A PhD project exploring intersectionality through fan podcasts

Header image with the text Marginally Fannish

Month: April 2020

Episode 7 There’s Never Chicken Tikka Masala At Hogwarts: Different Cultures in Fantasy Media

Episode Resources:

For this episode we looked at the following texts:

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

Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper Islands in Speculative Fiction: Live from WorldCon

Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Do You Speak Conlang?

Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds In Defense of the Star Wars Holiday Special

Fan podcast – Reading, Writing, Rowling Amy H Sturgis: Fantasy, Imagination and Indigenous Futurism

Fan podcast – Reading, Writing, Rowling Harry Potter Voices Across Borders

Article – How Knowledge About Different Cultures Is Shaking the Foundations of Psychology

Episode Transcript:

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. If you would prefer the original, unedited version, please let me know!

Photo of Aditi Krishnakumar

[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 seventh episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I talk to Aditi Krishnakumar about how different cultures are represented in some of our favourite fantasy worlds. As readers who grew up in India, there were many cultural stereotypes in Western texts which we just didn’t pick up on. Now, we’ve learned a lot through the collective intelligence of online fandom.

The ways in which mainstream media portrays different cultures influences audience attitudes about people from these cultures. The dominance of Western fantasy and culture in fiction marginalises other ways of being in the world. In a lot of fantasy worlds, diverse cultures are used either as set-dressing or just for comic relief. The ways in which different languages and foods are depicted can also sideline certain groups of people.

What is considered the norm and what is exotic in popular fantasy? Whose cultures and intellectual histories are privileged? Such conversations about diversity among fans can play a huge role in decolonising traditional ideas of fantasy. Retellings of old stories – both in traditional media and within fandom – are increasingly used to subvert problematic ideas and reflect progressive values.

Find our conversation about all this and more in today’s episode.

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: Today, I’m so glad that I get to chat with Aditi Krishnakumar. Aditi grew up in India and she now works in the finance industry in Singapore. And she enjoys reading and is a published writer. So we share a children’s book publisher – Duckbill Books in India. And when Aditi’s book was due to be released, my editors asked me if I’d like to interview her for their blog because they know I’m a middle-grade fantasy nerd. I fell so completely in love with The Magicians of Madh. And Aditi creates such a fascinating world populated with the most absurd characters – absurd in the best way possible. I love absurd characters. And so she has a bunch of absurd characters and cultures and I just didn’t want to stop reading her world. And if you’re into comic fantasy and middle-grade books, you should definitely check her book out as well. This week, Aditi and I are going to talk about how different cultures are represented in some of our favourite fantasy worlds – both of us love reading fantasy. And we’re also going to chat about our experiences in online fandom a bit. So Aditi, do you want to introduce your own experiences encountering different cultures – either in fiction, fandom or the real world?

Aditi: This is probably true for lots of us growing up in India – the first things that you read, the first fantasy, everything – it’s all Enid Blyton.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aditi: And all the magical creatures that you hear about are the brownies and the pixies and –

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Aditi: [laughs] And you know the things they eat, the puddings and cakes and jellies. So that was pretty much it. And then The Hobbit I guess was next. And these are all … they’re just so very, very British. Both of them. Like really British books. Which is fine because they were by British writers. But I think … it has changed now – but growing up, there was definitely not many fantasy books that were really relatable for me.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aditi: In that world.

Parinita: I’m the same as well. I grew up reading Enid Blyton and other British and American books.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: So there was The Baby-Sitters Club and things and –

Aditi: Charlotte’s Web.

Parinita: Yeah. So even things that weren’t fantasy, or even if they were fantasy, the fantastical world was a whole other thing. And that real world in the UK or in the US was also this sort of foreign, alien world almost.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: And I also grew up watching a lot of Bollywood movies. I love Bollywood movies. I grew up in Mumbai.

Aditi: Um hmm.

Parinita: So it is pretty diverse but it’s still a very limited diversity. Even though we have a lot of people from all over the country in the city, especially when you’re younger, you only really interact with a limited group of people.

Aditi: Right, right. ’Cause in school you’ve just got a small bunch of friends.

Parinita: Exactly. Or in your housing society you’ll have neighbours and things. And so Bollywood introduced me to all these different cultures. I’ve never tried to look at Bollywood critically until a few years ago. And there are so many stereotypes in terms of different cultures that they portray in Bollywood movies as well. When it comes to tribal folk in Bollywood movies – and in Hollywood as well, I guess – and their customs, it’s just –

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: So full of stereotypes. Or even different religions or people from different regions – Gujarati stereotypes or South Indian stereotypes or Bengali stereotypes. There are so many. And in Enid Blyton, I know that she’s now being criticized a lot because golliwogs were supposed to represent black people in her books?

Aditi: Right, yeah. I think it’s one of those things that you can still – because I still think some things are really good about her books, especially her school stories, I think. You know they show girls being independent.

Parinita: Oh yeah.

Aditi: You don’t see that in The Famous Five and stuff but where her stories are exclusively about girls … I mean she does have problems and you can acknowledge them. But I think there’s still some great stuff.

Parinita: No, absolutely. I still love Enid Blyton’s books because it made me fall in love with reading.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: Those are the books that I read when I was six – The Faraway Tree and The Famous Five and things. And obviously at that age, I didn’t pick up on these anti-foreigner sentiments. And golliwogs and racism toh I wouldn’t even have thought of. Because I had no conception –

Aditi: I didn’t even know what a golliwog was.

Parinita: Yeah! Exactly! I mean there were pictures of the golliwog in the books, in some of the toys ones …

Aditi: In Noddy they had some golliwog pictures.

Parinita: Yeah. But I would never have – just because growing up in India, I don’t have that idea that oh this is supposed to represent black people. I just thought oh this is a doll.

Book cover of The Three Golliwogs by Enid Blyton

Aditi: You know I used to have those trolls when I was a kid right, those troll dolls.

Parinita: Yeah, yeah.

Aditi: Which I just thought it was something like that.

Parinita: It’s like with Harry Potter as well right? You can love the world and the story but you can also critique it. It doesn’t need to pass by unproblematically but you can still love it. I think it’s that balance. And it’s difficult because I think especially the books and things that were written a longer time ago when these conversations weren’t happening, if we read them through 2020 [the year the episode was recorded in] lenses, it might not be as diverse and inclusive as we want them to be. And I think it’s important to have that conversation that this is where it is missing.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: I would still want to read Enid Blyton books because the stories themselves are something that I have such positive associations with. So just to begin with our episode, a few of the podcast episodes that you and I listened to, touched on the theme of the dominance of Western fantasy and culture in fiction.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: And how this either marginalizes or exoticises other cultures and beliefs. And we talked about Enid Blyton a bit. When you were listening to this, did you think of any examples yourself?

Aditi: I mean one was Blyton herself ’cause there’s this some – I forget which one it is, it’s one of these Five Find-Outers books.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aditi: Where … oh I remember – I think it’s The Missing Prince or The Vanished Prince or something like that. So there’s an Indian price called Bongawi.

Parinita: Oh.

Aditi: Or Bongawa or something.

Parinita: Yeah that very Indian name. [laughs]

Aditi: Yes. So I mean that’s the kind of thing I thought – at the time I honestly I’m not sure I even realised they meant Indian like people from India. I don’t know what I thought. But it’s not something –

Parinita: Yeah because they also call Native Americans Indians, right? A lot of these early books, American Indians was this other thing.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: So in Breaking The Glass Slipper, The Cultural Traditions of Magic Episode with Zen Cho

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: She was talking about how the fantasy fiction that we read is, it currently depends on which culture is dominant. And mostly the stuff that is dominant right now is Western fantasy. It’s British and it’s American. And even on television. So I didn’t even realise these ideas of fantasy that had been shaped by Western culture. Because you grow up in India, at least if you grow up in certain parts of India, in cities and things, you have access to both Western and Indian culture.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: You have influences of both. So I thought it was interesting that she pointed this out, because even she is from Malaysia – she’s Malaysian-British. And she pointed out how a lot of Western fantasy is very Judeo-Christian. And it exoticises anything that doesn’t fit within that framework. And I was like oh yeah I actually hadn’t thought about that.

Aditi: It does, right? The other thing that you’d shared, I think the article [she meant podcast episode] about the Star Wars Holiday Special.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aditi: I like Star Wars but I think that’s part of the reason everyone tends to make fun of that. And you can kind of see why people make fun of it ‘cause it’s just so obviously –

Parinita: Have you watched it? The Star Wars Holiday Special?

Aditi: I hadn’t watched it for years but when I read that article, I saw a bit of it on YouTube.

Parinita: Yeah. Oh my god. So just as an aside, because I have to say I just love that movie so much [laughs].

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: One of my friends introduced it to me a couple of years ago.

Aditi: Um hmm.

Parinita: We were just doing this bad movie night thing where we’d have these regular bad movie nights at their flat. And we watched this and I just couldn’t believe that this cultural touchstone that Star Wars is and The Star Wars Holiday Special, what it is. I don’t even ironically love it, I very sincerely and –

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: Unironically love that ridiculous little movie that even George Lucas has completely divorced himself from.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: Like nope, I’m not going to do this. But yeah, sorry I interrupted you.

Aditi: I think it started from George Lucas because you always read about how he was influenced by Joseph Campbell and I read this book at some point of how Harry Potter also reflects the hero’s journey from Campbell. But the thing is Joseph Campbell’s books themselves have always felt like they are so … even his books about oriental mythology are still so much from a Western lens.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aditi: And that’s the proto-text that people very often consider now for fantasy writing or for epic writing. But that itself is such a Western lens that you know that’s –

Parinita: Yeah and even on a couple of the Imaginary Worlds episodes that we listened to. How they were talking about basically science fiction – I don’t know if it was the ones that we listened to but I listen to a lot of his episodes. And just the analogy with science fiction. Things like Star Trek where the whole concept is discovery and whatever, but it is a very Western colonial perspective as well.

Aditi: It is.

Parinita: Which you don’t think about right? At least I don’t. I’ve grown up not thinking critically about media at all.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: I just – I’m entertained by media. And it’s only now that I found that I have those tools and the vocabulary to articulate these things. But also I enjoy doing it. I enjoy looking at these things critically. I was watching Star Wars the original trilogy the other day and the Ewoks are also so very stereotypically tribal I was like okay yeah this is interesting. I didn’t realise how much …

Aditi: When you see it as a kid, you just think that they’re kind of cute.

Parinita: Yeah! And even The Star Wars Holiday Special. So the first twenty minutes is – and this is what I love telling my friends about this movie, about how ridiculous this movie is – it is twenty minutes of unsubtitled Wookie dialogue.

Aditi: [laughs] I read that.

Parinita: So they’re just –

Aditi: That’s just –

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs] They’re just literally grunting. You have to just imagine what they’re saying to each other and you don’t have this context. But like I said, I unironically love this movie. But because I love critically analyzing it, I was also thinking, to me it was a bit like how someone who doesn’t speak the dominant language in a culture or doesn’t belong to the dominant religion or the race or whatever, depending on where they are, and how for them, their culture is marginalised as well.

Aditi: Yes.

Parinita: Like in this Wookie land, obviously nobody understands them. We, the audience don’t understand them. And it’s so easy to make fun of it – to laugh it off.

Aditi: But you know on a somewhat related note, this is one thing I found when watching not the really big-budget Hollywood movies but some TV shows and things like that. When they’re speaking, especially when they’re speaking in Tamil occasionally and very often they’re allegedly speaking in Tamil which I speak. But I don’t know that it’s Tamil.

Parinita: Aaah.

Aditi: Because it sounds nothing like it. And I have to read the subtitles. So it’s sort of –

Parinita: [laughs] Ohhh right!

Aditi: You’ve not actually even got someone like a decent voice coach. Which they would do if someone was speaking French or Spanish or something.

Parinita: I know we’re going to talk about it a little more later but just because like you said that it’s just the politics of language as well. I was watching um what’s uh I’ve completely blanked out on the name – Hasan Minhaj’s show? The one on Netflix? [Patriot Act]

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: I love that show. And he was doing an episode on India – the Indian political system. I think it was about Modi. I’m not sure. So he started speaking in Hindi at one point and the subtitles said, “speaks in a foreign language”.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: And I was like ummm first of all, you’re a global platform. You’re on Netflix. I mean it’s produced in the US but it is on a global platform. So foreign for whom? And also you’re literally talking about the Indian elections. It wouldn’t have been so difficult to figure out that it is Hindi or to just look it up or something. Yeah, I sent a very outraged message to one of my friends.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: Saying, “Foreign to whom?!” So the problem isn’t obviously including diverse cultures in your world. You want diverse cultures. It’s only I think when you use these unfamiliar cultures as if they’re – I think Zen Cho mentioned this – as if they’re set-dressing in your fantasy world.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: Especially if that culture is marginalised in the real world.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: One of the things that we read [I meant an episode we listened to] was the whole Native American fiasco that J. K. Rowling had found herself in.

Aditi: Oh my god yeah. With those Skinwalker things. That was just …

Parinita: Yeah! And honestly I have to admit, I don’t know that much about Native American culture and about what they consider really sacred and what they consider really a part of their culture. I think another thing that’s really popular on the internet now – or it was a few years ago – was the term “my spirit animal”.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: Like something is my spirit animal. Which now a lot of Native people on Twitter and things say that, “No this is offensive to us, we don’t like you using this. So instead why don’t you use Patronus because that’s basically what you mean and that’s not offending anybody.” She’s [Rowling] so rich. Why doesn’t she just hire a research assistant to do this stuff?

Aditi: I know! [laughs]

Parinita: It’s just ridiculous to me.

Aditi: No, I think that’s what’s happened with her is that as long as she was writing about British things in a British setting, she probably knew what was too sacred to be touched simply because she grew up with it. But once anyone, not just J. K. Rowling, once anyone starts writing about something that unfamiliar …

Parinita: But you would think that especially now because this she did not write in the 90s – about Magic in North America on her Pottermore essays

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: It was now. When these conversations are very present. This is happening on the internet. And even if she doesn’t spend time on the internet, the fact that you have this power and your voice is reaching so many people and you know that your franchise is super popular, you would think that you would make more of an effort.

Aditi: You should do a bit more.

Parinita: Yeah!

Aditi: It’s not just that. It’s like her list of wizarding schools.

Parinita: [laughs] Oh my god.

Aditi: You’ve got three of them in Europe and all of Asia has one wizarding school in Japan.

Parinita: Yeah! In Japan! I was listening to this other podcast Woke Doctor Who where they were doing a Harry Potter thing. And one of them, she’s Chinese-American. And she was like um Japan attacked China a few decades ago.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: I don’t think Chinese wizards would be really happy to go to Japan just like yeah hello, everything’s all right. And Africa I think has one? The whole of Africa has one wizarding school as well.

Aditi: Yeah. This is basic maths. She just needs to work out the population and figure out where the schools should be, that’s it.

Parinita: Yeah. And the UK I mean it’s such a tiny place and they get this whole British wizarding school. Which of course has its own issues. So I didn’t realise this earlier. All these British politics I’ve only learned the nuances of once I’ve moved to the UK.

Aditi: Um hmm.

Parinita: But Jack, who is Scottish, he had encountered this thing about Seamus Finnigan. He doesn’t read Harry Potter but he knows some things.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: And Seamus Finnigan, this Irish character who loves blowing things up and setting things on fire.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: And I was like oh my god what! [laughs] I didn’t even make that connection that your one Irish character loves blowing things up.

Gif from the Harry Potter movies of Seamus Finnigan accidentally blowing up a potion

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] I guess there is an element of parody. I suppose you’re just doing it …

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: Or maybe she thought that she was doing it as parody, I suppose?

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: But I don’t know where that line is between – this North America thing, definitely she’s crossed the line because there have been Native American fans of Harry Potter who’ve called her out on it and she hasn’t yet to my belief, she hasn’t responded to the critique at all.

Aditi: Right. And the other thing is the Nagini thing which has been another disaster I think for her. And in so many ways it’s just so wrong to begin with. She’s not really focused on the mythology. Which is a secondary thing. But also this whole concept. I don’t know if she thought about it at the time when she said that killing Nagini was necessary. I don’t think Harry Potter spoilers count now, do they?

Parinita: No, no. I mean I’ll put a spoiler warning anyway. But yeah.

Aditi: But when you realise then that she was in fact a woman who was forced to be in that form and then killing her is necessary. And it’s just such a really, really terrible thing.

Parinita: And especially in a world where the characters of colour you can count on like maybe if not one hand, on two hands. Even though I think Nagini is from Crimes of Grindelwald?

Aditi: She is, yeah.

Parinita: I haven’t watched that movie yet. It’s on my list. As a proper Harry Potter scholar I suppose I should.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: But I’ve heard such bad things about it that it’s completely put me off watching it. But yeah even in the Harry Potter world but also in that prequel world, there aren’t that many characters of colour. So the way to include diversity isn’t necessarily to make this dramatic death scene.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: I don’t know it just seems basic. And some of these ideas you know they become so ingrained in you unconsciously because of what we’re exposed to, because of what we’re reading. We internalize these ideas of fantasy that we don’t even understand that oh this is our idea of fantasy. Which is why I love Terry Pratchett, his Discworld books.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: Because they push against it so often. They just take these tropes and stereotypes and they turn it upside down in a way that the reader’s like oh yeah you’re subverting it! And in a way that’s not obviously subverting it. Like he’s not saying oh look at me, look at how clever I am.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: But I mean he is pretty clever. So I love Terry Pratchett.

Aditi: Yeah, that’s true. And all of his characters who make a difference like Vimes and Lady Sybil and Granny Weatherwax, they’re not stereotypical, heroic characters.

Parinita: Yeah. And they’re taking witches, for example, or aristocracy or just guards. And it’s taking them and it’s not completely doing away with their identity. It’s not subverting it in a way that their history doesn’t matter if that makes sense.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: It’s using their history and their identity to subvert, which I really like.

Aditi: No, I think that’s cool. The solution is not to say I’m introducing this character who’s diverse but they’re exactly like all the other characters and it’s just that from their name or the actor playing them or something, that’s how you know that they’re diverse.

Parinita: Yeah! Exactly. I’m always torn you know as a writer but also as a reader. Because currently diversity is so … we’re still not there yet where we’ve achieved equal representation.

Aditi: Right

Parinita: So what’s the better way where you don’t mention anyone’s race or ability or gender, gender identity or whatever. And you just allow people to read themselves into it? Or you explicitly mention all the diverse identities so that it is more explicit?

Aditi: Yeah actually I think both ways work. I mean to an extent. ’Cause if you’re in a fantasy world with made-up names then it’s fine, you don’t have to. People can just imagine anything. Sometimes in the real world, just the sort of names and locations give you a bit of an idea of at least culturally what you mean. Honestly and I know I’m speaking from a position of privilege here because I can afford not to care but it’s just … something I’ve never really thought about one way or another in books. Because all this thing about shipping and who do you want to be dating whom and all that, I’ve never been involved in and never really have I cared about it. It’s always sort of like you know …

Parinita: Yeah like what other people say. I honestly didn’t think about these things either. Until I was listening to this episode um I forget the name of the Harry Potter podcast – oh yeah #WizardTeam. And it’s these two black American fans who are reading each chapter.

Aditi: Um hmm.

Parinita: And they just have a commentary. And they read Hermione but also Hagrid and Minerva McGonagall as black because they’d said that there is nothing that said otherwise in the text. In Harry Potter, all the characters who are not white – their race is mentioned.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: Whereas everybody else is normal I guess. Or you just don’t need to know their race because they’re obviously white.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: So I realised that when I’m reading Harry Potter or I’m reading any text that is Western-authored, for me everyone is white. I’ve not yet been able to decolonise my mind that much that I read my race or another race into it. I need to be told that this person is black or this person is Asian just for me to be able to even imagine differently. I suppose because –

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: I’ve only been reading certain kind of books and watching a certain kind of –

Aditi: You know that happens with me too. When it’s a Western writer … yeah you’re right, unless they specifically say this character is whatever they are, you just assume that they are white.

Parinita: Yeah. Which is why I’m trying to … so over the last, I think, year or a bit, I was trying to read more fantasy exclusively authored by women. It just started off randomly but then I realised that I actually really enjoy the different kinds of stories that are here now when it’s women who are authoring these worlds. And in a way that I didn’t even realise I was missing. Because I was reading most of the books that are written by men or TV shows and movies that are created by men.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: And then I started reading more books from women of colour as they say in the US which now it’s a term I’ve adopted whereas both of us – we are women of colour. We are both from India. Like even in Singapore –

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: There everyone is from … I think it’s very multicultural right? A lot of different countries’ inhabitants?

Aditi: It is, yeah. Especially in the business district and all you could be in any country because there are Chinese and Japanese and Indians and Europeans so there’s like everybody.

Parinita: Yeah. Which I think is so … like there’s so much potential because now at least in a lot of bigger cities, it is so multicultural.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: In Mumbai, it may not be in terms of – there are of course non-Indians who come and live there as well. Who some people will call expats because immigrants is only for brown people.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: But there’s also so many people from other parts of the country, right? India is essentially like twenty-seven different countries in one.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: And there is so much potential. But it seems like the way it’s divided is between dominant and marginalised – that’s the sort of relationship different people share. It’s such a pity because we’re missing out on so much. We as in we from the dominant culture within India or Singapore I guess.

Aditi: Yeah, no we do. But honestly, I’m not quite sure what the way around this is because when you think about it, it just doesn’t end well if you try to force people to interact. So it’s just one of those things that has to happen organically.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aditi: And I hate that word but that is the only word for it.

Parinita: No, that’s true. Which is why for me, media is such an important way to do this. Because if your media shows these cultures – and whatever media not just books and fantasy but also movies and TV shows and things. If you are showing them only in stereotypes, then that’s how people who don’t know these others – who don’t interact with people who are not like them in the real world will then have this idea of those people, right? I didn’t sound very coherent but –

Aditi: [laughs] No but I know what you mean. You’re right. Because if your only exposure to somebody is through Hollywood which will happen if you’re Indian and you’re maybe living in a smaller town or something. Your only exposure to people from like China may be through movies.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aditi: And then you’re just going to have this idea that could be really, really wrong.

Parinita: Yeah. And now of course there’s like ugh just mentioning China now is so fraught because just the amount of – I don’t know how it is in Singapore because obviously it’s a very different part of the world. But in the UK there have been so many attacks against not just Chinese people but also East Asian people in general. Because of this whole Coronavirus thing. And it’s just like it – it’s just – it makes me very depressed to talk about, honestly I shouldn’t have brought this up. But I think there is a link between how you consider people from another country just because of the media. Not just entertainment media but news media as well. If they’re so othered that it’s almost like they’re aliens and you know their – even the language that’s used, like in the US, for example, oh aliens.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: Mexicans are aliens.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: Of course it would have an effect. The language that you use is important. It is political. In India as well, people from Pakistan or from other parts of the country – if you use a word like cockroaches for them; if you’re a minister of a party who’s using this language, how do you make it better? That organic growth, it’ll be impossible for that to be achieved you know.

Aditi: Right. Yeah, no that’s true. There has to be … I don’t know it’s really depressing to think about it.

Parinita: It is. Let’s move on to some of our fantasy before we get really, really sad about this. Because while it is important, I don’t know how much we can do – what we can do about it.

Aditi: But can you imagine if Trump, when he was talking about Mexicans, if instead of calling them illegal aliens, he called them expats or something?

Parinita: Yeah! Exactly. I obviously consider myself an immigrant in the UK currently because I’m living here. But I can’t call myself an expat because first of all that word is … I’m very doubtful of that word.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: I side-eye it. But also I’m brown so I’m not allowed to call myself an expat. And I’m not rich so I’m definitely not allowed to call myself an expat.  So moving on to less depressing topics. Or maybe not. Maybe Harry Potter might also depress us. But I do love Harry Potter. [laughs]

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: Despite all the problems that it has.

Aditi: No, that’s okay. We’ll still have fun.

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs] So perhaps we could think about what is considered the norm and what is considered exotic in some of our favourite worlds. One of the examples that I think you’d shared with me a few weeks ago was from Pratchett.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: Do you mind just briefly talking about that?

Aditi: Right. So Pratchett whom I mean I love him to bits. I don’t remember which book it was. I think it was Snuff.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Aditi: But there’s this bit where there’s one of the characters whose mother or grandmother or something came from a country that is sort of a stand-in for China.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aditi: And there’s a running joke throughout the book that she makes a dish called Man Dog Suck Po and then there’s another dish with another similar name. It’s basically played for jokes.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aditi: I thought that was tragic because Pratchett is so brilliant. He doesn’t need to do this.

