A PhD project exploring intersectionality through fan podcasts

Header image with the text Marginally Fannish

Month: September 2020

Expanding and Challenging the Idea of What Counts As Literature in Academic Research

I’m someone who reads constantly – both for research and for fun. During my master’s, I was notorious for reading a LOT of academic literature both because I wanted to learn as much as possible but also because I felt a sense of ignorance and inferiority coming from an academic background in India which didn’t require as much and as wide a range of reading as the British university system does. But even otherwise, I’m forever reading both books and articles online.

Roughly since the time I launched the podcast in January this year, I’ve been saving a lot of articles I find online on a range of media sources – some academic, most not – on Pocket. These articles explore the intersectional themes I’m exploring in my research in many different ways. I’ve also been borrowing and buying books which delve into the same themes. I make time to read these books and articles with breakfast every morning since much of my actual work day is spent in podcast pre- and post-production work as well as recording podcasts. I’ve ended up using some of the saved articles as podcast resource texts which I share with my co-participants wherever relevant. But largely, I read these articles and books to either inform a future episode’s themes or to contextualise and expand my understanding of a past episode’s discussion points.

Today, I was thinking of my upcoming annual progress review and specifically of what I wish I had time for that my burnouts born of a combination of depression and overwork didn’t leave room for. I only have another month left for the podcast/data generation and I really wish I had been able to read more academic literature over the last nine months. It’s something I hoped to do before I started the podcast – set aside some regular time to keep myself updated with the literature which I can then add to my thesis. I did read a little bit of academic literature early this year when I’d just launched my podcast but soon was buried too deep with other work to have much time and brainspace left over for the kind of active reading that academic literature requires. Which means that I haven’t kept myself acquainted with academic literature since my transfer process last year i.e. October 2019.

Another thing I was doing today was my usual breakfast reading; currently, I’m reading Trans Britain: Our Journey from the Shadows. So far, it’s been an excellent anthology charting the history of representation and activism by and related to trans people in the UK; a history I was especially interested in learning about since I live in the UK but also in light of J. K. Rowling’s mounting transphobia which by all accounts stems from a specific brand of British trans-exclusionary radical feminism. The book collects extremely accessible essays from a wide range of people – both trans and cis – including journalists, artists, members of Parliament, activists among others, who have been involved in some way in promoting equality and respect for trans experiences. I was marveling at how much a single essay – a first-person account of someone who had taken his case to the European Court – taught me when I began questioning my lament that I hadn’t had time to read much academic literature this year.

This list features the kind of books I’ve been reading with breakfast (and otherwise) to expand my knowledge about issues and experiences – especially in instances where I’m a part of the dominant culture and subsequently quite ignorant. Reading these books and articles didn’t begin as a deliberate choice but I enjoyed it so much that I began doing it purposely, carving out time to read them. For most things, I’ll just read to fill in the gaps of my knowledge. With a few, I write down particular quotes to revisit when I’m in the process of analyising my data/writing my thesis. I even have a tag on Pocket which instructs my future self to add the tagged articles to my PhD literature. I made the book list as a part of my References section to make it an easily accessible resource for anybody who was interested in exploring the books and themes themselves. (One day, maybe I’ll go through my Pocket archive to create a similar list of articles I’ve read).

I’m really happy that I chose to bury myself in this literature throughout the podcast-making process. Even though it’s not as active as reading academic literature (my brain treats both those tasks separately), it’s been extremely valuable. More importantly, I realised that while I had designed the project in such a way that I wanted to give equal respect to both academic and non-academic fannish voices, I didn’t seem to have considered it in terms of the kind of literature I consider important. I’m definitely going to cite fan texts alongside academic literature in my final thesis. But I hadn’t considered citing this broad range of literature – which includes memoirs, biographies, themed anthologies, essays, and even some fiction – in my thesis. I thought I had kept my mind as open as possible while thinking of what counts as literature in a research project (citing Tumblr user names fills me with utter delight). But I hadn’t even thought about citing something as basic as the things I’ve been reading. I suppose one of the issues is that a lot of my work bleeds into my personal life – what I’m reading/watching/listening to for fun is often something I will also use for my research. And while personal stories are anecdotal – that’s exactly the point of my project! Co-creating knowledge through conversations which include multiple interpretations and diverse opinions. Reading the non-academic literature is merely an iteration of this – a one-way conversation which nonetheless is shaping how I see and understand the world and its people. Literature in academic projects doesn’t just need to be peer-reviewed studies – at least especially the kind of research and argument I’m exploring. I love that this project is constantly causing me to identify and challenge my own preconceived notions and biases. Hopefully, this process of questioning and unlearning will be a lifelong process. For now, I’m going to disrupt my ideas of what counts as proper literature and whose voice matters. (Spoilers: everything and everybody!)

Re-reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

I finished reading Order of the Phoenix on the heels of the Goblet of Fire + recorded two podcast episodes in the meanwhile so a lot of my thoughts were at the forefront of my mind both while reading as well as while chatting with my co-participants.

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

  • Reading the first few chapters through the lens of Harry’s depression/PTSD makes me so sympathetic to Harry’s POV; so much more than I was when I first read the book when I was closer to Harry’s age and chalked his anger and frustration to teenage angst. WHY is nobody telling him what’s going on?! How is that a good way to treat anybody especially someone who’s just been through two traumatic events? Hermione figures that Harry will be furious without any news and both she and Ron try to convince Dumbledore to let him know something but nope.
  • Mrs Figg also mentions how she kept her identity and knowledge a secret because he was too young to know and it was on Dumbledore’s orders. Again, so infuriating! Why not give Harry some measure of joy or a safe space in his abusive childhood? The adults seem to have really failed him.
  • When Harry encounters the Dementors, he’s unable to conjure a happy memory because he’s just so miserable, and the only thing that works is the thought of Ron and Hermione. Would depressed people never be able to conjure Patronuses at all or would it just impact what kind of Patronuses/memories they need?
  • As soon as Vernon Dursley discovers that Voldemort is back and what that means for his family, he’s quick to want to chuck Harry out. There has been absolutely no room in this house for any sort of relationship with his nephew. Petunia takes no opportunity to treat Harry even halfway decently, despite him being her sister’s son. It presumably takes Dudley a brush with the Dementors to see himself as he really is and he’s the only one who seems to be able to develop a measure of decency.
  • This is the book you meet Tonks who’s described as cheerful, clumsy, short colourful (ever-changing) hair, prefers untidiness to too much cleanliness, is a fighter not a house tidier (hasn’t got a hold of householdy spells), prefers being called Tonks. This reminds me of what Elizabeth and Flourish discussed in Fansplaining – there’s so much potential to explore gender norms and gender roles through Tonks but it’s all left at the barest, most superficial level in this book
  • Reading this book made me wonder – do I feel more sympathetic towards Harry now that I have my own concrete experience with depression and rage?
  • In this book, The Daily Prophet makes Harry a target, painting him out to be delusional and attention-seeking with his claims of Voldemort’s return. The government and the media are targeting Harry, Dumbledore and anyone else sympathetic to them. And they’re not even the fascists! But they’re totally making the fascists’ job easier. It reminds me of the media/government in the US/UK today and in India since quite a while where the media especially is a tool of the state to push a certain narrative and anybody who challenges this narrative is supposed to be deranged. Percy falls for this narrative too and is so easily manipulated by the media and the government or anybody in positions and systems of power. Just like all the people in India who think questioning the government is now anti-national.
  • Reading Sirius through the lens of depression makes his situation so much more tragic too. He’s trapped in a house he thought he escaped. He has to constantly relive multiple traumas – his experience of the last twelve years in Azkaban which is compounded by his new imprisonment in a place with nothing but terrible childhood memories.
  • None of the Order members takes Molly’s concerns about giving information to Harry seriously. Even if they don’t agree with her, it is a conversation that could have happened where they actually tried to understand her perspective without everyone ganging up on her. Does anyone care what she has to say? Is her voice equally important? Would they do this to any of the other members?
  • Arthur’s enthusiasm about Muggles seems so patronising now. Like “Oh look who would have thought these dim Muggles would have achieved so much? All without magic no less!” Very paternalistic, super imperialistic.
  • Okay so the government is not only using the media but also the criminal justice system against a 14-year-old boy because they don’t want to believe that his scary story about Voldemort is true??? They convened a full criminal trial for a magical misdemeanour! Which wasn’t even his fault! AND they tried to sabotage him by changing the time/place and not informing Dumbledore of the change who is his best bet of getting off and not being expelled from Hogwarts. Seriously, this rampant corruption definitely helped Voldemort and the Death Eaters.
  • The statue – the Fountain of Magical Bretheren at the Ministry of Magic – Harry observes it enough to realise the wizard looks foolish, the witch looks vapid, and centaurs and goblins would never stare so adoringly at the former two – only the house elf’s gaze makes sense. However, it doesn’t go beyond that though even by the end of the series. Harry has identified the hypocrisies in the system but then just accepted them and found a place for himself within the system without thinking of how he’d change it.
  • Hermione talks to Lupin about house elf rights comparing it to werewolf segregation and how wizards think they’re superior to everyone. She does recognise the underlying wizard supremacy which is the backbone of the magical world, yet doesn’t seem to recognise she’s been conditioned to leave her Muggle culture behind.
  • I can absolutely recognise and understand Sirius’s depression now – especially after the impact the lockdown + global events has had on my mental health.
  • Is The Quibbler the only alternative to The Daily Prophet? I don’t remember what happens with it later but it currently reads like The Onion minus the satire – hardly propping up the role of media in a democracy. Well, later they do publish a no-holds-barred interview with Harry which changes many people’s minds about the mass-breakout in Azkaban and the possibility that Harry has been telling the truth all along – so I suppose there’s something to be said about the role of an editor/media owner who isn’t controlled by market/government forces or public opinion.
  • I also immediately want to be friends with Luna – she has the exact amount of weirdness I value. I’d totally wear a butterbeer cork necklace! And radish earrings! Don’t hate, Parvati and Lavender!
  • Tonks’ physical changes have been largely hair and sometimes face related. Not doing much with the potential. What are the extent of her powers? Can she change gender?
  • The Sorting Hat song this year is a lament that it has to sort students into houses at all which, it worries, ends up dividing them rather than uniting them – something these dark times desperately call for. Why can’t this tradition change though?! Maybe short term it’s impossible to mend fences especially since Harry and Ron refuse to even consider being friends with Slytherins. However, Dumbledore or someone else at the school can surely try to create a new system even in the short term for those who have already been Sorted? There was such an effort taken to make sure people mingle across schools in Goblet of Fire but not so much across Houses except in classes or competitive events. In my school, each classroom was divided into Houses but we still did everything together as a class. In this school, the House system seems designed to segregate which might have suited them originally but systems can change to accommodate new needs, no?
  • Umbridge’s speech at the beginning of the school year seems to have a similar effect to Professor Binns’s history lessons – a comparison which Harry makes too. It’s so couched in dull language and tones that it almost seems designed to encourage people not to pay attention and consequently not think about what’s being said or, more importantly, not analyse or question it. Hermione and the teachers are the only ones who bother to read between Umbridge’s dull words. In her classroom too, she’s designed the curriculum deliberately to make sure the students are as disempowered as possible. They learn what is told – learn what to think not how to think. No practice necessary or allowed. Along with the media and the criminal justice system, the government is also meddling with education in a way to create citizens who follow blindly. No wonder the magical world is ripe for a fascist authoritarian takeover! As India was and other parts of the world continue to be.
  • The role of the media cannot be underestimated. It turns even those Harry considered friends against him – Seamus, Lavender. The fact that Harry refuses to communicate due to his anger and PTSD doesn’t help but that would have been fine had the entire government system not made him a target.
  • In terms of internalised misogyny with Harry Potter, something they brought up in an episode of Woke Doctor Who, I’m seeing it in the way Umbridge is depicted. I can almost see how and why the narrative positions her as more of a villain than Voldemort – something which countless fans, including myself, have picked up on and ended up hating Umbridge more than Voldemort. The way in which she is described is so intimate and hateful – everything she owns, does, dresses up in is abhorrent according to the characters. All her aggressively feminine things are awful – the kittens, the bows, the fluffy pink cardigans. And this was even before they discover how awful she is. She is called toad-like and ugly and that’s how we know she’s bad – ugly people are evil apparently. Voldemort’s villainy isn’t outlined in such intimate detail, the way he’s described and his crimes are described is in an almost awestruck “Look how talented he is at being bad” whereas with Umbridge it’s like “She’s mediocre but horrible.”
  • And she is a truly awful person. She’s a horrible adult to the children in her care, she takes sadistic pleasure in depriving them of things they want, and she is abusive in her punishment with the blood quill. She’s so seemingly concerned with doing things in a Ministry-approved way but that’s obviously only applicable for those beneath her – she’s allowed to use torture as punishment and set Dementors on Harry to solve an inconvenient problem. I wish Harry had gone to one of the other professors with details of her punishment. It might have saved other students from undergoing it. None of the other students seem to have said anything either. I suppose it’s how abuse works – you think you’re alone and you’re gaslit into believing you deserve it or that it’s not so serious.
  • Umbridge hates half-humans and calls Lupin a dangerous half-breed; she has signed legislation against merpeople, werewolves, half-giants. She’s deeply prejudiced and her laws have made it difficult for Lupin to get a job.
  • It’s ridiculous that Umbridge is High Inquistor who has near-complete control of Hogwarts thanks to the obvious corruption and government control of the school. BUT Hogwarts would definitely benefit from some sort of quality and safety checks + assessing teachers and whether or not they’re good at their jobs. Snape should have been fired AGES ago. And as lovely as Hagrid is, he is a terrible teacher.
  • Hermione leaving out knitting for house elves to trick them into freeing themselves. No consent or communication with them. On the other hand, with Dumbledore’s Army, it’s a more well-thought out plan (though there’s the issue with consent there too – she didn’t tell anybody about the jinxed list of names). She seems to treat schoolmates with more respect than house elves.
  • I love that young people are organising to rebel against the tyrannical rule within their school. It begins small with less serious consequences but this is the same group that continues the rebellion in book seven when Voldemort and the Death Eaters control the school.
  • Different forms of depression and mental health crises in the book – Harry’s rage, Sirius’s recklessness, Winky’s alcoholism, Cho Chang bursting into tears everywhere. When Harry thinks he’s being possessed by Voldemort and avoids everyone, he doesn’t remember that Ginny has undergone that trauma. We don’t really see how Ginny coped with it and its aftermath and whether and what kind of lifelong impact it has had on her. Neville showcases another way of dealing with the depression brought on by his parents condition and navigating a world which doesn’t make any accommodations for his needs.
  • In the DA, Harry is a much better teacher than many Hogwarts have had. He’s taken bits and pieces of different pedagogical methods + what would work for him and his friends and created an activity-based classroom directly against Umbridge’s theoretical methods
  • Hermione is brilliant and innovative. She comes up with fake Galleons which will grow hot and change the numbers to signify new date and meeting times for the DA in a way that nobody else can figure out  what’s going on. But the only reason she had to come up with this was because “it would look suspicious if people from different houses were seen crossing the Great Hall to talk to each other too often.” ??? What is this nonsense segregation!
  • Gendered insults? Women and girls are ugly – Petunia’s horsy teeth, Pansy’s pug face; men and boys are fat and dumb – Dudley, Crabbe, Goyle. So is the most grievous insult to women against their looks but only men can worry about their intelligence? Some more internalised misogyny here.
  • Arthur and one of the Healers at St Mungo’s experiment with Muggle remedies – stitches – an idea which infuriates Molly and leaves the Weasleys aghast. At least Hermione stands up for it in the case of Muggle injuries. Surely would have use in other magical injuries too? Another of the casual slights against Muggle knowledge. The magical world could also do with therapy!! Even if it wouldn’t work for Frank and Alice Longbottom, what about Neville?!
  • This whole book can be read through the lens of disability actually. We see St Mungo’s for the first time and the different kinds of magical illnesses – both physical and mental. We see Lockhart and Alice Longbottom in greater detail. Surely the magical community could learn from Muggle psychological treatments?
  • You really can’t blame Sirius for being grumpy and sullen when he faces being left alone without anything to do again – especially as someone whose mental health fell off a cliff in the pandemic lockdown and I didn’t have half the trauma he does
  • The Knight Bus is terribly uncomfortable even in the day time – chairs fall over every time it starts or stops! Lots of noise and chaos. And if you pay a tip – like Tonks does – you can get to your stop earlier!!! What sort of transportation service is this!?
  • Harry’s teaching method works so well for Neville who really improves beyond expectations – especially once the Death Eaters who tortured his parents into insanity escape prison. Another facet of depression/mental trauma – working to your limit as a way to control your feelings?
  • You’d think Harry would understand Cho – even if not the romantic bits but at least the traumatised ones where she doesn’t feel like she can speak to anyone besides Harry; nobody else would understand?
  • Harry’s interview in The Quibbler about the real version of what happened when Cedric died brings mixed messages from readers – some continue to think he’s mad; a few are convinced by his version of events because they explain the holes in the Ministry’s version. I wonder whether people in the real world are as reasonable or even willing to engage with another POV – especially if it comes from a source they don’t usually turn to for news. I’m asking this question of myself too.
  • The unity and joy it brings in Hogwarts among students and teachers who are thrilled that Harry has done something unexpected like this and brought the truth forward reminds me of the feeling on the left-wing parts of the internet when something happens which goes our way. It’s fleeting and often followed by worse things but you take joy where you can find it.
  • Trelawney’s depression at being questioned about her teaching and then fired manifests in her being completely distracted and drunk with cooking sherry. More mental health disasters in the school! Why can’t they hire a counselor?!
  • Umbridge gets so much obvious enjoyment at making other people miserable; again the intimacy with which we see her vileness being described is so different from how Voldemort is described.
  • There are accessibility accommodations for Firenze who can’t climb into the tower where Divination classrooms are usually held. Why aren’t other kind of physical and mental accommodations made in this school?!
  • On centaur-human relations – Firenze’s herd banishes him and attacks him when he agrees to teach in Hogwarts. It’s such an insult to take on such a role according to the other centaurs – which just seems like such a bunch of conservative nonsense. Firenze as the radical progressive centaur who is open to working with humans and doesn’t guard his knowledge jealously. I do kind of understand the centaurs’ thinkin because humans have treated centaurs terribly so it’s a complex situation.
  • I’d forgotten what Firenze’s class was like – imitates a forest where he teaches them his cultural knowledge and experiences and practices and traditions. The students find this really unusual because they’ve never experienced anything of the kind and are used to gazing at magic and the magical world through a human-centric lens which Firenze challenges and expands. How amazing would it be to have more of this?!
  • Umbridge as headmistress of Hogwarts is basically a fascist takeover of the school. She tries to drug Harry with truth potion without consent, has the Floo Network monitored, has given a special selection of students indeterminate powers over their peers, all letters are read, increasingly authoritarian rules passed, no questioning or dissent allowed.
  • This obviously leads to rebellion – the Headmasters’ office refuses to let her in – the very architecture of the school turning against her; Fred and George embark on a journey of chaos and mayhem joined by the teachers, other students and Peeves once the twins depart.
  • James and Sirius were the epitome of wealthy arrogant boys bullying anyone without their privilege of wealth, Quidditch skills, good looks, and magical talents. Snape is poor and unsociable and unpopular and into the Dark Arts and makes for such an easy target. No wonder Harry was so upset by the memory.
  • Fan perspectives can have such an everlasting perspective which changes the way you engage with the text – I can’t unsee Sirius/Lupin as a couple now. It makes so much sense!
  • Filch is ecstatic at the thought of whipping students and hanging then by their ankles. What a truly awful person. WHY is he employed by the school? Honestly, some sort of assessment of Hogwarts would probably do everyone some good
  • Relatedly, there’s such a limited, quite unflattering depiction of Squibs in the series. There’s Filch and there’s Mrs Figg, I want to imagine a thriving population of Squibs living their best lives.
  • Witch, Please pointed out that centaurs are coded as indigenous people. Reading it that way, they’re angry that Firenze has betrayed their race which prefers being separate to the wizards and keep their secrets and knowledge to themselves. Firenze is revealing these to outsiders in Hogwarts. They are angry enough to kill him and anybody who supports him in a super fundamentalist way. But was this born out of decades and centuries of oppression? So now it’s a violent cycle which impacts everybody? You certainly see that in Kreacher’s case who was ignored and dismissed and treated beneath everybody’s notice and this caused him to look for more understanding and affection elsewhere which ultimately led to Sirius’s death. Dumbledore does point out that wizards are reaping the results of their actions against Other Magical People throughout history. Now even the Dementors have gone to join Voldemort.
  • The news article announcing Voldemort’s return with Fudge’s statement and the wizarding government’s steps and measures being taken to inform and protect the community – so many parallels with the pandemic and the UK and Indian and US government’s inept handling of it despite evidence. Voldemort as a metaphor for the plague or as someone on Twitter joked, Voldemort as a metaphor for the climate crisis.

Some Notes On Episode 15 – 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 Episiode 15, A Fascinating Tension: Multiple Interpretations of Religious Themes and Ideas in SFF, we discussed the following texts:

1) Essay – Introduction to Cruel Miracles

I don’t actually know enough about Orson Scott Card and his beliefs or even his writing until I came across some memes recently in response to JKR’s transphobic comments from fans of Card and Lovecraft welcoming JKR fans into their fold.

This essay proposes that science fiction and fantasy create spaces for religious literature and explorations of literature which might seem contrary to what most people except from such stories. This reminds me of the Faith in Fantasy episode where religious leaders from different faith backgrounds imply that SFF asks and addresses religious questions using different structural frameworks.

He believes that religious literature which is explicitly written and marketed as such doesn’t actually explore religious themes; it simply affirms them for people who already believe. 

Exploring issues of why the world/universe is the way that it is and why people do the things they do – these are ideas both religion and science fiction share. Science fiction may be hostile to existing religions but still grapples with religious ideas in its worlds. His arguments about science fiction having more room to explore religious questions without explicitly calling them religious questions weirdly reminds me of The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber where an English pastor goes to a new planet to minister to alien beings. It draws a more direct link between religion and science fiction.

Card set out to write his own science fiction without including religion even though he was a practising Mormon. He thinks many other Mormon writing primarily deals with writing about doubt rather than exploring different aspects of faith – a very narrow yet dominant conception of religious writing. Card’s stories deal with religious ideas rather than religions – though he didn’t mean to include Mormonism in his stories. 

The essay briefly talks about how in the US, even though it claims to be a religiously pluralist country, the emphasis is on Christian rituals and celebrations like Christmas. This is similar to India which is supposed to be a secular country – secular in a way which recognises multiple religions rather than no religions – but the preference structurally and culturally is to Hindu celebrations and rituals. 

Card thinks that the lack of characters who are religious in not only SFF but also literary fiction is disingenuous considering how important a framework religion is to many people in the US. Is this also similar to India? If everyone was so hostile to religion as our media has us believe – where religion is either invisible or written dismissively or paternalistically – religion wouldn’t survive. 

He began including explicit and realistic explorations of faith and religious characters in his stories including those who don’t believe in religion and how they interact with religion. Sometimes it isn’t the faith that matters, it’s the sense of community. This idea resonated with me. He didn’t just include the good parts of religion either; he also included the more negative parts – but all in an effort to challenge the religious stereotypes and tropes that are prevalent in SFF by including a diverse range of religious people – both good and bad. 

I wonder how this humanist message sits within the context of his – what I’ve recently discovered – homophobic attitudes. 

 

2) Essay – What Does God Need With a Space Station?

Religion is about people. Even if you live next door to heaven. Even if your boss is God’s instrument on earth. Religion is about people, and people shape their gods just as much, or even more, than those Gods shape them.

I like that some facets of this idea that religion is about people and their relationships with each other are explored in Rick Riordan’s vast mythological universe as well as The Good Place + the fact that multiple beliefs can exist parallel to each other.

The essay explores the ways in which faith,  spirituality and religious worship are explored in Deep Space Nine – a science fiction show set in the distant future.

One of the most important themes in Deep Space Nine’s religious storylines, which is also an important theme in religious fiction in general: people get the gods they look for. Winn wants to believe in gods who are wrathful and vindictive, who withhold their love from those who fail to honor them properly, because that’s the kind of god she’d be, and the kind of ruler she tries to be

This reminds me of a similar relationship explored in Small Gods by Terry Pratchett. 

There are different ways to explore morality both through religious and non-religious lenses – examples include Deep Space Nine, Small Gods, The Good Place, The Book of Strange New Things, Station Eleven, even Doctor Who.

A religious story set in a universe in which God’s existence is in question can only describe two scenarios–good people worshipping a good god, and bad people worshipping that god.

One extremely comforting way of looking at it–religion as an emotional crutch, something to help you get through the day, regardless of whether the god you believe in exists or is anything like what you imagine them to be.

One of the comments in this article criticised the depiction of self-serving religious extremists in one of the earlier episodes – which reminds me of the Prophet in Station Eleven. While that is a narrow view of religion, one can’t overlook the fact that such people do exist – especially see this in India with the godmen and godwomen.

