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 6, “Different Bodies and Different Brains: Depictions of Disability and Ageism in Media” we discussed the following texts:
1) Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper Representations of Disability with Marissa Lingen
Disabled people are used as props rather than fully fleshed out characters in the media we consume. They are usually sorted into the categories of either bad disabled people or magically super-powerful disabled people. Another troubling trope of disability is the connection between disability and evil characters where even their physical characteristics become ugly to reflect their villainy. There is a severe lack of different incarnations of disabilities in media. Disabilities are always shown at the extremes and this impacts non-disabled people’s reactions to people with invisible or partially visible disabilities in the real world. For example, partially sighted people are assumed to be completely blind and when people find out they’re not, they act as if the partially blind person is lying. The “all or nothing” representation in media is problematic and has real-world impacts.
Using magic or technology to fix disabilities in fantasy and science fiction is an uncomfortable idea and reeks of eugenics. As Marissa notes, she is aware that some people with autism don’t view it as a disability, just a difference, and don’t want it to be fixed. Marissa criticises Station Eleven for killing off all the disabled characters in a world post a flu apocalypse where people are building this hopeful new society. It’s a book I loved very much and I hadn’t even noticed this while reading it, which reflects my own biases and blind-spots. If your society in the future has no room for people with physical or mental disabilities, what sort of world is that? The characters of Bran versus Hodor in Game of Thrones also have some problematic elements. Physical disability is contrasted by mental disability and this has class implications where Bran’s experiences and life are ultimately more important than the Hodor’s. Another troubling trope is using a disability to provide characters with magical powers – something you see with Bran.
A lot of abled writers are hesistant writing about disabled characters. The excuse to not write about them is similar to those people not wanting to write about other cultures and races; they are afraid they would inadvertently offend people or wouldn’t be able to do a good job. But researching unfamiliar cultures – such as a specific disability – would help, just like you would research anything else. As Marisa notes, many stories tend to focus on the carers and family members of people with disabilities rather than centreing the experiences of the disabled people; while the former is a valid perspective, it’s not a perspective which sheds light on the lived experience of the person with disabilities.
2) Fan podcast – Witch, Please Episode Rho: Live and Professional at Tufts University
One of the podcasters points out that superficial research leads to stereotyped characters with disabilities – so many similarities between race, caste, disability, age representations – basically anything that’s marginalised in mainstream media and culture.
Neurodivergent and autistic fans read themselves into the story – much like people of the races who aren’t dominant in their society and in canon. Some fans reads Hermione and Luna as autistic. Hermione for being socially awkward who doesn’t fit in, and is a know-it-all; Luna for talking without considering the social situation, not conforming to normative ideas and conversations, being dismissed for being loony. Furthermore, one of the podcasters reads Luna as both autistic and sight-disabled – intersections of physical and mental disabilities. One of the podcasters also reads Anne of Green Gables as neurodiverse for similar reasons. I love these readings and can even identify with some of them since I identify with all three characters.
Another similarity is how fans with disabilities find recognition and understanding in fan communities formed of similarly marginalised groups where they realise that they’re not the only one who sees themselves in a particular character, resulting in a communal understanding of fictional characters. Furthermore, it isn’t necessary that characters with mentally disabilities are only relatable to those who have similar experiences; non-disabled people also can read about different disabilities.
Marginalised people so often tend to get isolated in a dominant group when it comes to disabilities, queerness, trans folks or even race. Ableism is a form of oppression – one can draw parallels between ableism and racism.
“Oppression dehumanises a person.”
Disability can be seen as a culture whose members need to assimilate to the dominant culture in order to be respected as equal. This is similar to Asians, black people, indigenous and Latinx people integrating to the dominant norm the US. I never considered this idea before! There’s also intersectionality within the disability community – people who are girls, Latinx and black are identified as autistic much later due to medical biases.
Neville’s parents are stuck in St. Mungo’s forever. Their trauma is never explored as is own thing; it’s only understood through Neville. They are dehumanised in many different ways through their loss of agency and selfhood. With Lupin, there’s the intersection of disability and queerness. He is coded as a gay man who gets the magical world version of HIV. Tonks could easily be genderfluid – again, something I never thought about – especially if Lupin and Tonks are both read as queer.
