Audio coming soon!
1) Fan podcast – Witch, Please: The Goblet is Political (Listen from 51ish minutes to 62 minutes 30 seconds)
2) Fan podcast – Witch, Please: The Cleansing Fire (Listen from 66 minutes to 80 minutes)
3) Fan podcast – Witch, Please: The Full-Blood Patriarchy (Listen from 63 minutes to 76 minutes 35 seconds)
4) Fan podcast – Witch, Please: Hallows and Goodbyes (Listen from 85 minutes to 92 minutes 35 seconds)
5) Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper: Where Are The Tampons With Tiffani Angus
6) Fanzine – Tonk’s Tale
7) Fan podcast – Fansplaining: Letting Harry Potter Go (Listen from 6 minutes 45ish seconds to 34ish minutes)
8) Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper: Transgender Representation in SFF
9) Article – What Is Toxic White Feminism
11) YouTube video – The Matrix As A Trans Allegory tr
12) Tumblr post – Sameface Syndrome and Other Stories
17) Research paper – Gender in Twentieth-Century Children’s Books
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. If you would prefer the original, unedited version, please let me know!
Welcome to Marginally Fannish, a show where we aim an intersectional lens at some of our favourite media and their fandoms.
My name is Parinita Shetty and you’re listening to the nineteenth episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, Aparna, Sanjana and I chat about different representations of genders, gender identities and gender expressions in media, fandom and the real world. We discuss some difficult issues related to depression, suicide and sexual violence so please consider this a content warning.
In mainstream media and popular culture, women’s representations can be quite limited. Stories about women frequently end up catering to the dominant gaze – full of tropes and stereotypes or examples which exceptionalise. Such representations offer limited conceptions of being a person in the world. If you consider intersections of other identities within gender, the situation is even starker. Moreover, discussions of women’s rights, equality and representation can result in very narrow views of who should be included and who should be excluded.
Much like with intersectional feminism, representations in media need to be inclusive of different identities – not just the most privileged within the marginalised group. Accepting and demanding difference doesn’t always come easily. Unlearning ideas you’ve been socially conditioned into requires an active effort and is quite realistically a lifelong, ongoing process. Critical and intersectional discussions in fandom and social media provides access to a diversity of experiences. This can help disrupt ideas that were previously taken for granted and draw attention to new ways of thinking about stories and the world. Once this critical gaze is unlocked, it’s difficult to put it away.
Find our conversation about all this and more in today’s episode.
Parinita: Hi! I’m Parinita.
Aparna: I’m Aparna.
Sanjana: And I’m Sanjana. And today in this episode we’re going to discuss gender, gender identity, and gender expression in some of our favourite fandoms and pop culture in general. When I was researching for this episode, I came across this article in The New York Times written by Brit Marling. And I’m going to quote directly from it because I thought that it encompassed what we wanted to talk about. The article was about basically her journey in the industry and her journey to becoming an actor. She’s now recently written and starred in a show on Netflix called The OA if I’m not mistaken. She started off with the kind of roles that she would get to audition for and how that hit very badly to how she would look at herself. It was basically talking about the strong female lead and what it meant to her and how that has been skewed. So I’m just going to quote two things from that article before we start. She writes, “It would be hard to deny that there is nutrition to be drawn from any narrative that gives women agency and voice in a world where they are most often without both. But the more that I acted the strong female lead, the more I became aware of the narrow specificity of the character’s strengths, physical prowess, linear ambition, focused rationality and masculine modalities of power. When we kill women in our stories, we aren’t just annihilating female-gendered bodies; we are annihilating the feminine as a force wherever it resides in women, in men or in the natural world in general. Because what we really mean when we say we want strong female leads is, ‘Give me a man in the body of a woman that I want to still see naked.’” And so I was just going back and looking at some of our main leads that we’ve loved. What do you guys think? How has the representation of females in some of our favourite media been?
Parinita: I mean that is the Star Wars syndrome, right? It’s not been a fandom that I’ve really been a part of and I don’t think I would consider myself a part of that fandom even now. It’s something that has such a huge fandom that I felt like I needed to watch it to know things. And if I would have watched it when I was younger, when I wasn’t thinking critically about these things, I don’t know if I would have noticed that. But I’ve been watching it over this last year – it’s been my pandemic companion – and I’ve noticed that so much in terms of the women just seem to be there to represent men in a female body. And also this exceptionalising of, “Oh I’m not like the other girls. There can only be one of me.”
Sanjana and Aparna: Yeah!
Parinita: “Because all the other women aren’t like this.”
Sanjana: Yeah, absolutely.
Aparna: So I very much fell into that trap of the strong female lead. First, before that, whatever I remember reading growing up, the characters that I wanted to be happened to be the boy characters in the books. Because they were just having more fun. And they had the best lines and were doing the most interesting things. So I would quite easily identify with them the most or want to be like them. And when I grew up slightly more, I very much fell into the strong female-lead trap in shows like Buffy where it’s not just a female character, it’s the female character. How she’s the centre of all of the action and she’s more than what anyone else around is; even though she was a flawed character and it was a very three-dimensional character. But just the fact that one woman was at the centre of this entire thing was very fascinating to me, especially after growing up not reading all of this. But now I’m realising that I’m drawn towards shows that have a cast of female characters – shows like GLOW or The Good Fight.
Parinita: Grey’s Anatomy.
Sanjana: Yeah, Grey’s Anatomy.
Aparna: Yeah. Broad City, Fleabag, Steven Universe. Even Jane The Virgin we really enjoyed the relationships between women because these are the things I feel we were a bit starved of when we were growing up. And so these are the things that now I’m coming around to appreciating the most when it comes to seeing female characters in pop culture.
Parinita: No, absolutely. I agree. Same with me. I fell for the boy character or George in The Famous Five.
Parinita: Who wanted to be a boy because they had more fun. And even recently Wonder Woman.
Parinita: As much as I loved that movie – I think we’ve spoken about this either the three of us, or I’ve spoken about it with some other people as well on the podcast where I loved the movie so much. But it is just her – apart from her time on the island, and then she leaves. That’s at the background. And then all her relationships are with men. Or with one man and the other villains and things. And there isn’t a community of women; where, from real life experiences, we know that we need a community of women. We can’t just be the one woman.
Parinita: How horrible would that life be!
Sanjana: Exactly. And as we started watching a lot more of these shows that had so many women characters interacting with each other – not just as friends but even otherwise, as people from different sides of the point but both female characters – it was a lot more enriching to watch and to see than watching that one female in the middle.
Aparna: Exactly! While acknowledging that we’ve come a long way from the years where it took three separate Spider-Men before we got one Wonder Woman, things are definitely changing. But to ensure that we don’t go through this entire process of demanding and looking for and waiting for the right representation, we need to make sure as a community, as a society, that when we finally do reach the point of equal representation, we’re not doing it alone. We are representing all genders and we have to have positive representations of Dalit and Adivasi women, women of colour, rural women, poor women. We have to acknowledge that we share our marginalisation with so many other identities. And while seeking fair representation for ourselves, this needs to be something that is as important as our own representation. Otherwise we’ll just get stuck in this, okay now what’s next on the list and let’s get representation for that figure.
Parinita: That’s something that I’ve been thinking of just because I’m re-reading the Harry Potter books now. And when I was reading them for the first time, I wasn’t really reading it critically. I was just reading it for fun. So I loved a lot or most of the things that I read. Whereas now I’m reading it with a more critical lens, informed by all the discussions that have been happening in fandom. So one of the things that people talk about a lot is Hermione and her white feminism when it comes to the house-elves.
Parinita: Or in an Indian context, it would be savarna feminism or Brahmin feminism. Which is looking at only a specific kind of experience. In terms of Hermione, basically, she wants to help liberate the house-elves from their oppression; and the house-elves are oppressed. The wizards and witches treat anybody who is not human terribly, but especially house-elves.
Parinita: They’re literally tied to their masters – which in itself is a dubious word which I never picked up on earlier. But at the same time, all the stuff that she does, her activism – everything is completely mocked and dismissed by everybody because everyone has so brought into the status quo that they’re like, “No, no, house-elves like being servants without pay.” So like slaves. “They’re very happy – they would be lost, they would have no identity without the work.” Which is true. But you need to educate house-elves as well and you need to learn from them. She has a very imperialist sort of saviour complex where she’s going in and she’s like, “Oh I know everything there is to know about this culture that I’ve just discovered two days ago.”