 

3) Book extract – Too Like The Lightning 

What the world in this novel proposes is that religion should be deeply personal and individual and nobody else should know about your religious beliefs. Like Ziv’s context note suggests, I find this somewhat problematic as well. For religious people, it’s not only hiding away an essential part of you but it also prevents you from finding community which is the most appealing thing – to me – about religion. As they say in Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, it provides an opportunity to love people despite you not necessarily liking them (since they come from different backgrounds and beliefs). It also vaguely reminds me of how marginalised people are meant to assimilate to the dominant culture and leave behind their beliefs and practices behind in an effort to fit in. While most countries have a dominant religion, other religions are meant to do something similar. 

As the context note says, the society functions similarly in terms of gender where gender-neutrality is the norm. I chafe at the idea of a norm itself because then everything else is othered – rather than just a space which has room for all kinds of differences. Anything that’s coded as gendered seems to be thought of as arcane and ancient. But I also liked the “they” and “them” being used largely throughout the first four chapters. I didn’t know the gender of many characters which was quite a refreshing reading experience. I had to imagine which gender and then question myself for why I assumed this gender even when it came to the protagonists.

I like Ziv’s point of how religion here, and elsewhere, is always seen as a problem to be solved – because the real world doesn’t yet have a way to have multiple religions peacefully coexist. Is that another failure of imagination in our fantastical and futuristic societies? Or is it because most stories doesn’t explicitly deal with religion or religious questions and so the question of how different faiths can live together isn’t a question that’s explored at all.

With what desperation McKay screamed to those with the power to stop it, “Humanity cannot live without these questions! Let us create a new creature! Not a preacher, but a teacher, who hears a parishioner’s questions and presents the answers of all the faiths and sects of history, Christians and pagans, Muslims and atheists, all equal. With this new creature as his guide, let each man pick through the fruits of all theologies and anti-theologies, and make from them his own system, to test, improve, and lean on all the years of his long life. If early opponents of the Christian Reformation feared that Protestants would invent as many Christianities as there were Christians, let this new creature help us create as many religions as there are human beings!”

I love this idea! 

“A sensayer is”—sobs punctuated his answer like hiccups—“somebody who—loves the universe so—so much they—spend their whole life— talking about—all the different—ways that it—could be.”

“Sir, you are wrong. So wrong that I shall turn the world against you. It’s not the numbers, not these rare psyches you’re charting that stimulate great progress. It’s groups. I’ve studied the same inventors, authors, leaders that you have, and the thing that most reliably produces many at once—the effect you’ve worked so hard to replicate—is when people abandon the nuclear family to live in a collective household, four to twenty friends, rearing children and ideas together in a haven of mutual discourse and play. We don’t need to revolutionize the kindergartens, we need to revolutionize the family.”

Bacon’s ideal, his scientist, was then the honeybee, which harvests the fruits of nature and, processing them with its inborn powers, produces something good and useful for the world. Our Thomas Carlyle, genius thief, co-opted the simile in 2130 when he named the Hive, our modern union, its members united, not by any accident of birth, but by shared culture, philosophy, and, most of all, by choice. Pundits may whine that Hives were birthed by technology rather than Carlyle, an inevitable change ever since 2073 when Mukta circled the globe in fourpoint-two hours, bringing the whole planet within comfortable commuting range and sounding the death knell of that old spider, the geographic nation. There is some truth to their claims, since it does not take a firebrand leader to make someone who lives in Maui, works in Myanmar, and lunches in Syracuse realize the absurdity of owing allegiance to the patch of dirt where babe first parted from placenta.

I read the first four chapters of this book – which you can read for free on Tor.com – and I’m utterly and immediately bewitched and want to read more! I can’t remember the last time I was so enraptured by a world and its characters and the plot. I was SO disappointed I had to stop reading and I reallyreallyreally want to read more – this utopia that reflects so many of the things I would love! I kept exclaiming, “Oh my god I love this!” at Jack, and then had to go and order it from one of my favourite bookshops. 

 

4) Essay – Why There Is No Jewish Narnia

The writer wonders why there aren’t any famous Jewish writers of fantasy or conversely why there isn’t a Jewish fantasy in the way Narnia (and Harry Potter?) is a Christian fantasy. This makes me think of the Faiths in Fantasy episode where they spoke about how people from different religions read their faiths into their favourite texts. One of the comments on this article adds:

MatthewAnish56

February 20, 2014 at 7:54 pm

I refer you to my post = Reflections of a Jewish Tolkienist. Also my poem – Passover at Bilbo’s House. I see the point about the Midlle Ages – but personally I enjoy fantasy. Isn’t the late Isaac B.Singer a fantasy writer in a way? There are occult elements in some of his writing and plenty of out of the ordinary things going on? Some people think Mr. Potok’s novels are fantsy – they have a heavy religious message.

B’Shalom

Matthew Abish

The supernatural does not itself define fantasy literature, which is a more specific genre. It emerged in Victorian England, and its origins are best understood as one of a number of cultural salvage projects that occurred in an era when modern materialism and Darwinism seemed to drive religious faith from the field. Religion’s capacity for wonder found a haven in fantasy literature.

The article proposes that fantasy is largely rooted in medieval European frameworks, a time and place which wasn’t exactly welcoming for Jewish people – which might explain their propensity towards science fiction and utopian fiction. 

To put it crudely, if Christianity is a fantasy religion, then Judaism is a science fiction religion. If the former is individualistic, magical, and salvationist, the latter is collective, technical, and this-worldly. Judaism’s divine drama is connected with a specific people in a specific place within a specific history. Its halakhic core is not, I think, convincingly represented in fantasy allegory. In its rabbinic elaboration, even the messianic idea is shorn of its mythic and apocalyptic potential. Whereas fantasy grows naturally out of Christian soil, Judaism’s more adamant separation from myth and magic render classic elements of the fantasy genre undeveloped or suspect in the Jewish imaginative tradition.

This is such an interesting idea! I don’t know enough about Christianity and Judaism to fully comprehend or explain this myself, of course – but it’s a fascinating thought nonetheless. And it seems to be very different from Hindu mythology as well where we have a lot of magic and fantastical creatures – but not in the way Christianity does since it’s a polytheistic culture with many gods and goddesses and stories rather than just the one.

The essay also proposes that in the 20th century, there weren’t Jewish writers writing fantasy because of the Holocaust. 

For Jewish writers working after the Holocaust, classical fantasy must have made redemption seem too easy. Certainly, the notion of magic and wizards existing in our own world—as in, for example, the Harry Potter books—becomes all but impossible. (Or at least must raise the question of why Hogwarts, like the FDR administration, never tried to bomb the railroad tracks.)

The absence of fantasy writing in Israel is, if anything, even starker than in the Diaspora. The fantasy genre has always been disparaged in modern Hebrew literary culture as being a frivolous distraction from the serious political and artistic missions facing the Jewish people and its writers. Of course, Israelis are just as avid consumers of fantasy literature, film, and games as any other nation. Israelis have flocked to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, their bookstores are filled with Hebrew translations of writers from Tolkien and Rowling to Robert Jordan and Orson Scott Card, and their children play Hebrew editions of Dungeons & Dragons games. And yet none of this production is local. As one writer lamented, in an article in Ha’aretz in 2002 on the absence of Israeli fantasy literature:

Faeries do not dance underneath our swaying palm trees, there are no fire-breathing dragons in the cave of Machpelah, and Harry Potter doesn’t live in Kfar Saba. But why? Why couldn’t Harry Potter have been written in Israel? Why is local fantasy literature so weak, so that it almost seems that a book like that couldn’t be published in the state of the Jews?

This idea about how fantasy is largely structured around a Christian framework and the lack of fantasy which draws from Jewish culture, religion, and worldviews also makes me wonder about the lack of Jewish characters themselves in SFF. It’s something which I only recently started thinking about when someone on Facebook pointed it out in a post. I note the absence at least in mainstream SFF – the ones I read recently and loved that I can think of are The Golem and the Djinni and Spinning Silver.

This article is also very obsessed with a certain kind of fantasy – of the Tolkienesque variety. But hasn’t the dominance of this genre meant that other cultures and beliefs are marginalised anyway – not just Jewish but others too? I think there just needs to be many different kinds of fantasies to the point that no one kind is othered or another is glorified.

Another comment says: 

deborahjross

April 15, 2015 at 4:05 pm

While not a specifically historical, my epic fantasy trilogy THE SEVEN-PETALED SHIELD (DAW Books) draws deeply from Jewish, not Christian, world view and values. I created a culture and characters whose religion is scripture-based, and that scripture contains not only the annals of the people but a creation story that drives the central conflict. Astute readers will recognize the Seven-Petaled Shield (that protects the world from chaos) as a magen-David, with six mystical gems surrounding a unifying center. I used resonances of the Roman conquest, King Solomon’s seals, sacred scripture, the emphasis on literacy, and a solution to the conflict that is based on compassion, not destruction.

In addition, I’ve written a number of fantasy short fiction pieces with specifically Jewish characters. A couple of examples: In “Transfusion” (Realms of Fantasy, and the lead story in my forthcoming collection) an observant Jew befriends and ultimately redeems the humanity of a vampire. I used the historical figure, Gracia Nasi, for “Unmaking the Ancient Light” set in Renaissance Venice (Ancient Enchantresses, DAW).

I hope your readers will take a look at my work.

— Deborah J. Ross

Some more recommendations: 

Marian

March 11, 2019 at 11:57 am

Hi —

Is the writer familiar with Jane Yolan, a fantasy writer and author of “Briar Rose”?

Surely he knows Neil Gaiman, also Jewish? Lisa Goldstein? Ellen Kushner?

Joe

April 18, 2019 at 5:21 pm

I would second the nomination of Lisa Goldstein; her first novel, The Red Magician, was a fantasy novel that dealt with the Holocaust. Both her parents were concentration camp survivors. Peter S Beagle is probably the best known Jewish fantasy writer; his The Last Unicorn is a classic in the field. Isidore Haiblum’s Tsaddik of the Seven Wonders, which combines science fiction elements with Jewish mysticism, deserves a mention. Francine Prose’s early novels were fantasies; her first novel, Judah the Pious, was a fantasy of Jews in Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages; Marie Laveau, her third novel, draws on different magical elements.

The comments and conversations and debates in this essay are an education by themselves – about Judaism and Jewish representations in SFF and fantastical elements in Judaism.

 

5) Essay – Fantasy and the Jewish Question

It begins by pointing out that even Farah Mendlesohn responded – not too kindly – to the above article: 

Don’cha just love utter rubbish? Simply off the top of my head:

Robert Silverberg; Esther Freisner; Peter Davison; Michael Burstein; Neil Gaiman; Marge Piercy (great grand-daughter of a Rabbi); Peter Beagle; Charlie Stross and Michael Chabon (by pure coincidence I have been reading Gentleman of the Road, set in the ninth century kingdom of the Kazars and, as he says in a post-script “Jews with Swords”, all day today).

I am sure others will add more.

However, the essay points out that there still isn’t any fantasy that incorporates Jewish theological ideas in it in the way Narnia does with Christian ideas.

There’s a reason that the golem and the dybbuk get so much play whenever the Jewish fantastic is mentioned–because there’s not much else out there, and very little that is common currency even among Jews.

At the same time, this essay does sympathise with Farah’s frustration at the previous article’s assumptions and generalisations and glossing over history, geography and national identity.

To put it bluntly, there is no way that a Jewish writer working in the early decades of the twentieth century could have produced The Lord of the Rings, a work steeped in a yearning for a lost pastoral world that Jews, who have for various reasons tended to congregate in urban and commercial centers, would have had little or no experience of.  Similarly, the naked didacticism and unabashed proselytizing of the Narnia books is entirely antithetical to Judaism, an anti-missionary religion.  One might as well ask why there is no Jewish Divine Comedy.

Weingard completely fails to acknowledge, however, the famous geographical divide between the two genres, the fact that science fiction emerged in the US and fantasy in the UK.  It’s easy to imagine young Jewish writers in America gravitating to science fiction in its golden age, because its core ethos of rationalism, progress, and can-do attitude was rooted in exactly the same social changes that allowed them to live entirely different, less proscribed and less ghettoized, lives than their European parents and grandparents.  But it’s America that plays the crucial role here, not Judaism.

The essay points out that while the article remarks on the lack of fantasy in the Israeli literary scene and uses that to buttress his argument, there is a similar lack of science fiction as well as speculative fiction of any kind.

Ultimately, what’s most frustrating about “Why There is No Jewish Narnia” is that Weingard is so unclear on what he’s looking for, what his definitions of ‘Jewish,’ ‘fantasy,’ and ‘Jewish fantasy’ are.  Tolkien and Lewis (and many other, less frequently mentioned writers like Hope Mirrlees and Lord Dunsany) were trailblazers, creating a new mode which was deeply informed by their religious preoccupations but which very quickly became dissociated from them in all but its deepest levels, leaving room for unobservant Christian, atheist, and even Jewish (or Muslim or Buddhist or what have you) writers to play around in and sometimes bring their own cultural heritage into. 

The writer wishes there were more Jewish characters and elements both inside fantasy and out of it and also more devout characters who practised Judaism.

A Jewish Narnia, meanwhile, will be nothing like Narnia, and the real question raised by “Why There is No Jewish Narnia” isn’t whether such a work will ever exist–it’s whether Michael Weingard will be able to recognize it.

One of the commenters reads Asterix and Obelix as a Jewish story:

Raz Greenberg said…

A particularly interesting case of “Jewish Superheroes” (and, for that matter, fantasy) took place outside the US: Rene Goscinny, the creator of Asterix (arguably France’s biggest comics hero) was Jewish, and though he denied any influence of his Jewish heritage (or so I heard), it’s really all over: the story may be about French against Romans, but beneath the surface it’s a classic “the smart Jew makes fun of the stupid gentile” story, with the small village the protagonists live in is the classic Jewish town.

In the comments, the writer talks about Superman as a Jewish tale: 

Abigail Nussbaum said…

I think it’s in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay that Michael Chabon has one of his characters sum up the name ‘Clark Kent’ as too WASP to be real, a classic assimilation tactic. And of course, later in that book the Jewish characters, one of whom escaped the Nazis by the skin of his teeth and left his family behind, use their superhero character to battle on page the villains they can’t defeat in real life.

One of the commenters points out that there is a lot of good Jewish fantasy out there but they aren’t mainstream and draws the link between commercial success and Jewish stories:

 Daniel M. Jaffe said…

As compiler and editor of “With Signs and

Wonders: An International Anthology of Jewish Fabulist Fiction”, I’m sort of puzzled by the claims that there are no significant Jewish writers of fantasy, and that there’s little tradition of it in Jewish culture. What about the Zohar and the rich Hasidic tradition?

  1. B. Singer, Cynthia Ozick, Bernard Malamud, Moacyr Scliar of Brazil, Teresa Porzecanski of Uruguay, Angelina Muniz-Huberman of Mexico are all major world-class writers of Jewish fantasy. Steve Stern of the US creates a fantasy Jewish landscape in Memphis! Woody Allen is a Jewish fantasy writer of the highest caliber–the fact that many of his fantasy worlds are created through film doesn’t make him less of a “writer”.

The objection seems to be that Jewish writers might not have chosen to express their fantasy writing in terms of fictitious Middle Earth kingdoms. So? Why must our fantasy tradition express itself the same as any others? “Different” doesn’t mean “lesser.”

Perhaps the measure of “great” is commercial success? If so, then we’re talking less about the nature of the literature that’s been produced than about the audience that chooses to receive it (or not). Is it really a surprise that in the predominantly Christian Western world, Jewish fantasy literature has not been as widely embraced as such Christian literature? Especially when many Jewish readers themselves, apparently, choose not to seek it out.

March 05, 2010 2:32 AM

 

6) TV show episode – Star Trek The Next Generation: Who Watches The Watchers?

The crew goes to help out some anthropologists studying a culture which is at the Bronze age of evolution. The episode explores the idea that their advanced science is perceived as being godly. It reminded me of how in the real world, some people think that aliens were responsible for ancient structures like the pyramids and the Mayan archaeology and civilisation because apparently brown people couldn’t accomplish this themselves?

One of the people from the culture is taken into a spaceship to heal his wounds – the memory wipe doesn’t hold and he believes he died and came back to life completely healed. He believes this is confirmation of his people’s ancient beliefs in these magical beings. This culture has given up beliefs in supernatural beings and fates controlled by stars but now they’ve begun to believe in a god – Picard. When they think that they have inadvertently offended the god, they intend to harm one of the people. Interesting exploration of how trying to understand gods can turn to violence – holy wars, inquisitions, chaos. The episode ends with one of the people shooting Picard to prove that he’s immortal despite Picard’s insistence he isn’t + in an effort to bargain for his dead wife’s life. Interesting picture of how religious violence can erupt for different reasons.

 

7) TV show episode – Star Trek Deep Space Nine: Accession

Towards the beginning of the episode, a young couple comes to see Sisko, the emissary after getting married for his blessings. The emissary seems to be a version of a priest. He’s also in charge of ceremonies but struggles with being a religious icon and is still getting used to it. He is one of the reluctant leaders of the Bajoran faith. Another character, Kira, also follows this faith.

The plot of the episode involves a wormhole which transports an ancient emmisary – Akorem – from 200 years ago to the current time. Kira is astonished that Akorem, one of the most famous Bajoran poets from history, is now in front of her. Akorem wants to bring the practices of his time back to his future which have done away with these practices. This includes (re)establishing a strict caste system like the one which was prevalent in ancient Bajor where people’s occupations depend on which family you’re born into – lots of parallels with Hinduism. A thoroughly relieved Sisko uses previously-foretold prophecies and this new appearance of Akorem to give up his job as emissary and go back to just being a Starfleet officer. 

“That’s the thing about faith, if you don’t have it you can’t understand it. And if you do, no explanations necessary.”

Kira says this while trying to explain the seeming contradiction between acknowledging both Sisko and Akorem as the emissary. It reminds me of what Ziv said in our episode too. 

Akorem is a more conservative emissary and believes they’ve strayed from the path of the prophets which is why he wants to re-establish the caste system. He eventually wants a Bajor society where they will deport people who don’t adhere to the caste system. One of the parts of the Bajoran culture involves doing whatever the emissary asks them to do no matter how difficult. Kira explains her doubts about reinforcing this system at the cost of federation membership and her role as first officer – her caste are farmers not soldiers. The federation doesn’t accept members who have caste-based discrimination. Parallels to UN/EU membership? India is currently not only promoting casteism but also oppression against religion – Islam and Christianity. China is also not a bastion of human rights. I suppose in those cases, capitalism trumps morals? Akorem’s pronouncement has ramifications where people with lower caste designations are making room for and being submissive to people of higher caste designations. One of the people kills a person of a lower caste – who prepares the dead for burial – for refusing to follow orders. More Hindu caste system parallels. 

This causes Sisko to reconsider giving up his position in an attempt to create a more progressive faith tradition than the one Akorem wants to establish. Akorem draws on the prophecies foretold by the ancient texts and believes he’s the true emissary. Sisko doesn’t think he can rely on these and they need to go through the wormhole to the prophets themselves in order to ask who the true emissary is. The prophets appear in the bodies of crew members and speak through them. The prophets declare that the only reason they sent Akorem to the future was for Sisko to presumably make up his mind definitively about his leadership and guidance. Sisko suggests sending Akorem back to his own time unharmed, something Akorem looks forward to so he can spend time with his wife and family. Akorem doesn’t come across as a bad person, just one with practices of his time which are abhorrent in a more progressive future. He seems to believe he’s doing the right thing. The episode was an interesting and nuanced representation of a fictional faith tradition which draws from different religions but explores real issues. 

 

8) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text Special Edition: Owl Post and Rabbi Scott Perlo (Again!)

(I’ve already used this episode as a text for Episode 3, so I’m supplementing the notes I made then with these new ones. For the old notes, click here.)

With religious texts, canon also relies on individual interpretations and priorities. This is problematised by the fact that it was oral history written down. Which means that what both the writers and readers choose to focus on can depend on their own varying priorities. Retellings and individual/multiple interpretations can expand the text which could, in turn, make room for more voices, especially those which have been traditionally marginalised. Which voices are lifted up as canon? Historically, it’s been patriarchal so men’s voices have been lifted – and only men from a specific group, those who have structural power. How do you negotiate with that today when we have a more inclusive sociocultural context? Now we can look for more of these marginalised voices which were overlooked and erased in history/religion/culture/art. People create their own stories inspired by canon – both religious and cultural texts – as a way to expand the inclusivity of these stories which were limited by its original writers.

 

9) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds: The Canon Revisited

Eric talks about how Star Trek is less action-packed and more philosophical which reflects Gene Rodenberry’s emphasis on lack of conflict. However, this is something which fans grew to critique; they felt the characters and the world needed conflict to warrant an entire episode. 

Similar to Star Wars, Star Trek has a vast canon – the TV show, the books, the movies. What counts and what doesn’t? Eric has mixed feelings about canons – sometimes they can be inclusive where fans find a like-minded community; but a dense deep canon can be intimidating and off-putting to casual fans. I completely agree – it’s something which put me off comics and Doctor Who for the longest time. The new movies aren’t popular among fans because they feel like J. J. Abrams smashed the canon entirely for reasons like believing in a more hopeful and collaborative future. But wouldn’t the new movies also act as introductions to a newer generation of fans? Like New Who did for me? This reeks of fannish gatekeeping to me.

Eric talks to Rabbi Ben Newman who is a geek and Star Trek fan. He discusses how the Old Testament (also known as the Torah among Jews – which I only just discovered!) is the original canon. Rabbis explored the gaps in the stories with the characters and came up with their own interpretations and explanations – these stories are called the Midrash or the Midrashi – a term I first came across in Harry Potter and the Sacred TextMidrash is a bit like fanfiction – if they feel true enough, they become a part of the canon and a part of the story. 

There are further parallels between sci-fi canon and religious canon. The Old Testament has many contradictions and inconsistencies because the stories in it were written by multiple people with different philosophies and interests. The Midrash includes stories which try to explain these gaps. Even within canon, they are responding to each other and to their different interpretations of the people and events. 

With Star Wars canon, Disney came out and announced that the video games, books etc. which came after the movies were no longer valid and they would come up with a whole new canon. This angered fans who consisted these stories as canon – similar to debates among religious costumes? Fans were also divided by The Last Jedi. A lot of them hated the centering of women and people of colour but others thought it violated canon including the mysteries in The Force Awakens + thought it butchered Luke’s character who thought about killing his nephew Ben. The rabbi Ben Newman was really bothered by the film too. One of the critiques was that Rey’s parents were cast aside and that mystery didn’t reach a satisfying conclusion. However, this was only the second movie in a trilogy – bit weird to wash your hands off it without watching the third movie. The Rabbi did love the characters and their interactions with each other but didn’t like that the history and canon were ignored. There’s frustration among fans about who is the true voice of Star Wars – what counts as canon and what doesn’t? 

Ben pointed out that when Christianity first came to be, there were many different ways of understanding the faith and many different interpretations and storie. But one of the meetings decided what counted as canon – similar to Islam where the definitive and authoritative canon is decided by a specific group of people. Now new authors are coming in to write fanfiction or versions of fanfiction to explain gaps and inconsistencies in popular media canon similar to what happens in Midrash.

 

10) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text Owl Post Edition: How to Be in Community with Burns Stanfield

I’ve already used this episode as a text for Episode 3 and Episode 13. I haven’t made any additional notes for this episode so for the old notes, click here and here.

 

11) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text Owl Post Edition: Reclaiming Tradition with Professor Matt Potts

I’ve already used this episode as a text for Episode 3 and Episode 13. I haven’t made any additional notes for this episode so for the old notes, click here and here.

 

12) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text Special Edition: Owl Post and Broderick Greer

I’ve already used this episode as a text for Episode 3 and Episode 13. I haven’t made any additional notes for this episode so for the old notes, click here and here.

 

13) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds: Faith in Fantasy

(I’ve already used this episode as a text for Episode 3, so I’m supplementing the notes I made then with these new ones. For the old notes, click here.)

Rachel read a story called The Mists of Avalon which narrates the adventures of Arthur and his knights from the point of view of Morgana rather than Arthur which completely changed the story for her. In terms of the relationship between religion and fandom, multiple perspectives and diverse interpretations allow people to expand the text and explore its nuances. It also reminds me of what Harry Potter and the Sacred Text do so well. 

Different religions have different death rituals which may seem squicky to others not from that background. For example, in Zoroastrianism they leave dead bodies for vultures so as to return the body back to the earth.

Science fiction imagines what the world could be. This idea is something which I keep thinking of along with the idea of faith and hope in human beings rather than a religious text. This sense of hope in the world is such a struggle during the pandemic because you see different sides of humanity. I like to think of all the fantastic things people are doing to make everyone’s lives easier – Some Good News, art, articles, etc. but there is terrible negligence and apathy and lack of empathy too. 

What does it mean to be human? How do you answer these questions? These questions remain even in futuristic and fantastical worlds. Religion is just one lens. For me, it’s definitely through stories. Either fictional stories or people’s stories. 

 

14) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds: The Book of Dune

Frank Herbert, the writer of Dune, incorporates a lot of different religions in his series but seems to draw a lot from Islam. The episode features an interview a Muslim guest from Pakistan now living in Australia who loved the recognition of Islamic elements and representation in this book series. 

Dune, Star Wars and Star Trek were the three major sci-fi stories when one of the other guests was growing up. Eric sees Star Trek as a good utopian world whereas the guest thinks the Prime Directive is condescending and also always being broken. The guest believes it reflected American foreign policy. 

There are so many different ways into a fandom. A guest hasn’t read the Dune books but played a video game and watched a mini series based on the books. That’s when they noticed all the Islamic influences and elements in the series. 

