Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Unbearable Whiteness of Being, Part II: Notes on Guinevere

I'm a 23 year old Sinhalese woman in Minnesota by way of Dubai by way of Sri Lanka. I am a Womanist, and part of my womanism is figuring out how to be in solidarity with my transnational sisters worldwide. I'm a daughter, a sister, a partner and a writer. I'm a brown girl who knows Shakespeare by heart and devours anything Toni Morrison. I believe in radical, revolutionary living and loving.  I blog at Irresistible Revolution.

On my last Unbearable Whiteness post, a commenter directed me to the BBC show 'Merlin', wherein a woman of colour plays Guinevere. Intrigued, I immediately proceeded to cue it on Netflix, and two months later I'm now a devoted fan.

While the show still invites scrutiny for its constructions of power, patriarchy and sexuality, I want to focus on the politics and implications of Guinevere's casting. Angel Coulby, a biracial, Black actress, plays humble and beautiful maidservant Gwen, destined to be Queen of Camelot.

The casting directors, who sought an actress that could evince the regality of a future queen while still a handmaiden, described Coulby as possessing the innate grace, shyness and nobility they were looking for, and the fact they weren't convinced of Guinevere's "inherent whiteness", as one fan blogger put it, is pretty damn remarkable to me. Just a heads up white folks: if you wanna push colourblindness, this is the kind of colourblindness you need to advocate, where POC are as unlimited by their race as white folks.

Of course, not everyone is pleased that the beautiful Coulby is filling the shoes of Guinevere. This blogger, in fact, has major issues with the casting and claims a supposed trend of non-Europeans being cast in "massively European roles". Excuse me if I'm bothered by the smell of BULLSHIT. "The Last Airbender" anyone? "Hunger Games"? "A Mighty Heart"? "Cleopatra"?
But of course, the moment POC start being allowed even a smidgen of the access and visibility that whiteness has monopolized for centuries, the shit starts flipping.
Even more telling perhaps, is this writer's claim that Guinevere looks "seriously non-British". I suppose the fact that Coulby was born and raised in the UK is a minor detail: the white man gets to decide who's British and who isn't.

Some other members of the fandom, as well as random commentors on YouTube and IMDB, complain that Coulby is too plain, that her casting is 'historically inaccurate', and that her presence disrupts their suspension of disbelief. Guess a woman of colour as the central love interest is more fantastical than, say, a magic dragon that talks. Right.

It's interesting to me that when POC protested over whitewashing in "The Last Airbender", the resounding white defense was 'But it's JUST a fantasy! Race doesn't matter in a fantasy universe!'. Anyone smell a double standard mingling with the odour of bullshit?

Whiteness is constructed as human, as normal, and is thus allowed to be ahistorical, acultural and apolitical: white bodies can travel across time, space and cultures and have their presence normalized. But a beautiful black woman capturing the heart of a legendary British figure? Cognitively dissonant in a white supremacist society.

Because really, winnow out the historian posturing and righteous outrage, and what you have is a group of white people feeling threatened about their supremacist worldview. Images of Guinevere have been varied and disparate throughout the ages, from willowy neo-classical renderings to Keira Knightely in boots and weaponry; the Arthurian myth itself has been interpreted and reinterpreted countless times (for instance, Lancelot was not even a character until some French poet thought it would be saucy to throw in a love triangle, and thus popularize the literary sexism of blaming women for the 'fall' of man). Many scholars and historians also conclude that Arthur was by no means the paragon of democracy and justice he is so often made out to seem in modern interpretations, and that we reimagine him with values similar to what we hold dear contemporarily. Why then, the fuss and protest over a black Guinevere?

The same blogger that says Coulby looks 'non-british', also says that historically 'inaccurate' castings like blond, Nordic looking Jesus figures, are relatively ok because: "in this case, Jesus was being portrayed as envisioned by much of the target audience, not – as is the case with Guinevere ... in direct contradiction to audience expectation." So the assumption being that the audience is white or desires pervasive whiteness, and that they should be catered to. This proves that whiteness is completely determined to not only maintain its hegemony, but to unapologetically demand it.

I think this can boil down to what we believe the function of myth, storytelling and media is. As a womanist, as a radical WOC, it is my belief that mass media is ethically required to weigh systems of power and oppression, and be historically conscious. Britain is no longer a white monoracial nation; like it or not, people of diverse ethnicities and racial idenities now call England and the UK their home. The hue and cry over Coulby's casting is not about purported historical accuracy, but about maintaining the mythological cornerstones of Englishness as WHITE. It's about white folks being able to see themselves reflected as the true citizens of England, as the ones who deserve to be honored in legendarium, as the ones who represent the best of the nation.

Myth is a powerful storytelling tool, because it allows us to extrapoate our worldviews, our realties and explore them through metaphor and fantasy. It allows us to reimagine our communities and crystallize our values, and to visualize nations, peoples and worlds.

Because our collective imaginations are constrained by the sins of our history, women of colour exist as shadowy, othered figures who augment the purity of white women, and whose bodies provide sites for white men like Milton and Spenser to metaphorically convey evil, sin, depravity, and ugliness. Often the best we can hope for is the happy maid who helps white women work out their problems.

And while Guinevere is infact a handmaiden in BBC's version, the fact that she plays a central role in the future of Camelot, not to mention replaces the white woman as the figure of beauty and desirablity, and that her character is scripted as beautiful, graceful, and elegant, subverts the usual Mammy/Jezebel/happy domestic stereotype. Angel Coulby as Guinevere is incredibly powerful symbolically, because it disrupts some key elements of white supremacy: that only white femininity is desirable, that only white figures should be mythological icons, and that people of colour can only exist in this world while subjugated to whiteness.

The creators of "Merlin" have visualized the mythos of Britain (whether voluntarily or not) in a manner that allows all of its modern citizens - not just the white ones - to envison themselves as some part of the national conscious. I for one, regard this as an instance worth celebrating. 

**Note: I haven't been able to locate any info as to whether Angel Coulby identifies as black, biracial, brown, woman of colour, or if she claims any specific racial/ethnic identity, or all. So I have used a few terms interchangeably in this post. If anyone knows more as to her specific, preffered identity, please don't hesitate to let me know.

***Note: I realize that the implications of her casting, and her character, as well as the macro narrative of the show 'Merlin', are much more complex than I may have presented here. I just wanted to take a moment to celebrate and focus on the rare instance of a woman of colour being cast in a positive, central role.

****These are some other fandom writers discussing the complexities of race, class and gender on the show: What It Means to me To have a Black Guinevere, and Just Gwen