A PhD project exploring intersectionality through fan podcasts

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Month: August 2020

Re-reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

I finished reading the third book in June but July and August have flashed by – largely taken over by a move to Scotland. My plan to read a book a month is definitely looking grim but I’m still determined to squeeze in the next four books into two months.

Book cover of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowing

Here are some of the thoughts I had while reading the third book:

  • There is so much casual fat-shaming of Dudley in this book – something I hadn’t even thought about before Witch, Please and The Gayly Prophet pointed it out.
  • Harry calls Hedwig his only friend in his house – his only family – which is heartbreaking in itself but it also makes her death in the last book so much more gutting. Relatedly, Harry is constantly described as small and skinny for his age which I glossed over in earlier reads but this time was taken aback by the thought that his size is probably a result of the Durlsey’s abuse where he is starved and made to live in a cupboard. What impact has this had on Harry physically? Mentally? Emotionally?
  • When I read the book as a kid and young person in India, the Weasley’s poverty felt more theoretical than real to me – surrounded as I was by such abject levels of poverty and having grown up without much wealth. I just figured this was the British version of poverty – like many people back home, the pictures of the UK and the US and the West in general we received was full of so much prosperity that I couldn’t really come to terms with their poverty. However, after moving to the UK and after the episode with Ali, I’ve realised that even in British terms, the Weasleys are definitely not extremely poor. They might be poor by the standards of the magical world but their lifestyle is not extreme poverty, my friend.
  • In Ron’s letter to Harry, he writes, “I hope the Muggles didn’t give you a hard time.” That language is a tad dehumanising even though it is the Dursleys he’s speaking about. The letter also includes the phrase “Don’t let the Muggles get you down.” I’d forgotten that this sentence appears in the books – because I have a T-shirt with the same thing on it. Usually, I associate the sentence with specifically Dursleyish Muggles – close-minded and prejudiced and bigoted – and to an extent I still do. However, Jack once pointed out that my shirt promoted anti-Muggle prejudice. Even though he was joking, I now realise how much anti-Muggleness is baked into the structure of the British magical world. I’ve read defenses which point to the Muggles persecuting the magical folk a few hundred years ago – but that leads to a new form of violence. Everyday bigotry – both malicious and benign – do work to dehumanise a group of people and allow fascists like Voldemort and Grindelwald to become prominent in the witching world – and Modi and Trump in the real world. I realise that I now hesitate before saying the phrase wizarding world ever since The Gayly Prophet hosts implied how patriarchal it was and they refer to it as the witching world instead. Even Hagrid calls the Dursleys the Muggles but not Hermione – who, coming from the same cultural background herself, presumably cannot bring herself to use such dehumanising language.
  • This language would have been much easier to defend had it only referred to the Dursleys since they’re so completely terrible. I find the description of the Dursleys so much more recognisable now that I’m in the UK – Petunia is nosy, Vernon is pro-capital punishment – bet they both hate immigrants, think people on benefits are running a scam, and voted for Brexit. Aunt Marge seems even worse than the Dursleys. She approves of teachers beating up children and asks Petunia to write to Harry’s school to use more force – something which even Vernon seems a bit alarmed will set Harry off. She disparages Harry’s parents right in front of him – thinks unemployed people are scroungers (a sentiment the Dursleys share, I’m sure).
  • Again, I was only able to pick up on Stan’s regional working class accent and its implications after moving to the UK and after the episode with Ali. The politics of accent in the UK is also interesting. As someone in India, most British media I watched earlier seemed to portray a singular version of the British accent with others only present to be mocked. Now however, I think shows are trying to be more inclusive of the accents they feature since this has such class, regional and national implications which influence real-life interactions as well. As Jack always complained in Leeds, hardly any of the English people understood his Scottish accent.
  • Stan disparages Muggles and their intelligence too but that just seems to be the norm that he’s buying into without any real malice. Although he does sign up with the Death Eaters so who knows, he might have been a raging bigot all along. Though there might be a link there between benign prejudice being turned into murderous hatred.
  • Is the Knight Bus as a working class magical mode of transport? Is it just the only one? Are there people who cannot afford Floo powder or houses with chimneys?
  • Problems with the justice system is an underlying issue throughout the book. Azkaban is inhumane and a terrible way to reform criminals. Moreover, even innocent people are sent to Azkaban on scant or no evidence at all. Both Hagrid and Sirius have spent two months and twelve years in there respectively. There’s parallels with real-life oppressive prison systems in India and the US. Sirius is deeply traumatised by his twelve years in Azkaban and suffers from depression for the rest of his life. In Azkaban, he blames himself for his best friends’ murders and, thanks to the Dementors, is trapped alone with his darkest thoughts. The justice system is so flawed and broken even in Buckbeak’s case where Lucius Malfoy’s influence and word is the deciding factor. I wonder how much of a role corruption and nepotism plays in Azkaban too. Dumbledore is happy to break the rules by helping Sirius and Buckbeak escape because the rules are unjust in this case. As much as you’re suspicious of Dumbledore, he does seem to be trying to create a more compassionate world – in Hogwarts first and subsequently the wider world.
  • The Dementors are shown as truly evil creatures but it also sounds like the witches and wizards have weaponised them as a form of state control. What are Dementors like in the wild?
  • Fudge suggests that Harry just book a room in The Leaky Cauldron for three weeks – where’s the money coming from?! Of course the fact that Harry can afford it reflects his economic privilege. Unless the government is paying for it or it’s free thanks to Tom, the landlord’s, generosity?
  • There seem to be very limited gender roles for women in the magical world – Mrs Weasley and Hermione and Ginny giggling over a love potion Molly made when she was in Hogwarts; some country witches in The Leaky Cauldron talking about their shopping while wizards were talking about an academic journal called Transfiguration Today – the structure seems to be pretty patriarchal in a way which delineates what men and women can be interested in.
  • If Dementors are a metaphor for depression, it makes sense that Harry was the worst affected in the train and Ginny and Neville were also very pale while Ron and Hermione were shaken but didn’t seem traumatised. The former three have had terrible experiences with abuse and trauma (Harry’s childhood, Neville’s parents, Ginny’s possession) while the latter two have relatively safe childhoods.
  • Accessibility at Hogwarts is terrible! The Divination classroom is accessible only by a ladder into the ceiling. They do make accommodations when Firenze the centaur begins teaching the class in Order of the Phoenix and the school provides him with a ground floor classroom. Which is great for Firenze but what about students with disabilities?
  • Hermione is a much better teacher for Neville than Snape is. He terrorises while she patiently explains. Peer education is a great pedagogical practice but Snape penalises her for it by first asking her not to help and then taking away points from Gryffindor for Neville successfully learning from her (to save his toad no less! Snape was going to test out Neville’s potion – which he thought might have turned out poisonous – on Trevor!)
  • Lupin is also a good teacher. He has practical activities to begin with, teaches patiently, explains the process and what should happen before it happens. Thanks to this, Neville is wildly successful in his class because that’s just what he needs! A different teaching method and not a bully! Even Lupin’s exam is great – activity-based and practical – an obstacle course which includes dealing with the creatures they’ve been studying all year.
  • Filch is casually described as a failed wizard. 🙄 Some casual anti-Muggle, anti-Squib prejudice there with hints of ableism if you take magic as a metaphor for ability. As if people without magical powers can’t have full lives full of value and dignity. The fact that Filch doesn’t is a failure of imagination.
  • Boggart Snape in a dress scene makes me uncomfortable now given Rowling’s transphobia. Also it again reflects such limited and strictly-defined gender roles. Why is a man dressing in women’s clothes funny? Are there no gender-queer or gender nonconforming magical folk?
  • Draco is such a classist ass. He asks Rom whether he wouldn’t rather live in the Shrieking Shack because he heard everyone in the Weasley household sleeps in the same room. What’s wrong with a family sleeping in the same room?!
  • The magical world has such entrenched ideas about any creatures who aren’t wizards and witches. Lupin has been a much-loved teacher all year but as soon as Ron discovers he’s a werewolf, he instantly dehumanises him in a mixture of fear and disgust by exclaiming, “Get away from me, werewolf.” To Lupin! A kind compassionate man! I suppose Ron doesn’t know him very well yet but Hermione didn’t share this prejudice even though she had discovered his lycanthropy ages ago – presumably based on knowing Lupin through his classroom interactions. Even Snape refers to him as a werewolf but that isn’t as shocking since he hates the Marauders.
  • Being a werewolf sounds like having a chronic illness which is more manageable with recent medical discoveries. The wolfsbane potion makes it easier for Lupin to manage the symptoms – a potion which wasn’t around when he was younger. Even then, Dumbledore made accommodations for a young Remus, without having a potion to keep him safe. He provided Lupin with access to education and society – something which being a werewolf – and a disabled person – doesn’t seem to allow. Being a werewolf – like being disabled – impacts all your chances at a good life if you can’t get education or paid employment.

Episode 14 We Don’t Know What To Do With Them: Representations of Older Women in Media

Episode Resources:

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


Episode Transcript:

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

Deb Dimond Young

[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 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.

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

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.

Deb: [laughs]

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]

Parinita: [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.

Parinita: [laughs]

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.

Parinita: [laughs]

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.

Parinita: [laughs]

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.

Deb: [laughs]

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.

