Marginally Fannish

A PhD project exploring intersectionality through fan podcasts

Header image with the text Marginally Fannish

Some Notes On Episode 16 – Resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


3) Fanzine – Harry Potter and the Problematic Author

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


5) Fanzine – Tonk’s Tale

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neither do we.

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


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

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

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

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

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

Co-creating the project’s methodology

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

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

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

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

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

Re-reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

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

Book cover of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

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

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

Episode 16 The Queer Paradise: Exploring Diverse Gender Identities in Speculative Worlds

Episode Resources:

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

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

3) Fanzine – Harry Potter and the Problematic Author 

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

5) Fanzine – Tonk’s Tale

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

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

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


Episode Transcript:

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

Left – Double Trouble from She-Ra and the Princesses of Power; Right – Janet from The Good Place

[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 sixteenth episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I talk to Tam Moules about different gender identities in science fiction and fantasy. We also discuss how fans learn to identify and question transphobic implications within their favourite media and grapple with transphobic creators of their favourite worlds.

Transphobia is often couched under language that ostensibly speaks of women’s empowerment but fundamentally excludes trans people. This reactionary and limited form of feminism can be seen in mainstream discourse as well as embedded in beloved media. Fan conversations help highlight and decode implicit bigotry in the texts. But what happens when fans imbibe messages of radical inclusivity and equality from their favourite books only to discover that the writer doesn’t live up to these ideals? We see fans either giving up on the media altogether or disowning its creator.

Due to an overall absence of gender nonconforming characters in SFF, trans and nonbinary fans frequently have to read themselves into cisgender characters. Fortunately, there is a small but increasing number of nonbinary and trans characters in media. This representation of diverse gender identities has a particularly important impact in mainstream children’s media. Creating worlds for kids where queerness is the default allows them to recognise themselves or learn about those who don’t mirror their own identities. Queer characters, cast and crew help create a supportive space for marginalised identities which, in turn, impacts which stories are told and how they’re told. When queerness is normalised in a fictional world, no one way feels like the default or the token. Many different ways of being emerge.

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: I’m so happy to have Tam Moules on the podcast today. Tam is currently a freelance academic with an MLitt in Fantasy Literature from the University of Glasgow. They have written and presented papers at various conferences and have published an essay with the Luna Press anthology A Shadow Within: Evil in Fantasy and Science Fiction. Their essay is called “I have done only what was necessary: An exploration of individual and structural evil in the works of N. K. Jemisin” if you wanted to look that up. Tam and I were studying for a master’s at the University of Glasgow at the same time though not for the same programme. I was there doing an M.Ed in Children’s Literature and Literacies. But as a book and fantasy nerd, I attended some of the lectures on the Fantasy course as well where Tam and I became friends. So today, we’re going to be talking about how different gender identities are represented in mainstream science fiction and fantasy media. And as much as we don’t want to be spending too much time on the transphobic elephant in the room, we’re going to have to unfortunately spend a little time talking about J. K. Rowling before quickly moving on to happier, queerer, more inclusive things. But before we begin with that, Tam, could you tell us a little more about your own experiences with our theme today?

Tam: Hello! About 2017 I realised I was non-binary. And coming to terms with that and existing within academia has been a very weird experience. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Tam: I think it’s good that we’re seeing more representation of that within media and so I’m quite excited to talk about that today.

Parinita: Yeah, for sure. I’m cisgender and heterosexual, so for me, it’s also something that I’m learning through media.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: And through fandom specifically. Because in India, now I know some non-binary, gender nonconforming people.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: But when I was growing up as a teenager, I didn’t really have any access to this. Even just gay people in general, I didn’t have any access to. And it was largely through fandom and largely through Harry Potter fandom actually that I encountered different people. When I was thirteen, I joined Mugglenet and just read a lot of fanfiction there. Which is why it’s so much more disappointing – okay right, let’s get it out of the way. Back in December, when I hadn’t launched the podcast yet but I was putting it together and approaching guests and fan podcasts, J. K. Rowling tweeted something in support of a transphobe – Maya Forester I think her name is? [it’s actually Maya Forstater]

Tam: Yeah something like that.

Parinita: Yeah. We don’t need to know.

Tam: [laughs]

Parinita: I don’t mind if I get her name wrong. J. K. Rowling’s own tweets were couched in transphobic language which, if you don’t know the debates and things happening in the background, you might not have seen anything wrong with that tweet.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: So there are a bunch of people who decoded that, including one of the fan podcast episodes that we listened to. And she was then silent about it. Silent about all the critiques and all the outrage, right until June this year since when she’s been on this spree of transphobic tweeting. And it’s not even covert anymore.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: J. K. Rowling is a TERF.

Tam: [laughs] Yeah, it’s been a bit weird the past few weeks. She’s suddenly gone full mask-off and is just saying the quiet part out loud as it were.

Parinita: [laughs] So for those who don’t know, TERF stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminist. So it’s a version of feminism which doesn’t include trans women or trans folks, like even trans men. For me, even as a cis, straight person, I don’t understand this idea of feminism that doesn’t include all women and all … actually anybody who’s marginalised. Because a non-binary person isn’t a part of the dominant culture; they don’t have privileges that cis people have for example, right?

Tam: Yeah. I mean it’s profoundly reactionary as a form of feminism. It’s inherently self-contradictory in a lot of ways. I don’t know if you read her “statement” about the whole thing but every single point she made was contradicted by a different point that she made effectively.

Parinita: I couldn’t bring myself to read it. As a researcher who’s including Harry Potter in my PhD project and as a Harry Potter fan – I’m still very attached to it because it played such an important role in my childhood

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: I can’t really untie that from my sense of self. I can absolutely untie J. K. Rowling though; how fandom has kicked her out of her own creation.

Tam: [laughs]

Parinita: Anyway, I couldn’t read that essay just because I know she’s spoken about domestic violence. And I have experience with domestic violence. I grew up in a house where my mum survived domestic violence. So when I heard the conversation around that I was like, okay I still need more distance because there’s too much going on in the world.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: Right now there’s the pandemic, there’s the Black Lives Matter movement, there’s migrants just dying in India because of the pandemic and I can’t add this other thing to stress me out. It’s just so disappointing. The response to her transphobia from what I’ve seen – maybe it’s just because of the spaces that I’ve cultivated – but wherever I’ve encountered the responses to her tweets, it’s been very much in support of trans people. And divorcing J. K. Rowling from Harry Potter and reclaiming Harry Potter. There’s this Harry Potter fan podcast I listen to called The Gayly Prophet and one of the hosts there is trans and the other host is a queer person of colour – both American. And both of them said that, “We’re just going to reclaim it angrily for the fans.”

