In fantasy stories, anything can happen. Isn’t that the appeal? Wherever a story falls on the genre’s spectrum, whether it’s a magical tale set in a make-believe land, a supernatural mystery full of all kinds of monsters, or an adventure of superhuman antics, these kinds of stories are not bound by the constraints our own world. They offer unlimited possibilities.
Naturally, when your characters are strange, new creatures or magical entities, it creates a space for new kinds of conflicts. But sometimes the conflicts that we see over and over between different groups of supernatural creatures don’t seem very new at all: They’re simply fantastical examples of the very real forms of discrimination that groups of people in our own world face every day. It becomes tiring when these supernatural conflicts ignore the fact that there’s nothing magical or inventive about marginalizing people based on their identity—whether it’s their species or superpower, their sexual orientation or the color of their skin.
Fantasy and other genre stories frequently rely on these kinds of metaphors: The conflict in the Harry Potter books is a clear demonstration of racism amongst wizards obsessed with blood purity, and the X-Men comics have been embraced by queer fans who find in the mutants’ hidden identities, isolation and found families recognizable parallels with their own lives. Sometimes it’s even more explicit, like Supergirl’s recent effort to tell a story about immigrant and refugee rights, at moment in which those issues remain acutely relevant in North American politics.
But where such stories deserve more scrutiny is when these metaphorical narratives play out without any representation of the people whose experiences are used as inspiration. The vast majority of the Muggle-born in Harry Potter and the refugee alien population on Supergirl are white, and the X-Men were considered straight for decades, until a 2015 issue featured Bobby Drake, a.k.a. Iceman, coming out as gay.
Considering the very premise of fantasy, there’s no excuse for failing to represent different kinds of people in stories where literally anything is possible—where magic is a real and powerful force, supernatural creatures roam the streets in all kinds of shapes and sizes, and angels and demons can wage an eternal celestial war.
The latter forms the backdrop for Freeform’s Shadowhunters, adapted from Cassandra Clare’s bestselling young adult fantasy series, The Mortal Instruments. In its second season, the series has made strides toward addressing more explicitly the different kinds of real-world oppression that influence its supernatural conflicts.
Shadowhunters follows the path of Clary Fray (Katherine McNamara), a Brooklyn art student whose world is turned upside down when she finds out that she hails from a family of Shadowhunters—angel-blooded warriors who keep the human world safe from demons. Clary’s life becomes tangled with a group of fellow Shadowhunters, as well as several Downworlders—a term used for the four factions of other supernatural beings: warlocks, vampires, werewolves and faeries.
Throughout the second season, the Shadowhunters and Downworlders have worked together and separately to face off against their biggest threat: Clary’s father, Valentine (Alan Van Sprang), a Shadowhunter turned rogue who plans to use the mortal instruments—ancient objects with immense powers—to create a new army of Shadowhunters, for the purpose of wiping out the Downworlders, which he considers inferior species.
While the threat of demons might be far off from our own world, the threat represented by Valentine and his anti-Downworlder beliefs is not. Shadowhunters is following in the footsteps of many of its fantasy predecessors (perhaps not coincidentally, as Clare wrote Harry Potter fanfiction before The Mortal Instruments books were published) with a conflict that parallels the very real forms of discrimination and racism that exist in our own world.
From the initial casting of the show, it was clear that the showrunners were willing to engage with this issue more explicitly than the books. The majority of Downworlder characters are played by actors of color, even those who were written as white in the books. The many ways in which these characters are targeted and discriminated against by both Valentine and other Shadowhunters because of their species is a clear parallel to racism, but this casting allows the series to represent this in a way that more closely mirrors real-world discrimination than had it followed in the footsteps of fantasies that allow white characters to play out oppressed narratives.
In a standout Season Two episode “Those of Demon Blood,” several dead Shadowhunters are found throughout New York City, their bodies showing signs of being attacked by various types of Downworlders. The Shadowhunters in New York receive orders to track down and register all Downworlders, first taking DNA samples and then implanting them with tracking chips so they can be monitored in case of another attack. Most of the Downworlders are understandably horrified by this—a system that refuses to presume their innocence and casts suspicion on them based on their species alone. When the Shadowhunters confront werewolf Maia (Alisha Wainwright) with this plan, she tells them, “You know, I’ve been stopped by cops for no other reason than being black, but I thought Shadowhunters were more evolved than that.” By comparing actions of the Shawdowhunters to racial profiling by police officers, the series makes clear that the way Downworlders are treated and viewed by the supposed heroes of the story is its own kind of racism, and needs to be confronted.
Similarly, when Clary tries to convince her vampire friend, Simon (Alberto Rosende), that the tracking chip is harmless, he offers his own comparison: His grandmother lived in Poland during the Second World War, and her family’s shop was marked with a yellow star when the occupying soldiers decided to identify all Jewish-owned businesses. It was an action that seemed “harmless” at first, he points out, but was later used to identify Jews to be sent to the concentration camps. Simon’s story renders in explicit terms the allegorical connection between the actions against werewolves and vampires in Shadowhunters’ fantastical universe and the all-too-real history of anti-Semitism, which the series repeatedly foregrounds with further references to Simon’s Jewish heritage.
The series also previously drew a parallel between discrimination against Downworlders and explicit homophobia, when one of the main Shadowhunters, Alec (Matthew Daddario), started a relationship with a warlock, Magnus (Harry Shum, Jr.). The resulting backlash from Alec’s parents stemmed from both the fact that Magnus was a Downworlder and that he was a man, a sharp reminder that some of the struggles facing these characters aren’t merely constructs of their fantasy world.
Heading into the season finale, these conflicts have led to the Downworlders to create their own alliance against Valentine, and it’s refreshing to see the show give them this new agency. After all, if you’re going to use supernatural conflicts as a metaphor for the oppression of marginalized communities, you should include those voices to enrich the metaphor, not replace them. It’s frustrating when straight, white, cisgender characters are so frequently the faces of oppression in supernatural stories, while their experiences are drawn from real-life examples that those stories erase or ignore. Shadowhunters shows us a more promising direction.
The season finale of Shadowhunters airs tonight at 8 p.m. on Freeform.