A PhD project exploring intersectionality through fan podcasts

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Episode 15 A Fascinating Tension: Multiple Interpretations of Religious Themes and Ideas in SFF

Episode Resources:

1) Essay – Introduction to Cruel Miracles

2) Essay – What Does God Need With a Space Station?

3) Book extract – Too Like The Lightning 

4) Essay – Why There Is No Jewish Narnia

5) Essay – Fantasy and the Jewish Question

6) TV show episode – Star Trek The Next Generation: Who Watches The Watchers?

7) TV show episode – Star Trek Deep Space Nine: Accession

8) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text Special Edition: Owl Post and Rabbi Scott Perlo (Again!)

9) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds: The Canon Revisited

10) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text Owl Post Edition: How to Be in Community with Burns Stanfield

11) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text Owl Post Edition: Reclaiming Tradition with Professor Matt Potts

12) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text Special Edition: Owl Post and Broderick Greer

13) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds: Faith in Fantasy

14) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds: The Book of Dune

15) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text Special Edition: Owl Post and Professor Stephanie Paulsell

16) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds: Fear of the Borg

 

Episode Transcript

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

Photo of Ziv Wities

[Intro music]

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

[Intro music]

My name is Parinita Shetty and you’re listening to the fifteenth episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I talk to Ziv Wities about the representation of religion in speculative fiction. We also discuss Jewish faith traditions: how they are similar to fandom culture and how they diverge. In the beginning of the episode, we talk about Orson Scott Card’s ideas about humanism in religion but don’t explicitly mention or criticise his homophobic views – so I’m taking this opportunity to clarify that we abhor his bigotry.

It’s rare to find religious representation in mainstream fiction. If religious people do exist in science fiction and fantasy, their portrayals are quite extreme and they’re often featured as antagonists. Religion is largely used as an excuse for people to do terrible things without any other context or explanation. While religious zealots do exist, by always linking religion to violence and irrationality, mainstream media perpetuates a limited idea of religion.

For many people, religion is the lens through which they make sense of the world and engage with ideas of morality. Science fiction and fantasy explores several themes that religion is also interested in. An increasing number of people use popular culture to engage with moral issues and navigate the world they inhabit. Religious fans read themselves into non-religious media to address their underrepresentation and misrepresentation in fictional worlds. These interpretations offer a way to learn about religion as well. There are some instances where faith is represented in nuanced and complex ways which explore multiple perspectives of religious canon. But we need more stories which grapple with how ideas of religion, pluralism and humanism fit together and how people of different faiths can co-exist.

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: Today I’m so happy to welcome Ziv Wities on the podcast. Ziv is Orthodox Jewish and lives in Israel. At various times, he’s lived on kibbutz, in Jerusalem, on Mount Gilboa, and mostly in the country’s centre, orbiting Tel Aviv. Besides programming and fending off his three loving children, Ziv is Assistant Editor at Diabolical Plots, and Associate Editor at PodCastle. You can find him on Twitter @QuiteVague or on his website. In this episode, we’re exploring representations of faith in speculative fiction. As I’ve mentioned many times on this podcast, I’m not really a religious person which is why when I’m reading or watching fantasy and science fiction, I don’t usually actively think about religion and whether or not it is present in the world or the way in which it is present. Which is why I’m so glad to be able to chat with someone who is religious and who does think about these issues. Even going through the really thoughtful texts that Ziv recommended has expanded my mind in so many ways. So before we begin, Ziv, do you want to talk about your own engagement with this topic?

Ziv: [laughs] It’s an interesting question because I feel like there’s not been a lot of it. I always feel that I’m looking for it and it’s so rare to actually find religious representation in mainstream fiction. There are a few notable exceptions; a few places that lit up and I said, “Oh my goodness that’s what I’ve been looking for.” More recently there’s been things like Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota series which addresses it in really interesting ways. It kind of talks around it, not going into any specific faith but rather about the need and the role of faith in community. One story that stuck out for me in one of the Hyperion books. It’s a book that’s built of multiple shorter stories and one of them is about a scholar who is writing about the sacrifice of Isaac when Abraham is ordered to sacrifice Isaac to god. And the whole story is framed as him debating the morality and trying to understand what we’re even supposed to learn from that story. And I loved that because it connected to me so deeply to how we think about it. One of the things [laughs] and probably the author I’ve seen talk about this most and most explicitly is Orson Scott Card – who has addressed it in great detail and also is a huge can of worms.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Ziv: [laughs] So I feel like he has very unusual insight as a very popular – at the time when I was reading him in the nineties – a very popular and influential author who definitely had this in his fiction in different ways [laughs] and everything that comes with that.

Parinita: Before we read the Introduction to Cruel Miracles, I didn’t actually know enough about Orson Scott Card and his beliefs or even his writing until I came across some memes recently.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: In response to J. K. Rowling’s transphobia.

Ziv: J. K. Rowling – yes! [laughs]

Parinita: From fans of him and Lovecraft welcoming Rowling’s fans into their fold.

Parinita: I really enjoyed his essay because of the way that he approached it and his arguments made sense. He says that the lack of characters who are religious in not only science fiction and fantasy but also literary fiction is a bit weird considering how important a framework religion is to many people. Not just in the US and India and Israel but all over the world, right? A lot of people use religion to make sense of the world and it plays a really important part in their lives. And if everyone was so hostile to religion as these texts that we love seem to lead us to believe, then obviously religion wouldn’t survive.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: If everyone was above religion as most of science fiction seems to think, there really wouldn’t be a role for it. And what I really liked in the blog post, What Does God Need With A Space Station? was that she spoke about how religion is about people. Sure it’s about god as well, but it’s mostly about interactions with each other and with your idea of religion and your idea of god and how that impacts your own life. I thought that was a really nice idea of religion, since I’m not a religious person but come from a deeply religious country. In India, religion plays a huge role – different religions, not just Hinduism.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: More so now than ever before, I am keenly aware of how much religion can be weaponised and is weaponised and used to exclude groups of people, right? I’m sure you’re well aware of that as well.

Ziv: Absolutely.

Parinita: I am also really interested in the humanistic idea of religion which Orson Scott Card’s Introduction delved into a little bit. He was talking about religious themes and ideas rather than this one true religion – even though he’s Mormon. Or was Mormon. I don’t know.

Ziv: Yeah. He is, yes. Very much so. I think that the comparison to Rowling and to Lovecraft are apt in a certain way. But I feel like for the people who were strong Card fans, it was so much a shock or a gradual awakening. I understand there are people who saw him as problematic much, much earlier. But to a lot of readers, Card was the great humanist. If you look at works like Ender’s Game and the sequels, which have such a theme of learning to recognise wider and wider bands of beings as being people.

Parinita: Hmm.

Ziv: And I think that his saying of hey, religious people are in that category too; they are also in a category of people that should be recognised and empathised with and seen as yet another  way to look at the world and another place that people come from. Certainly as a reader of his fiction, it spoke to me very strongly. [laughs] And if we look beyond that, you can certainly see his later activity and opinions as feeling very contrary to that.

Parinita: I mean that’s similar to J. K. Rowling, right?

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: I’ve grown up with her books like a lot of fans now and they’re like, “But your books taught me to be inclusive and open-minded and kind and compassionate to everybody and now … you’re not?”

Ziv: Yes. [laughs]

Parinita: Okay we thought your books were talking about one thing. But apparently it only existed for a certain group of people. Well, we’re rejecting that. We’re still going to keep the message and maybe divorce you from your text.

Ziv: Absolutely.

Parinita: And also the question of author’s intent versus fan interpretations, right? Fans might have not taken what the author meant for them to take.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: So now people are going back to the text and they’re like, “No, there’s lots of problems.” Not only now,  this has been happening earlier too but because I’ve been listening to podcasts recently …

Ziv: Gradually because it’s been so popular.

Parinita: Yeah. I started reading Harry Potter when I was ten and it was hugely important to me for many reasons.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: When you grow up with something, you don’t have the ability or the vocabulary or even the thought processes to identify these things. And now I’m re-reading it as an adult and I’m like, “Oh! Okay. All right.”

Ziv: [laughs]

Parinita: I still love it but …

Ziv: Always dangerous.

Parinita: Yeah. But I’m able to criticise it because I love it.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: And all the problematic elements including transphobic jokes where men in dresses are often the butt of jokes in the series.

Ziv: Yeah. Ugh.

Parinita: Which, without knowing her views now, I would never have thought too much about it. But now I’m like, “Oh! Okay.”

Ziv: [laughs] Yup.

Parinita: And then, of course, going to the other end where if religious people do exist in speculative fiction, many times the portrayals are quite extreme. You mentioned this trope that religious people are seen as adversaries to the protagonist. Were you specifically thinking of Station Eleven?

Ziv: It’s one of the more recent books that I’ve read where this was a strong element. It’s a trope that you see over and over where there’s some science fictional concept in the world, there are aliens, but there’s a religious sect that think that the aliens are evil. There are robots, but people think that robots are soulless and a travesty. There is cloning but there is a religious sect that thinks that this thing is a bad thing. And when you define religion in that way, it comes out as incredibly shallow. Because what you’ve basically said is there are religious nuts who will believe anything. And I’m going to create one whose set of beliefs is very specifically what I need for the story. It’s kind of a statement that rational people would not object to this thing. The reader who is rational will be on my side – he will recognise nuance, the reader will understand that this is an important thing or an interesting thing or something that has a lot of potential. But those religious zealots, they are going to just reject it out of hand with no thought. And they’ll do it because somebody has told them that it is a religious principle and that’s all there is to it. Like religious people or some religious people are a kind of blank slate that you can just give a random order to and they’ll go, “Yup, I’m going to believe that.” With no context! [laughs] With no nothing else.

Parinita: Yeah! And I find it really interesting as well because, until you mentioned that you wanted to talk about Station Eleven a bit, I didn’t even think of it. I’d read this book a few years ago, so I didn’t really remember it very well. I have a terrible memory so every time I re-read a book that’s not Harry Potter, it’s like, “I have no idea what happens!”

Ziv: [laughs]

Parinita: So I went back to the book and I read it, and I encountered the Prophet character, who is the one that is this religious zealot and like a cult leader almost. The first time I read it, and even when I was re-reading it, keeping your comments in mind –  the brief comments you made in our emails.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: I was like, “Oh yeah, but people like this do exist.” In India, you see this with godmen and godwomen who are like this, especially now when we have this Hindu fascist government, a Hindu supremacist government in power, you do see more of that more explicitly. But then when I was thinking about that more, I thought but if that’s your only representation of religion not just in the books –

Ziv: Exactly.

Parinita: But in mainstream media at large, I mean of course, these people exist. But then how is that different from tropes about different races or disabilities or religions as well. If you say all people belonging to a certain religion or just religion at large are these extremist fundamentalist zealots, then that’s also doing a great disservice to religious people and religious fans who aren’t like that.

Ziv: Yeah, absolutely. And the reason I brought Station Eleven as an example is it’s a good book, it’s a compelling book, it’s a book with a lot of appeal. But if you look at how the Prophet is constructed, it’s a character who is presented as being intensely unlikable. This is not a charismatic person. And yet, somehow, he has converted town upon town, community on community, to do exactly what he says even when he’s not around, by no mechanism. All the mechanisms of religion are mechanisms of community; of having a community that acts in certain ways and in certain interests. But you get the impression of the Prophet as somebody who is kind of this spoiled kid. But he comes to a place, he says, “I’m a Prophet and you should behave in these horrible ways and punish everybody who disagrees.” And apparently everybody just goes along with that for no apparent reason.

Parinita: Well, one of the reasons in that is violence, right? They have a lot of access to guns, I believe. That’s how they’ve seem to have cowed down a lot of towns.

Ziv: So that’s definitely brought in but first of all, that’s not a religion. That’s just violence. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: In order to get those and in order to get the people who are with him, if he was the leader of a gang of thugs who found the first weapons cache and just built on that, that would make sense. But putting it into the trappings of religion, it just doesn’t follow any of the natural progression that a faith or a community does. It’s just using the clothing of religion in order to say we don’t actually need to justify why these people are being so horrible. Rather, religion is something that gives people permission to be horrible, and that’s the only explanation you need.

Parinita: I mean I definitely saw the Prophet and his followers the people who are too scared to not follow him as more of a cult than a religion. And of course a lot of cults are based in both traditional as well as non-traditional religions in India, in the US, in different parts of the world.

Ziv: Um hmm yeah.

Parinita: So in Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, one of the episodes they looked at house-elves as a cult and a religion. Basically they were like the house-elf community could be a cult but Dobby, by leaving it, showed that it’s not. Because he was able to leave it. That’s how they differentiated between a religion and a cult. In a religion you wouldn’t be killed or you wouldn’t be ostracised – I mean you might be, depending on which part of the world you’re in – but you’re able to leave a religion and either not be religious anymore or find a different religion. Whereas a cult if you leave, like in Station Eleven –

Ziv: The cult will retaliate.

Parinita: They’ll put graves down for you.

Ziv: Yeah. And I think that’s exactly it. The blurring of the line, the equation between a religion and a cult is exactly what a lot of these stories do. Because it’s definitely common to see a religion in this sense where some of the adherents are not actually faithful. But they’re just too afraid. But the way that a cult works – cults have specific dynamics of how they target people who are vulnerable, about how they isolate them and keep them away from being able to possibly leave. Cults almost by definition are pretty small because in order to scale up [laughs] to the degree that they can isolate each and every one of their members and keep people from being able to leave, that’s just not possible at large-scale.

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: That’s exactly what I feel is so harmful is saying that religions and cults are basically the same thing. Each one of them has their problems but they’re very different ones.

Parinita: In these instances where religion is portrayed negatively, there seems to be a perceived conflict between humanism and religion. Like you’re saying, religion is very much framed in a cult-like manner where there’s not really any engagement with religious themes and ideas that a lot people would consider as religious themes and ideas.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: I know a group of people could be more fundamentalist in their beliefs but, again, that’s the problem, right? If your mainstream media and culture only shows that aspect of religion and the violence that’s done with it, then that’s a problem as well. Because then you’re painting everyone with the same brush and you have this toxic idea of religion.

Ziv: Yeah. I think it’s vanishingly rare for any of these religious portrayals or portrayals of cults or spirituality as being something that you can have any sympathy with being attracted to. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: They’re never portrayed in a way that you can say, “Well, I can see why some people go with this.”

Parinita: Yeah. It’s like a very irrational sort of thing. There’s already this idea that religion is irrational.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: And when I was younger and I was growing up in this religious household – my mum is super religious, but the kind of religious who believes in different kinds of religions. So it’s not so much a thing that oh this religion is the correct religion but because she’s had different influences – she went to a Catholic school, grew up in a Hindu household, and culturally, India is very Hindu. She also goes to mosques and things – basically [laughs] any sort of religious thing that would have her, she’ll go. And she’ll find solace in that. But for me, as a teenager, I really chafed at that because it didn’t make sense to me. She wasn’t learned and neither am I in theology or religion from a scholarly point of view. So all these questions that I had like why must we do this? A lot of Hinduism and or at least a lot of people who culturally follow Hinduism, there are a lot of patriarchal ideas there. So things like, for women, for example – this is the thing that I remember I first started fighting about – when women are on their period, you can’t go into a temple because you’re considered unclean.

Ziv: Uh huh.

Parinita: And this was something that didn’t make sense to me. And I was all like, “No, if you have a correct answer, I’ll give you the benefit of doubt. “

Ziv: Um hmm. [laughs]

Parinita: But she obviously didn’t have an answer because she didn’t know enough about it even to be able to give an answer. Her answer was, “No, this is the way that it is.” And I was like, “Nope, that’s not happening with me.” [laughs]

Ziv: [laughs] Not enough, not enough.

Parinita: Which is why I started questioning religion. And I think earlier I was much more anti-religion than I am now. And I think it was because of that; because I grew up feeling like religion was imposed on me. So I chafed at that.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: And I think that the danger is that atheism can also become a kind of fundamentalism. A lot of atheists do have that toxic side where it’s, “Either the way that we think is correct or you’re wrong. You’re stupid. You’re irrational. You’re not someone worth talking to.” I don’t think I was quite that far gone, but I was heading in that direction until I found more of these ideas that, “Wait, no, not all religious people are like this.”

Ziv: [laughs]

Parinita: Not all religious people are “irrational”. It’s just like you said, a way of making sense of the world. You’re using religion as a way to engage with the world, to engage with people, to engage with these ideas of morals and just what it means to be a good person.

Ziv: Um hmm. A lot of that is definitely there. I feel like the kind of die-hard atheism – the angry atheism is not too much part of the landscape in fiction just because those are pretty uninteresting stories of religious people are stupid. You definitely see it or it slips in sometimes. I keep going back to the lyrics to Imagine where he wishes for no religion too. I’m like, “Well I don’t appreciate that!” [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah, I’m with you on all the peace and harmony and stuff but why can’t religion be a part of that?

Ziv: I think it’s a fascinating tension. But that’s one of the lines that just stands out to me as just like wait a second, if your definition of peace and harmony specifically excludes me, then I’m not sure about it, am I?

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: And in similar ways I think to some extent, it’s just not on people’s radar. People who are not devout, who are not faithful, who don’t have a particular spiritual practice, don’t have a sense of how that affects a person’s life or how that’s a sympathetic point of view. And so they don’t put it in because they’re not aware of it. Which is similar to a lot of other blind-spots that people have.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Ziv: And another part of it is particularly in fiction, I think religion is a particularly challenging thing to put in because it kind of requests or requires that people buy into a whole additional worldview but also keep it at arm’s length and be able to differentiate between the physical reality that is being described and the spiritual side that is being attested to. And if you’re going to do all that and it’s not going to be a huge issue in the story, then a lot of stories leave it out. I think in a similar way to the way a lot of marginalised communities and identities get left out because people are like, “Well, I could make the character gay but if it’s not important to the story, that will be putting a lot of effort and it won’t pay off in any way.” And in a similar way putting in religion is as difficult or more difficult because it’s literally a different perception of reality. Or a different way of living.

Parinita: Plus I think the tension is that because religion forms the social and cultural framework of so many countries, I feel like it’s not seen as marginalised in the same way that being gay or being disabled in fiction can be.

Ziv: Absolutely. Oh, it’s so different.

Parinita: Yeah. This is something I hadn’t really thought of until I was preparing for this episode and went through a few of the texts that you had suggested as well as a few of the other texts that we looked at. I realised then that’s also so problematic where religion is so invisible or so irrelevant in your world. That does end up marginalising religious people all over the world.

Ziv: I want to be very careful here because there are ways in which the comparison or even the use of the same terminology is very wrong. Like in Israel, you cannot say that Judaism is marginalised or that Orthodox Judaism is marginalised. It’s absolutely the opposite. Religious people have tremendous power, ultra-Orthodox people have tremendous power, the Rabbinate has tremendous power including who can get married or who can get divorced. It’s not a marginalisation in most terms that we’re used to speaking about.

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: But in terms of visibility and portrayal or how much it’s assumed to be within consensus or within the default in mainstream media, it’s very, very different. [laughs] It’s just a strange place to be.

Parinita: India is the same. That’s why I really liked the book Too Like The Lightning by Ada Palmer – I’m saying the book, I’ve read four chapters – just extracts of it. You can read the extracts for free on Tor.com. But you suggested reading a bit of the book and I just couldn’t stop reading.

Ziv: [laughs]

Parinita: I was so utterly and immediately bewitched by it not just because of the worldbuilding and the characters and everything but because of the way in which religion seems to play such an important role … but also not really.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: This novel proposes that religion should be deeply personal and individual and nobody else should know about your religious beliefs. That’s the premise of this futuristic world.

Ziv: I found that fascinating. It immediately captivated me because it speaks so directly to the tension that we were talking about. To the tension between faith and the way that faith is. If you say, well I believe in this thing, it’s very difficult to say no, no you don’t. But at the same time, what right does that give you to exert power over other people? So this attempt to say, well okay, you can have faith but it needs to be entirely personal, is fantastic, in the best way of exploring an interesting idea.

Parinita: And the Sensayer as well.

Ziv: Yeah. The Sensayer is this concept of a personal spiritual adviser who never expresses his own opinion but guides an individual through his own spiritual thoughts and points them to various religious beliefs that have been adopted or discussed in the world and throughout history. So he helps everybody craft their very own personal, individual religion which they can’t tell anybody else about. [laughs] And I found it absolutely delightful. Some of it is so attractive – the idea of having faith without impinging against anybody else. And in some other ways, it just makes no sense [laughs] because if that particular approach doesn’t actually work with your beliefs, then can you limit yourself to it? If you read the entire book, it addresses similar themes on a lot of different topics. But it reminds me a lot how during the enlightenment period I think it was, there was a common saying in Judaism that you should be a Jew in your home and a man outside your home; to keep your religious persona entirely distinct from who you are in the outside world. And there are things that I think resonate very strongly with that and things that are also kind of horrifying about that. About the idea that you can believe something very strongly and that it be such an influential thing on your life but also you can’t make that known in any way. Or people will think badly of you.

Parinita: No, I’m with you there totally. The idea is super interesting. I’ve ordered the book because I want to read it and find out what happens because the book is amazing [based on the extract I read]. It just caught me off-guard. But, at the same time, this idea that nobody else should know about your religious beliefs is quite problematic as well because it prevents you from finding community.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: Which, for me, is the most appealing thing. I’m non-religious but for me, this idea of finding community and meeting together to talk to people who may not be from the same social, cultural, even political backgrounds but you’re all still coming together to … I don’t know have a meal or just do something in a church or in a temple or whatever. In Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, that’s something that they explore a lot where they have people from different religious and faith backgrounds come and talk to them through the Harry Potter framework. But they emphasise the community aspect so much as well. Where it is a way for them to provide this community – the podcast itself for people from both religious and non-religious backgrounds. Whereas in Too Like The Lightning it has this vaguely uncomfortable idea of how marginalised people are meant to assimilate to the dominant culture. And leave behind their beliefs and practices in an effort to fit in.

Ziv: Yes.

Parinita: In most countries, of course, there’s a dominant religion. In India, Hinduism is the dominant religion. So a bit of what you’re saying about Jewish people during the Enlightenment period would be now applicable for Muslims or Christians in India.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: And it’s much more difficult because of the names. In Mumbai, where I am from, there’s this huge, horrible thing that people with Muslim names find it much harder to rent flats because housing societies don’t want Muslim people in their community. Imagine that level of social and structural persecution.

Ziv: Absolutely.

Parinita: So yeah. This idea of “Oh yeah you don’t need to talk about your religion at all” is a bit problematic.

Ziv: And honestly, I think that’s often where religious stories shine most – when you’re a persecuted religion. When you’re a minority. And I think that’s often when religion shines most as well. It’s kind of a way to unite a group that is persecuted. It’s very, very different than when you’re a dominant religion and being religious means you get to dictate religious rules.

Parinita: Yeah. With Judaism, it’s something that I’m very new to – not Judaism itself but Jewishness.

Ziv: [laughs] Um hmm.

Parinita: In India, we’re not really taught so much. Our understanding of Jewishness is very tied to World War II and what happened there. But this book that I was reading called Anti-Judaism explores the history of Jewish persecution which went much beyond that. It went right to two thousand years ago. A history which I was completely unaware of.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: And I currently live in the UK where anti-Semitism is a part of the mainstream conversation. But for me, I don’t recognise a lot of what would be anti-Semitic. Because I don’t know what the tropes and stereotypes are, which someone in the West may take for granted. And, of course, in Israel, like you said, being Jewish is the dominant religion.  But not in other parts of the world. It’s the same with like Hinduism, right. In India, even though I’m not religious, because of my name and my background, I’m a part of the dominant culture. But in the UK, I’m suddenly othered.

Ziv: Yup.

Parinita: That’s why I really like this idea that there’s this huge potential of exploring religious themes and questions in science fiction and fantasy even without perhaps explicitly calling it religious themes. It’s something that Orson Scott Card said in his Introduction and it’s something that the Faith in Fantasy episode of Imaginary Worlds explored as well where it was a panel of different faith leaders who were discussing the role of religion in science fiction and fantasy. And Eric, the host, said that science fiction and fantasy asks a lot of the same questions that religion asks. I loved that idea. And it’s something that I hadn’t considered before listening to this podcast a few weeks ago.

Ziv: Yeah. Absolutely. I think it’s fascinating in that way and I honestly think that fiction nowadays gives a similar outlet or place of discussion – a different forum to talk about the same questions. A lot of the things that they raise are, “Is there a purpose to being? Is there a plan? Are our actions pre-ordained in any way? What is free will?” are all questions to a large degree of faith. And you don’t necessarily have to believe to find them meaningful. You don’t have to believe in order to ask yourself, “Are things going to work out because that’s the way the universe works? Or are we all a cosmic accident that might be eaten by a black hole tomorrow and nobody would know.” And how do I want to act because even if I do believe that we could all be wiped out by an asteroid tomorrow. I don’t necessarily want to behave as though that is true even if I technically believe it is. Because I don’t think that that’s right. I don’t think that many people do behave as though none of our actions matter.

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: Or as though you can be immoral in private as long as nobody finds out.

Parinita: Absolutely.

Ziv: I don’t think that’s true of anybody. I mean I’m sure it’s true of some people, but I don’t think that that’s how morality works regardless of faith. I don’t think that’s how people grasp it or behave.

Parinita: Absolutely. I completely agree. Because, for me, morality has never been tied to religion, for example.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: I don’t remember being religious. I went to Catholic school and grew up in a Hindu household so I have those rituals and traditions that I have a connection to or I have experience with but never that idea that … like in Hinduism, there is the idea of karma.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: Where if you do good things now, you’ll be rewarded in your next birth – in your reincarnation. The evils that you’re suffering now is a result of your past life. And again, like I said, rebellious teenager, this never made sense to me. So I was like, “But why would I just do good things for the future self? Why wouldn’t I do good things because I like people?” I think kindness is more important than yeah, I don’t want to be born as a cockroach or whatever. Sorry, I don’t really know so much about Hinduism in a scholarly way so sorry Hindu people listening to this podcast.

Ziv: [laughs]

Parinita: But I love stories – both fictional and real. That’s the framework that I use to make sense of the world. I know there’s a lot of literature about how fiction does lead to empathy among readers. I don’t know how true that is empirically but I have found that true for me. I’ve been reading since I was five or something and haven’t stopped. I love this idea of fans treating non-religious popular culture texts as sacred in much the same way as religious people treat religious texts as sacred.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: We’re doing a little bit of that in this podcast but Harry Potter and the Sacred Text does it so much more explicitly.

Ziv: [laughs] Yes, very much so. I think it’s a really interesting observation. Because first of all, I agree entirely. I think just literally the question of what is good, what is behaving well, what is virtue – is easy to say is a religious question. It isn’t a religious question. But it’s a question that religion talks a lot about. [laughs]

Parinita: Um hmm.

Ziv: And if you don’t get into spirituality or metaphysics, if you stick with strictly what is observable or what is utilitarian, it’s just harder to discuss. You can feel personally that you’re a better person for behaving well, even if it has no consequence without needing to justify that. It’s not a matter of faith necessarily but it is a matter of belief, in a way. I’m connecting with what you’re saying about how the way that people analyse stories now – fiction – in order to figure out to a better extent if a character is good, in what way are they good? If somebody was good and then a bad thing happened, is that how things work? The way that people use fiction now in order to talk about morality is really interesting. And I think it’s very, very similar to what is done in religion where stories and the interpretations of those stories are a lot of the basis for understanding what is good behaviour.

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: You gave some interesting examples where people really compared for example the construction of Midrash which in Judaism are these fairly far-out interpretations of biblical texts that seem very disconnected from the original text or what it simply means. And they add in all kinds of fantastical things and elements that seem very far-removed from the original text. But they often come in response to something, to some question. In Hebrew you call it a [speaks Hebrew] – a difficulty with the original text that they feel they have to explain. For example, if you look at the biblical text there’s very little about Esau actually being in any way offensive or hurtful towards Jacob – towards Yaʿqob. But most people remember them as bitter enemies and Esau as somehow being a very vile person and unworthy successor. And most of that is not the plain text. It’s Midrash. It’s interpretation. And it’s fairly well-accepted that the reason for all those Midrashi interpretations are because people felt so uncomfortable with well, why is Esau being treated in this way and being neglected in this way and being punished in all these ways if he didn’t do anything bad? He must have done something to deserve it. And the comparison that these podcasts were making were that fanfiction often works in very similar ways. There are ways that people want to bring text more into sync with how they experience life. Or they’re missing something in the text and they want to add it in. And so they add something to it. And that’s a very interesting comparison. My [laughs] immediate reaction to some of this is that there is still a very fundamental difference between trying to interpret something that you are assuming baseline is true or is meaningful or is divine versus something that an author has written and you know is very likely flawed or has mistakes or just hasn’t been completely edited or all kinds of things like that.

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: There’s a fundamental difference. But I do agree that the approach of wanting to fix it has a lot of similarities.

Parinita: Just to add to that, in this Anti-Judaism book that I was talking to you about, so the author is a Jewish historian. He was looking at the history of anti-Jewishness in culture, religion and just in mainstream society right from, I think, the ancient Egyptian civilisation. That’s where he began. And he was talking about how even the religious texts – and this is true even in Hindu religious texts – that what is treated as canon is subjective because it was written a hundred or a hundred and fifty years after the historical events happened. It depends on who had control of canon; who decided which interpretations are more valid than others. And he was talking about how in Jewish scholarship, there are a lot of debates about that. And again for me, it’s all through second-hand experiences – it’s all through people like him and even on these podcasts that I learn these things. Like the Imaginary Worlds episode where the Rabbi spoke about canon in Judaism; and even in Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. But I thought that was really interesting. Which groups of people are considered to be more privileged than others and how that changes 2,500 years after the events.

Ziv: I can’t speak to other religions but in Judaism you feel that very, very strongly. Because so many of our texts are a) edited or very clearly edited. Like the entire Talmud which is the basis of modern Halakhah – modern Jewish law, it’s literally a summary of various versions of: this Rabbi ruled this way, this Rabbi ruled the second way – well, was it the same case? There’s this one difference. Maybe there was a difference and that’s why they ruled differently. It’s these long and very highly, very clearly edited discussions of what the rulings were in a lot of different cases. And you can see how the framing of that, the person or the people who did the editing and who composed it, the person whose argument they bring last is generally considered to be correct. So it’s the editor who’s deciding what the actual ruling is or should be. I think that’s one of the interesting things. Judaism always seems to be a very argumentative religion. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Ziv: Which is one of the things I really love about it. It’s very explicitly founded on, “Yes, we believe in a truth but there are many of us and we believe in many different truths.”  Or many different variations on the truths. And that’s built in very, very strongly from the sacrifice of Isaac where god says okay, you sacrifice him. But no, actually not really. To Abraham arguing over whether or not god should destroy the sinners in Sodom. And on through the Halakhic construction of the Talmud. It’s so baked in that religion happens through arguments. There’s a wonderful Midrash, I guess you’d call it a fable, about a rabbi who was arguing with another group of rabbis over what a certain ruling was. And the rabbi said, “Well, if I’m correct, then a voice would come out of the heavens and say I, this rabbi, he is correct.” And a voice came out from the heavens and said, “Yes, he is correct in this ruling.” And the other rabbis say, “Yeah, but we don’t determine Halakhah by voices coming out of the heavens. We determine them by arguing.”

Parinita: [laughs]

Ziv: “So we disagree, so Halakhah is what we say.” And that’s the kind of character that a religion or a community can have that makes it unique and different from other cultures. I’m sure that first of all, any other religion will have its own fundamental stories and own fundamental self-definitions of how they think and how the world works and how virtue is decided and how decisions are made. And even within a certain religion, you’ll have many, many different views and variations and interpretations. Even if they have a common base, they will still have their own interpretations of how the world works and how religion is decided and what the faith should be. That’s precisely the kind of nuance that I feel is so often absent and missing and neglected. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah. So in Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, a few of the episodes that we listened to spoke about the idea of the sacred text and the difference between sacred and perfect. Where perfect doesn’t really leave any room for arguments and questions and debates – like this is the one truth, there isn’t room for different truths, like you were saying. And with Hinduism, we were speaking about this on a previous episode. I’m completely ignorant about all religions but I have friends who, even though they’re non-religious, they know more about it than me. And one of my friends was talking about how even within Hinduism, depending on which part of the country in India as well as different South Asian countries you go, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, those are our two texts – mythological stories which form the basis for a lot of Hindu religion. And based on where you go, the lens through which you view is different; which characters are important are different. In some places, they even look at it from what is traditionally the villain’s point of view. You have Rama and Ravana in the Ramayana and Ravana is supposed to be the demon king and he’s supposed to be the villain, as simplistic as that sounds. But there are some parts of the country and even parts of south Asia that look at him as the hero and at the others as coming and almost like taking over the culture and taking over the country basically. So a bit like colonisation before it was colonisation. [laughs] I don’t know enough about it. But that’s what I find really interesting – which voices come to the fore is so culturally, socially and even historically determined. Now, there are so many more scholars, not just in Judaism but in Christianity, in Hinduism and different parts of different religions that are looking for these stories that were invisible and belonging to these marginalised groups and trying to bring those to the fore as well. Which I love. And that’s what I also love about fandom which is essentially doing the same thing. Like Harry Potter for example, very white, there’s a handful of people of colour just for diversity points, but there are people and fans who feel so strongly about this world that they read themselves into the story. For example, Hermione Granger is black, that’s a huge part of fandom. And Harry Potter is half-South Asian.

Ziv: Yeah.

Fan art of Indian Harry Potter, black Hermione Granger, and Ron Weasley

Parinita: Similarly, going back to religion, religious fans are reading themselves into seemingly non-religious science fiction and fantasy texts as a way to address their under-representation or misrepresentation. Otherwise the way that religious characters are represented is so one-dimensional that when you’re not talking about religion, you almost see yourself in it more. We’ve spoken about something similar with disabled characters and with characters of different races as well. In a few of the comments of the posts that we read, they were looking at Tolkien as well – Lord of the Rings and how Judaism fits into that and someone read Asterix and Obelix as a Jewish story. [laughs]

Ziv: Interesting.

Parinita: Yeah. It was in the comments of Fantasy and the Jewish Question. They said that, “The story may be about French against Romans but beneath the surface it’s a classic the smart Jew makes fun of the stupid gentile story with the small village the protagonists live in as the classic Jewish town.”

Ziv: [laughs]

Parinita: Which again, I don’t know enough about Judaism, but I thought it was really interesting that a Jewish fan would read it as such and Superman as a Jewish tale as well. And in the Faiths in Fantasy episode, they saw Doctor Who regenerations as the Jewish concept of beginning again and the Jedi as Sufi mystics. You’re just reading yourself into the story. Even Harry Potter and the Cursed Child being read as either Jesus or Mohammed or Moses – I find that really exciting. Because I’m also learning about religion through those interpretations.

Ziv: Yeah. That was definitely a foundational text for me because it made me realise how much a story’s structure has so many assumptions just baked into it. And how it’s often said of Jews that our most primordial story is, “They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat.”

Parinita: [laughs]

Ziv: It’s the constant repeating Jewish story. The kind of recognition of how so many common adventure narratives or fantasy or science fiction narratives are so completely alien to that. They’re so often like, “Oh no there is a disruption to the natural order.” Whereas [laughs] if you look at Jews through the ages, the natural order just isn’t so good.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Ziv: When you start recognising those patterns, it makes you notice them a lot more. And it makes you realise that every culture and every community probably has their own patterns that you shouldn’t just take for granted are the same as yours. And it makes you look for them a lot more and recognise a lot more when one of them keeps repeating.

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: I think themes of persecution are very easy for Jews to identify with ’cause a lot of our stories are really there. I keep joking that as far as I’m concerned – a lot of this was in the context of an article called The Jewish Narnia

Parinita: Um hmm.

Ziv: Where a reviewer – I forget the name – was asking why are there no Jewish authors writing something as popular, as enduring as Narnia. And some of the answers being that the basic fundamental Jewish stories are very different from the adventurous stories that we’re used to seeing. And I said that A Series of Unfortunate Events, which is about a couple of kids –

Parinita: [laughs]

Ziv: Three kids whose parents were killed and are running for their lives and they keep getting into horrible situations and needing to navigate a morally grey field of what is actually the right thing to do – that’s a story that I identify with my texts and my culture.

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs] I love that. I’ve gotten a lot through fandom myself. But even now I’m constantly learning especially with fan podcasts because there’s so much to learn. People from backgrounds that aren’t represented largely in mainstream media and culture are inserting their own perspectives and their own experiences and I love it. Because it’s just like this giant school for free – I mean you do need internet and stuff

Ziv: [laughs]

Parinita: But otherwise it’s free. Despite the overall absence of religion in SFF, there are a few instances where faith is represented. Sometimes fictional faiths, but they do draw parallels to real-world religions.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: So I found the two Star Trek episodes that we watched for this really interesting – one was Who Watches The Watchers? in The Next Generation. I’m not really very familiar with Star Trek even though my boyfriend is trying to get me into it.

Ziv: [laughs]

Parinita: He’s a huge Next Generation and Picard fan. I found that one so interesting just because of the question that it had about what counts as religion and what just counts as advanced science. And how you can mess up stuff. But I think it showed religion in a much more agnostic way than the other episode – Accession – did. In Deep Space Nice – Deep Space Nice? [laughs] – Deep Space Nine – it had faith as a much more normalised – even though normal is a word that I’m very suspicious of – but as a much more normalised part of the world. And I don’t know the context of the world because I watched those episodes in isolation. Whereas in the first episode, religion seemed to be something that they were trying to distance themselves from.

Ziv: Exactly.

Parinita: It was much more like a regular everyday part of their lives.

Ziv: Right. The episode of Next Generation, if I recall correctly, it’s got them accidentally contacting a more primitive culture and the primitive culture thinking of them in religious terms or as gods. And it was so important for them to not create those superstitions or those false beliefs. That’s certainly an interesting conflict. I don’t think there’s any basis of morality where you want to be confused accidentally for a god. And it brings an interesting discussion of what is faith, what is worth believing in, what is a religion? But it does definitely have the underlying current of, “We don’t want to encourage this.” In Deep Space Nine, basically a character comes out of nowhere and is immediately kind of crowned a spiritual leader and he tries to bring a very spiritual culture back to a previous state that they’d had with a caste system and with older beliefs. And a lot of what the episode is about is how readily this spiritual culture agrees to that and plays along with it even though it’s devastating to them.

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: But what that episode does which I feel is very, very unusual is it has sympathy and understanding for the people who want this to work. It doesn’t have us wanting it to work. It doesn’t have us wanting the Bajorans to go back to a caste system. But it does show us why people might be willing to do absurd things because they believe it. [laughs] Honestly, I don’t think there’s an argument more than that. They do it because they believe it. But they do it because of trust. And I think that’s a lot of what the episode is about because a lot of the conclusion is when this character goes away and Sisko realises that this whole thing has been kind of to nudge him into doing better at his religious position which he doesn’t want. But one of the key points is that he asks Kira – who is a sympathetic but spiritual character –he asks her, “If I told people to do that, they you know they would do all this for me?” And Kira says, “Yes because you’re the Emissary because you have this religious role.” And I think that speaks to the responsibility and ability that religion has to shape people’s lives and communities. Because in good hands, I think that’s what religion in its best form is capable of being – a way for a community to come together and shape itself to be better and to help itself.

Parinita: Yeah. And I found that episode really interesting because first of all the caste system which is fictional in this but Hinduism has a huge problem with the caste system in exactly the way that the conservative leader was trying to get the people back to. Where you’d only do the jobs that you were born to do. I could find so many parallels because in one of the scenes, someone was murdered because they belonged to a lower caste. They took care of the dead bodies; they prepared them for burial. So this person was immediately from that family – even though they didn’t do that job anymore. But everyone had switched so instantly to this idea of the caste system that because the character didn’t show the due respect to a person of a higher caste, this person pushed them down the railing and the character died. And that’s very similar to what happens in huge parts of India even today where some castes are seen as lower and some castes are seen as dirty and you can’t have interactions among castes. And you are only allowed to do certain jobs and you’re only allowed to inhabit certain parts of the village or the city or whatever. But what I found interesting in this episode was that but also that it was almost a thing between the conservative understanding of this religion versus a more progressive understanding of this religion. I guess spiritual, not progressive – a more spiritual understanding of this religion. But even the conservative leader – I think his name was Akorem – they didn’t show him to be a bad guy. They didn’t show him to be this power-hungry person. He really believed in what he was doing. Which, of course, that’s dangerous in itself.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: Because a lot of religions believe in what they’re doing and that leads to a lot of violence and conflict and war historically and even now. But in this case, he just wanted to do good by his people. And when they go to the prophets, who appear in the bodies of the crew members, and speak through them, he realises that he had it wrong. And he was quite okay with it. He didn’t start a civil war or anything. [laughs]

Ziv: [laughs]

Parinita: He was like, “Oh okay that’s cool, I guess, it’s fine.” So I thought that was really interesting that it was the tensions between a faith but not in a way that had a good guy and a bad guy. It was just everyone believes that they’re doing the right thing and some may be mistaken and some may not and even that is so contextual.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: Amongst certain fans, they might have thought Akorem should have been the one who won. It depends on your own personal politics and beliefs.

Ziv: I like that episode because even though it definitely leans very hard into the – if I said earlier that a lot of portrayals of religion portray religious people as cultish and blindly obedient, I mean this episode has a lot of that. But it also pays a lot of attention to where that’s coming from. To the emotions that make people be willing to go along with something. To how it’s a position of trust a lot more than irrationality.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Ziv: To be absolutely clear, that trust can be misplaced,

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: The consequences can be horrendous. [laughs] The fact that people trust a leader and the fact that the leader is well-intentioned does not mean that things will work out.

Parinita: They’re not all wrong. [laughs] Yeah.

Ziv: [laughs] I feel like the appreciation of this is something that a person can connect to. It’s what shifts it from being an exaggerated portrayal to being something that’s more realistic.

Parinita: Yeah and there’s more room to explore, like you said, the nuances which are so missing in most religious portrayals. And even in real life really. In real life media, religion tends to be in the news only at the extremes. And that’s how I’ve spent a large part of my life – understanding religion through that framework.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: Just because I’ve not studied religion. I’m now more interested in reading about religion through books and podcasts; not because I want to find a religion for myself but I want to understand how religious people make sense of the world. And I think there’s a lot of similarities with the way that I make sense of the world. So it’s really interesting to me. Which is why I think a lot of non-religious people are really sceptical of religion. Because that’s the only exposure that they’ve had.

Ziv: Right. Yeah, the exposure that they have is always antagonistic.

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: Almost always. Or neutral. Like you can have a religious person working with you and they’ll never offend. They’ll always be right there but that’s not a positive. You’re not privy to their own spiritual world or to what connects them to their own spirituality. Unless you’re very nosy or they’re very open. And yet somehow not annoying.

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs] And I remember when I moved to the UK, so I stayed in Glasgow for a year and a half when I was doing my master’s. And Scotland in general but Glasgow in particular has a lot of sectarian violence between Protestants and Catholics. And when I was in catholic school in India, it was a convent school. So basically in India when I was growing up, a convent school was for many people less about religion but we believed the nuns taught English the best. [laughs] In terms of public education, they were seen to be better than government schools which is why a lot of parents send students to convent schools. Now, of course, you have a lot of international schools and there’s class hierarchies there.

Ziv: Honestly, I think, that you see that in a lot of places in a lot of ways. I know in Israel there’s certainly a lot of places where the religious schools are seen to be better.  And I think a lot of that is because a lot of religious people go to be teachers. Or because the religious groups, the religious government parties are able to get more funding. There are a lot of reasons [laughs] for an imbalance. But definitely winds up as kind of, “Okay the religious schools are better and therefore we might send our kids to religious schools even though we’re not religious.”

Parinita: I mean in India it was very much a thing of colonisation. It was still very much a colonised mindset because, “Oh nuns yeah Christians, they must know English better. So why don’t we send them there.”

Ziv: Right. [laughs]

Parinita: But my interaction in school was we had Protestants and we had Catholics but they were all lumped together in the same group. They used to go for religious services in one area and all the non-Catholic and non-Protestant people, we had other classes during that religious studies class. And so for me, when I moved to the UK, I was like, “Oh wait, you’re fighting amongst yourselves? I thought you believed in the same thing.” And then again Anti-Judaism, I keep harking back to that book but it’s because I learned so much from it. It’s quite a dense book so I would recommend it to listeners only if you have a lot of commitment to reading it.

Ziv: [laughs]

Parinita: But it was very enlightening. And he briefly touched on the Reformation and the violence that was there between Catholics and Protestants and I didn’t know a lot of this European history. And I was like, “Oh no wonder you guys seem to hate each other so much! I see what’s happening.” And now I understand why there’s so much more of a conflict in the UK even though to me it seems like you just want to find someone to hate and fight along lines of differences when you believe in the same god.” But Hinduism is the same and other religions are the same.

Ziv: It’s one of the ways that I feel it brings home that religion is not merely the question of what god you believe in or what text you believe in. So much of it is culture and geography. If I come from a city whose dominant belief is X and somebody else is from a city whose dominant belief is Y, then I might feel uncomfortable. And some of those I will attribute to religious reasons – and some of those will be strongly connected to those religious reasons because those two cities might really different ways of behaving and different values and different approaches. But it’s also connected to … just religion and culture. They are hard to tease apart.

Parinita: Yeah like India and Pakistan, right? Because again colonisation – I blame the Empire for everything. [laughs] But we’re on the brink of war with each other and we have been at war with each other a lot after the Partition which led to tremendous violence as well. But if I meet a Pakistani person here in the UK, we both have no enmity; we don’t hate each other And we’re so culturally similar with this desi South Asian culture. We’re both othered in similar ways in this country because of the colour of our skin but we also recognise similarities in each other. I’ve spoken in Hindi and called people Uncle and Aunty in the same way that I would in India even though they’re from Pakistan. Whereas when I’m in India, the news media has such terrible reports of Pakistan – which I don’t believe in anyway.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: But that’s full of this Hindu-Muslim conflict and Pakistan-India being enemies. I’m not religious so I guess it might be easier for me and I’m not patriotic either. I love India but my sense of self isn’t tied to my country.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: I would be friends with you if you’re from Pakistan or wherever anyway, but we also share so many similarities. We watch the same movies, we like similar kind of food, we have similar cultural things that we share so why wouldn’t we be friends? We have more in common now. And, of course, I’ve also grown up with a lot of Western media so I have that with white English people and white Scottish people as well. Finding commonalities and finding things to connect over rather than differences is something that I think can be used like that with religion in stories as well. Why is it always conflict and why is it not sometimes just compassion?

Ziv: Absolutely. It also works the other way around. If you have a society that seems homogeneous, that everybody believes the same things, then very often you’ll see a schism or you’ll see a separation which will play out along religious lines as well. It starts from small things like you say that you know for every two Jews, you have three synagogues. And you literally see this in actual synagogues. I live in a city with a lot of religious people. But always there are more and more people trying to open up new synagogues and small little synagogues because they don’t want to pray the way that this place does it.

Parinita: [laughs]

Ziv: And the city cannot fit these synagogues and still they will not have a single place that’s close enough for what they want. Part of it is because religion is such a big part of religious life so that’s one of the place where fault lines will appear. And part of it is because religion reflects the rest of life and so if you have people that you’re uncomfortable with, you won’t want to go to the same place of prayer that they do.

Parinita: Which is a pity. I mean I do understand why it happens but I I like this idea of people from different backgrounds coming together.  I read an article – a few articles I think – and also watched Queer Eye [laughs] where they’re talking about churches and because in the US, Christianity is the framework of that country, it was about churches with diverse pastors. I think there was a gay pastor in one of the newest episodes of Queer Eye and he grew up in a very homophobic faith tradition in his church that he went to as a young person. But now he’s trying to make it more inclusive to people who are like him – to kids from different sexualities and gender identities. And there’s a growing group of people who are trying to do this. Even in the UK, for that matter, I’ve seen a lot of secular, humanist churches where they invite people from all traditions, all faiths or no faith and come together to just share a meal and talk to each other. I wish that there were more of that. It’s fine to also have things that you believe in and a separate pocket of that. But then that can get dangerous, right? If you only have that and no interaction with people who believe differently from you, I think that’s also important.

Ziv: I’ve been on the edges of different things like that. And it’s a very interesting dynamic. Because when you have an inter-faith initiative of any kind, the first people you will actually come into contact with is other people who want an inter-faith initiative. Which is a very particular group. It’s not the same as actually coming into contact with the full variety. You’re actually coming into contact with people who are most like you but not necessarily in the same faith.

Parinita: That’s true.

Ziv: Which can be interesting. It can be fantastic and it can be very, very valuable but it’s a thing of its own.

Parinita: Yeah. No, I agree. It’s just – I think I’m a very optimistic, idealistic sometimes very naively so person so I like this idea of learning from other people in real life.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: Just having that physical community rather than just a virtual one. I love the podcasts, I love reading about things, but it’s also nice to have something like how you and I, we’re talking.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: We come from such different backgrounds but just talking about things that we believe in, essentially. I wish that was a more normalised part of society. And you’re right, with inter-faith things, it’s a very self-selecting audience. [laughs] If you believe in it, you’ll come; if you don’t, you won’t. So it’s difficult to reach across that boundary but yeah … I don’t know, maybe someday. Maybe that’s the kind of stories that I need to write. Because I write children’s books but with no religious anything.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: Because like you said, it’s a blind-spot because I’m not religious, so like trying to understand that would be so difficult. I’d need to research things and then write about it. But yeah, it’s interesting.

Ziv: I guess I kind of just want to sum up to say that I think that religion is a very, very wide subject, a subject that touches on so many different aspects of life. And it’s one that is often very difficult to understand from the outside and [laughs] it’s hard for me to criticise those who don’t understand it very well, who don’t sympathise with it very much. And it’s also a topic that has so many issues and problems and difficulties because it does very often – and not in all versions of faith but in many versions of faith – have real clashes with humanism and pluralism and respect for other identities. And those can all be so challenging to grapple with. To me personally, that’s exactly why I want to see them grappled with. I feel like we need the voices who want to grapple with them, who want to figure out how we can have religion and pluralism at the same time; how we can acknowledge both the people of particular faiths and also the people outside them and respect them both. I feel like the onus of this should fall first and foremost on pluralistic religious people. Although [laughs] I feel very often like that is a small and isolated and beleaguered community.

Parinita: [laughs] I love it. That’s why I enjoyed our conversation so much. Even before we spoke, I knew I would enjoy our conversation just because of the kind of texts that you recommended.

Ziv: I’m glad.

Parinita: And the kinds of points that you brought up because like I said, I believe in a more pluralistic, humanistic version of religion which has room for all religions and no religions as well. And yeah that’s something I got a lot out of our conversation today. So thank you so much for being a part of this project and for just expanding my mind – I know I keep saying this but it’s true with everybody that I speak to, especially with people from different backgrounds – that I learn so much just through conversations and I really appreciate everybody and you coming onto this podcast. Thank you very much!

Ziv: I’m so glad. This has been really wonderful for me too. I mean this has been in the back of my mind for months since you first put out the call and I was like well what do I wanna talk about? What do I think about this? And this has helped me articulate certain points quite a bit. And also helped me figure out what else I want to articulate and can’t quite yet. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: And this has been fantastic. Thank you so much.

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode on religious representations in science fiction and fantasy. Thank you so much Ziv for challenging and expanding my beliefs about religion and for offering such thoughtful conversation. And thanks as always to Jack for discovering a dinosaur wonderland (and also for the editing).

[Outro music]

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

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

Episode 14 We Don’t Know What To Do With Them: Representations of Older Women in Media

Episode Resources:

1) TV Show Episode – Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Band Candy

2) Fan podcast – Buffering the Vampire Slayer: Band Candy

3) Fan podcast – Women of Harry Potter: Molly Weasley with Dr. Chloe Angyal

4) Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper: Representations of Motherhood with Aliette de Bodard

5) Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper: Maiden, Mother, and Crone: Ageism in Genre Fiction

6) Fan podcast – Women of Harry Potter: Mrs Figgs 

7) Fan podcast – Women of Harry Potter: Minerva McGonagall with Brea Grant and Mallory O’Meara 

8) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds: Travelling in the TARDIS

9) Fan podcast – Woke Doctor Who: The Women Who Waited

 

Episode Transcript:

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

Deb Dimond Young

[Intro music]

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

[Intro music]

My name is Parinita Shetty and you’re listening to the fourteenth episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I talk to Deb Dimond Young about how older women are represented in media and the impact this has on culture and society.

Mainstream media values youth and ageing is associated with loss and bitterness. But what is old anyway? The idea is socially constructed and varies across historical, geographical, and cultural contexts. Essentialist ideas in media dictate what people of a certain age – both old and young – are supposed to do. The portrayal of women over a certain age is rife with stereotypes – that is, if these representations even exist in the first place. Mothers are represented in limited roles with their identities tied to their husbands and children. These negative tropes influence real-life interactions and mainstream imaginations.

A gendered contradiction means that older men in media are allowed to retain the agency and power that women aren’t. Romance, sex and sexuality is largely absent in portrayals of older women. While there are media examples of women disrupting expectations and going off on their own adventures, these are few and far between. We need more stories and more people telling these stories. Expanding the diversity of ages behind the screen can change the narratives that we value.

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: Today I’m so happy to welcome Deb Dimond Young on the podcast. Deb teaches First Year Integrated Communication and Writing at the University of Northern Iowa and is currently working on a PhD in rhetoric and professional communication from Iowa State University. Her research interests include composition pedagogy, service learning and feminist rhetoric. Deb also has a nerdy interest in the pedagogical possibilities of fandom rhetoric and she recently presented her work on fan podcasting as public pedagogy at the Feminism and Rhetorics Conference and will be presenting further work next summer at the 9th Biennial Slayage Conference on the Whedonverse. All that sounds so incredible and I can’t wait to hear more about your work, Deb. Both of us are nerdy feminists.

Deb: [laughs]

Parinita: So we’re both really excited to talk about the intersections of age and gender today. Specifically, we’re going to be discussing how older women are represented in some of our favourite media and the implication of this on the real world. I know that this is something you have a lot of thoughts about, Deb, so could you tell us a little about your own experiences with this and how and why you got interested in this topic?

Deb: Sure. First of all, thank you for having me today. I’m really excited to talk to you about these issues. I came to fandom later than a fair number of people. I mean I had things that I was a fan of as a child but I really got into sci-fi and fantasy fandom more around college into adulthood for some strange reason. When I was in high school, I had friends who were really into Doctor Who but in the States, Doctor Who aired at really odd times on public television. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Deb: And so I didn’t watch it all that much. But I was a peripheral fan. I had friends who were really into it, so I was aware of that and an occasional viewer. And that was during the Tom Baker years in the United States. I remember seeing David Tennant on the cover of Entertainment Weekly when his run began with the rebooted Who. And I read the article and I was like, “Oh this sounds kinds of interesting.” I hadn’t actually realised that the show had ever gone away.

Parinita: [laughs]

Deb: And so I watched it and absolutely fell in love with it. And then went back to watching the Christopher Eccleston years and have been hooked ever since and I’ve seen every episode since then. And one of the other fandoms that we’re going to talk about today is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And that came out in 1997 when I was twenty-five and not a regular viewer of teen fantasy and horror, so it didn’t even register as a thing to me. But by 2002, when it was heading into its last season and was on syndication, in the US it ran at just totally odd times – as the shows that are in syndication did at that time before cable. I guess cable was a thing in 2002. But I didn’t necessarily have it.

Parinita: [laughs]

Deb: So it just would run at really odd times. And I had just given birth to my oldest daughter and we’d be up all hours nursing and taking care of her. And so I just turned on the TV and Buffy just happened to be on a fair amount of those strange times. And so again, I got hooked and ended up watching all the episodes and just fell in love with her and with the whole Joss Whedon universe of Firefly and Dollhouse and everything that came after that. And then Harry Potter came out in 1997 when I wasn’t reading a lot of children’s fantasy either. [laughs] But again when I had my daughter, I had friends with older kids who were like, “Oooh keep this on your radar. You’re really going to want to know about this story when Laura gets older. When your kids get older.” And so I read it and again [laughs] I just got hooked. And it became a really wonderful thing. What I really loved about these fandoms and coming to fandom a little more in my adult life is that it’s really become a wonderful thing to share with my kids. My daughters love Doctor Who, they love Harry Potter, my oldest daughter is a huge Buffy fan. So, first of all, I feel like I’ve done an okay job in parenting.

Parinita: [laughs]

Deb: [laughs] But also it’s given us a great way to spend time together and have something to talk about. And so I really loved that aspect of fandom. We’ve gone to cons, we’ve done stuff like that, which has been really fantastic. I’ve gone back to get my PhD in a non-traditional timeline, I guess you could say. I’m hoping to complete my PhD here before I turn fifty – that’s my goal. I turn forty-eight this summer so [laughs] I’m running out of time. But I’ve been able to pull that love of fandom into my work as well and really take a look at how fandom becomes such an incredible teaching tool. Paul Booth describes fandom as, “the classroom of the future.” And how we can use these wonderful things that we love so deeply and so passionately as a way to teach important concepts. And I see podcasting as being a really wonderful way to connect those two worlds. So now I’ve even been able to pull these things into my professional life, which has been really lovely.

Parinita: That’s so good to hear. And that’s so interesting as well because our experiences differ in terms of age because I grew up with Harry Potter and I grew up with fandom as well. And it’s something that I was thinking of while watching Buffy too because I first watched Buffy when it used to air on TV when I was a teenager myself. So I was much closer to Buffy’s age at that time. And now when we watched the Band Candy episode in preparation for our conversation today, I realised that I was seeing things from the adults’ perspective and not really the teen perspective.

Deb: [laughs]

Parinita: It’s the same now when I’m going back to Harry Potter – and even Doctor Who to an extent, but mostly Harry Potter – where I’m looking at it through adult lenses because it’s such a different experience. And what you’re saying how fandom is such a great tool for literacy of all kinds, it’s something that I’m really interested in because when I was in school in India, in Mumbai, in our school – and I’ve spoken about this a little bit before – but in our schools, they didn’t really teach us how to think, they taught us what to think. So critical thinking, critical literacy – that wasn’t really on the radar at all. But I’ve been a part of Harry Potter fandom since I was thirteen years old on Mugglenet which was one of the first few Harry Potter fan websites. And I realised that I learned critical literacy and to think critically through my experiences in fandom; through all these different perspectives not just in fanfiction but also meta and commentary and now, more recently, on podcasts – there’s a lot of commentary where people look at these things that they love more critically. That’s why I started this podcast because I know that this is true based on my own experiences and I wanted to explore that a little bit more. But in terms of age, since that’s what we’re going to be talking about today, to be honest, this is only something that I started actively thinking about in a run-up to a previous episode that we did on this podcast about age and disability. Because I had massive blind-spots then and still do now in terms of representations of older people in media, especially older women. And it’s something that I’m constantly thinking about now – especially the ways in which mainstream media seems to value youth and especially science fiction and fantasy media where ageing is associated with loss and bitterness and the impact that this has on mainstream society at large.

Deb: Absolutely. And I think that particularly the texts that we were looking at to prepare for this podcast have such a really nice set of examples in terms of the way that media can value youth, right? Because we’re dealing with a couple of texts with immortal characters. So in Buffy, we’ve got Angel, Spike, the other vampires who are really just beloved characters. Angel is a vampire with a soul. He’s beloved by Buffy, he’s beloved by the audience. He is forever this example of the perfect love and the perfect man – other than when he loses his soul and becomes evil again and tries to kill everybody.

Parinita: [laughs]

Deb: But that’s the side part. And then Spike is the bad boy we all love to hate. He’s the guy that your mom warned you about but you had a crush on anyway.

Parinita: [laughs] Absolutely!

Deb: [laughs] Actually there’s a great interview with him – with James Marsters not with Spike [laughs] – the actor who plays Spike – on the Buffering The Vampire Slayer podcast, and he talked about how when they were creating the show, he and Joss were trying to see just how far they could push Spike in terms of his evilness. Because everyone loved him so much. He’s supposed to be this mean, evil character and people loved him and loved him and loved him. In spite of what he did! [laughs]

Parinita: I’ll let you continue with your point but that made me think of how when I was watching it as a teenager, I had a huge crush on Spike.

