In a show with a collection of main characters, Shadowhunters started with a shining star. Artsy eighteen-years-old Clary Fray is not only the viewers’ first window to the Shadow World; she is also the character we follow through the entire journey. Clary is the driving force of a good portion of the show. She encapsulates the views and morals of the modern teenager, the target audience of the show.
Still, it is no secret that a sizable portion of the fanbase is not exactly there to watch her. A lot has been said about Katherine McNamara’s portrayal and not all of it was praising. However, after two years of increasingly stronger performances and better material to work with, it is clear that McNamara has conquered the role. She deserves the nomination to Teen Choice Awards Breakout Star in 2016, as well as the shout out from Spoiler TV as Outstanding Actress in August of 2017 for the Performers of the Month articles.
So, if not the performance, what about Clary creates such a resistance in a part of the fandom?
Probably the fact that the Chosen One, combined with the (White) Savior tropes haven’t aged well since their peak in 2007. And Clary, for better or for worse, is the embodiment of those tropes.
The Character’s Conception
In 2007, the genre of Young Adult was working in full force. With the tremendous success that was Harry Potter, the market was hungry for more. The Twilight books were hitting the shelves, next to Vampire Academy. The Young Adult genre was borrowing from the fantasy and epic genres more and more.
It was then that Clary Fray came to life in “City of Bones,” the first book of The Mortal Instruments series. Aside from the modern fantasy setting, Clary carried a few tropes that were in vogue at the time. From the very start, she was not like the other girls. Clary was also destined for greatness. She was oblivious that her best friend was in love with her, while she chased after the mysterious bad boy. Her intelligence was shown through vague cultural references and not through her actions. It turned out Clary not only was a part of a superior race, she was the most special person among those special people. Superior in every way.
In summary, Clary started out as what was later popularized as a Mary Sue. It makes perfect sense, considering the time of her conception. Back in 2007, a whole collection of “strong and empowered” female leads arrived. Most of them worked as wish fulfillment for a young female voice in fiction. More specifically, action and fantasy fiction. The exaggeration of the main lady’s traits was a way to compensate for the lack of representation in mainstream media. Clary is a product of that.
Ten years later, that representation gap has been, for the most part, fulfilled. The Hunger Games and The Raven Boys are examples of the second generation of YA book series. The female leads became more nuanced, more vulnerable. As a consequence, they became more truthful. There is still a long way to go for minorities that don’t happen to be straight or white but Clary is both. As time passed by, her kind of character grew obsolete.
The Clary Fray that distrusts other girls solemnly for their gender? That plays with her best friend’s feelings? That is willing to leave everyone behind to live her forbidden love? That character is out of its time. The modern audience doesn’t care for perfect, bigger than life characters. It wants strong and vulnerable characters: the closer to real people, the better.
Therefore, the only way to successfully adapt Clary from page to screen is to update her. And that is exactly what Shadowhunters set off to do.
A Matter of Adaptation
The Clary Fray we see in Shadowhunters is different than her book counterpart, while still maintaining the same core traits. She is brave, resourceful, and creative, just as she was in the books. She is at the epicenter of an entire world she never knew existed. Still, Clary continues to persevere despite the adversities thrown in her direction.
However, there are clear differences. Clary no longer has problems hanging out around girls, as it was shown with her friendship with Maureen. From the first scene between Clary and Izzy, they quickly hit it off. Although there are a few slut-shaming comments, Clary is more interested in being Izzy’s friend than in hating her for being pretty. When they call each other sisters, it feels earned.
Clary’s intelligence was also highlighted to the benefit of the plot. Instead of quoting the great art masters, Clary applies her wits to solve her problems. She comes up with a plan to find access to Luke’s things in the precinct, she realizes something is off about what Michael Wayland was telling her. The more Clary learns about the Shadow World, the better her solutions become.
