A PhD project exploring intersectionality through fan podcasts

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Author: Parinita Shetty Page 1 of 9

Some Notes On Episode 19 – Resources

Some Notes On … is a section which features my autoethnographic fieldnotes as I document my thoughts throughout different parts of my PhD project. Here, I write about the text resources discussed in our podcast episode. 

For Episode 19, , we discussed the following texts:

1) Fan podcast – Witch, Please: The Goblet is Political (Listened from 51ish minutes to 62 minutes 30 seconds

Hermione at the Yule Ball uses performative femininity to her own benefit without getting caught up in its trappings. Traditionally feminine appearance makes it easier to navigate the world and she is able to control that without letting it control her. She is still able to retain her personality even after – her passion for knowledge, social justice, standing up for  what she believes is right remains untouched. 

Hermione and SPEW – white/brahmin women who don’t include other intersectional identities and appropriate the feminist movement without acknowledging their privileges 

J. K. Rowling thinks she’s most like Hermione – Hermione uses badges and signs and a manifesto, but it’s all created without the input of the oppressed group she is fighting for. She’s imposing her politics on them and not taking their perspectives into consideration at all. 

Hermione as first-wave British feminist (Emmeline Pankhurst) 

House elves telling her they don’t want emancipation versus all the older men telling Hermione she’s wrong – tensions between this – that everyone tells Hermione the elves like being slaves 

“False consciousness” – Hermione thinks her job is to liberate the house elves from their oppressed identities akin to a white saviour complex. She doesn’t seem to learn from the things she does wrong. 

At the same time, Hermione’s activism is presented quite dismissively – at least from all the other characters. 

They propose that in this book, Rita Skeeter is the secondary villain – her rumours and journalism do active harm in spreading misinformation about Harry which in turn leads to everybody including the government not believing Harry that Voldemort has returned allowing Voldemort and the Death Eaters time and opportunity to solidify their strength. Hermione is the one who catches Rita out and punishes her by trapping her in the jar until she promises not to publish more false information – but the damage has been done and in OoTP, the media takes over from Rita’s work.

Earlier in the episode, they talk about Mrs Weasley as a focal point of domestic labour (Hermione is outraged about house elves but doesn’t notice Molly Weasley’s work) – limited gender roles for women 


2) Fan podcast – Witch, Please: The Cleansing Fire (Listened from 66 minutes to 80 minutes)

“The gendered labour of the resistance” – Marcelle

The types of work that the women do – Mrs Weasley – cooking, feeding, emotional labour and caretaking 

Tonks is coded as masculine because she’s not good at domestic work and is thereby connected to the “real” work of the resistance. There seems to be only one way to fight in a way which is considered useful 

When Sirius does the same kind of work that Molly Weasley does, he resents it because he isn’t able to do the kind of work that “matters” for the Order 

Hermione is also largely tasked with managing the emotions of Harry and Ron – even though she is also capable and skilled at so many other things – has to anticipate their emotional needs and be aware of them

The way that women characters seem to distance themselves away from other women – the “I’m not like other girls” ness of it all – means that they’re totally cut off from their emotions and are like men rather than women – at least in the way that it is traditionally portrayed 

Emotional labour is relegated to women’s roles in media and in real life 

Molly seems to be the hysterical, emotional and irrational parent while Arthur is on the side of the children and seems to only be listening to Molly because he doesn’t want to upset her rather than because he’s on her team and they’re parents together. Fathers get to be the fun ones and wives are the boring ones trope 

Hermione isn’t a good ally – her politics emphasise liberation of an oppressed group i.e. house elves but her process is troubling – very imperialistic 

She doesn’t even learn from Dobby who – as a house-elf who is now free – would be her best ally in the cause but when he points out her problematic behaviour and the fact that it won’t work, she dismisses his opinion. She seems to want to save the house elves without allowing room for them to save themselves 

We expect more from Hermione because she’s awesome and should do better. 


3) Fan podcast – Witch, Please: The Full-Blood Patriarchy (Listened from 63 minutes to 76 minutes 35 seconds)

Gender and patriarchy in Half Blood Prince. 

There are lots of anti-Fleur attitudes which reminds me of the counternarrative I encountered during my master’s research:

The trope that the pretty girl doesn’t have any female friends because other women don’t like her because she’s a threat 

Femininity as performed traditionally and successfully is subjected to hatred by women who don’t choose to or can’t do the same kind of performance 

Fleur being excited about planning her wedding and bringing Ginny and Hermione and Molly into it is met with dismay because the other girls are supposed to be strong and active 

Pitting women against each other because there’s no room for different kinds of women to just be 

Fleur is complicit in the system in a way that Tonks isn’t. Tonks pushes against the system through her overall nonconformity and that has Ginny and Hermione picking her over Fleur. Ron supports Fleur because he finds her more attractive than Tonks  

Also what is it with all the people in these books marrying so young and all of them marrying full stop! 

Ron slutshames Ginny for having too many boyfriends and is upset that Hermione kissed Krum (though that might have been born out of jealousy) 

He uses Lavender to make up for his insecurity. Lavender is also presented as silly and someone not to be taken seriously – showcased in contrast to Hermione. Why can’t we have both? Clever women can’t be silly? In academia and other professional settings, so much more pressure on women to look and behave a certain way than men 

Increase in structural violence seems to impact women more (not always – as in the case of black men in the US and Dalit and Muslim men in India) but they are weaponised by being made victims – murder and sexual assault 

Just two female Death Eaters – Bellatrix – is Narcissa even a Death Eater? Fascism doesn’t have room for women at the top even when women are complicit in the oppression of other races/castes/religions. In the right-wing movement, women are throwing other women under the bus without realising that they will be next. Same with trans-exclusionary feminists who find right-wing men supporting them.  You can’t be interested in human rights without being concerned about the rights of ALL marginalised humans 

Violence against women being normalised. Hermione being assaulted by Cormac McLaggen is treated as funny; Umbridge and the centaurs at the end of OoTP; gender and violence in the case of Mrs Roberts in GoF


4) Fan podcast – Witch, Please: Hallows and Goodbyes (Listened from 85 minutes to 92 minutes 35 seconds)

Gendered labour of women in the resistance

Fleur is glamorous and powerful and strong and is reduced to living in the middle of nowhere making casseroles by herself for her husband and the others – filling Molly’s shoes. There is room for different kinds of resistance and the support and safe space she offers plays a very important role – but is this the only role wives are allowed? Why isn’t she out fighting in the Order? Why isn’t Bill helping with the food? Why doesn’t Arthur? They seem to fulfill very traditional roles

Violence against women in the magical world –  Fenrir Greyback and his creepy attention towards Hermione – rape culture, women as default victims

Arianna Dumbledore – book doesn’t explicitly say the Muggle boys assaulted her sexually but it is implied when they “got carried away” and the trauma leads to lifelong impact 

Helena Ravenclaw’s story – Bloody Baron murders her for refusing his advances. She becomes a ghost and is forced to haunt the castle with her murderer 

Relationship between Snape and Lily – where he treated her terribly out of jealousy and his messed up politics as a young man – and even later, taking it out on Harry – but he sees himself as the wronged one. Sense of entitlement and romanticising the tragic narrative in which Snape is quite terrible 


5) Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper: Where Are The Tampons With Tiffani Angus

The absence of women’s bodily functions and concerns in mainstream fiction. We see a little bit of it in The Handmaid’s Tale but not really in a way which provides the women with any sort of agency – menstruation, birth control, navigating the world as a woman is more difficult than going about as a man 

Station Eleven – post-apocalyptic – where are the tampons? Why are none of the women looking for pads or tampons and using it as currency? Even when it’s a woman writing these stories, it’s a default male-centric concern 

What are the things we would be concerned as women in some of our favourite SFF worlds? 

For many people in India and elsewhere, the events of the last few years might have seemed like several different kinds of apocalypses – what problem would the women have in these scenarios? Migrants, pandemic, protests? Compounded by when they’re mothers or carers or pregnant

The predominance of women in publishing too reflects the fact that children’s needs and concerns seem to be relegated to women 

Women’s biological functions are overlooked but women’s ability and need to give birth isn’t – especially in end-of-the-world scenarios 

Blue water used in pad advertisements because red water freaks people – mostly men – out 

The ignorance of men when it comes to women’s bodies and needs 

Very funny in Chalet School books where just barely a hint would be given that the women were tired or busy and suddenly at the end of the book – surprise! Baby! 

Is this considered as gross? How do you normalise it if nobody talks about it and it’s so invisible? 

Things like medication which impacts your life or the lack of medication which impacts your life 

This problem is even worse when you see trans women’s needs – who need hormones during their physical transitioning process – trans men can revert to menstruating 

Women and zombies and armpit hair – shaving hair – what is considered sanitary for which gender – zombies might be considered more unremarkable than women’s sanitary needs 

“Women have been socialised to think that what our bodies do is gross.” – Tiffani Angus

Menstruation – big representation of women’s bodies – armpit hair – small representation – where are women in peril’s armpit hair? 

“We don’t even get to have armpit hair. We’re never going to get to have periods if we can’t have armpit hair.”

Marvellous Mrs Maisel – performs being women – she goes to the bathroom and makes herself up before going to bed 

Female masturbation also seems to be taboo 

How even sex is portrayed – women seem to have orgasms instantly when women don’t really – our bodies don’t work that way – which can also impact women’s own ideas of themselves – women’s crotch hair is missing too

Lack of older women anyway – what about women going through menopause?


6) Fanzine – Tonk’s Tale

(I’ve already used this episode as a text for Episode 16. I haven’t made any additional notes for this episode so for the old notes, click here.)


7) Fan podcast – Fansplaining: Letting Harry Potter Go (Listen from 6 minutes 45ish seconds to 34ish minutes)

(There are a few different HP fan podcast episodes about JKR’s transphobia but this provides some background context in terms of what she said and transphobia’s place in UK feminism)

They discuss the context of Rowling’s transphobia in the context of British mainstream society and feminism – a long history of the feminist movement which excludes diverse gender identities and expressions 

Gender critical feminists who are transphobic – it’s mainstream, not a fringe group – in media, in society, in the queer movement – LGB without the T – not just straight women but largely led by straight white women – in the US, they tried to recently co-opt the Black Lives Matter movement as well 

They signposted this article in their episode

It’s not just women – but it does seem to be born of privilege – middle-class or wealthier 

As Flourish says, that JKR’s opinions have been perceived to be liberal so this can be surprising. Rowling may even consider herself as feminist and out to protect women’s rights and safety. But her idea of feminism and women seems to be very narrow – how far does her exclusionary policy extend – transness? Religion? Sexuality? Race? 

Taking advantage of the fact that women are a marginalised gender but that doesn’t mean you need to throw other marginalised groups under the bus. Where’s the solidarity among marginalised groups? We’re not going to progress unless we do it together 

While Rowling’s transphobia had been hinted at before December, it was her tweet in December #IStandWithMaya which made her views explicit 

As Elizabeth points out, lots of women don’t menstruate and not all those who menstruate are women 

This doesn’t seem to be a topic of mainstream discussion in India – at least from the limited network I have – but JKR seems to have made it to Indian discourse as well – authors who have posted on Facebook about it in quite exclusionary language 

I still haven’t read JKR’s defensive essay because I can’t bring myself to

A lot of trans and nonbinary fans identified with Tonks because they’re able to change her appearance at will. She seems to be non-conforming to ideas of gender (women) and is punk and seems cool and fun to the protagonists 

While Tonks does transform herself to change her hair and nose, there’s never anything about gender. Other transformations include Animagi who change into animals and the scene with the seven Potters where everyone changes into Harry or the Boggart turning into Snape in Neville’s grandmother’s clothes

Elizabeth talks about how she never connected Tonks to gender because there was nothing in the books or her character that made her open to that possibility. Flourish says that with future books to come out, at the time, people were excited about the possibilities – and both were disappointed by Tonk’s story arc where she becomes mousy and small in HBP because she’s in love with Remus who rejects her before getting together later. Failure of imagination in terms of both gender and queerness 

Flourish, a nonbinary fan, read their own interpretations into the books and was excited by the potential but ended up feeling betrayed – so much worse for fans who it directly impacts 

As E points out, JKR is good at showing the hypocrisy and smallness of middle class British people which people who aren’t familiar with that context may not be able to pick up on. Which is true, as in my case in India as in Flourish’s case in the US, but I think people can and do make connections with their own lives and contexts 

They also signpost this articleFrom the article: 

I vividly remember the visceral excitement I felt the first time I read the fifth Harry Potter book in 2003 and met Nymphadora Tonks, a shapeshifter with spiky pink hair, a punk-rock aesthetic, and an insistence on being called by her gender-neutral last name. I was certain that Rowling had written a canonically genderfluid character. Like millions of other Harry Potter fans who dared to project ourselves into the books, I was ultimately disappointed: By the end of the series, Tonks was a married, fully binary woman, softer and gentler, letting her husband feminize her as “Dora” — a name she’d previously hated.

I have always wondered if Rowling set up Tonks to somehow be “tamed” in the later books, from her earlier nonbinary presentation in Order of the Phoenix, and I’ve always written it off as surely not conscious. As a sickening byproduct of Rowling’s transphobic screed on Wednesday, I now realize I was right to have been wary all along. Rowling argues in the essay for the scientifically flawed and emotionally abusive narrative that “gender dysphoric teens will grow out of their dysphoria,” and uses herself as an example of a teen who felt “mentally sexless” before eventually — “fortunately” — growing out of feeling “confused, dark, both sexual and non-sexual.”

I read this passage as a chilling, heartbreaking confirmation that Rowling wrote Tonks not as an affirmation, even a subconscious one, of trans identity, but as a conscious repudiation of it: She deliberately created Tonks as a dysphoric individual so that the character could “grow out of” her dysphoria, subtly perpetuating the transphobic narrative that gender dysphoria is a choice. She consciously created the shapeshifting nonbinary character who helped me figure out (well into adulthood) that I was genderqueer, and then made her “grow” into being cisgender.

Says that this as well as JKR’s essay unlocked the idea that had been at the back of E’s mind about how regressive the books were in terms of gender. Which I kind of agree with but I think that there fans reading more progressive values into the books by exploring the gaps and filling in the missing pieces is also valid 

In her essay, Rowling talks about her own experiences of abuse and domestic violence. I think this is one of the reasons why I haven’t read the essay yet because I have close experience with this and I am appalled that this is being used against a marginalised group 

As Flourish and Elizabeth say, you can feel sorry for her because you don’t want anybody going through the darkness she seems to be inhabiting even now but simultaneously angry because she’s using her voice and power to put people in harm’s way 

Flourish was struggling with their gender identity when they first encountered Tonks. They became comfortable with acknowledging their gender in the course of the Fansplaining podcast. In that context, they saw the progressive potential of the character and drew connections between their own life and Tonks’s life 

Elizabeth – tomboyish characters who are feminised as they grow up because girls/women are not allowed to retain this gender nonconformity when they grow up – according to traditional media, at least 

Flourish talks about how it’s different reading Harry Potter or a book you’re so emotionally connected to and wanting to find your own identities and ideologies within its pages and reading a more progressive book like Orlando which tackles gender in more experimental ways but not feeling that sense of deep connection with it. I think that’s a really interesting point because that’s why these popular media texts are important – you feel so strongly about them as fans that you want them to be better 

Flourish wrote fanfic about Tonks because “she was not doing the things I wanted her to do” in terms of her gender noncomforming nature and taking the possibilities further. They felt a sense of utter betrayal with Rowling’s opinions now. And I completely sympathise and empathise with this pain even as I’m distanced from it since I’m a cis woman from a dominant culture; at the same time, in the country I’m from my gender marginalises me – nuance and complexity when it comes to being marginalised and dominant in different contexts 

The books reflect her worldview and experience – as do most people’s books – but perhaps the fans ended up being more progressive than the author. 


8) Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper: Transgender Representation in SFF 

Signposts book: Gender Identity and Sexuality in Fantasy and Science Fiction – an anthology by Luna Press, where Cheryl Morgan has an essay about trans rep 

Issues with trans representation in SFF – cis people write about trans people, partly due to the fact that trans people form such a small part of the population, and they don’t have a great idea about what being trans is about. Most of them don’t get sensitivity readers to go over their books to make sure they do represent it properly 

There also seems to be a focus on the transition process – which isn’t something most trans people are very interested in focusing on – for trans people, the transition is just them changing their outward appearance to match their inward sense of self – and they are interested in other aspects of their identity 

Trans writers writing books also includes in-jokes that only trans people would get – writing for the audience rather than for a cis audience

Cheryl would rather see no representation of trans people than terrible representation which spreads misinformation about the trans experience 

One of the hosts says that she only first heard the term cis when she was 26-27 – and it’s something I definitely empathise with. It’s something I’ve only come across more recently as well, thanks in large part to online conversations and podcast conversations 

You’re not taught about different gender identities and expressions in school/mainstream media so how would you learn without knowing a trans person or inhabiting spaces where these conversations are normalised? 

TERFs hate the term cis – think of it as a slur – because they want to perpetuate the idea that they are normal and everyone else – trans and nonbinary folks – aren’t normal

Cheryl mentions the term normalising is a bit problematic because it makes it sound like things are abnormal – suggests “usalising” instead which is clumsy but reflects it more accurately

Importance of stories which may mean much more to trans people than cis people – which might be a smaller audience, but it’s important nonetheless – just having trans people being a regular part of the science fiction or fantasy world you’re reading about – just mentioning the fact that they are trans but not making a huge issue about it. It’s like with all marginalised groups, I think. There’s room for issue-based books but those can’t be the only kind of representation there is. 

Being trans either in fiction or in real life, like anything else, becomes more difficult when you add other identities like nonbinary, race, class, religion, national or regional origin 

Cheryl talks about the cis gaze – the focus on transition is a form of objectifying trans people + what trans people are “really like” – where you’re “forcing people into stereotypical social roles” It’s a way to other, exoticise or demonise trans people 

A male cis gaze might look at trans women as sex workers while a cis female gaze might have different connotations – especially when it comes to TERFs 

A common trope with trans people rep which trans people are fed up with is the shock reveal where it’s suddenly revealed that the character you thought was cis was actually trans all along – these tropes and stereotypes are something I would never have thought of at all – my own privilege and blind-spots 

Cheryl also talks about trans people in history – focusing on how trans people have always been around the world – different cultural contexts as well where the Aboriginal people in Australia, hijra community in India, Romans, Incans, Native Americans – different ways in which people “incorporated transness in their culture” among other parts of the world – it’s grown in separate parts of the world which implies that it’s a part of the human experience and identity 

Deadnames – the names people are given at birth which is usually taboo – but Cheryl uses this while talking about historical figures because you don’t know what their preferred name was 

We don’t know about these historical figures unless you go looking for them in queer anthologies (which is where I’ve come across them in many cases) which separates them into specific categories rather than just having them as a part of history. We don’t study about them in school. Even the fact that one of the people who started Pride marches, something which is so mainstream now, was a black trans woman in the US – Marsha P. Johnson 

Cheryl says that trans people who don’t get to be famous – no kings or politicians or explorers so didn’t have statues erected 

Whitewashing – ciswashing? – of history where you don’t research into marginalised groups like trans people and present a trans-exclusive version of events. As Cheryl says, she didn’t realise trans people existed in history or in different parts of the world or even in her part of the world, because she had never come across them. This erasure is ever-present. 

If it’s not born out of ignorance, this erasure is due to people’s deliberate attempts to fit trans experiences into their own understanding and worldview – it’s just a man dressing up as a woman, for example 

You don’t know exactly how to present potentially trans people from history because you can’t discover how they felt about their own identities – especially since trans and intersex discussions weren’t commonplace – and some women genuinely used to dress as men for matters of convenience due to the limited gender roles then rather than being trans men 

Issue of trans women in the feminist movement 

Gender-critical movement within radical feminism in the US and the UK and Australia – part of this is religious beliefs (in the US) – in the UK, history of left-wing socialist feminism where the only struggle which is important is the class struggle – connection to political environment – not intersectional at all since all these struggles are inter-linked. Currently, the iteration is the only struggle which matters is sexism and once that’s fixed, all other struggles will be automatically fixed. Which is ridiculous! 

As Cheryl says, she doesn’t think these TERFs are either radical or feminist – if you go deep enough, they’ll be racist, Islamophobic, classist – you see this recently where the TERFs tried to co-opt Black Lives Matter protests in the US 

Intersectional feminism IS definitely my idea of feminism – that everyone and everyone’s struggles are equally important and need to be addressed and fixed together because one person’s experience isn’t universal 

Cheryl points out that mainstream media seems to be obsessed with the medical aspect of transition but this option isn’t available to most trans people all over the world due to regional, financial, cultural barriers – it’s expensive to access 

I don’t even know enough about the relationship between trans people and history and religion in India 

On the question of whether there’s an obligation for trans writers to write featuring trans people – for Cheryl, she’s been living as a woman for so many years that it’s not an issue which is at the forefront of her thinking on a day-to-day basis but she does acknowledge there needs to be more representation to make up for the underrepresentation and misrepresentation of trans characters in media 

Recommends supporting independent publishers who take more risks and offer more representation than mainstream publishers 


Context texts: (So I included these two essays here even though they don’t talk about fandom to maybe think/talk about feminism in a more intersectional manner. I thought drawing on parallels from the US and toxic white feminism/Hermione and house elves, we could talk about Dalit/Adivasi/rural women’s erasure in mainstream feminism in India – maybe even Muslim women? – and how some of them are using the internet to organise resistance. Again, from our position of privilege only because while being a woman in India is terrible, if you add other identities, it’s even worse.)

9)  Article – What Is Toxic White Feminism 

Chose this article to draw parallels between toxic white feminism and toxic savarna feminism – the Indian context with upper caste Hindu women 

Talks about how murder of black women usually goes unreported in mainstream media and the contradiction in terms of how black male suspects are treated versus white male suspects especially when the victim is a black woman

Also discusses the lack of outrage among white feminists – the silence which erases the issue from mainstream discourse. When asked to do so, some white women do use their social networks to spread the news. However, at the same time, there are many white women who become immediately defensive – Twitter exchange between Rukmini Pande, Samira Nadkarni and Anne Jamison where in the middle of a racist and misogynist controversy targeting the former two. Samira wrote long threads calling out the behaviour – and Anne signposted her book where both had an essay, something that Samira called out and something that Anne responded to defensively in the beginning 

Talks about the lack of solidarity among white women for their black counterparts and when asked to intervene, they become defensive and demand acknowledgement for previous actions instead of just doing what is necessary – mix of ego and sensitivity and hurt feelings – reminds me of Serena Joy in The Handmaid’s Tale though the race element there is removed in what seems to be a colourblind society 

Speaks about the history of feminism where black women were often sidelined though when black women were leaders, they fought for all rights 

Going up against liberal progressive white feminists who refuse to let down their guard of “ultimate liberation” to actually learn from women of color—who have been fighting this fight with grit and grace for generations—is the most straining part being a black feminist activist.

Toxic white feminism includes tone policing, demands of unity and peace over real justice, white saviour complex dependent on how well they claim to have treated black women and black men as proof of their solidarity, centering their experiences and comfort all the time 

As these things play out over and over again, it is made painfully obvious that many white women believe that the worst thing that can happen to them is to be called a racist. Let me be clear, it is not. Seeing your child gunned down in the street by the police unjustly is much worse, being turned away for medical care due to race and underlying biases by medical staff, resulting in death, is much worse, being harassed by authorities only to be charged yourself instead is much worse.

Colour-blindness as a way to show how liberal they are 

Points out that true allyship involves acknowledging your privilege and using the privilege to create a space for those with less privilege to fight with and for them and privileging their voices in addressing their needs 

What makes allyship so hard for most? Many liberal white woman have an immediate reaction of defense when someone challenges their intentions. And it is in that precise moment they need to stop and realize they are actually part of the problem. It is never the offender who gets to decide when they’ve offended someone. If you feel yourself dismissing the words or experiences of people of color—because you think they’re “overreacting” or because you “didn’t know” or because “it has nothing to do with race”—it’s often due to your ego, not rationale. Listen and learn, instead.

Dr. Robin DiAngelo, a white woman sociologist who studies critical discourse, reminds us in her new book White Fragility that “the key to moving forward is what we do with our discomfort. We can use it as a door out—blame the messenger and disregard the message. Or we can use it as a door in by asking, Why does this unsettle me? What would it mean for me if this were true?”

In order for feminism to be intersectional and progressive, you need to take different perspectives into view and not just those which are at the top of the marginalised hierarchy 


10) Article – Debrahmanising Online Spaces on Caste, Gender and Patriarchy 

Empowerment through/within digital spaces is also a privilege because it requires access to technology, uninterrupted internet connections, and the time and space to be able to navigate these spaces and develop digital literacies which also presumes basic literacy. This doesn’t mean that these spaces aren’t important; it’s just important to remember the limitations of these spaces as you celebrate the possibilities 

Cyber pundits and cyber libertarian social scientists celebrate the role of Information and Communication Technologies in the eradication of rural poverty. On the contrary, low education status, complex social structure and low accessibility to Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have expanded the digital divide (DN, 2001)1. Those connected to the internet are 35% of the population – the social composition of those with access to ICTs is dominant Indian castes, and they stand disconnected from the reality for majority of the Indian society. Thus, it accelerates the gap related with access and social mobility2.

This article focuses on young Dalit people are using the internet to create a space of solidarity for other Dalit people and awareness among non-Dalit people – Twitter, Instagram, YouTube – particularly young Dalit women – artwhoring is the one I can think off of the top of my head and Divya Khanduri who I discovered through BuzzFeed India – talk about both the intersections of caste and gender when it comes to Dalit/Adivasi/Bahujan women 

Are there similar spaces for Muslim women since that’s a group being targeted and maligned in India and all over the world? 

Recent nonsense online with the NRI Indian Hindu woman crying about how she feels her religion is mocked and disrespected because she was challenged by a Dalit woman for her regressive views. Her fans then attacked artwhoring in disgusting ways – Priyanka Paul of artwhoring shared the abuse she received then and continues to receive daily but continues to create examples of Dalit joy in the middle of rage 

These social media posts and presence allow for a lived experience of their various intersectional identities rather than just academic, abstract theorising 

Usually feminism seems to be concerned with elitist concerns rather than ones which affect different women in different ways 

Issue of period leave recently at Zomato being announced and while that is great for the women it impacts, there are millions of other women in India without basic access to period products 

As with anything, while social media allows them to share their experiences and perspectives, also leaves them open to abuse and trolling 

Intellectual + pleasure activism on social media. I remember something Priyanka Paul said on her Instagram that she’s glad she doesn’t fit into the preconcevied notions of Dalit women and strives to keep challenging these assumptions 

A Dalit woman activist argued that “Mainstream media does not publish our ideas. Social media is a major help to us.”

An Adivasi girl student said “Our women are being stereotyped as weaker, but our generation is converting new media into a new form of resistance”.

One of the questions the article asks is whether it’s enough to provide access and raise awareness of their political, social and cultural perspectives online when the most marginalised Dalit/Adivasi/Bahujan women’s lives aren’t improved and structural change isn’t developed? 

An innovative approach can be tailored through channelising the creative energy of Adivasi-Dalit-Bahujan girls/women into that of new media design thinking/practice. Dalit-Adivasi-Bahujan social/political assertions attain new dimension through the creation of counter online sphere to the conservative-caste blind “isms” in India. Internationalisation of their claim to private/public sphere has renewed the question of modernity related to these girls/women of change.

Indian feminist-politics of citation has created certain centers and margins while engaging with Advasi-Dalit-Bahujan politics. In other words, it systematically appeases or ignores the epochal, Adivasi-Dalit-Bahujan feminist interventions. Online sphere of Adivasi-Dalit-Bahujan feminist politics thus have the unique and autonomous arena of political sensibility. One of the central facet of the aforementioned online forums represent renewed understanding on the roots and alternatives related with caste-gender-patriarchy-religion- linked forms of oppression and resistance.


11) YouTube video – The Matrix As A Trans Allegory 

More recently, right-wing conspiracy theorists in the West have been using the red pill/blue pill allegory to insinuate that they’ve taken the red pill and now know how the world truly works and who controls it and who their enemies are. So I especially love that the creators have come out to say that The Matrix is actually a trans allegory and thus validating its trans fans for whom the movie has been so important 

In a science fiction/fantasy world, surely the only limits are your imagination because the impossible is possible in so many different ways? So the idea of transformation – which is so limited in many series including the HP books – can be revolutionary – similarly in video games as well where you can choose different players that corresponds with your actual gender and not the gender you were assigned at birth 

Lilly Wachowski talks about how the trans allegory was the original intention, the mainstream mediaspace controlled by corporate interests wasn’t yet ready for what was then considered a taboo topic – and still is to a degree but there is more public discussion about this – not always positive, of course 

“The desire for transformation but it was all coming from a closeted point of view” – Switch was a man in the real world and a woman in the Matrix 

Lilly doesn’t know how much her own transness informed the writing of the Matrix but she does think her identity influenced it to a certain degree 

She talks about how she didn’t know the word for her identity at the time – something which is so much more a topic of discussion now which can help others figure out their own identities – and so always found solace in imaginary worlds – sci-fi and fantasy worlds – Dungeons and Dragons worlds.

I’ve read an article which focused on the transformative potential of D&D to be able to play with your gender identity as also exists in video games in a relatively safe space

She thinks that creating stories in SFF worlds can be liberating because you’re able to imagine possibilities which don’t exist in real life 


12) Tumblr post – Sameface Syndrome and Other Stories

Disney’s Sameface Syndrome – The evolution of Disney princesses and their effect on body image, gender roles, and the portrayal of love

Disney, a major animation studio, has the unfortunate habit of creating princesses with the same face – Elsa, Anna, Rapunzel – and this post points to a disturbing trend in their female characters where the bodies, faces, features all look similar 

Talks about how due to the design shapes and what they imply, character personalities tend to dictate their shapes which means that people who aren’t conventionally attractive either end up being background characters or villains 

they’re typically older, with more visible wrinkles in their faces, and either grotesquely thin or on the heavy side.

You get the idea: the “good” characters are basically always attractive, and the “bad” characters are basically always unattractive. You see a little more variance in movies from, say, DreamWorks (not so much Pixar) but this rule still holds true for Disney.

Points out that one of the critiques of Disney characters is that they have big heads and big eyes but this is usually to make them more expressive. However in its early days, Disney used to model its characters on real women so the proportions used to be more realistic

When The Little Mermaid was released, the now-familiar formula of “big head, big eyes, small nose and mouth, tiny waist” really started to take off… Which was applied in various ways to the rest of the Disney Princess line.

Anna and Elsa’s facial expressions, particularly Elsa’s, were significantly dialed back at the animation stage to prevent their faces from stretching out of shape and making them look “too ugly,” producing the side effect of making them look oddly stiff. Stretching and exaggerating faces to get good overall movement is one of the basic principles of animation, and I’m concerned that Disney decided to throw it out in favor of making their women look slightly more attractive, especially since I haven’t noticed this in any other Disney Princess films.

Ugh why is the way the women look the most important part of this or any movie – especially when this was pushed as the “feminist” Disney movie – even though there have been critiques of that especially in the second movie 

Arbitrary decision which does have a cultural impact that good characters are supposed to be beautiful and also beautiful in a certain kind of way – narrowing the definition of morality and beauty in one fell swoop – narrow waist, wide hips – there was such a huge outrage about Barbie with this – but haven’t really encountered Disney ones – especially given the fact that Disney is such a cultural juggernaut 

Disney is a big reflection of our societal norms, so it’s frankly disturbing that they’re saying that this is what beauty looks like — not because all these girls have an unrealistic body type, but because they all look the same. Because what they’re communicating, in a subtle and subconscious way, is that there’s only one way to look good, and that’s simply not true.

Disney may be in the business of stylizing reality, but that’s just it: they’re supposed to be using reality as a starting point. The world is an extremely varied place, and people come in all shapes and sizes. When you’re trying to improve your diversity, making your characters actually look different is a good place to start.


13) Article – When Will We See Dalit Women Journalists In India’s Mainstream Media?

Lack of Dalit/Adivasi journalists in Indian media

Talks about how the problem isn’t just entertainment media but also news media where the people in control usually tend to be privileged groups of men and if it’s women, it’s who belong to wealthy, upper caste Hindu backgrounds. This influences what kinds of stories are considered important and how they are told. The stories which are highlighted tend to reflect the concerns and perspectives of this privileged group whereas the marginalised group may have to turn to social media to make their voices heard 

A report published by Oxfam ‘Who Tells Our Stories Matters’ spanning TV news (Hindi and English), newspaper (Hindi and English), digital media and magazines brings forth startling data that demonstrates the severe under-representation of marginalized groups in the Indian Media. Reliable data is not available to establish the number of Dalit/Adivasi journalists in media; experts say, it is minuscule. Media critics say coverage on issues of caste, gender and class lacks sensitivity because of the absence of journalists from these sections. There is no data available specifically for the number of women in media from marginalized communities.

Lack of diversity among journalists also impacts attitudes – if marginalised journalists are only brought on to talk about issues which pertain to that aspect of their identity, people won’t take them seriously on other issues – similar to race in the UK

Post the Rohit Vemula episode, India has witnessed the Third Ambedkarite Wave, wherein there has been an increasing trend of discussion about discrimination faced by the marginalized community. Media houses started hiring or outsourcing Dalit women journalists to only talk about ‘Dalit and gender issues’, thereby reducing their identity to their caste by making them a ‘quota reporter’ and not a journalist who should be allowed to write about Politics, Culture, Art and Sports.

The Adivasi journalists are asked to cover issues regarding Naxalites, Forests and Left Wing extremism.

Even when women journalists and editors talk about issues like feminism or gender politics, it’s still a limited perspective because they aren’t taking into account the perspective of a majority of the Indian population who are impoverished 

This social and cultural capital is replicated because the networks are so limited that the opportunities are only offered to people from the same groups which means Dalit/Bahujan/Adivasi women don’t have access to these spaces and networks 

Journalists from marginalised backgrounds tend to remain on the margins and don’t get access to mainstream spaces and mainstream influence with their counter-narratives 

Dalit news stories are largely relegated to the violence committed against them – a very one-sided, single story view of their existence 

There are no narratives celebrating the intellectual discourses and movements to counter caste-based biases started by Dalit. The privileged gaze fails to see the resistance. No narratives celebrate their culture and identity. For example, Annual Tribal Festival and Dhamma Pravartan Divas, which are significant in Dalit culture, remain uncovered by the media.

Even in schools and colleges, there is no subject integrated in the curriculum that specifically talks about caste, class and gender to sensitize people regarding the inequality in the society. In such aspects, reservation in private media schools is a dire need to ensure participation of marginalized groups in mainstream media.

The politics of language where English is privileged in media rooms 

“Language was a means of power and control. For language is what reflects and embodies the culture and way of life of people, and to believe that one’s language is inferior, not good enough, not worthy of use is, in fact, to negate and make invisible one’s entire way of being and living. It is precisely through creating feelings of inferiority around local languages and dialects that the powerful maintained the marginalization of subaltern groups”, says a journalist from Khabar Lahriya, a path-breaking media channel comprising Dalit women journalists which primarily publishes local stories.

When I was in my early 20s, I was a freelance journalist and had written an article about Khabar Lahriya, a media enterprise I loved, but didn’t even think of touching on the caste aspect because thanks to my privilege, that wasn’t a topic I gave much thought to 

There’s also a lack of rural women’s stories – reading a book Everybody Loves A Good Drought and following The People’s Archive of Rural India – PARI – on Instagram for stories from rural India has helped expand my knowledge and imagination 

It is much more difficult for women from marginalized communities to enter into the field of media and journalism. Families do not have enough resources to educate them. They also do not consider this as a viable career option. This stream requires women to step out of the home at uneven times and work for long hours, which is usually not acceptable to parents. Women are expected to get married and engage in house work.

The systematic structure of patriarchy is so staunch that women do not even consider being a media person as something remotely plausible. According to a report by Media Rumble and UN women, office spaces are male-dominated and patriarchal in nature. The study also found that women continue to be given what are essentially “soft” beats like lifestyle and fashion, leaving the “hard” beats like politics, economy, and sports. “By thus marginalising women’s voices and perspectives, the Indian media essentially denies nearly a half of the population a chance to influence public opinion. This runs counter to the principles of fairness, equality, and democracy,” the report said.


14) Article – Building A Newsroom Dedicated To Diversity: An Indian Story

Features Khabar Lahariya which started off as a newspaper that trained women in rural areas to be journalists who printed local news in their local languages thereby diversifying not just who tells the stories but also what kind of stories are told and how they are told 

Now they share their news on distributes their content on Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, Twitter, and TikTok

Kavita Devi, the founder of Khabar Lahariya started the newspaper in response to the alienation she felt with mainstream media who did not represent her perspectives or experiences as a Dalit woman in a village 

From 2002 to 2015, KL ran an eight-page print in the Bundeli language covering local issues. They would distribute these prints by hand. Funding was difficult and no mainstream papers wanted to help distribute KL. In 2015, they taught their team how to use smartphones and moved their reporting digital, adding video coverage. Their number of readers have gone from 80,000 (while in print) to five million every month.

They’ve been more successful than a lot of big mainstream publications in the shift from print to digital! 

It features underrepresented populations and issues of people who live in rural communities which are difficult to access by mainstream publications 

While they distinguish journalism from activism, their stories do get local level changes done by highlighting issues until they’re fixed

Intersection of caste and gender: 

Safety is still an issue, particularly for Dalit and Adivasi women reporters. Recently, while reporting on a story on gaushalas where cows were being murdered, upper caste men followed KL’s reporters with guns. However, Devi says that they take care of their reporters and put stringent safety protocols into place. She emphasizes that danger shouldn’t stop them from reporting. Safety might not be an issue that is raised if the reporters were men

I love that they focus on issues other than what urban ideas of rural lives and issues are! 

Also runs a podcast called Love Guru covering stories on romance and sexuality that people might be too shy — or afraid of implications — to come on camera for


15) Article – What Steven Universe can Teach us about Queerness, Gender Identity, and Feminism

Positive representations in media: Steven Universe

Steven Universe, like She-Ra and other popular media created for children, has found huge resonance and popularity among adult audiences because it explores themes relevant to adult lives too 

The Crystal Gems are gender-nonconforming even though they go by she/her – expanding the concept of gender and the possibilities it holds – so important for a children’s show 

They also represent different body types – fat activism and fatphobia within the feminist umbrella is also a huge topic of discussion at least in the West 

Just like the different gender expressions seem to be a default in this world – not really worthy of comment, it’s the same in She-Ra – it’s not a big deal, it just is 

Fans reading Bow as trans, an interpretation which Noelle publicly supports but doesn’t say it’s canon because they didn’t hire a trans actor to voice him and Scorpia 

Nonbinary characters – Stevionne in Steven Universe, Double Trouble in She-Ra – Noelle said that she was learning through fan responses who said they wished the nonbinary character was human 

Gender is treated with respect and dignity in Steven Universe. The acknowledgment of gender is of particular importance because since the gems identify as female when they are in romantic relationships, queer relationships are illustrated.

Also example of found family and a queer feminist family – which goes against normative family structures 

Fusion as a way to represent queer relationships 

Not only are the characters in Steven Universe free to be who they are, but there are also no boundaries when it comes to what it means to be an individual, whether the boy, girl or gem. All the Crystal Gems, feminine or masculine presenting, fight and kick ass when they do. They take on the daunting task of protecting the earth from menaces that often come from their home planet and the universe using their various weapons and powers. At the same time, they love Steven and protect him with all of their beings as well as nurture him and teach him how to be the best Crystal Gem he can be. These are not traditional, one-dimensional female characters; they are relatable to the multilayered women who exist in real life.

Portrayal of male and female characters which don’t correspond to traditional gender roles – Steven compassionate and sensitive – Connie often rescues him – there’s room for different kinds of ways to be a boy or a girl and largely media has just pushed one narrative – now it’s making up for this by presenting more ways of existing in the world – also Steven’s dad is the one who shows his mother how to love rather than the other way around 

Normally, especially in children’s shows, it is the very feminine character who is always swooning and searching for love, and when she finds it she has to soften the heart of her more masculine love interest. But this is not the case in Steven Universe, where this trope is turned completely on its head

The writer of this article loves that the show is full of “non-traditional interactions, relationships, and expressions of identity” – it’s not something which came easily to the creator of the show as she mentions in her interview with Noelle Stevenson – impacted her mental health to always have to fight  for representation and authentic storytelling with the corporate producers – but her efforts made it easier for Noelle Stevenson to make her show and point to Steven Universe as an example 

It amazes me how a show like this is more reflective of the world today, yet it is rare to see such representations on TV, especially in a show made for children. This normalization of same sex (or gender) relationships, non-nuclear families, characters who are not constricted by gender norms, and characters who are allowed just to give me hope that our future will be a little brighter since children are now being exposed to these values.

Steven Universe, and shows like it, are so important for children who are growing up in a society that tells them who they should be, without taking into account who they are. It is essential for kids to understand that there’s not just one way to be a girl or to be a boy or to be feminine or masculine. As an adult who identifies as queer, it reminds me that I’m not alone and that everything is going to be OK. We must all understand that each person is different and it’s not about being pinpointed as “normal” or “other.” We are individuals, no matter what category we choose to fall under (or not to fall under) and it’s refreshing to see this positive treatment of identity displayed on TV.


16) Article – The Way the Solo Novel Treats Female Droid L3-37 Is Horrifying

This article discusses how even non-human female characters get a raw deal – where a female droid in Star Wars is robbed of her agency and has to submit to further a man’s story and how male characters manipulate her into saving her friends and doing something which goes against her sense of being and identity

The article explores the concept of consent and the absence of it – which makes me think of the lack of consent even with Leia and Han when he first kisses her. I don’t think Star Wars has a great track record with its women anyway – Rey’s story started off great but ended very dubiously – ostensibly as fan service to a bunch of enraged fans who hated the feminism and people of colour in the second film of the most recent trilogy 

L3’s story is so flawed that it’s hard to pair it with the feminist bent Lucasfilm has been aiming for with their current films. Never mind that her quest for droid rights is painted as a joke, but the fact she ends up voiceless and powerless, trapped on a ship that Han then takes from Lando, is deeply problematic.

We are shown a woman who advocates for social justice having her ability to speak taken away and then she becomes a servant who cannot stand up for herself. If that’s not a bad message to send, I don’t know what is.

This social justice and activism being treated as a joke by the male characters is so reminiscent of Hermione’s outrage against house elf oppression 


17) Research paper – Gender in Twentieth-Century Children’s Books

According to this study of a sizeable chunk of children’s books in the 20th century, they found male characters were more prominent than female characters – both in titles and as protagonists 

I wonder how much this has changed now that it is such a matter of mainstream discourse. I would be really interested in a more modern study, especially with Indian children’s books. A lot of writers are more aware of these issues and focus on gender diversity among other forms of diversity but even that can be in quite limited ways. A Mighty Girl produces booklists which feature female characters in prominent roles in different books of different genres and for different ages 

I remember when I was a kid and used to be so upset by the lack of girl names in science and maths textbooks – I would make up girl versions for the boy names and proceed that way. I was too young to have any understanding of feminism then but obviously I still noticed it 

I think it’s also important to see how the genders are represented not just whether they are not. Of course, it begins with mere visibility but there also needs to be more nuance and complexity rather than just superficial gender diversity – and what about children’s books normalising diverse gender identities? 

Are girls going on adventures and doing things which according to traditional gender roles they’re not allowed to do? What about women of all ages and backgrounds? 

Diverse representations of gender are important in children’s media because children are still figuring out and developing their own identities and how these fit within the world they inhabit 

I think have a more diverse group of academic researchers will help diversify the kinds of research that is carried out – in the context of children’s books in India, researchers from different genders, socioeconomic, caste, regional backgrounds can draw on their own experiences and priorities and use these perspectives to identify gaps in children’s literature – using quantitative data to back this up  – and of course, having more diverse writers, editors and publishers push for the change as well 

I think the male/female disparity is important in terms of representation especially in a country like India, huge parts of which are so directly entrenched in patriarchal structures – but I don’t think it’s enough to just focus on male/female at the cost of other aspects of identity which are contextually different and impact people in different ways. For example, Dalit men/black men have less power and are in more danger than a wealthy Brahmin/white woman. And among women, many different intersections of oppression and privilege exist. I wish this study explored other facets of identity 

Some Notes On Episode 18 – Resources

Some Notes On … is a section which features my autoethnographic fieldnotes as I document my thoughts throughout different parts of my PhD project. Here, I write about the text resources discussed in our podcast episode. 

