A PhD project exploring intersectionality through fan podcasts

Header image with the text Marginally Fannish

Month: October 2020

Episode 16 The Queer Paradise: Exploring Diverse Gender Identities in Speculative Worlds

Episode Resources:

1) Fan podcast – Pottercast: Sorting It Out With Jackson Bird

2) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text: Community responses to J. K. Rowling’s transphobia

3) Fanzine – Harry Potter and the Problematic Author 

4) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds: Dumbledore’s Army

5) Fanzine – Tonk’s Tale

6) Article – Creator of ‘She-Ra and the Princesses of Power’ Noelle Stevenson and actor Jacob Tobia on season four’s radical inclusion

7) Article – Noelle Stevenson & Jacob Tobia talk bringing genderqueer awesomeness to ‘She-Ra’ Season 4

8) YouTube video – Aliens, Monsters and Faceless Demons: The Dehumanisation of Non-Binary People in the Media

 

Episode Transcript:

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

Left – Double Trouble from She-Ra and the Princesses of Power; Right – Janet from The Good Place

[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 sixteenth episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I talk to Tam Moules about different gender identities in science fiction and fantasy. We also discuss how fans learn to identify and question transphobic implications within their favourite media and grapple with transphobic creators of their favourite worlds.

Transphobia is often couched under language that ostensibly speaks of women’s empowerment but fundamentally excludes trans people. This reactionary and limited form of feminism can be seen in mainstream discourse as well as embedded in beloved media. Fan conversations help highlight and decode implicit bigotry in the texts. But what happens when fans imbibe messages of radical inclusivity and equality from their favourite books only to discover that the writer doesn’t live up to these ideals? We see fans either giving up on the media altogether or disowning its creator.

Due to an overall absence of gender nonconforming characters in SFF, trans and nonbinary fans frequently have to read themselves into cisgender characters. Fortunately, there is a small but increasing number of nonbinary and trans characters in media. This representation of diverse gender identities has a particularly important impact in mainstream children’s media. Creating worlds for kids where queerness is the default allows them to recognise themselves or learn about those who don’t mirror their own identities. Queer characters, cast and crew help create a supportive space for marginalised identities which, in turn, impacts which stories are told and how they’re told. When queerness is normalised in a fictional world, no one way feels like the default or the token. Many different ways of being emerge.

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: I’m so happy to have Tam Moules on the podcast today. Tam is currently a freelance academic with an MLitt in Fantasy Literature from the University of Glasgow. They have written and presented papers at various conferences and have published an essay with the Luna Press anthology A Shadow Within: Evil in Fantasy and Science Fiction. Their essay is called “I have done only what was necessary: An exploration of individual and structural evil in the works of N. K. Jemisin” if you wanted to look that up. Tam and I were studying for a master’s at the University of Glasgow at the same time though not for the same programme. I was there doing an M.Ed in Children’s Literature and Literacies. But as a book and fantasy nerd, I attended some of the lectures on the Fantasy course as well where Tam and I became friends. So today, we’re going to be talking about how different gender identities are represented in mainstream science fiction and fantasy media. And as much as we don’t want to be spending too much time on the transphobic elephant in the room, we’re going to have to unfortunately spend a little time talking about J. K. Rowling before quickly moving on to happier, queerer, more inclusive things. But before we begin with that, Tam, could you tell us a little more about your own experiences with our theme today?

Tam: Hello! About 2017 I realised I was non-binary. And coming to terms with that and existing within academia has been a very weird experience. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Tam: I think it’s good that we’re seeing more representation of that within media and so I’m quite excited to talk about that today.

Parinita: Yeah, for sure. I’m cisgender and heterosexual, so for me, it’s also something that I’m learning through media.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: And through fandom specifically. Because in India, now I know some non-binary, gender nonconforming people.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: But when I was growing up as a teenager, I didn’t really have any access to this. Even just gay people in general, I didn’t have any access to. And it was largely through fandom and largely through Harry Potter fandom actually that I encountered different people. When I was thirteen, I joined Mugglenet and just read a lot of fanfiction there. Which is why it’s so much more disappointing – okay right, let’s get it out of the way. Back in December, when I hadn’t launched the podcast yet but I was putting it together and approaching guests and fan podcasts, J. K. Rowling tweeted something in support of a transphobe – Maya Forester I think her name is? [it’s actually Maya Forstater]

Tam: Yeah something like that.

Parinita: Yeah. We don’t need to know.

Tam: [laughs]

Parinita: I don’t mind if I get her name wrong. J. K. Rowling’s own tweets were couched in transphobic language which, if you don’t know the debates and things happening in the background, you might not have seen anything wrong with that tweet.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: So there are a bunch of people who decoded that, including one of the fan podcast episodes that we listened to. And she was then silent about it. Silent about all the critiques and all the outrage, right until June this year since when she’s been on this spree of transphobic tweeting. And it’s not even covert anymore.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: J. K. Rowling is a TERF.

Tam: [laughs] Yeah, it’s been a bit weird the past few weeks. She’s suddenly gone full mask-off and is just saying the quiet part out loud as it were.

Parinita: [laughs] So for those who don’t know, TERF stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminist. So it’s a version of feminism which doesn’t include trans women or trans folks, like even trans men. For me, even as a cis, straight person, I don’t understand this idea of feminism that doesn’t include all women and all … actually anybody who’s marginalised. Because a non-binary person isn’t a part of the dominant culture; they don’t have privileges that cis people have for example, right?

Tam: Yeah. I mean it’s profoundly reactionary as a form of feminism. It’s inherently self-contradictory in a lot of ways. I don’t know if you read her “statement” about the whole thing but every single point she made was contradicted by a different point that she made effectively.

Parinita: I couldn’t bring myself to read it. As a researcher who’s including Harry Potter in my PhD project and as a Harry Potter fan – I’m still very attached to it because it played such an important role in my childhood

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: I can’t really untie that from my sense of self. I can absolutely untie J. K. Rowling though; how fandom has kicked her out of her own creation.

Tam: [laughs]

Parinita: Anyway, I couldn’t read that essay just because I know she’s spoken about domestic violence. And I have experience with domestic violence. I grew up in a house where my mum survived domestic violence. So when I heard the conversation around that I was like, okay I still need more distance because there’s too much going on in the world.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: Right now there’s the pandemic, there’s the Black Lives Matter movement, there’s migrants just dying in India because of the pandemic and I can’t add this other thing to stress me out. It’s just so disappointing. The response to her transphobia from what I’ve seen – maybe it’s just because of the spaces that I’ve cultivated – but wherever I’ve encountered the responses to her tweets, it’s been very much in support of trans people. And divorcing J. K. Rowling from Harry Potter and reclaiming Harry Potter. There’s this Harry Potter fan podcast I listen to called The Gayly Prophet and one of the hosts there is trans and the other host is a queer person of colour – both American. And both of them said that, “We’re just going to reclaim it angrily for the fans.”

Tam: [laughs]

Parinita: And they launched this campaign called Make Harry Potter Gayer 2020.

Tam: [laughs]

Parinita: So they’re curating all this trans and non-binary and queer fiction and Harry Potter things and just fighting back against it. Because the thing is a lot of fans who grew up with Harry Potter read these messages of being inclusive in the books. And she’s not seeing that herself? Or it’s only applicable to a certain group of people and not everybody.

Tam: Yeah. In a lot of ways the fan response to it has been really positive and uplifting – seeing all these people saying essentially we don’t care what she has to say anymore. And I also think it’s an interesting test case in the sense that it’s one of the biggest fandoms online effectively disowning its own creator.

Parinita: Yeah. Were you a fan of Harry Potter growing up as well?

Tam: I was obsessed growing up, yeah.

Parinita: [laughs] I know that some people have had more of a difficulty in divorcing the creation from the creator. You know what I mean? For me, I can’t. I can’t let go of Harry Potter.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: And in the resources that we looked at for this episode, a lot of the fans said the same thing. They had a real difficulty grappling with her hatred and bigotry but also being unable to let go. What has your experience been with this?

Tam: I think on a purely practical level, I have so many books to read. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Tam: That not going back to Harry Potter is quite a straightforward decision. But I have copies that my grandparents gave me for birthday presents and things that I’m still sentimentally attached to.

Parinita: Yeah.

Tam: And I have good memories of rereading the series. I had a summer job in Germany once where basically I had nothing to do but read. And I ended up going through the whole series in like a week. And I still have good memories of that. But at the same time, it’s also interesting going back to it and seeing like … obviously when I was a kid, I didn’t necessarily notice the actual amount of bigotry that’s implicitly coded into the books.

Parinita: Yup. [laughs] Yup.

Tam: [laughs]

Parinita: I’m re-reading the books now just as background research to inform my conversations here on the podcast for the PhD. And I have re-read the books as an adult previously because I used to try and re-read the series annually.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: I stopped that when I started doing my master’s because you don’t have time to read so much.

Tam: [laughs] Yeah.

