A PhD project exploring intersectionality through fan podcasts

Header image with the text Marginally Fannish

Month: July 2020

*SIGH* Let’s talk about J. K. Rowling

I really, really, really don’t want to talk about J. K. Rowling because I think enough has been discussed online and I don’t really have anything useful to contribute. But since Harry Potter plays such an important part of my research, I feel like I need to document my thoughts for my future self.

While I officially launched the podcast in January 2020, I’d started doing the behind-the-scenes admin and planning in December 2019. Which is when J. K. Rowling first began tweeting things which were explicitly things that trans-exclusionary radical feminists (more popularly referred to as TERFs) have been saying, especially in the UK. Since I’m not very familiar with the dog-whistling language and discourse that exists in this part of the feminist movement, I went through various Twitter threads, articles, and some of my own personal network to understand what exactly was happening. Admittedly, it was one-sided research because I didn’t lend too much credence to what the transphobes were saying. However, I do believe in learning from the marginalised and vulnerable group rather than the group with multiple kinds of privilege and power. Since my project was exploring multiple facets of intersectionality including gender identity and gender expression, I knew one of my episodes would have to address this in 2020. Keeping this in mind, I approached guests and planned episodes and went on with other aspects of the podcasting process. What seemed to be evident was that J. K. Rowling did not consider trans women worthy of the same rights and respect as accorded to cis women. In the meanwhile, she didn’t respond to any comments or critiques about her statements and all was quiet on that front.

Until June, that is. After a few months of silence, J. K. Rowling picked the worst possible time to make some more comments against a group which is deeply marginalised and at a high risk of death (either through suicide or murder). We were (and still are) in the middle of a global pandemic and that was the week the Black Lives Matter uprising had begun in the US in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a police officer. I don’t follow J. K. Rowling on Twitter so I discover these things through people I do follow reacting to her statements. At that point, I was really depressed and exhausted by everything that was going on in the world – in the US, the UK, in India. I could very barely muster up the energy to follow the conversation but what I did follow enraged and frustrated me in equal measure. Again, admittedly, I was following a one-sided conversation because again, I wasn’t interested in listening to people who were questioning a deeply marginalised group’s right to exist. I couldn’t bring myself to give any sort of legitimacy to opinions which didn’t consider trans people as equally human and worthy of the same rights as they were. Actors in the Harry Potter films came out against her statements and several fan sites and fan podcasts also distanced themselves from her. There was also an incident of utter pettiness with Stephen King where she first praised him for being supportive of one of her tweets and then deleted her tweet and unfollowed him when he came out in support of trans rights.

She didn’t stop there. Once the floodgates burst in June, there doesn’t seem to have been a pause. And after a point, I stopped playing catch up with all the different things she said and began dreading seeing her name trending on Twitter. I know that at some point, I will have to go back and see what she’s said in order to have a more informed opinion. But currently I can’t – both to protect my mental health and also because I genuinely don’t have the time to engage (which, of course, comes with heaps of privilege – I’m a cis woman all of trans folks who isn’t directly impacted by the bigotry). At the same time, I have been listening to fan responses because while we have spoken about J. K. Rowling’s transphobia on a couple of episodes, there is at least one more episode coming up where we are going to be talking about gender and gender identity – so I need fan texts and resources to share with my co-participants.

I had a supervision meeting yesterday and one of my supervisors very gently challenged my rant against Rowling by pointing out that her statement had met with some very hostile and aggressive misogyny online. Rowling wrote an essay which spoke about her own experiences with domestic violence and this provided fodder to a very misogynist group of people – including an interview with her ex-husband. I haven’t read this essay yet because while I’m empathetic to Rowling’s experiences of domestic violence, I am uncomfortable that it’s being used to harm another group of people. Trans women are not men and that is what the discourse seems to imply. I grew up in a household of domestic violence so I have very intimate knowledge and experience with it. Moreover, books in general but Harry Potter in particular was my escape and comfort and hope during my troubled childhood, which is why it plays such a huge role in my life and sense of self. So I need some distance for when my emotions and feelings aren’t as heightened as they are now to be able to read J. K. Rowling’s side of the story – as skeptical of it is I am.

I do believe in giving people the benefit of doubt and also believe terribly misguided or misinformed people can learn new perspectives and change their opinions. And I believe we should provide these inclusive opportunities and normalise changing opinions or addressing gaps in knowledge. At the same time, I believe people with such a huge platform and with such immense privilege have a public responsibility – especially to their fans, many of whom, like me have found so much connection in the Potterverse; trans fans among them.

But I want to take my supervisor’s point to heart too. I do have the tendency to form strong opinions and make these opinions known which can prevent learning from different perspectives (maybe because most people don’t want to bother challenging my impassioned rants?). Both as a researcher and as a fan, I feel like I need to wade into Rowling’s statements – as much as I don’t want to – to more fully understand what she is saying and to better inform my own opinion. It may not actually end up affecting my opinion at all but I need to get better about not just listening to one-sided arguments, to expand my perspectives, and to go to primary sources when they are available. I still really, really, really don’t want to. But I will anyway.

Some Notes On Episode 10 – Resources

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

For Episode 10, Reclaiming Stories: Representations of Dyspraxia and Autism in Doctor Who/Fandom we discussed the following texts:

1) Fanfiction – Never Change

Robert described his fanfic as follows:

It’s about a teenager having to decide if he should become a completely different person in order to make his distressed mother happy, which *totally coincidentally* is a theme in my life as well. John isn’t really written with dyspraxia in mind, but he is basically me so I guess it bleeds out in that regard. I didn’t really realise its view of family is the active reverse of the one in current Who until it was almost done, at which point I thought “huh”

“Doctor… the things you said, they’re… facts. Not really me, just… things. They made me who I am, yeah, but it’s not… it’s not me. Am I just that? A collection of facts and memories you’re taking from me? I’m more than that. I have a personality, I have desires, ambitions, dreams, goals, fears. Did you ever wonder what I wanted to study in uni? Why I wanted to study? Did you ever ask yourself, what does Bill Potts want?”

It was my first time reading Doctor Who fic and I enjoyed it very much. Based on our previous conversations, the theme of family relationships really stood out to me. Particularly in instances where parents want children to change but children don’t want parents to change. It also made me think about trauma with the Doctor’s past regenerations. I was rewatching the first series of the new Doctor Who at the time and Christopher Eccleston’s trauma is very present through his brief run – even when he’s being fun and lighthearted and thinking everything is fantastic. I can’t remember other deep engagements with trauma off the top of my head but I feel like both Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi had to deal with different versions of it – and Jodie too, especially in her second season. 

When he meets aliens, John is relieved because there’s a reason he finds them incomprehensible whereas with other humans, he should be able to understand them and they should be able to understand him but it doesn’t happen. He doesn’t fit in. Robert said that he didn’t write this with dyspraxia in mind but it makes a good analogy for autism and neurodiversity – what is considered as the norm may not be normal to neurodiverse people. 

“You look incredibly awkward,” said the Doctor. “Maybe I should phrase this as a question. Rosie the Bendolene, a hairdryer bound up in wire. Everything you say she finds totally incomprehensible, and you’d never even consider that she could understand how you feel. And I’m thinking you wouldn’t feel any different,” she said, “if she was still a human person there right now.”

She turned sadly to him, though his eyes were looking away.

“I’m right, aren’t I?” she said. “Everyone’s like a Bendolene to you.”

John sighed.

“You’re right,” he said. “People don’t always think I’m very… peopley.”

“I do!” said the Doctor in mock outrage.

“I know. But it’s like you said; you’re an alien. You’re not like what other people are.”

”In my experience,” said the Doctor, “other people are like a great many things indeed.”

”You know what I mean, though. Like… like you have to keep secrets, all of the time, because if you’re honest about what you’re keeping in everyone’ll just stare?

The cries of the Bendolene the hair-dryer aliens is “I don’t understand” which is as good a metaphor for neurodiversity as any. In both my own experience and in my research, I’ve found that people end up drawing on their own experiences even when they don’t mean to.

“I’ll never be able to forgive myself,” he said again.

“Maybe not,” said the Doctor. “But at least you’ll remember why. And what’s a lot more important,” she said, “is that at least you’ve not stopped being you.”

John frowned. “I don’t think anyone’s ever said things like to me. That I should put myself first, even sometimes. That the things that I am are all fine.”

“Well, it’s a good job you met me, then,” said the Doctor. “Most people’re fine, next to some of the ones who I’ve seen.”

”I don’t think I’ll ever believe that,” said John. “Not when it’s me who I’m thinking of. But you’re right, I suppose. It’ll still be myself who feels guilty.”

“Maybe it isn’t the real world,” she [the Doctor] said. “Maybe there’s somewhere that all of us are the people we’re supposed to be, living lives that don’t feel like they all went a little bit wrong. But we’d miss so much, in that real world where we aren’t. We’re like frosted glass, I think; there’s so much we don’t see if we never have to break.”

Her pager was beeping again, and this call was from Wales. Lorna was fidgiting as she looked up at the clock, and the Doctor realised she’d better hurry up with her wisdom.

