1) TV Show Episode – Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Band Candy
2) Fan podcast – Buffering the Vampire Slayer: Band Candy
3) Fan podcast – Women of Harry Potter: Molly Weasley with Dr. Chloe Angyal
4) Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper: Representations of Motherhood with Aliette de Bodard
5) Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper: Maiden, Mother, and Crone: Ageism in Genre Fiction
6) Fan podcast – Women of Harry Potter: Mrs Figgs
7) Fan podcast – Women of Harry Potter: Minerva McGonagall with Brea Grant and Mallory O’Meara
8) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds: Travelling in the TARDIS
9) Fan podcast – Woke Doctor Who: The Women Who Waited
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. If you would prefer the original, unedited version, please let me know!
Deb Dimond Young
Welcome to Marginally Fannish, a show where we aim an intersectional lens at some of our favourite media and their fandoms.
My name is Parinita Shetty and you’re listening to the fourteenth episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I talk to Deb Dimond Young about how older women are represented in media and the impact this has on culture and society.
Mainstream media values youth and ageing is associated with loss and bitterness. But what is old anyway? The idea is socially constructed and varies across historical, geographical, and cultural contexts. Essentialist ideas in media dictate what people of a certain age – both old and young – are supposed to do. The portrayal of women over a certain age is rife with stereotypes – that is, if these representations even exist in the first place. Mothers are represented in limited roles with their identities tied to their husbands and children. These negative tropes influence real-life interactions and mainstream imaginations.
A gendered contradiction means that older men in media are allowed to retain the agency and power that women aren’t. Romance, sex and sexuality is largely absent in portrayals of older women. While there are media examples of women disrupting expectations and going off on their own adventures, these are few and far between. We need more stories and more people telling these stories. Expanding the diversity of ages behind the screen can change the narratives that we value.
Find our conversation about all this and more in today’s episode.
Parinita: Today I’m so happy to welcome Deb Dimond Young on the podcast. Deb teaches First Year Integrated Communication and Writing at the University of Northern Iowa and is currently working on a PhD in rhetoric and professional communication from Iowa State University. Her research interests include composition pedagogy, service learning and feminist rhetoric. Deb also has a nerdy interest in the pedagogical possibilities of fandom rhetoric and she recently presented her work on fan podcasting as public pedagogy at the Feminism and Rhetorics Conference and will be presenting further work next summer at the 9th Biennial Slayage Conference on the Whedonverse. All that sounds so incredible and I can’t wait to hear more about your work, Deb. Both of us are nerdy feminists.
Parinita: So we’re both really excited to talk about the intersections of age and gender today. Specifically, we’re going to be discussing how older women are represented in some of our favourite media and the implication of this on the real world. I know that this is something you have a lot of thoughts about, Deb, so could you tell us a little about your own experiences with this and how and why you got interested in this topic?
Deb: Sure. First of all, thank you for having me today. I’m really excited to talk to you about these issues. I came to fandom later than a fair number of people. I mean I had things that I was a fan of as a child but I really got into sci-fi and fantasy fandom more around college into adulthood for some strange reason. When I was in high school, I had friends who were really into Doctor Who but in the States, Doctor Who aired at really odd times on public television. [laughs]
Deb: And so I didn’t watch it all that much. But I was a peripheral fan. I had friends who were really into it, so I was aware of that and an occasional viewer. And that was during the Tom Baker years in the United States. I remember seeing David Tennant on the cover of Entertainment Weekly when his run began with the rebooted Who. And I read the article and I was like, “Oh this sounds kinds of interesting.” I hadn’t actually realised that the show had ever gone away.
Deb: And so I watched it and absolutely fell in love with it. And then went back to watching the Christopher Eccleston years and have been hooked ever since and I’ve seen every episode since then. And one of the other fandoms that we’re going to talk about today is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And that came out in 1997 when I was twenty-five and not a regular viewer of teen fantasy and horror, so it didn’t even register as a thing to me. But by 2002, when it was heading into its last season and was on syndication, in the US it ran at just totally odd times – as the shows that are in syndication did at that time before cable. I guess cable was a thing in 2002. But I didn’t necessarily have it.
Deb: So it just would run at really odd times. And I had just given birth to my oldest daughter and we’d be up all hours nursing and taking care of her. And so I just turned on the TV and Buffy just happened to be on a fair amount of those strange times. And so again, I got hooked and ended up watching all the episodes and just fell in love with her and with the whole Joss Whedon universe of Firefly and Dollhouse and everything that came after that. And then Harry Potter came out in 1997 when I wasn’t reading a lot of children’s fantasy either. [laughs] But again when I had my daughter, I had friends with older kids who were like, “Oooh keep this on your radar. You’re really going to want to know about this story when Laura gets older. When your kids get older.” And so I read it and again [laughs] I just got hooked. And it became a really wonderful thing. What I really loved about these fandoms and coming to fandom a little more in my adult life is that it’s really become a wonderful thing to share with my kids. My daughters love Doctor Who, they love Harry Potter, my oldest daughter is a huge Buffy fan. So, first of all, I feel like I’ve done an okay job in parenting.
Deb: [laughs] But also it’s given us a great way to spend time together and have something to talk about. And so I really loved that aspect of fandom. We’ve gone to cons, we’ve done stuff like that, which has been really fantastic. I’ve gone back to get my PhD in a non-traditional timeline, I guess you could say. I’m hoping to complete my PhD here before I turn fifty – that’s my goal. I turn forty-eight this summer so [laughs] I’m running out of time. But I’ve been able to pull that love of fandom into my work as well and really take a look at how fandom becomes such an incredible teaching tool. Paul Booth describes fandom as, “the classroom of the future.” And how we can use these wonderful things that we love so deeply and so passionately as a way to teach important concepts. And I see podcasting as being a really wonderful way to connect those two worlds. So now I’ve even been able to pull these things into my professional life, which has been really lovely.
