Friday, September 16, 2016

Strong Female Character Friday: Isabelle Lightwood (Shadowhunters)


I heard Isabelle Lightwood has two Fendi purses and a silver Lexus. I heard Isabelle Lightwood does car commercials in Japan. One time Isabelle Lightwood punched me in the face. It was awesome. Her hair's so big because it's full of secrets.

I can keep going.

Look, Mean Girls allusions aside, I think it's really worth our while today to talk about a character who doesn't look on the surface like an ideal representation of Hispanic/Latina femininity, but who is, when we dig down deeper, a really fantastic complex image of what it can mean to be Hispanic/Latina in the world today. I want to talk about Isabelle Lightwood, and while I completely agree that the show she's on, Shadowhunters, is silly at best, I think there's still a lot to be said for what Izzy means for the representation of Hispanic/Latina women on TV.

But before we can get into that, let's talk a little bit about Shadowhunters the TV show. Now, as some of you may recall, I'm not the biggest fan of Shadowhunters' source material, which makes it an interesting choice for "show I got super into while I was hanging out in Iceland because it's on Netflix over there and I was bored sometimes". I found the Mortal Instruments book series by Cassandra Clare to be insufficiently compelling to get me past the first book, and while I liked the movie adaptation well enough, it was really just okay. So I'll admit to not having had high hopes for the TV adaptation.

Picture my surprise, then, when I idly clicked on it while whiling away the hours on my vacation this summer and discovered that while Shadowhunters might be cheesy and low budget and melodramatic and silly, it's exactly my flavor of silly and melodramatic and low budget and cheesy. I loved it. I love it. It's super silly but man alive am I gone on this show.

And no small part of that was how they portrayed the character of Isabelle Lightwood, a supporting lead in the book and movie who takes center stage in the show and blows everyone the freak away. Isabelle Lightwood is great. Even better, though, is that the powers that be behind Shadowhunters went out on a limb and cast an actress of color in the role, despite the character being originally white.

So we're going to talk about her.

Shadowhunters is a show about alarmingly attractive young adults who fight supernatural monsters, in a nutshell. It follows Clary Fray (Katherine McNamara), a totally normal dorky art student living with her mom in New York, when all of a sudden she turns eighteen and starts seeing monsters and strange symbols behind every door. 

Her best friend, Simon (Alberto Rosende), thinks she's going insane, but really Clary is catching glimpses of the real world, the world so real that most people don't know it exists. And she can only see it because, unknown to her, she's actually a Shadowhunter, a supernatural evilfighter from a long line of supernatural evilfighters.

Clary somehow manages to go from complete unawareness of the supernatural to being neck deep in it in the course of three hours, coming home from her first sighting to find her mother and family friend dead or kidnapped, her apartment burned down, and herself surrounded by pissed of Shadowhunters who want to know who the hell she is anyway. It's not long before Clary is living at the Shadowhunter headquarters, dragging Simon into the mystery, and trying to figure out who "Valentine" is and why he kidnapped her mom. You know, like you do.

Isabelle (Emeraude Toubia) fits into this as one of the Shadowhunters Clary meets. While Clary has this whole "will they or won't they" going on with Isabelle's adopted brother Jace (Dominic Sherwood), Isabelle and her biological brother Alec (Matthew Daddario) are concerned with bigger fish. Like the growing level of unrest in the downworlder (supernatural) community. Like their parents and political machinations back in their home realm. Like the possibility that Valentine, who was basically Shadowhunter Hitler, isn't nearly as gone as people would like to think he is.

So Isabelle is a major character here, and as the season wears on, she becomes more and more central. While at first the show, like the books, centered on Clary's struggles and emotional journey, after a while it moved on and began to center on Isabelle and Alec. Which is a solid narrative choice, since the two of them are way more interesting characters, but also because they make for a more unique story. 

We've all seen dozens of fish out of water tales, but what about a story about the fish who are already in the water and good at the water but suddenly the water is getting churned up by a hurricane?

That's Isabelle and Alec.

Born the oldest children of a proud and noble Shadowhunter family, Isabelle and Alec have always had the world riding on their shoulders. Alec more than Isabelle, to be fair, but Isabelle in her own way has always born the brunt of her family's expectations. She's just chosen, more often than not, to rebel and fight back, while Alec has chosen quiet compliance and the pursuit of perfection. In making these two the center of the show, Shadowhunters gets the chance to really dig into Shadowhunter politics and culture, as well as play with some fascinating family dynamics. But that's an article for another time.

The other awesome consequence of Isabelle becoming a more important figure on the show as the season goes on is that Shadowhunters becomes the rare mainstream television show to center around a Hispanic/Latina character, and even more interestingly, a mixed race Hispanic/Latina character.

While it's not explicit in the character (and more on that in a minute), Emeraude Toubia, the actress playing Isabelle, is herself of Mexican and Lebanese heritage. Not only that, but she is extremely proud of her heritage and considers it an important part of her identity. And contrary to the usual way casting goes on these shows (like what we see with the casting of Bob Morley as Bellamy on The 100), Shadowhunters doubled down on their casting by finding a Mexican American actress to play the Lightwoods' mother (Nicola Correia-Damude).

