SomeThoughts about Netflix’s Shadow & Bone

This past Friday, the highly anticipated Shadow and Bone series premiered on Netflix and fans of the Grishaverse all over the world logged in to watch their favs come to life. There was much discussion of the inclusion of numerous characters from throughout the Grishaverse and that diversity was a focus in the casting of the show, especially Jessie Mei Li who is biracial, therefore changing the main character’s ethnicity to biracial Shu Han. Unfortunately, that decision didn’t pay off to well due to the showrunner’s handling of Alina’s ethnicity. Twitter blew up as people shared their hurt and warned others about what to expect. 

I had planned to watch the show and happened to see one such warning before I watched the series so I was prepared. I watched a couple of episodes, then called it a night. The next morning I was unsettled and reached out to my fellow contributors here on Rich in Color. No one had seen it yet, but Jessica said she was planning to as well. As we chatted, I felt that our conversation should be shared with our readers, so Jessica and I decided to write our thoughts down and have a conversation after she watched a few episodes herself. 

Oh, and spoilers abound! 

First off, before we dive into this conversation: Have you read the Grishaverse series? How much did you know about the story going in?

K. Imani: As everyone knows I love fantasy so I’m open to reading all sorts of fantasy books. I read the Shadow & Bone series a few years ago and enjoyed it. When the Six of Crows duology came out I read those too and actually enjoyed those better than the original series. Why – more diversity? It also expanded the world and the different perspectives of “Grisha” like folk from other cultures. It was very clear from the writing that Bardugo realized her first series was very lacking in diversity and worked hard to change it. I actually re-read both series during quarantine, so I had a fair idea of what the Netflix series would be about. 

Jessica: I’ve actually never read a single Grishaverse book! I know, shocking. I only knew two things about the series going into the show: 1) Six of Crows is a heist book? 2) Ben Barnes is a person who exists. 

The cast announcement for any show is always so exciting, and Shadow and Bone was no different. How did you feel about the casting — before and after you watched the show? What did you think was done well, and what did you think could be improved?

K. Imani: Before watching the show I was actually a bit confused about some of the casting choices. I didn’t understand why 3 of the main Six of Crows characters were in the show and I honestly did not make the connection to Alina and Mal being biracial. Knowing that the Grishaverse is “Russian-based” and knowing that some ethnic Mongolians are considered Russian I just found it cool that the show cast a person who didn’t fit a Russian stereotype. Oh boy was I way off! Overall I was pleased with the casting and think all the actors did a great job. I liked the few changes they did make with casting actors of colors for other roles to round out the diversity of the world. 

Bringing it back to Mal, I was confused as to if he was supposed to be coded as biracial. I missed the reference in the show, but I did read somewhere that he was supposed to be as well and that is what bonded him to Alina. If that’s the case, then how come Alina was the only person to experience racism? That thought continues to sit on my heart because it shows that the writers did not really think through how they wanted to express racism and included it for the wrong reasons. 

Jessica: My reaction was basically, “I’m happy that other people seem happy!” since again, I had no context for the show. Casting on Netflix shows often seems to be a case of “cool, this is some exciting casting… but definitely could be better and even more intentional.”

K. Imani: “More intentional” That is the word right there! Making a story more diverse is wonderful and fully reflects the world we live in, however if you just randomly do it without thinking it through it comes off as insensitive. I know Leigh Bardugo used this show as an opportunity to make her story better (and I do not begrudge her of that fact) but when one doesn’t think it through, the criticism that is being expressed is a direct result. 

Jessica: Sidenote — I ended up watching a booktube video titled “Darker Jesper, Fat Nina, Shadow and Bone Casting Thoughts” on booktube channel Chronicles of Noria about the casting. Highly recommend checking it out. I also recommend this profile on Jessie Mei Li, who talks about being gender nonconforming. 

Did any changes in the Netflix adaptation stick out to you? Were there changes you liked or disliked?

