Audio coming soon!
1) Podcast – Nancy: The Word Queer
2) Interview – In Conversation: Rebecca Sugar and Noelle Stevenson
3) Essay – How Fanfiction Made Me Gay
5) Fanfiction – Breath of the Wild drabbles series
6) Fanfiction: Skies of Blue, Red Roses Too
7) Essay – [Elsewhere] Arrows and Aros
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 twenty-first episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I talk to Milena Popova about representations of gender and sexuality in media and fandom. We chat about some difficult issues related to rape, racism, slavery, queerphobia, transphobia and queerphobic families, so please consider this a content warning.
For many people, it can be difficult to explore sexual and gender identities which fall outside mainstream media and society’s norms. Rare examples of queernormative fictional words in media can act as a revelation in an otherwise heteronormative mediascape. Queer representations can offer an important avenue for queer children and adults to recognise themselves in complex and nuanced ways. However, queer media creators who want to write about queer characters and storylines have to navigate audience, producer and censor expectations in ways that non-queer creators don’t. Many of the queer representations which do exist are often reflected in limited and stereotypical ways through a cisgender and heterosexual gaze.
Queer representations in fandom can offer an important avenue to question these default scripts and find alternative models. Fans use fiction, art, commentary and critiques to raise awareness of queer experiences and erasure in media and society. For example, fans have collectively generated knowledge about asexuality by promoting asexual interpretations of fictional characters. Participating in such spaces can also help challenge and expand cisgender and heterosexual assumptions. At the same time, as empowering as fandom can be, it’s not inclusive of all identities. Hierarchies dictate whose experiences are privileged over others. Conversations and representations which draw attention to these various issues can help fans see the world in new ways.
Find our conversation about all this and more in today’s episode.
Parinita: Today I’m so happy to welcome Milena to the podcast. Milena has been queer as far as they can tell since they were born, a fan for nearly thirty years, and a fan studies scholar for six. These days, they’re a rogue scholar, warrior poet, and freelancer of many trades. You can find them on Twitter as @elmyra. Today, we’re going to chat about gender and sexual diversity in media and fandom. I’m really excited about our conversation because my perspectives are quite limited as a cisgender heterosexual woman, but media and fandom have been hugely responsible for expanding my knowledge. They’ve also helped me unlearn and relearn some things about gender and sexuality and it’s been an ongoing process of questioning everything that I took for granted. So before we begin, Milena, could you tell us about your own experiences with today’s topics?
Milena: Sure! And thank you for having me. I come at this from a number of different angles. As you said in the introduction, I have been queer for as far as I can tell since I was born. I’m originally Bulgarian. I grew up until the age of ten in Bulgaria and then my family moved to Austria. So I spent my teenage years in Austria in the 90s. Now if you know anything about Austria, or you may not, but it’s a very Catholic country. It certainly was in the 90s. To the point we had crucifixes in the classrooms and things like that. And if you’re familiar with UK culture, you might know that in the 90s, the UK had something called Section 28 which banned teachers from teaching anything about homosexuality in schools in any positive light. Austria was so Catholic and so conservative, it wouldn’t have occurred to them that they would need anything like Section 28. [laughs]
Parinita: [laughs] India was – and is – the same.
Milena: Yeah. And so this is the environment that I was in trying to work out who I was. My very first problematic fave – and it turned out later that she was a terrible human being – but I spent my teenage years reading Marion Zimmer Bradley’s books. So she’s a fantasy and science fiction author. She was a really, really nasty piece of work with hindsight. But she wrote about queer characters – gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans – she had a lot of different queer characters. And so that was the first place where I saw myself reflected in media. And the other thing that she did is that she actually edited anthologies of fanfiction stories of her Darkover universe. So that’s probably the first place that I came across the idea of fanfiction.
Parinita: Oh wow!
Milena: I probably actually still have them. A couple of properly bound books that were edited and professionally published of fanfiction of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s work.
Parinita: Oh that’s fascinating!
Milena: Yeah. [laughs] She eventually stopped doing that because she ended up in a massive copyright fight with a fan over a story. And it is very likely that she did try and plagiarise so it’s one of those very, very messy things. But I can credit her for both giving me the first space I had to work out who I was and also the first exposure to fanfiction.
Parinita: I’ve grown up without having anybody who is queer or at least I didn’t know at the time, in my community – among my friends and family. And people in India didn’t really and still don’t – although that’s changing – really talk about queer issues so much unless you’re already in those spaces. Or if you already have those people in your social networks or you follow these media outlets, then you’ll know about these things. But if you don’t know what you don’t know, you’re not going to … or at least I didn’t know until Harry Potter fanfiction as a teenager. Slash was all the rage then and now, I think.
Parinita: But that’s when I discovered queerness. It’s not something that would ever occur to me. I went to a Catholic school, not for religious reasons but because in India, when I was growing up, Catholic schools were spaces where English was supposed to be a better quality. The nuns teach you better English was the assumption, just because public education was not very good at the time. So in school, they wouldn’t talk to us about even gender so much. We had sex ed classes but in a very academic way; telling us the science behind it but not the culture or social context of it.