For Episode 18, , we discussed the following texts:

1) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text: Special Edition Owl Post and Marya Bangee (listen from 19 minutes 40 seconds till the end of the episode)

This episode discusses how Hermione has to leave behind her Muggle culture to assimilate into the magical world and how witches and wizards have so many stereotypes about Muggles

One of the listeners believes that Hermione must have thought there were so many easier Muggle technologies to use in the magical world rather than relying on inconvenient magical things. Hermione never talks about her Muggle background and culture, even though so many people in the magical world have some really strange assumptions about and biases against non-magical people. The listener believes that Hermione has internalised the magical world’s dismissal of the Muggle world. She feels like she needs to assimilate to the new culture in order to fit in and consequently leaves her own culture behind. The listener draws parallels between this and her own experiences living abroad where she felt she had to set aside her cultural values and experiences because people in her new culture weren’t really interested in knowing these things. I empathise with this as an Indian immigrant living in the UK. Rarely anybody else seems to really care about what’s happening in India, either culturally or politically. 

There are so many Muggle things that Hermione or any other Muggleborn student could introduce to the magical world and make the world better through cultural exchange. This isn’t just limited to science, travel, technology and communication but also literature and art. Hermione and other Muggleborn students seem to live in a society which largely resembles their society’s history. Nobody in the magical world seems to be interested in making life easier because witches and wizards think they are above learning from Muggle cultures. Visibility isn’t just important for people from marginalised cultures for their own sense of identity but also for people from dominant cultures to understand them in non-stereotypical ways. 

The politics of language – Fudge’s attitude to his Bulgarian counterpart at the World Cup in Goblet of Fire+ goblin languages which are depicted negatively and harshly. Barty Crouch Sr. and Dumbledore seem to be the only ones who speak several languages – shouldn’t this be a more normalised part of the world? Shouldn’t Muggle Studies be a compulsory part of the Hogwarts curriculum?

When Marya Bangee is asked why she thinks Hermione doesn’t always share her Muggle knowledge in the magical world, the guest, a hijab-wearing Muslim woman in the US, relates to Hermione’s insider/outsider status. This is similar to my experience in the UK though I do have the privilege of cultural and social capital. Marya thinks that people don’t always want to point out their differences and want to be a part of the community and connect with other people. She thinks Hermione already has noticeable differences thanks to her origin as well as her intelligence and social justice advocacy.

One of the problems with the dominant culture not having a more nuanced and complex view of marginalised cultures is that it can lead to negative stereotypes. It can also lead to a lack of self-esteem and harmful internalised social conditioning among the marginalised cultures. Witches and wizards in the Potterverse have so many biases against other magical people like goblins, giants, werewolves. What would the magical world be like if there was more cross-cultural exchange? You see more of this in Fantastic Beasts with relationships among magical and non-magical folks but it is still exceptionalised. 


2) Tumblr post – Imagine A Muslim Witch

This Tumblr post imagines what the life of a Muslim student in and outside of Hogwarts would be like 

I love this headcanon so much! Even though it speaks specifically of a Muslim Muggleborn witch’s experiences at Hogwarts – something that the books don’t explore at all – it makes me think of other experiences which are missing in the book and how they would fit in within the magical world. This applies not just to real-life religions and cultures but also different magical world creatures and cultures. This is why I love fandom so much. Fans of a popular series like Harry Potter come from such a diverse range of backgrounds. Obviously it’s not possible to represent EVERYONE in the text, knowing Rowling’s own limited perspectives and experiences. But the world is broad enough to host a myriad of experiences. 

What would a Parvati’s-eye view of Hogwarts and her home life be like? And Cho Chang? I’d also love to see Hogwarts welcoming in non-human creatures within its walls too. What about a Hogwarts full of centaurs, merpeople, giants, werewolves, goblins and house elves – as students and teachers? Even for those who don’t have access to the witch/wizarding magic, surely there are some things which don’t require magic? Does making potions always require a wand? What about learning from their skills – which may not necessarily be magical or may be a different kind of magic but interesting and important all the same? Why don’t the witches and wizards learn about the others who share their world – their cultures and beliefs? Harry thinks merpeople might eat humans or murder humans when they’re actually lovely. And this doesn’t come of bigotry – as some of Ron’s beliefs do – but just pure ignorance.

Even in terms of food, language, culture, and religion, surely Hogwarts and the magical world has room for different kinds of people from diverse backgrounds? Maybe they have their own magical traditions that they could share and raise awareness about? What about vegetarians at Hogwarts? Vegans? People with allergies or other food restrictions? It doesn’t just have implications on food but also Potions and spells in Charms and Transfiguration which seem to employ a lot of different animals and birds. 

Through the years, though, things she never considered comes up. Like how she’s basically a vegetarian at Hogwarts in her first year cause the house-elves don’t know about halaal meat, or how everyone looks at her funnily when in Third Year she gets special permission from Dumbledore to break from classes for prayer (and she learns to be quiet for Fajr when her roommates complain).

Or how Madame Pomfrey gets worried about her fasting in Ramadan, and the house-elves are insulted when she won’t eat their food until she explains, and then stuff her full of food half an hour before Fajr and at Maghrib.

Or that she takes to healing the muggle way because not all those potions have ingredients that she can ingest, and she talks to a sheikh for advice on if salamanders and bat eyes are actually halaal.

In one of The Gayly Prophet episodes, they wondered about vegan substitutes for some of the Potions and spells which need animals and animal products. Surely there are magical researchers looking into these things? It may be a slow process like real-world academia but that’s why we need more diverse researchers, no? How about magical researchers from Muggle backgrounds who find ways to incorporate both magical and non-magical aspects into new discoveries? 

And how annoying it is when the only holidays that get celebrated are Christian ones, and that’s when she makes friends with Anthony Goldstein, who agrees that there should be more religious diversity so he can really enjoy Hannukah at school. 

This is something that we briefly spoke of in Episode 7 – where’s Diwali and Ganesh Chaturthi and Pateti other desi festivals? Surely it’ll be a more fun, diverse, multicultural environment where everyone gets to understand and try different kinds of customs, clothes, and – to me, most importantly – food? 

The politics of language rears its head here in a way I’d never considered before. English is the dominant language even in magical spells which draw from Latin words. Super Eurocentric. It’s also strange that people in Hogwarts don’t study other languages to not only talk to foreign witches and wizards but also to British magical creatures who speak different languages like goblins and merpeople, for example. Dumbledore and Barty Crouch Sr. know several languages, but I’m assuming they studied it on their own time. There’s also no study of Muggle culture in Hogwarts which is strange since they live in a Muggle-dominant society. 

She gets in trouble for saying her spells in Arabic instead of English, to the consternation of all her professors who don’t understand the language and insist that its dangerous if they can’t govern her spell-casting.

So she starts a duelling club, and Padma joins her and casts spells in Punjabi, and Anthony who does his spells in Hebrew (they’re not making up spells, just changing the language, and isn’t it funny that the spells are always a teensy bit different?), and others trickle in, and new magic gets practiced under the supervision of a Ministry hire who encourages them and speaks sixteen different languages.

Again, I am so in love with this headcanon exploring religious diversity at Hogwarts in different ways. Ugh I love fan creativity so much! 

She worries about the practical non-existence of Muslims in Wizarding Britain, and will that affect the jobs she can get, because wizards and witches are a bit funny about religion?

Muggles are also RIDICULOUS about religion – does magical Britain inherit the same prejudices as their Muggle counterpart? 


3) Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper: Cultural Traditions of Magic

This episode talks about how most popular fantasy is so Western and Christianity centric and what non-Western fantasy worlds and creatures could look like. They do refer to the guest Zen Cho’s books but you don’t need to have read the books to make sense of the conversation – it brings up some really interesting points

(I’ve already used this episode as a text for Episode 7, so I’m supplementing the notes I made then with these new ones. For the old notes, click here.)

While popular Western fantasy has taken over the world, we still manage to imbibe our own cultural traditions of fantasy and storytelling as non-Western fans. In India, we have our mythological texts which are very much a part of our culture as well as popular folktales which we’ve grown up with. At the same time, we were also exposed to Western fairy tales and mythologies, so there’s a lot of cultural mishmash. 

The language used in these Western SFF texts is unusual for people outside the context. We had to fill in the gaps of our knowledge when it came to words that were used in Harry Potter and Enid Blyton – jumpers, food etc. These things didn’t get in the way of the story but readers had to work harder to build a contextual understanding. This reflects systems of power too – which readers are used to/open to doing this about unfamiliar cultures? Relatedly, what ideas of magic have we internalised? Which elements do we take for granted that we can’t imagine a fantasy world without? A shift in perspective by setting the fictional world in another country/culture or focalising it through a non-Eurocentric lens is valuable because it disrupts our notions of what we take for granted and allows us to examine why we feel discomfited and find it so unfamiliar. What feels like it’s the default and what is othered? 

Zen Cho mentions using Malaysian English whereas we have Indian English. I grew up wanting to perfect the British version of English reflecting my school and society’s priorities and emphasis on the “Queen’s English” even though India has been independent from the queen for several decades! We have to fit the language based on ideas of who and what you believe to be superior. You end up feeling inferior because your language doesn’t match this aspirational other and you also end up dismissing what makes your own language unique. There are several versions of English so what does standard English even mean? It used to be an issue (and still is for some) in children’s books where examples of Indian English were looked down upon. This also impacts what things which you consider exotic on the printed page. Words and phrases are italicised even if you’re writing for an audience which wouldn’t consider those words and phrases unfamiliar and foreign. 

Zen Cho mentions that in Malaysia, even middle-class or wealthier, urban, educated people believe in spirits. They don’t see anything contradictory between these different beliefs; they’re just different aspects of their identity and they see no need to separate them. She also mentions how she’s grown up with certain cultural superstitions which impacts how she thinks about the world. It reminds me of similar superstitions we have – some of which are universal and others of which are very specific to India. Totally resonate with Zen Cho when she says she doesn’t believe in spirits but sometimes she worries that the spirits don’t care whether she believes in them or not! It’s interesting dating a Scottish man and coming from such a different background not just nationally but also regionally – I’m from a big city, he’s from a small town (those sound like song lyrics!) – and how we make room for our different cultural habits and experiences. In terms of language, we used to get into arguments because the way we converse is different. For him, as a Scottish person (and perhaps as a man), someone interrupting him while talking is super rude. For me, interrupting someone while talking is how you show you’re engaged and active and listening to the conversation. 

What terms are considered normal and which are considered political? As one of the hosts says, “people have opinions” if you use Allah instead of god, for example. This controversy itself is also very contextual, historically and geographically. People in the past or in other parts of the world may not take umbrage with the same things. Different religions and cultures have different ideas of the importance of magic and who is allowed to use this magic. I loved The Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho because it so organically incorporated both British and Asian magical cultures and creatures – along with explorations of race and national identity as well as a badass powerful older witch and a fantastic female protagonist.


4) Article – Through Sci-fi And Fantasy, Muslim Women Authors Are Building New Worlds

This article lists some recent popular fantasy books and series written by Muslim women who move beyond the traditionally white, Eurocentric fantasy worlds and incorporate their own mythologies, stories, and religions into the narratives 

I love that there’s this surge in science fiction and fantasy which doesn’t focus on primarily Western, Eurocentric cultures. This article specifically talks about Muslim women writing SFF, drawing on their own perspectives, experiences and knowledges. But increasingly, there’s also been room for other cultures. Rick Riordan’s imprint, for example, does a brilliant job promoting lesser-known cultures on the world stage. He’s using his privilege and voice to promote those who don’t have the same power as him.

The women writers mentioned in this article disrupt traditional notions of Muslim women in their books and automatically address the lack of diversity in SFF. This is why you need to not just increase diversity in terms of representation but also who’s doing the representing. These women are drawing on their own cultures and histories and storytelling traditions:

That’s a change from the past, when speculative fiction was dominated by stories that drew on Norse, Christian and Arthurian sagas and mythologies.

A lot of these books have also been popular enough to launch online fan communities complete with fanfic and fan art. I love that diversity is becoming mainstream in this way! I wonder how many of these writers were inspired by popular books like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings etc. which have huge fandoms but not a huge amount of diversity. Were they perhaps inspired to create their own worlds in which they could see themselves reflected? 

The article mentions Ms Marvel’s creator. I only got into comics relatively recently. I didn’t know where to start until I picked up the first in the Ms Marvel book in a Leeds public library a couple of years ago and had my mind completely blown. The representation of a desi superhero felt so completely authentic and not tokenistic, and it’s someone I recognised even though I grew up in India and I’m not Muslim. 

In 2007, G. Willow Wilson — then a journalist writing on the Middle East and religious affairs, now a top comics writer most known for co-creating Kamala Khan, Marvel’s first Muslim character to headline her own comic book — published the magical-realist thriller “Cairo.”

The dense urban fantasy played with Islamic and Arabic mythology, from jinns to flying prayer rugs to Arabian Nights, while also commenting on Arab-Israeli politics.

This extract reminds me of the article which studied Arab fans of Game of Thrones and how they used the fictional framework to explore the geopolitics in the world they inhabited. The flying prayer rugs reminds me of Ali Bashir in Goblet of Fire whose name keeps cropping up because he wants to import flying carpets into the UK as a family vehicle – something that’s currently illegal in the British magical world. Perhaps an unintended hint of British cultural imperialism even when it comes to ideas of which modes of magical transportation are appropriate?  

As a science fiction editor, Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali says her biggest grievance was seeing stories about imaginary worlds where only white people exist.

“It really bugs me to see a far-off future-flung store, and everyone is white, and everyone is assumed to be Judeo-Christian or atheist,” the World Fantasy Award-nominated editor said. “Because we are in this world. I don’t believe that 100 or 200 or 400 years in the future, we will cease to exist, yet we don’t show up in stories about the future.”

Muslim and Indian history has had such a huge impact on events as well as scientific and technological advancements, but you’d think it was only the West that ever contributed anything to society. This creates false attitudes not just within Western audiences but also Eastern ones – superiority versus inferiority.

“It became very important to me as I was learning to be a writer myself, to write worlds where the people I loved and the cultures I find beauty in were present and real,” Intisar Khanani told Religion News Service. “Because we have the right to take up space in this world, and in our imagined worlds.”

A new wave of Muslim speculative fiction writers is chipping away at outdated notions of what belongs in the genre. Their stories often feature strong Muslim women protagonists and integrate themes from Islamic theology, folklore and history. 

Mainstream entertainment and news media has such limited ideas of what it means to be a Muslim person or a Muslim woman and have an inaccurate version of Muslim history and beliefs. Normalising these cultures by letting Muslim women write their own stories is a fantastic way to disrupt biases and assumptions.

“I chose this word to reflect the fact that these women are claiming their history and their traditions to themselves and refusing to be erased from it or suppressed in this world,” Ausma Zehanat Khan said. “I wanted to take the Islamic tradition and put it in the hands of women and have them be its defenders.”

These writers have also used the framework of SFF to explore feminist themes within their culture:

“The genre allows them to break forms, imagining these utopian spaces where women can have certain kinds of power, often magical or otherworldly powers, that we can see as ciphers for a kind of critique or a reflection on women’s empowerment,” Hashem said.

And by drawing on Islamic history and culture in their settings and characters, Hashem argued, many Muslim authors implicitly rebuke anti-Muslim ideas of Islam as backward, while also critiquing notions that speculative fiction was born out of the European Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution.

“Oppressed people are primed to imagine what things could look like if they were not the victim of so many different systems of oppression,” Safiyah Cheatam said. “I think we see a wider range of what futures could be available to us.”

Episode 18 We’ve Been Featured! Finally!: Questioning Cultural Norms in Mainstream Fantasy Books

Episode Resources:

1) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text: Special Edition Owl Post and Marya Bangee (listen from 19 minutes 40 seconds till the end of the episode)

2) Tumblr post – Imagine A Muslim Witch

3) Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper: Cultural Traditions of Magic

4) Article – Through Sci-fi And Fantasy, Muslim Women Authors Are Building New Worlds


Episode Transcript

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

Illustration of a brown girl with blue glasses dressed in Ravenclaw house robes. She's holding an open book and looking up at a black cat on her shoulder

[Intro music]

Welcome to Marginally Fannish, a show where we aim an intersectional lens at some of our favourite media and their fandoms.

[Intro music]

My name is Parinita Shetty and you’re listening to the eighteenth episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I talk to Aisha about diverse cultures in some of our favourite fantasy media. As fangirls from the UAE and India, we also explore a non-Western perspective of the Potterverse.

A lot of popular fantasy has emerged from the UK and taken over our imaginations. However, the dominance of English in these globally popular books can act as a barrier for non-native speakers of the language. This language barrier also exists in fandom where limited English-language abilities restrict your access to online fan spaces. The politics of language and traditions in mainstream SFF and fandom – specifically what’s the norm and what’s othered – has broad cultural implications. Readers from non-Eurocentric cultures often have to work extra hard to understand unfamiliar contexts and references. Moreover, a diet of primarily Western books with meagre diversity leaves many fans unable to imagine ourselves in our favourite worlds.

Increasingly, however, fans from different countries and cultures are beginning to question ideas of which languages and cultures are automatically deemed superior. Fans navigate linguistic and technological limitations to carve out local-language fan spaces which bring together their multiple identities. Discussions about cultural imperialism and cultural assimilation in fictional worlds like Harry Potter encourage fans to draw parallels between the tokenistic ways in which Western media depicts diverse groups. Conversations about which cultural norms are respected and what we’d like to see more of allow fans to challenge textual limitations and decolonise our minds. A growing number of writers are creating narratives which move beyond the Eurocentric norm in mainstream SFF. Normalising cultural diversity can disrupt previously taken-for-granted assumptions and enable fans to imagine ourselves in fantastical worlds.

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: Today I’m so thrilled to welcome fellow bookworm and Harry Potter fangirl Aisha to the podcast. Aisha is a fan from Dubai who has always identified herself as a reader. She loves reading everything from classics to fantasy to manga and comic books. She’s a fan of a lot of media but she mostly identifies with the Harry Potter fandom. She also loves Japanese anime and manga. As someone who’s grown up in India, I’m so excited to be able to talk to someone who comes from such a different background from me but we still have so many things in common. I’m also a huge reader, I used to write fanfiction, I’m a huge Harry Potter fan and I’m into fandom. So in this episode, we’re going to be focusing on different cultural identities in fantasy worlds. But before we get to that, Aisha, could you tell us about some of your encounters as a fan in Dubai?

Aisha: Yes, absolutely. I’m very happy to be in this interview as well and to find someone who has the same passion for fandoms and who has the same passion for reading that is not exactly from let’s say the Western world or from the United States or from the UK and so on.

Parinita: Absolutely!

Aisha: So I’m very happy to meet you. Let me talk to you a little bit about my encounter with Harry Potter in specific. So my brother used to go to a private school where the medium of instruction was English. His English teacher actually recommended the kids to read Harry Potter when it just came out. I think it was back in 1998. He got the book but he didn’t get into it really. I was older than him and at the time I was probably in seventh grade. I tried to read the book but I couldn’t. It was a bit difficult for me as a non-native speaker of English, so I stopped reading. I remember the first chapter having to do with owls and so on. But I really couldn’t get what was the whole point. And with English sometimes if something is too difficult to read or too difficult to understand, it really demotivates you from reading.

Parinita: Yeah and the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is particularly difficult

Aisha: Yes.

Parinita: I did this reading programme in a school in Mumbai and a lot of the kids there were first-generation English speakers so a lot of them weren’t very comfortable with the language. And they knew I was a huge Harry Potter fangirl because I have a 9 ¾ tattoo on my wrist as well.

Aisha: [laughs]

Parinita: So they’d want to know what that meant. And I had introduced them to Harry Potter. And I’d tell them to stick with the book past the first chapter because the first chapter, especially if you know nothing about the world, if you know nothing about the UK or British culture, it’s really difficult to get through.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: Or British references and things, it’s really difficult.

Aisha: No absolutely. I agree. I wish I had someone who would tell me that.

Parinita: [laughs]

Aisha: I would have been reading it earlier. It was that and it was also me not really knowing that it’s okay not to understand every word and every vocabulary. I remember trying to look up words in the dictionary while I was reading.

Parinita: Oh!

Aisha: For me it was just that difficult. It wasn’t within my English language abilities.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aisha: And at the time, I really didn’t know or I didn’t really realise that sometimes it’s okay not to understand each and every word. You have to understand the context not necessarily each vocabulary or each term that you see.

Parinita: Just based on that, sorry I’ll let you get back to your Harry Potter origin story, but do you find that – this is something that I find a lot because I’m the same as you even though English is my first language. I’ve been reading since I was five or six years old, and I read a lot of British children’s books as well. So I grew up reading Enid Blyton who’s this really popular English author and she’s also really popular in India. So by the time I’d encountered Harry Potter when I was about ten, I had an idea of the culture even though it was all foreign to me. The words and the food – everything. They call sweaters jumpers.

Aisha: Yeah. [laughs]

Parinita: Which took me many years to realise what that means. But I would just read it and when I encountered those words in many different books, I could sort of build a contextual understanding of it. So I’d have a vague idea of what it means but I wouldn’t know how to pronounce unfamiliar words. Even if I knew what the word meant through the books that I read but because I encountered those words through books and not through someone telling me, there’s still so many English words that I mispronounce.

Aisha: No I get you. I think with Harry Potter particularly there are also some made-up words.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Aisha: Or words that are influenced by Latin or by other languages which is particularly difficult if there’s no equivalence to it in the dictionary.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aisha: So pronouncing it, reading it – yeah I get why I didn’t get into reading it at the very beginning when it first stared. It wasn’t within my ability honestly to read it. I feel even if I had continued beyond the first chapter, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it or understood it.

Parinita: Yeah. So how then did you return to Harry Potter and fall in love with it?

Aisha: So how did I return … Basically, we ignored the book. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Aisha: It was sitting on our shelf [laughs] for a couple of more years until the first movie came out back in 2001.

Parinita:  Aaah! Yeah.

Aisha: And my dad who remembered that he got us the book that we didn’t read –

Parinita: [laughs]

Aisha: He was like okay let me take you to the movie. So we watched the first movie and I absolutely loved it. And I was like, “You know what? Now I understand the context, let me go and check out the book. I might actually enjoy it.” And I found it much easier to understand. I mean to be honest, I was also older. Probably my English had also improved by that time.

Parinita: Right.

Aisha: So I gave it a shot. It was really easy reading; it was a breeze to be honest. Especially after seeing the movie and knowing all those terms – what did they mean and so on.  And then within that one year, I read up to where the books were published, which I believe were the fourth book?

Parinita: Yeah.

Aisha: I read until the fourth book in 2001. And I’ve been a fan ever since.

Parinita: That’s amazing! So I’m wondering whether you had the experience then of waiting really excitedly for the fifth book.

Aisha: Yes!

Parinita: Is that something you experienced as well?

Aisha: See I was a little bit lucky because I think when I read the fourth book, it was 2001. And I think the fifth book came out in 2002. Am I right? I remember not waiting too long for the fifth book.

Parinita: Yeah. I don’t remember the exact year but I yeah I’d also caught up with it because I started reading when I was ten, and then I think for a few more years like the second and third and fourth book. And the fifth book wasn’t yet out. And I have this very firm memory of growing up with Harry.

Aisha: Hmm.

Parinita: He was the same age as I was when I started reading the books so he turned eleven and when I was eleven and then twelve and thirteen. So I think it might have been like mid-2000s or early 2000s for sure because I was so excited to know what was going to happen in The Order of the Phoenix.

Aisha: Yeah. Because I remember not waiting that long. I only waited a year probably.

Parinita: So was it really popular in Dubai, the books?

Aisha: By that time it was popular. It was very easy to find the books in English and so on. But I wouldn’t necessarily say that it was read by Arabs in Dubai.

Parinita: Hmm.

Aisha: Most of the people who read it were also Native speakers of English.

Parinita: You mean the international immigrants in Dubai were reading it?

Aisha: Yeah. The international residents mostly. But it was probably also different because I was in a public school where English was taught as a foreign language rather than as a medium

Parinita: Aaah!

Aisha: of ???

Parinita: Yeah.

Aisha: From my experience I didn’t have anyone at school who used to read the book. Except for one friend who I pushed her to read it. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Aisha: Other than that I don’t remember any other classmates

Parinita: Oh I have this same experience of pushing people in my school to read the books because I wanted someone to talk to about these books and just nobody seemed to love the books as much as I did. I was obsessed with these books and I wanted to play with people like games that were inspired from the books or talk about theories and things. Because now there’s so much that we take for granted in Harry Potter and especially kids who are starting to read it now, they have all seven books.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: There’s no mystery that they have to wait for to find out what happens. I remember all the theories that I had and I wanted someone to share them with. But everyone seemed to just read the books and then get on with their life.

Aisha: Yeah. [laughs]

Parinita: Whereas for me, I wanted to read the books and make that a part of my life.

Aisha: Exactly! No, exactly, I get you. Yes.

Parinita: Which is why online fandom was such a revelation to me. So we had these things called cyber cafes in Mumbai.

Aisha: Yeah, I remember.

Parinita: I didn’t have a computer at home when I was thirteen. I got my first computer when I was sixteen. Me and my friend, we used to go to this cyber café for half an hour, an hour. And I just randomly stumbled onto this chat room which was dedicated to Harry Potter. And I was like oh my god there are other people who love Harry Potter as much as me! But they were all foreigners. They were all Western – at least from my understanding. Because they also all seemed American, not even British.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: Yeah so that was my first encounter with online fandom.

Aisha: I found myself stumbling across online fandoms as well. But I also had people within my own network who also read the books but mostly family. I have a cousin actually who started reading it before me. And I had a family friend, a daughter of a family friend who also used to read the book. And she read it before the movie was out. And they actually got me into reading it as well. So I wouldn’t say I necessarily didn’t have any face to face networking fandoms.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aisha: I did have that but if we’re talking about school in specific or friends my age and so on, no I really didn’t have. Except for that friend whom I urged to read.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Aisha: So I did stumble upon Harry Potter forums. One of them is still going on by the way.

Parinita: Oh really?

Aisha: Yeah I still receive emails from them.

Parinita: Oh amazing.

Aisha: Like you said, it was mostly an international forum and I felt like the people who were there, the way in which they discussed things were not necessarily things that I understood. Maybe because again I wasn’t very confident with the level of English that I had.

Parinita: And it’s not just the English, right? It’s the cultural references and all these things that make up a language. It’s not just the vocabulary. You might be great at the vocabulary but not able to hold a conversation that includes all the cultural aspects as well.

Aisha: Yeah, no I get it. For example sometimes people would do jokes or puns and I wouldn’t necessarily understand where those are coming from. I mean it took me forever to understand what Potterhead means. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah I’m completely with you. So I know we’re going to be talking about fandom more a little bit later. But just before we get to that, I wanted to talk about how while popular Western fantasy has taken over the world and our imaginations – not just you and me, but a lot of global imaginations.

Aisha: Um hmm.

Parinita: In our day-to-day lives, we tend to encounter our own cultural traditions of fantasy and storytelling as well and mix that with magic from our favourite fictional worlds. So I was really curious, what are some of the stories and ideas of magic that you grew up with in Dubai?

Aisha: Mostly magic had to do with stories of One Thousand and One Nights. Like Arabian Nights where there’s magic and you have the magic lamp or the magic carpet and you have stories of genies and so on. But I would say those are not also not necessarily contextual, those are more like broad Arab stories. I mean they’re not necessarily local inspired. If I’m talking about my Emirati or Dubai local inspired stories, we have a lot of stories that have to do with ghosts and spirits, some stories about witches or wizards and so on. But usually it’s a bit dark. It has to do with dark magic and black magic. Usually those fables or those folklore stories were told to children so that they would either listen to their moms and dads or they would not trust strangers and so on.

Parinita: Yeah!

Aisha: They’re as dark as the Grim Reaper kind of stuff.

Parinita: So similar again to India. Because I grew up with the Arabian Nights as well so magic carpets and all didn’t seem exotic [laughs] like this foreign thing. I was just re-reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire recently. There’s this person called Ali Bashir who wants to import flying carpets to the UK because he thinks there’s a market for a family vehicle. But in the UK, it’s illegal because obviously British magicians prefer uncomfortable Portkeys and Floo Networks and things. A magic carpet would be so comfortable! It would be like taking an aeroplane from one place to another. But yeah we had the same where ghosts and witches and things were not these friendly Harry Potter ghosts and witches.

Aisha: Yeah!

A scene featuring a Portkey from the Fantastic Beasts films

A scene of Harry using Floo powder to travel in the Chamber of Secrets movie

Parinita: They were used to scare children. Not only adults scared children but we scared each other as well.

Aisha: [laughs]

Parinita: These witches with feet backwards who would –

Aisha: Yeah! We had similar things. One of the most famous stories is … I don’t know if it’s a ghost story or even a spirit that is half-woman and half-donkey.

Parinita: Oh! Interesting.

Aisha: Who kidnaps kids during afternoon – I don’t know in India, do you have siesta or napping? Afternoon napping?

Parinita: In some parts of the country, yeah.

Aisha: Because it’s part of our culture as well. And so to make sure that children don’t run out of the house during those times –

Parinita: [laughs]

Aisha: They would tell children those stories. So usually you’d think an evil spirit would come at night, right?

Parinita: Yeah!

Aisha: But no, this one comes at around 12 noon.

Parinita: [laughs] Oh my god.

Aisha: So those were the stories, yeah.

Parinita: I think Asian parents, whichever country you’re from, are the same. [laughs] Because India has this as well … I guess Western parents might be or maybe it’s also a generational thing where now they don’t want to damage the child’s psychological wellbeing.

Aisha: [laughs]

Parinita: Whereas with us, it was like, “No, no. A ghost will kidnap you or eat you. Or this vampire in a tree will take you away and feast on your body.”

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: It was all a part of childhood. And even now, my boyfriend is Scottish and he’s a very rational sort of person. Doesn’t believe in ghosts and things. And I’m like look, rationally I can say that ghosts don’t exist but I am scared of ghosts.

Aisha: [laughs]

Parinita: Because what if they don’t know they’re supposed to not exist you know? And what if they come up to me … it’s very difficult to unlearn these things that you grow up with.

Aisha: Yeah! No, I get you. If we’re talking about fantasy, those are the sort of stories that we grew up with. Mostly folktales.

Parinita: Yeah. We had folktales as well with a lot of talking animals and things.

Aisha: Hmm!

Parinita: That was a huge part of our folktales and these oral storytelling traditions that have been around, at least in India, since two thousand years or so. And they’re being passed down and now they’ve become stories for children which I don’t think they originally were. But now folktales in India as well as fairy tales in the West, they’re very much seen to be a children’s storytelling thing.

Aisha: Yeah. I mean when you look at Brothers what do you call it – is it Brothers Grimm?

Parinita: Um hmm.

Aisha: If you look at the original stories, you won’t necessarily think that the audience are kids, right? Or children. It’s so dark.

Parinita: Yeah. And I think they had a similar purpose as well like what you were saying about kids, but in the fairy tales with the Brothers Grimm and stuff I think it was for everybody. Warnings to be careful of the world around you basically but using stories to impart that message. I don’t know if it was similar in Dubai, but in India, these stories I wouldn’t really think of as fantasy. I mean it’s not like a history of fantasy traditions as much as just a part of our cultural tradition.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: There’s no distinction between one or the other. It’s just something that we grow up with. At some points I don’t even know where I got these ideas from, these stories from. It’s just something that in day-to-day life adults or friends, whoever, would tell me these things.

Aisha: Yeah, I get you absolutely. And that’s why sometimes, like you said, are they really fantasy or are they just fairy tales or folktales? I don’t really know, yeah.

Parinita: Yeah, it’s difficult to bifurcate it like that. Just getting back a little to what we spoke about earlier about language and how language is political. So obviously which language dominates and which traditions are considered “normal” in mainstream science fiction and fantasy as well as in fandom, they obviously have a lot of cultural implications, right? Because currently English and Western culture have a huge influence globally. But Muslim history and Indian history has also contributed to global social and political events and scientific and technological advancements and art and culture as well. Though this is largely overlooked on the world stage. When we talk about these things, we don’t really talk so much about Indian or Muslim contributions. So in terms of the dominance of language specifically what have you observed in fandom and media?

Aisha: Oh again like you said, in order to access those platforms, the language that is spoken is English. If you have good English, then you have access to those outlets. And if your English is limited, then there’s a limitation for you to get into those fandoms, to get access into those things, to fandoms basically. I feel you have to be a speaker of English specifically.

Parinita: And also you have this then sense of – and this is something I’m still unlearning – this sense of English being equated with being a superior language just because of the kind of influence that it has. So when I was growing up, we would get a lot of American TV shows as well as some anime shows from Japan. The American shows used to be English so Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon. And the Japanese anime used to be dubbed in English as well when I was younger. But then when I grew up a little, when I was an older kid, it used to start being dubbed into Hindi – which is one of the national languages, but because India is such a huge country with so many different languages, there’s politics in that as well where Hindi plays the role in India that English plays all over the world. So Hindi is marginalising these other languages. But anyway, these cartoons used to be dubbed into Hindi and I used to hate it. I used to prefer it in English. At that time obviously I couldn’t articulate why but I think as a kid I must have imbibed these ideas of English just being a better language and Hindi not being as cool or as fashionable I guess. I don’t know. And even afterwards, even today, English is the language of social mobility as well. If you go to an English-medium school, that’s seen to be more respectable in India than if you go to a local-language school. And you won’t have as many opportunities if you don’t know English.

Aisha: Yeah, absolutely. I think this is what English is. And that’s why a lot of people all over the world are so keen on learning the language because of those different opportunities that comes with English. I was on Twitter the other day and I came across a tweet by someone saying that even though, for example, they are from a different country but because they use English so much and now they think in English. And it’s this whole idea of with yourself, do you think in English or do you think in your own native language? And there was this whole big debate with a lot of people saying yeah because we use it so much in reading and in writing, we now think in English. And there was also some debate about whether people dream in English [laughs] or in their first language. So yeah English has taken up such a big space, if we’re talking about media.

Parinita: So the Harry Potter movies in Dubai, would they be translated into Arabic or did they have the English versions playing in theatres?

Aisha: No our theatres are subtitled. We have subtitles, not dubbed.

Parinita: Okay. So they’d have Arabic subtitles in them?

Aisha: Yes.

Parinita: Okay. We had both. We used to have English playing as well as Hindi. And I remember me and my friends, we used to laugh so much. I think the movies made Harry Potter more accessible to more kids than the books did. Like you were saying, you got into it again through the movies.

Aisha: Yes.

Parinita: Even in India, the movies were so popular that a lot of kids who didn’t read the books even afterwards, they were still a fan of the Harry Potter movies.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: And me and my friends, we used to make fun of the Hindi translations of the Houses and the titles and things. And now I feel so bad about it. It’s just something that you don’t really know where you’ve learned these things from. Where you’ve learned to make fun of languages that are not English. I still find the translations a bit hilarious. But that’s just because it’s not a language that I’m used to. So it sounds really dramatic. Like Gryffindor is Garuddwar and things like that which would be really difficult to translate into a non-Hindi language.

The Hindi cover of the book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Harry Potter Aur Maut Ke Taufe

Aisha: Yeah. No, ours are subtitled. They’re not dubbed over. They played in the original language in theatres.

Parinita: Yeah. I wonder if in India there were other translations as well. Because in Mumbai, which is where I’m from, Marathi is the predominant language and Hindi is more like a Northern language but I grew up speaking Hindi, Marathi and English as well. But in the south, Hindi it’s a political thing again where they reject Hindi because they think it’s this language imperialism of sorts. So they cling on to their local language identity. So I wonder if Harry Potter would have been dubbed into these other languages as well. [They were]

Aisha: Aah.

Parinita: I should look this up, it would be interesting. You have some experience using local languages to expand the reach of your favourite stories and fandoms, right?

Aisha: Yeah. I don’t know when exactly I came across an Arabic forum of Harry Potter and that was also very early on; I believe it was 2002 or 2003 when I was still in school, I stumbled upon a forum. I believe one of my friends told me about it. And it was a specific forum dedicated to Harry Potter but it was in Arabic. And altogether I think we were like five-six members only. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Aisha: So in that big forum … but it was so nice you know. It was finally meeting up people from within the region who were also fans of the book. I don’t remember specifically if we used to communicate in Arabic or in English on that website. It was probably a mix of two. I think it was mostly English.

Parinita: I don’t know if you have this in Dubai, but we have a version of English called Hinglish which is a mix of Hindi and English.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: So it’s a dual thing; we use Hindi words and we use English words.

Aisha: Exactly. This is what I wanted to tell you as well. So we didn’t have a sort of Hinglish like for example an Aralish or something like that.

Parinita: [laughs]

Aisha: It was more like us writing in Arabic but using English letters. Does that make sense?

Parinita: Oh right. Yes.

Aisha: And for specific letters that were not translated to English, because we have a lot of sounds in Arabic like [makes an Arabic sound]. They don’t have the equivalency of those in English.

Parinita: Right.

Aisha: We would actually use numbers. But this was agreed upon like everyone throughout the Arab world would use the same sort of numbers to convey sounds.

Parinita: Oh!

Aisha: Yeah so we would use that a lot during those times. Especially since back at that time I think not a lot of keyboards had Arabic. Not a lot of mobile phones actually. It was back when we had Nokia and so on. Not a lot of mobile phones had Arabic characters so I think this is where it originated from but I could be mistaken. But this is the language that we used to write in for chatting, for texting. So it was basically Arabic but using English letters.

Parinita: Oh that’s amazing.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: So the fanfiction that you wrote, was that in a similar language?

Aisha: Oh no the fanfiction that I wrote that was in standard Arabic.

Parinita: Aaah.

Aisha: We have different variations of Arabic. The standard, that’s the language that is used in writing, reading, in newspapers and books. It’s not really spoken much. You wouldn’t see people speaking standard Arabic in their daily lives, their lived experiences. But it’s the language that you see on interviews, for example. In teaching, teachers would use it with students. But it’s not a very widely spoken language and community. It’s the language of writing. This is what we use when we write. And there was another forum; unfortunately that forum had to be closed down. Because the guy who was managing it, who was the moderator and was also the one who was paying for it. And he’s like we don’t have enough members and we don’t have enough activities and I can’t really pay that much for it. So it had to be shut down.

Parinita: Oh that’s such a pity!

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: And that’s so amazing that you had that space and you found that space. I can just imagine as a teenager, if I’d found a space online – a Harry Potter fan website or forum or whatever that had Indian fans or even South Asian fans.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: Because we share a lot of the same cultural references and things like movies and songs and food and clothes and things. it would have been so amazing that I wouldn’t have to explain myself; everyone would just understand. We’d be on the same page.

Aisha: Yeah, no, I get you, absolutely. And it was amazing as well that not only were they people online, but I knew most of the people on that forum. Two of them were already my friends and I got to meet one other who later on I discovered she went to the same university that I did.

Parinita: Oh amazing.

Aisha: Yeah. So it was a very close-knit community. We were such a like-minded group. It was so easy to chat about things without, like you said, without having to explain things.

Parinita: Yeah because I found myself a part of two different worlds almost. In my regular everyday day-to-day life, my Harry Potter fandom was a weird thing that people didn’t really understand. They were like, oh okay Harry Potter is nice and all but okay. So there I’d have to speak a language differently than I would online. I mean not language in terms of it would be English in both spaces but just in terms of the references that I was making and things, I could just use Harry Potter spells and things.

Aisha: [laughs]

Parinita: I couldn’t just make jokes out of that which I could online but in online spaces, I couldn’t use my Indian jokes and references and contexts and things. So that’s amazing that you found that space where you could do a mix of both.

Aisha: It was amazing but unfortunately it was closed down. And then I think during my first year of university, I found another forum in Arabic. I was so excited that I found another forum and I was very active. I got to be a moderator of something … I don’t know of a House maybe.

Parinita: Oooh!

Aisha: Yeah. I had an administrative role. [laughs]

Parinita: Amazing!

Aisha: I was that active. It was during that time when I was active on that forum that there was a short story writing competition. They just said that it had to be in Arabic, it had to be blah blah blah, this length and so on and so forth and try to submit it within these timings and so on. So I read the guidelines well and I thought okay this is my opportunity. So I wrote a fanfiction about Harry Potter. It had to do with his parents, Lupin, Sirius Black

Parinita: Ah Sirius!

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: My first email id just to put my embarrassing past in context, even though I’m still proud of it, was siriusfan138@mugglenet.com. I still have [laughs] a very clear memory of this. And I wanted to keep giving people my email id. But nobody emailed at that time, I was thirteen so like 2003 when none of my friends emailed. Ah Sirius! Yeah.

Aisha: So it was about them. It was when they discovered Lupin was a werewolf.

Parinita: Oh yeah!

Aisha: ???

Parinita: So Marauders era fanfic.

Aisha: [laughs] Yeah.

Parinita: Oh amazing.

Aisha: What was it called? Animagus? Something like that?

Parinita: Yeah. Animagus. Ooh.

Aisha: So Lily was helping them to find a solution or a potion or whatever it was. I was so excited. I wrote it in Arabic and usually I don’t write things in Arabic. Mostly I write in English. And I remember I showed it to one of my other cousins who’s also a fan and she was blown away. She was like oh my goodness this is amazing, it feels like it comes from J. K. Rowling and blah blah blah.

Parinita: Oh! Amazing. Do you still have the story?

Aisha: I have the story, I think somewhere, yeah.

Parinita: Oh you’re so lucky. I remember I wrote a thing which was a much sillier thing than what you’ve written. It was sort of a sitcom version of Voldemort and the Death Eaters.

Aisha: Aah!

Parinita: Where everybody was wildly out of character. [laughs] And there were lots of jokes in there, there was lots of silliness and goofiness. But I feel like that helped me practise my writing as well. Just getting to the core of storytelling because those are the kind of stories I write now. I write books for children in India. And they’re full of silliness and madness and just all around people behaving in really weird ways. So I feel like my Voldemort and the Death Eater fanfic really helped me. But I don’t have a copy of it. I wish I did.

Aisha: Yeah. I think I have it saved somewhere.

Parinita: Amazing!

Aisha: So then I submitted it to the website, to the forum. And I was so excited! I was like you know what, I’m sure I’m going to win this competition. I was so sure that I was going to win it. And then when I read the other entries, I noticed that they weren’t necessarily writing fanfiction. It wasn’t a fanfiction competition.

Parinita: Ohhh!

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: [laughs]

Aisha: It was a general short story competition. And I misinterpreted that. I thought because this is a Harry Potter forum, the stories have to be related to Harry Potter. But it wasn’t. And I didn’t win. [laughs]

Parinita: Oh! [laughs] Oh no! I’m glad that even though you misinterpreted the prompt, you managed to write a story that you and your cousin both loved and had fun with. I think a lot of fanfiction, people just write for themselves as well. So even though you wrote it for a competition, I’m glad you had fun writing it.

Aisha: Yeah. Oh actually that’s very true. A lot of people do write for themselves. I’ve written a couple of other fanfiction for anime. And I’ve never really published it. I have one published but not the others.

Parinita: What anime world did you write it in?

Aisha: One was for Slam Dunk and a couple were for Fruit Basket. But one of them was already shared. Back in the days, I remember we didn’t have fanfiction.net. There were Yahoo groups – I don’t know if you remember.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aisha: I subscribed to Yahoo groups. And I remember there was a group about those anime – there was one on Fruit Basket and I published my story there. And I think it was only one or two people who read it as well.

Parinita: [laughs]

Aisha: So

Parinita: Amazing.

Aisha: ???

Parinita: It’s making me so nostalgic for … it makes me feel so old now – those days of yore.

Aisha: [laughs]

Parinita: So now maybe we can move on to talking about Harry Potter specifically. We’ve briefly spoken about how Western fantasy is dominant and Western characters and cultures and contexts are dominant. But still we both get really excited when we find characters and elements which are familiar to us or which reflect us in our favourite worlds. And specifically talking about Harry Potter, you’d mentioned something similar as well, right?

Aisha: Yes. Exactly. The fact that there was one Arab character in the book and that was in the fourth book. There was an Egyptian referee by the name of Mostafa if I’m not mistaken.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Aisha: And it was so exciting that oh my goodness finally there is an Arab character in this whole wizarding world. It was so exciting for us that when me and my cousins got to this point, we all texted each other, “Hahaha! So funny look at them – look at the character.” [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Aisha: We’ve been featured! Finally! [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] I know we were the same – well I don’t know if we – I was the same just internally I was excited when I saw Parvati and Padma Patil.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: Parvati has been a part of it right from the beginning. So for me it was like oh my god this is a name that I recognise. She could be my neighbour. But then of course, there was nothing else about her, nothing about her culture or her Indianness or if she was British-Indian or whatever. So I had to just be happy with [laughs] the name. And then she had a twin, Padma, and I was like oh yay! Another of us there.

Aisha: I mean yeah if you compare it to what diversity means today, [laughs] it’s not really diverse.

Parinita: [laughs]

Aisha: But we were so happy. I remember myself and my cousins, we were so happy that there was some sort of link that we could be part of this world.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aisha: We could be part of this fantasy as well.

Parinita: Yeah absolutely. And for me because I started reading the first book when I was ten, when I was going to turn eleven, I was like, oh I really hope I get my Hogwarts letter today. So I was one of those kids.