Parinita: [laughs]

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.

Deb: Absolutely!

Gif of Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Parinita: And similarly in Gilmore Girls – I don’t know how familiar you are with Gilmore Girls – but there’s a character there, Jess.

Deb: Yes!

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.

An image of the six new Doctors from the Doctor Who reboot

Image courtesy MrRy4n on DeviantArt

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?

Parinita: Aaah!

Deb: She’s eternally young. She eternally has her young image but not her body and she’s just miserable. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah.

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.

Deb: Yes.

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.

Gif of scene with Rose and Sarah Jane. Text says - Rose: I'm not his assistant. Sarah Jane: No? Get you, tiger.

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.

Deb: Yeah.

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.

Deb: Absolutely.

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.

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: And so she had her own adventures.

Poster for The Sarah Jane 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.

Deb: Yes!

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.

Parinita: Yeah.

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.

Screenshot from The Girl Who Waited of young Amy and old Amy

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.

Deb: Absolutely!

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.

Parinita: Yeah.

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?

Parinita: Yeah.

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!

Deb: Right?

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?

Parinita: Yeah.

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.

Parinita: Wow.

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.

Parinita: Yeah.

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.

Deb: Yes!

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!

Parinita: Absolutely.

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.

Parinita: [laughs]

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.

Parinita: [laughs]

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.

Parinita: Yeah.

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.

Parinita: Yeah.

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.

Parinita: [laughs]

Image of Joyce and Giles

Deb: And she looks fantastic and her hair is big and fabulous. And Giles starts wearing eyeliner for some reason.

Parinita: [laughs]

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.

Parinita: Yeah.

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?

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Deb: Yes!

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]

Deb: Right.

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.

Deb: Yes.

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.

Deb: [laughs]

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.

Parinita: Yeah.

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.

Deb: Yes!

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.

Deb: Yes.

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?

Parinita: Yeah.

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.

Parinita: Yeah.

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.

Deb: Yes.

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.

Deb: [laughs]

Parinita: And also during the battle like you said.

Deb: Right.

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.

Deb: Yes.

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.

Parinita: [laughs]

Deb: [laughs] She was always young and pretty.

Parinita: Yup.

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.

Deb: Right.

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.

Parinita: Yeah.

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?

Parinita: Yup.

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.

Deb: [laughs]

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.

Parinita: Yeah.

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.”

Parinita: Absolutely.

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.

Parinita: Yeah!

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.

Deb: Yeah!

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.

Deb: Absolutely.

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.

Deb: Absolutely.

Parinita: In the Women of Harry Potter episode about Mrs. Figgs, I love their interpretation of it where she’s weaponising her marginalised identity.

Deb: Yeah.

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.

Deb: [laughs]

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.

Parinita: [laughs]

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.

Parinita: [laughs]

Gif of River Song from Doctor Who blowing a kiss

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]

Parinita: Yeah.

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.

Parinita: Yeah.

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.

Parinita: [laughs]

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.”

Parinita: Hmm.

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.

Parinita: Yeah.

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.

Parinita: [laughs]

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]

Gif of River Song in Doctor Who. Text says: What else are you gonna do? Spank me?

Parinita: I agree. And also what you were saying earlier in terms of the shifting parameters of what even middle-aged means.

Deb: Yeah.

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?

Deb: [laughs]

Parinita: Like Stephanie Paulsell said. Another person like that in Doctor Who is Donna.

Deb: Yes.

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?!

Deb: [laughs]

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.

Deb: [laughs]

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.

Parinita: Yeah.

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?

Deb: Absolutely.

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?

Parinita: Yeah.

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.

Deb: No!

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]

Parinita: [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?

Deb: Yes!

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.

Deb: Absolutely.

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.

Parinita: [laughs]

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]

Parinita: Yeah.

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.

Parinita: Yeah!

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.

Parinita: [laughs]

Gif of Giles. Text says: Do you want me to answer that, or shall I just glare?

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.

Parinita: [laughs]

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.

[Outro music]

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).

[Outro music]

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. 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.

Thanks for listening! Tune in again next time for all things fannish and intersectional!

Some Notes On Episode 11 – 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 11, She Has To Fight Smart: Representations Of Women Warriors In Media And History we discussed the following texts:

1) Essay – We Have Always Fought

The article talks about the history of women fighters focusing on how women have always participated in resistance movements either as women or disguised as men. Much like the writer, I don’t have much knowledge of this history – it wasn’t taught to us in schools nor is the narrative prevalent in mainstream media and culture. According to the article, apart from combatants, women played a role in pretty much any profession you can think of. Where are these stories? Much like religion, marginalised voices are to the fore now where these stories are shared. 

Women fought in every revolutionary army, I found, and those armies were often composed of fighting forces that were 20-30% women. But when we say “revolutionary army” what do we think of? What image does it conjure? Does the force in your mind include three women and seven men? Six women and fourteen men?

Women not only made bombs and guns in WWII – they picked up guns and drove tanks and flew airplanes. The civil war, the revolutionary war – point me to a war and I can point to an instance where a women picked up a hat and a gun and went off to join it. And yes, Shaka Zulu employed female fighters as well. But when we say “Shaka Zulu’s fighters” what image do we conjure in our minds? Do we think of these women? Or are they the ones we don’t see? The ones who, if we included them in our stories, people would say weren’t “realistic”?

Of course, we do talk about women who ran with Shaka Zulu. When I Google “women who fought for Shaka Zulu” I learn all about his “harem of 1200 women.”  And his mother, of course.  And this line was very popular: “Women, cattle and slaves.” One breath.

It’s easy to think women never fought, never led, when we are never seen.

This is why representation of this is important in the stories we tell, the culture we inhabit, the media we watch and read and listen to. If we don’t see the diverse stories and histories which exist, it perpetuates the same stereotypes about women which has a very real impact on them. Representing diverse stories allows people to imagine differently. Populating a world with men, with male heroes and their “women cattle and slaves” is a political act. You are making a conscious choice to erase half the world. Questioning the stories you’ve always been told can make the stories and world more inclusive for all kinds of people. 


2) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Heroines

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

There’s only room for one strong female lead in a story in science fiction and fantasy movies and even then, her character is full of tropes and stereotypes which lead to the character not being fully developed. In terms of merchandising, there’s a lack of dolls and action figures of female superheroes as well. The episode mentions that all the Avengers get dolls apart from Black Widow. Relatedly, where are the She-Ra and the Princesses of Power dolls?! They’re amazing superheroes with a fan-base of both young people and adults. 

The contradictory idea that women can’t be too caring or sensitive because they’re too weak to be a strong female character; but if they’re too in-your-face or brusque, they’re termed unlikable. There’s a very narrow scope of acceptable badassery for women whereas men can get away with a lot more. 

The Bechdel test currently seems quite limited. If you pass it, it doesn’t mean the movie is super feminist since it’s such a low bar. And there might be media that doesn’t pass the test which offers better portrayals of women. It’s important how movies treat their female characters – how the men treat the women and whether or not they respect women. For young men who watch media, it can be a way of promoting empathy for female characters and real-world women. This doesn’t always work though – the all-women reboot of Ghostbusters is a glaring example as is reactions to The Last Jedi


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

It’s called the Bechdel-Wallace test in this episode rather than the more popularly known Bechdel test because Alison Bechdel wanted to credit her friend Liz Wallace. The test is pretty basic and has three requirements:

i) Does it have at least two women in it?

ii) Do they talk to each other?

iii) Do they talk to each other about something other than a man? 

Even with such a low bar, I’m not sure how many of my favourite stories pass this test. I remember a Witch, Please episode saying that the Harry Potter movies definitely don’t pass this text. What about the books? The only girl who gets a lot of page-time is Hermione and she’s surrounded by boys all the time. Even when she’s talking to Ginny or Luna, the conversations seem to revolve around the male characters. Even Frozen which is heralded as a progressive film has Anna obsessing over boys all throughout the movie and even falls out with Elsa over a boy, as the episode notes. According to the hosts, Lord of the Rings definitely fails the test. As they point out, most movies would pass a reverse Bechdel test. 

The episode explores the limitations of the Bechdel test. Legally Blonde passes the Bechdel test even though it’s full of questionable role models (something I am hesitant to agree with – there are different kinds of role models surely?) but Gravity doesn’t because while it has Sandra Bullock as the protagonist, she’s the only woman character. Thor ostensibly passes the Bechdel test because Natalie Portman’s character talks to her assistant about science when Thor isn’t around – even though they are the only two female characters. Mulan doesn’t pass the Bechdel test because she is disguising herself to participate in an unfair structure rather than trying to overturn the patriarchy. 

Women haven’t historically been well-represented in movies and so we’ve been conditioned to look for basic representations even though we should demand more equality in terms of representation. Coming up with movies with more than two women talking to each other about something that doesn’t involve men shouldn’t be so difficult. 

The Bechdel test is quite contextual. However, it doesn’t include an intersectional analysis. When it comes to other identities, the picture is even more grim. There is a lack of older women characters in media in central roles whereas older men are often centered. Eurocentric standards of beauty are most often represented in Western media. Even in Bollywood, a certain kind of woman is glorified with regional, class, and caste implications. There’s a lack of women of colour, women with disabilities, older women, women of different religions and nationalities. Of course, it’s difficult if not impossible for a single story to include ALL the intersectional identities which is why there needs to be a shift in media practices at large. 

