I feel like some parts of this review are likely to need an explanation, so I'm going to be up front about myself. I enjoy terrible shows. I prefer good shows most of the time, but terrible shows have their own appeal. In an odd way I find that I'm more invested in them because there has to be something compelling enough to get me through them—characters for whom I feel a sort of bemused fondness (Lara, Blake, and Dash on Minority Report), or characters I hate so much that I will watch entire seasons in the hope that someone kills them for me (Agent Coulson or Grant Ward on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.). The Freeform Network release Shadowhunters (January 2016—present) was my most recent attempt to find something pointless and amusing to fill my weekend.
Shadowhunters follows Clary Frey, an eighteen-year-old girl who finds out on her birthday that her mother has been keeping a secret from her for her whole life—that she's a Shadowhunter, a human with angelic blood whose mission it is to protect humans (termed mundanes) from the supernatural. In short order her mother, Jocelyn, is kidnapped by evil Shadowhunters that are part of a faction called "The Circle" run by her estranged husband and Clary's father, Valentine Morgenstern. She teams up with a group of young Shadowhunters made up of her love interest, Jace Wayland, his adoptive siblings, Isabelle and Alec Lightwood, and her human (and later vampire) best friend, Simon Lewis, in an effort to rescue her mother. The show is filled with absurdly pretty people in minimal clothing, ridiculous dialogue, incredibly bad fight scenes, and some of the worst acting and CGI you can find in 2016. It sounds horrible. It is horrible. I'm into it almost despite myself.
It's hard to point to the flaws in Shadowhunters without acknowledging that this is a world and an ethos built from pre-existing sources. The show has similarities and distinctions from its source material, the Mortal Instruments book series by Cassandra Clare, that itself took shape out of fanfiction written for J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter universe. Added into this mix are the movie franchises for both book series, though I'm unsure precisely how much these might have influenced the show beyond the basic assurance of a pre-existing fan base to tap. Knowing this, it's hard not to try to mentally fill in the blanks whenever the worldbuilding on the show fails to provide with information from one of these sources. However, based on the source material, I can understand that most of the Shadowhunters depicted are supposed to be Slytherins and purebloods and therefore the attendant casual racism is something that traces itself back to Rowling's books and is reaffirmed here in this through the looking glass fantasy world. At the same time, the show does exactly what Rowling's books do: it uses the violence of real world racism while attempting to divorce it from the people it most affects. In the Harry Potter books and movie franchise, this representation was largely carried by Hermione (who has retrospectively been reimagined as black by many fans, but whose ethnicity remains unexplored in the book and who is represented within the Hollywood franchise by Emma Watson).
My issue with Shadowhunters mirrors yet differs from the issues that I have with the Harry Potter franchise. In Rowling's primarily white fantasy world, racial slurs become something that only white people deal with. This isn't to say that there isn't hierarchical violence among white ethnicities, but rather that this restriction does much to prioritize whiteness in a struggle that affects more than just white people. Rowling's willingness to retrospectively revise her fantasy world in discussions is commendable, but it also means that the books do stumble when it comes to any nuanced representation of diversity. In Shadowhunters, there are multiple POC in various roles, both primary and secondary. Despite this, the choices the show makes in its storylines see this casting largely divorced from properly contextualized representation of those it most affects in the real world. A multi-ethnic cast is an excellent step towards diversity, yet if the narrative and its attendant dialogue at no point understands the issues these specific ethnicities often encounter, the choice to cast these actors as these characters fails to be really meaningful.
The argument I'm making here isn't that casting an actor of a specific ethnicity or culture has to result in them performing that culture for the viewer—that would open up a massive can of worms particularly in a global post-colonial world where migration has changed so much about how these systems work—but that since Shadowhunters is focused so specifically on these conversations about race, the lack of specific contexts is simultaneously glaring and telling. Context matters, especially when the context is an ongoing issue in the real world. When the show's primary faction (the eponymous Shadowhunters) is largely white, seemingly rich, and throwing around casual racism at the majority of the other characters, who are by and large played by POC, my eyebrows hit my hairline.