Parinita: But anyway, that was gender in a limited way. But sexual diversity, no way. And it’s only online I realised that, oh this other way of being also exists. And then I think there were some Pride marches as well in Mumbai which I went to because I realised that this exists and they’re also targeted for this, just for wanting to live their lives. But I wouldn’t even have known about it until fanfiction in it’s very not-without-its-problems way taught me things. I’m still continuing to learn; not so much through fanfiction but definitely through fandom. Which is why even the word queer, what it means and who can use it, I didn’t even consider the negative connotations because I didn’t know that there were negative – why would I? I’m completely on the privileged, dominant end of the spectrum there. So it was largely through queer fans talking about themselves that I realised that this is a term that everybody uses. And I did not realise that it’s a hugely loaded term associated with violence until relatively recently.
Milena: Yeah, it’s an interesting word. It’s very, very culturally specific as well. And I these days very comfortably describe myself as queer at least in part because just listing all the different ways in which I’m queer just gets too cumbersome. So at some point, it just becomes, “No I’m just queer as fuck, deal with it.”
Milena: But I took many, many years after moving to the UK before I started feeling comfortable using that word for myself. Just because I didn’t feel I had the cultural right to it. Because it is something very culturally specific to the UK and the US where this word has been used as a slur for a very long time and has been then reclaimed by part of the queer community. And again, it is not uncontentious even among queer/LGBTQIA people in that there’s certainly a generational divide. Where all the people in particular who genuinely have had it hurled it against them as a slur. Some of them will have gone “You know what, I’m reclaiming this.” But a lot of them go, “No actually, it really hurts me to use it that way.” I had spent about ten years doing various kinds of queer activism in various kinds of contexts before I felt comfortable enough partly just because I felt more assimilated in British culture, but partly because I felt I had almost kind of earned the right to it. But for me, there’s definitely an intersection here between being queer and being a migrant that makes that word complex and complicated.
Parinita: Yeah that’s really interesting about the cultural specificity because I’m not sure that it would have the same history as well in India. Of course, there are slurs in Hindi and other Indian languages as well that are hurled at people even if they’re not queer. But queer itself, I don’t know, obviously it’s English so it would be in urban spaces largely. But even then I don’t know. Now people use it but now it’s also used in conversations about rights and activism so I don’t know. It’s not something I’ve really been a part of so I might be wrong. But even me as an Indian, if I come from India and someone calls me Pakistani or Paki as the slur is, I wouldn’t be offended by it because I don’t have the same sort of emotional baggage and violence associated with it. I would just be like, yeah we’re South Asian. I wouldn’t know the history and the context in this country and how people who’ve grown up brown in the UK have faced or dealt with it. So I assume it’s similar. Just as different people have different relationships with the term queer based on so many different contexts, there are also multiple kinds of LGBTQIA+ stories in media. And there’s space for all kinds of these stories and there’s also a difference in the kinds of queer stories in Western media and in Indian media. I don’t know how much you’re still in touch with Bulgarian or Austrian media at all.
Milena: Not a huge amount.
Parinita: Have you seen the difference between this in different contexts as well?
Milena: My bio-family, my parents live in Germany. So I do occasionally get exposure to German and Austrian television. And in all fairness, I actually no longer watch live television in the UK either. Basically have Netflix and I watch YouTube and things like that. Every time I visit my bio-family, I end up watching German television being utterly horrified by the level of particularly transphobia but also other kinds of queerphobia that I see there. It takes me about ten minutes of watching German television before there is some kind of transphobic advert. Where the joke is, oh look it’s a guy in a dress. And honestly the other big problem in German media or German-language media that I find is racism is also horrific. So I basically try and avoid all of it. I also find honestly that here you have to cherry-pick your media very carefully. Even things that look like they might be good end up being horrendously problematic in some ways. I’m in the process of reviewing and submitting to a journal a book that’s recently come out called Queerbaiting and Fandom. And it’s a collection of academic essays on queerbaiting in media and fans’ relationships with producers, with that kind of media. And there is the whole range from people like producers are deliberately trying to court queer viewers whilst not providing any queer representation to keep the [laughs] Make America Great audience on their side, if you will.
Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.
Milena: Which is like we had a two-second dance scene of two characters of the same gender in one of the – I think in the live-action Beauty and the Beast.
Parinita: Yeah which was so much progress for queer representation! [laughs]
Milena: So there’s that. We have things that are actually really quite nasty and aggressive like BBC Sherlock where the producers are constantly deliberately queerbaiting and then laughing at the audience for falling for it as well So that’s a really nasty interaction. And then we have genuinely queer creators, queer producers who are trying, who are doing their best and trying to get stuff onscreen and trying to work out how to do it without getting their show cancelled. And there’s a couple of examples out there. There’s Black Sails which if you haven’t seen it, it’s an amazing show. It starts out looking a bit like a gritty Game of Thrones fun pirate thing and becomes this amazing deep, philosophical thing about queerness, about independence, about our relationship with the state. It’s amazing. Anyway, watch Black Sails. It’s a show that has so many queer characters. I don’t know if you know but there’s this trope in TV called Bury Your Gays.