Photo of a page from a Discworld book. Text says: Vimes hesitated. It didn't do to upset an old mum. It was time to let the duke out. Vimes never normally bowed to anybody, but he bowed to Mistress Upshot, who almost dropped her tray in ecstatic confusion. 'I am mortified, my dear Mistress Upshot, to have to ask you to keep your Man Dog Suck Po warm for us for a little while, because your son here, a credit to his uniform and to his parents, has asked me to assist him in an errand of considerable importance, which can only be entrusted to a young man with integrity, as your lad here.' As the woman very nearly melted in pride and happiness Vimes pulled the young man away. 'Sir, the dish was Bang Suck Duck. We only have Man Dog Suck Po on Sundays. With mashed carrots.' Vimes turned back and shook Mrs Upshot warmly by the hand, and said, 'I look forward to tasting it later, my dear Mistress Upshot, but if you'll excuse me, your son is a stickler for his police work, as I'm sure you know.'

Parinita: Yeah I know. And I think even with people who consider themselves progressive, people who consider themselves I suppose above such cultural goof-ups – or just horrible cultural missteps – it’s so important to be on the guard against these things. Because like we were talking about earlier, it’s so internalised.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: That you don’t even realise what you’re doing is ridiculous or is terrible.

Aditi: Right. And I mean there’s not even a moment which would possibly have redeemed it when people try this thing and say, oh it’s actually good and I liked it or something. It’s just a joke.

Parinita: Yeah. It’s just like diversity for the sake of humour and comic relief. And the Amy Sturgis episode on Reading, Writing, Rowling that we were listening to about indigenous futurism? They were making fun of the horrible way in which Rowling has written about indigenous people. They mentioned, “the radical idea that Native Americans have their own intellectual history.” It’s this thing that to others – to people who are not well-versed with this culture or who are just looking at it from this colonial perspective – don’t realise that Native Americans, even though their knowledge and practices differ from ours, or in India it might be different regions or even or tribal or rural sort of practices, it is still a valid way of understanding the world and interacting with the world. It just doesn’t match your own. And it was reminding me then of other cultures within Harry Potter whose cultures and intellectual histories are dismissed and mocked. So for example, Ron and just I think the magical world in general is so suspicious of goblins. And the way that they engage with magic and objects and whatever.

Aditi: Right. And it’s so silly because when you think about it, the goblins are running the economy. You should be really grateful to them because I don’t think anyone in the wizarding world can do maths.

Parinita: [laughs] No. I mean their system is so complicated like how many Knuts and Sickles and –

Aditi: Can you imagine if you’re trying to make change and you’re going what is twenty-nine into seventeen or something.

Parinita: [laughs] I know. And yeah, so I was also thinking that the Muggle culture within that and the Muggle-born culture as well is also so diminished.

Aditi: It is. And you know there’s one thing that didn’t occur to me at first but later when I re-read and thought about it, I thought it was really awful. Which is right upfront when Hagrid says, we don’t reveal ourselves to Muggles. And the reason is that they’d want magical solutions to their problems. And okay you don’t want to just be fixing people’s glasses and all, I get it. But when you realise that wizarding medicine in Rowling’s world is so advanced.

Parinita: Yeah!

Aditi: And they’re just keeping it to themselves because they can’t be stuffed. That’s really awful.

Parinita: Yeah! And we were talking about this in an earlier episode – me and my friends. And we were like, could they fix the climate crisis? Why wouldn’t you? You live with the Muggles as well right? Do you not want the planet to be all right?

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: And also the thing is that they have such a paternalistic attitude towards Muggles and Muggle-born culture. So I re-read Philosopher’s Stone recently.

Aditi: Um hmm.

Parinita: And this Hermione’s obsession with reading everything to know about the magical world and being this rule-follower until … she isn’t. But still largely following rules.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: And I was thinking that that’s so similar to the experiences of an immigrant right?

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: Either in another country or even in another –

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: Like from rural to urban or whatever. And you want to be the best version of yourself because if you go wrong, you will be held as the representative for your entire race or religion or … yeah whatever. And nobody seems to really be that curious about Hermione’s Muggle background – except Arthur Weasley. But even he isn’t – it’s in a way that’s –

Aditi: It’s like he’s looking at something in a zoo.

Parinita: Yeah! Or in a museum. Okay magic is super advanced in some cases. But in other cases, like Muggles, we use ballpoint pens. [laughs]

Aditi: [laughs] They’re using quills and ink.

Parinita: Yeah! We don’t use chamber pots and I don’t know … some of them I think still use chamber pots or was it just Dumbledore – I don’t know. I have this –

Aditi: It’s Dumbledore who found chamber pots in the Room of Requirement.

Parinita: Oh yeah! Yeah! Which like … um plumbing?

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: So no, it’s just like there’s so much that can be achieved through cross-cultural collaboration.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: If the wizards and witches actually respected or were curious about Muggle culture, imagine how much better Hogwarts would be. Health and safety would definitely be better. Because they don’t seem to have heard about it. Maybe therapy? Some of the professors could also do with therapy, I think.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: And just the internet! Imagine how much miscommunication has happened in even just the Order of the Phoenix.

Aditi: I mean just imagine if Harry had a cellphone then Sirius would not be dead.

Parinita: I know! [laughs] I know!

Aditi: But you know another thing that I – and that’s another thing that I realised only after you put that thing about food in the Google doc [we use while planning the episode], the other thing that struck me is that in all of Harry Potter, all the food is just exactly like in Enid Blyton.

Parinita: Oh yeah!

Aditi: And I think the most foreign thing they have is like bouillabaisse.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aditi: Even that is making fun of it but –

Parinita: Yeah because, oh what is this foreign thing that only Fleur seems to want?

Aditi: Yeah. But actual British culture I mean they do have a lot of other food I would think.

Parinita: Oh, you know what the national dish of the UK is? Chicken tikka masala. [laughs]

Aditi: Yeah exactly. But there’s never chicken tikka masala at Hogwarts.

Parinita: Exactly! I’m not even joking. This is something that Scotland claims to have invented which I’m taking with a grain of salt.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: It was some Bangladeshi immigrants in Scotland that apparently invented chicken tikka masala. Which fine whatever. When I used to read about Enid Blyton food as a kid, it used to seem so exotic and so exciting to me.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: And when I re-read it as an adult, I was like oh you’re eating boiled eggs with a twist of salt? Okay.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: That’s cool. I understand because I’ve read this that she’d written about it in the post-Second-World-War atmosphere where there was lots of rationing happening in the UK. So she was trying to make simple food and things sound exciting. Which worked because yeah it was super exciting even to this kid in India who had really yummy food around her. So the diversity in Hogwarts, what are the Patil twins eating? Are they happy with this bland British food?

Aditi: They’re having toast and marmalade for breakfast.

Parinita: Yeah!

Aditi: Every day.

Parinita: Yeah! Do they not want some masala in their –

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: I know what a struggle it is because I have a white Scottish boyfriend who is used to some spice but is not used to Indian level of spice.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: So  it’s always a compromise in terms of spice. And he knows I like chili in everything. I like chili flakes in most things.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: So I need some spice. How can you be an Indian or a child of an Indian immigrant in Hogwarts and not want … I don’t know some curry powder in everything.

Aditi: All of them. Or even Cho Chang, she never gets noodles. I think they’re always having –

Parinita: That’s true! There are no noodles in Hogwarts! What a travesty! There’s no fish and chips either. Which is I suppose would be considered more … I don’t know if there’s a class connotation …

Aditi: Maybe they can go to the Hog’s Head and get fish and chips.

Parinita: Ah perhaps. So it’s all healthy food in Hogwarts. Which is quite boring. Even dal would have also – [laughs]

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: Or lentil soup as they call it here. [laughs] That would have been at least more exciting. I never thought about the food in Hogwarts actually, about how narrow it is. What a fixed definition of food there is. And yeah I wonder if there’s fanfiction out there about just having a desi Christmas or a Diwali maybe.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: Maybe the Patils could celebrate Diwali or I don’t know whatever other – I’m very bad with my Hindu festivals. And in … I don’t know in Star Wars and things, food is not really mentioned …  except in the Star Wars Holiday Special where there was another twenty-minute segment which consisted of a person on the TV cooking something.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: With an increasing number of arms that came out. I’m telling you, everybody needs to go watch this movie because it is amazing. [laughs]

Aditi: [laughs] Food is not … I mean you see a bit of it here and there but it’s not really a focus.

Parinita: Which I don’t understand because for me food is the most important part of any adventure. [laughs] Like why – I suppose they’re busy fighting a genocidal maniac I guess so it’s okay.

Aditi: Maybe Jedi knights don’t care about food.

Parinita: Oh what a sad future! Is this the future that we’re heading towards? Oh no!

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: I know there have been a lot of critiques in A Song of Ice and Fire for his [George R. R. Martin’s] obsession with describing food. And Lord of the Rings as well. No, his [J. R. R. Tolkien] was trees.

Aditi: Yeah. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Even in terms of food of course but there’s also language.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: We briefly spoke about that before and yeah I was thinking – just like in terms of the Wookie language, but also like in any of the fantasy worlds, of course, English is – because they’re written I suppose in the UK and the US. But the foreign languages that I can think of for example in the Lord of the Rings I think Elvish is one.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: Right? And the Orcs have their own language.

Aditi: Yeah, yeah.

Parinita: From what I remember. And obviously one is good whereas the other is evil.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: The people who come from the East are not to be trusted. [laughs] They’re villains. Whereas the Elves, they have this gentle tongue.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: No problems there.

Aditi: But yeah, no I think the way they handle languages is – and I think that’s a problem with Tolkien definitely ‘cause he’s … I mean I don’t want to speculate because it was so long ago so I don’t want to speculate about whether or not it was intentional. But everything that happens is focused on the West. And the East … I mean there are a lot of these mysterious events that happen there like the elves walk on the shore of the sea and they came to the west and the two blue wizards went there and they were never heard of again. So you have no idea what’s happening there. It’s just the sort of – for all you know there are snake charmers. It’s this sort of mysterious exotic place and we’ve got no clue what’s going on. And a part of it is also I think is that it was Tolkien’s area of study.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aditi: The Anglo-Saxon and Nordic. And so it’s natural possibly that all the languages he invented should sort of be based on that. But yeah I don’t know I think culturally it’s also that his intention was to create a mythology for England.

Parinita: Hmm.

Aditi: So he wasn’t trying to be diverse which –

Parinita: Yeah

Aditi: I mean that’s not an excuse – it isn’t diverse.

Parinita: No. I mean I do understand what you’re saying. I suppose especially when – he was writing what during the 60s? The 1960s? 50s? Or something like that.

Aditi: Yeah. I mean he started writing a bit earlier than that. Started creating a bit earlier than that. But yeah then the books were coming out then.

Parinita: Yeah so I mean I do understand why diversity wasn’t such a big thing. But then the sort of ideas that we have … because I think Zen Cho said that currently Western culture is global culture. Just because of how cultural imperialism has moved in terms of media. And English itself is considered this language of intelligence.

Aditi: Hmm.

Parinita: In India.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: I’m talking specifically of India. One of my neighbours back home in Bombay, she had an interview in a school for her kid. Her kid was three or four so they wanted to get into a this fancy international school.

Aditi: Um hmm.

Parinita: And she was so worried. She wanted me to come to her the night before and teach her English because she was like, I don’t know to speak English. She speaks in Marathi. And she’s like, if I speak in Marathi and if I’m not able to speak in English, they’re going to think I won’t be able to look after my child’s education or they’re going to think I’m not intelligent.

Aditi: Oh god.

Parinita: Yeah! Right?! And this is in Mumbai where it’s full of Maharashtrians. It’s full of people who speak Marathi.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: And I did tell her don’t worry about the language so much. But also, on the other hand, there are people – people who speak in English – who do equate English with intelligence. And if you don’t speak in English, you’re obviously not as intelligent or your ideas are not as worthy as someone who does speak in English.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: Yeah it’s so sad. I think just talking about these things, it helps. But if you’re just talking amongst people who think like you, it’s … we’re just coming up with problems on this episode. [laughs] Like here’s a problem!

Aditi: No but actually now that you mention it, so there is this the thing in Lord of the Rings, the book, it doesn’t come in the movies. So Frodo, when he leaves Bag End, he meets these elves who are all going West because everyone goes to the West, it’s amazing.

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs]

Aditi: So there are two forms of Elvish that are primarily spoken in Middle-earth – Sindarin and Quenya. And Quenya is the one that is better and higher and everything. So he knows the Quenya greeting because Bilbo taught him.

Parinita: Ah.

Aditi: And he uses that and the elves are immediately like I think they name him Elf-friend on the spot.

Parinita: [laughs]

Aditi: So that’s pretty much the same thing that’s happened to your neighbour I guess.

Parinita: Yeah!

Aditi: Or that she thought would happen to her.

Parinita: And also just as a side-note, I find it really interesting that people like Tolkien fans are so excited to learn like Elvish or Star Trek fans are so excited to learn Klingon but not an actual foreign language that might make their neighbour more comfortable or somebody you know more comfortable.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: You know language is like food as well. I think in one of the episodes that I was listening to after we spoke when we were planning the episode, it was another Imaginary Worlds podcast episode about food in fantasy. And one of the guests was talking about how food is used to express xenophobia. Not just in the real world. Obviously in the real world where if you meet this unfamiliar food –

Aditi: Um hmm

Parinita: You’re like eww what is this, and it meets with disgust. But also in science fiction and fantasy, where if you’re going to this new either planet or country or land or whatever, there’s so much that can be done to push against what happens in the real world rather than just replicating what happens in the real world.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: I’m happy that even though something is so internalised, it’s difficult to unlearn these things, but still there’s still conversation happening. Like you and I we’re having one but also just on the internet in general. There’s more conversation about diversity so people are becoming aware of these things and it’s helping decolonise traditional ideas of fantasy.

Aditi: Yeah, I’ve learned to re-examine a lot of the things I thought and the way I read fantasy just through like Tumblr and Facebook. Well not Facebook so much, Tumblr. And stuff online.

Parinita: Yeah absolutely. Me too. Because you’re not learning these things in school, right? Nobody is telling you these things. Where else are you learning these things?

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: It’s just the internet and for me fandom. That’s one of the major reasons that I started this podcast for the PhD project because for me, fandom has been such a tremendous learning experience and critically analysing things and unlearning problematic things that I have internalised.

Aditi: I think part of the problem in schools at least might just be that they don’t know how to have these conversations. ’Cause one of the literature texts that I did in school was The Tempest.

Parinita: Hmm.

Aditi: And I mean I love Shakespeare too but that is also problematic in so many ways. But that’s just something they don’t talk about in schools. And maybe they don’t know how – they can’t you know …

Parinita: Oh yeah! You’re so right. I think more contemporary texts need to be used in schools anyway.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: But even if you want to place them in conversation with what you consider classic texts, there is such an opportunity to talk about anti-Semitism or to talk about problematic ideas in something like Shakespeare for example.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: I used to do this reading programme in a school in Mumbai.

Aditi: Um hmm.

Parinita: And one of the people really wanted to get rid of the fairy tale books in the library. Because she said that, which is true, a lot of the fairy tales, they have really problematic ideas of gender.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: But I told her that I think getting rid of these books would really be a lost opportunity because they’re going to be getting these messages outside anyway. Like we were talking about Disney.

Aditi: Yeah

Parinita: It is this huge corporate behemoth which is going to pervade everything.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: And I think a better use of that would be to read these stories but then teach the kids to problematise them; see what can be challenged in these ideas within the story that you don’t have to accept.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: And similarly in Shakespeare as well, I’m sure.

Aditi: Right. Because it’s the same thing we were talking about earlier. You can appreciate something and still realise that it’s got problems.

Parinita: Yeah! Exactly. So one of my favourite things is retellings of fairy tales or of mythology.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: Or just of old stories that were written when everything was really problematic if we look at it from now. But then they subvert the stories in ways that make them really relevant and contemporary and make it more exciting for us.

Aditi: Yeah. But actually you know I was reading this thing on – I think on Tumblr or somewhere a while ago. And I thought it was really cool. So it was about fairy tales and the original fairy tales, not retellings. About the good things even in those. So basically the one I remember is Cinderella ’cause she was saying that obviously it’s full of problems. But then the thing is also that Cinderella manages to stay hopeful despite all the horrible things that are happening to her.

Parinita: Hmm.

Aditi: And she stays kind and she is still a good person despite everything. And that’s something worth remembering even if there are problems with the rest of it.

Parinita: That’s true! That’s such a good point. Because that’s true even in the texts that we’ve talked about today right? For example Harry Potter.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: Or you know Lord of the Rings, Pratchett whatever. Some which we love more than others.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: For me it’s definitely Harry Potter. I’m an avowed Harry Potter fangirl. But also Pratchett. But yeah, you don’t need to toss out the whole thing because you have one problematic element. Or maybe more than one problematic element. You can still search for the good in that. Harry Potter has positively impacted so many people in the world.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: You see these examples in activism as well where they draw on Harry Potter in the way people might have drawn on religion first. They’re drawing on Harry Potter as a sort of cultural myth almost. And they’re using it to understand the world. That’s why I love fandom so much because there is room for all these different interpretations and you’re learning from each other. So in an academic text that I read, Henry Jenkins, who’s awesome – he’s one of my favourite academics. He’s a fan scholar, so he’s both a fan and a scholar. And he talks about the collective intelligence of fandom.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: Where one person doesn’t know everything. It’s impossible for one person to know everything.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: But everybody has different skills and knowledge and you’re coming together in this space around a thing that you love. And you’re drawing on your own experiences and knowledge and backgrounds and whatever. And making sense of it together.

Aditi: Yeah I think actually that’s why I like Tumblr so much ‘cause it’s really a space where that happens. People just join conversations.

Parinita: Like you were saying, you learned a lot of queer perspectives and ideas about queerness and queer ideology and things from Tumblr and fandom right?

Aditi: Yeah. Right. Because that’s just not something that – I mean I knew that queerness existed but it just wasn’t something that was really on my radar when I was reading. Just like I wouldn’t have thought that a character was non-white in a Western book, I would not have thought that a character was queer unless the writer just said it outright.

Parinita: Yeah because if you’re not a part of that marginalised group, I guess you’re not really thinking about these identities. There was another discussion about disability and neurodiversity.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: I was listening to this other podcast where they read Hermione and Luna as well as Neville I think in Harry Potter as neurodiverse. As autistic.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: They said something which really struck a chord. That when writers are trying to write or are writing disabled characters into stories, they’re usually really rife with stereotypes. Especially if it’s someone who doesn’t have experience with disability.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: And they’ve done research but they’re using … they’ve obviously not talked to a person with a disability So it’s a stereotype. So people with these disabilities, they would rather recognise their own identities and practices and behaviours and whatever in characters that are not explicitly said to be disabled.

Aditi: Right. No actually you know that makes sense. ’Cause also I think the problem would be that a writer would be afraid of being accused of bias if they had too many flaws in a disabled character or something of that sort. So they just end up being these perfect people.

Parinita: Yeah, yeah! Or just that one thing gives them this super skill or something.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: That their disability becomes their magical power. For me, just these fandom conversations are so great. Like I was telling you, fan podcasts have become my new fandom expression.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: Because Tumblr would have sucked – although fan podcasts suck a lot of my time also. But I don’t have time for two things right now. So luckily I get to do this as a part of my research. So I’ve chosen a good project.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah I learn so much. But even within fandom, I feel like even within these conversations … we were talking about cultures earlier; I feel like there are cultures within fandom as well.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: Not just say Harry Potter would be different and Lord of the Rings would be different. But even within Harry Potter fandom for example. So initially in fanfiction and things, there’s been a lot of conversations about gender and queerness.

Aditi: Yeah

Parinita: A lot of engagement with that. But not so much with race. A few years ago I think it was called out. This became a topic of conversation then in fandom that  you know there’s this race-blindness that’s happening and people are not really talking about race. Then trans folks were also complaining about this.

Aditi: Yes.

Parinita: But now I feel like in terms of diversity, there’s a lot of conversation happening about race. But not so much about other marginalised identities. Not so much for example about disability or class or I don’t know religion I guess. I do see a few things – there were these really cool texts about Muslim students in Hogwarts and how they would celebrate Eid and how they would do the month of Ramzan.

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 spending lunch times to read the quran. we need to talk more about muslim kids in hogwarts

Aditi: Yeah I think you were mentioning that. And that also brings up the question of the same thing, Patil twins and Cho Chang. I mean is everyone a Christian who goes to Hogwarts? Because they seem to celebrate Christmas and Easter.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aditi: I don’t even know. Because I don’t get the impression that anyone is really overtly a believer.

Parinita: Yeah because they don’t talk about Jesus or anything. Or the birth of Christ or anything.

Aditi: Yeah so Christmas just seems to be for crackers.

Parinita: Yeah. A cultural rather than religious celebration.

Aditi: Right. So in that case there’s no reason why they can’t like you said have Diwali or something. I’m sure they’d have fun doing that too.

Parinita: How fun would Diwali sweets at Hogwarts be though?

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: Like jalebi and I don’t know I just miss Indian food a lot. I wish it was a bigger part of Hogwarts as well.

Aditi: And just think what they could do with the fireworks. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah! Exactly.

Aditi: They don’t know what they’re missing.

Parinita: I mean maybe the animals like Fang wouldn’t have a great time during Diwali at Hogwarts but some sacrifices have to be made, I guess.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: But yeah even like Eid or something.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: Just having you understand each other through your customs and rituals and celebrations without exoticising them.

Aditi: Right. Or Chinese New Year because I’m sure Cho Chang can’t be the only Chinese student there.

Parinita: Yeah! I mean I hope not. Because there seems to be one token diversity everywhere. But yeah, just different cultural, regional, national celebrations would be really good. Scottish as well. They’re in Scotland. We don’t really know anything about Celtic culture.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: So I think we’re just about running out of time. But thank you so much Aditi for being on this podcast and for being a part of this project. It was so fun talking to somebody who has the same cultural contexts but also different fandoms and just bringing both our fandoms together and just geeking out about what we love and what we love to hate.

Aditi: [laughs] Thanks for having me. It’s been fun – great fun.

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode on representations of diverse cultures in fantasy media. While editing this episode, Jack showed me a great example of encountering unfamiliar food from a different culture in one of his favourite shows Star Trek. Commander Riker participates in an officer cultural exchange programme and begins to understand the Klingon culture through its food. If, like me, you’re curious about checking it out – the episode is called A Matter of Honour. If you know of any other fictional examples of different cultures interacting with each other without the Western colonial perspective, I’d love to hear them! Thanks for such a fun conversation, Aditi. And thanks for all the editing and recommendations, Jack!

[Outro music]

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!

Some Notes On Episode 5 – 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 5 “It’s Like She’s Not Even There: Misogyny, Masculinity, and Different Cultures” we discussed the following texts:

1) Essay – Ron Weasley Vs Ron Weasley

The essay argues that the movie adaptation of the Harry Potter book series butchers the characterisation of Ron Weasley. This makes me think about the arguments I’d encountered during my master’s research where people had such different opinions of Ron Weasley as a character and I wonder if this has anything to do with which adaptation influenced people’s perspectives  – the books or the movies. According to the essay, Ron seems to come across as more of a misogynist in the movies than the books. But as Witch, Please points out, he has plenty of misogynist moments in the books too – his treatment of Ginny’s dating history, his incel-ish behaviour against Hermione (think this was raised in Harry Potter and the Sacred Text), his anger towards Hermione going to the ball with Krum (a lot of this may be due to his age and hopefully he grows out of this). Which makes me think of real life examples of misogyny among teenage boys which, if left unaddressed, can lead to truly terrible consequences (shootings, acid attacks etc.)

The article mentions the example of the Devil’s Snare where in the books Ron’s exclamation of “Are you a witch or not?!” at Hermione helps lead her to a solution. This also makes me think of Witch, Please’s point that movie Hermione seems to have received a lot of lines from other characters in the book (including Dumbledore and either Dean or Seamus). On the one hand, showing Hermione to be infallible and perfect is a good example of female agency in a mediascape where this is rare; but on the other, it doesn’t have room for the nuances, complexities and flaws which make up an authentic and interesting character. They point out that female representations in media (as with representations of other marginalised groups) tend to be either aspirational or identifiable – I love both and there should be enough room for both. I want ALL kinds of women’s rep.