One guest explains the different contexts and meanings behind the word jihad which has now taken on such negative connotations. Jihad can be as violent as against Hindu rulers in India but also as innocuous as jihad against carbs or falling into a Netflix hole. It essentially means a struggle. Jihad is also used in Dune though in less black and white terms.

Eric is surprised that Frank Herbert is spoken of so positively as a white American man writing about Islamic influences. Would his work not count as cultural appropriation? The guests don’t think it’s cultural appropriation; rather, it’s reading Islam through a European lens. It doesn’t involve placing his interpretation as the definitive Islamic sci-fi over a Muslim writer writing about their own culture. They do acknowledge that there are some colonial perspectives and biases which reflect his social and cultural contexts. Frank Herbert was raised Christian but in a fit of rebellion, became Buddhist. This might explain why different religious influences show up in his books. Dune looks at the power of religion but also the dangers of the power of religion combined with the power of the state – something that you see happening today in India.

To what extent do you believe in free will? In Judaism? In Islam? In Christianity? If everything is preordained, what’s the point of trying to do anything? In Hinduism, your good deeds have an impact on future reincarnated lives. These are questions which religion as well as SFF tackles. 

 

15) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text Special Edition: Owl Post and Professor Stephanie Paulsell

Stephanie learned to treat texts as sacred because she grew up with parents who were great readers. Her father used the Psalms while her mother read her Dr. Seuss – both of which felt sacred to her. One is a traditionally religious text which many people find sacred whereas something like Dr. Seuss is less so but feels equally important to her. Even something like Jane Eyre can be a sacred text depending on a person’s individual contexts and priorities. 

They explore the idea of sacred texts being texts which are generative i.e. lead to more responses and texts, sometimes creative ones. Harry Potter as sacred because it leads to so many fan responses in different forms – fiction, art, essays, analysis. Stephanie also sees Virginia Woolf’s books as sacred. Even though Woolf was famously an atheist who was raised in a religious family, she used reading to influence her inner life and gain empathy and knowledge about other experiences and find a community with other people. Harry Potter performs a similar function because it is such an important cultural text for many people around the world. 

They also discuss the difference between perfect and sacred. Since sacred texts are generative, they have to be imperfect. A perfect text doesn’t leave room for exploration and invite other perspectives and interpretations; it’s static rather than dynamic, whereas a sacred text is never done. Treating a text as perfect and not as a conversation can lead to fundamentalism as we see both historically and currently.

“I’m worried that the Vernon Dursleys of the world are going to ruin the world. And you said back to me, no I think we have to deal with the Vernon Dursleyishness in ourselves.” – Vanessa about a conversation with Stephanie 

 

16) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds: Fear of the Borg

Picard’s arch-nemesis is the Borg, a group who want to assimilate all the species into the Borg collective, which sounds similar to the Cybermen in Doctor Who and the Daleks in one of the David Tennant episodes. 

Eric talks to three sci-fi academics who draw parallels between this assimilation and religious assimilation. Sometimes the Federation assimilates cultures as well; in fact, even being a part of the Federation can be seen as assimilation making the Federation a colonising force – something the narrative itself doesn’t seem to suggest. In American culture, assimilation used to have a positive connotation, but there are increasing critiques of this idea of assimilation. What are you assimilating to and what part of your cultural identity is lost? As one of the guests points out, there’s the issue of the power dynamics at play here too. Do you have control or a choice over this process? Assimilation in the lives of immigrants leads to the “erasure of autonomy” where they lose the accent, language, food, clothes, music, culture that is a part of their identity. 

Picard is weaponised where he’s assimilated by the Borg and is used in an attempt to destroy the Federation. He never gets over this trauma even after he’s rescued by the crew. There is a Borg named Hugh (?) who becomes a part of the crew. Some of the characters are more welcoming to him than others. Picard especially isn’t convinced that he is capable of change and plans to use him as a way to destroy his race as a sort of Trojan horse. One of the guests thinks of Hugh as someone who’s being deprogrammed from a cult once they leave the cult and are able to negotiate with their life in this cult. This reminds me of the Sacred Text’s theory of the house elves as a cult and Dobby shows the difference between cult and religion by showing that he can leave it.  Star Trek is fundamentally interested in the moral imagination – what is the line between what we are willing to do and why.

You also see assimilation in the Potterverse where Muggleborns are expected to completely assimilate themselves into the magical world. Nobody cares about their home culture. It must be so alienating! Maybe that’s why Hermione wanted to fill her already-bursting schedule with Muggle Studies – just as a connection with the life she’s grown up with. Muggleborns have to navigate a new language, new culture, new social and cultural norms, and new rules.

Episode 15 A Fascinating Tension: Multiple Interpretations of Religious Themes and Ideas in SFF

Episode Resources:

1) Essay – Introduction to Cruel Miracles

2) Essay – What Does God Need With a Space Station?

3) Book extract – Too Like The Lightning 

4) Essay – Why There Is No Jewish Narnia

5) Essay – Fantasy and the Jewish Question

6) TV show episode – Star Trek The Next Generation: Who Watches The Watchers?

7) TV show episode – Star Trek Deep Space Nine: Accession

8) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text Special Edition: Owl Post and Rabbi Scott Perlo (Again!)

9) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds: The Canon Revisited

10) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text Owl Post Edition: How to Be in Community with Burns Stanfield

11) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text Owl Post Edition: Reclaiming Tradition with Professor Matt Potts

12) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text Special Edition: Owl Post and Broderick Greer

13) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds: Faith in Fantasy

14) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds: The Book of Dune

15) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text Special Edition: Owl Post and Professor Stephanie Paulsell

16) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds: Fear of the Borg

 

Episode Transcript

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

Photo of Ziv Wities

[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 fifteenth episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I talk to Ziv Wities about the representation of religion in speculative fiction. We also discuss Jewish faith traditions: how they are similar to fandom culture and how they diverge. In the beginning of the episode, we talk about Orson Scott Card’s ideas about humanism in religion but don’t explicitly mention or criticise his homophobic views – so I’m taking this opportunity to clarify that we abhor his bigotry.

It’s rare to find religious representation in mainstream fiction. If religious people do exist in science fiction and fantasy, their portrayals are quite extreme and they’re often featured as antagonists. Religion is largely used as an excuse for people to do terrible things without any other context or explanation. While religious zealots do exist, by always linking religion to violence and irrationality, mainstream media perpetuates a limited idea of religion.

For many people, religion is the lens through which they make sense of the world and engage with ideas of morality. Science fiction and fantasy explores several themes that religion is also interested in. An increasing number of people use popular culture to engage with moral issues and navigate the world they inhabit. Religious fans read themselves into non-religious media to address their underrepresentation and misrepresentation in fictional worlds. These interpretations offer a way to learn about religion as well. There are some instances where faith is represented in nuanced and complex ways which explore multiple perspectives of religious canon. But we need more stories which grapple with how ideas of religion, pluralism and humanism fit together and how people of different faiths can co-exist.

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: Today I’m so happy to welcome Ziv Wities on the podcast. Ziv is Orthodox Jewish and lives in Israel. At various times, he’s lived on kibbutz, in Jerusalem, on Mount Gilboa, and mostly in the country’s centre, orbiting Tel Aviv. Besides programming and fending off his three loving children, Ziv is Assistant Editor at Diabolical Plots, and Associate Editor at PodCastle. You can find him on Twitter @QuiteVague or on his website. In this episode, we’re exploring representations of faith in speculative fiction. As I’ve mentioned many times on this podcast, I’m not really a religious person which is why when I’m reading or watching fantasy and science fiction, I don’t usually actively think about religion and whether or not it is present in the world or the way in which it is present. Which is why I’m so glad to be able to chat with someone who is religious and who does think about these issues. Even going through the really thoughtful texts that Ziv recommended has expanded my mind in so many ways. So before we begin, Ziv, do you want to talk about your own engagement with this topic?

Ziv: [laughs] It’s an interesting question because I feel like there’s not been a lot of it. I always feel that I’m looking for it and it’s so rare to actually find religious representation in mainstream fiction. There are a few notable exceptions; a few places that lit up and I said, “Oh my goodness that’s what I’ve been looking for.” More recently there’s been things like Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota series which addresses it in really interesting ways. It kind of talks around it, not going into any specific faith but rather about the need and the role of faith in community. One story that stuck out for me in one of the Hyperion books. It’s a book that’s built of multiple shorter stories and one of them is about a scholar who is writing about the sacrifice of Isaac when Abraham is ordered to sacrifice Isaac to god. And the whole story is framed as him debating the morality and trying to understand what we’re even supposed to learn from that story. And I loved that because it connected to me so deeply to how we think about it. One of the things [laughs] and probably the author I’ve seen talk about this most and most explicitly is Orson Scott Card – who has addressed it in great detail and also is a huge can of worms.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Ziv: [laughs] So I feel like he has very unusual insight as a very popular – at the time when I was reading him in the nineties – a very popular and influential author who definitely had this in his fiction in different ways [laughs] and everything that comes with that.

Parinita: Before we read the Introduction to Cruel Miracles, I didn’t actually know enough about Orson Scott Card and his beliefs or even his writing until I came across some memes recently.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: In response to J. K. Rowling’s transphobia.

Ziv: J. K. Rowling – yes! [laughs]

Parinita: From fans of him and Lovecraft welcoming Rowling’s fans into their fold.

Parinita: I really enjoyed his essay because of the way that he approached it and his arguments made sense. He says that the lack of characters who are religious in not only science fiction and fantasy but also literary fiction is a bit weird considering how important a framework religion is to many people. Not just in the US and India and Israel but all over the world, right? A lot of people use religion to make sense of the world and it plays a really important part in their lives. And if everyone was so hostile to religion as these texts that we love seem to lead us to believe, then obviously religion wouldn’t survive.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: If everyone was above religion as most of science fiction seems to think, there really wouldn’t be a role for it. And what I really liked in the blog post, What Does God Need With A Space Station? was that she spoke about how religion is about people. Sure it’s about god as well, but it’s mostly about interactions with each other and with your idea of religion and your idea of god and how that impacts your own life. I thought that was a really nice idea of religion, since I’m not a religious person but come from a deeply religious country. In India, religion plays a huge role – different religions, not just Hinduism.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: More so now than ever before, I am keenly aware of how much religion can be weaponised and is weaponised and used to exclude groups of people, right? I’m sure you’re well aware of that as well.

Ziv: Absolutely.

Parinita: I am also really interested in the humanistic idea of religion which Orson Scott Card’s Introduction delved into a little bit. He was talking about religious themes and ideas rather than this one true religion – even though he’s Mormon. Or was Mormon. I don’t know.

Ziv: Yeah. He is, yes. Very much so. I think that the comparison to Rowling and to Lovecraft are apt in a certain way. But I feel like for the people who were strong Card fans, it was so much a shock or a gradual awakening. I understand there are people who saw him as problematic much, much earlier. But to a lot of readers, Card was the great humanist. If you look at works like Ender’s Game and the sequels, which have such a theme of learning to recognise wider and wider bands of beings as being people.

Parinita: Hmm.

Ziv: And I think that his saying of hey, religious people are in that category too; they are also in a category of people that should be recognised and empathised with and seen as yet another  way to look at the world and another place that people come from. Certainly as a reader of his fiction, it spoke to me very strongly. [laughs] And if we look beyond that, you can certainly see his later activity and opinions as feeling very contrary to that.

Parinita: I mean that’s similar to J. K. Rowling, right?

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: I’ve grown up with her books like a lot of fans now and they’re like, “But your books taught me to be inclusive and open-minded and kind and compassionate to everybody and now … you’re not?”

Ziv: Yes. [laughs]

Parinita: Okay we thought your books were talking about one thing. But apparently it only existed for a certain group of people. Well, we’re rejecting that. We’re still going to keep the message and maybe divorce you from your text.

Ziv: Absolutely.

Parinita: And also the question of author’s intent versus fan interpretations, right? Fans might have not taken what the author meant for them to take.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: So now people are going back to the text and they’re like, “No, there’s lots of problems.” Not only now,  this has been happening earlier too but because I’ve been listening to podcasts recently …

Ziv: Gradually because it’s been so popular.

Parinita: Yeah. I started reading Harry Potter when I was ten and it was hugely important to me for many reasons.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: When you grow up with something, you don’t have the ability or the vocabulary or even the thought processes to identify these things. And now I’m re-reading it as an adult and I’m like, “Oh! Okay. All right.”

Ziv: [laughs]

Parinita: I still love it but …

Ziv: Always dangerous.

Parinita: Yeah. But I’m able to criticise it because I love it.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: And all the problematic elements including transphobic jokes where men in dresses are often the butt of jokes in the series.

Ziv: Yeah. Ugh.

Parinita: Which, without knowing her views now, I would never have thought too much about it. But now I’m like, “Oh! Okay.”

Ziv: [laughs] Yup.

Parinita: And then, of course, going to the other end where if religious people do exist in speculative fiction, many times the portrayals are quite extreme. You mentioned this trope that religious people are seen as adversaries to the protagonist. Were you specifically thinking of Station Eleven?

Ziv: It’s one of the more recent books that I’ve read where this was a strong element. It’s a trope that you see over and over where there’s some science fictional concept in the world, there are aliens, but there’s a religious sect that think that the aliens are evil. There are robots, but people think that robots are soulless and a travesty. There is cloning but there is a religious sect that thinks that this thing is a bad thing. And when you define religion in that way, it comes out as incredibly shallow. Because what you’ve basically said is there are religious nuts who will believe anything. And I’m going to create one whose set of beliefs is very specifically what I need for the story. It’s kind of a statement that rational people would not object to this thing. The reader who is rational will be on my side – he will recognise nuance, the reader will understand that this is an important thing or an interesting thing or something that has a lot of potential. But those religious zealots, they are going to just reject it out of hand with no thought. And they’ll do it because somebody has told them that it is a religious principle and that’s all there is to it. Like religious people or some religious people are a kind of blank slate that you can just give a random order to and they’ll go, “Yup, I’m going to believe that.” With no context! [laughs] With no nothing else.

Parinita: Yeah! And I find it really interesting as well because, until you mentioned that you wanted to talk about Station Eleven a bit, I didn’t even think of it. I’d read this book a few years ago, so I didn’t really remember it very well. I have a terrible memory so every time I re-read a book that’s not Harry Potter, it’s like, “I have no idea what happens!”

Ziv: [laughs]

Parinita: So I went back to the book and I read it, and I encountered the Prophet character, who is the one that is this religious zealot and like a cult leader almost. The first time I read it, and even when I was re-reading it, keeping your comments in mind –  the brief comments you made in our emails.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: I was like, “Oh yeah, but people like this do exist.” In India, you see this with godmen and godwomen who are like this, especially now when we have this Hindu fascist government, a Hindu supremacist government in power, you do see more of that more explicitly. But then when I was thinking about that more, I thought but if that’s your only representation of religion not just in the books –

Ziv: Exactly.

Parinita: But in mainstream media at large, I mean of course, these people exist. But then how is that different from tropes about different races or disabilities or religions as well. If you say all people belonging to a certain religion or just religion at large are these extremist fundamentalist zealots, then that’s also doing a great disservice to religious people and religious fans who aren’t like that.

Ziv: Yeah, absolutely. And the reason I brought Station Eleven as an example is it’s a good book, it’s a compelling book, it’s a book with a lot of appeal. But if you look at how the Prophet is constructed, it’s a character who is presented as being intensely unlikable. This is not a charismatic person. And yet, somehow, he has converted town upon town, community on community, to do exactly what he says even when he’s not around, by no mechanism. All the mechanisms of religion are mechanisms of community; of having a community that acts in certain ways and in certain interests. But you get the impression of the Prophet as somebody who is kind of this spoiled kid. But he comes to a place, he says, “I’m a Prophet and you should behave in these horrible ways and punish everybody who disagrees.” And apparently everybody just goes along with that for no apparent reason.

Parinita: Well, one of the reasons in that is violence, right? They have a lot of access to guns, I believe. That’s how they’ve seem to have cowed down a lot of towns.

Ziv: So that’s definitely brought in but first of all, that’s not a religion. That’s just violence. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: In order to get those and in order to get the people who are with him, if he was the leader of a gang of thugs who found the first weapons cache and just built on that, that would make sense. But putting it into the trappings of religion, it just doesn’t follow any of the natural progression that a faith or a community does. It’s just using the clothing of religion in order to say we don’t actually need to justify why these people are being so horrible. Rather, religion is something that gives people permission to be horrible, and that’s the only explanation you need.

Parinita: I mean I definitely saw the Prophet and his followers the people who are too scared to not follow him as more of a cult than a religion. And of course a lot of cults are based in both traditional as well as non-traditional religions in India, in the US, in different parts of the world.

Ziv: Um hmm yeah.

Parinita: So in Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, one of the episodes they looked at house-elves as a cult and a religion. Basically they were like the house-elf community could be a cult but Dobby, by leaving it, showed that it’s not. Because he was able to leave it. That’s how they differentiated between a religion and a cult. In a religion you wouldn’t be killed or you wouldn’t be ostracised – I mean you might be, depending on which part of the world you’re in – but you’re able to leave a religion and either not be religious anymore or find a different religion. Whereas a cult if you leave, like in Station Eleven –

Ziv: The cult will retaliate.

Parinita: They’ll put graves down for you.

Ziv: Yeah. And I think that’s exactly it. The blurring of the line, the equation between a religion and a cult is exactly what a lot of these stories do. Because it’s definitely common to see a religion in this sense where some of the adherents are not actually faithful. But they’re just too afraid. But the way that a cult works – cults have specific dynamics of how they target people who are vulnerable, about how they isolate them and keep them away from being able to possibly leave. Cults almost by definition are pretty small because in order to scale up [laughs] to the degree that they can isolate each and every one of their members and keep people from being able to leave, that’s just not possible at large-scale.

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: That’s exactly what I feel is so harmful is saying that religions and cults are basically the same thing. Each one of them has their problems but they’re very different ones.

Parinita: In these instances where religion is portrayed negatively, there seems to be a perceived conflict between humanism and religion. Like you’re saying, religion is very much framed in a cult-like manner where there’s not really any engagement with religious themes and ideas that a lot people would consider as religious themes and ideas.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: I know a group of people could be more fundamentalist in their beliefs but, again, that’s the problem, right? If your mainstream media and culture only shows that aspect of religion and the violence that’s done with it, then that’s a problem as well. Because then you’re painting everyone with the same brush and you have this toxic idea of religion.

Ziv: Yeah. I think it’s vanishingly rare for any of these religious portrayals or portrayals of cults or spirituality as being something that you can have any sympathy with being attracted to. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: They’re never portrayed in a way that you can say, “Well, I can see why some people go with this.”

Parinita: Yeah. It’s like a very irrational sort of thing. There’s already this idea that religion is irrational.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: And when I was younger and I was growing up in this religious household – my mum is super religious, but the kind of religious who believes in different kinds of religions. So it’s not so much a thing that oh this religion is the correct religion but because she’s had different influences – she went to a Catholic school, grew up in a Hindu household, and culturally, India is very Hindu. She also goes to mosques and things – basically [laughs] any sort of religious thing that would have her, she’ll go. And she’ll find solace in that. But for me, as a teenager, I really chafed at that because it didn’t make sense to me. She wasn’t learned and neither am I in theology or religion from a scholarly point of view. So all these questions that I had like why must we do this? A lot of Hinduism and or at least a lot of people who culturally follow Hinduism, there are a lot of patriarchal ideas there. So things like, for women, for example – this is the thing that I remember I first started fighting about – when women are on their period, you can’t go into a temple because you’re considered unclean.

Ziv: Uh huh.

Parinita: And this was something that didn’t make sense to me. And I was all like, “No, if you have a correct answer, I’ll give you the benefit of doubt. “

Ziv: Um hmm. [laughs]

Parinita: But she obviously didn’t have an answer because she didn’t know enough about it even to be able to give an answer. Her answer was, “No, this is the way that it is.” And I was like, “Nope, that’s not happening with me.” [laughs]

Ziv: [laughs] Not enough, not enough.

Parinita: Which is why I started questioning religion. And I think earlier I was much more anti-religion than I am now. And I think it was because of that; because I grew up feeling like religion was imposed on me. So I chafed at that.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: And I think that the danger is that atheism can also become a kind of fundamentalism. A lot of atheists do have that toxic side where it’s, “Either the way that we think is correct or you’re wrong. You’re stupid. You’re irrational. You’re not someone worth talking to.” I don’t think I was quite that far gone, but I was heading in that direction until I found more of these ideas that, “Wait, no, not all religious people are like this.”

Ziv: [laughs]

Parinita: Not all religious people are “irrational”. It’s just like you said, a way of making sense of the world. You’re using religion as a way to engage with the world, to engage with people, to engage with these ideas of morals and just what it means to be a good person.

Ziv: Um hmm. A lot of that is definitely there. I feel like the kind of die-hard atheism – the angry atheism is not too much part of the landscape in fiction just because those are pretty uninteresting stories of religious people are stupid. You definitely see it or it slips in sometimes. I keep going back to the lyrics to Imagine where he wishes for no religion too. I’m like, “Well I don’t appreciate that!” [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah, I’m with you on all the peace and harmony and stuff but why can’t religion be a part of that?

Ziv: I think it’s a fascinating tension. But that’s one of the lines that just stands out to me as just like wait a second, if your definition of peace and harmony specifically excludes me, then I’m not sure about it, am I?

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: And in similar ways I think to some extent, it’s just not on people’s radar. People who are not devout, who are not faithful, who don’t have a particular spiritual practice, don’t have a sense of how that affects a person’s life or how that’s a sympathetic point of view. And so they don’t put it in because they’re not aware of it. Which is similar to a lot of other blind-spots that people have.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Ziv: And another part of it is particularly in fiction, I think religion is a particularly challenging thing to put in because it kind of requests or requires that people buy into a whole additional worldview but also keep it at arm’s length and be able to differentiate between the physical reality that is being described and the spiritual side that is being attested to. And if you’re going to do all that and it’s not going to be a huge issue in the story, then a lot of stories leave it out. I think in a similar way to the way a lot of marginalised communities and identities get left out because people are like, “Well, I could make the character gay but if it’s not important to the story, that will be putting a lot of effort and it won’t pay off in any way.” And in a similar way putting in religion is as difficult or more difficult because it’s literally a different perception of reality. Or a different way of living.

Parinita: Plus I think the tension is that because religion forms the social and cultural framework of so many countries, I feel like it’s not seen as marginalised in the same way that being gay or being disabled in fiction can be.

Ziv: Absolutely. Oh, it’s so different.

Parinita: Yeah. This is something I hadn’t really thought of until I was preparing for this episode and went through a few of the texts that you had suggested as well as a few of the other texts that we looked at. I realised then that’s also so problematic where religion is so invisible or so irrelevant in your world. That does end up marginalising religious people all over the world.

Ziv: I want to be very careful here because there are ways in which the comparison or even the use of the same terminology is very wrong. Like in Israel, you cannot say that Judaism is marginalised or that Orthodox Judaism is marginalised. It’s absolutely the opposite. Religious people have tremendous power, ultra-Orthodox people have tremendous power, the Rabbinate has tremendous power including who can get married or who can get divorced. It’s not a marginalisation in most terms that we’re used to speaking about.

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: But in terms of visibility and portrayal or how much it’s assumed to be within consensus or within the default in mainstream media, it’s very, very different. [laughs] It’s just a strange place to be.

Parinita: India is the same. That’s why I really liked the book Too Like The Lightning by Ada Palmer – I’m saying the book, I’ve read four chapters – just extracts of it. You can read the extracts for free on Tor.com. But you suggested reading a bit of the book and I just couldn’t stop reading.

Ziv: [laughs]

Parinita: I was so utterly and immediately bewitched by it not just because of the worldbuilding and the characters and everything but because of the way in which religion seems to play such an important role … but also not really.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: This novel proposes that religion should be deeply personal and individual and nobody else should know about your religious beliefs. That’s the premise of this futuristic world.

Ziv: I found that fascinating. It immediately captivated me because it speaks so directly to the tension that we were talking about. To the tension between faith and the way that faith is. If you say, well I believe in this thing, it’s very difficult to say no, no you don’t. But at the same time, what right does that give you to exert power over other people? So this attempt to say, well okay, you can have faith but it needs to be entirely personal, is fantastic, in the best way of exploring an interesting idea.

Parinita: And the Sensayer as well.

Ziv: Yeah. The Sensayer is this concept of a personal spiritual adviser who never expresses his own opinion but guides an individual through his own spiritual thoughts and points them to various religious beliefs that have been adopted or discussed in the world and throughout history. So he helps everybody craft their very own personal, individual religion which they can’t tell anybody else about. [laughs] And I found it absolutely delightful. Some of it is so attractive – the idea of having faith without impinging against anybody else. And in some other ways, it just makes no sense [laughs] because if that particular approach doesn’t actually work with your beliefs, then can you limit yourself to it? If you read the entire book, it addresses similar themes on a lot of different topics. But it reminds me a lot how during the enlightenment period I think it was, there was a common saying in Judaism that you should be a Jew in your home and a man outside your home; to keep your religious persona entirely distinct from who you are in the outside world. And there are things that I think resonate very strongly with that and things that are also kind of horrifying about that. About the idea that you can believe something very strongly and that it be such an influential thing on your life but also you can’t make that known in any way. Or people will think badly of you.

