Ever since before Shadowhunters premiered in January 2016, the TV series has received widespread acclaim in media. The showrunners as well as the cast have been praised for the show’s accurate LBGTQ+ representation and how Magnus and Alec are portrayed – both as individual characters and as a couple.
Over the course of season 2, its popularity has only grown, not only in media but also in the fandom. This year, Shadowhunters was named the most engaging fandom in the fantasy/sci-fi genre by Forbes, with over 53 million actions across all social media platforms. In this category, the show trumped other TV shows and movies such as Teen Wolf, the Star Wars franchise, Game of Thrones and Harry Potter. Furthermore, the popular Shadowhunters YouTube channel has clips with thousands and even millions of views. The most popular of these is Magnus and Alec’s groundbreaking first kiss from the season 1 episode named after the pairing’s ship name.
In media, positive remarks about the show have only increased since it has progressed. Articles often praise the production for its diverse cast, how it deals with current, important issues as well as for its portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters. Shadowhunters is often found in articles and lists talking about television programs with positive representation and terrific LBGTQ+ characters. Showrunners Todd Slavkin and Darren Swimmer are acclaimed for the direction they carry the show in. In addition, Harry Shum Jr. and Matthew Daddario are commended for their portrayal of Magnus and Alec respectively, as well as how they depict the Malec relationship.
In order to get some expert insights on the reason why Shadowhunters is so popular in the media, we talked to TV Guide Magazine’s West Coast bureau chief Jim Halterman, who hosted the Shadowhunters panel at WonderCon in 2016 and NYCC 2017, and has been following the show since its early days. Jim himself is part of the LGBTQ+ community and has a lot of experience writing for LGBTQ+ media outlets such as out.com and AfterEllen.com. In addition to this, he’s also written for outlets like Variety and Mashable. Furthermore, he is a member of the National Lesbian Gay Journalist Association and the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association and a respected member of the television journalism community. In our interview, he said that he has always loved covering shows that include LGBTQ+ characters, which is why Shadowhunters caught his interest back when production started in 2015. What appealed to him most was the fact that the TV series was aiming for a younger audience and its progressive storyline in terms of queer representation.
Coming out stories: Numerous, but no less important
One of the things Jim enjoyed on Shadowhunters was Alec’s coming out arc in season 1. Seeing people on TV shows coming out may not be new anymore, but Jim Halterman is still a strong supporter of displaying characters finding themselves and coming to terms with their sexuality: “I’ve always said we need coming out stories, because there’s still people who are dealing with it, whether they are old or young. So more examples of that is still a good thing.”
While gay or lesbian TV characters have long found their way into primetime TV, bisexual figures are still a bit of a rarity. According to the annual “Where We Are on TV” report published by GLAAD, there’s a slight decrease of bisexual representation in cable series, with Shadowhunters being “one of a handful of shows that is helping to turn that tide of representation for bi men”.
Shadowhunters has always addressed Magnus’ sexuality very openly, but never made it the center of his storyline. This is also something Jim Halterman appreciates about the show – that it respected Alec and Magnus’ sexualities, but never focused on them for their storylines: “I think if you see it on film, television or theater and they make it the focus of [those characters’] lives – that’s not the reality. So even though Shadowhunters has told Alec’s coming out story, we got to know so much about Magnus and the relationships he’s had in the past. And I’m sure there’s more of that coming.”
Representation: Why getting it right matters when so few do
The actress and activist Sara Ramirez, known for her portrayal of the bisexual orthopedic surgeon Callie Torres on Grey’s Anatomy, recently talked about the overall importance of bisexual visibility within the LGBTQ+ community. “There are so many LGBTQ+ institutions and spaces where I don’t feel seen, where I don’t feel recognized as a bisexual pansexual queer person of color,” she said during the Women’s Event 20 at the New York LGBT Center. “Every time bisexual+ people are erased, every time I am erased as a bisexual+ queer person of color in the movement spaces that are supposed to be my home, the pain can feel unbearable.”
“Whether you are comfortable with labels or not – the fact is – the ability to be seen, to name our truth, to find community and build power around who we are is such a critical part of any political movement for true liberation,” Ramirez went on. While her speech was mostly about bisexual visibility in the LGBTQ+ community overall, it also serves to highlight just how important accurate, healthy representation is in all kinds of outlets.
