Marginally Fannish

A PhD project exploring intersectionality through fan podcasts

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Episode 17 See Different Possibilities: Alternative Relationship and Economic Structures in Fandom

Episode Resources:

1) Fan podcast – Be the Serpent: You and Me and Our Boyfriend Makes Three

2) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds: Fan Fiction (Don’t Judge)

3) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds: Fan Fiction (Special Edition)

4) Fan podcast – Verity!: Fanworks Round Table

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

6) Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper: Magic, Wealth and Power with Vic James

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

8) Essay –  The truth about polyamory in India – ‘it isn’t about sex and fun’

 

Episode Transcript

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

A profile photo of Marita Arvaniti looking upwards to her right

[Intro music]

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

[Intro music]

My name is Parinita Shetty and you’re listening to the seventeenth episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I talk to Marita Arvaniti about alternative relationship and economic structures in fandom, media, and society.

Fanfiction experiments with different kinds of characters, themes, and stories which are often absent in mainstream media. Fanfiction offers a space for those people who lack access to traditional publishing structures to find an audience for different kinds of ideas. Fans can write any kind of story they want without worrying about whether it will sell. This freedom from capitalist consumption allows fans to imagine alternatives to current systems. However, fandom isn’t without its class politics. The open accessibility of fan texts offers empowering possibilities. At the same time, creating fan texts requires different kinds of skills, costs, and access to technology. Moreover, online fandom features a large number of fans from marginalised groups who offer their time and labour for free. Not everybody can afford to do this work just because they love it. This limits the diversity of voices who can participate.

Nevertheless, fandom exposes people to ideas they may not have encountered in mainstream media and society. Fanfic exploring polyamorous, asexual, aromantic and platonic relationships allows people to imagine family structures other than the heterosexual nuclear family default. Such stories can challenge and expand ideas about the conception of families. Traditional family structures negatively impact women, queer, and poor people in different ways. Developing alternate family structures isn’t just a queer, feminist, and socialist project but also involves a process of decolonisation. Maybe that’s why so many women, including myself, have ongoing fantasies of communes which allow us to envision the kind of lives and communities we want to build.

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: Today I’m so happy to welcome Marita Arvaniti to the podcast whose tweets never fail to make me laugh. Marita took a wrong turn on her way to a theatre career in Greece and ended up as a PhD student in the University of Glasgow. Her research examines the lasting effect theatre has had on the birth and evolution of contemporary fantasy literature with a focus on fairyland fantasy. She holds a BA in Theatre Studies from the National Kapodistrian University in Athens and an MLitt in Fantasy Literature from the University of Glasgow. When she’s not researching or serving drinks and watching shows for free at a Glasgow theatre, she’s the Publicity Officer for Fantastika journal and a committee member for GIFCon. In today’s episode, we’re first going to talk about how relationships beyond the heterosexual nuclear family default are represented in media and fanfiction. Then we’re going to focus on class by looking at alternative economic structures in science fiction and fantasy. So both Marita and I are immersed in different aspects of online fandom. What have been your experiences as a fan and with the issues that we’re exploring today?

Marita: Well I’m mainly in fandom as a fanfic writer, I guess. I do that these days. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: It’s been very strange. I wasn’t involved in fandom for a very long time – for like a solid five years between 2015 and 2020. And before that, I wasn’t that active. But with current everything this year, I’ve just been churning out 10k word fics.

Parinita: [laughs] Amazing.

Marita: So it’s been very strange. It’s always strange coming into fandom as a person who’s not English, I think? [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah.

Marita: Obviously the different language becomes something that you learn through fandom. And I know that a lot of the way that I speak and write and think in English has been very deeply influenced by the fanfic that I used to read. Predominantly fan spaces were the main source of English education for me from one point onwards.

Parinita: How long have you been reading fanfiction?

Marita: God gonna show my age now.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: Gonna just out myself. Um … 2005?

Parinita: Okay.

Marita: Probably. So that’s a solid fifteen years.

Parinita: Yeah.

Marita: I have proof that the first fanfic I ever wrote was at age nine.

Parinita: Oh! Amazing.

Marita: I made a Draco/Hermione comic book.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: With my amazing drawing skills and my colour pencils.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: I just called it Hermione’s Diary because I was nine. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: And my mum has kept it somewhere. And occasionally brings it out if she needs to judge me and my life choices.

Parinita: [laughs] Oh but I love that! And it wasn’t online either. It was just something that you did. My first fanfiction was also Harry Potter fanfiction. Which I wrote when I was older than you – I don’t know if that makes it more or less embarrassing. I liked writing fanfiction at that time. I don’t think there’s anything embarrassing in it anyway. It was a sitcom version of Voldemort and the Death Eaters. [laughs] But I think I’ve lost it. It was on Mugglenet. And it’s not there anymore. But like with you in terms of language, what you developed with fanfiction; for me I think it was more the place and the setting and the context which I was writing was very foreign to me. Because when I grew up, English was my first language. So that wasn’t as much of a hurdle as much as it was just writing in a setting that’s so different and not even being able to imagine that I could write something set in India. Like Harry and Hermione and whoever – all the Death Eaters or Voldemort or whatever set maybe in an Indian magical school system or whatever.

Marita: Yes.

Parinita: Just because I grew up reading mostly British and American children’s books so my idea of stories was very Western. A lot of the fanfiction that I read as well, I don’t know if the writers themselves were from different parts of the world like me who were setting it deliberately in the West. But at least as a teenager I didn’t really read much in terms of diversity. It was very much playing with the same characters that existed. Which I think has changed now.

Marita: I think that’s definitely changed and you see it in the sort of fantasy children’s books that become popular.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Marita: Or get published and are everywhere in bookstores. I read a lot of children’s fiction in general.

Parinita: Me too.

Marita: And it’s delightful to see different things getting published … just not you know all the Brits.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Marita: And the weird public school situations. Not that I don’t like that. I’m a huge Diana Wynne Jones fan; I will defend her to the end of my days. But it’s good to have the alternative.

