A PhD project exploring intersectionality through fan podcasts

Header image with the text Marginally Fannish

Month: June 2020

Episode 11 She Has To Fight Smart: Representations Of Women Warriors In Media And History

Episode Resources:

1) Essay – We Have Always Fought

2) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Heroines

3) Fan podcast – Breaking the Glass Slipper The Bechdel-Wallace Test

4) Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper Fight Scenes with Women Warriors with Juliet McKenna

5) Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper Women’s Jobs in Fantasy

6) Fan podcast – Breaking the Glass Slipper Christian Mythology in Fantasy with Jeanette Ng

 

Episode Transcript:

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

Lisa owns this art of Mockingbird which has been illustrated by Valentine Barker

[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 eleventh episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I talk to T. G. Shepherd also known as Lisa about the representation of women warriors in media and history.

There are perceived gender roles and gender disparities in different styles of martial arts with some being considered too brutal for women. People’s gender also impacts their experiences in the environment they’re training to fight in. Comics have a long history of representing women warriors who have been aspirational role models for countless young people and adults. However, the overall representations of female fighters in media involve tired tropes rather than realistic, fully-fleshed out characters. This reflects the erasure of women warriors in real-world history which overlooks how women from different parts of the world overcame social, cultural and legal barriers to fight.

Fortunately, there are a growing number of representations of women warriors with different skills, bodies and abilities working together. Magic or advanced technology in science fiction and fantasy worlds limits the role gender plays among good fighters. Mainstream comics are becoming increasingly diverse and often act as people’s first encounters with different lives. Fanfiction has tremendous transformative potential in questioning the norm and exploring alternate possibilities, though even there, gender dynamics play a role in the kind of stories which are taken seriously. The internet and more diverse academic researchers play a huge role in bringing traditionally marginalised stories about women leaders and fighters to light. However, there needs to be more intersectional representations of fighters in science fiction and fantasy to include different ages, races, abilities, religions, sexual and gender identities.

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: I’m so happy to welcome T. G. Shepherd otherwise known as Lisa to today’s episode. T. G. Shepherd is a Canadian writer and martial artist living on the West Coast. She has been training in martial arts since the age of seventeen but was born wishing warrior was still a job description. Her first novel As A God is available to buy on Kindle. But she also publishes a blog on www.tgshepherd.com. It’s called 30 Seconds of Wick which breaks down fight scenes in movies thirty seconds at a time, beginning with John Wick, hence the name. And she can be located on Twitter at @tgshepherdvan where she yells about comic books, fighting and dogs a lot. Amazing. The topic we’re going to explore today is a little different from what I’m used to. We’re going to be looking at how women warriors are portrayed in science fiction and fantasy. I’m a life-long book nerd who has no experience with fighting. And as a pacifist, I don’t think I ever want to experience fighting, unless the specific circumstances involve punching fascists in which case I could be convinced maybe.

Lisa: [laughs]

Parinita: Though I need to wear boxing gloves or something because I need to preserve my hands for holding books and turning pages and maintain my book nerd cred. Lisa is one of the few people who’s both bookish and loves to fight. So could you tell us your own experiences with being a woman fighter, Lisa?

Lisa: Yeah, I started training when I was seventeen in traditional martial arts – taekwondo in particular. And gradually over the years I started to branch out into other things. I branched out into Olympic sword fighting where I took up saber fencing. Which at the time women weren’t allowed to compete in the Olympics in. That’s since changed. It was considered the more brutal art and women wouldn’t want to do it. But obviously we did. And then I took up archery. And then gradually in my 20s, I wound up taking up with a very street-based martial art based on Bruce Lee’s training methods called JKD [Jeet Kune Do]. And the basic principle with JKD concepts is you need to do what works. There are no rules. In the sense that I don’t call my teacher by a formal title, we don’t bow in and out of the mats, we don’t have any sort of formal forms or anything. I call my teacher by his first name [laughs]. There’s no real rank like we don’t wear anything to indicate rank at all.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: You fight who you can fight, you beat who you can beat. And the school that I’m in is very much dedicated to understanding that you’re doing this to survive. If you’re going to use this, you’re doing it to survive a fight, not to win a sporting match. But the reason I train where I train is that when I asked him what his first response to being attacked in the street was, he said, “Run away.”

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: I’ve trained in places that were super macho where I felt very concerned for my personal safety. Because if I acted less skilled than I was, I was going to get beaten up for being a weakling. If I acted more skilled than I was and actually wound up beating somebody, then they were gonna retaliate in a method that was improper. The school that I’m in, I’ve never had any concerns for it. He treats everyone the same way. You’re expected to live up to one standard and he doesn’t put up with any kind of crap like that. Also the school trends a bit older because the arts that we learn, you need to be able to think about things more. I’m a stick fighter, that’s my primary art. We call it Kali. It’s the Westernised form of Filipino stick fighting. It would be called Arnis or Eskrima in the traditional arts. The reason I like stick fighting is that it’s an art where the harder you try to do something, the worse you’re going to be at it.

Parinita: [laughs] Okay. So have you had more experiences where your gender has affected the fighting environment that you’re in?

Lisa: Yeah it’s funny. I have to walk a very fine line with particularly new people in the gym. I’m the senior student, I’ve been with my instructor for about twenty years.

Parinita: Okay.

Lisa: I’m the senior student but there’s no way to tell looking at me that I am. I’m not a particularly imposing individual. I’m a middle-aged white woman. [laughs] So coming in particularly with new guys you have to be very careful around them because I’ve actually had a couple leave after I won a fight.

Parinita: Oh wow.

Lisa: Yeah. And I don’t want to cost my instructor students.

Parinita: [laughs] Right.

Lisa: So yeah you tend to have to be very careful of their egos. [laughs]

Parinita: Wow that’s a problem – I mean now that obviously you’re saying it, it makes perfect sense – but I don’t think it’s something I would have thought would have been a problem faced by women fighters. From your blog, I read a few of your blog posts, and you write a lot about how much comics meant to you not only now but also growing up as a teenager, and your deep emotional relationship especially with Mockingbird.

Lisa: Yeah well, when I took up with my current instructor – and as he specialises in a lot of things which includes stick fighting – I realised about then that I’d been trying to turn myself into Mockingbird most of my life.

Parinita: [laughs]

Cover of Mockingbird #1 by Joëlle Jones

Cover of Mockingbird #1 by Joëlle Jones

Lisa: And hadn’t really realised that. I took up science and biology because I wanted to be her. And I took up stick fighting because I wanted to be her. Now it turns out I’m actually quite suited to stick fighting so that’s okay; it’s one of my favourite things in the world. Mockingbird was one of the first characters I saw in any media who I genuinely felt was an aspirational figure in the sense that that is somebody that I could actually aspire to be. Not simply to admire.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: And one thing I loved about her is she was always unapologetic about being the smartest person in the room or one of the smartest people in the room. She was unapologetic about it but not arrogant. She wasn’t like Tony Stark or something. She wasn’t, “Oh I’m the smartest person in the room all the time.” She was just quietly doing her thing in the corner. One of the first times we meet her in her modern form of Mockingbird, ’cause she existed in a couple of different forms before that in a Hawkeye mini-series that was published in 1982. And towards the end of the mini-series, the bad guy pits Hawkeye and Mockingbird against each other and even the bad guy says, “Well, she’s going to win the fight. She’s a much better fighter than you are.”

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: And Hawkeye agrees basically. “Oh yeah, no if this was a fair fight, she’s going to kick my ass.”

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: And basically she realises ’cause she’s smart that the only person who has a chance to get them out of the whole situation is Hawkeye. So she throws a suicide play. She sacrifices herself so that he’s the one who can get out.

Parinita: Right.

Lisa: Because she realises that the particular combination of circumstances means that he’s the one who can save them. So even then she’s his partner. And I used the word macho earlier. One of the reasons why I love Hawkeye and Mockingbird as a pairing is that Hawkeye is not a macho guy, he’s a masculine guy. And the way I’ve always described the difference is that macho guys are terrified that they aren’t men and masculine guys know that they are.

Parinita: Hmm.

Lisa: A masculine guy knows he’s a man, a macho guy’s terrified that he’s not.

Parinita: Yeah, so the insecurities especially like the ones that you saw in real life.

Lisa: Yeah exactly. And then you see it in real life. I have a bunch of stories about teenage boys in particular, you have to be very careful with their egos. But I’m really well known in my gym for being … I got called a robot because I don’t seem to feel pain.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: And I’m like well no, I’m just not going to show pain to you guys ’cause what would be the point, right? [laughs] Whereas when I’m fighting my instructor, I will show emotion because there’s no critique in it when he and I are fighting.

Parinita: Right.

Lisa: He has no critique of my emotional state. But if you show emotion in front of a lot of dudes when you’re fighting, they attribute it to you being a woman.

Parinita: So I find your connection with comics really fascinating because for me that’s not something I really had when I was a kid. I only discovered comics quite recently and fell in love with them. But for the longest time I was really intimidated by them because I didn’t know where to start.

Lisa: Yeah. And you got a hundred years of history. [laughs]

Parinita: Exactly. And I think that’s a problem a lot of people face. The history itself can act as this barrier for new people to enter. Which is why I love the more diverse kind of stories that there are now. I know diversity is a word that’s been appropriated by a lot of companies and by a lot of brands to sell their brands. But I don’t think I would have fallen in love with comics had it not been for Ms. Marvel, Squirrel Girl, the Lumberjanes.

Lisa: Oh yeah.

 

Parinita: I don’t know that I would have picked up Superman or Batman – I’m not really very interested in those stories.

Lisa: Yeah, I don’t really have much of a connection to the straight white male characters except for a few like Hawkeye, Captain America i.e. Steve Rogers. Again in Mockingbird was the first time I saw a character who was flawed and human but incredibly aspirational. Trauma came later in her history, but when she started, she was a hero because she chose it. She wasn’t a hero ’cause she was sexually assaulted, or a hero because her parents abandoned her. She was a hero because she looked at the world and went, no I want to be that. And that was something that women just weren’t allowed. And that’s one of the reasons why the character resonated with me because it was the choice to be, “I am going to turn myself into somebody who can stand next to a god on a battlefield and not be a liability.” It was a wonderful thing. In comics, I identified more with the people of colour – with T’Challa, with Storm, with Falcon, with Luke Cage. And those were some of the first and most positive experiences I’ve ever had of black characters as well.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: So for me, comic books were this window into a diversity and a richness of the universe that I didn’t see in my everyday life. But also it gave me the chance to go hey look there’s someone who looks like you who you could actually be … and she’s a hero. And that was one of the first times that I was faced with the idea that maybe you can be a hero. Maybe there’s more. Or maybe your path is not to be a mother and a housewife. Because I was born in the 70s and gender roles were still very specific even then in the middle of all this sexual revolution. And one thing I always loved about Mockingbird is that her stats – like they have these lists of stats for all the characters – are ridiculous. In Marvel she’s 5’9” and a 130 pounds? No, she’s not. [laughs] ’Cause she would be the size of a stick.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: But she was never drawn that way.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: She was always drawn as a big, strong, substantial woman. Very sexual, very sexy. But not stick or reed thin. She looked like someone who could stand and train with Captain America.

Parinita: Right. So the role that comics played for you, for me it was children’s books in general and Harry Potter specifically when I was growing up.

Lisa: Yes.

Parinita: And I always saw myself in these bookish fictional girls like Hermione, Anne of Green Gables, Jo March – you know all white Western women.

Lisa: Yes

Parinita: But I still connected with them deeply; though of course I do accept Hermione as canonically black now. But as someone who wasn’t really surrounded by people who seem to love books as much as I did, those were the characters that I most connected with. But now especially in comics where the diversity isn’t imagined. It’s visible. You don’t have to read yourself into it, you know?

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: At least for the more diverse comics now. Like Squirrel Girl. I know she’s white but she’s not stick thin, and she’s fun and she’s irreverent and she looks like me. Not in terms of race but in terms of the body.

Lisa: Yeah.

Image courtesy wbur

Parinita: Of course, I am a complete wimp, and she’s really strong.

Lisa: [laughs]

Parinita: I’m not like her in that way.

Lisa: I also identify with those characters. I’m a reader; I read constantly. It’s one of the reasons why I got into comic books because I was running out of things to read. My mother would dump me at the library for six hours. I read constantly and I identified with the bookish girls too, with the smart ones. Which is why Mockingbird appealed to me because she’s brilliant, she’s a genius. And she’s also a fighter. And that aspect is not something that I ever saw much because when you get into the fighting women thing, you get into these very binary discussions. And it’s such a complex and subtle thing. You get into the binary discussions of male versus female traits and heteronormative versus queer and it’s all like – I could never really find a place to stand on any of those because they’re very complex. And when I was young, I didn’t have the ability to articulate that complexity.

Parinita: Yeah. So you’ve mentioned that apart from writing your own original fiction, you also write a bunch of fanfic and read a bunch of fanfic – enough to fill several books, your writing. [laughs]

Lisa: Yes. [laughs]

Parinita: And I don’t read much fanfic now though I’d love some recommendations. But do you think fanfic can also play a role in questioning these normativities? Either your own fic or even the ones that you read?

Lisa: Oh deeply. One of the reasons why I started the Mockingverse – so I’m on the big platform AO3 – Archive Of Our Own as Ms Mockingbird. My entire work there is Avengers-centric. And it’s based on the idea of – I inserted Mockingbird into the MCU as a specific character. I like them. Some of them are really good. As I’ve said, one of my great desires is to be accused of plaigiarising my own fanfic someday.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: [laughs] I started really getting into it about five-six years ago when it was more reliably available on a couple of different sites. And one of the reasons why I love fanfic and why I got into it and why I started to read it considerably more is that it is transformative fandom at its best. It is taking that which exists as a base and not rejecting it. Saying okay this has value, this has power as a modern myth – as something that’s important in society. And going, “But where are the cracks? What is missing?” So fanfic questions normality by saying, “Well yeah here’s all the things that you could read into that. And we only got one path. But we need to see where all these other paths are.” Obviously a lot of fanfic started from Star Trek and started from the idea of people making queer relationships among Star Trek characters, in particular Spock and Kirk from the original series. And it’s always been overwhelmingly queer and overwhelmingly female. And that’s not obviously true about everything and it’s changed a lot now. But it’s one of the reasons why I feel there’s been – and I use this word deliberately – despised. Because it was very queer and very female and that was not within the heteronormative white male sexuality, white male hegemony of culture that was allowed to exist.

Parinita: No, absolutely. And it’s not just then. Even now. I think fanfic has achieved more of a mainstream following, relatively – only if you compare it to how it used to be. I used to read a lot of fanfic when I was a teenager but it was quite niche. Now I think more people know it, but there is still this suspicion of what fanfic actually is. It’s not all sex you know.

Lisa: No.

Parinita: I mean there is sex and that’s also great because that’s also a way of expressing your stories and your interests. But it’s not just that. For example, even in my regular reading, I’m not a person who reads a lot of romance and relationshippy things. That’s not my kind of reading. So if I started reading fanfic, I know that there is a lot for me out there that doesn’t deal with ships and that doesn’t deal with slash.

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: We’ve talked about this in a previous podcast episode about how the majority of fanfic writers are women, and that does play a role in how it is seen by everybody else.

Lisa: Yeah. And the joke is that when a woman writes an homage to a character, it’s called fanfic. And when a man writes it, it’s called pastiche or homage.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Lisa: It’s given some fancy title. “Oh I wrote this response to Shakespeare.” You wrote Shakespeare fanfic dude!

Parinita: Yeah absolutely. Also that does have an effect on the money that people make as well. Men would be much more likely to make money. Like Sherlock, the BBC adaptation, that’s fanfic.

Lisa: Yeah totally.

Parinita: But it got a lot of money and he got a huge platform. Whereas with a woman, even if her fanfic would have been much better than that, she wouldn’t have made as much money or got a similar platform. I mean I love BBC Sherlock.

Lisa: Me too. Oh no it’s fanfic. The new She-Ra cartoon which is a beautiful story about love and joy and friendship and the power of courage and honour and loyalty. But it’s been called fanfic because there’s queer relationships in it. It’s not fanfic! It’s an adaptation. [laughs] You know if a dude did it, you’d call it an adaptation.

Parinita: Yeah absolutely.

Lisa: Fanfic is despised for all the wrong reasons. A lot of fanfic is terrible. There are millions and millions of words of fanfic out there and a lot of it is just awful. And a lot of it is problematic as hell. There’s a lot of consent issues. But some of it is some of the most beautiful writing I’ve ever read in my entire life. Some of it is absolutely brilliant. And it’s an avenue for those who have felt silenced to speak their truth.

Parinita: Yeah, absolutely. Just turning back to representations of female fighters in canon, especially in science fiction and fantasy media, there are a lot of tropes and stereotypes which are over-represented whether it comes to heroes or villains. Are there any specifically that you’re really tired of?

Lisa: Yeah. As I say, there’s this holy trinity of tropes for female fighters which is the cold, ice maiden often usually represented as being kind of like the Brienne of Tarth trope. Although she’s much less of a trope than many others. There’s the willowy femme fatale who kills by stealth and that’s sort of what the Black Widow character can be.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: And I’m using these as references; I’m not saying they specifically are. And then there’s the man but without the male genitalia character. And those seem to be the three that you get all the time. You don’t get a lot of fully-realised women that I would recognise like I have fought that person or I know that person. A lot of my female friends are women warriors. And one of the issues I have with the portrayal of Wonder Woman is that they always talk about oh she’s a warrior for love. And that’s great and I’m really glad that exists but that’s not a very realistic archetype for somebody who’s taken up warrior as a job description.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: You can be a good person, you can be a moral person, you can be a kind person – you can be all of those things. But this “I’m now going to stop in the middle of a fight and coo over a baby” thing is a way for a dude writer to make a character who is very strong more palatable to weak men.

Parinita: Yeah because this is something that we’d spoken about when we were planning our episode – about Wonder Woman. I was telling you I really liked Wonder Woman, the movie, because for me it was the first time that I’d seen something like that.

Lisa: Yes.

Parinita: Where a woman, especially the scenes on the island in the beginning of the movie.

Lisa: Yeah the Amazons are great.

Parinita: Yeah the Amazons. That made me cry.

Lisa: Me too!

Parinita: Just because of the way that it centered her and women in the story. But then you were saying that apart from the director, the production is mostly male-dominated.

Lisa: Almost the entire creative team were men. The writer was a man, the producers were men. A lot of that movie is extremely male-gazey in the sense that it again centers the man’s perspective of what the Amazons are. And as I said, it makes her very non-threatening to dudes. I love that Wonder Woman exists because I love that women got that experience. Because I know so many women who came out of that feeling empowered for the first time by a movie.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: And that’s freaking awesome, I love that. I did not see myself as a fighting woman anywhere on that movie except on Themyscira. That’s where I saw myself. And then once they left the island, I just saw someone who was being led around the nose by the guys. Wonder Woman did it first, Black Panther did it right. Because the women in Black Panther were fully-realised human beings who were warriors in very different ways.

Parinita: Oh they were so brilliant.

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: I loved them.

Lisa: You got Okoye who’s unequivocally the person who’s in charge, who’s the general. You got Shuri who’s the devil-may-care spunky one. You got the spy character, you’ve got the queen mother. You’ve got all these really diverse female characters who were all treated as specific individuals with specific needs and wants and desires and personality traits that included being warriors but were not about being warriors.

The women in Black Panther. Image courtesy Feminism in India

Parinita: So in one of the podcast episodes we listened to, the Imaginary Worlds Heroines one, they spoke about another trope that they’ve come across which is essentially where the woman warrior, the strong female fighter, she’s the exception.

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: So she’s counter to the norm where she’s not like the other girls. She’s the only woman in a very male-dominated field. And last weekend, after our meeting, I watched Rogue One. And I loved Rogue One just because to me, as someone who’s discovered Star Wars as an adult quite recently – or not discovered I guess, I knew about it. You can’t be on the internet without knowing Star Wars.

Lisa: [laughs] Yeah.

Parinita: I knew everything about it. I knew all the spoilers and everything. But I went back to it just because I thought it’s such a huge part of fandom that I should be aware of the story and everything. So I watched the first six – the original and the prequels. But Rogue One is the first time I think I got really and properly invested in the story and bawled at the end. The way that it impacted me emotionally and the way that I cared about the characters, I really liked the movie. But Jyn who was the woman character – the female fighter – I – I don’t know what her job was. Was she a pilot? I don’t remember. My memory is terrible.

Lisa: Yeah. It’s not really other than someone’s daughter. Her existence in the movie is because she’s someone’s daughter.

Parinita: Oh, that’s right.

Lisa: Yeah, she exists in the movie as a reflection of a man.

Parinita: And also, I feel like in terms of personality as well that everyone else there, all the men seem to have other things going on and seem to be more fleshed out. Whereas she was more like … she’s only there to be this badass fighter. And then what? There were no other women. I think there was one woman – a pilot. There’s just room for one.

Lisa: Yeah. There are a couple of women. There’s some women in the council scene. And someone joked that, “I think we just saw more black women in Star Wars than we’ve ever seen in any other movie.”