Parinita: But even then, as an adult I wasn’t really able to think as critically as I do now. Just decoding the messages, because that’s something that I’m still learning through the internet actually and through fandom.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: Where I’m learning to be able to critically analyse things and question things and question canon and question the creators. And fans are great for that. Especially Harry Potter fans. There’s this excellent podcast called Witch, Please, The Gayly Prophet does that as well – they apply an intersectional lens to Harry Potter. And oh my god reading it as an adult, it’s quite alarming. [laughs]

Tam: A lot of it is, yeah.

Parinita: I also wanted to talk about some of the more problematic elements in Harry Potter. As someone coming from India and we have our own social problems and social issues there. But currently in the UK, transphobia seems to be quite mainstream.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: And it seems to be quite a loud part of – I mean maybe it’s a small group, but they seem to be really loud. I live in Leeds. And just recently, last week, the Leeds public library, they were going to … do you know the Drag Queen Story Hour?

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: So they were going to do that here. Just a virtual reading. And then it got attacked by this group on Mumsnet I think along with a Leeds city councillor who started calling it – they were very transphobic and were accusing it of all sorts of things. And they got it shut down. And luckily that has been picked up by lots of media channels after that. But it still happened. They still got it shut down. And especially during Pride Month, all these kids were excited about seeing their own identity represented. Because the books that she read included different identities. She did it anyway on another Facebook page but the fact that institutionally it was shut down because of an institutional TERF was very … ugh!

Tam: Obviously I’m not an expert but I think part of is that homophobia has become socially unacceptable even among a lot of conservatives.

Parinita: Hmm.

Tam: Not many of them are open about it anymore. But transphobia is still relatively normalised in a lot of ways. And the fact that the UK’s system for treating trans people in particular is horrendously badly run and underfunded and there’s multiple-year-long waiting lists which is part of the problem but also on purpose kind of.

Parinita: Yeah. And it’s also like J. K. Rowling’s tweet and a lot of the words and phrases that they use to couch the transphobia is so unknown.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: First of all, they think that TERF is a slur. And they want to be called gender-critical feminists. When TERF is actually describing what they are, which is they exclude trans people in their feminism. So in Leeds last year, there was a transphobic march; it was a march full of transphobes who were marching against trans people or to protect lesbians in the LGBT umbrella. So Jack and I went for the anti-TERF protest – it was a march and a counter-protest.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: And it was so ridiculous because at one point, when they were marching around, they were shouting things like, “Women don’t have penises!” at random bystanders.

Tam: [laughs]

Parinita: Who were like, “What? Was this a topic of debate?” Obviously they were very confused

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: Because if you don’t know the history and the background, it is confusing. The Pottercast episode that we listened to had some great resources about that. It was called Sorting It Out With Jackson Bird featuring a trans Harry Potter fan who’s played a big role in the fandom. And they were responding to J. K. Rowling’s transphobia and that had some really good resources to try and understand, unpacking this language a little bit and also presenting the context of it. Even though they’re in the US, they were talking about it from a UK perspective as well. But yeah, it just seems to be so uncomfortably mainstream in the UK and I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all.

Tam: Yeah. There’s a lot of talk of “reasonable concerns” because they end up using so much coded language that people end up taking it at face value basically.

Parinita: Yeah. You were telling me about what happened today with Stephen King. He retweeted something J. K. Rowling said, right?

Tam: She made this big, long thread complaining about stuff and then at the end of it she had like an Andrea Dworkin quote which was clipped out of context. And so he retweeted that quote out of context – removed from both its original context and from the context in which J. K. Rowling was using it – then replied to someone else saying, “Trans women are women.”  And J. K. Rowling’s unfollowed him over it. Which is quite funny.

Parinita: Yeah. And before that, when he retweeted her, I think she was so happy that she got some celebrity endorsement that she wrote this long tweet praising Stephen and was fangirlish about it and then she deleted that tweet as well as soon as he wrote trans women are women. And something similar happened in December as well. Because her tweet is couched in language that you wouldn’t find problematic if you didn’t know what was happening. Mark Hamill had retweeted or liked it as well. But he didn’t know the context; presumably neither did Stephen King today. So he was just trying to be supportive of women, I guess, not realising what she was saying. And then he did apologise. He was like I didn’t know what I was doing and this is not what I meant to do. It’s so easy to include people in that or trick people into supporting you when you’re trying to make it seem like you’re including and protecting women but you’re not actually. Or you’re only protecting a certain group of women.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: And among these TERFs, I don’t even know how many other intersectional identities there are. Not just in terms of gender identity and cisgender versus trans but just race and class and national origin and everything. What would they think of me, for example? A brown immigrant from India. I feel like if you exclude one, it’s so easy then to find problems with other groups as well who aren’t exactly like you.

Tam: Yeah. There’s always someone else to transfer it on to once your original target is sort of legislated away as it were.

Parinita: Exactly! Which is what I don’t understand why lesbians have caught onto this so much; a group of lesbians, of course, not all lesbians. But they think trans women are going to impinge on their own rights. But once they start excluding trans women, they’re going to be targeted by the homophobes as well. It should be a solidarity amongst all marginalised identities, not just in-fighting. And quickly before we move on to happier things, I just wanted to talk about how there are some transphobic implications within the Potterverse which I would never have noticed before J. K. Rowling outed herself as a TERF. Or even without the help of fans identifying this. Like I said, fans have helped me so much in being more critically analytical of things. But there are quite a few transphobic implications not only in the Potterverse but also in J. K. Rowling’s crime booksthe Robert Galbraith books.

Tam: Definitely. Well, I think there’s some fairly obvious trans implications with the Polyjuice potion being such a central part of the books. The ability to change appearance and change gender but the fact that you can only copy someone else. You can’t use it to become a new person. You have to use it to become a copy of someone who already exists. It’s interesting because it could very easily be written in a way that is trans-inclusive and is positive. But instead it’s like people have a sort of inherent essence and if they ever stop taking their medicine, they will revert back to that essence. It’s very gender essentialist.

Parinita: You saying that makes me think of Tonks as well. Any Metaphor – Metaphorgo -? Okay I don’t know how to pronounce that word [laughs]. [I was trying to say Metamorphmagus].

Tam: [laughs]

Gif of Ginny and Tonks. Tonks has changed her nose into a duck (?)

Parinita: What Tonks is, that is her ability to change her appearance into anything – across the gender spectrum essentially. That would be so easy to make inclusive of non-binary, genderqueer, gender nonconforming people. In response to J. K. Rowling’s transphobia, this collective of queer Harry Potter fans, launched this fanzine Trans-Inclusive Education at Hogwarts I think it’s called. I’m going to look up the correct name and link it. [It’s called Trans-Affirming Magical Care]

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: But basically they’ve got all these queer fans to write and draw stuff for the fanzine and all the proceeds are going to be donated to charities that work with trans people. And one of them was Maia Kobabe’s work, which is also on Tumblr. That focuses more specifically on Tonks and how they would be gender nonconforming and  basically their appearance could reflect on what gender they are identifying with on a particular day. And in Hogwarts as well, how the very binary, very gender essentialist dorm system that they have and the bathroom system that they have would accommodate – how the building itself, the magical architecture itself would change to accommodate their identities or any identities in Hogwarts.

Tam: I think it’s interesting that Tonks, one of the most outwardly queer-coded characters in the whole series is effectively married off to someone twice her age. But also the fact that Lupin as well is a queer-coded character in a profoundly negative way. The fact that her werewolves, where she explicitly describes them as an AIDs metaphor and all but one of them are predators who want to eat children and infect them with werewolfness, is a bit, little, little, tiny weeny little bit dodgy.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah. He’s the good one. But everyone else … he’s the exception to the otherwise terrible, terrible norm. Keep your children away!

Tam: Exactly. It’s a profoundly horrible thing to put in a children’s book series.

Parinita: And then I just recently finished re-reading The Prisoner of Azkaban. And this is something that one of my previous guests Lorrie Kim brought up about the Boggart scene in Prisoner of Azkaban. Where Neville’s greatest fear is Professor Snape – which understandable, because he’s really horrible. In the series, a Boggart turns into your greatest fear. And the way to defeat a Boggart is to make yourself laugh. So you have to turn it into something funny. And the most hilarious thing to Neville here or to Lupin, I guess, because it was his idea is to turn Snape into wearing his grandmother’s clothes.

Tam: Yeah!

Gif from Prisoner of Azkaban of Boggart Snape turning into Snape wearing Neville's grandmother's clothes

Parinita: And that’s such a butt of jokes, right?

Tam: Yeah. I mean it now seems very telling that the first place she went with that was man in a dress. The fact that she thinks that’s inherently humiliating and hilarious.

Parinita: Yeah and when we’re reading it, we’re on the side of Harry and Lupin and Neville, right? We like these characters so we identify with them. So the way that we’re being positioned to look at this scene is that we should find it funny as well and we should find it really strange as well. Whereas not just trans people but even gender nonconforming people can wear or men can wear dresses, right? Why should that be so funny that it defeats this creature that’s supposed to be your darkest nightmare? Anyway, I think that’s enough time that we’ve dedicated in our episode to J. K. Rowling for today. Her books are problematic.