Parinita: No, I’m with you there totally. The idea is super interesting. I’ve ordered the book because I want to read it and find out what happens because the book is amazing [based on the extract I read]. It just caught me off-guard. But, at the same time, this idea that nobody else should know about your religious beliefs is quite problematic as well because it prevents you from finding community.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: Which, for me, is the most appealing thing. I’m non-religious but for me, this idea of finding community and meeting together to talk to people who may not be from the same social, cultural, even political backgrounds but you’re all still coming together to … I don’t know have a meal or just do something in a church or in a temple or whatever. In Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, that’s something that they explore a lot where they have people from different religious and faith backgrounds come and talk to them through the Harry Potter framework. But they emphasise the community aspect so much as well. Where it is a way for them to provide this community – the podcast itself for people from both religious and non-religious backgrounds. Whereas in Too Like The Lightning it has this vaguely uncomfortable idea of how marginalised people are meant to assimilate to the dominant culture. And leave behind their beliefs and practices in an effort to fit in.

Ziv: Yes.

Parinita: In most countries, of course, there’s a dominant religion. In India, Hinduism is the dominant religion. So a bit of what you’re saying about Jewish people during the Enlightenment period would be now applicable for Muslims or Christians in India.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: And it’s much more difficult because of the names. In Mumbai, where I am from, there’s this huge, horrible thing that people with Muslim names find it much harder to rent flats because housing societies don’t want Muslim people in their community. Imagine that level of social and structural persecution.

Ziv: Absolutely.

Parinita: So yeah. This idea of “Oh yeah you don’t need to talk about your religion at all” is a bit problematic.

Ziv: And honestly, I think that’s often where religious stories shine most – when you’re a persecuted religion. When you’re a minority. And I think that’s often when religion shines most as well. It’s kind of a way to unite a group that is persecuted. It’s very, very different than when you’re a dominant religion and being religious means you get to dictate religious rules.

Parinita: Yeah. With Judaism, it’s something that I’m very new to – not Judaism itself but Jewishness.

Ziv: [laughs] Um hmm.

Parinita: In India, we’re not really taught so much. Our understanding of Jewishness is very tied to World War II and what happened there. But this book that I was reading called Anti-Judaism explores the history of Jewish persecution which went much beyond that. It went right to two thousand years ago. A history which I was completely unaware of.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: And I currently live in the UK where anti-Semitism is a part of the mainstream conversation. But for me, I don’t recognise a lot of what would be anti-Semitic. Because I don’t know what the tropes and stereotypes are, which someone in the West may take for granted. And, of course, in Israel, like you said, being Jewish is the dominant religion.  But not in other parts of the world. It’s the same with like Hinduism, right. In India, even though I’m not religious, because of my name and my background, I’m a part of the dominant culture. But in the UK, I’m suddenly othered.

Ziv: Yup.

Parinita: That’s why I really like this idea that there’s this huge potential of exploring religious themes and questions in science fiction and fantasy even without perhaps explicitly calling it religious themes. It’s something that Orson Scott Card said in his Introduction and it’s something that the Faith in Fantasy episode of Imaginary Worlds explored as well where it was a panel of different faith leaders who were discussing the role of religion in science fiction and fantasy. And Eric, the host, said that science fiction and fantasy asks a lot of the same questions that religion asks. I loved that idea. And it’s something that I hadn’t considered before listening to this podcast a few weeks ago.

Ziv: Yeah. Absolutely. I think it’s fascinating in that way and I honestly think that fiction nowadays gives a similar outlet or place of discussion – a different forum to talk about the same questions. A lot of the things that they raise are, “Is there a purpose to being? Is there a plan? Are our actions pre-ordained in any way? What is free will?” are all questions to a large degree of faith. And you don’t necessarily have to believe to find them meaningful. You don’t have to believe in order to ask yourself, “Are things going to work out because that’s the way the universe works? Or are we all a cosmic accident that might be eaten by a black hole tomorrow and nobody would know.” And how do I want to act because even if I do believe that we could all be wiped out by an asteroid tomorrow. I don’t necessarily want to behave as though that is true even if I technically believe it is. Because I don’t think that that’s right. I don’t think that many people do behave as though none of our actions matter.

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: Or as though you can be immoral in private as long as nobody finds out.

Parinita: Absolutely.

Ziv: I don’t think that’s true of anybody. I mean I’m sure it’s true of some people, but I don’t think that that’s how morality works regardless of faith. I don’t think that’s how people grasp it or behave.

Parinita: Absolutely. I completely agree. Because, for me, morality has never been tied to religion, for example.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: I don’t remember being religious. I went to Catholic school and grew up in a Hindu household so I have those rituals and traditions that I have a connection to or I have experience with but never that idea that … like in Hinduism, there is the idea of karma.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: Where if you do good things now, you’ll be rewarded in your next birth – in your reincarnation. The evils that you’re suffering now is a result of your past life. And again, like I said, rebellious teenager, this never made sense to me. So I was like, “But why would I just do good things for the future self? Why wouldn’t I do good things because I like people?” I think kindness is more important than yeah, I don’t want to be born as a cockroach or whatever. Sorry, I don’t really know so much about Hinduism in a scholarly way so sorry Hindu people listening to this podcast.

Ziv: [laughs]

Parinita: But I love stories – both fictional and real. That’s the framework that I use to make sense of the world. I know there’s a lot of literature about how fiction does lead to empathy among readers. I don’t know how true that is empirically but I have found that true for me. I’ve been reading since I was five or something and haven’t stopped. I love this idea of fans treating non-religious popular culture texts as sacred in much the same way as religious people treat religious texts as sacred.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: We’re doing a little bit of that in this podcast but Harry Potter and the Sacred Text does it so much more explicitly.

Ziv: [laughs] Yes, very much so. I think it’s a really interesting observation. Because first of all, I agree entirely. I think just literally the question of what is good, what is behaving well, what is virtue – is easy to say is a religious question. It isn’t a religious question. But it’s a question that religion talks a lot about. [laughs]

Parinita: Um hmm.

Ziv: And if you don’t get into spirituality or metaphysics, if you stick with strictly what is observable or what is utilitarian, it’s just harder to discuss. You can feel personally that you’re a better person for behaving well, even if it has no consequence without needing to justify that. It’s not a matter of faith necessarily but it is a matter of belief, in a way. I’m connecting with what you’re saying about how the way that people analyse stories now – fiction – in order to figure out to a better extent if a character is good, in what way are they good? If somebody was good and then a bad thing happened, is that how things work? The way that people use fiction now in order to talk about morality is really interesting. And I think it’s very, very similar to what is done in religion where stories and the interpretations of those stories are a lot of the basis for understanding what is good behaviour.

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: You gave some interesting examples where people really compared for example the construction of Midrash which in Judaism are these fairly far-out interpretations of biblical texts that seem very disconnected from the original text or what it simply means. And they add in all kinds of fantastical things and elements that seem very far-removed from the original text. But they often come in response to something, to some question. In Hebrew you call it a [speaks Hebrew] – a difficulty with the original text that they feel they have to explain. For example, if you look at the biblical text there’s very little about Esau actually being in any way offensive or hurtful towards Jacob – towards Yaʿqob. But most people remember them as bitter enemies and Esau as somehow being a very vile person and unworthy successor. And most of that is not the plain text. It’s Midrash. It’s interpretation. And it’s fairly well-accepted that the reason for all those Midrashi interpretations are because people felt so uncomfortable with well, why is Esau being treated in this way and being neglected in this way and being punished in all these ways if he didn’t do anything bad? He must have done something to deserve it. And the comparison that these podcasts were making were that fanfiction often works in very similar ways. There are ways that people want to bring text more into sync with how they experience life. Or they’re missing something in the text and they want to add it in. And so they add something to it. And that’s a very interesting comparison. My [laughs] immediate reaction to some of this is that there is still a very fundamental difference between trying to interpret something that you are assuming baseline is true or is meaningful or is divine versus something that an author has written and you know is very likely flawed or has mistakes or just hasn’t been completely edited or all kinds of things like that.

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: There’s a fundamental difference. But I do agree that the approach of wanting to fix it has a lot of similarities.

Parinita: Just to add to that, in this Anti-Judaism book that I was talking to you about, so the author is a Jewish historian. He was looking at the history of anti-Jewishness in culture, religion and just in mainstream society right from, I think, the ancient Egyptian civilisation. That’s where he began. And he was talking about how even the religious texts – and this is true even in Hindu religious texts – that what is treated as canon is subjective because it was written a hundred or a hundred and fifty years after the historical events happened. It depends on who had control of canon; who decided which interpretations are more valid than others. And he was talking about how in Jewish scholarship, there are a lot of debates about that. And again for me, it’s all through second-hand experiences – it’s all through people like him and even on these podcasts that I learn these things. Like the Imaginary Worlds episode where the Rabbi spoke about canon in Judaism; and even in Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. But I thought that was really interesting. Which groups of people are considered to be more privileged than others and how that changes 2,500 years after the events.

Ziv: I can’t speak to other religions but in Judaism you feel that very, very strongly. Because so many of our texts are a) edited or very clearly edited. Like the entire Talmud which is the basis of modern Halakhah – modern Jewish law, it’s literally a summary of various versions of: this Rabbi ruled this way, this Rabbi ruled the second way – well, was it the same case? There’s this one difference. Maybe there was a difference and that’s why they ruled differently. It’s these long and very highly, very clearly edited discussions of what the rulings were in a lot of different cases. And you can see how the framing of that, the person or the people who did the editing and who composed it, the person whose argument they bring last is generally considered to be correct. So it’s the editor who’s deciding what the actual ruling is or should be. I think that’s one of the interesting things. Judaism always seems to be a very argumentative religion. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Ziv: Which is one of the things I really love about it. It’s very explicitly founded on, “Yes, we believe in a truth but there are many of us and we believe in many different truths.”  Or many different variations on the truths. And that’s built in very, very strongly from the sacrifice of Isaac where god says okay, you sacrifice him. But no, actually not really. To Abraham arguing over whether or not god should destroy the sinners in Sodom. And on through the Halakhic construction of the Talmud. It’s so baked in that religion happens through arguments. There’s a wonderful Midrash, I guess you’d call it a fable, about a rabbi who was arguing with another group of rabbis over what a certain ruling was. And the rabbi said, “Well, if I’m correct, then a voice would come out of the heavens and say I, this rabbi, he is correct.” And a voice came out from the heavens and said, “Yes, he is correct in this ruling.” And the other rabbis say, “Yeah, but we don’t determine Halakhah by voices coming out of the heavens. We determine them by arguing.”

Parinita: [laughs]

Ziv: “So we disagree, so Halakhah is what we say.” And that’s the kind of character that a religion or a community can have that makes it unique and different from other cultures. I’m sure that first of all, any other religion will have its own fundamental stories and own fundamental self-definitions of how they think and how the world works and how virtue is decided and how decisions are made. And even within a certain religion, you’ll have many, many different views and variations and interpretations. Even if they have a common base, they will still have their own interpretations of how the world works and how religion is decided and what the faith should be. That’s precisely the kind of nuance that I feel is so often absent and missing and neglected. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah. So in Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, a few of the episodes that we listened to spoke about the idea of the sacred text and the difference between sacred and perfect. Where perfect doesn’t really leave any room for arguments and questions and debates – like this is the one truth, there isn’t room for different truths, like you were saying. And with Hinduism, we were speaking about this on a previous episode. I’m completely ignorant about all religions but I have friends who, even though they’re non-religious, they know more about it than me. And one of my friends was talking about how even within Hinduism, depending on which part of the country in India as well as different South Asian countries you go, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, those are our two texts – mythological stories which form the basis for a lot of Hindu religion. And based on where you go, the lens through which you view is different; which characters are important are different. In some places, they even look at it from what is traditionally the villain’s point of view. You have Rama and Ravana in the Ramayana and Ravana is supposed to be the demon king and he’s supposed to be the villain, as simplistic as that sounds. But there are some parts of the country and even parts of south Asia that look at him as the hero and at the others as coming and almost like taking over the culture and taking over the country basically. So a bit like colonisation before it was colonisation. [laughs] I don’t know enough about it. But that’s what I find really interesting – which voices come to the fore is so culturally, socially and even historically determined. Now, there are so many more scholars, not just in Judaism but in Christianity, in Hinduism and different parts of different religions that are looking for these stories that were invisible and belonging to these marginalised groups and trying to bring those to the fore as well. Which I love. And that’s what I also love about fandom which is essentially doing the same thing. Like Harry Potter for example, very white, there’s a handful of people of colour just for diversity points, but there are people and fans who feel so strongly about this world that they read themselves into the story. For example, Hermione Granger is black, that’s a huge part of fandom. And Harry Potter is half-South Asian.

Ziv: Yeah.

Fan art of Indian Harry Potter, black Hermione Granger, and Ron Weasley

Parinita: Similarly, going back to religion, religious fans are reading themselves into seemingly non-religious science fiction and fantasy texts as a way to address their under-representation or misrepresentation. Otherwise the way that religious characters are represented is so one-dimensional that when you’re not talking about religion, you almost see yourself in it more. We’ve spoken about something similar with disabled characters and with characters of different races as well. In a few of the comments of the posts that we read, they were looking at Tolkien as well – Lord of the Rings and how Judaism fits into that and someone read Asterix and Obelix as a Jewish story. [laughs]

Ziv: Interesting.

Parinita: Yeah. It was in the comments of Fantasy and the Jewish Question. They said that, “The story may be about French against Romans but beneath the surface it’s a classic the smart Jew makes fun of the stupid gentile story with the small village the protagonists live in as the classic Jewish town.”

Ziv: [laughs]

Parinita: Which again, I don’t know enough about Judaism, but I thought it was really interesting that a Jewish fan would read it as such and Superman as a Jewish tale as well. And in the Faiths in Fantasy episode, they saw Doctor Who regenerations as the Jewish concept of beginning again and the Jedi as Sufi mystics. You’re just reading yourself into the story. Even Harry Potter and the Cursed Child being read as either Jesus or Mohammed or Moses – I find that really exciting. Because I’m also learning about religion through those interpretations.

Ziv: Yeah. That was definitely a foundational text for me because it made me realise how much a story’s structure has so many assumptions just baked into it. And how it’s often said of Jews that our most primordial story is, “They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat.”

Parinita: [laughs]

Ziv: It’s the constant repeating Jewish story. The kind of recognition of how so many common adventure narratives or fantasy or science fiction narratives are so completely alien to that. They’re so often like, “Oh no there is a disruption to the natural order.” Whereas [laughs] if you look at Jews through the ages, the natural order just isn’t so good.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Ziv: When you start recognising those patterns, it makes you notice them a lot more. And it makes you realise that every culture and every community probably has their own patterns that you shouldn’t just take for granted are the same as yours. And it makes you look for them a lot more and recognise a lot more when one of them keeps repeating.

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: I think themes of persecution are very easy for Jews to identify with ’cause a lot of our stories are really there. I keep joking that as far as I’m concerned – a lot of this was in the context of an article called The Jewish Narnia

Parinita: Um hmm.

Ziv: Where a reviewer – I forget the name – was asking why are there no Jewish authors writing something as popular, as enduring as Narnia. And some of the answers being that the basic fundamental Jewish stories are very different from the adventurous stories that we’re used to seeing. And I said that A Series of Unfortunate Events, which is about a couple of kids –

Parinita: [laughs]

Ziv: Three kids whose parents were killed and are running for their lives and they keep getting into horrible situations and needing to navigate a morally grey field of what is actually the right thing to do – that’s a story that I identify with my texts and my culture.

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs] I love that. I’ve gotten a lot through fandom myself. But even now I’m constantly learning especially with fan podcasts because there’s so much to learn. People from backgrounds that aren’t represented largely in mainstream media and culture are inserting their own perspectives and their own experiences and I love it. Because it’s just like this giant school for free – I mean you do need internet and stuff

Ziv: [laughs]

Parinita: But otherwise it’s free. Despite the overall absence of religion in SFF, there are a few instances where faith is represented. Sometimes fictional faiths, but they do draw parallels to real-world religions.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: So I found the two Star Trek episodes that we watched for this really interesting – one was Who Watches The Watchers? in The Next Generation. I’m not really very familiar with Star Trek even though my boyfriend is trying to get me into it.

Ziv: [laughs]

Parinita: He’s a huge Next Generation and Picard fan. I found that one so interesting just because of the question that it had about what counts as religion and what just counts as advanced science. And how you can mess up stuff. But I think it showed religion in a much more agnostic way than the other episode – Accession – did. In Deep Space Nice – Deep Space Nice? [laughs] – Deep Space Nine – it had faith as a much more normalised – even though normal is a word that I’m very suspicious of – but as a much more normalised part of the world. And I don’t know the context of the world because I watched those episodes in isolation. Whereas in the first episode, religion seemed to be something that they were trying to distance themselves from.

Ziv: Exactly.

Parinita: It was much more like a regular everyday part of their lives.

Ziv: Right. The episode of Next Generation, if I recall correctly, it’s got them accidentally contacting a more primitive culture and the primitive culture thinking of them in religious terms or as gods. And it was so important for them to not create those superstitions or those false beliefs. That’s certainly an interesting conflict. I don’t think there’s any basis of morality where you want to be confused accidentally for a god. And it brings an interesting discussion of what is faith, what is worth believing in, what is a religion? But it does definitely have the underlying current of, “We don’t want to encourage this.” In Deep Space Nine, basically a character comes out of nowhere and is immediately kind of crowned a spiritual leader and he tries to bring a very spiritual culture back to a previous state that they’d had with a caste system and with older beliefs. And a lot of what the episode is about is how readily this spiritual culture agrees to that and plays along with it even though it’s devastating to them.

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: But what that episode does which I feel is very, very unusual is it has sympathy and understanding for the people who want this to work. It doesn’t have us wanting it to work. It doesn’t have us wanting the Bajorans to go back to a caste system. But it does show us why people might be willing to do absurd things because they believe it. [laughs] Honestly, I don’t think there’s an argument more than that. They do it because they believe it. But they do it because of trust. And I think that’s a lot of what the episode is about because a lot of the conclusion is when this character goes away and Sisko realises that this whole thing has been kind of to nudge him into doing better at his religious position which he doesn’t want. But one of the key points is that he asks Kira – who is a sympathetic but spiritual character –he asks her, “If I told people to do that, they you know they would do all this for me?” And Kira says, “Yes because you’re the Emissary because you have this religious role.” And I think that speaks to the responsibility and ability that religion has to shape people’s lives and communities. Because in good hands, I think that’s what religion in its best form is capable of being – a way for a community to come together and shape itself to be better and to help itself.

Parinita: Yeah. And I found that episode really interesting because first of all the caste system which is fictional in this but Hinduism has a huge problem with the caste system in exactly the way that the conservative leader was trying to get the people back to. Where you’d only do the jobs that you were born to do. I could find so many parallels because in one of the scenes, someone was murdered because they belonged to a lower caste. They took care of the dead bodies; they prepared them for burial. So this person was immediately from that family – even though they didn’t do that job anymore. But everyone had switched so instantly to this idea of the caste system that because the character didn’t show the due respect to a person of a higher caste, this person pushed them down the railing and the character died. And that’s very similar to what happens in huge parts of India even today where some castes are seen as lower and some castes are seen as dirty and you can’t have interactions among castes. And you are only allowed to do certain jobs and you’re only allowed to inhabit certain parts of the village or the city or whatever. But what I found interesting in this episode was that but also that it was almost a thing between the conservative understanding of this religion versus a more progressive understanding of this religion. I guess spiritual, not progressive – a more spiritual understanding of this religion. But even the conservative leader – I think his name was Akorem – they didn’t show him to be a bad guy. They didn’t show him to be this power-hungry person. He really believed in what he was doing. Which, of course, that’s dangerous in itself.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: Because a lot of religions believe in what they’re doing and that leads to a lot of violence and conflict and war historically and even now. But in this case, he just wanted to do good by his people. And when they go to the prophets, who appear in the bodies of the crew members, and speak through them, he realises that he had it wrong. And he was quite okay with it. He didn’t start a civil war or anything. [laughs]

Ziv: [laughs]

Parinita: He was like, “Oh okay that’s cool, I guess, it’s fine.” So I thought that was really interesting that it was the tensions between a faith but not in a way that had a good guy and a bad guy. It was just everyone believes that they’re doing the right thing and some may be mistaken and some may not and even that is so contextual.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: Amongst certain fans, they might have thought Akorem should have been the one who won. It depends on your own personal politics and beliefs.

Ziv: I like that episode because even though it definitely leans very hard into the – if I said earlier that a lot of portrayals of religion portray religious people as cultish and blindly obedient, I mean this episode has a lot of that. But it also pays a lot of attention to where that’s coming from. To the emotions that make people be willing to go along with something. To how it’s a position of trust a lot more than irrationality.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Ziv: To be absolutely clear, that trust can be misplaced,

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: The consequences can be horrendous. [laughs] The fact that people trust a leader and the fact that the leader is well-intentioned does not mean that things will work out.

Parinita: They’re not all wrong. [laughs] Yeah.

Ziv: [laughs] I feel like the appreciation of this is something that a person can connect to. It’s what shifts it from being an exaggerated portrayal to being something that’s more realistic.

Parinita: Yeah and there’s more room to explore, like you said, the nuances which are so missing in most religious portrayals. And even in real life really. In real life media, religion tends to be in the news only at the extremes. And that’s how I’ve spent a large part of my life – understanding religion through that framework.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: Just because I’ve not studied religion. I’m now more interested in reading about religion through books and podcasts; not because I want to find a religion for myself but I want to understand how religious people make sense of the world. And I think there’s a lot of similarities with the way that I make sense of the world. So it’s really interesting to me. Which is why I think a lot of non-religious people are really sceptical of religion. Because that’s the only exposure that they’ve had.

Ziv: Right. Yeah, the exposure that they have is always antagonistic.

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: Almost always. Or neutral. Like you can have a religious person working with you and they’ll never offend. They’ll always be right there but that’s not a positive. You’re not privy to their own spiritual world or to what connects them to their own spirituality. Unless you’re very nosy or they’re very open. And yet somehow not annoying.

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs] And I remember when I moved to the UK, so I stayed in Glasgow for a year and a half when I was doing my master’s. And Scotland in general but Glasgow in particular has a lot of sectarian violence between Protestants and Catholics. And when I was in catholic school in India, it was a convent school. So basically in India when I was growing up, a convent school was for many people less about religion but we believed the nuns taught English the best. [laughs] In terms of public education, they were seen to be better than government schools which is why a lot of parents send students to convent schools. Now, of course, you have a lot of international schools and there’s class hierarchies there.

Ziv: Honestly, I think, that you see that in a lot of places in a lot of ways. I know in Israel there’s certainly a lot of places where the religious schools are seen to be better.  And I think a lot of that is because a lot of religious people go to be teachers. Or because the religious groups, the religious government parties are able to get more funding. There are a lot of reasons [laughs] for an imbalance. But definitely winds up as kind of, “Okay the religious schools are better and therefore we might send our kids to religious schools even though we’re not religious.”

Parinita: I mean in India it was very much a thing of colonisation. It was still very much a colonised mindset because, “Oh nuns yeah Christians, they must know English better. So why don’t we send them there.”

Ziv: Right. [laughs]

Parinita: But my interaction in school was we had Protestants and we had Catholics but they were all lumped together in the same group. They used to go for religious services in one area and all the non-Catholic and non-Protestant people, we had other classes during that religious studies class. And so for me, when I moved to the UK, I was like, “Oh wait, you’re fighting amongst yourselves? I thought you believed in the same thing.” And then again Anti-Judaism, I keep harking back to that book but it’s because I learned so much from it. It’s quite a dense book so I would recommend it to listeners only if you have a lot of commitment to reading it.

Ziv: [laughs]

Parinita: But it was very enlightening. And he briefly touched on the Reformation and the violence that was there between Catholics and Protestants and I didn’t know a lot of this European history. And I was like, “Oh no wonder you guys seem to hate each other so much! I see what’s happening.” And now I understand why there’s so much more of a conflict in the UK even though to me it seems like you just want to find someone to hate and fight along lines of differences when you believe in the same god.” But Hinduism is the same and other religions are the same.

Ziv: It’s one of the ways that I feel it brings home that religion is not merely the question of what god you believe in or what text you believe in. So much of it is culture and geography. If I come from a city whose dominant belief is X and somebody else is from a city whose dominant belief is Y, then I might feel uncomfortable. And some of those I will attribute to religious reasons – and some of those will be strongly connected to those religious reasons because those two cities might really different ways of behaving and different values and different approaches. But it’s also connected to … just religion and culture. They are hard to tease apart.

Parinita: Yeah like India and Pakistan, right? Because again colonisation – I blame the Empire for everything. [laughs] But we’re on the brink of war with each other and we have been at war with each other a lot after the Partition which led to tremendous violence as well. But if I meet a Pakistani person here in the UK, we both have no enmity; we don’t hate each other And we’re so culturally similar with this desi South Asian culture. We’re both othered in similar ways in this country because of the colour of our skin but we also recognise similarities in each other. I’ve spoken in Hindi and called people Uncle and Aunty in the same way that I would in India even though they’re from Pakistan. Whereas when I’m in India, the news media has such terrible reports of Pakistan – which I don’t believe in anyway.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: But that’s full of this Hindu-Muslim conflict and Pakistan-India being enemies. I’m not religious so I guess it might be easier for me and I’m not patriotic either. I love India but my sense of self isn’t tied to my country.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: I would be friends with you if you’re from Pakistan or wherever anyway, but we also share so many similarities. We watch the same movies, we like similar kind of food, we have similar cultural things that we share so why wouldn’t we be friends? We have more in common now. And, of course, I’ve also grown up with a lot of Western media so I have that with white English people and white Scottish people as well. Finding commonalities and finding things to connect over rather than differences is something that I think can be used like that with religion in stories as well. Why is it always conflict and why is it not sometimes just compassion?