“I’d seen the world through so many different eyes,” she went on, “that I’d forgotten they were really all the same. That however much I saw and wherever I would go, I’d never been outside of my stupid head. And that doesn’t change,” she said, “however many heads you end up having. There are so many worlds I can never get to, aren’t there? The one in your head, and your daughter’s, and the rest. So much there that I’ll never really know, obvious stuff which I’ll never get to see. I’ve learned so many things over the years. But that’s the most important one. That I’m like all of you, in the end.”

She smiled sadly.

“I don’t understand.”

It’s true what the Doctor says – it’s impossible for people to understand a person fully, no matter how close you are to them or how well you think you know them: the thoughts going on in their heads every moment, how they see the world and how the world has shaped them – how their interpretations differ – how their experiences differ – how they differ from how you see them. And I think this is more true for people who are currently on the margins of what society upholds as the norm – for example, it’s a very neurotypical world (though even there, not all neurotypical people feel like they fit in but their struggles aren’t compounded by their brains working entirely differently from what is considered normal). This is also true for racialised others, people from different religions, countries, classes, other backgrounds. You just try to empathise with experiences which you can’t fully understand and just respect different ways of being a human.

 

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

Robert is blown away by the fact this his disability is represented in a mainstream show like Doctor Who when dyspraxia hasn’t been a disorder which has otherwise made an appearance in mainstream media at all. I’d never known about it until I read this essay a couple of years ago when Robert had shared it on Facebook. Popular media can do such an excellent job in raising awareness and educating people about marginal identities which they may not otherwise encounter in real life. At the same time, it has even more of a responsibility to be careful and sensitive in its portrayals because these representations are so rare. I’m not sure whether this is an unfair burden or not. 

As the essay points out, representation is especially important because what you can imagine has real-world impact. When very few people are aware that the condition exists, there aren’t resources to help people tackle it or representatives to talk about the condition. This might end up isolating the people even more and make them feel more alienated from the world around them. 

Robert could never imagine himself as the Doctor’s companion because he didn’t think he could travel across space and time without causing accidents and disasters – something which reflected his real-life experiences.

Graham’s line in Doctor Who about blaming an alien invasion on your dyspraxia is painful because catastrophe really does seem to follow in our wake … Dyspraxia is a slow stream of disasters that make it difficult to live in the world, which mean you have to let go of any concept of pride or dignity to have any hope to survive.

The essay explains how having dyspraxia contributes to feelings of exhaustion because you’re hiding what you can’t do as well as anxiety because you can’t explain to others why you can’t do certain things.

“It’s hard to explain the reality of a condition that no one knows is real.”

It’s hard enough not having representations of disability in media or the ones which do exist perpetuate stereotypes and tropes. However, I can’t even imagine how difficult it must be to not even have your disability recognised as a disability. It’s similar to what a lot of people go through when different aspects of their identity aren’t represented in media – which other people can’t understand. Media can play an important role in trying to understand experiences which don’t mirror your own, to evoke empathy and respect. It’s something that people from dominant groups may take for granted because they see so many different shades of their experiences on screen or in books. However, for those who’ve never recongised themselves in characters, a glimpse can have such a powerful impact. And it’s not only important for people from marginalised groups but also for people from dominant groups – for different reasons. 

So I want to see Ryan be a hero with dyspraxia, because even now I don’t know what that means. The everyday world can be a terrifying place for us anyway, but lord knows what the Whoniverse would be like: when dimensions can be even weirder than they are almost all the time, where the Daleks can handle the stairs and you’re afraid you’re about to fall down them. It can feel an achievement and an adventure just getting through the day, but I want to know that we can have adventures, too: that the skills we have and the things we can achieve are more important than the things we’re always reminded are beyond us. I want Ryan to save the entire universe, and I want him to keep his dignity when he does. I want him to be the hero I wish existed when I was a child, and who only started to exist yesterday. There are unspoken and unknown things that so many of us are going through.

I want to see that this one can be overcome.

 

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

(I’ve already used this episode as a text for Episode 6, so I’m supplementing the notes I made then with these new ones. For the old notes, click here.)

The guest Marissa herself is a disabled person who has vertigo and undergoes many balance problems. This is another disability that isn’t as well represented or well known. 

Media represents misleading ideas of what it means to live with a disability and to recover from it, which in turn, influences how people think about disabilities. The all or nothing representation in media is problematic and has real-world impacts – nobody fits into the stereotype which is perpetuated by media. Even the kinds of disabilities which are represented fall into the extremes – perhaps at the cost of lesser known disabilities like dyspraxia and vertigo. Disabled people are also desexualised and infantilised in media portrayals. There’s also the issue where when there is such a limited amount of representation of disabilities (like of other marginalised groups), the burden is on one text to be perfect. It’s supposed to represent it fully and then is critiqued for not being able to do that. 

Just like token representations of racial diversity, disabled characters also often fulfill that role through superficial and stereortypical representations. In the episode, they talk about how a good way to represent disability is acknowledging that people with disabilities are not like everyone else but also employing the skills they have or their perspectives in seeing the world differently as both a part of the plot but also as a background characteristic, thereby normalising it. They discuss whether mental health is a disability issue. Developmentally delayed people are the only ones seen as having disabilities, who in turn, are shown in ways which evoke horror or sympathy. 

The characters of Bran versus Hodor in Game of Thrones – physical versus mental disability which also has class implications. Bran’s experiences and life are more important than Hodor’s in the story. Bran is mentally sharp and has a lot of agency but Hodor does not. His agency only exists in his final act of heroic sacrifice (which may also be influenced by Bran). Marissa criticises Station Eleven for killing off all the disabled characters in this flu apocalypse where people are building this hopeful new society. I hadn’t even noticed this while reading which reflects my own biases and blindspots – it’s a book I loved very much. But if your society in the future has no room for people with physical or mental disabilities, what sort of world is that? And it’s born from such a place of privilege – this ability to overlook such a key detail, and the ability to not be affected by it. 

Using a disability to provide characters with magical powers or to be extra special – for example, blind people are seen to have gained other sharper senses. Similar with characters of colour who are only there to support white characters, magical characters with disabilities are background props to move the abled character’s story forward. The character of Toph in Avatar: The Last Airbender isn’t exceptional because she is blind but because she is Toph. Her extraordinary earthbending and metalbending skills aren’t due to her blindness – it’s something that can be and is inherited by her daughter.

Marissa says she wouldn’t mind talking to writers and media creators about her experience of vertigo and balance disorder to help them create these characters to contribute to accurate representations of disability in media. Having a character with disabilities in your story shouldn’t just be done to add an interesting quirk or trait to your character – it needs to be properly researched and also addressed by the other characters in the book – in the way they engage with the world. But also, that shouldn’t be the only trait – disability isn’t a personality trait. Marissa found herself bemoaning the fact that she was responsible to represent disability in her stories and nobody else took on the mantle – but she realised she needed to do this 

There’s also a problematic trope of disability and evil characters whereby even their physical characteristics become ugly – Darth Vader is more machine than man and is physically disabled. How does disability intersect with gender and race? These conversations are necessary but are still not happening on a large scale.

 

4) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Caps Lock Harry

Rowling was writing The Order of the Phoenix when 9/11 happened – a crucial moment in Western history. “And they say we shouldn’t teach children about evil.” Rowling says that this is how an email from her editor in New York ended while this was happening. A very one-dimensional view of evil, no? She doesn’t go into this in detail and she may or may not have explored this idea in further detail, but it’s more nuanced than this singular narrative of evil since the US was responsible for a lot of what would be considered evil in Afghanistan and other parts of Asia. It’s a very Western view of evil as well because there’s so much that’s happened thanks to the West even in more recent history. However, I do agree that children are able to handle much more complex and difficult subjects than we give them credit for.

Eric read the book as an adult and felt a lot of empathy for Harry’s trauma and feelings. He felt that he needed therapy or counselling but the adults in the book didn’t respond to his needs. The books explored these themes better than the movies did. He does acknowledge that younger people reading this may have not been able to identify these themes – which was definitely true in my case. As a couple of the guests point out, they assumed that Harry’s behaviour in Order of the Phoenix reflected adult notions of teenagers and the ways in which teenagers behaved and communicated. It’s almost become a cultural norm – one I’ve definitely subscribed to as well – that teenagers are terrible and insensitive and self-centred. And of course some teenagers are these things. Just like some adults are these things. But it’s essentialising their experiences. We know from concrete examples that teenagers care about many big, important things. 

Vanessa [from Harry Potter and The Sacred Text] whose grandparents are Holocaust survivors read the series as a Jewish text with the parallels to fascism and the rise of Voldemort whereas her co-host Casper read it as a very Christian text showcasing the ways in which your background and experiences influence how you interpret a text. Harry’s moniker “the boy who lived” as survivor’s guilt post the Holocaust and other collectively traumatic incidents or oppression. I wonder how much of this will be seen in a post-pandemic world.

Eric spoke to people who think Rowling did a great job of representing trauma and PTSD and they recognised their own experiences while reading the series as an adult. It might be difficult to recognise these things when you’re reading it as a kid. I wonder whether it would be different if I read it now – though I do come with the knowledge and interpretations of other people about Harry’s PTSD.