Parinita: That’s so good to hear. And that’s so interesting as well because our experiences differ in terms of age because I grew up with Harry Potter and I grew up with fandom as well. And it’s something that I was thinking of while watching Buffy too because I first watched Buffy when it used to air on TV when I was a teenager myself. So I was much closer to Buffy’s age at that time. And now when we watched the Band Candy episode in preparation for our conversation today, I realised that I was seeing things from the adults’ perspective and not really the teen perspective.
Parinita: It’s the same now when I’m going back to Harry Potter – and even Doctor Who to an extent, but mostly Harry Potter – where I’m looking at it through adult lenses because it’s such a different experience. And what you’re saying how fandom is such a great tool for literacy of all kinds, it’s something that I’m really interested in because when I was in school in India, in Mumbai, in our school – and I’ve spoken about this a little bit before – but in our schools, they didn’t really teach us how to think, they taught us what to think. So critical thinking, critical literacy – that wasn’t really on the radar at all. But I’ve been a part of Harry Potter fandom since I was thirteen years old on Mugglenet which was one of the first few Harry Potter fan websites. And I realised that I learned critical literacy and to think critically through my experiences in fandom; through all these different perspectives not just in fanfiction but also meta and commentary and now, more recently, on podcasts – there’s a lot of commentary where people look at these things that they love more critically. That’s why I started this podcast because I know that this is true based on my own experiences and I wanted to explore that a little bit more. But in terms of age, since that’s what we’re going to be talking about today, to be honest, this is only something that I started actively thinking about in a run-up to a previous episode that we did on this podcast about age and disability. Because I had massive blind-spots then and still do now in terms of representations of older people in media, especially older women. And it’s something that I’m constantly thinking about now – especially the ways in which mainstream media seems to value youth and especially science fiction and fantasy media where ageing is associated with loss and bitterness and the impact that this has on mainstream society at large.
Deb: Absolutely. And I think that particularly the texts that we were looking at to prepare for this podcast have such a really nice set of examples in terms of the way that media can value youth, right? Because we’re dealing with a couple of texts with immortal characters. So in Buffy, we’ve got Angel, Spike, the other vampires who are really just beloved characters. Angel is a vampire with a soul. He’s beloved by Buffy, he’s beloved by the audience. He is forever this example of the perfect love and the perfect man – other than when he loses his soul and becomes evil again and tries to kill everybody.
Deb: But that’s the side part. And then Spike is the bad boy we all love to hate. He’s the guy that your mom warned you about but you had a crush on anyway.
Parinita: [laughs] Absolutely!
Deb: [laughs] Actually there’s a great interview with him – with James Marsters not with Spike [laughs] – the actor who plays Spike – on the Buffering The Vampire Slayer podcast, and he talked about how when they were creating the show, he and Joss were trying to see just how far they could push Spike in terms of his evilness. Because everyone loved him so much. He’s supposed to be this mean, evil character and people loved him and loved him and loved him. In spite of what he did! [laughs]
Parinita: I’ll let you continue with your point but that made me think of how when I was watching it as a teenager, I had a huge crush on Spike.
Parinita: And similarly in Gilmore Girls – I don’t know how familiar you are with Gilmore Girls – but there’s a character there, Jess.
Parinita: Who was again a bad boy … I obviously had a fictional type. Which now, if I go back and watch these shows again through my thirty-year-old eyes, I don’t know how different my view will be. Maybe I’ll still make poor fictional life choices. [laughs] I don’t know, but it would be interesting.
Deb: [laughs] No, absolutely. And so here are these characters who are eternally young, eternally beautiful. And we love them and we really connect with them. And the Doctor is the same way. So the Doctor – since the reboot at least – has been played by young, attractive actors, right?
Parinita: Um hmm.
Deb: So we have Eccleston and Tennant and Smith and now with Jodie – we’ve got these very, very beautiful youngish people and there have only been two Doctors in the modern reboot – Peter Capaldi and then John Hurt as the War Doctor – who had the Doctor appearing as an older – by no means old, but older – in comparison. And so we’ve got these just really beautiful, eternally young people who are held up as these great heroes and people that we should be looking up to. When I was trying to think about this, I was really searching for an exception of someone who is eternally young in these texts and yet not necessarily somebody that we want to associate with. And the one person I could come up with is in Harry Potter of Moaning Myrtle. Right?
Deb: She’s eternally young. She eternally has her young image but not her body and she’s just miserable. [laughs]
Deb: And it might be something about the fact that she doesn’t have an actual body, just a form. So maybe it’s the fact that it’s the young body that’s the important part. I’m not really sure.
Parinita: There’s this podcast that I listen to called The Gayly Prophet.
Parinita: Which is a Harry Potter podcast and it’s great. And they propose that when Myrtle was alive, she was severely depressed. And even as a ghost then, she continues to be severely depressed. That mental illness didn’t go away even with her death.
Deb: Yeah. Her corporeal form.
Parinita: Which I found very depressing. Yeah.
Deb: That’s really interesting. So yeah, we have these wonderful characters that we love and adore who are eternally young. And on the flipside of that, your question there about ageing being associated with bitterness – that we have lots and lots and lots of examples, right?
Parinita: Um hmm.
