the creative empiricist

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The Decay of the Female Character
Amaltheadubious, LastUnicorndubious
I know I haven't posted in awhile; shame on me!  But there's a lot to say.

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.
I feel like my demographic is being led to watch the show with the following carrot: look at this interesting woman!  Isn't she fascinating?  Don't you want to see more of her?

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-the-baby thing, which I found so distasteful I stopped watching.

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?

Alrighty then, full steam ahead.  I'm just going to sit here and let Bridget Regan's hair lull me to sleep.


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I kind of stopped paying attention to Merlin once it was clear that Gwen and Morgana weren't going to be focused on all that much. >.> (I almost said 'when it became clear that it wasn't going to turn into the Gwen and Morgana Show', but let's face it, that kind of thing never happens.)

Then the writers took Teyla, the only surviving female of the bunch, through the usual she-is-pregnant-capture-her-and-threaten-the-baby thing

. . . Dammit. I guess I have no reason to watch SGA now.

I feel like my demographic is being led to watch the show with the following carrot: look at this interesting woman! Isn't she fascinating? Don't you want to see more of her?

Well, guess what? Denied!

The only English-language show I can think of that doesn't follow this pattern at all is Avatar: The Last Airbender. That's . . . pretty depressing. (I don't watch a lot of English-language shows, though, so can I hope I'm wrong?)

It seems positively rude to respond to a post about women in Merlin without linking the Gwen and Morgana fic of awesome.

Oh, no, please *do* watch SGA. Just omit the last season, which is twelve kinds of suck. Teyla was an awesome character there for a long while.

Legend of the Seeker fits this (with the aforementioned Kahlan). Two amazingly kickass females who, despite the male protagonist, pass the Bechdel test with flying colors, discussing battle strategies and their own friendship as well as what's going on with the titular male. Moreover, it has a character trope that is rarely ever seen in movies or television, maybe because she's a little Oedipal: the strong, sexy, *motherly* type.

How about Buffy? Xena? Those are the other two that come to mind. Pretty much anything by Whedon.

But... yeah. We're... kind of bereft of awesome women to watch...


BTW, I must thank you for the Gwen and Morgana fic of awesome. It really WAS, just... just so full of the best kind of crack. I was quickly off on a search for all of dollsome's fanfiction. (Pimps, pimps, to ten people who read this journal.)



I came across this when searching for Merlin meta on LJ -- quite an interesting post. I fully agree with the issue of female characters, but I think it extends even further than television and filters into all modes of fiction. I was thinking of all my favourite characters from novels, and I was surprised when I realised that precious few of them were female. It's disappointing and a bit baffling to me, to be honest.

I share some of your thoughts on Merlin, particularly in the field of Morgana (elaborated on that issue in my journal). At the moment she is a character with utterly wasted potential -- she could be going through such fascinating inner turmoil and complexities, but instead they have her acting like a one note villain. If she had a moustache she would no doubt be twirling it right now. (She already has the Grin of Witchery down, and she's probably working on the Classic Cackle at the moment, which is why she was so silent last episode.) They -lightly- brushed up against something deeper when she was justifying her actions to Merlin in the crypt, but it never went anywhere near far enough, and it was too small to count as humanising her. (I particularly remember Merlin saying something like 'innocent people are going to die!' and Morgana saying 'good!'....*sigh*)

She is given the set-up of an anti-hero and the current execution of a cartoon-like villain. None of it gels, or feels natural to the story, because the writers are treating her character in an artificial way. I feel that when you create a character, if he/she is real enough, they will begin to move in directions of their own throughout the narrative, almost as if they have independent thought -- the writers are basically refusing to listen to how the character would really act, because it would derail their vision and concept of the plot, and so we are given something hollow, a cheat. To be fair, family television normally strays away from complexities and moral ambiguity, but it CAN be done. It's just a question of choice and writing integrity.

I was actually very surprised by the poisoning scene...I didn't expect the writers to go that far, and I was pleased. I don't think the aftermath has been particularly realistic or well-handled, though. In response to your comments on be fair, Merlin did desperately want to help Morgana during her awakening phase, but Gaius was the one who persuaded him into not doing it. This doesn't entirely excuse Merlin, but I have to wonder when the show will address this quite cruel inaction from both of them. In a sense, they -made- Morgana into this ruin, so I want to see them at least acknowledge this.

Yeah, the issue was that they did too good a job to begin with.

We've got Morgana making these tiny, moral, important decisions throughout Series 1 & 2: Uther is a bad man, and perhaps he should be killed, but do I have the wherewithal to do it? These people are being oppressed and killed for being who they are, and I might be one of them. Do I help them? And so on, until Morgana's turn to magic is believable. The poisoning was great, even a little Shakespearean in its tragedy: look, you can see it happening, and a million little things could have stopped it but nothing does.

...but after Season 1 something terrible began happening, insidiously, to the writing.

It's almost like we're meant to believe that Uther really is a good man, and the scheming Morgana is at fault. It's unsurprising that Morgana would want people to view Uther as mad. She spends most of the series believing he's crazy, and as such it would dramatically appeal to her to force others to view him the same way via the cursed mandrake. However, it's clear that Merlin views this as ultimately evil, of the muahahaha! rubbing-one's-hands-together-in-diabolical-glee variety, and we as the viewers are just as clearly meant to conclude that it's Morgana who's lost her marbles.

It's like in the beginning we were presented with the white Albion as a fairy tale, a pretty outside with a rotten inside (Uther's madness), but now we're being asked to swallow the facade as though it were true. Arthur, who obeys his father nearly unquestioningly, is the sane one, the good one, and he is always right unless it's a matter of his pride. Morgana, who rebels, is bad, no matter what it is she rebels against.

And Merlin? How can I even get started on how morally gray a character he's become? I believe he's responsible for Morgana's downfall, for loosing the dragon, and for singlehandedly making certain that Arthur will never trust magic.

It's almost like we got new writers who went back to the beginning of the series, skimmed the scripts, and only understood them in the most superficial manner.


Edited at 2010-10-06 01:23 am (UTC)

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