Tam: [laughs]

Parinita: She is problematic. I can let go of her; I can’t let go of the books. Do you have any closing thoughts on J. K. Rowling before we move on to happier topics?

Tam: I hope she listens to people and learns empathy and gets better.

Parinita: Yeah. [sighs] I hope so too. I’m really optimistic about most things – I’m an optimistic person. But from the way that she’s been constantly treating trans people. Even today, while we’re recording –

Tam: Oh no.

Parinita: It almost sounds very cultish you know.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: I was talking to Jack today earlier and he was reading the responses there because he has much more tolerance for this sort of stuff than I do [going through bigoted tweets, that is; not transphobia]. And he was like, “Yeah this just sounds like a cult that she’s been recruited into.”

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: And now she is also doing the recruiting. They’re affirming each other. So she obviously believes that she’s a hundred per cent correct.

Tam: Unfortunately.

Parinita: And that I think is getting in the way and also her privilege is getting in the way of her talking to people.

Tam: Yeah. Definitely.

Parinita: It’s sad, but you can only control what you can control. So we can leave her aside.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: And maybe talk about other just explicitly nonbinary and trans representations in mainstream science fiction and fantasy. Have you come across any examples of these?

Tam: I have more examples than I can count.

Parinita: Oh brilliant!

Tam: I’ll always recommend Jay Y. Yang’s Tensorate series. They are some of the most varied and interesting books that I have ever read. They’re set in a world that doesn’t understand gender the same way our world does. So kids don’t have a gender. They choose one if they want one when they grow up.

Book covers from the four books in J. Y. Yang's Tensorate series

Parinita: That sounds really interesting! And also really unfortunately rare in speculative fiction.

Tam: Yeah. There’s four little novellas and they’re all completely different. So one’s a crime scene investigation, one’s spies and action-based. And one’s just someone recounting their memories of a relationship. And they’re all beautiful.

Parinita: Oh that’s awesome! So I have a couple of examples but mine are a little different just in terms of the framework of the world. The Lumberjanes – I don’t know if you’re familiar with that comic series.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: So that has a nonbinary character, Barney, as well as a trans girl character, Jo. But it’s incorporated in such a way that that’s not a big deal at all. That’s just “normal”. That’s just one of the many identities that you can be. And there’s never a coming out storyline at all. It’s just yeah this is what it is. You just accept it, which I love. And also there is a slightly different example. In the Magnus Chase series by Rick Riordan

Tam: Yes!

Barney and Jo from The Lumberjanes

Parinita: There’s a genderqueer character, Alex Fierro. They’re the child of Loki who, I think, in Norse mythology, has been known to vary across the gender spectrum – from what at least Rick Riordan tells me. [laughs] I don’t know much about Norse mythology.

Tam: Yeah.

Alex Fierro

Parinita: But I love that both these are a very mainstream series. And both of them are mainstream series for children. So you’re normalising it completely by making this a part of your story without making it a big deal as well. Which I love.

Tam: Yeah. I’ve heard a lot about the Rick Riordan series. I haven’t read any of them since I was a teenager. But I think he’s sort of the anti-J. K. Rowling in a lot of ways.

Parinita: Absolutely!

Tam: The fact that he uses his pull within the publishing industry to highlight marginalised writers who don’t necessarily have the kind of name recognition that he has.

Parinita: Yeah, he started a whole imprint just for people to write about their own mythologies which he wasn’t comfortable writing.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: He’s basically the status quo – old white man in the US. So he has all this privilege which he recognises and tries to include as many people and as many stories and experiences as possible. Which I love. And then, of course, there’s – so I know we’re going to be talking more about them later – but Double Trouble in She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. And She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is just one of my favourite shows ever. Just because they’ve created a world where queerness is the default, where they centre and normalise female and queer characters in the story. And Noelle Stevenson who is the creator of She-Ra in terms of the new adaptation, she has also written a graphic novel called Nimona which is excellent.

Tam: Nimona is so good!

Parinita: That was my first experience with her. And then she was also one of the founding teams of The Lumberjanes as well

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: So I love her.  

Tam: I really didn’t expect to love She-Ra as much as I do. I think I first heard about it because people on the internet were mad about it. [laughs]

Parinita: Oh really? So see I think I either have really giant blinkers on or I just manage to very carefully avoid the negativity because I’ve heard about this. I’ve heard about all the hate She-Ra got but only secondhand. I’ve never come across it myself.

Tam: Yeah. So I think when they shared some promotional images before the show came out, there was a whole bunch of the usual right-wing weirdos who were all mad that this animated child wasn’t feminine enough.

Parinita: [laughs]

Tam: And they were destroying culture by remaking something. And I just thought, well if they’re upset about it, it’s probably going to be good.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah. I mean I’m a huge fan of animated things anyway.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: I read a lot of children’s books, I watch a lot of children’s programming as well. But this story is so refreshing. I know refreshing is an overused word.

Tam: [laughs]

Parinita: I am very guilty of this. I use this word a lot. But just because it’s so rare where they are so central. It starts off, of course, with a background lesbian couple – Netossa and Spinerella in the first season. But then that grows very organically, very in a not “this is a big deal!” kind of way to include Bow’s dads.

Tam: Yes.

Parinita: Then Double Trouble and finally – spoilers for those who haven’t watched the fifth season – Adora and Catra’s love story as well. And it includes characters of diverse body types and gender expressions and identities and it’s just so good!

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: I don’t know if you’ve come across this theory, there was a Twitter thread recently where trans fans read Scorpia, one of the princesses, as trans. They were basically inserting their own experiences into the character.

Tam: All right.

Parinita: Just in terms of how she’s this very uncomfortable but also really cuddly person and wants to be friends with people. But she’s also not very sure of how she would be accepted among the other princesses as well.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: And one of the fans in this thread also actually said that looking at Scorpia and seeing her represented helped them come to terms with their own trans identity. Which I loved! And actually, one of the artists in the show had created Perfuma, another princess, as trans.

Tam: All right.

Parinita: Which Noelle loves; she loves the idea and actually she’s acknowledged all head canons as valid including reading Bow as a trans boy as well.

Tam: Yeah. That was the one I was always on board with from the beginning.

Parinita: Yeah because it’s very obvious right? You can see it … even for me who is very used to seeing very cis, straight characters in my media, I could see that immediately because that made complete sense to me. But Noelle, as much as she loves these head canons, in one of the things she said that she didn’t want to take credit for them because it wasn’t explicitly mentioned on the show. So they’re completely valid but she doesn’t want to pretend like she came up with this idea because she didn’t make it canon. With Double Trouble, there was a nonbinary actor portraying Double Trouble. So that was a very definite choice.

Tam: Oh and that’s so good as well. They cast a nonbinary voice actor to play Double Trouble.

Parinita: Yeah exactly! And the fact that Noelle Stevenson doesn’t want to say that yeah I thought of these characters as these diverse identities, because I didn’t. I love that you thought of it and it’s totally valid but because I didn’t do the homework and I didn’t cast a trans actress to play Perfuma, for example, so now I can’t claim Perfuma as trans. Which I love. That’s such a different perspective of diversity altogether, right?

Tam: Yeah. Again it’s kind of the anti-J. K. Rowling. She’s not taking credit for other people’s theories.

Parinita: [laughs] Oh my god you’re so right! Because I’ve spoken about this so much – about J. K. Rowling just co-opting everything. Like, “Black Hermione, oh yeah totally my idea!” And I also love that Noelle Stevenson will randomly tweet, “I love trans people!!!!!” with five exclamation marks.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: And just devoid – no, not obviously devoid of context, she knows very much what the context is. But it won’t be in response to somebody; it’ll just be like yeah these are my feelings. This is out there.

Tam: Yeah. She’s honestly such a positive force on Twitter. She is absolutely delightful as a person.

Parinita: Yeah. I agree. Even just reading Nimona, I was like, “Okay the brain that made this, I want to be this person’s friend.” Because she also uses the correct amount of exclamations which is more than one.

Tam: [laughs]

Parinita: Which is how I talk. That’s that’s how I talk to people. But also Noelle and Jacob Tobia, who voices Double Trouble, they did talk about the overall absence of gender nonconforming characters in science fiction and media which causes fans to read themselves into their favourite worlds.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: Some of the examples that they said were Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. And I was reading this essay today in a book which, of course, the name I’m completely blanking on because my memory is swiss cheese. But they were talking about how they have all these trans head canons while growing up. They read Luce – Luce?! – Luke Skywalker as both trans and ace – asexual. Just because you don’t see all these identities represented in your media so you have to write those identities in the media.

Tam: Yeah. I think I quite like the theory of Luke Skywalker as ace because he doesn’t show attraction to anyone.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Tam: He doesn’t seem to evidence any interest in the usual hero’s journey of kill the bad guy and get the girl kind of thing.

Parinita: I mean in the first movie, they sort of did that and then as soon as he realised [laughs] that Leia was his sister, he was like okay that’s enough. I tried it. It’s not for me. This is not the kind of relationship that I want to have.

