A PhD project exploring intersectionality through fan podcasts

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Tag: Doctor Who

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

Episode Resources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Episode Transcript:

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

Deb Dimond Young

[Intro music]

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

[Intro music]

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

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

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

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

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

Deb: [laughs]

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

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

Deb: [laughs]

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: [laughs] Absolutely!

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

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

Deb: Absolutely!

Gif of Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer

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

Deb: Yes!

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

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

Parinita: Um hmm.

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

Image courtesy MrRy4n on DeviantArt

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

Parinita: Aaah!

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

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

Deb: Yes.

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

Deb: Yeah. Her corporeal form.

Parinita: Which I found very depressing. Yeah.

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

Parinita: Um hmm.

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

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

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

Deb: Yeah.

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

Deb: Absolutely.

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

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

Parinita: Um hmm.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: And so she had her own adventures.

Poster for The Sarah Jane Adventures

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

Deb: Yes!

Parinita: Which you don’t really see usually.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

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

Young Amy and Old Amy in The Girl Who Waited

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

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

Parinita: But yeah, he looks the same.

Deb: Absolutely!

Rory as the last centurion

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

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Yeah exactly!

Deb: Right?

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

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Wow.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: That’s true.

Deb: She disappears.

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

Deb: Yes!

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

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

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


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

Parinita: Absolutely.

Deb: There’s so much space.

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

Deb: It’s one of my favourites.

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

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

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Um hmm.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: [laughs]

Image of Joyce and Giles

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: With a pair of handcuffs as well.

Deb: With handcuffs, yeah.

Parinita: Which Buffy is very uncomfortable about.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

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

Deb: Yes!

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

Deb: Right.

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

Deb: Yes.

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

Deb: [laughs]

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

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

Parinita: Um hmm.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

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

Deb: Yes!

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

Deb: So good!

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

Deb: Yes.

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

Deb: Um hmm.

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

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

Parinita: Um hmm.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

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

Parinita: Um hmm.

Deb: That becomes her role.

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

Deb: Yes.

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

Deb: [laughs]

Parinita: And also during the battle like you said.

Deb: Right.

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

Deb: Yes.

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

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

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: Yup.

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

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

Deb: Right.

Parinita: Perfection is a prison.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Yup.

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

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

Deb: [laughs]

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

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

Parinita: Um hmm.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Absolutely.

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

Parinita: Yeah!

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

Parinita: Yeah she gets that one amazing moment.

Deb: Yeah!

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

Deb: Absolutely.

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

Deb: Absolutely.

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

Deb: Yeah.

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

Deb: [laughs]

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

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

Parinita: [laughs] Oh, I love that.

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

Parinita: Yeah I love that.

Deb: Just because no one accounts for her existence.

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

Deb: Oh, River.

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: [laughs]

Gif of River Song from Doctor Who blowing a kiss

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: Hmm.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

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

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

Deb: Yeah.

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

Deb: Yeah. [laughs]

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

Deb: [laughs]

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

Deb: Yes.

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

Deb: [laughs]

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

Deb: Um hmm.

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

Deb: [laughs]

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

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

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

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

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

Deb: Um hmm.

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

Deb: Um hmm.

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

Deb: Absolutely.

Parinita: Do superheroes not get old?

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

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

Deb: No!

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: Oh my god.

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

Parinita: The phone police you know.

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

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

Deb: Yes!

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

Deb: Absolutely.

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

Deb: Oh god I would watch that absolutely.

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

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

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

Parinita: Yeah!

Deb: I need to go back. [laughs]

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

Deb: It’s fantastic too.

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

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

[Outro music]

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

[Outro music]

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

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

Episode 10 Reclaiming Stories: Representations of Dyspraxia and Autism in Doctor Who/Fandom

Episode Resources:

1) Fanfiction – Never Change

2) Essay – People don’t know about the reality of Dyspraxia. That’s why we need fictions like Doctor Who’s Ryan Sinclair

3) Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper Representations of Disability With Marissa Lingen

4) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Caps Lock Harry

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

6) Video – The Gayly Prophet

7) Essay – The Future Is (Not) Disabled

Episode Transcript:

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

Image courtesy Robert Shepherd inspired by the hair dryer aliens in his Doctor Who fanfiction Never Change which we discuss in this episode

[Intro music]

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

[Intro music]

My name is Parinita Shetty and you’re listening to the tenth episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I talk to Robert Shepherd about the representations of dyspraxia and autism in Doctor Who – both the TV series and its online fandom. We chat about some difficult issues related to disability, specifically family, trauma and abuse so please consider this as a content warning.

Media representations of disabilities have a huge impact on people with those disabilities. The downside of seeing their disability represented onscreen is that it can reify fraught relationships and troubling experiences that they recognise from their own lives. Even well-intentioned representations can have really damaging consequences. Centering the needs and desires of the family rather than the needs and desires of the person with the disability can have harmful impacts – both in media and in real life.

You can find examples of structural ableism not only in media but also in fandom. Fans with disabilities read themselves into characters who aren’t explicitly written as disabled to counter ableist representations. The kinds of stories which are told about autism – both in media and in society – can perpetuate distressing eugenics narratives. Fanfiction can be an important way for fans with disabilities to assert their agency by writing their own stories. Fanfiction can challenge fixed notions of disabilities and show a different way of being human.

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: I’m so happy to have Robert Shepherd on the podcast today. Robert was diagnosed with dyspraxia and autism at the age of ten and now writes about living with both. And he has been a fairly obsessive fan of both Doctor Who and Harry Potter. He’s the age where Harry was his obsession as a teenager and the Doctor came along at the same time as adulthood. Unlike me who grew up with Harry Potter but never grew out of it. I met Robert in Scotland about three years ago and we’ve been friends since then. During Jodie’s first appearance as the Doctor a couple of years ago, Robert wrote an essay about one of the Doctor’s companions, Ryan, and how happy it made him to see some representation of dyspraxia in one of his favourite shows. And the essay was great. I found it really illuminating as someone who, like many others, hadn’t encountered dyspraxia before that. And we’re going to talk about that more a little later in the episode. But before we do that Robert, do you want to introduce your own experiences with disability?

Robert: Hello! I’m Robert. Obviously it’s hard to talk about your experiences of something like dyspraxia ’cause you’ve had no experiences not having it.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Robert: I don’t know if it’s technically called a developmental disorder, but it’s the sort of thing you have for life. It’s not something that comes along later like maybe some disabilities can. So since I’ve been alive, I suppose, I would have difficulty picking up things, doing things, tying shoelaces … but also kind of like being in the world and relating to it in a way that is maybe quite hard for other people to understand. In the same way as if someone has to suddenly do a calculation that’s quite complicated in their head and suddenly find that their whole head is just frozen working it out. It feels like an intense amount of work. Often things that are quite day to day for people like putting on your trousers take that having to work something out, having to use a huge amount of brain power to a point it’s quite exhausting. And sometimes these things happen when you’re with other people in social situations. So at the same time you’re trying to do this, there’s another part of your brain that’s starting to panic thinking, “Uh oh, I’m not responding in this social situation because I’m having to do this. And the parts of my brain that would do that are trying to cross this road. And now I’m trying to make a joke as I’m crossing the road and there’s a car over there. And now I have been run over!” sort of thing. So I guess that’s my experience of being alive. Which might be different to the experience of being alive to someone who doesn’t have dyspraxia, if that makes sense.

Parinita: Yeah, absolutely. And I really appreciate your sharing even that little bit, because I know it’s such a weird question. Like you said, it’s something you’ve been living with. You basically don’t know any other experience of being in the world.

Robert: No.

Parinita: And for me, it’s also really helpful. And again, this is something that I’ve come across a lot that it’s always the burden of – well any marginalised identity – but like here because we’re talking about disability, a person with disabilities – to explain themselves.

Robert: Hmm.

Parinita: Because otherwise the world is so neurotypical and able-bodied. That’s what the norm is considered to be. So everyone has to explain if they don’t fit in with the norm.

Robert: I am on the autistic spectrum as well. And that’s quite common for people with dyspraxia to either have a lot of traits that are associated with the spectrum or actually have a spectrum diagnosis. But I guess the extent to which it’s physical stuff and the extent to which it’s stuff more typically associated with autism is not always clear to me either. So I guess the extent to which it is both physical and mental and that boundary not really existing.

Parinita: Yeah.

Robert: I remember actually that when they were doing promotion for Jodie Whittaker’s first season of Doctor Who with Ryan who is dyspraxic, they said that was something they had tried to make sure was the case. That they were considering the mental as well as the physical attributes of dyspraxia

Parinita: Hmm.

Robert: Which at the time I appreciated. And then later on had some concerns about. But I think the extent to which it’s not just dropping things but significantly more of that, isn’t always understood if dyspraxia is understood at all. Which it’s often not. ’Cause it’s not talked about much at all.

Parinita: Yeah. Which is why thank you so much for being willing to share your experiences about it. And I’m glad that you are because I’m learning from you and I’ve learned a lot from our conversations before that. Hopefully people who listen to this podcast will learn as well. Especially because for me it’s very much an outsider perspective. I haven’t been personally identified with any disability. So I have huge blind-spots around it. Most of my friends are non-disabled as well. But it’s something that I’m thinking about now a lot more since I’ve moved to the UK. And a few of my friends in India are a lot more vocal about talking about different kinds of disabilities. So it’s been an education for me. I think on the internet at large as well, at least the sort of spaces that I inhabit, there’s a lot more conversations about disabilities. In general and especially now during the pandemic, mental health and mental disabilities have been a huge topic of conversation. So it’s something that I appreciate because I know it’s a blind-spot and I’m trying to educate myself through other people’s experiences. And in India, I think mental health services are not yet mainstream enough, though there are more advocates working on it. And working to raise awareness about the need to have mental health services. So it’s still an uphill battle but we’re getting there. We’ve chatted about this a little bit before, about our very different experiences in terms of disabilities in our families and how it was seen. Would you like to chat about that a little bit?

Robert: Yes. It’s quite a long story. Or a lot of long stories. My family – my mother particularly – I don’t know was ever entirely comfortable with my having what was then referred to as Asperger’s syndrome and would now be considered autism because Asperger’s syndrome is no longer considered distinct from autism. But I think she always had an image of me – or wanted a child – who was fairly what she saw as normal. Liked football, was good at football, went around doing laddish things. And because I was simultaneously very bad at all sports and had no interest in those laddish things, I think that was often quite challenging for her. And so a lot of what she did, in well-intentioned ways, to try and make me what she would see as better, involved effectively trying to cure me of things that are I suppose fairly fundamental that I can’t really conceive of not being part of myself. So as a child I would spend a long time going to various places and doing various things with no scientific basis in them, to explicitly try and cure me of dyspraxia, cure me of autism. And eventually when I was a teenager, she would do things like hire a shaman for me to come and try and cure me with shamanism. And it didn’t work! Which I’m pleased about now. But my mother is disabled herself. She has multiple sclerosis which is a degenerative condition and it got steadily worse throughout my adulthood. And her relation to disability is a huge part of her identity as well. And her ex-husband found both our disabilities particularly challenging and our relationship ended up being quite fraught because of it. And I suppose for context in Doctor Who Series 11, Ryan who’s the character with dyspraxia, has his own fraught relationship with his step-grandfather Graham. And it was similar enough to my own experiences that it was quite challenging to watch. Because it was almost like – well not like I was experiencing exactly what had happened to me, but I could see enough of what had happened to me in it, that it was quite difficult.

Parinita: We’ve spoken about trigger warnings, just with this podcast as well. And I suppose that’s not something the creators of Doctor Who thought about when they were trying to represent Ryan’s dyspraxia in a way that was realistic. And they perhaps didn’t think about the effect it would have on an audience with dyspraxia themselves who have a fraught relationship with their families. I know we’ll talk about it a little bit later as well but I’m wondering just in terms of the difference between intent and impact.

Robert: Yes.

Parinita: Where your intentions might be good but the impact can still be really damaging.

Gif of Ryan and Graham. Text says: Yep

Robert: Yeah. I guess it was very difficult for me because I think Ryan is genuinely the only explicit example of representation of a dyspraxic person in fiction – maybe even nonfiction – I can think of. Dyspraxia is such an almost non-existent condition that to criticise the way it’s portrayed at all is something I was unsure about. But I think the things that bothered me about it – first of all, in the first episode, Ryan’s step-grandfather Graham says something … I can’t remember the exact line. Ryan is worried because he’s caused an alien invasion. And then Graham is like, “Oh you’re going to blame the dyspraxia on that as well?”

Parinita: Um hmm.

Robert: And I guess the implication there obviously is all the time that these things are going wrong for Ryan, then he’s saying it’s by dyspraxia, but it’s not actually. If he’d had strength of will or tried hard enough, he would have been able to overcome these things that are, in fact, not possible to overcome because they are a disability. And when I saw that the first time, I thought that well this is something that will have happened because in the future in this series we will all be led to see that this isn’t the case; in actual fact, the way he said this is wrong. But I don’t think that really happens at all. And if anything, the reverse happens in terms of Graham’s expectations of who Ryan should be. For him, he wants Ryan to respect him and to see him as a legitimate father figure or grandfather figure. And he wants him to understand him without necessarily understanding how his own perception of Ryan’s dyspraxia might be affecting him or discussing that. And the fact that that sort of active ableism was in there and then not really addressed later on bothered me quite a bit. With Russell T. Davies in Season 1 of Doctor Who in 2005, there’s a scene where Rose, the companion then, uses gay just as a joking way like, “That awful thing is so gay.”

Parinita: Hmm.

Robert: Because obviously he’s gay himself. And he’s thinking, “Well I want to deliberately do this to reflect that this thing is still wrong and uncomfortable but it’s also something people do. And I want to reflect it to make it clear that Rose Tyler is a real person.” That level of being confident that the author has actively thought about it and talked about it off-camera is not really a sense that I got from this example later on. And also I don’t feel like it was criticised in the same way. Because I know that a lot of people who are gay said, “We understand what you’re trying to do here but this sort of thing is still damaging because it implicitly says to people watching that this character who I identify with is doing things that are okay that we can do as well. And potentially it’s a gateway to behaviour that’s much worse.” I’m not in contact with my step-father anymore but I often thought afterwards that if we had been in contact he would maybe use this example laughing about it, making a joke of not being able to do things as an example that our relationship was all right really. And I was like, but it’s not all right, really.

Parinita: Hmm.

Robert: And this example that is dominated by his perspective gives me as the dyspraxic person no way to really say I’m not comfortable with this. What you’re doing isn’t right for me. And I’m not sure that’s a place Ryan ever really gets to or something he’s ever able to really say. And the fact that hasn’t happened in the only representation of dyspraxia that exists ended up making me quite uncomfortable.

Parinita: Yeah. And it’s like something that you expect to give you comfort – whether it be your favourite TV show or book or fantasy fictional world or your family – it leaves you so much more hurt. Something I’ve not shared on the podcast before or indeed with many of my friends either, was my childhood experience with an alcoholic father who beat up my mother. And he gambled much of his and my mother’s money away. And this alcoholism was inherited; his parents had a similar relationship as well = just how the cycles of abuse continue. And I don’t know explicitly how this has impacted me and my own interactions with people because I’ve not been to therapy or I’ve not examined this aspect of my life. But I feel like this sort of childhood experience does leave scars. Because there has been a lot of trauma related to this even otherwise. And when I was away from the situation, and a few years had passed, I realised how much he would have benefited from therapy and just being able to … I don’t know like your step-father or maybe your mother – just having to talk to the other person and having an equal and respectful exchange of  opinions and perspectives. But I think this complex intersection of addiction and ideas of masculinity and mental health not being considered important in India means that he never would have approached the idea of therapy. That’s not something that would have ever occurred to him. There’s such a close experience with physical violence and fear and trauma which for me, now still – domestic violence and things of that nature – it does … it’s not a trigger as such but it’s something I don’t like to think about just because I want to move on with my life, I guess. I don’t know how healthy that is. And of course, my mother was impacted by it much more than I was. But I think childhood experiences like that shape you in a way that you don’t even really realise … except I guess with therapy. For me, books in general, but Harry Potter in particular was very important while I was growing up because it was this escape from real life. My parents divorced when I was thirteen, but even after that, being raised by a single mum with not much money was difficult. So Harry Potter was very much a gateway. And that’s why now even with all the problematic things that J. K. Rowling has said and all the holes that we find in Harry Potter on this podcast and in fandom in general, I still can’t let go of Harry Potter because for me it was that comfort. But then the fact that the person who created this world has let us down so much is what is more – it’s something that was supposed to provide me with – and it did provide me with comfort and hope and everything. So like with Doctor Who with you as well, that’s sadder.

Robert: Yeah. No, no totally. I really didn’t know what Doctor Who was till it the new series – new? It’s fifteen years old now. But the revived series in 2005 came along when I was seventeen almost eighteen. And that was an extremely difficult time in my life ’cause my parents were having a very traumatic divorce and my mother was about to tell us all that she had multiple sclerosis because her health was visibly declining. And I remember a lot about it being very powerful for me then. Obviously there’s a difference in that Doctor Who doesn’t have a single creator in the way Harry Potter does.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Robert: And if someone came along and said is Snape from Brazil [laughs] and asked J. K. Rowling, she could say no! But if someone said is there a Dalek under the sea, there’s no one you can really ask that to give an authoritative response or whatever. I think what I would relate to is maybe more with the fandom community in particular in that well I think a lot of stuff that made Doctor Who comforting for me is related to autism or being on the spectrum. Often, I found my experiences in Doctor Who fandom to be the least inclusive and most actively … maybe not quite discriminatory but definitely uncomfortable experiences I’ve had in relation to being autistic.

Parinita: Do you mean online fandom?

Robert: I do yes, because I’ve not really had any experience with non-online fandom to be honest. So yes, specifically I think online forums. Although some of the stuff I saw on Twitter recently and beforehand but haven’t really engaged with as much. So yeah definitely stuff that would happen a lot on social media, but which does precede social media as well because as something for nerdy people, Doctor Who has a very long internet history that goes back significantly further than that.

Parinita: Yeah. And with Doctor Who, like you, I also discovered it through the New – well fifteen-year-old – Who, the revival, but not when it first came out. It was I think a few years ago that I started watching the new series because Doctor Who had always been on my radar but I always thought I would have to go back to the 60s show and watch everything to make it make sense. And I tried and I couldn’t do it. I tried watching the very first season and I watched a few episodes and I just couldn’t get into it.

Robert: [laughs]

Parinita: I was like nope I can’t do this! Life is too short. I’m just going to go with Christopher Eccleston and that’s where I’m going to start. And I loved it. But I’ve heard about this with Doctor Who fandom online that it has been very white, male, able-bodied – the fandom has been dominated by that. And it’s not been inclusive to … well I’ve heard about women, but like you’re saying with disabilities as well. Luckily for me, I’ve just encountered – I think it’s just the spaces that I very purposefully visit in terms of fandom, it has been mostly positive. Not just with Doctor Who but with Harry Potter as well. Because Harry Potter also has some really problematic elements within the fandom.

Robert: Yeah.

Parinita: Again this all through research and what I’ve spoken to other people. I think I just move around the internet and life generally with blinkers on [laughs] so all the problematic bits just pass me by.

Robert: [laughs] Aye.

Parinita: Which is good because that’s how I cope. But yeah it’s really … interesting I guess but also sad to hear about other experiences that don’t mirror my own.

Robert: Yeah. I guess if there is a difference, it would be that well it is absolutely uncontroversial to say that Doctor Who fandom has been terrible to women and to people who weren’t white and basically to everyone who wasn’t a white man. However, to say that you find it discriminatory to autistic people, I think that would be quite a bold thing to say because obviously Doctor Who is archetypically associated with autistic people. It’s something that autistic people latch on to. So to say as an autistic person, your own experience in the fandom has been very negative specifically around things that manifest as a result of that condition and sometimes explicitly around having that condition, is something that I think people would probably be more reluctant to accept. Whereas if you said Doctor Who fandom is sexist or racist, that would be a significantly less controversial statement, I think.

Parinita: So do you think the ableism in the Doctor Who fandom, is it something that’s understood by the fandom? Is it something that’s been done very explicitly or is it structural ableism?

Robert: Oh I think it would be far more structural than intentional. Just that in practice the things that you would mock maybe or the things that you would insult would be overwhelmingly things that are more likely to happen to someone who is autistic. If someone is incredibly obsessive with Doctor Who and obviously if someone has a special interest as an autistic person, Doctor Who is disproportionately a special interest they might end up having, then that would be something which would be widely mocked. I think finding Doctor Who important is something that’s deeply taboo within Doctor Who fandom. And I wonder if that is structurally challenging for autistic people in a weird way because often I think autistic people would find Doctor Who important. Because becoming invested in a special interest to a huge extent is something that’s quite fundamental and quite distressing if it’s invalidated, I suppose. Or if it’s not seen to be important. So I think when people say from an outside perspective that it is not important at all; if hearing that the button is on the wrong way on the 1966 version of the TARDIS console is clearly not as important for social justice as more or less anything else at all. And if for reasons that make sense within an autistic lens, it is something that’s a passionate concern to you, it can still be very taboo to say that this matters to me. It distresses me that you say it doesn’t matter.

Parinita: Hmm.

Robert: I think it’s that sort of thing where the validity perhaps of autistic special interests or autistic experiences are not only not understood but actively mocked and marginalised … I think it’s a real problem in Doctor Who fandom and has been basically forever. And it has concerned me recently that while obviously Doctor Who has made huge strides probably literally everywhere else, the idea that this might be a problem that should be addressed and that continually continuing to talk in this way because the way people are reacting can’t be understood by you as a non-neurodivergent person. Therefore not only are they not valid, they’re things that deserve to be mocked to a point that is probably bullying – this is something that made me increasingly uncomfortable with Doctor Who fandom over the last many years.

Parinita: Yeah, that’s really interesting because some of the conversations that I’ve come across just in fandom in general, not Doctor Who specifically, is more through the lens of gender. Where transformative fandom – in both internet fandom as well as the field of fan studies – is seen to be more the domain of female fans. Whereas the male expression of fandom is seen to be this obsessive knowledge of everything within the series or within the media or whatever.

Robert: Yeah.

Parinita: So something like you were saying which is having this detailed knowledge about a very specific, hyper-focused aspect of the show would be something that would be seen as a male thing. But the sort of discourse that I’ve encountered has been male gatekeeping against female fans. But what you’ve spoken about I think is a really interesting and really important aspect to look at as well. Because it’s not just this male-female binary; there are nuances within male fannishness as well.

Robert: Yeah. Obviously I have created a lot of fan stuff myself. But I think a lot of the time when I did that, it almost was because of this deep sense of how I thought things should be specifically for me to be comfortable with them. So I would see the idea of obsessively arranging things to be a certain way and being actively creative – the idea that those are necessarily opposed is one that would be quite strange to me. And I think from the fanfiction I’ve read, often how people write fanfiction, is almost out of a sense of needing to order things.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Robert: And often it’s ordering things from a character’s perspective. But I think wanting to make things a certain way because you feel that a character has behaved inconsistently and that’s wrong. And wanting to make things a certain way because the props are wrong in an episode – I don’t know that they’re completely different things necessarily. Even though one is more about people and one is more about … I guess they’re both about ways in which you perceive the world and relate to them and they’re both out of a desire to make it fit better and how you understand it to be.

Parinita: And also I think representing an aspect that you’re missing in canon. Something that you want to see represented and fixed or whatever. So I suppose fans from any marginalised identities would write fanfiction to be able to counter that singular narrative, if that makes sense.

Robert: Oh, definitely yes. I think maybe Doctor Who is unusual in that that would also overwhelmingly apply to the show itself. The show itself is almost like an aggressive commentary on itself over ages.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Robert: Saying this hasn’t been right before and now we have to fix it in various different and incompatible ways.

Parinita: Especially the new one more than anything else.

Robert: Yes!

Parinita: I wanted to go back to your new short story in the Stim anthology.

Robert: Oh yes.

Book cover of Stim. Text says: Stim: An Autistic Anthology. Edited by Lizzie Huxley-Jones

Parinita: Where you said that it had featured selkies as a metaphor for difference. And I was really interested in finding out more about that.

Robert: So a few years ago, I read Sofia Samatar’s story Selkie Stories Are For Losers. Which is explicitly about someone who is strongly implied but maybe not the case that her mother is a selkie. And that she’s had a difficult life because she’s been abused by men. And the whole story is about the idea that in selkie stories, usually what happens is, a selkie who is a seal who takes off their skin to become a person and often in stories a woman ends up going to sleep with a fisherman. And the fisherman steals the selkie skin. The selkie then can’t get back into their skin and is stuck in human form and then the selkie has to be his wife and has a miserable time.

Parinita: Yeah not problematic at all!