Aisha: I’m still waiting for mine! [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah. So yeah, you’re so right. Just seeing someone that you recognise in that world allows you access to imagine yourself in that world as well. Which is what I think like a lot of more creative fans than me have done where they took Parvati and made her a central part of the story, like written stories about her. I wouldn’t even have thought of doing that at that time.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: Because my mind was so very much caught up in that oh no I can’t. Even though she is there, but still Western society largely means white people and British people. So I couldn’t even imagine writing a story that would feature her or that would even feature an Indian person. I remember when I used to write stories for fun when I was younger, not fanfic, just general stories, they all used to be set in the US or the UK.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: Because those are the kind of books that I was reading. So even though I lived in India, in Mumbai, and travelled in India and around Mumbai, all my characters were either blonde or had blue eyes or had names like John and Emily and things.

Aisha: No, no I get you. One hundred percent. I mean I used to write stories as well and it was all set in the United States.

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs]

Aisha: I mean I wouldn’t even think someone like me or someone with a different name or with a different feature could be featured in those books. I guess maybe because I read so many English books. Or so many other stories where diverse characters were not at all included. I thought maybe subconsciously that nobody else belongs in a book except for

Parinita: Yeah!

Aisha: American or Western or whatever. Yeah.

Parinita: It’s so strange thinking about that now because now that I live in the UK, I’m currently living here for my PhD, and I see so many British people who are not white. People who were born in the UK who are not white, who are either black or brown or East Asian. And I just wonder how they must have felt when this idea of Britishness excluded them. They couldn’t even recognise themselves in the stories. Because at least for me I had Bollywood and things. There were Hindi movies that I used to watch a lot while growing up, which had people who looked like me and had the same places and things. Maybe not the stories that I read but I did have media that reflected me. So it must be so difficult to live in a Western country but not see yourself reflected in any media. That must be so much more difficult as well.

Aisha: Yeah, no I get you. Yeah. Absolutely.

Parinita: Which is why I’m happy there’s more of a push now for diverse literature and own voices. People writing about their own experiences and stuff. I think a lot of people must have gotten their practice in fandom.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: Because fandom is full of it, right? It’s full of own voices and diversity.

Aisha: Yes. And cross-writing as well. Like writing across different genres.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aisha: Including characters from here and there. So yeah absolutely.

Parinita: Yeah what is that genre called?

Aisha: ???

Parinita: Yeah basically

Aisha: Something like crossing or crossover?

Parinita: Yeah. And AU [Alternate Universe] and things where one character is in a different world just basically melding all your things together. Yeah. So speaking of Harry Potter and cultures in Harry Potter, we find plenty of diverse cultures there as well. So both real-world and what we mentioned, because there’s … well a handful, not that many.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: But there are more magical cultures there which seem to be more marginalised in the grand scheme of things. And which is something that I hadn’t picked up on while reading it when I was a kid. Or even earlier as an adult, I used to reread the series quite regularly. And I never used to think about how much the emphasis seems to be on witches and wizards and not on anybody else. Like I said, I was rereading The Goblet of Fire and I just realised – and this is something that they spoke about in the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text episode as well – where Muggles and Muggle-borns are seen to be such a – seem to be belonging to such an inferior kind of culture.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: So Hermione when she comes into the wizarding world – and Hermione – she’s clever and she’s amazing, she’s brilliant. She’s all these things. But even she has to leave her Muggle culture behind and assimilate into the magical world. And all these witches and wizards have these strange stereotypes about Muggles. And she has to just grin and bear it like, “Haha yeah I guess. Muggles are funny.” Even though her parents are non-magical. And her whole extended family or whatever, her friends that she had as a kid. But she seems to have completely put that behind and she doesn’t make any references really. Or nothing that anybody else takes seriously.

Aisha: Yeah. I didn’t necessarily think of Hermione’s point of view. But I thought of Harry like why wasn’t he into his Muggle culture? Because he lived with his aunt and uncle, right? And I thought maybe because he just psychologically wants to distance himself from his relatives because of all the abuse. But now that you’re talking about Hermione, I’m like yes, she lived in a loving home, right?

Parinita: Exactly.

Aisha: Her parents were very … yeah so why did she put behind completely that world?

Parinita: And the thing is that all these witches and wizards, they live very closely in the Muggle world. They’re not a dominant culture in the Muggle world. Muggles outnumber magical people. But even then, I don’t think there’s any sort of effort to try and understand Muggles in a way that actually looks at their technology and their culture and their art and literature or whatever. It’s just all very wizard-centric. Imagine how great it would be … like I know they explain away things like technology doesn’t work in Hogwarts because there’s too much magic in the air, so technology just fails. But has anybody tried to make this better? Or have they just been like, oh who needs Muggle technology anyway? We can get along without … even though they seem to be living in the 17th century. [laughs]

Aisha: [laughs] Yeah.

Screenshot from Tumblr. contradictingmultitudes: I want to read a fic where some tech savvy muggleborn manages to patch wifi into Hogwarts cause lets be honest the anti-muggle-technology chams were done by some ministry wanker 50 yrs ago who knew jackshit about electronics beyond radios much less microprocessors so the Hufflepuffs are all binge watching Netflix before exams and it takes months for the profs to figure anything out.

Parinita: The wizards and witches.

Aisha: And all those quills, yeah exactly.

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs]

Aisha: You brought up a really interesting thing. I haven’t really thought of it this way.

Parinita: Yeah, it’s not something I thought of myself. It’s just something I thought of because I’ve been hearing about it a lot in fan podcasts and things about how Muggles seem to be looked down upon. Even Arthur Weasley who really likes Muggles, even he is only looking at them almost like they’re museum exhibits.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: Like oooh so fancy! You use these telephones? Oooh what are telephones? He’s not actually trying to get to know Hermione’s culture. It’s just like it looks all foreign and exotic so he’s trying to figure it out. Which is very British. Speaking as someone who was colonised by them.

Aisha: Which is also interesting because when you look at other cultures and mainly dominant Western media, this is also what [laughs] sometimes

Parinita: Yup!

Aisha: Unfortunately sometimes how international people or people from different cultures are featured. Very, very superficially.

Parinita: Absolutely.

Aisha: Yeah. And probably if we really look at Harry Potter I mean I know that I’m a fan, a very loyal fan but again this is how they’ve included those cultures like with Padma and with Mustafa and all of those characters. They seem to have been very assimilated into the wizarding culture and very little of who they are, what is their background is really brought up in the story.

Parinita: Yeah and very British wizarding culture as well like we saw in one of those Tumblr posts, Imagine a Muslim Witch which has a headcanon of a Muslim Muggle-born witch in Hogwarts. And I love that not just because it was imagining a Muslim witch, but because of all the potential possibilities that opened up in my brain.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: The post mentioned that she would use Arabic spells and Parvati would use Punjabi spells, Anthony Goldstein would use Hebrew spells – all these different languages. And they just would have a separate club where all this religious diversity as well as cultural diversity would come into play and they would just borrow from each other’s different cultures and make something better out of it. Which is what you want, right?

Aisha: And that’s why I loved it. I thought it was brilliant. Not only because of the culture and the cultural insertion. A lot of fanfiction would do that. They would include characters from different cultures into the story. But this one seemed believable. It actually added to the story. It was relevant. It was very, very connected to the plot of fantasy and spells and all of these things.

Parinita: Absolutely. And something what you said about Latin words being used, that’s also in the spells and things as well as you know the place names and the people names in the British magical world. But I know now and we know now that Britain is much more diverse than that.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: It’s not all white, Eurocentric and Western. We have lots of immigrants now here and things. So what sort of impact would that have on different things? Food and language and festivals and things. I know we’re going to be talking about that a little bit more but just that Imagine a Muslim Witch headcanon – it just blew my mind open to all the different possibilities.

Aisha: No, exactly.

Parinita: And another thing that I thought of in Goblet of Fire was that it’s not just like different real-world cultures, but within the magical world as well there are so many different cultures. So it’s not just witches and wizards. It’s House-elves and Goblins and Giants and Werewolves and Centaurs. These kind of things are kind of mentioned in Order of the Phoenix, there’s this centaur problem that happens.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: And goblins in the last book. But they all seem to be so living so separately from each other. And even in The Goblet of Fire, what struck me during the second task, when Harry goes to the bottom of the lake and he doesn’t know that Merpeople live there. And he discovers this even though the lake is on Hogwarts grounds so you would think that this sort of information would have been shared. But he doesn’t know whether they eat humans or whether they’re murderous. He knows nothing about them. Even though they share the same environment. And they seem to be lovely people. [laughs]

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: They come up with him and they’re really happy that he tried to save the other champions’ person. Why isn’t there more of a cross-cultural exchange? Obviously goblins are also very resentful of the witches and wizards as well.

Some Other Magical Beings from the Potterverse. Image courtesy Babbel

Aisha: Yeah. No, exactly, yeah. That maybe also shows that how again the idea of diversity was so superficial even in a fantasy you know.

Parinita: Yeah!

Aisha: Oftentimes, for example, I would honestly be wary if I see an Arab character in a movie or in a book. ’Cause usually it comes from – instead of it coming from the point of view of the character, instead of it coming from within, it comes from how Westerns or how others see Arabs, for example

Parinita: Absolutely.

Aisha: Sometimes they exotify like ooh those exotic costumes and those exotic food and this exotic music. Or sometimes it’s just even the opposite, which is worse as well.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Aisha: So I guess that’s how maybe the different characters and different species in Harry Potter are also included. Or they are included only to help with the plot, not really to mingle with each other.

Parinita: Yeah! They’re just to show a little bit of the wizarding world politics but not in any way that actually changes those politics. Because Ron has grown up in the magical world, he has a lot of the biases and assumptions that Hermione and Harry, for example, don’t. Just because they are outsiders in this culture so they’ve not really learned these things, they’re not conditioned in them. So Ron has some very problematic ideas about werewolves and House-elves and things.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: But I’m sure a lot of wizarding students would have that as well either out of bigotry that you grow up with or just ignorance. Like Harry with the merpeople, he was just ignorant of their existence and their culture or whatever. So wouldn’t it be amazing if Hogwarts in some fanfiction or in some sequel or something, welcomed in non-human creatures within its walls too?

Aisha: Hmm yeah!

Parinita: So they have different magical things that they could contribute, their different magical things that the witches and wizards can learn from and then they can share. So centaurs and merpeople and giants and werewolves and goblins – maybe they can do things that don’t always require magic as well. Like Potions doesn’t really seem to require magic.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: It just needs knowledge and the ingredients, almost.

Aisha: Oooh that would have been really nice.

Parinita: [laughs]

Aisha: If they had all these characters going to school alongside the wizards and the witches.

Parinita: Right? Even Muggle Studies I feel like it should be a compulsory part of the curriculum. It shouldn’t be this optional third-year fourth-year thing. Because they live with Muggles and in a Muggle society. They need to understand Muggles. And they also need to have teachers who actually know about Muggles and not just in this academic way. But actually have lived and know these things so that there’s a more authentic picture of Muggles rather than just, “Oh telephones! Weird! Why do you use telephones and not owls?”

Aisha: Even that! I mean I don’t remember very well, I could be mistaken you can correct me if I am. But in the third book when Hermione takes up Muggle Studies, doesn’t Ron really question her purpose?

Parinita: Um hmm.

Aisha: And she said – I don’t know, I could be mistaken, but she said something along the lines of she wants to see how the wizards and the witches and the wizarding world looks at Muggles from their point of view.

Parinita: Oh that’s exactly right, yeah. Because she’s this enthu cutlet who [laughs] wants to do all the things. So obviously she would be the kind of person who does Muggle Studies even though she is from a Muggle background. But I think her point is very interesting that it would be interesting to know what wizards and witches think of Muggles.

Aisha: Yeah. But then again it also shows you that it’s sort of not like own voice sort of study.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Aisha: Like it’s coming from the wizards or the witches’ point of view. Of how they see Muggles.

Parinita: Yeah it would be like a white person in the UK who has who only knows India through its maybe literature and through the films or something but hasn’t actually lived there teaching other British people about India.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: Or similar things with Dubai. Which has happened historically! All these weird stories in the West about the East where we have like four hands and [laughs] lots of eyes – more eyes than possible for humans and these exotic birds and animals and things. So obviously that was historically there but the magical society seems to be there still. Even though it’s 1990s – 2000s, yeah. And even the food, language and things, right? Food, language and fashion are all important aspects – the clothes you wear, the things you eat, the language that you speak, you share your ideas in, they’re all important aspects of different cultures. But in the magical world, these aspects are quite limited. They all only seem to speak English, there’s again that dominance of English. I think Dumbledore and Barty Crouch Sr. are the only people who are known to speak hundreds of different languages. In Goblet of Fire, Dumbledore goes and speaks to the Merpeople in Mermish.

Aisha: Oh! Okay.

Parinita: I usually have a very terrible memory but I just finished reading this book a few days ago which is why I remember. And even Barty Crouch Sr. he’s known to speak to goblins and he speaks different languages. Whereas everyone else in the wizarding world only seems to know English.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: In Hogwarts, there are no language studies classes that we come across.

Aisha: Yeah, that’s very interesting. And again this is where the fanfiction we talked about comes into play. What if they had different classes teaching spells in different languages?

Parinita: Yeah!

Aisha: Different spells of different cultures or …

Parinita: Yeah or have an exchange programme. For a semester, have an Arabic witch who comes in or an Arabic wizard who comes in and teaches their culture or an Indian witch or wizard who teaches. So not just magic but also the stories and all the cultural things that come with being a part of another country. The food and the clothes and things as well. How cool would Hogwarts be then? We thought Hogwarts was very cool when we were growing up because it was this magical world but now in 2020 we want Hogwarts to be much better.

Aisha: Yeah, no, exactly. I remember reading the first book … or was it the movie, I’m not sure. Remember when they’re in the train and Harry asks Ron what he’s eating or something like that. And he says corned beef.

Parinita: Yeah!

Aisha: I remember wondering what is corned beef?

Parinita: [laughs] I know! Oh my god the different food in the British magical world. And it’s all very British. Like I said, because I grew up reading Enid Blyton – who has written hundreds of books and who’s very English – so I knew some of these foods. But they all also seemed very foreign and exotic to me. Like corned beef? Hmm doesn’t sound super appetising, but okay, you do you. I would rather have like beef curry or something. Because I’m Indian, we need spices in everything. [laughs] But yeah that reminds me of another thing. So again, sorry, Goblet of Fire [laughs] I’m giving you so much attention but when the Beauxbatons and Durmstrang students come in and they have a feast and Ron makes fun of this weird looking French food which I don’t know how to pronounce, it’s some sort of fish soup. And he’s like ugh what’s this? And Hermione tells him that, oh no, I had this in France, it’s quite nice. And Ron is like, okay I I don’t want any. You can have this. And then that just got me thinking about the other food in Hogwarts as well. In Imagine a Muslim Witch, they mentioned that a little as well. If you’re a vegetarian in Hogwarts or you’re vegan, or you’re Muslim who can only eat some food or you’re Hindu who can only eat meat on some days and some kinds of food, depending on your cultural background, how do you survive in Hogwarts?

Aisha: Yeah that’s a very important question. Exactly!

Parinita: It’s not just the food but it’s also in Potions and Charms and Transfiguration classes as well. If you’re ethically against using animals or using some sort of animals based on your religious tradition, you wouldn’t want to use them in any part of your life, right?

Aisha: Right, exactly! Yeah that’s a very interesting discussion.

Parinita: I would love to read fanfiction about this. [laughs] I mean I know we read Imagine a Muslim Witch but I want to read a proper story about it.

Aisha: Yeah, exactly. I know. I mean like you said, back in the day, Harry Potter was very diverse. It was such a diverse book because you had so many different characters from different cultures or from different nationalities. But now when we talk about it and we really dissect it, it’s more like a melting pot you know. Oh you came from here, you need to melt with the rest of the people.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aisha: Or you need to ???

Parinita: And you need to leave all your everything behind.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: Like Parvati and Padma Patil may as well have been white. Apart from their names, they don’t do anything. They don’t celebrate any festivals. We were talking about this on a previous episode with someone but they don’t eat any food that has spices in it. I live in the UK and my boyfriend is white. He doesn’t like a lot of spicy food and I need spicy food with everything. So we have to always try and come in the middle. So I can’t imagine Parvati and Padma Patil eating corned beef all the time.

Aisha: [laughs] Or even those people coming from different cities in the UK, right? Like the students. Wouldn’t they bring something from home

Parinita: Yeah, absolutely.

Aisha: ??? maybe or a chutney of some kind.

Parinita: Yeah because they do have different foods. Now that I know more about the UK food, they have different regional food. And, of course, Scotland has its own different food. Similar to England but different and we don’t really see that. Until I moved to the UK, I wouldn’t have known these Scottish reference. That Hogwarts is in Scotland first of all, I only discovered this [laughs] when I came here. And knowing all the Scottish politics and stuff within the UK or even the cultural influences, you don’t really get in the books at all. Apart from one bit, I made a note of this, where in the Yule Ball, because they’re all dressed up in these fancy outfits, Minerva McGonagall wears tartan. I don’t know if you know what tartan is.

Aisha: Oh yeah, the Scottish plaid, right?

Parinita: Yeah. So she wears tartan dress robes yeah and she has a thistle on her hat. So a thistle is the Scottish national flower which is like this really aggressive looking flower because it has a lot of nettles. So it’s basically a stabby flower. [laughs] Which is very Scottish. But they don’t mention that obviously in the books. They just mention the tartan and the thistles. And I’m like, “Oh! I see! Now I know that McGonagall is Scottish.” So yeah it’s just things that I guess if you’re not a part of that culture, you won’t pick up on these things.

Aisha: No.

Parinita: Until it is directly mentioned.

Image courtesy Wikipedia: fir0002flagstaffotos [at] gmail.com Canon 20D + Sigma 150mm f/2.8 – Own work, GFDL 1.2

Aisha: A couple of years back I went to the play [Harry Potter and the Cursed Child] which was in London. And there were different accents; people speaking different dialects or different British accents. For someone who is not from that culture, you wouldn’t really know this person is from which part of the UK.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aisha: Or this person is ??? Because we’re not part of that. But now that you mentioned how Minerva McGonagall was wearing the tartan, oh you know what, she was actually speaking in a Scottish accent in the play.

Parinita: Yeah! That’s such a good point. Because these accents, these regional accents, they also have class implications. So working class people versus posh people or middle class people have different kinds of ways of talking. It’s all English but it’s different kinds of English. And historically I think most of British media used to have a very specific kind of English. So people who didn’t live in the UK, like you and I, we didn’t grow up in the UK, we have this very specific idea of a British accent.

Aisha: Hmm.

Parinita: And I wasn’t really very familiar with the fact that there are so many different kinds of British accents and there’s like a political element in that as well because the northern English accents and things are sometimes looked down upon by different parts of the country. Because of historic, economic, social all these different contexts. And Scottish accents as well, they’ll be made fun of or Irish accents will be looked at differently. And all these things you don’t know until you know, I guess. Until you’re here.

Aisha: You can correct me as well because my memory is a little bit foggy. I haven’t re-read the book in a very long time. But I think Hagrid also had an accent in the book. So some letters were purposefully taken off, right?

Parinita: Yeah. Hagrid and also Stan Shunpike who was the Knight Bus driver. He had a different accent as well.

Aisha: See, as a non-native speaker of English, I had trouble reading Hagrid’s parts.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aisha: Even, yes exactly, the bus driver in the third book as well. I didn’t understand that they were doing that on purpose or they had some sort of maybe speech impairment or some sort of thing. Until later on I understood that ah okay different people in the UK just have different accents according to the regions they’re from.

Parinita: That’s also a way of othering, right?

Aisha: Exactly!

Parinita: If you only have Hagrid and Stan Shunpike, both of whom are on the margins of the magical society, and you’re only othering – because I’m sure that there are different students. Like Seamus he’s Irish so he would also have a different accent. But we don’t know that by reading the books except sometimes he says “me” instead of “my”. [laughs] That’s all the difference that you get.

Aisha: Yeah. Now I’m thinking about it and I’m like maybe that was purposefully done. Just to show supposedly that oh because Hagrid did not complete his education at Hogwarts or because of such and such you know.

Parinita: Oh yeah, you’re right! I didn’t think about the education aspect at all. But yeah, you’re so right.

Aisha: So I’m thinking okay did they mention the accent only when characters were seen like you said like it was an othering of the characters. Who are seen as outsiders because Hagrid literally also lives outside the school.

Parinita: Yeah! And he’s a half-giant so he’s outside the like “normal” wizarding society or magical society. And Stan Shunpike as well, he’s not … I don’t know his educational anything.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: Did he go to school? Or what?

Aisha: Yeah, exactly.

Parinita: Just going to the fashion part or the clothing parts of the magical world and inspired by the magical world, you said that Muslim fans have a much easier time cosplaying as Harry Potter characters. It’s an idea which I loved so much.

Aisha: Yeah. I think because of the loose-fitted clothes that they wear. A lot of characters wear robes which is something very similar to what female Muslims or Arabs wear like loose-fitted cloaks or robes so it’s very easy to replicate that.

Parinita: And black as well, right? They’re all black.

Aisha: They’re all black so whenever I got to Comic Con here in Dubai, in every Comic Con, I would definitely see someone wearing a Harry Potter costume with the black robe, the neck tie and the colour of the House.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aisha: And headscarf as well. And it doesn’t seem out of character to be honest. It seems like ah this is very similar to the culture, to what we really wear. So when we were young and reading Harry Potter – I’m talking about myself in particular – I could easily imagine myself in Hogwarts.

Parinita: [laughs]

Aisha: Because my clothing wasn’t so different from what they used to wear in the school.

Parinita: Yeah! That’s true. So you identified yourself through the clothes as well.

Aisha: Exactly. And there was also the first movie or in the first book there was Professor Squirrel uh was it? Quirrell?

Parinita: Quirrell, yeah.

Aisha: Yeah. He would wear a turban.

Parinita: Yeah!

Aisha: And that’s something also culturally relevant.

Parinita: Yeah to me as well. Because that’s something that we grew up with. Of course, he was evil – spoiler alert for The Philosopher’s Stone!

Aisha: Yeah exactly. [laughs]

Parinita: But he had Voldemort hiding in his turban. But yeah, I was like, oooh a turban. Like you were saying when we were talking about this during our meeting, oh maybe he was brown.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: It wasn’t weird because he could pass for this Sikh person in Hogwarts. Which would have been really cool. Although I don’t know any Sikh people called Quentin Quirrell. [laughs] Which seems like a very English name. But that would be amazing.

Aisha: Even in the first movie, I don’t know if you remember because it’s merely seconds – milliseconds. But when there was like a snapshot of Ron’s summer vacation in Egypt. Do you remember that part?

Parinita: Oh yeah.

Aisha: So Ron and his family were wearing Arab clothes. Like they were –

Parinita: Yeah! They were wearing robes, right? I do remember.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: Because it was a photograph, right?

Aisha: Yeah it was a photograph.

Parinita: Yeah in The Daily Prophet.

Aisha: It was like merely a second but I remember being really excited in the movie theatre. Finally there’s a character who’s wearing something similar.

Parinita: Well I’m glad that you had a positive experience of finding your clothes in the movies. Because let me tell you the tragedy that was Parvati and Padma’s Yule Ball outfits in the Goblet of Fire movie. It disappointed millions of Indian fans all over the world because we were like we have such beautiful clothes. For us at weddings or festivals and things, wearing these clothes is very much a part of our lives. We don’t need a Yule Ball to dress up. We find any excuse to dress up in these fancy clothes, saris and lehengas and things.

Aisha: Hmm.

Parinita: So we always have these things in the house. We don’t need to buy new things for weddings and things. We wear these things. And even the cheapest whatever, like a budget-conscious outfit for a wedding or for a festival would be so much prettier than the nonsense that they wore in the Yule Ball. I’m still bitter.

Aisha: Yeah. By comparison it was just so plain!

Parinita: Yeah. There was no embroidery, there were no beads – there was nothing! It was pink and orange. It was atrocious.

Aisha: Here in Dubai, we have a district called ??? Dubai and it’s almost like a big district that has all Indian clothing stores.

Parinita: Yeah?

Aisha: And my goodness the fabrics are just dazzling.

Parinita: Yeah! Even just plain cotton fabrics with block print would have been so much prettier than whatever rubbish that they wore which someone has called bargain rack lehengas on Twitter because it’s not just me. A lot of us are still bitter, to this day. There are fans who have made these Tumblr gifsets of much better looking outfits than what Padma and Parvati wore.

Fan interpretations of Parvati and Padma’s Yule Ball outfits. Image courtesy @anumationart

Aisha: I mean I get you. It’s a very sort of Western sari. It was so plain, it was so … I remember it being one solid colour. One was pink, the other was red. Was that right? Something like that?

Parinita: Yeah. I’m going to be watching the movies again after I’m done reading the books, and I’m going to sit with anger in my heart [laughs] just waiting for it like Ah! This is all you could do. And everyone else was wearing such nice clothes. And it’s almost like what you were saying earlier about superficial diversity. Having them dress differently just to show that oh look at Hogwarts, how diverse we are. But without making any actual effort or research into it.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: If it had been a desi or a South Asian or a brown costume designer, I’m sure they wouldn’t have chosen that. They would have chosen a much better outfit because they would know the context, right? They would know the kind of clothes that we would wear. No Indian parent would allow their child to go to this fancy ball in such plain clothes.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: When I was a kid, I had to fight with my mum because I didn’t like wearing all the very heavy clothes just because it used to be such a pain. It used to irritate the skin and I couldn’t go running about with it. So I used to fight with my mom and she’d be like, no, no don’t wear such plain clothes. You need to wear something nicer and fancier.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: So I don’t know how Parvati and Padma Patil’s mother let them go to the Yule Ball like that.

Aisha: Yeah same. We have similar things as well. I don’t know if it’s the same in India – but if there’s a wedding, even the children need to be to wear a little bit of gold.

Parinita: Yeah. Oh gold is a big part of it.

Aisha: Even though we don’t want to because either it hurts or it’s uncomfortable and there’s this constant fight. Where, “No! I don’t want to wear it!”

Parinita: Yeah. And I don’t even like gold! It’s too bright and shiny for me. So just aesthetically, it’s against my [laughs] aesthetic principles. But sometimes especially when you’re younger, you just have to listen to your parents. [laughs] To get on with your life. Whereas now as an adult you can fight back a little bit against these expectations. Just before we wrap up the episode I did want to give you a chance – plus I wanted to do this as well – to talk about some of your favourite fantasy worlds. Either books or just TV shows or movies or anything, which don’t have a primarily Western focus.  Have you come across that since Harry Potter or even while you were reading Harry Potter?

Aisha: Ah other than Harry Potter … no, to be honest. When I started reading, I started reading books called – a series called Zack Finns (?). I don’t know if you’ve heard of it but they were made into a Disney series as well.

Parinita: Oh right.

Aisha: It was sort of paranormal things that happens to a little boy who is in sixth or fifth grade. So I started reading that and it was set in the United States, I remember. And I read The Sleepover Club. Not The Baby-Sitters Club. The Sleepover

Parinita: Oh yeah! I had the Sleepover Club.

Aisha: Oh you did?!

Parinita: I was much more of a Babysitters Club fan myself but I did find random Sleepover Club book as well, yeah.

Aisha: Yes. And it was British, mainly. It was set in Britain and the characters were mostly Western. And then I think from there on I started to get into Harry Potter. Which, in comparison, it was far more diverse than those other books.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aisha: And then I was also into a lot of mystery. I read a lot of Christopher Pike books which was predominantly set in the United States. So no, unfortunately most of the books that I read and the things that I was a fan of were mainly set in the Western world. That’s why I was so excited. When I was a kid in the 90s and the early 2000s, Harry Potter was the most diverse book that I had come across.

Parinita: That’s true, I didn’t think about that. That there was more diversity, especially in comparison to the other things. Like I was saying Enid Blyton and I used to read the Famous Five and things that she wrote – they’re this mystery series. And very white. Very Western. No diversity. And she’s in trouble for this now but in her books, all the foreigners are either criminals or smugglers or kidnappers [laughs] and they’re all suspicious and you shouldn’t really trust them.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: So yeah not the greatest of examples. What about now? Have you come across any more or are you a fan of or have you enjoyed any more diversity as an adult?

Aisha: I have come across a lot of novels especially Young Adult novels. I read a lot of Young Adult novels. Nowadays yes, there is a lot of diversity. I have read a lot of books.

Parinita: Do you have any favourites that you’d like to recommend?

Aisha: No. To be very honest I usually finish reading not liking them either because in most cases like you said those cultures and characters are inserted just for the sake of diversity. Usually they have a very marginal role. Sometimes I feel it’s just to cross that box.

Parinita: Yeah because oh look now we have now this brown character or this religious character so let’s tick off this diversity box.

Aisha: Absolutely. We have a female character, we have like you said a brown character, we have an Arab character from this culture from that culture – sometimes I feel it’s just to check those boxes, not really to talk about the culture. Or sometimes when they are included, they’re too assimilated into the –  mostly it’s American – into the American culture.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aisha: That you don’t really see glimpses of their culture. But recently, probably a year ago, I read this book … gosh I can’t remember the name. Basically it’s about this Pakistani female who lives in the UK and who works in the UK who’s actually writing a story about the marriage of Pakistani families in the UK and so on.

Parinita: Oooh!

Aisha: So this is one I really, really liked. It’s called Sofia something. Because her name is Sofia.

Parinita: Oh I’ll look it up. Or if you remember it, just send it to me and I’ll –

Aisha: Yes I’ll send it to you. I have that on my Goodreads.

Parinita: Oh. Yeah this is how I keep track of the books that I read as well because my memory is non-existent. So I have to have Goodreads to refer to what books I love and read. But I did make a note of a couple of books that I wanted to recommend to … well you, as well as people who are listening. And these are just fantasy books that I read recently that I really liked. So one of them is called Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho. She’s a Malaysian British writer and she was featured in the Cultural Traditions of Magic episode as well of Breaking The Glass Slipper. It is very British. It’s a fantasy and it has a British magical system. But it so organically incorporates both British and Asian magical cultures and creatures. And I think a large part of that is because she is Malaysian. So for her she grew up with these things, so what she’s writing about is not exotic. She normalises both. It’s not just like a diversity thing. There were some references to India as well and Indonesia and things. So apart from exploring race, different races and national identities because it’s set in the 18th or 19th century or something so obviously the British are very suspicious about anybody who’s black or brown or doesn’t look like them. Like oh how can they have magic and things. But yeah it’s just a really fun book. It’s funny. She talks about these different things but it’s not an issue-based book, if that makes sense. It’s just incorporated very naturally into the story.

Aisha: Yeah.

Parinita: Which is really fun. And a book that I’m reading currently based on the article that we read about Muslim women writers of science fiction and fantasy or stories set in Muslim worlds and how that’s becoming a big thing.

Aisha: Yeah!

Parinita: And this one is so fun. It’s called The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty. It started off in Cairo and then moves to another part of Africa – a made-up part of Africa. But it has references to India as well. They have different names in this according to the map. But so many familiar elements. Things like djinn and carpets and the swords like talvar and the daggers and they’re all things I’m used to. Because in India, we had Mughal rulers a few hundred years ago, so we’ve grown up with these references as well. And the food and even the setting the kind of atmosphere that you’re describing, the kind of people, clothes everything. And religion is very much a part of the novel but without it being a big deal. You’ll just have people going to the mosque to pray. Or the main character Nahri, she’s wearing an abaya. And that’s just not a big deal. That’s just her culture. So you’re not exoticising it at all. You’re normalising it, which I love.

Aisha: Actually now that you’re talking about it, I remember a book that I had read maybe last year or the year before. It’s called We Hunt The Flame and it’s by an Arab writer.  I don’t know if she’s Arab to be honest, but I know she’s Muslim writer. Her name is Hafsah Faizal. And her setting is supposedly in Arabia without really specifying the region. Again, it’s a fantasy. So a lot of elements are also taken from Arab folktales and so on. But it’s not religious. It’s not a Muslim story. It’s just an Arab story.

Parinita: Yeah. Same.

Aisha: So there’s that, yeah. What else have I read? I’ve read some Asian inspired fantasy.

Parinita: Oooh!

Aisha: Mostly Japanese I would say.

Parinita: Oh that’s really cool.

Aisha: Yeah. But again, I don’t know much about their culture as an outsider so I don’t know how well they have incorporated cultural aspects into the stories. But yeah I’ve read some of those fantasies.

Parinita: But isn’t it cool to read about these things that are not primarily Eurocentric?

Aisha: Oh absolutely!

Parinita: Things like Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, all of these things that we’ve grown up with like Narnia and things which assumes European, Western everything as the norm. And at least for me, I didn’t even know what ideas that I had learned and I’d grown accustomed to until I read these books and a few other books as well which just disrupt those notions. But they don’t disrupt them in a way that’s making a big deal out of it. They’re just normalising another part. The City of Brass that I was talking about, just everything – the environment that they’re talking about, I was like oh right of course there would be magic here and fantasy systems set here. It’s just something that I have not read which is why it’s different for me. But why did I take for granted that there’s only one kind of magic system? Obviously there are different kinds including India. I’ve not read a lot of Indian fantasy, I’ve read some. A lot of Indian fantasy also draws on mythology which is both religion and just cultural for us in India. But there are a lot of fantastic Indian fantasy authors as well. So just these conversations, they make me so much more excited to explore diverse authors. Ever since I’ve started this podcast, that’s what I’ve been doing – exploring diverse authors.

Aisha: I get where you’re coming from. I think that that cultural background is a bonus. I guess I stopped reading fantasy for a while. I went back to reading – I read about 18th century set books.

Parinita: Oooh so historical fiction?

Aisha: Yeah. I love the Jane Austen period of time. So I read a lot of those stories.

Parinita: Oh you’re going to love A Sorcerer to the Crown.

Aisha: Oh really?

Parinita: It’s like a mix of that and fantasy.

Aisha: Okay. Sounds good. So last year I made a deliberate choice to read a little bit more fantasy because I don’t remember reading a lot of fantasy after The Hunger Games. I was like you know what, I need to include some fantasy in my reading list.

Parinita: [laughs] I’m glad.

Aisha: So I made a deliberate choice to do that last year. And most of the ones that I have read were not like you said, they were not Eurocentric you know. One was as I said, inspired by Chinese history. I read two that were inspired by Japanese ones. Although the author was not Japanese in the second book. I read another fantasy that was also Arab-inspired. But it was more inspired from stories of One Thousand and One Nights with Scheherazade.

Parinita: Oh I love retellings. Oh those are great. So if you go through your Goodreads and you do discover these names, I will for sure put the recommendations here. I’ll just read them out at the end of the episode because I’m sure a lot of people would love to discover new kinds of books.

Aisha: No that’s true, I’ll do that. I’ll have to go through my Goodreads

Parinita: Yeah. I feel your problem as a fellow Goodreads addict. [laughs] And since you like comics,  one comic that I do want to recommend is Ms. Marvel. I don’t know if you’ve come across it, it’s a superhero comic and it’s great. I was not into comics until relatively recently because I didn’t know where to start. I used to watch the Marvel movies and things but was not really interested in picking up the comics until I read Ms. Marvel in a public library a couple of years ago and my mind was just so completely blown. She’s a Muslim superhero but she lives in the US. She’s Pakistani-American but because Pakistan and India have so many shared cultural elements and history, of course, that I felt like I could see myself there. She was also a fanfiction nerd so she would go and write Marvel fanfiction when she’s out of school and things. And even though I’m not Pakistani and I’m not Muslim, for me it was that sense of seeing myself in a so much more complete way than in Parvati or Padma Patil for example. Because she was somebody I could so recognise. So yeah Ms. Marvel, for sure, you should pick up.

Aisha: Yeah. I’ve come across it actually and I think I browsed through it as well in the bookstore but I haven’t really read it so definitely putting it on my list.

Parinita: Yes! [laughs]

Aisha: Again just wanted to close with how much of a big role books can really take in one’s childhood and one’s adolescence. At the time, as we said, you grow up with Harry – when he was eleven, you were eleven. It was similar to me as well. By the time I was reading the fifth book, I was also fifteen. I think I was Harry’s age in fifth year. So yeah I couldn’t relate to the characters culturally but I could relate to some of the things that they went through. Like school stuff, some of the stuff that they went through with their teachers, how sometimes you felt even though you were surrounded by your friends, you felt a little bit different, right?

Parinita: Yeah.

Aisha: Different hobbies and different abilities that you have. Sometimes you are marginalised and so on. So I think at the time like you said in comparison to other things that were available, back then it was a very rich book; it was a very diverse [laughs] not by today’s standards for sure but for back then.

Parinita: No, absolutely.

Aisha: Yeah. I think it was. And I think that’s why even today whenever I hear the word Harry Potter and so on, I get so excited. Because it’s very nostalgic. It reminds me of all those good memories I had reading the books

Parinita: And you’re connecting to people that you wouldn’t otherwise have connected with. Like you and I, we come from Mumbai and Dubai, different cities, different cultures, different everything. But sharing the love of Harry Potter and through that finding other things that we share in common, I love that.

Aisha: Yeah. Exactly. No absolutely. And like you said, imagine those people who read those books and don’t see themselves in the stories. I think it’s very important that you can relate and you feel like I have a place in this fandom, I have a place in this story or in this media. So it’s important to include those cultural backgrounds and stories and have a central role you know. It’s not just to tick boxes. Just because oh here is ???

Parinita: Not just a referee in Goblet of Fire. [laughs] Not just a referee in the World Cup.

Aisha: Yeah. Referee, exactly.

Parinita: [laughs]

Aisha: Have real characters. There’s no shame in characters bringing in their cultural parts. I don’t see why they have to assimilate to the dominant culture or with the dominant characters. Like they can just ??? So yeah I think it’s just that. Seeing themselves in those stories – told in those stories and books, it’s very exciting.

Parinita: Yeah. I absolutely agree. Thank you so much Aisha for chatting with me on the podcast today and just expanding my imagination

Aisha: I had a blast

Parinita: Beyond Indian and Western cultures and ideas. It’s just been so fun!

Aisha: It was so much fun for me as well. It was like a trip down memory lane trying to remember all those memories.

Parinita: Absolutely. [laughs]

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode about cultural norms and cultural diversity in fantasy media. Thank you so much Aisha for your time and for such a fun conversation! I’m so glad our chat allowed us to reimagine a more radically inclusive Potterverse. For anybody interested in expanding your to-read list, here are the book recommendations Aisha couldn’t remember but promised to look up: Sophia Khan is Not Obliged by Ayisha Malik, We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal, and Descendant of the Crane by Joan He.

[Outro music]

I’d love to hear from you and talk to you – so any feedback, comments or critiques are very welcome! Get in touch with me on social media, leave a comment on my blog, or email me at edps@leeds.ac.uk. If you’d like to follow the podcast or the PhD project, visit my website marginallyfannish.org. Here you’ll find the podcast episodes, transcripts, episode resources and links, and my research blog. You can also receive updates on Facebook or Instagram at Marginally Fannish or on Twitter where I’m @MarginalFannish. I share episode resources on social media so you can find a bunch of excellent fan podcasts and essays to look up. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share it with anyone you think will enjoy it too.

Thanks for listening! Tune in again next time for all things fannish and intersectional!


Episode 19 So What Are We Missing? – Exploring Representations of Marginalised Genders in Media and Society

Episode Resources:

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

10) Article – Debrahmanising Online Spaces on Caste, Gender and Patriarchy 

11) YouTube video – The Matrix As A Trans Allegory tr

12) Tumblr post – Sameface Syndrome and Other Stories

13) Article – When Will We See Dalit Women Journalists In India’s Mainstream Media?

14) Article – Building A Newsroom Dedicated To Diversity: An Indian Story

15) Article – What Steven Universe can Teach us about Queerness, Gender Identity, and Feminism

16) Article – The Way the Solo Novel Treats Female Droid L3-37 Is Horrifying

17) Research paper – Gender in Twentieth-Century Children’s Books


Episode Transcript

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

[Intro music]

Welcome to Marginally Fannish, a show where we aim an intersectional lens at some of our favourite media and their fandoms.

[Intro music]

My name is Parinita Shetty and you’re listening to the 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. Of course, accepting and demanding difference doesn’t always come easily. Unlearning ideas that 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 provide 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.

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

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.

Promotional poster of the TV show GLOW

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.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Exactly!

Parinita: Who wanted to be a boy because they had more fun. And even recently Wonder Woman.

Sanjana: Yeah.

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.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Exactly.

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.

Sanjana: Yeah.

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.

Sanjana: Yeah.

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.”

Sanjana: [laughs]

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]

Aparna: [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.

Aparna: Yeah!

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.

Aparna: Right.

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.

Screenshot of Tumblr post. Text says: trans boys in gryffindor being sent to the girl's dormitory and then being delighted when the stairs won't let them up. trans girls in gryffindor being told they can't go in the girl's dormitory (and maybe shown what happens by some cis boy) and then trying it and finding that the stairs DO let them up. Gender fluid gryffindor students falling down as the steps to the girl's dormitory unpredictably turn into a slide. you're a good egg.

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.

Aparna: Yeah.

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.

Sanjana: Exactly.

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?

A collage of all the actors who portrayed the Doctor in the TV show Doctor Who

Versions of the Doctor. Image courtesy: Wikipedia

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 transphobia, 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.

Sanjana: Yeah.

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.

Sanjana: Exactly!

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.

Aparna: Correct.

Sanjana: Yeah.

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.

Aparna: Yes!

Sanjana: Yeah.

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.

Sanjana: Hmm!

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.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Yes!

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.

Illustrated gif of Parvati Patil and Lavender Brown in Divination Class

Divination class with Parvati and Lavender. Image courtesy krispy-bits

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 –

Sanjana: Yes!

Parinita: Staying with this family in a foreign country.

Sanjana: And she’s a kickass person!

Aparna: Yeah, she was in the Triwizard Tournament.

Sanjana: Exactly!

Screenshot of Tumblr post. Text says: siriusblacque: fleur delacour is so important i can't even put it into words. badass girl whose "most previous" was her sister, who despite what anyone might think of her (cough molly cough ron cough hermione cough) looks past any aesthetic unpleasantries because she is completely and irrevocably in love with bill, who willingly risks her life for harry (the seven harrys, anyone???), who manages to create a spot of brightness in the middle of war (wedding!!!), who is feminine and badass at the same time, who opens her home to an entitled goblin and multiple refugees/runaways, who doesn't sacrifice one bit of her integrity or character despite the looming threat of war

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.

Parinita: [laughs]

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.

Aparna: [laughs]

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.

Aparna: About?

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: In the fourth book when Rita Skeeter is spewing all kinds of things and she writes about Hermione breaking Harry’s heart, that Christmas Ron and Harry get good-sized packages but –

Aparna: Oooh!

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.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Exactly.

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.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: I’m like, you guys have it so much better than we do!

Aparna: [laughs]

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.

Parinita: [laughs]

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?

Sanjana: Exactly.

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.

Sanjana: Yeah.

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?

Parinita: Sabarimala.

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?

Sanjana: Yes.

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.

Parinita: [laughs]

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.

Sanjana: Yeah.

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?

Sanjana: Yeah.

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.

Aparna: Yeah.

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.

Sanjana: Yeah.

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.

Aparna: [laughs]

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.

Sanjana: Yeah.

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.”

Sanjana: Yeah.

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.

Sanjana: Yeah.

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.

Sanjana: Yeah.

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.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: But in schools when do you ever study about anyone from other parts of the gender spectrum?

Aparna: Never.

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.

Sanjana: Yeah.

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.

Sanjana: Yeah.

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.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Absolutely. So now what are some of your favourite nonbinary, genderqueer, gender nonconforming characters in media?

Sanjana: Alex from Magnus Chase. Who else have I met?

Parinita: What did you like about them? About Alex Fierro.

Fan art of Alex Fierro

Fan art of Alex Fierro. Image courtesy Wiki.

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.

Aparna: Yeah.

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 …

Screenshot of a tweet. Text says: Me: *starts to explain non-binary gender of close relative* 11 y.o.: Oh, you mean gender fluid? Me: You know "gender fluid"? Him: It's like Loki's kids. They're gender fluid. You know, in Magnus Chase. I know all about it. What pronouns should we use? @rickriordan

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.

Aparna: Ohhh!

Parinita: Oh!

Aparna: Interesting.

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.

Poster of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power

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]

Sanjana: [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.

Panel from the fanzine comic Tonk’s Tale by Maia Kobabe

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.

Sanjana: Yeah.

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.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Yes.

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?

Parinita: [laughs]

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.

Aparna: Yeah.

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.

Aparna: [laughs]

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.

Aparna: [laughs]

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.

Poster of the TV show Steven Universe

Image courtesy IMDB

Parinita: I think – and I think Noelle Stevenson would agree – that Steven Universe walked so that She-Ra could fly.

Aparna: [laughs]

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.

Aparna: Yeah.

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]

Parinita: [laughs]

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?

Aparna: Okay.

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.

Parinita: [laughs]

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.

Sanjana: [laughs]

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.

Parinita: And we’d be killed to further either Dean or Sam or maybe Castiel’s story.