Point in case, it was Clary that found out a way to identify Jonathan despite his glamor rune. It was a nice touch to have her plan almost fail by Jonathan’s endurance of pain, though. It served to show that, although Clary is clearly smart, she is not all-knowing.
Still, there is no escaping her extra “specialness” from the source material. Clary’s pure angelic blood is, after all, a central factor to the events of the story. However, Shadowhunters made the right choice to delimit her angelic powers. The runes Clary sees come when Ithuriel sends them to her. We have yet to know if other Shadowhunters can use the runes, which I sincerely hope doesn’t happen.
The more powerful the rune is, the less control Clary has over it. Not only the runes are intrinsically tied up to her emotions, their effects aren’t perfect. For example, the Portal Rune doesn’t (and shouldn’t) work as well as warlock portals do.
But nothing is perfect. As well as Shadowhunters did with most of its adaptation choices, there are still some questionable decisions. The biggest one is how the story seems to bend over backward to free Clary from any retaliation for her actions. She doesn’t have any inner conflict, which translates to screen as a flaw she has to overcome to grow.
For an active person, Clary is a rather passive character. Everything that Clary has endured was caused by somebody else. Everything that she causes also only affects others. She stays in the middle of things, as a catalyzer of sorts. But not as an evolving character.
No space to grow
The best protagonists have a flaw they need to overcome. It is only by facing it that they can become heroes. However, that is never an easy journey. The character’s flaw is such that it hinders them from doing the things they want to do for as long as it’s there.
That is not the case with Clary. From the moment she was introduced, Clary had no inner conflict big enough that stopped her from accomplishing her goals on the first try. She is killing greater demons and finding the Mortal Cup after just a couple days in the Shadow World. All the problems Clary faced came from the doings of other people. Because she has no internal flaw, Clary has no internal conflict. Every single bad decision she makes falls flat because it is tied up to the world around her instead of Clary herself.
Or rather, Clary has a flaw but the narrative refuses to acknowledge it. Clary starts off the series as selfish. She only cares about finding her mother, no matter the consequences to those who help her along the way. While chasing after her mother is a good thing, Clary’s methods are less than perfect. The show doesn’t recognize that going rogue and putting others at risk is a bad thing, even if supported by the best of intentions.
Instead, Clary is rewarded with an unfounded support of every character on screen. For reasons that are never explained, Downworlders all around adore Jocelyn so much, they are willing to die for Clary. The narrative doesn’t help either. There is no nuance between the rightful worry for Jocelyn and Clary’s reckless behavior. Between sacrificing her memories to save Jace (altruistic) and refusing to hand the Cup back to the Clave (selfish), Clary gets the same reward (a new lead to finding Valentine).
Therefore, when Clary acted selfishly, the narrative didn’t punish her for it. But it did punish others. For the entirety of Season 1 and a good portion of Season 2A, Clary’s choices put only others in harm’s way. The Lightwoods lost their hold over the Institute, Simon became a vampire, Dot was left behind and accused of collaborating with her abuser. Those are a few examples of other people that took the heat for Clary.
Shadowhunters never fully commits to framing Clary as flawsome. Between Alec’s rant and Simon’s reaction to being a vampire, though, Clary has been called out before. Too bad the narrative makes a point of quickly forgiving her right away. Either Izzy will be there to defend her or Simon will abstain Clary of any blame. That is, when Luke doesn’t forget Clary tasered him and locks up Maia instead.
Worst case scenario, Clary’s identity crisis never pays off. In a frustrating fashion, Clary’s justified struggle with who she is versus who she was raised to culminate in a spectacularly bad way. Instead of recognizing she needs to slow down and learn, Clary was gifted with being a more especial Shadowhunter than any other before.
The way this storyline played out was less than ideal. It wasn’t enough for Clary to be a Nephilim. She only truly accepted her role when she could shoot sunlight out of her hand. Good to know Valentine’s “gift” was what made her come through as a Shadowhunter.