Tam: [laughs]

Parinita: And they launched this campaign called Make Harry Potter Gayer 2020.

Tam: [laughs]

Parinita: So they’re curating all this trans and non-binary and queer fiction and Harry Potter things and just fighting back against it. Because the thing is a lot of fans who grew up with Harry Potter read these messages of being inclusive in the books. And she’s not seeing that herself? Or it’s only applicable to a certain group of people and not everybody.

Tam: Yeah. In a lot of ways the fan response to it has been really positive and uplifting – seeing all these people saying essentially we don’t care what she has to say anymore. And I also think it’s an interesting test case in the sense that it’s one of the biggest fandoms online effectively disowning its own creator.

Parinita: Yeah. Were you a fan of Harry Potter growing up as well?

Tam: I was obsessed growing up, yeah.

Parinita: [laughs] I know that some people have had more of a difficulty in divorcing the creation from the creator. You know what I mean? For me, I can’t. I can’t let go of Harry Potter.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: And in the resources that we looked at for this episode, a lot of the fans said the same thing. They had a real difficulty grappling with her hatred and bigotry but also being unable to let go. What has your experience been with this?

Tam: I think on a purely practical level, I have so many books to read. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Tam: That not going back to Harry Potter is quite a straightforward decision. But I have copies that my grandparents gave me for birthday presents and things that I’m still sentimentally attached to.

Parinita: Yeah.

Tam: And I have good memories of rereading the series. I had a summer job in Germany once where basically I had nothing to do but read. And I ended up going through the whole series in like a week. And I still have good memories of that. But at the same time, it’s also interesting going back to it and seeing like … obviously when I was a kid, I didn’t necessarily notice the actual amount of bigotry that’s implicitly coded into the books.

Parinita: Yup. [laughs] Yup.

Tam: [laughs]

Parinita: I’m re-reading the books now just as background research to inform my conversations here on the podcast for the PhD. And I have re-read the books as an adult previously because I used to try and re-read the series annually.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: I stopped that when I started doing my master’s because you don’t have time to read so much.

Tam: [laughs] Yeah.

Parinita: But even then, as an adult I wasn’t really able to think as critically as I do now. Just decoding the messages, because that’s something that I’m still learning through the internet actually and through fandom.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: Where I’m learning to be able to critically analyse things and question things and question canon and question the creators. And fans are great for that. Especially Harry Potter fans. There’s this excellent podcast called Witch, Please, The Gayly Prophet does that as well – they apply an intersectional lens to Harry Potter. And oh my god reading it as an adult, it’s quite alarming. [laughs]

Tam: A lot of it is, yeah.

Parinita: I also wanted to talk about some of the more problematic elements in Harry Potter. As someone coming from India and we have our own social problems and social issues there. But currently in the UK, transphobia seems to be quite mainstream.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: And it seems to be quite a loud part of – I mean maybe it’s a small group, but they seem to be really loud. I live in Leeds. And just recently, last week, the Leeds public library, they were going to … do you know the Drag Queen Story Hour?

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: So they were going to do that here. Just a virtual reading. And then it got attacked by this group on Mumsnet I think along with a Leeds city councillor who started calling it – they were very transphobic and were accusing it of all sorts of things. And they got it shut down. And luckily that has been picked up by lots of media channels after that. But it still happened. They still got it shut down. And especially during Pride Month, all these kids were excited about seeing their own identity represented. Because the books that she read included different identities. She did it anyway on another Facebook page but the fact that institutionally it was shut down because of an institutional TERF was very … ugh!

Tam: Obviously I’m not an expert but I think part of is that homophobia has become socially unacceptable even among a lot of conservatives.

Parinita: Hmm.

Tam: Not many of them are open about it anymore. But transphobia is still relatively normalised in a lot of ways. And the fact that the UK’s system for treating trans people in particular is horrendously badly run and underfunded and there’s multiple-year-long waiting lists which is part of the problem but also on purpose kind of.

Parinita: Yeah. And it’s also like J. K. Rowling’s tweet and a lot of the words and phrases that they use to couch the transphobia is so unknown.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: First of all, they think that TERF is a slur. And they want to be called gender-critical feminists. When TERF is actually describing what they are, which is they exclude trans people in their feminism. So in Leeds last year, there was a transphobic march; it was a march full of transphobes who were marching against trans people or to protect lesbians in the LGBT umbrella. So Jack and I went for the anti-TERF protest – it was a march and a counter-protest.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: And it was so ridiculous because at one point, when they were marching around, they were shouting things like, “Women don’t have penises!” at random bystanders.

Tam: [laughs]

Parinita: Who were like, “What? Was this a topic of debate?” Obviously they were very confused

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: Because if you don’t know the history and the background, it is confusing. The Pottercast episode that we listened to had some great resources about that. It was called Sorting It Out With Jackson Bird featuring a trans Harry Potter fan who’s played a big role in the fandom. And they were responding to J. K. Rowling’s transphobia and that had some really good resources to try and understand, unpacking this language a little bit and also presenting the context of it. Even though they’re in the US, they were talking about it from a UK perspective as well. But yeah, it just seems to be so uncomfortably mainstream in the UK and I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all.

Tam: Yeah. There’s a lot of talk of “reasonable concerns” because they end up using so much coded language that people end up taking it at face value basically.

Parinita: Yeah. You were telling me about what happened today with Stephen King. He retweeted something J. K. Rowling said, right?

Tam: She made this big, long thread complaining about stuff and then at the end of it she had like an Andrea Dworkin quote which was clipped out of context. And so he retweeted that quote out of context – removed from both its original context and from the context in which J. K. Rowling was using it – then replied to someone else saying, “Trans women are women.”  And J. K. Rowling’s unfollowed him over it. Which is quite funny.

Parinita: Yeah. And before that, when he retweeted her, I think she was so happy that she got some celebrity endorsement that she wrote this long tweet praising Stephen and was fangirlish about it and then she deleted that tweet as well as soon as he wrote trans women are women. And something similar happened in December as well. Because her tweet is couched in language that you wouldn’t find problematic if you didn’t know what was happening. Mark Hamill had retweeted or liked it as well. But he didn’t know the context; presumably neither did Stephen King today. So he was just trying to be supportive of women, I guess, not realising what she was saying. And then he did apologise. He was like I didn’t know what I was doing and this is not what I meant to do. It’s so easy to include people in that or trick people into supporting you when you’re trying to make it seem like you’re including and protecting women but you’re not actually. Or you’re only protecting a certain group of women.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: And among these TERFs, I don’t even know how many other intersectional identities there are. Not just in terms of gender identity and cisgender versus trans but just race and class and national origin and everything. What would they think of me, for example? A brown immigrant from India. I feel like if you exclude one, it’s so easy then to find problems with other groups as well who aren’t exactly like you.