Robert: Yes. Well that’s what the story is about – that the selkie as a story is almost always about being stuck in someone else’s world in a way you didn’t choose. And not really getting to be the centre of the story and just have any kind of power or agency herself.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Robert: And the idea of having that as a metaphor for autism is something which appealed to me because I’ve often felt like in order to function in the world at all I’ve had to put away a lot of stuff about myself and pretend it wasn’t there. Or often try and make it so it was no longer there. And end up having a miserable time basically for other people in their stories. I thought writing a story explicitly about that with that metaphor would be quite useful for me. ’Cause Stim is an anthology of nonfiction and fiction and they were like, “Oh my god we don’t have any fiction.” So they accepted open pitches for it. And I was like this story is very odd and I doubt it’ll get accepted but I’ll pitch anyway. And then they were like, “Wow! This story is exactly what we’re looking for.” I was surprised by that and now it’s in the book.

Parinita: That’s amazing! And I think that the Doctor Who fanfic that you suggested I read, the one that you’d written, whose name I’m completely blanking on.

Robert: Yeah. It’s called Never Change.

Parinita: Never Change! That’s right.

Robert: I really struggled with coming up with it. All the other ones I’ve written, the title I came up with very easily. But that one I was like I have no idea what to call this.

Parinita: What I found interesting from what you said about your selkie short story but also when we were talking about your fanfic briefly, you said that you hadn’t been thinking about it in terms of disability specifically when you were writing it. But a lot of what you’ve said today and we’ve spoken about otherwise, as well as your short story, I feel like as a reader from the outside who is reading it for the first time, I could feel a lot of those themes coming in. Especially the whole “I don’t understand!” Everyone’s saying that.

Robert: [laughs]

Parinita: And again, this is not something I think I would have understood had these conversations not been at the forefront now – about disability and neurodiversity and things. Because again, as someone from this outsider dominant culture, this blind-spot means that unless it is explicit or unless it is placed in context, I wouldn’t get it because it doesn’t reflect my experiences. But I loved the fanfic anyway just as a story – I think it captured Jodie … the Doctor’s Jodie’s – I don’t know what you refer to them as – whatever – the Thirteenth Doctor? I think she’s the Thirteenth Doctor?

Robert: Yeah well it’s very confusing now. We had a nerd quiz and the nerd quiz had a furious debate about that for half an hour.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah, I can imagine. But I feel like it captured that character so well. I could see her saying these things. But because I was also reading it in preparation for this episode, I could feel that aspect come through so much that you can’t divorce your identity from what you’re writing even if you’re not meaning to write about your identity. If that makes sense.

Robert: Oh my god yes.

Parinita: [laughs] So just going back to Ryan, I’ve heard this critique by other people as well who write about disabilities and I think it came up in a couple of the podcast episodes that we listened to where the family or the friend of the person with the disability is centered in the narrative rather than the person with the disability themselves. And not just in fiction but also with charities. I think Marissa Lingen in the Breaking The Glass Slipper episode, talked about how that happens even in charities. Or was it the Witch, Please episode? Well one of them. That even a lot of charities tend to focus on the families or the caregivers rather than the person with the disability themselves. Which going back to Ryan and Graham, I was thinking about it not from your perspective but just as someone who’s learning about dyspraxia through Ryan, it seems to come up in the first few episodes and then on and off later. But then it just seems to have disappeared. There doesn’t seem to have been any mention of that later. Unless I’m misremembering.

Robert: No, I don’t think there is much later. I had to watch less and less of it because I found it genuinely impossible to watch ’cause I got too invested in Ryan as a character. I was just like, “Oh no he looks so unhappy!” Because this is obviously an escapist show predominantly. When someone you strongly identify with appears on an escapist show who looks like he wants to escape from the escapist show –

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Robert: [laughs] It becomes quite challenging to watch. So I always felt like – I don’t know how you say his name, that’s terrible – Tosin Cole who plays Ryan, his acting has been criticised a lot. But personally, I felt like it was really good. I felt like he was portraying someone with dyspraxia accurately to the point I found it uncomfortable to watch. I was like, “Oh my god that’s me on there looking awkward and sad.”

Parinita: Yeah.

Gif of Ryan. Text says: This is way too dark for me.

Robert: I’ve forgotten the question.

Parinita: No that’s fine, you answered it, I think. I’ve forgotten the question myself.

Robert: [laughs]

Parinita: It just made me think of something else. Ryan is a black man in England. I feel like that intersection could have been explored as well – disability and how other factors impact it. I think he’s from a working-class background as well.

Robert: Yeah.

Parinita: So you know the race, the gender, the disability could have been explored. As a man maybe he’s privileged in certain contexts. In terms of disability discourse in general and through these fan podcasts we listened to as well, I know that they spoke about how white men in certain contexts seem to be privileged over others. But then there are nuances in that as well, right? So I feel that there could have been more interesting possibilities that may still be explored. But I believe Ryan is – I don’t know how true this rumour is – but I think he’s leaving at the end of the season.

Robert: Yeah. He’s leaving at the end of the next episode.

Parinita: Yeah. So I don’t think there’s any room for exploration.

Robert: Seems unlikely. [laughs]

Parinita: Within the context of the Christmas episode or the New Year’s episode, I don’t think that’s going to happen. But apart from Ryan, you were also excited about Jodie Whittaker being the Doctor, right?

Robert: Yeah, definitely. For a few reasons. I found the last Doctor, Peter Capaldi, very challenging. To be honest, it took me a very, very long time to see him as the Doctor.

Parinita: Hmm.

Robert: More so than any of the others really. And I think looking back on it, it’s because the Doctor’s transformation from someone who’s relatively warm and young to someone who’s relatively cold and difficult reminded me of my own experiences with my mother as she grew older. And then I was like oh no I don’t want that. It’s weird – when Jodie was cast as the Doctor, I retrospectively realise on some level I’d always seen the Doctor as a maternal figure. Even though the Doctor had always been a man. It had always felt intrinsically right to me that the Doctor would be a woman. And so when the Doctor actually became a woman, I was really, really excited. And then when I watched the movie Adult Life Skills which Jodie is in, I got even more excited. In that movie, she plays a character who I don’t know if in the context of the movie she is on the spectrum, but she very, very much reminded me of someone who was. As someone who’s awkward. In the opening scene where she tried to microwave her bra because it’s wet and then the bra catches fire and the microwave explodes.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Robert: And I was like, “Oh my god I would totally do that if I was a woman!” And I saw myself in her character more than I think I had any character ever before. And I felt she was able to act with a sort of dignity in that role and treat someone who’s kind of weird and finds relating to the world difficult as still a real human person in a way that’s depressingly rare perhaps among actors. So I had a huge amount of respect for her as an actor for treating the role with respect and for being able to convey that.

Parinita: Yeah. And I find it really interesting that you read yourself into that character even though she wasn’t explicitly written as dyspraxic or autistic. And it’s something that I think in the Witch, Please episode, they mentioned as well where fans with disabilities – neurodiverse fans – read themselves into characters in Harry Potter.

Robert: Yes.

Parinita: Because Harry Potter is something I know better than Doctor Who. I love both but Harry Potter has been something that’s closer. And it’s something that would never have occurred to me. For example, they read Hermione and both Luna as autistic.

Robert: Yeah.

Tumblr screenshot. Text says. goodiesfanatic: Arthur Weasley is autistic. His special interest is Muggle technology and he infodumps about it all the time to anyone who will listen. Hermione Granger is autistic. She has poor social skills and doesn't realise how rude she can sometimes sound when she talks to people. Neville Longbottom is autistic. His special interest is Herbology and he struggles to concentrate in his other classes. Luna Lovegood is autistic. She goes non-verbal a lot and doesn't see the point of fitting in with the other students her age.

Parinita: Hermione for being socially awkward and she doesn’t fit in but she has this obsessive knowledge about all the things that she decides to learn. And Luna who talks without considering social cues and doesn’t conform to normative ideas and conversations and she’s dismissed for exactly that. And Newt Scamander from Fantastic Beasts, fandom has read him as neurodiverse as well. Which I find really interesting because I think in Witch, Please they said that often fans do this – and I don’t know if this reflects your own experiences – but when creators, especially creators who don’t have disabilities themselves, set out to write a character with a disability, they fall prey to certain ableist ideas. Or they promote certain ableist ideas. Whereas when fans are reading themselves into a character who isn’t written as a disabled character, they can then see their whole complex and nuanced identity reflected in that character.

Robert: Yeah. I had a bit of that myself when Matt Smith was the Doctor.

Parinita: Hmm.

Robert: Because among dyspraxic people, there was a tendency to read Matt Smith as dyspraxic. Which I think has been confirmed as not being intentional. But a lot of what he does in terms of falling over and causing messes and thinking he’s being cool and impressive but is actually causing a disaster, is quite resonant to people who have dyspraxia. So we’ve definitely done a bit of reading that in things ourselves in the dyspraxia Doctor Who community such as it is. I used to like imagining how his Doctor and Ryan might work together. I think Ryan would have a bit more fun and maybe his Doctor be a bit more responsible.

Gif of Matt Smith. Text says: I think you'll find I'm universally recognised as a mature and responsible adult.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah that’s true! Oh have you – I should – you should write fanfic about it! I’m like I should read fanfiction about it.

Robert: [laughs]

Parinita: I would love to read your fanfic. [laughs] You also mentioned an overlap with uncomfortable narratives around autism and how autism and dyspraxia often come together?

Robert: It goes back to what we were talking about in terms of when things are portrayed by family members. Because the fact of a disability or a marginalised identity being portrayed almost exclusively with children and almost exclusively by the people who live with them or care for them rather than the people themselves is something that is very, very common in autism and maybe even more in dyspraxia. But because I would say autism liberation is a lot more advanced than dyspraxia liberation, and because conversely the … autism non-liberation [laughs] is also more advanced in a terrifying way, I think if something like Ryan’s narrative had been attempted with autism, there would be a substantial amount of criticism, in a way I don’t think has been because it was dyspraxia.

Parinita: Hmm.

Robert: Because of Autism Speaks of course who are – for people who don’t know – an American-based charity, which I think is the premiere autism charity in America but who also literally campaigns for the eradication of autism. They fund research into eugenics. So these genes [?] are responsible for autism can be removed from the human race. And whose campaigning is very much around the concept or the idea that autistic people aren’t worthy and the challenges families face are the most important aspect of something like autism rather than the legitimacy of people who are autistic themselves. I think that’s much, much, much, much, much more extreme than anything that’s happened in any portrayal of dyspraxia and I wouldn’t want to suggest otherwise. But I guess that the reason that autistic people are uncomfortable about things being centered on family members is because once our own voices become marginalised and once our own humanity begins to be diminished, it does leave us open to narratives that are abusive. And makes it more difficult to counter abuse when it happens to us. Even if that abuse is nowhere near that extreme. And I think that something that we probably need to talk about more. People need to talk about dyspraxia more because they don’t really. I think the whole concept of dyspraxia liberation – that I don’t even know that exists really – but I think fundamentally reclaiming stories is as essential in dyspraxia as it would be for autism. And that would be true even if they weren’t often in people at the same time. Because otherwise we’re marginalising our own stories and that’s a very painful thing to experience in a story whoever you are.

Parinita: Yeah absolutely. The importance of this representation in science fiction and fantasy was explored in this essay that we read The Future Is Not Disabled. And the writer, they were talking about exactly what you said but in terms of science fiction. About how science fiction and these futuristic, technologically advanced worlds, seem to have no room for autistic characters or any kind of disabilities in general. And they are not using technology as access. There’s so many potentials and possibilities of using technology in creative ways in your worlds to show how people with disabilities can be included. And it’s not a deficient way of being; it’s just a different way of being. Basically science fiction and fantasy either relies on either technological or magical eugenics. They’re erasing any kind of disabilities from their future or their fantastical worlds.

Robert: Yeah.

Parinita: Which is also really problematic.

Robert: Yes. You saying that has made me realise that’s why I’ve been uncomfortable for so long with humanism as it’s commonly portrayed in science fiction. Because it is often overwhelmingly about erasing things that don’t fit the writer’s idea of what being human is.

Parinita: Hmm.

Robert: And putting things into a narrow perspective that I’ve always felt has excluded me. And often taking as an assumption a centered world that to me as an outsider seems quite different from how I would perceive the world to be. I guess that’s probably true of any marginalised person that if they were to read a non-marginalised person’s account of parts of the world they’ve experienced, there would be things about it that are obviously wrong just because of that person’s own ignorance of that.

Parinita: Yeah.

Robert: And the sort of science fiction I enjoy and I try to create would probably usually be about explicitly challenging that idea that that’s what the future is or has to be. Or that something that ends up looking like that is progress or anything like it.

Parinita: Yeah.

Robert: Because it comes back to the idea of always being told that a progressed world is a world which has eradicated you. And being able – having the self-confidence to say that is wrong.

Parinita: Yeah. I know there has been this movement with disabilities and also Afrofuturism that is the same sort of movement that came to be because of the erasure of black bodies and black lives and black culture in the future. Unless it’s still a racist society. It’s 3000 years from now but racism still exists. And ableism still exists. Talking about your own writing, even though Never Change was not about disability, you said that you realised that it had become an unintentional version of Ryan’s story?

Robert: Yes. I realised while I was writing it that that story is way more autobiographical than probably any of the other stories I’ve written. It’s about a young man whose whole family regenerates because a regeneration bomb goes off at his house. And then they become completely different people who don’t remember him. And they want him to turn into a completely different person as well in order to satisfy them. And in the story the main character’s mother is someone who has found the world very challenging. Because she is someone who legitimately has real problems that need real support and that she has relied very heavily on her son. But something that’s quite important in this story is that to regenerate into someone else, you lose everything about who you are. You literally become another person. And that other person is happy but they don’t have any memory of you or any resemblance to you really. You lose everything about you, that’s important to you. And the end of the story is ultimately about the main character saying, “I don’t want to do this.” And saying that the main character rejecting that is okay. Which is honestly not a message I would expect to see in Doctor Who. Because there’s a way in which it feels quite at odds with the narrative which often is about people sacrificing themselves for other people. And making an assumption that they have to even in cases like Ryan’s where often it feels like he’s sacrificing himself to someone who’s got significantly more power and privilege than he does.

Parinita: Yeah.

Robert: And for their expectations and thoughts without really much consideration being given to them. To him. So having a character stand up and say I’m going to do this thing for myself that is explicitly selfish in this way was something that simultaneously felt like it was important to have a story about but also felt like it was something very taboo to say. Pretty much all the Doctor Who fanfiction I wrote was stuff that I thought an actual Doctor Who episode would never be able to do or never be willing to do. But stuff that I felt was still true and important to say. And I think that sort of someone who is in vulnerable position asserting their own needs and asserting their own boundaries with the knowledge of destructive consequences was a story I felt should be told somewhere. Even if it would have to be in a fanfiction that people don’t read.

Parinita: No, I’m so glad that you did because like you said, it’s something that might reach someone that doesn’t see this in canon. I think a lot of fanfiction not only has the potential to do that, but does do that where you discover things you’re missing out in canon. And that where’s a lot of fanfiction starts from as well where you’re not seeing this in canon in your favourite world. You want to fix it.

Robert: Yes.

Parinita: Or challenge those notions and those ideas and make up your own while you play around in that world.

Robert: I guess I’ve always felt that fanfiction is a way to be able to say that these things you think should be true or are true somewhere.

Parinita: Hmm.

Robert: And so it’s not necessarily because you think how things are in canon is wrong or because you’d do them better, but because you need them to be true somewhere.

Parinita: Oh, I love that idea! And it also is different in terms of who’s reading it. Different people might get different things out of it as well.

Robert: Yeah.

Parinita: I loved your fic. When I was reading it, it made me think of different expressions of trauma – not just in your fic itself in the way that the characters engage with different kinds of traumatic experiences but also in Doctor Who in general and Harry Potter. I was recently re-watching the Christopher Eccleston series of Doctor Who. And when I’d first watched it, it was my first encounter with Doctor Who and I didn’t realise how traumatised his character was. I know he dropped hints about Gallifrey [the Doctor’s home planet] being destroyed or him believing Gallifrey is destroyed and him being a refugee of war and him being the last Time Lord. But just the trauma that he carries and the way that it impacts his whole life. Even though Rose sees him in a certain way. And everyone else sees him in a certain way. Because he has these … I don’t know if I’m saying this coherently … but he has both this lightness and darkness in him at the same time. In the way that he engages with the world. Which I thought was really very sad because I think in a lot of Doctor Who conversations, David Tennant and Matt Smith’s Doctor seem to be the most popular and well Jodie now because she’s awesome. But Christopher Eccleston, because he was only there for one season and I think the actor left on not very good terms –

Robert: No.

Parinita: His Doctor is very much side-lined in conversations. Which I understand but it just struck me as so profoundly sad – his character. Especially since he’s only there for a season. And then that made me start thinking about trauma in Harry Potter as well. Because of all these conversations that make me see things differently. When I go to these worlds again, it makes me see these characters in new ways. And it’s something that we’ve spoken about in a previous episode where Harry Potter’s PTSD is something that I never caught.

Robert: Hmm.

Parinita: I would never have had the knowledge or the tools or resources to identify that myself. But in fandom, the conversation has just given me this new lens to view the character. I re-read The Philosopher’s Stone and I’m currently reading The Chamber of Secrets and the Dursleys’ abuse! Forget his parents and what other things happened with Voldemort and Sirius and everything to come. But even when he’s eleven and twelve, the kind of abusive household he’s lived in. It’s very Roald Dahlesque.

Robert: Hmm.

Parinita: I think that’s what J. K. Rowling was going for. But in one of the fan podcasts that I listen to, The Gayly Prophet, they said that in Roald Dahl, the narrator usually very quickly shows themselves on the child’s side, which J. K. Rowling does as well. But in Roald Dahl’s books, the child immediately starts – well not immediately, but soon starts countering and challenging the adult abuse. Whereas Harry, he has to live with them for another – we meet him when he’s ten.

Robert: Hmm. Yes.

Parinita: And he lives with them until he’s seventeen. He has to keep going back to this abusive household for a reason that he doesn’t know. And that makes it so much more difficult. And Dobby as well. In The Chamber of Secrets, I’ve just met Dobby again.

Robert: Yeah.

Image of Dobby the house elf

Parinita: And the accounts of self-harm that he does and just his sense of identity and inferiority – he’s so happy and so grateful for just the smallest semblance of kindness from Harry. The most basic decent behaviour. Just an example of how trauma has such different and complex impacts on mental well-being. And it’s something that I’ve been thinking of more now than ever because with the pandemic and the lockdown in India and the UK and in different parts of the world, the whole world is going through this collective trauma and dealing with it in so many different ways. I’m dealing with it in so many different ways. I prefer not to examine my trauma.

Robert: [laughs]

Parinita: So I cope with work or books or media or whatever. But that’s also a coping mechanism I guess. It’s just that’s now so much more at the forefront of my mind.

Robert: Yeah. As someone who’s had a lot of trauma, I found in some ways the pandemic to be quite liberating because everyone being traumatised and talking about it all the time made me feel much more normal and comfortable in the world so that was quite nice. And the idea that fiction in general would be exploring these things much more because they would be experiences that were so common and widely known is something that’s almost like, “Oh my god now everyone sees the world the same way as me!”

Parinita: Yeah.

Robert: That makes me feel less exhausted somehow. Which doesn’t mean that I’m glad it’s happened. [laughs]

Parinita: No.

Robert: Because it means a lot of people are having awful experiences that feel like awful experiences I’ve had. But I guess it does feel like these things we’re talking about are likely to become much more – I mean I don’t know what speculative fiction becomes after this.

Parinita: Hmm.

Robert: I was just thinking like Doctor Who itself. How does something like the Doctor who is someone who travels through time and space handle the whole future changing very suddenly? Because the character is fictional, obviously the character never said, “Hey how about that Coronavirus that changes everything?”

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Robert: But then obviously when you come back, you have to say, “There’s been this Coronavirus that changes everything.”

Parinita: Yeah.

Robert: And that whole sort of changing what future is and what speculative fiction is, is quite well hopefully leads to some positive things and not just negative ones. I should have said that more positively.

Parinita: [laughs] For me, it has been more positive. And of course, this comes from a huge position of privilege.

Robert: Yes.

Parinita: Because I don’t have to worry about money because I’m on a university scholarship and they’re continuing to pay me. And I have a house. I can buy groceries. I even have access to parks. I don’t have a garden but I can go to parks in socially distanced ways. And I can bake and cook and things. Whereas in India – I know in the UK there’s a lot of different bad contexts and the US as well that’s in the news. But in India, oh my god, everything’s so much worse. [This episode was recorded before George Floyd was murdered in the US which sparked riots across the country, so the situation in the US is quite terrible as well for different reasons]

Robert: Yeah.

Parinita: Because there are so many really dispossessed people who don’t have access to even the basic things that they need. And there are no systems in place to fix that. Whereas in the UK or other developed nations, there are. So of course, this all comes from a huge place of privilege. But at the same time, I really like seeing this feeling of community, I guess. Where like you said, you feel like you’re not going through this yourself. That’s what’s giving me a little bit of comfort as well. Even something like art because I’m in the children’s books industry, I’ve seen a lot of writers are coming and reading out their books daily.

Robert: Yeah.

Parinita: Some of my favourite writers are doing this. And trying to add some joy in a world which seems devoid of it. And just trying to have some hope and comfort, which gives me hope and comfort.

Robert: Yeah.

Parinita: You know that meme that’s going around that everybody thought that a dystopia would involve looting and violence and whatever. And people are just baking and cooking and putting out more art in the world.

Robert: Yeah.

Parinita: Which, again, is a privileged view. And I know in some parts of the world, this is happening. This dystopia is and was present. But I’m speaking from my experience. And hopefully these conversations – not just about trauma and other things but the broken systems that are so much more in relief now.

Robert: Yeah.

Parinita: I hope that gets fixed in the future. I don’t know – this is just – I’m an optimist. Maybe naively so. But I’m just … yeah.

Robert: Oh no I was just thinking I’m writing fanfic about all the stuff you’re talking about now. I was like that’s quite funny.

Parinita: Oh really?!

Robert: Yeah! About the coronavirus and trauma as a result of it. And trauma coming up from it. And trying to resolve it and what to build after all of it. And I was just like gosh we’re all – well we’re both on the same page there. So that’s nice.

Parinita: Yeah that’s perfect. I can’t wait to read it. I turn to art for comfort – mostly books but also TV shows and movies and things. Like a lot of people are in the world right now.

Robert: Yeah.

Parinita: So I love that you’re creating art to add to what’s out there. Which for me, I currently can’t do. That artistic part of me is just shut down and it’s gone for a really long nap. So currently I can’t do this. I need some time. I’m pushing myself into this podcast which seems like a different part of my brain than my writing children’s books writing part of the brain. Which I’m still not ready to do.

Robert: Thank you for having me on your show and listening today.

Parinita: Thank you so much for being on this podcast and being a part of my project! It was just such a fantastic conversation, I think. I really enjoyed – well catching up with you but also with this very focused hyper-specific thing. I learned a lot from our conversation and I hope our listeners will as well. Thank you so much for being a part of this conversation!

Robert: Thank you.

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode on representations of dyspraxia and autism in Doctor Who. Thank you Robert for so generously sharing your experiences and perspectives on the podcast. You can find Robert’s short story in Stim, an anthology of writing and art by autistic people published by Unbound Press and edited by Lizzie Huxley-Jones. His piece is a story about meeting a seal who pretended to be a human, then finding out that she was better at it than him. I’d also highly recommend Uncanny Magazine’s special issues about disability – Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction and Disabled People Destroy Fantasy. Both issues have a wide range of fiction and nonfiction about different disabilities and all the stories and essays are accessible online for free. You can find the links to both issues in the transcript. Thanks, as always, to Jack who somehow manages to edit my episode in the middle of all the other things he’s doing.

[Outro music]

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

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

Episode 3 Just Let Me Hug a Tree in the Woods: Wicca, Paganism, and Religion in Fantasy Media

Episode Resources: 

For this episode we looked at the following texts:

Blog post – Harry Potter: “Making Evil Look Innocent”

The Guardian article – JK Rowling confirms that there were Jewish wizards at Hogwarts

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina episode – Chapter Seventeen: The Missionaries

Fan podcast – Woke Doctor Who “Faith in the Whoniverse”

Fan podcast – Witch, Please “Special Bonus Episode: Secret Feminist Agenda 1.7”

Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text “Halloween Edition: On Witches and Brett Kavanaugh”

Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper “Cultural Traditions of Magic – with Zen Cho”

Paper on Tolkien spirituality – “Honouring the Valar, Finding the Elf Within: The Curious History of Tolkien Spirituality and the Religious Affordance of Tolkien’s Literary Mythology”

Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds “Faith in Fantasy” 

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

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

Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text “Owl Post and Other Journeys with Professor Stephanie Paulsell”

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

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

Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text “Faith: The House-Elf Liberation Front”


Episode Transcript: 

This is a clean transcript of the episode. If you would prefer the original, unedited version, please let me know!

Photograph of Anna Milon

[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 third episode of Marginally Fannish. 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.