Tam: [laughs]

Parinita: They also read Tintin as a trans guy and Frodo as trans and asexual. I love that because it’s also very similar to Luke Skywalker’s life as well. The book is called The Secret Loves of Geeks. I’ve looked it up.

Tam: Ah okay. I’ll have a look at that.

Parinita: I love that – I mean I don’t love that fans have to do this but I love how creative fans are that they do do this. Even with racebending and genderbending and queering characters and everything.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: But, at the same time, I love that queer people now are creating their own stories and they’re in charge. They’re queering mainstream media essentially so that there’s more representation than they had when they were growing up.

Tam: Absolutely.

Parinita: And another one I’ve seen was Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts.

Tam: Yes.

Parinita: Which I don’t think they have any gender nonconforming character. They have a gay protagonist but … I mean that’s also great but now She-Ra has set the bar so high that I expect more.

Tam: [laughs]

Parinita: I expect everything and everybody to be queer.

Tam: Yeah. I think it’s really quite astonishing what She-Ra has accomplished; what Noelle Stevenson and the people who worked on it have accomplished in terms of taking like a toy commercial from the 80s effectively –

Parinita: [laughs]

Tam: And turning it into this huge story about queer relationships.

Parinita: And also just like a different kind of heroism.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: And a different kind of friendship. Well not a different kind of friendship but a different representation of the kinds of friendships that you have. There’s no individual notion of heroism. She-Ra is powerful but she’s not – if it was only up to her, Hordak would have won in Season 1. It’s such a communal notion of not only saving the world but also being good friends with each other. And they look at that so much in terms of not just focusing on romantic relationships but relationships of all kinds. Which I think is also so lacking in most media.

Tam: Definitely. I think that it does a really good job of showing that people don’t have to be in relationships as well. A lot of them are just really good friends.

Parinita: Absolutely. And they never make it a big deal. No aspect of identity in that world is ever commented upon. It’s just because queerness is the default. And also because there are so many female characters, that also seems to be the default. Usually science fiction and fantasy media is very male-dominated

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: Star Wars being the prime example.

Tam: [laughs]

Parinita: But here, because it has that as the default, there are so many more potentials and so many more ways of being. Not any one way feels like a trope or a stereotype. And none of it feels like you need to really make a big deal out of it.

Tam: Pause. Yeah. I think in any other show, a detail like … I can’t remember their names … Kyle and Rogelio from the Horde. Them having a crush on each other in the background. In another show, that would be kind of the Marvel thing where there’s some queer background characters and we can cut them out for edits in different countries kind of thing. But in this, it’s one among many.

Parinita: Yeah!

Tam: You can’t really accuse any of the characters of being bad queer representation because they’re not the only queer characters in the show.

Parinita: Yeah absolutely. And I think Jacob Tobia – Tobia? Is that how you pronounce it? I think. I should have checked, it’s terrible.

Tam: [laughs]

Parinita: Jacob Tobia, they mentioned in one of the interviews that we read about how it’s so important not just to have a queer cast but also have queer creators and crew.

Tam: Yeah, definitely.

Parinita: Because that has such a huge impact on the story. Like exactly what you were saying, this background and just the whole world. As someone coming in in the first season, they felt completely safe and supported and included. They didn’t feel like they had to hide any aspect of their identity which for them was so radical and so empowering.

Tam: Yeah I’ve got the quote here. They said, “I expected to feel like a rainbow thread in an otherwise pretty bland tapestry. But I found that I was a rainbow thread in just already most colourful, incredible queer trans garment I could want.”

Parinita: Oh yes I love that. I made a note of that quote as well. Imagine if all media was like this.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: Because that’s what we want to be, right? Not just in terms of queer representation but in terms of different races and ethnicities and religions and physical abilities and disabilities and mental abilities, age – everything. Basically all the intersectional identities. We want it to be a place where no one identity is the norm and there’s room for everybody. She-Ra is such a great example of showing how that world can be.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: So I know we’ve spoken about our love for She-Ra a lot. But also I know that you wanted to talk about Double Trouble specifically and their story arc in She-Ra.

Tam: Yeah. Obviously I love the character and their role in Season 4 specifically. But I felt a little bit betrayed by season 5 in terms of … I don’t know if it was just my overly high expectations but the fact that they were relegated to a background character almost. They show up for one episode and then a little moment in the ending montage. And I don’t know – I just wanted them to have more of a role in the story.

Parinita: Yeah because until you pointed this out, when we were talking about our episode, I didn’t even notice, unfortunately for me, like my own blind-spot. Because I was so caught up with the rest of it. And especially the Adora and Catra ship.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: I was shipping them right from day one. And that’s happened. And I was so taken aback [in a good way] by how much queerness was central in the story that I didn’t realise that Double Trouble was quite backgrounded in the end. And I think it would have been easy for Double Trouble to have a bigger part in the story.

Tam: Definitely. There’s so much of the fifth series that is effectively espionage. They’re sneaking around the planet trying to evade capture.

Parinita: And they’re so good at it!

Tam: Yeah. I think it would have been very easy to write them in as Horde or something. I think there was something said about the fact that they tried and then couldn’t ’cause of the hive mind thing. I don’t know. I think it would have been quite easy to write them into a bigger role. So I don’t know if there was something going on behind the scenes there that meant that they were sort of pushed towards the background or if it was just that they wanted to focus on Adora and Catra for the final series.

Parinita: But even though they did focus on Adora and Catra because they split up, I still feel like the other characters, the other princesses and even new characters like the clones – the new Horde Prime clone whose name I have forgotten –

Tam: Wrong Hordak.

Parinita: Yes! [laughs] Wrong Hordak. They did have a role. It felt like they were a part of the story even if they weren’t onscreen all the time, if that makes sense. And with Double Trouble, I didn’t even remember – I remembered the last glimpse of them that we saw when they’d changed themself into one of the clones. I didn’t even remember until you reminded me that we’d seen them earlier in the season because they’d spent most of it undercover which is fine because that’s what their character is for. But that would have been such a perfect opportunity to recruit them.

Tam: Yeah. That’s what I thought was happening. And then they just disappeared.

Parinita: Yeah. I mean like you said, it’s not a “bury your gays” kind of thing in this world because everybody mostly is gay or at least is queer. So you can’t accuse the show of doing that. But the good thing is about fans – that’s the part that I love most – is that you are able to critique things because you love them and you want them to be better.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: And you want them to represent your own interests and preferences and priorities more.

Tam: I haven’t looked but I’m sure there is a fanfic of Double Trouble going around sabotaging Horde operations behind the scenes.

Parinita: Oh! You’re so right.

Tam: That’d be good.

Parinita: Yeah.

Tam: I would watch a series of that. Like a spin-off show.

Parinita: Yeah, me too! I’m so sad that it’s ending – or it’s ended.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: I completely respect the fact that she’d written it to last over five seasons and her story is done. But there’s so much potential for a spin-off. I want to watch that rather than a new He-Man that they want to spitefully create.

Tam: Ugh.

Parinita: In response to She-Ra.

Tam: Well I think honestly they should give the He-Man reboot to Noelle Stevenson as well.

Parinita: [gasps] That would be amazing!

Tam: Just make it as gay as possible. That would be incredible.

Parinita: Oh yeah. That’s the only way I would accept He-Man. [laughs]

Tam: But instead Kevin Smith is doing it which is possibly just the worst choice.

Parinita: Oh no! I don’t think I know who Kevin Smith is. His name sounds familiar.

Tam: He’s done quite a lot of films. Clerks and Dogma I think are his two most famous ones.

Parinita: Oh, I watch next to no movies so.

Tam: [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah, I’m very bad at this. I think it was the same faction that thought Noelle Stevenson was ruining She-Ra that wants He-Man back?

Tam: I don’t know. But Kevin Smith specifically has a very crude juvenile sense of humour.

Parinita: Oh, that’s sad.

Tam: A lot of fart jokes and stuff.

Parinita: Oh right. So, it’s not going to be the queer paradise that we want it to be. [laughs]

Tam: [laughs] Unfortunately not.

Parinita: This diverse little world. It might be but I doubt it. We’ve spoken about what we love about nonbinary representations and the increasingly queer representations in media. But the video Aliens, Monsters, and Faceless Demons: The Dehumanisation of Nonbinary People In the Media spoke about … well exactly that.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: How nonbinary people aren’t as … I don’t want to say respected but treated as well as cis characters.

Tam: Yeah. I think the video does a really good job of bringing up the idea that nonbinary characters are inhuman as well like looking outlandish or demonic or just straight-up not having a face kind of thing. My wishful thinking theory about Double Trouble is that they’re not actually an inhuman lizard creature. They are human and they just choose to look like a lizard creature because that’s how they’re most comfortable.

Parinita: Oh! That’s a great theory.

Tam: That’s my personal wild theory there.

Parinita: [laughs]

Tam: I think in isolation it’s not an issue that a particular nonbinary character is depicted that way. But I think overall as a trend, like you’ll see books recommending lists of nonbinary characters in science fiction and fantasy and you have Martha Wells’ Murderbot series which are great books but they’re also explicitly about a character who is not human and does not want to be human.

