aired which made me burn, but the race issues in Doctor Who is a whole other set of posts entirely and better people than me have spoken on them.

I've noticed too that with Gwen there's a tendency to compare her unfavourably to Morgana in terms of looks, because she doesn't have the same "classical" glamour of Morgana. Of course, this is partly due to the casting of her in this position (and there's yet another reason why the casting of a black Guinevere in a maid role becomes problematic). Angel is a beautiful girl, it would be nice to have had that picked up upon. It's what I was saying to lotesseflower before, her very ordinariness is both lovable and slightly disappointing.

I adore your icon, by the way.

May I butt in, just for a tiny quick comment?

I agree that we're being given to little Gwen in something outside her role as "the servant" with all the connotations that has and that her attractiveness should be more of a factor, especially in the off-show stuff like website descriptions etc.

But, there is this one tiny moment in the show that gives me hope. Lancelot. (If I ever say anything good about Lance, it will be this ;) He was clearly struck by her, by her physical appearance. He did consider her a lady and said so to her face. In that conversation with Arthur (where Arthur wonders idly if Morgana is attractive and Lancelot is answering the question in regards to Gwen) he is moved not by her ordinary maid-ness, but by her beauty and appearance.

It's unfortunate that she's given an unrequited!love plot with Merlin (who is apparently so smitten with Arthur that he can't see anyone else).

That is true, and it's a lovely moment. Lancelot himself is of no real status, but you're right, he does see Gwen for the beautiful woman she is.

Wanted to say how much I love this comment. You hit so many of my personal pet peeves--the way Morgana's beauty is promoted in a way heavily linked to her whiteness, the way the "black women are undesirable" underlies too much on this show.

But I did want to say that I'm glad they didn't write Gwen "feisty," for a couple of reasons. First, there are stereotypes about black women's "feistiness" and the fact that they dodged that one is one of (I think) the more interesting aspects of Gwen's character. And I think she is a strong, and strong-willed, character in a quiet way.

Second, I think Morgana's feistiness is hugely problematic, in that 1) she's got to be the most ineffective character on the show, 2) it's bound in with a lot of woman-as-bad-leader stereotypes, and 3) it often comes across as an expression of privilege, class and race, at least to me.

(Apologies if this is just incredibly dated given the lapse between our comments!)

Also, do you mind if I hyperlink this comment on the main post?

feel free to hyperlink!

It's disappointing, because as you say it all really does work within the show - I think Gwen is much more dynamic as a maid than she would be as Morgana Mark Two - but it seems to me like they did sort of have to alter Guinevere's mythic aspect in order to cast her as a black girl.

Thank you!

I think probably they needed to have the balance - couldn't really have Merlin the only commoner after all. It would be interesting to see how far in the decision making process about characters any decisions about casting were made, ie, if there was a possibility for any of the others to be cast with black or otherwise non-white actors.

This is actually one of the reasons I was a little disappointed not to get more Arthur/Gwen (even in a non-shippery sense) earlier on, or for Gwen not to be given meatier stuff outside of her working for Morgana. Gwen's ordinariness we love about her, whilst at the same time, it can feel a bit of a let down.

This bothers me. Just a little. Even though Angel Coulby is absolutely excellent.

Ditto. On a more superficial note, since pretty much the begining of the season, I've also kind of wanted an episode where we get to see Gwen dressed up.

It was lovely seeing her in different clothes in ep 10, I wouldn't mind that traditional "Holy Crap, you're stunning" reaction to Gwen sometime.

Awesome post. I've been having vague thoughts on this as well, but without anywhere near as much ability to articulate them so intelligently.

Basically - yeah, most of the grumbling around Angel's casting made me REALLY uncomfortable because it was done almost universally by people who liked to start their sentences with 'I'm not racist BUT...' (and anyone who needs to start a sentence like that is almost certainly about to say something racist... made even worse by the fact that they are apparently not registering their own biggotry).

We DO need to celebrate Angel getting cast. I think a bigger deal needs to be made about it. In the same way they made a big deal over Freema Agyemon getting cast as Martha and making it as the Doctor's first full-time non-white companion because we NEED to celebrate this. Britain likes to think it's come a long way since the 1950s - we like to claim that racism and sexism and homophobia are vices purely now belonging to the united states and sometimes Australia. But you only have to LOOK at our TV shows to shows to see how far we still have to come in deconstructing the institutionalised white privilge that is still so rampant in our country. In most prime time TV shows you can count on one hand the number of people of colour in main parts with sustained, engaging story arcs, and if its a historical, or at least historically ambiguous (like Merlin) drama, then you can forget it. The number of gay people is a different matter again - but the number of gay people of colour? Seriously, the day we get a gay, black Doctor Who will be a day worth throwing a fucking great party.

I think it's FANTASTIC that we have a black Guinevere. There WERE black people around from at least Roman times in Britain and even WITHOUT that fact, Merlin is clearly a fantasy drama with no clear historical setting, there is NO reason to white-wash the cast.