Being a Squib in the Potterverse can be seen as a magical disability – the three Squibs we meet are Argus Filch, Mrs Figgs, Ariana Dumbledore (whose disability is implied to be trauma-induced). Filch is seen as a “defective wizard” similar to how people with disabilities are seen as defected humans by some people. Both disabled people and Squibs are stigmatised by mainstream society and culture. According to the panel, Voldemort can also be read as disabled – psychologically disabled and physically disfigured. This interpretation makes me think of mass shooters where if they’re white, people enquire into their mental background whereas people of different races and religions are held as representatives for their whole race or religion. Albeit Voldemort isn’t pure-blood. One of the panelists talks about how fans read Voldemort as asexual and draw parallels with this and his villainy. The panelist speaks of her own experiences of asexuality and how Voldemort’s coding as asexual is heteronormative.
Education at Hogwarts isn’t at all prepared for people with different learning abilities – which is especially surprising considering that they have a fair number of Muggle-borns who aren’t used to the magical world at all. Crabbe and Goyle are just dismissed as being stupid. Not being traditionally intelligent seems to mean you’re not valued or are considered worthless. Hagrid can also be seen as an atypical learner who would have benefited from more considerations of his educational needs. Popular culture conversations can be used as a way to include diverse marginalised perspectives, particularly in education where the educator isn’t the only arbiter of knowledge.
“The assumption that if you have a disability, it’s a fate worse than death.”
Or the assumption that if you have a disability, you must be suffering.
3) Video – The Gayly Prophet Disability in the Witching World
I didn’t think of the implications of making Filch the caretaker of the school who is responsible for cleaning up all the different kinds of messes when he has no magic and it would be so much easier for someone with magical abilities to do this. It is an employment opportunity, sure, but pretty terrible all things considering. Surely there would be different routes into employment which don’t involve so much work in often humiliating conditions. No wonder he hates the students!
I believe what Lark refers to is the social model of disability – the disability itself is a social and structural problem and not the problem of the person with the disabilities. Society needs to be restructured to accommodate different kinds of bodies and brains.
4) Essay – J. K. Rowling Illness and Disability
It’s interesting that Rowling says she’s considered issues of illness and disability right from the beginning of the series, because it’s not explicitly addressed in the series. However, as she herself mentions, there are parallels one can draw between characters and real-life conditions (Lupin’s lycanthropy and HIV infections and Dementors and depression, for example).
On recently rereading the first book, Neville definitely comes across as neurodiverse. He could even be read as someone with dyspraxia or vertigo. He needs a leg up through the portrait hole into the Gryffindor common room, he isn’t very good at balance and coordination, and is also extremely forgetful. The Gayly Prophet has read him as having ADHD and/or learning disabilities as well. Reading the first book as an adult, the Dursleys’ abuse is so much more noticeable and unsettling – very Roald Dahlesque as The Gayly Prophet pointed out. I’d never thought about the impact of this constant abuse on Harry’s mental well-being.
Also, surely Hogwarts is terrible for any kind of disability – physical or mental! In the first year, when they are all of eleven years old, their detention not only involves going into a very dangerous forest that is literally forbidden to all students because of how risky it is but they also have to do this in the middle of the night all night?!?!? What sort of school is this?!
The article seems to imply that death, illness, and disability are sort of equivalent; which um … some illnesses sure, but not something like the common cold. The article seems to conflate an injury like a scorpion sting with illness and disability. Regular injuries can be cured but not magical injuries. However, there doesn’t seem to be any mental health provisions which allow people to live in the magical society (for example, Frank and Alice Longbottom). Other disabled characters include Mad-Eye Moody, George Weasley, Lupin with his chronic condition, and Harry’s PTSD in Order of the Phoenix.
I think it’s interesting that Rowling did explore ideas of disability and included disabled characters in her books. But I get the feeling that much like racial diversity in her series, this was very much in terms of an outsider to the culture making superficial efforts at inclusion without any serious considerations of or indeed consultations with people who experience disabilities.
5) Reddit thread – How do physically disabled people travel around Hogwarts?