Parinita: “And I’m going to be telling them what to do. And if they don’t listen to me, I know better than them so I’m going to trick them …”
Sanjana and Aparna: Yeah!
Parinita: “By leaving knitted socks and hats and I’m going to set them free because that’s what a good feminist does.” [laughs]
Sanjana: Yeah. I was reading some article in which this thing about how we are being bad feminists because we would rather have like a great body; and we are putting the way we look above the way our mind works so we’re being bad feminists. That space to allow everyone to embrace whatever part of femininity they have to exist in that and still be feminist enough is also what is important.
Parinita: Yeah because you always find reasons why a woman is doing womaning wrong. There’s always that.
Parinita: Depending on your social context, like if you’re in the West or in the UK or in a developed society, there’s something else. If you’re in India, if you’re in the city, it’s something else; if you’re in the village, it’s something else. And that’s of course if you’re a cisgender woman which comes with its own set of privileges. If you’re trans or nonbinary, it just gets so much worse. As with everything, all the intersections, any sort of identity that you add, it usually ends up getting worse, especially if you’re a woman.
Parinita: And this kind of limited feminism – the Hermione brand of feminism, I guess, even though I love Hermione a lot … but J. K. Rowling identifies herself as Hermione so you can see where that limited version of feminism is coming from. But that’s the sort of feminism that leads to transphobia, right? You’re looking at trans women as not real women. So your definition of feminism only includes a certain group of women. But then I’m sure that – and I’m talking about specifically in the West – what would they think of, for example, women of colour? Or women with disabilities or any sort of other identity. I remember recently reading about this. In the Black Lives Matter protests that are happening in the US [it was actually in the UK], in one group, a bunch of TERFs – trans-exclusionary radical feminists – they tried to co-opt the movement and basically, they tried to make it about anti-trans sentiments. I’m not sure of the exact details but yeah for them, gender is more important than other identities [I meant sex, not gender] where it should be that all your identities matter. You can’t separate …
Aparna: Exactly. And the fact that seeing other people’s rights as a threat to your rights, is just such a narrow-minded view of equality or of representation in general. I was reading this very heart-breaking but beautifully written article by a transgender woman who’s a fan of Harry Potter. And it was her response to what’s going on saying that, “I understand why she feels threatened but what about my rights?” And then she starts comparing how she saw Harry Potter as a metaphor for her gender identity. How when he enters the wizarding world, even though there are problems there, that’s where he finally feels like himself. Whereas when he’s in the Muggle world, he never felt understood. And how she saw that as a parallel to her own experience that finally when she figured out her identity is when she felt like she’d found her Hogwarts so to speak. We recently discovered something – that despite Sana’s awesome memory, she had forgotten – that there’s this bit in Harry Potter where girls are allowed in boys’ dormitories but when the boys try to go to the girls’ dormitory, the staircase turns into a slide. So this very specific changing-room phobia that J. K. Rowling has, I mean there were clues even in the earlier Harry Potter books.
Parinita: Yeah for sure. And even the very limited ideas of gender itself in the books. This is something that I wouldn’t have picked up on because of the limits of my experiences.
Sanjana and Aparna: Exactly!
Parinita: As a cis woman it’s really easy to be ignorant of this.
Parinita: But then there is a difference between ignorance and malice. Because you can be ignorant and teach yourself these things that are beyond your experiences because so many things are beyond our experiences. But then to be confronted with difference and then decide that oh no, this difference is a threat to me and we should just throw them under the bus. Even if you’re that selfish, it’s still going to come and hurt you in the end. Because the people at the top are just going to whittle down the opposition one by one by turning different marginalised groups against each other because of this idea that there’s a very finite amount of rights so only one group can have all the rights.
Parinita: Ugh it’s really frustrating in Harry Potter and even for that matter in Doctor Who which is another thing I’m re-watching now to inform the project. How the women are represented there is also quite limited in terms of what roles they can play, what they look like, and what the Doctor looks like. Jodie is progress now, but it took how many years for that to happen?
Sanjana: Yeah. Exactly.
Aparna: Yeah absolutely. And all of this stems from just a complete erasure or misrepresentation of these identities in our media. We heard this podcast episode of Breaking The Glass Slipper where they were talking about the erasure of trans people from history or from popular culture. And the statues have been torn down and things like that. It’s true for so many other identities. In India, it’s true for so many Dalit, Adivasi women. A lot of the smaller sections of Indian society have been completely glossed over. Their contributions to the freedom struggle have been completely glossed over. So nobody gets to read about them. There is a very limited idea of what these people, of what all of these identities mean or stand for. One more thing that they said in that episode was it’s okay if we have limited representation, but we want to have good representation. And how quality mattered more than quantity. And that is so true, especially in India where we’ve seen the depiction of transgender people in Bollywood
Sanjana: Oh my god!
Aparna: As being these awful caricature depictions which were treated as punchlines. And it takes a lot of unlearning to ??? these things.
Sanjana: Yeah no, absolutely. Talking about our encounters and understanding of transness and trans people, it is an unlearning. Because until embarrassingly late, our views were very, very narrow. Because the only source of knowing or even experiencing or relating to transness was through the Bollywood films that we watched and through how our parents reacted. Or when we would stop at a traffic signal or something and how we would see everybody’s windows being rolled up. [Sanjana was alluding to the treatment meted out to hijras in India]. And that view is what you form as you’re growing up. And, as I’ve realised, when you’re growing up, it really does take a lot of unlearning and a lot of reading to truly understand how wrong your view of such things are. Because it’s not just this, but a whole lot more. Popular culture plays such an important role in our lives that it just becomes this whole trope that you buy into again and again. Because this is what you see not only in films but then you see it play out in real life at weddings in the north and stuff. It’s just made it a them versus us kind of thing. Which it shouldn’t have been from the very first place. It’s a lot of fixing that somebody has to do in terms of representing them just as they are.
Parinita: Intersectional feminism – just being an intersectional feminist – is a lifelong, ongoing process, right? There’s never going to be an end point when you know everything, you’ve unlearned everything, you learned everything there is. So that’s it, my job is over. Because there’s always going to be something new that you discover. Or a new identity that gains a more widespread space in the mainstream conversation and the mainstream media and everything.
Sanjana: Yeah. And truthfully, it makes a difference. Just representation in a normalised ways makes a difference. Because the more shows that we are watching together with the family as a whole, the more normal it is to see a gay couple or see different people onscreen. And the comments within the room have become a lot more accepting of what they are seeing. It started off with, “Arey again? Arey this has become a thing.” I’m just quoting from family members only who probably don’t read as much or haven’t corrected their views. But the fact that they are being represented in such a normal way without making a big deal of it – by not making it the token representation. Just making it more normal is making a large difference to the way everybody started viewing these things. So it does make a difference to consciously represent people a lot better in more normalised ways.
Parinita: Yeah and not just with trans representations. Even that is quite limited. In the “Transgender Representation in SFF” episode, Cheryl Morgan was talking about how there’s a cis-gaze in media because a lot of cis writers tend to write about trans experiences. There isn’t still a huge number of trans writers in popular mainstream media creating their own stories. So even when the representations do exist and when they are trying to make it a point to represent, it still falls into some tropes and stereotypes that a trans writer writing about themselves probably wouldn’t have made. Obviously there’s no monolithic trans experience, just like there’s no monolithic cis woman experience.
Parinita: But as Cheryl mentioned, if you’re representing trans people, the focus tends to be on the transition process. Which isn’t something that trans writers or trans media creators themselves are really interested in focusing on because for them, the transition is just them changing their outward appearance to match their inward sense of self. And they’re interested in exploring other aspects of their identity, and their identity itself is just a part of this whole complex version of themselves. If I’m in the UK from India and if everybody just asks me about that, about being an Indian immigrant in the UK, that’s such a limited concept of being a person in the world.
Parinita: And it’s the same with Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi women as well, right? It’s something that I’ve only recently started thinking about – how they are represented in Bollywood. If you don’t know people in real life, that’s what your ideas are shaped by. And the way that it’s represented is so terrible. Looking back, like you were saying, it’s the same with me, it’s such a process of unlearning. Because you don’t even know what you don’t know.
