So, Malec. This relationship means many things to many people, but Sara Ryan’s essay unpacks more than just Magnus and Alec; it also examines other characters in and outside of the Mortal Instruments, ways we can see ourselves reflected.
This is a subject near and dear to my heart—I strive to let my g*y characters be human, be themselves, rather than a token minority that must behave perfectly. (I strive for this for all of my characters, for that matter.) No character should have to hop to and be an “example.” Each has a right to his or her own missteps and personal journeys.
Additionally: Sara’s analysis of Magnus’ outfits in relation to geography and history is not to be missed!
The Importance of Being Malec
Windows, Mirrors, and
Cassandra Clare’s Queer
With the right slant of light, every window becomes a mirror.
If you hang around with people whose idea of fun includes analyzing literature (and if you don’t, I commend you for reading this book anyway), you’ll eventually run into the concept of mirrors versus windows. A mirror book, as you might guess, is a book where the characters have significant things in common with the reader. For instance, a white, straight, midwestern girl reading a book about white, straight, midwestern girls would be having a mirror-type reading experience. A window book provides insight into characters and places that are less familiar to the reader. For that same white, straight, midwestern girl, a book about a g*y Latino boy in New York City whose dream is to become a makeup artist would be a window read. Both kinds of books are important. If you do nothing but look in a mirror when you read, your sense of the world won’t be very expansive. But if you’re constantly looking through windows at characters whose lives in no way resemble yours, it can make you feel alone.
If you’re a queer or questioning reader, it’s way easier to find windows than mirrors. If you’re looking for young adult books with LGBT characters, good luck: According to an analysis by YA author Malinda Lo, only .2 percent of YA books published between 2000 and 2011 featured LGBT characters. Not 2 percent; point 2 percent.
So what do you do when you can’t find mirrors? One option is to try to create that slant of light Mitali Perkins mentions, the one that changes a window into a mirror. But how? Mary Borsellino, author of Girl and Boy Wonders, explains in an interview with aca-fan Professor Henry Jenkins:
As a queer person, or a woman, or someone of a marginalized socioeconomic background, or a non-Caucasian person, it’s often necessary to perform a negotiated reading on a text before there’s any way to identify with any character within it. Rather than being able to identify an obvious and overt avatar within the text, a viewer in such a position has to use cues and clues to find an equivalent through metaphor a lot of the time.
That negotiation can take various forms, depending on what the author gives you to work with. If you’re lucky, you have what you get in Cassandra Clare’s books: both cues and clues in metaphor and obvious avatars with whom to identify. Or to put it into the terms I’ve been using, you get both windows and mirrors.
Cues and Clues: The Right Slant of Light
The first time characters discuss coming out in the Mortal Instruments, it has nothing to do with revealing samegender attraction. In City of Ashes, Luke Garroway, aka Lucian Greymark, benevolent werewolf and father figure to Clary Fray, has gotten hold of a pamphlet, How to Come Out to Your Parents. He thinks it may help Simon Lewis explain his new situation to his mom. “The pamphlet’s all about telling your parents difficult truths about yourself they may not want to face.”
When Clary presents the pamphlet to Simon, he “practices”: Mom. I have something to tell you. I’m undead. Now, I know you may have some preconceived notions about the undead. I know you may not be comfortable with the idea of me being undead. But I’m here to tell you that the undead are just like you and me…Well, okay. Possibly more like me than you.
Whether you’re reading to find connections to queerness or not, the scene helps to get across that Simon really has fundamentally changed. And even though the changes include greater strength, keener senses, and heightened charisma (along with less appealing new challenges like the gnawing need for blood, preferably human), the fact remains: It would be really hard to tell your mom that you were a vampire. Talking points might help.
And if you are looking for that link—if you’re reading that section and you’ve come out, or you’re thinking about coming out—it’s not hard to connect your experience to Simon’s, to identify with him in a way that maybe you didn’t before. Or maybe you did identify with him before, but it was because he was in a band, or because he liked anime, or D&D, or because he, like you, loved Clary. By using the analogy of coming out for Simon’s situation, Clare makes it possible for you to start seeing a version of yourself in the book.
