No self-respecting franchise can go without its female leads. Gone are the days of background love interests or the human-shaped prizes for the protagonist to win. However, the other side of the spectrum is not good either. Between Mary Sues and Action Girl, the entertainment industry fails to provide well-done representation to the bigger portion of its audience.
However, more and more, those tendencies are finding a balance. Nuanced female characters pop up on TV, film, and video games every day. With Shadowhunters, it could not be different. Well-written women of all ages and skin colors populate the show. There is one character, however, that immediately comes to mind when one thinks of a Shadowhunter girl.
Isabelle “Izzy” Lightwood is one of the best Shadowhunters of her generation. Cunning, knowledgeable, and skillful, Izzy is a rounded character in her own right. Played by the gorgeous Latina actress Emeraude Toubia, it would be easy to dismiss the character as a Strong Female Character™ of color. In fact, even the show buys into that once in awhile.
Still, Izzy’s journey has deviated from that route a long time ago. The show has invested in giving her layers, sometimes even inadvertently. After a controversial storyline, Izzy’s inner strength was finally put to test. It hasn’t ended yet but it has certainly shaped the character for the better. But first things first.
The shadow of a character
When the first season premiered, Izzy checked all the boxes of the shallow Strong Female Character trope checklist. Beautiful and unafraid of exerting her sexuality, she was also a kickass fighter. The only girl in the trio, Izzy could entrance literal demons with her moves. And that wasn’t all! She was also the best forensic pathologist of the New York Institute. Brain, brawns, and beauty.
Underneath it all, though, Izzy felt very much like a supporting character to everyone else. Her quick friendship with Clary was refreshing and her scenes with her brothers were nice to watch but there was something missing. Izzy herself hinted at a boredom that only went away once the events of the show started. She was great and Toubia seemed to be having the time of her life in her action scenes. But there wasn’t much more than that to explore.
Until, that is, Izzy got her own conflicts to face. The first was her complicated relationship with her parents. Although Izzy got along well with Robert, the same is not true about her and Maryse. Mother and daughter could not be more different. Izzy was aloof to the point of irresponsibility while Maryse only cared about orders and efficiency.
Their views on the world were also radically different. While Izzy frequented the Downworld, even finding a lover in the Seelie Meliorn, Maryse could not despise the Downworlders more. This, and the way Izzy chose to dress herself, were the biggest points of tension between the Lightwood women.
That conflict drove Izzy to change. When she couldn’t shield Alec from entering an arranged-marriage because of her reputation, Izzy decided to change. To “grow up” as she put it. She ditched her old clothes and began to dress more like Maryse. No more distracting for her on missions and a lot more reports afterward.
All of that was supposed to indicate a change. Unfortunately, the only payoff was Robert’s double take on his daughter’s attire and Alec unsurprisingly failing to flirt with a woman. Izzy never confronted Maryse or showed off any “improvement.” As the season progressed, the arc was shoved back to make room for bigger plot-points.
That is not to say Izzy didn’t get any other great moments. During that sham of a trial, Izzy questioned the foundation of her society. A single line encapsulated her idealism. “What kind of people sacrifice justice for law?” Izzy asked Alec, revealing the frustration of someone who just realized how messed up her people’s values are.
It is a pity that this re-examination hasn’t been further explored. Shadowhunters excels in portraying the tension between the races of its world, especially in its second season. There are blatant racists, benevolent allies, and even reformed discriminators. Izzy, though, would be a prime pivot for a different take on the issue.
She is a self-proclaimed ally to the Downworlders and Izzy has proved to fight for their rights. Still, many of her most exultant scenes are embedded with racism. Izzy’s sassy “good doggy” comment as she dominates a werewolf is not as great as the soundtrack implies. Neither is her (and Alec’s) excitement at invading the Hotel DuMort to mass murder vampires as a diversion.
But Shadowhunters decided to go down another route with Izzy instead. She wasn’t done being screwed over by the Clave. Only, this time, instead of an old white woman, the abuse took form in a young black man. And drugs.
A Risky Gamble
The very least that could be said is that Shadowhunters took a risk with the Yin Fen plotline. Story-wise, the risk definitely paid off. The biggest problem was the contradiction between Izzy’s position as a forensic pathologist and her complete lack of knowledge about the substance. Apart from that plot hole, though, it worked once the show stopped framing Izzy and Raphael’s involvement as healthy.
That said, this storyline is charged with a number of unfortunate racial allegories. At the end of the day, it was about a black man manipulating a Latina woman into a drug addiction. It got even worse when the Latina woman then dragged another Latino character into the mix. This tired trope was criticized by fans and rightfully so.