K. Imani: My favorite part of the adaptation is how well the show runners included the Six of Crows characters into the narrative. The storyline completely worked for me and connected the two stories together. I really enjoyed the Arken storyline (and the character tbh) as it was used to flesh out the world of the Grishaverse, which made the series much more interesting. I also liked the change of making Ivan and Fedyor a couple instead of just Darkling’s henchmen as it humanized them and actually made me like Ivan because they were so cute together. Though how that will come into play after the events of Episode 8 will be interesting. I’m a sucker for the Enemies to Lover trope so I loved that Nina’s & Matthia’s story of how they came together was included here. In either Six of Crows or Crooked Kingdom (I don’t remember), it was told as a flashback, but I loved that it was moved here as their “origin story”, so to speak, and how it connects to the events of the Alina timeline. 

What I didn’t like…the casual racism. It really bothered me and left me sad the next morning. For example, a certain poster shown in the first episode had me physically cringe and I was upset that 1)  the production designers even created it and 2) no one, at no point, said that was a bad idea? Come on! It was horrible to see and I can imagine the hurt an AAPI would experience seeing that. And then, it got worse. Racial slurs thrown around a couple of times in the first couple of episodes to show that Alina is an outsider. They were jarring and took me out of the narrative. Having read the books I knew there was tension between the Ravkans and Shu Han, so I could understand what the show runners were trying to do, but it was actually never explained in show, hence making the racism feel random and just there for shock value. 

Jessica: I saw tweets going around alluding to the racism Alina (and other characters to a less frequent extent) faced, so I braced myself for it. I’m only a few episodes in, and the instances so far were brief… but it just didn’t feel right. The foundation for this portrayal of racism wasn’t laid properly. And if the work of laying the foundation and really digging into what it means for the overall worldbuilding doesn’t happen… then why include it at all? Especially if it might be painful for certain viewers? I’m sure harm wasn’t the intent, but that’s the impact. Why not leave it out and let the show be escapism? 

K. Imani: Jessica, the eyes comment took me out, not gonna lie. I audibly screamed. Anyone who has experienced a racist comment based on their looks felt that in their gut which is horrible when watching a show for escapism. 

Jessica: Yeah, the eyes and rice-eater comments were especially frustrating. On top of it being a reminder of the racism Asians experience daily… it doesn’t make much sense. Like, canonically, do people in Ravka not eat rice? An American’s conception of racism isn’t necessarily going to make sense in a (Imperial Russia-inspired) fantasy world. But maybe I’m missing something since I didn’t read the original books. 

And the eyes comment… whoof. When I was a kid, other kids would make fun of my eyes and ask me to, like, count seagulls because surely, I couldn’t see out of my eyes… And the other kids were also Asian! Internalized racism is so real. It’s disappointing that Shadow and Bone would include this experience as, I don’t know, discrimination flavor text. Surely there were better ways to portray discrimination that made sense within the Grishaverse… 

Ellen Oh really said it so well:If a writer is going to show racism against Asians, it’s important to balance it with the beauty of all that makes us Asian also.” Where is the balance? Where is the nuance? Even if Alina’s Shu Han mother isn’t alive, couldn’t Alina have had a treasured Shu Han pendant? Just spitballing here. There were so many possibilities.

K. Imani: Exactly. I agree with Ellen and unfortunately there is no balance. That’s what makes it so hurtful. The focus is on how bad it is that she’s biracial and how bad the Shu Hans are for no specific reason. Because Alina is an orphan and grew up in Ravka, she unfortunately has no connection to Shu Han culture (or at least what is shown on screen) so all that she identifies as is Ravkan who just happens to look like a Shu Han person, but she doesn’t exhibit any pride in being Shu Han. Her ethnicity is just another obstacle to overcome which is all the more cringeworthy and why having Alina be biracial just to be biracial without thinking it through ended up being so problematic. Having her be biracial and using casual racism as an “obstacle” that she has to overcome is such a shallow interpretation of racism and shows the writers didn’t do the work to really think about the why the racism exists. 

In addition to talking about what was done well and what went wrong or felt off about certain representation, it’s important to look at the “how.” How did this happen? 

Jessica: I read on Twitter that one of the show writers is Korean and biracial — which is awesome! I was really heartened to hear that. But at the same time, this highlights how important it is to have multiple marginalized voices in the room who can speak with some level of expertise. I don’t know the decision-making process that went into including this sort of surface-level, simplistic version of real world racism, but I wonder if anyone, at any point, said “is there a more nuanced and original way to portray this?” or “how will this affect Asian viewers?” Did someone bring it up, and they were overruled? What happened?

This absolutely isn’t a judgment on the Asian writers or staff on the show. When I’ve done collaborative writing, there were times I caught an issue and said “we need to be more sensitive about this” — and there were other times when my teammates pointed out something I didn’t notice. It happens! That’s why it’s so important to have multiple marginalized perspectives when creating something — especially when it’s a work as impactful and far-reaching as a Netflix show. Placing the burden of complex, nuanced representation on one, or a scant handful, of marginalized creators is just not going to work… and it’s not fair to the creators, either. 

Frankly, this is a problem in so many industries — film, publishing, games… there are so many “diverse” shows, games, etc with all-white or majority white teams. Good, nuanced representation can only happen when BIPOC / marginalized creators are the majority and have power behind-the-scenes. (This is why I’m really excited to watch the show Rutherford Falls — half the writers room are Indigenous writers, as is the co-creator!)

K. Imani: Exactly! It’s great that one of the writers is biracial and Korean, but if she’s the only one how much input did she really have? I’m by no means knocking her experience but, say for example, that particular poster in the first episode. No one else behind the scenes found it problematic? There are many steps to a production process and that poster, if there had been more diverse voices present on the production staff instead of just 1 writer, would have been flagged as a huge problem and redone. The poster was supposed to be a “short cut” to show Ravkan/Shu Han tension but instead it came off as so profoundly racist and unnecessary. There are many other non-racist ways to explore the tensions between the two countries that could have been explored instead of just jumping to racism. And…as someone on Twitter pointed out, we never see the tension between the Ravkans and the Shu Han, but we openly see fighting between the Ravkans and the Fjierdans, so why were they not vilified to the same extent? 

Jessica: Right. I’m definitely not saying racism can’t be portrayed in fantasy ever. But if you’re going to do it, make it make sense within the world. Don’t just use it as shorthand for “this character is Other.” I mean, experiencing racism isn’t what makes me Asian… 

K. Imani: Boom! I’m going to repeat that for the people in the back…experiencing racism is not what makes a person Asian or Black, and if you are going to have racism in a work of art, be sure to provide balance to show all the other aspects of a person of color’s life. 

Since we’re talking creators behind-the-scenes… which YA fantasy books by Asian authors do you think would make great Netflix shows or movies? 

Jessica: I’ve got a list about a mile long, but I’ve cut it down to my top four:

  • These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong
  • Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao
  • The Tiger at Midnight by Swati Teerdhala
  • The Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F.C. Yee

You’re welcome, Netflix execs who are totally reading this blog. Hop to it! 

K. Imani: I second the Tiger at Midnight series! I loved the first two books and can’t wait for the conclusion in June. While not YA, the City of Brass series would make an excellent Netflix series. Anything Maurene Goo writes would be fun rom-coms (because we need those too!). 

Jessica: I mean, with To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before complete… Netflix clearly needs to start adapting Maurene Goo’s books. 

K. Imani: Yes, the people demand it! I don’t care which book, just grab one of them and get the production started. 

On a final note, I do want to say that despite the criticism the show rightly deserves, there was much about the show that was enjoyable. The storytelling was strong and moved at a good pace, the costuming was on point, special effects worked seamlessly into the narrative, and even small touches such as how the Grishas used their small science was visually interesting. Book adaptations are always hard to pull off well and the Shadow and Bone production team did a good job overall. Their intention towards adding more diversity is a step in the right direction, but just didn’t do enough. Let’s hope they learn from their mistakes and improve for season 2.