A PhD project exploring intersectionality through fan podcasts

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Month: February 2020 Page 1 of 2

Episode 3 Just Let Me Hug a Tree in the Woods: Wicca, Paganism, and Religion in Fantasy Media

Episode Resources: 

For this episode we looked at the following texts:

Blog post – Harry Potter: “Making Evil Look Innocent”

The Guardian article – JK Rowling confirms that there were Jewish wizards at Hogwarts

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina episode – Chapter Seventeen: The Missionaries

Fan podcast – Woke Doctor Who “Faith in the Whoniverse”

Fan podcast – Witch, Please “Special Bonus Episode: Secret Feminist Agenda 1.7”

Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text “Halloween Edition: On Witches and Brett Kavanaugh”

Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper “Cultural Traditions of Magic – with Zen Cho”

Paper on Tolkien spirituality – “Honouring the Valar, Finding the Elf Within: The Curious History of Tolkien Spirituality and the Religious Affordance of Tolkien’s Literary Mythology”

Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds “Faith in Fantasy” 

Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text “Special Edition: Owl Post and Broderick Greer”

Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text “Special Edition: Owl Post and Rabbi Scott Perlo (Again!)”

Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text “Owl Post and Other Journeys with Professor Stephanie Paulsell”

Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text “Owl Post Edition: Reclaiming Tradition with Professor Matt Potts”

Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text “Owl Post Edition: How to Be in Community with Burns Stanfield”

Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text “Faith: The House-Elf Liberation Front”


Episode Transcript: 

This is a clean transcript of the episode. If you would prefer the original, unedited version, please let me know!

Photograph of Anna Milon

[Intro music]

Welcome to Marginally Fannish, a show where we aim an intersectional lens at some of our favourite media and their fandoms.

[Intro music]

My name is Parinita Shetty and you’re listening to the third episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I chat with Anna Milon about the representations of Wicca, paganism, and religion in media. We discuss how Christianity forms the framework of most Western fantasy. As a practising pagan and scholar, Anna outlines how the word witch means different things to different people. We chat about faith as both a religious and a political identity. Anna shares her frustration about the inaccurate representations of Wicca in mainstream media and culture which further marginalises the religion. I learn more about Wicca’s attempts to make the religion more inclusive for diverse groups of people.

We also talk about the different kinds of faith in fantasy and faith inspired by fantasy. We discuss how popular culture stories are replacing religious stories and how this influences the ways in which people make sense of the world. We draw parallels between religion and fandom and discuss the importance of inclusivity and intersectionality in both. We’re excited about how canon – both religious and fannish – is increasingly being interpreted in ways which highlight previously marginalised voices. We love that people are making canon which was written dozens or even thousands of years ago (depending on which canon you’re talking about) more relevant to contemporary social, cultural, and political contexts. Finally, we discuss how fandom offers the space to question the dominant religious framework as well as read a text through multiple spiritual lenses.

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Anna Milon is a Russian-born London-bred doctoral researcher who has a tentative hope never to leave academia.  She has edited two Tolkien collections – Tolkien the Pagan? Reading Middle-earth through a Spiritual Lens and Poetry and Song in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Her written works have appeared in Beyond Realities 2015Gender Identity and Sexuality in Current Fantasy and Science Fiction, and most recently, A Shadow Within: Evil in Fantasy and Science Fiction, all of which have been published by Luna Press. She juggles all this writing, editing, and researching with the not-at-all-unlikely hobby of Medieval Swordsmanship. She will be presenting a paper on were-foxes called “Sexy Fox: Female Sexualisation in Modern Retellings of the East Asian Were-fox Tale” at the upcoming GIFCon i.e. Glasgow International Fantasy Conversations which will take place on the 28th and 29th of May this year at the University of Glasgow. I’ll be there too presenting my paper on intersectionality and fan podcasts, so if you’re nearby, come say hi!

Parinita: Hello! Today with me, I have Anna and we’re going to be talking about religion and faith in fandom and in media and in the real world. So Anna, would you like to introduce yourself and tell us about your experiences with religion?

Anna: So I am a second year PhD at the University of Exeter, studying very broadly speaking paganism and pagan representation in fantasy. And I started my application letter with, “As a witch!”

Parinita: [laughs]

Anna: So I am an eclectic solitary pagan and what that means is I do not have a coven or a group that I regularly work with. I mostly work alone. And rather than being a follower of a specific pagan movement like Wicca or Druidry, I pick and mix. And I’m inspired by a lot of different spiritual movements and a lot of different settings and ways of practicing. So yeah, that’s me.

Parinita: Wow, I didn’t know about this background and I find it really fascinating and I’m so excited to know more about it. Because I knew we were going to be talking about paganism and Wicca but like all religious people, you’d have different experiences as well within paganism, within eclectic paganism, within Wicca. There’s no monolithic experience, right, so I’m really excited to hear about yours. Well, as for me, I’m not really a religious person at all. I went to a Catholic school in India, in Mumbai, and I grew up in a Hindu household. So I’ve been at close quarters with a lot of religion but I don’t really know details about it except what I know through the people in my life and through media and through just conversations, I guess. I’m curious about religion but not because I think I want to find religion for myself, but because I find it really interesting how people engage with religion and how it helps them. And their view of the world through a religious lens. So yeah that’s –

Anna: Yeah.

Parinita: That’s my experience or lack of experience with religion, I guess.

Anna: And I guess fantasy and fandom is an excellent space to do that. Because it allows for a lot of speculation and for a lot of expression of both the religion of the author or the content creator, but also of reading the work through a specific religious lens by the reader or the consumer.

Parinita: Yeah, absolutely. And I think growing up in India, there are so many different religions that personally I’ve been acquainted with. And I grew up reading a lot of British literature and some American literature. And I never thought of looking at it in a religious lens, really. Not until – like I know Narnia is now the sort of urtext of Christian parables and allegory. And I only discovered that a few years ago. So when I first read Narnia, I didn’t realise it was supposed to stand for anything. Even though I did grow up in a Catholic school, so I knew the tales and I knew the narratives. But that connection never made itself clear to me, I guess.

Anna: Me too, me too. I remember reading Narnia when I was about eight maybe and just completely missing all of the religious analogies. Even though I come from a non-religious household, but my mother was very invested in a classical education for me. So I did know a lot of the Bible stories, as kind of points of references rather than from a religious perspective. And even so I didn’t notice C. S. Lewis employing them. And the same really with all fandom texts that I’ve encountered. For instance, I wasn’t really aware of Tolkien’s Christianity until I became a teenager, an older teenager. I think I first heard of J. K. Rowling referring to herself as Christian in a documentary and I think it was the twentieth anniversary of Harry Potter documentary, so it’s quite recent.

Parinita: So I discovered fandom as a teenager and the first fan space that I discovered was this website called Mugglenet which was this Harry Potter dedicated resource. And I was so excited that there were other people who loved Harry Potter as much as me. And this was before all the books had been out. So I was still a teenager and I think only the four books had been out by then. Four or five. And I remember that there was an interview with J. K. Rowling. And the interviewer wanted to know what religion she followed because I think there were a lot of controversies, as one of the texts that we read outlined, about her books promoting Satanism and Wicca. And so I suppose that’s why the interviewer was curious. And she said that I don’t want to reveal my religion because if I do, then the plot of the final book will be really evident to readers – to really astute readers. It’ll be really clear to them what’s going to happen. Which I thought was very curious because it led to so many theories. You know when you don’t have the canon there, there were so many theories. And everyone had all these sorts of interpretations from all sorts of lenses, including atheism. Now that I’m more familiar with Christian theology and stories and narratives, I know that Harry stood for, like Aslan, stood for Jesus. Yeah so her Christianity was only evident to me through her conversations and not through the text itself. Since I did mention the controversies with Wicca and paganism and Satanism that Harry Potter had, how would you, in your life or your scholarship or whatever, how would you define Wicca? And witches? And paganism?

Anna: The term witch is incredibly loaded. Which makes it very rewarding and also frustrating to study. Where you have people who in the late medieval and early modern period prosecuted as witches for being allied with the devil, for being evil. Then witches as a female, feminist identity that’s reclaiming an independent, self-sufficient and powerful and intelligent woman. You have witches who are Wiccans. Who are followers of one of the first neo-pagan religions promoted by Gerald Gardner in the 1950s. And you’ve got witches who are spiritual individuals but who do not necessarily align themselves with Wicca strictly.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Anna: And I find that in Harry Potter, being a witch or a wizard very much doesn’t fit into any of those terms.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Anna: Because you don’t get any sense of pagan leanings within the books at all. In fact, one of J. K. Rowling’s tweets about religious diversity in Hogwarts explicitly mentions how the only religion she didn’t envisage as being part of the Hogwarts student body was Wicca. Which puzzled me at the time. But equally you don’t get a sense that these people who go to Hogwarts are heirs of the persecuted community of historical witches.

Screenshot of J. K. Rowling's tweets about religious diversity in Hogwarts. Text says: To everyone asking whether their religion/belief/non-belief system is represented at Hogwarts: the only people I never imagined there are Wiccans.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Anna: Neither do you get the sense that they have particular leanings towards activism or towards social movements.

Parinita: Or even a sense of community really. Because even within the witches and wizards in Hogwarts, there are so many different social, cultural, all these sorts of hierarchies. Not only within the humans but also you know like house elves, giants and … so even in terms of having a community of like-minded followers or adherents to a particular belief, that doesn’t really seem to be there.

Anna: Yeah so I was very surprised to see that Rowling’s books sparked this controversy around promoting Wicca as a bad thing, promoting Satanism as a bad thing. Because there’s really nothing there, apart from the word witch or wizard and apart from the idea of magic which is condemned by some fundamentalist Christian groups. And in terms of the internal religion of Hogwarts, that’s very, very Christian. They celebrate Christmas, they’ve got very Christian ethics. So not just the external religion in the context of which Rowling writes is Christianity, but also the wizards themselves can be conceived to be Christian.

Parinita: Yeah absolutely. And again, this is something that as someone who’s not familiar with these conversations and these contexts, it comes as such a surprise to me because when I was a kid and even later as a teenager, I knew that in the US, there were these groups that wanted to burn Harry Potter and were banning Harry Potter just because it promoted Wicca. Because of the word witch in it. And all the articles in India were really bemused because it was so alien to us. Of course we have book bannings as well but they’re for not the same reasons. And we would never think of banning Harry Potter for promoting Wicca. And then on your recommendation, I did watch “The Missionaries” episode of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina just this afternoon actually. And how starkly Christianity was shown in opposition to Wicca there – again, that connection between the two was so evident to me only then. Because I’d heard about witch burning and stuff, of course, in the US and I think in the UK and Europe? I’m not sure. But I had heard about it through media, entirely through media. And for me, it had a much more gendered connotation than a religious one. Even though I knew that it was … well I suppose I vaguely knew that it was Christians burning witches as heretics. But because of the media that I consumed, to me it felt like it was because powerful women who live in this society that oppressed women. Which is why people were afraid of witches. Not because of their religious leanings but because of their gender and what they could do to someone who’d been oppressing them all their lives essentially. So yeah just in terms of Christianity versus Wicca, it was really interesting just because it’s something that I’d never thought of. Like in terms of where I’ve grown up.

Anna: Yeah I think there are sort of two things happening here. First of all there’s definitely this uneasy relationship between Christianity today and Wicca today based on the persecution of witches in the past who were not Wiccan because Wicca  didn’t exist. But –

Parinita: Yes.

Anna: Who are seen as ancestors of modern pagans. And then there is the reclamation of the term witch by second-wave feminists to mean this intelligent woman who’s being oppressed. And there is an interesting movement with the use of the acronym WITCH which expands to Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell.

Parinita: [laughs]

Anna: Created in the late 1960s and for them, their motto is, “You are a witch by being female, untamed, angry, joyous and immoral. Immortal, sorry.” So it has very little to do with paganism and a lot to do with female agency.

Parinita: Hmm.

Anna: And I guess there’s this perception that both things – both paganism and female independence sit uneasily with traditional Christianity.

Parinita: So is Wicca a Western faith tradition then, would you say? Since I watched that episode, that’s really fresh in my mind. I was really interested in how it stands in contrast to other religions. Not just Christianity but other Western and Eastern religions. Because I don’t know, in India we have our own what would I guess be considered pagan. Again, I don’t know a lot of details about religion and I haven’t researched enough. But I suppose from a Western lens, it would be considered pagan or, like you were saying yesterday, indigenous. So you know things that probably, in Christianity, would be considered really not acceptable. So is Wicca then just Western based?

Anna: Yes. I absolutely would agree that Wicca is Western. Ronald Hutton says that Wicca is the only religion that England gave the world.

Parinita: [laughs]

Anna: Which I think is pretty accurate. Yes, it has grown and developed beyond England but the crux sort of seems to be in the UK. And at the moment, there seems to be a sort of divide between eclectic pagans who very much create new traditions and reimagine the past, and who tend to be Western or Anglo-centric or Euro-centric. And sort of revivalists who are people who are getting back in touch with their native or indigenous faith. They tend to be from colonised countries and cultures that are rediscovering a native faith that has been repressed by either Christian missionaries or by a colonising force. So they are in conversation with one another but they are sort of two poles of a spectrum.

Parinita: So then for a group of Wiccans, or for a group of pagans, would it be then like a political identity as well as a religious one? One of the texts that we looked at this time was the Woke Doctor Who episode of “Faith in the Whoniverse”. And one of the hosts, who’s a black American woman, spoke about how she didn’t recognise herself in Christianity. But she still had faith and she converted, I guess, or found the Orisha tradition from Africa which she really identified with politically as well as religiously because they were nature-based deities who looked like her. And so it was a very actively activist decision on her part.

Anna: I feel that yes, a lot of choices that pagans make are political as well as religious. It seems to be getting more prominent especially in relation to environmental activism and intersectionality. People see paganism as a more viable spirituality for a modern society.

Parinita: Hmm.

Anna: And as a more accepting spirituality. And indeed it is a lot more malleable than, for instance, Christianity which has just been around for a long period of time and has fossilized somewhat.

Parinita: Right. So we listened to two podcast episodes that dealt with Wicca, very personal interpretations of Wicca. Which was the Witch, Please episode as well as the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text episode. And that was my first introduction to proper Wicca, I suppose, just proper perspectives from people who were either familiar with it or who were non-practicing Wiccans. And I was unsure whether there was an intersectional analysis in Wicca. Because I know that in one of the episodes, in the Witch, Please one, they did say that the whole focus on menstruation – they didn’t want to make it transphobic, which is why they were trying not to have the focus so much on that. But then as somebody else said, it’s such a personal engagement with the faith that everyone has different engagements with it. So you know there’s no one catchall religion, I guess.

Anna: There is absolutely no one catchall religion. And in a way that’s a good thing because at the moment, since sort of the 90s, there are a lot of conversations around how a lot of the pagan traditions are very gender essentialist because of this view of nature and nature’s fertility as being very much binary with a union of the male and the female principle. And with the main worship deities being the god and the goddess. Which are not just socially masculine and feminine but are also very physically male and female. And as you mentioned, the focus on the female reproductive cycle or the stages of the female life – the triple goddess is represented as the maiden, the mother, and the crone. So where does that put women who are unable to have children or who have chosen not to? Luckily enough, certain Wiccan groups and communities and certain other pagan communities are finding ways to work around that by working with different deities or by viewing the male and female aspects as inherent in every individual.

Parinita: Hmm.

Anna: And it is the balance of the two or the intersection of the two that creates a harmonious person. As opposed to you representing one or the other.

Parinita: Ah. So another thing that I was thinking of just in terms of intersectionality … I know one of the people on the podcast, I think it was on the Witch, Please podcast, said that in terms of their belief and their perspective of Wicca, there is no fundamentally bad way to be a woman. And I understand that in terms of like they were, I think, talking about frivolousness versus femininity and like all ways of being a woman are acceptable. But then if I analysed it a bit further, it almost seemed to suggest that just by virtue of being a woman, you are … I mean you can’t be a bad woman I suppose. And I was thinking there are hierarchies even within women, right? Like just in terms of class and disability and which part of the world that you come from, what race you are, what … I suppose trans and non-binary folk as well. But like you said the gender essentialism is being countered. But even within the environmentalism movement, just because a lot of the Wiccan and pagan like not a lot – but a group of them do seem to be really actively trying to protect the environment as well. And with the environment movement as well, Extinction Rebellion was something that I was really fascinated with when it first started coming up and I was reading up about them and I was researching them and joined the group and everything. And I started getting this uncomfortable feeling. And then there were more articles about it and critiques about it later that it was very exclusionary to – not actively, they weren’t meaning to be – but they weren’t very inclusive to people who were not middle class, not white, not privileged in some way.

Anna: That’s ooof – there’s a lot to unpack there. Thank you for asking the challenging question. I think with what you said about is there a right and a wrong way of being a woman. I think we can bring that back to fandom and whether there’s a right and a wrong way for being a fan.

Parinita: Yeah that’s a very good point.

Anna: Yeah. We see the core idea be it feminism or being a fan or environmentalism as the defining trait of the people within the community.

Parinita: Hmm.

Anna: Often overlooking other areas of their beliefs, of their attitudes that might not be as positive or as palatable. And I also feel that we as a society really don’t take kindly to people’s complexity. That you can’t be all good. There will always be, unfortunately, a side of your life where you’re not as educated, not as aware and not as considerate as you perhaps could have been. But that need not condemn you entirely. And especially I feel with Extinction Rebellion, I also am very much interested in their work. But to give an example, their push for civil disobedience and their push for arrests, a lot of people can’t afford to be arrested, especially –

Parinita: Exactly.

Anna: Ethnic minorities, especially if they’re from less privileged backgrounds. However, this can be slightly flipped on its head by saying well only people who are considered privileged in this society are going to take that risk.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Anna: And those are the voices that we are putting up there and making them heard. The importance here I feel is to give a different platform and a different way of activism to people who are unable to get arrested or uncomfortable doing it.

Parinita: No, I absolutely agree. I think that the conversation is what’s more important than just – first of all the awareness that this is a problem. But I think that awareness is there now and it’s … with everything like with fandom as well. There was a huge conversation in fandom about the race blindness of fandom and the racism within some parts of fandom as well. Which again, people may not, like you were saying, they may not be educated enough or they don’t know enough. For me, it’s an ongoing process of learning and unlearning social conditioning in different aspects of my identity. And also unlearning the colonised brain that I have thanks to growing up in India and consuming largely Western media. But yeah for sure, I think the conversations are important. And do you think these conversations are happening on the Wiccan side as well? Or on the pagan side as well?

Anna: I think they are but there can always be more that’s done.

Parinita: Yeah.

Anna: And I wish that these conversations had a slightly more far-reaching platform. Because a lot of the times from what I’ve encountered, they happen at conventions and at meetings. But so many pagans don’t have a community and so much interaction happens online.

Parinita: Hmm.

Anna: And I feel that it’s online in spaces that slip under the radar –

Parinita: Yeah.

Anna: That you can have a lot of these problematic discourses still circulating.

Parinita: Hmm.

Anna: And I feel that it’s the same with fandom.

Parinita: Absolutely.

Anna: With things like Comic Con, everyone is lovely for the most part and people try to be considerate and people try to raise awareness. And then you go to a Reddit thread and –

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Anna: It’s a lot of weird creatures.

