I wrote these synopses after going over each episode conversation in order to highlight the key themes and interpretations my co-participants and I discussed. These bios also acted as episode descriptions on different podcasting apps.
Welcome to Marginally Fannish, a show where we aim an intersectional lens at some of our favourite media and their fandoms.
In this episode, I talk about the role this podcast plays in my PhD project’s research methodology and the shape it’s going to take throughout this year. I’m joined by my co-hosts Sanjana Kapur and Aparna Kapur and we introduce our different fannish journeys as fans in India who largely consume Western media. We chat about our evolving ideas about fans and fandom, and how much we enjoy critiquing the things that we love. We also talk about how impossible it is to choose a favourite Time Lord in Doctor Who, how terribly biased the Harry Potter books are when it comes to glorifying Gryffindor and vilifying Slytherin, the problematic bits of our favourite Enid Blyton books which we only picked up on as adults, why the term “ruined my childhood” is not always a bad thing (though it mostly is!), and why a Hogwarts in India would require more cross-cultural connections between magical students and Muggle students who are both fighting fascism and trying to overthrow the government.
In this part, we describe our different interpretations of intersectionality and how we first first came across the term. We discuss how much we all owe to black women and black activists in the US for our ongoing conversations about diversity. We talk about our feelings about the term “non-white” and “person of colour” (spoiler alert: they both make us uncomfortable but one more than the other). We complain about token diversity in fantasy, science fiction, and Harry Potter. We talk about how much we love the idea of a black Hermione but also how her tackling of S.P.E.W was super problematic (you need to be a good ally, Hermione!). We chat about our colonised minds and the struggles of identifying with white fictional characters. We discuss the importance of Own Voices and also how media creators can use their privilege to be more inclusive and empathetic. We end Part One by talking about how scary the world would be if our Hogwarts Houses defined the rest of our lives. Find out why we think the Hogwarts Houses resemble the Hindu caste system (and why it makes us very uncomfortable!). We would prefer more integration and intermingling among the four Houses please!
In this part, we talk about how incredibly amazing the internet, social media, and fandom have been in helping us decolonise our minds by allowing us access to diverse experiences and perspectives we otherwise wouldn’t have encountered. We chat about whitewashing media and religion both in India and the West. Then we discuss racebending both in fandom and in canon. We wonder whether the magical world was involved in the British Muggle world domination project. We geek out about exciting Doctor Who developments (spoiler alert for those who aren’t caught up with episode 5 of the 12th series). We discuss what representation means to us as fans who aren’t white. We express our love for an increasingly diverse canon in different kinds of media, but we also stress the importance of authentic, nuanced, and respectful portrayals of diversity. We discuss what our vision about the future in science fiction and alternative worlds in fantasy says about our attitudes towards marginalised groups around us in the real world. We end Part Two with our suggestions for how Hogwarts can (and should!) decolonise its curriculum.
In this episode, I chat with Anna Milon about the representations of Wicca, paganism, and religion in media. We discuss how Christianity forms the framework of most Western fantasy. As a practising pagan and scholar, Anna outlines how the word witch means different things to different people. We chat about faith as both a religious and a political identity. Anna shares her frustration about the inaccurate representations of Wicca in mainstream media and culture which further marginalises the religion. I learn more about Wicca’s attempts to make the religion more inclusive for diverse groups of people.
We also talk about the different kinds of faith in fantasy and faith inspired by fantasy. We discuss how popular culture stories are replacing religious stories and how this influences the ways in which people make sense of the world. We draw parallels between religion and fandom and discuss the importance of inclusivity and intersectionality in both. We’re excited about how canon – both religious and fannish – is increasingly being interpreted in ways which highlight previously marginalised voices. We love that people are making canon which was written dozens or even thousands of years ago (depending on which canon you’re talking about) more relevant to contemporary social, cultural, and political contexts. Finally, we discuss how fandom offers the space to question the dominant religious framework as well as read a text through multiple spiritual lenses.