Deb: When you think about the standard maiden, mother, crone triad that you see in literature for women, the crone stage, that section is where we tend to put particularly older female characters. It was interesting on the podcast Women of Harry Potter, Stephanie Paulsell said that, “The best thing about turning fifty as a woman is that you become invisible to men.” And you see that so much in these characters. You think about people like Sarah Jane on Doctor Who who, when we first meet her again in School Reunion when she comes back in New Who, she’s living her life fighting injustice through journalism just like she did before she met the Doctor in her previous incarnation in Classic Who. But when she sees the Doctor and meets Rose, she immediately shifts into jealousy and bitterness. And she talks about how she’s never had a love in her life because no one could compare with the Doctor. She has no children, no family, none of the things that we associate with proper female roles. And she’s lonely and she seems bitter and she kinda takes on that spinstery role even though she’s not that old. [laughs] She’s middle-aged.
Parinita: Yeah. And it’s this cycle where media influences real life which influences media which influences real life. You only see these examples of older women, especially single older women, who are seen as either unhappy or pathetic or even crazy.
Parinita: In the Women of Harry Potter Mrs. Figgs episode, they took a more empowered view of Mrs. Figgs. But that’s not really seen in the books; she is seen as this batty old lady who loves her cats.
Parinita: And if you only see that, then it socially conditions you, even if that’s not what you want – marriage and kids or whatever, this normative idea of being a woman, especially an older woman. But then you feel that loss yourself just because that’s what everyone around you in real life as well as fictional life has. And it’s just a harmful cycle, I think.
Deb: Absolutely. And one of the things that I do love about what they do with Sarah Jane is that over the process of that episode, it seems like she shifts out of bitterness and into more processing trauma, right?
Parinita: Um hmm.
Deb: She’s one of the few characters that we get to see long term after she’s left her experience with the Doctor. And she seems to be processing through that trauma of what that experience is. And when she leaves the show in School Reunion, she leaves re-energised to take on this new life. Which actually led to a spin-off.
Deb: And so she had her own adventures.
Parinita: Yeah. I haven’t watched the spin-off yet but that’s awesome that there’s this example of an older woman going off on her own adventures.
Parinita: Which you don’t really see usually.
Deb: Absolutely. And one of the things about the spin-off is she adopts a boy. It becomes this found family structure there which is really lovely. And so yeah, it’s really nice to have this woman who does get to have these adventures even though she’s – I don’t even know what age the actress was who played her – in middle-ages, off having adventures and doing great things. Which is much better than the other bitter woman that we see in Doctor Who which is Amy Pond in The Girl Who Waited.
Deb: When we look at that episode where she gets stuck in an alternate timeline and then she has to survive on her own for thirty-six years and she ages so vividly and gets extraordinarily angry and bitter. And that is the focus, even though she’s so strong and she’s so clever and she’s such a warrior because of her experience. We focus and the show focuses on that bitterness and that anger and that physical disintegration.
Young Amy and Old Amy in The Girl Who Waited
Parinita: Which Rory doesn’t get. Her husband, he aged what for two thousand years?
Deb: Absolutely! Two thousand years as the last centurion!
Parinita: But yeah, he looks the same.
Rory as the last centurion
Parinita: He’s completely well-adjusted more or less. In the Woke Doctor Who episode they mentioned that she has her daughter – spoilers, sorry, for a show that’s now fifteen years old almost. [laughs] But yeah her daughter, River, she has that relationship without having to go through any process of motherhood or representation of motherhood or ageing or anything. I think the glasses that she gets towards the end of her run on Doctor Who are the only concession towards her age that’s made at all.
Deb: Yup. I mean it really is remarkable. The only time we see Rory age is actually in the episode The Doctor’s Wife when the House traps them in the TARDIS. And is kind of torturing them, messing with their heads.
Deb: And there you see Rory ageing and become angry and bitter at Amy every time they get separated where he ages and she doesn’t. But we also learn at the end that that was all an illusion. We’re seeing that story through Amy’s eyes, not through Rory’s eyes and so it seems almost more like her processing her guilt and subconscious in some way, more so than something that actually physically happens to him because it turns out to all be an illusion, right?
Deb: When we see women who are over fifty, we tend to see them as either angry and bitter or daffy and crazy like Mrs Figg, right? Or we don’t see them at all. They just disappear entirely.
Parinita: Yeah exactly!
Parinita: If you see in real life, there’s so much potential because for a lot of women, because of social conditioning and just because of the way that society is structured, you do have a lot of women getting married young – youngish and then having kids, being married – going through this whole thing. But then after a certain age, when you don’t have the responsibilities of the children and perhaps even of your husband, there is so much that could be done. In stories especially, you could explore this whole theme of liberation as well. You can go and do these things that you were not “allowed” to earlier – especially like in a more traditional society. India, for example, in a lot of contexts, women don’t have that power to be able to talk back to social norms. There are some women who do have that agency but most women don’t. When you become older, you’re almost free to do what you couldn’t do when you were younger. And you could explore all these different things. Especially in science fiction and fantasy where we’re supposed to imagine these alternative possibilities anyway.
Deb: And that’s the thing. As people are living longer, it just seems like there are such great possibilities. What we’ve considered middle age of you know forties-ish – fifties-ish is truly middle now, right?
Deb: We determine middle as forty and fifty, and then you live until seventyish or so, maybe eighty. But by then your body and mind may not be at the point that’s allowing you to do lots of things. I have a relative who is 102, I think.
Deb: I think she just turned 102 and her mind is sharp as a tack and fifty-one was literally mid-life for her. Now that we are living longer, we have this great opportunity. And there’s so much that you can play with in terms of stories for that life afterwards. An example, who’s not one of the ones we’re talking about because she’s not sci-fi or fantasy, is Miss Marple from Agatha Christie.
