“Representation is a crucial location of struggle for any exploited and oppressed people asserting subjectivity and decolonization of the mind.”
— bell hooks
Perhaps the most critically-acclaimed elements within Shadowhunters have to do with the multiple layers of representation on and off screen within the show. One of the most groundbreaking examples of this is the positive LGBTQ+ representation, which won the show a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Drama Series in 2017 and nominations in 2018 and 2019 due to its “fair, accurate, and inclusive representation.“
Shadowhunters has been heralded as a show that “broke new ground by prominently featuring gay, lesbian, bisexual, and asexual characters in healthy, loving, non-stereotyped roles.” That includes two of the show’s main characters, Magnus Bane (an openly bisexual warlock) and Alec Lightwood (a newly-out, gay Shadowhunter). These characters are multifaceted; their sexuality is not the sole trait that is focused on as being what makes them who they are. Both men are in positions of power and their individual political storylines, as well as their romantic storyline as “Malec,” have inspired people all around the world.
As one of the three main pairings on the show, Magnus and Alec receive quite a bit of screen time. Their relationship is represented to be just as layered as the two men are individually and it has taken audiences by storm. This is explained succinctly by Talk Nerdy With Us in the following statement:
“Not only are Alec and Magnus an LGBT couple […] but they are also a biracial couple by real world and fictional world standards. Alec is the epitome of white privilege as a man made with the blood of angels, held above all other beings in this universe. Magnus is the polar opposite; a man of Asian heritage, a mix of human and demonic genetics, and he represents everything the Shadowhunters despise yet tolerate for the sake of societal progression. […] Alec and Magnus’ individual races frown upon each other as the oppressors and oppressed – yet in each other’s company they are simply human souls struggling to open up, seeking understanding, comfort, and connection.”
This has allowed the show to “give these two characters the type of epic romantic treatment we rarely see for same-sex couples,” including their wedding from the final episode of Season 3. The show’s ending (for now) depicts them as committed, loving husbands and powerful figures within the Shadow World in their own right, helping to create change. Pride commended the show for effectively rejecting the oh-so-popular “bury your gays” trope and allowing these characters to flourish, writing, “In a world where most of our fave queer characters die untimely and extremely sad deaths, it’s nice to see two bo[y]s in love get their happy ending.” Not only does Shadowhunters represent these characters as equal, dynamic, and important; it also reaffirms the fact that the LGBTQ+ members of their audience are as well.
The show has also introduced other LGBTQ+ characters, including Aline Penhallow, Andrew Underhill, Helen Blackthorn, Lorenzo Rey, Meliorn, Olivia “Ollie” Wilson, and Sam, which help further positive lesbian, gay, and bisexual representation. One of the most important additions is Raphael Santiago, an asexual, Latino vampire. Asexual representation is practically non-existent in media today, which makes Raphael’s coming out to Isabelle Lightwood in Season 2 (and her acceptance of him and his sexuality) especially significant. While there are supernatural qualities to all of these characters and their relationships, the writers, showrunners, and actors have tried to make them as realistic and layered as possible.
The cast of Shadowhunters also “boast[s] one of the most diverse casts ever seen on TV.” Of its eight main characters, five of them are played by people of color. They include Alberto Rosende as Simon Lewis, Alisha Wainwright as Maia Roberts, Emeraude Toubia as Isabelle Lightwood, Harry Shum Jr. as Magnus Bane, and Isaiah Mustafa as Luke Garroway. All of them have multifaceted storylines and several of them are in positions of power. There are also numerous supporting characters that are played by people of color, many of whom have recurring roles.
Simon provides representation for the Jewish community. His religion has been referenced in small moments, like the Star of David being placed in a scene, as well as more significant ones, like during times of mourning and instances of discrimination. His storyline throughout an entire episode was even dedicated solely to his family’s traditions for Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement.
Shadowhunters also enables the discussion of topics that usually remain untouched in supernatural dramas. Situations in the Shadow World parallel those that take place in reality. There are allegories for homophobia and racism within the show, which have allowed for poignant and meaningful conversations and scenes between characters. For instance, when she is arrested for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Maia states, “You know, I have been stopped by cops for no other reason than being black, but I thought the Shadowhunters were more evolved than that.” Another example is when Alec, termed one of the “best and brightest” Shadowhunters, is overlooked for a promotion because he is “dating a guy who is a Downworlder.” Other topics featured and discussed have included addiction, mental health, and suicide.
Shadowhunters has taken a firm stance on breaking rather than reaffirming harmful stereotypes as well. Male characters are allowed to show emotion without it being portrayed or perceived by other characters as a weakness. Female characters are shown to be intelligent, strong, and fierce, yet are still allowed to be vulnerable. Magnus’ characterization has broken the stereotypes of bisexuals as never being able to choose and as likely to cheat on their partners.
All of this is in line with how the cast, crew, and showrunners have approached Shadowhunters from the very beginning. When interviewed, executive producer Michael Reisz stated:
“One of the things that was really, really important to me was to tell a true, authentic representation of both straight and gay characters, and not just stereotypes. […] Every character, whether you’re straight, gay, bi, trans – every character is a multifaceted human being. […] I think a lot of times there’s potential for all of those levels to get washed over and that’s something that we fought very hard to protect in all of our characters.”
This indicates a certain level of care behind the scenes that unfortunately not every show receives. However, it has helped Shadowhunters gain an incredibly loyal and passionate fanbase, even outside of its target audience. While it was originally designed to target those in the 18-24 demographic, the fanbase is filled with people in their 50’s and 60’s. The positive representation and breaking of stereotypes has allowed those in older generations to see themselves positively represented on TV for, what is for many, the very first time. It has also helped bridge the gap between generations and start conversations about different issues and experiences.
And not only is Shadowhunters taking representation seriously in front of the camera; they are also incorporating it into what takes place behind it. Several key players of the cast and crew are members of the LGBTQ+ community, including Reisz, director Joshua Butler, and supporting actors Jade Hassoune, Javier Muñoz, Jonathan Ho, and Nicole Correia-Damude. Reisz has specifically talked about his role in developing “Malec,” stating, “I’ve been involved with the Magnus and Alec storyline since its inception in the series. I’ve sort of been the protector of it through every episode.”
Several of them have discussed the show’s importance and what it has meant to be involved in it, including Butler, who directed Magnus and Alec’s first “I Love You.” He has pointed out, “Film and television have been inexcusably late to the party when it comes to both LGBTQ representation and the depiction of interracial relationships, both gay and straight. For ‘Malec’ to even exist is an artistic triumph on a historic level.” He felt “honor[ed] to direct this amazing ‘Malec’ moment” and credited actors Harry Shum Jr. and Matthew Daddario with “really do[ing] justice to an epic interracial gay romance that is breaking down barriers in film and television and will – mark my words – be remembered as historic and world-changing.“
Jonathan Ho, who plays Brother Zachariah and got to officiate Magnus and Alec’s wedding, has spoken about his role in that moment, stating, “As a gay Asian man, getting to not only be a part of but OFFICIATE the wedding of one of the most major queer couples in mainstream media today, one half of which is Asian? Lemme tell you, there was little to no acting on my part that day. What a privilege.“
The showrunners and writers also consult organizations like GLAAD “in order to ensure that their representation is multifaceted and accurate” before moving forward with storylines and character developments. Shadowhunters has not only provided diverse representation via the characters within the show itself, but via members of these communities as well. It has helped push representation forward within media, both in front of and behind the camera, and it is important that this work continue.
**Please note that quite a bit of this content comes directly from the introduction of Love Makes Us Stronger, and that permission was granted from the appropriate parties in order to feature it here.