“Shadowhunters has the only asexual character in all of cable television.”
Title: Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments
Episodes Reviewed: Seasons 1-2
Creators: Ed Decter 👨🏼🇺🇸, Todd Slavkin 👨🏼🇺🇸, and Darren Swimmer 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writers: TV scripts by Peter Binswanger 👨🏼🇺🇸 (5 eps), Hollie Overton 👩🏼🇺🇸 (4 eps), Michael Reisz 👨🏼🇺🇸🌈 (4 eps), Y. Shireen Razack 👩🏽🇨🇦🇺🇸 (4 eps), and various (6 ♂ and 4 ♀) based on the novels by Cassandra Clare 👩🏼🇺🇸
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Shadowhunters is a fan show, through and through. It proudly dons its YA pedigree—Twilight-style werewolves and vampires make up its supernatural universe, an arrow-wielding teenager recalls The Hunger Games, and a fast-growing media franchise strives for Harry Potter-levels of ubiquity. For a series that began just over a decade ago, novelist Cassandra Clare has been busy. She has 16 published works, a feature-length film, and a TV series under her belt with at least 9 more books to come.
Clearly, something is resonating with audiences and it resonates in the Freeform show too. Not the production values, which look adequate but a touch lo-fi. And not the show’s depth or pacing, both of which feel lackluster. Even the premise of battles between angels and demons lend a palpable sense of déjà vu. Yet human interest will always hook audiences more than craft, and that’s where Clare’s winning formula resides.
The characters are compelling and viewers get to know them immediately. Tragic backstories are explored, revisited, and subverted with ever-changing intel. Relationships build and morph between key players. Against a backdrop of political conflict and brewing war, the landscape is ripe for star-crossed romances and betrayals. Addictive stories ensnare an audience, and Shadowhunters has them in spades.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES, most episodes
Women preside at the heart of Shadowhunters. Novelist Clare brings a female lens to the book series The Mortal Instruments, upon which the show is based, and designates a female lead to tell the story. But beyond that beating core, men occupy the majority of the narrative space. Protagonist Clary Fray (Katherine McNamara) begins her descent into the supernatural through a search and rescue mission of her mother, but upon its conclusion she turns her sights to men—her father as primary antagonist and, from a personal standpoint, the romantic preoccupations with two different characters.
Furthermore, Clary’s narrative dominance dissipates as episodes unfold, and the (majority-male) group ensemble begins to take over. Among the merry band, Isabelle Lightwood (Emeraude Toubia) enjoys significant screen time, backstory, and plotlines of her own. But she feels fairly stereotypical as the sultry man-eater, clad in plunging necklines and skintight leather as she lures demons to their doom with the crack of a whip. It doesn’t help that her character is changed from the books to be Latina; while I appreciate the infusion of ethnic diversity into the important family of the Lightwoods, in Isabelle’s case, this faceplants into the trope of Latinas being hypersexualized in media.
Beyond Clary and Isabelle, and the show gets propelled by male characters like the villain Valentine Morgenstern, Clary’s love interests Jace Wayland and Simon Lewis, Isabelle’s brother Alec Lightwood, and the heads of their respective species, warlock Magnus Bane, werewolf Luke Garroway, and vampire Raphael Santiago (played by Alan Van Sprang, Dominic Sherwood, Alberto Rosende, Matthew Daddario, Harry Shum Jr., Isaiah Mustafa, and David Castro). Supporting women do exist, but their stories are tied to the narratives of the aforementioned men.
Inter-women relationships are underdeveloped, too. While the show starts starts off strong by centering a mother-daughter relationship—and Isabelle also has some beef with her mother, but not in any explored way—that first arc eventually ends and what remains are a handful of shared scenes between Clary and Isabelle. Their friendship is believable, but they remain more focused on male characters than on each other.
Shadowhunters boasts diversity in major roles, but writers don’t really know what to do with it. Latino, black, and Asian characters make this New York City-based show fairly accurate to reality, sure, but their roles are “colorblind”—that is, lacking the cultural richness that true representation strives for. It doesn’t help that in the source material, nearly all the characters are white or non-specified.
In this group shot of the main protagonists, 3 are white, 2 are Latino, 1 is Asian, and 1 is black. It’s important to note, however, that of the 5 total recurring Latino characters—Isabelle, Alec, their mother Maryse (Nicola Correia-Damude), their father Robert (Paulino Nunes), and vampire leader Raphael—none are actually portrayed by fully Latino actors. Those playing Isabelle, Maryse, and Castro are half-Mexican, half-Guayanan, and half-Puerto Rican, respectively, while the men who play Alex and Robert have European roots.