I love the in-depth analysis of this essay. I’m not sure whether this essay was originally written as an academic assignment. But I believe fandom is rife with similar analyses and examples of critical thinking, all born out of intense engagement with people’s favourite texts, characters and worlds.

 

2) Essay – Ginny Weasley, The Girl Who Deserved More

The essay argues that one of the critiques fans have against Ginny is that she’s a “girly girl” which again reminds me of my master’s research where a fan said “You can be both feminine and a badass, it’s not mutually exclusive.” The fan was responding to another fan’s assertion that the movies ruined Ginny’s portrayal by making her too feminine. As the books are so much from Harry’s POV (something Witch, Please keeps reiterating), we only see what he sees. When you’re younger, it’s so easy to get carried away by superficial observations and not really look at the people Harry interacts with and recognise them as whole, fully-fleshed out characters in their own right. 

In the humour section of the essay, the person says that there are no jokes about Fleur from Ginny which showcases her lack of humour in the books. However, this is again something Witch, Please pointed out, the way Ginny, Hermione and Mrs. Weasley treated Fleur was quite awful when you think about it. Why did they seem to dislike her so much? Because she was pretty and feminine? She was also strong and powerful – her school’s representative for the Triwizard Tournament. And she  was fiercely loyal too, apart from being kind and helpful. (Another example from my master’s research was a Tumblr post which pointed out all the ways in which they thought Fleur was awesome and it made me question my own assumptions and prior beliefs – I loved it). 

Again, Witch, Please and Harry Potter and the Sacred Text point out, Ginny does a lot of growing up and overcomes her trauma of being possessed and nearly murdered as an eleven-year-old. She holds her own against her brothers’ teasing, she joins in on the fun, she has her own friends and life, is kind and funny but also won’t stand for nonsense from anybody – not even friends or family. She’s a brilliant Quidditch player, she’s great at spells but in a very different way from Hermione (she’s invited to the Slug Club because she casts a bat bogey hex on someone I believe?). She’s a part of the resistance both in Dumbledore’s Army and in the school in The Deathly Hallows. She has a crush on Harry but then gets over it and doesn’t spend her school life pining from him; she explores her dating options and won’t stand for Ron’s slut shaming. She and Harry are drawn back together based on their shared experience of trauma and a genuine friendship. The movies don’t show the complexities and nuances of Ginny’s characters (as with many other characters) where she’s relegated to the role of love interest and nothing beyond that. I absolutely agree with the article that in a series and media space where there are such few young women characters with agency and complexity, the movies have a bigger responsibility in how they represent them – especially when the source text is full of examples.

I love this essay because it provides such in-depth details about Ginny’s relationships and friendships with Hermione and Luna who I also love. This is erased in the movies in the vein of mainstream media erasing strong female friendships. I love that the essay provides concrete examples and cites sources from other parts of the internet – academic practices in non-academic spaces. 

 

3) Essay – Strong Female Characters: Ginny Weasley

As this essay points out, Ginny isn’t magically a great character; she grows to be one and draws on her experiences and relationships with people. She isn’t really a rule follower and generally tends to ignore parental or institutional authority when it gets in the way of what she wants to do either for fun or for something like overthrowing an unjust government. She’s a well-rounded character without one superficial trait dominating all others – she has time for both work and play. More than Ginny just being there to be Harry’s love interest, I think Cho Chang definitely was there just to fulfill that role – we know very little about Cho and this has both gender and racial implications. 

The article points out that Ginny warms up to Fleur when she realises she isn’t as shallow as Ginny thought. I think there’s room here to explore why Ginny (and Hermione and Molly) thought that in the first place. When we live in a patriarchal society, women are conditioned to have biases and stereotypes too – we all have them. It matters whether we unlearn this conditioning and try to educate ourselves and question our implicit biases. One commenter below this essay says that their biggest issue with Ginny is that she never had to show remorse for some of the things she did. While I would agree with this with her treatment towards Fleur (I can’t remember any other examples off the top of my head mostly because I haven’t re-read the series in a while). But the commenter’s example is Ron – “how much she was kicking Ron down in HBP when he was already feeling down and terrible and yet nothing was said about it. It’s such a far cry from the nice girl who comforted him in GoF.” This I utterly disagree with! Ron was horrible to her and Hermione in Half-Blood Prince for a myriad of reasons which had to do with him and his insecurities and not them. But he still took it out on them and slut-shamed them. It’s not a woman’s job to take care of shitty men full stop. I’m glad Ginny stood up for herself when he was being terrible and didn’t fall for the stereotype/social conditioning of “being nice”.

 

4) Essay – Supernatural: A History of Violence Against Women

The essay points out that violence is a way to control female characters/further male characters stories/objectify women. This is similar to characters of colour/white characters and characters with disabilities/nondisabled characters. 

I was very upset when they killed Charlie too because I loved her and she was one ray of cheerful hope in a series which could get quite dark. She was also one of the only women in the male-dominated show which has a propensity to kill of its women. I don’t know if I was able to articulate why the death upset me then as I can now because I didn’t watch things critically then and didn’t have the vocabulary to put my thoughts in order. This is why I love fandom which is full of people with such different kinds of intelligences that the collective intelligence helps make up for my own blindspots and lack of understanding 

“People can love problematic works, but I think some recognition of the issues are required.”

I totally agree with all media – Supernatural, Harry Potter, Enid Blyton. You can love something and still be able to acknowledge its faults. One doesn’t diminish the other. And if it does, maybe the thing you love can be put aside and you can look for something new to love which is more deserving of your attention. We’re hardly lacking for choices now (though for people on the margins, the options are still quite limited).

“To clarify: the issue isn’t that women die within Supernatural. Everyone dies within Supernatural, including the male characters. The issue is how and why characters die, what the story is telling us with their deaths, and how Supernatural treats them when they are alive.”

I like the point this essay raises about how men’s deaths are framed to showcase their heroism while women’s deaths are framed to showcase their vulnerability – this is a major problem with not only Supernatural but with popular media in general, as the writer argues. Especially since popular media and culture plays such a huge role in influencing attitudes both of adults and young people. The framework of the show not only relies on the male gaze but it also makes me think of how white the show is. 

“Whether a story is made for pure entertainment value, or made to convey a specific issue or struggle, all art contributes to people’s understanding of the universe. All media has an impact on the people who engage it—intentional and unintentional. Scrutiny of sexist, racist, heteronormative, ageist, ableist, and other biased or discriminatory themes within a work is both necessary and important, especially when the show itself fails to contextualize it. By unquestioningly accepting these story aspects, we can end up perpetuating the societal issues they represent.” 

Examples of literally demonising the women characters and then justifying all the abuse – physical, mental and verbal – against them because they’re “monsters” says more about the creators of the show and their attitudes towards women than anything else. This essay made me really uncomfortable in a really good way. I think the points it raises about misogyny in Supernatural (and other media) are things which have been in the back of my mind but it’s not something I have actively negotiated. All the examples laid out and the ways in which their characterisation was portrayed just makes me feel sick to my stomach. A lot of the vile quotes in these examples seem to be uttered by the villains – but as a writer, you control what your villain says. They don’t come up with these things themselves. And when you have them say such demeaning awful things, that’s really on you. It doesn’t make you edgy or cool especially since all evidence points to the fact that Supernatural has a predominant audience of young women (not that it would be better if the audience was all men – in that case, this would be equally if not even more harmful). 

 

5) Academic paper – Greek Mythology in English Literature Harry Potter’s Greek Connection

I never thought about the connections between Harry Potter and Greek mythology – even though they’re quite obvious. A few years after I started reading Harry Potter, I got hooked onto the Percy Jackson series which has a much more direct link with mythology and makes it contemporary and fun. And I fell hard for mythology then – including exploring Indian mythology. I love exploring all the ancient stories of different cultures and civilisations that were written thousands of years ago and are still passed around today.  

Some examples borrowed from Greek mythology in Harry Potter – the creatures (sphinx, werewolves, griffins, unicorns, chimera, centaurs, phoenix), the prophecy and how it propels the plot, Fluffy, names (Luna, Remus Lupin, Cassandra and Sybil Trelawney, Argus Filch, Minerva McGonagall, Pomona Sprout, Aurora Sinistra among others). 

What I love is that the interpretation is valid because it reflects the reader’s engagement with the series, but there’s also room for multiple interpretations. So if I read it from the lens of another culture’s mythology, it would be interesting to find out what I’d discover. 

 

6) Academic paper – A study on usage of Greek Mythology in the Harry Potter’s series

Proposes that the Hogwarts houses are similar to the cults which grew around worshipping different gods in ancient Greek cultures – again, I like that you can interpret texts in different ways because when I was talking to two of my Indian friends about this during an earlier episode, we thought of how the houses reflect the Hindu caste system – which was quite an uncomfortable thought! About how they’re segregated right from the moment they enter and they don’t have many interactions to truly interact with each other in meaningful ways which leads to more tribalism 

Another way  that fan practices resemble academic practices – room for countless interpretations based on the reader’s own priorities and preferences 

The mythology of the Hogwarts founders akin to Greek gods and goddesses

The magical objects perform functions similar to objects in Greek mythology – Rowena Ravenclaw’s diadem, the Deathly Hallows, Veela as Sirens

As she traces the lineage of Fleur’s Veela heritage – “As Apolline Delacour a half-Veela, thus her children Fleur and Gabrielle are quarter-Veela, and Fleur’s children Victoire, Dominique and Louis are eighth-Veela” – it makes me also think of indigenous people and how multiracial families 

 

7) Fan podcast – Alohomora Folkore & Mythology: A Whole New World

The hosts explore the similarities between different civilisational myths as they travelled over the world. They propose that Harry Potter provides a new form of mythology and culture by providing a new way of understanding the world and making sense of its people and events. This makes me think of contemporary examples of activism which draws parallels from Harry Potter (and other popular texts) as a form of protest. The hosts draw parallels between the philosopher’s stone and the fountain of youth, and Gryffindor’s sword and the sword in the stone. One of the hosts points out that you can apply multiple mythological lenses to the same character and it still works. The series creates a new mythology of death as well building on previous mythologies of death. What food you eat also differs and your good often represents your culture in different ways. Customs, traditions, rituals, ceremonies like weddings and deaths differ from culture to culture. Not just Harry Potter, but Disney movies can also act as a space of mythology.

 

8) Fan podcast – Witch, Please Episode 9.5: Witch, Please; Live & Unruly

A feminist critic has to contend that while watching or reading their favourite media, they can’t turn the part of their brain that identifies problematic representations and storylines. Despite Harry being a white middle class straight cisgender able-bodied protagonist, he still begins the series as an isolated outsider to the society in which he lives. Marcel’s theory is that this is why the fandom has attracted so many people from groups which are traditionally on the margins of mainstream media and culture. They argue that Harry Potter isn’t an inherently feminist text because it centres the story of Harry but it has room for feminist interpretations. For me, this has largely come through fandom. Cultural criticism involves identifying problematic elements of your favourite texts and problematising things which may on the surface seem liberal or progressive – you try to understand the layers of texts and characters. There’s a pleasure of critique when it comes to critiquing the things you love. 

In Order of the Phoenix, Harry is being gaslit by society, the government and the media which minimises and dismisses his trauma. The hosts believe that this is a good example for readers both young and old about not letting their trauma be dismissed. In the same book, however, there is a terribly racist trope where the centaurs reflect harmful stereotypes of indigenous people. The same text can have both good and bad elements within it. Molly Weasley is usually relegated to the kitchen and her emotional labour isn’t acknowledged and often dismissed so the hosts appreciate that she got to kill Bellatrix while protecting her daughter. 

When it comes to movie adaptations, it’s a political choice about which characters are highlighted and which are minimised – for example Ginny Weasley’s portrayal in the movies. The characters in movies influences people’s beliefs not only about the character but also about the real life personas of the actors portraying them. For example, Emma Watson identifying as a strident feminist doesn’t seem at odds with Hermione. In the books, Harry is an unreliable narrator and the reader’s perspective grows with him. Ginny becomes important when she becomes important to him. Fandom has polarisingly different perceptions of Ginny. Does this depend on movie adaptations? Or their feelings towards Harry and/or Hermione? Is this born of shipping as one of the hosts theorised?

 

9) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Heroines

Misogyny is inherent in the representation of female characters – they tend to be exceptional and counter to the norm, have stereotypical masculine traits and pride themselves in not being like other girls. There’s only room for one strong female lead in a story.

When the guests spoke about the lack of dolls and action figures of female superheroes, it made me think of Juno Dawson’s memoir The Gender Games and how she had to rely on the limited selection of female hero action figures to fit into the mould of being a boy. Gendering of toys (or anything) is harmful in so many ways. 

Sometimes, female audiences have multiple perspectives on the same character/plot. Black Widow considers herself a monster not for all the people that she’s killed but because she’s been sterilised and can’t have children. This led to debates among feminists online – some critique this storyline whereas others are happy there is a badass female character with a dark past. Similarly, in Mad Max Fury Road, there was a debate between some critiquing the representation of feminism as something which means women riding fast cars, cursing, drinking, and doing drugs. Others love action movies and would prefer seeing ones where the female characters are well represented and respected. There is a need for diverse women creators to have diverse nuanced complex representations of women in ways which could satisfy different perspectives. 

 

10) Fan podcast – Women of Harry Potter Cho Chang With Kathy Tu

Cho acts as the token representation of diversity who is good at so many things but we don’t know anything about her apart from the fact that tragic things seem to happen. She could also fit into the model minority stereotype – she is perfect at everything and is idolised by Harry. Both Harry and Cho have been traumatised by Cedric’s death but he very uncomfortable about her bursting into tears. Hers is a different expression of trauma and PTSD, mainly through tearful outbursts as opposed to Harry’s angry ones. As one of the hosts points out, Cho is a minority who excels but also suffers. 

Casting a Scottish-Asian actress to play Cho Chang shines a more nuanced light on her character when watching the movies. As a young person, Kathy anticipated a Chinese accent for the character which, as she acknowledges, troubled her own preconceived notions. However, the character doesn’t signal an immigrant experience. There is no other exploration of her Asian identity; she could be read as a white character. It’s a superficial inclusion of diversity. She was (through Harry’s eyes) presented as a perfect character – Harry was upset whenever she strayed from the perfect perception he had of her – and then disappeared. 

As the hosts point out, when it comes to marginalised groups’ representations – Jewish, Asian, black – in media, there is lots of pressure on anyone in the public eye whereas white people get to be individuals who don’t represent their entire race. 

Her relationship and defense of Marietta – who made a mistake but was punished and ostracised so much – exemplified her support of a friend. Sometimes you do have to call out problematic things your friends do though but we don’t know if she’s done this after. One of the hosts proposes the theory that Marietta is in love with Cho, queering the text based on her own priorities and preferences and using textual evidence.  

 

11) Fan podcast – Women of Harry Potter Molly Weasley with Dr. Chloe Angyal

Molly Weasley provides both food-based nourishment and mental and emotional nourishment. Her work has been important not just for the resistance but also since the beginning where she made a family for Harry and provided a supportive maternal figure. However, her emotional labour is overlooked and her fears and her role are taken for granted. Her hobbies – reading Witch Weekly, listening to Celestina Warbeck, being dazzled by Gilderoy Lockhart – are belittled and dismissed. Different kinds of activism need to be acknowledged and celebrated rather than just one narrative of heroism. For example, the women of Shaheen Bagh in India have provided a new template for protest. All kinds of activism – both on the frontline and in the background – need to be respected. However, they are usually neglected in the series and in the real world. 

“There should be statues all over the world of women making soup for the revolution.”

 

12) Fan podcast – Witch, Please Episode 13 C Hallows and Goodbyes (Listen from 85 minutes to 98 minutes 46 seconds)

The hosts discuss the “gendered labour of the resistance” whereby Fleur Delacour’s role is minimised. She’s relegated to a far-off cottage making casseroles rather than playing an active role in the fighting. Why isn’t she a more active part of the Order of the Phoenix? She’s a powerful witch after all. Implications of both gender and national origin perhaps? It’s similar  to Mrs Weasley’s role.

The hosts also discuss the themes of violence against women in the series. They draw parallels between rape culture and Fenrir Greyback’s sexualised predatory violent threats against Hermione specifically rather than Harry or Ron. This could also have multiple implications – is this due to her gender or her Muggle-born status or both? They read Ariana Dumbledore’s assault by Muggle boys in her youth as not just physical violence but sexual violence. They also discuss Helena Ravenclaw’s murder by the Bloody Baron because she refuses his advances. She then has to haunt a castle with him and isn’t rid of him even after she dies. Finally, they briefly discuss the relationship between Snape and Lily which romanticises men’s violence against women. 

 

13) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text Masculinity: Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes (Book 4, Chapter 5)

They explore stereotypes of masculinity, how masculinity is constructed, and what it means to act like a man using the Weasley family as an example. The Weasley men signal their masculinity in different ways – Bill is the strong adventurer; Charlie works with dragons; Fred and George are popular and have social power through humour, business acumen; Percy tries to achieve political status and power; Ron places a lot of importance on his Quidditch fandom. Ron also signals his masculinity by dating Lavender when Ginny points out that he’s only jealous of her and Hermione because he’s never had any sort of romantic or sexual experience. 

Sports and gender dynamics and gender performativity 

The hosts discuss how you need to stick to your lane and perform the right markers of your gender to fit into society’s mould. This is especially true among women where they can’t be too feminine because that is belittled but you can’t be too masculine. Displays of traditionally feminine markers among men is also frowned upon. Gender expectations harm men, women, and nonbinary folks. Molly does the emotional labour of parenting while Arthur always signals that he’s on the childrens’ side and threatens to get Molly involved whenever he wants to be strict. Bill’s long hair and earring playing with gender in a way which makes him more masculine. This implies that gender rules can be played with only if you’re already really secure in the dominant version of masculinity. The hosts propose that Bill being different allows Ginny to be different. 

The hosts also discuss Bertha Jorkins’s disappearance which doesn’t raise an eyebrow and draw parallels to how white women going missing is taken more seriously than women of colour going missing. There are gendered and racialised cultural assumptions about crime which is why it’s even more important to question our own preconceived notions about crime, victims and criminals.

 

14) Fan podcast – Reading, Writing, Rowling Amy H. Sturgis: Fantasy, Imagination and Indigenous Futurism

The episode discusses the representations of Native Americans in science fiction in fantasy, specifically where non-Native Americans use native history and culture in fantasy. The hosts wonder why it’s such a radical idea that native Americans have their own intellectual history. It reminds me of other cultures whose intellectual histories are dismissed and mocked including indigenous forms of knowledge in both western and Indian contexts. In Harry Potter, Muggles and Muggle-born forms a belittled culture.

It briefly discusses how indigenous populations are depicted in Star Trek in literal and metaphorical ways which reflect colonialism, imperialism, and removal of people. Rowling’s Pottermore essays about magic in north America borrows from Native American cultures. It erases their agency and presents a superficial exploration of their beliefs. It includes imperial narratives of non-Native wizards introducing them to innovation and makes it appear as if their practices are extinct or historical. Rowling relies on tired stereotypes and centres the experiences of white European wizards over Native magicians. She includes their culture in a cursory way without doing proper research. In doing so, she exoticises the Native people and treats them as if they are no longer around. As the hosts point out, this is not equivalent to ancient Greek mythology whose practices aren’t around whereas native culture and lives are very much alive – they aren’t museum exhibits. This portrayal is disrespectful to existing Native traditions. The hosts don’t think she would have done this with other world religions whose practices would be treated with more respect and sensitivity. They argue that this belies a colonial perspective, similar to what the British Empire did. Writing about an indigenous (or any unfamiliar) culture, especially when it’s already marginalised, without researching it can contribute in erasing people’s cultural, historical, and social experiences. It also exhibits a lack of empathy and a failure of imagination.

Other metaphors include cultural theft (goblins), removal from land (giants), instituionlised racism (werewolves). A Native fan has reacted to this by calling it cultural genocide. However, Rowling hasn’t responded to any of the critiques she has received or try to learn from them. Critique doesn’t mean you can’t still love the world, but maybe you question the author’s intentions. 

The hosts also discuss the potential of science fiction and fantasy to imagine a better future and alternative possibilities. They introduce the alternative term wonderworks  since wonder allows you to ask questions and doesn’t seek to provide answers. It allows you to consider what if? There are several indigenous nerds, geeks and comic cons which negotiate with the issue of decolonising SFF. 

Recommended short story: Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience by Rebecca Roanhorse 

Recommended magazine issue: Strange Horizons – Indigenous Science Fiction

Episode 6 Different Bodies and Different Brains: Depictions of Disability and Ageism in Media

Episode Resources: 

For this episode we looked at the following texts:

DISABILITY:

Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper Representations of Disability with Marissa Lingen

Fan podcast – Witch, Please Episode Rho: Live and Professional at Tufts University

Video – The Gayly Prophet Disability in the Witching World

Essay – J. K. Rowling Illness and Disability

Reddit thread – How do physically disabled people travel around Hogwarts?

Article – Harry Potter and the Curse of Disability

AGE: 

Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper Maiden, Mother, and Crone: Ageism in Genre Fiction

Fan podcast – Woke Doctor Who The Women Who Waited

Essay – TV Tropes and Ageism: How Kids’ Pop Culture Promotes Discrimination

Doctor Who episode – Series 12 Episode 7 Can You Hear Me?

Episode Transcript: 

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. If you would prefer the original, unedited version, please let me know!

 

Illustrations of an old person on a flying broom modified as a wheelchair

Image via Tumblr: milkystreet on Harry Potter Disability Headcanons

[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 sixth episode of Marginally Fannish. This time, I chat with Sanjana and Aparna about ableism and ageism in media. As fans from dominant groups in both instances (we’re young, able-bodied, and neurotypical), the three of us have massive blind-spots. But we’re trying to educate ourselves, and we’ve learned a lot about disability and age-based discrimination through fandom discussions. We love that fans do such an incredible job in raising awareness about so many issues!

Some of the things that we discuss in this episode include:

  • How disability is equated with villainy in fictional universes
  • The ableist and exaggerated representations of disability in stories which often reflect harmful tropes
  • The problematic impacts of “fixing” disabilities in science fiction and fantasy worlds by using technology or magic
  • Some of our favourite characters with disabilities
  • The social model of disability and how both fictional worlds like Hogwarts and the TARDIS as well as the real world need more accommodations to make them more accessible to all kinds of people
  • The parallels between the disabled community and other marginalised cultures, especially ableism and ageism
  • How older characters in Bollywood are used as comic relief
  • Our favourite older characters in media
  • The trouble with media and culture valuing youth, particularly at the cost of older women
  • Ageism in children’s literature and in fandom.

In our What If? sections, we wonder what the experiences of an elderly Hogwarts student would look like. We also age-flip characters to imagine what a young Minerva McGonagall would represent, how fun a hundred-year-old Aang would be, and what would happen if Grandma took some muffins to little Red Riding Hood instead? (We also accidentally discover our calling as Red Riding Hood fanfic writers).

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: Hi, my name is Parinita.

Aparna: I’m Aparna.

Sanjana: And I’m Sanjana. And today we are here to discuss the depiction and the lack of depiction where disability and age are concerned in some of our favourite shows and books. And at the onset, we would like to acknowledge that we probably have huge blind-spots since none of us have any personal experiences with respect to either of the two topics. For example, until I heard Marissa Lingen talk on Breaking The Glass Slipper, I didn’t realise how problematic some of the portrayals were because I was taking it as my only – that this is how it probably goes. But as someone who doesn’t have any direct experience, I realised how important it is for us to have it right in popular media. And we’re going to talk about it a little more But this was one of the main things that came across to me that it was something that didn’t even strike me. And I think that’s a huge blind-spot right there.

Aparna: So I also realised that I was very out of my depth as far as talking about this is concerned. Mostly when people started describing how they saw, for example, autistic characters in the way Hermione is, they saw a form of autism or the way Luna is. And I realised that was completely lost on me. And that’s when I realised that there would be a big gap in my understanding of representation right away.

Parinita: I mean in this case, the thing is that all three of us are very much a part of the dominant group, right?