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Anna Milon is a Russian-born London-bred doctoral researcher who has a tentative hope never to leave academia.  She has edited two Tolkien collections – Tolkien the Pagan? Reading Middle-earth through a Spiritual Lens and Poetry and Song in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Her written works have appeared in Beyond Realities 2015Gender Identity and Sexuality in Current Fantasy and Science Fiction, and most recently, A Shadow Within: Evil in Fantasy and Science Fiction, all of which have been published by Luna Press. She juggles all this writing, editing, and researching with the not-at-all-unlikely hobby of Medieval Swordsmanship. She will be presenting a paper on were-foxes called “Sexy Fox: Female Sexualisation in Modern Retellings of the East Asian Were-fox Tale” at the upcoming GIFCon i.e. Glasgow International Fantasy Conversations which will take place on the 28th and 29th of May this year at the University of Glasgow. I’ll be there too presenting my paper on intersectionality and fan podcasts, so if you’re nearby, come say hi!

Parinita: Hello! Today with me, I have Anna and we’re going to be talking about religion and faith in fandom and in media and in the real world. So Anna, would you like to introduce yourself and tell us about your experiences with religion?

Anna: So I am a second year PhD at the University of Exeter, studying very broadly speaking paganism and pagan representation in fantasy. And I started my application letter with, “As a witch!”

Parinita: [laughs]

Anna: So I am an eclectic solitary pagan and what that means is I do not have a coven or a group that I regularly work with. I mostly work alone. And rather than being a follower of a specific pagan movement like Wicca or Druidry, I pick and mix. And I’m inspired by a lot of different spiritual movements and a lot of different settings and ways of practicing. So yeah, that’s me.

Parinita: Wow, I didn’t know about this background and I find it really fascinating and I’m so excited to know more about it. Because I knew we were going to be talking about paganism and Wicca but like all religious people, you’d have different experiences as well within paganism, within eclectic paganism, within Wicca. There’s no monolithic experience, right, so I’m really excited to hear about yours. Well, as for me, I’m not really a religious person at all. I went to a Catholic school in India, in Mumbai, and I grew up in a Hindu household. So I’ve been at close quarters with a lot of religion but I don’t really know details about it except what I know through the people in my life and through media and through just conversations, I guess. I’m curious about religion but not because I think I want to find religion for myself, but because I find it really interesting how people engage with religion and how it helps them. And their view of the world through a religious lens. So yeah that’s –

Anna: Yeah.

Parinita: That’s my experience or lack of experience with religion, I guess.

Anna: And I guess fantasy and fandom is an excellent space to do that. Because it allows for a lot of speculation and for a lot of expression of both the religion of the author or the content creator, but also of reading the work through a specific religious lens by the reader or the consumer.

Parinita: Yeah, absolutely. And I think growing up in India, there are so many different religions that personally I’ve been acquainted with. And I grew up reading a lot of British literature and some American literature. And I never thought of looking at it in a religious lens, really. Not until – like I know Narnia is now the sort of urtext of Christian parables and allegory. And I only discovered that a few years ago. So when I first read Narnia, I didn’t realise it was supposed to stand for anything. Even though I did grow up in a Catholic school, so I knew the tales and I knew the narratives. But that connection never made itself clear to me, I guess.

Anna: Me too, me too. I remember reading Narnia when I was about eight maybe and just completely missing all of the religious analogies. Even though I come from a non-religious household, but my mother was very invested in a classical education for me. So I did know a lot of the Bible stories, as kind of points of references rather than from a religious perspective. And even so I didn’t notice C. S. Lewis employing them. And the same really with all fandom texts that I’ve encountered. For instance, I wasn’t really aware of Tolkien’s Christianity until I became a teenager, an older teenager. I think I first heard of J. K. Rowling referring to herself as Christian in a documentary and I think it was the twentieth anniversary of Harry Potter documentary, so it’s quite recent.

Parinita: So I discovered fandom as a teenager and the first fan space that I discovered was this website called Mugglenet which was this Harry Potter dedicated resource. And I was so excited that there were other people who loved Harry Potter as much as me. And this was before all the books had been out. So I was still a teenager and I think only the four books had been out by then. Four or five. And I remember that there was an interview with J. K. Rowling. And the interviewer wanted to know what religion she followed because I think there were a lot of controversies, as one of the texts that we read outlined, about her books promoting Satanism and Wicca. And so I suppose that’s why the interviewer was curious. And she said that I don’t want to reveal my religion because if I do, then the plot of the final book will be really evident to readers – to really astute readers. It’ll be really clear to them what’s going to happen. Which I thought was very curious because it led to so many theories. You know when you don’t have the canon there, there were so many theories. And everyone had all these sorts of interpretations from all sorts of lenses, including atheism. Now that I’m more familiar with Christian theology and stories and narratives, I know that Harry stood for, like Aslan, stood for Jesus. Yeah so her Christianity was only evident to me through her conversations and not through the text itself. Since I did mention the controversies with Wicca and paganism and Satanism that Harry Potter had, how would you, in your life or your scholarship or whatever, how would you define Wicca? And witches? And paganism?

Anna: The term witch is incredibly loaded. Which makes it very rewarding and also frustrating to study. Where you have people who in the late medieval and early modern period prosecuted as witches for being allied with the devil, for being evil. Then witches as a female, feminist identity that’s reclaiming an independent, self-sufficient and powerful and intelligent woman. You have witches who are Wiccans. Who are followers of one of the first neo-pagan religions promoted by Gerald Gardner in the 1950s. And you’ve got witches who are spiritual individuals but who do not necessarily align themselves with Wicca strictly.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Anna: And I find that in Harry Potter, being a witch or a wizard very much doesn’t fit into any of those terms.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Anna: Because you don’t get any sense of pagan leanings within the books at all. In fact, one of J. K. Rowling’s tweets about religious diversity in Hogwarts explicitly mentions how the only religion she didn’t envisage as being part of the Hogwarts student body was Wicca. Which puzzled me at the time. But equally you don’t get a sense that these people who go to Hogwarts are heirs of the persecuted community of historical witches.

Screenshot of J. K. Rowling's tweets about religious diversity in Hogwarts. Text says: To everyone asking whether their religion/belief/non-belief system is represented at Hogwarts: the only people I never imagined there are Wiccans.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Anna: Neither do you get the sense that they have particular leanings towards activism or towards social movements.

Parinita: Or even a sense of community really. Because even within the witches and wizards in Hogwarts, there are so many different social, cultural, all these sorts of hierarchies. Not only within the humans but also you know like house elves, giants and … so even in terms of having a community of like-minded followers or adherents to a particular belief, that doesn’t really seem to be there.

Anna: Yeah so I was very surprised to see that Rowling’s books sparked this controversy around promoting Wicca as a bad thing, promoting Satanism as a bad thing. Because there’s really nothing there, apart from the word witch or wizard and apart from the idea of magic which is condemned by some fundamentalist Christian groups. And in terms of the internal religion of Hogwarts, that’s very, very Christian. They celebrate Christmas, they’ve got very Christian ethics. So not just the external religion in the context of which Rowling writes is Christianity, but also the wizards themselves can be conceived to be Christian.

Parinita: Yeah absolutely. And again, this is something that as someone who’s not familiar with these conversations and these contexts, it comes as such a surprise to me because when I was a kid and even later as a teenager, I knew that in the US, there were these groups that wanted to burn Harry Potter and were banning Harry Potter just because it promoted Wicca. Because of the word witch in it. And all the articles in India were really bemused because it was so alien to us. Of course we have book bannings as well but they’re for not the same reasons. And we would never think of banning Harry Potter for promoting Wicca. And then on your recommendation, I did watch “The Missionaries” episode of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina just this afternoon actually. And how starkly Christianity was shown in opposition to Wicca there – again, that connection between the two was so evident to me only then. Because I’d heard about witch burning and stuff, of course, in the US and I think in the UK and Europe? I’m not sure. But I had heard about it through media, entirely through media. And for me, it had a much more gendered connotation than a religious one. Even though I knew that it was … well I suppose I vaguely knew that it was Christians burning witches as heretics. But because of the media that I consumed, to me it felt like it was because powerful women who live in this society that oppressed women. Which is why people were afraid of witches. Not because of their religious leanings but because of their gender and what they could do to someone who’d been oppressing them all their lives essentially. So yeah just in terms of Christianity versus Wicca, it was really interesting just because it’s something that I’d never thought of. Like in terms of where I’ve grown up.

Anna: Yeah I think there are sort of two things happening here. First of all there’s definitely this uneasy relationship between Christianity today and Wicca today based on the persecution of witches in the past who were not Wiccan because Wicca  didn’t exist. But –

Parinita: Yes.

Anna: Who are seen as ancestors of modern pagans. And then there is the reclamation of the term witch by second-wave feminists to mean this intelligent woman who’s being oppressed. And there is an interesting movement with the use of the acronym WITCH which expands to Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell.

Parinita: [laughs]

Anna: Created in the late 1960s and for them, their motto is, “You are a witch by being female, untamed, angry, joyous and immoral. Immortal, sorry.” So it has very little to do with paganism and a lot to do with female agency.

Parinita: Hmm.

Anna: And I guess there’s this perception that both things – both paganism and female independence sit uneasily with traditional Christianity.

Parinita: So is Wicca a Western faith tradition then, would you say? Since I watched that episode, that’s really fresh in my mind. I was really interested in how it stands in contrast to other religions. Not just Christianity but other Western and Eastern religions. Because I don’t know, in India we have our own what would I guess be considered pagan. Again, I don’t know a lot of details about religion and I haven’t researched enough. But I suppose from a Western lens, it would be considered pagan or, like you were saying yesterday, indigenous. So you know things that probably, in Christianity, would be considered really not acceptable. So is Wicca then just Western based?

Anna: Yes. I absolutely would agree that Wicca is Western. Ronald Hutton says that Wicca is the only religion that England gave the world.

Parinita: [laughs]

Anna: Which I think is pretty accurate. Yes, it has grown and developed beyond England but the crux sort of seems to be in the UK. And at the moment, there seems to be a sort of divide between eclectic pagans who very much create new traditions and reimagine the past, and who tend to be Western or Anglo-centric or Euro-centric. And sort of revivalists who are people who are getting back in touch with their native or indigenous faith. They tend to be from colonised countries and cultures that are rediscovering a native faith that has been repressed by either Christian missionaries or by a colonising force. So they are in conversation with one another but they are sort of two poles of a spectrum.

Parinita: So then for a group of Wiccans, or for a group of pagans, would it be then like a political identity as well as a religious one? One of the texts that we looked at this time was the Woke Doctor Who episode of “Faith in the Whoniverse”. And one of the hosts, who’s a black American woman, spoke about how she didn’t recognise herself in Christianity. But she still had faith and she converted, I guess, or found the Orisha tradition from Africa which she really identified with politically as well as religiously because they were nature-based deities who looked like her. And so it was a very actively activist decision on her part.

Anna: I feel that yes, a lot of choices that pagans make are political as well as religious. It seems to be getting more prominent especially in relation to environmental activism and intersectionality. People see paganism as a more viable spirituality for a modern society.

Parinita: Hmm.

Anna: And as a more accepting spirituality. And indeed it is a lot more malleable than, for instance, Christianity which has just been around for a long period of time and has fossilized somewhat.

Parinita: Right. So we listened to two podcast episodes that dealt with Wicca, very personal interpretations of Wicca. Which was the Witch, Please episode as well as the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text episode. And that was my first introduction to proper Wicca, I suppose, just proper perspectives from people who were either familiar with it or who were non-practicing Wiccans. And I was unsure whether there was an intersectional analysis in Wicca. Because I know that in one of the episodes, in the Witch, Please one, they did say that the whole focus on menstruation – they didn’t want to make it transphobic, which is why they were trying not to have the focus so much on that. But then as somebody else said, it’s such a personal engagement with the faith that everyone has different engagements with it. So you know there’s no one catchall religion, I guess.

Anna: There is absolutely no one catchall religion. And in a way that’s a good thing because at the moment, since sort of the 90s, there are a lot of conversations around how a lot of the pagan traditions are very gender essentialist because of this view of nature and nature’s fertility as being very much binary with a union of the male and the female principle. And with the main worship deities being the god and the goddess. Which are not just socially masculine and feminine but are also very physically male and female. And as you mentioned, the focus on the female reproductive cycle or the stages of the female life – the triple goddess is represented as the maiden, the mother, and the crone. So where does that put women who are unable to have children or who have chosen not to? Luckily enough, certain Wiccan groups and communities and certain other pagan communities are finding ways to work around that by working with different deities or by viewing the male and female aspects as inherent in every individual.

Parinita: Hmm.

Anna: And it is the balance of the two or the intersection of the two that creates a harmonious person. As opposed to you representing one or the other.

Parinita: Ah. So another thing that I was thinking of just in terms of intersectionality … I know one of the people on the podcast, I think it was on the Witch, Please podcast, said that in terms of their belief and their perspective of Wicca, there is no fundamentally bad way to be a woman. And I understand that in terms of like they were, I think, talking about frivolousness versus femininity and like all ways of being a woman are acceptable. But then if I analysed it a bit further, it almost seemed to suggest that just by virtue of being a woman, you are … I mean you can’t be a bad woman I suppose. And I was thinking there are hierarchies even within women, right? Like just in terms of class and disability and which part of the world that you come from, what race you are, what … I suppose trans and non-binary folk as well. But like you said the gender essentialism is being countered. But even within the environmentalism movement, just because a lot of the Wiccan and pagan like not a lot – but a group of them do seem to be really actively trying to protect the environment as well. And with the environment movement as well, Extinction Rebellion was something that I was really fascinated with when it first started coming up and I was reading up about them and I was researching them and joined the group and everything. And I started getting this uncomfortable feeling. And then there were more articles about it and critiques about it later that it was very exclusionary to – not actively, they weren’t meaning to be – but they weren’t very inclusive to people who were not middle class, not white, not privileged in some way.

Anna: That’s ooof – there’s a lot to unpack there. Thank you for asking the challenging question. I think with what you said about is there a right and a wrong way of being a woman. I think we can bring that back to fandom and whether there’s a right and a wrong way for being a fan.

Parinita: Yeah that’s a very good point.

Anna: Yeah. We see the core idea be it feminism or being a fan or environmentalism as the defining trait of the people within the community.

Parinita: Hmm.

Anna: Often overlooking other areas of their beliefs, of their attitudes that might not be as positive or as palatable. And I also feel that we as a society really don’t take kindly to people’s complexity. That you can’t be all good. There will always be, unfortunately, a side of your life where you’re not as educated, not as aware and not as considerate as you perhaps could have been. But that need not condemn you entirely. And especially I feel with Extinction Rebellion, I also am very much interested in their work. But to give an example, their push for civil disobedience and their push for arrests, a lot of people can’t afford to be arrested, especially –

Parinita: Exactly.

Anna: Ethnic minorities, especially if they’re from less privileged backgrounds. However, this can be slightly flipped on its head by saying well only people who are considered privileged in this society are going to take that risk.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Anna: And those are the voices that we are putting up there and making them heard. The importance here I feel is to give a different platform and a different way of activism to people who are unable to get arrested or uncomfortable doing it.

Parinita: No, I absolutely agree. I think that the conversation is what’s more important than just – first of all the awareness that this is a problem. But I think that awareness is there now and it’s … with everything like with fandom as well. There was a huge conversation in fandom about the race blindness of fandom and the racism within some parts of fandom as well. Which again, people may not, like you were saying, they may not be educated enough or they don’t know enough. For me, it’s an ongoing process of learning and unlearning social conditioning in different aspects of my identity. And also unlearning the colonised brain that I have thanks to growing up in India and consuming largely Western media. But yeah for sure, I think the conversations are important. And do you think these conversations are happening on the Wiccan side as well? Or on the pagan side as well?

Anna: I think they are but there can always be more that’s done.

Parinita: Yeah.

Anna: And I wish that these conversations had a slightly more far-reaching platform. Because a lot of the times from what I’ve encountered, they happen at conventions and at meetings. But so many pagans don’t have a community and so much interaction happens online.

Parinita: Hmm.

Anna: And I feel that it’s online in spaces that slip under the radar –

Parinita: Yeah.

Anna: That you can have a lot of these problematic discourses still circulating.

Parinita: Hmm.

Anna: And I feel that it’s the same with fandom.

Parinita: Absolutely.

Anna: With things like Comic Con, everyone is lovely for the most part and people try to be considerate and people try to raise awareness. And then you go to a Reddit thread and –

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Anna: It’s a lot of weird creatures.

Parinita: But also I suppose you do have – at least I have the tendency of creating my bubble, like safe space within everywhere that I go online. Because I know that even on places like The Guardian’s Facebook articles, if I go read the comments, I’ll just spiral into this “Why am I doing this to myself?!” Because you would think even with a space like that, it would be fairly okay, but nope! Nope! It’s not okay; you shouldn’t go there unless you want to, I don’t know, fight with random strangers. But fandom is the same. And I guess with religion and faith and Wicca, it would be the same. That you don’t actively seek out negativity, I guess. Or antagonism. And the conversations would be more fruitful if there was, like you were saying, a larger platform for the community.

Anna: It’s difficult to know when your safe space becomes an echo chamber.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Anna: And where that boundary lies. A couple of years back, I pitched a topic for the Tolkien Society Seminar in Leeds. And my topic was Tolkien the Pagan? Question mark. Reading Middle-earth through a spiritual lens. And I was trying to promote a conversation about non-Christian interpretations of Tolkien’s work. Because the Christian view is so prevalent that there seems to be no space for much else and I was trying to create that space. And the Call for Papers was accepted and I was warned whether I was prepared for the consequences

Parinita: [laughs]

Anna: And I sort of laughed it off at the time.

Parinita: Oh dear.

Anna: And within the first couple of days, on Facebook, that post had over two hundred comments. Most of them very aggressively denouncing the choice of topic saying that Tolkien’s texts are Christian only. That if you are a non-Christian reader, you can’t possibly understand what he is getting at and what Middle-earth is all about.

Parinita: Wow.

Anna: Which, to me, was quite jarring. And I was quite taken aback at the vehemence with which these people defended or claimed the texts for a specific group of people. But, on the other hand, if I didn’t encounter that, I wouldn’t have known that such a large percentage of people who consider themselves fans have this sort of reaction.

Parinita: No, absolutely. And it’s just I suppose this perceived assault against – not only in fandom, in religion as well – like when you are the dominant group but there’ll be one lone voice, like in your case your Call for Papers, that offers another interpretation of either the religion or just another religion or a fan theory or whatever. And how this creates this really uncomfortable feeling, I guess, among the dominant group. And it leads to so many different kinds of violence and oppression. In your case, it wasn’t physical violence and it wasn’t oppression I guess; but it was trying to silence any dissent or any interpretation that doesn’t match your own. And it was something that like with Harry Potter and the whole fundamentalist Christian furore against it, it’s the fact that in the US, Christianity forms the structure of a lot of their country and media and culture. And in India, it would be Hinduism. But just like in the US, in other parts of the world, and in India currently, the majority religion is feeling this threat by religions that are so much smaller in their countries. But the way that they’re responding to it is really – that’s what I find really scary. And it’s really dangerous. And in your case luckily there’s been no – I mean you know the two hundred comments I hope were –

Anna: No, I got off lightly.

Parinita: Yeah. Not to diminish the feelings that you must have had. But I’m reading this book about the alt-right culture online and I have a very nice, optimistic view of the internet because that’s been my experience so far. Again, my safe space is very much constructed and deliberate. So I have a really nice experience online. But I know that a lot of women online don’t. And in your case, I wonder if it was … I suppose with the CFP, they wouldn’t know who put out the CFP – the Call for Papers.

Anna: Yeah, luckily they didn’t.

Parinita: Yeah. Because –

Anna: They mostly pinned it on the Society which was that one step removed and that was helpful.

Parinita: Yeah but that’s another thing – it’s not just oppression of one, if you’re a woman, it’s so much worse for everything.

Anna: Yeah. And in fandom, especially, you can see how arbitrary these distinctions and these prejudices sometimes are. Because sometimes people will defend the canon until the cows come home. And sometimes people will defend their own idea of what the show is supposed to be like against the actual showrunners and the cast. And I’m thinking here about the announcement of Jodie Whitaker as the … Thirteenth Doctor? [asks hesitantly]

Parinita: Uh huh yeah. [laughs]

Anna: Got the numbers right.

Parinita: [laughs]

Anna: And the backlash that she got. Whereas that’s canon. That is a showrunner decision. Therefore, surely all of us canon-loving people should make peace with that as a natural progression of the show. But unfortunately it seems that people are very, very fixed in what they want to be the truth.

Parinita: But also fixed in a very certain way that only privileges their group of people, I guess. So speaking of, just because something that you’d mentioned earlier, the religious diversity in Hogwarts where one of the things that we read was The Guardian article about J. K. Rowling’s tweets about the “very evident”, according to her, religious diversity in Hogwarts. But as she mentioned and as others have mentioned since, Anthony Goldstein, I think, is the only Jewish character. And it’s like his presence doesn’t really – it’s the exception that proves the rule, right? Christianity, as you said, is the framework of Hogwarts too. And Anthony Goldstein’s Jewishness has nothing – there’s no mention of it in the text. It’s like Dumbledore being gay, there’s no mention of that in the text itself. So I feel like there were so many – I suppose not missed opportunities … but there was a lot of room for exploration in terms of the religious diversity in Hogwarts. Which I think fandom could be doing but it’s not something that is evident in the series at all.

Anna: Yeah. Perhaps it’s a bit too late for the series because I feel that the majority of backlash against J. K. Rowling was because she refused to acknowledge that the texts were done and the texts were fallible. But when she wrote them, diversity – whether it be sexual, ethnic or religious diversity – wasn’t really on the forefront of everyone’s minds as it is now. And that’s all right in a way. She could not have written different books being who she was and who she is now.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Anna: But adaptations of the Harry Potter series can be different, can be diverse. And that’s very much the conversation currently happening against the upcoming Lord of the Rings on Prime adaptation where the announced cast is very racially diverse. And the question is how the showrunners are going to deal with that and interpret that. And how will it differ from what we suppose Tolkien’s own vision of Middle-earth was. Which presumably, based on the time when he was writing, was white and straight. To come back to your question about the lack of exploration of religious diversity in fandom, I’m quite surprised by how little people engage with that as far as I’ve seen. I haven’t really seen a lot of fanfiction or fan art that provides meaningful interpretations of characters as religious. Maybe because of this stigma in some young social groups in some corners of fandom, of religions – any kind of religion – being very oppressive and very anti-fantasy.

Parinita: Hmm.

Anna: Um so yeah.

Parinita: Which actually that reminds me. I had I think come across a Tumblr post about how Muslim students would celebrate Ramzan in Hogwarts. In terms of when they celebrate Eid, the fasting, and how they’d have to talk to the house elves and you know have arrangements for –

Anna: I’ve seen that. It’s a good post.

Screenshot of Tumblr post by bertiebottsbigbean. Text says: why don't we talk about muslim kids in hogwarts during ramadan? imagine waking up at 3 every morning and walking down for suhoor, to find the house elves have prepared a feast for them. imagine the kids having an extended curfew, so they can go and eat iftar at 10, where the house elves once again provide a ten course meal, topped with dates and traditional delicacies from around the world. imagine the kids being allowed to go into the kitchens in the middle of the night if they were still in the mood to eat. imagine the kids being allowed to leave class to do their prayers, and sending lunch times to read the quran. we need to talk more about muslim kids in hogwarts.

Parinita: Yeah, yeah. So you’re right, it’s very limited. But I think in fandom, there is an opportunity – and I haven’t gone looking for religiously diverse texts really. But I just think that the diversity, especially in a text like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings or Doctor Who which has such a global appeal, which has fans from so many different parts of the world and cultures and religions and everything, there is so much more room for exploring diverse aspects. And even in Doctor Who, in the Woke Doctor Who episode, they mentioned that ever since Jodie’s run, there have been more episodes that have focused on different faiths. And they wonder whether it is not only because there’s a diverse cast now, but there’s also more diverse creators in the writing room. And that’s what leads to more diversity. Like the other text that we looked at the interview with the Malaysian British writer Zen Cho, and how she was saying that – which is true and it’s something that I hadn’t really until someone pointed it out, I hadn’t realised it – that a lot of Western fantasy is very Christian and it’s the sort of fantasy that is global now. We all have our brains shaped by Western fantasy traditions. So like Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter. And everything else is othered and everything else is exoticised or even denigrated depending on who’s doing the writing. And the fact that there are now more diverse voices – because diversity is so interesting, right? Not just for people from marginalised religions who see their practices there and feel this sense of recognition but also for people from dominant religions who have always been seeing the same kind of texts. And now they have an opportunity to read something different and to learn something different, I guess.