Milena: So you can show queer people but they have to be dead by the end of it basically. Black Sails has enough queer characters that actually the ones that it buried – and it buried them for good plot reasons, it wasn’t a problem. [laughs] Because there were just so many and it was such a diversity. Yeah it was great. But they also had to tone down some of the stuff that they were planning to do because they were threatened with cancellation because audiences got upset. We’ve got things like She-Ra and Steven Universe both of which have got crossover audiences but they are kids’ shows primarily made by queer creators. If you read what those creators have to say about the process of making those shows, how much of a struggle it was to get that stuff onscreen. And if you think about it, and going back to my experiences as a teenager in very Catholic Austria, it’s so important for kids to be able to see themselves onscreen like that.
Milena: Particularly if you’re living in a queerphobic society, if you’re in a queerphobic family, where else are you going to work out who you are?
Parinita: Yeah. And this is something that is still an issue in India. Now that I’m in the UK, I’m largely exposed to Western media and conversations. And even in India, when I was growing up and otherwise, I was reading largely reading British and American children’s books and TV shows and movies and things. But I was also steeped in Bollywood and Indian culture and society obviously because that’s where I was. But the kind of conversations that we have now – with previous guests on the podcast as well as just the things that I read – in terms of … well everything. But especially with queer representations in media, and the nuance and the complexity that’s needed and the problems and everything, it still seems so far ahead of anything that we have in India at the moment. Maybe there’ll be independent small productions that explore these issues but we’re still so far back. We’re still just beginning to explore these issues. And in mainstream media, it is largely still very queerphobic, very transphobic, it’s always the butt of jokes or not taken seriously or like, “Yeah why would this even exist?” And it’s so important not just for – like of course for queer kids who are figuring out their identities like you were – but also for people like me and for people like my mum and for people of all ages who use this media to understand and talk about these things. I was talking to my friends about it. With their parents, they sit and watch things and then they use that as a conversation starter. And their parents are relatively conservative. Not maliciously conservative but out of ignorance and privilege.
Parinita: So for them it’s a starting point to talk about these things. And through exposure they’re understanding more. So they’ll see and initially if they might be a bit hesitant but then talking to their kids about it, they’ll be like okay, fine. But even then, in a previous episode, one of my friends mentioned that they’ll still say that, “Oh why has this become a thing? Why is it everywhere now? Every other show you go, you see a gay character or a lesbian character.” And my friend was talking about how it’s still such a small fraction of all the media that exists in the world. Because it feels like so much more, right, to the dominant culture, if there is even a little bit more than you’re expecting; then you’re like, “Oh this is now everywhere! This is political correctness gone mad!”
Milena: I’ve had this exact same conversation with my father and I have kind of this exact same problem with my own parents who again [sighs] not even conservative, just ignorant, frankly. And to an extent also refusing to engage. And because they have extremely limited media exposure, I struggle to even have those conversations with them because it’s like where do I even start? Particularly when my father goes, “Oh why do they have to just shove it down my throat all the time?” I’m like well, why not? I get to see all of the straight people in media as well.
Parinita: [laughs] I know! All the time!
Milena: But I deal with it.
Parinita: Yeah. This is like a largescale trend; in India in miniscule but I think everywhere else too. Currently we have a fascist government in our country and the majority Hindu population which so vastly outnumbers in terms of just quantity but also in terms of access to resources –political, financial, cultural capital – all the other religions and other … I don’t want to say lower caste but Dalits and Adivasis – different castes which have been traditionally marginalised. But still it’s like, “Oh these people have gotten a little bit more rights than they used to. Oh what? How dare they demand representation and respect and empathy? No! We’re just going to murder everybody.” Which is where India is at. Which is why it sometimes feels like we’re going backwards. It’s nice to be in the UK and talk about these issues but it also then makes me so sad about India because I’m like when are we going to get there? Because in India, especially if you associate historical figures or religious figures with queerness or with anything that’s not the cishet norm, people will come and burn your cinema down or attack you in a bookshop. So it’s so much more fraught there that it just feels like – sorry I just went into a depressing tangent. But anyway, we can get back to less depressing topics.
Milena: [laughs] The world is really depressing at the moment.
Parinita: Yes. That’s true. [laughs] What you were saying about Black Sails, for me She-Ra was that first example of a queernormative world in which in terms of gender and sexuality, there’s so much diversity, that one person being villainised or one person being – there’s no real villain, I guess, they’re all shades of grey.
Parinita: But having that is not such a big deal. There’s so much queerness in the background and the foreground that it doesn’t feel like the Beauty and the Beast two second dance sequence you know?
Milena: Yes. It is really interesting to me. One of my flavours of queerness is I’m bisexual and bisexual representation in media is worse certainly than lesbian and gay representation and differently bad to trans representation etc. And one of the ways in which it is horrible is that bisexuals tend to get stereotyped horrendously as horribly promiscuous, indecisive, can’t make up their minds etc. And you know what, frankly I’m a greedy, indecisive, promiscuous bisexual. But also …!
Milena: And that’s fine! You know what, that is absolutely fine. But I would like to see a range of bisexual characters because again, if my mother watches something like that and goes, “Well all bisexuals are like that.” I’m like, “Well sure I’m like that; but not all of us are like that.”