They wonder why F.R.I.E.N.D.S. – which is set in 1990s New York – is so white. In the Ghostbusters reboot, Leslie Jones, the black woman, was the only woman who wasn’t the scientist. While the movie was more inclusive of women, it didn’t center diverse ages and races. They discuss Rogue One which, according to the hosts, fails even the Sexy Lamp test – the female character can easily be replaced by a sexy lamp to reflect the lack of her agency. If you critically analyse any of your favourite stories, you will find things to critique – especially in terms of intersectional identities – since these stories reflect the society they’re created in. 

The hosts suggest a solution that you should just create fully-fleshed out female characters to overturn stereotypes rather than just inserting them as an afterthought. However, I think that good characters should be balanced with actively thinking about diversity too, or as one of the hosts said, there would just be cis white men or cis white women who are over-represented. A minority character’s whole arc shouldn’t be centered around their marginalisation making that the source of the tension rather than that just being one part of their much more complex identity – disability or trans characters, for example. Even background characters should have this level of thoughtfulness. For example, why are all the cops men? This is what stood out to me in Last Christmas, which had so many different intersectional identities included in the movie – including a pair of women cops – without that being the focus of the story.


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

At the beginning of the episode, one of the hosts says that women have always fought but we don’t hear about them or see this represented in SFF. This is certainly true in my case. I didn’t know women have always fought because that’s not the sort of stories I was exposed to. There were some stories about Rani Lakshmibai in India who led one of the first revolts against the British Empire but she seemed to be the exception rather than the norm. Now, thanks to Rejected Princesses and the internet, I’ve discovered the different ways in which women fought – physical and/or strategical – in history. 

The guest Juliet McKenna has experience with martial arts as well as LARPing – both of which inform her writing of women warriors.  

Vikings and female pirates are an example of women warriors in history. But SFF doesn’t draw on these historical examples nor imagines its own examples in futuristic or fantastical worlds. As someone points out, it’s important to question which history is being promoted, who wrote this history, and where this history is located. Most history – especially European history – is “written by men, for men, about men”. The perception of women warriors as an anomaly rather than the norm is prevalent in Eurocentric versions history. However, there’s also the perception that if a culture has women warriors, it’s a barbaric culture. But in Indian history, as the guest points out, there are women leaders in the resistance. With Amazons as fighters, historical sources have found that they didn’t fight as men, they fought as women. 

Joan of Arc was also a fighter as well as a religious leader. The idea that a woman can only be a warrior if she is exceptional because she has been blessed by god or was an exceptional fighter. Some stories are highlighted more than others. Joan of Arc is remembered while many others are forgotten. Is this because, as Juliet says, there’s no risk of ordinary women becoming Joan of Arc whereas with other examples of badass mothers etc. might inspire people to upset the status quo.

“Victims write the history but the vanquished write the folklore.” – Juliet

When Juliet mentioned how the availability of materials influence fighting styles – such as steel for armour – I began wondering how these materials can be used to allow women of different abilities to fight by incorporating their accessibility needs while they’re fighting. Maybe to make up for poor eyesight, a limp, having a child, menstruating? You can’t control when you’re in battle or what happens when you’re in battle so planning beforehand can help. It can also make it more accessible for mothers and grandmothers to fight – in terms of fighting skills, weapons, clothes – whatever one would need. 

Juliet says that the male-centred view of battle as a test of stamina isn’t true; it’s more about skill. Therefore, women have certain advantages when pitted against men too. Being a great warrior isn’t dependent on gender – though, of course, sometimes physical strength helps and can be an advantage. I wonder how much different cultural fighting styles also impact the battle – could be either a strength or a weakness. 

Some popular media portrayals of women fighters include Xena with her sword and sorcery, Wonder Woman, Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones, Buffy the vampire slayer. Hermione is both bookish and a good warrior – battling through wands rather than physical combat. Princess Leia was a strategist who chose peace over war but wasn’t afraid to go guns ablaze if her peaceful tactics didn’t work. She was a feminist icon at a time when media was devoid of such examples. 


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

The idea that you can believe in dragons in fantasy but not women characters with different and excellent skills is ludicrous. What sort of jobs do women have in fantasy stories? Barmaids, servants, prostitutes, sometimes assassins – very limited range. Is being a witch a job? In Spinning Silver, the protagonist is a successful moneylender. In Harry Potter, women have quite a limited range of jobs too, very few in leadership positions. In Howl’s Moving Castle, Sophie is a hat-maker but she hates that and then becomes a witch. In the Rat Queens, the women are adventurers/mercenaries for hire – a profession that is rare in fantasy.

In fantasy, do women already have existing jobs? Does the society support and reflect that women play a role in the economy? Or is it only the plot which leads to new jobs? We also don’t see women having periods in books and how/if that will impact their jobs – especially in the case of adventurers and the like. 

One of the hosts says that she doesn’t feel as educated as others when it comes to women’s jobs in the past because they have been written out of history and that’s largely been her exposure to these stories. She’s slowly learning about these historically female professions – female Vikings, pirates, for example. This is similar to my experience with history in school where women warriors were largely absent apart from Jhansi Ki Rani. Is it more centered in terms of resistance for independence? There’s also Boudicca and Joan of Arc. There has been recent proof found of female Samurai fighters in Japan and women Viking’s skulls. 

They talk about how in many male-authored fantasies, men are willing to give themselves up to goddesses and female supernatural creatures but not to the women in their lives. This is similar to Indian society where goddesses are worshipped but women are treated very poorly. 

There’s a trope that women can’t seem to be both strong and beautiful. The episode points out that historically, in the Civil War in the US, prostitutes were used as spies and had to use their skills in the war effort. In fantasy, prostitutes seem to be there just as a side-plot for men or a background for the world. Inara in Firefly is a rare example of a legal, powerful prostitute. 

Working mothers in fantasy are also missing. They mention Cersei but she’s been born into wealth. Being a ruler is not a profession. Monarchy can be used to explore power dynamics but it is still essentially a woman in power rather than overturning traditional notions of power. Is having a job a class issue? You’d need to take up a job to make a living. Or maybe because you enjoy what you do but that is also a privilege. Most people don’t get the choice. Mothers are only used as plot devices in fantasy where their role relies on motherhood – i.e. if they aren’t killed off – Lily Potter, Molly Weasley, though Daenyrys overturns this a little bit. In The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, while the female protagonists want to be more than their society allows, they’re constrained by their position in society. However, they do overturn it a little bit by the end and take up roles as a doctor, explorer, pirate, and natural historian. Terry Pratchett’s women can be dragon-rearers, witches, prostitutes – though I need to read more to note down other roles. 


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

Jeanette talks about Christian missionaries and their view of meeting people in Asia and Africa and considering them as not really human but fantastical and exotic people who need to be saved. In a lot of popular fantasy, Christianity is used as allegory and metaphor – the underlying framework of the world is one where Christianity is the default and everything else is measured against this. English borrows many words from the Bible and Christianity – which have now unconsciously become a part of the language – godspeed, anointing, crusades, bloody. It’s interesting how language evolves and the role religion plays in this. Hindi phrases also draw from Hindu mythology.

The relationship between religion and patriarchy: in Christianity, women who became nuns and Bedouins sought to escape marriage and traditional womanly lives by turning to religion and using it to talk back to the men in power. Women also wrote and created art and preached throughout history. They found inspiration in religion as well as comfort and escape. They used religion as a way to negotiate patriarchal systems. In traditional mainstream scholarship, women in Christianty have been passive and submissive. However, recent scholarship is unearthing new historical sources which problematises these ideas of women. Scholars are discovering that women were much more active in everyday life. This emergence of new stories reflects academia’s inherent sexism too where knowledge was researched, created and shared by a privileged group of men. Now more marginalised voices get the opportunities to place their perspectives at the forefront. Both academia and religion are more sexist and more empowering than one assumes. The hidden stories and alternate perspectives of Christian stories; which stories you choose to highlight can make it more inclusive now to women. People need to question socially conditioned ideas about women and religion and what they take for granted 

Jeanette likes to use the term “alternate patriarchies” to attack the idea of the patriarchy being ever-present. The patriarchy that exists now isn’t eternal because there have been other settings of power – this idea can be empowering that the current system of power will change too. Western thinking and systems of power aren’t universal and everlasting.

Suspension of disbelief can be limited to your worldview – when you’re reading fantasy, why wouldn’t you be open to alternate roles that women played in religion – even if they didn’t know this was based on history? 

What is considered pagan and how does it fit into a Christian context – faerie folk? Celtic cultures? Not all religions have the same relationship with the text. In Hinduism, people do have mythology which plays an important role in our rituals and celebrations but it is also beyond that. “Pagan” religions have different relationships with gods – instead of worship, you bargain with them or you’re friends with them or like in Buddhism, you don’t have a god in your faith tradition. There are different relationships with god and the Bible in Christianity than perhaps in Hinduism or African faiths or Greek mythology. Polytheism and monotheism have different ideas of god – flawed gods versus a perfect god.