Tam: Yeah. There’s always someone else to transfer it on to once your original target is sort of legislated away as it were.

Parinita: Exactly! Which is what I don’t understand why lesbians have caught onto this so much; a group of lesbians, of course, not all lesbians. But they think trans women are going to impinge on their own rights. But once they start excluding trans women, they’re going to be targeted by the homophobes as well. It should be a solidarity amongst all marginalised identities, not just in-fighting. And quickly before we move on to happier things, I just wanted to talk about how there are some transphobic implications within the Potterverse which I would never have noticed before J. K. Rowling outed herself as a TERF. Or even without the help of fans identifying this. Like I said, fans have helped me so much in being more critically analytical of things. But there are quite a few transphobic implications not only in the Potterverse but also in J. K. Rowling’s crime booksthe Robert Galbraith books.

Tam: Definitely. Well, I think there’s some fairly obvious trans implications with the Polyjuice potion being such a central part of the books. The ability to change appearance and change gender but the fact that you can only copy someone else. You can’t use it to become a new person. You have to use it to become a copy of someone who already exists. It’s interesting because it could very easily be written in a way that is trans-inclusive and is positive. But instead it’s like people have a sort of inherent essence and if they ever stop taking their medicine, they will revert back to that essence. It’s very gender essentialist.

Parinita: You saying that makes me think of Tonks as well. Any Metaphor – Metaphorgo -? Okay I don’t know how to pronounce that word [laughs]. [I was trying to say Metamorphmagus].

Tam: [laughs]

Gif of Ginny and Tonks. Tonks has changed her nose into a duck (?)

Parinita: What Tonks is, that is her ability to change her appearance into anything – across the gender spectrum essentially. That would be so easy to make inclusive of non-binary, genderqueer, gender nonconforming people. In response to J. K. Rowling’s transphobia, this collective of queer Harry Potter fans, launched this fanzine Trans-Inclusive Education at Hogwarts I think it’s called. I’m going to look up the correct name and link it. [It’s called Trans-Affirming Magical Care]

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: But basically they’ve got all these queer fans to write and draw stuff for the fanzine and all the proceeds are going to be donated to charities that work with trans people. And one of them was Maia Kobabe’s work, which is also on Tumblr. That focuses more specifically on Tonks and how they would be gender nonconforming and  basically their appearance could reflect on what gender they are identifying with on a particular day. And in Hogwarts as well, how the very binary, very gender essentialist dorm system that they have and the bathroom system that they have would accommodate – how the building itself, the magical architecture itself would change to accommodate their identities or any identities in Hogwarts.

Tam: I think it’s interesting that Tonks, one of the most outwardly queer-coded characters in the whole series is effectively married off to someone twice her age. But also the fact that Lupin as well is a queer-coded character in a profoundly negative way. The fact that her werewolves, where she explicitly describes them as an AIDs metaphor and all but one of them are predators who want to eat children and infect them with werewolfness, is a bit, little, little, tiny weeny little bit dodgy.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah. He’s the good one. But everyone else … he’s the exception to the otherwise terrible, terrible norm. Keep your children away!

Tam: Exactly. It’s a profoundly horrible thing to put in a children’s book series.

Parinita: And then I just recently finished re-reading The Prisoner of Azkaban. And this is something that one of my previous guests Lorrie Kim brought up about the Boggart scene in Prisoner of Azkaban. Where Neville’s greatest fear is Professor Snape – which understandable, because he’s really horrible. In the series, a Boggart turns into your greatest fear. And the way to defeat a Boggart is to make yourself laugh. So you have to turn it into something funny. And the most hilarious thing to Neville here or to Lupin, I guess, because it was his idea is to turn Snape into wearing his grandmother’s clothes.

Tam: Yeah!

Gif from Prisoner of Azkaban of Boggart Snape turning into Snape wearing Neville's grandmother's clothes

Parinita: And that’s such a butt of jokes, right?

Tam: Yeah. I mean it now seems very telling that the first place she went with that was man in a dress. The fact that she thinks that’s inherently humiliating and hilarious.

Parinita: Yeah and when we’re reading it, we’re on the side of Harry and Lupin and Neville, right? We like these characters so we identify with them. So the way that we’re being positioned to look at this scene is that we should find it funny as well and we should find it really strange as well. Whereas not just trans people but even gender nonconforming people can wear or men can wear dresses, right? Why should that be so funny that it defeats this creature that’s supposed to be your darkest nightmare? Anyway, I think that’s enough time that we’ve dedicated in our episode to J. K. Rowling for today. Her books are problematic.

Tam: [laughs]

Parinita: She is problematic. I can let go of her; I can’t let go of the books. Do you have any closing thoughts on J. K. Rowling before we move on to happier topics?

Tam: I hope she listens to people and learns empathy and gets better.

Parinita: Yeah. [sighs] I hope so too. I’m really optimistic about most things – I’m an optimistic person. But from the way that she’s been constantly treating trans people. Even today, while we’re recording –

Tam: Oh no.

Parinita: It almost sounds very cultish you know.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: I was talking to Jack today earlier and he was reading the responses there because he has much more tolerance for this sort of stuff than I do [going through bigoted tweets, that is; not transphobia]. And he was like, “Yeah this just sounds like a cult that she’s been recruited into.”

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: And now she is also doing the recruiting. They’re affirming each other. So she obviously believes that she’s a hundred per cent correct.

Tam: Unfortunately.

Parinita: And that I think is getting in the way and also her privilege is getting in the way of her talking to people.

Tam: Yeah. Definitely.

Parinita: It’s sad, but you can only control what you can control. So we can leave her aside.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: And maybe talk about other just explicitly nonbinary and trans representations in mainstream science fiction and fantasy. Have you come across any examples of these?

Tam: I have more examples than I can count.

Parinita: Oh brilliant!

Tam: I’ll always recommend Jay Y. Yang’s Tensorate series. They are some of the most varied and interesting books that I have ever read. They’re set in a world that doesn’t understand gender the same way our world does. So kids don’t have a gender. They choose one if they want one when they grow up.

Book covers from the four books in J. Y. Yang's Tensorate series

Parinita: That sounds really interesting! And also really unfortunately rare in speculative fiction.

Tam: Yeah. There’s four little novellas and they’re all completely different. So one’s a crime scene investigation, one’s spies and action-based. And one’s just someone recounting their memories of a relationship. And they’re all beautiful.

