There’s the recurring image of the seductress: Sophia, to Arthur; Nimueh, to both Merlin and Arthur; and also Morgana and Morgause, in a way. Gwen and Freya, the girls romantically linked with our leads in canon, are nice. They’re pretty. They’re loveable and I appreciate that. But they’re not sexy, and they’re not powerful, and there is this recurring image that a women worthy of love is something innocent and to be protected, rather than a person capable of doing things for themselves. Good women are allowed to be strong only in a traditional, emotional sense, not to possess their own separate ambitions. The only women who are powerful, independent of men, are all villains, and I find this unacceptable in this day and age.
Having observed Gwen harness her emotional strength (to benefit the women of Ealdor and then Gaius and most recently the people of Camelot) I’d say that she’s powerful in her own right. BUT if you’re defining “strength” according to a male model of power, which tends to devalue and demonize all things emotional/spiritual, then of course my girl is gonna fall short.
It’s true that she isn’t ambitious, but I think ambition emerges out of privilege—you aspire to great things because great things are available to you, they are within the realm of possibility—which Gwen lacks. But I also think that Gwen, like most working-class women, is independent by necessity. She earns a living wage, feeds herself, and cares for herself because she HAS to — no one will do it for her.
I do agree with you about Merlin’s manichean treatment of it’s female characters: If you’re a “good like Gwen, you get the love a prince and if you’re bad like Morgana, Merlin will poison you (I’m just saying…)