Harry’s trauma includes his parents’ murder, survived a murder attempt, his experiences in the magical world where everybody reminds him of his trauma at every turn. One guest doesn’t want to share the details of her trauma because she doesn’t want people to relate to her only through her trauma. Another guest talks about her own childhood experiences filled with an uncle’s emotional abuse and gaslighting and authoritarianism – parallels with the Dursleys’ constant abuse. She believes that Harry is only able to feel like a real person when he gets his Hogwarts letter and is able to leave the only family he has known. Reading the books as an adult illuminates the everyday abuse of the Dursleys – definitely my own experience re-reading The Philosopher’s Stone

When Harry realises that Dumbledore isn’t perfect, he feels entirely betrayed by this shift in his worldview. As one of the guests points out that Harry behaves like someone who’s grown up in an abusive home – he categorises the adults in his life in very extreme ways – he either trusts them entirely or hates them instantly and refuses to engage with them in any way (Snape). This is especially true in the beginning of the series. It’s something I hadn’t considered. I wonder how my own childhood experiences of trauma and abuse have impacted the ways in which I engage with people as an adult. I was talking to a friend of mine who has had a recent diagnosis of complex PTSD based on her own childhood experiences and how this has impacted her email and texting anxiety among other things. I wonder if I’d have the same diagnosis if I ever went to therapy. 

Caps Lock Harry where Harry is yelling at everyone is a consequence of him having to relive his trauma constantly and acknowledging that Cedric was murdered due to the same person who murdered his parents. Lashing out is how he dealt with all the emotions he couldn’t address. Harry survived in great part due to the support system in the form of his friends and the adults in his life, no matter how flawed they are. He found a new family and engaged with people in different ways than the way he was used to with the Dursleys. In Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a 40-year-old Harry has learned to live with his trauma and is struggling to be a father since he doesn’t have any role models and doesn’t know how to engage with Albus since it is a more difficult relationship than the one he shares with his other two children – how childhood trauma has lifelong impacts on the person. 

 

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

(I’ve already used this episode as a text for Episode 6, so I’m supplementing the notes I made then with these new ones. For the old notes, click here.)

Neurodivergent and autistic people read themselves into the story – much like people of the races/castes who aren’t dominant – because these representations are missing in media. They recognise themselves in characters even when they aren’t explicitly labelled as autistic. Characters who are explicitly identified as autistic are usually full of stereotypes and only include social deficits and not their skills and abilities – essentialising autistic characters into their most well-known and well-stereotyped characteristics. Finding characters you relate to in fiction and in media is easy if you’re a part of the dominant group but not when you’re in a group whose identities are marginalised like neurodivergent people. Theory of mind not only applies to abled people but also to disabled people in order to understand their experiences and perspectives. 

“My brain is not the same as yours. My perception is not the same as yours.” 

As Marcel says, it shouldn’t be the job of people with disabilities or of people who are allied with disabilities to read themselves into the text – to use the signposts in the text to make connections with their own lives. These representations should be more explicit and nuanced.

They talk about the intersection of disability with other identities. Historically, in terms of the intersection of gender and disability, women were considered to be more likely to be mentally unstable. People who are girls, Latinx and black are identified as autistic much later due to medical biases (Lydia prefers the term identified to diagnosed because the latter has negative medical connotations). In terms of its intersections with queerness, why isn’t there gayness or HIV within the text rather than just as Lupin’s allegory? To fit into society’s conception of normal, Lupin has to fit into the heteronormative structures i.e. he marries Tonks – herself coded as queer – and they have a child. There’s also racism in disability where white children are identified more than children of colour. There’s also the trope of fat, dumb kids where disability and fatness go together and this fatness and stupidity makes them bullies (Dudley, Crabbe and Goyle).

Neville’s parents are stuck in St Mungo’s forever. Their trauma of being tortured into insanity is never explored and only understood through Neville. They are dehumanised in many ways. They are a narrative device used to explore Neville’s tragedy. Ableism is oppression.

“Oppression dehumanises a person.” 

Lydia points out that in fantasy, there is a critique that non-human creatures play the role of a stand-in for people of colour – house elves, centaurs, goblins. You can only understand the oppression of these marginalised groups in the real world if they’re transposed to these non-human characters which you can pity/empathise with but not actually engage with the real oppression of these groups. In some cases, these metaphors may be unintentional but damaging such as the anti-Semitic tropes of goblins. Hogwarts is so white – the number of characters of colour doesn’t represent British society. In Harry Potter, white characters are used as metaphors for oppression of racialised and otherwise marginalised people in the real world. You don’t need to use a metaphor for black people or indigenous people because there are black people and indigenous people in the world. 

Being a Squib can be seen as an allegory for disability and in that, the representation of magical disability is terrible. Squibs include Argus Filch, Mrs Figgs, Ariana Dumbledore (her disability is born of trauma by being attacked by Muggle boys and who then goes on to become a family secret; she isn’t born a Squib but becomes unable to use magic). Being a Squib is a magical disability. As Lydia points out, disability isn’t something you can get over – it’s not something you grow out of. 

White people are let off violence because you look into their mental health history – which is both racism and ableism. The rate of suicide among people with disabilities isn’t because they can’t live with their disability but because they’re afraid of being a burden on their families or caregivers.

Magical technology like the Quick Quotes Quill can be used in the classroom to improve accessibility. Fred and George can also be read as atypical learners – they are disruptive and don’t fit in with the institutionalised schooling structure of Hogwarts. When they leave school and are allowed to control their own learning, they thrive because they are brilliant magicians. The twins as well as Luna model a different way of being smart – don’t display typical markers of intelligence. Neville proves himself only when he displays a neurotypical kind of heroism i.e. kills Nagini – the story doesn’t explore his own skills and abilities (although he does seem to be a leader of the DA in their seventh year at Hogwarts). Hagrid as an atypical learner with the intersection of disability and half-giant race. He can’t do magic but is that because he was expelled from school? Being expelled imposed a magical disability on him because he could no longer be a part of the magical community. His monstrosity is tempered by his gentleness and usage of traditional markers of femininity – pink umbrella, frilly apron, referring to himself as Mummy with Norbert.

Using popular culture conversations act as a way to include diverse marginalised perspectives especially in education and through the Witch, Please podcast where the educator/host isn’t the only arbiter of knowledge and their position is troubled by listener/student feedback, insights, and experiences. 

 

6) Video – The Gayly Prophet

(I’ve already used this episode as a text for Episode 6, so I’m supplementing the notes I made then with these new ones. For the old notes, click here.)

In the magical world, even being a Muggle seems to be a disability though I think Muggles are able to manage just fine without magic. They have used technology in order to make their lives easier and in some circumstances, it seems to be more efficient than some of Hogwarts’s more medieval technology. There’s no internet in the magical world! Communication can be so much easier but it’s made more complicated. 

Squibs are disabled in a more real way, of course, because they’re from magical families which means they’re supposed to be able to do certain things which they can’t. Why not use Muggle technology to bring them on par with the abilities of witches and wizards?

 

7) Essay – The Future Is (Not) Disabled

Forget in SFF where people use technology or magic to fix disability, that’s happening in the real world as well where it’s supposed to be reassuring that medical advances can fix disabilities and make sure they don’t exist in the future. I hadn’t considered what an act of erasure this is to people with disabilities living today. It’s as if abled people can’t imagine thriving with disabilities which is why they can’t imagine disabled people being okay. 

In an ableist society (just like in a patriarchal or racist or casteist one) it’s very easy to internalise ableism, especially if you aren’t provided with alternate conceptions of representations of being in the world.

“Welcome to our eugenic eutopia: we can see where we’re not wanted.”

Marieke points out that conversations about the need for representation of disabilities in SFF only happen in disabled communities – it’s important that they happen in all spaces, especially nondisabled ones. They draw on Dr Rudine Simm Bishops’s metaphor of books as windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors to assert the fact that they had no mirrors growing up which reflected their own disabled experiences in ways which weren’t othering or offensive. This was especially hurtful since they sought escape in books from the real world where mainstream culture constantly seeks to fix disabilities so as to ensure that disabled people aren’t a burden on themselves or on society. Books also seemed to reiterate the same message. 

The idea of fixing what ails you is rooted in the old-school medical model of disability: people are disabled by their impairments. Take those away and everything will be splendiferous(ly bland). If you can’t take them away, you’re pretty much screwed. More recently, the consensus among disabled people, disability rights advocates, and (thankfully, increasingly) medical professionals is that disability is a result of social barriers. A wheelchair user isn’t disabled by their wheelchair, but by the lack of ramps. A developmentally disabled student is disabled by lack of access and support. The impairments may be medical, but disability occurs because people with diverse body types and neurotypes face ableism, abuse, and inaccessibility.

It’s about an awareness of whose stories are being told and who is allowed to tell those stories, of what the world looks like, of who we think competent or valuable enough to be our heroes.

This reminds me of what Robert wrote in his essay where he didn’t even imagine being a companion on Doctor Who because that different idea of heroism seems so out of reach. By erasing these diverse abilities, you’re reinforcing the idea that people with disabilities don’t have value.