Religion in science fiction and fantasy makes an appearance in Star Trek, Doctor Who with the Doctor as a religious figure, Dumbledore and Harry’s faith in him, The Last Jedi and Buddhist parallels. You can interpret these SFF faith traditions based on your own background.

The episode also looks at institutions like libraries and museums which were founded to provide a secular place of learning and art outside of religious orders. These spaces are under attack now with funding being cut. It’s a democratic issue with the cuts acting as an attack on poorer people. In Christianity and in Hinduism, priests traditionally controlled literacy and access to knowledge. Now that it’s more democratic, we surely have a responsibility to protect these spaces? 

Episode 13 You Want To See Yourself In That Story: The Impact Of Religion And Regional Origin

Episode Resources:

1) TV show episode – Doctor Who: Demons of the Punjab 

2) Fan podcast – Verity: Angels and Demons of the Punjab

3) Fan podcast – Witch, Please: Witch, Please and the Rise of White Nationalism 

4) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text Owl Post Edition: How to Be in Community with Burns Stanfield [listen till 19 minutes 52 seconds]

5) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text Owl Post Edition: Reclaiming Tradition with Professor Matt Potts [listen till 20ish minutes]

6) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text Special Edition: Owl Post and Broderick Greer [listen till 18ish minutes]

7) Fan podcast – Fan podcast – #WizardTeam: Pottermore Edition Part 3 History of Magic in North America

8) Essay – Thor: Ragnarok is a Hilarious Blockbuster About the Evils of Imperialism

9) Fan podcast – Our Opinions Are Correct: What’s the matter with Star Wars?

Episode Transcript:

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

Doodle of an angry face. Text says: me, during podcast recording

Extremely appropriate cover image courtesy Aparna who doodled it while we were recording.

[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 thirteenth episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I talk to Sanjana and Aparna about how religion as well as national and regional origin intersect in both the real and fictional worlds. We also discuss how governments and mainstream media weaponise these topics to oppress people. Since these issues are very relevant to current global events, please be warned that I go on several angry rants throughout this episode. Thanks to our impassioned discussion, in the beginning of the episode we begin talking about Demons of the Punjab without mentioning that it’s a Doctor Who episode about the Partition of India and not about actual demons – though I’m sure you can find people who’ve called the British Empire much worse.

Who writes history and whose version of history is portrayed by mainstream media has contemporary real-world impacts. Media can provide multiple stories and versions to counter false narratives. Alternatively, it can emphasise divisive accounts with damaging consequences for relationships among diverse groups. Fictional-world politics also have real-world parallels based on religious and national demographics. An increasing number of people are beginning to question the underlying assumptions of religious and national stories. Retellings can reclaim tradition to make it radically inclusive to historically marginalised groups of people.

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Sanjana: Hello! I’m Sanjana.

Aparna: Hi! I’m Aparna.

Parinita: And hi! I’m Parinita. In today’s episode, we’re exploring the themes of religion and national or regional origin. In previous episodes, we’ve looked at how specific themes are represented in some of our favourite media but this time we’re taking a slightly different approach. All three of us are from India, though I currently live in the UK. And none of us are religious. So it didn’t really make sense to us to analyse religious representations. Instead, we’re looking at how religion and which country you come from or which part of the country you come from is weaponised by mainstream media as well as several governments including our own. So, you know, a super light-hearted topic to explore. Since this is a fan podcast, we’re going to be drawing on examples from our favourite stories and fandoms as we chat. And just to give you an idea of my mood, we were supposed to record this episode three days ago. But the research for it and the current news events depressed me so much that I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. It’s the 7th of June, we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, migrants in India are dying because the government is failing them miserably on all fronts, protesters in the US are marching against police brutality and the police are responding by tear-gassing them or running them over in cars or shooting them with rubber bullets. In India, anti-government protesters are being jailed but people who shot or beat them up aren’t and J. K. Rowling is back to tweeting some transphobic bullshit again because apparently everybody was just too distracted by everything collapsing to pay attention to her. [sighs] I’m just so tired you guys.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Oh my god. That sounded very, very exhausting. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah. So considering where the world’s currently at, I thought the intersection of religion and national or regional origin is especially relevant.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So all three of us come from huge positions of privilege. I’m not religious but I come from a non-Dalit Hindu background. I don’t actually know my caste and this ignorance itself is an immense privilege, as is being able to ignore my religious background. So if I go to rent a flat in a Mumbai housing society, the agent won’t look at my surname and say that this society doesn’t rent homes to Muslims, as happens frequently.

Sanjana: Yes.

Parinita: And I’ve never been discriminated against because of my caste. We’re also pretty privileged in terms of what part of the country we’re from. So you both are from Bangalore and I’m from Mumbai, both big cities which tend to take more than their share of resources from rural areas. And the Indian government at the moment is actively oppressing people based on their religion. So you’re only the correct kind of person if you’re Hindu. And even if you’re Hindu, you’re only the correct kind of person if you’re upper-caste. And you also have to be from the correct country otherwise the government hates you.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And even if you’re from India, you have to be from the correct part of India and you have to be from the correct class. So if you’re middle-class or wealthier stuck abroad during the pandemic, the government will rescue you with planes. If you’re working-class or poorer stuck in cities thousands of kilometres from home, well, you’ll just have to walk back to your villages in the summer sun. Or pay for a train which has no food or ventilation or sell your life’s possessions to afford a ticket for a flight and a taxi to the airport just to find out that the flight has been cancelled. So yeah, I thought that talking about how fascist governments weaponise religion and national or regional origin was a super timely topic. What do you guys think?

Sanjana: Yeaaaaah. Pretty much. [laughs]

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: If it could get even more exhausting, you did make it.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: With the specifics of how exhausting the world is right now.

Aparna: In the whole world, the majority is suddenly inexplicably feeling attacked. Like they’re losing their identity and everything is just going nuts. So yeah. It is super timely is putting it mildly.

Sanjana: Pretty much. I feel like religion in history has always been like this tool to use to just make it easier for you to rule. And move things forward. Basically, most people that benefit from it are the ruling people in power so to speak.

Parinita: Yeah and we have all these stories in history of people using religion against each other.

Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: Where are all these stories or historical narratives where people of different religions live together somewhat harmoniously?

Aparna: Yeah!

Parinita: They exist. I’m sure they do.

Sanjana: Yeah especially because they do. So just going back, the way you were describing the people trying to make their way back to their house, a lot of people on social media and other places did draw comparisons to the Partition. When people had to migrate in these huge numbers and there were eerily similar pictures of that time versus this time.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: And really it shouldn’t be happening now. And in fact, it brings us to one of the Doctor Who episodes that we looked at for this episode – Demons of Punjab. What did you guys think of the episode?

Aparna: I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it as much as everyone seems to based on all the reviews that I read or all the people we heard talking about it.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: I didn’t think they exactly trivialised it, but the issue is so complex for us – I think maybe that’s why I felt like it fell a little flat in the way that it was dealt with. There is no one episode that could have probably done justice to it, but it felt like it was over with very quickly – the explanation of what’s happening. Whereas for us, it’s such a loaded time in our history.

Sanjana: Yeah. And one of the things that was very evident to me is whose story is being told? Because when we watched the Doctor Who Rosa episode for our podcast episode on race, we loved the episode right at the onset.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: And when we heard the Woke Doctor Who episode where they spoke about the episode and all the problems with the episode, we were like, “What?! Yeah! You’re absolutely right.” With comparison to how they loved Demons of Punjab and we didn’t quite love it. We weren’t in love with it. We did have problems with it. And I think that’s basically how the way history is consumed becomes very limited and subjective to how it’s being told and to the people whose story it is – who were directly affected by it. When I was watching the episode, I thought of how there were so many stories. Our grandparents came from Pakistan to India when the Partition happened – my mum’s grandmum, my dad’s grandmum. I remember my dad telling us stories about how they dug the walls of these large houses that they had and put in all their possessions into the walls and cemented it back in hopes that they would get back there someday. And it was huge amounts of migration and it felt a little bit like let’s just tell this one tiny part of this countryside story of this one woman who – which is fine, which is whose story we were there to tell. But except for those uh for the um the what – what were the creatures who were mourning the dead?

Parinita: Oh I don’t even remember.

Sanjana: The alien witnesses [they’re called the Thijarians]. Except them saying that they were there because a lot of death was about to happen, there was no other mention of the enormity of what was going to happen – of that part of history.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Yeah, I completely agree with you. I didn’t hate the episode. I didn’t think it was offensive.

Sanjana: Absolutely, yeah.

Parinita: It was just a bit meh episode.

Sanjana: Yeah exactly!

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: We’ve grown up with these stories. For you it was through grandparents. For me it was just culturally and in history class and things. We know about all these different stories. So for us it’s much more of a lived experience than I think this 45-50-minute episode could even hope to achieve. But what I found really interesting in a good way was in the Verity fan podcast episode that we listened to which discussed this episode, the three women there – I think one was British, one was American, and one was Australian, I believe. Or Tasmanian?

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And they acknowledged their positions that they were three white ladies talking about something which didn’t impact them. They really loved the episode, but more than that for them, it was a way to educate themselves about this history that they had no idea of – except the Scottish host; she knew a little bit about it. But the other two hosts didn’t. And I loved that they took the time to look for all these different resources and try to fill the gaps that they had in their own knowledge. Because even us, though we know a lot of Western history because colonial impact and cultural imperialism.