Deb: Absolutely!

Gif of Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Parinita: And similarly in Gilmore Girls – I don’t know how familiar you are with Gilmore Girls – but there’s a character there, Jess.

Deb: Yes!

Parinita: Who was again a bad boy … I obviously had a fictional type. Which now, if I go back and watch these shows again through my thirty-year-old eyes, I don’t know how different my view will be. Maybe I’ll still make poor fictional life choices. [laughs] I don’t know, but it would be interesting.

Deb: [laughs] No, absolutely. And so here are these characters who are eternally young, eternally beautiful. And we love them and we really connect with them. And the Doctor is the same way. So the Doctor – since the reboot at least – has been played by young, attractive actors, right?

Parinita: Um hmm.

An image of the six new Doctors from the Doctor Who reboot

Image courtesy MrRy4n on DeviantArt

Deb: So we have Eccleston and Tennant and Smith and now with Jodie – we’ve got these very, very beautiful youngish people and there have only been two Doctors in the modern reboot – Peter Capaldi and then John Hurt as the War Doctor – who had the Doctor appearing as an older – by no means old, but older – in comparison. And so we’ve got these just really beautiful, eternally young people who are held up as these great heroes and people that we should be looking up to. When I was trying to think about this, I was really searching for an exception of someone who is eternally young in these texts and yet not necessarily somebody that we want to associate with. And the one person I could come up with is in Harry Potter of Moaning Myrtle. Right?

Parinita: Aaah!

Deb: She’s eternally young. She eternally has her young image but not her body and she’s just miserable. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: And it might be something about the fact that she doesn’t have an actual body, just a form. So maybe it’s the fact that it’s the young body that’s the important part. I’m not really sure.

Parinita: There’s this podcast that I listen to called The Gayly Prophet.

Deb: Yes.

Parinita: Which is a Harry Potter podcast and it’s great. And they propose that when Myrtle was alive, she was severely depressed. And even as a ghost then, she continues to be severely depressed. That mental illness didn’t go away even with her death.

Deb: Yeah. Her corporeal form.

Parinita: Which I found very depressing. Yeah.

Deb: That’s really interesting. So yeah, we have these wonderful characters that we love and adore who are eternally young. And on the flipside of that, your question there about ageing being associated with bitterness – that we have lots and lots and lots of examples, right?

Parinita: Um hmm.

Deb: When you think about the standard maiden, mother, crone triad that you see in literature for women, the crone stage, that section is where we tend to put particularly older female characters. It was interesting on the podcast Women of Harry Potter, Stephanie Paulsell said that, “The best thing about turning fifty as a woman is that you become invisible to men.” And you see that so much in these characters. You think about people like Sarah Jane on Doctor Who who, when we first meet her again in School Reunion when she comes back in New Who, she’s living her life fighting injustice through journalism just like she did before she met the Doctor in her previous incarnation in Classic Who. But when she sees the Doctor and meets Rose, she immediately shifts into jealousy and bitterness. And she talks about how she’s never had a love in her life because no one could compare with the Doctor. She has no children, no family, none of the things that we associate with proper female roles. And she’s lonely and she seems bitter and she kinda takes on that spinstery role even though she’s not that old. [laughs] She’s middle-aged.

Gif of scene with Rose and Sarah Jane. Text says - Rose: I'm not his assistant. Sarah Jane: No? Get you, tiger.

Parinita: Yeah. And it’s this cycle where media influences real life which influences media which influences real life. You only see these examples of older women, especially single older women, who are seen as either unhappy or pathetic or even crazy.

Deb: Yeah.

Parinita: In the Women of Harry Potter Mrs. Figgs episode, they took a more empowered view of Mrs. Figgs. But that’s not really seen in the books; she is seen as this batty old lady who loves her cats.

Deb: Absolutely.

Parinita: And if you only see that, then it socially conditions you, even if that’s not what you want – marriage and kids or whatever, this normative idea of being a woman, especially an older woman. But then you feel that loss yourself just because that’s what everyone around you in real life as well as fictional life has. And it’s just a harmful cycle, I think.

Deb: Absolutely. And one of the things that I do love about what they do with Sarah Jane is that over the process of that episode, it seems like she shifts out of bitterness and into more processing trauma, right?

Parinita: Um hmm.

Deb: She’s one of the few characters that we get to see long term after she’s left her experience with the Doctor. And she seems to be processing through that trauma of what that experience is. And when she leaves the show in School Reunion, she leaves re-energised to take on this new life. Which actually led to a spin-off.

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: And so she had her own adventures.

Poster for The Sarah Jane Adventures

Parinita: Yeah. I haven’t watched the spin-off yet but that’s awesome that there’s this example of an older woman going off on her own adventures.

Deb: Yes!

Parinita: Which you don’t really see usually.

Deb: Absolutely. And one of the things about the spin-off is she adopts a boy. It becomes this found family structure there which is really lovely. And so yeah, it’s really nice to have this woman who does get to have these adventures even though she’s – I don’t even know what age the actress was who played her – in middle-ages, off having adventures and doing great things. Which is much better than the other bitter woman that we see in Doctor Who which is Amy Pond in The Girl Who Waited.

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: When we look at that episode where she gets stuck in an alternate timeline and then she has to survive on her own for thirty-six years and she ages so vividly and gets extraordinarily angry and bitter. And that is the focus, even though she’s so strong and she’s so clever and she’s such a warrior because of her experience. We focus and the show focuses on that bitterness and that anger and that physical disintegration.

Screenshot from The Girl Who Waited of young Amy and old Amy

Young Amy and Old Amy in The Girl Who Waited

Parinita: Which Rory doesn’t get. Her husband, he aged what for two thousand years?

Deb: Absolutely! Two thousand years as the last centurion!

Parinita: But yeah, he looks the same.

Deb: Absolutely!

Rory as the last centurion

Parinita: He’s completely well-adjusted more or less. In the Woke Doctor Who episode they mentioned that she has her daughter – spoilers, sorry, for a show that’s now fifteen years old almost. [laughs] But yeah her daughter, River, she has that relationship without having to go through any process of motherhood or representation of motherhood or ageing or anything. I think the glasses that she gets towards the end of her run on Doctor Who are the only concession towards her age that’s made at all.

Deb: Yup. I mean it really is remarkable. The only time we see Rory age is actually in the episode The Doctor’s Wife when the House traps them in the TARDIS. And is kind of torturing them, messing with their heads.

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: And there you see Rory ageing and become angry and bitter at Amy every time they get separated where he ages and she doesn’t. But we also learn at the end that that was all an illusion. We’re seeing that story through Amy’s eyes, not through Rory’s eyes and so it seems almost more like her processing her guilt and subconscious in some way, more so than something that actually physically happens to him because it turns out to all be an illusion, right?

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: When we see women who are over fifty, we tend to see them as either angry and bitter or daffy and crazy like Mrs Figg, right? Or we don’t see them at all. They just disappear entirely.

Parinita: Yeah exactly!

Deb: Right?

Parinita: If you see in real life, there’s so much potential because for a lot of women, because of social conditioning and just because of the way that society is structured, you do have a lot of women getting married young – youngish and then having kids, being married – going through this whole thing. But then after a certain age, when you don’t have the responsibilities of the children and perhaps even of your husband, there is so much that could be done. In stories especially, you could explore this whole theme of liberation as well. You can go and do these things that you were not “allowed” to earlier – especially like in a more traditional society. India, for example, in a lot of contexts, women don’t have that power to be able to talk back to social norms. There are some women who do have that agency but most women don’t. When you become older, you’re almost free to do what you couldn’t do when you were younger. And you could explore all these different things. Especially in science fiction and fantasy where we’re supposed to imagine these alternative possibilities anyway.

Deb: And that’s the thing. As people are living longer, it just seems like there are such great possibilities. What we’ve considered middle age of you know forties-ish – fifties-ish is truly middle now, right?

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: We determine middle as forty and fifty, and then you live until seventyish or so, maybe eighty. But by then your body and mind may not be at the point that’s allowing you to do lots of things. I have a relative who is 102, I think.

Parinita: Wow.

Deb: I think she just turned 102 and her mind is sharp as a tack and fifty-one was literally mid-life for her. Now that we are living longer, we have this great opportunity. And there’s so much that you can play with in terms of stories for that life afterwards. An example, who’s not one of the ones we’re talking about because she’s not sci-fi or fantasy, is Miss Marple from Agatha Christie.

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: The whole reason she was able to have these great adventures and solve these great crimes as an older woman is because nobody paid attention to her, right?

Parinita: That’s true.

Deb: She disappears.

Parinita: One example from real life that I really love that I came across a few years ago was Judy Dench who apparently embroiders on the sets.

Deb: Yes!

Parinita: Which again, is an activity that you see very much associated with women. And a docile, submissive sort of image that you have. And she actually embroiders really sweary stuff. [laughs] Which I love. That would be a character that I want to put in a book.

Deb: Honestly, I took inspiration from that. I also cross-stitch feminist cross-stitching. [laughs]

Parinita: Amazing. We have to see a picture of that in the transcript of the show.

 

Deb: I can get you a picture of some of the things that I’ve done. But yeah, that idea of subverting what is considered a traditional female activity in a way that actually disrupts, I just absolutely love. I think that’s really fun. And it’s unfortunate that in sci-fi and fantasy, we don’t see that disruption very much. Because there is so much there to do!

Parinita: Absolutely.

Deb: There’s so much space.

Parinita: Science fiction and fantasy and also just media in general perpetuates such essentialist ideas of age, right? Like what people of a certain age – both old and young – are allowed to do or are supposed to do. Which is why in Band Candy, the episode that we watched for this show in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, where some magical chocolate ends up making all the responsible adults behave like teenagers – for people who don’t know what this episode is about.

Deb: It’s one of my favourites.

Parinita: And I love that. It’s such a good episode. I thought it in a really interesting way challenged that notion of what proper grown-ups are supposed to do. But it also, to some extent, exceptionalised it. Because it was very temporary, right? It was just that one episode where they could do these things. I don’t remember what happens later. I haven’t watched the rest of the series recently. You suggested we watch this episode for our conversation today. What did you think of it?

Deb: This is absolutely one of my favourite episodes. And especially watching it now when I associate far more with Joyce and with Giles.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Deb: Than I do with Buffy and Willow and the Scooby Gang.

Parinita: [laughs]

Deb: It looked like so much fun to film. But yeah absolutely, you’re right about the exceptionalising idea, right? Because in everyday – everyday! – in other episodes [laughs] Joyce is not a real person here.

Parinita: [laughs]

Deb: But in her regular life, Joyce is a single mom, right? She has a job where she works in a gallery but we never see her in the gallery. She refers to it occasionally, she sometimes has boxes of materials around and so there’s reference to it. We know that she has this life outside of the house. But we very rarely see her physically outside of their house. The few times that we do, it tends to be things like driving Buffy to school, right? So she’s still doing mom stuff. Even though she must have this life outside of being a mom, we never ever see that.

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: We see her in very what you think of as that stereotypical middle-aged mom attire.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Deb: Skirts and dresses, slacks and cardigans – that sort of thing. She rarely dates. [laughs] One episode where does date, she actually dates an evil robot who tries to kill everybody, so her experience is not great. And she’s never seen as a sexual character until the very end of her arc just before – spoilers here again for a twenty-year-old show – but she dies. That’s the point where she finally gets to start to have this life outside of the house. They’re finally starting to refer to that. And then she’s killed off.

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: But in Band Candy, when she eats the evil candy, and regresses to her former self, you see before the candy is eaten, both Joyce and Giles are enforcing the rules and they’re holding Buffy to account and they’re very stern and this is what we’re doing. But after eating the candy, they don’t care. They’re breaking the rules. We don’t see Joyce in the house after she starts eating the candy. She is entirely out of the house. That’s why it’s so shocking that Buffy comes to check on Giles and Joyce is at Giles’s house. Because Joyce never leaves the house other than to do mom things. So she’s not in the house at all, her attire changes dramatically. It becomes very sexy and partially stolen.

Parinita: [laughs]

Image of Joyce and Giles

Deb: And she looks fantastic and her hair is big and fabulous. And Giles starts wearing eyeliner for some reason.

Parinita: [laughs]

Deb: We start seeing them out on the streets of Sunnydale. And Joyce herself becomes a very sexual being to the point where she actually has sex with Giles on the hood of a cop car.

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: Which is off-camera and only implied until later when they come back and do confirm it happened.

Parinita: With a pair of handcuffs as well.

Deb: With handcuffs, yeah.

Parinita: Which Buffy is very uncomfortable about.

Deb: And just very, very different. But then again when the candy wears off, all of a sudden Joyce and Giles are reverting back to their normal selves, their normal clothing. We see Joyce picking Buffy up from school again and going back to her mom behaviour. And she’s really embarrassed about her behaviour. Both of them claim that they don’t really remember but given comments in the episode, clearly they do. So they’re kind of acting like they don’t remember as a way to hide what they did. And so yeah, it really reinforces that idea that there is normal Joyce and then there is candy Joyce, right?

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: They’re very different in that way. Which really does reinforce that idea that normal Joyce is the one that we want. Normal Joyce is the stable, standard mom character. That is the one we should be thinking about and this is the one-off experience.

Parinita: And in the episode, in the Buffering the Vampire Slayer episode, they spoke about how there’s a lot of fanfiction of Joyce and Giles based off of this episode

Deb: Yes!

Parinita: Which again made me think of how obviously it’s exploring this under-representation of older not just romance but also sex and sexuality, which you don’t really see not only on this show but in media largely. This idea of young people being disgusted by the thought of their parents having sex. [laughs]

Deb: Right.

Parinita: How do you think biology works? [laughs] But this episode made me think about the fact that there’s also this very limited idea of teenagers as well.

Deb: Yes.

Parinita: Of sex and drugs and alcohol and dancing and being irresponsible. Whereas the teenagers at least in this episode were pretty alarmed by everything. I understand why they were alarmed, because they were their grown-ups. But still I can’t even imagine Willow doing these things on a regular basis. Until she goes Dark Willow for a bit.

Deb: [laughs]

Parinita: But generally, she wasn’t really that kind of teenager anyway. And especially now when we are seeing real-life teenagers take on these really monumental roles in a way that adults – a lot of adults don’t; with the climate crisis and with the Black Lives Matter protests, in India there were the anti CAA protests and even in the US the gun control protests. I feel like this normative idea of what being a teenager is needs to be challenged. I know we’re talking more about older women today but that’s why this episode really made me think of both ends of that spectrum.

Deb: Absolutely. I teach mostly first-year college students so in the US – that would be eighteen-nineteen years old.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Deb: And thinking about this image of what teenagers are and thinking of the students that I work with every year, yeah drastically different. Not that teenagers don’t do silly things.

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: But yeah there are so many examples of teenagers who are, as you said, doing these amazing things. And it’s not recognised and they’re not given credit for what they’re doing in part, I think, because of this sort of imagery. That, like you were saying earlier with our over-saturation in media of images of older women as being bitter and angry, when we have these images of teenagers as being spoiled and reckless and so forth. Then we see when teenagers doing great things in the world, it’s so hard to try to pair those two concepts and hold space for both of those because what we’re seeing doesn’t match with the images that are bombarding us so continuously. And that’s really detrimental!

Parinita: Oh yeah, absolutely. And this is one of the reasons that I love this movie called Booksmart. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it.

Deb: Yes!

Parinita: I love it so much because when I watched it for the first time, it was doing that. For those who haven’t watched it, go watch it now.

Deb: So good!

Parinita: Yeah. It just takes these ideas of teenagers and flips it on their head and just has room for so many diverse experiences. There’s so much nuance and complexity in those representations – you don’t have to be this binary one or the other. You can be everything; you contain multitudes, as they say. It’s just a movie that I love very much.

Deb: Yes.

Parinita: Of course, like we were talking about in a lot of mainstream science fiction and fantasy media, mothers like Joyce and older women are completely missing in roles where their identities aren’t tied to their children or husbands. If you’re a woman over a certain age in media, like Stephanie Paulsell says over the age of fifty, because media is still mostly controlled by men, the way that your identity is defined is super limited.

Deb: Um hmm.

Parinita: In Breaking The Glass Slipper, Representations of Motherhood episode, they said that mothers are almost seen to be this hindrance to adventures. Mothers are not allowed to go on adventures.

Deb: Right. Well, there’s a wonderful book by Kathleen Rowe Karlyn called Unruly Girls, Unrepentant Mothers: Redefining Feminism On Screen that talks about this a lot. And she argues that older women are frequently absent from pop culture just because we don’t know what to do with them, right?

Parinita: Um hmm.

Deb: And kind of what they were saying in Breaking The Glass Slipper, right? That women or mothers in particular, are supposed to be this hindrance. They’re those who are enforcing the rules, they keep you from having those adventures. And so we just don’t deal with them. We don’t know how to deal with them at all. And that’s one of the reasons why I think Minerva McGonagall is such an interesting character. Because there are clearly older female instructors at Hogwarts, but she’s the one that we spend a lot of significant time with. And so it’s really interesting to parse apart her concept and what she is in this role. And what’s fascinating is that we still mostly think of McGonagall as a nurturer to children, right?

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: Because she is a teacher in a school, becomes headmistress at the school. She’s a different type of mother than say a Molly Weasley.

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: She’s not the huggy, cuddly, nurturey one. She’s the strict, hold-the-line mother figure. But in doing that, the kids at the school know she is the one that you can count on. In the Women of Harry Potter episode, they talk about the fact that it’s when McGonagall goes away that suddenly Harry freaks out. “Wait a minute, there’s a serious problem here.”

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Deb: ’Cause the one that is always here, the one we know we can always count on has left. And that means there’s trouble. We think about her so much in terms of her work with children. So we’re still holding that essential concept of what women are there to do. Even in her battle, she’s protecting the school, she’s protecting the kids. And so that’s still the description that we give. Vanessa Zoltan in Women of Harry Potter makes a great comment. “McGonagall is just as maternal as Molly because she has to take care of all of Hogwarts.”

Parinita: Um hmm.

Deb: That becomes her role.

Parinita: I think they mentioned this in that episode as well that she knows when to break the rules too.

Deb: Yes.

Parinita: In the fifth book when she whispers to Peeves, “It turns from the other side.” I think it was her. When he’s trying to undo the chandelier during the reign of Umbridge and she tells him that yeah it unscrews from the other side.

Deb: [laughs]

Parinita: And also during the battle like you said.

Deb: Right.

Parinita: She’s the one who’s at the forefront and she’s always there to stand up to things and stand up to people. But also she’ll sometimes just offer Harry Potter some biscuits [laughs] because that’s what he needs.

Deb: Yes.

Parinita: Or make him the Quidditch Seeker because First-Year rules are only for some people, not for others. [laughs] But yeah she really cares about things and she’s not this one-dimensional, strict, nunnish character.

Deb: Right. Yeah you think about when Harry flies and breaks the rules and her response is to make him Seeker of his team. [laughs]

Parinita: Or she’s like please, we have to win the Quidditch match, I can’t face Snape otherwise. [laughs]

Deb: [laughs] Absolutely. We still have her taking on these caring, nurturing, traditionally feminine roles which is really interesting. But the other side of that question that you mentioned is the idea of the absent mother that we just make them go away entirely. And so you got a couple of really great examples of that too. Lily, of course, from Harry Potter being the perfect example. By dying protecting her child, she’s the ultimate sacrificial mother. It also means that she’s eternally perfect. In the eyes of her child and her community, she’s always young and pretty which is why people are constantly commenting on her eyes. Those eyes never got wrinkles around them.

Parinita: [laughs]

Deb: [laughs] She was always young and pretty.

Parinita: Yup.

Deb: And her love is so extraordinary that it even protects her child after her death. And it really is interesting that as Harry grows and learns more about his parents, James becomes fallible in Harry’s eyes. He still loves him but he begins to learn that James is fallible. But he never learns that about Lily. Lily is always perfect.

Parinita: That’s true! And she’s almost placed on this pedestal, glorified to such an extent that she’s not even a real person anymore.

Deb: Right.

Parinita: Perfection is a prison.

Deb: Yeah. She will never change. She will never grow and so because of that, as a character, she falls into the same trope that we so often see with women in literature that they don’t get a full life.

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: They don’t get a full character arc. We learn James’s backstory in terms of the trouble that he got into and mischief that he got into with his friends. We learn Lily’s backstory that she was a really nice kid and she was a really talented witch and she befriended the nerdy kid that nobody else liked. And that’s about it. [laughs] Right?

Parinita: Yup.

Deb: She never gets this rich, complicated backstory that James does. Which is really unfortunate.

Parinita: And even with Molly, she is taken so much for granted by her children. Yeah, she is this excellent character. But just within the context of the story, they love her but they take her for granted. She’s always at the background. And in terms of parenting, she’s always positioned as the strict one whereas Arthur Weasley can get away with shenanigans.

Deb: [laughs]

Parinita: Because he’s the man and he’s the husband and being strict and boring is Molly’s job. And that’s how it comes across. Obviously that reflects a lot of real life as well where men going out with their babies in a pram sometimes are seen as heroes. Like “oh my god wow you’re parenting your child!” Whereas women are supposed to do that.

Deb: Yeah and I think that it’s interesting again on that podcast Women of Harry Potter, Vanessa Zoltan really does a nice job of trying to complicate Molly a little bit and describes what she does as radical hospitality.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Deb: And I really, really love that descriptor because there’s that old saying that an army marches on its stomach. And the revolution against Voldemort doesn’t happen without Molly Weasley keeping everyone fed, clothed and happy.

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: She’s making sure that the Order is functional both psychologically by sitting and chatting with Tonks and helping her work through her feelings. She’s keeping the kids fed and under control and working through. She’s making sure that everybody has what they need. And kinda pulling that to the world that we’re living in right now, I’m thinking about in the US right now we’re experiencing large-scale protests against police brutality and systemic racism like we haven’t seen in a really long time. And I saw a tweet recently that really struck me in terms of Molly. And it said that, “The revolution isn’t one lane. There are many lanes to a protest and you can’t be in all of them at once. But they all move the revolution forward.”

Parinita: Absolutely.

Deb: And I like that idea paired with Molly and this idea of radical hospitality, right? Her lane may be seen as this traditionally feminine lane but it’s absolutely vital to move the revolution forward. Without her, it all falls apart. And so what’s really frustrating to me is what you said just a minute ago that it’s just not recognised. She gets mocked for all her work, for the things that she thinks are important. Her work is taken for granted. She’s just dismissed as a character in the story. Even though she’s a total badass.

Parinita: Yeah!

Deb: I mean she’s out there [laughs] and she kills Bellatrix. The great, “Not my daughter, you bitch!” moment. That’s so fantastic!

Parinita: Yeah she gets that one amazing moment.

Deb: Yeah!

Parinita: But in the Representations of Motherhood episode in Breaking the Glass Slipper, they point out that heroism is seen in such a gendered lens.

Deb: Absolutely.

Parinita: Oh you’re this fighter and you’re this brave warrior, that makes you a hero; but taking care of your children and nourishing them spiritually and emotionally and physically – that’s not seen as heroic.

Deb: Absolutely.

Parinita: In the Women of Harry Potter episode about Mrs. Figgs, I love their interpretation of it where she’s weaponising her marginalised identity.

Deb: Yeah.

Parinita: Where she’s playing up to these Muggle stereotypes of crazy cat lady which makes her really easy to dismiss as well as the witching world stereotypes of Squibs where the magical population doesn’t really think about her at all and she’s again easy to dismiss. But she’s using that to act as a spy and also to protect Harry which is semi-successful.

Deb: [laughs]

Parinita: Because Harry grew up in a super abusive household. But yeah, I just like this trope of crazy cat lady being overturned to exert agency. Especially with what I was saying with older women who may not have had many opportunities to do this due to family and societal responsibilities earlier. They take this old age as a way to throw off all these social shackles and do whatever they want to do.

Deb: Yeah. Mrs. Figgs becomes the Miss Marple of the Harry Potter world. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Oh, I love that.

Deb: Because everyone dismisses her, she’s able to do and get away with things that nobody else could do.

Parinita: Yeah I love that.

Deb: Just because no one accounts for her existence.

Parinita: [laughs] So what are some of your favourite characters in media who challenge these traditional conceptions of age and gender? We’ve spoken about a few of them earlier but if you had any more that you’d like to share.

Deb: Oh, River.

Parinita: [laughs]

Deb: Everything River. We can’t talk about women and age and sci-fi and fantasy and not spend a few minutes glorying in the wonder that is River Song.

Parinita: [laughs]

Gif of River Song from Doctor Who blowing a kiss

Deb: Oh I love River. So if we go back to Karlyn’s book, she has a great line. She defines an unruly woman as “a cluster of attributes that challenge patriarchal power by denying norms of femininity intended to keep a woman in her place”. And if that doesn’t define River, I can’t think of something that does, right? Because her body is unruly and her speech is improper. Her body is so unruly because like Time Lords, she can actually regenerate into completely different forms. Even when she’s in prison, she doesn’t stay put. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: She has all of these different adventures – so many adventures – as many as anybody else on the show. We don’t see them unfortunately most of the time.

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: But I think about the episode where Rory comes to get her and he’s dressed as the centurion and she’s swanning in having just been skating on the Thames with the Doctor in Victorian England.

Parinita: [laughs]

Deb: And you think about all these wonderful adventures. There’s that great line and I can’t think of what episode it’s in, where somebody says basically, “Isn’t it frustrating having to spend your days in prison for a crime you didn’t actually commit?” And she says, “The days can be theirs, but the nights are mine.”

Parinita: Hmm.

Deb: And I just really love that image. We often think of women, particularly women who are middle-aged and older ’cause Alex Kingston is by no stretch of the imagination old.

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: They’re not sexual beings. And according to Karlyn, a woman whose behaviour is loose and sexual is again that unruly woman. And again, we see that in River. She’s the sexiest character in Doctor Who by a landslide. She kisses as a weapon. That’s how she originally almost kills the Doctor, it’s how she escapes from prison. Because of her hallucinogenic lipstick. She has multiple husbands and wives and an implied array of other partners that we don’t necessarily see. She can rock a sequin gown like nobody’s business.

Parinita: [laughs]

Deb: And it doesn’t hurt that she’s played by Alex Kingston who’s just gorgeous. But she is clearly a woman who is very confident and comfortable in her body. And relishes in it in many different ways including sexuality. And that’s just so unusual. She forces herself into the centre of attention and revels in that attention once she’s there. And again, that’s not something that we typically associate with female characters in general but particularly middle-age and older female characters. And so River’s just the best. [laughs]

Gif of River Song in Doctor Who. Text says: What else are you gonna do? Spank me?

Parinita: I agree. And also what you were saying earlier in terms of the shifting parameters of what even middle-aged means.

Deb: Yeah.

Parinita: Because it’s so socially, historically, geographically constructed. It’s so different in different contexts. Even now, what’s middle-aged in the US would be so different from what’s middle-aged in India. And different parts of the US and different parts of India and which intersectional identities you belong to. Because there are some that are so much more oppressed than others. When I say older, I don’t even know what that bracket is.

Deb: Yeah. [laughs]

Parinita: It’s when you become invisible to the patriarchy essentially, right?

Deb: [laughs]

Parinita: Like Stephanie Paulsell said. Another person like that in Doctor Who is Donna.

Deb: Yes.

Parinita: I loved her. She’s one of my favourite companions and when I first watched it a few years ago, I guess she was older. But now I’m like no, actually how old was she even?!

Deb: [laughs]

Parinita: She must have been in her thirties and I’m like, that’s not old. [laughs] It’s just because in Doctor Who, you’re so used to young companions – that’s all they had in the beginning. The Doctor was allowed to be old but the companions were not allowed to be old. They all had to be young women, young skinny women, young white women.

Deb: Um hmm.

Parinita: And then there was Martha and Bill, and now Yaz. But yeah it was a very specific and definite idea of a companion. And now it’s becoming more diverse, especially with Jodie’s run. Even in terms of older romances, you have Graham and Grace – one of whom was tragically killed. And one of the Doctors that I love the brief little glimpse that we get of is Doctor Ruth who seems to be this really badass older black woman Time Lord. Who’s very mysterious – we don’t know a lot about her. We get a few clues at the end of the most previous episode. But she’s so different from all the Doctors’ regenerations – apart from Peter Capaldi a little bit – who I also love. He’s been this grump of a Doctor. And she also seems to be this really stern person who doesn’t really hold with nonsense whereas Jodie is all nonsense mostly.

Deb: [laughs]

Parinita: So that comparison between the two of them was really fun for me to watch.

Deb: Yeah, I hope we get to meet her again. I hope that she comes back in some way because that would be absolutely fantastic to get to explore who she is.

Parinita: Yeah. We have no idea but I have hopes. I know the new season has gotten some critiques as well but I think it’s still trying to do more in terms of including diverse identities than any previous shows have. It’s becoming more and more inclusive and especially when we talk about older women representations in media, we’re just talking about it just in terms of age and gender. But if you have any other identities in it like race or cis versus trans or class or sexuality or sexual orientation, that’s even worse. There’s so much lesser out there for that. Which is why I love fandom.

Deb: The more marginalised identities you add in, the less people who seem to appear in these productions and these media. I think one of the things that Chibnall’s done, particularly with Doctor Who since that’s what we’re talking about here, is that he seems to have done a really great job diversifying behind the camera, diversifying in the writers’ room, diversifying the directors. And I think that in addition to diversifying the acting staff – which is wonderful and fantastic, being able to see different faces and different types of people on camera – changing what happens behind the camera changes the stories that we tell, right? Changing the acting folks in front of the camera changes how we tell those stories, but we’ve got to start with all the way back to what are the stories that we write? What are the stories that we decide are worth putting forward? I would be very interested to know what sort of age breakdown they have in the writers’ room because specifically focusing on questions of age, as we are here, because particularly in sci-fi and fantasy, the writers’ rooms tend to pretty young, they tend to be pretty white, and they tend to be pretty male.

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: I know that he’s done a lot of work diversifying in terms of race and ethnicity, and in terms of gender in his writers’ room which is fantastic. I would be very interested to see if there’s also been diversity in terms of age so that we’re looking at what stories we even value and even want to tell.

Parinita: Yeah that’s such a good point because who gets to tell the stories is just as important as who gets to represent them visually. So I was thinking of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power on Netflix, where Noelle Stevenson is the showrunner and she’s also written this excellent graphic novel that I love called Nimona and The Lumberjanes and she’s this queer, young author. In She-Ra’s world, the default is queer and the default is female. Most of the characters there are girls and women. But now thinking about it, in terms of age, they’re all young.

Deb: Um hmm.

Parinita: Parent figures are completely absent. There are a few here and there but they’re not at the centre of the story. There’s one old woman – this batty, absent-minded old lady – who is a sort of mentor figure. But she’s mostly going on doing her own thing and she’s a really interesting character. But her story isn’t at the centre of it. Which in a world like She-Ra where they give room to a lot of different kinds of stories like it is very much about communal heroism rather than individual heroism, so they’re all coming together and all their stories get a lot of centre-stage – except old people. There aren’t really that many. There was one mother who sacrificed herself because, you know, that’s what you do. And she was a very mother mother even though she was the queen of the kingdom. So yeah, I think the age breakdown is interesting. Unless you’re an old white dude in the West or an old Indian dude in Bollywood – that’s the only sort of old you’re allowed to be. You’re not allowed to be an old woman writer or an old woman actor. Which hopefully gets better. And I think it will. There was a thread on Twitter which I’ll try and find and I’ll link to. It was basically talking about these things about diversity where they do exist, but they’re in more niche science fiction and fantasy stories and not too many people know about it.

Deb: Um hmm.

Parinita: Which is great. But I also think it’s equally if not more important to have this representation in mainstream popular media. In the Avengers, what if there was an old superhero fighting? Why do they all have to be young?

Deb: Absolutely.

Parinita: Do superheroes not get old?

Deb: The only time we see an old superhero is when Captain America comes back in the last Avengers movie. And then he’s done fighting, right?

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: He’s retired, he’s done, he’s lived his life. And he comes back basically to say goodbye. So yeah, when you think about it in terms of writers’ rooms, the way I would have written a fifty-year-old character at twenty and the way I would write a fifty-year-old character now are drastically different, obviously.

Parinita: Absolutely. When you’re that young, you find anything beyond a certain age – “oh that’s far too old” – you can’t even imagine that. Which is not their fault.

Deb: No!

Parinita: You just need to have diversity in terms of ages.

Deb: Absolutely. I think about when I was first teaching, I had a student. They were doing an ad analysis – just a basic rhetorical analysis assignment – and he was comparing iPhones and a product called the Jitterbug which I don’t know if you have that in the UK or not but basically it’s a phone that’s targeted for older people that has limited functionality. It’s meant to basically be an emergency phone. [laughs] And he was writing in his paper that clearly the iPhone is targeted for younger audiences like people under forty because older audiences just get confused by technology. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Deb: And at that time, I was thirty-nine.

Parinita: Oh my god.

Deb: I had just started teaching; I was thirty-nine. I was like, do I have to turn in my phone next year? What happens? Does my brain …

Parinita: The phone police you know.

Deb: Yeah. Do I suddenly stop understanding how to push buttons at that point? I mean iPhones don’t even have buttons so I don’t even know why that would be a problem. But yeah, I just found that idea that at eighteen years old, forty looks ancient. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah, but that’s why the representations are important, right?

Deb: Yes!

Parinita: It’s not just for older people to see themselves but it’s also for younger people. It’s always in terms of the dominant and marginalised. It’s not just important for the marginalised people to see themselves represented; it’s for dominant groups to also gain some perspective and gain some empathy and respect for these experiences which don’t mirror their own. And I think an older person going on adventures and having these amazing sort of stories about them would be a great story.

Deb: Absolutely.

Parinita: It would make for such a fantastic story. I would totally watch River going along on her adventures.

Deb: Oh god I would watch that absolutely.

Parinita: [laughs]

Deb: The adventures of River Song would be the best show ever! [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Deb: I mean this is just a topic that I could go on and on forever. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: Because it’s just so interesting to get to dig into these characters. It’s been a lot of fun to go back and revisit some of these things that I haven’t watched for awhile. I went back to watch some of the River episodes just to get them in my head. And my daughter came up and was watching them with me and we’re like, “Oh now we got to start over again, don’t we? We have to go back and rewatch all the Doctors.”

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah that’s the feeling I’ve had with Buffy.

Deb: Just start at the Tennant years again. It’s just like yup I missed these people, I missed having them in my life.

Parinita: Yeah!

Deb: I need to go back. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Absolutely. I need to get acquainted with Giles again. I’m surrounded by British accents here in the UK because that’s where I’m studying but Giles’s accent set the bar for me in terms of my introduction to Britishness and everything. [laughs]

Deb: I know. Absolutely. Giles might be the reason I fell in love with tweed.

Parinita: [laughs]

Gif of Giles. Text says: Do you want me to answer that, or shall I just glare?

Deb: He’s just such a great character. I adore Giles so much. Anthony Stewart Head is brilliant – just brilliant. And since you mentioned Giles’s accent, I love the terrible cockney accent of James Marsters as Spike.

Parinita: [laughs]

Deb: It’s fantastic too.

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs] Absolutely. But thank you so much, Deb, for being on the episode today and for having such a fun conversation and being such a fun person to talk to about these things that I love. Thank you so much for being a part of this project.

Deb: Thank you so much. It was really great to be on and talk to you.

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode on the intersection of age and gender and the ways in which the portrayal of older women in media influences real-life – and vice-versa. Huge thanks to Deb for sharing your experiences and perspectives and expanding my own. And for being such a fun person to talk to about nerdy feministy things! And thank you Jack for buying me picture books whenever you go to the supermarket by yourself (and also for the editing).

[Outro music]

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

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

Episode 13 You Want To See Yourself In That Story: The Impact Of Religion And Regional Origin

Episode Resources:

1) TV show episode – Doctor Who: Demons of the Punjab 

2) Fan podcast – Verity: Angels and Demons of the Punjab

3) Fan podcast – Witch, Please: Witch, Please and the Rise of White Nationalism 

4) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text Owl Post Edition: How to Be in Community with Burns Stanfield [listen till 19 minutes 52 seconds]

5) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text Owl Post Edition: Reclaiming Tradition with Professor Matt Potts [listen till 20ish minutes]

6) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text Special Edition: Owl Post and Broderick Greer [listen till 18ish minutes]

7) Fan podcast – Fan podcast – #WizardTeam: Pottermore Edition Part 3 History of Magic in North America

8) Essay – Thor: Ragnarok is a Hilarious Blockbuster About the Evils of Imperialism

9) Fan podcast – Our Opinions Are Correct: What’s the matter with Star Wars?

Episode Transcript:

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

Doodle of an angry face. Text says: me, during podcast recording

Extremely appropriate cover image courtesy Aparna who doodled it while we were recording.

[Intro music]

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

[Intro music]

My name is Parinita Shetty and you’re listening to the thirteenth episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I talk to Sanjana and Aparna about how religion as well as national and regional origin intersect in both the real and fictional worlds. We also discuss how governments and mainstream media weaponise these topics to oppress people. Since these issues are very relevant to current global events, please be warned that I go on several angry rants throughout this episode. Thanks to our impassioned discussion, in the beginning of the episode we begin talking about Demons of the Punjab without mentioning that it’s a Doctor Who episode about the Partition of India and not about actual demons – though I’m sure you can find people who’ve called the British Empire much worse.

Who writes history and whose version of history is portrayed by mainstream media has contemporary real-world impacts. Media can provide multiple stories and versions to counter false narratives. Alternatively, it can emphasise divisive accounts with damaging consequences for relationships among diverse groups. Fictional-world politics also have real-world parallels based on religious and national demographics. An increasing number of people are beginning to question the underlying assumptions of religious and national stories. Retellings can reclaim tradition to make it radically inclusive to historically marginalised groups of people.

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Sanjana: Hello! I’m Sanjana.

Aparna: Hi! I’m Aparna.

Parinita: And hi! I’m Parinita. In today’s episode, we’re exploring the themes of religion and national or regional origin. In previous episodes, we’ve looked at how specific themes are represented in some of our favourite media but this time we’re taking a slightly different approach. All three of us are from India, though I currently live in the UK. And none of us are religious. So it didn’t really make sense to us to analyse religious representations. Instead, we’re looking at how religion and which country you come from or which part of the country you come from is weaponised by mainstream media as well as several governments including our own. So, you know, a super light-hearted topic to explore. Since this is a fan podcast, we’re going to be drawing on examples from our favourite stories and fandoms as we chat. And just to give you an idea of my mood, we were supposed to record this episode three days ago. But the research for it and the current news events depressed me so much that I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. It’s the 7th of June, we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, migrants in India are dying because the government is failing them miserably on all fronts, protesters in the US are marching against police brutality and the police are responding by tear-gassing them or running them over in cars or shooting them with rubber bullets. In India, anti-government protesters are being jailed but people who shot or beat them up aren’t and J. K. Rowling is back to tweeting some transphobic bullshit again because apparently everybody was just too distracted by everything collapsing to pay attention to her. [sighs] I’m just so tired you guys.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Oh my god. That sounded very, very exhausting. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah. So considering where the world’s currently at, I thought the intersection of religion and national or regional origin is especially relevant.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So all three of us come from huge positions of privilege. I’m not religious but I come from a non-Dalit Hindu background. I don’t actually know my caste and this ignorance itself is an immense privilege, as is being able to ignore my religious background. So if I go to rent a flat in a Mumbai housing society, the agent won’t look at my surname and say that this society doesn’t rent homes to Muslims, as happens frequently.

Sanjana: Yes.

Parinita: And I’ve never been discriminated against because of my caste. We’re also pretty privileged in terms of what part of the country we’re from. So you both are from Bangalore and I’m from Mumbai, both big cities which tend to take more than their share of resources from rural areas. And the Indian government at the moment is actively oppressing people based on their religion. So you’re only the correct kind of person if you’re Hindu. And even if you’re Hindu, you’re only the correct kind of person if you’re upper-caste. And you also have to be from the correct country otherwise the government hates you.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And even if you’re from India, you have to be from the correct part of India and you have to be from the correct class. So if you’re middle-class or wealthier stuck abroad during the pandemic, the government will rescue you with planes. If you’re working-class or poorer stuck in cities thousands of kilometres from home, well, you’ll just have to walk back to your villages in the summer sun. Or pay for a train which has no food or ventilation or sell your life’s possessions to afford a ticket for a flight and a taxi to the airport just to find out that the flight has been cancelled. So yeah, I thought that talking about how fascist governments weaponise religion and national or regional origin was a super timely topic. What do you guys think?

Sanjana: Yeaaaaah. Pretty much. [laughs]

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: If it could get even more exhausting, you did make it.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: With the specifics of how exhausting the world is right now.

Aparna: In the whole world, the majority is suddenly inexplicably feeling attacked. Like they’re losing their identity and everything is just going nuts. So yeah. It is super timely is putting it mildly.

Sanjana: Pretty much. I feel like religion in history has always been like this tool to use to just make it easier for you to rule. And move things forward. Basically, most people that benefit from it are the ruling people in power so to speak.

Parinita: Yeah and we have all these stories in history of people using religion against each other.

Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: Where are all these stories or historical narratives where people of different religions live together somewhat harmoniously?

Aparna: Yeah!

Parinita: They exist. I’m sure they do.

Sanjana: Yeah especially because they do. So just going back, the way you were describing the people trying to make their way back to their house, a lot of people on social media and other places did draw comparisons to the Partition. When people had to migrate in these huge numbers and there were eerily similar pictures of that time versus this time.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: And really it shouldn’t be happening now. And in fact, it brings us to one of the Doctor Who episodes that we looked at for this episode – Demons of Punjab. What did you guys think of the episode?

Aparna: I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it as much as everyone seems to based on all the reviews that I read or all the people we heard talking about it.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: I didn’t think they exactly trivialised it, but the issue is so complex for us – I think maybe that’s why I felt like it fell a little flat in the way that it was dealt with. There is no one episode that could have probably done justice to it, but it felt like it was over with very quickly – the explanation of what’s happening. Whereas for us, it’s such a loaded time in our history.

Sanjana: Yeah. And one of the things that was very evident to me is whose story is being told? Because when we watched the Doctor Who Rosa episode for our podcast episode on race, we loved the episode right at the onset.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: And when we heard the Woke Doctor Who episode where they spoke about the episode and all the problems with the episode, we were like, “What?! Yeah! You’re absolutely right.” With comparison to how they loved Demons of Punjab and we didn’t quite love it. We weren’t in love with it. We did have problems with it. And I think that’s basically how the way history is consumed becomes very limited and subjective to how it’s being told and to the people whose story it is – who were directly affected by it. When I was watching the episode, I thought of how there were so many stories. Our grandparents came from Pakistan to India when the Partition happened – my mum’s grandmum, my dad’s grandmum. I remember my dad telling us stories about how they dug the walls of these large houses that they had and put in all their possessions into the walls and cemented it back in hopes that they would get back there someday. And it was huge amounts of migration and it felt a little bit like let’s just tell this one tiny part of this countryside story of this one woman who – which is fine, which is whose story we were there to tell. But except for those uh for the um the what – what were the creatures who were mourning the dead?

Parinita: Oh I don’t even remember.

Sanjana: The alien witnesses [they’re called the Thijarians]. Except them saying that they were there because a lot of death was about to happen, there was no other mention of the enormity of what was going to happen – of that part of history.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Yeah, I completely agree with you. I didn’t hate the episode. I didn’t think it was offensive.

Sanjana: Absolutely, yeah.

Parinita: It was just a bit meh episode.

Sanjana: Yeah exactly!

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: We’ve grown up with these stories. For you it was through grandparents. For me it was just culturally and in history class and things. We know about all these different stories. So for us it’s much more of a lived experience than I think this 45-50-minute episode could even hope to achieve. But what I found really interesting in a good way was in the Verity fan podcast episode that we listened to which discussed this episode, the three women there – I think one was British, one was American, and one was Australian, I believe. Or Tasmanian?

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And they acknowledged their positions that they were three white ladies talking about something which didn’t impact them. They really loved the episode, but more than that for them, it was a way to educate themselves about this history that they had no idea of – except the Scottish host; she knew a little bit about it. But the other two hosts didn’t. And I loved that they took the time to look for all these different resources and try to fill the gaps that they had in their own knowledge. Because even us, though we know a lot of Western history because colonial impact and cultural imperialism.

Sanjana and Aparna laugh.

Sanjana: Of course.

Parinita: So we know a lot about American history just in general. But there are huge parts of world history that even we don’t know, right? Even though we were colonised, I don’t know a lot of African history, for example. All the different countries there. Or even East Asian history. So the fact that this story allowed them the opportunity to get to know these things, I really loved that.

Sanjana: Yeah, no absolutely. So what the episode did in terms of creating dialogue, I feel like yeah it certainly did. And the whole thing between the two brothers did show two sides of the same religion as well. It wasn’t an all bad episode; it was quite a decent episode. Yet lacking in some places which is just the comparison between how we reacted to the Rosa episode.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: Which absolutely goes to show how – whose story it is, their reaction to it is so vastly different.

Parinita: Yeah. Even as meh as I found the episode, I found it super depressing also. Just because of Manish who is this Hindutva terrorist predecessor.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Absolutely.

Aparna: After all this time, it’s just the most important thing in the country still for some reason.

Parinita: Yeah. And it’s become mainstream now. This hatred, this distrust of Muslims. This Pakistan-India sort of binary.

Sanjana: Yeah. This just reminds me of one of the things that mum told me about my grandfather and how he grew up. So he had this habit of reading the Ramayana every day in the night before he slept. It was a thing he did. And he did not know how to read Hindi. His Ramayana was in Urdu. Because when he grew up, his early years were in Pakistan, in Punjab, and he grew up reading only Urdu so his Ramayana was in Urdu. He he read it from back to front. And I thought it was just the most interesting thing. Nobody even knows about these little things. The way media portrays religion in general is so divisive that these little things just don’t – nobody even knows these things. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah that’s so lovely. And just history in general, right? It’s something that they mentioned on the Verity podcast, where in the UK, the history of the Empire in general, but the Partition as well, it’s not really taught so much in school. It’s this elective thing that you can do. Which is why I think this lack of history or historical knowledge and their role in historical oppression has created this false narrative of past glories in the head of a lot of British people today.

Sanjana: Exactly.

Parinita: Which is similar, I think, to India where not knowing these nuances and the kinship and community that we have not just with Muslim people in India but also Pakistanis has created this terrible, terrible narrative where we see them as enemies.

Sanjana: Exactly.

Aparna: Yes, and it’s still happening. Because we’re still reading in the news that in UP and Rajasthan, they are changing textbooks to remove Nehru’s name or adding the Swacch Bharat campaign mentions into school textbooks. This is what people are reading. This is what people are consuming, this is what kids are consuming. So the narrative is changing even before it’s history. It’s already being written to favour the majority all the time.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Yeah and you can’t really learn from your mistakes in the past without acknowledging them. Right?

Aparna: Exactly!

Parinita: You’ll be doomed to repeat the same thing. Can you believe that people are defending Nazis what 60-70 years after the war that was supposed to end all wars? People are defending fascists or people are being fascists in all these different ways. In Indian contexts, Muslims and Hindus were fighting together to kick the British out of India and this is what we’ve come down to now. We have this internal enemy. And the way that history is taught in schools is so rubbish.

Aparna and Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: The importance is the dates and the events rather than the context of those dates and events. I think we’ve spoken about this briefly before but yeah, if you don’t acknowledge the mistakes that you’ve made and the nuances and the complexities that were there in the past, how are you going to learn from it and not repeat those same mistakes?

Sanjana: Absolutely.

Aparna: I read this interesting article on Tor about Thor: Ragnorak and it made a statement of how Hela was erased from history by Odin. And it’s also an erasure of everything. It’s trying to rewrite and simplify the past so that his authority is not questioned because his mistakes have been quickly brushed over. Which is fascinating because that’s exactly what happens in real life also.

Parinita: Yeah similar to that I think in an American context – well, also Australia and Canada. Just wherever the colonisers went where they were basically oppressing the indigenous people and suppressing their knowledge and their culture. So the Native Americans in the US and Canada and the tribals in Australia and New Zealand. This is not something that we know a lot of in India – at least I didn’t – about Native American culture and history. I’m not really very well-versed with it. But because J. K. Rowling –  I think it’s been a couple of years now – wrote Magic in North America, this Pottermore article to promote the Fantastic Beasts films.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Um hmm.

Parinita: And that created this huge backlash because of the way that it portrayed Native Americans as these primitive people which was perpetuating these false ideas of the culture where Europeans were the saviours basically and they brought all this knowledge and culture and completely erasing the Native culture, languages and histories. And that’s something that’s been critiqued a lot in terms of J. K. Rowling’s representation. But when I was watching Anne With An E.

Sanjana: Yes.

Parinita: What I really liked is – we’ve spoken about this before, the way that they’ve made this story that was written in the 1800s more inclusive and more contemporary and more relevant to the social and cultural contexts of today. And in Anne With An E, I really loved Ka’Kwet’s whole storyline. And how they showed how the Christian missionaries tried to brutally assimilate Native children into the Christian norm. This is a piece of history where they were stolen from their families and they were sent to these residential schools and these boarding schools. So it is very much a part of history where their language and her name, her hair, her clothes – all aspects of her culture were stripped away from her and her very identity was taken in this really violent way. It’s something I think now in Canada and in Australia and in New Zealand, they’re coming to terms with it more, this horrible part of their history. But it’s generations of erasure and generations of oppression. And this can’t go away instantly. This work has to be done actively to reverse this oppression.

Gif from Anne With An E. Text says - Anne: It's funny how people are so quick to point out differences when there are so many ways we're all alike. Ka'Kwet: Alike.

Aparna: And we can only start doing that work by telling these stories. Which is finally changing because for so long we’ve just been consuming media that has been created by a majority. So the white guys will be the good guys in everything that we’ve seen from when we were kids. And it’s only now that we’re starting to see diversity in the stories that are being told or the stories we’re consuming. And it’s because of the diversity of creators and things like that. But this is the first step. Acknowledging everyone’s stories is the first step to changing the narrative that’s been in everyone’s minds for so long.

Parinita: Yeah absolutely. All these conversations that happen in the West, in terms of diversity and all these cultures on the fan podcasts that we’ve listened to but also just in general online, they always make me draw Indian parallels because that’s what I know more of. So this Native American erasure of their culture and knowledge made me think of parallels with Indian tribal and rural cultures.

Sanjana: It did, yeah.

Parinita: Where their ways of knowledge and medicine and culture and their connection with the environment, the land, everything is erased, is marginalised. And the Indian government is almost the colonising force. The oppressed became the oppressors.

Sanjana: Yeah. What you’re saying is reminding me of the book Year of the Weeds. Where Siddhartha Sharma basically talks about the same thing as to how the hill being a religious entity for them is so hard for anybody to understand or even take seriously. It just doesn’t even fit into the context of even being looked at or considered as something in the large scheme of things. We need this done, who cares. Whereas if it had been a temple there and nobody in the government, then there is no bauxite.

Aparna: [laughs] The government would have never thought of doing that.

Sanjana: Absolutely.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: If we want to build a road and if a temple was there before the road, the road goes around the temple in this country. And this was similar to when we were discussing what happens in Avatar: The Last Airbender with the monks and the Fire Nation and how they are completely obliterated. It’s the same parallel to that.

Parinita: Yeah. I listened to an Imaginary Worlds episode called Growing Up Avatar-American. It had an Asian-American guest who was talking about how he didn’t find any Asian representation in media while he was growing up especially Asian-American representation. Because Asian-American is different from Asian. So a Bollywood movie is different from a Hollywood movie made with Asians.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Because for us, we’re the dominant group. We don’t have erasure of our own identities. I mean obviously there are caste and class and religion – maybe those intersections. But in terms of seeing brown faces on screen, we don’t have that problem.

Aparna: Correct.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Whereas for him, he’s East Asian. And he was talking about how he and a lot of Asian-Americans in the US saw Aang’s story as this refugee/immigrant story where like you said, Sana, he’s the only surviving Airbender whose people are murdered in a genocide led by the Firebenders. And one of the guests on the episode considered his escape by flying away on Appa similar to Vietnamese history where one of the guest’s parents fled on boats. And so they were drawing analogies to this trauma of the loss and ethnic cleansing of home and culture and people. As well as to the Japanese cultural occupation, the Chinese cultural revolution, the Cambodian genocide, surviving Hiroshima. Because there’s such a lack of these stories told in media. Also in science fiction and fantasy, it’s very Western, Euro-centric, so all these other histories are erased. So seeing fans interpreting it based on their own histories is pretty cool.

Aparna: And the reason that everyone wants to see themselves represented, it’s not a coincidence that the people who are not seeing themselves represented are also the people who are disproportionately affected by any crisis that happens in the world.

Parinita: Absolutely.

Aparna: It’s not a coincidence that now everyone is recommending picture books or children’s books that are created by black people and feature children – just stories of diverse experiences. Right now, they’re everywhere. On Instagram, I’ve seen three a day for the last few weeks. Because it has to start there. Once those experiences are completely similar, once we start seeing everyone as part of our growing up, is when we’ll realise that there shouldn’t be any difference in how people are treated as well. Because whether it’s the COVID crisis or whether it’s the climate crisis, everyone who’ll be first affected will be the people who are poor or the people who are a minority in any sense of the word.

Sanjana: Yeah. In fact it was today only that I was listening to a conversation with someone – I don’t remember the name now – but there was this student of psychology and she was talking about the need for dialogue that mentions intersectional and marginalised communities in classrooms and otherwise for society’s mental health. It is so important for mental health because the moment you don’t see yourself represented or the moment you don’t see anyone else even remotely understanding what you’re saying, you immediately shut off. And you don’t want to have that conversation anymore because you’re not seeing it being mirrored back. And to start dialogue at a classroom level with all of this very subjectively told would make so much of a difference in the long run leading to just a much better society.

Parinita: No, absolutely. I agree. And I think that intersectionality in these conversations is so important. Paru, you mentioned the environmental crisis which would affect – is already affecting people. I’m in the UK so all this Extinction Rebellion and the climate crisis, climate strikes and everything, it’s ongoing. Well, not now because the pandemic has stopped that for a little while.

Aparna: [laughs] Yeah.

Parinita: But it’s ongoing in terms of that we don’t want this to happen to us. But it has already happened to a lot of countries. Like the Syrian refugees, a lot of their conflict was sectarian – was religious conflict. But I’ve read articles about going back to the root causes of it. It was because there were consecutive droughts in consecutive years and how that impacts the politics of a country. So we already have climate refugees from different parts of the developing world. And the developing tag is because of colonisation, right?

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: We’re still facing these impacts where the developed world and not only the developed world but also in India, the cities, we have the luxury to think we don’t want this happening in the future. Even though in India, we’re breathing in polluted air and we have water shortages and whatever but still we have a certain level of comfort in that we’re not completely abandoned yet. But there are so many parts of India, there are so many parts of the world where people have to leave their houses. And all these migrants, why are they in cities in India? They had to leave their farms. They don’t want to live in these cramped fifteen people to a tiny room accommodation in the cities.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Exactly.

Parinita: But they’re leaving it because the climate crisis has already affected them. And they are further being harmed because of the pandemic and it’s just yeah it’s – sorry, I went on another rant. [laughs]

Aparna: No, but it’s true. Even within the city, if there’s a water crisis, it takes much longer for a water shortage to hit an apartment complex versus somebody who’s living in a more temporary settlement. Or it’ll take even longer for them to hit corporate tech parks. Because the more money you have, the easier it is to just get water during a crisis.

Parinita: Yeah. And even now, in the pandemic where the compassion and the dignity that is accorded to you is based on how much money you have.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And what class you’re from. Or what part of the country you’re from. You didn’t see Indians returning from foreign countries coming to the airport being sprayed down by pesticides [it was disinfectant]. You didn’t see them having to walk for thousands of kilometres but migrants had to go through this. The poorer migrants had to go through this. Everyone who’s living in another part of the country is a migrant but I mean the poorer migrants who had to go through this.

Sanjana: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely.

Parinita: They didn’t even have this dignity and compassion and humanity accorded to them. On the other hand, what I really do like, just because I know we’re going to be talking about this a little bit later – the connection between religion and community and fandom and community.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: But what I liked because I am an optimistic person even though I’ve ranted a lot today [laughs] and I’ve been really angry this last week and this last year. And these last six years.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: I don’t know I’ve just been increasingly angry. But at heart I’m an optimistic person. So I like focusing on the positives, and I like that in India, this community has recently shown itself through all these people – well, not all, a lot of people with privilege – who came together in different ways to look after the most vulnerable people in the country. So be it people doing fundraisers to fly migrants back to their villages or making food packets to pass it to them on the roads or water or using whatever resources that they have. And they’re still doing this in India. To make sure that people who don’t have this privilege do get a little bit more help.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Because the government systems are completely failing them. Going back to what I first started off with which was basically fascism and resistance, I really loved the episode Witch, Please and the Rise of White Nationalism.

Sanjana: Yeah even we.

Parinita: But also it stressed me out.

Sanjana: Yeah absolutely!

Parinita: [laughs] So one of the co-hosts Marcel, she used the Harry Potter series to draw real-life parallels with fascism and resistance and I loved that she used the Potterverse like this. Like I said, I was very distressed about how many of these are evident in India as well as other parts of the world especially along the lines of religion and national and regional origin. So her talk covered four points – what fascism looks like, how it uses existing systems of power – media and democracy and education – how to be an ally, and how to fight back. All of her examples were from the Harry Potter books and the movies but she was talking about it mostly in terms of the rise of white nationalism, hate crimes in the US, Canada and the UK. But again, I drew parallels to India. In India, it was so obvious this parallel with the rise of Hindutva versus Islam versus just Dalits which is why I was really depressed.

Sanjana: [laughs] Yeah. Because they at some point said this pureblood supremacist cult. What I found interesting was their dialogue around the Ministry of Magic and how its role changed over the different books as the story progressed from just being this entity which showed these government employees. Because our only link to it was through Mr Weasley. And then when it is taken over by this supremacist cult, it becomes this evil entity that is trying to cause all kinds of mayhem by being this ruling class. From how it becomes this bumbling government office [laughs] to this really complex leader and supremacist entity. It was rather interesting.

Aparna: Yeah. What I found most scary was when she suggested that Trump is possibly not Voldemort [laughs] but Fudge.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aparna: Because these are the systems that already have to be in place for a Voldemort to appear. For a Voldemort to be able to step in and claim this world as his own. There are some systems that have to have been in place for so long and things that are so fundamentally just broken. There is so much undoing to be able to fix it.  At the end of the story when it returns to normal, their version of normal is not safe. It’s still leaving room for this to happen again.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Yeah because I think when Kingsley Shacklebolt becomes Minister of Magic, he gets rid of the Dementors but what about the house-elves? What about the centaurs? What about the giants? What about the goblins? It’s not addressed. Going back to normal even during the pandemic everyone is saying that oh we want to go back to normal.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: But the normal is only working for a very specific group of people.

Aparna: Exactly! And normal is what created the sort of environment where Voldemort has risen.

Parinita: Yeah!

Aparna: So normal was not great.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: This is all going to happen again.

Parinita: When she was talking about that, where basically Fudge allowed Voldemort to come to power, Fudge’s Ministry where the existing systems of power were designed to privilege a certain group of people already.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: I was thinking about it in terms of the Congress in India. Now because we have the BJP in power, compared to them, everything else seems better.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: But the Congress definitely did lay ground for the BJP to come to power. It wasn’t like they were doing all these great things to radically restructure society in a way that made it inclusive for everybody.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Absolutely yeah.

Parinita: So that’s why the BJP is in power now. And who knows where we’re going to go next?

Aparna: Exactly.

Parinita: If we take Modi out of the picture, if we take Trump out of the picture, it’s not going to go away. I think they said Voldemort, he does use violence and intimidation, but he’s also really easily able to create this army of people who seem to hate Muggles and who seem to hate Muggle-borns and are really happy.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: It was all very scary. And also when they were talking about how the media is co-opted like The Daily Prophet presents Ministry-approved messages without any critical thinking or any criticism.

Sanjana: Yes!

Parinita: Again what we see happening in most mainstream media in India as well as WhatsApp media now that that’s a new genre of news.