Parinita: No, absolutely. But also making it your own. Because you know for us in India even now we have a lot of the colonial education system going on. So when I went to school, we also had four houses because it was a Catholic school in Mumbai. I think ours they were named after saints and not the founders [laughs] of the school. That wasn’t weird to me. But I was listening to a podcast and it was an American podcaster and they were talking about how to them it was so weird. Well, the concept of boarding school itself was weird but also the house system was really weird. Which I took for granted. So I guess yeah just having these similar things but in different contexts.

Marita: Yeah. I was also thinking about what you mentioned earlier about not really having the space before fanfiction to write what you know and write what’s familiar to you. And I have another self-own for you that you can laugh at.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: There is a published fic in Archive Of Our Own that I wrote for the Les Misérables fandom.

Parinita: Oh! [laughs]

Marita: Because I’ve been through that hell.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: That is taking the student revolutionaries and placing them in the 1973 Greek student uprising. [laughs]

Parinita: Oh! That sounds really cool. I would actually absolutely want to read that seriously.

Marita: [laughs] It was very self-indulgent.

Parinita: Yeah but that’s what like I really like about fanfiction. There’s no right or wrong way to do it, right? I think that the perception of fanfiction is still a bit dubious. People who aren’t in that space are still a bit sceptical of it. Also because I think in one of the podcasts that I listen to, they were saying that – mainstream media, especially in the West, in the UK and the US talk show hosts and things.

Marita: Um hmm.

Parinita: They tend to find and highlight the raunchiest stories that they can find. And then confront the actors whose characters it was written about.

Marita: Oh god!

Parinita: I think Sherlock was one. Which they’re obviously doing it just to make it this thing that deserves comment and maybe mockery and ridicule. Which is not great. But I think that explains the idea that fanfiction is only about sex and really explicit sex exists. Which it isn’t. I mean a lot of it is but not all of it is.

Marita: Yes.

Parinita: And there’s a lot of other experimental things as well, right?

Marita: Yeah for sure. And you see that in fanfic spaces that talk about fanfiction. It’s always about the transformative work. It’s about transforming the text; it’s not about necessarily just you know dicking down.

Parinita: Yeah. And also I don’t think there’s anything wrong with explicit sex either.

Marita: No.

Parinita: Because like you were saying that it’s indulgent, yes; but so is writing most stuff that you’re not writing with an audience in mind, really. Anything you’re writing for yourself. Which is what I love about fanfiction. When I wrote that Voldemort and the Death Eaters sitcom thing or whatever, I wasn’t thinking in terms of what makes a good story or what other people want to read. I just wanted to write something that I would have fun reading. And it really helped me develop my skills. Because the kind of stories that I write now – I write books for kids – and it’s very much in the same vein. I have never been one who was really interested in relationships and shipping anyway either in fic or in mainstream media generally. I think it’s a great way to experiment and to write things you don’t see represented in media that you want to explore.

Marita: Yeah. And it’s also a way to tie it to the second half of our projected discussions for the day. It’s a great equaliser because you don’t have to go through the publishing grinder.

Parinita: Yeah!

Marita: You can just put yourself out there. And in many cases, they would be thoughts that might not be published or be able to be published either because of their content or because of you as a person who lives in a society and has or does not have the ability to go through the long process of trying to get a book deal. So I think whether it’s like whatever the rating you give your fic is – if it’s lemon or lime or not citrusy at all (this is to alienate the children listening to your podcast, they won’t know what I’m talking about.)

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: It’s always offering different perspectives and allowing you to explore and play with a text in a way that’s free from capitalist consumption.

Parinita: Yeah. Which I think is really interesting. I know we’re going to talk about that more a little later but yeah for sure. It’s basically people who don’t have access to the traditional publishing structures, right? Or even if they do, publishers who are the gatekeepers don’t think that there is room for those voices or those voices won’t sell or whatever. So in fanfiction you can write whatever you want based on anything you want and that’ll reach people; even if it reaches five people or even two people, that’s more than you would have otherwise. Publishing wouldn’t have been able to get your voice out there at all.

Marita: And you see it on the flipside of that. In authors who are published authors but are still active fandom members who write fanfiction. You can see such a divide in the content of theirs that gets published by a traditional publisher and the content of theirs that gets uploaded to Archive Of Our Own. I’m thinking of a lot of fandom wank from … recently there was the whole Tamsyn Muir situation with her Homestuck fanfiction

Parinita: Hmm.

Marita: And then you have authors like Naomi Novik who’s super popular in fandom but doesn’t want her fanfic author pseudonym to be associated with her published work.

Parinita: Ah. Yeah that’s really interesting because in one of the podcast episodes that I was listening to as well, they mentioned a writer who writes for a TV show that has a big fandom. I don’t think they mentioned what TV show it was. The writer is part of the writing team for the show, but also writes fanfiction for that show. Because that fanfiction wouldn’t have been on TV. They wouldn’t have produced that as a story. So she just goes and writes it in fandom itself.

Marita: That’s wild. I love that. I actually love that so much.

Parinita: [laughs] So yeah. I like that apart from everything else or I guess with everything else, fandom also seems to explore relationships that are beyond the dominant structures like I mentioned earlier. And this is again based very much on my research and fan podcasters and things mentioning it. Because I’m not very well-versed within the fanfiction community. I don’t know tropes and genres and stuff through first-hand experience. I haven’t read fanfiction in ages. I’ve read stuff that other guests have recommended to me, but I feel like if I start that, I’m going to lose my entire life to that again.

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] I have a very obsessive personality. Which is why I never got into Tumblr too much either. Because once I started, it was like oh my god so many hours! [laughs] So many hours!

Marita: [laughs] As I said, I have recently fallen back into fandom, reading and writing however many words per week. And it’s very interesting when you go into a new fandom – based on my experience as someone who’s done that recently – how quickly you find the communities of people writing the things you want to read.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: Like within two weeks, even though the person who introduced me to my current fandom likes to read very different things from what I like to read, within literally a few weeks I was in five Discord servers with a bunch of people and we were all writing OT3 and exploring polyamory through fanfic and things like that. I was like yup you know what, I just feel like that sometimes.

Parinita: So do you just want to quickly say what OT3 means for people who’ve not come across that term? Even I only came across that term through the Be The Serpent fanfiction episode.

Marita: Oh okay.

