A PhD project exploring intersectionality through fan podcasts

Header image with the text Marginally Fannish

Category: Fieldnotes Page 1 of 6

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.”

Podcasting and fandom as decolonisation

I’ve spent the last two weeks furiously transcribing and marking edits for the last few episodes I’ve recorded. Even though transcribing, marking edits, and then creating a lightly-edited version of the transcript for the blog (accompanied by links, images and gifs) is an immensely time-consuming process (my brain currently feels like mush), it’s also extremely valuable. Since these three things don’t require much in the way of active thinking, it’s a bit like knitting/showering/doing the dishes/listening to podcasts on walks – activities which for me are conducive to being able to focus just enough so that my brain is working in the background and making connections about topics because I’m not actively thinking about them.

More recently, I’ve realised that a few themes have shown up repeatedly:

  • The importance of intersectional representations and perspectives in children’s literature
  • The importance of intersectional representations and perspectives in history
  • A broader idea of intersectionality which emphasises solidarity among different marginalised groups
  • How fan texts and the process of podcasting help in the process of decolonising our minds
Illustration of a museum exhibit. Text says: Donated by the British men who colonised Easter Island and stole this from the Native people there

Image courtesy The Skinny

These observations have definitely been thanks to our collective negotiation with different intersectional themes throughout the course of the year. Some of the texts my co-participants bring up in the course of our discussions shine a new light on my own thinking. Additionally, I’ve also been reading a lot of memoirs, anthologies, and online articles as well as listening to a bunch of fan podcasts to expand my understanding of the different topics. Thanks to being steeped in such a wide range of ideas, while transcribing the episode and editing the transcript, I find that I’m questioning not only what my co-participants say but, more interestingly, what I’ve said. This might be because I say something flippantly without thinking of the broader implications.

Most recently, in episode 20, I made a comment about dedicated Indian movie fans (I didn’t think to mention cricket fans though that is also a similarly enormous fandom) and how I found the extent of their dedication ridiculous. While transcribing, I called out myself for disparaging and singling out Indian movie fans in particular – even though those are who I know best – when there are plenty of American and British music fans, for example, who go to similar lengths – in this instance, travelling to different countries to follow their idols for concerts. In episode 22, in one of our What If? games, I suggested Toph would be a good security guard since she likes beating people up. While transcribing, I mentally facepalmed since I hadn’t thought about the power dynamics inherent in this role which further targets and victimises people who are already marginalised on account of their race, class, gender, caste etc.

This constant problematising of my own beliefs helps broaden my perspective and demands a more nuanced engagement with even those ideas I hold dear. The need to decolonise our minds is something me and my co-participants have brought up quite a bit in different episodes. We usually refer to it because it’s something we’ve learned in fandom/media. However, I think it’s really interesting that fan podcasts – not just the ones we listen to but the one which we are co-creating – play such an important role in the lifelong process of decolonisation as well.

Growing Comfortable With Discomfort – Part 5

As I wrote in my annual progress review reflections a few weeks ago, I’m proud of many aspects of my project. I’m less proud of the missteps. However, I’m still happy to have been able to learn from slip-ups. Even while they’ve made me feel momentarily embarrassed and uncomfortable, I’ve genuinely loved the opportunity to have been able to glean so many valuable lessons from my missteps – so much so that I might go along with a supervisor’s half-joking suggestion of writing an entire chapter on my mistakes.

While I planned my project to be able to receive and incorporate comments and critiques from listeners, this has largely been limited to a few of my friends messaging me to say they listened to a particular episode, had some recommendations of their own, or certain parts of our discussion made them think of something new. I had come to terms with the fact that I wouldn’t really receive the kind of critiques I had planned for since I was nearing the end of my data creation period in October. What I’d forgotten, however, was that the episode publication was still behind schedule. While I may have recorded episodes weeks or even months ago, they are still in the editing process. Most recently, I published Episode 16 and received an email critiquing an aspect of my role in it. I thought it would be helpful for my future self – and any other potential researchers/podcasters – to have the critique and my response to it here.

Email: 

I wanted to offer a bit of feedback, but feel free to ignore if the host and Tam worked out in advance that the host would take the lead advocating because privileged people are more likely to believe members of their own group over a marginalised person saying the same thing.

I can read faster than I can listen, I’ve worked in transcription, and one of my own research specialties is computational textual analysis. So I noticed this while reading through the transcript of episode 16 of the podcast and ran some quick numbers. Both versions are in the body of the email below, since I know I wouldn’t trust attachments from a random stranger on the internet. But I can also send along Word documents, if you prefer.