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Where we’re learning about the lives and experiences of groups who are marginalised in culture. So the last time when we spoke, we were the ones on the other side. Whereas here, we’re able-bodied, no diagnosed mental illness. And all three of us are young enough that the media still offers characters who tell our stories.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: But we’re old enough that our thoughts and opinions aren’t dismissed. So we’re not really young women either.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: And I was thinking, when I was reading about disability, that it’s something that I’d encountered when I was a children’s bookseller in Mumbai. Where if I recommended a book which has a character with a visible disability on the cover, a couple of parents – not everybody – but a couple of parents instantly dismissed that book because their child doesn’t have a disability.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: So presumably their child doesn’t want to read about a character who has a disability. Which is obviously ridiculous because first of all, reading about diverse experiences which don’t mirror your own is great. And secondly, just because a character is disabled, that’s not their only personality trait.

Aparna: Exactly!

Parinita: Right? The story can be about so many other things. But then that made me wonder, now especially, how much I’ve gone out of my way to look for characters with disabilities to expand the diversity of my reading. And really, not much – shamefully. It’s not that I’m doing it purposely. It’s not that I’m thinking that I won’t connect with this character because they are disabled, either physically or mentally. It’s just it doesn’t occur to me. Like you said, Sana, it’s totally a blind-spot.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: And with age as well, I love the inclusion of all kinds of diversity. So I really appreciate it in the media that I see. Even with age, we’ve spoken about this before with Doctor Who just having more age groups on the show. But again, I’m not going out of my way to read these things. Whereas last year, I think I just started reading fantasy that was written by women. And it just started off unconsciously and then I realised I really liked these types of books.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: These books that are written just by women and centre women’s experiences in different ways. And now I feel like I need to do another reading experiment which fills in a bit of these blind-spots, these missing gaps.

Sanjana: Yeah, absolutely. Like you’re saying with parents looking at a book and dismissing it because it had a disabled character in it, this was a conversation that happened in our house only where somebody gave us some game. And I have a two-year-old so it was a spotting game. One of the people playing the game on the cover was a person in a wheelchair. And my mum looked at it and said, “Why do they need to show someone in a wheelchair?” And both of us said, “Why not? Why shouldn’t there be someone on a wheelchair?” And it was so easy to explain it to a two-year-old and it isn’t even that important, that daily a part of our lives. And just that much small representation in things makes a difference.

Parinita: And just normalizing it, right? Having that conversation.

Sanjana: Exactly! Like he’s sitting there and playing the board game, that’s all that matters. There doesn’t need to be a whole discussion around it. And with age, as I was listening to everyone talk about it, I realised that how much I love a flawed older character. And the importance of having a flawed older character and to take them away from this whole older age trope that keeps coming back to us.

Parinita: Of a wise mentor.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Exactly. Of a wise mentor. That realisation as I read and I heard more is something that maybe now not a blind-spot but was, probably.

Parinita: But also just flawed, complex and nuanced characters of all kinds of abilities as well.

Sanjana: Absolutely.

Parinita: Age as well as disabilities. You don’t need to be this perfect, aspirational character because you have a disability so you’ve suddenly, magically transformed into this –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Ever-patient, ever-kind. But then on the flip side of that is where disabilities are being equated with being villainous. Which is something that I hadn’t considered before and it’s something that I think Breaking The Glass Slipper the podcast that we listened to, that mentioned. How characters with disabilities are equated with being villains.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And I’d heard this about queer-coded characters before. So the example that I can think of off the top of my head is Ursula in The Little Mermaid.

Image of Ursula from The Little Mermaid

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: Who I love. I love female villains.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: I love over-the-top villains. But she is coded as a drag artist.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: Which is something that I had, again, never thought of but I was like oh that’s interesting!

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And it’s actually quite horrifying to think about that just because you have a disability, it makes you a villain.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Yeah exactly. Because the interesting point that they brought up was that it’s like trying to show – mirror the inner feelings physically. And then we started listing down characters and examples and there were –

Parinita: Yeah, like Voldemort.

Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: It’s something that I hadn’t thought of. I never thought of him as a person who is disabled.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: But then they spoke about how he’s both psychologically disabled because of his childhood.

Sanjana: Hmm

Parinita: Which we don’t really know has been traumatic. We know that Harry’s has been full of abuse.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: But Voldemort, sure he was in an orphanage, but it seemed more that he had delusions of grandeur than any –

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Any mistreatment there. But he was also physically disfigured, just like you said, and that’s become a joke, right? His noselessness like he doesn’t have a nose.

Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: And he looks like a snake. When they were talking about that on the podcast it also made me think of how in the US, when there are these mass shooters who if they’re white, people will enquire into their mental background.

Aparna: Yes.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Whereas people of different races and religions, they’re held up as representatives of their whole race or religion. So even Voldemort, sure, the psychological trauma he might have had, but I don’t think that that was cause for going on a genocidal rampage.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Yeah, not justification enough.

Parinita: [laughs] Another example I thought of was Captain Hook

Aparna: Yes!

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Which I hadn’t thought of. And his disability, it didn’t clock as a disability, but of course it is very much a disability.

Image of the Disney version of Captain Hook from the animated movie Peter Pan

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: And he’s also being terrorised by the crocodile who was responsible for this disability. Can you guys think of any other examples?

Sanjana: I thought of Zuko and how his whole arc changes when he gets the scar on one eye and is disfigured and how it becomes this whole villainous thing. And up until then, I’d not at all thought of it. And Darth Vader.

Image of Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender

Aparna: Hmm.

Sanjana: Is another good example.

Aparna: And you guys had an interesting discussion about Bran and Hodor and the difference between their characters as well, right?

Parinita: Yeah because Bran has a physical disability that he’s acquired and Hodor has a mental disability that Bran … may have been responsible for?

Sanjana: Pretty much.

Parinita: I’m not quite sure with all this time travel thing. Spoilers but yeah.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: And also I was really interested in the class implications of this as well.

Sanjana: Yes!

Parinita: Because Bran’s disability is obviously more important. Bran is more important than Hodor who is this disposable person because he’s a servant and he has to die to protect Bran so that he can become a king?

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: Not problematic at all.

Sanjana: Yeah and how his disability becomes this thing that gives him all this power and becomes this underlying reason for him being this all-knowing, all-seeing –

Parinita: Yeah, that’s true. Because he becomes this magical person because he is disabled.

Sanjana: Yeah, exactly. It’s that that causes like, you can still do it. Let me give you some abilities.

Image from the TV series Game of Thrones featuring the character of Hodor carrying the character of Bran on his back

Parinita: And I think this would have been fine if there had been a whole array of disabled characters in media to choose from.

Sanjana and Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: So that you know there’s room for villains and heroes and just regular people who just I don’t know want to eat some cake in a café but oh no New York is being attacked by aliens again!

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: So you know that would have been fine. But it’s just that there are such few representations of disability. And the ones that there are aren’t great.

Sanjana: Haan. Going back to what we were discussing, as you’re saying, that the importance to normalise it and to just have characters going about their business is very important. Because popular media has this underlying purpose that they feel the necessity to over-compensate and fix the disability with these little things or big things which is really problematic.

Parinita: Yeah, for sure. Especially in science fiction and fantasy, where you’re using either technology or magic to fix a disability. And that’s a bit troubling because in the real world, you don’t have this magical ability to fix a disability. And surely people with physical or mental disabilities deserve to see themselves represented.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: I think on the Witch, Please episode they said that, “The assumption is that if you have a disability, it’s a fate worse than death.”

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: That if you have a disability, you’re suffering.

Aparna: Or that if you have a disability, you’d want to get rid of it. Like your prime aim in life or the dream is to be rid of that disability or somehow be cured. What had got me thinking about that was the difference between physical and mental disabilities and how mental disabilities are considered more a part of your identity than physical disabilities are. Nobody would think of fixing with magic an OCD if you have an obsessive compulsive disorder. Whereas if you are in a wheelchair or if you have hearing loss, then people will magic it away instantly is the assumption – is how the characters seem to be written in Harry Potter for example.

Parinita: Yeah and in that Reddit thread that discussed disabilities in Hogwarts and basically about how physically disabled people would travel around Hogwarts, a lot of comments wanted to do that as well where they were envisioning these magical solutions to fix disabilities. But I really liked that there were people who pointed out, exactly as you did Paru, that for some people, it is very much a part of their identity and maybe they don’t want it to be fixed. But they have magical solutions so instead of wheelchairs, perhaps it’s a broomchair. And they’re able to levitate so those moving staircases which are a health hazard even for a person who is able-bodied.

Aparna: [laughs] Yeah.

Parinita: For them just to be able to navigate Hogwarts, to make life easier for them, and not just make it difficult.

Aparna: Yeah. And the more you notice how disability is represented in media, it’s always exaggerated and it’s always the extreme. Just during my reading, I came across this thing of how disabled people are always put in one of three categories. In that either they’re celebrated for doing something completely normal like, “Oh you graduated!” and then they celebrate it for that. Or there is too much pressure to be extraordinary. Like the character is written such that all people who can’t hear should become great composers. And the third is to just generate sympathy for the protagonist because they have somebody in their circle of friends or family who has a disability of some kind and then that makes them look like a more empathetic character. So I wanted to discuss a few well-written disabled characters or well-written characters.

Parinita: So the most recent example that I can think of was in The Dragon Prince. I think her name is Amaya. She’s a military commander so she’s in charge of the troops of the humans in that show. And I know you both haven’t watched it so I’m not going to give you spoilers.

Aparna: Thank you, thank you.

Parinita: [laughs] I know how important spoilers are to all of us. But just in terms of how her character is, she’s deaf and it’s not either made into this exceptional thing or it’s not something that gets in the way of her job either. It’s just a part of her identity. And she has an interpreter so I’m assuming they’re using American Sign Language in the show since it’s American. But that American Sign Language isn’t translated either. So it’s like we are the ones who are glimpsing into their culture but there’s no need for them to explain their culture or their language.

Aparna: Oh yeah, that’s pretty nice.

Parinita: Which I thought was really interesting and really well done.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And she is also just this really fantastic character and she makes these jokes and things while she’s signing which someone who does speak that language, will have a greater insight into. So they’ll have that double layer of identification whereas for us, we’re a little bit on the outside looking in, but it’s still not in a way that’s voyeuristic at all.

Gif of Amaya and Janai from The Dragon Prince. Janai says: We are not ... friends. She is my prisoner. Amaya's responds by signing to the listeners but her signing is untranslated.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: It’s just a regular part of her. So I really like her.

Sanjana: Toph comes to mind from The Last Airbender. When I was listing down just general representations of disabled characters, I didn’t even put her down as an example because I forgot completely that she was blind. I just in general forgot about the fact because the fact that she’s disabled is so normal that it just becomes part of conversation. Though she does learn to bend really well because she can’t see. And that maybe falls into the over-compensating part. But she’s not this great character in terms of relationships and just because she is blind, she’s not this –

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: You know uh –

Aparna: Sad character.

Sanjana: Sad character who everybody adores and everybody likes. And even as she grows up, even in Korra, she has flawed family relations

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: She has a flawed relationship with her children and there’s a lot of realness to her character because that is how most relationships go and it’s very refreshing to see her character.

Gif of Toph and Sokka from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Sokka says: I found something that you're not going to like. [He flourishes a piece of paper] Toph replies: Well it sounds like a sheet of paper. But I guess you're referring to what's on the piece of paper.

Parinita: And, of course, these are the same people who made The Dragon Prince as well.

Sanjana: Exactly!

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: So they’re probably doing something right.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aparna: Yeah. And another person who I feel does right in terms of just the way he writes characters is Rick Riordan who’s written the Percy Jackson series and the Magnus Chase series and everything.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aparna: And just I was very struck by how in the first Percy Jackson book at the beginning before we find out that he’s a demigod, he basically is a kid who has ADHD. And it’s just explained in such a cool way of, oh he has battle reflexes and that’s why he isn’t equipped for just the regular world. Which I find is just such a fascinating way of exploring it and explaining it. And that’s when when I read further, I realised that he has a son with ADHD. Am I right?

Book cover of Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief

Parinita: Yeah.

Aparna: Yeah. And that means he has a lived experience of it and how it makes such a big difference to have people who either know what they’re talking about via personal experiences or through research but just have done their study before writing characters. Even –

Parinita: He also has a deaf character in the Magnus Chase series.

Aparna: Yeah, I was just going to say that.

Parinita: Hearthstone.

Aparna: Yes.

Parinita: And it’s such a mainstream set of books. Rick Riordan books, they’re not cult or niche or anything. They’re hugely popular all over the world.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Which is why I love it even more where there is this explicit representation of all different kinds of diversity.

Aparna: Exactly.

Parinita: But also yeah, since we’re talking about disability, of specifically disability.

Aparna: Yeah. And the problem is that in the media, what it lacks, like you said, this wouldn’t be such a point of discussion if we had so many examples that some of them were a bit problematic as compared to others. But when its representation is so lacking, what’s missing is nuance and that’s what makes all of this seem very one-dimensional. And just the way it reflects in literature or any media that we consume automatically has a vicious cycle with the real world. I’m an editor of picture books and we have this author called Salil Chaturvedi who is disabled and he was talking about his book. And there’s one very cool thing that he said that was, “To be a disabled activist, all you have to do is be active. Because when people see you out and about and when you are more present in the real world is when people will – public spaces will cater to you.” And I feel like it’s a similar relationship with media and the more that you see disabled people in books and movies and TV shows, the more … the way they are treated in society will start to change.

Parinita: Absolutely. And what you said about nuance as well, I think it’s something Marissa Lingen brought up in her podcast where she was critiquing the all-or-nothing representation in media.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: When it comes to disability. So there isn’t nuance in the representation of disabilities when it does exist because it’s always shown in the extremes. So you know it’s either you’re blind or you’re deaf or you’re unable to walk, and this impacts non-disabled people’s reaction to people with either invisible or partially-visible disabilities out in the real world. So the example she gave is when partially-sighted people are assumed to be completely blind and if there is anything that non-disabled people see that goes against their preconceived notion about blindness or about sightedness, then they become angry at that other person because they think they’re not disabled enough. Or they act as if the person is lying. Or if someone with a chronic condition needs to use a wheelchair sometimes, but not all the times, and can walk sometimes. So if a person sees them going from one state to the other, they think that oh this person has been making it up all along. So there are very dangerous implications for people with disabilities.

Sanjana: Yeah. When we were reading up and listening to some of the fan podcasts in preparation for this episode, one of the themes that kept being  repeated and being echoed through all of it was that there is a lack of space given to disability to exist within futuristic and fantasy worlds. And I was discussing this with Paru the other day and she told me about Afrofuturism and how there is this genre born out of the fact that there isn’t enough representation of black people in futuristic worlds. And how it’s strange that people don’t think that racism would be something that gets solved in the 2100s. And how this is similar to disability being portrayed because it doesn’t leave any space for normalcy to exist. You just said that Marissa Lingen points out that most people get their window into disability through popular media. And so it is important for that portrayal to be right because otherwise every other person who meets a blind person in the real world for the first time will expect them to have this great hearing because that’s all we’re shown in popular media. It’s very important to make accommodations for disabled people in society and in media and in speculative fiction in general.

Parinita: No, absolutely. And we were talking about Harry Potter, for example. So one of the articles that we read about J. K. Rowling’s view of disability in the magical world. And how she did think about disability when she was writing the book series.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And you do see some disabled characters in her books. So there’s Mad-Eye Moody who has a very visible disability.

Sanjana: Haan.

Parinita: Then there’s George Weasley who acquires a disability with his ear –

Sanjana: Correct.

Parinita: Later in the books. Then there’s Frank and Alice Longbottom who have this really tragic story because their disability seems to have completely taken them outside the society.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And outside their son’s life and there doesn’t seem to be any way to …

Sanjana: Yeah and absolutely and it becomes this reason for Neville’s life being so horrible. It, at the end of the day, leaves them as just a plot point. They aren’t really explored in any other way. So you don’t know much about what they are and how they –

Parinita: Yeah and it’s a bit like – it’s they are there and their disability is there to almost give Neville a tragic backstory.

Aparna and Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So they’re centering an able person – although in the Witch, Please episode, they did read Neville as neurodiverse. So I re-read the Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone book recently. And when I was reading it, I did think that he could be read as neurodiverse as well.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: Perhaps someone with dyspraxia or vertigo. Because he constantly needs a leg up through the portrait hole to get into the Gryffindor Common Room. He’s not very good at balance and coordination. He’s also really forgetful. Like all these traits that could be read as … and again this is not something that I would have otherwise ever been able to read into the series. It’s just that I’ve been talking to people and listening to disabled people’s perspectives.

Gif of Neville Longbottom from the first movie Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Neville says: "I'll fight you."

Sanjana: Yeah, absolutely right.

Parinita: And in that case, Neville’s disabilities, if he can be read as a disabled character, they’re mostly played off for laughs. They’re not …

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: He’s this comic fodder. And that makes it even sadder.

Sanjana: Yeah, it does. And you’re right. And the fact is that you have these popular characters, the ones that you are falling in love with, making fun of the characters that possibly aren’t written as up-to-the-mark or cannot cope with everything that’s happening around. And that is where lies the problem. Because you end up as a kid reading it for the first time and you end up looking at and siding with the ones who are laughing. And the ones who are making fun of these characters and that’s how you grow up.  You end up doing that and by no fault of yours.

Parinita: No, of course. And just as you were saying that, it just made me think that Neville’s parents as well that they’re very much – they have no agency. They have no sense of anything except to make the reader feel sad for Neville.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Because Harry feels sad for Neville.

Aparna: Um hmm.

Parinita: And that’s all. That’s what they’re there for.

Sanjana: Yeah. That is it.

Parinita: So you know when I was doing my master’s, I was also researching fan communities. And in that, one of the things that I came across, one of the fan texts, there was a huge comment thread about it, was about Harry’s behaviour in Order of the Phoenix.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: Which I remember, when I was reading it as a teenager, when it first came out, I was also like why is Harry so angry and so grumpy throughout this whole book? He’s shouting at everybody. And then there was this whole nuanced discussion about how he has PTSD in the book because of Cedric’s death in Goblet of Fire.

Sanjana and Aparna: Hmm.

Parinita: And there were people who were identifying all the different behaviours and signs and symptoms because they have experience with PTSD. And that made me think of the character in this whole other way. Because again, especially in a children’s book, but even otherwise in mainstream media at large, if it’s not explicitly mentioned, then people who don’t have the vocabulary for this, like us, who don’t have any experience with these disabilities or illnesses, we will never be able to understand that this is what’s going on.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Because it’s not our experience and we’ll never learn then that that’s also an experience that exists and that’s something that he was going through which might make us more explicitly empathetic, if that makes sense?

Sanjana: Yeah, absolutely. No, it does, because I till date keep citing the fifth book as my least favourite because it has Harry just whining through the whole thing. And when you pointed this out and we discussed this last time and it just – it really does throw things in a new light and it really does help understand the development of the character or what the character is going through a lot more.

Parinita: Absolutely. And I think in The Gayly Prophet video that we watched, Lark spoke about – or somebody had written into the podcast and they’d seen being a Squib

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: In the magical world as a magical disability.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Which, again, makes perfect sense but something that we would never have thought about.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Because the Squibs in the series are again played off as these you know nutty –

Sanjana: No but really, one of the first notes that I made for this podcast was when I was trying to find examples in Harry Potter especially, so I was writing down stuff and I suddenly said wouldn’t Squibs be akin to being disabled in the magical society. They are born supposed to be magical, they are supposed to be able to do something which they are not.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: Which basically reads into the definition of being disabled. When you sent this video they, of course, went a lot deeper into it and made some very good points.

Parinita: Yeah because Argus Filch –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And how he’s seen as this defective wizard. He’s stigmatised by mainstream wizarding society, by all the students that are in Hogwarts. And the only two Squibs that we see are ones again who are made fun of.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So there’s Mrs. Figgs, there’s Argus Filch.

Sanjana: And they made an interesting comparison to real life about how he ends up doing janitorial duties because that’s all that he’s good for in the magical world. Which draws a comparison to the real world, how kids with certain disabilities are given a certain kind of job because that’s all that’s expected of them.

Parinita: But also Filch, he doesn’t have any magical powers and he’s given this job to … he seems to be the sole caretaker of Hogwarts.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: This giant school which would have been so much easier to do with someone with magic, right? Wouldn’t you think?

Sanjana: Yeah, and it feels like a bit of a punishment.

Parinita: Yeah!

Sanjana: To be given that job.

Parinita: No wonder he’s angry and hates everybody.

Sanjana: Yeah, absolutely.

Parinita: I would be pissed off as well if that had been me. But also, just reading about all these different perspectives on disability, it made me think of how it’s so similar to our conversation about race. Where the representations have some of the same issues. Because it’s like this marginalised culture which you can’t just include superficially in your stories. So to tick the diversity quota, you can’t just have a person with disabilities. You need to properly research the culture and you need to understand the harmful tropes and stereotypes so that you don’t perpetuate them before you can represent them sensitively. And then there’s also the issue with metaphorical representations of disability. With Harry Potter, Lupin being a werewolf.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: J. K. Rowling has said that that’s akin – in her head when she was writing it, she was drawing the comparison between blood illnesses like HIV, so chronic conditions.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: And so obviously it’s a metaphorical thing. And in the Doctor Who episode that we watched, it was aliens and mental illness. That was a metaphorical representation of it.

Aparna and Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So I wonder whether – and I can’t speak for people with disabilities – but if this metaphorical mental illness representation or chronic illness representation bothers people with these conditions in the same way how we complained that the representations of race in metaphorical ways is not enough to understand the issues.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: See, I have no problem with metaphorical representation if they do something with it. If it’s a subversion. But if Lupin as a werewolf is treated badly, it just reinforces what is already happening in society. It’s not a comment on anything, it’s not a subversion of anything. Which is when I’m not really a fan of the way it’s treated.

Parinita: I completely agree with you. Though when I was thinking more about this, I was thinking that in Hogwarts, Dumbledore does make a special accommodation so that Lupin, in spite of being a werewolf, can have a semblance of a normal life. When we were talking about this, this hadn’t occurred to me. But then I was listening to this other podcast, Reading, Writing, Rowling and they were talking about werewolves. So in that they mentioned how Lupin, he was bitten when he was four years old. And his parents were afraid that he wouldn’t be accepted into Hogwarts because he’s a werewolf so everyone else would be afraid of him. But then Dumbledore is the one who went to Lupin’s family and said that he planted the Whomping Willow and built the Shrieking Shack and accommodated the Hogwarts society to be able to accept someone with his condition. And that’s where Lupin found a community and friends, really good friends. But then, like you were saying Paru, when he went out into the wizarding society, there was nothing. It was replicating the same real-life things.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: So he had no work and he had no prospects. And when it was revealed that he was a werewolf, he had to quit Hogwarts as well. So he’s just had a really sad life.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And in the Witch, Please episode, so this was another thing that I hadn’t thought of which again made me think of parallels between marginalised cultures. So in that they mentioned disability, people with disabilities, it’s like a culture which needs to assimilate to the dominant culture to be respected as equal. So the dominant culture in this case would be able-bodied and you know non-disabled people. So it’s similar I feel in the US, how anybody who is not white and not Christian, so Asians or Latinx people or you know anybody – queer – everybody has to assimilate to this certain idea of being American. In India, it’s similar as well. Like you have to have – although we have a lot of different cultures depending on which part of the country you go to. But to be respected as equal and to be treated as equal, you need to … be a certain kind of person.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So that I found really interesting and also really uncomfortable.

Sanjana: Yeah and J. K. Rowling does this with Lupin. Because they also mention the same thing that eventually he gets married and he has a family and he does all the normal things to be looked at as a whole character. And it would have been fine if he hadn’t had that part of his story arc. But for him to feel normal, the need to give your character all those things to make him – because that is what society expects of you – is what is problematic.

Parinita: Yeah, absolutely. But I really like that even if creators themselves are failing us a bit, again, fandom is filling the gap when it comes to representation and awareness about disabilities.

Sanjana: Yes.

Parinita: So that BBC article that we read about “Harry Potter and the Curse of Disability” which featured these fanfiction writers.

Sanjana: Yes.

Parinita: And this was written, I think, a long time ago – early 2000s.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So I’m sure there’s more now. I haven’t gone looking for it. But basically fans who have disabilities but don’t see this represented in the fiction that they like, specifically Harry Potter.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Because one of the disabled fanfic writers, La Guera, was quoted as saying, “It occurred to me as I read the books that J. K. Rowling has representatives of every race and creed -” Which, side note, yeah that’s problematic as well.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah. “… but she has no disabled students of any kind. And it struck me as very sad.”