Still, there is no changing what has happened. Especially when the storyline helped to further the entire plot of the show one way or the other. Izzy’s descent into addiction wasn’t only important to her character, but it also brought about others such as Raphael and Jonathan. Because of it, the engines of the story kept spinning.
More importantly, this storyline was entirely Izzy’s. Toubia showed off her acting chops as everything commendable about Izzy turned a shade darker. Every time someone caught her seeking the drug, Izzy was able to divert the attention or come up with a credible excuse. She was able to extract the source of the drug from Magnus while simultaneously convincing him not to worry.
Izzy’s descent into darkness also showed off in her relationships. As she grew easily irritable, Izzy harshly pushed away Clary when she found out Clary was hiding things from her. She also lashed out at Alec when he tried to help, though in this case, Alec’s violent actions deserved their share of reprimand. Through it all, though, Izzy was able to retain some of her best qualities. She never sold out Clary to Aldertree, despite her anger. When Alec was in danger, Izzy came to his rescue as weakened as she was.
However, among all the relationships affected, hers and Raphael’s had it the worst. Driven by her addiction, Izzy manipulated him into biting her again and again. Their relationship went from enemies to toxically co-dependant in a matter of days. As both the vampire venom and the Shadowhunter blood made them high, Izzy and Raphael believed they were in love.
Thankfully, this hallucinatory involvement ended before it got one of them killed. Raphael was able to recover first, fueled by his duty as the leader of the vampire clan. Izzy, however, was only hitting her lowest point.
From down here, the only way is up
As messy as the first part of the storyline was, it also created room for an interesting development. As Izzy went through detox, she ended up having a relapse. That gave Jonathan Morgenstern the opportunity he needed to act. He gained Izzy’s trust by helping her and, with it, an open door into the Institute.
At this point in the narrative, Izzy’s character has gone through hell and gone back. She is no longer an invincible force who is just there to kicks ass while looking flawless. Izzy has become an intriguing character whose flaws led her to a terrible path. Jonathan was able to prey on her weaknesses and it almost cost Max’s life.
In that sense, Jonathan posed as the antagonist to Izzy’s plotline. Every time Jonathan helped her, he was ensuring Izzy would trust him blindly. It was all an act, despite the fact that his intervention helped her.
In that regard, the show makes a discreet parallel between Jonathan and Simon. They both helped with recovering, tutored Max alongside her, and witnessed a romantic relationship in the making. However, while Jonathan did it to get a way inside the institute or to isolate Izzy, Simon did it because he cared for her. Even as Simon started dating Maia, the bond between Izzy and him grew stronger than the amused curiosity it was before. That was genuine; a stark contrast from everything that happened between the other duo.
That Izzy was an essential part of Jonathan’s demise was no accident. In that moment, her character arc was complete. She wasn’t just killing Jonathan; she was expurgating the reminiscences of her fall.
That moment was just as important to Izzy’s development as her talk with Maryse. Finally, their conflict had its outcome. Maryse’s redemption arc and Izzy’s humanizing arc met and the two worked out their differences. It was an important moment for Izzy, as her actions showed the growth no change of clothes could prove. Izzy knew about Robert’s cheating and she chose to support Maryse despite having all the reasons to side with her beloved father.
Once again, Izzy’s kindness had the spotlight. It always shines when it comes to her family but Maryse was a special case. The narrative punished Izzy for using Yin Fen by keeping her out of the Citadel. Here, she gets a reward in the shape of a loving scene. Shadowhunters treats Izzy as a true character and not just a prop anymore.
All and all, Izzy has grown a lot. The show handles her best when it remembers that. The walking and talking Strong Female Character™ became a well-written character instead. Izzy is the best Shadowhunter of the New York Institute but she is much more than that.
What is in store for her, though, we have yet to see. There are rumors of a new position in the Institute and the possible encounter of a love interest. It could be Simon; there’s more than enough groundwork done for it. Or maybe Raphael, as things between them were left unresolved. Funny enough, it could be a mundane as Izzy has found a new appreciation for them after frequenting the supporting groups.
Regardless of that, Izzy’s love life will just be one of the many aspects of her. Her friendship with Clary has grown stronger than ever, with both of them calling each other “sister.” Does that mean Izzy will tell Clary about her struggles? Will Clary tell Izzy about the secrets she’s keeping to herself again?
Whatever happens, the Izzy that will face it is a different one. More mature, she carries herself with the confidence of those who’ve built themselves over again. Izzy can fall but she will rise back, even taller than before.
And then, her enemies better start running.