The short version of the feedback is that I was disappointed that more of the podcast wasn’t devoted to Tam’s thoughts on nonbinary and gender-diverse characters in the works you discussed, since Tam has lived experience of these issues. Tam spoke 123 times for a total of 2,298 words, and the host spoke 135 times for a total of 5,905 words (which excludes the intro and outro paragraphs). Again, the analysis was a quick one, so I can’t guarantee it’s free from error, but I think a more rigorous analysis will uphold the trend.

Parinita: – 135 occurrences

5,905 words

Tam: – 123 occurrences

2,298 words

My response:

I appreciate your feedback very much. Thanks for doing the work and for reaching out to me. I’m just going to write down my responses to the points you bring up but I just wanted to ensure I clarify at the outset that I completely understand and accept your critique.

We didn’t work out in advance who’d be doing the advocating at all. You’re absolutely correct about how privileged people talk over marginalised people – and it’s something I didn’t intend to do but of course intent and impact are two very different things. In the context of the project itself, I do take the lead with the discussion and my own contributions act as autoethnographic narratives (aligning with the methodology of the PhD project). However, we do plan in advance what themes the co-participant/guest would like to talk about based on the fan texts we exchange. In bursts of enthusiasm, I also have the tendency to talk a lot which is evidenced in all my episodes (and indeed my real life) and it’s something which I’m still struggling to figure out a balance between on the podcast. I’m sure if you analyse other episodes, it will show that I do more of the talking too. It’s something I always shamefully notice when I’m transcribing the episodes and vow to do better with the next episode and then once again get too excited about talking. I also struggle with silences and wanting to rush to fill them in which only adds to the talking a lot. (The pauses aren’t evident in the episodes because they’re edited out).

We don’t have a detailed plan of what we’re going to talk about, just the overall themes and I leave it up to the co-participant (in this case Tam) to add or leave out as much as they’re comfortable with. This is the reason it’s framed as a conversation and not as an interview (along with my methodological allegiance to co-creating knowledge through conversations rather than letting my questions guide an interview). This is also why I don’t push participants to share any information which they haven’t brought up themselves because I don’t want to force anyone to talk about things they rather would not. Even though Tam is a friend, we haven’t spoken about their personal engagement with their identity even outside the podcast episode, so I don’t know to what degree they are comfortable sharing their lived experience even within the context of the fictional characters. Some co-participants are more comfortable sharing deeply personal information than others while we use the framework of the fictional world. Indeed, some co-participants are chattier than others and some even as chatty as myself. Of course, as you pointed out, this method isn’t without its limitations.

This isn’t to excuse the points you very rightfully called me out on. I do talk a lot and that’s problematic both as a podcaster and as a researcher – especially in those instances when I belong to a dominant group. I do try very hard to learn from my co-participants (and I learn SO much from them – the whole premise of this project). But I could do with lessons on learning how to shut up sometimes too – and that’s something I’ve found difficult. I’m sorry you were disappointed by the ratio of the discussion and I’m very grateful you wrote to me about it. I will make sure to negotiate with your critique while writing my thesis and when/if I do a season 2. Unfortunately, for this season, I’ve recorded all but one episode (though they’re not all out yet) and have to move on to analysing and writing. If you would like to hear more from someone with lived experiences of nonbinary gender identities, can I point to episode 9 and an upcoming episode 21? (I recorded episode 21 on Sunday but it’ll only be out in the next few weeks) I can’t promise I do better in either episode (though I do think the speech ratio is slightly better just because of the different people involved) but I wanted to signpost them just in case you wanted to hear from more perspectives that weren’t mine (feel free to ignore, of course). With Tam’s permission, I have also tagged them on my Twitter post of the episode, in case you wanted to reach out to them for their perspectives/recommendations.

Thanks again for the thoughtful engagement with and criticism of this episode and for helping me learn from my discomfort.

Their response to my response: 

Thank you for the quick response!

I will definitely check out the other episodes, and please do not take my feedback on this particular episode to mean that I think you’re speaking too much generally. I’m well aware of the research showing that people judge women to be speaking ‘too much’ when they’re only speaking 30% of the time, and I know so many women (especially women researchers) who get told they talk a lot, or too much, when they’re actually talking a normal amount.

Not that I think you need my validation. Simply that I hope my feedback on this particular episode hasn’t caused you to feel that you need to change in some broader sense. I understand, too, that not everyone wants to speak on a topic from a place of lived experience–or speak at length.

Thank you again and best of luck!

While my first reaction was extreme embarrassment, I was genuinely grateful for this kind and thoughtful feedback. As I mentioned in the email, it’s something I’ve noticed myself while transcribing episodes but hadn’t really taken any concrete measures to rectify. In the last two episodes I recorded,  I was extremely aware of how much I spoke and I think I made more of an effort to remain silent when my instinct would have been to interrupt.