Sanjana and Aparna laugh.

Sanjana: Of course.

Parinita: So we know a lot about American history just in general. But there are huge parts of world history that even we don’t know, right? Even though we were colonised, I don’t know a lot of African history, for example. All the different countries there. Or even East Asian history. So the fact that this story allowed them the opportunity to get to know these things, I really loved that.

Sanjana: Yeah, no absolutely. So what the episode did in terms of creating dialogue, I feel like yeah it certainly did. And the whole thing between the two brothers did show two sides of the same religion as well. It wasn’t an all bad episode; it was quite a decent episode. Yet lacking in some places which is just the comparison between how we reacted to the Rosa episode.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: Which absolutely goes to show how – whose story it is, their reaction to it is so vastly different.

Parinita: Yeah. Even as meh as I found the episode, I found it super depressing also. Just because of Manish who is this Hindutva terrorist predecessor.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Absolutely.

Aparna: After all this time, it’s just the most important thing in the country still for some reason.

Parinita: Yeah. And it’s become mainstream now. This hatred, this distrust of Muslims. This Pakistan-India sort of binary.

Sanjana: Yeah. This just reminds me of one of the things that mum told me about my grandfather and how he grew up. So he had this habit of reading the Ramayana every day in the night before he slept. It was a thing he did. And he did not know how to read Hindi. His Ramayana was in Urdu. Because when he grew up, his early years were in Pakistan, in Punjab, and he grew up reading only Urdu so his Ramayana was in Urdu. He he read it from back to front. And I thought it was just the most interesting thing. Nobody even knows about these little things. The way media portrays religion in general is so divisive that these little things just don’t – nobody even knows these things. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah that’s so lovely. And just history in general, right? It’s something that they mentioned on the Verity podcast, where in the UK, the history of the Empire in general, but the Partition as well, it’s not really taught so much in school. It’s this elective thing that you can do. Which is why I think this lack of history or historical knowledge and their role in historical oppression has created this false narrative of past glories in the head of a lot of British people today.

Sanjana: Exactly.

Parinita: Which is similar, I think, to India where not knowing these nuances and the kinship and community that we have not just with Muslim people in India but also Pakistanis has created this terrible, terrible narrative where we see them as enemies.

Sanjana: Exactly.

Aparna: Yes, and it’s still happening. Because we’re still reading in the news that in UP and Rajasthan, they are changing textbooks to remove Nehru’s name or adding the Swacch Bharat campaign mentions into school textbooks. This is what people are reading. This is what people are consuming, this is what kids are consuming. So the narrative is changing even before it’s history. It’s already being written to favour the majority all the time.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Yeah and you can’t really learn from your mistakes in the past without acknowledging them. Right?

Aparna: Exactly!

Parinita: You’ll be doomed to repeat the same thing. Can you believe that people are defending Nazis what 60-70 years after the war that was supposed to end all wars? People are defending fascists or people are being fascists in all these different ways. In Indian contexts, Muslims and Hindus were fighting together to kick the British out of India and this is what we’ve come down to now. We have this internal enemy. And the way that history is taught in schools is so rubbish.

Aparna and Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: The importance is the dates and the events rather than the context of those dates and events. I think we’ve spoken about this briefly before but yeah, if you don’t acknowledge the mistakes that you’ve made and the nuances and the complexities that were there in the past, how are you going to learn from it and not repeat those same mistakes?

Sanjana: Absolutely.

Aparna: I read this interesting article on Tor about Thor: Ragnorak and it made a statement of how Hela was erased from history by Odin. And it’s also an erasure of everything. It’s trying to rewrite and simplify the past so that his authority is not questioned because his mistakes have been quickly brushed over. Which is fascinating because that’s exactly what happens in real life also.

Parinita: Yeah similar to that I think in an American context – well, also Australia and Canada. Just wherever the colonisers went where they were basically oppressing the indigenous people and suppressing their knowledge and their culture. So the Native Americans in the US and Canada and the tribals in Australia and New Zealand. This is not something that we know a lot of in India – at least I didn’t – about Native American culture and history. I’m not really very well-versed with it. But because J. K. Rowling –  I think it’s been a couple of years now – wrote Magic in North America, this Pottermore article to promote the Fantastic Beasts films.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Um hmm.

Parinita: And that created this huge backlash because of the way that it portrayed Native Americans as these primitive people which was perpetuating these false ideas of the culture where Europeans were the saviours basically and they brought all this knowledge and culture and completely erasing the Native culture, languages and histories. And that’s something that’s been critiqued a lot in terms of J. K. Rowling’s representation. But when I was watching Anne With An E.

Sanjana: Yes.

Parinita: What I really liked is – we’ve spoken about this before, the way that they’ve made this story that was written in the 1800s more inclusive and more contemporary and more relevant to the social and cultural contexts of today. And in Anne With An E, I really loved Ka’Kwet’s whole storyline. And how they showed how the Christian missionaries tried to brutally assimilate Native children into the Christian norm. This is a piece of history where they were stolen from their families and they were sent to these residential schools and these boarding schools. So it is very much a part of history where their language and her name, her hair, her clothes – all aspects of her culture were stripped away from her and her very identity was taken in this really violent way. It’s something I think now in Canada and in Australia and in New Zealand, they’re coming to terms with it more, this horrible part of their history. But it’s generations of erasure and generations of oppression. And this can’t go away instantly. This work has to be done actively to reverse this oppression.

Gif from Anne With An E. Text says - Anne: It's funny how people are so quick to point out differences when there are so many ways we're all alike. Ka'Kwet: Alike.

Aparna: And we can only start doing that work by telling these stories. Which is finally changing because for so long we’ve just been consuming media that has been created by a majority. So the white guys will be the good guys in everything that we’ve seen from when we were kids. And it’s only now that we’re starting to see diversity in the stories that are being told or the stories we’re consuming. And it’s because of the diversity of creators and things like that. But this is the first step. Acknowledging everyone’s stories is the first step to changing the narrative that’s been in everyone’s minds for so long.

Parinita: Yeah absolutely. All these conversations that happen in the West, in terms of diversity and all these cultures on the fan podcasts that we’ve listened to but also just in general online, they always make me draw Indian parallels because that’s what I know more of. So this Native American erasure of their culture and knowledge made me think of parallels with Indian tribal and rural cultures.

Sanjana: It did, yeah.

Parinita: Where their ways of knowledge and medicine and culture and their connection with the environment, the land, everything is erased, is marginalised. And the Indian government is almost the colonising force. The oppressed became the oppressors.

Sanjana: Yeah. What you’re saying is reminding me of the book Year of the Weeds. Where Siddhartha Sharma basically talks about the same thing as to how the hill being a religious entity for them is so hard for anybody to understand or even take seriously. It just doesn’t even fit into the context of even being looked at or considered as something in the large scheme of things. We need this done, who cares. Whereas if it had been a temple there and nobody in the government, then there is no bauxite.

Aparna: [laughs] The government would have never thought of doing that.

Sanjana: Absolutely.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: If we want to build a road and if a temple was there before the road, the road goes around the temple in this country. And this was similar to when we were discussing what happens in Avatar: The Last Airbender with the monks and the Fire Nation and how they are completely obliterated. It’s the same parallel to that.

Parinita: Yeah. I listened to an Imaginary Worlds episode called Growing Up Avatar-American. It had an Asian-American guest who was talking about how he didn’t find any Asian representation in media while he was growing up especially Asian-American representation. Because Asian-American is different from Asian. So a Bollywood movie is different from a Hollywood movie made with Asians.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Because for us, we’re the dominant group. We don’t have erasure of our own identities. I mean obviously there are caste and class and religion – maybe those intersections. But in terms of seeing brown faces on screen, we don’t have that problem.

Aparna: Correct.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Whereas for him, he’s East Asian. And he was talking about how he and a lot of Asian-Americans in the US saw Aang’s story as this refugee/immigrant story where like you said, Sana, he’s the only surviving Airbender whose people are murdered in a genocide led by the Firebenders. And one of the guests on the episode considered his escape by flying away on Appa similar to Vietnamese history where one of the guest’s parents fled on boats. And so they were drawing analogies to this trauma of the loss and ethnic cleansing of home and culture and people. As well as to the Japanese cultural occupation, the Chinese cultural revolution, the Cambodian genocide, surviving Hiroshima. Because there’s such a lack of these stories told in media. Also in science fiction and fantasy, it’s very Western, Euro-centric, so all these other histories are erased. So seeing fans interpreting it based on their own histories is pretty cool.

Aparna: And the reason that everyone wants to see themselves represented, it’s not a coincidence that the people who are not seeing themselves represented are also the people who are disproportionately affected by any crisis that happens in the world.

Parinita: Absolutely.

Aparna: It’s not a coincidence that now everyone is recommending picture books or children’s books that are created by black people and feature children – just stories of diverse experiences. Right now, they’re everywhere. On Instagram, I’ve seen three a day for the last few weeks. Because it has to start there. Once those experiences are completely similar, once we start seeing everyone as part of our growing up, is when we’ll realise that there shouldn’t be any difference in how people are treated as well. Because whether it’s the COVID crisis or whether it’s the climate crisis, everyone who’ll be first affected will be the people who are poor or the people who are a minority in any sense of the word.