If you take the social model of disability as starting point, disability occurs as a result of social barriers, created due to lack of equal access, stereotyping, and other forms of marginalization. Unless you write a perfect utopia wherein none of those things matter anymore, disabled people will be part of your world. Of course, write a perfect utopia wherein none of those things matter anymore, and people with diverse bodies and diverse neurotypes still both exist and belong.

As they say, it’s a profound failure of imagination to not figure out ways in which fantastical and futuristic worlds can support people with different bodies and brains. 

The pointers they lay out for writing about disabled characters in fiction stand true for our real life attitudes and behaviours too, I think. Questions we can ask ourselves to challenge our own internalised ableist beliefs 

If you wish to insert disability into the narrative, start here: consider how your society interacts with bodies, minds, emotions. What is considered physically normal and physically desirable? What is normal and desirable behavior? Where does our (ableist) sense of normalcy and, far more interestingly, lack thereof intersect with other forms of marginalization?

What happens if someone does not meet the standards society lays out, bodily, mentally, emotionally. Are disabled people laughed at? Shouted at? Spit at? Are they considered valuable members of society? Or only when they are considered useful or productive members of society? Is access conditional? Are they pitied? Avoided? Propped up as inspiration? Do they have agency and voice or are they talked over? Is access seen as a right or a nuisance? Is illness considered weakness? Is life with disability seen as life on the easier setting by those who aren’t disabled?

I should tell you, all those are contemporary examples. If you are nondisabled, where do you think we stand now with regards to disability perceptions and disability rights? Can you answer that question? You should be able to before you write about us. You should listen to us before you write about us.

Consider then what happens in the future if someone does not meet the standards society lays out, bodily, mentally, emotionally. What has changed, compared to today? Why has it changed, or why hasn’t it? Are disabled people still marginalized, are they tolerated, or are they accepted?

Does your economic status influence which options are available to you (if at all)? After all, access is an instrument of power.”

They also provide solutions to the failure of imagination in the form of how to make fictional worlds more accessible which wouldn’t just make the stories inclusive and interesting but would also go such a long way in introducing the ways in which disabled people navigate their lives to nondisabled people – both mirrors and windows and perhaps even sliding glass doors if the writers do a good job in evoking empathy 

Consider instead: technology as access. Think, for example: virtual reality therapy sessions (I would love to see futuristic societies that have normalized therapy and staying in mental shape). Or cyberpunk canes (I want one). Translate your futurism to assistive devices, like service robot dogs, hover wheelchairs, communication devices, or hell, even just ramps everywhere.

They also point out how intersectional identities impact people with disabilities in the real world in ways which privilege some and marginalise others. They also outline how these injustices are further compounded when multiple disabilities intersect. 

In this day and age, we have relatively decent diagnostics for autism spectrum disorder—for white cis boys. White cis girls have caught up in recent years but are still underdiagnosed. Despite there being a higher prevalence of autism spectrum disorder among nonbinary people, access to diagnostics for trans people is complicated at best. And children of color of all genders deal with worse access to diagnostics and are often misdiagnosed or underdiagnosed.

They’re excited about the possibilities of medical and technological advancements to provide better access to people with disabilities rather than erasing disabilities altogether – to include rather than exclude. For them, their disability is very much a part of their identity, one they don’t want to fix.

At the heart of it all, consider bodily and personal autonomy. No matter the technological advances, what if people don’t wish to be cured? Is that not their right? To decide that life with different body types and different neurotypes is both valid and fantastic? Because it may not seem that way to you, but many of us are perfectly fine the way we are. Our happily ever after is not dependent on being abled. I don’t wish to be cured. My cane, my joint braces, my weirdly wired brain are intrinsically part of me. I would take better painkillers, sure. Better access, please. But no one gets to deny my happiness.

Episode 12 The International Imagination: Exploring World Politics in the Fantastic Beasts Films

Episode Resources:

1) Movie – Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them 

2) Movie – The Crimes of Grindelwald

3) Movie – Deleted scenes featuring Nagini from The Crimes of Grindelwald

3) Essay – Background Remarks: Grindelwald, Fantastic Beasts, and Gay Representation

4) Essay – Notes on Claudia Kim’s Nagini

5) Fan podcast – Women of Harry Potter: Angelina Johnson with Bayana Davis

6) Fan podcast – Women of Harry Potter: Parvati Patil with Proma Khosla

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

8) Fan podcast – #Wizard Team: Blood Purity and Mixed Race Identity

9) Fan podcast – Woke Doctor Who: Harry Potter and the People of Colour

 

Episode Transcript:

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

Lorrie and her Nagini funkopop

[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 twelfth episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I talk to Lorrie Kim about how people of colour are represented in the Potterverse and how much Lorrie loves and identifies with Nagini. We also discuss the real-world parallels in Crimes of Grindelwald. This includes mentions of rape, exploitation and human trafficking so please consider this a content warning. Lorrie proposes that the Harry Potter books – written for children – and the Fantastic Beasts movies – written for adults – deal with similar themes in very different ways. The allegory of fascism is ever-present but is less escapist. The international politics in Crimes of Grindelwald draw from historical as well as contemporary colonial, racial and sexual violence in the real world.

A book authored by a single creator reflects their cultural, social, and political limitations. However, in movies, the actors and crew become co-creators of the story, which can sometimes make up for the author’s blind-spots. Deleted scenes in movies marginalise female characters of colour whose stories are seen as expendable. Fans’ discomfort against how these characters are portrayed can end up erasing them from the story entirely. Many fans dislike the Fantastic Beasts movies and Nagini’s story arc for lots of different reasons. While fan interpretations often differ, mainstream fandom discourse isn’t always nuanced and inclusive of multiple perspectives. Fandom has tremendous potential to promote critical thinking, but fan opinions can also influence people in limiting ways.

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: Today I’m so thrilled to be able to talk to Lorrie Kim about our shared love of the Potterverse. Lorrie is a second-generation Korean-American, bisexual woman, three years younger than J. K. Rowling. She’s married with two kids. She’s also the author of Snape: A Definitive Reading. She has enjoyed speaking at Harry Potter conferences since 2008. I’m especially excited to have Lorrie on the episode because in our brief conversations while planning the episode, she’s shown me such a different perspective of some of the critiques which are really popular in the Potter fandom. Like me, Lorrie is able to balance love and critique when it comes to Harry Potter, but some of her opinions are quite different from what I’ve encountered in mainstream fandom. So I’m really happy that Lorrie is here to expand my mind some more. Before we get to those bits though, I wanted to discuss how your initial opinions about the books are influenced by how old you were when you first read them. That’s something that you mentioned while we were planning the episode. So I read The Philosopher’s Stone when I was ten and grew up with the book series and I only came to consider and understand the more problematic aspects of the series as an adult through my engagement in fandom. Lorrie, you mentioned that you first read the series as an adult so that impacted your experience in a different way.

Lorrie: Yeah, because I’m almost the same age as J. K. Rowling, and I think I was maybe 32-33 when I first read the first five books ’cause six and seven hadn’t been written yet. I was identifying with the author somewhat because I knew her life experiences were generationally similar to mine. I’ve noticed that people who grew up with the series, as their perspectives changed into adult perspectives, they’ve re-visited them and what they remembered from the series is not necessarily what they see now when they read it as adults. And there’s a lot less of that for me because I was already an adult reading.

Parinita: So you already saw the problematic aspects when you first read them. [laughs]

Lorrie: Well when I first read them, it was very much very clear to me that I was reading something written by a white, British, heterosexual, married woman, a Christian mother. I didn’t have kids when I read the first five books, I had a kid by the time the sixth book came out. And then I was pregnant when the seventh book came out. And re-reading them as a mother changed my perspective a lot, especially around issues of pregnancy and being connected to small infants and infant development.

Parinita: Oh interesting! Did your kids grow up with the books as well?

Lorrie: They did. And what I didn’t expect – they were small children during the time that we switched over from Harry Potter books being written to all of them being written and all of the movies being finished. So I had a couple years when I wondered how old they would be before I let them read the books, not realising that by the time kids are in kindergarten and they run around together playing in the playground, they’re shouting spells at each other.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lorrie: So you know they’re spoiled for the series. So all of these concerns I had as a reader, I wasn’t taking into account what the reality was going to be for them. So by the time kids entered kindergarten, they’ve heard of something or other from Harry Potter.

Parinita: Yeah that’s a really interesting generational difference as well for people – for kids who had the entire canon. Well not the Fantastic Beasts canon but the entire Harry Potter canon that does not include the new tweets and the Pottermore stuff. But you’re so right. For me, growing up, reading this it was so different from what you picked up on in the books because none of that is anything that I’d noticed. I didn’t even notice how white the books were, just because I was growing up in India when I was reading this so I couldn’t really articulate those sort of conversations. Because I grew up reading a lot of British children’s books anyway and American children’s literature. So most of my reading diet consisted of Western books where most of the characters – where whiteness is default essentially. So I didn’t really question that in Harry Potter as much. Now, of course, when I moved to the UK, I see that the UK, even in the early 90s, would have been much more diverse than what the books show.