Parinita: Yeah. And Janet as well, right? In The Good Place like the video brought up.

Tam: Janet’s an interesting one because she obviously does look human and she uses she/her pronouns and presents in quite a feminine way. And I think that’s in some ways quite an interesting bit of representation, the idea that nonbinary people don’t necessarily have to be androgynous or outlandish looking. And I think that is good. But I also think that the fact that the show didn’t necessarily intend Janet to be nonbinary, the fact that she says, “Not a girl” constantly is more, “I’m not human” than “I’m not a girl”.

Parinita: And it’s not something that is framed as something to be taken seriously.

Tam: That too, yeah. It’s a running joke.

Parinita: Yeah. It’s something that you can easily ignore or overlook.

Tam: I wish they had done that differently. I wish Janet was more explicitly nonbinary. Because I think even the fact that she’s a female-presenting character in a huge network sitcom that constantly says, “Not a girl” I think that’s in itself a little bit ground-breaking. But it also could have been better.

Parinita: No, absolutely. Because until I watched that video, I hadn’t even thought of Janet as nonbinary.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: Because of exactly some of the same things that you’ve said about how she presents, the pronouns that she uses. But also my own blind-spots you know?

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: Because for me, as a cisgender woman who’s used to seeing – maybe not in terms of race and things – but I’m used to seeing representations of women, even though male representations take precedence. But it’s still increasing in terms of women. But yeah nonbinary representations are so lacking. And I think you’re right. If it’s a trend, then it is really problematic. Like you said, with Kyle and Rogelio, it’s not a problem if it’s one amongst many.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: At the same, even with Double Trouble, because in that world, there’s like Rogelio, there’s Catra, there’s Mermista who go against that human-ness. There’s cat and mermaid and Double Trouble. So I think within that world, it’s still more acceptable than within the larger mediascape where it’s falling into a trend.

Tam: Yeah, that’s true.

Parinita: The book that I talked about, which is The Secret Loves of Geeks, it’s essentially an anthology of love stories.

Tam: All right.

Parinita: But also different kinds of love and across the gender spectrum as well as across the sexual orientation spectrum as well. And it’s also comics and it’s nonfiction and it’s different kinds of essays and things. So it’s really good. I would definitely recommend that.

Tam: Sounds good. I’ll have a look for it.

Parinita: Thank you so much, Tam, for being on the podcast.

Tam: That’s okay.

Parinita: One of the things that I love about this project is that I just get to chat about things that I love with people that I like.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: So it doesn’t feel like work at all. And thank you so much for not making it feel like work.

Tam: Thank you for having me. It’s been good fun.

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode on the representation of diverse gender identities in science fiction and fantasy media. Thank you so much Tam for being a part of this project and chatting with me about some of my favourite things. And thank you Jack for all the homemade memes which shame me for not replying to texts on time (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!

Incorporating autoethnography while co-creating podcast episodes

Like many other fan studies researchers, autoethnography was a part of my project right from the planning stages. Since I was studying media texts, fandoms and themes which were important to me in different ways, it only made sense. Initially, however, I had envisioned that my blog posts would act as my autoethnographic fieldnotes. These include things I’ve learned/observed over the course of the past ten months as well as notes I made while going through the range of fan texts my co-participants and I exchanged with each other. I also planned to make additional fieldnotes while listening to each episode once it was published. However, due to time and life constraints, I didn’t end up doing this, except for the very first episode.

What I’ve since realised is that the podcast episodes themselves encapsulate not just my autoethnographic perspectives but also those of my co-participants. This includes the planning of the episodes too. My co-participants and I choose fan texts to exchange based on the themes and perspectives we’re most interested in and want to discuss. We often include brief comments justifying our choices; but even when we don’t, choosing the texts displays personal priorities. During the episode, we bring our own experiences and knowledge to the conversation. Even when we come from entirely different backgrounds and worldviews, we find ourselves inspired by each other’s points to bring forward our own opinions. So my co-participants and I end up sharing brief but detailed autoethnographic perspectives with each other and with potential listeners. These autoethnographic perspectives are highly contextual to the theme of the episode which the co-participants themselves suggest. While these themes are based on an initial list of intersectional themes I outline, they do have room to offer their own suggestions. For example, we’ve explored different aspects of gender in different episodes – misogyny, ageism, women warriors, violence against women, gender diversity etc.

According to Tressie McMillan Cottom’s research philosophy, online posts and interactions among participants can be considered as “digitally mediated autoethnographic narratives”. Through this lens, fan podcast episodes can be considered as autoethnographic narratives which highlight those viewpoints which may be missing from mainstream conversations. This lens allows me to place our podcast episodes and my co-participants’ collective-meaning making processes at the forefront of an autoethnographic understanding. However, ultimately I still have more access (both in terms of quantity and quality) to my own experiences and perspectives. My knowledge about my thinking isn’t limited to the podcast episode themselves and I have much more contextual understanding of what I said or what I meant to say. At the same time, I still consider our episodes as co-created autoethnographic narratives since our conversations wouldn’t exist in the same way had we not been chatting with each other using the framework the project provides. While analysing the multiple sources of data, I will approach our episodes with the understanding that it’s not just me providing an autoethnographic perspective.

Growing Comfortable With Discomfort – Part 4

Following up on this post about how this project deliberately constructs an intersectional field, I wanted to briefly write about the limits of intersectional awareness within this structure. I’ve made my allegiance to intersectionality clear right at the outset in the participant recruitment information and subsequent emails. Our episode conversations and diverse range of texts led to a deeper engagement with intersectional issues. I’ve gained a broader view of intersectional feminism where women, men and nonbinary people are privileged and marginalised in different contexts in different ways. My co-participants and I were able to explore more practical examples of theoretical intersectional ideas.

At the same time, it’s only my two co-hosts/friends and I who are looking at all the different intersectional themes in multiple episodes. The themes I’m exploring are gender, gender identity and gender expression, race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, religion, age, physical/mental (dis)ability, and regional/national origin. Even though we’re negotiating with a broader understanding of intersectionality, we still make mistakes. A few of my co-participants initially reached out to me by explicitly outlining their identities (in tune with the intersectional themes). However, I wanted to make sure I offered everyone a chance to suggest the themes they were most interested in – which might differ from the identities they inhabit – because I realise it can be frustrating always having to only talk about the marginalised aspects of your identity rather than any other things you may enjoy. Even then, I ended up making assumptions with a few participants about what topic they’d be interested in exploring based on my own limited understanding of their background. One of my co-hosts inadvertently made a potentially insensitive suggestion for an episode segment. I shared my views about it and they agreed with me immediately since they hadn’t considered the full implications of their idea. The only reason I was able to pick up on it was because I had learned how to grow comfortable with discomfort – about my ignorance of certain identities; about being nervous about accidentally offending someone while wanting to learn; about admitting I might end up being insensitive despite my best intentions.

With most co-participants, we stick to discussing between one and three themes each episode. This is largely due to time constraints. Some of my co-participants have expressed interest in talking about other themes as well but have chosen to narrow it down to things they have most experience with. With some of my co-participants, even though they were excited about exploring their specific theme(s), they weren’t necessarily comfortable discussing others. For example, one co-participant specifically said they weren’t comfortable talking about gender and sexuality owing to their cultural and religious background. A few others expressed discomfort at talking about certain identities where they were very clearly a part of the dominant group. It might be the nature of the project/their own personal/social/cultural/political reservations which made them reluctant to share their perspectives about certain topics. No judgement whatsoever! My point is that even people who are interested in intersectionality and thinking about intersectional issues may have blind-spots and biases. I know I certainly do.

How the process of planning, recording and editing episodes inform future episodes

One of the lessons I’ve learned in hindsight is to give myself more time and brainspace to think while managing a podcast – especially as a research process, but even otherwise. Usually what tended to happen was that I’d be so caught up in the nitty-gritty of each episode – listening to/reading a range of fan texts and shortlisting them for each episode, planning episodes, recording them, and transcribing, editing and sharing them – that I didn’t have much room to take a step back and just think. I was running more or less on autopilot. Apart from the PhD, over the last year, I’ve also been a part of a conference planning committee, written and presented a paper, written a children’s book, conducted two workshops – one for young people and one for adults – and moved houses. Which inevitably meant that even when I did have some time to breathe, life got in the way. All of which was compounded by the mental health impact of living through a pandemic and several political crises. Going forward, there’s not much I can do in terms of planning life and world events, but I want to try and deliberately schedule some downtime because having my brain and schedule full all the time meant that I experienced several bouts of burnout. And both research and personal experience (with both research and children’s book plots) has shown that downtime is crucial in making connections and gleaning insights – not working on and thinking about something all the time is more likely to allow my brains to form connections subconsciously.