Deb: The whole reason she was able to have these great adventures and solve these great crimes as an older woman is because nobody paid attention to her, right?
Parinita: That’s true.
Deb: She disappears.
Parinita: One example from real life that I really love that I came across a few years ago was Judy Dench who apparently embroiders on the sets.
Parinita: Which again, is an activity that you see very much associated with women. And a docile, submissive sort of image that you have. And she actually embroiders really sweary stuff. [laughs] Which I love. That would be a character that I want to put in a book.
Deb: Honestly, I took inspiration from that. I also cross-stitch feminist cross-stitching. [laughs]
Parinita: Amazing. We have to see a picture of that in the transcript of the show.
Deb: I can get you a picture of some of the things that I’ve done. But yeah, that idea of subverting what is considered a traditional female activity in a way that actually disrupts, I just absolutely love. I think that’s really fun. And it’s unfortunate that in sci-fi and fantasy, we don’t see that disruption very much. Because there is so much there to do!
Deb: There’s so much space.
Parinita: Science fiction and fantasy and also just media in general perpetuates such essentialist ideas of age, right? Like what people of a certain age – both old and young – are allowed to do or are supposed to do. Which is why in Band Candy, the episode that we watched for this show in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, where some magical chocolate ends up making all the responsible adults behave like teenagers – for people who don’t know what this episode is about.
Deb: It’s one of my favourites.
Parinita: And I love that. It’s such a good episode. I thought it in a really interesting way challenged that notion of what proper grown-ups are supposed to do. But it also, to some extent, exceptionalised it. Because it was very temporary, right? It was just that one episode where they could do these things. I don’t remember what happens later. I haven’t watched the rest of the series recently. You suggested we watch this episode for our conversation today. What did you think of it?
Deb: This is absolutely one of my favourite episodes. And especially watching it now when I associate far more with Joyce and with Giles.
Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.
Deb: Than I do with Buffy and Willow and the Scooby Gang.
Deb: It looked like so much fun to film. But yeah absolutely, you’re right about the exceptionalising idea, right? Because in everyday – everyday! – in other episodes [laughs] Joyce is not a real person here.
Deb: But in her regular life, Joyce is a single mom, right? She has a job where she works in a gallery but we never see her in the gallery. She refers to it occasionally, she sometimes has boxes of materials around and so there’s reference to it. We know that she has this life outside of the house. But we very rarely see her physically outside of their house. The few times that we do, it tends to be things like driving Buffy to school, right? So she’s still doing mom stuff. Even though she must have this life outside of being a mom, we never ever see that.
Deb: We see her in very what you think of as that stereotypical middle-aged mom attire.
Parinita: Um hmm.
Deb: Skirts and dresses, slacks and cardigans – that sort of thing. She rarely dates. [laughs] One episode where does date, she actually dates an evil robot who tries to kill everybody, so her experience is not great. And she’s never seen as a sexual character until the very end of her arc just before – spoilers here again for a twenty-year-old show – but she dies. That’s the point where she finally gets to start to have this life outside of the house. They’re finally starting to refer to that. And then she’s killed off.
Deb: But in Band Candy, when she eats the evil candy, and regresses to her former self, you see before the candy is eaten, both Joyce and Giles are enforcing the rules and they’re holding Buffy to account and they’re very stern and this is what we’re doing. But after eating the candy, they don’t care. They’re breaking the rules. We don’t see Joyce in the house after she starts eating the candy. She is entirely out of the house. That’s why it’s so shocking that Buffy comes to check on Giles and Joyce is at Giles’s house. Because Joyce never leaves the house other than to do mom things. So she’s not in the house at all, her attire changes dramatically. It becomes very sexy and partially stolen.
Deb: And she looks fantastic and her hair is big and fabulous. And Giles starts wearing eyeliner for some reason.
Deb: We start seeing them out on the streets of Sunnydale. And Joyce herself becomes a very sexual being to the point where she actually has sex with Giles on the hood of a cop car.
Deb: Which is off-camera and only implied until later when they come back and do confirm it happened.
Parinita: With a pair of handcuffs as well.
Deb: With handcuffs, yeah.
Parinita: Which Buffy is very uncomfortable about.
Deb: And just very, very different. But then again when the candy wears off, all of a sudden Joyce and Giles are reverting back to their normal selves, their normal clothing. We see Joyce picking Buffy up from school again and going back to her mom behaviour. And she’s really embarrassed about her behaviour. Both of them claim that they don’t really remember but given comments in the episode, clearly they do. So they’re kind of acting like they don’t remember as a way to hide what they did. And so yeah, it really reinforces that idea that there is normal Joyce and then there is candy Joyce, right?
Deb: They’re very different in that way. Which really does reinforce that idea that normal Joyce is the one that we want. Normal Joyce is the stable, standard mom character. That is the one we should be thinking about and this is the one-off experience.
Parinita: And in the episode, in the Buffering the Vampire Slayer episode, they spoke about how there’s a lot of fanfiction of Joyce and Giles based off of this episode
Parinita: Which again made me think of how obviously it’s exploring this under-representation of older not just romance but also sex and sexuality, which you don’t really see not only on this show but in media largely. This idea of young people being disgusted by the thought of their parents having sex. [laughs]
Parinita: How do you think biology works? [laughs] But this episode made me think about the fact that there’s also this very limited idea of teenagers as well.