Sanjana and Aparna: Yeah!
Parinita: If nobody’s disrupting that idea; if everyone around you thinks the same, talks the same about other people as well –
Sanjana: Exactly! And no, thinking about the fact that this is us who are actively reading and trying to get a hang of it. This is us still battling what we’ve been learning. Which is why popular media plays so much of a role in the way we think because that is the fastest way we learn and that’s probably the fastest way in which we’ll unlearn everything else as well. Or come up with a broader view of things.
Parinita: And feminism itself, when I was younger, and even not that long ago – until a couple of years ago, my idea of women’s rights and was still so exclusive of most other experiences.
Parinita: Not through any purposeful exclusion but just ignorance and extrapolating my experience to everyone’s experiences and everyone’s worldviews. So coming back to Harry Potter, just because that’s something that we’re looking at for the episode and that’s something that all three of us have grown up with and loved so much. But now reading it as an adult and listening to some of these fan podcasts that we listen to, I was listening to Woke Doctor Who, one of their recent episodes and they were talking about how much internalised misogyny there is in Harry Potter.
Parinita: And it’s not something that you pick up on earlier. I’m reading Order of the Phoenix currently and there’s a lot of problems in that book. It’s my favourite Harry Potter book, but in terms of representations, there’s a lot to unpack there. Just a very basic thing I realised that the insults were so gendered. The women and girls are insulted by their looks. Aunt Petunia’s described as having horsy teeth and Pansy Parkinson is always described as having a pug face.
Parinita: But men and boys are fat and dumb. So their intelligence is vilified. Like Dudley or Crabbe or Goyle, they’re like oh they’re so stupid and oh they’re fat. But girls, it’s always looks. It’s a very basic thing but that’s how things build, right? From the most basic things you build up more and more.
Sanjana: Yeah. Talking about women being described, I came across an article which was talking about the portrayal of female professors in Hogwarts and how they are also described very physically through their physical traits. Like McGonagall is someone who can transform into a cat and does these great things but then she’s described with special attention to her appearance with beady eyes, her stern expression and her shrill voice. And the fact that she wants the Quidditch team to succeed is mocked. That part is made fun of. Even Trelawney who is made fun of with the way she looks. Professor Sprout also is defined not by her skill or anything but by how she looks. Like she’s dumpy and Trelawney is bug-like. It’s something that I didn’t even pay attention to. But this is how all the female professors are.
Parinita: Even Umbridge In Order of the Phoenix, Umbridge is the big bad. Based on that Woke Doctor Who episode, I was paying more attention to how people are described and how women are described. Even now a lot of fans, including me, tend to hate Umbridge with more loathing than they hate Voldemort.
Sanjana and Aparna: Yeah.
Parinita: So when I was reading, I was trying to unpack why. And it’s just that the narrative positions her so much more intimately and the way that she’s described and the way that all her vile things and vile attitudes and vile behaviour – the way that they are described are going to so much more depth and you see the horror so much more nakedly. Whereas with Voldemort, it’s more macro level villainy. It’s more like, “Oh I hate all Mudbloods and I hate all Muggles. Let’s kill everybody!” Whereas Umbridge, you can actually see how – and I understand why you see that because you’re seeing a fascist takeover of Hogwarts in miniscule and then you see the whole wizarding community being taken over like that. But it’s so easy for to villainise women by calling them ugly because she’s called toad-like and ugly. And also the fact that she is aggressively feminine.
Parinita: She likes kittens and the bows and the fluffy pink cardigans, that’s described in such a “Oh my god! Foul!” way. Like why?! Even Parvati and Lavender who are the feminine students in the school.
Aparna: Yeah. But this extends to many of the other girls in the book who are not Hermione or who are looked at from Hermione’s point of view or how they are always giggling and they are always in a group and they are always drawing hearts and things like that. It’s such a overreaction to girly things and girls are only given girly things and pink is only for girls. And now and then it’s tilted to this complete extreme like if you want to be taken seriously, you cannot like any of these things anymore. You have to rise above all these girly things.
Sanjana: Yeah. Not going into the point that Lavender also joined Dumbledore’s Army.
Aparna and Parinita: Yeah!
Sanjana: She also fought at the Battle of Hogwarts. She died. She died, right?
Aparna: Did she?
Parinita: She died in the movie; in the books, we’re still not very sure.
Sanjana: We’re still not sure. There was one place that described her as being reduced to a plot point to increase the sexual desire around a man. Like she was put there just so we found Ron a little bit more worth a second glance. It was just the saddest sentence ever. [laughs]
Parinita: Yeah. And Ron just uses Lavender because he’s insecure and he wants to make Hermione jealous.
Sanjana: Yeah, Ron is a completely different topic on misogyny. But I would like to bring up Molly Weasley. And the misogyny that lies there in many parts.
Parinita: Oh yeah.
Sanjana: One of the episodes that we were listening to mentioned the whole Fleur versus Molly Weasley and how they keep making fun of her. They’re not at all welcoming. I would not like to marry into that family. [laughs]
Parinita: I know! Can you seriously imagine? She’s like this Indian daughter-in-law –
Parinita: Staying with this family in a foreign country.
Sanjana: And she’s a kickass person!
Aparna: Yeah, she was in the Triwizard Tournament.
Parinita: But again, this is something that the narrative positions you to think. If you’re not looking out for the tricks in the narrative or you’re not looking at it critically …
Sanjana: You would fall –
Parinita: Yeah! You fall for it. So you are also like, “Ugh Fleur. What?!”
Sanjana: We all did. In fact, in one place I read that Molly Weasley – uh Molly was very uh Mrs. Weasley I’m going to call her.
Sanjana: I don’t know I’m feeling too awkward to full-name her.
Aparna: She just called her Molly and was very uncomfortable calling Molly Weasley by her first name.
Parinita: [laughs] Molly Aunty.
Sanjana: Yes, Molly Aunty. All right. So Molly Aunty was very, very unforgiving to Hermione. And I completely forgot this or didn’t pay even a second glance to.
Sanjana: She gets a miniscule tiny package from Molly Weasley. Because it has – Molly Weasley again I full-named her – but Molly Aunty is very mean to her. One, it was not true; but even if it was true, Hermione doesn’t deserve to be punished for that. It’s her wish to date!
Aparna: This whole thing in media of I have been victimised by being rejected by a woman. And it is just so present everywhere that oh like in Friends!
Sanjana: Yeah. And we don’t even look at it the second time unless we are trying to dissect it like now. Whereas when I was reading it, I thought haan, theek hai. Because it was okay. [laughs] But it’s not! It’s not at all okay, Molly Weasley. It’s not at all okay!
Parinita: [laughs] Like in Witch, Please what did Marcelle say? Who do you think is the better feminist – Molly or Hedwig? And they chose Hedwig as the better feminist.
Aparna: Yes. [laughs]
Sanjana: And as more I read about Molly, I mean she redeemed herself in the end with that great battle but I’m saying she had many underlying internalised stuff that society tells you this is a place for –
Parinita: Yeah because she’s also the victim, right? Of the society.
Parinita: So it’s violence reproducing violence. Not physical but psychological.
Sanjana: And I’ve seen this in real life. I’ve seen women telling me. But it is so internalised that it is hard to have a conversation and try to tell them that this is not okay, you don’t deserve this. But women have been told that this is what they deserve and so well.
Parinita: I know that patriarchy is this global institution and it affects people differently in different parts, but India is so much more patriarchal I feel –
Sanjana: Oh my god.
Parinita: Than a lot of the West. The problems that we are going through in India, sometimes I can imagine how it must feel for women from rural backgrounds and Dalit/Adivasi/Bahujan backgrounds when we in the cities are talking about our problems. Because that’s what it feels to me sometimes when women in the West are talking about their problems.
Parinita: I’m like, you guys have it so much better than we do!
Parinita: I can’t even go out in the street wearing a pair of shorts because it’s hot without worrying whether I’m going to be raped or not.
Sanjana: Yeah. We’re saying it so casually but this is the truth.
Parinita: You laugh about it because otherwise you’ll cry.
Sanjana: I started panicking at the back of a cab ride once because he wanted to relieve himself is all. Poor fellow, his bladder was bursting.
Sanjana: But I imagined all sorts of evil things coming from him because … because … yeah because.