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So to counter this, she herself wrote a story about someone with cerebral palsy and the nitty-gritties of it. So what a difference it makes to, like you were saying Paru, for someone who has either the lived experience or is close to the lived experience, when they represent it themselves, it makes so much of a difference.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Yeah, absolutely. And going back to the Reddit thread that we were discussing earlier on, one of the users made a very interesting – caret-top he was. He made a very interesting – he/she I don’t know – made a very interesting observation. Because it was a whole discussion about how Hogwarts doesn’t have any disabled people. And how magic would cure a disability and he seemed to be the only one saying that how many people would actually send a kid to a school that doesn’t cater to their disability? Or doesn’t make room for their disability. And that got me thinking that how much does Hogwarts or the TARDIS make room? How inaccessible it is to disabled people.

Parinita: Yeah, absolutely. Because travelling through space and time, what accommodations are there in place for people with either mental or physical disabilities to travel and have adventures? Do they not want to do all these things? Like surely –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Although me and Jack, we have this conversation, he’s very against time-travelling and I’m very pro-time-travelling.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: Because he thinks I’ll mess up the timeline and it’ll result in all these consequences. So those are just ideological differences. But I’m sure even among people in the disabled community, there must be people who want to go on adventures, right?

Sanjana: Yeah, absolutely. So how many disabled characters have you guys seen on the TARDIS? I don’t watch Doctor Who so I can’t …

Parinita: In the New Who, in the new Doctor Who, I can only think of Ryan, who is the companion in the most recent avatar.

Aparna: Haan.

Parinita: So Jodie. And he has dyspraxia which is mentioned early on in the show, when he comes on. And it’s dealt with a little bit but then we’ve not really heard about it for a long time now.

Sanjana: Okay.

Parinita: Paru, can you think of any?

Aparna: No, I can’t actually.

Parinita: Yeah, I don’t –

Aparna: Generally, any people travelling have always been very able-bodied.

Parinita: But perhaps that’s because, something like you’re saying Sana, which is that you’re not making any accommodations for –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: People and it’s like in society as well, right? I think in The Gayly Prophet episode, he called it the social model of disability. Which is, I believe, it’s what disability rights activists refer to. So basically that disability itself is not – it’s a social and structural problem. It’s not the problem of the person who is disabled. It’s the problem of society that can’t accommodate these different bodies and different brains in their daily functioning.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: So they’re inaccessible to anybody who doesn’t fit the norm. Who is considered to be the norm? Which body is considered to be normal and which brain is considered to be normal?

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Correct. Which brings us to the other part of our episode today. Which is age. And there’s a reason that we combined age and disability into one category. Because it’s another section of society that’s dealt a pretty bad hand both in terms of representation in the media and in terms of just how they’re treated in society. And there are a few obvious similarities in the experiences in being treated as secondary citizens or are either someone to be pitied or someone who does not somehow make it to being a protagonist but always close by. And again, sorely lacking in nuanced representations. Like all grandmothers bake and knit and spoil their grandkids. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Aparna: If you had to generalize, that’s just how you would picture a grandmother, and that’s not a coincidence. And there are some interesting additional parallels that we discussed like the way they’re desexualised.

Parinita: Yeah because older people have outlived their attractiveness, right?

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Yeah! [laughs]

Parinita: Once you reach a certain age, no that’s all, there’s nothing. No romance, no sex, we want nothing. And people with disabilities are anyway seen as asexual.

Aparna: Correct.

Parinita: And people can be asexual and disabled people may also be asexual. But not all disabled people are asexual. So just the diversity of representations is missing.

Aparna: Exactly.

Parinita: Or they’re seen as lesser than people – basically both people beyond a certain age are seen as lesser than the norm. And people with disabilities are seen lesser than the norm. So you don’t cater to society’s idea of what is the regular person.

Aparna: Correct. And Sana, you also brought up the point that sometimes even old people are used as comic relief in stories. Many times in Bollywood movies, this happens.

Sanjana: Yes.

Aparna: Because they’re used for comic relief. Someone who is just out of their depth when the discussion is going on between the main characters.

Sanjana: Yeah. Or they have this older person and the loss of hearing. That’s been used so much that it’s not even funny anymore. The fact that oh he’s older, and then the only bit of his conversation is him mispronouncing the words and re-pronouncing them and adding to the general confusion and comic relief. Which is a bit tiring now.

Parinita: And not being able to handle technology. “Aaaah technology! No! I can’t!”

Sanjana and Aparna laugh.

Sanjana: Yes!

Aparna: Whereas that can happen to young people also.

Parinita: Absolutely.

Aparna: I’m talking very much about myself.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: And the onset of this episode where we spent ten minutes in angst about technology.

Aparna: Was it only ten minutes, Sana?

Sanjana: [laughs]

Parinita: It felt like – like this month [March, 2020] it’s just felt like ten years. Those ten minutes felt much longer. And going through all these fan podcasts and essays and comments and everything that we’ve been looking at, I couldn’t help but draw parallels to our current situation just in terms of the pandemic and the implications of social isolation as well as the virus on both physical and mental health. So not just the virus itself but with the lockdown to contain it as well.

Aparna: Yeah

Parinita: Now people are being asked to work from home, university lectures, at least here in the UK, are moving online and some conferences are being cancelled and online options are being considered. And this is what people with disabilities as well as people who are less mobile due to age or even caregiving circumstances – for whatever reason – they’ve been asking this for a really long time. I’ve been going through these threads and conversations on Twitter and Facebook and they have always wanted more options just for accessibility

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And especially with the technology that we have available today, people with disabilities could have easily been included as well as older people who may not be able to get to where you are for whatever reason. But there have been no systemic accommodations made. But now suddenly now that everybody has to go through this, oh suddenly, it’s really easy to do all these things. Oh yeah you can totally work from home, oh yeah we can totally do university … everything basically online.

Sanjana: Absolutely.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. It’s easily suddenly shoved down everybody’s throat and they’re like ohhh hmm, is this what you were talking about?

Aparna: So let’s do the same exercise that we did for disability representation with age representation. Can you name some well-written old characters? For example, I’ll start. The witches in the Discworld series, especially Granny Weatherwax is one of the most [laughs] I think just the characters in the Discworld series are very lovely-ly written because all their attributes … it’s not like they cease to matter but they just seem to celebrate whatever they are. Even if they are an orangutan who’s a librarian.

Sanjana: And another show, which clearly I seem to be giving only as good examples so they’re clearly doing something very correct, is I thought Avatar: The Last Airbender had some very good older characters. They have this whole underlying society of older people which was very cool. For a kid’s show, they were very present. I love Uncle Iroh.

Aparna: Uncle Iroh!

Sanjana: He’s such a complex but fascinating older character. And he’s one of my favourite fictional characters of all times.

Gif of Uncle Iroh and Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Uncle Iroh says: You're looking at the rare white dragon bush. Its leaves make a tea so delicious it's *heartbreaking*

Parinita: I think in Anne With An E, they had some fantastic older characters.

Sanjana: Yes, yes!

Parinita: Great-aunt Josephine was excellently badass. I loved her.

Sanjana: Yes.

Parinita: And I also loved seeing Marilla and Matthew and Rachel’s interactions as well.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Even though it’s very much about Anne and young people, but I loved the way in which older people were also – their lives and their relationships and all the complexities and everything within the way that they engage with the world was also shown.

Image of Rachel and Marilla from Anne With An E

Aparna and Sanjana: Yeah!

Sanjana: Absolutely.

Aparna: Actually, all parents were given just a lot of – even Diana’s parents had a whole story.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aparna: They had a lot of personality.

Sanjana: And I really like the scene where they are helping Bash with the newborn baby and then one of them says, you know we’ve done this, we’ve raised our kids, we are not built for this anymore. We are old!

Parinita and Aparna laugh

Parinita: Yeah!

Sanjana: We don’t want to do this anymore. And I just thought that was just so … it was so normal.

Parinita: Exactly! And it was shown in a way like they weren’t – it wasn’t their relationships with somebody else. It was just their lives and how they engage with everything else.

Sanjana: Absolutely.

Parinita: Which I think in Woke Doctor Who, they mentioned about how media, just like society and culture, seems to value youth so much. And older women especially. So you know it’s age and there’s also that intersection with gender there where older men are allowed to play a more active role in media and society than older women. Once you hit a certain age as a woman, yes goodbye. We have no need for your services anymore.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And if they are, they’re associated with bitterness and they’re pitted against younger women. And they’re either jealous or they’re competitive or they’re just sad that, oh no, my youth has gone. My life is over. Whereas in this, in Anne With An E, there was so much more. They weren’t sad about their lives. They just had their lives and they were going on living it.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: They didn’t have the same experiences as the younger characters had but there was room given to explore both of them. And yeah, I loved it.

Aparna: Yeah. And in non-fantasy, I also wanted to mention that two characters that I really like are Diane in The Good Fight, which is a lawyerly show. But she’s older, very well-written. She was a supporting character in another show and she got her own spin-off. But she’s not at all like a sympathetic character always. She’s a very grey character and she’s definitely an older woman trying to … She’s always the meanest person in the room.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: And doesn’t take any crap from anyone. She’s a very well-written character. So that’s one. And House from the show House is also oldish I guess. He is not old really but –

Sanjana: Old only.

Aparna: He’s older than most protagonists tend to be.

Parinita: Hmm.

Aparna: And has a disability and is a really, really well-written character. At least in the initial seasons of the show.

Sanjana: Yeah in the initial seasons, yeah he is.

Aparna: And it’s just a very well-rounded, non-sympathetic character. I always like these non-sympathetic characters.

Parinita: [laughs]

Aparna: Who tend to win my heart eventually.

Sanjana: And somebody made a very interesting point on one of the podcasts that we heard. Which was I think Breaking The Glass Slipper only; the episode in which they spoke about age. And the whole Harry and Dumbledore relationship was very interesting. I had not seen it like that at all. But as the books go, and Harry grows up, he sees from Dumbledore being this older mentor in his life, he becomes this flawed character who had a lot of things going on in his old age.

Parinita: Yeah, he starts off as this stereotypical wise mentor in the first few books.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: But especially in Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows, we realise that uh okay maybe he might have been a genocidal maniac as well for love, I guess.

Sanjana and Aparna laugh

Parinita: Except then he came back.

Sanjana: And also their relationship becomes from being the mentor to Harry calling him out on his crap. And saying that you’re being stupid about this. And just speak to me! And open up!

Parinita: And don’t be so useless. You don’t need to be so cryptic.

Sanjana: Yeah!

Aparna: Exactly!

Parinita: You could have given us more information and helped us along faster.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: No need for all this drama and all this mystery.

Sanjana: And now! It is time for our ever so famous uh

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: Thing.

Parinita: Amongst a total of three people!

Sanjana: That we must do on all podcasts [laughs] is our What If? section.

Aparna: I feel like it should have some theme music.

Sanjana: Yeah, I think we’ll come up with some theme music.

Aparna: I always suggest [makes sound effect]

Parinita: [laughs]

Aparna: Because it’s like a question mark. But you guys have been very dismissive of it in the past so I’m not going to do it.

Parinita: I feel like we can look for better music, Paru. [laughs]

Aparna: Just because you got fancy art of yourself, Parinita, now you want better music.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: Well … so! Welcome to the What If? section. Let me turn my page to where we have made some notes.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: Okay! So this What If? takes you down a journey where we flip the age of some of our favourite characters. To see how their life might have played out or how their characters might have played out or how their temperament may have been different if they were of a different age. We start in the world of Hogwarts with McGonagall.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: Parinita, would you like to start?

Parinita: Yeah, so for me, I thought it would be really interesting – so again, like I said I was re-reading the Harry Potter book. When Harry first meets McGonagall as an eleven-year-old, she’s described as having black hair. The movies have influenced our brains and our imaginations so much because she’s this obviously much older person. But I thought it would be really interesting if she had been this young, badass, stern teacher.

Sanjana: Absolutely! Yeah.

Parinita: And a capable witch who’s commanding respect. Because especially in a situation like a male-dominated like … well life. Male-dominated life.

Sanjana: Yeah. [laughs]

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: You know younger women do have to … like all three of us are lucky that we work in predominantly women – most of our co-workers are women. But I’ve heard from other places, in education as well, just women have to prove themselves so much more in this male-dominated structure, any sort of structure. So the idea of McGonagall being young and badass and just commanding respect wherever she goes, as a young woman in this old-man school.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Where there are some really terrible people.

Sanjana: Um hmm!

Parinita: She would be really cool. She would be this young, powerful woman and everyone loves her but is also very afraid of her. Which is how I think all women should be treated.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: You love them and you’re a bit afraid of them.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Absolutely. I agree. I couldn’t agree more. Okay. So our second example takes us to Aang and the fact that what if under the ice – maybe not a hundred years but he had aged; not stood still in time. But what if he had come out of that – the big block of ice – a little – a much older person? And he was the main protagonist of this kid’s show. How would that have played out? Aparna?

Aparna: It would have been pretty cool. We were discussing this and, like you mentioned, to see like an older Aang learning from all those kids and them being the mentor for him would have been really nice to see. And also I feel like he might have been taken more seriously. I don’t know or he would have more – Aang would have had more angst because –

Sanjana and Parinita laugh

Aparna: He would actually have lost a lot of his life in the ice.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: So he might not have been as silly or mad like the way he is.

Parinita: I would have loved had he been a hundred and eleven years old and been as silly and mad. But then he gets to do all these –

Aparna: Yeah! Because mind-wise –

Parinita: And he’d be all, oh no old bones!

Aparna: [laughs] Yeah! If he was physically old but then he had not aged otherwise, it would have been quite fun.

Sanjana: Yeah, it would have been quite fun to watch.

Parinita: Yeah, I would have loved to!

Sanjana: A hundred-year-old man going around learning from kids and being a kid and making air scooters and things, that would have been really fun.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: And he’s discovering this new world as well.

Aparna: Yeah, exactly.

Parinita: Which is the future! So all these new things. Oh I want to watch this show now!

Sanjana: Yes! I totally do.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: And our last What If? takes us to the world of fairy tales. And to a particular one with a wolf and a girl in a red hood. And [laughs] yes you guessed it right, it’s Red Riding Hood.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: I’ve taken this What If? section very seriously.

Parinita: I love it!

Aparna: And yet you did not like my theme music.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: I didn’t say anything to it!

Aparna: You scowled at it.

Sanjana: Anyway! Going back to our little Red Riding Hood – and this was Aparna’s idea which was brilliant – is that what if Grandma was taking some muffins to Red Riding Hood? And Red Riding Hood had been gobbled up? What would have happened then?

Aparna: Firstly I don’t think grandma would have spoken to a stranger.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Hiding in the forest and given her a dress.

Sanjana: Absolutely.

Aparna: So that’s one thing.

Parinita: I think the grandmother would have been wiser and would have been able to realise that it’s a wolf in a dress.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: And not a human. Like excuse me little Red Riding Hood, I realise that you’ve been this sheltered child. But do you not know the difference between skin and fur?

Sanjana: [laughs]

Aparna: He was wearing her grandmother’s clothes okay!

Sanjana: Maybe she forgot her specs that day.

Aparna: Yeah!

Sanjana: And couldn’t see clearly.

Parinita: I think you’re giving her too much credit.

Aparna: Actually that would make more sense.

Sanjana: It would.

Aparna: Than a little girl not being able to tell the difference between her grandmother and a wolf – a hairy wolf.

Parinita: A grandmother who she’s presumably met before!

Sanjana: I also think the grandmother wouldn’t have needed the hunter to come to her rescue.

Aparna: I agree.

Parinita: Oh I would have loved a romance between the grandmother and this young hunter.

Sanjana: Wow! That would have been fun.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: That’s a fairy tale we should have read.

Parinita: Yeah! Maybe we should write fanfiction, you guys. Red Riding Hood fanfiction.

Sanjana: Yeah, this is totally what we should do.

Aparna: [laughs] Red Riding Hood fanfiction! We’ve found our calling.

Sanjana and Parinita laugh

Comic of Red Riding Hood standing outside the window and the wolf dressed as grandma in bed. Red Riding Hood says: ..I've left a basket of food outside for you grandma! The wolf says: F*****g COVID!

Speaking of Red Riding Hood fanfiction [we didn’t come up with this one]

Aparna: But that brings me to what I wanted to talk a little bit about was ageism in children’s literature. So does ageism refer to discrimination based on age? That’s it right? It can be against younger people as well?

Parinita: Yeah.

Aparna: So I feel like children’s literature is born out of the fact that children don’t have any agency in the real world. They aren’t taken as seriously. So it’s the most successful fighting of ageism I’ve ever seen.

Parinita: [laughs]

Aparna: But within children’s literature, the way old people are treated especially – so going back to fairy tales – how eternal youth is this big reward in a fairy tale. Or these stereotypes of these mean old witches or these old crones who are just out to get you because that is what they do. And all those stories that are so old and have very problematic treatments of the way old people are represented in that they either are evil or they need help. I understand why. Even when I’m writing, I want to quickly dispose of the parents somehow. Which is what even Roald Dahl used to say, that the adults in his story, he wants to somehow make them go away as soon as possible in the story so that he can get on with telling the story. But I don’t remember where it was that we encountered an example of children enjoying a story with an older protagonist in it.

Parinita: It was Breaking The Glass Slipper as well.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: The ageism episode.

Aparna: Yeah. What was the show, I haven’t written it down.

Parinita: It was some British show or something that I’ve never heard of. For people who are super enthusiastic, they should go listen to the ageism episode and try to figure out what it is.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: We just open the gates to inspiration.

Aparna: Yeah but also, you both mentioned Gangsta Granny by David Walliams. And how basically children can enjoy stories that have grown-ups because actually even grown-ups don’t know what they are doing. The image of grown-ups having a handle on life now that we’ve grown up, we know that it’s not true.

Parinita: Especially in the real world where we’re seeing now younger people who are fighting against the problems that older people and adults have left for them.

Aparna and Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: I’ve been studying children’s literature. So I did the master’s and in that I came across this really interesting idea which also makes me a little uncomfortable. Which is essentially like you said, Paru, that children’s literature is where children have agency and young people go on their own adventures and do their own things. But there is this whole strand of discussion within children’s literature scholarship that actually, it’s still adults writing these. It’s all adults who are controlling children’s literature. It’s adults writing about adult ideologies of childhood. And all three of us, we are also complicit in this because we’re all writing children’s books.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And it’s what we think children want or children need and children would like. Which is why I started looking at fan communities in the first place for my master’s because in that, it was more young people’s response to these adult-authored texts. Not that I’m saying that we all need to give up our jobs and not write for children anymore.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: But for me, it was really interesting to just think of this. I was like, oh yeah that’s true. It’s nice to make all these arguments as the people who are – who you know –

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: Where it’s like, “Oh yeah, we’re doing such great work, aren’t we!”

Sanjana and Aparna laugh

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So yeah, sorry about throwing a little bit of a spanner in that. But what you were saying about just age-based discrimination and children’s literature being a part of that, I also see that in fandom. Not me specifically. But I’ve heard arguments about that. Where ageism in fandom works both ways. So it may work where young people’s interests and practices are dismissed by older adults so they’re like, oh fandom, there’s nothing to do here, please grow up. But on the other hand, it could also be because fandom is seen to be young people’s culture.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So if you’re above a certain age, younger people may not appreciate older people coming into their space.

Aparna: Hmm.

Parinita: And might be really protective about this. So there is this podcast that I listen to called Fansplaining and they’ve had some conversations and listener letters about this topic. How this perception is that fandom is full of teenagers but actually there are many people in their 20s, 30s and 40s enjoying fannish things as well. Like the three of us – I don’t think we’re never not going to be fannish even when we’re ninety-two.

Sanjana: Yeah

Parinita: Though I’m saying that a bit optimistically that the world is going to be around till we’re ninety-two.

Sanjana: [laughs] Ninety-two directly haan!

Parinita: [laughs] Some people may have discovered fandom later in life so they’ve not grown up with it. And a show like Supernatural which has this massive fandom even now but which has been around for fifteen years. So there are two different generations of fans. In one of the Fansplaining episodes, they were talking about how now the younger people who are into Supernatural now who are teenagers, they’d be looking at Sam and Dean as father figures.

Aparna: Oh god!

Sanjana: Oh my god!

Parinita: Which I’m like oh yeah that’s true because they’re pretty old. We’re – we’re getting old as well. [laughs] But it’s also interesting if there isn’t this discrimination, that fandom then becomes a space full of fans of all different ages who are interacting with each other in ways that they may not otherwise do. Because as an adult, there are a very fixed number of spaces where you have this cross-age interaction in a way that’s not controlled.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Yeah, absolutely. You’re right. You make a good point. Towards the end of our episode, it feels only right that we do another What If? Surprise!

Parinita: [laughs]

Aparna: [makes sound effect]

Parinita and Sanjana laugh

Aparna: Is that the same sound I made last time?

Sanjana: No, now it sounded like a spaceship.

Aparna: [makes sound effect] Oh no that’s more spaceship.

Parinita: [laughs]

Aparna: Okay never mind.

Sanjana: Going back to the uh

Parinita: This sound is growing on me.

Aparna: Yay! It’s also changing all the time so it might be a different one that’s feeling weird. I’ve forgotten what I was doing.

Sanjana: What If?! She said, bringing your attention back.

Parinita: [laughs]

Aparna: Okay.

Sanjana: Basically an older person’s perspective of entering a new world or entering an unknown world. And specifically, how about an older student going to Hogwarts? Like Parinita, you had mentioned, their letter got lost. The number of owls and things went awry and so they got their letter when they were thirty-five or forty probably.

Parinita: Or seventy-two.

Sanjana: Sure. Or seventy-two. And so they said, “Hmm, this seems like a fun thing to do now. I have magic! This explains a lot of my life! Let me go to Hogwarts.” And so they end up going to Hogwarts. And so what happens? What do you think? How different is their experience? I’m guessing very. But in what way?

Parinita: I would love to see one of the witches from Discworld whose names I have – I’m completely – Granny Weatherwax! I would love to see Granny Weatherwax in Hogwarts dealing with Snape.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: She is in Gryffindor because she’s obviously in Gryffindor.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: And just Snape trying to dock points off her for being … well her. And how she would deal with it. I think that would be fantastic. And I think she and McGonagall would just be the best of friends.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: In my case, the younger McGonagall.

Aparna: The younger McGonagall, yeah, even I was just about to say that.

Parinita: They would just be best friends.

Aparna: [laughs] I honestly was actually thinking about it very practically. And I thought firstly, all the professors would be wholly unconcerned that there is one student in the class who’s much older than either the rest of the students or even them. Because I couldn’t think of one teacher who would change the way they teach because of –

Parinita: Umbridge.

Aparna: [laughs] No, I do not consider her … as part of the … she’s not teaching there anymore okay, keep quiet.

Sanjana: [laughs] She didn’t do much teaching, haan.

Aparna: And I also thought practically, what if someone says oh they shouldn’t be allowed to play Quidditch. Because –

Parinita: How dare you!

Sanjana: [laughs]

Aparna: Yeah, they’re taller and they’re stronger or something like they’ll be able to reach places faster because their arms are longer. I can think of some whiny Slytherin students saying this is cheating, I’m not –

Parinita: Unless the old person is in Slytherin in which case, yes! All the old people will be playing.

Aparna: Exactly. Then I also thought students would take their help to get books from the Restricted Section. That’s an age thing, right?

Sanjana: Oooh! Of course!

Parinita: Yeah!

Aparna: I thought that would be a useful thing and everyone would ask them to get –

Parinita: Oh that’s true! They can be the book supplier.

Aparna: Exactly, like a side business.

Parinita: For all the junkies like Hermione.

Sanjana: And they wouldn’t need the Invisibility Cloak anymore.

Parinita: Oh my god! Can you imagine if one of the trio was really old?

Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: How much more practical they would have been? I know we want to go against this trope of old people being wise but they just have more life experience.

Aparna: Yes.

Parinita: And you know how we were when we were teenagers or younger.  We were not very … I mean we know better now.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: Although to be fair, Sirius was a terrible example. So Sirius would not have been a good, no he would not – none of the Marauders, I think.

Sanjana: No, none of them. [laughs]

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: But you guys make some interesting points. I agree. I never thought of the Restricted Section.

Aparna: It was one of the first things that I got excited about.

Sanjana: [laughs] But I was also thinking that the probability of a letter getting lost with the way the first book went and Harry’s letters went would be …

Aparna: Do you think they do that with all students or only he was a special case?

Sanjana: Hmm!

Parinita: Letters they must send to everybody.