Parinita: [laughs] Yeah exactly.
Milena: There’s plenty of monogamous bisexuals, there’s all sorts of things. And again having that kind of range different characters rather than the one token bisexual or the one token gay character or the one token trans character is … you know what, I in my real life, if I get all of my friends into a room, probably about at least half of them have some flavour of queer. In a TV show cast, there’s the token queer person.
Parinita: Yeah and they’re all hanging out with the cishet people. As if they don’t want to have their own community. [laughs]
Milena: Their life must be so miserable!
Parinita: [laughs] I know.
Milena: Please find better friends.
Parinita: I know! Where you have to keep explaining your identity and you have the burden of being the gay person
Parinita: So everything you do is representative of your entire community. I haven’t watched Steven Universe yet, it’s definitely on my list. But Noelle Stevenson I just love her. Her first book that I read was Nimona, a graphic novel which I loved.
Parinita: Also the comic series The Lumberjanes which I think she was on the co-founding team of. I don’t know if she’s still connected to it. But yeah, like I said in the beginning, it’s just taught me to see the world in such a different way but also expect so much more of my media now that I’m like, “Yeah why don’t we have this?” I think in the interview that we read, Noelle does say that younger queer people which – I’m not really young or queer [laughs] – but younger queer people want things instantly. As in they demand queer stories in nuanced and complex ways now without realising how hard it’s been to fight to get where they are at this point. But sometimes I feel like I’m at that point as well. I’m like, why isn’t all our media like this? Why is there such a process of having to decondition all these things that you’ve been taught right from when you were born?
Milena: Yeah. It’s really interesting to me ’cause I’m heading towards 40 very rapidly. And I’ve seen mainstream media and less mainstream media evolve over the years and I very much agree with those younger queer viewers going, “Give me all the representation and do it properly now!”
Milena: But I also understand what it’s taken to get here.
Milena: One of my favourite shows growing up was Babylon 5 which as a classic, cult, sci-fi TV show made in the 90s, was ground-breaking in a number of ways. In some ways, it was about ten years ahead of its time in terms of what it tried to do with the medium. It had a bisexual character – well actually I think it had two women who were both bisexual and very briefly in a relationship. And it was so blink-and-you-miss-it. [laughs] Like oh okay, well, I guess that happened. And I tend to watch for these things. Even at that age I was fairly well-attuned to queerness and attempts to represent queerness. And it took me a while – it took me reading the showrunner’s comments to actually work out, “Oh no they weren’t just close friends. They were genuinely in a relationship.” [laughs]
Milena: I know. How bad was that? And the other thing we actually didn’t get in Babylon 5 that originally we were meant to was some very potentially interesting trans representation. Where one of the alien characters, as part of a transformation they underwent as part of the plot, was also going to come out of that transformation a different gender to the one that they were originally. And they shot the pilot with the makeup to enable that and then never changed the look of the character for the main show. And the official story was they couldn’t make the voice modulation work. And I’m just honestly not buying it. I think it was 1990 – 91 – 92 that that was shot. I was like, I don’t think you got this past the network.
Milena: I think they didn’t like what you were doing and they didn’t let it get past the network. [laughs]
Parinita: Rebecca Sugar was saying that and Noelle Stevenson as well about both Steven Universe and She-Ra, right? How much they had to fight everything. And it’s so unfair that just your way of existence is – like of course it’s political now because we live in the world that we do – but the fact that it needs to be … it just it feels so aggravating that you can’t just be in a story, especially if you’re a queer writer and you just want to write the stories that have the most meaning to you and make the most sense to you. But you have to think about what the producers want, what the audience wants, what these censors – both official and unofficial – want. It’s just ridiculous.
Milena: And it’s exhausting. And it’s genuinely harmful. If you read what Rebecca Sugar says, it’s genuinely harmful to people’s mental health. And it’s just this constant uphill fight. And that’s true for producers, it’s true for fans. I’ve been an activist for a very long time. I regularly go periods of like I can’t deal with this anymore. [laughs] And how many times you can just keep picking yourself up off the floor is an interesting question that at some point we may find the limit to. But it’s just exhausting.
Parinita: We already live in a world – at least mainstream society and culture – where there is still so much queerphobia and transphobia ingrained in it that for me it’s still a process of decolonising my own brain. Not only when it comes to queerness but also race and things. This is something that you brought up as well in terms of one of the fan texts that we read, but it’s also true with just mainstream fan and media texts in general, where who is the presumed default reader? And the assumption that allosexuality and alloromanticism are natural and compulsory and how much harm this does to everybody.
Parinita: To both queer and non-queer people just in terms of the expectations that you have and whether or not you live up to them.
Milena: Oh absolutely. This is something that’s very, very close to my heart because another flavour of my queerness [laughs] is that I’m asexual – kind of on the ace spectrum. But also professionally I’m an academic and a lot of my research is around sexual consent. And when you start digging into that topic, one of the things you find out very quickly is the place where we learn how to have sex and what sex is and how to have relationships and what relationships are, is the media.
Parinita: Um hmm.