Anna: Yeah. I absolutely agree with you there. And I think that the othering of the non-Judeo-Christian framework is doing more harm than the texts themselves that are written within a dominant Christian context. Because that episode that you’re referring to, it’s Breaking the Glass Slipper non-Western magic episode. And the crux of the discussion there is that the texts even when written through a Christian lens, when written well enough, do offer other ways of interpreting them. Do offer other spiritual reference points that don’t necessarily require an explicit mention of, oh that character is Muslim or creation of an internal magic or spiritual system that actively references a non-Western religion. But we are not used to reading them that way.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Anna: And I think that fandom spaces are a good place to introduce the habit of reading texts through multiple spiritual lenses.

Parinita: No, absolutely. Currently in fandom, a lot of conversation about diversity seems to be focused on race. So currently for me, it’s me unlearning seeing white as normative and trying to see … make my brain more diverse, I guess. Trying to accept more diversity within the characters that I read. But you’re so right in terms of religion as well. Now if I go back to a lot of the media that I watch as well, Christianity is so much the framework. And it’s something that I just took for granted really. I didn’t stop to consider because, like you’re saying, I don’t know how to read it through a different spiritual tradition even though I come from a different religious – not personally religious but culturally, I come from such a different tradition. Another one of the episodes that we were listening to, the Imaginary Worlds episode about “Faith in Fantasy”, featured different religious leaders. So there was a Rabbi, there was a Minister and there was an Alwaez – a Muslim leader. And they talked about how they read similar science fiction and fantasy texts, the really popular ones, based on their own faith traditions. So they read it through a Muslim lens or a Jewish lens or a Christian lens and I found that fascinating. Because I’ve never read anything through a Hindu lens, not really. And is that something you find that you do? Your Call for Papers was about Tolkien and paganism so you did actively look or try to look for paganism in Tolkien. Is that something you find that you have to do or something that comes really easily to you?

Anna: I try to. I think I fail more than I’m comfortable admitting. Because a lot of very Christian concepts that I have internalised, I don’t necessarily recognise as Christian. For instance, I have a very strong sense of sin and virtue as these two opposing forces. And human characters in fantasy are necessarily sinful and the sort of benevolent elves, supernatural creatures, magician characters are necessarily virtuous. Which again, is a very, very Christian divide. But through hard work and self-abasement, you can achieve a modicum of virtue and atone for your sin. And that needs to be challenged as much as the more overt links to Christianity. When trying to read things explicitly through a pagan lens, I often get frustrated because I find a lot of the references that are thought to be pagan are to this witchcraft-light social movement that has very little to do with spirituality and has a fairly little understanding of what being Wiccan or being pagan actually entails. For instance, the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina are an endless fount of frustration for me.

Parinita: [laughs]

Anna: Because they’re not witches! They’re Satanists!

Parinita: That’s what I –! I mean when I was watching this episode – I’ve had this show on my radar for quite awhile and this episode was quite an episode to begin with, to introduce yourself to, [laughs] because it was very much Christianity versus Satanism. Because they’re following Lucifer, I believe. I don’t know … they called him the Dark Lord. But yeah they’re following Lucifer, and they consider god – the Christian god – to be the false god? Like it’s a very binary opposition. So yeah.

Anna: First of all, I don’t see anything wrong with Satanism. It’s its own thing with interesting ideas.

Parinita: Yeah.

Anna: But I feel that by calling a religion that is so explicitly against Christianity witchcraft, as they do in the show, they’re promoting some quite entrenched and quite erroneous ideas about what witchcraft, Wicca, paganism actually is. I know people who identify as both pagan and Christian, specifically Roman Catholic. And there seems to be a way to enmesh those two religions. Plus [sighs] really I don’t think I’ve ever met a pagan who was actively dismissive of Christianity as a fake or false religion. Sure as a social structure, it has its own problems but so do all religious and spiritual movements. And also the attributes that the Church of Night in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina uses are often very misogynistic, often very aggressive. No, we do not actually eat children.

Parinita: [laughs]

Anna: No, there are no blood sacrifices. Just let me hug a tree in the woods somewhere.

Parinita: [laughs]

Anna: And I understand that it makes for a nice, visually compelling show. But unfortunately it is a very inaccurate representation of paganism as a group of faiths.

Parinita: Again, that’s something I would not have thought of until you just said it. Because it is like not taking Wicca or Wiccans or witches seriously as their own faith and as their own religion. Because like you’re saying, it makes for a good show and it makes for a good story-line. But you would not have Muslims, for example, or Hindus or you know any other non-Western religion or even a Western one. Like Jewish people. You wouldn’t have them the way that Wiccans are presented on the TV show. So it’s almost like you’re using another religion just as set dressing, as just this sort of fun cultural anomaly. For the people who are writing and for the mainstream who’s watching, it’s just fantasy. And it’s not a real religion that a lot of people follow.

Anna: Yes. And it’s interesting where that divide lies between scare quotes “real religions” and “made-up religions”.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Anna: Because fantasy is quite rich in both. And paganism seems to be somewhere in the middle where in Harry Potter you use the language of witchcraft without any kind of spiritual underpinning. They perform spells, they make potions, but there’s no sense that it’s an act of worship or an act of spiritual transaction. And in shows like Supernatural, you have a Christian framework with angels and demons and god is somewhere out there. But I feel it’s a lot less willing to cross certain boundaries. Like you wouldn’t have … Dean and … Sam and Dean, there we go!

Parinita: [laughs]

Anna: Sam and Dean walk up to heaven and sort of have a chat with god over a beer.

Parinita: Hmm.

Anna: Because it’s not that kind of show. There are some boundaries there that prevent them from doing that. Whereas I feel that with paganism, because it isn’t counted as a real religion in many cases, there are no boundaries like that. There’s nothing protecting the sacred aspects of paganism.

Parinita: Hmm. And when you said made-up religion, it made me think – I always have this vague … not daydream, I guess, but vague thought. If we have the apocalypse, we have a lot of reasons for that like the climate, religion, I don’t know so many different things. And far into the future, if there are descendants of humans or whoever or aliens or whatever, they find our – whatever texts that they do, and whatever media, paraphernalia whatever – and what will they think that our beliefs and our religions and our worldview was based on what they find? Because currently popular culture seems to have such a grip on a lot of people. In fact in the Imaginary Worlds episode that we listened to, the Rabbi, she did say that popular culture stories almost seem to have replaced religion for a lot of people in terms of the stories that we tell each other. And a lot of mainstream religions that we see today like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, they’re thousands of years old. And they were at some point made up. Like someone did make the texts that we see now. And two thousand years from now, we don’t know what religions are going to survive, what is going to replace the religions that are so mainstream now. Like that fascinating paper that you sent me about Tolkien spirituality which – I’d never heard of it. But when I was reading the paper, there are so many parallels with religion that already exists now in terms of … they have a canon, they have the book that they read, they have a lot of metaphors, they have a lot of faith that they place on some elements and some aspects of the books. And like you were saying, there are some people who believe that their reading of the books is the only correct reading. And everyone who doesn’t follow the religion is not understanding the books correctly. Right?

Anna: Yeah, absolutely. And you’ve got things like people being inspired by Tolkien. Especially The Silmarillion and the creation of Middle-earth and the Valar to have their own religious groups. And things like Jedis and people seeing philosophies portrayed in Star Wars as religions. I think that even without these explicit examples of adapting fantasy into faith, we already believe in fantasy much more than we think we do. Firstly because fantasy leads us to faith. If you think about Doctor Who and how much faith his companions – his or her companions place in the Doctor. If you think about the trope of the Chosen One, who is infallible, and we as readers place our faith in that character. Because we know the formula. We know that in the end, they are going to overcome whatever difficulties are thrown their way. Is that enough to supplant more conventional religions? I don’t know. But it’s an interesting question.

Parinita: Yeah for sure. And so Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, it has a lot of engagements with spiritual leaders. So some of the episodes that we listened to, there were Reverends and Rabbis and just even scholars of religious studies. And a lot of the things they were saying, I found so many similarities between religion and fandom. Because for me as a non-religious person, a lot of the things that religious people seem to find in religion, I found in fandom. And just people who like the same things that I do. So that finding that sense of community, and you know even having rituals based around your favourite things and going on pilgrimages as well. It’s something that I never thought of as – I know religious people go on pilgrimages but then if I go to something that’s Harry Potter related or if I go to something that’s related to the movies or something that I like, a TV show, that is a pilgrimage in a way. It is me going there because I love this thing so much. Canon as well. All these debates about what counts as canon. Like in Judaism, Rabbi Scott Perlo I believe, he was talking about how there is a debate between some people what they consider to be canon. So that made me think of fandom as well. The more conservative fans and adherents who think that the original text is the only canon that’s acceptable. And there can be no deviation to it. So like what you said with Lord of the Rings and the Christian interpretation. Or with Doctor Who even with just the white, male Doctor being the only acceptable Doctor. Whereas on the other side, you have the more progressive sort of believers, I guess, who are open to canon being disrupted and expanded and just who like there being more of the thing they love. And have more to look at.

Anna: Yeah, absolutely. And fandom not only functions very much as a spiritual movement, it also inherits a lot of the language of one. You mentioned pilgrimages. A lot of fans will have shrines of their favourite book or show paraphernalia. Canon can also be interpreted as a religious term.

Parinita: Metaphors as well. Like you know in terms of metaphors for real-world social and political issues. So fandom does that with texts, like Harry Potter or Doctor Who. But also with religion, like even though these texts were written two thousand years or more ago, you’re still trying to make it relevant to today’s contexts. Or at least I think at least successful religion, that’s what they should be doing. Like I was telling you about this article that I read about this radical church in the US. And they made social justice the framework of their church. I’m going to link to that in the transcript of this episode. But they just meet together and they read things like Marx and feminist theory and also religion, like extracts from the Bible. And they all connect it together. It’s almost like getting an education, right? For me, that’s what fandom is. Just learning to look at things through different lenses that I wouldn’t have otherwise. Community, just coming together, and meeting people that you wouldn’t otherwise have met and they might not be … like you were saying the echo chamber. It’s a way for me to get out of my echo chamber a bit because we’re coming around a community because we all love this thing. But we’re coming from so many different backgrounds and so many different perspectives. And perhaps even political leanings. And it makes it more interesting, I think.


Photograph of a church pamphlet. Cover text says: Jubilee Baptist Church. Love as if a different world is possible.

Picture from the Jubilee Baptist Church referenced above. Image courtesy BuzzFeed

Anna: Absolutely. And I think it’s very valuable to have a community that is so diverse both nationally, ethnically, religiously but also in terms of education and lifestyle and professional careers. Where those things also greatly impact outlooks on the world and ways we see current knowledge. And fandom is this unifying force that allows us to explore new ways of finding information while also always being able to bring it back to that community, bring it back to that thing that’s familiar and that’s safe and that we love. Which is why it’s so important that we protect the fandom space and maintain it as accessible and as welcoming to everyone.

Parinita: Yeah, absolutely. I agree. And I think that that’s what to me currently is most exciting with fandom. So, like I said, I discovered fandom first as a thirteen-year-old with Mugglenet. And I used to read Harry Potter fanfiction and I used to write Harry Potter fanfiction. But now what really excites me is all the critical commentary and the fan works that are around it. In the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text episode with Reverend Broderick Greer, he said, “Who in our culture is imagined out of stories? And who needs to reimagine themselves back into them?” He was talking about religion but he was also talking about fandom. Because in religion as well, with Christianity, with all religions I think, Hinduism as well. They are written in a very patriarchal way and Hinduism is very upper caste. So a specific group of privileged people. With Christianity I don’t know if it was white men because it was in the Middle East but privileged people nonetheless. Or at least now they’ve gained a sense of status. And now it is mostly white men who are adherents to the religion [Editor’s note: I meant in control]. But it was written to privilege just a certain group of people but there were so many other voices that were not – like of women, of different races, classes, you know even religions. And now there is more of an effort within both religion and within fandom to highlight these marginalised voices and to actively look for these voices so that even if the canon itself has a lot of blind spots and it has a lot of missing gaps, fans and followers are now working to fix these gaps. And I love that.

Anna: Yeah. And this notion of reading certain groups of people back into stories speaks to the idea of re-enchantment of the world that’s been loosely going on since the 70s. And is this drive to see the world as more intersectional, as more holistic, acknowledging that no group of people has primacy over others. That humanity as a species does not have primacy over non-human animals, over the natural world in general. And a more magical view of the world that allows us to maintain our identity while also entertaining all of these other ways of being in the world.

Parinita: Yeah and just even with science fiction and fantasy, I completely agree with you. It allows us to imagine a different world; allows us to question, really, things, the way that they are and allows us then to imagine possibilities as well. Which I think in religion, in fandom, in fantasy, that’s a really good thing for me to take from them.

Anna: Yeah, absolutely.

Parinita: Thank you so much, Anna, for talking to me about your faith and about religion. I have learned so much from our conversation. My brain is so full of ideas and I just want to go back to Harry Potter and now read it through a religious lens and find out all the ways that – maybe I can write more fanfiction now. Maybe I can go back to my thirteen-year-old [laughs] skills and you know write fanfiction from a religious lens.

Anna: Thank you so much. It’s been an incredible pleasure. And good luck with your project!

Parinita: Thank you!

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode on representations of religion in media. You can listen to the first two episodes of Marginally Fannish wherever you find your podcasts. Thanks again Anna for being a part of this project and for expanding my brain in so many different ways. Religion is not something I think about too often and you had such a refreshing and illuminating perspective to share. And thanks as always to Jack for helping me with the editing.

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

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

Episode 2 Failure of Imagination: Representations of Race in Media and Fandom – Part 2

This is Part Two of the episode. Go here to listen to/read Part One.

Episode Resources:

For this episode, we looked at the following texts:

Fan podcast – Episode 21 of The Gayly Prophet “Clearly, Hermione is Black: An Interview with Prerna Abbi-Scanlon and Tahirah Green” 

Fan podcast – Episode 165 of Black Girl Nerds “Racebending and Whitewashing in Media”

Fan podcast – Episode 18 of Woke Doctor Who “Sweep Your Own Yard”

Doctor Who episode “Rosa”


Episode Transcript: 

This is a clean transcript of the episode. If you would prefer the original, unedited version, please let me know!

[Intro music]

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

[Intro music]

You’re listening to the second part of our episode on race and representation. As three Indian fangirls of mostly Western media (but also Bollywood!), we have a LOT of thoughts about this episode’s theme. We didn’t want to stop talking, which is why we divided this episode into two parts.

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.

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: So this brings me to a section that is really interesting just because of the impact it has on popular culture at large. Which is whitewashing and racebending. So we listened to a podcast episode, a Black Girl Nerds episode called “Racebending and Whitewashing in Media”. Had you guys come across the term whitewashing before?

Aparna: Yes. Whitewashing is where a retelling of a story that wouldn’t necessarily have white people, when it is told to a larger audience, happens to have only white people. Or like a story that does not necessarily need to be told by white people or shouldn’t be, is being told in a very – completely negating the experiences of more marginalised voices. And the most striking example of it, which they mentioned in the podcast, is well is that of Jesus.

Parinita: Yeah [laughs]

Aparna: [laughs] They listed out all the actors who’d played Jesus and it was all white people, one after the other. It was quite funny.

Parinita: But I never even thought of Jesus as anybody except not white. Like I went to a Catholic school in India and all the portraits of Mother Mary and Jesus and you know all the saints and everything – all of them were white. And it’s only recently that, just through conversations online, again because the internet is the most fantastic educational resource, it was like, yeah he was – first of all, he was Jewish because he literally started the religion.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: And he was Middle Eastern so he would be brown.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And this is just such a disruptive notion to just what we think of as Jesus. And then it starts making you think what other aspects of history or mythology have been whitewashed, you know?

Aparna: Exactly!

Sanjana: But see if you’re basing it on Indian things, then everything like supreme is white only for us.

Parinita: [laughs] That’s true. Fair and Lovely everywhere.

Sanjana: Yeah, everywhere. Like we are having a constant battle by trying to tell colourists who are colouring our comics, to tell them that you know this guy is from this region. He would look not this white. And they say, “But hero, sir. Hero? Hero, madam.” Because the hero can just not be anything else but white.

Parinita: But I mean it’s not just the West though that has a hold on whitewashing their gods. We also have like plenty of whitewashing of our Hindu gods and goddesses.

Sanjana: Yeah, yeah. All our gods have been portrayed like whatever live-action stuff has happened, is all like by these white-looking men. Whereas Krishna literally means dark.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: Like it’s as dark as the dark clouds. Like it means dark.

Aparna: But we don’t make them dark, we make them blue.

Sanjana: Yeah. Okay rain clouds are not dark clouds, they’re blue clouds.

Parinita: [laughs]

Aparna: We can’t have a dark-skinned person.

Parinita: Exactly! Like what would that mean having a dark person like – only upper caste. How can we have a non-upper caste actor –

Aparna: We’ll invent a new skin colour for them.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah like blue, natural skin colour in –

Aparna: Asphyxiation.

Parinita: Yeah!

Sanjana: [laughs]

Parinita: And also like Ranveer Sharma in Gully Boy like sorry to move from mytho – oh from religion and mythology to Bollywood.

Sanjana: Singh! Ranveer Singh!

Parinita: Hmm? Ranveer Singh! Oh Shar – who’s Ranveer Sharma? I don’t –

Aparna: There is no such person.

Parinita: I’m sure there is.

Aparna: Unless there’s a different Bollywood in Leeds.

Parinita: [laughs] Ranveer Sharma, if you’re listening to this, please prove everybody else wrong. And you exist. I believe in you.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: So Ranveer Singh in Gully Boy, he had his skin darkened because he was playing someone who was Muslim and also from the slums in Mumbai. So from Dharavi. So of course why wouldn’t you get an actor from the slums or from a … lower … caste background? I don’t like saying lower. But you know non-upper. This is like the whole non-white situation again like –

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: Positioning it against yeah I don’t know we need to come up with a word. Maybe that could be our task for next episode. But yeah just from a non-dominant religion and caste. And why would you do that? We should just darken –

Movie poster of Gully Boy

Sanjana: But the same thing happened with the Mary Kom movie as well, now that we’re talking about Bollywood. They cast Priyanka Chopra in it and made her look a little bit like she was from –

Aparna: North Eastern.

Sanjana: The North East. But why not find – there is a whole cinema happening there. There are a whole bunch of actors available.

Parinita: And they’re so underrepresented in our –

Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: Mainstream Indian media and culture.

Sanjana: You had a chance to represent them! You had a chance!

Photo of Priyanka Chopra on the left and Mary Kom on the right

Priyanka Chopra and Mary Kom. Image courtesy The Economic Times

Parinita: Yeah but let’s just get Priyanka Chopra. Maybe she’ll get her husband to watch it as well and maybe it’ll get popular in Hollywood.

Sanjana: Oh tabhi she didn’t have husband at that time haan.

Parinita: Oh didn’t? Maybe they were dating. I don’t know her life. I’m not obsessed with Priyanka Chopra like you Sana! [laughs]

Aparna: Sana is trying to situate you correctly –

Sanjana: I’m situating you correctly –

Aparna: On Priyanka Chopra’s life.

Parinita: I mean Sana is the resident Priyanka Chopra fangirl.

Sanjana: No! I don’t want to say that. I’ve disliked them greatly after like … anyway –

Aparna: Oh!

Sanjana: That’s a wholly different – yeah, yeah.

Aparna: No, no say it.

Sanjana: No, I can’t.

Aparna: After she turned out to be a Modi supporter.

Sanjana: [laughs] Yeah.

Parinita: So another example of whitewashing that is very close to our hearts is … even though it technically is a cartoon. So Avatar: The Last Airbender, it’s very Asian! Like it’s the setting, even though it’s made up, it’s very Buddhist, Eastern-Asian and you know like it’s very –

Sanjana: Absolutely. Yeah, yeah. Without a doubt.

Parinita: But, of course, when Mr. M. Night Shyamalan decided to make a live-action remake, which Sana has warned both Paru and me against watching.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: Because as much as we love the TV show, she wants to protect us from the terribleness that was the movie. But he betrayed desi people and Asian people everywhere and he just cast everyone as white. Except Zuko who is Dev Patel. But otherwise everyone else is white. So that was where the term racebending came from. Because you know airbending, waterbending – benders. And that’s where racebending came from. So it started very negatively but –

Avatar: The Last Airbender characters in the movies versus the TV show. Image courtesy Ashworth’s Film Reviews

Sanjana: I love the word and the origin.

Parinita: Racebending? Yeah. Like I love it I mean if it was negative, I probably wouldn’t have liked it as much. But why I like it is because fandom is such a creative, innovative force that they decided to make it an empowering term.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And they have responded to texts that are canonically very white. And they’ve racebent. So like black Hermione, for example, in Harry Potter

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: A huge swathe of the fandom considers Hermione as black and also considers Harry as South Asian.

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

Racebending Harry and Hermione in fan art. Image courtesy Inverse

Aparna: Yeah!

Parinita: Like Harry is a desi guy because James Potter I believe is supposed to be Indian, so Harry would be like a mixed-race kid.

Sanjana: Oooh!

Parinita: And again, that would be such an exciting sort of – then you’re thinking of things like why is James Potter Indian and like you know imperialism and … was there imperialism in the wizarding world? Wizarding is also a very gendered term. But anyway. Was there imperialism in the magical world that we –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: I mean wizarding world exists parallel to our own, no?

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: But do you think they were involved in colonising India? In colonising Africa?

Aparna: For sure!

Parinita: The rest of the world?

Sanjana: Unfortunately.

Aparna: Without a doubt.

Parinita: Where did Parvati and Padma’s parents come from? Like why are they in the UK? It would be very interesting to –

Sanjana: Many people went there to study and all.

Parinita: Sure.

Sanjana: Some people stayed there. Haan that only.

Parinita: Yeah, yeah. There’s no other reason. We like chicken tikka masala, sure.

[Aparna and Sanjana laugh]

Sanjana: No but also like you’re saying, they’ve taken it and made it like a positive thing. Like the episode that you’re mentioning also mentioned like Nick Fury being cast as black. Whereas the comics had him as a white male character.

Parinita: Oh really?

Sanjana: Yeah.

Image of Nick Fury from the comics and from the movies

Nick Fury in the comics versus the movies. Image courtesy Reddit

Parinita: Another thing. So the new exciting Doctor who we know almost nothing about.

Sanjana: Yes!

Parinita: So one of the fan theories was – because she’s this really mysterious Doctor right? So one of the fan theories is that she might pre-date the Doctor – the first Doctor that we know of which was the 1960s Doctor whose name I don’t know. And there was some trauma that happened that made her lose her memories. And that’s why Jodie doesn’t remember her. Nobody has remembered this previous incarnation. So there might be this whole cycle of Doctors that we don’t know about. So it’s almost like racebending canon in a way. Like which has been such a –

Aparna: Haan.

Parinita: White, male … all the Doctors have been white and men and now there’s a woman. One sole woman that we have and now we have another woman and we don’t know what’s happening.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: But I love this potential like all these possibilities that could exist.

Aparna: Exactly! And it’s sort of cooler that it pre-dates all of these other Doctors because that means like before any of them existed, there was this one.

Photo of the two female Doctors - Jodie Whittaker and Jo Martin

The Doctor and Doctor Ruth image courtesy The Metro

Parinita: Absolutely. And also like she is older, she’s not as young as the other Doctors. I mean Peter Capaldi was pretty old but she like usually you think of women and there’ll be like a young woman like most of the companions were young women.

Aparna: Yeah, of course.

Parinita: And she’s older, she’s black, she’s a woman. Even though like you know I’m not black, I was so excited to see her! I was like oh my god

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Representation! We need so little!

Aparna: Yeah exactly.

Parinita: Like we’ve been so starved of representation that –

Aparna: I know!

Parinita: Even the tiniest things make us so happy.

Aparna: Like when the – the reveal of Jodie Whitaker as the Doctor happened, there was this video that I kept encountering of this little girl whose mother was filming her watching the reveal. And she just burst into tears because she was so happy. “There’s going to be a girl Doctor!” she kept yelling. And it was just the most adorable thing.

Parinita: I mean watching Wonder Woman for me like that made me cry so much.

Aparna: Yeah!

Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: Just because it was so not male gazey and it was very much like a woman’s –

Sanjana: Right.

Parinita: Movie made for – it just – we need so little. I mean we want more, but we need so little –

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: To be happy and even – like I was telling you, Paru, this is what men feel like all the time!

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Oh my god.

Parinita: Feel represented and – so I’m glad that canon is becoming more diverse.

Sanjana: No, the other day, I’m telling you, this is like a continuous thing of trying to tell the men around me even in the family, is that when we’re watching TV shows, we made it a point to watch newer things. Like wherever something off discussion happens, I these days pause it and say, “This is how women feel all the time.”

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: “Do you understand your male privilege now?” And then I un-pause and continue watching.

Aparna: [laughs] Before we move on from racebending, I want to give a shout-out to Hamilton which is my favourite racebending thing ever.

Sanjana: Oh my god yes!

Parinita: It’s true! I didn’t even think about that.

Aparna: Best example of all these old white people who have made America and –

Sanjana: Yeah! Washington.