Parinita: I mean even this weekend, I decided that for mental wellbeing purposes, I needed to go on a long walk. So I went on this trail near my house which is this 16 kilometre long trail. So it was a bit of an overkill. But at some points, it was very deserted so I could have died. I could have been murdered by the men walking on the trail sometimes. I was making all these different plans and backup plans for what I would do in case somebody – it’s like the first time that the three of us travelled together.
Aparna: Yes, exactly!
Parinita: Where we had to pick up a stone just to feel safe.
Sanjana: Yeah. Not that that stone would have done anything against the five-six men who were trying to follow us. But they were just doing it for kicks. My point is that they were just doing it for kicks because they also have been told that this is normal behaviour.
Parinita: And why should women feel safe?
Sanjana: What reason?
Parinita: They don’t deserve to share the same space as you. It is our space so we can terrorise them by just following them drunkenly on a narrow cliff-face.
Sanjana: And the fact that we’ve been also told to respect a woman if she’s taken, for example. If you’re wearing a ring and you are out in a pub, and somebody is trying to flirt with you, the only reason that they will back off – and I don’t use this unless I’m absolutely pushed to a corner to use it because I don’t want to use a fact that I’m married or something to get out of a situation. But the fact that men would rather respect this man that they’ve never met than the woman’s wishes in front of them; and respect the fact that oh you’re married, that means that I should back off. But they’re basically respecting this make-believe man that I’ve made up.
Parinita: Yeah because if you live in a patriarchal society and you are already marginalised, you use the tools that you’re given to be safe, right?
Parinita: My mom does the same thing. So she’s been divorced for what – since I was thirteen; so seventeen years now. She goes out and works and she’s out and about all day most days in Mumbai – and Mumbai is still one of the safer cities considerably compared to the rest of India. But she also wears a mangalsutra around her neck which signifies that she’s a married woman even though she’s not. And it’s something that we’ve spoken about. But that makes her feel safe. And sometimes that does work.
Sanjana: It does!
Parinita: Though sometimes it doesn’t.
Parinita: Sometimes men just man all over the place.
Aparna: Similarly, when you compare … it’s such a process of learning for me. I was reading an article about how women are celebrating the fact that some companies are – firstly I would just like to interrupt this to say that Sana’s husband is not made-up.
Parinita: [laughs] Are you sure?
Aparna: It had been bugging me. So I had to. [laughs]
Sanjana: Listen when this happened, we were engaged but I called him husband. It was easier than saying the whole thing that I’m engaged to be married and so.
Aparna: Okay, okay.
Sanjana: At that time, he was made up.
Parinita: He was made up!
Aparna: To get back to my point, I was reading an article about how women are very happy that some companies in India are giving menstruation leave like a two-day leave or something to women every month and how it was being celebrated. And when you compare it to the same situation for say a Dalit woman and how they would not miss a day of work even if they were given it. And if they had access to say sanitary napkins, they would probably sell them to provide for their family and things like that. And during the whole thing about women who wanted to get into the – they were being denied access to the … which temple was it?
Aparna: The Sabarimala temple, yeah. When they were on their period. And how it compares to how so many Dalit women or many women from disadvantaged backgrounds, they’re not allowed ever into those temples. And how we have these small victories that it feels odd to celebrate them when there is such a difference between our experiences and so many other experiences.
Parinita: Yeah. I’m very … it’s such a complex topic for me. Just because when you were saying that, I was thinking of how exhausting the world is. And how you sometimes just do need to celebrate even the tiniest of victories – if you can call it, or the tiniest of things. At the same time, you’re aware of how unequal the society is because you can’t separate gender from all the other identities you inhabit like class and caste and religion and whatever. And … it’s just such a two-sided thing that you are aware of these terrible things but then if you never take the time to see how far you’ve come, or see the sort of progress that you’re making, even if it’s very small you’re just going to burn out. And you’re not going to be able to then get up and fight again for anything. So Rebecca Solnit has written this book called Hope In The Dark which talks exactly about that. She’s studied different movements and things and that’s her argument that you do need to see how far you’ve come even from like thirty years ago to the sort of conversations that we’re having now. But you also have to acknowledge your privilege. You also have to be aware that all these things that you’ve gained, only a very small percent of the population has gained. Or a small percent of your gender has gained. There’s still a lot more to be done. But you do need to sit down and say that okay, a happy thing has happened. I’m allowed to be happy. And just feel your feels, you know. And just this all-pervasive male gaze everywhere is so exhausting. So speaking of just being on your period and stuff, in media and in science fiction and fantasy and everything largely just like in society, there’s such an erasure of women’s bodily functions because what – they’re gross? You don’t want to see anything that reminds you that women are human beings. So let’s pretend that they bleed blue blood and [laughs] they have no armpit hair. Let’s pretend that they’re just robot zombies.
Sanjana and Aparna: [laugh]
Parinita: [sighs] It’s exhausting. It’s just exhausting being a woman.
Aparna: It is exhausting!
Parinita: I wanted to talk a little bit about violence against women. I’m taking depressing topics and making them more depressing. But just again women being the default victims. Of course you see that in media, you see that in the things we read, the things that we watch. But just most recently this whole nonsense about Rhea Chakraborty and Sushant Singh Rajput in India.
Sanjana: Oh my god!
Parinita: So just to give people who don’t know what’s going on in India some context – we have a fascist government currently. But what’s going on more recently in terms of Rhea and Sushant. So there’s a Bollywood actor who killed himself recently. He’s been depressed for a few years now. This was in the middle of the pandemic as well where a lot of people’s mental health, including mine, has just fallen off the cliff. So it could have been such an opportunity to talk about mental health and depression and community and support. But instead, everybody – the government, the criminal justice system, the media, random people on my Facebook profile who are no longer on my Facebook profile – decided that the fault actually is Rhea Chakraborty, his girlfriend – or his ex-girlfriend’s, I’m not sure of the details. And there was such a witch hunt in the very medieval European kind of way where everybody assassinated her character. Everyone was obsessed about this and not about the fact that obviously it was the government trying to distract everybody from the pandemic, from the economy, from everything privatised, from people being killed, from people being arrested. All of it was a distraction – and people fell for it!
Sanjana: Yeah, absolutely. And I read somewhere that somebody was saying that the amount of agencies that were put behind trying to find something on her. If they were looking into you, me or Aparna, they would have found something. They would have found something on anybody. If they look that deeply at anybody, we’ve all done something that they can use against us.
Parinita: Yeah. Because she eventually got arrested for what – smoking weed, right?
Parinita: Or buying weed?
Sanjana: Yeah. For being in possession. [laughs] There’s this really funny tweet that I read when this was happening; it was funny and very, very sad. And I’m paraphrasing because I don’t particularly remember the exact words so it says that under the current government, Shiva would have been arrested for possession. And somebody replied to that saying no, he wouldn’t have. Parvati would have been arrested for giving it to him.
Sanjana: I just thought it was so sad and also so true. [laughs]
Parinita: This Rhea’s hounding, it reminded me so much of Harry’s hounding; the trial that he goes through in The Order of the Phoenix – again, I have short term memory, I’m reading this book currently which is why I’m making all these connections. Otherwise I would not have been able to identify these things. But even in Harry Potter, in The Order of the Phoenix, where the government, the criminal justice system, the school system, media, society – everybody is against him and doesn’t want to believe him. And, of course, he has the privilege of being a man and all in that society. But still. And coming back to Rhea, I’ve read tweets about how Rhea, she’s this upper caste Hindu woman in India. Her father is in the military, I think, or was in the military. She’s in Bollywood. She has all these privileges and she is being treated like that. So everybody else should be really scared. Because the fewer privileges that you have, the easier it is to just have people not care about you, right?
Sanjana: Yeah. Going back to violence against women, this particularly brings up this one episode in Grey’s Anatomy in which Jo was dealing with a rape victim who comes in. And I just wept through that episode. It took so long for me to see an episode in which a victim of rape and the whole thing was portrayed with such honesty that it was just … that episode was really something.
Parinita: Yeah and the hallway of women, right?
Sanjana: Yes! Where she could not see another man, yeah.