It was only in the second third of Season 2 that Clary has flashes of relatability. Not coincidentally, it came when she struggled with an inner conflict. Clary’s refusal to accept Jocelyn’s passing made her seek out Iris Rouse. Despite various warnings, Clary still chose to go on with using dark magic to revive her mother.
That was a wrong decision and, yet, one everyone can relate to. When Clary has to deal with the consequences of that, the audience feels for her. And she does suffer terrible consequences. Not only was Clary almost raped by a demon in the process, she ended up owing Iris a favor. Clary’s negligence to follow up on her word then rendered her a lethal curse.
This multi-episode arc gave Clary more depth than any demon-killing she did in the show. Clary didn’t have to be wielding unjustified fighting skills to be a strong lead. All she had to do was to be strong enough to grieve. Clary’s inner strength felt real because the audience knows what she had to go through to get it.
It is the same kind of a narrative that made her fight against Valentine such a powerful scene. Overwhelmed and less skilled, Clary won the fight using sheer perseverance. She got up after being knocked out again and again, until stubbornness and resolve found her a winning strike. There was no grace or technique she never had the time to learn on the way Clary fought. The fight was about her emotions and not how “badass” Clary is.
By all accounts, Season 3 will follow on this line. Clary has to come to terms with killing her father. In fact, aside from Luke, all her family is gone by her accounts. For a character whose roots have been so firmly about love and family, this conflict should be central to her further development.
And yet, that is not the only thing Clary will have to worry about. She chose to bring Jace back from the dead and that will not go unpunished. It was a selfish decision, even if made from a place of love and hurt. Come April, we’ll see if Clary is given space to grow or if the character will continue on a flat arc with a few peaks.
Among rights and wrongs, Shadowhunters has come a long way in the writing of Clary Fray. After a disastrous case of White Savourism, Clary has been delegated to fighting demons instead of meddling in Downworlder affairs. This is how it should be. Raised in liberal mundane teachings, Clary should be appalled by the racism of the Shadowhunters. She should not, however, be the one leading their fight for equality. The show does well when it remembers Clary can only be an ally in this fight.
Talking about fighting, there is something to say about the depiction of Clary’s shadowhunting skills. After just a couple of months in the Shadow World, it is ludicrous to think Clary would be killing a greater demon with a twirl and a stab. Despite the many nods to her training, the audience only witnesses Clary practicing her fighting skills twice. There are a few more instances of her learning how to use runes than that, but not much more.
Not to mention the pitiful attempts of restraining for her lack of training in 2A. The reasoning was sensible but it fell flat when Clary kept finding workarounds to whatever order to stand down that she received. They might as well not be there. If Clary can still kill a genetically modified demon and evade the Institute’s security all by herself while “untrained,” imagine what she can do after a few years in Shadowhunter school.
Still, Shadowhunters found a balance in the last episodes of Season 2B. Clary’s skills finally caught up to her scrappy attitude. Her fighting scenes against Jonathan and Valentine portrayed Clary as she should be. Not an expert warrior, on par with the Lightwoods, but as a tenacious fighter that will stick her enemies with the pointy end of her sword. Repeatedly.
At eighteen years old, Clary is not the leader that will change the world. Shadowhunters stripped her of that burden, incompatible with the outsider that she is. Instead, the show gave Clary a different role in the story. She is the part of an ensemble cast, each of them trying to be happy in a brutal world.
To Clary, specifically, that means a lot of different things. Sheltered by her over-protective mother, Clary never learned how to think of the future. She lives in the present, to its fullest. This is why Clary always chooses to bring back the people she loves, as we see with Simon, Jocelyn, and Jace. Clary’s emotions are what drives her. Whatever is hurting more gets her attention. Still, Clary has her heart in the right place. She knows the different between right and wrong, and who to blame for the bad in the world.
While her intentions are often noble, Clary’s execution is usually short-sighted. She is impulsive and reckless. Clary is the wild card that might just shatter the reality of the Shadow World. But she is not the head of the revolution; Clary is the spirit.