Shadowhunters, Malec and the Burden of Representation
If someone told you the latest in TV’s young adult book adaptations was not-so-subtly shifting the conversation about LGBT representation, would you believe them? Without having seen it myself, I’m not sure I would. But during the past 11 weeks, Shadowhunters has done things for both its gay and bisexual leads that we rarely see: it’s dared to treat them as complex, fleshed-out characters.
It seems so easy. Write a character into a story, then weave them into the larger plot. There they become warriors, villains, siblings, friends, lovers, and heart-breakers. This is storytelling at its most fundamental. However, in an industry where efforts to increase representational visibility don’t always reap nuanced portrayals, this small screen adaptation is starting to feel borderline revolutionary.
Alec, one of the series main shadowhunters, is in the closet and the reasons for it are almost too many to count. From his society’s aggressive homophobia and an unquestionable loyalty to his family’s legacy to a fear of rejection and an emotionally confusing parabatai bond with fellow shadowhunter Jace, it’s easy to understand why he’d want to keep his sexuality a secret. Especially when it comes to Jace, with whom he shares an ambiguous bond complicated by the fact that one-half is gay and the other is not, in a culture that prohibits romance between them.
In a way, the nature of the connection allows Alec to keep his sexuality hidden. It’s a scapegoat, an excuse to deflect his feelings in favor of a more socially acceptable answer. For a while, this works for the oldest Lightwood sibling. That is until the freewheeling and powerful warlock Magnus Bane enters his life. The allure of the mysterious downworlder ignites something within Alec. Meanwhile, his near instantaneous attraction to the stoic shadowhunter inspires Magnus to once again consider the possibilities of love.
Their relationship plot helps lay the foundation of Alec’s season one character arc. It’s a complicated one, to say the least, involving an intense tug-of-war between being loyal to his family, his warrior duty and his own heart. Magnus’ own tensions stem from a long and complex relationship history that deeply informs his decision to involve himself with someone who may not be willing to openly love him back. Born into a culture that stigmatizes queerness and interracial relationships, a romance between a gay shadowhunter and a bisexual warlock seemingly spells doom.
Yet, their innate chemistry rekindles Magnus’ 400-year-old heart and results in Alec starting to confront his orientation. Inadvertently, their attraction also generates an emotionally messy love triangle between Alec, Magnus and Jace. It’s tested not just by Alec’s relationships with both men, but by lawful indiscretions committed on behalf of the series’ main character, Clary Fray, that have put the social standing of Alec’s family at risk.
After the Lightwood name is threatened, Alec chooses duty over everything. This includes his sexual identity, his various non-romantic relationships and arguably his conscience. Despite passionate remonstration from those closest to him, the oldest Lightwood agrees to marry a female shadowhunter from a well-respected family. It’s a strategic move to restore the Lightwood honor that at one point puts Alec and his family on opposing sides, and eventually snowballs into the near exile of his sister. But even through that Alec remains adamant about his choice to be with the female shadowhunter. All the way to the altar.
This combined could easily generate a storm of problematic queer representation. For Alec’s plot, the series utilizes a questionable beard trope and toys with the implications of a gay man pining after a straight one. On the other hand, Magnus’ tension rests in his response to the homophobia and racism of shadowhunter culture, as he grapples with his own emotional baggage about Alec’s staunch sexual repression. Essentially, there are a lot of places this show could have gotten it wrong with these characters.
Despite having those mountains to climb, and as other shows struggle very publicly with their own representation, Shadowhunters has for the most part succeeded. That success begins with how it uses its characters to challenge the genre itself. Much of the time fantasy and sci-fi media creators paint their worlds in a very specific way. That way seems to ignore certain groups while playing on the real-life cultural discrimination they face. It’s disheartening considering that in these genres literally anything is possible. We see everything from aliens and unicorns to angels and superheroes, but rarely people of color and people on the LGBTQ spectrum.
Shadowhunters’ choice to diversify its cast and offer more development focus to supporting members of its ensemble bucks an industry trend that not only limits creative possibilities but who connects to them. Magnus isn’t just attractive, powerful and perceptive. He’s one of a literal handful of bisexual men on TV. He’s also an Asian man whom the narrative defines as eternally desirable, in a medium that has historically downplayed Asian male sexuality and desirability through discriminatory stereotypes. Not to mention the warlock is an out character that has for most of the show’s freshman run avoided pressuring Alec about his repressed sexuality.