Parinita: So the woman who’s been raped, it’s just happened and she can’t bear the sight of a man yet. So the intern Jo – or not the intern, the resident – she’s no longer an intern. The doctor decides to get the help of all the women in the hospital – not just the doctors and the nurses but everybody who works in the hospital – and create a hallway that blocks off all the doors and the windows and just creates this sort of supportive hallway of women just being there. Most of them don’t know why they’re there.
Sanjana: Yeah. They’re just there because they were needed. It was a very strong image. And even the fact that they explain the rights to her and say that if you don’t want to follow this through, it’s okay. But in case you at some point change your mind, you should have everything you can to battle it. To get justice for what was done to you. When rape is portrayed or violence against women or is portrayed even in real life scenarios, I’m not talking about sci-fi and stuff, that’s a wholly different thing, but even then you don’t really get to see the important bits of it. The victim is just the victim and then gets pushed aside and there’s this whole thing that unfurls. But this was so focused on how that one woman was feeling. It was a very strong thing.
Parinita: But Grey’s Anatomy in general, I think, does a really good job.
Sanjana: Especially their recent seasons. The last two seasons, for example, they’ve really upped their game.
Parinita: Yeah but just even just right from the beginning. It’s a giant soap opera. People get killed by falling off planes and bombs and –
Sanjana: Yeah. [laughs]
Parinita: So there’s a lot of this. But I’ve been watching it for what now nearly since it started. So it’s like sixteen years now? So it’s a good chunk of my life that I’ve been watching this show. But even in the beginning, in terms of the cast, in terms of who’s at the leadership positions, in terms of who has agency and who has power, women have always played a role there. And now it’s becoming increasingly diverse as well. So you have women who are Muslim or a transgender man or you have disabled women and women of different races and things. So it’s becoming increasingly diverse and yeah, the last few seasons have tackled more overtly political themes as well.
Parinita: Which is great. [End part one?] Now I’m becoming more used to thinking about these things, and also becoming more used to having media or looking out for media that has a better representation of women. So then when I go back and look at other media for the first time … like the other day Jack and I, we were watching this new show called Lost Girl. It’s not a new show, it’s new to me. And he had watched it before and he just thought that I’d like it. And it was a fun show but what stood out to me because I’d just come off watching Grey’s Anatomy, I was like all these people are really thin and they’re really very conventionally attractive and they’re all white. It’s a very definitive idea of being a woman. And I’m like hmm. Then I said this to Jack, and Jack is like, “But that’s all media.” Which I guess is true because Bollywood is the same, right? You have to be fair-skinned, if you’re dark skinned, that has class, caste, regional implications like you’ll be South Indian or whatever, you’ll be from a Dalit or Adivasi background or whatever. But once you get used to better, it’s very difficult then to let mediocre get past you, you know?
Aparna: Absolutely. This dominant view of women is – and I’m going to use Disney as an example, but it extends to everything. It’s just this unrealistic standard of “Whatever your personality be like, but this is what you should look like.” In fact there was an analysis of all the faces of all the characters of the Disney movies from Snow White onwards. And they had sketched out the faces and all of the women had the same face structure, the same small nose, big eyes, high cheekbones pointy chin. Whereas there was so much variety in the way the male characters looked. I read this excerpt of an interview with the head of Disney animation at some point who said that it was difficult to animate women’s faces because they have to look pretty at all angles and through all expressions. So not only do you have to add expressions to them, you see, you also have to make them look pretty when they’re angry. You also have to let them remain pretty while being angry or sad or happy or confused. Very confused much of the time they will be confused.
Parinita: No but they can be ugly if they’re evil.
Aparna: Yeah, yeah, yeah, of course.
Parinita: They can be old and ugly but then they’re the bad person.
Parinita: And even fatness. This is again something that I have only recently started thinking about, just the way that media portrays fat people when it does. That’s why when I was watching Lost Girl, I was like, these are all very thin people. Of all the people that I know, most women don’t look like this. I don’t look like this.
Aparna: Exactly. [laughs]
Parinita: Media doesn’t just affect people in one way. We learn from these different identities but also our own sense of self, right? In terms of different body sizes and all, I know that’s a very basic thing, but fat activism and stuff, that’s what they talk about. This is again something that I’ve been reading and learning about more recently about how when you’re a fat person, you seem to be up for public consumption. And people will make comments about your health. They’ll not see you as a person who is equal, who should get equal respect and deserves the same amount of dignity that any other people do. And a lot of people have spoken about this; like the things that I’ve read, they talk about how fatness doesn’t necessarily have to do with health as well. Even some of our favourite media, like Avatar or Anne With An E or the Marvel movies, Disney movies, Doctor Who whatever, all the women – there might be one or two curves maybe somewhere in the background; but most of them are really thin, conventionally attractive, not like my body at all. There’s nobody who looks like me on it in terms of size.
Parinita: It’s such a limited idea that limits your own imagination as well.
Sanjana: Yeah. Going back to the Disney thing Aparna was talking about, how the face shape was very similar. When we were having one of the our previous discussions, you guys mentioned Disney so I was like, let me look. And there was one paper – and I never got through reading the whole paper – but there was this one interesting bit where they had done this categorisation of the jobs that women have had in the Disney movies and the jobs that men have had. But in that they found that the male characters over sixteen different films, there were twenty-six job categories that the male characters had. Whereas there were only four women categories where they had out-of-home employment; where they went outside the home. Which was an actress, sheep-tender thief and a fairy. And [laughs] I was like what?! And then they also examined the depiction of in-home labour and there were twenty-four examples of women performing domestic tasks whereas there were only four examples of men performing domestic tasks. And two of them were from the butlers in Aristocats. That is how much agency is given to women in the Disney films.
Aparna: Yeah. And things that are completely normal for all humans are given such disproportionate screen time in most of the media that we consume whether it’s house work or whether it’s occupying public spaces on the other hand. Something that I wanted to talk about was how masturbation is depicted. So I was hearing this NPR interview of Phoebe Waller-Bridge. And her show in the very first episode has a scene of masturbation. And what she said was that it was funny how shocking it was like it was some big secret and how it’s represented as so normal for men. Especially in comedies, it’s shown as such a routine of something that they just – it’s almost a daily occurrence and they just have to get on with it. But for women, it’s seen as some deeply selfish transgressive thing. It brings me back to what you said about the erasure of women’s bodily functions. And how women taking pleasure in anything is seen as something very subversive but it’s not. It’s normal. It’s a human trait to do that.
Parinita: And even sex! The male gaze comes through in the way that sex is portrayed and the way that women orgasm in sex scenes. Like oh yeah penetration happens, oh instant orgasm.
Parinita: So that’s how sex works.
Sanjana: It really doesn’t.
Parinita: Yeah it doesn’t! It doesn’t work like that. And it’s something that you are conditioned so much that you feel like – I spent so many years just thinking there was something wrong with me [laughs] that that’s not what was happening because I was like, arey penetration happened, orgasm nahi hua toh … so why is this not working? And if you only have this very fixed idea of just even – no, not even fixed idea – there’s no consideration given only to women’s pleasures – how women’s bodies work, how women’s anything works. It’s just – we need to get this story thing but the man’s story is more important. Or we don’t need to actually research what sex for women is like. It’s okay whatever, this works for men so it might as well work for women. And again it’s quite a superficial thing but it all adds up, right? It’s all a part of what being a woman in the world is. And if it’s just such a male-centric view of being a woman, then it’s so much more difficult to unlearn that even as a woman who thinks about these things.
