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:
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.