Milena: Because sex education in schools is abysmal. I think it’s maybe got marginally better since I had to undergo it; [laughs] since you had to undergo it. But overall still abysmal. And again, very different based on country and culture. One of the things that struck me when I was doing this research is in America, a lot of the conversation about sex education is, should we be doing it at all.
Parinita: Oh right!
Milena: It’s terrifying. So yeah sex education is abysmal. Let’s face it, parents aren’t very good at teaching this stuff to their kids either. And so what you do is you pick it up from the media. And if the media doesn’t tell you that being asexual is even an option, it just presents you with this default view of how relationships work which is you are cisgender, you find somebody of the other gender who is also cisgender, you shack up together, you must have sex, you must move in together, you must get married, you must have children. It rules your entire life plan. It teaches you some really harmful things about how to have relationships. And it takes so long to unlearn that once you’ve internalised it and to realise that you know what, actually no, I don’t have to do any of these things. Whether that’s have sex with people, whether that’s have relationships with people, whether that’s have a relationship that fits that particular model or have a relationship with the person that that model tells me I should be having a relationship with. It’s just so insidious. And trying to unlearn it is a lot of effort. And for me, fandom has been one of those places where I have made steps towards unlearning it. One of the things I miss terribly is Tumblr. Tumblr – for those I’m going to say about 5-10 years that it was the community that it was – was such an amazing place where different but overlapping communities existed. So fandom, queer communities tended to overlap to find bits of each other to interact with. And one of the things that Tumblr gave birth to in many ways was asexual activism. Not entirely, but it is one of the places where ace communities thrived and generated so much new knowledge about asexuality, about people’s experiences, about the harmful effects of that default script. I don’t know if you’re familiar with … ugh I can’t remember the scholar who came up with it – the idea of compulsory heterosexuality.
Parinita: Oh no! I did actually come across this scholar’s name just earlier this week. But again, my memory is terrible, so I don’t remember either.
Milena: It’s Sunday night, that’s going to be our excuse. [laughs]
Milena; But the Tumblr ace community built on that and came up with this idea that actually, it’s not only that you have to be compulsorily heterosexual; it’s that you have to be compulsorily allosexual. You have to experience sexual attraction. And there is no other model at all. And that is probably the kind of starting point of all of the harmful stuff that pop culture tells us about sex and relationships that we then have to … if we’re lucky, we find spaces where we can unlearn it. And if we’re not lucky, we kind of go along with it and are miserable.
Parinita: Yeah! What you’re saying, it’s resonating so much with me. So the texts that we were going through and even before, I’ve been reading more about it, within the last year specifically, but even more a little before that. But just like you were saying, I got the default script from media. And fandom and the internet at large have been such a fantastic resource for me to identify what I’ve been conditioned to believe. Because you don’t even know right? If that’s the only script you’ve been given, and that’s what you see everybody around you doing, you don’t know that there is another way of life or another way of living. When I was growing up and as a teenager – I know we’re going to be talking about asexual interpretations of characters a little more in a bit – but at that point, I didn’t even know this was a way of living. When I was growing up, I wasn’t really very interested in relationships. I did have boyfriends at that time as a teenager and as a youngish adult but it wasn’t like everybody else around me who seemed to lay so much emphasis on romance and sexuality.
Parinita: Whereas for me, that was just a very small part of all the other things I was doing. My life was full of lots of different kinds of things and romance was never a thing that I’d centred around. Which is why reading about these things like your interpretations you’ve written about Katniss, as well as just the discourse in general, I’m like, “Am I on the ace spectrum as well?” And obviously it’s a spectrum, right? So one person’s experiences don’t always reflect another person’s experiences exactly.
Parinita: But I’m like, this makes so much more sense to me than the other script that I’ve been shown and told that this is how it is and this is how relationships are and this is how a healthy relationship is supposed to be. I think that if you’re really happy in your relationship but it’s not following the script that has been dictated to you by society, you might find things or you might reconsider your relationship because it’s not matching the idea that society has given. On the other hand, I think that the emphasis and focus on relationships and not being alone and this very singular idea of a family and a couple means that you will also stay in terrible relationships. Because what is the other option than being this pathetic person that media tells you you are if you don’t have a partner?
Milena: Oh no, I’ll happily have ten cats.
Parinita: [laughs] Yeah. And books! Just so much more money and time for books! When I was growing up, everybody was so into the idea of getting into a relationship and so unhappy at not being in a relationship. And I was like, this is fine. When I was a teenager, I was like, I’m playing Neopets, I don’t really have time for a relationship. [laughs]
Parinita: Or I’m reading this book or I’m really into this new TV show. And also the idea that I have to get married at a certain age. And in India this is much worse as well I think because it’s still so deeply patriarchal. That a woman’s worth is very much tied to marriage and then babies. I think people are unlearning that idea a little bit now, only those with the privilege to do so obviously in urban areas and things. But even within urban areas, even within wealthy, privileged spaces, there is still this idea that has a huge hold on people’s imaginations.
Milena: Yeah. Actually it’s really deeply alien to me. When I was growing up in Bulgaria, Bulgaria was communist. And it certainly did a lot to paper over some of the gender inequality stuff. Between that and some of the oddities of my own upbringing … and obviously I was raised as a girl. Even though I’m not, but this is what happened. So this whole idea that if you’re a girl, you have to marry and have babies etc., it completely passed me by in my upbringing.