In media and popular culture, Shadowhunters has made enormous progress in terms of improving media’s queer representation. Freeform – the channel currently airing Shadowhunters – is the most LGBTQ+ inclusive network on cable. Currently, it has 25 LGBTQ+ characters, both regular and recurring. Over the course of Shadowhunters’ two seasons, the show has introduced several LGBTQ+ characters. The most prominent of these are of course Alec and Magnus, who identify as gay and bisexual respectively. But the representation doesn’t begin and end with them. Aline Penhallow is lesbian and Raphael Santiago is asexual. What the show does right in terms of representation, as we’ve already mentioned, is allowing their characters’ sexual identities to be part of them, but not be their defining characteristic. Aline may be a lesbian, but she is also a highly skilled Shadowhunter and passionate about protecting her family. While the reveal of Raphael’s asexuality played a major role in 2×10, “By the Light of Dawn”, his character has far more sides to him, sides shown both prior to and after the 2A finale.
Shadowhunters’ representation matters because it is currently one of few shows handling representation the way it should be handled. It isn’t until this year that GLAAD has been able to add asexuality to their annual “Where We Are on TV” report, primarily because of Raphael. Where other shows overlook sexualities, for example CW’s Riverdale who thus far has chosen to overlook Jughead Jones’ canonical asexuality, Shadowhunters makes sure to highlight them.
In terms of bisexual representation, accurate and healthy depictions are sadly a rarity. “Unfortunately, a lot of bisexual characters are still falling into damaging tropes,” Megan Townsend, director of entertainment at GLAAD, said during 2017’s TCA Press Tour. Townsend also elaborated on the representation issues, noting that bisexual men are often written as “wicked, villainous characters whose bisexuality is directly tied to why the audience is supposed to understand them as bad people”. As for bisexual women, Townsend said that they’re often portrayed as “lacking morals, as scheming manipulators, and that is tied to their bisexuality”. She also spoke of why accurate bisexual representation matters so much: “We need more bisexual characters who have nuanced, fully realized stories that don’t just lean into these tropes that we’ve seen over and over and over again.”
Shadowhunters wants to represent the bisexual community accurately. Furthermore, they aim to depict bisexual characters in a nuanced, healthy way. Before giving characters and storylines the green light and making them come to life, they’ve consulted GLAAD in order to ensure that their representation is multifaceted and accurate.
When it comes to representation, Shadowhunters has also been commended for not just featuring LGBTQ+ characters, but for doing so realistically. This is sadly an area where other shows often fail. Jim Halterman also noted this, saying: “I think the mistake some shows and films make is that when they make a character gay or lesbian or bisexual or whatever, that’s the thing that defines that character. And they kind of forget that this is a small part of who this person is and it’s great to explore, but it can’t be the only story. You know, for any of us that are gay – I’m a gay guy – and there’s so much more going on in my life than just being that.”
Malec: Fan favorites, yet so much more
ScreenSpy have also remarked on Shadowhunters’ non-cliché characterization of Alec, saying: “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 [usually] see on screen – not that either of those two qualities are negative by nature. Their stigma comes from how often they are used to exploit a character’s sexuality, particularly for comedic effect.”
As for Magnus, Jim Halterman further noted how realistically he is depicted. “Magnus has had other issues he’s dealt with, that were not about his relationship or his sexuality and again, that’s real life.” Moreover, GLAAD has noted and praised Shadowhunters for this. “During the series’ first season, Magnus’ low-key affirmations of his sexuality and references to his past relationships have made it clear that he is bisexual without his sexuality being his sole defining characteristic or story,” they said about Magnus’ character. “It is rare enough for a television series to include a well-written and nuanced bisexual male character, and it is even more rare for that character to be one of the leads.” GLAAD hopes that Shadowhunters will be raising the bar for improved LGBTQ+ representation.
Michael Reisz, who worked on the show during its first season, talked in an interview about Magnus’ and Alec’s respective development in season 1. “The journey of Alec in season one is of him owning his power and his authenticity. [Magnus’ journey] is of him breaking down his walls and giving himself up to love,” he said.