Aparna: And they’re all being played by all these really kickass people, it’s the best.

Parinita: Yeah – what does he call it? The America of yesterday being portrayed by the America of today? Something like that?

Sanjana: Yeah.

Gif from the musical Hamilton. Text says: Immigrants, we get the job done.

Parinita: That is my favourite racebending text as well. And that’s like proper canon now.

Aparna: Exactly!

Parinita: But that’s the thing that you know, when you have this colonised mind, you don’t even imagine what you can imagine. You know like unless you step out of this this sort of bubble, this echo chamber, you don’t know what is possible.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And when someone shows you what’s possible, your mind just –

Sanjana: After reading and hearing all of these things what struck me was that the world has changed a lot in the last ten years, like ten or twenty years. It has changed a lot in the sense that it has become a lot more closer – like it’s easier for you to find someone like you on the internet. Who is discussing and thinking the same thoughts. Or echoing the same thoughts back. Because what I’ve tried to understand is that stories were written at a certain time and to not fault the creator completely. Hold them accountable but not blame them completely because they wrote at a different time when they weren’t as educated because they didn’t read enough or they didn’t have enough people talking about things. People are trying to change the stories that were written. Like even if you see larger universes like the Star Wars universe, the first three movies versus the movies now, there is a lot more diversity. And you know even Harry Potter the movies versus the play, there is again you know

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: There is a move to correct what you thought – took for granted so to speak.

Aparna: Correct. Like even in the Star Wars movies, even though one of them is set before the three original movies, there are women pilots and there are –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Which never happened like the original trilogy doesn’t have it. But those sort of corrections like nobody is caring about the uproar that it’s creating in the traditional fans. Because everyone’s moving forward.

Sanjana: Nobody cares because it’s so awesome that there are women pilots and they are commanding the planes and it’s just very good. Even Anne With An E?

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: How they’ve taken the original books that were written so long back and interpreted it so beautifully. Like I love how they’ve introduced Cole.

Parinita: They’ve politicised the text more than it ever was political.

Sanjana: And Aunt Josephine also, it’s so cool what they did with her.

Parinita: Yeah! But – so this is a good example of sort of reinterpreting something that was written like –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: A hundred years ago. A bad example of doing that is – again, I don’t know if you guys – I’m on Twitter in the morning so I know these things. But there was this huge backlash against Barnes and Nobles which is this American bookstore. And one of the stores, I’m not sure who, but somebody here decided that you know all these classic books that are out of copyright so basically anybody can print them? So like things like Anne With An E, Jane Austen and things whatever all these Western classic books. So in order to make them diverse, because I guess now diversity is also a buzzword that everyone wants to capitalise on because we live in a capitalistic society. So they decided that oh you know children should be able to recognise themselves. So they just published covers which had diversity in terms of race and ethnicity. So things like Native Americans, black faces, brown faces. So racebending the characters almost.

Book covers of racebent book covers of classic books

The Barnes and Nobles racebent covers. Image courtesy Ad Week

Aparna: Hmm.

Parinita: But the backlash was that first of all, these people did not write for like a black audience or a brown audience.

Aparna: Exactly.

Parinita: Or a Native American audience. Secondly, instead of spending all this money and resources on diversifying a text that is not diverse, why don’t you just give opportunities to diverse creators to create their own books?

Sanjana: Yeah!

Aparna: Exactly!

Parinita: Yeah. So the internet is all ablaze with this conversation.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: But the internet is also making people more –

Sanjana: Aware!

Aparna: Mindful of these things and more aware of these things. And that’s great.

Parinita: Oh absolutely! Because of this internet outrage the American Dirt her book tour was cancelled and instead they’re going to have a discussion essentially where she talks to people who have concerns.

Aparna: Right.

Parinita: And so I think they’re trying to rectify their mistakes. And the Barnes and Nobles, I believe they’ve decided not to do it anymore.

Aparna: Oh wow.

Parinita: Because there was such a – I mean they’d already printed it. And I might be completely lying and making this up. But I think they’ve decided – or maybe it’s just wishful thinking. But I think they’ve decided not to do it anymore. But they’ve spent all the money so yeah.

Sanjana: Hmm. Another thing that has changed from then to now is the Young Justice series. And the first episode came out in 2010. And the newest season has come out now, like at the end of 2019. And there is a vast difference between the representation of people and the diversity in terms of even gender and genderfluid characters and –

Parinita: Oh like She-Ra! She-Ra is also another fantastic thing where the earlier She-Ra was I’ve not watched it. But the one on Netflix, lots of gender diversity, there’s a nonbinary character. Or no, I think a genderfluid character. And yeah there’s just so much representation.

Aparna: Speaking of, we’ll now come to the Rosa Parks episode of Doctor Who. So my opinion of this episode changed completely after listening to the podcast Woke Doctor Who, their episode “Sweep Your Own Yard”. Because when I first watched it, I was very excited and I really liked the episode. But when listened to this podcast, and it was viewed from the experience of what was wrong with it and what could have been done better and why they didn’t like the episode. And it all just came so clearly to me of how like they spoke about how the power of the people’s movement was missing and the activism of Rosa Parks was reduced to – her reduced to this tired seamstress. And even though they got a black woman to write the episode, she’s from the UK, not from the US. But the things that were lacking showed very like little concern. This is what I call a Wikipedia article level research. [laughs] When the context was not properly understood and that’s why something that probably had good intentions behind it ended up being a really clumsy way of telling a story.

Sanjana: Yeah I made initial judgements about the episode in general, not realising that there was a podcast waiting to –

[Aparna and Parinita laugh]

Sanjana: Make that come crashing down. And I was like what?! And I was pausing saying like how could you not – but that just showed me if I had not heard that podcast, I would have gone away feeling that they did such a good job of it.

Aparna: Yeah!

Sanjana: And then without hearing that, I would have been praising them and not realising how much harm they did. Because at the end of the day, I would have gone back wondering wow, good job. And it was actually ‘cause it did more harm to the story of Rosa Parks than it did good. How it’s important to just you know go a little bit beyond the initial research and to get the right people to write it. Or even consult on it a little bit so that you heard it firsthand. It’s not that hard anymore. So that can’t be an excuse.

Parinita: So I think I have a slightly different opinion.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: Because I did this a little long way round. So I’d watched the “Rosa” episode when it first came out a couple of years ago. Loved it – completely loved it. And then I listened to this podcast first, I listened to it a few months ago, but then I listened to it again in preparation for this episode. And then I went back and watched the “Rosa” episode again. And I totally am with Woke Doctor Who on some of the critiques. I think that they’ve completely erased black women’s experiences – you know black women’s activism. That was the crux of the civil rights movement in the US and even now like with – like they mentioned Black Lives Matter, #MeToo.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: They’ve completely erased them. So black women have – and they were the ones who do the most activism with intersectionality, with everything like what we’re doing here on this podcast. And I think they also – yeah like Paru said, reduced the activism of Rosa Parks. And the episode positioned it as if it didn’t happen at that moment, it would never happen.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: Which now we know isn’t true because she would have just done it on another day. So like I guess it was a convenient form of storytelling.

Sanjana: Yeah she was chosen for it.

Parinita: Yeah. She was chosen for it because like they said, she was a light-skinned black woman. So it was a very deliberate, very smart, very well-strategised choice. So it removes the agency of the activists and of Rosa herself.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: For the convenience of storytelling. And another of their critiques was that the UK has a habit of talking about American racism like pointing its fingers to the US because racism there is so much more extreme. And it’s so much more visible. Because of you know like all the stuff that we hear on the news. Police brutality against black men, black women. And so it’s easier to point fingers there but they do it at the expense of not exploring racism in the UK. Which might be different but it still exists. So racism still exists in the UK but they don’t explore that. They had a critique that Yaz and Ryan’s experiences of racism weren’t brought up in the show. Which I disagree with.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Because Ryan and Yaz were attacked. Like Ryan was slapped by the white man right in the beginning, as soon as he got –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: As soon as they got to –

Sanjana: Yeah, that even I agree.

Parinita: They had to – they were kicked out of a bar, they were called Negro and Mexican because you know Yaz’s identity doesn’t matter obviously. They weren’t able to get a room in a hotel – or they had to sneak in through the window. The police came after them. And then they sat and talked about how even in the UK in 2019 – 18 whenever that was, like it’s not like Rosa Parks had cured racism. Because –

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Ryan was still checked by the police more than a white person was. Yaz, even though she’s a police person herself, she’s called Paki on the road which is a slur in the UK and she’s called a terrorist as well. Because of her identity.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So I guess they didn’t explore it as much as they could have. But it wasn’t a story about them. I feel like they did.

Sanjana: No, that I agree with. Because when I initially wrote down my thoughts about the episode, that was the one thing that I took away about how then and now they did discuss about how they showed them how they were being treated plus they showed them discussing about the now. And so the then and now of how they were being treated was discussed to a small extent.

Parinita: To a small extent, yeah. And another critique that I agreed with was that the fact that this dude who comes from the 71st century and he’s a white supremacist. And they couldn’t believe in Woke Doctor Who that even in the 71st century –

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Black people are still having to prove their humanity. Why is there white supremacy in the 71st century? Like if your idea of science fiction – and this is a critique I’ve heard about other science fiction as well. Like if your idea of the future doesn’t envision equality, or it envisions a certain group of people who are already marginalised now. Either they don’t exist in the future like your diversity stretches to having aliens and robots.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: But not black people, brown people in positions of equality … what does that then say about what you think of these people, these groups now?

Aparna: Exactly.

Sanjana: Haan.

Parinita: So yeah that’s a critique that I totally agreed with. And I agree with their critiques and I totally get where they’re coming from, so this isn’t to respond to – they’re totally justified in having these concerns. But I watched the episode again, and I still loved the episode. I still thought it was a good episode. And I think that the episode could be used to explore the gaps that it doesn’t address. I think it would be such a good starting – a discussion episode. If you watch it with a child or even if you watch it with an adult, and then have a conversation after that. Because it ends on such a triumphant note.

Aparna: It does.

Parinita: And even though Jodie in the end, she does say that Rosa had to struggle. Like she didn’t cure racism.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: She lost her job. She knew the consequences. She got arrested, she lost her job, it was a lifelong struggle for her. And obviously racism still exists. But what she did was still important and having her story on a mainstream popular show like Doctor Who I think that’s really – it is important. And of course, there are mistakes that everybody would make. Like no text can be perfect you know but I think even an imperfect – in fact, an imperfect text, there’s more opportunities for conversations.

Sanjana: Yeah but see the point is that how many people have this conversation. It’s just that. I agree with you completely. You can take away a lot of positive things from it and at the end of the day, it’s not all bad. But the thing is how many of us have a discussion about it after watching the episode.

Parinita: No, absolutely! Again, if we don’t know that there was something wrong with the episode –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: We wouldn’t possibly have a discussion

Sanjana: Exactly.

Parinita: When I first encountered these critiques is when I’d first watched the episode and then I went on Twitter because I was so excited about the episode and I wanted to know what other people were saying, and I did then encounter these critiques from –

Sanjana: Right.

Parinita: Black people in the US. Saying that no this is what you need to do to get a true picture of Rosa and her activism. Like lots of Twitter threads. So, the internet and social media there is a huge educational … you can learn so much from there.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Absolutely.

Parinita: Yeah but then like you’re saying, not everyone has these conversations and maybe that’s something that like –

Aparna: Also Doctor Who is not a small show. They know the kind of audience they attract and they’ve been doing this for years and years. So if they are making a Rosa Parks episode, sorry, but I would expect a little bit more from them.

Parinita: Yeah. I agree. But I think that’s the – like I loved Woke Doctor Who – the episode – for making me think of all these critiques –

Aparna: Correct.

Parinita: And for making me thinking of all these things.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: But I just don’t agree with all their critiques because I think the show tried, not always success – in some places, it didn’t try at all. And that absolutely like it needs – it could have been very easily woven into the story. Like having more black women, having Rosa’s activism could –

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: It wouldn’t have – it would have added to the story. I don’t know why they decided not to have that as a part in the story. But there are some critiques that I felt like the show did try to address if a little like if not completely, if that makes sense.

Aparna: And now we’re coming to another What If? section.

Sanjana: [makes sound effect]

Parinita: Our last section of the podcast.

Aparna: Yes. And this is one What If from Parinita. What if you had to decolonise the Hogwarts curriculum? What would you include in it? I’m going to start with mine. Basically I was just reminded of this conversation that Harry and Hagrid have in the very beginning about – I’m paraphrasing – but Harry asks why more people don’t know about magic. And Hagrid says something to the effect of then everyone will want to use magic to solve the world’s problems – their own problems. So my curriculum change would be to expose the people in the wizarding world to more of the world’s problems. Like the climate crisis. I don’t know maybe they can solve it, in which case it would be magic well spent. So maybe there are wizards and witches who want to use magic to solve the world’s problems and they should know about the world’s problems to be able to solve them.

Parinita: And also magic is not a finite resource. Why don’t you solve human problems?!

Aparna: Exactly!

Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: Why are you hoarding magic like your skills and stuff?

Aparna: That’s what!

Parinita: Like use it na, use it to solve everyone’s problems.

Aparna: See no! Like even if it involves – even if it needs you to mind-control spells or on policy makers to make them –

Parinita: As a PhD researcher, I have a huge ethical problem with mind control.

Aparna: I have no problem with it. No more trees should be cut to build flyovers.

Parinita: I’d like to tell my examiners I don’t approve of mind-controlling my research participants.

[Aparna and Sanjana laugh]

Aparna: What about you, Parinita?

Parinita: So my decolonising would involve first of all hiring more diverse staff. Having more people who are just not white, able-bodied like whatever class backgrounds they belong to. Just having more diversity in the staff in general. Making more efforts to recruit people from diverse backgrounds as well. And why not have more interactions with Muggles? I know this is something that might not be possible in a Hogwarts – this would be a systemic overhaul with the Ministry of Magic and all. But I feel like there’s a lot to learn – a lot that Muggles can learn from wizards, like Muggle children can learn from wizarding children but also magical children can learn so much from Muggle children as well. Like in terms of the literature that they read. And like all this conversation that we’re having about We Need Diverse Books and Own Voices –

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: I feel like that can be incorporated into Hogwarts as well. So they’re reading widely. They’re not just reading wizarding books, they’re also reading Muggle books. And not just British Muggle books and they’re reading books from all over the world, especially the countries they’ve colonised.

Sanjana: So I’m just going to interject and add this because I had a – they should have a course on world literature and they should read like Satyajit Ray and Chinua Achebe and stuff is what I wanted them to read.

Parinita: Yeah. And also it’s 2020. Figure out your technology problems now. Technology and the internet –

Sanjana: Yeah! Oh my god!

Parinita: And social media are very important decolonising conversations. Please get your shit together. Read some Twitter threads, read some articles. Like you need the internet, you need computers and smartphones.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: That’s my decolonising Hogwarts curriculum idea.

Sanjana: So in that event I feel like they should have a film studies course.

Parinita: Hmm yeah.

Sanjana: And like you know like have world cinema screening.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Like have like a Gandhi class and have a …

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Sanjana: Just arrange them on the carpet and watch movies.

Parinita: I mean I feel like –

Sanjana: I’m sure if they want, they can project it on the wall or something.

Parinita: Like they’ve figured out magic, surely they can figure out Muggle technology. But also with this decolonising Hogwarts curriculum, I feel this is also really important in Muggle educational systems. Like in the UK, the students here don’t seem to learn about the effect that the Empire had. Like I was reading this book about Brexit, written by these two academics who live in Oxford, and they’ve based it on solid research and things. And they’re like yeah, students have this very skewed idea of what the Empire was and what the effect was on the world. And now it’s like those same students who are complaining about foreigners and immigrants and voting for Brexit because they don’t understand why all these brown and black people are here. Like why are we here?! Like you’ve destroyed our economy, why do you think we’re arriving here?!

[Sanjana and Aparna laugh]

Parinita: And in India as well. Like we don’t learn about caste, we don’t learn about religion in – we don’t even learn about the Empire really, except in really abstract terms. We don’t learn about the ongoing impact –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: The British divide and rule policy has had and how it’s been taken advantage of by politicians and media and culture and everything. So –

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: I think that decolonising needs to be a worldwide phenomenon.

Sanjana: No, no, it’s true. We study history very badly. We’re not told about the real, actual stories because recently we did a comic on path-breaking women and I just realised there’s so much of history that we’ve just not been told. Why aren’t we reading about these women in school books is what I don’t understand.

Aparna: Okay that’s a good place to wrap up this episode. I’m going to ask everyone for their closing thoughts.

Sanjana: Well it’s more of a closing thought on the general research that this podcast has brought in my life. And I just – I love the conversations that we’re having on a daily basis. It’s just – it’s very liberating to think on – to think. Just after college now.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: And I hope that even if no – like a few people listen and think even a little bit, I feel like it might it’s – that’s my closing thought. Just thoughts.

Aparna: Parinita?

Parinita: My closing thought is diversity isn’t political. We need more diversity, all kinds of diversity, everywhere. And I feel like this podcast is such a good way of allowing me to question my own biases and assumptions. Like you think you’re open-minded and you think you –

Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: You know, you have these thoughts. But you don’t even know what you’re missing. Once you know that what things you have a blind spot on, it’s nice to be able to educate yourself. So –

Aparna: That’s true.

Parinita: Thank you internet and thank you social media.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: And fandom! Thank you fandom.

Aparna: And my closing thought is a sentence that I heard at a workshop that I attended in Bombay last week. Which is that we are responsible for the stories we hear. And all the stories are out there, especially now with the internet. Everyone’s story can be heard. So we have to just listen. Thanks for listening!

Parinita: Bye!

Sanjana and Aparna: Bye!

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to Part Two of our two-part episode on race and representation. If you haven’t heard the first part yet, listen to it for our interpretations of intersectionality, our complaints about token diversity in science fiction and fantasy, our struggles with our colonised minds, and the importance of Own Voices. Thanks again Paru and Sana for sharing my PhD brain and being the best podcast partners in the universe! And a big fat thank you to Jack for doing all the technical editing bits so I don’t have to.

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

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

[Outro music]

Episode 2 Failure of Imagination: Representations of Race in Media and Fandom – Part 1

This is Part One of the episode. Click here to listen to/read Part Two.

Episode Resources: 

For this episode we looked at a bunch of texts:

Reddit thread – “Does anyone feel as if POC are very underrepresented in certain fandoms?”

Twitter thread – Darren Chetty writes about the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in Hogwarts

Buzzfeed article – “What A ‘Racebent’ Hermione Granger Really Represents”

Excerpt from Fierce Bad Rabbits Fierce Bad Rabbits: The Tales Behind Children’s Picture Books by Clare Pollard

Kirkus Review article – “Writing Outside Your Identity” by Laura Simeon


Episode Transcript: 

This is a clean transcript of the episode. If you would prefer the original, unedited version, please let me know!

[Intro music]

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

[Intro music]

You’re listening to the first part of our episode on race and representation. As three Indian fangirls of mostly Western media (but also Bollywood!), we have a LOT of thoughts about this episode’s theme. We didn’t want to stop talking, which is why we divided this episode into two parts.

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!

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: “It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world and it is nkali. It’s a noun that loosely translates to be greater than another. Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali. How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power. Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.” That was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story”. Hi! My name is Parinita.

Sanjana: Hi, I’m Sanjana.

Aparna: And I’m Aparna. And today’s episode is about race. So let’s start by talking about intersectionality because the best way to talk about race, or anything for that matter, is to view it through the lens of intersectionality. Which is a word that I was introduced to very recently. I think I identified with the theory of it already but the word for it, I have gotten to know better only in the recent past. Apparently, it was coined as part of a research paper, I think, in 1989 by a Professor Crenshaw to describe how different marginalised identities intersect and overlap. And I feel like this is essential to understand a complex and realistic experience that is a person’s life rather than a simplistic this-or-that picture that we all grow up consuming or understanding. I’d like to know what both of your views on intersectionality are. Sana, what is your interpretation of it?

Sanjana: So, like you, I recently started reading up a little bit more about it to understand it better. And what I’ve understood about it is that it’s a sort of a concept. I’ve understood it as a concept that helps explain disparity in society – that helps explain it to the other side maybe to try and get them to see that it’s not just one thing that you face in general or it’s not just one thing that holds you – that –

Aparna: Defines.

Sanjana: Defines you. Or even places you in context with everybody else. But Parinita, you’ve been reading a lot about intersectionality.

Parinita: That’s right.

Sanjana: A more clearer voice on what more –

Parinita: No, I found it really interesting. So just before I talk about what I think about intersectionality, did you guys come across the word because of this podcast? Because you knew that that was my lens of this podcast?

Sanjana: Yes.

Parinita: Or had you come across it otherwise?

Aparna: I think I’d come across it because I read a lot of pop culture –

Parinita: Right.

Aparna: Reviews and articles and discussions. But I never really looked up what it means.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aparna: Or like tried to understand where it’s come from and what it actually is supposed to define. Turns out different people define it differently also. So that I started doing only after the podcast.

Sanjana: I, to be honest, only read the word when you had sent us an overview of your paper just to read in general. Just for general feedback, not when we were talking about this podcast at all.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: And that is when I came across the word. And I very vaguely looked it up so that I would understand what you were writing better. But it is because of the podcast that I found it necessary to understand it better for my own self.

Parinita: So, like Paru, I also discovered this word online. It’s really become a buzzword of sorts because it’s used in a lot of different contexts online. Especially with popular media representations and things. But also with discussions of feminism online. And from my research, what I found is that the term – it basically traces its roots to black feminism in the US. So what Paru said, Kimberlé Crenshaw’s article. And it analysed how not only gender but also race and class affect the lives of black women. So that’s where it started. But now like I said, with internet conversations and even within academia, the scope of gender, race, and class has widened. So now intersectionality’s scope – it basically looks at how different multiple and complex social inequalities interact with each other. So, for example, your life is significantly better or worse based on where you live and on things like –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Your gender, your class, your race, your sexual orientation –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Your ethnicity, which part of the country you’re from, which part of the world you’re from. Like we see that in India so much now with the recent protests, right? Like the national origin is such a huge question and your religion is such a huge question.

Parinita: Also, what you guys said was absolutely what I think of intersectionality as well. But reading more about it, it’s such a contextual thing. Because you can be marginalised in some cases and you can be privileged in others. Some of your identities can be –

Sanjana and Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: So in India like gender would play a bigger role for me just because as an Indian woman you know walking in the streets and just –

Sanjana: Yeah, yeah, yeah!

Parinita: Whereas for me in India my national origin or my race didn’t play any role. It’s not something I thought of at all. Whereas now that I’m in England in the UK, with just this sort of national discourse that’s become so anti-immigrant and anti-foreigner, I’m much more aware of my race and I’m much more aware of my immigration status than I would be in India. And even though I’m –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Like in a university setting in the UK, so I’m like really privileged otherwise as well and in terms of class and stuff. So it’s a really complicated sort of thing. And within the context of fandom, so I started thinking about intersectionality because I thought it was a really interesting thing that I had not thought about. Like I’d not known the term. But I had encountered a lot of these diverse perspectives in fandom. So things like how disabled students would navigate Hogwarts or why there need to be more diverse Time Lords in the TARDIS. Like there’ve so far been only white men. Like until before Jodie. It was all white men.

Sanjana: And! And!

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: [laughs]

Parinita: Until Jodie and now! The newest Doctor!

Sanjana: Now!

Parinita: Which –

Sanjana: Like it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Parinita: Right?!

Sanjana: Like oh my god!

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: I mean we’ll talk about it later as well, but it opens up so many more possibilities and so many more exciting possibilities that I can’t wait to see where it goes.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: What I have found, in conversations about intersectionality and also about diversity in general, in like children’s book publishing or in popular media and stuff, there seems to be a really heavy focus on race. It’s usually through the lens of race that all these We Need Diverse Books and things –

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: At least in Western media, that’s what it’s talked about. In India, it might be more caste-based or region-based or perhaps language-based.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Gender-based in India, I would say.

Parinita: Sorry?

Sanjana: Gender-based in India.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Yeah. Whereas in the West, it’s very heavily focused on race, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: Because even though the talks began with racial diversity, just like with intersectionality, it has expanded the scope. So that there’s sexual orientation, religion, class – all these other identities. However, I still do think that among intersectionality scholarship but also among talks of diversity, the heavy focus is still on race in Western media. And that’s why I’ve tried to expand the identities in my own podcast you know in terms of the intersectional themes that we’re looking at.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Just so that race is a good starting point, but other categories shouldn’t be overlooked based on that.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And black people in the US seem to be paving the way for so many movements and so many like conversations about diversity. Because they work so actively to highlight their perspectives. I was reading this research paper about a network of black podcasters. And essentially, they’re making fan podcasts and just discussion podcasts in ways that highlight their perspectives in media which erases their experiences largely. One of the texts that we listened to for this episode was the Black Girl Nerds episode, right? And –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Black Girl Nerds is an example of this. So, when Game of Thrones, the last season was out, I discovered their recaps. After every episode, they would just talk about the episode, what they thought. Like what the three of us do on WhatsApp, they did on a podcast.