Sanjana: Yeah. In fact it was today only that I was listening to a conversation with someone – I don’t remember the name now – but there was this student of psychology and she was talking about the need for dialogue that mentions intersectional and marginalised communities in classrooms and otherwise for society’s mental health. It is so important for mental health because the moment you don’t see yourself represented or the moment you don’t see anyone else even remotely understanding what you’re saying, you immediately shut off. And you don’t want to have that conversation anymore because you’re not seeing it being mirrored back. And to start dialogue at a classroom level with all of this very subjectively told would make so much of a difference in the long run leading to just a much better society.

Parinita: No, absolutely. I agree. And I think that intersectionality in these conversations is so important. Paru, you mentioned the environmental crisis which would affect – is already affecting people. I’m in the UK so all this Extinction Rebellion and the climate crisis, climate strikes and everything, it’s ongoing. Well, not now because the pandemic has stopped that for a little while.

Aparna: [laughs] Yeah.

Parinita: But it’s ongoing in terms of that we don’t want this to happen to us. But it has already happened to a lot of countries. Like the Syrian refugees, a lot of their conflict was sectarian – was religious conflict. But I’ve read articles about going back to the root causes of it. It was because there were consecutive droughts in consecutive years and how that impacts the politics of a country. So we already have climate refugees from different parts of the developing world. And the developing tag is because of colonisation, right?

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: We’re still facing these impacts where the developed world and not only the developed world but also in India, the cities, we have the luxury to think we don’t want this happening in the future. Even though in India, we’re breathing in polluted air and we have water shortages and whatever but still we have a certain level of comfort in that we’re not completely abandoned yet. But there are so many parts of India, there are so many parts of the world where people have to leave their houses. And all these migrants, why are they in cities in India? They had to leave their farms. They don’t want to live in these cramped fifteen people to a tiny room accommodation in the cities.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Exactly.

Parinita: But they’re leaving it because the climate crisis has already affected them. And they are further being harmed because of the pandemic and it’s just yeah it’s – sorry, I went on another rant. [laughs]

Aparna: No, but it’s true. Even within the city, if there’s a water crisis, it takes much longer for a water shortage to hit an apartment complex versus somebody who’s living in a more temporary settlement. Or it’ll take even longer for them to hit corporate tech parks. Because the more money you have, the easier it is to just get water during a crisis.

Parinita: Yeah. And even now, in the pandemic where the compassion and the dignity that is accorded to you is based on how much money you have.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And what class you’re from. Or what part of the country you’re from. You didn’t see Indians returning from foreign countries coming to the airport being sprayed down by pesticides [it was disinfectant]. You didn’t see them having to walk for thousands of kilometres but migrants had to go through this. The poorer migrants had to go through this. Everyone who’s living in another part of the country is a migrant but I mean the poorer migrants who had to go through this.

Sanjana: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely.

Parinita: They didn’t even have this dignity and compassion and humanity accorded to them. On the other hand, what I really do like, just because I know we’re going to be talking about this a little bit later – the connection between religion and community and fandom and community.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: But what I liked because I am an optimistic person even though I’ve ranted a lot today [laughs] and I’ve been really angry this last week and this last year. And these last six years.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: I don’t know I’ve just been increasingly angry. But at heart I’m an optimistic person. So I like focusing on the positives, and I like that in India, this community has recently shown itself through all these people – well, not all, a lot of people with privilege – who came together in different ways to look after the most vulnerable people in the country. So be it people doing fundraisers to fly migrants back to their villages or making food packets to pass it to them on the roads or water or using whatever resources that they have. And they’re still doing this in India. To make sure that people who don’t have this privilege do get a little bit more help.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Because the government systems are completely failing them. Going back to what I first started off with which was basically fascism and resistance, I really loved the episode Witch, Please and the Rise of White Nationalism.

Sanjana: Yeah even we.

Parinita: But also it stressed me out.

Sanjana: Yeah absolutely!

Parinita: [laughs] So one of the co-hosts Marcel, she used the Harry Potter series to draw real-life parallels with fascism and resistance and I loved that she used the Potterverse like this. Like I said, I was very distressed about how many of these are evident in India as well as other parts of the world especially along the lines of religion and national and regional origin. So her talk covered four points – what fascism looks like, how it uses existing systems of power – media and democracy and education – how to be an ally, and how to fight back. All of her examples were from the Harry Potter books and the movies but she was talking about it mostly in terms of the rise of white nationalism, hate crimes in the US, Canada and the UK. But again, I drew parallels to India. In India, it was so obvious this parallel with the rise of Hindutva versus Islam versus just Dalits which is why I was really depressed.

Sanjana: [laughs] Yeah. Because they at some point said this pureblood supremacist cult. What I found interesting was their dialogue around the Ministry of Magic and how its role changed over the different books as the story progressed from just being this entity which showed these government employees. Because our only link to it was through Mr Weasley. And then when it is taken over by this supremacist cult, it becomes this evil entity that is trying to cause all kinds of mayhem by being this ruling class. From how it becomes this bumbling government office [laughs] to this really complex leader and supremacist entity. It was rather interesting.

Aparna: Yeah. What I found most scary was when she suggested that Trump is possibly not Voldemort [laughs] but Fudge.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aparna: Because these are the systems that already have to be in place for a Voldemort to appear. For a Voldemort to be able to step in and claim this world as his own. There are some systems that have to have been in place for so long and things that are so fundamentally just broken. There is so much undoing to be able to fix it.  At the end of the story when it returns to normal, their version of normal is not safe. It’s still leaving room for this to happen again.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Yeah because I think when Kingsley Shacklebolt becomes Minister of Magic, he gets rid of the Dementors but what about the house-elves? What about the centaurs? What about the giants? What about the goblins? It’s not addressed. Going back to normal even during the pandemic everyone is saying that oh we want to go back to normal.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: But the normal is only working for a very specific group of people.

Aparna: Exactly! And normal is what created the sort of environment where Voldemort has risen.

Parinita: Yeah!

Aparna: So normal was not great.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: This is all going to happen again.

Parinita: When she was talking about that, where basically Fudge allowed Voldemort to come to power, Fudge’s Ministry where the existing systems of power were designed to privilege a certain group of people already.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: I was thinking about it in terms of the Congress in India. Now because we have the BJP in power, compared to them, everything else seems better.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: But the Congress definitely did lay ground for the BJP to come to power. It wasn’t like they were doing all these great things to radically restructure society in a way that made it inclusive for everybody.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Absolutely yeah.

Parinita: So that’s why the BJP is in power now. And who knows where we’re going to go next?

Aparna: Exactly.

Parinita: If we take Modi out of the picture, if we take Trump out of the picture, it’s not going to go away. I think they said Voldemort, he does use violence and intimidation, but he’s also really easily able to create this army of people who seem to hate Muggles and who seem to hate Muggle-borns and are really happy.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: It was all very scary. And also when they were talking about how the media is co-opted like The Daily Prophet presents Ministry-approved messages without any critical thinking or any criticism.

Sanjana: Yes!

Parinita: Again what we see happening in most mainstream media in India as well as WhatsApp media now that that’s a new genre of news.

Sanjana: Totally.

Aparna: Oh god! [laughs]

Sanjana: Because you said WhatsApp media, it just brought about this constant struggle at home where every time our parents give us this piece of great information, I turn back and say what is your source?

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: Where did you get this information?

Parinita: I do this with my mother as well. I’ll call her to chat because she living by herself in Mumbai and Mumbai is really hit by the pandemic. So she’s really freaked out. So we try and have more regular conversations than we used to. But now rather than comfort, it’s more like trying to decode news sources. I’m giving her a course on media analysis.

Sanjana: Yeah. [laughs]

Parinita: “Let’s go back. Why do you think this? Why that?” I’m using all my PhD research.

Sanjana: [laughs]

Parinita: And just like your parents, she’s not an Islamaphobe. She’s not a bigot.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: But it’s this everyday benign sort of bigotry which has come to the fore.

Sanjana: Yeah exactly.

Parinita: But I also like that lest this thing get too depressing – which it is, because the world is very depressing. But I also liked that in the episode they also spoke about how to resist this. So she spoke about how different people in the witching world use different skills to resist. So like knitting and Hermione – although her S.P.E.W. has some problematic tendencies but she was well-intentioned.

Sanjana: [laughs]

Parinita: Although sometimes intent, good intent has damaging impacts. But whatever. Knitting and making protest signs and cooking and resistance. They were drawing parallels to the real world where all these different skills can come together. Even online putting all these resources together to donate, or putting all the resources to educate yourself. Because not everyone begins from this same spot, right? We didn’t grow up thinking like this.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: It was a process – a huge process of learning and unlearning things.

Sanjana: I was going to use our parents as a segue into us talking about this. [laughs] Because I think all three of us have had a very similar relationship with religion wherein all of our religion comes from what our parents told us and what our parents said we should do. I think the just one generation before this, there was not much questioning. I feel like we’re questioning a lot more. And so our relationship with all of the religious stuff in our house is a lot different from when our mum and dad grew up. And I think a lot of our religion was mostly based on what was taught to our parents and which they then tried teaching to us and we did it for quite awhile.