Sanjana: Totally.

Aparna: Oh god! [laughs]

Sanjana: Because you said WhatsApp media, it just brought about this constant struggle at home where every time our parents give us this piece of great information, I turn back and say what is your source?

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: Where did you get this information?

Parinita: I do this with my mother as well. I’ll call her to chat because she living by herself in Mumbai and Mumbai is really hit by the pandemic. So she’s really freaked out. So we try and have more regular conversations than we used to. But now rather than comfort, it’s more like trying to decode news sources. I’m giving her a course on media analysis.

Sanjana: Yeah. [laughs]

Parinita: “Let’s go back. Why do you think this? Why that?” I’m using all my PhD research.

Sanjana: [laughs]

Parinita: And just like your parents, she’s not an Islamaphobe. She’s not a bigot.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: But it’s this everyday benign sort of bigotry which has come to the fore.

Sanjana: Yeah exactly.

Parinita: But I also like that lest this thing get too depressing – which it is, because the world is very depressing. But I also liked that in the episode they also spoke about how to resist this. So she spoke about how different people in the witching world use different skills to resist. So like knitting and Hermione – although her S.P.E.W. has some problematic tendencies but she was well-intentioned.

Sanjana: [laughs]

Parinita: Although sometimes intent, good intent has damaging impacts. But whatever. Knitting and making protest signs and cooking and resistance. They were drawing parallels to the real world where all these different skills can come together. Even online putting all these resources together to donate, or putting all the resources to educate yourself. Because not everyone begins from this same spot, right? We didn’t grow up thinking like this.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: It was a process – a huge process of learning and unlearning things.

Sanjana: I was going to use our parents as a segue into us talking about this. [laughs] Because I think all three of us have had a very similar relationship with religion wherein all of our religion comes from what our parents told us and what our parents said we should do. I think the just one generation before this, there was not much questioning. I feel like we’re questioning a lot more. And so our relationship with all of the religious stuff in our house is a lot different from when our mum and dad grew up. And I think a lot of our religion was mostly based on what was taught to our parents and which they then tried teaching to us and we did it for quite awhile.

Aparna: Yeah and I don’t think they were particularly religious either.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: I feel like they were just, yes I will do because my mother did it.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Yeah. Because my mum, she’s the kind of religious who believes in all religions and I understand where her need to believe in all these things comes from because she, like me, she went to a Catholic school – the same Catholic school actually – but grew up in a Hindu household.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And she’s had a really difficult life in terms of family. A lot of trauma and a lot of abuse from different kinds. So I get her need to hang on to religion as a form of solidarity.

Sanjana: Yeah absolutely.

Parinita: So that’s the way that she gets comfort and things. But for me I never really found that in religion. I don’t know when you guys started questioning this, but I don’t think it ever made sense to me.

Sanjana: [laughs]

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: I remember in primary school, I used to be like, “But why?” My question used to always be, “But why? This is not logical. This is not rational.” And because like your parents, she didn’t have this sort of scholarly knowledge.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And by scholarly I mean just the access to texts and the stories and things. So she didn’t have a response to me and this stubborn only-child brain of mine was like, “Then oh, no, I must be right!” [laughs]

Sanjana: [laughs]

Parinita: “No you can’t explain.” And also in school, there was one teacher in particular, our maths teacher who used to teach us to question things. And I used to hate maths but I used to love her and she made me tolerate maths for the time that she taught us. And she used to teach us to question things. For example, in Hinduism where you are on your period, when you’re menstruating, you can’t go to temples. And we had a class, I remember, it was a free period I think, where we were just talking. And she was talking about her own experiences and she said that she and her daughters when they’re menstruating, they go to temples; they just don’t tell anybody about it. It was just something for them to know. Maybe she was religious? I think I stopped going to temples years ago. Unless it’s just to look at the nice architecture or whatever.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Yeah. I think after a point for us it became that we didn’t want to offend our parents so we didn’t say much and after a point, we were like, “You’ll go, we’ve seen. It looks beautiful from outside.”

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: “We are waiting here, no problem. We don’t want to climb the five hundred steps, go ahead, we’ll sit here.”

Parinita: You were much nicer than I was. I used to be like, “No! Religion is oppression!”

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: “It’s the opiate of the masses!”

Aparna: We are like that now.

Sanjana: We are like that now.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: I feel like it took a little longer to question it as much. We listened to a bunch of the podcast episodes just to understand. I didn’t want to write off religion completely when we were reading up about this. And a couple of things that jumped out from some of the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text episodes was that religion has this sense of giving a sense of community and belonging. And the other day we were watching an episode of House where there was this priest that was one of the patients. And at some point House said, “Religion is the placebo of the world.” [laughs] Both of us looked at each other and I made a mental note of it.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: Because it was such a simple way of explaining religion to someone who doesn’t get the need to get up every morning and pray to this god and or to a whole slew of gods.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: It’s a good enough reason if it’s giving you some sense of belonging and some sense of peace somewhere. It definitely doesn’t give us a sense of peace and maybe for me, my questioning started when I started working on writing and retelling these stories. I work for Amar Chitra Katha and they essentially tell stories of gods and goddesses. We’ve been doing that for a long time. And it’s because the mythology is so rich with stories. Except that after a point, after reading a couple of things, I just can’t see these entities as gods. Or whatever the definition of god is. [laughs] I just can’t get behind the whole – I can’t get behind a text that’s derogatory to women. I can’t see – I just can’t – I’ve said the word can’t so many times that it’s lost all meaning.

Aparna and Parinita laugh

Parinita: Is it even a real word anymore?

Sanjana: Yeah it’s just that’s the only way I can describe it.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: For a lack of better word, I just can’t you guys.

All three laugh

Parinita: As the kids these days say, I can’t even.

Sanjana: I can’t.

Parinita: [laughs] No I’m completely with you. I’m very angry on this episode because I’m just angry today and, like I said, I’ve been angry this week a lot. But I’m not one of those fundamentalist atheists because I think atheism can also become fundamentalism just in the way religion can become fundamentalism where you are so caught up with the ideology that you believe in, that you are forcing that ideology upon other people and you see other people as lesser than or not as equal to you because they believe in something different. I know that there’s this huge problem within atheism online and there’s this intersection of atheism and patriarchy. And there are these hero atheists who just make everyone feel stupid. Or try to make everyone feel stupid.

Aparna: There’s an intersection of everything with patriarchy.

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs] Essentially.

Sanjana: [laughs]

Aparna: We would be hard-pressed to find something that does not intersect with the ever-present patriarchy.

Parinita: Yeah. But I wouldn’t want to write off religion either. Because I like the idea of some of the things that people who are religious find from religion.

Sanjana: Yeah absolutely.

Parinita: For example, like community. I love the idea of finding this sense of community. I love the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text podcast. The hosts are I think graduates or they teach or work with the Harvard Divinity School in the US. And one of the hosts Vanessa, she’s from a Jewish background, but she’s not religious. And Casper, the other host, is from a Christian background but he’s also not religious. I don’t know if they consider themselves atheists, but they’re not religious. But they are humanist ministers, I think, where they live. So it’s this sort of secular practice. And in the podcast itself, they draw on a lot of religious practices from Judaism, from Christianity to analyse Harry Potter like that. So they use Harry Potter in the way religious people would use the Bhagavad Gita or the Bible or the Torah or the Quran. They use the characters, the themes, the events to make sense of the world. And I love that because they started this off with an in-person group and their podcast is so popular that it’s created these Harry Potter and the Sacred Text chapters all over the world. Where Harry Potter people – Harry Potter people like not the people come to life.

Sanjana and Aparna laugh

Parinita: Harry Potter fans meet and they do these different practices. But it’s just a way to come together with people that you wouldn’t otherwise have met like they would have done in temples or these sort of bhajan sessions and things that my mom goes to and meets people. Or in churches. Where people find that sense of community.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So I love that idea of finding this community as a way to combat this disconnection that we have.

Sanjana: One of the episodes spoke about tradition in particular.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: Tradition and religion. And I really loved what they said about tradition. That all of us have the permission to reach in and take something that means something to us.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: And I felt that was really interesting because it is what I think the way our relationship with religion progressed, at least for us. It’s not that we obliterated it completely. There are bits and pieces of it and mostly only because of the traditions not of the religious aspect but more like we do these little things on Diwali.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: And that’s something probably that I want to continue following as general because especially with now having a kid, it’s just some bit of what we did or what we celebrate or something about just a little piece of our identity that I would like for my kid to have as well. And it’s not at all steeped in religion but it’s just this sense of sitting down together and making little stars and putting up lights or whatever.

Aparna: It is despite religion.

Sanjana: Yeah. It is despite religion that we celebrate [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah, it’s more cultural right?

Sanjana: Yeah exactly.

Parinita: Like in Harry Potter, the way that they celebrate. There are debates on this that Harry Potter itself is a Christian text because J. K. Rowling is Christian.

Sanjana: Right.

Parinita: And Harry and the comparisons with Jesus and Aslan in Narnia.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: He comes back to life and sacrifices himself. But also Christmas and Easter in Hogwarts. Yeah they celebrate these Christian celebrations but it doesn’t seem to be in a way that’s really religious.

Aparna: Exactly.

Parinita: It seems to be the way that you’re saying, Sana, it’s cultural. And I’m the same.

Aparna: Or like we celebrate Christmas as well is exactly like they do in Harry Potter.

Parinita: Yeah. Because now I am in this foreign land where I am the minority and nobody – I mean I’m sure there are people who speak the same language and stuff but I don’t know them here except one person. But it makes me want to celebrate these things. Just for me, celebration has to involve food. So it’s just putting that together. So like Diwali or Ganesh Chathurthi because in Mumbai that’s a huge thing that I’ve grown up with. In my housing society, we used to have these celebrations. So it’s more about that – about past memories and cultural identities than religion. So I love celebrating that here especially because there isn’t really a community here that I can celebrate it with. So it’s like something that I’m – I’m –

Sanjana: Like a bit of yourself, yeah.

Parinita: Exactly.

Sanjana: Absolutely. Because all said and done, it is somewhere a part of our identity and the way we see the world or from where we see the world to some extent.

Aparna: Which is why the parallel between religion is so interesting. I find it very fascinating because whatever media I consume – the books that I read, the shows that I watch – is the way I relate to the world. So that is more part of my identity than anything else. So being a part of fandom, gives me that feeling of being part of a community. The sort of feelings that people get from religion – the positive feelings – without any of the negativity [laughs] for me.

Parinita: Although negativity does exist in fandom.

Aparna: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It certainly does.

Parinita: Like the toxic bits

Aparna: Yeah. So I was listening to this podcast called Our Opinions Are Correct and in that they were talking about that possibly this is because religion doesn’t occupy the same kind of space in public that it used to, especially with younger people. And that’s why people engage more in fandom and how there are people who accept or respect only what’s in the canon versus people reinterpreting it to make it your own. Which is exactly the sort of relationships that people have with religion.

Sanjana: Yeah. And this brings up an interesting thing that we did recently. So we recently did a book called Rama’s Ring. And it basically has these various stories taken from the retellings of the Ramayana. So the original Ramayana exists and then there are all these communities and all these tribes who have made Ramayana their own.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: They have created this completely different world with the main characters within it. So the first story is about how Rama’s ring gets lost. And every time a Rama’s ring gets lost, it’s the end of that Rama’s era. And then it goes on to say so hence there are so many Ramas in the world. This was in an essay written by A. K. Ramanujan, if I’m not mistaken. The whole point that I’m trying to make is what you’re saying –  what connection people have with the original versus any retelling, and the conflict in wanting to accept anything else from that deviates from the original is really astounding. Because the amount of feedback that we got from people because a lot of our readers are people who are Hindus.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: Because we’re telling that mythology. And a lot of them wrote back to us saying, “How can you tell these fake Ramayanas? And how can you tell the story of these things?” Except that to everybody in that community, that is as real as it will get. Because it has little bits of their tradition and a little bit of their thing within that Ramayan. Like there’s one I’m not remembering the exact tribe – I think it’s Gond tribe – where Lakshmana is the main character. And he is the hero of the whole Ramayan. And he’s this person who lives in the jungle, one with nature – which is basically how they are. And so they’ve taken this great epic and made it their own because they’ve put little bits of their tradition into it. And that’s basically what a lot of the fandoms do for you. You take little bits of it and put little bits of yourself in it because at the end of the day, you want to see yourself in that story.

Parinita: Yeah. And I’ve also heard of a cultural tradition which sees Ravana as the protagonist.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: It’s told from Ravana’s perspective And that also has implications, right? Social, cultural and political implications in terms of historically with the Aryans and the Dravidians and how that plays a role. Skin colour and national and regional origin … sorry to bring it back to that. [laughs]

Sanjana: [laughs]

Parinita: But it just struck me now. I shouldn’t be apologising, that’s what we’re talking about! But basically how the mainstream cultural story may be oppressive to your identity and your culture. Or erasing you completely; erasing your perspectives and your traditions and whatever.

Sanjana: Yeah. Absolutely.

Parinita: And this is not just in the Ramayana but world religions all over.

Sanjana: Yeah. And it’s not just about even national origin and stuff. There was one version of the stories which is from Tamil Nadu which was a version of the Mahabharata. We did versions of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. In it, it’s not Krishna’s divine power that comes and saves Draupadi from the Vastraharan but it’s women who stand up in the court.

Parinita: Oh I love that!

Sanjana: Yeah! And we loved the story and the version so much that we had to put it into the book. And we put it into the book but the problem people have with that is that we’ve removed the divine out of it.

Parinita: [sighs] [laughs]

Sanjana: In a sense you’ve taken the one divine element that is Krishna who comes and saves everything.

Aparna: No, but they’re all just stories. Why can’t people just mind their own business? You like a story better just read that version of the story and leave everyone else alone!

Sanjana: No and it was interesting. Even that Imaginary Worlds episode that we heard where they discussed faith in fantasy

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: And there was one part where they were talking about Narnia and it was very interesting how people from the two different faiths saw bits of their own faiths being reflected. Like the Shia culture and Jesus.

Parinita: Yeah and the Shia, Sunni thing as well, right?

Sanjana: Exactly. And how rebirth there and then there’s rebirth here and how it’s like the replacement of an imam. It was very interesting to see how the one exact same episode meant two different things to people from two different religions.

Parinita: Yeah and I’m sure it would be the same … I’m not – like I’ve made it very clear that I’m not Hindu

Sanjana: Yes.

Parinita: I don’t know our cultural stories as much as both of you do even because both of you have worked with Amar Chitra Katha so you’ve done the research and you know things. But I’m sure if I knew a lot more, I would have been able to read Harry Potter and draw on Hindu connections. We did briefly with the whole caste structure and the Hogwarts houses. But yeah that’s why I really like this idea of reclaiming tradition.

Sanjana: Yes.

Parinita: In that episode with Matt Potts, the Sacred Text one, they spoke about how tradition can be oppressive. Usually you have these negative connotations of tradition. Well some people have negative connotations, some people want to go back to the traditional way of life.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: But traditionally tradition has been used to exclude groups of people. And now there are more people who’ve been on the margins otherwise are now trying to make a more inclusive kind of tradition. Whether it be religious or fandom as well, it sees tradition as dynamic rather than static. So it’s not going to become worse. It’s actually going to become stronger, because it’s open to more change. And just like the parallels with fandom and religion, there are some people who are more conservative and who want to adhere to canon. And what they consider as canon and that correct version of canon and no deviations should occur. Whereas there are others – with fans as well as with religious scholars and religious leaders and religious practitioners – who are now trying to find those marginalised voices in canon and highlight those and make it more inclusive. Like what you were saying about the Mahabharata with Draupadi – rather than this man coming to save her with his divine power, it’s a community of women who are standing up to the injustice that she’s facing. And that solidarity is what helps her. That puts so much more agency on women rather than having everything where they are just props and set dressing.

Sanjana: Exactly. Yeah. That is why that particular retelling was so important because sure, it was written some centuries later but the point is that it exists and someone wrote it and there are some people who read that as their truth.

Parinita: Yeah. And this is what fanfiction does as well, right?

Sanjana: Exactly!

Parinita: And even fan podcasts like this one and the ones that we’ve been listening to. We’re trying to go to these voices that are hidden or are invisible or are only known to a certain group of people. We have blind spots with queerness, we have blind spots with disabilities. But now that we are actively thinking about these things, because queer people or people with disabilities have told us their perspectives using fandom as a framework, now we think about these things more as well.

Sanjana: Yeah absolutely.

Parinita: I don’t know if you guys got a chance to listen to the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text with Broderick Greer. So he’s this Christian reverend and he’s black and gay which historically hasn’t been a position of power in the Catholic church. But he is using his position in the church to make it more inclusive. He practices this thing called marginalia which was inspired by his grandmother who would make notes in the margins of her bible so she was basically talking back to the bible using her own perspectives and using her own history. And his grandmother had a lot of these oppressed identities because she was this black woman in the US who was growing up in a time when black people – even now, black people in the US aren’t accorded with the same rights –  but then even more so. So this talking back to canon while respecting it because obviously she was this religious person so respecting but also talking back to it. And that’s something that fandom does as well in terms of fans talking back to their creators. This is a tweet that I saw today that J. K. Rowling has taught us to stand up to bigots like her.

Sanjana and Aparna laugh

Screenshot of tweet by @katiejoyofosho Text says: what's insane is that jk rowling essentially raised us to stand up to her bigotry

Parinita: Which I loved. Which is so true because her books ostensibly preach diversity and kindness and whatever.

Sanjana: Yeah

Parinita: But she doesn’t do that herself. So now there are all these fans standing up to her transphobia and her bigotry and whatever. Which I really love. My self-care routine as again, the kids these days say, yesterday was turning off and disconnecting from news and everything and watching Queer Eye on Netflix because the new season is out.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: And the first episode was about this gay minister, a Lutheran minister in church who was coming to terms with his identity. He came out much later in life. And they had such an amazing thing about with queerness and the church. There was this trans minister and this other gay minister as well who came to talk to him about how they can come together to make the church a more inclusive space. Because it’s been so hard for them. They grew up in a tradition where religion actively excluded them. And they now want to be open. They’re still religious but they’re also queer. So they want to make church this radically inclusive space so that other queer people now don’t face the same discrimination that they did. Which I loved so much and I cried a lot – lots of cathartic crying happened yesterday.

Aparna and Sanjana laugh

Parinita: But I loved the idea of that even with religion just in general and fandom as well, just listening to those voices which didn’t have a voice and bringing them to the fore rather than having just the same privileged group of people talking to themselves.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: That is basically the solution. Just for the people who’ve been talking for so long to just shut up for awhile.

Sanjana: [laughs]

Aparna: And listen. And let everyone else tell their stories.

Parinita: Just for a little bit.

Aparna: Just sit. That’s all that’s required for a while.

Parinita: Yeah because there are so many possibilities now to counter these narrow canonical narratives. What is canon anyway? Who decides? Just a group of people who had decided it thousands of years ago and now we’re like, “Oh yeah they’re completely correct! There’s no questioning them.” So I love that through media, through fanfiction or even through religious retellings, like Amar Chitra Katha comic books, you are highlighting these voices which are marginalised or erased and highlighting these diverse perspectives and interpretations to make it radically inclusive. Because even if society currently isn’t radically inclusive, why can’t we imagine our fiction to do better? Or our retellings to do better? We can imagine blue police boxes travelling across time and space or this complex magical world in Britain.

Sanjana and Aparna laugh

Parinita: But we can’t imagine Muslims and black people and Dalit people and transgender people and poor people are worthy of equal respect and dignity and compassion? I thought I’d gotten the ranting out of my system. [laughs] But apparently not.

Sanjana: Clearly not.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: But on that very correct note, [laughs] the three of us bid you bye-bye and we hope to see you soon.

Aparna: Yes.

Sanjana: Ranting some more.

Parinita: [laughs] Probably. With the way the world is going, there’s going to be a lot more ranting.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: But yes. Goodbye!

Aparna: Bye!

Sanjana: Buh-bye!

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode on religion and geographical origin and the ways in which both intersect with class, caste and dominant political norms. Thanks again to Aparna and Sanjana for helping me get all that ranting out of my system and making me feel better about the state of the world. The world is still terrible but being angry with friends is cathartic. And thank you Jack for also listening to my various rants both about the real world and various fictional worlds (and also for the editing).

[Outro music]

You can now listen to Marginally Fannish on SpotifyAppleGoogle, or SoundCloud. I’d love to hear from you and talk to you – so any feedback, comments or critiques are very welcome! Get in touch with me on social media, leave a comment on my blog, or email me at edps@leeds.ac.uk. If you’d like to follow the podcast or the PhD project, visit my website marginallyfannish.org where you’ll find both the podcast episodes and the blog. You can also receive updates on Facebook or Instagram at Marginally Fannish or on Twitter where I’m @MarginalFannish. If you enjoyed the podcast, please share it with anyone you think will enjoy it too.

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

Episode 12 The International Imagination: Exploring World Politics in the Fantastic Beasts Films

Episode Resources:

1) Movie – Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them 

2) Movie – The Crimes of Grindelwald

3) Movie – Deleted scenes featuring Nagini from The Crimes of Grindelwald

3) Essay – Background Remarks: Grindelwald, Fantastic Beasts, and Gay Representation

4) Essay – Notes on Claudia Kim’s Nagini

5) Fan podcast – Women of Harry Potter: Angelina Johnson with Bayana Davis

6) Fan podcast – Women of Harry Potter: Parvati Patil with Proma Khosla

7) Fan podcast – Women of Harry Potter: Cho Chang With Kathy Tu

8) Fan podcast – #Wizard Team: Blood Purity and Mixed Race Identity

9) Fan podcast – Woke Doctor Who: Harry Potter and the People of Colour

 

Episode Transcript:

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

Lorrie and her Nagini funkopop

[Intro music]

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

[Intro music]

My name is Parinita Shetty and you’re listening to the twelfth episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I talk to Lorrie Kim about how people of colour are represented in the Potterverse and how much Lorrie loves and identifies with Nagini. We also discuss the real-world parallels in Crimes of Grindelwald. This includes mentions of rape, exploitation and human trafficking so please consider this a content warning. Lorrie proposes that the Harry Potter books – written for children – and the Fantastic Beasts movies – written for adults – deal with similar themes in very different ways. The allegory of fascism is ever-present but is less escapist. The international politics in Crimes of Grindelwald draw from historical as well as contemporary colonial, racial and sexual violence in the real world.

A book authored by a single creator reflects their cultural, social, and political limitations. However, in movies, the actors and crew become co-creators of the story, which can sometimes make up for the author’s blind-spots. Deleted scenes in movies marginalise female characters of colour whose stories are seen as expendable. Fans’ discomfort against how these characters are portrayed can end up erasing them from the story entirely. Many fans dislike the Fantastic Beasts movies and Nagini’s story arc for lots of different reasons. While fan interpretations often differ, mainstream fandom discourse isn’t always nuanced and inclusive of multiple perspectives. Fandom has tremendous potential to promote critical thinking, but fan opinions can also influence people in limiting ways.

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: Today I’m so thrilled to be able to talk to Lorrie Kim about our shared love of the Potterverse. Lorrie is a second-generation Korean-American, bisexual woman, three years younger than J. K. Rowling. She’s married with two kids. She’s also the author of Snape: A Definitive Reading. She has enjoyed speaking at Harry Potter conferences since 2008. I’m especially excited to have Lorrie on the episode because in our brief conversations while planning the episode, she’s shown me such a different perspective of some of the critiques which are really popular in the Potter fandom. Like me, Lorrie is able to balance love and critique when it comes to Harry Potter, but some of her opinions are quite different from what I’ve encountered in mainstream fandom. So I’m really happy that Lorrie is here to expand my mind some more. Before we get to those bits though, I wanted to discuss how your initial opinions about the books are influenced by how old you were when you first read them. That’s something that you mentioned while we were planning the episode. So I read The Philosopher’s Stone when I was ten and grew up with the book series and I only came to consider and understand the more problematic aspects of the series as an adult through my engagement in fandom. Lorrie, you mentioned that you first read the series as an adult so that impacted your experience in a different way.

Lorrie: Yeah, because I’m almost the same age as J. K. Rowling, and I think I was maybe 32-33 when I first read the first five books ’cause six and seven hadn’t been written yet. I was identifying with the author somewhat because I knew her life experiences were generationally similar to mine. I’ve noticed that people who grew up with the series, as their perspectives changed into adult perspectives, they’ve re-visited them and what they remembered from the series is not necessarily what they see now when they read it as adults. And there’s a lot less of that for me because I was already an adult reading.

Parinita: So you already saw the problematic aspects when you first read them. [laughs]

Lorrie: Well when I first read them, it was very much very clear to me that I was reading something written by a white, British, heterosexual, married woman, a Christian mother. I didn’t have kids when I read the first five books, I had a kid by the time the sixth book came out. And then I was pregnant when the seventh book came out. And re-reading them as a mother changed my perspective a lot, especially around issues of pregnancy and being connected to small infants and infant development.

Parinita: Oh interesting! Did your kids grow up with the books as well?

Lorrie: They did. And what I didn’t expect – they were small children during the time that we switched over from Harry Potter books being written to all of them being written and all of the movies being finished. So I had a couple years when I wondered how old they would be before I let them read the books, not realising that by the time kids are in kindergarten and they run around together playing in the playground, they’re shouting spells at each other.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lorrie: So you know they’re spoiled for the series. So all of these concerns I had as a reader, I wasn’t taking into account what the reality was going to be for them. So by the time kids entered kindergarten, they’ve heard of something or other from Harry Potter.

Parinita: Yeah that’s a really interesting generational difference as well for people – for kids who had the entire canon. Well not the Fantastic Beasts canon but the entire Harry Potter canon that does not include the new tweets and the Pottermore stuff. But you’re so right. For me, growing up, reading this it was so different from what you picked up on in the books because none of that is anything that I’d noticed. I didn’t even notice how white the books were, just because I was growing up in India when I was reading this so I couldn’t really articulate those sort of conversations. Because I grew up reading a lot of British children’s books anyway and American children’s literature. So most of my reading diet consisted of Western books where most of the characters – where whiteness is default essentially. So I didn’t really question that in Harry Potter as much. Now, of course, when I moved to the UK, I see that the UK, even in the early 90s, would have been much more diverse than what the books show.

Lorrie: Yes.

Parinita: In The Prisoner of Azkaban, just the brief clip that I watched, there is so much more diversity within the classroom. And I was really surprised because that’s not something I had noticed when I was watching the movies because I was very much focused on the trio because that’s what the books focus on as well. So even as an audience member, that’s what I was watching. But now I was like, “Oh wait! There are a lot more people of colour in the movies!” I know with Lavender Brown’s casting, that’s had a bit of an issue where she was a black girl in the beginning.

Lorrie: Yeah.

Parinita: And then in Half-Blood Prince, suddenly when she was a main character – well not a main character but she was adjacent to a protagonist, she was suddenly a white character. But then you picked up on these themes and that didn’t dampen your enthusiasm for the books, right?

The changing faces of Lavender Brown. Image courtesy Reddit

Lorrie: Any book from authors of any culture will show the perspectives of the author and their limitations. It’s not like there’s some other country or racial identity people can come from where everything is automatically superior and they know how to write every kind of person. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah. I feel like now with the internet and social media when these conversations are so mainstream – because for me, that’s what really made me decolonise my own mind a little bit. Growing up in India – and India still has quite a colonised mindset because we still think what the West does is better. At least in urban India and certain parts of rural and small-town India. So we would think that the US or the UK would have it all figured out. It’s just because of colonisation obviously that we still think this. Although now with the politics and the way the situation is going on both in the US and the UK, that may not be as true anymore. But in India, we have a fascist leader as well so we can’t really complain. Speaking of fascism, I’m turning to Fantastic Beasts now. One of the mainstream fandom opinions I’ve encountered before – and you came in and smashed this perception to pieces – is that most Harry Potter fans, at least the ones I’ve read and listened to on podcasts, don’t seem to think too highly of the movies. And I have to admit that these really strong opinions unfairly influenced me and put me off watching Crimes of Grindelwald for the longest time what with the critiques of the movie itself but also the whole Nagini controversy, which we’ll talk about a bit more later. But just to introduce your own thoughts about the movies, I know that unlike most fans I’ve encountered, you love the new films, right?

Lorrie: I love them! Crimes of Grindelwald is my favourite of the Potterverse films.

Parinita: I watched Crimes of Grindelwald a few days ago after consciously not watching it because of all the negativity in the fandom. And I was so surprised by how invested I was in the movie just because of how much everyone seems to dislike the movie, I thought that I would as well – which is obviously really silly now that I think about it. But yeah, I really enjoyed the film, more than the first Fantastic Beasts movie.

Lorrie: I’m curious – can you tell me what some of the things that were most compelling to you in the Crimes of Grindelwald movie?

Parinita: So I loved the characters.

Lorrie: Yeah.

Parinita: I loved Leta Lestrange, I loved her whole story. I also loved Newt right from the first movie. I loved the way that he treats other people as well as other animals. I loved his cross-cultural friendship with Jacob and how respectfully and empathetically he not only treats him but just the world in general. And I also loved the glimpses into the French Ministry of Magic. We’re used to the British magical system because that’s what we’ve grown up with. And then we saw a little bit about the American magical system in Fantastic Beasts. And I’m loving these glimpses of how different countries do it differently. Of course, it’s still very Western currently. It might change in the three other films. But I’m loving this exploration of new worlds but also the return to old ones. They came to Hogwarts and there was McGonagall for the briefest of instances in the scene and I was like, “Aaaah McGonagall! I love you!” So I liked the balance. The more alarming bit of it was I could recognise Grindelwald’s speeches – the way that he couched his bigotry and prejudice in more politically correct terms, I was like, “Oh yeah this is what happened in India. This is what’s happening in many parts of the world. This is not scary at all!” You’d mentioned that it is a film for adults as opposed to Harry Potter which is for children. And I think I really appreciated that.

Lorrie: Yeah I felt like I’m the audience for this. And that many times as an adult reading or watching the Harry Potter stories, I had to tell myself, well I’m not the audience. As an adult, this isn’t the story that I wanted. I have to remember that she’s speaking to young people between ages six and seventeen.

Parinita: Yeah. But you did say that you’d noticed some similar themes in Harry Potter – even though it’s for children – and Fantastic Beasts which is for adults. Could you tell us some of the themes you picked up on?

Lorrie: Yeah. In my opinion, it’s actually the same story. It’s just that Harry Potter is a fairy tale and that’s why when Harry goes looking for his own story, he always finds something. He wants to find his mother and father, he finds them. He finds the people who give them back to him. When children are angry and murderous in Harry Potter, an adult comes and saves them from becoming murderers. They don’t actually kill, they get stopped in time because adults are there to do their jobs. In Fantastic Beasts it’s the same but the children actually commit murder and adults are just as ineffective as we know them to be in real life. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Lorrie: And the sexual assault in Harry Potter is often coded or softened in some way. And especially when it’s sexual assault of men on women or girls, Rowling very carefully wrote it so you can read it as sexual assault or not. She did very careful word choice so what you see there is something you need to read according to your experience and to your age. For example, there is a child of coercion in Harry Potter who is Voldemort.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lorrie: And she carefully made it so that it was a female character coercing a male character. I think she was trying to get away from the over-emotional tones of making it statistically what’s more common of men coercing women. So it’s very careful. And it’s not the common story that we encounter in real life. And in Fantastic Beasts, we have a child of coercion but oh there’s no cushioning this. What we see is some of the grossest, starkest ways that this is common in real life. Both with race and national, colonial violence as well as gender.

Parinita: Spoilers for those who haven’t watched Crimes of Grindelwald, but until you pointed that out to me that this is what happens with Leta Lestrange’s family as well as – I’ve forgotten her half-brother’s name …

Lorrie: Yusuf.

Parinita: Yusuf. Yeah!

Lorrie: Cama.

Parinita: Yeah Yusuf Cama’s family, it is rape where a white man essentially stole a black woman or kidnapped or enchanted – I think it was an enchantment.

Lorrie: It is the Imperius curse.

Parinita: Oh yeah. And essentially raped her and I think she died in childbirth? From what I remember.

Lorrie: Yes.

Parinita: Yeah. And it’s not something that you might catch on first watch, because so much happens after that scene. That revelation happens towards the end of the movie and then after that, there’s a lot of action and drama and everything. It’s like you were saying, you had to watch the movie three times to unpack all the things that are happening in that movie. I don’t know why this is – but maybe that’ll change now because academia is such a long process –  but there doesn’t seem to be as much critical analysis of these movies in academic publishing or even on the internet as much as the books have received. And I don’t know if it’s because a lot of people don’t like the movies. I have no idea why I haven’t seen so much critical analysis. Because otherwise the internet is full of Harry Potter critical analysis. The smallest of scenes is unpacked so much. Whereas the movies I don’t seem to have encountered that so much.

Lorrie: I think part of it is that with the stories we’ve had a long time to get used to the starkness and the appalling parts of the Harry Potter story, that there’s a baby that was almost killed. Some of that is really hard to deal with but it’s been awhile so we’ve accepted that part of the story, I think. The even harsher realities shown in these movies, it’s going to take a while for them to settle in. There are a lot of parts of the Fantastic Beasts and Crimes of Grindelwald movies that people rejected just ’cause the stories which are true you know [laughs] accurate stories about the world.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lorrie: They take a while to accept especially because and this was [laughs] obviously not planned but those movies came out in 2016 and 2018 during times that really fascist politics were happening in the US and the UK. And in fact the first Fantastic Beasts movie premiered during the week that Donald Trump was elected. So when you see the interviews that Rowling and the cast do in Carnegie Hall in New York to open the film, they all look really stunned and sickened.

Parinita: [laughs] Oh no.

Lorrie: I actually have a friend who had tickets to go see them talk in Carnegie Hall. And when she walked there, she had to walk past Trump Tower and there were huge police barricades all over a block of Trump Tower because there were so many protesters. So it had been less than a week. And if you look at the interviews and you see the faces of the actors, they all look like they don’t even know what to say because they had thought that this would be allegorical – an allegory about fascism. And it’s a lot less escapist. There are parts of the world where Harry Potter was never escapist. But in the US and the UK, the Harry Potter stories were for a while more stark than a lot of people were living. And now they’re not escapist at all. [laughs]

Parinita: No. And what you were saying about the difference between writing for adults versus writing for children, so in one of the podcast episodes I think they propose that witches and wizards in England must have profited off the slave trade and off colonisation – that was their reading into it. Because families like the Malfoys must have become rich like that – exploring how intertwined the Muggle world and the witching world is. And now it seems to be much more explicitly there in terms of the Lestrange family and in terms of even Nagini where these different ethnicities in the US and in the UK have – well I don’t know if Fantastic Beasts explores the UK as much. The Lestranges – they were French right?

Lorrie: Yeah.

Parinita: Yeah so then it’s much more explicit. And I wonder then if what you were saying about fans who’ve grown up with this and there’s a lot more metaphorical racism in the Harry Potter series rather than the more overt racism here. It’s all couched under house-elves and goblins and Muggle-borns. Whereas here … well I suppose here things like the magical president in the US is black. One of the critiques in the movies was that in 1920s, having a black leader when there weren’t many black people within the Ministry itself would have been strange, right?

Lorrie: That was a major … [sighs] that was one of those cases where it’s tokenism. If you’re going to have a black woman as the president but you don’t show an established structure of black wizarding culture, if she’s going to be the only black woman in high office and she’s the president, it feels a little amateur. Like okay I want to have a person of colour but without doing the enormous work of having to delve into accurately portraying all of the tensions there so I’ll make her president. That’s a strong independent position but it’s not supported.

Parinita: Especially if she was out in the Muggle world, her experiences would have been so different from her role and position in the wizarding world in the US. And that tension I think was glossed over like, “No, no let’s not think about it. She’s the leader. That’s all.”

Lorrie: And there is a place for that kind of symbolism in fantasy. Because there’s also very much a tradition in fantasy literature of, “Well if we think about real life in the 1920s for certain kinds of people, it’s heavy. But people were just as inspired and brilliant then as anywhere any time. Let’s imagine a fantasy where this is how it would have looked.” The problem is who’s writing that and how much do they know about what they’re portraying?

Parinita: Yeah.

Lorrie: And it’s tokenism because … this is where I think some of the criticism of J. K. Rowling is a little out of context. It’s true that I don’t trust her to write people of colour. It’s a very ambitious project to take this deeply imagined white British magic system that she’s invented and then try to expand that to be an international story. But I couldn’t do that. If I were gonna write a story that went to other countries that I’ve never lived in, I wouldn’t do any better. And I’m not sure how many people would. And if that means that that nobody should ever try, that doesn’t seem like the right answer to me either.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lorrie: But this is where I think the movies deserve a little more credit than they’re getting because what happens then is you go from a novel format where it’s a single author creating everything in the Harry Potter books to the Fantastic Beasts stories which only exist as films. And therefore there cannot be a single creator. And even though the stories are definitely still created from this white US-UK perspective, even so the actors in their bodies and their faces and everything that they bring to their roles, their experiences, become much greater co-creators of the characters than the actors were when they were bringing Harry Potter novels to the screen.

Parinita: Yeah. One of the things I personally saw related to that was Newt. I know that this is a theory within fandom, I don’t know if he was written like that, but he can be read as neurodiverse.

Lorrie: He has confirmed that.

Parinita: Oh he has?

Lorrie: Eddie Redmayne, yes.

Parinita: Yeah. I didn’t know if it was just the actor’s choice to portray himself like that or whether it was intentionally written into the script. I think he’s one of my favourite characters in the Potterverse, not just in the Fantastic Beasts films. With the second movie, it’s so much starker – the focus on fascism like you were saying, the fascist framework of these movies. And Grindelwald is such a symptom. He is evil and he uses all this propaganda and everything, but he’s just a symptom. Whereas so many people in the wizarding community, they will happily be fascists themselves and rule both the Muggle and magical world, as we saw in the French system. I’m sure that’s the same in the US and in the UK and wherever else they head to next. That was so scary because that was so true. And it so reflects real life. If we get rid of Trump, if we get rid of Modi, that’s not going to stop what’s happening in the US or in India, right?

Lorrie: Yes and no because also what those kinds of leaders are exploiting is fear and prejudice and tendencies that humans always have within us. And that’s overpowering empathy and generosity that we also always have within us. So partly if there’s encouragement of certain elements in human nature backed up by politics, backed up by the law and enforcement, humans we can be manipulated [laughs] in a number of different directions. We have a lot of that in us already. But the same people that can be manipulated to be very, very bigoted could also in other contexts or just through peer pressure be made to be much more accepting.

Parinita: Yeah, that’s true. What you said about stoking fears and preying on hopes is something I thought was very interesting. Again, spoilers for Crimes of Grindelwald but what happens with Queenie and how Grindelwald uses her fears of not being able to marry Jacob because the society that she comes from doesn’t allow relationships with people who are not witches and wizards. Queenie is supposed to be this really empathetic and generous and open-hearted person. And the reason that she joins Grindelwald turns that against her. I know there’s a theory that she’s a double agent. And maybe she’ll come back. But I find it more fascinating that she would have joined him because she’s doing it for what for her are the correct reasons.

Lorrie: Oh, I have so many theories about Queenie. [laughs]

Parinita: Oh really? What are some of your theories?

Lorrie: Well I think she was drugged.

Parinita: Hmm. With the tea that she had in the house? Yeah maybe.

Lorrie: And also just because she’s neurodiverse, she can’t control her Legilimency and it causes her daily discomfort. It causes discomfort in her closest relationships and she can get overwhelmed. I think she’s vulnerable. When we see her first meeting Grindelwald, the moment he walks into the room, she is trembling. She leaps to self defense and she says, “I know what you are, stay away.” And just through sheer power, he overpowers her during that scene. He just keeps walking toward her, she lowers her wand. By the time he’s done talking, he’s won her over. He’s just more powerful than she is.

Parinita: Yeah. And Grindelwald is really good at manipulating and overpowering even someone like Credence, of course, who is much younger – there’s that age dynamic there. But he was the same with Dumbledore. And that was one of Dumbledore’s origin stories where he fell for … what was the phrase? I’ve forgotten that very fascist phrase that he used.

Lorrie: Oh, for the greater good.

Parinita: For the greater good, that’s right. So I mean if Dumbledore can fall for this – which from the narrative, Dumbledore is supposed to be wise and critical and everything but yeah he fell for this as well. So why wouldn’t other people?

Lorrie: Well what we see about Dumbledore is that he already had those wishes in him and Grindelwald just allowed him to suppress his conscience so that he could give in to those wishes. And that’s why Dumbledore says it has to be Newt to fight against Grindelwald because the kind of personality Newt has, he doesn’t have the kind of vulnerabilities that Grindelwald is used to exploiting.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lorrie: Even middle-aged Dumbledore, when he looks in the Mirror of Erised, his deepest desire is to go back to being melded with this man who is his equal even if he is also the most evil person. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah. Grindelwald seems to be just as if not more terrible and powerful and evil as Voldemort. Okay you defeated a fascist forty years ago and here comes another which again, no parallels with real life at all! [laughs] Which was again much starker in the movies – maybe it’s also the visual component and maybe it’s deliberate, but the parallels with the real world and the magical world were much starker. You mentioned that you really liked the internationally political aspect of the movies where it explores both real-world racial and fictional world Pureblood politics and prejudices? Something that you’d mentioned which I found really interesting was the Korean perspective and Korean history.

Lorrie: Oh boy yeah. I think you can’t have an international story without delving right into the middle of the huge upheavals in racial and colonial violence that have shaped world history. I don’t think you can have an international story without that. And especially because this film series is about the international tensions that gave rise to World War II. So it has to be about race, about fascism, about genocide. That’s the story that she’s taking on. And then what I love what she’s doing with the Fantastic Beasts films so far based on our sample of two movies. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Lorrie: She goes to a place and she tells you the story that that place does not want to talk about. So when she takes you to New York, there’s American capital punishment, there’s puritanism and witch hunts. And then she takes you to France and there’s this horrendous colonial violence, racial violence. When a culture feels guilty about a story, it wants to put it away or suppress it and that’s the theme of the Fantastic Beasts stories – other creatures, are they beings or are they monsters? And Grindelwald says they’re not inferior, they’re other. Nagini and Credence are both perfect examples – how would you classify them? Newt and his textbooks explore that question perfectly. Do you classify this being as a beast or as a person? You have the centaurs who say, “Oh we could be classified as people but we don’t want that. We reject that. Put us with the beasts.” And in the first movie especially when we saw people talk about Credence, some people said “it” and some people said “he”.

Parinita: Oh yeah, that’s right.

Lorrie: And that’s the difference between Newt and the executioner Grimmson. Grimmson is all excited to go hunting. And Newt is horrified. [laughs] So when we see the circus, which is another beautiful melding of fantasy and real history because the circus of course is a place where humans who are or were freaks find a life that is both better and worse than a mainstream life. And definitely a culture where people who are freaks bond together. And put up with some really frightening, exploitative conditions. So Skender, who’s the circus master, talks about them as his freaks and as his under-beings. And he’s exploiting Nagini as a freak and as an under-being. Even though there are a number of reasons why this isn’t true, but for my feelings Nagini is the first Korean woman in Potterverse. And one way in which that might not be true is because we’re not sure if Cho Chang may have been meant to be Korean.

Parinita: Right, yeah.

Lorrie: And the thing about Cho Chang, of course, is she’s written so that she’s of no race. You could put any race on her and she’s –

Parinita: Generically East Asian.

Lorrie: Yeah.

Parinita: She’s just an East Asian name.

Lorrie: It’s an amateur move from a writer who’s not familiar with a culture and trying to portray it and it comes off as strange tokenism.

Parinita: I mean Parvati and Padma Patil were similar as well. They could have been white. There was nothing there.

Lorrie: And that’s why when we say that Hermione is black, Hermione is a beautifully written character of colour because she’s a full human. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs]

Fan art of black Hermione

Fan art of black Hermione

Lorrie: And her story has elements of being a minority. But when Rowling sets out from the top to write somebody who is signalled to be a person of colour, then that’s not something that you trust as being confident and full.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lorrie: So to me, Cho Chang is not of any particular race. And I’m not angry about it either. I’m just like, well that’s as much as that author can do. And I’m not going to waste my time expecting her to do any better because I don’t think she can. And I have seen improvements in Rowling’s ability to write people of colour and the improvements are so slow [laughs] and incremental and small and not a direct line of improvement either that it [sighs] it’s … you know be realistic. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah. And I suppose again that reflects maybe just the maturity that you had as a reader and as an adult when you first read the series versus say someone like me and a lot of fans who are younger than me who demand instant change. Maybe not instant change but we want her to be better sooner than or maybe even more than she’s capable of. I would be happier if she hired a research assistant or a co-writer or someone who is from the culture to write with her. Just so that there would be more authenticity. On the other hand, with fandom discourse, I get a lot of my ideas from fandom because – I’ve mentioned this on the podcast before. So in India, mainstream education isn’t really equipped to teach you how to think critically. That’s not something that’s in the curriculum. So I didn’t grow up learning how to think; I grew up in school learning what to think and parroted those answers in exams.  And it’s only fandom that through its multiple perspectives and diverse opinions and questioning of canon and expanding canon and exploring all those missing gaps, it allowed me to imagine differently. And that’s another reason I’m doing this PhD project. But thanks to you I realised, which is why I’m so excited to have you on board here as a participant, is that fan discourse isn’t always as nuanced and inclusive of multiple perspectives as I give it credit for. And one of the things that you’ve completely given me a different perspective from mainstream fandom is of the character of Nagini. And I know that you were uncomfortable about the hostility exhibited by some of the fan podcasts that I’d suggested which made me think that even though I credit fan discussions to expanding my mind in many ways, it’s still quite limited. And sometimes one narrative takes over and you might not get a chance to explore other opinions. With Nagini I think the controversy was that she represents a stereotype and a trope of Eastern Asian women in Western media, if I’m not wrong.

Lorrie: Oh. [sighs] It’s hard to represent what the objection to Nagini was because it’s not the same as what I think I saw on the screen. As I was saying, I didn’t think there was a Korean woman in Potterverse. So then when it was in 2017 when they announced that a Korean woman is going to be playing Nagini, I was so thrilled. And so from that day I have a tweet.

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs]

Lorrie: “A Korean woman in Potterverse. *instant identification.* 1) Neville killed me, oh noes 2) [gasps] “milk Nagini” GROSSSSSS 3) Impersonating Bathilda Bagshot’s corpse? That was a lot to ask of a snake! 4) Ugh, I had to eat Charity Burbage! 5) OH MY GOD I ATE SNAPE”

Parinita: [laughs]

Lorrie: And I just started laughing and laughing and laughing. And it was so much fun. I followed Claudia Kim on Instagram and she posted a screencap. The movie of Chamber of Secrets was on her TV and she showed herself running to watch like “Oooh oooh oooh!” And then she showed a picture of little twelve-year-old Neville and her caption was, “Oh no Neville! Aaaaah!”

Parinita: [laughs]

Lorrie: [laughs] And when she wrote about Nagini, she would write, “Nagini, I love you.” And I was so excited. I had seen her before so I was so interested to see where this would go. And then it was like being punched repeatedly in the stomach when there was this huge outcry like, “Oh no this is terrible. If we have a Korean actress in Potterverse, then the story has to be about stereotypes and it’s racist and get the Korean woman out of there.” People were writing that her casting had ruined the franchise. [sighs] And they hadn’t even seen the movie yet.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lorrie: The more nuanced issue which I understand is that Nagini the character was written to be from Indonesia. And there had been a famous Indonesian actress cast and she couldn’t play the role ’cause she was pregnant. So they had to find another actress and eventually the one they found happened to be Korean. That’s partly like, “Oh well you know any Asian will do.” And that I understand. But what was not intended and yet happened in my mind that this makes Nagini Korean to me. And she’s not Korean-American. She’s Korean. She has a career at home and a following. And so it’s exciting that a Korean actress is going to become a part of this enormous international franchise. Let’s see how this happens. And the thing is if you think about Korean women in the time leading up to World War II, there was no Korea. Korea was colonised by Japan and you do not want to be colonised by Japan. Oh my god!

Parinita: [laughs] Yup.

Lorrie: So this is a political issue that is actually very divisive between Japan and Korea currently. And is responsible for major diplomatic conflicts and trade wars between Korea and Japan right now – that as part of the colonisation, the Japanese military plundered Korean female populations for human trafficking. And this is actually something that the Japanese military did with a number of Asian countries leading up to and during World War II including Indonesia. But really the bulk of it was huge numbers of Koreans. And there are a couple of those women that are still alive. And the degree of human trafficking obviously is something that a lot of Koreans don’t want as the thing to represent the country in the international imagination.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lorrie: Because it’s just too incredibly painful. But there’s a problem with that which is that it can go into shame and silencing the actual people who went through that. And wanting to hide their stories. I don’t want to single out anybody on social media because there is a whole lot of outcry against the whole concept of Nagini being played by a Korean woman. But some of the kinds of critiques that I saw said things like, “Oh yeah sure great what a positive, strong, independent woman!” And to me what that said is okay then you tell me then how do you want us to be shown in the story for your satisfaction? You make up the character that you can tell me, okay now you can come be in the story. And then people said something that is absolutely not true, absolutely not supported. Which is that they said, “Oh Nagini was his lover” No. There was nothing like that with Voldemort and Nagini. “This is his slave. She served a white man.” Okay I don’t actually think that race was the major component of the Nagini-Voldemort relationship. [laughs] First of all species, not race.

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs] And presumably she only met Voldemort after she got trapped in her body as a snake. This is just conjecture, I don’t know.

Lorrie: Yeah, we don’t know. Because at the time that this movie Crimes of Grindelwald was taking place, Voldemort has just been born. And we know that in Goblet of Fire, he shows that Nagini is his mother figure. So we don’t know if there’s some sort of substitution in Voldemort’s story. We have no idea where this is going to go. But it made me think [sighs] we don’t actually know a lot of the Nagini story but people have images in their minds of Asian women stereotypes that they’re uncomfortable with and they don’t want them. And to me that came down to this role should have gone to a white woman so that viewers wouldn’t be uncomfortable. And people are saying, “Well this is a terrible story. She dies in captivity. And this is racist.” And I thought how is that different from like half the Potteverse characters who have the same kind of death?

Parinita: Yeah. Because you’d written that in your blog post. Your blog post was really so illuminating. I watched the movie and then I watched Nagini’s deleted scenes. For me, Nagini was just one of the several characters that I was really interested in. I was actually interested in all of the characters in Crimes of Grindelwald just because they all added something different to the story in a very different way than what I was used to from the Harry Potter movies. Because obviously I’ve always read the books first. So I know exactly what’s going to happen in the movies. Whereas here, like you said, they’ve only ever been movies so I don’t know what’s going to happen in the new movies. It’s almost like being a teenager again when we were waiting for the new books to come out. In Crimes of Grindelwald I loved the last scene – I don’t know if it was the last scene – where there’s Nagini, and I think Yusuf and Newt and this whole ragtag bunch of people at Hogwarts. And presumably they are going to go on further adventures in the other three movies which I’m really waiting for. I like that they’re from different backgrounds magical, non-magical, Obscurial – well, Credence is not there anymore in that ragtag team but he will play a role. I’m just interested in how they manage to pull all of that together and I’m excited to see that. But getting back to your blog post, it was so illuminating to me because it included this perspective about especially how there are so many characters who are used and abused by Voldemort. And all these other tragedies that exist in canon in Harry Potter. But just focusing on this one character to almost erase her out of the story where they would rather not have her than have her in what they think is a problematic way.

Lorrie: Well I mean if considering the story and the era it’s – you know history was problematic. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Lorrie: There were some critiques of her storyline that I think are willfully untrue. Simply false. If people are saying well she doesn’t have agency, when you look at the actual plot line of Nagini in this movie, it’s amazing. So she is exploited. And just like your classic Harry Potter message, she joins forces with someone else who is powerless. And through their bond of affection and resistance, they escape their imprisonment. And we don’t have a lot of people in the Potterverse who are able to manage their own prison break.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lorrie: But these two do it. And neither one of them could have done it alone. They plot together, they make a strategy and there’s a moment when Skender is trying to get her to perform and she’s just making him look stupid. She’s not responding because she’s having eye contact with Credence like, “Is this going to happen? Are we going to bond? Are we going to go from being two captives to being free? Is our bond strong enough?” And to me that was a huge wish fulfillment because she’s being sexually exploited obviously with all the emphasis on how beautiful she is. But she’s in a way protected by the bars – the audience can’t touch her. And she can turn into a snake that can attack Skender and her best friend is an Obscurial.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lorrie: And I thought oh this is a good fantasy. And then they escape together. And then the two deleted scenes – I had a sorrow and anger when I eventually saw the deleted scenes because to me that’s a classic example of when a woman of colour’s story is marginalised. These scenes were written and filmed and they were taken out of the main movie. Fortunately, we got them in the deleted scenes but the fact that they were edited out is marginalisation.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lorrie: And her story is so much more full. This happens with Leta also. So in one deleted scene with Nagini, she and Credence are stealing food. They’re caring for each other. And she’s trying to hide from him that her skin is becoming more and more scaly. Because the Maledictus curse is in women through the female line, where there’s a curse on your family and eventually you turn into an animal. Which is as strong a human trafficking metaphor as any. So she doesn’t want him to see the scaliness because she’s afraid and ashamed and he makes her stop hiding it and he kisses it. And it’s so much like, beast or being, I see you’re a person, I love you.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lorrie: And then there’s a parallel to that in the other deleted scene which to me is so beautiful. I wish they had kept it. We see them waking up in the morning and Credence is sleeping in Nagini’s arms and you realise this is the most closeness he’s ever had in his life. He’s found peace, he’s found something. But then also every time Nagini sleeps, she has to turn into a snake. And every time she turns into a snake, she has a harder and harder time turning back. So there’s a close-up on her eyes. She hasn’t been sleeping. She has lain with Credence and comforted him so he could sleep. But she has stayed awake because she wants to be with him as a human. And that’s such a feeling of oppression – that hyper alertness.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lorrie: And then she tells him, “Make it happen because we’re free.” So he’s clearly told her about the Obscurus. And he’s never brought it forth voluntarily before. And then she does something that is so beautiful I can’t even stand it. It’s so beautiful where she lets it pass through her. At first it flies around in a way that you’re like you know what, this is beautiful too. The Obscurus has beauty in it. And then it passes right through her body showing, “What you are, this thing that’s the worst of you, it can’t hurt me. I can take it. I can take all of you.” And that acceptance to me. Their relationship is so powerful. And then she goes with him to look for his mother, which is such an emotional scene.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lorrie: And she can sense that there’s something wrong the whole time and that hyper-alertness. There’s a Korean word [says Korean word] and I thought this is one of the reasons why Nagini as acted, Nagini the character as co-created by the script writers and the actress reads to me as so Korean, is that she acts out the character so much non-verbally with micro-expressions that I recognise from Korean culture. And this is something you can’t get in a novel. Or you can if the author is really in tune with that deep, nuanced identification with that kind of character, which we know J. K. Rowling can’t do with a lot of people of colour. But if you hire an actress, who’s a really good actress, she’ll do it for you.

Parinita: I love that you’ve shared this nuanced analysis and exploration of Nagini because I wouldn’t have been able to pick up on any of this. Just as someone who isn’t familiar with Korean culture. You are so you could pick out on these micro-expressions and things that Claudia Kim acted. And just even the minute details, you’re right, it fleshes out the character so much and it’s such a tragedy that it didn’t make its way into the actual film. And of course, there are three more films that are going to be coming out so hopefully she will have a bigger role to play. I think she will especially since Credence has now gone over to the dark side as we saw in the second movie. It’s quite sad that he didn’t choose Nagini’s better influence and fell prey to Grindelwald, but I have hope that will change. It’s such a refreshing perspective to be able to see things in a different light. That’s why I started this podcast and that’s why I love fandom and fan discussions and fan criticisms. Just because it allows me to see the same text in so many different ways based on who’s the one who’s interpreting it. Viewing it from different cultures. And I love that you have this really detailed and nuanced analysis of Nagini, which makes me like her so much more as well.

Lorrie: I love her. And she gets a line that shows she has the same beliefs as Dumbledore. When Credence is leaving her, he says, “He knows who I am.” And Nagini says, “He knows what you were born, not who you are.” And that is exactly what Dumbledore teaches Harry.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lorrie: And with J. K. Rowling, there are times when she gives characters lines to say that let you the reader or viewer know okay this is where the real message is. It’s important that this line comes from somebody who really is enslaved or trafficked or powerless. Because that’s actually the core message of both Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts – listening to the truth in each being no matter how powerless or how much of a freak or under-being they are.

Parinita: Oh, I love that.

Lorrie: You know something that I didn’t ever think until just now when we were talking, is that when you talk about the ending group shot of all of these ragtag people after most of them have lost something or someone – that division that happens when some people join Grindelwald and others don’t, it’s very much South and North Korea after the Korean war situation.

Parinita: Oh!

Lorrie: Which I’m sure happened in so many different countries, in so many parts of history where there’s a conflict that goes right down the middle. And I think you can go to any war and find that. Where there’s individual families, siblings – sometimes it’s because their beliefs are different. Other times it’s just plain chance or tragedy. You know I have relatives that I’ve never met. And just you were so close and the next day you’ll never see each other again and there’s no telling – you don’t know if they’re alive or dead.

Parinita: I mean we had something similar. It’s not as drastic as North Korea where you can’t get in and you don’t know what’s going on but with Independence, we had the Partition in India where India was divided into India and Pakistan.

Lorrie: Yup.

Parinita: And that had this same kind of thing where overnight people, depending on their religion or just which side of the border they fell on, it didn’t matter where they felt home or where they felt was the most comfortable place to be. They had to move, they had to upend their lives and we are seeing the impact of this still today. Where now of course politicians are taking advantage of this and making those lines much starker between Hindu and Muslim and Pakistan and India which all goes back to things that you didn’t really have control over. Or some people had more control over others. And ugh just the violence of colonisation

Lorrie: Yeah.

Parinita: Which yeah you see in this movie as well. And you wouldn’t see it perhaps so starkly like you said in the books. And I’m really excited to see what happens next. Well, there might be a lot of tragedy coming so excited might not be the correct emotion but I’m looking forward anyway.

Lorrie: I want the story. The reason that Credence leaves even the greatest, the only nurturing affection he’s ever known, he has the same greatest driving force as Harry Potter did. He wants to know his story. He doesn’t care about anything compared to that. And Harry too, the one thing that was the most powerful driver for him was, I want to know my own story. That was even more powerful than his saving people thing. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs]

Lorrie: He wants his birth-right back. And Credence will give up anything – even though he knows that this is the worst person in the world who’s already betrayed him. And at one point he says, just give me my story, then you can kill me. He doesn’t even care about being alive as much as he cares about his story.

Parinita: Oh, I love that parallel between Credence and Harry. And it’s not something that I thought of but yeah such different directions. And such different origins as well.

Lorrie: Yeah. I think it is the same story but for adults because one of the critiques of Harry Potter the character was like oh well for someone who was treated that badly, he sure seems normal and healthy. And well, it’s a fairy tale. But in real life, you go through what Harry went through, you’re much more likely to find Credence. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah that’s true. Oh now I really want the story as well. I want to know what happens next.

Lorrie: I can’t wait for it.

Parinita: Crimes of Grindelwald was such a surprisingly good movie. Surprising based purely on my own sort of preconceived notions that were influenced by fandom. But I loved that movie and I want to know more. Lorrie thank you so much for being a part of the project and just even for the conversation and expanding my mind in so many different ways. Thank you so much for being here!

Lorrie: Thank you. Thank you for giving me something so fun to think about during this time that we’re all locked up at home [laughs] during a plague!

Parinita: Yeah, I mean Harry Potter is something that I’m returning to right now just because it’s something that’s given me so much comfort while I was growing up. It’s also giving me comfort now during the pandemic. As much as I criticise all the problematic elements of it, I’ll still do that, but I still love the books.

Lorrie: I think the reason why people including me feel so bitter and heartbroken and enraged when Rowling shows prejudice or shortcomings is because when she knows what she’s talking about, when she’s confident and she’s on target, the glory of the truths in her stories feel so satisfying. That thrill. And then when that resounding satisfaction stops in such a rude and shocking way, it’s heart-breaking. Why can you do this for some parts of the world and not others? We want you to keep providing it. And that’s a very harsh distinction between the satisfaction of feeling the story and the recognition that one person churning out stories is going to have one person’s limitations.