But if you’re queer and reading about Simon, you’re still performing the kind of negotiated reading that Borsellino describes. You’re thinking about the ways Simon being a vampire is like being queer—and arguably there are some, but it’s not like there’s an exact equivalency. For the queer reader, Simon is still more of a window than a mirror.
You can find another cue and clue in Aline Penhallow, who, it turns out, kissed Jace only because she wanted “to figure out if any guy is my type.” It’s not that much of a stretch to deduce that if guys aren’t, perhaps ladies are. (And indeed, we find out in City of Lost Souls that they are. Or at least one lady, Helen Blackthorn, is.)
But by the time Simon becomes a vampire and has to “come out” and by the time we meet Aline, you don’t actually need to negotiate to find queer avatars, because Clare has given you Alec Lightwood, serious-minded, teenage Shadowhunter, and Magnus Bane, style-conscious, centuries-old High Warlock of Brooklyn.
You meet Alec Lightwood in the very first chapter of City of Bones. But all you find out about him then is that he, along with Jace and Isabelle, is hunting a demon and that Clary can see them all but Simon can’t. As the narrative progresses, you see Alec through Clary’s eyes, and what she notices, most notably in his interaction with Jace, leads her to ask Isabelle if Alec is gay. The way Isabelle reacts is telling. She’s rattled enough to mar the eyeliner she’s putting on Clary, and while she confirms Clary’s guess, she also makes her promise not to tell anyone. And it’s a nice bit of foreshadowing by Clare, since Clary asks it as she and Isabelle are getting ready to go to the party given by the man who eventually will become Alec’s boyfriend.
Magnus Bane appears first in City of Bones simply as a mysterious phrase that Clary learns while she’s in the Silent City, a phrase that’s linked to the block on her memories. Then, shortly thereafter, his name—or half of it, anyway— appears on an invitation from “Magnus the Magnificent Warlock” that Isabelle mysteriously obtains. Then, finally, he shows up in person, but his warlock qualities are not immediately on display; he’s simply the glamorous host of a loft party in Brooklyn. Clare’s first description of Magnus merits quoting in full:
The man blocking the doorway was as tall and thin as a rail, his hair a crown of dense black spikes. Clary guessed from the curve of his sleepy eyes and the gold tone of his evenly tanned skin that he was part Asian. He wore jeans and a black shirt covered with dozens of metal buckles. His eyes were crusted with a raccoon mask of charcoal glitter, his lips painted a dark shade of blue. He raked a ringladen hand through his spiked hair and regarded them thoughtfully.
It’s clear from this description that Magnus enjoys flamboyant self-presentation—spiky hair, exuberant use of makeup, jewelry, and a shirt that references both straitjackets and SM-style bondage. And this is a prolonged description, a whole paragraph, which tells you that the way Magnus dresses is likely to be particularly significant to who he is as a character. Specifically, Magnus’ fashion choices strongly suggest that he’s not straight and also that he’s comfortable and secure in that aspect of his identity. As Shaun Cole writes in Don We Now Our Gay Apparel: Gay Men’s Dress in the Twentieth Century, “Many g*y novels or novels dealing with a g*y subject have utilised descriptions of dress to form a picture of the physical appearance and also the personality of g*y characters…clothing, along with adornment and demeanour, has been a primary method of identification for and of g*y men.”
Not all Magnus’ romantic liaisons over the centuries have been with men—indeed, in City of Lost Souls, he describes himself as “a freewheeling bisexual”—but his self-presentation and affect in the Mortal Instruments is most often a sort of glam-camp style that places him in a g*y tradition that dates back at least to the supremely suave Victorian-era writer Oscar Wilde (whose many elegant epigrams include “If I am occasionally a little over-dressed, I make up for it by being always immensely over-educated”). As scholar Shawna Lipton writes on the blog Ironing Board Collective, “Making yourself stand out rather than concealing selfperceived flaws…[is] part of a queer aesthetic. From the time of Oscar Wilde, g*y style has been associated with artifice and self-creation (Wilde wore a dyed green carnation to symbolize his preference for man-made beauty).” So if standout fashion choices are part of how you claim a queer identity, Magnus can be a particularly inspiring mirror.