The insistence by Magnus or even Izzy that Alec publicly acknowledges his orientation might seem in his best interest. And in a way, it can be–in terms of Alec learning how to accept himself. But it also follows a storytelling pattern that argues a queer character is most valuable to a plot when everyone else knows they aren’t straight. Coming out is not a simple or universal experience, despite how Hollywood likes to market it. Self-identifying takes some their entire lives while others never feel safe enough to try.
So outside of Magnus’ most impassioned plea last week for Alec to stop the wedding, the warlock has given the shadowhunter the kind of space and respect rarely seen between an out character and a closeted one. And as for Magnus’ recent emotional escalation, it’s easy to see how rooted it is in his own backstory. Hopefully, the series will address his adamancy in the upcoming episode, at the very least to better flesh out his own character development.
Meanwhile, Alec serves as a challenge to stereotypical representations of homosexual men. He’s a warrior to his core — masculine, calculating, resolute. It’s an inversion of the typical flamboyant and effeminate portrayal viewers typically see on screen. Not that either of those two qualities is negative by nature. Their stigma comes from how often they are used to exploit a character’s sexuality, particularly for comedic effect.
Instead of Alec’s orientation being the butt of the joke, he is the series’ quintessential comedic straight man. Tack onto this his complicated coming out story entwined with the confusing love triangle. Alec may feel conflicted about both men, but these men also represent two versions of the same person, the one we know him to be and the one he will become. In that way, Alec’s coming out is so much more than a de-closeting story. It doubles as a relatable and unstereotypical coming of age plot.
Which leads right into where the show has succeeded most with both characters. Shadowhunters has largely managed to do what others have not: write queer characters that are their own people first. Alec and Magnus have remained fan favorites as a result of a purposeful effort to use each character’s personal stakes and the plot’s organic drama to connect them to each other. It’s how their straight counterparts are predominantly delivered and developed–with nuance, sensitivity, creativity, and intent.
On Tuesday, the show will take one of the biggest and most important steps in developing both characters. It’s an episode not so coincidentally named after their own “ship.” As one clip has already teased, the couple is about to get the kind of epic romantic treatment usually reserved for TV’s straight couples.
Malec is a romance that’s been slowly brewing for well over half a season. It’s also a relationship so deeply ingrained in these characters’ arcs that the writing actually avoided having Alec smile until the first time he saw Magnus. But what happens if these characters who we’ve connected to suddenly make a choice regarding their future that we don’t like? What if the first and arguably most important step in Malec’s on-screen development doesn’t “feel” right? Should we throw in the towel when things go awry, or should we trust in the characters as well-rounded people? Will we define their progress and future narrative success by their romance or who they are individually as well as together?
That’s a lot of questions but the way Shadowhunters is developing Magnus and Alec has brought them into sharp focus. And it’s put them under an intensely (and rightfully) critical lens. Which is why claiming that both characters’ development has been perfect up until this moment seems a bit disingenuous. But arguing that their portrayals have challenged the very ways we see characters like them on screen does not.
Perhaps that is why, in the end, it feels unfair that so much of how the two are received going forward will hang on the events of a single episodic arc. Unfortunately, that’s the challenge of good character development and the burden of good media representation.
So, again, what would you really do if Malec didn’t turn out the way you wanted? Perhaps consider this: remember that they are their own people, too. These characters are just as significant apart as they are together. And that alone is what makes their relationship so engaging. Despite Malec’s electric chemistry and the potential of their journey, it’s okay for them to stumble together as long as they don’t stumble alone. If the show continues to acknowledge that these characters are a sum of their many parts (relationship, personal and plot) instead of being parts of someone else’s sum, Malec will work. Not only will we fall in love with their love, but they’ll be one more addition to the ever-running list of ways we do right by those marginalized in the media.
Our small screen stories don’t always mirror real-world realities. This is why so many of our representations have been and continue to be one-dimensional. But Alec Lightwood and Magnus Bane aren’t devices, thrown in to advance another’s plot. They’re the heroes and love interests of their own stories. That’s a fact and one that underscores just how well Shadowhunters is changing the way LGBTQ characters live and love on screen.