Parinita: Yeah but just following up on that – I’m also glad that she seems to have raised fans that are willing to stand up to her bigotry. When she tweets out something transphobic, as she did in December.

Lorrie: Oh boy.

Parinita: I know we didn’t have time to go into that but we did talk about it during our planning and just for those listening, both Lorrie and I are very stridently against transphobia of any kind and against J. K. Rowling’s transphobia specifically. I don’t think I’ve encountered any part of the fan community that hasn’t stood up to her blatant transphobia. I might just inhabit some really nice spaces, I guess, but I love seeing that everybody took the fact that Harry Potter was so important to us and we keep that but J. K. Rowling’s transphobia and her prejudice and bigotry, yeah, we can do without that.

Lorrie: Yeah. She can’t live up to the ideals. That doesn’t make the ideals untrue.

Parinita: Ah I love that! That’s a great way to end this episode. Again, thank you so much for being here.

Lorrie: Thank you!

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode on how women of colour are represented in the Potterverse in general and in Crimes of Grindelwald in particular. Thank you so much Lorrie for helping me see things in a different light and for reiterating how important multiple and nuanced perspectives remain in conversations and critiques. You should definitely check out her blog at lorriekimcom.wordpress.com. And thank you Jack for helping me climb a tree for the first time in my 30-year-old life (and also for the editing).

[Outro music]

You can now listen to Marginally Fannish on SpotifyAppleGoogle, or SoundCloud. I’d love to hear from you and talk to you – so any feedback, comments or critiques are very welcome! Get in touch with me on social media, leave a comment on my blog, or email me at edps@leeds.ac.uk. If you’d like to follow the podcast or the PhD project, visit my website marginallyfannish.org where you’ll find both the podcast episodes and the blog. You can also receive updates on Facebook or Instagram at Marginally Fannish or on Twitter where I’m @MarginalFannish. If you enjoyed the podcast, please share it with anyone you think will enjoy it too.

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

Episode 11 She Has To Fight Smart: Representations Of Women Warriors In Media And History

Episode Resources:

1) Essay – We Have Always Fought

2) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Heroines

3) Fan podcast – Breaking the Glass Slipper The Bechdel-Wallace Test

4) Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper Fight Scenes with Women Warriors with Juliet McKenna

5) Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper Women’s Jobs in Fantasy

6) Fan podcast – Breaking the Glass Slipper Christian Mythology in Fantasy with Jeanette Ng

 

Episode Transcript:

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

Lisa owns this art of Mockingbird which has been illustrated by Valentine Barker

[Intro music]

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

[Intro music]

My name is Parinita Shetty and you’re listening to the eleventh episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I talk to T. G. Shepherd also known as Lisa about the representation of women warriors in media and history.

There are perceived gender roles and gender disparities in different styles of martial arts with some being considered too brutal for women. People’s gender also impacts their experiences in the environment they’re training to fight in. Comics have a long history of representing women warriors who have been aspirational role models for countless young people and adults. However, the overall representations of female fighters in media involve tired tropes rather than realistic, fully-fleshed out characters. This reflects the erasure of women warriors in real-world history which overlooks how women from different parts of the world overcame social, cultural and legal barriers to fight.

Fortunately, there are a growing number of representations of women warriors with different skills, bodies and abilities working together. Magic or advanced technology in science fiction and fantasy worlds limits the role gender plays among good fighters. Mainstream comics are becoming increasingly diverse and often act as people’s first encounters with different lives. Fanfiction has tremendous transformative potential in questioning the norm and exploring alternate possibilities, though even there, gender dynamics play a role in the kind of stories which are taken seriously. The internet and more diverse academic researchers play a huge role in bringing traditionally marginalised stories about women leaders and fighters to light. However, there needs to be more intersectional representations of fighters in science fiction and fantasy to include different ages, races, abilities, religions, sexual and gender identities.

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: I’m so happy to welcome T. G. Shepherd otherwise known as Lisa to today’s episode. T. G. Shepherd is a Canadian writer and martial artist living on the West Coast. She has been training in martial arts since the age of seventeen but was born wishing warrior was still a job description. Her first novel As A God is available to buy on Kindle. But she also publishes a blog on www.tgshepherd.com. It’s called 30 Seconds of Wick which breaks down fight scenes in movies thirty seconds at a time, beginning with John Wick, hence the name. And she can be located on Twitter at @tgshepherdvan where she yells about comic books, fighting and dogs a lot. Amazing. The topic we’re going to explore today is a little different from what I’m used to. We’re going to be looking at how women warriors are portrayed in science fiction and fantasy. I’m a life-long book nerd who has no experience with fighting. And as a pacifist, I don’t think I ever want to experience fighting, unless the specific circumstances involve punching fascists in which case I could be convinced maybe.

Lisa: [laughs]

Parinita: Though I need to wear boxing gloves or something because I need to preserve my hands for holding books and turning pages and maintain my book nerd cred. Lisa is one of the few people who’s both bookish and loves to fight. So could you tell us your own experiences with being a woman fighter, Lisa?

Lisa: Yeah, I started training when I was seventeen in traditional martial arts – taekwondo in particular. And gradually over the years I started to branch out into other things. I branched out into Olympic sword fighting where I took up saber fencing. Which at the time women weren’t allowed to compete in the Olympics in. That’s since changed. It was considered the more brutal art and women wouldn’t want to do it. But obviously we did. And then I took up archery. And then gradually in my 20s, I wound up taking up with a very street-based martial art based on Bruce Lee’s training methods called JKD [Jeet Kune Do]. And the basic principle with JKD concepts is you need to do what works. There are no rules. In the sense that I don’t call my teacher by a formal title, we don’t bow in and out of the mats, we don’t have any sort of formal forms or anything. I call my teacher by his first name [laughs]. There’s no real rank like we don’t wear anything to indicate rank at all.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: You fight who you can fight, you beat who you can beat. And the school that I’m in is very much dedicated to understanding that you’re doing this to survive. If you’re going to use this, you’re doing it to survive a fight, not to win a sporting match. But the reason I train where I train is that when I asked him what his first response to being attacked in the street was, he said, “Run away.”

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: I’ve trained in places that were super macho where I felt very concerned for my personal safety. Because if I acted less skilled than I was, I was going to get beaten up for being a weakling. If I acted more skilled than I was and actually wound up beating somebody, then they were gonna retaliate in a method that was improper. The school that I’m in, I’ve never had any concerns for it. He treats everyone the same way. You’re expected to live up to one standard and he doesn’t put up with any kind of crap like that. Also the school trends a bit older because the arts that we learn, you need to be able to think about things more. I’m a stick fighter, that’s my primary art. We call it Kali. It’s the Westernised form of Filipino stick fighting. It would be called Arnis or Eskrima in the traditional arts. The reason I like stick fighting is that it’s an art where the harder you try to do something, the worse you’re going to be at it.

Parinita: [laughs] Okay. So have you had more experiences where your gender has affected the fighting environment that you’re in?

Lisa: Yeah it’s funny. I have to walk a very fine line with particularly new people in the gym. I’m the senior student, I’ve been with my instructor for about twenty years.

Parinita: Okay.

Lisa: I’m the senior student but there’s no way to tell looking at me that I am. I’m not a particularly imposing individual. I’m a middle-aged white woman. [laughs] So coming in particularly with new guys you have to be very careful around them because I’ve actually had a couple leave after I won a fight.

Parinita: Oh wow.

Lisa: Yeah. And I don’t want to cost my instructor students.

Parinita: [laughs] Right.

Lisa: So yeah you tend to have to be very careful of their egos. [laughs]

Parinita: Wow that’s a problem – I mean now that obviously you’re saying it, it makes perfect sense – but I don’t think it’s something I would have thought would have been a problem faced by women fighters. From your blog, I read a few of your blog posts, and you write a lot about how much comics meant to you not only now but also growing up as a teenager, and your deep emotional relationship especially with Mockingbird.

Lisa: Yeah well, when I took up with my current instructor – and as he specialises in a lot of things which includes stick fighting – I realised about then that I’d been trying to turn myself into Mockingbird most of my life.

Parinita: [laughs]

Cover of Mockingbird #1 by Joëlle Jones

Cover of Mockingbird #1 by Joëlle Jones

Lisa: And hadn’t really realised that. I took up science and biology because I wanted to be her. And I took up stick fighting because I wanted to be her. Now it turns out I’m actually quite suited to stick fighting so that’s okay; it’s one of my favourite things in the world. Mockingbird was one of the first characters I saw in any media who I genuinely felt was an aspirational figure in the sense that that is somebody that I could actually aspire to be. Not simply to admire.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: And one thing I loved about her is she was always unapologetic about being the smartest person in the room or one of the smartest people in the room. She was unapologetic about it but not arrogant. She wasn’t like Tony Stark or something. She wasn’t, “Oh I’m the smartest person in the room all the time.” She was just quietly doing her thing in the corner. One of the first times we meet her in her modern form of Mockingbird, ’cause she existed in a couple of different forms before that in a Hawkeye mini-series that was published in 1982. And towards the end of the mini-series, the bad guy pits Hawkeye and Mockingbird against each other and even the bad guy says, “Well, she’s going to win the fight. She’s a much better fighter than you are.”

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: And Hawkeye agrees basically. “Oh yeah, no if this was a fair fight, she’s going to kick my ass.”

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: And basically she realises ’cause she’s smart that the only person who has a chance to get them out of the whole situation is Hawkeye. So she throws a suicide play. She sacrifices herself so that he’s the one who can get out.

Parinita: Right.

Lisa: Because she realises that the particular combination of circumstances means that he’s the one who can save them. So even then she’s his partner. And I used the word macho earlier. One of the reasons why I love Hawkeye and Mockingbird as a pairing is that Hawkeye is not a macho guy, he’s a masculine guy. And the way I’ve always described the difference is that macho guys are terrified that they aren’t men and masculine guys know that they are.

Parinita: Hmm.

Lisa: A masculine guy knows he’s a man, a macho guy’s terrified that he’s not.

Parinita: Yeah, so the insecurities especially like the ones that you saw in real life.

Lisa: Yeah exactly. And then you see it in real life. I have a bunch of stories about teenage boys in particular, you have to be very careful with their egos. But I’m really well known in my gym for being … I got called a robot because I don’t seem to feel pain.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: And I’m like well no, I’m just not going to show pain to you guys ’cause what would be the point, right? [laughs] Whereas when I’m fighting my instructor, I will show emotion because there’s no critique in it when he and I are fighting.

Parinita: Right.

Lisa: He has no critique of my emotional state. But if you show emotion in front of a lot of dudes when you’re fighting, they attribute it to you being a woman.

Parinita: So I find your connection with comics really fascinating because for me that’s not something I really had when I was a kid. I only discovered comics quite recently and fell in love with them. But for the longest time I was really intimidated by them because I didn’t know where to start.

Lisa: Yeah. And you got a hundred years of history. [laughs]

Parinita: Exactly. And I think that’s a problem a lot of people face. The history itself can act as this barrier for new people to enter. Which is why I love the more diverse kind of stories that there are now. I know diversity is a word that’s been appropriated by a lot of companies and by a lot of brands to sell their brands. But I don’t think I would have fallen in love with comics had it not been for Ms. Marvel, Squirrel Girl, the Lumberjanes.

Lisa: Oh yeah.

 

Parinita: I don’t know that I would have picked up Superman or Batman – I’m not really very interested in those stories.

Lisa: Yeah, I don’t really have much of a connection to the straight white male characters except for a few like Hawkeye, Captain America i.e. Steve Rogers. Again in Mockingbird was the first time I saw a character who was flawed and human but incredibly aspirational. Trauma came later in her history, but when she started, she was a hero because she chose it. She wasn’t a hero ’cause she was sexually assaulted, or a hero because her parents abandoned her. She was a hero because she looked at the world and went, no I want to be that. And that was something that women just weren’t allowed. And that’s one of the reasons why the character resonated with me because it was the choice to be, “I am going to turn myself into somebody who can stand next to a god on a battlefield and not be a liability.” It was a wonderful thing. In comics, I identified more with the people of colour – with T’Challa, with Storm, with Falcon, with Luke Cage. And those were some of the first and most positive experiences I’ve ever had of black characters as well.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: So for me, comic books were this window into a diversity and a richness of the universe that I didn’t see in my everyday life. But also it gave me the chance to go hey look there’s someone who looks like you who you could actually be … and she’s a hero. And that was one of the first times that I was faced with the idea that maybe you can be a hero. Maybe there’s more. Or maybe your path is not to be a mother and a housewife. Because I was born in the 70s and gender roles were still very specific even then in the middle of all this sexual revolution. And one thing I always loved about Mockingbird is that her stats – like they have these lists of stats for all the characters – are ridiculous. In Marvel she’s 5’9” and a 130 pounds? No, she’s not. [laughs] ’Cause she would be the size of a stick.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: But she was never drawn that way.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: She was always drawn as a big, strong, substantial woman. Very sexual, very sexy. But not stick or reed thin. She looked like someone who could stand and train with Captain America.

Parinita: Right. So the role that comics played for you, for me it was children’s books in general and Harry Potter specifically when I was growing up.

Lisa: Yes.

Parinita: And I always saw myself in these bookish fictional girls like Hermione, Anne of Green Gables, Jo March – you know all white Western women.

Lisa: Yes

Parinita: But I still connected with them deeply; though of course I do accept Hermione as canonically black now. But as someone who wasn’t really surrounded by people who seem to love books as much as I did, those were the characters that I most connected with. But now especially in comics where the diversity isn’t imagined. It’s visible. You don’t have to read yourself into it, you know?

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: At least for the more diverse comics now. Like Squirrel Girl. I know she’s white but she’s not stick thin, and she’s fun and she’s irreverent and she looks like me. Not in terms of race but in terms of the body.

Lisa: Yeah.

Image courtesy wbur

Parinita: Of course, I am a complete wimp, and she’s really strong.

Lisa: [laughs]

Parinita: I’m not like her in that way.

Lisa: I also identify with those characters. I’m a reader; I read constantly. It’s one of the reasons why I got into comic books because I was running out of things to read. My mother would dump me at the library for six hours. I read constantly and I identified with the bookish girls too, with the smart ones. Which is why Mockingbird appealed to me because she’s brilliant, she’s a genius. And she’s also a fighter. And that aspect is not something that I ever saw much because when you get into the fighting women thing, you get into these very binary discussions. And it’s such a complex and subtle thing. You get into the binary discussions of male versus female traits and heteronormative versus queer and it’s all like – I could never really find a place to stand on any of those because they’re very complex. And when I was young, I didn’t have the ability to articulate that complexity.

Parinita: Yeah. So you’ve mentioned that apart from writing your own original fiction, you also write a bunch of fanfic and read a bunch of fanfic – enough to fill several books, your writing. [laughs]

Lisa: Yes. [laughs]

Parinita: And I don’t read much fanfic now though I’d love some recommendations. But do you think fanfic can also play a role in questioning these normativities? Either your own fic or even the ones that you read?

Lisa: Oh deeply. One of the reasons why I started the Mockingverse – so I’m on the big platform AO3 – Archive Of Our Own as Ms Mockingbird. My entire work there is Avengers-centric. And it’s based on the idea of – I inserted Mockingbird into the MCU as a specific character. I like them. Some of them are really good. As I’ve said, one of my great desires is to be accused of plaigiarising my own fanfic someday.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: [laughs] I started really getting into it about five-six years ago when it was more reliably available on a couple of different sites. And one of the reasons why I love fanfic and why I got into it and why I started to read it considerably more is that it is transformative fandom at its best. It is taking that which exists as a base and not rejecting it. Saying okay this has value, this has power as a modern myth – as something that’s important in society. And going, “But where are the cracks? What is missing?” So fanfic questions normality by saying, “Well yeah here’s all the things that you could read into that. And we only got one path. But we need to see where all these other paths are.” Obviously a lot of fanfic started from Star Trek and started from the idea of people making queer relationships among Star Trek characters, in particular Spock and Kirk from the original series. And it’s always been overwhelmingly queer and overwhelmingly female. And that’s not obviously true about everything and it’s changed a lot now. But it’s one of the reasons why I feel there’s been – and I use this word deliberately – despised. Because it was very queer and very female and that was not within the heteronormative white male sexuality, white male hegemony of culture that was allowed to exist.

Parinita: No, absolutely. And it’s not just then. Even now. I think fanfic has achieved more of a mainstream following, relatively – only if you compare it to how it used to be. I used to read a lot of fanfic when I was a teenager but it was quite niche. Now I think more people know it, but there is still this suspicion of what fanfic actually is. It’s not all sex you know.

Lisa: No.

Parinita: I mean there is sex and that’s also great because that’s also a way of expressing your stories and your interests. But it’s not just that. For example, even in my regular reading, I’m not a person who reads a lot of romance and relationshippy things. That’s not my kind of reading. So if I started reading fanfic, I know that there is a lot for me out there that doesn’t deal with ships and that doesn’t deal with slash.

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: We’ve talked about this in a previous podcast episode about how the majority of fanfic writers are women, and that does play a role in how it is seen by everybody else.

Lisa: Yeah. And the joke is that when a woman writes an homage to a character, it’s called fanfic. And when a man writes it, it’s called pastiche or homage.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Lisa: It’s given some fancy title. “Oh I wrote this response to Shakespeare.” You wrote Shakespeare fanfic dude!

Parinita: Yeah absolutely. Also that does have an effect on the money that people make as well. Men would be much more likely to make money. Like Sherlock, the BBC adaptation, that’s fanfic.

Lisa: Yeah totally.

Parinita: But it got a lot of money and he got a huge platform. Whereas with a woman, even if her fanfic would have been much better than that, she wouldn’t have made as much money or got a similar platform. I mean I love BBC Sherlock.

Lisa: Me too. Oh no it’s fanfic. The new She-Ra cartoon which is a beautiful story about love and joy and friendship and the power of courage and honour and loyalty. But it’s been called fanfic because there’s queer relationships in it. It’s not fanfic! It’s an adaptation. [laughs] You know if a dude did it, you’d call it an adaptation.

Parinita: Yeah absolutely.

Lisa: Fanfic is despised for all the wrong reasons. A lot of fanfic is terrible. There are millions and millions of words of fanfic out there and a lot of it is just awful. And a lot of it is problematic as hell. There’s a lot of consent issues. But some of it is some of the most beautiful writing I’ve ever read in my entire life. Some of it is absolutely brilliant. And it’s an avenue for those who have felt silenced to speak their truth.

Parinita: Yeah, absolutely. Just turning back to representations of female fighters in canon, especially in science fiction and fantasy media, there are a lot of tropes and stereotypes which are over-represented whether it comes to heroes or villains. Are there any specifically that you’re really tired of?

Lisa: Yeah. As I say, there’s this holy trinity of tropes for female fighters which is the cold, ice maiden often usually represented as being kind of like the Brienne of Tarth trope. Although she’s much less of a trope than many others. There’s the willowy femme fatale who kills by stealth and that’s sort of what the Black Widow character can be.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: And I’m using these as references; I’m not saying they specifically are. And then there’s the man but without the male genitalia character. And those seem to be the three that you get all the time. You don’t get a lot of fully-realised women that I would recognise like I have fought that person or I know that person. A lot of my female friends are women warriors. And one of the issues I have with the portrayal of Wonder Woman is that they always talk about oh she’s a warrior for love. And that’s great and I’m really glad that exists but that’s not a very realistic archetype for somebody who’s taken up warrior as a job description.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: You can be a good person, you can be a moral person, you can be a kind person – you can be all of those things. But this “I’m now going to stop in the middle of a fight and coo over a baby” thing is a way for a dude writer to make a character who is very strong more palatable to weak men.

Parinita: Yeah because this is something that we’d spoken about when we were planning our episode – about Wonder Woman. I was telling you I really liked Wonder Woman, the movie, because for me it was the first time that I’d seen something like that.

Lisa: Yes.

Parinita: Where a woman, especially the scenes on the island in the beginning of the movie.

Lisa: Yeah the Amazons are great.

Parinita: Yeah the Amazons. That made me cry.

Lisa: Me too!

Parinita: Just because of the way that it centered her and women in the story. But then you were saying that apart from the director, the production is mostly male-dominated.

Lisa: Almost the entire creative team were men. The writer was a man, the producers were men. A lot of that movie is extremely male-gazey in the sense that it again centers the man’s perspective of what the Amazons are. And as I said, it makes her very non-threatening to dudes. I love that Wonder Woman exists because I love that women got that experience. Because I know so many women who came out of that feeling empowered for the first time by a movie.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: And that’s freaking awesome, I love that. I did not see myself as a fighting woman anywhere on that movie except on Themyscira. That’s where I saw myself. And then once they left the island, I just saw someone who was being led around the nose by the guys. Wonder Woman did it first, Black Panther did it right. Because the women in Black Panther were fully-realised human beings who were warriors in very different ways.

Parinita: Oh they were so brilliant.

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: I loved them.

Lisa: You got Okoye who’s unequivocally the person who’s in charge, who’s the general. You got Shuri who’s the devil-may-care spunky one. You got the spy character, you’ve got the queen mother. You’ve got all these really diverse female characters who were all treated as specific individuals with specific needs and wants and desires and personality traits that included being warriors but were not about being warriors.

The women in Black Panther. Image courtesy Feminism in India

Parinita: So in one of the podcast episodes we listened to, the Imaginary Worlds Heroines one, they spoke about another trope that they’ve come across which is essentially where the woman warrior, the strong female fighter, she’s the exception.

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: So she’s counter to the norm where she’s not like the other girls. She’s the only woman in a very male-dominated field. And last weekend, after our meeting, I watched Rogue One. And I loved Rogue One just because to me, as someone who’s discovered Star Wars as an adult quite recently – or not discovered I guess, I knew about it. You can’t be on the internet without knowing Star Wars.

Lisa: [laughs] Yeah.

Parinita: I knew everything about it. I knew all the spoilers and everything. But I went back to it just because I thought it’s such a huge part of fandom that I should be aware of the story and everything. So I watched the first six – the original and the prequels. But Rogue One is the first time I think I got really and properly invested in the story and bawled at the end. The way that it impacted me emotionally and the way that I cared about the characters, I really liked the movie. But Jyn who was the woman character – the female fighter – I – I don’t know what her job was. Was she a pilot? I don’t remember. My memory is terrible.

Lisa: Yeah. It’s not really other than someone’s daughter. Her existence in the movie is because she’s someone’s daughter.

Parinita: Oh, that’s right.

Lisa: Yeah, she exists in the movie as a reflection of a man.

Parinita: And also, I feel like in terms of personality as well that everyone else there, all the men seem to have other things going on and seem to be more fleshed out. Whereas she was more like … she’s only there to be this badass fighter. And then what? There were no other women. I think there was one woman – a pilot. There’s just room for one.

Lisa: Yeah. There are a couple of women. There’s some women in the council scene. And someone joked that, “I think we just saw more black women in Star Wars than we’ve ever seen in any other movie.”

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: And they were all in the background of that scene.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: And yeah, it was true. Right until The Last Jedi, it was the most diverse movie. I like it too. I walked out of that movie going that was a proper Star Wars film. Because it was very much a feel of a space Western. But yeah, it’s like she’s the exception. That’s one of the other tropes that gets mixed in with all the others is that the woman warrior is a freak, an exception. She’s not like anybody else, she’s the lone figure. Someone joked that it was like well what do we have in the Avengers? We got the archer and the soldier and the scientist and the god and the girl one. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah essentially. Just you saying that, it makes me think of something like She-Ra for example where it’s not just one fighter. She-Ra is the best fighter I think amongst all of them. But when they’re fighting, usually they’re much better as a team. A team of the girls or Bow and it’s done in way where they are leaning on each other and where the group is centered over the individual. And because most of the characters are women, it almost seems to be pushing back against that trope a little bit.

Lisa: Yeah. There’s a diversity not simply in the races and the body types and the sexualities but also in the way that each one of them contributes to the revolution. This is not really spoilers, but at one point, someone asks Adora for emotional advice. Her response is, “Well I’m really more of the punch out your feelings types.”

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Lisa: And I’m like yay that I identify with! [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah, absolutely. You’re so right that there’s room for all these different kinds of characters and all these different kinds of fighters as well.

Lisa: Which men are allowed.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: The male characters are allowed to have the rogue character, the sneaky character, the scientist character, the smart character, the tank character, the kind of calm, cool leader. But the women get the one. So she’s either this one or this one or this one. We can’t possibly have more than one of those.

Parinita: That’s why what I really love about She-Ra is that being a woman in that world is a default. Because I think most of the people that we see are women.

Lisa: Oh yeah.

Parinita: There’s one non-binary character and there are I think a handful of men.

Lisa: There’s Bow and Sea Hawk and some secondary characters. Like Hordak.

Parinita: Hordak, yeah. So it’s not only like queerness is the default but also just being female is the default.

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: Which just brings up so many different ways of storytelling.

Lisa: Oh Bow’s dads! Bow’s dads.

Parinita: Oh yeah Bow’s dads as well.

Lisa: I thought it was really interesting that the vast majority of the online outrage about that show was centered on the fact that the female characters now all looked like actual living beings as opposed to dolls. But nobody seemed to really be freaked out that they made Bow black.

Parinita: Oh! I don’t have any experience with the original She-Ra so I didn’t know he was not black.

Lisa: Yeah in the original She-Ra he’s a white guy. And in the original She-Ra, every single character, all of the women characters looked exactly the same.

Parinita: Right.

Lisa: They just have different colour schemes and different gimmicks because they’re not designed as humans, they’re designed as toys to sell toys to girls, right?

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: And so there’s this huge outrage, there’s still grown adult men angry at a children’s cartoon because they don’t feel that the female characters are sufficiently sexual.

Parinita: And even though they’re what … like fourteen? Thirteen? I don’t know – they’re – they’re teenagers. [laughs] All of them.

Lisa: Yeah. Teenagers. Some of them are seemingly a bit older but barely legal.

Parinita: Yeah. Like you were saying with Wonder Woman, maybe it wasn’t perfect, but for a lot of people that was their first feeling of being empowered. And I know that the original She-Ra was that for a lot of kids and adult women at that time. But now I’m so glad that this She-Ra is so much more diverse.

Lisa: Yes.

Parinita: And so much more explicitly feminist and queer than I think the original She-Ra could be possibly given the industry and the world at that time.

Lisa: [laughs] Swift Wind is basically an angry socialist.

Parinita: [laughs] You’re right! I love Swift Wind!

Lisa: Yeah he basically is just yelling about horse rights. And I love that as soon as he got to speak he was like a complete jerk. And I love it. I love the fact that you made the horse an angry socialist basically.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah. So based on popular SFF [science fiction and fantasy] out there, or even in your favourite stories, what do you think makes for a really bad fight scene? Because I know you’ve analysed a lot of comics and movies and TV shows and novels. Or what makes for a good fight scene even, based on what you’ve seen.

Lisa: It’s funny I actually do panels at conventions about this.

Parinita: Oh!

Lisa: I started a panel at our local convention called How To Write A Fight Scene If You Don’t Know How To Fight.

Parinita: Amazing!

Lisa: I feel like the worst kinds of fight scenes are the ones where the author is obsessed with letting you know how much they know about fighting.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: But the problem also is that usually it’s someone who doesn’t actually know how to fight. But they’ve watched a movie or they’ve watched an online video or they’ve read a book or something. “Oh I took strip mall karate fifteen years ago so I know how to punch.” Any fight scene where I’m confused about the physics in the room – like physically how could you possibly have done that thing that you just described? – is the kind of fight scene I’m talking about. Because at that point I’m no longer reading a book, I’m getting out a piece of paper and trying to chart where everybody is in the room. Like okay how could you possibly have done that? And I don’t mean confusing because fights are often extremely confusing.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: A proper fight is very quick, it is very chaotic, luck factors into it a lot more than people like to think. [laughs] I’ve been in the middle of fighting in my gym in the safest environment you can possibly think, and my foot slips and I lose the fight because there’s sweat on the ground.

Parinita: Oh yeah you wouldn’t think about these things unless of course you were a fighter yourself.

Lisa: Yeah. A good fight scene can have multiple different points. And as I’ve joked, in movies, never let reality get in the way of a good fight scene.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: Because there’s times when you’re just like this is ridiculous but whatever. It looks beautiful. So leave it. Right?

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: Most superhero fights are like, “This is ludicrous but it looks beautiful.” Which is why the ones that are extremely centered in reality impact people so much. Because of the recognition that oh this would work in real life. You could actually have these powers and make them work in real life. And without having to do like six-foot kick flips. [laughs] A fight scene should either move forward character, move forward plot, or both. Or be extremely beautiful. Or have a specific impact on a specific point of that character’s needs. And so I like fight scenes that are very visceral where you can smell and taste it ’cause when I fight, I’m tasting sweat. I’m occasionally tasting blood. I know what it feels like when you scrape a piece of fabric across somebody’s face. I know what it feels like to have that scraped across my face. I know what it feels like to have a deep cut and not know until the fight is over. I do a wrestling art called jujutsu and you wear a white gi in that. You can wear coloured gis, but I often wear a white gi. And I’ve looked down at myself after a fight and literally the front of that gi is red because I’ve cut my lip and not realised it.

Parinita: So you know how in some fight scenes you see that even when a person is what the audience would think would be grievously injured, they’re still up and fighting?

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: Would that be realistic then? Because of the adrenaline or whatever?

Lisa: Okay yeah, humans are a lot harder to kill than people think.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: They’re a lot easier to injure and a lot harder to kill. So John Wick is dead like halfway through the first fight scene in the first movie.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: John Wick is dead. But John Wick’s not human, he’s a superhero. I’ve actually seen a theory – I can’t get into it here because it’s long– but someone’s theory is that the entire John Wick universe is based on the faerie universe. That they’re all fae.

Parinita Oh!

Lisa: And it’s a beautiful tongue-in-cheek breakdown of why certain things never seem to hurt them. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Amazing.

Lisa: So when you got superheroes fighting, it’s fine. I’m going to accept that you can suck up that damage because you’re a superhero, whatever. John Wick is not an action movie series. It’s a series of horror movies. Where John Wick is the unstoppable killer but he just happens to be the guy you’re rooting for.

Parinita: [laughs] Because they killed his dog.

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: That’s the movie, right? I haven’t watched it.

Lisa: Yeah, exactly. So the John Wick movies are horror movies where the unstoppable bad guy is the guy you’re rooting for.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: You’re rooting for Jason, you’re rooting for Mike Myers.

Parinita: I mean I would root for anybody who’s defending the dogs.

Lisa: It’s a brilliant conceit.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: Because see the instant they kill his dog, anything he does to them is now okay. As soon as they kill his dog, he has now free rein to do anything he likes to any of these people.

Parinita: That’s true.

Lisa: Right? So superhero movies are different, it’s fine. I can accept the amount of damage – though I do like the fact that in particularly the MCU, the Marvel movies, the superheroes get progressively more tired and more sloppy as battles go on. Like by the end of the first battle in The Avengers, Captain America is wrecked.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: [laughs] Like he can barely stand. But he’s getting up and fighting. Thor is wrecked. These people are not well by the end of that first movie. Just to quickly go back to just the intersection of really great fighting and something that’s very particularly cinematic is there’s a fight in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – I think Season 4 – Season 5 – where Quake faces off against the big bad guy which was played by Brett Dalton where he turns into an alien villain. And there’s a fight between the two of them that utilises their specific superpowers as they fight. That is one of the best fights I’ve ever seen. Because she has shockwave abilities so she’s using the shockwaves to dodge punches. It’s one of the best fights I’ve ever seen that utilises the intersection between superpowers in real life and actual fighting. Because both of those actors and their stunt doubles are very good. They’ve put in the work. They’re very good fighters and they do very good work. But it was one of the best choreographed fight scenes I’d ever seen. Same way in my blog, I have a description of the Daredevil Season 3 episode which is an intersection of superpowers and physical fighting. It’s one between him and Bullseye in the office where they actually paid attention to what his superpowers were and how it would be affected by his environment.

Parinita: Daredevil is blind right?

Lisa: He’s blind but he has super senses. So smell, touch, taste, balance – which is important.

Parinita: Right.

Lisa: I want people to read the blog posts on my 30 Seconds of Wick blog but there’s the intersection of when you’re fighting in a specific environment and these are your specific skillsets, this is what might happen. And I have nothing but respect for that because it shows a deep, honest and abiding love and respect for the medium but also for the character. And that’s to me a great fight scene, particularly in a visual medium, to show respect for the abilities of the characters. Atomic Blonde just to give another visual reference. So Atomic Blonde was the Charlize Theron movie set in the 60s I believe or 70s, maybe 80s. It’s set in the past in Berlin and she’s the super spy. And there’s an absolutely brilliantly brutal five-ten-minute-long fight at the end. Where she’s just going up and down stairs and hurting this non-combatant in front of her and she’s fighting multiple guys and they’re using their environment and all that. And it was choreographed by Sam Hargrave and his brother who were Captain America’s stunt doubles. I avoid a lot of behind-the-scenes talk about fight scenes until I’ve actually seen the scenes. But one thing they talked about is they wanted to choreograph her as not only becoming progressively more tired and beaten up but having to hit a guy three times for every one punch that he threw. I looked at that and went okay that’s someone who understands. I’m a big, strong woman but I am not physically as strong as a dude my size. I have skill behind me and I have intelligence and I’m very strong so I’m probably stronger than most guys my size ’cause I’ve worked at it and most people don’t, right? But they said, “Yeah, we wanted to show that she had to hit three or four times to have the same impact that one hit that these guys – these big, very big men would have.” And that’s realistic. That’s actually respectful of the character, that’s respectful of the environment, it’s intelligent, it means she has to fight smart. Strongest is not important; stronger is not important. Strong enough is what matters.

Parinita: And that’s such a good point because like you said that perhaps you would be able to defeat a person –  a guy who’s not trained, who’s not fighting, who’s the same size as you. But somebody who has the same amount of training, at that point, it is about just I don’t want to say innate strength, I don’t know if that’s true or not. But male strength versus female strength.

Lisa: Well, yeah. There’s a line in Italian sword fighting which is, “Never underestimate the strength or malice of your opponent.” Because in a fight it is the stronger or more malicious fighter who will win.

Parinita: Oh no. [laughs] That’s a bit alarming.

Lisa: I may not be the strongest person of the room but I guarantee I’ll beat you on malice buddy. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] So until you highlighted this theme of women warriors, I hadn’t really consciously even thought about it. Now that I think back on it, I’m enjoying a lot of media that does have women fighters. But it’s not something I thought about while reading or watching these stories. But while planning our episode, I started thinking about these different kinds of fighters in my favourite SFF and how the fighting scene differs based on either the physical skill of the person or the magical prowess or just the technological access that the woman has. And this includes women fighters of different bodies and abilities as well.

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: So some of my favourite women fighters in comics and graphic novels have been Ms. Marvel, and Squirrel Girl. And I don’t know if you’re familiar with The Dragon Prince at all, it’s a Netflix TV show, it’s by the same people who’ve made Avatar: The Last Airbender. Which again, even in that, there’s a different kind of fighting, it’s something called bending. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that.

Lisa: I am familiar with Avatar. Dragon Prince I haven’t watched. But I’m familiar with a lot of the Avatar stuff because it is brought up as being a very diverse and interesting method of doing combat in animation. And I do respect it.

Parinita: Yeah. And their gender doesn’t seem to play any role in what you’re good at or what you’re bad at.

Lisa: It’s force multiplication. Magic is a form of force multiplication in the same way that a gun or a sword or a stick or an arrow is. When you take the purest level of base physical strength out of something, by allowing a character to have the ability to multiply their force, you remove the gender issue. Or you limit the gender issue. A lot of what I do – the way that we train, because my school, as I said, is very street oriented – it’s very based on reality. After six months, after you have mastered the basics, you are no longer training to fight a random drunk jerk on the street. You’re now training to fight someone who knows how to fight.

Parinita: Hmm.

Lisa: Because you’re training to be able to be smarter and use force multiplication. And as I said, the steps are always run away. If you can’t run away, pick up a weapon. If you can’t pick up a weapon, hit first, hit hard and then run away. [laughs] So it’s like magic and all of these things is often force multiplication. It’s one of the reasons why I think, no matter what the gender is, a lot of magic users are often portrayed as being scrawny or small or weedy. Because they need that force multiplication. And in a non-ballistic society, where you don’t have guns, that’s magic.

Parinita: Apart from Mockingbird, do you have any other favourite female fighters that you’ve come across recently?

Lisa: Well not recently but obviously I do love Xena very much.

Parinita: Oh yeah.

Lisa: She’s a favourite of mine. In media, I love the way Peggy Carter has always been portrayed. Because she’s both been portrayed as very physical and very intelligent about it. I loved the way that Captain Marvel was portrayed in the movie.

Parinita: Yeah, me too.

Lisa: I particularly loved the fact – spoilers – but I loved the fact that she basically drives off an alien fleet by flexing.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: Because that was smart. She demonstrated, “I am very powerful. Are you going to come at me? Okay, good. We’re fine. I’m not going to come after you.” [laughs] It was a demonstration of, “I have this power. Do you want me to use it? Because if you do, I’m not going to stop. Okay, good, fine.” Bernard Cornwell’s the Sharpe series had the problem with the character that she’s very much the exception girl. But they portrayed the Spanish Resistance during the Peninsular war as having a lot of women. And having a lot of women who rode to battle with swords and guns and fought and were great shots and stuff like that. So there’s a female character there. She does get fridged. Spoiler alert for a series that’s been out for forty years – thirty years. [laughs] In fiction, Lois McMaster Bujold writes a lot of great characters and a lot of great women warriors of different kinds. Not necessarily women who can fight but women who understand what they can do to stop a fight or help. Warrior as a mindset is obviously ungendered and it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to be able to fight. You can be a warrior and have no fighting skills. Because you never got trained with them. Women have always fought. I linked you to the Kameron Hurley text We Have Always Fought. Women have always fought. But it’s always been a struggle to even get the training to be able to effectively do that at all. Because we were outlawed and excommunicated and executed and imprisoned and tortured. And we had to go underground, we had to pretend to be men, and we couldn’t even get the training. Legally women weren’t even allowed to touch weapons in many societies.

Parinita: And that has such an impact, right, on the sort of stories that we’re even telling now. If that history even though it exists but it’s completely been erased – well, not completely, I know a lot of people do know about this history. But in terms of mainstream imaginations, the history of women fighters isn’t really very well-known. Which is why you get all these tropes and stereotypes. And the fact that you have to say woman warrior. You can’t say warrior and imagine a woman as much as you would imagine a man.

Lisa: Yeah. It’s like the recent discovery – the recent final proof that those people buried with warrior and general grave goods in Viking graves were women. Well, the chronicles of the time always said that those were women. But the male historians who wrote about them were like, “Oh it’s an allegory!” [laughs] “They can’t possibly have women fighters.”

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah. And in one of the Breaking The Glass Slipper episodes, they spoke about the history of female pirates as fighters as well as samurai fighters in Japan where there were some women there as well. But when we talk about this or even when we represent it in media, in cartoons or whatever, you don’t really represent women as fighting. Or if you do, they would be very much the exception to the norm.

Lisa: Yes and usually it would be the noblewomen, which would be in many cases a little bit more historically accurate because in many cases it would be the noblewomen who would have the social, political and financial cred to be able to demand to do this unorthodox thing. You wouldn’t train women to fight. We get into this whole problem with the gender binary and all that and what people’s roles in societies are. Which is that women are supposed to bleed in child-bed and men bled on the battlefield. It’s the line a lot of men’s rights guys use. That’s again reducing women down to biological determinism and saying, well you have one purpose, you’re not allowed to do anything else. But what if I don’t want children?

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: Which in modern society is more common. What if I can’t have children? What if my children die? Like Boudica being the great example. She was not allowed to be a mythic warrior figure until her children were dead. That’s your only purpose – first, you’re a mother. And of course, in the end, she gets punished by dying. Women warriors in fictional history had two paths. You could eventually give up everything – give up your abilities to marry a dude and become a mother like you’re “supposed” to. Or you could be punished for it like Joan of Arc. In a lot of Western Christian allegory, you could take up arms but only if you then became a priestess afterwards. Or became a mother or died.

Parinita: Yeah suitably punished. You could do it for god and then you could go away. [laughs]

Lisa: But even then, you had to be sacrificed at the end. You couldn’t actually continue with agency. You were not allowed to have agency. You could do a specific thing for a specific reason. But as long as your agency to continue to be somebody who was not what society wanted to be was relinquished. Or you were punished for not relinquishing it. Those were really the only paths that you could have.

Parinita: So I know a couple of the people on the Breaking The Glass Slipper episode as well as the We Have Always Fought article, said that this history isn’t known so we don’t feel as well educated about this.

Lisa: Yes.

Parinita: For example, in Indian history, we do have Rani Lakshmibai who was one of the first resistance fighters in the revolt against the British Empire way back in 1857 in India. And of course, it was all defeated because then there was another hundred years of that. But she is very much a part of our history. And we have some other women’s tales. But they are still the exceptions. They are glorified because they’re so rare. We’re lucky that even those few exist – so we have that capacity to imagine them. But it’s not like, “Oh yeah they could do it just as well as men could do it.”

Lisa: We get the problem with if it’s commonplace, people don’t write about it because this is society – this is the way it’s always been and so why would we mention this? And those coming in from the outside either don’t see it or deliberately erase it because, “Oh that’s weird. Women don’t fight so let’s just pretend that we don’t see those women in armour over there.” Or it’s the extreme outliers that you see like oh there’s this woman who did this, this woman who did this. But it’s always like oh yeah, she was the queen and she died at the end or she defended the castle because her husband wasn’t there. But never really acknowledging that they were doing the same roles that a man would do but they were doing it for motherly reasons or whatever. It’s actually funny – Rani Lakshmi – is that the name of the –

Parinita: Yeah. Rani Lakshmibai.

Lisa: She shows up as a character in the Civilization video game. You can recruit her as a general. I love that. [laughs]

Parinita: So something I told you while we were prepping for this, is the Rejected Princesses blog.

Lisa: Yeah great book, yeah.

Parinita: Yeah a lot of his stories are also available online. But the book Rejected Princesses as well as Tough Mothers is just fantastic. Because first of all, even though he is a straight white dude living in the US, he takes a more international view.

Lisa: Yes.

Parinita: So he’s trying to include more voices and histories in his books. It is more international and it’s also centered on women. And like you were saying earlier, it’s different kinds of fighting. So there are some who go out into the battlefield. But then there were others who because of historical, social, political circumstances, they have to be strategists rather than you know actual physical warriors which was also really important.

Lisa: Yeah you had to wield the power that you were allowed to wield. Like Melisende of Jerusalem, one of the queens of Jerusalem who was queen in her own right, who was her father’s heir had to marry a warrior because she was legally not allowed to lead men into battle even though she had the ability. But she is acknowledged in all of history as being this incredibly powerful female queen who defended Jerusalem and defended her lover and her sisters and everything. And probably killed multiple people by her own hand. But no one’s ever heard of her.

Parinita: The internet has played a huge role to be able to have those voices that were silenced earlier for a lot of different reasons. Now there is more room for these voices to not only say these things that were erased in history, but also there’s an audience that listens to and then shares these stories. And makes that a part of like the stories that everyone has access to.

Lisa: And the people doing the research into the history have changed. It’s not all just straight white dudes, right?

Parinita: Um hmm.

Lisa: So if I was going to go back to school and take up military history, I would not be looking at the history of straight white dudes in battle. I’d be looking for the outliers because I’m interested in that. I’m not interested in talking about straight white dudes in battle. I’m interested in looking for, “Oh were there women? Was this a thing? How much of it was class?”

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: How much of the women warriors got to be that way because they had the financial, social status to be able to be an outlier? To be a freak?

Parinita: Absolutely.

Lisa: And how much of it is simply the fact that you just didn’t talk about the everyday lives of people. So you didn’t talk about the ones who were there. Kara Cooney, who is an Egyptologist, just wrote a great book When Women Ruled The World. It’s about female pharaohs who were leaders and most of them weren’t ever qualified to lead men into battle. So they had to wield military power at a distance – at a remove. But they were genuine rulers. And that’s a kind of war.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: To rule a nation like Egypt is a kind of warfare.

Parinita: No, I remember there was one female pharaoh. I don’t remember the name. It’s a story I came across in a museum exhibit. And I loved it so much – I mean not what happened. But essentially what happened was like she was this excellent ruler – she was this great pharaoh But then the person who came after her hated that she was this powerful, popular ruler. And hated that she was a woman. So he went and erased her out of all the tablets and all the art.

Lisa: That’s Hatshepsut.

Parinita: Oh yeah.

Lisa: And the interesting thing is that may not actually be fully true.

Parinita: Oh really?

Lisa: Yeah Kara Cooney has done an entire book just about Hatshepsut. And she’s done one about all the female pharaohs –  there were five or six very prominent female pharaohs that we don’t know about. She was only one of them. And there’s some evidence that maybe he wasn’t the one who did that.

Parinita: Ohhh okay.

Lisa: It might have been a later pharaoh. In Egyptian history, there’s the pharaoh Akhenaten, the heretic, the one who took them from the polytheistic deities to a monotheistic deity – the sun god.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: And he was the one who was married to Nefertiti, famously the most beautiful woman who ever lived. And suddenly Nefertiti disappears from the records. But all of a sudden, as soon as she disappears from the records, this male “co-king” shows up.

Parinita: Hmm.

Lisa: And there’s a lot of evidence now that that was actually Nefertiti renamed. Because Akhenaten was losing his ability to rule. And they needed a continuance. Somebody who could continue the administration of the empire and rebuild the temple system back up. But they didn’t just want to overthrow the dynasty. So it’s really interesting new history that’s being seen.

Parinita: That’s exactly what I love. How much ever true or not it was, new details will come out and you can’t erase this out of history. That even now the stories that we don’t yet know about – and obviously there’ll be countless that have completely been lost to history.

Lisa: Yes.

Parinita: Just because we don’t have any documentation. But because of the kind of researchers that there are now and the kind of stories that they’re looking for and are interested in, you do have these stories that were erased coming back to light. And even the debates and the nuances and the complexities that are being explored. But yeah, I love that. I think they’re doing a lot of that in religious history as well. Where we have a very specific idea of what happened in religion. I know more because of the podcasts that we listened to which was looking at Christianity and the role that women played in early Christian history.

Lisa: Yes.

Parinita: Like not in the bible but –

Lisa: As scholars and keepers of knowledge.

Parinita: Yeah. And artists and nuns and whatever whose stories have been completely erased as well. But in the patriarchal society of the time, they were still finding a way to not just get married and have children and die.

Lisa: And in many cases that was the only other option. You went into holy orders. And that was the only way you could get an education in many cases.

Parinita: Yeah exactly. I like what somebody on the podcast called as “alternate patriarchies”.

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: She said that it gives her hope that these ideas are not set in stone. That there were women who were finding workarounds around these established ideas. And now that we have different established – well similar established ideas but in a different format – there will still be another way to live and thrive as a woman.

Lisa: Yeah one of the interesting things is I look back once in a while and try and find records as to any statistical differences between women who lead in combat and men who lead in combat. And you can’t find any records because no one ever kept them.

Parinita: Ah of course.

Lisa: And it’s only until recently that we have women who are combat leaders. And the general emotion I’ve seen is that – and forgive me for being a little bit crude here – but most women war leaders are less likely to get their men killed because they want to prove how big their dicks are. And that’s a very dismissive and reductive way to look at it. I mean that in specific because women are not as bound by the patriarchy and these patriarchal assumptions of power and glory and status, they’re more able to look at something rationally and unemotionally. Like the people who think oh women are very emotional, have you seen a guy whose favourite sports team is losing? Then tell me they’re not emotional.

Parinita: Can you see Donald Trump?

Lisa: Oh go look at any dude who is panicking because you asked him to wear a mask so that people don’t die. Like come on! And people talk about, “Oh testosterone gives you strength, it gives you aggression.” And I’m like okay yeah you’re right. But aggression is also a learned trait. Okay aggression does come from hormones. But aggression is also a learned trait. You can learn to be aggressive. You can teach yourself to be aggressive. And my aggression as somebody who does not have the same base testosterone, it is better than hormonal aggression. Because my aggression is not mindless.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: When I move forward in combat, and again in my gym, I was always renowned as the person who would move into bigger guys. Because my skill was not to snipe at somebody from a distance, it was to get in and hit hard in specific places. My aggression is chosen, my aggression is calm. Aggression does not mean raving madness or anger. Aggression is simply where I am moving into a situation where a bad thing can happen because I am in control of that situation. So my aggression as a woman fighter, as somebody who is capable of going, “Okay I’m not just angry that you made me look bad because now my manhood is in danger” is superior. Because it is not bound by my emotional state.

Parinita: I absolutely agree. While we’re talking about women warriors, I do think there needs to be more of perhaps an intersectional analysis in terms of inclusion and representation. So not just cis, white able-bodied women but fighters of diverse ages, races, abilities, religions, sexual and gender identities. There are now more women fighters being represented in media. More than there used to be, still not enough.

Lisa: Yes.

Parinita: But I think with these other intersectional identities, there’s so much fewer representations of that.

Lisa: Yeah. And there are a lot of issues with the representation of race and warrior women. There are a lot of issues there that need to be dealt with in an intersectional manner. And aggression in warrior women and sexuality. One of the reasons why I maintain some of the secondary characteristics of overt femininity like long hair is that when I did have short hair, I was assumed to be of a certain sexuality. Which is fabulous because all sexualities are wonderful. As long as consent is involved, great. But I’m not.

Parinita: Hmm.

Lisa: And that is something that’s very difficult. It’s one of the reasons why I don’t date because I tend to attract either people who want to dominate me or want to be dominated and I’m not interested in either one of those. I’m not interested in beating you up, I’m not interested in seeing if you can beat me up. I’m interested in us sparring together and then going out hanging out and watching a movie. My gender and my sexuality and my being a warrior are all entwined but they’re not dependent on each other, if that makes any sense.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: But there’s huge issues with race around this because of the way that black women and black women warriors are often portrayed. Which is one of the reasons why I loved Black Panther. Because it completely subverted that. Often people who are not white are either portrayed as sneaky or underhanded. Or you get the very flowery beautiful choreography of the Asian martial arts. But it’s seen as being very cold and clinical even though it’s beautiful. and there’s a specific kind of fighting woman there who’s very sad and destined to die.

Dora Milaje from Black Panther

Parinita: Basically exoticised.

Lisa: Yeah, the Orientalist colonial bullshit that you get. And then women of darker skin colours like Latinx women and black women, East Asian women are very often seen as brutish and oh there’s a hulking brute. With this issue, you get so many intersectional problems. You get the intersection of sexuality and gender and race and class and culture – it’s this huge stew. And as someone who is a writer who writes about warrior women, I have to pick out the things that I feel I haven’t not simply the ability but the right to talk about. And I want to see more people who are not using my voice to write about this

Parinita: Hmm.

Lisa: Because there are certain things where I don’t have the right to talk about race in this relationship except in very basic terms. I want more people talking about it because I’m a middle-class white woman, it’s not my place. So we need more voices and more diverse voices. And race is a huge problem in this area. The vast majority of the women you see are thin, middle-class white women. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: One of my problems with the way that we don’t value physical strength in women is that we specifically don’t value it in our actors. And 99% of all the women you see on the screen as “warriors” are 100 pound thin models.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: It’s not realistic, I’m sorry. It just isn’t.

Parinita: So in one of the episodes, the Breaking the Glass Slipper Fight Scenes With Women Warriors one, the guest Juliet McKenna was talking about how in SFF the availability of materials that are around the fighters influenced the fighting styles.

Lisa: Yes.

Parinita: So depending on which country or culture you’re in, you had things such as steel for armour. But then that got me thinking in terms of intersectionality – how materials that exist not just in historical and medieval stories but also in fantasy and science fiction, how science or magic can be used to allow women of different abilities to fight. So looking at accessibility needs and using that. In The Dragon Prince, the fighter, the commander Amaya, she’s deaf. So she uses sign language – ASL to communicate. But she is a fantastic fighter. And in Avatar: The Last Airbender, Toph she’s blind but she’s the best Earthbender there is in that kingdom. I think this is so important especially in stories where you are able to control these things and write these things. Or even like grandmothers or women who are menstruating or women who have a baby and have to figure out how to fight with a baby on their back just in terms of the skills, weapons, clothes, whatever you need.

Gif of Toph from Avatar The Last Airbender Earthbending

Lisa: Yeah. One of the reasons why I train in the Filipino based martial art that I train in is that one of the greatest warriors in this art in my lineage is a 90-year-old woman. Guys that I know – who literally have murdered people with their bare hands when they were being attacked by someone with lethal intent – describe fighting this woman as fighting smoke.

Parinita: Wow.

Lisa: She wasn’t faster or stronger, she was just never there when you hit her.

Parinita: [laughs] I love it.

Lisa: She knew what he was going to do before he did it. So that’s malice and intelligence. That’s experience coupled with skill.

Parinita: Yeah absolutely.

Lisa: And she was a 90-year-old woman, she was barely mobile in many ways. But she was never there when he hit her. Because she just knew how to move.

Parinita: See you don’t imagine a 90-year-old woman when you say warrior, right?

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: These people exist in real life and they definitely should exist in media especially in science fiction and fantasy.

Lisa: I deliberately crippled the lead character of my second novel. I deliberately took away her ability to use one of her arms.

Parinita: Hmm.

Lisa: Because I wanted to show how she would adapt in a world. She essentially does parkour as part of her combat. And if she no longer has use of one arm, how crippled is she? What has to change, what can she do, what can’t she do. And also it’s a society that uses sign language as a primary communication because anyone below noble status has to cover their face. So to emphasise words, you can’t use facial expressions, you have to use hands.

Parinita: Oh that’s really interesting. And also how then if she has acquired this disability, how that affects her fighting as well.

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: If you’re used to one and have to then get used to another, that’s also a really interesting.

Lisa: And the need to conceal it so because she can’t appear weak.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: And a whole bunch of other things. I am more interested in the limitations and how to work around them. It’s one of the reasons why I find the deity level characters in a lot of books and media to be boring. Because if you have that power, why isn’t the end of every fight, “And then I punched him into the moon.”

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Lisa: You know? And I don’t care. You’re boring. You have no limitations on you? Who cares? “Oh this guy is going to commit genocide. Oh I have to talk to him first.” He’s going to commit genocide! Kill him.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: [laughs]

Parinita: But this is one of the many reasons I love Squirrel Girl. Because canonically, she is supposed to be an amazing fighter. I think she could punch people to the moon [laughs] if I’m not wrong.

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: I mean she’s just really strong. But because of the kind of person that she is, she really wants to befriend people and always wants to give people the benefit of doubt and tries to get them to change their mind. And if they don’t, then she goes and punches them to the moon or whatever the equivalent is.

Lisa: And that’s a great character. That’s just a person that’s a well-rounded character who happens to be a woman who happens to be a fighter.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: You can’t just give people one trait, you have to give them more traits, right?

Parinita: Absolutely. And she’s also sort of living up to your trainer’s thing in a way where she doesn’t run away but she does the verbal equivalent.

Lisa: Yeah!

Parinita: She does fight. First, she tries to do another thing and then if she’s left with no other option, she fights.

Lisa: Yeah. One of the characters I’ve always loved for many, many years has been Steve Rogers – Captain America.

Parinita: Uh huh.

Lisa: And one of the reasons I love him is the very first comic I ever read with him in it was an Avengers comic where they’re fighting essentially a goddess. And he ends the fight by realising that she’s in mourning for her dead husband. And all he does is walk up to her. He offers her no violence and says I’m so sorry for your loss.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: And he essentially ends the fight simply by expressing love and compassion for a being in pain. And I’m like that’s a hero. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah absolutely. I agree.

Lisa: A lot of the characters that I’m going to name, that I could name are characters that are in visual media like you know Buffy, most of the MCU women and stuff like that. But there’s a lot of science fiction and fantasy out there that deals with these subjects very well. So I would just suggest to read very widely. But just in a comment about things that matter and how important representation is, do you know the movie Logan? The last Wolverine movie?

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: So X-23 Laura Kinney that character, I scared the people that I was in the theatre with when I saw that movie ’cause at the final fight when she charges into battle to fight next to her father, I was doubled over weeping. And people were asking me afterwards why was I crying so hard. I said because if I’d seen that movie when I was twelve, literally it would have changed my life. Because that was the first time I’d ever seen a female character, a young girl who was not sweet, who was not nice, who was a vicious, brutal warrior. But who was not immoral or feral or an animalistic character other than in her ability to fight. Who actually had purpose and meaning. If I had seen that at twelve, I would have been a different human being. And that’s why representation matters. It’s because I want every single person to look out at this world that we see and look at fiction and see themselves in some way. And I write and I create and I support creators who speak in diverse voices because I want to be able to see the woman warrior that I want to be, that I never saw as a child.

Laura Kinney from Logan

Laura Kinney from Logan

Parinita: That’s amazing. That totally sums up why representation and diverse representation is so important. And I’m glad you’re creating your own pockets of diversity in your own stories. I’m so happy about that. Thank you so much for coming onto this podcast and chatting with me about your experiences. I learned so much. I always say this to participants and it’s always true. [laughs] It’s become my stock line. But I appreciate it very much. Thank you so much Lisa.

Lisa: Thank you for having me. I’m incredibly honoured and it’s a great podcast. I’ve listened to all your back issues and they’re wonderful. So please if you need anything else from me, I’m always available to you.

Parinita: Thank you!

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode on representations of women fighters in media and history. I’m currently reading two brilliantly fun anthologies which feature female warriors in mainstream comics – Marvel: Powers of a Girl and DC: Women of Action. Who are some of your favourite women and nonbinary fighters in media? As always, I’m always looking to expand my list. Thanks so much Lisa for such a fun and illuminating conversation! And thank you Jack for fighting the editing monster so I don’t have to.

[Outro music]

You can now listen to Marginally Fannish on SpotifyAppleGoogle, or SoundCloud. I’d love to hear from you and talk to you – so any feedback, comments or critiques are very welcome! Get in touch with me on social media, leave a comment on my blog, or email me at edps@leeds.ac.uk. If you’d like to follow the podcast or the PhD project, visit my website marginallyfannish.org where you’ll find both the podcast episodes and the blog. You can also receive updates on Facebook or Instagram at Marginally Fannish or on Twitter where I’m @MarginalFannish. If you enjoyed the podcast, please share it with anyone you think will enjoy it too.

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

Episode 10 Reclaiming Stories: Representations of Dyspraxia and Autism in Doctor Who/Fandom

Episode Resources:

1) Fanfiction – Never Change

2) Essay – People don’t know about the reality of Dyspraxia. That’s why we need fictions like Doctor Who’s Ryan Sinclair

3) Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper Representations of Disability With Marissa Lingen

4) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Caps Lock Harry

5) Fan podcast – Witch, Please Episode Rho Live and Professional at Tufts University

6) Video – The Gayly Prophet

7) Essay – The Future Is (Not) Disabled

Episode Transcript:

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

Image courtesy Robert Shepherd inspired by the hair dryer aliens in his Doctor Who fanfiction Never Change which we discuss in this episode

[Intro music]

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

[Intro music]

My name is Parinita Shetty and you’re listening to the tenth episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I talk to Robert Shepherd about the representations of dyspraxia and autism in Doctor Who – both the TV series and its online fandom. We chat about some difficult issues related to disability, specifically family, trauma and abuse so please consider this as a content warning.

Media representations of disabilities have a huge impact on people with those disabilities. The downside of seeing their disability represented onscreen is that it can reify fraught relationships and troubling experiences that they recognise from their own lives. Even well-intentioned representations can have really damaging consequences. Centering the needs and desires of the family rather than the needs and desires of the person with the disability can have harmful impacts – both in media and in real life.

You can find examples of structural ableism not only in media but also in fandom. Fans with disabilities read themselves into characters who aren’t explicitly written as disabled to counter ableist representations. The kinds of stories which are told about autism – both in media and in society – can perpetuate distressing eugenics narratives. Fanfiction can be an important way for fans with disabilities to assert their agency by writing their own stories. Fanfiction can challenge fixed notions of disabilities and show a different way of being human.