The thing is, Shadowhunters is hardly the first to imagine that conversations about race or effects of racism are those that can be displaced onto any body regardless of context, or that people of colour require white saviours like Clary to jump-start these conversations. I remember watching the new Captain America: Civil War trailer a few months before this and clenching my fists with rage because here was the MCU supposedly taking on a real world theme, i.e., the demanded registration of those considered "unsafe" or "dangerous" or "foreign," which affects so many people in their everyday life—which affects me and my family and my friends in our everyday lives as brown people of different religions and cultures—and makes it about a tortured white man with a complicated past. This question of registration only matters when white bodies are involved. How very true to life.
I had no words then. I was numb with it. My Facebook and Twitter timelines were awash with glee at Marvel's choice to emphasise Bucky Barnes' effect on Steve Rogers, his discord with Tony Stark, the factions within the primarily white Avengers. And the thing is, I wanted to be able to be a part of that. It's a cliché to say that I wasn't, or that I couldn't be—I could. I could so easily choose to ignore this and celebrate. That universe was never about me, after all. I'm not even one of the people most at risk in situations like these. I already knew that. I've ignored it before. But it still felt like being slapped silent.
In Marvel's TV property Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the character of Jiaying (played by Tibetan-Australian actress Dichen Lachman) fights against registration being enforced by S.H.I.E.L.D., as a result of having lived through this information being misused, leading to torture, organ theft, the death of the majority of her community, and the loss of her child. Her desperate attempt to start a war in response to S.H.I.E.L.D.'s American neo-colonial statement-threat of "we'll leave you in peace if you register" with its consequent policing and control of the Asian-themed city of Afterlife, is framed within the show as terrorism and strongly disavowed. Her story of fighting against forced registration isn't one that matters. The reasoning behind her actions—which also involves tortures of various kinds being a possible likelihood for her people as part of her lived experience—isn't endorsed. But, oh, yes, do tell me more about Bucky Barnes. Divorce this story even further from the people it affects. We've always been the villains of the piece.
Dare I say it?
We're villains of the peace. Because peace is a white flag thrown high in every damn sense of the line. Because we spend half our lives surrendering to everyday racism to keep the peace. Because even in my surrender, that damn flag is white.
In comparison, the casual racism of Shadowhunters as a major plotline is hardly special, though it manages to be slightly more nuanced than I originally expected. (Nuanced racism. What a world.) We're told that there is a hidden but co-existing supernatural world from which Shadowhunters protect mundanes because they (the Shadowhunters) are part-angel. This protection is largely from demons and what the show calls Downworlders—those that are part-angel and part-demon. The Downworlders exist in an uneasy alliance with the Shadowhunters, and the Shadowhunters seem to find ever-increasing ways of being verbally offensive about them. Examples include: Alec insisting that Downworlders are ruled by impulse while Shadowhunters are not (repeating the racist colonialist discourse of civilized versus non-civilized), Alec and their mother judging Isabelle for sleeping with the Seelie, Meliorn, because of his Downworlder status (this is represented in the show as the equivalent of slumming it and does have racial connotations), and Isabelle herself informing Meliorn that "some of us [Shadowhunters] enjoy a little spice" when referring to his part-demon blood.
While all of these are problematic, the last is particularly significant because it couches casual racism with sexualizing the other. People of colour are often hypersexualized in media, though the manner ranges from sexual violence to objectification. This plays into established tropes wherein hypersexualized depictions of the other, often paired with dubious morality or animalistic characteristics, are part of the civilized versus non-civilized discourse, and used to degrade this other as unequal or less human. The outright racism of Alec, his mother, and Valentine is far less insidious than othering through hypersexualization, because so many will brush off this situation with statements like "being attractive is a good thing" or "this isn't about race," even when it so clearly is. That the show doesn't seem to see this as an issue is a problem, because I so badly want Meliorn to react to Isabelle's statement and bring up the fact that her phrasing reduces him to only one aspect of a being rather than a coherent whole.
At the same time, it's hard not to see the show succeeding in small ways almost despite itself. The choice to largely divorce race in casting choices from the depiction of people who are often most affected by these different forms of racism—because racism affects different ethnicities differently; we're not all on the same scales of threat or sexualisation—brings up an interesting moment in which Isabelle (played by Mexican-Lebanese actor Emeraude Toubia), herself aggressively sexualised on the show, casually uses racist language with Meliorn (played by Lebanese-Canadian actor Jade Hassouné). That Shadowhunters is engaging in depictions of POC on POC racism is unexpected but welcome, because it adds actual complexity to what is otherwise a fairly straightforward racist-evil-fantasy, Nazis-must-be-stopped storyline. The only other time I've seen this done (and done well) on a TV show in recent memory has been on the short-lived CBC series, Strange Empire. While there's no depth to the depiction in Shadowhunters—no pushback, no anger, no challenge to the established theme—it was an oddly compelling moment nonetheless.
I want the show to be better because it's one thing to deal with barefaced racism; there are millions of examples out there—from Nazis reimagined in a million ways across TV shows and movies, to every news channel blaring at me about Donald Trump's U.S. campaign, to local contexts in India where I pick up an Amar Chitra Katha comic and see that every villain or asur (demon) is dark-skinned. That racism doesn't bother to hide, but the sort of insidious casual racism that hypersexualizes, that reduces you to your body, that says you can't be racist if you're a person of colour; all of that still slides by more often than not.
A later episode features Meliorn being termed a terrorist and taken into custody by order of the Clave (the presiding political body of Shadowhunters). By this time I was almost playing a game of offensiveness bingo with this show and the word "terrorist" was right smack dab in the middle of the card. That Meliorn as a brown body is labelled a terrorist is only one facet of this issue; that the Clave only believes him to be a lackey acting on behalf of Valentine, a white fascist, is the other. The show depicts Shadowhunters blindly assuming that Seelies (as representative of people of mixed race on the show) are more likely to side with the fascist who has killed (and plans to continue killing) them; that brown people (like Meliorn) can't make decisions for themselves and power can only be held in the hands of white men (like Valentine); and the only person who seems to understand that Meliorn might not want to serve a ranting racist is Isabelle. No one is listening to or believing brown people when it comes to matters of their own intent and political agency because only white people can hold the reins of power. It's like the plot of Iron Man 3 came back from whatever terrible hole it's been skulking in to remind us that Ben Kingsley was actually a part of that travesty. The fact that the show states outright that it's wrong that brown people (like Meliorn) are to be held responsible for what a governing political body (the Clave) sees as the effects of racist white men (Valentine) casually attempting genocide of people of colour (all Downworlders) is oddly immense. And here's where you sort of have to hand it to Shadowhunters—because they've inadvertently stumbled into an aspect of realism almost despite themselves.
Yet inevitably, the show manages to reverse any goodwill this narrative choice has engendered by using this moment to emphasise the show's fantasy hierarchy. The different ethnic factions (depicted as groups of Downworlders such as werewolves and vampires joining to help Seelies) antagonize each other constantly, leading to Clary, Jace, and Isabelle, as the "new generation" of Shadowhunters, policing them on their behaviour. This produces them as the civilizing discourse, the "peaceful" and controlling discourse, and reaffirms a hierarchy that's already in place on the show. This scene follows almost directly on from a scene in which Simon unironically calls Clary a "superior being" for being a Shadowhunter in comparison to his own changed status from mundane to Downworlder, and just after it occurs, they charge to save Meliorn from his torture-interrogation, taking a route that only the Downworlders use and that Clary calls "the service entrance." Notably, all of this occurs while Clary preaches equality between all the different Downworlders and their faction of the Shadowhunters. As I watched in actual disbelief, the show was actually more casually racist and classist in these moments of attempted equality than in any of the previous deliberately racist scenes. (There's nothing on the bingo card for moments like these!)
Am I excited by the idea of watching a TV show about moderate racists taking on a vehement racist so they can learn to be slightly less racist? Not particularly. Yet that's sort of what Shadowhunters boils down to once you pull away the trappings of the fantasy genre. It is, at least partly, a redemption story for some of the Shadowhunters that uses violent language that is lived experience without regard for the context from which it is drawn. At no point do we see Clary or Simon display anger when Alec and Isabelle make casually racist statements; it's never a case of "this is awful and we're angry but we have to put up with it because these people are all that's keeping us alive." Instead, these statements are brushed off or made into a joke, or Simon (played by Latino actor Alberto Rosende), as the mundane in the room (before he is turned into a vampire), gets the brunt of it. In effect, I found myself watching a show that is heavily invested in having conversations about race while being utterly blind to the needs of the people this conversation affects.
Shadowhunters' lack of empathy extends beyond issues of race. The primary villain of the piece, Valentine Morgenstern, has a base of operations in an abandoned factory in Chernobyl. As far as I'm aware, this isn't something that was part of either the books the show is based on or the 2013 film. It seems to have been introduced specifically as part of the TV series. Valentine's base is a torture laboratory and prison. To clarify, Valentine, the show's fantasy equivalent of a fascist who casually throws around terms like "blood purity," people being "contaminated" and becoming "abominations," is based in a torture lab. In Chernobyl. In Ukraine.
There are so many problems with this choice of setting that it's going to take me a while to enumerate them all. Firstly, Ukraine has a long and tragic history of genocides under fascism, whether we're thinking of the Holodomor famine-genocide potentially orchestrated by Stalin, or of the later genocide that occurred under Nazi occupation in World War II. Secondly, the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl was a tragedy on a scale that's almost impossible to comprehend. It wasn't just that people died at the time, it's that the effects have gone on long past the initial incident, resulting in radiation poisoning, cancer, contaminated food and water, etc. Using this setting—and that the evocation of the Chernobyl disaster is deliberate is pretty irrefutable given the show's emphasis on it—to house a torture lab and somehow emphasise a fascist's power by demonstrating his invulnerability to the effects of that disaster isn't just in poor taste, it's flat-out appalling. That the show then has a scene in which an "infected" Shadowhunter kills two Seelies by releasing a poison from which he himself then dies seems too deliberate to put down to simply poor taste. It's possible to suggest that Shadowhunters attempts to evoke an ethos, a landscape of horror here, yet it takes an amazing lack of empathy, consideration, and just basic research skills to think that this would be acceptable. Much like its conversation on racism that refuses to locate itself in actual racial tensions, the show's attempt to ground its fascism in historical horror fails because it remains unwilling to deal with its real-world contexts, its lived experience for real people.
In the end, it's hard to sum up this show for a review because it has so little to recommend it. It is silly, and ridiculous, and horribly inept at any sort of actual engagement with race or other contexts. The characters constantly stand around having incredibly emotional discussions right in the middle of chase scenes, as if walking and talking is something only other people do. There is so little adult supervision for a group of teens left alone with a stash of weapons and electronics that I genuinely worry for their world. Nobody makes any reasonable decisions, least of all the adults (when they show up at all). Everyone is ridiculously pretty and running around either topless (the men) or in heels (the women). Watching the show is very much like being sucked back in time to when I was a teenager and had more hormones than sense (and great hair), and it's simultaneously amazing and exhausting and so incredibly wrong about so many important things. Everyone has so many feelings all the time. Disconcertingly, I also suddenly have so many feelings all the time! But it does manage to have a lovely subplot about a gay romance; Alberto Rossende is clearly an excellent actor (who really needs to go on to better projects than this); and Harry Shum Jr., who plays the glitter-laden bisexual warlock Magnus Bane, is amazing at wringing laughs out of terrible dialogue. Honestly? I've seen worse.
Based in India, Samira spends most of her time explaining Nicolas Cage movies to her father and making bad puns. In her everyday life, she’s an academic. At night, she watches terrible TV and posts blurry pictures of her cat. It’s a life.
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