Seen But Not Satisfied: The Logic of Prejudice in Shadow and Bone

Alina and Mal share a moment

I didn’t know I was going to fall for Shadow and Bone as hard as I did. The luscious world, the characters, and the mythology all nestled their way into my heart. There was so much to love in the series. And yet, my love was uneasy.

From my first glimpse on Netflix, Shadow and Bone whispered to me. Standing front and center: a femme with long dark hair in high-waisted pants and suspenders in a billowy blouse. It felt like me in that picture.

And once I started watching it, the parallels kept coming. Between Alina Starkov’s name and her mixed Asian and Central-Eastern European stand-in heritages — Shu and Ravkan — I just about died. Never in a million years did my Filipine-Polish descent person ever imagine seeing myself in a series. Ever.

Watching her exist in Ravka made me think about how cool it is that mixed-race kids now get to have characters who are like them to look up to. And even as an adult, I found myself close to tears.

Jessie Mei Li as Alina in Shadow and Bone.

However, as blown away as I was, the shadows crept in. Specifically, the specter of prejudice that Alina (Jessie Mei Li) faces because of her Shu Han-Ravkan heritage. An addition to the adaptation compared to the books, the prejudice Alina experiences bothered me. Primarily because of its inconsistency within the world Shadow and Bone creates.

Throughout the series, Ravkan men tell Alina things like they won’t take Shu currency, despite her only having Rakvan money, and that she’s far from Shu Han. One soldier even refuses to give her rations when she’s trying to eat with her regiment. Prejudice is even more insidious at the Little Palace, where two Ravkan maids gossip about Alina in Old Ravkan in front of her, and someone suggests she get her eyes changed. At the Little Place, these insults and the vitriol Alina faces become concentrated into the character of Zoya (Sujaya Dasgupta), who insults Alina’s heritage and is physically violent towards her.

Don’t get me wrong. The existence of prejudice and the abuse within the series are accurate, and added in, according to showrunner Eric Heisserer, by several multiracial writers for the series. But the season’s use of that prejudice confused me because, as an adult, only Alina appears to experience it. This despite the fact that there are others who share the same traits that she’s singled out for.

Characters like Mal (Archie Renaux), for example, is implied to be of a similar heritage to Alina. And Botkin (played by Hon Ping Tang and only seen in one episode) is a Shu combat instructor at the Little Palace. They all supposedly have similar backgrounds, and yet we don’t see them experience the same abuse as Alina. Botkin’s character has no screen time so it’s impossible to comment on his experience. However, his absence as a developed character in the series frustrated me, particularly because the show ignored an obvious opportunity for Alina, and the audience, to possibly learn more about Shu Han from him. In the books, Botkin is a former mercenary from Shu Han who is known for favoring Shu students. Working at the Little Palace, did he ever experience similar prejudice as Alina? How did he work through that trauma? We might not ever know because he’s only in one episode.

In contrast, Mal experiences prejudice indirectly. We witness him grimace as he sees hateful Shu imagery or gets thrown into jail for punching the same prejudiced soldier who targeted Alina. However, his heritage is never weaponized against him personally, even though the things that the racists “see” in Alina are features he shares.

However, it’s unclear from the show why that is. It could be due to gender or body type, as Mal is portrayed as imposing from the beginning. In contrast, we see Alina learning to throw a punch as an adult and working as a cartographer rather than as someone who’d see combat. (And in the books, she’s described as weak and frail.) It could also be that Mal almost always appears in uniform, while Alina changes into plainclothes partway through the season, making it possible for people to assume she’s snuck in from Shu Han.

Unfortunately, neither explanation really fits though because, historically, prejudice outweighs military service and physicality. The armed forces were segregated until after WWII in the United States with racial prejudice continuing into the American military. Due to this, it would have made more sense if Mal experienced the same treatment as Alina. Furthermore, his reactions to racist Ravkan soldiers, like the one he beats in his initial boxing match, suggest that prejudice in their world is individually conquerable, rather than something that upholds an oppressive societal norm, as it is in real life.

Admittedly, there are other characters who experience prejudice because of their backgrounds. A fête attendee mistakes Inej (Amita Suman) as Zemeni, and later Polina insults Inej for being Suli during a fight. In a subplot, Matthias the Druskelle (Calahan Skogman) derogatorily refers to Nina (Danielle Galligan), a white Ravkan, as a witch. However, it’s unclear how much these are meant to parallel what Alina experiences because Suli people and Novyi Zem are not at war with Ravka, and Matthias is Fjerdan, not Ravkan. Such instances actually confuse the message about racism in the Grishaverse, rather than clarify or critique it.

Instead, prejudiced Ravkans only regularly single out Alina for looking like her heritage. Due to this, we can only conclude that prejudice in Ravka only appears when it’s to make Alina seem extra special, as YA stories often want to do with their protagonists. But this doesn’t make sense because the kind of prejudice Alina experiences isn’t ever just about the individual, and they are never isolated incidents. Racism and xenophobia stem from actions that devalue and disenfranchise entire groups of people. Those actions form systems that have a logic or pattern to them. However, when media does not portray these issues as systems worth exploring, adding them in as extra storytelling toppings can be harmful because they undercut the seriousness of such issues.

Kirigan’s whole inspiration for creating the Fold, and continuing his fight, is to protect Grisha. If we ignore the direct motivation the show gives of his anger over the fridging of his beloved, Kirigan’s narrative centers on saving Grisha from a system of oppression. Non-Grisha Ravkans treated Grisha as an underclass. Grisha being targeted is literally a central plot point, but when ethnicity-based prejudice appears, the show wants me to believe it’s just a few bad apples picking on Alina?

And that’s the thing about the series. The writers didn’t just make Alina mixed-race; they introduced and foregrounded a system of explicit prejudice compared to the books. Unfortunately, they didn’t fully explore the repercussions of the addition, or explain why only Alina experiences the hatred. Being mixed-race should add depth to her character in more meaningful ways than being called “rice eater.” And because I love the world they’ve created, I want them to explore this. The writers don’t need to make the prejudice more traumatic, but they should accurately explore the ways that this system would affect everyone who falls outside of the white Ravkan ideal. Because without that consistency, those moments with Alina feel like they’re just adding prejudice for flavoring, rather than critiquing its existence.

To add to that critique, I want the series to dive into the complexities that come from the Savior of Ravka being a Shu Han descent and a one-of-a-kind Grisha. And I know the writers can add that nuance. Lines like “Should I tell them?” when Alina sees performers for the fête portraying her as a fully blonde and white Ravkan hint at a deeper level of awareness, and the possibility of exploring that in the future.

However, this will only solve the issue if the next season does the work to consider the consequences of the prejudices they introduced. One event and one person will not heal years of xenophobia and anti-Grisha sentiment. It will not repair the trauma experienced by generations of Grisha or mixed-race Ravkans. However, it could introduce how we can dismantle these systems. That is the series I want to see in Season 2.

Paulina Przystupa

Paulina Przystupa

Paulina (aka @punuckish) is a Filipine-Polish archaeologist and anthropology graduate student who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and loves comics and pop culture. Her academic work focuses on how buildings and landscapes aid or impede the learning of culture by children. In general, she is an over-educated fan of things; primarily comics, comics-related properties, cartoons, science-fiction, and fantasy. This means she takes what she knows and uses it to critique what she loves. Recently, she has brought such discussions to the public by organizing and moderating panels at comic cons centered on anthropology/culture related topics.