Let me start with the thing that's toughest to explain: my sudden disenchantment (pun entirely intended) with the BBC Merlin franchise.
I should say I started out adoring this show. Colin Morgan and Bradley James are eminently slashable, and both the stars and costars know it and make terrific fun of them. The plot is silly and fantastical, the settling full of scenery!porn, the characters fascinatingly different from their original incarnations. Merlin and Arthur are arguably the most awesome aspects of the show, but it's hard to dislike Anthony Head as Uther, Katie McGrath as the stunning Morgana, or Angel Coulby, who plays Gwen - surprisingly, a serving girl in this series. I was really getting into it during Season One, tolerating Season Two, and now that we're on Season Three, I'm forced to confront the elephant in the room.
Writers on my favorite shows often:
- Make women minor characters, less interesting than their male counterparts
- Then 'realize' these female characters are less popular than their male counterparts
- Then begin to write more and more scenes involving the 'more popular' characters. Apparently, every viewer regardless of sex only identifies with men/finds men interesting! Whoda thunk, in this day and age!
- The woman begins to lose agency once she begins to lose screentime. She can't make a decision on her own. If she's running she'll trip; if she's captured, she'll be rescued; if she appears at all, she'll be discussing the men in the show, or occasionally, for variety, being kidnapped by another man in the show, so that the other men in the show can rescue her. (Hey, otherwise, why would she be there, right?)
- The woman then dies off / becomes evil / disappears inexplicably from one episode to the next.
Well, guess what? Denied!
I can't help but think back to Stargate Atlantis, which followed almost precisely the same pattern of yay to suck. John Sheppard and Rodney McKay were so fascinating that the fanfiction world embraced them (and slashing them, of course!) with open arms. Of course they did: McKay was the picture of a mouthy bottom, and John had control issues that I'm sure were delicious to write. And I guess the writers of canon must've caught wind of the popularity of these two, because Elizabeth, the strong female leader of the expedition became first repeatedly discredited, and finally killed off; Miko, the shy scientist who worked with Rodney, simply disappeared between one episode and the next, as did Lt. Cadman, the Marine who switched bodies with Rodney; and several other minor but interesting female main characters disappeared as quickly as they were introduced. Elizabeth at least received a creative doom; not so for the base psychologist, whose name I cannot even recall. She fell out of a window in classic whodunit style, flaily-arms and all. Oh, wait, it was Heightmeyer - little pun there, I guess? Then the writers took Teyla, the only surviving female of the bunch, through the usual she-is-pregnant-capture-her-and-threaten-t
Now the same thing has happened to Merlin.
Merlin's characters were initially just as engaging, if not moreso, than Colonel Sheppard and Rodney McKay. They're hilarious, they've got fantastic chemistry. But just as SGA turned seemingly inexorably into the John-and-Rodney show, Merlin has shifted from a wide focus to a boringly sharp one on Merlin and Arthur alone.
Gwen and Morgana were two of my favorite characters on the show. I found Gwen refreshing: she was sweet but fumbling, and always well-meaning, even when she misstepped. Morgana, beautiful, cool, composed, and sometimes disdainful, was her polar opposite. In essence, theirs was the distaff counterpart to the Arthur/Merlin chemistry, and they played it well. If the world were half so interested in femmeslash as it appears to be in slash, there would have been reams written about those two. Their chemistry was certainly as good, or almost as good as their counterparts.
For those of you who haven't been following along at home, Morgana has magical powers, most notably those of prophesy, but can't reveal them because Uther, her surrogate father, believes all magic is evil and has sworn to kill all magic-users in his kingdom. Merlin discovers she can do magic, and shares this with his mentor, Gaius. Over the course of the show so far, they do all they can to subvert her knowledge that she is magical; to hide Merlin's magic from her, thereby depriving her of a much-needed ally; to persuade her that her magic is an illness; to persuade her she is losing her mind; to drug her in order to keep her quiet. This culminates when Morgana is used as the focus for a spell to bring ruin onto Camelot and Merlin poisons her, knowing she will die but that her death will save the Kingdom.
She doesn't die, however; her sister reclaims her from the brink of death and they escape together.
This is all while showing that Morgana is markedly more sensible than Arthur, leagues more moral than anyone on the show (re: her treatment of Mordred, her inability to kill a trusting Uther), and sweet and good with a sword to boot. In other words, Morgana is the classic hero: not Arthur, who has the rough makings of a king, but is still far too juvenile and servile to his father's wishes to make the grade, or Merlin, who appears to believe he only exists to prop up Arthur. Morgana is willing to sit in chains because she is happy to defy Uther when he's done something stupid, as opposed to Arthur, who obeys Uther even when he knows Uther is wrong.
Hello, writers? That tapping you hear is me hitting the screen with my brains. Are you listening? No, of course not, but for those of you who are, you have just created an antihero of the most awesome proportions. I now WANT Morgana to overthrow Camelot. And I want her to do it by killing Uther, imprisoning Gaius, who drugged her to the gills on a more or less permanent basis, and I want Merlin chained up where he can watch. Arthur won't have to be chained up, because Morgana's smart enough to know that the people like him enough that she should convince him she's right. She might even decide to make him her consort, if he wises up. And I want her to look awesome and smug while doing it.
And BTW, directors, all the Smiles of Evul you somehow convinced Katie McGrath to go for? Are not convincing. I might add that you appear to believe we the viewers won't 'get' that she's Gone To The Dark Side unless she gives that wicked smile every five seconds, but let me also add: that's not in character. The Morgana you initially created would be pissed, angry, not happy, at the way things are going. She would occasionally be upset, and let moments of doubt consume her. At least, that's the way you wrote her before, but consistency, I know, is just so consistently irritating, eh? Also inconvenient to Plot and History (which you've paid so much attention to, so far.) I am also quite familiar with the Kick-the-Dog tactic you pulled with having her kill off a guard, but it wasn't the Moral Event Horizon you hoped for. In short, I'm still REALLY hoping she kicks all their asses, but good.
Let's not even get into Gwen, who went from being a sweet, bumbling character with lots of... er... character, and slipped into the mode of virgin-queen, with no faults or flaws save that she loves too much. Gwen hasn't stammered or dropped anything or even behaved awkwardly in so long that it's as though the writers forgot they ever dared give her a personality. And this doesn't even go into how Morgana decided the maidservant she totally loved (no, not in that fanfictiony, sans-canon way unless you say so, writers) is totally not worth the effort, now that she's decided to destroy Camelot and everyone in it Because She is Now Evul.
For the Evulz.
Look, people, get a female writer on your staff and get her now. Maybe you'll have a hope of writing a decent girl or lady character again. Where's Merlin's mum, hmm? She was pretty awesome, where'd she go?
Aw, I shouldn't be sexist. My father always taught me that two wrongs don't make a right. How about this? It doesn't have to be a female writer, it just has to be one who can WRITE females. Who has talked to some recently? Knows any? Has sisters? A girlfriend? ....no?
Alrighty then, full steam ahead. I'm just going to sit here and let Bridget Regan's hair lull me to sleep.