Parinita: Oh that’s awesome! So I have a couple of examples but mine are a little different just in terms of the framework of the world. The Lumberjanes – I don’t know if you’re familiar with that comic series.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: So that has a nonbinary character, Barney, as well as a trans girl character, Jo. But it’s incorporated in such a way that that’s not a big deal at all. That’s just “normal”. That’s just one of the many identities that you can be. And there’s never a coming out storyline at all. It’s just yeah this is what it is. You just accept it, which I love. And also there is a slightly different example. In the Magnus Chase series by Rick Riordan

Tam: Yes!

Barney and Jo from The Lumberjanes

Parinita: There’s a genderqueer character, Alex Fierro. They’re the child of Loki who, I think, in Norse mythology, has been known to vary across the gender spectrum – from what at least Rick Riordan tells me. [laughs] I don’t know much about Norse mythology.

Tam: Yeah.

Alex Fierro

Parinita: But I love that both these are a very mainstream series. And both of them are mainstream series for children. So you’re normalising it completely by making this a part of your story without making it a big deal as well. Which I love.

Tam: Yeah. I’ve heard a lot about the Rick Riordan series. I haven’t read any of them since I was a teenager. But I think he’s sort of the anti-J. K. Rowling in a lot of ways.

Parinita: Absolutely!

Tam: The fact that he uses his pull within the publishing industry to highlight marginalised writers who don’t necessarily have the kind of name recognition that he has.

Parinita: Yeah, he started a whole imprint just for people to write about their own mythologies which he wasn’t comfortable writing.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: He’s basically the status quo – old white man in the US. So he has all this privilege which he recognises and tries to include as many people and as many stories and experiences as possible. Which I love. And then, of course, there’s – so I know we’re going to be talking more about them later – but Double Trouble in She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. And She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is just one of my favourite shows ever. Just because they’ve created a world where queerness is the default, where they centre and normalise female and queer characters in the story. And Noelle Stevenson who is the creator of She-Ra in terms of the new adaptation, she has also written a graphic novel called Nimona which is excellent.

Tam: Nimona is so good!

Parinita: That was my first experience with her. And then she was also one of the founding teams of The Lumberjanes as well

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: So I love her.  

Tam: I really didn’t expect to love She-Ra as much as I do. I think I first heard about it because people on the internet were mad about it. [laughs]

Parinita: Oh really? So see I think I either have really giant blinkers on or I just manage to very carefully avoid the negativity because I’ve heard about this. I’ve heard about all the hate She-Ra got but only secondhand. I’ve never come across it myself.

Tam: Yeah. So I think when they shared some promotional images before the show came out, there was a whole bunch of the usual right-wing weirdos who were all mad that this animated child wasn’t feminine enough.

Parinita: [laughs]

Tam: And they were destroying culture by remaking something. And I just thought, well if they’re upset about it, it’s probably going to be good.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah. I mean I’m a huge fan of animated things anyway.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: I read a lot of children’s books, I watch a lot of children’s programming as well. But this story is so refreshing. I know refreshing is an overused word.

Tam: [laughs]

Parinita: I am very guilty of this. I use this word a lot. But just because it’s so rare where they are so central. It starts off, of course, with a background lesbian couple – Netossa and Spinerella in the first season. But then that grows very organically, very in a not “this is a big deal!” kind of way to include Bow’s dads.

Tam: Yes.

Parinita: Then Double Trouble and finally – spoilers for those who haven’t watched the fifth season – Adora and Catra’s love story as well. And it includes characters of diverse body types and gender expressions and identities and it’s just so good!

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: I don’t know if you’ve come across this theory, there was a Twitter thread recently where trans fans read Scorpia, one of the princesses, as trans. They were basically inserting their own experiences into the character.

Tam: All right.

Parinita: Just in terms of how she’s this very uncomfortable but also really cuddly person and wants to be friends with people. But she’s also not very sure of how she would be accepted among the other princesses as well.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: And one of the fans in this thread also actually said that looking at Scorpia and seeing her represented helped them come to terms with their own trans identity. Which I loved! And actually, one of the artists in the show had created Perfuma, another princess, as trans.

Tam: All right.

Parinita: Which Noelle loves; she loves the idea and actually she’s acknowledged all head canons as valid including reading Bow as a trans boy as well.

Tam: Yeah. That was the one I was always on board with from the beginning.

Parinita: Yeah because it’s very obvious right? You can see it … even for me who is very used to seeing very cis, straight characters in my media, I could see that immediately because that made complete sense to me. But Noelle, as much as she loves these head canons, in one of the things she said that she didn’t want to take credit for them because it wasn’t explicitly mentioned on the show. So they’re completely valid but she doesn’t want to pretend like she came up with this idea because she didn’t make it canon. With Double Trouble, there was a nonbinary actor portraying Double Trouble. So that was a very definite choice.

Tam: Oh and that’s so good as well. They cast a nonbinary voice actor to play Double Trouble.

Parinita: Yeah exactly! And the fact that Noelle Stevenson doesn’t want to say that yeah I thought of these characters as these diverse identities, because I didn’t. I love that you thought of it and it’s totally valid but because I didn’t do the homework and I didn’t cast a trans actress to play Perfuma, for example, so now I can’t claim Perfuma as trans. Which I love. That’s such a different perspective of diversity altogether, right?

Tam: Yeah. Again it’s kind of the anti-J. K. Rowling. She’s not taking credit for other people’s theories.

Parinita: [laughs] Oh my god you’re so right! Because I’ve spoken about this so much – about J. K. Rowling just co-opting everything. Like, “Black Hermione, oh yeah totally my idea!” And I also love that Noelle Stevenson will randomly tweet, “I love trans people!!!!!” with five exclamation marks.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: And just devoid – no, not obviously devoid of context, she knows very much what the context is. But it won’t be in response to somebody; it’ll just be like yeah these are my feelings. This is out there.

Tam: Yeah. She’s honestly such a positive force on Twitter. She is absolutely delightful as a person.

Parinita: Yeah. I agree. Even just reading Nimona, I was like, “Okay the brain that made this, I want to be this person’s friend.” Because she also uses the correct amount of exclamations which is more than one.

Tam: [laughs]

Parinita: Which is how I talk. That’s that’s how I talk to people. But also Noelle and Jacob Tobia, who voices Double Trouble, they did talk about the overall absence of gender nonconforming characters in science fiction and media which causes fans to read themselves into their favourite worlds.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: Some of the examples that they said were Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. And I was reading this essay today in a book which, of course, the name I’m completely blanking on because my memory is swiss cheese. But they were talking about how they have all these trans head canons while growing up. They read Luce – Luce?! – Luke Skywalker as both trans and ace – asexual. Just because you don’t see all these identities represented in your media so you have to write those identities in the media.