Lorrie: Yes.

Parinita: In The Prisoner of Azkaban, just the brief clip that I watched, there is so much more diversity within the classroom. And I was really surprised because that’s not something I had noticed when I was watching the movies because I was very much focused on the trio because that’s what the books focus on as well. So even as an audience member, that’s what I was watching. But now I was like, “Oh wait! There are a lot more people of colour in the movies!” I know with Lavender Brown’s casting, that’s had a bit of an issue where she was a black girl in the beginning.

Lorrie: Yeah.

Parinita: And then in Half-Blood Prince, suddenly when she was a main character – well not a main character but she was adjacent to a protagonist, she was suddenly a white character. But then you picked up on these themes and that didn’t dampen your enthusiasm for the books, right?

The changing faces of Lavender Brown. Image courtesy Reddit

Lorrie: Any book from authors of any culture will show the perspectives of the author and their limitations. It’s not like there’s some other country or racial identity people can come from where everything is automatically superior and they know how to write every kind of person. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah. I feel like now with the internet and social media when these conversations are so mainstream – because for me, that’s what really made me decolonise my own mind a little bit. Growing up in India – and India still has quite a colonised mindset because we still think what the West does is better. At least in urban India and certain parts of rural and small-town India. So we would think that the US or the UK would have it all figured out. It’s just because of colonisation obviously that we still think this. Although now with the politics and the way the situation is going on both in the US and the UK, that may not be as true anymore. But in India, we have a fascist leader as well so we can’t really complain. Speaking of fascism, I’m turning to Fantastic Beasts now. One of the mainstream fandom opinions I’ve encountered before – and you came in and smashed this perception to pieces – is that most Harry Potter fans, at least the ones I’ve read and listened to on podcasts, don’t seem to think too highly of the movies. And I have to admit that these really strong opinions unfairly influenced me and put me off watching Crimes of Grindelwald for the longest time what with the critiques of the movie itself but also the whole Nagini controversy, which we’ll talk about a bit more later. But just to introduce your own thoughts about the movies, I know that unlike most fans I’ve encountered, you love the new films, right?

Lorrie: I love them! Crimes of Grindelwald is my favourite of the Potterverse films.

Parinita: I watched Crimes of Grindelwald a few days ago after consciously not watching it because of all the negativity in the fandom. And I was so surprised by how invested I was in the movie just because of how much everyone seems to dislike the movie, I thought that I would as well – which is obviously really silly now that I think about it. But yeah, I really enjoyed the film, more than the first Fantastic Beasts movie.

Lorrie: I’m curious – can you tell me what some of the things that were most compelling to you in the Crimes of Grindelwald movie?

Parinita: So I loved the characters.

Lorrie: Yeah.

Parinita: I loved Leta Lestrange, I loved her whole story. I also loved Newt right from the first movie. I loved the way that he treats other people as well as other animals. I loved his cross-cultural friendship with Jacob and how respectfully and empathetically he not only treats him but just the world in general. And I also loved the glimpses into the French Ministry of Magic. We’re used to the British magical system because that’s what we’ve grown up with. And then we saw a little bit about the American magical system in Fantastic Beasts. And I’m loving these glimpses of how different countries do it differently. Of course, it’s still very Western currently. It might change in the three other films. But I’m loving this exploration of new worlds but also the return to old ones. They came to Hogwarts and there was McGonagall for the briefest of instances in the scene and I was like, “Aaaah McGonagall! I love you!” So I liked the balance. The more alarming bit of it was I could recognise Grindelwald’s speeches – the way that he couched his bigotry and prejudice in more politically correct terms, I was like, “Oh yeah this is what happened in India. This is what’s happening in many parts of the world. This is not scary at all!” You’d mentioned that it is a film for adults as opposed to Harry Potter which is for children. And I think I really appreciated that.

Lorrie: Yeah I felt like I’m the audience for this. And that many times as an adult reading or watching the Harry Potter stories, I had to tell myself, well I’m not the audience. As an adult, this isn’t the story that I wanted. I have to remember that she’s speaking to young people between ages six and seventeen.

Parinita: Yeah. But you did say that you’d noticed some similar themes in Harry Potter – even though it’s for children – and Fantastic Beasts which is for adults. Could you tell us some of the themes you picked up on?

Lorrie: Yeah. In my opinion, it’s actually the same story. It’s just that Harry Potter is a fairy tale and that’s why when Harry goes looking for his own story, he always finds something. He wants to find his mother and father, he finds them. He finds the people who give them back to him. When children are angry and murderous in Harry Potter, an adult comes and saves them from becoming murderers. They don’t actually kill, they get stopped in time because adults are there to do their jobs. In Fantastic Beasts it’s the same but the children actually commit murder and adults are just as ineffective as we know them to be in real life. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Lorrie: And the sexual assault in Harry Potter is often coded or softened in some way. And especially when it’s sexual assault of men on women or girls, Rowling very carefully wrote it so you can read it as sexual assault or not. She did very careful word choice so what you see there is something you need to read according to your experience and to your age. For example, there is a child of coercion in Harry Potter who is Voldemort.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lorrie: And she carefully made it so that it was a female character coercing a male character. I think she was trying to get away from the over-emotional tones of making it statistically what’s more common of men coercing women. So it’s very careful. And it’s not the common story that we encounter in real life. And in Fantastic Beasts, we have a child of coercion but oh there’s no cushioning this. What we see is some of the grossest, starkest ways that this is common in real life. Both with race and national, colonial violence as well as gender.

Parinita: Spoilers for those who haven’t watched Crimes of Grindelwald, but until you pointed that out to me that this is what happens with Leta Lestrange’s family as well as – I’ve forgotten her half-brother’s name …

Lorrie: Yusuf.

Parinita: Yusuf. Yeah!

Lorrie: Cama.

Parinita: Yeah Yusuf Cama’s family, it is rape where a white man essentially stole a black woman or kidnapped or enchanted – I think it was an enchantment.

Lorrie: It is the Imperius curse.

Parinita: Oh yeah. And essentially raped her and I think she died in childbirth? From what I remember.

Lorrie: Yes.

Parinita: Yeah. And it’s not something that you might catch on first watch, because so much happens after that scene. That revelation happens towards the end of the movie and then after that, there’s a lot of action and drama and everything. It’s like you were saying, you had to watch the movie three times to unpack all the things that are happening in that movie. I don’t know why this is – but maybe that’ll change now because academia is such a long process –  but there doesn’t seem to be as much critical analysis of these movies in academic publishing or even on the internet as much as the books have received. And I don’t know if it’s because a lot of people don’t like the movies. I have no idea why I haven’t seen so much critical analysis. Because otherwise the internet is full of Harry Potter critical analysis. The smallest of scenes is unpacked so much. Whereas the movies I don’t seem to have encountered that so much.

Lorrie: I think part of it is that with the stories we’ve had a long time to get used to the starkness and the appalling parts of the Harry Potter story, that there’s a baby that was almost killed. Some of that is really hard to deal with but it’s been awhile so we’ve accepted that part of the story, I think. The even harsher realities shown in these movies, it’s going to take a while for them to settle in. There are a lot of parts of the Fantastic Beasts and Crimes of Grindelwald movies that people rejected just ’cause the stories which are true you know [laughs] accurate stories about the world.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lorrie: They take a while to accept especially because and this was [laughs] obviously not planned but those movies came out in 2016 and 2018 during times that really fascist politics were happening in the US and the UK. And in fact the first Fantastic Beasts movie premiered during the week that Donald Trump was elected. So when you see the interviews that Rowling and the cast do in Carnegie Hall in New York to open the film, they all look really stunned and sickened.

Parinita: [laughs] Oh no.

Lorrie: I actually have a friend who had tickets to go see them talk in Carnegie Hall. And when she walked there, she had to walk past Trump Tower and there were huge police barricades all over a block of Trump Tower because there were so many protesters. So it had been less than a week. And if you look at the interviews and you see the faces of the actors, they all look like they don’t even know what to say because they had thought that this would be allegorical – an allegory about fascism. And it’s a lot less escapist. There are parts of the world where Harry Potter was never escapist. But in the US and the UK, the Harry Potter stories were for a while more stark than a lot of people were living. And now they’re not escapist at all. [laughs]

Parinita: No. And what you were saying about the difference between writing for adults versus writing for children, so in one of the podcast episodes I think they propose that witches and wizards in England must have profited off the slave trade and off colonisation – that was their reading into it. Because families like the Malfoys must have become rich like that – exploring how intertwined the Muggle world and the witching world is. And now it seems to be much more explicitly there in terms of the Lestrange family and in terms of even Nagini where these different ethnicities in the US and in the UK have – well I don’t know if Fantastic Beasts explores the UK as much. The Lestranges – they were French right?

Lorrie: Yeah.

Parinita: Yeah so then it’s much more explicit. And I wonder then if what you were saying about fans who’ve grown up with this and there’s a lot more metaphorical racism in the Harry Potter series rather than the more overt racism here. It’s all couched under house-elves and goblins and Muggle-borns. Whereas here … well I suppose here things like the magical president in the US is black. One of the critiques in the movies was that in 1920s, having a black leader when there weren’t many black people within the Ministry itself would have been strange, right?