Interruptions have been something of a sore point between me and Jack in the past when we had first started living together. After a few arguments, we realised we communicated differently and as a Scottish man and an Indian woman, we had different cultural expectations on what listening means. For him, interruptions are rude and imply the person isn’t listening. For me, interruptions are a form of active listening where I’m demonstrating that I was paying attention and this is what it reminded me of. We’ve come to terms with our different communication styles. With my co-participants, I often find myself struggling to balance silence and interruptions. It was relatively easier in the aforementioned last two episodes of the season since my co-participants were chatty and there weren’t too many pauses that I was tempted to fill.

However, the critique got me more actively thinking about how I can rectify this impulse in future episodes if I do decide to do a Season 2. I do believe that it’s easier to talk to some co-participants than it is others. At the same time, I don’t think different personalities/communication styles should hamper the conversation in a way where I monopolise the discussion. With my co-hosts, we usually assign segments so that each of us is in-charge of facilitating a certain part of the conversation. This not only eases the pressure off of us individually, but it also allows each of us a chance to be the first to share our opinions and perspectives about different topics. I wonder if for future episodes, this might be a good plan for all guests. As I’d written previously, in terms of planning the episodes, it might be better to have a meeting right at the beginning of the planning process so that we can understand what we’re both interested in exploring. We can then exchange fan texts and possibly have another meeting to discuss the themes and segments we’d like to discuss more specifically, drawing from the fan texts we go through. In this meeting, what might work is assigning segments where I’m in-charge of certain parts of the conversation while the guest can take charge of others. Hopefully, this will allow more reticent participants a chance to talk more and will help me not rush in to fill the silences. In the meanwhile, I hope the feedback works just as well with other episodes as it did with the two I recorded after I received it.

Re-reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Tomorrow officially marks the last date of my data creation stage and I finished reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows this morning. Re-reading the series both for the project and situated in the midst of all the tumultuous events of 2020 has been an extremely illuminating, valuable, comforting, and emotional experience. It’s made me excited about re-reading the series again at another time and space – perhaps not the usual annual re-read of my early 20s but once every two years at least.