Aparna: Yes!

Sanjana: All right. Women not faring so well in the Supernatural world. Moving on, how would you fare in Serenity? On the Firefly world.

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.

Aparna: Haan.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Aparna: Sure.

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.

Sanjana: [laughs]

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: Yeah.

Aparna: Yes.

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?

Sanjana: Oooh!

Aparna: I would either be very, very powerful or invisible.

Sanjana: [laughs]

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.

Parinita: [laughs]

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.

Gif of cabbage seller from Avatar The Last Airbender shouting "My cabbages!"

Aparna: Yeah.

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.

Sanjana: [laughs]

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]

Parinita: [laughs]

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.

Parinita: Bye!

Sanjana and Aparna: Bye!


[Outro music]

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.

[Outro music]

I’d love to hear from you and talk to you – so any feedback, comments or critiques are very welcome! Get in touch with me on social media, leave a comment on my blog, or email me at edps@leeds.ac.uk. If you’d like to follow the podcast or the PhD project, visit my website marginallyfannish.org. Here you’ll find the podcast episodes, transcripts, episode resources and links, and my research blog. You can also receive updates on Facebook or Instagram at Marginally Fannish or on Twitter where I’m @MarginalFannish. I share episode resources on social media so you can find a bunch of excellent fan podcasts and essays to look up. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share it with anyone you think will enjoy it too.

Thanks for listening! Tune in again next time for all things fannish and intersectional!

Episode 22 This Is Not the Only Story: Expanding Mainstream Ideas of Sexuality and Social Class

Episode Resources:


1) Article – How pop culture embraced sexuality ‘without labels’

2) Fan podcast – Alohomora: LGBTQIA+ In Potter – Beauty In Difference

3) Fan podcast – Woke Doctor Who: Captain Jack Sex Jesus 

4) Essay – Asexuality Awareness Week: A Feminist Perspective on the Doctor’s Asexuality

5) Essay – The Sexual Ethics of Doctor Who

6) Article – Queerbaiting – exploitation or a sign of progress?

7) Essay – The Problematic Representation Of Queer Masculinity In Disney Films

8) Essay – Representation in acefic

9) Article – Queer Azaadi Mumbai 2020: For whose pride?



10) Fan podcast – Our Opinions Are Correct: Can We Survive Capitalism?

11) Essay – Confronting the Default: Portraying Homelessness in Science Fiction and Fantasy

12) Essay – Celebrating the Minimum Wage Warriors of SFF

13) Wiki list – Fantastic Caste System

14) Essay – Why Are Bollywood’s Small-Town Heroes Always Upper Caste?

15) Essay – Why is pop culture so disdainful of the ‘conformist’ salaried class?

16) YouTube video – Pass The Mic – Suraj Yengde On Why Caste Matters

17) Article – Urban India didn’t care about migrant workers till 26 March, only cares now because it’s lost their services: P Sainath

18) Article – Lockdown has laid bare Britain’s class divide


Episode Transcript

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

[Intro music]

Welcome to Marginally Fannish, a show where we aim an intersectional lens at some of our favourite media and their fandoms.

[Intro music]

My name is Parinita Shetty and you’re listening to the twenty-second episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, Sanjana, Aparna and I chat about how sexual diversity and social class are represented in media and society.

Mainstream media representations influence many people’s understanding of diverse identities. A limited range of diversity among media creators results in a limited diversity of stories. The stories which do exist reflect dominant culture priorities and prejudices. Compulsory heterosexuality as a structural narrative force presents limited ways of existing in the world. The overall absence of working-class narratives means that countless stories remain unheard. When it comes to representations of intersectional identities in media, the situation is even grimmer. These limited stories build an incomplete and inaccurate canon of our imagination.

However, first-person accounts about the politics of representation can help people identify and unlearn different biases and blind-spots. Other people’s perspectives in online and fandom spaces can draw attention to intersectional nuances. By highlighting these default structures, fans can help people analyse favourite media with fresh insight. Multiple interpretations of fictional characters can make canon more inclusive of diverse identities. It can also help people imagine alternative ways of living in the real world. This sort of critical education that fills in knowledge-gaps requires active effort. But once embarked upon, it can kickstart a lifelong questioning of received information and a quest for more complex stories about different people.

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Sanjana: Hello! I’m Sanjana

Aparna: I’m Aparna.

Parinita: And I’m Parinita. In this episode, we’re going to be focusing on two separate topics. In the first half, we’ll talk about sexual diversity and then explore class – both in media representations and what they reflect and influence in the real world. In both instances, the three of us belong to the dominant group so we’re still in the process of expanding our understanding and unlearning things that we’ve internalised. To kick things off, I thought we could talk about our understanding of gender identity versus sexuality because I think these terms are often lumped together. That’s certainly been true in my own case especially before this last year when I’ve been reading about this more and hearing other people’s perspectives about this more. Now I know the difference properly. But before that, because gender identity and sexuality are often spoken about in the same breath so to speak, if someone would have quizzed me, I wouldn’t have been able to explain what the difference is. Only now do I understand that they are two separate things. So, for example, you can be nonbinary and you can be heterosexual, homosexual, pansexual whatever. Or you can be a trans woman or a trans man and you can be heterosexual. So gender identity and sexuality are two different things. What about the both of you? Have you had this confusion as well?

Sanjana: Yeah. For actually quite the longest time. I think the journey is similar. My understanding came from wanting to educate myself and to understand it better. And so now I’m beginning to get a better sense of the difference between the two. It’s more reading and more people talking around me and meeting newer people that helped me understand this.

Aparna: Even for me. And I think because we’re so far removed from – at least I was – from encountering many of these identities in our daily lives as well. I didn’t end up even trying to find out for a long time. So there was a lot of unlearning that I had to do before I started educating myself because, like you said, all these identities are clubbed together so often. Now it seems so obvious to me that gender identity and sexuality are so completely different. Since we just hear it as one term and always mentioned in the same breath, unless you start looking at more nuanced experiences and read up a little more in detail, it’s hard to be able to figure these things out initially. But when you start to educate yourself, it’s actually all there and it’s quite easy too. I feel like one of the things that I’ve learned is that the more you read and the more you see these identities represented in media, what matters the most is understanding that these are not categories, that these are individuals. Especially when I was reading up and when I read first-person accounts or heard someone who identifies with a particular group speaking critically about representation in media is when I realised how personal these things are. Because we come from a point of privilege of not having encountered any of these oppressions from these angles, I was completely blind to so many of the nuances in media. I want to talk about two terms now – queerbaiting and queer-coding. So initially I feel like because there was obviously a lot of dismissal of these portrayals of media and there was a lot of taboo around it, people who were making media had to do it very subtly. And that was the origin of queercoding. So where it comes from there is a lot of positive to be gleaned from it. Like in Xena The Warrior Princess, Parinita, I think you watch that show so you’ll be able to tell better – that the characters were queercoded.

Parinita: Yeah. Very, very much so!

Aparna: Yeah. [laughs] So a lot of those representations were very positive and gave voice to a large community that was otherwise being completely neglected from being portrayed. But there are also negative aspects to that. For example, I read this article which was exploring how all of the Disney villains were queercoded.

Parinita: Yeah oh my god.

Aparna: Like Scar from Lion King was portrayed as having effeminate characteristics whereas Ursula from The Little Mermaid had more male characteristics. And it had gone into a deeper research of that. So there is a negative aspect of it and the positive aspect of it. And queerbaiting is when a queer relationship is hinted at or teased but never fully realised. Can you guys think of any examples where that might have happened?

Sanjana: Yes.

Parinita: Albus and Scorpius.

Sanjana: Yes! Albus and Scorpius! Yes I had the exact same example. I was reading up about it and I was just generally trying to understand the terms better. And I was like oh my god. And they speak quite extensively on the podcast episode um … which podcast episode was it?

Parinita: The Alohomara one?

Sanjana: Yes, yes! Thank you. Yeah, they speak quite extensively on it. And I love the way they explained it that if you read a scene and you don’t reveal the genders of the two characters and you just read the scene without any mention of the genders, would you read the scene as between two people who are in love?

Parinita: I mean not just reading. So I went and watched the play in March in the Before Times [laughs] when you could still go and watch plays. When I first read the playscript as well, it was very obvious to me – even though I don’t usually queer characters.

Sanjana: Yeah! Same.

Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Image courtesy Vox

Parinita: But it was just very obvious to me like you were saying. But when they act it out on stage, it’s like a love story! I mean I’m all for showing intimate male friendships as well, like really close male friendships. Because I think that one of the arguments against this ship is that oh they’re just really good friends and you need examples of those as well. But I think you can have both. You can have all kinds of relationships. So this is something that we’ve spoken about in a previous episode where both of them are very, very queerbaity. Another thing that we’ve spoken about is BBC Sherlock. Watson and Sherlock in that – the producers have actually hinted at or even said more explicitly that they are queerbaiting the audience. They’re doing it quite purposefully. And they think of it as fun. But they don’t understand the kinds of psychological and emotional violence that it perpetuates always having your readings being made the butt of jokes essentially.

Sanjana and Aparna: Yeah.

Aparna: It also has been swinging a little bit in another direction where people are being called out for queerbaiting where it’s not. I want to give an example of Steven Universe which is one of the most diverse shows I have ever encountered. One of the storyboard artists, Lauren Zuke – I’m not sure if that’s how you pronounce her name – but she posted art about two characters who are shipped in fan circles. And that upset fans of another ship with one of those characters. And she was accused of queerbaiting and was trolled on the internet, so she had to leave Twitter.

Parinita: Oh god.

Aparna: So it also goes in the other direction.

Parinita: Yeah. We speak a lot about the positive aspects of fandom but yeah fandom can be pretty brutal as well. This reminds me of my teenage years where these ships in Harry Potter fandom used to be so intense – these shipping wars. So Harry and Hermione versus – not Harry and Ron, I don’t think that was ever a ship – but Hermione and Ron. And Harry and Ginny or Harry and Draco, and Hermione and Draco. Because all the books hadn’t come out yet at that point so people were still really wanting their ships to come true. I don’t think that it went to this extent, but I think that’s happening more and more over the last decade or so. I think there’s a line between fans being really emotional about these characters and these themes – which we are as well – and on the other side, bullying the creators into going off Twitter and things. Which has happened in the Star Trek fandom for race-related, gender-related reasons. Not Star Trek, Star Wars.

Aparna: Yeah. Star Wars.

Sanjana: Since we were talking about Harry Potter just now, I wanted to discuss the whole need for compulsory heterosexuality. And I wanted to talk about this more through the example of Lupin. I didn’t read Lupin like that but as I was hearing more and more podcasts, I was like yeah, that makes complete sense. The whole point of Lupin made to settle down and marry someone and he seems more included in the entire scheme of things once he’s married and has a baby on the way and those kind of things. I just thought he was an excellent example of this compulsory need to have everybody conform to society in Harry Potter. And this is something that even happens in mythology, for example. And there is a lot of mention of men and men together in mythology.

Parinita: In Indian mythology, right?

Sanjana: Yes, in Indian mythology, yes. Sorry. Like Shiva and Vishnu, if they get together, it is always with one turning into another gender; one switching gender. And this I’ve mentioned in the last episode, that I think Vishnu is genderfluid.

Parinita and Aparna: [laugh] Yes!

Sanjana: The more I read, the more and more I get convinced about the fact that I think he slips in and out – he uses it as a superpower though at this point. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: But yeah. That need again to conform to society basically. There’s this other deity that I don’t know if you’ll are familiar with called Ila who’s a genderfluid deity. And basically is the father and mother of the entire Suryavanshi race which is I think the Kauravas and the Pandavas? No they are the Chandravanshi – sorry. I just get confused which come from the sun and which come from the moon. The Ramayana is from the moon and one is from the sun.

Aparna: Oh!

Parinita: Oh I had no idea. What?

Sanjana: Yeah. We were recently researching the story for something and in that, there’s a king who wants a child. Prays, prays, gets a girl. Does not want a girl – like most stories go. And so somebody changes the gender saying that, okay go ahead, you have a boy. So he raises her as a boy. And one day when this prince is out roaming the gardens and the forests, he enters Shiva and Parvati’s garden. And if you enter Shiva and Parvati’s garden, you automatically get turned into a woman. So this prince gets turned into a woman. And he doesn’t know what to do. To get back his gender, Shiva blesses him saying that you will change your gender every six months. But when you change your gender, you will forget – and this was what was the most interesting because it is in our scriptures – that when you change your gender after six months, you will forget everything from your previous gender so that you don’t have to live with the shame.

Aparna and Parinita: Oh!

Sanjana: Yeah! And when we were retelling the story, I was like, we are not going to do that.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: We are not going to do that. Then she eventually falls in love, has children and that’s how this whole race gets born.

Parinita: Hindu mythology is wild!

Sanjana: I tell you! Yeah absolutely. [laughs]

Parinita: So what you said about the compulsory heterosexuality in Harry Potter, honestly, it’s not something that I had noticed when I’d first read it.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Because of our positions in society, right? And also the script that society gives you especially in India –  you have to study, then you can work for some time, then you get married obviously to a nice boy of the same religion and of the same caste. And then you have a baby. And then that is your life. You buy a house, I guess, if you can in this economy. In Harry Potter, that is totally how it goes. And also the fact that they all marry the people that they were dating in what is essentially secondary school.

Sanjana and Aparna: Yeah!

Parinita: [laughs] I am such a different person from who I was when I was 17 that I can’t even imagine being with the same person that I was.

Aparna: Yes! I read this very funny tweet when I – I don’t know, a long time ago – that the last chapter of the last book of Harry Potter is written as if a fan has written it. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah! Because James and Lily … their children’s names are also his parent’s because obviously Ginny doesn’t get to decide their children should be named. But even in the Yule Ball where they’re all looking for people of the opposite gender to go to the ball with. There’s no mention at all of any same-sex or same-gender couples going together. Not even as friends. Everyone is going there as – well I guess Ginny and Neville went as friends because reasons. But it’s very, very heteronormative in terms of how everyone ends up together. And that’s so limited. Especially because if you just read the books, sure Dumbledore is queercoded. And I know that some people think that Rowling said Dumbledore is gay for attention. I don’t think that’s true. I just think that like with all her other attempts at diversity, it’s very superficial diversity and wasn’t researched enough. It was just there for the sake of one token gay character that we want. But if you just read the books without knowing any of the other conversations that are happening around, you wouldn’t even know that Dumbledore is gay.

Aparna: Yeah. I didn’t notice it. In one of the podcasts, they discuss this at length. And I agree that since we’re seeing it from Harry’s perspective, maybe it wouldn’t have been easy – maybe it’s okay that we don’t know. But the point is if there are other representations, then it’s okay for a silent representation to happen. But if there are no other representations … and initially maybe she did not want to put in an openly gay character for fear of attracting controversy. But, as they mentioned, by book three, she pretty much knew before publishing that all her books are going to sell well. So it’s not like that could have been what was holding her back. So yeah. It’s a bit of a copout.

Parinita: [laughs] Which is why I think like what you were saying earlier in terms of fan interpretations and how they shape how you engage with these characters and books now are so important. Like you were saying Sana, with Lupin or with Dumbledore or whoever. For me, fan interpretations have gone such a long way in identifying and negotiating with these identities. Where fans use fictional characters to explore their real-world experiences which might not mirror mine. I have the most experience with Harry Potter fandom but this is true of other online fan communities as well where fans read characters as queer. And different kinds of queerness as well – so gay or bisexual or even asexual. So now when I read the books, when I was re-reading the series, I couldn’t unsee Harry and Draco. [laughs]

Sanjana and Aparna: [laugh]

Drarry fan art courtesy Fanpop

Parinita: Like Draco’s obsession with Harry and in Half-Blood Prince, Harry’s obsession with Draco. I thought it was amazing. The book became so much more for me. I’m not a huge shipper generally but it’s just such a more fun book. And this is something that fans have taken and play around with these identities in these online spaces. Then if they become writers themselves, or if they are writers themselves, they put that more explicitly into their books. So one of the examples that I read more recently is Carry On by Rainbow Rowell. Do you guys know the book?

Sanjana: No. I have read Fangirl. I haven’t read Carry On.

Parinita: So Carry On was a fanfic in Fangirl. One of the characters in Fangirl was writing Carry On. And Rainbow Rowell decided to make that into a book by itself. And it’s very loosely inspired from the Harry Potter world. And if you know Harry Potter very well and if you read Carry On, you can totally tell who’s supposed to be who.

Sanjana: Yeah. [laughs]

Parinita: And the difference is that it is so much more explicitly queer. And it also engages with these issues that we’ve been talking about throughout this podcast. Things like different cultures within the magical community, diversity in terms of race; also conversations about class in terms of who has more power in the magical community and who has less power. And the person who’s inspired by Draco and the person who’s inspired by Harry – spoiler alert – they do end up together. [laughs] I love that fans take this text that they love that might not be as inclusive as they want it to be, and inspired from this world, they make these texts so much more inclusive.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Absolutely.

Aparna: And also just creators leaving space for interpretations. Even if they don’t end up happily married, even if they don’t end up in a relationship, even if they’re not openly declared as a certain sexuality, even if it’s left open-ended. For example Lord of the Rings, I never read any of the characters in Lord of the Rings as asexual. But I read an article in which Frodo and Bilbo are often identified as asexual. And that makes a lot of sense now when I read what exactly asexuality is and also I remember the characters. It’s completely a valid interpretation of their characters. And just leaving room for these interpretations is super important. Of course, they have to exist alongside specific representation as well. And not just for people to see themselves represented, but imagine if we had more diversity in the media that we consumed growing up; we wouldn’t take till our 30s to learn some of these things.

Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: Absolutely. Just because you brought up asexuality, in the fan podcast episode, they brought up some of the theories of asexuality in Harry Potter fandom. They read Dumbledore as asexual and his attraction to Grindelwald or his relationship – whatever it was – fitting into that because asexuality is a spectrum and you could be attracted to the mind and you could also have a relationship with someone. And Luna as well as well as Charlie Weasley was read as asexual. Which I thought was fantastic.

Sanjana: Yeah. And talking about asexuality, the other thing that doesn’t get talked about enough is bisexuality and pansexuality. I mean bisexuality to an extent I’ve still been familiar with in some places, most recently with Rosa from Brooklyn Nine Nine. And that was done really well. Even within this, there is a lot of gay and lesbian representation; but asexuality, pansexuality, bisexuality doesn’t get talked about that much. Specifically pansexuality because that is something I have learned very recently. We recently started watching Schitt’s Creek. And David in that –  my god I am in love!

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: But David explained it that, “I’m into the wine, not the label.” And that whole scene plus him after that subsequently in every episode … I just I’m in love.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: I also loved in Schitt’s Creek how they disrupted the narrative. I also started recently watching it. I’m a bit behind you guys so no spoilers please.

Aparna: We’ll try.

Sanjana: [laughs]

Parinita: So in the first season, just because of the sort of tropes that we have of gay men, something which the character Stevie within the show also shared – where I think everyone assumed he was gay.

Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: And then it was towards the end when we realised that no, he doesn’t believe in labels, he just likes anybody irrespective of gender.

Sanjana: And I think the way Stevie reacted the next day to it was like a viewer reacting.

Parinita and Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: That’s why it was such a well-done thing because it felt like the creators knew what they were doing. When that scene happened, and she also says, “Um I thought you were into red wine.” And he’s like, “Sure. Red, rosé, or white – whatever. [laughs] I’m into the wine, not the label.” I thought that was just excellent.

Parinita: Yeah for sure.

Sanjana: And so educational!

Aparna: Yeah. And also, I was listening to an interview with the co-creator Daniel Levy and he was talking about how there is this impression that in small towns, they’ll be more close-minded. And it was very intentional for him that the best way to introduce this concept to whomever was experiencing it for the first time was to just show it as completely normal. And completely accepted and celebrated as part of the narrative as any other relationship would be. And that was a really smart decision.

Sanjana: As you watch more episodes, you’ll realise how effortlessly it’s done.

Parinita: I finished the second season yesterday and it’s been pretty good so far. But I don’t want to know – I mean I will know, but I don’t want to know from you two what’s going to happen next. Because we’ve spoken so much about Harry Potter, a similar person in Doctor Who is Captain Jack. I didn’t even realise until we listened to the Woke Doctor Who episode that yeah, he is pansexual. I mean I did realise but I forgot because it is not a big deal at all, he’s just there. Sana, since you’re not familiar with Doctor Who, he is from the 51st century and he’s a time-traveller. He comes back from the 51st century to the Doctor’s time, so our time. And his attitude is that in the future, there is no label for gender and sexuality, the ones that limit us today. So for him, it’s not a big deal. And for the Doctor also, it’s not a big deal because they’ve lived for such a long time and seen everything. So it’s all more fluid and flexible. And Jack just basically flirts with everybody. It doesn’t matter what gender, what species, which planet you come from – he’s just a really flirty person.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: I haven’t watched Torchwood which is the spin-off, but I thought he’s a great representation as well.

Aparna: Yes. And Sana, you’d shared this really nice article by the BBC about how it’s being treated like a new trend whenever it’s talked about in the media. Like pansexuality, “Everyone is a pansexual now. This is the new trend. You might be pansexual!” type of articles. But the truth is that the labelling of sexuality is much more recent than the concept of pansexuality. And how people are trying to just rid themselves of those labels more and more now. I’m going to switch to talking about children’s media and how sexuality is represented there because if done well, it should just be a part of our daily lives. And a sure-fire way of doing that is to include various sexualities in children’s media. While everyone is always tiptoeing around it, the success of shows like Adventure Time and She-Ra and Steven Universe which is just completely open and embraces all sorts of diversity, is proof that children are completely open-minded and they don’t see differences, they rather see similarities. So you give them any character or any relationship and they’ll find something to identify with. And that we’ve seen so much in children’s literature as well. They won’t look at something and think it’s inappropriate … until they inherit it from their parents or the people around them. So I want to talk about some good examples of how sexuality and gender has been represented in children’s media. One is Julian Is A Mermaid by Jessica Love.

Sanjana: Yes!

Aparna: Which is a beautiful picture book. That’s fun. And another is Legend of Korra.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Aparna: There was a little flak that it was not very obviously spelt out but I want to read a quote by the writer, Mike DiMartino saying, “The message sent is that queer people are no less wholesome, no less natural, no more implicitly or explicitly sexual and no more dangerous for kids to see than straight people.” This was when Korra and Asami seemingly got together at the end which was confirmed by the creators of the show later. And just effortless and very natural representations like that. In Indian kid lit, there have been a few representations – far from as many as we would like – but it’s always so far been very issue-based. Whenever these representations occur – I’m not talking just about Indian kid lit but overall – they’re either dealt with metaphorically somehow or they’re issue-based or it’s something that’s only vaguely hinted at. And just normalising these depictions is what I think we still have a way to go especially in Indian kid lit.

Parinita: Yeah. Because having issue-based stories is not a problem. Issue-based stories are great because they serve one need. But if those are the only books that there are, then that is the problem. Because then it’s always like your sexuality is a point of conflict is the message that you’re giving both kids and adults. So in terms of children’s media, Doctor Who has a huge amount of adult fans but it is primarily a children’s TV show. So that’s why having Captain Jack in the show is important. The first showrunner, Russell T. Davies, he’s gay as well so I think he obviously made a point to include more in terms of sexual diversity. I think it’s really important in children’s media and I hope that in Indian children’s literature especially there’s more room for different kinds of sexual diversity.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Yeah. And this brings us to …

Parinita [laughs]

Sanjana: [commentator voice] What if? What if?

Aparna: [makes sound effect]

Parinita: [laughs] What’s the what if today?

Sanjana: And this episode’s what if is what and who we would like to ship across universes. So I’m going to start you all off somewhere.

Parinita: Okay.

Sanjana: And start you’ll off on … hmm … Serenity.

Parinita and Aparna: Oh.

Aparna: I thought you were starting us off with a ship

Sanjana: No, no I was –

Aparna: Serenity is a ship anyway.

Parinita: Okay. Um …

Aparna: [mutters grumpily] She did not laugh at my joke.

Sanjana: You missed Aparna’s very excellent joke.

Parinita: Oh! I did, yes.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: What did she say?

Sanjana: She said Serenity is a ship.

Parinita: [laughs]

Aparna: Thank you, thank you.

Parinita: I would ship Serenity with the TARDIS.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Oh my god. That is excellent. I would ship the TARDIS with the Gundeldorfer

Aparna: The Gundeldorfer is just a hot air balloon.

Sanjana: I know but I –

Aparna: The hot air balloon from Fortunately, The Milk.

Parinita: Oh! [laughs]

Aparna: This has got to be the most absurd ship ever. Well, there is a connection. Neil Gaiman is a Doctor Who person and Fortunately, The Milk connection.

Sanjana and Parinita: Yeah.

Aparna: It’s not that absurd.

Parinita: That’s true. Um …

Sanjana: What about people you guys?

Parinita: [laughs] People schmeople.

Aparna and Sanjana: [laugh]

Parinita: I feel like the Doctor – even though fans do interpret them as asexual which I totally buy into – I think the Doctor and Dumbledore would be really interesting together.

Sanjana: Wow that is an excellent one.

Parinita: And also depending on which Doctor as well it would all be quite hilarious with like Peter Capaldi’s Doctor versus Jodie’s Doctor with Dumbledore.

Sanjana: I think Dumbledore would keep up with different lifetimes and stuff.

Parinita: Yeah and they’d both make obscure comments at each other and be all like, “Yeah, yeah!” “Yeah, yeah!” [says it in hoity-toity voice]

Sanjana: [laughs] Oh that is excellent.

Parinita: What about somebody from Avatar?

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: What about Zuko? Who would you ship Zuko with?

Aparna: Sana does not want to ship Zuko with anybody.

Parinita: Neither do I.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: But for the sake of this podcast, we shall forget that Zuko is forever shipped only with us.

Sanjana: Zuko … I want to … I feel he needs someone mad.

Parinita: Hmm.

Sanjana: Little loony.

Aparna: Luna!

Parinita: Oh! [laughs] Oh my god that would be so funny. Can you imagine his grumpy, angsty emoness versus Luna?

Sanjana: I think Luna would burr a hole through that somehow.

Parinita and Aparna: [laugh]

Parinita: Yeah, they’d be quite happy living their own lives as well and just wandering into each other once in a while.

Sanjana: Roasting turnips.

Aparna and Parinita: [laugh]

Sanjana: “I’ll grow the turnips, you roast them with your firebending.”

Parinita: That should be their ship name – Roasting Turnips.

Aparna: [laughs] Roasting turnips is a great ship name.

Sanjana: I think that way Zuko and Neville also would do well. They would be …

Aparna: Troubled past.

Sanjana: Yeah troubled pasts. And then they would sit in this little cottage far away and one would grow stuff and one would like …

Aparna: Make a fire.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: [laughs] You seem to have some pyromaniac tendencies.

Sanjana: Zuko only has one thing to do – make fires.

Parinita: [laughs] Not that he has any other abilities except firebending. I don’t know, I guess he becomes a good king and all.

Aparna: Brooding.

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs]

Aparna: His ability is brooding.

Parinita: Feeling guilty, fighting for his honour, reclaiming his honour.

Aparna: [laughs] I’m suddenly going to switch to a slightly more serious topic. The second half of our podcast is about class and caste. And I want to talk about intersectional solidarity across marginalised groups. So I attended a queer Pride march/gathering in Mumbai I think last year. It seems so long ago it might have been ten years. It was a really nice positive, beautiful event to witness. It was great. It was the first time I’d attended something like that and it was really nice. Now the next day I read articles about the march and then I started realising all these nuanced factions within the organisers of the Pride march and how a lot of them were detained by the police because they were also doing anti-CAA protests at that time. Which is our Citizenship Amendment Act which the whole country – a lot of the people were protesting. There was no solidarity within the group. The organisers were all upper-caste and there was a section which did not give enough time for the trans community to speak. And there was this other section that did not allow anti-CAA protests. I want to connect it to one of the podcasts we heard which was the Witch, Please podcast on class. How the oppressor-class – and I’m not calling them upper-class and lower-class because of one link that Sana had sent us to a Faye D’Souza episode – but now I’m just referencing too many things. But basically, the oppressor-class wants to maintain the status quo. So they give the impression that there is only so much rights to be had. And if you get it then you are taking it away from someone else. There is only so much, so if you want your rights, take them, don’t just try to get everyone else along with you. And the fact is that revolutions are built on community and solidarity. And playing into these notions of dividing ourselves into smaller groups within the marginalised sections – we shouldn’t fall into that trap.

Parinita: I mean this is what the British did, right? Divide and rule? And we’re still doing it now, so many years later. Because it worked so well for them. Where they divided Indians – and I can only speak about Indian history because I don’t know about what they did in the different African countries, for example. Or wherever else … half the world that they ruled. But they divided us along Hindu and Muslim lines so thoroughly that we are still feeling the impacts of that now. And the government, which is now the ruling-class in India, is using both religion as well as caste to divide and to make sure that we don’t work together and topple them. It’s not just within queer communities, it’s within socialist circles in the UK as well. Where you only view oppression through one lens. So in queer communities, it would be just their queer identity – where there’s a hierarchy of marginalisation there as well, right? Upper-caste gay men or upper-caste lesbians in India would have more power than say a Dalit gay person or a Dalit nonbinary/trans person. And there’s people who only view things through the lens of class and don’t take any other identities into consideration. Even though obviously you can’t separate these identities from yourself like race or gender identity or sexuality – all these come to the fore. So you can’t just fight for abolishing class hierarchies by saying that oh if we abolish capitalism, racism is going to go away. That’s totally not true.

Sanjana: Yeah. This is just reminding me of this recent Instagram post that I saw. It was this trans woman who was talking about her identity through her passport pictures. The passport-size pictures that we go to take through school and through adulthood which society demands we have on every document. And how you are told to sit in a certain way and dress in a certain way and comb your hair in a certain way. She’s studying now  to be a doctor; she’s a medical student.

Parinita: Oh I follow her as well!

Sanjana: Yeah. She talked about how it has taken so long for her to get a passport-size photograph that feels like herself. And she shared some of the old passport photographs too now. And it’s something as simple as that that society puts that much importance on.

Aparna: And I was upset when I was a child and I was getting a passport-size photograph taken and the photographer told me not to show my teeth while smiling. I was upset about that! Even now when I look at that close-lipped smile of mine, I’m like but that photographer told me … my problems are very small is what I’m saying.

Parinita: [laughs]

Aparna: But a lot of these factions and these tinier divisions are reinforced by media. This is the complete lack of intersectional identities. Because whenever diversity is explored in sexuality, it’s always upper-caste people or upper-class people who are represented. As you keep going into intersectional identities, there is lesser and lesser representation to be found. And this is linked to many, many misnomers. Like I was reading this article about how there was a judge in the US Supreme Court who thought that all gay people come from affluent backgrounds and live in urban areas. But the truth is that a lot of them are not from a higher-class and a lot of them don’t have very good jobs. Because of their identities, they are discriminated against. And they have to take lower paying jobs, or they are kicked out of their homes and they are homeless because of their identity. So the very thing that people think is true about them, it’s the opposite.

Parinita: Yeah. What you’re saying in terms of media, with India, this is both with sexuality and with class … just unpacking the damage done by Bollywood and unlearning all the things that we learned just through Bollywood representations. Because homosexuality or just anything that’s not heterosexual is always mocked; is always presented not seriously; is always … well now I think it’s changing a bit. I recently watched this movie Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga. Which had Sonam Kapoor in it. And that looks at sexuality in a small town and away from these urban discourses where everyone is apparently assumed to be comfortable with being gay even though that’s not true. So it was done interestingly and having Sonam Kapoor who’s pretty mainstream herself. I read both celebrations as well critiques of the movie. Celebrations because oh mainstream Bollywood is showing this in a sensitive way. But also critiques in terms of the class and the location and everything. We want nuance and complexity but we talk about these things in terms of Western media because they have representations. In Indian media we still don’t have them in terms of sexuality and in terms of class.

Sanjana: No, absolutely. The damage that Bollywood has done for a lot of things is just taking a long time to wind down and drown it out because the wrong things are just reinforced again and again. It’s just very hard. Which is why I think generationally speaking within families from generation to generation, it is becoming harder to have conversations because they have not moved past those things that Bollywood has shown them to be. Whereas we have. And this goes to questioning our own role in the existing class disparity. Because there is. I’m going to talk about how we’ve grown up. We’ve always grown up with people working in our houses. Someone will come to clean your house, to wash your clothes. Now washing machines are there but to the extent of even washing your clothes and stuff there’s always been someone. And we moved every two and three years. And that is how we grew up. And the fact that there was always one plate that was separate and there was always one glass that was separate. And they are given the same food but they’ll always eat on a stool in the kitchen. We never questioned it growing up. We never thought it was weird because we had not seen anything else.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: And so we don’t end up questioning our role in this class disparity at all. And it was very evident even when we went to schools – because Dad got posted to a lot of these remote places, in far east and stuff – the only schools around were the Air Force schools. And we would be there and we would be the only kids who were kids of officers. And everybody else was kids of like the airmen or … anybody, because the fee structure would be the same. So everybody from all stratas would be in the same class which would be great. You would have friends from everywhere. But the point was that even for a parent-teacher meeting, you would get treated much better.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: The respect that our parents got compared to some of our classmates is now that I look back at it, is very …

Aparna: Absurd.

Sanjana: Absurd! It is absurd. And we never question it. And neither did our parents tell us or educate us enough to question it. Because neither did they. And it’s just this non-stop cycle. It is when I got married and had my own home and stuff that when the first time somebody said, “Can I drink water? I’m very thirsty.” And I said, “Yes, please drink.” And I picked up the glass from the glasses that were all together and gave. They were shocked as well and I just stopped to think, why don’t we do this? What is the big deal? It takes a long time to start to question our role in letting this go on.

Parinita: Yeah. Because there’s this idea that classism –  or well casteism but in India that’s very much tied to classism as well – only happens in the villages. In the cities, “Oh we’re all educated, we know these things so we don’t do this.” And then you’ll have separate elevators for maids and delivery people and be like, “You use that and we, the people who live in this building and have earned the right to use this good elevator, use this elevator.”

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: But for me I’m the same. Growing up in Mumbai with my mum, I didn’t grow up with a lot of wealth. So I wouldn’t consider myself privileged in terms of money; I don’t have access to generational wealth, for example. But just growing up in the city and growing up speaking English, growing up being able to navigate all these spaces through the internet or whatever – that is a huge privilege in itself.

Sanjana: Yeah absolutely.

Parinita: Being able to travel without thinking about these things. So I know so little – well in cities I know a little more because in Mumbai, like in any city, you have to interact with people of different backgrounds. But in terms of the rural areas of India and small towns, I know so little. And P. Sainath’s book Everybody Loves A Good Drought and his online project the People’s Archive of Rural India, they have really gone a long way in making me learn about this other part of India and the various kinds of stories that it holds; stories and people which disrupt our notion of what it means to be poor or rural or Dalit or Adivasi in our country. Because we have such singular narratives of what it means to belong to these identities. It’s really opened up my eyes to first of all the sheer levels of privilege that I have. But also that just because you live in a village or just because you’re Dalit or Adivasi, this is not the only story that you have.

Sanjana and Aparna: Yeah.

Aparna: There’s just so much to be unpacked and with all of the oppressed people, it just goes so deep. I am currently in the process of writing a paper which touches upon book access. And I was doing some research and I was reading the AESR (Annual Status of Education) report that’s the educational statistics of India, a report that comes out every year. You know how we keep talking about reading and education is what will get us out of this; will teach us how to question the world around us and will teach us how to rise from our circumstances? And the fact is that so many people just aren’t able to get that education. Because the free and compulsory education – forget about the quality, but the age at which it starts is six. So you already need to have learnt some amount of reading before you join school to be able to read. But a lot of these kids go to anganwadis where they are just meant to take care of nutrition and health and education and everything. So teaching them how to read and write becomes very low on their priority given that they have so many kids that they have to take care of. And they have to prioritise health and food over education in those meagre funds that they have. One by one it’s just such a vicious circle and you have to dismantle or build so many structures to be able to get proper equity for opportunities for everybody to be able to start to get over this. To start to even identify and start to work our way out of the problem. It’s insane how many things need to change for these structures to be completely dismantled and built properly again.

Parinita: I know. It’s been really depressing reading Everybody Loves A Good Drought. He speaks about some of these things. And it’s pretty old, the book; I think it’s about thirty years old now. But some of the problems still exist in terms of access to education, resources, everything. We are so far behind of what we want to be and sometimes it’s difficult to imagine how you get beyond that as well. Especially looking at the country as it is right now. It’s really depressing.

Sanjana: Yeah. And this also ties into the fact that while all this is happening, even the people in the cities are reading literature or looking at media about the elite and the ruling class. Even history is told mostly only through the people who ruled and the people who were the ministers and the poets and the close-knit circle of the emperors and kings. And nobody ever tells the stories of the working-class. Recently Devika Rangachari was talking about her new book Queen of Earth. And she was talking about how she always makes it a point to put someone who would be closer to the masses in her books. And how it’s important to see how they were feeling about what was happening in history and how it was changing in history. I just want to read a little bit from this article which is specifically about Indian literature because I think representation in the West is slightly a tad bit better for these more unheard voices. This was an article about Siddhartha Sharma’s book. And the article is by Samina Mishra. “One of the biggest challenges for English children’s literature in India is the representation of realities from the non-English speaking parts of our society. And it has been a struggle unique to the writers of English in India. And the struggle is to find a self-confident voice that writes in a language given to us by colonialism. Today that extends to the struggle of using that voice to bring stories other than post-colonial inequities. From villages, working class, urban settlements, from forests, tribal lands, how can these mediated stories reflect realities that are so different from that of the readers of those books?”

Parinita: Yeah. Because this unequal representation in terms of how the stories of the oppressed-class of people are told in media reflects the unequal distribution of power which exists, right? Because a small group of wealthy, upper-caste people control and create media which means that the stories that you see in Bollywood or children’s literature or even news reflects the priorities and biases of these creators – which includes the three of us. Because the three of us write children’s books and we write what we know and we write a little bit of what we’re interested in and we’re trying to diversify in terms of the kind of topics that we write about. But it’s still a pretty limited thing. You can’t just have the urban, upper-caste, wealthy, privileged people writing all kinds of stories. You need to create space for people to write their own stories. If we write about poverty, we’ve not experienced the kind of poverty that people in India go through.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Exactly.

Aparna: Yeah. But just being able to write, it’s a privileged choice. It’s a career of someone who has a certain amount of privilege. It becomes the role of creators and editors to support or to find and encourage diversity in your list. This is something that we’ve been very conscious of. But even publishing houses need to hire people who will bring a certain amount of diversity. And it has to start there because that is the best way for people to be able to get meaningful change into the stories. But even in terms of people representing things that are not their lived experiences or giving voice to characters that they might not identify with is it’s a bit of a tricky thing. But it needs to happen in a more meaningful way. So some quote – that I don’t know where it’s from because it’s been passed down to me through so many people – is that and I’m paraphrasing: if you want to write about an identity that is not your own, then you need to surround yourself and if you want to write diverse characters, you need to live in a diverse world. And we all live in a diverse world, but we don’t necessarily have interactions that are with a diverse group of people. So change needs to start there. You need to look inward before you look outward as creators.

Parinita: Yeah and in news as well, the way that news media portrays poor people or rural people, Dalit people, Adivasi people … like if I tell you just come up with some of the stereotypes that you’ve inherited through media, it’s very singular. I’m sure that all three of us would come up with very similar stereotypes that we have because it’s the same kind of people writing similar kinds of stories which builds the canon of our imagination about people that we don’t perhaps interact with in our day-to-day lives.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Yeah. So let’s talk about some representations of working class, poor, homeless people in the media that we’ve consumed. I will start with Caitlin Moran’s How To Build A Girl. I was recently listening to an interview of hers in which she was talking about how people who are talking about her books are so caught up in the sex and the booze and the music industry and the glamour of it all that they forget – they haven’t noticed that it’s a story about a working-class girl from Wolverhampton, which is a small town, and her journey and how she has dealt with the world. And I thought that was pretty cool because it’s just a deeply enjoyable story but it doesn’t shy away from anything. It’s talking about living on benefits and not having enough to eat and being afraid of losing benefits. And I learned so much about the social structures of that area which is completely alien to me while not even noticing, while being completely removed from that. But also the story just did it so naturally. So that is one of my favourite examples.

Parinita: Yeah because we have this idea of the UK as being all rich, right? No corruption in the UK, everyone is like well-off – not rich but everyone is taken care of by the society and the government. Because that’s the kind of narrative that we get of the UK. Whereas they get like, India poor people, religious problems, casteism. It’s so limited the kinds of stories we tell each other about ourselves.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So for me just because I’ve been immersed in Harry Potter currently re-reading the series – I know the Weasleys are supposed to be working-class which hmm! I didn’t want to focus so much among the class differences within the magical community between the humans but think about how the Other Magical People – which is a term that The Gayly Prophet gave me which is basically encompassing merpeople, house-elves, goblins etc. Rather than calling them creatures, it’s Other Magical People – they’re just not humans. They are the oppressed-class in the magical community. Because they don’t have access to … well first of all education. They’re not allowed to go to Hogwarts. They don’t have access to even the wands so the things that have the most power. They don’t have access to the knowledge. And the people – the oppressor-class which is the witches and wizards, they don’t really learn about these other classes within their school or within even the community. There are so many stereotypes about all these other classes including about Muggles and Muggle-born witches and wizards. I feel like if you look at it through a class lens, it makes a lot of sense as well. So rather than the wealth, it’s magic as a metaphor for wealth where they don’t have access to so many things that the witches and wizards take for granted.

Sanjana: Yeah. Another example –  one toh I think an episode is not complete if we don’t mention some Rick Riordan book and character – is Magnus Chase who’s homeless. Even his friends subsequently are. That never gets done. I’ve never met the main character of the story being homeless. I’ve never encountered that. That was done nicely.

Parinita: But you know saying that, when I was thinking about this some more, because even Percy Jackson – he comes from a single mother household and not too much money.

Sanjana and Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: I know she has a partner/husband – Gabe. But they come from not too much money. But within the books themselves, that’s very brief, both Magnus and Percy’s lack of money. Because after that, once they discover their magical heritage, the lack of money doesn’t really act as a problem. It’s similar to Luke and Rey in Star Wars where they start off as these poor people but when they come into their heritage, they realise that oh they have all this power. They have all this access – both family and otherwise. I feel like even when people try to represent working-class or poor people, it’s still in a very limited way. Like we want it, but we want it to be better.

Sanjana: Yeah. It’s in a very quick way.

Parinita: So the post that we looked at about Fantastic Castes spoke about Avatar: The Last Airbender which is a show that all three of us love and we’ve spoken about really positive examples of it. But they spoke about something that I hadn’t remembered at all that the city of Ba Sing Se in the Earth Kingdom is divided into classes even just architecturally.

Sanjana: Yes!

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: So the war refugees and the poor are cramped into a certain ring and the merchants and middle-class in another. That’s so like ancient Indian society.

Aparna: [laughs] Yeah.

Parinita: I’m saying ancient – contemporary also. We read about all these things in history and even in fantasy worlds like in Game of Thrones for example where the poor have their own neighbourhoods and the rich have their own neighbourhoods and they don’t mingle. Even Zuko, he was a better king than his father and he heralds some more progress and stuff but still. At the end of the day, the Fire Nation doesn’t really change in terms of a revolution. It’s still a monarchy which comes with its own attendant privileges. Harry Potter as well, he saves the world, but he saves the world for the witches and wizards. He doesn’t save them for any of the Other Magical People in the world.

Sanjana: Yeah. Another example is someone who didn’t start out as poor but Buffy post her mother dying.

Aparna: Spoiler alert.

Sanjana: Yeah. Sorry.

Parinita and Aparna: [laugh]

Sanjana: I mean Buffy has been –

Aparna: I know I know I was joking.

Sanjana: Okay. [laughs] But I was like oh no who have I ruined this for?

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: What was interesting was the way in which fans reacted.

Aparna: Yes!

Sanjana: To Buffy having to work and waitress and make ends meet.

Aparna: Yeah. So people are very dismissive of that season.

Parinita: Oh really?

Aparna: In that oh we have to see her personal problems. Like teenage angst is okay but seeing her have to deal with daily problems that we are dealing with.

Parinita: Which everybody – which most of the people in the world go through.

Sanjana and Aparna: Yeah!

Aparna: But we don’t want to hear.

Parinita: I find it so fascinating and frustrating that amongst middle-class people especially, both in the UK and in India, there is this idea that you are closer to being a billionaire than you are to being homeless. Whereas for most people now in the pandemic, you see this so much more starkly, if you miss a few payments from your employer, you are more likely to be at the complete bottom end of the class hierarchy than you ever to the top. It’s not like you’re going to get so much money that you’re ever, ever going to be Jeff Bezos. I think Jeff Bezos level of wealth shouldn’t exist anyway.

Aparna: [laughs] Yeah.