Parinita: But also I suppose you do have – at least I have the tendency of creating my bubble, like safe space within everywhere that I go online. Because I know that even on places like The Guardian’s Facebook articles, if I go read the comments, I’ll just spiral into this “Why am I doing this to myself?!” Because you would think even with a space like that, it would be fairly okay, but nope! Nope! It’s not okay; you shouldn’t go there unless you want to, I don’t know, fight with random strangers. But fandom is the same. And I guess with religion and faith and Wicca, it would be the same. That you don’t actively seek out negativity, I guess. Or antagonism. And the conversations would be more fruitful if there was, like you were saying, a larger platform for the community.

Anna: It’s difficult to know when your safe space becomes an echo chamber.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Anna: And where that boundary lies. A couple of years back, I pitched a topic for the Tolkien Society Seminar in Leeds. And my topic was Tolkien the Pagan? Question mark. Reading Middle-earth through a spiritual lens. And I was trying to promote a conversation about non-Christian interpretations of Tolkien’s work. Because the Christian view is so prevalent that there seems to be no space for much else and I was trying to create that space. And the Call for Papers was accepted and I was warned whether I was prepared for the consequences

Parinita: [laughs]

Anna: And I sort of laughed it off at the time.

Parinita: Oh dear.

Anna: And within the first couple of days, on Facebook, that post had over two hundred comments. Most of them very aggressively denouncing the choice of topic saying that Tolkien’s texts are Christian only. That if you are a non-Christian reader, you can’t possibly understand what he is getting at and what Middle-earth is all about.

Parinita: Wow.

Anna: Which, to me, was quite jarring. And I was quite taken aback at the vehemence with which these people defended or claimed the texts for a specific group of people. But, on the other hand, if I didn’t encounter that, I wouldn’t have known that such a large percentage of people who consider themselves fans have this sort of reaction.

Parinita: No, absolutely. And it’s just I suppose this perceived assault against – not only in fandom, in religion as well – like when you are the dominant group but there’ll be one lone voice, like in your case your Call for Papers, that offers another interpretation of either the religion or just another religion or a fan theory or whatever. And how this creates this really uncomfortable feeling, I guess, among the dominant group. And it leads to so many different kinds of violence and oppression. In your case, it wasn’t physical violence and it wasn’t oppression I guess; but it was trying to silence any dissent or any interpretation that doesn’t match your own. And it was something that like with Harry Potter and the whole fundamentalist Christian furore against it, it’s the fact that in the US, Christianity forms the structure of a lot of their country and media and culture. And in India, it would be Hinduism. But just like in the US, in other parts of the world, and in India currently, the majority religion is feeling this threat by religions that are so much smaller in their countries. But the way that they’re responding to it is really – that’s what I find really scary. And it’s really dangerous. And in your case luckily there’s been no – I mean you know the two hundred comments I hope were –

Anna: No, I got off lightly.

Parinita: Yeah. Not to diminish the feelings that you must have had. But I’m reading this book about the alt-right culture online and I have a very nice, optimistic view of the internet because that’s been my experience so far. Again, my safe space is very much constructed and deliberate. So I have a really nice experience online. But I know that a lot of women online don’t. And in your case, I wonder if it was … I suppose with the CFP, they wouldn’t know who put out the CFP – the Call for Papers.

Anna: Yeah, luckily they didn’t.

Parinita: Yeah. Because –

Anna: They mostly pinned it on the Society which was that one step removed and that was helpful.

Parinita: Yeah but that’s another thing – it’s not just oppression of one, if you’re a woman, it’s so much worse for everything.

Anna: Yeah. And in fandom, especially, you can see how arbitrary these distinctions and these prejudices sometimes are. Because sometimes people will defend the canon until the cows come home. And sometimes people will defend their own idea of what the show is supposed to be like against the actual showrunners and the cast. And I’m thinking here about the announcement of Jodie Whitaker as the … Thirteenth Doctor? [asks hesitantly]

Parinita: Uh huh yeah. [laughs]

Anna: Got the numbers right.

Parinita: [laughs]

Anna: And the backlash that she got. Whereas that’s canon. That is a showrunner decision. Therefore, surely all of us canon-loving people should make peace with that as a natural progression of the show. But unfortunately it seems that people are very, very fixed in what they want to be the truth.

Parinita: But also fixed in a very certain way that only privileges their group of people, I guess. So speaking of, just because something that you’d mentioned earlier, the religious diversity in Hogwarts where one of the things that we read was The Guardian article about J. K. Rowling’s tweets about the “very evident”, according to her, religious diversity in Hogwarts. But as she mentioned and as others have mentioned since, Anthony Goldstein, I think, is the only Jewish character. And it’s like his presence doesn’t really – it’s the exception that proves the rule, right? Christianity, as you said, is the framework of Hogwarts too. And Anthony Goldstein’s Jewishness has nothing – there’s no mention of it in the text. It’s like Dumbledore being gay, there’s no mention of that in the text itself. So I feel like there were so many – I suppose not missed opportunities … but there was a lot of room for exploration in terms of the religious diversity in Hogwarts. Which I think fandom could be doing but it’s not something that is evident in the series at all.

Anna: Yeah. Perhaps it’s a bit too late for the series because I feel that the majority of backlash against J. K. Rowling was because she refused to acknowledge that the texts were done and the texts were fallible. But when she wrote them, diversity – whether it be sexual, ethnic or religious diversity – wasn’t really on the forefront of everyone’s minds as it is now. And that’s all right in a way. She could not have written different books being who she was and who she is now.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Anna: But adaptations of the Harry Potter series can be different, can be diverse. And that’s very much the conversation currently happening against the upcoming Lord of the Rings on Prime adaptation where the announced cast is very racially diverse. And the question is how the showrunners are going to deal with that and interpret that. And how will it differ from what we suppose Tolkien’s own vision of Middle-earth was. Which presumably, based on the time when he was writing, was white and straight. To come back to your question about the lack of exploration of religious diversity in fandom, I’m quite surprised by how little people engage with that as far as I’ve seen. I haven’t really seen a lot of fanfiction or fan art that provides meaningful interpretations of characters as religious. Maybe because of this stigma in some young social groups in some corners of fandom, of religions – any kind of religion – being very oppressive and very anti-fantasy.

Parinita: Hmm.

Anna: Um so yeah.

Parinita: Which actually that reminds me. I had I think come across a Tumblr post about how Muslim students would celebrate Ramzan in Hogwarts. In terms of when they celebrate Eid, the fasting, and how they’d have to talk to the house elves and you know have arrangements for –

Anna: I’ve seen that. It’s a good post.

Screenshot of Tumblr post by bertiebottsbigbean. Text says: why don't we talk about muslim kids in hogwarts during ramadan? imagine waking up at 3 every morning and walking down for suhoor, to find the house elves have prepared a feast for them. imagine the kids having an extended curfew, so they can go and eat iftar at 10, where the house elves once again provide a ten course meal, topped with dates and traditional delicacies from around the world. imagine the kids being allowed to go into the kitchens in the middle of the night if they were still in the mood to eat. imagine the kids being allowed to leave class to do their prayers, and sending lunch times to read the quran. we need to talk more about muslim kids in hogwarts.

Parinita: Yeah, yeah. So you’re right, it’s very limited. But I think in fandom, there is an opportunity – and I haven’t gone looking for religiously diverse texts really. But I just think that the diversity, especially in a text like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings or Doctor Who which has such a global appeal, which has fans from so many different parts of the world and cultures and religions and everything, there is so much more room for exploring diverse aspects. And even in Doctor Who, in the Woke Doctor Who episode, they mentioned that ever since Jodie’s run, there have been more episodes that have focused on different faiths. And they wonder whether it is not only because there’s a diverse cast now, but there’s also more diverse creators in the writing room. And that’s what leads to more diversity. Like the other text that we looked at the interview with the Malaysian British writer Zen Cho, and how she was saying that – which is true and it’s something that I hadn’t really until someone pointed it out, I hadn’t realised it – that a lot of Western fantasy is very Christian and it’s the sort of fantasy that is global now. We all have our brains shaped by Western fantasy traditions. So like Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter. And everything else is othered and everything else is exoticised or even denigrated depending on who’s doing the writing. And the fact that there are now more diverse voices – because diversity is so interesting, right? Not just for people from marginalised religions who see their practices there and feel this sense of recognition but also for people from dominant religions who have always been seeing the same kind of texts. And now they have an opportunity to read something different and to learn something different, I guess.

Anna: Yeah. I absolutely agree with you there. And I think that the othering of the non-Judeo-Christian framework is doing more harm than the texts themselves that are written within a dominant Christian context. Because that episode that you’re referring to, it’s Breaking the Glass Slipper non-Western magic episode. And the crux of the discussion there is that the texts even when written through a Christian lens, when written well enough, do offer other ways of interpreting them. Do offer other spiritual reference points that don’t necessarily require an explicit mention of, oh that character is Muslim or creation of an internal magic or spiritual system that actively references a non-Western religion. But we are not used to reading them that way.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Anna: And I think that fandom spaces are a good place to introduce the habit of reading texts through multiple spiritual lenses.

Parinita: No, absolutely. Currently in fandom, a lot of conversation about diversity seems to be focused on race. So currently for me, it’s me unlearning seeing white as normative and trying to see … make my brain more diverse, I guess. Trying to accept more diversity within the characters that I read. But you’re so right in terms of religion as well. Now if I go back to a lot of the media that I watch as well, Christianity is so much the framework. And it’s something that I just took for granted really. I didn’t stop to consider because, like you’re saying, I don’t know how to read it through a different spiritual tradition even though I come from a different religious – not personally religious but culturally, I come from such a different tradition. Another one of the episodes that we were listening to, the Imaginary Worlds episode about “Faith in Fantasy”, featured different religious leaders. So there was a Rabbi, there was a Minister and there was an Alwaez – a Muslim leader. And they talked about how they read similar science fiction and fantasy texts, the really popular ones, based on their own faith traditions. So they read it through a Muslim lens or a Jewish lens or a Christian lens and I found that fascinating. Because I’ve never read anything through a Hindu lens, not really. And is that something you find that you do? Your Call for Papers was about Tolkien and paganism so you did actively look or try to look for paganism in Tolkien. Is that something you find that you have to do or something that comes really easily to you?

Anna: I try to. I think I fail more than I’m comfortable admitting. Because a lot of very Christian concepts that I have internalised, I don’t necessarily recognise as Christian. For instance, I have a very strong sense of sin and virtue as these two opposing forces. And human characters in fantasy are necessarily sinful and the sort of benevolent elves, supernatural creatures, magician characters are necessarily virtuous. Which again, is a very, very Christian divide. But through hard work and self-abasement, you can achieve a modicum of virtue and atone for your sin. And that needs to be challenged as much as the more overt links to Christianity. When trying to read things explicitly through a pagan lens, I often get frustrated because I find a lot of the references that are thought to be pagan are to this witchcraft-light social movement that has very little to do with spirituality and has a fairly little understanding of what being Wiccan or being pagan actually entails. For instance, the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina are an endless fount of frustration for me.

Parinita: [laughs]

Anna: Because they’re not witches! They’re Satanists!

Parinita: That’s what I –! I mean when I was watching this episode – I’ve had this show on my radar for quite awhile and this episode was quite an episode to begin with, to introduce yourself to, [laughs] because it was very much Christianity versus Satanism. Because they’re following Lucifer, I believe. I don’t know … they called him the Dark Lord. But yeah they’re following Lucifer, and they consider god – the Christian god – to be the false god? Like it’s a very binary opposition. So yeah.

Anna: First of all, I don’t see anything wrong with Satanism. It’s its own thing with interesting ideas.

Parinita: Yeah.

Anna: But I feel that by calling a religion that is so explicitly against Christianity witchcraft, as they do in the show, they’re promoting some quite entrenched and quite erroneous ideas about what witchcraft, Wicca, paganism actually is. I know people who identify as both pagan and Christian, specifically Roman Catholic. And there seems to be a way to enmesh those two religions. Plus [sighs] really I don’t think I’ve ever met a pagan who was actively dismissive of Christianity as a fake or false religion. Sure as a social structure, it has its own problems but so do all religious and spiritual movements. And also the attributes that the Church of Night in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina uses are often very misogynistic, often very aggressive. No, we do not actually eat children.

Parinita: [laughs]

Anna: No, there are no blood sacrifices. Just let me hug a tree in the woods somewhere.

Parinita: [laughs]

Anna: And I understand that it makes for a nice, visually compelling show. But unfortunately it is a very inaccurate representation of paganism as a group of faiths.

Parinita: Again, that’s something I would not have thought of until you just said it. Because it is like not taking Wicca or Wiccans or witches seriously as their own faith and as their own religion. Because like you’re saying, it makes for a good show and it makes for a good story-line. But you would not have Muslims, for example, or Hindus or you know any other non-Western religion or even a Western one. Like Jewish people. You wouldn’t have them the way that Wiccans are presented on the TV show. So it’s almost like you’re using another religion just as set dressing, as just this sort of fun cultural anomaly. For the people who are writing and for the mainstream who’s watching, it’s just fantasy. And it’s not a real religion that a lot of people follow.

Anna: Yes. And it’s interesting where that divide lies between scare quotes “real religions” and “made-up religions”.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Anna: Because fantasy is quite rich in both. And paganism seems to be somewhere in the middle where in Harry Potter you use the language of witchcraft without any kind of spiritual underpinning. They perform spells, they make potions, but there’s no sense that it’s an act of worship or an act of spiritual transaction. And in shows like Supernatural, you have a Christian framework with angels and demons and god is somewhere out there. But I feel it’s a lot less willing to cross certain boundaries. Like you wouldn’t have … Dean and … Sam and Dean, there we go!

Parinita: [laughs]

Anna: Sam and Dean walk up to heaven and sort of have a chat with god over a beer.

Parinita: Hmm.

Anna: Because it’s not that kind of show. There are some boundaries there that prevent them from doing that. Whereas I feel that with paganism, because it isn’t counted as a real religion in many cases, there are no boundaries like that. There’s nothing protecting the sacred aspects of paganism.

Parinita: Hmm. And when you said made-up religion, it made me think – I always have this vague … not daydream, I guess, but vague thought. If we have the apocalypse, we have a lot of reasons for that like the climate, religion, I don’t know so many different things. And far into the future, if there are descendants of humans or whoever or aliens or whatever, they find our – whatever texts that they do, and whatever media, paraphernalia whatever – and what will they think that our beliefs and our religions and our worldview was based on what they find? Because currently popular culture seems to have such a grip on a lot of people. In fact in the Imaginary Worlds episode that we listened to, the Rabbi, she did say that popular culture stories almost seem to have replaced religion for a lot of people in terms of the stories that we tell each other. And a lot of mainstream religions that we see today like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, they’re thousands of years old. And they were at some point made up. Like someone did make the texts that we see now. And two thousand years from now, we don’t know what religions are going to survive, what is going to replace the religions that are so mainstream now. Like that fascinating paper that you sent me about Tolkien spirituality which – I’d never heard of it. But when I was reading the paper, there are so many parallels with religion that already exists now in terms of … they have a canon, they have the book that they read, they have a lot of metaphors, they have a lot of faith that they place on some elements and some aspects of the books. And like you were saying, there are some people who believe that their reading of the books is the only correct reading. And everyone who doesn’t follow the religion is not understanding the books correctly. Right?

Anna: Yeah, absolutely. And you’ve got things like people being inspired by Tolkien. Especially The Silmarillion and the creation of Middle-earth and the Valar to have their own religious groups. And things like Jedis and people seeing philosophies portrayed in Star Wars as religions. I think that even without these explicit examples of adapting fantasy into faith, we already believe in fantasy much more than we think we do. Firstly because fantasy leads us to faith. If you think about Doctor Who and how much faith his companions – his or her companions place in the Doctor. If you think about the trope of the Chosen One, who is infallible, and we as readers place our faith in that character. Because we know the formula. We know that in the end, they are going to overcome whatever difficulties are thrown their way. Is that enough to supplant more conventional religions? I don’t know. But it’s an interesting question.

Parinita: Yeah for sure. And so Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, it has a lot of engagements with spiritual leaders. So some of the episodes that we listened to, there were Reverends and Rabbis and just even scholars of religious studies. And a lot of the things they were saying, I found so many similarities between religion and fandom. Because for me as a non-religious person, a lot of the things that religious people seem to find in religion, I found in fandom. And just people who like the same things that I do. So that finding that sense of community, and you know even having rituals based around your favourite things and going on pilgrimages as well. It’s something that I never thought of as – I know religious people go on pilgrimages but then if I go to something that’s Harry Potter related or if I go to something that’s related to the movies or something that I like, a TV show, that is a pilgrimage in a way. It is me going there because I love this thing so much. Canon as well. All these debates about what counts as canon. Like in Judaism, Rabbi Scott Perlo I believe, he was talking about how there is a debate between some people what they consider to be canon. So that made me think of fandom as well. The more conservative fans and adherents who think that the original text is the only canon that’s acceptable. And there can be no deviation to it. So like what you said with Lord of the Rings and the Christian interpretation. Or with Doctor Who even with just the white, male Doctor being the only acceptable Doctor. Whereas on the other side, you have the more progressive sort of believers, I guess, who are open to canon being disrupted and expanded and just who like there being more of the thing they love. And have more to look at.

Anna: Yeah, absolutely. And fandom not only functions very much as a spiritual movement, it also inherits a lot of the language of one. You mentioned pilgrimages. A lot of fans will have shrines of their favourite book or show paraphernalia. Canon can also be interpreted as a religious term.

Parinita: Metaphors as well. Like you know in terms of metaphors for real-world social and political issues. So fandom does that with texts, like Harry Potter or Doctor Who. But also with religion, like even though these texts were written two thousand years or more ago, you’re still trying to make it relevant to today’s contexts. Or at least I think at least successful religion, that’s what they should be doing. Like I was telling you about this article that I read about this radical church in the US. And they made social justice the framework of their church. I’m going to link to that in the transcript of this episode. But they just meet together and they read things like Marx and feminist theory and also religion, like extracts from the Bible. And they all connect it together. It’s almost like getting an education, right? For me, that’s what fandom is. Just learning to look at things through different lenses that I wouldn’t have otherwise. Community, just coming together, and meeting people that you wouldn’t otherwise have met and they might not be … like you were saying the echo chamber. It’s a way for me to get out of my echo chamber a bit because we’re coming around a community because we all love this thing. But we’re coming from so many different backgrounds and so many different perspectives. And perhaps even political leanings. And it makes it more interesting, I think.


Photograph of a church pamphlet. Cover text says: Jubilee Baptist Church. Love as if a different world is possible.

Picture from the Jubilee Baptist Church referenced above. Image courtesy BuzzFeed

Anna: Absolutely. And I think it’s very valuable to have a community that is so diverse both nationally, ethnically, religiously but also in terms of education and lifestyle and professional careers. Where those things also greatly impact outlooks on the world and ways we see current knowledge. And fandom is this unifying force that allows us to explore new ways of finding information while also always being able to bring it back to that community, bring it back to that thing that’s familiar and that’s safe and that we love. Which is why it’s so important that we protect the fandom space and maintain it as accessible and as welcoming to everyone.

Parinita: Yeah, absolutely. I agree. And I think that that’s what to me currently is most exciting with fandom. So, like I said, I discovered fandom first as a thirteen-year-old with Mugglenet. And I used to read Harry Potter fanfiction and I used to write Harry Potter fanfiction. But now what really excites me is all the critical commentary and the fan works that are around it. In the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text episode with Reverend Broderick Greer, he said, “Who in our culture is imagined out of stories? And who needs to reimagine themselves back into them?” He was talking about religion but he was also talking about fandom. Because in religion as well, with Christianity, with all religions I think, Hinduism as well. They are written in a very patriarchal way and Hinduism is very upper caste. So a specific group of privileged people. With Christianity I don’t know if it was white men because it was in the Middle East but privileged people nonetheless. Or at least now they’ve gained a sense of status. And now it is mostly white men who are adherents to the religion [Editor’s note: I meant in control]. But it was written to privilege just a certain group of people but there were so many other voices that were not – like of women, of different races, classes, you know even religions. And now there is more of an effort within both religion and within fandom to highlight these marginalised voices and to actively look for these voices so that even if the canon itself has a lot of blind spots and it has a lot of missing gaps, fans and followers are now working to fix these gaps. And I love that.

