A PhD project exploring intersectionality through fan podcasts

Header image with the text Marginally Fannish

Category: Fieldnotes Page 1 of 6

Podcasting about Harry Potter in 2020

A couple of weeks ago, I listened to The Gayly Prophet episode 61 “The Toll of TERFs and Trolls” which featured the co-hosts’ struggles with running a queer, intersectional Harry Potter podcast in light of Rowling’s transphobic statements over the last year. Lark, one of the co-hosts, is a trans man; whereas Jessie, the other co-host is a queer black person – both located in the US. When I was first listened to their conversation, I felt the same sense of emotional and psychological distress they spoke about – though I’m keenly aware I have a fair amount of privilege in this instance as a cisgender heterosexual woman. Quite understandably, they are much angrier and much more hurt than I am at J. K. Rowling. Despite our differences, we do share some of the same conflicting and complex feelings so I thought I’d write some of them down.

Harry Potter has always been an escape and comfort for when the world is on fire. This has been my experience right since childhood and should have definitely been my experience in 2020 of all years. However, as Jessie points out, this is now ruined by Rowling’s transphobia to the extent that even recommending the books to potential new fans feels fraught since it’s no longer a source of untainted joy. Lark and Jessie have somewhat dealt with their complicated feelings by launching a campaign against Rowling’s transphobia and pushing to create a safe space for trans and other queer fans on their podcast. In my own case, on the podcast, there are some episodes where we don’t really mention Rowling’s transphobia much or at all even while talking about other aspects of Harry Potter and I always feel guilty about, “What if that’s the only episode someone listens to and either thinks I’m supporting her uncritically or isn’t even aware of her problematic statements at all?” We do have episodes where we explicitly engage with Rowling’s transphobia and the discomfort of loving Harry Potter, but the feelings don’t quite disappear.

Lark created A Guide To Cancelling JKR which lists resources and ideas for what queer fans and allies can do, specifically those who still love the world but not it’s creator’s bigotry. Both Lark and Jessie had to split the work of moderating their comments section – specifically when their Facebook post went viral and attracted trolls and targeted attacks. The monitoring and moderating took an emotional toll on both hosts and utterly exhausted them – especially as it came in the midst of a pandemic, the Black Lives Matter uprising in the US, and an upcoming election. Though not nearly to this degree, but this is something I’ve felt acutely as well – compounded by the ever-speedy descent of India into fascism – that how can Rowling think this is the time to share her opinion about an already vulnerable group of people? Especially in June, when Rowling’s statements were ongoing – after a period of deliberate silence on the issue – I know how exhausting it was keeping up with everything. Lark and Jessie had it so much worse because they were doing this in addition to their work on the podcast and the work they do to pay rent and bills. I’ve been lucky that the podcast is my full-time job at the moment (though that is not without its problems vis-à-vis its impact on my mental health).

For Lark, The Gayly Prophet and the associated memes is a form of activism because he can’t participate in many other parts of activism. He speaks about how he’s currently on autopilot because it’s all too much for him but feels a sense of obligation to keep working for the community they work + the result of capitalism because of the feeling that they will lose the community and momentum they’ve built up. Add to this the fact that the world is broken and a break might not really help. The work makes him feel better. This is absolutely something I relate to where the podcast has become such a huge part of my coping mechanism of dealing with the world and not being emotionally ready to let go of it. This is also entwined with the fact that Harry Potter is so important to so many people’s development and sense of self, as Lark points out. It feels impossible to let go of it – I’m certainly unable to. Lark further describes how simply not talking about Harry Potter won’t make it go away – won’t prevent other people from reading it; people who may be unaware of the transphobic context now and may engage with it uncritically. Fans and allies can use Harry Potter to critique not just problematic elements in the text but also in the real-world – though, again, this isn’t without its problems. Maybe it will be better to stop talking about it altogether. As Rita pointed out in our episode, talking about Harry Potter – even critically – provides Rowling with so much cultural and social capital which can be translated to financial capital. However, both hosts find joy in the podcast process – having a fun conversation with each other – and sometimes other people – about a specific thing. Podcasting acts as a form of friendship and relationship-building; something I’ve definitely found to be true podcasting over the last year. Talking to friends, acquaintances and strangers about different aspects of Harry Potter and other media texts has been such a source of joy and inspiration – and has honestly kept me from completely falling apart in so many instances.

As they further point out, since Harry Potter has such a huge cultural impact on so many people of our generation (and others), it has become a shared language which we can use as a framework to talk about real-world oppressions and injustices. It’s something quite a few fan podcasts – including my own – do. For example, using The Prisoner of Azkaban to talk about the failures of the healthcare system in the US or the broken criminal justice system in the country. Parallels from Harry Potter make these real-world issues more accessible and become a way to talk about issues they may not have previously considered. It’s why I wanted to include fan podcasts in my research and it’s definitely been true in my own podcast. They’ve also been able to draw on their own experiences with mental health issues like depression to identify it in Harry Potter characters. Listening to these parallels has honestly helped me so much in being able to identify and address my own depression over the last year.

To deal with all the complicated feelings associated with Harry Potter, they launched a new quarantine podcast this year called EsGaype from Reality which is a re-read podcast of Carry On by Rainbow Rowell which is explicitly queer and which actively engages with diverse cultures and issues of marginalisation and justice. Based on this episode’s recommendation, I finally listened to the audiobook, and could see where they derived their sense of joy in this book from. It also allows them to not talk about J. K. Rowling and just enjoy the book without any baggage (though with the knowledge that Rainbow Rowell has also been critiqued for previous books). In the course of my podcast episodes, I’ve also been so happy to be able to sometimes focus on media I love and gain uncritical joy from like She-Ra and the Princesses of Power and Anne With An E – though, again, with the same knowledge that no media text or creator is perfect. Though, as Lark points out, very few other texts share the kind of outsized popularity and common knowledge which Harry Potter does so it’s difficult to use another text with the assumption that the other person knows its themes and characters.

They talk about the frustrations of only being listened to because they’re queer and not because they’re good podcasters or whenever they get a surge of listeners whenever Rowling said more problematic things rather than because they’re successful because they have fun, interesting conversations. At the same time, they’re really aware, proud and grateful about the fact that their podcast has created a safe space for many trans and queer fans – including in at least one instance where a fan wrote to them saying they started transitioning in large part due to the supportive community they found in and through The Gayly Prophet. Podcasting is an accessible medium – definitely more than academia and even physical spaces and communities – to create a space of queer joy, comfort, and support.

Creating art at any time is difficult – but when it’s in 2020, it’s so much more draining – emotionally, physically, mentally. It’s something Lark and Jessie have felt, and it’s something I’ve felt. But art can be an important form of protest and activism – to shift ideas and change conversations and expand imaginations. To create a space for anger and joy. Because both anger and joy are necessary to imagine and build a world more equal and more just than the one we currently inhabit.