Sanjana: Yeah. Some time back we were talking about how there’s always this Brahminical society and stuff. And so recently we were doing a comic on women pathbreakers in India and I had not heard of any of these women. Any of these women. I think I’d only heard of Anna Mani because I had read a picture book on her. [laughs] Otherwise I had no idea of any of these women. And it was so sad that we didn’t study these women or nobody told us about these women. The first story is about Pandita Ramabai and it just stayed with me – that whole thing that is what we’ve been battling. The story goes that her father was this understudy of a Brahmin teacher who would teach Sanskrit verses to the royals. And he was at this place where he was teaching a Peshwa’s wife and it was being done behind closed doors so that nobody could see a woman reciting Sanskrit verses. But he was standing on the side and it’s from his point of view. And he is looking at it and saying that “This woman seems to be reciting the Sanskrit verses pretty well. Have the Brahmins been lying to us that women don’t even have the capability to learn?” And so the Brahmin men also grew up or the society grew up with being told that women don’t even possess the ability to study or learn Sanskrit verses and stuff. So as an experiment, he went back to try and teach his wife and mother-in-law – wife particularly. And they of course laughed him off and said, “What is wrong with you? We’ll be thrown out of society.” Which eventually did happen because when he did finally try, he was thrown out of society along with his family. Then I went up and started looking at biopics made on women in the last couple of years and a lot of them were a lot of the famous stories. Like the sports stories like Mary Kom’s story was told but it was told when she had just won and she had just gained some popularity and so let’s quickly make one. Whereas we told Milkha Singh’s story which was a story from history. We are not telling a P. T. Usha story; we are choosing to tell Milkha Singh’s story but we are doing Mary Kom because she’s popular right now. She’s current. Even the wrestler sisters in Dangal. Their story was also told when they had just become popular. And we are not telling stories of the past. We are not telling Pandita Ramabai’s story. And even Savitribai Phule’s story, one Kannada film exists which is her story. I feel like there is some role for content creators to play to break or reinforce stereotypes. And to tell these stories. Because they are full of drama. They are really full of drama. They deserve being told, if that’s what we’re missing. They are full of a lot of angst and a lot of struggles and they deserve to be told. So what are we missing?
Parinita: Yeah. In history, we don’t learn these things. Like Savitribai Phule, she’s from Maharashtra and she is the first woman teacher in India. And she was also a Dalit woman. And we don’t learn about the Dalit woman-ness.
Parinita: We learn history much in the way Professor Binns in Harry Potter teaches history in Hogwarts.
Aparna: [laughs] Yeah.
Parinita: Where references to goblin rebellions and goblin riots are scattered throughout the lessons and it could be so much better. What you said, Sana, was something Harry said. That, “Oh this could have been so exciting in anybody else’s hands.”
Parinita: But Professor Binns drives you to a stupor. And I think in India or in other parts of the world as well, history is being deliberately used to drive this sense of complacency within the population and not teach people. If history is taught in such a boring way; if Pandita Ramabai, Savitribai Phule, they’re just names that you have to learn with the dates and learn what they did just in a sentence without understanding the context – the social, cultural, political contexts then and now, then you’ll just be – you’ll fall asleep in the class like how you do in the History of Magic classroom. And you’re not going to make these connections.
Sanjana: Yeah. Exactly. It broke so many notions I had formed of popular men from history. Like Lokmanya Tilak. All we’ve learned of him is this Balgangadhar Tilak – great freedom fighter and stuff. But his views on women were atrocious to say the least. And then I narrated everything to my dad and he also holds these people in great esteem and it was just that we’ve been told history in such a wrong way. Even C. V. Raman who is a man of science treated the women in his lab pretty badly. They were not allowed to go out into public spaces because they would distract the men. They could not rest in the gardens so they would sleep under their tables while doing science experiments. But the men could lounge around wherever they wanted. Some of the stories that came forth during the research and stuff, it’s just heart-breaking; because you’re like, “Oh so cool this scientist person” when you first read about C. V. Raman and then you realise that there’s all these underlying parts of where they were in society at this time. And that history is not told as a whole to keep reinforcing the same thing and not portray the real bits of how these stories unfolded. It was quite heart-breaking to see.
Parinita: Yeah and just in terms of men, you can be both good at some things and bad at other things.
Parinita: You’re a human being; you don’t need to be a perfect person. In fact, I would treat a perfect person with a lot of suspicion because you’re not learning anything then if you’re this perfect person.
Parinita: If you go and look at women or trans women or trans men or nonbinary folks, that gets so much more invisible. If you see women in history, we are such a token in itself largely. We’re there for token diversity points in most history textbooks and in most history. Or we’re only there in terms of our relationships to the men in history.
Parinita: But in schools when do you ever study about anyone from other parts of the gender spectrum?
Parinita: It’s something that I’ve only discovered recently like even what cis and trans means and what nonbinary means. And it’s through my own research because it’s something I’m interested in. But why wouldn’t you want to make this an educational thing – because it is an educational thing – more available and accessible to everybody right from when they’re really young?
Sanjana: Yeah. And just bringing up the role of content creators, this just reminds me of this paper and this discussion that Aparna had at AFCC (Asian Festival of Children’s Content) in Singapore. Where they were talking about the role of the editor in breaking gender stereotypes in general or stereotypes in general in children’s books.
Aparna: Yeah. I’m an editor at a publishing house that publishes picture books. Every editor will have their notions of what kind of books they want to see or what sort of things they stand for. And what me and the person I work with quickly realised was that we believed very strongly about certain things. Every picture book that came to us had the mother in the kitchen and the father reading a newspaper and these are things that are so entrenched. So just a small suggestion to an illustrator or an author that if we could reverse those sort of things would just make them very excited about it. Or sometimes we receive pushback like “But this is what I see in my house.” Which is fair enough. People will draw what they see. But then we get in this cycle of this is what we see and this is what we publish. And then that’s what we see in books and that’s what we see at home. And that’s the only normal that anybody ever knows. But the fact is that some key decisions of when we are showing a busy street to populate the public spaces with equal gender representation in public spaces or sharing of household chores in our books. And since picture book readers are such a young audience, that’s something that they won’t question at all. And if they see it in their books that they’re reading, it’s something that can go a long way in making them question or making them wonder how the society is structured. And those are the sort of conversations that we had a lot with authors and illustrators. And we still do. I feel like it makes a big difference to seeing these things. This is something that I’m also guilty of because like we said earlier, we grew up reading so many books that just had boys in it. Whatever stories we would thereby make up would have boy characters in it. And all of the animals in our stories were always a male gender animal. And it takes so much undoing to change that. And just conversations with authors and illustrators to make them think of it in a slightly different manner makes a world of a difference. Sometimes the only reason that it isn’t a representation of something is that they haven’t thought of it. So as editors, just these sort of conversations and just having conversations about the motivations of all the extra characters – not the protagonists necessarily but how the other people in the book are – goes a long way to changing the way they think about their stories as well.
Parinita: Yeah. Anybody who creates media – especially people who create children’s media – it is such an important responsibility for us to make sure that you’re questioning your own biases and your own assumptions and not reflecting the terrible things, the inequalities that society is rife with. You can imagine a different world and you can show a different world and in many different pockets of society, this different world does exist. You just need to make it more mainstream. But that’s one of the reasons why I love the spaces of social media and fanfiction. I’m a very online person and I love how much I learn from these spaces because you get to access perspectives and experiences about different experiences of being a woman and this makes up for the mainstream entertainment and news media’s structural inequalities. Rebecca Solnit in her book The Mother of All Questions, she wrote this which I thought was really pertinent to this point. She made the point much better than I could. So this is what she said: “If the right to speak, if having credibility, if being heard is a kind of wealth, that wealth is now being redistributed. There has long been an elite with audibility and credibility, an underclass of the voiceless. As the wealth is redistributed, the stunned incomprehension of the elites erupts over and over again, a fury and disbelief that this woman or child dared to speak up, that people deigned to believe her, that her voice counts for something, that her truth may end a powerful man’s reign. These voices, heard, upend power relations.” Which I think just sums up the potential of social media and even fandom spaces and fandom conversations. That you’re challenging what you took for granted all this while.
Aparna: Absolutely. And it’s sort of levelled the playing field in a way that nothing else could. Because of the power of social media or the internet, it’s just been adopted so many times into the mainstream. There are Twitter pitches for books and so many people who otherwise would not have had access to publishers or wouldn’t know how to go about breaking into this very strange business of publishing have gotten deals out of a Twitter pitch. And the internet is such a democratic place in that sense. People have access to internet. I mean not everyone does but it’s a lot more widespread than say the knowledge of how to approach a publishing house. And writers for very, very mainstream comedy shows have been hired based on their tweets. We ourselves find a lot of illustrators for our books on Instagram because if our story is set in the North East [of India], we want somebody from the North East. So we’ve found some of our favourite illustrators on Instagram because there isn’t a strong network of how to go about it in the more formal or traditional ways of approaching people. It’s so refreshing to see what voices are coming up. Shows like Broad City it was a YouTube show and then it was picked up and made into a mainstream show. And luckily diversity is so buzzy that it’s something that is selling, so the mainstream is buying it. Which is great.
