By Paula Werdnik
Anyone who has watched Winx Club, as a kid knows that it was all about fairies, glitter and girl power – a group of friends from different backgrounds, aka. magical dimensions, coming together at the illustrious school of Alfea to fight evil. The remake on Netflix, however, offers a different, and much darker, version…
Winx Club was an animated show about a group of fairies learning magic at the school of Alfea. Think Harry Potter but then an animation, a lot more colourful and doused in glitter. However the recent Netflix remake is much darker, with several issues ranging from whitewashing, tokenism and a severe lack of sparkles.
This January 2021, Netflix released a remake of Winx Club called Fate: The Winx Saga and there are notable differences. It is a live-action TV show featuring Bloom (Abigail Cowen) and a group of her fairy friends who attend the illustrious magic school of Alfea. Bloom is a feisty American redhead and one of the few fairies that comes from the human world rather than the magical ‘Otherworld’. She grapples with her new powers and tries to find her path in the magical realm. The characters train to be fairies and to fight alongside the specialists, who train using weapons and physical combat. All this of course while dealing with first love, figuring out a sense of identity and trying to belong. Yet, the show had many changes from the original. The show is a lot darker, featuring an evil past headmistress Rosalind and something called ‘the Burned Ones’, zombie-like creatures burned by dragon flame. The remake is more dystopian, set in a magical world that is losing its power and being overshadowed by its dark past. Alfea was re-envisioned as a boarding school that also serves as a military base. There is a threat of war and domination by Solarian Queen Luna and ex-headmistress Rosalind. This falls in theme with many of Netflix’s new shows such as Riverdale or The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. It is a bit concerning that shows add an element of gruesome dystopia and overly sexualised teenage characters in order to ‘relate’ to teenagers and young adults.
There is a lot to unpack for such a seemingly simple show. There were several issues with casting. Many fans, including myself, were disappointed to see that they did not stick to the original characters. First, there is the issue of whitewashing. Whitewashing is the altering of something ‘in a way that favours, features or caters to white people.’ (Merriam-Webster) In the remake, Musa who is originally meant to be of Asian descent, and Flora, who is originally depicted as a Latina character, are portrayed by white actresses. Characters such as Techna were not included. Techna, with her spiky short hair and love for technology, allowed representation for viewers who did not have stereotypically ‘girly’ interests. The character of Flora is missing, replaced by Terra – who is cool in her own right but quite different.
Despite the whitewashing, or perhaps because of it, the show seems to have taken up token representation. Token representation, or tokenism, can be defined as “the practice of making only a symbolic effort” (Merriam-Webster) which the remake does by including one main black character and one plus sized character. Yet even then this is problematic. Terra, the plant-loving Earth fairy, is arguably the worst dressed and the most socially anxious. Stella picks on her consistently, Musa can tell she’s around because her psychic abilities are clouded with ‘social anxiety’ and she is bullied in an online Instagram video. The good news is Terra does speak out against this in episode 1 when Riven tries to pick on her by saying “people always pick on the bigger girl because we’re sweet… and we should be happy you’re even talking to us…but sometimes we are not sweet and most of all we are not harmless”. She proves herself to be someone who cares a lot about justice and capable of defending herself and her values. This is also shown in episode 4 when she confronts Dane about making fun of her in said Instagram video. Yet, the amount of screen time and detail allotted to her character is significantly less than that of Bloom, Stella, and Sky for example. Terra’s character seems to lack depth and to expand beyond her role as the “bigger girl” in a meaningful way. I would love to see Terra step into her full power and be portrayed with greater confidence and a fashion sense that suits and uplifts her character.