Image courtesy Incidental Comics

While I didn’t manage to incorporate this downtime during the first season, I did find these connections happening when I wasn’t thinking about the specifics of the episode themes, texts, and discussions. This especially manifested when I was transcribing episodes (which was a much less brain-heavy task) and listening to edited episodes to note any errors or discrepancies. What this meant was that connections between episodes which I hadn’t deliberately planned happened almost organically and a theme or text which was cursorily mentioned in one episode led to a much more detailed analysis and discussion in a future episode. For example, we briefly mentioned She-Ra in Episode 12 and then had an entire episode dedicated to She-Ra in Episode 16. This didn’t just happen with media texts but also discussion strands and ideas – sometimes taking me completely by surprise. I’ve found this happening when I write children’s books as well – when I get towards the middle or end of the book I’m writing, I’ll find that I’m pulling together strands from earlier in the book almost like I’d deliberately planted these clues and ideas – though I had no conscious awareness of doing this. Similarly with the podcast episodes, since I was so steeped in them from January to October this year, I’ve picked up on themes and ideas from different episodes and texts which hasn’t just informed my thinking about them but also the direction of future episodes.

Moreover, the technical and practical details of planning, recording and editing episodes also influence how future episodes are planned, recorded and edited. In bursts of enthusiasm, I’ve often suggested too many texts while planning, assumed my co-participants would have the same time/enthusiasm to suggest their own texts/go through my texts, haven’t kept an eye on the time while recording resulting in really long episodes, been overly or not-enough cautious when it comes to marking edits of episodes. Of course, some lessons have taken a little longer than others to learn – and others haven’t yet manifested. However, the whole podcasting process has been a learning endeavour and I will make sure to plan better for next season by incorporating the missteps in my experience here. I can’t say that I’ve definitely managed later episodes better than earlier episodes – there are things I’ve done better in both and things I could have done better in both. But when looking at all the episodes as a whole, there’s definitely lots to learn from. I’m really happy that even when I was doing things inefficiently or not-as-effectively, I was still learning throughout the experimental process.

A deliberate construction of an intersectional fieldsite

While I was putting together fan texts for a recent episode recording, I realised that I should probably clarify something in my blog and eventual thesis. There are many fan podcasts out there; I’m constantly discovering new ones, some of which I’ve added to my list for a potential Season 2 of the podcast. However, some fan podcasts are definitely more critical than others. For example, not all Harry Potter fan podcasts are engaging with or responding to J. K. Rowling’s transphobia (though all the ones I’m looking at are). Not all fan podcasts aim an intersectional lens at their favourite media and their fandoms – not even ones featuring fans from marginalised backgrounds in terms of the identities I’m exploring. Among the fan podcasts I’ve chosen, a few explicitly state their allegiance to intersectionality, but most don’t. I believe even the ones which don’t do increase awareness and understanding of intersectionality. But I can only claim this with regards to the fan podcasts I’ve quite deliberately shortlisted – all of which feature either a co-host or guest who are from a marginalised culture. Even with these fan podcasts, I shortlist episodes which delve into themes which are relevant to my research and personal interests – not all episodes do.

Even when it comes to my own fan podcast, it’s quite a deliberate choice to engage with specific intersectional themes – something which was clarified right from the outset in the participant recruitment information. I don’t think being from a marginalised background – in whatever context – necessarily means that you’re bringing that identity to the fore while engaging with your favourite fictional world. Many fans don’t. I certainly didn’t until relatively recently. So just talking about Harry Potter or Doctor Who doesn’t mean you’re going to start unpacking the representations of women, people with disabilities, people of colour etc. So in the case of Marginally Fannish, it’s been a self-selecting audience – those who are interested in intersectionality or already thinking about intersectional issues are more likely to appear on a podcast to think and talk about these ideas.

So with both the selection of fan texts – podcast episodes, essays, social media posts etc. – and the planning of the episodes, it’s been a purposeful construction of the fieldsite and bringing these ideas into the conversations. It’s not an ethnography in the traditional sense. I haven’t just popped into an environment to study what happens. I’ve created an environment to test out a theory – but the creation of that environment itself quite obviously influences the people – including myself. It’s not an organic process but quite a deliberate one. And that’s okay! I’m exploring and creating a microcosm of fandom – and even within that not everyone’s experiences will mirror my own. Just because it’s a conscious construct doesn’t mean the ideas and conversations full of multiple perspectives and diverse opinions become any less real or valuable.

Drawing parallels to Indian examples while encountering Western contexts

In terms of the fan texts my co-participants and I exchange to prep for our episode conversation, they’re largely all Western-focused. With the fan podcasts I’m looking at, they’re all Western, largely USA-produced as well. In some episodes, I’ll look for articles – not necessarily fannish – to provide an Indian context/parallel to the theme we’re talking about. However, these are few and far between. It’s also complicated by the fact that as someone who’s grown up in Mumbai, I’m cut off from a lot of contexts and conversations which are happening in the rest of the state and country. Rural and tribal issues are definitely a blind-spot but even social, cultural and political issues within Mumbai are so varied – reflecting the diversity of this city full of migrants – that it’s difficult to know everything about everything.

When I first started the project, I wanted to have some episodes which look at the themes through an Indian-lens but I was uncomfortable with me providing the only Indian perspective. Which is why having the same two co-hosts appear regularly in episodes and explore all the different intersectional themes was so important to me. And it has been immensely valuable. Especially since both of them still live in India and have much more of a stake in that country than I do living in the UK and looking at the cultural, social, and political systems of both countries. They bring up examples I don’t think of, despite being familiar with mainstream Indian media, because I’m currently so steeped in Western media. Additionally, one of the co-hosts does a lot of historical research for her work thanks to which we end up discussing Indian history and representations there too. In fact, with all our episodes, they’ve made sure to incorporate Indian examples and elements throughout our conversation.

In my own case, when I go through the fan texts – suggested by both me and my co-participants – even though they’re situated within a Western context, I can’t help but think of Indian contexts. In some cases, these examples and analogies have very direct Indian parallels; in others, they’re quite dissimilar to India – but even identifying and thinking about how and why they’re dissimilar helps me articulate my thoughts with much more depth than I would otherwise. In the process of the background work that I’m reading to inform our conversations, I’ve also picked up a few Indian books and articles and online discussions – which teach me so much about my own country, fill in the missing gaps in my knowledge, and challenge assumptions. I’ve received a much more specific and nuanced education in caste and class, for example, through a book like Everybody Loves A Good Drought by P. Sainath and Arundhati Roy’s essays. Even when it comes to topics like race, I can’t help but draw Indian parallels where race isn’t as huge a factor as caste and religion are, but Dalit and Adivasi people are oppressed in similar ways as black people in the US.

With topics like representation of different cultures, misogyny, religion, and heteronormativity among others, the episode conversations and resources have forced me to think about and question my own notions and knowledge about what it’s like in India – and added much more nuance and depth to my own ideas. I’m still very ignorant about many things – and though I’m learning to fill in those gaps – the most valuable thing I’ve found is the discovery of how little I actually do know about India – how limited and non-mainstream my own very specifically situated elite experiences are. And this not-knowing allows me to hunger for and seek more information and stories. This not-knowing is quite liberating.

Gif from Disney's Aladdin. Text says: A whole new world.

Marginally Fannish: The Ethical Challenges of a Participatory and Open Access Research Methodology

I presented at on online conference – The Research Students’ Education Conference 2020 by the University of Leeds – about the ethical challenges of Marginally Fannish and thought I’d include it as a blog post too. I’m also including a slide I cut from the final presentation because it went over the prescribed time limit but it does articulate an ethical concern I shared. 

 

Introduction: My Project and Methodology

To briefly introduce my interdisciplinary project: I’m exploring how fan podcasts provide a social learning context in informal digital spaces. Specifically, I’m looking at how podcasts created by fans from groups which are under-represented or misrepresented in mainstream media and culture use the fictional framework of their favourite media texts like Harry Potter and Doctor Who to raise awareness about their own marginalised experiences and perspectives. I’m focusing on the themes of gender, gender identity and gender expression, race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, religion, regional/national origin, disability, and age. These identities can be privileged or marginalised based on different contexts. For example, when I’m in India, my race doesn’t matter, but when I’m in the UK, I’m suddenly a brown immigrant woman. In fan podcasts, conversations about fans’  favourite media provide complex and nuanced insights into their own lives and identities.

Now to briefly introduce my hybrid methodology, which is inspired by fandom’s collective knowledge-making culture.  I draw from online ethnography, collaborative ethnography, autoethnography, and feminist participatory and dialogic research methodologies. I’ve created my own fan podcast Marginally Fannish where I chat with my co-participants in different themed episodes. My co-participants are fellow fans who come from a wide range of social, cultural and geographical backgrounds and inhabit both marginalised and privileged identities. We exchange fan texts i.e. media which fans have made like podcast episodes, essays, fanfiction, art, videos etc. based on the theme of the episode. We use these texts as discussion prompts to structure our episode. I’ve tried to avoid an interview format so that it’s not just my questions which control the conversation. This method tries to make our episodes more participatory by including my guests’ interests and priorities. I’m trying to involve my guests in the decision-making process and highlight their voices in the research. I also have a blog where I publish a lightly edited transcript of the episode and my autoethnographic fieldnotes. All this constitutes my research data and is publicly available. I’d also like to encourage comments from a broader range of non-academic audiences where their interpretations and opinions can expand my understanding and be included in my research. Next I’m going to talk about the ethical considerations and challenges I’ve negotiated in my research project.