Aparna: No but those many letters.

Sanjana: So many!

Parinita: Oh yeah! So this other podcast I was listening to, they were talking about how Harry’s definitely not a Ravenclaw because he was so bad at just –

Aparna: Yeah!

Parinita: Grabbing a letter and just reading it. There were so many letters – so many! Everywhere!

Aparna: Yeah! He couldn’t read one! He was such an idiot.

Sanjana: Well with that Harry bashing, we come to the end of the episode. And thank you so much for listening to us. And goodbye! Until next time.

Aparna and Parinita: Bye!

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode on representations of disabilities and old age. It’s a strange time to be making a podcast – especially an episode on ableism and ageism. I’m slowly getting used to the new normal, and I hope you are too. It’s something that I initially really struggled with. I love the new sense of community this pandemic has brought about. The creative new ways in which we’re looking after each other, especially the more vulnerable members of our society, including older people as well as people with physical and mental disabilities. That’s one of the things filling me with hope in these lockdown days – that maybe, after all this is over, we’ll remember what it was like and we’ll end up working together in a better, more just world.

As one of my favourite writers Arundhati Roy recently wrote,

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

[Outro music]

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!

Growing Comfortable With Discomfort – Part Two

When I initially designed my project and its methodology, I wanted to keep the format as open-ended and flexible as possible so as to incorporate suggestions from my co-participants and their priorities/preferences, especially if they differed from mine. About a month into my project, I realised that my theoretical plans may differ from practical considerations; however, even then, I assumed that the overall structure of my project was reasonably dynamic. The overall design involved:

1) Asking participants what themes they were interested in exploring (both from the list I’d developed as well as their own inputs)

2) To make the format more of an informal conversation rather than an interview, I suggested exchanging fan texts about our favourite fictional worlds based on themes of our episode.

In my initial emails, I outlined my plan and sought suggestions from my co-participants about any format ideas they had which could inform the structure. One of my co-participants immediately pointed out that they weren’t a fan in the sense that I had suggested; rather than consider themselves fans of a specific text, they considered themselves fans of science fiction and fantasy as a genre. Hence, the exchange of fan texts based on specific media may not work. That’s the first time I realised that perhaps the format I had outlined wasn’t as flexible as I had envisioned since I hadn’t even considered this alternate expression of fannishness. In my response, I acknowledged that my suggestion may have been limiting. I asked them to suggest any kind of texts – fannish or otherwise – which would help me learn about their perspectives since I was so ignorant of the theme we were going to be exploring. After some thought, they proposed talking about a specific aspect of the theme we were exploring and its engagement with their fandom. This sounded great to me and I scheduled our episode and put it out of my mind.

When I was putting together texts for this co-participant, I shortlisted fan podcast episodes which touched on the theme we were exploring in different ways – either through the hosts applying that specific lens to a popular text or by talking about a more niche text which explored the theme in interesting ways. This included a section which had extracts from a Harry Potter fan podcast. My participant responded saying they hoped I didn’t expect them to talk about Harry Potter since they didn’t like the books too much – something I hadn’t realised. I responded by assuring them they didn’t have to talk about the series at all and explained the reasoning for the inclusion since it helped me understand the perspectives better – especially since it was an idea I hadn’t previously considered. Additionally, I told them I might bring up Harry Potter since I was a huge fan and I use it as a framework for the discussions; however, I may also leave it out since our conversation would ultimately depend on what the participants themselves were interested in exploring.

Shortly after that, the world went into quarantine. My co-participant and I were scheduled to record an episode at the end of March. However, not having heard anything from them by the date we were supposed to chat and plan the episode, I sent them an email assuring them that we could postpone our episode given the circumstances. I didn’t want the podcast to burden any other duties or priorities they may now have. They responded saying they would like to postpone; however, it wasn’t for pandemic lockdown reasons. They revealed that they didn’t like any of the texts I wanted to talk about. They said they would be happy to talk about their own research but weren’t up for looking at new texts. None of this was said in an unkind way; they were quite apologetic about their response.

When I first read the email, I wasn’t able to articulate my feelings. My initial emotion was discomfort, quickly followed by dismay. It was only when I took some time to sit with my feelings and think about them at a (brief) distance that I could unpack my exact emotions. I was initially uncomfortable because I began second-guessing my format and suggestions. I wonder if this has something to do with my imposter syndrome generally – in academia, in the UK, as a fan. I didn’t want to cause offense and I didn’t want to come across as a fool. I interrogated these feelings further and realised I have no problems acknowledging my ignorance or inexperience – in fact, I had done precisely this in my initial emails to all my co-participants. Next, I briefly considered whether I was uncomfortable because I felt like the participant wasn’t being flexible. I dismissed this thought when I realised the true source for my consternation – the format I was so proud of designing (incorporating some advice from my supervisors too) was actually not as open as I had initially thought. While I was convinced that it (and, by extension, I) was flexible and dynamic and responsive to alternate suggestions, my first brush with something not going according to plan revealed how wedded I was to the original plan.

Additionally, I was very ashamed that my co-participant may have felt put upon by the format and felt unable to say so. I sent them an email saying as much and reiterating that their concerns and reluctance were absolutely valid and was deeply apologetic that my assumption of the flexibility of the format format caused their discomfort. It’s not an ethical concern I had even considered about while designing this project. I tend to be excitable and enthusiastic about ideas I love and sometimes end up bulldozing other people’s perspectives; while this is usually inadvertent, it is still something I need to grapple with not just with the planning of episodes but also during the conversations themselves. I don’t want to impose by ideas on others and leave little room for different perspectives – completely the opposite of what I want, actually! For now, I’ve emailed the participant an apology and said I’d be happy for them to participate in any way that they can. They responded graciously and said they would think about an alternate format. At this point, I’m not sure whether our episode will still go ahead – I absolutely would love for it to because I think I have a lot to learn from my participant’s perspective. But even if it doesn’t, I’m still glad to have had the opportunity to learn from my missteps, miscommunication, and discomfort.

Some Notes On Episode 4 – 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 4, A Lot of Gold in Gringotts: Representations of Class and Considerations of Gender, we discussed the following texts.

1) Academic paper – Restorying the Self: Bending Toward Textual Justice

According to the paper, the concept of restorying refers to highlighting marginalised perspectives in mainstream media and culture through fan responses to favourite texts. Everybody can insert their own perspectives and experiences in stories which otherwise erase or silence them. While there are conversations happening around diversity in mainstream publishing and media, fandom is such a rich resource where they are already doing it. The collective nature of this practice is what i’m most interested in because it’s what I’ve experienced – encountering other people’s perspectives, as largely a lurker, has expanded my own thinking and helped me decolonise my brain. This happens with both exposure to perspectives in which I’m marginalised and in others where I’m dominant. I love the idea of fandom as an educational resource where you learn both technical and conceptual skills which you may not in institutionalised educational contexts (of course, this is still limited to those who have access to the technology and time to experiment). Even though there is global circulation of texts and fan texts – the West is still privileged – exemplifying and exacerbating cultural imperialism and colonised minds. However, this does have empowering potential as well since you’re encountering ever-diverse perspectives.

Bending –  reimagining stories from nondominant, marginalized, and silenced perspectives, as one form of restorying that draws from and makes manifest embodied, lived realities and identities”

Examples of this include racebending, genderbending, and queering the texts. Young people respond to the lack of representation by inserting their own representations within fandom – both young people and different marginalised groups make space for themselves. According to their research, racebending isn’t just a practice engaged in by fans of colour – white fans who recognise the white-dominated worlds of fantasy media racebend characters as well. Counter-narratives offer perspectives which are different from the mainstream dominant ones. This has a tremendously empowering potential, particularly as a collective activity, as a tool of community-building. Historically, literature and media has been created, controlled and represented a small group of privileged people and everyone else on the margins has had to read themselves into the story and become well-acquainted with narratives and experiences which didn’t reflect their own. This is still the case both within an Indian context but especially globally, with the widespread influence of Western media. Technology and participatory media offers a space for marginalised voices to insert themselves into the narrative and share these counter-narratives with a global audience. 

The article outlines different ways to restory and disrupt dominant narratives and understandings and challenge the dominance of a single story:

changing the time, the place, the identity (race, gender, queer), mode (transmedia storytelling), perspective (counter storytelling), metanarrative (collective storytelling)

These restorying practices employed by fans in informal digital spaces can be used by educators within more formal contexts. Restorying offers a way of promoting empathy, respect and understanding for diverse lived experiences and of challenging inequalities of representation and exclusion of certain groups of people. 

 

2) Alison’s academic presentation – Daemons and Pets as signifiers of social class in Harry Potter and His Dark Materials

The paper points out that taste often acts as signifier of social status and class. It interprets the Weasleys as the Irish – redheads, impoverished, lots of children –  which reiterates that there are many things you don’t pick up on as a reader outside the context in which a story is set. This reminds me of a conversation with my Scottish partner who was horrified when he discovered that there’s an Irish character in the series, Seamus Finnigan, who has a propensity to set things on fire and blow things up. I never realised the connection with the IRA.

The middle class in the UK is very different to the middle class in India. To me, everybody here seems pretty well off – even though the Weasleys are explicitly described as poor. Also, there is this perception in India that in the “West” (usually a monolithic construct), everyone is prosperous and people don’t have to worry about poverty. It is definitely a matter of context, that I began to see clearly only after moving to the UK and encountering perspectives and standards of poverty here. A few weeks ago, my partner and I witnessed a neighbour’s encounter with mental illness and how it was (mis)treated by the police. My partner was appalled at the cuts to services which has led to the way things are now. To me, even the existence of such services is such an unthinkable thing, much less the expectation that these services need to function according to a high standard. It’s so good to be able to learn from both privileged and marginalised perspectives because it allows you to see things you wouldn’t have thought of. 

The paper argues that the fixed nature of daemons reflects the lack of social mobility and career changes in the world of His Dark Materials which is an interesting idea. Another interesting idea is pets as a signifier of status. This can be seen in real life as well with what you can and can’t afford when it comes to having animals. For example, I would love to have a menagerie, but I definitely can’t afford to. 

“Harry has been disadvantaged, materially, culturally and emotionally, by the Dursleys, but in the wizarding world he is a lost prince.”

While Harry grows up impoverished, he has inherited wealth and valuable objects, from many older men – his invisibility cloak, the Marauder’s Map, Hedwig – as the co-hosts on Witch, Please and the paper point out. Witch, Please further discusses how a lot of the objects in the magical world seem to have artisanal value where the economy seems to value one-of-a-kind objects rather than mass-produced items, in itself a class marker. Harry has several of these. Hat-tip to Witch, Please again for noting that the accumulation of objects in the magical world seems to be especially common among the wealthy – the Malfoys, Voldemort, the Blacks. Sirius is desperate to get rid of these objects as a further way to cut ties with his family when he is forced to inhabit his family house in Order of the Phoenix.

 

3) Fanfiction – A Wand With Sixteen Strings

Just reading fanfiction again has filled my heart with such joy! I remember doing this as a teenager – just losing myself in Harry Potter fic and finding so much joy and comfort in it. I never did get around to reading fic inspired by other worlds. Going back to that experience even briefly makes me want to simultaneously read and write more fanfiction  – this time, using all the knowledge, interests, and perspectives my PhD research has exposed me to. I like the What If? sections on my co-host episodes allow me to do this somewhat in the form of headcanons. But I would love to explore further.

I didn’t even realise it was a crossover with an existing school story series – The Marlows – until a note hinted at Lawrie being an existing character in Chapter 5. This fic reiterated the gender politics in school stories. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate this while I was bingeing on school stories as a teenager, but I glossed over the more overtly sexist bits of the narratives and enjoyed them because they centred female characters having all sorts of adventures – both domestic and outdoor – and included relationships, drama and all-round interestingness (at least it was interesting to me).

Nicola’s brief friendly conversation with a centaur in the library made me wish there had been more of that in the series! Also, the librarian Madam Pince, in this case didn’t seem daunting, quite helpful if a bit quirky – my kind of librarian representation. I would really have loved the series through Hermione’s point of view. I would have also loved more magical creatures in Hogwarts – an inter-cultural learning community would have been so interesting! Do I need to write this fic?! I also loved the casual inclusion of different religious faiths in this conversation. 

“Does everybody have to go to the Quidditch match?” Nicola was asking Susan, who was leaning over the desk behind her.

Susan shook her head. “Most people do, but the Osmans don’t go because their religion doesn’t think much of witches riding around on brooms showing their legs – you know the Osmans, they’re Gryffindors, one’s a fourth year and the other one’s a seventh – and neither do some of the other Muggleborns. Sally-Ann Perks doesn’t, I know that, because she came in at the end of my clarinet lesson and asked Magister Reed if it was all right to use the music-room, and he said if the Snitch flew in through the window and up her euphonium he’d hold her responsible.”

“Sally-Ann Perks is never a Muslim,” said Nicola, sounding as if she suspected a leg-pull.

“No, but her people do follow some kind of Muggle religion,” said Susan earnestly. “Haven’t you noticed she wasn’t allowed to come to the Hallowe’en feast or anything where people sing hymns, and she got really embarrassed when Lavender Brown was asking when her birthday was, and had to tell her not to send cards to her house because her parents don’t agree with that kind of thing?”

“Well, who’d have thought it,” said Nicola, only mildly interested.

“What are they going to do in the music-room?” asked Tim Keith, strolling over. “I might go and join them.”

“You can’t do that,” said Goyle offendedly. “You’ve got your House to support.”

“And the so-dear Marlows here have two sisters to support,” Tim gave them a bright glancing look, not altogether devoid of malice. “So I suppose we’ll all be there freezing on the stands whilst Sally-Ann Perks and the two best-looking boys in Gryffindor share a nice warm music-room. It’s enough to make me take up that old-time religion.”

The story also featured a refreshingly different perspective of Draco and the rest from a non-Harry POV (I may also have a soft spot for Draco after watching Harry Potter and the Cursed Child for my birthday in March). Altering the POV and highlighting new voices really does allow you to reimagine differently. Is this why I love retellings of all kinds? The potential to expand my imagination? The Hufflepuff POV in this story, a house which is much denigrated in the books, also reminds me that I need to watch Puffs, an off-Broadway play which is available on Prime, which documents the series from the Hufflepuff perspective. 

 

4) Fan podcast – Witch, Please “The Chamber of Whiteness”

The co-hosts believe that the effeminate representation of Draco and Lucius Malfoy signifies bad whiteness. They were aristocratic slave holders and evil. There’s also a link between the Malfoys, the Nazis and the Slytherins. The villains are coded as dandys and queer (Voldemort as well). Snape is also coded is a bad example of whiteness, though in a very different way. I wonder about the class implications of this as well as the blood-status implications. The bad guys congregate in Knockturn Alley which presents an orientalised aesthetic, for example, the objects in Borgin and Burkes. All this is contrasted by Harry’s good whiteness where he comes from a poor background and doesn’t have the Malfoy-level of wealth and privilege supporting him. The Malfoys keeps slaves, Harry liberates them. One is a bad way to be a white person, the other is an example of a good white person. 

However, as they mention in later episodes, Harry is also privileged. Perhaps not with the Dursleys, but certainly in the magical world. He inherits wealth and valuable objects as well as cultural and social status. While he liberates Dobby and is eventually nice to Kreacher, he doesn’t seek to upend the status quo or the system of house elf slavery in the way Hermione does. He develops empathy for those ostracised by witches and wizards – such as goblins and giants who live on the margins of the magical society – but he doesn’t take any radically inclusive measures. (The Jewish co-hosts also identify the anti-Semitic stereotypes of goblins and the overall lack of Jewish characters in the magical world). 

They note that in the movie, the Burrow is vibrant and welcoming whereas Privet Drive is plain and boring. The country is glorified over the suburbs and lower middle class in the suburbs versus lower middle class in the country is very different. They discuss the class commentary of the architecture and visual choices in movies. 

Throughout their podcast, the co-hosts critique the pedagogy employed in Hogwarts. When it comes to the bad teaching in Hogwarts, o students from wizarding families have more of an advantage because they are assumed to have some skills and knowledge? Or even if they don’t acquire these skills and knowledge in school, their family will take care of the necessary education? This has class and race implications, which is similar in real-life educational institutions. 

In terms of gender, they point out that while Hermione in the books is flawed, in the movies, she’s portrayed as god-like. She’s given Dumbledore’s line, not too much is made of her crush on Gilderoy Lockhart, she is physically more attractive as opposed to the books – and just generally she isn’t as flawed and embarrassing as portrayed in the books. They argue that in movies, women are constantly shown as flawed and we rarely get perfect female characters, so on the one hand, it is good to have Hermione as a strong young female character. However, there aren’t enough women characters in popular media to be able to have both – flawed and perfect characters. We would like both characters who we want to aspire to be – perfect and flawless – as well as those we identify with – flawed and complex. Men often don’t have to choose between the two because there’s room for multiple representations. 

 

5) Fan podcast – The Gayly Prophet “Witch Please Meets The Gayly Prophet: An Interview with Hannah McGregor”

Podcasting is a way of disseminating information about feminism. It is also a way to maintain long-distance friendship. Much like Witch, Please, I’m using my PhD podcast to do a bit of both. Hannah McGregor says that podcast listeners and engaging with a community taught her a lot. For Jaime, she’s been having these conversations (like the political feminist ones on Witch, Please) with her leftist queer community in the real-world. Unlike Jaime, I didn’t have access to these conversations in my real life so I am forever grateful for the internet for expanding my mind. Hannah believes that beginning to think critically about things changes your relationship with media in general as well as that thing in particular. You either decide you now hate the thing or continue loving it and enjoy critiquing it. People like having their ideas expanded. This has definitely been my experience. 

However, not all ideas are appreciated by everyone. Listeners didn’t like Witch, Please‘s reading of anti-Semitism in Harry Potter nor did they agree with their reading of fatphobia against the Dursleys. Hannah also pointed out that UK listeners don’t see the absence of Jewishness as a sign of religious erasure because they argue there is no religion in the series despite the series being framed around Christianity. This is similar to discussions about racism in the UK, as pointed out by Woke Doctor Who, where British people seem to think that racism is only a thing which exists in the US. Fat shaming “bad” people even among people on the left is seen as acceptable (Trump, for example). 

Podcasting can act as a community-building site even if the text and creator are problematic. Podcasts act as accessible scholarship where knowledge is shared not just by academics podcasting but also non-academics podcasting. For example, Lark acknowledges that he doesn’t have a college degree. His education comes from talking to people and from the internet. This doesn’t make his voice any less important. Even though I’m researching for a PhD, a lot of my knowledge is derived from the internet as well. I’m still uncomfortable about calling myself an academic because I have a very certain idea of academic knowledge and I don’t feel like I fit into this mould. The internet offers different forms of media to make knowledge accessible to people who aren’t privileged enough to access these through institutionalised means. 

However, as Hannah points out, open access to scholarship isn’t embraced by everyone. Many institutionalised spaces seek to protect and hoard their knowledge. Holding onto privilege, Hannah argues, is a white supremacist act because it links “expertise to wealth and other forms of privilege” – wealth and privilege which in Canada, like many Western countries, have been historically concentrated in the hands of white men. This elitist gatekeeping of knowledge provides the argument that free knowledge/free tuition decreases the “specialness” of knowledge, an idea which needs to be protected. Podcasting breaks down the barriers between who gets to create and disseminate knowledge. It also allows you to talk to more diverse people beyond the limited group of people within educational institutions which usually includes only those who have access to these spaces and resources. Hannah asserts that theory suffers from not exploring lived experience and becomes too abstract, irrelevant, and ivory towerish. I think this reflects my own uncertainty with and perception of academia.

The episode discusses that queer people seem to love Harry Potter which they argue may be a combination of the timing of the series release and the birth of digital fandom. Fans took ownership of the series regardless of what Rowling thinks/says – this is particularly relevant and evident now. They also propose that fans seem to have more ownership of genre fiction (science fiction, fantasy, horror) where they play around in the world as opposed to literary fiction where the writer’s word seems more sacrosanct. 

Two fan text recommendations from the conversation: 

 

6) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds “Fanfiction (Don’t Judge)”

The popular perception is that fanfiction is trashy and terrible when actually, there is a lot of high quality fic out there. And anyway, even among published books, there are so many terrible books out there! Eric interviews a woman of colour who reads/writes fanfiction because she finds it full of more diversity than mainstream media. Most creators of mainstream media are straight white guys (in the West). Fanfiction expands the possibilities of who creates stories and includes a diversity of perspectives, something that the host Eric hadn’t considered at all. Even for a critical and open-minded thinker, it’s easy to fall prey to cultural stereotypes.

There is definitely a gendered element to this denigration of fanfiction. When men wrote fiction inspired by Sherlock Holmes way back when, as one of the guests points out, the practice wasn’t denigrated. But as soon as it becomes a practice popularly employed by women, censure and mockery abound. Female fans of Star Trek wrote some of the first fanfiction as it is seen today – including slash fic – and they were dismissed by male fans for liking the show too much and for the wrong reasons .

“Where women were more interested in the relationships between the characters rather than the high concept scientific ideas.”

Slash fic is proposed to be a way of writing a lot of queer literature to fill the missing gap in mainstream literature. One of the guests also believes that slash ships written by women allow for equality in relationships i.e. it becomes a way for women to navigate gender politics without the baggage. However, I’ve also come across critiques of this because without doing the proper research, writing about a culture you aren’t familiar with can be problematic. A lot of slash fic tends to be about attractive men – largely white men – written by straight women, and intersectional identities are missing. Not that the whole idea needs to be tossed out, but there is room for questioning it rather than simply touting it as progressive. 

Fanfiction displays an alternative framework to creating stories – communal writing where betas act as voluntary editors and writers take feedback into serious consideration which informs their subsequent chapters and how the story goes. Many fans even prefer fan works to canon which throws into question – what is canon anyway if fanon is equally well-received by a certain portion of people? Archive Of Our Own is a fan-run platform for fans to host fanfiction. It was started in 2007 and won a Hugo award in 2019. Online fandom can be more accessible than offline conventions, which can be expensive and inaccessible to many groups of people for many different reasons.  

A guest speaks about the tension between fanfiction and its commercialisation wherein companies are trying to monetise fanfiction (hello capitalism) which changes the subversive, subcultural practice of fanfiction by making it more conventional and heteronormative to suit the demands of the marketplace. Another tension is about fan entitlement where media creators hold fan backlash responsible for their creative choices. However, historically fans haven’t had large amounts of institutional and financial power. Now, through their fan works, they are able to respond to the media and critique decisions which further marginalise under-represented groups of people – something which some media creators like more than others. 

To quote Sam Winchester: “At the end of the day, it’s our story. So we get to write it.”

 

7) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds “Fan fiction (special edition)”

This episode featured an interview with Francesca Coppa, one of the co-founders of Archive of Our Own. She pointed at Sherlock Holmes and then Star Trek as the origins of fanfiction. Women played a huge role in the Star Trek fandom but they weren’t taken as seriously – they were writing fictional stories but were regarded as writing the show incorrectly. Fanzines and sharing VHS tapes was another way of sharing fandom and forming a community. The internet followed. 

Why bully teenage girls for doing something they love?

She also spoke about the gender politics of fanfiction and how it’s mocked for being an arena so largely populated by teenage girls playing with their favourite worlds and characters. She points out the hypocrisy by drawing parallels to garage bands where people get together to play covers of their favourite in their garages. Just like fanfiction, the quality of these creative outputs differs wildly – with some great and some terrible productions. Even when it comes to the idea of Mary Sues where people criticise wish-fulfillment stories written by young girls and women, it overlooks the fact that so many of mainstream male heroes are wish-fulfillment Gary Stus as well – Luke Skywalker and Bruce Wayne, for example. A lot of fanfiction responds to the sexist aspects of their favourite media where there are no female friendships and women are primarily defined through their relationships with men. Slash fic is used to negotiate gender politics by using fictional characters and exploring the relationships between them. Francesca contends that prose allows you to explore feelings in a deeper way than movie/TV. Being a woman on the internet is fraught with risk anyway.

“Anything women do is funny, anything teenage girls do is funny, anything women do with erotica is especially hilarious.”

Archive of our Own was started by fans to own the platform where they wrote fanfic on. Its co-founders were mostly adult women from different skill backgrounds – coders, lawyers, writers. They designed the structure and software from scratch and included things they considered important – spoiler warnings and trigger warnings, for example. It won a Hugo award in 2019. 