Tam: Yeah. I think I quite like the theory of Luke Skywalker as ace because he doesn’t show attraction to anyone.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Tam: He doesn’t seem to evidence any interest in the usual hero’s journey of kill the bad guy and get the girl kind of thing.

Parinita: I mean in the first movie, they sort of did that and then as soon as he realised [laughs] that Leia was his sister, he was like okay that’s enough. I tried it. It’s not for me. This is not the kind of relationship that I want to have.

Tam: [laughs]

Parinita: They also read Tintin as a trans guy and Frodo as trans and asexual. I love that because it’s also very similar to Luke Skywalker’s life as well. The book is called The Secret Loves of Geeks. I’ve looked it up.

Tam: Ah okay. I’ll have a look at that.

Parinita: I love that – I mean I don’t love that fans have to do this but I love how creative fans are that they do do this. Even with racebending and genderbending and queering characters and everything.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: But, at the same time, I love that queer people now are creating their own stories and they’re in charge. They’re queering mainstream media essentially so that there’s more representation than they had when they were growing up.

Tam: Absolutely.

Parinita: And another one I’ve seen was Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts.

Tam: Yes.

Parinita: Which I don’t think they have any gender nonconforming character. They have a gay protagonist but … I mean that’s also great but now She-Ra has set the bar so high that I expect more.

Tam: [laughs]

Parinita: I expect everything and everybody to be queer.

Tam: Yeah. I think it’s really quite astonishing what She-Ra has accomplished; what Noelle Stevenson and the people who worked on it have accomplished in terms of taking like a toy commercial from the 80s effectively –

Parinita: [laughs]

Tam: And turning it into this huge story about queer relationships.

Parinita: And also just like a different kind of heroism.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: And a different kind of friendship. Well not a different kind of friendship but a different representation of the kinds of friendships that you have. There’s no individual notion of heroism. She-Ra is powerful but she’s not – if it was only up to her, Hordak would have won in Season 1. It’s such a communal notion of not only saving the world but also being good friends with each other. And they look at that so much in terms of not just focusing on romantic relationships but relationships of all kinds. Which I think is also so lacking in most media.

Tam: Definitely. I think that it does a really good job of showing that people don’t have to be in relationships as well. A lot of them are just really good friends.

Parinita: Absolutely. And they never make it a big deal. No aspect of identity in that world is ever commented upon. It’s just because queerness is the default. And also because there are so many female characters, that also seems to be the default. Usually science fiction and fantasy media is very male-dominated

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: Star Wars being the prime example.

Tam: [laughs]

Parinita: But here, because it has that as the default, there are so many more potentials and so many more ways of being. Not any one way feels like a trope or a stereotype. And none of it feels like you need to really make a big deal out of it.

Tam: Pause. Yeah. I think in any other show, a detail like … I can’t remember their names … Kyle and Rogelio from the Horde. Them having a crush on each other in the background. In another show, that would be kind of the Marvel thing where there’s some queer background characters and we can cut them out for edits in different countries kind of thing. But in this, it’s one among many.

Parinita: Yeah!

Tam: You can’t really accuse any of the characters of being bad queer representation because they’re not the only queer characters in the show.

Parinita: Yeah absolutely. And I think Jacob Tobia – Tobia? Is that how you pronounce it? I think. I should have checked, it’s terrible.

Tam: [laughs]

Parinita: Jacob Tobia, they mentioned in one of the interviews that we read about how it’s so important not just to have a queer cast but also have queer creators and crew.

Tam: Yeah, definitely.

Parinita: Because that has such a huge impact on the story. Like exactly what you were saying, this background and just the whole world. As someone coming in in the first season, they felt completely safe and supported and included. They didn’t feel like they had to hide any aspect of their identity which for them was so radical and so empowering.

Tam: Yeah I’ve got the quote here. They said, “I expected to feel like a rainbow thread in an otherwise pretty bland tapestry. But I found that I was a rainbow thread in just already most colourful, incredible queer trans garment I could want.”

Parinita: Oh yes I love that. I made a note of that quote as well. Imagine if all media was like this.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: Because that’s what we want to be, right? Not just in terms of queer representation but in terms of different races and ethnicities and religions and physical abilities and disabilities and mental abilities, age – everything. Basically all the intersectional identities. We want it to be a place where no one identity is the norm and there’s room for everybody. She-Ra is such a great example of showing how that world can be.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: So I know we’ve spoken about our love for She-Ra a lot. But also I know that you wanted to talk about Double Trouble specifically and their story arc in She-Ra.

Tam: Yeah. Obviously I love the character and their role in Season 4 specifically. But I felt a little bit betrayed by season 5 in terms of … I don’t know if it was just my overly high expectations but the fact that they were relegated to a background character almost. They show up for one episode and then a little moment in the ending montage. And I don’t know – I just wanted them to have more of a role in the story.

Parinita: Yeah because until you pointed this out, when we were talking about our episode, I didn’t even notice, unfortunately for me, like my own blind-spot. Because I was so caught up with the rest of it. And especially the Adora and Catra ship.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: I was shipping them right from day one. And that’s happened. And I was so taken aback [in a good way] by how much queerness was central in the story that I didn’t realise that Double Trouble was quite backgrounded in the end. And I think it would have been easy for Double Trouble to have a bigger part in the story.

Tam: Definitely. There’s so much of the fifth series that is effectively espionage. They’re sneaking around the planet trying to evade capture.

Parinita: And they’re so good at it!

Tam: Yeah. I think it would have been very easy to write them in as Horde or something. I think there was something said about the fact that they tried and then couldn’t ’cause of the hive mind thing. I don’t know. I think it would have been quite easy to write them into a bigger role. So I don’t know if there was something going on behind the scenes there that meant that they were sort of pushed towards the background or if it was just that they wanted to focus on Adora and Catra for the final series.

Parinita: But even though they did focus on Adora and Catra because they split up, I still feel like the other characters, the other princesses and even new characters like the clones – the new Horde Prime clone whose name I have forgotten –

Tam: Wrong Hordak.

Parinita: Yes! [laughs] Wrong Hordak. They did have a role. It felt like they were a part of the story even if they weren’t onscreen all the time, if that makes sense. And with Double Trouble, I didn’t even remember – I remembered the last glimpse of them that we saw when they’d changed themself into one of the clones. I didn’t even remember until you reminded me that we’d seen them earlier in the season because they’d spent most of it undercover which is fine because that’s what their character is for. But that would have been such a perfect opportunity to recruit them.