Milena: Partly because of my family, partly because of kind of growing up under communism. So moving West, and I understand that it is much worse and more deeply ingrained in India, but actually from my perspective, it’s actually pretty damn bad over here. There’s this thing in Austria where I had a couple of school friends, girls, who went on to study medicine and at least one of them certainly genuinely wanted to be a doctor. But there’s the running joke that the medical schools in Austria are the biggest dating and marriage – they’re almost like matchmakers. Because women go to them to meet doctors; to meet male doctors to marry and to then never become doctors themselves. [laughs]
Parinita: Oh my god.
Milena: It’s like why?!
Parinita: [laughs] Oh no. Oh man. Ugh yeah why indeed. I mean it’s a bit surprising because again, this colonised mindset, right? When growing up in India, you have this – or at least I did – this very specific idea of the West. And obviously it is because of the kind of Western media and cultures that we’re exposed to in India that makes it very clear that, “Oh you in India, not as good as we here in the US and the UK.” I had this idea of the West being much more progressive and socially and culturally – everything than us here poor folks here in India. And then I moved to the UK. [laughs] And I was like, oh I see. I see that this was all propaganda.
Milena: Oh absolutely.
Parinita: And I see that you guys don’t have things figured out at all. It’s still a process of unlearning. And my partner is Scottish so it’s a really interesting cultural clash as well like some of the things that I took for granted and some of the things that he took for granted and how we are both learning to unlearn things. And both of us, we would consider ourselves progressive, left-wing, open-minded and things. But still it’s all these biases and assumptions that society ingrains in you and that is so difficult to unlearn.
Milena: Yeah definitely.
Parinita: [laughs] So in terms of asexuality, specifically in canon and fanon and the different representations and interpretations of it, you’ve written about Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. And I came across Frodo and Bilbo in The Lord of the Rings. You said that The Lord of the Rings was a fandom that used to be a huge part of your life. When you were reading it, did you ever think of it at all in terms of reading them as ace?
Milena: Honestly, no, because when I read them, I was way too young. They read perfectly fine and natural to me and they were very good stories at the time and those were great characters; they had great adventures. But I don’t think I quite realised that romantic relationships and sexuality were a thing at that point. Because I got The Hobbit put into my hands when I was 8 or 9 and then The Lord of the Rings when I was 10. I don’t think I had read many books at that point where romance was a central feature anyway.
Parinita: Yeah. I think this is one of the reasons I really like children’s books because [laughs] romance doesn’t usually get in the way of the story. They’re going off on their adventure and more important things in life than romance. So see this is why, the more I think and talk about it, I’m like, hmm it’s almost like things are making more sense to me about myself now.
Parinita: When did you start thinking about asexual interpretations? I find this idea really fascinating because it’s been my experience and a few other fans’ experience from what I’ve read about figuring out your identity through fictional characters. Either by reading your own experiences into them or by reading other people’s interpretations about these characters.
Milena: Yeah. So actually I didn’t work out my asexuality until my 30s which again that is a social crime that I will not forget or forgive society for ever. And some of it was coming across those Tumblr communities, some of it was coming across other ace people in my actual real life, and some of it was characters like Katniss Everdeen. [laughs] My running joke is that you will take aro-ace Katniss Everdeen from my cold, dead hands.
Milena: People complaining about the love triangle in those books, I’m like the love triangle doesn’t exist. It’s entirely manufactured for the media.
Parinita: [laughs] Yeah oh I loved your essay about it.
Milena: Yeah. She just doesn’t have a single romantic or sexual bone in her body.
Milena: [laughs] So I have a very passionate interpretation of Katniss Everdeen as aro and ace.
Parinita: I also loved this Tor essay about asexuality and the Baggins bachelors and how this writer had different interpretations for both Bilbo and Frodo because again asexuality is not a monolith either so you have different kinds of relationships and different kinds of priorities. Whereas Bilbo had a really content life and everything Frodo had a queer platonic partner in Samwise, as the essay proposes. I mean Frodo did go to the other end of the sea or ocean or whatever but yeah it was a huge part of both their lives.
Milena: Yeah definitely. And getting those kinds of different interpretations or representations is really interesting to me. And one of the things that certainly about the Katniss Everdeen example strikes me is that I don’t know if she did it on purpose. If she was written as ace on purpose. I can’t quite tell. I can’t work it out. And it’s one of those things where to what extent does authorial intent matter? I have days when I’m very much, “The author is dead and I can do with the text whatever the hell I want!”
Milena: It is mine now. But I also have days where I’m like, atually no. Authorial intent matters to the extent that it matters that people should want to put good representation into the world and it matters that we get canonical representation in media and not just fanon. Because again, we come back to that the conversation I can’t have with my parents; the conversation so many kids can’t have with their parents because those parents have never seen a queer character on television.
Parinita: Yeah for sure. Because like I was saying, it’s something that people figure out – like media is such a tool for education as well, right? Both positively and negatively. Because formal schooling for most people ends at a certain age and then it is just media that is your school. And of course it’s been weaponised massively in lots of different countries in lots of different ways but
Milena: It’s a problem.