Blurred Boundaries: Public/Private Data In Digital Spaces

 

In online spaces, the line between public and private data is quite blurred, making it difficult to distinguish what media you can use in social science research without consent. I’m listening to many fan podcasts to shortlist episodes which I can then share with my co-participants. These podcasts are freely available online on different platforms. Before I launched my own podcast, I wrote to them to introduce my project and ask them whether I could include their episodes as discussion prompts in my own podcast. Out of the fifteen podcasts I approached, I received permission from eleven of them. I didn’t hear back from the remaining four even after a follow-up email. In the beginning, I was determined only to include those fan podcasts who had provided me with explicit permission. Due to the format and purpose of podcasts, I do consider them to be publicly available media – unlike say a Facebook post from a personal profile. But I wasn’t sure what role they would play in my own project and wasn’t comfortable using ones who hadn’t responded.  However, I soon realised that in our conversations, we were only using these episodes as conversation starters to frame and explore our own experiences and opinions in greater detail or we referred to them when they introduced us to new ideas. While I had initially thought that we would be analysing these fan podcast episodes in our podcast, that hasn’t been the case. Furthermore, my co-participants present their own contributions of fan texts, where it isn’t feasible to get permission from all those involved. So for some of my upcoming episodes, I’ve recommended fan podcasts where I haven’t heard from the creators. I believe that as far as we’re not analysing or critiquing the podcasts themselves and only using them as references or discussion prompts, it isn’t unethical to use these publicly available fan texts to inform our own ideas and discussions.

Delegating An Aspect Of Podcast Production – Editing

Before I started the podcast, I had planned to learn all the different aspects of podcast production through trial and experimentation (and some research). Before I launched my podcast, Jack, my boyfriend, offered to edit the episodes. I was hesitant about delegating for two reasons – i) I didn’t want to impose on Jack’s time and hold him accountable to my deadlines; and ii) I wasn’t sure that I should be getting outside help for any aspect of my project rather than doing everything myself. However, I had vastly under-estimated how much time the different stages of the podcast process would take. I quickly learned that the podcast recording itself was the least time-consuming part – the pre-production and the post-production take up much more of my time – about two weeks for each episode. If I added editing to the mix, my already-ambitious timescale would have been delayed and it would add to my overall stress. Which is why I’ve grown more comfortable with not editing the episodes myself. I tell my participants beforehand that Jack does the editing and none of them have been uncomfortable so far. I mark out the edits myself after typing the transcript, then Jack does the technical editing. While he’s doing that, I can focus on other tasks which need to be done. An unexpected bonus has been that while editing the episodes, Jack responds to the conversation with his own insights, examples, and experiences as a fan. As a Scottish man who grew up in a small town outside Glasgow, his perspectives and even the media examples are very different from my own knowledge. The conversations we have are interesting and illuminating – conversations which may not have happened had he not been in-charge of the editing. Now, I like the idea of expanding the co-creation aspect of my project by involving new perspectives during the production process.

The Challenge Of Participatory Methods 

When I first designed my methodology, I wanted to keep the format as open-ended, participatory and flexible as possible so I could incorporate suggestions from my co-participants. I assumed it would be best for us to go through the same fan texts so that we have a common starting point to base our conversation on. Before recording each episode, we have a brief planning session where we discuss what themes we’d like to talk about. Once I finish analysing my data, I want to send it to my participants and include their feedback in an epilogue episode to expand the range of voices in my final thesis. All this does require a fair amount of homework from the participants – much more than if they had just turned up to the podcast to answer my questions and that was the extent of their time commitment. Now, I’ve made sure this is all clear in the participant recruitment information. However, as we’ve all discovered over the last few months, sometimes life unexpectedly gets in the way and the time you may have committed a few months ago may no longer be possible. One of my participants said they didn’t want to go through fan texts and just wanted to chat about the themes. I haven’t recorded the episode with this participant yet because they ended up falling ill with COVID-19 but I’m hoping I still get to chat with them. While this change in format initially made me uncomfortable, I realised that while I find the texts useful, my participants may not. I was also concerned that my co-participants may feel too uncomfortable to bring up problems with the format. So since March, I’ve made it clear to my participants that they need not go through all or any of the texts. I still use the texts since they help me put my thoughts together, but my co-participants can just turn up for a conversation, especially if they already have thoughts about the topic we’re exploring in our episode – which many of them do. It’s not an ethical concern I had considered while designing this project, but I do tend to get so enthusiastic about ideas I love that I sometimes accidentally end up bulldozing other people’s perspectives. This is something I’m learning to grapple with not just when planning episodes but also during the conversations themselves. I don’t want to impose my ideas on others and leave little room for different opinions.

The Challenge Of Open Access Research

Open access has always been an integral aspect of my methodology and research philosophy. I’ve been learning from online fandom discussions right since I was 13 years old and I wanted to incorporate this same ethos of collective intelligence in my project. Since the recruitment stage, I’ve made it clear to potential participants that our podcast episodes will be publicly accessible. This is to ensure that our opinions and interpretations go beyond primarily Western and academic audiences and also include their comments. The only data that isn’t publicly available is the conversations I have with my co-participants before and after the recording of the episode as well as any part of our conversation that they’d like edited out. A couple of potential participants wanted to chat on the podcast but they had some concerns about their participation. One of them didn’t want their professional life to be connected with their fandom experiences. Another person wanted to talk about their personal experiences but was concerned that their parent might come across the conversation – a valid concern since I have the parent on my Facebook friends list where I share details of my podcast. I did want to maintain the audio element since I’ve found that conversations tend to flow more organically there than via email or instant messages. I researched audio disguising software and found that Skype offers an option to do that. Skype is where I plan and record all my episodes with participants. I suggested that the two participants could adopt pseudonyms and we can use software to alter their voices so that they’re unrecognisable to friends, family or co-workers even if they do end up stumbling onto the podcast. I have yet to coordinate details with these participants. However, this might be a good solution for similar hurdles with open access research.

Linguistic And Cultural Barriers In Dialogic Research

Since my methodology is dependent on dialogue, conversations between my co-participants both during and before the episode play an important role. One of my participants wasn’t comfortable with English since it wasn’t their first language. They also came from a cultural background where they tend to let older people speak more, especially if the older person is in a position of power. While I’ve tried my best to minimise the imbalanced power hierarchies between my co-participants and my role as the researcher, I wish I had taken more steps with this participant. Due to the linguistic and cultural barriers, I’m afraid our episode had me monopolising the conversation – where it ended up more as a lecture than a dialogue, with fewer inputs from the participant than I would have liked. I did learn a lot about this participant’s perspectives during our planning and episode. I met this participant at a module I assisted in last year and we had had a lot of conversations then. These informal in-person conversations were definitely valuable in providing a better context for the episode. Meeting this participant personally and having conversations over a period of months helped fill in the gaps the language barrier posed. However, I don’t think this is reflected in the episode itself. In this case, I think all the other conversations were just as important as the one we had on the podcast. It’s also helped me be more mindful of different language needs and accessibility issues both while preparing a classroom lecture (that this participant was a part of) as well as digital projects in general. This is one of the reasons I provide a text transcript of every episode.

Emotional Labour Of Talking About Personally Sensitive Topics

Many of my co-participants come from groups whose perspectives and experiences are marginalised in mainstream media and culture. So far, we’ve spoken about race, religion, class, gender, misogyny, ageism, ableism, ability and disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, and how different cultures are represented in Western media. The participants have deep emotional connections not only with these identities but also with their representations in the media we discuss. They love the books, TV shows and movies but are often disappointed by how these media represent their lives and cultures. Some of my participants – including myself – have also had difficult personal experiences which we draw on while discussing media representations. Even though I clarify to my participants that they should only share what they’re comfortable with, sometimes this information is deeply personal and full of hurtful memories and experiences. With one participant, one of the fan podcast episodes I had recommended ended up resonating with their own experiences quite uncomfortably and reminded them of childhood trauma. They then suggested including a content warning for our episode where we talked about both our personal experiences with family abuse and trauma. This is something I’m much more mindful of now not just for my participants’ mental wellbeing but also my own. There is no real solution to this issue since these conversations form the crux of my project. All I can do is check in with my participants and make sure they are okay both before and after our conversation – particularly if we have had a difficult one.