In this episode, I talk to Alison Baker about social class and cultural capital in the Harry Potter series. We introduce our individual class backgrounds in different British and Indian contexts. We chat about how literature and media perpetuate singular narratives about wealth in both India and the West. We discuss the class connotations of boarding schools, sports, accents, and jobs in both the magical world and the real world. We wonder what the cost of education at Hogwarts is. We explore how bad educational spaces (hello Hogwarts!) disadvantages certain students. We talk about the class implications of freely accessible public scholarship in alternative sites of education.
We also discuss the gender dynamics in both online and offline fan spaces. We love the way fanfiction encourages us to question the way things are. We talk about the different reactions to male interests and female interests in fandom. We chat about the gender politics of fanfiction, and the differences between male and female expressions of fannishness. We end the episode with book recommendations for children and young adults for those who are uncomfortable reading the Harry Potter series due to Rowling’s recent problematic declarations.
In this episode, Anna Raymondou and I talk about representations of gender in the Harry Potter book and movie series and in the TV show Supernatural. We discuss the impact that movie adaptations have on how characters and relationships are portrayed in popular media. We also chat about the different depictions of masculinity and misogyny in both Supernatural and Harry Potter. We discuss social conditioning and women’s internalised misogyny (Fleur Delacour deserved better!) as well as the gendered labour of the resistance (Molly Weasley also deserved better except when she was being horrible to Fleur!).
As Harry Potter fangirls, we like how the series provides us with a new mythology, folklore and culture. Anna discusses the Greek mythological inspirations in the books. We love how the Potterverse can be read through diverse cultural lenses and has room for multiple mythological interpretations. At the same time, fandom has educated us both about the problematic portrayals of other cultures in the Potterverse – specifically the anti-Semitic undertones and the appropriation of Native American beliefs. We talk about the responsibility that creators with a wide audience have in portraying marginalised cultures and learning from their missteps. Finally, Anna chats about the role of fandom in finding a supportive community and how it can make an active difference on people’s mental well-being.
This time, I chat with Sanjana and Aparna about ableism and ageism in media. As fans from dominant groups in both instances (we’re young, able-bodied, and neurotypical), the three of us have massive blind-spots. But we’re trying to educate ourselves, and we’ve learned a lot about disability and age-based discrimination through fandom discussions. We love that fans do such an incredible job in raising awareness about so many issues!
Some of the things that we discuss in this episode include:
- How disability is equated with villainy in fictional universes
- The ableist and exaggerated representations of disability in stories which often reflect harmful tropes
- The problematic impacts of “fixing” disabilities in science fiction and fantasy worlds by using technology or magic
- Some of our favourite characters with disabilities
- The social model of disability and how both fictional worlds like Hogwarts and the TARDIS as well as the real world need more accommodations to make them more accessible to all kinds of people
- The parallels between the disabled community and other marginalised cultures, especially ableism and ageism
- How older characters in Bollywood are used as comic relief
- Our favourite older characters in media
- The trouble with media and culture valuing youth, particularly at the cost of older women
- Ageism in children’s literature and in fandom.
In our What If? sections, we wonder what the experiences of an elderly Hogwarts student would look like. We also age-flip characters to imagine what a young Minerva McGonagall would represent, how fun a hundred-year-old Aang would be, and what would happen if Grandma took some muffins to little Red Riding Hood instead? (We also accidentally discover our calling as Red Riding Hood fanfic writers).
In this episode, I talk to Aditi Krishnakumar about how different cultures are represented in some of our favourite fantasy worlds. As readers who grew up in India, there were many cultural stereotypes in Western texts which we just didn’t pick up on. Now, we’ve learned a lot through the collective intelligence of online fandom.
The ways in which mainstream media portrays different cultures influences audience attitudes about people from these cultures. The dominance of Western fantasy and culture in fiction marginalises other ways of being in the world. In a lot of fantasy worlds, diverse cultures are used either as set-dressing or just for comic relief. The ways in which different languages and foods are depicted can also sideline certain groups of people.
What is considered the norm and what is exotic in popular fantasy? Whose cultures and intellectual histories are privileged? Such conversations about diversity among fans can play a huge role in decolonising traditional ideas of fantasy. Retellings of old stories – both in traditional media and within fandom – are increasingly used to subvert problematic ideas and reflect progressive values.
In this episode, I chat with Hibiki Hashizume about the different representations of race in three mainstream Hollywood movies. As students from India and Japan in the United Kingdom, we discuss the cultural similarities and differences that we’ve noticed. We also talk about suddenly becoming a minority in a new country and how that impacts our ideas about racial diversity.
Mainstream media can perpetuate internalised racism. Three recent movies – Green Book, Crazy Rich Asians, and Last Christmas – showcase the slow but steady strides Hollywood is taking by featuring different kinds of diversity and inclusion. Diverse representations in mainstream films is especially important since they attract and influence such huge audiences. A lack of diverse stories promotes the perception of monolithic experiences of marginalised groups which in turn creates stereotypes about these cultures. Just because you look the same doesn’t mean you share the same experiences.
Stories written by cultural insiders can challenge these narrow perceptions. They overturn stereotypes, offer more authentic representations, explore nuances and complexities within the culture, and refuse to exoticise their own culture by normalising different contexts, foods, and languages. Diverse creators rewrite the script of whose stories are centered. Normalising the food, languages, and lives of non-dominant cultures can go a long way in fixing the imbalance and addressing the feelings of inferiority.
In this episode, I chat with Diana Floegel about queer representation in media and how fandom engages with queerness.
Media industries and their cultural products reflect the structural heteronormativity prevalent in the real world. Mainstream media has popularised a more palatable version of queerness. It expects assimilation into the heteronormative default rather than exploring alternative structures. It also largely overlooks intersectional identities. Queer media representations – when they do exist – perpetuate limited narratives of being queer. They also promote troubling tropes and stereotypes which further reflect the lack of structural diversity.
Fandom can act as an alternative to mainstream media where people encounter queer ideas and content for the first time. Fan communities explore different sexual and gender identities. Fan campaigns demanding more queer representation in media can popularise fringe ideas and expand mainstream imaginations. Fan spaces feature both debates against as well as examples of the more problematic aspects of queer representation. Even fandom can reinforce dominant ideas when it features different levels of acceptance for different kinds of queerness. However, some fan communities have offered a supportive space for queer people and their experiences.
In this episode, I talk to Robert Shepherd about the representations of dyspraxia and autism in Doctor Who – both the TV series and its online fandom. We chat about some difficult issues related to disability, specifically family, trauma and abuse so please consider this as a content warning.
Media representations of disabilities have a huge impact on people with those disabilities. The downside of seeing their disability represented onscreen is that it can reify fraught relationships and troubling experiences that they recognise from their own lives. Even well-intentioned representations can have really damaging consequences. Centering the needs and desires of the family rather than the needs and desires of the person with the disability can have harmful impacts – both in media and in real life.
You can find examples of structural ableism not only in media but also in fandom. Fans with disabilities read themselves into characters who aren’t explicitly written as disabled to counter ableist representations. The kinds of stories which are told about autism – both in media and in society – can perpetuate distressing eugenics narratives. Fanfiction can be an important way for fans with disabilities to assert their agency by writing their own stories. Fanfiction can challenge fixed notions of disabilities and show a different way of being human.
In this episode, I talk to T. G. Shepherd also known as Lisa about the representation of women warriors in media and history.
There are perceived gender roles and gender disparities in different styles of martial arts with some being considered too brutal for women. People’s gender also impacts their experiences in the environment they’re training to fight in. Comics have a long history of representing women warriors who have been aspirational role models for countless young people and adults. However, the overall representations of female fighters in media involve tired tropes rather than realistic, fully-fleshed out characters. This reflects the erasure of women warriors in real-world history which overlooks how women from different parts of the world overcame social, cultural and legal barriers to fight.
Fortunately, there are a growing number of representations of women warriors with different skills, bodies and abilities working together. Magic or advanced technology in science fiction and fantasy worlds limits the role gender plays among good fighters. Mainstream comics are becoming increasingly diverse and often act as people’s first encounters with different lives. Fanfiction has tremendous transformative potential in questioning the norm and exploring alternate possibilities, though even there, gender dynamics play a role in the kind of stories which are taken seriously. The internet and more diverse academic researchers play a huge role in bringing traditionally marginalised stories about women leaders and fighters to light. However, there needs to be more intersectional representations of fighters in science fiction and fantasy to include different ages, races, abilities, religions, sexual and gender identities.
In this episode, I talk to Lorrie Kim about how people of colour are represented in the Potterverse and how much Lorrie loves and identifies with Nagini. We also discuss the real-world parallels in Crimes of Grindelwald. This includes mentions of rape, exploitation and human trafficking so please consider this a content warning. Lorrie proposes that the Harry Potter books – written for children – and the Fantastic Beasts movies – written for adults – deal with similar themes in very different ways. The allegory of fascism is ever-present but is less escapist. The international politics in Crimes of Grindelwald draw from historical as well as contemporary colonial, racial and sexual violence in the real world.
A book authored by a single creator reflects their cultural, social, and political limitations. However, in movies, the actors and crew become co-creators of the story, which can sometimes make up for the author’s blind-spots. Deleted scenes in movies marginalise female characters of colour whose stories are seen as expendable. Fans’ discomfort against how these characters are portrayed can end up erasing them from the story entirely. Many fans dislike the Fantastic Beasts movies and Nagini’s story arc for lots of different reasons. While fan interpretations often differ, mainstream fandom discourse isn’t always nuanced and inclusive of multiple perspectives. Fandom has tremendous potential to promote critical thinking, but fan opinions can also influence people in limiting ways.
In this episode, I talk to Sanjana and Aparna about how religion as well as national and regional origin intersect in both the real and fictional worlds. We also discuss how governments and mainstream media weaponise these topics to oppress people. Since these issues are very relevant to current global events, please be warned that I go on several angry rants throughout this episode. Thanks to our impassioned discussion, in the beginning of the episode we begin talking about Demons of the Punjab without mentioning that it’s a Doctor Who episode about the Partition of India and not about actual demons – though I’m sure you can find people who’ve called the British Empire much worse.
Who writes history and whose version of history is portrayed by mainstream media has contemporary real-world impacts. Media can provide multiple stories and versions to counter false narratives. Alternatively, it can emphasise divisive accounts with damaging consequences for relationships among diverse groups. Fictional-world politics also have real-world parallels based on religious and national demographics. An increasing number of people are beginning to question the underlying assumptions of religious and national stories. Retellings can reclaim tradition to make it radically inclusive to historically marginalised groups of people.
In this episode, I talk to Deb Dimond Young about how older women are represented in media and the impact this has on culture and society.
Mainstream media values youth and ageing is associated with loss and bitterness. But what is old anyway? The idea is socially constructed and varies across historical, geographical, and cultural contexts. Essentialist ideas in media dictate what people of a certain age – both old and young – are supposed to do. The portrayal of women over a certain age is rife with stereotypes – that is, if these representations even exist in the first place. Mothers are represented in limited roles with their identities tied to their husbands and children. These negative tropes influence real-life interactions and mainstream imaginations.
A gendered contradiction means that older men in media are allowed to retain the agency and power that women aren’t. Romance, sex and sexuality is largely absent in portrayals of older women. While there are media examples of women disrupting expectations and going off on their own adventures, these are few and far between. We need more stories and more people telling these stories. Expanding the diversity of ages behind the screen can change the narratives that we value.
In this episode, I talk to Ziv Wities about the representation of religion in speculative fiction. We also discuss Jewish faith traditions: how they are similar to fandom culture and how they diverge. In the beginning of the episode, we talk about Orson Scott Card’s ideas about humanism in religion but don’t explicitly mention or criticise his homophobic views – so I’m taking this opportunity to clarify that we abhor his bigotry.
It’s rare to find religious representation in mainstream fiction. If religious people do exist in science fiction and fantasy, their portrayals are quite extreme and they’re often featured as antagonists. Religion is largely used as an excuse for people to do terrible things without any other context or explanation. While religious zealots do exist, by always linking religion to violence and irrationality, mainstream media perpetuates a limited idea of religion.
For many people, religion is the lens through which they make sense of the world and engage with ideas of morality. Science fiction and fantasy explores several themes that religion is also interested in. An increasing number of people use popular culture to engage with moral issues and navigate the world they inhabit. Religious fans read themselves into non-religious media to address their underrepresentation and misrepresentation in fictional worlds. These interpretations offer a way to learn about religion as well. There are some instances where faith is represented in nuanced and complex ways which explore multiple perspectives of religious canon. But we need more stories which grapple with how ideas of religion, pluralism and humanism fit together and how people of different faiths can co-exist.
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.
In this episode, I talk to Marita Arvaniti about alternative relationship and economic structures in fandom, media, and society.
Fanfiction experiments with different kinds of characters, themes, and stories which are often absent in mainstream media. Fanfiction offers a space for those people who lack access to traditional publishing structures to find an audience for different kinds of ideas. Fans can write any kind of story they want without worrying about whether it will sell. This freedom from capitalist consumption allows fans to imagine alternatives to current systems. However, fandom isn’t without its class politics. The open accessibility of fan texts offers empowering possibilities. At the same time, creating fan texts requires different kinds of skills, costs, and access to technology. Moreover, online fandom features a large number of fans from marginalised groups who offer their time and labour for free. Not everybody can afford to do this work just because they love it. This limits the diversity of voices who can participate.
Nevertheless, fandom exposes people to ideas they may not have encountered in mainstream media and society. Fanfic exploring polyamorous, asexual, aromantic and platonic relationships allows people to imagine family structures other than the heterosexual nuclear family default. Such stories can challenge and expand ideas about the conception of families. Traditional family structures negatively impact women, queer, and poor people in different ways. Developing alternate family structures isn’t just a queer, feminist, and socialist project but also involves a process of decolonisation. Maybe that’s why so many women, including myself, have ongoing fantasies of communes which allow us to envision the kind of lives and communities we want to build.
Episode 18 – I Have A Place In This Story: Questioning Cultural Norms in Mainstream Fantasy Books
In this episode, I talk to Aisha about diverse cultures in some of our favourite fantasy media. As fangirls from the UAE and India, we also explore a non-Western perspective of the Potterverse.
A lot of popular fantasy has emerged from the UK and taken over our imaginations. However, the dominance of English in these globally popular books can act as a barrier for non-native speakers of the language. This language barrier also exists in fandom where limited English-language abilities restrict your access to online fan spaces. The politics of language and traditions in mainstream SFF and fandom – specifically what’s the norm and what’s othered – has broad cultural implications. Readers from non-Eurocentric cultures often have to work extra hard to understand unfamiliar contexts and references. Moreover, a diet of primarily Western books with meagre diversity leaves many fans unable to imagine ourselves in our favourite worlds.
Increasingly, however, fans from different countries and cultures are beginning to question ideas of which languages and cultures are automatically deemed superior. Fans navigate linguistic and technological limitations to carve out local-language fan spaces which bring together their multiple identities. Discussions about cultural imperialism and cultural assimilation in fictional worlds like Harry Potter encourage fans to draw parallels between the tokenistic ways in which Western media depicts diverse groups. Conversations about which cultural norms are respected and what we’d like to see more of allow fans to challenge textual limitations and decolonise our minds. A growing number of writers are creating narratives which move beyond the Eurocentric norm in mainstream SFF. Normalising cultural diversity can disrupt previously taken-for-granted assumptions and enable fans to imagine ourselves in fantastical worlds.
Episode 19 – [Episode on gender and gender identity to be published]
Episode 20 – [Episode on different cultures in online fandom to be published]
Episode 21 – [Episode on queer and nonbinary representation in media to be published]
Episode 22 – [Episode on sexuality and class to be published]