Aparna: Yeah and I don’t think they were particularly religious either.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: I feel like they were just, yes I will do because my mother did it.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Yeah. Because my mum, she’s the kind of religious who believes in all religions and I understand where her need to believe in all these things comes from because she, like me, she went to a Catholic school – the same Catholic school actually – but grew up in a Hindu household.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And she’s had a really difficult life in terms of family. A lot of trauma and a lot of abuse from different kinds. So I get her need to hang on to religion as a form of solidarity.

Sanjana: Yeah absolutely.

Parinita: So that’s the way that she gets comfort and things. But for me I never really found that in religion. I don’t know when you guys started questioning this, but I don’t think it ever made sense to me.

Sanjana: [laughs]

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: I remember in primary school, I used to be like, “But why?” My question used to always be, “But why? This is not logical. This is not rational.” And because like your parents, she didn’t have this sort of scholarly knowledge.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And by scholarly I mean just the access to texts and the stories and things. So she didn’t have a response to me and this stubborn only-child brain of mine was like, “Then oh, no, I must be right!” [laughs]

Sanjana: [laughs]

Parinita: “No you can’t explain.” And also in school, there was one teacher in particular, our maths teacher who used to teach us to question things. And I used to hate maths but I used to love her and she made me tolerate maths for the time that she taught us. And she used to teach us to question things. For example, in Hinduism where you are on your period, when you’re menstruating, you can’t go to temples. And we had a class, I remember, it was a free period I think, where we were just talking. And she was talking about her own experiences and she said that she and her daughters when they’re menstruating, they go to temples; they just don’t tell anybody about it. It was just something for them to know. Maybe she was religious? I think I stopped going to temples years ago. Unless it’s just to look at the nice architecture or whatever.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Yeah. I think after a point for us it became that we didn’t want to offend our parents so we didn’t say much and after a point, we were like, “You’ll go, we’ve seen. It looks beautiful from outside.”

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: “We are waiting here, no problem. We don’t want to climb the five hundred steps, go ahead, we’ll sit here.”

Parinita: You were much nicer than I was. I used to be like, “No! Religion is oppression!”

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: “It’s the opiate of the masses!”

Aparna: We are like that now.

Sanjana: We are like that now.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: I feel like it took a little longer to question it as much. We listened to a bunch of the podcast episodes just to understand. I didn’t want to write off religion completely when we were reading up about this. And a couple of things that jumped out from some of the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text episodes was that religion has this sense of giving a sense of community and belonging. And the other day we were watching an episode of House where there was this priest that was one of the patients. And at some point House said, “Religion is the placebo of the world.” [laughs] Both of us looked at each other and I made a mental note of it.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: Because it was such a simple way of explaining religion to someone who doesn’t get the need to get up every morning and pray to this god and or to a whole slew of gods.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: It’s a good enough reason if it’s giving you some sense of belonging and some sense of peace somewhere. It definitely doesn’t give us a sense of peace and maybe for me, my questioning started when I started working on writing and retelling these stories. I work for Amar Chitra Katha and they essentially tell stories of gods and goddesses. We’ve been doing that for a long time. And it’s because the mythology is so rich with stories. Except that after a point, after reading a couple of things, I just can’t see these entities as gods. Or whatever the definition of god is. [laughs] I just can’t get behind the whole – I can’t get behind a text that’s derogatory to women. I can’t see – I just can’t – I’ve said the word can’t so many times that it’s lost all meaning.

Aparna and Parinita laugh

Parinita: Is it even a real word anymore?

Sanjana: Yeah it’s just that’s the only way I can describe it.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: For a lack of better word, I just can’t you guys.

All three laugh

Parinita: As the kids these days say, I can’t even.

Sanjana: I can’t.

Parinita: [laughs] No I’m completely with you. I’m very angry on this episode because I’m just angry today and, like I said, I’ve been angry this week a lot. But I’m not one of those fundamentalist atheists because I think atheism can also become fundamentalism just in the way religion can become fundamentalism where you are so caught up with the ideology that you believe in, that you are forcing that ideology upon other people and you see other people as lesser than or not as equal to you because they believe in something different. I know that there’s this huge problem within atheism online and there’s this intersection of atheism and patriarchy. And there are these hero atheists who just make everyone feel stupid. Or try to make everyone feel stupid.

Aparna: There’s an intersection of everything with patriarchy.

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs] Essentially.

Sanjana: [laughs]

Aparna: We would be hard-pressed to find something that does not intersect with the ever-present patriarchy.

Parinita: Yeah. But I wouldn’t want to write off religion either. Because I like the idea of some of the things that people who are religious find from religion.

Sanjana: Yeah absolutely.

Parinita: For example, like community. I love the idea of finding this sense of community. I love the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text podcast. The hosts are I think graduates or they teach or work with the Harvard Divinity School in the US. And one of the hosts Vanessa, she’s from a Jewish background, but she’s not religious. And Casper, the other host, is from a Christian background but he’s also not religious. I don’t know if they consider themselves atheists, but they’re not religious. But they are humanist ministers, I think, where they live. So it’s this sort of secular practice. And in the podcast itself, they draw on a lot of religious practices from Judaism, from Christianity to analyse Harry Potter like that. So they use Harry Potter in the way religious people would use the Bhagavad Gita or the Bible or the Torah or the Quran. They use the characters, the themes, the events to make sense of the world. And I love that because they started this off with an in-person group and their podcast is so popular that it’s created these Harry Potter and the Sacred Text chapters all over the world. Where Harry Potter people – Harry Potter people like not the people come to life.

Sanjana and Aparna laugh

Parinita: Harry Potter fans meet and they do these different practices. But it’s just a way to come together with people that you wouldn’t otherwise have met like they would have done in temples or these sort of bhajan sessions and things that my mom goes to and meets people. Or in churches. Where people find that sense of community.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So I love that idea of finding this community as a way to combat this disconnection that we have.

Sanjana: One of the episodes spoke about tradition in particular.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: Tradition and religion. And I really loved what they said about tradition. That all of us have the permission to reach in and take something that means something to us.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: And I felt that was really interesting because it is what I think the way our relationship with religion progressed, at least for us. It’s not that we obliterated it completely. There are bits and pieces of it and mostly only because of the traditions not of the religious aspect but more like we do these little things on Diwali.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: And that’s something probably that I want to continue following as general because especially with now having a kid, it’s just some bit of what we did or what we celebrate or something about just a little piece of our identity that I would like for my kid to have as well. And it’s not at all steeped in religion but it’s just this sense of sitting down together and making little stars and putting up lights or whatever.

Aparna: It is despite religion.

Sanjana: Yeah. It is despite religion that we celebrate [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah, it’s more cultural right?

Sanjana: Yeah exactly.

Parinita: Like in Harry Potter, the way that they celebrate. There are debates on this that Harry Potter itself is a Christian text because J. K. Rowling is Christian.

Sanjana: Right.

Parinita: And Harry and the comparisons with Jesus and Aslan in Narnia.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: He comes back to life and sacrifices himself. But also Christmas and Easter in Hogwarts. Yeah they celebrate these Christian celebrations but it doesn’t seem to be in a way that’s really religious.

Aparna: Exactly.

Parinita: It seems to be the way that you’re saying, Sana, it’s cultural. And I’m the same.

Aparna: Or like we celebrate Christmas as well is exactly like they do in Harry Potter.

Parinita: Yeah. Because now I am in this foreign land where I am the minority and nobody – I mean I’m sure there are people who speak the same language and stuff but I don’t know them here except one person. But it makes me want to celebrate these things. Just for me, celebration has to involve food. So it’s just putting that together. So like Diwali or Ganesh Chathurthi because in Mumbai that’s a huge thing that I’ve grown up with. In my housing society, we used to have these celebrations. So it’s more about that – about past memories and cultural identities than religion. So I love celebrating that here especially because there isn’t really a community here that I can celebrate it with. So it’s like something that I’m – I’m –

Sanjana: Like a bit of yourself, yeah.

Parinita: Exactly.

Sanjana: Absolutely. Because all said and done, it is somewhere a part of our identity and the way we see the world or from where we see the world to some extent.

Aparna: Which is why the parallel between religion is so interesting. I find it very fascinating because whatever media I consume – the books that I read, the shows that I watch – is the way I relate to the world. So that is more part of my identity than anything else. So being a part of fandom, gives me that feeling of being part of a community. The sort of feelings that people get from religion – the positive feelings – without any of the negativity [laughs] for me.

Parinita: Although negativity does exist in fandom.

Aparna: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It certainly does.

Parinita: Like the toxic bits

Aparna: Yeah. So I was listening to this podcast called Our Opinions Are Correct and in that they were talking about that possibly this is because religion doesn’t occupy the same kind of space in public that it used to, especially with younger people. And that’s why people engage more in fandom and how there are people who accept or respect only what’s in the canon versus people reinterpreting it to make it your own. Which is exactly the sort of relationships that people have with religion.