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: I’m so happy to have Robert Shepherd on the podcast today. Robert was diagnosed with dyspraxia and autism at the age of ten and now writes about living with both. And he has been a fairly obsessive fan of both Doctor Who and Harry Potter. He’s the age where Harry was his obsession as a teenager and the Doctor came along at the same time as adulthood. Unlike me who grew up with Harry Potter but never grew out of it. I met Robert in Scotland about three years ago and we’ve been friends since then. During Jodie’s first appearance as the Doctor a couple of years ago, Robert wrote an essay about one of the Doctor’s companions, Ryan, and how happy it made him to see some representation of dyspraxia in one of his favourite shows. And the essay was great. I found it really illuminating as someone who, like many others, hadn’t encountered dyspraxia before that. And we’re going to talk about that more a little later in the episode. But before we do that Robert, do you want to introduce your own experiences with disability?

Robert: Hello! I’m Robert. Obviously it’s hard to talk about your experiences of something like dyspraxia ’cause you’ve had no experiences not having it.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Robert: I don’t know if it’s technically called a developmental disorder, but it’s the sort of thing you have for life. It’s not something that comes along later like maybe some disabilities can. So since I’ve been alive, I suppose, I would have difficulty picking up things, doing things, tying shoelaces … but also kind of like being in the world and relating to it in a way that is maybe quite hard for other people to understand. In the same way as if someone has to suddenly do a calculation that’s quite complicated in their head and suddenly find that their whole head is just frozen working it out. It feels like an intense amount of work. Often things that are quite day to day for people like putting on your trousers take that having to work something out, having to use a huge amount of brain power to a point it’s quite exhausting. And sometimes these things happen when you’re with other people in social situations. So at the same time you’re trying to do this, there’s another part of your brain that’s starting to panic thinking, “Uh oh, I’m not responding in this social situation because I’m having to do this. And the parts of my brain that would do that are trying to cross this road. And now I’m trying to make a joke as I’m crossing the road and there’s a car over there. And now I have been run over!” sort of thing. So I guess that’s my experience of being alive. Which might be different to the experience of being alive to someone who doesn’t have dyspraxia, if that makes sense.

Parinita: Yeah, absolutely. And I really appreciate your sharing even that little bit, because I know it’s such a weird question. Like you said, it’s something you’ve been living with. You basically don’t know any other experience of being in the world.

Robert: No.

Parinita: And for me, it’s also really helpful. And again, this is something that I’ve come across a lot that it’s always the burden of – well any marginalised identity – but like here because we’re talking about disability, a person with disabilities – to explain themselves.

Robert: Hmm.

Parinita: Because otherwise the world is so neurotypical and able-bodied. That’s what the norm is considered to be. So everyone has to explain if they don’t fit in with the norm.

Robert: I am on the autistic spectrum as well. And that’s quite common for people with dyspraxia to either have a lot of traits that are associated with the spectrum or actually have a spectrum diagnosis. But I guess the extent to which it’s physical stuff and the extent to which it’s stuff more typically associated with autism is not always clear to me either. So I guess the extent to which it is both physical and mental and that boundary not really existing.

Parinita: Yeah.

Robert: I remember actually that when they were doing promotion for Jodie Whittaker’s first season of Doctor Who with Ryan who is dyspraxic, they said that was something they had tried to make sure was the case. That they were considering the mental as well as the physical attributes of dyspraxia

Parinita: Hmm.

Robert: Which at the time I appreciated. And then later on had some concerns about. But I think the extent to which it’s not just dropping things but significantly more of that, isn’t always understood if dyspraxia is understood at all. Which it’s often not. ’Cause it’s not talked about much at all.

Parinita: Yeah. Which is why thank you so much for being willing to share your experiences about it. And I’m glad that you are because I’m learning from you and I’ve learned a lot from our conversations before that. Hopefully people who listen to this podcast will learn as well. Especially because for me it’s very much an outsider perspective. I haven’t been personally identified with any disability. So I have huge blind-spots around it. Most of my friends are non-disabled as well. But it’s something that I’m thinking about now a lot more since I’ve moved to the UK. And a few of my friends in India are a lot more vocal about talking about different kinds of disabilities. So it’s been an education for me. I think on the internet at large as well, at least the sort of spaces that I inhabit, there’s a lot more conversations about disabilities. In general and especially now during the pandemic, mental health and mental disabilities have been a huge topic of conversation. So it’s something that I appreciate because I know it’s a blind-spot and I’m trying to educate myself through other people’s experiences. And in India, I think mental health services are not yet mainstream enough, though there are more advocates working on it. And working to raise awareness about the need to have mental health services. So it’s still an uphill battle but we’re getting there. We’ve chatted about this a little bit before, about our very different experiences in terms of disabilities in our families and how it was seen. Would you like to chat about that a little bit?

Robert: Yes. It’s quite a long story. Or a lot of long stories. My family – my mother particularly – I don’t know was ever entirely comfortable with my having what was then referred to as Asperger’s syndrome and would now be considered autism because Asperger’s syndrome is no longer considered distinct from autism. But I think she always had an image of me – or wanted a child – who was fairly what she saw as normal. Liked football, was good at football, went around doing laddish things. And because I was simultaneously very bad at all sports and had no interest in those laddish things, I think that was often quite challenging for her. And so a lot of what she did, in well-intentioned ways, to try and make me what she would see as better, involved effectively trying to cure me of things that are I suppose fairly fundamental that I can’t really conceive of not being part of myself. So as a child I would spend a long time going to various places and doing various things with no scientific basis in them, to explicitly try and cure me of dyspraxia, cure me of autism. And eventually when I was a teenager, she would do things like hire a shaman for me to come and try and cure me with shamanism. And it didn’t work! Which I’m pleased about now. But my mother is disabled herself. She has multiple sclerosis which is a degenerative condition and it got steadily worse throughout my adulthood. And her relation to disability is a huge part of her identity as well. And her ex-husband found both our disabilities particularly challenging and our relationship ended up being quite fraught because of it. And I suppose for context in Doctor Who Series 11, Ryan who’s the character with dyspraxia, has his own fraught relationship with his step-grandfather Graham. And it was similar enough to my own experiences that it was quite challenging to watch. Because it was almost like – well not like I was experiencing exactly what had happened to me, but I could see enough of what had happened to me in it, that it was quite difficult.

Parinita: We’ve spoken about trigger warnings, just with this podcast as well. And I suppose that’s not something the creators of Doctor Who thought about when they were trying to represent Ryan’s dyspraxia in a way that was realistic. And they perhaps didn’t think about the effect it would have on an audience with dyspraxia themselves who have a fraught relationship with their families. I know we’ll talk about it a little bit later as well but I’m wondering just in terms of the difference between intent and impact.

Robert: Yes.

Parinita: Where your intentions might be good but the impact can still be really damaging.

Gif of Ryan and Graham. Text says: Yep

Robert: Yeah. I guess it was very difficult for me because I think Ryan is genuinely the only explicit example of representation of a dyspraxic person in fiction – maybe even nonfiction – I can think of. Dyspraxia is such an almost non-existent condition that to criticise the way it’s portrayed at all is something I was unsure about. But I think the things that bothered me about it – first of all, in the first episode, Ryan’s step-grandfather Graham says something … I can’t remember the exact line. Ryan is worried because he’s caused an alien invasion. And then Graham is like, “Oh you’re going to blame the dyspraxia on that as well?”

Parinita: Um hmm.

Robert: And I guess the implication there obviously is all the time that these things are going wrong for Ryan, then he’s saying it’s by dyspraxia, but it’s not actually. If he’d had strength of will or tried hard enough, he would have been able to overcome these things that are, in fact, not possible to overcome because they are a disability. And when I saw that the first time, I thought that well this is something that will have happened because in the future in this series we will all be led to see that this isn’t the case; in actual fact, the way he said this is wrong. But I don’t think that really happens at all. And if anything, the reverse happens in terms of Graham’s expectations of who Ryan should be. For him, he wants Ryan to respect him and to see him as a legitimate father figure or grandfather figure. And he wants him to understand him without necessarily understanding how his own perception of Ryan’s dyspraxia might be affecting him or discussing that. And the fact that that sort of active ableism was in there and then not really addressed later on bothered me quite a bit. With Russell T. Davies in Season 1 of Doctor Who in 2005, there’s a scene where Rose, the companion then, uses gay just as a joking way like, “That awful thing is so gay.”

Parinita: Hmm.

Robert: Because obviously he’s gay himself. And he’s thinking, “Well I want to deliberately do this to reflect that this thing is still wrong and uncomfortable but it’s also something people do. And I want to reflect it to make it clear that Rose Tyler is a real person.” That level of being confident that the author has actively thought about it and talked about it off-camera is not really a sense that I got from this example later on. And also I don’t feel like it was criticised in the same way. Because I know that a lot of people who are gay said, “We understand what you’re trying to do here but this sort of thing is still damaging because it implicitly says to people watching that this character who I identify with is doing things that are okay that we can do as well. And potentially it’s a gateway to behaviour that’s much worse.” I’m not in contact with my step-father anymore but I often thought afterwards that if we had been in contact he would maybe use this example laughing about it, making a joke of not being able to do things as an example that our relationship was all right really. And I was like, but it’s not all right, really.

Parinita: Hmm.

Robert: And this example that is dominated by his perspective gives me as the dyspraxic person no way to really say I’m not comfortable with this. What you’re doing isn’t right for me. And I’m not sure that’s a place Ryan ever really gets to or something he’s ever able to really say. And the fact that hasn’t happened in the only representation of dyspraxia that exists ended up making me quite uncomfortable.

Parinita: Yeah. And it’s like something that you expect to give you comfort – whether it be your favourite TV show or book or fantasy fictional world or your family – it leaves you so much more hurt. Something I’ve not shared on the podcast before or indeed with many of my friends either, was my childhood experience with an alcoholic father who beat up my mother. And he gambled much of his and my mother’s money away. And this alcoholism was inherited; his parents had a similar relationship as well = just how the cycles of abuse continue. And I don’t know explicitly how this has impacted me and my own interactions with people because I’ve not been to therapy or I’ve not examined this aspect of my life. But I feel like this sort of childhood experience does leave scars. Because there has been a lot of trauma related to this even otherwise. And when I was away from the situation, and a few years had passed, I realised how much he would have benefited from therapy and just being able to … I don’t know like your step-father or maybe your mother – just having to talk to the other person and having an equal and respectful exchange of  opinions and perspectives. But I think this complex intersection of addiction and ideas of masculinity and mental health not being considered important in India means that he never would have approached the idea of therapy. That’s not something that would have ever occurred to him. There’s such a close experience with physical violence and fear and trauma which for me, now still – domestic violence and things of that nature – it does … it’s not a trigger as such but it’s something I don’t like to think about just because I want to move on with my life, I guess. I don’t know how healthy that is. And of course, my mother was impacted by it much more than I was. But I think childhood experiences like that shape you in a way that you don’t even really realise … except I guess with therapy. For me, books in general, but Harry Potter in particular was very important while I was growing up because it was this escape from real life. My parents divorced when I was thirteen, but even after that, being raised by a single mum with not much money was difficult. So Harry Potter was very much a gateway. And that’s why now even with all the problematic things that J. K. Rowling has said and all the holes that we find in Harry Potter on this podcast and in fandom in general, I still can’t let go of Harry Potter because for me it was that comfort. But then the fact that the person who created this world has let us down so much is what is more – it’s something that was supposed to provide me with – and it did provide me with comfort and hope and everything. So like with Doctor Who with you as well, that’s sadder.

Robert: Yeah. No, no totally. I really didn’t know what Doctor Who was till it the new series – new? It’s fifteen years old now. But the revived series in 2005 came along when I was seventeen almost eighteen. And that was an extremely difficult time in my life ’cause my parents were having a very traumatic divorce and my mother was about to tell us all that she had multiple sclerosis because her health was visibly declining. And I remember a lot about it being very powerful for me then. Obviously there’s a difference in that Doctor Who doesn’t have a single creator in the way Harry Potter does.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Robert: And if someone came along and said is Snape from Brazil [laughs] and asked J. K. Rowling, she could say no! But if someone said is there a Dalek under the sea, there’s no one you can really ask that to give an authoritative response or whatever. I think what I would relate to is maybe more with the fandom community in particular in that well I think a lot of stuff that made Doctor Who comforting for me is related to autism or being on the spectrum. Often, I found my experiences in Doctor Who fandom to be the least inclusive and most actively … maybe not quite discriminatory but definitely uncomfortable experiences I’ve had in relation to being autistic.

Parinita: Do you mean online fandom?

Robert: I do yes, because I’ve not really had any experience with non-online fandom to be honest. So yes, specifically I think online forums. Although some of the stuff I saw on Twitter recently and beforehand but haven’t really engaged with as much. So yeah definitely stuff that would happen a lot on social media, but which does precede social media as well because as something for nerdy people, Doctor Who has a very long internet history that goes back significantly further than that.

Parinita: Yeah. And with Doctor Who, like you, I also discovered it through the New – well fifteen-year-old – Who, the revival, but not when it first came out. It was I think a few years ago that I started watching the new series because Doctor Who had always been on my radar but I always thought I would have to go back to the 60s show and watch everything to make it make sense. And I tried and I couldn’t do it. I tried watching the very first season and I watched a few episodes and I just couldn’t get into it.

Robert: [laughs]

Parinita: I was like nope I can’t do this! Life is too short. I’m just going to go with Christopher Eccleston and that’s where I’m going to start. And I loved it. But I’ve heard about this with Doctor Who fandom online that it has been very white, male, able-bodied – the fandom has been dominated by that. And it’s not been inclusive to … well I’ve heard about women, but like you’re saying with disabilities as well. Luckily for me, I’ve just encountered – I think it’s just the spaces that I very purposefully visit in terms of fandom, it has been mostly positive. Not just with Doctor Who but with Harry Potter as well. Because Harry Potter also has some really problematic elements within the fandom.

Robert: Yeah.

Parinita: Again this all through research and what I’ve spoken to other people. I think I just move around the internet and life generally with blinkers on [laughs] so all the problematic bits just pass me by.

Robert: [laughs] Aye.

Parinita: Which is good because that’s how I cope. But yeah it’s really … interesting I guess but also sad to hear about other experiences that don’t mirror my own.

Robert: Yeah. I guess if there is a difference, it would be that well it is absolutely uncontroversial to say that Doctor Who fandom has been terrible to women and to people who weren’t white and basically to everyone who wasn’t a white man. However, to say that you find it discriminatory to autistic people, I think that would be quite a bold thing to say because obviously Doctor Who is archetypically associated with autistic people. It’s something that autistic people latch on to. So to say as an autistic person, your own experience in the fandom has been very negative specifically around things that manifest as a result of that condition and sometimes explicitly around having that condition, is something that I think people would probably be more reluctant to accept. Whereas if you said Doctor Who fandom is sexist or racist, that would be a significantly less controversial statement, I think.

Parinita: So do you think the ableism in the Doctor Who fandom, is it something that’s understood by the fandom? Is it something that’s been done very explicitly or is it structural ableism?

Robert: Oh I think it would be far more structural than intentional. Just that in practice the things that you would mock maybe or the things that you would insult would be overwhelmingly things that are more likely to happen to someone who is autistic. If someone is incredibly obsessive with Doctor Who and obviously if someone has a special interest as an autistic person, Doctor Who is disproportionately a special interest they might end up having, then that would be something which would be widely mocked. I think finding Doctor Who important is something that’s deeply taboo within Doctor Who fandom. And I wonder if that is structurally challenging for autistic people in a weird way because often I think autistic people would find Doctor Who important. Because becoming invested in a special interest to a huge extent is something that’s quite fundamental and quite distressing if it’s invalidated, I suppose. Or if it’s not seen to be important. So I think when people say from an outside perspective that it is not important at all; if hearing that the button is on the wrong way on the 1966 version of the TARDIS console is clearly not as important for social justice as more or less anything else at all. And if for reasons that make sense within an autistic lens, it is something that’s a passionate concern to you, it can still be very taboo to say that this matters to me. It distresses me that you say it doesn’t matter.

Parinita: Hmm.

Robert: I think it’s that sort of thing where the validity perhaps of autistic special interests or autistic experiences are not only not understood but actively mocked and marginalised … I think it’s a real problem in Doctor Who fandom and has been basically forever. And it has concerned me recently that while obviously Doctor Who has made huge strides probably literally everywhere else, the idea that this might be a problem that should be addressed and that continually continuing to talk in this way because the way people are reacting can’t be understood by you as a non-neurodivergent person. Therefore not only are they not valid, they’re things that deserve to be mocked to a point that is probably bullying – this is something that made me increasingly uncomfortable with Doctor Who fandom over the last many years.

Parinita: Yeah, that’s really interesting because some of the conversations that I’ve come across just in fandom in general, not Doctor Who specifically, is more through the lens of gender. Where transformative fandom – in both internet fandom as well as the field of fan studies – is seen to be more the domain of female fans. Whereas the male expression of fandom is seen to be this obsessive knowledge of everything within the series or within the media or whatever.

Robert: Yeah.

Parinita: So something like you were saying which is having this detailed knowledge about a very specific, hyper-focused aspect of the show would be something that would be seen as a male thing. But the sort of discourse that I’ve encountered has been male gatekeeping against female fans. But what you’ve spoken about I think is a really interesting and really important aspect to look at as well. Because it’s not just this male-female binary; there are nuances within male fannishness as well.

Robert: Yeah. Obviously I have created a lot of fan stuff myself. But I think a lot of the time when I did that, it almost was because of this deep sense of how I thought things should be specifically for me to be comfortable with them. So I would see the idea of obsessively arranging things to be a certain way and being actively creative – the idea that those are necessarily opposed is one that would be quite strange to me. And I think from the fanfiction I’ve read, often how people write fanfiction, is almost out of a sense of needing to order things.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Robert: And often it’s ordering things from a character’s perspective. But I think wanting to make things a certain way because you feel that a character has behaved inconsistently and that’s wrong. And wanting to make things a certain way because the props are wrong in an episode – I don’t know that they’re completely different things necessarily. Even though one is more about people and one is more about … I guess they’re both about ways in which you perceive the world and relate to them and they’re both out of a desire to make it fit better and how you understand it to be.

Parinita: And also I think representing an aspect that you’re missing in canon. Something that you want to see represented and fixed or whatever. So I suppose fans from any marginalised identities would write fanfiction to be able to counter that singular narrative, if that makes sense.

Robert: Oh, definitely yes. I think maybe Doctor Who is unusual in that that would also overwhelmingly apply to the show itself. The show itself is almost like an aggressive commentary on itself over ages.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Robert: Saying this hasn’t been right before and now we have to fix it in various different and incompatible ways.

Parinita: Especially the new one more than anything else.

Robert: Yes!

Parinita: I wanted to go back to your new short story in the Stim anthology.

Robert: Oh yes.

Book cover of Stim. Text says: Stim: An Autistic Anthology. Edited by Lizzie Huxley-Jones

Parinita: Where you said that it had featured selkies as a metaphor for difference. And I was really interested in finding out more about that.

Robert: So a few years ago, I read Sofia Samatar’s story Selkie Stories Are For Losers. Which is explicitly about someone who is strongly implied but maybe not the case that her mother is a selkie. And that she’s had a difficult life because she’s been abused by men. And the whole story is about the idea that in selkie stories, usually what happens is, a selkie who is a seal who takes off their skin to become a person and often in stories a woman ends up going to sleep with a fisherman. And the fisherman steals the selkie skin. The selkie then can’t get back into their skin and is stuck in human form and then the selkie has to be his wife and has a miserable time.

Parinita: Yeah not problematic at all!

Robert: Yes. Well that’s what the story is about – that the selkie as a story is almost always about being stuck in someone else’s world in a way you didn’t choose. And not really getting to be the centre of the story and just have any kind of power or agency herself.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Robert: And the idea of having that as a metaphor for autism is something which appealed to me because I’ve often felt like in order to function in the world at all I’ve had to put away a lot of stuff about myself and pretend it wasn’t there. Or often try and make it so it was no longer there. And end up having a miserable time basically for other people in their stories. I thought writing a story explicitly about that with that metaphor would be quite useful for me. ’Cause Stim is an anthology of nonfiction and fiction and they were like, “Oh my god we don’t have any fiction.” So they accepted open pitches for it. And I was like this story is very odd and I doubt it’ll get accepted but I’ll pitch anyway. And then they were like, “Wow! This story is exactly what we’re looking for.” I was surprised by that and now it’s in the book.

Parinita: That’s amazing! And I think that the Doctor Who fanfic that you suggested I read, the one that you’d written, whose name I’m completely blanking on.

Robert: Yeah. It’s called Never Change.

Parinita: Never Change! That’s right.

Robert: I really struggled with coming up with it. All the other ones I’ve written, the title I came up with very easily. But that one I was like I have no idea what to call this.

Parinita: What I found interesting from what you said about your selkie short story but also when we were talking about your fanfic briefly, you said that you hadn’t been thinking about it in terms of disability specifically when you were writing it. But a lot of what you’ve said today and we’ve spoken about otherwise, as well as your short story, I feel like as a reader from the outside who is reading it for the first time, I could feel a lot of those themes coming in. Especially the whole “I don’t understand!” Everyone’s saying that.

Robert: [laughs]

Parinita: And again, this is not something I think I would have understood had these conversations not been at the forefront now – about disability and neurodiversity and things. Because again, as someone from this outsider dominant culture, this blind-spot means that unless it is explicit or unless it is placed in context, I wouldn’t get it because it doesn’t reflect my experiences. But I loved the fanfic anyway just as a story – I think it captured Jodie … the Doctor’s Jodie’s – I don’t know what you refer to them as – whatever – the Thirteenth Doctor? I think she’s the Thirteenth Doctor?

Robert: Yeah well it’s very confusing now. We had a nerd quiz and the nerd quiz had a furious debate about that for half an hour.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah, I can imagine. But I feel like it captured that character so well. I could see her saying these things. But because I was also reading it in preparation for this episode, I could feel that aspect come through so much that you can’t divorce your identity from what you’re writing even if you’re not meaning to write about your identity. If that makes sense.

Robert: Oh my god yes.

Parinita: [laughs] So just going back to Ryan, I’ve heard this critique by other people as well who write about disabilities and I think it came up in a couple of the podcast episodes that we listened to where the family or the friend of the person with the disability is centered in the narrative rather than the person with the disability themselves. And not just in fiction but also with charities. I think Marissa Lingen in the Breaking The Glass Slipper episode, talked about how that happens even in charities. Or was it the Witch, Please episode? Well one of them. That even a lot of charities tend to focus on the families or the caregivers rather than the person with the disability themselves. Which going back to Ryan and Graham, I was thinking about it not from your perspective but just as someone who’s learning about dyspraxia through Ryan, it seems to come up in the first few episodes and then on and off later. But then it just seems to have disappeared. There doesn’t seem to have been any mention of that later. Unless I’m misremembering.

Robert: No, I don’t think there is much later. I had to watch less and less of it because I found it genuinely impossible to watch ’cause I got too invested in Ryan as a character. I was just like, “Oh no he looks so unhappy!” Because this is obviously an escapist show predominantly. When someone you strongly identify with appears on an escapist show who looks like he wants to escape from the escapist show –

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Robert: [laughs] It becomes quite challenging to watch. So I always felt like – I don’t know how you say his name, that’s terrible – Tosin Cole who plays Ryan, his acting has been criticised a lot. But personally, I felt like it was really good. I felt like he was portraying someone with dyspraxia accurately to the point I found it uncomfortable to watch. I was like, “Oh my god that’s me on there looking awkward and sad.”

Parinita: Yeah.

Gif of Ryan. Text says: This is way too dark for me.

Robert: I’ve forgotten the question.

Parinita: No that’s fine, you answered it, I think. I’ve forgotten the question myself.

Robert: [laughs]

Parinita: It just made me think of something else. Ryan is a black man in England. I feel like that intersection could have been explored as well – disability and how other factors impact it. I think he’s from a working-class background as well.

Robert: Yeah.

Parinita: So you know the race, the gender, the disability could have been explored. As a man maybe he’s privileged in certain contexts. In terms of disability discourse in general and through these fan podcasts we listened to as well, I know that they spoke about how white men in certain contexts seem to be privileged over others. But then there are nuances in that as well, right? So I feel that there could have been more interesting possibilities that may still be explored. But I believe Ryan is – I don’t know how true this rumour is – but I think he’s leaving at the end of the season.

Robert: Yeah. He’s leaving at the end of the next episode.

Parinita: Yeah. So I don’t think there’s any room for exploration.

Robert: Seems unlikely. [laughs]

Parinita: Within the context of the Christmas episode or the New Year’s episode, I don’t think that’s going to happen. But apart from Ryan, you were also excited about Jodie Whittaker being the Doctor, right?

Robert: Yeah, definitely. For a few reasons. I found the last Doctor, Peter Capaldi, very challenging. To be honest, it took me a very, very long time to see him as the Doctor.

Parinita: Hmm.

Robert: More so than any of the others really. And I think looking back on it, it’s because the Doctor’s transformation from someone who’s relatively warm and young to someone who’s relatively cold and difficult reminded me of my own experiences with my mother as she grew older. And then I was like oh no I don’t want that. It’s weird – when Jodie was cast as the Doctor, I retrospectively realise on some level I’d always seen the Doctor as a maternal figure. Even though the Doctor had always been a man. It had always felt intrinsically right to me that the Doctor would be a woman. And so when the Doctor actually became a woman, I was really, really excited. And then when I watched the movie Adult Life Skills which Jodie is in, I got even more excited. In that movie, she plays a character who I don’t know if in the context of the movie she is on the spectrum, but she very, very much reminded me of someone who was. As someone who’s awkward. In the opening scene where she tried to microwave her bra because it’s wet and then the bra catches fire and the microwave explodes.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Robert: And I was like, “Oh my god I would totally do that if I was a woman!” And I saw myself in her character more than I think I had any character ever before. And I felt she was able to act with a sort of dignity in that role and treat someone who’s kind of weird and finds relating to the world difficult as still a real human person in a way that’s depressingly rare perhaps among actors. So I had a huge amount of respect for her as an actor for treating the role with respect and for being able to convey that.

Parinita: Yeah. And I find it really interesting that you read yourself into that character even though she wasn’t explicitly written as dyspraxic or autistic. And it’s something that I think in the Witch, Please episode, they mentioned as well where fans with disabilities – neurodiverse fans – read themselves into characters in Harry Potter.

Robert: Yes.

Parinita: Because Harry Potter is something I know better than Doctor Who. I love both but Harry Potter has been something that’s closer. And it’s something that would never have occurred to me. For example, they read Hermione and both Luna as autistic.

Robert: Yeah.

Tumblr screenshot. Text says. goodiesfanatic: Arthur Weasley is autistic. His special interest is Muggle technology and he infodumps about it all the time to anyone who will listen. Hermione Granger is autistic. She has poor social skills and doesn't realise how rude she can sometimes sound when she talks to people. Neville Longbottom is autistic. His special interest is Herbology and he struggles to concentrate in his other classes. Luna Lovegood is autistic. She goes non-verbal a lot and doesn't see the point of fitting in with the other students her age.

Parinita: Hermione for being socially awkward and she doesn’t fit in but she has this obsessive knowledge about all the things that she decides to learn. And Luna who talks without considering social cues and doesn’t conform to normative ideas and conversations and she’s dismissed for exactly that. And Newt Scamander from Fantastic Beasts, fandom has read him as neurodiverse as well. Which I find really interesting because I think in Witch, Please they said that often fans do this – and I don’t know if this reflects your own experiences – but when creators, especially creators who don’t have disabilities themselves, set out to write a character with a disability, they fall prey to certain ableist ideas. Or they promote certain ableist ideas. Whereas when fans are reading themselves into a character who isn’t written as a disabled character, they can then see their whole complex and nuanced identity reflected in that character.

Robert: Yeah. I had a bit of that myself when Matt Smith was the Doctor.

Parinita: Hmm.

Robert: Because among dyspraxic people, there was a tendency to read Matt Smith as dyspraxic. Which I think has been confirmed as not being intentional. But a lot of what he does in terms of falling over and causing messes and thinking he’s being cool and impressive but is actually causing a disaster, is quite resonant to people who have dyspraxia. So we’ve definitely done a bit of reading that in things ourselves in the dyspraxia Doctor Who community such as it is. I used to like imagining how his Doctor and Ryan might work together. I think Ryan would have a bit more fun and maybe his Doctor be a bit more responsible.

Gif of Matt Smith. Text says: I think you'll find I'm universally recognised as a mature and responsible adult.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah that’s true! Oh have you – I should – you should write fanfic about it! I’m like I should read fanfiction about it.

Robert: [laughs]

Parinita: I would love to read your fanfic. [laughs] You also mentioned an overlap with uncomfortable narratives around autism and how autism and dyspraxia often come together?

Robert: It goes back to what we were talking about in terms of when things are portrayed by family members. Because the fact of a disability or a marginalised identity being portrayed almost exclusively with children and almost exclusively by the people who live with them or care for them rather than the people themselves is something that is very, very common in autism and maybe even more in dyspraxia. But because I would say autism liberation is a lot more advanced than dyspraxia liberation, and because conversely the … autism non-liberation [laughs] is also more advanced in a terrifying way, I think if something like Ryan’s narrative had been attempted with autism, there would be a substantial amount of criticism, in a way I don’t think has been because it was dyspraxia.

Parinita: Hmm.

Robert: Because of Autism Speaks of course who are – for people who don’t know – an American-based charity, which I think is the premiere autism charity in America but who also literally campaigns for the eradication of autism. They fund research into eugenics. So these genes [?] are responsible for autism can be removed from the human race. And whose campaigning is very much around the concept or the idea that autistic people aren’t worthy and the challenges families face are the most important aspect of something like autism rather than the legitimacy of people who are autistic themselves. I think that’s much, much, much, much, much more extreme than anything that’s happened in any portrayal of dyspraxia and I wouldn’t want to suggest otherwise. But I guess that the reason that autistic people are uncomfortable about things being centered on family members is because once our own voices become marginalised and once our own humanity begins to be diminished, it does leave us open to narratives that are abusive. And makes it more difficult to counter abuse when it happens to us. Even if that abuse is nowhere near that extreme. And I think that something that we probably need to talk about more. People need to talk about dyspraxia more because they don’t really. I think the whole concept of dyspraxia liberation – that I don’t even know that exists really – but I think fundamentally reclaiming stories is as essential in dyspraxia as it would be for autism. And that would be true even if they weren’t often in people at the same time. Because otherwise we’re marginalising our own stories and that’s a very painful thing to experience in a story whoever you are.

Parinita: Yeah absolutely. The importance of this representation in science fiction and fantasy was explored in this essay that we read The Future Is Not Disabled. And the writer, they were talking about exactly what you said but in terms of science fiction. About how science fiction and these futuristic, technologically advanced worlds, seem to have no room for autistic characters or any kind of disabilities in general. And they are not using technology as access. There’s so many potentials and possibilities of using technology in creative ways in your worlds to show how people with disabilities can be included. And it’s not a deficient way of being; it’s just a different way of being. Basically science fiction and fantasy either relies on either technological or magical eugenics. They’re erasing any kind of disabilities from their future or their fantastical worlds.

Robert: Yeah.

Parinita: Which is also really problematic.

Robert: Yes. You saying that has made me realise that’s why I’ve been uncomfortable for so long with humanism as it’s commonly portrayed in science fiction. Because it is often overwhelmingly about erasing things that don’t fit the writer’s idea of what being human is.

Parinita: Hmm.

Robert: And putting things into a narrow perspective that I’ve always felt has excluded me. And often taking as an assumption a centered world that to me as an outsider seems quite different from how I would perceive the world to be. I guess that’s probably true of any marginalised person that if they were to read a non-marginalised person’s account of parts of the world they’ve experienced, there would be things about it that are obviously wrong just because of that person’s own ignorance of that.

Parinita: Yeah.

Robert: And the sort of science fiction I enjoy and I try to create would probably usually be about explicitly challenging that idea that that’s what the future is or has to be. Or that something that ends up looking like that is progress or anything like it.

Parinita: Yeah.

Robert: Because it comes back to the idea of always being told that a progressed world is a world which has eradicated you. And being able – having the self-confidence to say that is wrong.

Parinita: Yeah. I know there has been this movement with disabilities and also Afrofuturism that is the same sort of movement that came to be because of the erasure of black bodies and black lives and black culture in the future. Unless it’s still a racist society. It’s 3000 years from now but racism still exists. And ableism still exists. Talking about your own writing, even though Never Change was not about disability, you said that you realised that it had become an unintentional version of Ryan’s story?

Robert: Yes. I realised while I was writing it that that story is way more autobiographical than probably any of the other stories I’ve written. It’s about a young man whose whole family regenerates because a regeneration bomb goes off at his house. And then they become completely different people who don’t remember him. And they want him to turn into a completely different person as well in order to satisfy them. And in the story the main character’s mother is someone who has found the world very challenging. Because she is someone who legitimately has real problems that need real support and that she has relied very heavily on her son. But something that’s quite important in this story is that to regenerate into someone else, you lose everything about who you are. You literally become another person. And that other person is happy but they don’t have any memory of you or any resemblance to you really. You lose everything about you, that’s important to you. And the end of the story is ultimately about the main character saying, “I don’t want to do this.” And saying that the main character rejecting that is okay. Which is honestly not a message I would expect to see in Doctor Who. Because there’s a way in which it feels quite at odds with the narrative which often is about people sacrificing themselves for other people. And making an assumption that they have to even in cases like Ryan’s where often it feels like he’s sacrificing himself to someone who’s got significantly more power and privilege than he does.

Parinita: Yeah.

Robert: And for their expectations and thoughts without really much consideration being given to them. To him. So having a character stand up and say I’m going to do this thing for myself that is explicitly selfish in this way was something that simultaneously felt like it was important to have a story about but also felt like it was something very taboo to say. Pretty much all the Doctor Who fanfiction I wrote was stuff that I thought an actual Doctor Who episode would never be able to do or never be willing to do. But stuff that I felt was still true and important to say. And I think that sort of someone who is in vulnerable position asserting their own needs and asserting their own boundaries with the knowledge of destructive consequences was a story I felt should be told somewhere. Even if it would have to be in a fanfiction that people don’t read.

Parinita: No, I’m so glad that you did because like you said, it’s something that might reach someone that doesn’t see this in canon. I think a lot of fanfiction not only has the potential to do that, but does do that where you discover things you’re missing out in canon. And that where’s a lot of fanfiction starts from as well where you’re not seeing this in canon in your favourite world. You want to fix it.

Robert: Yes.

Parinita: Or challenge those notions and those ideas and make up your own while you play around in that world.

Robert: I guess I’ve always felt that fanfiction is a way to be able to say that these things you think should be true or are true somewhere.

Parinita: Hmm.

Robert: And so it’s not necessarily because you think how things are in canon is wrong or because you’d do them better, but because you need them to be true somewhere.

Parinita: Oh, I love that idea! And it also is different in terms of who’s reading it. Different people might get different things out of it as well.

Robert: Yeah.

Parinita: I loved your fic. When I was reading it, it made me think of different expressions of trauma – not just in your fic itself in the way that the characters engage with different kinds of traumatic experiences but also in Doctor Who in general and Harry Potter. I was recently re-watching the Christopher Eccleston series of Doctor Who. And when I’d first watched it, it was my first encounter with Doctor Who and I didn’t realise how traumatised his character was. I know he dropped hints about Gallifrey [the Doctor’s home planet] being destroyed or him believing Gallifrey is destroyed and him being a refugee of war and him being the last Time Lord. But just the trauma that he carries and the way that it impacts his whole life. Even though Rose sees him in a certain way. And everyone else sees him in a certain way. Because he has these … I don’t know if I’m saying this coherently … but he has both this lightness and darkness in him at the same time. In the way that he engages with the world. Which I thought was really very sad because I think in a lot of Doctor Who conversations, David Tennant and Matt Smith’s Doctor seem to be the most popular and well Jodie now because she’s awesome. But Christopher Eccleston, because he was only there for one season and I think the actor left on not very good terms –

Robert: No.

Parinita: His Doctor is very much side-lined in conversations. Which I understand but it just struck me as so profoundly sad – his character. Especially since he’s only there for a season. And then that made me start thinking about trauma in Harry Potter as well. Because of all these conversations that make me see things differently. When I go to these worlds again, it makes me see these characters in new ways. And it’s something that we’ve spoken about in a previous episode where Harry Potter’s PTSD is something that I never caught.

Robert: Hmm.

Parinita: I would never have had the knowledge or the tools or resources to identify that myself. But in fandom, the conversation has just given me this new lens to view the character. I re-read The Philosopher’s Stone and I’m currently reading The Chamber of Secrets and the Dursleys’ abuse! Forget his parents and what other things happened with Voldemort and Sirius and everything to come. But even when he’s eleven and twelve, the kind of abusive household he’s lived in. It’s very Roald Dahlesque.

Robert: Hmm.

Parinita: I think that’s what J. K. Rowling was going for. But in one of the fan podcasts that I listen to, The Gayly Prophet, they said that in Roald Dahl, the narrator usually very quickly shows themselves on the child’s side, which J. K. Rowling does as well. But in Roald Dahl’s books, the child immediately starts – well not immediately, but soon starts countering and challenging the adult abuse. Whereas Harry, he has to live with them for another – we meet him when he’s ten.

Robert: Hmm. Yes.

Parinita: And he lives with them until he’s seventeen. He has to keep going back to this abusive household for a reason that he doesn’t know. And that makes it so much more difficult. And Dobby as well. In The Chamber of Secrets, I’ve just met Dobby again.

Robert: Yeah.

Image of Dobby the house elf

Parinita: And the accounts of self-harm that he does and just his sense of identity and inferiority – he’s so happy and so grateful for just the smallest semblance of kindness from Harry. The most basic decent behaviour. Just an example of how trauma has such different and complex impacts on mental well-being. And it’s something that I’ve been thinking of more now than ever because with the pandemic and the lockdown in India and the UK and in different parts of the world, the whole world is going through this collective trauma and dealing with it in so many different ways. I’m dealing with it in so many different ways. I prefer not to examine my trauma.

Robert: [laughs]

Parinita: So I cope with work or books or media or whatever. But that’s also a coping mechanism I guess. It’s just that’s now so much more at the forefront of my mind.

Robert: Yeah. As someone who’s had a lot of trauma, I found in some ways the pandemic to be quite liberating because everyone being traumatised and talking about it all the time made me feel much more normal and comfortable in the world so that was quite nice. And the idea that fiction in general would be exploring these things much more because they would be experiences that were so common and widely known is something that’s almost like, “Oh my god now everyone sees the world the same way as me!”

Parinita: Yeah.

Robert: That makes me feel less exhausted somehow. Which doesn’t mean that I’m glad it’s happened. [laughs]

Parinita: No.

Robert: Because it means a lot of people are having awful experiences that feel like awful experiences I’ve had. But I guess it does feel like these things we’re talking about are likely to become much more – I mean I don’t know what speculative fiction becomes after this.

Parinita: Hmm.

Robert: I was just thinking like Doctor Who itself. How does something like the Doctor who is someone who travels through time and space handle the whole future changing very suddenly? Because the character is fictional, obviously the character never said, “Hey how about that Coronavirus that changes everything?”

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Robert: But then obviously when you come back, you have to say, “There’s been this Coronavirus that changes everything.”

Parinita: Yeah.

Robert: And that whole sort of changing what future is and what speculative fiction is, is quite well hopefully leads to some positive things and not just negative ones. I should have said that more positively.

Parinita: [laughs] For me, it has been more positive. And of course, this comes from a huge position of privilege.

Robert: Yes.

Parinita: Because I don’t have to worry about money because I’m on a university scholarship and they’re continuing to pay me. And I have a house. I can buy groceries. I even have access to parks. I don’t have a garden but I can go to parks in socially distanced ways. And I can bake and cook and things. Whereas in India – I know in the UK there’s a lot of different bad contexts and the US as well that’s in the news. But in India, oh my god, everything’s so much worse. [This episode was recorded before George Floyd was murdered in the US which sparked riots across the country, so the situation in the US is quite terrible as well for different reasons]

Robert: Yeah.

Parinita: Because there are so many really dispossessed people who don’t have access to even the basic things that they need. And there are no systems in place to fix that. Whereas in the UK or other developed nations, there are. So of course, this all comes from a huge place of privilege. But at the same time, I really like seeing this feeling of community, I guess. Where like you said, you feel like you’re not going through this yourself. That’s what’s giving me a little bit of comfort as well. Even something like art because I’m in the children’s books industry, I’ve seen a lot of writers are coming and reading out their books daily.

Robert: Yeah.

Parinita: Some of my favourite writers are doing this. And trying to add some joy in a world which seems devoid of it. And just trying to have some hope and comfort, which gives me hope and comfort.

Robert: Yeah.

Parinita: You know that meme that’s going around that everybody thought that a dystopia would involve looting and violence and whatever. And people are just baking and cooking and putting out more art in the world.

Robert: Yeah.

Parinita: Which, again, is a privileged view. And I know in some parts of the world, this is happening. This dystopia is and was present. But I’m speaking from my experience. And hopefully these conversations – not just about trauma and other things but the broken systems that are so much more in relief now.

Robert: Yeah.

Parinita: I hope that gets fixed in the future. I don’t know – this is just – I’m an optimist. Maybe naively so. But I’m just … yeah.

Robert: Oh no I was just thinking I’m writing fanfic about all the stuff you’re talking about now. I was like that’s quite funny.

Parinita: Oh really?!

Robert: Yeah! About the coronavirus and trauma as a result of it. And trauma coming up from it. And trying to resolve it and what to build after all of it. And I was just like gosh we’re all – well we’re both on the same page there. So that’s nice.

Parinita: Yeah that’s perfect. I can’t wait to read it. I turn to art for comfort – mostly books but also TV shows and movies and things. Like a lot of people are in the world right now.

Robert: Yeah.

Parinita: So I love that you’re creating art to add to what’s out there. Which for me, I currently can’t do. That artistic part of me is just shut down and it’s gone for a really long nap. So currently I can’t do this. I need some time. I’m pushing myself into this podcast which seems like a different part of my brain than my writing children’s books writing part of the brain. Which I’m still not ready to do.

Robert: Thank you for having me on your show and listening today.

Parinita: Thank you so much for being on this podcast and being a part of my project! It was just such a fantastic conversation, I think. I really enjoyed – well catching up with you but also with this very focused hyper-specific thing. I learned a lot from our conversation and I hope our listeners will as well. Thank you so much for being a part of this conversation!

Robert: Thank you.

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode on representations of dyspraxia and autism in Doctor Who. Thank you Robert for so generously sharing your experiences and perspectives on the podcast. You can find Robert’s short story in Stim, an anthology of writing and art by autistic people published by Unbound Press and edited by Lizzie Huxley-Jones. His piece is a story about meeting a seal who pretended to be a human, then finding out that she was better at it than him. I’d also highly recommend Uncanny Magazine’s special issues about disability – Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction and Disabled People Destroy Fantasy. Both issues have a wide range of fiction and nonfiction about different disabilities and all the stories and essays are accessible online for free. You can find the links to both issues in the transcript. Thanks, as always, to Jack who somehow manages to edit my episode in the middle of all the other things he’s doing.

[Outro music]

You can now listen to Marginally Fannish on SpotifyAppleGoogle, or SoundCloud. I’d love to hear from you and talk to you – so any feedback, comments or critiques are very welcome! Get in touch with me on social media, leave a comment on my blog, or email me at edps@leeds.ac.uk. If you’d like to follow the podcast or the PhD project, visit my website marginallyfannish.org where you’ll find both the podcast episodes and the blog. You can also receive updates on Facebook or Instagram at Marginally Fannish or on Twitter where I’m @MarginalFannish. If you enjoyed the podcast, please share it with anyone you think will enjoy it too.

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

Episode 9 Destabilise Heterosexuality As A Default: Queer Representation in Media and Fandom

Episode Resources:

1) Fan podcast – Queer As Fiction Harry Potter, But Gayer

2) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Imaginary Deaths

3) Fan podcast – Imaginary World The Power of the Makeover Mage

4) Fan podcast – Witch, Please Witch, Please; Live & Unruly

5) Fan podcast – The Gayly Prophet Queer Children Are Our Future

6) Essay – Deconstructing Disney: The Princess Problem of ‘Frozen II’

Episode Transcript:

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

Photo of Diana Floegel

[Intro music]

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

[Intro music]

My name is Parinita Shetty and you’re listening to the ninth episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I chat with Diana Floegel about queer representation in media and how fandom engages with queerness.

Media industries and their cultural products reflect the structural heteronormativity prevalent in the real world. Mainstream media has popularised a more palatable version of queerness. It expects assimilation into the heteronormative default rather than exploring alternative structures. It also largely overlooks intersectional identities. Queer media representations – when they do exist – perpetuate limited narratives of being queer. They also promote troubling tropes and stereotypes which further reflect the lack of structural diversity.

Fandom can act as an alternative to mainstream media where people encounter queer ideas and content for the first time. Fan communities explore different sexual and gender identities. Fan campaigns demanding more queer representation in media can popularise fringe ideas and expand mainstream imaginations. Fan spaces feature both debates against as well as examples of the more problematic aspects of queer representation. Even fandom can reinforce dominant ideas when it features different levels of acceptance for different kinds of queerness. However, some fan communities have offered a supportive space for queer people and their experiences.

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: I’m so excited to have Diana Floegel on the podcast today. Diana is a doctoral candidate in Information Science at the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University in the US. Their research generally applies a queer theoretical lens to phenomena surrounding people’s information creation practices, sociotechnical assemblages and information institutions such as libraries. And their dissertation work specifically focuses on queer people who write slash fanfiction. Diana has lifelong love-hate relationships with fandoms ranging from Harry Potter to musical theatre to Batwoman. I love it. Their research interests inspired today’s episode where we’re going to look at queer representation in media and in Harry Potter as well as how fandom engages with queerness. So to begin with, Diana, could you tell us a little bit about your own experiences with the topic either as a researcher, a fan, or even from your own personal life?

Diana: Yeah absolutely. So, hi everyone. So in terms of my personal life, I’ve been a fan since probably before I can remember. When I was younger, I was obsessed with a small selection of picture books and I started writing self-insert fanfiction.

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana: Which is rather embarrassing. [laughs] But I started writing self-insert fanfiction probably in elementary school. And started reading fanfiction in high school. And it was really important to read slash especially then because there was even less queer representation in media than there is now. And so that’s where I found a lot of what I wanted to see in terms of particularly lesbian and gay folks and relationships in fanfiction. And so when I started researching as a career, as a PhD student, there’s some gaps in my discipline that I think fanfiction can fill and thinking about queer-authored fanfiction can fill. Or can start to fill. I identify as a constructivist epistemically and so it made sense to me to do some work around queer-authored fanfiction.

Parinita: That sounds amazing. And it’s also really similar to my own experiences a little bit. Right from writing self-insert fanfic when I was in primary school [laughs]. But I did it in my head. So The Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley, I used to read a lot of that when I was younger. And I created this new school which was very much a copy of both Sweet Valley and The Baby-Sitters Club but I just came up with new characters – all of which I wanted to be and sort of represented me a little bit.

Diana: Amazing.

Parinita: [laughs] Because that’s what you do as a kid.

Diana: [laughs]

Parinita: Queerness is not something that I encountered in school or my family because it’s not something that, at least in my community, nobody really broached these topics about different gender or sexual identities. So my first encounter with these ideas was in fandom as well, when as a thirteen-year-old, I discovered Harry Potter fanfiction on this website called Mugglenet. And even then I wasn’t really a romance reader but you can’t be – or at least then you couldn’t be – a part of the fanfic community even as a lurker which I was – without coming across shipping in some form. Where fans imagine which characters would end up or should end up in relationships. I know you know this, this is just for people who might not know this. [laughs]

Diana: [laughs] Oh absolutely, yeah.

Parinita: So this was before all the books had come out, so the main ships at that time that I first encountered were either Harry/Hermione or Harry/Ginny or Hermione/Ron. There were these huge shipping wars that used to happen which I used to ignore because I used to just read and write really random fic. There were no relationships in it. But it was only when I spent more time in fandom that I discovered slash shipping. So queering canonically straight characters like Harry and Draco – which again, for people who don’t know what slash is. Though when I re-read The Philosopher’s Stone a few weeks ago, I couldn’t un-see that ship now.

Diana: Oh a hundred percent. [laughs]

Fan art of Draco and Harry inter-twined in Christmas lights with Pansy on one side and Hermione on the other. Text says - Draco: I swear to Merlin Parkinson if you don't release me THIS INSTANT I will make you SUFFER I will make your whole FAMILY suffer I will murder you in your sleep and I will make sure it looks like an accident you nasty little excuse for a friend I - Pansy: Oh, DO shut up 'Potter this', 'Potter that'. it has to STOP. We'll be back in two hours. Harry: Hermione - Hermione: I'm SORRY Harry but this is the only thing she's actually right about.

Drarry fan art courtesy Pinterest

Parinita: Right?! I mean I’m not really a shipper myself, that’s not how I read books. Romance is something that’s secondary, it gets in the way of the plot mostly for me. Just in any books. But now that I read it, I was like, “Oh my god Draco definitely has a giant crush on Harry!” [laughs] Even if it’s not romantic, I feel like he definitely wants to be friends with him. Maybe watching Cursed Child – because in that same week, I watched Cursed Child in London – and maybe that had a roundabout effect on my interpretation. But I can’t un-see it now. Draco and Harry, yeah, that’s my ship. [laughs]

Photo of Palace Theatre London with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Palace Theatre, London

Diana: Yeah! Cursed Child is – so first of all, I really relate to what you said about not having any sort of conceptions or examples or representations of queerness around you in your everyday life.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: Or your non-media, non-fandom life. Because I had a very similar experience. I grew up in a family where I’m the only openly queer person.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: And grew up Catholic and in a fairly conservative area and so it was really nowhere. So fandom was very key in that sense. But Cursed Child specifically is so queerbaity! So when I say queerbaiting

Parinita: Oh my god yes!

Diana: Oh my god.

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana: So I mean there’s this very significant, very – particularly to a lot of queer folks – very obvious subtext that these characters are more than friends, right? [laughs] Or more than … in some sort of platonic relationship that never actually comes to fruition.

Parinita: I mean not just to queer folks. I am very cisgender, I’m very heterosexual.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: And Scorpius and Albus are definitely a couple. [laughs]

Diana: Oh my god yes! Jesus!

Screenshot of a tweet by @annabroges. Text says: if you're sad that it's monday just imagine all the holidays harry and draco are going to have to spend together once their sons get married

Image courtesy BuzzFeed

Parinita: Like I said, I don’t usually look for subtext in these things. And after listening to a few of the podcasts, but even otherwise through fandom, I know a lot of queer folks do queer the canon a lot – looking for subtext and things. And with disabilities as well.

Diana: Oh definitely, yeah.

Parinita: I’ve spoken about this with somebody else. Just because you don’t see yourself represented so you do that. And with racebending as well.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: But with Scorpius and Albus, it’s so obvious. There’s no subtext there. Spoilers – but whatever he has a crush on Rose which seems so crowbarred in.

Diana: Oh yeah.

Parinita: Right? Yeah, no. They’re definitely a couple. [laughs]

Diana: They are. And I will also freely admit I am a shipper. I think there’s a little bit of a misconception, particularly from folks who are outside of fandom, that all fic and all slashed or queer fic is ship-related fic.

Parinita: Hmm.

Diana: And it’s not. It’s definitely not. But I am a shipper. [laughs] And I love a good ship fic, I love tropey-ness in ships.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Diana: So I will freely admit that. And my partner and I sometimes get into very happy fun little tiffs about this. When I’ll be like, “Oh they’re definitely a couple.” And she’s like, “All they did was look at each other!”

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana: No, they were meant to be. [laughs]

Parinita: I love it. I think I do this with some things, with middle-grade and young adult fantasy books sometimes. And I think a lot of fandom research does look at shipping – not shipping, but does look at a lot of fanfiction communities.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: At least the research that I’ve come across. So I feel like I’m the oddball who doesn’t ship and who’s not having – I’ve fallen into that mainstream idea.

Diana: [laughs]

Parinita: Because I’m usually a lurker.

Diana: Hmm.

Parinita: I used to write fanfiction as a teenager. I wrote a sitcom version of Voldemort and the Death Eaters [laughs].

Diana: Amazing.

Parinita: So there was no shipping there. But yeah, after years of being a lurker, I’ve come back into creating things with this podcast. But yeah sorry that was a sidetrack.

Diana: Oh no, no.

Parinita: So something that you mentioned as well and something I think in the Queer As Fiction episode, one of the hosts Ashly mentioned, where she shared her coming out story.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: Because she grew up super Christian as well. Which seems to be a big reason in the US for the tension with coming out and finding support. Which I was thinking is so different from India.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: Just the context – or at least the reason for why coming out would be difficult. In India, I think it’s less about religion. It’s more about just social pressures and social conditioning. It’s a very patriarchal, very heterosexual –

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: Well … not traditionally. Not thousands of years ago. But after the British Empire came, we still had their outdated, obsolete laws against homosexuality. And it was illegal and then it was legal again for a bit and then it was illegal again and now it’s legal again. So there was a big back and forth in the Supreme Court in India as well. But it’s still not very mainstream. [Recently, a queer student committed suicide in Goa, India after being forced into conversion therapy by her family]

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: In the big cities in India, we have pride parades and things. And I’d gone for a pride parade as a teenager because – again, because that’s what I discovered through fandom and I was like, “No, I have to support this now that I’m seeing it in my real  community. So I should go and support it as an ally.” With media, I know that in the West there is still a lack of representation of queerness onscreen and in books.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: But so much more than what you’d see in Indian media. Even though now there is more of a push-back against that.

Diana: Yeah. So that’s really interesting. Because I think you’re right. The US context is an interesting one because I mean first of all, we are the colonisers, right? [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana: That’s sort of what the US does. But we have this … [sighs] very limited I think amount of acceptance. Where there are palatable versions of queerness that I think have gone mainstream and have hit mainstream media. And so a lot of that intersects with race, right. So white people who are queer tend to be represented more than people of colour who are queer.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: And cisgender people are represented far more than trans folks and nonbinary folks. And there are very limited ways in which trans people are represented too. And so there’s a lot of this still structural cis- and heteronormativity that happens that can seep into media. And even outside of media, right? It’s always interesting to me that the most known, I would argue, landmark in LGBTQ+ rights has to do with marriage equality, right?

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: And marriage is a traditionally normative institution. And some folks might say – now listen, I say this as someone who thinks that getting married is a beautiful thing for a lot of folks. And also really important in terms of being protected and being with a person that you love etc. But we have to assimilate into what the heteronormative default is rather than think about alternative or reoriented structures.

Parinita: Absolutely. That’s something I was thinking of as well. Because just in terms of all marginalised identities you know.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: This is something we’ve spoken about before on the podcast in terms of disability where even disabled folks have to assimilate into abled communities and the abled view of the world.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: And racial as well. And ethnicity, national origin whatever. But especially with queerness because right now I’m thinking that the most mainstream gay couple that I can think of is in Modern Family.

Diana: Oh yeah.

Photo of Cam and Mitchell from Modern Family

Image courtesy Indie Wire. Photo by ABC-TV/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Eric Stonestreet

Parinita: I mean yeah you have them as this gay couple, but you could have them as a straight couple and it wouldn’t really – it’s not so different. So there’s this very fixed idea of what a family is. [An article presenting an alternative view of the importance of these characters in Modern Family]

Diana: Yup.

Parinita: And I’m trying to read more about these things because it is a blind-spot. Most of my friends are straight and most of my friends are cisgender.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: So I try and read about it because that’s how you learn about these things that you wouldn’t encounter otherwise. And I know that a lot of queer communities are trying to fight for a different way of life. It’s a feminist project as well.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: Not just what you see in the status quo. You just look at different ways of being.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: But the media then just presents this very singular narrative of being queer. So what you were saying, that there’s just one way to be queer and you have to assimilate into that.

Diana: Yeah absolutely. And it’s interesting too when you were talking about coming out stories etc., that a lot of times the dominant conception of coming out is that it’s an event rather than a process. And a never-ending process. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: And always a risks/benefits analysis too, right? Always little calculations like, “Is it worth it to mention something in this context where nobody knows who I am?” Particularly because heterosexuality and being cisgender are the defaults. And also as someone who identifies as nonbinary but who very easily and sometimes frustratingly so – although I also recognize, it gives me a lot of privileges – passes as a cis woman.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: It can be a tricky calculation. It’s not just like I sit some people down on a couch once and have this sort of great confession and then we move on.

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana: Or I’m disowned or murdered or you know whatever the [laughs] sob story would be – but yeah.

Parinita: Yeah absolutely! And it’s also like you said, the risks and benefits. So in one of the podcasts, the Imaginary Worlds one about The Power of the Makeover Mage.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: I think a nonbinary guest was also saying the same thing. And a trans guest was saying that while playing video games, they found this ability to play with their identities – a relatively safe space within the video game to play with their identities.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: And to experiment with their identity. But then when you go into the wider video gaming community, anybody who’s on the internet a little bit or in fandom research a little bit, we know about Gamergate.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: And how toxic the video game community can be.

Diana: Absolutely.

Parinita: I think one of the guests said that if you’re only going to be with this random player for five minutes, you don’t want to be – like you said – coming out or … who do you come out to and why?

Diana: Exactly.

Parinita: Because it’s still the default. If you sound like a woman, then you will have to go through this whole process that may not really be safe to do either. Forget the whole emotional labour that you have to do but it might actually be dangerous.

Diana: Yeah. Definitely.

Parinita: So media does play a role in either normalising or marginalising queerness. And it can shape mainstream imaginations which in turn can then influence culture and then even politics.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: So in terms of queerness, I know that there is more representation in Western media than in Indian media.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: But something that we came across in one of the podcasts was this whole “bury your gays” trope. And is that something that you’ve come across yourself?

Diana: Definitely. Yes. So that’s something that I’ve come across in my own personal media consumption and also that’s something that a lot of my own dissertation participants and participants in other research that I’ve done on queerness and media creation or fandom have talked about. And so it’s basically this idea that sometimes in a piece of media – on television, in a movie, in a book – there will be oftentimes one or two queer characters in a larger sea of cis-hetero characters. And oftentimes you’ll be made to love them or appreciate them or even you’re just super excited because there’s a glimpse of queerness. And then they are killed – oftentimes very violently. And so that’s where this bury your gays idea comes from. And I do think that now there is slightly more awareness that this is a thing. I feel like there was a bit of a shift, honestly when there was a character who was killed off of a television show that in the US airs on the CW that’s called The 100.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: And that got a lot of attention as something that should not have happened because it was shocking and violent and the whole show had kind of built up this relationship and they finally get together and then this one character is murdered.  But what’s interesting too is that even after that happened and after there was this uproar around it, right – some people almost framed that like a last straw kind of thing – there are still a lot of examples of media that have come out after that where this has happened. Where there’s a sudden, unexpected, violent death of the only – or one of the only queer characters in the entire universe.

Parinita: Yeah and especially when there’s such little representation. So the Imaginary Worlds episode that we listened to, about Imaginary Deaths,

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: It signposted this other podcast called Lez Hang Out. And they had a Bury Your Gays episode as well. One of the hosts there, she spoke about Willow and Tara … Tara … Tara? [tries different pronunciations]

Diana: Yeah, Tara, yeah.

Photo of Willow and Tara from Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Tara and Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Image courtesy here

Parinita: Where that whole thing impacted her so much even though she acknowledged that in the scheme of the story, it made sense. And in terms of Willow’s character arc, she liked the character arc but did not like how it was done and why it was done. What she said was, “It gets better and then you die.”

Diana: That’s exactly – yes!

Parinita: It would totally be all right – obviously a lot of straight/cis/hetero characters die and you’re not – you feel an impact because they spoke about parasocial relationships that fans form with these characters that you feel like you know them. I mean even if in a show that everyone dies but if there’s one queer character and they always die – it becomes a trend – it’s very problematic.

Diana: Absolutely.

