Episode 61: Merlin, Race & Racism

cover art in which Merlin wears a headset with microphone and holds up a finger to his lips as if to tell you to be quiet

In today’s episode, MissSnowfox and Xan are joined by Sophie to talk about a difficult topic: Merlin and race, as well as racism – both on the show and in fandom. Strap in for 2.5h where we try to disentangle this heavy subject and hopefully manage to help educate our [white] listeners.

To get in touch with us, send an email, an ask on tumblr, or tweet at us on twitter. You can also join our discord and find our podacst on iTunes!

If you’d like to tip us for the work we do for this podcast, you can find us on ko-fi.

ALL TIPS WE RECEIVE ON KO-FI WILL BE FORWARDED TO UK-BASED ORGANISATIONS & CHARITIES THAT BENEFIT BLACK WOMEN OR BLACK QUEER PEOPLE.

The charities that will benefit are

Southall Black Sisters
UK Black Pride
The Hackney Migrant Centre
The Unity Project

Find more stream or download options for this episode below the cut.

Download here [Right click, save as] || Listen/subscribe on iTunes here


Resources/Links

Sophie on twitter
Sophie on instagram

Black Lives Matter resources

Multiculturalism, Diversity, and Religious Tolerance in Modern Britain and the BBC’s “Merlin”
Casting, Plotting, and Enchanting: Arthurian Women in Starz’s “Camelot” and the BBC’s “Merlin”

Feirefiz, Prcival’s half-brother
Vitiligo
Moriaen

Cinderella (1997)

Squee from the margins : Investigating the operations of racial/culturual/ethnic identity in media fandom

Statistics

In all five seasons of Merlin (65 episodes), we can count:

  • 1 Black woman
    • Gwen
  • 9 Black men or Men of Color (with lines)
    • Person of Color: Lancelot
    • Black Men: Tom, Elyan, Sir Ewan, Sir Pellinore, Myror, Helios, Aglain, Unnamed Knight
    • All the men except maybe Aglain and the Unnamed Knight die

Where to find the hosts

xancredible on AO3 | tumblr | Podfic | Fanwork resources
misssnowfox on AO3 | tumblr | YouTube | Cosplay

5 thoughts on “Episode 61: Merlin, Race & Racism

  1. Thank you so much for doing this episode! I especially appreciated the discussion about fandom/online communities in the second half! And I’m glad the JSTOR articles were of some help 😉 I second Alex on wanting Gemma Chan to be on a recasted reboot of Merlin! Even as a guest character—although Gemma as Gwen would be amazing, assuming Angel won’t be reprising her role (I don’t know about the kooky/comedic bits but she would be an amazing queen).

    I’ve shared this before, but I want to mention Ebony Elizabeth Taylor’s The Dark Fantastic because 1) it discusses race/racism in storytelling and fandom, especially of black female characters and 2) she has a whole chapter on BBC Merlin’s Gwen! In that specific chapter, she discusses implications of how Gwen is portrayed (using a literary cycle that mirrors social/physical violence against dark-skinned people in the real world) AND fan responses on a black woman being cast as Gwen! I couldn’t summarize the whole thing here, but based on what you guys discussed on the episode, some really interesting points E. E. Thomas makes are how hesitation towards Gwen’s likability and beauty may have to do with racial tensions and traditional representations of what a “beautiful woman” is like. Rox also mentioned how she feels uncomfortable whenever the show breaks “universe (canon) rules” with a scene that almost forces the audience to view Gwen as being a certain way (queen-like, “strong female character,” potential love interest, etc), and something that Thomas said struck with me: Even with “color-blind” casting (which, being a POC/minority ethnicity, I personally appreciate to a certain extent), there are problems that arise when the fictional world does not acknowledge the social, cultural, and personal (etc.) elements of a person/character that race can bring. That is basically rejecting what reality is like to these people and denying them full complexity and representation (which gets especially tricky in fantasy settings).

    And one random point: Despite loving kooky Gwen, I still think her sternness (“cruelty” but not really) was necessary: They were in times of war, and any queen would never let a traitor slip by… (It’s true that her solemn/fierce tone is contrary to her character but as Alex said she did a 180 in S5—the last scene of her on the throne being a telling sign)

    Anyways, this is always a fascinating and important topic! It’s super complex (as you all have said), so I don’t think conversations will end soon, but it’s so cool that we’ve started one here!