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: And they were all in the background of that scene.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: And yeah, it was true. Right until The Last Jedi, it was the most diverse movie. I like it too. I walked out of that movie going that was a proper Star Wars film. Because it was very much a feel of a space Western. But yeah, it’s like she’s the exception. That’s one of the other tropes that gets mixed in with all the others is that the woman warrior is a freak, an exception. She’s not like anybody else, she’s the lone figure. Someone joked that it was like well what do we have in the Avengers? We got the archer and the soldier and the scientist and the god and the girl one. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah essentially. Just you saying that, it makes me think of something like She-Ra for example where it’s not just one fighter. She-Ra is the best fighter I think amongst all of them. But when they’re fighting, usually they’re much better as a team. A team of the girls or Bow and it’s done in way where they are leaning on each other and where the group is centered over the individual. And because most of the characters are women, it almost seems to be pushing back against that trope a little bit.

Lisa: Yeah. There’s a diversity not simply in the races and the body types and the sexualities but also in the way that each one of them contributes to the revolution. This is not really spoilers, but at one point, someone asks Adora for emotional advice. Her response is, “Well I’m really more of the punch out your feelings types.”

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Lisa: And I’m like yay that I identify with! [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah, absolutely. You’re so right that there’s room for all these different kinds of characters and all these different kinds of fighters as well.

Lisa: Which men are allowed.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: The male characters are allowed to have the rogue character, the sneaky character, the scientist character, the smart character, the tank character, the kind of calm, cool leader. But the women get the one. So she’s either this one or this one or this one. We can’t possibly have more than one of those.

Parinita: That’s why what I really love about She-Ra is that being a woman in that world is a default. Because I think most of the people that we see are women.

Lisa: Oh yeah.

Parinita: There’s one non-binary character and there are I think a handful of men.

Lisa: There’s Bow and Sea Hawk and some secondary characters. Like Hordak.

Parinita: Hordak, yeah. So it’s not only like queerness is the default but also just being female is the default.

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: Which just brings up so many different ways of storytelling.

Lisa: Oh Bow’s dads! Bow’s dads.

Parinita: Oh yeah Bow’s dads as well.

Lisa: I thought it was really interesting that the vast majority of the online outrage about that show was centered on the fact that the female characters now all looked like actual living beings as opposed to dolls. But nobody seemed to really be freaked out that they made Bow black.

Parinita: Oh! I don’t have any experience with the original She-Ra so I didn’t know he was not black.

Lisa: Yeah in the original She-Ra he’s a white guy. And in the original She-Ra, every single character, all of the women characters looked exactly the same.

Parinita: Right.

Lisa: They just have different colour schemes and different gimmicks because they’re not designed as humans, they’re designed as toys to sell toys to girls, right?

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: And so there’s this huge outrage, there’s still grown adult men angry at a children’s cartoon because they don’t feel that the female characters are sufficiently sexual.

Parinita: And even though they’re what … like fourteen? Thirteen? I don’t know – they’re – they’re teenagers. [laughs] All of them.

Lisa: Yeah. Teenagers. Some of them are seemingly a bit older but barely legal.

Parinita: Yeah. Like you were saying with Wonder Woman, maybe it wasn’t perfect, but for a lot of people that was their first feeling of being empowered. And I know that the original She-Ra was that for a lot of kids and adult women at that time. But now I’m so glad that this She-Ra is so much more diverse.

Lisa: Yes.

Parinita: And so much more explicitly feminist and queer than I think the original She-Ra could be possibly given the industry and the world at that time.

Lisa: [laughs] Swift Wind is basically an angry socialist.

Parinita: [laughs] You’re right! I love Swift Wind!

Lisa: Yeah he basically is just yelling about horse rights. And I love that as soon as he got to speak he was like a complete jerk. And I love it. I love the fact that you made the horse an angry socialist basically.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah. So based on popular SFF [science fiction and fantasy] out there, or even in your favourite stories, what do you think makes for a really bad fight scene? Because I know you’ve analysed a lot of comics and movies and TV shows and novels. Or what makes for a good fight scene even, based on what you’ve seen.

Lisa: It’s funny I actually do panels at conventions about this.

Parinita: Oh!

Lisa: I started a panel at our local convention called How To Write A Fight Scene If You Don’t Know How To Fight.

Parinita: Amazing!

Lisa: I feel like the worst kinds of fight scenes are the ones where the author is obsessed with letting you know how much they know about fighting.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: But the problem also is that usually it’s someone who doesn’t actually know how to fight. But they’ve watched a movie or they’ve watched an online video or they’ve read a book or something. “Oh I took strip mall karate fifteen years ago so I know how to punch.” Any fight scene where I’m confused about the physics in the room – like physically how could you possibly have done that thing that you just described? – is the kind of fight scene I’m talking about. Because at that point I’m no longer reading a book, I’m getting out a piece of paper and trying to chart where everybody is in the room. Like okay how could you possibly have done that? And I don’t mean confusing because fights are often extremely confusing.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: A proper fight is very quick, it is very chaotic, luck factors into it a lot more than people like to think. [laughs] I’ve been in the middle of fighting in my gym in the safest environment you can possibly think, and my foot slips and I lose the fight because there’s sweat on the ground.

Parinita: Oh yeah you wouldn’t think about these things unless of course you were a fighter yourself.

Lisa: Yeah. A good fight scene can have multiple different points. And as I’ve joked, in movies, never let reality get in the way of a good fight scene.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: Because there’s times when you’re just like this is ridiculous but whatever. It looks beautiful. So leave it. Right?

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: Most superhero fights are like, “This is ludicrous but it looks beautiful.” Which is why the ones that are extremely centered in reality impact people so much. Because of the recognition that oh this would work in real life. You could actually have these powers and make them work in real life. And without having to do like six-foot kick flips. [laughs] A fight scene should either move forward character, move forward plot, or both. Or be extremely beautiful. Or have a specific impact on a specific point of that character’s needs. And so I like fight scenes that are very visceral where you can smell and taste it ’cause when I fight, I’m tasting sweat. I’m occasionally tasting blood. I know what it feels like when you scrape a piece of fabric across somebody’s face. I know what it feels like to have that scraped across my face. I know what it feels like to have a deep cut and not know until the fight is over. I do a wrestling art called jujutsu and you wear a white gi in that. You can wear coloured gis, but I often wear a white gi. And I’ve looked down at myself after a fight and literally the front of that gi is red because I’ve cut my lip and not realised it.

Parinita: So you know how in some fight scenes you see that even when a person is what the audience would think would be grievously injured, they’re still up and fighting?

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: Would that be realistic then? Because of the adrenaline or whatever?

Lisa: Okay yeah, humans are a lot harder to kill than people think.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: They’re a lot easier to injure and a lot harder to kill. So John Wick is dead like halfway through the first fight scene in the first movie.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: John Wick is dead. But John Wick’s not human, he’s a superhero. I’ve actually seen a theory – I can’t get into it here because it’s long– but someone’s theory is that the entire John Wick universe is based on the faerie universe. That they’re all fae.

Parinita Oh!

Lisa: And it’s a beautiful tongue-in-cheek breakdown of why certain things never seem to hurt them. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Amazing.

Lisa: So when you got superheroes fighting, it’s fine. I’m going to accept that you can suck up that damage because you’re a superhero, whatever. John Wick is not an action movie series. It’s a series of horror movies. Where John Wick is the unstoppable killer but he just happens to be the guy you’re rooting for.

Parinita: [laughs] Because they killed his dog.

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: That’s the movie, right? I haven’t watched it.

Lisa: Yeah, exactly. So the John Wick movies are horror movies where the unstoppable bad guy is the guy you’re rooting for.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: You’re rooting for Jason, you’re rooting for Mike Myers.

Parinita: I mean I would root for anybody who’s defending the dogs.

Lisa: It’s a brilliant conceit.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: Because see the instant they kill his dog, anything he does to them is now okay. As soon as they kill his dog, he has now free rein to do anything he likes to any of these people.

Parinita: That’s true.

Lisa: Right? So superhero movies are different, it’s fine. I can accept the amount of damage – though I do like the fact that in particularly the MCU, the Marvel movies, the superheroes get progressively more tired and more sloppy as battles go on. Like by the end of the first battle in The Avengers, Captain America is wrecked.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: [laughs] Like he can barely stand. But he’s getting up and fighting. Thor is wrecked. These people are not well by the end of that first movie. Just to quickly go back to just the intersection of really great fighting and something that’s very particularly cinematic is there’s a fight in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – I think Season 4 – Season 5 – where Quake faces off against the big bad guy which was played by Brett Dalton where he turns into an alien villain. And there’s a fight between the two of them that utilises their specific superpowers as they fight. That is one of the best fights I’ve ever seen. Because she has shockwave abilities so she’s using the shockwaves to dodge punches. It’s one of the best fights I’ve ever seen that utilises the intersection between superpowers in real life and actual fighting. Because both of those actors and their stunt doubles are very good. They’ve put in the work. They’re very good fighters and they do very good work. But it was one of the best choreographed fight scenes I’d ever seen. Same way in my blog, I have a description of the Daredevil Season 3 episode which is an intersection of superpowers and physical fighting. It’s one between him and Bullseye in the office where they actually paid attention to what his superpowers were and how it would be affected by his environment.

Parinita: Daredevil is blind right?

Lisa: He’s blind but he has super senses. So smell, touch, taste, balance – which is important.

Parinita: Right.

Lisa: I want people to read the blog posts on my 30 Seconds of Wick blog but there’s the intersection of when you’re fighting in a specific environment and these are your specific skillsets, this is what might happen. And I have nothing but respect for that because it shows a deep, honest and abiding love and respect for the medium but also for the character. And that’s to me a great fight scene, particularly in a visual medium, to show respect for the abilities of the characters. Atomic Blonde just to give another visual reference. So Atomic Blonde was the Charlize Theron movie set in the 60s I believe or 70s, maybe 80s. It’s set in the past in Berlin and she’s the super spy. And there’s an absolutely brilliantly brutal five-ten-minute-long fight at the end. Where she’s just going up and down stairs and hurting this non-combatant in front of her and she’s fighting multiple guys and they’re using their environment and all that. And it was choreographed by Sam Hargrave and his brother who were Captain America’s stunt doubles. I avoid a lot of behind-the-scenes talk about fight scenes until I’ve actually seen the scenes. But one thing they talked about is they wanted to choreograph her as not only becoming progressively more tired and beaten up but having to hit a guy three times for every one punch that he threw. I looked at that and went okay that’s someone who understands. I’m a big, strong woman but I am not physically as strong as a dude my size. I have skill behind me and I have intelligence and I’m very strong so I’m probably stronger than most guys my size ’cause I’ve worked at it and most people don’t, right? But they said, “Yeah, we wanted to show that she had to hit three or four times to have the same impact that one hit that these guys – these big, very big men would have.” And that’s realistic. That’s actually respectful of the character, that’s respectful of the environment, it’s intelligent, it means she has to fight smart. Strongest is not important; stronger is not important. Strong enough is what matters.

Parinita: And that’s such a good point because like you said that perhaps you would be able to defeat a person –  a guy who’s not trained, who’s not fighting, who’s the same size as you. But somebody who has the same amount of training, at that point, it is about just I don’t want to say innate strength, I don’t know if that’s true or not. But male strength versus female strength.

Lisa: Well, yeah. There’s a line in Italian sword fighting which is, “Never underestimate the strength or malice of your opponent.” Because in a fight it is the stronger or more malicious fighter who will win.

Parinita: Oh no. [laughs] That’s a bit alarming.

Lisa: I may not be the strongest person of the room but I guarantee I’ll beat you on malice buddy. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] So until you highlighted this theme of women warriors, I hadn’t really consciously even thought about it. Now that I think back on it, I’m enjoying a lot of media that does have women fighters. But it’s not something I thought about while reading or watching these stories. But while planning our episode, I started thinking about these different kinds of fighters in my favourite SFF and how the fighting scene differs based on either the physical skill of the person or the magical prowess or just the technological access that the woman has. And this includes women fighters of different bodies and abilities as well.

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: So some of my favourite women fighters in comics and graphic novels have been Ms. Marvel, and Squirrel Girl. And I don’t know if you’re familiar with The Dragon Prince at all, it’s a Netflix TV show, it’s by the same people who’ve made Avatar: The Last Airbender. Which again, even in that, there’s a different kind of fighting, it’s something called bending. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that.

Lisa: I am familiar with Avatar. Dragon Prince I haven’t watched. But I’m familiar with a lot of the Avatar stuff because it is brought up as being a very diverse and interesting method of doing combat in animation. And I do respect it.

Parinita: Yeah. And their gender doesn’t seem to play any role in what you’re good at or what you’re bad at.

Lisa: It’s force multiplication. Magic is a form of force multiplication in the same way that a gun or a sword or a stick or an arrow is. When you take the purest level of base physical strength out of something, by allowing a character to have the ability to multiply their force, you remove the gender issue. Or you limit the gender issue. A lot of what I do – the way that we train, because my school, as I said, is very street oriented – it’s very based on reality. After six months, after you have mastered the basics, you are no longer training to fight a random drunk jerk on the street. You’re now training to fight someone who knows how to fight.

Parinita: Hmm.

Lisa: Because you’re training to be able to be smarter and use force multiplication. And as I said, the steps are always run away. If you can’t run away, pick up a weapon. If you can’t pick up a weapon, hit first, hit hard and then run away. [laughs] So it’s like magic and all of these things is often force multiplication. It’s one of the reasons why I think, no matter what the gender is, a lot of magic users are often portrayed as being scrawny or small or weedy. Because they need that force multiplication. And in a non-ballistic society, where you don’t have guns, that’s magic.

Parinita: Apart from Mockingbird, do you have any other favourite female fighters that you’ve come across recently?

Lisa: Well not recently but obviously I do love Xena very much.

Parinita: Oh yeah.

Lisa: She’s a favourite of mine. In media, I love the way Peggy Carter has always been portrayed. Because she’s both been portrayed as very physical and very intelligent about it. I loved the way that Captain Marvel was portrayed in the movie.

Parinita: Yeah, me too.

Lisa: I particularly loved the fact – spoilers – but I loved the fact that she basically drives off an alien fleet by flexing.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: Because that was smart. She demonstrated, “I am very powerful. Are you going to come at me? Okay, good. We’re fine. I’m not going to come after you.” [laughs] It was a demonstration of, “I have this power. Do you want me to use it? Because if you do, I’m not going to stop. Okay, good, fine.” Bernard Cornwell’s the Sharpe series had the problem with the character that she’s very much the exception girl. But they portrayed the Spanish Resistance during the Peninsular war as having a lot of women. And having a lot of women who rode to battle with swords and guns and fought and were great shots and stuff like that. So there’s a female character there. She does get fridged. Spoiler alert for a series that’s been out for forty years – thirty years. [laughs] In fiction, Lois McMaster Bujold writes a lot of great characters and a lot of great women warriors of different kinds. Not necessarily women who can fight but women who understand what they can do to stop a fight or help. Warrior as a mindset is obviously ungendered and it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to be able to fight. You can be a warrior and have no fighting skills. Because you never got trained with them. Women have always fought. I linked you to the Kameron Hurley text We Have Always Fought. Women have always fought. But it’s always been a struggle to even get the training to be able to effectively do that at all. Because we were outlawed and excommunicated and executed and imprisoned and tortured. And we had to go underground, we had to pretend to be men, and we couldn’t even get the training. Legally women weren’t even allowed to touch weapons in many societies.

Parinita: And that has such an impact, right, on the sort of stories that we’re even telling now. If that history even though it exists but it’s completely been erased – well, not completely, I know a lot of people do know about this history. But in terms of mainstream imaginations, the history of women fighters isn’t really very well-known. Which is why you get all these tropes and stereotypes. And the fact that you have to say woman warrior. You can’t say warrior and imagine a woman as much as you would imagine a man.

Lisa: Yeah. It’s like the recent discovery – the recent final proof that those people buried with warrior and general grave goods in Viking graves were women. Well, the chronicles of the time always said that those were women. But the male historians who wrote about them were like, “Oh it’s an allegory!” [laughs] “They can’t possibly have women fighters.”

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah. And in one of the Breaking The Glass Slipper episodes, they spoke about the history of female pirates as fighters as well as samurai fighters in Japan where there were some women there as well. But when we talk about this or even when we represent it in media, in cartoons or whatever, you don’t really represent women as fighting. Or if you do, they would be very much the exception to the norm.

Lisa: Yes and usually it would be the noblewomen, which would be in many cases a little bit more historically accurate because in many cases it would be the noblewomen who would have the social, political and financial cred to be able to demand to do this unorthodox thing. You wouldn’t train women to fight. We get into this whole problem with the gender binary and all that and what people’s roles in societies are. Which is that women are supposed to bleed in child-bed and men bled on the battlefield. It’s the line a lot of men’s rights guys use. That’s again reducing women down to biological determinism and saying, well you have one purpose, you’re not allowed to do anything else. But what if I don’t want children?

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: Which in modern society is more common. What if I can’t have children? What if my children die? Like Boudica being the great example. She was not allowed to be a mythic warrior figure until her children were dead. That’s your only purpose – first, you’re a mother. And of course, in the end, she gets punished by dying. Women warriors in fictional history had two paths. You could eventually give up everything – give up your abilities to marry a dude and become a mother like you’re “supposed” to. Or you could be punished for it like Joan of Arc. In a lot of Western Christian allegory, you could take up arms but only if you then became a priestess afterwards. Or became a mother or died.

Parinita: Yeah suitably punished. You could do it for god and then you could go away. [laughs]

Lisa: But even then, you had to be sacrificed at the end. You couldn’t actually continue with agency. You were not allowed to have agency. You could do a specific thing for a specific reason. But as long as your agency to continue to be somebody who was not what society wanted to be was relinquished. Or you were punished for not relinquishing it. Those were really the only paths that you could have.

Parinita: So I know a couple of the people on the Breaking The Glass Slipper episode as well as the We Have Always Fought article, said that this history isn’t known so we don’t feel as well educated about this.

Lisa: Yes.

Parinita: For example, in Indian history, we do have Rani Lakshmibai who was one of the first resistance fighters in the revolt against the British Empire way back in 1857 in India. And of course, it was all defeated because then there was another hundred years of that. But she is very much a part of our history. And we have some other women’s tales. But they are still the exceptions. They are glorified because they’re so rare. We’re lucky that even those few exist – so we have that capacity to imagine them. But it’s not like, “Oh yeah they could do it just as well as men could do it.”

Lisa: We get the problem with if it’s commonplace, people don’t write about it because this is society – this is the way it’s always been and so why would we mention this? And those coming in from the outside either don’t see it or deliberately erase it because, “Oh that’s weird. Women don’t fight so let’s just pretend that we don’t see those women in armour over there.” Or it’s the extreme outliers that you see like oh there’s this woman who did this, this woman who did this. But it’s always like oh yeah, she was the queen and she died at the end or she defended the castle because her husband wasn’t there. But never really acknowledging that they were doing the same roles that a man would do but they were doing it for motherly reasons or whatever. It’s actually funny – Rani Lakshmi – is that the name of the –

Parinita: Yeah. Rani Lakshmibai.

Lisa: She shows up as a character in the Civilization video game. You can recruit her as a general. I love that. [laughs]

Parinita: So something I told you while we were prepping for this, is the Rejected Princesses blog.

Lisa: Yeah great book, yeah.

Parinita: Yeah a lot of his stories are also available online. But the book Rejected Princesses as well as Tough Mothers is just fantastic. Because first of all, even though he is a straight white dude living in the US, he takes a more international view.

Lisa: Yes.

Parinita: So he’s trying to include more voices and histories in his books. It is more international and it’s also centered on women. And like you were saying earlier, it’s different kinds of fighting. So there are some who go out into the battlefield. But then there were others who because of historical, social, political circumstances, they have to be strategists rather than you know actual physical warriors which was also really important.

Lisa: Yeah you had to wield the power that you were allowed to wield. Like Melisende of Jerusalem, one of the queens of Jerusalem who was queen in her own right, who was her father’s heir had to marry a warrior because she was legally not allowed to lead men into battle even though she had the ability. But she is acknowledged in all of history as being this incredibly powerful female queen who defended Jerusalem and defended her lover and her sisters and everything. And probably killed multiple people by her own hand. But no one’s ever heard of her.

Parinita: The internet has played a huge role to be able to have those voices that were silenced earlier for a lot of different reasons. Now there is more room for these voices to not only say these things that were erased in history, but also there’s an audience that listens to and then shares these stories. And makes that a part of like the stories that everyone has access to.

Lisa: And the people doing the research into the history have changed. It’s not all just straight white dudes, right?

Parinita: Um hmm.

Lisa: So if I was going to go back to school and take up military history, I would not be looking at the history of straight white dudes in battle. I’d be looking for the outliers because I’m interested in that. I’m not interested in talking about straight white dudes in battle. I’m interested in looking for, “Oh were there women? Was this a thing? How much of it was class?”

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: How much of the women warriors got to be that way because they had the financial, social status to be able to be an outlier? To be a freak?

Parinita: Absolutely.

Lisa: And how much of it is simply the fact that you just didn’t talk about the everyday lives of people. So you didn’t talk about the ones who were there. Kara Cooney, who is an Egyptologist, just wrote a great book When Women Ruled The World. It’s about female pharaohs who were leaders and most of them weren’t ever qualified to lead men into battle. So they had to wield military power at a distance – at a remove. But they were genuine rulers. And that’s a kind of war.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: To rule a nation like Egypt is a kind of warfare.

Parinita: No, I remember there was one female pharaoh. I don’t remember the name. It’s a story I came across in a museum exhibit. And I loved it so much – I mean not what happened. But essentially what happened was like she was this excellent ruler – she was this great pharaoh But then the person who came after her hated that she was this powerful, popular ruler. And hated that she was a woman. So he went and erased her out of all the tablets and all the art.

Lisa: That’s Hatshepsut.

Parinita: Oh yeah.

Lisa: And the interesting thing is that may not actually be fully true.

Parinita: Oh really?

Lisa: Yeah Kara Cooney has done an entire book just about Hatshepsut. And she’s done one about all the female pharaohs –  there were five or six very prominent female pharaohs that we don’t know about. She was only one of them. And there’s some evidence that maybe he wasn’t the one who did that.

Parinita: Ohhh okay.

Lisa: It might have been a later pharaoh. In Egyptian history, there’s the pharaoh Akhenaten, the heretic, the one who took them from the polytheistic deities to a monotheistic deity – the sun god.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: And he was the one who was married to Nefertiti, famously the most beautiful woman who ever lived. And suddenly Nefertiti disappears from the records. But all of a sudden, as soon as she disappears from the records, this male “co-king” shows up.

Parinita: Hmm.

Lisa: And there’s a lot of evidence now that that was actually Nefertiti renamed. Because Akhenaten was losing his ability to rule. And they needed a continuance. Somebody who could continue the administration of the empire and rebuild the temple system back up. But they didn’t just want to overthrow the dynasty. So it’s really interesting new history that’s being seen.

Parinita: That’s exactly what I love. How much ever true or not it was, new details will come out and you can’t erase this out of history. That even now the stories that we don’t yet know about – and obviously there’ll be countless that have completely been lost to history.

Lisa: Yes.

Parinita: Just because we don’t have any documentation. But because of the kind of researchers that there are now and the kind of stories that they’re looking for and are interested in, you do have these stories that were erased coming back to light. And even the debates and the nuances and the complexities that are being explored. But yeah, I love that. I think they’re doing a lot of that in religious history as well. Where we have a very specific idea of what happened in religion. I know more because of the podcasts that we listened to which was looking at Christianity and the role that women played in early Christian history.

Lisa: Yes.

Parinita: Like not in the bible but –

Lisa: As scholars and keepers of knowledge.

Parinita: Yeah. And artists and nuns and whatever whose stories have been completely erased as well. But in the patriarchal society of the time, they were still finding a way to not just get married and have children and die.

Lisa: And in many cases that was the only other option. You went into holy orders. And that was the only way you could get an education in many cases.

Parinita: Yeah exactly. I like what somebody on the podcast called as “alternate patriarchies”.

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: She said that it gives her hope that these ideas are not set in stone. That there were women who were finding workarounds around these established ideas. And now that we have different established – well similar established ideas but in a different format – there will still be another way to live and thrive as a woman.

Lisa: Yeah one of the interesting things is I look back once in a while and try and find records as to any statistical differences between women who lead in combat and men who lead in combat. And you can’t find any records because no one ever kept them.

Parinita: Ah of course.

Lisa: And it’s only until recently that we have women who are combat leaders. And the general emotion I’ve seen is that – and forgive me for being a little bit crude here – but most women war leaders are less likely to get their men killed because they want to prove how big their dicks are. And that’s a very dismissive and reductive way to look at it. I mean that in specific because women are not as bound by the patriarchy and these patriarchal assumptions of power and glory and status, they’re more able to look at something rationally and unemotionally. Like the people who think oh women are very emotional, have you seen a guy whose favourite sports team is losing? Then tell me they’re not emotional.

Parinita: Can you see Donald Trump?

Lisa: Oh go look at any dude who is panicking because you asked him to wear a mask so that people don’t die. Like come on! And people talk about, “Oh testosterone gives you strength, it gives you aggression.” And I’m like okay yeah you’re right. But aggression is also a learned trait. Okay aggression does come from hormones. But aggression is also a learned trait. You can learn to be aggressive. You can teach yourself to be aggressive. And my aggression as somebody who does not have the same base testosterone, it is better than hormonal aggression. Because my aggression is not mindless.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: When I move forward in combat, and again in my gym, I was always renowned as the person who would move into bigger guys. Because my skill was not to snipe at somebody from a distance, it was to get in and hit hard in specific places. My aggression is chosen, my aggression is calm. Aggression does not mean raving madness or anger. Aggression is simply where I am moving into a situation where a bad thing can happen because I am in control of that situation. So my aggression as a woman fighter, as somebody who is capable of going, “Okay I’m not just angry that you made me look bad because now my manhood is in danger” is superior. Because it is not bound by my emotional state.

Parinita: I absolutely agree. While we’re talking about women warriors, I do think there needs to be more of perhaps an intersectional analysis in terms of inclusion and representation. So not just cis, white able-bodied women but fighters of diverse ages, races, abilities, religions, sexual and gender identities. There are now more women fighters being represented in media. More than there used to be, still not enough.

Lisa: Yes.

Parinita: But I think with these other intersectional identities, there’s so much fewer representations of that.

Lisa: Yeah. And there are a lot of issues with the representation of race and warrior women. There are a lot of issues there that need to be dealt with in an intersectional manner. And aggression in warrior women and sexuality. One of the reasons why I maintain some of the secondary characteristics of overt femininity like long hair is that when I did have short hair, I was assumed to be of a certain sexuality. Which is fabulous because all sexualities are wonderful. As long as consent is involved, great. But I’m not.

Parinita: Hmm.

Lisa: And that is something that’s very difficult. It’s one of the reasons why I don’t date because I tend to attract either people who want to dominate me or want to be dominated and I’m not interested in either one of those. I’m not interested in beating you up, I’m not interested in seeing if you can beat me up. I’m interested in us sparring together and then going out hanging out and watching a movie. My gender and my sexuality and my being a warrior are all entwined but they’re not dependent on each other, if that makes any sense.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: But there’s huge issues with race around this because of the way that black women and black women warriors are often portrayed. Which is one of the reasons why I loved Black Panther. Because it completely subverted that. Often people who are not white are either portrayed as sneaky or underhanded. Or you get the very flowery beautiful choreography of the Asian martial arts. But it’s seen as being very cold and clinical even though it’s beautiful. and there’s a specific kind of fighting woman there who’s very sad and destined to die.

Dora Milaje from Black Panther

Parinita: Basically exoticised.

Lisa: Yeah, the Orientalist colonial bullshit that you get. And then women of darker skin colours like Latinx women and black women, East Asian women are very often seen as brutish and oh there’s a hulking brute. With this issue, you get so many intersectional problems. You get the intersection of sexuality and gender and race and class and culture – it’s this huge stew. And as someone who is a writer who writes about warrior women, I have to pick out the things that I feel I haven’t not simply the ability but the right to talk about. And I want to see more people who are not using my voice to write about this

Parinita: Hmm.

Lisa: Because there are certain things where I don’t have the right to talk about race in this relationship except in very basic terms. I want more people talking about it because I’m a middle-class white woman, it’s not my place. So we need more voices and more diverse voices. And race is a huge problem in this area. The vast majority of the women you see are thin, middle-class white women. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: One of my problems with the way that we don’t value physical strength in women is that we specifically don’t value it in our actors. And 99% of all the women you see on the screen as “warriors” are 100 pound thin models.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: It’s not realistic, I’m sorry. It just isn’t.

Parinita: So in one of the episodes, the Breaking the Glass Slipper Fight Scenes With Women Warriors one, the guest Juliet McKenna was talking about how in SFF the availability of materials that are around the fighters influenced the fighting styles.

Lisa: Yes.

Parinita: So depending on which country or culture you’re in, you had things such as steel for armour. But then that got me thinking in terms of intersectionality – how materials that exist not just in historical and medieval stories but also in fantasy and science fiction, how science or magic can be used to allow women of different abilities to fight. So looking at accessibility needs and using that. In The Dragon Prince, the fighter, the commander Amaya, she’s deaf. So she uses sign language – ASL to communicate. But she is a fantastic fighter. And in Avatar: The Last Airbender, Toph she’s blind but she’s the best Earthbender there is in that kingdom. I think this is so important especially in stories where you are able to control these things and write these things. Or even like grandmothers or women who are menstruating or women who have a baby and have to figure out how to fight with a baby on their back just in terms of the skills, weapons, clothes, whatever you need.

Gif of Toph from Avatar The Last Airbender Earthbending

Lisa: Yeah. One of the reasons why I train in the Filipino based martial art that I train in is that one of the greatest warriors in this art in my lineage is a 90-year-old woman. Guys that I know – who literally have murdered people with their bare hands when they were being attacked by someone with lethal intent – describe fighting this woman as fighting smoke.

Parinita: Wow.

Lisa: She wasn’t faster or stronger, she was just never there when you hit her.

Parinita: [laughs] I love it.

Lisa: She knew what he was going to do before he did it. So that’s malice and intelligence. That’s experience coupled with skill.

Parinita: Yeah absolutely.

Lisa: And she was a 90-year-old woman, she was barely mobile in many ways. But she was never there when he hit her. Because she just knew how to move.

Parinita: See you don’t imagine a 90-year-old woman when you say warrior, right?

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: These people exist in real life and they definitely should exist in media especially in science fiction and fantasy.

Lisa: I deliberately crippled the lead character of my second novel. I deliberately took away her ability to use one of her arms.

Parinita: Hmm.

Lisa: Because I wanted to show how she would adapt in a world. She essentially does parkour as part of her combat. And if she no longer has use of one arm, how crippled is she? What has to change, what can she do, what can’t she do. And also it’s a society that uses sign language as a primary communication because anyone below noble status has to cover their face. So to emphasise words, you can’t use facial expressions, you have to use hands.

Parinita: Oh that’s really interesting. And also how then if she has acquired this disability, how that affects her fighting as well.

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: If you’re used to one and have to then get used to another, that’s also a really interesting.

Lisa: And the need to conceal it so because she can’t appear weak.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: And a whole bunch of other things. I am more interested in the limitations and how to work around them. It’s one of the reasons why I find the deity level characters in a lot of books and media to be boring. Because if you have that power, why isn’t the end of every fight, “And then I punched him into the moon.”

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Lisa: You know? And I don’t care. You’re boring. You have no limitations on you? Who cares? “Oh this guy is going to commit genocide. Oh I have to talk to him first.” He’s going to commit genocide! Kill him.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: [laughs]

Parinita: But this is one of the many reasons I love Squirrel Girl. Because canonically, she is supposed to be an amazing fighter. I think she could punch people to the moon [laughs] if I’m not wrong.

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: I mean she’s just really strong. But because of the kind of person that she is, she really wants to befriend people and always wants to give people the benefit of doubt and tries to get them to change their mind. And if they don’t, then she goes and punches them to the moon or whatever the equivalent is.

Lisa: And that’s a great character. That’s just a person that’s a well-rounded character who happens to be a woman who happens to be a fighter.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: You can’t just give people one trait, you have to give them more traits, right?

Parinita: Absolutely. And she’s also sort of living up to your trainer’s thing in a way where she doesn’t run away but she does the verbal equivalent.

Lisa: Yeah!

Parinita: She does fight. First, she tries to do another thing and then if she’s left with no other option, she fights.

Lisa: Yeah. One of the characters I’ve always loved for many, many years has been Steve Rogers – Captain America.

Parinita: Uh huh.

Lisa: And one of the reasons I love him is the very first comic I ever read with him in it was an Avengers comic where they’re fighting essentially a goddess. And he ends the fight by realising that she’s in mourning for her dead husband. And all he does is walk up to her. He offers her no violence and says I’m so sorry for your loss.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: And he essentially ends the fight simply by expressing love and compassion for a being in pain. And I’m like that’s a hero. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah absolutely. I agree.

Lisa: A lot of the characters that I’m going to name, that I could name are characters that are in visual media like you know Buffy, most of the MCU women and stuff like that. But there’s a lot of science fiction and fantasy out there that deals with these subjects very well. So I would just suggest to read very widely. But just in a comment about things that matter and how important representation is, do you know the movie Logan? The last Wolverine movie?

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: So X-23 Laura Kinney that character, I scared the people that I was in the theatre with when I saw that movie ’cause at the final fight when she charges into battle to fight next to her father, I was doubled over weeping. And people were asking me afterwards why was I crying so hard. I said because if I’d seen that movie when I was twelve, literally it would have changed my life. Because that was the first time I’d ever seen a female character, a young girl who was not sweet, who was not nice, who was a vicious, brutal warrior. But who was not immoral or feral or an animalistic character other than in her ability to fight. Who actually had purpose and meaning. If I had seen that at twelve, I would have been a different human being. And that’s why representation matters. It’s because I want every single person to look out at this world that we see and look at fiction and see themselves in some way. And I write and I create and I support creators who speak in diverse voices because I want to be able to see the woman warrior that I want to be, that I never saw as a child.

Laura Kinney from Logan

Laura Kinney from Logan

Parinita: That’s amazing. That totally sums up why representation and diverse representation is so important. And I’m glad you’re creating your own pockets of diversity in your own stories. I’m so happy about that. Thank you so much for coming onto this podcast and chatting with me about your experiences. I learned so much. I always say this to participants and it’s always true. [laughs] It’s become my stock line. But I appreciate it very much. Thank you so much Lisa.

Lisa: Thank you for having me. I’m incredibly honoured and it’s a great podcast. I’ve listened to all your back issues and they’re wonderful. So please if you need anything else from me, I’m always available to you.

Parinita: Thank you!

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode on representations of women fighters in media and history. I’m currently reading two brilliantly fun anthologies which feature female warriors in mainstream comics – Marvel: Powers of a Girl and DC: Women of Action. Who are some of your favourite women and nonbinary fighters in media? As always, I’m always looking to expand my list. Thanks so much Lisa for such a fun and illuminating conversation! And thank you Jack for fighting the editing monster so I don’t have to.

[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 9 – 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.

1) Fan podcast – Queer As Fiction Harry Potter, But Gayer

One of the hosts, Ashly, shares her coming out story. She didn’t announce her queerness because she grew up super Christian. Religion seems to be a big reason in the US for hiding any sexual identity that isn’t heterosexual, whereas in India, I think it’s less about religion and more about social pressure and non-acceptance. Of course, this varies, and it’s better in some places than in others. Just after we recorded this episode, there was news of an Indian woman who died by suicide because of conversion therapy-related trauma. Even in bigger cities, a gay couple wouldn’t easily be able to even rent houses without concealing their relationship in most cases. However, I’ve also read stories in rural India where women or men just live together like “husband and wife” and this is just accepted without too much of a fuss. However, we still had the British Empire’s outdated law in the country where homosexuality was illegal and then it wasn’t and then it was again – there was a back and forth. While it’s relatively more accepted now, it’s still not mainstream. There are a lot of pride parades in different Indian cities every year – I went for one when I was in college by myself because I really wanted to support the cause. 

There is a lack of gay content for young people while they were growing up and fanfic was her access to queer content. This is similar to my own experiences where I learned a lot about different ways of living through fandom and the internet. 

Coming out is still such a big deal even among a supportive community because heterosexuality is still the default. However, the hosts acknowledge that coming out to yourself is the biggest moment. According to Ashly, even though it’s difficult and scary and isolating, you become more comfortable when you do announce your identity to other people. Many parents have a very patriarchal, heterosexual idea of a family and worry that their gay children won’t have this experience. Media perpetuates such a singular idea of what a family means and what relationships mean – largely heterosexual, of course, but even when it comes to gay relationships, there aren’t really more ways of being in the world which are shared by media. This obviously impacts everyone – not just gay people and their parents, but also people from dominant cultures. 

There’s also a widespread erasure of bisexual identities both in fandom and even within LGBTQIA+ groups. Even among a marginalised group, there’s a hierarchy of marginalisation. I’ve read similar opinions from bisexual people as well as trans people. 

All the hosts each wrote queer Harry Potter fanfiction which they read out on the podcast and responded to each other’s stories very enthusiastically. I didn’t know this is the genre I needed in my life! All three of them were supremely excited at the thought of writing Harry Potter fanfic. The ships they explored were Draco/Harry, Hermione/Luna, and Cho/Fleur. I like how they say the Cho/Fleur story could be canon because we don’t know how Fleur figures out her clue. Their stories queered the canon much more explicitly than the actual canon does. For example, there aren’t even offhanded comments about Dumbledore in the books or in the movies. Is being gay bad for a child audience? I don’t understand the thinking behind this erasure. Especially since it’s canonical apparently. Even if you didn’t write it into the books, you had an opportunity to include it in the movies even in offhanded comments without making it the crux of the story. 

 

2) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Imaginary Deaths

The episode discusses the phenomenon of characters from underrepresented backgrounds – particularly from marginalised race and LGBTQIA+ groups – are more likely to be killed off in mainstream media. 

Fans feel really emotionally bereft at fictional character deaths. Even I’m forever bursting into tears at fictional deaths – not just deaths but any sort of emotional climax really. The most recent time that happened was with Anne With An E when I was a sobbing mess at many points in the last season. Deaths which you come across as a young person/teenager tend to pack more of an emotional wallop and can have a lifelong impact. In Harry Potter, deaths of Dumbledore, Sirius, Fred, Hedwig – among others – really hurt. You care about these characters both because they matter to you but also because they symbolise other things too which have to do with your real life. 

In Firefly – an inter-racial couple was a big deal to the assistant producer of the show. But Wash being killed off made her feel terrible, especially since there’s not much representation of these relationships in media. Similarly in Buffy, Willow and Tara’s relationship helped one of the guests come to terms with her own sexuality because Willow came out before the guest did. Tara’s death shocked her but she understood why it happened and why it was important to Willow’s character arc. However, killing off gay characters in media is a huge point of controversy. As they point out, people form parasocial relationships with fictional characters to the point where these characters feel real to the people interacting with them regularly. So the deaths have even more of an impact. 

They signpost the podcast Lez Hang Out, specifically the Willow and Tara episode where the co-hosts talk about the problem of LGBTQIA+ characters being killed off in service of straight characters or to propel their stories forward. This is so similar to how disabled characters and characters of colour are killed off. Queer characters are used as plot devices, which is really problematic when there’s such a lack of representation anyway in mainstream media. Based on their recommendation of the podcast and to understand the issue better, I listened to the Bury Your Gays episode. 

Lez Hang Out – Bury Your Gays 

Instead of giving gay characters a happy ending, they get killed off. Lesbians and bisexual female characters in particular seem to be happily done away with in media. Characters tend to be killed off when they’re at their happiest i.e. after they’ve gone through difficult journeys and have come to terms with their sexuality. 

“It gets better and then you die.” 

People don’t seem to understand why it’s such a big deal in terms of killing gay characters off. However, this has a lot to do with the lack of queer representation in media. The representation which does exist is steeped in stereotypes and largely one-dimensional. This is exacerbated by the abrupt, unnecessary ways in which many gay characters are killed off. In terms of Tara’s death on Buffy, they do acknowledge it served an important purpose in terms of the story arc and Willow’s arc. However, the bigger issue, as they say, is how creators handle queer rep and queer deaths. The lack of queer representation in media impacts queer audiences who may not have access to queer ideas and conversations in their lives and may not have come to term with their identities.

 

3) Fan podcast – Imaginary World The Power of the Makeover Mage

One of the guest’s trans journey began with video games. J wasn’t sure what came first – whether she was questioning her gender before choosing female characters in video games or the other way around. She began with playing male characters because that’s what you’re supposed to do, or at least that’s what she thought because she didn’t have any other frame of reference to imagine doing things differently. The first time she experimented with a different gender  was in The Sims. This contrasts with Eric’s experience who is a straight cis guy – while he’s played female characters before, he didn’t realise what a transformative experience it could be for trans players. From J’s experience talking to other players, she’s found this experience resonated with a lot of people.  

“Video games have always been queer”

Some video games provide a way to try out different identities and a safe space to play with identities, which go beyond the surface level and rely on relationships and interactions throughout the game. In video games, players tend to have a stronger identification with the character, sometimes more than in a book or a movie (though as Jack said, that’s how he reads books and watches movies too). 

For Bo, as a queer nonbinary person, they felt the same resonance while playing video games. They drew on experiences of Octodad – a video game where an octopus is just trying to be a suburban dad but the unruly octopus body gets in the way – as a metaphor for nonbinary and trans people’s engagements with the world. I wonder if this is also similar to queer relationships where you can try out new relationships within the space of video games. 

In Dragon Age, choosing the gender doesn’t impact the story at all. It changes the relationships because not everyone is straight, but otherwise the game play is the same. In Dragon Age, you can choose any identity and race and species – which for the nonbinary guest, was liberating and empowering. In Saints Row, a game which includes transition options in-game, one of the guests appreciates the haircut options in the game where you can drastically change your hair mid-game and no other characters say anything apart from, “New haircut?” which she points out is the best thing you can do as an ally even in the real world when you meet somebody who has transitioned. In RuneScape, the Makeover Mage changes your character’s gender for a price.

For most of the guests, this experience happened during adolescence which is when most kids “deal with complex feelings of gender” as well as enforced ideas of gender and what it means to be a boy or what it means to be a girl. Families are often not a safe space to question these entrenched gender ideas – online spaces and video games can provide these spaces. 

However, there’s also a danger with these online video game environments where it can be really toxic interacting with other players. Voice chat, for example, can be risky which many players will avoid because they don’t want to deal with having to justify their identity to random people every single time. Toxic fandom is also a huge issue especially in video games. However, there’s still room to find a supportive community in these spaces such as guilds in Final Fantasy where for many people J spoke to, finding this supportive community online helped them come out in the offline world.

People can make a queer friendly space in the offline world – a video game shop, for example, where one of the guests wears LGBTQIA+ pins and ended up acting as a role model for a parent of a trans child who was glad to see someone happy and comfortable with their identity. This is similar to Geek Retreat, an excellent board game shop in Leeds which has a trans flag prominently displayed on their window. This inclusivity isn’t without its risks however; I’ve heard they’ve been attacked before but continue to provide explicit support. One of the guests acknowledges that for closeted young people, it’s not alway safe to be yourself depending on who you live with, but you can still be yourself in moments where you’re alone – for example, in video games. 

One of the guests says that video games are trying to be more inclusive in terms of representations of trans and nonbinary characters, but sometimes they do a poor job because of a lack of understanding. For example, in Mass Effect: Andromeda, a character deadnames herself immediately which isn’t something which would happen in casual conversation. Deadname is your name before you transitioned which may not reflect your gender. The same studio made Dragon Age which did have a good representation of a trans character. 

Seeing other queer and trans people in the space provides affirmation. J, as a trans woman, now feels comfortable dressing in both masculine and feminine ways – drawing from her experiences in video games – without having to prove her identity as a woman 

What I really love about this podcast, Imaginary Worlds, is that even though it’s hosted and created by Eric, a straight cis white man, exploring speculative fiction and worlds in different ways, he creates such a great space for inclusivity in terms of the guests he brings on to his show and he’s always open and curious to learn about different experiences, especially those which don’t mirror his own.

 

4) Fan podcast – Witch, Please Witch, Please; Live & Unruly

(I’ve already used this episode as a text for Episode 5, so I’m supplementing the notes I made then with these new ones. For the old notes, click here.)

They describe Witch, Please as a combination of fandom, feminism, and Harry Potter. The two hosts, Marcel and Hannah, bring together their work as feminist literary critics in a university and their love of Harry Potter. 

What does it mean to be a feminist critic? It’s difficult to shut off that part of your brain when you’re doing anything you like – watching TV, reading a book, even scrolling through Facebook! I’ve definitely felt this way with intersectionality when for the first year I was just angry at everything and everyone. For me, this is about intersectional feminism at large which helps me also see things through the eyes of other identities i.e. identities which don’t reflect my own – something I may not have done so actively before. Cultural criticism involves identifying problematic elements of your favourite texts and problematising things which may on the surface seem liberal or progressive. You’re trying to understand the layers of texts and characters which might explain divide between fan and cultural critic. However, I think being critical is a part of my fannishness. You tend to critique things you love and incorporate the pleasure of critique. Critiquing things you hate wouldn’t be as rewarding because it’s a lot of work thinking and talking about something you don’t enjoy. Hannah’s desire to critically think about everything she loves hugely resonates with me. 

The series offers comfort to people who feel like they don’t fit in that they will eventually find a supportive community where they’re not only accepted but also find others like themselves. Perhaps this could be one of the reasons for the popularity of the fandom – all the misfits finding each other. 

Dumbledore is trying to create a radically inclusive world in Hogwarts. The problem with the idea of “tolerance” versus inclusivity where in the latter, you actively challenge the prejudices against people who are different from the socially constructed norm – in terms of queerness, race, disability, gender identity, class. Emma Watson identifying as a strident feminist doesn’t seem at odds with Hermione because of the kind of character she portrays and her interest in social justice (though there’s the question of white feminism when it comes to SPEW). 

At one point, they wonder whether any of the movies pass the Bechdel test and don’t think so, though in the Breaking The Glass Slipper podcast episode about the Bechdel-Wallace test, they spoke about the limitations of the test and the need for a more intersectional analysis. The hosts acknowledge that the test isn’t a bar for feminism, just a low bar for the representation of women. 

Calling everything as texts or an archive “because we’re the worst” – this made me laugh because ugh I do this too and don’t just call it media or books or movies like normal people do. Everything is a “text”. 

They think Hufflepuff is the only Hogwarts house that has an ethical approach to pedagogy because it accepts everyone.

“Slytherin is literally just the Nazi school.” 

It’s a political choice to not show Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s relationship in the movies. This may change because there are going to be three more movies but according too the signs, there doesn’t seem to be any room for that relationship. 

On the importance of trigger warnings which emerged in universities in syllabus design not as censorship: instructors have control and making the classroom inclusive for people who may have potential PTSD with a myriad of topics which may crop up during the discussion or the text selection. Even if it is misused, the fact that it is valuable in many contexts is important. As one of the guests says, they’re just a brace for impact because a lot of people want to have these conversations but the trigger warning allows them to prepare themselves for these discussions.

 

5) Fan podcast – The Gayly Prophet Queer Children Are Our Future

The episode features an interview with 16-year-old Kaeli, who self-identifies as the school gay. She identifies as pansexual. She uses the term bi, pan, queer and gay interchangeably. I’m assuming everyone has their own different understandings with the term since there’s no monolith queer experience. Kaeli doesn’t want to be stigmatised for either being bi or pan depending on who she’s talking to. She thinks there just needs to be more acceptance and respect and inclusivity across the intersections of different identities.

So this is something I read in a pretty flippant BuzzFeed article which sourced community answers about what young people wish adult writers knew when representing them in YA books. A couple of the answers said that they’re much more experimental about their sexual and gender identities than the adults seem to think. There’s not just one gay person in school, there’s usually several queer people who are open about their identities. I wonder if this is both a generational as well as geographical thing – different in different historical contexts as well as contemporary place contexts. 

Tumblr as a space for gay people because they can be open about their identities and more easily find a community. It’s also more anonymous, has less family and friends on profiles unlike Facebook or Instagram. 

The books resonated with her for their emphasis on questioning the corrupt government. Things young people care about are complex and nuanced and include big important issues as we see with the climate crisis protests, the gun control protests, in India the anti-CAA protests. 

As Kaeli points out, there’s a Harry Potter phase and then a Percy Jackson phase that most readers go through – which I totally went through as well. With Percy Jackson, the books are so much more explicitly inclusive of different kinds of queerness – not just the original series but the spin-offs as well – whereas with Harry Potter it’s all subtext. 

Kaeli read a lot of Harry Potter fanfiction as a lurker. That’s what I used to read as well, though I was never really interested in the relationship bits. However, as a teenager growing up in Mumbai in the 2000s, fanfiction was the first time I came across queerness. Fanfiction provides room for all kinds of experimental ideas which you don’t see in mainstream media – especially queer fic which is a big part of the fandom. In terms of access, it’s all free so as long as you have the tech and internet access (which is admittedly still a barrier). You can read as much as you want. Kaeli considers fic just as if not more important and better than mainstream books – especially with a lot of Harry Potter fanfic. She chafes at the idea that fanfic is rubbish writing. There’s a complaint that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is like fanfic, but actually there’s some really brilliant fanfic out there. And with HP fanfic, it’s taking this huge mainstream text and queering that which is also important even though there is an increasing amount of SFF indie media which is inclusive of different kinds of queerness. 

“Harry Potter is this universal language that you can use to connect with people” – Lark 

What are the intersections of queerness and class and national origin and religion? 

Lark and Jessie acknowledge that the media which exists today is much gayer than they had access to as young people. They’re now in their early 30s and while they were growing up, it was Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Will and Grace. There was also The L Word but it wasn’t Lark’s genre.

Kaeli loves Disney Princess retellings – as do I.  I love taking these old stories and retelling them in ways which place contemporary values front and centre and fanfic does this as well. 

Fandom also provides a space for fans to find important people and a strong community. Kaeli found it through K-Pop fandom. For me, fandom was also so important. Even though I’m straight and cisgender, I still didn’t feel like I fit in until I discovered the internet and found other people who loved the same things I did with the same amount of enthusiasm that I did. 

 

6) Essay – Deconstructing Disney: The Princess Problem of ‘Frozen II’

Fans read themselves into the text, for instance in examples where they queer Frozen. I’ve come across both interpretations of Elsa being gay as well as her being asexual – both identities are very rarely represented in mainstream media, particularly in Disney. X-Men can also act as queer allegory as well as the magical world of Harry Potter where witches and wizards have been seen as representation of gayness. 

Fan campaigns like Give Elsa A Girlfriend, Oscars So White, Racebent Hermione can make fringe ideas mainstream even if the end content itself isn’t impacted. In the case of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, they did end up casting a black Hermione.  

The writer points out that Frozen 2 has problematic representations of people of colour and indigenous people, something I admittedly didn’t pick up on while watching the movie myself. The movie features intersections of queerness, gender, class, race, national origin. 

“Probably one of the most successful aspects of recent Disney princess films is that audiences often forget that the princesses are, in fact, princesses: Critics of the genre can get caught up with the term as it applies conceptually to a pastel-pink childhood femininity and anti-feminist subjugation. Merida, Moana, and Elsa and Anna are all, in fact, the daughters of kings and chiefs, born and bred heirs to their collective thrones, and the films focus on watching these women train for a seamless transfer of monarchical power.”

As huge and popular a franchise Disney is, it can play an important role in making ideas of inclusivity mainstream ,but it doesn’t go that far. It’s all subtext or conveniently ignored. For example, in Thor, as the article points out, the bisexual actor Tessa Thompson criticised the studio for cutting out a scene which would confirm her character’s bisexuality. 

“So, yes, it matters that Elsa is gay — or interpreted as gay — because that is unwieldy. Her powers, too, make her unwieldy — too much a target, too dangerous, too suspect. Too much, you could say, and, in fact, Grandpapi, the film’s troll elder, says exactly that.”

The article points out that Disney’s lessons from feminist criticism means letting romance take a backseat as the princesses work on consolidating power for themselves without interrogating the problematic aspects of monarchy. This reminds me of the version of feminism which seeks for women to take on the roles which men currently hold in leadership positions without interrogating the structure and finding new ways of being leaders. It also ignores the lives of and impact on women from marginalised backgrounds in the same country and in other countries. Becoming a CEO of a fast fashion brand for example but ignoring the plight of women in developing countries who make cheap clothes for you. Feminism should be about dismantling imbalanced power relationships rather than replacing one form of privilege with another.

Many Disney villains are coded as queer and play up queer stereotypes which has its own problematic aspects. Queerness is seen as other and as monstrous – something which needs to be fixed or as something which needs to be assimilated into “normal” society. Traditionally, powerful women were burned as witches or otherwise ostracised – intersections of gender, power, queerness. There need to be more safe spaces for queer people to be themselves. Many spaces can be legitimately dangerous. For Elsa, the revealing of her identity in the form of her powers leads to outpourings of fear and disgust – in the real world, there are similar reactions to coming out. 

“When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her,” Adrienne Rich once wrote. Taken as a whole, Elsa’s pursuit of truth is presented as the kind of rare (queer, feminist) hero’s journey that reclaims “monstrous” bodies beyond the margins.

Frozen 2 deals with questions of colonisation and indigenous people’s rights which also have LGBTQIA+ parallels in the form of a grandfather being a colonising bigot and then Elsa being his legacy. There is more queer subtext with Elsa abdicating to stay with Honeymaren in Frozen 2. However, as the writer points out, this means that the monarchy in Disney’s eyes can’t have a queer queen – it reifies heteronormative constructs of power.

Part of me says: yes. Leave, go off with your new girlfriend Honeymaren, ride horses on the river. Leave, and never come back, except to see your sister: This is, actually, the life I’ve lived for years. What is there for you, once you know who you truly are? What can man do to me? (Psalm 118:6). As a lesbian, I, of course, want to see Elsa define herself for herself; I want to see the kind of heroine whose example conjures up the words of Audre Lorde: If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive. 

But this is Disney, which means that the ending is ultimately about the preservation of the (rightful rulers of the) nation-state, and for that to happen, we need a stable, obedient body — at the very least, one that doesn’t hear voices, shoot ice out of its hands, and have no interest in procreation. A cisgender, heterosexual body. Enter: Anna, the younger sister whom Elsa has no problem giving her throne to. Anna is royal, perfectly in the line of succession, and very much about to marry a man. 

Frozen II does, see, end with a happy (heterosexual) ever after.

I didn’t even consider the problematic aspect of giving a white character Native lineage retroactively, presumably in response to criticism about how otherwise white the popular movie is. This is compounded by the fact that Elsa doesn’t even get to be the half-Native fully-queer queen of the realm. In Disney, representation often comes at the price of assimilation into the status quo, as the writer points out. 

There’s a reason, of course, for all of this, and it’s often because, even as diverse as marginalized groups are, Disney stories are, generally, about the preservation of tradition, of the status quo. Disney stories, generally, protect the “good” people who are in power; the “villains” are the disruptive ones, those who are chaotic or power hungry, who seek to upend the way of things. Where is there space for folks on the margins? There is no revolution here, and expecting it from Disney is a fool’s game.

The writer talks about how it felt when she was watching Frozen 2 in the cinema and Elsa flinches when she sees a memory of herself singing Let It Go in the first movie – a scene which meets with laughter in the cinema – but a scene which for the writer was important and emotional and personal and the erasure of which is hurtful on many different levels, as someone who watched the first film after coming out and splitting up from her fundamentalist Christian husband.

It felt like I’d been hit in the chest. 

A moment beloved by queer audiences, and fundamentally interpreted as queer, got played for laughs. No, this wasn’t important to her. No, this didn’t count. No, you didn’t see what you thought you saw.

She reiterates that she continues to read Elsa as queer and wants to reclaim that interpretation from Disney – something which I love the idea of – that even if mainstream media isn’t ready to include you, you insert yourselves into it anyway. And that’s something which thrives in fandom especially with fans taking on popular texts where they don’t see themselves and writing themselves into the story.

I love everything she means to LGBTQ+ audiences. I have a deep investment in queer joy, in seeing myself and my community on-screen, in seeing many versions of ourselves, in fact; in indie media, indie film, and even the occasional reboot of an early 2000s TV show, and even in Disney films, even in spaces where they so obviously don’t want us but where we emerge anyway — because this is real life and when you commit to telling a real story, there will be queer people in it. Elsa might be too much for Disney: too powerful, too traumatized, too independent, too gay. That’s all right. She can sit with the queers anytime.

How Do You Research When Society Appears To Be Collapsing?

I’m supposed to be writing a children’s book. I have a deadline looming on the horizon. But I just can’t bring myself to do it. My brain is so overwhelmed by global events – which, since March 2020, have been one horror after another – that the creative part of my brain, the part which allows me to come up with playful stories and characters just isn’t working.

I’m also currently supposed to be working on a podcast for my PhD. Throughout the pandemic, I’ve used the podcast as a coping mechanism to be able to deal with the world turning upside-down. As the quarantine took a toll on my mental health over the last few weeks, I became socially disconnected from everybody but still worked furiously on the podcast. However, the last week made it impossible for me to carry on as usual. The video of George Floyd’s murder, the Black Lives Matter protests in the US and across the world, examples of police brutality against the protesters in the US, the lockdown-related migrant crisis in India where their humanity and, in some instances, their lives are being stripped away from them, the hateful rhetoric online in response to Black Lives Matter taking over social media, the lack of empathy, racism – both overt and disguised under doublespeak. All of it was too much. Due to the ingrained productivity-guilt which I’m trying to unlearn, I did manage to get some work done but I spent most of the week being unable to focus on anything except stories on Twitter. I felt like I was back in December 2019-January 2020 when the violence in India left me unable to function.

Of course, I realise that being emotionally distraught rather than physically shattered comes from a place of immense privilege. I’m privileged in so many different ways – I’m of Hindu background in a country with a Hindu-supremacist government. The systemic violence against Muslims, Dalits, and poor people doesn’t directly impact me. Although I’m currently a brown immigrant in a structurally-white country – a country which colonised my own a few decades ago – the university space accords me with significant cultural and social status. I’ve largely been protected from direct racism. And because I grew up in a country where my race didn’t marginalise me, I’m unable to even recognise if I’ve ever had any covertly racist experiences in the UK. I’m able-bodied and I haven’t been diagnosed with any mental illnesses so although the quarantine has taken a toll on my mental health, it hasn’t affected me drastically. I can still function with minimal adjustments. I’m lucky enough to be doing work I love in a structure which allows me to choose my own work hours because of which I could be unfocused and unable to work last week without any repercussions. I was supposed to record a podcast episode on Thursday – episode 13 – about the ways in which religion and national/regional origin have been weaponised by fascist governments. But the research for the episode and the events of the week ended up depressing me so much that I had to ask my friends to postpone it to the weekend.

Since I started properly working on this podcast in December 2019, every month there has been some new news event – usually more than a dozen at a time – which has contributed to the overall, as the Green brothers would call it, world suck. And I’m an optimistic person who always hopes that people working to make the world better for everyone will outnumber and push out the people who are working to make the better worse for everyone who isn’t a part of their group (religious, racial, gender, whatever). But I’ve found myself growing increasingly despondent and angry about everything that’s going on. Again, a place of immense privilege that I’m learning about the injustices and oppression prevalent in the world rather than facing them firsthand. And it sometimes makes me wonder, what am I doing with this self-indulgent PhD project that I love so much rather than going out there and being an active part of making the world better? Or why am I not in India actively working with children’s books and young people from deprived backgrounds, trying to make their lives better in whatever way I can? What’s the point of writing  fun, silly children’s books? What’s the point of a fan podcast which largely focuses on cultural representations and marginalised perspectives in media? That’s a part of what made me stop working last week. Because sometimes, what’s even the point?

Then, over the weekend, a newsletter I subscribe to, included the image above. On Sunday, Black Lives Matter protesters in Bristol brought down the statue of a slave trader Edward Colston. Like many people in this country (though not the ones who had been campaigning for the removal of this statue for many years), I hadn’t heard of Edward Colston. And like many others, the removal of this statue (and tossing it into the river) educated me about his atrocities. (My self-care routine on Sunday involved sending delighted texts to my friends of the video of the toppling as well as messages against all the other racist statues in the UK. As the banner opposite Oriel College in Oxford declared, “Rhodes, you’re next.”) The protests over the week not only read to widespread horror and engagement with racism but also brought about concrete measures to stop glorifying racists in public spaces. The statue also became a conversation starter for racist representations throughout the UK and other parts of the world (more statues are being taken down and in Glasgow, under the signs of streets named after slave traders, activists have put up signs with alternate names celebrating black people). We did end up recording our episode on Sunday too and while it was filled with a lot of angry rants (mostly mine), talking to my friends about my feelings was extremely cathartic.

Because that’s why this matters. The reason I started writing and working with children’s books is because books were so important to me during a difficult childhood. And books are so important to me now during tumultuous global events. They not only offer me comfort but also hope for a different kind of world. Talking about intersectionality and different marginalised perspectives on this podcast isn’t pointless. I know media representations are important and I know fandom discussions about these representations act as excellent consciousness-raisers. Media representations influence mainstream culture which in turn influences mainstream politics. As Rebecca Solnit reminds us in Hope in the Dark, even in the midst of struggles for a better world, it’s important to celebrate the changes which we have witnessed as a result of past activist work in social, cultural, and political contexts. Popular culture and conversations shape people’s imaginations – in ways which can both limit and expand them. And ideas which promote radical exclusivity and empathy and respect for diverse experiences don’t just materialise out of thin air. There are millions of people working towards making their vision of the world real. That belief allows me to do this research, in the hope that even if it contributes the tiniest bit to a shift in the conversation and imagination, I can call it a success.

After a rain mushrooms appear on the surface of the earth as if from nowhere. Many do so from a sometimes vast underground fungus that remains invisible and largely unknown. What we call mushrooms mycologists call the fruiting body of the larger, less visible fungus. Uprisings and revolutions are often considered to be spontaneous, but less visible long-term organizing and groundwork — or underground work — often laid the foundation. Changes in ideas and values also result from work done by writers, scholars, public intellectuals, social activists, and participants in social media. It seems insignificant or peripheral until very different outcomes emerge from transformed assumptions about who and what matters, who should be heard and believed, who has rights.

Ideas at first considered outrageous or ridiculous or extreme gradually become what people think they’ve always believed. How the transformation happened is rarely remembered, in part because it’s compromising: it recalls the mainstream when the mainstream was, say, rabidly homophobic or racist in a way it no longer is; and it recalls that power comes from the shadows and the margins, that our hope is in the dark around the edges, not the limelight of center stage. Our hope and often our power.

[…]

Change is rarely straightforward… Sometimes it’s as complex as chaos theory and as slow as evolution. Even things that seem to happen suddenly arise from deep roots in the past or from long-dormant seeds.

– Rebecca Solnit, Hope In The Dark

Episode 10 Reclaiming Stories: Representations of Dyspraxia and Autism in Doctor Who/Fandom

Episode Resources:

1) Fanfiction – Never Change

2) Essay – People don’t know about the reality of Dyspraxia. That’s why we need fictions like Doctor Who’s Ryan Sinclair

3) Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper Representations of Disability With Marissa Lingen

4) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Caps Lock Harry

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

6) Video – The Gayly Prophet

7) Essay – The Future Is (Not) Disabled

Episode Transcript:

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

Image courtesy Robert Shepherd inspired by the hair dryer aliens in his Doctor Who fanfiction Never Change which we discuss in this episode

[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 tenth episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I talk to Robert Shepherd about the representations of dyspraxia and autism in Doctor Who – both the TV series and its online fandom. We chat about some difficult issues related to disability, specifically family, trauma and abuse so please consider this as a content warning.

Media representations of disabilities have a huge impact on people with those disabilities. The downside of seeing their disability represented onscreen is that it can reify fraught relationships and troubling experiences that they recognise from their own lives. Even well-intentioned representations can have really damaging consequences. Centering the needs and desires of the family rather than the needs and desires of the person with the disability can have harmful impacts – both in media and in real life.

You can find examples of structural ableism not only in media but also in fandom. Fans with disabilities read themselves into characters who aren’t explicitly written as disabled to counter ableist representations. The kinds of stories which are told about autism – both in media and in society – can perpetuate distressing eugenics narratives. Fanfiction can be an important way for fans with disabilities to assert their agency by writing their own stories. Fanfiction can challenge fixed notions of disabilities and show a different way of being human.

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: I’m so happy to have Robert Shepherd on the podcast today. Robert was diagnosed with dyspraxia and autism at the age of ten and now writes about living with both. And he has been a fairly obsessive fan of both Doctor Who and Harry Potter. He’s the age where Harry was his obsession as a teenager and the Doctor came along at the same time as adulthood. Unlike me who grew up with Harry Potter but never grew out of it. I met Robert in Scotland about three years ago and we’ve been friends since then. During Jodie’s first appearance as the Doctor a couple of years ago, Robert wrote an essay about one of the Doctor’s companions, Ryan, and how happy it made him to see some representation of dyspraxia in one of his favourite shows. And the essay was great. I found it really illuminating as someone who, like many others, hadn’t encountered dyspraxia before that. And we’re going to talk about that more a little later in the episode. But before we do that Robert, do you want to introduce your own experiences with disability?

Robert: Hello! I’m Robert. Obviously it’s hard to talk about your experiences of something like dyspraxia ’cause you’ve had no experiences not having it.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Robert: I don’t know if it’s technically called a developmental disorder, but it’s the sort of thing you have for life. It’s not something that comes along later like maybe some disabilities can. So since I’ve been alive, I suppose, I would have difficulty picking up things, doing things, tying shoelaces … but also kind of like being in the world and relating to it in a way that is maybe quite hard for other people to understand. In the same way as if someone has to suddenly do a calculation that’s quite complicated in their head and suddenly find that their whole head is just frozen working it out. It feels like an intense amount of work. Often things that are quite day to day for people like putting on your trousers take that having to work something out, having to use a huge amount of brain power to a point it’s quite exhausting. And sometimes these things happen when you’re with other people in social situations. So at the same time you’re trying to do this, there’s another part of your brain that’s starting to panic thinking, “Uh oh, I’m not responding in this social situation because I’m having to do this. And the parts of my brain that would do that are trying to cross this road. And now I’m trying to make a joke as I’m crossing the road and there’s a car over there. And now I have been run over!” sort of thing. So I guess that’s my experience of being alive. Which might be different to the experience of being alive to someone who doesn’t have dyspraxia, if that makes sense.

Parinita: Yeah, absolutely. And I really appreciate your sharing even that little bit, because I know it’s such a weird question. Like you said, it’s something you’ve been living with. You basically don’t know any other experience of being in the world.

Robert: No.

Parinita: And for me, it’s also really helpful. And again, this is something that I’ve come across a lot that it’s always the burden of – well any marginalised identity – but like here because we’re talking about disability, a person with disabilities – to explain themselves.

Robert: Hmm.

Parinita: Because otherwise the world is so neurotypical and able-bodied. That’s what the norm is considered to be. So everyone has to explain if they don’t fit in with the norm.

Robert: I am on the autistic spectrum as well. And that’s quite common for people with dyspraxia to either have a lot of traits that are associated with the spectrum or actually have a spectrum diagnosis. But I guess the extent to which it’s physical stuff and the extent to which it’s stuff more typically associated with autism is not always clear to me either. So I guess the extent to which it is both physical and mental and that boundary not really existing.

Parinita: Yeah.

Robert: I remember actually that when they were doing promotion for Jodie Whittaker’s first season of Doctor Who with Ryan who is dyspraxic, they said that was something they had tried to make sure was the case. That they were considering the mental as well as the physical attributes of dyspraxia

Parinita: Hmm.

Robert: Which at the time I appreciated. And then later on had some concerns about. But I think the extent to which it’s not just dropping things but significantly more of that, isn’t always understood if dyspraxia is understood at all. Which it’s often not. ’Cause it’s not talked about much at all.

Parinita: Yeah. Which is why thank you so much for being willing to share your experiences about it. And I’m glad that you are because I’m learning from you and I’ve learned a lot from our conversations before that. Hopefully people who listen to this podcast will learn as well. Especially because for me it’s very much an outsider perspective. I haven’t been personally identified with any disability. So I have huge blind-spots around it. Most of my friends are non-disabled as well. But it’s something that I’m thinking about now a lot more since I’ve moved to the UK. And a few of my friends in India are a lot more vocal about talking about different kinds of disabilities. So it’s been an education for me. I think on the internet at large as well, at least the sort of spaces that I inhabit, there’s a lot more conversations about disabilities. In general and especially now during the pandemic, mental health and mental disabilities have been a huge topic of conversation. So it’s something that I appreciate because I know it’s a blind-spot and I’m trying to educate myself through other people’s experiences. And in India, I think mental health services are not yet mainstream enough, though there are more advocates working on it. And working to raise awareness about the need to have mental health services. So it’s still an uphill battle but we’re getting there. We’ve chatted about this a little bit before, about our very different experiences in terms of disabilities in our families and how it was seen. Would you like to chat about that a little bit?

Robert: Yes. It’s quite a long story. Or a lot of long stories. My family – my mother particularly – I don’t know was ever entirely comfortable with my having what was then referred to as Asperger’s syndrome and would now be considered autism because Asperger’s syndrome is no longer considered distinct from autism. But I think she always had an image of me – or wanted a child – who was fairly what she saw as normal. Liked football, was good at football, went around doing laddish things. And because I was simultaneously very bad at all sports and had no interest in those laddish things, I think that was often quite challenging for her. And so a lot of what she did, in well-intentioned ways, to try and make me what she would see as better, involved effectively trying to cure me of things that are I suppose fairly fundamental that I can’t really conceive of not being part of myself. So as a child I would spend a long time going to various places and doing various things with no scientific basis in them, to explicitly try and cure me of dyspraxia, cure me of autism. And eventually when I was a teenager, she would do things like hire a shaman for me to come and try and cure me with shamanism. And it didn’t work! Which I’m pleased about now. But my mother is disabled herself. She has multiple sclerosis which is a degenerative condition and it got steadily worse throughout my adulthood. And her relation to disability is a huge part of her identity as well. And her ex-husband found both our disabilities particularly challenging and our relationship ended up being quite fraught because of it. And I suppose for context in Doctor Who Series 11, Ryan who’s the character with dyspraxia, has his own fraught relationship with his step-grandfather Graham. And it was similar enough to my own experiences that it was quite challenging to watch. Because it was almost like – well not like I was experiencing exactly what had happened to me, but I could see enough of what had happened to me in it, that it was quite difficult.

Parinita: We’ve spoken about trigger warnings, just with this podcast as well. And I suppose that’s not something the creators of Doctor Who thought about when they were trying to represent Ryan’s dyspraxia in a way that was realistic. And they perhaps didn’t think about the effect it would have on an audience with dyspraxia themselves who have a fraught relationship with their families. I know we’ll talk about it a little bit later as well but I’m wondering just in terms of the difference between intent and impact.

Robert: Yes.

Parinita: Where your intentions might be good but the impact can still be really damaging.

Gif of Ryan and Graham. Text says: Yep

Robert: Yeah. I guess it was very difficult for me because I think Ryan is genuinely the only explicit example of representation of a dyspraxic person in fiction – maybe even nonfiction – I can think of. Dyspraxia is such an almost non-existent condition that to criticise the way it’s portrayed at all is something I was unsure about. But I think the things that bothered me about it – first of all, in the first episode, Ryan’s step-grandfather Graham says something … I can’t remember the exact line. Ryan is worried because he’s caused an alien invasion. And then Graham is like, “Oh you’re going to blame the dyspraxia on that as well?”

Parinita: Um hmm.

Robert: And I guess the implication there obviously is all the time that these things are going wrong for Ryan, then he’s saying it’s by dyspraxia, but it’s not actually. If he’d had strength of will or tried hard enough, he would have been able to overcome these things that are, in fact, not possible to overcome because they are a disability. And when I saw that the first time, I thought that well this is something that will have happened because in the future in this series we will all be led to see that this isn’t the case; in actual fact, the way he said this is wrong. But I don’t think that really happens at all. And if anything, the reverse happens in terms of Graham’s expectations of who Ryan should be. For him, he wants Ryan to respect him and to see him as a legitimate father figure or grandfather figure. And he wants him to understand him without necessarily understanding how his own perception of Ryan’s dyspraxia might be affecting him or discussing that. And the fact that that sort of active ableism was in there and then not really addressed later on bothered me quite a bit. With Russell T. Davies in Season 1 of Doctor Who in 2005, there’s a scene where Rose, the companion then, uses gay just as a joking way like, “That awful thing is so gay.”

Parinita: Hmm.

Robert: Because obviously he’s gay himself. And he’s thinking, “Well I want to deliberately do this to reflect that this thing is still wrong and uncomfortable but it’s also something people do. And I want to reflect it to make it clear that Rose Tyler is a real person.” That level of being confident that the author has actively thought about it and talked about it off-camera is not really a sense that I got from this example later on. And also I don’t feel like it was criticised in the same way. Because I know that a lot of people who are gay said, “We understand what you’re trying to do here but this sort of thing is still damaging because it implicitly says to people watching that this character who I identify with is doing things that are okay that we can do as well. And potentially it’s a gateway to behaviour that’s much worse.” I’m not in contact with my step-father anymore but I often thought afterwards that if we had been in contact he would maybe use this example laughing about it, making a joke of not being able to do things as an example that our relationship was all right really. And I was like, but it’s not all right, really.

Parinita: Hmm.

Robert: And this example that is dominated by his perspective gives me as the dyspraxic person no way to really say I’m not comfortable with this. What you’re doing isn’t right for me. And I’m not sure that’s a place Ryan ever really gets to or something he’s ever able to really say. And the fact that hasn’t happened in the only representation of dyspraxia that exists ended up making me quite uncomfortable.

Parinita: Yeah. And it’s like something that you expect to give you comfort – whether it be your favourite TV show or book or fantasy fictional world or your family – it leaves you so much more hurt. Something I’ve not shared on the podcast before or indeed with many of my friends either, was my childhood experience with an alcoholic father who beat up my mother. And he gambled much of his and my mother’s money away. And this alcoholism was inherited; his parents had a similar relationship as well = just how the cycles of abuse continue. And I don’t know explicitly how this has impacted me and my own interactions with people because I’ve not been to therapy or I’ve not examined this aspect of my life. But I feel like this sort of childhood experience does leave scars. Because there has been a lot of trauma related to this even otherwise. And when I was away from the situation, and a few years had passed, I realised how much he would have benefited from therapy and just being able to … I don’t know like your step-father or maybe your mother – just having to talk to the other person and having an equal and respectful exchange of  opinions and perspectives. But I think this complex intersection of addiction and ideas of masculinity and mental health not being considered important in India means that he never would have approached the idea of therapy. That’s not something that would have ever occurred to him. There’s such a close experience with physical violence and fear and trauma which for me, now still – domestic violence and things of that nature – it does … it’s not a trigger as such but it’s something I don’t like to think about just because I want to move on with my life, I guess. I don’t know how healthy that is. And of course, my mother was impacted by it much more than I was. But I think childhood experiences like that shape you in a way that you don’t even really realise … except I guess with therapy. For me, books in general, but Harry Potter in particular was very important while I was growing up because it was this escape from real life. My parents divorced when I was thirteen, but even after that, being raised by a single mum with not much money was difficult. So Harry Potter was very much a gateway. And that’s why now even with all the problematic things that J. K. Rowling has said and all the holes that we find in Harry Potter on this podcast and in fandom in general, I still can’t let go of Harry Potter because for me it was that comfort. But then the fact that the person who created this world has let us down so much is what is more – it’s something that was supposed to provide me with – and it did provide me with comfort and hope and everything. So like with Doctor Who with you as well, that’s sadder.

Robert: Yeah. No, no totally. I really didn’t know what Doctor Who was till it the new series – new? It’s fifteen years old now. But the revived series in 2005 came along when I was seventeen almost eighteen. And that was an extremely difficult time in my life ’cause my parents were having a very traumatic divorce and my mother was about to tell us all that she had multiple sclerosis because her health was visibly declining. And I remember a lot about it being very powerful for me then. Obviously there’s a difference in that Doctor Who doesn’t have a single creator in the way Harry Potter does.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Robert: And if someone came along and said is Snape from Brazil [laughs] and asked J. K. Rowling, she could say no! But if someone said is there a Dalek under the sea, there’s no one you can really ask that to give an authoritative response or whatever. I think what I would relate to is maybe more with the fandom community in particular in that well I think a lot of stuff that made Doctor Who comforting for me is related to autism or being on the spectrum. Often, I found my experiences in Doctor Who fandom to be the least inclusive and most actively … maybe not quite discriminatory but definitely uncomfortable experiences I’ve had in relation to being autistic.

Parinita: Do you mean online fandom?

Robert: I do yes, because I’ve not really had any experience with non-online fandom to be honest. So yes, specifically I think online forums. Although some of the stuff I saw on Twitter recently and beforehand but haven’t really engaged with as much. So yeah definitely stuff that would happen a lot on social media, but which does precede social media as well because as something for nerdy people, Doctor Who has a very long internet history that goes back significantly further than that.

Parinita: Yeah. And with Doctor Who, like you, I also discovered it through the New – well fifteen-year-old – Who, the revival, but not when it first came out. It was I think a few years ago that I started watching the new series because Doctor Who had always been on my radar but I always thought I would have to go back to the 60s show and watch everything to make it make sense. And I tried and I couldn’t do it. I tried watching the very first season and I watched a few episodes and I just couldn’t get into it.

Robert: [laughs]

Parinita: I was like nope I can’t do this! Life is too short. I’m just going to go with Christopher Eccleston and that’s where I’m going to start. And I loved it. But I’ve heard about this with Doctor Who fandom online that it has been very white, male, able-bodied – the fandom has been dominated by that. And it’s not been inclusive to … well I’ve heard about women, but like you’re saying with disabilities as well. Luckily for me, I’ve just encountered – I think it’s just the spaces that I very purposefully visit in terms of fandom, it has been mostly positive. Not just with Doctor Who but with Harry Potter as well. Because Harry Potter also has some really problematic elements within the fandom.

Robert: Yeah.

Parinita: Again this all through research and what I’ve spoken to other people. I think I just move around the internet and life generally with blinkers on [laughs] so all the problematic bits just pass me by.

Robert: [laughs] Aye.

Parinita: Which is good because that’s how I cope. But yeah it’s really … interesting I guess but also sad to hear about other experiences that don’t mirror my own.

Robert: Yeah. I guess if there is a difference, it would be that well it is absolutely uncontroversial to say that Doctor Who fandom has been terrible to women and to people who weren’t white and basically to everyone who wasn’t a white man. However, to say that you find it discriminatory to autistic people, I think that would be quite a bold thing to say because obviously Doctor Who is archetypically associated with autistic people. It’s something that autistic people latch on to. So to say as an autistic person, your own experience in the fandom has been very negative specifically around things that manifest as a result of that condition and sometimes explicitly around having that condition, is something that I think people would probably be more reluctant to accept. Whereas if you said Doctor Who fandom is sexist or racist, that would be a significantly less controversial statement, I think.

Parinita: So do you think the ableism in the Doctor Who fandom, is it something that’s understood by the fandom? Is it something that’s been done very explicitly or is it structural ableism?

Robert: Oh I think it would be far more structural than intentional. Just that in practice the things that you would mock maybe or the things that you would insult would be overwhelmingly things that are more likely to happen to someone who is autistic. If someone is incredibly obsessive with Doctor Who and obviously if someone has a special interest as an autistic person, Doctor Who is disproportionately a special interest they might end up having, then that would be something which would be widely mocked. I think finding Doctor Who important is something that’s deeply taboo within Doctor Who fandom. And I wonder if that is structurally challenging for autistic people in a weird way because often I think autistic people would find Doctor Who important. Because becoming invested in a special interest to a huge extent is something that’s quite fundamental and quite distressing if it’s invalidated, I suppose. Or if it’s not seen to be important. So I think when people say from an outside perspective that it is not important at all; if hearing that the button is on the wrong way on the 1966 version of the TARDIS console is clearly not as important for social justice as more or less anything else at all. And if for reasons that make sense within an autistic lens, it is something that’s a passionate concern to you, it can still be very taboo to say that this matters to me. It distresses me that you say it doesn’t matter.

Parinita: Hmm.

Robert: I think it’s that sort of thing where the validity perhaps of autistic special interests or autistic experiences are not only not understood but actively mocked and marginalised … I think it’s a real problem in Doctor Who fandom and has been basically forever. And it has concerned me recently that while obviously Doctor Who has made huge strides probably literally everywhere else, the idea that this might be a problem that should be addressed and that continually continuing to talk in this way because the way people are reacting can’t be understood by you as a non-neurodivergent person. Therefore not only are they not valid, they’re things that deserve to be mocked to a point that is probably bullying – this is something that made me increasingly uncomfortable with Doctor Who fandom over the last many years.

Parinita: Yeah, that’s really interesting because some of the conversations that I’ve come across just in fandom in general, not Doctor Who specifically, is more through the lens of gender. Where transformative fandom – in both internet fandom as well as the field of fan studies – is seen to be more the domain of female fans. Whereas the male expression of fandom is seen to be this obsessive knowledge of everything within the series or within the media or whatever.

Robert: Yeah.

Parinita: So something like you were saying which is having this detailed knowledge about a very specific, hyper-focused aspect of the show would be something that would be seen as a male thing. But the sort of discourse that I’ve encountered has been male gatekeeping against female fans. But what you’ve spoken about I think is a really interesting and really important aspect to look at as well. Because it’s not just this male-female binary; there are nuances within male fannishness as well.

Robert: Yeah. Obviously I have created a lot of fan stuff myself. But I think a lot of the time when I did that, it almost was because of this deep sense of how I thought things should be specifically for me to be comfortable with them. So I would see the idea of obsessively arranging things to be a certain way and being actively creative – the idea that those are necessarily opposed is one that would be quite strange to me. And I think from the fanfiction I’ve read, often how people write fanfiction, is almost out of a sense of needing to order things.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Robert: And often it’s ordering things from a character’s perspective. But I think wanting to make things a certain way because you feel that a character has behaved inconsistently and that’s wrong. And wanting to make things a certain way because the props are wrong in an episode – I don’t know that they’re completely different things necessarily. Even though one is more about people and one is more about … I guess they’re both about ways in which you perceive the world and relate to them and they’re both out of a desire to make it fit better and how you understand it to be.

Parinita: And also I think representing an aspect that you’re missing in canon. Something that you want to see represented and fixed or whatever. So I suppose fans from any marginalised identities would write fanfiction to be able to counter that singular narrative, if that makes sense.

Robert: Oh, definitely yes. I think maybe Doctor Who is unusual in that that would also overwhelmingly apply to the show itself. The show itself is almost like an aggressive commentary on itself over ages.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Robert: Saying this hasn’t been right before and now we have to fix it in various different and incompatible ways.

Parinita: Especially the new one more than anything else.

Robert: Yes!

Parinita: I wanted to go back to your new short story in the Stim anthology.

Robert: Oh yes.

Book cover of Stim. Text says: Stim: An Autistic Anthology. Edited by Lizzie Huxley-Jones

Parinita: Where you said that it had featured selkies as a metaphor for difference. And I was really interested in finding out more about that.

Robert: So a few years ago, I read Sofia Samatar’s story Selkie Stories Are For Losers. Which is explicitly about someone who is strongly implied but maybe not the case that her mother is a selkie. And that she’s had a difficult life because she’s been abused by men. And the whole story is about the idea that in selkie stories, usually what happens is, a selkie who is a seal who takes off their skin to become a person and often in stories a woman ends up going to sleep with a fisherman. And the fisherman steals the selkie skin. The selkie then can’t get back into their skin and is stuck in human form and then the selkie has to be his wife and has a miserable time.

Parinita: Yeah not problematic at all!

Robert: Yes. Well that’s what the story is about – that the selkie as a story is almost always about being stuck in someone else’s world in a way you didn’t choose. And not really getting to be the centre of the story and just have any kind of power or agency herself.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Robert: And the idea of having that as a metaphor for autism is something which appealed to me because I’ve often felt like in order to function in the world at all I’ve had to put away a lot of stuff about myself and pretend it wasn’t there. Or often try and make it so it was no longer there. And end up having a miserable time basically for other people in their stories. I thought writing a story explicitly about that with that metaphor would be quite useful for me. ’Cause Stim is an anthology of nonfiction and fiction and they were like, “Oh my god we don’t have any fiction.” So they accepted open pitches for it. And I was like this story is very odd and I doubt it’ll get accepted but I’ll pitch anyway. And then they were like, “Wow! This story is exactly what we’re looking for.” I was surprised by that and now it’s in the book.

Parinita: That’s amazing! And I think that the Doctor Who fanfic that you suggested I read, the one that you’d written, whose name I’m completely blanking on.

Robert: Yeah. It’s called Never Change.

Parinita: Never Change! That’s right.

Robert: I really struggled with coming up with it. All the other ones I’ve written, the title I came up with very easily. But that one I was like I have no idea what to call this.

Parinita: What I found interesting from what you said about your selkie short story but also when we were talking about your fanfic briefly, you said that you hadn’t been thinking about it in terms of disability specifically when you were writing it. But a lot of what you’ve said today and we’ve spoken about otherwise, as well as your short story, I feel like as a reader from the outside who is reading it for the first time, I could feel a lot of those themes coming in. Especially the whole “I don’t understand!” Everyone’s saying that.

Robert: [laughs]

Parinita: And again, this is not something I think I would have understood had these conversations not been at the forefront now – about disability and neurodiversity and things. Because again, as someone from this outsider dominant culture, this blind-spot means that unless it is explicit or unless it is placed in context, I wouldn’t get it because it doesn’t reflect my experiences. But I loved the fanfic anyway just as a story – I think it captured Jodie … the Doctor’s Jodie’s – I don’t know what you refer to them as – whatever – the Thirteenth Doctor? I think she’s the Thirteenth Doctor?

Robert: Yeah well it’s very confusing now. We had a nerd quiz and the nerd quiz had a furious debate about that for half an hour.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah, I can imagine. But I feel like it captured that character so well. I could see her saying these things. But because I was also reading it in preparation for this episode, I could feel that aspect come through so much that you can’t divorce your identity from what you’re writing even if you’re not meaning to write about your identity. If that makes sense.

Robert: Oh my god yes.

Parinita: [laughs] So just going back to Ryan, I’ve heard this critique by other people as well who write about disabilities and I think it came up in a couple of the podcast episodes that we listened to where the family or the friend of the person with the disability is centered in the narrative rather than the person with the disability themselves. And not just in fiction but also with charities. I think Marissa Lingen in the Breaking The Glass Slipper episode, talked about how that happens even in charities. Or was it the Witch, Please episode? Well one of them. That even a lot of charities tend to focus on the families or the caregivers rather than the person with the disability themselves. Which going back to Ryan and Graham, I was thinking about it not from your perspective but just as someone who’s learning about dyspraxia through Ryan, it seems to come up in the first few episodes and then on and off later. But then it just seems to have disappeared. There doesn’t seem to have been any mention of that later. Unless I’m misremembering.

Robert: No, I don’t think there is much later. I had to watch less and less of it because I found it genuinely impossible to watch ’cause I got too invested in Ryan as a character. I was just like, “Oh no he looks so unhappy!” Because this is obviously an escapist show predominantly. When someone you strongly identify with appears on an escapist show who looks like he wants to escape from the escapist show –

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Robert: [laughs] It becomes quite challenging to watch. So I always felt like – I don’t know how you say his name, that’s terrible – Tosin Cole who plays Ryan, his acting has been criticised a lot. But personally, I felt like it was really good. I felt like he was portraying someone with dyspraxia accurately to the point I found it uncomfortable to watch. I was like, “Oh my god that’s me on there looking awkward and sad.”

Parinita: Yeah.

Gif of Ryan. Text says: This is way too dark for me.

Robert: I’ve forgotten the question.

Parinita: No that’s fine, you answered it, I think. I’ve forgotten the question myself.

Robert: [laughs]

Parinita: It just made me think of something else. Ryan is a black man in England. I feel like that intersection could have been explored as well – disability and how other factors impact it. I think he’s from a working-class background as well.

Robert: Yeah.

Parinita: So you know the race, the gender, the disability could have been explored. As a man maybe he’s privileged in certain contexts. In terms of disability discourse in general and through these fan podcasts we listened to as well, I know that they spoke about how white men in certain contexts seem to be privileged over others. But then there are nuances in that as well, right? So I feel that there could have been more interesting possibilities that may still be explored. But I believe Ryan is – I don’t know how true this rumour is – but I think he’s leaving at the end of the season.

Robert: Yeah. He’s leaving at the end of the next episode.

Parinita: Yeah. So I don’t think there’s any room for exploration.

Robert: Seems unlikely. [laughs]

Parinita: Within the context of the Christmas episode or the New Year’s episode, I don’t think that’s going to happen. But apart from Ryan, you were also excited about Jodie Whittaker being the Doctor, right?

Robert: Yeah, definitely. For a few reasons. I found the last Doctor, Peter Capaldi, very challenging. To be honest, it took me a very, very long time to see him as the Doctor.

Parinita: Hmm.

Robert: More so than any of the others really. And I think looking back on it, it’s because the Doctor’s transformation from someone who’s relatively warm and young to someone who’s relatively cold and difficult reminded me of my own experiences with my mother as she grew older. And then I was like oh no I don’t want that. It’s weird – when Jodie was cast as the Doctor, I retrospectively realise on some level I’d always seen the Doctor as a maternal figure. Even though the Doctor had always been a man. It had always felt intrinsically right to me that the Doctor would be a woman. And so when the Doctor actually became a woman, I was really, really excited. And then when I watched the movie Adult Life Skills which Jodie is in, I got even more excited. In that movie, she plays a character who I don’t know if in the context of the movie she is on the spectrum, but she very, very much reminded me of someone who was. As someone who’s awkward. In the opening scene where she tried to microwave her bra because it’s wet and then the bra catches fire and the microwave explodes.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Robert: And I was like, “Oh my god I would totally do that if I was a woman!” And I saw myself in her character more than I think I had any character ever before. And I felt she was able to act with a sort of dignity in that role and treat someone who’s kind of weird and finds relating to the world difficult as still a real human person in a way that’s depressingly rare perhaps among actors. So I had a huge amount of respect for her as an actor for treating the role with respect and for being able to convey that.

Parinita: Yeah. And I find it really interesting that you read yourself into that character even though she wasn’t explicitly written as dyspraxic or autistic. And it’s something that I think in the Witch, Please episode, they mentioned as well where fans with disabilities – neurodiverse fans – read themselves into characters in Harry Potter.

Robert: Yes.

Parinita: Because Harry Potter is something I know better than Doctor Who. I love both but Harry Potter has been something that’s closer. And it’s something that would never have occurred to me. For example, they read Hermione and both Luna as autistic.

Robert: Yeah.

Tumblr screenshot. Text says. goodiesfanatic: Arthur Weasley is autistic. His special interest is Muggle technology and he infodumps about it all the time to anyone who will listen. Hermione Granger is autistic. She has poor social skills and doesn't realise how rude she can sometimes sound when she talks to people. Neville Longbottom is autistic. His special interest is Herbology and he struggles to concentrate in his other classes. Luna Lovegood is autistic. She goes non-verbal a lot and doesn't see the point of fitting in with the other students her age.

Parinita: Hermione for being socially awkward and she doesn’t fit in but she has this obsessive knowledge about all the things that she decides to learn. And Luna who talks without considering social cues and doesn’t conform to normative ideas and conversations and she’s dismissed for exactly that. And Newt Scamander from Fantastic Beasts, fandom has read him as neurodiverse as well. Which I find really interesting because I think in Witch, Please they said that often fans do this – and I don’t know if this reflects your own experiences – but when creators, especially creators who don’t have disabilities themselves, set out to write a character with a disability, they fall prey to certain ableist ideas. Or they promote certain ableist ideas. Whereas when fans are reading themselves into a character who isn’t written as a disabled character, they can then see their whole complex and nuanced identity reflected in that character.

Robert: Yeah. I had a bit of that myself when Matt Smith was the Doctor.

Parinita: Hmm.

Robert: Because among dyspraxic people, there was a tendency to read Matt Smith as dyspraxic. Which I think has been confirmed as not being intentional. But a lot of what he does in terms of falling over and causing messes and thinking he’s being cool and impressive but is actually causing a disaster, is quite resonant to people who have dyspraxia. So we’ve definitely done a bit of reading that in things ourselves in the dyspraxia Doctor Who community such as it is. I used to like imagining how his Doctor and Ryan might work together. I think Ryan would have a bit more fun and maybe his Doctor be a bit more responsible.

Gif of Matt Smith. Text says: I think you'll find I'm universally recognised as a mature and responsible adult.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah that’s true! Oh have you – I should – you should write fanfic about it! I’m like I should read fanfiction about it.

Robert: [laughs]

Parinita: I would love to read your fanfic. [laughs] You also mentioned an overlap with uncomfortable narratives around autism and how autism and dyspraxia often come together?

Robert: It goes back to what we were talking about in terms of when things are portrayed by family members. Because the fact of a disability or a marginalised identity being portrayed almost exclusively with children and almost exclusively by the people who live with them or care for them rather than the people themselves is something that is very, very common in autism and maybe even more in dyspraxia. But because I would say autism liberation is a lot more advanced than dyspraxia liberation, and because conversely the … autism non-liberation [laughs] is also more advanced in a terrifying way, I think if something like Ryan’s narrative had been attempted with autism, there would be a substantial amount of criticism, in a way I don’t think has been because it was dyspraxia.

Parinita: Hmm.

Robert: Because of Autism Speaks of course who are – for people who don’t know – an American-based charity, which I think is the premiere autism charity in America but who also literally campaigns for the eradication of autism. They fund research into eugenics. So these genes [?] are responsible for autism can be removed from the human race. And whose campaigning is very much around the concept or the idea that autistic people aren’t worthy and the challenges families face are the most important aspect of something like autism rather than the legitimacy of people who are autistic themselves. I think that’s much, much, much, much, much more extreme than anything that’s happened in any portrayal of dyspraxia and I wouldn’t want to suggest otherwise. But I guess that the reason that autistic people are uncomfortable about things being centered on family members is because once our own voices become marginalised and once our own humanity begins to be diminished, it does leave us open to narratives that are abusive. And makes it more difficult to counter abuse when it happens to us. Even if that abuse is nowhere near that extreme. And I think that something that we probably need to talk about more. People need to talk about dyspraxia more because they don’t really. I think the whole concept of dyspraxia liberation – that I don’t even know that exists really – but I think fundamentally reclaiming stories is as essential in dyspraxia as it would be for autism. And that would be true even if they weren’t often in people at the same time. Because otherwise we’re marginalising our own stories and that’s a very painful thing to experience in a story whoever you are.

Parinita: Yeah absolutely. The importance of this representation in science fiction and fantasy was explored in this essay that we read The Future Is Not Disabled. And the writer, they were talking about exactly what you said but in terms of science fiction. About how science fiction and these futuristic, technologically advanced worlds, seem to have no room for autistic characters or any kind of disabilities in general. And they are not using technology as access. There’s so many potentials and possibilities of using technology in creative ways in your worlds to show how people with disabilities can be included. And it’s not a deficient way of being; it’s just a different way of being. Basically science fiction and fantasy either relies on either technological or magical eugenics. They’re erasing any kind of disabilities from their future or their fantastical worlds.

Robert: Yeah.

Parinita: Which is also really problematic.

Robert: Yes. You saying that has made me realise that’s why I’ve been uncomfortable for so long with humanism as it’s commonly portrayed in science fiction. Because it is often overwhelmingly about erasing things that don’t fit the writer’s idea of what being human is.

Parinita: Hmm.

Robert: And putting things into a narrow perspective that I’ve always felt has excluded me. And often taking as an assumption a centered world that to me as an outsider seems quite different from how I would perceive the world to be. I guess that’s probably true of any marginalised person that if they were to read a non-marginalised person’s account of parts of the world they’ve experienced, there would be things about it that are obviously wrong just because of that person’s own ignorance of that.

Parinita: Yeah.

Robert: And the sort of science fiction I enjoy and I try to create would probably usually be about explicitly challenging that idea that that’s what the future is or has to be. Or that something that ends up looking like that is progress or anything like it.

Parinita: Yeah.

Robert: Because it comes back to the idea of always being told that a progressed world is a world which has eradicated you. And being able – having the self-confidence to say that is wrong.

Parinita: Yeah. I know there has been this movement with disabilities and also Afrofuturism that is the same sort of movement that came to be because of the erasure of black bodies and black lives and black culture in the future. Unless it’s still a racist society. It’s 3000 years from now but racism still exists. And ableism still exists. Talking about your own writing, even though Never Change was not about disability, you said that you realised that it had become an unintentional version of Ryan’s story?

Robert: Yes. I realised while I was writing it that that story is way more autobiographical than probably any of the other stories I’ve written. It’s about a young man whose whole family regenerates because a regeneration bomb goes off at his house. And then they become completely different people who don’t remember him. And they want him to turn into a completely different person as well in order to satisfy them. And in the story the main character’s mother is someone who has found the world very challenging. Because she is someone who legitimately has real problems that need real support and that she has relied very heavily on her son. But something that’s quite important in this story is that to regenerate into someone else, you lose everything about who you are. You literally become another person. And that other person is happy but they don’t have any memory of you or any resemblance to you really. You lose everything about you, that’s important to you. And the end of the story is ultimately about the main character saying, “I don’t want to do this.” And saying that the main character rejecting that is okay. Which is honestly not a message I would expect to see in Doctor Who. Because there’s a way in which it feels quite at odds with the narrative which often is about people sacrificing themselves for other people. And making an assumption that they have to even in cases like Ryan’s where often it feels like he’s sacrificing himself to someone who’s got significantly more power and privilege than he does.

Parinita: Yeah.

Robert: And for their expectations and thoughts without really much consideration being given to them. To him. So having a character stand up and say I’m going to do this thing for myself that is explicitly selfish in this way was something that simultaneously felt like it was important to have a story about but also felt like it was something very taboo to say. Pretty much all the Doctor Who fanfiction I wrote was stuff that I thought an actual Doctor Who episode would never be able to do or never be willing to do. But stuff that I felt was still true and important to say. And I think that sort of someone who is in vulnerable position asserting their own needs and asserting their own boundaries with the knowledge of destructive consequences was a story I felt should be told somewhere. Even if it would have to be in a fanfiction that people don’t read.

Parinita: No, I’m so glad that you did because like you said, it’s something that might reach someone that doesn’t see this in canon. I think a lot of fanfiction not only has the potential to do that, but does do that where you discover things you’re missing out in canon. And that where’s a lot of fanfiction starts from as well where you’re not seeing this in canon in your favourite world. You want to fix it.

Robert: Yes.

Parinita: Or challenge those notions and those ideas and make up your own while you play around in that world.

Robert: I guess I’ve always felt that fanfiction is a way to be able to say that these things you think should be true or are true somewhere.

Parinita: Hmm.

Robert: And so it’s not necessarily because you think how things are in canon is wrong or because you’d do them better, but because you need them to be true somewhere.

Parinita: Oh, I love that idea! And it also is different in terms of who’s reading it. Different people might get different things out of it as well.

Robert: Yeah.

Parinita: I loved your fic. When I was reading it, it made me think of different expressions of trauma – not just in your fic itself in the way that the characters engage with different kinds of traumatic experiences but also in Doctor Who in general and Harry Potter. I was recently re-watching the Christopher Eccleston series of Doctor Who. And when I’d first watched it, it was my first encounter with Doctor Who and I didn’t realise how traumatised his character was. I know he dropped hints about Gallifrey [the Doctor’s home planet] being destroyed or him believing Gallifrey is destroyed and him being a refugee of war and him being the last Time Lord. But just the trauma that he carries and the way that it impacts his whole life. Even though Rose sees him in a certain way. And everyone else sees him in a certain way. Because he has these … I don’t know if I’m saying this coherently … but he has both this lightness and darkness in him at the same time. In the way that he engages with the world. Which I thought was really very sad because I think in a lot of Doctor Who conversations, David Tennant and Matt Smith’s Doctor seem to be the most popular and well Jodie now because she’s awesome. But Christopher Eccleston, because he was only there for one season and I think the actor left on not very good terms –

Robert: No.

Parinita: His Doctor is very much side-lined in conversations. Which I understand but it just struck me as so profoundly sad – his character. Especially since he’s only there for a season. And then that made me start thinking about trauma in Harry Potter as well. Because of all these conversations that make me see things differently. When I go to these worlds again, it makes me see these characters in new ways. And it’s something that we’ve spoken about in a previous episode where Harry Potter’s PTSD is something that I never caught.

Robert: Hmm.

Parinita: I would never have had the knowledge or the tools or resources to identify that myself. But in fandom, the conversation has just given me this new lens to view the character. I re-read The Philosopher’s Stone and I’m currently reading The Chamber of Secrets and the Dursleys’ abuse! Forget his parents and what other things happened with Voldemort and Sirius and everything to come. But even when he’s eleven and twelve, the kind of abusive household he’s lived in. It’s very Roald Dahlesque.

Robert: Hmm.

Parinita: I think that’s what J. K. Rowling was going for. But in one of the fan podcasts that I listen to, The Gayly Prophet, they said that in Roald Dahl, the narrator usually very quickly shows themselves on the child’s side, which J. K. Rowling does as well. But in Roald Dahl’s books, the child immediately starts – well not immediately, but soon starts countering and challenging the adult abuse. Whereas Harry, he has to live with them for another – we meet him when he’s ten.

Robert: Hmm. Yes.

Parinita: And he lives with them until he’s seventeen. He has to keep going back to this abusive household for a reason that he doesn’t know. And that makes it so much more difficult. And Dobby as well. In The Chamber of Secrets, I’ve just met Dobby again.

Robert: Yeah.

Image of Dobby the house elf

Parinita: And the accounts of self-harm that he does and just his sense of identity and inferiority – he’s so happy and so grateful for just the smallest semblance of kindness from Harry. The most basic decent behaviour. Just an example of how trauma has such different and complex impacts on mental well-being. And it’s something that I’ve been thinking of more now than ever because with the pandemic and the lockdown in India and the UK and in different parts of the world, the whole world is going through this collective trauma and dealing with it in so many different ways. I’m dealing with it in so many different ways. I prefer not to examine my trauma.

Robert: [laughs]

Parinita: So I cope with work or books or media or whatever. But that’s also a coping mechanism I guess. It’s just that’s now so much more at the forefront of my mind.

Robert: Yeah. As someone who’s had a lot of trauma, I found in some ways the pandemic to be quite liberating because everyone being traumatised and talking about it all the time made me feel much more normal and comfortable in the world so that was quite nice. And the idea that fiction in general would be exploring these things much more because they would be experiences that were so common and widely known is something that’s almost like, “Oh my god now everyone sees the world the same way as me!”

Parinita: Yeah.

Robert: That makes me feel less exhausted somehow. Which doesn’t mean that I’m glad it’s happened. [laughs]

Parinita: No.

Robert: Because it means a lot of people are having awful experiences that feel like awful experiences I’ve had. But I guess it does feel like these things we’re talking about are likely to become much more – I mean I don’t know what speculative fiction becomes after this.

Parinita: Hmm.

Robert: I was just thinking like Doctor Who itself. How does something like the Doctor who is someone who travels through time and space handle the whole future changing very suddenly? Because the character is fictional, obviously the character never said, “Hey how about that Coronavirus that changes everything?”

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Robert: But then obviously when you come back, you have to say, “There’s been this Coronavirus that changes everything.”

Parinita: Yeah.

Robert: And that whole sort of changing what future is and what speculative fiction is, is quite well hopefully leads to some positive things and not just negative ones. I should have said that more positively.

Parinita: [laughs] For me, it has been more positive. And of course, this comes from a huge position of privilege.

Robert: Yes.

Parinita: Because I don’t have to worry about money because I’m on a university scholarship and they’re continuing to pay me. And I have a house. I can buy groceries. I even have access to parks. I don’t have a garden but I can go to parks in socially distanced ways. And I can bake and cook and things. Whereas in India – I know in the UK there’s a lot of different bad contexts and the US as well that’s in the news. But in India, oh my god, everything’s so much worse. [This episode was recorded before George Floyd was murdered in the US which sparked riots across the country, so the situation in the US is quite terrible as well for different reasons]

Robert: Yeah.

Parinita: Because there are so many really dispossessed people who don’t have access to even the basic things that they need. And there are no systems in place to fix that. Whereas in the UK or other developed nations, there are. So of course, this all comes from a huge place of privilege. But at the same time, I really like seeing this feeling of community, I guess. Where like you said, you feel like you’re not going through this yourself. That’s what’s giving me a little bit of comfort as well. Even something like art because I’m in the children’s books industry, I’ve seen a lot of writers are coming and reading out their books daily.

Robert: Yeah.

Parinita: Some of my favourite writers are doing this. And trying to add some joy in a world which seems devoid of it. And just trying to have some hope and comfort, which gives me hope and comfort.

Robert: Yeah.

Parinita: You know that meme that’s going around that everybody thought that a dystopia would involve looting and violence and whatever. And people are just baking and cooking and putting out more art in the world.

Robert: Yeah.

Parinita: Which, again, is a privileged view. And I know in some parts of the world, this is happening. This dystopia is and was present. But I’m speaking from my experience. And hopefully these conversations – not just about trauma and other things but the broken systems that are so much more in relief now.

Robert: Yeah.

Parinita: I hope that gets fixed in the future. I don’t know – this is just – I’m an optimist. Maybe naively so. But I’m just … yeah.

Robert: Oh no I was just thinking I’m writing fanfic about all the stuff you’re talking about now. I was like that’s quite funny.

Parinita: Oh really?!

Robert: Yeah! About the coronavirus and trauma as a result of it. And trauma coming up from it. And trying to resolve it and what to build after all of it. And I was just like gosh we’re all – well we’re both on the same page there. So that’s nice.

Parinita: Yeah that’s perfect. I can’t wait to read it. I turn to art for comfort – mostly books but also TV shows and movies and things. Like a lot of people are in the world right now.

Robert: Yeah.

Parinita: So I love that you’re creating art to add to what’s out there. Which for me, I currently can’t do. That artistic part of me is just shut down and it’s gone for a really long nap. So currently I can’t do this. I need some time. I’m pushing myself into this podcast which seems like a different part of my brain than my writing children’s books writing part of the brain. Which I’m still not ready to do.

Robert: Thank you for having me on your show and listening today.

Parinita: Thank you so much for being on this podcast and being a part of my project! It was just such a fantastic conversation, I think. I really enjoyed – well catching up with you but also with this very focused hyper-specific thing. I learned a lot from our conversation and I hope our listeners will as well. Thank you so much for being a part of this conversation!

Robert: Thank you.

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode on representations of dyspraxia and autism in Doctor Who. Thank you Robert for so generously sharing your experiences and perspectives on the podcast. You can find Robert’s short story in Stim, an anthology of writing and art by autistic people published by Unbound Press and edited by Lizzie Huxley-Jones. His piece is a story about meeting a seal who pretended to be a human, then finding out that she was better at it than him. I’d also highly recommend Uncanny Magazine’s special issues about disability – Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction and Disabled People Destroy Fantasy. Both issues have a wide range of fiction and nonfiction about different disabilities and all the stories and essays are accessible online for free. You can find the links to both issues in the transcript. Thanks, as always, to Jack who somehow manages to edit my episode in the middle of all the other things he’s doing.

[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 8 – 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.

1) Movie – Green Book

This movie set in the 1960s is based on a real-life friendship. There’s lots of casual background racism in Tony’s working-class Italian family against the black handymen. His father and brothers come to keep his wife company because they seemingly don’t trust black men with a white woman. Tony is as racist as his brothers and father where he throws away the glasses the handymen drank out of though when his wife notices the glasses in the trash later, she just rolls her eyes and takes them back out. It reminded me of how people in India do the same for people they consider to be of a lower class or caste – maybe not throwing glasses away but having a separate category of glasses reserved for a certain group of people. Tony’s wife is also clearly not comfortable with the racism but never questions or challenges him about it. It’s uncomfortable calling out people you’re close to – but important. 

Tony’s new prospective employer is a black pianist called Dr Don Shirley who is about to embark on a concert in the deep south and needs a driver/personal assistant.  The titular Green Book refers to a guide for hotels in the deep south – which ones allow white and black people to stay together in the same hotel and which don’t. It is a necessity for travelling while black. Even when he’s being interviewed for this, Tony is full of racial slurs for Eastern Asians and Asians he’s encountered in the building. The movie is set in New York, a diverse multicultural city even in the 1960s – but this proximity to diversity seems to have had little impact on racist attitudes. Don is part of a trio with two white men playing bass and cello. Before they start travelling, Tony immediately chums up with them presumably because they’re white. Dr Don speaks in Russian to his cellist which Tony casually assumes is German and makes some very anti-German/eastern European comments. Outwardly one might appear as “tolerant” but the person is actually racist which is shaped by living in a structurally  racist society. Does Tony even realise he’s racist?

The journey features constant tension between the rich black musician used to getting his way and the poor white driver who’s used to seeing black men in inferior positions. Lots of intersections of race and class where both Tony and Dr Shirley are marginalised and privileged in different contexts. Dr Don has a more traditionally classical education as opposed to Tony’s more workaday engagement with the world. Don is worried about Tony’s accent, language and vocabulary when it comes to interacting with rich, educated people. Don even proposes changing Tony’s last Italian name for other people’s convenience because it’ll be too difficult to pronounce; a problem often encountered by people of colour in all-white settings or with South indians in North Indian settings. Everything is so contextual. I like that the dynamics here are flipped on their head, though Tony’s racial and situational privilege means he refuses to make this adjustment and insists on his last name being kept the same.

The movie shows both Tony and Don (but mostly Tony) unlearning prejudice through their interactions with each other. Tony assumes Don should know all the popular black music and is shocked he doesn’t because “these are your people”. Tony also steals a jade rock at a garage that had fallen on the ground claiming he found it so it doesn’t count as stealing; but Don makes him put it back. Another example of overturning stereotypes where usually black people are considered to be untrustworthy. There are more casual stereotypes about black people’s food/music which Tony shares with Don and that Don doesn’t fit into – fried chicken, collards, and greens. Don is offended by the assumptions to which Tony responds that he wouldn’t be offended if Don said all Italians ate pizza and pasta – this is negotiated more lightheartedly than anything. Stanley does try (very uncomfortably) eating some Kentucky fried chicken with his hands – “It’s so unsanitary.”  However, he is willing to learn from Tony a little bit and try new experiences. 

Tony eventually feels some sort of loyalty to Don and gets into a scrap with a white worker at a venue who is also casually racist. Tony also experiences a segregated hotel for coloured people and he can’t believe the decrepit condition. Don gets beaten up by racist white people in a bar in the deep south when all he wanted was a drink. Tony is forced to confront racism thanks to his job and confront some of his own prejudices. At one point, their car breaks down in front of a field full of black workers who stop and stare at a black man so unlike them and Don stares back presumably thinking about how he’s only a couple of generations removed from this and still not fully exempt from the racism. When they’re in North Carolina at a fancy hotel, the owner says that he asked his help for what Don would like and serves home-cooked fried chicken much to Don’s chagrin. At the same hotel, Don is directed to the outhouse reserved for black people and not the indoors toilet for white people. He would rather go back to his motel to use the toilet there than put up with the humiliation. 

Tony is offended when Stanley implies he’s the same as the racist white people in power they encounter. He obviously doesn’t consider himself as racist as the deep south. The cellist tells Tony to behave himself because Don asked to play down south despite being able to earn more money in the north. Tony wonders why. Don places himself in actual danger maybe because he’s using a soft-war approach to confronting racism and presenting a black person who upturns their stereotypes. This exceptionalism isn’t without it’s problems either – the idea of a good black person worthy of respect as opposed to all the other black people. You don’t need to prove your humanity by assimilating to white culture. It reminds me of the instance of Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper recently where she tried to call the cops on him in a New York park. However, a lot of the responses to this involved writing about what a handsome, accomplished black man she tried to get arrested and potentially murdered was. That’s not the point. All black people – regardless of their looks, education, wealth, status – need to be treated with the same amount of respect and humanity as everyone else. Of course, even with black people – like with everyone else – there’s a diversity of experiences. There is no monolithic black experience.

We find out later that Don was pressured by his record company to play popular music because people wouldn’t accept a black man playing a piano or classical music due to their own preconceived notions that they would rather not disrupt. The movie features other everyday humiliations such as Don isn’t allowed to try on a suit in a shop in Georgia (presumably because he has black people cooties?) but is welcome to buy it and have it altered (because capitalism must go on).

Don also is gay – as we discover when he’s caught with a white guy at a YMCA in Georgia and threatened with arrest – and therefore doubly marginalised. Reminded me of Shy Baldwin in Marvellous Mrs Maisel who is also a gay black man beaten up for these identities and uses make-up to cover up his bruises. Don assumes Tony will be homophobic as well as racist but Tony surprises him with his open-mindedness – including unlearning his bigotry. 

Tony punches a cop who calls him half a nigger for being Italian which shows the different kinds of prejudice which exist. Both he and Stanley are arrested and then released when Stanley calls Bobby Kennedy who in turn calls the governor to free them. Don may be marginalised by his race and sexuality but he’s also massively privileged in terms of his wealth and social connections. This provides little comfort though as Stanley has an existential crisis about not being black enough, not white enough, not man enough. He feels like he doesn’t fit into any of the roles he’s born into and which have been socially constructed. In the last club in Birmingham, Alabama, Stanley isn’t allowed to eat even though he’s playing there later which causes him to refuse playing there, an action Tony wholeheartedly supports. At the end of the movie, Tony ends up calling out racism in his own family 

 

2) Movie – Crazy Rich Asians

In 1994, the Young family from Singapore aren’t allowed to book a hotel in the US after the manager sees they’re Asian and suggests they should look in China Town – only to find out they’re the new owners of the hotel. The perception that Asians can’t be wealthy or even deserving of occupying the same space as wealthy white people. 

I found lots of parallels between the Singaporean/Chinese community in New York and Indian community in general. .Beginning with – as soon as one person finds out that Nick Young and Rachel Chu are a couple, the news immediately spreads from young people to their parents and eventually to Nick’s mother in Singapore. When discussing Nick’s mysterious family, Rachel’s mother proposes, “Maybe his parents are poor and he sends them all his money. That’s what all good Chinese sons do.” Very Indian thing to do! Chinese Americans aren’t seen as really Chinese – pursuing passions is seen as American, living for your family is seen as Chinese. Nick’s grandmother is very mother-in-lawish to his mother – and she does the same to Rachel. Rachel has the same problems she did where Nick’s mother doesn’t come from the right sort of family, so she’s cruel to Rachel in turn too! More similarities with Indian culture! 

I loved encountering the different experiences of Chinese people in the US versus in Singapore. Rachel doesn’t know Nick’s family is rich because Nick doesn’t behave like a rich person – even stereotypes about wealth exist which may not always be true. However, in Singapore, rich people have an entirely distinct culture which we discover through Rachel’s eyes – they live in another world! I can easily imagine this in an Indian context too. The market they go to eat food as well – Singapore and India are such different countries but the street food culture is so similar. I also enjoyed that the glimpse into the culture through its food was done without exoticising it – through a cultural insider lens rather than an outsider. 

I wonder how long bachelor/bachelorette parties have been common in Singapore (and India) and how widespread their popularity is. It’s definitely a Western cultural influence, I think, where western culture is global culture. An example of cultural imperialism? At the same time this blends in comfortably with Asian culture as well. Is calling an older woman aunty a thing in all Asian cultures? Rachel’s friend’s mother has decorated the house with  lots of tacky gold to showcase wealth – so desi! 

The movie also features class tensions where Astrid and Nick both have “commoner” partners which, in Astrid’s case, also intersect with gender and idea of masculinity – Astrid has far more money than her husband which makes him insecure. There’s also comments about old money and new money – the Youngs are old money – new money Taiwan Tycoons, Beijing Billionaires. Then there’s also impacts of presumably colonisation – even if you’re rich in Asia, in the US, the UK, you’re judged by the colour of your skin – whether it be Chinese or Indians. Rich people do appear ruthless though where Rachel is accused of being a gold-digger and is treated horrifically. 

Ken Jeong’s character makes fun of Chinese accents. The difference between cultural outsiders and cultural insiders making fun of specific cultures. Who’s representing the culture and which audience is it for? It includes a lot of themes, food and activities which are common in the Chinese community but not so common in Hollywood representations (for example, the dumpling-making, mahjong).

It’s interesting that they get married in a church which is decorated as a paddy field. I thought that China didn’t really have a religion largely. Perhaps this signifies Singaporean influences? The big fat Chinese wedding was also super familiar – big fat Indian weddings are everywhere. More similarities with Indian and Chinese cultures include the scandal of an extramarital affair for a woman which forces Rachel’s mother to run away from the anticipated violence of her husband. Of course, there’s the gender disparity too because Astrid’s husband doesn’t face the same censure or social ostracism but also the class factor where Astrid is able to weather the storm in a way Rachel’s mother couldn’t do. 

 

3) Movie – Last Christmas

I love that the three movies have different kinds of diversity – casual inclusion without mention, all-diverse cast, and a story with diversity as the crux. But I love that the movies are also not about the diversity (except in Green Book) and are also full of jokes and fun – the kind of movies I would watch even if I didn’t have to for this episode. 

This movie features the casual inclusion of a lot of diverse, intersectional identities – including interracial relationships, mental health and trauma, immigrants, working-class families, trans woman doctor, romance between an older couple, lesbian relationship, disability, homelessness, women cops. In all instances, the inclusion was done in humanising, complex ways rather than mere tokenism.

I think two of the Asian actors in this movie also made an appearance in Crazy Rich Asians. Maybe this implies that there may not be as many Asian actors around. I’ve read that British actors of colour move to the US because it has more opportunities but the critique has been that this leaves less room for black American actors. Is it similar with Asian actors in the US? Structural racism within the movie industry might mean there’s only very limited room for actors/writers/directors of colour. 

Santa – aka Huang Quing Shin – a Chinese (?) immigrant keeps changing her name based on where she works, similar to the experience of Chinese students in the UK who have to adopt Western names.  Kate’s sister Martha, as a child of immigrant parents, had to become a lawyer because that was mother’s dream. Immigrant stories are so similar all over the world. Of course, there’s racism even within the immigrant society as the movie – a romcom – shows more lightheartedly. Kate’s mother, an Eastern European immigrant, watches a Brexit rally on TV and thinks the people hate them and want to send them away. This sympathetic moment of her worries is broken by “I blame the Poles” which made me laugh out loud – not because xenophobia against Polish people is funny but the situation was quite ludicrous – as reflected in Kate’s expression. Towards the end of the movie, there’s a scene in the bus where a white couple (possibly Eastern European) are speaking in a language that isn’t English which attracts the notice of a white man. He shouts, “Why don’t you lot go back where you came from?” at them followed by “Speak English or get out of my sodding country!” Different kinds of discrimination. 

“There’s no such thing as normal. It’s a stupid word. Does a lot of damage.” – Tom

 

4)  Essay – Racism through the BAME protagonists in Ichiro and The Hate U Give by Hibiki Hashizume

Hibiki wrote this essay for a children’s literature module which focused on the representations of race and racism in two YA books exploring two different cultures – Ichiro in Japan and The Hate U Give in the US. He drew on his own experiences of racism in the UK, his first experience of racist discrimination as someone who’s grown up in Japan which is largely ethnically homogenous as opposed to the UK which is more diverse. 

The essay explores racism in both Japan (anti-Korean) and the UK (anti-people of colour) – where he is a part of the dominant group in the former but marginalised in the latter. His essay allowed me to learn a lot about the culture and racism in Japan, something I haven’t really encountered otherwise. Racism exists in the form of anti-Korean attitudes among both racist groups as well as the regular people who have been influenced by their propaganda. There is also an affinity towards white, blonde, blue-haired white people living in Japan. This is similar to India where the colonial mindset still remains where Western and white is seen to be superior, but people from neighbouring countries are discriminated against. The essay proposes that one of the reasons racism isn’t addressed in Japan is because racism is seen to be an issue which exists outside the country between white people and black people; this overlooks the dominance of other kinds of racism within their own societies. Again, this is similar to India where black isn’t welcome even if it is Western and there are different shades of racism even within the country based on which part of the country you come from – skin colour, language, accent, food. It also notes the ignorance among Japanese people about racial insensitivites like blackface. That makes me think about how cultural contexts are so different in that what may be taboo in one culture may not be in another because they don’t have the same background knowledge and historical contexts. 

The essay also briefly explores racism in the US and UK and talks about the link made between Islamophobia and terrorism in mainstream media (Whereas mass shootings by white people or other acts of violence aren’t called terrorism by the media). It points out the role of media in perpetuating these Islamophobic stereotypes and anti-black attitudes. You can see some of the latter with the recent Black Lives Matter anti-police protests in the US in how certain news outlets frame the narrative. 

The essay talks about how reading diverse children’s books can impact young people in ways which make them more respectful and empathetic towards different races and cultures. It points out the lack of BAME characters in children’s literature in the UK and in the US – which don’t have proportional representation to reflect their increasingly diverse populations. The essay uses two YA books to explore the representations of race and racism. Ichiro is a graphic novel which explores the experiences of the titular protagonist, a Japanese-American boy who moves to Japan from the US and encounters unfamiliar food, culture and language and faces discrimination and othering – though he has his own racist stereotypes as well. The Hate U Give, a YA novel, features the life of 16-year-old Starr who grapples between her two homes of a poor black neighbourhood full of violence and an elite private school largely dominated by white students and staff. She has to constantly code-switch not just her language but her entire being as she moves from one place to the other. The book looks at police violence against black people and protests similar to the Black Lives Matter movement. The essay also points out the ignorance of these racial issues among white people in the book and in real life. 

The essay talks about how things like narrow eyes are used to discriminate against East Asian people – something Hibiki himself experienced in the UK. This made me think of how even when you look the same, sound the same, follow the same god such as in Ireland and the United Kingdom, you still find people to hate on some grounds – Catholic/Protestant. The essay talks about the compounded problem of racism where even when you’re verbally targeted, you may have to choose to ignore the assault or escape the racists so as not to be physically attacked. In the UK, the pandemic has increased racism against East Asians because COVID-19 originated in China. This is also happening in India where North East Indians, many of whom have physical features resembling East Asians, were faced with racist attacks. In the US, the president keeps trying to call it the China virus and this representation has impacts on the mainstream imagination. In India, the pandemic is being used to target Muslims.

The essay notes how racism can be internalised among marginalised groups as well, especially if it is inherited within families. Ichiro thinks someone wearing a turban is a terrorist conflating the turban with a skullcap and also associating all Muslims with terrorism – similar to Hibiki’s own experiences where he had an anti-Chinese slur hurled at him even though he is Japanese. Ichiro also faces negative reactions from an older Japanese neighbour who is against his mother marrying a foreigner i.e. an American man – an attitude which is apparently common among elderly Japanese people, according to the essay. What counts as foreigner depends very much on the context. Even in the US, everyone is an immigrant apart from the Native Americans. Identifying someone as a foreigner or related to a foreigner serves to immediately exclude – as in Ichiro’s case who is considered to be different since he doesn’t speak Japanese properly and doesn’t look Japanese enough for the people discriminating against him. Presumably, it will never be enough because you’ll find something else to criticise if the instinct is to other rather than include. With the dominance of language, it isn’t just English as evidenced in the example where Ichiro is bullied for being unable to speak Japanese as fluently as native Japanese would. The difficulties faced by people who move to Japan from another country is similar to different parts of India where language is political – Maharashtra and Marathi, north India and Hindi, South India and not embracing Hindi as a political act. Different cultures even within the same country – in Japan, in the US, in India, in the UK – where one group has stereotypes about the other on the basis of race, religion, national origin etc. 

White people – like any dominant group – expect to be given the benefit of doubt without making any concessions or changes themselves – for example, Hayley claims to be offended when accused of racism by both her best friends and claims ignorance. Why is it never the dominant group’s responsibility to place themselves in the shoes of marginalised groups in order to evoke compassion and empathy and demand justice? The essay notes that the stereotypes go both ways – the black characters also have some fixed notions of what white people like, dislike and do based on their conversations in the book. 

Referring to Hayley and Chris’s responses in THUG which also applies to real life contexts:

“There are a number of white people who do not know what racism is, what makes minority people suffer and how those people feel.”

While white people may not realise racism exists because of their racial privilege, black people don’t have the same privilege to ignore the existence of racism since it impacts them on an everyday basis, oftentimes fatally. The essay also notes that Chris really learns from his experiences of being the only white person in Starr’s black neighbourhood – this embodied experience of being a minority isn’t practical for everybody – but children’s books and media in general can do a great job of understanding lives which differ from your own. 

Curiosity about other cultures instead of suspicion; cultural exchange instead of cultural imperialism – the absence of this impacts both the marginalised and the dominant groups. However, this doesn’t undo generations of oppression and it shouldn’t be the burden of the marginalised to seek empathy and inclusion. People need to access diverse stories which both reflect and differ from their own lives and experiences in order to get to know other cultures which you may or may not encounter in real life. But this needs to be an active, ongoing, and lifelong process of seeking to educate yourself. 

 

5) Fan podcast – Woke Doctor Who Crazy Rich Asians

Eugenia, a Chinese-American talks about her experiences of watching Crazy Rich Asians. She was excited about the Asian representation in a mainstream Hollywood production. This representation wasn’t just reflected in the cast but also in the creators – which, as E points out, is almost more important than having a diverse cast since the creator makes so many of the choices. E acknowledges there have been some critiques of the movie – including the lack of Singaporeans in a movie taking place in Singapore. Singapore is a diverse society with lots of Chinese, Malay and Indian inhabitants in the country. E points out that since the movie deals with the lives of rich Chinese people, she saw what she expected to see i.e. diversity in service roles – maids, guards etc. – which reflects the lives of the elite much like in Jane Austen where we don’t see the lives of the working class characters represented. The books which the movie is based on is often referred to as Jane Austen with Asians.

E expresses her frustration about criticism that calls the movie racist for this lack of diversity. She points out that the movie centers the Chinese-American experience through Rachel Chu’s character who travels to Singapore and is considered as a foreigner. This is similar to all Asian-Americans who go back home where they don’t fit in even though they may, to an outside gaze, look the same. This is similar to my experiences after a year and a half abroad in the UK and probably reflects the experiences of an increasing number of young people who are educated abroad and return to India. Fitting in and being different is a such a universal theme – though in this case, it is particularly important since it focuses on the lives and experiences of a group which has not traditionally been represented in mainstream Hollywood media. As Toya says, she found it very relatable too – even though she’s a black American. E points out that Asian-American experiences are always erased or minimised in the US. They’re considered as model minorities and their accusations of racism are overlooked. E thinks the simplistic criticism of racism has a harmful impact on people for whom the movie was made, especially with a movie with an all-Asian cast, an Asian writing team and director.

These criticisms make me think of how movies like this are tasked with a bigger burden to do all the job of representation perfectly since there are such few fully-diverse movies out there. Rather than making room for different kinds of diversity and stories, the few diverse media which do exist are supposed to fix the imbalance. E talks about how she’s been starved by Asian faces in media and devoured stories which had even the least bit of diversity – superficial or otherwise. Which is why this movie was so important for her. She talks about the American show Fresh Off The Boat, which has found a love-hate reaction from Asian-Americans. The title is a slur and the stories are farcical but Asian-Americans are still so starved for representation. E almost wishes only Asian-Americans could watch this show because the jokes are the sort they can laugh at but not white people: “There’s a part of it which feels minstrely.” E talks about how she became emotional about even small representations of her experiences – food and visits to the market.

She also recommends To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before and the important role it has played in normalising East Asian characters and all the possibilities for cosplay with Lara Jean and Halloween costumes. One of E’s issues with the movies is the three sisters who are supposed to be half-Korean. However, out of the actors who portray these characters, one is Vietnamese, one is half-Filipina and only one is half-Korean. As they’ve mentioned in previous episodes, they don’t like the implication that all Asians are the same. Even if white audiences don’t realise it, Asian audiences do. Which means that the imagined audience doesn’t include their perspectives. However, E was still happy to see the representation. 

E talks of the experience of watching Crazy Rich Asians with her mother, who has lived in different parts of Asia and who pointed out different things like food and songs which she recognised and loved in the movie. The conversation made both the hosts teary because they both understood how important and impactful representation can be. E also acknowledges the impact of the representation of Asian single mothers which is rarely seen on-screen or even in real life, and which reflects E’s own relationship with her mother. As E reiterates, there may be places where the movie lacks and has some flaws, but this doesn’t diminish the powerful impact it can have on Asian-American audiences. According to E, the creators of this movie had to fight to cast an Asian-American actress in the lead rather than a white actress because the producers couldn’t conceive how an Asian-American would be a fish out of water in Singapore, completely erasing the very real experiences of Asian-Americans who go back home. 

E loves the representation of language. One of the characters says “Go to hell” in three different languages which blew E’s mind because that’s how she thinks – in Chinglish. But that is never represented in media, an experience which I relate with as well, as an immigrant in the UK who is mostly surrounded by white people. 

E also talks about the tension about rice paddy fields where older generations of Chinese people are very conscious of this and want to distance themselves from it. They use skin whitening creams to ensure they don’t look like they’ve worked in the rice fields, their hands have to look good too. However, this culture has been embraced by younger people who don’t have a directly contentious relationship with the rice fields. In the movie, the wedding scene happens with rice field decorations which is shunned by the older Chinese characters but embraced by the young people. These nuances can be understood by people who have background knowledge of this history and I loved learning about it through E’s perspective. This also makes Toya emotional again because she remembers her own family history where two generations ago, they were sharecroppers and now she is able to do so much that was unimaginable before. Different histories but similar emotions. 

E talks of the experience of her and other immigrants to the US bringing their culture’s food to school which is ridiculed by people eating peanut butter sandwiches. This is similar in India where non-vegetarian food isn’t allowed in some schools and in others, vegetarians may treat it with disgust. This happened to me in school as well. E felt this shame even with Chinese music. I wonder if this is why I cling on to my Indian clothes and language and food and music in the UK because I feel like I’m not surrounded by this otherwise. Asian music may be regarded with suspicion by white people but K-Pop and J-Pop has been embraced by white audiences – something which goes unremarked on.

Both hosts criticise Awkwafina’s blaccent which she code-switches in and out of like many other people. This isn’t something I noticed which points to the different contexts of racism and ignorance. Toya has an issue with what is becoming a cultural norm and thinks there needs to be a conversation about using another culture’s language/accent as a prop or as clothing. She doesn’t hold this against the movie because she loved the movie and was happy E got to experience what she herself did with Black Panther. 

“We want to see all black casts. We want to see all Asian casts. We want to see the diversity of the world on screen.” – Latoya

 

6) Fan podcast – Black Girl Nerds  Geek Misogyny, No Totally, and Con Coverage (listen from 1 hour 06ish minutes to 1 hour 34ish minutes)

The guest is Shaun Lau who hosts a podcast No, Totally about movies – and more recently has become an Asian-American activist. He talks of “coming out” as an Asian-American, an identity which he hadn’t talked about on the podcast, and now actively engages with this identity on his podcast and with his other interviews. It’s interesting that he felt he needed to come out presumably because people thought he was white. He describes instances of of virtue signalling where people’s comments of “I don’t care if you’re Asian or not” was followed by unfollowing Shaun on Twitter when he spoke about Asian issues. This reminded me of The Hate U Give where Hayley unfollows Starr on Tumblr for her black activism. You’re allowed to be diverse but only in a very narrow, predetermined way which doesn’t make the dominant group uncomfortable or hold them to account.

Shaun talks of how important it is for him to have Asian representation in media and critiques the whitewashing in media. This representation is incredibly important to non-Asian-Americans who don’t consider Asian-Americans have the same kind of American experience as they do. Shaun himself thinks he’s more American than Asian. He talks of incident where a woman speaking Mandarin on public transport in Arizona was attacked and told to go back to her country. This othering is compounded by the lack of representation on screen because other Americans don’t consider Asian-Americans as American – especially if the only representation which does exist peddles stereotypes.

“It not just affects how people see you but also how you see yourself.” – Shaun

Shaun speaks of the mental health impact these stereotypes had on him where he didn’t feel like he could be seen as anything other than the stereotype despite everything else he accomplishes in his life. It can have a professional impact as well where employers may fall prey to these stereotypes which influences their opinion about potential employees. He appreciates that there are Asian-American actors and other creatives talking about the need for this representation which will influence younger generations of Asian-Americans, as well as white Americans. 

He discusses how Tilda Swinton’s casting in Doctor Strange is supposed to be a progressive move because it’s genderbending the character. However, it’s a white woman replacing an Asian character. Shaun points out that white male creators consider every identity which isn’t theirs as the same – in a way where casting a white woman instead of an Asian man still counts as diversity. Marginalised communities have the same goal of increasing diversity, but it’s ALL kinds of diversity, not just of one group but all groups. He also mentions that the #OscarsSoWhite movement and others are reaching the creators who have to respond or address these issues. While it is still a small number of creators, it’s a step in the right direction where diversity is now increasing in media. On the other hand, this diversity seems to aggravate people from dominant groups who think even superficial diversity is both a threat and simultaneously enough representation. He mentions how exhausting it is to be fighting for this all the time when everything moves so slowly and there is such a backlash against it constantly. 

“The media, the way that they write about these issues can play a role or plays probably the biggest role in normalising the dissent of people of colour being misrepresented.” – Shaun 

He also discusses the fact that Asian isn’t a monolith – the perspectives and experiences of an Asian from Asia would be very different from an Asian-American. For Asians, representation in Hollywood movies may not be as important or sensitive an issue like it is for Asian-Americans since they have other media which represents them. For example, Ghost in the Shell’s controversial casting of Scarlett Johanssen isn’t considered to be a big deal in Japan, as the episode of Imaginary Worlds finds out. 

 

7) Fan podcast – Black Girl Nerds Asians in Media

The episode featured a panel of guests of Asian descent who have different experiences with media – as creators and/or fans – as well as different intersectional identities. In the beginning the host acknowledges that one of the potential guests had said some problematic things against black women which caused her to drop the idea of that guest. She admitted her mistake and thanked the community for drawing her attention to this. Even people who talk about marginalisation and inhabit a marginalised identity can be racist towards others – as can be seen with the conversations about anti-blackness in Asian communities in the US and the UK. 

They discuss the whitewashing of Asian characters where white actors are cast to play Asian characters to be able to make the movie more “marketable.” This is of course imagining a predominantly white audience for the movie when globally, Asians outnumber white people. Furthermore, this assumption that actors who aren’t white won’t draw in audiences is ridiculous. At the same time, however, audiences who are riled up because of what they perceive as enforced diversity can target a movie and its actors – sexist attacks of the female reboot of Ghostbusters and the racism against the black actress Leslie Jones.

One of the guests talks about how Hollywood seems to assume Asian-Americans don’t exist and this lack of representation won’t be met by any censure anyway. Does this feed into the model minority myth? Any censure which does exist is met with half-hearted apologies which imply that they’re only sorry because people got offended and not because they did something offensive. In the live-action remake of Avatar: The Last Airbender,  M. Night Shyamalan completely whitewashed the movie despite being Asian himself. He presumably also grew up not seeing himself represented in media, though I suppose this depends on what sort of media he was exposed to growing up. There’s also internalised racism/colonised mind where you think white is better or more marketable. Maybe he wasn’t even in control of these decisions as Diana Floegel pointed out in Episode 9 about structural racism in movie industries. 

One of the guests talks about how Tilda Swinton’s character in Doctor Strange takes away even their stereotypes (the Asian character she represents was very much a stereotype). Is there a difference between stereotypes written for the cultures they’re stereotyping versus for the dominant culture? Insider/outsider perspectives? Including people in the joke versus excluding people by marginalising them – depends on who’s doing the writing,  I guess, as well as who the intended audience is. Crazy Rich Asians seemed to have a lot of insider jokes and stereotypes which I only recognised because they’re so similar to Indian ones. It depends on which lens is being used – white people versus Asian people. Whose experiences are being centered and whose are being othered? While I was listening to this episode, Jack wondered whether Doctor Strange could be an example of white saviour tropes as well. 

They discuss whether erasing characters of colour/whitewashing stems from wilfull ignorance or malicious intent. Even when creators aren’t doing this on purpose – for example yellowface – the intent doesn’t matter when the damage is very real. They need to be more sensitive about how you portray diverse characters and how you include diversity in your story. One guest proposes that whitewashing happens because the default is white – everything else, including Asianness, is othered and not considered normal. Doesn’t this have a dehumanising effect on the non-dominant groups? Another guest talks of the trope of the model minority when it comes to Asians where Asians are the “well-behaved” diverse group which in turn marginalises other people of colour as well as Asians who don’t fit into the tropes and stereotypes this construct imposes. One guest adds that the model minority myth may also impact casting decisions because creators may think the Asian-Americans won’t complain. It’s difficult for Asian-Americans to write their own stories which reflect their experiences and perspectives if there’s no room for them at the creator table or an opportunity for them to enter the room. When Asian characters are represented, their stories are in the background whereas white characters are placed at the forefront; one of the reasons why Crazy Rich Asians was so empowering to Asian-Americans. Another guest points out that even in the background in a post-apocalyptic world, there are no Asians.

“It’s the unspoken rule of sci-fi. You can have Asian culture but no Asian bodies. And you can have black bodies but absolutely no black culture.” 

The failure of imagination when it comes to what kind of stories can include Asian-Americans means that there’s a very limited scope of representation. This includes immigrant experience/Asian gangster/I really like white girls. Another stereotype sees all Asians as martial artists don’t need to be as limiting as they have been if you give more depth to the characters and don’t essentialise the character into that one tropey trait  The Asian-American experience isn’t an all-encompassing umbrella – there should be room for different kinds of stories. One of the guests points out she hadn’t ever seen a dark-skinned South Asian descent actor have more than a line which wasn’t played for comic effect before Mindy Kaling. There’s nuances even within Asian representations. In India too, fair-skinned representations in Bollywood movies are predominant which has class and caste connotations. 

On the sexual politics of Asian-Americans, they talk about how Asian sexuality is only seen as something for non-Asian consumption. Asian experiences are erased and straight Asian male characters aren’t shown in romantic/sexual roles. When it comes to mixed-race Asian people, there are even more nuances where they are further marginalised. There advocate for more representations with other intersectional identities such as increased visibility of queer Asians or Asians with disabilities.

They discuss the unfair burden that the few shows/movies which have Asian-American protagonists have on them. Everyone has high expectations of the show because there are few other choices – this might be at the cost of the story the show/movie itself wants to tell. On the other hand, many of the culturally specific themes might find universal appeal because even if you approach it differently, a lot of things reflect your own concerns. This is different from dominant culture’s experiences with shows which reflect them and their lives. As one of the guests points out, white people watching FRIENDS aren’t worried about whether they got it right in the same way Asian-Americans watching something like Fresh Off The Boat would 

 

8) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Ghost In The Shell

The episode discusses the backlash against casting Scarlett Johanssen in one of the roles, another example of whitewashing in blockbuster movies to make it more “marketable”. How can Asian actors become “bankable” movie stars if they don’t cast them? 

Another aspect of this is that whitewashing may be much more important to Asian-Americans than Asians elsewhere. For example, the episode talks about how people in Japan were baffled at the whitewashing controversy. Since they have a thriving industry with lots of Japanese representation, they didn’t think it was a big deal. Some thought that Hollywood is a little silly anyway whereas others believed anime doesn’t outline the race of characters anyway so it was all right. They talk about the Astroboy creator who thought anime characters should be racially indistinct or draw influences from Western cartoons to have a broad global appeal. This inspired other Japanese anime creators. This also has a connection with post-second-world-war Japan when they were aware of the negative anti-Japanese stereotypes and sentiments in the US so their cultural exports were as benign as possible in terms of representation. At the same time, the characters spoke Japanese, ate Japanese food, engaged in Japanese practices – but their racial identity didn’t reflect this. One of the guests proposes that this reflects the shame and humiliation a lot of Japanese people felt after the Second World War. 

Asian-Americans, on the other hand, embraced anime because they were otherwise starved of representation in Western media. Anime presented them with familiar names, food, and culture which is what is important to them. As Eric says, when anime is done well, it doesn’t feel like cultural appropriation, it feels like cultural exchange where everything seems both foreign and familiar at the same time. This would reflect in the interpretations of both Asian-Americans as well as white audiences.

 

9) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Growing Up Avatar American

Guest Sam Kaden Lai talks about his perspectives as an Asian-American fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender, an animated show with heavy Asian influences. He discusses how Asian-Americans have such few people of colour to dress up as for Halloween reflecting the lack of representation in media. He is largely alienated by the SFF genre which is largely white and Eurocentric. Which is why he found Avatar so refreshing. The show offers a different kind of fantasy where the vibe is Asian-American even though the creators of the show aren’t Asian-American themselves. They are white guys who are really influenced by Asian culture. This could otherwise be problematic but Sam thinks they pulled it off. He thinks it’s the perfect Asian-American show because while the context of the show is very American, the culture is very Asian. For example, fliers in the show have Chinese letters, the food is Asian. Sam says that Asian food in American contexts is his strongest memory from childhood. As Sam points out, in a fantasy world, they could have made up the food but they chose to incorporate Asian food. They did their research and represented it in a way which found excited recognition among Asian-American audiences.

This research is reflected in other aspects of the show too, martial arts, for example. A lot of Asian people worked on the show and tried to make it as authentically Asian as possible. The show signposted Asian elements in this fictional fantastical world, similar to how Game of Thrones signposts England but also incorporates its own elements. Sam points out that the show conflates a lot of different Asian cultures which would otherwise be problematic but the hybrid Asian identity and mash-ups reflect the Asian-American experience. Even spirituality in the form of Buddhism was slipped into a mainstream American children’s show – something that is very rare in Western TV. It also has Indian influences – the word avatar comes from Indian Hinduism to mean reincarnation (though that’s in Buddhism too). 

Aang’s story as a refugee/immigrant where he is the only surviving Airbender whose people were murdered in a genocide led by the Firebenders. He escaped by flying away on Appa which one of the guests considers similar to Vietnamese history where one of their parents fled on boats. The trauma of the loss and ethnic cleansing of home and culture and people draws analogies to the Japanese cultural occupation, the Chinese cultural revolution, the Cambodian genocide, surviving Hiroshima – a great Asian-American story as Sam argues. However, some of his friends poked holes in this theory – so not everyone considers the show as such. 

Sam points out that many white people don’t see the difference between Asian films and Asian-American films. An Asian making a film set in Asia will be completely different than an Asian-American making a film set in the US. In the former case, Asians aren’t minorities. Even in Avatar, the Asians aren’t minorities; in fact, there aren’t any minorities because there are so many different cultures. But this is what Sam loves because nobody is a foreigner and nobody is marginalised for their culture. At one point, Aang finds a food disgusting but he doesn’t make fun of the food and instead tries to hide his feelings. It displays an encounter with unfamiliar cultural elements within an inclusive space.

The episode briefly touches on The Legend of Korra which ends with an implied gay couple between dark-skinned Korra and East-Asian Asami. According to one of the guests, this affirms both queerness and ethnicity. They didn’t confirm this couple on the show but they did in the comics (presumably because mainstream networks still not comfortable with queerness in children’s media which is changing as is evident in She-Ra and Kipo). 

“If you’re trying to represent a group instead of relating to them, then basically you’re placing them in the position of the other.” – Eric

 

10) Essay – In Immigrating from Japan, I Lost Language, Home, and Pokémon 

The writer Nina Coomes talks about her love of Pokemon while growing up in Japan. She then discusses how moving to the US to rural Illinois at the age of 7 meant that she couldn’t communicate anymore and the discomfort that came with that. 

“In essence, I went from being completely linguistically comfortable—reading, writing, and speaking at grade level—to being functionally illiterate. I could say that I was hungry, that I wanted to go to the bathroom, but I couldn’t read or write.”

The politics of language where only the dominant tongue confers the aura of intelligence and an ability to exist and communicate comfortably in society. It’s the marginalised person and language who has to do all the hard and extra work. The dominant groups and languages expect assimilation. The essay explores the immigrant experience in an all-white space where your personality is affected if you don’t speak the language – both linguistically as well as culturally. 

Nina felt a spark of hope when Pokemon arrived in the US but this was soon extinguished when she realised she didn’t recognise any of the names. They had been translated from Japanese to English, an experience which succeeded in further alienating her. This experience also served in pushing her away from Pokemon because it compounded the feelings of loneliness and not fitting in – she became an anti-fan. The things that you lose and find when you shift to a new culture and the things which retain or lose importance is interesting and sad. Nina unexpectedly reconnected with her beloved childhood media as an adult and found her childhood feelings of wonder, adventure and joy. Perhaps it signified now being comfortable with a different language, culture, and country.

“I did not at all expect to be completely suffused with giddy, effervescent euphoria, but that’s what Detective Pikachu did. In Detective Pikachu, I saw Pokémon inhabit space as if they were real. During the first establishing shots of Rhyme City, I watched agog at the many Pokémon that filled the screen. Their vibrant furs ruffling in movie wind; they slithered, fluttered, and meandered down streets. They walked, flew, and swam alongside humans, cawing, chirping, and roaring. Seeing this somehow bypassed the memories of sadness and pain I associated with the franchise, and accessed instead that old, unlikely joy.” 

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