Parinita: I mean it’s still an unsafe place for people; for women yeah, but also for women from more marginalised backgrounds and for trans women and for nonbinary people. As empowering and as amazing the internet is, it also leaves you more open to toxicity and to hatred.
Parinita: But I love that I’ve been learning from people. I follow trans people in India and on Twitter and on Instagram. Or Dalit activists so like Divya Khanduri and Priyanka Paul are two people that I really like on Instagram who are constantly challenging my own assumptions about caste and about being a Dalit woman online. And then we also read about Khabar Lahariya which is a newspaper that began in a village from what I remember. And it trained women in rural areas to be journalists who printed the local news in their local languages and diversified not just who tells the stories but also what kind of stories are told and how they’re told. And while they started off as a print newspaper who used to get women to distribute these newspapers as well. Now they’ve done successfully what a lot of big traditional news organisations haven’t been able to do that is transition digitally. So they share the news on Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, Twitter and … well TikTok until the government decided that Chinese apps are no longer welcome in India. But I think that’s so fantastic because we in the cities, we also tend to have a Hermione kind of idea of a lot of women from different backgrounds.
Parinita: Which is our fault but it’s also not our fault because that’s the society that we grow up in. And just having access to these different voices is so empowering for both – so liberating for both that they’re allowed to say their stories in the way that they want, and we are allowed to learn from them.
Aparna: Absolutely. So now what are some of your favourite nonbinary, genderqueer, gender nonconforming characters in media?
Parinita: What did you like about them? About Alex Fierro.
Sanjana: So for me, I think it was the first time I was encountering a genderqueer character. I think the way Magnus interacted with Alex and the way their interactions and their conversations developed, I would look forward to their conversations or their interactions because I thought it was very nicely done.
Parinita: I mean it normalised it but also educated; but not in a way that made education a point, I thought.
Sanjana: Yes! Exactly. Which is why it was interesting to see it from Magnus’s point of view because it was probably my point of view also to an extent because he was also in the beginning understanding it. And there were a lot of questions in the beginning and then as the books developed, it just became a lot easier. The development of their relationship was very interesting to see.
Aparna: Yeah and I liked that even before he wrote the book, he knew that it was going to be popular because he’s insanely popular, this Rick Riordan. And the fact that the main character of the book and this was the main well … not just a love interest. But the fact that Alex was the main love interest of the main character of a book that was insanely popular, I think that’s pretty cool.
Sanjana: Pretty cool, yeah.
Parinita: And it’s also influenced children. Recently I’d read a tweet – and I think Rick Riordan had retweeted it – about how somebody sat down with either their child or their nephew or niece to explain pronouns to them – to talk to them about pronouns. Because of I think somebody that they knew or whatever. And they were like, “Oh yeah so like Loki’s children. They’re genderfluid. What pronouns do they prefer? Oh they? Okay, got it.” And this person who tweeted was like oh my god these tiny things that kids pick up on which you’re not …
Sanjana: But it’s true! It’s just also broadened my thinking. I also feel – which I hope nobody throws stones at my house for this – but I also feel like Vishnu is genderfluid.
Parinita: Yeah that’s a great theory! So my answer to your question, Paru, is in canon She-Ra is this queernormative – a word that I learned today so the opposite of heteronormative – world which has a lot of gender nonconforming characters and a nonbinary character as well. So I just love She-Ra’s world. But I also love that fans – just like Sana, though I don’t know if fan would be the correct thing to say in her case – but like reader interpretation of Vishnu. So I love that.
Sanjana: [laughs] Fan! Vishnu fan let’s not put that tag.
Parinita: Yeah, I don’t know [laughs] Like a Vishnu fangirl who is interpreting Vishnu as genderfluid. [laughs]
Sanjana: I’ve encountered him so much in research for work that I just feel like I’ve read so much and so many different versions of stories that I feel like it just makes complete sense that he’s genderfluid.
Parinita: So Vishnu expert Sana thinks … [laughs]
Parinita: But I love how people take ownership of these characters that either they know a lot about or they love a lot. Like Tonks – Nymphadora Tonks from Harry Potter is someone a lot of people see as either gender nonconforming or trans or nonbinary. And basically, they’re reading themselves into this character. So if you don’t have these representations in media, or like in Harry Potter where you have very few representations anyway in terms of diversity, but you love the world enough and you love the characters enough that you are making it more progressive by adopting this character and making that character more progressive than they were otherwise.
Aparna and Sanjana: Yeah.
Aparna: And uh
Sanjana: What about you, Aparna?
Aparna: Yes, thank you!
Sanjana: Were you waiting for us to ask you?
Aparna: Yes I was!
Sanjana: Okay. What about you? What are some of yours? Why don’t you share?
Aparna: I would love to, thank you. So there’s this one picture book called The Rabbit Listened by Cory Doerrfeld – I think that’s how her name is pronounced. And the kid in that is called Taylor and very intentionally is not gendered. The child has not been referred to by any pronoun and can be interpreted as both a boy or a girl.
Aparna: And it was so effortlessly done. Although it is an effort. As an editor of picture books, I can tell you that it takes effort to get that wording right to not use any pronouns. It’s amazing of how the interpretations of it and how people read whatever gender they’d like into it. And how gender is so not important. The story is not going to change because the protagonist is –
Sanjana: The story could have been anybody’s. It belongs to anybody.
Aparna: Yeah. And –
Parinita: So just jumping onto that – I’m going to let you say your second thing – but you just saying that reminded me of Wild by Emily Hughes.
Parinita: Which is also a picture book. I love that picture book and I’d read it for one of my assignments during my master’s. And on my second read of it, I realised that even in that book, they don’t refer to her as a girl. Because she doesn’t see herself as a girl. She sees herself as a wild creature so all the words signified that. Like you were saying, it’s obviously a very deliberate choice which on a first cursory reading, as much as I loved that book, I didn’t even pick up on until I sat down to read it more deliberately.
Aparna: Yeah. Then a few more I’d say before jumping on to my favourite one is how some characters in books or other media have been reinterpreted as belonging to a different gender. For example, the TV series The Night Manager is adapted from a book. In that the character in the TV series played by Olivia Coleman is called Angela Burr and she was originally in the novel, a character called Leonard Burr. In the television series, they cast a woman for it. A pregnant woman at that. And it did not change the story at all. And this was a character that was at times was very difficult and was not likable. And I feel like those decisions, they play so much more interestingly from unexpected actors playing it. And then there was this whole slew of shows where the main characters were unlikable women. [laughs] Like Fleabag and The Good Place and Veep. And after all these years of the way women have been represented, I just find it very freeing to see this. To have women not have to be likable and still be the centre of a show. But –
Sanjana: Are you going to your favourite one?
Aparna: Now I’m building up to it.
Sanjana: Since you were going to – I just want to sorry I will let you finish –
Aparna: [laughs] This is the second time I’ve been interrupted on my way to …!
Sanjana: Yeah but we want your favourite to get its importance that you’ve been building up to. But just talking about the fact of flipping gender roles, this just brings out that episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Ember Island Players, where they go to watch this play about their own story.
Sanjana: And all the characters are very flipped. Like Toph is this huge man. And she is very kicked by the idea because she’s like Toph and tough so there’s this large man. And Aang is played by this dainty woman who’s flying about and being all giggly.
Aparna: Is Aang very insulted?
Sanjana: Yeah, he’s very insulted by this.
Sanjana: And Katara’s emotions are over-exaggerated. She’s whiny so she’s a bit emotional.
Aparna: Ohh! It was like a satire.
Sanjana: Yeah it was like a satire. But it was like how society would view these characters. And I thought it was very intelligently done in the way that they were portrayed within the play and also in the way that the characters reacted to the way they were being portrayed.
Parinita: So it would be a bit like Vishnu coming here and reacting to your genderfluid theory.
Sanjana: Oh my good lord!
Aparna: “I am indeed. I am indeed genderfluid.”
Sanjana: I have ???
Aparna: “Thank you for noticing this. After all this time.”
Sanjana: Now, Aparna, do tell us who your favourite is.
