Shadowhunters may not be the best show out there, both in terms of writing and acting, but it does get a few things right in terms of diversity and representation. I talked about my love for Magnus Bane as a bisexual character before, and I just recently finished catching up with the second season, which had a lot of great moments between Magnus and Alec, his boyfriend. So, I thought it would be interesting to take a closer look at Alec Lightwood and how he is presented in the show as a gay man.
Some spoilers for the Shadowhunters TV show below.
Shadowhunters is an urban fantasy show following a group of young adults who have angel blood and thus belong to a covert society tasked with protecting the world from demonic forces. They keep order in the Downworld, a society inhabited by vampires, werewolves, and beings who have demon blood. The Shadowhunter (or Nephilim) society has a long-ago established structure and laws. Important parts of this structure are families, who pass down the angel bloodline and the responsibility, and Institutes, or discrete branches located in cities all over the world. Alec Lightwood works and lives in the New York Institute along with his sister Izzy and his adopted brother and fighting partner (Parabatai) Jace.
Before I get into this, it’s important to point out the racial issue with Alec’s character. Speaking about the TV show only, Alec is of Latino descent (his mother is Latina, and the show points out their heritage in a few instances in the first season), but Alec is played by a white actor (Matthew Daddario). The experience of gay people of color—in this case, specifically Latino—is different from that of white gay men. The latter are also the group that receives most LGBTQ+ representation. Alec being a Latino man would add another axis of representation for a group of people who very rarely can see themselves reflected on screen. However, it’s kind of ruined by the fact that the character is essentially white-washed with the casting of a white actor.
As Shadowhunters begins, Alec is quickly established as a stern rule-follower who is groomed to be a leader but is often left in the shadow of the charismatic bad boy Jace. We also find out that Alec is in love with Jace, which isn’t allowed between Parabatai, or Shadowhunter fighting partners. As such, our first impression of Alec is that of a repressed gay man who transfers all his energy into trying to achieve perfection in his career. I feel like this is familiar to a lot of queer folks—this sort of striving for perfection in certain areas when you know that you fundamentally can’t achieve the perfect standard that society has painted for you. As a result, you often feel like you’re never good enough. And Alec feels this too. What’s more, this feeling is also supported by messages he gets from his parents, superiors, and sometimes even Jace.
Alec even goes as far as volunteering for a political marriage to a woman because he thinks it will help him become a leader of the Shadowhunters. It’s like he’s lost all hope for a happy romantic life, so he might as well just put everything into achieving his career goals. Even though this storyline does feel a bit contrived by today’s standards, it appears that the Shadowhunter society is quite old-fashioned, not to mention created on religious grounds as they’re Nephilim and have angelic blood. However, it also hasn’t been so long since this was a reality a lot of gay people experienced. Not everyone figures themselves out at an early age, so one might be getting married to a partner of the expected gender just because that’s what you’re supposed to do.
The “doing what you’re supposed to do” experience is what I find very relatable about Alec’s character. It’s not just the marriage. Alec always does what he’s supposed to do as expected by people in his life. At one point he even says “I’m supposed to be a leader”, making me question that perhaps he only wants to be a leader (which he asserts very often) because he thinks that’s what he’s supposed to want, just like he’s supposed to want to be with women. However, a few episodes into the first season, Alec finally snaps and decides not to do what’s expected. He goes to see Magnus and starts to slowly open up and allow Magnus’s romantic advances and his own attraction to Magnus.
Too often gay men in our society are stereotyped as very effeminate and not masculine. Alec’s portrayal of masculinity is more well-rounded than that. In a lot of ways Alec is very traditionally masculine: he’s a strong fighter, protective of his sister, and unwilling to talk about his emotions and feelings. However, many of the emotions that Alec refuses to discuss concerns his feelings toward men, so his emotional reticence actually subverts the “stoic white male” trope—he isn’t refusing to talk because of manpain, but because he feels he cannot come out of the closet, which is much more relatable to any LGBTQ+ folks out there. Interestingly, though, in the beginning of the show Alec also appears unwilling to express other emotions as well, such as frustration and anger, which is pretty much the only emotion men are allowed to express openly by the standards of writing tropes and society (think of all the times a male character punches a wall or something). Alec keeps everything bottled up, as though fearing that any show of emotion might be construed as a sign of weakness or imperfection as a leader, or worse, even accidentally out him as a gay man, because straight men aren’t supposed to be emotional. However, as the show progresses, and especially once he comes out and starts a relationship with Magnus, Alec starts opening up more both to Magnus and his sister.
Alec strives for greatness by obeying the Shadowhunter rules and laws as much as he can. In terms of gender roles, it’s usually the girls who are expected to be responsible rule-followers and perfectionists, whereas boys are allowed to be irresponsible and to break the rules to achieve their goals. As a result there’s also the notion that men will always remain childish. These ideas are often reflected when a woman and a man are partnered up on our screens: it’s often the woman who goes by the book and is forced to put up with the man’s antics, like Amy Santiago and Jake Peralta (Brooklyn Nine-Nine) or Kate Beckett and Richard Castle (Castle). Alec’s character follows the tropes expected from female characters in this regard, perhaps trying to please his parents and compensate for the fact that he feels he let them down by being gay. The masculinity of gay men is often questioned and they’re often portrayed as flamboyant and feminine, but Alec appears to hit a middle ground of sorts, with most aspects of his character being traditionally masculine but his approach to rules and leadership is something one would expect from a female character.
All in all, Alec may not appear as a very exciting character at first glance: he follows rules and doesn’t allow himself to express or act on emotions very often. However, when you take into account that Alec is a gay man, coming to terms with his sexuality in a quite homophobic religious society, his portrayal takes on unexpected nuances, quietly subverting several tropes associated with male characters. Alec’s unwillingness to express emotion isn’t because of brooding manpain but because of fear over expressing attraction to men. He appears as a traditionally masculine man but his perfectionism and rigid rule-following are traits more often associated with female characters. And most importantly perhaps, Alec Lightwood is a main character, a gay man in a leadership role, who finds the strength to come out in a homophobic environment and has a healthy and happy romantic relationship. And that is some positive representation right there.