Parinita: Of sex and drugs and alcohol and dancing and being irresponsible. Whereas the teenagers at least in this episode were pretty alarmed by everything. I understand why they were alarmed, because they were their grown-ups. But still I can’t even imagine Willow doing these things on a regular basis. Until she goes Dark Willow for a bit.
Parinita: But generally, she wasn’t really that kind of teenager anyway. And especially now when we are seeing real-life teenagers take on these really monumental roles in a way that adults – a lot of adults don’t; with the climate crisis and with the Black Lives Matter protests, in India there were the anti CAA protests and even in the US the gun control protests. I feel like this normative idea of what being a teenager is needs to be challenged. I know we’re talking more about older women today but that’s why this episode really made me think of both ends of that spectrum.
Deb: Absolutely. I teach mostly first-year college students so in the US – that would be eighteen-nineteen years old.
Parinita: Um hmm.
Deb: And thinking about this image of what teenagers are and thinking of the students that I work with every year, yeah drastically different. Not that teenagers don’t do silly things.
Deb: But yeah there are so many examples of teenagers who are, as you said, doing these amazing things. And it’s not recognised and they’re not given credit for what they’re doing in part, I think, because of this sort of imagery. That, like you were saying earlier with our over-saturation in media of images of older women as being bitter and angry, when we have these images of teenagers as being spoiled and reckless and so forth. Then we see when teenagers doing great things in the world, it’s so hard to try to pair those two concepts and hold space for both of those because what we’re seeing doesn’t match with the images that are bombarding us so continuously. And that’s really detrimental!
Parinita: Oh yeah, absolutely. And this is one of the reasons that I love this movie called Booksmart. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it.
Parinita: I love it so much because when I watched it for the first time, it was doing that. For those who haven’t watched it, go watch it now.
Deb: So good!
Parinita: Yeah. It just takes these ideas of teenagers and flips it on their head and just has room for so many diverse experiences. There’s so much nuance and complexity in those representations – you don’t have to be this binary one or the other. You can be everything; you contain multitudes, as they say. It’s just a movie that I love very much.
Parinita: Of course, like we were talking about in a lot of mainstream science fiction and fantasy media, mothers like Joyce and older women are completely missing in roles where their identities aren’t tied to their children or husbands. If you’re a woman over a certain age in media, like Stephanie Paulsell says over the age of fifty, because media is still mostly controlled by men, the way that your identity is defined is super limited.
Deb: Um hmm.
Parinita: In Breaking The Glass Slipper, Representations of Motherhood episode, they said that mothers are almost seen to be this hindrance to adventures. Mothers are not allowed to go on adventures.
Deb: Right. Well, there’s a wonderful book by Kathleen Rowe Karlyn called Unruly Girls, Unrepentant Mothers: Redefining Feminism On Screen that talks about this a lot. And she argues that older women are frequently absent from pop culture just because we don’t know what to do with them, right?
Parinita: Um hmm.
Deb: And kind of what they were saying in Breaking The Glass Slipper, right? That women or mothers in particular, are supposed to be this hindrance. They’re those who are enforcing the rules, they keep you from having those adventures. And so we just don’t deal with them. We don’t know how to deal with them at all. And that’s one of the reasons why I think Minerva McGonagall is such an interesting character. Because there are clearly older female instructors at Hogwarts, but she’s the one that we spend a lot of significant time with. And so it’s really interesting to parse apart her concept and what she is in this role. And what’s fascinating is that we still mostly think of McGonagall as a nurturer to children, right?
Deb: Because she is a teacher in a school, becomes headmistress at the school. She’s a different type of mother than say a Molly Weasley.
Deb: She’s not the huggy, cuddly, nurturey one. She’s the strict, hold-the-line mother figure. But in doing that, the kids at the school know she is the one that you can count on. In the Women of Harry Potter episode, they talk about the fact that it’s when McGonagall goes away that suddenly Harry freaks out. “Wait a minute, there’s a serious problem here.”
Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.
Deb: ’Cause the one that is always here, the one we know we can always count on has left. And that means there’s trouble. We think about her so much in terms of her work with children. So we’re still holding that essential concept of what women are there to do. Even in her battle, she’s protecting the school, she’s protecting the kids. And so that’s still the description that we give. Vanessa Zoltan in Women of Harry Potter makes a great comment. “McGonagall is just as maternal as Molly because she has to take care of all of Hogwarts.”
Parinita: Um hmm.
Deb: That becomes her role.
Parinita: I think they mentioned this in that episode as well that she knows when to break the rules too.
Parinita: In the fifth book when she whispers to Peeves, “It turns from the other side.” I think it was her. When he’s trying to undo the chandelier during the reign of Umbridge and she tells him that yeah it unscrews from the other side.
Parinita: And also during the battle like you said.
Parinita: She’s the one who’s at the forefront and she’s always there to stand up to things and stand up to people. But also she’ll sometimes just offer Harry Potter some biscuits [laughs] because that’s what he needs.
Parinita: Or make him the Quidditch Seeker because First-Year rules are only for some people, not for others. [laughs] But yeah she really cares about things and she’s not this one-dimensional, strict, nunnish character.
Deb: Right. Yeah you think about when Harry flies and breaks the rules and her response is to make him Seeker of his team. [laughs]
Parinita: Or she’s like please, we have to win the Quidditch match, I can’t face Snape otherwise. [laughs]
Deb: [laughs] Absolutely. We still have her taking on these caring, nurturing, traditionally feminine roles which is really interesting. But the other side of that question that you mentioned is the idea of the absent mother that we just make them go away entirely. And so you got a couple of really great examples of that too. Lily, of course, from Harry Potter being the perfect example. By dying protecting her child, she’s the ultimate sacrificial mother. It also means that she’s eternally perfect. In the eyes of her child and her community, she’s always young and pretty which is why people are constantly commenting on her eyes. Those eyes never got wrinkles around them.