Lorrie: That was a major … [sighs] that was one of those cases where it’s tokenism. If you’re going to have a black woman as the president but you don’t show an established structure of black wizarding culture, if she’s going to be the only black woman in high office and she’s the president, it feels a little amateur. Like okay I want to have a person of colour but without doing the enormous work of having to delve into accurately portraying all of the tensions there so I’ll make her president. That’s a strong independent position but it’s not supported.

Parinita: Especially if she was out in the Muggle world, her experiences would have been so different from her role and position in the wizarding world in the US. And that tension I think was glossed over like, “No, no let’s not think about it. She’s the leader. That’s all.”

Lorrie: And there is a place for that kind of symbolism in fantasy. Because there’s also very much a tradition in fantasy literature of, “Well if we think about real life in the 1920s for certain kinds of people, it’s heavy. But people were just as inspired and brilliant then as anywhere any time. Let’s imagine a fantasy where this is how it would have looked.” The problem is who’s writing that and how much do they know about what they’re portraying?

Parinita: Yeah.

Lorrie: And it’s tokenism because … this is where I think some of the criticism of J. K. Rowling is a little out of context. It’s true that I don’t trust her to write people of colour. It’s a very ambitious project to take this deeply imagined white British magic system that she’s invented and then try to expand that to be an international story. But I couldn’t do that. If I were gonna write a story that went to other countries that I’ve never lived in, I wouldn’t do any better. And I’m not sure how many people would. And if that means that that nobody should ever try, that doesn’t seem like the right answer to me either.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lorrie: But this is where I think the movies deserve a little more credit than they’re getting because what happens then is you go from a novel format where it’s a single author creating everything in the Harry Potter books to the Fantastic Beasts stories which only exist as films. And therefore there cannot be a single creator. And even though the stories are definitely still created from this white US-UK perspective, even so the actors in their bodies and their faces and everything that they bring to their roles, their experiences, become much greater co-creators of the characters than the actors were when they were bringing Harry Potter novels to the screen.

Parinita: Yeah. One of the things I personally saw related to that was Newt. I know that this is a theory within fandom, I don’t know if he was written like that, but he can be read as neurodiverse.

Lorrie: He has confirmed that.

Parinita: Oh he has?

Lorrie: Eddie Redmayne, yes.

Parinita: Yeah. I didn’t know if it was just the actor’s choice to portray himself like that or whether it was intentionally written into the script. I think he’s one of my favourite characters in the Potterverse, not just in the Fantastic Beasts films. With the second movie, it’s so much starker – the focus on fascism like you were saying, the fascist framework of these movies. And Grindelwald is such a symptom. He is evil and he uses all this propaganda and everything, but he’s just a symptom. Whereas so many people in the wizarding community, they will happily be fascists themselves and rule both the Muggle and magical world, as we saw in the French system. I’m sure that’s the same in the US and in the UK and wherever else they head to next. That was so scary because that was so true. And it so reflects real life. If we get rid of Trump, if we get rid of Modi, that’s not going to stop what’s happening in the US or in India, right?

Lorrie: Yes and no because also what those kinds of leaders are exploiting is fear and prejudice and tendencies that humans always have within us. And that’s overpowering empathy and generosity that we also always have within us. So partly if there’s encouragement of certain elements in human nature backed up by politics, backed up by the law and enforcement, humans we can be manipulated [laughs] in a number of different directions. We have a lot of that in us already. But the same people that can be manipulated to be very, very bigoted could also in other contexts or just through peer pressure be made to be much more accepting.

Parinita: Yeah, that’s true. What you said about stoking fears and preying on hopes is something I thought was very interesting. Again, spoilers for Crimes of Grindelwald but what happens with Queenie and how Grindelwald uses her fears of not being able to marry Jacob because the society that she comes from doesn’t allow relationships with people who are not witches and wizards. Queenie is supposed to be this really empathetic and generous and open-hearted person. And the reason that she joins Grindelwald turns that against her. I know there’s a theory that she’s a double agent. And maybe she’ll come back. But I find it more fascinating that she would have joined him because she’s doing it for what for her are the correct reasons.

Lorrie: Oh, I have so many theories about Queenie. [laughs]

Parinita: Oh really? What are some of your theories?

Lorrie: Well I think she was drugged.

Parinita: Hmm. With the tea that she had in the house? Yeah maybe.

Lorrie: And also just because she’s neurodiverse, she can’t control her Legilimency and it causes her daily discomfort. It causes discomfort in her closest relationships and she can get overwhelmed. I think she’s vulnerable. When we see her first meeting Grindelwald, the moment he walks into the room, she is trembling. She leaps to self defense and she says, “I know what you are, stay away.” And just through sheer power, he overpowers her during that scene. He just keeps walking toward her, she lowers her wand. By the time he’s done talking, he’s won her over. He’s just more powerful than she is.

Parinita: Yeah. And Grindelwald is really good at manipulating and overpowering even someone like Credence, of course, who is much younger – there’s that age dynamic there. But he was the same with Dumbledore. And that was one of Dumbledore’s origin stories where he fell for … what was the phrase? I’ve forgotten that very fascist phrase that he used.

Lorrie: Oh, for the greater good.

Parinita: For the greater good, that’s right. So I mean if Dumbledore can fall for this – which from the narrative, Dumbledore is supposed to be wise and critical and everything but yeah he fell for this as well. So why wouldn’t other people?

Lorrie: Well what we see about Dumbledore is that he already had those wishes in him and Grindelwald just allowed him to suppress his conscience so that he could give in to those wishes. And that’s why Dumbledore says it has to be Newt to fight against Grindelwald because the kind of personality Newt has, he doesn’t have the kind of vulnerabilities that Grindelwald is used to exploiting.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lorrie: Even middle-aged Dumbledore, when he looks in the Mirror of Erised, his deepest desire is to go back to being melded with this man who is his equal even if he is also the most evil person. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah. Grindelwald seems to be just as if not more terrible and powerful and evil as Voldemort. Okay you defeated a fascist forty years ago and here comes another which again, no parallels with real life at all! [laughs] Which was again much starker in the movies – maybe it’s also the visual component and maybe it’s deliberate, but the parallels with the real world and the magical world were much starker. You mentioned that you really liked the internationally political aspect of the movies where it explores both real-world racial and fictional world Pureblood politics and prejudices? Something that you’d mentioned which I found really interesting was the Korean perspective and Korean history.

Lorrie: Oh boy yeah. I think you can’t have an international story without delving right into the middle of the huge upheavals in racial and colonial violence that have shaped world history. I don’t think you can have an international story without that. And especially because this film series is about the international tensions that gave rise to World War II. So it has to be about race, about fascism, about genocide. That’s the story that she’s taking on. And then what I love what she’s doing with the Fantastic Beasts films so far based on our sample of two movies. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Lorrie: She goes to a place and she tells you the story that that place does not want to talk about. So when she takes you to New York, there’s American capital punishment, there’s puritanism and witch hunts. And then she takes you to France and there’s this horrendous colonial violence, racial violence. When a culture feels guilty about a story, it wants to put it away or suppress it and that’s the theme of the Fantastic Beasts stories – other creatures, are they beings or are they monsters? And Grindelwald says they’re not inferior, they’re other. Nagini and Credence are both perfect examples – how would you classify them? Newt and his textbooks explore that question perfectly. Do you classify this being as a beast or as a person? You have the centaurs who say, “Oh we could be classified as people but we don’t want that. We reject that. Put us with the beasts.” And in the first movie especially when we saw people talk about Credence, some people said “it” and some people said “he”.

Parinita: Oh yeah, that’s right.

Lorrie: And that’s the difference between Newt and the executioner Grimmson. Grimmson is all excited to go hunting. And Newt is horrified. [laughs] So when we see the circus, which is another beautiful melding of fantasy and real history because the circus of course is a place where humans who are or were freaks find a life that is both better and worse than a mainstream life. And definitely a culture where people who are freaks bond together. And put up with some really frightening, exploitative conditions. So Skender, who’s the circus master, talks about them as his freaks and as his under-beings. And he’s exploiting Nagini as a freak and as an under-being. Even though there are a number of reasons why this isn’t true, but for my feelings Nagini is the first Korean woman in Potterverse. And one way in which that might not be true is because we’re not sure if Cho Chang may have been meant to be Korean.

Parinita: Right, yeah.

Lorrie: And the thing about Cho Chang, of course, is she’s written so that she’s of no race. You could put any race on her and she’s –

Parinita: Generically East Asian.

Lorrie: Yeah.

Parinita: She’s just an East Asian name.

Lorrie: It’s an amateur move from a writer who’s not familiar with a culture and trying to portray it and it comes off as strange tokenism.

Parinita: I mean Parvati and Padma Patil were similar as well. They could have been white. There was nothing there.

