Jessie Mei Li as Alina in Shadow And Bone

Shadow And Bone: why the Netflix series handles diversity so differently to other TV shows

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Netflix’s Shadow And Bone does something very different to other TV shows,” says Sarah Shaffi. “Here’s why that’s so important.”

There’s a 10-second scene in the fifth episode of Netflix’s new fantasy series Shadow And Bone that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. At a party, we’re following the wealthy guests as they walk up the stairs, past one of the protagonists, Inej, who performing on the aerial silks as one of the event’s entertainers. 

A white woman comments: “I didn’t know the Zemeni had such talent.” 

“She’s Suli,” snaps another character as she stalks past.

The reason it’s stuck in my mind is twofold. First, it shows a microaggression that so many people of colour have had: being mistaken for another ethnicity based on your skin colour. And second, it displays the show’s grasp of how ethnicity is more than just skin deep.

Shadow And Bone production still: Inej
Shadow And Bone has an excellent grasp of how ethnicity is more than just skin deep.

Shadow And Bone, based on Leigh Bardugo’s bestselling YA novels (it combines the trilogy Shadow And Bone with the Six Of Crows duology), is one of an increasing number of shows whose inclusivity isn’t just incidental or on the surface, a crucial move if we’re to see TV that really reflects society.

In recent years, colourblind casting – the idea of casting someone regardless of their ethnicity – has been in fashion. But colourblind casting almost always ascribes to the “see no colour” doctrine, which is a sentiment that can be filled with violence towards people of colour.

To say that you don’t see colour implies that the only thing that sets a Black or brown person apart from a white person is the colour of their skin. But a person’s ethnicity isn’t just on the surface. It nearly always infuses deeper, informing their experiences of the world, the way they’re seen, their cultural influences, and the ways in which they behave, to name just a few. To use colourblind casting and cast a Black actor, say, in a role written for a white character, and then not allow for a reflection of their lived experiences, is, at best, an embarrassment.

As The British Blacklist, the UK’s definitive database of Black British professionals in the arts, recently tweeted: “Colourblind casting only works… if after the casting of a non-white actor a scan through the script takes place to ensure that you don’t have the non-white actor doing things that don’t match the visuals. This isn’t about stereotyping. It’s about authenticity.”

Take a look at The Bold Type for instance, and the character of Kat Edison. In the show’s first season, Kat is arrested while her girlfriend Adena, a Muslim immigrant, runs away. It takes Adena, and then Kat’s white boss Jacqueline, to explain to Kat why the police are a threat to a woman of colour. 

Now, this would be fine, except Kat is not white; she’s a mixed-race Black woman. In what world would she, even with the financial and class privilege we’re told she has, not understand the threat police pose towards a Black woman, or a woman of colour or an immigrant? 

Kat’s Blackness was unacknowledged for much of the season, yet it was this scene that made it clear colourblind casting had been employed, and no care taken to change anything after Aisha Dee was cast.

Diversifying deliberately, rather than accidentally, is key if the TV industry wants to become truly inclusive, because only by being inclusive will it remain relevant and interesting. Characters need to be written authentically, with the experiences of their ethnicity – and their sexuality and their financial background and more – woven in to their narratives. Authentic writing means showing a breadth of experience and lived realities.

Inclusivity on screen will necessitate inclusivity behind the scenes as well. To portray characters from a variety of backgrounds and have them seem authentic requires a writing staff – and directors and producers and costume designers and make up artists and hairstylists and so on and so on – who are also from a variety of backgrounds.

Shadow And Bone: Alina and Mal
Shadow And Bone’s lead character Alina’s experiences are shaped by her half Shu background.

Bridgerton is among the shows making moves to deliberately cast diversely (as per most of Shonda Rhimes’ shows). It’s had a varying degree of success: while it’s first season included a Black male lead, there were a lack of dark-skinned Black actors, and the show put forward the idea that a royal marriage magically cured the UK of racism (we have proof that’s not the case). 

That being said, it’s built a foundation to work with. And, in season two, a dark-skinned South Asian woman, Simone Ashley, will play the romantic lead – a virtually unheard of casting move. The character’s name has been changed to reflect her ethnicity, from Kate Sheffield (as it was in the Bridgerton novels by Julia Quinn) to Kate Sharma. 

If Bridgerton is to embrace its inclusivity this season, we’ll need to see more evidence of Kate’s ethnic background on her character.

Unsurprisingly, this type of casting brings out the “it’s not historically accurate” brigade. I don’t have time for a history lesson, but Black and brown people have existed in the UK for a long time; we didn’t just spring up in the 1900s. Historical accuracy also didn’t seem to matter much when Ben Kingsley played Gandhi, Angelina Jolie played Mariane Pearl, or when numerous white actors were cast as Othello.

We’ve already seen the historically accurate crowd spring up in response to the casting of Jodie Turner-Smith as Anne Boleyn in an upcoming Channel 5 show. Sure, Anne Boleyn wasn’t Black, but she was isolated, viewed as a threat, judged harshly, and treated with suspicion because of her looks, all things many Black women have experienced. Why, therefore, would Turner-Smith not do a brilliant job in this role? 

Netflix's Shadow And Bone: production still
Shadow And Bone shows us what we knew all along, that we belong on screen as much as anyone else and that we are enough.

Although I’m looking forward to Turner-Smith’s turn as one of England’s most famous queens, it’s new stories I am after, and that’s where Shadow And Bone’s appeal lies. 

The show’s lead character Alina’s experiences are shaped by her ethnic background, which has been deliberately changed from the book, where she is white, to make the show more inclusive. In the series, she is part Shu, the Shadow And Bone world’s version of an Asian country, and is seen as both too Shu and not Shu enough, a common microaggression experienced by people of mixed ethnicity. 

Speaking at a panel about the show, actor Jessie Mei Li, who describes herself as half Chinese, said: “Lots of the cast is very diverse, which is great, but it’s not colourblind casting, which is brilliant for diversity, but everyone’s race plays into the world building, and it makes this world that the characters exist in so much richer, and so many different people can see themselves portrayed on screen in a realistic way.

“Part of Alina’s story is so embedded in her not knowing where she belongs, which is something certainly I’ve felt, lots of mixed race people have felt, where you’re not this enough, you’re not that enough.”

For years, people of colour have felt “not enough” for television. Now, we’re finally seeing what we knew all along, that we belong on screen as much as anyone else and that we are enough. 

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Images: Netflix

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Sarah Shaffi

Sarah Shaffi is a freelance journalist and editor. She reads more books a week than is healthy, and balances this out with copious amounts of TV. She writes regularly about popular culture, particularly how it reflects and represents society.

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