Better Late than Never: Shadowhunters Slays the Patriarchy
Updated: Dec 31, 2019
The patriarchy fucks everyone; we can’t correct the wrongs against non-men unless we sometimes analyze how the media portrays men. So, today I’m looking at a piece of media that circumvents some harmful gender tropes quite well: Shadowhunters—specifically the TV version (I live in the Mediterranean; I’m late to a lot of parties).
“The law is hard but it is the law and I respect that. But I've realized that I have to listen to my heart.”
Does gender matter in the shadow world as presented in the Shadowhunters TV series? I’d argue…not really—or at least, that it doesn’t function the same way that it does in our mundane, real world. Gender doesn’t appear to have different duties or expectations assigned to it. Women are just as likely as men to be in positions of power; both genders are on the frontlines as soldiers. That’s the caveat I offer, though. While their world is less tied to gender roles, they are more tied to gender binaries. Even still, the way characters behave defies, bends genre- and gender-norms.
While in general, men on this show are allowed to have and show emotion in a way that they’re so often not IRL, I’d like to take a look in particular at the character of Alec Lightwood (Matthew Daddario). At series’ open, the shadowhunter is a soldier’s soldier—from the way he stands to the way he believes everything must be by the book. He truly believes that emotions are a person’s downfall. That’s because he’s been suppressing his own for most of his life (he’s gay and in love with his best friend). Then his world cracks open. In the fourth episode of the show, he meets a warlock named Magnus Bane (Harry Shum Jr).
“I’m dating a warlock…who’s a guy.”
Magnus’s physicality is fascinating—he moves and dresses with a flow that is flamboyant, but not effeminate, wears makeup and nail polish; it's a look that, taken in all at once, is ultimately, extremely masculine. Most importantly, he really could not be more physically different from Alec’s childhood crush. Why do I think this is so critical? Alec practically loses his footing when he finally makes real eye contact with the man; it’s as though this is what he’s been waiting for his whole life—not the stereotype of cishet normativity macho maleness that is Jace (Dominic Sherwood), his parabatai (a fellow shadowhunter his soul is magically linked to—it’s a whole thing). Magnus isn’t television’s stereotype of a twinky, effeminate gay man nor is he “straight-acting”—he’s powerful, glittery, bisexual and centuries older than Alec. Alec himself also falls somewhere in this in between; he’s exceedingly earnest and while he may be a soldier who dresses in dark colors, there is something more queer about the way he carries himself and behaves than the hetero guys on the show. Further, this super closeted individual falls for someone so visibly queer and seems to delight in his appearance, so earnestly calling him beautiful several times throughout the show. There’s no shame in his queerness—he gives into it wholeheartedly.
“Remember, the honor is not within the name... It's in the deed.”
Even prior to coming out, Alec doesn’t hate himself for being gay. Rather, ever the pragmatist, he believes it to be incompatible with his culture’s values and puts his family’s “honor” and status above his own happiness, but it’s not ever something he seems to think is wrong, per se. This loyalty is a very strong character trait in Alec. Sometimes it’s loyalty to a fault, but the different types of loyalty he portrays aren't always seen as particularly masculine in our society. Of course, he is very loyal to rules, to work, to the job—which is, of course, not earth shattering for a man on TV. But his devotion and loyalty to Jace, especially once he’s moved on from his crush, is not something we often see in media, even among characters who are siblings. Men don’t often hug and tell each other I love you. That’s usually reserved for lovers. Alec also cares about diplomacy. On television, compromise isn’t sexy—war-waging is what makes people swoon over men. But this guy, he likes to look at all angles before making a move. It’s part of what makes his ambiguously consensual first sex scene so jarring for many—a character like Alec would surely wait for enthusiastic verbal consent?
Speaking of sex, Alec was a virgin at the beginning of the series. No one really judged him for it exactly, but his “repression” did fill in the dots on certain aspects of his personality for them. How many times have we heard she just needs to get laid about a female character who’s a little uptight? To hear that directed at a guy is refreshing, if not a particularly evolved stance, but there you have it. But the sassy Alec does calm down once he lets Magnus into his life, even before they have sex. He becomes more confident in himself, in his leadership skills, in his totality as a person. He also becomes a visionary. He’s in an interracial relationship, double-fold; both in human and shadow terms. He’s not fighting for himself, exactly; sure, he’s fighting for his love to be recognized as equal and valuable, but it’s the rights of his partner and those like him that are at stake throughout the series. Alec’s place in society, in terms of being a gay shadowhunter, is not so much a problem in and of itself, it’s how he chooses to express his love: openly and with the “wrong kind” of man. Alec has to be an ally, as much as he himself is a minority, which is not a role we often see gay characters placed in. The show does somewhat even out his massive privilege by creating the relationship wrench of Magnus’s immortality, thus creating insecurity on Alec’s side as well.
One aspect I wish the show had greater explored is the concept of shadowhunters falling in love hard and fast and once because the only thing that seemed a little silly from where I stand is the incredibly fast timeline of the show. I nearly laughed when it’s stated in the beginning of the third season that Alec and Magnus haven’t even been together two months. But then again, it kinda makes sense for Alec’s character to get so swept up like that. The boy who once felt emotions were the bane of his existence becomes ruled by them until he finally learns how to temper it all. Ahhh…growing up is hard to do. And I enjoyed watched a guy go through these growing pangs for once because it’s real. It’s not like women+ are the only ones who have to figure out life and yet it seems so often in media that we’re the only ones who do. By exploring these typically “female” stories through a male lens, Shadowhunters really broke down barriers, barriers I’d like to see explored in more media.