Ziv: Absolutely. It also works the other way around. If you have a society that seems homogeneous, that everybody believes the same things, then very often you’ll see a schism or you’ll see a separation which will play out along religious lines as well. It starts from small things like you say that you know for every two Jews, you have three synagogues. And you literally see this in actual synagogues. I live in a city with a lot of religious people. But always there are more and more people trying to open up new synagogues and small little synagogues because they don’t want to pray the way that this place does it.

Parinita: [laughs]

Ziv: And the city cannot fit these synagogues and still they will not have a single place that’s close enough for what they want. Part of it is because religion is such a big part of religious life so that’s one of the place where fault lines will appear. And part of it is because religion reflects the rest of life and so if you have people that you’re uncomfortable with, you won’t want to go to the same place of prayer that they do.

Parinita: Which is a pity. I mean I do understand why it happens but I I like this idea of people from different backgrounds coming together.  I read an article – a few articles I think – and also watched Queer Eye [laughs] where they’re talking about churches and because in the US, Christianity is the framework of that country, it was about churches with diverse pastors. I think there was a gay pastor in one of the newest episodes of Queer Eye and he grew up in a very homophobic faith tradition in his church that he went to as a young person. But now he’s trying to make it more inclusive to people who are like him – to kids from different sexualities and gender identities. And there’s a growing group of people who are trying to do this. Even in the UK, for that matter, I’ve seen a lot of secular, humanist churches where they invite people from all traditions, all faiths or no faith and come together to just share a meal and talk to each other. I wish that there were more of that. It’s fine to also have things that you believe in and a separate pocket of that. But then that can get dangerous, right? If you only have that and no interaction with people who believe differently from you, I think that’s also important.

Ziv: I’ve been on the edges of different things like that. And it’s a very interesting dynamic. Because when you have an inter-faith initiative of any kind, the first people you will actually come into contact with is other people who want an inter-faith initiative. Which is a very particular group. It’s not the same as actually coming into contact with the full variety. You’re actually coming into contact with people who are most like you but not necessarily in the same faith.

Parinita: That’s true.

Ziv: Which can be interesting. It can be fantastic and it can be very, very valuable but it’s a thing of its own.

Parinita: Yeah. No, I agree. It’s just – I think I’m a very optimistic, idealistic sometimes very naively so person so I like this idea of learning from other people in real life.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: Just having that physical community rather than just a virtual one. I love the podcasts, I love reading about things, but it’s also nice to have something like how you and I, we’re talking.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: We come from such different backgrounds but just talking about things that we believe in, essentially. I wish that was a more normalised part of society. And you’re right, with inter-faith things, it’s a very self-selecting audience. [laughs] If you believe in it, you’ll come; if you don’t, you won’t. So it’s difficult to reach across that boundary but yeah … I don’t know, maybe someday. Maybe that’s the kind of stories that I need to write. Because I write children’s books but with no religious anything.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: Because like you said, it’s a blind-spot because I’m not religious, so like trying to understand that would be so difficult. I’d need to research things and then write about it. But yeah, it’s interesting.

Ziv: I guess I kind of just want to sum up to say that I think that religion is a very, very wide subject, a subject that touches on so many different aspects of life. And it’s one that is often very difficult to understand from the outside and [laughs] it’s hard for me to criticise those who don’t understand it very well, who don’t sympathise with it very much. And it’s also a topic that has so many issues and problems and difficulties because it does very often – and not in all versions of faith but in many versions of faith – have real clashes with humanism and pluralism and respect for other identities. And those can all be so challenging to grapple with. To me personally, that’s exactly why I want to see them grappled with. I feel like we need the voices who want to grapple with them, who want to figure out how we can have religion and pluralism at the same time; how we can acknowledge both the people of particular faiths and also the people outside them and respect them both. I feel like the onus of this should fall first and foremost on pluralistic religious people. Although [laughs] I feel very often like that is a small and isolated and beleaguered community.

Parinita: [laughs] I love it. That’s why I enjoyed our conversation so much. Even before we spoke, I knew I would enjoy our conversation just because of the kind of texts that you recommended.

Ziv: I’m glad.

Parinita: And the kinds of points that you brought up because like I said, I believe in a more pluralistic, humanistic version of religion which has room for all religions and no religions as well. And yeah that’s something I got a lot out of our conversation today. So thank you so much for being a part of this project and for just expanding my mind – I know I keep saying this but it’s true with everybody that I speak to, especially with people from different backgrounds – that I learn so much just through conversations and I really appreciate everybody and you coming onto this podcast. Thank you very much!

Ziv: I’m so glad. This has been really wonderful for me too. I mean this has been in the back of my mind for months since you first put out the call and I was like well what do I wanna talk about? What do I think about this? And this has helped me articulate certain points quite a bit. And also helped me figure out what else I want to articulate and can’t quite yet. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: And this has been fantastic. Thank you so much.

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode on religious representations in science fiction and fantasy. Thank you so much Ziv for challenging and expanding my beliefs about religion and for offering such thoughtful conversation. And thanks as always to Jack for discovering a dinosaur wonderland (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 14 – 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 Episiode 14, We Don’t Know What To Do With Them: Representations of Older Women in Media, we discussed the following texts:

1) TV Show Episode – Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Band Candy

Buffy, a small blonde girl who is excellent at physically fighting vampires, challenges notions of what a fighter looks like. I don’t remember the other vampire slayers who end up being included in the show but I wonder how they were represented especially in terms of intersections with gender, body and appearance, ability. It would be great if the world (Buffy’s and the mediascape at large) had more examples of fighters from different identities in terms of race, gender, body size, and disability. 

“I do well in standardised tests. What? I can’t have layers?” – Cordelia 

Offhanded comment which still challenges the idea that beauty/popularity and intelligence are separate – you can’t have both. I thought Booksmart did a good job exploring that as well with more nuanced examinations of intelligence. 

All the adults and parents and other responsible older people are drugged by the chocolate to act as teenagers. This seems to involve largely dancing at the club, lots of alcohol and sex, fighting, car races, and other irresponsible things. This does interestingly explore ideas of what older people are allowed to do, especially since it distresses the actual teenagers. At the same time, it’s a very narrow idea of what teenagers do. How are these ideas of being a teenager complicated now, especially with all the activism being done – climate crisis, gun control, anti CAA, Black Lives Matter? Essentialist ideas of age go both ways – not all teenagers and young people fit into these stereotypical ideas – another reason I love Booksmart so much. These socially constructed ideas of what people of different ages are supposed to do are limiting for everyone and certainly don’t reflect everyone’s lives. 

 

2) Fan podcast – Buffering the Vampire Slayer: Band Candy

The adult actors seemed to have so much fun doing this episode which again goes into the idea of very limited kinds of fun that adults have (if they have any at all) perpetuated by media. As the actress who plays Joyce says, the kind of teenager she plays in this episode was very different from the kind of teenager she actually was – but she loved inhabiting this other identity which she felt was quite liberating. Not fitting into the roles that society expects of you is definitely empowering – how much more empowering if this was an everyday thing rather than a single episode thing. 

This episode led to a lot of fanfiction about Joyce and Giles exploring this under-representation of older romance and sex between older people in media. For example, Joyce having a pair of handcuffs and Buffy not wanting to think about why her mother has these cuffs implies different kinds of sex and sexuality. 

Such a different experience watching this when I was closer to Buffy’s age versus watching this now when I’m closer to her mom’s age. I don’t know what insights I would have gleaned then. It’s similar to my experience with children’s books in general and Harry Potter. I’m able to understand some perspectives and insights so much better now. The hosts think this episode was quite hot and sexy which is different from how they felt when they watched it when they were young. The idea of parents having sex – something which is taboo in media representations too and continues to be taboo since it’s not normalised.

 

3) Fan podcast – Women of Harry Potter: Molly Weasley with Dr. Chloe Angyal

(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.)

Molly provides both food-based nourishment and mental and emotional nourishment to keep people whole not just during their everyday lives but especially so during the resistance from Order of the Phoenix onwards. However, her fears, her role, her knowledge of the world are often dismissed and taken for granted. 

The entire series has an underpinning of maternal sacrifice – Lily, Molly, Narcissa – most of which is dismissed. Or in the case of Lily, her sacrifice is frequently mentioned but she is limited to just that one role. 

“There should be statues all over the world of women making soup for the revolution.”

There are different kinds of activism – Shaheen Bagh in India and now in the Black Lives Matter protests in the US, the UK and across the world. In the migrant crisis in India, different people were practising activism in different ways – promoting resources, coordinating funds, donating funds, making food packets for the migrants, collecting money for their travel. Everyone is finding different ways to help to counter the breakdown of government systems or the historical inequalities perpetuated by social, political and cultural structures. There has been so much news of the different kinds of ways in which people resisted, helped with or showcased their resistance in creative ways both in the US and in India. 

They talk about Molly not really having an adequate self-care regiment. She’s always taking care of other people and not herself. This is also tied to activism since it’s so important. There absolutely need to be moments of rest and relaxation and even joy in the middle of all the fighting and rage just to give your brain and emotions a break. This, in turn, is essential to make activism and advocacy sustainable and not lead to constant burnouts. 

 

4) Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper: Representations of Motherhood with Aliette de Bodard

The episode signposts two articles by the guest:

Motherhood and Erasure 

On Horrific Pregnancies and Dead Mothers  

The episode explores the absence of mothers in science fiction and fantasy with the propensity to die off-screen. Aliette points out that mothers are seen as a hindrance to adventure so it’s easier not to deal with them. Historically, children were more in danger of dying in childbirth than women – though women’s deaths are more prominent in fiction while children get to do the fun bits. Even in Black Panther, Killmonger’s father’s death is a huge plot point but his mother isn’t even mentioned. Mothers are so invisible that you don’t even think about their absence in stories. This reflects the real world where mothers don’t really garner much attention (which explains how fathers who are out and about with their children or doing the most basic parenting are praised because it’s considered to be the exception even though it’s half their responsibility).

In YA books and children’s books, parents may take a backseat naturally since that’s the age when children move away from their parents – but parents don’t necessarily need to be killed off. Disposing of them might be easier but there’s more potential including them in the exploits. They also discuss the trope of the chosen one where lone heroes have to save the world, focusing on individualism rather than community.

“Everybody falls by the wayside but especially the parents.”

Even in She-Ra, a show I love very much which focuses on communal heroism rather than individual heroism, most of the parents are absent. Same with Avatar: The Last Airbender too. 

One of the hosts says that as an only child, her parents were her playmates and adventurers so she thinks parents as fellow-adventurers would make perfect sense to her. Another of the hosts who was also an only child didn’t think her mother could be fellow adventurers in imaginary ways, perhaps reflecting the kind of stories she had been told. These representations give rise to the idea that mothers don’t go on adventures and aren’t imaginative and playful. Aliette purposefully writes stories where children and mothers do things together. Tropes with mother’s representations include saintly dead mother, evil mother, mother who sacrifices herself. When stories which challenge these tropes are written, readers/viewers may find it unrealistic and may criticise it for being unable to connect with them because it’s the kind of stories they aren’t used to.

What makes mothers great mothers? Only things they do for their children apparently. This reminds me of my friend who, after she gave birth, complained about becoming just a milk factory for her kid. Everyone asked about her kid and her relationship with the kid but not herself. This was similar to Aliette’s own experiences after childbirth. Even in media, mothers have their characters only to be in relationship with their children and have no agency by themselves. The erasure of mothers in SFF is compounded when you look beyond cisgender characters. Trans and nonbinary parents are more invisible. There need to be more intersectional representations of mothers where they have a life beyond their child.

Aliette thinks that the term badass characters is gendered masculine where fighting with a sword is badass but taking care of the children isn’t badass. One is seen as a man’s job and the other is seen as a woman’s job signifying heroism as masculine. 

In SFF/historical fiction, women’s roles are limited to – be hot, sleep with men, bear children. But the way in which the world + historical societies are structured, that this is the only way women can gain power. Then why are they being shamed for doing just that? They discussion signposts TOR’s article about women’s role in medieval society and antiquity which challenges the notion that historically, women didn’t do certain things. History is misconstrued to suit agendas which exclude women in stories. What we think we know about history is shaped by imagination and media rather than reality. The kind of stories that are told shape your idea of history – this is also being weaponised by many right-wing groups, of course, as one of the hosts points out about the narrative around Brexit. 

“Everything was better back then.”

Better for whom? There was a lack of medical innovation, health and food standards, along with oppressive social roles. Historical societies were good only for a specific group of people.  

In Star Wars, they discuss Padme who despite living in a technologically advanced society where she has lots of wealth, she doesn’t know she has twins and then dies of postpartum depression. This society doesn’t prioritise pregnancy care or the needs of women. Terry Pratchett has some unconventional mothers – Nanny Ogg, Magrat, Lady Sybil. At one point, Magrat just straps her baby to her back and takes her off to look for Granny Weatherwax. Aliette wonders when mothers take babies on adventures, how do they feed this baby? How do they care of the baby? Another example of motherhood and agency is Piper in Charmed

 

5) Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper: Maiden, Mother, and Crone: Ageism in Genre Fiction

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

Why does most SFF have only young women as protagonists? It’s a limited vision of both the past (fantasy) and the future (science fiction). In medieval fantasy, does it reflect the high birth mortality rate? Similar reasons in a dystopian future – reasons for mothers being killed off? 

A recent Twitter discussion spoke about the presence of diverse characters and writers in SFF and how they’re erased in mainstream discourse. While I agree it’s important to read and raise awareness of niche media, it’s also important to have more diversity in mainstream media which reaches a larger number of people and shapes imaginations to a greater extent. Thanks to most popular SFF media, we largely have this very limited image of older women which then impacts how we see old women in the real world + the stereotypes and expectations we have of them. The obsession with youth and returning to your youth and fear of ageing or death means that everyone is concerned about getting older. This is reflected in both entertainment and advertising media.

One of the hosts points out that there’s a difference among people, regardless of age – both really young and really old characters can be precocious. For me, a recent example of an excellent older protagonist is the grandmother in My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises who has an extremely precocious granddaughter. 

In SFF, it’s not just elderly protagonists who are missing; middle-aged protagonists are also very rarely centered, especially if you’re an old woman. In fairy tales, old women have very stereotypical roles – mentors or villains. The idea of flipping roles where children are wiser than the adults – again, I’m reminded of the granddaughter Elsa in My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises who is much more reasonable and sometimes wiser at seven than her grandmother. Dumbledore is an example of a complex, flawed older character whose life and experiences we understand in great depth rather than just this superficially wise older mentor as he’s introduced in the beginning of the series. While we grow up with Harry, we gain a more nuanced view of Dumbledore. Harry’s faith in Dumbledore is shaken as the Witch, Please podcast argues, where you can draw parallels with religion. 

As with everything else, when you think of intersectional identities of older women, the representation (or lack of representation) becomes even worse. Women have to be able to look after themselves in a patriarchal society anyway. Especially with women who often have to dedicate their lives to their families when they are younger, becoming older could be an act of liberation for them – to be able to do everything they didn’t get a chance to do and explore new horizons. Older women overturning stereotypes reminds me of Judi Dench, an old actress who embroiders on the sets – an activity which is seen to be feminine and docile – though even that’s wrong because it was often used for resistance. But Judi Dench takes it a step further with her sweary embroidery

 

6) Fan podcast – Women of Harry Potter: Mrs Figg

I love their interpretation of Mrs. Figg as brave; she’s a woman living the life of a spy and going deep undercover to keep an eye on Harry. On the surface, Mrs Figg is considered mad and batty which feeds into the single old women with cats stereotypes. However, they propose that she is a great liar because she’s a secret agent who’s upended her life for the cause and to look after Harry. She lies for other people about her whole identity to protect Harry from afar. Of course there are problems with this because she could have included Harry in this deception and given him a more decent childhood. Vanessa believes she’s complicit in his abuse to an extent. 

Mrs. Figg plays up to the Muggle stereotypes of crazy cat lady which makes her easy to dismiss and the witching world stereotypes of Squibs where the magical population doesn’t really think about them which also makes them easy to dismiss. She weaponises her marginalised identities and takes advantage of both her age and her lack of magical ability, which is an interesting, empowering reading of the intersection of age and gender. 

“The best thing about turning 50 is that you become invisible to men.” – Stephanie Paulsell

“Women who become socially irrelevant to the patriarchy” – Vanessa 

Vanessa proposes that Mrs Figg lies for a good cause about not being able to take care of Harry in The Philosopher’s Stone because she wanted him to go to the zoo with the Dursleys as a treat since she has seen how they treat him. Arianna likes the theory but is also conflicted about it because she likes the idea of a dotty old woman who doesn’t know how to take care of children. Vanessa believes Mrs. Figg is more fun than she pretends to be

The threat of an older single lady means that people think she’s pathetic because she doesn’t have a man and has to rely on animals for love. This leaves no room for the idea that older women without husbands and children and with lots of cats may be perfectly happy as they are. I like the idea of this trope of crazy cat lady being overturned to exert agency – especially with older women who may not have had many opportunities to do this due to family and societal responsibilities earlier. 

 

7) Fan podcast – Women of Harry Potter: Minerva McGonagall with Brea Grant and Mallory O’Meara

According to the hosts and guests, Professor McGonagall holds so many different responsibilities and does them all well – educator, Gryffindor leader, Order of the Phoenix member fighting Voldemort, badass boss. She’s a rule-follower but knows which rules need to be followed and which need to be broken. She gets things done – questions injustice, is on the battlefield whenever needed, protects the students physically and from afar. They think she exemplifies being a single (canonically widowed), career woman who models feminism to readers. She doesn’t prioritise her relationships with men. 

McGonagall did have to choose to let go of some things. Women can’t have it all in a patriarchal capitalist society but neither can men. Men usually have housewives to care of domestic things so they’ve chosen career over family too. 

“McGonagall walked so Hermione could fly.”

McGonagall is just as maternal as Molly Weasley though maybe she exhibits it differently because she’s taking care of all of Gryffindor and perhaps even Hogwarts and creates an environment of stability. She is a badass aunty – perhaps not nurturing, but does add an important dimension. She doesn’t have an incomplete or unfulfilling life because she doesn’t have a husband or children. She is an example of a non-sexualised badass woman.

While I more or less agree with the points, this is a somewhat white feminism reading complete with the phrase “leaning in” as one of them mentioned.

 

8) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds: Travelling in the TARDIS

Eric wonders whether people are more willing to go on spacetime adventures with the Doctor when you’re younger than when you’re older? He admits he wouldn’t have gone with the Doctor even when he was a child. 

They discuss one of the companions (Rose presumably) who left her mother to go adventuring with the Doctor across time and space. Rose was willing to leave Jackie in a parallel universe and never see her again too. Both Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant’s Doctor were quite horrible to Jackie – lots of sexist, ageist comments. Why couldn’t a mum be a part of the adventure too? Why is the idea so abhorrent to the young male Doctors? 

They discuss how companions have different kinds of intelligence reflecting their origins from different backgrounds – but they all have empathy and emotional intelligence. Most of the companions have been women and the writers have been white men. There have been criticisms about how Martha Jones’s character – the first black companion – was treated. This reminds me of the episode when she travels to Shakespearan England – her worries about being black then are dismissed and she’s problematically exoticised by Shakespeare. As the first black female companion, her overall arc did a disservice to her character and also garnered some racist backlash from fans.

They episode also features the creator of Whovian Feminism, a Tumblr blog. Stephen Moffat has been criticised because his female characters are treated as plot devices. She spoke about how while the show did include working class companions, other intersectional identities are often overlooked or treated poorly. The show only seems to have room for young women companions – they’re constantly replaced for other young women and there seems to be no room for older women.

Sarah Jane was a popular, feminist companion, unlike the previous damsels in distress. But when she came back as an older woman in David Tennant’s run, she’s pitted against Rose, a younger woman as well as portrayed as someone who’s bitter about being left behind by Tom Baker’s Doctor. She never married because she was hung up on him. However, her reappearance was so popular though that she had a spin-off series for younger fans. 

Donna was a popular companion. She didn’t have a crush on the Doctor and was always blunt with the Doctor. She wasn’t as young as the rest of the companions and was popular among female viewers especially. The way Donna’s story ends was an especially unpopular fate. I was heartbroken about it – her agency and memories taken from her – a fate worse than death because she doesn’t remember how incredible she was. Many companions have died but at least they died on their own terms. Donna lost all control. 

The representation of older characters is becoming better in Jodie’s Doctor run. Graham is a good example of an older companion who’s travelling with his grandson as a way to grieve over his wife’s death. Doctor Ruth is excellent as an older woman Doctor – there have been older male Doctors but not older women Doctors or companions. There are still massive blind-spots and invisible identities though.

 

9) Fan podcast – Woke Doctor Who: The Women Who Waited

This episode focuses on how ageing is represented in Doctor Who. Ageing is often associated with bitterness – especially for younger  women where they have a longing for being young. Media perpetuates this stereotype where growing older is devalued and only youth is valued. Older women, especially single older women, are often seen as unhappy, pathetic or crazy. In terms of the intersection of age and gender, older women come off worse. For example, Amy Pond ageing versus Rory ageing where Rory doesn’t have the bitterness nor does he physically age. Women who age with bitterness can also be seen in the episode with Sarah Jane and Rose where a younger woman is pitted against an older woman. 

The companions tend to be young, thin, cute women. With ageism in romance, lots of fans prefer Matt or David but the hosts like Peter and River – an example of older romance. The hosts argue that we need o see older people in heroic roles more often. 

Amy is a mom to River but doesn’t age as a companion. They don’t seem to be willing or able to show motherhood properly or ageing as a woman properly. You can only be a woman in media in a certain way. It also skews in a way which privileges older men over older women. The age versus beauty stereotype seems to impact women more than men. With the new companions, there have been different ages and genders though there is still the notable absence of older women. Older men seem to be okay but not older men. In the new season, Graham and Grace offer a representation of older romance but Grace is killed off almost as soon as she is introduced. So there is increasing diversity in the new series and more fans can see their diverse experiences in the series ranging from age, gender, race, disability, and sexuality. This diversity is also being reflected in the writer’s room. 

Re-reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

My re-reading journey is back on track. I finished Goblet of Fire a couple of weeks ago and now I’m a few chapters into Order of the Phoenix. I have a month and a half and three of the longest Harry Potter books to fit into them in (along with all the other things I read for work and fun) but I’m DETERMINED to finish.