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

  • I like how similar Dudley and Draco’s trajectories are from privileged spoiled bullies to young men who develop compassion and empathy. The damage their parents have done to them coupled with their wealth and being used to getting everything they want – for good or ill – is astoundingly terrible. And it takes traumatic events for both of them to begin to unlearn their terribleness. They’d both benefit from therapy and also better adult/peer influences than their parents
  • Tonks knocks over a mug-tree at one point and I realised I’ve never never known what that meant. I used to think it was a special kind of indoor tree called mug? Understanding at last! Only took moving to the UK, of course.
  • More theme of women are men’s possessions in the books. Ron throws Lupin a “furtive, guilty look” before he holds onto Tonks’s waist. Oh Ron. I know I point out your inadequacies quite a bit, but I really do think you’re brilliant. But address your internalised misogyny, please and thank you
  • Hedwig’s death had so much more of an emotional impact now than when I was first reading it as a teenager, especially since it followed on the heels of Harry losing his Firebolt – his last connection to Sirius (well, nearly – there’s a mirror shard lying around somewhere). It made me think of child refugees who have to leave everything they know behind as they’re forced to leave home and don’t even have the comfort of their favourite things or pets. I know Harry is 17 in this book but that’s hardly any better than a child. His traumatic experiences and childhood may have aged him prematurely but he’s still a child. And Hedwig was his hope, comfort and companion in the otherwise hostile and abusive Dursley home
  • Ted Tonks, a Muggle-born wizard, refers to Arthur Weasley’s modifications on Hagrid’s flying motorbike as “Arthur and his Muggle contraptions.” His Muggle contraptions! How much has he assimilated into the magical community and inherited their prejudice and paternalism towards non-magical people like his parents?!
  • Gender roles on femininity – Harry thinks one of the best things about Ginny is that she never cries and always takes things in her stride. (The comparison to Cho isn’t explicit but very much implied). I don’t think Hermione is really shown to be the sort of girl who cries either. Cho and Lavender were the emotional ones and treated quite disparagingly by the narrative. Are emotions and tears something that make you a bad woman? What about boys being emotional and/or crying?
  • Gender roles on masculinity – George and Fred gift Ron a book called Twelve Fail-Safe Ways to Charm Witches and he in turn gifts a copy to Harry. On one hand, it’s kind of sweet the way they’re looking after each other when it comes to matters they know very little about. They are not only willing to learn and fill in the missing gaps in their knowledge but also share their knowledge. On the other hand, why can’t they just TALK about these things rather than having to read some random writer taking them through these issues? Why can’t they get some proper advice from each other? Is that a thing only reserved for girls?
  • On privilege – Harry is able to stand up to the Minister of Magic Rufus Scrimgeour in a very forthright way but I wonder how much of this stems from the people he knows and who protect him + his reputation + his perceived role as the only hope against Voldemort. Social and cultural capital make it easier to stand up to injustice than someone from an oppressed group standing up or even someone without the same kind of privilege standing up to a government figure which would probably get them arrested or worse. (You see this in India where people who questioned the government are being thrown into prison on trumped up charges)
  • The Ministry which is supposed to be protecting the magical community from Voldemort and the Death Eaters is instead being even more anti-werewolf than it usually is! No wonder Lupin is miserable. What sort of life does he imagine a half-werewolf child would have in this terrible world? Even the good guys are terrible and the end of the series doesn’t even explore ending that oppression – despite centaurs, house-elves, a werewolf, and a giant fighting on their side
  • It’s the first time I’m noticing that the Weasleys have made so many accommodations for Hagrid to incorporate his size into their house (for dinner and for the wedding). Usually we see Hagrid in the Hogwarts context so didn’t think about how hard his life otherwise would be. Interesting both through the lens of fat activism and disability activism
  • The wedding rituals in the magical world seem suspiciously Christian with some magic thrown in. Does the magical community not have its own traditions?
  • Krum takes great offense at the Deathly Hallows symbol Xenopholius Lovegood wears because it was one Grindelwald adopted. This  is more widely known in his home country of Bulgaria since Grindelwald never got huge in Britain as a result of which most wedding guests don’t recognise it. Thinking of how different symbols have different meanings in different contexts. The swastika is the most direct parallel since Grindelwald is supposed to represent Hitler. In India, the swastika has very different connotations (Hindu good luck) than in the West (Nazis and the Holocaust)
  • Apparently in the earlier days, Squibs were a shameful secret that families shipped off to Muggle schools so they didn’t have to feel like second-class citizens in the magical world. The thing is it doesn’t seem like it’s gotten any better even now. Squibs still seem to be treated like second-class citizens. Just putting them out of sight isn’t a particularly effective or kind method. Why are they a problem and why can’t they just choose whether they’d like to live in the community they grew up in?
  • Kreacher’s take is really heartbreaking – less that he was brainwashed by the family he belonged to into being prejudiced (though that is also sad) but that he was used by Voldemort and the potion most likely affected his physical and mental health for the rest of his life. Hermione thinks Voldemort like other Purebloods didn’t bother to learn about house-elf magic because they don’t consider house-elves as equals which is how Kreacher was able to leave the cave. However isn’t this true of all the students and adults in the magical community even now? How much do they know about house-elves? They certainly don’t seem to learn about them, their culture, their beliefs, their powers in school
  • Hermione definitely has the best intentions when it comes to the house-elves (though not always the best methods). She understands Kreacher and how he thinks and the kindness and affection he craves and how this has been to both Voldemort’s and Sirius’s detriment
  • Regulus seems to be one of the other few good Slytherins who bought into his family’s and even Voldemort’s narrative but then realised he was wrong. The trigger seemed to have been Kreacher being left for dead which is also great considering how house-elves are usually looked at. He works to bring Voldemort down in a way which looks for no glory or recognition, just the successful eventual downfall of a movement he had joined and realised was awful. I wish we knew more about him too. I couldn’t help but draw connections to real-world alt-right people who’ve gotten out and are now speaking against their previous beliefs
  • Voldemort’s government creates a Muggle-born Register to keep a track of and round up Muggle-born witches and wizards and to investigate how they “stole” their magical abilities. Such documentation of oppressed or marginalised groups has been used for violence in the past – in India in Gujarat, Delhi and other parts of the country. In the US more recently registered Democrats in some states have received messages from people connected with the Proud Boys militia (though they deny this) that they better vote Republican or else – and showed they had their address and family info. In India, anti-CAA protesters drew connections with the Muggle-born registry more directly and outlined how Muslim citizens would and could be identified and targeted
  • Food privilege – Harry is used to starving with the Dursleys so the lack of food while they’re hiding outdoors doesn’t bother him as much. Hermione is more bothered by it but gets through it. Ron is used to good food all the time and it sends him over the edge. Access to food is a privilege and healthy nutritious food doubly so. How does this lack of access impact both children and adults both physically and mentally (especially in the context of how in the UK the Tory MPs voted against free food for vulnerable children over the Christmas holidays which seems extra Scroogeish even for them)
  • Pandemic parallels – being cooped up together in small spaces without access to food you like even when it’s with people you’re fond of, how it can fracture you and your relationships – Ron, Hermione and Harry together in a highly stressful situation
  • The role of a free, alternative media in a fascist regime – The Quibbler has stopped printing its usual news of the odd and is focusing on the resistance and supporting Harry Potter since all other media sources are toeing the government line. Parallels to India. The government does everything it can to shut down this media which questions its messaging – in this case kidnapping and imprisoning the editor’s daughter to silence him and force him to toe the government line
