Controversies Surrounding the Diversity in Netflix’s Shadow and Bone
A coveted novel in the world of YA literature, Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo was published in 2015, selling over 2.5 million copies within the English language alone. The book follows the heists and schemes of 6 wayward teenagers, labeled as “The Crows,” who work in the mafia underworld setting of the fictional city, Ketterdam. The book marks the start of the Six of Crows duology which, following Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone trilogy, serves as an extension to the overarching Grishaverse series. Ultimately, the addition of this duology was the author’s response to millions of fans’ requests for more diversity in the universe. With a character lineup including people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and disabled persons as well as chapters dealing with traumas such as rape, religious indoctrination, addiction, and mass sickness, the book remains an important inclusion in young readers’ libraries.
In April of 2021, Netflix released season one of the adapted series “Shadow and Bone”, incorporating the Crows’ storyline into the show. During press and advertising, the cast’s diversity was used as a huge marketing point, with both interviewers and actors mentioning the variety of cast and crew members involved in bringing the show to life. So when viewers came across photos of Inej, a South Asian-inspired character, being doubled for by a white actress, outrage broke out on platforms like Twitter, TikTok, and Reddit as fans expressed their disappointment. The stuntwoman, Vellai Krisztina, was painted in dark foundation and sported a tan skin suit in which she posted pictures on her Instagram, alongside Inej’s actress, Amita Suman.
Author Bardugo briefly addressed the issue on an Instagram live, referring to the brownface as “egregious” and making strong promises to not let the same occur in the upcoming season. Showrunner Eric Heisserer also took the time to release a statement on Reddit, where he states that the actions that have occurred were antithetical to the creative team’s intentions and that he was completely “unaware” of the technique of painting down until just that week. Heisserer also mentions that both he and Bardugo reached out to apologize to Suman and pledged to ensure that all their actors get the chance to work in a safe and encouraging environment in upcoming seasons.
The first of the cast members to respond to the controversy was the show’s leading lady, Jessie Mei Li, who released a statement in the form of eight Instagram stories. Over the course of the notes app written messages, Li emphasizes how stunt acting is a “niche industry” and how it wouldn't be cost effective or realistic to expect production to find people of the same race, height, shape, etc. to double the show’s characters of color. Fans struggled to buy into this narrative however, considering that Shadow and Bone was estimated to be one of Netflix’s most costly projects in 2021, with a rumored budget of 22 million USD. The statement continues with Li acknowledging the jarring aspects of seeing someone painted in a different skin color and the unacceptability of brownface, only to then contradict themselves by implying that since Krisztina was painted down for visual trickery, it is to simply be perceived as costume.
While one can definitely appreciate the conversation sparked by Li and her willingness to hear others out by including a Q&A box after their statement, her original take on this situation comes off as hurtful and tone deaf. The character of Inej, cherished by many young South Asian girls across the globe, exemplifies what it means to be a faithful, tenacious, and self-respecting individual. She has connected with readers through the trauma and hardships she faced and the hope she holds for herself and those around her. By capitalizing off of the ethnic background and culture of Inej and Suman to advertise the show, and then proceed to cast a woman of a different race to portray her behind the screen shows great disregard for the South Asian community. This choice in casting actively took away an opportunity from South Asian stuntwomen to play a role written in their own ethnic background and helped contribute to institutional issues surrounding wigging and painting down actors for roles in TV.
That being said, patronizing actors, stunt persons, directors, or writers, is counterproductive to the end goal that is being sought out at the moment. Awareness and understanding are what sparks change and it’s clear that this big-budget show desperately needs this change. With season 2 slated to release in 2023 and a slew of new characters being added to the recurring cast, viewers can only hope to see a more inclusive cast and crew in the upcoming months.
Through Teen Lenses: Were you aware of the concept of “painting down” in the entertainment industry? How would you, as a brown woman, respond to those who say that brownface is acceptable in the film/television industry when used as “costume” for an actor or double?
“I was not aware of the concept of “painting down” in the film industry prior to this year. As a brown woman, I see the idea of using brownface as a “costume” in the film industry as offensive. It perpetuates the idea that skin color is something that can be manipulated to fit a certain aesthetic or desire for simple cosmetics. In reality, skin color affects every aspect of many people’s lives through the inherently eurocentric beauty standards of today’s society.”
Shanthi Ashok, 16, Junior at Oakton High School, Virginia
“The concept of painting down used to be very common for stage performers but it wasn’t until recently that I found out that film and TV is guilty of it as well. As a brown woman, I believe that no one should portray the character of a brown individual other than a brown individual themselves. Brownface used in film and TV is inappropriate and derogatory towards brown people. It makes fun of South Asian culture and directs it towards a negative connotation. Furthermore, the character’s arc and purpose are defeated if a South Asian role is portrayed by anyone other than a brown person. For example, if there is a female South Asian role that goes into depth about her culture and ethnicity, only a brown female will truly understand what that’s like. Actors should never audition for a race or ethnicity that isn’t their own. Not to mention that it’s taking that opportunity away from someone who is the same ethnicity or race as the character.”
Haritha Pisupati, 17, Senior at Centreville High School, Virginia
“I first learned about what brownface and painting down was a few months ago when a show I was watching had painted a white stunt double for a brown actress. I remember feeling confused as to why they would go through the trouble to do so when they could just find a brown stunt double, especially since the show was known for taking efforts to improve diversity amongst its cast and crew. To me, brownface and painting down robs stunt doubles of color of opportunities that are already so limited. In this scenario, brownface is simply a shortcut for people that value diversity on screen but not for the backstage and off-camera crew involved in their productions. Shows that are praised for their diverse cast but lack the same representation behind the camera focus on the image they want to send to fans rather than actively attempting to improve opportunities for POC. For me, the use of brownface behind the screen automatically negates the opportunities a production may give to onscreen faces, because it shows that they do not care enough to find a stunt double/actor of color.”
Neha Asuri, 16, Sophomore at Jefferson Sci/Tech High School, Virginia