Parinita: And this is something that again – I know I keep harking back to previous episodes, but there’s such a common thread between all these marginalised representations because this happens with disabled characters as well. Where they’re killed off to propel the stories of abled characters or characters of colour who are killed off to propel the stories of white characters in Western media.

Diana: Absolutely.

Parinita: And of course bury your gays only works if there are gay characters in your story at all. You mentioned that you wanted to talk more about queerbaiting as well and how that’s a huge part of media.

Diana: Um hmm. Yeah, so totally with you on everything that you said and everything from your previous episode as well. It’s interesting to me that bury your gays got a lot of attention and has a specific name too when there are also documented trends of characters of colour who are killed off as well. And I also think there’s an intersection here. So The Wire is a good example of this. Sorry, spoiler alerts!

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana: I’ll get to queerbaiting in a second – but there is another common trend that’s sometimes called a triple threat minority character or something like that.

Parinita: Oh no! [laughs]

Diana: Right. Where you put all of the quote unquote – heavy quotes here – “difference” into one character. And that one character is supposed to be #diversity.

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana: In your otherwise very whitewashed, very cis, very straight, very abled show. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: So that’s an interesting one too.

Parinita: And that places so much of a burden as well, right, on that one character.

Diana: Oh yeah.

Parinita: Because they are the only representations of everything then they have to be perfect. And make everybody happy.

Diana: Yes! One example that I know a lot of folks use is Sara Ramirez’s character on Grey’s Anatomy.

Parinita: Hmm oh yeah!

Gif of Sara Ramirez's character from Grey's Anatomy. Text says: So I'm bisexual. So what? It's called LGBTQ for a reason. There's a B in there and it doesn't mean Badass. Okay, it does, but it also means Bi.

Diana: [laughs] So queerbaiting is an interesting one, right. Because all of these to me are related to – I’m coming from a US context specifically – but structural problems throughout the entire society, right? So very institutionalised whiteness, heteronormativity, cisnormativity etc. And so this sort of necessarily trickles down into media industries, right. And so media industries are producing content that reflects a lot of these institutionalised violent normativities. And so queerbaiting is an interesting one because media creators know that there are queer audiences out there who are thirsty for content.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: And some of them are explicit about it – that they are teasing us with these characters and will say on panels at Comic Con – they’ll make jokes about it. Or there was a video that came out – I think it was Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Holland from the newest Spider-Man movie that involves Tom Holland. There are so many Spider-Man movies!

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Diana: [laughs] That’s a movie that’s been accused of baiting those two characters. And so in this little clip, they actually pretended to kiss each other and then laughed like, “Hahaha so funny! That would never happen in this mainstream Marvel movie!” But first of all, why?

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana: And second of all, that’s a pretty good example of how this is a common industry practice that’s framed as a joke. And that’s pretty violent towards queer audiences and frustrating. So the Supernatural creators have pretty explicitly played into this; on Supergirl they pretty explicitly played into this, right.

Parinita: Sherlock as well.

Diana: Oh my gosh!

Parinita: And there one of the creators, Mark Gatiss, he’s gay.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: But I don’t know if it was with Sherlock or with somebody else, I’ve come across this idea that they feel like they’re doing it as a good thing for their queer fans – without recognising how, like you said, violent it is. You place so much of your emotional everything on these characters that you think are queer and then it’s snatched away from you.

Diana: Exactly!

Parinita: Even if they’re not doing it intentionally, it is such a blind-spot and it is structural, like you said. We talk a lot about the need for having diverse creators in media, so having more queer creators. And obviously it works in some instances. But in other instances – Sherlock, for example, and Doctor Who as well. I think now Doctor Who, I don’t know how familiar you are with it, but it is becoming a little more queer-friendly and in terms of diversity, a diverse cast, diverse writers and everything.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: But traditionally it has – even in the new season, it has been very … yeah like the status quo. Very much what it used to be and very much what all media used to be. Even when you have someone like Mark Gatiss, who is a gay man.

Diana: Yeah. So I’m really glad you brought up the idea of hiring practices in media because this is something that I think is really interesting. There is a good book – it’s an academic book for – to warn listeners who might not want to read that. I understand.

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana:. But it’s called Race and the Cultural Industries.

Parinita: Hmm.

Diana: And one of the main points that it makes is that we can extend Audre Lorde’s ideas about having a seat at the table to talk more broadly about having a voice at the table.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: And so just because you have people of colour, queer people, disabled people in a room doesn’t mean that they are going to be able to have the same amount of influence in that room as folks who are more structurally socially powerful, right, because societal power dynamics are still going to be at play there. And so it is of course extremely important to diversify media industries, but at the same time, that sometimes is just a band-aid on top of this larger structural problem. Because if you’re not providing overall the equipment or the scaffolding or whatever it is that you want to call it, that marginalised people are going to need in order to succeed and also not burn-out on all of the emotional labour that they’re giving into this industry.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: That’s more than just a hiring process, right? And that sometimes also can require a totally fundamental retooling of how it is that we’re thinking about these institutions, including media institutions. If that makes sense.

Parinita: That’s such a good point. Because what you’re saying, it’s really important, of course, in media industries, but it also reminded me of what happens in fandom.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: So Rukmini Pande is a researcher who’s written Squee from the Margins.

Diana: I love that book!

Parinita: Yeah, me too. And that’s something that actually made me reorient my thinking. I started reading it at the beginning of my PhD a couple of years ago. So when fandom is so white and dominated by white and Western fans.

Diana: Yes.

Parinita: So it’s socially conditioned within you as well. Even though I wasn’t white and I wasn’t Western, like her, I still thought that there’s nobody else like me out there.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: So I’m not going to talk about my identity. Then she’s looked at the racism problem in fandom.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: Where it is the burden of fans of colour to talk about these things. And when they do talk about these things, they’re usually either listened to and then dismissed or just attacked.

Diana: Exactly.

Parinita: And even with slash ships – I know you mentioned this briefly before – but she’s done work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as well as Star Wars.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: She’s researched how white slash ships are more likely to be popular and there are more people who are writing about that versus any characters of colour.

Diana: Absolutely. Pande’s work is inspiring. I think that she’s brilliant. And I’m really glad that she’s publishing and that she’s talking about this because it’s vital. And this is something that’s reflected in my own dissertation data too. I have participants who have told me that they will experience more policing in fandom, for example.

Parinita: Hmm.

Diana: So if they write characters of colour, they will, for example, receive fewer kudos.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: If we’re talking about Archive Of Our Own, the fanfiction platform, kudos are like likes on Facebook. And so they feel like those fics receive fewer kudos. Or they’ll receive fewer comments or the comments won’t be as positive. Even though AO3 in general is branded as a positive environment.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: That’s not the case for fans of colour a lot of the times. And the other thing that’s interesting is – so anonymity is a really interesting concept in fandom and on the internet. I think it’s hard oftentimes to maintain, and some folks don’t want to maintain it. And so I’ve had participants of colour who have told me that they also will face harassment for writing white characters.

Parinita: Hmm.

Diana: White fans will come after them and say, “You shouldn’t be writing for these characters.” Which is ridiculous!

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs]

Diana: And what you mentioned too about Western fandom is extremely true. And I think that because fandom or mainstream fandom spaces are predominantly English language, people who are living outside of Western societies or outside of the Global North have to do a lot more work than folks who are, for example, native English speakers. Or who are more familiar with Western cultural tropes.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: There are more language skills related to writing in English, right. And in order to get readers, oftentimes my participants say that they feel they have to write in English. And also in terms of what a lot of my participants have called “research”.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: And that’s what I mean, they have to research if they want to write a story that’s set in a certain place like how would that be legible or palatable to people who are native English speakers, for example.

Parinita: Also explaining your own culture and everything.

Diana: Yes!

Parinita: What you were saying about native English speakers – for a country like India, because Western culture is now currently global culture, we get a lot of Western media and everything. And we become fans of that. And India has a huge English-speaking population in cities and things.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: But it’s just this colonised mindset still that if you don’t see yourself represented, even in fandom – forget mainstream media, but even in fandom, if you don’t see yourself represented. Which is why Rukmini Pande’s book and her work was such a shift in my perception. Because it’s not something that I’d even thought about. My whole academic fandom research started with Henry Jenkins. And I love his work.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: But then Rukmini problematises it a little bit because it is so white and Western and middle-class.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: Because he’s one of the founding members of fan studies in general, that’s how fandom has gone. And even though I still think fandom can be a progressive space in certain aspects – for me, all my experiences with fandom have been relatively positive. Which is why my project is also looking at the more positive aspects because I’ve learned a lot from fandom. But I know that there are really toxic, really terrible things, some of what you’ve mentioned as well.

Diana: Yeah!

Parinita: And I’m glad that there are more conversations that are veering towards that. But even then, I think there is so much more work to be done and I’m glad that yeah, your research is also looking at that a little bit.

Diana: Yes, no, I’m glad that yours is too. And I fully agree with you. And it’s funny too, fandom is a really useful context through which to problematise the idea of canon.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: Right? But also there is a fan studies canon. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah! Absolutely.

Diana: And fan studies canon is super white and male. I get that Henry Jenkins was a pioneer in fan studies. But also he is kind of a utopian dude and that’s just not real.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: [laughs]

Parinita: So just to move back a little bit to what we were talking about earlier.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: I don’t even know if the retroactive reveal of Dumbledore’s gayness counts as queerbaiting. And obviously I wouldn’t have to ask this question if queerness in Harry Potter wasn’t only subtext and completely missing in actual canon.

Diana: [laughs]

Parinita: And that’s a problem with a lot of media, right?

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: Where fans have to queer the canon. Harry Potter, Frozen, whatever.

Diana: That’s a really good question. [laughs] So I think there is a very imperfect, very, very imperfect division right – I don’t really like binaries so I would not binarise them – but between the idea of queerbaiting and also the idea of queer-coding.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: And so I think that Dumbledore is a queer-coded character.

Parinita: Right.

Diana: He has some of the token, particularly media ideas around … particularly being a lonely queer character almost.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: Loneliness is sort of a common theme. So J. K. Rowling – known TERF.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: Not going to give her any credit.

Parinita: No.

Diana: For anything ever.

Parinita: No.

Diana: I have no problem believing that Dumbledore is queer particularly because one of my goals in life is to destabilise heterosexuality as a default. There’s an assumption, I think, that anyone whose sexuality is not otherwise identified is heterosexual.

Parinita: Right.

Diana: And so I would be very glad to say that Dumbledore’s sexuality is not identified and therefore he could be anything, right. He could be straight, he could be queer, he could be – this fits under a queer umbrella of course – but he could be ace [asexual], right. He could be any of these things.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: But J. K. Rowling going out there and being like, “Oh give me so much credit because I actually wrote a gay character and he was a main character. I just didn’t tell you.”

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana: “Until all of the books were published and I made my millions and millions of dollars.” Absolutely not!

Parinita: But even then, with the movies, in the Witch, Please podcast they’ve said before that it’s a political choice how you represent characters on the screen. So they were talking about Ginny how her character was butchered in the movies.

Diana: Yes, totally.

Parinita: I mean I know there are three more movies in the Fantastic Beasts series that are to come out, but through all indications, it doesn’t look like his relationship with Grindelwald is going to play a role in it. Or is even going to be mentioned as a relationship.

Diana: Yup. You’re absolutely right. See and this is why, again … canon is a very sticky, loose concept. Any sort of move to say that Dumbledore is canonically gay or that J. K. Rowling gave us a gay character … I’m sorry but where’s the proof? Other than J. K. Rowling probably doing a media stunt. Sorry but I don’t see … I have a lot of anger towards her.

Parinita: Yeah, no, and I completely understand why. Because like you said, if he’s queer-coded but if that’s something that is only then picked up on by possibly queer people and queer readers but not somebody like me, then there’s such an opportunity there to very explicitly have a character there which someone like me would also recognise and love.

Diana: Yes.

Parinita: Because I don’t have the tools to be able to identify and find the codes and the subtext that’s there. I know a lot of podcasters that I’ve listened to, Witch, Please, The Gayly Prophet, they read Madam Hooch as queer as well.

Diana: Oh one hundred percent yes. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah, yeah exactly. And now of course I take that as canon. Because I love the fan interpretation. So now when I’m reading the books, that’s what I see.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: But again, if I hadn’t come across this in fandom, I wouldn’t know this. And not everybody is a giant nerd like me who goes on these fandom things.

Diana: [laughs]

Parinita: So what about the more mainstream readers who would love to have this representation. Even if it’s not representation of their own identities, even with race where she co-opted Hermione being black. Because oh she didn’t say anything about Hermione being any other race. But actually, all the characters of colour in Harry Potter, are identified explicitly as being of colour. So the default is white.

Diana: Yup.

Parinita: Just like the default is heterosexual.

Diana: Yup.

Parinita: So you can’t then take credit. There’s this one fan text which I love which – “If Harry Potter taught us anything, it’s that nobody should live in a closet.” I love that.

Diana: Yes.

Image of a person wearing a T-shirt. The text on the T-shirt says: If Harry Potter taught us anything, it's that no one should live in a closet.

A fan text included in my master’s dissertation which looked at two Facebook fan pages

Parinita: What I don’t love is J. K. Rowling co-opting it and pretending as if that that was her idea all along.

Diana: Exactly.

Parinita: And not giving credit to fandom.

Twitter exchange between @wcnderwcmann and @jk_rowling. Text says - @wcnderwcmann: @jk_rowling it's safe to assume that Hogwarts had a variety of people and I like to think it's a safe place for LGBT students. @jk_rowling: .@iaraswinn But of course. [attached image] If Harry Potter taught us anything it's that no one should live in a closet.

Diana: Exactly! So there was a video series that a blog on Tumblr ran before Tumblr died.

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana: It took a bunch of popular movie franchises and just spliced together all of the scenes that had characters of colour speaking.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: And the Harry Potter video I think was like 40

Parinita: 6

Diana: seconds long or something

Parinita: minutes. Yeah.

Diana: Exactly. Yeah.

Parinita: Throughout the whole series. Yeah I’ve watched that video. It was quite sad.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: So in The Gayly Prophet the guest Kaeli spoke about how everyone goes through this Harry Potter phase and Percy Jackson phase while growing up. And I went through – I mean they were not phases, I still love both the book series. But Rick Riordan, even though he is very straight and an old white man basically. He’s very much the person at the top.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: But in his subsequent book series, he’s made such an effort to include diverse identities – when it comes to religion or disability or even queerness. And making it explicit.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: He’s not saying that this is subtext and you have to just figure it out yourselves and congratulations for figuring out these clues that I laid out. But he’s actually saying, no, this character is genderqueer, this character is pansexual. That I think is so much more important.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: He’s writing for middle-grade audiences as well. So he’s not writing for young adults. And he says that it’s very PG – there’s no explicit sex or anything in his books. Just the existence of a gay character or any sort of queerness doesn’t make it political. Or doesn’t make it unsuitable for children.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: Dumbledore being gay doesn’t mean that children wouldn’t come to the movie. That’s not a thing that would happen.

Diana: Right. I mean I think everything is political and so I think it is a huge political act to not represent anyone who’s queer or only represent whiteness, right.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: And to me, that’s the harmful political act. And that being said too, I will say I am with you on the Fantastic Beasts franchise in particular because this is the age when Dumbledore was supposed to be in a relationship with Grindelwald. This is what we were told.

Parinita: Exactly.

Diana: So this is not delivering. I think, and this is reflected in some of my research too, that representation is never the full story, right?

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: And so I do not want to negate or delegitimise anyone’s experience who has found some solace or identification with Dumbledore. But in terms of the larger political consequences of Dumbledore as a character, that was an utter failure. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah, what you said is completely correct. Because I met somebody at a workshop in the university library and she was saying that her kid is nonbinary and they were so happy to find out that Dumbledore is gay.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: Because for them, it was this recognition that they exist – maybe not their specific identity – but there is a different way of being even in the wizarding world. So it didn’t matter for them that it wasn’t explicitly mentioned that Dumbledore is gay. They still found a lot of comfort and a lot of hope. So I think that’s important as well.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: But then I also think it’s important to have more representation. And these conversations are important as well, right.

Diana: Definitely.

Parinita: Because then somebody who doesn’t think about these things might then discover these things. And what I found really interesting as well – that something I hadn’t thought of and somebody mentioned on the podcast – which was magic as a metaphor for gayness.

Diana: Hmm.

Parinita: Which an idea that I had never come across. I think they mentioned it in Harry Potter as well as in Frozen. Again both, Disney and Harry Potter – massive franchises – so much good could come out of including more explicit and not metaphorical representations of gayness.

Diana: Yes.

Parinita: I think everything should be explicit and not metaphoric. Metaphor is great if you are represented all the time in all media everywhere anyway.

Diana: Right.

Parinita: But not when you have to search for your identity every time.

Diana: Definitely. Yeah and I mean Disney – Jesus.

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana: Disney is built on the backbone of oppression, literally. And violence. [laughs] But also recent discourse around Disney has been … fascinatingly frustrating. Because nothing drives me crazier than – I shouldn’t say crazier – nothing angers me more than when Disney gets credit for having two women kiss in the background of a school pick-up scene and that’s the first time there’s ever been a quote unquote “gay kiss” in a Disney film. Wow! We should all be so excited! I am not excited about that.

Parinita: No.

Diana: I think that’s devastating.

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana: I know one of the articles that we read for the podcast was about like Elsa is queer-coded and the Give Elsa a Girlfriend campaign. And that’s never going to happen. [laughs]

Parinita: I think these campaigns do play a really important role because they can make fringe ideas mainstream.

Diana: For sure, yes.

Parinita: So obviously the goal would be for media to be diverse and inclusive of different kinds of identities. But even if the end content itself isn’t impacted now, I feel like these steps would hopefully – I’m an optimist so maybe naively so – [laughs]

Diana: [laughs]

Parinita: But I’m hoping that you know things like #OscarsSoWhite or #GiveElsaAGirlfriend or even the racebent Hermione thing. Which you know started in fandom with racebending Hermione but now it is canon of a sort. Which Cursed Child, the story is ridiculous and silly and absurd. And I don’t know if I actually consider it canon.

Diana: [laughs]

Parinita: But I love black Hermione. And also Indian – a desi Harry – I love that.

Diana: Yeah.

Fan art of Indian Harry Potter, black Hermione Granger, and Ron Weasley

Parinita: He’s not Indian in the Cursed Child. But I think these fandom campaigns can have an effect even if media itself isn’t ready to go there yet.

Diana: Yeah. I think that there’s a larger structural intervention that’s required in media.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: And right now a lot of times the work or burden will fall on fans to have these campaigns and to fight for this. And what’s unfortunate I think is that media, particularly in a Western context, is tied to capitalism.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: And so within a capitalist structure, first of all, that’s a huge contributor to these structural normativities. But also in a capitalist structure right now, queerness doesn’t really sell and the queerness that does sell is a very particular brand. And I use brand intentionally there.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: And so we have campaigns like Give Elsa A Girlfriend which I agree can be really good in terms of visibility and in terms of getting people to think. But we also have Disney stopping the Lizzie McGuire reboot ostensibly because the writers wrote a gay character and they were like we don’t want that on our streaming platform.

Parinita: Aaah!

Diana: And so these wider ties to profit motives etc. I think require some actual structural reorientation if we’re going to think about something like equity, for example, in media and stuff like that.

Parinita: No, absolutely. But that’s what I mean. I agree with you. I think everything is political. But just the mere existence of a diverse body or a diverse brain or a diverse anything that is not the norm shouldn’t be political. It is now because that is a fight that we’re all engaged in.

Diana: Right.

Parinita: But the idea that having a gay character on a Disney platform will what? Corrupt the children? Will turn everybody who watches them gay?

Diana: [laughs] Oh no!

Parinita: I don’t understand. Yeah because all those Harry Potter movies I’ve watched, I can do magic, I’m white.

Diana: [laughs]

Parinita: I don’t understand the logic behind that. Just the mere existence of a queer character shouldn’t – it is – but it shouldn’t be political. It should just be “normal” as much as I side-eye that word.

Diana: [laughs]

Parinita: But it should just be the norm. Right?

Diana: Yeah. I’m all for destabilising norms and stuff so it would just be nice if those avenues were more open, right? It would be nice.

Parinita: And what you said about the very specific idea of Disney’s diversity. Frozen is heralded as this feminist – and I love Frozen, I’m a sucker for a feel-good movie. And especially if it’s animated.

Diana: Sure. Oh yeah.

Parinita: But that essay Deconstructing Disney: The Princess Problem of Frozen II, I really liked how the essay spoke about even the colonisation aspect of it. I mean just because you’re a princess, doesn’t make you a feminist.

Diana: [laughs]

Parinita: I mean you are literally in power. You are the status quo.

Diana: Right.

Parinita: You are the privileged end of the imbalanced power structure. And not interrogating the problematic aspects of monarchy reminded me of this version of feminism which seeks for women – largely in the West – but also, for example, in urban, upper-class India, to take on the roles which men currently hold in leadership positions without interrogating the structure.

Diana: A hundred percent, yes.

Parinita: And finding new ways of being leaders. And also ignoring the lives and impacts on women from less privileged backgrounds in the same country or in other countries. For example, “leaning in” and becoming the CEO of a fast-fashion brand but ignoring the plight of women in developing countries who are making these clothes for you for nothing.

Diana: Yes!

Parinita: It’s all very – it all makes me very angry. [laughs]

Diana: Me too! [laughs] That’s my default state.

Parinita: [laughs] So something that they spoke about in The Gayly Prophet made me think about how access to queer content and ideas and people differs over different generations as well as across geographical boundaries. So one of the guests Kaeli she’s sixteen. And this is something that I’ve also read in like – I know Buzzfeed is really easy to make fun of, but I like their community-sourced responses. So they’d written this article just asking teenagers about what they wanted YA writers to know about teenage life. Because young adult writers always seem to have this perception of teenagers which the teenage respondents said like, “Nope. That doesn’t seem like our life really.” Because obviously YA writers are grown-ups. But something that they mentioned was a lot of people as well as Kaeli seem to be much more comfortable experimenting with gender and sexual identity. So it’s not as rigid as it used to be.

Diana: Hmm.

Parinita: And, of course, this obviously depends on certain schools and certain places even in the US. Some parts of the US that absolutely wouldn’t happen.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: India as well. Again, what you said about the intersections. Depending on which country you’re from or which race or even which part of the country – whether you’re in a rural area or an urban area, there’s so much of a difference in terms of what access you have.

Diana: Absolutely. And I think there is a difference in terms of access to knowledge about queerness. There’s a difference in terms of access to media and media production. And there’s also a difference in terms of access even to fandom content.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: So one of the biggest and I think most unfortunate pieces of news in fandom recently has been that China banned AO3.

Parinita: Oh really?

Diana: Yes.

Parinita: I hadn’t heard about that.

Diana: The censorship policies in the Chinese government banned AO3 and so now in China you cannot access A03.

Parinita: Oh wow.

Diana: And that’s I think really a huge loss of course for the fan community in China. But I think AO3 is so tied to queerness. And any fandom space is going to have its problems – but to not be able to access that is a loss. It’s a big loss.

Parinita: Yeah because like you said, and for me, and I’m sure for a lot of queer people all over the world, fanfiction does provide this alternative to mainstream media.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: Which provides access to these queer ideas and queer content and just that bubble is burst that, “Oh wait, this is also a way of being in the world? This is also a way of existing?” And it’s important for both, right. It’s important for queer people who are probably figuring out their identities but also for cis and hetero people for getting a glimpse into another way of life.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: And hopefully understanding and gaining empathy from that. So yeah the fact that any country doesn’t have access to that.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: Because the internet – I mean even the internet is such a privilege.

Diana: Absolutely. A hundred percent.

Parinita: Accessing the technology and the internet and even overcoming that. But then not having access to a space that you could have otherwise been happy in and found a supportive community in.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: That’s really terrible. But you also mentioned that you had noticed different levels of acceptance for queer people in fandom.

Diana: Um hmm. Definitely. So what’s interesting to me is that fandom is transforming canon media content.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: And so some of the limitations to canon media content make their way into fandom. And this is something I’ve noticed and this is also something that my dissertation participants have talked about. So one example that we’ve touched on already is that fandom is very whitewashed not only in terms of who are the most prominent or well-known participants but also in terms of the characters that are being written about.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: But another example is that on AO3 for example, there are far more M/M works – so in slash fic, M/M meaning male/male pairings – than femslash. Or than relationships that do not involve cis men or cis women, trans representation etc. Part of the reason here, I think, and this is also reflected in my own data is that characters who are men tend to be more fleshed out in canon media. And so you have more to draw on when you’re writing about them. Whereas female characters are sometimes just inserted as an afterthought or as a performative thing. Or they’re not as well-developed. And there just overall are more men in media content than there are women. And so there are great femslash works out there but they are few and far between compared to M/M works. Also polyamory is perhaps less represented, although interestingly in Marvel fandom, polyamory is kind of a big thing.

Parinita: Oh!

Diana: But the other thing is that there is unfortunately a tension around ace identities.

Parinita: Right.

Diana: So asexuality is a spectrum. But there are some folks in fandom, who I think they are very wrong, but who don’t include ace identities under a queer umbrella.

Parinita: Oh.

Diana: And so don’t necessarily write ace characters. Or think that ace characters should be considered under queer fic. Further, because heterosexuality is such a default, oftentimes folks won’t even necessarily think that a character is ace. They’ll just think that they’re heterosexual and not partnered or something like that.

Parinita: That’s something that I’ve thought about in terms of Elsa.

Diana: For sure.

Parinita: I mean I love that the Give Elsa A Girlfriend campaign exists. But what if she doesn’t want a girlfriend?

Diana: Exactly.

Parinita: I mean she might, she might want companionship.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: But yeah what if she’s ace? Surely that should also be something …  but yeah, what your research has found, something that people probably don’t think about.

Diana: Absolutely. That’s a really good example. The other example that I have a lot is Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock in the BBC reboot.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: And then the other thing that I would just want to mention is that not in terms of sexuality but in terms of gender, there are some real limitations, first of all to – right so trans is a spectrum. Being trans is a spectrum as well.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: And so there are some real limitations to trans characters in fandom. And so when trans characters are depicted, and this is something I’ve noticed as a nonbinary person, but also something that my participants have talked about, first of all, it’s not common to have nonbinary characters. Whether you’re queering them – so whether someone is canonically cis and you’re queering them as nonbinary or whether they are canonically nonbinary, although there are very few canonically nonbinary characters right now. But also in terms of if folks are trans women or trans men, some of the same sort of dominant narratives around trans experiences are reflected in fandom. And this can be especially interesting in explicit sex scenes. A lot of times if you have a trans man or a transmasculine person, they will have had top surgery if they’re doing a sex scene.

Parinita: Hmm.

Diana: Whereas your physical features don’t have anything to do with your gender identity.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: That’s also complicated and so some of these mainstream ideas are also, what my participants were saying, over-represented in fic – when they’re even there.

Parinita: Yeah. So it sounds like even when marginalised queer identities are included in fic, it is still this monolithic experience that everyone must fit into and full of stereotypes as well. Or there’s no exploring the nuances and complexities of these different identities.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: And I think a question that you asked which was really important was – especially in the context of the series that we’re talking about – is whether we can divorce the creator from the work. So what are your thoughts about that?

Diana: Oh god that is one – that’s a really, really hard question.

Parinita: Yeah. I know I mean I’ve gone through nine – no eight episodes I think, I’ve gone through just glossing over what do we think about J. K. Rowling. But just because we’re talking especially about queerness, and since you brought it up as well.

Diana: Absolutely. And I will admit I’m someone who does have trouble divorcing the creator from the creation.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: And so there are things that I will no longer interact with after learning things about the creator. And there are things that I will not interact with to start because I know things about the creator.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: And J. K. Rowling, I don’t like her. Right?

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: She is a … TERF. She has said things that are extremely racist like but I think that there is … and no binaries here – so I think that there’s some nuance for me at least and this is sort of very personal in that – and I’m also not going to lie, there’s some nostalgia tied up in this and that’s problematic. Nostalgia is a sometimes a real troublesome idea.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: Because it tends to actually perpetuate normativity and I recognise that. But I think that to me, the Harry Potter canon has been so deeply influenced by the fandom or the fanon. that J. K. Rowling’s original works don’t necessarily have the same significance to me as some other original works because my experience is so tied to fandom.

Parinita: Hmm.

Diana: And fandom is a vast range of creators right. Many of whom say F U to J. K. Rowling.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: And so the bottom line is that even though maybe I should, I just will never cast off Harry Potter [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] No, I totally – I’m with you completely. Because like you, there’s some people like H. P. Lovecraft, for example,

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: After I discovered that he was terribly racist and things, I’m like yeah, I don’t think I need to read any of his works. I’m okay, I’m good. I have other stuff to read.

Diana: Right.

Parinita: So not entering into a relationship with anybody who I know stuff about. But J. K. Rowling – with Harry Potter, it played a really formative role – it had this huge role when I was growing up. I started reading the books when I was ten. And it was my solace during a really difficult childhood.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: So I can’t … even now as much as I don’t like J. K. Rowling, and I don’t. I’m very open about that.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: But I can’t – like you said, nostalgia can be problematic. But for me, it’s so much more also tied into I think my own sense of self and my identity.

Diana: Yes!

Parinita: And everything.

Diana: Absolutely.

Parinita: And fandom as well. What I’ve found in fandom.

Diana: Yes.

Parinita: That in that specific case, I can divorce the creator. But I really like what some fans are doing. So The Gayly Prophet is this queer Harry Potter fan podcast.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: And the hosts had appeared on this other podcast that I listen to called #WizardTeam after Rowling’s TERFy tweet.

Diana: Okay.

Rowling’s transphobic tweet

Parinita: And in response to her tweet, they said that they were going to be divorcing the series from Rowling by choosing to actively create a community which queers the series more.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: And they call it the #MakeHarryPotterEvenGayer2020 campaign.

Diana: [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] And they want to leave Rowling behind and not give her any more money, so they refuse to buy official merchandise; they’re only going to buy stuff on Etsy and things that fans create. And they’re also collecting queer and trans specific Harry Potter fan works and, what they call, “angrily reclaiming our space in the fandom” Because for them, the community has played such a huge role. They’ve found so much in the community.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: And their podcast, in turn, from what they mentioned, has created this space for queer fans to figure out their identities, become more comfortable, find a space for others like them

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: So I think that that’s important as well. It’s such a difficult topic. And I completely understand people who want to just throw her out and throw out Harry Potter. Because there are other book series as well, right. There are many better book series now where writers who have been inspired by her but now do better. They write better books, they write better stories.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: Yeah. Ugh it’s – it’s – it’s very

Diana: It’s a really hard one for sure [laughs]

Parinita: Especially as Harry Potter fans. Especially as people who have such a strong – and fans, right? It’s not just this obsessive squee about a thing.

Diana: Yes!

Parinita: It’s having this deep, emotional relationship with something that becomes really difficult to untie from your sense of self as well.

Diana: Absolutely.

Parinita: Just before we wrap up, you also wanted to talk about fandom and COVID-19 – the pandemic – where fandom could be a refuge or on the other side, could exacerbate inequities.

Diana: Yeah. So I think that right now, we’re in the midst of the pandemic.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: And so I personally believe that no good social science research will come from this until at least ten years from now. We all need some perspective.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: I don’t think that it is wise to be rushing into COVID research unless you are someone who is developing a vaccine. In which case [claps] keep going!

Parinita: Please do. Quickly! Yeah. [laughs]

Diana: But I do think that, and this is something that, without my asking, has come up in my dissertation data. And it’s an interesting context through which to think about how global events and … disruptions – I don’t think that’s really the word – affect fandom communities. And maybe online communities more generally. And so what’s interesting is that I think that – and I mean you can even get this from going on Twitter, right. For a lot of folks, fandom and fic and reading fic and writing fic are cathartic experiences.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: And so that is something that becomes more salient when we are in a period of fear and uncertainty and death, right. And so this is something that’s really important. And it’s interesting to watch also infrastructurally how this is affecting things because for example Archive Of Our Own has had some issues because there are so many people overloading the server, logging on.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: And so just let me just quickly plug that if you can, donate to the Organization For Transformative Works right now.

Parinita: Yes.

Diana: Because AO3 needs it. So that’s one thing which is on the positive side, right. Not the infrastructural stuff but the cathartic nature of fandom playing a really salient role here.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: But on the other side, as much as some folks want to divorce fandom from capitalism and from any sort of monetization, that is absolutely not true. And we don’t need to get into sort of the ins and outs of that but one way that that manifests is that a lot of creators and fan creators make a living or part of their living off off selling materials right.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: Off off selling fan works. So art, fic, plushies that have to do with their fic etc. at conventions and online and things like this. And with mass cancellations of conventions and with uncertainties around the risks of having things shipped to you etc., folks are losing a lot of income.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: For fans who tend to be marginalised people anyway and so statistically they are going to be more socioeconomically disadvantaged.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: This is sort of a real problem.

Parinita: Yeah that’s a really good point. And also a really sad point [laughs]

Diana: I know, I know!

Parinita: No, we’re not going to end on a sad point. Do you have any media recommendations that highlight queer voices that you think do a good job of it?

Diana: Yeah. So I know you had asked about podcasts.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: So Queer As Fiction – they’re tragically not making new episodes right now. But it’s a fanfic writing podcast and it is very good.

Parinita: It is so good! I’m so glad you recommended that to me because after I heard the Harry Potter one, I heard the Disney Princesses one.

Diana: Uh huh.

Parinita: And I did not know this is a genre that I needed in my life. Where people are just writing fanfic and collectively collaborating on it and just reading it out to each other.

Diana: Um hmm. It’s so good. I love it.

Parinita: Ugh yeah. Me too.

Diana: I also really like a podcast called Queery that a comedian named Cameron Espesito runs. It’s like an interview podcast

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: And she gets some really good guests on there. There’s a podcast called Back Talk that’s run by Bitch Media. And they do a really nice job, particularly examining things from an intersectional lens. They run the gamut from media to politics etc. And there’s another called One From The Vaults that’s actually a podcast about trans history.

Parinita: Oooh!

Diana: And the woman who runs it is a really good storyteller.

Parinita: Ooh excellent.

Diana: So yeah I recommend that one. In terms of books, I mostly at this point, read academic things and so I won’t recommend those.

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana: But there’s a really, really sweet YA book that I read recently that’s very popular – so folks might already know. But it’s called Red, White and Royal Blue.

Parinita: Oh yeah, I’ve heard of it.

Diana: It’s kind of a private as like a real-world AU [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana: So that was good. TV-wise what’s been good? Feel Good was interesting on Netflix. The Batwoman television show is a CW superhero show but it’s very enjoyable.

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana: Killing Eve just came back.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: Um … of course I’m blanking. I watch so much television and I’m blanking.

Parinita: No, no I can understand. Can I add some more recommendations to that as well?

Diana: Oh please.

Parinita: Because this is somebody from the outside but loving all kinds of diversity and inclusivity.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: So TV show – She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.

Diana: [gasps] I love She-Ra!

Parinita: I love it very much.

Diana: Me too!

Parinita: And podcasts The Gayly Prophet, I mentioned it before, but it’s really good because they apply this queer intersectional lens to Harry Potter and they’re reading each chapter and their commentary is really funny. Sometimes really sad, but mostly really funny.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: So that’s great. In terms of books, I’ve become obsessed with the Lumberjanes comics series.

Diana: I love Lumberjanes!

Parinita: Yeah it’s excellently queer.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: And recently I also read Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe.

Diana: Yeah!

Parinita: Which was a graphic novel that was really interesting about just coming to terms with your identity, which for me was really illuminating. And it was great. And another book that I read was The Gender Games by Juno Dawson.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: About her identity, about her transitioning and just coming to terms because she used to write under James Dawson.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: And really popular YA books. And she’s really open about her identity and also really fun but also sometimes really sad as these things go. [laughs] But really good for I think both people who are questioning their identity but also for someone like me who’s looking to learn about different identities.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: And an excellent picture book that I love is Julian Is A Mermaid by Jessica Love because I’m a huge children’s literature nerd so I have to recommend children’s books.

Diana: Yeah!

Parinita: And just one last recommendation was something that I came across recently. It’s a fanzine called Trans Affirming Magical Care where a bunch of people came together to send contributions to it essentially as a response to J. K. Rowling’s TERF sentiments.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: And it’s a fanzine about trans students in Hogwarts and all the profits are going to be donated to a trans charity.

Diana: Oh I love that!

Parinita: I’ll link to it in the transcript. But yeah that’s something that I’m really excited to buy once it’s safe to send mail again, because it’s based in the US.

Diana: Yeah. And if we are talking specifically about books that I think do a good job discussing various aspects of queer experiences I recommend anything by Janet Mock. She has two memoirs out right now. They are both very, very good. Tillie Walden does some good autobiographical comics for folks who like comics. I enjoy her work a lot. Jacob Tobia just put out a memoir fairly recently. I think it’s called Sissy but I might be wrong. Their perspective is quite good. And Vivek Shraya who’s a trans musician from Canada just put out a YA book that’s supposed to be quite good.

Parinita: That’s an excellent bunch of recommendations and a great way to end the episode.

Diana: Awesome.

Parinita: Where we got really angry at some things. [laughs]

Diana: I know. [laughs]

Parinita: But in a good way. Thank you so much Diana.

Diana: Oh thank you!

Parinita: This was such a fantastic conversation. I loved chatting with you about all these things.

Diana: Same here.

Parinita: And I learned so much from your research as well.

Diana: Oh thanks! Yours as well!

Parinita: [laughs] Thank you.

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode on queer representations in media and fandom. What are some of your favourite queer media recommendations? My ever-expanding list of things to read and watch is always hungry for more! If you want to read more about Diana’s work, visit their website at dianagfloegel.com. You can look for their articles – “Write The Story You Want To Read”: World-Queering Through Slash Fanfiction Creation in the Journal of Documentation and Entertainment Media And The Information Practices Of Queer Individuals in Library and Information Science Research. Find the links to all of this in the transcript. Thanks so much for the excellent conversation and company, Diana. And thank you Jack for all the work you do with editing the episodes.

[Outro music]

You can now listen to Marginally Fannish on SpotifyAppleGoogle, or SoundCloud. I’d love to hear from you and talk to you – so any feedback, comments or critiques are very welcome! Get in touch with me on social media, leave a comment on my blog, or email me at edps@leeds.ac.uk. If you’d like to follow the podcast or the PhD project, visit my website marginallyfannish.org where you’ll find both the podcast episodes and the blog. You can also receive updates on Facebook or Instagram at Marginally Fannish or on Twitter where I’m @MarginalFannish. If you enjoyed the podcast, please share it with anyone you think will enjoy it too.

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

Episode 8 Whose Stories Are Being Told: Centering Racial Diversity in Mainstream Hollywood Movies

Episode Resources:

1) Movie – Green Book 

2) Movie – Crazy Rich Asians 

3) Movie – Last Christmas 

4)  Essay – Racism through the BAME protagonists in Ichiro and The Hate U Give by Hibiki Hashizume

5) Fan podcast – Woke Doctor Who Crazy Rich Asians 

6) Fan podcast – Black Girl Nerds  Geek Misogyny, No Totally, and Con Coverage (listen from 1 hour 06ish minutes to 1 hour 34ish minutes)

7) Fan podcast – Black Girl Nerds Asians in Media 

8) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Ghost In The Shell

9) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Growing Up Avatar American 

10) Essay – In Immigrating from Japan, I Lost Language, Home, and Pokémon 

Episode Transcript:

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

Photo of Hibiki

[Intro music]

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

[Intro music]

My name is Parinita Shetty and you’re listening to the eighth episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I chat with Hibiki Hashizume about the different representations of race in three mainstream Hollywood movies. As students from India and Japan in the United Kingdom, we discuss the cultural similarities and differences that we’ve noticed. We also talk about suddenly becoming a minority in a new country and how that impacts our ideas about racial diversity.

Mainstream media can perpetuate internalised racism. Three recent movies – Green Book, Crazy Rich Asians, and Last Christmas – showcase the slow but steady strides Hollywood is taking by featuring different kinds of diversity and inclusion. Diverse representations in mainstream films is especially important since they attract and influence such huge audiences. A lack of diverse stories promotes the perception of monolithic experiences of marginalised groups which in turn creates stereotypes about these cultures. Just because you look the same doesn’t mean you share the same experiences.

Stories written by cultural insiders can challenge these narrow perceptions. They overturn stereotypes, offer more authentic representations, explore nuances and complexities within the culture, and refuse to exoticise their own culture by normalising different contexts, foods, and languages. Diverse creators rewrite the script of whose stories are centered. Normalising the food, languages, and lives of non-dominant cultures can go a long way in fixing the imbalance and addressing the feelings of inferiority.

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: Today I’m so happy to welcome Hibiki Hashizume on the podcast. Hibiki is a third-year undergraduate student studying English and English literature in Kyushu University in Japan. He did a study abroad year at the University of Leeds which is where I’m also a PhD researcher. He was there last year where he started to develop an interest in the interpretation of media. And his favourite British drama series so far is Black Mirror, a show that I also love even though it gives me a lot of nightmares about the future of technology. I met Hibiki at a children’s literature module that one of my PhD supervisors was running at the University of Leeds last year where I was also helping out. And throughout the semester, I loved talking to Hibiki about children’s books and also his opinions on race and representation in children’s literature. So I thought he’d be the perfect guest for the podcast and I’m so glad he agreed to participate. So for this episode, we’re going to be talking about representation in media, specifically looking at three movies – that’s Green Book, Crazy Rich Asians, and Last Christmas. Hibiki also wrote an essay for the course which explored racism in the young adult novel The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and the graphic novel Ichiro by Ryan Inzana. I got to read the essay and I really enjoyed it; so I suggested including it in our conversation today because it covers a lot of the themes that we’re both really interested in. So to begin with Hibiki, do you want to tell us how you got interested in the topic of race and representation?

Hibiki: Yes. Thank you Pari. So the reason why I got interested in race and ethnicity issues was because I actually faced racism in the UK. So the experience in the UK as an exchange student, it definitely made me interested in that subject.

Parinita: I know you’ve told me this before but even hearing you say this again just makes me feel so both angry and sad at the same time.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: I’ve been in the UK a little longer than you have because I came here to do my master’s as well. And I’ve been lucky that I’ve not really faced any racism in the way that you have. And I think that it’s gotten a little worse now in the UK, especially for East Asian people, because of the whole Coronavirus pandemic. It’s something that we’ve spoken about on previous podcast episodes. They’re the target of a lot of racism within certain corners of the UK. And of course brown people, South Asian people, have a whole other history of racism in the UK. But I’ve been lucky. And like you, I also come from a country where I’ve been the dominant race. In India and Japan, we’re both very much a part of the dominant culture. I had this fixed idea of racism when I lived in India. And it was something that happened in other countries like in the US and the UK. I didn’t think of racism within an Indian context really because everybody is the same race.

Hibiki: Yes.

Parinita: But obviously in India, too, we have issues where light-skinned Indians are preferred over dark-skinned Indians. I don’t know if that’s an issue in Japan at all, but India definitely has that. And our media also pushes this image because light and fair skin is considered to be more beautiful.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: So you know there are these fairness creams and things that have a huge market in India as well as in some countries in Africa. And we have different ethnic groups in India because it’s such a diverse country. And depending on which part of the country you’re in, there are definitely differences in terms of race and the colour of your skin, and the religion, and the language that you speak, the looks. So in your essay – when you were looking at Ichiro especially, which has a Japanese kid going from the US back to Japan and how he has trouble fitting in – I could really relate to that scene. It’s very similar to what happens in India. During the module, we spoke a little bit about the We Need Diverse Books campaign which started in the US; I think it started online. It spoke about how children’s books, especially in the West, have very white characters; most of the characters in the books are white and straight and a very specific idea of a person. And that made me start thinking about it in India as well. Even in India, there’s only a very certain group of people who are always there in the media. When I moved to the master’s, my class was really diverse. It was much more diverse than I think the children’s literature module that we were in – although even that was pretty diverse. But I think everybody was from the UK?

Hibiki: Yeah, I think so.

Parinita: Whereas my master’s class was very diverse. It had people from the UK as well as different parts of the world. But my friends there in Scotland – and Scotland is not as diverse as Leeds; Glasgow isn’t as diverse as Leeds.

Hibiki: Um hmm.

Parinita: And England is much more diverse anyway. But I was very much the minority in most places. That was the first time I’d had that experience that I was the only brown person in the room. My friends were very welcoming and inclusive, but I didn’t have the same cultural context that I could share with them. I can’t speak in Hindi or Marathi – any of the Indian languages that I know. I can’t talk to them about Bollywood movies – the movies that I watch back home in India. Or the food and things. So that was different. That’s when I think I really realised that I’m a person who is of a different race.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: So before we start discussing the movies that we watched, Hibiki, you wanted to talk about another module that you took at the University of Leeds which looked at film studies and which influenced some of your ideas of media interpretation.

Hibiki: So I took film studies in semester two in Leeds. We watched some movies – French, Italian, Japanese – very different movies from different countries. Specifically, one week we watched Terminator, Terminator 2.

Parinita: Yeah.

Hibiki: Then from the reading, I learned that the idea that white men cannot be regarded as victim –

Parinita: Hmm.

Hibiki: It caused some filmmakers to make films which focused on white male protagonists. So the point is, I didn’t know there was this kind of idea behind the movie. ’Cause you know Terminator is very famous and popular all over the world.

Parinita: Yeah.

Hibiki: So I thought this was quite interesting to know that fact.

Parinita: Absolutely.

Hibiki: But also I thought it was quite dangerous because a huge amount of people would see this movie and would have seen this movie. But as a fact this movie has this kind of implicit meaning behind it.

Parinita: Yeah absolutely. And for me that’s why I think media representations are so important. And it’s something that I keep talking about on this podcast.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: So if people are listening to it regularly, they’ll be tired of hearing me say that. But it does, like you said right, the way that media represents something can be dangerous. It can also be powerful in a positive way, but it can also be dangerous.

Hibiki: Yeah.

Parinita: Like the way that you talk about a certain group of people.

Hibiki: Yeah.

Parinita: So currently in the US, for example, the government and the President are talking about the Coronavirus and a lot of them are still calling it the China virus.

Hibiki: Yeah. [laughs]

Parinita: You know. And that’s –

Hibiki: I was quite surprised when President Trump said that the Chinese virus on Twitter or something.

Parinita: Exactly! And I think some of the people in his cabinet advised him not to.

Hibiki: [laughs]

Parinita: But he still insisted on calling it that. And it has a very real impact on not only the Chinese people living in the US but also anybody who’s East Asian.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: Like you said about the racist attack – the verbal racist attack that you’d had in Leeds. And that was because someone mistook you for a Chinese person, right?

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: The thing that they said – the really terribly racist thing that they said – was towards a Chinese person. What you say in media, not just news media but even entertainment media, is so important. Because it’s influencing so many people’s perceptions about people they wouldn’t meet in real life. Or maybe even people that they do meet in real life. And India has this huge problem as well. Because currently it’s very anti-Muslim. The whole thing about the virus and the pandemic – Muslims are being targeted in India, which is also really dangerous. But coming back to the movies that we watched, these movies were your suggestions. I hadn’t watched any of them because I’m not really super caught up with movie news anyway. I read books and I watch TV shows. And movies I watch sometimes. But I had heard about Crazy Rich Asians a lot because it was such a mainstream hit, I think. Everyone was talking about it. And I watched all three movies yesterday on the same day. Which for someone like me, who really struggles with binge-watching anything, was a lot. [laughs] But I loved the movies so much. They were so fun to watch. And I really loved them for different reasons as well. I loved that there were such different kinds of diversity and inclusion in the three movies. With the Green Book, uh Green Book, it was tackling prejudice much more directly.

Hibiki: Yes.

Movie poster of Green Book

Image courtesy IMDB

Parinita: Because racism was the crux of the movie and it was drawing attention to that. Whereas in Crazy Rich Asians, it was an all-diverse cast. I don’t think there were white people at all in the movie. It was all Asian. Different Asian backgrounds, but all Asian. And then in Last Christmas, which was a different kind of diversity, where there was a lot of different diverse groups that were represented.

Hibiki: Yes.

Movie poster of Crazy Rich Asians

Image courtesy IMDB

Parinita: But it was done in a way that didn’t call attention to that diversity. It was just a regular part of the movie. It was normalising it to such an extent that you don’t need to draw attention to it. So what did you think of the movies? I’m assuming you’re a fan of them. But you said that you chose them for specific reasons as well.

Movie poster of Last Christmas

Image courtesy IMDB

Hibiki: Yeah. So the three movies were all made very recently. I think 2018 and 19.

Parinita: Right.

Hibiki: So I think these movies represent and reflect today’s society very realistically I thought.

Parinita: Yeah.

Hibiki: So that’s one reason. And also these were made by … I think Universal Pictures and Warner Brothers. So this a very big company, I think.

Parinita: Yeah, really mainstream.

Hibiki: Yeah. So that means, I think, a very large amount of people would watch them.

Parinita: Yeah absolutely.

Hibiki: So yeah, I think they have a very strong impact on people’s perspectives.

Parinita: Yeah, that’s such a good point. I hadn’t really considered that. That they are such mainstream productions. I thought about it with Crazy Rich Asians but I thought it became mainstream. Because one of the critiques is that at least in Hollywood, people don’t cast Asian actors because they think that the movies then wouldn’t sell as well.

Hibiki: Yeah.

Parinita: They wouldn’t be as marketable. But obviously Crazy Rich Asians – I think that’s why it was such a powerful movie – because it totally proved them wrong. And similar to Black Panther as well. In the Woke Doctor Who episode where they were talking about Crazy Rich Asians, there’s a Chinese-American host and there’s a black American host. And they were both talking about how the perception is that movies that don’t have a white cast member will not sell. So I think Crazy Rich Asians is a great exception to that rule. And I hope there’s more like that. But then in Last Christmas, it had some huge movie stars in it. And the Green Book as well – I keep calling it the Green Book, it’s just Green Book!

Hibiki: [laughs]

Parinita: But that one as well had a huge star cast. So I think, yeah you’re right, that that’s really important in drawing audiences to the cinema as well.

Hibiki: Yeah. Absolutely.

Parinita: So on the Black Girl Nerds podcast, Shaun Lau pointed out that the Asian perspective isn’t this monolith which means that all Asian experiences aren’t the same. Even in Japan, I’m sure, and certainly in India. All Indians and all Japanese people don’t have the same experience, right?

Hibiki: No, no.

Parinita: Depending on which part of the country – or even within your same house, for example. Depending on the age and things, you have different interests, you have different perspectives, different personalities. Whereas so far, I think these stereotypes that you have about Asians and Indians in the West are because the movies and TV shows and books have pushed these stereotypes.

Hibiki: Yes. So while I was in the UK, I noticed that especially East Asians – all East Asians including Chinese, Korean, Japanese – all of them were … not all times but mostly regarded as Chinese.

Parinita: Yeah.

Hibiki: You know I kind of understand that because I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between British people or American or –

Parinita: Absolutely. Or German, yeah.

Hibiki: Yeah. So I understand that but um …

Parinita: No, it’s similar with me as well. South Asians, so say India or Pakistan or Bangladesh or Sri Lanka, we all look really similar.

Hibiki: Yeah.

Parinita: In fact, Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka uh not Sri Lanka – Bangladesh were all a part of the same country a few decades ago during colonisation. It was only post-Independence – which was about seventy years ago – that we were split into first two countries and then three countries. So I completely understand. But at the same time, it’s also really dangerous. And more than dangerous, it’s a bit insulting  that you don’t –

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: You shouldn’t make assumptions if you’re not sure, just don’t make assumptions, right? Try to get to know the person first before assuming they are from wherever or just saying that, “Oh all East Asians are the same or all Indians or South Asians are the same”. We wouldn’t say all white people are the same, for example, right? That’s not something we would think about.

Hibiki: Yeah.

Parinita: So somebody else in another podcast, the Imaginary Worlds episode, said that many white people in the West don’t see the difference between Asian films and Asian-American films.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: So basically Asian films would be a film in Japan set in Japan with Japanese people. Or set in India with Indian people. I think that difference and that nuance is important because in India or in Japan, we’re not the minorities, right?

Hibiki: Yeah.

Parinita: In India, it’s full of Indians. In Japan, it’s full of Japanese. Whereas in the US, or even in the UK – Indians and Japanese people would be the minority. So the experiences here are very different to the experiences in a country where you are the majority. So the kind of film would be different. Which is why I really liked Crazy Rich Asians because it showed a little bit of both. It showed Rachel –

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: Constance Wu’s character who is this Chinese-American who goes to Singapore. So she has this very American context. But she’s going to this country and this community which is very comfortable within its Chinese identity.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: But they always make fun of American culture. Her future mother-in-law or prospective mother-in-law, she always makes fun of the American-Chinese – just the American attitude in general. It was a really funny movie but I thought that was really interesting.

Hibiki: Hmm. So in Crazy Rich Asians, I think the main characters were Asian and Chinese-American. Rachel was Chinese-American and … I forgot his name.

Parinita: Nick, I think. Nick Young.

Hibiki: Yeah. He was … so is he also half-American, half-Chinese?

Parinita: I think he’s Chinese – he’s from Singapore. He’s grown up in Singapore but he moved to the US for university or something.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: I think that was a source of tension within the movie because they kept wanting him to move back home because he grew up in his grandmother’s house.

Hibiki: Aah.

Parinita: And I think at one point, his mother makes fun of him, “Don’t tell me you’ve gotten an American accent”. [laughs] Because that’s not something that can happen.

Hibiki: Yeah. So I think the point you made was very interesting. So I thought the fact that Crazy Rich Asians succeeded was quite um … I was feeling kind of sympathy

Parinita: Hmm.

Hibiki: Because you know in the American film-making industry, the movie in which Asian people take a huge part of the movie itself is quite rare, I think.

Parinita: Yeah.

Hibiki: So I was very kind of feeling sympathy. Is it – is that the word?

Parinita: Yeah. Absolutely.

Hibiki: But I haven’t thought about the difference between Asian-Americans and just Asian people.

Parinita: Yeah it’s not something that I thought of either. It was something that on the Imaginary Worlds podcast, the Asian-American guest, he said. Because he was like, “White people in the West, they think all our experiences are the same. That if you look Asian, that means you have the same experience.” Which is obviously, we know, not true. In the Woke Doctor Who episode, Eugenia, one of the hosts, she said that in Crazy Rich Asians, the creators of the movie fought to cast Constance Wu – the actress who plays Rachel – as an Asian – as a Chinese-American person, because the producers wanted to cast her as a white woman.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: Because they said that “oh how can it be that this Asian woman is going to Singapore and doesn’t fit in?” Obviously she would fit in because they thought, I’m sure, that oh if she looks the same then she’ll obviously have the same experiences. But that’s not true. And so they thought that the white person going to Singapore and not fitting in would be more realistic. And that totally overlooks the fact that – like even you and I. I don’t know about you but for me, after about like a year spent in Scotland, in the UK, when I went back to India, I saw the country differently. I saw myself differently. I had changed because of my experience living abroad. So somebody who’s grown up in the UK, even if their parents are from India, and they go back to India, it would be a huge culture shock. It would be so different going there, right?

Hibiki: Yeah. I also felt reverse culture shock.

Parinita: Yeah. And that’s even after both of us have been born and brought up in Japan and India respectively. But even spending a few months or a year abroad can have such a like impact on us, right?

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: Yeah. But I guess I hope that there’s more room for such stories. Just because it makes it so interesting. In Crazy Rich Asians I thought Chinese culture and Indian culture have so many similarities. Because when I was watching that movie, I was like oh my god this is something that Indian mothers would do or Indian aunties would do. And the movie itself was so like a Bollywood movie without the singing and dancing. But there was music in the background. It was a fun movie to watch. And I loved Green Book as well. What did you think about it?

Hibiki: So when I finished watching the movie, I was very moved. I think I remember I was moved. But eventually I started to think that the ending – when the policeman stops them – the car which the two protagonists were in, that was the moving point.

Parinita: Hmm.

Hibiki: So the police officer says, “Happy Christmas” or something like that to them if I remember.

Parinita: Yeah, because they’d had an experience with a police officer earlier that didn’t go as well. With two white police officers. The racist police officers.

Hibiki: Yeah.

Parinita: And they were scared. And this is very true because it’s something we read in The Hate U Give as well, right? How people of colour in the US, black people or in this case … yeah Dr Stanley was black as well. That they’re so scared of the police because a lot of the police are racist and do shoot young unarmed black men. So that is very much a reality.

Hibiki: Yeah.

Parinita: But the second police officer wasn’t like that, just to place that in context.

Hibiki: Yeah. So even though that was the reality, I don’t know, but it seemed like the movie made that the last police officer as a very good person and … even though I think that is – that should be normal. You know what I mean?

Parinita: Hmm. Oh I do see what you mean. You think it was more for dramatic effect – like trying to tie up the ends neatly – rather than representing actual reality.

Hibiki: I just personally think, yeah.

Parinita: Yeah. I mean I understand. So I keep having this conversation with my boyfriend. He is very much against police officers generally because of all the history of brutality that they’ve had especially for people of not-white races and working-class people and things. Whereas I’m like, no I’m sure there are some police officers who are all right. And I think I’m more … obviously I’ve not had terrible experiences with police officers which is why I come from that place of privilege, I think, that I can give them the benefit of doubt. It’s something that I thought of as well but I thought, “Oh it’s nice that they showed this good police officer”. But yeah, you’re right. Especially in a movie that talks about racism in a very direct way, maybe we didn’t need to … but I guess because it was Christmas, they tried to put in a hopeful message.

Hibiki: Yeah. Green Book is of course a very brilliant movie. Even the black person protagonist was a host and the white guy was the driver and servant. And this structure, I haven’t seen in any movies – which has the same structure as this.

Parinita: Yeah.

Hibiki: So I appreciate this one. But still the movie was explicitly talking about and showing the racism against black persons.

Parinita: It was set in the 1960s in the southern United States which was – even now a lot of it is pretty racist. But at that time, it was really dangerous if you were black and moving around there like we saw in the movie. When you were saying that right now, it struck me that even though they say this in the beginning of the movie, that it’s based on a true story, I had completely forgotten that bit. Until the end of the movie when they show you the updates of the real-life Tony – the white driver and Dr Don Stanley, the black musician, the pianist. So what you said about this white driver and about this rich black person, it’s something that I made a note of – how even if you’re white, but if you’re poor, you can be marginalised in certain contexts. You’re not as privileged in certain contexts. Whereas even if you’re black and you’re rich, you can also be marginalised. In the South when they were travelling, Tony the driver was considered to be more respected and more worthy and more equal just because he was white. Whereas Don, because he was black, his money didn’t matter, his music skills didn’t matter. He was a black man and that’s why he was not considered to be equal to the white people.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: That’s why I liked all three movies that we watched for such different reasons. And they were such different kinds of movies. I don’t think that we can compare them for their story, but in terms of their representations of diversity. So I’m really glad you suggested these movies. When it comes to discussions of diversity or just media in general, I really like looking at whose stories are centered in terms of race and ethnicity or national origin or whatever –  whose stories are being told and whose stories are being marginalised or ignored. And these three movies, like you said, they’re new – out in 2018-2019. So I hope they’re showing a trend that we’re moving towards. Because in the Black Girl Nerds episode, the Asians in Media one, where they were talking about how otherwise movies with Asian characters are full of stereotypes. And they’ll usually center the story of the white person and not the Asian person.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: The Asian person is just a background character or just comic relief or just the best friend of the main white person. And is never in a role that is centered around them.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: And there also used to be a very limited kind of stories. Which is why again, especially Crazy Rich Asians and Last Christmas, I really liked because it wasn’t like oh these Asians are martial artists or it wasn’t about the immigrant experience that oh they’ve moved to the US and now they’re facing this difficult time. It was just a regular film. It wasn’t about their Asian experience.

Hibiki: Hmm. Yeah.