  • The role of students in the resistance – even though the Death Eaters have taken over Hogwarts, there’s still a group of students fermenting an underground rebellion in school. Parallels to India and the US.
  • Potterwatch is another alternate source of media – radio and podcast parallels – which challenges the government narrative at great risk and inconvenience to their own lives and families. It shares news and information that the government and government-controlled media are suppressing and even make sure to include news of attacks on and deaths of Muggles
  • Relatedly, they talk about instances of witches and wizards protecting Muggle friends and neighbours by casting protective charms on their houses. For all his talk of loving Muggles, Arthur doesn’t seem to have made any effort to get to know his Muggle neighbours or befriend any Muggles in the nearby village. Other witches and wizards certainly seem to have, so why not him? Are they just exotic things meant to be gawked at from afar?
  • I hope that people like Luna and Dean remember that Dobby, a house-elf, gave his life to save theirs and start thinking more actively and more empathetically about house-elves, their rights and their lives and consider them equally worthy of respect as witches and wizards. Ron is certainly affected as seen in the Battle of Hogwarts. I like to think that they all play a role in house-elf-related activism in the future – especially considering how important freedom was to Dobby. God I can barely finish writing this paragraph without wanting to cry
  • Dumbledore and faith – I think Witch, Please first pointed this out about how in the seventh book, Harry almost goes through a crisis of faith in the religious sense with the revelations about Dumbledore and his lack of clear communication and how he unpacks this to come to his own realisation in a way which brings him a more nuanced and complex understanding of his faith in Dumbledore. Doubting he’s dead – believing he sees Dumbledore in Sirius’s mirror shard, being angry at Dumbledore but also afraid of having misunderstood his intentions and meaning and now not following the path that Dumbledore meant him to, feeling lost and wanting some hope and comfort that he was doing the right thing, grappling with uncertainty and doubt and choosing to trust
  • Griphook and goblin resentment that witches and wizards guard the knowledge of wand magic and refuse to share it with Other Magical People for fear that it expand their powers. To which Ron retorts that goblins guard their of magic too, specifically how they make goblin armour. Surely one begets the other? This source of distrust and hoarding of knowledge perpetuates because neither side wants to come together to figure out their issues and share their cultural heritage with each other. I really want some magical world reforms
  • This supposedly tiny Shell Cottage which has no room for guests HAS THREE BEDROOMS. Bill and Fleur want to shift everyone to their aunt Muriel’s which has much more room for everyone to be comfortable. So it’s not like the Weasleys have no access to wealth or any wealthy connections. Lots of capital and opportunities
  • Goblin version of history differs from the wizarding version of history. Whose history is true? Likely nobody’s and both. Depends on who’s doing the telling of history. Lots of shared trauma and inherited prejudice. Even Bill who works with goblins and has goblin friends still considers it prudent to warn Harry about goblin culture and how their ideas of ownership, payment and repayment is very different from wizards. Look who’s talking! A British man whose job consisted of breaking into tombs in other countries to identify and break curses and jinxes so he could bring back foreign treasure to British shores. NO historical parallel whatsoever!
  • Ariana’s story – now that I read it through the lens of the Witch, Please theory, it does sound like she was sexually assaulted by the three Muggle boys who had seen her do magic when she was six years old. The resulting tragedy is a consequence of violence against women, against a child, for being both powerless and unable to control her power. They also included Helena Ravenclaw’s fate at the hands of the Bloody Baron as another example of violence against women being so embedded even in the magical world
  • Harry and faith – the way Harry sees Dumbledore is the way a lot of people see Harry. Dobby certainly has blind faith in Harry. The Hogwarts students in the resistance, the Order members and others, hell even Dumbledore whose last words to Kingsley and Remus were to trust Harry, they all share stories of Harry’s exploits as something to bolster their faith and hope. A symbol of the resistance and to keep going. As Neville says, they’ve been loyal to both Dumbledore and Harry when neither were in the school to guide them
  • Under Voldemort’s reign, Muggle Studies does become compulsory but only to tell the witches and wizards how stupid and cruel Muggles are and how the natural order is now being restored. So not quite what I had in mind
  • Neville on resistance – “The thing is, it helps when people stand up to them, it gives everyone hope. I used to notice that when you did it Harry.” Oh Neville! 💜😭
  • How fan conversations have influenced my own thinking by what I choose to pay closer attention to – Slytherins not being represented in the resistance is absurd in hindsight. Snape and Regulus seem to be the exceptions to the rule. None of the Slytherins stay back and fight. There is honestly such anti Slytherin prejudice in Hogwarts and in the books
  • Firenze stood and fought and was injured for the school and for Harry to protect the people under his care even though the other centaurs don’t meddle in human matters (until much later in the book, at least). God I love Firenze. I honestly want to read so much fanfic about all these side characters and what they were doing while we were following the trio. I don’t think I’m emotionally ready to write these stories myself though maybe I will be some day
  • I’m also more wary of being influenced by fandom opinions/critiques. I realised this with Nagini thanks to Lorrie’s perspective, and now also thanks to my feelings about Snape. I’ve always thought Snape is a great character – complex and nuanced and excellent. After first reading The Deathly Hallows, much like Harry I was totally on his side – enough to name a child after him even. Then fans pointed out some valid critiques – his love for Lily was less love and more obsession, he was cruel to the children he taught, he was vicious to Harry and Lupin and Sirius because of his old grudge. And my opinion of Snape slowly shifted to the other end. But now that I’m rereading the books critically with more time to sit with my feelings and untangle them a bit – I’ve moved somewhere in the middle. I still think he’s an excellent character and I think he’s done terrible things as well. However, I love that he’s imperfect and I think his relatively short life – he was only 38 when he was murdered! – was so tragic. And he didn’t even have a sense of community to count on. He was a part of the resistance but wasn’t trusted; he was welcomed in the Death Eater fold but didn’t belong. Did he have any other friendships? Anybody to talk to? Anybody to share his feelings with? Only Dumbledore and Snape had to kill him on his orders and was thought to be a murderer and thoroughly despised by those he was fighting for. He spent his life being despised and I don’t know that the truth coming out after he died makes up for it. I really wish the ghost of Snape had been there in the Forest with the Marauders and Lily too. And I think he did love Lily, deeply and imperfectly, in the best way he knew how to. He’s not really been shown much love in his life so how would he know how to love well? He did his best. Witch, Please also points out that Snape was a war veteran – trauma shapes his life which doesn’t excuse his behaviour but does explain it. What he really needed was lots and lots of therapy – as did all the people who survived the first war with Voldemort and had to live through the years before the second. I’ve become less attached to the mainstream fandom opinion now. He’s also grown – stops Phineas from calling Hermione Mudblood. He overcomes his prejudice against Muggles and Muggleborns – and wasn’t that thanks to love? No wonder Dumbledore keeps talking about the power of love so much!
  • I really think Harry would have made an excellent teacher – I wish he’d returned to Hogwarts, his one true home, to influence and guide generations of children like Dumbledore did.
  • What I realised while reading this book was that I’m never going to be able to let go of these fictional people and the world they live in – reading the familiar words soothed my soul and has provided me with new meanings every time I’ve read the books. As Harry Potter and the Sacred Text points out, engaging with a text over and over again makes different things stand out, makes different things meaningful – and this has definitely been the case with me

