American Studies
American Studies

A Princess Out Of Place: A Talk By Dr. Ebony Thomas

Fri, April 28, 2017 | CLA 1.302E

3:30 PM - 5:00 PM

Few recent fandom and social media reactions have equaled the objection to Angel Coulby being cast as Gwen, the servant girl who would grow up to become Queen Guinevere, on the BBC’s most recent televised adaptation of Arthuriana, Merlin. The presence of a Black woman as the eventual love interest of the main character was a source of continual controversy throughout the entire run of the series. Just as with other Black female characters in adapted and transmediated youth literature, such as Bonnie of The Vampire Diaries, and Rue in The Hunger Games, viewers had a very difficult time suspending their disbelief. This audience difficulty, created through lifetimes of reading and viewing narratives of the fantastic where the Dark Other is locked into place, was complicated because unlike most other Black female characters, Gwen does not die, but outlives her king and husband. In my book manuscript in progress, I have theorized the dark fantastic cycle that occurs as the Dark Other shows up in speculative fiction. What, then, happens if a diverse character does not go through the full cycle of spectacle, hesitation, violence, and haunting? How does its interruption complicate the narrative? How might it confuse – and frustrate – audiences?

In this final chapter, I will first look at the ways that time, space, and emotion shape our experiences in the waking dream of the fantastic. Next, I will trace the dark fantastic cycle in Merlin, a television series that (unlike my preceding examples) was not based upon a single contemporary source text, but was a very intentional 21st century take on Victorian retellings of the most beloved legends of all time. After that, I look at fan and viewer reactions to Gwen as a princess out of place, eliciting questions about accuracy and authenticity. I conclude by making the case for why Gwen matters in our considerations of the role that race plays in fairy tales, the enduring presence of fairy stories in the culture, and how they ultimately shape the popular imagination.

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