Parinita: I knew OTP which is One True Pairing.

Marita: So OT3 is One True Threesome. Or I guess three-way or thruple or three people. Anyway.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: And you can also find an OT4, you can find an OT5. Once you start adding people it can never stop. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah I find that really fascinating. Because when I was in the fanfic community – which was years ago when I was a teenager – that’s when slash fic was the most popular and that was the most mainstream thing. At that time, I think it was taboo in more mainstream sections especially mainstream media. But people have said it was a way for queer literature to fill the missing gap in mainstream literature. So slash is basically, for people who don’t know, male/male or female/female pairings traditionally. And now that’s changed. So now I love that that’s taken off and yeah they’ve just gone wild with it which is fantastic.

Marita: Yeah no I completely agree. It’s very interesting to see how things that, in my case, from personal experience – how you can see them sort of suddenly show up in mainstream media or suddenly show up in fandom spaces. And you’re like, “Ah! That thing.”

Parinita: Yeah.

Marita: So OT3s specifically or OT-whatever else, is basically the same thing as an OTP only with more people involved. Which is a very good explanation of polyamory in general. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs]

Marita: And I first came across it in the Merlin fandom.

Parinita: Oh yeah!

Image courtesy Pinterest

Marita: Because you have the four main characters and the narrative wants you to ship Arthur and Guinevere.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Marita: And to sort of but not really see the flirty banter with Arthur and Morgana. But then obviously fandom realises that the real emotional crux of the show is Arthur and Merlin.

Parinita: Oh absolutely! Like I said, I’m not even a shipper really. That’s not how I engage with media. But when I watched Merlin, I was like, “Oh yeah, these two – definitely! What are you talking about?” I like the women and things but this is like … I don’t know if they meant to do it, but there was so much more chemistry between Arthur and Merlin than with any of the other characters.

Marita: [laughs] Yeah, a hundred percent. And Merlin’s one of those shows that really capitalised on that in a way that was slightly insidious but like that’s not the point of this conversation. I can rant about the Merlin fandom for ages. But one of the things that I noticed in the fandom was that there was the option of shipping Arthur and Merlin and Guinevere and Morgana. And there was also a relatively prevalent tendency to just throw all four of them together. And be like, “Hello you’re all dating now! Figure this shit out.” Which I do not recommend. Do not try that at home.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: But yeah it introduced me to that as a possibility when I was a wee bairn.

Parinita: [laughs] No that’s so interesting. Because yeah fanfiction seems to be so much more experimental and open to ideas in terms of relationships than not only mainstream SFF but also mainstream society. Because like you’re saying, that’s the first time that you encountered that idea. For me, it was not even through fanfiction because I think OT3s and stuff weren’t really so prevalent at least in my nook of the fandom – ten or fifteen years ago. I don’t know how recently they’ve become more a part of fandom. But when I was within that, I didn’t come across that. So for me slash was this … not revelation I don’t want to say … but where I was growing up, even though I grew up in a big city in India, it was still very narrow in its scope of different ways of existing in the world and different kinds of relationships. So that was my first encounter with even like gay relationships.

Marita: Yes.

Parinita: Or just that idea of, “Oh wait not everyone is …” And it was so normalised as well which was very cool. And now I love that polyamory seems to be the new frontier that’s being explored. [laughs]

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: Because otherwise, if these representations are not predominant in mainstream media let alone mainstream society, most people – young people and adults – wouldn’t be able to imagine other ideas of being in the world, right? Even I only encountered polyamory I think a few years ago in like 2016 or something – just the concept of it on a dating app.

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: Because on OKCupid there seems to be a huge community there of people who want to explore polyamorous relationships. And that was my first … I’m personally not interested in exploring polyamory. I’m really boring and very monogamous. [laughs]

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: Very vanilla. But I was very curious about it. So whenever I would be talking to people, I would use them as this educational resource. [laughs]

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: And I would keep asking them questions like, “Oh so how does it work? So what do you do? Oh no, I’m not … I don’t want to.”

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: And then they’d obviously stop talking to me because they’d realise I was using them as an educational resource. [laughs]

Marita: Ever since I was very young, my reading has been very queer and different versions of queer. I’ve ended up in a situation where I’m other people’s either their gay Yoda or their polyamory Yoda.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: I’m like, “Yes, yes, come to me, child. Ask me thy questions. I will try to answer.”

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: Even though I do think that’s completely unearned. Because I don’t know what I’m doing.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: I’m just reading fanfiction and dating. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah. I mean that’s life, right? That’s adult life in a nutshell. I don’t know what I’m doing. We’ll figure it out.

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: But in science fiction and fantasy specifically, I think there’s so much more room for alternative family and relationship structures. Not fanfiction but mainstream SFF. But I don’t really see a lot of things exploring that. Off the top of my head, I can’t even think of any except how in one of the Woke Doctor Who episodes they mentioned Captain Jack in Doctor Who who is this pansexual, open to different kinds of relationships character. And they call him Captain Jack Sex Jesus. [laughs] Because he’s basically into everyone, regardless of even species. Because he’s from the 51st century. So the labels for gender and sexuality that limit us today no longer exist then according to the show canon. So it’s all more fluid and flexible. But I think that’s the only example that I can think of. Which I think is important to showcase that and normalise that in children’s media specifically. Because  when you’re a kid, you don’t really know how the world works, all the rules yet for grown-up life. And you’re still figuring it out. So if you see examples of that, you’ll be like, oh yeah this is just another way of existing in the world.

Gif of Captain Jack. Text says: I can't tell you what I'm thinking right now.

Marita: No, you’re absolutely correct. I was preparing to have a spiel, but you turned it around.

Parinita: Oh no I’m sorry I stole your spiel!

Marita: No, no! The mention of children’s media because it is still much more sterilised than adult SFF. Because I’m thinking in adult SFF, you have things like Sense8 for example, the Wachowski’s Netflix TV show that features different layers of LGBTQ identities; it features a lot of different kinds of polyamory as well. And then you have N. K. Jemisin whom I love and would die for if she asked me to.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: In both of her main trilogies, both in her Inheritance trilogy and in The Broken Earth, polyamory is present and practised. And often at the core – LOL that’s a Broken Earth joke.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: [laughs] At the core of the relationships that guide the book.