Parinita: Redistribute wealth, topple the societal structure! But I’ve called for revolution in a previous episode also.

Aparna: [laughs] But also there’s this thing that – again I’m going to mention Caitlin Moran because a lot of people say, oh you used to be working-class. And she was like, the problem is that whenever people from a working-class background make something of their lives or change their circumstances, they’re no longer referred to as the working-class. As a result, all depictions of working-class families are this – these sad … And she’s like I still am working-class according to me because that’s the experience that I’ve had. It’s this thing of as soon as you get a certain amount of distance from it, you’re no longer called working-class. So all of the working-class representations are of these tragic, very disadvantaged circumstances.

Parinita: In the UK there’s this whole narrative of them being benefits frauds. So you know they’re actually just lazy and they just want the money from the government for free. They don’t want to work and it’s really toxic. The kind of things that just moving to the UK, I’m learning so much more about both the UK and India. First of all the things the UK takes for granted in terms of looking after its people. And the sort of things that in India we’re still so far behind. In the West, they talk about things like Universal Basic Income and making housing available to everybody and I’m like we are so, so far behind. But on the other hand, just most recently, the most recent scandal in the UK which happened over the last week was the Tory MPs – so the ruling government MPs – voted against feeding vulnerable children over the Christmas holidays.

Aparna: What?!

Parinita: A lot more people have lost their jobs and things. And they voted against it. To justify this ridiculous vote, they have come up with bizarre arguments like oh you know these food vouchers are used for drugs and prostitution. Or oh these parents of working-class families should just go to a class to learn how to cook or they should not eat, they should feed their children. Or in the most recent thing that I read today, why don’t they just sell their phone or their pearls – their pearls! – to feed their children?

Sanjana and Aparna: [laugh]

Parinita: And this is at a time when the MPs voted to give themselves a pay rise. And during this Covid pandemic, they developed an app which people are encouraged to download like a track and trace app. And basically it tells you when you’ve come into contact with somebody who has Covid so they recommend that you isolate and things. And it was such a flop because of some Excel document disaster. But they paid so much money for the app, they paid so much money for the consultants. The consultants are earning an absurd amount of money per day. And they can’t feed children! It’s such a disconnect. When we think of corruption or when the West tells us about corruption, they are like, oh India is corrupt; African countries are corrupt; this developing nation is corrupt. But the kind of corruption that happens in the US and the UK is so entrenched as well in the power structures.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: There’s so much more decolonisation to happen there as well.

Aparna: Yeah. So there are migrant workers who are suffering disproportionately here, there are homeless people who are suffering disproportionately there. And closing public parks and how it’s affecting families that live in really tiny apartments or really tiny homes with a lot of people. And just not considering all of these identities and the problems associated with them is what is so deeply problematic. It’s this trope of the homeless being invisible which is depicted really well in Neverhwere by Neil Gaiman. And also I realised yesterday in Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes has this network of Baker Street Irregulars who are able to gather information because essentially they’re invisible. Nobody notices them. And while good for Sherlock to have a team of spies but –

Sanjana: Varys also has a similar team of spies.

Parinita: Yeah that’s true.

Aparna: Yeah, he recruits children. And the fact that this is an identity that is ignored is just so deeply problematic.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: All right! And now this brings us to the tail end of our episode and that means another What If!

Aparna: What if? What if? What if? [singsong voice and makes sound effects]

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: As we’ve established that the stories get told by all the heads and the rulers and the rulers’ children who’ve run away and the rich people. And so what if you had to flip their profession or their societal …

Aparna: Status?

Sanjana: Status!

Parinita: You mean what if they had to find a new job?

Sanjana: Yeah. What if they had to find a new job? For example, what if Harry had not …

Aparna: Inherited a great amount of wealth from his parents?

Parinita: [laughs]

Aparna: Yeah just like one of the podcasts had mentioned, the tuition is free in Hogwarts, but there is so much stuff they have to buy all the time from Diagon Alley! It’s just not easy to afford it.

Sanjana: No.

Parinita: No. But I think they have some sort of scholarship, no? Because Tom Riddle has to buy everything secondhand but I think there is some sort of fund for deprived children.

Sanjana: Plus as we know from Half-Blood Prince, there’s a cupboard full of old and tattered books that if you can’t get our books, you can use.

Aparna: Oh yeah!

Parinita: Oh, that’s true. I think if Harry was around in 2020, in this economy, I think he would have been on benefits. If there is a magical community benefits because who’s hiring now? The universities are cutting funding, they’re cutting departments in the UK. I don’t know what kind of cash crunch Hogwarts is going through – the Galleon-pound economy. But I’m sure they are also a part of the pandemic victims. So I don’t know

Sanjana: Yeah but as we’ve established before, regular diseases don’t seem to affect them. They have magical remedies.

Aparna: Which they refuse to share.

Sanjana: Which they won’t share with us.

Parinita: No. Because why should they? [laughs]

Sanjana: This What If? has taken a dark turn, you guys.

Aparna and Parinita: [laugh]

Sanjana: I’m going to switch our lens to The Last Airbender and say what if Toph was not from the rich Beifong family? Would she have still made it to the team?

Parinita: I think Toph would have made a great security guard.

Sanjana: Oh my god yeah.

Parinita: Because she loves beating people up. I think that would have been a good job for her.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Maybe in construction.

Parinita: [laughs] That’s true.

Sanjana: Oh my god.

Aparna: No, no, no what’s the opposite? Where you have to knock down?

Sanjana: Demolish.

Aparna: Yeah demolition.

Parinita: That’s a part of it. You can’t construct if you don’t demolish first, right?

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: She’s the wrecking ball essentially.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Sanjana: Hmm. All right all right.

Parinita: What do you think Zuko would have done?

Sanjana: We’ve clearly established that he’s good at fires.

Aparna: Baker!

Parinita: [laughs]

Aparna: Smelter.

Parinita: [laughs]

Aparna: I think actually he’ll make really fine jewellery. It still needs fire and smelting and whatnot. But he’ll do something fine.

Parinita: But he’s not been taught any skills! What has he been taught except protecting his honour and firebending? I don’t know that he could make jewellery.

Sanjana: He would be a good weapons-maker.

Parinita: I mean sure if he goes through some sort of apprenticeship, if someone is willing to teach him. But what are kings taught?

Sanjana: But I don’t know – he seems to know his way around a sword, no?

Parinita: Haan.

Sanjana: So I thought he could make one.

Parinita: Maybe he could take classes. Be a sword-fighting teacher.

Sanjana: Teacher would be nice, yeah. I could see Zuko as a teacher. What about Aang? What do you think Aang did? We know what he did; he had a lot of Avatar business. But what if he wasn’t the Avatar? What would he be?

Parinita: Religious cult leader.

Aparna and Sanjana: [laugh]

Parinita: I think he would go to a cave, achieve nirvana, and just come back. It would be quite a benign cult, no shady stuff happening. Maybe it would be a nice cult to escape to in these times.

Sanjana: All right I’m going to switch over to what would Aragorn be doing?

Aparna: We only talk about kings and stuff.

Parinita: Yeah that’s true.

Sanjana: For the longest time, Aragorn was Freeriding along. So what would he be?

Aparna: Yeah. I feel like he would just be a travel writer.

Parinita: [laughs] That’s true! He gets these really poetic outbursts sometimes.

Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: Yeah, he would be a really good; he would mix genres. It would be quite angsty.

Aparna: Like a Lord of the Rings version of Robert Macfarlane.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita and Aparna: [laugh]

Sanjana: I think he would also be a reviewer of these inns and stuff. And they would be like, “Oh the Black Rider is coming today.”

Aparna: Strider Recommends!

Parinita: [laughs] What about Sam? Since we only talk about the ruling class and that’s enough. Let’s talk about the people who do the actual work.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Sam!

Parinita: I think he’d open a nice restaurant. The theme would be potatoes. Not to box him in.

Aparna: Yeah!

Sanjana: [laughs]

Parinita: But he’d do lots of potato experiments.

Sanjana: All kinds of potatoes! That would be nice. Potato soup. I think he would perfect the potato cheese soup.

Parinita: What about the cabbage seller in Avatar: The Last Airbender?

Sanjana: Oh wow.

Aparna: Cabbage-bending.

Parinita: [laughs]

Aparna: Salad-bending.

Parinita: Oooh!

Aparna: He would invent a new form of bending called salad-bending.

Parinita: [laughs] That would be so much more helpful in today’s world than firebending and all.

Aparna: Bend all the salad away from me.

Parinita: [laughs] What about Dobby?

Aparna: Oooh!

Sanjana: I think Dobby would make an excellent teacher.

Parinita: Oh!

Sanjana: I think he would do a better job of History of Magic. The way he would narrate history and the way things went down.

Parinita: Plus he could come to class in costume. He’d dress up in extravagantly silly outfits and the people would be so much more into the class than with this ghost putting them to sleep.

Sanjana: Yeah, he’d be better than Professor Binns.

Parinita: Oh I would love to have a class by Dobby.

Sanjana: Yeah, right? Dobby for teacher.

Parinita: So, unfortunately, this is very tragic, this is going to be the last episode of Season 1. Hopefully there will be a Season 2 in a couple of months. But for now, this is going to be the last episode. And I’m so happy that I got to do so many episodes with two of my favourite people in the world. Thank you so much for being a part of this.

Aparna: Thank you for asking us to!

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: This has been so much fun!

Sanjana: And not just fun, I have never enjoyed studying so much.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: I have learned so much over the last couple of months.

Aparna: And it’s sad that it happened in the last episode but I got so fully into the preparation this time that when I was drifting off to sleep, I thought of the Baker Street Irregulars and I got up to make a note on my phone so that I don’t forget. That is a sign of things truly getting into my system. It happened after all these episodes and it’s now truly part of my life. So we must continue this.

Parinita: Yes. For sure. Hopefully we’re going to have more episodes and more conversations and more What Ifs. [laughs]

Aparna: Better prepared What Ifs.

Parinita: [laughs] But yes, thank you so much and we’ll see you hopefully soon!

Aparna: Bye!

Parinita: Bye!

[Outro music]


[Outro music]

Like all the other episodes, this one was recorded in 2020 but it has only managed to find its way into your ears now. So some of the references may be a bit outdated but I think that the overall point still stands.

I wanted to get this episode out before I officially complete the PhD that I started this podcast for. I know I keep saying this but I’m so deeply grateful to all my co-participants for joining me on this journey and for making such a valuable contribution – not only to this PhD project but also to critical and intersectional knowledge-making in fandom. All their insights have helped my own brain grow in such incredible ways and I hope that this learning and unlearning process remains with me.

And it’s also just been so much fun! I can’t believe I got to talk to such a fantastic bunch of people and learn how to podcast for a PhD. Thanks to all this, I have so many new ideas for what I want to do next. I’ve loved being able to do this for the last few years. If you’ve been along for the ride, I hope I’m back with more conversations soon but thank you so much for being a part of this so far. If you’ve just discovered this, I hope you’re having fun too.

Do you have ideas for future episodes? Do you want to BE on a future episode? Come make a podcast with me by getting in touch on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram or sending an email to marginallyfannish@gmail.com.

As always, thanks for listening!

Episode 21 Where Else Are You Going to Work Out Who You Are?: Sexual and Gender Diversity in Media/Fandom

Episode Resources:

1) Podcast – Nancy: The Word Queer 

2) Interview – In Conversation: Rebecca Sugar and Noelle Stevenson

3) Essay – How Fanfiction Made Me Gay 

4) Essay – Asexuality and the Baggins Bachelors: Finding My Counterparts in Middle Earth 

5) Fanfiction – Breath of the Wild drabbles series

6) Fanfiction: Skies of Blue, Red Roses Too

7) Essay – [Elsewhere] Arrows and Aros


Episode Transcript

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

[Intro music]

Welcome to Marginally Fannish, a show where we aim an intersectional lens at some of our favourite media and their fandoms.

[Intro music]

My name is Parinita Shetty and you’re listening to the 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 to 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.

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

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.

Milena: Yeah.

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.

Milena: Yeah.

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.”

Parinita: [laughs]

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 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 but 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 punchline 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]

Screenshot of Tumblr post. Text says: wittyandcharming: Wow how fucking exciting for us, the Starving Gays, to be given a "short but explicitly gay moment," in the new Beauty and the Beast you know every time I watched the animated film I looked at LeFou and was like "if only he could be the gay representation in this film that we all deserve," because who better to provide us with the inspiration to follow our gay little dreams than the absurd, buffoonish, morally bankrupt accomplice to a rapey narcissist.

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.

Parinita: Yeah.

Photo of the ensemble cast of the TV show Black Sails

Black Sails ensemble courtesy Wiki

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.

Parinita: Absolutely.

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.

Milena: Yeah.

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.

Milena: Yeah.

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 …!

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Milena: Yeah.

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.

Milena: Yeah.

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!”

Parinita: [laughs]

Milena: But I also understand what it’s taken to get here.

Parinita: Yeah.

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]

Parinita: [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.

Parinita: Yeah.

Milena: I think they didn’t like what you were doing and they didn’t let it get past the network. [laughs]

Image from two female characters from the TV show Babylon 5. Text says: Susan Ivanova and Talia Winters helped me reconcile myself with my sexuality. I owe them and the actresses who played them a huge debt.

Image courtesy Babylon 5 Confessions

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.

Milena: Yeah.

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]

Parinita: [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.

Milena: Yeah.

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.

Milena: Yeah.

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]

Milena: [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. 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.

Milena: [laughs]

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.

Parinita: [laughs]

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.

Parinita: [laughs]

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!”

Parinita: [laughs]

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, 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.

Milena: Yeah.

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 ½Steven 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.

Milena: Yeah.

Gif from the anime Ranma 1/2 where male Ranma has water thrown over him and turns into female Ranma

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.

Milena: [laughs]

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.

Parinita: [laughs]

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.

Parinita: [laughs]

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.

Parinita: [laughs]

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.

Milena: Absolutely.

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”.

Milena: Yeah.

Screenshot. Text says: Edit: Removed the State Trooper and replaced him with a community watch member. Because fuck cops.

Author’s note from Chapter 2 of Skies of Blue, Red Roses Too

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.

Parinita: Yeah!

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]

Animated gif. Text says: But you always seem so upbeat, you're a real champ, Steven Universe

Milena: As somebody who didn’t learn to talk about my feelings until I watched Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Parinita: Oh! Yes!

Milena: [laughs]

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.

[Outro music]


[Outro music]

I’d love to hear from you and talk to you – so any feedback, comments or critiques are very welcome! Get in touch with me on social media, leave a comment on my blog, or email me at edps@leeds.ac.uk. If you’d like to follow the podcast or the PhD project, visit my website marginallyfannish.org. Here you’ll find the podcast episodes, transcripts, episode resources and links, and my research blog. You can also receive updates on Facebook or Instagram at Marginally Fannish or on Twitter where I’m @MarginalFannish. I share episode resources on social media so you can find a bunch of excellent fan podcasts and essays to look up. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share it with anyone you think will enjoy it too.

Thanks for listening! Tune in again next time for all things fannish and intersectional!

Episode 20 Because We Couldn’t See Ourselves: Cultural Representations and Cultural Imperialism in Western Media/Fandom

Episode Resources:

1) Fan podcast – Our Opinions Are Correct: What’s So Bad About Cultural Appropriation?

2) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds: Fantastical Feasts 

3) Fan podcast – Our Opinions Are Correct: Imaginary Immigrants And Time-traveling Refugees

4) Fan podcast – Alohomora: Muggles & Squibs – Not On The List

5) Fan podcast – Woke Doctor Who: Imperialism and the Doctor

6) YouTube Video – Empire and Imperialism In Children’s Cartoons—A Super Light Topic


Episode Transcript

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

[Intro music]

Welcome to Marginally Fannish, a show where we aim an intersectional lens at some of our favourite media and their fandoms.

[Intro music]

My name is Parinita Shetty and you’re listening to the twentieth episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I talk to Rita Faire about cultural imperialism in Western media and its online fan communities. As fans from the Philippines and India who have grown up in these fandom spaces, we also talk about how our participation has helped us decolonise our imaginations.

Media fans usually don’t start off by interrogating ideas that they’ve internalised about different cultures – including their own. The norms and structures within both media and fandom dictate which kind of fannish identities and cultures are considered superior. In many Western media fandom spaces, the cultural references and assumptions about people’s origins tend to privilege the US and the UK. For fans from certain backgrounds, online fandoms can erase parts of their identities. These spaces can offer limited narratives of both dominant and marginalised cultures.

However, critical discussions in fandom can help people think about issues in new ways. Encountering fans and perspectives that reflect identities which are otherwise marginalised in these spaces can disrupt taken-for-granted narratives. Talking about differently marginalised and privileged representations can help fans reflect on their assumptions and critically analyse their experiences, resulting in a collective process of decolonisation. It can also help people develop the confidence to challenge cultural inaccuracies and biases. Identifying colonised minds can offer the first step in moving beyond them and go on to diversify imaginations.

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

Happy listening!


[Intro music]

Parinita: Today I’m so happy to welcome Rita Faire to the podcast. Rita is a Filipino doctoral researcher and associate lecturer in Edinburgh Napier University’s Scottish Centre of the Book. Her current research is on picturebook co-edition practices in Europe’s periphery publishing environments. Rita is a board member of Researchers Exploring Inclusive Youth Literature (REIYL) and developed ‘Coming into View’, a literacy programme that’s aimed at understanding children of colour’s sense of belonging in children’s literature. She is currently co-developing a critical reading programme exploring the intersections of oppression in the creative industries. A lot of Rita’s work is after my own heart as is her participation in online fandom. And since we’ve both grown up in Asia in different countries, in this episode, we’re going to explore the different national cultures in global online fandom and we’re also going to chat about the different kinds of labour undertaken by fans from marginalised groups, especially when the creator of their favourite fictional worlds shares bigoted views. Before we get into that, though, Rita could you share your own experiences within online fandom?

Rita: Hi! So my experiences in online fandom, I think is very similar to a lot of people in their early 30s.

Parinita: [laughs]

Rita: [laughs] I got into it because of Harry Potter.

Parinita: Yes! Me too!

Rita: Actually, that’s not accurate. Sorry, as soon as I said it, I realised like I don’t think it was Harry Potter that brought me in.

Parinita: Oh!

Rita: I think it was anime. Because my first foray into fan communities was actually fanfiction.net and I was writing anime fanfiction. And then for some reason stumbled into Harry Potter fanfiction and that just owned my soul after that.

Parinita: [laughs]

Rita: So from there, I went into fan art communities that made banners for stories on fan fiction collectives or archives. I did online roleplaying as well in various sites; created online role playing sites as well.

Parinita: Oh my god that’s amazing.

Rita: Oh yeah I was definitely one of those people who lived on the internet and just got a lot of my social interaction from there because it was so different from the daily interactions that I had. I discussed things there that I didn’t discuss in real life.

Parinita: Yeah absolutely. It’s similar for me as well. I’m an extremely online person and I’ve been since I first got a computer. And even before that, when we used to visit cyber cafes in the neighbourhood, me and my friend.

Rita: [laughs] Oh my god.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah that was a thing when I was a teenager. And we used to go and do that. But also what you’re saying about the quality of interactions being so different. I find that even now. I connect most with people who are fannish as in they have that enthusiasm about a text or media or something. Even if I’m unfamiliar with that particular fandom, I’m still connecting to them in a way that I wouldn’t possibly with another person who wouldn’t identify as a fan. Even though now I think because mainstream media is so prevalent in everybody’s lives, everyone is a fan of something. But I think that there’s a difference as well between how you’re a fan online and if you’re a part of a fan community in whatever way, even if you’re a lurker. It’s very different from just, “Oh I like that thing.”

Rita: Yeah. I think at least in the Filipino context, a lot of it has to do with how we view enthusiasm. Or open enthusiasm. ’Cause fan cultures online is a space that really celebrates enthusiasm. You can never be too keen about something. So there’s this concept in the Philippines, it’s called [says Filipino word]. And I guess it translates to keenness. And it’s like when you’re too keen about something or you feel something too much, then that gets kind of looked down upon. And you couldn’t be that massive of a fan in real life ’cause then I don’t know, it would be too vulnerable. It would be too revealing. Something like that. But you’d definitely be judged for it. Whereas online, you get to shed that artifice. And just be your authentic nerdish self.

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs]

Rita: [laughs]

Parinita: In the Philippines, is that just in terms of books and things?

Rita: No.

Parinita: Or is that just fandom in general?

Rita: That’s not even just fandom in general, it’s even in the arts. If you’re a singer and you just feel like you’re such a good singer, oh you’re feeling it too much. And I don’t know where that comes from. ’Cause I’m really hesitant to say that it’s a sense of Asian reservedness because Filipinos are also really well known to be big personalities. We are the karaoke people of the world.

Parinita: [laughs]

Rita: [laughs] I think that’s something that Filipinos are really well known for. We karaoke without shame. And regardless of talent.

Parinita: [laughs]

Rita: So why we would have that kind of reservation when it comes to fandom or when it comes to talent is beyond me. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah that’s really interesting because in India, even though something like  Harry Potter is more mainstream, most people would still read the books and even if they love it, they might not necessarily want more out of it like going online and engaging with fan productions or fan texts or fanfiction or whatever. But we have different regional cinema. So we have a Bollywood which is Hindi language and then we have many -ollywoods depending on which state you’re from. And those have massive fan followings. As in actors and musicians and singers. There were fans of this South Indian movie star called Rajnikanth.

Rita: Um hmm.

Parinita: And there’s this group of fans that went to the US because that’s where he premiered the movie first. So they flew to the US, even though I think the Indian premiere was two days later or something. And they create these altars like not temples in the religious sense, but they might as well be. Because they have the photographs and they put flowers on them and things you would do in a Hindu temple. So there is a huge craze which is quite mainstream in India. But that would be more for movies and singers and things who are more accessible to a larger mass of people than say something like Harry Potter or Doctor Who or these Western media fandoms that we’re talking about. So when I was growing up, I did feel like it was just me because when I was online. Nobody really seemed to say what country they’re from. Or if they did, they largely seemed to be American. Not broader Western but specifically American. So all these references and all the slang and everything that I picked up on was not just through fandom, it was through media as well. And it was largely American. I remember the first and maybe only fanfic that I wrote – it was a Harry Potter thing. And I had made a reference to a Star Trek fan. Do you remember they used to be called Trekkies?

Rita: Yeah but now they’re called Trekkers.

Photo of two men standing beside an altar with a photo of Amitabh Bachchan, Bollywood actor

Image courtesy India Times

Parinita: Yeah. I referenced it in a way that was sort of derogatory. And I had no familiarity with Star Trek. [laughs] I did not know anybody who watched Star Trek. But because if you’re on the internet, you pick up on these references. And the corner of the internet that I inhabited, Star Trek fans seemed to be a very specific kind of fan. And in my fanfiction I’d written a random reference to that without really understanding what that meant. And now my boyfriend, he’s a huge Star Trek fan so I can’t show my fanfiction to him [laughs] because it obviously marginalises him. But yeah just thinking about how you internalise these ideas without really interrogating them.

Rita: Yeah. Well listening to you talk about fandom with the different -ollywoods of India, I started thinking … actually there were instances like that in the Philippines. There definitely were. But they just never were around the things that I liked. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs]

Rita: Or maybe I took pride in not liking those things. I don’t know why. And I think that judgement of how much you’re a fan of is very reserved for a specific identity or like a specific class. I think some of it is definitely attached to class.

Parinita: Yeah.

Rita: But then another part of it I’m now thinking is that that’s slowly being eroded by the fact that the Philippines is crazy over anything Korean. I don’t know if this happened in India. But around the early 2000s, that was when the Philippines stopped being obsessed with Spanish language telenovelas and that’s when we started being obsessed with Asian telenovelas. At first it was Taiwanese with Meteor Garden and F5 And then it became Coffee Prince (?) and stuff like that. And I think at that point I was too into my online fandoms to engage with those fandoms. Because you can only have so much space in your life to obsess.

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs]

Rita: And while you were talking about that internalisation of certain values, I realised that I grew up around fans. ’Cause my two uncles were huge Trekkies/Trekkers. They made models of gundams.

Parinita: Oh!

Photo of a gundam i.e. robot model

Image courtesy whatNerd

Rita: And they had little figurines of Dragon Ball Z stuff. So I grew up around people who really were demonstratively and monetarily engaged in their fandoms. But I find that since I was young when this happened, when I engaged in fandoms, online communities were a free way for me to do that. Because you don’t have to buy the merchandise. I can create art. I don’t have to build models because I can write fanfiction. And those kind of internalised things that you said, I’m thinking now that I think you’re right, we never really discussed our nationalities. Although I can remember in this very distinct instance when I was in the fan art community, I met one Asian person who was very demonstratively Asian. And it’s because their handle or I think it might have been their real name was very distinctly Asian. You could not mistake that for any other kind of nationality or ethnicity. And that was the first time I realised, “Oh there are Asian people like me online.” Because we’re not all just erased of our identities.

Parinita: Yeah.

Rita: And I guess it’s easier for some than others. But then that person was the only person I remember really putting their identity forward. They were Chinese-American and they were writing fanfiction with Chinese-Americans in them. They were making art with Asian faces on them. And at first I thought, it’s not the most popular thing to do. And I never really critically engaged that until now. Now that I think about it, now I’m wondering, whatever happened to this person – are they still a writer?

Parinita: Yeah! And they were way ahead of their times as well.

Rita: Yeah. ’Cause  it was the kind of open reclaiming that you didn’t see as much until now over the last few years.

Parinita: Yeah. I mean now it is more of a thing where people are identifying themselves belonging to not just nationalities but also you know other groups. But especially ten or fifteen years ago, that was not a thing at all. So there were these ICQ chatrooms. Again this is like [laughs] way back when I was a teenager when I first started engaging with fandom. And I think there was this room for fans of books or something – I don’t know. And we were just talking. I think I was like 13 or 14 or something. And that was when someone had recommended Harry Potter to me – not Harry Potter, sorry. Lord of the Rings. And I’d never heard of Lord of the Rings before just because the people that I knew in my offline life, nobody was a big reader and nobody would have known to recommend fantasy texts to me. But this person recommended Lord of the Rings to me because I loved Harry Potter so much and they were like, “Oh you like fantasy so you read this.” And then I think they said they were from somewhere in the US and then I said, “Oh I’m from India. Have you ever heard of India?” [laughs] It was such a colonised mindset. Of course now I would be like, “How could you not have heard of India?” And I would judge someone for not having heard of India if they’re online and they’re an online person and read things and engage with the world. But at that time, I had this mindset because of all the media that I was consuming, not just movies and books and things but also fandom. Because all the fanfiction and everything was set in the West. So it was in the UK or in the US – very Western contexts. So obviously I thought that everybody, even the fans, would only be in that context. And then who cares about India? Why would anybody know about India? Which now thinking back about that, oh my god what a naïve little child I was. [laughs]

Rita: Well to be fair, I still get people who don’t know where the Philippines is. I kid you not. And I have to tell them yeah, it’s in Asia, it’s in Southeast Asia. And people will still confuse Southeast Asia with East Asia and South Asia. I’m glad that now we’re having these discussions. And that we can openly say, “Oh actually, that’s wrong.” And you don’t feel embarrassed for correcting someone. Because that’s usually what happened before. If people mistook you for something else or had misinformation about your identity or anything within your context, you were really embarrassed to correct them. I remember saying that I was Filipino in an online space before and then realising that actually the other person I was talking to was also Filipino.

Parinita: Oh!

Rita: And we never realised. And now the thing I’m thinking about is whether or not we were both Filipino in the Philippines. ’Cause she made a comment on the university I went to. That’s how we realised we were Filipino. I mentioned what university I was going to that I’d just … I can’t remember if I’d just gotten into that university at the time. It was brought up, I mentioned it. And she said, “Oh! Certain comment.” Might have been derogatory.

Parinita: [laughs]

Rita: … Oh actually! Sorry I’m just replaying this entire conversation in my head right now as we talk on a podcast. Which really shouldn’t be the time when you do this. But no, she mentioned which university she was from. And I said, “Ooh!” Possibly derogatory as well. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Rita: So yeah, she was from the Philippines as well! I didn’t even realise it. Oh see now that I’m thinking about it, who else did I talk to who was possibly a secret Filipino?

Parinita: [laughs]

Rita: [laughs]

Parinita: I don’t know if you’re familiar with Rukmini Pande’s work at all? She’s an Indian fan studies researcher who has written this book called Squee From The Margins. And I know you’re not really into fandom studies as much but a lot of her conversation is looking at postcolonialism and race and racism but in fandom, rather than in children’s literature.

Rita: I love it!

Parinita: And she draws on her own experiences as well growing up as a fan in India. And when reading that book, I felt so seen! Because she spoke about the same things that she thought she was the only Indian because like her and unlike you, I’d never met anybody at least in Mugglenet or any of these other spaces, ICQ whatever – who loved the same things but who were also from the same country. I don’t know if you ever had Orkut. Is that a thing that ever made its way to the Philippines?

Rita: I’m not sure now.  I don’t know. I don’t think so.

Parinita: It was huge in India and Brazil of all places. [laughs]

Rita: Oh the intersections of India and Brazil.

Parinita: Yeah. I mean currently it’s fascism so earlier at least it was better. But it was this social networking website. It was strange and really popular for a while. And now that I’m thinking about it, that was very much drawn on national lines. Most of the people that I knew there or had on my friends list or whatever they called on Orkut were Indian. They had things that resembled forum posts and we spoke about Harry Potter in that. So now just thinking about it, that’s the only Indian interaction I had. But I think in my head, because of the colonised mindset – and I obviously wasn’t able to articulate this at the time – but it wasn’t as much transformative fandom as it was just, “Oh we love this thing.” So there would be games and stuff on the forum but not really fanfiction or fan art. Maybe some roleplaying but not really creative things in the way that something like Mugglenet for example would have. So in my head I think I drew a distinction between the two that, “Oh Orkut full of Indian people and obviously not as good as this American website that is full of Americans and I don’t know secret Filipinos [laughs] who are talking about this thing.” So then as a teenager, just because of the social conditioning that you’re prey to, I decided that this was better than the other. And just now talking about it, I’m thinking that, oh wait I did have interactions with Indian fans but just obviously not in a way that I respected. [laughs] Which is hmm!

Rita: Well that’s the thing about it, isn’t it? We remember being outsiders that we associated so much with our experience online that it kind of drowns out the experiences where we weren’t outsiders, where we weren’t the only people of colour in the room.

Parinita: Yeah.

Rita: Or in the online chat as it were. I don’t know if you had the same experience and I would love to hear if you did. When your online and your real-life life crashed together. Your online and your real-life fandom.

Parinita: Hmm. In what way?

Rita: So when I went to university, the continuing saga. This is very chronological now. [laughs] When I went to university, in my final year of university I think, there was and I kid you not, a Harry Potter class.

Parinita: [gasps] What?!

Rita: There was a Harry Potter class. Shoutout to Anne Sangil – Anne Frances Sangil who created this module because it was [chef’s kiss] the most engaged literary criticism I ever experienced in university.

Parinita: [gasps again] I am so jealous!

Rita: It was so good. We discussed things like activism, through the lens of Dobby and freeing the house-elves and that sort of thing. Sorry, through S.P.E.W. I’m trying to think if we discussed race. I’m not sure that we did. But I’m sure current iterations of the module are still doing that. But yeah, it was a really in-depth discussion of Harry Potter. And so everyone in that class was either a huge Harry Potter fan online or they were newbies who thought this was a really easy class. They were very wrong.

Parinita: [laughs]

Rita: But then it brought the stuff that I experienced online into its physical form. Which was we created art, we translated Harry Potter and did a play of Deathly Hallows. That was a thing that I’m still weirdly proud of to this day. [laughs] And then that class introduced me to because that class engaged with Pinoit (?) Potter. Which is the Filipino chapter of the Harry Potter fandom. And so I got to go to events.

Parinita: Oh my god.

Rita: I got to go to a live reading of my professor’s critical analysis of Voldemort’s anti-hero’s journey. Fantastic. We speculated about the last book because it hadn’t come out yet at that point. But instead of doing it in a chat, we were doing it in a real space. Even though we all existed in those spaces.

Parinita: Wow.

Rita: And that was such a surreal experience for me.

Parinita: Oh that sounds amazing. The closest I’ve come to that in my university – so for my undergrad, I did mass media and focused on journalism. But in my second year, we had a module called Culture Studies and it was a very introductory thing because it was just for a semester. But one of the final assignments was to either describe or to write an essay about a specific subculture of anything in the world. [laughs]

Rita: [laughs]

Parinita: I don’t remember the guidelines. But because I was deep into my Harry Potter online fandom then, I thought that Harry Potter fandom would be an interesting subculture to write about. And I ran it by my lecturer and she was like yeah, yeah that sounds great. So I spent so much time putting this together. And I wanted to also not make it a boring essay which I would for any other class because it was something that I loved so much. It was such a labour of love, much like this podcast really, that I wanted to present it in a different format. I made it this whole art thing where I cut out Platform 9 and 3/4 tickets. And I made all these wands and things and just made this huge thing. So she was familiar with the text, with Harry Potter itself. But she wasn’t familiar with the fandom or with me as I found out. I was a maximalist. [laughs] Minimalism has never been part of my aesthetic. So there was just this one small corner that was looking very empty to me so I found the smallest bit of text that I could fit into it which was Accio brain? Accio brain? [tries different pronunciations] I don’t know how you

Rita: I never know how to pronounce it.

Parinita: Yeah, me neither. So whatever Accio – Accio [tries different pronunciations] brain. And I only found that because I literally looked up quotes of Harry Potter, you know how they have these compilations of quotes online. And that was the smallest that would fit. It’s from the fifth book when they’re in the Ministry and they’re running from the Death Eaters and they’re in the brain room.

Rita: Oh yeah.

Parinita: [laughs] So I put that in. But obviously she knew the text enough to take great offense at that phrase because she thought I was implying that she was brainless.

Rita: [laughs]

Parinita: And she failed me on that! And I was the most Hermione of Hermione students. And I was just so heartbroken that my labour of love was rejected so I never brought fandom into any of my other university projects.

Rita: You never brought it into real life.

Parinita: Never again. Well, until my master’s. [laughs] And now. So what about when you moved to the UK? Have you been engaging with fandom now?

Rita: I think it was just being so busy with studies that actually took me out of online fandom.

Parinita: Hmm.

Rita: Because up until the first two terms of my master’s, I was fine with engaging in online fandom. I was still on RP [roleplay] sites and stuff. And I still joined in the discourse, I still created art. But because I got so busy with my dissertation, I kind of disengaged. And I don’t know if you felt that way with online fandom as well but there is that sense of like if you don’t engage enough, you lose relevance.

Parinita: Yeah.

Rita: You do. You quickly disappear from the zeitgeist. Not just in your understanding of the fandom but also in the way that people interact with you. Because you’re no longer a daily part of their life. And there were times when I tried to regain that. To regain that space. But it didn’t really feel like it was my space anymore.

Parinita: Hmm.

Rita: So I kind of gently bowed away. Oh no actually I switched platforms for a while. I went to Tumblr. And I think Tumblr – R.I.P. – was a beautiful, beautiful space for me. Because it allowed me to engage in multiple fandoms at the same time. It wasn’t just a dedicated site anymore. I could do whatever the hell I wanted. So I had a lot of Sherlock engagement, I engaged in a lot of Pacific Rim, there was a lot of Deathless. So I was all over that. And I don’t know how I petered out. It might just be my exhaustion with social media now [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Rita: It’s just I don’t engage with fandoms anymore. But then I realised my engagement with fandom is now just a two-way channel where me and my sister just text random things to each other. In the same way that we used to message people on chat boxes when something happened. So that’s been the extent of my fan engagement now. Which is kind of sad. I don’t want to say, oh you grow up and then you’re no longer a fan. That’s false. That’s completely false. It just kind of lose its place.

Parinita: Yeah. It’s just different ways of engaging with fandom, I think. Because I know there are a lot of older people – older as in like 50s, 60s – who are still active members of online fandom.

Rita: So true.

Parinita: But for me I was the same as you. I have a really obsessive personality. So I was online and in fandom for many years. But then once I got busy with other things, with work and stuff, I just didn’t have enough time and brainspace to dedicate to that. And I was largely a lurker, apart from that one time I wrote fanfiction. And now with this fan podcast. Otherwise, I’ve largely just been listening and reading and looking at art and things.

Rita: Yeah.

Parinita: And even that requires so much more time and brainspace than I had to give at that time. I was a part of Tumblr as well, briefly, but that is a not a good space for an obsessive person.

Rita: Oh it’s really not.  You just get drowned in all of the retumble – what is it called again? It’s not retweet oh god.

Parinita: Uh …

Rita: Reblogs!

Parinita: Reblogs, yes.

Rita: You just drown in all the reblogs and stuff.

Parinita: And it’s a great space for fandom

Rita: Wonderful.

Parinita: But then it just gets a lot!

Rita: Yeah. It gets overwhelming.

Parinita: Yeah. So for me, I also sort of bowed out. But then during my master’s, it was a master’s in children’s literature. But I’m not a huge literary analysis person. Because I’ve worked in schools and with kids and books and bookshops and activities and children’s literature festivals and things separately, so I like more reader response things, and reader interpretation than my solo individual interpretation of the book. So for me, fandom just made sense. And that’s why for my master’s, I looked at Facebook fan pages which were much less demanding than if I’d gone on say Archive Of Our Own or Tumblr or something.

Rita: Oh my gosh yeah.

Parinita: Because that would have been … I would have quickly lost sense of any boundaries. But Facebook is this contained space and it has a lot of screenshots and links to other websites and platforms. So it’s a nice accumulation. And then now for my PhD, I’m doing the fan podcast. And I’ve become a fan of fan podcasts.

Rita: [laughs]

Parinita: I think when I was younger, I used to love fiction and art and now I love critiques. I love the critical fans who love the things that they are watching and reading and whatever.

Rita: So true.

Parinita: But they love them enough to critique them as well. Critique elements that fall short because they want it to be better.

Rita: Well see, now that you’ve put it that way, it just feels like academia especially, kids lit academia, is just fandom.

Parinita: Absolutely!

Rita: It’s just another form of fandom. It’s fandom that’s legitimised by universities.

Parinita: [laughs]

Rita: That’s essentially it. All of this talk of PhDs and fandom, reminds me of when I was on one of the platforms I was part of, one of the admins there was doing her PhD on Victorian literature while actively being part of the fandom. And now in retrospect I think to myself, how the heck did you have time?

Parinita: How!? How.

Rita: [laughs] How!?

Parinita: Oh my god. Maybe it was a way to distract from the endless, [laughs] endless pit of despair that the PhD eventually becomes, as much as you love it

Rita: So true.

Parinita:. Much like fandom. [laughs] Academia, fandom you put in so much into it and you become a different version of yourself.

Rita: Well now I’m starting to think, was Harry Potter part of her PhD? Because a lot of the things that she wrote were very Victorian – the Victorian set or Victorian themes, gothic. Now I’m starting to think, did she do that? Or am I just hoping that she maintained her sanity by doing that?

Parinita: Yeah! Because I know a few people who are doing their PhD – and someone in one of my previous episodes as well – who found herself in an academic block because of the pandemic and the world and everything that’s going on. And she couldn’t really think in terms of academia and couldn’t bring those ideas to the fore. So she just went back to fandom after a break of five years or so and now is just churning out 10,000 word fanfics on a fandom I’ve forgotten. That’s her way to maintain something that she can control, I guess, in a world that you can’t control any longer.

Rita: Just even thinking about that – writing 10,000 words a day. I used to be able to do that in fanfiction. I cannot do that for my PhD. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Because as much as you love your PhD, it’s not the same kind of love.

Rita: Well, you don’t have to cite theory in your fanfiction now, did you? [laughs]

Parinita: But saying that, I think the sort of conversations fans are having is similar to academia – which is another reason for this project, because I’ve learned so much from fandom. After I moved past the – not past the – moved from the fanfiction part of fandom to the more nonfiction, critical aspects of it, I found that the way that they have arguments and articulate these arguments, they do a lot of stuff that I recognise in academia.

Rita: So true.

Parinita: I don’t know how the schools in the Philippines were but at least when I was growing up, the mainstream education system then and even to a large extent now, in India, isn’t really conducive to thinking about things in a way that places them in context with the real world. It’s more like you’re learning these facts.

Rita: Yes! Yeah.

Parinita: And you’re not learning how these facts are relevant or how they work together. You’re not learning how to think. You’re just learning what to think and you’re not learning anything beyond that. And for me, I was really good at that. [laughs] I was really good at learning what to think and memorising these things and spouting them out in exam papers. But it’s fandom that made me think about how to think. And also helped me unlearn some of these things. When you talk about decolonising, for me, that whole process started and continues online and in fandom as well.

Rita: So true. I remember in one of my experiences before, I was either an admin or one of the mods for an RPG site. And one of our members called out the fact that our panellists was mostly white faces. And that was the first time I’d ever encountered that – like think about the faces that you’re putting forward for people to portray themselves as; portray their characters as. If you don’t give them a choice, then you’re whitewashing your community. I don’t think at the time I critically engaged with it. But I did take on those lessons without the theory that academia forces upon us.

Parinita: Yeah.

Rita: But it’s just this real-life realisation like, oh of course you are erasing identities in a way. And I’ve had several experiences of that before where fandom critically engaged me into checking my privilege. Or checking how I portray a world, especially in original RPGs where you do a lot of worldbuilding. Like why is your medieval world so Westernised? And don’t just say it’s because it’s based off of Game of Thrones. Because that’s not an excuse anymore. So yeah it was really, really interesting going through that process. And I feel that the online community we left is so much better than the online community we went into.

Parinita: Absolutely.

Rita: It kind of makes me feel so jealous that I am not part of this online community. Because you’re right, it does critically engage. And one of the major topics that we’re discussing today is problematic authors. And the way that fandom has engaged with this discussion of problematic authors is something that I don’t know if I would have seen a couple of years back; ten years back. I don’t know if there would be fans who would say, no, actually I can disengage from this because this is problematic. And not just say, oh this is problematic but give out reasoned arguments as to why it is. Fans are reading up. Fans don’t just know the book, they know the context that the book exists in and they know the discourses around that book. That’s part of what being a fan is. That’s part of the obsession that comes with fandom. And the fact that they’re marrying that with critical engagement is just something so beautiful and gives me hope for the world in this year of our lord 2020.

Parinita: [laughs]

Rita: [laughs]

Parinita: Not to say that fandom can’t be problematic because it can.

Rita: So true!

Parinita: I for sure in my own podcast and in my own experience as well have largely encountered the more progressive aspects of fandom. It’s a deliberate construction as well like the podcasts that I choose to listen to and the articles that I choose to read and the people I choose to follow on Twitter or wherever. So it’s obviously a deliberately constructed echo chamber, which I’m very happy with. I know echo chambers are dissed frequently.

Rita: [laughs]

Parinita: But I don’t want to engage with the horribleness that exists. I mean the world is horrible enough as it is.

Rita: Well part of the echo chamber is really protecting yourself against harmful discussions that could harm your mental health. And I understand that has detrimental aspects to it but I guess you could say echo chamber is a neutral term. It’s not something bad and it’s not something good. It depends on what it brings back to both sides of it.

Parinita: Yeah. People who are in leadership positions, who influence politics or culture where they have the financial, social, structural capital, is different from someone like a fan. A fan has other contexts as well but we’re not really influencing on a large scale how elections work, for example. Or how media is created and media is made or shared. So I think that it’s okay for us to have echo chambers because I don’t need to know what this terrible person who thinks Indians or immigrants should be deported all the time or thinks like England is for white people. I don’t really want this person in my online life.

Rita: That being said, one of the fan sites that I was part of way back during the Obama versus McCain election, there was an actual thread on the forums that discussed people’s political beliefs when it comes to them.

Parinita: Ah!

Rita: Yeah there were actually political discussions on platforms. I know that Paul Ryan was brought up a lot and fiscal conservativism. There was space for that. And our politics still show in the things that we write, I think.

Parinita: Yeah absolutely.

Rita: In the way that people get reviewed and stuff. But it wasn’t a neutral space. And I think that’s where the fallacy is. We’ve been talking about how online fandom erased certain parts of our identities. But they were never really erased. They were always there. But people either just chose to ignore them or we weren’t part of the discussions where people talked about those identities.

Parinita: Yeah. Also this forum you’re talking about, even in my master’s dissertation, there was this thing about comparing Kingsley and Fudge to the current political leaders. It was something to the effect of I wish we had a Kingsley Shacklebolt

Rita: Yes!

Parinita: Rather than all the Fudges that we have. And it led to this discussion from different countries and also different political leanings. About who is really Kingsley and who’s really Fudge. And there was I think a Pakistani fan and there was an Indian fan. Again, I wasn’t interacting with the fans, so it was mostly through lurking.

Collage of Harry Potter characters Kingsley Shacklebolt and Cornelius Fudge. Text says; We need more leaders like Kingsley instead of all the Fudges we have at the moment

Rita: Yeah. This was the lurking party.