We NEED political correctness. Political Correctness is what makes it NOT okay for someone to make joke that makes me feel excluded from mainstream society because I am gay. Political Correctness as a term is only ever used as a derrogotory one by people who DON'T benefit from it - the white, straight middle classes. And we need more people of colour in main parts in prime time dramas; we need more gay people, too, and more women. We need to keep shifting the most publically excessable face of our nation so that the little kids of all colours and backgrounds CAN watch it and consider it a non-issue that there is a black Guinevere; a gay King Arthur; a powerful female character who is neither a villain nor a sex object.

And if we have only one out of those three so far - it's still worth celebrating. Baby steps, at least.

Oh yes "I'm not XXX but", the great indicator of all kinds of bigotry about to come forth.

It's amazing how easily people seem to forget that we need to keep forward momentum in getting our media to better represent the world so that it reflects and celebrates the different backgrounds. There's movement, but we have to keep on.

We need to keep shifting the most publically excessable face of our nation so that the little kids of all colours and backgrounds CAN watch it and consider it a non-issue that there is a black Guinevere.

Absolutely agree, its what inspired the subtitle of this post in a way. It's hugely important to be able to look into things and find characters to identify with who share things with you. There's that old idea that a white audience or a straight audience couldn't identify with a non-white or gay protagonist, which is why they're not about... but that's exactly what we've had to do all along.

Merlin is clearly a fantasy drama with no clear historical setting

Seriously! They are throwing tomatoes at Merlin in the stocks. Not. Meant. To. Be. Actual. History.

(And I adore Angel as Gwen!)

Dude, thank you for the nice coherent meta. This is something that I've been quietly appreciating about Merlin for awhile.

Thanks for the comment! I felt that this needed to have something said about it.

Interestingly enough, I think the colourblind casting is possibly quite deliberate - because with Angel's character they've removed most of the qualities of traditional!Guinevere, and having a black actress play her only really emphasises that "newness", if that makes sense.

So I want to celebrate the fact. I don't want it to be a non-issue just yet. I want to pat these kids on the back and say well done and thank you. I think it's important to do so. I'd love to think we live in a society where we don't have to think about it, but that's a luxury some of us just can't afford still.
What you've said is very sweet, and I do agree with you. But as a person of colour myself, in a country which doesn't really have many minorities... the fact that you feel the need to mention her race at all, even as a congratulations to the BBC, can seem patronising. Does that make sense?
I don't know... I'm not really able to express myself. It's just another point of view.

Though definitely I do agree that it's a big, and bold, step forward for actresses from different racial backgrounds. :P

the fact that you feel the need to mention her race at all, even as a congratulations to the BBC, can seem patronising. Does that make sense?

I know what you mean and I appreciate that viewpoint, I honestly do.

I'm more of an opinion that whilst it would be wrong to evaluate any aspect of Angel's performance with regard to her race, actually acknowledging it is a different matter. I want to raise the fuss because too many people think things like the problematic race issues in our media are done and dusted and dealt with, which is certainly not true.

I'm more of an opinion that whilst it would be wrong to evaluate any aspect of Angel's performance with regard to her race, actually acknowledging it is a different matter. I want to raise the fuss because too many people think things like the problematic race issues in our media are done and dusted and dealt with, which is certainly not true.

Fair enough, and that's certainly a very valid opinion... keeping it in the public sphere so that people can acknowledge bias that may even be almost unconscious.
I just wish more people from minorities stood up for themselves (though not complain. because that ruins it for everyone. *eyeroll*) because we've got to reach a stage where we can celebrate our own, not need anyone else to do it for us. :P

(Okay. My total inability to vocalise - or in this case - write my thoughts is continuing.)

I've noticed that there's a tendency for people to just dismiss minorities speaking up for themselves as being oversensitive, which is very annoying. That said, when people genuinely are just complaining when there's no need, it doesn't help anyone (as you say).

I'm mixed race myself, so I understand the frustration of trying to find the right balance.

(Don't worry, I'm interested, and if I misinterpret anything, feel free to kick me.)

Thanks for the comment.

Gwen is the character that has fallen by the wayside a little, as I guess it's harder to find things for her to do - many of Morgana's scenes involve conflicting with Uther/Arthur for example, presumably so the events in To Kill A King don't come out of the blue as well as setting up Morgana's position and personality, and of course Arthur and Merlin are going to get more. Gwen seems to be more a moral compass (and we saw that to incredible effect in 1.10 and 1.12) instead of herself taking on the action, although we know she can. Now series two is confirmed I hope to (and suspect that we will) see more of Gwen stepping up and taking on a few responsibilities and stories outside of providing support for Morgana and Merlin. We've had hints of it before now, but very little comparatively. Admittedly, 13 42 minutes means that it was going to happen to somebody, probably!