Francesca also talks of the benefits of having beta readers acting as editors to improve the quality of the stories online. Many fans are professional writers and an editor is always helpful to all kinds of writers. However, from my own experiences as a teenage fanfiction writer on MuggleNet, I remember that sometimes the community is much more authoritarian. I wrote a very Out of Character fic about a sitcom version of Voldemort and the Death Eaters and the first chapter received a few nice comments, but then the second chapter as well as the fic itself was deleted for not being in character which was extremely demoralising! I shared it on another platform too but it put me off writing more – I don’t have thick enough skin!

Francesca outlines the limits of the marketplace which in turn limit the kind of stories writers on TV shows/books can tell. Fanfiction doesn’t have this problem where there’s room for all kinds of stories. However, the increasing allure of commercialisation of fanfiction due to it becoming mainstream can be fraught with risk. She warns of the dangers of money coming into fanfiction whereby it will be governed by the dictates of the marketplace and advertisers, just as mainstream media is. But considering that a majority of fic writers are female, shouldn’t women be paid for their work? Francesca wants to preserve the playfulness and not make it a job. It is complicated as she admits.

 

8) Fan podcast – Black Girl Nerds “Geek Misogyny, No Totally” (Segment 1 until 1 hour 6 minutes)

The episode explores examples of sexism and harassment while cosplaying. Cosplaying as a woman appears to be fraught with risk (doing anything being a woman is fraught with risk!). Safety from harassment depends on the space; in conventions, it is more frequent in some places than others. They point out the male entitlement where male fans think female fans are there for their benefit and not just because they are fans themselves and cosplaying is simply their expression of fannishness. Women aren’t there just to be attractive to men or get male attention. Is fandom seen as a space for men by these male fans? And that women are just interlopers? Such behaviour makes nervous fans more uncomfortable and can dissuade them from doing this again. It’s a way of gatekeeping who belongs and who doesn’t. When this sexist behaviour is called out, male fans become upset. Conflict is risky in these spaces because just like elsewhere, you don’t know how men will react and when it can get violent. It’s an outright dismissal of women’s experiences and agency and sense of peace! 

As they point out, making space for conversations about this harrassment is important. Giving space for marginalised voices in ALL the contexts is important, especially when they are challenging dominant norms and behaviours which people may have traditionally taken for granted. This isn’t just true in fan spaces, of course. Fan conventions themselves are often spaces with children and young people too and this is a terrible example to set for them. You can offer such a better experience! Why can’t people just be better?! 

I have a very limited experience of fan conventions. My only experience of a con was Eastercon where there seemed to be many measures in place to make it as inclusive as possible. I’ve just been to that one so far because I haven’t been able to afford to go to more, but I hope to in the future because I love the idea of them! I was on some panels at the convention I’d been to and most of my interactions with people were just brilliant. However, since I’m a chronic over-preparer and was super nervous, I’d done a ton of homework. In one panel, this included having a PowerPoint full of images of the books I was talking about because I like showing visuals to people. At the end of my panel, an older man came to me and said, “Oh every time I see a PowerPoint, it just puts me to sleep.” What a thing to say to someone! One of the young female-presenting volunteers overheard this exchange and quickly said that she likes having a visual to support the panel since she doesn’t always catch what the panelists are saying. Is it only up to women to look out for each other? 

The harassment is especially worse if women inhabit other intersectional identities which mark you out as “different”. On the podcast, they speak about racial and body diversity while cosplaying. Plus size cosplayers have even more anxiety while dressing up as their favourite characters in a fatphobic society. It’s something that’s so conditioned – considering fatness as shameful and less than. And not treating fat people as you would a non-fat person. People undergo such different experiences of marginalisation. In terms of fatphobia, it’s only something I’ve recently discovered and I’m still learning about, after hearing an episode about it on Woke Doctor Who and then reading a book called Happy Fat. 

The fake geek girl discourse is a form of cultural gatekeeping by male fans. Male entitlement manifests itself in deciding who does or doesn’t belong in the fan space. Women are targeted by men for not knowing everything about everything; the same doesn’t happen to other male fans. Female fans are treated differently, not just by men but also women with internalised misogyny. Again, this isn’t something I have come across myself just because of the spaces I inhabit. However, I’d internalised male expressions of fannishness when I was younger. I thought I needed to know everything about a series or movie to count as a “real fan”. And it’s taken a few years for me to be all right with my expression of fannishness, which might differ from the male-controlled norm. Shows with huge male fandoms are taken more seriously than those with huge female fandoms. Women (or anybody!) shouldn’t have to prove their fannishness and the value of their interests to anybody. We don’t need men to allow us into their exclusive fan club. Why do some fans have to prove their fannishness? We’re not doing this for approval. Being a fan, playing games, dressing up – we do it for ourselves! Because it’s fun. 

Does this reflect male insecurity? Is it a form of dominant culture insecurity about having to share space with new people, about having other kinds of people and stories they have to engage with? This is also similar to broader social, cultural and political spaces at large. The guests point out that the dominant culture becomes angry/offended when marginalised fans create their own space – even though the dominant norms are still prevalent everywhere. They also outline the differences between male fandom (i.e. collecting merch, trivia, knowing the canon) versus female fandom (i.e. transforming canon because they are dissatisfied by their lack of representation). Transformational fandom is usually practised by people on the margins of mainstream culture as a way to insert their own perspectives which are otherwise erased. It is so important to form a community with fellow marginalised fans because they’re concerned with the same things you are within a space where you’ve all gathered to chat about something you love. Diversity isn’t a threat to the things the dominant group likes! It just makes space for more things which others can enjoy. Inclusion doesn’t need to be a contentious issue. 

 

9) Fan podcast – The Gayly Prophet “Three Owls In A Trench Coat: POA Chapter 3” (Listen from 37 to 57 minutes)

Something I hadn’t considered – Stan Shunpike has a class-signifying accent in the UK context. He is portrayed as working class and the character isn’t very flattering. Hagrid has a different regional class accent and is marginalised in different ways. The Weasleys’ lack of money is different from a truly working class lifestyle. Mr. Weasley seems to have a pretty stable job at the Ministry. The hosts don’t think they come from working class backgrounds based on the cues provided about Molly’s family. These are things you wouldn’t pick up on unless you were familiar with the UK class politics. But there are parallels in India with accents and regional variations where urban accents and English is privileged. The series, like much mainstream media, is written from an upper class/middle class perspective which is quite uncomfortable. 

What is the cost of education at Hogwarts? Do all wizarding children go? Is there a cost factor which prevents people from going? Tom Riddle got some sort of scholarship, didn’t he? What about the Gaunts? It may not just be tuition but also buying all the things which go with it. Do you also pay for boarding and food? There’s also the class connotations of boarding schools. In India, my parents and some friends’ parents used to threaten us that if we were bad, they would send us to a boarding school. At the time, we had no concept that a boarding school was more expensive than regular school (and perhaps, the threats rang a little hollow). In the UK, of course, boarding schools seem to be entirely connected with poshness.  

The hosts wonder whether the Knight Bus is a form of transportation only for poor people? It’s an uncomfortable ride, and people seem miserable. Are there different kinds of transportation based on your level of wealth? How much are Portkeys and magic carpets worth? Apparation is free, I suppose, but you assume a level of education. Can you learn to Apparate anywhere other than Hogwarts? Is it restricted only to students who have access and resources to education? You can read Muggles/Muggleborn children as coming from a lower class background because of their lack of access to resources and knowledge. And everything else is so much harder for them in the magical world. Even though Harry was raised by Muggles and was largely impoverished, in the magical world he isn’t financially insecure. As the hosts point out, in Prisoner of Azkaban, he is asked to stay at Diagon Alley in an inn on presumably his own dime and has to pay for his own meals. This presumption of wealth with no consideration given to money matters implies that money is no problem. 

 

10) Fan podcast – Reading, Writing, Rowling “Revela Draconem: Draco Malfoy Revealed” (Listen until 27ish minutes)

Draco and Dudley have certain similarities. They are both bullies, and their behaviour has class implications in terms of their families. Both are over-indulged by their parents who have their own toxic ideas of privilege and wealth and status – though the Malfoys are much more aristocratic than the Dudleys. This has an impact on both Draco and Dudley as well as on Harry. This parenting is also very harmful to both boys; a different kind of neglect and abuse than the one meted out to Harry. Both change as characters by unlearning their family’s social conditioning and develop empathy for other perspectives. They both also undergo traumatic experiences as the series progresses. Draco is depressed in Half-Blood Prince which is born out of expectations and pressure to fit in with parents which he may not necessarily agree with. Being in Slytherin definitely didn’t help him question his beliefs and preconceived ideas. As the hosts in The Gayly Prophet point out in an episode, he would have done well to have been sorted into Ravenclaw and be friends with Luna who would probably have questioned his really problematic ideas. 

 

11) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text “Failure: Dumbledore’s Army (Book 5, Chapter 18)”

They discuss Hermione’s failure with SPEW where she didn’t consult with the house elves and decided she was going to liberate them based on her own ideas. It was reflective of white feminism and a white saviour complex, both of which were presented uncritically. One of the hosts believes that she’s developed leadership skills and organisational capabilities thanks to her SPEW efforts, which she goes on to apply to the DA in Order of the Phoenix. But she doesn’t actually apply any of these lessons to SPEW. She has a condescending attitude towards house elves and doesn’t talk to them, but she is better prepared with her peers in DA. Is this some unquestioned biases at play even within Hermione – where she considers her human peers more equal than house elves and more able to understand her plans and concerns? Dobby bears the brunt of her good but clumsy intentions – he has to clean Gryffindor tower by himself because none of the other house elves want to be tricked into freedom. Hermione’s tactics show a shocking ignorance and lack of consideration of house elf culture, attitudes, and beliefs. She thinks she knows better than the house elves about their own lives and behaves accordingly. The hosts also believe that it’s important to confront friends when it comes to activism and social justice movements. Harry should have talked to Hermione about her SPEW failures. Looking at her plans for DA, we assume she has learned, but she may not actually have gleaned any lessons. 

In terms of gender dynamics, they discuss the DA where Hermione gives up control to Harry even though she’s the brains behind the operation. This might be a problematic diminishing of female labour but can also be read as needing collective delegation and leadership – a different way of expressing leadership. They also talk about Angelina Johnson’s stint as the Gryffindor Quidditch captain. Vanessa asserts that women are held to unfair standards compared to men especially in terms of men’s comfort versus women’s comfort. The players didn’t complain as much when the previous captain Oliver Wood put them through discomfort. When Angelina has practices in the pouring rain, she earns the intense ire of the entire team. In Hogwarts’ blindly multicultural society, Angelina’s race may not have played a role but in real life situations, the fact that she is a black woman may have had consequences on how the rest of the team follows her lead.  

Balancing work to avoid being overwhelmed

It’s the third week of the pandemic lockdown and I think I’m finally feeling less of a workaholic and less overwhelmed by all the work I have to do. Of course, the fact that a co-participant originally due to record in March postponed our episode may have helped decrease the workload and my stress. But I’m also becoming more comfortable with the idea that I’m not going to fall behind on work and that I don’t need to be working all the time/feel guilty for not working all the time. Three weeks ago, I was much more overwhelmed by all the different components of the project I had to focus on which only led to me being irritable and stressed out and unable to get everything done. The project elements I was struggling with included:

1) Talking to co-participants on different platforms 

I struggle with constant social media contact even in my personal life and often reply to friends and family a few days after they’ve messaged, simply because checking messages is something I find very stressful. With the participants, while I started off being prompt in replying to emails, the conversations with some participants have now moved elsewhere (such as Facebook or WhatsApp) which I have trouble keeping up with. It’s something I’m still struggling with but I’ve become better at carving out some time to just respond to correspondence (both personal and project-based)

2) Finding fan podcast episodes to shortlist 

I enjoy the process of looking for relevant podcast episodes for different participants and the themes they’re interested in exploring. I love listening to fan podcasts (admittedly, some more than others). However, at a certain point in the month, I want to be able to finalise the texts I’m going to suggest to the participants who’ve been scheduled to record episodes the following month. During that period, I’m deluged by a constant feeling of playing catch-up because I’m listening to a bunch of podcast episodes all day every day. I can’t focus on doing any other work because I feel like I need to only focus on finalising texts (characteristically, I also usually end up finalising way too many texts). What’s helping with this is that by now, I’ve listened to and documented several podcast episodes that fit into themes which we will discuss in future episodes, so I’m not starting from scratch every month.

3) The recording to publishing process 

In the middle of the shortlisting, I also had to work on publishing the episodes I had recorded. The most time-consuming process was typing the transcript, highlighting edits, and then creating a lightly-edited transcript with relevant links and images for the blog. All this was squeezed into too few days because I wanted to stick to my schedule of an episode every two weeks. I’ve only recorded two episodes in March so I’ve been able to better balance this process in the last couple of weeks; I assign a task every day throughout the week rather than trying to get it all done in one or two days. However, April is going to test this balance since I have four episodes scheduled to be recorded. I mentioned to my supervisors that I may end recording the podcast in August rather than October as I had originally planned. This would allow me to keep recording episodes more frequently so I will have all the data. But I can take my time with the publishing process, and publish episodes until October, so I don’t feel overwhelmed by it all.

4) No brain-space to do other things

The most frustrating aspect of being overwhelmed by the aforementioned elements of the project was that I couldn’t bring myself to focus on the other project-related things I wanted to do. I’ve borrowed several books from the public library and found others as ebooks which deal with certain aspects of the intersectional themes and identities I’m exploring throughout my project. I want to supplement my project by reading these since it helps me learn about identities I’m ignorant about + I don’t only want to rely on academic sources. I also felt guilty about devoting time to re-watching Doctor Who or re-reading Harry Potter, since I considered that to be too fun to count as “real work”. However, when I took a week off to travel for my birthday, I re-read The Philosopher’s Stone and realised that reading it both critically and for fun provided me with new insights which went on to inform my thinking and conversations in our podcast episodes. I’m starting to get over feeling guilty about doing these three things for research (albeit secondary research which I also find fun). Which is why I’ve scheduled time every day to do one or more of these activities i.e. read non-academic literature, re-read Harry Potter, and re-watch Doctor Who.


Currently, what has been most helpful in combating this overwhelmed, brain-is-too-full feeling is preparing a realistic and not over-ambitious weekly schedule every Monday. My weekly planner is a blessing since it has limited space for every week so I can’t get too carried away with my to-do lists. I’m definitely going to be using this even post-lockdown since it’s helping me achieve a balance between productivity and relaxation. Additionally, I’m also ensuring I finish work at 5 pm every day (which is when I go for my walk – though I do listen to fan podcasts on my walk because otherwise the walk feels wasted … baby steps!), and I have two days where I don’t work. Scheduling the last three weeks this way has made the working days fly past but without making me feel too exhausted to do fun things by the end of the day/week. It only took me two years of the PhD to learn how time off from work is crucial because it has such a positive impact on the time I’m actually doing the work.

Growing Comfortable With Discomfort – Part One

As someone who is averse to conflict of any kind, bringing up something which will potentially lead to an uncomfortable/emotional conversation or reaction is something I usually avoid. The few times I break this self-imposed rule are when someone on my social media profile says something problematic – either unwittingly or bigoted-ly – but even then, I tend to become so upset with the ensuing conversation that I can’t do this to my emotional health too often. If it’s someone who I don’t mind cutting ties with, I prefer unfriending or unfollowing the person to having a long conversation-through-comments with them, which usually ends up being futile anyway.

This is a lot of backstory for an incident which happened with one of my participants earlier this year. For our episode, we were approaching the topic as people who weren’t in the marginalised group we were talking about – we were approaching it as people from the dominant group who were learning about the marginalised group’s experiences and perspectives through the fan podcasts and other texts we had exchanged. We were extremely aware of our position and readily acknowledged our privilege even before planning the episode. While we were planning the episode, one of their suggestions involved a thought experiment where we would pretend we inhabited the identities of the marginalised group and imagine how those imagined identities would impact our actions and feelings during a series of fictional events at Hogwarts. Knowing the participant, this suggestion was entirely well-intentioned, and presumably a way for us to imagine a life we wouldn’t otherwise have any experience with. At the same time, I was immediately and viscerally discomfited by the idea. As people from the dominant group who have no experiences with that specific marginalised identity, I felt it would be insensitive to people who actually inhabit that identity. As I pointed out, the thought experiment may work with participants who actually had lived experiences of that identity – and even then, only if it was their idea in the first place and it was something they were comfortable exploring through a fictional framework.

Now, even though the suggestion made me supremely uncomfortable, it wasn’t because I thought the participant meant to be insensitive. In fact, when I pointed out my reservations, they were quick to agree with me and then deleted the suggestion from our shared Google document (I make a shared Google document for each of my participants since it helps make the planning process much easier). The fact that the suggestion was deleted is why I’m not directly talking about who the participant is and what episode we were planning. I’m not sure what I would have done had the suggestion been left intact. Perhaps I would have tried to disguise their identity regardless. However, under the circumstances, it definitely feels unethical to refer to them directly. While we haven’t had any further conversation about the suggestion in particular, I get the sense that the participant realised they had been inadvertently insensitive and were perhaps embarrassed by it. This is a participant who has been deeply appreciative of being able to learn from diverse perspectives through their participation in my project.

I, myself, have been – and probably will continue to be – ignorant and consequently thoughtless about some of my ideas, suggestions, and opinions. This isn’t born of malice; it’s just we don’t know what we don’t know. Even when it comes to someone who is unusually careful about their beliefs and attitudes, we have blind-spots which we don’t even realise until someone points it out or until we discover it through another person’s experience. On thinking about this a few days after our conversation, I found it interesting that the participant had made the suggestion and it’s a suggestion that I perhaps may have made myself had I not been researching and thinking about different intersectional identities in many different ways – that’s basically my job at the moment. Not everybody has the luxury to do this because most people are just living their lives. Usually, if it doesn’t impact them, they’re probably not thinking about it. No judgment there, because I’m the same. It’s only my PhD research which is making me actively aware of all my biases and blind-spots. Having this conversation with the participant helped me confront  my own social conditioning too. I hope it did the same for my participant. I think that everyone should never be one hundred per cent comfortable with all their beliefs – there are so many lives and experiences we’re wholly ignorant of. Being comfortable with being uncomfortable is a great way to learn what we don’t know.

Some Notes On Episode 3 – 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 Episiode 3, “Just Let Me Hug a Tree in the Woods: Wicca, Paganism, and Religion in Fantasy Media”, we discussed the following texts.

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

On a video called “Harry Potter: Witchcraft Repackaged, Making Evil Look Innocent” which is disparagingly referenced in the blog post, the responses of the kids at the beginning sound quite wonder-struck and open to possibilities and to imagine differently. A couple of the responses belie the myth that children, especially girls, are always nice and innocent. I would be more interested in having deeper conversations with the respondents than just pass judgments based on quotes pulled out of context. 

The writer sounds sincerely panicked about the perceived assault against Christianity in the public education system in the US and the risk posed by promoting Wicca in its stead. Not just the Harry Potter series but the internet is also implicated in this Wiccan propaganda where children can easily learn how to practice witchcraft and paganism. Honestly, it’s really easy to laugh at this hyperbole – especially given that despite proclaiming itself to be secular, the US seems to be structured on a Christian framework. However, I’m also aware that to many (not all) of them, this danger may feel very real. I was talking to my boyfriend last week about abortion and how many Christians are against it. And while I am very much pro-choice and think that people should follow their own beliefs, I can understand where the fundamentalist religious worry comes from. If they truly believe in these things and they think they’re trying to save not only their family and friends from eternal damnation but also the society they live in, I can see why they don’t care what others may think about them when they protest abortion clinics. 

When I was younger, I vaguely remember the news of this panic against Harry Potter and  witchcraft in the US being reported in India and online. Whenever I came across it, the news sources seemed bemused by the whole situation so I didn’t take it too seriously either, because it’s not something I live with. However, now seeing the situation in India, where such a huge group of Hindus have fallen for this belief that despite being the majority in India, their values and beliefs are somehow under threat, which means they need to secure their interests – it makes me think of what happened and what’s still happening in the US. It’s a very self-centred view of the world. I’m not religious but my mother is. However, she’s the kind of religious – or maybe spiritual – who believes in all religions. I think she likes having something to believe in, to provide comfort and hope, and to gather in a community with and to practice some rituals for solace. I struggle with the kind of religion which only wants its version of the world to exist. I find fundamentalism of any kind quite scary. 

“Harry Potter provides a basic initiation into witchcraft for a whole new generation. Imagine what the world will be like when they grow up.”

This last line in the essay is really interesting because based on current research and what we’re seeing in protests in India and across the world, young people who’ve grown up with Harry Potter seem to use it to demand more inclusion, social justice, empathy and respect. This is, of course, a gross generalisation and I’m sure there are many Harry Potter readers (and one Harry Potter writer) who doesn’t believe in inclusion for all groups – there is a hierarchy of marginalisation. However, I’m pretty okay with how we’ve grown up. I don’t think it’s the Harry Potter readers that are the problem; it’s the systems we’re currently fighting against which, in many parts of the world, are founded on religious oppression.

 

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

Rowling uses Twitter to confirm that Hogwarts is very diverse apparently. Why isn’t this diversity apparent or engaged with in any meaningful way in the book series itself? I mean I want more explicit – not allegorical diversity. But also within the series itself, the diversity at Hogwarts extends to gender, blood status, and superficially race. What about other kinds of diversity? The goblins complain of witches and wizards hoarding their secrets. But at the end of the series, this status quo remains in place. And in terms of religious diversity, there was so much room to explore that as well. This retroactive diversity is really absurd to me. As I was saying to my friends, I wished she had acknowledged her blind-spots. As a writer, I know very well that you don’t usually think of everything when you’re writing your story. But instead of using this as a conversation-starter or a learning experience, she’s claiming credit for diversity which she didn’t come up with.  

There are Jewish students, and LGBTQIA+ students, and all religions (or even non-belief) it seems. Except Wiccans. Where is this mysteriously diverse cohort hiding? Rowling’s response to someone’s assumption that Hogwarts would be a safe space for LGBTQIA students was to use a fan text, a version of which I encountered, during my Master’s research.

“If Harry Potter taught us anything, it’s that no one should live in a closet”

Again, rather than credit the fantastic work that fans do in expanding the Potterverse and making it more diverse, she seems to just co-opt that work (see also: black Hermione) and present it as her own idea. And, of course, she’s well within her right to do that. However, seeing as how much her words mean to so many people, I wish she was more sensitive and took more responsibility to engage with these issues rather than use flippant tweets.

Anthony Goldstein seems to be the sole Jewish representative. In terms of religion, it seems to be framed around Christianity too. No paganism in sight, no matter what the fundamentalist Christians are afraid of. But Christmas is celebrated very grandly. No other religious celebrations or festivals are given the time of day. There’s Halloween (which seems to celebrate food and carved pumpkins than any form of paganism), then Christmas, then Easter. I remember reading an interview many years ago when I was a teenager and the last two books weren’t out yet. Rowling didn’t say what religion she followed because she said that would make the plot of her final books very clear to astute readers. Harry’s sort-of death and sort-of rebirth was very reminiscent of Jesus and Aslan. 

What would religious diversity in Hogwarts look like? Different lessons in the classroom? Celebrations? Cross-cultural relationships?

 

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

This was quite a gripping episode to be introduced to the show to! I found it very interesting (and scary) about how Christianity was positioned in opposition to witches. And of course, from what I gleaned, it makes perfect sense within the context of the show. But I suppose the connection wasn’t as apparent to me before – Christianity versus Wicca, that is. Is Wicca a Western faith tradition? I’d be interested in understanding how it stands in contrast to other religions. What’s the relationship between other Western and Eastern religions with Wicca? Does it draw from other religions? Like I said, I don’t know enough about even the more mainstream religions – let alone the less familiar ones. 

The characters who act as representatives of Christianity demand that the witches convert to their faith to save their souls. Again with Hinduism, which is what I’ve grown up with culturally, the discourse around conversion to Hinduism isn’t that prevalent. Or at least it never used to be. There are people who converted from Hinduism to escape the oppressive nature of the caste system – and recently there have been efforts by right-wing groups in India to re-convert Christians and Muslims to Hinduism. It’s called Ghar Wapsi. And there’s the moral panic of Muslim men stealing Hindu daughters and how Hindu women need to be protected from this danger which has the tone of both religious prejudice and patriarchal control.