Impact On My Own Mental Health

I tend to get carried away when I’m really excited about something and this is a project which is deeply personal to me. My supervisors and transfer examiners warned me I’ve taken on a lot of work and were concerned about the risk of burnout. I launched the podcast in January and it’s due to run until October. I also have more participants than I had initially planned for, though some may still drop out. I naively believed I’d cracked the work/life balance code. I hadn’t. I reached burnout status around March-April where I was simultaneously working all the time and also feeling guilty about not working enough. I was constantly irritable and stressed out because of the overwhelming feeling of falling behind. This was compounded by the fact that over the last few months, I began using the podcast as a coping mechanism during the quarantine to get away from all the stressful news – both pandemic-related and political – from India, the UK, and the US. I didn’t know where my work life ended and my personal life began. The work was seeping into all aspects of my day and I couldn’t turn my brain off and just relax. I worked long hours, sometimes through illness, sometimes without a day off. I needed to change my unsustainable work habits – personally, I don’t think a culture of overworking during a PhD is helpful or even necessary. I now take two days off work every week. I also try and prepare realistic and not over-ambitious weekly schedules every Sunday. I try and finish work at 6 pm every day though I’m only intermittently successful at this. After that, I go for a walk in the park to end the work day (though I do listen to fan podcasts on my walk so that’s still technically working). I’m trying to learn how to be kinder to my brain, but the process is long and slow with lots of unhealthy relapses. One of the first things I’m learning to forgive my brain for is not changing overnight.

The Journey From Platform Nine And Three Quarters: Conclusion

Ultimately, my project seeks to create counternarratives which provide opportunities for people from marginalised groups to engage collectively with knowledge and culture in ways which matter to them – ways which may not be traditionally acknowledged in institutionalised educational spaces. It is also important to me and my research philosophy that these counternarratives are freely accessible in the public domain beyond academic bubbles and barriers. I’ve been hugely lucky to have a bunch of incredible co-participants who expand my brain in so many different ways. Through our conversations, we collectively engage in producing knowledge which challenges established norms and values. This is why, despite all the ongoing ethical challenges we’ve encountered, my participants and I believe in this project. By researching the alternative spaces of online fan podcasts, we’re exploring how fans from both marginalised and dominant groups adapt their favourite texts to place their concerns at the forefront and how this access to diverse perspectives can lead to empathy and respect for different experiences. As Walidah Imarisha declares:

“The decolonization of the imagination is the most dangerous and subversive form there is: for it is where all other forms of decolonization are born. Once the imagination is unshackled, liberation is limitless.”

If you have any feedback, suggestions or critiques or would like to talk to me about fandom, I’d love to hear from you! My email id is edps@leeds.ac.uk and on Twitter I’m @wildpyjamas. Thank you!

How Each Podcast Episode Feels Like An Audio Essay (Sort Of)

I didn’t anticipate this while designing the project and its methodology but in hindsight, it should have been obvious. The fact that each episode feels like an audio essay of sorts. This process includes not just the recording of the episode but also the pre- and post-production. When I first envisioned this project, I did want to focus on diverse perspectives, multiple interpretations, and co-creating knowledge together. I suppose I just didn’t connect this with an audio essay which seems like quite an individualistic process. When I wrote essays for my master’s, I much preferred working on every aspect by myself even though some lecturers and classmates suggested working together (sharing your ideas with each other + seeking feedback on drafts etc.) Even though the podcast process is very dependent on my own work too, this coupled with the collaborative aspects actually resemble my solo solo-essay writing process a lot more than I would have imagined.

  1. I go through a lot of literature and tend to over-prepare with my notes. I end up having much more points to talk about than I can possibly fit into one episode. So I end up only referring to a few of the notes/points. However, all of the background research does inform my overall thinking of the topic and even informs other/future topics
  2. I create a detailed episode outline to plan the structure of the episode accompanied by relevant notes from my literature. These  themes emerge based on my going through the texts + a discussion with the particular guest about what topics they’re interested in exploring.
  3. I have multiple multimodal sources of literature – largely fan podcast episodes but also essays and fanfiction, depending on what I find relevant to the episode coupled with what my co-participants suggest.
  4. In some episodes, we provide a brief overview to the literature in our conversation. In others, we use the points made in some of the literature to draw connections to our own experiences and ideas. So the literature both informs and inspires our conversation.
  5. We also often summarise arguments from the different literature sources and draw parallels between them by synthesising their points as we propose our own ideas.
  6. Sometimes we even make notes of specific quotes to read out on the episodes and cite the author and context of the quotes.
  7. Often, the literature sources signpost other texts – podcast episodes, essays, media, etc. – and one source leads to another. I follow and highlight relevant references to better understand the topic.
  8. In the transcript of each episode, I have an Episode Resources section at the beginning which puts together both mine and my co-participants’ text suggestions. This acts as a bibliography of sorts.
  9. Additionally, the text of the transcript also includes links to explanations/more detailed considerations of the point/term being mentioned. I also sometimes include videos, images and gifs. I look up these additional resources after we’ve recorded the episode, while I’m creating a lightly-edited version of the transcript for the blog.
  10. With my co-hosts, once we have a planning meeting to discuss the themes and structure of our episode, my co-hosts go and research some more and refer to this research in our discussion. This is not a part of the texts we exchanged with each other before recording the podcast. I’m not the only one bringing in additional resources to the conversation – though their contribution tends to happen before mine.
  11. Once I’ve created the final transcript for the blog, I read it and make notes for the intro. I write and record the intro which is then edited into the beginning of the episode. This intro summarises the various points we’ve covered in the episode for anybody who’s interested and sort of acts as an abstract for the episode. It is also the bio on SoundCloud and Anchor which shares it on the various podcasting apps.
  12. For the blog, SoundCloud, and Instagram, I also create a list of tags which are relevant to the episode. They act as key words.

Since each episode is a conversation, it’s a much more dynamic essay where both my co-participants and I are creating an argument together through our different perspectives. We’re often both surprised and inspired by each other’s points since we only discuss the overall themes and not the details while planning the episode. These surprises often mean that we’re coming up with new ideas or remembering relevant experiences during the conversation without planning it out beforehand. We end up co-creating knowledge by drawing on multiple sources – the literature, our discussion, and our own individual experiences and knowledge. Even though I can be quite a control freak and have preferred working on essays by myself, I find that I really love this collaborative audio essay supplemented by multimodal elements. I think the conversational aspect is key since we’re all bringing different kinds of knowledge and experiences together and learning from each other. My thinking is much stronger thanks to the process and I only wish all forms of knowledge-creation in more formal educational spaces were this conversational and collaborative.

 

New Fandoms And Themes For The Podcast

Before starting the project, based on conversations with my supervisors as well as my experience with my master’s thesis, I’d decided to limit the fandoms I include in my research to Harry Potter and Doctor Who. This was largely to keep the project manageable, provide a point of shared reference between me and my co-participants, and help narrow the fan podcasts I could shortlist and episodes I could listen to. I made sure to mention this focus in my participant recruitment information. At the same time, I made sure to design the project in such a way that it left room for co-participants to bring in their own preferred texts and fandoms too – preferably ones I was familiar with/could easily access to prepare for our conversation. I was trying to keep the project as flexible and open-ended as possible within the restrictions of a PhD project.

Most of the fan podcasts I’m looking at are exclusively Harry Potter or Doctor Who themed. However, I’d also included a couple of general fandom podcasts in the beginning of the project – Black Girl Nerds and Imaginary Worlds – to which I added Breaking The Glass Slipper after one of my co-participants suggested it and it was just the sort of podcast my research was interested in. Most of my own episodes themselves focused on Harry Potter or Doctor Who. However, even within those episodes, my co-participants and I frequently referenced or recommended other media we loved which happened to be relevant to the themes we were exploring. These themes varied based on the different co-participants’ experiences and expertise.

Apart from this, a few of my co-participants did suggest their own themes, media texts, and fandoms too – themes I wouldn’t have thought about myself. I found this extremely valuable since it highlighted specific issues and changed the way I thought about them. Examples of this include:

  1. Wicca and paganism (we looked at an episode of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina)
  2. Violence against women (we looked at the fate of female characters in Supernatural)
  3. Different cultures in fantasy worlds and fandoms
  4. Race and racism in mainstream Hollywood movies
  5. Representations of women warriors in media and history (we spoke about a range of media ranging from SFF comic books, TV shows and movies)
  6. International politics and the rise of fascism in the Fantastic Beasts films
  7. Representation of older women (apart from Harry Potter and Doctor Who, we also focused on Buffy The Vampire Slayer)
  8. Jewish faith traditions and representations of religion (we looked at the books Station Eleven and Too Like The Lightning and two different iterations of Star Trek – The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine)
  9. Polyamory in fanfiction and in the real world

Apart from this, one co-participant also suggested representations of fatness through a fat activism lens – specifically the intersection of gender, fatness and class. I remain unsure whether the episode with this participant is going to happen; however, it did allow me the opportunity to put together texts and make notes in preparation for our episode – which helped me gain new insights about media and the world.

I’ve loved this combination of familiar texts and themes with unfamiliar texts and themes because I learned different things in different ways from all the conversations. In several of our conversations – particularly the regular ones with my two friends and co-hosts – we ended up focusing on history, something I didn’t initially consider but I’m now really excited about. It’s made me even more excited about the thought of a Season 2 of the podcast – with guests both old and new – which may not necessarily be a research podcast anymore but will continue to aim an intersectional lens at some of our favourite media, their fandoms, and history.

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