A Ongoing Discussion of Minority Representation in Shadowhunters
(This post contains necessary spoilers for Shadowhunters)
The highly anticipated Shadowhunters television show is now eight episodes in, and I have a lot of thoughts about it. As a long-term fan of the original book series, I was looking forward to seeing the central Clary/Jace relationship translated to the screen, to fulfil all my teenage fantasies about this YA love triangle success. But since the show’s debut, my focus has been completely re-directed.
Based on the bestselling The Mortal Instruments book series by urban fantasy author Cassandra Clare, Shadowhunters follows the story of Clary Fray (played by Katherine McNamara), an eighteen year old art student who is thrust into the ‘shadow world’ of demons, werewolves, faeries, vampires, warlocks and Shadowhunters when her mother is kidnapped by an old sect of purist Shadowhunter fanatics – the circle. Inevitably, as in all young adult fiction, she ends up caught in a series of complicated love triangles – primarily between her friend Simon (played by Alberto Rosende) and the enigmatic Shadowhunter Jace (played by Dominic Sherwood) – whilst determined to find and rescue her mother, and by extension the Shadow World itself.
Whilst it is nice to see a show with multiple strong female characters throughout it, I have found myself much less inclined to care about the Clary storyline as other storylines that were positioned as very much secondary in the original novels. The books are 100% wrapped up in the potential romance between Clary and Jace, but the show seems to deliberately make space for other characters and their sub-plots to shine – none more so than the relationship between closeted gay Shadowhunter Alec Lightwood (played by Matthew Daddario) and the hilariously sarcastic bisexual – or sexually fluid – warlock Magnus Bane (played by Harry Shum Jr). When reading the books, it was hard to escape the central focus on the Clary/Jace relationship, but when watching the show, I find myself longing for those moments between Alec and Magnus.
In a show rife with real-world parallels, it is no surprise that the Alec/Magnus relationship draws particular attention. Not only does Shadowhunters openly support a clearly inter-racial* relationship – Magnus is not only a Warlock, but an ambiguously Asian one – but also a clearly complicated homosexual relationship. It is made clear to us in the early episodes that being gay and a Shadowhunter is essentially not allowed in-world, the policing of sexuality embedded in this centuries old society that believes in magic and demons, but not boys kissing other boys, let alone boys kissing racialised bisexual warlocks. Alec is closeted, not only to protect himself from being removed from his position of authority in the Shadowhunter society he leads in New York, but also to protect his own family’s honour.
“Whenever you’re ready to talk about what you need to talk about,” says his sister, the overtly promiscuous Isabelle (played by Emeraude Toubia), “I’m here.” And she is, perhaps knowing Alec’s own heart before he knows it himself. No stranger to forbidden relationships, Izzy is openly involved with one of the Seelies, a race of faerie like beings who can’t lie. Izzy has no qualms about her brother’s homosexuality, despite his own reservations. She can read his desire for his fighting partner and near brother-like friend Jace in his eyes, and openly encourages Alec to give in to his feelings for Magnus, who himself openly pursues Alec.
Magnus’s open flamboyance and overt sexuality is presented to the audience as the product of centuries of practice in relationships. Living forever has its advantages – one of them being complete comfort in one’s own fluid sexuality. As a result we can’t help but see Alec’s coming to terms with his sexuality as a growing up story, somehow akin to Clary’s own development as a new Shadowhunter. Even when alone with Magnus, Alec is reserved, unable to confess his conflicted feelings about his homosexual desire for Magnus, let alone his hidden feelings for his fighting partner Jace.
Alec and Magnus, like other non-heteronormative characters we see on stage and screen, are not punished for their sexuality by those around them. Alec’s sadness comes from his own self-repression. In fact, Izzy takes the heat for most of the transgressive behaviour in the family, having to give up her relationship with the Seelie Meliorn to protect the family’s image. But it is hard to ignore that Alec’s self-repression is built upon the foundational disregard of non cis-hetero individuals in a centuries old underground of demon hunters and magical creatures – a world that has generally been presented as the most progressive in terms of coming to terms with the non-normative across the genre. One cannot help but think of the first teenage lesbian kiss in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, when we see Alec internally punishing himself for looking at boys in the way he does. It seems outdated to see such a self-shaming young gay person in this particular television context in 2016. He smiles at Magnus’s moves towards him, but puts himself literally in the firing line in battle as a sort of self-punishment for his feelings for the two men he loves. I can’t help but wonder if presenting this behaviour is playing into a tradition of self-deprecating gays that ultimately does more harm than good.
But it is also important to note, that this representation of homosexuality as needing to be repressed in traditional circles of family, battle and career, is also played alongside a system of oppressive Shadowhunter regime against “Downworlders” – any person who is part demon, such as a warlocks, vampires, Seelies and werewolves. These people are undeniably representative of the racialised and LGBTQI+ communities, openly hunted and often victims of prejudice from the authoritarian Shadowhunter government – the Clave. But beyond even the Clave is the neo-Nazi racial purists The Circle, who openly slaughter these minority communities in order to ‘cleanse’ the world of ‘evil’, though I cannot imagine anything inherently evil about the amazingly complex Downworlders that Cassandra Clare’s book series is home to. The Circle is clearly the evil society in this show, and there is no attempt to hide that their endeavours are inherently wrong. So, it makes sense then that the Alec/Magnus relationship, as oppositional to the Circle in every way, is set up as the ‘good’ relationship, the one we care for above all. We want to see these two people happy and with the same opportunities to express their relationship as any other couple on the show, which is why I believe the showrunners have made such a deliberate effort to make space for this relationship to play out with as much screen time as the parallel Clary/Jace relationship – the whitest, straightest relationship on the show.
It is not the very white and privileged Alec who is set to save Magnus, but the disproportionally valued Magnus who is positioned to save Alec, not only from the oppressive world of Shadowhunter tradition, but also from his own self-deprecation, shame and self-sacrifice. Alec is not going to be saved from his homosexuality, that is not the story being told, nor should it be. Because whilst his homosexuality is perceived as transgressive by the upper members of Shadowhunter society, it is not transgressive to the people who matter – his sister, his friends and his love interests, and ultimately, the show’s audience. He is openly encouraged by these people, of various racial backgrounds, social classes (Shadowhunter/Downworlder binaries often presented in this show as not only a racial issue but a class issue), genders and sexualities. In a world trying to fight the purist almost Neo-Nazi Circle, it is clear that it is not non-heteronormativity that is being challenged, but that normativity and high-strung oppressive government bodies need to be challenged by the people on the ground.
That is why I champion the Alec/Magnus relationship. While it is not without its problematic elements, and I acknowledge that completely, the representation of that relationship thus far has been potentially the most realistic relationship I have seen on television in a long time, even if one half of the couple is a glittery sarcastic Warlock. It is a relationship of the people, and I can’t help but want to see it work.
© Hayley New 2016
*I want to take a moment here to note that the show has tried to represent racial diversity, casting Latina actress Emeraude Toubia, African American actor Isaiah Mustafa, Latino actor Alberto Rosende, and Latin/Asian-American actor Harry Shum Jr, in its primary cast, with further diversity in secondary and recurring roles. However, the passable whiteness of many of the characters in this show, alongside the tokenisation and exoticisation of some of these characters through specific clothing, language and perhaps most disappointingly, the image of the overtly racialised Downworlder figure, is troublesome, something I want to pull apart in another piece on representation in Shadowhunters.