Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality
Cassandra Clare is the product of an adventurous literary family. Born in Tehran, Iran, she is the daughter of respected American author Professor Richard Rumelt. Her grandfather Max Rosenberg produced the first horror film in color, The Curse of Frankenstein, in 1957 and is perhaps most noted as the producer of the Doctor Who films in the 1960’s. While she was still a toddler, her father spent a month in the Himalayas with Cassandra accompanying him on his treks in his backpack. With this adventure- peppered upbringing and time spent on the sets of horror films and supernatural thrillers, it is no surprise that Cassandra Clare would grow up to write her own urban supernatural series The Mortal Instruments.
The Mortal Instruments tells the story of the Nephilim through the eyes of New York teenager Clary Fray. The Nephilim are a secret organization devoted to combating demons. Over the course of the series, Clary becomes a part of the world of the Nephilim–and so have readers, with more than five million TMI books in print in over thirty languages. The first book in the series, City of Bones, is currently being adapted into a graphic novel and film and Cassandra Clare has been adamant that adaptations of her work reflect the diversity within their pages.
The only character to appear in all of her books is Magnus Bane: the high warlock of Brooklyn. Readers eventually learn that he is half-Indonesian and half-Dutch and more than eight centuries old. When we first meet him, Magnus is explicitly described as Asian, and his attraction to Alec– one of the other main characters in The Mortal Instruments— is made clear. Their romance is a critical subplot of the novels and the scene where Clary confronts Alec about his sexuality was used as the audition piece for the role in the film adaptation of City of Bones.
Despite the explicit description of the character’s ethnicity and his integral link to the plot of the first book and its film adaptation, Cassandra Clare had to draw a line in the sand in regards to casting Magnus as Asian. She went to great lengths to explain to her fans why racebending his ethnicity would by hurtful and would be just as wrong as removing his sexual orientation from his character. When some fans reacted negatively to the casting of Taiwanese Canadian model/actor Godfrey Gao as Magnus because he was Asian, she again took to her blog to talk to fans about the impact of racebending roles and her own explicit descriptions of Magnus character.
Some fans have expressed a different concern, that Godfrey Gao’s casting showcases a trend of all Hollywood painting all Asian nationalities with the same broad ethnic brush in depictions on screen. Godfrey is Taiwanese and Peranakan Malaysian, not native Indonesian as Magnus is described in the book. Clare has expressed her happiness with Gao’s casting, but says she did not have a final say on casting decisions.
Clare was kind enough to give some of her time to racebending.com contributor Gabrial Canada while she was busy visiting the City of Bones set. She talks about her experience in the world of Young Adult fiction and the struggles of maintaining diversity on covers and in adaptations.
RACEBENDING.COM: How did you advocate as an author when most of the time authors are very powerless over movie casting or in the depictions of their characters in other media?
CASSANDRA CLARE: As a creator, you know going into working with filmmakers who are adapting your project that you are going to have a limited amount of power. There are some cases, I think, where the author has more power, but those instances are very rare. About the only choice you get to really make is who you sell your rights to.
You are correct that most of the time authors are powerless over movie casting. It is a terrifying feeling that the project that began as your brainchild is in the hands of others and you can only hope that they choose to allow you to have say.
I often think of Ursula le Guin’s experience with the TV movie of the Wizard of Earthsea which she wrote about so movingly. It is sobering to realize that such a well-known author’s call to not whitewash her beloved work would be so summarily dismissed. If it could happen to her it can happen to anyone.
People think authors have power that they don’t. I just want to be clear that though I did insist Magnus be cast as an actor of Asian descent, another studio could have shut me out of the [casting] process entirely.
I was looking at old emails about casting and I found one of mine that just said this: “MAGNUS IS ASIAN. HE NEEDS TO BE PLAYED BY AN ASIAN ACTOR. PERIOD.” Early on, before any auditions or real discussions, names for Magnus were bandied around. When I saw some were white actors and I said, “Please don’t do this, and this is why,” they could have easily chosen to ignore me. I am lucky they didn’t.
I was looking at old emails about casting and I found one of mine that just said this: “MAGNUS IS ASIAN. HE NEEDS TO BE PLAYED BY AN ASIAN ACTOR. PERIOD.”
So, I think it’s important, because it can be the only choice you get to make, to pick the right studio or producer to sell your rights to. Though, even then, they can switch producers on you, they can switch studios on you, or screenwriters on you — you can never be 100% sure.
I was lucky to have producers who wanted my feedback. I decided I needed to pick the hills I would die on — the things that were my “I will not see this movie if this happens” choices — and throw my weight behind those — because in this situation you might only ever get one chance to express your opinion at all.
In my case, that was the casting of Magnus. He’s a hugely important character, a fan favorite, and is the only character who appears in every book I’ve written. Both him being Asian and his bisexuality were core elements of his character that needed to be preserved.
RACEBENDING.COM: Did you also have to be adamant about the inclusion of the Alec and Magnus romance and their sexual orientations?
CASSANDRA CLARE: Yes, I got a lot of pushback about having gay characters in my books when my film agent was trying to sell the rights: “No one cares about your gay characters.” That’s the one I remember.
