Nothing makes me angrier than when a fantasy story uses religious elements but ignores everything about the faith those elements come from. There is a way that such a thing can be done well, but often fantasy writers seem to cherry pick religious elements and then don’t discuss the religious implications that come with those elements. We see this all the time in shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where vampires can be repelled with crosses, but nothing about why that works is ever discussed. Or in shows like Supernatural, where various gods exist all at once, but for reasons that make little sense, the Abrahamic deity and other beings like angels are more powerful than the pagan gods. I am seeing this same thing again in the TV show Shadowhunters. I don’t remember the books very well, but I vaguely remember that they did not do any better with the religious elements either. For example, despite being half angel, Jace claims he doesn’t believe in angels in the books.The TV show doesn’t have this issue when it comes to religious elements, but it does have other problems that need to be addressed. And not addressing the religious baggage that these elements bring to the table actually contradicts the message of the overall story.
Religious elements are built into the world of Shadowhunters. Our main characters are part angel, and other characters are part demon. The Shadowhunters use angelic weapons that are often hidden in churches to fight Downworlders and consider themselves protectors of humanity because of their angelic heritage. However, this seems to fly in the face of the story’s narrative which, romantic angle aside, is largely about prejudice.
The Shadowhunters, despite being set up as heroes, are actually pretty racist people. They believe that their angelic blood makes them better than other magical beings, especially Downworlders, who are half demon. Even the Seelie, the fairy court, despite being half angel, are looked down upon because they’re also half demon. Anyone who is not a Shadowhunter is treated as a second class citizen, if they are treated as people at all — even humans, called Mundanes, are viewed as lesser than Shadowhunters. Some of our main characters like Isabelle are looked down upon for engaging in any sort of relationship with a Downworlder. Even just general contact and communication with Downworlders that isn’t related to business in some way is looked at as being something terrible. It’s no wonder then that our main villain Valentine is a deeply prejudiced and radical former Shadowhunter.
Our main character, Clary, is a Shadowhunter raised among humans and therefore lacks the typical Shadowhunter prejudices. She clashes with other Shadowhunters because of their prejudiced attitudes—particularly because her mother had a close bond with two warlocks, Magnus Bane and Dot, and because her father figure Luke is also a werewolf. Clary realized more clearly how much she hated Shadowhunters when her best friend Simon is turned into a vampire. Other characters struggle with these prejudices too. Isabelle is dating one of the Seelie before pressures from her family force her to break up with him, and her brother Alec struggles with his feelings for Magnus in a society that both hates people like Magnus and is homophobic. Other than Magnus, and now Simon, we get only glimpses of how the Downworlders feel about the Shadowhunters—generally, they greatly mistrust and fear them. The more you watch the show, the more it becomes apparent that the Shadowhunters are not the good guys we first thought them to be. Rather, they are a deeply corrupt and prejudiced organization that treats Downworlders as animals and not beings on equal footing.
On the religious end, however, things get confusing. When we mention anything associated with angels or demons, because of the religious connotations, we already come into the story with a certain set of beliefs. In the case of the Shadowhunters TV show, it’s that everything connected to an angel is good and everything connected to a demon is bad. Even if you aren’t Christian, you probably have seen enough horror movies to make these preconceived judgments. It would be one thing if the intention was for everyone watching the TV show to come into it with the same racist notions as the Shadowhunters before flipping them on their head, revealing that the Shadowhunters really aren’t all that good and the Downworlders really aren’t all that bad. However, that only works if the magic or laws governing this universe don’t seem to follow the same beliefs as the Shadowhunters.
This issue became very clear in the latest episode of Shadowhunters, “Bad Blood”, where Simon is turned into a vampire. This is probably the first episode that actually brings up religions. Raphael, one of the vampire leaders, brings Simon to Jace and Clary and explains how Carmilla, the head vampire, killed him. Raphael explains to Clary that she has only a short window of time to either stake him to kill him or to bury him and let him return as a vampire. The Shadowhunter headquarters is an old church, with a cemetery on the grounds. Jace, Clary, and Raphael bring Simon into one of the underground vaults, which has many religious statues and pictures inside. Raphael makes the sign of the cross and mentions that he’s a vampire but was raised a good Catholic boy. Though this line seems to come out of nowhere, it is actually setting up for Simon’s own religious troubles.
Simon is a Jewish character and this episode makes sure to remind you of how important that is to him. After Clary makes the decision to let Simon become a vampire instead of letting him die, she goes to his home and grabs his tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl that Clary states he wore at his bar mitzvah. After Simon is reborn as a vampire he is shocked by what has happened to him and tries to say “Oh my God” but is physically incapable of doing so, which sends him into even more of a panic. Raphael explains that he won’t be able to say “God” now, but will have to relearn how to do so. Despite the idea that a vampire would eventually be able to say God’s name again, the laws of the Shadowhunter world specifically spells out for us that vampires are bad by doing this. It says that Simon, who had no say in becoming a vampire, is somehow shunned by God or at least has been corrupted in some way that he can’t even say “God”.
At the beginning of this post I stated there was a way to use religious elements without necessarily delving into faith, and I really think that is what Shadowhunters should have done. To correctly work with the story’s themes about prejudice, the show would have to make it clear that while angels and demons exist, angels aren’t connected to any God in any particular way, nor are demons connected to the devil or sin in any way. Otherwise you have a God that is supporting the prejudice of the part-angelic Shadowhunters by having things like the part-demonic vampires being unable to say God. It’s possible to write things where both God/angels and demons are all kind of evil or at least morally gray and everyone from the Shadowhunters to the Downworlders are caught in their cosmic battle, but that does not seem to be the direction that Shadowhunters is going at all.
Because of this, the religious elements used in the show, as well as the connection and baggage that comes from the actual faith those elements are a part of, ends up making the story confusing. The themes are unclear, because while the story seems to be about rejecting prejudice, the various forces governing the world of Shadowhunters seem to reject the Downworlders. This makes the viewer wonder, why? Why would someone like Simon, who is innocent in all this nonsense, be punished just because he became a vampire? And then there is the question of is this only true for vampires or also for werewolves like Luke or warlocks like Magnus? When using religion in a story, writers need to be careful in how they use religious themes, because all of the connotations and baggage connected to religion end up making the story confusing pretty quickly unless they are done well.
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I’m not sure I quite agree with the conclusion you reach here but I think you bring up some incredibly important themes about this ‘verse. One of the problems I’ve had with the series (really the books) is that the mythology is deeply convoluted and doesn’t make much sense? Like, Jace declares he doesn’t believe in angels yet in one of the books they all literally summon an archangel who imbues them with a sword that ends up saving Jace’s life. And I’m not sure whether it’s because Clare is not that good of a writer or what but the issue of religiosity isn’t really dealt with from Jace’s perspective or any of the others.
It’ll be interesting to see how the show deals with this. I think the shadowhunters are deeply racist and prejudiced as you point out and I think I recall reading something in the books about how it wasn’t always this way re: how shadowhunters treated downworlders. They at least used to work closely with warlocks before they retreated into becoming an even more racist society.
I hope the show does a better job of grappling with the inherently messed up politics of this world. The shadowhunter regime is unkind to anyone who isn’t a shadowhunter, there should be a different way. We’ll see how it goes, I guess. But thanks for writing this! Lots of ideas in this essay for me to sit with.