Continuing, Reisz went deeper into the importance of the portrayal of Magnus and Alec: “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 with many different levels of what they care about, what they’re willing to risk, what they’re not willing to risk. 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 our interview, Jim Halterman remarked on how wise Shadowhunters is for portraying Magnus and Alec in such a good way. Furthermore, he talked about how realistically depicted Magnus and Alec are, both as a couple and when it comes to the problems they face. “It’s a really smart way to approach a story,” he said, “because even when they do have relationship elements in a story, you know when Magnus and Alec broke up for a while, it’s not about their sexuality, it’s just a relationship. The show treats their relationship the same as the [others], that’s how it should be – and that’s not what you get all the time.” Continuing, Jim Halterman gave more props to the show, saying: “I love any story that respects sexuality and relationship stories and makes it the same as everyone else’s. And I think Shadowhunters has always done that.”
Prior to “Malec” airing in March 2016, ScreenSpy applauded the show for succeeding with Magnus and Alec where other shows have failed with their characters, both separately and together. “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 [one another]. It’s how their straight counterparts are predominantly delivered and developed–with nuance, sensitivity, creativity, and intent.”
ScreenSpy continued their positive evaluation, saying: “Claiming that both characters’ development has been perfect up until [1×12] seems a bit disingenuous. But arguing that their portrayals have challenged the very ways we see characters like them on screen, does not.” Elaborating on this, they went on: “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.”
As a closing note, ScreenSpy detailed what that means for LGBTQ+ representation: “That’s a fact and one that underscores just how well Shadowhunters is changing the way LGBTQ characters live and love on screen.”
Especially when it comes to bisexual representation, GLAAD have been very vocal about congratulating Shadowhunters. After the season 1 finale when Camille as well as Magnus’ immortality had been introduced as a barrier for our favorite couple, they commended the show for not making their issues about Magnus’ sexuality. “This storyline refreshingly subverted a trope so often seen in stories of bisexuality, where someone dating a bisexual person is solely concerned that they will leave them for a person of a different sex, thus reinforcing tired stereotypes of bisexual people being inherently incapable of monogamy,” they wrote. Elaborating, GLAAD also went into what Shadowhunters avoiding this trope meant for the community: “The avoidance of this overused story is significant not just for Shadowhunters, but because it defies so many real life assumptions people even within the LGBT community have about bisexuality.”
GLAAD have not been the only ones commending Shadowhunters for their LGBTQ+ representation. After “Malec” aired, HerCampus, written by and for college students, praised Shadowhunters for their depiction of Magnus and Alec. “Now, for a teen fantasy series, this may not seem like a big deal – two lovers finally coming together – however this is a big deal for LGBTQ+ representation in the general media. Having two openly queer characters displaying a positive example of a same-sex relationship on screen will be inspiring, not only for viewers but hopefully other television writers as well.” They also saw Shadowhunters’ representation as a way to improve queer representation overall: “Seeing the amount of positive responses these characters are getting could encourage other writers to write more fully formed queer characters rather than [including] stereotypes that often do more harm than offer positive representation.”
HerCampus also touched on what they would like to see in terms of overall future representation: “As the first season draws to a close, we can only hope ‘Malec’ continue to thrive in the rest of the series and that other shows will get the hint, that we need better representation like this.”
Moreover, Affinity Magazine have complimented Shadowhunters for how it portrays Magnus and Alec. Right as season 2 started, the magazine praised the show for allowing two queer characters to be “instrumental in the action of the show”, and having “two men who are falling in love with each other saving the world” as opposed to reusing tired, old stereotypical tropes associated with the LGBTQ+ community. The Mary Sue also noted this, saying “Whereas some other shows simply toy with subtext, Malec is at the forefront of the story as a canon queer romance” and praising the TV series for showcasing “a same sex relationship as one of its most prominent love stories”.
Shadowhunters have not only gotten queer representation right, they have also played a major part in moving queer Asian representation forward. While GLAAD recently noted that there is a severe lack of queer characters of color, Shadowhunters is one of few shows to feature an LGBTQ+ character of color. This makes the show’s representation even more important, particularly since Asian LGBTQ+ characters are the most underrepresented in media.
What’s more, ScreenSpy have saluted Shadowhunters for their queer representation. In 2016, they wrote: “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.” They’ve also commended the show for its inclusion of queer people of color, writing: “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.”