Anna: Yeah. And this notion of reading certain groups of people back into stories speaks to the idea of re-enchantment of the world that’s been loosely going on since the 70s. And is this drive to see the world as more intersectional, as more holistic, acknowledging that no group of people has primacy over others. That humanity as a species does not have primacy over non-human animals, over the natural world in general. And a more magical view of the world that allows us to maintain our identity while also entertaining all of these other ways of being in the world.

Parinita: Yeah and just even with science fiction and fantasy, I completely agree with you. It allows us to imagine a different world; allows us to question, really, things, the way that they are and allows us then to imagine possibilities as well. Which I think in religion, in fandom, in fantasy, that’s a really good thing for me to take from them.

Anna: Yeah, absolutely.

Parinita: Thank you so much, Anna, for talking to me about your faith and about religion. I have learned so much from our conversation. My brain is so full of ideas and I just want to go back to Harry Potter and now read it through a religious lens and find out all the ways that – maybe I can write more fanfiction now. Maybe I can go back to my thirteen-year-old [laughs] skills and you know write fanfiction from a religious lens.

Anna: Thank you so much. It’s been an incredible pleasure. And good luck with your project!

Parinita: Thank you!

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode on representations of religion in media. You can listen to the first two episodes of Marginally Fannish wherever you find your podcasts. Thanks again Anna for being a part of this project and for expanding my brain in so many different ways. Religion is not something I think about too often and you had such a refreshing and illuminating perspective to share. And thanks as always to Jack for helping me with the editing.

You can now listen to Marginally Fannish on SpotifyAppleGoogle, or SoundCloud. I’d love to hear from you and talk to you – so any feedback, comments or critiques are very welcome! Get in touch with me on social media, leave a comment on my blog, or email me at edps@leeds.ac.uk. If you’d like to follow the podcast or the PhD project, visit my website marginallyfannish.org where you’ll find both the podcast episodes and the blog. You can also receive updates on Facebook or Instagram at Marginally Fannish or on Twitter where I’m @MarginalFannish. If you enjoyed the podcast, please share it with anyone you think will enjoy it too.

Thanks for listening! Tune in again next time for all things fannish and intersectional!

My Episode Recording to Publishing Process – February 2020

Since I’ve recorded three episodes – two with my co-hosts (one of which was a test anyway) and one (upcoming one) with a guest – I wanted to document my current recording-to-publishing process. At the end of the data generation stage, I’ll be  interested in comparing this process from an early, experimental stage of the project to how/if it develops later, when I’ve grown more used to this whole podcasting thing. Currently, the entire process outlined below takes me a week (which includes a day or two off and/or a day or two working on other things). All my participants have a week to get in touch with me in case they want to exclude any part of our conversation, or if they have changed their mind about the podcast and want to withdraw.

1) Pre-recording meeting

I meet the guests on Skype to plan our episode. First, we go over the relevant tech details for the episode. Next, we discuss the themes we’d like to cover in our conversation (we each take turns outlining what we found most interesting inspired by the texts we read). This is also a good opportunity to meet/chat with people for the first time and establish a rapport since I don’t know a lot of my co-participants.

2) Record

We meet on the scheduled day and have an informal conversation which we both record. Having audio files from both helps in editing so that the voice and volume are roughly similar. I need to do a better job with preparing an informal intro and outro for my guests. This matters less with my c0-hosts since we had an entire episode segment dedicated to introducing ourselves.

3) Type transcript for editing

I listen to the recorded conversation and type a transcript, complete with the stutters, fumbles, awkward bits, and technological glitches. I also mark the spots where I need to insert links to episode text resources.

4) Mark edits

After typing the transcript, I listen to the conversation again while going through the transcript. This time, I highlight those bits which I’d like to edit out of the final episode file. My system is currently:

i) Yellow highlight to definitely delete

ii) Green highlight to delete if possible

iii) Blue highlight to point out technological glitches and see if they can be fixed

I do this with the understanding that it may not be possible to delete or fix all the things; given the option between leaving awkward bits in or risking the conversation sound stilted, I’ll always choose the former.

5) Edit

I send my transcript with suggested edits and the audio files to Jack, my boyfriend and editor. I made the decision to recruit help with the technical aspect of editing to save time. I have more participants than I anticipated, and editing the file myself would add a stressful amount of time to the project. I also like the idea of including more collaboration as a part of the process. I still retain the hope of doing some editing myself at some point, if only to learn a new skill.

6) Transcript for blog

I create a second, clean transcript for the blog. This transcript doesn’t have the time codes (which are necessary for editing) nor does it have the filler words and stutters which may remain in the episode. This is to ensure a smooth reading experience. If, for whatever reason, people would prefer the unedited transcript, I’ve asked readers to let me know, and I’d be happy to send it to them. While creating this transcript, I also mark the spots in which any additional links or images need to be added.

7) Download images

I search for and download all the images and gifs I’m going to use in the episode transcript on the blog. I save all of these in separate, named episode folders.

8) Read transcript to make notes 

I read the transcript and make notes for potential title ideas as well as points for the episode intro and bio.

9) Write episode intro, outro

Based on the notes created above, I write an episode intro and outro.

10) Record episode intro and outro

I record the episode intro and outro on my laptop. This simply involves reading the text I’ve prepared earlier. I send these audio files to Jack to add to the beginning and end of the episode.

11) Write episode bio

Based on the notes I’ve made, I write the episode bio. This bio covers the key themes of our conversation. It goes on Anchor and SoundCloud to provide potential listeners with an idea about the episode. I also adapt the text of this bio to use on social media when I share the link to the episode.

12) Listen to the edited episode

Once Jack sends the edited episode back to me, I listen to the file and cross-check it with the clean transcript which will go on my blog. If there are any further changes I need to make to the audio file, I note down the time stamps and send it to Jack. He makes the changes, sends the file back to me, and I only cross-check the time-stamped bit.

13) Add transcript to blog

I create a new blog post and paste the transcript. This is when I insert the links and add the images.

14) Upload episode 

I upload the episode to SoundCloud (the link of which I use on my website) and Anchor (which shares the episode to Spotify, Google, and Apple among other platforms). I add the bio and a cover image for the episode alongwith some key word tags. I link to the episode on the blog transcript and hit publish.

15) Share on social media 

I share the episode post on social media. First, I share it on the Marginally Fannish Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter pages. Then, I share it on my personal Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter pages. I tag the co-hosts and guests on this post (after checking with them first).

16) Send episode to co-hosts/guests

I also send the episode post to my co-hosts and guests either via email or WhatsApp.

Some Notes on Episode 2 – Part 2 Resources

Some Notes On … is a section which features my autoethnographic fieldnotes as I document my thoughts throughout different parts of my PhD project. Here, I write about the text resources discussed in our podcast episode. 

For the second part of Episode 2 “Failure of Representation: Representations of Race in Media and Fandom”, we discussed the following texts.

Fan podcast – Episode 21 of The Gayly Prophet “Clearly, Hermione is Black: An Interview with Prerna Abbi-Scanlon and Tahirah Green” 

Recommendations from the podcast:

The Shoebox Project, a prequel starring the Marauders which is also super queer and which I now must read. 

The Mary Sue article about characters of colour in Harry Potter. 

Of the two hosts of this podcast, Lark Malakai Grey who is (presumably) white announced that he wasn’t going to be a part of the episode since he would rather it include the perspectives of people who aren’t white. Jessie, the black co-host, interviewed two fans of colour. 

There really need to be counselors offering therapy in Hogwarts! And in the magical world in general. There’s so much trauma – generational trauma too. As Jessie says, the way people seem to deal with their trauma is just lock it away in the Pensieve – super healthy coping mechanism!

Some fans seem to already imagine Hermione as black (including Taherah and Jessie). I wonder if this has anything to do with the sort of environment and conversations you grow up with. As with intersectionality, black people seem to be actively highlighting their perspectives, and working collaboratively with other black people (for example, a network of black podcasters) who offer counter-narratives and respond to the erasure and misrepresentation of their perspectives (Black Girl Nerds is an example of this – their recap of Game of Thrones, a white show which they watch through the lens of the two black characters). Is there a lack of collaboration among other marginalised non-black groups? I want there to be an Indian network! I’m just not aware of others, though they may of course exist. Black people in the US seem to be leading the way with things like intersectionality and solidarity networks. They also inspire others around the world – the Black Panthers and the Dalit Panthers. Is this a product of slavery and dehumanisation? It’s been happening for many generations.

A colonised mind means that you don’t even know what’s possible until you get out of your bubble. This may be physically but could also mean just intellectually through the internet and fandom. In my experience, both provide access to diverse perspectives and make you look at your own culture in such interesting, new ways. Technology and social media allow more marginalised fans to create and share their own media – like the fan podcasts we’re listening to. I now see how Sorting into Hogwarts houses has race, class, caste parallels in the real world. I’ve changed my mind about Sorting based on Paru’s point from our pilot episode and listening to other podcasts since then. All the houses should interact with each other more, sit together and have opportunities to befriend each other. An interesting idea I heard was that students should spend different semesters in different houses and embody the different characteristics the house celebrates and learn about the history and attitudes. How cool would it be to have people more open to learning about cultures which aren’t their own in ways which help them understand it deeply and not just superficially?

Racebending Harry as Indian offers opportunities for exploring the impact of imperialism. How did James Potter, an Indian (according to some parts of the fandom), get to the UK? Interesting possibilities to explore – why are there so many black and brown people here? What does the Commonwealth actually mean? Destroying the economy of the countries you colonised, these countries still suffer from the impact of the Empire while the former Empire is still profiting from both historical measures as well as current ones (museums and tourism). This needs not just fictional but also real-world history lessons. While reading Rule Britannia: Brexit and the End of Empire, the authors propose that students in the UK largely haven’t learned about the Empire and the effects it had and continues to have. This gives people a skewed sense of self and a feeling of superiority over others (Germany makes it a point to learn about their role in the Second World War). Even in India, we learn history in such an abstract way. We’re not taught about the ongoing damage caused by the British policy of divide and rule. 

Prerna mentions that young people often lose themselves in books and media – especially those who feel like they’re on the margins of the society they live in for whatever reason. This definitely reflects my own experience. Thanks to Rowling’s current conversations, Prerna realised that authors don’t always take care of the characters and you can think and demand differently.  The Harry Potter text is still very important to me because it got me through a difficult childhood. I’m even going to watch The Cursed Child in a couple of weeks even though I disliked the play script. But what I truly value now is the fandom conversations and community. I learn so much from these discussions and I’m so glad I discovered fan podcasts last year and get to do my project on something I love. 

I love the meme about rewriting the book titles from Hermione’s point of view. This is also something I realised in fandom – how important she is but how the emphasis is still on Harry and how the entire series is narrated from his perspective which might be much narrower than we believe. 

Parvati and Padma aren’t fleshed out at all. There is no depth to characters of colour. Two things which outraged the desi Potter fandom – the name Panju and the twins’ ugly Yule Ball dresses. Total tokenism. Much like the name Panju, there have been critiques about the name Cho Chang which apparently doesn’t quite make sense – it appears to be a mishmash of Chinese and Korean names. Relatedly, does the snobbery/scepticism about Divination privilege Euro-centric magic? It reminds me of the backlash against Rowling’s appropriation of Navajo traditions in her Pottermore article about North American magic.

Someone on the podcast wished that the Potterverse was expanded so that stories could be told from the perspectives of the characters of colour in ways which actually include their diverse ethnicities. I love this idea and want to actively look for examples of it within fandom. How would the books look like from these different perspectives? Would there be a more explicit questioning of institutional oppression since they might have experience with it? It’s not like the era before Voldemort’s (second) rise to power was great – oppression against house elves, giants, werewolves, anti-Muggle sentiments. Does this change in a post-Voldemort world?  It also reminded me of this more irreverent comic on Black Girls Create.

Prerna points out that Rowling takes credit for diversity after someone else brings it up thereby retconning diversity to make up for absences and blind spots. What would be helpful is to acknowledge these blind spots and use these critiques to begin conversations about how her thinking has grown. As Paru said, it’s the difference between Rowling and Riordan where Riordan has used his status to start an imprint to highlight diverse cultures and stories. In the episode, they counted a grand total of 7 characters of colour in the whole series + Anthony Goldstein who seems to be the lone Jewish character. Aurora Sinistra may or may not be black – she was played by a black actress in the movies but that may have been racebending. We don’t know because we know nearly NOTHING about her, except that she taught astronomy. Let’s not forget that Lavender Brown was played by a black actress in the movies until she became a prominent love interest in Half-Blood Prince and then she was recast as a white actress. 

Blaise Zabini seems to be the token black Slytherin in the white supremacy house. I suppose marginalised people can be prejudiced against others as well as against people from their own groups (coughPritiPatelcough). Even among marginalised groups, there’s a hierarchy, which is where an intersectional analysis is helpful. As there’s no explicit engagement with race in the series and Zabini has said some bigoted anti-Muggleborn things – he definitely sounds like a baby fascist even though I don’t think he becomes a Death Eater. You don’t need to become an official Nazi or neo-Nazi or Hindutva terrorist to sympathise with those causes, do you?

As Prerna says, we didn’t think about these things as teenagers but teenagers now are so much more aware of these things as we see in protests – anti-CAA and anti-NRC ones in India, gun control in the US, climate protests all over the world. Though recently, there was a controversy when Associated Press cropped out the picture of Vanessa Nakate, a Ugandan teenage activist who was there with Greta Thunberg and a few others; apart from Vanessa, everyone else was white. This deletion was rectified after a lot of criticism. AP’s justification was that the building in the background was a distraction. As Twitter would say, it’s qwhite interesting what the media decides is important.

Fan podcast – Episode 165 of Black Girl Nerds “Racebending and Whitewashing in Media”

Whitewashing is a question of privilege. Casting an actor from a dominant background in a movie or TV show to portray someone from a marginalised background – Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange (who is supposed to be an East Asian dude), Avatar: The Last Airbender (who are clearly coded as Asian characters). In Bollywood, it takes on the form of religion, caste, light-skinnedness – Ranveer Singh in Gully Boy who had his skin darkened to play someone living in Mumbai’s slums; Priyanka Chopra playing Mary Kom, a boxer from the North East of India, a culture which is otherwise also so under-represented in mainstream Indian media and culture. Would the other side of whitewashing be black face and yellow face or straight cis people playing gay, trans roles? Whitewashing and the Western focus of history and mythology where diverse stories are erased; where stories about marginalised groups are present, they are whitewashed (or Brahmin-washed, straight-washed, upper-class-washed, Hindu-washed?)

This is a different argument from non-own voices books because visual media has so much more of an impact on your imagination and perception of communities for people from both marginalised and dominant groups. In books, you have to imagine/insert yourself in roles; onscreen, you can more directly identity with the character or alternatively find it difficult to imagine yourself in their place. Diversity in popular culture helps you imagine alternative possibilities. It allows you to decolonise your mind. Alternatively, the lack of representation leads to an ever-shrinking imagination. Who tells our stories?  

Everyone has blind spots but social media has made these conversations more mainstream. As Jaime mentions in the episode, encountering conversations about popular culture representations as well as their own diverse lived experiences has helped me confront my own blind spots and biases about LGBTQIA+ groups and disabilities too. You’re allowed to make mistakes – as the episode mentions, Jake Gyllenhaal regrets his portrayal in the Prince of Persia movie. You need to be open to learning, listening to critiques and rethinking assumptions. 

You also want different races, castes, religions, genders, sexual orientations, abilities telling all kinds of stories – not just ones which explicitly deal with their identities and associated struggles and triumphs (though those are important too). More diverse stories of all kinds! The internet and fandom helps but mainstream media has the most visibility. The current mythos consists of movies, TV shows, and books – more diversity is necessary which subsequently has such an impact on people’s attitudes and opinions. We need diversity in Disney and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Sure Black Panther was an extraordinary hit but that was set in an African nation. What about normalising diversity? Everyday diversity? 

Whitewashing impacts both dominant and marginalised groups in different ways.  While there was racist backlash against the casting of a black actress as Rue in The Hunger Games (even though she’s explicitly mentioned as black in the books), there wasn’t a similar controversy with Jennifer Lawrence being cast as Katniss who’s described as someone with olive skin in the books. To quote Twitter again, the reason for this one-sided outrage is qwhite interesting. One of the co-hosts mentioned research which shows that in the future, most people will be mixed-race, something which she proposes Suzanne Collins was going for with her character’s skin/race descriptions.

One of the hosts of Black Girl Nerds calls Rowling a woke white lady with regards to the Hermione comment and casting a black actress to play her in Cursed Child. I disagree because I think it reads more as taking credit and diversity points for gay Dumbledore and black Hermione. Even such superficial nods to diversity can have surprising impacts though. I spoke to someone at a workshop in university whose child is nonbinary and they were thrilled to hear the news that Dumbledore is gay. To them, the representation felt very real and had a great impact even though it isn’t really present in canon. 

Some other racebending canon examples – 007 as a black woman in James Bond and an older black woman as the Doctor. The hosts spoke of wanting 007 to go and seduce men to contrast James Bond – but why not women?! That would add an extra layer to the character and to conversations about diversity. I, for one, love the Doctor/Yaz ship in fandom. Flip all the scripts! First, the media. And then the real world. 

Fan podcast – Episode 18 of Woke Doctor Who “Sweep Your Own Yard”

Even before watching the Rosa Parks Doctor Who episode, one of the co-hosts Toya (a black American woman), was hesitant about it because white people loved the episode and she thought the episode must not require them to challenge their own privilege.

“Difference between art which is created for black people and art which is created about black people for white people’s consumption” – Toya.

This has so many parallels within an Indian context too, the most glaring of which might be poverty porn and tragedy porn.

A previous episode on Woke Doctor Who called Screw Season 10 raged against the ending Bill got. The black companion was turned into a cyberman (like Danny, another black character). She was literally dehumanised and made terrifying to other people, so much so that CyberBill tells a terrified white woman that she can protect herself with a gun. The hosts draw connections to police shootings of black people in the US and argue that this lack of sensitivity reflects a lack of black people in the writing team; a lack of diverse creators. 

In this episode, they discuss the implications of a British show exploring American racism. In schools, British students learn about American racism but don’t explore racism within their own shores or how black people came to the UK. As Toya mentions, Yaz is Pakistani and Ryan is black. There is room to explore their contemporary experiences of racism rather than historical racism in the US. Furthermore, the episode doesn’t properly negotiate with racial dynamics and the setting and time period – Yaz and Ryan in Alabama. The two hosts critique the episode for its simplified depiction of racism and for diminishing Rosa’s role. They argue that sitting down in the segregated bus doesn’t cure racism and this fact isn’t addressed in the episode. Racism still exists. Things have changed but not enough. 