  2. Not related to race but also an interesting point: Rox mentioned that many of the most prominent magic users in Merlin are women (priestesses Nimueh, Morgause, and Morgana). Generally, these women only occupy positions of power by belonging in the realm of religion and magic. We rarely (if ever) see women in positions of physical or political power. In fact, in the Sins of the Father, Uther (and later Arthur, although he was more trying to convince himself out of shame) proposes that Morgause only won the duel because she was a sorceress. The reason I bring this up is because I’m taking a Greek Mythology course right now and found a connection: Most magic/witchcraft using figures in Greek myths (at least the commonly known ones) are women. Some famous examples that come to mind are the sorceress Circe, who used her magic and clairvoyant-like wisdom to both harm (she turns men into animals) and help Odysseus, and Medea, the priestess of Hekate (the Titan/goddess of all things collectively under “magic”) who also used her charms to aid Jason but eventually murders several people (including her own sons) in revenge. So these magical women have the power to manipulate these super-masculine heroes’ fates from afar, yet they don’t face men in physical combat or challenge their social/political standings (relatively rare for female characters in these myths although there are some cases, most ending in tragedy). Which brings me to one last connection to Ancient Greek society itself: Athenian women almost never occupied the economic, political, or military spaces in society (as well as many other areas, including the recreational dramatic arts and sports). However, one rare space they could exist in was the religious: there were women and priestesses that were active in cults and involved in rituals. I doubt that they had true “power” in these positions, but this special role that they were allowed some sort of influence in possibly inspired these many stories about magical women who could control forces beyond the men’s worldly sphere (maybe even alluding to some of the general social anxieties about women and power). This is a very crude and simplistic interpretation (certainly not expert), but just a thought I had while hearing Rox’s comment and reading some Greek myths! 😆

  3. Thank you guys for talking about this important topic and on top of that making an entertaining episode. Agree with what Anne was saying and wanted to leave my thoughts as a long-time Merlin fan and a POC. I’ll try to summarise (feel free to skim read!)

    Gwen/Elyan:

    • I think Gwen is awesome for standing up to Arthur and is a nice foil to traditional fairy tale princesses. It’s great to see the race-blind-casting with her.1 But unfortunately the show-runners’ plan for this character involved a makeover2 which they apparently ditched. That’s bad news for any female character. But it hurts especially when it’s a POC as we see so few of them take centre-stage.
    • I really didn’t like the ‘makeover’. By the time we get to series 5 Gwen’s sexier costuming is in your face. It could be seen as self-empowerment/confidence, but to me it doesn’t really align with Gwen. She seems too straightforward to use her look to make a point. I mean, pretty much everyone except Merlin gets sexualised with time, but they also get enough character moments (at least Arthur does).
    • Gwen was often there to tick boxes. She should have been given actual things to grapple with –like the court not accepting her as queen or her being mad at Arthur that he thought she cheated on him without an enchantment. They robbed Gwen of proper angst!
    • You know who should have had a special bromance? Arthur and Elyan. I mean they have the whole I’m-dating-your-sister thing.

    1. https://www.radiotimes.com/news/2016-04-17/matt-smith-and-karen-gillan-almost-starred-together-in-merlin-not-doctor-who/
    2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ru7hbzRaY9o

  4. Arwen/Merthur:

    • I ship Arwen but it’s sad that:
    a) Gwen isn’t given the nuances that the two main white, male characters are given. One of the reasons I started caring a lot for Gwen was when I saw her through Arthur’s eyes as he fell in love with her in season 2; he saw her as a girl who’d be honest with him and give him something real.
    b) the Arwen relationship isn’t given the depth Merthur is given. Plus, I hated that series 5 went out of its way to pit Arwen against Merthur IMO. Like the Merlin’s dream scene -either make it a separate scene or make it Arwen’s last night together. Why inject Merlin into an Arwen moment? (I loved the hair-combing though)
    • But here’s what I felt I could relate to as a POC or someone from a certain background. Coming from a culture that puts a lot of value on marriage I could feel for what I saw as Arwen’s struggle to do what they felt was the honourable thing. It makes sense to me why they didn’t have a secret, passionate relationship. It’s either marriage or nothing for them (except over-sweet kissing, lol). I liked that, and that they’re a bit cowardly and don’t run away together.

    I think you’re absolutely right in saying that we need to question our motivations when we show reluctance for POC characters. I feel really bad when I see the Gwen-bashing in fans’ comments. I’ve heard people criticise Morgana’s arc too…but that doesn’t feel as vitriolic.
    It’s good to see upcoming Arthurian stories with POC like Cursed (I’m liking the Arthur so far) and the Green Knight movie. As for Merlin, yes Gwen didn’t look like the princesses we grew up with. But you know what? Merlin and Arthur didn’t entirely live up to the ideals of traditional male heroes! And I love this show for opening us up to appreciate that diversity.

  5. I loved when they cast Angel because Gwen was always so very white in legend and this was a fresh and cool approach to the character. Angel did a great job in the role. My favorite was when she was using her intelligence to help the story along (Witchfinder is amazing in that way). Her sweetness and friendship with Merlin was so lovely. I did like her change into the queen she became. That last scene with her sitting on the throne was great.

    I really don’t ship Arwen, but I ship her with Lance or Merlin or Gwaine or Morgana. It was the chemistry between Arthur and Gwen that just wasn’t there for me and the relationship was just too in-your-face for me to deal with.

    As for writing POC, I have to admit that I’m very worried about writing them properly in the Merlin universe and being accused of being insensitive to racial issues in the real world so I don’t write them very much. If I do write any of the characters, I mainly go to the episodes themselves to get the flavor of the character but that might not be aimed at racism but rather at how the persons are portrayed in the show, for good or ill. Even writing this has taken me an hour because I didn’t want to offend anyone so you can see why someone might not want to write POC characters or people from a different culture. For some, it’s just too hard.

    Anyway, glad to see you putting out a podcast about this important issue.

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