Parinita: Yeah! It’s not without its problems at all. It’s actually quite a big problem especially news media. But also in terms of fictional media, like you were saying how important it is for canonical representations because if it is either the butt of all jokes or even if it is like queer characters don’t get to be happy, they just die in terms of bury your gays. Then what does that say to both people who are queer and people who are not queer? That this is the life that either you will have or your friend or child or whoever is going to have. It’s just so problematic. Problematic is an overused word – I overuse it a lot – but it is! It’s very problematic.
Milena: Yeah. No, definitely. [laughs] We need to fix media in general.
Parinita: Ugh yes! Completely, completely we need to fix. I’m all for just breaking down all the systems and starting from scratch again but that’s not going to come without its violence and things. It’s a very complicated subject. But anyway, in terms of fan representations and discussions and commentaries and critiques, I’ve learned so much from it right since I properly got into online fandom when I was 13. And even though I grew up in a big city – I grew up in Mumbai, which comes with a huge amount of capital and resources and knowledge. But your life and experiences and knowledge are still limited to the bubble that you inhabit. Like my mum’s community and family is also quite limited and conservative as well. So the kinds of conversations that I’m having now, there’s no way I would have gotten it in my family, community or in my school. And fandom has been such a massive tool of education for me which is why I believe so passionately that it can be a force for good. But I also know unfortunately it can be a force for bad. Like I was telling you, I was attending the Fan Studies conference last week. And I’ve been catching up on the things and there was a racism in acafandom panel by Rukmini Pande and three other fan scholars.
Milena: I know that it happened. I do have to catch up on that because that sounds like it was amazing.
Parinita: It was really good but it was also so sad. Because on my podcast and in my own life as well – so I used to write fanfiction when I was a teenager, but then I was largely a lurker after that. I was on Tumblr for the briefest of times because I have a very obsessive personality so I would have spent too much of my life on Tumblr. As I did on Neopets. So now I get a lot of these Tumblr conversations and things through Facebook fan pages and Twitter screenshots. But for me, I’ve very carefully and deliberately curated a more positive, more progressive, more nuanced space in terms of who I follow. It’s a very deliberate echo chamber that I’ve created because it is my space, so I’ve not faced the kind of horrible things other people face. On that panel, they were talking specifically in terms of racism because that was the theme of the panel. But I know that there’s lots of transphobia and queerphobia and stuff in fandom spaces. Fandom likes to see itself or some people see fandom as more progressive and I’m focusing on the more progressive and more positive parts of fandom through fan podcasts and things. But I know it can be a really terrible place as well for queer fans too.
Milena: Yeah. And like you, I tend to curate my fannish spaces to not be unpleasant. But it’s definitely not always a fun happy place. I can think of a couple of examples, actually of things going horribly, horribly wrong in fandoms. One of them is I spent a good three-four years in hockey RPF fandom – ice-hockey RPF. And about [sighs] three or four years into that stint, one half of the biggest pairing in that fandom – because it’s a real person fandom, it’s like yeah your fave is going to be problematic. And we kind of knew that he was problematic. And then he got accused of rape. And the way that that fandom fell apart with some people just not wanting to see it, was genuinely horrifying. But the other interesting thing for me coming back around to the racism in fandom question is, I did my PhD research on sexual consent in fanfiction. And one of the things I did was I interviewed a bunch of fanfiction readers and writers. It was in a particular fandom – the Dragon Age video game. There’s a significant subgenre of slave fic in that fandom. And one of my interviewees brought it up as a “Oh yes this is a great way of exploring issues of consent.” And it has never sat right with me. Because obviously slavery is something that in the real world is a deeply racialised history that something many people still feel the after-effects of today both in the US and in Britain and in other places around the world. And taking that concept and going, “Oh let’s enslave the pretty elves, and then have fun sexy times with them” never quite sat right with me. And I have kind of worked out since then – it’s taken me a little time to work through it – why and how it’s a problem. A lot of the reasons it is a problem is this is the kind of fic that is primarily written by white women, maybe occasionally nonbinary people. And they may be queer, they may be straight, I don’t know. But it’s the kind of thing where white women get to take this trope, completely divorce it from its historical context and from its real-world effects today, get to deracialise it, and then make it part of their ooh exploring consent issues toolbox. Whilst just completely ignoring both the trauma that that inflicts on fans of colour and the general reproduction of white supremacy it perpetuates. So yeah fandoms are not always not always fun and happy places. And it’s very difficult sometimes to have those conversations.
Parinita: That’s so disappointing because when fandom wants to do something well, it can and does do something well. The two fics that you recommended me, one of which was your own, The Legend of Zelba – uh Zelba? [laughs] the Legend of Zelda drabbles that you wrote. I have never played the game, I know very little about the characters, and I’ve also never experienced discomfort with the gender that I was assigned at birth. And like I said earlier, I’m not super into love stories either. But your story made me so emotional because it was just so lovely. I was reading it and was like I wish everybody had this sort of experience if they wanted it. That it was accessible to them in mainstream media.