They worry about white people teaching Ryan about Rosa Parks, in a way which centres white people in a narrative about racism. They also critique the absence of black women who were the crux of the civil rights movement both then and now (Black Lives Matter, Me Too). The episode erases their agency. Even when they show a meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Rosa’s home, there are no women present. The hosts emphasise that Rosa didn’t do what she did alone; she was a part of a community of activists. Rosa herself was an activist and not a tired seamstress; it wasn’t a spur of the moment decision but was a well-planned act. The episode lacked nuance, complexity, and the people involved. Instead of black people saving themselves, white people played an instrumental role in the episode (the Doctor and Graham). Like in other social and political movements, Rosa was a representative or figurehead just like Hitler in Nazi Germany, Modi of the Hindutva movement, Trump and the Neo Nazis. The movement isn’t dependent on just one person. In social justice movements, every activist matters – not just the figureheads. The way the episode is framed makes you feel triumphant and good – though not if you’re black and American – which is who the episode was about. 

As the hosts point out, why are there white supremacists in the far future of the 71st century? Why are black people still at the bottom all that while away? It’s a failure of imagination.

Doctor Who episode “Rosa”

I re-watched this episode after listening to Woke Doctor Who‘s opinion about it. The prologue seems to show Rosa’s own journey – where she tried resisting bus segregation 12 years before the pivotal 1955 moment.

The Doctor’s flippant comment, “Don’t kill the vibe, Graham” reminded me of accusations hurled at progressive activists – feminist killjoy, anti-racist killjoy – can’t make jokes anymore etc. 

The episode makes you uncomfortable about racists in 1950s Alabama, but not all racists today are so explicit. They have changed their language and use dog whistles to reflect the attitudes of the time, but the undercurrent of racism (as well as other forms of bigotry) still exists.  

The episode does explore how dangerous it is to be black or brown in Montgomery, Alabama. Ryan gets slapped by a white man and is threatened with lynching. It’s Rosa Parks who rescues him and tells him about Emmet Till. Later, they also have to sneak into a hotel because the hotel doesn’t host people who aren’t white. In the bar, they’re kicked out because they don’t serve “negroes and Mexicans” i.e. Ryan and Yaz. As for Woke Doctor Who’s critique of Ryan’s lack of knowledge about Rosa Parks,  to me it reflects more on the educational system and the way history is taught in such an abstract way than it appearing as if Ryan isn’t smart. If anything is taught badly, or in a way which doesn’t make it easy for you, it’s difficult to retain it well into adulthood. Yaz mentions that people thought Rosa wouldn’t stand because she was tired going back home from work but she wasn’t. It’s a glancing mention of activism but it’s there. Ryan also complains that Rosa Parks didn’t stop racism – he still gets stopped by the police and Yaz gets called a Paki or a terrorist. “Never give them the excuse” is something both Ryan’s Nan and Yaz’s dad warn them about behaving so they aren’t targeted as black and brown people in the UK. The episode does somewhat explore racism in contemporary contexts. Rosa didn’t come across as a tired seamstress to me. She knew the consequences of her actions (she gets arrested, then loses her job), perhaps even better than the companions realised. As the Doctor points out at the end of the episode, it was a lifelong struggle but she kept resisting. And she did change the world and make it a better place. She may not have cured racism but small actions slowly move the world in a more progressive direction. 

I understand their critiques of the episode, but I still loved it. I think we can use texts with gaps to spark conversations with both young people and adults. One of the schools I worked in wanted to get rid of all the princess fairy tale books because they promoted stereotypes. I talked them out of it because children will encounter these stereotypes in culture anyway. Instead, it’s fruitful to use these texts as an opportunity to question, learn, and unlearn. This is especially true with a TV show episode of a popular mainstream show like Doctor Who.

Some Notes On Episode 2 – Part 1 Resources

Some Notes On … is a section which features my autoethnographic fieldnotes as I document my thoughts throughout different parts of my PhD project. Here, I write about the text resources discussed in our podcast episode. 

For the first part of Episode 2, “Failure of Imagination: Representations of Race in Media and Fandom”, we discussed the following texts

Reddit thread – “Does anyone feel as if POC are very underrepresented in certain fandoms?”

Reading this thread reminded me of Rukmini Pande’s research which shows that canonical characters of colour are often ignored in the fanfiction communities of different movies and TV shows. There have been conversations about the problematic representations of race in science fiction and fantasy. This culminated in an event called RaceFail in 2009 which encompassed many online platforms and fandoms. According to Pande, this was also the time when fans of colour began recognising each other. According to both anecdotal evidence as well as research, many fans get very defensive when the topic of race crops up. Most fans of Western media fandoms assume everyone is white and from the US (this included me until this tendency was explicitly pointed out to me). Pande proposes that the shift to platforms like Twitter and Tumblr helped fans of colour assert their diverse identities and find like-minded others.

One of the responses in this thread asked fans of colour to write their own fic to make up for the absence of POC. As if representation is only our concern and shouldn’t be something which matters to everyone! Moreover, fans from dominant cultures may argue that they don’t connect with or recognise themselves in stories which highlight marginalised characters. As if fans from marginalised groups haven’t been doing this ALL the time! There is the risk of exoticising/stereotyping characters of colour or from marginalised backgrounds by people from the dominant culture. In the West, this would be weird Indian stereotypes; in India, these would feature stereotypes about different regional and cultural differences since mainstream culture is largely dominated by urban Hindu upper class, upper caste perspectives which is such a small fraction of diverse lived experiences prevalent in India.

When one of the commenters in the thread describes her experiences of her race being ignored and feeling alienated because of that, it reminds me of my experiences in England where most of the people I know are white and nobody seems to know how hyper-aware I am of my skin colour here as I’m walking around the city. Even with Rowling implying that the series doesn’t mention Hermione’s race and then a black actress cast to play her in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, there isn’t a lot of negotiation with that aspect of her identity. Prejudice is spoken of in metaphorical terms as Muggle-borns, house elves, giants, and werewolves 

Another of the responders says, “People don’t like being called racist in fandom” which reminds me of the Brexit vote. Based on research, a lot of people voted to leave the EU because they thought it would control immigration. People in areas which have fewer immigrants were more likely to vote leave. So if you don’t know immigrants, you’re scared of/dislike them. Even then, most people (except perhaps in comment threads on news websites and Facebook) will reject the notion that immigration played a role in the vote to leave. The UK in general focuses more on class than race and doesn’t acknowledge or deal with its racism. It tends to points at the US where the racism is so much more visible. This is similar to India where so many people, especially in big cities, believe casteism is no longer an issue. I used to be one of these people in my early 20s sitting in my Mumbai bubble. Educating myself about this, mostly on the internet, has helped me move beyond this bubble and view. Dismissing another person’s experiences with racism or casteism is so easy to do when you’re the one with privilege and haven’t had it impact your life. There seems to be this perception that it’s only racist or casteist if somebody exhibits the most negative, most extreme behaviour. We live in a structurally racist/casteist society so it’s conditioned into you, and it’s something we need to actively unlearn. We can begin by actively reading and understanding marginalised perspectives and experiences which we may not have otherwise encountered. For me, the internet and fandom are great tools to do this 

“People view the mere existence of people of color as political.” – vibridropp

This reflects many contexts where a specific dominant culture is seen as the norm and every other group is measured against this one. Non-white, for example. Another responder argued that in their stories, they aren’t trying to force diversity because they’re not trying to educate readers, just entertain them. Does diversity necessarily equate to an educational lesson? Can’t diverse characters also be entertaining? Or is their presence read as inherently political?

Responses to this thread were defensive when it came to issues of representation and why it’s important. People were also being super sensitive and over-cautious about offending marginalised people through their representations (which can be solved by researching and listening to perspectives online). Or they had colourblind statements like they were more interested in focusing on the character and not their race. I think this is a patently ridiculous and extremely alienating (as in explicitly treating diversity as an alien other) argument. One of the responders argued that the lack of POC in fandom reflects lack of diversity in mainstream publishing and in canon. However, fanfic plays with canon all the time – queering characters, genderbending characters, even racebending characters. 

The thread included debates about the term “POC” or person of colour. It’s a very US-centric term because everywhere else in the world, we’re not measured against white people. Suggested alternatives to POC included diverse ethnic backgrounds or non-white. However, in response to critique for this term, a responder shared a video about the origins of the term woman of colour which outlined it as a political designation and not a biological one. Video features Loretta Ross who describes why the term came to be a form of solidarity among different groups of oppressed women. She argues that the origin has been forgotten because history isn’t documented, preserved, and taught. You can see this in protests in India, where there was this excellent video by Raghu Karnad which talks of how people in India don’t learn about the history of student protests. The BJP wants people to believe that protests are anti-national even though that’s precisely how they came to power.

Someone pointed out that in conversations about diversity, there tends to be a heavy focus on race – however, this isn’t always a bad thing. While conversations in fandom and children’s publishing and even intersectionality began with talks of racial diversity, it has now expanded to encompass other marginalised identities. At the same time, I do agree that the overall focus is on race and sometimes the other identities are overlooked. 

“Rarely ever see different religions in fanfiction. Trying to represent a Jewish family.” – Nommatic

This lack of Jewish representation in media isn’t something I ever considered before encountering a similar observation by someone on my Facebook news feed, who has excitingly agreed to talk about it in a future podcast episode.

Twitter thread – Darren Chetty writes about the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in Hogwarts

“The role of imagination in addressing racism and exclusion.” – Darren Chetty

The metaphorical racism he talks about is also seen in science fiction where aliens and robots usually take the place of other races and cultures. In colonising new planets narratives, there is a lack of engagement with diverse racial and cultural experiences among humans. If you don’t have actual diversity in future worlds (which aren’t metaphorical diversity with aliens and robots) what does that say about the society you envision? Does it have no room for everyone? As Jack says (and this is apparently backed up by research according to this episode Black Girl Nerds), everyone in the future will be light brown anyway because of all the mixed-race relationships. 

As this episode of Woke Doctor Who points out, black companions Martha and Bill travel to the past on separate occasions with the Doctor but the show doesn’t explore the impact of this. There are casual inter-racial relationships in societies where, based on the historical time period, this would definitely have been controversial. Again, this almost feels like tokenism where there is lots of representation but no exploration of what this representation means and how this came to be or what the impact of it would be. In the Rosa Parks episode, Ryan and Yaz are targetted because of the colour of their skin but the whole episode was about racism so it’s almost like the colour of your skin doesn’t matter until it does. In real life, your skin isn’t something you can make invisible. Recently, however, I was listening to a Verity episode which mentioned the casual diversity in the “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror” episode of Doctor Who, and suggested that history is much more multicultural and diverse than we’re led to believe. Now this podcast is hosted by white women while the former is by women of colour. However, I think both points are good ones in ways which challenge my views about history in different ways. 

In Harry Potter, there is token diversity as well where there is no engagement with characters who aren’t white. There are characters of colour but they are very much in the background and their different ethnic identities play no role or aren’t even addressed in canon. As Darren asks, are there any professors who aren’t white? This reflects the UK educational system which is very white-dominated. Everyone has blind spots, of course, based on where you live and who you’re encountering, but Rowling doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge or address hers. Darren calls this “a failure of imagination” a theme which cropped up a lot throughout the episode and in accounts of diversity (or lack thereof) in media. It’s also a phrase I absolutely love, and all three of us unanimously decided it should be the title of this episode. 

Chetty includes a video at the end of his thread which has a clip of all the times a character of colour speaks in the Harry Potter movies. The video runs to a grand total of 6 minutes and 18 seconds, which honestly encapsulates this argument pretty well. 

Buzzfeed article – “What A ‘Racebent’ Hermione Granger Really Represents”

I identified with Hermione even though she was white (bushy hair, bookworm, large teeth). I was so used to doing that because I grew up largely reading/watching Western media. In fact, I still do this. With the global reach of Western media, it’s not just marginalised groups in the US/UK who are impacted by lack of diverse representation – it’s people from all over the world. Alanna Bennett had to train herself out of seeing white as default for fictional characters. It’s something I still struggle with; it’s like a blind spot in my brain which needs explicit information about a character’s race before accepting the character as something other than white – it’s something I definitely need to train myself out of too. I have a colonised brain which I’m slowly learning to decolonise.

The term racebending has negative roots. M. Night Shymalan, the director of the live-action remake of Avatar: The Last Airbender, an animated TV show with heavy Asian settings and influences, cast all the actors as white except Zuko. Could this be internalised racism or a failure of imagination? 

Racebending Hermione makes the metaphorical racism in the Potterverse more explicit. Explicit engagement with racism in science fiction and fantasy is important for creating a greater impact and drawing attention to real-world parallels more directly. According to many fans, it makes sense for black Hermione to be so outraged about house elf slavery and for being a social justice activist working to end this oppression, even though it’s not a popular cause and routinely dismissed by her friends. I love this interpretation of black Hermione. However, I’ve been listening to other perspectives on fan podcasts – especially Harry Potter and the Sacred Text where this has cropped up a few times. They critique her experiences with SPEW as a very white feminist thing to do (or in India, savarna feminist) where she thinks she knows what’s best for the house elves without taking their opinions and feelings into consideration. Hermione isn’t being a good ally. 

In the BuzzFeed article, a Katrina Kaif gif was used to represent Hermione as another form of racebending. However, Katrina is a light-skinned Indian woman, and this is the dominant representation in Bollywood movies. Bollywood and mainstream Indian media has its own set of problems with race, caste, class, and regional implications evident in casting decisions. 

Excerpt from Fierce Bad Rabbits Fierce Bad Rabbits: The Tales Behind Children’s Picture Books by Clare Pollard

Who tells our stories? Earlier, diverse picture books were largely written by white authors. This may be a product of the time when such conversations around We Need Diverse Books and Own Voices weren’t mainstream. Even though they were written by dominant culture authors, they allowed marginalised young people to see themselves in the books they read. A Guardian video about inclusive children’s literature featured Guardian journalist Grace Shutti who identified with Amazing Grace, a story about a “little black girl who loved stories and wanted to do everything”. Even though this book was written by a white woman, it was the only book where the journalist felt seen. 

Now, we definitely need better representation. There was a recent backlash against American Dirt, written by a middle class woman (with part Latina heritage) who wrote about the South American refugees as well as a controversy about American bookstore Barnes and Nobles’s decision to reprint classic books which are out of copyright with covers which featured diverse protagonists – thereby inserting diversity into a text which didn’t have any. This is racebending in a slightly problematic way, a bit like J. K. Rowling pretending she intended her canon to be more diverse than it is. Definitely a bit patronising. It reeks of tokenism – just having a character of colour to tick off the necessary diversity points, like critiques levelled against The Snowy Day publishers 

In Indian children’s publishing, who gets to write what stories? There needs to be more room for diverse creators, writers, media makers in both Indian and international contexts. But can dominant voices never write about marginalised ones? Allyship involves passing the microphone and not speaking for those less privileged, but it’s such a complicated question! 

Kirkus Review article – “Writing Outside Your Identity” by Laura Simeon

This article discusses non-own voices books and the different kinds of representation within them. There need to be a multiplicity of experiences and diversity of representations – there is no monolithic experience or representation when it comes to marginalised voices. However, they often have the burden of one voice representing all others because there’s so few of them – dominant culture representations don’t have this problem. 

A problem with non-own voices writing could be problematic stereotypes, representations, exoticisation, fetishising of unfamiliar cultures – you see this in Harry Potter and Doctor Who to an extent. To make up for the fact that you don’t have lived experience in the culture you’re writing about, you need to research the culture thoroughly to familarise yourself with the contemporary and historical debates, discussions, and perspectives. The internet makes this, if not easy, then much easier than it ever has been. 

Dominant culture voices (what is dominant depends on what part of the world you’re in) are unfortunately over-represented and it’ll be a while before this system changes – non-own voices can be good allies by drawing attention to marginalised experiences and exploring them through the kinds of stories they tell. The article provides examples of two non-own voices books which are doing a good job of research and representation – so it IS possible to write in a way where cultural insiders would recognise their experiences and identities. This not only broadens the perspectives of dominant groups but also allows marginalised groups to recognise themselves in the media they consume. There is room for all kinds of stories. In an ideal world, different kinds of stories would flourish so there isn’t a dominant versus marginalised debate. But we’re not there yet. 

Episode 2 Failure of Imagination: Representations of Race in Media and Fandom – Part 2

This is Part Two of the episode. Go here to listen to/read Part One.

Episode Resources:

For this episode, we looked at the following texts:

Fan podcast – Episode 21 of The Gayly Prophet “Clearly, Hermione is Black: An Interview with Prerna Abbi-Scanlon and Tahirah Green” 

Fan podcast – Episode 165 of Black Girl Nerds “Racebending and Whitewashing in Media”

Fan podcast – Episode 18 of Woke Doctor Who “Sweep Your Own Yard”

Doctor Who episode “Rosa”


Episode Transcript: 

This is a clean transcript of the episode. If you would prefer the original, unedited version, please let me know!

[Intro music]

Welcome to Marginally Fannish, a show where we aim an intersectional lens at some of our favourite media and their fandoms.

[Intro music]

You’re listening to the second part of our episode on race and representation. As three Indian fangirls of mostly Western media (but also Bollywood!), we have a LOT of thoughts about this episode’s theme. We didn’t want to stop talking, which is why we divided this episode into two parts.

In this part, we talk about how incredibly amazing the internet, social media, and fandom have been in helping us decolonise our minds by allowing us access to diverse experiences and perspectives we otherwise wouldn’t have encountered. We chat about whitewashing media and religion both in India and the West. Then we discuss racebending both in fandom and in canon. We wonder whether the magical world was involved in the British Muggle world domination project. We geek out about exciting Doctor Who developments (spoiler alert for those who aren’t caught up with episode 5 of the 12th series). We discuss what representation means to us as fans who aren’t white. We express our love for an increasingly diverse canon in different kinds of media, but we also stress the importance of authentic, nuanced, and respectful portrayals of diversity. We discuss what our vision about the future in science fiction and alternative worlds in fantasy says about our attitudes towards marginalised groups around us in the real world. We end Part Two with our suggestions for how Hogwarts can (and should!) decolonise its curriculum.

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: So this brings me to a section that is really interesting just because of the impact it has on popular culture at large. Which is whitewashing and racebending. So we listened to a podcast episode, a Black Girl Nerds episode called “Racebending and Whitewashing in Media”. Had you guys come across the term whitewashing before?

Aparna: Yes. Whitewashing is where a retelling of a story that wouldn’t necessarily have white people, when it is told to a larger audience, happens to have only white people. Or like a story that does not necessarily need to be told by white people or shouldn’t be, is being told in a very – completely negating the experiences of more marginalised voices. And the most striking example of it, which they mentioned in the podcast, is well is that of Jesus.

Parinita: Yeah [laughs]

Aparna: [laughs] They listed out all the actors who’d played Jesus and it was all white people, one after the other. It was quite funny.

Parinita: But I never even thought of Jesus as anybody except not white. Like I went to a Catholic school in India and all the portraits of Mother Mary and Jesus and you know all the saints and everything – all of them were white. And it’s only recently that, just through conversations online, again because the internet is the most fantastic educational resource, it was like, yeah he was – first of all, he was Jewish because he literally started the religion.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: And he was Middle Eastern so he would be brown.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And this is just such a disruptive notion to just what we think of as Jesus. And then it starts making you think what other aspects of history or mythology have been whitewashed, you know?

Aparna: Exactly!

Sanjana: But see if you’re basing it on Indian things, then everything like supreme is white only for us.

Parinita: [laughs] That’s true. Fair and Lovely everywhere.

Sanjana: Yeah, everywhere. Like we are having a constant battle by trying to tell colourists who are colouring our comics, to tell them that you know this guy is from this region. He would look not this white. And they say, “But hero, sir. Hero? Hero, madam.” Because the hero can just not be anything else but white.