The Different Kinds of Fannishness

(I found a perfect GIF that won’t save as a GIF so please just imagine Harry and Ghost (?) Dumbledore standing together at Ghost (?) Kings Cross Station as they say this)

Harry/Fandom: Is it all real? Or is it just happening inside my head?

Dumbledore/Tumblr: Of course it is happening inside your head, Fandom. But why should that mean that it is not real?

When I first came up with the name for the podcast – Marginally Fannish – a little over a year ago, it was supposed to be a pun which worked in two ways – exploring fans who are on the margins of dominant groups in different ways and how this is reflected in media and culture + fans who are not necessarily fannish in the ways fan studies has largely focused on i.e. active in fan communities, participatory, creating transformative works, engaging in online discussions. This was partly self-centered – I’m on the margins in some ways in the UK (though also a part of the dominant culture in many ways in both the UK and India) and for most of my fannish life I’ve been a lurker (except for a brief stint as a teenage fanfiction writer and now as a fan podcaster).

However, I was really interested in exploring how other fans engaged with their favourite media in different ways. For instance, I primarily bonded with my two co-hosts through our various shared fandoms when we first met. Ever since then, we have been excitably fannish and have discussed news, theories and plot twists featuring our favourite worlds – all in the confines of WhatsApp group chats (which replaced a GChat group chat). Being a part of this podcast meant that both my co-hosts and I had to engage more actively in what other fans were doing – looking for essays and Reddit threads and fan podcast episodes – and also draw on our own experiences and interests as we discussed different themes in our episodes. The three of us share similar journeys within fandom now though we had different fannish childhoods. I spent a lot of my teenage years in fanfiction communities and my adulthood lurking on Facebook fan pages. The two of them are sisters and incorporated a lot of their fannishness in their childhood games which they’ve carried into their playful adulthood. This is a fannish playfulness I’ve been lucky enough to participate in ever since I got to know them. All our birthday celebrations and holidays together have had elements of fannishness – the most memorable of which may have been when we each dressed up as characters from some of our favourite fictional worlds as we explored Udaipur together.

My other co-participants also come from a range of fannish (and national) backgrounds – some similar to mine, others vastly different. A surprising number of them are postgraduate researchers themselves – some even focusing on different aspects of fandom (though perhaps this shouldn’t have been very surprising considering the nature and purpose of my project and the kind of social network I have access to). Some of my co-participants are extremely active members of different fandoms online and engage with fan texts on different platforms. I have at least one co-participant who isn’t really an active member of any online fan community and, to my knowledge, doesn’t really engage with any fan texts, but he considers himself as a fan of movies and was excited to participate in the project and discuss some of his favourite movies through the lens of race and racism. To juxtapose that, quite a few of my co-participants also write fanfic for different fandoms – some of whom have written tens of thousands of words. One co-participant listens to a lot of fan podcasts, situated herself as a fan of various science fiction and fantasy texts as a result of motherhood, and shares the media she loves with her daughters who are now fans in their own turn. A few of my co-participants also have experience with offline fandom in the context of fan conventions – which is something I only discovered the existence of last year where, in fact, I met two of my co-participants for the first time. Another co-participant – who is also a friend from my master’s – reads a lot, watches a lot of movies, and in the past we’ve been a part of group discussions about specific media texts. However, I’m not sure to what degree they engage with fan texts. I think Twitter conversations and online articles and essays might feature in their fannish engagement but again, this is something I can only vaguely conclude based on what they share on their personal social media and what they’ve referred to in our conversation. Yet another co-participant was an extremely active fan online when she was younger, but with her master’s and now her PhD work, she’s found she has grown out of her previous active engagement. However, she still excitedly and frequently texts with her sister about their shared fandoms – which very much reminds me of my own relationship with fandom and with my co-hosts – prior to this podcast, at least.

This question of the degree of fannish engagement hasn’t really featured in any of my discussions – not on purpose anyway. But even without planning to, through our conversations, I managed to gauge some sense of how they expressed their fannishness in their everyday lives. These vague ideas might, of course, be entirely inaccurate; at the very least, they don’t paint the whole picture. I plan to ask my co-participants to send me their reflections on participating in the project so I can either include it in my research/use their feedback to expand my understanding. I wonder if I should include a guideline about asking them to briefly share the (self-identified) level of their fannish engagement.

Some Notes On Episode 16 – 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 16, The Queer Paradise: Exploring Diverse Gender Identities in Speculative Worlds, we discussed the following texts:

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

Jackson Bird, a former Harry Potter Alliance staffer – who came out as a trans man in the HP fandom – discusses Rowling’s tweet in this episode. He acknowledges that he isn’t speaking for all trans folks and is just sharing his perspective. He found out about Rowling’s tweet through his friends and fellow fans messaging him and checking up on him. 

The episode outlines the context in which J. K. Rowling’s transphobic tweets emerged. They refer to a woman who insisted she wouldn’t use pronouns or acknowledge trans people in her work environment. She invalidated their gender identity and so her contract wasn’t renewed. Her transphobia in the office and on her social media made her co-workers uncomfortable. She took this decision to an employment tribunal in the UK to insist that her employer discriminated against her for her beliefs. The judge didn’t think these beliefs were protected and upheld the non-renewal. This judgement created a furore among many people online who started the #IStandWithMaya on Twitter which is what Rowling. contributed to.

Mark Hamill liked Rowling’s tweet and then tweeted an apology that he hadn’t read it properly and only understood its context thanks to the criticism surrounding it. The tweet was confusing – a lot of dog-whistling language that twists words around which, unless you know the debates, you wouldn’t pick up on. Much like the anti-TERF protest I went to in Leeds – the TERFs were shouting “Women don’t have penises!” at random bystanders as they marched around the city – which must have been super confusing to someone who has no idea what’s going on. 

TERF – trans exclusionary radical feminist – a version of feminism which doesn’t include trans women or trans folks. Is this even feminism? Is feminism different from intersectional feminism? Shouldn’t feminism be intersectional at its roots? There’s a vocal and prevalent TERF sentiment in the UK especially in PRIDE and feminist circles. They’re fighting for the rights and safety of women but think trans women pose a threat to cis women – implying that trans women, unlike cis women, aren’t really women and don’t deserve to be protected and are, in fact, the ones who are dangerous. As Jackson points out, it’s more likely that trans women will be assaulted in bathrooms and are also in danger in the outside world. While I was out for my daily lockdown walk in the summer, I saw a trans woman on her phone as she walked. Which made me think whether the phone is a defense mechanism much like the one I use while I’m walking past groups of men/teenage boys. Then I began wondering how difficult it must be to be visibly trans during the pandemic. In the UK, we’re allowed daily outdoor exercise but what about trans folk who want to access the same privilege? How safe do they feel doing this – especially considering how deserted the streets are? It’s unsafe just being trans in the world, sometimes even more so than being a cis woman. 