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs] But it was very focused on the US elections at the time. And that was during Obama and Hilary Clinton. Even the forum that you’re talking about, how many fans online would have this kind of discussion with Filipino politics or Indian politics?

Rita: Exactly! Yeah. And the fact that I was a Filipino discussing American politics. To be fair, there is a degree of how much American politics does affect us because of our colonial past. But at the same time, we wouldn’t talk about Filipino elections on that. You’re absolutely correct. That’s one way of almost cultural imperialism that happens in fan spaces. Because the things that we talk about more often than not are US or UK.

Parinita: Yeah.

Rita: I mean in Harry Potter, you can clearly see that because the preoccupations of the Harry Potter fandom is the UK. It’s sounding more UK, using UK terminology, slang terms. If you sounded more British in your writing, then that meant you were a good writer. It didn’t even take into account the story but it’s just like if you sounded – if your work read that way, then you were a good writer.

Parinita: Yeah there was a term for it, right? Brit-picking.

Rita: Yeah! As a Filipino, I remember when I first read Harry Potter at the age of eleven or something, I was so confused when they said jumpers instead of sweaters.

Parinita: Yeah.

Rita: [laughs] There are a lot of things that confused me as a little eleven-year-old. And it’s not just because of my youth. It’s because I never consumed media that called it like that. And because I loved Harry Potter so much it develops this Anglophilia in you.

Parinita: For sure.

Rita: And then you start living this life of aspiring towards Anglicanising yourself.

Parinita: Absolutely. And in terms of cultural imperialism and cultural politics, that takes over all aspects of your life, right?

Rita: So true!

Parinita: It’s not just the things that you read but it’s the language and what sort of food seems cool to you and what seems not as aspirational.

Rita: Exactly!

Parinita: It is so … Eurocentric.

Rita: Yeah. And even when I think about why I decided to go to the UK for my master’s degree, unfortunately because of how language and imperialism works, I spoke English and I was not entertaining learning a different language at that point in my life.  [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah.

Rita: I sincerely regret that. I wish I’d learned a different language. So I was choosing between the US, Canada, Australia and the UK. And, of course, one of the considerations was the fact that education in the UK is actually cheaper. Especially in Scotland compared to all those different countries. But there was also that little tick in my brain, that’s the land of Harry Potter.

Parinita: [laughs]

Rita: And it wasn’t just me that saw that. It was every person that I knew who was like, “Yeah you love British culture; you know British history.” Why was I interested in that? Because of Harry Potter and this thing that it kicked into gear for me. It felt like coming into a place that you kind of already knew.

Parinita: But also what you know is so limited as well, right?

Rita: Exactly! It’s so blinded by –

Parinita: And you don’t learn to identify this when you are not in that context yourself.

Rita: Exactly.

Parinita: When I was in India, I had this idea of the UK and the US – and a large part of Indians do as well – that you know the West! It’s wealthy and they don’t have problems. Because in terms of actual comparison, the kind of poverty Indians face and the kind of poverty the UK faces just structurally, socially, everything is very different. So it would be like comparing apples and oranges really.

Rita: Well you’re talking about poverty, it’s that thing about we were presented with the Weasleys as a poor family.

Parinita: I know!

Rita: But they’re clearly not how I understood poor in the Philippines.  I mean the Weasleys are kind of like landed gentry?

Parinita: [laughs]

Rita: I guess? [laughs] I mean maybe not to that extent but the fact that Bill could inherit a house from his great-grandmother, that they had heirlooms.  [laughs]

Parinita: I grew up without a lot of money. The kind of problems that me and my mum faced, the Weasleys would never have faced. But I was like, oh this is how poor people are in the UK, I guess. [laughs] This is their idea of poverty. And it was only when I moved to the UK, and was engaging with the discourse here and with the kinds of problems that exist here which aren’t transferred to India at all – the news and things don’t communicate any of this to India. I guess why would they? But also then that leads to a very narrow idea of the UK and also a narrow idea of India.

Rita: Exactly.

Parinita: Which I could only disrupt once I was away from that context and in this context.

Rita: Once you absorb the actual context where that culture comes from, yeah, exactly right. For instance when you come here into the UK, you learn that a lot of poor families use food banks.

Parinita: Yeah.

Rita: The Weasleys never had a problem with hunger. I mean it was Molly’s stamp of pride that she always fed her family and she fed poor Harry. There are many living a much poorer life than the Weasleys.

Parinita: Yeah and she didn’t have to worry about what kind of food she was going to be feeding them. Maybe she did like in the background; maybe she was trying to reach into the back of the pantry or something, I don’t know.

Rita: Yeah because they always seemed to have fresh food. They never seemed to eat something that was canned or frozen. And then when you think about clothing and poverty, the Weasleys had new jumpers every year. They had new jumpers. And then when you think about poverty and space, the moment that they needed more space, they could just extend the house through magic.

Parinita: Yeah and each of them had their rooms.

Rita: Exactly!

Parinita: This was me, reading the book, living in this tiny one-bedroom Mumbai flat where me and my mum slept in the same bed.

Rita: Yeah.

Parinita: And I was like oh okay, I guess this is how poor people in Britain live. Because even in the US, when media talks about a person who’s poor in the US or a character who’s poor, they still always have their own rooms. Which to me was unimaginable!

Rita: Forget them, even Harry had his own room. It was a cupboard; but it was a room!

Parinita: But then he moved to a bigger room. I mean he had lots of abuse issues and trauma in that house.

Rita: Yeah Harry had a lot of trauma.

Parinita: But yes, he had his own space! Sometimes he was trapped in it. But it was his. [laughs]

Rita: It was his space. And yeah that’s the kind of thing that you realise when you come here. One of the things that I never really absorbed until I came to the UK, was regional identities. And the fact that if I’m not mistaken, Harry is a Londoner.

Parinita: Oh! That’s true. He is. Yeah, I don’t know where Godric’s Hollow is but yeah for sure he is.

Rita: Yeah. Harry grew up in London. So there are no markers of which part of London he was from. Because that is something that definitely comes into play. When you’re a Londoner, you very much attach yourself to certain parts of London. That’s part of your identity. Regionally, we don’t know who belongs where unless they have an accent that is written out. Like say Seamus Finnigan. Although even Seamus, I’m not sure if he was like Northern Irish or if he was Republic of Ireland.

Parinita: Hagrid as well. We’ve spoken about this before how he was othered for many diff erent reasons. And there’s also a choice between whose identity is reflected and whose isn’t.

Rita: Exactly yeah.

Parinita: I’ve been rereading the books recently and Minerva McGonagall – Professor McGonagall, I didn’t realise she was Scottish until I moved to Scotland and realised what the Scottish tropes are. She wears a lot of tartan.

Rita: [laughs]

Parinita: Has a lot of tartan bags, has a thistle on her hat. And I’m like oh okay, I understand now.

Rita: But see that’s the annoying thing. You’re representing Scotland as just this woman covered in tartan.

Parinita: But also in a way that I wouldn’t have – I didn’t pick up on when I was in India. When I was in India, I didn’t know about the UK politics as well. How Scotland is fighting for independence and how Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have their own issues and Wales has its own issues. I didn’t know all of this until I came here. And what you were saying about regional identity, that is also so superficial or non-existent in the books.

Rita: So true. Now people accept that Cho Chang is Scottish. The only reason why we think that is because a Scottish actress portrayed her in the films. Other than that, Cho Chang is a blank slate. Other than her name and her accent in the film adaptation, Cho Chang is a blank slate of a character. We don’t know any context to her whatsoever.

Parinita: This was something that Jack brought up. He doesn’t read Harry Potter. But somebody he follows on Twitter spoke about this. So this was what written in the 1990s?

Rita: Yeah.

Parinita: And I think this was more of a function of the films with Seamus than in the books where I think he set one or two fires accidentally. But in the movies, they just went with it. Like he was the firestarter.

Rita: The firestarter. [laughs]

Gif from the Harry Potter movies of Seamus Finnigan looking into a cauldron which blows up in his face

Parinita: Yeah. And then that person on Twitter was like, this was not very long after the IRA bombings.

Rita: Oh my god.

Parinita: And people dying.

Rita: That’s true!

Parinita: Yeah! [laughs]

Rita: Oh my god I didn’t even think about that, the implications of making your only Irish character a fire guy.

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs] Which again, I haven’t been keeping that much of an eye on it when I’ve been reading the books. I don’t think it was that big a thing in the books themselves than in the movies. But of course, a lot more people watched the movies than read the books. I think there are a lot of people who only watched the movies and didn’t read the books. So their idea of Seamus must have been this Irish person [laughs] who loves fires a bit too much.

Rita: But even when you think about racial identity – race and ethnicity in Harry Potter – you are not a person of colour unless it’s mentioned explicitly that you’re a person of colour. And the people that were explicitly mentioned as people of colour were very few and far in between. So as fans, we had to imagine a more diverse world than what J. K. Rowling put forward. And I think that’s why there’s this idea that Harry Potter is a diverse world. It’s not because of what she did. It’s because of what fans created after her.

Parinita: When I was reading the books, honestly, I didn’t even have the ability to imagine it to be more diverse.

Rita: So true!

Parinita: I’m still unlearning this but at that time, my mindset was completely colonised. I was like, oh of course the UK only has white people. Oh and there are one or two Indians

Rita: [laughs]

Parinita: And just a vaguely East Asian sounding person. And there are a handful of black people because they’re mentioned as black. And I was like, okay yeah this must be how it is in the UK. I didn’t really question it. I didn’t really think about it. I never identified with Parvati or Padma Patil because they were not really the centre of anything. There are fans who were thinking at a much higher level than me because they were inserting Parvati and Padma into stories or into art and things. And they’re doing that now as well; centering them even though the narrative didn’t. But I had no ability to do that. Then I moved to the UK and I looked around. Scotland is not the most diverse part of the UK, but even Glasgow is much more diverse than what you would find by reading just Harry Potter.

Fan art of Parvati and Padma Patil dressed in saris which match their respective Gryffindor and Ravenclaw Hogwarts house colours

Patil twins by monsieurartiste

Rita: Yeah. And even thinking about Padma and Parvati and Cho Chang. These women of colour that you put into your story, all of them are kind of presented in slightly negative ways in one part or the other. Was it Padma or Parvati who was Ron’s date?

Parinita: Padma, yeah.

Rita: Who was seen as incredibly disappointed that he didn’t want to dance and was just ugh very frustrated with him. And then you had Cho Chang who for an entire book was just crying. I mean reasonably so because her boyfriend had just died. But I always think of her as this moody person.

Parinita: Yeah. I just finished reading Order of the Phoenix a week ago and I would think that Harry who was going through his own depression and trauma would have understood or at least sympathised with her. I know it’s explained to be in a very gendered way like Hermione understands the feelings and Harry and Ron are clueless. But you still have a sense of shared trauma. Cedric died and you both are getting over that. And he is still so quick to dismiss her feelings and to dismiss anything. Of course she’s crying all the time! Why aren’t you crying all the time!? Well you’re yelling all the time; I guess that’s your manifestation.

Rita: Well that’s the thing. Now that I’m thinking about it, I don’t know how many women of colour are dismissed in the text? Or treated dismissively in the text? It’s just a minefield. When you start critiquing these literatures that you grew up loving, you just … I don’t know either it really shatters you and depresses you for a while. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah.

Rita: Or you – no, it’s not an or; what follows is you start looking at things with a more critical eye in the future. It’s not literature fandom, but I was very much a part of the fandom of Bon Appetit Test Kitchen on YouTube. And they went through a reckoning for race and equality because it came out that their producers, their creators of colour were not paid for their appearances or not paid at the same rate. And then after that, I didn’t know why at the time, but I just wasn’t excited to cook anymore. I just felt so like ugh anything will do. And then I only connected it much later when I realised oh yeah because the entire thing about it that made you happy was just shattered into a million little pieces. So of course it’s going to affect you in a very personal way. Because that’s something about fandom; it’s not just discourse, it’s not just objective. It’s interesting because I know someone who is actually studying Harry Potter fandom from a religious perspective, from the perspective of charisma. Anne Taylor shoutout by the way, her research. [laughs] So it makes you think how these things connect to us in such a personal way and in such a formative time of our lives that it’s no surprise that both of us came into really critical careers in our lives. [laughs]

Parinita: Oh, for sure.

Rita: Because we over-analysed Harry Potter to a T!

Parinita: Oh I wouldn’t have been doing a PhD if I didn’t love Harry Potter. Which is why I decided to launch this podcast and start this thing in January. And then of course there was the whole transphobia that began in December and just then carried on from June. Like you’re saying, it’s just made me so … not reluctant to engage; I still love the Harry Potter books because it was such a huge part of me, and it is still a huge part of me. And I can’t untie my sense of self from the books. But I’m now reading it with so much more of a critical lens because I am able to; something I wasn’t able to do even a like a couple of years ago. Before my master’s, I didn’t have the tools to be able to articulate even though fandom itself was doing these things. But it was still a slow journey for me. But in terms of J. K. Rowling, it’s been so depressing but it was very easy for me to cut her from Harry Potter. For me, I can divorce the two. I’m trying to follow the lead of a few of the fan podcasts that I listen to who are talking about how they’re no longer going to financially support her. But then you made a very good point when we were talking about this that even though there’s no financial capital, there is still social and cultural capital that fans help J. K. Rowling accrue which then transforms into financial capital.

Rita: Yeah, exactly. Because by keeping her in the zeitgeist, in the topic of discussion, you are giving air to her property. It was easier to do this before, to divorce an author from their work before because we didn’t consume authors the way that we do today. Like right now, you can say that for instance … name a problematic author of the past.

Parinita: Lovecraft?

Rita: Let’s say Lovecraft. Lovecraft had a platform, yes. Could write things that the fans would consume, yes. But not at the same rate that people consume social media. And it’s also not at the same access of people who are so young. Because even though there are age restrictions on social media, it doesn’t prevent children and young people from still consuming that media.

Parinita: Yeah, because all you have to do is click a tick box saying that yes, I’m over 18.

Rita: Exactly! You just have to lie. And people do that all the time. So they consume her media. And because we were talking about how painful it was for us, how formative it was for us, but we are removed from that formative era in our lives. Whereas a lot of children who are engaging in that still are in that era. So her beliefs would influence their beliefs.

Parinita: Yeah.

Rita: Because we remember what it’s like to idolise someone. And that’s the thing that when we love media now, we idolise creators. People don’t just love Game of Thrones, they love George R. R. Martin. Or people didn’t just love Doctor Who, they loved Steven Moffat. Hmm arguably so. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Rita: It’s a very, very split camp. [laughs] But yeah, in today’s realm of cultural production, we are so connected to the people who create them. And it’s so hard to say I’ll still consume Harry Potter. Because for instance, I’ve made the decision to not support Harry Potter anymore and I think this will be my last public discussion on Harry Potter. Or public like with a platform like this. I’ve decided to disengage from that because when I read Harry Potter now, I do see the gaps in her representations. I see the fact that she doesn’t see people of colour. I see the fact that she has a very skewed idea of what poverty is or what Asian people are, for instance. And it’s hard to say that the media that you love is something that you can still love despite all that. At least for me. It’s really difficult. And who knows? Maybe in the future once … like in the very distant future – not ill-wishing on anything! But once maybe in the future, not in our generation but in the generations after us, when she is much like other authors who have gone and passed, maybe there can be a kind of contextualised consumption of Harry Potter. But today it’s really difficult to do that.

Parinita: Yeah. I’m totally with you. For me, like I said, I’ve reacted to it differently with just as much despondency but not – not even unwilling, unable to let go of Harry Potter, for a lot of reasons. But what you’re saying, I completely am with you there. She’s very directly attacked trans people and trans fans and they are letting go of it but others as well with more privilege; like cis people with more privilege and who are not directly impacted by that but are allies are also letting go of Harry Potter, like you are.  And I completely am with you on that. But for me, because I think fandom – and Harry Potter has always gone side by side with fandom for me, even though I started reading the books when I was ten, and started engaging with the fandom when I was thirteen, so there were a few years there when I was all by my lonesome. But otherwise, I’ve grown up with Harry Potter fandom and on Harry Potter fan platforms. The kind of thinking that I have now, and I’m still growing with fan podcasts like Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, Witch, Please, The Gayly Prophet, who are all undergoing this reckoning of how do you continue to engage with a text when the author’s politics are completely separate and something you abhor? And it’s something I don’t think there’s an easy answer for. And I think it’s very individual as well. I know some podcasts like Flourish on Fansplaining, they’ve said that they can no longer, because it’s tainted completely. It’s too toxic so they can’t engage with it at all. Whereas I think other fan podcasts like the three that I mentioned are still continuing with Harry Potter talking about it but distancing themselves from J. K. Rowling. They are saying that for us it’s about loving the text and not the author. And they try and raise money for trans charities and they try and create a safer space for queer fans and trans fans and nonbinary fans.

Rita: Yeah.

Parinita: But you’re completely right that even if it’s not contributing financially, it is contributing socially and culturally as well. But for me, I’ve also learned so much through these discussions themselves and all these critiques of J. K. Rowling because I didn’t have this idea of transphobia – just all the stuff that she’s saying and all the context that it comes with. Because someone who reads her tweets without any background knowledge or context is not going to really understand how it’s transphobic or why it’s transphobic. And there have been other people much better suited than me who’ve explained and decoded the language and why it’s transphobic and what it emerges from. And for me, it’s been so good to see fans who’ve divorced themselves … I guess they’re more progressive than the author herself is. So even in terms of reading themselves into the text, what you were saying earlier, they’ve made the world more progressive. It’s almost like fandom canon and actual canon are almost separate – not really, but almost.

Rita: Yeah.

Parinita: That there’s room for a more progressive space which in turn has influenced how I see and how I write stories and how I analyse other texts. Because I’m thinking about these things; these conversations they’re so much at the forefront of my mind now that I apply that lens to all the media that I consume. Which for me is too valuable to give up.

Rita: Yeah. And I think to myself as well like one of the questions that we raised in some of the conversations that we had before was can you actually reclaim a fandom from an author? Again, like you said, there’s no easy answer for that. Because it’s easier to answer these things once you have hindsight.

Parinita: Exactly.

Rita: But as we live through the experience, all of the things we do will basically just be the discourse for later on.

Parinita: Yeah. I know. It’ll be a PhD project for a future scholar.

Rita: [laughs] So true!

Parinita: For a future fan.

Rita: Oh my god and you’ll be supervising them. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Oh my god. I’m trying to tear academia down from the inside. I can’t imagine myself – well maybe if I supervise them to make a TikTok thesis or something.

Rita: [laughs]

Parinita: Though not in India because our government has banned TikTok.

Rita: Oh our government is in conversations with Facebook.

Parinita: Oh! Really?

Rita: I’m not sure what’s happening on that front. But there was a direct message from the President to Facebook. So I still have to follow that. How do we process all these things? How do we process the toxic author? How do we move forward? And the progressive work that we’re doing to move forward from this while still engaging with the fandom. I think that’s one of the saddest parts of this entire discourse, the emotional labour that fans have to go through because of the mistakes that J. K. Rowling made. Even before this, when fans were restorying and adding diverse identities into fan texts and contributing to that collective understanding of what the Harry Potter world is. Because we couldn’t see ourselves so we wrote ourselves in. It was the same with the LGBT communities. It’s the same with ableism and disability. Because we don’t see ourselves in this text, we take on the emotional labour of having to add them in. Knowing that the addition is from us and not from her.

Parinita: Yeah.

Rita: And then now with the discussion on transphobia, we are having to take on so much emotional labour to process what’s happened and to decide how we want to interact with the fandom in the future. And again that’s emotional labour that was forced upon us by this problematic fandom. And that’s the other I think reason why I decided to not engage with it anymore because I’m just tired. [laughs]

Parinita: I mean honestly with the timing of it as well. You said this in December and then you were silent for several months about it, responded to nothing to do with it. And then right in the middle of a pandemic, right in the middle of the Black Lives Matter protests in the US and the UK, right in the middle of so many different things like Brexit, that’s when you decide to attack an already marginalised group using your platform and your privilege and all the status that you have to target this vulnerable group of people. Honestly the fans have had so much of a better understanding of the stuff that you’ve written.

Rita: Yeah.

Parinita: Fans have read so much more progressive messages into the books than apparently you meant? Because apparently you didn’t mean that everybody should be equal. Which if you read the books only wizards and witches are equal anyway. Nobody else is equal.

Rita: Oh my god. One of my favourite things that fans have contributed to the text was this Pride poster. I’m sure you know which one I mean. The one that says, “What Harry Potter taught me is that no one should live in a closet!” [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs]

Image of a person wearing a T-shirt. The text on the T-shirt says: If Harry Potter taught us anything, it's that no one should live in a closet.

A fan text included in my master’s dissertation which looked at two Facebook fan pages

Rita: The fact that she doesn’t see the connection of how much the LGBT community loved Harry Potter, how much certain members of the LGBT community loved Harry Potter. And to break them down, to break their hearts with such language and such rhetoric, is just ugh it hurts!

Parinita: And also what she’s inspired. It’s not just her. Because of the platform and the privilege and the role that she has in mainstream culture, she has inspired so many – not a lot of people that I’ve encountered, but I know there is a world beyond my echo chamber. So these horrible people are citing her to further erode rights that trans people and LGBTQIA people have so painstakingly gotten. As if that’s what we need in 2020! We have fascism everywhere and then there’s this.

Rita: [sighs] This reminds me of my favourite response to J. K. Rowling’s transphobia. There’s this YouTube reviewer named Dominic Noble who has a Harry Potter persona – that reviews Harry Potter content. And that persona’s name is Terrence. Terrence is a half-blood in the context of this. So at the very end of his response video saying that he won’t engage in the Harry Potter fandom anymore, won’t make any more video, he brings on Terrence who gets a letter from his dad saying, “How are you Terrence? How are you doing? Your mum and I have always told you that you were a half-blood. But we never told you what that meant.” And he pulls out [laughs] this Percy Jackson t-shirt.

Parinita: [laughs]

Image of an orange t-shirt with the words "Camp Half-Blood" and a pegasus on it

Image courtesy Wiki

Rita: And he just has this expression, “Oh my gods?” [laughs] That resonated with me so much because it’s saying that yes, you can love something and let it go. But there are other things that you can obsess about that have less toxic creators. Don’t get me wrong. Percy Jackson has its own problems especially with its representation of disability. But at least its author is not – or at least as far as I know, because god the year of our lord 2020 has brought a lot of surprises on us.

Parinita: [laughs]

Rita: So you never know who’s a secret racist or whatever. [laughs] But yeah you can move on. There are still other texts to enjoy, Harry Potter was not the only thing that we loved. And if we’re disengaging with something, we can transfer all of that love that we had for Harry Potter into something else. And right now, I don’t know how appropriate it is because again this process of decolonisation is lifelong.

Parinita: It is.

Rita: And it goes across all things you consume, not just Harry Potter. So one of the things that my sister and I really, really loved growing up – which is really strange given what the text is – was Frank Herbert’s Dune. Massive fans of it. It was really strange for two eleven- to thirteen-year-olds consuming this massive piece of philosophical sci-fi. Loved it! And now the film is coming out. Well it’s been postponed, which was very sad. But I’m like, oh this is something that I can just redirect my love. Where before it was divided, now I can just redirect all of the things I loved to this and be excited for the release of this. Again, Dune is not without its own problems especially the adaptation does not feature Middle-Eastern or North African characters when the book borrowed so heavily from those cultures. But it’s good because I guess now I’m engaging with these texts by contextualising them, acknowledging their faults, and not having that really blind adulation that I used to have for Harry Potter.

Parinita: Yeah.

Rita: And I don’t know. Is it a sign of personal growth? Or is it just us protecting our broken hearts from being broken again? [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] I think it’s both. We cannot have good things without some toxic everything.

Rita: And I can’t remember who was the creator where I realised that, oh they have problematic views. And I just told my sister one day, “The thing that 2020 has just taught us is never have heroes.”

Parinita: [laughs]

Rita: “Never have heroes! They will all disappoint you!” [laughs]

Parinita: That’s a very chipper note to end this podcast on. But it is 2020 so that’s as cheerful as you’re going to get. [laughs]

Rita: Yeah.

Parinita: Thank you so much Rita for being a part of this project and for this conversation. I know we’ve approached it in different ways and we have different experiences and different reactions as well to Harry Potter and J. K. Rowling. But it’s been so valuable just talking about it as well. And articulating my ideas by talking to you about it.

Rita: I know. It’s great. Especially when you’re decolonising yourself. One of the things we didn’t get to talk about but would have been interesting to talk about as well is we are two people from heavily colonised countries engaging in British texts. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah. So we need to do another episode.

Rita: Oh my god.

Parinita: Just to talk about that because that’s a minefield.

Rita: Oh my god like Harry Potter and Empire is a whole other discussion I could definitely have.

Parinita: Our next episode title has been set. [laughs]

Rita: [laughs]

Parinita: But really thank you again for the time and the conversation. I really appreciate it.

Rita: No problem. I really enjoyed this. Thank you so much! And even though I disengaged with Harry Potter, I’m happy to talk with you about that disengagement.

Parinita: [laughs]

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode on encounters with diverse cultures in Western media and fandom. Thank you so much Rita for sharing your enthusiasms and frustrations. Our conversation has helped me see so many familiar things anew and I hope this process of decolonisation is a lifelong one.

[Outro music]

I’d love to hear from you and talk to you – so any feedback, comments or critiques are very welcome! Get in touch with me on social media, leave a comment on my blog, or email me at edps@leeds.ac.uk. If you’d like to follow the podcast or the PhD project, visit my website marginallyfannish.org. Here you’ll find the podcast episodes, transcripts, episode resources and links, and my research blog. You can also receive updates on Facebook or Instagram at Marginally Fannish or on Twitter where I’m @MarginalFannish. I share episode resources on social media so you can find a bunch of excellent fan podcasts and essays to look up. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share it with anyone you think will enjoy it too.

Thanks for listening! Tune in again next time for all things fannish and intersectional!

Bonus Episode – How Do We Learn?: Engaging with Alternate Communities of Knowledge and Culture

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Hi everyone! I’m back with a new episode after a very accidental hiatus that was definitely not supposed to last a year. I’ve just realised that the last episode I published on Marginally Fannish was a year ago. I recorded the episode you’re about to listen to way back in October 2020 and I’m only just publishing it in January 2022. You can blame the PhD/pandemic combination for all my plans being tossed out of the window.

Just a heads up, this bonus episode isn’t like the others on Marginally Fannish i.e. it doesn’t explore different aspects of intersectionality in media or fandom. Back in 2020, I chatted with Lata and Sayan for the Convivial Thinking website. The Convivial Thinking collective features a group of researchers who explore decolonisation in academia and scholarship in creative ways. You can find their ideas and work at convivialthinking.org.

This episode was originally only going to appear on their website. But there ended up being a bunch of connections between our conversation and the philosophy of this podcast. I began Marginally Fannish as a part of my PhD project because I passionately believe that fandom provides a really valuable space for collaboratively creating knowledge. I also think that it makes room for the kinds of diverse perspectives and experiences which you may not always encounter in formal educational contexts. Alternative forms of knowledge and the importance of dialogue with diverse groups of people is a recurring theme in this episode. So I decided to share the episode on this feed as well in case this topic interests any other fans out there.

If this isn’t your kind of thing, please feel free to skip this episode. I’ll be back with my regular programming soon – that is, if I’ve not forgotten how this whole podcasting thing works in the first place. You have 5 new episodes and conversations to look forward to, all of which were also recorded in 2020. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait another year for me to figure out how to edit and publish the next episode. Now, on with the episode!

[Intro music]

The world we inhabit offers us several different learning opportunities. However, academic structures frequently end up valuing a limited kind of expertise. Whose cultures, languages, and experiences are considered the default? What kind of knowledge matters? How do you seek alternative communities of knowledge beyond the restrictions of the structure you work in?

Collaboratively engaging with knowledge and activism with a wide range of people both within and outside institutionalised academic spaces is crucial. Academics have the responsibility to make academic knowledge and theories more accessible and relevant to non-academic contexts. Going even further, academics can work with non-academics to create spaces which explore alternate expressions of knowledge and different approaches to knowledge-building. Conversations with diverse groups of people can challenge limited notions of one-way education and academic expertise by moving towards a more inclusive pedagogy. Encountering each other’s diverse – sometimes conflicting – experiences and perspectives in unconventional contexts can help us unlearn our colonised mindsets and discover what we don’t know. Both uncertainty and discomfort hold radically liberating possibilities when it comes to building knowledge, especially when combined with a sincere curiosity to learn from the world.

Find our conversations about all this and more in today’s episode!

[Intro music]

My name is Parinita Shetty and in this episode, I speak with Dr Lata Narayanaswamy and Dr Sayan Dey about unconventional ways of learning and new communities of knowledge and culture. Both Lata and Sayan are part of the Convivial Thinking collective thanks to which we’re exploring critical, collaborative, and creative forms of decolonisation in our conversation today.

Since 2001, Dr. Narayanaswamy has worked as a research practitioner, consultant, and most recently lecturer in international development in the School of Politics and International Studies at the University of Leeds. Her research critically reflects on gendered/intersectional and post/decolonial dynamics of development knowledge and its perceived contribution to global development challenges. She is currently involved in applied, interdisciplinary research related to climate change, water security and decolonising development.

Sayan Dey grew up in Kolkata, West Bengal. He completed his studies from Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi and is currently working as Lecturer at the Yonphula Centenary College, Royal University of Bhutan. He is also the Senior Advisor of Quality Education Group, Center for Regional Research and Sustainability Studies, India.

I’m a third-year doctoral researcher in the School of Education at the University of Leeds. I’m really interested in exploring how fan podcasts – especially those featuring people from marginalised groups – use the framework of their favourite media texts to share their diverse perspectives and experiences. I’m also passionate about using digital media to make academic research accessible to non-academic audiences as well as to include a diverse range of non-academic voices in academic spaces.

Parinita: My name is Parinita Shetty and in this episode, I speak with Dr Lata Narayanaswamy and Dr Sayan Dey about unconventional ways of learning and new communities of knowledge and culture. Both Lata and Sayan are part of the Convivial Thinking collective thanks to which we’re exploring critical, collaborative, and creative forms of decolonisation in our conversation today.

Since 2001 Dr. Narayanaswamy has worked as a research practitioner, consultant and most recently lecturer in international development in the School of Politics and International Studies at the University of Leeds. Her research critically reflects on gendered/intersectional and post/decolonial dynamics of development knowledge and its perceived contribution to global development challenges. She is currently involved in applied, interdisciplinary research related to climate change, water security and decolonising development.

Sayan Dey grew up in Kolkata, West Bengal. He completed his studies from Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi and is currently working as Lecturer at the Yonphula Centenary College, Royal University of Bhutan. He is also the Senior Advisor of Quality Education Group, Center for Regional Research and Sustainability Studies, India.

I’m a third-year doctoral researcher in the School of Education at the University of Leeds. I’m really interested in exploring how fan podcasts – especially those featuring people from marginalised groups – use the framework of their favourite media texts to share their diverse perspectives and experiences. I’m also passionate about using digital media to make academic research accessible to non-academic audiences as well as to include a diverse range of non-academic voices in academic spaces.

Parinita: Hello! It’s really nice to talk to people who are not just me and my boyfriend and my cat. [laughs] It’s nice to see other faces. I’m just going to start off because we have a lot to talk about. In terms of unconventional engagements with knowledge as well as culture in spaces that are beyond educational spaces or institutional spaces – I do a bit of that in my project, but I was really interested in how you have dealt with that in your own work or otherwise.

Lata: First thank you for inviting me into your podcast world. It’s very nice to be here. It’s difficult because I think it’s the kind of thing that as academics we don’t do enough of, for a start. I think we do tend to think about academic spaces in very narrow ways. Where and how we learn is conceptualised in very narrow ways, right? So you’re in a classroom or you’re in a building; you have to go somewhere. I suppose the most immediately obvious counterpoint in my own life has been just having children and thinking about learning in a much more dynamic way. And trying to instil in them that there’s never an opportunity not to learn from something that’s happening around you or something that you might observe or something that you might see on the news or hear on the radio or an interaction you might have with a friend. You can talk about issues or interesting things or relevant things or share lessons about the world on the walk to school or a picnic in the park. In terms of even more formal kinds of spaces … this was not formal, but another opportunity was during an election, right? Say you go along for a political party and you’re door-knocking. I did that in the last election in the UK – and less said about that, the better, in terms of the outcome. But certainly, in thinking about what it might mean to actually knock on somebody’s door and have a conversation about the things that matter to them and then finding that common ground. And seeing that as integral to shared learning or co-production and enriching myself. I don’t mean that in a selfish way; but I think it’s about approaching learning and academia as a two-way street. And I think there’s a tendency in lots of educational contexts to see education as a one-way street. In academia we’re particularly bad. And in higher education too, there is a framing of expertise: “I’m the person that knows stuff and I’m going to impart to you all this wisdom that I have.” And I’m very keen that we turn that on its head. I do think that’s possible within the classroom and we can have more dynamic and inclusive pedagogical approaches. But I really think it’s about trying to think through how we can not only create but also seek out those opportunities to have conversations in more diverse contexts and with a greater diversity of people.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Lata: I think as academics, we have a responsibility to do that, if I’m honest. And I don’t know that we have the tools or the language to do it. But it would be something that I’d want for us to be exploring more collectively. Even you and I being on a picket line; I mean that’s an opportunity to have a conversation. Not just about your cat or your breakfast – although we can have that conversation too. But how do we expand our educational engagements? And who do we bring into that space with us? How do we learn from it? They’re different questions. I don’t think we ask those questions enough in academia.

Parinita: Absolutely.

Sayan: Just to continue with where Lata stopped. As Lata also mentioned categorically, to balance the academic and the non-academic spaces I think we often talk about activism within and outside the academia. It’s easy to talk; it’s interesting to talk; it’s nice to quote theorists and show off how much we have read. But when it goes into the question of application, we see a whole lot of challenges. Personally, I think that there’s this process of engaging within and beyond academia at the same time, it’s not an “I” thing, it’s a very “we” thing. I alone can’t do anything. Alone I can sit and talk a lot, but if I have to do something, alone I can’t do anything. With respect to the things that Parinita and I were talking about just a few moments back before the recording started, you were sharing how did you meet Lata and then how did you take up your conversation. And that was a collective space. That was a collective space where you met, where you started engaging. And I think that engagement was not just an engagement of “hello” and “hi”. But it was that moment where you were creating knowledge; you were altogether weaving new dimensions of intellectual ideas outside the restricted academic space. Coming back to our personal engagements with everyday decoloniality, I usually engage with lots of people – with respect to podcasts, with respect to interactions, with respect to writings and readings and engaging – and Lata is an integral part of that. As an individual in relation to others, I try to understand how can I engage with decolonial practices in everyday life. Now let me give you very, very basic examples. So for instance, I have a problem in using a spoon and fork while eating. And that is a physical problem; it’s not an ideological problem. So basically, I’m not very comfortable, to be very honest and blunt. Now if someone is having bread and a cup of tea in a roadside restaurant in India, that person is not really concerned whether he is eating with one hand or two hands. But if that same person goes to a 5-star restaurant, that person is extremely concerned; that person is extremely aware and he’s trying to use the tea and fork thing when he’s not going to do the same thing in a roadside restaurant. But for me, I find it quite problematic; this practice is quite problematic. It’s a cultural problem, it’s a social problem, it’s a racial problem. It has its roots in the colonial ethics and morals that we still follow consciously or unconsciously. So wherever I go, whether it’s a roadside open shop or it’s a 5-star restaurant, I’m going to use my hands. And I really don’t care if people are shrugging, they’re sniggering, because that’s not my problem. I’ve gone to savour the food and I like the food and I just come back. It’s as simple as that. And I pay money for that so I’m not stealing. So that’s perfectly fine. So from all respects, I am safe there. This is one such example. The second thing I can tell you is with respect to the concept of languages. I don’t know if it is there in the UK, but in Indian schools, if you go to the English-medium schools in general – and I’m pretty sure Parinita also has that experience – you will see when the teachers teach us English, they have this tendency of imposing the typical UK-styled English or the US-styled English on the students. Let me give you another very basic example. If suppose in a parents-teachers meeting, parents ask the teachers, “I want to see my kid improving spoken English. What should I do?” The teacher will always say – usually, not always – that “Okay ask them to watch a BBC; ask them to watch a CNBC; ask them to watch a Star Movies; ask them to watch an ESPN.” I mean there are English-speaking channels in India as well. You have English-speaking news channels – sensible news channels are there as well, along with several non-sensible news channels. But there are places where people can learn. So why by default, consciously or unconsciously, we have to make a consistent reference to Western dimensions, Western parameters? So I think this process of questioning through action, not questioning just as questioning. Questioning through action living as examples, within and outside the academic space. Because these examples cannot only be set within the academic space. Obviously, we need to discuss, we need to theorise, we need to problematise, we need to unsettle. But also, we need to continue it beyond the academic space through making it as a part of practice of our daily existence, individually as well as collectively. And this is how I try to do that, and these are some of the things I would like to share.

Parinita: I totally connect with what both of you are saying. For me, I’ve grown up in Bombay and I went to one of those English-medium schools; a Catholic school actually, because there was the imposition of English in India. At least when I was growing up, the perception was that the nuns teach you better English. So as a part of social mobility, that’s where you go to learn better English. And because I’ve grown up in India and because most of the stuff I grew up reading was British children’s literature or American children’s literature and then American media, for me, it was this colonised mindset –that I’m still trying to unlearn – that English is better than other languages. And because you grow up in the space, nobody is disrupting that thinking and nobody is really questioning that. Because that’s the world that you live in as well, right? If you don’t have any social or financial capital or any sort of help there, you are reliant on employers who might then look at your English and decide that if you don’t speak good English, you’re not as intelligent as someone who speaks English. And for me, the framework of learning to think and unlearn this social conditioning has largely been online honestly, and specifically through fandom. The school that I went to, they didn’t teach you to think critically at all. They just taught you what to think and that’s what you write in your exam papers. And you don’t understand the context or you don’t understand enough to question. There’s no questioning at all; questioning is not allowed. And even though I was in Mumbai which is a fairly big city, you still have a small social bubble so you still have mostly people who are like you. And it’s only through fandom, Harry Potter fandom specifically, which is where my unlearning started. Because it’s such a globally popular text, the fans came from a wide range of backgrounds, and that’s where I learned things about decolonisation and queerness. Recently because of J. K. Rowling’s transphobia, there’s been more talk about that. And that’s a whole education in itself. You’re both marginalised and privileged in this space. As someone who’s grown up in India, you think fandom and everything happens in the West and then you see that oh there are other people like you. For me fan podcasts more recently have been such a fantastic way to learn and unlearn things. Because more and more people, especially fans who are from marginalised backgrounds, are using the fictional framework, are using this language of Harry Potter or Doctor Who or Marvel or whatever, which everybody knows, and then pushing against that. They love these texts – we love these texts – but we are unpacking the more problematic elements of it. I think that’s fantastic because in academia, I still don’t really see myself. I don’t really feel quite comfortable in academia because none of my parents went to university and onto higher education or a PhD or anything. So I still feel like I’m conning academia in a way; that I’m doing fan studies and intersectionality and podcasts. And I’m like, “Wait, they’re allowing me to do this?” And I don’t really see me being in academia at all after that. Even though I think there would be – there should be room for it. Like what you were saying, Lata, about what kind of language is acceptable and who has expertise and what kind of knowledge matters – I think that should be expanded. But I think academia is still a little hesitant to do that; not people within it but structurally, it is quite reluctant to do these things. The podcast that I’m doing for my PhD research – my supervisors, everyone, was super happy for me to do it as a research method. And they also suggested I present my PhD thesis as a podcast which they thought makes sense in terms of my focus on co-creating knowledge outside the academy and in online spaces. But then the university itself is not comfortable with that. And podcasts aren’t even this new-fangled technology; they’ve been around for a really long time. With the episodes so far, I’ve reached a fair amount of people. It’s not a huge number, but it’s much more than a journal article in traditional academic language and structured traditionally or a PhD thesis would have reached. It’s not just me saying my expertise, it’s me trying to learn from other perspectives as well. My podcast is a fan podcast, and we’re aiming an intersectional lens at both fandom and some of our favourite media. Since I tried to recruit co-participants online, it reached a fair amount of people. So I have people from diverse countries and they all have their own – our own individual social contexts and political contexts. So we do bring that in and we learn from each other. Which I think is really valuable. But I don’t think it’s as valued in the university, unfortunately. How do you try and seek this community, this community of knowledge, elsewhere if it isn’t being given space in the structure that you’re working in? How do you think you can do that or people can do that?

Sayan: I think one of the basic ways from where we can start and actually from where we are all starting, is collaboration. Because collaboration is something that always gives us the option to stay within academia, just within that space if we feel like; but at the same time to disentangle ourselves from those narrow restricted spaces of this academic system and indulge with people who are working right in the field as activists, performers scholars, musicians – whatever or whoever it is. To stay within and beyond at the same time. Nowadays, for example, whenever we have these academic events, amongst many institutions I am seeing changes which is actually making me feel very happy and also very optimistic of the transformations. Earlier there was this notion that a keynote speaker has to be the so-called seasoned academician with a fat CV and a huge number of publications and a massive resume. The bio note will be read for the first fifteen minutes and then the lecture starts. These kind of usual categorisations are getting broken. We see activists coming up. We see people who may not be very well-known – so-called “very well-known” in terms of publications and all – but have significant contributions to the ground-level towards their respective communities and societies. And they are coming up in that academic stage to share. And that is how now the direction is changing. Earlier there was this notion that activism travels from academia to the society, and not the other way round. Now because of this unidirectional dimension, till now what happened is that the battle of control remained in the hands of the academic system. And they have been acting not less than the colonial empire. And they have been regulating it in their own manner and using it for their self-centred needs. But now when it is happening the other way round, it is also dropping a strong message that sure, we are ready to learn from you, thank you so much, we need to learn from you. And you also need to learn from us. So this process is not a unidirectional journey. It’s an exchange as well. For instance, last year I think it at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal in South Africa who started their first decolonial summer school. Now during the decolonial summer school, obviously they had lecturers from academicians like Professor Nelson Maldonaldo-Torres, Ramon Grosfoguel and several others who came up and delivered lectures; but that was not the end of the story. They also invited activists, local activists. They invited local dancers, they invited local musicians. And they were brought to the central academic space to make the people understand that how at the very basic social level, the process of decolonisation takes place. Because obviously we read a lot of theorists but when we go to the very ground level, it is impossible for us to exactly interpret or reflect on the theories in those exact terms and languages. We have to do it in a completely different manner so that it is relatable and connected to people as well. So I think one of the major ways through which we can do it is to build collaborations which actually gives us the opportunity that if academic space is not allowing us, it doesn’t mean that my all the doors are shut. I have other branches open, other channels open, where I can take out the activism there and channelise it among the folks.

Parinita: Based on what you said, I think sometimes academia tends to value and privilege theory too much without exploring how it is done by people, perhaps without using those terms, but people are still doing it. Intersectionality, for example, is something that I encountered online for the first time. I know that there’s this huge history of scholarship and activism in it as well. But thanks to the internet there’s more everyday engagement with it. And it might not be perfect, but it’s not like scholars are perfect, right? There’s always debates happening within journal articles and papers slamming each other’s ideas and theories and stuff. So that’s what’s happening online. But online there is no one person to say this is correct or this is wrong. You’ll get into fights and things but you’re still trying to form your own ideas about it. And it’s valuable even for someone like me, who’s largely a lurker. Apart from my PhD podcast now, I don’t really write long articles or anything about this. But I’m learning a lot from what other people are saying. During my master’s, there was this lecture about critical literacy and it was a term I’d never encountered before. It basically means unpacking the meanings in texts and all the multiple layers and questioning everything; questioning what’s written, questioning social norms, political norms. And I was like, I haven’t learned this myself in school, but I have seen fans doing this online. But they wouldn’t call it critical literacy. Similarly with intersectionality. Because I listen to a range of fan podcasts made by trans fans, gay fans, black fans … not Indian fans so much, it’s largely in the West still. But they are bringing their perspectives into it and into the text that they are analysing. They’re maybe not calling it intersectionality, but that’s still what they’re doing. And I think that also needs to be valued. Or maybe not valued; the fans don’t care if academics value them or not. But I think academia is losing out on not seeing these other cultures of knowledge and communities of knowledge.

Lata: I’m thinking about what you’re both saying. It’s just fascinating because to go back to the point you made about how do you create these spaces and what do we do, I’m actually struck by how in a way what you’re describing, Parinita, is about our academic responsibility to be speaking to people about those connections. And Sayan, everything you said is very relevant about bringing more people into that space, valuing different people, different types of knowledge; let’s not valourise expertise at the expense of this. I totally a hundred per cent agree with all of that. If you want to be what you might call an activist academic, or somebody who wants to bridge that gap, then we have a responsibility to try to create that bridge in our engagements. So, for instance, what you’re describing, Parinita, about people who might be doing critical … um what did you call it?