*butts in and blushes*
You're absolutely right about Gwen. I guess the thing about Gwen is that despite the fact she is so good and a moral compass to everyone else, she is the character that finds it hardest to take action - because of her social position, gender and even her own personality. I think we have to wait for her to develop that confidence - which she seems to be doing - and in the meantime just watch what she does in the background.
... That said, I like her a lot better than any other Guinevere I've seen so far. :P

Actually, that's one of the things I really like about Gwen--that (thanks largely to Angel Coulby's acting) when she takes a risk we in the audience know exactly how much she's risking. And when she does take action, she gets things done. She has limited power, but when she uses it, she's very effective.

(I realize this is an old comment and that the intervening episodes may have a lot to do with our different perspectives.)

You know, I didn't know that it was originally a negative term. Dude, did I just negate a whole swathe of argument there? XD

It's a term I tend to avoid, but because you have so many people banging on about "SUCH AND SUCH is just POLITICAL CORRECTNESS GONE TOO FAR" then I'm more for the "THEN I AM PRETTY DARN OK WITH POLITICAL CORRECTNESS."

But, you know. That's interesting.

Eh, I think it stands well enough. I actually don't think there's a need to stop using it in this sense, because you're not going for a dictionary definition of the term, you're going for the intent, and the intent is sound, I think.

On a lighter note, the episode of Lewis with Andy Knott in is the same episode which has Bradley James in, I discovered yesterday. That made me LOL.

I linksurfed here from briar_pipe's mention of it in the comments of her meta post yesterday, and I know I'm about, oh, five months late reading it -- but I just had to comment and say thank you for making this post. Well said. I'm sorry I fell into this fandom so late and missed all the meta while it was going on, but this was so nice to read. It took me a while to get into Merlin, and when I saw the pilot and realised that the Guinevere was a WoC, I was so ridiculously happy because these sorts of characters -- the ones who become Queen -- never look like me.

Also, there's not enough Gwen/Angel love going around. So anyway, thanks. *g*

Thanks for the comment.

I was so ridiculously happy because these sorts of characters -- the ones who become Queen -- never look like me.

THIS. Objectively, I know there are flaws, but I am so ridiculously happy to see a character like Gwen around. Angel is wonderful in the role.

Edited at 2009-04-16 05:44 pm (UTC)

Ack! It appears I never commented before this post was locked. Bad me.

I love this for both your honesty and your upbeat way of speaking out. When Gwen introduced herself to Merlin in ep 1, I squealed with joy. This lady was going to be our queen, and even though I don't like the lowering of her status, I can appreciate that she's a wonderful character, down-to-earth, honest, loyal, smart, and funny. Without her, the dialogue would pretty much be unrelieved angst/melodrama/snark. With her, it's so much more human.

So yes, Angel Coulby = best woman for the job, hands down. And I'm so glad she's got it.

(Also, I'm going to link this from my actual post so I don't lose it again...)

Yes, precisely! I was ready to be angry about Gwen, but as you say, although it's a disappointment that she's not come to it noble, she's a beautiful, sweet character. I hope there'll be more of her in the next series.

And thank you for all your kind words.

Thank you for this post. It inspired me to finally write down a bunch of thoughts on the character of Gwen and race and racism that have been percolating for a while.

Do you mind if I link to this post?

Thanks for your comment.

If you would like to link this post go ahead. There are things in it that reading back, I would have liked to put differently, but I guess there's never going to be a post the author doesn't want to edit slightly months down the line ;).

Please, link me your thoughts when you write them down, I'd love to read them.

So, this may come across like I didn't take on board your message, and also, surprise!comment to an old post, but I caught this on Del.ici.ous and just wanted to say that this

There's nothing wrong with a little "political correctness". People who use the phrase in a derogatory fashion tend not to know what it means. What it means is that you work to not be offensive or dismissive to people who fall outside of the Straight White Middle-Class Male demographic (and in fact, not to be offensive to those within it. Equality is fun!). It's to do with helping us create a society where equality is the norm. And here, if the results of the evils of political correctness gone mad is to allow non-white actors the same chances as everybody else then sign me straight up for that newsletter.

is the best sum up of that problem I've ever had. And also, yes, I did take on board the rest of your post, and thank you for writing it.

Loved the post, I do think it's something that needed and still needs to be said. There are people who abuse political correctness, but to use it as a shield is just as bad.

I've loved how colorblind the relationships are in the show. It bothered me in Doctor Who, because it seemed like a certain couple was mainly paired because of their race. It wasn't as if we'd be shown ANY interaction between them before the finale, so it seemed like that was the reason. Though I've certainly gotten used to some of the biggest character moments for Micky happening off screen....

As for Gwen and her attractiveness, I actually prefer how the show goes with her and Merlin. Morgana and Arthur I mostly ignore looks wise, how their looks are put on display makes it so much part of the act that it becomes part of the scenery for me. Gwen and Merlin on the other hand make my breath catch in certain scenes, and that is in part because the show doesn't try to flaunt it every moment. Yes I wish Gwen came a bit more out of her shell, but I feel there is plenty of time for that in the rest of her journey.