Book cover image of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

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

  • I never noticed the class allusions before with the Riddles. They’re described as rich, snobby, live in a fancy house, have servants. I didn’t think much of this when I read the books in India but I have more context now that I live in the UK and know what kind of family would be able to afford all this. Voldemort, like his father Tom Riddle, seems to have this inherited sense of superiority – based on his mother’s Pureblood family and Slytherin ancestry. But then you can see how his attitude reflects spoiled rich white boys in the UK even now (or spoiled rich brown boys in India).
  • Until they discovered Harry’s godfather is a dangerous murderer, the Dursleys didn’t allow Harry to have his school things with him out of a combination of fear of his powers and the wish to keep him as miserable as possible?! Whose perspective is this – Harry’s assumption or the Dursleys actual intent? If the latter, I’d like to say they’re cartoon villains but tragically, they’re all too recognisable.
  • Aha! Vernon Dursley reads The Daily Mail. Of course he does. When I worked at a children’s newspaper in Mumbai during my late teens/early 20s, we frequently turned to The Daily Mail’s features for our science and weird news round-ups – something I would never dream of doing now that I know the role of the paper in stoking xenophobia and racism amongst other things. The context, of course, was completely lost to me in India – didn’t realise that the newspaper was virulently right-wing.
  • Aunt Petunia’s sharp eyes seem to notice “fingerprints on her gleaming walls” and “the comings and goings of neighbours” it seems. Very specific idea of being a woman, no? It’s almost like Tonks in the next book is exceptionalised because she doesn’t like doing domestic things.
  • Dudley is on a diet but diets don’t work! Especially if you’re starving your son by giving him a quarter of a grapefruit for breakfast, as Witch, Please angrily declaims. vernon and Dudley are constantly fat-shamed and Petunia is described in ugly ways – horsy teeth, for example. Using someone’s looks against them, no matter how much you hate them, is a problematic way of critiquing them. Granted that Harry is fourteen and we’re reading the books from his POV but ultimately it’s the author/narrator who’s asking us to think this way.
  • Even Harry calls the Dursleys “the Muggles” in his letter to Ron. Is Ron rubbing off on him? What is this language? Why can’t he say the Dursleys or my aunt/uncle or my relatives or whatever. “The Muggles” sounds so dismissive and dehumanising.
  • In terms of magical transportation, is Floo travel accessible to everybody? What if you live in a tiny flat with no chimney? How much does Floo powder cost? And the Weasleys might be “poor” but they have immense cultural and social capital. First of all, they have a house with a chimney. And even though Muggle fireplaces aren’t meant to be connected to the Floo network, Arthur uses his networks at work to make it possible. Apparition is supposed to be very difficult – does lack of ability and skill limit how people can travel in the magical world? The Knight Bus doesn’t seem too popular – more like an emergency service that you’d only use as a last resort than anything else. Or only a certain group of people use it because they can’t afford anything else. With Portkeys, are they a government controlled mode of transport? Can people set up their own Portkeys? What controls access – money, bureaucracy or magical skill?
  • Dudley is the butt of all jokes and attacks by magical folks. There’s Hagrid in the first book who gives him a tail and now the Weasley twins in this book who deliberately seek to prank him with their sweets by taking advantage of his diet. And there’s no consent involved! No ethics committee would have allowed this. At this point, surely it’s not a prank but just a wizard bullying a Muggle? And this is encouraged by Bill and Charlie too who are adults – young adults, but still! Mr Weasley does try to explain why this is outrageous and harmful to Muggle-wizard relations but the twins insist they didn’t give them the Ton-Tongue toffee because he’s a Muggle but because he’s a bully. However, there’s still imbalanced power dynamics at play here where them using magic will always have more power than Dudley who can use none.
  • I’m surprisingly sympathetic towards Percy’s reports on cauldron thickness which is presented so dismissively by Ron. He’s pushing to tandardise cauldron thickness so that there aren’t leakages – it might sound boring as much of bureaucracy does but it is still for people’s benefit! Leaky cauldrons can be dangerous depending on what sort of potion you’re making. Reminds me of pre- and post-Brexit complaints about the EU’s bureaucracy getting in the way of business but again, it’s largely to look after people, no? Food standards, vehicle safety, workplace benefits, etc.?
  • Right so Bill’s job at Gringotts seems to involve travelling across Egypt – perhaps other parts of the world – to break into ancient tombs in order to bring treasure back to the British bank? Ummmm not historically and currently problematic at all! They don’t even have the decency to stuff the stolen goods into a museum and then charge Egyptians to go see it. (Yes, Tower of London with the Kohinoor Diamond, I’m talking about you)
  • Why isn’t Molly Weasley going to the World Cup!? Even if she just thinks Quidditch is boring and would rather not, she doesn’t even get a day off just to relax and do things for herself. Instead, she’s going to run errands and buy everyone’s school things. Housewives are taken for granted so much!
  • Being caught up with being critically analytical (and keeping in mind J. K. R’s transphobia), I realise I don’t make enough space for the joy and delight these books still fill me with – the imaginative wonder they evoke when a tent consists of three rooms or a vast field is full of magical tents to watch the World Cup. These scenes take me back to when I read these books for the first time, filled with the same excited enchantment that Harry is.
  • What are the ethics about memory charms used against Muggles? Mr Roberts seems very suspicious about everything with the campground he’s managing – and why shouldn’t he be? He brings up some very good points! But the wizards are happy to Oblivate him ten times a day to keep him off the scent. It’s not just a question of ethics but also of potential harm. What sort of impact does it have on his brain? It’s the magical folks who are going into Muggle territory but still they feel this sense of ownership which sees their needs as more important – very cultural imperialistic.
  • Another instance of men in dresses being the butt of jokes – Archie, an old wizard is wearing a flowery nightdress to dress up as a Muggle and refuses to wear the trousers a Ministry official is handing him. Why can’t men wear dresses? Especially since robes don’t seem to require you to wear clothes or trousers underneath? Another man wearing a dress is funny moment comes when Ron complains about his dress robes with lace at the edges. They look like a dress and he tries to make them look more “manly” by getting rid of the lace. *big sigh*
  • So Seamus is Irish but he attends Hogwarts which is British. Is there an Irish magical school? What sort of politics come into play there – especially during and after the Troubles and with Britain’s history of colonising Ireland?
  • Winky is fully indoctrinated into the House Elf cult/community. She thinks it’s shocking that Dobby is getting ideas above his station and expects payment for his work. She believes house elves shouldn’t have fun and that their only job in life is to do as they’re told.
  • Fudge makes a casual anti-Bulgarian comment: “These Bulgarian blighters have been trying to cadge all the best places …” and doesn’t even learn the Bulgarian Minister’s name or how to pronounce it – British arrogance is alive and well in the wizarding community too. He doesn’t bother because the Minister of Magic can’t speak English apparently 🙄 He is then outraged to discover the Minister can speak English just fine but was just entertaining himself with Fudge’s failed sign language. God forbid you actually learn the language or have a translator at hand. Speaking of which, are there no translation spells in the magical world!? That would make life so much easier!
  • Veela are beautiful women who turn ugly when they’re angry? Why can’t they be angry and powerful and hurl fireballs while still looking gorgeous? Anger doesn’t turn women ugly – all women should be (and probably are) enraged by the world surely.
  • Veela impact those who would be attracted by their gender presumably – Hermione isn’t affected but the boys are. It would have been so interesting to have lesbian witches make a fool of themselves too. But not in this cishet magical world.
  • Mrs Roberts lies at the intersection of Muggle and woman – while the whole family is being levitated like puppets by the Death Eaters, she’s the one they humiliate by spinning around and exposing her underwear, an example of gender-based violence that Witch, Please spoke about. Additionally, Draco implies that Hermione is most in danger of the gang even though she’s a witch.
  • This is the book where you see Hermione’s consciousness being raised against the injustice meted out to house elves (page 106 in my copy). It took her actually meeting Winky and seeing how badly she’s been treated to understand the injustice. Of course, Ron who’s been conditioned by magical world everyday bigotry thinks house elves are happy and the system needn’t be questioned. The way wizards treat house elves is truly shocking. They talk to them like they’re worthless (quite literally less valuable than the witches and wizards they serve).  Mr Crouch frees Winky despite everything she’s done for him – how is she supposed to take care of herself?
  • I do understand Ron’s frustration at not being able to buy anything nice and new and owning everything secondhand and rubbish – I’ve felt that pain growing up! In fact in terms of poverty, I think I’m similar to the Weasleys because we had some attendant privileges (owned the home we lived in so didn’t have to worry about being evicted) but not others (the social and cultural capital, a large house, a stable job with steady money)
  • Hermione’s political awakening about house elf oppression includes setting up S.P.E.W. and all the research and steps she undertakes: pages 154-55, 188,89, 200-01, 319-24. This is met by pushback against everybody she tries to politicise. Nobody takes her activism or house elf rights seriously: pages 201, 223, 310.
  • Mad-Eye Moody, the only explicitly physically disabled character in the series (from what I remember) is introduced in such a strange terrifying way.
  • Dumbledore says that Beauxbatons, Durmstrang, and Hogwarts are three of the largest magical schools in Europe which seems to imply there are other smaller, not as prestigious schools on the continent. Does that mean every country DOES have a magical school? Or even that one country has several? Maybe Seamus is in Hogwarts because that was the most famous school in the area. Apparently Lucius Malfoy wanted to send Draco to Durmstrang because of their attitude towards the Dark Arts but Narcissa didn’t want him so far away. This seems to imply that much like with universities, you may be able to attend foreign magical schools. Then why don’t we see any in Hogwarts? Do they have their own version of a xenophobic Home Office which makes immigration as difficult as possible?
  • How is Moody allowed to discuss the Unforgivable Curses in such a cavalier way in a classroom with two people – Harry and Neville – who have been directly and traumatically impacted by it? If there was ever a need for a trigger warning, this is surely it! Yes, this is fake Moody but he has Dumbledore’s permission – or so he claims.
  • I like the irony of Ron being appalled by foreign food – shellfish stew or French bouillabaisse – while helping himself to black pudding – something I’ve been utterly traumatised by in this country!
  • The narrative introduces Fleur as beautiful and haughty … and not much else? Hermione doesn’t seem to think much of her and we’re seeing Fleur through the lens of her snide comments. (Harry’s unobservant gaze is quite unhelpful)
  • Based on all the podcasts I’ve been listening to, I’ve unconsciously been observing Parvati more than I ever did previously. I liked that she’s trying to establish her own sense of style and individuality even within the otherwise conformative structure of Hogwarts by wearing a butterfly clip on her plait … that McGonagall makes her take off as soon as she spots it.
  • Hagrid is the only example of a man cooking in the series and he seems to be terrible at it. Hermione finds a TALON in her beef casserole???
  • Rita Skeeter, a woman we’re supposed to abhor, is described in very high femme ways – something which the books seem to have a problem with. Fleur, Rita, Lavender, Parvati, Umbridge – all easy to dismiss or demonise for different reasons and all the most feminine characters in the books. Hermione seems to be one of the acceptable ways of being a woman – doesn’t care too much about traditionally feminine pursuits and values other things over them. Why not both?
  • Only girls seem to be obsessed with the Yule Ball. Harry rejects a girl for being taller than him. 🙄🙄🙄🙄🙄🙄 Oh the lovely gender lessons this series offers to more critical eyes.
  • There are a lot of references to goblin rebellions and riots littered through this book. Binns making history so dull becomes a way for them to not question what they’re learning and what their society takes for granted. I’m not sure whether it’s the case in the Hogwarts structure, but in the real world, I’m starting to think that history is deliberately made boring so as to push a certain narrative unquestioned.
  • The Yule ball and compulsory heteronormativity – everyone’s with someone from another gender. And is anyone partnerless? Are you banned from the ball if you go by yourself?
  • McGonagall wears tartan dress robes and thistles around her hat – just Scottishing her way all over the place! Her nationality is definitely something I didn’t pick up on before living here and understanding the context and references.
  • When they discover Hagrid is half-giant, Ron’s prejudice/conditioning shines through – he says they’re vicious, like killing for the sake of it, can’t live among witches and wizards. Harry doesn’t care while Hermione suspected as much and thinks it’s the same sort of bigotry werewolves are subjected to “They can’t all be bad.” Rita’s article outing Hagrid and attitudes towards giants and half giants is on page 370-71 – which also makes The Daily Prophet seem much more like The Daily Mail. Is there just one source of news and views in the entire British magical community?
  • Unicorns prefer a woman’s touch it seems. What would it do with trans women and trans men and non-binary folks? The Gayly Prophet interpret Hagrid as a trans woman and use the fact that unicorns seem to like him as one of their reasoning. I’ve also come across a Tumblr post about genderqueer students and unicorns and how they’re amenable on some days and not on others – depending on the person’s gender on that given day.
  • Even the fact that the Ministry of Magic has a department for the regulation and control of magical creatures is so human-centric. Why are the witches and wizards in-charge of regulating and controlling Other Magical People (hat-tip for the term to The Gayly Prophet)? Do centaurs have their own version of Department for the Regulation and Control of Witches and Wizards?
  • Hagrid’s dad wasn’t sure he would get into Hogwarts since he’s half-giant. I would love fanfic about Hogwarts being populated by not only human students but Other Magical People too – all coming together to exchange ideas and experiences and magic systems across cultures.
  • The way Moaning Myrtle is represented is so sad too. It’s through Harry’s really narrow perspective. She’s helpful and just wants some friendship and compassion and kindness, but he’s always looking to escape her. She’s obviously lonely and just looking for someone to hang out with but she isn’t equipped with the best social skills and that’s what feeds into the cycle. A lot of the ghosts in Hogwarts would benefit from some therapy, I think. Nearly Headless Nick, Rowena Ravenclaw, the Bloody Baron – all with different kinds of mental health issues they’ve carried with them through death.
  • Why doesn’t Harry know more about Merpeople? They live on the Hogwarts grounds and yet there’s no awareness about their culture and customs. Harry doesn’t know if they eat humans or whether they’re murderous or not. This isn’t born out of everyday bigotry as a lot of Ron’s comments are, but just sheer ignorance. I want more people in the magical world to know more about the different cultures – not just focusing on the witch and wizarding accomplishments and histories and beliefs. Same with language as well. Dumbledore speaks Mermish and Barty Crouch Sr speaks to goblins but where did they learn all these different languages? They sure as hell aren’t teaching it in Hogwarts.
  • Out of the four hostages, Ron is the only boy. Fleur’s most precious is her sister and the other two boys have their romantic interests there. I love that Harry’s most precious is his male best friend.
  • Are there no female Death Eaters except Bellatrix? Narcissa doesn’t seem to be a Death Eater because only Lucius is there. Of course a fascist wizard supremacist authoritarian cult would also be misogynist – as most fascist supremacist authoritarian movements are – but this is a really stark distinction.

Lessons for Planning, Publishing and Editing Podcast Episodes

It’s nearly mid-September so I have around a month and a half (more or less) to go for the podcasting part of my project. The technical aspects and format of the episodes have largely been running on autopilot for the last few months – mostly due to the lack of time to design new formats for each episode but also because most participants seemed to be happy to go along with the format suggested at the beginning of the project. I had a podcast planning meeting with my co-hosts yesterday and based on something one of them said, I thought it’d be a good time to take stock of what I’d do differently in terms of scheduling episodes for the next season (of course, I’m not sure there will be a second season, but I’ve enjoyed making the podcast and talking to people so much that I’m going to do my best to have one).

With my co-hosts, my planning process differs slightly from the ones my guests and I use – largely because they make repeat appearances on the podcast and they’re largely putting together their thoughts through a combination of going through the texts + our conversations together. Usually, I start us off by adding texts to our shared Google document, after which they add their suggestions. Following this, we have a couple of weeks (depending on our schedules) by which each of us goes through all the texts and makes notes. Then we meet on Skype to discuss what themes and fandoms we’d like to talk about. Then, we usually record our episode in the same week. At our meeting yesterday, one of the co-hosts mentioned that she discovered that she prefers having more time after we outline the details of the episode and divide segments amongst ourselves so she can better prepare for each segment. The other co-host usually needs more time to go through the texts since she juggles professional and parenting responsibilities in between which she ekes out time for the episode. As for me, by the time we meet to plan for the episode, I’ve already made copious notes for each include in a blog post later. Once our planning meeting is done, I create an episode outline by dividing my notes to the relevant segments we decided upon.

With other guests, they tell me the themes they’re interested in via email, we pick a month to record, I suggest texts and they respond with their own texts on a Google doc (again, shared via email), and finally we meet a few days before we record the episode to go over the themes and segments. In both cases – with guests and co-hosts – I usually hurriedly go through my notes just before the planning meeting in order to suggest some themes which struck out to me in our texts. I then share these themes on the shared Google doc so the guests/co-hosts can edit/delete/add specific points they’re interested in exploring.

However, with a few guests, I’ve found that I have slightly misjudged what aspect of their suggested theme they wanted to focus on. Since I pick texts to suggest based on this misapprehension, I might spend a lot of time going through texts and making notes which may not end up being used in the episode. While I nevertheless find even this wasted exercise valuable, it is quite time-consuming and I often have to put other things on the back-burner since I don’t have the time/brainspace to do all the things I’d like to.

If I were to replicate this project in future, I think I’d do things slightly differently.

1) With my co-hosts, as suggested, I’d schedule more time in between the meeting and the recording sessions. While we have tried to record episodes every six weeks or two months, sometimes our plans have been upset by a variety of things. I’m unsure how much I could control our schedules/other events in future. With this season, I was only worried in the beginning; after the initial month or so, I had enough guests scheduled that I didn’t need to worry about not having episodes to publish. For a new season, I’d perhaps only focus on one theme for each episode rather than the two themes we focus on now. We decided to focus on two themes per episode to make my production and analysis more manageable since more participants volunteered than I had anticipated. This would decrease the number of texts we share and will hopefully leave more wiggle room in terms of time needed for other aspects of the episode (including transcription and editing)

2) With guests, it might be useful to have a brief introduction meeting on Skype before we suggest texts. I find video/audio communication much easier for the purposes of this project than back-and-forth emails. I’d use this meeting to talk about the themes they’re interested in exploring and, more importantly, get a better idea of the context and specific aspects of the themes they’d like to talk about. Following this, we can choose the texts based on our meeting, have another brief meeting before the recording to plan the segments and segment orders based on our texts/interests, and finally record the episode. So the time commitment required for potential participants would increase a little bit but we would save time on misunderstandings and explanatory emails.

3) In terms of publishing episodes, I’m happy with the fortnightly schedule I planned. However, this relies on me only having the podcast and related research/reading as my job. In case I wanted to continue doing the podcast as a part of a post-doctoral/funded research project, this wouldn’t be a problem. However, currently, this schedule also relies on episodes being edited by my partner who has a full-time job. Earlier this year, he was in a job where he worked from home and was able to control his hours. However, a couple of months into it, he had to find a new job which involved him working outside of the home where his hours were controlled by the company. This is true even now when we’ve moved up to Scotland and he’s found a new job. While he offered to begin doing the editing to me as a favour, I felt guilty enough but accepted because it meant I saved a lot of time. However, next time, I’d like to either pay him for his editing so he can take on fewer hours at work. Or I’d have to figure out how to edit the episodes myself which I’m sure I can do easily enough but it would mean much more of a time investment. In that case, I may have to be okay with either monthly episodes or not edit out awkward bits, fumbles and pauses from the episode (the most time-consuming aspect of the editing).

Taking all those factors into consideration, having a bank of guests scheduled definitely works and approaching them as early as possible even if we schedule a recording months later is a good idea. For next season, I’d begin the guest recruitment, conversation and scheduling process early as I did this time. Maybe having a ten month schedule again would work well, perhaps even longer. Alternatively, it could be an ongoing process where I could recruit new guests mid-way for the rest of the year. Again, this is assuming there even will be a second season and guests will be happy to go along with my somewhat convoluted process in the name of research. Of course, if I’m just doing a second season for fun and not for research purposes, it’ll be a similar but potentially less time-consuming process.

Some Notes On Episode 13 – 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 12, You Want To See Yourself In That Story: The Impact Of Religion And Regional Origin, we discussed the following texts:

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

There are hints of Partition at the beginning of the episode – an offhanded comment about how the roads aren’t safe. The impacts of Partition and colonisation are still being felt till today. The episode explores different national and regional origin and how it is important in different contexts. Indians and Pakistanis in their home countries may have different relationships/perceptions of each other than in a third country like the UK. 

The episode focuses on Prem and Manish, two Hindu brothers. Hindu-Muslim marriages were and still are considered problematic because of the history of divide and rule the Empire subjected its colonised subjects to. The communal violence we get hints of in the episode, we can see even 70 years later. The characters talk about how arbitrary borders feel when you’ve grown up in one place and have your identity tied to that place only to suddenly be told your religion means you have to move.  I can’t even imagine how it felt for people then in what became India and Pakistan and East Pakistan. Of course, this is still a hugely contentious issue – the arbitrariness of borders and the arrogance of imperial attitudes in Kashmir and the North East of India. Prem blames the British for potential conflict in India – thanks to their slapdash partition over six weeks and thoughtlessness born of ignorance and lack of care.

“Men without a clue are imposing a border like a crack through our country.” – Ambarin

Ambarin who has lived through wars and droughts simply because a country with guns took over a country without them to exploit labour and resources – something that’ can be seen around the world. And it’s something we still feel the impacts of with the line between developed and developing countries. Why are we developing? Who developed and why? And now the oppressed have become the oppressors in the case of India and its attitudes to marginalised groups of people – reflecting ongoing cycles of trauma and abuse.

My quote from the episode notes: God Manish is such an asshole. What combination of things makes people like this? These attitudes aren’t restricted to a particular region either. Fear and hatred of difference of migrants and immigrants is unfortunately a worldwide phenomenon, throughout history. Manish is portrayed as the Hindutva terrorist predecessor, one of whom, of course, killed Gandhi. He declares that Pakistan is for muslims and India for Hindus. These binaries leave no room for nuance and complexity and it means that even now, Muslims are seen to be traitors in India whose loyalties lie with our neighbour. Manish thinks Ambarin and all Muslims no longer belong in India. Tragically, this isn’t even an obsolete attitude. Ordinary households were and are torn apart along lines of religion. Ordinary people whipped into a frenzy of violence – is this any different from what’s happening now? 

Manish kills the Hindu sadhu so that he can’t marry his brother to a Muslim woman, a woman he grew up with. He leads a bunch of Hindutva terrorists to his home to get rid of his Muslim neighbours and to take over the land.

“They’re checking the land for people who don’t belong.” – Manish.

Who decides who belongs? Manish believes Prem and Kunal (his other brother who was killed in the war) fought for religious segregation not integration. This is a bit like how fascists today hark back to glorious military history forgetting the lessons inherent in that history. They pick and choose narrow aspects to focus on without understanding the context of that history. 

Ambarin wanted to start new traditions after independence. She went on to marry a Hindu man she loves officiated by a strange woman she doesn’t know (the Doctor) – so she sort of did. Ambarin also thinks Sheffield sounds like an exotic world in a throwaway line which made me laugh and love how England isn’t centered. Growing up, the England of Enid Blyton and the Britain of Harry Potter did feel like an exotic world to me. 

 

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

Indian history of the Partition isn’t taught even in many parts of the UK – though Britain was directly responsible for the consequences. Forget Partition, even the more brutal parts of the British Empire is erased in history classrooms in the UK. As one of the hosts says, it’s an optional part of some history curricula. This feeds into the narrative of imagined historical glories and ends up with people romanticising the British Empire and its propaganda of bringing civilisation to the savages. 

The episode deals with the idea of history itself – how there is no one single version and it depends on who’s telling the story and the history. Even that is highly subjective since only one group of people decides what is true in mainstream imaginations. What we know about history isn’t necessarily true, not unless you undertake some comprehensive research. 

The Scottish co-host talks about how while the Empire isn’t glorified by the Scottish people, they distance themselves from their role and success in the Empire.  There needs to be nuance in their role both as victims and oppressors. The Scottish themselves were colonised by the English and their language and culture was attempted to be erased. However, they were colonisers as well and benefited hugely from the Empire and the slave trade. Their denial about their role in the British Empire, but enjoying its accompanying benefits of the profits from the resources of the countries they colonised, continues to this day. She also gives a brief history lesson based on her own research of the Partition and the British role in it as well as the role played by the Muslims and Hindus. She discusses the many different stories – those who wanted one state, those who wanted two, violence and disappearance and mass migration, moderates and extremists on both sides, fear of being oppressed by the other side. This issue wouldn’t exist if Britain hadn’t colonised India and directly led to the impoverishment of an old, rich civilisation by “sucking out the wealth like leeches”. Because that’s what colonisation does – it preys on rich countries to steal from them. She also offers a brief history of Indians fighting in World War II – over a million Indians fought to get independence from the British Empire in exchange. 

The hosts acknowledge they’re three white ladies talking about something which didn’t impact them. They went to look for South Asian responses to the episode and also found historical resources. They signpost the documentary: The Day India Burned (+ other Vinay Patel’s research resources). 

Using stories and science fiction and fantasy to raise awareness about real-world history can make these historical events more impactful – especially when it focuses on individual stories which move them beyond mere statistics. 

They mention how Ambarin as an older woman was such a great character – especially since older women of colour are so rare. They talk about how we know the religions of very few Doctor Who companions – or indeed the faith of the Doctor themselves. We know Yaz is Muslim but we don’t know if it’s religiously Muslim or culturally Muslim. For example, I would consider myself an atheist who is culturally Hindu because I grew up in a Hindu family in a Hindu context. There have been very few writers of colour in the history of Doctor Who – Malorie Blackman with Rosa was the first and now there’s Vinay Patel. This seems to have been a very popular episode on both the Doctor Who podcasts I listen to as well as on the internet at large – or at least the responses I encountered. 

The politics of Veteran’s Day in the US/UK – it’s become a thing which harks back to glories of the military past without interrogating the cruelties of this military occupation of different countries around the world. Wearing the poppies has now been linked to aggressive nationalism. This is similar to India currently where the army plays such a outsized role in the idea of patriotism without actually caring about the lives and circumstances of soldiers themselves. 

Different cultural contexts means that people have different priorities and preferences. What is important or not depends on which country you’re in/which part of the country you’re in. This would be great if one didn’t try to impose its way of life/culture/language/whatever on another. Assimilation into the dominant culture versus just having your own culture a part of the dominant culture is something many societies continue to grapple with – something which is going to be even more important as different environmental, economic and political factors drive migration. 

The episode ends with the Scottish co-host asserting that the unsavoury bits of their history – including imperialism and racism – needs to be a part of their history so that people can come to terms with it and make amends for it. Germany does acknowledge the dark part of their history and they’re better off for it. 

 

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

Marcel had to re-title her talk about Harry Potter and the Rise of Fascism to Harry Potter and Social Justice at a fan expo to prevent being mobbed by white supremacists. This reminds me of India where you have you be so careful about your cultural events and talks. Muslim events/Pakistani speakers have been attacked by Hindutva goons; movies like Padmavati have been boycotted and protested.  Fragile Hindu sentiments, despite being the dominant group in the country, are forever ready to be offended. This also affects universities and writers and other parts of arts and culture. 