Even before we get to talking about Isabelle as a character, she's already an important figure in Hispanic/Latina representation. While the show never explicitly addresses the ethnic background of the Lightwood family, and while Matthew Daddario who plays her brother is firmly European/white, the casting of women of color in prominent roles in the Lightwood family is a huge step forward for a show like this, and worth celebrating all on its own.*

Even better, though, is that casting isn't the only thing we're celebrating.

Like I said at the beginning, Isabelle Lightwood is the kind of character who actually looks like bad representation if you don't look too closely. What I mean is that if you only give her a cursory glance, she looks like she's falling into the worst stereotypes about Hispanic/Latina women that the writers could find. Oversexed. Violent. Bitchy. Obsessed with her looks. Temperamental. "Firey."

A more nuanced understanding of the character reveals, however, that Isabelle Lightwood might be all of these things, sure, but she's also a really fantastically drawn character who lives into the stereotypes and is so much more than their sum. Here's the deal:

A character who spends most of the first half of the season running around in glorified lingerie, Isabelle seems like she's falling into every trope about "seductive Latinas". But instead, her character is revealed to have a complex relationship with her own sexuality and how it's understood by others. We come to find that a lot of her acting out is a reaction against the pressure from her family to perform and put on a good front. Another amount is a reaction to her brother, who is so far in the closet Aslan is giving him a funny look. Isabelle owns her sexuality because Alec can't. That kind of thing.

But even that misses the interesting interplay of a character who likes how she looks and likes how she dresses and likes having sex and doesn't feel the need to apologize for it. While this sort of female character usually comes off as a male fantasy, Toubia so inhabits her character that I believe Isabelle is the acting subject of her sexuality. I believe that she's really really into sex and that she likes dressing provocatively and that she doesn't care what people think, until she does, and that's okay. 

All of this is great representation.

And it goes further. Yes, Isabelle is violent. Then again, it's literally her job to be violent. She comes from a long line of monster hunters. It's not like she was going to go into human resource management. By positing Isabelle's violence as largely a facet of her job, the show defangs the idea that Latina women are inherently violent. 

Even when we go to an alternate realm where Isabelle is still involved in "violent" activities, they're hardly the type we usually associate with stereotypes of Hispanic/Latina women. In that realm, she's a kickboxer and she practices at a gym semiprofessionally. Pushing back on those stereotypes.

Or how about this for an interesting character development: Far from being the "stupid Latina" stereotype we so often see in movies and TV, Isabelle is actually widely understood in the world of the show to be a prodigy and a genius. She is called multiple times "the best forensic scientist in New York", and she lives up to the hype. Sure, her lab coat is specially tailored to be formfitting and cute, but she's still a brilliant scientist who never apologizes for being the best.

Again, this is also true in the alternate realm as well. Only there, Isabelle is a talented and respected computer programmer who helped spearhead software developments that are remaking the world. So everywhere we go, Isabelle is a sexual agent who is physically active and badass but not unnecessarily violent and who happens to be a genius in STEM fields.

Not so much the typical Hispanic/Latina character once you dig past the surface, is she?

And that's the beauty of her character. She's so fully realized that you forget there were even stereotypes to consider. Her relationship with Alec is so complex and loving and real that even the show figured it was the most important part of the story. Her choices and emotional arc are central to the narrative of the show. There is no Shadowhunters without Isabelle Lightwood, and that's amazing to me.

You probably guessed it, but yesterday marked the beginning of Hispanic/Latino Heritage Month, and like we've been doing all year, that means we're going to spend the next four weeks talking about Hispanic and Latino representation in pop culture: good, bad, and everything in between.

I thought that Isabelle Lightwood was a perfect place to start because of the mass of contradictions we have to confront in order to even look at her character. And we've really only scratched the surface here. 

There's even more wealth to be found in examining the dynamics of a moneyed, respected Hispanic family adopting a white orphan. There's so much richness in the interplay between Isabelle and her mother. There's the fact that Isabelle's two love interests in season one are both men of color. There's the subversion of class and money expectations when it comes to the entire Lightwood family. There's a lot going on.

I wanted to start here because this is what we're really looking for this month. Not the characters who tell us stories we already know about Hispanic/Latino culture in the United States, but ones who forge new paths. Hispanic and Latino characters in fantasy and science fiction, in historical dramas and comic books. I want to take the next four weeks to look past the surface of representations of Hispanic/Latino femininity and masculinity to really get at what's underneath.

I think it's worth a look.

Also she is a cutie. Fight me.
*Incidentally, this is arguably one of the most casually diverse shows in young adult television right now. It also features Isaiah Mustafa and Harry Shum, Jr. in key roles and continually brings in interesting actors of color to play big roles, small roles, and everything in between. Major snaps.

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