Parinita: But I mean it’s not just the West though that has a hold on whitewashing their gods. We also have like plenty of whitewashing of our Hindu gods and goddesses.

Sanjana: Yeah, yeah. All our gods have been portrayed like whatever live-action stuff has happened, is all like by these white-looking men. Whereas Krishna literally means dark.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: Like it’s as dark as the dark clouds. Like it means dark.

Aparna: But we don’t make them dark, we make them blue.

Sanjana: Yeah. Okay rain clouds are not dark clouds, they’re blue clouds.

Parinita: [laughs]

Aparna: We can’t have a dark-skinned person.

Parinita: Exactly! Like what would that mean having a dark person like – only upper caste. How can we have a non-upper caste actor –

Aparna: We’ll invent a new skin colour for them.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah like blue, natural skin colour in –

Aparna: Asphyxiation.

Parinita: Yeah!

Sanjana: [laughs]

Parinita: And also like Ranveer Sharma in Gully Boy like sorry to move from mytho – oh from religion and mythology to Bollywood.

Sanjana: Singh! Ranveer Singh!

Parinita: Hmm? Ranveer Singh! Oh Shar – who’s Ranveer Sharma? I don’t –

Aparna: There is no such person.

Parinita: I’m sure there is.

Aparna: Unless there’s a different Bollywood in Leeds.

Parinita: [laughs] Ranveer Sharma, if you’re listening to this, please prove everybody else wrong. And you exist. I believe in you.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: So Ranveer Singh in Gully Boy, he had his skin darkened because he was playing someone who was Muslim and also from the slums in Mumbai. So from Dharavi. So of course why wouldn’t you get an actor from the slums or from a … lower … caste background? I don’t like saying lower. But you know non-upper. This is like the whole non-white situation again like –

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: Positioning it against yeah I don’t know we need to come up with a word. Maybe that could be our task for next episode. But yeah just from a non-dominant religion and caste. And why would you do that? We should just darken –

Movie poster of Gully Boy

Sanjana: But the same thing happened with the Mary Kom movie as well, now that we’re talking about Bollywood. They cast Priyanka Chopra in it and made her look a little bit like she was from –

Aparna: North Eastern.

Sanjana: The North East. But why not find – there is a whole cinema happening there. There are a whole bunch of actors available.

Parinita: And they’re so underrepresented in our –

Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: Mainstream Indian media and culture.

Sanjana: You had a chance to represent them! You had a chance!

Photo of Priyanka Chopra on the left and Mary Kom on the right

Priyanka Chopra and Mary Kom. Image courtesy The Economic Times

Parinita: Yeah but let’s just get Priyanka Chopra. Maybe she’ll get her husband to watch it as well and maybe it’ll get popular in Hollywood.

Sanjana: Oh tabhi she didn’t have husband at that time haan.

Parinita: Oh didn’t? Maybe they were dating. I don’t know her life. I’m not obsessed with Priyanka Chopra like you Sana! [laughs]

Aparna: Sana is trying to situate you correctly –

Sanjana: I’m situating you correctly –

Aparna: On Priyanka Chopra’s life.

Parinita: I mean Sana is the resident Priyanka Chopra fangirl.

Sanjana: No! I don’t want to say that. I’ve disliked them greatly after like … anyway –

Aparna: Oh!

Sanjana: That’s a wholly different – yeah, yeah.

Aparna: No, no say it.

Sanjana: No, I can’t.

Aparna: After she turned out to be a Modi supporter.

Sanjana: [laughs] Yeah.

Parinita: So another example of whitewashing that is very close to our hearts is … even though it technically is a cartoon. So Avatar: The Last Airbender, it’s very Asian! Like it’s the setting, even though it’s made up, it’s very Buddhist, Eastern-Asian and you know like it’s very –

Sanjana: Absolutely. Yeah, yeah. Without a doubt.

Parinita: But, of course, when Mr. M. Night Shyamalan decided to make a live-action remake, which Sana has warned both Paru and me against watching.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: Because as much as we love the TV show, she wants to protect us from the terribleness that was the movie. But he betrayed desi people and Asian people everywhere and he just cast everyone as white. Except Zuko who is Dev Patel. But otherwise everyone else is white. So that was where the term racebending came from. Because you know airbending, waterbending – benders. And that’s where racebending came from. So it started very negatively but –

Avatar: The Last Airbender characters in the movies versus the TV show. Image courtesy Ashworth’s Film Reviews

Sanjana: I love the word and the origin.

Parinita: Racebending? Yeah. Like I love it I mean if it was negative, I probably wouldn’t have liked it as much. But why I like it is because fandom is such a creative, innovative force that they decided to make it an empowering term.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And they have responded to texts that are canonically very white. And they’ve racebent. So like black Hermione, for example, in Harry Potter

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: A huge swathe of the fandom considers Hermione as black and also considers Harry as South Asian.

Fan art of Indian Harry Potter, black Hermione Granger, and Ron Weasley

Racebending Harry and Hermione in fan art. Image courtesy Inverse

Aparna: Yeah!

Parinita: Like Harry is a desi guy because James Potter I believe is supposed to be Indian, so Harry would be like a mixed-race kid.

Sanjana: Oooh!

Parinita: And again, that would be such an exciting sort of – then you’re thinking of things like why is James Potter Indian and like you know imperialism and … was there imperialism in the wizarding world? Wizarding is also a very gendered term. But anyway. Was there imperialism in the magical world that we –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: I mean wizarding world exists parallel to our own, no?

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: But do you think they were involved in colonising India? In colonising Africa?

Aparna: For sure!

Parinita: The rest of the world?

Sanjana: Unfortunately.

Aparna: Without a doubt.

Parinita: Where did Parvati and Padma’s parents come from? Like why are they in the UK? It would be very interesting to –

Sanjana: Many people went there to study and all.

Parinita: Sure.

Sanjana: Some people stayed there. Haan that only.

Parinita: Yeah, yeah. There’s no other reason. We like chicken tikka masala, sure.

[Aparna and Sanjana laugh]

Sanjana: No but also like you’re saying, they’ve taken it and made it like a positive thing. Like the episode that you’re mentioning also mentioned like Nick Fury being cast as black. Whereas the comics had him as a white male character.

Parinita: Oh really?

Sanjana: Yeah.

Image of Nick Fury from the comics and from the movies

Nick Fury in the comics versus the movies. Image courtesy Reddit

Parinita: Another thing. So the new exciting Doctor who we know almost nothing about.

Sanjana: Yes!

Parinita: So one of the fan theories was – because she’s this really mysterious Doctor right? So one of the fan theories is that she might pre-date the Doctor – the first Doctor that we know of which was the 1960s Doctor whose name I don’t know. And there was some trauma that happened that made her lose her memories. And that’s why Jodie doesn’t remember her. Nobody has remembered this previous incarnation. So there might be this whole cycle of Doctors that we don’t know about. So it’s almost like racebending canon in a way. Like which has been such a –

Aparna: Haan.

Parinita: White, male … all the Doctors have been white and men and now there’s a woman. One sole woman that we have and now we have another woman and we don’t know what’s happening.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: But I love this potential like all these possibilities that could exist.

Aparna: Exactly! And it’s sort of cooler that it pre-dates all of these other Doctors because that means like before any of them existed, there was this one.

Photo of the two female Doctors - Jodie Whittaker and Jo Martin

The Doctor and Doctor Ruth image courtesy The Metro

Parinita: Absolutely. And also like she is older, she’s not as young as the other Doctors. I mean Peter Capaldi was pretty old but she like usually you think of women and there’ll be like a young woman like most of the companions were young women.

Aparna: Yeah, of course.

Parinita: And she’s older, she’s black, she’s a woman. Even though like you know I’m not black, I was so excited to see her! I was like oh my god

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Representation! We need so little!

Aparna: Yeah exactly.

Parinita: Like we’ve been so starved of representation that –

Aparna: I know!

Parinita: Even the tiniest things make us so happy.

Aparna: Like when the – the reveal of Jodie Whitaker as the Doctor happened, there was this video that I kept encountering of this little girl whose mother was filming her watching the reveal. And she just burst into tears because she was so happy. “There’s going to be a girl Doctor!” she kept yelling. And it was just the most adorable thing.

Parinita: I mean watching Wonder Woman for me like that made me cry so much.

Aparna: Yeah!

Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: Just because it was so not male gazey and it was very much like a woman’s –

Sanjana: Right.

Parinita: Movie made for – it just – we need so little. I mean we want more, but we need so little –

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: To be happy and even – like I was telling you, Paru, this is what men feel like all the time!

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Oh my god.

Parinita: Feel represented and – so I’m glad that canon is becoming more diverse.

Sanjana: No, the other day, I’m telling you, this is like a continuous thing of trying to tell the men around me even in the family, is that when we’re watching TV shows, we made it a point to watch newer things. Like wherever something off discussion happens, I these days pause it and say, “This is how women feel all the time.”

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: “Do you understand your male privilege now?” And then I un-pause and continue watching.

Aparna: [laughs] Before we move on from racebending, I want to give a shout-out to Hamilton which is my favourite racebending thing ever.

Sanjana: Oh my god yes!

Parinita: It’s true! I didn’t even think about that.

Aparna: Best example of all these old white people who have made America and –

Sanjana: Yeah! Washington.

Aparna: And they’re all being played by all these really kickass people, it’s the best.

Parinita: Yeah – what does he call it? The America of yesterday being portrayed by the America of today? Something like that?

Sanjana: Yeah.

Gif from the musical Hamilton. Text says: Immigrants, we get the job done.

Parinita: That is my favourite racebending text as well. And that’s like proper canon now.

Aparna: Exactly!

Parinita: But that’s the thing that you know, when you have this colonised mind, you don’t even imagine what you can imagine. You know like unless you step out of this this sort of bubble, this echo chamber, you don’t know what is possible.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And when someone shows you what’s possible, your mind just –

Sanjana: After reading and hearing all of these things what struck me was that the world has changed a lot in the last ten years, like ten or twenty years. It has changed a lot in the sense that it has become a lot more closer – like it’s easier for you to find someone like you on the internet. Who is discussing and thinking the same thoughts. Or echoing the same thoughts back. Because what I’ve tried to understand is that stories were written at a certain time and to not fault the creator completely. Hold them accountable but not blame them completely because they wrote at a different time when they weren’t as educated because they didn’t read enough or they didn’t have enough people talking about things. People are trying to change the stories that were written. Like even if you see larger universes like the Star Wars universe, the first three movies versus the movies now, there is a lot more diversity. And you know even Harry Potter the movies versus the play, there is again you know

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: There is a move to correct what you thought – took for granted so to speak.

Aparna: Correct. Like even in the Star Wars movies, even though one of them is set before the three original movies, there are women pilots and there are –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Which never happened like the original trilogy doesn’t have it. But those sort of corrections like nobody is caring about the uproar that it’s creating in the traditional fans. Because everyone’s moving forward.

Sanjana: Nobody cares because it’s so awesome that there are women pilots and they are commanding the planes and it’s just very good. Even Anne With An E?

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: How they’ve taken the original books that were written so long back and interpreted it so beautifully. Like I love how they’ve introduced Cole.

Parinita: They’ve politicised the text more than it ever was political.

Sanjana: And Aunt Josephine also, it’s so cool what they did with her.

Parinita: Yeah! But – so this is a good example of sort of reinterpreting something that was written like –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: A hundred years ago. A bad example of doing that is – again, I don’t know if you guys – I’m on Twitter in the morning so I know these things. But there was this huge backlash against Barnes and Nobles which is this American bookstore. And one of the stores, I’m not sure who, but somebody here decided that you know all these classic books that are out of copyright so basically anybody can print them? So like things like Anne With An E, Jane Austen and things whatever all these Western classic books. So in order to make them diverse, because I guess now diversity is also a buzzword that everyone wants to capitalise on because we live in a capitalistic society. So they decided that oh you know children should be able to recognise themselves. So they just published covers which had diversity in terms of race and ethnicity. So things like Native Americans, black faces, brown faces. So racebending the characters almost.

Book covers of racebent book covers of classic books

The Barnes and Nobles racebent covers. Image courtesy Ad Week

Aparna: Hmm.

Parinita: But the backlash was that first of all, these people did not write for like a black audience or a brown audience.

Aparna: Exactly.

Parinita: Or a Native American audience. Secondly, instead of spending all this money and resources on diversifying a text that is not diverse, why don’t you just give opportunities to diverse creators to create their own books?

Sanjana: Yeah!

Aparna: Exactly!

Parinita: Yeah. So the internet is all ablaze with this conversation.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: But the internet is also making people more –

Sanjana: Aware!

Aparna: Mindful of these things and more aware of these things. And that’s great.

Parinita: Oh absolutely! Because of this internet outrage the American Dirt her book tour was cancelled and instead they’re going to have a discussion essentially where she talks to people who have concerns.

Aparna: Right.

Parinita: And so I think they’re trying to rectify their mistakes. And the Barnes and Nobles, I believe they’ve decided not to do it anymore.

Aparna: Oh wow.

Parinita: Because there was such a – I mean they’d already printed it. And I might be completely lying and making this up. But I think they’ve decided – or maybe it’s just wishful thinking. But I think they’ve decided not to do it anymore. But they’ve spent all the money so yeah.

Sanjana: Hmm. Another thing that has changed from then to now is the Young Justice series. And the first episode came out in 2010. And the newest season has come out now, like at the end of 2019. And there is a vast difference between the representation of people and the diversity in terms of even gender and genderfluid characters and –

Parinita: Oh like She-Ra! She-Ra is also another fantastic thing where the earlier She-Ra was I’ve not watched it. But the one on Netflix, lots of gender diversity, there’s a nonbinary character. Or no, I think a genderfluid character. And yeah there’s just so much representation.

Aparna: Speaking of, we’ll now come to the Rosa Parks episode of Doctor Who. So my opinion of this episode changed completely after listening to the podcast Woke Doctor Who, their episode “Sweep Your Own Yard”. Because when I first watched it, I was very excited and I really liked the episode. But when listened to this podcast, and it was viewed from the experience of what was wrong with it and what could have been done better and why they didn’t like the episode. And it all just came so clearly to me of how like they spoke about how the power of the people’s movement was missing and the activism of Rosa Parks was reduced to – her reduced to this tired seamstress. And even though they got a black woman to write the episode, she’s from the UK, not from the US. But the things that were lacking showed very like little concern. This is what I call a Wikipedia article level research. [laughs] When the context was not properly understood and that’s why something that probably had good intentions behind it ended up being a really clumsy way of telling a story.

Sanjana: Yeah I made initial judgements about the episode in general, not realising that there was a podcast waiting to –

[Aparna and Parinita laugh]

Sanjana: Make that come crashing down. And I was like what?! And I was pausing saying like how could you not – but that just showed me if I had not heard that podcast, I would have gone away feeling that they did such a good job of it.

Aparna: Yeah!

Sanjana: And then without hearing that, I would have been praising them and not realising how much harm they did. Because at the end of the day, I would have gone back wondering wow, good job. And it was actually ‘cause it did more harm to the story of Rosa Parks than it did good. How it’s important to just you know go a little bit beyond the initial research and to get the right people to write it. Or even consult on it a little bit so that you heard it firsthand. It’s not that hard anymore. So that can’t be an excuse.

Parinita: So I think I have a slightly different opinion.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: Because I did this a little long way round. So I’d watched the “Rosa” episode when it first came out a couple of years ago. Loved it – completely loved it. And then I listened to this podcast first, I listened to it a few months ago, but then I listened to it again in preparation for this episode. And then I went back and watched the “Rosa” episode again. And I totally am with Woke Doctor Who on some of the critiques. I think that they’ve completely erased black women’s experiences – you know black women’s activism. That was the crux of the civil rights movement in the US and even now like with – like they mentioned Black Lives Matter, #MeToo.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: They’ve completely erased them. So black women have – and they were the ones who do the most activism with intersectionality, with everything like what we’re doing here on this podcast. And I think they also – yeah like Paru said, reduced the activism of Rosa Parks. And the episode positioned it as if it didn’t happen at that moment, it would never happen.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: Which now we know isn’t true because she would have just done it on another day. So like I guess it was a convenient form of storytelling.

Sanjana: Yeah she was chosen for it.

Parinita: Yeah. She was chosen for it because like they said, she was a light-skinned black woman. So it was a very deliberate, very smart, very well-strategised choice. So it removes the agency of the activists and of Rosa herself.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: For the convenience of storytelling. And another of their critiques was that the UK has a habit of talking about American racism like pointing its fingers to the US because racism there is so much more extreme. And it’s so much more visible. Because of you know like all the stuff that we hear on the news. Police brutality against black men, black women. And so it’s easier to point fingers there but they do it at the expense of not exploring racism in the UK. Which might be different but it still exists. So racism still exists in the UK but they don’t explore that. They had a critique that Yaz and Ryan’s experiences of racism weren’t brought up in the show. Which I disagree with.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Because Ryan and Yaz were attacked. Like Ryan was slapped by the white man right in the beginning, as soon as he got –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: As soon as they got to –

Sanjana: Yeah, that even I agree.

Parinita: They had to – they were kicked out of a bar, they were called Negro and Mexican because you know Yaz’s identity doesn’t matter obviously. They weren’t able to get a room in a hotel – or they had to sneak in through the window. The police came after them. And then they sat and talked about how even in the UK in 2019 – 18 whenever that was, like it’s not like Rosa Parks had cured racism. Because –

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Ryan was still checked by the police more than a white person was. Yaz, even though she’s a police person herself, she’s called Paki on the road which is a slur in the UK and she’s called a terrorist as well. Because of her identity.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So I guess they didn’t explore it as much as they could have. But it wasn’t a story about them. I feel like they did.

Sanjana: No, that I agree with. Because when I initially wrote down my thoughts about the episode, that was the one thing that I took away about how then and now they did discuss about how they showed them how they were being treated plus they showed them discussing about the now. And so the then and now of how they were being treated was discussed to a small extent.

Parinita: To a small extent, yeah. And another critique that I agreed with was that the fact that this dude who comes from the 71st century and he’s a white supremacist. And they couldn’t believe in Woke Doctor Who that even in the 71st century –

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Black people are still having to prove their humanity. Why is there white supremacy in the 71st century? Like if your idea of science fiction – and this is a critique I’ve heard about other science fiction as well. Like if your idea of the future doesn’t envision equality, or it envisions a certain group of people who are already marginalised now. Either they don’t exist in the future like your diversity stretches to having aliens and robots.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: But not black people, brown people in positions of equality … what does that then say about what you think of these people, these groups now?

Aparna: Exactly.

Sanjana: Haan.

Parinita: So yeah that’s a critique that I totally agreed with. And I agree with their critiques and I totally get where they’re coming from, so this isn’t to respond to – they’re totally justified in having these concerns. But I watched the episode again, and I still loved the episode. I still thought it was a good episode. And I think that the episode could be used to explore the gaps that it doesn’t address. I think it would be such a good starting – a discussion episode. If you watch it with a child or even if you watch it with an adult, and then have a conversation after that. Because it ends on such a triumphant note.

Aparna: It does.

Parinita: And even though Jodie in the end, she does say that Rosa had to struggle. Like she didn’t cure racism.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: She lost her job. She knew the consequences. She got arrested, she lost her job, it was a lifelong struggle for her. And obviously racism still exists. But what she did was still important and having her story on a mainstream popular show like Doctor Who I think that’s really – it is important. And of course, there are mistakes that everybody would make. Like no text can be perfect you know but I think even an imperfect – in fact, an imperfect text, there’s more opportunities for conversations.