Parinita: Literacy.

Lata: Critical literacy. But actually, the responsibility we have as academics is to make things like theory accessible. I actually think we have a responsibility to do that. Even in my teaching, I always describe theories as, “This is fancy social science way of describing X, Y and Z.” I don’t believe that theory exists separately to the world that we live in. The best theory is absolutely grounded in the world; that’s what it is about. It’s about finding a way of explaining multiple things at the same time. That’s all theory is. And if the theory doesn’t do what we need it to do, then I need to either make up or find another theory. That for me is very important. It’s almost like having a platform and the power. It’s like having a power and wanting to use it for good, right? If I am given the platform as an academic to speak, then I have a responsibility to not only say things that bring people in, but actually to make space for more people. I have a responsibility. And I suppose it’s not just about being an academic, it’s anybody that has power. In my view, that power best exercised is about actually trying to make sure that more people have power, right? It’s not about consolidating it and keeping it to myself. Now obviously I use power very loosely. It’s not like I have a huge amount of power as an academic. But in whatever way I’m able to, I think, is a key responsibility. So Sayan what you’re describing is absolutely right. If I’m going to put together a conference or if I’m going to put together a workshop, then if I’m the organiser, I take on the responsibility of bringing more people into the space and making the argument for why they need to be there. If I have the power to do that, I need to use it. And I see the same thing about how we engage. I’ve had quite a few opportunities recently, it’s been wonderful. Obviously, the pandemic’s a disaster, there’s no two ways; I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. But if there’s been one ever-so-slightly silver lining, it has been that because everybody seems to be moving online it has facilitated my engagement in spaces that I probably wouldn’t have had an opportunity to do. Whether that’s because of work, I don’t have time to travel, I’ve got other responsibilities, so I can only do so many things. Now I’m at home and I’ve got my computer so suddenly I can be involved in all sorts of things. I can be in one event in the afternoon and another event in a completely different time zone in the evening. That’s actually been a really positive thing. And the result of that has been then again to think about how can I use that platform to try to make some of these arguments but make them accessible, inclusive. How do I bring people into this space and to make it seem as if it should matter to other people? So even those arguments around decoloniality, the thing that I find deeply frustrating is that – and I also work around gender – so whether it’s decoloniality or gender, it’s like, “Oh well if you’re white, decoloniality has nothing to do with you.” Or “Oh if you’re a man, gender has nothing to do with you.” And it’s about actually pushing back and saying okay, let’s have these debates. And my responsibility is at least partly to say, okay why did these issues or these theories or these activist voices – why did they matter to you? How do we bring you into that space in a way that you feel that this becomes your responsibility as well? And if I have any power to affect that kind of change, I actually think it is also then about bringing people into that dialogue who think that they shouldn’t be there. So for me, whether it’s around decoloniality theory to practice, I think as academics, if you’re going to be critical decolonial transformative academics, that is part of your job. You’re like a translator. In a way it goes back to the earlier part of our conversation, because I don’t think academia has any tools for us to do this. I feel like you’re just making it up on the fly. You do it out of a sense of commitment, you do it out of a sense of love even. But also a commitment to want to see the world work differently. But I would also agree that there is no roadmap. I mean it’s interesting, Parinita, what you describe about engaging with fan podcasts as a sort of learning journey for you. And it suggests again, like your original question, education doesn’t just happen in classrooms. Not that I’m saying we should make a roadmap. That suddenly we should turn around and try to turn that into expert knowledge. But certainly, an acknowledgement that the ways in which we might engage with these different pluriversal arguments or decoloniality or expanding our views on education – the pathways for that are not linear at all. And I suppose if I thought of myself as an activist academic, what I want is to be supportive of pluriversal approaches to education where we can acknowledge that learning and engagement and change happens in lots of different ways and through lots of different pathways with lots of different people. And it might be in unpredictable ways as well. We’ve just got to keep making the argument, keep trying to do this. And what might come of that is not predictable – and actually that’s okay. We have to learn to live with a little bit of uncertainty. And Sayan’s point about it’s not “I”, it’s “we”; that eventually the more people you bring in, the power of that collective, you will eventually be the change you want to see.

Parinita: Absolutely. I think that’s a fantastic point, what both of you brought up. Lata, what you were saying in terms of how you are now able to engage with more spaces online because of the pandemic, it’s the same with me; I’ve been able to do that as well. At the same time, I’ve also been following these conversations on Twitter that disabled academics and academics with caregiving responsibilities have been wanting these spaces so much for so long. And it had been completely possible to do it as well because the technology was there. The technology has been there, but the will wasn’t. Nobody really wanted to do it until there was no other option. And then suddenly, “Oh right, it’s the easiest thing to do to!” To stream these things online and to have it on YouTube and not just make it accessible to fellow academics but to people who don’t have access to academia. Because that’s also a privilege, right? Getting into a university, for whatever reasons isn’t available to everybody – your money, country, regional origin or other stuff. You may still want to learn but you’re unable to learn because you don’t have the money, because you have other responsibilities; and that’s such a shame. Which is why I totally resonate with making academic knowledge more accessible to people – both academics but also, more importantly, non-academics – in a way that also privileges their voices and their experiences as well. So it’s not just academics talking about this sub-group of people but actually, we are that group of people and we’re bringing that experience together. Both of you have very different ways that you’ve done that either through podcasting or even the blog Convivial Thinking. Do you want to talk about your projects or your work a little bit? And how you’ve tried to make that more accessible?

Sayan: Talking about my project. Obviously, it’s not just one project; I have been engaging in different types of projects. But in relation to what we have been talking about right now, what Lata and Parinita mentioned, in context to balancing, trying to create a bridge between the academic space and the non-academic space – the challenges and the possibilities. One thing I have been trying to do since last year, I use this podcast as a tool to do that, as you have been doing. In alignment with what Parinita just mentioned with how she has been able to position her understandings with respect to research and many things beyond that – not only within the constricted academic space but also outside as well, trying to compare them, balance them – the same thing happened for me. One of the central reasons why I wanted to do a podcast series on everyday decoloniality – which actually started with an idea of three podcasts and then it expanded to twelve to thirteen podcasts – the basic idea was actually to bring these ideas of coloniality to the common people and those who may not have read anything about decoloniality; who may not be acquainted with the term decoloniality. There can be some people who will just hear the term and will like to know what is decoloniality all about? And that person may not be an academician. That person can be a roadside vendor – what is wrong in that? A person can be a vegetable seller, a hotel person, someone who goes to the office and works, and someone who is driving the car and just wanted to listen – what is this buzz everyday decoloniality all about? So my central idea behind that podcast was that. And I started having researchers, I had academicians, I had activists, I had musicians, I had film actors, who just came in and talked from multiple dimensions of decoloniality. Multiple dimensions with respect to race, with respect to classroom, with respect to pedagogies, with respect to performance, with respect to music – different dimensions came into the conversation. In fact, I had a very interesting conversation on music with Professor Lewis Connell, (?) who writes a lot about blues and jazz, and we had a fantastic conversation on that. We had a fantastic conversation with Rosina Mark (?) from the UK. Apart from these academicians, we had several other people who were not exactly seasoned so-called academicians like professors and all; they are some researchers and performers. And the interesting part is – which I actually share with people with extreme happiness and pride – one of the biggest fans of my podcast was my dad, actually. Obviously one side of happiness is it’s my dad, but my dad has been a 9-to-5 banker and he likes to read a lot of books, he likes to read a lot of story books and newspapers, watches news channels, he analyses things good. But he has no connection with decoloniality, even with this term, in any way in his life till date. But he became a fan. And the best part was that every time he would listen to the podcast, he would give his interpretations, he will try to understand, and he was able to understand the essence of the podcast without me giving any background of that. And I felt that was somewhere a little bit I succeeded. Because an individual – I’m forgetting about the part that he’s my dad, I’m just taking him as an individual who has no connection with this notion of decoloniality to any extent and he could understand the essence of that particular thing. And he would ask questions and those questions were literally very critical questions. It’s not just random questions – “I did not understand” or something like that. And then he would also give his analysis with respect to his life experiences which he will start recovering from his childhood – which he never did that previously. So this is one example. Apart from that, it just touched so many people who have never been associated with this. I have one of my aunts who started listening to it; who has no, no, no connection with any kind of decoloniality. Now I’m not saying I have done a massive job, or I have done a revolutionary thing. But we start with drops of water and drops of water makes an ocean. And it gives me a lot of courage to see that somewhere somewhat even the common people are not only able to understand the essence of this podcast, but they can also unsettle themselves and self-realise that what they have been engaging with on various dimensions was not actually on their own. It was actually enforced by an external power. It encourages me to, as you say, you also want to do a Season 2, that encourages me to do a season 2 as well. Podcasting acts as a tool through engaging with ideas which are critical but at the same time that are also relatable to any layman who has no connection with it. So somewhere somewhat I feel that process of unsettling, the vision of unsettling, which I started with, it has started somewhere.

Lata: I admire Sayan for how much he gets done.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lata: We can only all wish to be as productive. And I’m not exactly tech-savvy. In fact, setting up this Zoom meeting is a superb accomplishment for me.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lata: For all the Zoom meetings I’ve been doing over the last six months, I only realised two weeks ago that I never set one up myself.

Parinita: And it’s really easy, right? Once you just sit down and do it, you’re like, oh yeah this is easy.

Lata: Yeah. It must be reasonably intuitive because I’m not … I’m comfortable talking online, talking to you both, wonderful, fine. But the actual nitty-gritty of setting it up. So anyway, the point is, my instinct is not to do this. Not because I don’t want to but I don’t have the skills. To go back to your question, my engagement with Sayan came through Convivial Thinking. And I wouldn’t want to take any credit for either conceiving of this space or curating it because I have only been an admiring bystander and just trying to be supportive of the principles. But I can’t claim any sort of authorship of design or drive because my head doesn’t work that way. But I admire it greatly. Having said that, obviously I am in the Convivial Thinking collective and obviously that’s how I’ve gotten to know Sayan which has been just a huge privilege. And engaging with people who are motivated that way is also really inspiring for me. Not so inspiring that I feel like I can get my head around web design. Right, there are limits.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lata: But inspiring enough that it’s really easy. I like to think of myself as the marketing. When I was actually going places, I had my pile of Convivial Thinking postcards and I would sit and chuck them out at people and go, “Oh by the way, I support this website.” And it’s great because I find it really easy to promote things that I admire and people I admire. That’s a lot easier than talking about anything to do with myself. It’s really easy to go, “Oh I have all these fantastic colleagues doing this brilliant website. Here, have this postcard!” That’s been one element of just trying to get the message out in terms of thinking that there’s an alternative space. One of the things that we’ve talked about – Sayan and Aftab and Julia and I – over email, queries will come up about things to do with the website. So the really positive thing about the website is actually the way it was established and the purpose of establishing it. It was very much driven by, “Okay, how do we create a space for alternative – not just alternative knowledges but alternative expressions of knowledge and debates about alternative expressions of knowledge?” There’s all these different things that are similar, not the same but they’re interacting – what it is but how you get it. Even what is alternative knowledge? Who gets to decide what alternative knowledge is? Or who gets to decide what knowledge is and then what the alternative is? The difficulty of the language. As soon as you talk about alternative knowledge, well that mainstreams a certain kind of knowledge – that’s the expert academic knowledge and you’re othering the rest of it. Trying to have these debates has been really amazing. And again, I can’t take any credit for the innovation at all, but the fact that Convivial Thinking now has a YouTube channel. So, Parinita, the kind of thing you’re saying about the internet creating these opportunities, and Sayan, you’re absolutely right; both of you are saying things which are super important in the sense that there are concerns around digital literacy, there’s different types of exclusion that we have to be aware of and I think we are. But the fact is we can diversify our audiences and reach people we couldn’t reach, right? That is and continues to be a motivation. And, in fact, I actually originally was connected to Julia through an online conference that I did in 2017. But I outsourced the tech end of it because I wasn’t going to manage it! And I didn’t have the license with the software anyway. But it was motivated by similar sorts of concerns and I think that’s what connected us and why she reached out to me in the way that she’s so fantastic at doing, and then connected me to Sayan and Aftab which has been amazing. And why actually, Parinita, when we met on the picket line, you were very much a kindred spirit. Because it was almost like these constellations of all these wonderful people coming together who have all these again, different approaches to knowledge building – which I don’t have but admire and want to promote. So for me, maybe actually what it is is I’m actually your fans.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lata: I’ve got my own little decolonial fandom. I know who I wanted to promote so that’s very much where I situate myself. With some exceptions; I’ve written the odd blog here and there and I’ve tried to support where I can. But I’m very much the fan or the admirer as opposed to curator of content. And I think that’s great. And in a way actually it’s a wonderful position to be in. Because even in my positionality as an academic, I quite like taking the time to reflect and to use that position, which I think is incredibly privileged; to actually reflect on what I don’t know and the messages that I can promote that aren’t mine. That’s actually a really nice thing. I don’t actually like talking about myself – what’s the fun in that? Whereas I can talk about all these other people that I know who are people doing fantastic work. Let’s talk about that! That’s going to be great. We did this online conference and similar sort of issues would come up and we did it as text-based thing, so you post stuff. But one of the things even in 2017, before we had a pandemic and this became a necessity, was again to try and reach people that might not be able to travel, might not be able to get a visa. So these debates are happening and you’re always trying to either curate or involve yourself try to build more dynamic spaces to include more people. But there are limitations. And I think that’s the thing with Convivial Thinking. We’re always trying to overcome and trying to be more nuanced in that. So obviously there’s the actual thing about inclusion/exclusion and around digital literacies; have I even got an internet connection? So we’re not going to get to everybody. And I think upfront we get that. Then there’s those layers that you’re trying to unpack that start to make the project in a way more important and also more interesting and more of a challenge, as some things you simply cannot overcome. The most immediate one that we talk about most often is obviously the absolute hegemony of the English language, right? So we had a colleague in Leeds, for instance, who wanted to write in a kind of mixture of Spanish and English. And we were like, yeah! Totally. Go for that, please do, that would be wonderful. Because that’s how she wants to express herself. And we’re like, yeah that sounds wonderful. So she did and that was amazing. Lauda (?) she did that and it was wonderful but it’s a limitation, right? It’s still text. So this podcast again offers a counterpoint to that, that’s wonderful. But again is there bandwidth to run audio files? There are other sorts of things that might come out of that. But things like performance, poetry, photography, video images … I mean there are still barriers. We have to be mindful of the fact that we are still creating different types of inclusions and exclusions. But I would say overall that it shouldn’t still stop us from exploring both alternative knowledges or different knowledges or pluriversal knowledges but also pluriversal approaches to knowledge-building. So it shouldn’t be a limitation. To go back to your original question, Parinita, actually being involved with Convivial Thinking in itself has been hugely enriching. Because the engagement – whether it was the online conference early on where you’re having to actively confront it but now with Convivial Thinking, in very much a support role – is still a fantastic education for me. The challenge has been how do I take that learning around inclusion/exclusion – the new dynamics that emerge – and then try to apply that in my own academic spaces; in the conversations that we’ve been having about how do we include more people or more views? And rehearsing that in a way has been hugely valuable because I think I am now thinking about things that, if I hadn’t been involved with Convivial Thinking, wouldn’t have even occurred to me. So again, selfishly maybe, it’s been hugely valuable – that engagement. And this kind of conversation even today, what a great learning opportunity, again, selfishly for me.

Parinita: But that’s brilliant. And that’s something that you said, Sayan, as well about it being collaborative. For me, that’s one thing that I sort of had a hint about when I launched my project properly in January but now I’m even more determined about this, that knowledge is so much more enriched when it’s co-created through dialogue because you don’t know what you don’t know. And you only learn these things when you’re talking to people. Like the blind-spots that you have, you don’t even know they’re blind-spots. And obviously it’s a lifelong process of unlearning and relearning and even identifying first of all that social conditioning and then undoing that. So Sayan, you used the term common people, which I thought was really interesting because I very much see myself as common people. I don’t see myself as an academic. I don’t know if that’s raging imposter syndrome – I’m sure it is. Because before I did my master’s, I’m a children’s book writer so I work with children’s books and young people in different ways. I’ve worked in a school, I’ve done activities, I’ve worked in bookshops. So for me, that was my engagement with knowledge as an adult, a newish adult, in the beginning – getting kids excited about books because they were so important to me. But with kids who are more reluctant, who didn’t already think books were awesome, I had to trick them into making it more fun; so I used to design these activities and have conversations with them. I did this reading programme in a school which was largely first-generation English-speakers. So how to make them connect to this picture book that I’m reading that’s set in France maybe or the US or the UK or different parts of India? I used to start off with asking them a question that was sort of related to the book, but then ask them to contextualise it in their own lives. Like what was your favourite breakfast, for example, or something like that. They had to buy into the book first and drawing connections from their own lives helped. I’ve done other activities as well in schools and outside, in bookshops and literature festivals. So when I came into academia – as you were saying, Lata, theory is important – but for me, theory is important in the lived experience of people rather than in just reading about it.

Lata: Yeah absolutely. I agree.

Parinita: So I’m reading about this in academia, but I’m always drawing connections to my experiences and through second-hand experiences as well. Which is why in the podcast, maybe that’s why I wanted to not privilege just my own voice; I’m not comfortable privileging my own voice because I don’t think I know too much. I know children’s books, but I don’t know so much. So like you said, selfishly, it’s me trying to learn through other people’s perspectives. I obviously have these ideas and theories, I have some level of knowledge; but it is very incomplete knowledge which other people help fill in. Especially people who come from different backgrounds. I think intersectionality includes decolonisation as well. It has its roots in Black feminism in the US so originally it looked at class and race and gender and sexuality – how they intersect and affect black women’s lives in the US. But now, in academia and, for me, online discussions have expanded it to look at other identities as well. So we’re talking about it in terms of how we’re both privileged and marginalised. You’re both. Even when you’re marginalised in spaces, you still have other levels of privilege. And they’re also very contextual. Like my identity in India is very different from my identity as a brown immigrant in the UK, for example. So we’ve been talking about all these things. I’m cisgender, I’m heterosexual – so for me, those are blind-spots as well. And I don’t have any identified disabilities. So for me, talking to people about their experiences is so much more valuable than … reading is important as well, obviously. I read theory in academia and things but they’re living in it. Their practice is informing their theory almost, which for me is hugely valuable. And what you were saying, Lata, about the exclusions and inclusions in digital literacy as well. I find that really fascinating because I’ve learned so much just by making a podcast. I’d never made a podcast before I jumped off the deep end of the pool like, “Oh yeah I’ll do this for my PhD!” And I’ve just learned so much. I’ve been a very online person since I was sixteen, I think. I’ve just grown up online. So I’m comfortable with online things; I like learning new things. But I think everybody has more skills than they give themselves credit for. Like for you, Lata, once you actually sat down to do Zoom, it was easy enough for you. So I’m sure you have more skills than you think you do.

Lata: I’m not sure about that. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] When you were talking about digital exclusion and inclusion, I think there’s more nuance to that as well. In a previous podcast episode for my podcast, we were talking about this newspaper called Khabar Lahariya, which is a rural newspaper in India. I don’t know how much you know about it but it was started by this woman to look at local news and rural news.

Lata: Yeah.

Parinita: And she had women as journalists and as distributors. And after a few years, they have transitioned online. So their news is now on Facebook, through WhatsApp, through Telegram. And they’ve done it so much better than a lot of bigger newspapers have managed to do. They are so with it. I think that disrupts these notions as well; maybe not of people who know about it, but even in India, in Indian cities, for example, we have these ideas about rural women. Like, “Oh these rural women are doing all this?! We didn’t know. Phones! What?! Digital literacies?!” So I think that’s really interesting. In terms of your own experiences, in terms of literacy, have you engaged with multiple kinds of literacies or multiple kinds of knowledges as well while doing these things we’ve been talking about?

Sayan: Well multiple forms of literacies … now this perspective makes me think about what other various ways we gain knowledge. And this process of gaining knowledge, to my best I try to be conscious to understand it away from that capitalistic concern of knowledge production. So when I say gain knowledge, I don’t mean that “knowledge production” thing. So I’m keeping that aside. If I again go back to my individualistic as well as collective practices of what I engage with everyday decolonial thinking and doing, I feel that what I read in the text and what I do in the context – somewhere somewhat I always try to relate that. So to give a very simple and a straightforward example, when I’m eating a particular food item, I’m getting my certain tastes in my tongue, for sure, and whether I’m liking or disliking the food. But it’s much beyond that. I am gaining a form of cultural knowledge even in my process of disliking that. Even if I’m disliking that, still I am gaining a kind of cultural knowledge and gaining a kind of social knowledge, a racial knowledge, a geographical knowledge and varieties and various dimensions of knowledge. So for me, that context is the text for me at that time. Like if I’m wearing a particular dress, on a particular occasion. Now for instance there are various ways of drinking alcohol in Bhutan which is actually absolutely very interesting. You don’t drink the same kind of alcohol in all the occasions. So, for example, the interesting part is that they drink alcohol on every occasion. So if you compare it with the Western concept, to be very specific about the colonial West, alcohol is an element of celebration. Some will interpret alcohol as an element of violence. But here, alcohol underlies every aspect. So if there is a birth, for example, when a child is born, the ritual is that the mother will take a clean cloth, will rub a bit of alcohol on the cloth and will rub it on the lip of the child. That’s a ritual. And that alcohol will have a very, very, very low alcoholic content actually so that it doesn’t harm the health of the child. It’s a ritual. Then the alcohol that is taken in the time of, for example, a big Buddhist festival is not going to be the same alcohol that is going to be consumed at the time of a marriage or at the time of someone’s death. So the point is, just with drinking different types of alcohol, before coming here, the typical vision that I had before coming here, or those set of notions about consumption of local alcohols or foreign liquors or whatever, completely transformed here. So, it is also a form of literacy for me. This alcohol is a form of language for me, this alcohol is a form of pedagogy for me – the drinking process, sitting in that collective, cultural space is a pedagogy for me. So through these examples, through these experiences of the daily life, I try to position this notion of literacy, or if I put it as collective literacy, through these daily life experiences.

Lata: Yeah that’s actually, that’s really, without wanting to make it sound like a pun, Sayan that’s given me food for thought. And I do mean that genuinely because I think that in answer to your question about engaging with different knowledges, the immediate response to that is no, because I am who I am and live where I live and so my starting point is that I don’t know stuff. And so I have to work really hard to keep finding out both the things I don’t know and the ways in which I don’t know them. But in a way that’s actually quite liberating. Because if we go back to the original thing about academic framings, there’s lots of pressure to be an expert and know everything. I actually find it quite nice to be able to start by acknowledging well actually, I only know this much about this much. I know this tiny little slice; and even then, I’m not going to claim that I know everything about this tiny little slice of stuff that’s happening here in this little part of the world where these sets of ideas interact and I know some aspect of that. Because when my starting point is I don’t know things, or I know things the way I know them but I would never ever want to assert that it’s the only way, actually that’s a really productive place to start without wanting to sound too commodifying. It’s a very productive place to start because what that allows me to do is say okay, how do I challenge myself? So I know it this way – this could be food cultures, it could be language, it could be ritual, it could be pedagogy in the classroom, it could be how I interact with my children, it could be watching the news, Twitter, whatever right? But if my starting point is okay, this is what I think I know and then something comes along, then it’s actually really nice because my first question is obviously okay well what do I learn from this? And is there a way for me to think about whether there’s another way to approach this issue or question? If I tried to get outside of my own head or if I put aside what I think I know about this, what might that teach me about how somebody else might be experiencing that? So, Parinita, your point about being heterosexual in a heteronormative world and not having a disability, this particular positionality that you hold interacting with people and actually that revealing lifeworlds that you don’t have access to, doesn’t mean that you can’t have solidarity, that you can’t learn, and that we can’t build collective wisdom or action, right? It’s actually really liberating because if my starting point is I don’t know, well then every interaction is a learning opportunity. And that’s brilliant. I don’t mean that in a kind of I figured it out. Sayan, the language of unsettling, it’s perfect. You’re constantly unsettling yourself. In a way the most successful academics are the ones that just think, I am fantastic and I know all of these things – they’re the most successful ones. I’m not interested in that. I mean I can imagine that might be fulfilling in its own way, right? You get promotion, you gain a platform notoriety, money, whatever and there may be something to that. But I think collectively what it feels like we’ve expressed is we’re all aiming for something bigger, right? There is actually something else that has to come out of all of this. Which isn’t even in itself an end or an outcome. But trying to embed different types of processes, validating different pluriversal experiences and knowledges that might actually reshape the world. Because ultimately, I think all of us are expressing a discomfort about the determinism of the world that we live in. That doesn’t even mean that we share the same vision. But actually, that discomfort I think is good. That’s important. Because who would want to live in exactly the same world? That’s a bit bleh. That’s a bit boring, right? The question is how do we all work towards that collectively, but still embrace the fact that we might all want different things out of that? What does that process look like? Embracing that uncertainty, allowing yourself to be unsettled, is the first step. But actually, having done it, I feel hugely liberated. Because then, I don’t have to have all the answers. And that’s great! [laughs] And then my job becomes something else. I say this to my students all the time that I’ve got the best job in the world. I get paid to think. I get paid to learn. Don’t tell my employers but I might do it for free, right? When I approach it like that, it is fantastic. But it is often unsettling, right? Because sometimes we do want answers or answers are being demanded of us. Parinita, you’re talking about imposter syndrome and there is an element of that, right? We are put in that position because we’re supposed to know stuff. So then when I don’t have an answer, your instinct is to go, “Oh my god. I don’t really belong here.” But it’s actually about living with that sense of discomfort and being unsettled. Sayan, I think you’re absolutely right. Which is then you want to be able to radiate that outwards. How do we unsettle? But not in ways that are meant to be about attacking or distrust. It’s about actually trying to understand what the purpose of that unsettling is. Why would I want to unsettle? It’s not because I want to upset you or because I’m trying to make you feel bad or because I think everything is horrible or anything like that. The unsettling is about, well, hang on a second, if I just step back and take a different perspective on this or I look at this ritual or that food or this custom or this language or this geographical place – what if I shifted the lens a little bit like this? Or I described it in this way? Is it possible that we can learn something? Is it possible that we would be better off from it somehow? That we might actually create a different world? And the possibilities of that are so exciting that the discomfort and the unsettling is worth it for me. But for me it’s very much about a learning process. And living with that is a challenge but it’s hugely rewarding. So the answer to your question – the short answer is no, I don’t. But I want more. So I’ll just keep looking for it. [laughs]

Parinita: I love that. This conversation was so brain set abuzz and brain set alight.  Because sometimes it feels very isolating because not everyone within academia seems to want to question these things or seems to want to know about these things or is interested or whatever. So it’s nice to talk to people who do think about these things and who are doing things.

Sayan: Somewhere somewhat I feel that because the title of this umbrella podcast is fandom and I think also through these interactions, we create a mutual fandom that dissects from the usual dimension of hero worship. We don’t create pedestals; we are breaking pedestals. And we are basically acknowledging each other, critiquing each other, trying to understand each other’s differences. I once read an article by obviously a very famous Portuguese thinker Boaventura de Sousa Santos and he talks about this concept of depolarised pluralities. That is, not only do we require a form of plurality, but it should be depolarised as well. So I think this very podcast interaction made me feel in the same manner. That it’s not necessary we are all agreeing with each other, we critiqued each other, we acknowledged each other, we appreciated each other but also this consistent process brought so many new thoughts and dimensions to engage with in the future. Which I think is the most important thing. It’s not about shutting down and getting the record and sharing on Facebook and WhatsApp. Yeah we need to do that, we need to spread that. But what after that? And that opens up the gateways for more interactions, more weavings in the future. And for that personally I really thank Parinita for inviting me and inviting us and creating this us thing altogether today.

Parinita: Oh, it was totally Lata. Lata is the one who’s helped poke me when I fell into my PhD research pandemic hole. I’m so glad as well, Lata, that you brought us together. This was such a good conversation. More than ever now after talking to everybody here as well, I wish academia did more to talk to people who are not academics. Even in spaces like this, in Convivial Thinking or a podcast or just within academia in a classroom or whatever. Maybe talk to the students in a way that’s not talking to them but talking with them. And having them contribute their knowledge and intelligence which will again disrupt your own thinking because you don’t know. And that’s good pedagogy, right? That’s what we do in primary schools. I mean not in my school, we had 67 children in a classroom [laughs] but in other schools which have more room and resources to do this. You come together and you share knowledge and you have the skills that you exchange and learn from each other. Why don’t we do that in higher education? Why is it that the older that you get, there’s only one or two people who know. And even in terms of research, not just researching a group of people but having them be a part of the design as well. Not just you’re going in there as a researcher and then going away, like you were saying, Sayan, just going away and doing this research and then sharing the research in the academic version of Facebook and WhatsApp which is journal articles that are very expensive to access. But just creating this knowledge with the people and then also sharing it in a way that makes sense to them and that’s relevant to them. So yeah, that was apparently a very long final thought that I had. But thank you so much – this was fantastic. This was a great conversation.

Lata: No thank you for bringing us together which has been fantastic.

Sayan: Absolutely.

Lata: And I’m glad that we got to talk to each other.

Sayan: Absolutely.

Lata: It’s been so nice to talk to both of you today.

Sayan: It was fantastic interacting. I thoroughly enjoyed and learned and so many things to talk about again.

Parinita: I know.

Sayan: That makes me so happy actually.

Lata: Yeah.

Parinita: We need to have a second part of this episode. [laughs]

Sayan: Sure why not.

Parinita: Maybe in a post-pandemic world.

Sayan: [laughs]

[Outro music]

Thanks so much for listening! As both Lata and Sayan brought up throughout the episode, creating knowledge is such a collaborative effort and I absolutely have to agree. I learned so much from our conversation which I’m so excited to incorporate into my own work and thinking. Thank you both for taking the time to do this and for being so patient throughout this episode’s long journey out into the world. And thank you, Jack, for finding the time to edit this episode.

Some Notes On Episode 17 – Resources

Some Notes On … is a section which features my autoethnographic fieldnotes as I document my thoughts throughout different parts of my PhD project. Here, I write about the text resources discussed in our podcast episode. 

For Episode 17, See Different Possibilities: Alternative Relationship and Economic Structures in Fandom, we discussed the following texts:

1) Fan podcast – Be the Serpent: You and Me and Our Boyfriend Makes Three

I learned a lot through this discussion especially since I’m not familiar with the communities and cultures they describe. Balanced triads – each person is in a relationship with the other two people; V relationships – one person is in a relationship with two people who don’t have relationships themselves. These queer relationships are about love and not reproduction. All the people in the relationship offer different perspectives and strengths and skills to each other. They also have a different notion of family from normative nuclear families. Found families is an important concept.

In the episode they talk about the fanfic genre of OT3s (or one true threesomes) and how different kinds of polyamorous relationships are depicted in fiction and real-world media. In fandom, OT3 is like OTP (one true pairings) with threesomes – the pairing of threesomes that you love best in fiction. 

In fiction, OT3s work best in longform mediums like TV shows and book series where there’s more time and space to explore different facets of the relationships. Alternatively, in fanfiction, you’re creating an alternative canon based on a fictional world someone else has created.

Examples of potential triads include Harry Potter, The Hunger Games (lots of YA!), and Star Wars. Imagining polyamorous relationships opens up the potential for so many different kinds of relationships rather than the Team Edward/Team Jacob debates of yore. 

The fact that these representations seem to be predominant only in fanfic and not in mainstream media means that most people – young people and adults – can’t imagine other ideas of being in the world. Even I only encountered polyamory a few years ago on a dating app. 

The hosts point out the absence of this in speculative fiction particularly. They believe that SFF doesn’t build alternative family and relationship structures for the most part – only economic and political alternatives. The two person family/romantic/sexual unit is the default which you would think speculative fiction has so much room to explore. In 2020, you would think there would be more explorations of relationships especially in fiction to reflect it becoming more mainstream in the real world.

Is polyamory a queer thing, a millenial thing, a generational thing? Where is it more acceptable as the norm and where is monogamy the default? The norms hurt certain groups of people so they step out of these normative structures to explore other kinds of relationships and families. Seeing representations of this, as with other marginalised cultures, helps both the dominant and marginalised cultures – to understand themselves and others better. 


2) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds: Fan Fiction (Don’t Judge)

(I’ve already used this episode as a text for Episode 4, so I’m supplementing the notes I made then with these new ones. For the old notes, click here.)

Fanfiction fills such an important need in terms of representation which is absent in mainstream media – particularly fic written by fans from marginalised groups.

Fanfic is an example of communal writing where betas act as voluntary editors of fic. There’s also implications on the intersections of class, fanfiction and gender. So much time and labour are offered for free. This happens for love of the work and the community but people also need to pay the bills. On the other hand, capitalism wants you to commercialise everything and some things are just for the fun of it.

They talk with Francesca who more recently has been at the centre of online controversy in the midst of the Black Lives Matter discussions on Twitter and her and AO3’s complicity in racism. Fanfiction can be progressive and inclusive towards certain groups but hostile towards others – queerness and gender is centered but race is othered.

I like that fanfic offers a space for these alternative stories and perspectives and cultures which defy the normative dominant ones, but I also wish it wasn’t the only space in which these stories thrived. Fanfic isn’t accessible to everyone even on the internet; you have to discover it yourself. Mainstream media can also be inaccessible but more accessible than fanfic.

Fan entitlement – fans may not have institutional power but they are now able to respond to the media and critique decisions. Can fans influence mainstream decisions? Is the new Star Wars trilogy an example of fan or media company feedback? 


3) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds: Fan Fiction (Special Edition)

(I’ve already used this episode as a text for Episode 4, so I’m supplementing the notes I made then with these new ones. For the old notes, click here.)

“Women like the show too much and in the wrong way”

What’s wrong with fanfiction that focuses on a lot of sex and romantic relationships? It’s a perfectly legitimate form of expression and exploration of self-identity. Fans are writing/reading things they’re interested in which centres their perspectives and desires in ways which mainstream media doesn’t.

What is taboo in fanfiction often differs from what’s taboo in mainstream fiction. This is also historically contextual and can change. For example, slashfic, real person fic was taboo but now less so within fandom. Wincest – incest fic in Supernatural might be considered taboo in mainstream and possibly even in fandom. 

Archive of our Own was started by fans to own the platform where they wrote. They designed the structure and software from scratch. However, the initial group of co-founders had their own blind-spots and biases which undergirded the framework of the website which has now become such a mainstream space for fanfic online. 


4) Fan podcast – Verity!: Fanworks Round Table

Definition of fan works differs based on different perspectives and interpretations. Fan works take any elements from the original fictional world and play with it – inspired by or based on any piece of media. I think fanfic is a huge topic of conversation within fandom and mainstream conversation and even fan studies. I’m more interested in critical commentary such as fan podcasts and even Tumblr posts or other social media posts which analyse characters, worlds, events, themes etc. 

As one of the hosts points out, mainstream media seems to discover fanfiction anew every few years in a way that is vaguely if not outright derisive. They point out that slashfic used to be very taboo. Even fanfic itself used to be seen as something shameful. In mainstream minds, there’s a stigma against fanfic where it’s perceived to only be about sex; a view which is exacerbated by mainstream media critics and hosts who find and highlight the raunchiest examples of fanfic they can find. I don’t read a lot of fanfic so only know what’s normative and marginalised within that space through research I’ve read which in turn is also subjective and reflects a limited number of experiences.

Now, less people seem to object as much as they used to and fanfic seems to be more acceptable and accepted. It’s increasingly more from a sense of curiosity and sometimes even attributing their own interpretations which don’t take into account the nuances and complexities. For example, KPop fandom disrupting Trump’s rally being celebrated without including/understanding the prevalence of anti-blackness and racism within the KPop fandom. In slashfic, m/m slash is more dominant than femslash or slash featuring characters across the gender spectrum. Perhaps this reflects the lack of these representations in media. Or it reflects the hierarchy of marginalisation even within seemingly progressive spaces. Can  things like fan podcasts push back against this marginalisation a little bit maybe? Especially those which foreground an intersectional analysis? 


5) Fan podcast – Our Opinions Are Correct: Can We Survive Capitalism?

Can we survive capitalism is a superbly pertinent question especially these days of the pandemic! Even India is becoming more capitalist from a more socialist country and the results are awful. Whose lives matter? Whose comfort matters? Who needs to sacrifice for whose comfort? Over-consumption is a way of distracting people from what’s actually going on in the real world including issues of social, political and economic justice. Overall, people are blind to where your goods and your food comes from. You don’t have the context in late-capitalist societies. This is true in India too where even small rural societies are impacted by capitalism. Development projects like dams, canals, electricity, water, mining cause millions of people to forcibly migrate. At the same time, people in urban areas don’t think about where our services come from.

Capitalistic structures prevent class solidarity. Current example of this during the pandemic where a person tweeted their disgruntlement about going to work for Amazon when others were getting money for staying at home (hbomberguy’s response pointed out how much money Jeff Bezos makes every day) – pitting the marginalised groups against each other to prevent coalitions.

Commodity fetishism exists in science fiction too with illusions of branding and advertising. Dystopias seem to deal with class warfare and exploitation more than other speculative fiction. The Hunger Games features oppression through divide and conquer. There are examples of class warfare in Game of Thrones too and social uprisings in Star Trek and Doctor Who with the Ood. 

How does speculative fiction imagine alternative economies? How does it imagine capitalism? What are the different economic and social systems in SFF which are an alternative to capitalism? I just don’t know of enough examples, I think. They describe how in Star Trek, it’s seemingly a post-money economy but not everywhere in the universe. Star Trek features a post-scarcity society, a sort of socialist utopia where people aren’t obsessed with things and have gotten rid of basic human needs. A post-scarcity society implies endless resources or immortality. 

As one of the hosts points out, we can’t seem to imagine a post-capitalist society without some miraculous invention/system which takes care of current issues and needs. Does that make it more unrealistic or just real in fiction? As the same host points out, we have enough resources now but those resources are concentrated in the hands of the very few rather than being redistributed amongst other people. Are there examples of this in fiction? Does this seem more unrealistic than a magical solution? Utopian and dystopian post-capitalist worlds seem to be the norm – not worlds in-between who have eliminated some needs but not all.

Capitalism and colonisation – stealing resources from a group of people and using them to create more wealth only for a certain group along racial, class, gender lines or in science fiction, along species lines. Capitalism and environmental destruction – unsustainable production and pollution. Thinks like fast fashion and food – who pays the social and environmental costs for things like this and who benefits? Capitalism as an unsustainable system where you’re growing and growing and at some point you need to stop; same with environmental destruction. But we’re fobbing off the problem for the future even though it’s impacting people terribly all across the developing and developed world. 

During the pandemic, the idea of essential service workers changed but the class dynamics remained. Those who could afford to be in jobs that allowed them to work from the safety of their homes heralded those who had to put themselves into danger like NHS doctors and nurses or dismissed others like supermarket workers – all in a way which doesn’t involve radically restructuring society to benefit the ones who do the most important work in society. The false idea of meritocracy is still the dominant ideology which guides us. 

Labour which isn’t acknowledged or paid in a capitalist society include parenting, emotional labour. The costs of the pandemic are impacting women’s work more than men. A better way of capitalism would compensate people for educational labour, healthcare labour, and caregiving labour accordingly instead of paying people who do so little so much.

How do we imagine worlds beyond capitalism? 

One of the hosts thinks we still have ages to go before we topple capitalism as an economic system – which makes it even more important to imagine alternatives in our fiction so it’s something which seeps through to mainstream consciousness. This reminds me of the Accidentally Left-Wing Twitter account which presents some of these “dangerously radical” ideas such as abolishing rent and tuition and healthcare costs and universal basic income – ideas which essentially seek to protect everyone and provide them with the tools to live their best lives. Even things like access to parks, food and money in the UK during the lockdown – will post-pandemic speculative fiction address this collective trauma in ways which explore the class imbalances and imagine alternatives which bridge the gap?


6) Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper: Magic, Wealth and Power with Vic James

Vic James talks about her own books where magic is a form of wealth and wealth inequality. Magic is concentrated in the hands of the 10% of society and the remaining people have to give ten years of their lives to contribute to their society through physical labour. There’s an unequal distribution of power, which James believes is similar to mortgages and student debt. People are locked into economic relationships born out of necessity not choice. The story came to the fore in the wake of the Occupy protests as well as her own concern about her personal lack of wealth and a grim future. She drew on the history of inherited wealth and class imbalances in British society. There is now a new form of aristocracy where wealth now is completely locked away in offshore bank accounts from the context in which it was created. There is no circulation of wealth to boost the local or national economy only to boost individual self-worth. 

Access to education also depends on class. Class can’t be seen devoid of other contexts and intersectional identities. What sort of work gets you a lot of money? Not artists even though art is so important to so many people – something you see during the pandemic. The conversation draws connections between SFF and the real world in ways which make sense to current contexts. The rich keep getting richer sounds like a cliche but it’s true and ever-present and seemingly insurmountable. Lack of awareness about the impacts and causes of wealth inequality means that average people are seduced by the wealth and power of the elite because they don’t see the source of the conflict in their lives. They want to join the elite without realising they’re closer to being destitute than enormously wealthy.


7) Fan podcast – Woke Doctor Who: Captain Jack Sex Jesus

Jack offers a sex-positive representation in a mainstream children’s TV show like Doctor Who. Jack was Eugenia’s first encounter with such a positive representation of being open about and enjoying sex. As a first-gen Chinese-American, she didn’t encounter these ideas in real life. Jack offers a representation of a pansexual man who is attracted to men, women, other species 

Jack is from the 51st century so the labels for gender and sexuality that limit us today no longer exist then and are more fluid and flexible as seen in Jack. This idea takes advantage of a sci-fi show and all the potentials it offers. There are different conceptions of bodies as well. Jack makes an off-the-cuff remark of being pregnant once and doesn’t go into it. This can signal new possibilities in future worlds where technologies overcome present limitations where only trans men can be pregnant, not cis men. What does time and space do to the human body? 

Need representations of alternative relationships and family structures in children’s media as well. Jack has a found family in Doctor Who and another one in Torchwood. The mere presence of diverse sexualities and families in children’s media doesn’t require adult supervision just like the mere presence of heterosexual couples and normative families doesn’t. It can allow children to imagine and accept different ways of being in the world. 


8) Essay –  The truth about polyamory in India – ‘it isn’t about sex and fun’

Absence of representation of polyamory or alternative relationship structures when you’re young means that you won’t be able to articulate your own desires or imagine another way of existing in the world.

“Polyamory advocates honest, open, inclusive and egalitarian relationships between multiple partners.”

Consent, knowledge, and communication is important for all relationships but so much more important in poly relationships. Idea of poly relationships in mainstream imaginations is being all about the sex (just like fanfic) and lack of commitment. But poly relationships require deep commitment and may not always focus on sex. What about ace/aro poly relationships? Poly relationships share similarities with monogomous ones – setting boundaries and open and constant communication. However, poly partnership is about both emotional and physical needs and require people to be mindful, self-aware, and self-reflexive for it to succeed. Even though it’s becoming more mainstream, it’s still a marginalised culture (though more people are open about it now, at least in my encounters).

“This open and expansive interpretation of love and relationships may not be for everyone. It requires a great deal of self-exploration and constant communication. Whether one agrees with polyamory or not, it is difficult to dismiss the essential pillars it is built on. For good communication, generous love and equality among partners are worthy goals in any relationship.”

Polyamory challenges societal conventions, norms, systems and expectations because they don’t work for you, particularly the imbalanced power structures in most traditional relationships. Poly relationships offer a way to get different needs and desires met without placing the burden of these on a single individual who may not be able to fulfill these. Co-habiting and raising children with different partners is an unfamiliar family structure but people can make it work. 

“People who practise polyamory can create families and that is a proven fact,” Ley said. “Is it more difficult? Maybe. Because there aren’t many examples out there and they face stigma. However, things like co-living, parenting or long-term plans can benefit from polyamory, because you are likely to have a support network and a community and not just rely on one person to do all this with.”

Episode 17 See Different Possibilities: Alternative Relationship and Economic Structures in Fandom

Episode Resources:

1) Fan podcast – Be the Serpent: You and Me and Our Boyfriend Makes Three

2) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds: Fan Fiction (Don’t Judge)

3) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds: Fan Fiction (Special Edition)

4) Fan podcast – Verity!: Fanworks Round Table

5) Fan podcast – Our Opinions Are Correct: Can We Survive Capitalism?

6) Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper: Magic, Wealth and Power with Vic James

7) Fan podcast – Woke Doctor Who: Captain Jack Sex Jesus

8) Essay –  The truth about polyamory in India – ‘it isn’t about sex and fun’


Episode Transcript

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

A profile photo of Marita Arvaniti looking upwards to her right

[Intro music]

Welcome to Marginally Fannish, a show where we aim an intersectional lens at some of our favourite media and their fandoms.