Marcel likes talking to fan expos because presenting at academic conferences reaches very few people since they’re so sparsely attended whereas fan expos about popular topics like Harry Potter reach a lot of people. This is similar to my podcast/research aim – to make academic ideas and research more accessible to people. Academic conferences are also expensive – you have to pay to attend, often quite a lot of money. Academia makes everything so ridiculously inaccessible! Marcel also likes interacting with non-academics to get out of the academic bubble, a bubble which academics who engage with popular culture often fall into where they end up only talking to each other about theory rather than engage with fans who don’t necessarily articulate the theory but engage in practice of the theory. Fans also have valuable insights to offer which come from multiple experiences, backgrounds and perspectives. Again, this is something my project is trying to explore. Sometimes academics also look in limited places for resources (for example historical archives rather than on a place like Twitter) and miss out on fan communities who are engaging with the text in different ways. For some people, the idea of being a public facing academic is engaging and fun and an important way to reach the communities they are a part of/studying/including in their research. Other academics would rather think of academia as separate from the public. Marcel advices academics who don’t want to engage with the public to not do it but not wear their academic hat on a public platform like Twitter where people may expect academic engagement from them. People are tired of being talked down to by academics, especially academic writing that is verbose and jargon-laden. The host propose that the difference between journalist and public intellectuals is the latter want to think deeply about ideas and complexities and invite feedback and disagreement and other kinds of conversation.

Germany is an example of a society which has come back from totalitarianism – maybe something to be hopeful about the future as so many countries are run by authoritarian leaders. 

The hosts make fun of the link between free speech and democracy – something that is definitely taken over the public discourse in the US and something which is awful in India in terms of the rampant and very mainstream Islamaphobia, classism and casteism. When I was listening to this episode, I couldn’t help but think about the Kent RO advertisement about maidservants which implied they might be responsible for spreading disease in otherwise clean homes + the meme which linked reservation to COVID-19 demanding that the pandemic should target people from OBC-SC-ST backgrounds first – they’re reserved for the disease. 

The talk discusses Harry Potter and the link to rise in white nationalism hate crimes in the US, Canada and the UK. In India, this is Hindutva versus Islam which is the parallels I was mostly drawing on. Harry Potter teaches lessons about fascism, how to be allies and how to fight fascism. A lot of protests and activists from certain backgrounds use the Harry Potter framework by drawing on these themes and characters. Recently in India with the anti-Citizenship Amendment Bill, there was a post drawing parallels between the Muggle-Born Registration Commission and the CAA.

The talk covers four points – what fascism looks like, how it uses existing systems of power – media and democracy, how to be an ally, how to fight back. The Potterverse uses allegories to fascism – rise of Voldemort, a fascist dictator. This is much more apparent in the Fantastic Beasts films with Grindelwald which made me think of parallels with Modi. I think Modi and the BJP are much more of a fascist government than the situation in the US and the UK; the latter two might be heading there – definitely the US with its response to the Black Lives Matter protests – but we’re already there. The political resisters in HP are called Undesirables – like anti-nationals in India. 

Once Voldemort rises, Diagon Alley is a wasteland, shopkeepers and anybody else who seems to have sympathies with the resistance are disappeared or forced to work for Voldemort – like the students being arrested in India for protesting CAA or the doctor who was sent to a mental hospital for challenging the government on the lack of its COVID-19 prep. Preparing for this episode is making me much more depressed than I would have imagined. 

The education system is also used to prop up fascism – Hogwarts attendance is mandatory and half-blood students are segregated – like what BJP does with its shakhas and how it’s rewriting history books in schools as well as in the architecture of the country – renaming roads, building statues, pushing a narrative of the Mughals (but doesn’t really seem to have a problem with the Empire which was much worse for India?). Muslim and Dalit students are targeted. 

Role of media where The Daily Prophet presents Ministry approved messages without any critical thinking or any criticism – again, what we see happening in media today in India where Islamophobia and propaganda and outright lies are pushed. Media is supposed to hold the media to account and question and challenge their claims. I think citizens also need to do this. But now in India, the mere questioning of anything the government does is tarnished as anti-national and unworthy of existence – what happened in Kashmir, what happened in Delhi – propaganda against Muslims. 

Death Eaters believe in blood purity and consider some witches and wizards better than others; Muggles, Muggle-borns and other magical people (OMP – a term I first heard on The Gayly Prophet) aren’t even seen as human. How is this different from Hindutva terrorists? 

How fascism intersects with gender-based violence – in the books, Bertha Jorkins, Mrs Roberts in Goblet of Fire are targets. Similar in India where Muslim or “anti-national” women who dare question male authority often bear the brunt of the anger. Since Muggles are used as a metaphor for race, the series doesn’t explore the intersection with racialised violence which is where Hermione being racebent can offer more nuanced insights. 

Marcel points out that the Ministry of magic under Fudge isn’t that different from the Ministry of Magic under Voldemort – just less extreme and less overtly bigoted. This is similar to Congress in India. There is no coherent sense of justice and utter lack of human rights considerations when it comes to imprisonment and torture by Dementors (Sirius – POA, Hagrid – COS, Harry – OOTP) + the treatment of Other Magical People like goblins, house elves, centaurs, giants and werewolves. 

Voldemort does use violence and intimidation but he is also very easily able to raise an army to take over the Ministry – just like Grindelwald is able to raise an army in France to fight the Muggles. It’s similar to those Hindus in India who have always had latent Islamophobia but are now much more comfortable voicing this and benefiting from this system. The Weasleys benefit from their pureblood status too – similar to Hindu resisters now (a person beaten up recently who was then told by the mob that they thought he was Muslim). Existing systems of power are designed to privilege a certain group of people already; this is taken advantage of by fascist dictators – Fudge led to Voldemort. 

Since we read the books from Harry’s point of view, we like to think we would do what he did and stand up to fascism. But this isn’t always as easy in real life. Acknowledging your privilege and using this to protect the marginalised people to even begin being an ally is difficult. The Weasleys are good allies. Ron grows up in a wizard supremacist society and internalises some of these ideas (about werewolves, goblins, house elves) but then grows to unlearn some of these problematic ideas thanks to his friendships and his growing awareness of the injustice of the magical world and the existing systems of oppression. Hermione, on the other hand, protects the vulnerable such as Lupin’s werewolf secret and house elves with SPEW because as an oppressed outsider to this system, she recognises others who are also marginalised just as she is – solidarity amongst differently marginalised people.

Different skills to resist – knit (as Hermione does), making protest signs, cooking (Shaheen Bagh) – working together with different skills and abilities and bringing them all together in the resistance movement. In India, different ways of doing this including the kidlit community. 

Alternative media like The Quibbler and Potterwatch raise awareness and resist facism – we see this with Indian media like Scroll, The Wire, The News Minute as well as social media documentation and amplification of news.

Intersections of race (or caste in an Indian context), religion, class, regional/national origin (migrant crisis during COVID-19 – people abroad had a much easier time travelling back home to India than labourers back to their villages – and the former were treated with more compassion and dignity).

The nonsensical first audience question which Marcel shut down asked about a rise in hate crime hoaxes! The All Lives Matter to a Black Lives Matter conversation! UGH whataboutery. 

Another audience question was what makes the wizarding world vulnerable to fascism? Just like our world, society seems to be very invested in protecting some forms of power – white people, wizards/witches, blood purity, upper caste Hindus. “An insistence that difference is bad and not something to be celebrated.” The fear of difference being a part of the structural framework of the society  leading to lack of respect and equality for everyone.

The hosts talk about how vulnerable but important it is to share anti-bigoted and inclusive things on social media networks like Facebook where you have people who you don’t know very well and may not share your political opinion. I think it’s easy to make fun of “armchair activism” but I think this sort of conversation is also important – to share things which are important and to hopefully introduce people to new ways of thinking beyond their echo chamber. At the same time, I’m guilty of just deleting people who are super bigoted and I find it really difficult to call people out on their nonsense because I become very emotional about it.

 

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]

(I’ve already used this episode as a text for Episode 3, so I’m supplementing the notes I made then with these new ones. For the old notes, click here.)

During the pandemic quarantine, it was difficult to find in-person community beyond your own household. Then, more than ever, I understood the need for finding communities in different contexts – religion and beyond. In India, this community has recently shown itself through all those people with privilege coming together in different ways to look after the most vulnerable people in the country – migrant labourers, neighbours who didn’t have access to things like food or medicines etc. In the UK too, community groups were looking after vulnerable people in their neighbourhoods. Of course, it’s not always good. Situations like this can also lead to selfishness and panic and fear and hatred – which it did do too. But, as an eternal optimist, I like to think about the positives. 

It’s difficult to be vulnerable about your emotions and feelings with people and easier to just sit with these feelings by yourself. But going beyond that initial mental block is so important. I’m especially thinking of it in terms of the mental health impact of the quarantine and how it has affected people differently. I became socially disconnected from everyone for a few weeks until a couple of my friends checked up on me aggressively and it broke that mental block and respond to them. However, even now, I still feel the effects of my pandemic brain going into self-isolation thanks to anxiety and depression which didn’t manifest in quite this way earlier. As the Reverend says, it’s sometimes easier to be by yourself especially when you don’t have the energy to socialise because of stress or anxiety or whatever. But talking to people is so valuable.

People use art and stories to make sense of the world. Communities come together to treat a text as sacred in different ways and contexts – as they do with Harry Potter. I like the idea of community where you take some time to be together with someone else for some time a week/month just as a form of practising love. Travelling, reading and making this podcast are ways for me to do this to a degree. 

 

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

(I’ve already used this episode as a text for Episode 3, so I’m supplementing the notes I made then with these new ones. For the old notes, click here.)

Like Casper, I also had a negative opinion of tradition, because it has been used to exclude and commit physical/psychological/structural violence against marginalised groups of people. I think a balance between old traditions and new traditions is so necessary all over the world, especially in India – to challenge bigoted and misogynist ideas.

A lot of religious texts were written thousands of years ago and reflected the values then. How can these be reoriented to reflect values now? It’s the same with fictional canon. It features the limited perspective of just one creator with the associated blind-spots. Tradition can be seen as flexible and dynamic through retellings which highlight contemporary values and the acknowledgement that these texts are always available to be changed. You can do this through academia as well as art and stories and culture. 

Traditions of marriage – who can get married and how – have evolved. However, some people still cling to one version of tradition and resist change – not just gay and inter-racial marriages, but in India inter-religious, inter-caste, inter-class too. In many parts of the country, people are killed for marrying the wrong kind of person for the sake of so-called honour under the dubious title “honour killings”. 

A lot of the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text listeners aren’t religious but use religious practices suggested by the podcast to treat Harry Potter as a sacred text and to more deeply connect with the themes, characters and books + draw parallels to their own lives and societies. 

Depending on which part of the world/country you’re in, different religions are dominant and different ones are marginalised – how do you negotiate with that while being inclusive? How do I love the world better? Religion is just one context through which to practise this – stories are such an important way to do this and religious texts can recognise this.

 

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

(I’ve already used this episode as a text for Episode 3, so I’m supplementing the notes I made then with these new ones. For the old notes, click here.)

I like this idea of people speaking back to the text – especially when the text/its creator have a sense of power – both religious or cultural texts, especially when it is done by those who otherwise don’t have a voice. In India, I wonder if plays and skits serve this function with things like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata where people in towns and villages – big and small – create their own versions of the stories by using the familiar story skeleton but adding their own themes and priorities. 

 

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

Johnnie Jae is a guest from an indigenous background who engages with a lot of popular culture and its intersection with native American tribes and runs the website A Tribe Called GeekThe hosts invited Johnnie to talk about the Magic in North America series on Pottermore because they wanted to highlight a voice which was actually impacted by it. 

Native people are rarely included. When they are included, it’s usually through problematic representations rife with stereotypes. For this reason, Johnnie was a bit wary of the articles at the outset but had faith in J. K. Rowling whose books address prejudice and activism. She was disappointed by how even there they are always portrayed as primitive people perpetuating false ideas of the culture. There is no monolithic Native Americal culture – there are diverse tribes with their own unique cultures, languages, histories. But media pushes just a singular narrative of Native Americans which reflected in Rowling’s representation. 

One of the stereotypes is that Native Americans are mystical, magical people who don’t actually exist in contemporary USA. Their culture isn’t fantasy but is often represented as such. Other people of colour face similar problems in a white supremacist colonised society. Native cultures are frequently exoticised and treated like they’re museum exhibits rather than living people.

Media exposes people to a certain stereotypical idea of Native Americans without including the nuances and complexities of the culture – shows lack of research and respect. 

In Anne With An E, the Christian missionaries tried to brutally assimilate Native children like Ka’kwet into the Christian norm – a piece of Canadian history where they were stolen from their families and sent to residential schools similar to the Aboriginals in Australia. Her language, name, hair, clothes – all aspects of her culture was stripped away from her and her very identity was taken. The idea that Natives needed to be civilised – Anne With An E, I think, did a good job of educating people about the history and also positioned Anne and Gilbert as trying to learn about the culture, its practices, its medicine without being judgemental about it and treating it with dignity and respect, counter to the others in their community. 

Killing native people wasn’t considered wrong – people were paid to do it. There was no sense of justice for them. Children being stolen to be sent into boarding schools/adopted by white people was their version of “the Native problem” being solved. 

I couldn’t help but draw parallels with Indian tribal and rural cultures. Their ways of knowledge and medicine and culture are dismissed and their connection with the land is ignored. They aren’t considered as equal citizens, especially when compared to the wealthier, urban people. The Indian government acts as a colonial force. The commodification and appropriation of tribal cultures – it’s the same with Indian artisans as well. Urban upper-class shops and artists will mark up these products and sell them without having this money go back to the people who made them. Some people are working against this, of course. The financial impact on artisans is great when these products are produced cheaply by others which means the artisans can’t make a living off their work and the time and effort they put into it isn’t recognised. 

Writers from indingeous communities writing their own stories is important since these stories are missing in mainstream media. Learning through marginalised experiences when something like Rowling’s articles come to light is also important. It is a valuable source of education though it is harmful for these groups to always have to engage with these ideas which are so dismissive of them. 

 

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

The perils of being erased from history can be witnessed through Hela and the damage she wreaks. It’s a bit similar to being falsely represented in history and the impact this misrepresentation has now. Hela’s existence is erased, Loki’s heritage is hidden – both cause damage in different ways because of their true stories being replaced by false narratives. Meanwhile, Odin perpetuates the story of his benevolence. There’s also the intersections of gender and power when it comes to Hela. Who is allowed to wield power? Whose stories are written out of history? Whose power is bound up so it can’t be used? 

Along with Hela, this deliberately constructed history (as much of history is – deliberately constructed, that is) destroys the Valkyries too. There is no female power in the kingdom of Asgard. It’s similar to history of female participation, agitation, resistance, leadership, warriors  being wiped out especially when it comes to women from colonised cultures.

This is a real tactic that powerful countries and peoples employ in an effort to ignore their own participation in subjugation, colonialism, and systems of privilege. History books get rewritten so that events are more palatable. Stories are told to highlight the kindness and inherent rightness of the victors. Holidays are created for people who did abominable things. Resources are mined and historical artifacts are stolen away at night… and those things are never returned or paid for in kind. As Hela says to Thor, standing in the Asgardian throne room—“Where do you think all this gold came from?”

People coming together to fight a fascist/dictatorial/colonial power in the movie is very relevant to current times. The Asgardians become refugees – similar to Aang becoming a refugee in Avatar: The Last Airbender as well as the Doctor as the last Time Lord. This is complicated by the fact that the Doctor is also a stand-in for British imperialism so he’s both victim and beneficiary. People and countries are destroyed on the whims of a ruler/the powerful few and systems of power always oppress huge groups of people. 

Their fear of being toppled from their seat of power means that the other realms are relatively at their mercy when it comes to aid and peacekeeping (aside from Earth, which Asgard seems to have decided to leave alone after driving out the Frost Giants, probably because of its perceived primitiveness). This is also a tactic used by powerful groups in order to maintain their positions of privilege—when empires abandon their colonies, many of these places suffer economic collapse and upheaval, and Asgard’s withdrawal results in much of the same.

Control over terminology is key for people who want to maintain power. It’s part of the reason that no one wants to be labeled as “Nazis” or “fascists” even when their group ideology is directly influenced by Nazi or fascist beliefs—no one wants the bad PR. The Grandmaster can still be a good guy, even if he keeps slaves to fight in an arena for the sake of distracting the masses with entertainment… just as long as he doesn’t call those poor souls “slaves.”

Not just the extremists but also movements like BlackLivesMatter which is being co-opted into All Lives Matter – people who don’t think themselves as racist but who benefit from their privilege and use this to oppress others – Amy Cooper calling cops against a black man for being filmed in the park breaking the rules 

It is hardly surprising that Taika Waititi has pulled all of these threads together to finally give better context to the cost of Asgard’s rule, and the power wielded by many across Marvel’s galaxy. The Maori director, who carefully wove in references to make certain that aboriginal culture was reflected in the film, who made certain that it was shot in Australia and that Indigenous Australians and New Zealanders were hired for the production, has a direct understanding of how imperialism affects the people who are absorbed by or suffer beneath it. Ragnarok is not interested in maintaining the story sold in Thor, that Asgard is a gleaming beacon of culture and advancement led by fair-minded noble aliens who only interfere when their might is helpful to others. Asgard was built on the bones of the people it slaughtered, and no amount of paint can cover that up.

Colonialism has impacted different countries in different ways but still continues to benefit the colonisers – even when their countries are in flames. This actively needs to be dismantled through different aspects of life – culture, economy, society, politics – the stories we tell ourselves shape our lives. The American empire treats war as a capitalist enterprise by looking for oil and resources in different countries and finding ways to destabalise these countries so that it can profit. This is supplemented by American cultural imperialism with food, movies, etc. taking over different countries all over the world. The idea of American freedom and democracy doesn’t hold up when you look at its own borders. When it comes to refugees and the climate crisis, many parts of the world have already been impacted by this and have been left to fend for themselves. People either flee or are subject to conflict in their home countries born out of lack of options. Which refugees matter and where? In India, only Hindu refugees currently seem to matter.

 

9) Fan podcast – Our Opinions Are Correct: What’s the matter with Star Wars? (listen from 32 minutes 29 seconds to 37ish minutes)

This articulates the thoughts I had while listening to the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text excerpts. As an atheist, I use fandom and stories to draw parallels with religion, though I do wish there was an in-person fan community I could be a part of. Or even just a community built on shared interests because that’s the part of religion I am most attracted by. Not just congregating to pray or discuss the text but also other little offshoots built on your interactions and relationships with each other – where you meet people you wouldn’t otherwise have encountered from diverse backgrounds. It reminds me of the Love and Monsters episode of Doctor Who where the group meets to discuss the mystery of the Doctor but ends up forming strong bonds of friendship and community (until *spoiler alert* they’re all subsumed by the alien, of course).

Sharing Episode Resources on Social Media

Before we record each episode, my participants and I usually share a varying number of fan (and other kind of) texts with each other. These texts include podcast episodes, essays, videos, comics etc. They act as discussion prompts and inspire conversations and ideas where we draw on our own experiences and backgrounds as we chat about the theme of the episode. Depending on the episode, we either reference these texts in our conversation or just base our chat on the themes we’ve picked up from these texts. Right since the first episode, though, I’ve been documenting these texts at the top of the episode transcripts on the blog. This is largely to encourage any interested listeners to discover these texts and creators and follow up on them.

However, I wasn’t sure how many people were reading the transcript rather than/along with listening to the audio. I also wanted to highlight and signpost these texts more clearly because they’re so full of excellent ideas and explorations. From Episode 6 onwards – sometime in April –  I started individually sharing all the text resources we’d used for each episode with two/three-sentence summaries on the Marginally Fannish Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter pages. This meant a lot more work for me because as easy as it sounds, it’s still pretty time and brainspace consuming – especially with episodes which had a lot of texts (in fits of enthusiasm, I tend to over-prepare a lot). But I liked that I was able to share these texts and tag the accounts of the podcasts when relevant and possible to encourage people to visit these pages and discover new fan podcasts to listen to.

Gif of Betty White, an older white woman. Text says: I'm also on Facebook and the Twitter

(and don’t forget the Instagram!)

Now the thing is, none of my project social media pages have a huge following. I haven’t really spent any time strategising on maximising the audience or reach because I simply haven’t had the time and hadn’t incorporated that into my methodology at all. Even though my initial research methodology envisioned receiving audience feedback and critiques which I could then incorporate into my project/thinking, I’ve had to let go of that idea because it hasn’t been happening. There have been a few instances where people have shared an episode or tagged me to recommend the podcast to others, I think most people who listen to the podcast are people I know. Some of my friends do message me about a particular episode – what they liked and what it made them think of – and these have been brilliant. But I realised I couldn’t expect potential listeners to behave in ways I myself don’t. As I mentioned to my supervisors, even though some podcasts have managed to build active communities who either send in voicemails or messages on social media, I don’t really reach out to podcasts; any thoughts I have remain in my head/go in my project notes. For me, listening to podcasts is quite a solitary experience – except for those moments when I’m listening to it play aloud in the same room that Jack is in and he’ll contribute his own observations and perspectives. Getting back to the point I started to make at the beginning of this paragraph, while I was sharing these resources online, it was just as a way to reach as many people as possible – which, given the numbers, wasn’t that many. I could have shared these resources on my personal social media networks which are significantly larger (though, by now means, large). But I was wary of spamming people who hadn’t signed up for podcast updates.

Anyway, I continued sharing these resources to what I thought was the void in hopes that even if it reached one or two people, it would be a good way to recommend some really interesting texts. Facebook sharing is a bit scattered because there’s no way to link the texts together so they are all umbrellaed under the same episode (or if there is a way, I haven’t discovered it). On Twitter, I just add the texts to a thread which begins with sharing the announcement that the particular episode is up so there’s a more contextual connection. On Instagram, they have a really handy Highlights feature so I create individual episode highlights and add all the text resources there by first adding them to my stories. I’ve been tagging all the podcasts I have permission to include in my research. I haven’t been tagging podcasts/essay publication websites where I haven’t contacted the hosts so that I don’t draw potentially unwanted attention to them. Obviously, this is complicated by the fact that I am sharing a specific episode or essay – so maybe it’s a matter of just not wanting to draw attention to my small corner of the internet? I don’t know.

Some podcasts started sharing my Instagram stories on their stories whenever I tagged them. On Twitter and Facebook, some podcasts liked the posts. On Twitter, liking often brings posts on your timeline so even people who don’t follow the account might see the specific liked post on their timelines too. I was more than happy about the sharing because I hoped it’d remind their followers about episodes they may not have listened to – especially with the brief summaries which focused on specific portions of the episode. But then, a few weeks ago, these shares led to some new followers for my own profiles – something I hadn’t really anticipated – though I have no idea why I didn’t. As a result of which my podcast audience, though still very small, has reached people beyond my own personal network/my guests and their network. Which is an excellent unanticipated consequence as these things ago – especially considering I’d largely been preparing for trolling given that we’re talking about intersectionality and fandom online. I haven’t done proper calculations about how many times each episode has been listened to – which would involve collating both SoundCloud and Anchor data – but on Anchor (which distributes it to apps like Spotify and Apple), the podcast as a whole has been listened to more than 600 times. The number may not be huge in terms of podcasts but I’m happy it’s more than how many people some journal articles reach – especially considering that presumably, most people who are listening to the podcast aren’t professional academics (though some are). Which was the whole point of my project – reaching people beyond primarily academic audiences.

Some Notes On Episode 12 – 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 12, The International Imagination: Exploring World Politics in the Fantastic Beasts Films, we discussed the following texts:

1) Movie – Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them 

Newt really can be read as neurodiverse. He doesn’t make eye contact, is super empathetic, has a strong connection with animals, says that he annoys people. 

A group called the new Salemers army, led by Mary Lou, is trying to find and persecute witches. Does this have a religious context? Is it a Christian group? There is some historical precedent with Wicca being antithetical to both the dominant religion and to patriarchy. There’s no religious mention in the movie. Instead it seems to have a creepy cult-like atmosphere where she is trying to recruit children to her cause, Credence among them. Grindelwald uses a twisted version of this argument – about non-magical people persecuting magical people – to justify his bigotry I guess.

Newt’s fantastic beasts contribute to this problem of potential Muggle persecution when they’re accidentally set loose in New York and wreak havoc. 

Newt wants to oblivate Jacob because he’s seen his magic. The magical world seems to have really questionable ethics when it comes to memory wiping Muggles. 

Goblins only seem to appear in service roles – wand polishing, elevator operator. At one point, there’s a house-elf bartender Is wizard supremacy a thing in the US as well? Are there any non-human creatures in government? The only goblin they interact with seems to be a corrupt mafia boss kind of who sells them out after taking payment.

President of the American Muggles is a black woman which seems a bit odd considering the politics of 1920s USA. Why don’t black witches and wizards try to help black Muggles? Surely they descend from common ancestors and must have a semblance of racial solidarity in the face of persecution – which the Muggles are not half as equipped to deal with as the magical folks. Relatedly, the magical folk seem terrified of exposure and Muggle attacks. Aren’t they more powerful though? 

Apparently they have really backward laws against interactions between No-Majs and witches/wizards in the US where magical folks can’t befriend or marry non-magical ones. Is this born out of fear? Or hatred? Or a combination of both? Is it to protect the No-Majs in case of a war? Unclear. 

Queenie uses her femininity to get what she wants – assisted by her ability to read minds. Lorrie pointed out that this ability almost acts as a disability since she can’t control it. 

The relationship between Credence and Grindelwald definitely reads as queer with magic as metaphor for gayness. Mary Lou beats all the kids she’s adopted but seems to hate Credence the most – beating the magic and/or queerness out of him? 