Harry Potter tattoos, closet cosplays, and podcasts as sacred texts

A couple of weeks ago, I (virtually) attended the Fan Studies Association North America conference which was excellent in many different kinds of ways. The first salon I attended discussed embodied fan identities and practices. During the Q&A session, one of the participants proposed that tattoos act as embodied fan practices leading to the question, what do you do when your attachment to the text changes or the creator/artist is outed as being problematic/terrible. “What do I do with this piece of my body that I no longer want to claim?” Somebody shared that they’d written an autoethnographic narrative of their Harry Potter tattoo and I liked the idea so much that I wanted to do something similar.

In previous blog posts and podcast episodes, I’ve described my struggle with J. K. Rowling’s transphobia and its implications for being able to love Harry Potter. It’s a struggle which a large part of the online fandom shares. Some people, including a couple of my co-participants, no longer want to engage with the series because it’s forever tainted for them and they no longer want to contribute to Rowling’s financial, social and cultural capital. And I completely understand. But I find myself completely unable to let go of the series not just because of how important they were to me while I was growing up, but also how important they continue to remain to me. However, this isn’t without its problems – the most public of which are external displays of fannishness. The tattoo is one of them; all my Harry Potter merchandise (both official and unofficial) is another. I own Harry Potter T-shirts, jewelry and leggings all of which I love wearing. But every time I wear it now, I’m always conscious of the fact that I might inadvertently be representing politics I don’t believe in. Every time I whip out a Harry Potter tee or my Time-Turner necklace, I’m tempted to accessorise it with a sign on my back which says, “Trans rights are human rights.” When I met one of my co-participants for a pre-recording meeting to plan our episode, I’d unthinkingly worn a Harry Potter T-shirt and, before the meeting, buttoned my cardigan over it so the camera wouldn’t reveal it. And a tattoo, of course, is a much more permanent part of my body. I do know some fans are now covering up their Harry Potter tattoos or transforming them to something new. Again, something which I completely understand but also something I’m both unable and unwilling to do.