Tam: Yeah. That’s what I thought was happening. And then they just disappeared.

Parinita: Yeah. I mean like you said, it’s not a “bury your gays” kind of thing in this world because everybody mostly is gay or at least is queer. So you can’t accuse the show of doing that. But the good thing is about fans – that’s the part that I love most – is that you are able to critique things because you love them and you want them to be better.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: And you want them to represent your own interests and preferences and priorities more.

Tam: I haven’t looked but I’m sure there is a fanfic of Double Trouble going around sabotaging Horde operations behind the scenes.

Parinita: Oh! You’re so right.

Tam: That’d be good.

Parinita: Yeah.

Tam: I would watch a series of that. Like a spin-off show.

Parinita: Yeah, me too! I’m so sad that it’s ending – or it’s ended.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: I completely respect the fact that she’d written it to last over five seasons and her story is done. But there’s so much potential for a spin-off. I want to watch that rather than a new He-Man that they want to spitefully create.

Tam: Ugh.

Parinita: In response to She-Ra.

Tam: Well I think honestly they should give the He-Man reboot to Noelle Stevenson as well.

Parinita: [gasps] That would be amazing!

Tam: Just make it as gay as possible. That would be incredible.

Parinita: Oh yeah. That’s the only way I would accept He-Man. [laughs]

Tam: But instead Kevin Smith is doing it which is possibly just the worst choice.

Parinita: Oh no! I don’t think I know who Kevin Smith is. His name sounds familiar.

Tam: He’s done quite a lot of films. Clerks and Dogma I think are his two most famous ones.

Parinita: Oh, I watch next to no movies so.

Tam: [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah, I’m very bad at this. I think it was the same faction that thought Noelle Stevenson was ruining She-Ra that wants He-Man back?

Tam: I don’t know. But Kevin Smith specifically has a very crude juvenile sense of humour.

Parinita: Oh, that’s sad.

Tam: A lot of fart jokes and stuff.

Parinita: Oh right. So, it’s not going to be the queer paradise that we want it to be. [laughs]

Tam: [laughs] Unfortunately not.

Parinita: This diverse little world. It might be but I doubt it. We’ve spoken about what we love about nonbinary representations and the increasingly queer representations in media. But the video Aliens, Monsters, and Faceless Demons: The Dehumanisation of Nonbinary People In the Media spoke about … well exactly that.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: How nonbinary people aren’t as … I don’t want to say respected but treated as well as cis characters.

Tam: Yeah. I think the video does a really good job of bringing up the idea that nonbinary characters are inhuman as well like looking outlandish or demonic or just straight-up not having a face kind of thing. My wishful thinking theory about Double Trouble is that they’re not actually an inhuman lizard creature. They are human and they just choose to look like a lizard creature because that’s how they’re most comfortable.

Parinita: Oh! That’s a great theory.

Tam: That’s my personal wild theory there.

Parinita: [laughs]

Tam: I think in isolation it’s not an issue that a particular nonbinary character is depicted that way. But I think overall as a trend, like you’ll see books recommending lists of nonbinary characters in science fiction and fantasy and you have Martha Wells’ Murderbot series which are great books but they’re also explicitly about a character who is not human and does not want to be human.

Parinita: Yeah. And Janet as well, right? In The Good Place like the video brought up.

Tam: Janet’s an interesting one because she obviously does look human and she uses she/her pronouns and presents in quite a feminine way. And I think that’s in some ways quite an interesting bit of representation, the idea that nonbinary people don’t necessarily have to be androgynous or outlandish looking. And I think that is good. But I also think that the fact that the show didn’t necessarily intend Janet to be nonbinary, the fact that she says, “Not a girl” constantly is more, “I’m not human” than “I’m not a girl”.

Parinita: And it’s not something that is framed as something to be taken seriously.

Tam: That too, yeah. It’s a running joke.

Parinita: Yeah. It’s something that you can easily ignore or overlook.

Tam: I wish they had done that differently. I wish Janet was more explicitly nonbinary. Because I think even the fact that she’s a female-presenting character in a huge network sitcom that constantly says, “Not a girl” I think that’s in itself a little bit ground-breaking. But it also could have been better.

Parinita: No, absolutely. Because until I watched that video, I hadn’t even thought of Janet as nonbinary.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: Because of exactly some of the same things that you’ve said about how she presents, the pronouns that she uses. But also my own blind-spots you know?

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: Because for me, as a cisgender woman who’s used to seeing – maybe not in terms of race and things – but I’m used to seeing representations of women, even though male representations take precedence. But it’s still increasing in terms of women. But yeah nonbinary representations are so lacking. And I think you’re right. If it’s a trend, then it is really problematic. Like you said, with Kyle and Rogelio, it’s not a problem if it’s one amongst many.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: At the same, even with Double Trouble, because in that world, there’s like Rogelio, there’s Catra, there’s Mermista who go against that human-ness. There’s cat and mermaid and Double Trouble. So I think within that world, it’s still more acceptable than within the larger mediascape where it’s falling into a trend.

Tam: Yeah, that’s true.

Parinita: The book that I talked about, which is The Secret Loves of Geeks, it’s essentially an anthology of love stories.

Tam: All right.

Parinita: But also different kinds of love and across the gender spectrum as well as across the sexual orientation spectrum as well. And it’s also comics and it’s nonfiction and it’s different kinds of essays and things. So it’s really good. I would definitely recommend that.

Tam: Sounds good. I’ll have a look for it.

Parinita: Thank you so much, Tam, for being on the podcast.

Tam: That’s okay.

Parinita: One of the things that I love about this project is that I just get to chat about things that I love with people that I like.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: So it doesn’t feel like work at all. And thank you so much for not making it feel like work.

Tam: Thank you for having me. It’s been good fun.

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode on the representation of diverse gender identities in science fiction and fantasy media. Thank you so much Tam for being a part of this project and chatting with me about some of my favourite things. And thank you Jack for all the homemade memes which shame me for not replying to texts on time (and also for the editing).

[Outro music]

I’d love to hear from you and talk to you – so any feedback, comments or critiques are very welcome! Get in touch with me on social media, leave a comment on my blog, or email me at If you’d like to follow the podcast or the PhD project, visit my website 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!

Incorporating autoethnography while co-creating podcast episodes

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

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

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

Growing Comfortable With Discomfort – Part 4

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

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

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

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

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

Image courtesy Incidental Comics

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

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

A deliberate construction of an intersectional fieldsite

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

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

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

Drawing parallels to Indian examples while encountering Western contexts

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

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

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

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

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

Marginally Fannish: The Ethical Challenges of a Participatory and Open Access Research Methodology

I presented at on online conference – The Research Students’ Education Conference 2020 by the University of Leeds – about the ethical challenges of Marginally Fannish and thought I’d include it as a blog post too. I’m also including a slide I cut from the final presentation because it went over the prescribed time limit but it does articulate an ethical concern I shared. 