Parinita: Hmm.

Marita: I remember reading her Inheritance trilogy and realising that yeah, the mythology of that world is based on a pantheon that’s queer and polyamorous specifically. And you know feeling very gratified. Very #seen. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: And I did not expect to see something like that in such a successful, mainstream SFF series.

Parinita: Hmm yeah. She’s on my list. I’ve read the first book in her first trilogy. But I need to find out more, maybe haunt libraries or just get more books of hers.

Marita: I have them, I can give them to you.

Parinita: Yeah that would be great!

Marita: [laughs] Even Young Adult SFF is starting to be diverse and more embracing of polyamory.

Parinita: Hmm.

Marita: There’s not a lot but I can think of a few books where it ends in an OT3 kind of situation.

Parinita: Oh right!

Marita: My brain’s literally drawing a blank right now. I think one’s Adaptation? I’m – I’m just – the brain’s not working. But I know I’ve read them.

Parinita: I know. I read constantly. I’m constantly reading but if someone asks me what is the best book that you’ve read in the recent past,

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: I don’t know. What are books? I have no idea.

Marita: Have I even read a book?

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah. No so that’s really cool that that’s happening because I think that in mainstream imaginations, poly relationships seem to be all about sex and lack of commitment. It seems to be a trope if they’re represented or spoken about, mostly from what I’ve seen. And I don’t know as much as you do just in terms of queer readings of anything even in fic or just mainstream SFF. But they seem to be very trope-filled and very stereotype-laden. Poly relationships is one thing but asexual and aromantic relationships as well. They don’t exist either. That’s something I’ve come across even more recently, I think within the last year or two. And again, because of the internet and fandom and Tumblr screenshots that are everywhere.

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: Because I can’t go into Tumblr, so I follow it through Facebook and Twitter. But yeah just the representation of these. And then I think younger people who are aggressively online do have more of the words and the vocabulary for these feelings, which is great. I mean it’s true, it is more accessible but you still need an internet connection, technology. And also you don’t know which space to access. You stumble upon it or you know somebody who introduces you or … there’s still a pocket of people that it attracts and not a mass of people.

Marita: Yeah. No, I completely agree. And it’s also a lot of the content we stumble upon online, we end up absorbing information without any kind of context.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Marita: Or you see something and you sort of do a cursory Google search about it and you end up with very uneven and unequal depth of knowledge and depth of information. And again, as you said, you need to have an internet connection for that; you need to have you know in many cases, a personal computer so that you don’t have to use the family one.

Parinita: Yeah.

Marita: Because in my family, we didn’t have a computer until very late because we’re not very particularly well off financially.

Parinita: Yeah, same.

Marita: So I used to log on to Hi5 – do you remember Hi5?

Parinita: No! I don’t think we had Hi5.

Marita: It was Facebook pre-Facebook basically.

Parinita: Oh right!

Marita: And I used to log onto that from my friend’s computer and I would have to go to her house after school because it was at the time where it was starting to be important to have a presence online.

Parinita: Yeah.

Marita: I didn’t have a computer. [laughs] And then we got a computer, we got a family one that my parents used and that I used and so that was a different kettle of fish. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah. I just actually today just before we started recording came across this tweet about how this person said like, I can’t believe the youth of today can just go on their phone and start reading fanfiction immediately. I had to log on to my computer when my family wasn’t around and print out pages of it to take with me on holiday.

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: They don’t know how lucky they are. I was born in the wrong generation.

Marita: [laughs] I’m not going to lie. I have in my field of vision right now, because I’m in my parents’ house, I’m in my childhood bedroom right now. In my field of vision is my fanfiction binder.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: In which I’d printed all the fanfics that I really liked.

Parinita: Oh my god.

Marita: And kept them.

Parinita: I love it! I wish I’d thought to do this. So we were the same. It was me and my mum growing up. And it was a computer that both she and I used but it was largely me who used it because ever since we got the computer – I think we got it when I turned sixteen – and I used it to do everything. I was a very online teenager and a very online young adult and even now I continue to be super online. But I didn’t even think of my mum coming across it and stuff. Because she just didn’t use the computer in the way that I did. But I know I had so many favourite fanfiction that I wish I’d saved. A binder would have been a great thing.

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: And I just never thought of it. But yeah. For me what’s cool about representing different kinds of relationships like poly or even asexual and aromantic relationships is the possibilities that it opens up to different kinds of family structures. Which you don’t really see in society. And it’s both a queer and a feminist project, right? Just different kinds of family structures.

Marita: Yeah. It’s a process of decolonisation as well because the family structure that we understand as the nuclear family is very white, is very capitalist, is very heterosexual and so on and so forth. And even within whiteness, it is primarily Anglo-American.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Marita: The nuclear family doesn’t represent Greek family structures that well. It becomes so impossible to imagine alternatives to capitalism. Not to wildly paraphrase Mark Fisher but it does become easier to imagine the actual end of the world than it does to imagine the end to capitalism.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: Or alternatives to normal that we are experiencing or we were experiencing prior to 2020 I guess.

Parinita: Yeah.

Marita: And fanfiction and speculative fiction and those sort of highly imaginative creative spaces are a way to introduce alternatives. And I’m thinking of Ursula Le Guin specifically right now. All of her different societies with very different sex and gender equations?

Parinita: Um hmm.

Marita: Can you say that? Is that a phrase? [laughs]

Parinita: You can make a phrase out of whatever you want. I believe in you! [laughs]

Marita: Thank you. But yeah all of the balance between genders and the balance between relationships is something that she plays with so much in her work. And she has that one structure that has been adapted into fanfiction very often into polyamorous fanfiction specifically. Which is the planet of O. [?] In which you have morning people and evening people and a relationship is between two and two. So you’ve got two morning people and two evening people. And they sort of enter into a polyamorous relationship in which they’re all sort of romantically involved but they’re not all sexually involved.

Parinita: Right.

Marita: And I remember reading about this in a Merlin fanfic. And then reading about it again in different fandoms in which people take that structure and play with it and imagine the cast of a very different TV show most often set in our own world and our own reality. And imagine that very different way of approaching relationships as something that is the structural norm.

Parinita: That’s so cool because yeah like you said, it’s so rare to see that representation. But the fact that it exists in fanfiction just allows you to see different possibilities. Because the current way that the family structure is … like you were saying, the nuclear family isn’t great. And in India, in the cities and stuff, we are moving towards that. We’ve traditionally had a joint family thing in certain … we have so many different cultures and there’s so much diversity in India that I can’t speak for all of them. But mostly there have been a lot of traditionally joint families and that’s problematic as well. I’m not saying we should go back to that because it’s very patriarchal. The wife moves in with the husband’s family and sometimes you change the wife’s first name as well. So you lose all sense of your identity. It’s not just your last name, you lose your first name as well. But now in cities, at least, a lot of them are moving toward nuclear families. But that’s not really helpful for everybody. It’s not I think a thing that’s sustainable especially when both partners are working. If it’s a heterosexual relationship and both partners are working and they have children, it still falls on the woman to do most of the work.

Marita: Yeah.

Parinita: And that’s something that there’s more conversation about, especially now with the lockdown and the pandemic. About how much more work women are doing and mothers are doing and how much professional work they’re losing out on because it comes to them. Even in what you would have thought were egalitarian relationships, they’re not really feminist relationships as they’ve found out because they still tend to do a lot of the work. Me and my friends, we have this constant ongoing joke of a future commune where

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: We’ll build … and I’ve discovered that a lot of people seem to have this idea.

Marita: Oh god the dream!

Parinita: Right?!

Marita: The dream.

Parinita: Just go and grow your own food and just have a slower pace of life and live with people that you like.

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: And some of them may be single and some of them may have partners and children. Because it’s so impossible for just a couple to raise a child. It’s so difficult. I’m currently living with my boyfriend’s family, with his mother. He has a sister who’s just had a baby and she has another daughter as well, and they live nearby. So I love how much the families get involved in childcare and just other stuff like shopping for groceries and stuff. Because just one person doing everything is so impossible. Even if it’s a couple. They’re a couple but they’re at work and things so it’s just this different idea of how you can raise a child, how you can be a family. It’s not just romantic relationships, it’s also platonic relationships that are important. So just challenging that notion I think is so important.

Marita: I think it’s very funny how widespread the notion of starting a commune with your friends is.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: Especially in lockdown.

Parinita: Yeah. Ugh yeah.

Marita: That’s just the daydream. I just want a house with some land and at least four other people just existing around me.

Parinita: Yeah, right?! Whoever I’ve spoken with, it’s mostly been women who seem to want to this as well.

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: Which hmm I wonder why this system that was set up by men doesn’t seem to be working for us. That we want to escape it.

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: We’ve been focusing on the positive aspects of fanfiction in terms of how it exposes us to different ideas. But of course while fanfiction can be progressive and inclusive in some ways and towards certain groups, it can also be hostile towards other groups as well, right? I’m thinking specifically – again I’m not a huge part of it but I listen to a lot of fan podcasts, follow Twitter conversations and things. So recently there was this whole discussion about A03 and racism. And how there was this online controversy in the midst of the Black Lives Matter discussions on Twitter and AO3’s complicity in racism. Where queerness and gender are centred, there are more opportunities for that, but race seems to be othered.

Marita: I have sort of complicated feelings about that.

Parinita: Okay.

Marita: It’s definitely not my space really to talk about because I am very white. [laughs] And I don’t have as deep a critical look into AO3’s practices etcetera etcetera as I’d like to have to be able to form a more informed opinion etcetera etcetera.

Parinita: Yeah.

Marita: I definitely think a lot of the criticism that has been made is absolutely fair and very, very much correct. I do think in the response of AO3, I can see where some of that is coming from. Like the argument that nothing can be all things to all people.

Parinita: Hmm.

Marita: And especially if you’re an archive essentially. A lot of the proposed suggestions that I’ve read from people arguing that AO3 is racist and should adopt some different policies. A lot of the policies I’ve seen suggested do not seem feasible to me.

Parinita: Hmm.

Marita: Like we as you said, we’ve talked a lot about the positive that fandom and the fanfic communities as positive spaces. But they are absolutely a space that’s rife with bullying and just general very hateful speech and very hateful mentalities and a lot of targeting of people etcetera for various different things.

Parinita: Right.

Marita: And I think that taking away a lot of that and giving mods more power and making it more structured and less in very, very, very big quotation marks “free” could very much lead to people getting banned over silly things. And a lot of purity culture specifically. I know that’s what a lot of queer people are worrying about around AO3 because you tend to create content that might be questionable in various ways. And I know that there’s a lot of concern about that. Adding the ability to delete comments is great. I love that. Turning off and on comments is also great. It’s just that we have those theoretical conversations and we don’t actually talk about the work.

Parinita: Right. Yeah that’s really interesting. I think conversations are important just to raise awareness about issues and to maybe start thinking about how things can be solved. And again, I’m saying this more as someone who’s been an observer of the conversations without having any sort of investment or stake in it because I just don’t frequent A03 really. So for me it’s just been this abstract, theoretical thing, as you said. So even in terms of feasibility and stuff, I’m really ignorant and I’m just trying to learn from the different perspectives. But what you said about it in terms of just even the work, I think that’s really interesting in terms of fanfiction and just moving on to what we were talking about in the other part of our conversation which is the class politics of fanfiction and fandom in general. Where a lot of it, like you said, is against the capitalistic structures of mainstream media where you’re just writing things because you love it. You love the community, you love the text and you’re playing with the characters. Or you’re frustrated with the text and you’re playing with the characters. Plus there’s this whole community of beta readers who act as editors and things.

Marita: Um hmm.

Parinita: Which I think is great because that’s what the community is. But at the same time, because fanfiction largely has women and nonbinary people, the more marginalised groups … there is so much time and labour that’s offered for free. And it is for the love of the work and the community but people are still … I think there’s that in terms of accessibility there as well. Who can afford to put in so much labour and effort for free for something that you love and who might want to, but may just not be able to because either they don’t have the time or they’re tired from the job that they work in that might not be great but they have to do because they have to pay the rent. And they have to pay the bills, right? And of course, on the other other hand, capitalism wants you to commercialise everything. And some things should just be fun. But it’s just there’s more nuance to that. It’s not just one or the other.

Gif of woman with text saying "The situation's a lot more nuanced than that."

Marita: Yeah. It’s sort of similar to me to how people talk about academia.

Parinita: Hmm.

Marita: Because I’m self-funded and I work. And for the last year I tried to do my first PhD year full-time while at the same time working full time because I needed to be making over 900 pounds per month in order to just be able to pay my tuition and my rent.

Parinita: Yeah.

Marita: And it is for the love of the work because I love what I’m doing. With fandom as well, it is for the love of the content and for the love of the community etcetera. But it is still work.

Parinita: Yeah.

Marita: I am very lucky that I was furloughed during lockdown. I could afford to stay at home. I had a very, very strong academic block. And I couldn’t create the content for my PhD. So I turned to fanfiction. But I had that opportunity because I was furloughed. And because it was the end of the year, so my tuition fees were more or less paid. I would not have had that opportunity if I was an essential worker and I had to keep going to work every day. And like fandom in particular it’s so interesting because on one hand there’s so many young people who are not working, who are in school, who are children. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah.

Marita: Working and creating and just existing in the space. And then on the other hand, you have the older fandom who has a very different dynamic to it. They have very different ways of interacting with the process of creation and the process of being active fan members. And you have responsibilities and you have a family and you have a career and you can’t just be, “Oh I’m just going to use my savings this month and I’m going to spend the entire month writing PWP Drarry fanfiction.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah. No, for sure. Even fan podcasts, because that’s my current fandom I guess. I’m a fan of fan podcasts because I listen to so many.

Marita: [laughs] Same.

Parinita: But that’s such a labour-intensive process as well. Like you mentioned, I don’t come from wealth either. I’ve been lucky in terms of scholarships so I get a small stipend which isn’t enough to live on in the UK but it is something. And I have some money left over from my master’s scholarships that I’m currently using to live. And I realise how incredibly lucky I am that I get to do, like you’re saying, I’ve merged both academia and fandom into my work. Which sometimes can be quite problematic because I don’t know where my PhD ends and where my real life begins. And that’s also – I love to blame capitalism for everything – but that’s also this cult of productivity. Where you feel like your self-worth is tied to how productive you are so if you’re not doing something all the time, you feel like you’re not worthy of things that you get. So that’s definitely a problem where I tend to overwork. But that’s also such a, as we say in India, “first world problem” where you can sit at home and I’m working on my laptop. Whereas Jack, my boyfriend, he was an essential worker – he was working at an Amazon warehouse during the lockdown. So he was going to work every day for eight hours and he’d be on his feet. He was doing manual work lifting things and stuff. Whereas I was sitting at home maybe working for the same time, but I was sitting and doing something that I loved and I’m being paid for it. Not a lot. But I’m being paid for it by my university because I’m doing it as a part of my university project. Whereas other people, other fans, they’re doing fan podcasts and they’re doing them so much more frequently, but how do they get the money?

Marita: Hmm

Parinita: How do they justify that? There’s Patreon and things like that. They ask for donations and stuff but it’s still such a … yeah, you need to be earning enough money from what you’re doing to be able to do what you love.

Marita: Yeah. I work for a fan podcast right now. I do some scribing so I write the transcripts for episodes. And I get paid for that. Which I did not know was going to be a thing. I was very surprised when they told me. Which in and of itself is fucked up to realise that

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs]

Marita: I was not expecting to get paid for the labour that I knew I was going to be doing.

Parinita: Yeah. And it is a lot of labour. I do transcriptions for each of my episode. And it is a lot of work.

Marita: It’s so much!

Parinita: Yeah.

Marita: The term fan podcast is really strange because it is a fan creation and it is a part of fandom, but it’s not free in the way that fanfic is free. Because it takes so much more different types of labour and different types of cost etcetera.

Parinita: Yeah.

Marita: The difference between different podcasts showcases the kind of people who can afford to have the more expensive equipment. And they end up with more polished podcasts and their polished podcasts end up getting picked up by distribution groups like Multitude or Maximum Fun etcetera. And then you have more fan fan podcasts primarily from people who are less privileged in their creative and fan endeavours. And you end up with a Patreon maybe if you’re lucky.

Parinita: Yeah.

Marita: Which is just … you were right, it is capitalism’s fault. Everything comes back to blaming capitalism because it is their fault.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah because then it also limits the diversity of voices in podcasting, right? I’ve done some research in terms of not fan podcasts but podcasts in general. And it does seem to be – at least the more successful ones, the more popular ones which in itself is not a great metric for success but I mean that’s what you get the money and you get picked up like that – is they’re largely Western, a lot of them are American and a lot of men, and pretty white. There is, of course, diversity especially specifically in my project, I try to look for more diverse voices in terms of different identities but it’s still really Western focused. I don’t know of any Indian fan podcasts, for example. That doesn’t seem to be a thing because it is so much work and sometimes if you’re so tired of doing your full-time job and commuting and whatever that you can’t think of going home and just working. It’s still a privilege to even be able to podcast. And I think there’s just not this idea of there can be a different way of living and making a living, I think. Because there are such limited avenues which are getting even more limited now because of all the recession that the lockdowns have led to all over the world.

Marita: Yeah. I’ve been listening to podcasts and consuming a lot of podcasts for a while now. And it has been really interesting to see what gets picked up and what doesn’t. And a lot of work in fan podcasts and fiction podcasts etcetera. What ends up becoming a big thing and who gets to quit their job and become a podcaster full time. Which is still wild for me to consider. Like Harry Potter fandom is very, very big on that because it has a lot of dedicated fan podcasts and people becoming Harry Potter podcasters and that’s their job.

Parinita: I know! It’s so beyond my realm of possibility or imagination. I would love to do that. I would love to be making this podcast full-time which currently I am, but it is for the PhD project. I can’t imagine doing this – like I want to, but I don’t know how to be able to to do this going on after my PhD because then nobody is going to be paying me to do this. So I will need to be doing other jobs to do it. And like in India, I don’t know how it is in Greece, India is very work-obsessed. There doesn’t seem to be a work-life balance. That’s not really a thing that most people worry about.