“No one cares about your gay characters.” That’s the one I remember.
I asked before I sold the rights to Unique/Constantin if the gay relationship would be preserved and they said yes. I was adamant from the start that Magnus and Alec’s romance and sexual orientation remain. So adamant that I can’t say what would have happened if I hadn’t been!
I never saw a script where Alec and Magnus’ sexuality wasn’t preserved. I’d like to think that would have been the case no matter what I had done. Alec’s talk with Clary about his sexuality was one of the audition pieces for his character.
RACEBENDING.COM: How did the manga adaptation of your book come about?
CASSANDRA CLARE: Yen Press contacted me and asked me how I would feel about a manga adaptation of The Infernal Devices. I love manga and anime so I said I would be thrilled. They’ve been very inclusive of me in the project. They sent me artist HyeKyung Baek’s mock-up designs of the characters to approve. I think the art is wonderful and I hope it will bring the story to a new audience.
RACEBENDING.COM: How do you feel as an author when you see your work depicted visually by fans and artists?
CASSANDRA CLARE: I think fanart is wonderful. I have very creative and talented fans and feel blessed. I do make it clear I reblog fanart and fancastings of characters of color only when they are depicted as characters of color and my fans have by-and-large been wonderful about that.
RACEBENDING.COM: We have profiled many instances where authors with P.O.C. protagonists or major supporting characters have had the covers of their books changed by publishers to not represent the backgrounds of these characters. Have you ever encountered the same difficulty with Jem or Magnus on covers?
CASSANDRA CLARE: Authors generally don’t get any input over what’s on their book covers. I had no say over what appeared on the covers of my first series of books. For later books, I was able to get cover consultation written into my contract. “Consultation” still isn’t “approval” — but Simon and Schuster has been good about listening to my opinion.
Magnus hasn’t appeared on the covers of the Mortal Instruments — the publisher has been very insistent that the main protagonists, and only them, appear on the covers — though I am always hopeful for a repackage or special edition that would allow for a Magnus cover.
As for Jem, I insisted from the start with Infernal Devices that each cover would feature one of the three main characters — Jem, Will, and Tessa. When the time came to do the cover of Clockwork Prince, I said I only wanted to see Asian models for the boy on the cover. I was only sent sheets of Asian models, and I picked one who was LA-based because that’s close to where Cliff, the cover artist, works. Didn’t hurt that he was also really gorgeous. I thought he would make a perfect Jem.
One interesting thing that happened is that they sent me the “comps” first. Comps are early mocked up versions of the cover that show the model’s positioning and the background. In them, Jem was wearing a tall hat that was pulled down halfway over his face. I wasn’t happy with that because with his face covered, he could have been of any ethnicity. I asked them to reshoot and reveal his whole face, and they did do that.
Jem was wearing a tall hat that was pulled down halfway over his face. I wasn’t happy with that because with his face covered, he could have been of any ethnicity. I asked them to reshoot and reveal his whole face, and they did do that.
I think the cover that resulted was very beautiful — Jem is gorgeous, and I’ve had parents come up to me and say “My son is biracial and this is the only book cover I have that represents someone who looks like him.” So that is a wonderful thing to hear. And I am also so happy that in the banner that Simon and Schuster produced to represent the Shadowhunter series, that Jem’s is one of the faces depicted.
RACEBENDING.COM: Why do you think this difficulty persists in young adult fiction and with publishers at large?
CASSANDRA CLARE: I wish I could say I knew for sure why POC (people of color) characters are so underrepresented on YA covers. A cover is not chosen by the author, but it also isn’t even chosen entirely by the publisher. It is dictated in part by booksellers.
If booksellers don’t like your cover, they can choose to not carry the book, effectively sinking the book. There is enormous crushing pressure to produce a cover that big booksellers will think is marketable.
I have a friend who insisted that her biracial main character be portrayed by a biracial girl on the cover of her book and was told after it came out and had disappointing sales: “Well you did insist on that model for the cover.”
There is enormous crushing pressure to produce a cover that big booksellers will think is marketable. I have a friend who insisted that her biracial main character be portrayed by a biracial girl on the cover of her book and was told after it came out and had disappointing sales: “Well you did insist on that model for the cover.”
There is a lot of received wisdom in publishing, just like there is in movies. And by received wisdom I mean myths about success and failure that everyone in the business believes, and when they’re proven to be false by an example, that example is held up as an exception that proves the rule.
In movies, people believe that girls and women characters cannot carry films unless that film is a romantic comedy. When a movie like Aeon Flux comes out and doesn’t do well, it’s
because “no one wants to see a woman carry an action movie.” When Battleship fails, it’s never because “people don’t want to see men carry an action movie.”
I believe that one of the pieces of received wisdom that permeates publishing is that everyone will buy a book with a white person on the cover, but having a character of color on the cover limits your audience to only people of that race. It’s not something anyone ever says out loud. But you can sense that it’s there in the pushback you get, that your friends get, in the silences that are the reply when you ask about it.