Parinita: Now of course fans have to go and write this themselves. But people are so creative in fandom – fanfiction writers like fan critiquers and things, they’re so creative in the ways they engage with issues. Why isn’t there more mainstream awareness, recognition and reflection of this? The other thing that you recommended as well, Skies of Blue, Red Roses too which was this Ranma ½ – Steven Universe crossover, again, which I loved so much. So for those who don’t know, Ranma ½ was this anime – I don’t know if it’s still ongoing – but it was this anime that I used to watch when I was growing up. Ranma was assigned male at birth according to this story, but he was a boy in canon. And he had a grandfather and they’d gone through some martial arts training which meant that if cold water was or hot water was dropped on them – I – forget the details.
Milena: I can’t remember which way around it was.
Parinita: Yeah. It was either if hot water was dropped on them, the grandfather turned into a panda, as you do. And Ranma, the boy, turned into a girl. And then they revert back to their original form if the opposite temperature water was dropped.
Parinita: This was a terrible explanation. [laughs] I shall link to a better and more succinct summary. But because I’m cisgender, I didn’t think of the gender implications of this text at that time. I used to love that anime without interrogating anything in it. It was just this weird little thing that I loved that even now when I try to explain the concept of it to people, they think I’m making it up. [laughs] Like I had some sort of fever dream.
Parinita: Because it’s so bizarre! But in this story, they do a crossover with Steven Universe and with Ranma sort of negotiating internalised transphobia a little bit but also coming to terms with her trans identity as well. Which I thought was amazing!
Milena: It is really interesting to me. A significant number of my friends have watched Ranma. I’ve got a friend who has this theory about Ranma that if you really, really love it, it’s probably because you’re not cis because it’s not that good an anime.
Milena: And this friend is more than ten years younger than me. And to an extent, for that generation they have a point. For me, when I was watching it in the late 90s-early 2000s, that was one of six anime we had over here. So for our generation, it is a classic. So there’s probably cis people of my generation who enjoyed it for just being an anime. But yeah actually, if you’ve got access to more anime and better anime, then yeah if you like Ranma, you’re probably not cis.
Milena: When I got this fic recommended, my partner made this comment that if you’re using Ranma to kind of do your gender exploration, the state of trans representation in media is really dire, isn’t it? I was like, yeah, yes it is.
Milena: I was like it’s not good.
Parinita: No, especially because that’s something that the fic brought up which I didn’t remember because I’ve not watched Ranma ½ in years – more than a decade for sure. But how she was treated when she’d been turned into a girl either as a pervert for then reverting back to her boy body. Or the kind of sexual harassment and sexual assault that was a very regular part of her life.
Milena: [laughs] Yes!
Parinita: Yeah. Of course I was … I don’t know 13 – 12 at that time, so I wasn’t thinking about these things. If I go back now and watch it, I don’t know if I’ll love it as much as I did then. It just captured that very specific time in my life.
Parinita: Yeah. This fanfiction writer has made it so amazingly contemporary. And also, so obviously they’re exploring gender and sexual diversity through their story – through Steven Universe and Ranma ½. And I’ve not read the whole thing – I’ve read the first few chapters, but in the second chapter I thought it was really interesting, their author’s notes at the end, where they said that they removed the State Trooper and replaced him with a community watch member because “fuck cops”.
Parinita: I’m assuming they’re US-based but also in other parts of the world including India, there’s huge police brutality. But it was a very political, very deliberate reconstruction of their own story to go in line with their politics and what’s happening in the world – which I thought was amazing.
Milena: Yeah, no absolutely. I love that story. I love what they’ve done with both the source material but also kind of how they’re bringing real-world politics into it and actually making it matter. But also one of the things I love about that story is actually how unapologetically just fluffy it is.
Milena: Because yeah Ranma worked through a whole bunch of issues but it’s constantly much like Steven Universe the original show, it’s very much … it’s positive, it’s upbeat, it’s optimistic, we can solve these problems. Steven Universe, his superpower is he will solve anything by making people talk about their feelings. I love it.
Parinita: Aww! [laughs]
Milena: As somebody who didn’t learn to talk about my feelings until I watched Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Parinita: Oh! Yes!
Parinita: [laughs] So currently I’m watching Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts on Netflix.
Milena: It’s on my list.
Parinita: Highly, highly recommended. Because she does the same. She wants to solve problems by talking about them and making friends and being aggressively friendly. [laughs] And I’m like yes! These are the kind of heroes I need in my life. And of course, they’re all in children’s media so I’m like yes, this is my life now.
Milena: Yeah. We really need unapologetically fluffy, hopeful, optimistic media. The world is on fire and sometimes you just need to be able to curl up in a corner and go I’m reading this fluffy thing and I’m just going to make myself feel better doing that. And then I’m going to go and fight the rest of the world.
Parinita: You’re so right! Because the fluffy makes the fight possible. You can’t fight without your comfort food and your comfort media.
Milena: Thank you for having me, it’s been so much fun.
Parinita: Thank you so much! It’s been a year and just talking to people has been such a light in my life. And talking to you especially today has just been so fantastic. I got to talk about all these stories that I don’t really get to talk to people about. And the conversation has been so good for my brain. Thank you so much for being a part of this project.
Milena: Thank you for having me! Take care.
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 email@example.com. 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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