Deb: [laughs] She was always young and pretty.
Deb: And her love is so extraordinary that it even protects her child after her death. And it really is interesting that as Harry grows and learns more about his parents, James becomes fallible in Harry’s eyes. He still loves him but he begins to learn that James is fallible. But he never learns that about Lily. Lily is always perfect.
Parinita: That’s true! And she’s almost placed on this pedestal, glorified to such an extent that she’s not even a real person anymore.
Parinita: Perfection is a prison.
Deb: Yeah. She will never change. She will never grow and so because of that, as a character, she falls into the same trope that we so often see with women in literature that they don’t get a full life.
Deb: They don’t get a full character arc. We learn James’s backstory in terms of the trouble that he got into and mischief that he got into with his friends. We learn Lily’s backstory that she was a really nice kid and she was a really talented witch and she befriended the nerdy kid that nobody else liked. And that’s about it. [laughs] Right?
Deb: She never gets this rich, complicated backstory that James does. Which is really unfortunate.
Parinita: And even with Molly, she is taken so much for granted by her children. Yeah, she is this excellent character. But just within the context of the story, they love her but they take her for granted. She’s always at the background. And in terms of parenting, she’s always positioned as the strict one whereas Arthur Weasley can get away with shenanigans.
Parinita: Because he’s the man and he’s the husband and being strict and boring is Molly’s job. And that’s how it comes across. Obviously that reflects a lot of real life as well where men going out with their babies in a pram sometimes are seen as heroes. Like “oh my god wow you’re parenting your child!” Whereas women are supposed to do that.
Deb: Yeah and I think that it’s interesting again on that podcast Women of Harry Potter, Vanessa Zoltan really does a nice job of trying to complicate Molly a little bit and describes what she does as radical hospitality.
Parinita: Um hmm.
Deb: And I really, really love that descriptor because there’s that old saying that an army marches on its stomach. And the revolution against Voldemort doesn’t happen without Molly Weasley keeping everyone fed, clothed and happy.
Deb: She’s making sure that the Order is functional both psychologically by sitting and chatting with Tonks and helping her work through her feelings. She’s keeping the kids fed and under control and working through. She’s making sure that everybody has what they need. And kinda pulling that to the world that we’re living in right now, I’m thinking about in the US right now we’re experiencing large-scale protests against police brutality and systemic racism like we haven’t seen in a really long time. And I saw a tweet recently that really struck me in terms of Molly. And it said that, “The revolution isn’t one lane. There are many lanes to a protest and you can’t be in all of them at once. But they all move the revolution forward.”
Deb: And I like that idea paired with Molly and this idea of radical hospitality, right? Her lane may be seen as this traditionally feminine lane but it’s absolutely vital to move the revolution forward. Without her, it all falls apart. And so what’s really frustrating to me is what you said just a minute ago that it’s just not recognised. She gets mocked for all her work, for the things that she thinks are important. Her work is taken for granted. She’s just dismissed as a character in the story. Even though she’s a total badass.
Deb: I mean she’s out there [laughs] and she kills Bellatrix. The great, “Not my daughter, you bitch!” moment. That’s so fantastic!
Parinita: Yeah she gets that one amazing moment.
Parinita: But in the Representations of Motherhood episode in Breaking the Glass Slipper, they point out that heroism is seen in such a gendered lens.
Parinita: Oh you’re this fighter and you’re this brave warrior, that makes you a hero; but taking care of your children and nourishing them spiritually and emotionally and physically – that’s not seen as heroic.
Parinita: In the Women of Harry Potter episode about Mrs. Figgs, I love their interpretation of it where she’s weaponising her marginalised identity.
Parinita: Where she’s playing up to these Muggle stereotypes of crazy cat lady which makes her really easy to dismiss as well as the witching world stereotypes of Squibs where the magical population doesn’t really think about her at all and she’s again easy to dismiss. But she’s using that to act as a spy and also to protect Harry which is semi-successful.
Parinita: Because Harry grew up in a super abusive household. But yeah, I just like this trope of crazy cat lady being overturned to exert agency. Especially with what I was saying with older women who may not have had many opportunities to do this due to family and societal responsibilities earlier. They take this old age as a way to throw off all these social shackles and do whatever they want to do.
Deb: Yeah. Mrs. Figgs becomes the Miss Marple of the Harry Potter world. [laughs]
Parinita: [laughs] Oh, I love that.
Deb: Because everyone dismisses her, she’s able to do and get away with things that nobody else could do.
Parinita: Yeah I love that.
Deb: Just because no one accounts for her existence.
Parinita: [laughs] So what are some of your favourite characters in media who challenge these traditional conceptions of age and gender? We’ve spoken about a few of them earlier but if you had any more that you’d like to share.
Deb: Oh, River.
Deb: Everything River. We can’t talk about women and age and sci-fi and fantasy and not spend a few minutes glorying in the wonder that is River Song.
Deb: Oh I love River. So if we go back to Karlyn’s book, she has a great line. She defines an unruly woman as “a cluster of attributes that challenge patriarchal power by denying norms of femininity intended to keep a woman in her place”. And if that doesn’t define River, I can’t think of something that does, right? Because her body is unruly and her speech is improper. Her body is so unruly because like Time Lords, she can actually regenerate into completely different forms. Even when she’s in prison, she doesn’t stay put. [laughs]
Deb: She has all of these different adventures – so many adventures – as many as anybody else on the show. We don’t see them unfortunately most of the time.