Over the last ten months, I’ve been rereading the Harry Potter books with a more critical gaze and a more intersectional lens. I took breaks in between the books; but with the last three books in the series, I read them in pretty quick succession. This made for an extremely intense, engaged, and emotional experience. Particularly with the Half-Blood Prince and the Deathly Hallows, which I read in mid- and late- October when most of my episodes had been recorded and I was reading to make notes for myself rather than to inform discussions, I fell much more deeply into the books, its characters and its events. And even though I found several things to critique, the critique didn’t take away from my love for the series; it solidified it. The rereading experience this year occurred in light of Rowling’s revelations, the pandemic, and the political situation in different countries all over the world. And because of this, it was full of both pain and joy. I kept drawing parallels to the different, difficult themes in the books and real-world issues – pandemic-related, politics-related, and personal mental health related. If I were to re-read the series in a different year, I’m sure I would find newer analogies relevant to that time and space. But what I realised was how much love I still had for these characters and the books – how much hope and comfort they brought me, even while I was looking at their traumas with fresher, more empathetic eyes. Just this morning, I spent ten minutes crying after Severus Snape is murdered, mentally shouting, “He was so young! He was only 38! What a tragic waste!” And last night, the only way I was able to sleep after Fred Weasley’s death was repeating to myself over and over again, “He lived a good life. It was a short life but he lived it so well and took so much joy in it that the quality of his life makes up for the quantity.” Even typing this no and thinking about this is making me emotional – a feeling perhaps only understood by other fans whose identities are so inextricably linked to the books. And despite finding several things to critique about the books, I realised how much I still love them and how they’re going to be a part of me forever – because they not only saved me during a childhood shaped by domestic violence but also because they saved me in 2020 when I’ve been depressed and anxious and stressed and lonely.

It’s the last week of the data-creation stage of my project which ends on 31st October. I’ve been treating the last two weeks as crunch time and done away with my previous guarding of weekends and carving free time into my schedule. Instead, I’ve worked relentlessly to get as much done as possible before I can shift my brain to another part of the PhD process. I’ve largely been stuck in front of my laptop screen – recording, transcribing, editing, writing blog posts. But every day, I go for a short walk in the middle of the day, during which I’ve been listening to Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. And the podcast and its thoughtful and meaningful conversations have become such a source of comfort and inspiration too. While earlier I was listening to episodes out of order to find relevant ones for my own episode, now I’m just listening to them discuss chapters of The Goblet of Fire through different themes including kindness, comfort, grief, betrayal, disillusionment, and love. And much like re-reading the series, walking with these episodes has been intense, engaged and emotional. My supervisors and boyfriend have gently rebuked me in the past for listening to podcasts when I go for a walk because they believe it’s me taking my work outside when I should just be taking a break. My response to them (and myself) was, “What am I supposed to do when I walk if I don’t listen to podcasts? Just be alone with my thoughts?!”

But today, I realised that walking with podcasts hasn’t been an excuse to run away from my thoughts at all. It’s actually really helped me self-reflect and think about my own life and experiences. This has especially been true this week with Harry Potter and the Sacred Text and the themes they chose to focus on. Perhaps it’s because I’m not listening to the episodes for a specific reason i.e. to look for themes I can use in my own project. Instead, I’m just hanging out with the podcast because the hosts make for great company and offer excellent conversation – both flippant and deeply significant. I love the fact that they use Harry Potter chapters to talk about such big topics but also about everyday iterations of these topics and what ordinary people can do to incorporate more radical love in their lives. The hosts and their guests have been trained at the Harvard Divinity School, though the hosts are atheists and offer secular ministry. And the ways in which they frame their ideas – the kind of spirituality they bring to the forefront using both Harry Potter and their own personal experiences – has inspired listeners to offer their own interpretations, experiences, and versions of the spiritual. The idea behind the podcast is to treat Harry Potter as a sacred text, much like religious people treat their religious texts as sacred and engage deeply with its stories and themes to reflect on their own lives and societies. The podcast privileges the imperfectness of a sacred text and also emphasises the importance of doubt. You can’t generate new meanings and conversations if a text is considered perfect. You can’t talk back to the text and bring marginalised voices to the fore if the text is supposed to be untouchable. The podcast also privileges rigour and community – the fact that they committed to meet every week to talk to each other about the books reading each chapter through a different theme; the fact that they take the podcast seriously and carve out time to make notes and think about what they’re going to talk about; the fact that they do this together along with their producer and assorted guests and their listeners – all of this comes together to make their process of podcasting itself a sacred act.

The podcast has provided me with such a different way to think about all these things – what’s sacred and why, the importance of community, why love is a radical act, how I don’t need to run away from ideas of spirituality and self-reflection, and that spirituality and self-reflection can take many different forms – a fan podcast using the framework of popular media texts, for example.

Picture of wrist with 9 3/4 tattoo on it

Which brings me back to my tattoo. I got it carved into my skin in my early 20s – nearly a decade ago. It was meant to be the first of several literary tattoos – something which I still hope will cover my hands some day. But for now, it’s the only tattoo I have – tucked away on the inside of my wrist; easy to miss; and facing me so that anybody who wants to see what it is has to tilt their head (though for fellow Harry Potter fans, the symbol is instantly recognisable). After so many years, it’s no longer as vivid as it used to be. The tattoo is much more simple in design than any of the elaborate works of Harry Potter inspired body art I’ve seen over the years. I thought about what design I wanted for quite some time before deciding on this one. Because to me, Platform 9 3/4 represented Harry’s entry into this magical world – my entry into this magical world – full of wonder and torment; of joy and loss; of grief and community; of love and kindness and compassion and empathy – of all these big things and everyday things which the books are full of, which the podcasts are full of (the ones I’ve been listening to and the one I’ve been co-creating), which the world is full of and also desperately needs more of. For better or for worse, Harry Potter has given me a language to engage with the rest of the world. It has changed the architecture of my brain and the shape of my life. The books and the conversations and ideas around them will forever be imperfect and sacred to me. And hopefully, they will help me make more good choices than bad – love rather than hate – as I continue engaging with them throughout different periods of my life.

“Justice is what love looks like in public.”

– Dr. Cornel West

How/Whether To Incorporate Multiple Interpretations Of The Research Project

Throughout the last ten months, I’ve changed some aspects of my project as and when the need arose or I discovered there’s a different/better way of doing something – things that couldn’t really be planned for beforehand but could only be encountered through experimentation. This has largely been thanks to my co-participants’ insights as well as what I’ve learned from mistakes. Since co-creation of knowledge is such a fundamental part of my project, I wanted to retain this emphasis in my final thesis too. I’ve quite uncomfortable privileging my own interpretations and opinions throughout the project. I tried to mitigate this more or less in the podcast episodes themselves (with varying degrees of success). However, ultimately, it will be me analysing the project and writing the thesis.

I’m still considering alternatives to the traditional academic thesis. With my supervisors’ and transfer examiners’ support, I had submitted an application the doctoral college to present my final thesis in the form of a podcast (supplemented by a blog). However, this wasn’t permitted. Even though the alternative format has been rejected, I’m still determined to find a way to write the thesis in a way which makes it accessible to non-academic audiences, without the potentially intimidating structure of traditional PhD documents. Besides making it more easy to read, I also want to experiment with ways in which to give my co-participants’ voices and perspectives as well as the non-academic texts I’ve been reading (memoirs, anthologies, online articles among others) equal space and respect as I would academic literature and my own analysis.

My original plan was to analyse the episodes and then share this analysis with all my co-participants in order to get their interpretations, comments and/or critiques. I envisioned this feedback to not act as research data but as something I could include in the final thesis alongside my own analysis – highlighting their voices as well as my own. While I still see the merits in this idea, I’m very aware of the time and brainspace constraints of this project – both for me and my co-participants. I was trying to figure out the best way to both share this analysis in an effective and efficient way with my co-participants + have them share their thoughts about it with me in the best way for the needs of the project. This is complicated by the fact that all my co-participants – nearly 20 of them – have their own different schedules and priorities. All of them may not want to contribute in this way. Even if they did, they might not be able to commit the time and resources necessary to make this idea possible – especially considering the pandemic and the political situation. It would be highly unfair of me to expect anyone else to be willing and able to care about this idea in an effort to make the research more democratic. And, as one of my supervisors pointed out, I will have spent much more time with the data and will have much more space to describe my thoughts. The co-participants will not. As my supervisor further pointed out, I shouldn’t incorporate their feedback merely as a token gesture; if it can’t be done meaningfully, it might be better to change my original plan.

Text says: It doesn't require me to hate you because you have a different opinion.

In lieu of this advice (and my struggle with finding a good way to go ahead with my original plan), I’m considering asking all my co-participants to send brief reflections of their experience participating in the project and planning and recording our episodes. If they prefer, I could provide loose guidelines about the sort of things they can talk about (for example, what worked, what didn’t, what would they change next time, did the episode have an impact on any future media consumption/conversations/ideas); but otherwise, I would leave it entirely up to them so that they can share anything they feel like. They could share an audio recording of their feedback – between 2 to 10 minutes – or write or illustrate or present their ideas in any format they choose. Going back to my original plan, I would then include this feedback in my thesis, interwoven with the rest of my discoveries and conclusions. This wouldn’t be compulsory at all and would depend entirely on the willingness and ability of each co-participant. After recording our last episode, my two co-hosts (and friends) offered to do this themselves and would be very happy to help. My supervisors did warn me that there may not be enough room in my final thesis to incorporate this; but that it was nonetheless a good idea to get in touch with my co-participants for any future papers, chapters or conference presentations. Personally, I would just love to know what they thought so it could also help with future podcast episodes (I’m still planning a Season 2) and to provide me with a fresh perspective I wouldn’t otherwise have thought of.

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.

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