We all know that fantasy is, in some way, based on reality to agree – especially history. But just how much reality or historical accuracy is needed to make us believe in these fantasy characters and worlds? What happens when our fantasy series start playing around with gender and race? Are we sacrificing historical accuracy in our attempt to be politically correct? (And is this a bad thing?)
Let’s take the BBC show Merlin, for example. Even today, people still whine and moan that the actress playing Guinevere (Angel Coulby) is, to the naked eye, black (Coulby is bi-racial). There are complaints of historical inaccuracy, anachronism, “political correctness” gone wrong. How could they cast a leading role of a traditionally white figure with a non-white actor? Now our youth will grow up thinking that – gasp! – women of colour were smart, lovely, and noble! Heck, even a Queen! That even back in the day, inter-racial relationships existed! Nevermind that the show has Gwen start off as maid to a white woman (have you ever heard of a white Guinevere as a lowly servant? I think not.) Nevermind that Angel Coulby is a fantastic actress who does the role justice. Historians are crying out for blood, and they deserve to be heard, right?
Oh, but wait. The Arthurian legends aren’t real. Yes, they take place during a particular time period in history, but we’re talking stories here. It’s not like they’ve changed the essence of Guinevere – they haven’t turned her into a badass Asian ninja with supernatural powers (not that I’d complain if they did, either). They’ve chosen her based on talent, not looks.
And how is that so farfetched an idea? Fantasy requires you to suspend your belief. I mean, Arthur’s queen being black shouldn’t be so hard to imagine if there are dragons. Do we pick apart the white actors for not being of proper ancestry to be playing the roles given to them? Or complain that they’re speaking fairly modern English? No. So why do people harp on Angel Coulby so much?
These fantasy shows aren’t trying to be accurate portrayals of these time periods – they are trying to tell a fantasy story with diverse characters, because the people who populate our world are diverse. It’s not as if they’ve cast a white person as the last samurai of Japan (like in The Last Samurai or any of the other instances where white heroes end up the salvation of Japan, because, you know, they just can’t do it by themselves). There isn’t some hidden racist meaning behind it. It is a reflection of our current society in fantasy. The world isn’t full of white people, so why should our fantasy be any different? Sure, you can argue it’s anachronism, but I fail to see how that is a problem. Yes, fantasy needs to be imbued with some reality to make it relatable to us, and that’s exactly what they’ve done with BBC’s Merlin.
I, for one, think it’s fantastic that, in regards to casting Gwen, they chose to throw away all those preconceptions of Guinevere’s whiteness, and they aren’t the only ones to do so: just look at ABC’s Once Upon a Time as another example. Season 2 saw the casting of actor Sinqua Walls as Sir Lancelot. Considering how everyone on that show is white, it’s actually quite refreshing to see that season 2 not only cast an Asian as Mulan (Hurrah! No yellowface!), but that they’ve cast a great actor in a role that has been inherently white in the past.
If throwing away historical accuracy means our fantasy can reflect on today’s reality, then I, for one, am all for it.