Thursday, September 29, 2016

Shadowhunters: Diversity, Racism, and Postcolonial Readings

When The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, directed by Harald Zwart, was released in 2013, it opened to lackluster reviews and disappointing box-office numbers—it only earned about $31 million domestically to date. Based on the bestselling young adult urban fantasy novels by Cassandra Clare, the story follows the heroine Clary Fray as she stumbles into what most teenagers would want to discover: she’s not entirely human, and she’s an important player in the race to save the world—and not just the human world. The Shadowhunter world and its occupants are also in danger from a purist Shadowhunter bent on purifying their race. (Not quite the whole wipe-out-the-world ploy but close. Really close.)

Shadowhunters the television show is the second adaption of the novel series and premiered on Freeform on January 12, 2016; it has since been renewed for a second season run of 20 episodes. And being a fan of anything fantasy (and having seen/read both the movie and the novels), I had to take it upon myself to watch this particular adaption as well.

Now, the thing about Shadowhunters isn’t that it’s the Best Show on TelevisionTM, because it’s bad. Truly, honestly, undeniably bad in the way that most shows aimed at young adult audiences are. The acting goes from good to terrible in the span of a scene; the cinematography is mediocre; the dialogue is awful; the special effects are cringe-worthy.

However, though the show is objectively Bad TelevisionTM and was probably made on a budget of two cents, a bent paper clip, and a crinkled candy wrapper, what the show does well is a number of more nuanced narrative and directive choices. Arguably, Shadowhunters is the best portrayal of fictional oppression as a metaphor for racial oppression I’ve seen on genre TV lately, as the casting director cast actors of color in a multitude of roles that were originally white. It has real, visible diversity that are present not only in the extras but, perhaps most importantly, in the characters that actually move the plot forward (namely the main cast). Most of these characters were white or “up to interpretation” in the original text material, and most were portrayed as white in the 2013 movie adaption.

While not an exhaustive list by any means, here are 8 characters of color in the show:
  • Emaraude Toubia, as Isabelle Lightwood (Mexican-Lebanese)
  • Harry Shum Jr., as Magnus Bane (Costa-Rican Chinese)
  • Kaitlyn Leeb, as Camille Belcourt (Chinese-Canadian)
  • Jade Hassouné, as Meliorn (Lebanese-Canadian)
  • David Castro, as Raphael Santiago (Puerto-Rican, Jewish)
  • Alberto Rosende, as Simon Lewis (Cuban-Colombian)
  • Isaiah Mustafa, as Luke Garroway (African American)
  • Shailene Garnett, as Maureen Brown (African-Canadian, Creole)
Shadowhunters, then, is a turning point in representation in TV shows, as a means to critique Hollywood’s toxic history of whitewashing everyone under the sun in the name of profit and audience turn-out for big-name actors. 

More often than not, people of color are regulated to stereotypical roles: the sidekick, the comedic extra, the villain, the sexualized subject, and so on ad nauseam. These particular images get repeated often enough that they assume a reality of their own. Postcolonial theorist Homi K. Bhabha, professor of English and American Literature and Language, and the Director of the Humanities Center at Harvard University, has offered perhaps the most challenging and innovative engagement with the issues of racial/cultural otherness and the colonial stereotype. In his book, The Location of Culture, Bhabha asserts that the colonizer is able to produce images and remark upon things that are then reiterated and reified, especially in the case of the racialized Other. Skin color provides a convenient strategy for that signification; if the Other has a particular skin pigment, they can be known and exoticized as something dangerous that society cannot contain. The purpose of this, as Bhabha writes, is to shore up the identity of the colonizer by molding the colonized subject into a more palatable form—someone who is like the colonizer themselves. Critically pressuring this goal, however, reveals that the (white/hegemonic/heteropatriarchal) identity being protected is not as stable or secure as the colonizer might wish to believe.

Because the Downworlders (beings like werewolves, vampires, and faeries who are half demon) are portrayed by people of color in Shadowhunters when they once were white, the narrative makes room for a postcolonial reading about the fragility of the Shadowhunter’s dominant, hegemonic society.

Despite the increased diversity in the show and allowance for these types of dialogues are a positive step in the right direction, it does not pardon the show from breaking down under critical analysis. While the handling of racism in the show is a little more nuanced than what we would normally see, I can’t help but raise my eyebrows to my hairline with the way the show handles it. Shadowhunters is so specifically focused on these conversations about race that it lacks the specific context of that racism. 

In the show, the Downworlders exist in an uneasy alliance with the Shadowhunters, but the Shadowhunters seem to find ever-increasing ways of being verbally offensive about them. For example, Alec (one of the protagonists) insists that Downworlders are ruled by impulse while Shadowhunters are not, which repeats the racist, colonialist discourse of civilized versus non-civilized people. Even Isabelle (played by Mexican-Lebanese actress Toubia) informs Meliorn that “some of us [Shadowhunters] enjoy a little spice” when referring to his part-demon blood and also in reference to her relationship with him, contributing to the hypersexualization of people of color in media, and thus reduces Meliorn to that one aspect of his identity rather than a coherent whole.
Isabelle Lightwood

At the same time, it’s hard not to see the show succeeding in smalls ways despite itself. Shadowhunters engages in depictions of POC (people of color) on POC racism, and that is unexpected but welcome, because it does address internalized racism and adds complexity to the fairly straightforward fantasy. 

If a “silly fantasy” young adult genre dramedy can do this, why can’t HBO do it with their high-budget shows?

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