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The Asian Representation In Netflix’s Shadow and Bone Made Me Cry

SPOILERS AHEAD!

Original television shows on Netflix overall are a hit or miss, but their fantasy-genre shows are actually pretty good. Shows such as Stranger Things, Black Mirror, The Umbrella Academy, and Raising Dion, are one of the most popular television shows in the U.S. My personal favorite was Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, but it became one of my least favorite shows when it reached Season 3. This was when the cringe Riverdale-style writing had taken over the plot completely. I will not forget to acknowledge the existence of embarrassing and terrible shows like Fate: The Winx Saga and how they try to attain the gloomy, dark, horny-teenagers-fighting-bad-guys, Riverdale aesthetic as well. Like I’ve said, Netflix Originals are a hit or miss.

It has been exactly a month since Shadow and Bone was released on Netflix, and I honestly have to say I’m beyond obsessed. I read the first book Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo days before the show aired. I knew I wanted to get a sense of one part of the story before watching it because film adaptations are a hit or miss as well. I wrote an article about why film adaptations can be harmful especially when it’s about stories by and of people of color. You can read my review of the To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before movie series here.

I do want to start off with a disclaimer that I had no idea what Bardugo’s Grishaverse novels were until I saw the teaser trailer for the show three months ago. I jumped out of my chair when I saw Ben Barnes in the trailer because I have not seen any of his work since The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010). When I saw the second Narnia film back in 2008, I developed a decade-long crush on him, and I am sure you have too. When I watched Ben Barnes as General Kirigan in the episodes of Shadow and Bone, I could not, not see Prince Caspian.

The Darkling reminds me of Loki from Marvel, and how people are more interested in the villain’s story rather than what the good guy is doing. Ben Barnes and Tom Hiddleston bring so much to their characters, especially their sexy British charm and looks. I’m giggling as I write this knowing that there will be another generation of Ben Barnes fans after watching his performance as The Darkling. My inner child is loving and appreciating his comeback in film adaptations. Now that I have shared my obsession with Ben Barnes (and Tom Hiddleston) with you, I will dive into the reasons why the Asian representation in Shadow and Bone television series made me cry.

I get super emotional overall whenever I see representations of Asians on the screen because there are barely any Asian stories that are being told in mainstream media. I sob whenever I watch Big Hero Six or Lilo & Stitch, even if they are animated films. I’m so excited that actors of Asian descent are finally getting the recognition they deserve. A lot of production companies and streaming platforms stated that they are committed to more diversity and inclusion, but I won’t believe their word unless they take action in investing in creators of different backgrounds.

The number one aspect of the show that I am extremely happy about is the casting. I noticed that the on-camera chemistry between Jessie Mei Li (Alina) and Archie Renaux (Mal) is as good as the chemistry between Jessie and Ben Barnes (General Kirigan). Shadow and Bone is Jessie Mei Li’s first big project, and I’m really impressed by their talent. Jessie Mei Li has discussed their personal struggles with identity as a biracial Asian woman. They are of Chinese and British descent and are clearly proud of their ethnic background. I cried seeing Mei Li on the screen for the first time because there is close to zero representation of biracial Asian characters in film or television. I am very grateful for the writers who acknowledged Alina’s ethnic background. Many fantasy-based shows often completely disregard the characters’ racial background as if their identity does not affect them in the fantasy realm. I feel like this is an equivalent to “I don’t see color.”

Both the book and television show Shadow and Bone mention Alina’s ethnicity of being part-Shu (East Asian). However, in the book, we do not get any representation of the racial discrimination that she faces. In the show, there are multiple cases of microaggressions that Alina faces, which can reflect the realities that East and Southeast Asians face in the real world. I got teary-eyed when Alina was told to go “back of the line” when she was in line to get food, solely because she is part-Shu. I personally have never experienced any prejudice like this, but I understood how Alina might have felt. Another example of microaggression that Alina faces is when she was getting ready to meet the King in the Little Palace. One of the maids suggested Genya make Alina’s eyes look “less-Shu.” Alina reclaimed her worth by stating that she does not want Genya to change the size of her eyes. As a biracial Asian woman myself, I definitely felt that I needed to cover my Asian features on many occasions. It was not because I hated my Asian features, but simply because I wanted to be considered pretty by people who liked more Eurocentric features. These small microaggressions are so normalized and common in the real world, as well as in the Grishaverse. To give you a bit of detail, the people of Ravka do not like the Shu because they are at war with them. We can see in the first couple episodes of anti-Shu propaganda that is fed to the people and military.

Even though the Darkling is terribly evil (and so attractive), it was nice to hear that Alina was welcomed as a Grisha even if she is part-Shu. However, if she was not the Sun Summoner, she would face discrimination for the rest of her life. The show reflects on the realities of East and Southeast Asians, and how we oftentimes have to prove our worth so we are accepted into society (aka model minority myth). But despite her struggles, when Alina reclaimed her physical and spiritual power, I was in absolute awe. She is fearless but still expresses vulnerability because she is simply human, even if she has powers. When I was growing up, there were only white women as heroines in books and movies such as Hermione Granger, Katniss Everdeen or Tris Prior. Alina is the biracial Asian heroine I needed when I was younger.

Other iconic, badass Asian women in the show are Nepali-born actress Amita Suman as Inej Ghafa and Indian-British actress Sujaya Dasgupta as Zoya Nazyalensky. Both Inej and Zoya are strong, loyal, beautiful and smart, and I can’t wait to see more of them in the future. Their identities are extremely complex and real, and the actresses were successful in bringing the characters to life. Dasgupta definitely needs more screentime in the upcoming seasons.

To be honest, Mal’s character is pretty bland and boring in the books. However, seeing Archie Renaux (also of Indian-British descent) as Mal was exciting because we rarely see representations of Asian men as the heroic fighter and protector in movies and television shows. 

The most disappointing part of the show is that there was one Asian woman, Christina Strain, who wrote only one of the episodes. This means that the other seven episodes of season 1 were written by (mostly) white writers. I feel uncomfortable knowing that non-Asian writers wrote about biracial, Asian identity as if they understand what it’s like to experience certain types of discrimination. I hope the writers and executives consulted with Asian women like Christina Strain to receive input on experiences she might understand. I do recognize that Alina’s entire existence is not about her being part-Shu, but her racial identity has made her lack self-worth in a society that does not like her. I would have liked more exploration with Alina’s racial identity of being part-Shu, so hopefully, we get more in the upcoming seasons. Two of the episodes were directed by Asian American director, Dan Liu, who’s the only person of color who was actively involved in the first season. It is really great to see representation on the screen, but it is as important to see diversity behind the scenes as well.

The Shadow and Bone series is refreshing and a modern take on the fantasy genre. During the last episode of the first season, I could not keep still because every moment was too iconic. I was on my feet during the last half of the episode because everything was happening very quickly. I’m definitely a new fan of both the books and the television series, and I can not wait to start reading the rest of the Grishaverse novels. Thank you for reading!

Rehana is a Japanese-Libyan writer and digital storyteller from the Inland Empire, CA. She is pursuing double degrees in Film & Media and Ethnic Studies with an interest in screenwriting, creative non-fiction, and oral histories. A proud Capricorn, she enjoys acting in short films, reading tarot cards and science fiction, roller skating, and visiting museums in her free time.
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