Introduction: My Project and Methodology

To briefly introduce my interdisciplinary project: I’m exploring how fan podcasts provide a social learning context in informal digital spaces. Specifically, I’m looking at how podcasts created by fans from groups which are under-represented or misrepresented in mainstream media and culture use the fictional framework of their favourite media texts like Harry Potter and Doctor Who to raise awareness about their own marginalised experiences and perspectives. I’m focusing on the themes of gender, gender identity and gender expression, race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, religion, regional/national origin, disability, and age. These identities can be privileged or marginalised based on different contexts. For example, when I’m in India, my race doesn’t matter, but when I’m in the UK, I’m suddenly a brown immigrant woman. In fan podcasts, conversations about fans’  favourite media provide complex and nuanced insights into their own lives and identities.

Now to briefly introduce my hybrid methodology, which is inspired by fandom’s collective knowledge-making culture.  I draw from online ethnography, collaborative ethnography, autoethnography, and feminist participatory and dialogic research methodologies. I’ve created my own fan podcast Marginally Fannish where I chat with my co-participants in different themed episodes. My co-participants are fellow fans who come from a wide range of social, cultural and geographical backgrounds and inhabit both marginalised and privileged identities. We exchange fan texts i.e. media which fans have made like podcast episodes, essays, fanfiction, art, videos etc. based on the theme of the episode. We use these texts as discussion prompts to structure our episode. I’ve tried to avoid an interview format so that it’s not just my questions which control the conversation. This method tries to make our episodes more participatory by including my guests’ interests and priorities. I’m trying to involve my guests in the decision-making process and highlight their voices in the research. I also have a blog where I publish a lightly edited transcript of the episode and my autoethnographic fieldnotes. All this constitutes my research data and is publicly available. I’d also like to encourage comments from a broader range of non-academic audiences where their interpretations and opinions can expand my understanding and be included in my research. Next I’m going to talk about the ethical considerations and challenges I’ve negotiated in my research project.

Blurred Boundaries: Public/Private Data In Digital Spaces


In online spaces, the line between public and private data is quite blurred, making it difficult to distinguish what media you can use in social science research without consent. I’m listening to many fan podcasts to shortlist episodes which I can then share with my co-participants. These podcasts are freely available online on different platforms. Before I launched my own podcast, I wrote to them to introduce my project and ask them whether I could include their episodes as discussion prompts in my own podcast. Out of the fifteen podcasts I approached, I received permission from eleven of them. I didn’t hear back from the remaining four even after a follow-up email. In the beginning, I was determined only to include those fan podcasts who had provided me with explicit permission. Due to the format and purpose of podcasts, I do consider them to be publicly available media – unlike say a Facebook post from a personal profile. But I wasn’t sure what role they would play in my own project and wasn’t comfortable using ones who hadn’t responded.  However, I soon realised that in our conversations, we were only using these episodes as conversation starters to frame and explore our own experiences and opinions in greater detail or we referred to them when they introduced us to new ideas. While I had initially thought that we would be analysing these fan podcast episodes in our podcast, that hasn’t been the case. Furthermore, my co-participants present their own contributions of fan texts, where it isn’t feasible to get permission from all those involved. So for some of my upcoming episodes, I’ve recommended fan podcasts where I haven’t heard from the creators. I believe that as far as we’re not analysing or critiquing the podcasts themselves and only using them as references or discussion prompts, it isn’t unethical to use these publicly available fan texts to inform our own ideas and discussions.

Delegating An Aspect Of Podcast Production – Editing

Before I started the podcast, I had planned to learn all the different aspects of podcast production through trial and experimentation (and some research). Before I launched my podcast, Jack, my boyfriend, offered to edit the episodes. I was hesitant about delegating for two reasons – i) I didn’t want to impose on Jack’s time and hold him accountable to my deadlines; and ii) I wasn’t sure that I should be getting outside help for any aspect of my project rather than doing everything myself. However, I had vastly under-estimated how much time the different stages of the podcast process would take. I quickly learned that the podcast recording itself was the least time-consuming part – the pre-production and the post-production take up much more of my time – about two weeks for each episode. If I added editing to the mix, my already-ambitious timescale would have been delayed and it would add to my overall stress. Which is why I’ve grown more comfortable with not editing the episodes myself. I tell my participants beforehand that Jack does the editing and none of them have been uncomfortable so far. I mark out the edits myself after typing the transcript, then Jack does the technical editing. While he’s doing that, I can focus on other tasks which need to be done. An unexpected bonus has been that while editing the episodes, Jack responds to the conversation with his own insights, examples, and experiences as a fan. As a Scottish man who grew up in a small town outside Glasgow, his perspectives and even the media examples are very different from my own knowledge. The conversations we have are interesting and illuminating – conversations which may not have happened had he not been in-charge of the editing. Now, I like the idea of expanding the co-creation aspect of my project by involving new perspectives during the production process.

The Challenge Of Participatory Methods 

When I first designed my methodology, I wanted to keep the format as open-ended, participatory and flexible as possible so I could incorporate suggestions from my co-participants. I assumed it would be best for us to go through the same fan texts so that we have a common starting point to base our conversation on. Before recording each episode, we have a brief planning session where we discuss what themes we’d like to talk about. Once I finish analysing my data, I want to send it to my participants and include their feedback in an epilogue episode to expand the range of voices in my final thesis. All this does require a fair amount of homework from the participants – much more than if they had just turned up to the podcast to answer my questions and that was the extent of their time commitment. Now, I’ve made sure this is all clear in the participant recruitment information. However, as we’ve all discovered over the last few months, sometimes life unexpectedly gets in the way and the time you may have committed a few months ago may no longer be possible. One of my participants said they didn’t want to go through fan texts and just wanted to chat about the themes. I haven’t recorded the episode with this participant yet because they ended up falling ill with COVID-19 but I’m hoping I still get to chat with them. While this change in format initially made me uncomfortable, I realised that while I find the texts useful, my participants may not. I was also concerned that my co-participants may feel too uncomfortable to bring up problems with the format. So since March, I’ve made it clear to my participants that they need not go through all or any of the texts. I still use the texts since they help me put my thoughts together, but my co-participants can just turn up for a conversation, especially if they already have thoughts about the topic we’re exploring in our episode – which many of them do. It’s not an ethical concern I had considered while designing this project, but I do tend to get so enthusiastic about ideas I love that I sometimes accidentally end up bulldozing other people’s perspectives. This is something I’m learning to grapple with not just when planning episodes but also during the conversations themselves. I don’t want to impose my ideas on others and leave little room for different opinions.

The Challenge Of Open Access Research

Open access has always been an integral aspect of my methodology and research philosophy. I’ve been learning from online fandom discussions right since I was 13 years old and I wanted to incorporate this same ethos of collective intelligence in my project. Since the recruitment stage, I’ve made it clear to potential participants that our podcast episodes will be publicly accessible. This is to ensure that our opinions and interpretations go beyond primarily Western and academic audiences and also include their comments. The only data that isn’t publicly available is the conversations I have with my co-participants before and after the recording of the episode as well as any part of our conversation that they’d like edited out. A couple of potential participants wanted to chat on the podcast but they had some concerns about their participation. One of them didn’t want their professional life to be connected with their fandom experiences. Another person wanted to talk about their personal experiences but was concerned that their parent might come across the conversation – a valid concern since I have the parent on my Facebook friends list where I share details of my podcast. I did want to maintain the audio element since I’ve found that conversations tend to flow more organically there than via email or instant messages. I researched audio disguising software and found that Skype offers an option to do that. Skype is where I plan and record all my episodes with participants. I suggested that the two participants could adopt pseudonyms and we can use software to alter their voices so that they’re unrecognisable to friends, family or co-workers even if they do end up stumbling onto the podcast. I have yet to coordinate details with these participants. However, this might be a good solution for similar hurdles with open access research.

Linguistic And Cultural Barriers In Dialogic Research

Since my methodology is dependent on dialogue, conversations between my co-participants both during and before the episode play an important role. One of my participants wasn’t comfortable with English since it wasn’t their first language. They also came from a cultural background where they tend to let older people speak more, especially if the older person is in a position of power. While I’ve tried my best to minimise the imbalanced power hierarchies between my co-participants and my role as the researcher, I wish I had taken more steps with this participant. Due to the linguistic and cultural barriers, I’m afraid our episode had me monopolising the conversation – where it ended up more as a lecture than a dialogue, with fewer inputs from the participant than I would have liked. I did learn a lot about this participant’s perspectives during our planning and episode. I met this participant at a module I assisted in last year and we had had a lot of conversations then. These informal in-person conversations were definitely valuable in providing a better context for the episode. Meeting this participant personally and having conversations over a period of months helped fill in the gaps the language barrier posed. However, I don’t think this is reflected in the episode itself. In this case, I think all the other conversations were just as important as the one we had on the podcast. It’s also helped me be more mindful of different language needs and accessibility issues both while preparing a classroom lecture (that this participant was a part of) as well as digital projects in general. This is one of the reasons I provide a text transcript of every episode.

Emotional Labour Of Talking About Personally Sensitive Topics

Many of my co-participants come from groups whose perspectives and experiences are marginalised in mainstream media and culture. So far, we’ve spoken about race, religion, class, gender, misogyny, ageism, ableism, ability and disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, and how different cultures are represented in Western media. The participants have deep emotional connections not only with these identities but also with their representations in the media we discuss. They love the books, TV shows and movies but are often disappointed by how these media represent their lives and cultures. Some of my participants – including myself – have also had difficult personal experiences which we draw on while discussing media representations. Even though I clarify to my participants that they should only share what they’re comfortable with, sometimes this information is deeply personal and full of hurtful memories and experiences. With one participant, one of the fan podcast episodes I had recommended ended up resonating with their own experiences quite uncomfortably and reminded them of childhood trauma. They then suggested including a content warning for our episode where we talked about both our personal experiences with family abuse and trauma. This is something I’m much more mindful of now not just for my participants’ mental wellbeing but also my own. There is no real solution to this issue since these conversations form the crux of my project. All I can do is check in with my participants and make sure they are okay both before and after our conversation – particularly if we have had a difficult one.

Impact On My Own Mental Health

I tend to get carried away when I’m really excited about something and this is a project which is deeply personal to me. My supervisors and transfer examiners warned me I’ve taken on a lot of work and were concerned about the risk of burnout. I launched the podcast in January and it’s due to run until October. I also have more participants than I had initially planned for, though some may still drop out. I naively believed I’d cracked the work/life balance code. I hadn’t. I reached burnout status around March-April where I was simultaneously working all the time and also feeling guilty about not working enough. I was constantly irritable and stressed out because of the overwhelming feeling of falling behind. This was compounded by the fact that over the last few months, I began using the podcast as a coping mechanism during the quarantine to get away from all the stressful news – both pandemic-related and political – from India, the UK, and the US. I didn’t know where my work life ended and my personal life began. The work was seeping into all aspects of my day and I couldn’t turn my brain off and just relax. I worked long hours, sometimes through illness, sometimes without a day off. I needed to change my unsustainable work habits – personally, I don’t think a culture of overworking during a PhD is helpful or even necessary. I now take two days off work every week. I also try and prepare realistic and not over-ambitious weekly schedules every Sunday. I try and finish work at 6 pm every day though I’m only intermittently successful at this. After that, I go for a walk in the park to end the work day (though I do listen to fan podcasts on my walk so that’s still technically working). I’m trying to learn how to be kinder to my brain, but the process is long and slow with lots of unhealthy relapses. One of the first things I’m learning to forgive my brain for is not changing overnight.

The Journey From Platform Nine And Three Quarters: Conclusion

Ultimately, my project seeks to create counternarratives which provide opportunities for people from marginalised groups to engage collectively with knowledge and culture in ways which matter to them – ways which may not be traditionally acknowledged in institutionalised educational spaces. It is also important to me and my research philosophy that these counternarratives are freely accessible in the public domain beyond academic bubbles and barriers. I’ve been hugely lucky to have a bunch of incredible co-participants who expand my brain in so many different ways. Through our conversations, we collectively engage in producing knowledge which challenges established norms and values. This is why, despite all the ongoing ethical challenges we’ve encountered, my participants and I believe in this project. By researching the alternative spaces of online fan podcasts, we’re exploring how fans from both marginalised and dominant groups adapt their favourite texts to place their concerns at the forefront and how this access to diverse perspectives can lead to empathy and respect for different experiences. As Walidah Imarisha declares:

“The decolonization of the imagination is the most dangerous and subversive form there is: for it is where all other forms of decolonization are born. Once the imagination is unshackled, liberation is limitless.”

If you have any feedback, suggestions or critiques or would like to talk to me about fandom, I’d love to hear from you! My email id is and on Twitter I’m @wildpyjamas. Thank you!

Page 2 of 8

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén