A PhD project exploring intersectionality through fan podcasts

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Episode 6 Different Bodies and Different Brains: Depictions of Disability and Ageism in Media

Episode Resources: 

For this episode we looked at the following texts:

DISABILITY:

Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper Representations of Disability with Marissa Lingen

Fan podcast – Witch, Please Episode Rho: Live and Professional at Tufts University

Video – The Gayly Prophet Disability in the Witching World

Essay – J. K. Rowling Illness and Disability

Reddit thread – How do physically disabled people travel around Hogwarts?

Article – Harry Potter and the Curse of Disability

AGE: 

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

Fan podcast – Woke Doctor Who The Women Who Waited

Essay – TV Tropes and Ageism: How Kids’ Pop Culture Promotes Discrimination

Doctor Who episode – Series 12 Episode 7 Can You Hear Me?

Episode Transcript: 

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

 

Illustrations of an old person on a flying broom modified as a wheelchair

Image via Tumblr: milkystreet on Harry Potter Disability Headcanons

[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]

You’re listening to the sixth episode of Marginally Fannish. This time, I chat with Sanjana and Aparna about ableism and ageism in media. As fans from dominant groups in both instances (we’re young, able-bodied, and neurotypical), the three of us have massive blind-spots. But we’re trying to educate ourselves, and we’ve learned a lot about disability and age-based discrimination through fandom discussions. We love that fans do such an incredible job in raising awareness about so many issues!

Some of the things that we discuss in this episode include:

  • How disability is equated with villainy in fictional universes
  • The ableist and exaggerated representations of disability in stories which often reflect harmful tropes
  • The problematic impacts of “fixing” disabilities in science fiction and fantasy worlds by using technology or magic
  • Some of our favourite characters with disabilities
  • The social model of disability and how both fictional worlds like Hogwarts and the TARDIS as well as the real world need more accommodations to make them more accessible to all kinds of people
  • The parallels between the disabled community and other marginalised cultures, especially ableism and ageism
  • How older characters in Bollywood are used as comic relief
  • Our favourite older characters in media
  • The trouble with media and culture valuing youth, particularly at the cost of older women
  • Ageism in children’s literature and in fandom.

In our What If? sections, we wonder what the experiences of an elderly Hogwarts student would look like. We also age-flip characters to imagine what a young Minerva McGonagall would represent, how fun a hundred-year-old Aang would be, and what would happen if Grandma took some muffins to little Red Riding Hood instead? (We also accidentally discover our calling as Red Riding Hood fanfic writers).

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: Hi, my name is Parinita.

Aparna: I’m Aparna.

Sanjana: And I’m Sanjana. And today we are here to discuss the depiction and the lack of depiction where disability and age are concerned in some of our favourite shows and books. And at the onset, we would like to acknowledge that we probably have huge blind-spots since none of us have any personal experiences with respect to either of the two topics. For example, until I heard Marissa Lingen talk on Breaking The Glass Slipper, I didn’t realise how problematic some of the portrayals were because I was taking it as my only – that this is how it probably goes. But as someone who doesn’t have any direct experience, I realised how important it is for us to have it right in popular media. And we’re going to talk about it a little more But this was one of the main things that came across to me that it was something that didn’t even strike me. And I think that’s a huge blind-spot right there.

Aparna: So I also realised that I was very out of my depth as far as talking about this is concerned. Mostly when people started describing how they saw, for example, autistic characters in the way Hermione is, they saw a form of autism or the way Luna is. And I realised that was completely lost on me. And that’s when I realised that there would be a big gap in my understanding of representation right away.

Parinita: I mean in this case, the thing is that all three of us are very much a part of the dominant group, right?

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Where we’re learning about the lives and experiences of groups who are marginalised in culture. So the last time when we spoke, we were the ones on the other side. Whereas here, we’re able-bodied, no diagnosed mental illness. And all three of us are young enough that the media still offers characters who tell our stories.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: But we’re old enough that our thoughts and opinions aren’t dismissed. So we’re not really young women either.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: And I was thinking, when I was reading about disability, that it’s something that I’d encountered when I was a children’s bookseller in Mumbai. Where if I recommended a book which has a character with a visible disability on the cover, a couple of parents – not everybody – but a couple of parents instantly dismissed that book because their child doesn’t have a disability.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: So presumably their child doesn’t want to read about a character who has a disability. Which is obviously ridiculous because first of all, reading about diverse experiences which don’t mirror your own is great. And secondly, just because a character is disabled, that’s not their only personality trait.

Aparna: Exactly!

Parinita: Right? The story can be about so many other things. But then that made me wonder, now especially, how much I’ve gone out of my way to look for characters with disabilities to expand the diversity of my reading. And really, not much – shamefully. It’s not that I’m doing it purposely. It’s not that I’m thinking that I won’t connect with this character because they are disabled, either physically or mentally. It’s just it doesn’t occur to me. Like you said, Sana, it’s totally a blind-spot.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: And with age as well, I love the inclusion of all kinds of diversity. So I really appreciate it in the media that I see. Even with age, we’ve spoken about this before with Doctor Who just having more age groups on the show. But again, I’m not going out of my way to read these things. Whereas last year, I think I just started reading fantasy that was written by women. And it just started off unconsciously and then I realised I really liked these types of books.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: These books that are written just by women and centre women’s experiences in different ways. And now I feel like I need to do another reading experiment which fills in a bit of these blind-spots, these missing gaps.

Sanjana: Yeah, absolutely. Like you’re saying with parents looking at a book and dismissing it because it had a disabled character in it, this was a conversation that happened in our house only where somebody gave us some game. And I have a two-year-old so it was a spotting game. One of the people playing the game on the cover was a person in a wheelchair. And my mum looked at it and said, “Why do they need to show someone in a wheelchair?” And both of us said, “Why not? Why shouldn’t there be someone on a wheelchair?” And it was so easy to explain it to a two-year-old and it isn’t even that important, that daily a part of our lives. And just that much small representation in things makes a difference.

Parinita: And just normalizing it, right? Having that conversation.

Sanjana: Exactly! Like he’s sitting there and playing the board game, that’s all that matters. There doesn’t need to be a whole discussion around it. And with age, as I was listening to everyone talk about it, I realised that how much I love a flawed older character. And the importance of having a flawed older character and to take them away from this whole older age trope that keeps coming back to us.

Parinita: Of a wise mentor.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Exactly. Of a wise mentor. That realisation as I read and I heard more is something that maybe now not a blind-spot but was, probably.

Parinita: But also just flawed, complex and nuanced characters of all kinds of abilities as well.

Sanjana: Absolutely.

Parinita: Age as well as disabilities. You don’t need to be this perfect, aspirational character because you have a disability so you’ve suddenly, magically transformed into this –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Ever-patient, ever-kind. But then on the flip side of that is where disabilities are being equated with being villainous. Which is something that I hadn’t considered before and it’s something that I think Breaking The Glass Slipper the podcast that we listened to, that mentioned. How characters with disabilities are equated with being villains.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And I’d heard this about queer-coded characters before. So the example that I can think of off the top of my head is Ursula in The Little Mermaid.

Image of Ursula from The Little Mermaid

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: Who I love. I love female villains.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: I love over-the-top villains. But she is coded as a drag artist.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: Which is something that I had, again, never thought of but I was like oh that’s interesting!

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And it’s actually quite horrifying to think about that just because you have a disability, it makes you a villain.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Yeah exactly. Because the interesting point that they brought up was that it’s like trying to show – mirror the inner feelings physically. And then we started listing down characters and examples and there were –

Parinita: Yeah, like Voldemort.

Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: It’s something that I hadn’t thought of. I never thought of him as a person who is disabled.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: But then they spoke about how he’s both psychologically disabled because of his childhood.

Sanjana: Hmm

Parinita: Which we don’t really know has been traumatic. We know that Harry’s has been full of abuse.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: But Voldemort, sure he was in an orphanage, but it seemed more that he had delusions of grandeur than any –

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Any mistreatment there. But he was also physically disfigured, just like you said, and that’s become a joke, right? His noselessness like he doesn’t have a nose.

Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: And he looks like a snake. When they were talking about that on the podcast it also made me think of how in the US, when there are these mass shooters who if they’re white, people will enquire into their mental background.

Aparna: Yes.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Whereas people of different races and religions, they’re held up as representatives of their whole race or religion. So even Voldemort, sure, the psychological trauma he might have had, but I don’t think that that was cause for going on a genocidal rampage.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Yeah, not justification enough.

Parinita: [laughs] Another example I thought of was Captain Hook

Aparna: Yes!

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Which I hadn’t thought of. And his disability, it didn’t clock as a disability, but of course it is very much a disability.

Image of the Disney version of Captain Hook from the animated movie Peter Pan

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: And he’s also being terrorised by the crocodile who was responsible for this disability. Can you guys think of any other examples?

Sanjana: I thought of Zuko and how his whole arc changes when he gets the scar on one eye and is disfigured and how it becomes this whole villainous thing. And up until then, I’d not at all thought of it. And Darth Vader.

Image of Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender

Aparna: Hmm.

Sanjana: Is another good example.

Aparna: And you guys had an interesting discussion about Bran and Hodor and the difference between their characters as well, right?

Parinita: Yeah because Bran has a physical disability that he’s acquired and Hodor has a mental disability that Bran … may have been responsible for?

Sanjana: Pretty much.

Parinita: I’m not quite sure with all this time travel thing. Spoilers but yeah.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: And also I was really interested in the class implications of this as well.

Sanjana: Yes!

Parinita: Because Bran’s disability is obviously more important. Bran is more important than Hodor who is this disposable person because he’s a servant and he has to die to protect Bran so that he can become a king?

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: Not problematic at all.

Sanjana: Yeah and how his disability becomes this thing that gives him all this power and becomes this underlying reason for him being this all-knowing, all-seeing –

Parinita: Yeah, that’s true. Because he becomes this magical person because he is disabled.

Sanjana: Yeah, exactly. It’s that that causes like, you can still do it. Let me give you some abilities.

Image from the TV series Game of Thrones featuring the character of Hodor carrying the character of Bran on his back

Parinita: And I think this would have been fine if there had been a whole array of disabled characters in media to choose from.

Sanjana and Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: So that you know there’s room for villains and heroes and just regular people who just I don’t know want to eat some cake in a café but oh no New York is being attacked by aliens again!

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: So you know that would have been fine. But it’s just that there are such few representations of disability. And the ones that there are aren’t great.

Sanjana: Haan. Going back to what we were discussing, as you’re saying, that the importance to normalise it and to just have characters going about their business is very important. Because popular media has this underlying purpose that they feel the necessity to over-compensate and fix the disability with these little things or big things which is really problematic.

Parinita: Yeah, for sure. Especially in science fiction and fantasy, where you’re using either technology or magic to fix a disability. And that’s a bit troubling because in the real world, you don’t have this magical ability to fix a disability. And surely people with physical or mental disabilities deserve to see themselves represented.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: I think on the Witch, Please episode they said that, “The assumption is that if you have a disability, it’s a fate worse than death.”

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: That if you have a disability, you’re suffering.

Aparna: Or that if you have a disability, you’d want to get rid of it. Like your prime aim in life or the dream is to be rid of that disability or somehow be cured. What had got me thinking about that was the difference between physical and mental disabilities and how mental disabilities are considered more a part of your identity than physical disabilities are. Nobody would think of fixing with magic an OCD if you have an obsessive compulsive disorder. Whereas if you are in a wheelchair or if you have hearing loss, then people will magic it away instantly is the assumption – is how the characters seem to be written in Harry Potter for example.

Parinita: Yeah and in that Reddit thread that discussed disabilities in Hogwarts and basically about how physically disabled people would travel around Hogwarts, a lot of comments wanted to do that as well where they were envisioning these magical solutions to fix disabilities. But I really liked that there were people who pointed out, exactly as you did Paru, that for some people, it is very much a part of their identity and maybe they don’t want it to be fixed. But they have magical solutions so instead of wheelchairs, perhaps it’s a broomchair. And they’re able to levitate so those moving staircases which are a health hazard even for a person who is able-bodied.

Aparna: [laughs] Yeah.

Parinita: For them just to be able to navigate Hogwarts, to make life easier for them, and not just make it difficult.

Aparna: Yeah. And the more you notice how disability is represented in media, it’s always exaggerated and it’s always the extreme. Just during my reading, I came across this thing of how disabled people are always put in one of three categories. In that either they’re celebrated for doing something completely normal like, “Oh you graduated!” and then they celebrate it for that. Or there is too much pressure to be extraordinary. Like the character is written such that all people who can’t hear should become great composers. And the third is to just generate sympathy for the protagonist because they have somebody in their circle of friends or family who has a disability of some kind and then that makes them look like a more empathetic character. So I wanted to discuss a few well-written disabled characters or well-written characters.

Parinita: So the most recent example that I can think of was in The Dragon Prince. I think her name is Amaya. She’s a military commander so she’s in charge of the troops of the humans in that show. And I know you both haven’t watched it so I’m not going to give you spoilers.

Aparna: Thank you, thank you.

Parinita: [laughs] I know how important spoilers are to all of us. But just in terms of how her character is, she’s deaf and it’s not either made into this exceptional thing or it’s not something that gets in the way of her job either. It’s just a part of her identity. And she has an interpreter so I’m assuming they’re using American Sign Language in the show since it’s American. But that American Sign Language isn’t translated either. So it’s like we are the ones who are glimpsing into their culture but there’s no need for them to explain their culture or their language.

Aparna: Oh yeah, that’s pretty nice.

Parinita: Which I thought was really interesting and really well done.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And she is also just this really fantastic character and she makes these jokes and things while she’s signing which someone who does speak that language, will have a greater insight into. So they’ll have that double layer of identification whereas for us, we’re a little bit on the outside looking in, but it’s still not in a way that’s voyeuristic at all.

Gif of Amaya and Janai from The Dragon Prince. Janai says: We are not ... friends. She is my prisoner. Amaya's responds by signing to the listeners but her signing is untranslated.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: It’s just a regular part of her. So I really like her.

Sanjana: Toph comes to mind from The Last Airbender. When I was listing down just general representations of disabled characters, I didn’t even put her down as an example because I forgot completely that she was blind. I just in general forgot about the fact because the fact that she’s disabled is so normal that it just becomes part of conversation. Though she does learn to bend really well because she can’t see. And that maybe falls into the over-compensating part. But she’s not this great character in terms of relationships and just because she is blind, she’s not this –

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: You know uh –

Aparna: Sad character.

Sanjana: Sad character who everybody adores and everybody likes. And even as she grows up, even in Korra, she has flawed family relations

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: She has a flawed relationship with her children and there’s a lot of realness to her character because that is how most relationships go and it’s very refreshing to see her character.

Gif of Toph and Sokka from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Sokka says: I found something that you're not going to like. [He flourishes a piece of paper] Toph replies: Well it sounds like a sheet of paper. But I guess you're referring to what's on the piece of paper.

Parinita: And, of course, these are the same people who made The Dragon Prince as well.

Sanjana: Exactly!

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: So they’re probably doing something right.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aparna: Yeah. And another person who I feel does right in terms of just the way he writes characters is Rick Riordan who’s written the Percy Jackson series and the Magnus Chase series and everything.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aparna: And just I was very struck by how in the first Percy Jackson book at the beginning before we find out that he’s a demigod, he basically is a kid who has ADHD. And it’s just explained in such a cool way of, oh he has battle reflexes and that’s why he isn’t equipped for just the regular world. Which I find is just such a fascinating way of exploring it and explaining it. And that’s when when I read further, I realised that he has a son with ADHD. Am I right?

Book cover of Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief

Parinita: Yeah.

Aparna: Yeah. And that means he has a lived experience of it and how it makes such a big difference to have people who either know what they’re talking about via personal experiences or through research but just have done their study before writing characters. Even –

Parinita: He also has a deaf character in the Magnus Chase series.

Aparna: Yeah, I was just going to say that.

Parinita: Hearthstone.

Aparna: Yes.

Parinita: And it’s such a mainstream set of books. Rick Riordan books, they’re not cult or niche or anything. They’re hugely popular all over the world.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Which is why I love it even more where there is this explicit representation of all different kinds of diversity.

Aparna: Exactly.

Parinita: But also yeah, since we’re talking about disability, of specifically disability.

Aparna: Yeah. And the problem is that in the media, what it lacks, like you said, this wouldn’t be such a point of discussion if we had so many examples that some of them were a bit problematic as compared to others. But when its representation is so lacking, what’s missing is nuance and that’s what makes all of this seem very one-dimensional. And just the way it reflects in literature or any media that we consume automatically has a vicious cycle with the real world. I’m an editor of picture books and we have this author called Salil Chaturvedi who is disabled and he was talking about his book. And there’s one very cool thing that he said that was, “To be a disabled activist, all you have to do is be active. Because when people see you out and about and when you are more present in the real world is when people will – public spaces will cater to you.” And I feel like it’s a similar relationship with media and the more that you see disabled people in books and movies and TV shows, the more … the way they are treated in society will start to change.

Parinita: Absolutely. And what you said about nuance as well, I think it’s something Marissa Lingen brought up in her podcast where she was critiquing the all-or-nothing representation in media.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: When it comes to disability. So there isn’t nuance in the representation of disabilities when it does exist because it’s always shown in the extremes. So you know it’s either you’re blind or you’re deaf or you’re unable to walk, and this impacts non-disabled people’s reaction to people with either invisible or partially-visible disabilities out in the real world. So the example she gave is when partially-sighted people are assumed to be completely blind and if there is anything that non-disabled people see that goes against their preconceived notion about blindness or about sightedness, then they become angry at that other person because they think they’re not disabled enough. Or they act as if the person is lying. Or if someone with a chronic condition needs to use a wheelchair sometimes, but not all the times, and can walk sometimes. So if a person sees them going from one state to the other, they think that oh this person has been making it up all along. So there are very dangerous implications for people with disabilities.

Sanjana: Yeah. When we were reading up and listening to some of the fan podcasts in preparation for this episode, one of the themes that kept being  repeated and being echoed through all of it was that there is a lack of space given to disability to exist within futuristic and fantasy worlds. And I was discussing this with Paru the other day and she told me about Afrofuturism and how there is this genre born out of the fact that there isn’t enough representation of black people in futuristic worlds. And how it’s strange that people don’t think that racism would be something that gets solved in the 2100s. And how this is similar to disability being portrayed because it doesn’t leave any space for normalcy to exist. You just said that Marissa Lingen points out that most people get their window into disability through popular media. And so it is important for that portrayal to be right because otherwise every other person who meets a blind person in the real world for the first time will expect them to have this great hearing because that’s all we’re shown in popular media. It’s very important to make accommodations for disabled people in society and in media and in speculative fiction in general.

Parinita: No, absolutely. And we were talking about Harry Potter, for example. So one of the articles that we read about J. K. Rowling’s view of disability in the magical world. And how she did think about disability when she was writing the book series.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And you do see some disabled characters in her books. So there’s Mad-Eye Moody who has a very visible disability.

Sanjana: Haan.

Parinita: Then there’s George Weasley who acquires a disability with his ear –

Sanjana: Correct.

Parinita: Later in the books. Then there’s Frank and Alice Longbottom who have this really tragic story because their disability seems to have completely taken them outside the society.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And outside their son’s life and there doesn’t seem to be any way to …

Sanjana: Yeah and absolutely and it becomes this reason for Neville’s life being so horrible. It, at the end of the day, leaves them as just a plot point. They aren’t really explored in any other way. So you don’t know much about what they are and how they –

Parinita: Yeah and it’s a bit like – it’s they are there and their disability is there to almost give Neville a tragic backstory.

Aparna and Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So they’re centering an able person – although in the Witch, Please episode, they did read Neville as neurodiverse. So I re-read the Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone book recently. And when I was reading it, I did think that he could be read as neurodiverse as well.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: Perhaps someone with dyspraxia or vertigo. Because he constantly needs a leg up through the portrait hole to get into the Gryffindor Common Room. He’s not very good at balance and coordination. He’s also really forgetful. Like all these traits that could be read as … and again this is not something that I would have otherwise ever been able to read into the series. It’s just that I’ve been talking to people and listening to disabled people’s perspectives.

Gif of Neville Longbottom from the first movie Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Neville says: "I'll fight you."

Sanjana: Yeah, absolutely right.

Parinita: And in that case, Neville’s disabilities, if he can be read as a disabled character, they’re mostly played off for laughs. They’re not …

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: He’s this comic fodder. And that makes it even sadder.

Sanjana: Yeah, it does. And you’re right. And the fact is that you have these popular characters, the ones that you are falling in love with, making fun of the characters that possibly aren’t written as up-to-the-mark or cannot cope with everything that’s happening around. And that is where lies the problem. Because you end up as a kid reading it for the first time and you end up looking at and siding with the ones who are laughing. And the ones who are making fun of these characters and that’s how you grow up.  You end up doing that and by no fault of yours.

Parinita: No, of course. And just as you were saying that, it just made me think that Neville’s parents as well that they’re very much – they have no agency. They have no sense of anything except to make the reader feel sad for Neville.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Because Harry feels sad for Neville.

Aparna: Um hmm.

Parinita: And that’s all. That’s what they’re there for.

Sanjana: Yeah. That is it.

Parinita: So you know when I was doing my master’s, I was also researching fan communities. And in that, one of the things that I came across, one of the fan texts, there was a huge comment thread about it, was about Harry’s behaviour in Order of the Phoenix.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: Which I remember, when I was reading it as a teenager, when it first came out, I was also like why is Harry so angry and so grumpy throughout this whole book? He’s shouting at everybody. And then there was this whole nuanced discussion about how he has PTSD in the book because of Cedric’s death in Goblet of Fire.

Sanjana and Aparna: Hmm.

Parinita: And there were people who were identifying all the different behaviours and signs and symptoms because they have experience with PTSD. And that made me think of the character in this whole other way. Because again, especially in a children’s book, but even otherwise in mainstream media at large, if it’s not explicitly mentioned, then people who don’t have the vocabulary for this, like us, who don’t have any experience with these disabilities or illnesses, we will never be able to understand that this is what’s going on.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Because it’s not our experience and we’ll never learn then that that’s also an experience that exists and that’s something that he was going through which might make us more explicitly empathetic, if that makes sense?

Sanjana: Yeah, absolutely. No, it does, because I till date keep citing the fifth book as my least favourite because it has Harry just whining through the whole thing. And when you pointed this out and we discussed this last time and it just – it really does throw things in a new light and it really does help understand the development of the character or what the character is going through a lot more.

Parinita: Absolutely. And I think in The Gayly Prophet video that we watched, Lark spoke about – or somebody had written into the podcast and they’d seen being a Squib

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: In the magical world as a magical disability.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Which, again, makes perfect sense but something that we would never have thought about.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Because the Squibs in the series are again played off as these you know nutty –

Sanjana: No but really, one of the first notes that I made for this podcast was when I was trying to find examples in Harry Potter especially, so I was writing down stuff and I suddenly said wouldn’t Squibs be akin to being disabled in the magical society. They are born supposed to be magical, they are supposed to be able to do something which they are not.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: Which basically reads into the definition of being disabled. When you sent this video they, of course, went a lot deeper into it and made some very good points.

Parinita: Yeah because Argus Filch –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And how he’s seen as this defective wizard. He’s stigmatised by mainstream wizarding society, by all the students that are in Hogwarts. And the only two Squibs that we see are ones again who are made fun of.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So there’s Mrs. Figgs, there’s Argus Filch.

Sanjana: And they made an interesting comparison to real life about how he ends up doing janitorial duties because that’s all that he’s good for in the magical world. Which draws a comparison to the real world, how kids with certain disabilities are given a certain kind of job because that’s all that’s expected of them.

Parinita: But also Filch, he doesn’t have any magical powers and he’s given this job to … he seems to be the sole caretaker of Hogwarts.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: This giant school which would have been so much easier to do with someone with magic, right? Wouldn’t you think?

Sanjana: Yeah, and it feels like a bit of a punishment.

Parinita: Yeah!

Sanjana: To be given that job.

Parinita: No wonder he’s angry and hates everybody.

Sanjana: Yeah, absolutely.

Parinita: I would be pissed off as well if that had been me. But also, just reading about all these different perspectives on disability, it made me think of how it’s so similar to our conversation about race. Where the representations have some of the same issues. Because it’s like this marginalised culture which you can’t just include superficially in your stories. So to tick the diversity quota, you can’t just have a person with disabilities. You need to properly research the culture and you need to understand the harmful tropes and stereotypes so that you don’t perpetuate them before you can represent them sensitively. And then there’s also the issue with metaphorical representations of disability. With Harry Potter, Lupin being a werewolf.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: J. K. Rowling has said that that’s akin – in her head when she was writing it, she was drawing the comparison between blood illnesses like HIV, so chronic conditions.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: And so obviously it’s a metaphorical thing. And in the Doctor Who episode that we watched, it was aliens and mental illness. That was a metaphorical representation of it.

Aparna and Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So I wonder whether – and I can’t speak for people with disabilities – but if this metaphorical mental illness representation or chronic illness representation bothers people with these conditions in the same way how we complained that the representations of race in metaphorical ways is not enough to understand the issues.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: See, I have no problem with metaphorical representation if they do something with it. If it’s a subversion. But if Lupin as a werewolf is treated badly, it just reinforces what is already happening in society. It’s not a comment on anything, it’s not a subversion of anything. Which is when I’m not really a fan of the way it’s treated.

Parinita: I completely agree with you. Though when I was thinking more about this, I was thinking that in Hogwarts, Dumbledore does make a special accommodation so that Lupin, in spite of being a werewolf, can have a semblance of a normal life. When we were talking about this, this hadn’t occurred to me. But then I was listening to this other podcast, Reading, Writing, Rowling and they were talking about werewolves. So in that they mentioned how Lupin, he was bitten when he was four years old. And his parents were afraid that he wouldn’t be accepted into Hogwarts because he’s a werewolf so everyone else would be afraid of him. But then Dumbledore is the one who went to Lupin’s family and said that he planted the Whomping Willow and built the Shrieking Shack and accommodated the Hogwarts society to be able to accept someone with his condition. And that’s where Lupin found a community and friends, really good friends. But then, like you were saying Paru, when he went out into the wizarding society, there was nothing. It was replicating the same real-life things.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: So he had no work and he had no prospects. And when it was revealed that he was a werewolf, he had to quit Hogwarts as well. So he’s just had a really sad life.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And in the Witch, Please episode, so this was another thing that I hadn’t thought of which again made me think of parallels between marginalised cultures. So in that they mentioned disability, people with disabilities, it’s like a culture which needs to assimilate to the dominant culture to be respected as equal. So the dominant culture in this case would be able-bodied and you know non-disabled people. So it’s similar I feel in the US, how anybody who is not white and not Christian, so Asians or Latinx people or you know anybody – queer – everybody has to assimilate to this certain idea of being American. In India, it’s similar as well. Like you have to have – although we have a lot of different cultures depending on which part of the country you go to. But to be respected as equal and to be treated as equal, you need to … be a certain kind of person.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So that I found really interesting and also really uncomfortable.

Sanjana: Yeah and J. K. Rowling does this with Lupin. Because they also mention the same thing that eventually he gets married and he has a family and he does all the normal things to be looked at as a whole character. And it would have been fine if he hadn’t had that part of his story arc. But for him to feel normal, the need to give your character all those things to make him – because that is what society expects of you – is what is problematic.

Parinita: Yeah, absolutely. But I really like that even if creators themselves are failing us a bit, again, fandom is filling the gap when it comes to representation and awareness about disabilities.

Sanjana: Yes.

Parinita: So that BBC article that we read about “Harry Potter and the Curse of Disability” which featured these fanfiction writers.

Sanjana: Yes.

Parinita: And this was written, I think, a long time ago – early 2000s.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So I’m sure there’s more now. I haven’t gone looking for it. But basically fans who have disabilities but don’t see this represented in the fiction that they like, specifically Harry Potter.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Because one of the disabled fanfic writers, La Guera, was quoted as saying, “It occurred to me as I read the books that J. K. Rowling has representatives of every race and creed -” Which, side note, yeah that’s problematic as well.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah. “… but she has no disabled students of any kind. And it struck me as very sad.”

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So to counter this, she herself wrote a story about someone with cerebral palsy and the nitty-gritties of it. So what a difference it makes to, like you were saying Paru, for someone who has either the lived experience or is close to the lived experience, when they represent it themselves, it makes so much of a difference.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Yeah, absolutely. And going back to the Reddit thread that we were discussing earlier on, one of the users made a very interesting – caret-top he was. He made a very interesting – he/she I don’t know – made a very interesting observation. Because it was a whole discussion about how Hogwarts doesn’t have any disabled people. And how magic would cure a disability and he seemed to be the only one saying that how many people would actually send a kid to a school that doesn’t cater to their disability? Or doesn’t make room for their disability. And that got me thinking that how much does Hogwarts or the TARDIS make room? How inaccessible it is to disabled people.

Parinita: Yeah, absolutely. Because travelling through space and time, what accommodations are there in place for people with either mental or physical disabilities to travel and have adventures? Do they not want to do all these things? Like surely –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Although me and Jack, we have this conversation, he’s very against time-travelling and I’m very pro-time-travelling.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: Because he thinks I’ll mess up the timeline and it’ll result in all these consequences. So those are just ideological differences. But I’m sure even among people in the disabled community, there must be people who want to go on adventures, right?

Sanjana: Yeah, absolutely. So how many disabled characters have you guys seen on the TARDIS? I don’t watch Doctor Who so I can’t …

Parinita: In the New Who, in the new Doctor Who, I can only think of Ryan, who is the companion in the most recent avatar.

Aparna: Haan.

Parinita: So Jodie. And he has dyspraxia which is mentioned early on in the show, when he comes on. And it’s dealt with a little bit but then we’ve not really heard about it for a long time now.

Sanjana: Okay.

Parinita: Paru, can you think of any?

Aparna: No, I can’t actually.

Parinita: Yeah, I don’t –

Aparna: Generally, any people travelling have always been very able-bodied.

Parinita: But perhaps that’s because, something like you’re saying Sana, which is that you’re not making any accommodations for –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: People and it’s like in society as well, right? I think in The Gayly Prophet episode, he called it the social model of disability. Which is, I believe, it’s what disability rights activists refer to. So basically that disability itself is not – it’s a social and structural problem. It’s not the problem of the person who is disabled. It’s the problem of society that can’t accommodate these different bodies and different brains in their daily functioning.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: So they’re inaccessible to anybody who doesn’t fit the norm. Who is considered to be the norm? Which body is considered to be normal and which brain is considered to be normal?

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Correct. Which brings us to the other part of our episode today. Which is age. And there’s a reason that we combined age and disability into one category. Because it’s another section of society that’s dealt a pretty bad hand both in terms of representation in the media and in terms of just how they’re treated in society. And there are a few obvious similarities in the experiences in being treated as secondary citizens or are either someone to be pitied or someone who does not somehow make it to being a protagonist but always close by. And again, sorely lacking in nuanced representations. Like all grandmothers bake and knit and spoil their grandkids. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Aparna: If you had to generalize, that’s just how you would picture a grandmother, and that’s not a coincidence. And there are some interesting additional parallels that we discussed like the way they’re desexualised.

Parinita: Yeah because older people have outlived their attractiveness, right?

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Yeah! [laughs]

Parinita: Once you reach a certain age, no that’s all, there’s nothing. No romance, no sex, we want nothing. And people with disabilities are anyway seen as asexual.

Aparna: Correct.

Parinita: And people can be asexual and disabled people may also be asexual. But not all disabled people are asexual. So just the diversity of representations is missing.

Aparna: Exactly.

Parinita: Or they’re seen as lesser than people – basically both people beyond a certain age are seen as lesser than the norm. And people with disabilities are seen lesser than the norm. So you don’t cater to society’s idea of what is the regular person.

Aparna: Correct. And Sana, you also brought up the point that sometimes even old people are used as comic relief in stories. Many times in Bollywood movies, this happens.

Sanjana: Yes.

Aparna: Because they’re used for comic relief. Someone who is just out of their depth when the discussion is going on between the main characters.

Sanjana: Yeah. Or they have this older person and the loss of hearing. That’s been used so much that it’s not even funny anymore. The fact that oh he’s older, and then the only bit of his conversation is him mispronouncing the words and re-pronouncing them and adding to the general confusion and comic relief. Which is a bit tiring now.

Parinita: And not being able to handle technology. “Aaaah technology! No! I can’t!”

Sanjana and Aparna laugh.

Sanjana: Yes!

Aparna: Whereas that can happen to young people also.

Parinita: Absolutely.

Aparna: I’m talking very much about myself.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: And the onset of this episode where we spent ten minutes in angst about technology.

Aparna: Was it only ten minutes, Sana?

Sanjana: [laughs]

Parinita: It felt like – like this month [March, 2020] it’s just felt like ten years. Those ten minutes felt much longer. And going through all these fan podcasts and essays and comments and everything that we’ve been looking at, I couldn’t help but draw parallels to our current situation just in terms of the pandemic and the implications of social isolation as well as the virus on both physical and mental health. So not just the virus itself but with the lockdown to contain it as well.

Aparna: Yeah

Parinita: Now people are being asked to work from home, university lectures, at least here in the UK, are moving online and some conferences are being cancelled and online options are being considered. And this is what people with disabilities as well as people who are less mobile due to age or even caregiving circumstances – for whatever reason – they’ve been asking this for a really long time. I’ve been going through these threads and conversations on Twitter and Facebook and they have always wanted more options just for accessibility

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And especially with the technology that we have available today, people with disabilities could have easily been included as well as older people who may not be able to get to where you are for whatever reason. But there have been no systemic accommodations made. But now suddenly now that everybody has to go through this, oh suddenly, it’s really easy to do all these things. Oh yeah you can totally work from home, oh yeah we can totally do university … everything basically online.

Sanjana: Absolutely.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. It’s easily suddenly shoved down everybody’s throat and they’re like ohhh hmm, is this what you were talking about?

Aparna: So let’s do the same exercise that we did for disability representation with age representation. Can you name some well-written old characters? For example, I’ll start. The witches in the Discworld series, especially Granny Weatherwax is one of the most [laughs] I think just the characters in the Discworld series are very lovely-ly written because all their attributes … it’s not like they cease to matter but they just seem to celebrate whatever they are. Even if they are an orangutan who’s a librarian.

Sanjana: And another show, which clearly I seem to be giving only as good examples so they’re clearly doing something very correct, is I thought Avatar: The Last Airbender had some very good older characters. They have this whole underlying society of older people which was very cool. For a kid’s show, they were very present. I love Uncle Iroh.

Aparna: Uncle Iroh!

Sanjana: He’s such a complex but fascinating older character. And he’s one of my favourite fictional characters of all times.

Gif of Uncle Iroh and Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Uncle Iroh says: You're looking at the rare white dragon bush. Its leaves make a tea so delicious it's *heartbreaking*

Parinita: I think in Anne With An E, they had some fantastic older characters.

Sanjana: Yes, yes!

Parinita: Great-aunt Josephine was excellently badass. I loved her.

Sanjana: Yes.

Parinita: And I also loved seeing Marilla and Matthew and Rachel’s interactions as well.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Even though it’s very much about Anne and young people, but I loved the way in which older people were also – their lives and their relationships and all the complexities and everything within the way that they engage with the world was also shown.

Image of Rachel and Marilla from Anne With An E

Aparna and Sanjana: Yeah!

Sanjana: Absolutely.

Aparna: Actually, all parents were given just a lot of – even Diana’s parents had a whole story.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aparna: They had a lot of personality.

Sanjana: And I really like the scene where they are helping Bash with the newborn baby and then one of them says, you know we’ve done this, we’ve raised our kids, we are not built for this anymore. We are old!

Parinita and Aparna laugh

Parinita: Yeah!

Sanjana: We don’t want to do this anymore. And I just thought that was just so … it was so normal.

Parinita: Exactly! And it was shown in a way like they weren’t – it wasn’t their relationships with somebody else. It was just their lives and how they engage with everything else.

Sanjana: Absolutely.

Parinita: Which I think in Woke Doctor Who, they mentioned about how media, just like society and culture, seems to value youth so much. And older women especially. So you know it’s age and there’s also that intersection with gender there where older men are allowed to play a more active role in media and society than older women. Once you hit a certain age as a woman, yes goodbye. We have no need for your services anymore.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And if they are, they’re associated with bitterness and they’re pitted against younger women. And they’re either jealous or they’re competitive or they’re just sad that, oh no, my youth has gone. My life is over. Whereas in this, in Anne With An E, there was so much more. They weren’t sad about their lives. They just had their lives and they were going on living it.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: They didn’t have the same experiences as the younger characters had but there was room given to explore both of them. And yeah, I loved it.

Aparna: Yeah. And in non-fantasy, I also wanted to mention that two characters that I really like are Diane in The Good Fight, which is a lawyerly show. But she’s older, very well-written. She was a supporting character in another show and she got her own spin-off. But she’s not at all like a sympathetic character always. She’s a very grey character and she’s definitely an older woman trying to … She’s always the meanest person in the room.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: And doesn’t take any crap from anyone. She’s a very well-written character. So that’s one. And House from the show House is also oldish I guess. He is not old really but –

Sanjana: Old only.

Aparna: He’s older than most protagonists tend to be.

Parinita: Hmm.

Aparna: And has a disability and is a really, really well-written character. At least in the initial seasons of the show.

Sanjana: Yeah in the initial seasons, yeah he is.

Aparna: And it’s just a very well-rounded, non-sympathetic character. I always like these non-sympathetic characters.

Parinita: [laughs]

Aparna: Who tend to win my heart eventually.

Sanjana: And somebody made a very interesting point on one of the podcasts that we heard. Which was I think Breaking The Glass Slipper only; the episode in which they spoke about age. And the whole Harry and Dumbledore relationship was very interesting. I had not seen it like that at all. But as the books go, and Harry grows up, he sees from Dumbledore being this older mentor in his life, he becomes this flawed character who had a lot of things going on in his old age.

Parinita: Yeah, he starts off as this stereotypical wise mentor in the first few books.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: But especially in Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows, we realise that uh okay maybe he might have been a genocidal maniac as well for love, I guess.

Sanjana and Aparna laugh

Parinita: Except then he came back.

Sanjana: And also their relationship becomes from being the mentor to Harry calling him out on his crap. And saying that you’re being stupid about this. And just speak to me! And open up!

Parinita: And don’t be so useless. You don’t need to be so cryptic.

Sanjana: Yeah!

Aparna: Exactly!

Parinita: You could have given us more information and helped us along faster.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: No need for all this drama and all this mystery.

Sanjana: And now! It is time for our ever so famous uh

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: Thing.

Parinita: Amongst a total of three people!

Sanjana: That we must do on all podcasts [laughs] is our What If? section.

Aparna: I feel like it should have some theme music.

Sanjana: Yeah, I think we’ll come up with some theme music.

Aparna: I always suggest [makes sound effect]

Parinita: [laughs]

Aparna: Because it’s like a question mark. But you guys have been very dismissive of it in the past so I’m not going to do it.

Parinita: I feel like we can look for better music, Paru. [laughs]

Aparna: Just because you got fancy art of yourself, Parinita, now you want better music.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: Well … so! Welcome to the What If? section. Let me turn my page to where we have made some notes.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: Okay! So this What If? takes you down a journey where we flip the age of some of our favourite characters. To see how their life might have played out or how their characters might have played out or how their temperament may have been different if they were of a different age. We start in the world of Hogwarts with McGonagall.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: Parinita, would you like to start?

Parinita: Yeah, so for me, I thought it would be really interesting – so again, like I said I was re-reading the Harry Potter book. When Harry first meets McGonagall as an eleven-year-old, she’s described as having black hair. The movies have influenced our brains and our imaginations so much because she’s this obviously much older person. But I thought it would be really interesting if she had been this young, badass, stern teacher.

Sanjana: Absolutely! Yeah.

Parinita: And a capable witch who’s commanding respect. Because especially in a situation like a male-dominated like … well life. Male-dominated life.

Sanjana: Yeah. [laughs]

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: You know younger women do have to … like all three of us are lucky that we work in predominantly women – most of our co-workers are women. But I’ve heard from other places, in education as well, just women have to prove themselves so much more in this male-dominated structure, any sort of structure. So the idea of McGonagall being young and badass and just commanding respect wherever she goes, as a young woman in this old-man school.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Where there are some really terrible people.

Sanjana: Um hmm!

Parinita: She would be really cool. She would be this young, powerful woman and everyone loves her but is also very afraid of her. Which is how I think all women should be treated.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: You love them and you’re a bit afraid of them.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Absolutely. I agree. I couldn’t agree more. Okay. So our second example takes us to Aang and the fact that what if under the ice – maybe not a hundred years but he had aged; not stood still in time. But what if he had come out of that – the big block of ice – a little – a much older person? And he was the main protagonist of this kid’s show. How would that have played out? Aparna?

Aparna: It would have been pretty cool. We were discussing this and, like you mentioned, to see like an older Aang learning from all those kids and them being the mentor for him would have been really nice to see. And also I feel like he might have been taken more seriously. I don’t know or he would have more – Aang would have had more angst because –

Sanjana and Parinita laugh

Aparna: He would actually have lost a lot of his life in the ice.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: So he might not have been as silly or mad like the way he is.

Parinita: I would have loved had he been a hundred and eleven years old and been as silly and mad. But then he gets to do all these –

Aparna: Yeah! Because mind-wise –

Parinita: And he’d be all, oh no old bones!

Aparna: [laughs] Yeah! If he was physically old but then he had not aged otherwise, it would have been quite fun.

Sanjana: Yeah, it would have been quite fun to watch.

Parinita: Yeah, I would have loved to!

Sanjana: A hundred-year-old man going around learning from kids and being a kid and making air scooters and things, that would have been really fun.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: And he’s discovering this new world as well.

Aparna: Yeah, exactly.

Parinita: Which is the future! So all these new things. Oh I want to watch this show now!

Sanjana: Yes! I totally do.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: And our last What If? takes us to the world of fairy tales. And to a particular one with a wolf and a girl in a red hood. And [laughs] yes you guessed it right, it’s Red Riding Hood.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: I’ve taken this What If? section very seriously.

Parinita: I love it!

Aparna: And yet you did not like my theme music.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: I didn’t say anything to it!

Aparna: You scowled at it.

Sanjana: Anyway! Going back to our little Red Riding Hood – and this was Aparna’s idea which was brilliant – is that what if Grandma was taking some muffins to Red Riding Hood? And Red Riding Hood had been gobbled up? What would have happened then?

Aparna: Firstly I don’t think grandma would have spoken to a stranger.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Hiding in the forest and given her a dress.

Sanjana: Absolutely.

Aparna: So that’s one thing.

Parinita: I think the grandmother would have been wiser and would have been able to realise that it’s a wolf in a dress.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: And not a human. Like excuse me little Red Riding Hood, I realise that you’ve been this sheltered child. But do you not know the difference between skin and fur?

Sanjana: [laughs]

Aparna: He was wearing her grandmother’s clothes okay!

Sanjana: Maybe she forgot her specs that day.

Aparna: Yeah!

Sanjana: And couldn’t see clearly.

Parinita: I think you’re giving her too much credit.

Aparna: Actually that would make more sense.

Sanjana: It would.

Aparna: Than a little girl not being able to tell the difference between her grandmother and a wolf – a hairy wolf.

Parinita: A grandmother who she’s presumably met before!

Sanjana: I also think the grandmother wouldn’t have needed the hunter to come to her rescue.

Aparna: I agree.

Parinita: Oh I would have loved a romance between the grandmother and this young hunter.

Sanjana: Wow! That would have been fun.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: That’s a fairy tale we should have read.

Parinita: Yeah! Maybe we should write fanfiction, you guys. Red Riding Hood fanfiction.

Sanjana: Yeah, this is totally what we should do.

Aparna: [laughs] Red Riding Hood fanfiction! We’ve found our calling.

Sanjana and Parinita laugh

Comic of Red Riding Hood standing outside the window and the wolf dressed as grandma in bed. Red Riding Hood says: ..I've left a basket of food outside for you grandma! The wolf says: F*****g COVID!

Speaking of Red Riding Hood fanfiction [we didn’t come up with this one]

Aparna: But that brings me to what I wanted to talk a little bit about was ageism in children’s literature. So does ageism refer to discrimination based on age? That’s it right? It can be against younger people as well?

Parinita: Yeah.

Aparna: So I feel like children’s literature is born out of the fact that children don’t have any agency in the real world. They aren’t taken as seriously. So it’s the most successful fighting of ageism I’ve ever seen.

Parinita: [laughs]

Aparna: But within children’s literature, the way old people are treated especially – so going back to fairy tales – how eternal youth is this big reward in a fairy tale. Or these stereotypes of these mean old witches or these old crones who are just out to get you because that is what they do. And all those stories that are so old and have very problematic treatments of the way old people are represented in that they either are evil or they need help. I understand why. Even when I’m writing, I want to quickly dispose of the parents somehow. Which is what even Roald Dahl used to say, that the adults in his story, he wants to somehow make them go away as soon as possible in the story so that he can get on with telling the story. But I don’t remember where it was that we encountered an example of children enjoying a story with an older protagonist in it.

Parinita: It was Breaking The Glass Slipper as well.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: The ageism episode.

Aparna: Yeah. What was the show, I haven’t written it down.

Parinita: It was some British show or something that I’ve never heard of. For people who are super enthusiastic, they should go listen to the ageism episode and try to figure out what it is.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: We just open the gates to inspiration.

Aparna: Yeah but also, you both mentioned Gangsta Granny by David Walliams. And how basically children can enjoy stories that have grown-ups because actually even grown-ups don’t know what they are doing. The image of grown-ups having a handle on life now that we’ve grown up, we know that it’s not true.

Parinita: Especially in the real world where we’re seeing now younger people who are fighting against the problems that older people and adults have left for them.

Aparna and Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: I’ve been studying children’s literature. So I did the master’s and in that I came across this really interesting idea which also makes me a little uncomfortable. Which is essentially like you said, Paru, that children’s literature is where children have agency and young people go on their own adventures and do their own things. But there is this whole strand of discussion within children’s literature scholarship that actually, it’s still adults writing these. It’s all adults who are controlling children’s literature. It’s adults writing about adult ideologies of childhood. And all three of us, we are also complicit in this because we’re all writing children’s books.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And it’s what we think children want or children need and children would like. Which is why I started looking at fan communities in the first place for my master’s because in that, it was more young people’s response to these adult-authored texts. Not that I’m saying that we all need to give up our jobs and not write for children anymore.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: But for me, it was really interesting to just think of this. I was like, oh yeah that’s true. It’s nice to make all these arguments as the people who are – who you know –

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: Where it’s like, “Oh yeah, we’re doing such great work, aren’t we!”

Sanjana and Aparna laugh

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So yeah, sorry about throwing a little bit of a spanner in that. But what you were saying about just age-based discrimination and children’s literature being a part of that, I also see that in fandom. Not me specifically. But I’ve heard arguments about that. Where ageism in fandom works both ways. So it may work where young people’s interests and practices are dismissed by older adults so they’re like, oh fandom, there’s nothing to do here, please grow up. But on the other hand, it could also be because fandom is seen to be young people’s culture.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So if you’re above a certain age, younger people may not appreciate older people coming into their space.

Aparna: Hmm.

Parinita: And might be really protective about this. So there is this podcast that I listen to called Fansplaining and they’ve had some conversations and listener letters about this topic. How this perception is that fandom is full of teenagers but actually there are many people in their 20s, 30s and 40s enjoying fannish things as well. Like the three of us – I don’t think we’re never not going to be fannish even when we’re ninety-two.

Sanjana: Yeah

Parinita: Though I’m saying that a bit optimistically that the world is going to be around till we’re ninety-two.

Sanjana: [laughs] Ninety-two directly haan!

Parinita: [laughs] Some people may have discovered fandom later in life so they’ve not grown up with it. And a show like Supernatural which has this massive fandom even now but which has been around for fifteen years. So there are two different generations of fans. In one of the Fansplaining episodes, they were talking about how now the younger people who are into Supernatural now who are teenagers, they’d be looking at Sam and Dean as father figures.

Aparna: Oh god!

Sanjana: Oh my god!

Parinita: Which I’m like oh yeah that’s true because they’re pretty old. We’re – we’re getting old as well. [laughs] But it’s also interesting if there isn’t this discrimination, that fandom then becomes a space full of fans of all different ages who are interacting with each other in ways that they may not otherwise do. Because as an adult, there are a very fixed number of spaces where you have this cross-age interaction in a way that’s not controlled.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Yeah, absolutely. You’re right. You make a good point. Towards the end of our episode, it feels only right that we do another What If? Surprise!

Parinita: [laughs]

Aparna: [makes sound effect]

Parinita and Sanjana laugh

Aparna: Is that the same sound I made last time?

Sanjana: No, now it sounded like a spaceship.

Aparna: [makes sound effect] Oh no that’s more spaceship.

Parinita: [laughs]

Aparna: Okay never mind.

Sanjana: Going back to the uh

Parinita: This sound is growing on me.

Aparna: Yay! It’s also changing all the time so it might be a different one that’s feeling weird. I’ve forgotten what I was doing.

Sanjana: What If?! She said, bringing your attention back.

Parinita: [laughs]

Aparna: Okay.

Sanjana: Basically an older person’s perspective of entering a new world or entering an unknown world. And specifically, how about an older student going to Hogwarts? Like Parinita, you had mentioned, their letter got lost. The number of owls and things went awry and so they got their letter when they were thirty-five or forty probably.

Parinita: Or seventy-two.

Sanjana: Sure. Or seventy-two. And so they said, “Hmm, this seems like a fun thing to do now. I have magic! This explains a lot of my life! Let me go to Hogwarts.” And so they end up going to Hogwarts. And so what happens? What do you think? How different is their experience? I’m guessing very. But in what way?

Parinita: I would love to see one of the witches from Discworld whose names I have – I’m completely – Granny Weatherwax! I would love to see Granny Weatherwax in Hogwarts dealing with Snape.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: She is in Gryffindor because she’s obviously in Gryffindor.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: And just Snape trying to dock points off her for being … well her. And how she would deal with it. I think that would be fantastic. And I think she and McGonagall would just be the best of friends.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: In my case, the younger McGonagall.

Aparna: The younger McGonagall, yeah, even I was just about to say that.

Parinita: They would just be best friends.

Aparna: [laughs] I honestly was actually thinking about it very practically. And I thought firstly, all the professors would be wholly unconcerned that there is one student in the class who’s much older than either the rest of the students or even them. Because I couldn’t think of one teacher who would change the way they teach because of –

Parinita: Umbridge.

Aparna: [laughs] No, I do not consider her … as part of the … she’s not teaching there anymore okay, keep quiet.

Sanjana: [laughs] She didn’t do much teaching, haan.

Aparna: And I also thought practically, what if someone says oh they shouldn’t be allowed to play Quidditch. Because –

Parinita: How dare you!

Sanjana: [laughs]

Aparna: Yeah, they’re taller and they’re stronger or something like they’ll be able to reach places faster because their arms are longer. I can think of some whiny Slytherin students saying this is cheating, I’m not –

Parinita: Unless the old person is in Slytherin in which case, yes! All the old people will be playing.

Aparna: Exactly. Then I also thought students would take their help to get books from the Restricted Section. That’s an age thing, right?

Sanjana: Oooh! Of course!

Parinita: Yeah!

Aparna: I thought that would be a useful thing and everyone would ask them to get –

Parinita: Oh that’s true! They can be the book supplier.

Aparna: Exactly, like a side business.

Parinita: For all the junkies like Hermione.

Sanjana: And they wouldn’t need the Invisibility Cloak anymore.

Parinita: Oh my god! Can you imagine if one of the trio was really old?

Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: How much more practical they would have been? I know we want to go against this trope of old people being wise but they just have more life experience.

Aparna: Yes.

Parinita: And you know how we were when we were teenagers or younger.  We were not very … I mean we know better now.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: Although to be fair, Sirius was a terrible example. So Sirius would not have been a good, no he would not – none of the Marauders, I think.

Sanjana: No, none of them. [laughs]

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: But you guys make some interesting points. I agree. I never thought of the Restricted Section.

Aparna: It was one of the first things that I got excited about.

Sanjana: [laughs] But I was also thinking that the probability of a letter getting lost with the way the first book went and Harry’s letters went would be …

Aparna: Do you think they do that with all students or only he was a special case?

Sanjana: Hmm!

Parinita: Letters they must send to everybody.

Aparna: No but those many letters.

Sanjana: So many!

Parinita: Oh yeah! So this other podcast I was listening to, they were talking about how Harry’s definitely not a Ravenclaw because he was so bad at just –

Aparna: Yeah!

Parinita: Grabbing a letter and just reading it. There were so many letters – so many! Everywhere!

Aparna: Yeah! He couldn’t read one! He was such an idiot.

Sanjana: Well with that Harry bashing, we come to the end of the episode. And thank you so much for listening to us. And goodbye! Until next time.

Aparna and Parinita: Bye!

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode on representations of disabilities and old age. It’s a strange time to be making a podcast – especially an episode on ableism and ageism. I’m slowly getting used to the new normal, and I hope you are too. It’s something that I initially really struggled with. I love the new sense of community this pandemic has brought about. The creative new ways in which we’re looking after each other, especially the more vulnerable members of our society, including older people as well as people with physical and mental disabilities. That’s one of the things filling me with hope in these lockdown days – that maybe, after all this is over, we’ll remember what it was like and we’ll end up working together in a better, more just world.

As one of my favourite writers Arundhati Roy recently wrote,

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

[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!

Some Notes On Episode 4 – Resources

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

For Episode 4, A Lot of Gold in Gringotts: Representations of Class and Considerations of Gender, we discussed the following texts.

1) Academic paper – Restorying the Self: Bending Toward Textual Justice

According to the paper, the concept of restorying refers to highlighting marginalised perspectives in mainstream media and culture through fan responses to favourite texts. Everybody can insert their own perspectives and experiences in stories which otherwise erase or silence them. While there are conversations happening around diversity in mainstream publishing and media, fandom is such a rich resource where they are already doing it. The collective nature of this practice is what i’m most interested in because it’s what I’ve experienced – encountering other people’s perspectives, as largely a lurker, has expanded my own thinking and helped me decolonise my brain. This happens with both exposure to perspectives in which I’m marginalised and in others where I’m dominant. I love the idea of fandom as an educational resource where you learn both technical and conceptual skills which you may not in institutionalised educational contexts (of course, this is still limited to those who have access to the technology and time to experiment). Even though there is global circulation of texts and fan texts – the West is still privileged – exemplifying and exacerbating cultural imperialism and colonised minds. However, this does have empowering potential as well since you’re encountering ever-diverse perspectives.

Bending –  reimagining stories from nondominant, marginalized, and silenced perspectives, as one form of restorying that draws from and makes manifest embodied, lived realities and identities”

Examples of this include racebending, genderbending, and queering the texts. Young people respond to the lack of representation by inserting their own representations within fandom – both young people and different marginalised groups make space for themselves. According to their research, racebending isn’t just a practice engaged in by fans of colour – white fans who recognise the white-dominated worlds of fantasy media racebend characters as well. Counter-narratives offer perspectives which are different from the mainstream dominant ones. This has a tremendously empowering potential, particularly as a collective activity, as a tool of community-building. Historically, literature and media has been created, controlled and represented a small group of privileged people and everyone else on the margins has had to read themselves into the story and become well-acquainted with narratives and experiences which didn’t reflect their own. This is still the case both within an Indian context but especially globally, with the widespread influence of Western media. Technology and participatory media offers a space for marginalised voices to insert themselves into the narrative and share these counter-narratives with a global audience. 

The article outlines different ways to restory and disrupt dominant narratives and understandings and challenge the dominance of a single story:

changing the time, the place, the identity (race, gender, queer), mode (transmedia storytelling), perspective (counter storytelling), metanarrative (collective storytelling)

These restorying practices employed by fans in informal digital spaces can be used by educators within more formal contexts. Restorying offers a way of promoting empathy, respect and understanding for diverse lived experiences and of challenging inequalities of representation and exclusion of certain groups of people. 

 

2) Alison’s academic presentation – Daemons and Pets as signifiers of social class in Harry Potter and His Dark Materials

The paper points out that taste often acts as signifier of social status and class. It interprets the Weasleys as the Irish – redheads, impoverished, lots of children –  which reiterates that there are many things you don’t pick up on as a reader outside the context in which a story is set. This reminds me of a conversation with my Scottish partner who was horrified when he discovered that there’s an Irish character in the series, Seamus Finnigan, who has a propensity to set things on fire and blow things up. I never realised the connection with the IRA.

The middle class in the UK is very different to the middle class in India. To me, everybody here seems pretty well off – even though the Weasleys are explicitly described as poor. Also, there is this perception in India that in the “West” (usually a monolithic construct), everyone is prosperous and people don’t have to worry about poverty. It is definitely a matter of context, that I began to see clearly only after moving to the UK and encountering perspectives and standards of poverty here. A few weeks ago, my partner and I witnessed a neighbour’s encounter with mental illness and how it was (mis)treated by the police. My partner was appalled at the cuts to services which has led to the way things are now. To me, even the existence of such services is such an unthinkable thing, much less the expectation that these services need to function according to a high standard. It’s so good to be able to learn from both privileged and marginalised perspectives because it allows you to see things you wouldn’t have thought of. 

The paper argues that the fixed nature of daemons reflects the lack of social mobility and career changes in the world of His Dark Materials which is an interesting idea. Another interesting idea is pets as a signifier of status. This can be seen in real life as well with what you can and can’t afford when it comes to having animals. For example, I would love to have a menagerie, but I definitely can’t afford to. 

“Harry has been disadvantaged, materially, culturally and emotionally, by the Dursleys, but in the wizarding world he is a lost prince.”

While Harry grows up impoverished, he has inherited wealth and valuable objects, from many older men – his invisibility cloak, the Marauder’s Map, Hedwig – as the co-hosts on Witch, Please and the paper point out. Witch, Please further discusses how a lot of the objects in the magical world seem to have artisanal value where the economy seems to value one-of-a-kind objects rather than mass-produced items, in itself a class marker. Harry has several of these. Hat-tip to Witch, Please again for noting that the accumulation of objects in the magical world seems to be especially common among the wealthy – the Malfoys, Voldemort, the Blacks. Sirius is desperate to get rid of these objects as a further way to cut ties with his family when he is forced to inhabit his family house in Order of the Phoenix.

 

3) Fanfiction – A Wand With Sixteen Strings

Just reading fanfiction again has filled my heart with such joy! I remember doing this as a teenager – just losing myself in Harry Potter fic and finding so much joy and comfort in it. I never did get around to reading fic inspired by other worlds. Going back to that experience even briefly makes me want to simultaneously read and write more fanfiction  – this time, using all the knowledge, interests, and perspectives my PhD research has exposed me to. I like the What If? sections on my co-host episodes allow me to do this somewhat in the form of headcanons. But I would love to explore further.

I didn’t even realise it was a crossover with an existing school story series – The Marlows – until a note hinted at Lawrie being an existing character in Chapter 5. This fic reiterated the gender politics in school stories. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate this while I was bingeing on school stories as a teenager, but I glossed over the more overtly sexist bits of the narratives and enjoyed them because they centred female characters having all sorts of adventures – both domestic and outdoor – and included relationships, drama and all-round interestingness (at least it was interesting to me).

Nicola’s brief friendly conversation with a centaur in the library made me wish there had been more of that in the series! Also, the librarian Madam Pince, in this case didn’t seem daunting, quite helpful if a bit quirky – my kind of librarian representation. I would really have loved the series through Hermione’s point of view. I would have also loved more magical creatures in Hogwarts – an inter-cultural learning community would have been so interesting! Do I need to write this fic?! I also loved the casual inclusion of different religious faiths in this conversation. 

“Does everybody have to go to the Quidditch match?” Nicola was asking Susan, who was leaning over the desk behind her.

Susan shook her head. “Most people do, but the Osmans don’t go because their religion doesn’t think much of witches riding around on brooms showing their legs – you know the Osmans, they’re Gryffindors, one’s a fourth year and the other one’s a seventh – and neither do some of the other Muggleborns. Sally-Ann Perks doesn’t, I know that, because she came in at the end of my clarinet lesson and asked Magister Reed if it was all right to use the music-room, and he said if the Snitch flew in through the window and up her euphonium he’d hold her responsible.”

“Sally-Ann Perks is never a Muslim,” said Nicola, sounding as if she suspected a leg-pull.

“No, but her people do follow some kind of Muggle religion,” said Susan earnestly. “Haven’t you noticed she wasn’t allowed to come to the Hallowe’en feast or anything where people sing hymns, and she got really embarrassed when Lavender Brown was asking when her birthday was, and had to tell her not to send cards to her house because her parents don’t agree with that kind of thing?”

“Well, who’d have thought it,” said Nicola, only mildly interested.

“What are they going to do in the music-room?” asked Tim Keith, strolling over. “I might go and join them.”

“You can’t do that,” said Goyle offendedly. “You’ve got your House to support.”

“And the so-dear Marlows here have two sisters to support,” Tim gave them a bright glancing look, not altogether devoid of malice. “So I suppose we’ll all be there freezing on the stands whilst Sally-Ann Perks and the two best-looking boys in Gryffindor share a nice warm music-room. It’s enough to make me take up that old-time religion.”

The story also featured a refreshingly different perspective of Draco and the rest from a non-Harry POV (I may also have a soft spot for Draco after watching Harry Potter and the Cursed Child for my birthday in March). Altering the POV and highlighting new voices really does allow you to reimagine differently. Is this why I love retellings of all kinds? The potential to expand my imagination? The Hufflepuff POV in this story, a house which is much denigrated in the books, also reminds me that I need to watch Puffs, an off-Broadway play which is available on Prime, which documents the series from the Hufflepuff perspective. 

 

4) Fan podcast – Witch, Please “The Chamber of Whiteness”

The co-hosts believe that the effeminate representation of Draco and Lucius Malfoy signifies bad whiteness. They were aristocratic slave holders and evil. There’s also a link between the Malfoys, the Nazis and the Slytherins. The villains are coded as dandys and queer (Voldemort as well). Snape is also coded is a bad example of whiteness, though in a very different way. I wonder about the class implications of this as well as the blood-status implications. The bad guys congregate in Knockturn Alley which presents an orientalised aesthetic, for example, the objects in Borgin and Burkes. All this is contrasted by Harry’s good whiteness where he comes from a poor background and doesn’t have the Malfoy-level of wealth and privilege supporting him. The Malfoys keeps slaves, Harry liberates them. One is a bad way to be a white person, the other is an example of a good white person. 

However, as they mention in later episodes, Harry is also privileged. Perhaps not with the Dursleys, but certainly in the magical world. He inherits wealth and valuable objects as well as cultural and social status. While he liberates Dobby and is eventually nice to Kreacher, he doesn’t seek to upend the status quo or the system of house elf slavery in the way Hermione does. He develops empathy for those ostracised by witches and wizards – such as goblins and giants who live on the margins of the magical society – but he doesn’t take any radically inclusive measures. (The Jewish co-hosts also identify the anti-Semitic stereotypes of goblins and the overall lack of Jewish characters in the magical world). 

They note that in the movie, the Burrow is vibrant and welcoming whereas Privet Drive is plain and boring. The country is glorified over the suburbs and lower middle class in the suburbs versus lower middle class in the country is very different. They discuss the class commentary of the architecture and visual choices in movies. 

Throughout their podcast, the co-hosts critique the pedagogy employed in Hogwarts. When it comes to the bad teaching in Hogwarts, o students from wizarding families have more of an advantage because they are assumed to have some skills and knowledge? Or even if they don’t acquire these skills and knowledge in school, their family will take care of the necessary education? This has class and race implications, which is similar in real-life educational institutions. 

In terms of gender, they point out that while Hermione in the books is flawed, in the movies, she’s portrayed as god-like. She’s given Dumbledore’s line, not too much is made of her crush on Gilderoy Lockhart, she is physically more attractive as opposed to the books – and just generally she isn’t as flawed and embarrassing as portrayed in the books. They argue that in movies, women are constantly shown as flawed and we rarely get perfect female characters, so on the one hand, it is good to have Hermione as a strong young female character. However, there aren’t enough women characters in popular media to be able to have both – flawed and perfect characters. We would like both characters who we want to aspire to be – perfect and flawless – as well as those we identify with – flawed and complex. Men often don’t have to choose between the two because there’s room for multiple representations. 

 

5) Fan podcast – The Gayly Prophet “Witch Please Meets The Gayly Prophet: An Interview with Hannah McGregor”

Podcasting is a way of disseminating information about feminism. It is also a way to maintain long-distance friendship. Much like Witch, Please, I’m using my PhD podcast to do a bit of both. Hannah McGregor says that podcast listeners and engaging with a community taught her a lot. For Jaime, she’s been having these conversations (like the political feminist ones on Witch, Please) with her leftist queer community in the real-world. Unlike Jaime, I didn’t have access to these conversations in my real life so I am forever grateful for the internet for expanding my mind. Hannah believes that beginning to think critically about things changes your relationship with media in general as well as that thing in particular. You either decide you now hate the thing or continue loving it and enjoy critiquing it. People like having their ideas expanded. This has definitely been my experience. 

However, not all ideas are appreciated by everyone. Listeners didn’t like Witch, Please‘s reading of anti-Semitism in Harry Potter nor did they agree with their reading of fatphobia against the Dursleys. Hannah also pointed out that UK listeners don’t see the absence of Jewishness as a sign of religious erasure because they argue there is no religion in the series despite the series being framed around Christianity. This is similar to discussions about racism in the UK, as pointed out by Woke Doctor Who, where British people seem to think that racism is only a thing which exists in the US. Fat shaming “bad” people even among people on the left is seen as acceptable (Trump, for example). 

Podcasting can act as a community-building site even if the text and creator are problematic. Podcasts act as accessible scholarship where knowledge is shared not just by academics podcasting but also non-academics podcasting. For example, Lark acknowledges that he doesn’t have a college degree. His education comes from talking to people and from the internet. This doesn’t make his voice any less important. Even though I’m researching for a PhD, a lot of my knowledge is derived from the internet as well. I’m still uncomfortable about calling myself an academic because I have a very certain idea of academic knowledge and I don’t feel like I fit into this mould. The internet offers different forms of media to make knowledge accessible to people who aren’t privileged enough to access these through institutionalised means. 

However, as Hannah points out, open access to scholarship isn’t embraced by everyone. Many institutionalised spaces seek to protect and hoard their knowledge. Holding onto privilege, Hannah argues, is a white supremacist act because it links “expertise to wealth and other forms of privilege” – wealth and privilege which in Canada, like many Western countries, have been historically concentrated in the hands of white men. This elitist gatekeeping of knowledge provides the argument that free knowledge/free tuition decreases the “specialness” of knowledge, an idea which needs to be protected. Podcasting breaks down the barriers between who gets to create and disseminate knowledge. It also allows you to talk to more diverse people beyond the limited group of people within educational institutions which usually includes only those who have access to these spaces and resources. Hannah asserts that theory suffers from not exploring lived experience and becomes too abstract, irrelevant, and ivory towerish. I think this reflects my own uncertainty with and perception of academia.

The episode discusses that queer people seem to love Harry Potter which they argue may be a combination of the timing of the series release and the birth of digital fandom. Fans took ownership of the series regardless of what Rowling thinks/says – this is particularly relevant and evident now. They also propose that fans seem to have more ownership of genre fiction (science fiction, fantasy, horror) where they play around in the world as opposed to literary fiction where the writer’s word seems more sacrosanct. 

Two fan text recommendations from the conversation: 

 

6) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds “Fanfiction (Don’t Judge)”

The popular perception is that fanfiction is trashy and terrible when actually, there is a lot of high quality fic out there. And anyway, even among published books, there are so many terrible books out there! Eric interviews a woman of colour who reads/writes fanfiction because she finds it full of more diversity than mainstream media. Most creators of mainstream media are straight white guys (in the West). Fanfiction expands the possibilities of who creates stories and includes a diversity of perspectives, something that the host Eric hadn’t considered at all. Even for a critical and open-minded thinker, it’s easy to fall prey to cultural stereotypes.

There is definitely a gendered element to this denigration of fanfiction. When men wrote fiction inspired by Sherlock Holmes way back when, as one of the guests points out, the practice wasn’t denigrated. But as soon as it becomes a practice popularly employed by women, censure and mockery abound. Female fans of Star Trek wrote some of the first fanfiction as it is seen today – including slash fic – and they were dismissed by male fans for liking the show too much and for the wrong reasons .

“Where women were more interested in the relationships between the characters rather than the high concept scientific ideas.”

Slash fic is proposed to be a way of writing a lot of queer literature to fill the missing gap in mainstream literature. One of the guests also believes that slash ships written by women allow for equality in relationships i.e. it becomes a way for women to navigate gender politics without the baggage. However, I’ve also come across critiques of this because without doing the proper research, writing about a culture you aren’t familiar with can be problematic. A lot of slash fic tends to be about attractive men – largely white men – written by straight women, and intersectional identities are missing. Not that the whole idea needs to be tossed out, but there is room for questioning it rather than simply touting it as progressive. 

Fanfiction displays an alternative framework to creating stories – communal writing where betas act as voluntary editors and writers take feedback into serious consideration which informs their subsequent chapters and how the story goes. Many fans even prefer fan works to canon which throws into question – what is canon anyway if fanon is equally well-received by a certain portion of people? Archive Of Our Own is a fan-run platform for fans to host fanfiction. It was started in 2007 and won a Hugo award in 2019. Online fandom can be more accessible than offline conventions, which can be expensive and inaccessible to many groups of people for many different reasons.  

A guest speaks about the tension between fanfiction and its commercialisation wherein companies are trying to monetise fanfiction (hello capitalism) which changes the subversive, subcultural practice of fanfiction by making it more conventional and heteronormative to suit the demands of the marketplace. Another tension is about fan entitlement where media creators hold fan backlash responsible for their creative choices. However, historically fans haven’t had large amounts of institutional and financial power. Now, through their fan works, they are able to respond to the media and critique decisions which further marginalise under-represented groups of people – something which some media creators like more than others. 

To quote Sam Winchester: “At the end of the day, it’s our story. So we get to write it.”

 

7) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds “Fan fiction (special edition)”

This episode featured an interview with Francesca Coppa, one of the co-founders of Archive of Our Own. She pointed at Sherlock Holmes and then Star Trek as the origins of fanfiction. Women played a huge role in the Star Trek fandom but they weren’t taken as seriously – they were writing fictional stories but were regarded as writing the show incorrectly. Fanzines and sharing VHS tapes was another way of sharing fandom and forming a community. The internet followed. 

Why bully teenage girls for doing something they love?

She also spoke about the gender politics of fanfiction and how it’s mocked for being an arena so largely populated by teenage girls playing with their favourite worlds and characters. She points out the hypocrisy by drawing parallels to garage bands where people get together to play covers of their favourite in their garages. Just like fanfiction, the quality of these creative outputs differs wildly – with some great and some terrible productions. Even when it comes to the idea of Mary Sues where people criticise wish-fulfillment stories written by young girls and women, it overlooks the fact that so many of mainstream male heroes are wish-fulfillment Gary Stus as well – Luke Skywalker and Bruce Wayne, for example. A lot of fanfiction responds to the sexist aspects of their favourite media where there are no female friendships and women are primarily defined through their relationships with men. Slash fic is used to negotiate gender politics by using fictional characters and exploring the relationships between them. Francesca contends that prose allows you to explore feelings in a deeper way than movie/TV. Being a woman on the internet is fraught with risk anyway.

“Anything women do is funny, anything teenage girls do is funny, anything women do with erotica is especially hilarious.”

Archive of our Own was started by fans to own the platform where they wrote fanfic on. Its co-founders were mostly adult women from different skill backgrounds – coders, lawyers, writers. They designed the structure and software from scratch and included things they considered important – spoiler warnings and trigger warnings, for example. It won a Hugo award in 2019. 

Francesca also talks of the benefits of having beta readers acting as editors to improve the quality of the stories online. Many fans are professional writers and an editor is always helpful to all kinds of writers. However, from my own experiences as a teenage fanfiction writer on MuggleNet, I remember that sometimes the community is much more authoritarian. I wrote a very Out of Character fic about a sitcom version of Voldemort and the Death Eaters and the first chapter received a few nice comments, but then the second chapter as well as the fic itself was deleted for not being in character which was extremely demoralising! I shared it on another platform too but it put me off writing more – I don’t have thick enough skin!

Francesca outlines the limits of the marketplace which in turn limit the kind of stories writers on TV shows/books can tell. Fanfiction doesn’t have this problem where there’s room for all kinds of stories. However, the increasing allure of commercialisation of fanfiction due to it becoming mainstream can be fraught with risk. She warns of the dangers of money coming into fanfiction whereby it will be governed by the dictates of the marketplace and advertisers, just as mainstream media is. But considering that a majority of fic writers are female, shouldn’t women be paid for their work? Francesca wants to preserve the playfulness and not make it a job. It is complicated as she admits.

 

8) Fan podcast – Black Girl Nerds “Geek Misogyny, No Totally” (Segment 1 until 1 hour 6 minutes)

The episode explores examples of sexism and harassment while cosplaying. Cosplaying as a woman appears to be fraught with risk (doing anything being a woman is fraught with risk!). Safety from harassment depends on the space; in conventions, it is more frequent in some places than others. They point out the male entitlement where male fans think female fans are there for their benefit and not just because they are fans themselves and cosplaying is simply their expression of fannishness. Women aren’t there just to be attractive to men or get male attention. Is fandom seen as a space for men by these male fans? And that women are just interlopers? Such behaviour makes nervous fans more uncomfortable and can dissuade them from doing this again. It’s a way of gatekeeping who belongs and who doesn’t. When this sexist behaviour is called out, male fans become upset. Conflict is risky in these spaces because just like elsewhere, you don’t know how men will react and when it can get violent. It’s an outright dismissal of women’s experiences and agency and sense of peace! 

As they point out, making space for conversations about this harrassment is important. Giving space for marginalised voices in ALL the contexts is important, especially when they are challenging dominant norms and behaviours which people may have traditionally taken for granted. This isn’t just true in fan spaces, of course. Fan conventions themselves are often spaces with children and young people too and this is a terrible example to set for them. You can offer such a better experience! Why can’t people just be better?! 

I have a very limited experience of fan conventions. My only experience of a con was Eastercon where there seemed to be many measures in place to make it as inclusive as possible. I’ve just been to that one so far because I haven’t been able to afford to go to more, but I hope to in the future because I love the idea of them! I was on some panels at the convention I’d been to and most of my interactions with people were just brilliant. However, since I’m a chronic over-preparer and was super nervous, I’d done a ton of homework. In one panel, this included having a PowerPoint full of images of the books I was talking about because I like showing visuals to people. At the end of my panel, an older man came to me and said, “Oh every time I see a PowerPoint, it just puts me to sleep.” What a thing to say to someone! One of the young female-presenting volunteers overheard this exchange and quickly said that she likes having a visual to support the panel since she doesn’t always catch what the panelists are saying. Is it only up to women to look out for each other? 

The harassment is especially worse if women inhabit other intersectional identities which mark you out as “different”. On the podcast, they speak about racial and body diversity while cosplaying. Plus size cosplayers have even more anxiety while dressing up as their favourite characters in a fatphobic society. It’s something that’s so conditioned – considering fatness as shameful and less than. And not treating fat people as you would a non-fat person. People undergo such different experiences of marginalisation. In terms of fatphobia, it’s only something I’ve recently discovered and I’m still learning about, after hearing an episode about it on Woke Doctor Who and then reading a book called Happy Fat. 

The fake geek girl discourse is a form of cultural gatekeeping by male fans. Male entitlement manifests itself in deciding who does or doesn’t belong in the fan space. Women are targeted by men for not knowing everything about everything; the same doesn’t happen to other male fans. Female fans are treated differently, not just by men but also women with internalised misogyny. Again, this isn’t something I have come across myself just because of the spaces I inhabit. However, I’d internalised male expressions of fannishness when I was younger. I thought I needed to know everything about a series or movie to count as a “real fan”. And it’s taken a few years for me to be all right with my expression of fannishness, which might differ from the male-controlled norm. Shows with huge male fandoms are taken more seriously than those with huge female fandoms. Women (or anybody!) shouldn’t have to prove their fannishness and the value of their interests to anybody. We don’t need men to allow us into their exclusive fan club. Why do some fans have to prove their fannishness? We’re not doing this for approval. Being a fan, playing games, dressing up – we do it for ourselves! Because it’s fun. 

Does this reflect male insecurity? Is it a form of dominant culture insecurity about having to share space with new people, about having other kinds of people and stories they have to engage with? This is also similar to broader social, cultural and political spaces at large. The guests point out that the dominant culture becomes angry/offended when marginalised fans create their own space – even though the dominant norms are still prevalent everywhere. They also outline the differences between male fandom (i.e. collecting merch, trivia, knowing the canon) versus female fandom (i.e. transforming canon because they are dissatisfied by their lack of representation). Transformational fandom is usually practised by people on the margins of mainstream culture as a way to insert their own perspectives which are otherwise erased. It is so important to form a community with fellow marginalised fans because they’re concerned with the same things you are within a space where you’ve all gathered to chat about something you love. Diversity isn’t a threat to the things the dominant group likes! It just makes space for more things which others can enjoy. Inclusion doesn’t need to be a contentious issue. 

 

9) Fan podcast – The Gayly Prophet “Three Owls In A Trench Coat: POA Chapter 3” (Listen from 37 to 57 minutes)

Something I hadn’t considered – Stan Shunpike has a class-signifying accent in the UK context. He is portrayed as working class and the character isn’t very flattering. Hagrid has a different regional class accent and is marginalised in different ways. The Weasleys’ lack of money is different from a truly working class lifestyle. Mr. Weasley seems to have a pretty stable job at the Ministry. The hosts don’t think they come from working class backgrounds based on the cues provided about Molly’s family. These are things you wouldn’t pick up on unless you were familiar with the UK class politics. But there are parallels in India with accents and regional variations where urban accents and English is privileged. The series, like much mainstream media, is written from an upper class/middle class perspective which is quite uncomfortable. 

What is the cost of education at Hogwarts? Do all wizarding children go? Is there a cost factor which prevents people from going? Tom Riddle got some sort of scholarship, didn’t he? What about the Gaunts? It may not just be tuition but also buying all the things which go with it. Do you also pay for boarding and food? There’s also the class connotations of boarding schools. In India, my parents and some friends’ parents used to threaten us that if we were bad, they would send us to a boarding school. At the time, we had no concept that a boarding school was more expensive than regular school (and perhaps, the threats rang a little hollow). In the UK, of course, boarding schools seem to be entirely connected with poshness.  

The hosts wonder whether the Knight Bus is a form of transportation only for poor people? It’s an uncomfortable ride, and people seem miserable. Are there different kinds of transportation based on your level of wealth? How much are Portkeys and magic carpets worth? Apparation is free, I suppose, but you assume a level of education. Can you learn to Apparate anywhere other than Hogwarts? Is it restricted only to students who have access and resources to education? You can read Muggles/Muggleborn children as coming from a lower class background because of their lack of access to resources and knowledge. And everything else is so much harder for them in the magical world. Even though Harry was raised by Muggles and was largely impoverished, in the magical world he isn’t financially insecure. As the hosts point out, in Prisoner of Azkaban, he is asked to stay at Diagon Alley in an inn on presumably his own dime and has to pay for his own meals. This presumption of wealth with no consideration given to money matters implies that money is no problem. 

 

10) Fan podcast – Reading, Writing, Rowling “Revela Draconem: Draco Malfoy Revealed” (Listen until 27ish minutes)

Draco and Dudley have certain similarities. They are both bullies, and their behaviour has class implications in terms of their families. Both are over-indulged by their parents who have their own toxic ideas of privilege and wealth and status – though the Malfoys are much more aristocratic than the Dudleys. This has an impact on both Draco and Dudley as well as on Harry. This parenting is also very harmful to both boys; a different kind of neglect and abuse than the one meted out to Harry. Both change as characters by unlearning their family’s social conditioning and develop empathy for other perspectives. They both also undergo traumatic experiences as the series progresses. Draco is depressed in Half-Blood Prince which is born out of expectations and pressure to fit in with parents which he may not necessarily agree with. Being in Slytherin definitely didn’t help him question his beliefs and preconceived ideas. As the hosts in The Gayly Prophet point out in an episode, he would have done well to have been sorted into Ravenclaw and be friends with Luna who would probably have questioned his really problematic ideas. 

 

11) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text “Failure: Dumbledore’s Army (Book 5, Chapter 18)”

They discuss Hermione’s failure with SPEW where she didn’t consult with the house elves and decided she was going to liberate them based on her own ideas. It was reflective of white feminism and a white saviour complex, both of which were presented uncritically. One of the hosts believes that she’s developed leadership skills and organisational capabilities thanks to her SPEW efforts, which she goes on to apply to the DA in Order of the Phoenix. But she doesn’t actually apply any of these lessons to SPEW. She has a condescending attitude towards house elves and doesn’t talk to them, but she is better prepared with her peers in DA. Is this some unquestioned biases at play even within Hermione – where she considers her human peers more equal than house elves and more able to understand her plans and concerns? Dobby bears the brunt of her good but clumsy intentions – he has to clean Gryffindor tower by himself because none of the other house elves want to be tricked into freedom. Hermione’s tactics show a shocking ignorance and lack of consideration of house elf culture, attitudes, and beliefs. She thinks she knows better than the house elves about their own lives and behaves accordingly. The hosts also believe that it’s important to confront friends when it comes to activism and social justice movements. Harry should have talked to Hermione about her SPEW failures. Looking at her plans for DA, we assume she has learned, but she may not actually have gleaned any lessons. 

In terms of gender dynamics, they discuss the DA where Hermione gives up control to Harry even though she’s the brains behind the operation. This might be a problematic diminishing of female labour but can also be read as needing collective delegation and leadership – a different way of expressing leadership. They also talk about Angelina Johnson’s stint as the Gryffindor Quidditch captain. Vanessa asserts that women are held to unfair standards compared to men especially in terms of men’s comfort versus women’s comfort. The players didn’t complain as much when the previous captain Oliver Wood put them through discomfort. When Angelina has practices in the pouring rain, she earns the intense ire of the entire team. In Hogwarts’ blindly multicultural society, Angelina’s race may not have played a role but in real life situations, the fact that she is a black woman may have had consequences on how the rest of the team follows her lead.  

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