 

2) Movie – The Crimes of Grindelwald

Grindelwald seems to be just a symptom of wizard supremacy. Many people in the magical community seem to be happy to be facists and rule both the Muggle and the magical world. Much like real-world fascists, Grindelwald recognises the importance of couching true intentions in carefully-disguised language: “We don’t say such things out loud. We only want freedom to be ourselves. For the greater good.” I suppose he was able to convince Dumbledore with much the same ideas. Grindelwald seems just as terrible and powerful as Voldemort. Fascists don’t seem to be able to stop rising in fictional or real worlds! 

Dumbledore warns the minister of magic that his policies of suppression and violence are pushing supporters into Grindelwald’s arms. I’m sure there’s some truth to that but aren’t there more complex reasons to the hatred and bigotry? Surely, it’s been around for much longer than the minister or Grindelwald – though I suppose Grindelwald uses history to manipulate the present and control the future. 

Queenie uses a love spell on Jacob – more questionable choices that magical folks make when it comes to non-magical folks. Jacob is understandably upset when Newt lifts the spell. Her reason for the spell is she wants to get married to him – illegal according to her government’s laws – while he’s looking out for her safety. Love spells and potions seems to be something women resort to in Rowing’s world – there was a student who tried using it on Harry in Half-Blood Prince, and of course, Merope whose actions resulted in Voldemort. Is that supposed to be a woman’s way of enacting violence? Or a really disturbing concept of love? 

Grindelwald manipulates Queenie into joining him by preying on her hopes and fears. I’ve heard the theory that she’s just doing it as a double agent but she may also have been tempted into joining. Not all who join the dark side are evil so it’s nice that they have alternate motivations, just like in real life. 

I love this cross-cultural friendship between Newt and Jacob. I haven’t made up my mind about Jacob’s cross-cultural relationship with Queenie – I suppose it’s showing the difficulties of this – it’s not all roses and rainbows. 

 

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

In the essay, Lorrie mentions how Rowling’s canon is more heteronormative than even the most consevrative estimates of queer people who exist in the real world. 

She made headlines ten years ago with her unplanned announcement that Dumbledore is gay.  On the one hand, the way Rowling got hundreds of millions of people worldwide to love the humanity of a fictional character and then identified him as gay, as just one more aspect of his personhood, is exactly how to combat homophobia and reduce prejudice.  On the other hand, when you identify your one gay character casually, in an author appearance and not your official text, making it clear that you created gay characters but chose to keep that information off the page, that is a textbook case of marginalization rather than representation.

Fans, of course, don’t let this failure of imagination stop them. They not only queer the series and its characters but also accept these headcanons as accurate. 

While Lorrie loves Fantastic Beasts, that doesn’t mean she’s unable to critique to problematic aspects of it – for example, the representations of blackness in 1920s USA as well as the queer-coding of characters. Grindelwald manipulates Credence which has undertones of using his queerness. The Harry Potter series has had anti-gay comments within canon as well. 

“The secret meetings with Graves, the repressive abuse from the parent — these images and emotions are evocative of experience with homophobia.  The film uses gay people’s experience to create a metaphor and draw emotional impact from those associations.  To me, it feels oddly outdated and possibly misleading for Fantastic Beasts to centralize this dynamic so heavily without grounding it in context by naming gayness and showing matter-of-fact gay characters.”

Lorrie is impatient with the inclusion of queer-coded characters rather than just name them as explicitly gay – an impatience I share. It shouldn’t always be upto fans to imagine themselves into canon. It’s something fans have been doing out of a need to see their stories in media but media should also make room for these stories within canon. 

 

4) Essay – Notes on Claudia Kim’s Nagini

Lorrie’s tweet when she found out Claudia Kim was cast to play Nagini:

A Korean woman in Potterverse! *instant identification*

Neville killed me, oh noes

“milk Nagini” GROSSSSSS

Impersonating Bathilda Bagshot’s corpse? That was a lot to ask of a snake!

Ugh, I had to eat Charity Burbage

OH MY GOD I ATE SNAPE

The backlash against Nagini’s storyline and casting felt unintentionally racist to Lorrie, even when it came from those who considered themselves as allies. I was really curious to know more about this from Lorrie’s perspective and was so glad we chatted about this in our episode. As someone who is Indian, I wouldn’t want to impinge my beliefs and opinions on someone from the community who finds something racist – but I’ve been at a position when someone calls a white tourist wearing Indian clothes as cultural appropriation and I disagree with this stance. At the same time, I also realise that I’ve grown up in India so my cultural privileges as someone from the dominant culture there may be different from an Indian-American or a British-Indian’s experiences as someone from a marginalised culture. I find Lorrie’s response to the backlash against Nagini’s casting intriguing – she lists all the other characters who were used and abused by Voldemort, the other tragedies in canon – and interprets the discomfort with Nagini’s role as fans preferring not to see a Korean character in the movie at all so they don’t have to deal with their images of subjugated Asian women. 

Here is what I really hear:

This role should have gone to a white woman for the comfort of viewers who are uneasy with the images in their own heads of Asian women.

What I hear is:  People were happier when there was no Korean woman in Potterverse.  They don’t want us if it makes them feel uncomfortable.

Lorrie also points out that the life and story of a Korean woman in 1920s USA would have historically not been rosy – does that mean these stories don’t matter and shouldn’t be included? 

On Nagini’s deleted scenes: 

I hope more people take a minute to see more of the character Claudia Kim created.  I liked Nagini in the movie, but I loved her in her two beautiful deleted scenes with Ezra Miller.  They’re on the DVD extras — meaning the fullness of her character felt relegated to the margins.  They’re clearly lovers in those scenes.  In one, she encourages him to release his Obscurus peacefully and proves that it can pass through her without harm.  In the other, he sees the skin on her hand turning scaly and he kisses it.  They’re about the core of this Fantastic Beasts story.

I love that Lorrie has offered such a different perspective to the one I otherwise encountered which unfairly influenced my thinking about the Fantastic Beasts movies in general and Nagini in particular. To me, Nagini was just another character in a movie I quite enjoyed – but Lorrie’s analysis and commentary really expands the scope of both Nagini and the movie at large. While I credit fandom with a whole lot including opening my mind up to different possibilities I never considered, fandom discourse may also lead to a closed mind in some contexts – as in this case – and it is something I’m going to be try and be more aware of. 

For its many flaws, Fantastic Beasts is an international story about the oppressions that led to World War II.  The two films we’ve seen so far have been about the stories that those places don’t want to acknowledge:  witch hunts and politicized capital punishment in the U.S., racism and colonialism in France.  I can understand not trusting Rowling and Warner Brothers to tell the story of Korean women during that time.  However.

It is a destructive trap to hold that it’s somehow wrong or improper to tell in public the stories of Korean women who endured slavery and trafficking in the first half of the 20th century.  We’re not the only ones that happened to – not even in this movie series – and the survivors and their younger generations continue to pay the cost, like a blood curse.  Shame and silence only lead to more damage, with the greatest burden on the people who have suffered most already.  This is part of the global story that Fantastic Beasts is telling about then and about now.

 

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

In the beginning of the episode, they promote a fundraiser for refugees by drawing parallels to Petunia’s lack of empathy and generosity when given the responsibility of bringing up a child left on her doorstep and how people in the US should be better, despite the hostile border and immigration environment. They believe that the people in the US are currently failing just as much as Petunia did. I loved this example of cultural acupuncture – using popular culture texts to draw parallels to real-world events. 

This episode kicked off a mini-series started in response to a fan’s critique of the Yule Ball episode where Parvati and Padma Patil are disposable but something the hosts didn’t discuss because, as they admit, as white hosts, it’s something they didn’t notice. The mini-series attempts to focus on women of colour to make up for the hosts’ blind-spots born of their whiteness. Even in well-intentioned spaces, people can replicate systemic injustices. For example, in the podcast which tries including multiple perspectives, they still unintentionally reify these systems. 

The episode features Bayana from the podcast #WizardTeam and she offers a black fan’s interpretation of Angelina Johnson, a black character in the books. They discuss her roadblocks as a Quidditch captain by both Umbridge as well as Harry. In a Sacred Text episode, they pointed out the gendered difference between Wood’s training style being accepted by the Gryffindor team but Angelina’s being criticised for making them practise in bad weather. Bayana proposes that since Angelina is also friends with the Weasley twins, it reflects her playfulness and sense of fun. 

Both Robyn and Bayana think about Angelina’s hair and the way in which she wears braids all the time. They talk about how, as black fans, they know that people can’t wear their hair in braids all the time because of the tension and stretch and attributes this aspect to Rowling’s ignorance born out of her whiteness and lack of knowledge about black haircare. However, they soon began to consider that since Angelina has magic, she uses a magical haircare routine, shares it with her friends, and they eventually headcanon her into having a haircare business post-Hogwarts. As someone whose hair takes a long time to do up and manage, Bayana likes to think about a magical fix for it. The politics of hair also comes across when Pansy says Angelina looks like she has snakes coming out of her hair – an overtly racist thing to say. Angelina could choose to “pass” with her hair by straightening it and making it resemble white hair, but she chooses not to. Another headcanon is that Angelina’s parents made sure to educate her about her hair and establish a sense of pride. 

Racism in the series is otherwise explored through metaphors with house elves, werewolves and giants. In the case of Pansy’s comment, it is a rare example of explicit racism rather than metaphorical racism – which doesn’t have any impact in the scene and is just passed as an offhanded insult. The hosts make a connection between Hermione’s hair and white privilege where she makes it sleek for the Yule Ball but she’s able to leave her hair bushy otherwise. Bayana interprets Hermione as black, Vanessa interprets her as Jewish. Bayana talks about her own experiences with hair and sometimes just being tired of spending time on her hair and leaving it as is and how society perpetuates this idea of acceptability.

Vanessa can’t believe that Rowling pretends she intended to have Hermione as black all along. Bayana didn’t initially read Hermione as black because she assumed whiteness unless explicitly mentioned. This is similar to my own experience with my colonised mindset and absence of characters who looked like me in the books I read. What black HP fans did in the fandom when they racebent Hermione influenced her mind and made her connect with Hermione even more than she did as a kid. There are parallels between Hermione’s Muggleborn experiences in the magical world and a black woman’s experiences in a white supremacist society. Black Hermione and her founding of S.P.E.W. would make even more sense because she’s able to recognise oppressive structures in the wizarding world and her realisation that she is at the bottom; thereby recognising Dobby and house-elves’ oppression. Their criticism is that Rowling didn’t take it as seriously as she should have, Hermione wasn’t always a good ally but this wasn’t critiqued in the series. her activism was largely mocked. Additionally, she didn’t listen to what the house elves wanted in an example of white feminism. Hermione’s organising efforts in S.P.E.W differ from her efforts in Dumbledore’s Army where the latter i.e. Umbridge’s reign and a corrupt government directly affects her. Can that explain why she was more careful at ensuring the latter’s success? 

Bayana likes imagining how Angelina and black Hermione would interact with each other as two black women in Gryffindor. How would being a witch of colour impact a person’s life? It’s not something that’s addressed in the series. They think the witches and wizards in England profited off the slave trade and colonisation – where did the Malfoy wealth come from, for example?

 

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

Proma identified with the Pail twins. Her viral tweet about how to pronounce Parvati and Padma’s names – to correct how Americans and British people have been saying it – took her fifteen years as a Harry Potter fan to be able to challenge this popular, incorrect pronunciation – an instance of fans of colour giving way to the white, Western-centric nature of fandom? Based on the history, the twins were most likely first or second generation immigrants and their names would be pronounced in the Indian way, only Anglicised outside the home. People in the West do learn to pronounce difficult Western names – it’s a matter of exposure and practice. As someone points out, if you can learn to say Daenerys Targareyn, you can learn how to pronounce an Indian name. 

You only see Parvati through Harry or Hermione’s eyes. She’s not really a character who comes into her own. What we mostly know about her is that she likes to gossip and likes Divination. Proma recommends Hermione and the Quarter Life Crisis, a web-series whose creator thinks Parvati and Lavender should be respected for doing what they love and not dismissed for their likes – the dismissal reflects gendered criticism of their interests. Hermione rejects traditionally feminine things, this doesn’t make feminine things bad – feminism has room for all women and we shouldn’t throw practices which don’t mirror our own under the bus. 

Proma also briefly talks about Bollywood, which needs different kinds of critique since everyone is India is of the same race which is why class, caste, religion and other identities come into play. In the West, representation used to be about visibility which is why these superficial or stereotypical representations weren’t initially critiqued. Now, there are more calls for nuanced representations rather than just mere visibility. 

Proma didn’t dislike the twins’ representation in the books because she didn’t expect the Indian girls to go on adventures. Maybe they could have been happening in the side unbeknownst to Harry? Surely there’s fanfiction out there. She does mention Parvati and Padma’s terrible Yule Ball outfits in the movie and how offensive she finds it – something which I and a lot of Indian fans agree with! In the podcast, a listener called in to critique their lack of discussion about the way in which the twins were tokenised and dismissed in the Yule Ball. They also needed to have more separate identities. Particularly in the movies, they’re conflated and have no real personality whereas in the books, they’re considered cool and pretty and popular who know their worth. When they don;t get attention from their dates, they go find other boys to hang out with. 

Proma also mentions how she wore Indian clothes at a convention by drawing from her own lived experience and wearing Indian formal wear, but people thought it was a costume and thought she and her friend were cosplaying as Parvati and Padma. This reminds her of how she’s upset about Halloween costumes which use cultural clothing –  culture not costume as she says. This may also reflect the fact that many of the convention people’s only experience of Indian clothes might be through the Harry Potter movies. As Arianna points out, people need to expand their ideas of the correct clothes – gender clothing and cultural clothing. 

Parvati wears her bangles and Indian outfit to the Yule Ball which shows she’s comfortable in her own identity and isn’t afraid of bringing attention to herself or to call out behaviour she doesn’t agree with (for example, when Malfoy bullies Neville in The Philosopher’s Stone). Proma loves the fact that Parvati and Padma were one of the first to join Dumbledore’s Army even though their parents want to and eventually do take them out of school Parvati is not afraid to ask questions. Proma thinks Harry would have benefited from being friends with his entire class rather than just Ron and Hermione. Parvati is curious, justice-oriented and good at her school work. She was his first-ever date but he has no real thought of her. Harry’s two dates before Ginny were women of colour, as Proma points out in delight. 

 

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

Kathy Tu proposes that Cho Chang reminds her of the trope of a minority who excels but also suffers in the magical world. She has to be a good student, good at Quidditch, a good “woman” able to attract popular Cedric and Harry. It’s almost like she has an “ethnicity tax” where she has to be exceptional in order to be considered important. At the same time, the character didn’t signal an immigrant experience. There’s no other exploration of her Asianness and she could be read as a white character. It almost reads like superficial diversity. 

Both the host and the guest think that Cho’s defense of her friend Marietta in Order of the Phoenix is something the trio would have done for each other too. But Cho’s actions are met with much less empathy and her act of supporting her friend is dismissed. 

As a young person, Kathy’s mind was blown by encountering Cho’s Asian character with a Scottish accent. She had anticipated a Chinese accent, a perception based on what you’ve previously encountered in media and what you’re used to. 

They talk about how when it comes to marginalised group representations in media, there is lots of pressure on anyone in the public eye whether it be Jewishness or Asianess whereas white people or people from the dominant culture get to be individuals. This is true both in media and in the series. When a Jew has done something bad, the Jewish community wishes the person wasn’t Jewish. Minority cultures are held to higher standards and represent their entire race, ethnicity, religion, culture etc. 

Cho was there as a perfect character and then disappeared when Harry loses romantic interest in her. The female character is just there as a plot point. This is not just common with characters of colour but just women in general. Harry is upset whenever Cho isn’t perfect, for example when she cries on their date as a result of some very real trauma. Both Harry and Cho are traumatised but aren’t able to work through their emotions and trauma and grief together. 

Arianna’s theory that Marietta is in love with Cho which is why she first goes along with her to Dumbledore’s Army and then betrays them is so great. She also believes that maybe they get together eventually – a theory Kathy loves. Fans are so innovative! 

 

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

Guest Xandra didn’t feel Asian enough for a previous Asian representation episode with Proma since she is mixed race.

The episode signposts Heroine Training, a programme which takes inspiration from different stories and employs their characteristics and attitudes in your own life.  

Robyn has grown up not fitting in for not being considered black enough. I relate a little bit to this because of my geeky interests as well as my feminism and lack of caring about how I dress, look, whether or not I’ll get married in my middle-class environment in Mumbai (which is different from middle class in the UK or the US) so I always felt like an outsider. Even as a teenager, I found most of my most important connections in online fandom and just the internet in general thanks to encountering other people like me as well as other people who weren’t like anybody I’d encountered in my own personal life. Being a person of colour in a predominantly white space is only something I encountered after I moved to the UK. This is another kind of not fitting in which requires a different kind of code-switching from the one I employed back home. Even in India, I moved between my identities depending on which environment I was in. 

Xandra talks about her own engagement with the series as a mixed-race child reading about half blood witches and wizards in Harry Potter. This feeling could also be related to Muggle-born witches and wizards entering Hogwarts and navigating the magical world where they’re the minority culture for the first time.

All of the feminine characters in Harry Potter are treated as stupid influencing people’s attitudes who treat femininity with distaste. While intelligence and curiosity should be valued, it shouldn’t be at the cost of other things. Fleur, Parvati, Lavender do not have the same interests and values as Hermione or Ginny, but that doesn’t make them worse people or worse girls. Villains in HP are described as ugly or fat. Hermione is singled out by Draco for being Muggleborn. Xandra proposes that this signifies his own insecurity that he’s not as clever as someone from a non-magical background and he’s projecting that on Hermione; something which his father calls him out for when he’s complaining about Hermione in Chamber of Secrets

Hermione is called Mudblood but Dean isn’t – does gender play a role here? Why is Harry considered half-blood when both has parents are magical. It reflects the idea that even a drop of non-pure/non-white blood marks you as other, similar to historical (and potentially contemporary) American attitudes about black people.

Xandra felt like a white girl on the inside and didn’t realise she’s a minority until she was in high school where she was seen as a minority because it was a posh private school and they wanted to include her in their diversity counts. This resulted in feelings of isolation and not fitting in and not being represented in media. She felt like a brown-skinned Caucasian girl – only found recognition in animated characters. Xandra is familiar with the food from her Asian background because she likes it and not because she grew up with it. She has only been to Korea once – “I feel like I’m tip-toeing through my own identity.” She inhabits different cultures.

Xandra finds herself represented in To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. However, unlike that family where the white father wants to instill Korean culture in his half-Korean kids after his wife dies, her own mother’s experience moving to the US as a child was very different. Her parents made it a point to assimilate into American culture and become American – the tension between minority and majority cultures. As a result, Xandra herself grew up quite distanced from her Korean culture and she has some blind-spots about it. She knows some things but knows all the things she doesn’t know – something that I, much like Robyn and Bayana, relate to. I’m the worst token Indian to have in the UK because if you ask me about religion and culture, there’s very little I do know. Or even to cook Indian food. The first time I properly cooked Indian food was in the UK … but I suppose that’s also a way of being Indian. What makes a proper Indian person anyway? 

When Xandra wrote books as a child, all the children were white because that’s what the books she read had. This is so similar to my own experiences. She had to research other cultures because she didn’t think her own culture could be represented in stories. 

She talks about living as a mixed-race American in Scotland with the intersection of national and ethnic origin. When you have to tick off an ethnicity box in the UK, one of the options was British. As Robyn says, “Is British even a race?” That’s the problem though, right? A lot of people in the UK – white people – do think (white) British is a race and they don’t see brown or black or Asian or mixed-race people who were born and live in the UK as British. Xandra talks about the nuances of race and ethnicity and nationality in different contexts. In the UK, class is more of a mainstream concern than race. Different accents and regions have different connotations, something that Robyn learned about by being a Doctor Who fan. The politics of representation of working class Northern accents and Scottish accents plays a role too – something I’ve learned through my secondhand observations of my Scottish boyfriend in England. 

They talk about how white people in the UK don’t consider how black British people are racialised. When Robyn and Bayana identified themselves as black when in England, they were told that that’s not something that’s really done in the UK but they were told this by a white person. It’s something that they know is untrue from their interactions with other black British people – so that ignorance of being racialised comes from a place of privilege. 

 

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

They talk about how there are very few characters of colour in the magical world. They list the following: 

  • Dean Thomas
  • Angelina Johnson
  • Blaise Zabini
  • Parvati and Padma Patil
  • Cho Chang
  • Kingsley Shacklebolt
  • Lavender Brown
  • Hermione Granger
  • Leta Lestrange
  • Yusuf Kama
  • Nagini
  • Lee Jordan (mentioned in passing)
  • Alicia Spinnet (not mentioned)

Dean Thomas exhibits an intersection with race and half-blood whereas Hermione has intersections of race, Muggleborn origins, and gender. 

They discuss stereotypes about black people in Dean and Blaise Zabini’s parents – black kids who aren’t raised by both parents and black parents don’t stay together. The background story which has Dean’s father being murdered is too close to real life. It’s not enough to have diversity just in the form of characters of colour. There needs to be more nuance and complexity. At the same time, it’s important to not uphold stereotypes with your only black character. They also think it’s weird that the magical world has only two black men, considering the racial make-up of the UK. 

Lorrie’s discomfort with the hostility in this episode has made me think of critiques more critically. I sometimes tend to take other people’s perspectives as valid – which they are – without interrogating my own responses to them. In this case, I agree with some critiques in the episode and don’t agree with others. For example, they speak about Angelina being reminded of her trauma every day of Fred’s death due to her marriage to George Weasley. However, isn’t George’s trauma worse in this case?

They point out that Angelina was the target of explicit racism when Pansy Parkinson says she looks like she has worms coming out of her head. The trouble with race-blindness in the series means like an overtly racist example like this goes without comment – and indeed, it’s something I wouldn’t even have recognised had it not been for this episode and the Women of Harry Potter one. 

They note that Ron had some wizard supremacist sentiments. I think this is more about growing up in a wizard supremacist society which he slowly begins to unlearn. For example, he considers the danger to house elves in the Battle of Hogwarts.

They complain about the casting of the Patil sisters in the movies as one of the actresses was Pakistani or Bangladeshi. This falls into the any Asian will do trope. I disagree with this to an extent. I understand that in terms of East Asian representation it’s different, but India/Pakistan/Bangladesh all have common relatively recent ancestry. Of course, I may think this because I’m Indian and not Indian-American or British Indian so I’m used to being surrounded by representation in Bollywood. Also, people from Pakistan and Bangladesh might not take too kindly with being lumped in with Indians all the time. 

They talk about the widespread use of Latin words in magic which erases the contribution of different religious and cultural beliefs like Chinese, Indian, and students with African or Caribbean ancestry. What are you learning in Hogwarts? Is it just the British system of magic or are there different magic systems? If not in Hogwarts, is there room for this in different parts of the country/world? They admit it’s not something they’re complaining that JKR didn’t include – they’re exploring the gaps in the text because they think it’s fascinating. They discuss how experiences of second generation immigrant children might differ – which the Patils and Cho likely are. These students might mix two cultures together and their different cultural systems of magic. 

They are outraged that there’s just one African school for magic in Nigeria (when even just in west Africa, many different systems of magic are practised, let alone other parts of Africa). There’s just one Asian school of magic in Japan (when in real life Japan invaded China so real-world politics would impact witching world attitudes – as Eugenia says, her grandfather wouldn’t allow her mother to buy Sony just because it’s a Japanese company, similar to Jack’s mum’s attitudes towards Germany in sporting matches, though less extreme). Also, Japan is tiny versus India and China – where do they fit all the students? The distribution of schools is quite Eurocentric. 

“Europe has three schools. Africa has one. Asia has one. All of North America has one. South America has one.” 

They also discuss the problem with Nagini. Both hosts hate what happens to the character though Lorrie loves her. They dislike that she is an East Asian woman who can turn into a snake but eventually will only be stuck as a snake and also becomes Voldemort’s pet and Horcrux who is slayed by two white men – Neville using Gryffindor’s sword. Eugenia is very upset about this layered objectification of this Asian woman. They think that none of JKR’s editors or movie producers would have been people of colour because they can’t see how problematic this is. They discuss superficial diversity and not researching how your choices impact interpretations (in the Fantastic Beasts movies). 

There’s also a lack of people of colour among the adults in the original Harry Potter series. They critique the lack professors of colour in Hogwarts where even creatures are hired over them. Does this reflect a lack of solidarity among marginalised people? It reflects real-life examples of people of colour being passed over for jobs, in academia and elsewhere, as if there’s only room for one. 

They propose that people of colour exist in the British magical world because of slavery and colonialism. Does this erase experiences of early multiculturalism? The Roman Empire was vast and had Egyptian people in England, for example. I do agree that racism may have played a role in the magical world as well due to how it connects with the Muggle world – doesn’t Muggle history and witching history intertwine at any point? 

They mention how JKR has said that she doesn’t write for the audience, she writes what interests her. While this is a valid perspective, this is increasingly at odds with what the fans are interested in and the kinds of diversity they now demand from their media. 

They also discuss racebending Hermione and Lavender Brown and the different implications of this. There was furore against Hermione being cast as black in The Cursed Child but this outrage was missing when Lavender Brown was recast as white in Half-Blood Prince when she got a major part. They also cite the racist outrage against Rue being cast by a black actress in The Hunger Games, even though she is canonically black. 

They conclude the episode by calling for people of different abilities, races, genders, body types to be represented in science fiction and fantasy. They end by asserting their right to criticise the world because they love the world and demand more from it. 

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