This lack of authenticity translates to the characters. Writes tell the audiences that the Lightwoods are Latino, but they rarely show it. I can only think of one instance where they do. In “Bound by Blood” (Season 2, Episode 9), Isabelle and Raphael make tamales together, as Raphael talks about his human sister, now elderly and suffering from dementia in a Catholic retirement home in Harlem. The scene is affecting precisely because Isabelle and Raphael plug into an existing cultural identity with all the humanizing implications that come with it.
As for Luke, his role as the sole black man feels tokenistic. He’s tied to the story through relationships with white characters—a romance with Clary’s mother, a father figure to Clary, a betrayal from Valentine. And while it’s positive to see a brief connection with his sister, the operating word is “brief”. I do enjoy his protective tendencies over Maia Roberts (Alisha Wainwright), a black character whose actress looks mixed-race, but their interactions concern werewolf politics with no allegories to race.
Speaking of allegory, there could be something to be parsed from the fact that Downworlders—humans who are part-demon—are more ethnically diverse than Shadowhunters, who are part-angel. However, any conclusions would be tenuous at best, since we do see a few Shadowhunters of color, as well as white Downworlders.
Despite the show’s surface-level understanding of race, Magnus embodies a refreshing portrait of a man of color. Perhaps this is due to his heritage being written explicitly in the books, where Magnus is half-white and half-Indonesian. Regardless the reason, it’s a joy to watch an Asian American actor play a bisexual warlock partial to nail polish and makeup while still remaining a BAMF. One thought on casting, however; as much as I adore Harry Shum Jr., the casting of a Chinese actor in the role of a Southeast Asian doesn’t come without strings.
As think-pieces on Crazy Rich Asians have highlighted, in many parts of Asia such as Singapore or the Philippines, ethnic Chinese occupy an economic tier that holds all the power. Because of these power dynamics, it doesn’t always feel good to see lighter-skinned East Asians playing Southeast Asian roles. That said, I’m keeping an eye on the situation but in American media, this has yet to become problematic. In shows like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend or The Good Place, Filipino actors play leading love interests, and in Canada’s sci-fi show Dark Matter, we actually see a Filipino actor play a Japanese character.
Shadowhunters elevates queer characters to major roles, the most visible of which is the romance between Magnus and Alec—or, as the show dubs it, “Malec”. Magnus is bisexual and Alec is gay, and they share a healthy relationship that’s intriguingly complicated by the fact that Magnus is immortal and has lived for hundreds of years, while Alec is decidedly mortal. Writers do a fantastic job with Malec, carving out similar amounts of screentime and steaminess as they do for the heterosexual couples.
Furthermore, the writers of Shadowhunters go the extra mile and improve upon issues in the source material. As detailed in this comparison by writer Johnathan Galbreath, problematic areas like Alec’s biphobia, or iffy power dynamics between Alec and Magnus, are smoothed over…even to the ire of Clare, in fact. When showrunner Slavkin tweeted that “shows can differ from books”, indicating that Simon’s canonical infidelity would be revised for television, Clare responded with this shady Tweet.
Beyond Malec, Shadowhunters also contains the only asexual character in all of cable television, the vampire Raphael. Raphael says to Isabelle, after she mistakes his feelings for sexual interest, “I’m not like that. I’m just not interested in sex.” Clare has also confirmed Raphael’s asexuality, despite it never being made explicit in the books.
Offscreen, the impact the show has made on the LGBTQ community is palpable. GLAAD campus ambassador alum Aisling McDermott, who identifies as biromantic and asexual, pens an effusive piece called “Why we, the Stans, Love Shadowhunters.” She highlights the intersectionality in having a biracial Asian character, an asexual Latino, concluding: “The show proves it’s possible to live your life and be more than your labels, and that is why I stan Shadowhunters.”
Mediaversity Grade: B 4.06/5
Not only does Shadowhunters have a huge LGBTQ following, fans of all stripes have banded together to try and resuscitate the show, which was cancelled by ABC after its third season. As a latecomer myself, I’m already a big fan of this delightful guilty pleasure and will be just as disappointed to say goodbye to characters I’ve come to care about over the course of two seasons. In the meantime, I’ll look forward to the third season and its 2-hour finale for closure after that, before we must all say goodbye to this iteration of Clare’s fantastical creations.