One commenter seems to suggest that all disabilities are magically fixed when one enters the magical world. However, as Rowling says, this seems to depend on whether the cause is magical or not. Magical effects are harder, if not impossible, to fix (much as a couple of commenters point out by citing Rowling’s Pottermore article). I’m also uncomfortable about the idea that there are magical fixes for disabilities so that they disappear rather than including disabilities and exploring them in the series itself as a way for disabled readers to see themselves in the series – there’s no magical fixes in real life, no? Like in real life, surely the magical society is lacking in making provisions for people with disabilities accessible, thereby othering them and marginalising them. This reminds me of the current Coronavirus implementations. People are now asked to work from home, lectures are moving online, some conferences are being cancelled and online options are being considered. This is what people with disabilities have always wanted – according to the disability rights activists I’ve been reading on Twitter/Facebook. Especially with the technology we have available today, people with disabilities could have easily been included by making systemic accommodations. It’s just that nobody could be bothered or were actively working against it. When forced by a pandemic, suddenly everything seems possible.
I love all the in-depth conversations and theories that some fans have come up with on the thread to explore the missing gaps in the books:
“But folks in wheelchairs function perfectly fine in our society for the most part, better since we started designing a lot of places to take their needs into account, and that’s just normal, non magical real life/muggleland where our solutions are limited by our technology. Wheelchairs are cheap and effective. I’d imagine that if there is any form of paraplegia in HP that can’t be magically solved, they could rig up some alternate form of locomotion fairly easily that was much better than a wheelchair (someone would surely have the necessary skills and be willing to do it for money if not out of the goodness of their heart). Like a magical set of leg braces that walked for you. Or a floaty chair, or a really comfy broom.” – noydbshield
“Wheelchairs are for muggles. Disabled wizards probably have broomchairs that take them wherever they want to go. Trick staircases are no match for their powers of levitation.” – TheFeury
“Worth mentioning that some people don’t want their disability cured. There are those, primarily those who have been disabled since birth, who see it as a part of their identity and would not take a cure if offered. It’s more common in people with high functioning autism, who see what others would consider a problem as a difference in human experience.
It’s not a viewpoint I understand, I’d chuck my wheelchair out at the first opportunity. But it exists. And presumably the magical world wouldn’t force a cure on someone who didn’t want it.” – Destruct-o-Bun
As someone else pointed out, people need glasses in Hogwarts. And it’s such a small thing but glasses not only very much help with my inability to see without them but are also very much a part of my identity. Someone thinks it’s similar to the real world where the eye lens is changing as a teenager and laser surgery is only recommended in your 20s. However, as someone else responds, Dumbledore, Flitwick and McGonagall are definitely older and they still wear glasses.
“Maybe the children can’t get corrective charms until they stop growing. Maybe the adults that have glasses are wearing them for other purposes, like they’re enchanted to help them see other stuff.” – hybbprqag
“Exactly. And why is laser surgery expensive? Because it’s difficult to do.
The eye is very complicated, certainly more complicated than teeth, and there are different types of sight impairment, so I wouldn’t at all be surprised if that type of magic was very difficult to do. Even in the wizarding world, complicated enchantments make for expensive products and services.” – Drajons
“I think this too. Possibly medical stuff is free for kids? Dental work on my country is free until we hit 18, then they start charging. I would imagine that medical and dental work will still cost money? Just like most things. I think some people might have a talent for small charms to fix things, the way Luna fixed Harry’s nose, but bigger spells likely require years of education. If spells were so easy to learn, they wouldn’t need 7 years of schooling? They’d just need one year to master the swish and flick of their wand then could just be sent on their merry way with a spell book or two.
I like to think that if my Records hadn’t been destroyed and my Hogwarts letter had arrived, I would be a witch seamstress 🙂 is still charge for my work lol” – MelMelMax
I think the main reason we don’t hear about disabled students in Hogwarts is because it’s very unlikely for a child to have been cursed with such dark magic that their injury would be incurable (not counting Harry’s scar), and a curse like that would be the most likely cause for an incurable physical disability in the magical world. – earth199999citizen
I think this is a really interesting topic to discuss. So here’s what I’d add to what’s already been said :
How likely is it that disabled students would go away to a boarding school that doesn’t have specific provision for additional care needs?
If bad eye sight can’t be cured (Harry’s not the only one who starts glasses) can other impairments, however severe?
I once read a fan fiction about a student who used a wheelchair. If she needed to get somewhere inaccessible (eg up steps, into the train) she’d levitate herself (by pointing her wand at herself) then levitate the wheelchair. – caret-top
Even if there are disabled wizards/witches that need to use wheelchairs, I’m sure the magic community could have easily created a product that uses hover charms and the like to help users navigate rough terrain. All a chair would need really is to hover a few inches above the ground and move that way for them to be able to get around Hogwarts and that seems easily doable. Although, like others have said, I don’t think natural physical disabilities like that are common or not curable via magic. – whatxever
I think there does need to be more systemic and social accommodations for people with disabilities either physical or mental both in the magical world and the real world. If, as one theory says, the community comes together to help witches and wizards with disabilities, why can’t we do that too?!
6) Article – Harry Potter and the Curse of Disability
What this article explores is why I love fandom so much! When fans love a world so much but also want to address its shortcomings and draw on their own experiences and interests to explore it more deeply and add more inclusivity. You can understand a disability or a person with a disability’s life and experience so much through a story they have written themselves, which is essentially what these fic writers are doing. We’ve spoken about this before, but that’s why we need to have so much more diversity among creators of media – so far the focus has largely been on race in the West and caste in India, but physical and mental disabilities is also such a huge field to explore. There need to be all kind of stories – where the disability is just a normalised part of the story as well as how characters negotiate with their disabilities
“La Guera, a disabled fanfic author in her mid-twenties, and author of the multi-chapter Potter fanfic Summon the Lambs to Slaughter. It introduces us to 15-year-old witch Rebecca Stanhope, who transfers to Hogwarts from the Disabled American Institute for Magical Studies. Like the author, Rebecca has CP.”
“It occurred to me, as I read the books, that JK Rowling has representatives of every race and creed, but she has no disabled students of any kind. It struck me as very sad.”
La Guera doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable bits of cerebral palsy in her story which makes able-bodied readers understand her experiences and circumstances, all using the framework of a fictional magical world. She also doesn’t kowtow to the stereotype of a magical disabled person who has extraordinary skills to make up for their disability. The magic of a person telling their own story! Fanfiction has so much room for these different kinds of stories – people born with disabilities and those who experience disabilities after having lived as an able-bodied person. Even with Harry in canon, I don’t know how he appeared so well-adjusted despite all the abuse and trauma inflicted on him by the Dursleys. I suppose it all caught up to him in Order of the Phoenix. I didn’t even make the connection between PTSD and his anger in the series until I was researching for my master’s dissertation and analysing a Harry Potter Facebook fan page where there was a detailed conversation about this – people drawing on their own experiences and making connections between his experiences and behaviour.
Fanfic is obviously not perfect, as La Guera acknowledges. Just like in mainstream media, lots of preconceived notions about disabilities and stereotypes may make an appearance too. Just like with writing a story for mainstream publication, if you’re writing a fic about a culture which isn’t your own, that surely warrants just as much sensitivity and research. I also like her point where she feels like able-bodied readers won’t connect with disabled characters in mainstream bookshops. Makes me think how much I’ve gone out of my way to look for characters with disabilities to expand the diversity of my reading – not much, shamefully! It’s not that I think I won’t connect with these characters. I think it’s a blind-spot I haven’t bothered addressing. The few children’s books I have read which have disability as the background, I’ve appreciated the inclusion very much … but apparently not enough to go looking for more?
7) Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper Maiden, Mother, and Crone: Ageism in Genre Fiction
In children’s literature too, wouldn’t young readers read about cool old people? Even if they’re co-protagonists? Perhaps even the sole protagonist? As one of the hosts says from her own experience, children don’t mind watching TV shows featuring older characters. Reminds me of the David Walliams book Gangsta Granny which is making this idea more accessible to mainstream audiences. I also recently read and fell in love with My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises which features a brilliantly mad old grandmother and her seven-year-old granddaughter. Ostensibly it’s a book for adults; however, as one of the 11-year-old reviewers on Goodreads points out, adults shouldn’t make assumptions about whether or not kids will enjoy the book and consequently overlook it (the reviewer in question enjoyed the book). As someone on the podcast says, I do love Pratchett’s old witches – Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg – they’re some of my favourite characters. Stereotypes are presented but subverted and they very good role models too (even if we, unlike them, don’t have magic). Dumbledore is also a fascinatingly complex, flawed character whose life and experiences we understand in great depth rather than just this superficially wise older mentor.