But maybe you can’t quite pull off identifying with Magnus, who in addition to his taste for glitter, sequins, and vast quantities of hair products has the swagger and easy sophistication that comes from his eight centuries of living. Maybe when you look in the mirror, you see someone more like Alec—still living under your parents’ authority and their expectations about how you should live your life, knowing you’re not who they want you to be, and unsure what to do. Maybe, in fact, you’ve even got a crush on someone you’re pretty confident isn’t ever going to reciprocate those feelings, like the one Alec has on Jace.
In City of Glass, frustrated with Alec for using his crush as a reason to avoid Magnus, Jace says to him: “I know how you think you feel about me. You don’t, though. You just like me because I’m safe. There’s no risk. And then you never have to try to have a real relationship, because you can use me as an excuse.” Then Jace challenges Alec to kiss him, and Alec’s response is to stare at him in horror. “If you’re blowing off Magnus,” says Jace, “it’s not because of me. It’s because you’re too scared to tell anyone who you really love.”
The scene in City of Glass where Alec finally encounters Magnus again is very popular with fans. Magnus is ably fighting off Iblis demons but is imperiled. While Magnus is occupied with the demons that are within his line of sight, Alec kills the demon that’s about to attack him from behind.
“Did you just—did you just save my life? ” Magnus asks. Alec’s response is decidedly irrelevant to their immediate circumstances: “You never called me back. I called you so many times and you never called me back.”
It’s a wonderfully vulnerable moment, one that fits with Alec’s age and inexperience with relationships. But he’s not the only one who’s vulnerable. Magnus tells him, after calling him an idiot: “I’m tired of you only wanting me around when you need something. I’m tired of watching you be in love with someone else—someone, incidentally, who will never love you back. Not the way I do.”
Even with his eight centuries of experience, Magnus can’t see what’s obvious to Jace: Alec is in love with him— Magnus, not Jace.
Now that they’ve both revealed themselves, the reader might anticipate that it’s time for at least a kiss. But no, instead there are more demons—damn those supernatural threats and their interference with an epic romance! Alec does, however, make a vow: “We live through this, and I promise I’ll introduce you to my entire family.”
Google “Alec Magnus ‘You never called’” and you get over 80,000 results. As I said: It’s a popular scene. I suspect one reason why is because of the way it connects with queer readers’ own relationship experiences. Queer readers’ relationship struggles might include fewer instances of demon fighting, at least in the literal sense. But the idea of having to get through a tough situation before making a public declaration of a queer relationship is, unfortunately, one that still resonates.
(N.B.: Alec’s raw vulnerability in that scene is also present earlier in his and Magnus’ relationship. But if you’ve only encountered them within the pages of the Mortal Instruments, you’d have no way of knowing. There’s a scene that includes their first kiss, but Clare didn’t write it for the books. It exists solely as bonus content on her website, written as a reward for fans when she reached 30,000 Twitter followers. And it’s definitely rewarding: fanservice in the best sense of the word. Alec asks Magnus if he likes him likes him. Magnus responds, “Are we twelve now?” Somewhat later, there is kissing. If you’re a fan and you haven’t read the scene, go read it—Google “Kissed: Magnus and Alec’s First Kiss”—and come back. I’ll wait.)
Malec Is My OTP: Fan Engagement
Google further mentions of the couple—use “Alec + Magnus” or simply the affectionate fan designation “Malec”— and you’ll see tens of thousands of results. Ditto for “Malec OTP.” OTP, a term of art from fandom, stands for “one true pairing,” meaning that Magnus and Alec are many fans’ favorite couple from the series. Start browsing those results, and you’ll see readers responding in multiple ways to Alec and Magnus: highlighting significant quotes suitable for framing and/or using as a desktop background, creating fanfiction, fan art, fan videos and songs, and cosplaying.