Aparna: Yeah. So I was building up to Steven Universe. I could spend a whole episode talking about Steven Universe but I’m quickly going to say why I like it. So a lot of the characters are technically not women, they are gems. Crystal gems. So they are actually I guess sentient rocks? I’m not sure. But they present as women. And diversity in any form that you want is available. Whether it is diversity in sexual orientation, there’s diversity in body type, there’s diversity in just the different personalities. There’s just this whole cast of fascinating, well-written, well-rounded women. Which is one of the most refreshing things that I have ever seen. Also what’s interesting is that the main character is Steven who’s a child and who’s a boy. who’s often the most emotional or the most sensitive in the group. And that is something that’s celebrated as a power of his. And just to have these traditionally looked at as feminine qualities present in a boy and have them being placed at a pedestal because these are the qualities that matter and these qualities mean a lot and these qualities are something to aspire to and not belittled; being emotional is not a weakness. And those sort of narratives run throughout the series. It’s quite a delight. It has imperfect mothers and … it’s just a celebration of teamwork and love and hope and it’s a delightful show. I recommend it to everyone. On the flipside, it also has fathers who are nurturing – well the father of the main character – who’s just nurturing and not fussed about being the only man in a group of women. He is often the person on the side-lines and is very happy to be so. It’s just an amazing show.
Parinita: I think – and I think Noelle Stevenson would agree – that Steven Universe walked so that She-Ra could fly.
Parinita: Because all of these things that you’re saying, that’s the what I love about She-Ra. I think there’s obviously been a lot of inspiration and there’s the fact that there’s not just room for one. Noelle Stevenson very much pointed to Steven Universe and said, if they can do this, why can’t we? Which is why it’s such a fantastic world and which is why we need more of these fantastic worlds.
Parinita: So if you watch She-Ra, I’ll watch Steven Universe.
Aparna: Okay, done. And I also wanted to say how diverse the cast is. Because in one interview, the person who plays one of the characters called Pearl, the actor’s name is Deedee. She was talking about how she went into auditions and she met another actor who also happens to be Asian and she’s like, “Oh no then that means I didn’t get the part. Or has there been some mix-up? Because there can’t possibly be two Asian women voicing main characters in a show.” [laughs] But it was. And she’s like, “When I realised that it was, I was like I’ve found my home! I’m in the right place.” So that was very sweet but also sad, I guess.
Sanjana: Now this brings us to … our last section “What If?”
Sanjana and Aparna: [make sound effects]
Aparna: What if, what if, what if? [singsong]
Aparna: I did a thing!
Sanjana: Yeah, I saw.
Aparna: Theme song.
Sanjana: Yeah. That’s the theme song for our What If? section
Parinita: Which will apparently keep changing every time we do this segment.
Sanjana: [laughs] Yeah.
Aparna: That’s the magic of What If. What if we have the theme song? The same theme song.
Sanjana: What if the theme song changes next time? What if?
Parinita: [laughs] It probably will.
Sanjana: Which brings us to [sound effect] Now I want you guys to think about what are the things that we would be concerned about as women in some of our favourite fandoms? What if we were right there in the middle?
Sanjana: And then if you guys think of some fandoms, feel free to ask. Whatever comes to your mind, say fast. I don’t want these great things. We all know what can happen to women in general.
Sanjana: But let’s begin with something that both of you watch and I don’t watch much of! Supernatural!
Aparna: We’d be dead.
Aparna: We’d be dead.
Parinita: Very violently killed off.
Aparna: We’d be dead and not resurrected as opposed to many of the other men who’ve been dead several times and have always managed to find their way back to the main cast.
Aparna: I remember that there was a very complicated social system wherein Inara who was a prostitute was the highest
Sanjana: Rank. Most respected –
Aparna: Most respected profession. And I need to unpack it a little more. But I feel like … I don’t know if I’m comfortable with that. [laughs]
Parinita: I think because I’m brown, I wouldn’t be there.
Parinita: Sorry to bring race into this.
Aparna: Arey no you bring whatever you want into this.
Sanjana: You bring it. This is off the top of your heads anyway. So … all right. All right. What if you were part of like the Resistance in Star Wars?
Parinita: I mean we’d have to fight for which of us gets to be the one woman in the resistance.
Sanjana and Aparna: [laugh]
Sanjana: Yeah. That would be true.
Parinita: What if you were one of the Marvel superheroes?
Aparna: Uncomfortable clothes.
Parinita: Lots of wedgies.
Aparna: Cannot conceal weapons.
Sanjana: Yeah. That makes sense. Also, I don’t think we would ever get to lead a team to save the world. We would be there second-in-command types.
Parinita: I mean if we did lead a team, then we would get a lot of hate tweets from angry fanboys on the internet.
Sanjana: All right what if you were on the TARDIS?
Parinita: We would be there only until we were a certain age and then we would be very politely be either abandoned or killed off or –
Aparna: Memory will be wiped.
Parinita: Sent back to the past.
Sanjana: All right TARDIS not faring that well for us womenfolk.
Parinita: What about Middle-Earth? What if you were in Middle-Earth?
Aparna: I would either be very, very powerful or invisible.
Parinita: Or growing potatoes waiting for Samwise.
Sanjana: That is invisible only, na?
Aparna: I either have to be the most powerful or nothing at all. I will be lost in the crowd.
Sanjana: Well! Women not faring that well in Middle-Earth either. [laughs]
Aparna: Were there any female Ents? Does anybody remember?
Parinita: No, I don’t think so.
Sanjana: There were none.
Parinita: I mean there were a handful – I think I could count the number of women on my left hand.
Sanjana: You would not be an Ent! You would not be an Orc! You would not be!
Aparna: You would not be! [laughs]
Parinita: Or a hobbit. Oh no, Samwise does marry a girl. So there’s that compulsory heteronormativity.
Aparna: Well done.
Sanjana: Congratulations on getting married, Samwise!
Parinita: [laughs] I mean Frodo and Sam obviously needed to end together but whatever.
Sanjana: Yeah. But Frodo decided to float away. So anyway.
Aparna: He had seen too much okay, Sana.
Parinita: After this pandemic, I would love to find an Elf ship to float to the other end of the sea.
Sanjana: I’m with you. I feel your pain. All right. What if you were in Ba Sing Se? I’m starting to like this commentator voice.
Sanjana: Game show host voice.
Aparna: What would I do in Ba-Sing Se?
Sanjana: I don’t know.
Parinita: I think I would need to come from an important family to matter. If I was a cabbage seller’s daughter, [laughs] I would just be chasing cabbages everywhere.
Parinita: Probably hidden under the cart
Sanjana: Or run a small tea-shop or something.
Aparna: I was thinking running a small tea-shop.
Sanjana: Yeah just because you wanted to work under Uncle Iroh.
Aparna: [laughs] So!?
Sanjana: All right and my last on the list is … in Gotham City.
Aparna: Oh! Dead.
Parinita: No, no, I would join the – what’s it called? What is the new feminist collective in Gotham City?
Aparna: Birds of Prey?
Sanjana: Birds of Prey!
Parinita: I would join Birds of Prey.
Sanjana: [laughs] Feminist collective!
Aparna: Hello, we are a feminist collective. Nice to meet you.
Sanjana: Well on that note then!
Aparna and Parinita: [laugh]
Sanjana: Thank you for joining us in this section of What If?
Aparna: What If? [makes sound effect]
Aparna: Ending theme.
Sanjana: This brings us to the end of our episode.
Parinita: Thank you so much for listening to us wax lyrical about all the problems that we have with women’s representations in the world.
Sanjana: Yeah. Until next time.
Sanjana and Aparna: Bye!
You’ve been listening to our episode on the representation of marginalised genders in mainstream media – both entertainment and news – as well as the real world. Thank you so much Sanjana and Aparna for talking about and listening to so many of the things I’m most interested in. Our conversations have helped make me a better thinker and helped make my politics more inclusive.
I’d love to hear from you and talk to you – so any feedback, comments or critiques are very welcome! Get in touch with me on social media, leave a comment on my blog, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’d like to follow the podcast or the PhD project, visit my website marginallyfannish.org. Here you’ll find the podcast episodes, transcripts, episode resources and links, and my research blog. You can also receive updates on Facebook or Instagram at Marginally Fannish or on Twitter where I’m @MarginalFannish. I share episode resources on social media so you can find a bunch of excellent fan podcasts and essays to look up. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share it with anyone you think will enjoy it too.
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