The fashion in general was disappointing. Where were all the crop tops, cute colours and knee socks? In the original cartoon the Winx had very distinctive styles that matched their personalities. The fashion of the show was rather basic – a lot of skinny jeans and leather jackets. This contrasts the original show’s bright and exaggerated fashion style that made it so fun to watch! It also didn’t really seem like the sort of things that teenage girls would wear, as it wasn’t very up to date with current trends. For example, Stella, who originally is meant to be a trendsetter, dresses like an upper class middle-aged woman and wears a lot of business casual fits. Perhaps this is intentional as she might be emulating the style of her overbearing mother and preparing to be the next Solarian queen. However the fashion seemed to lack a bit of fun and colour that made the original show great.
Then there’s the issue of Aisha, who arguably falls into the ‘black best friend trope’. She is Bloom’s roommate and her opposite, Bloom’s element being fire and Aisha’s being water. Similarly, Bloom is emotional and reckless while Aisha is rational and grounded. This is also shown through the colour coding of their clothes in that Bloom wears a lot of red tones and Aisha wears blue tones. Caroline Framke wrote a Variety magazine article in which she explains that Bloom can be defined as a “Mary Sue” trope; meaning she embodies the perfect character around which everything seems to revolve. She certainly has a sense of moral superiority that acts as a shallow cover up for her self-centeredness. Aisha seems to be constantly pulling Bloom from the edge and stopping her from making mistakes. Similar patterns can also be seen in TheVampire Diaries with the relationship of Bonnie Bennett and Elena Gilbert or The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina with Sabrina and Rosalind. These characters remain underdeveloped and they seem to serve as the protectors and advice-givers of the white main character, their actions directly linked to those of the protagonist. Aisha volunteers to gather intel for Bloom and constantly tries to reason with her. Despite the peer pressure of the other girls, Aisha also alerts the school of their foolish actions. Yet, Aisha is criticized and excluded rather than rewarded for her hard work and sticking true to her moral compass. In one scene in episode 3 Aisha admits she is exhausted and asks Bloom to “please just stop” with her drama and chaos but ends up comforting Bloom after she bursts into tears. At another point, she mentions “I am tired of pulling you from the edge, Bloom. If you want to jump, jump.” Yet, ultimately, she ends up helping to protect Bloom from the Burned Ones and playing the protector and advice-giver role till the end of the season. This is all too common in Western cinema in which black characters are portrayed supporting the white protagonist rather than the focus being on their own goals and merits.
Additionally, the show is sprinkled with terms like “mansplaining” or “co-dependency”, yet, while these issues are hinted at it felt more like Netflix was trying to gain brownie points by using ‘woke’ vocabulary. I felt they could have developed these themes and explained them to a greater extent. The feminist tone was somewhat lacking. While the girls do grow closer towards the end they exhibited quite a lot of catty and competitive behaviour towards one another. Stella, for example, is utterly dependent on Sky and it is alluded to that she literally blinded her best friend Rickey out of spite and jealousy. She acts as a bully, especially to Terra, and isn’t much better than Riven – who is one of the teen ‘villains’. She does admit to her mistakes later on in her breakup with Sky and softens up to the girls. Here’s to hoping that the next season will push Stella to question her own internalized shame and self-defensiveness rather than being in competition with Bloom for Sky’s attention. Competitiveness between female characters, especially over a guy, is exhausting.
To add a positive note I was glad to see the remake breaking past gender binaries with fairies being girls and specialists being guys, it was refreshing to see a mix of people as both fairies and specialists! And while Terra’s role is somewhat problematic in the show it was a step in the right direction as the original Winx Club only showcased one body type – the girls all had unrealistically small waists, long legs and slim body types.
The Winx Club remake had some good goals in mind however it fell short in representing the show with depth and complexity. Netflix overdoes the dystopian and sultry take on childhood classics and, despite the alluring aesthetic, fails to achieve an interesting storyline. There were a lot of good topics brought to light that deserve greater attention which will hopefully be addressed in the next season. I also hope characters that got pushed to the side, such as Terra or Aisha, will get more complex story lines rather than existing on the sidelines of Bloom, Stella and Sky. And the whole show could use a makeover and a bucketful of glitter.