I first picked up Leigh Bardugo’s “Six of Crows” in my high school’s library. I stared at its generic young adult fantasy cover and the praises on the back with little interest before one of my Desi friends tapped my shoulder. She told me that it was one of her favorites. “I read it for Inej,” she told me. “She’s brown and she’s amazing.” And because I have only ever read one fantasy book with a brown girl as one of the lead characters at the time, I decided to read it.
As I read, it became clear why Inej was such a fan favorite for brown girls. She was strong, stuck to her morals and was the most kindhearted character in the series. There was a depth to her character that I wasn’t used to seeing in high fantasy stories — most of which don’t feature people of color at all. When they do, they are often portrayed with orientalist tropes or compared to savages, like they are in Game of Thrones. The problem extends beyond books and TV and reaches to games like Dungeons and Dragons, too.
Racism in Western high fantasy has existed since the genre became popular through J.R.R Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of Rings.” Tolkien was writing during the height of British imperialism, which influenced his world-building and the ways in which he depicted some of his fantastic races. Orcs, a race which Tolkien described as a “Mongol-type,” are portrayed to be raiding savages. The racial bias is clear.
In recent years, fantasy has started to move away from the Tolkien-esque world-building and denounced the underlying racism of its worldview, but the process has been slow. “Six of Crows,” which was published in 2015, was unique in the way that it blended Tolkien world-building without alienating or orientalizing people of color. It retains a rich, high-stakes fantasy world complete with politics and magic while including and uplifting the characters of color. For once, I felt like I could read a fantasy novel that didn’t villainize people that looked like me.
So, reading Inej felt like a breath of fresh air. Her identity as a Suli woman (a South Asian-coded ethnicity from the “Six of Crows” series) was integral to her character, and it was something that she actively embraced. In the books, she had to fight against those who were fetishizing her based on her race. Yet, her storyline and her ethnicity weren’t defined by microaggressions. Inej is religious and often refers to Suli practices to guide and ground herself in times of trouble. Her identity was fictional, and so was the city she was living in, but her experiences seemed so real to me as a South Asian growing up in a predominantly white area. Inej was able to find comfort and guidance in her cultural practices, as I have.
“Six of Crows” deals with race in a way that was surprisingly thoughtful for a young adult novel at the time, especially considering that its prequel series, “Shadow and Bone,” had been heavily criticized for being too white. I was intrigued when Netflix announced a “Shadow and Bone” series (which would integrate “Six of Crows” characters and storylines) because it meant that I would finally see Inej on screen. I followed the news about the show closely and was ecstatic when the cast was revealed. Amita Suman, a British actress of Nepali descent, was set to play Inej. Too often, I have seen roles for women of color go to white actors or roles for South Asians going to other people of color, with the false understanding that all brown people are interchangeable with each other.
The first season of “Shadow and Bone” was released on Netflix last month, and Amita Suman’s Inej was everything that a fan of the books had hoped for. As viewers, we saw her strong moral compass and religious values that were rooted in her culture and the ways in which she sometimes had to challenge them to save herself and her friends. “Shadow and Bone” isn’t the most amazing fantasy adaptation I’ve ever seen, but it is entertaining. I’m excited to see how Inej grows in the seasons to come as her character becomes more integral to the story and her backstory is explored.
But then, photos of Inej’s stunt double were revealed. Vellai Krisztina, a white woman, performed Suman’s stunts in brownface. At first, I wasn’t bothered by the news — Krisztina was probably the best woman for the job or the best stunt double they could find. But the problem is bigger than the brown face itself. Yet again, a job for a person of color was instead given to a white person. It’s a blatant issue of lost opportunity. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized how ridiculous it was that the showrunners could not find a single South Asian person to be Suman’s stunt double. India produces dozens of high-budget action films every year. With Netflix’s $17 billion content budget, surely an international stunt double could have been hired instead.
These realizations changed the way I viewed the show. I wondered if these showrunners cared about diversity or representation at all or if they were just out to get the money and views from brown people starving to see someone like them on screen. As cynical as it sounds, the stunt double casting has forced me to realize that some of the diversity we saw in the “Shadow and Bone” show was performative. Yes, there were actors of color on-screen. But most of the directors, writers, and producers were white. It seems as if they are using people of color for optics only, while behind the scenes white people continue to write the stories and set the stage.
This ties into another common criticism of the “Shadow and Bone” TV show: its depiction of racism. I was glad to see Alina Starkov (played by Jessie Mei Li in the adaptation) as an Asian woman instead of a white woman as she was described to be in the books. However, Mei Li’s version of Alina faced a constant slew of microaggressions in the show — other characters calling her “rice-eater” or “half-breed” — that didn’t seem realistic. Larger structural issues were alluded to but never fully explored. For example, the citizens of Ravka (a fictionalized country based off of Russia where Alina was born) expect their savior to have white skin and blonde hair. Instead, they have Alina, who is half Shu (a Chinese-coded ethnicity). The show chose to highlight random anti-Shu slurs that would come Alina’s way in almost every episode instead of focusing on the more interesting political and social implications her character has on the world.
These microaggressions seemed to point towards her “differences” without a concrete understanding of the structural ways in which racism worked against her as a woman of color in the show. Would the people of Ravka accept her as a savior? Would they believe her word over that of the white villain, a man who practically ruled the country? Similarly, Alina’s ethnicity seems to only serve as a plot point to alienate her from the rest of her peers. The positive aspects of her identity and culture (like traditions or beliefs) are never addressed like they are with Inej’s character, making Mei Li’s Alina feel flat.
The watered-down understanding of racism might be explained by the majority-white writer’s room. Although I do believe that white people can write compelling stories that deal with racism — Leigh Bardugo, author of both “Shadow and Bone” and “Six of Crows,” herself is white — the issue wasn’t handled well in the screen adaptation.
“Shadow and Bone’s” challenges with race, including the casting for Suman’s stunt double, are indicative of the larger diversity problem in Hollywood. Casting white people in the place of actors of color is nothing new. Even after steps have been taken to promote diversity by hiring people of color, progress is stopping at the surface. Diversity in entertainment needs to extend beyond that — towards every aspect of writing and production — in order to create characters and stories that feel real. Creators must do the work of giving opportunities to writers and other entertainment workers of color instead of relying on racist techniques like brownface.
South Asians have just started to become more visible in the entertainment industry, and although my experience with Netflix’s “Shadow and Bone” has soured, I can’t help but think of how exciting it was to see Inej on screen for the first time. For a long time, the only people that looked like me on television were either terrorists or the butt of a racist joke, like Ravi on “Jessie” or Apu on “The Simpsons.” Inej, however, was someone that I could look up to, someone who defied those stereotypes that shadow her. Her existence doesn’t just uplift me and other South Asian girls, it also redefines what a South Asian character can be for non-South Asian audiences, undermining the work that racist media has done to box us in. By incorporating more culturally diverse narratives, storytelling will only get richer. I can’t wait to see what South Asian creators will have to offer in the future as they shine from the shadows.
MiC Columnist Safura Syed can be contacted at email@example.com