Sanjana: Haan.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: But because Game of Thrones is such a white world, like there’s mostly white people in charge, so they would be talking about it from the lens of the two black characters that were left in the show.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: And I found that so interesting because it just opened up my mind so much because it’s not something I would have thought of doing myself.

Aparna: Correct.

Parinita: And this is something they do all the time in popular culture, highlighting their perspectives and also working with each other. So, it’s not just an isolated thing where they want to make money or whatever. But they are actively collaborating with others and promoting each other and I think this collaboration is such a crucial component of any form of activism even if it is something like what we’re doing.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Absolutely.

Parinita: Right?

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So another of the texts that we looked at this time was a Reddit thread about fandom and about how there is a lack of POC in fandom and I’ll link to this in the transcript of the episode. But the term POC, it’s an acronym for person of colour. And, Sana, you said that you hadn’t heard of the term POC, right?

Sanjana: No. So when we were looking up stuff to read about this episode, I was looking up stuff to read, and I was Googling various terms and this came up. This thread sort of popped out and I had to Google what POC was. I, yeah, had never heard of the term.

Parinita: Yeah. Which I’m not at all surprised by because it stands for person of colour. And one of the people in the thread did point this out – did critique the term – because it’s such a US-centric term.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Because everywhere else in the world, we’re not measured against white people. Like in India, we’re not –

Sanjana: Yeah!

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Right? We’re all people of colour in India.

Sanjana: Within our people of colour also we have various shades.

Parinita: Absolutely!

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: No what I mean is like India also has their own person of colour –

Parinita: Problems.

Sanjana: Gauge happening.

Parinita: Yeah!

Sanjana: Yeah problems.

Parinita: Yeah like light-skinnedness versus dark-skinnedness.

Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: Which has so many … which caste and which class and which part of the country.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So in the thread itself, some people were trying to talk about instead of using the term person of colour, you can use diverse ethnic backgrounds or non-white. But I find the term non-white a little problematic. Just because –

Sanjana: No, no, it’s quite problematic.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Right? What do you think of the term non-white?

Sanjana: Very – very – not little problematic. Quite problematic!

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah. Why do you think it’s problematic?

Sanjana: It’s a little worse than person of colour. Like we are the island of white and everybody else floating around is like far away and not – non-white.

Parinita: I absolutely agree with this. And it’s something that I had – well not an argument, more maybe a debate, with Jack, my white boyfriend.

Sanjana: Haan.

Parinita: Who was saying that he prefers the term – not prefers, but when he’s talking about people who are not white, he prefers to use the term non-white and I was like that makes me uncomfortable for precisely the reason you said, Sana. Because it positions you against like white is normative and everything else is othered.

Aparna and Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: Right?

Sanjana: Exactly. It sounds like we are up there in a fort you know.

Parinita: Correct.

Sanjana: Yeah. It’s talking down.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: Sort of.

Parinita: And I mean I do understand why non-white is like a sort of convenient catchall term.

Aparna: Correct.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And person of colour is also not a great term. But I prefer person of colour to non-white.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And so in the thread itself, in response to this critique, a responder shared a video about the origins of the term woman of colour.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: Which featured this feminist called Loretta Ross. And she described that the term came to be coined as a form of solidarity among different groups of oppressed women. So it was supposed to be a political designation and not a biological one. So it’s not literally about the colour of your skin. Because white is also a colour. Right?

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So it’s a political identity. And in the video, it’s a really short video and I’ll link to it. But something that she said was so interesting was that the origin of the term has been forgotten because history isn’t documented and it’s not preserved and it’s not taught.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And that really made me think of the protests in India that are happening now the anti-CAA and the anti-NRC ones. Where there was this excellent video by Raghu Karnad. I don’t know if you guys have seen it. It’s called “Remembering Emergency and the Student Protests the BJP Doesn’t Talk About.” So it essentially talks of how people in India, we don’t learn about the history of protest.

Aparna: Yes.

Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: Right? Like we’re not taught, even though the BJP like they did student protests, the current BJP members.

Aparna: Exactly!

Parinita: Right?

Aparna: Yeah! Protest is such an important part of any movement or the development of any group of people. But it’s in the best interest of the government to not encourage you to know about protests obviously. So, it’s sort of successfully been forgotten every time.

Parinita: Yeah. And it’s such a huge part of democracy. Like the right –

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: To question your government. And now they’ve positioned protest as something that’s anti-national.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: But the fact that you care so much about your country and about protecting your country, how can that be anti-national? So I thought that it was a really interesting –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Interesting analogy.

Sanjana: So talking about race and general diversity in the texts and the universes that we meet, focusing on Harry Potter in particular, there was this very interesting Twitter thread that was by someone called Darren Chetty. Which was very similar to the thoughts that I’d had when I was just generally noting down thoughts without reading anything. That there is diversity – like the universe as such talks about diversity – but within the magical world. Like it does talk about inclusion and stuff but very allegorically. I wanted to read one of the tweets that he had written. “So a story that has so much to say about racism on an allegorical level at the same time depicts people of colour as marginal without actually exploring their marginalisation.” I thought that was very interesting because there is like the house elves and giants and the pure race of wizards and –

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: The Mudbloods as the bad word is.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: And I just thought that was a very interesting take on it. For a text that does that is basing all this on race and the history of how people have been treated. But you’re still not addressing –

Aparna: Actual.

Sanjana: Actual anything. What did you take from that?

Parinita: What that made me think of, this metaphorical racism, and again – like it’s really easy to read the Harry Potter series I think as something that really talks about like you said inclusivity and just non-prejudiced attitudes and everything. But it’s not a radical text at all because it’s –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: It’s so allegorical. And it’s similar to science fiction where you know aliens and robots usually take the place of other races and cultures. So there’s this whole colonising new planet narratives without –

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Exploring what that actually means. Or the history of colonising. For example, in Doctor Who, there – there were two black companions. So there was Martha and Bill. Were there any others? Well now currently there’s Ryan.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: In the earlier ones, before Jodie, there was Martha and Bill who travelled to the past but the show doesn’t explore the impact of this. Like –

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: The fact that they would be unsafe in these societies where people who were not white were not considered to be equal.

Parinita: Whereas in the Rosa Parks episode that we also watched for this podcast, Ryan and Yaz go back to Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 and they were targeted for being black and for being brown. Like she’s called Mexican even though she’s desi. But –

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: That explored it a little more. We’ll talk about the episode more in detail later but racism is something that would affect people based on the time period that you’re in. It’s not something that’s just – you can’t be colourblind to it. You can’t just say –

Aparna: Exactly.

Parinita: Oh everyone lives happily.

Aparna: You can’t have moved past it just for the sake of telling your story that the allegory rings a little hollow.

Parinita: Exactly and like the colourblindness is very much present I think in the Harry Potter series which –

Sanjana: Absolutely.

Parinita: I didn’t think about while I was reading it at all. Oh there’s like the brown twins and then there’s Cho Chang –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Who may be Chinese, may be Korean, we don’t know. Because remember last time when we got so angry about Panju?

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: The name Panju.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: The other sort of controversy about the name Cho Chang is that it could be Chinese, it could be Korean, and it doesn’t quite make sense in either country. But we know nothing about Cho Chang except that she’s in Ravenclaw, you know, we know nothing about her ethnic identity. We know nothing about Parvati and … do they celebrate Diwali? Do they not eat beef? We don’t know any of these things about them. So I really liked what Darren calls this. He calls this a “failure of imagination”. Which I think is something that you not only see in this book, you see in a lot of popular media everywhere.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Yeah. It’s very surface level – not three-dimensional characters. Just who’ve been named as a certain way just for the sake of diversity to be a part of the cast but it just doesn’t translate. Like you can tell that it’s not a well-written character – that particular one – when obviously J. K. Rowling, for example, has the ability to write fantastic characters. But the fact that these characters are so one-dimensional is a bit uncomfortable the more you think about it.

Sanjana: As a kid when I read the Harry Potter books and for the first time Parvati comes on the scene, I was super excited to read that name because I was like “Hey I know a Parvati!”

[Parinita and Aparna laugh]

Sanjana: Oh my god I was super excited. And just that much mention of them did so much for me as being included in this vast universe. To only imagine that what it does to so many like just this small mention did that much emotion for me. That this pale Indian character in the background who doesn’t have any more character than just her name did so much for me.

Aparna: Yeah. [laughs]

Parinita: So no you know like that’s another thing ‘cause like we do critique now, especially as adults, the lack of fleshing out characters of colour. Like in the other text that we looked at, The Gayly Prophet text “Clearly Hermione Is Black”, they counted seven characters of colour in the whole series.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita And one Jewish character. And I’m in the UK, I know that it’s much more diverse than that. So you know Darren Chetty, he says, why are there not more people of colour in Hogwarts or even among the teaching staff? Like why is it so white? Where are all the teachers of colour?

Aparna: Yeah!

Parinita: But then as much as we like to critique this, I think Sana like you said, superficial representations sometimes can also have a powerful impact –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: On people, I think. Because you know how J. K. Rowling sort of takes credit for diversity that wasn’t actually there in the books? Like –

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: For example black Hermione and Dumbledore is gay. And as adults or as people who are a part of these conversations

Sanjana: Please – yeah.

Parinita: It’s easy to say that this doesn’t count whatever. But in a university workshop that I was at, I was talking to this person on my table. And she was saying that her child is non-binary and they – when they discovered that Dumbledore is gay, even though it’s not in the text, like you can read the entire series without knowing Dumbledore is gay. But when they heard about it just through conversations with their parents maybe, they were so excited! They were you know –

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: That coloured their whole reading of the texts. So even though –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: That came later, even though it was superficial … For us we want more but …

Sanjana: Haan no absolutely. It can be very powerful just to identify with, which is what I’m saying – just small identifications, can you imagine what a well-written character would do for like a kid growing up?

Parinita: Absolutely!

Sanjana: I was just trying to say it could have been done so much better.

Parinita: Of course.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Like she could have owned not putting it in the original but wanting to –

Aparna: Correct.

Sanjana: Add this to the story like –

Parinita: Absolutely.

Sanjana: It could have made so much of a difference to the way everybody received it.

Aparna: Correct.

Aparna: But Hermione being black, the more I’m reading online or the podcasts that we’re listening to, or the comments on the articles, some people are completely convinced and have been from the beginning that Hermione is black. But for others it’s like obviously not. So I’m not sure what J. K. Rowling had in mind but some people have managed to completely own the character nonetheless.

Sanjana: No but listen, if Rowling thought that she was black from the very beginning, she had a say in the way –

Aparna: No, no, she –

Sanjana: She had been cast.

Aparna: Haan.

Parinita: I don’t think that’s true. But I love the idea of a black Hermione because I’ve been reading a lot of articles and fan texts and things about how if she’s black, her activism really makes sense. Like her outrage against –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Yeah! Exactly.

Parinita: House elf slavery and you know –

Aparna: Correct.

Fan art of black Hermione

Racebent Hermione fan art. Image courtesy Sophia Canning

Parinita: Dumbledore’s Army and everything. But then since the last week, I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts and especially on this one podcast called Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, there have been conversations about how Hermione’s handling of S.P.E.W. was actually really problematic and was a bit white feministy or maybe like in an Indian context, savarna feministy, I guess. Because she didn’t talk to the – like she came saying that oh I know better than you and pitying the house elves but not –

Aparna: Correct.

Parinita: Having conversations with them.

Aparna: I will fix things for you.

Parinita: Exactly! And she was not a good ally. She was controlling it and she was putting her – what she thought was correct into you know circulation – the ideas into circulation without talking to them and talking to –

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: How they would want to be a part of it. Or do they want to be a part of it?

Aparna: Correct.

Parinita: And you also need an education. Like there’s so much internalised prejudice against your own identities just because of the messages you get in society, that sometimes it needs to start from educating, you know, just raising awareness about your oppressed identity. You may not realise you’re oppressed. So it needs to start from there. And so –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: I thought that was also a really interesting interpretation like it’s a great thing she did but maybe … you know because it was presented quite uncritically. In fact, her whole activism was very much a joke. Like in terms of you know how because we read the whole series from Harry’s perspective, he –

Sanjana and Aparna: Yeah!

Parinita: Didn’t take it seriously so the readers also don’t really take it seriously. But there is so much room there for critique and exploration. But it might reflect her own biases and her own worldview at that time or even now. But like you were saying, Sana, it would be so much more impactful if she acknowledged her blind spots. Because obviously all of us have blind spots.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Like we can’t know everything about everything. It’s just questioning your biases and questioning your social conditioning and trying to unlearn that. Like if you don’t acknowledge it –

Sanjana: Talking about social conditioning is what The Gayly Prophet in their episode spoke about was that how when we are reading these texts, even though we uh uh are you know peo – persons of colour, we don’t uh – we

Parinita: [laughs] I like how uncomfortable you were with that term.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Yeah I was –

Aparna: Now you don’t know what to call yourself!

Sanjana: I’m not sure what I am anymore. [laughs] You have shattered – either which way what I was saying was that how we assume that the character we’re reading is white.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: How often does that happen to you guys? It happens quite often to me.

Aparna: Yeah totally. It happens very often and constantly. And most of the time, my imagination was right, because we were reading only white people – white men mostly. I just assumed for the longest time until like shamefully recently that all the characters I was reading were white.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: And all the characters that I identified with also in the books that I was reading and all just happened to be white only because they were the coolest – even if there were non-white characters in the book. Sorry I said non-white.

[Sanjana and Parinita laugh]

Aparna: But in that context it’s true okay because they were only white characters and a few – sprinkling of a non-white character here and there. But even if they were, they were either stereotypes like in Johnny Quest – Haji in Johnny Quest.

Sanjana: Oh my god Haji in Johnny Quest! [laughs]

Aparna: Or they were so surface level that beyond their name or one line here and there, they didn’t really have much of a role to play. So you ended up like identifying with the white characters and then that just became the normal. It took me a long time to say, oh the characters I identify with can actually be similar to me.

Parinita: You know the BuzzFeed article that we read by Alanna Bennett and about – basically about Hermione being black and a racebent Hermione, which again, I’ll link to in the transcript. But she said that she had to train herself out of seeing white as default for fictional characters, but for me it’s something that I really still struggle with. Like I almost –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Need the author to explicitly say that this person, their racial markers. And I don’t know why. It’s like it’s a blind spot in my brain. You know like it’s such a colonised brain that I have that it’s still difficult. Because it’s like what nearly thirty years of conditioning because we’ve grown up –

Sanjana: Correct.

Parinita: With Western media. We still largely read Western media. And now I make it a point to diversify my reading so that I have more black and brown voices in it. But in that it’s so much easier for me to then imagine black and brown bodies. But in just other books, it’s still something that – it’s very difficult for me to unlearn. And it’s still something I actively need to be … so you know these conversations about them being convinced that Hermione was black, I would never have been able to think of that. For me, Hermione was always white because all the characters that I read about were white. So –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Even though I identified with her – bookworm, bushy hair, big teeth, big front teeth –

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: I was like yeah that’s as far as the identification goes. Because I’m in Ravenclaw, you’re in Gryffindor, our paths diverge.

Aparna: [laughs] So it’s like you said, you’re trying to read more diverse authors now. And that’s sort of slowly deconditioning you. Which is why I think the Own Voices movement is so important.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aparna: It’s because to start seeing yourself in books, you have to be correctly represented in books. And to be correctly represented in books, the books have to be written by somebody who’s lived similar experiences as you. Like there has to be space for all voices in the books that we’re reading or the media that we’re consuming. So that everyone can find a way to see themselves. Like this whole conversation should, in an ideal world, not exist because there’ll be so much space for everyone and every voice that every child will be able to identify with every other child or know about various experiences that are not their own through the books that they’re reading. Not just oh this is what British people eat on a picnic. Like everyone should know what everyone eats on a picnic, you know?

Parinita: Yeah and also ever since I came to the UK, I realised that the most popular British food happens to be chicken tikka masala [laughs].

[Aparna and Sanjana laugh]

Parinita: Which you know – that’s not something that you would know of in India. You think oh they eat crumpets and they eat you know baked goods and haggis. And like here everyone loves a good curry, as they call it. Which is something that disrupts our notion of British food.

Aparna: Yeah. So, I’m a picture book editor and I was reading this book about the history of picture books. It’s called Fierce Bad Rabbits. It’s by a lady called Clare Pollard. And she was talking about how there’s a picture book called The Snowy Day by Ezra Keats. And how it was one of the first books that became really popular that featured an African-American character. And it’s just about this little boy who is playing in the snow. And the book was really well-received and people were writing letters to the author saying, “For the first time, my students are picking up the brown crayon to represent themselves.”

Image of book cover. Text says: Fierce Bad Rabbits: The Tales Behind Children's Picture Books by Clare PollardImage of book cover. Text says: The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats

Parinita: Awww!

Aparna: Because we were all – even when we were young, when we would get a crayon box, we would have this flesh-coloured crayon and it would be this pink-colour crayon.

Parinita: Pink. Yeah in India as well!

Sanjana: The crayon’s name was flesh.

Parinita: Yeah. Or skin.

Sanjana: Yeah something like that.

Aparna: So it became really popular and many people assumed that the author was black. And when they found that he wasn’t, they were very disappointed. And then he received a lot of flak about why did he choose to show an African-American character and then started finding like these are very stereotypical representations etc. And he said no, that all children play in the snow, it’s such a universal experience etc. I think he chose it because it would stand out better against the snow or something like

Parinita: Oh.

Aparna: Something illustratory like that. I don’t know. I’m just going to read a bit from the book. “I’m glad if artists don’t always default to white children convinced by Keats when he says of Peter, ‘My book would have him there simply because he should have been there all along.’ But it’s worth noting that The Snowy Day raises an ongoing problem in picture books. Representation on the page is seen as enough for the black child or at least to tick the publisher’s diversity box. Yet there is still a staggering absence of Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic [BAME] writers and illustrators. Who gets to tell the stories is important. They get to shape our children’s way of seeing the world.”

Parinita: No, I think it’s a very good point. But it throws me into such a quandary. Because I’d watched this video on The Guardian and it was about inclusive children’s literature, in the British context. And it featured a Guardian journalist, a black Guardian journalist, Grace Shutti. And she read this book called Amazing Grace, which I think was written in the 70s or 80s. I don’t know, it’s a pretty old book. And it stars like a black family and Grace who is this “little black girl and loves stories and wants to do everything”. So she really identified with it. And then for the video itself, she managed to interview the author. And the author happened to be a white woman.

Image of book cover. Text says: Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman, illustrated by Caroline Binch

Aparna: Oh.

Parinita: And she knew that before she interviewed her.

Aparna: Okay. Haan.

Parinita: And she spoke a little bit about the tensions and things. But for her, it was one rare book in a landscape of white that she was reading.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: So for her, that book holds a really important place.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: And that’s what I struggle so much with. Because I completely believe Own Voices is so important and you should have as many diversity of voices and experiences writing about – because there’s no monolithic experience, right? There’s no monolithic Indian experience –

Aparna: Correct.

Parinita: Or a monolithic whatever class anything. So you need as many as possible. But then I feel like sometimes that non-own voices can also make a really important contribution. Like unfortunately, systemically in media, children’s publishing, everything, we’re not there yet. We’re working really hard to try and fix the imbalance of dominant voices and marginalised voices. But it’s going so slowly. And the other article that we read, which was “Writing Outside Your Identity” by Laura Simeon on Kirkus Reviews.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: And she spoke about how non-own voices books and you know how the different kinds of representations within them.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: And she spoke both about the problematic elements where you just resort to stereotypes and lazy generalisations and not really you know going deep into your research. Oh have you guys come across the recent backlash against this book called American Dirt?

Sanjana and Aparna: No.

Parinita: So it’s this American book I believe because yeah American Dirt. I suppose that makes sense [laughs]. But it was written by I believe a middle-class woman with part Latina heritage. And she’s written about South American immigrants. You know how the whole border situation that’s happening –

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: In the US. And so she wrote about South American immigrants and it created this huge backlash because they believed that she didn’t have the lived experience and she didn’t have the knowledge to be able to tell this story. And that there aren’t enough people who are telling their own stories. So I found that really interesting because in that sense, there’s the power dynamic as well, right?

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: She’s American, like she may have Latina heritage but her Latina experiences in the US are very different from someone who’s fleeing crime or you know whatever from their country.

Sanjana: Yeah. And it can do more harm than it can do good sometimes. Like if you don’t do a well-researched story. What happened to research though? Like it’s not that hard to – at least a little bit.

Parinita: So in that article, she mentioned two YA [Young Adult] books that do a good job. Like non-own voice writers who write about another culture and they do it in a way that a cultural insider would recognise it. Would be able to identify with the characters and stuff.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: So it is possible. But it’s not easy.

Sanjana: It is possible, yeah, yeah.

Parinita: It’s – you have to do a lot of research. You have to know the current and historical discussions, debates, controversies. You need to have a clear picture. Especially when you’re writing about a culture that’s not your own and where you are not impacted, where you are the dominant person and the other person – you know like there’s so many – you have to be careful about it. You have to be respectful.

Aparna: Exactly. Respectful of all of that. And the most important thing is probably an authentic representation.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aparna: If you’re writing outside of your identity, you owe it to your readers to authentically represent them. Because the job of creating media is one of privilege. The creative fields are one of privilege.

Parinita: Absolutely.

Aparna: So it’s already somebody who does it will be from a certain privilege and has been for the longest time so to break away from that, like you said, will take – it’s taking time. There the most important thing is to have people who are like the commissioning editors or people who are showrunners to be diverse or to be at least invested in making sure their shows and books are more inclusive. But more than that, it’s just something that is going to take some time to break away from. But meanwhile whatever representations are being included should be done more mindfully.

Parinita: And there shouldn’t be like you’re scared of representing a culture that’s not your own so you’re not going to do it anyway. Like in that Reddit thread, which was –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Essentially about people of colour in fandom and in fanfiction, there were some responses like, oh if you have a problem with it, why don’t you write your own? Like it’s always the burden of you know the person.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Like it only matters to the person who inhabits a marginalised identity. And it’s not like diversity isn’t important for everybody. Or they would say that, oh they were super sensitive and over-cautious about offending marginalised people through their representations. Which again, it can be solved by research. Social media, the internet, makes it really easy – I mean doesn’t make it really easy, you have to do the work.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: But you have access to resources and conversations that you –

Sanjana: Absolutely.

Parinita: Wouldn’t have had earlier.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Or there are these colourblind statements like, oh we’re focusing on the character and we want to entertain. Like another of this Reddit comment was, I want to entertain and not educate, which is why I’m not adding –

Sanjana: Yeah!

Aparna: Yeah! That’s such rubbish!

Parinita: Right?! As if just having diverse people in a book makes it educational. Like last time I said, just the presence of diversity isn’t political. It’s another thing that I find – I think it’s important to have serious issues, you know, issues based on your marginalised identity like stories that delve into that. But that shouldn’t be the only kind of diversity that we see. Like it should be just diversity in terms of just going on adventures or having fun or just you know light-hearted sort of things.

Sanjana: Yeah without –

Aparna: Yeah exactly.

Sanjana: Comment. That diversity without comment on diversity is what is needed.

Aparna: Exactly. Yeah. I actually have a follow-up question. So as more diverse books are being published, there are lists of diverse books, there is a focus on diversity as a topic. But what do you guys think of that? Because I’m always torn between whether that’s a good thing or is it already treating it as separate?

Sanjana: Different, yeah.

Aparna: From the mainstream.

Parinita: Well, I think that we should be moving towards where it’s not separate. Like we should be moving towards a sort of environment where we don’t need to isolate this. But you know I totally understand these lists because school librarians, school teachers, parents may be really well-meaning but they may not have access to the resources or the knowledge or whatever. So you know putting these things together, and to highlight these voices and to highlight these books and to hopefully encourage other people to pick them up and buy them and you know read them.

Aparna: Right.

Parinita: I think that’s an important step that needs to be taken. Because it is something that ideally it should be without comment, but it’s a political thing as well right? Like unfortunately, diversity currently is political. Or fortunately, I don’t know. It’s a good opportunity as well.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And just like the woman of colour thing that you know it was formed as a political designation, maybe just diversity now should be used as a political tool to promote inclusivity and empathy and respect for different experiences.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Yeah. Which brings us to …

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: Our next section!

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: I’ve been waiting for this section! Our specially curated section on What If?

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: So anyway what I wanted to ask you guys very importantly because when I was writing stuff down, this just sort of pounced at me like the Houses in Hogwarts and the Sorting. What if it was at a different level? How would the world have been if the segregation started at a school level, like at that moment when you are put into Gryffindor or Hufflepuff or wherever – that defined the rest of your life. Like in a sense, what jobs were okay for you to take, and what jobs were beneath you or –

Parinita: Are you talking about the Hindu caste system?

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: YES!

Parinita: Because that’s what it sounds like [laughs] Like oh I’m a brave Gryffindor, maybe I can go fight battles.