Sanjana: Yeah but see the point is that how many people have this conversation. It’s just that. I agree with you completely. You can take away a lot of positive things from it and at the end of the day, it’s not all bad. But the thing is how many of us have a discussion about it after watching the episode.

Parinita: No, absolutely! Again, if we don’t know that there was something wrong with the episode –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: We wouldn’t possibly have a discussion

Sanjana: Exactly.

Parinita: When I first encountered these critiques is when I’d first watched the episode and then I went on Twitter because I was so excited about the episode and I wanted to know what other people were saying, and I did then encounter these critiques from –

Sanjana: Right.

Parinita: Black people in the US. Saying that no this is what you need to do to get a true picture of Rosa and her activism. Like lots of Twitter threads. So, the internet and social media there is a huge educational … you can learn so much from there.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Absolutely.

Parinita: Yeah but then like you’re saying, not everyone has these conversations and maybe that’s something that like –

Aparna: Also Doctor Who is not a small show. They know the kind of audience they attract and they’ve been doing this for years and years. So if they are making a Rosa Parks episode, sorry, but I would expect a little bit more from them.

Parinita: Yeah. I agree. But I think that’s the – like I loved Woke Doctor Who – the episode – for making me think of all these critiques –

Aparna: Correct.

Parinita: And for making me thinking of all these things.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: But I just don’t agree with all their critiques because I think the show tried, not always success – in some places, it didn’t try at all. And that absolutely like it needs – it could have been very easily woven into the story. Like having more black women, having Rosa’s activism could –

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: It wouldn’t have – it would have added to the story. I don’t know why they decided not to have that as a part in the story. But there are some critiques that I felt like the show did try to address if a little like if not completely, if that makes sense.

Aparna: And now we’re coming to another What If? section.

Sanjana: [makes sound effect]

Parinita: Our last section of the podcast.

Aparna: Yes. And this is one What If from Parinita. What if you had to decolonise the Hogwarts curriculum? What would you include in it? I’m going to start with mine. Basically I was just reminded of this conversation that Harry and Hagrid have in the very beginning about – I’m paraphrasing – but Harry asks why more people don’t know about magic. And Hagrid says something to the effect of then everyone will want to use magic to solve the world’s problems – their own problems. So my curriculum change would be to expose the people in the wizarding world to more of the world’s problems. Like the climate crisis. I don’t know maybe they can solve it, in which case it would be magic well spent. So maybe there are wizards and witches who want to use magic to solve the world’s problems and they should know about the world’s problems to be able to solve them.

Parinita: And also magic is not a finite resource. Why don’t you solve human problems?!

Aparna: Exactly!

Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: Why are you hoarding magic like your skills and stuff?

Aparna: That’s what!

Parinita: Like use it na, use it to solve everyone’s problems.

Aparna: See no! Like even if it involves – even if it needs you to mind-control spells or on policy makers to make them –

Parinita: As a PhD researcher, I have a huge ethical problem with mind control.

Aparna: I have no problem with it. No more trees should be cut to build flyovers.

Parinita: I’d like to tell my examiners I don’t approve of mind-controlling my research participants.

[Aparna and Sanjana laugh]

Aparna: What about you, Parinita?

Parinita: So my decolonising would involve first of all hiring more diverse staff. Having more people who are just not white, able-bodied like whatever class backgrounds they belong to. Just having more diversity in the staff in general. Making more efforts to recruit people from diverse backgrounds as well. And why not have more interactions with Muggles? I know this is something that might not be possible in a Hogwarts – this would be a systemic overhaul with the Ministry of Magic and all. But I feel like there’s a lot to learn – a lot that Muggles can learn from wizards, like Muggle children can learn from wizarding children but also magical children can learn so much from Muggle children as well. Like in terms of the literature that they read. And like all this conversation that we’re having about We Need Diverse Books and Own Voices –

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: I feel like that can be incorporated into Hogwarts as well. So they’re reading widely. They’re not just reading wizarding books, they’re also reading Muggle books. And not just British Muggle books and they’re reading books from all over the world, especially the countries they’ve colonised.

Sanjana: So I’m just going to interject and add this because I had a – they should have a course on world literature and they should read like Satyajit Ray and Chinua Achebe and stuff is what I wanted them to read.

Parinita: Yeah. And also it’s 2020. Figure out your technology problems now. Technology and the internet –

Sanjana: Yeah! Oh my god!

Parinita: And social media are very important decolonising conversations. Please get your shit together. Read some Twitter threads, read some articles. Like you need the internet, you need computers and smartphones.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: That’s my decolonising Hogwarts curriculum idea.

Sanjana: So in that event I feel like they should have a film studies course.

Parinita: Hmm yeah.

Sanjana: And like you know like have world cinema screening.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Like have like a Gandhi class and have a …

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Sanjana: Just arrange them on the carpet and watch movies.

Parinita: I mean I feel like –

Sanjana: I’m sure if they want, they can project it on the wall or something.

Parinita: Like they’ve figured out magic, surely they can figure out Muggle technology. But also with this decolonising Hogwarts curriculum, I feel this is also really important in Muggle educational systems. Like in the UK, the students here don’t seem to learn about the effect that the Empire had. Like I was reading this book about Brexit, written by these two academics who live in Oxford, and they’ve based it on solid research and things. And they’re like yeah, students have this very skewed idea of what the Empire was and what the effect was on the world. And now it’s like those same students who are complaining about foreigners and immigrants and voting for Brexit because they don’t understand why all these brown and black people are here. Like why are we here?! Like you’ve destroyed our economy, why do you think we’re arriving here?!

[Sanjana and Aparna laugh]

Parinita: And in India as well. Like we don’t learn about caste, we don’t learn about religion in – we don’t even learn about the Empire really, except in really abstract terms. We don’t learn about the ongoing impact –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: The British divide and rule policy has had and how it’s been taken advantage of by politicians and media and culture and everything. So –

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: I think that decolonising needs to be a worldwide phenomenon.

Sanjana: No, no, it’s true. We study history very badly. We’re not told about the real, actual stories because recently we did a comic on path-breaking women and I just realised there’s so much of history that we’ve just not been told. Why aren’t we reading about these women in school books is what I don’t understand.

Aparna: Okay that’s a good place to wrap up this episode. I’m going to ask everyone for their closing thoughts.

Sanjana: Well it’s more of a closing thought on the general research that this podcast has brought in my life. And I just – I love the conversations that we’re having on a daily basis. It’s just – it’s very liberating to think on – to think. Just after college now.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: And I hope that even if no – like a few people listen and think even a little bit, I feel like it might it’s – that’s my closing thought. Just thoughts.

Aparna: Parinita?

Parinita: My closing thought is diversity isn’t political. We need more diversity, all kinds of diversity, everywhere. And I feel like this podcast is such a good way of allowing me to question my own biases and assumptions. Like you think you’re open-minded and you think you –

Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: You know, you have these thoughts. But you don’t even know what you’re missing. Once you know that what things you have a blind spot on, it’s nice to be able to educate yourself. So –

Aparna: That’s true.

Parinita: Thank you internet and thank you social media.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: And fandom! Thank you fandom.

Aparna: And my closing thought is a sentence that I heard at a workshop that I attended in Bombay last week. Which is that we are responsible for the stories we hear. And all the stories are out there, especially now with the internet. Everyone’s story can be heard. So we have to just listen. Thanks for listening!

Parinita: Bye!

Sanjana and Aparna: Bye!

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to Part Two of our two-part episode on race and representation. If you haven’t heard the first part yet, listen to it for our interpretations of intersectionality, our complaints about token diversity in science fiction and fantasy, our struggles with our colonised minds, and the importance of Own Voices. Thanks again Paru and Sana for sharing my PhD brain and being the best podcast partners in the universe! And a big fat thank you to Jack for doing all the technical editing bits so I don’t have to.

You can now listen to Marginally Fannish on Spotify, Apple, Google, or SoundCloud. I’d love to hear from you and talk to you – so any feedback, comments or critiques are very welcome! Get in touch with me on social media, leave a comment on my blog, or email me at edps@leeds.ac.uk. If you’d like to follow the podcast or the PhD project, visit my website marginallyfannish.org where you’ll find both the podcast episodes and the blog. You can also receive updates on Facebook or Instagram at Marginally Fannish or on Twitter where I’m @MarginalFannish. If you enjoyed the podcast, please share it with anyone you think will enjoy it too.

Thanks for listening! Tune in again next time for all things fannish and intersectional!

[Outro music]

Episode 2 Failure of Imagination: Representations of Race in Media and Fandom – Part 1

This is Part One of the episode. Click here to listen to/read Part Two.

Episode Resources: 

For this episode we looked at a bunch of texts:

Reddit thread – “Does anyone feel as if POC are very underrepresented in certain fandoms?”

Twitter thread – Darren Chetty writes about the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in Hogwarts

Buzzfeed article – “What A ‘Racebent’ Hermione Granger Really Represents”

Excerpt from Fierce Bad Rabbits Fierce Bad Rabbits: The Tales Behind Children’s Picture Books by Clare Pollard

Kirkus Review article – “Writing Outside Your Identity” by Laura Simeon


Episode Transcript: 

This is a clean transcript of the episode. If you would prefer the original, unedited version, please let me know!

[Intro music]

Welcome to Marginally Fannish, a show where we aim an intersectional lens at some of our favourite media and their fandoms.

[Intro music]

You’re listening to the first part of our episode on race and representation. As three Indian fangirls of mostly Western media (but also Bollywood!), we have a LOT of thoughts about this episode’s theme. We didn’t want to stop talking, which is why we divided this episode into two parts.

In this part, we describe our different interpretations of intersectionality and how we first first came across the term. We discuss how much we all owe to black women and black activists in the US for our ongoing conversations about diversity. We talk about our feelings about the term “non-white” and “person of colour” (spoiler alert: they both make us uncomfortable but one more than the other). We complain about token diversity in fantasy, science fiction, and Harry Potter. We talk about how much we love the idea of a black Hermione but also how her tackling of S.P.E.W was super problematic (you need to be a good ally, Hermione!). We chat about our colonised minds and the struggles of identifying with white fictional characters. We discuss the importance of Own Voices and also how media creators can use their privilege to be more inclusive and empathetic. We end Part One by talking about how scary the world would be if our Hogwarts Houses defined the rest of our lives. Find out why we think the Hogwarts Houses resemble the Hindu caste system (and why it makes us very uncomfortable!). We would prefer more integration and intermingling among the four Houses please!

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: “It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world and it is nkali. It’s a noun that loosely translates to be greater than another. Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali. How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power. Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.” That was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story”. Hi! My name is Parinita.

Sanjana: Hi, I’m Sanjana.

Aparna: And I’m Aparna. And today’s episode is about race. So let’s start by talking about intersectionality because the best way to talk about race, or anything for that matter, is to view it through the lens of intersectionality. Which is a word that I was introduced to very recently. I think I identified with the theory of it already but the word for it, I have gotten to know better only in the recent past. Apparently, it was coined as part of a research paper, I think, in 1989 by a Professor Crenshaw to describe how different marginalised identities intersect and overlap. And I feel like this is essential to understand a complex and realistic experience that is a person’s life rather than a simplistic this-or-that picture that we all grow up consuming or understanding. I’d like to know what both of your views on intersectionality are. Sana, what is your interpretation of it?

Sanjana: So, like you, I recently started reading up a little bit more about it to understand it better. And what I’ve understood about it is that it’s a sort of a concept. I’ve understood it as a concept that helps explain disparity in society – that helps explain it to the other side maybe to try and get them to see that it’s not just one thing that you face in general or it’s not just one thing that holds you – that –

Aparna: Defines.

Sanjana: Defines you. Or even places you in context with everybody else. But Parinita, you’ve been reading a lot about intersectionality.

Parinita: That’s right.

Sanjana: A more clearer voice on what more –

Parinita: No, I found it really interesting. So just before I talk about what I think about intersectionality, did you guys come across the word because of this podcast? Because you knew that that was my lens of this podcast?

Sanjana: Yes.

Parinita: Or had you come across it otherwise?

Aparna: I think I’d come across it because I read a lot of pop culture –

Parinita: Right.

Aparna: Reviews and articles and discussions. But I never really looked up what it means.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aparna: Or like tried to understand where it’s come from and what it actually is supposed to define. Turns out different people define it differently also. So that I started doing only after the podcast.

Sanjana: I, to be honest, only read the word when you had sent us an overview of your paper just to read in general. Just for general feedback, not when we were talking about this podcast at all.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: And that is when I came across the word. And I very vaguely looked it up so that I would understand what you were writing better. But it is because of the podcast that I found it necessary to understand it better for my own self.

Parinita: So, like Paru, I also discovered this word online. It’s really become a buzzword of sorts because it’s used in a lot of different contexts online. Especially with popular media representations and things. But also with discussions of feminism online. And from my research, what I found is that the term – it basically traces its roots to black feminism in the US. So what Paru said, Kimberlé Crenshaw’s article. And it analysed how not only gender but also race and class affect the lives of black women. So that’s where it started. But now like I said, with internet conversations and even within academia, the scope of gender, race, and class has widened. So now intersectionality’s scope – it basically looks at how different multiple and complex social inequalities interact with each other. So, for example, your life is significantly better or worse based on where you live and on things like –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Your gender, your class, your race, your sexual orientation –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Your ethnicity, which part of the country you’re from, which part of the world you’re from. Like we see that in India so much now with the recent protests, right? Like the national origin is such a huge question and your religion is such a huge question.

Parinita: Also, what you guys said was absolutely what I think of intersectionality as well. But reading more about it, it’s such a contextual thing. Because you can be marginalised in some cases and you can be privileged in others. Some of your identities can be –

Sanjana and Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: So in India like gender would play a bigger role for me just because as an Indian woman you know walking in the streets and just –

Sanjana: Yeah, yeah, yeah!

Parinita: Whereas for me in India my national origin or my race didn’t play any role. It’s not something I thought of at all. Whereas now that I’m in England in the UK, with just this sort of national discourse that’s become so anti-immigrant and anti-foreigner, I’m much more aware of my race and I’m much more aware of my immigration status than I would be in India. And even though I’m –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Like in a university setting in the UK, so I’m like really privileged otherwise as well and in terms of class and stuff. So it’s a really complicated sort of thing. And within the context of fandom, so I started thinking about intersectionality because I thought it was a really interesting thing that I had not thought about. Like I’d not known the term. But I had encountered a lot of these diverse perspectives in fandom. So things like how disabled students would navigate Hogwarts or why there need to be more diverse Time Lords in the TARDIS. Like there’ve so far been only white men. Like until before Jodie. It was all white men.

Sanjana: And! And!

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: [laughs]

Parinita: Until Jodie and now! The newest Doctor!

Sanjana: Now!

Parinita: Which –

Sanjana: Like it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Parinita: Right?!

Sanjana: Like oh my god!

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: I mean we’ll talk about it later as well, but it opens up so many more possibilities and so many more exciting possibilities that I can’t wait to see where it goes.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: What I have found, in conversations about intersectionality and also about diversity in general, in like children’s book publishing or in popular media and stuff, there seems to be a really heavy focus on race. It’s usually through the lens of race that all these We Need Diverse Books and things –

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: At least in Western media, that’s what it’s talked about. In India, it might be more caste-based or region-based or perhaps language-based.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Gender-based in India, I would say.

Parinita: Sorry?

Sanjana: Gender-based in India.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Yeah. Whereas in the West, it’s very heavily focused on race, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: Because even though the talks began with racial diversity, just like with intersectionality, it has expanded the scope. So that there’s sexual orientation, religion, class – all these other identities. However, I still do think that among intersectionality scholarship but also among talks of diversity, the heavy focus is still on race in Western media. And that’s why I’ve tried to expand the identities in my own podcast you know in terms of the intersectional themes that we’re looking at.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Just so that race is a good starting point, but other categories shouldn’t be overlooked based on that.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And black people in the US seem to be paving the way for so many movements and so many like conversations about diversity. Because they work so actively to highlight their perspectives. I was reading this research paper about a network of black podcasters. And essentially, they’re making fan podcasts and just discussion podcasts in ways that highlight their perspectives in media which erases their experiences largely. One of the texts that we listened to for this episode was the Black Girl Nerds episode, right? And –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Black Girl Nerds is an example of this. So, when Game of Thrones, the last season was out, I discovered their recaps. After every episode, they would just talk about the episode, what they thought. Like what the three of us do on WhatsApp, they did on a podcast.

Sanjana: Haan.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: But because Game of Thrones is such a white world, like there’s mostly white people in charge, so they would be talking about it from the lens of the two black characters that were left in the show.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: And I found that so interesting because it just opened up my mind so much because it’s not something I would have thought of doing myself.

Aparna: Correct.

Parinita: And this is something they do all the time in popular culture, highlighting their perspectives and also working with each other. So, it’s not just an isolated thing where they want to make money or whatever. But they are actively collaborating with others and promoting each other and I think this collaboration is such a crucial component of any form of activism even if it is something like what we’re doing.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Absolutely.

Parinita: Right?

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So another of the texts that we looked at this time was a Reddit thread about fandom and about how there is a lack of POC in fandom and I’ll link to this in the transcript of the episode. But the term POC, it’s an acronym for person of colour. And, Sana, you said that you hadn’t heard of the term POC, right?

Sanjana: No. So when we were looking up stuff to read about this episode, I was looking up stuff to read, and I was Googling various terms and this came up. This thread sort of popped out and I had to Google what POC was. I, yeah, had never heard of the term.

Parinita: Yeah. Which I’m not at all surprised by because it stands for person of colour. And one of the people in the thread did point this out – did critique the term – because it’s such a US-centric term.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Because everywhere else in the world, we’re not measured against white people. Like in India, we’re not –

Sanjana: Yeah!

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Right? We’re all people of colour in India.

Sanjana: Within our people of colour also we have various shades.

Parinita: Absolutely!

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: No what I mean is like India also has their own person of colour –

Parinita: Problems.

Sanjana: Gauge happening.

Parinita: Yeah!

Sanjana: Yeah problems.

Parinita: Yeah like light-skinnedness versus dark-skinnedness.

Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: Which has so many … which caste and which class and which part of the country.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So in the thread itself, some people were trying to talk about instead of using the term person of colour, you can use diverse ethnic backgrounds or non-white. But I find the term non-white a little problematic. Just because –

Sanjana: No, no, it’s quite problematic.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Right? What do you think of the term non-white?

Sanjana: Very – very – not little problematic. Quite problematic!

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah. Why do you think it’s problematic?

Sanjana: It’s a little worse than person of colour. Like we are the island of white and everybody else floating around is like far away and not – non-white.

Parinita: I absolutely agree with this. And it’s something that I had – well not an argument, more maybe a debate, with Jack, my white boyfriend.

Sanjana: Haan.

Parinita: Who was saying that he prefers the term – not prefers, but when he’s talking about people who are not white, he prefers to use the term non-white and I was like that makes me uncomfortable for precisely the reason you said, Sana. Because it positions you against like white is normative and everything else is othered.

Aparna and Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: Right?

Sanjana: Exactly. It sounds like we are up there in a fort you know.

Parinita: Correct.

Sanjana: Yeah. It’s talking down.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: Sort of.

Parinita: And I mean I do understand why non-white is like a sort of convenient catchall term.

Aparna: Correct.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And person of colour is also not a great term. But I prefer person of colour to non-white.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And so in the thread itself, in response to this critique, a responder shared a video about the origins of the term woman of colour.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: Which featured this feminist called Loretta Ross. And she described that the term came to be coined as a form of solidarity among different groups of oppressed women. So it was supposed to be a political designation and not a biological one. So it’s not literally about the colour of your skin. Because white is also a colour. Right?

