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Netflix's 'Shadow and Bone' takes every sexist cliché in the books and throws them all out

Young women have been some of the biggest consumers of the fantasy genre. So it's a welcome change to see a well-rounded heroine in a modernized storyline.
Image: Jessie Mei Li as Alina Starkov in Shadow and Bone
Jessie Mei Li as Alina Starkov in "Shadow and Bone."David Appleby / Netflix

Netflix’s newest release, “Shadow and Bone,” is — on the surface at least — playing to the fantasy crowd in another attempt to fill the void left by “Game of Thrones.” (It’s no accident the series arrives exactly 10 years to the week after the HBO series’ debut.)

But look again: “Shadow and Bone” is actually a young adult romance that just so happens to be set in a fantasy universe. In that way, it really has more in common with the “Twilight” series (and its many copycats) and even “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” than the HBO series with which it shares a visual aesthetic.

The dirty secret of fantasy television is that much of it has been driven for the last two decades by audiences of young women, whether it’s the “Buffy” and “Charmed” fans of the late '90s and early aughts or movies made from popular novels like “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games.” But with time and distance, these stories — which were once trumpeted as the height of feminism girl power on television and in theaters — have aged poorly.

Even at its most progressive, it’s now clear that the feminist storylines on "Buffy" were always filtered through the male gaze; by its later seasons, the show blithely buried its LGBTQ stories and used rape as plot points, sometimes famously in the same episode. The original iteration of “Charmed” — since rebooted — was charming but also entirely white, upper-middle class and utterly unaware of its characters' privileges. Its “girl power” was shallow at best: There were no female relationships outside the core sisters, and it was always a race to see which of the three main characters in the series would be clad in the skimpiest outfits.

“Shadow and Bone” is based on a trilogy of novels that came out after these stories became so popular with young women and is centered around the coming of age of Alina Starkov, an orphaned teen who discovers she is blessed with magical abilities — including the ability to summon light and channel the sun.

The dirty secret of fantasy television is that much of it has been driven for the last two decades by audiences of young women.

The show takes its title from writer Leigh Bardugo’s first book, from 2012, which was based on Russian folklore but wildly derivative of paths already trod by “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games.” And, like its predecessors, it had a main character who was torn between two men and who rarely (if ever) stepped up to take charge of her life.

But unlike its predecessors on film, this Netflix adaptation sets about improving on the source material’s tired, sexist clichés at every turn, creating a lead character worthy of her own adventure series. Played by up-and-coming actress Jessie Mei Li, this Alina is no passive narrator buffered about by fate, and she doesn’t stand around while men puff their chests at each other over her. At every turn, she makes choices that steer her own story. Some of these decisions get people killed, some of them save lives and one of them hilariously has her accidentally assist in her own kidnapping. But even if fans disagree with what she does, no one can argue she isn’t the driver of her own fate.

It’s about time these stories — which are, after all, geared toward young girls — gave their primary audience the well-rounded characters they deserve.

Showrunner Eric Heisserer didn’t stop there, either, making a lot of course corrections to the original book’s entirely cisgender, heterosexual white world. First, he made Alina less white: She’s biracial (or “half-Shu,” which is the fantasy world’s reimagining of China). Then, he inserted Bardugo’s far more diverse characters from her much better, later book “Six of Crows” wholesale into the series from its inception; they spend it having a parallel adventure of their own, almost all of which is made up from whole cloth.

This Netflix adaptation sets about improving on the source material’s tired, sexist clichés at every turn, creating a lead character worthy of her own adventure series.

Not very long ago, a Hollywood adaptation of “Shadow and Bone” would not have questioned Alina’s lack of agency in the book — or even noticed it. The people adapting it to the screen would not have considered whether a privileged young white girl feeling helpless and threatened by people (and creatures) different than her might have less to do with those creatures being threatening than her own failure to read the room. But the series takes these matters seriously.

Alina being biracial means there is a real level of constant discrimination and microaggressions for her to deal with. And the series further minimizes much of the areas of the book where she’s at her most powerless or feeling insecure in favor of scenes in which she takes charge of her own destiny. Finally, though her costumes are beautiful, lush creations — the kind that will assuredly inspire cosplay — Alina is never sexualized for the male gaze in them.

Beyond changing the character of Alina, the show fixes up both the men in her life — both of whom were just different kinds of toxic in the book — and her relationship with them. Though General Kirigan (Ben Barnes) in the show is still an antagonist who sees her power as a tool for him to use, Alina is no longer in a position to simply be manipulated by him. In fact, the show flips their relationship around so she makes the first move on him, even though it makes clear to viewers that the power differential between them ultimately puts him in control.

Meanwhile, Mal (Archie Renaux), who spent most of the books sullen that she was important and he was not, is transformed into a genuine helpmate whose actions never undermine Alina’s choices.

“Shadow and Bone,” then, represents a significant step forward for fantasy lovers, both from its source material and within the genre. It shows viewers what a woman leading looks like, instead of loudly insisting that because she is in lead role she is automatically a leader. Let us hope Hollywood takes the right lessons away from its success.