Aparna: Yes! Yes!

Sanjana: Isn’t it? Isn’t it? Thank you. I was just – I was phrasing my sentences so you would get at that.

Parinita: [laughs] But like –

Sanjana: All the Ravenclaws would be the ones writing all the texts that –

Aparna: Oh god!

Parinita: Yeah like they would be the Brahmins.

Aparna: This conversation – this what if is …

Sanjana: Haan? Yeah? Isn’t it?

Parinita: Brahmins. Because they have access to knowledge that they don’t – they refuse to share with other people –

Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: And hold onto.

Sanjana: They’ll be the ones writing the history.

Aparna: Ugh.

Parinita: Oh yeah, yeah.

Sanjana: We didn’t compare the Slytherins and Hufflepuffs. I don’t want to go there also.

Parinita: But Slytherins is – maybe they’re the Brahmins because like the white supremacy house.

Sanjana: I think they’re like the supremacy – yeah exactly.

Aparna: That’s true.

Parinita: Yeah I don’t know. Hufflepuff I feel would be the best house. Because Gryffindor only wants the brave people. Like if you’re chicken, please, get out. Ravenclaw only wants the smart people. Slytherin only wants the pure-blood people. And Hufflepuff just accepts everybody. Like Hufflepuff is great, you don’t – you need to be kind, okay. That’s all – that’s all you need. That’s great. That’s a great House.

Sanjana: Yeah. But what a strange horrible world that would be.

Aparna: [laughs] Yeah.

Sanjana: I have a follow up to the What If.

Parinita: Okay.

Sanjana: What if it was all integrated? Like you got Sorted out, but then you didn’t sit on separate tables.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: You went on Quidditch matches against other schools, not your own school, like one team. You also had one team.

Aparna: Oh!

Sanjana: That would be fun!

Aparna: I suppose, I suppose.

Parinita: So there’s that fan text Tumblr post that I’d sent you guys earlier this week which I’ll link to in the transcript. Which was – it had very tragic beginnings. Because it was –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: After the war. After the Hogwarts battle where lots of people were dead so there were gaps in the House tables. And soon just as a form of healing and getting over your trauma, the professors encouraged intermingling of the Houses. So there weren’t four separate tables for the four houses. And again like how messed up is that?

The Tumblr fan text

Aparna and Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: That in the series like they do literally everything only with their Houses.

Aparna and Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: Which, again, has so many race, class, caste implications, right? Like imagine if you’re only hanging out with your own caste or your own class or your own race.

Aparna: Like it would be rebellious to befriend people from other Houses at the rate at which we are keeping people away from each other.

Sanjana: Because the Common Room is – the Common Room of like girls and boys. They should be like a larger Common Room for everybody.

Parinita: Right?!

Sanjana: Like a common Common Room.

Parinita: And like you can’t make friends with people who aren’t brave? Like that’s such a sort of superficial characteristic. Like brave and loyal. So what Slytherins can’t be brave and loyal?

Aparna: Also it’s not practical. The brave people need – people who are not so brave need brave people to hang around with. [laughs]

Parinita: Absolutely! And brave people, I’m sorry, but are not always the most clear-headed and you know –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: They’re not always thinking about their actions. So like maybe you need a little bit of Ravenclaw to be like excuse me please, can we – can we analyse little bit and see what is going to happen? Instead of just charging into the situation. So again Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, I keep calling on them even though we’ve not listened to them yet. But they had another interesting thing was so they were thinking of it in terms of American university semesters. And they said that all the students in Hogwarts, because there don’t seem to be that many of them, it’s a very small class size. So every semester, they should all be in a different House. And embody the qualities of that House and learn about the House’s history and their attitudes and talk to each other and you know talk to people whose families have a history of that House and just as a form of cultural intermingling in a very respectful way and in like a very curious way where you’re not judging but you’re just happy to learn and happy to be a part of it. That’s what I would want. That’s what my What If would be.

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to Part One of our two-part episode on race and representation. Tune in again for Part Two where we have a lot more thoughts about whitewashing, racebending, diverse canons, diverse fandoms, Harry Potter, and Doctor Who! As always, thank you so much Sana and Paru for putting in so much work for my weird little PhD project. I can’t imagine doing this with anyone else! And thanks again to my editor, Jack, for taking care of the technical bits.

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

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

Ethical Considerations Of Selecting Fan Podcasts For My Research

It was in early 2019 that I stumbled onto the world of fan podcasts – mostly thanks to feedback for a conference abstract I had submitted which directed me to #WizardTeam (a Harry Potter fan podcast), specifically this episode of the podcast which featured an interview with Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, a fan-scholar whose research delves into race and fandom. I loved the episode and was thrilled to discover a fan podcast which dissected the series through an African American lens. While I was intrigued enough to consider including fan podcasts in my research, I was still drawn to the idea of researching fandoms and intersectionality on Tumblr or Facebook. It was only when I began properly researching existing Harry Potter, Doctor Who, and even general fandom podcasts that I realised the largely unexamined potential of these spaces.

My preliminary research found that there are a lot of fan podcasts out there. To narrow them down to a manageable level, I decided to focus on those which were:

a) Either hosted by more than one host or featured guests, because dialogue and exchanging multiple perspectives is a crucial component of critical literacy; and

b) Either the hosts or the guests belonged to a background which is marginalised or stereotyped in mainstream media and culture, since I was most interested in these intersectional perspectives

I listened to sample episodes of all the podcasts which I could potentially use, further shortlisted those podcasts which I felt best suited the needs of my project, then emailed the creators to introduce my project and request their permission to use their podcasts in my research. Of the fourteen podcasts I contacted, I’ve received consent from ten of them (I’ve yet to hear from the remaining four). So far, these are the podcasts my research includes:

General Fandom Podcasts 

Harry Potter Podcasts 

Doctor Who Podcasts

My initial (laughably naive) plan was to listen to all the episodes of the podcasts in order to shortlist relevant episodes to discuss on my own podcast. I began doing this with one of the podcasts, and it took me more than a hundred episodes over a span of several months, to realise how impractical this plan was. Some podcasts have hundreds of episodes, others a few dozen – even then, I would need to spend every waking (and possibly sleeping) moment listening to podcasts to be able to go through all of them this year. And that’s ignoring the fact that I need to send shortlisted episodes to my co-participants so we can record our own episodes. Like I said, laughably naive.

Even though I’ve received consent from ten podcasts, which is more than enough to offer plenty of ideas for discussion in my own podcast, I’d still like to include the other four podcasts in my research (mostly because I’m greedy for ALL the perspectives but also because they’re all really good). I’m debating whether I can use episodes from the four podcasts anyway until and unless they email me to say they would rather not be included in my research. The podcasts I have heard from have been happy for me to use their episodes in my research with due credit.  However, I’m unsure of the ethical implications of using episodes from podcasts I haven’t heard back from. Due to the format and purpose of podcasts, I do consider them to be publicly available media; however, I’m wary of drawing any unwanted attention to them.

Relatedly, one of my co-participants had suggested a fan podcast as a text she would like to contribute. At the time, I had already contacted them for my own research but they hadn’t yet responded to me. Since then, I have received consent from Witch, Please. However, this throws up a problem for future episodes with other co-participants and their suggested texts – should I email everybody to get permission? This may be unfeasible due to the timeline for my project and for individual episodes – some people are quicker to respond to others and waiting for permission may delay the project. In this case, would an email and opt-out consent suffice?

Usually I would like explicit permission from everyone whose work I’m using. However, due to the nature of their creations and the media landscape we inhabit as well as my experience of using an Imaginary Worlds episode in my podcast’s first episode More Inclusive: The Journey of Three Indian Fangirls, I’m reconsidering some of my initial ideas. In the pilot episode, my co-hosts and I only included a passing mention of the two texts we ended up using – they definitely acted more as discussion prompts to frame and explore our own experiences and opinions in greater detail than anything else. This makes me feel ethically better about using fan podcasts and other media which has been published online with due credit but without explicit permission. However, this feeling may change based on the direction of future episodes. At least for the initial episodes, I’m sticking to podcasts who have specifically granted consent.

Episode 1 More Inclusive: The Journey of Three Indian Fangirls

Episode Resources:

For this episode, we looked at two texts:

Episode 52 of the Imaginary Worlds podcast – The Sorting Hat

The Last Jedi Killed My Childhood, and That’s Exactly Why It’s Great


Episode Transcript

This is a clean transcript of the episode. If you would prefer the original, unedited version, please let me know!

Photograph of a protest sign. Text says: Death Eater in the Ministry is not the part of Harry Potter I wanted true. #NoCAA #IndiaForAll

Image courtesy @batsaboutcats

[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 pilot episode of my PhD fan podcast. 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.

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: Welcome to the pilot episode of Marginally Fannish. Now before we start, maybe it would be a good idea to introduce ourselves to people who don’t know who we are.

I’ll go first. My name is Parinita Shetty and I’m from Mumbai, India. And sometimes it really feels like I’m living two lives at the same time. And my Indian life is my real life and my current life in the UK is my sort of temporary fake life. And in India I write and work with children’s books and young people in many ways. And I first came to the UK in 2016 to study for a master’s in children’s literature. And I went to the University of Glasgow. And I fully planned that after my master’s I would go back to my real life in India. But when I was shortlisting topics for my master’s dissertation, I discovered this whole new academic field called fan studies where I found out that there are – there’s this group of academics who are fans themselves of different media and they study other fans and they study their favourite media. And this completely blew my mind because I’m a very fannish person but I had no idea that I could bring that aspect of my identity into academia. I had this idea of academia as this sort of ivory tower thing – very serious, doesn’t dabble with popular culture. So this was pretty cool. So for my master’s dissertation I ended up studying two Facebook fan pages of Harry Potter and Percy Jackson – both book series that I love – to research how participation in such online fan spaces develop critical literacy skills among the members. And I loved the project so much and I learned so much from it that I didn’t want to stop studying it. So I decided to come back to the UK – and I never thought I was going to do this – but I came back to do a PhD in Education and I’m currently at the University of Leeds where I’m this really weird researcher who sits in the corner and unlike all the other people in the department who are studying things like pedagogy and educational policy and how to teach English as a foreign language, I’m studying fan podcasts and online fan communities and creating my own fan podcast. So it’s really strange to explain to others how I make sense in that department. But anyway, that’s a longer than I hoped introduction of me. Do you want to go next Sana? Since you were partly responsible for bringing us together?

Sanjana: Yes. I was. With some cheating that was involved which we’ll get to later.

Parinita: [laughs] Yes.

Sanjana: But anyway, so I’m Sanjana as you have just mentioned. Sana to most because we’ll be referring to ourselves as how we call each other so Sana, just don’t get confused, that’s me. I also write for children like you do. And my main job is writing comics. And besides writing and editing and running behind my two-year-old, I absolutely love diving into different universes. I mean it’s like a meditative experience to binge a book or a show. It’s just everything else fades away. In fact, when we were kids, we used to play Star Wars, Star Wars and fight over being Luke Skywalker and like it was just a thing. And we tried sneaking in little things about things we are really big fans of like the book that Paru and I wrote together – Paru being Aparna – wrote together, we had like seven redheads playing around in a garden at some point. So I mean it’s there, it’s throwaway sentence but it’s there. So like we really dive in very well into like whatever we are reading and it just becomes a part of what we are doing in that moment. So yeah that’s a basic,  small introduction of me.

Book cover of Ruckus on the Road written by Aparna Kapur and Sanjana Kapur

Ruckus on the Road, written by Aparna Kapur and Sanjana Kapur

Parinita: By the way, while Sana said that we’re using the names that we call ourselves, everyone else except these two call me Pari. And I refer to myself as Pari. But to these two I will forever be Parinita.

Sanjana: Yes.

Aparna: Because Pari means fairy and we don’t just want to call you fairy. I don’t think you’ve earned that title.

Parinita: [laughs] Apparently I’ve not earned the title.

Sanjana: Grant us some wishes and then we’ll see.

Parinita: But also Sana, do you want to like –

Sanjana: Yes.

Parinita: Say –

Sanjana: Yeah so –

Parinita: What the connection between you and Paru is? Because I don’t think anybody who’s not our family and friends actually might know.

Sanjana: Yeah, so Aparna and I are sisters

Aparna: (gasps) What?!

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Gasp!

[Everybody laughs]

Sanjana: Yeah. Which is why we could I think write a book together because otherwise we wouldn’t have ever been able to do that. I don’t think –

Aparna: It’s also why we became friends because Sana was feeling bad for me at a party.

Sanjana: Yeah this is true. So a little bit about how we became friends because that has a lot to do with the things that we are fans of and all these universes that we share across the oceans now. So our friendship began at a literature festival. We met Parinita and it just took off from there. And which led to a party at a common friend’s house, which was Nimmy. So it was a quiz party, we were doing quizzes and I was the quiz master. And how we actually got together was – so the teams were all different universes. We had Marvel sidekicks – not sidekicks. Marvel arm candy. Comics of the books arm candy.

Parinita: And Lord of the Rings characters I think as well?

Sanjana: Hobbits was one of the –

Parinita: Haan.

Sanjana: Yeah. Teams. I secretly slipped the chit to both of you because you both looked like you didn’t have any friends.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: We didn’t! It was true. We really didn’t. I had accidentally invited myself to this party because I’d only met them the day before so yeah I didn’t have any friends there.

Sanjana: Yeah so I sort of cheated them to make friends with each other and … then over the years it’s just been one of those things that you know like Anne would say kindred spirits.

Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It’s splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.


Parinita: Yay!

Sanjana: So it’s just one of those things where – and we just realised how many things we loved which were just the same. And that we introduced each other to newer things and so yeah. Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, The Last

Parinita: Avatar.

Sanjana: Airbender – yeah. The Last Airbender. All of this has been discussed to death. This and more. Percy Jackson.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: And so yeah that’s basically the groundwork of our friendship. And Paru would you like to tell us –

Aparna: It’s too late! I’ve missed my chance to introduce myself. I’m Aparna. I am known in this circle as Paru. And also Fred sometimes because we give each other character names. And Parinita and I are Fred and George and Sana is Luna. I’m a writer and I’m a picture book editor. And I truly believe that all of life’s questions can be answered in children’s literature. And fiction has been my lens to deal with the world and also most of the friends that I have are imaginary that I have made in fiction. So it is a lifesaver for me.

Parinita: Paru, I’m real. I’m not imaginary. I know we thought this once upon a time –

Aparna: [laughs] We did!

Parinita: But I’m real. [laughs]

Parinita: I said most of my friends.

Sanjana: Just a small thing to add to how much our fandoms that we love and adore play a part in us because when we were backpacking across Rajasthan, we chose to celebrate our birthday by dressing up as different characters from all these –

Parinita: Yeah!

Sanjana: and roam around. So we did roam around with a towel in our hand because we were part of the Hitchhiker’s Guide

Parinita: Excuse me! I had committed the most because I walked around dressed in my pyjamas and a bathrobe, if you have forgotten.

Sanjana: Yes. So –

Parinita: I think your costume was – it was great, it was Sokka, the hat –

Sanjana: I wore a woolen hat in Rajasthan’s heat okay please!

Parinita: [laughs] It wasn’t hot! We went in November, how dare you.

Sanjana: It’s right – it’s a desert! It was hot during the day. Anyway –

Parinita: Paru, what were you? What had you dressed up as? I forgot.

Aparna: I don’t remember.

Parinita: Oh no, I do remember! It was Jayne, was it not? Firefly?

Sanjana: Hmm yes!

Aparna: Yeah, yeah Firefly! Firefly.

Sanjana: Ohhh Firefly! Another one of our –

Parinita: Yeah. Which you guys introduced me to.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: But anyway, now that we’ve talked so much about ourselves and I’m sure we’re going to talk about ourselves much more in the future as well, maybe I can just introduce the podcast and what we hope it’ll be.

Sanjana: Sure please go ahead

Parinita: So essentially, Marginally Fannish is a fan podcast and it aims an intersectional lens at some of our favourite media and their fandoms. And it’s also my PhD project. So I’m exploring the ways in which fandom in general and fan podcasts in particular can raise awareness about intersectionality by providing opportunities for people to express and access diverse intersectional perspectives. So when I had decided that I was going to study fan podcasts for my PhD early last year, and I realised that I really wanted to create my own fan podcast as a part of my research methodology, I knew that Paru and Sana had to be involved. So I’d volunteered them to my academic supervisors even before I’d asked them because I knew they would say yes. So I basically held them hostage to my expectations. But I’m really glad you guys said yes! And we’re doing this finally.

Sanjana: Yes.

Parinita: And one of the reasons I wanted to create a fan podcast was because I found that much like discussions of intersectionality, fan studies, fandom, existing fan podcasts largely seem to emerge from the US and the UK and the fans are also based in the US and the UK. So I thought that three Indian really fannish women talking about our favourite texts would be a really valuable contribution to diversifying the conversation, not only in academia but also within fandom. So apart from monthly episodes where the three of us are going to co-host and we’re going to rotate hosting duties, I also have a bunch of amazing guests from diverse backgrounds who have volunteered to participate in the podcast. So throughout the year I’m going to have regular conversations with these guests and with Paru and Sana about our favourite media and about our opinions and perspectives about intersectionality and like the diverse aspects of intersectionality. So I’m super excited to be able to do this and learn from all my co-participants about ideas I otherwise would not have thought about. What do you guys hope that this podcast is going to be? Paru, do you have any expectations or – what do you hope it’ll be?

Aparna: So I know this podcast will be immensely fun because it’s the three of us and that’s a given. But I’m hoping that it’ll help me look at things differently. So as a fan I’ve generally evolved a little bit in the last few years. And I’ve started being more critical of the things I love instead of just looking at them with blind adoration.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aparna: And I feel like this will be some more steps in that direction.

Parinita: No, I think that’s such a good point as well because like you I’ve also evolved like that. And I really find a lot of joy now in critiquing the things that I love. Like it doesn’t take away –

Sanjana: That’s very true, yeah.

Parinita: The enjoyment for me. Like I love critiquing it, if that makes sense.

Sanjana: Yeah this is – correct.

Aparna: I have –

Parinita: Sana, what about you?

Aparna: I have sorry –

Parinita: Oh yeah sorry.

Aparna: One more thing to add which I’m also hoping that it will restore my faith in humanity a little bit –

Parinita: Yeah.

Aparna: To see how people find a way to tell their stories no matter what.

Parinita: Aww! That’s a very good hope. I hope that happens to me as well.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: My faith in humanity really needs some … yeah. Sana, what about you? Do you have any hopes for this podcast?

Sanjana: Yeah so just to go back a little bit to say when you asked us, we immediately – like I immediately said yes. Because it just seemed like the absolute right thing to – like it just felt so correct that –

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: It was something that we instantly – so you were right to just assume.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: [laughs] And what Aparna is saying is right is that a lot of the times when we read stuff, we just – we love it at first sight because –

Parinita: Um hmm.

Sanjana: You know you fall in love with the characters without actually looking at anything else.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: And it’s a lot of fun to go back and re-read and then find little things that you probably missed at first glance. So I just feel this will do a lot to add to that little conversation. And I just hope that the podcast will get added to this larger discussion that is happening and from a completely different perspective. Because as you said there aren’t three Indian fannish women talking about reading.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: So yeah.

Parinita: And like I think for me that’s so important as well like what you said exactly. I tend to really fall in love with things when I first watch or read or encounter them. And I need some distance but I also need to know what other people are – like I need to know other perspectives as well of that thing. And I need to talk to other – like with you guys, we talk so much about the things we watch and the things we read.

Sanjana: Absolutely.

Parinita: And we get more ideas through our conversations. Which is another reason I started this fan podcast because that’s such an expression of how I engage with fandom. You know?

Sanjana: Yeah, absolutely.

Parinita: Yeah. So even though this podcast is my PhD project, I really wanted to try and minimise my control of it as much as possible, even though I’m ultimately in control of it. But to avoid making it an interview where I would largely choose the direction of the conversation, I thought that a discussion group of sorts would be a more democratic method. So before every episode, my co-hosts and guests and I, we’re going to exchange some fan texts or just media texts and this could be fanfiction or fan podcasts or even TV show episodes or memes – whatever. And in the episode, we’re going to use those texts more as discussion prompts than anything else so that they allow us room to talk about things that are important to us. And since I’m studying fan podcasts, I’ll mostly contribute fan podcast episodes. And there are so many brilliant fan podcasts out there. I really fell into this rabbit hole when I discovered fan podcasts in I think January 2019. And as much as I would love to listen to all the fan podcasts that exist, there aren’t enough days, there aren’t enough hours. Like I can spend my whole life and there are new fan podcasts coming out – I just couldn’t do it. So I’ve tried to control my project and control my life. And I’m looking at Harry Potter and Doctor Who fan podcasts because I’m definitely a member of both fandoms. I love Harry Potter, I love Doctor Who. And I’m going to be immersing myself in a selection of Harry Potter and Doctor Who fan podcasts which I’m going to put up on my website. And to shortlist those episodes which are sort of related to the intersectional themes I’m looking at. And the intersectional themes that I’m currently looking at are gender, race, class, ethnicity, gender identity and gender expression, sexual orientation, physical or mental disability, national or regional origin, religion, and age. Though of course our conversations won’t be restricted to just these themes and I’m very open to feedback from co-participants or from listeners to this podcast based on which I’ll happily edit or expand this list. And I’m mostly using Harry Potter and Doctor Who, like I mentioned, to make my life easier. But obviously we’re not going to limit our conversations to just these two fandoms because we love way too many stories for that. And in fact among the three of us, only two of us are actually Doctor Who fans. So Sana, what do you actually know about Doctor Who?

Sanjana: Uhhh so I know there is –I know he, now and she, has two hearts. Am I right?

Aparna: Yes.

Sanjana: Okay.

Parinita: Yeah!

Sanjana: Is this [laughs] is this relevant? Like is there – has ever a Doctor been shot in one heart?

Aparna: Yes!

Parinita: I think – Yes. Once there was – the heart was a thing. But it’s not like a huge part of the –

Aparna: Sometimes when you least expect it, it just –

Parinita: Yeah.

Aparna: Is a throwaway line. Like this only like –

Parinita: Yeah.

Aparna: People are like, “Oh no! You’re going to die!” And then he’s just like, “Okay, it’s okay. I have two hearts.”

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: I’m surprised it’s been used only once. I would have –

Aparna: Or like generally he makes comments like, “Just one heart? You humans are so weird.” Like that.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah. I think with David Tennant, there was like – the hearts played a major plot point but like I have a terrible memory and I haven’t re-watched the series yet for research. Because I get to watch Doctor Who again and read Harry Potter again for research!

Sanjana: Well –

Parinita: I love my project.

Sanjana: Please so if I can tell you what else I know.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: So two hearts play an imp – apparently not so important. So they time travel in something called the TARDIS.

Aparna: Yes.

Sanjana: And the TARDIS, I believe, works sort of like Hermione’s tents and bags. It’s large –

Aparna: It’s bigger on the inside!

Parinita: It is bigger on the inside. Like Mary Poppins’s bag as well.

Sanjana: Yeah, yeah. Correct. So okay that I got right then.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: And I assumed – I don’t know why I have this feeling that there are some evil robots that keep coming.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Am I right in assuming that?

Aparna: There are Daleks.

Parinita: I think – which ones? No, I was thinking of Cybermen. So which evil robots?

Aparna: Oh yeah Cybermen!

Sanjana: Oh! More than one!

Aparna: Are you talking about the ones that say “Exterminate!” [Paru does a great Dalek impression] Because those are Daleks.

Sanjana: Yeah I think that is what because I think most of my Doctor Who what do you call it –

Aparna: Knowledge.

Sanjana: Knowledge comes from the fact that Abed in Community was watching that –

Parinita: [laughs]

Aparna: Oh my god!

Sanjana: It’s sort of funny that I have my information from a make-believe fan.

Parinita: Inspector Spacetime!

Aparna: Yeah! I was trying to remember the name.

Parinita: [laughs] Amazing!

Gif of Abed and Britta, characters from the TV show Community. Text says: "It's a British Sci-Fi series that's been on the air since 1962!"

Sanjana: Okay. I’ve seen an episode here and there. There was one about an artist who … which one … I’m guessing there’s been more than one artist.

Parinita: Was it Picasso?

Aparna: No, it was Vincent Van Gogh. Did you cry at the end of the episode?

Sanjana: I’m not so sure.

Parinita: Ohhh. That was a very sad episode.

Aparna: Yeah!

Sanjana: The artist saw a demon … some sort of demons, which is why his paintings were the way they were?

Parinita: I think you’re talking about the same episode but I – I can’t remember enough details about it to confirm or deny.

Sanjana: Anyway, so I thought I would ask you guys if you – have I missed something major which I should know? I know there are companions. He/she travels with people.

Aparna: Yes.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: And they die and get replaced or go away.

Aparna: [laughs] They die and get replaced!

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: Or they give up the job and somebody else comes in.

Parinita: Nobody gives up their job!