Sanjana: Yeah. And this brings up an interesting thing that we did recently. So we recently did a book called Rama’s Ring. And it basically has these various stories taken from the retellings of the Ramayana. So the original Ramayana exists and then there are all these communities and all these tribes who have made Ramayana their own.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: They have created this completely different world with the main characters within it. So the first story is about how Rama’s ring gets lost. And every time a Rama’s ring gets lost, it’s the end of that Rama’s era. And then it goes on to say so hence there are so many Ramas in the world. This was in an essay written by A. K. Ramanujan, if I’m not mistaken. The whole point that I’m trying to make is what you’re saying –  what connection people have with the original versus any retelling, and the conflict in wanting to accept anything else from that deviates from the original is really astounding. Because the amount of feedback that we got from people because a lot of our readers are people who are Hindus.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: Because we’re telling that mythology. And a lot of them wrote back to us saying, “How can you tell these fake Ramayanas? And how can you tell the story of these things?” Except that to everybody in that community, that is as real as it will get. Because it has little bits of their tradition and a little bit of their thing within that Ramayan. Like there’s one I’m not remembering the exact tribe – I think it’s Gond tribe – where Lakshmana is the main character. And he is the hero of the whole Ramayan. And he’s this person who lives in the jungle, one with nature – which is basically how they are. And so they’ve taken this great epic and made it their own because they’ve put little bits of their tradition into it. And that’s basically what a lot of the fandoms do for you. You take little bits of it and put little bits of yourself in it because at the end of the day, you want to see yourself in that story.

Parinita: Yeah. And I’ve also heard of a cultural tradition which sees Ravana as the protagonist.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: It’s told from Ravana’s perspective And that also has implications, right? Social, cultural and political implications in terms of historically with the Aryans and the Dravidians and how that plays a role. Skin colour and national and regional origin … sorry to bring it back to that. [laughs]

Sanjana: [laughs]

Parinita: But it just struck me now. I shouldn’t be apologising, that’s what we’re talking about! But basically how the mainstream cultural story may be oppressive to your identity and your culture. Or erasing you completely; erasing your perspectives and your traditions and whatever.

Sanjana: Yeah. Absolutely.

Parinita: And this is not just in the Ramayana but world religions all over.

Sanjana: Yeah. And it’s not just about even national origin and stuff. There was one version of the stories which is from Tamil Nadu which was a version of the Mahabharata. We did versions of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. In it, it’s not Krishna’s divine power that comes and saves Draupadi from the Vastraharan but it’s women who stand up in the court.

Parinita: Oh I love that!

Sanjana: Yeah! And we loved the story and the version so much that we had to put it into the book. And we put it into the book but the problem people have with that is that we’ve removed the divine out of it.

Parinita: [sighs] [laughs]

Sanjana: In a sense you’ve taken the one divine element that is Krishna who comes and saves everything.

Aparna: No, but they’re all just stories. Why can’t people just mind their own business? You like a story better just read that version of the story and leave everyone else alone!

Sanjana: No and it was interesting. Even that Imaginary Worlds episode that we heard where they discussed faith in fantasy

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: And there was one part where they were talking about Narnia and it was very interesting how people from the two different faiths saw bits of their own faiths being reflected. Like the Shia culture and Jesus.

Parinita: Yeah and the Shia, Sunni thing as well, right?

Sanjana: Exactly. And how rebirth there and then there’s rebirth here and how it’s like the replacement of an imam. It was very interesting to see how the one exact same episode meant two different things to people from two different religions.

Parinita: Yeah and I’m sure it would be the same … I’m not – like I’ve made it very clear that I’m not Hindu

Sanjana: Yes.

Parinita: I don’t know our cultural stories as much as both of you do even because both of you have worked with Amar Chitra Katha so you’ve done the research and you know things. But I’m sure if I knew a lot more, I would have been able to read Harry Potter and draw on Hindu connections. We did briefly with the whole caste structure and the Hogwarts houses. But yeah that’s why I really like this idea of reclaiming tradition.

Sanjana: Yes.

Parinita: In that episode with Matt Potts, the Sacred Text one, they spoke about how tradition can be oppressive. Usually you have these negative connotations of tradition. Well some people have negative connotations, some people want to go back to the traditional way of life.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: But traditionally tradition has been used to exclude groups of people. And now there are more people who’ve been on the margins otherwise are now trying to make a more inclusive kind of tradition. Whether it be religious or fandom as well, it sees tradition as dynamic rather than static. So it’s not going to become worse. It’s actually going to become stronger, because it’s open to more change. And just like the parallels with fandom and religion, there are some people who are more conservative and who want to adhere to canon. And what they consider as canon and that correct version of canon and no deviations should occur. Whereas there are others – with fans as well as with religious scholars and religious leaders and religious practitioners – who are now trying to find those marginalised voices in canon and highlight those and make it more inclusive. Like what you were saying about the Mahabharata with Draupadi – rather than this man coming to save her with his divine power, it’s a community of women who are standing up to the injustice that she’s facing. And that solidarity is what helps her. That puts so much more agency on women rather than having everything where they are just props and set dressing.

Sanjana: Exactly. Yeah. That is why that particular retelling was so important because sure, it was written some centuries later but the point is that it exists and someone wrote it and there are some people who read that as their truth.

Parinita: Yeah. And this is what fanfiction does as well, right?

Sanjana: Exactly!

Parinita: And even fan podcasts like this one and the ones that we’ve been listening to. We’re trying to go to these voices that are hidden or are invisible or are only known to a certain group of people. We have blind spots with queerness, we have blind spots with disabilities. But now that we are actively thinking about these things, because queer people or people with disabilities have told us their perspectives using fandom as a framework, now we think about these things more as well.

Sanjana: Yeah absolutely.

Parinita: I don’t know if you guys got a chance to listen to the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text with Broderick Greer. So he’s this Christian reverend and he’s black and gay which historically hasn’t been a position of power in the Catholic church. But he is using his position in the church to make it more inclusive. He practices this thing called marginalia which was inspired by his grandmother who would make notes in the margins of her bible so she was basically talking back to the bible using her own perspectives and using her own history. And his grandmother had a lot of these oppressed identities because she was this black woman in the US who was growing up in a time when black people – even now, black people in the US aren’t accorded with the same rights –  but then even more so. So this talking back to canon while respecting it because obviously she was this religious person so respecting but also talking back to it. And that’s something that fandom does as well in terms of fans talking back to their creators. This is a tweet that I saw today that J. K. Rowling has taught us to stand up to bigots like her.

Sanjana and Aparna laugh

Screenshot of tweet by @katiejoyofosho Text says: what's insane is that jk rowling essentially raised us to stand up to her bigotry

Parinita: Which I loved. Which is so true because her books ostensibly preach diversity and kindness and whatever.

Sanjana: Yeah

Parinita: But she doesn’t do that herself. So now there are all these fans standing up to her transphobia and her bigotry and whatever. Which I really love. My self-care routine as again, the kids these days say, yesterday was turning off and disconnecting from news and everything and watching Queer Eye on Netflix because the new season is out.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: And the first episode was about this gay minister, a Lutheran minister in church who was coming to terms with his identity. He came out much later in life. And they had such an amazing thing about with queerness and the church. There was this trans minister and this other gay minister as well who came to talk to him about how they can come together to make the church a more inclusive space. Because it’s been so hard for them. They grew up in a tradition where religion actively excluded them. And they now want to be open. They’re still religious but they’re also queer. So they want to make church this radically inclusive space so that other queer people now don’t face the same discrimination that they did. Which I loved so much and I cried a lot – lots of cathartic crying happened yesterday.

Aparna and Sanjana laugh

Parinita: But I loved the idea of that even with religion just in general and fandom as well, just listening to those voices which didn’t have a voice and bringing them to the fore rather than having just the same privileged group of people talking to themselves.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: That is basically the solution. Just for the people who’ve been talking for so long to just shut up for awhile.

Sanjana: [laughs]

Aparna: And listen. And let everyone else tell their stories.

Parinita: Just for a little bit.

Aparna: Just sit. That’s all that’s required for a while.

Parinita: Yeah because there are so many possibilities now to counter these narrow canonical narratives. What is canon anyway? Who decides? Just a group of people who had decided it thousands of years ago and now we’re like, “Oh yeah they’re completely correct! There’s no questioning them.” So I love that through media, through fanfiction or even through religious retellings, like Amar Chitra Katha comic books, you are highlighting these voices which are marginalised or erased and highlighting these diverse perspectives and interpretations to make it radically inclusive. Because even if society currently isn’t radically inclusive, why can’t we imagine our fiction to do better? Or our retellings to do better? We can imagine blue police boxes travelling across time and space or this complex magical world in Britain.

Sanjana and Aparna laugh

Parinita: But we can’t imagine Muslims and black people and Dalit people and transgender people and poor people are worthy of equal respect and dignity and compassion? I thought I’d gotten the ranting out of my system. [laughs] But apparently not.

Sanjana: Clearly not.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: But on that very correct note, [laughs] the three of us bid you bye-bye and we hope to see you soon.

Aparna: Yes.

Sanjana: Ranting some more.

Parinita: [laughs] Probably. With the way the world is going, there’s going to be a lot more ranting.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: But yes. Goodbye!

Aparna: Bye!

Sanjana: Buh-bye!

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode on religion and geographical origin and the ways in which both intersect with class, caste and dominant political norms. Thanks again to Aparna and Sanjana for helping me get all that ranting out of my system and making me feel better about the state of the world. The world is still terrible but being angry with friends is cathartic. And thank you Jack for also listening to my various rants both about the real world and various fictional worlds (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!

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