In addition, during our interview, Jim Halterman talked about Magnus and Alec’s break up in 2×18, “Awake, Arise, or Be Forever Fallen”. He admired how the show incorporated conflicts that exist in every type of relationship – instead of focusing on issues related to them being a queer couple. “And when they break up [it’s not just about distrust] or like ‘Why didn’t you tell me that?’ I mean that goes on in every relationship,” he said. “It’s like you want to have trust and faith in your partner and if you don’t have that, that’s like ‘I don’t know if we can be together.’ So the fact [this] was part of their issue was very realistic.” This is something that The Mary Sue also brought up, noting the importance of how the show featured Malec as “another story among many that audiences can engage with”.
Matt and Harry: Respectful and open from the very start
Shadowhunters’ success, how acclaimed and admired they are both by media and the fandom, is as special as it is unprecedented. The reason behind it is undoubtedly Harry Shum Jr. and Matthew Daddario. Their immense work and dedication in portraying their characters – both individually and as a couple – in a nuanced, healthy way provides a good representation. Furthermore, it made media fully embrace them and their characters, turning them into fan favorites.
Harry and Matthew have both been vocal about representing the queer community in a way that is not stereotypical. Speaking to OUT Magazine, Harry talked about why representation matters. “Bisexuality isn’t really talked about in the mainstream,” he said when he talked about why he wanted to portray Magnus. “It’s like me being an Asian Latino American – there aren’t many of us.”
Harry also talked about how he wanted to be part of portraying an LGBTQ+ relationship in a way that has never been seen before on television. “I look at it the same way as Asian stereotypes on TV,” he noted. “Why would I want to play that? I want to find uniqueness and capture it every time Magnus and Alec have intimate scenes.”
Matthew Daddario has also talked about his and Harry’s portrayal of Magnus and Alec’s relationship. In January 2017 when he and Alberto Rosende visited AOL Build to promote the start of the show’s second season, he said the following: “The key for me – being authentic is really, really important. And I don’t want there to be a situation we arrive at where you are taking advantage of a community or trying to just sort of portray something so that people will be like ‘Oh here, look what we’re doing, we’re being progressive’ or something like that. We want to actually do something that actually is meaningful and is in fact impactful, and is honest.”
Another reason behind Shadowhunters’ success is the openness of Harry and Matt. Ever since they were cast in their roles, they have always been highly respectful of the fandom. What’s more is they’ve always been open and proud to embrace it. When we talked to Jim, he recalled some lovely memories of Harry from when he was covering Glee. Speaking about attending press junkets and such for the show, Jim said: “Glee had some LGBT characters and Harry wasn’t one of them, but I think just in the mix of different press parties and things I thought that he was just such a cool guy and he was always super nice.”
Elaborating on this, Jim especially talked about how open Harry has always been toward his fans from the LGBTQ+ community: “I knew he had a lot of gay fans – even then he did. I knew he wasn’t gay, but I just thought that this was interesting, and he was always really cool to talk about it. (…) He was like ‘You know, fans are fans, and I don’t care if gay guys think I’m hot.’” Continuing, Jim said: “He was really cool, which I appreciated, and at that time there were more gay characters coming on TV, when Glee was on that definitely helped a lot. So by the time Shadowhunters came around, it wasn’t really shocking that ‘Oh my god, there was going to be a gay character and a bisexual character’. So getting back to your question: when I [learned about Shadowhunters], I was like, Harry will be great to talk [to] about this.”
Actually, both of them were. Long before they were cast as Magnus and Alec, Harry and Matt have shown great support of the queer community. Their dedicated work on the show – as well as their openness toward the fandom – has not gone unrecognized. In April 2017, themselves and the show were rewarded with the GLAAD Media Award “Outstanding Drama Series” for their portrayal of Magnus and Alec’s relationship. Accepting the award, they beat other fan favorite shows, such as Grey’s Anatomy, Shameless, How to Get Away with Murder and Supergirl. In their speech, they pointed out how far TV has come in terms of representation of different sexualities and ethnicities. And they were right – the entertainment industry has come a long way. There is definitely still room for enhancement, but considering the improved diversity of characters we’ve seen on TV so far, we have all the more reasons to hope that there will be more progress. Shadowhunters certainly is a great example of that.
A massive thank you to Jim Halterman for taking the time to answer our questions and giving us so much interesting inside information. We can’t wait for more of your coverage on all things Shadowhunters!
Oh… it looks like the whole team took part in creating this article!