Deb: But I think about the episode where Rory comes to get her and he’s dressed as the centurion and she’s swanning in having just been skating on the Thames with the Doctor in Victorian England.
Deb: And you think about all these wonderful adventures. There’s that great line and I can’t think of what episode it’s in, where somebody says basically, “Isn’t it frustrating having to spend your days in prison for a crime you didn’t actually commit?” And she says, “The days can be theirs, but the nights are mine.”
Deb: And I just really love that image. We often think of women, particularly women who are middle-aged and older ’cause Alex Kingston is by no stretch of the imagination old.
Deb: They’re not sexual beings. And according to Karlyn, a woman whose behaviour is loose and sexual is again that unruly woman. And again, we see that in River. She’s the sexiest character in Doctor Who by a landslide. She kisses as a weapon. That’s how she originally almost kills the Doctor, it’s how she escapes from prison. Because of her hallucinogenic lipstick. She has multiple husbands and wives and an implied array of other partners that we don’t necessarily see. She can rock a sequin gown like nobody’s business.
Deb: And it doesn’t hurt that she’s played by Alex Kingston who’s just gorgeous. But she is clearly a woman who is very confident and comfortable in her body. And relishes in it in many different ways including sexuality. And that’s just so unusual. She forces herself into the centre of attention and revels in that attention once she’s there. And again, that’s not something that we typically associate with female characters in general but particularly middle-age and older female characters. And so River’s just the best. [laughs]
Parinita: I agree. And also what you were saying earlier in terms of the shifting parameters of what even middle-aged means.
Parinita: Because it’s so socially, historically, geographically constructed. It’s so different in different contexts. Even now, what’s middle-aged in the US would be so different from what’s middle-aged in India. And different parts of the US and different parts of India and which intersectional identities you belong to. Because there are some that are so much more oppressed than others. When I say older, I don’t even know what that bracket is.
Deb: Yeah. [laughs]
Parinita: It’s when you become invisible to the patriarchy essentially, right?
Parinita: Like Stephanie Paulsell said. Another person like that in Doctor Who is Donna.
Parinita: I loved her. She’s one of my favourite companions and when I first watched it a few years ago, I guess she was older. But now I’m like no, actually how old was she even?!
Parinita: She must have been in her thirties and I’m like, that’s not old. [laughs] It’s just because in Doctor Who, you’re so used to young companions – that’s all they had in the beginning. The Doctor was allowed to be old but the companions were not allowed to be old. They all had to be young women, young skinny women, young white women.
Deb: Um hmm.
Parinita: And then there was Martha and Bill, and now Yaz. But yeah it was a very specific and definite idea of a companion. And now it’s becoming more diverse, especially with Jodie’s run. Even in terms of older romances, you have Graham and Grace – one of whom was tragically killed. And one of the Doctors that I love the brief little glimpse that we get of is Doctor Ruth who seems to be this really badass older black woman Time Lord. Who’s very mysterious – we don’t know a lot about her. We get a few clues at the end of the most previous episode. But she’s so different from all the Doctors’ regenerations – apart from Peter Capaldi a little bit – who I also love. He’s been this grump of a Doctor. And she also seems to be this really stern person who doesn’t really hold with nonsense whereas Jodie is all nonsense mostly.
Parinita: So that comparison between the two of them was really fun for me to watch.
Deb: Yeah, I hope we get to meet her again. I hope that she comes back in some way because that would be absolutely fantastic to get to explore who she is.
Parinita: Yeah. We have no idea but I have hopes. I know the new season has gotten some critiques as well but I think it’s still trying to do more in terms of including diverse identities than any previous shows have. It’s becoming more and more inclusive and especially when we talk about older women representations in media, we’re just talking about it just in terms of age and gender. But if you have any other identities in it like race or cis versus trans or class or sexuality or sexual orientation, that’s even worse. There’s so much lesser out there for that. Which is why I love fandom.
Deb: The more marginalised identities you add in, the less people who seem to appear in these productions and these media. I think one of the things that Chibnall’s done, particularly with Doctor Who since that’s what we’re talking about here, is that he seems to have done a really great job diversifying behind the camera, diversifying in the writers’ room, diversifying the directors. And I think that in addition to diversifying the acting staff – which is wonderful and fantastic, being able to see different faces and different types of people on camera – changing what happens behind the camera changes the stories that we tell, right? Changing the acting folks in front of the camera changes how we tell those stories, but we’ve got to start with all the way back to what are the stories that we write? What are the stories that we decide are worth putting forward? I would be very interested to know what sort of age breakdown they have in the writers’ room because specifically focusing on questions of age, as we are here, because particularly in sci-fi and fantasy, the writers’ rooms tend to pretty young, they tend to be pretty white, and they tend to be pretty male.
Deb: I know that he’s done a lot of work diversifying in terms of race and ethnicity, and in terms of gender in his writers’ room which is fantastic. I would be very interested to see if there’s also been diversity in terms of age so that we’re looking at what stories we even value and even want to tell.
Parinita: Yeah that’s such a good point because who gets to tell the stories is just as important as who gets to represent them visually. So I was thinking of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power on Netflix, where Noelle Stevenson is the showrunner and she’s also written this excellent graphic novel that I love called Nimona and The Lumberjanes and she’s this queer, young author. In She-Ra’s world, the default is queer and the default is female. Most of the characters there are girls and women. But now thinking about it, in terms of age, they’re all young.
Deb: Um hmm.