Parinita: And I think all three of them overturned stereotypes in very different ways. In Green Book I liked that the main character Dr Don Stanley – he is wealthy – and the white guy, Tony, he has all these stereotypes about him – about black people – that he keeps trying to place on him. Like the music and the food and everything.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Gif from Green Book. Tony throws an empty drinks container onto the highway. Dr Don looks back at it and makes the car go back to pick it up

Parinita: And Dr Don is like “uhhh what no I don’t like this. I’m sorry, what?” He’s this really sophisticated character. And later we find out that he’s gay as well. And he talks about the struggles of not being able to fit in to either black society or white society. It was a really interesting overturning of stereotypes. With Crazy Rich Asians as well, where Rachel is going to China and usually you make fun of Chinese culture or Asian culture or whatever. That’s the butt of jokes. Whereas here, they were making fun of American culture and were like, “Oh American-Chinese are not real Chinese” and things like that.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: Had you noticed the different kinds of diversity and representations in these movies? Or Western media in general? What struck out the most to you while watching these movies in terms of the race representations?

Hibiki: Ah so you – what do you mean by different um –

Parinita: So the way races like the Asians, for example, in the three movies, the different kinds – oh well not in the three movies, in Green Book, there were no Asians. But the different races, how they were represented in the three movies. So blackness and whiteness in Green Book, different Chinese and Asian experiences in Crazy Rich Asians. I know they were not all – I don’t know in the movie, if they were all Chinese. I know the actors come from all over – there are Malaysian actors and Australian actors as well.

Hibiki: Hmm. Yeah, so as you said, I think traditionally in Hollywood or the film industry, white actors and actresses have been dominant in those movies. In Last Christmas, there was an inter-racial couple.

Parinita: Yeah. There were a couple actually. There were two or three, I think.

Hibiki: Yeah. So I think I could see the intention of the filmmakers to use different types – different race of people.

Parinita: Yeah.

Hibiki: Together in the same community.

Parinita: Yeah because London is a super diverse city, right? It draws people from all different backgrounds.

Hibiki: Yeah.

Parinita: That’s something I really liked in Last Christmas as well. Especially that these inter-racial couples were so common. It wasn’t even a matter of discussion. Maybe in another movie, that would be cause of the discomfort or the drama or whatever.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: Whereas here, that didn’t matter; it’s fine, just having inter-racial couples. And also there was that one older inter-racial couple – the Chinese lady Santa who owns the Christmas shop.

Hibiki: Yeah.

Parinita: And I think he was German? I’m not sure. The older man. But they were making jokes of each other’s cultures but not in a way that was offensive. It was more like you’re making fun of yourself, kind of. I think there was also a queer relationship – Kate’s sister Marta and her girlfriend – she was black – and she [Marta] was also like a kid of an immigrant. So yeah, I thought that was a really good inclusion of representation.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: I didn’t know this but Eugenia from Woke Doctor Who mentioned this, that apparently there had been some critiques of Crazy Rich Asians that even though the movie is set in Singapore – and Singapore again, like London, is a super diverse country – because it draws people from different countries in Asia as well as Western countries. But in the movie itself, it was very much centered only on Chinese people. There were some Malay and Indian servants, I think. Like maids and drivers and things. And that was one of the critiques. And she [Eugenia] responded to it by saying that well, first of all they were super rich Chinese people. So it was another culture by itself because this is the life of the super wealthy.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: And so all the diversity was in the form of maids and guards and stuff which reflects the lives of these elite people. But also it made me think of how in movies like this, because they are so rare as you said, the expectations are that they have to be perfect. They have to tick all the boxes – like diversity and this and this and this. And it’s such an unfair burden on them. It would be better to make room for different kinds of diversity and stories so that there’ll be different stories; so one movie can tell its story and another can tell its story, rather than saying Crazy Rich Asians has to tick all these boxes. So again, like I said, I hope that this is a trend – so it’s not just that one movie has to fix all the ills and all the problems that exist in Hollywood or whatever. They can just go on and tell their story and just be fun and … yeah. It’s really unfair.

Hibiki: Hmm. And also I do not exactly know how many racial minority people work in the film industry or writing books or whatever media.

Parinita: Yeah.

Hibiki: People who create those books, movies, dramas, advertisements, or whatever should be from different identities.

Parinita: Yeah! Absolutely. I think that’s a really good point. Because I think that shows in the kind of stories then that are told, right? If you have a person from that different identity, they are going to be able to tell their story in a more realistic way than a stereotypical way.

Hibiki: Yeah.

Parinita: They won’t then be making fun of their own – or if they do make fun of their own culture, it will be in a way that is for other people of that culture. Like how Indians, we make fun of ourselves, but the audience for the joke is other Indians. It’s not white people. We’re making fun of each other within our community. And I think Crazy Rich Asians had a few examples of that where they were making fun of the culture but it was in an affectionate way. Because, like you said, I think the cast but even the creators – the writers and everybody – they were Asian. So they knew the culture that they were talking about. They were not presenting it in this exotic way. Like, “Ooh look this Far East exotic culture.” They were like no, this is just our lives. And it was also this really interesting blend of Western influence as well as Asian influences. Like the bachelorette party and the bachelor party and stuff. That’s a thing that happens in India as well now over the last ten-fifteen years, it’s become really common in big Indian cities at least. And that’s something that’s not Indian at all. It’s something that we’ve picked up from media – American media and British media. And that’s something that Crazy Rich Asians had as well which I thought was really familiar.

Hibiki: Hmm. Yeah. So Japan, as I said, is a very monocultural and racially homogenous country.

Parinita: Yeah.

Hibiki: So I consider the fact that all of the TV programmes, dramas, movies – the Japanese ones – are made by them. And almost all of the spectators are Japanese.

Parinita: Hmm.

Hibiki: So I think some stereotypical and biased images of other cultures might have been created by that media in Japan as well.

Parinita: Do you mean of different cultures within Japan or outside Japan?

Hibiki: That could be both. For example, Japan is also an island and a homogenous country.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Hibiki: And people are a little bit ignorant of other cultures. ’Cause we don’t know what other cultures are. So not many people know and could know about them.

Parinita: Hmm.

Hibiki: As a fact, in Japan, it has been realised that we should become more globalised. And Japan has noticed that diversity is important and knowing about other cultures is important. But the images, the media, and books are created only by one particular race of people.

Parinita: Yeah. And like you were saying in your essay about the anti-Korean racism, a little bit of which exists in Japan, right?

Hibiki: Yeah. So we have very complicated issues with … hmm basically, so this isn’t true for everyone … but there is a kind of ideology that Westerners and white people are superior.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Hibiki: But at the same time, a number of Japanese people think Japan is the greatest country.

Parinita: Yeah.

Hibiki: The right-wing people and some people regard Chinese or Korean people as inferior to themselves.

Parinita: It’s so interesting that as different as cultures are, it’s like we have the same problems everywhere. Because India is the same. And obviously like we both saw in the UK, the UK is the same where they consider white English people superior. India has the same problems that you’re saying about Japan. Even to that extent of where it considers white superior. White people in certain minds would be considered superior. Of course, we have the history of colonisation. So we were under the British Empire for a hundred and fifty years or something. And even now, a lot of the movies and things that we watch – obviously we have a lot of Indian film industries, so the media is within Hindi and different languages like Marathi, we have huge movie industries. But a lot of the English movies that we watch – the foreign movies – come from the US and the UK. So their representations influence us a lot. Even me, for example, it was only after I moved to the UK that I realised in terms of the political system, in terms of poverty and everything, I was like, “Oh the UK doesn’t have everything figured out.” When I was living in India, I was like, “Oh yeah the US and the UK are obviously …” uh but then of course they went and elected Trump. [laughs] So I was like, “Okay maybe the US doesn’t have it all figured out either.” So yeah. It’s very similar.

Hibiki: So I was thinking the UK and Japan are very similar in terms of you know both countries are islands and um …

Parinita: Hmm, yeah.

Hibiki: And I think the national character is also kind of the same.

Parinita: Hmm.

Hibiki: So it’s a bit hard to explain but we have –

Parinita: Is it based on history?

Hibiki: Hmm … I’m not really sure why that happened.

Parinita: Hmm.

Hibiki: But I noticed there are a lot of common things between Japanese and the British people living in the UK. But in terms of diversity, it’s completely the opposite. The UK is much more diverse and Japan is more homogenous.

Parinita: Hmm.

Hibiki: Did you say you realised that you became a minority when you went to Scotland for the first time?

Parinita: Yeah.

Hibiki: So that happened to me as well. When I went to the UK last July, that was my first time being a minority.

Parinita: Yeah.

Hibiki: And I noticed I was feeling like some people around me might be looking down on me.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Hibiki: As I said, I actually got discriminated against by a white British guy.

Parinita: Yeah.

Hibiki: But then I noticed why am I thinking like that way? So why am I feeling that I’m looked down on by other white people? And I thought media and what I watched and listened to in Japan for over eighteen or nineteen years might have created some kind of image and stereotype inside myself.

Parinita: Ah. That’s a really good point. You’re right. And also it has that same effect on the people from the dominant group as well, right? In the UK, you’re the minority here just like me. But for white people in the UK, they’re watching the same media as well. And maybe then that media is creating this sense of superiority amongst them. So it feeds into both the people who are the minority as well as the majority in really harmful ways.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: Ugh media it’s like … you know there are a lot of people who don’t think media is that important to talk about. But media is how a lot of people get their education about different cultures and different races and classes and genders and everything.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: So we can’t dismiss the point of media. Because another thing that really stood out to me during the movies – and also just in general – was the politics and the representations of food, especially Asian food and Indian food within Western media. Have you ever come across that?

Hibiki: Hmm … so there’s a clear description of Asian food in Crazy Rich Asians but I haven’t thought that deeply about representation of food in detail.

Parinita: Yeah. And that’s a totally fair point because in a homogenous culture I suppose that is not a thing that occurs to you because everyone eats the same – not same but similar kind of food?

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: So one is not considered superior and another is not considered inferior. In the Woke Doctor Who episode, Eugenia who’s the Chinese-American host, was talking about watching Crazy Rich Asians; just seeing her food represented on the screen was such an emotional experience for her. You remember that dumpling making scene?

Hibiki: Yes.

Scene from Crazy Rich Asians in the street food market in Singapore

Parinita: Where the family come together to make the dumplings. And even that market in Singapore where they go and they eat this food, she was so happy to see that and so emotional to see that because she was starved for that representation. She hadn’t seen that in Hollywood movies. Because it was all burgers and whatever white American food would be. And she was saying that how when she was in school, when she would take her food that her Chinese mother would make. And it was made fun of. For being a different smell and a different texture and different kinds of things. Her classmates used to take peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. So for them, anything that was foreign was something that is made fun of and is sometimes treated with disgust. And it’s a bit similar in India because – it’s a religious, cultural thing where some people are vegetarians and some people are not. Some people eat meat in India depending on which religion you follow and which part of the country you come from. And in some schools, non-vegetarian food is not allowed at all. You’re not allowed to bring anything with meat in it to school. Whereas in other schools, including mine, when I was a kid, I had friends from different religious backgrounds. And I would have friends that if I took meat to school, they would make a face or make a fuss or be like, “No I don’t want to sit near you and eat because I don’t eat meat.” And that reminded me so much of her [Eugenia’s] conversation because as a kid, it’s something that you internalise. Then I stopped taking meat to school because I told my mom, “No, my friends turn away from it in disgust, so I don’t want to take meat to school. I don’t want to have that problem at all.”

Hibiki: Yeah.

Parinita: It is like one food habit is better than the other. Then that’s the atmosphere that you’re creating.

Hibiki: Hmm. Yeah. I remember one thing that when I cooked in the kitchen in my flat, some of my flatmates were wondering what that food was.

Parinita: Yeah.

Hibiki: They were very curious but also um … like strange.

Parinita: Yeah. And I think curiousity about an unfamiliar thing is obviously very normal.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: If you have not met something before in whatever form – food, culture, anything – you are curious about it. But I think the way you approach it matters so much. If you just approach it in a way like, “Ew, I’m not going to … this is not worthy of my attention or respect.” Versus oh you’re just trying to find out something about another culture. You’re just curious about that culture and you’re learning from them. I had friends in Glasgow who were from the US. In their part of the US, Indian food wasn’t popular, it wasn’t available easily. So they’d never eaten Indian food before; the first time they ate Indian food was in Scotland. And they loved it. They really loved the food. And then they’d come over to my house and I’d cook Indian food for them. And they were always so respectful. They were white Americans so they were used to being in the dominant group in their country. But they were still always so respectful and so curious about it. They never made fun – or not even fun – never made a face or refused to try any Indian food. They were always really curious and that made me feel welcome. Like even if I’m in this strange country with nobody like me around … different cultures can still come together in a more positive way.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: It depends on what kind of people you meet. And, of course, with the representation and politics of food, there’s also the representation and politics of language, right? Where some languages are considered to be the correct or the superior language depending on which part of the country or world you’re in. What has been your own experiences with this?

Hibiki: Yeah so we talked about this, right?

Parinita: Um hmm.

Hibiki: So English is considered and actually used worldwide. So in Japan for example there’s this ideology that English is cool.

Parinita: Hmm.

Hibiki: So America, the UK, Australia, Canada – developed white countries which speak English. Using one language – meaning English – is very useful for everyone. For me, if I could speak English, I could talk to a lot of people from different countries.

Parinita: Yeah, like us.

Hibiki: Yeah.

Parinita: Our podcast wouldn’t have been possible if both of us didn’t speak the same language.

Hibiki: Yeah. But at the same time, this inequality of language might cause native speakers to be arrogant.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Hibiki: Or create some stereotypes against non-English speaking people.

Parinita: Yeah. And like that essay that we read about Nina Coomes who moved from Japan to the US. She was this huge Pokémon fan and she wrote about that and the role Pokémon and language played in her life. She talked about how, when she moved to the US – a rural part of the country – when she was seven, it meant that she suddenly couldn’t communicate anymore. When she was back in Japan, she had all these ideas, she had all this language, all this vocabulary and she was considered smart.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: And suddenly she moves to a country where intelligence is measured by the language that you speak. And because she couldn’t speak English, she was not considered to be intelligent or cool or somebody that you want to be friends with. And she was so excited when Pokémon came to the US because she was like, “Okay maybe Pokémon is something that I could connect to people with. Use that as my common language.” And then to her horror, she realised that the words had been translated. So the Pokémon words in Japan were Japanese whereas when they came to the US, they were translated to English and she was like, “Okay even that one thing I can’t connect with.” Which I think is a very familiar experience to a lot of people who move from a country where English isn’t the dominant language to a country where English is the dominant language.

Hibiki: Um hmm.

Parinita: And yeah, India is the same; English is considered cool. English is also considered to be a language of the wealthy. In rural parts or in certain parts even in Mumbai – which is a big city – there will be communities where English isn’t spoken. But they have that sense of inferiority that they can’t speak English. So if somebody goes and speaks English, they will consider them smart and wealthy and cool even if they are smarter than this person who can speak English.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: Language plays such a big role in your own self-identity. Which is sad.

Hibiki: Maybe I could talk about one episode about language in Japan.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Hibiki: So compared to other countries, Japanese people seem to be not as good at speaking English or listening to or using English. Because I don’t know probably because of the difference of language. Japanese and English are very different. So it is a little bit harder for Japanese people to speak and listen to English.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Hibiki: So not all wealthy and affluent people can speak or can communicate in English. So we call this is half uh like American-Asian for example … people … uh a child or children of …

Parinita: So like a mixed-race couple?

Hibiki: Mixed-race people, yeah. They’re called half. And then some of them could speak English better than other normal ordinary Japanese.

Parinita: Hmm.

Hibiki: Or people who had lived in English-speaking countries and came back to Japan later are considered as very good English speakers. So those kind of people sometimes are looked up or are like, “Oh you’re great, you speak English very well.” Or “You sound like a native speaker of English.”

Parinita: Yeah.

Hibiki: So the situation is slightly different from the situation in India in Japan but yeah.

Parinita: Yeah. But again even though they are such different countries and contexts, you have so many similarities. The details might be different, but so many similarities. In Last Christmas, so Santa, she keeps changing her Chinese name depending on whichever job she goes to. So in the Christmas shop, she’s Santa. But when she used to work at a bakery, she was Muffin. She keeps changing it just because her Chinese name is too difficult for British people to pronounce.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Gif from Last Christmas with Santa's character. Text says: When I worked at the pet shop, I called myself Kitty

Parinita: And that reminded me of the experiences of Chinese students in the UK. I don’t know how common this is with Japanese students, but I know Chinese students – and this is something I found strange right in Scotland and even now that a lot of them, it’s like this cultural thing that they adopt an English name when they’re here.

Hibiki: Yes, yes.

Parinita: And I was really uncomfortable about it. Because I was like but it’s your name. We should be the ones who are learning how to pronounce it rather than you changing your whole name.

Hibiki: Yeah. All the Chinese students I met in Leeds also had their own English name. But that wasn’t the case with Japanese students, I think.

Parinita: Yeah. Like I was telling you my class in Scotland, in Glasgow, was really diverse. So it had people from Indonesia, Malaysia and different parts of Asia. And nobody else had this English name. It was just the Chinese students. Which made me feel even more uncomfortable. And that’s the dominance of English again. That people who speak English aren’t made to … face discomfort.

Hibiki: Hmm.

Parinita: Their – our discomfort I guess, not even their because I speak English – is not acceptable. So we don’t have to struggle to learn a name that’s unfamiliar to us. The person whose name is unfamiliar has to change their names to fit into the society, to the country and the university. Of course, I don’t know what Chinese people feel about this. I would love to find out.

Hibiki: Yeah.

Parinita: But as an outsider, it makes me uncomfortable. I wouldn’t want to do that. I call myself Pari because everybody calls me Pari, not because my name is too difficult to pronounce. Even in India, my mum, my family, everybody calls me Pari. It’s just a nickname. I wouldn’t come to the UK and be expected to change my name to make it easy.

Hibiki: So I was wondering if I should have my English name or not whilst I was there.

Parinita: Oh really?

Hibiki: Yeah but my name is H-I-B-I-K-I.

Parinita: Yeah.

Hibiki: So it’s not really hard to pronounce for a native speaker.

Parinita: Yeah.

Hibiki: But every time whenever I was asked my name and I said Hibiki, I usually had to say it several times.

Parinita: Hmm yeah. That’s really interesting because I think it tells a lot about a person how they deal with unfamiliarity either with a name, or food or language or anything. How they respond to it, I think, for me it really matters in how I consider that person and how I think that person is going to treat either me or anybody who is different. Like I said, I’m pretty lucky. I’ve not faced any discrimination, at least that I’m aware of. I might have behind the scenes but everyone has been really nice and strangers have not really – but like you, when I walk on the streets, I am very aware of the colour of my skin. And I am very aware that, “Oh people might be looking at me differently”. Because you can’t tell who’s racist and who’s not right? When you’re walking on the road, you’re like, “Oh this person looks ‘normal’ in air quotes. But they might be super racist so I don’t want to take the risk.” In Last Christmas, that scene where in the bus there’s this white, I think Eastern European, couple and they’re speaking in another language.

Hibiki: Yes.

Parinita: And this white man goes up to them and tells them, “Why don’t you speak English or just get out of my country?!”

Hibiki: Yeah. [laughs]

Parinita: I haven’t faced that. I have an Indian friend in Leeds. She’s also a PhD student and we sometimes mix languages – we call it Hinglish in India. Which is a mix of Hindi and English. So we use phrases from Hindi while we’re speaking in English – mix the two languages together. And at least so far nobody has told us to go back to our own country. But yeah, it’s something that I’m very aware can happen at any time in this country just because of language. Just before we wrap up, are there any final thoughts that you had?

Hibiki: I think changing how white people think about people of different races is important, but also how minority people receive and react to the things happened to you is also very important.

Parinita: That’s such a good point. Because we talk about the effect that it has on preventing racism from the majority people or any sort of discrimination from the majority group. But like you pointed out, there is so much internalised racism and internalised discrimination that you feel inferior because of the media messages that you’ve received. And that’s so important to confront as well. When I watch movies, well for me it’s about gender but also race; race more recently while I’ve been in the UK. When I watch movies that have women creators and women in the central role, that makes such a difference for me. I feel like I’ve been represented either on the page or on screen or whatever. And especially if it’s a brown woman, which is so rare to see in Western media, I feel even more seen. If there’s Indian traditions and Indian customs or whatever on the screen or in the page, it’s so exciting to me. So yeah, you’re so right that I think that’s such an important way of dealing with both majority and minority cultures.

Hibiki: Yeah. So there was a heavyweight boxing match a couple of months ago.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Hibiki: And that match was between Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder. Do you know them?

Parinita: No.

Hibiki: Tyson Fury is British and white. And Wilder is American and black.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Hibiki: And I found people commenting on YouTube or somewhere, I forgot. But attacking some people saying, “You support Fury because he’s white or not white” or something like that.

Parinita: Hmm.

Hibiki: And some person was saying that I support Fury just because he’s from Britain and I’m from Britain. Not because Wilder is black or something like that. So I think the minority people you know races or gender or disability or whatever, tend to feel more … tend to get easily angry. Or damaged.

Parinita: Yeah because if you’re so starved for representation … Shaun Lau, an Asian-American guy on Black Girl Nerds, he said that, “The lack of representation in media is so important because it not just affects how people see you but it also affects how you see yourself.” Which is exactly what you said. And it’s exactly the point that you made about other marginalised people, other minority people. I think that now this conversation of diversity is more present everywhere – on the internet, like you were saying in classrooms and wherever, in film studies courses and children’s literature courses in the university, just in the world at large and Hollywood – that I hope there is going to be more room for diverse creators. Not just Asians but also people with disabilities or people with different gender identities and just different religions. Everything. So just we can see all the diversity of life onscreen. Which I think would be a really good way to go moving forward.

Hibiki: Yeah.

Parinita: Thank you so much Hibiki for coming on.

Hibiki: Thank you.

Parinita: And this was such an excellent conversation. I learned a lot just about Japanese culture in general and how different and also similar it is to Indian culture and what I’m used to. So thank you so much for being a part of this project. You were fantastic.

Hibiki: Thank you. That was quite interesting to know about India and about your ideas and thoughts. Thank you.

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode on representations of race and racism in Hollywood. Have you come across any examples of mainstream movies which challenge traditional representations of diversity? I’d love to add them to my list! Get in touch to let me know. Thanks for introducing me to these movies, and for the company, Hibiki. And thanks as always to Jack for taking care of the editing in the middle of everything else.

[Outro music]

You can now listen to Marginally Fannish on SpotifyAppleGoogle, or SoundCloud. I’d love to hear from you and talk to you – so any feedback, comments or critiques are very welcome! Get in touch with me on social media, leave a comment on my blog, or email me at edps@leeds.ac.uk. If you’d like to follow the podcast or the PhD project, visit my website marginallyfannish.org where you’ll find both the podcast episodes and the blog. You can also receive updates on Facebook or Instagram at Marginally Fannish or on Twitter where I’m @MarginalFannish. If you enjoyed the podcast, please share it with anyone you think will enjoy it too.

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

Episode 7 There’s Never Chicken Tikka Masala At Hogwarts: Different Cultures in Fantasy Media

Episode Resources:

For this episode we looked at the following texts:

Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper Cultural Traditions of Magic with Zen Cho

Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper Islands in Speculative Fiction: Live from WorldCon

Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Do You Speak Conlang?

Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds In Defense of the Star Wars Holiday Special

Fan podcast – Reading, Writing, Rowling Amy H Sturgis: Fantasy, Imagination and Indigenous Futurism

Fan podcast – Reading, Writing, Rowling Harry Potter Voices Across Borders

Article – How Knowledge About Different Cultures Is Shaking the Foundations of Psychology

Episode Transcript:

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

Photo of Aditi Krishnakumar

[Intro music]

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

[Intro music]

My name is Parinita Shetty and you’re listening to the seventh episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I talk to Aditi Krishnakumar about how different cultures are represented in some of our favourite fantasy worlds. As readers who grew up in India, there were many cultural stereotypes in Western texts which we just didn’t pick up on. Now, we’ve learned a lot through the collective intelligence of online fandom.

The ways in which mainstream media portrays different cultures influences audience attitudes about people from these cultures. The dominance of Western fantasy and culture in fiction marginalises other ways of being in the world. In a lot of fantasy worlds, diverse cultures are used either as set-dressing or just for comic relief. The ways in which different languages and foods are depicted can also sideline certain groups of people.

What is considered the norm and what is exotic in popular fantasy? Whose cultures and intellectual histories are privileged? Such conversations about diversity among fans can play a huge role in decolonising traditional ideas of fantasy. Retellings of old stories – both in traditional media and within fandom – are increasingly used to subvert problematic ideas and reflect progressive values.

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: Today, I’m so glad that I get to chat with Aditi Krishnakumar. Aditi grew up in India and she now works in the finance industry in Singapore. And she enjoys reading and is a published writer. So we share a children’s book publisher – Duckbill Books in India. And when Aditi’s book was due to be released, my editors asked me if I’d like to interview her for their blog because they know I’m a middle-grade fantasy nerd. I fell so completely in love with The Magicians of Madh. And Aditi creates such a fascinating world populated with the most absurd characters – absurd in the best way possible. I love absurd characters. And so she has a bunch of absurd characters and cultures and I just didn’t want to stop reading her world. And if you’re into comic fantasy and middle-grade books, you should definitely check her book out as well. This week, Aditi and I are going to talk about how different cultures are represented in some of our favourite fantasy worlds – both of us love reading fantasy. And we’re also going to chat about our experiences in online fandom a bit. So Aditi, do you want to introduce your own experiences encountering different cultures – either in fiction, fandom or the real world?

Aditi: This is probably true for lots of us growing up in India – the first things that you read, the first fantasy, everything – it’s all Enid Blyton.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aditi: And all the magical creatures that you hear about are the brownies and the pixies and –

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Aditi: [laughs] And you know the things they eat, the puddings and cakes and jellies. So that was pretty much it. And then The Hobbit I guess was next. And these are all … they’re just so very, very British. Both of them. Like really British books. Which is fine because they were by British writers. But I think … it has changed now – but growing up, there was definitely not many fantasy books that were really relatable for me.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aditi: In that world.

Parinita: I’m the same as well. I grew up reading Enid Blyton and other British and American books.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: So there was The Baby-Sitters Club and things and –

Aditi: Charlotte’s Web.

Parinita: Yeah. So even things that weren’t fantasy, or even if they were fantasy, the fantastical world was a whole other thing. And that real world in the UK or in the US was also this sort of foreign, alien world almost.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: And I also grew up watching a lot of Bollywood movies. I love Bollywood movies. I grew up in Mumbai.

Aditi: Um hmm.

Parinita: So it is pretty diverse but it’s still a very limited diversity. Even though we have a lot of people from all over the country in the city, especially when you’re younger, you only really interact with a limited group of people.

Aditi: Right, right. ’Cause in school you’ve just got a small bunch of friends.

Parinita: Exactly. Or in your housing society you’ll have neighbours and things. And so Bollywood introduced me to all these different cultures. I’ve never tried to look at Bollywood critically until a few years ago. And there are so many stereotypes in terms of different cultures that they portray in Bollywood movies as well. When it comes to tribal folk in Bollywood movies – and in Hollywood as well, I guess – and their customs, it’s just –

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: So full of stereotypes. Or even different religions or people from different regions – Gujarati stereotypes or South Indian stereotypes or Bengali stereotypes. There are so many. And in Enid Blyton, I know that she’s now being criticized a lot because golliwogs were supposed to represent black people in her books?

Aditi: Right, yeah. I think it’s one of those things that you can still – because I still think some things are really good about her books, especially her school stories, I think. You know they show girls being independent.

Parinita: Oh yeah.

Aditi: You don’t see that in The Famous Five and stuff but where her stories are exclusively about girls … I mean she does have problems and you can acknowledge them. But I think there’s still some great stuff.

Parinita: No, absolutely. I still love Enid Blyton’s books because it made me fall in love with reading.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: Those are the books that I read when I was six – The Faraway Tree and The Famous Five and things. And obviously at that age, I didn’t pick up on these anti-foreigner sentiments. And golliwogs and racism toh I wouldn’t even have thought of. Because I had no conception –

Aditi: I didn’t even know what a golliwog was.

Parinita: Yeah! Exactly! I mean there were pictures of the golliwog in the books, in some of the toys ones …

Aditi: In Noddy they had some golliwog pictures.

Parinita: Yeah. But I would never have – just because growing up in India, I don’t have that idea that oh this is supposed to represent black people. I just thought oh this is a doll.

Book cover of The Three Golliwogs by Enid Blyton

Aditi: You know I used to have those trolls when I was a kid right, those troll dolls.

Parinita: Yeah, yeah.

Aditi: Which I just thought it was something like that.

Parinita: It’s like with Harry Potter as well right? You can love the world and the story but you can also critique it. It doesn’t need to pass by unproblematically but you can still love it. I think it’s that balance. And it’s difficult because I think especially the books and things that were written a longer time ago when these conversations weren’t happening, if we read them through 2020 [the year the episode was recorded in] lenses, it might not be as diverse and inclusive as we want them to be. And I think it’s important to have that conversation that this is where it is missing.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: I would still want to read Enid Blyton books because the stories themselves are something that I have such positive associations with. So just to begin with our episode, a few of the podcast episodes that you and I listened to, touched on the theme of the dominance of Western fantasy and culture in fiction.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: And how this either marginalizes or exoticises other cultures and beliefs. And we talked about Enid Blyton a bit. When you were listening to this, did you think of any examples yourself?

Aditi: I mean one was Blyton herself ’cause there’s this some – I forget which one it is, it’s one of these Five Find-Outers books.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aditi: Where … oh I remember – I think it’s The Missing Prince or The Vanished Prince or something like that. So there’s an Indian price called Bongawi.

Parinita: Oh.

Aditi: Or Bongawa or something.

Parinita: Yeah that very Indian name. [laughs]

Aditi: Yes. So I mean that’s the kind of thing I thought – at the time I honestly I’m not sure I even realised they meant Indian like people from India. I don’t know what I thought. But it’s not something –

Parinita: Yeah because they also call Native Americans Indians, right? A lot of these early books, American Indians was this other thing.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: So in Breaking The Glass Slipper, The Cultural Traditions of Magic Episode with Zen Cho

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: She was talking about how the fantasy fiction that we read is, it currently depends on which culture is dominant. And mostly the stuff that is dominant right now is Western fantasy. It’s British and it’s American. And even on television. So I didn’t even realise these ideas of fantasy that had been shaped by Western culture. Because you grow up in India, at least if you grow up in certain parts of India, in cities and things, you have access to both Western and Indian culture.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: You have influences of both. So I thought it was interesting that she pointed this out, because even she is from Malaysia – she’s Malaysian-British. And she pointed out how a lot of Western fantasy is very Judeo-Christian. And it exoticises anything that doesn’t fit within that framework. And I was like oh yeah I actually hadn’t thought about that.

Aditi: It does, right? The other thing that you’d shared, I think the article [she meant podcast episode] about the Star Wars Holiday Special.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aditi: I like Star Wars but I think that’s part of the reason everyone tends to make fun of that. And you can kind of see why people make fun of it ‘cause it’s just so obviously –

Parinita: Have you watched it? The Star Wars Holiday Special?

Aditi: I hadn’t watched it for years but when I read that article, I saw a bit of it on YouTube.

Parinita: Yeah. Oh my god. So just as an aside, because I have to say I just love that movie so much [laughs].

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: One of my friends introduced it to me a couple of years ago.

Aditi: Um hmm.

Parinita: We were just doing this bad movie night thing where we’d have these regular bad movie nights at their flat. And we watched this and I just couldn’t believe that this cultural touchstone that Star Wars is and The Star Wars Holiday Special, what it is. I don’t even ironically love it, I very sincerely and –

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: Unironically love that ridiculous little movie that even George Lucas has completely divorced himself from.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: Like nope, I’m not going to do this. But yeah, sorry I interrupted you.

Aditi: I think it started from George Lucas because you always read about how he was influenced by Joseph Campbell and I read this book at some point of how Harry Potter also reflects the hero’s journey from Campbell. But the thing is Joseph Campbell’s books themselves have always felt like they are so … even his books about oriental mythology are still so much from a Western lens.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aditi: And that’s the proto-text that people very often consider now for fantasy writing or for epic writing. But that itself is such a Western lens that you know that’s –

Parinita: Yeah and even on a couple of the Imaginary Worlds episodes that we listened to. How they were talking about basically science fiction – I don’t know if it was the ones that we listened to but I listen to a lot of his episodes. And just the analogy with science fiction. Things like Star Trek where the whole concept is discovery and whatever, but it is a very Western colonial perspective as well.

Aditi: It is.

Parinita: Which you don’t think about right? At least I don’t. I’ve grown up not thinking critically about media at all.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: I just – I’m entertained by media. And it’s only now that I found that I have those tools and the vocabulary to articulate these things. But also I enjoy doing it. I enjoy looking at these things critically. I was watching Star Wars the original trilogy the other day and the Ewoks are also so very stereotypically tribal I was like okay yeah this is interesting. I didn’t realise how much …

Aditi: When you see it as a kid, you just think that they’re kind of cute.

Parinita: Yeah! And even The Star Wars Holiday Special. So the first twenty minutes is – and this is what I love telling my friends about this movie, about how ridiculous this movie is – it is twenty minutes of unsubtitled Wookie dialogue.

Aditi: [laughs] I read that.

Parinita: So they’re just –

Aditi: That’s just –

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs] They’re just literally grunting. You have to just imagine what they’re saying to each other and you don’t have this context. But like I said, I unironically love this movie. But because I love critically analyzing it, I was also thinking, to me it was a bit like how someone who doesn’t speak the dominant language in a culture or doesn’t belong to the dominant religion or the race or whatever, depending on where they are, and how for them, their culture is marginalised as well.

Aditi: Yes.

Parinita: Like in this Wookie land, obviously nobody understands them. We, the audience don’t understand them. And it’s so easy to make fun of it – to laugh it off.

Aditi: But you know on a somewhat related note, this is one thing I found when watching not the really big-budget Hollywood movies but some TV shows and things like that. When they’re speaking, especially when they’re speaking in Tamil occasionally and very often they’re allegedly speaking in Tamil which I speak. But I don’t know that it’s Tamil.

Parinita: Aaah.

Aditi: Because it sounds nothing like it. And I have to read the subtitles. So it’s sort of –

Parinita: [laughs] Ohhh right!

Aditi: You’ve not actually even got someone like a decent voice coach. Which they would do if someone was speaking French or Spanish or something.

Parinita: I know we’re going to talk about it a little more later but just because like you said that it’s just the politics of language as well. I was watching um what’s uh I’ve completely blanked out on the name – Hasan Minhaj’s show? The one on Netflix? [Patriot Act]

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: I love that show. And he was doing an episode on India – the Indian political system. I think it was about Modi. I’m not sure. So he started speaking in Hindi at one point and the subtitles said, “speaks in a foreign language”.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: And I was like ummm first of all, you’re a global platform. You’re on Netflix. I mean it’s produced in the US but it is on a global platform. So foreign for whom? And also you’re literally talking about the Indian elections. It wouldn’t have been so difficult to figure out that it is Hindi or to just look it up or something. Yeah, I sent a very outraged message to one of my friends.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: Saying, “Foreign to whom?!” So the problem isn’t obviously including diverse cultures in your world. You want diverse cultures. It’s only I think when you use these unfamiliar cultures as if they’re – I think Zen Cho mentioned this – as if they’re set-dressing in your fantasy world.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: Especially if that culture is marginalised in the real world.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: One of the things that we read [I meant an episode we listened to] was the whole Native American fiasco that J. K. Rowling had found herself in.

Aditi: Oh my god yeah. With those Skinwalker things. That was just …

Parinita: Yeah! And honestly I have to admit, I don’t know that much about Native American culture and about what they consider really sacred and what they consider really a part of their culture. I think another thing that’s really popular on the internet now – or it was a few years ago – was the term “my spirit animal”.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: Like something is my spirit animal. Which now a lot of Native people on Twitter and things say that, “No this is offensive to us, we don’t like you using this. So instead why don’t you use Patronus because that’s basically what you mean and that’s not offending anybody.” She’s [Rowling] so rich. Why doesn’t she just hire a research assistant to do this stuff?

Aditi: I know! [laughs]

Parinita: It’s just ridiculous to me.

Aditi: No, I think that’s what’s happened with her is that as long as she was writing about British things in a British setting, she probably knew what was too sacred to be touched simply because she grew up with it. But once anyone, not just J. K. Rowling, once anyone starts writing about something that unfamiliar …

Parinita: But you would think that especially now because this she did not write in the 90s – about Magic in North America on her Pottermore essays

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: It was now. When these conversations are very present. This is happening on the internet. And even if she doesn’t spend time on the internet, the fact that you have this power and your voice is reaching so many people and you know that your franchise is super popular, you would think that you would make more of an effort.

Aditi: You should do a bit more.

Parinita: Yeah!

Aditi: It’s not just that. It’s like her list of wizarding schools.

Parinita: [laughs] Oh my god.

Aditi: You’ve got three of them in Europe and all of Asia has one wizarding school in Japan.

Parinita: Yeah! In Japan! I was listening to this other podcast Woke Doctor Who where they were doing a Harry Potter thing. And one of them, she’s Chinese-American. And she was like um Japan attacked China a few decades ago.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: I don’t think Chinese wizards would be really happy to go to Japan just like yeah hello, everything’s all right. And Africa I think has one? The whole of Africa has one wizarding school as well.

Aditi: Yeah. This is basic maths. She just needs to work out the population and figure out where the schools should be, that’s it.

Parinita: Yeah. And the UK I mean it’s such a tiny place and they get this whole British wizarding school. Which of course has its own issues. So I didn’t realise this earlier. All these British politics I’ve only learned the nuances of once I’ve moved to the UK.

Aditi: Um hmm.

Parinita: But Jack, who is Scottish, he had encountered this thing about Seamus Finnigan. He doesn’t read Harry Potter but he knows some things.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: And Seamus Finnigan, this Irish character who loves blowing things up and setting things on fire.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: And I was like oh my god what! [laughs] I didn’t even make that connection that your one Irish character loves blowing things up.

Gif from the Harry Potter movies of Seamus Finnigan accidentally blowing up a potion

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] I guess there is an element of parody. I suppose you’re just doing it …

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: Or maybe she thought that she was doing it as parody, I suppose?

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: But I don’t know where that line is between – this North America thing, definitely she’s crossed the line because there have been Native American fans of Harry Potter who’ve called her out on it and she hasn’t yet to my belief, she hasn’t responded to the critique at all.

Aditi: Right. And the other thing is the Nagini thing which has been another disaster I think for her. And in so many ways it’s just so wrong to begin with. She’s not really focused on the mythology. Which is a secondary thing. But also this whole concept. I don’t know if she thought about it at the time when she said that killing Nagini was necessary. I don’t think Harry Potter spoilers count now, do they?

Parinita: No, no. I mean I’ll put a spoiler warning anyway. But yeah.

Aditi: But when you realise then that she was in fact a woman who was forced to be in that form and then killing her is necessary. And it’s just such a really, really terrible thing.

Parinita: And especially in a world where the characters of colour you can count on like maybe if not one hand, on two hands. Even though I think Nagini is from Crimes of Grindelwald?

Aditi: She is, yeah.

Parinita: I haven’t watched that movie yet. It’s on my list. As a proper Harry Potter scholar I suppose I should.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: But I’ve heard such bad things about it that it’s completely put me off watching it. But yeah even in the Harry Potter world but also in that prequel world, there aren’t that many characters of colour. So the way to include diversity isn’t necessarily to make this dramatic death scene.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: I don’t know it just seems basic. And some of these ideas you know they become so ingrained in you unconsciously because of what we’re exposed to, because of what we’re reading. We internalize these ideas of fantasy that we don’t even understand that oh this is our idea of fantasy. Which is why I love Terry Pratchett, his Discworld books.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: Because they push against it so often. They just take these tropes and stereotypes and they turn it upside down in a way that the reader’s like oh yeah you’re subverting it! And in a way that’s not obviously subverting it. Like he’s not saying oh look at me, look at how clever I am.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: But I mean he is pretty clever. So I love Terry Pratchett.

Aditi: Yeah, that’s true. And all of his characters who make a difference like Vimes and Lady Sybil and Granny Weatherwax, they’re not stereotypical, heroic characters.

Parinita: Yeah. And they’re taking witches, for example, or aristocracy or just guards. And it’s taking them and it’s not completely doing away with their identity. It’s not subverting it in a way that their history doesn’t matter if that makes sense.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: It’s using their history and their identity to subvert, which I really like.

Aditi: No, I think that’s cool. The solution is not to say I’m introducing this character who’s diverse but they’re exactly like all the other characters and it’s just that from their name or the actor playing them or something, that’s how you know that they’re diverse.

Parinita: Yeah! Exactly. I’m always torn you know as a writer but also as a reader. Because currently diversity is so … we’re still not there yet where we’ve achieved equal representation.

Aditi: Right

Parinita: So what’s the better way where you don’t mention anyone’s race or ability or gender, gender identity or whatever. And you just allow people to read themselves into it? Or you explicitly mention all the diverse identities so that it is more explicit?

Aditi: Yeah actually I think both ways work. I mean to an extent. ’Cause if you’re in a fantasy world with made-up names then it’s fine, you don’t have to. People can just imagine anything. Sometimes in the real world, just the sort of names and locations give you a bit of an idea of at least culturally what you mean. Honestly and I know I’m speaking from a position of privilege here because I can afford not to care but it’s just … something I’ve never really thought about one way or another in books. Because all this thing about shipping and who do you want to be dating whom and all that, I’ve never been involved in and never really have I cared about it. It’s always sort of like you know …

Parinita: Yeah like what other people say. I honestly didn’t think about these things either. Until I was listening to this episode um I forget the name of the Harry Potter podcast – oh yeah #WizardTeam. And it’s these two black American fans who are reading each chapter.

Aditi: Um hmm.

Parinita: And they just have a commentary. And they read Hermione but also Hagrid and Minerva McGonagall as black because they’d said that there is nothing that said otherwise in the text. In Harry Potter, all the characters who are not white – their race is mentioned.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: Whereas everybody else is normal I guess. Or you just don’t need to know their race because they’re obviously white.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: So I realised that when I’m reading Harry Potter or I’m reading any text that is Western-authored, for me everyone is white. I’ve not yet been able to decolonise my mind that much that I read my race or another race into it. I need to be told that this person is black or this person is Asian just for me to be able to even imagine differently. I suppose because –

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: I’ve only been reading certain kind of books and watching a certain kind of –

Aditi: You know that happens with me too. When it’s a Western writer … yeah you’re right, unless they specifically say this character is whatever they are, you just assume that they are white.

Parinita: Yeah. Which is why I’m trying to … so over the last, I think, year or a bit, I was trying to read more fantasy exclusively authored by women. It just started off randomly but then I realised that I actually really enjoy the different kinds of stories that are here now when it’s women who are authoring these worlds. And in a way that I didn’t even realise I was missing. Because I was reading most of the books that are written by men or TV shows and movies that are created by men.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: And then I started reading more books from women of colour as they say in the US which now it’s a term I’ve adopted whereas both of us – we are women of colour. We are both from India. Like even in Singapore –

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: There everyone is from … I think it’s very multicultural right? A lot of different countries’ inhabitants?

Aditi: It is, yeah. Especially in the business district and all you could be in any country because there are Chinese and Japanese and Indians and Europeans so there’s like everybody.

Parinita: Yeah. Which I think is so … like there’s so much potential because now at least in a lot of bigger cities, it is so multicultural.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: In Mumbai, it may not be in terms of – there are of course non-Indians who come and live there as well. Who some people will call expats because immigrants is only for brown people.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: But there’s also so many people from other parts of the country, right? India is essentially like twenty-seven different countries in one.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: And there is so much potential. But it seems like the way it’s divided is between dominant and marginalised – that’s the sort of relationship different people share. It’s such a pity because we’re missing out on so much. We as in we from the dominant culture within India or Singapore I guess.

Aditi: Yeah, no we do. But honestly, I’m not quite sure what the way around this is because when you think about it, it just doesn’t end well if you try to force people to interact. So it’s just one of those things that has to happen organically.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aditi: And I hate that word but that is the only word for it.

Parinita: No, that’s true. Which is why for me, media is such an important way to do this. Because if your media shows these cultures – and whatever media not just books and fantasy but also movies and TV shows and things. If you are showing them only in stereotypes, then that’s how people who don’t know these others – who don’t interact with people who are not like them in the real world will then have this idea of those people, right? I didn’t sound very coherent but –

Aditi: [laughs] No but I know what you mean. You’re right. Because if your only exposure to somebody is through Hollywood which will happen if you’re Indian and you’re maybe living in a smaller town or something. Your only exposure to people from like China may be through movies.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aditi: And then you’re just going to have this idea that could be really, really wrong.

Parinita: Yeah. And now of course there’s like ugh just mentioning China now is so fraught because just the amount of – I don’t know how it is in Singapore because obviously it’s a very different part of the world. But in the UK there have been so many attacks against not just Chinese people but also East Asian people in general. Because of this whole Coronavirus thing. And it’s just like it – it’s just – it makes me very depressed to talk about, honestly I shouldn’t have brought this up. But I think there is a link between how you consider people from another country just because of the media. Not just entertainment media but news media as well. If they’re so othered that it’s almost like they’re aliens and you know their – even the language that’s used, like in the US, for example, oh aliens.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: Mexicans are aliens.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: Of course it would have an effect. The language that you use is important. It is political. In India as well, people from Pakistan or from other parts of the country – if you use a word like cockroaches for them; if you’re a minister of a party who’s using this language, how do you make it better? That organic growth, it’ll be impossible for that to be achieved you know.

Aditi: Right. Yeah, no that’s true. There has to be … I don’t know it’s really depressing to think about it.

Parinita: It is. Let’s move on to some of our fantasy before we get really, really sad about this. Because while it is important, I don’t know how much we can do – what we can do about it.

Aditi: But can you imagine if Trump, when he was talking about Mexicans, if instead of calling them illegal aliens, he called them expats or something?

Parinita: Yeah! Exactly. I obviously consider myself an immigrant in the UK currently because I’m living here. But I can’t call myself an expat because first of all that word is … I’m very doubtful of that word.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: I side-eye it. But also I’m brown so I’m not allowed to call myself an expat. And I’m not rich so I’m definitely not allowed to call myself an expat.  So moving on to less depressing topics. Or maybe not. Maybe Harry Potter might also depress us. But I do love Harry Potter. [laughs]

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: Despite all the problems that it has.

Aditi: No, that’s okay. We’ll still have fun.

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs] So perhaps we could think about what is considered the norm and what is considered exotic in some of our favourite worlds. One of the examples that I think you’d shared with me a few weeks ago was from Pratchett.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: Do you mind just briefly talking about that?

Aditi: Right. So Pratchett whom I mean I love him to bits. I don’t remember which book it was. I think it was Snuff.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Aditi: But there’s this bit where there’s one of the characters whose mother or grandmother or something came from a country that is sort of a stand-in for China.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aditi: And there’s a running joke throughout the book that she makes a dish called Man Dog Suck Po and then there’s another dish with another similar name. It’s basically played for jokes.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aditi: I thought that was tragic because Pratchett is so brilliant. He doesn’t need to do this.

Photo of a page from a Discworld book. Text says: Vimes hesitated. It didn't do to upset an old mum. It was time to let the duke out. Vimes never normally bowed to anybody, but he bowed to Mistress Upshot, who almost dropped her tray in ecstatic confusion. 'I am mortified, my dear Mistress Upshot, to have to ask you to keep your Man Dog Suck Po warm for us for a little while, because your son here, a credit to his uniform and to his parents, has asked me to assist him in an errand of considerable importance, which can only be entrusted to a young man with integrity, as your lad here.' As the woman very nearly melted in pride and happiness Vimes pulled the young man away. 'Sir, the dish was Bang Suck Duck. We only have Man Dog Suck Po on Sundays. With mashed carrots.' Vimes turned back and shook Mrs Upshot warmly by the hand, and said, 'I look forward to tasting it later, my dear Mistress Upshot, but if you'll excuse me, your son is a stickler for his police work, as I'm sure you know.'

Parinita: Yeah I know. And I think even with people who consider themselves progressive, people who consider themselves I suppose above such cultural goof-ups – or just horrible cultural missteps – it’s so important to be on the guard against these things. Because like we were talking about earlier, it’s so internalised.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: That you don’t even realise what you’re doing is ridiculous or is terrible.

Aditi: Right. And I mean there’s not even a moment which would possibly have redeemed it when people try this thing and say, oh it’s actually good and I liked it or something. It’s just a joke.

Parinita: Yeah. It’s just like diversity for the sake of humour and comic relief. And the Amy Sturgis episode on Reading, Writing, Rowling that we were listening to about indigenous futurism? They were making fun of the horrible way in which Rowling has written about indigenous people. They mentioned, “the radical idea that Native Americans have their own intellectual history.” It’s this thing that to others – to people who are not well-versed with this culture or who are just looking at it from this colonial perspective – don’t realise that Native Americans, even though their knowledge and practices differ from ours, or in India it might be different regions or even or tribal or rural sort of practices, it is still a valid way of understanding the world and interacting with the world. It just doesn’t match your own. And it was reminding me then of other cultures within Harry Potter whose cultures and intellectual histories are dismissed and mocked. So for example, Ron and just I think the magical world in general is so suspicious of goblins. And the way that they engage with magic and objects and whatever.

Aditi: Right. And it’s so silly because when you think about it, the goblins are running the economy. You should be really grateful to them because I don’t think anyone in the wizarding world can do maths.

Parinita: [laughs] No. I mean their system is so complicated like how many Knuts and Sickles and –

Aditi: Can you imagine if you’re trying to make change and you’re going what is twenty-nine into seventeen or something.

Parinita: [laughs] I know. And yeah, so I was also thinking that the Muggle culture within that and the Muggle-born culture as well is also so diminished.

Aditi: It is. And you know there’s one thing that didn’t occur to me at first but later when I re-read and thought about it, I thought it was really awful. Which is right upfront when Hagrid says, we don’t reveal ourselves to Muggles. And the reason is that they’d want magical solutions to their problems. And okay you don’t want to just be fixing people’s glasses and all, I get it. But when you realise that wizarding medicine in Rowling’s world is so advanced.

Parinita: Yeah!

Aditi: And they’re just keeping it to themselves because they can’t be stuffed. That’s really awful.

Parinita: Yeah! And we were talking about this in an earlier episode – me and my friends. And we were like, could they fix the climate crisis? Why wouldn’t you? You live with the Muggles as well right? Do you not want the planet to be all right?

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: And also the thing is that they have such a paternalistic attitude towards Muggles and Muggle-born culture. So I re-read Philosopher’s Stone recently.

Aditi: Um hmm.

Parinita: And this Hermione’s obsession with reading everything to know about the magical world and being this rule-follower until … she isn’t. But still largely following rules.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: And I was thinking that that’s so similar to the experiences of an immigrant right?

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: Either in another country or even in another –

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: Like from rural to urban or whatever. And you want to be the best version of yourself because if you go wrong, you will be held as the representative for your entire race or religion or … yeah whatever. And nobody seems to really be that curious about Hermione’s Muggle background – except Arthur Weasley. But even he isn’t – it’s in a way that’s –

Aditi: It’s like he’s looking at something in a zoo.

Parinita: Yeah! Or in a museum. Okay magic is super advanced in some cases. But in other cases, like Muggles, we use ballpoint pens. [laughs]

Aditi: [laughs] They’re using quills and ink.

Parinita: Yeah! We don’t use chamber pots and I don’t know … some of them I think still use chamber pots or was it just Dumbledore – I don’t know. I have this –

Aditi: It’s Dumbledore who found chamber pots in the Room of Requirement.

Parinita: Oh yeah! Yeah! Which like … um plumbing?

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: So no, it’s just like there’s so much that can be achieved through cross-cultural collaboration.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: If the wizards and witches actually respected or were curious about Muggle culture, imagine how much better Hogwarts would be. Health and safety would definitely be better. Because they don’t seem to have heard about it. Maybe therapy? Some of the professors could also do with therapy, I think.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: And just the internet! Imagine how much miscommunication has happened in even just the Order of the Phoenix.

Aditi: I mean just imagine if Harry had a cellphone then Sirius would not be dead.

Parinita: I know! [laughs] I know!

Aditi: But you know another thing that I – and that’s another thing that I realised only after you put that thing about food in the Google doc [we use while planning the episode], the other thing that struck me is that in all of Harry Potter, all the food is just exactly like in Enid Blyton.

Parinita: Oh yeah!

Aditi: And I think the most foreign thing they have is like bouillabaisse.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aditi: Even that is making fun of it but –

Parinita: Yeah because, oh what is this foreign thing that only Fleur seems to want?

Aditi: Yeah. But actual British culture I mean they do have a lot of other food I would think.

Parinita: Oh, you know what the national dish of the UK is? Chicken tikka masala. [laughs]

Aditi: Yeah exactly. But there’s never chicken tikka masala at Hogwarts.

Parinita: Exactly! I’m not even joking. This is something that Scotland claims to have invented which I’m taking with a grain of salt.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: It was some Bangladeshi immigrants in Scotland that apparently invented chicken tikka masala. Which fine whatever. When I used to read about Enid Blyton food as a kid, it used to seem so exotic and so exciting to me.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: And when I re-read it as an adult, I was like oh you’re eating boiled eggs with a twist of salt? Okay.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: That’s cool. I understand because I’ve read this that she’d written about it in the post-Second-World-War atmosphere where there was lots of rationing happening in the UK. So she was trying to make simple food and things sound exciting. Which worked because yeah it was super exciting even to this kid in India who had really yummy food around her. So the diversity in Hogwarts, what are the Patil twins eating? Are they happy with this bland British food?

Aditi: They’re having toast and marmalade for breakfast.

Parinita: Yeah!

Aditi: Every day.

Parinita: Yeah! Do they not want some masala in their –

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: I know what a struggle it is because I have a white Scottish boyfriend who is used to some spice but is not used to Indian level of spice.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: So  it’s always a compromise in terms of spice. And he knows I like chili in everything. I like chili flakes in most things.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: So I need some spice. How can you be an Indian or a child of an Indian immigrant in Hogwarts and not want … I don’t know some curry powder in everything.

Aditi: All of them. Or even Cho Chang, she never gets noodles. I think they’re always having –

Parinita: That’s true! There are no noodles in Hogwarts! What a travesty! There’s no fish and chips either. Which is I suppose would be considered more … I don’t know if there’s a class connotation …

Aditi: Maybe they can go to the Hog’s Head and get fish and chips.

Parinita: Ah perhaps. So it’s all healthy food in Hogwarts. Which is quite boring. Even dal would have also – [laughs]

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: Or lentil soup as they call it here. [laughs] That would have been at least more exciting. I never thought about the food in Hogwarts actually, about how narrow it is. What a fixed definition of food there is. And yeah I wonder if there’s fanfiction out there about just having a desi Christmas or a Diwali maybe.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: Maybe the Patils could celebrate Diwali or I don’t know whatever other – I’m very bad with my Hindu festivals. And in … I don’t know in Star Wars and things, food is not really mentioned …  except in the Star Wars Holiday Special where there was another twenty-minute segment which consisted of a person on the TV cooking something.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: With an increasing number of arms that came out. I’m telling you, everybody needs to go watch this movie because it is amazing. [laughs]

Aditi: [laughs] Food is not … I mean you see a bit of it here and there but it’s not really a focus.

Parinita: Which I don’t understand because for me food is the most important part of any adventure. [laughs] Like why – I suppose they’re busy fighting a genocidal maniac I guess so it’s okay.

Aditi: Maybe Jedi knights don’t care about food.

Parinita: Oh what a sad future! Is this the future that we’re heading towards? Oh no!

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: I know there have been a lot of critiques in A Song of Ice and Fire for his [George R. R. Martin’s] obsession with describing food. And Lord of the Rings as well. No, his [J. R. R. Tolkien] was trees.

Aditi: Yeah. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Even in terms of food of course but there’s also language.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: We briefly spoke about that before and yeah I was thinking – just like in terms of the Wookie language, but also like in any of the fantasy worlds, of course, English is – because they’re written I suppose in the UK and the US. But the foreign languages that I can think of for example in the Lord of the Rings I think Elvish is one.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: Right? And the Orcs have their own language.

Aditi: Yeah, yeah.

Parinita: From what I remember. And obviously one is good whereas the other is evil.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: The people who come from the East are not to be trusted. [laughs] They’re villains. Whereas the Elves, they have this gentle tongue.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: No problems there.

Aditi: But yeah, no I think the way they handle languages is – and I think that’s a problem with Tolkien definitely ‘cause he’s … I mean I don’t want to speculate because it was so long ago so I don’t want to speculate about whether or not it was intentional. But everything that happens is focused on the West. And the East … I mean there are a lot of these mysterious events that happen there like the elves walk on the shore of the sea and they came to the west and the two blue wizards went there and they were never heard of again. So you have no idea what’s happening there. It’s just the sort of – for all you know there are snake charmers. It’s this sort of mysterious exotic place and we’ve got no clue what’s going on. And a part of it is also I think is that it was Tolkien’s area of study.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aditi: The Anglo-Saxon and Nordic. And so it’s natural possibly that all the languages he invented should sort of be based on that. But yeah I don’t know I think culturally it’s also that his intention was to create a mythology for England.

Parinita: Hmm.

Aditi: So he wasn’t trying to be diverse which –

Parinita: Yeah

Aditi: I mean that’s not an excuse – it isn’t diverse.

Parinita: No. I mean I do understand what you’re saying. I suppose especially when – he was writing what during the 60s? The 1960s? 50s? Or something like that.

Aditi: Yeah. I mean he started writing a bit earlier than that. Started creating a bit earlier than that. But yeah then the books were coming out then.

Parinita: Yeah so I mean I do understand why diversity wasn’t such a big thing. But then the sort of ideas that we have … because I think Zen Cho said that currently Western culture is global culture. Just because of how cultural imperialism has moved in terms of media. And English itself is considered this language of intelligence.

Aditi: Hmm.

Parinita: In India.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: I’m talking specifically of India. One of my neighbours back home in Bombay, she had an interview in a school for her kid. Her kid was three or four so they wanted to get into a this fancy international school.

Aditi: Um hmm.

Parinita: And she was so worried. She wanted me to come to her the night before and teach her English because she was like, I don’t know to speak English. She speaks in Marathi. And she’s like, if I speak in Marathi and if I’m not able to speak in English, they’re going to think I won’t be able to look after my child’s education or they’re going to think I’m not intelligent.

Aditi: Oh god.

Parinita: Yeah! Right?! And this is in Mumbai where it’s full of Maharashtrians. It’s full of people who speak Marathi.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: And I did tell her don’t worry about the language so much. But also, on the other hand, there are people – people who speak in English – who do equate English with intelligence. And if you don’t speak in English, you’re obviously not as intelligent or your ideas are not as worthy as someone who does speak in English.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: Yeah it’s so sad. I think just talking about these things, it helps. But if you’re just talking amongst people who think like you, it’s … we’re just coming up with problems on this episode. [laughs] Like here’s a problem!

Aditi: No but actually now that you mention it, so there is this the thing in Lord of the Rings, the book, it doesn’t come in the movies. So Frodo, when he leaves Bag End, he meets these elves who are all going West because everyone goes to the West, it’s amazing.

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs]

Aditi: So there are two forms of Elvish that are primarily spoken in Middle-earth – Sindarin and Quenya. And Quenya is the one that is better and higher and everything. So he knows the Quenya greeting because Bilbo taught him.

Parinita: Ah.

Aditi: And he uses that and the elves are immediately like I think they name him Elf-friend on the spot.

Parinita: [laughs]

Aditi: So that’s pretty much the same thing that’s happened to your neighbour I guess.

Parinita: Yeah!

Aditi: Or that she thought would happen to her.

Parinita: And also just as a side-note, I find it really interesting that people like Tolkien fans are so excited to learn like Elvish or Star Trek fans are so excited to learn Klingon but not an actual foreign language that might make their neighbour more comfortable or somebody you know more comfortable.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: You know language is like food as well. I think in one of the episodes that I was listening to after we spoke when we were planning the episode, it was another Imaginary Worlds podcast episode about food in fantasy. And one of the guests was talking about how food is used to express xenophobia. Not just in the real world. Obviously in the real world where if you meet this unfamiliar food –

Aditi: Um hmm

Parinita: You’re like eww what is this, and it meets with disgust. But also in science fiction and fantasy, where if you’re going to this new either planet or country or land or whatever, there’s so much that can be done to push against what happens in the real world rather than just replicating what happens in the real world.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: I’m happy that even though something is so internalised, it’s difficult to unlearn these things, but still there’s still conversation happening. Like you and I we’re having one but also just on the internet in general. There’s more conversation about diversity so people are becoming aware of these things and it’s helping decolonise traditional ideas of fantasy.