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So it’s a political identity. And in the video, it’s a really short video and I’ll link to it. But something that she said was so interesting was that the origin of the term has been forgotten because history isn’t documented and it’s not preserved and it’s not taught.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And that really made me think of the protests in India that are happening now the anti-CAA and the anti-NRC ones. Where there was this excellent video by Raghu Karnad. I don’t know if you guys have seen it. It’s called “Remembering Emergency and the Student Protests the BJP Doesn’t Talk About.” So it essentially talks of how people in India, we don’t learn about the history of protest.

Aparna: Yes.

Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: Right? Like we’re not taught, even though the BJP like they did student protests, the current BJP members.

Aparna: Exactly!

Parinita: Right?

Aparna: Yeah! Protest is such an important part of any movement or the development of any group of people. But it’s in the best interest of the government to not encourage you to know about protests obviously. So, it’s sort of successfully been forgotten every time.

Parinita: Yeah. And it’s such a huge part of democracy. Like the right –

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: To question your government. And now they’ve positioned protest as something that’s anti-national.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: But the fact that you care so much about your country and about protecting your country, how can that be anti-national? So I thought that it was a really interesting –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Interesting analogy.

Sanjana: So talking about race and general diversity in the texts and the universes that we meet, focusing on Harry Potter in particular, there was this very interesting Twitter thread that was by someone called Darren Chetty. Which was very similar to the thoughts that I’d had when I was just generally noting down thoughts without reading anything. That there is diversity – like the universe as such talks about diversity – but within the magical world. Like it does talk about inclusion and stuff but very allegorically. I wanted to read one of the tweets that he had written. “So a story that has so much to say about racism on an allegorical level at the same time depicts people of colour as marginal without actually exploring their marginalisation.” I thought that was very interesting because there is like the house elves and giants and the pure race of wizards and –

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: The Mudbloods as the bad word is.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: And I just thought that was a very interesting take on it. For a text that does that is basing all this on race and the history of how people have been treated. But you’re still not addressing –

Aparna: Actual.

Sanjana: Actual anything. What did you take from that?

Parinita: What that made me think of, this metaphorical racism, and again – like it’s really easy to read the Harry Potter series I think as something that really talks about like you said inclusivity and just non-prejudiced attitudes and everything. But it’s not a radical text at all because it’s –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: It’s so allegorical. And it’s similar to science fiction where you know aliens and robots usually take the place of other races and cultures. So there’s this whole colonising new planet narratives without –

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Exploring what that actually means. Or the history of colonising. For example, in Doctor Who, there – there were two black companions. So there was Martha and Bill. Were there any others? Well now currently there’s Ryan.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: In the earlier ones, before Jodie, there was Martha and Bill who travelled to the past but the show doesn’t explore the impact of this. Like –

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: The fact that they would be unsafe in these societies where people who were not white were not considered to be equal.

Parinita: Whereas in the Rosa Parks episode that we also watched for this podcast, Ryan and Yaz go back to Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 and they were targeted for being black and for being brown. Like she’s called Mexican even though she’s desi. But –

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: That explored it a little more. We’ll talk about the episode more in detail later but racism is something that would affect people based on the time period that you’re in. It’s not something that’s just – you can’t be colourblind to it. You can’t just say –

Aparna: Exactly.

Parinita: Oh everyone lives happily.

Aparna: You can’t have moved past it just for the sake of telling your story that the allegory rings a little hollow.

Parinita: Exactly and like the colourblindness is very much present I think in the Harry Potter series which –

Sanjana: Absolutely.

Parinita: I didn’t think about while I was reading it at all. Oh there’s like the brown twins and then there’s Cho Chang –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Who may be Chinese, may be Korean, we don’t know. Because remember last time when we got so angry about Panju?

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: The name Panju.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: The other sort of controversy about the name Cho Chang is that it could be Chinese, it could be Korean, and it doesn’t quite make sense in either country. But we know nothing about Cho Chang except that she’s in Ravenclaw, you know, we know nothing about her ethnic identity. We know nothing about Parvati and … do they celebrate Diwali? Do they not eat beef? We don’t know any of these things about them. So I really liked what Darren calls this. He calls this a “failure of imagination”. Which I think is something that you not only see in this book, you see in a lot of popular media everywhere.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Yeah. It’s very surface level – not three-dimensional characters. Just who’ve been named as a certain way just for the sake of diversity to be a part of the cast but it just doesn’t translate. Like you can tell that it’s not a well-written character – that particular one – when obviously J. K. Rowling, for example, has the ability to write fantastic characters. But the fact that these characters are so one-dimensional is a bit uncomfortable the more you think about it.

Sanjana: As a kid when I read the Harry Potter books and for the first time Parvati comes on the scene, I was super excited to read that name because I was like “Hey I know a Parvati!”

[Parinita and Aparna laugh]

Sanjana: Oh my god I was super excited. And just that much mention of them did so much for me as being included in this vast universe. To only imagine that what it does to so many like just this small mention did that much emotion for me. That this pale Indian character in the background who doesn’t have any more character than just her name did so much for me.

Aparna: Yeah. [laughs]

Parinita: So no you know like that’s another thing ‘cause like we do critique now, especially as adults, the lack of fleshing out characters of colour. Like in the other text that we looked at, The Gayly Prophet text “Clearly Hermione Is Black”, they counted seven characters of colour in the whole series.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita And one Jewish character. And I’m in the UK, I know that it’s much more diverse than that. So you know Darren Chetty, he says, why are there not more people of colour in Hogwarts or even among the teaching staff? Like why is it so white? Where are all the teachers of colour?

Aparna: Yeah!

Parinita: But then as much as we like to critique this, I think Sana like you said, superficial representations sometimes can also have a powerful impact –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: On people, I think. Because you know how J. K. Rowling sort of takes credit for diversity that wasn’t actually there in the books? Like –

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: For example black Hermione and Dumbledore is gay. And as adults or as people who are a part of these conversations

Sanjana: Please – yeah.

Parinita: It’s easy to say that this doesn’t count whatever. But in a university workshop that I was at, I was talking to this person on my table. And she was saying that her child is non-binary and they – when they discovered that Dumbledore is gay, even though it’s not in the text, like you can read the entire series without knowing Dumbledore is gay. But when they heard about it just through conversations with their parents maybe, they were so excited! They were you know –

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: That coloured their whole reading of the texts. So even though –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: That came later, even though it was superficial … For us we want more but …

Sanjana: Haan no absolutely. It can be very powerful just to identify with, which is what I’m saying – just small identifications, can you imagine what a well-written character would do for like a kid growing up?

Parinita: Absolutely!

Sanjana: I was just trying to say it could have been done so much better.

Parinita: Of course.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Like she could have owned not putting it in the original but wanting to –

Aparna: Correct.

Sanjana: Add this to the story like –

Parinita: Absolutely.

Sanjana: It could have made so much of a difference to the way everybody received it.

Aparna: Correct.

Aparna: But Hermione being black, the more I’m reading online or the podcasts that we’re listening to, or the comments on the articles, some people are completely convinced and have been from the beginning that Hermione is black. But for others it’s like obviously not. So I’m not sure what J. K. Rowling had in mind but some people have managed to completely own the character nonetheless.

Sanjana: No but listen, if Rowling thought that she was black from the very beginning, she had a say in the way –

Aparna: No, no, she –

Sanjana: She had been cast.

Aparna: Haan.

Parinita: I don’t think that’s true. But I love the idea of a black Hermione because I’ve been reading a lot of articles and fan texts and things about how if she’s black, her activism really makes sense. Like her outrage against –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Yeah! Exactly.

Parinita: House elf slavery and you know –

Aparna: Correct.

Fan art of black Hermione

Racebent Hermione fan art. Image courtesy Sophia Canning

Parinita: Dumbledore’s Army and everything. But then since the last week, I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts and especially on this one podcast called Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, there have been conversations about how Hermione’s handling of S.P.E.W. was actually really problematic and was a bit white feministy or maybe like in an Indian context, savarna feministy, I guess. Because she didn’t talk to the – like she came saying that oh I know better than you and pitying the house elves but not –

Aparna: Correct.

Parinita: Having conversations with them.

Aparna: I will fix things for you.

Parinita: Exactly! And she was not a good ally. She was controlling it and she was putting her – what she thought was correct into you know circulation – the ideas into circulation without talking to them and talking to –

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: How they would want to be a part of it. Or do they want to be a part of it?

Aparna: Correct.

Parinita: And you also need an education. Like there’s so much internalised prejudice against your own identities just because of the messages you get in society, that sometimes it needs to start from educating, you know, just raising awareness about your oppressed identity. You may not realise you’re oppressed. So it needs to start from there. And so –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: I thought that was also a really interesting interpretation like it’s a great thing she did but maybe … you know because it was presented quite uncritically. In fact, her whole activism was very much a joke. Like in terms of you know how because we read the whole series from Harry’s perspective, he –

Sanjana and Aparna: Yeah!

Parinita: Didn’t take it seriously so the readers also don’t really take it seriously. But there is so much room there for critique and exploration. But it might reflect her own biases and her own worldview at that time or even now. But like you were saying, Sana, it would be so much more impactful if she acknowledged her blind spots. Because obviously all of us have blind spots.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Like we can’t know everything about everything. It’s just questioning your biases and questioning your social conditioning and trying to unlearn that. Like if you don’t acknowledge it –

Sanjana: Talking about social conditioning is what The Gayly Prophet in their episode spoke about was that how when we are reading these texts, even though we uh uh are you know peo – persons of colour, we don’t uh – we

Parinita: [laughs] I like how uncomfortable you were with that term.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Yeah I was –

Aparna: Now you don’t know what to call yourself!

Sanjana: I’m not sure what I am anymore. [laughs] You have shattered – either which way what I was saying was that how we assume that the character we’re reading is white.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: How often does that happen to you guys? It happens quite often to me.

Aparna: Yeah totally. It happens very often and constantly. And most of the time, my imagination was right, because we were reading only white people – white men mostly. I just assumed for the longest time until like shamefully recently that all the characters I was reading were white.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: And all the characters that I identified with also in the books that I was reading and all just happened to be white only because they were the coolest – even if there were non-white characters in the book. Sorry I said non-white.

[Sanjana and Parinita laugh]

Aparna: But in that context it’s true okay because they were only white characters and a few – sprinkling of a non-white character here and there. But even if they were, they were either stereotypes like in Johnny Quest – Haji in Johnny Quest.

Sanjana: Oh my god Haji in Johnny Quest! [laughs]

Aparna: Or they were so surface level that beyond their name or one line here and there, they didn’t really have much of a role to play. So you ended up like identifying with the white characters and then that just became the normal. It took me a long time to say, oh the characters I identify with can actually be similar to me.

Parinita: You know the BuzzFeed article that we read by Alanna Bennett and about – basically about Hermione being black and a racebent Hermione, which again, I’ll link to in the transcript. But she said that she had to train herself out of seeing white as default for fictional characters, but for me it’s something that I really still struggle with. Like I almost –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Need the author to explicitly say that this person, their racial markers. And I don’t know why. It’s like it’s a blind spot in my brain. You know like it’s such a colonised brain that I have that it’s still difficult. Because it’s like what nearly thirty years of conditioning because we’ve grown up –

Sanjana: Correct.

Parinita: With Western media. We still largely read Western media. And now I make it a point to diversify my reading so that I have more black and brown voices in it. But in that it’s so much easier for me to then imagine black and brown bodies. But in just other books, it’s still something that – it’s very difficult for me to unlearn. And it’s still something I actively need to be … so you know these conversations about them being convinced that Hermione was black, I would never have been able to think of that. For me, Hermione was always white because all the characters that I read about were white. So –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Even though I identified with her – bookworm, bushy hair, big teeth, big front teeth –

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: I was like yeah that’s as far as the identification goes. Because I’m in Ravenclaw, you’re in Gryffindor, our paths diverge.

Aparna: [laughs] So it’s like you said, you’re trying to read more diverse authors now. And that’s sort of slowly deconditioning you. Which is why I think the Own Voices movement is so important.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aparna: It’s because to start seeing yourself in books, you have to be correctly represented in books. And to be correctly represented in books, the books have to be written by somebody who’s lived similar experiences as you. Like there has to be space for all voices in the books that we’re reading or the media that we’re consuming. So that everyone can find a way to see themselves. Like this whole conversation should, in an ideal world, not exist because there’ll be so much space for everyone and every voice that every child will be able to identify with every other child or know about various experiences that are not their own through the books that they’re reading. Not just oh this is what British people eat on a picnic. Like everyone should know what everyone eats on a picnic, you know?

Parinita: Yeah and also ever since I came to the UK, I realised that the most popular British food happens to be chicken tikka masala [laughs].

[Aparna and Sanjana laugh]

Parinita: Which you know – that’s not something that you would know of in India. You think oh they eat crumpets and they eat you know baked goods and haggis. And like here everyone loves a good curry, as they call it. Which is something that disrupts our notion of British food.

Aparna: Yeah. So, I’m a picture book editor and I was reading this book about the history of picture books. It’s called Fierce Bad Rabbits. It’s by a lady called Clare Pollard. And she was talking about how there’s a picture book called The Snowy Day by Ezra Keats. And how it was one of the first books that became really popular that featured an African-American character. And it’s just about this little boy who is playing in the snow. And the book was really well-received and people were writing letters to the author saying, “For the first time, my students are picking up the brown crayon to represent themselves.”

Image of book cover. Text says: Fierce Bad Rabbits: The Tales Behind Children's Picture Books by Clare PollardImage of book cover. Text says: The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats

Parinita: Awww!

Aparna: Because we were all – even when we were young, when we would get a crayon box, we would have this flesh-coloured crayon and it would be this pink-colour crayon.

Parinita: Pink. Yeah in India as well!

Sanjana: The crayon’s name was flesh.

Parinita: Yeah. Or skin.

Sanjana: Yeah something like that.

Aparna: So it became really popular and many people assumed that the author was black. And when they found that he wasn’t, they were very disappointed. And then he received a lot of flak about why did he choose to show an African-American character and then started finding like these are very stereotypical representations etc. And he said no, that all children play in the snow, it’s such a universal experience etc. I think he chose it because it would stand out better against the snow or something like

Parinita: Oh.

Aparna: Something illustratory like that. I don’t know. I’m just going to read a bit from the book. “I’m glad if artists don’t always default to white children convinced by Keats when he says of Peter, ‘My book would have him there simply because he should have been there all along.’ But it’s worth noting that The Snowy Day raises an ongoing problem in picture books. Representation on the page is seen as enough for the black child or at least to tick the publisher’s diversity box. Yet there is still a staggering absence of Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic [BAME] writers and illustrators. Who gets to tell the stories is important. They get to shape our children’s way of seeing the world.”

Parinita: No, I think it’s a very good point. But it throws me into such a quandary. Because I’d watched this video on The Guardian and it was about inclusive children’s literature, in the British context. And it featured a Guardian journalist, a black Guardian journalist, Grace Shutti. And she read this book called Amazing Grace, which I think was written in the 70s or 80s. I don’t know, it’s a pretty old book. And it stars like a black family and Grace who is this “little black girl and loves stories and wants to do everything”. So she really identified with it. And then for the video itself, she managed to interview the author. And the author happened to be a white woman.

Image of book cover. Text says: Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman, illustrated by Caroline Binch

Aparna: Oh.

Parinita: And she knew that before she interviewed her.

Aparna: Okay. Haan.

Parinita: And she spoke a little bit about the tensions and things. But for her, it was one rare book in a landscape of white that she was reading.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: So for her, that book holds a really important place.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: And that’s what I struggle so much with. Because I completely believe Own Voices is so important and you should have as many diversity of voices and experiences writing about – because there’s no monolithic experience, right? There’s no monolithic Indian experience –

Aparna: Correct.

Parinita: Or a monolithic whatever class anything. So you need as many as possible. But then I feel like sometimes that non-own voices can also make a really important contribution. Like unfortunately, systemically in media, children’s publishing, everything, we’re not there yet. We’re working really hard to try and fix the imbalance of dominant voices and marginalised voices. But it’s going so slowly. And the other article that we read, which was “Writing Outside Your Identity” by Laura Simeon on Kirkus Reviews.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: And she spoke about how non-own voices books and you know how the different kinds of representations within them.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: And she spoke both about the problematic elements where you just resort to stereotypes and lazy generalisations and not really you know going deep into your research. Oh have you guys come across the recent backlash against this book called American Dirt?

Sanjana and Aparna: No.

Parinita: So it’s this American book I believe because yeah American Dirt. I suppose that makes sense [laughs]. But it was written by I believe a middle-class woman with part Latina heritage. And she’s written about South American immigrants. You know how the whole border situation that’s happening –

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: In the US. And so she wrote about South American immigrants and it created this huge backlash because they believed that she didn’t have the lived experience and she didn’t have the knowledge to be able to tell this story. And that there aren’t enough people who are telling their own stories. So I found that really interesting because in that sense, there’s the power dynamic as well, right?

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: She’s American, like she may have Latina heritage but her Latina experiences in the US are very different from someone who’s fleeing crime or you know whatever from their country.

Sanjana: Yeah. And it can do more harm than it can do good sometimes. Like if you don’t do a well-researched story. What happened to research though? Like it’s not that hard to – at least a little bit.

Parinita: So in that article, she mentioned two YA [Young Adult] books that do a good job. Like non-own voice writers who write about another culture and they do it in a way that a cultural insider would recognise it. Would be able to identify with the characters and stuff.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: So it is possible. But it’s not easy.

Sanjana: It is possible, yeah, yeah.

Parinita: It’s – you have to do a lot of research. You have to know the current and historical discussions, debates, controversies. You need to have a clear picture. Especially when you’re writing about a culture that’s not your own and where you are not impacted, where you are the dominant person and the other person – you know like there’s so many – you have to be careful about it. You have to be respectful.

Aparna: Exactly. Respectful of all of that. And the most important thing is probably an authentic representation.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aparna: If you’re writing outside of your identity, you owe it to your readers to authentically represent them. Because the job of creating media is one of privilege. The creative fields are one of privilege.

Parinita: Absolutely.

Aparna: So it’s already somebody who does it will be from a certain privilege and has been for the longest time so to break away from that, like you said, will take – it’s taking time. There the most important thing is to have people who are like the commissioning editors or people who are showrunners to be diverse or to be at least invested in making sure their shows and books are more inclusive. But more than that, it’s just something that is going to take some time to break away from. But meanwhile whatever representations are being included should be done more mindfully.

Parinita: And there shouldn’t be like you’re scared of representing a culture that’s not your own so you’re not going to do it anyway. Like in that Reddit thread, which was –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Essentially about people of colour in fandom and in fanfiction, there were some responses like, oh if you have a problem with it, why don’t you write your own? Like it’s always the burden of you know the person.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Like it only matters to the person who inhabits a marginalised identity. And it’s not like diversity isn’t important for everybody. Or they would say that, oh they were super sensitive and over-cautious about offending marginalised people through their representations. Which again, it can be solved by research. Social media, the internet, makes it really easy – I mean doesn’t make it really easy, you have to do the work.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: But you have access to resources and conversations that you –

Sanjana: Absolutely.

Parinita: Wouldn’t have had earlier.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Or there are these colourblind statements like, oh we’re focusing on the character and we want to entertain. Like another of this Reddit comment was, I want to entertain and not educate, which is why I’m not adding –

Sanjana: Yeah!