They discuss a transphobic scene in the second Cormoran Strike novel Silkworm. Lorrie also signposted the Snape Boggart scene + The Gayly Prophet talks about the ways in which Rita Skeeter is described – all transphobic implications. Trans folks weren’t surprised that JKR outed herself as a TERF. They had put the clues together long before. Jackson was used to casual transphobia in his media consumption so he had blocked the discourse out – the book as well as what tweets she liked + the publicly known TERFy accounts she follows. It’s something that I’ve been wanting to give her the benefit of doubt for as well – maybe it is a clumsy, middle-age moment as her PR team claimed but that comes from my cis privilege. Jackson gave her this benefit of doubt too because he couldn’t believe she was bigoted since he, like many others, learned acceptance and unconditional love through the Harry Potter books and its fandom.

They analysed the last two lines of the tweet: “Sex is real.” – a coded way of saying there are only two sexes – male and female. They discussed how this is a misunderstanding of biology and social research which acknowledges that both gender and sex are social constructs. There are people with non-normative chromosomes and hormones; lots of variance exists that scientists are not exploring. What about women who don’t have a uterus or breasts for medical reasons – does that make them less of a woman? They recommend Radiolab’s Gonads episode which delves into this in greater detail.

Gender varies so much depending on what you think and what other people think. Jackson talks about the medical community’s role in looking after trans people but also the social community – family, friends, larger social world – validating the trans identities of people. He lists all the different health organisations which validate that trans people exist and should be accepted and respected just like anyone else + the medical needs they have. This opinion is a consensus among the medical community. Not all trans people want to medically transition but their identities need to be acknowledged and respected, as Jackson says. Mental health impacts, employment and housing impact, violence and murder of trans women of colour – transphobia like Rowling’s tweet contributes to this discourse and violence. The host talks about how cis women’s rights aren’t impinged by trans women getting rights. Trans people are oppressed in different countries both structurally and socially and the life expectancy of trans women of colour is alarming – 20s or 30s. Violence is a constant part of trans people’s lives and Rowling’s statements just add to this violence.

They recommend a Vox article about how TERFs use gender-critical to describe themselves and claim that TERF is a slur – the article explores the history of this in British culture. 

Additionally, the shownotes of this episode have a lot of resources 

They talk about the Potter fandom’s backlash against this tweet – a fandom which has largely supported Rowling for a lot of past controversies. They’ve now stood up to Rowling which shows how the fan community has learned from each other, learned and grown unlike the creator of the text. Jackson acknowledges that Rowling lives in a bubble of wealth and privilege and hopes that she listen and learn like her fans did. However, five months since this, it doesn’t look like that’s happening (this was before what she’s said since June where she’s just doubled down on her statements). They discuss how even the original series as well as Rowling’s new texts aren’t perfect. There are problematic elements with race, slaves, fat-phobia. The fan community is standing against prejudice and bigotry and also against the creator whose books taught them these things. Rowling could be inspired by the fans and choose to engage with uncomfortable ideas rather than just ignoring and dismissing these very real concerns – especially fans from the margins including trans fans who read metaphors from her stories and found solace and hope through the books.

What would a Hogwarts that’s trans-inclusive look like? I think on The Gayly Prophet, they mentioned a trans student looking into the Mirror of Erised and seeing their true identity reflected back at them. 

The podcast received a bunch of letters from fans within 12 hours of the tweet denouncing Rowling’s transphobia. They explore how transphobia not only impacts the mental wellbeing of trans folks but also the transphobic attacks on them are exacerbated. As Jackson says, while knowing trans people makes it easier to be empathetic, you don’t have to know a trans person to treat them respectfully and acknowledge their human rights. He also points out that Rowling probably believes she’s right and is standing up to what she believes are dangerous ideologies which put women in danger. She believes this enough to stake her reputation on it.

They discuss whether you can separate the artist from the art. The host believes it can be done she’s conflicted. Like Jackson says, the books now belong to him and the fans who have created a kinder, more inclusive, more political community and he is unwilling to let go of the books. Do they still love Harry Potter? Both of them acknowledge it’s a complicated question. The host as a cishet white woman feels like even though she is empathetically affected by the transphobia, she isn’t directly impacted by it and feels uncomfortable sharing her love for the series. The episode ends with Jackson’s recommendations on how to be a good ally.

 

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

This complication includes Harry Potter and the Sacred Text’s responses to both instances of Rowling’s overt transphobia and they also recommend charities to donate to which work with trans youth 

In the wake of this, we want you first to care for yourself and for each other. The Harry Potter community is so much greater and more welcoming than the opinion of one person, no matter who that person is. It is perfectly normal to grieve, to be angry, to feel betrayed and sad. It is also okay to still find value in the books that you love.

They emphasise the fandom’s ownership of the text rather than the author’s intent, interpretation and opinions. It belongs to the fans and readers more than it does to Rowling. 

In their response to JKR’s most recent transphobic tweets, they reiterate their earlier support and love for the trans and nonbinary community and ask fans to not financially support the author but still take joy in the world they love. In both instances, they’ve donated to different charities which work with trans people.

This all reminds us of one core principle of what we believe at Harry Potter and the Sacred Text: That ‘sacred’ is an act, not a thing. It is what we do together, as a community, around the Harry Potter books that makes it sacred. It is not these texts that are magic. It is you. That is why we feel comfortable condemning JK Rowling in her transphobia, but still gathering around the books. They aren’t her books, they are ours. And they have inspired us to love more and better. To take care of our friends at the margins. To fight for what’s right. (Maybe JK Rowling should read them.) We understand if you need to take a break from Harry Potter. And we invite you to still love it without supporting Rowling’s capitalistic endeavors surrounding it. Fan art, fan culture, the library, your already owned books – Rowling cannot profit from these things. They belong to us.

In response to JKR’s tweeting in December, trans, nonbinary and LGBTQIA+ allies who are fans of both the podcast and the Harry Potter series sent voicemails and they made a playlist of these community responses:

  • A nonbinary listener didn’t know how to reconcile this transphobia with the books they love – as problematic as they are in terms of lack of characters of colour, fatphobia against the Dursleys, the retroactive diversity with Dumbledore’s gayness, transphobic jokes in the series where men who wear women’s clothes are the butt of jokes. The dorms are divided along very binary lines – would the listener even be welcomed in Hogwarts? What about gendered bathrooms? How would trans students get access to hormones – if they even exist in the magical world? Is there a spell for that? Is queerness accepted or controversial in the wizarding world? There are no explicit queer characters in the books. According to an Alohomora episode, Rowling didn’t think about these issues but thinks that since blood status is more of an issue in the magical world, queerness would probably be accepted – the problematic elements of this assumption and blindness! 
  • A listener who realises they were trans at 16 talks about how important this realisation was for their mental wellbeing; before figuring out their identity, they were suicidal and they think this discovery saved their life. They then began working with local trans organisations. They compare this to Muggle-born students like Hermione who discover this whole new facet of their identity later in their lives – and this identity is rejected within both the magical and Muggle worlds where some people are prejudiced against certain aspects of their identity. They send affirming messages to those who discover their identity later in life and may still be struggling to come to terms with it.
  • A listener affirms that the readers and the fan community are more important than the text itself. A lot of trans and LGBTQIA+ readers have found comfort in the community and the world and these feelings aren’t invalid because JKR is a bigot. It’s the reader’s interaction which matter not the author’s prejudiced declarations. This reminds me of how even several actors of the movies are standing up to Rowling’s bigotry.
  • A cis listener grew up in an abusive household and credits the books for providing escape and a tool for survival – and finding a community of fans online which allowed them to socialise – something they weren’t allowed to do in their offline life. She now struggles with Rowling’s overt transphobia and her own cis privilege which left her blind to the signs earlier. Just as her feelings towards Snape’s feelings towards Lily changed, her feelings about the books have changed too, now that she realises how problematic it is. She offers solidarity and love to the trans community. This nearly made me cry because I have similar feelings though different experiences of an abusive situation in childhood. I gained a lot from the books and the fandom.
  • A listener who works with young people and who has a transgender nonbinary sibling was devastated by the revelation. Hogwarts is supposed to welcome everyone but apparently has no room for trans students. She also reiterates that the book belongs to the readers and to the fans and not to Rowling. She thinks Dumbledore, Luna, and Ginny would be welcoming of queer students. Ron may say something tasteless but Hermione would educate him. Hogwarts remains a radically inclusive space even if the person who creates them isn’t – that’s the power of fans’ connection with the books and with each other.
  • A listener who had a learning disability while growing up had her life changed thanks to Harry Potter and shaped her path towards and in adulthood. She doesn’t know how to reconcile this transphobia with her beloved books and being a good ally. She took a break and realised she couldn’t separate the books from her sense of self and decided instead to donate to organisations which work with trans people. She found a way to be okay with the books which might be different from other people.           

 

3) Fanzine – Harry Potter and the Problematic Author

I know Maia Kobabe through eir graphic memoir Gender QueerLike with a listener on Sacred Text, the books broke through eir dyslexia and allowed them to fall in love with reading. 

The first overtly problematic thing which fans and creators spoke out against was in 2016 with the Magic in North America series on Pottermore which displays an offensive ignorance and stereotypical conflation of indigenous cultures, beliefs and practices. This was compounded by the fact that Rowling didn’t respond to any of the criticisms or attempt to make amends and learn from the criticism against the colonial gaze or apologise for the damage her massive platform does. 

In the same year, Maia discovered two fan podcasts – Witch, Please and Harry Potter and the Sacred Text which completely changed eir engagement with the fandom and the series. They were both critical of different elements of the books because they loved the series. Witch, Please was like a free class in feminism using the framework of eir favourite fictional world which placed social justice at the forefront of their analyses and conversations. It provided em with a new vocabulary to understand both the fictional world and the real world. In Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, reading each chapter through different themes and drawing connections to real-world contemporary social and political issues made the books even more relevant. It also focused on the books themselves and not Rowling’s opinions and additions to the canon. Their repeated engagement with a text they love made it sacred and brought new meanings to light. It also created a community to share these texts and interpretations with.

This was written before Rowling’s overt transphobia but even then, the clues existed about her feelings which were dismissed as middle-age moments. Maia talks about eir inability to give up something so beloved and important to em despite JKR’s toxicity. At the same time, e is determined to learn from Rowling’s mistakes and not do the things she does and own mistakes if e makes them. A lot of fans who grew up reading and falling in love with Harry Potter now create their own fictional worlds for people to get lost in. The difference being that they draw on their own experiences and perspectives and politics to make their worlds more inclusive and compassionate of all kinds of differences. Rowling did inspire a generation of fans to create art and stories and also to stand up to her bigotry. Being able to critique something because you love it is also so important. 

Maia also learned a lot from the books, as problematic as they are, which e think is important to apply in the real world  – the danger of fascism, untrustworthy governments, thinking critically about things you read, question the news, supporting friends through difficult times, organised resistance movements, educating people around em and sharing resources, working together with people across differences, the radical importance of love, the importance of intersectionality and diversity.

The comic recommends the article The Crimes of Grindelwald is a Mess by Alanna Bennet.

 

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

One of the guest academics proposes a theory that when you’re deeply immersed in a fictional world, your guard is down and you’re therefore more open to imbibe messages you may otherwise not have been as receptive to. He and his students looked at how engagement with the Harry Potter series and the fandom impacts readers’ political values. Two other papers have explored whether Harry Potter readers have a negative impact towards Donald Trump and his Islamophobia. Another academic paper found that reading excerpts from acceptance of diversity in metaphorical ways did positively influence young readers. 

Another guest thinks Dumbledore’s Army is an important symbol for activism and empowers young people to educate each other and organise for resistance. Real-world examples of this can be seen in the Harry Potter Alliance (HPA), a non-profit organisation where organisers use the Harry Potter framework to organise fans to raise funds and awareness about a range of social and political issues in the US and around the world. When Andrew Slack, the founder of the HPA, first read the books, he drew direct parallels between the injustices in the magical world and real-world injustices.

Slack began amplifying Jackson Bird’s voice and work as a Harry Potter fan interested in social justice. Birds’s work with the HPA encouraged him to come out as trans in a public way. His coming out video also helped a lot of other fans come to terms with their own identities and provided a role model for those who didn’t have one in real life. Slack and Bird pre-transition used to get into debates about trans issues until he finally came out as trans which forced Slack to confront his own transphobic prejudices in order to be able to support his friend. Watching Jackson’s coming out video encouraged Slack to give up the reins to his organisation for the younger generation. Bird acknowledges that Eddie Redmayne playing a trans woman was problematic but appreciates all the work and research he put into his role which included drawing on Jackson’s own video too. 

A lot of Harry Potter fans are queer which forced the HPA to use inclusive language right towards the beginning. Eric was first sceptical of the HPA but came away humbled through his interactions with them and realised he had been part of a similar organisation when he was younger. 

The episode ended with Rowling’s quote from her Harvard commencement speech about inclusivity and kindness and imagining better. I wish she had applied this lesson in her own thinking. I’m sure she thinks she’s in the right here but it has made her so close-minded to a group who is undergoing so much oppression that she is unable to imagine better. 

 

5) Fanzine – Tonk’s Tale

This comic is a contribution to the fanzine Trans Affirming Magical Care – proceeds of which go to charities which support trans youth. 

The comic imagines Tonks as genderqueer. Their first sign was being able to control whether they menstruate or not – menstruation seems to be such a hot-button topic among TERFs wherein they determine a woman’s womanness in this very limited, essentialist way i.e. her ability to menstruate. Not all cisgender women menstruate either for a variety of reasons. Trans women don’t menstruate and trans men do – it’s not a black-and-white issue and surely such a narrow determination of one’s gender.

