As I was writing about Magnus Bane and Alec Lightwood of the Shadowhunters series, I was actually thinking about their relationship a lot as well. So it’s only fitting, having discussed these characters separately, to also discuss their relationship, especially since it is such an important part of both Magnus and Alec’s character development. As such, it’s interesting to look at their relationship through the lens of their age difference, as Magnus is hundreds of years old and Alec is barely out of his teenage years, as far as we can tell. If not handled well, this kind of age difference can (and often does) lead to an unfair and creepy power imbalance in the relationship, which most works of fiction conveniently ignore. However, Malec, as they’re known, is a pairing portrayed in such a way that both Magnus and Alec are on more or less equal footing despite their different experiences.
Spoilers for the Shadowhunters series below. Trigger warnings for mentions of pedophilia and statutory rape.
When it comes to male-female romantic relationships, age gaps don’t really bother anyone, especially if the woman is the younger partner (although sometimes we should be bothered, but that’s a topic for another post). We see it all the time in real life and in fiction, from Emma Woodhouse and Mr. Knightley in Emma to Frank Moses and Sarah Ross in RED. The limits are pushed even further in vampire fiction in which young women are romantic interests of men who are centuries old (Twilight, True Blood). However, a romantic relationship between two men with a significant age gap is often seen as predatory, and sometimes people go as far as calling the older partner a pedophile, contributing to the homophobic notion that gay men are all pedophiles. On the flip side, the younger partner is thought of as having “daddy issues”. Somehow it is very difficult for some to believe that two men of significantly different ages could have a healthy balanced relationship, similar to a healthy relationship between a woman and an older man.
Magnus could have fallen quite easily into the “predatory gay” trope, seeing as he is a warlock who is several centuries old and is the first to show interest in the barely-adult Alec. However, perhaps most importantly, Magnus isn’t aggressive about his interest: he flirts with and shows attention to Alec, but he respects Alec’s personal space both in a physical and emotional sense, not touching him or trying to kiss him (as the narrative tends to go in similar situations) and giving him time to figure out his feelings. The situation is also helped by the visual combination of short Magnus and tall muscled Alec, which I find adorable. Additionally, Alec plays a role here as well. Even though he appears confused by Magnus’s early advances and attempts at flirting, his body language and smiles speak to him being pleased by the attention. He also says yes to Magnus’s initial invitation to have drinks, and although he is then called away by his duties, he comes to Magnus’s aid, helps clean up afterward, and stays for drinks. Finally, once he has things figured out, Alec takes initiative in a lot of things: their first kiss, that first date they never went on, and even sex, balancing the relationship.
It’s also worth mentioning that the show fixed one problem The Mortal Instruments books have, which is that, in the book, Alec is still a minor when he and Magnus start their relationship, whereas in the show, Alec is an adult, eliminating the statutory problem. I’m very glad the show fixed this issue because Magnus pursuing a minor Alec plays quite a bit into the “gay = pedophile” trope, although stories featuring men entering relationships with underage girls tend to gloss over the fact that it’s actually statutory rape (see: Twilight, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Game of Thrones). Alec also has a leadership position at the Institute, giving him experience and power, unlike other characters such as Anastasia Steele (50 Shades of Grey) who enter relationships with older men. Alec may not have centuries-worth of life experience or any romantic relationship experience, but he is not an impulsive or naive teenager.
Things get a little more complicated in Magnus and Alec’s developing relationship when Alec decides to arrange a political marriage with a woman in order to gain a better status in the Shadowhunter society. Granted, Alec and Magnus aren’t officially in a relationship at that point, but by that time, Magnus has made it clear that he has feelings for Alec. Up to this point Magnus hasn’t pushed Alec into anything and hasn’t tried so much as to touch him. Magnus becomes quite insistent trying to dissuade Alec from the marriage, although Alec keeps insisting that it’s what he wants. This situation isn’t quite black-and-white. On the one hand, Alec is an adult who is free to make his own life decisions, he doesn’t owe Magnus anything, and Magnus should respect that. On the other hand, from Magnus’s point of view, he has feelings for Alec and wants to fight both for their potential relationship and for Alec’s happiness in general, which is evident because Magnus’s appeals to Alec talk about love and happiness, but he never says that Alec belongs to Magnus or anything like that. The deciding factor here, in my opinion, is the fact that Alec doesn’t feel like he can have what he wants in love (as he reveals later on to Magnus), as the Shadowhunter society is homophobic and relies on familial ties. That is part of the reason he decides to arrange the marriage, since he doesn’t think he can get a happy romance anyway; might as well make something out of marriage and further his leadership aspirations. Magnus shows him that that isn’t true—Alec can find someone he could be happy with.
When Alec and Magnus officially enter a relationship, it’s actually pretty great. They go through a bit of trouble when Alec tries to push Magnus away during stressful situations. But they eventually talk through it and affirm that they’re both willing to work on their communication to keep their relationship working in a healthy way. One of the key moments in their relationship is when they discuss their past relationship history and it becomes apparent just how different those are: Alec is totally inexperienced, whereas Magnus has several centuries worth of relationships. The narrative doesn’t ignore the age difference in this relationship, but doesn’t present it as an insurmountable obstacle, either, by having them talk and work through it. This avoids a couple problems common to many romantic storylines. First, many “age gap” romantic narratives fail to realize that the couple actually may have problems stemming specifically from their different ages. Second, a frequent plot device in stories, both romantic and not, is lack of communication or miscommunication, which leads to a lot of frustrating problems which could all be solved if the people involved just talked to each other. Magnus and Alec both feel insecure about their relationship given their very different experiences, and they express those feelings and ultimately decide that they don’t care about each other’s respective romantic past. In all of this, Alec and Magnus build their relationship based on honest communication from both sides.
Portraying a romantic relationship between two people with a significant age gap is quite tricky if one wants to show a healthy relationship without glossing over the age difference. It’s especially so when it comes to a relationship between two men because of the surrounding homophobic notions about such relationships and the power imbalance therein. The relationship between Magnus and Alec in the Shadowhunters TV show manages to portray such a relationship quite well. It does so by having Magnus be respectful about Alec’s personal space and emotional state, by giving Alec power and initiative in the relationship, and by having them work through problems and accepting each other as he is. It’s a good model to follow both in fiction and in life.