Marita: As you know, we’re famously lazy in Greece.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: We’ve never worked.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: I’m kidding obviously, please continue.

Parinita: I mean India has some of those stereotypes as well. But for me, I had to get out of India – when I moved to Glasgow for my master’s – to be able to imagine that oh wait, people stop working at 5 and their commutes are not two hours? They don’t spend two hours then travelling back home? And they have weekends off? What?! They can take time off? Just a leave of three weeks or whatever and that’s their annual leave? I mean obviously we have leave and things but it’s just so different. My mother, she had to drop out of college and stuff so she’s been working as a secretary and an administrator at different companies since she was 18. So for her it’s always been a grind. She’s worked through fevers very proudly. She’s like, oh I have a fever, I feel like I’m dying but I’m going in to work. So I grew up with that idea of work and that’s how it is in India. You’re expected to be on your phone and whatever, be accessible to the employer at whatever time in most regular jobs, I guess salaried jobs. Which now especially with the pandemic and things, I’m like I don’t think that that’s the kind of life I want. I think that society is deeply broken.

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: And maybe a revolution doesn’t sound like such a bad thing.

Marita: [laughs] I love how we started our conversation not addressing the elephant in the room which is that everything is broken down because of the pandemic. And then not even an hour later, we’re both like, yeah so society is broken. Capitalism is the pits.

Parinita: [laughs] I mean I knew about society being broken before the pandemic.

Marita: Yeah. It’s no surprise.

Parinita: But I think the pandemic has thrown everything into such relief. We’re hanging on such a balance with everything. When the lockdown just happened in the UK, the first three weeks were ridiculous! People were stockpiling – who could afford to, obviously. Me and Jack were talking about it – who can afford to stockpile? Who has the room? We were living in a tiny flat in Leeds. Even if we had the money to stockpile, where would we put these things? Who are these people? Where are they putting all the stuff that they’re buying? And even in terms of the class dynamics with the essential workers; another term for them had traditionally been “low-skilled” jobs. But suddenly they’re the most important people in the economy because they’re the ones stocking your toilet paper on the shelves.

Marita: So it’s very interesting experiencing the pandemic from two different countries.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Marita: Because as soon as I came to Greece, Greece did not have many cases.

Parinita: Right.

Marita: Greece was not affected more or less by the pandemic. And then they decided – well they didn’t decide, then they had to open borders because so much of our economy is tourism and is the exploitation and the selling out of our islands. So we had to open our borders and as soon as that happened, cases skyrocketed. And suddenly Greece is in the shit. Even though it had more or less escaped. Because there was no feasible way or at least the government didn’t think there was no feasible way for us to survive financially without welcoming a bunch of tourists who did not care for maintaining social distance, did not pay any attention to the policies in place. I was at an island which in and of itself I did not expect to be able to do.

Parinita: Yeah.

Marita: But I was on an island and I went to this bar that was supposedly open air so it was working. And people were just piling in and I had to leave almost immediately because I panicked. And everyone was so unconcerned like corona who? And it was obviously mainly tourists. And mainly people who could afford to be messy in a different country that would not have to care for them if they got sick.

Parinita: Yeah I mean like you’re saying, the two different countries and how they’re handling the pandemic. For me, even though I’m a brown immigrant in the UK – which is pretty low on the totem pole in this country – I’m still pretty privileged because I’m within academia which has its own problems but I’ve been quite lucky. I’ve been in a really nice protected bubble mostly because I’m really oblivious to things that are happening. Maybe I have had microaggressions and racist things happen but I’ve just not been really observant so that’s great that I’ve not noticed them. So I’m pretty privileged here. In India, I’m so much more privileged; even not being in Mumbai because India is still in the middle of a really bad wave – the first wave – and the cases are increasing and things. And Mumbai, my city is in lockdown, and my mum the way that she’s dealing with it all. And she’s also one of the more privileged ones because she has a house, she has a job.

Marita: Yeah.

Parinita: I don’t know if you came across this at all, but there was a huge migrant crisis and by migrant I mean really deprived people who work in different parts of the country; who come from villages but work in cities and construction sites and in industries and as labour. And they were just abandoned by the government. In the beginning, in March and April there were just these awful photographs of people walking thousands of kilometres in the summer sun and collapsing and dying because there was no transport. The lockdown had been announced overnight and there hadn’t been any things put in place to get these people who can’t afford flight tickets or whatever anyway to get them to their homes. They’d been completely abandoned because they obviously don’t matter, right? They don’t have the money so why would they matter? Whereas people who were middle class and upper middle class and wealthier who were stuck abroad, they were flown in via planes. But these poor people stuck in the country in another state weren’t. So it’s just like how much your life matters depends on the wealth that you have. I think in one of the podcasts, they were mentioning about how society now has just created this different kind of aristocracy. At least earlier, at least here and in India, there were horrible feudal landlords but they were spending money in the society that they lived in. Whereas now, you’re taking all the wealth that your employees are creating and then you’re stashing it away abroad. With Amazon what was it, every second he [Jeff Bezos] earns some ridiculous amount of money.

Marita: Oh god! I saw a thing today that was literally the world’s billionaires and how much their wealth has increased in the pandemic. And literally it was that. And it was a sign that said your death is their money.

Parinita: Yeah! Absolutely. But also I think these conversations are more mainstream now, at least if you’re on a certain part of Twitter which I think both of us inhabit – that pocket of Twitter and Facebook – where they’re talking about these things. But a lot of people seem to be completely cut off from this. I remember there was this a tweet where a person who works in Amazon was complaining that he still had to go to work but there were other people who were sitting at home and getting paid. In the UK they’re paying people who are furloughed, right? Well a lot of people who are furloughed, not all. And so he said that, oh these people they’re sitting at home and not doing anything and making money whereas I have to go to Amazon warehouse. And then someone responded to them saying Jeff Bezos is making a million dollars every day or every week or whatever it is. Instead of fighting other people who are just trying to live their lives and might have other problems, why don’t you actually target the people who are completely robbing the world of its money and its resources?

Marita: I just ugh it gets me so angry!

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs]

Marita: Ugh.

Parinita: But that’s why I think there needs to be more representation of this in science fiction and fantasy. I know coming back to that, but I think media representations that’s the reason they’re so important. That they allow you to see a different world but also make connections with your own contexts and how that applies to your world. Because most people I think seem to think that they’re closer to Jeff Bezos than being homeless. Which is so untrue! If you miss a couple of months of rent, you’re going to be kicked out of home unless you have someone else to depend on. It’s not like if you get two extra months of payment, you’re going to suddenly be a billionaire! For most people at least.

Marita: As we were recording this podcast, I got an email from work reminding me that that’s my last furlough payment in August. And I will not be getting paid moving forward. So that just felt very prescient and current.

Parinita: Oh no, that’s terrible!

Marita: Yeah.

Parinita: Ugh!

Marita: They sent it to us in an email that started with an announcement that all of management was getting a raise.

Parinita: Oh my god!

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: Oh my god. Ugh!

Marita: Just in case you needed more capitalism sucks.

Parinita: No, no that’s why we need to start a revolution, right? Earlier when I said a revolution seems like a good idea, I was completely underplaying it. I am ready for a feminist, socialist – intersectional feminist socialist revolution.

Marita: Let’s go.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: Let’s go. I am ready. I have been doing push-ups in lockdown so I can punch now.

Parinita: [laughs] That’s great. My skills are very, very limited. [laughs] But I’ll build them, I’m eager to learn. I can write children’s books, I can keep the kids entertained, I guess. [laughs] That’s what you do, right? That’s all you need to do.

Marita: Good. You’ll be responsible for our children.

Parinita: [laughs] This was such a fun conversation even when we were calling for the downfall of patriarchy and capitalism. [laughs]

Marita: That’s what all good conversations do.

Parinita: Yeah well, especially in 2020, of course.

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: There’s no good conversation without that. Thank you so much for being a part of this project and for really giving your time and your expertise with things that I know very little about. And it was such a fun conversation. I think all my podcast episodes going forward need to call for a revolution.

Marita: [laughs] Well, if you need the literature, as I said, I do have a Les Misérables fanfic about it.

Parinita: [laughs] Yes! Coming out of this PhD project if anything, it’s contributed to anything in coming close to the downfall of patriarchy and capitalism, that would be pretty good. And like no pressure! [laughs]

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: No pressure on our episode at all.

Marita: I will make sure to cite this podcast when I inevitably make my attack on the ruling class.

Parinita: [laughs] Thank you so much.

Marita: Thank you for having me!

[Outro music]

It’s been awhile since the last episode was published. I recorded this episode in August 2020 but it took a total of six months to get it out into the world. I blame 2020 for all of this! I have five more episodes which I recorded with some excellent people over the last year. But as much as I would love for everyone to be able to listen to them immediately, I really can’t predict when they’ll actually be ready for publication. My partner Jack edits the episodes while simultaneously handling a full-time job in a warehouse in the middle of a pandemic and just general worldwide political turmoil. So life may get in the way of our plans and the next five episodes may be irregularly scheduled as well. For this, I blame capitalism! I’m really sorry about the wait and if you’re still listening, thanks for sticking around! You can’t imagine how much I appreciate it. And thank you Marita for your conversation and teaching me so many new things. And thanks, as always, to Jack for managing to edit episodes even while juggling two medical emergencies and a background of cicadas.

[Outro music]

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

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

Adding context notes while exchanging fan texts with co-participants

Prior to the recording of each episode, my co-participants and I share fan texts with each other relevant to the theme(s) of our conversation. In some instances, I’ve made suggestions based on a brief email exchange without really knowing what specific aspect of the theme the co-participant would like to focus on + without sharing my own perspectives and priorities. In at least one case, possibly more, I made an incorrect assumption about what it was that the co-participant wanted to talk about. In this case, it was only our pre-recording meeting which cleared up the confusion where I asked the co-participant to disregard some of my fan text suggestions since they were no longer relevant.

Usually, I kick things off in terms of creating a shared Google document in which I add my fan text recommendations and encourage my co-participants to add their contributions to the document too. What I began doing in the last few episodes of the season was including short context notes besides each fan text suggestion. In these notes, I briefly described the content of the fan text, my own justification for including it, and what theme within it interested me specifically. This largely grew out of my increasingly untenable habit of suggesting an alarming number of fan texts in fits of enthusiasm/being ignorant of which fandoms my co-participant was familiar with. In the email accompanying this Google document, I’d tell co-participants to choose which fan text they’d like to focus on based on the context notes I’d provided.

In at least one instance, possibly more, my co-participant responded by not only including context notes of their own but also responding to my context notes with their opinions/reservations. I found this exercise extremely valuable when it came to our conversation in Episode 21 because even though I was largely new to the themes of sexual and gender diversity, I was more confident in bring up the themes my co-participant had indicated their interest in and was also aware which parts they were comfortable with and which they weren’t. In all future episodes, I think making context notes for each of my fan text recommendations would be extremely helpful. And if it encourages co-participants to include similar notes, it would make the direction of our interests and our conversation much clearer.

Podcasting and fandom as decolonisation

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

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

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

Image courtesy The Skinny

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

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

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

Growing Comfortable With Discomfort – Part 5

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

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

Email: 

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

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

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

Parinita: – 135 occurrences

5,905 words

Tam: – 123 occurrences

2,298 words

My response:

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

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

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

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

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

Their response to my response: 

Thank you for the quick response!

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

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

Thank you again and best of luck!

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

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

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

Re-reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture of wrist with 9 3/4 tattoo on it

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

“Justice is what love looks like in public.”

– Dr. Cornel West

How/Whether To Incorporate Multiple Interpretations Of The Research Project

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

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

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

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

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

Podcasting about Harry Potter in 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Different Kinds of Fannishness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Notes On Episode 16 – Resources

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

For Episode 16, The Queer Paradise: Exploring Diverse Gender Identities in Speculative Worlds, we discussed the following texts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

3) Fanzine – Harry Potter and the Problematic Author

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

5) Fanzine – Tonk’s Tale

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neither do we.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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