When Tonks gets to Hogwarts, a new staircase to a dorm opens for them so they don’t have to choose between the girls and boys dorms. I love how innovative fans are and challenge Rowling’s binary thinking and world. Their favourite part of being genderqueer is being able to change their outside appearance to reflect their inner feelings – which also change frequently. Reminds me of Alex Fierro, a genderfluid character in Magnus Chase, who is Loki’s child and changes their gender frequently too. 

The fact that gender is a spectrum is something I’m only learning about more recently. It isn’t something I thought of as a cisgender heterosexual woman. But unlike Rowling and many other TERFs and transphobes, my immediate reaction wasn’t to exclude even though I was largely ignorant and had to unlearn transphobic ideas. This is the same with many cisgender allies who may not have their own experiences with this but know enough to welcome everyone’s differences.

 

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

This article was written before the fifth and final season of the show was out. 

The show has queerness as default – it starts off with a background lesbian couple – Netossa and Spinerella in the first season but then grows to include Bow’s dads, Double Trouble, and finally, Adora and Catra’s love story. It also includes characters of diverse body types and gender expressions and identities. In a later interview, Noelle revealed that the first season was more subdued in terms of its representation because the producers weren’t ready to commit to a potentially controversial move by making the show explicitly queer. Once the first season received so much adulation from fans, the production company was more comfortable giving the go-ahead. 

While preparing for this episode, I stumbled upon a Twitter thread which featured trans fans reading Scorpia as trans, regardless of what the intent was. They inserted their own experiences into the character. One of the replies even says that seeing Scorpia helped them come to terms with their own trans identity. Another fan reads Perfuma as trans (which some claim is supposed to be intentional by the character designer but it never got written into the show?)

They were literally the final straw that got me to come to terms with the fact I was trans.

I’m tall and not very feminine looking, which is what I always wanted to be. Then after seeing her in that dress I realized tall muscular women can be feminine – @LunaStplChase

And then I’ve also come across the theory that Bow is trans too. 

I think part of it is how gosh darn queer the show is — it just feels right that there’d be half a dozen trans people in the main cast. And also part of that is the depth and complexity of characters, cause there’s many universal experiences we can read our own spin in to. – @Mercy_Main_btw_


Interestingly, it was Perfuma whose original concept artist intended to be coded trans. Noelle has deemed that non-canon because she didn’t know in time to cast a trans voice actor (ditto Bow, despite the fan theories). But in S5, Jewelstar is a trans man and voiced accordingly! – @dour

Noelle Stevenson is also responsible for Nimona and The Lumberjanes – also excellently queer books. 

Double Trouble is voiced by nonbinary actor Jacob Tobia. According to one of the tweets earlier, the reason Perfuma isn’t officially trans is because they didn’t cast a trans voice actor to play her before realising she was illustrated as trans – similarly with Bow. I think sticking with this authenticity is so commendable while at the same time validating all theories and interpretations fans have. Double Trouble is a shapeshifter so, much like Tonks, it makes sense that they would be nonbinary or genderfluid.  

I haven’t watched the original She-Ra and don’t really intend to but I find it interesting that Jacob watched it when they were cast for the role of Double Trouble and sensed campy lesbian energy from the female characters. Earlier – and even now to a great extent – queer fans needed to read themselves into texts because of the lack of queer rep – so I like that She-Ra is so explicitly queer.

The importance of not just a queer cast but also queer creators – as Jacob says they felt safe and supported with their role and the direction they explored since it was run by a bunch of excellent queer people full of trans, nonbinary and gender non-conforming people. 

I think this representation is so particularly important in a children’s show because you’re providing them with access to ideas of gender as a spectrum rather than as a binary right from when their minds are most open and flexible. It’s also important for the people in-charge who may not necessarily be the creators to be open to this representation. Netflix was excited about this inclusion and suggested they make Double Trouble’s pronouns prevalent in the show.

“We want this world to feel alive, and it is a world where gender is generally fluid.” – Noelle.

As Jacob points out, trans, nonbinary, and gender non-conforming characters have always been a part of SFF but not explicitly outlined as such in canon – Double Trouble IS and that’s refreshing 

As a SFF fan growing up, Jacob found role models in characters who may not have been written as genderfluid.

In Yu-Gi-Oh. In Lord of the Rings. In Harry Potter. In all these things I found the gender transcendentalism that I needed. When you think about it, wizards are often quoted as kind of gay, but they’re also quoted as gender nonconforming, especially in the context of a fantasy series. There’s always the brute force people, the Aragorns of the world who ride into battle on a horse and use their strong bodies and their masculinity to fight. Then there’s the Gandalf, who uses his determination and their wit and their dedication and their discipline to do more powerful things than anyone can imagine…with shiny crystals and flowing robes, and long gorgeous locks and femme extravagance. It always felt like a place of recognition that way.

Noelle found recognition in a background character in Star Wars – a female bounty hunter in Attack of the Clones who is there for maybe 5 minutes and not many lines and is killed off. But in a universe which has very limited roles for women, Noelle latched onto Zem Wessell’s androgyny and was hugely influenced by them.

Jacob points out that even before Noelle’s historic leap with Double Trouble, there have been several queer creators who have been working to make this possible. It’s an ongoing communal effort rather than an individual one. 

We’re at a point of visibility that is so exciting. There’s an entire generation of people that have liberated themselves from this idea that gender is only one of two things. There’s an entire generation of young folks that get that gender is nonbinary and that idea itself is really oppressive and shitty. We’ve only gotten it through public education work and the work of artists. The cultural shift that’s happening is overwhelming and permanent in my view. The work is far from done. I don’t want people to think that because we have a character like Double Trouble on a show like She-Ra that we’re done. Visibility comes in stages, and we have many many more to go.

 

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

Because of the diversity of cast and crew and the story itself, Noelle thinks that Double Trouble fits into the show so well and their identity is almost an after-thought – the fact that it isn’t commonplace in mainstream media with a global audience. THIS IS WHY DIVERSITY IS IMPORTANT. Especially in a media landscape where there is such a lack of nonbinary representation, this is such an important step.

They’re creating a world which centers women and queer people in a way where this isn’t a big deal because the world just works that way.

We’re at a point of visibility that is so exciting. There’s an entire generation of people that have liberated themselves from this idea that gender is only one of two things. There’s an entire generation of young folks that get that gender is nonbinary and that idea itself is really oppressive and shitty. We’ve only gotten it through public education work and the work of artists. The cultural shift that’s happening is overwhelming and permanent in my view. The work is far from done. I don’t want people to think that because we have a character like Double Trouble on a show like She-Ra that we’re done. Visibility comes in stages, and we have many many more to go. – Noelle

This is something Jacob appreciated as well that they weren’t the only queer character in an otherwise cisgender heterosexual show – queerness is the default in this world. Noelle acknowledges that every show that includes these diverse representations which haven’t been traditionally represented makes it easier for a new show to take them forward. All representations play an important role. Steven Universe is another show I’ve heard a lot about in terms of queer representation in a children’s show and is a show which has inspired Noelle. Noelle draws inspiration from the queer subtext of the original She-Ra – she saw all these things and made them explicit when she got to recreate the world. 

Jacob believes it’s easier currently to have nonbinary representation in animation rather than live-action with intersection of his gender identity/expression and ethnicity.

When you present as non-binary on camera, it’s a whole other barrier that we have to break through, and I say that specifically as a very clearly not androgynous non-binary person. I have facial hair, I have hair follicles over 75% of my body because I’m Arab-American, I wear lipstick, I look gender non-conforming, but I never look androgynous. So for me, I think there’s going to be an uphill battle to actually be able to be on screen in my gender and that’s gonna take a lot longer.

But the thing that’s so beautiful about She-Ra and about the gifts that I’ve been given to bring the character to life – it helps make that barrier easier to topple over. I think we need to be willing to show trans bodies across a spectrum of size, across the spectrum of beauty, across the spectrum of gender conforming versus being gender non-conforming, and across the spectrum of androgynous to not androgynous at all, but gender non-conforming. I want to see on TV what the actual like non-binary and queer and trans community looks like.

Jacob loved how supportive and queer everyone on the show was which made it such a brilliant experience for them – no stigma or issues; just fun and liberating. Even the show itself, it doesn’t make a big deal of how diverse it is. It just treats this diversity as normal. Why wouldn’t the world include all these different people? 

In another article on Queerty, I found this an excellent summary: 

Superhero films like Marvel Universe have sort of cheapened the notion of what makes a hero—they just look cool, utter witty retorts and save everybody. She-Ra is more complex—she does save the day. There are witty retorts, but rather than making the other characters inept or stupid, her greatest act of heroism is to inspire others to also be heroes. How conscious were you of that sentiment when you were all working?

It’s something I think about a lot, especially in a narrative aimed toward girls. One thing that’s always frustrated me about stories centering on a female protagonist is that there’s this pressure to be perfect and always make the right choice. So you never really get a model to deal with making mistakes in your life. You just feel like I’m not perfect, I must not be a hero. Something I’m doing must be wrong. What I wanted to show was just how much strength and bravery and determination it takes to be a hero. It’s something you have to work at, it’s not something you’re born into. Adora is someone who was raised a bad guy. Every step of the way is her fighting to forge a new path for herself rather than the one she was born into. She makes lots of mistakes and has to find a way forward.

One thing I hear, which is sometimes brought up as a negative, and I find that really interesting: people say She-Ra wasn’t allowed to be as strong as He-Man because her powers were more about healing and transforming her sword and talking to animals and somehow that means she’s not as strong. I don’t agree with that.

Neither do we.

That’s part of what makes her a hero. I think there is so much more to leadership. When we meet Adora, she’s someone who’s like a problem? I’ll punch it because that’s what I know how to do. Her journey is learning to be a leader, learning to not just conquer but to heal. Learning not just to fight but to bring people together. That’s something really important for girls today to see, because it’s something they’re going to have to do. You’ve got to step up and take responsibility and do what’s right and go for it. And you can’t do that alone. It’s something I’ve always ached to see.

 

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

I really like the reading of Janet from The Good Place as nonbinary since they are a machine and they don’t have any concepts of gender. Matches their recurring line “Not a girl” as well (though as we discuss in the episode, this is usually played for laughs than for any serious explorations of gender identity). The video also mentions other nonbinary characters such as the Crystal Gems in Steven Universe and Double Trouble in She-Ra.

The video proposes that the fact that none of these characters are human can present problematic tropes and stereotypes about other nonbinary people in general. I’m not sure I agree with this premise just yet, at least in She-Ra’s world, because other characters also blend human and non-human – Catra, Scorpia, Mermista.

Othering groups of people is a way of dehumanisng them – using the term illegals for immigrants, for example. When you hear them referred to these terms rather than people or human beings, it allows you to distance yourself from them.

I understand the argument but I’m having some difficulty reconciling this with science fiction and fantasy. On the one hand there is the issue of using fantastical creatures as metaphors, sometimes problematically so. On the other hand, I’m not quite sure this argument fits into something like She-Ra. Even with Janet, I love the reading of them as nonbinary but wouldn’t have identified that myself and they’re not explicitly identified as nonbinary in the show from what I remember. I don’t remember if pronouns are ever used with Janet, for example (I’m sure pronouns appear loads of times but my memory is atrocious). I do agree with the fact that if a large proportion of nonbinary characters in the SFF media landscape at large happen to be non-human, there’s a lot of problems to unpack there, similar to the way in which queer-coded characters are usually villains. 

Co-creating the project’s methodology

The emphasis on co-creating knowledge was present even before launching the podcast, but its role became much more apparent while planning and recording different episodes with different co-participants. To begin with, I eschewed the idea of interviews and wanted to focus on conversations. To me, the downside of interviews is that my priorities and interests will guide the conversation through the questions I choose to ask. Furthermore, in instances where I was a part of the dominant culture and had little to no experience with/knowledge of the intersectional themes and identities we were going to discuss, I might not know what questions to ask. The conversations around a certain theme(s) were supposed to solve that problem. However, even conversations needed some sort of structure/facilitation. Thus came the idea of me and my co-participants exchanging fan texts prior to the recording of the episode to frame the conversation. Even this idea itself was a result of co-creation since it came up in conversations with my supervisors.

Overall, exchanging fan (and other) texts worked better than an interview would have. I was relatively ignorant about several themes and identities and these texts offered discussion prompts for me and my co-participants. In some cases, this method was less successful (where co-participants didn’t have texts to share/didn’t have the inclination to go through some or all of the texts). However, the methodological framework was open-ended and flexible enough to incorporate these changes in plans. Even when a co-participant didn’t go through texts/didn’t suggest texts, we were still able to have an interesting and detailed conversation.

Most co-participants, however, were happy to suggest a wide range of texts and go through my suggestions. We thereby collaboratively put together the literature sources for each episode. My suggestions are usually fan podcast episodes, sometimes supplemented by articles which provide an Indian context/explore a theme I didn’t find a relevant podcast episode for. After the first few episodes, I changed my mind about including fan texts which I didn’t have explicit permission for. We ended up only briefly citing the texts to frame and explore our own experiences and ideas. The podcast episodes, Reddit threads, blog posts and online essays and articles we used were publicly available media which we made sure to credit. I concluded that as far as we weren’t analysing or critiquing the fan texts themselves and only using them as references, it wasn’t unethical to use them to inform our own ideas and discussions. However, this was complicated by the fact that a couple of co-participants disliked the tone of one or more of the texts I’d suggested. In those cases, we didn’t mention the fan text specifically but did speak about the ideas my co-participants took umbrage with.

All the planning, communication and recording happened online. When I shortlisted fan texts for each episode, I created and shared an editable Google Doc with the co-participant who could also add texts to it. After going through each other’s texts, we both had a planning meeting where we discussed the themes we’d like to discuss based not only on the texts we went through but also what we really wanted to talk about. We added these themes as segments in the Google Doc and decided the order we’d like to discuss them in. Having a pre-recording planning meeting with my co-participants on Skype/Zoom worked well since it allowed us to go over the format and themes of our episode and test the tech. More importantly, it helped us become more comfortable with both the episode – most of my co-participants hadn’t done a podcast before – and with each other – apart from email chats, I was talking to several co-participants for the first time.

I did a few online Skillshare courses on podcasting. I gleaned some helpful tips, but the best lessons came through trial and experimentation. I’ve learned a lot about planning, recording, and publishing podcast episodes by just launching the podcast without spending too much time practising and reading the theory. In fact, the very first episode with my co-hosts, was supposed to act as a trial episode and it provided me with some really basic guidelines which helped with future episodes. My co-participants and I didn’t need much tech in the way of equipment or knowledge. Skype (and in one instance Zoom, where the co-participant’s country didn’t allow access to Skype) makes recording conversations extremely easy. However, I’ve identified what I’d do differently in terms of planning and scheduling episodes for the next season based on what worked and what didn’t. Ultimately, it wasn’t just each episode which acted as a tool of co-creation of knowledge; the whole podcast itself acted as a collaborative learning exercise where my co-participants and I learned new things through the process.

Re-reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

As October (and my data-generation period) draws to an end, I’ve been rushing to read the last two books of the Harry Potter series so I have time to include notes in my blog. I finished reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince last night and began reading the last book with breakfast this morning.

Book cover of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Here are some of the thoughts I had while reading the sixth book:

  • So only the Muggle Prime Minister has any sort of interaction with the Minister for Magic? No other Muggle-magical person interaction seems to be allowed. Power dynamics are evident even within these leadership roles where the Muggle leader is given only the most cursory consideration but not actually treated with any sort of equal respect. He’s treated quite patronisingly
  • Snape lives in an impoverished Muggle neighbourhood. Why does he still live there? Doesn’t he make enough money teaching at Hogwarts to move out? Is it due to childhood ties to Lily? Bellatrix is aghast that he lives there and she is forced to be there because of her sister displaying an intersection of pureblood and class privilege. I wonder how many Death Eaters come from wealthy families. How was Snape treated for not coming from money? Bellatrix still doesn’t seem to respect him but is that because of the class issue or because she doesn’t trust him or both?
  • The way they talk about faith in Voldemort is very religious reflecting an authoritarian god. His word is law, the followers can’t question his authority, they have to understand his displeasure at being disappointed, they must make sacrifices (like Bellatrix’s time in Azkaban). Even the title the Dark Lord has religious connotations. After his perceived downfall, some of his followers (another religious connotation) thought they might rally around Harry as a new dark lord. It’s weird that these presumably wealthy pureblood families need someone to lead them. It’s not just power for its own sake which they already have.
  • The Ministry’s tips for protecting families (page 34-35) makes Death Eaters sound like violent white supremacists or just the way men are a threat to women at any point in their lives.
  • Travelling via Apparition seems so dreadfully uncomfortable too (p. 49). Incorporating some Muggle transport technology wouldn’t go amiss in the magical world!
  • Slughorn is the only sympathetic Slytherin we meet and he seems to be the exception that proves the rule – very moderate exception at that but heaps ahead of the other Slytherins. He exhibits some benign bigotry he’s “much too surprised that a Muggle-born should make a good witch” (speaking of Lily Evans). Reminds me of a white English PhD student I met who was much too surprised that I knew Western cultural, social and political references as an Indian woman.
  • Harry describes Mrs. Weasley as “could cook better than anyone he knew” 🙄 That’s all she’s good for, is it?
  • The way Ginny, Hermione and Molly treat Fleur is honestly terrible. It’s positioned as a joke and something not to be taken seriously but as someone who’s currently living in my partner’s mum’s house with his mother and sister, if they behaved like this, I would leave. Does Bill know his family is being atrocious? Why would he leave her alone with them?! So much internalised misogyny from the girls and outright misogyny by Ron and a pile of uselessness with vaguely good intent from Harry. I’m glad Fleur is made of stern stuff and isn’t cowed down by their behaviour – but she shouldn’t have to put up with this nonsense. Especially such behaviour from the three female role models the series presents is absurd.
  • An empty pub – The Leaky Cauldron – and a despondent owner, Tom + shoppers with harried and anxious looks who don’t want to tarry due to Voldemort’s reign of terror made me think of more pandemic parallels! I wonder if rereading the books every year with a more critical lens will make different meanings emerge based on the current social, political and environmental climate of the world.
  • Draco is being outwardly bigoted while shopping and calls Hermione a slur. At least Madam Malkin stops it though she should just have kicked then out and refused to serve them. They do eventually walk out anyway so at least she would have taken a firmer stand, but I suppose not everyone can afford to – either financially or psychologically.
  • Fred and George’s joke shop is booming and their products are so clever and creative. Hogwarts failed them in not having room to explore their skills and interests but forcing them into narrow educational binaries where they didn’t excel. For them, it worked out in the end because of who they are, but what about other children who don’t have the same personality and attitude? Failed pedagogy at Hogwarts as all the fan podcasts point out.
  • I also like that the shop has a line of Muggle magic tricks as curiosities. The twins don’t seem to share the usual attitude of considering anything to do with Muggles is useless.
  • In terms of class, the Gaunt family living in their shack in the shadow of the Riddle manor is a stark contrast between both families. It is a much more familiar notion of poverty than the Weasley family. But I suppose that there are nuances within poverty as well – different experiences and attitudes.
  • And also what about looking after someone like Merope who had no access to family, no access to money or any other resources when she’s pregnant and desperately impoverished and refuses to/is unable to use magic to save herself? In the magical community, who looks after those who have fallen through the cracks? Whose lives don’t go according to plan or have the same opportunities which everyone else seems to take for granted – education, job, knowledge?
  • If we consider witches and wizards and Other Magical People as belonging to different classes, we can see how classism, class anxiety, ruling class and other classes play out in terms of who has access to knowledge, whose knowledge matters, whose culture is celebrated and whose is denigrated, who has social and cultural capital, who has access to the systems of power.
  • At one point somebody says that there aren’t enough pureblood families around to have all-pureblood Death Eaters. Most of them are half-bloods and hate Muggleborns and Muggles. How do they justify this hatred with their Muggle parent? It reflects so many real world parallels where you’re racist or casteist to everyone except the people of a different race or caste you personally know/are married to.
  • Tom Riddle in the orphanage is very quick to believe he has magic, that he always knew he was special. I wonder if this was the direct result of growing up at such close proximity to Muggles and having powers they didn’t, and whether it’d have been the same had he grown up in a wizarding community. Are there no magical orphanages where they accept children from both magical and Muggleborn backgrounds? Isn’t there some sort of book and quill system which decides who’s magical right when they’re born? Why are magical orphans not looked after better? It’s not like they’re doing this to promote any sort of intercultural exchange.
  • A lot of this book can be read through the lens of Ron as a potential incel – or at least as someone who’s heading down that path. He thinks of women as his possessions and is jealous when either Ginny or Hermione have other men in their lives, takes out his insecurities on the women in his life, uses Lavender to address these insecurities without really liking her. I can see him easily turning to hating women. It’s a good thing he grows out of this because he has good friends who don’t put up with it, but it’s scarily easy to see how other boys wouldn’t grow out of it and turn into awful adults.
  • Are garden gnomes like animals then? Are they a different species like centaurs, merpeople etc.? For Christmas, Fred has stupefied one and dressed it up as an angel to decorate the Christmas tree! Would this be like attacking an animal or another person?
  • I never realised the icikiness of Hermione having to escape Cormac McLaggen at the Christmas party until Witch, Please pointed it out. It’s something which neither Harry nor the narrative seems to take seriously. It’s actual sexual assault! She hides from him all party because it’s implied he expects sexual favours from her because she invited him.to the party??? Nobody questions the assault either. Rape culture is alive and well even in the magical world. What’s more, Harry thinks Hermione deserves it for inviting someone as awful as Cormac in the first place. Which ???
  • Mr. Weasley admits that most of the people arrested as Death Eaters are probably innocent but the Ministry thinks it sounds good to promote the image that they know what they’re doing and don’t want to release them and admit they were mistaken. Great insight into the criminal justice system and the lengths governments go to to protect their own image. Not familiar under current circumstances at all!
  • Lupin has such low standards for his own self worth and and basic dignity. He’s grateful to Snape for making the Wolfsbane potion for him while he was teaching at Hogwarts which alleviated his suffering. This makes up for Snape’s hatred, prejudice and outing him as a werewolf out of spite, does it?! And does this mean he no longer has access to the potion now that he’s not teaching at Hogwarts? Why doesn’t St Mungo’s supply him with it? Is there a magical version of the NHS?
  • It’s a bit unsettling that the entire werewolf community seems to have made a life for themselves on the margins of the magical society and living away from witches and wizards. Presumably they don’t lose their magical abilities since Lupin hasn’t. Do they choose to not practise as a form of protest? The magical society and government has failed them and they’re vulnerable to Voldemort’s promises of a better life. Greyback is the most extreme version of this who attacks children to create an army of werewolves to overtake the magical human population. Why does nobody talk about including werewolves into the community at large? Lupin is obviously safe and has to manage his condition with medication. But even he’s brought into the anti-werewolf narrative when it comes to his own sense of self-worth.
  • Fleur doesn’t even get a Christmas sweater even though everyone else in the house has one. I would honestly have left and go lived in a hotel or something!
  • Hagrid has some very dubious politics – insults Filch by hurling the word Squib at him like a slur. He’s previously done it with Muggles. I know we see Hagrid through Harry’s eyes but hmm. And the Dursleys too. Sure, he does this with terrible people but it’s still using the term like an insult. Why is being a Muggle or a Squib inherently bad?
  • I really do see in this book Harry being obsessed with Draco (role reversal from previous books). Especially interesting considering how I never read it as romantic before fan interpretations took over my brain. Also, I was reading Carry On while reading this – which is a parallel to this book and the series. In Carry On, the queerness is much more explicit and is quite clearly inspired from this book so it’s really fun.
  • Ginny seriously is such a better, more independent, more fun character in the book, even as she’s largely in the background. I’d love to read fic about her adventures in Hogwarts and beyond. Terrible that the movies have reduced her to such an inconsequential character merely around to first be rescued by Harry and then become his insipid love interest.
  • Ministry is predisposed to suspecting house elves of crimes it seems. Ugh! Why didn’t Harry save the world by starting a revolution!?
  • Malfoy uses Crabbe and Goyle to keep guard. They’re disguised as first year girls thanks to the Polyjuice Potion. When the trio find out, they’re horrified and think it’s hilarious that both had to dress up as girls. Very conservative gender politics and also vaguely transphobic.
  • At one point, Ron feels better after he’s bullied Moaning Myrtle a bit. This is after he himself was bullied by Snape. The cycles of psychological violence in this school! Also just taking out your frustrations on someone who’s less powerful than you. Reading Myrtle through the lens of mental illness just makes it worse. When will the kids (and ghosts) get some therapy!
  • Page 439: “It must have been a girl or a woman to be in the ladies toilet to Imperius Katie … Or someone who looks like a girl or a woman … don’t forget there’s Polyjuice Potion in the dungeon” This might be the most innocuous of statements but with Rowling’s recent transphobic revelations, it’s difficult to not over-analyse this especially with the context of transphobic discourse and bathroom bans.
  • Not only is compulsory heterosexuality alive and well but also men’s sense of ownership over women. Harry is constantly worried and obsessing over what Ron will think of his crush on Ginny with not a single thought given to what she will think. Even when they kiss for the first time, he looks at Ron for approval rather than at her. Like she’s just an object being passed from the protection/ownership of one man to another.
  • I can look at Draco through the lens of mental distress but it’s hard to sympathise when he’s actively attempting murder. Parallels with far right nationalists/bigots in India and the US where people – who are largely men – need to be held accountable to their actions too.
  • Snape’s mother Eileen Prince is first and foremost described as not pretty. What is the need?!?
  • Death rituals: this is the first time we see a funeral and it’s not for any ordinary magical person. Not only a range of witches and wizards but merpeople and centaurs who live on the Hogwarts grounds also come to pay tribute in their own unique ways which was interesting. How do other magical beings celebrate life and mourn death? Even with magical humans, do the practices differ across regions/countries?
  • Grawp comes to the funeral too and puts all the giant prejudice to shame. The way everyone behaved when Hagrid first brought his half-brother back to Britain and the way Grawp himself behaved versus the progress that’s been made due to a combination of kindness, determination and attempts at communication. It’s incredible what just Hagrid was able to accomplish. Imagine if the whole world changed to accommodate all the different beings and treat them with equal dignity and respect. Where’s that revolution when we need it?

Incorporating autoethnography while co-creating podcast episodes

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

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

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

Growing Comfortable With Discomfort – Part 4

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

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

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

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

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

Image courtesy Incidental Comics

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

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

A deliberate construction of an intersectional fieldsite

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

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

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

Drawing parallels to Indian examples while encountering Western contexts

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

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

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

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

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

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