Netflix’s "Fate: The Winx Saga” Whitewashes Original and Loses Its Impact
In this op-ed, writer Bashirat Oladele examines Netflix’s “Fate: The Winx Saga” and how it measures up to the impact of the original cartoon.
Many of us grew up watching Winx Club, an animated series about a group of stylishly-dressed, racially-diverse fairies who save the world. New Netflix live-action adaptation Fate: The Winx Saga, however, not only whitewashes pivotal characters from the original series, but it also loses the cutesy magic of the original cartoon fantasy.
Created in 2004 by Italian animator Iginio Straffi, Winx Club was ahead of its time. The fantasy genre was anything but diverse in the mid-2000s, but Winx Club changed that by showing young girls from various backgrounds, each with her own multi-dimensional portrayal. With that legacy in mind, the first trailer for the remake came as a disappointment for many fans, who wanted to see better style in addition to accurate representation.
After watching Fate:The Winx Saga, out on Netflix January 22, the disappointment only continued. It was rather odd seeing one of my favorite childhood shows take a dark and mature turn, while simultaneously erasing original characters. It reminded me of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and how drastically different it was to the original, Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Like CAOS, it’s clearly a new show for a new audience. Fate: The Winx Saga succeeds in moving away from too much heavy teen angst, a common pitfall for reimagined live action adaptations, and instead focuses on the actual magic, mysteries, and the Otherworld. However, that writing choice just makes the blatant erasure of characters of color even more apparent. If only production companies understood how important shows like Winx Club were in pioneering diversity across ethnic backgrounds, especially in traditionally underrepresented genres.
Growing up in the early 2000s, there was little to no representation of Black people and other people of color in fantasy cartoons, and in the fantasy genre at large. It was very common to depict white characters in fantasy stories, centering white heroes while characters of color were ignored. Instead, our representation was based in unnuanced Disney-fied tales of transformation, often featuring characters who spent the majority of their screen time as animals or other creatures. We see that even in beloved works: in Princess and the Frog, where Tiana is a frog for the majority of the film; in The Emperor’s New Groove, where Emperor Kuzco was portrayed as a llama; and in American Dragon, where Jake Long becomes the titular creature.
And so we end up with characters of color who are either hardly given the opportunity to exist or who are literally dehumanized. We saw it again in the movie Soul — main character Joe is a jazz musician and band teacher, yet when he travels to another dimension, he is transformed into some blob-like being. (Not to mention, Tina Fey overtakes his human body.) Fantasy continues to be a space where progress toward nuanced, creative representation is still slow.
Winx Club was the exception to that rule. One of the most culturally diverse cartoons of our time, the original series consisted of Bloom, Tecna, Aisha, Musa, Flora, and Stella, who attended Alfea College for Fairies, a magical boarding school. Both Bloom and Stella are portrayed as white fairies in the cartoon, whereas our fairies of color were Flora (generally inferred to be Latinx), Aisha (who is Black) and Musa (who is thought to be Chinese). The Netflix series doesn’t quite match up to these depictions.
Musa, originally depicted as the fairy of music, is played by Elisha Applebaum, who is white-passing (some sources say she’s part Singaporean). The original character was reportedly inspired by Lucy Liu, so the role should have gone to a Chinese-American actress. Not doing so contributes to the homogenization of East Asian people, who are too often portrayed as a monolith. Seeing this sort of casting change makes me wonder whether Hollywood truly cares about representation. Despite the fictional nature of Winx Club, a lot of the inspiration was derived from real countries and real people. That carelessness transfers to the way Musa’s story is told in the Netflix adaptation.
Rather than Musa being the music fairy, her character in the adaptation is changed to be a “mind fairy” who feels people’s emotions. In addition to those character choices, throughout the series she is always trying to protect Terra’s feelings, while simultaneously developing a relationship with Sam (Terra’s brother). Her storyline focuses largely on others, whether it’s Terra, Sam, or Bloom. Though this could be attributed to her change in powers as an empath, the decision still feels odd because we never really know much about Musa’s personal story.
The Netflix version further erases its original characters of color in the case of Flora, the fairy of nature. In a 2011 interview with Italian magazine IO Donna, Iginio Straffi noted that Flora was inspired by Jennifer Lopez. Depicted as Latinx in the cartoon series, the original Flora has tan skin, long light brown hair with blonde streaks, and green eyes. While character condensing is not uncommon in adaptations, Flora’s is pretty egregious — she’s been renamed Terra and is played by Eliot Salt, a white woman. Despite Eliot’s superb acting, I can’t help but be critical of the erasure.
Fate: The Winx Saga doesn’t totally miss the mark, but the ways it does succeed in homage to the original just make the other mistakes feel glaring. Whenever Black characters appear on Netflix, they are notoriously almost always light-skinned or biracial women. This time, however, we see Crown Princess Aisha, the fairy of waves, accurately portrayed by Precious Mustapha, a British-Nigerian actor. Seeing Precious embody Aisha’s character was extra powerful because she does have darker skin — it was a relief to see that the Black character wasn’t changed, and it was a joy while watching, a testament to the importance of casting choices. But even Aisha is not exempt from tokenization as the only Black lead character; we saw how, sometimes, she catered to and protected Bloom throughout the series. While it was fun to watch Aisha learn more about her powers and grow in her friendship with Musa, there were many opportunities to see her character develop even further.
Rather than embracing the fun and feminine theme portrayed in the original cartoon, Netflix opted for a more dark and edgy vibe, fitting with the trend of reimagined comic and animated series. But the timely aesthetic doesn’t match the show’s dated portrayals of race and inaccurate casting choices. The whitewashing of Flora and Musa is a problem that can’t be ignored, even with the focus on the magic and mysteries throughout the show. It feels like a step backward. Rather than just watching Netflix’s version, I’ll be rewatching the original series and celebrating all the magic the show added to my life — it’s what the original Winx fairies would have wanted.