As long as the idea that “white is mainstream”‘ remains endemic in the media I think this will be a problem. Individual writers who are lucky enough to have some say over their covers can fight it on an individual level. But most writers are not that lucky.
The racism is entrenched in what everyone in the book business thinks readers want and will buy. To place a person of color on the cover of say, a big book, is to make a conscious choice to not take “the safe route”. And if you are, say, the editor who fought for that, and the book fails–for any reason– the blame for that choice will fall on you.
Again, all this will not be spoken aloud, but this is an atmosphere where publishers are firing, not hiring. It could be something that counts against you in your next employee review. People are scared. It takes bravery to fight the entrenched racism of a whole industry.
I do think that the public outcry over whitewashed covers that has happened in the past few years is helpful because an author or editor can point to it and say “Look. Negative publicity.” And when you have to fight with any weapon you have to hand, that threat is a valuable one.
RACEBENDING.COM: There was a surprising trend of readers shocked that characters described as people of color were cast as people of color in on screen adaptations. You experienced this reaction to the casting of Magnus Bane and responded on your blog. As an author are you surprised that despite explicit descriptions of a character’s race, this sentiment can still be provoked among some readers?
CASSANDRA CLARE: Surprised, saddened, dismayed, yes. I can only speculate that because whiteness is so socially privileged, and to see characters of color on the page is so much rarer than it should be, that white becomes the default in reader’s minds.
The assumption is that characters are white unless it is explicitly stated otherwise. But even then there is a certain amount of reader resistance. Jem is a good example. He speaks Chinese, he is from China, he is portrayed on the cover of Clockwork Prince by an Asian model. And yet people still come up to me and say –or Tweet me and say–that they were shocked to hear he was Asian, or even that they are displeased that he is Asian.
I have had people come up at signings and say “My Jem isn’t Chinese.” Well, then, he isn’t Jem. Or they will ask me if he “looks Asian” and say they think Mitch Hewer would be great to play him if there was a film.
I think part of the fan reaction to Magnus’ casting was that he had been so repeatedly fancast as Adam Lambert. I think this is probably because Lambert is one of the few openly gay celebrities young people are aware of. But it did create an unrealistic picture of what Magnus might look like, which was why I always said I would not reblog fanart or link to graphics that used any fancast for Magnus that was of a white actor. I didn’t want to perpetuate that erroneous image of Magnus.
On the other end of the spectrum, you had people fancasting Darren Criss, who is half Filipino and half Dutch (Magnus is half Indonesian, half Dutch) and being told, by white people, that Darren Criss “didn’t count as Asian” because he didn’t fit their mental image of what Asian is supposed to look like, even though he identifies as half-Filipino, [such as in this tweet] in which he actually specifically addresses being biracial and issues of casting.
I wish I had the solution. It’s heartbreaking to see people angered or upset that Magnus is being played by an Asian actor when Magnus is Asian.
I know that I have made a lot of mistakes in my portrayals of PoC characters; I try hard, but I know that I have a lot of room for improvement. But I really do believe that the only remedy for the issues we’re discussing is more representation and more diverse representation. When only a small percent of YA novels have major characters of color and less than one percent have characters who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender maybe it isn’t so surprising that the default in reader’s minds is white and straight. I think the first thing has to change before the second thing can.
I know that I have made a lot of mistakes in my portrayals of PoC characters; I try hard, but I know that I have a lot of room for improvement. But I really do believe that the only remedy for the issues we’re discussing is more representation and more diverse representation.
RACEBENDING.COM: As someone who has lived and worked in other countries do you think diverse or more realistic depictions in media help cater to the wider global audience?
CASSANDRA CLARE: Yes, I think it does help. I think that other countries are used to being presented with media from America which shows an extremely non-diverse cast of characters. Everyone is used to the sort of false America presented in movies and media where for some reason, everyone is white.
There is a character in the Mortal Instruments books, Raphael Santiago, who is Hispanic, and he has been enormously embraced by my Hispanic and Latin American readers. When I did a signing in Mexico City, dozens of girls came up and asked me whether I would include a Hispanic female character soon and I was happy to be able to say that yes, as my next series is set in Los Angeles one of the major female protagonists is Mexican, and they were so happy — it made me
feel sad to see how starved they were for representation in the fantasy adventure books they love. It made me extra aware of the ways in which I’ve fallen short in presenting diversity myself and determined to do better in future.
Because of the received wisdom I was talking about earlier, media is very slow to change. However one thing I know helped get Godfrey Gao cast as Magnus was his enormous popularity in Asia. America is not the only country that produces superstars and the media is starting to understand that. White middle-class Americans are not the only people who read and I believe publishing is starting to understand that, too.
My books are in thirty-six languages, only one of which is English. My Asian readers, my readers from Latin America, they are some of the most vocal, passionate, supportive and literate readers I have. I owe them better. We all do.
Racebending.com would like to thank Cassandra Clare for her interview. To learn more about her and her books, visit http://www.cassandraclare.com/.
To learn more about the City of Bones adaptation, visit: http://www.themortalinstrumentsmovie.com/
NOTE: The opinions espoused by the interviewees represent their viewpoints alone, and do not necessarily represent the views held by the staff of racebending.com