Can older characters not go on adventures? Surely that’s a bit of a cop-out. You don’t need to write older characters as just young people in old bodies. I think including their experiences and struggles would make for an interesting story – new challenges to explore. Someone on the podcast proposes that young people make good fantasy protagonists because they’re discovering the magical world anew. But it would be an interesting concept to flip this a bit and have older people discover a new fantasy world too when they’re pretty confident and sure of how the world works and now have to negotiate with a new world. Like if a 72-year-old discovers Hogwarts either accidentally or because, as millions of us hope, their letter was lost in the mail. Or if it’s an old Muggle who discovers it by accident. Or if it’s set in future world, perhaps an older person having to contend with a new future world and new technology and politics and social and cultural environments. I mean even with this Coronavirus pandemic, we’re all getting to know a new world right now. A world that may become increasingly common with the climate crisis and related effects. Just like young and middle-aged people, surely there are different kinds of old people too.
As one of the hosts says, old is quite contextual historically and geographically – some people live much older or die much younger based on the current social and political circumstances. Much like disability, age is also a blind-spot for me. I appreciate the inclusion of a diversity of characters but again, I haven’t really made an effort to actively go out and look for books with specifically those characters. Over the last year, I’ve been trying more or less actively to read fantasy books written by women. It started off unconsciously, then a little more actively, and now I find that I tend to be drawn to them just naturally because I’ve found that I much prefer these books written by women because I feel like they’ve centred women’s experiences at the forefront in a way which fills me with delight.
8) Fan podcast – Woke Doctor Who The Women Who Waited
Ideas about age and disability are particularly pertinent to me with this COVID-19 outbreak where the fatalities are largely among older people and people with underlying health issues. Social distancing is being employed as a way to protect them; at the same time, there are people panic buying or even going on as business as usual without thinking of the ramifications of their actions or inaction on these groups. Some supermarkets in the UK are now opening the shops only to older people for an hour in the morning to avoid the masses of panic-buyers. Panic buying has SO many class, race, age implications. All the Indian and other world food aisles and shops seem strangely untouched. Qwhite interesting.
Mainstream media, society, culture seems to value youth. Older/old women are associated with bitterness – even for someone like me who can’t wait to grow older because of all the exciting new experiences I’ll have, it’s difficult not to prey fall to a feeling of panic when everyone in society is telling you to panic – anti-ageing creams, hair dyes to hide the white hair (I’ve had white hair since I was about 13 – it’s only becoming greyer now. I don’t feel the need to dye my hair to hide the white – only to be purple or something). Most of these anti-ageing remedies seem to be marketed to women more than men. It’s even worse when you add other intersections of identities with age – queerness, race, disability, nationality, class, religion. I’m now also thinking of how this impacts participation in in-person activism like Shaheen Bagh.
Romance between older characters is also rare in mainstream media – it’s not something I considered until they pointed it out and appreciated the relationship between Peter Capaldi and River Song. The show also initially pits Sarah Jane against Rose – age versus youth – showcasing the bitterness of older woman. Amy Pond does give birth but we don’t see her as a mother due to wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff. Donna received critique as a companion on the show initially because people had grown used to “young, hot companions”. Portrayal of Donna’s attraction was played off as comedy while River’s attraction is seen as powerful.
“We need to be comfortable as a society to see old people – older people in heroic roles.” – Eugenia
Older people just like people with disabilities are desexualised in mainstream imagination. Older people are perceived to have outlived their attractiveness, people with disabilities are seen as defective – both are seen as lesser than people who are the norm. Life shouldn’t be seen as stopping after a certain age or if your body or brain aren’t society’s idea of perfect.
The essay talks specifically of popular culture’s impact on age-based discrimination, but as the whole core of this podcast and project explores, popular culture and media is responsible for influencing attitudes about so many marginalised communities. There’s also the intersection of age and gender where older women are erased or sidelined in media whereas older men still seem to retain power in society. In Doctor Who, while the Doctors began as old men (in the original series), the female companions tended to be younger and there to provide a damsel in distress character (for the most part, according to Inside The Tardis). In the new series, we’ve had one older male Doctor but most of the companions have been young women. This is why I love both Donna and River Song who are not old but older compared to the other companions in the show. And now there’s Graham as well as well as Doctor Ruth.
In Harry Potter, Dumbledore is the classic old white man mentor. But as one of the podcast episodes I listened to on Witch, Please said, McGonagall isn’t described to be particularly old. It’s the movies which have influenced our understanding of the character. In a children’s book, I suppose it makes sense if young people have all the agency and question the authority of older adults. As real life has shown, we adults frequently don’t know what we’re doing, especially those in charge of how the world and its systems function. In Anne With An E, great-aunt Josephine was excellently badass. I loved seeing Marilla and Matthew and Rachel’s interactions too – centering their experiences in the show. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Uncle Iroh was one of my favourites as well.
In fandom, ageism may work the other way where younger people’s interests and practices are dismissed by older adults. However, within these platforms populated by younger people, they may not appreciate older fans in what they consider their space.
As the article points out and as is reflected in mainstream media and culture, older women are seen as crazy for subverting expectations of how they’re supposed to behave and live. I think there’s an empowering potential here, but surely craziness should be the norm. Do what you want now that the burden of looking after others and bowing to their demands is largely unnecessary? And should this freedom not be available to younger women too?
Again, we need to have more older people writing books for both younger readers as well as adult readers to combat stereotypes and undo ingrained social conditioning – same goes with media. Diversity of all kinds just makes life so much more interesting!
I think with the climate crisis and even now with the pandemic, we need to work together as a community, which in many cases means first developing that community and looking after those who are most vulnerable. This is both the very young and the very old and the in-between ones with disabilities and health conditions. Jack thinks the pandemic will force us to restructure our social system even in the future because we’re now being forced to do it and will see that it works. I really hope that’s true!
10) Doctor Who episode – Series 12 Episode 7 Can You Hear Me?
Some thoughts on the episode:
- The show starts with a mental clinic in Syria 1380. Implies a relatively enlightened way in which they treated mental health problems.
- Fears being dismissed as mental illness – but turns out to be aliens. For people who are going through the anxiety or paranoia or depression or hallucinations, feels very real. I couldn’t help but think of my neighbour and how we discovered he has paranoid schizophrenia after one night where he had a breakdown and his partner had to call the police.
- Mental illness as metaphor – aliens representing this.
- But the episode also showed different expressions of illness and different ways of dealing with it
- Ryan’s friend – good glimpse of male support and friendship when dealing with mental illness
- Graham’s male friendships and how they’re looking after each other
- Mental wellness during the Coronavirus quarantine – even for otherwise healthy people is something that’s at the forefront of the discourse in many parts of the internet
- Yaz and Sonya celebrating the anniversary of Yaz’s recovery – or at least her first step towards recovery in being dissuaded from an implied suicide attempt
- The image of this old white dude being responsible for all their problems really made me laugh
- Ryan and dyspraxia – as Robert mentioned in the episode we recorded, dyspraxia is both physical and mental
- Yaz’s implied suicide attempt. In the nightmare sister says, “Do it right this time. I won’t be calling anyone. No point. You’re weak.” What people’s brains say to them and the different ways your brain can be your worst enemy
- Yaz doesn’t think anybody cares about her. She’s bullied in school. Just having someone to talk to you and say “I understand.” Asking for help can be the most difficult step
- Graham’s double fears – cancer returning and his deceased wife Grace holding him responsible for her death and being unable to save her
- The episode made me incredibly weepy!
- I wonder if the metaphorical mental illness representation bothers people with mental illness the same way we complain about representations of race in metaphorical ways
- Casual diversity – interracial villain who are actually a couple of aliens
- Tahera’s nightmares become real so she conquers her fear and uses it against her immortal tormentors
- Group therapy that Ryan’s friend tries out – going out to the supermarket just as an opportunity to talk to someone – the link between isolation, loneliness, and mental health – and how this is being exacerbated during the lockdown
- I didn’t like the ending where Jodie is so useless with Graham’s worries and him opening up to her – although I suppose that’s a risk of opening up to someone too and having someone open up to you