[Intro music]

My name is Parinita Shetty and you’re listening to the seventeenth episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I talk to Marita Arvaniti about alternative relationship and economic structures in fandom, media, and society.

Fanfiction experiments with different kinds of characters, themes, and stories which are often absent in mainstream media. Fanfiction offers a space for those people who lack access to traditional publishing structures to find an audience for different kinds of ideas. Fans can write any kind of story they want without worrying about whether it will sell. This freedom from capitalist consumption allows fans to imagine alternatives to current systems. However, fandom isn’t without its class politics. The open accessibility of fan texts offers empowering possibilities. At the same time, creating fan texts requires different kinds of skills, costs, and access to technology. Moreover, online fandom features a large number of fans from marginalised groups who offer their time and labour for free. Not everybody can afford to do this work just because they love it. This limits the diversity of voices who can participate.

Nevertheless, fandom exposes people to ideas they may not have encountered in mainstream media and society. Fanfic exploring polyamorous, asexual, aromantic and platonic relationships allows people to imagine family structures other than the heterosexual nuclear family default. Such stories can challenge and expand ideas about the conception of families. Traditional family structures negatively impact women, queer, and poor people in different ways. Developing alternate family structures isn’t just a queer, feminist, and socialist project but also involves a process of decolonisation. Maybe that’s why so many women, including myself, have ongoing fantasies of communes which allow us to envision the kind of lives and communities we want to build.

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: Today I’m so happy to welcome Marita Arvaniti to the podcast whose tweets never fail to make me laugh. Marita took a wrong turn on her way to a theatre career in Greece and ended up as a PhD student in the University of Glasgow. Her research examines the lasting effect theatre has had on the birth and evolution of contemporary fantasy literature with a focus on fairyland fantasy. She holds a BA in Theatre Studies from the National Kapodistrian University in Athens and an MLitt in Fantasy Literature from the University of Glasgow. When she’s not researching or serving drinks and watching shows for free at a Glasgow theatre, she’s the Publicity Officer for Fantastika journal and a committee member for GIFCon. In today’s episode, we’re first going to talk about how relationships beyond the heterosexual nuclear family default are represented in media and fanfiction. Then we’re going to focus on class by looking at alternative economic structures in science fiction and fantasy. So both Marita and I are immersed in different aspects of online fandom. What have been your experiences as a fan and with the issues that we’re exploring today?

Marita: Well I’m mainly in fandom as a fanfic writer, I guess. I do that these days. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: It’s been very strange. I wasn’t involved in fandom for a very long time – for like a solid five years between 2015 and 2020. And before that, I wasn’t that active. But with current everything this year, I’ve just been churning out 10k word fics.

Parinita: [laughs] Amazing.

Marita: So it’s been very strange. It’s always strange coming into fandom as a person who’s not English, I think? [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah.

Marita: Obviously the different language becomes something that you learn through fandom. And I know that a lot of the way that I speak and write and think in English has been very deeply influenced by the fanfic that I used to read. Predominantly fan spaces were the main source of English education for me from one point onwards.

Parinita: How long have you been reading fanfiction?

Marita: God gonna show my age now.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: Gonna just out myself. Um … 2005?

Parinita: Okay.

Marita: Probably. So that’s a solid fifteen years.

Parinita: Yeah.

Marita: I have proof that the first fanfic I ever wrote was at age nine.

Parinita: Oh! Amazing.

Marita: I made a Draco/Hermione comic book.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: With my amazing drawing skills and my colour pencils.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: I just called it Hermione’s Diary because I was nine. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: And my mum has kept it somewhere. And occasionally brings it out if she needs to judge me and my life choices.

Parinita: [laughs] Oh but I love that! And it wasn’t online either. It was just something that you did. My first fanfiction was also Harry Potter fanfiction. Which I wrote when I was older than you – I don’t know if that makes it more or less embarrassing. I liked writing fanfiction at that time. I don’t think there’s anything embarrassing in it anyway. It was a sitcom version of Voldemort and the Death Eaters. [laughs] But I think I’ve lost it. It was on Mugglenet. And it’s not there anymore. But like with you in terms of language, what you developed with fanfiction; for me I think it was more the place and the setting and the context which I was writing was very foreign to me. Because when I grew up, English was my first language. So that wasn’t as much of a hurdle as much as it was just writing in a setting that’s so different and not even being able to imagine that I could write something set in India. Like Harry and Hermione and whoever – all the Death Eaters or Voldemort or whatever set maybe in an Indian magical school system or whatever.

Marita: Yes.

Parinita: Just because I grew up reading mostly British and American children’s books so my idea of stories was very Western. A lot of the fanfiction that I read as well, I don’t know if the writers themselves were from different parts of the world like me who were setting it deliberately in the West. But at least as a teenager I didn’t really read much in terms of diversity. It was very much playing with the same characters that existed. Which I think has changed now.

Marita: I think that’s definitely changed and you see it in the sort of fantasy children’s books that become popular.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Marita: Or get published and are everywhere in bookstores. I read a lot of children’s fiction in general.

Parinita: Me too.

Marita: And it’s delightful to see different things getting published … just not you know all the Brits.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Marita: And the weird public school situations. Not that I don’t like that. I’m a huge Diana Wynne Jones fan; I will defend her to the end of my days. But it’s good to have the alternative.

Parinita: No, absolutely. But also making it your own. Because you know for us in India even now we have a lot of the colonial education system going on. So when I went to school, we also had four houses because it was a Catholic school in Mumbai. I think ours they were named after saints and not the founders [laughs] of the school. That wasn’t weird to me. But I was listening to a podcast and it was an American podcaster and they were talking about how to them it was so weird. Well, the concept of boarding school itself was weird but also the house system was really weird. Which I took for granted. So I guess yeah just having these similar things but in different contexts.

Marita: Yeah. I was also thinking about what you mentioned earlier about not really having the space before fanfiction to write what you know and write what’s familiar to you. And I have another self-own for you that you can laugh at.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: There is a published fic in Archive Of Our Own that I wrote for the Les Misérables fandom.

Parinita: Oh! [laughs]

Marita: Because I’ve been through that hell.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: That is taking the student revolutionaries and placing them in the 1973 Greek student uprising. [laughs]

Parinita: Oh! That sounds really cool. I would actually absolutely want to read that seriously.

Marita: [laughs] It was very self-indulgent.

Parinita: Yeah but that’s what like I really like about fanfiction. There’s no right or wrong way to do it, right? I think that the perception of fanfiction is still a bit dubious. People who aren’t in that space are still a bit sceptical of it. Also because I think in one of the podcasts that I listen to, they were saying that – mainstream media, especially in the West, in the UK and the US talk show hosts and things.

Marita: Um hmm.

Parinita: They tend to find and highlight the raunchiest stories that they can find. And then confront the actors whose characters it was written about.

Marita: Oh god!

Parinita: I think Sherlock was one. Which they’re obviously doing it just to make it this thing that deserves comment and maybe mockery and ridicule. Which is not great. But I think that explains the idea that fanfiction is only about sex and really explicit sex exists. Which it isn’t. I mean a lot of it is but not all of it is.

Marita: Yes.

Parinita: And there’s a lot of other experimental things as well, right?

Marita: Yeah for sure. And you see that in fanfic spaces that talk about fanfiction. It’s always about the transformative work. It’s about transforming the text; it’s not about necessarily just you know dicking down.

Parinita: Yeah. And also I don’t think there’s anything wrong with explicit sex either.

Marita: No.

Parinita: Because like you were saying that it’s indulgent, yes; but so is writing most stuff that you’re not writing with an audience in mind, really. Anything you’re writing for yourself. Which is what I love about fanfiction. When I wrote that Voldemort and the Death Eaters sitcom thing or whatever, I wasn’t thinking in terms of what makes a good story or what other people want to read. I just wanted to write something that I would have fun reading. And it really helped me develop my skills. Because the kind of stories that I write now – I write books for kids – and it’s very much in the same vein. I have never been one who was really interested in relationships and shipping anyway either in fic or in mainstream media generally. I think it’s a great way to experiment and to write things you don’t see represented in media that you want to explore.

Marita: Yeah. And it’s also a way to tie it to the second half of our projected discussions for the day. It’s a great equaliser because you don’t have to go through the publishing grinder.

Parinita: Yeah!

Marita: You can just put yourself out there. And in many cases, they would be thoughts that might not be published or be able to be published either because of their content or because of you as a person who lives in a society and has or does not have the ability to go through the long process of trying to get a book deal. So I think whether it’s like whatever the rating you give your fic is – if it’s lemon or lime or not citrusy at all (this is to alienate the children listening to your podcast, they won’t know what I’m talking about.)

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: It’s always offering different perspectives and allowing you to explore and play with a text in a way that’s free from capitalist consumption.

Parinita: Yeah. Which I think is really interesting. I know we’re going to talk about that more a little later but yeah for sure. It’s basically people who don’t have access to the traditional publishing structures, right? Or even if they do, publishers who are the gatekeepers don’t think that there is room for those voices or those voices won’t sell or whatever. So in fanfiction you can write whatever you want based on anything you want and that’ll reach people; even if it reaches five people or even two people, that’s more than you would have otherwise. Publishing wouldn’t have been able to get your voice out there at all.

Marita: And you see it on the flipside of that. In authors who are published authors but are still active fandom members who write fanfiction. You can see such a divide in the content of theirs that gets published by a traditional publisher and the content of theirs that gets uploaded to Archive Of Our Own. I’m thinking of a lot of fandom wank from … recently there was the whole Tamsyn Muir situation with her Homestuck fanfiction

Parinita: Hmm.

Marita: And then you have authors like Naomi Novik who’s super popular in fandom but doesn’t want her fanfic author pseudonym to be associated with her published work.

Parinita: Ah. Yeah that’s really interesting because in one of the podcast episodes that I was listening to as well, they mentioned a writer who writes for a TV show that has a big fandom. I don’t think they mentioned what TV show it was. The writer is part of the writing team for the show, but also writes fanfiction for that show. Because that fanfiction wouldn’t have been on TV. They wouldn’t have produced that as a story. So she just goes and writes it in fandom itself.

Marita: That’s wild. I love that. I actually love that so much.

Parinita: [laughs] So yeah. I like that apart from everything else or I guess with everything else, fandom also seems to explore relationships that are beyond the dominant structures like I mentioned earlier. And this is again based very much on my research and fan podcasters and things mentioning it. Because I’m not very well-versed within the fanfiction community. I don’t know tropes and genres and stuff through first-hand experience. I haven’t read fanfiction in ages. I’ve read stuff that other guests have recommended to me, but I feel like if I start that, I’m going to lose my entire life to that again.

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] I have a very obsessive personality. Which is why I never got into Tumblr too much either. Because once I started, it was like oh my god so many hours! [laughs] So many hours!

Marita: [laughs] As I said, I have recently fallen back into fandom, reading and writing however many words per week. And it’s very interesting when you go into a new fandom – based on my experience as someone who’s done that recently – how quickly you find the communities of people writing the things you want to read.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: Like within two weeks, even though the person who introduced me to my current fandom likes to read very different things from what I like to read, within literally a few weeks I was in five Discord servers with a bunch of people and we were all writing OT3 and exploring polyamory through fanfic and things like that. I was like yup you know what, I just feel like that sometimes.

Parinita: So do you just want to quickly say what OT3 means for people who’ve not come across that term? Even I only came across that term through the Be The Serpent fanfiction episode.

Marita: Oh okay.

Parinita: I knew OTP which is One True Pairing.

Marita: So OT3 is One True Threesome. Or I guess three-way or thruple or three people. Anyway.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: And you can also find an OT4, you can find an OT5. Once you start adding people it can never stop. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah I find that really fascinating. Because when I was in the fanfic community – which was years ago when I was a teenager – that’s when slash fic was the most popular and that was the most mainstream thing. At that time, I think it was taboo in more mainstream sections especially mainstream media. But people have said it was a way for queer literature to fill the missing gap in mainstream literature. So slash is basically, for people who don’t know, male/male or female/female pairings traditionally. And now that’s changed. So now I love that that’s taken off and yeah they’ve just gone wild with it which is fantastic.

Marita: Yeah no I completely agree. It’s very interesting to see how things that, in my case, from personal experience – how you can see them sort of suddenly show up in mainstream media or suddenly show up in fandom spaces. And you’re like, “Ah! That thing.”

Parinita: Yeah.

Marita: So OT3s specifically or OT-whatever else, is basically the same thing as an OTP only with more people involved. Which is a very good explanation of polyamory in general. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs]

Marita: And I first came across it in the Merlin fandom.

Parinita: Oh yeah!

Image courtesy Pinterest

Marita: Because you have the four main characters and the narrative wants you to ship Arthur and Guinevere.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Marita: And to sort of but not really see the flirty banter with Arthur and Morgana. But then obviously fandom realises that the real emotional crux of the show is Arthur and Merlin.

Parinita: Oh absolutely! Like I said, I’m not even a shipper really. That’s not how I engage with media. But when I watched Merlin, I was like, “Oh yeah, these two – definitely! What are you talking about?” I like the women and things but this is like … I don’t know if they meant to do it, but there was so much more chemistry between Arthur and Merlin than with any of the other characters.

Marita: [laughs] Yeah, a hundred percent. And Merlin’s one of those shows that really capitalised on that in a way that was slightly insidious but like that’s not the point of this conversation. I can rant about the Merlin fandom for ages. But one of the things that I noticed in the fandom was that there was the option of shipping Arthur and Merlin and Guinevere and Morgana. And there was also a relatively prevalent tendency to just throw all four of them together. And be like, “Hello you’re all dating now! Figure this shit out.” Which I do not recommend. Do not try that at home.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: But yeah it introduced me to that as a possibility when I was a wee bairn.

Parinita: [laughs] No that’s so interesting. Because yeah fanfiction seems to be so much more experimental and open to ideas in terms of relationships than not only mainstream SFF but also mainstream society. Because like you’re saying, that’s the first time that you encountered that idea. For me, it was not even through fanfiction because I think OT3s and stuff weren’t really so prevalent at least in my nook of the fandom – ten or fifteen years ago. I don’t know how recently they’ve become more a part of fandom. But when I was within that, I didn’t come across that. So for me slash was this … not revelation I don’t want to say … but where I was growing up, even though I grew up in a big city in India, it was still very narrow in its scope of different ways of existing in the world and different kinds of relationships. So that was my first encounter with even like gay relationships.

Marita: Yes.

Parinita: Or just that idea of, “Oh wait not everyone is …” And it was so normalised as well which was very cool. And now I love that polyamory seems to be the new frontier that’s being explored. [laughs]

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: Because otherwise, if these representations are not predominant in mainstream media let alone mainstream society, most people – young people and adults – wouldn’t be able to imagine other ideas of being in the world, right? Even I only encountered polyamory I think a few years ago in like 2016 or something – just the concept of it on a dating app.

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: Because on OKCupid there seems to be a huge community there of people who want to explore polyamorous relationships. And that was my first … I’m personally not interested in exploring polyamory. I’m really boring and very monogamous. [laughs]

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: Very vanilla. But I was very curious about it. So whenever I would be talking to people, I would use them as this educational resource. [laughs]

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: And I would keep asking them questions like, “Oh so how does it work? So what do you do? Oh no, I’m not … I don’t want to.”

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: And then they’d obviously stop talking to me because they’d realise I was using them as an educational resource. [laughs]

Marita: Ever since I was very young, my reading has been very queer and different versions of queer. I’ve ended up in a situation where I’m other people’s either their gay Yoda or their polyamory Yoda.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: I’m like, “Yes, yes, come to me, child. Ask me thy questions. I will try to answer.”

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: Even though I do think that’s completely unearned. Because I don’t know what I’m doing.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: I’m just reading fanfiction and dating. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah. I mean that’s life, right? That’s adult life in a nutshell. I don’t know what I’m doing. We’ll figure it out.

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: But in science fiction and fantasy specifically, I think there’s so much more room for alternative family and relationship structures. Not fanfiction but mainstream SFF. But I don’t really see a lot of things exploring that. Off the top of my head, I can’t even think of any except how in one of the Woke Doctor Who episodes they mentioned Captain Jack in Doctor Who who is this pansexual, open to different kinds of relationships character. And they call him Captain Jack Sex Jesus. [laughs] Because he’s basically into everyone, regardless of even species. Because he’s from the 51st century. So the labels for gender and sexuality that limit us today no longer exist then according to the show canon. So it’s all more fluid and flexible. But I think that’s the only example that I can think of. Which I think is important to showcase that and normalise that in children’s media specifically. Because  when you’re a kid, you don’t really know how the world works, all the rules yet for grown-up life. And you’re still figuring it out. So if you see examples of that, you’ll be like, oh yeah this is just another way of existing in the world.

Gif of Captain Jack. Text says: I can't tell you what I'm thinking right now.

Marita: No, you’re absolutely correct. I was preparing to have a spiel, but you turned it around.

Parinita: Oh no I’m sorry I stole your spiel!

Marita: No, no! The mention of children’s media because it is still much more sterilised than adult SFF. Because I’m thinking in adult SFF, you have things like Sense8 for example, the Wachowski’s Netflix TV show that features different layers of LGBTQ identities; it features a lot of different kinds of polyamory as well. And then you have N. K. Jemisin whom I love and would die for if she asked me to.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: In both of her main trilogies, both in her Inheritance trilogy and in The Broken Earth, polyamory is present and practised. And often at the core – LOL that’s a Broken Earth joke.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: [laughs] At the core of the relationships that guide the book.

Parinita: Hmm.

Marita: I remember reading her Inheritance trilogy and realising that yeah, the mythology of that world is based on a pantheon that’s queer and polyamorous specifically. And you know feeling very gratified. Very #seen. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: And I did not expect to see something like that in such a successful, mainstream SFF series.

Parinita: Hmm yeah. She’s on my list. I’ve read the first book in her first trilogy. But I need to find out more, maybe haunt libraries or just get more books of hers.

Marita: I have them, I can give them to you.

Parinita: Yeah that would be great!

Marita: [laughs] Even Young Adult SFF is starting to be diverse and more embracing of polyamory.

Parinita: Hmm.

Marita: There’s not a lot but I can think of a few books where it ends in an OT3 kind of situation.

Parinita: Oh right!

Marita: My brain’s literally drawing a blank right now. I think one’s Adaptation? I’m – I’m just – the brain’s not working. But I know I’ve read them.

Parinita: I know. I read constantly. I’m constantly reading but if someone asks me what is the best book that you’ve read in the recent past,

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: I don’t know. What are books? I have no idea.

Marita: Have I even read a book?

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah. No so that’s really cool that that’s happening because I think that in mainstream imaginations, poly relationships seem to be all about sex and lack of commitment. It seems to be a trope if they’re represented or spoken about, mostly from what I’ve seen. And I don’t know as much as you do just in terms of queer readings of anything even in fic or just mainstream SFF. But they seem to be very trope-filled and very stereotype-laden. Poly relationships is one thing but asexual and aromantic relationships as well. They don’t exist either. That’s something I’ve come across even more recently, I think within the last year or two. And again, because of the internet and fandom and Tumblr screenshots that are everywhere.

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: Because I can’t go into Tumblr, so I follow it through Facebook and Twitter. But yeah just the representation of these. And then I think younger people who are aggressively online do have more of the words and the vocabulary for these feelings, which is great. I mean it’s true, it is more accessible but you still need an internet connection, technology. And also you don’t know which space to access. You stumble upon it or you know somebody who introduces you or … there’s still a pocket of people that it attracts and not a mass of people.

Marita: Yeah. No, I completely agree. And it’s also a lot of the content we stumble upon online, we end up absorbing information without any kind of context.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Marita: Or you see something and you sort of do a cursory Google search about it and you end up with very uneven and unequal depth of knowledge and depth of information. And again, as you said, you need to have an internet connection for that; you need to have you know in many cases, a personal computer so that you don’t have to use the family one.

Parinita: Yeah.

Marita: Because in my family, we didn’t have a computer until very late because we’re not very particularly well off financially.

Parinita: Yeah, same.

Marita: So I used to log on to Hi5 – do you remember Hi5?

Parinita: No! I don’t think we had Hi5.

Marita: It was Facebook pre-Facebook basically.

Parinita: Oh right!

Marita: And I used to log onto that from my friend’s computer and I would have to go to her house after school because it was at the time where it was starting to be important to have a presence online.

Parinita: Yeah.

Marita: I didn’t have a computer. [laughs] And then we got a computer, we got a family one that my parents used and that I used and so that was a different kettle of fish. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah. I just actually today just before we started recording came across this tweet about how this person said like, I can’t believe the youth of today can just go on their phone and start reading fanfiction immediately. I had to log on to my computer when my family wasn’t around and print out pages of it to take with me on holiday.

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: They don’t know how lucky they are. I was born in the wrong generation.

Marita: [laughs] I’m not going to lie. I have in my field of vision right now, because I’m in my parents’ house, I’m in my childhood bedroom right now. In my field of vision is my fanfiction binder.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: In which I’d printed all the fanfics that I really liked.

Parinita: Oh my god.

Marita: And kept them.

Parinita: I love it! I wish I’d thought to do this. So we were the same. It was me and my mum growing up. And it was a computer that both she and I used but it was largely me who used it because ever since we got the computer – I think we got it when I turned sixteen – and I used it to do everything. I was a very online teenager and a very online young adult and even now I continue to be super online. But I didn’t even think of my mum coming across it and stuff. Because she just didn’t use the computer in the way that I did. But I know I had so many favourite fanfiction that I wish I’d saved. A binder would have been a great thing.

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: And I just never thought of it. But yeah. For me what’s cool about representing different kinds of relationships like poly or even asexual and aromantic relationships is the possibilities that it opens up to different kinds of family structures. Which you don’t really see in society. And it’s both a queer and a feminist project, right? Just different kinds of family structures.

Marita: Yeah. It’s a process of decolonisation as well because the family structure that we understand as the nuclear family is very white, is very capitalist, is very heterosexual and so on and so forth. And even within whiteness, it is primarily Anglo-American.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Marita: The nuclear family doesn’t represent Greek family structures that well. It becomes so impossible to imagine alternatives to capitalism. Not to wildly paraphrase Mark Fisher but it does become easier to imagine the actual end of the world than it does to imagine the end to capitalism.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: Or alternatives to normal that we are experiencing or we were experiencing prior to 2020 I guess.

Parinita: Yeah.

Marita: And fanfiction and speculative fiction and those sort of highly imaginative creative spaces are a way to introduce alternatives. And I’m thinking of Ursula Le Guin specifically right now. All of her different societies with very different sex and gender equations?

Parinita: Um hmm.

Marita: Can you say that? Is that a phrase? [laughs]

Parinita: You can make a phrase out of whatever you want. I believe in you! [laughs]

Marita: Thank you. But yeah all of the balance between genders and the balance between relationships is something that she plays with so much in her work. And she has that one structure that has been adapted into fanfiction very often into polyamorous fanfiction specifically. Which is the planet of O. [?] In which you have morning people and evening people and a relationship is between two and two. So you’ve got two morning people and two evening people. And they sort of enter into a polyamorous relationship in which they’re all sort of romantically involved but they’re not all sexually involved.

Parinita: Right.

Marita: And I remember reading about this in a Merlin fanfic. And then reading about it again in different fandoms in which people take that structure and play with it and imagine the cast of a very different TV show most often set in our own world and our own reality. And imagine that very different way of approaching relationships as something that is the structural norm.

Parinita: That’s so cool because yeah like you said, it’s so rare to see that representation. But the fact that it exists in fanfiction just allows you to see different possibilities. Because the current way that the family structure is … like you were saying, the nuclear family isn’t great. And in India, in the cities and stuff, we are moving towards that. We’ve traditionally had a joint family thing in certain … we have so many different cultures and there’s so much diversity in India that I can’t speak for all of them. But mostly there have been a lot of traditionally joint families and that’s problematic as well. I’m not saying we should go back to that because it’s very patriarchal. The wife moves in with the husband’s family and sometimes you change the wife’s first name as well. So you lose all sense of your identity. It’s not just your last name, you lose your first name as well. But now in cities, at least, a lot of them are moving toward nuclear families. But that’s not really helpful for everybody. It’s not I think a thing that’s sustainable especially when both partners are working. If it’s a heterosexual relationship and both partners are working and they have children, it still falls on the woman to do most of the work.

Marita: Yeah.

Parinita: And that’s something that there’s more conversation about, especially now with the lockdown and the pandemic. About how much more work women are doing and mothers are doing and how much professional work they’re losing out on because it comes to them. Even in what you would have thought were egalitarian relationships, they’re not really feminist relationships as they’ve found out because they still tend to do a lot of the work. Me and my friends, we have this constant ongoing joke of a future commune where

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: We’ll build … and I’ve discovered that a lot of people seem to have this idea.

Marita: Oh god the dream!

Parinita: Right?!

Marita: The dream.

Parinita: Just go and grow your own food and just have a slower pace of life and live with people that you like.

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: And some of them may be single and some of them may have partners and children. Because it’s so impossible for just a couple to raise a child. It’s so difficult. I’m currently living with my boyfriend’s family, with his mother. He has a sister who’s just had a baby and she has another daughter as well, and they live nearby. So I love how much the families get involved in childcare and just other stuff like shopping for groceries and stuff. Because just one person doing everything is so impossible. Even if it’s a couple. They’re a couple but they’re at work and things so it’s just this different idea of how you can raise a child, how you can be a family. It’s not just romantic relationships, it’s also platonic relationships that are important. So just challenging that notion I think is so important.

Marita: I think it’s very funny how widespread the notion of starting a commune with your friends is.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: Especially in lockdown.

Parinita: Yeah. Ugh yeah.

Marita: That’s just the daydream. I just want a house with some land and at least four other people just existing around me.

Parinita: Yeah, right?! Whoever I’ve spoken with, it’s mostly been women who seem to want to this as well.

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: Which hmm I wonder why this system that was set up by men doesn’t seem to be working for us. That we want to escape it.

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: We’ve been focusing on the positive aspects of fanfiction in terms of how it exposes us to different ideas. But of course while fanfiction can be progressive and inclusive in some ways and towards certain groups, it can also be hostile towards other groups as well, right? I’m thinking specifically – again I’m not a huge part of it but I listen to a lot of fan podcasts, follow Twitter conversations and things. So recently there was this whole discussion about A03 and racism. And how there was this online controversy in the midst of the Black Lives Matter discussions on Twitter and AO3’s complicity in racism. Where queerness and gender are centred, there are more opportunities for that, but race seems to be othered.

Marita: I have sort of complicated feelings about that.

Parinita: Okay.

Marita: It’s definitely not my space really to talk about because I am very white. [laughs] And I don’t have as deep a critical look into AO3’s practices etcetera etcetera as I’d like to have to be able to form a more informed opinion etcetera etcetera.

Parinita: Yeah.

Marita: I definitely think a lot of the criticism that has been made is absolutely fair and very, very much correct. I do think in the response of AO3, I can see where some of that is coming from. Like the argument that nothing can be all things to all people.

Parinita: Hmm.

Marita: And especially if you’re an archive essentially. A lot of the proposed suggestions that I’ve read from people arguing that AO3 is racist and should adopt some different policies. A lot of the policies I’ve seen suggested do not seem feasible to me.

Parinita: Hmm.

Marita: Like we as you said, we’ve talked a lot about the positive that fandom and the fanfic communities as positive spaces. But they are absolutely a space that’s rife with bullying and just general very hateful speech and very hateful mentalities and a lot of targeting of people etcetera for various different things.

Parinita: Right.

Marita: And I think that taking away a lot of that and giving mods more power and making it more structured and less in very, very, very big quotation marks “free” could very much lead to people getting banned over silly things. And a lot of purity culture specifically. I know that’s what a lot of queer people are worrying about around AO3 because you tend to create content that might be questionable in various ways. And I know that there’s a lot of concern about that. Adding the ability to delete comments is great. I love that. Turning off and on comments is also great. It’s just that we have those theoretical conversations and we don’t actually talk about the work.

Parinita: Right. Yeah that’s really interesting. I think conversations are important just to raise awareness about issues and to maybe start thinking about how things can be solved. And again, I’m saying this more as someone who’s been an observer of the conversations without having any sort of investment or stake in it because I just don’t frequent A03 really. So for me it’s just been this abstract, theoretical thing, as you said. So even in terms of feasibility and stuff, I’m really ignorant and I’m just trying to learn from the different perspectives. But what you said about it in terms of just even the work, I think that’s really interesting in terms of fanfiction and just moving on to what we were talking about in the other part of our conversation which is the class politics of fanfiction and fandom in general. Where a lot of it, like you said, is against the capitalistic structures of mainstream media where you’re just writing things because you love it. You love the community, you love the text and you’re playing with the characters. Or you’re frustrated with the text and you’re playing with the characters. Plus there’s this whole community of beta readers who act as editors and things.

Marita: Um hmm.

Parinita: Which I think is great because that’s what the community is. But at the same time, because fanfiction largely has women and nonbinary people, the more marginalised groups … there is so much time and labour that’s offered for free. And it is for the love of the work and the community but people are still … I think there’s that in terms of accessibility there as well. Who can afford to put in so much labour and effort for free for something that you love and who might want to, but may just not be able to because either they don’t have the time or they’re tired from the job that they work in that might not be great but they have to do because they have to pay the rent. And they have to pay the bills, right? And of course, on the other other hand, capitalism wants you to commercialise everything. And some things should just be fun. But it’s just there’s more nuance to that. It’s not just one or the other.

Gif of woman with text saying "The situation's a lot more nuanced than that."

Marita: Yeah. It’s sort of similar to me to how people talk about academia.

Parinita: Hmm.

Marita: Because I’m self-funded and I work. And for the last year I tried to do my first PhD year full-time while at the same time working full time because I needed to be making over 900 pounds per month in order to just be able to pay my tuition and my rent.

Parinita: Yeah.

Marita: And it is for the love of the work because I love what I’m doing. With fandom as well, it is for the love of the content and for the love of the community etcetera. But it is still work.

Parinita: Yeah.

Marita: I am very lucky that I was furloughed during lockdown. I could afford to stay at home. I had a very, very strong academic block. And I couldn’t create the content for my PhD. So I turned to fanfiction. But I had that opportunity because I was furloughed. And because it was the end of the year, so my tuition fees were more or less paid. I would not have had that opportunity if I was an essential worker and I had to keep going to work every day. And like fandom in particular it’s so interesting because on one hand there’s so many young people who are not working, who are in school, who are children. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah.

Marita: Working and creating and just existing in the space. And then on the other hand, you have the older fandom who has a very different dynamic to it. They have very different ways of interacting with the process of creation and the process of being active fan members. And you have responsibilities and you have a family and you have a career and you can’t just be, “Oh I’m just going to use my savings this month and I’m going to spend the entire month writing PWP Drarry fanfiction.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah. No, for sure. Even fan podcasts, because that’s my current fandom I guess. I’m a fan of fan podcasts because I listen to so many.

Marita: [laughs] Same.

Parinita: But that’s such a labour-intensive process as well. Like you mentioned, I don’t come from wealth either. I’ve been lucky in terms of scholarships so I get a small stipend which isn’t enough to live on in the UK but it is something. And I have some money left over from my master’s scholarships that I’m currently using to live. And I realise how incredibly lucky I am that I get to do, like you’re saying, I’ve merged both academia and fandom into my work. Which sometimes can be quite problematic because I don’t know where my PhD ends and where my real life begins. And that’s also – I love to blame capitalism for everything – but that’s also this cult of productivity. Where you feel like your self-worth is tied to how productive you are so if you’re not doing something all the time, you feel like you’re not worthy of things that you get. So that’s definitely a problem where I tend to overwork. But that’s also such a, as we say in India, “first world problem” where you can sit at home and I’m working on my laptop. Whereas Jack, my boyfriend, he was an essential worker – he was working at an Amazon warehouse during the lockdown. So he was going to work every day for eight hours and he’d be on his feet. He was doing manual work lifting things and stuff. Whereas I was sitting at home maybe working for the same time, but I was sitting and doing something that I loved and I’m being paid for it. Not a lot. But I’m being paid for it by my university because I’m doing it as a part of my university project. Whereas other people, other fans, they’re doing fan podcasts and they’re doing them so much more frequently, but how do they get the money?

Marita: Hmm

Parinita: How do they justify that? There’s Patreon and things like that. They ask for donations and stuff but it’s still such a … yeah, you need to be earning enough money from what you’re doing to be able to do what you love.

Marita: Yeah. I work for a fan podcast right now. I do some scribing so I write the transcripts for episodes. And I get paid for that. Which I did not know was going to be a thing. I was very surprised when they told me. Which in and of itself is fucked up to realise that

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs]

Marita: I was not expecting to get paid for the labour that I knew I was going to be doing.

Parinita: Yeah. And it is a lot of labour. I do transcriptions for each of my episode. And it is a lot of work.

Marita: It’s so much!

Parinita: Yeah.

Marita: The term fan podcast is really strange because it is a fan creation and it is a part of fandom, but it’s not free in the way that fanfic is free. Because it takes so much more different types of labour and different types of cost etcetera.

Parinita: Yeah.

Marita: The difference between different podcasts showcases the kind of people who can afford to have the more expensive equipment. And they end up with more polished podcasts and their polished podcasts end up getting picked up by distribution groups like Multitude or Maximum Fun etcetera. And then you have more fan fan podcasts primarily from people who are less privileged in their creative and fan endeavours. And you end up with a Patreon maybe if you’re lucky.

Parinita: Yeah.

Marita: Which is just … you were right, it is capitalism’s fault. Everything comes back to blaming capitalism because it is their fault.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah because then it also limits the diversity of voices in podcasting, right? I’ve done some research in terms of not fan podcasts but podcasts in general. And it does seem to be – at least the more successful ones, the more popular ones which in itself is not a great metric for success but I mean that’s what you get the money and you get picked up like that – is they’re largely Western, a lot of them are American and a lot of men, and pretty white. There is, of course, diversity especially specifically in my project, I try to look for more diverse voices in terms of different identities but it’s still really Western focused. I don’t know of any Indian fan podcasts, for example. That doesn’t seem to be a thing because it is so much work and sometimes if you’re so tired of doing your full-time job and commuting and whatever that you can’t think of going home and just working. It’s still a privilege to even be able to podcast. And I think there’s just not this idea of there can be a different way of living and making a living, I think. Because there are such limited avenues which are getting even more limited now because of all the recession that the lockdowns have led to all over the world.

Marita: Yeah. I’ve been listening to podcasts and consuming a lot of podcasts for a while now. And it has been really interesting to see what gets picked up and what doesn’t. And a lot of work in fan podcasts and fiction podcasts etcetera. What ends up becoming a big thing and who gets to quit their job and become a podcaster full time. Which is still wild for me to consider. Like Harry Potter fandom is very, very big on that because it has a lot of dedicated fan podcasts and people becoming Harry Potter podcasters and that’s their job.

Parinita: I know! It’s so beyond my realm of possibility or imagination. I would love to do that. I would love to be making this podcast full-time which currently I am, but it is for the PhD project. I can’t imagine doing this – like I want to, but I don’t know how to be able to to do this going on after my PhD because then nobody is going to be paying me to do this. So I will need to be doing other jobs to do it. And like in India, I don’t know how it is in Greece, India is very work-obsessed. There doesn’t seem to be a work-life balance. That’s not really a thing that most people worry about.

Marita: As you know, we’re famously lazy in Greece.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: We’ve never worked.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: I’m kidding obviously, please continue.

Parinita: I mean India has some of those stereotypes as well. But for me, I had to get out of India – when I moved to Glasgow for my master’s – to be able to imagine that oh wait, people stop working at 5 and their commutes are not two hours? They don’t spend two hours then travelling back home? And they have weekends off? What?! They can take time off? Just a leave of three weeks or whatever and that’s their annual leave? I mean obviously we have leave and things but it’s just so different. My mother, she had to drop out of college and stuff so she’s been working as a secretary and an administrator at different companies since she was 18. So for her it’s always been a grind. She’s worked through fevers very proudly. She’s like, oh I have a fever, I feel like I’m dying but I’m going in to work. So I grew up with that idea of work and that’s how it is in India. You’re expected to be on your phone and whatever, be accessible to the employer at whatever time in most regular jobs, I guess salaried jobs. Which now especially with the pandemic and things, I’m like I don’t think that that’s the kind of life I want. I think that society is deeply broken.

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: And maybe a revolution doesn’t sound like such a bad thing.

Marita: [laughs] I love how we started our conversation not addressing the elephant in the room which is that everything is broken down because of the pandemic. And then not even an hour later, we’re both like, yeah so society is broken. Capitalism is the pits.

Parinita: [laughs] I mean I knew about society being broken before the pandemic.

Marita: Yeah. It’s no surprise.

Parinita: But I think the pandemic has thrown everything into such relief. We’re hanging on such a balance with everything. When the lockdown just happened in the UK, the first three weeks were ridiculous! People were stockpiling – who could afford to, obviously. Me and Jack were talking about it – who can afford to stockpile? Who has the room? We were living in a tiny flat in Leeds. Even if we had the money to stockpile, where would we put these things? Who are these people? Where are they putting all the stuff that they’re buying? And even in terms of the class dynamics with the essential workers; another term for them had traditionally been “low-skilled” jobs. But suddenly they’re the most important people in the economy because they’re the ones stocking your toilet paper on the shelves.

Marita: So it’s very interesting experiencing the pandemic from two different countries.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Marita: Because as soon as I came to Greece, Greece did not have many cases.

Parinita: Right.

Marita: Greece was not affected more or less by the pandemic. And then they decided – well they didn’t decide, then they had to open borders because so much of our economy is tourism and is the exploitation and the selling out of our islands. So we had to open our borders and as soon as that happened, cases skyrocketed. And suddenly Greece is in the shit. Even though it had more or less escaped. Because there was no feasible way or at least the government didn’t think there was no feasible way for us to survive financially without welcoming a bunch of tourists who did not care for maintaining social distance, did not pay any attention to the policies in place. I was at an island which in and of itself I did not expect to be able to do.

Parinita: Yeah.

Marita: But I was on an island and I went to this bar that was supposedly open air so it was working. And people were just piling in and I had to leave almost immediately because I panicked. And everyone was so unconcerned like corona who? And it was obviously mainly tourists. And mainly people who could afford to be messy in a different country that would not have to care for them if they got sick.

Parinita: Yeah I mean like you’re saying, the two different countries and how they’re handling the pandemic. For me, even though I’m a brown immigrant in the UK – which is pretty low on the totem pole in this country – I’m still pretty privileged because I’m within academia which has its own problems but I’ve been quite lucky. I’ve been in a really nice protected bubble mostly because I’m really oblivious to things that are happening. Maybe I have had microaggressions and racist things happen but I’ve just not been really observant so that’s great that I’ve not noticed them. So I’m pretty privileged here. In India, I’m so much more privileged; even not being in Mumbai because India is still in the middle of a really bad wave – the first wave – and the cases are increasing and things. And Mumbai, my city is in lockdown, and my mum the way that she’s dealing with it all. And she’s also one of the more privileged ones because she has a house, she has a job.

Marita: Yeah.

Parinita: I don’t know if you came across this at all, but there was a huge migrant crisis and by migrant I mean really deprived people who work in different parts of the country; who come from villages but work in cities and construction sites and in industries and as labour. And they were just abandoned by the government. In the beginning, in March and April there were just these awful photographs of people walking thousands of kilometres in the summer sun and collapsing and dying because there was no transport. The lockdown had been announced overnight and there hadn’t been any things put in place to get these people who can’t afford flight tickets or whatever anyway to get them to their homes. They’d been completely abandoned because they obviously don’t matter, right? They don’t have the money so why would they matter? Whereas people who were middle class and upper middle class and wealthier who were stuck abroad, they were flown in via planes. But these poor people stuck in the country in another state weren’t. So it’s just like how much your life matters depends on the wealth that you have. I think in one of the podcasts, they were mentioning about how society now has just created this different kind of aristocracy. At least earlier, at least here and in India, there were horrible feudal landlords but they were spending money in the society that they lived in. Whereas now, you’re taking all the wealth that your employees are creating and then you’re stashing it away abroad. With Amazon what was it, every second he [Jeff Bezos] earns some ridiculous amount of money.

Marita: Oh god! I saw a thing today that was literally the world’s billionaires and how much their wealth has increased in the pandemic. And literally it was that. And it was a sign that said your death is their money.

Parinita: Yeah! Absolutely. But also I think these conversations are more mainstream now, at least if you’re on a certain part of Twitter which I think both of us inhabit – that pocket of Twitter and Facebook – where they’re talking about these things. But a lot of people seem to be completely cut off from this. I remember there was this a tweet where a person who works in Amazon was complaining that he still had to go to work but there were other people who were sitting at home and getting paid. In the UK they’re paying people who are furloughed, right? Well a lot of people who are furloughed, not all. And so he said that, oh these people they’re sitting at home and not doing anything and making money whereas I have to go to Amazon warehouse. And then someone responded to them saying Jeff Bezos is making a million dollars every day or every week or whatever it is. Instead of fighting other people who are just trying to live their lives and might have other problems, why don’t you actually target the people who are completely robbing the world of its money and its resources?

Marita: I just ugh it gets me so angry!

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs]

Marita: Ugh.

Parinita: But that’s why I think there needs to be more representation of this in science fiction and fantasy. I know coming back to that, but I think media representations that’s the reason they’re so important. That they allow you to see a different world but also make connections with your own contexts and how that applies to your world. Because most people I think seem to think that they’re closer to Jeff Bezos than being homeless. Which is so untrue! If you miss a couple of months of rent, you’re going to be kicked out of home unless you have someone else to depend on. It’s not like if you get two extra months of payment, you’re going to suddenly be a billionaire! For most people at least.

Marita: As we were recording this podcast, I got an email from work reminding me that that’s my last furlough payment in August. And I will not be getting paid moving forward. So that just felt very prescient and current.

Parinita: Oh no, that’s terrible!

Marita: Yeah.

Parinita: Ugh!

Marita: They sent it to us in an email that started with an announcement that all of management was getting a raise.

Parinita: Oh my god!

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: Oh my god. Ugh!

Marita: Just in case you needed more capitalism sucks.

Parinita: No, no that’s why we need to start a revolution, right? Earlier when I said a revolution seems like a good idea, I was completely underplaying it. I am ready for a feminist, socialist – intersectional feminist socialist revolution.

Marita: Let’s go.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: Let’s go. I am ready. I have been doing push-ups in lockdown so I can punch now.

Parinita: [laughs] That’s great. My skills are very, very limited. [laughs] But I’ll build them, I’m eager to learn. I can write children’s books, I can keep the kids entertained, I guess. [laughs] That’s what you do, right? That’s all you need to do.

Marita: Good. You’ll be responsible for our children.

Parinita: [laughs] This was such a fun conversation even when we were calling for the downfall of patriarchy and capitalism. [laughs]

Marita: That’s what all good conversations do.

Parinita: Yeah well, especially in 2020, of course.

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: There’s no good conversation without that. Thank you so much for being a part of this project and for really giving your time and your expertise with things that I know very little about. And it was such a fun conversation. I think all my podcast episodes going forward need to call for a revolution.

Marita: [laughs] Well, if you need the literature, as I said, I do have a Les Misérables fanfic about it.

Parinita: [laughs] Yes! Coming out of this PhD project if anything, it’s contributed to anything in coming close to the downfall of patriarchy and capitalism, that would be pretty good. And like no pressure! [laughs]

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: No pressure on our episode at all.

Marita: I will make sure to cite this podcast when I inevitably make my attack on the ruling class.

Parinita: [laughs] Thank you so much.

Marita: Thank you for having me!

[Outro music]

It’s been awhile since the last episode was published. I recorded this episode in August 2020 but it took a total of six months to get it out into the world. I blame 2020 for all of this! I have five more episodes which I recorded with some excellent people over the last year. But as much as I would love for everyone to be able to listen to them immediately, I really can’t predict when they’ll actually be ready for publication. My partner Jack edits the episodes while simultaneously handling a full-time job in a warehouse in the middle of a pandemic and just general worldwide political turmoil. So life may get in the way of our plans and the next five episodes may be irregularly scheduled as well. For this, I blame capitalism! I’m really sorry about the wait and if you’re still listening, thanks for sticking around! You can’t imagine how much I appreciate it. And thank you Marita for your conversation and teaching me so many new things. And thanks, as always, to Jack for managing to edit episodes even while juggling two medical emergencies and a background of cicadas.

[Outro music]

I’d love to hear from you and talk to you – so any feedback, comments or critiques are very welcome! Get in touch with me on social media, leave a comment on my blog, or email me at edps@leeds.ac.uk. If you’d like to follow the podcast or the PhD project, visit my website marginallyfannish.org. Here you’ll find the podcast episodes, transcripts, episode resources and links, and my research blog. You can also receive updates on Facebook or Instagram at Marginally Fannish or on Twitter where I’m @MarginalFannish. I share episode resources on social media so you can find a bunch of excellent fan podcasts and essays to look up. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share it with anyone you think will enjoy it too.

Thanks for listening! Tune in again next time for all things fannish and intersectional!

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