Lorrie: And that’s why when we say that Hermione is black, Hermione is a beautifully written character of colour because she’s a full human. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs]

Fan art of black Hermione

Fan art of black Hermione

Lorrie: And her story has elements of being a minority. But when Rowling sets out from the top to write somebody who is signalled to be a person of colour, then that’s not something that you trust as being confident and full.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lorrie: So to me, Cho Chang is not of any particular race. And I’m not angry about it either. I’m just like, well that’s as much as that author can do. And I’m not going to waste my time expecting her to do any better because I don’t think she can. And I have seen improvements in Rowling’s ability to write people of colour and the improvements are so slow [laughs] and incremental and small and not a direct line of improvement either that it [sighs] it’s … you know be realistic. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah. And I suppose again that reflects maybe just the maturity that you had as a reader and as an adult when you first read the series versus say someone like me and a lot of fans who are younger than me who demand instant change. Maybe not instant change but we want her to be better sooner than or maybe even more than she’s capable of. I would be happier if she hired a research assistant or a co-writer or someone who is from the culture to write with her. Just so that there would be more authenticity. On the other hand, with fandom discourse, I get a lot of my ideas from fandom because – I’ve mentioned this on the podcast before. So in India, mainstream education isn’t really equipped to teach you how to think critically. That’s not something that’s in the curriculum. So I didn’t grow up learning how to think; I grew up in school learning what to think and parroted those answers in exams.  And it’s only fandom that through its multiple perspectives and diverse opinions and questioning of canon and expanding canon and exploring all those missing gaps, it allowed me to imagine differently. And that’s another reason I’m doing this PhD project. But thanks to you I realised, which is why I’m so excited to have you on board here as a participant, is that fan discourse isn’t always as nuanced and inclusive of multiple perspectives as I give it credit for. And one of the things that you’ve completely given me a different perspective from mainstream fandom is of the character of Nagini. And I know that you were uncomfortable about the hostility exhibited by some of the fan podcasts that I’d suggested which made me think that even though I credit fan discussions to expanding my mind in many ways, it’s still quite limited. And sometimes one narrative takes over and you might not get a chance to explore other opinions. With Nagini I think the controversy was that she represents a stereotype and a trope of Eastern Asian women in Western media, if I’m not wrong.

Lorrie: Oh. [sighs] It’s hard to represent what the objection to Nagini was because it’s not the same as what I think I saw on the screen. As I was saying, I didn’t think there was a Korean woman in Potterverse. So then when it was in 2017 when they announced that a Korean woman is going to be playing Nagini, I was so thrilled. And so from that day I have a tweet.

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs]

Lorrie: “A Korean woman in Potterverse. *instant identification.* 1) Neville killed me, oh noes 2) [gasps] “milk Nagini” GROSSSSSS 3) Impersonating Bathilda Bagshot’s corpse? That was a lot to ask of a snake! 4) Ugh, I had to eat Charity Burbage! 5) OH MY GOD I ATE SNAPE”

Parinita: [laughs]

Lorrie: And I just started laughing and laughing and laughing. And it was so much fun. I followed Claudia Kim on Instagram and she posted a screencap. The movie of Chamber of Secrets was on her TV and she showed herself running to watch like “Oooh oooh oooh!” And then she showed a picture of little twelve-year-old Neville and her caption was, “Oh no Neville! Aaaaah!”

Parinita: [laughs]

Lorrie: [laughs] And when she wrote about Nagini, she would write, “Nagini, I love you.” And I was so excited. I had seen her before so I was so interested to see where this would go. And then it was like being punched repeatedly in the stomach when there was this huge outcry like, “Oh no this is terrible. If we have a Korean actress in Potterverse, then the story has to be about stereotypes and it’s racist and get the Korean woman out of there.” People were writing that her casting had ruined the franchise. [sighs] And they hadn’t even seen the movie yet.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lorrie: The more nuanced issue which I understand is that Nagini the character was written to be from Indonesia. And there had been a famous Indonesian actress cast and she couldn’t play the role ’cause she was pregnant. So they had to find another actress and eventually the one they found happened to be Korean. That’s partly like, “Oh well you know any Asian will do.” And that I understand. But what was not intended and yet happened in my mind that this makes Nagini Korean to me. And she’s not Korean-American. She’s Korean. She has a career at home and a following. And so it’s exciting that a Korean actress is going to become a part of this enormous international franchise. Let’s see how this happens. And the thing is if you think about Korean women in the time leading up to World War II, there was no Korea. Korea was colonised by Japan and you do not want to be colonised by Japan. Oh my god!

Parinita: [laughs] Yup.

Lorrie: So this is a political issue that is actually very divisive between Japan and Korea currently. And is responsible for major diplomatic conflicts and trade wars between Korea and Japan right now – that as part of the colonisation, the Japanese military plundered Korean female populations for human trafficking. And this is actually something that the Japanese military did with a number of Asian countries leading up to and during World War II including Indonesia. But really the bulk of it was huge numbers of Koreans. And there are a couple of those women that are still alive. And the degree of human trafficking obviously is something that a lot of Koreans don’t want as the thing to represent the country in the international imagination.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lorrie: Because it’s just too incredibly painful. But there’s a problem with that which is that it can go into shame and silencing the actual people who went through that. And wanting to hide their stories. I don’t want to single out anybody on social media because there is a whole lot of outcry against the whole concept of Nagini being played by a Korean woman. But some of the kinds of critiques that I saw said things like, “Oh yeah sure great what a positive, strong, independent woman!” And to me what that said is okay then you tell me then how do you want us to be shown in the story for your satisfaction? You make up the character that you can tell me, okay now you can come be in the story. And then people said something that is absolutely not true, absolutely not supported. Which is that they said, “Oh Nagini was his lover” No. There was nothing like that with Voldemort and Nagini. “This is his slave. She served a white man.” Okay I don’t actually think that race was the major component of the Nagini-Voldemort relationship. [laughs] First of all species, not race.

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs] And presumably she only met Voldemort after she got trapped in her body as a snake. This is just conjecture, I don’t know.

Lorrie: Yeah, we don’t know. Because at the time that this movie Crimes of Grindelwald was taking place, Voldemort has just been born. And we know that in Goblet of Fire, he shows that Nagini is his mother figure. So we don’t know if there’s some sort of substitution in Voldemort’s story. We have no idea where this is going to go. But it made me think [sighs] we don’t actually know a lot of the Nagini story but people have images in their minds of Asian women stereotypes that they’re uncomfortable with and they don’t want them. And to me that came down to this role should have gone to a white woman so that viewers wouldn’t be uncomfortable. And people are saying, “Well this is a terrible story. She dies in captivity. And this is racist.” And I thought how is that different from like half the Potteverse characters who have the same kind of death?

Parinita: Yeah. Because you’d written that in your blog post. Your blog post was really so illuminating. I watched the movie and then I watched Nagini’s deleted scenes. For me, Nagini was just one of the several characters that I was really interested in. I was actually interested in all of the characters in Crimes of Grindelwald just because they all added something different to the story in a very different way than what I was used to from the Harry Potter movies. Because obviously I’ve always read the books first. So I know exactly what’s going to happen in the movies. Whereas here, like you said, they’ve only ever been movies so I don’t know what’s going to happen in the new movies. It’s almost like being a teenager again when we were waiting for the new books to come out. In Crimes of Grindelwald I loved the last scene – I don’t know if it was the last scene – where there’s Nagini, and I think Yusuf and Newt and this whole ragtag bunch of people at Hogwarts. And presumably they are going to go on further adventures in the other three movies which I’m really waiting for. I like that they’re from different backgrounds magical, non-magical, Obscurial – well, Credence is not there anymore in that ragtag team but he will play a role. I’m just interested in how they manage to pull all of that together and I’m excited to see that. But getting back to your blog post, it was so illuminating to me because it included this perspective about especially how there are so many characters who are used and abused by Voldemort. And all these other tragedies that exist in canon in Harry Potter. But just focusing on this one character to almost erase her out of the story where they would rather not have her than have her in what they think is a problematic way.

