Musings on Alina Starkov from a Fellow Half-Asian

Just like many other YA fantasy book fans, I’ve been eagerly looking forward to the debut of the Netflix adaptation of Shadow and Bone. A few years back, I’d devoured and adored the Six of Crow duology and then, more recently, tore through the original Shadow and Bone trilogy in a single day earlier this year. My excitement doubled once I heard they’d cast a biracial actress in the lead role because it always means a lot to me to see fellow half-Chinese actresses like Jessie Mei Li in lead roles especially when it’s for a big production like this one. The point is… I was ready and eager to consume this show when it dropped on Friday. And for the most part, by the time the credits of the final episode started playing, I really dug most of what the show did and especially adored the brilliant cast but at the same time… oh boy did their handling of Alina being mixed race make me feel a lot of things in my hapa heart. And not all of them were good.

I want to acknowledge two things off the bat. First, this all just the opinion of one mixed race Asian woman. We are not a monolith and neither would I ever want to presume to speak for all of us. Second, yes, Shadow and Bone did have a mixed race Asian woman in the writer’s room. I’ve actually been a fan of Christina Strain’s since back when she was the brilliant colorist on Runaways. She’s said on Twitter that she pulled from her own real life experiences with some of the things said to Alina in the show. I do not want to in any way disrespect her or those lived experiences because honestly, I think that a part of why they hit me so hard was because I could tell they were real.

But Christina Strain was not the only person in the writer’s room and nor was she in charge of the show. And it showed.

Look, I wanted to love how they handled making Alina mixed race in the show. I really really did. Jessie Mei Li was a genuine delight and I adored their portrayal of Alina. She made me love the character even more than I did in the books and deserves to be a huge star one day. Unfortunately, the show feels like it simply did not put the thought and care into this aspect that both the actress and the character deserved.

What the show did succeed in doing was making me feel like I had been punched in the gut repeatedly during the onslaught of racist comments at the start of episode 3.

“I’d start by making her eyes less Shu.”
“I thought she was Shu. Well. I guess she’s Shu enough.”
“Then what are you?”

Those words hurt because they felt so real and they hurt all the more because the show did nothing to make them feel like anything but racism for the sake of racism at a time when Asian Americans are already dealing with elevated levels of racism and hatred in the real world.

The problem stems from how the Shu Han (this world’s Asian analogue) are never really spoken of expect in the context of Alina’s mixed heritage. @LifeinFiction did a great thread that delved into a lot of the same issues I have here. We’re told that Alina’s looked down on for being half Shu because they’re an enemy of Ravka… but that’s never really shown. Instead, there’s more conflict between East Ravka and West Ravka and even far more time is given to Ravka’s conflict with Fjerda which is, one should note, blindingly white. The Shu Han are left as an off screen enemy, the faceless menace in the south except for an artist’s depiction on one cringe-worthy banner.

What would have made a huge difference is if we could have seen anything positive at all related to the Shu Han. Instead, what we got was the appearance of one Shu character that was barely more than a cameo and an onslaught of microaggressions and hateful comments even from frankly nonsensical sources. At one point, Zoya hatefully calls Alina “half-breed” which is bizarre given that Zoya herself is half-Suli. In my personal experience, fellow biracial people tend to the best allies since they intrinsically understand what it feels like. Yes, Zoya doesn’t like Alina at this point but that choice of insult just doesn’t make sense.

Also filed under bizarre is how Mal doesn’t get the same vitriol as Alina despite also being half-Shu. It’s not like I wanted there to be more racist insults but for only Alina to really face it in the narrative and not Mal feels odd especially when we’re told being half-Shu orphans is something they bonded over as young children. I can think of a reason why they might have deliberately chosen to do this that I don’t think I can properly articulate here but I also have a feeling this wasn’t the case.  (Side note: I adore what the show did with Alina and Mal’s relationship. The depth of their friendship here was so lovely to see and made lots of moments hit that much harder.)

And the thing is, Alina being mixed and therefore further ostracized by many Ravkans, including fellow Grisha, does add some fascinating elements to her story even if they aren’t delved into far enough. For starters, consider how some of the same people who likely looked down their nose at Alina for being mixed race now consider her to be a living saint. It’s also another thing the Darkling is able to use to manipulate her into initially sympathizing with him. Alina wants to belong somewhere because she feels like she never has and initially elects to wear the blue kefta of the Etherealki even though the Darkling asks her to wear his colors which is unheard of. Watching the Darkling use how she felt and how she’d been treated to subtly turn her towards him made every moment he was with her when I knew what was coming all the more chilling and unnerving. It also sure does create one hell of a power dynamic when you see a white man forcing something on a woman of color that allows him to control her but this is not an essay about the Darkling so I will stop there for now.

When I think about the things the show could do with Alina being mixed race, the possibilities are endless. Because yes, there is truth beneath the hurt. I know how Alina feels when people from one side of her heritage speak disparagingly of the other side and reject her as not belonging. However, it is not all doom and gloom. Jessie Mei Li as Alina Starkov means a lot to me and I suspect she also means a lot to many other half-Asians watching the show. Nothing can quite replace the feeling of seeing yourself represented on the screen especially when you rarely have before. Representation is important and, despite not know Jessie, I am so very proud of her for everything she’s done with this role.

Ultimately, there is nothing to balance out the barrage of anti-Shu sentiment and the Asians of this world just end being shown as “other” and “bad” which is… not great. Not only does the show position being Shu as being bad but it also sends the subliminal message that being mixed race is bad. The thing is… it’s not. It’s just a part of who I am and who lots of other people in the world are. It is a part of my being Yes, being half-Chinese and half-white has brought some pain into my life at times because of the thoughtless words and actions of others and yes, sometimes it hurts when I feel like I do not belong but it has also brought me joy. It is a lived experience that not everyone can understand but it is mine and that same experience can help bring about an instant bond when you meet someone else who can also understand.

I want to reiterate a point: I enjoyed the show for the most part. I really really did. That’s why I’m bothering to sit here and write this. We can love something yet also critique it and want it to do better. Hopefully, Shadow and Bone gets a second season and a third and then the proper Crows-focused show I’m dying to see. But if that happens, I hope the producers and writers take the time to think a little harder and a little more carefully about how they’re handling their worldbuilding especially when it comes to people of color. It may be fiction but sharp words said on a television screen can cut just as deep as those said to a person’s face. I prefer to watch Inej wield her knives than to feel as if I have been stabbed by one.

Shadow and Bone can do better. I have to believe. It’s what Alina Starkov deserves. And so do we.

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