 

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

They discuss how Christianity in the US is the structuring force of most media. This doesn’t leave room for non-Abrahamic religions or atheists. The insecurity with Christians feeling like they’re under attack in the US resembles the attitude of many Hindus in India. I think India and the US have more in common than they realise! 

One of the co-hosts, Toya, follows the Orisha faith which believe in nature-based deities among African people (which is a minority religion even among black Americans in the US most of whom are Christian and then Muslim). Toya chose her religion as a political decision to find deities which resemble her and don’t marginalise her as she felt Christianity does. The new religion also met her desire for faith and community. According to Toya, Christianity has been used to oppress black people wherein black people’s lives are perceived as being punished for their sins. She does acknowledge that for some black people, Christianity has been connected to liberation. However for her, her faith is both a religious and political identity.

Eugenia, the other co-host, is an atheist and connects this with her scientist identity. She discusses the connection between religion and morality whereby atheists are considered amoral. Like Eugenia, I have a different moral code as someone who isn’t religious. However, I do understand those who base their morality on their religion, but I think there could be more critical thinking there. Not all religious people act with kindness, goodness and inclusion. 

When there’s a dominant religion in a country, everything in its media and culture is largely measured against that religion and other ways of being and faith are othered. Different countries feature different religions (Middle East and Islam) or not (China). But even then you can engage in resistant readings where you interpret a text based on your own beliefs. The hosts believe that the UK has more positive representations of atheism in its media. 

They cite a Doctor Who episode which features atheism, another which questions blind faith – The Fires of Pompeii – by providing metaphorical commentary on religion and questioning blind belief.  In his run, David Tennant’s Doctor seems to position religion and curiousity versus acknowledging you don’t know everything including whether or not a God exists. In some episodes, the Doctor acts as a godlike figure – an ancient god who makes mistakes and doesn’t know everything – similar to mythology. Parallels to Gandalf and Dumbledore? Religion as mythology where different groups of people wrote different stories about their understanding of how the world works and how humans exist in it. Faith doesn’t have to be connected to organised religion. Doctor Who raises questions about humanity and what brings us together rather than explore religions in detail. 

In Jodie’s first season, they note that there are lots more diverse faith-based episodes. For example, the faith-based conflict and imperialism in Demons of the Punjab. They wonder if this is because of the diversity of the cast and writers. People can understand each other through the faiths they follow and the beliefs it reveals. Representations of different religions can act as a way to evoke respect and empathy for diverse experiences. 

They notice the absence of Jewish representation in Doctor Who which is similar to this erasure in Harry Potter. They wonder why this is. Someone on my Facebook newsfeed talked about how Judaism only seems to crop up in Holocaust narratives with no room for Jewish representation in other aspects. Though I have read two books recently which had Jewishness at its core without being about the Holocaust – The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker and Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik. 

 

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

Hannah McGregor, academic and podcaster of Witch, Please talks about her new podcast Secret Feminist Agenda and interviews authors/witches Jaya Saxena and Jess Zimmerman to talk about their forthcoming book Basic Witches. Their view of witchcraft isn’t religious but more historical and pop cultural (they aren’t practising Wiccans). They’re trying to reclaim the witch from its historical contexts to a more empowering version in contemporary feminism. They claim that in the book, there is no fundamentally bad way to be a woman. I disagree with this somewhat. If your being a woman involves oppressing other people in any number of ways – women, men, nonbinary folk, trans folk – I think that’s a pretty bad way of being a woman or a person. They acknowledge that there was an essentialist approach to gender in old-school paganism and Wicca where the focus on menstruation and the moon cycle can appear transphobic to contemporary feminists/Wiccans. 

I do agree with their point of people shouldn’t degrade women for being too smart, too frivolous, too unserious, “too standing near a cow and it dies”.  They propose a radical acceptance of womanhood and femininity as a tenet of their version of witchcraft They say that historically, it has been scary for women to have medical knowledge but not men. Is this only in certain contexts though? I don’t know enough but surely there are traditions of women healers in history? They believe in creating rituals and practices as a way to empower the practitioner where the rules act as a framework not as a hard boundary.

Can there be male Wiccans? Or is it just a religion for women? They challenge the notion of aggressive as masculine and emotional as feminine emotions. This can lead to women rejecting traditionally feminine traits in an effort to be feminists. There are also different reactions to getting your periods – different ways of looking at the world. 

They argue that embracing ugliness as a feminist stance. Eurocentric, patriarchal standards and expectations of beauty., where beauty is seen as a marker of morality,  perpetuates a narrow version of beauty. There are so many different ways to be ugly. Beauty is also subjective. Both ugliness and beauty are loaded terms; ugly has severe negative connotations – how do you engage with beauty on your own terms? Why is beauty a requirement? Witches, like feminists and ugliness, lies outside of the status quo. Hagrid as the wizard/witch mid-wife initiates Harry into a new community and rejects any standards of beauty or propriety, firmly situated outside the status quo. 

“Beauty is the dues that you pay for existing in the world.” 

A lot of women or people who are raised as women are conditioned in this way which is similar to femininity as a tax you pay. Beauty is shaped by the advertising and cosmetics industries which are capitalising on beauty.

“Magic as a way of intervening in capitalism.” 

How do you embrace a different approach to aesthetics? 

 

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

The episode began with an excerpt from a sermon after the Brett Kavanaugh hearing in the US which contextualised religion with contemporary real-world issues. For me, who thinks of religion in terms of violence and control, this is a refreshing perspective I did not consider before. Even though, of course, for many religious people, this may be the point – understanding the world through the lens of religion 

Parallel between violence of the Ministry of Magic against Harry in the fifth book where they don’t believe him and the media and the government mock him and gaslighting him and his trauma ] to women’s reporting of rape in a patriarchal society. In Order of the Phoenix, many readers found Harry’s anger annoying – like the responder, I was one of these people too. But in my master’s research, I encountered another perspective of his PTSD and justifications for his behaviour. One of the callers draws parallel to his anger and trauma and existing in a world where you’re being persecuted to the anger of those who are marginalised. I certainly feel this way in the context of India and the UK – I’m so constantly angry about everything, especially reading more news on social media which sends me into simultaneous spirals of rage, helplessness and despair. I went to two protests last year to channel some of that anger. They discuss going through secondhand trauma where even though you’re not being targeted and impacted personally, but you’re afraid of what’s happening in the world. They recommend looking for acts of bravery, kindness, joy and inspiration – little pockets of them – to keep going. 

The deeply personal voicemails listeners of the podcast leave for the show and for fellow listeners creates a form of community where fans come together to make sense of the world and its people through the lens of Harry Potter. This is similar to how people use religion as a lens to understand the world and to form a community around as well. 

Dr Lynn Gurber, a scholar of religion, discusses neo-paganism and Wicca. She cites the influences of feminism, women’s studies, and feminist studies in general in the 80s and 90s when she was growing up. Witches and witchcraft act as a feminist alternative movement – providing a spirtual and social, community life. It’s a way to understand and negotiate misogyny and women’s historical and ongoing oppression and an attempt to understand power dynamics between men and women and between people. Is this power imbalance just against men though? There are power hierarchies among women too which has many class, race, gender identity, religion, disability intersections. She proposes that the Church’s opposition to paganism is also a patriarchal response to women’s agency. Hinduism is very patriarchal as well.

“Claiming a history that people say isn’t important.” 

She also talks of how Wicca is used as a way to grow closer to and learn about the natural world – herbs, food, seasons. It is also a way to practice rituals in a community, where it provides an opportunity to come together with others. As a now non-practising Wiccan, she has kept the spiritual and intellectual practice of claiming the power of possibility and of believing in potentials. She acknowledges that Harry Potter provides a space to cultivate wonder in a way which is important to all people and allows them to imagine differently, and to imagine alternative possibilities.

 

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

“Fantasy fiction is limited to our cultural experiences.” 

This episode features an interview with Malaysian-British author Zen Cho. They discuss how most magic in fantasy media draws on Judeo-Christian practices which results in excoticising and othering non-Western ideas of magic. Zen talks about how for her, reading Regency era fiction as a Malaysian kid in the 80s felt like reading fantasy – the stories were full of new  and unfamiliar norms, vehicles, language. This is similar to my own experiences full of an Indian childhood diet of Enid Blyton and other British children’s literature. Western fantasy hugely influenced her writing but she also drew on her own local stories and folklore. My own ideas of fantasy are so heavily influenced by Western notions. My writing for children is still pretty colonised, I think, though I am slowly unlearning this. The idea of Western magic involves old men with beards hurling incantations. 

Back in the day, you believed in magic because you only half understood what’s happening in the world. Modern magic is more functional where there is a well-defined system of magic creating a more rational approach to magic. More traditional fantasy played with rules and magic wasn’t as well defined. In Zen’s book, magicians use spirits and words where magic is external rather than internal. In Harry Potter, the magic comes from somewhere else. In Terry Pratchett, the wizards have academic magic and witches have community magic where one isn’t better than the other. In Uprooted, there are two different forms of magic – intellectual versus emotional – gendered implications. There are cultural clashes between different kinds of magic (In Harry Potter, Native American magic seems to be superseded by more Western influences which appear superior and have made Native practices obsolete.

Usually Western magic looks at non-Western magic but in Zen’s The True Queen, the roles are reversed where an Imperial subject’s perspective is highlighted. This made me think of my own experiences growing up in India and looking at the UK as exotic and other. She treated British culture as foreign and Malay culture as the norm in her book – used Islam since it’s a dominant religion in Malaysia. God and Allah are loaded terms in contemporary times. You don’t see much fantasy set in tropical countries – language, setting, food, culture, biology etc. would differ and impact the magicians and the writer’s world-building. Growing up with largely Western fantasy narratives, it begins to shape what you think of as proper fantasy and it’s something you take for granted. Christianity’s spread killed off belief in magic in many parts of the world – this may explain fantasy’s looking down at native magic even today where other cultural traditions are denigrated either subtly or explicitly. After the Enlightenment, belief in magic was replaced by belief in science – definitely something I can identify with. It’s something I really chafed against with the Hindu beliefs my upbringing exposed me to. There is a lack of animistic fantasy which acknowledges that humans cannot know everything about the world. How does fantasy differ when created by people who grew up in a “rational” culture versus an “irrational” one? Diversity just makes things so much more interesting! You’re drawing on so many different kinds of cultures and beliefs; this representation is great not only for marginalised but also for dominant cultures. You’re surprised by things that you don’t expect if you’ve grown up with Wetsern habits of magic and culture. 

“Using other cultures as set-dressing just to exocticise an unfamiliar culture in your story – frustrating for a tradition which isn’t well-represented in Western culture which is currently global culture.” 

 

8) 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”

“Tolkien spirituality. By this term I refer to groups and individuals who, since the 1960s, have developed increasingly sophisticated religious beliefs, practices, and traditions based on Tolkien’s literary mythology.” 

Tolkien spirituality consists of fans using the fantasy series as canon – and reading the books through a religious lens. Religious Tolkien fans who fuse their religious beliefs with their love of Tolkien by practising both their traditional religions (Christianity, paganism etc.) and rituals celebrating Tolkien mythology made me think about the more direct parallels between fandom and religion and fandom as religion. A group of people who took the text and its characters as literally as people would take the Bible or the Ramayana and Mahabharata, for example.There’s a huge cultural influence of popular culture texts like Harry Potter and the boom in online fandom exacerbates this. According to the paper, the hippies adopted The Lord of the Rings as a quasi-religious text and even had wedding ceremonies based on the books. Many people today also include their fannish texts in wedding ceremonies in both subtle and more explicit ways. 

“Two American magicians, known as Arwen and Elanor, allegedly were told by an Ouija board spirit to found a feminist, Elven, magical group and call it “The Elf Queen’s Daughters” – the Elf Queen being a reference to Elbereth, the Star Queen.”

This is similar to Wiccans who are now making the faith an actively feminist practice. This is especially interesting considering the critiques of the lack of female characters and agency in the series. It is also similar to the ecological parallels with pagan religions – looking after Mother Earth – which I can see can have contemporary relevance and attraction with the climate crisis movement for young people. For example, what would reading Extinction Rebellion through a religious lens result in? How about veganism and religion – especially the more fundamentalist aspects in both? 

“The Silmarillion was published, and the wealth of information within this book about the culture and religion of the Elves was a true gift to the emerging Elven movement.”

A way for practitioners to frame their identity. Tolkien’s work was reinterpreted by the Silver Elves to their own contexts and priorities; this is very similar to more traditional religious texts. There are different interpretations of the Bible where some are more conservative and others are more progressive. Similarly, there’s a split in current Elvish theology with some who are Tolkien adherents and others with allegiances to Elves in folklore and mythology – this has some Islamic parallels as well as Christian. I seem to know more about Christianity than Hinduism – based on my education and the culture and media I consume.  They use other Tolkien texts to build and understand their mythology and canon – his letters and other short stories. What canon you follow is so based on who does the editing (as someone on a Harry Potter and the Sacred Text episode once said).

Some Tolkien spirtualists posit that Middle-Earth was prehistoric Earth. I often have this vague thought that if some sort of apocalypse destroyed humanity as it currently stands – what would future Earth inhabitants or even aliens make of our perceived religious and cultural beliefs? It depends on what they find – what texts and media and assorted paraphernalia they encounter. Harry Potter, Marvel, science fiction? What will they think about our gods and goddesses and belief systems? Aren’t current religious systems based on texts written thousands of years ago too? 

“The group claims to have established with magical research that Tolkien was a “Bard of the kin folk”, i.e. that he was a Changeling himself who chose to be incarnated in a human body to tell the truth of the Changelings in fictional form.”

This reminds me of the fan text I read a few years ago, which proposed that Rowling was a witch who now lives as a Muggle to tells us about the exploits of her world. She’s documenting history not fiction. I’m amazed by the sheer creativity of these religious rituals, practices, stories, and myths. A few years ago, I began trying to read more religious texts because even though I’m not religious, I love stories and ancient religions really do have fascinating stories which reveal so much about their beliefs and attitudes towards each other and the world. I’m also an extremely fannish person so reading about religious practices make me draw on fandom comparisons. For example, fans have rituals too like going on pilgrimages to places connected with their favourite worlds, they enjoy engaging deeply with the fictional world, they meet fellow believers, and find online and offline communities. As respectfully as I can say, Tolkien spirituality (and other religious beliefs) read like embodied fanfiction – losing yourself into this world created by someone else where there are enough gaps to explore and fill and interpret based on your own priorities and interests. The paper credits the internet for Tolkien spirtualists being able to find each other more easily based on extremely niche interests and beliefs – more parallels with fandom. The paper also credits the expanding canon to this which offers more room for exploration and interpretation. In fandom, fans expand the canon with their own fanworks, which oftentimes supersedes the original text or intention of the author. 

“It has been reported that some lending libraries in Britain read the prologue in this manner and classified the book, at least initially, as history rather than fiction.”

I don’t know whether this is true and if it is true, whether the libraries did this sincerely or tongue-firmly-in-cheek. However, there’s an interesting possibility of playfulness being considered as seriousness by others. 

“Practitioners of Tolkien spirituality say that it is Tolkien’s normal readers who get him wrong – those who read his works as mere fiction. It is the practitioners of Tolkien spirituality who use Tolkien’s books as he himself intended them to be used.”

More parallels with other religions and fandom with conservative and progressive followers/fans. Fandom as religion could maybe explain the different schools of thought among fans – more traditional fans who uphold the tenets of the original canon and more progressive fans who are open-minded to the disruption and expansion of the original canon. 

 

9) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds “Faith in Fantasy” 

This episode features different faith leaders discussing the role of religion in science fiction and fantasy.

“In the end we’re all stories, make it a good one.”

Minister Oscar Sinclair has used this quote and idea from Doctor Who in numerous memorial services – interesting relationship between faith, death and fandom. Rabbi Rachel Barenblat draws the comparison of Doctor Who regenerations and the Jewish concept of beginning again. Alwaez Hussein Rashid, a Muslim travelling preacher, reads the elves in Lord of the Rings as perpetual outsiders and the Jedi in Star Wars as Sufi mystics. Rachel read a story from the point of view of Morgana rather than Arthur which completely changed the story. This made me think of the relationship between religion and fandom again where multiple perspectives and diverse interpretations can result in the same story being understood in different ways. 

“SFF asks a lot of the same questions that religion asks.” 

  • Eric

They discuss the relationship between faith and rationalism where some people also use faith to rationalise the things they encounter. There are different kinds of faith systems which may not match more traditional understandings of faith – so there’s faith in religion, but also faith in science. A lot of early science fiction explored worlds in which religion did not exist. However, their interactions with unfamiliar and unknowable things ask religious questions (even if they don’t say that). I found this a fascinating concept. It also reminds me of the premise of Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, a podcast which uses the Harry Potter series as a framework to have spiritual conversations and engage in spiritual practices borrowed from different religions. 

“How do you deal with difference? How do you marginalise people who are so different from you?”

Hussein Rashid 

With questions of otherness, community and death rituals  – different writers create different ideas of this in science fiction and fantasy. As someone who isn’t religious, I like the idea of creating your own rituals to celebrate or mourn things. I like the idea of rituals without the religious baggage. 

“How do things end? And what is our response to it?” 

Oscar Sinclair

This made me think of the climate crisis because that’s what I’m most worried about right now. 

Rachel Barenblat wonders whether things are getting better or whether they’re getting worse. In Judaism, the debate is whether the best Jewish scholars are in the past or whether they’re in the future; the second scenario would lead to an expansion of ideas rather than relying on traditional ideas and interpretations. In terms of science fiction – what the world could be – this idea is something which I keep thinking of. I have faith and hope in human beings so I like the idea of things becoming better. 

There are problematic elements in early science fiction writers where straight white men were largely writing for other straight white men. What their future envisions caters to a certain, very limited group of people. To Rachel, the Firangi in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine felt deeply anti-Semitic.  To Hussein, Narnia is a Christian allegory but can also be a Shia/Sunni allegory. Harry Potter can be read as Jesus, Mohammed, or Moses. You interpret the text not only based on the context of the text but also based on your own personal, social, cultural contexts. Hussein recommends some books which use Islamic elements in fantasy which makes me think of how so much fantasy is framed around Judeo-Christian values. But now more diverse writers means more diverse beliefs and worlds. Popular culture stories are taking the space of religious canon. With both religion and popular media and its fandoms, the process involves telling the same kind of stories in different ways, and making them more relevant to different contexts. You find community and metaphors in both religion and fandom.

“Do they become the stories we tell when we’re searching for meaning?”

What does it mean to be human? How do you answer these questions? Religion is just one lens. For me, it’s definitely through stories – both fictional and people’s real stories. 

 

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

Reverend Broderick Greer is an ordained black gay man – unusual in the Church. He believes everyone’s engagement with religion is different; this is also true in fandom. He teaches the hosts the spiritual practice of marginalia. This allows for  different interpretations of the Bible based on who’s ministering. Marginalia literally involves writing on the margins of the Bible and thereby making the text your own. He is inspired by his grandmother’s practice of writing in the Bible. A woman who inhabited so many oppressed identities expressed ownership of the text and had a conversation with the text. This practice sees the Bible as dynamic, fluid, and open to interpretation. 

He acknowledges that one doesn’t always begin with the confidence to speak back to the text. This is especially true with religious texts but also something seen in a massive fandom like Harry Potter. Being comfortable with talking back can come later when you’re more familiar with the text and gain a sense of ownership. For someone from a group marginalised in the text or in culture at large, speaking back to the text and inserting their perspectives and opinions can be empowering. 

As Broderick points out, when you put the text above God, it can be weaponised. He cites the example of the Bible’s disapproval of homosexuality. Which is why he believes that there is no text, just people’s interpretations of it. He also positions fanfiction as marginalia where fans are exploring and filling in missing gaps and forming communities around this which make the stories more accessible and inclusive. It’s more interesting to speculate than have a definitive answer from the author. 

“Who (in our culture) is imagined out of stories and who needs to reimagine themselves back into them?”

Broderick Greer

This applies to a literary text but even to history. The practice of marginalia sees texts as both popular work and democratic work. It explores the questions of who’s allowed to own the stories and who’s allowed to write in the margins.

 

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

What is part of canon and what isn’t – in religion and in fandom (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child? Rowling’s Twitter announcements?). There’s especially a parallel with Judaism. There are debates even among religious scholars of what counts as canon and what doesn’t. As the episode points out, when it comes to canon, the writer isn’t in control, it’s the editor who is in charge. In Jewish texts like the Talmud, the Torah, or the Bible, what stories and voices are included and which are removed? This depends on who’s doing the compiling. With religious canon, you see periods of expansion – when you’re adding more to the canon, or periods when you’re going deep where you’re analysing everything which exists minutely. For a meaningful engagement with the text, there needs to be a balance between breadth and depth. Your interpretation of the canon can be informed by what’s beyond canon and what you’re choosing to not engage with; but someone else may have a different perspective. The Jewish tradition sees itself “as a conversation across time” similar to the Half-Blood Prince’s marginalia and Tom Riddle’s diary which Ginny writes in. 

 

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

Religious pilgrimages involve taking some time out of your real life. Some pilgrimages are following in someone else’s footsteps – writers, religious people, artists, fictional characters. Fans go on pilgrimages either to conventions or to places where the movies/TV show has been shot/or to places which have connections with their favourite fictional worlds. There also pilgrimages that readers take to get to know their favourite writers better. The importance of materiality and artefacts for pilgrims/fans depends on the objects and the people. For me, bookstores, libraries, nature, and museums form my points of pilgrimage whenever I travel to a new place or even when I’m in the same place. They fill me with joy and wonder and also make me actively think of connections with people who are very different from me, led different lives either now or historically. Pilgrimages can also act as a form of building a community where you meet people from different backgrounds and people who aren’t like you – encountering diverse experiences and perspectives which you you. 

 

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

The word “tradition” has negative connotations because it has been used to exclude groups of people. Matt Potts reclaims tradition by using it as a resource of possibility and using it as a framework to see what the future can look like -respecting both the past and the future and using both to build relationships in the present. This perspective looks at tradition as dynamic rather than static. Tradition cannot thrive without changing with the times to suit relevant contexts and settings – this is true for both religion and fandom. Some religious structures are changing to suit the times – for example, the radical church article I read about and linked to in the transcript of this episode. There are also changing traditions of marriage -who can get married and how. However, some people and structures do cling to one version of tradition and resist change. Religion is a meaning-making system where it changes over time in much the same way language changes over time. Whose stories are highlighted? Throughout history, only a certain group of privileged men have had their interpretations become mainstream. The question now is how you can change traditions in order to include people rather than exclude groups of people. Traditions can actively include voices which have been historically marginalised on grounds of gender, race, national origin etc. 

 

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

In this era of social disconnection, people are looking for reasons and ways to build connections. Both religion and fandom offer a sense of and space for community. The interfaith church that Reverend Burns Stanfield runs attracts a mix of people – economically, socially, politically, culturally, and theologically diverse. Religion as well fandom has the potential to draw people from different backgrounds who have to interact with each other. This provides an opportunity which they might not otherwise encounter. The importance of community in combating loneliness but also to practice love even if it is inconvenient and it is people you wouldn’t otherwise have met or agreed with. Different people bring different skills to a community and contribute in different ways, both big and small. Harry Potter and the Sacred Text itself acts as a community which includes multiple voices and perspectives actively through its guests and by playing voicemails from listeners on the podcast. 

 

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

Is Dobby and Winkys faith the same? Dobby has blind faith in Harry while Winky has the same in the Crouches. You see subservience in both. However, Dobby has more agency since it’s something he chooses. Even though Dobby has agency, it’s still not completely empowering. He still doesn’t consider himself worthy of equal payment and leave, for example. He has blind faith in some wizards and wizarding institutions but is there a corresponding lack of faith in himself and his abilities? However, he does have some sense of dignity and value of his own worth because he is seeking work despite rejections and social censure. Winkys faith isn’t considered proper because Barty Crouch Jr is a Death Eater and she is forbidden from “worshipping” him. The episode draws parallels to certain faiths being oppressed historically and even now. 

House elf-dom itself can be read as a religion rather than a species. It’s a religion and not a cult because Dobby has proven that you can leave it. Perhaps it was a cult before that. Which means that Dobby can be read as a religious reformer while Winky is a conservative practitioner. Many world religions have traditions of gendered oppression. Dobby shows that you can choose which parts of the religion you can keep and which parts you can do away with based on new information and contexts. Even non-religious people have faith in something, and similar arguments apply to them. 

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