Parinita: Parent figures are completely absent. There are a few here and there but they’re not at the centre of the story. There’s one old woman – this batty, absent-minded old lady – who is a sort of mentor figure. But she’s mostly going on doing her own thing and she’s a really interesting character. But her story isn’t at the centre of it. Which in a world like She-Ra where they give room to a lot of different kinds of stories like it is very much about communal heroism rather than individual heroism, so they’re all coming together and all their stories get a lot of centre-stage – except old people. There aren’t really that many. There was one mother who sacrificed herself because, you know, that’s what you do. And she was a very mother mother even though she was the queen of the kingdom. So yeah, I think the age breakdown is interesting. Unless you’re an old white dude in the West or an old Indian dude in Bollywood – that’s the only sort of old you’re allowed to be. You’re not allowed to be an old woman writer or an old woman actor. Which hopefully gets better. And I think it will. There was a thread on Twitter which I’ll try and find and I’ll link to. It was basically talking about these things about diversity where they do exist, but they’re in more niche science fiction and fantasy stories and not too many people know about it.
Deb: Um hmm.
Parinita: Which is great. But I also think it’s equally if not more important to have this representation in mainstream popular media. In the Avengers, what if there was an old superhero fighting? Why do they all have to be young?
Parinita: Do superheroes not get old?
Deb: The only time we see an old superhero is when Captain America comes back in the last Avengers movie. And then he’s done fighting, right?
Deb: He’s retired, he’s done, he’s lived his life. And he comes back basically to say goodbye. So yeah, when you think about it in terms of writers’ rooms, the way I would have written a fifty-year-old character at twenty and the way I would write a fifty-year-old character now are drastically different, obviously.
Parinita: Absolutely. When you’re that young, you find anything beyond a certain age – “oh that’s far too old” – you can’t even imagine that. Which is not their fault.
Parinita: You just need to have diversity in terms of ages.
Deb: Absolutely. I think about when I was first teaching, I had a student. They were doing an ad analysis – just a basic rhetorical analysis assignment – and he was comparing iPhones and a product called the Jitterbug which I don’t know if you have that in the UK or not but basically it’s a phone that’s targeted for older people that has limited functionality. It’s meant to basically be an emergency phone. [laughs] And he was writing in his paper that clearly the iPhone is targeted for younger audiences like people under forty because older audiences just get confused by technology. [laughs]
Deb: And at that time, I was thirty-nine.
Parinita: Oh my god.
Deb: I had just started teaching; I was thirty-nine. I was like, do I have to turn in my phone next year? What happens? Does my brain …
Parinita: The phone police you know.
Deb: Yeah. Do I suddenly stop understanding how to push buttons at that point? I mean iPhones don’t even have buttons so I don’t even know why that would be a problem. But yeah, I just found that idea that at eighteen years old, forty looks ancient. [laughs]
Parinita: Yeah, but that’s why the representations are important, right?
Parinita: It’s not just for older people to see themselves but it’s also for younger people. It’s always in terms of the dominant and marginalised. It’s not just important for the marginalised people to see themselves represented; it’s for dominant groups to also gain some perspective and gain some empathy and respect for these experiences which don’t mirror their own. And I think an older person going on adventures and having these amazing sort of stories about them would be a great story.
Parinita: It would make for such a fantastic story. I would totally watch River going along on her adventures.
Deb: Oh god I would watch that absolutely.
Deb: The adventures of River Song would be the best show ever! [laughs]
Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.
Deb: I mean this is just a topic that I could go on and on forever. [laughs]
Deb: Because it’s just so interesting to get to dig into these characters. It’s been a lot of fun to go back and revisit some of these things that I haven’t watched for awhile. I went back to watch some of the River episodes just to get them in my head. And my daughter came up and was watching them with me and we’re like, “Oh now we got to start over again, don’t we? We have to go back and rewatch all the Doctors.”
Parinita: [laughs] Yeah that’s the feeling I’ve had with Buffy.
Deb: Just start at the Tennant years again. It’s just like yup I missed these people, I missed having them in my life.
Deb: I need to go back. [laughs]
Parinita: [laughs] Absolutely. I need to get acquainted with Giles again. I’m surrounded by British accents here in the UK because that’s where I’m studying but Giles’s accent set the bar for me in terms of my introduction to Britishness and everything. [laughs]
Deb: I know. Absolutely. Giles might be the reason I fell in love with tweed.
Deb: He’s just such a great character. I adore Giles so much. Anthony Stewart Head is brilliant – just brilliant. And since you mentioned Giles’s accent, I love the terrible cockney accent of James Marsters as Spike.
Deb: It’s fantastic too.
Parinita: Yeah. [laughs] Absolutely. But thank you so much, Deb, for being on the episode today and for having such a fun conversation and being such a fun person to talk to about these things that I love. Thank you so much for being a part of this project.
Deb: Thank you so much. It was really great to be on and talk to you.
You’ve been listening to our episode on the intersection of age and gender and the ways in which the portrayal of older women in media influences real-life – and vice-versa. Huge thanks to Deb for sharing your experiences and perspectives and expanding my own. And for being such a fun person to talk to about nerdy feministy things! And thank you Jack for buying me picture books whenever you go to the supermarket by yourself (and also for the editing).
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’d like to follow the podcast or the PhD project, visit my website marginallyfannish.org. Here you’ll find the podcast episodes, transcripts, episode resources and links, and my research blog. You can also receive updates on Facebook or Instagram at Marginally Fannish or on Twitter where I’m @MarginalFannish. I share episode resources on social media so you can find a bunch of excellent fan podcasts and essays to look up. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share it with anyone you think will enjoy it too.
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