Lorrie: Well I mean if considering the story and the era it’s – you know history was problematic. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Lorrie: There were some critiques of her storyline that I think are willfully untrue. Simply false. If people are saying well she doesn’t have agency, when you look at the actual plot line of Nagini in this movie, it’s amazing. So she is exploited. And just like your classic Harry Potter message, she joins forces with someone else who is powerless. And through their bond of affection and resistance, they escape their imprisonment. And we don’t have a lot of people in the Potterverse who are able to manage their own prison break.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lorrie: But these two do it. And neither one of them could have done it alone. They plot together, they make a strategy and there’s a moment when Skender is trying to get her to perform and she’s just making him look stupid. She’s not responding because she’s having eye contact with Credence like, “Is this going to happen? Are we going to bond? Are we going to go from being two captives to being free? Is our bond strong enough?” And to me that was a huge wish fulfillment because she’s being sexually exploited obviously with all the emphasis on how beautiful she is. But she’s in a way protected by the bars – the audience can’t touch her. And she can turn into a snake that can attack Skender and her best friend is an Obscurial.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lorrie: And I thought oh this is a good fantasy. And then they escape together. And then the two deleted scenes – I had a sorrow and anger when I eventually saw the deleted scenes because to me that’s a classic example of when a woman of colour’s story is marginalised. These scenes were written and filmed and they were taken out of the main movie. Fortunately, we got them in the deleted scenes but the fact that they were edited out is marginalisation.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lorrie: And her story is so much more full. This happens with Leta also. So in one deleted scene with Nagini, she and Credence are stealing food. They’re caring for each other. And she’s trying to hide from him that her skin is becoming more and more scaly. Because the Maledictus curse is in women through the female line, where there’s a curse on your family and eventually you turn into an animal. Which is as strong a human trafficking metaphor as any. So she doesn’t want him to see the scaliness because she’s afraid and ashamed and he makes her stop hiding it and he kisses it. And it’s so much like, beast or being, I see you’re a person, I love you.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lorrie: And then there’s a parallel to that in the other deleted scene which to me is so beautiful. I wish they had kept it. We see them waking up in the morning and Credence is sleeping in Nagini’s arms and you realise this is the most closeness he’s ever had in his life. He’s found peace, he’s found something. But then also every time Nagini sleeps, she has to turn into a snake. And every time she turns into a snake, she has a harder and harder time turning back. So there’s a close-up on her eyes. She hasn’t been sleeping. She has lain with Credence and comforted him so he could sleep. But she has stayed awake because she wants to be with him as a human. And that’s such a feeling of oppression – that hyper alertness.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lorrie: And then she tells him, “Make it happen because we’re free.” So he’s clearly told her about the Obscurus. And he’s never brought it forth voluntarily before. And then she does something that is so beautiful I can’t even stand it. It’s so beautiful where she lets it pass through her. At first it flies around in a way that you’re like you know what, this is beautiful too. The Obscurus has beauty in it. And then it passes right through her body showing, “What you are, this thing that’s the worst of you, it can’t hurt me. I can take it. I can take all of you.” And that acceptance to me. Their relationship is so powerful. And then she goes with him to look for his mother, which is such an emotional scene.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lorrie: And she can sense that there’s something wrong the whole time and that hyper-alertness. There’s a Korean word [says Korean word] and I thought this is one of the reasons why Nagini as acted, Nagini the character as co-created by the script writers and the actress reads to me as so Korean, is that she acts out the character so much non-verbally with micro-expressions that I recognise from Korean culture. And this is something you can’t get in a novel. Or you can if the author is really in tune with that deep, nuanced identification with that kind of character, which we know J. K. Rowling can’t do with a lot of people of colour. But if you hire an actress, who’s a really good actress, she’ll do it for you.

Parinita: I love that you’ve shared this nuanced analysis and exploration of Nagini because I wouldn’t have been able to pick up on any of this. Just as someone who isn’t familiar with Korean culture. You are so you could pick out on these micro-expressions and things that Claudia Kim acted. And just even the minute details, you’re right, it fleshes out the character so much and it’s such a tragedy that it didn’t make its way into the actual film. And of course, there are three more films that are going to be coming out so hopefully she will have a bigger role to play. I think she will especially since Credence has now gone over to the dark side as we saw in the second movie. It’s quite sad that he didn’t choose Nagini’s better influence and fell prey to Grindelwald, but I have hope that will change. It’s such a refreshing perspective to be able to see things in a different light. That’s why I started this podcast and that’s why I love fandom and fan discussions and fan criticisms. Just because it allows me to see the same text in so many different ways based on who’s the one who’s interpreting it. Viewing it from different cultures. And I love that you have this really detailed and nuanced analysis of Nagini, which makes me like her so much more as well.

Lorrie: I love her. And she gets a line that shows she has the same beliefs as Dumbledore. When Credence is leaving her, he says, “He knows who I am.” And Nagini says, “He knows what you were born, not who you are.” And that is exactly what Dumbledore teaches Harry.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lorrie: And with J. K. Rowling, there are times when she gives characters lines to say that let you the reader or viewer know okay this is where the real message is. It’s important that this line comes from somebody who really is enslaved or trafficked or powerless. Because that’s actually the core message of both Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts – listening to the truth in each being no matter how powerless or how much of a freak or under-being they are.

Parinita: Oh, I love that.

Lorrie: You know something that I didn’t ever think until just now when we were talking, is that when you talk about the ending group shot of all of these ragtag people after most of them have lost something or someone – that division that happens when some people join Grindelwald and others don’t, it’s very much South and North Korea after the Korean war situation.

Parinita: Oh!

Lorrie: Which I’m sure happened in so many different countries, in so many parts of history where there’s a conflict that goes right down the middle. And I think you can go to any war and find that. Where there’s individual families, siblings – sometimes it’s because their beliefs are different. Other times it’s just plain chance or tragedy. You know I have relatives that I’ve never met. And just you were so close and the next day you’ll never see each other again and there’s no telling – you don’t know if they’re alive or dead.

Parinita: I mean we had something similar. It’s not as drastic as North Korea where you can’t get in and you don’t know what’s going on but with Independence, we had the Partition in India where India was divided into India and Pakistan.

Lorrie: Yup.

Parinita: And that had this same kind of thing where overnight people, depending on their religion or just which side of the border they fell on, it didn’t matter where they felt home or where they felt was the most comfortable place to be. They had to move, they had to upend their lives and we are seeing the impact of this still today. Where now of course politicians are taking advantage of this and making those lines much starker between Hindu and Muslim and Pakistan and India which all goes back to things that you didn’t really have control over. Or some people had more control over others. And ugh just the violence of colonisation

Lorrie: Yeah.

Parinita: Which yeah you see in this movie as well. And you wouldn’t see it perhaps so starkly like you said in the books. And I’m really excited to see what happens next. Well, there might be a lot of tragedy coming so excited might not be the correct emotion but I’m looking forward anyway.

Lorrie: I want the story. The reason that Credence leaves even the greatest, the only nurturing affection he’s ever known, he has the same greatest driving force as Harry Potter did. He wants to know his story. He doesn’t care about anything compared to that. And Harry too, the one thing that was the most powerful driver for him was, I want to know my own story. That was even more powerful than his saving people thing. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs]

Lorrie: He wants his birth-right back. And Credence will give up anything – even though he knows that this is the worst person in the world who’s already betrayed him. And at one point he says, just give me my story, then you can kill me. He doesn’t even care about being alive as much as he cares about his story.

Parinita: Oh, I love that parallel between Credence and Harry. And it’s not something that I thought of but yeah such different directions. And such different origins as well.

Lorrie: Yeah. I think it is the same story but for adults because one of the critiques of Harry Potter the character was like oh well for someone who was treated that badly, he sure seems normal and healthy. And well, it’s a fairy tale. But in real life, you go through what Harry went through, you’re much more likely to find Credence. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah that’s true. Oh now I really want the story as well. I want to know what happens next.

Lorrie: I can’t wait for it.

Parinita: Crimes of Grindelwald was such a surprisingly good movie. Surprising based purely on my own sort of preconceived notions that were influenced by fandom. But I loved that movie and I want to know more. Lorrie thank you so much for being a part of the project and just even for the conversation and expanding my mind in so many different ways. Thank you so much for being here!

Lorrie: Thank you. Thank you for giving me something so fun to think about during this time that we’re all locked up at home [laughs] during a plague!

Parinita: Yeah, I mean Harry Potter is something that I’m returning to right now just because it’s something that’s given me so much comfort while I was growing up. It’s also giving me comfort now during the pandemic. As much as I criticise all the problematic elements of it, I’ll still do that, but I still love the books.

Lorrie: I think the reason why people including me feel so bitter and heartbroken and enraged when Rowling shows prejudice or shortcomings is because when she knows what she’s talking about, when she’s confident and she’s on target, the glory of the truths in her stories feel so satisfying. That thrill. And then when that resounding satisfaction stops in such a rude and shocking way, it’s heart-breaking. Why can you do this for some parts of the world and not others? We want you to keep providing it. And that’s a very harsh distinction between the satisfaction of feeling the story and the recognition that one person churning out stories is going to have one person’s limitations.

Parinita: Yeah but just following up on that – I’m also glad that she seems to have raised fans that are willing to stand up to her bigotry. When she tweets out something transphobic, as she did in December.

Lorrie: Oh boy.

Parinita: I know we didn’t have time to go into that but we did talk about it during our planning and just for those listening, both Lorrie and I are very stridently against transphobia of any kind and against J. K. Rowling’s transphobia specifically. I don’t think I’ve encountered any part of the fan community that hasn’t stood up to her blatant transphobia. I might just inhabit some really nice spaces, I guess, but I love seeing that everybody took the fact that Harry Potter was so important to us and we keep that but J. K. Rowling’s transphobia and her prejudice and bigotry, yeah, we can do without that.

Lorrie: Yeah. She can’t live up to the ideals. That doesn’t make the ideals untrue.

Parinita: Ah I love that! That’s a great way to end this episode. Again, thank you so much for being here.

Lorrie: Thank you!

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode on how women of colour are represented in the Potterverse in general and in Crimes of Grindelwald in particular. Thank you so much Lorrie for helping me see things in a different light and for reiterating how important multiple and nuanced perspectives remain in conversations and critiques. You should definitely check out her blog at lorriekimcom.wordpress.com. And thank you Jack for helping me climb a tree for the first time in my 30-year-old life (and also for the editing).

[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!

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén