Representation Matters: the Promise of Shadowhunters
Shadowhunters is an upcoming television series based on Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments books. The book series has a strong and vocal fan base of mostly teen girls and young adult women who are ready to embrace the show despite, or because of, their disappointment in the earlier film adaptation. With a passionate audience built in the showrunners took what could be called risks in the casting — and though I’ve only seen the six minute clip released at NYCC and the ensuing panel of awesome people being awesome, I’m hopeful it’s going to pay off in a big way.
There were seven cast members on the Empire Stage Saturday morning and only two, main couple Clary (Katherine McNamara) and Jace (Brit Dominic Sherwood) are white — Clary’s BFF Simon (Alberto Rosende) and Jace’s foster siblings Alec (Matthew Daddario) and Isabelle (Emeraude Toubia) are Latino, Warlock with the best name ever, Magnus Bane (Harry Shum Jr.) is Asian and Clary’s werewolf cop father figure Luke (Isiah Mustafa) is black. This diversity is not on the page but it is also not not on the page. So the showrunners created a New York that looks like the real one.
And it matters. Moderator Damian Holbrook read one comment from a fan in Latin America simply thanking the show for including people who “look like me” in a fantasy series (in contrast to say, Harry Potter). Emeraude and Alberto spoke openly and eloquently about the opportunity they’d been given to play these characters who were not written with a specific race in mind, and how powerful a message that is to fans and younger actors. Clare based the character of Luke on her own (white) stepfather and reports her mom was thrilled to find out she’s “married to the ‘Old Spice guy’” in the new adaptation. Race doesn’t change these characters, but representation matters.
Queer sexuality is also represented in the series. Alec Lightwood is gay but not out, not even to his siblings, though they know, or even, really, to himself. But over the course of the books he starts dating pansexual warlock Magnus and finally comes out to his parents. This development is not a significant part of the main plot but it is very significant to many readers who relate to Alec’s struggle. Matthew and Harry were deliberately seated beside each other on the panel and fans noticed, cared, and thanked the actors and the author. One young woman started crying while she related how important an openly queer couple in a fantasy novel is to her as a queer teen. Matthew and Harry, representing ‘Malec’ as their characters are called together, pulled her into a hug that a teary eyed Cassandra Clare also joined. Representation matters.
There were a lot of tears at the panel because these characters and relationships mean a lot to the audience. Another young woman broke down because Simon Lewis is the first Jewish hero in a fantasy novel she’s ever encountered. The showrunners confirmed their Simon is Jewish because they know it’s important. Representation matters.
I tweeted that the cast was acting like a family on stage, teasing each other, and the cast and creators confirmed that family is at the heart of their story and it carried over to the production. Dominic told the room Isaiah was a father figure to them all on set, and is the kind of actor and person he wants to be. Emeraude gushed about the relationship her Izzy built with Katherine’s Clary, that it could have been contentious, ‘Mean Girls’ fighting to be on top, but instead they lift each other up. Girls can and should empower each other.
Representation, in all its forms, is powerful. Matthew and Harry answered a fan submission question asking for their advice to teens in Alec’s situation. Harry said “Be yourself. We’re living in a world where it is a lot more open and people are more open to seeing things that they’re not used to and to me that’s a powerful thing.” And Matthew said, simply, “Your feelings are not wrong.”
Those two comments are not only a beautiful message to queer teens, they sum up the message of the whole panel to their passionate audience: we hear you, we see you, we want to represent you. And unlike the message passionate teen girls get everywhere else, also, know, your feelings are not wrong.
Shadowhunters will premiere January 12, 2016 on Freeform (currently ABC Family)