Aparna: Yeah! That’s such rubbish!

Parinita: Right?! As if just having diverse people in a book makes it educational. Like last time I said, just the presence of diversity isn’t political. It’s another thing that I find – I think it’s important to have serious issues, you know, issues based on your marginalised identity like stories that delve into that. But that shouldn’t be the only kind of diversity that we see. Like it should be just diversity in terms of just going on adventures or having fun or just you know light-hearted sort of things.

Sanjana: Yeah without –

Aparna: Yeah exactly.

Sanjana: Comment. That diversity without comment on diversity is what is needed.

Aparna: Exactly. Yeah. I actually have a follow-up question. So as more diverse books are being published, there are lists of diverse books, there is a focus on diversity as a topic. But what do you guys think of that? Because I’m always torn between whether that’s a good thing or is it already treating it as separate?

Sanjana: Different, yeah.

Aparna: From the mainstream.

Parinita: Well, I think that we should be moving towards where it’s not separate. Like we should be moving towards a sort of environment where we don’t need to isolate this. But you know I totally understand these lists because school librarians, school teachers, parents may be really well-meaning but they may not have access to the resources or the knowledge or whatever. So you know putting these things together, and to highlight these voices and to highlight these books and to hopefully encourage other people to pick them up and buy them and you know read them.

Aparna: Right.

Parinita: I think that’s an important step that needs to be taken. Because it is something that ideally it should be without comment, but it’s a political thing as well right? Like unfortunately, diversity currently is political. Or fortunately, I don’t know. It’s a good opportunity as well.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And just like the woman of colour thing that you know it was formed as a political designation, maybe just diversity now should be used as a political tool to promote inclusivity and empathy and respect for different experiences.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Yeah. Which brings us to …

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: Our next section!

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: I’ve been waiting for this section! Our specially curated section on What If?

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: So anyway what I wanted to ask you guys very importantly because when I was writing stuff down, this just sort of pounced at me like the Houses in Hogwarts and the Sorting. What if it was at a different level? How would the world have been if the segregation started at a school level, like at that moment when you are put into Gryffindor or Hufflepuff or wherever – that defined the rest of your life. Like in a sense, what jobs were okay for you to take, and what jobs were beneath you or –

Parinita: Are you talking about the Hindu caste system?

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: YES!

Parinita: Because that’s what it sounds like [laughs] Like oh I’m a brave Gryffindor, maybe I can go fight battles.

Aparna: Yes! Yes!

Sanjana: Isn’t it? Isn’t it? Thank you. I was just – I was phrasing my sentences so you would get at that.

Parinita: [laughs] But like –

Sanjana: All the Ravenclaws would be the ones writing all the texts that –

Aparna: Oh god!

Parinita: Yeah like they would be the Brahmins.

Aparna: This conversation – this what if is …

Sanjana: Haan? Yeah? Isn’t it?

Parinita: Brahmins. Because they have access to knowledge that they don’t – they refuse to share with other people –

Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: And hold onto.

Sanjana: They’ll be the ones writing the history.

Aparna: Ugh.

Parinita: Oh yeah, yeah.

Sanjana: We didn’t compare the Slytherins and Hufflepuffs. I don’t want to go there also.

Parinita: But Slytherins is – maybe they’re the Brahmins because like the white supremacy house.

Sanjana: I think they’re like the supremacy – yeah exactly.

Aparna: That’s true.

Parinita: Yeah I don’t know. Hufflepuff I feel would be the best house. Because Gryffindor only wants the brave people. Like if you’re chicken, please, get out. Ravenclaw only wants the smart people. Slytherin only wants the pure-blood people. And Hufflepuff just accepts everybody. Like Hufflepuff is great, you don’t – you need to be kind, okay. That’s all – that’s all you need. That’s great. That’s a great House.

Sanjana: Yeah. But what a strange horrible world that would be.

Aparna: [laughs] Yeah.

Sanjana: I have a follow up to the What If.

Parinita: Okay.

Sanjana: What if it was all integrated? Like you got Sorted out, but then you didn’t sit on separate tables.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: You went on Quidditch matches against other schools, not your own school, like one team. You also had one team.

Aparna: Oh!

Sanjana: That would be fun!

Aparna: I suppose, I suppose.

Parinita: So there’s that fan text Tumblr post that I’d sent you guys earlier this week which I’ll link to in the transcript. Which was – it had very tragic beginnings. Because it was –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: After the war. After the Hogwarts battle where lots of people were dead so there were gaps in the House tables. And soon just as a form of healing and getting over your trauma, the professors encouraged intermingling of the Houses. So there weren’t four separate tables for the four houses. And again like how messed up is that?

The Tumblr fan text

Aparna and Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: That in the series like they do literally everything only with their Houses.

Aparna and Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: Which, again, has so many race, class, caste implications, right? Like imagine if you’re only hanging out with your own caste or your own class or your own race.

Aparna: Like it would be rebellious to befriend people from other Houses at the rate at which we are keeping people away from each other.

Sanjana: Because the Common Room is – the Common Room of like girls and boys. They should be like a larger Common Room for everybody.

Parinita: Right?!

Sanjana: Like a common Common Room.

Parinita: And like you can’t make friends with people who aren’t brave? Like that’s such a sort of superficial characteristic. Like brave and loyal. So what Slytherins can’t be brave and loyal?

Aparna: Also it’s not practical. The brave people need – people who are not so brave need brave people to hang around with. [laughs]

Parinita: Absolutely! And brave people, I’m sorry, but are not always the most clear-headed and you know –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: They’re not always thinking about their actions. So like maybe you need a little bit of Ravenclaw to be like excuse me please, can we – can we analyse little bit and see what is going to happen? Instead of just charging into the situation. So again Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, I keep calling on them even though we’ve not listened to them yet. But they had another interesting thing was so they were thinking of it in terms of American university semesters. And they said that all the students in Hogwarts, because there don’t seem to be that many of them, it’s a very small class size. So every semester, they should all be in a different House. And embody the qualities of that House and learn about the House’s history and their attitudes and talk to each other and you know talk to people whose families have a history of that House and just as a form of cultural intermingling in a very respectful way and in like a very curious way where you’re not judging but you’re just happy to learn and happy to be a part of it. That’s what I would want. That’s what my What If would be.

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to Part One of our two-part episode on race and representation. Tune in again for Part Two where we have a lot more thoughts about whitewashing, racebending, diverse canons, diverse fandoms, Harry Potter, and Doctor Who! As always, thank you so much Sana and Paru for putting in so much work for my weird little PhD project. I can’t imagine doing this with anyone else! And thanks again to my editor, Jack, for taking care of the technical bits.

You can now listen to Marginally Fannish on Spotify, Apple, Google, or SoundCloud. I’d love to hear from you and talk to you – so any feedback, comments or critiques are very welcome! Get in touch with me on social media, leave a comment on my blog, or email me at edps@leeds.ac.uk. If you’d like to follow the podcast or the PhD project, visit my website marginallyfannish.org where you’ll find both the podcast episodes and the blog. You can also receive updates on Facebook or Instagram at Marginally Fannish or on Twitter where I’m @MarginalFannish. If you enjoyed the podcast, please share it with anyone you think will enjoy it too.

Thanks for listening! Tune in again next time for all things fannish and intersectional!

Some Notes on Episode 1

While typing up the transcript and then listening to Episode 1, these are some of the stray thoughts that came to mind.

1) All three of us took turns introducing ourselves. While introducing myself, I mentioned my academic background but not my fannish one. It was a subconscious decision rather than a deliberate one which makes me wonder – is the nature of my project and my own imposter syndrome making me seek to establish my academic credentials and legitimacy? To make some amends for that, I used to write and read Harry Potter fanfiction as a teenager. I don’t really read any fanfiction anymore but I engage with fandom in many different ways (including through my PhD research)

2) Based on something S said, why can’t you change Houses once you’ve been Sorted? Does Pottermore have more legitimacy than not only random BuzzFeed quizzes but even what you yourself identify as? Alternatively, do the quizzes introduce you to an aspect of your identity you didn’t previously recognise?

3) There are different interpretations of Sorting when done in a less arbitrary fashion (and its parallels to caste, race, religion, gender etc.). It brings you a sense of community, something to support – but quite arbitrary based on only some and not all aspects of your identity. There is the danger of exceptionalism and/or othering.

4) The British Empire has a continuing influence on Indian, British, and global education, literature, and culture.

5) There are different contexts of racism, prejudice, and oppression in India as opposed to the UK, leading to different readings of Enid Blyton, Harry Potter, and Doctor Who based on which context you’re most familiar with.

6) The politics of food where British and even American food has colonised our imagination thanks to the media we’re exposed to. This is also related to the politics of language in terms of which language you speak and how you speak it (for example, in many of my personal contexts, English is dominant and a certain kind of English and a certain kind of accent is dominant within that).

7) I’ve learned to critique what I may not have initially found problematic as I’ve grown up and encountered new perspectives. Early attitudes are largely a result of social conditioning and it is an active, ongoing process to unlearn and question assumptions.

8) S’s brief commentary on the mainstream Indian education system where draconian Umbridge measures would probably be the norm in many schools today.

9) I feel terrible about using the term Mudblood. I felt guilty about it for days as soon as we finished recording. I really debated editing it out, but decided to keep it to acknowledge it and learn from it.

10) On Panju and Cinnamon: it’s interesting what names people choose to represent unfamiliar cultures and what this choice reveals about their thoughts (or lack thereof) about, for example, India and its culture and food and history.

11) On Japanese internment camps in the US – a similar demonisation of a certain group of people is currently prevalent in India too. If any Muslim person critiques anything in India, they’re often met with the response. “Oh just go to Pakistan!” or “Just send them to Pakistan!” The way people are othering Muslims in both insidious and explicit ways, we’re not far off from building camps for all Indian Muslims (the project to detain some of them has, of course, already begun).

12) The Sorting camaraderie/divisiveness dichotomy has historical and contemporary Indian parallels with British divide and rule and current politics. Belongingness to a certain group could be about working towards something together with other groups where you’re going beyond the groups you were born into to build a community with people like and unlike you. However, it could also very easily be taken advantage of, as witnessed in Indian (and world history and current events).

13) We mentioned that neither the 1990s and 2020 are very safe. However, this is a statement from a position of privilege coming from all three of us since for millions of people, India has never been safe. Coming from the dominant groups, we’re just more aware of this now (though not completely aware of the dire reality so many Indians face).

14) When McGonagall decided to lock the Slytherins in the basement, it implied that if the parents are Death Eaters, the children would be too. However, the children may not follow in the Pure Blood supremacy footsteps. This can be seen in many real-world examples where the racist, homophobic, xenophobic attitudes of parents aren’t always accepted unquestioningly by the children.

Some Notes on Recording Episode 1 – Lessons Learned

After we finished recording our pilot episode, A, S and I debriefed both on the day on Skype, and the next day on WhatsApp. We came up with some suggestions to keep in mind for next time.

1) We need to write and/or be aware of transitions when moving from one segment to the next.

2) We need to decide who is going to end the episode and how. Our ending was extremely awkward.

3) We don’t need detailed segment outlines since we always have a lot more to add than we planned for (Despite this, I’m a 100% confident that I’m still going to over-prepare for future epsiodes)

4) It worked brilliantly to meet before recording the episode in order to talk about the themes and ideas we’re interested in, what segments we’d like to have, and then assigning segment leads so that everyone knew which segment they would be in charge of. I’m definitely going to suggest replicating this with guest episodes too.

5) We need to be better about noting down the names of the people we’re citing from the texts we’re discussing. S also suggested weaving quotes throughout the next episodes.

We didn’t end up using the second text A suggested or talking about all the themes we had discussed. This makes my completist heart super uncomfortable. However, we did talk about things we hadn’t planned on, so I can’t complain and/or plan too much. We may end up including the unused text in a future episode. We’re still trying to figure out what works best in terms of the format and the number of texts we discuss and how we discuss them. I’m going to add all the text resources we discuss in the transcript to encourage feedback and multiple interpretations from listeners.

I’m uncomfortable with being in sole control of the editing process since it will be up to me to decide what’s necessary and what’s not. Especially since this designated importance may change when I’m analysing the episodes where something I’d edited out may end up being important after all. I’m deliberately choosing to keep the content of our conversations as unedited as possible. I don’t want to edit the awkwardness out since as a researcher, I’m also interested in the learning process – how we begin and how we evolve as podcasters. At the same time, I’m aware that I want to make the podcast engaging and inclusive so as to invite diverse voices and perspectives to respond to our conversations. Making it an unpleasant listening experience may be counterproductive and even border on a vanity project. Which is why I’m comfortable editing out the fillers, hesitations, and mistakes. I’m not going to conduct a linguistic analyses of the episodes, which is why the content matters more. However, I’m also going to retain the unedited versions of both the audio file and the text transcript just in case.

As a picture book editor, A believes there’s merit in good editing, and suggests I edit out conversations which are superfluous and not entertaining. I agree about the importance of editing when the podcast (or book or video) is a proper media production where good editing creates a better impact. However, since the podcast is my PhD project, I’m less interested in it as a media product since it simply acts as a vehicle for our conversations and ideas. If I continue doing this podcast outside the PhD (which I would very much like to), I’ll make editing a bigger priority.

Some Notes on Episode 1 Resources

Some Notes On … is a section which features my autoethnographic fieldnotes as I document my thoughts throughout different parts of my PhD project. Here, I write about the text resources discussed in our podcast episode. 

For Episode 1 “More Inclusive: The Journey of Three Indian Fangirls”, we discussed two texts.

Fan podcast Imaginary Worlds Episode 52 “The Sorting Hat”

As a ten, then an eleven-year-old Harry Potter fan, I desperately wanted a letter from Hogwarts (I still kind of do as a nearly-thirty-year-old). I didn’t even consider that an Indian magical school might exist. The idea of British boarding schools may seem strange to American readers – as someone in the podcast mentioned – but the system at Hogwarts was something I completely took for granted.So much of my childhood is shaped by British literature (especially Enid Blyton), and now much of my adulthood is shaped by American culture.

When I was a younger reader of the books, I always identified as a Gryffindor because that’s how the books and Harry’s perspective position you. I was in the Red House in my school and I was very proud of the Gryffindor connections because all the heroes and good guys are in Gryffindor right? So in school inter-house sporting events, I was convinced we were the heroes. As I grew older, I realised I was obviously a Ravenclaw (as attested by several online Sorting quizzes I’ve taken over the years). It was only a few years ago, that a few then-new friends convinced me I had many Hufflepuff qualities, which is why I now identify as a RavenPuff (and I’m proud of both these identities). I’m unsure of why these fictional characteristics seem so important to my sense of self – what sort of framework they provide for my identity.

Why is Harry Potter so important to our generation? We who’ve grown up with the series? I suppose it offers a huge cultural, global resonance regardless of religion and national boundaries. I know of many other people who identify with their Hogwarts houses and Sort their friends into houses too.

The books are extremely biased when it comes to the four Hogwarts Houses. It’s only the conversations in fandom which introduced me to the biases and expanded my brain to alternative possibilities. Slytherin is othered to a ludicrous degree – the comparison in the podcast to the Second World War Japanese internment camps in the US made me think of real-world implications of vilifying a group of people so single-mindedly.

I love the theory that someone on the podcast proposed that the Sorting Hat chooses students with a diverse range of qualities to go to a House to make them a stronger team. For example, Hermione brings Ravenclaw qualities to Gryffindor, Luna brings Hufflepuff qualities to Ravenclaw, Harry brings Slytherin qualities to Gryffindor. Thus, the Hat performs a pedagogical function in this school of witchcraft and wizardry where it sneakily imparts lessons to the students about being more broad-minded about the characteristics you identify with. It does make me wonder though, how many students actually receive this message? Perhaps the Hat needs to be more explicit in its song-writing. Another real-world theory someone in the podcast proposed was that Harry Potter is making people more team-focused than individualistic, in terms of the examples of the Houses. However, I think it’s more Dumbledore’s Army than the Houses which do this – by having a group of students working together in the resistance to fascism. Real-world parallels in this case are much more pertinent to our current times. This also made me think of similarities between being a fan and being a citizen. As a fan, you critique your favourite media because you love them and are so invested in them. As a citizen, you critique your government and country because you want what you love to do better, to be better.

Hogwarts may not prepare you for a career in the magical world (as the episode pointed out, your job options are quite limited once you’re out of full-time education. However, Hogwarts does (well, sometimes) fulfill a broader role of education – it helps the students how to learn and think. Admittedly, some teachers do this more successfully than others, and the pedagogy employed by Hogwarts may have some significant gaps, but this isn’t unlike educational institutions in the real world.

The Last Jedi Killed My Childhood, and That’s Exactly Why It’s Great

“Ruined my childhood” is an extremely contentious term for different reasons in the Harry Potter fandom (with Rowling’s increasingly problematic statements) and in the Doctor Who fandom (a small part of which is railing against the “forced diversity”). In the former’s case, I think the series belongs to us, the fans. As soon as Rowling released it out into the world, it was no longer just hers. Especially since it’s had such a huge impact on countless lives (including mine). I refuse to let the series go but I am less reluctant to let her go. With the latter, I’ve been lucky not have witnessed the really toxic side of fandom, largely due to the spaces I inhabit (I like my safe-space-echo-chamber thankyouverymuch).

“We don’t want our heroes to get supplanted and old.” Could this explain some of the backlash against Harry Potter and the Cursed Child?

“Belongs to a new generation of kids to love.” Lots of parallels with Doctor Who, where Jodie’s Doctor and the increasing diversity in the series is resulting in drawing in brand new audiences. In my own case, this has also been true with comic books – both of well-established DC and Marvel franchises as well as emerging new stories. I’ve discovered that comics are also written for someone like me – and I’ve been devouring them ever since I stumbled upon the first volume of Ms. Marvel in a local Leeds library.


Pre-Podcast Recording (Very) Minor Crisis

On the day my co-hosts and I were supposed our pilot episode, I spent the morning catching up on the two texts A suggested. I’d ended up making so many notes based on the themes and segments we had planned that I didn’t trust my memory to remember all the points. I began putting together an episode outline to help remember all the cues, and realised I was taking up far too much talking-time. I then checked a few elements with S and A and asked them to take over some segments. They, in turn, suggested sharing my outline with them so they could refer to it too. Before sending it to them, I slowly began realising I may have too many notes and warned them about it. I justified it using my pilot-episode-nerves as an excuse (I was nervous, but I’m a chronic over-preparer of things).

This over-preparedness ended up backfiring. Once they saw my outline, A and S were too freaked out since they hadn’t prepared a similar document with copious notes and too many details. They felt extremely uncomfortable about their lack of preparation and wanted some time to make too-many notes too, “as you have scared us” (Aparna said). We then decided to postpone the recording by a day so they could go off to over-prepare too.

This made me conflicted about my process in this particular project. While I’m used to over-preparing for any project, I’m not used to sharing this with collaborators (usually because I work by myself). Perhaps some prior communication about my habits and plans may have given A and S some sort of heads-up about what to expect. But, at the same time, I was trying very (perhaps too) hard not to influence their actions based on mine. I inadvertently also seem to have set a precedent for my co-hosts to follow. S wanted to follow my example since I’d done the most research (which is true, but I don’t think that gives me any insight into the best process for others). P believed that my notes helped them realise they may do better with similar notes.

Ultimately, I’m unsure of whether the notes will end up hindering or helping the recording. But I ended the day feeling a bit Gollumish about sharing my contrived and roundabout process with others!

Gif of Gollum from The Lord of the Rings. Text says: My precious

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