Aditi: Yeah, I’ve learned to re-examine a lot of the things I thought and the way I read fantasy just through like Tumblr and Facebook. Well not Facebook so much, Tumblr. And stuff online.

Parinita: Yeah absolutely. Me too. Because you’re not learning these things in school, right? Nobody is telling you these things. Where else are you learning these things?

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: It’s just the internet and for me fandom. That’s one of the major reasons that I started this podcast for the PhD project because for me, fandom has been such a tremendous learning experience and critically analysing things and unlearning problematic things that I have internalised.

Aditi: I think part of the problem in schools at least might just be that they don’t know how to have these conversations. ’Cause one of the literature texts that I did in school was The Tempest.

Parinita: Hmm.

Aditi: And I mean I love Shakespeare too but that is also problematic in so many ways. But that’s just something they don’t talk about in schools. And maybe they don’t know how – they can’t you know …

Parinita: Oh yeah! You’re so right. I think more contemporary texts need to be used in schools anyway.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: But even if you want to place them in conversation with what you consider classic texts, there is such an opportunity to talk about anti-Semitism or to talk about problematic ideas in something like Shakespeare for example.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: I used to do this reading programme in a school in Mumbai.

Aditi: Um hmm.

Parinita: And one of the people really wanted to get rid of the fairy tale books in the library. Because she said that, which is true, a lot of the fairy tales, they have really problematic ideas of gender.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: But I told her that I think getting rid of these books would really be a lost opportunity because they’re going to be getting these messages outside anyway. Like we were talking about Disney.

Aditi: Yeah

Parinita: It is this huge corporate behemoth which is going to pervade everything.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: And I think a better use of that would be to read these stories but then teach the kids to problematise them; see what can be challenged in these ideas within the story that you don’t have to accept.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: And similarly in Shakespeare as well, I’m sure.

Aditi: Right. Because it’s the same thing we were talking about earlier. You can appreciate something and still realise that it’s got problems.

Parinita: Yeah! Exactly. So one of my favourite things is retellings of fairy tales or of mythology.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: Or just of old stories that were written when everything was really problematic if we look at it from now. But then they subvert the stories in ways that make them really relevant and contemporary and make it more exciting for us.

Aditi: Yeah. But actually you know I was reading this thing on – I think on Tumblr or somewhere a while ago. And I thought it was really cool. So it was about fairy tales and the original fairy tales, not retellings. About the good things even in those. So basically the one I remember is Cinderella ’cause she was saying that obviously it’s full of problems. But then the thing is also that Cinderella manages to stay hopeful despite all the horrible things that are happening to her.

Parinita: Hmm.

Aditi: And she stays kind and she is still a good person despite everything. And that’s something worth remembering even if there are problems with the rest of it.

Parinita: That’s true! That’s such a good point. Because that’s true even in the texts that we’ve talked about today right? For example Harry Potter.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: Or you know Lord of the Rings, Pratchett whatever. Some which we love more than others.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: For me it’s definitely Harry Potter. I’m an avowed Harry Potter fangirl. But also Pratchett. But yeah, you don’t need to toss out the whole thing because you have one problematic element. Or maybe more than one problematic element. You can still search for the good in that. Harry Potter has positively impacted so many people in the world.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: You see these examples in activism as well where they draw on Harry Potter in the way people might have drawn on religion first. They’re drawing on Harry Potter as a sort of cultural myth almost. And they’re using it to understand the world. That’s why I love fandom so much because there is room for all these different interpretations and you’re learning from each other. So in an academic text that I read, Henry Jenkins, who’s awesome – he’s one of my favourite academics. He’s a fan scholar, so he’s both a fan and a scholar. And he talks about the collective intelligence of fandom.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: Where one person doesn’t know everything. It’s impossible for one person to know everything.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: But everybody has different skills and knowledge and you’re coming together in this space around a thing that you love. And you’re drawing on your own experiences and knowledge and backgrounds and whatever. And making sense of it together.

Aditi: Yeah I think actually that’s why I like Tumblr so much ‘cause it’s really a space where that happens. People just join conversations.

Parinita: Like you were saying, you learned a lot of queer perspectives and ideas about queerness and queer ideology and things from Tumblr and fandom right?

Aditi: Yeah. Right. Because that’s just not something that – I mean I knew that queerness existed but it just wasn’t something that was really on my radar when I was reading. Just like I wouldn’t have thought that a character was non-white in a Western book, I would not have thought that a character was queer unless the writer just said it outright.

Parinita: Yeah because if you’re not a part of that marginalised group, I guess you’re not really thinking about these identities. There was another discussion about disability and neurodiversity.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: I was listening to this other podcast where they read Hermione and Luna as well as Neville I think in Harry Potter as neurodiverse. As autistic.

Aditi: Right.

Parinita: They said something which really struck a chord. That when writers are trying to write or are writing disabled characters into stories, they’re usually really rife with stereotypes. Especially if it’s someone who doesn’t have experience with disability.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: And they’ve done research but they’re using … they’ve obviously not talked to a person with a disability So it’s a stereotype. So people with these disabilities, they would rather recognise their own identities and practices and behaviours and whatever in characters that are not explicitly said to be disabled.

Aditi: Right. No actually you know that makes sense. ’Cause also I think the problem would be that a writer would be afraid of being accused of bias if they had too many flaws in a disabled character or something of that sort. So they just end up being these perfect people.

Parinita: Yeah, yeah! Or just that one thing gives them this super skill or something.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: That their disability becomes their magical power. For me, just these fandom conversations are so great. Like I was telling you, fan podcasts have become my new fandom expression.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: Because Tumblr would have sucked – although fan podcasts suck a lot of my time also. But I don’t have time for two things right now. So luckily I get to do this as a part of my research. So I’ve chosen a good project.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah I learn so much. But even within fandom, I feel like even within these conversations … we were talking about cultures earlier; I feel like there are cultures within fandom as well.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: Not just say Harry Potter would be different and Lord of the Rings would be different. But even within Harry Potter fandom for example. So initially in fanfiction and things, there’s been a lot of conversations about gender and queerness.

Aditi: Yeah

Parinita: A lot of engagement with that. But not so much with race. A few years ago I think it was called out. This became a topic of conversation then in fandom that  you know there’s this race-blindness that’s happening and people are not really talking about race. Then trans folks were also complaining about this.

Aditi: Yes.

Parinita: But now I feel like in terms of diversity, there’s a lot of conversation happening about race. But not so much about other marginalised identities. Not so much for example about disability or class or I don’t know religion I guess. I do see a few things – there were these really cool texts about Muslim students in Hogwarts and how they would celebrate Eid and how they would do the month of Ramzan.

Screenshot of Tumblr post by bertiebottsbigbean. Text says: why don't we talk about muslim kids in hogwarts during ramadan? imagine waking up at 3 every morning and walking down for suhoor, to find the house elves have prepared a feast for them. imagine the kids having an extended curfew, so they can go and eat iftar at 10, where the house elves once again provide a ten course meal, topped with dates and traditional delicacies from around the world. imagine the kids being allowed to go into the kitchens in the middle of the night if they were still in the mood to eat. imagine the kids being allowed to leave class to do their prayers, and spending lunch times to read the quran. we need to talk more about muslim kids in hogwarts

Aditi: Yeah I think you were mentioning that. And that also brings up the question of the same thing, Patil twins and Cho Chang. I mean is everyone a Christian who goes to Hogwarts? Because they seem to celebrate Christmas and Easter.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aditi: I don’t even know. Because I don’t get the impression that anyone is really overtly a believer.

Parinita: Yeah because they don’t talk about Jesus or anything. Or the birth of Christ or anything.

Aditi: Yeah so Christmas just seems to be for crackers.

Parinita: Yeah. A cultural rather than religious celebration.

Aditi: Right. So in that case there’s no reason why they can’t like you said have Diwali or something. I’m sure they’d have fun doing that too.

Parinita: How fun would Diwali sweets at Hogwarts be though?

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: Like jalebi and I don’t know I just miss Indian food a lot. I wish it was a bigger part of Hogwarts as well.

Aditi: And just think what they could do with the fireworks. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah! Exactly.

Aditi: They don’t know what they’re missing.

Parinita: I mean maybe the animals like Fang wouldn’t have a great time during Diwali at Hogwarts but some sacrifices have to be made, I guess.

Aditi: [laughs]

Parinita: But yeah even like Eid or something.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: Just having you understand each other through your customs and rituals and celebrations without exoticising them.

Aditi: Right. Or Chinese New Year because I’m sure Cho Chang can’t be the only Chinese student there.

Parinita: Yeah! I mean I hope not. Because there seems to be one token diversity everywhere. But yeah, just different cultural, regional, national celebrations would be really good. Scottish as well. They’re in Scotland. We don’t really know anything about Celtic culture.

Aditi: Yeah.

Parinita: So I think we’re just about running out of time. But thank you so much Aditi for being on this podcast and for being a part of this project. It was so fun talking to somebody who has the same cultural contexts but also different fandoms and just bringing both our fandoms together and just geeking out about what we love and what we love to hate.

Aditi: [laughs] Thanks for having me. It’s been fun – great fun.

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode on representations of diverse cultures in fantasy media. While editing this episode, Jack showed me a great example of encountering unfamiliar food from a different culture in one of his favourite shows Star Trek. Commander Riker participates in an officer cultural exchange programme and begins to understand the Klingon culture through its food. If, like me, you’re curious about checking it out – the episode is called A Matter of Honour. If you know of any other fictional examples of different cultures interacting with each other without the Western colonial perspective, I’d love to hear them! Thanks for such a fun conversation, Aditi. And thanks for all the editing and recommendations, Jack!

[Outro music]

You can now listen to Marginally Fannish on SpotifyAppleGoogle, or SoundCloud. I’d love to hear from you and talk to you – so any feedback, comments or critiques are very welcome! Get in touch with me on social media, leave a comment on my blog, or email me at edps@leeds.ac.uk. If you’d like to follow the podcast or the PhD project, visit my website marginallyfannish.org where you’ll find both the podcast episodes and the blog. You can also receive updates on Facebook or Instagram at Marginally Fannish or on Twitter where I’m @MarginalFannish. If you enjoyed the podcast, please share it with anyone you think will enjoy it too.

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

Episode 5 It’s Like She’s Not Even There: Misogyny, Masculinity, and Different Cultures

Episode Resources: 

For this episode we looked at the following texts:

Essay – Ron Weasley Vs Ron Weasley

Essay – Ginny Weasley, The Girl Who Deserved More

Essay – Strong Female Characters: Ginny Weasley

Essay – Supernatural: A History of Violence Against Women

Academic paper – Greek Mythology in English Literature Harry Potter’s Greek Connection

Academic paper – A study on usage of Greek Mythology in the Harry Potter’s series

Fan podcast – Alohomora Folkore & Mythology: A Whole New World

Fan podcast – Witch, Please Episode 9.5: Witch, Please; Live & Unruly

Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Heroines

Fan podcast – Women of Harry Potter Cho Chang With Kathy Tu

Fan podcast – Women of Harry Potter Molly Weasley with Dr. Chloe Angyal

Fan podcast – Witch, Please Episode 13 C Hallows and Goodbyes

Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text Masculinity: Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes (Book 4, Chapter 5)

Fan podcast – Reading, Writing, Rowling Amy H. Sturgis: Fantasy, Imagination and Indigenous Futurism

Episode Transcript: 

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

Text on black background. Text says: fandom

[Intro music]

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

[Intro music]

My name is Parinita Shetty and you’re listening to the fifth episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, Anna Raymondou and I talk about representations of gender in the Harry Potter book and movie series and in the TV show Supernatural. We discuss the impact that movie adaptations have on how characters and relationships are portrayed in popular media. We also chat about the different depictions of masculinity and misogyny in both Supernatural and Harry Potter. We discuss social conditioning and women’s internalised misogyny (Fleur Delacour deserved better!) as well as the gendered labour of the resistance (Molly Weasley also deserved better except when she was being horrible to Fleur!).

As Harry Potter fangirls, we like how the series provides us with a new mythology, folklore and culture. Anna discusses the Greek mythological inspirations in the books. We love how the Potterverse can be read through diverse cultural lenses and has room for multiple mythological interpretations. At the same time, fandom has educated us both about the problematic portrayals of other cultures in the Potterverse – specifically the anti-Semitic undertones and the appropriation of Native American beliefs. We talk about the responsibility that creators with a wide audience have in portraying marginalised cultures and learning from their missteps. Finally, Anna chats about the role of fandom in finding a supportive community and how it can make an active difference on people’s mental well-being.

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: “Whether a story is made for pure entertainment value or made to convey a specific issue or struggle, all art contributes to people’s understanding of the universe. All media has an impact on the people who engage with it – intentional and unintentional. Scrutiny of sexist, racist, heteronormative, ageist, ableist and other biased or discriminatory themes within a work is both necessary and important, especially when the show itself fails to contextualise it. By unquestioningly accepting these story aspects, we can end up perpetuating the societal issues they represent.” This quote is from the essay “Supernatural: A History of Violence Against Women” on The Geekiary written by Exorcising Emily. It’s one of the texts that we looked at for this episode and you can find it on the project website marginallyfannish.org. For every episode on Marginally Fannish, my guests and I, we look at a whole bunch of texts which we use as discussion prompts. And all of them are up on the website accompanying the transcripts. This week I’m joined by Anna Raymondou who describes herself as an obsessive fangirl with an extended, deep and what some may consider useless knowledge about everything concerning her favourite fandoms and stories. I wish I could apply this description to myself but my memory is too atrocious to hold much room for deep knowledge really.

Anna: [laughs]

Parinita: About any of my favourite media. So this week, we’re talking about gender in Harry Potter and Supernatural and media in general. As well as depictions of different cultures in Harry Potter and media at large. So Anna, she’s twenty-two and she’s from Greece. So we both have very different contexts that we come from, looking at media that’s largely produced in the US and the UK. So Anna, do you want to start us off by talking about your own experiences with gender and culture as a fan?

Anna: I’ve always been watching stuff from the US and the UK. It was always on our TV and for many years, I thought that was the normal. And what I was experiencing was kind of different. Because you know at school we didn’t have these dances, and we didn’t have boys asking you out or doing the prom thing with the big you know like, “Do you want to be my prom date?” Or –

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Anna: You know any kind of depiction. Like whatever cultural thing I saw was not very similar to mine. So when I realised that oh! Other people may not experience it, what we see on TV, it’s like [gasps].

Parinita: No, I’m the same way. Because in India, as well – I grew up in Mumbai, so it’s a pretty big city. And most of my media engagement has been American TV shows and movies and some British things. So my idea about the US and the UK has largely been shaped by the movies that I see and just exactly like you, it’s so different from my own life in India. So it almost starts to feel like we are missing out on something by not having these experiences.

Anna: Yeah!

Parinita: Whereas these experiences may not even be that common to people in the US as well. The media perpetuates such a very single experience that is the norm. Which is really interesting. That’s why I love fandom conversations because I think if we just saw these TV shows without any contexts –

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: Without hearing responses from other fans, we’d be thinking that we’re the sort of odd ducks who don’t quite fit in. Whereas in fandom, everyone is like, “No, this doesn’t really … this doesn’t represent my life either.” So you find community in fandom which is pretty cool.

Anna: Yeah and it’s great when they say that, “Oh, it’s not what you see.” Like “Not all of us drive a car at sixteen or have like [sighs] uniforms that require skirts and high heels.” Who wears high heels in school?

Parinita: Yeah.

Anna: I can barely make it out of my PJs and wear proper clothes like –

Parinita: [laughs]

Anna: I’m not saying that someone may not wear these, but I think maybe –

Parinita: But there’s room for different representations, right? Like there’s room for different –

Anna: Yeah.

Parinita: Experiences of … anything in media.

Anna: Yeah. Exactly.

Parinita: Which is why I think as I said, for me, fandom was so important. But fandom also allowed me to be okay with critiquing the media –

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: That I love like Harry Potter, for example.

Anna: Yes.

Parinita: I started reading it since I was ten and now it’s been twenty years that I’ve been a die-hard Harry Potter fan. But it’s only much later that I realised that oh wait, it’s not all perfect and it’s not all – there are things that definitely can be better.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: And I love that fandom allows you to call out the problematic elements and I don’t think that this diminishes my love of the media.

Anna: Yeah, no I completely agree. And it took me a while to be able to criticise the things I loved and obsessed about because I thought that I had to like everything that I read or I saw. And take what I’m seeing as something that’s right. And eventually I got to a point of accepting and understanding why other people are calling things out that are not okay. And I think I’m growing as a person from that experience alone you know.

Parinita: Yeah for sure. Because you’re still twenty-two and you seem much more with it than I was when I was twenty-two. Because it’s only been very recently – I’ve been in fandom more or less since I was thirteen. But earlier it was much more the squee part of fandom which is like I’m excited about everything, I want to only hear good things. Whereas now I love the critical commentary. I love the people who come together, who sort of expand the texts and expand my mind a little bit more.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: Just by inserting their own voices and perspectives. Which is one of my favourite things.

Anna: I agree completely. As long as everyone is respectful with each other, it can bring so much – like a different light into your whole perspective about what you’ve grown to love. And I think it broadens your mind in a way.

Parinita: Yeah, for sure. And what we were talking about, about the cultural elements as well, coming from Greece and India.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: For me it’s this whole process of decolonising my mind. Because when I’ve grown up, we read a lot of British literature, so children’s books. And now I watch a lot of American TV shows and movies. And that really makes me think about my own country in a different way. Whereas now these conversations, they’re making me see the problematic bits of Western media and culture as well. It helps me see both the West and India in a different way, if that makes sense.

Anna: Yeah, totally. I agree.

Parinita: So I know you had some thoughts about how the movie adaptations of the Harry Potter series really butchered some characters and misrepresented others –

Anna: [sighs]

Parinita: Through problematic portrayals?

Anna: Um hmm. I have some very strong thoughts on that.

Parinita: [laughs]

Anna: And I’m glad you agreed with me because I love the Harry Potter movies. It’s one of my favourite movie series and I will never stop watching it and re-watching and re-watching.

Parinita: [laughs]

Anna: But oh my god the characters! You miss out so much only by the story because there’s so many books and there’s so many story-lines you cannot convey in a two-hour movie. So you’re like okay maybe they’ll do justice to the characters if not the story. And then you have someone like Ginny Weasley and [sighs] Ginny Weasley in the books is amazing. And she’s such a fierce and strong young woman. And then in the movies, it’s like she’s not even there. And I’m not saying it for the actress or anything because I don’t think it’s her fault.

Parinita: No absolutely. You know I think it’s like in one of the Witch, Please episodes that we listened to

Anna: Um hmm

Parinita: They said that it’s a political choice on how you choose to portray characters in movie adaptations. And they also mentioned Ginny Weasley because like you said that she’s portrayed to be just a romantic interest of Harry Potter in the movies. Which, in the books, she is more her own person. Even though we see her as, just like we see everything else, through Harry’s perspective.

Anna: Um hmm

Parinita: Ginny does seem to be much more independent and has her own life and has her own convictions and she does her own thing. Which is why I wonder – I know in fandom, there are some really strong reactions either for or against Ginny.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: And I wonder if this is to do with whether the movies have influenced their beliefs or the books have influenced their beliefs.

Anna: Yeah, I think it’s a bit of both. Because I watched the movies first and then I read the books. Not all of the movies. But I watched the first two I think, or three, before I started reading the books.

Parinita: Yeah.

Anna: And I didn’t instantly connect who Ginny was because she was so … I’m not going to say a mediocre character, but she was not given the time to shine that she did eventually in the books. And you said that they use her as a romantic interest in the movies. But I think that didn’t even work well.

Parinita: Yeah.

Anna: You barely see her after The Chamber of Secrets. And suddenly in the sixth movie, Harry finds himself liking her. And that didn’t escalate in any way correctly. You know?

Parinita: Yeah because we don’t see her grow as a person. We see her obviously in Chamber of Secrets where she undergoes this really traumatic experience. But even that we’re not shown in as much detail as the books.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: But then we don’t see how she gets over that trauma and how she stands up to her brothers’ teasing and bullying and goes along with it. And the pranks that she plays and all the dating that she does as well. She’s not just hung up on Harry forever. She’s doing these other things. As well as she stands up to Ron’s slut-shaming of her in Half-Blood Prince which was born out of his own insecurities. So she’s –

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: She’s very secure in her own person. She doesn’t need – she’s not just Harry’s crutch.

Anna: I think that one thing that the movies are missing out is that sure you cannot add many things and obviously the story is about Harry. But Ginny is a part of his friend group. She’s his best friend’s sister. So Harry sees her often, he goes to the Weasley house. And why would you take out something so easily adapted. Just have her be around. Make her more visible. Why are you burying her like that? And I think that one of the reasons why they did it is also because they wanted to have one strong female character which was Hermione.

Parinita: Yeah.

Anna: And for some reason they cannot have more room for another great woman you know.

Parinita: Absolutely. There’s just room for one, right? And yeah, one of the essays that we read as well, it said how a lot of Ron’s lines were given to Hermione which diminished Ron’s character as well in the movies. Which reminded me of this other Witch, Please episode that I’d listened to which talked about how in the Chamber of Secrets, Hermione had also received some of Dumbledore’s lines. And it almost seems to portray Hermione as this perfect can-do-no-wrong aspirational character in the movies that you know she’s someone that we should all want to be. Which I also think is a little bit of a disservice because I like Hermione’s flaws and her –

Anna: Hmm.

Parinita: Her authenticity. I would like room for all kinds of representations of female characters. Not just we are only allowed one.

Anna: Yeah. And I think that they tried to put all the great stuff – not great, like the funny quotes or the ideas that someone had and put them on Hermione to make her shine. But the good thing is that even through her flaws, she was a great character in the books.

Parinita: Absolutely.

Anna: So why did they feel the need to add extra stuff when she was already a great, empowered woman in the Harry Potter world. And why did you feel the need to take from someone else? Like okay Dumbledore, he was amazing anyway; he was smart, he was witty and he had great quotes anyway so it’s not like many things were taken away from him. But Ron! I think that the movies – I love Ron anyway but I think the movies butchered him as well. Like many people don’t like movie Ron. And when I say he’s one of my favourite characters and they ask me why, I’m like he has done so many great things in the books. And he’s such a loyal friend. Yeah sure, he has his flaws. But he had a story-line, a character arc, through the books that you do not see in the movies. It’s actually the opposite. He almost goes from a great friend to an awful friend in the movies.

Parinita: Yeah.

Anna: Which is not who he really was. And all that just so you can make Hermione even greater than she already is.

Parinita: Yeah. And I think this strive to perfection is so unnecessary because it’s not like we’re going to – well maybe some people might dislike Hermione because of one flaw. But then those kind of people are probably not liking Hermione for – they just like her for very superficial reasons anyway. But otherwise I mean I think that’s what media needs more of. And in a movie like Harry Potter which has such a wide reach, having more complex and nuanced characters – there was such an opportunity for that and it was really missed unfortunately.

Anna: Yeah, I agree. It would have been great if they could use every single thing from the books but you know if you have so much information to work from, why not put a little more effort to the other characters? Because yeah, Harry is your hero but no story is great with only one character, one hero. You know the rest of the characters –

Parinita: Oh no! Yeah I for sure think that there are –

Anna: [laughs]

Parinita: Like Harry was great and all but no. He would be nowhere – first of all, without Hermione. He would be nowhere without Hermione.

Anna: Yeah!

Parinita: But also just his friendships. And adults as well as young people – I don’t think anything would have been possible without his friendships. And also I think one of the essays mentioned, the female friendships have been completely erased in the movies as well. Like between Ginny and Hermione and Luna and Ginny.

Anna: Yeah.

Parinita: There’s no really examples of those.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: So we’ve largely talked about the female characters in Harry Potter. What about the ways in which masculinity is represented, not just in Harry Potter but also in Supernatural. You did mention that you had good things to say about how men’s emotions are showed in Supernatural.

Anna: I think Supernatural is a very masculine show in the way that you know you have these dudes who drink beer, they will listen to rock music, and they have a great car and they kick ass. And I love that. But it’s not very often that you see men expressing their feelings. And sure, they struggle a lot and they hide a lot of things from each other. But there has been, in my opinion, many great moments that they have let themselves be truthful and vulnerable and share what they feel.

Parinita: Hmm.

Anna: And I think that’s something you don’t really see. And, of course, it’s a show with fifteen seasons. So you do have that kind of time to see that evolving. But it is something that is present in the first seasons as well. And I don’t know, it surprised me a lot when I first watched it. It still does.

Parinita: No, you’re so right because – so I’ve been watching Supernatural since I was sixteen so it’s been with me for a really long part of my life. I haven’t watched the last two seasons. But it’s been something that I’ve been a fan of for a very long time. But I didn’t think about just the emotional life that we see of Sam and Dean because it’s just something … I don’t know. That’s why again, fandom for me is just helpful for me to be able to articulate these things that maybe I knew about in the back of my head or thought about vaguely. But it’s something that gives me the vocabulary to actually actively talk about. Which is, for me, very helpful. So when I was doing my master’s degree, I also studied fan communities. And I studied Harry Potter and Percy Jackson – two Facebook fan pages. And I’d encountered this video called “The Fantastic Masculinity of Newt Scamander”.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: From the Fantastic Beasts movie. And it subjected Newt to this really detailed analysis which concluded that Newt is emotional and empathetic and he offers this positive representation of masculinity in mainstream culture which, like you said, is otherwise populated with really brash and violent fantasy heroes.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: So Supernatural is perhaps one example and Newt as well because you see a very specific kind of hero in most of the media that we consume. So it’s not just with women’s representations, it’s with men’s representations as well. There’s just one way to be a man, I guess. Or a heroic figure.

Anna: Yeah. I agree. And I love Newt. He’s a great character. And as you said, he’s empathetic and I think his love of animals is something that’s helped him to be that. But we shouldn’t have to be surprised when movies and TV series make men seem vulnerable.

Parinita: No, absolutely. Even with women’s representations, right? Like I watched Wonder Woman and I was in tears because I was – that was I think the first time I’d seen a movie like that which centred women’s experiences. It wasn’t male gazey and it was just placing us in the centre in a way that makes you feel so empowered.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: And like I was telling my friends in a previous episode, this is what men feel like all the time!

Anna: I know! Didn’t you feel like you wanted to get a lasso and try to grab someone from the street?

Parinita: Absolutely!

Anna: [laughs]

Parinita: It makes you feel so emotional. It shouldn’t be something that needs to be commented on but unfortunately it is because there’s such a dearth of these characters and these stories that place people who’ve – including women – who’ve been on the margins of mainstream media and culture for so long.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: I do see things getting better now so I’m glad that diversity, even if it’s for really commercial reasons, they just want money, I’m fine with that. If it starts that way and then becomes because they actually want diversity and value diversity –

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: That’s totally okay for me. So one of the other things that we listened to, the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text episode on masculinity, that was really interesting because it analysed the Weasleys and how – because it’s like what seven brothers? Is it seven brothers?

Anna: It’s six brothers and one sister.

Parinita: Oh six brothers! Yeah see the memory, it’s just like one thing goes in from one side of the brain and leaks out of the other.

Anna: [laughs] I mean there’s many kids okay like you can forget.

Parinita: Yeah I can’t keep a track of all of them! They come, they go. But they talked about the different ways in which the Weasley boys, they signaled their masculinity. And Bill and Charlie they’re pretty traditionally masculine. So adventurers and treasure hunters and dragon riders and whatever. And Fred and George, they pointed out how they accrue social power through humour and then obviously they have their business as well. So they’re really good businessmen or business wizards whatever. And Percy achieves political status and power. And Ron – so I mean that’s what made me start thinking that yeah Ron is super insecure in the first book when we see in the Mirror of Erised

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: He wants to be better than his brothers and he wants to you know outshine all of them. Which is understandable. But he takes this out on the women in his life. He takes this out on Hermione, he takes this out on Ginny.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: When Ginny points out that he’s only jealous of her and Hermione because he’s never had any sort of romantic or sexual experience. And out of revenge or whatever, he starts dating Lavender as well who he doesn’t really seem to like too much.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: And that’s really unfair on Lavender too. Like she’s just having a relationship whereas he’s like having a revenge relationship or what? I don’t know.

Anna: Yeah it’s sad to think. Because on the one hand you want to – I feel bad for Ron because he has this legacy of brothers before him; that the two of them are doing their thing away from home and they are, as you said, like the traditional masculine types that have dragons and they work in banks and one of them scored the pretty girl. And then you have Percy who is like the how do we call it um the – the Prefect?

Parinita: Um hmm.

Anna: Yeah and he’s very smart and he has a girlfriend. And then you have Fred and George who are very popular and they do all these pranks. So there is a lot of weight on him because he’s not the greatest student, he’s not the prankster or anything. And he’s like before his sister, who apparently Molly really wanted a daughter. So then she went full on on Ginny and everything. So I understand. But then again, you have to work on your problems and yourself and you cannot – just because you feel bad, it doesn’t mean you have to take it out on others.

Parinita: I mean to be fair, he was also a teenage boy. I think I was a pretty – I mean I was not as terrible a teenager, but then again, I didn’t have –

Anna: Yeah.

Parinita: Voldemort threatening to take over the wizarding world.

Anna: True.

Parinita: Although now you see fascism everywhere so I guess teenagers have more to deal with than we did.

Anna: True!

Parinita: Yeah but it’s also how you see in just feminist discourse that the patriarchy harms men as well. It’s not just women.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: Obviously women are much more affected. But Ron’s insecurity seems to stem from just this singular narrative of what makes a successful and popular man. Like having a girlfriend and being successful at sports –

Anna: Um hmm

Parinita: And being successful at school. Whereas there are more ways to be successful and I mean there’s no one right way to be a man. Unless you’re terrible in which case, yeah that’s the wrong way to be a man!

Anna: [laughs]

Parinita: But you know to be a good man, you don’t need to … yeah there just need to be more role models which, in the magical world, in the real world, unfortunately there’s totally a lack of.

Anna: Yeah. But I think what’s a great thing concerning Ron is that he had people who stood up to him. Like Ginny when, as you said he had an attitude about her going out with boys and everything. And she set him straight. And Hermione, when he was, “Oh you’re a girl!” She was like “Yeah thanks for noticing. Goodbye now, I already have a date.”

Parinita: Um hmm.

Anna: I think that having someone – and obviously women because he had a few issues about them – stand up and not let that kind of behaviour go on further, I think it’s very beneficial and I think that’s why eventually his relationship with Ginny got better when she dated Harry because he was like, “Okay, you’re dating my best friend. But you’re free to do whatever because you know I trust you.” And I think that wouldn’t happen if Ginny hadn’t put her foot down and was like, “I’ll do what I want and you have to deal with it.”

Parinita: You’re so right! I wonder because you see Ron’s behaviour in this fictional world, you see it replicated in the real world now. I wonder if you know just with these internet forums and things,

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: Where groups of men congregate. So I just wonder if Ginny and Hermione hadn’t been there, would Ron have been like a wizarding incel? Would he have been all like, “I hate all women because I get no girlfriends” and “Women are the worst!” and “Down with women!”

Anna: I mean dude with that kind of behaviour, of course you’re not going to get any women.

Parinita: Yeah, I’m glad well whatever his problematic misogynistic incel-adjacent behaviour, he grew out of.

Anna: Yeah.

Parinita: And he grew up. So that’s good. But there are other examples of misogyny in the Harry Potter series as well which again, isn’t something that I had considered myself when I read the series when I was younger.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: I’m slowly reading the books again and watching the movies again. And I wonder if it’ll be more noticeable to me now because I think about these things in my real world. So I wonder if I’ll notice it more in the fictional world. But currently it’s all the fan podcasts that I’ve been listening to which have pointed this out. So, of course Ron and the misogyny towards Ginny but then also Ginny, Hermione and Molly’s attitude against Fleur. And this is something because you read it from this limited Harry Potter perspective, I was like oh yeah Fleur is this silly little girl who you know whatever. But now when you look back at it, she is obviously this really smart, capable witch. Because she went into the Triwizard Tournament and she did all these cool things. And she’s also you know she’s kind and loyal. Like she sticks with Bill even though his family is horrible to her.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: And she looks after Harry and the rest when they come into her cottage and just barge in.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: I think in the Witch, Please episode, was it, that they pointed out the gendered labour of the resistance where she’s relegated to the kitchen and making casseroles for the resistance rather than –

Anna: Yeah.

Parinita: You know using her skills and capabilities and being in the front-line of Dumbledore’s Army [I meant Order of the Phoenix].

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

A fan text I encountered while researching my master’s dissertation

Anna: Um hmm I agree. Well about the first things you said, about Ginny and Hermione and Mrs. Weasley I didn’t think of it at first but I never liked how they treated Fleur in the books.

Parinita: Hmm.

Anna: But I think that they all got so defensive because obviously she was so beautiful and Harry kind of liked her and Ron was very into her for some time. So everyone started getting protective about their people. Ginny, I think, because her brother was so – her brothers – with Bill and Ron watching her and saying oh how beautiful she was. And I think Hermione maybe with Ron because perhaps something was going on. And Mrs. Weasley because she’s like, “Oh that’s my son, where is she going to take him? And where did she come from?” And everything. So I think part of that was because they started feeling very protective over their people and their relationships they had with them. But –

Parinita: Yeah.

Anna: When in the books, when she stayed with Bill even though his face was like you know because of that fight and Fenrir I think it was – that werewolf –

Parinita: Um hmm.

Anna: Scratched his face and she’s like, “He’s beautiful to me and I’m not leaving his side whatever you say.” I think that was such a beautiful like “in your face!” moment for Mrs. Weasley and Ginny and Hermione because I think they believed she was very superficial even – because she was a bit of a snob but that was just her personality. Like one of her personality traits–

Parinita: And also she was this person who was in a new country

Anna: Yeah.

Parinita: And she’s in this house and family where everyone else seems to be treating her pretty poorly. So I might have been a bit of a snob in her position as well. I’m like yeah if you don’t take me seriously. And I think you make a very good point because when this happens, I think Hermione, Ginny and Mrs. Weasley, they do soften up to her.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: But there’s also so much to unpack just about our own social conditioning and how we have misogynistic tendencies as well against other women. Just pitting women in competition with each other because you’re beautiful or whatever and you know you’re jealous or you’re competitive about the other people. So yeah there’s more I think to unpack there. But I’m glad again that she was – although she was still stuck in the kitchen.

Anna: Yeah.

Parinita: But then, Mrs. Weasley has been stuck in the kitchen through all seven books of the series.

Anna: I know. I’m so conflicted about Mrs. Weasley because I think her like maternal instincts and everything was something that really helped Harry because he never had something like that.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Anna: So I’m glad that he found someone that would take care of him in the way a mother does – make him food and ask him if he’s okay, if he’s hungry, tell him to wash behind your ear and don’t forget something.

Parinita: [laughs]

Anna: You know that’s a thing I never heard that in real life. I’ve only read that in books.

Parinita: Me neither. And it has never made me want to wash behind my ears. I’m just like oh this is a thing fictional characters don’t seem to do or people in the West don’t seem to want to do.

Anna: [laughs] I know! But then you know she’s clearly a very talented witch because first of all, she can handle five children so that makes her a hero already in my eyes.

Parinita: [laughs] Absolutely.

Anna: And later on she has that amazing scene. I cried when I watched that in the movies. “Not my daughter, you bitch!” was one of the greatest lines in the book and I’m so glad they made it in the movies. And I was like if that’s what happens when she’s angry right now because one of her children were in danger, like all of her children were but you know with Ginny. Like imagine what else she could have done or how useful she could have been in a battle and not stuck behind making I don’t know sausages and whatever she was making all the time.

Parinita: But even if she didn’t want to be a part of the battle, for whatever reason,

Anna: Um hmm

Parinita: I think that her duties, whatever she did, was still very important in the resistance. I think it was the Women of Harry Potter Molly Weasley episode that pointed it out.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: That she provides both food-based nourishment so she’s literally cooking for the resistance.

Anna: Yeah.

Parinita: And she also provides mental and emotional nourishment for both the young people and for the adults. And her labour of nourishing the resistance in such different ways is completely overlooked. Her worries are dismissed. Her hobbies are dismissed as well. She likes reading Witch Weekly, she likes listening to Celestina Warbeck I think is the name?

Anna: Yes.

Parinita: I’m very confident that this is the name but I always have a misplaced sense of confidence.

Anna: Yeah I think – I think that’s it.

Parinita: Yeah and they make fun of her worries and they make fun of her being snappy about just because her stress-born snappiness. And I feel like she deserves so much more respect because it’s so similar in the real world, right? Like women in that position are just taken for granted. And –

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: Even in the resistance, there are different kinds of activism. It’s not just – like in India, currently, we have protests going on which the Coronavirus has sort of put a halt to at the moment. And there’s this group of women – of Muslim women and children who have congregated at this place in Delhi called Shaheen Bagh. And they are basically there just to hold the government to account. They’ve just been sitting there I think for two months. And they’ve been cooking there and having events and things. And these are women from really deprived backgrounds as well.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: It’s not like they are these elite activists who can take the time off work or whatever. But they’re just like if we don’t do this, nobody’s going to do this. And fortunately in India, they have inspired the entire country and there has been more such activism by deprived Muslim women and children in different parts of the country. But yeah I think that is a more stark example. But there are so many more examples like this just in the real world but whose work is just dismissed.

Anna: Yeah and that’s so sad because as you said, you can choose not to go to the battle-front or whatever like Mrs. Weasley stayed back. But don’t dismiss her and not appreciate what she does just because it’s something that she will do every day for you because she’s your mum or your wife or whoever. Like say thank you and don’t be – because I cannot remember like precise examples right now but there has been times you know Ron or someone will be snappy towards Mrs. Weasley because she’s being herself and she is watching out for her kids. They’re like, “Oh we have more important things to do.” Yeah right. If you don’t eat, I’d like to see you try do any of those things you know.

Parinita: I mean you literally had a tantrum in the forest and then left Harry and Hermione because you were hungry, because you’d gotten used to your mother’s really good food and taken it for granted! I know we spoke about Harry Potter a lot but I also wanted to make sure that we touched on the more – much more overt misogyny in Supernatural.

Anna: Oh my god.

Parinita: Which almost seems to act as this structural framework of the show much more than it is in Harry Potter. Because like I said, I’ve been watching it for a very long time. But I’d largely blocked out the uncomfortable history of violence against women. Maybe because of my bad memory – probably because of my bad memory.

Anna: [laughs]

Parinita: But you know that essay that we read, “Supernatural: A History of Violence Against Women”. Oh my god it made me so uncomfortable.

Anna: I know!

Parinita: But in a really good way. Just because it laid out all the different examples of the way that it had treated its female characters.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: And there aren’t that many female characters who survive anyway. But yeah the way that they had been treated, and the way that they had been insulted in a very gendered way.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: Yeah it was really uncomfortable.

Anna: I know. It makes me so angry because when I watched Supernatural, it was like a year ago I started. And I binged it like all the way through to now. And it was so much information at once that I didn’t have time to like analyse what I was seeing properly.

Parinita: Yeah.

Anna: Then I did a re-watch like a month or so later. And usually I don’t analyse things and movies and TV series, apart from Harry Potter because that’s the one thing that I know so much about and because it has the books. But usually I don’t analyse stuff very much. But then I started seeing this pattern of how women were treated. I’m not saying that it’s that they died in the show, because everyone dies. The main characters have died like a thousand times. So that’s not my issue. It’s the way they die every time. Spoilers for anyone who hasn’t caught up, I’m sorry, but you know Eileen [sighs] Eileen is one of my favourite characters and the way she was killed in … I don’t remember was season twelve or yeah – yeah season twelve. It was so brutal and so awful because she’s deaf – a deaf hunter. And by mistake, she kills someone. And they send a hellhound after her. A hellhound is like a dog from hell that you cannot see, you can only hear. And what you send something that cannot be seen to a deaf woman who cannot hear it to like take her apart. And it was like a ten second death scene. You didn’t even see it. That made me so angry. Or with Charlie like the second favourite character

Parinita: Yeah.

Anna: Who got a death in a freaking bathtub full of blood. You didn’t even see her fight. Like she was so amazing. She survived at Oz with Dorothy and whoever it was. She killed so many people, she was so skillful. And then suddenly she dies in a bathtub and we didn’t even see her fight! And what for?! There was no reason for her to die. Absolutely no reason.

Parinita: Yeah and it’s like what that essay pointed out. That it’s the way in which violence against women is used to just further the stories of male characters. It’s almost like that’s what they’ve been created for.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: Which is similar to arguments about characters of colour which are killed off for white characters and queer characters versus cisgender and heterosexual characters as well as characters with disabilities versus non-disabled characters. Where everybody who seems to be on the margin is just this sort of prop to be there just to be discarded when you want to heighten emotions. And there are even examples of this in Harry Potter as well. Which again, something I hadn’t considered but Witch, Please a podcast that I love and that everyone should go listen to.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: They spoke about Ariana Dumbledore, the implied violence against her. So the Muggle children, the Muggle boys, they were violent towards her when she was younger. But there was also this implied sexual connotation to that which I hadn’t picked up on and I want to now go back and re-read that extract.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: But that is what caused Dumbledore to turn against Grindelwald. Not that exactly, but that sort of led to that huge thing.

Anna: Yeah.

Parinita: To make Dumbledore – to give him this tragic backstory. And then there’s Helena Ravenclaw who is murdered by the Bloody Baron because she refused to date him? Like I don’t know. And then she’s forced to haunt this castle with him like she’s not even rid of him in death. With Lily Potter and Snape as well.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: Like that’s really troubling.

Anna: [sighs] I never liked Snape even after his arc. I’m like oh okay you were a great spy but I still didn’t like him and I don’t understand how people forgive him so easily because he was a Death Eater and he believed in everything that Voldemort or everyone was on about. And he had no problem admitting it. And I think that Lily felt she had to be his friend because you know he was the one she met back then when she didn’t know exactly what was going on and he helped her. But like he made some awful choices. And he treated her so badly. And that’s one of the things that I think is very common that when someone is  say bullying you, they’re like, “Oh my god, he likes you, that’s why he’s mean to you.” So what kind of excuse is that? Like oh okay I’m going to leave this person and let him be awful to me because he likes me? So I think that that was thing that I noticed with Snape and with Lily that because he liked her, he bullied her.

Parinita: So I love the character of Snape just because the way that the character is created has so many complexities and so many flaws and just like the character arc, I love it.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: But the character of Snape that is his interactions and his relationships, he’s a pretty shitty character.

Anna: Yeah.

Parinita: And you know it’s like with Lily, it’s not her job to reform him. Like if he can’t work on himself and be better there’s no reason for her to put up with it. So in one of the essays that we read about Ginny Weasley, one of the comments, somebody had said that they were upset with Ginny because she didn’t show remorse for what she had done. And the example that they presented was that when Ron was going through a really tough time, Ginny hadn’t supported him and hadn’t been nice to him. And I was like uh it is not Ginny’s job to be nice to her brother who is being a bit of an asshole. So I’m glad Lily and Ginny stood up to these terrible, terrible men.

Anna: Um hmm, I agree. And I think it’s a refreshing thing to see that eventually – even though she tried, you know she didn’t let’s say abandon her friend instantly with the first difficult thing between them – she stood up for herself after he called her a Mudblood. I think she cut ties with him if I remember correctly

Parinita: Yeah and because he wouldn’t give up his Death Eater friends and Death Eater beliefs.

Anna: Yeah.

Parinita: So if she is the only exceptional – if he hates all that she stands for but he only likes her because she is the exception to the rule –

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: Why should she put up with it? This is just like in real life where you know in terms of racism, in terms of homophobia whatever. You need to respect the entire community, you can’t just respect one person from that community. And I think these conversations are so important especially because of the huge role that popular media plays in influencing our attitudes and behaviours. As some people pointed out in the Alohomora podcast as well as some of the other texts that we read, Harry Potter as well as other media – but Harry Potter especially provides this new form of mythology and folklore.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: Which people are using to make sense of the world.

Anna: Yeah.

Parinita: I was just thinking of it in terms of protests that we’ve seen. So I mentioned the protests happening in India. But also protests that are happening in the US as well as some of the climate crisis protests where you see a lot of Harry Potter themed signs there which I love.

Anna: Um hmm.

Photo of a teenager holding a protest sign which reads: We grew up on Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, Marvel and Star Wars. Of course w'ere fighting back.

A photo from the March For Our Lives protest in the US

Photo of a young girl holding up a protest sign which reads: When Voldemort is President we need a nation of Hermiones

A photo from the Women’s March in the US

Parinita: Which I know a lot of people make fun of because they’re like, “Oh this is not the Harry Potter world, it’s the real world.” But in terms of religion, for example.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: People use religious texts so much to try and figure out the real world; to draw parallels between the religious texts and the real world.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: And with Harry Potter, I think a lot of people do the same. Because it was such a powerful part of many people’s childhoods or adulthoods and it’s just something that – you use stories that play a huge role in your life. And you use them to make sense of everything else in your life. That’s definitely something that I do. And I see that a lot in my generation and other generations have done that as well.

Anna: Um hmm. And I’ve read somewhere that there was a study of some sort that said that people who read Harry Potter are usually more accepting and they will stand up to things they believe are unfair. And I think that’s a great thing that just proves the point. When you see signs like, “Dumbledore would never let that happen” or something like that. It’s like yeah, these books and not just Harry Potter but everything that you can get that you know broadens your horizon, doesn’t get you stuck in a specific mindset. It’s wonderful and great to see that from such a small thing like a kids’ book that you – because many people would call it that because it has magic and it’s not in the real world and apparently we can never read anything else because it’s magical. I don’t know but –

Photo from a protest highlighting a sign which reads: Dumbledore wouldn't let this happen

Another fan text I encountered while researching my master’s dissertation

Parinita: [laughs] Well, as someone who thinks both children’s literature and fantasy are very, very important, I would have to disagree with all these people.

Anna: Yeah, thank you!

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah. I know a lot of people talked about how Harry Potter has created its own mythology and rituals.

Anna: Um hmm

Parinita: Not only in the fictional world but also in the real world. But you pointed out that Harry Potter has drawn a lot of inspiration from Greek mythology as well.

Anna: Um hmm. Yeah that was one of the first things that made me go like oh wow, I recognise that thing. Because there are many names from Greek mythology or the constellations that are – people are named after that in the Harry Potter world. And you know that’s not something you see. I certainly don’t see that very often in any kind of American or British – English text. That’s not something you see very often. And I was very surprised because they were like hidden gems and everything that that were very interesting. I think there’s a constellation that’s called Orion. I’m not sure if I’m saying that correctly.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Anna: And one of the stars in the constellation is called Draco. So I think – don’t one hundred per cent quote me on that – I’m going to check it. But –

Parinita: No, I know there is a constellation [I meant star] named Draco. I don’t know which belt it lies in. But yeah. Sirius as well is a constellation [I meant star again]. The dog star.

Anna: Oh! I think that’s the – yeah, you’re right. So Orion is a constellation and Sirius is a star in this constellation. And Sirius’s dad was named Orion.

Parinita: Hmm.

Anna: So like Sirius is part of this … you know how it goes.

Parinita: Yeah.

Anna: And there is so many things like that. Mandragora – mandrakes and the sphinx and the –

Parinita: Yeah the creatures like unicorns, griffins, the centaurs, the phoenix as well.

Anna: Yeah.

Parinita: Yeah. And also the name I think Sybil Trelawney whose ancestor was Cassandra Trelawney?

Anna: Cassandra.

Parinita: Yeah.

Anna: Yeah, yeah, yeah. She was a very powerful witch. She wasn’t a witch – wait. I think that was … oh she was meant to be –

Parinita: A seer? Like a prophet? She gave prophecies?

Anna: Yeah well … hmm … I think I may … no I think I’m like ninety per cent sure. She was a woman who was cursed by a god to have visions of things but people would never believe her.

Parinita: Yeah.

Anna: And she was in Troy – the Trojan War something. She was ugh I should know that! That’s so embarrassing.

Parinita: No, you know this happens with me with Indian mythology as well. Just because I seem to know more about like Christian mythology – Christian beliefs and Christian things more because that’s such a part of Western media. And I also went to a Catholic school so it’s something that I grew up with. But yeah this happens to me all the time. I’m like, “I don’t know details about my own mythology!”

Anna: Oh yes, she was – she was the daughter of the queen of Troy. Yeah.

Parinita: Ah right.

Anna: And she was sister to Paris, yeah. Yeah, yeah I knew that, okay. I knew that.

Parinita: And there’s Fluffy as well who is the –

Anna: Yeah Cerberus!

Parinita: The dog that guards the gates to hell. But what I also found interesting. So in one of the papers that we read, she compared the mythology of the Hogwarts founders to Greek gods and goddesses as well as houses being like the god and goddess cults of ancient Greek society. Whereas me and my friends, we were talking about how to us, the four house systems remind us of the Hindu caste system. Which is you know there’s like different segregation that happens based on birth and you are – once you’re in that particular caste, you can’t intermingle with other castes. Like traditionally. And you can only stick to the people in that community and you can do the same kind of job and you can’t be more than what your birth entailed.

Anna: Oh okay.

Parinita: So what I found really interesting is that the Harry Potter world is so full of potential to be read from multiple mythological lenses. If I read it through Hindu mythology or Indian mythology whereas if you read it from Greek mythology, we could still come up with many different things and they would be both valid because there’s room for multiple interpretations. Just like in fandom. Which I thought was pretty cool. So, some of the fan podcasts, I don’t know if you’ve thought about this – I hadn’t. Just because the context is so Western. But some of the fan podcasts did point out the more problematic representations of different cultures in the Potterverse.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: So specifically, they spoke about goblins and how the goblins – like there’s a lack of Jewish characters in the Harry Potter books. I think there’s one – Anthony Goldstein. Which the Witch, Please episode pointed out. They’re both Jewish co-hosts in Witch, Please so they look at it through a Jewish lens. And they think that the goblins are a really anti-Semitic representation of what Orthodox Jewish people are supposed to be. And this is not something that I thought of growing up in India because we don’t have these cultural contexts that we think about.

Anna: Yeah, same here.

Parinita: Yeah. And centaurs as well. So the other episode that we listened to which talked about just indigenous people in the US, so like Native American cultures and you know their beliefs. Witch, Please also codes centaurs as indigenous people – all the tropes and stereotypes that are used about centaurs, which I’ll link to in the transcript – the episode. But I found that really interesting because it’s so contextual. Like you know the things that are written in a context that is not yours, you don’t know these things. But then just hearing discussions of things from people within those contexts, it’s just like this informal school on the internet. Which I love.

Anna: Yeah. Um hmm I agree because for many years, I didn’t even know what anti-Semitic means because I’m sure it happens here but that’s not something I ever encountered or even discussed with anyone. So when you mentioned and when I listened to the podcast and you know through many things that I’ve read you know through the years I was so shocked. I’m like that’s so – that’s offensive!

Parinita: Yeah! No, absolutely. And me too! I had not thought of this. I only discovered this within the last couple of years, I think. You know all these stereotypes that apparently people here – because now I’m currently in the UK. So there are apparently a lot of stereotypes about Jewish people.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: But for me, I don’t even know what the stereotypes are. Because it’s not something that I’ve ever come across in India. So you know when there is something that people say is anti-Semitic because it perpetuates these stereotypes, I’m like, “Oh! I didn’t even know this was a stereotype about Jewish people!” Like I would have never made that connection.

Anna: Yeah. I only know one stereotype about them like with the money and something but I don’t even know the stereotype. It’s something I’ve heard maybe once or twice or I’ve seen on TV or something. And that blew my mind away. I was like oh my god – how is that even allowed to be a thing?! Like I don’t –

Parinita: That’s the thing. I think with J. K. Rowling, as you said, you know about the study that I’ve read as well, reading Harry Potter makes people like according to the study, more empathetic and respectful of different experiences. But I think that’s what the readers have taken from it. And what some of the readers have taken from it. Because now obviously fans are also calling out J. K. Rowling –

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: For being unfair and unjust. Like you said, you know, fans stand up to injustice. The most recent ones of course have been about transphobia.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: But before that, on Pottermore, where she’d written about magic in North America. And the Reading, Writing, Rowling episode that we heard about “Fantasy, Imagination and Indigenous Futurism”.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: And that episode was so good because it was such a good encapsulation of all the arguments against Native appropriation that J. K. Rowling has done and she’s never apologized for it. She’s never even addressed the critiques. Because you would think when you have that much power and that much influence –

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: You do acknowledge your mistakes. Because obviously everybody makes mistakes. I think she can hire a research assistant. She has enough money to hire a research assistant and do the work for her.

Anna: Yeah.

Parinita: But she obviously just wants to write it all herself. But then she doesn’t put in the work, she doesn’t research the cultures that she’s talking about.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: So she just has this token diversity – like she’ll just have this mention of a diverse community or a diverse person but not actually go in-depth about anything. And anything that she does include is stereotypical. And is offensive.

Anna: Um hmm I agree. I think she used to put more work when – I’m not going to say that the fame got to her head, but maybe it did. What’s the quote? “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Parinita: [laughs]

Anna: Is that from Spider-man?

Parinita: Yeah.

Anna: I think.

Parinita: Yeah, yeah.

Anna: So you have so many people following you and loving your work and you know when you’ve done something wrong or even if you didn’t realise – when people are telling you that you know this is wrong, you shouldn’t be saying – don’t try to cover it up by adding something that does not follow up with what you’ve done already. Just to say that oh you know I fixed it. Just say you’re sorry and actually try to search in-depth what it is that people are telling you you’re doing wrong. And learn from it!

Parinita: And it’s not that difficult now. Like I understand when you were in the nineties and when she was writing these books, and there wasn’t this mainstream conversation about diversity. There wasn’t really the internet and social media where people from these marginalised backgrounds could talk back to creators and could insert their own opinions and perspectives. Which is what a lot of Native American fans from a lot of different Native American cultures have been calling her out. And obviously a lot of trans fans and trans allies have been calling her out for her really problematic views and what she’s said. But she doesn’t take stock of any of this. And she doesn’t acknowledge that, exactly as you said, that she has so much of a responsibility especially because I think like the Witch, Please episode pointed out, that the Harry Potter fandom seems to attract all these people who are on the margins of society in some way or the other. So a lot of queer fans, a lot of fans of colour, a lot of fans with disabilities and things. And if they except more from you because Harry Potter has played such an important part in their lives, I think you need to take that trust so seriously. You need to be accountable to them. Just because you are now this powerful person, that gives you more of a responsibility like you said. Now that you’re famous and so influential, you have to be more careful.

Anna: Yeah. And it’s heartbreaking because you know she created this beautiful world and she has an amazing imagination. And she’s brought so many people together. And now she’s doing all these things and it breaks my heart because you know I looked up to her because I love writing and I love creating things in my head and you know I was like oh that’s great. And she’s done all this charity. And now she’s [sighs] she’s letting go of all this because she’s not willing to study. And she doesn’t take into consideration what people are telling her.

Parinita: Yes, this absolutely shows, I think, just a lack of empathy.

Anna: Yeah.

Parinita: And just a failure of imagination to think about people who are not as privileged as you, how their lives are. Like I know she’s had a difficult life as a single mother and things. But there are people who are still having as and much more difficult lives that they are going through. And she’s not making it better.

Anna: Yeah.

Parinita: She’s making their lives inherently worse.

Anna: You manage – not you – like her – managed to get out of this difficult life she was living and now she has a voice. Why can’t she help other people? She’s done charity and everything but … ugh give your voice to the people who don’t have one. So when they tell you you’re doing something wrong, don’t beat around the bush. Just listen to what they say and just try to be better. Because you have the ability to do so. If you say you know oh I have made this mistake and I’m fixing it, because of who you are, people will listen. And that’s not something that happens very often.

Parinita: Some people listening to us and indeed this entire podcast may think, why do we hate the things we’re talking about so much?! All we do is critique them. But we’ve both talked about the positive impacts of fandom. And for me this podcast and like I said, just critiquing the things that I love, is very much a part of the love of the thing itself. What is the positive stuff that you’ve received from fandom?

Anna: Oh my god there’s so many. I have met some of my best friends because of fandom and the online community and social media thank god. I have met some great friends that I’ve met in real life as well. But one thing that I can say for sure, I’m gonna speak about Supernatural mostly.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Anna: Because of how great the family behind it is you know both cast, crew but also the online family. They got me into volunteering for a great organisation. It’s called I’m Alive. And it’s a crisis intervention hotline. But it’s mostly online and I got sponsored by Random Acts which is the nonprofit organization from one of the actors that play on Supernatural. And they paid for my training and now I’m volunteering every week online. And I think what’s great is that you can make a difference, you know actively make a difference. Because speaking and talking and you know preaching maybe is – is awesome and it can be very inspiring. But it’s not very often that you see people actively doing something and I think that even if it doesn’t come from the cast or the people who create the show, the actual community behind it can do so much good. So if there is a fandom or something that you love and you have found people behind it that you go along with then you’ve made friendships, try to do some good because there’s so many people behind a family and a fandom. It’s not just you. You all can make a difference. We all can make difference in this world and god knows, we need it.

Parinita: Absolutely. And that just sounds so amazing, the work that you do and the family that you’ve found through fandom. It’s something that I think I’ve read a lot about as well and it just makes me really so emotional

Anna: I know.

Parinita: Because for me just the internet and just being a part of the fandom has given me a lot in terms of how I think about things myself. And just you know expanded my mind in all these different ways. But then hearing stories like yours, and then there’s also I think John Green and Hank Green’s Don’t Forget To Be Awesome.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: They have a super awesome community as well who do a lot of volunteering and educational things. And I think there’s a Harry Potter group as well. Is it called Imagine Better?

Anna: No – I don’t know.

Parinita: I will have to look up the group which I’ll add to the text [it’s called The Harry Potter Alliance]. But I’m glad that just fandom brings all these people from such different backgrounds together to do things you would never have imagined yourself doing otherwise.

Anna: Yeah and it’s not just actively volunteering. Like the community itself can help people. You don’t have to pay money to do something. So you know Jared Padalecki who plays on Supernatural, he did this campaign a few years back. The Always Keep Fighting campaign. And I’m very sad I wasn’t around for it. But that phrase has helped so many people and it’s something that’s going around every day. Because I’m very involved in the fandom and I speak with people from it daily and we’ve made good friendships. But it’s not just the cast or the crew or whoever is creating this. It’s the people behind. And to see that you don’t have to pay money, you can just talk to someone because you both believe that you can always keep fighting and being strong and knowing that you’re not alone is so important. And you know just – keeping that in mind is a thing that’s very helpful and says a lot about the people behind the fandoms.

Parinita: I’m so glad I got a chance to talk to you about all the things but especially about just fandom and what it’s meant for you. Because to me, it just makes me so happy that there are so many different ways that you get joy and pleasure out of just being a fan online and things that wouldn’t have been possible without the internet and without discovering this community. Thank you so much Anna for being a part of this project and for talking to me about your experiences.

Anna: Thank you for having me!

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode on representations of gender and unfamiliar cultures. For anybody wondering, the non-profit group inspired by J. K. Rowling’s world that I was talking about but had forgotten the name of is called The Harry Potter Alliance. You can listen to the first four episodes of Marginally Fannish wherever you find your podcasts. Thanks again Anna for being such a fantastic person to talk to about some of my favourite things. And, as always, thank you Jack for taking care of the editing.

[Outro music]

You can now listen to Marginally Fannish on Spotify, Apple, Google, or SoundCloud. I’d love to hear from you and talk to you – so any feedback, comments or critiques are very welcome! Get in touch with me on social media, leave a comment on my blog, or email me at edps@leeds.ac.uk. If you’d like to follow the podcast or the PhD project, visit my website marginallyfannish.org where you’ll find both the podcast episodes and the blog. You can also receive updates on Facebook or Instagram at Marginally Fannish or on Twitter where I’m @MarginalFannish. If you enjoyed the podcast, please share it with anyone you think will enjoy it too.

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

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