Aparna: Some horrible things.

Parinita: I think somebody did give up their job.

Sanjana: I think we talked about them giving up their job once. So I’ve been part of several Doctor Who conversations on WhatsApp.

Aparna: This happens to me with Grey’s Anatomy.

Parinita: Yeah that’s true.

Sanjana: So anyway. Okay.

Aparna: Okay.

Sanjana: So this is as much as my knowledge goes I think. Yeah.

Parinita: Yeah that’s pretty good. Do you know how many Doctors there were? So far.

Sanjana: Twelve? Thirteen?

Parinita: Like I don’t know the exact number either because I –

Sanjana: Thirteen. So –

Parinita: My Doctor started from the –

Aparna: It’s thirteen.

Parinita: Christopher –

Aparna: Thirteen Doctors.

Parinita: Oh yeah the Thirteenth Doctor yeah. Oh yes, yes.

Aparna: She’s called thirteenth! How are you confused about this?

Sanjana: Okay.

Parinita: Because my memory is very bad. I couldn’t remember whether it was eleven … whether it was twelve …

Aparna: So there was a War Doctor no in between. Remember?

Parinita: Yeah, yeah.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: So technically –

Parinita: So that’s fourteen no it should be?

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: So I have a couple of questions okay which helps me understand this a little more.

Aparna: Hmm.

Sanjana: If you guys would oblige.

Aparna: Yes.

Parinita: Yes.

Sanjana: Who’s your favourite Doctor? So that I know when he/she comes up and –

Parinita: Oh no! What a terrible question that is!

Aparna: This is not a throwaway question that we can answer. We need an entire episode.

Sanjana: Okay. So we’ll come back to it.

Parinita: That’s – that’s such a complicated

Sanjana: Which –

Parinita: Complex

Sanjana: Which –

Parinita: Heartbreaking question!

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Oh my good lord. This has opened up so many emotions. I apologise. I apologise for the question. But I will come back to this question … Or maybe you love too many?

Aparna: Yeah, too many.

Parinita: I love them all!

Sanjana: Top three?

Parinita: Uhhh …

Sanjana: Would that be easier to answer?

Parinita: That’s even worse somehow.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Okay. I have –

Parinita: Top three? What about the other two then? This is terrible.

Sanjana: Alright. So okay I have another question.

Aparna: Okay.

Sanjana: Which of the Doctors is most like a Slytherin?

Aparna: Ohhh!

Parinita: Ohhh.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: I think it might be Peter Capaldi.

Aparna: Yeah even I was going to say that.

Gif of Peter Capaldi as the Doctor. The text says: Google it.

Parinita: Or maaaybe – yeah I think it would be Peter Capaldi. Even though like just some Slytherin qualities.

Aparna: Yeah, very few.

Sanjana: Good enough.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: Uh –

Parinita: I think there are companions who have more Slytherin qualities than the Doctor really.

Aparna: That’s true.

Sanjana: Well. No wonder they keep getting changed.

Aparna: Oh god!

Sanjana: I don’t know why I have this notion that the companions move a lot faster than the –

Aparna: Not always okay.

Sanjana: Who’s had the most number of companions?

Aparna: Oh.

Parinita: I think it was Matt Smith?

Aparna: Did he really? They stayed for a really long time. Amy and Rory.

Parinita: Yeah but then he had Clara.

Sanjana: Okay.

Parinita: And did he not have River as well at some point?

Aparna: Oh that’s – Clara was the one who spilled into the next Doctor.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: Alright. Similarly I want to know who the most uh Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw and Gryffindor are.

Aparna: I feel like the Tenth Doctor, David Tennant, was most Gryffindor ‘cause he would just charge into things.

Parinita: Oh really? I feel like he was more Ravenclaw. Because he seems – like didn’t he have that line about books as well? And he seemed more, to me, cerebral and Christopher Eccleston seemed more Gryffindor to me because he always –

Gif of David Tennant as the Doctor walking towards a bookshelf. Text says: Books. Best weapons in the world.

Gif of Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor. Text says: Fantastic!

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: But like yeah, different interpretations.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Matt Smith, Hufflepuff.

Aparna: Matt Smith, Hufflepuff.

Gif of Matt Smith as the Doctor. Text says: Yeah, it's cool. Bowties are cool.

Sanjana: I was very sure you guys would –

Aparna: No brainer.

Sanjana: would say that.

Aparna: He is just Hufflepuff.

Parinita: He is very Hufflepuff. What about Jodie?

Aparna: He makes people want to be Hufflepuff.

Parinita: I think Jodie is also Hufflepuff.

Aparna: I think she’s a bit Ravenclaw.

Gif of Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor. Text says: Is anyone excited? 'Cause I'm really excited.

Parinita: That’s true. She could be a RavenPuff! Like me!

Aparna: Oh!

Sanjana: Oh we are – we are

Aparna: We have moved on to RavenPuffs, I see.

Sanjana: Okay, moving on, like you said, like you moved. What houses were you guys Sorted in?

Aparna: Uh so –

Parinita: By ourselves? Or by like a website?

Sanjana: Yeah, a website. By Pottermore.

Parinita: I have always been Sorted as Ravenclaw in any website quiz that I do.

Sanjana: Oh well.

Parinita: What about you, Paru?

Aparna: So I always believed I was Ravenclaw. But I was very firmly Sorted into Gryffindor. So much so that my … what’s it called … the animal? Sorry!

Sanjana: The Patronus?

Parinita: Griffin?

Aparna: Patronus was also a lion. Which I think is overkill.

Parinita: Oh!

Aparna: But anyway. I do think I’m a little bit Gryffindor. I’ve come to adopt that.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Okay.

Sanjana: I –

Parinita: What about you Sana?

Sanjana: If anybody wants to know was Sorted into Slytherin. And I’m owning it. Because after being a bit distraught that I couldn’t take – you can’t take the quiz again and like try and be in another one. So I –

Parinita: Can you not?

Sanjana: No, I don’t think –

Aparna: No, you can’t.

Sanjana: That is – arey! You cannot change Houses once you’re Sorted.

Parinita: [laughs] That was a very Slytherin thing of me to say.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: Like oh try again! What’s there?

Sanjana: Anyway, so I am owning it. I –

Parinita: Yeah you should.

Sanjana: Have many Slytherin qualities. Qualities.

Parinita: Like what? What do you think is Slytherin about you?

Sanjana: Hmmm – I um … huh. I don’t know whether I should be so upfront as to tell you what my qualities are. It’s better –

Parinita: Yeah, you’re definitely a Slytherin. [laughs]

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: It’s better that you don’t see them coming. And if you’re asking this question, then I’ve been masking them well. So I think I’ll just –

Parinita: I mean listen, as much as it feels like we’re just talking to the three of us, hopefully there’ll be other people who listen to our podcast and it’s not just our friends and our families. So –

Sanjana: Yeah, this is true.

Parinita: You know maybe other people might want to know what Slytherin qualities you’re owning. I think you’re ambitious.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: I think that’s one –

Sanjana: Hmm. Okay.

Parinita: Slytherin quality. Yeah.

Sanjana: Alright.

Parinita: And that’s a good quality, I think.

Aparna: Yeah and she is also – she likes to plan things.

Parinita: Oh!

Sanjana: What – what details! [laughs]

Aparna: So instead of like confronting someone, she will come up with a cunning plan to –

Sanjana: This is true.

Aparna: Get them to –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Admit something.

Sanjana: Yeah, this is true. I am very conniving. Without the other person realising. So I think I’m – yeah. This is true.

Parinita: Ahh! Okay.

Sanjana: The other person won’t see it coming.

Parinita: You own it. You own your Slytherinness.

Sanjana: Yeah. So anyway.

Aparna: Yeah so Sana wears her Slytherinness as a badge of honour. But there is definitely a bias in the way the books are written.

Parinita: Yeah. Absolutely.

Aparna: There is– yeah, so like most people’s reaction to being Sorted in Slytherin is that, “Oh I don’t want to tell you what I’ve been Sorted in.” Is the kind of reaction that I’ve seen people giving me. Or they like overplay their Slytherinness or something. But usually it’s just something that people don’t discuss.

Sanjana: No, but this is true. It took me a while to own Slytherin until –

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: You know you guys convinced me to like say that, “Ohhh Slytherin has great qualities!” And I was like, “Hmm!”

Parinita: But no, it’s like the books themselves, they are so Gryffindor focused. Like –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Even if you don’t identify as any of the qualities that Gryffindor has, but – because they’re written from that perspective – like in school, I was in the Red House. Like we had like four houses. And so the Red House – Gryffindor obviously. And I was so proud of that and I was so – I was like “Yes! We’re Gryffindor!” and I used to look at Green House very suspiciously because you know Slytherin. And it was only in fandom when I – because otherwise Yellow House is just like miscellaneous. Like you know they don’t really –

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: There’s no like whatever qualities that seem to be really a part in the protagonists or anything. And Ravenclaw okay, smart house. But there’s no depth to that. It’s just like the smart house.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So Luna Lovegood is such an interesting character. Like I love Luna.

Sanjana: Um hmm.

Parinita: And even like in the first book, like do you remember? I think it was in other books as well. But when Slytherin loses the House Cup, all three Houses – like it’s not just Gryffindor.

Aparna: Everyone cheers!

Parinita: Yeah! Which like can you imagine it – that happening to you like everyone seems to hate you so much that they’re standing on their feet, stamping and cheering and –

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: I mean no wonder they hate everybody and they’re so grumpy.

Sanjana: No, but so the books were also preceded by the fact that they had been winning the House Cup for aeons like uh they had –

Parinita: Okay! Theek hai like still.

Sanjana: Theek hai na! So I mean it’s not only because they – I think they would have cheered enough even if it was someone else winning the Cup. It’s just the – they –

Parinita: Okay so but –

Sanjana: Just wanted someone else to win

Parinita: Okay no so like one of the fan texts that we looked at – the three of us looked at this week, for this episode – was an Imaginary Worlds podcast episode called The Sorting Hat which I’ll link to in the show notes. And in that it a really interesting point was brought up which – in the seventh book, during the war when like the Hogwarts battle, the Slytherins are all taken like … they’re all what locked in the basement or something? Just because –

Aparna: Dungeons.

Parinita: The teachers and all don’t trust them – that they don’t trust that they’re going to fight on their side. And the person in the podcast made a comparison to the Japanese internment camps in the US. Which I thought was really interesting. Had you guys heard about the Japanese internment camps before?

Sanjana: No, no I hadn’t.

Aparna: No, not in detail.

Parinita: Like I also know very little about it. But like from what I know it’s through like the internet and like through other passing references. But essentially during the Second World War, after Pearl Harbour was bombed and – don’t quote me on this – but like this is what I’ve gleaned from just the internet conversations – is that they had built camps in the US and like Japanese-Americans and Japanese citizens were bundled up into these camps because they thought that the citizens who were staying there would betray them to Japan. And so that was why the comparison here I thought was so powerful almost because it was – yeah like why would you just assume that the Slytherins don’t – will not be on your – sure, some of them yeah because their parents are Death Eaters. But surely you can’t expect all the Slytherins – all their parents are Death Eaters? Like then what does that say about the series? The house?

Aparna: Yeah. And also just like the fact that all Death Eaters were Sly – like there was –

Parinita: Yeah.

Aparna: No evil character other than a Slytherin.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Well there was Peter Pettigrew. We should have said spoilers in the beginning. But yeah.

Aparna: You should have a blanket spoilers –

Parinita: You know he’s Gryffindor but yeah you’re right. Everyone else is a Slytherin.

Aparna: Yeah. But in general, what is your take on the whole Sorting thing? Like they discuss this in the episode as well whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing. And what do you guys think? Is it something that helps build camaraderie or is it something that is more divisive than not? What do you guys think?

Parinita: Hmm well I actually really liked the Sorting. And even when I was in school, I liked having that sort of community because I’m not a really very competitive person in general.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: But I like that sort of you know like in sporting events, just shouting – it’s almost like –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Donning this cloak of competitiveness for that time being and you know just for the – it doesn’t really matter to me in the end. But it’s fun to just cheer and like be a part of this community and like have this group feeling where we’re all working towards the same thing.

Sanjana: No and going by that I really love having something to root for like –

Parinita: Hmm.

Sanjana: You know I like saying that yes, I’m rooting for this team or character or something. And that sort of maybe did that to what the Sorting held. And we through our school years, it was something that I immediately identified with as you were saying. We were also – we also had Houses all through school years. And so it was something that – it was very you know like, haan, yeh toh – It’s correct. So –

Parinita: Do you think the House systems that our schools had was like a leftover of the British education system?

Sanjana: Probably.

Parinita: Because I went to a Catholic school like I went to a convent school. So mine was very clearly – like our Houses, it was red, yellow, blue, green. But they each had saints’ names and I don’t remember what saints.

Sanjana: Yeah toh we also had red, yellow, blue, green. And we were

Aparna: Scientists.

Sanjana: Yeah we were scientists in one of the –

Parinita: Ohhh!

Sanjana: We changed schools a lot so we had Aryabhatta and –

Aparna: Hey, no I thought we were Edison.

Sanjana: Raman house, Edison yeah. Edison was Blue House.

Parinita: Hmm.

Sanjana: Yeah we had those and – no but in one of our schools, we also had –

Aparna: Chanakya

Sanjana: Chanakya and Ashoka. So –

Parinita: Oh! Hmm.

Sanjana: There were kings at some point.

Parinita: Ohhh!

Sanjana: Yeah and we went to non-convent schools. But the colours were pretty standard I think.

Parinita: What about you, Paru? What do you think about the house systems?

Aparna: So if it’s as random as when we were Sorted into houses in school – not Sorted [laughs] just assigned houses. But the Sorting seems very personality dependent. And I feel like maybe that’s not a great idea to like Sort people according to houses based on some qualities that they have.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: But that’s what I really liked in the episode that they brought up which was that even though you think that Gryffindor is all like all the brave people go into Gryffindor and all the … evil people apparently go into Slytherin. But it’s actually – so in that episode, how that person talked about, that there are qualities that Gryffindor would need more of. So, for example, Hermione brings the Gryffindor – Ravenclaw qualities to Gryffindor.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And Luna brings Hufflepuff qualities to Ravenclaw. And Ron brings Hufflepuff as well.

Sanjana: This Sorting Hat is a rather you know –

Aparna: Genius.

Sanjana: Genius, yeah.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: Sitting there, talking, and hmming and hawing, but yeah. Very smart.

Parinita: I think I would love a Sorting Hat in real life. Like you know just to put it on people’s heads and so I don’t have to figure out whether this person is good or not. Just let the Sorting Hat do – but I suppose good is relative and like you can’t really judge.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Yeah. You just went right back into the Slytherin –

Parinita: No, look, some of my best friends are Slytherins! [laughs] I like Slytherins.

Sanjana: Yes.

Aparna: So in general, the way that British literature has influenced our lives, I want to talk a little bit more about that. Like we grew up completely on Enid Blyton and British literature was the only literature we read for a long time. So for a long time we didn’t even realise that things like what Enid Blyton would have at a picnic, that food was more fascinating to us than whatever we were getting. Everyone at picnics would want to take like lemonade and sandwiches and cucumber sandwiches and whatever.

Parinita: Hardboiled eggs with a twist of salt.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Which in real life is quite drab.

Parinita: Yeah, no, honestly, it is! And like I read later that – so she was writing right after and during the Second World War, right? And after that, in the UK, they had rationing, like they had shortages of food and stuff. So she was really trying to make all the – like the heavy focus of food in her books?

Sanjana: Haan.

Parinita: Was sort of a response to that. But it was also simple food. So it wasn’t anything that was fancy. But like she was sort of almost exoticising the simple like and to get kids to –

Sanjana: Ohhh.

Parinita: Yeah like her readers to be happier I suppose with their lot.

Sanjana: Just be happy with your boiled eggs.

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs]

Aparna: I don’t know if it worked for kids in the UK, but it certainly worked on us.

Sanjana: Yeah, definitely.

Parinita: When I first came to the UK, like I was on an Enid Blyton adventure. And again, like even the pronunciation – so Paru, I noticed that you said Enid. And I grew up saying Enid as well [pronounces Ehn-id]. But here, in the UK, everyone says Enid Blyton [pronounces Een -id]. And like now it’s this sort of mixed thing in my head. Like what do I pronounce? Because one of my biggest fears is returning to India from the UK with an accent. So I’m like very concerned that I’m going to develop an accent and come back so I’m like always on my guard against that. But even like Enid Blyton now or Enid [pronounces Ehn rather than Een] Blyton now is considered super unfashionable because of some of her ideas about –

Aparna: Which –

Parinita: the anti-foreigner, and like racist. Which we never even picked up on.

Aparna: Yeah, exactly. For a long time, we didn’t. And now when we go back to it, if I go back to some of the old books, sometimes I find so many problems in it.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aparna: Like how did I not see this as a problem while growing up?

Sanjana: But this is where the whole thing of how we change as fans comes in you know.

Parinita: But even the gender politics and stuff like was so problematic.

Sanjana: Absolutely! Yeah.

Parinita: In the thing yeah it’s –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Actually, growing up, mostly I’ve always identified or wanted to be more the the –

Sanjana: Boy characters.

Aparna: Male characters in the books. They just seemed to be having more fun all the time. Whenever I would pretend to be a character in my mind, which is what I do when reading a book, I would always either make up a new character and insert her into the story or I’d just identify most with one of the boy characters in the story. And –

Parinita: Yeah because like the girl characters were always sort of relegated to like doing housework and you know like Anne in Famous Five, poor thing –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Had to always look after the food.

Sanjana: They were the ones boiling the eggs and packing up the lunch.

[Everyone laughs]

Book cover of The Famous Five: Five On A Treasure Island written by Enid Blyton

Five On A Treasure Island, written by Enid Blyton

Parinita: And the only girls that were having fun wanted to be boys. So there was like George and Jo. They didn’t want to be girls.

Sanjana: Absolutely. Yeah.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Which we didn’t question so like …

Parinita: Ooh I read a really very interesting fan theory or at least fan interpretation of George being actually a trans boy. So that was her way of sort of dealing with her identity.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Which I thought was very cool.

Aparna: Yeah, that is very cool.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Oh another change that I’ve seen in myself as a fan is that I used to be very exclu – I used to not want to include people. Like if people would say “Oh I’ve only watched the Harry Potter movies,” then I would judge them very harshly. Or if people would say, “Oh I only started watching Doctor Who from the Eleventh Doctor onwards,” or something, then I would be like, “Oh you don’t – you can’t have an opinion on so-and-so.” But in the last few years, I feel like I’ve become more inclusive, in that anyone is entitled to be a fan of anything and have an opinion on it. And it’s just such a friendly space – it can be such a friendly space. And I feel like that’s one of the changes I’ve noticed in myself. What about you guys? How have your fan journeys changed?

Parinita: I think for me that sort of like I gatekeeped – gatekept – I don’t know what the past tense is. But I was a gatekeeper to myself more than anything. Like I feel like I needed to prove to myself that I was a fan by being a completist. So I was like I have to like, like you’re saying, with Doctor Who or with anything else, like I have to know everything about the world to then consider myself a fan. And if I don’t know everything about Harry Potter, or if like I don’t know all the references and whatever or don’t remember them, then like of course, I can’t be a true fan. And now just even the term true fan is so abhorrent to me because –

Sanjana: Yeah!

Aparna: Yeah!

Parinita: Everybody is a true fan! It doesn’t matter like how you know – And another way I think I’ve changed is that like earlier I would be very much on the writer’s side, I think, when I was younger. Or the creator’s side. And now I think that if you’ve created something that’s so popular and it’s so beloved by so many people, it no longer belongs to you. Like if you want to be the only person who decides the interpretations and decides you know what’s allowed and what’s not in your world, then you don’t release it out into the world. You know –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: You just sort of keep it to yourself. But like once it’s out there, so for example –

Aparna: It belongs to everyone.

Parinita: Yeah! Like J. K. Rowling – now she’s done and said some really problematic things which have really made some fans upset. And I’m sure we’re going to talk about that in later episodes. But I understand why fans are upset and I understand why they feel like it’s like this huge shock to their childhood and childhood memories. But for me, I really firmly believe that it’s no longer just hers. It’s everybody’s. And even if she is sort of – like you don’t have to like her to like the books and to like you know what they did to you when you were a kid or even now.

Sanjana: Yeah, you’ve made some great points there because I found myself nodding quite vigorously.

Aparna: There’s this one very interesting article I read on a website that I follow quite religiously called iO9.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Aparna: And it was after The Last Jedi was released and the headline was quite dramatic. Of how The Last Jedi killed my childhood. But when I read it, it was just such a mature take on how the author felt because he’d grown up watching the Star Wars films, so he said it was like the end of an era for me because all the work that Luke and Leia and Han had done, to build up like the whole story that I watched and worshipped for so long, it actually meant nothing because the Dark Side was still there and has come back more powerful than ever. So in that sense it feels like a lost childhood. But just seeing all these new characters and just the way the story has changed and the whole new medley of characters, it gave him such joy to see that now people who are starting to watch Star Wars through these movies will get a whole new bunch of people to look at the way he had Luke and Leia and Han. And it won’t be just like his story. You know what I mean?

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Which I found – it was a very interesting way of looking at it.

Parinita: No, it was a really good article. And again, I’ll link that –that was another of the texts all three of us read and I’ll link to that in the transcript. But what that made me think of like he also talked about how the term “ruined my childhood” can be such a contentious one –

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: Because you know?

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And I was thinking of that especially in terms of when like Harry Potter like I said because a lot of people do feel like their childhoods are ruined and you know like I can completely understand where they’re coming from. But on the other hand, there’s also the Doctor Who fandom. And luckily, I haven’t really been a part of the more toxic bits of that fandom. Just –

Sanjana: Right.

Parinita: Because of the spaces that I inhabit and the sort of people that I talk to about Doctor Who. But I know that there are places online where people are really upset at the increasing diversity in Doctor Who. Like not just –

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Not just Jodie, the Thirteenth Doctor, but also like the companions now and the themes that they’re exploring – there are more black, brown faces. And they think that it’s just trying to be progressive and trying to be diverse –

Sanjana: Right.

Parinita: As a political like thing. But like diversity isn’t a political issue. Like it is now but why like – surely diversity is just, like, life? Like you know like marginalised people who don’t recognise themselves in mainstream media, they do exist. Their existence is not a political point. But it seems to create such a sort of political stance that oh if you think diversity is good, you must be like you know a certain – like you must be left-wing

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Or you must be progressive. And it’s said in such a – it’s almost an insult. Whereas like diversity is – it’s good. And like Paru was saying, with the article and like Star Wars, I would not want to go back to Doctor Who, the original. Like you know the one that came out in the 60s and 70s. I tried. I watched the first few episodes. And it just – I couldn’t engage with it at all. And like that was when I was like no I need to complete – like watch the old Doctor Who series to then start watching the new series, and then I was like, look, life is too short.

Aparna: Yeah, yeah.

Parinita: I can’t do this! I can’t go through –

Aparna: The same thing happened to me.

Parinita: So – and like the new show, like not just the one that started like with Christopher Eccleston, but with Jodie, it’ll draw so many new people into –

Aparna: Exactly.

Sanjana: Absolutely.

Parinita: So many new kids and adults. And why should that be a bad thing? It’s like you know so “ruined my childhood” – they think that diversity ruined their childhood. Or becoming left-wing or political for the sake of becoming political. But like yeah. So that’s I think a term that can be done away with in most contexts.

Aparna: Correct. Yeah.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: So one interesting – during the discussion leading up to this episode, both you and Sana brought up in different ways, is to imagine what Hogwarts would be like in India. So what are your thoughts on that?

Sanjana: I for one don’t think we would have had to wait for – when does Umbridge come? In the fifth book no?

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah, yes.

Sanjana: Yeah I don’t think we would have had to wait till the fifth book for an Umbridge situation to appear on the scene in India.

Parinita: No.

Sanjana: I feel that the decrees –

Parinita: I think that Snape was also a pretty terrible teacher.

Sanjana: Who?

Parinita: Snape.

Sanjana: Haan.

Aparna: Yeah he was a terrible teacher.

Sanjana: He was a terrible teacher. But then he had stuff going on. I think.

Parinita: Well please! I mean okay, no need to take it out on poor Neville who is just trying to life his life, trying to look after Trevor.

Sanjana: Chucked into Gryffindor, trying to be brave and he’s like, “Should I have been here?”

Aparna: So sad.

Sanjana: Anyway. I feel like we would have had a lot more decrees nailed to the wall a lot sooner if it was in India.

Parinita: I think it also depends on when – like what era of India is Hogwarts like are we looking – oh or not Hogwarts I guess, an Indian magical school, whatever it would be called. If it’s happening now or if it’s happening when the Harry Potter books happened which I think would both be really interesting but also really terrible because the 1990s are not a really great time – early 90s –

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: In India. And currently also it’s not a great time.

Sanjana: Not a great time, yeah. So I was going to ask you, when would have been a great time to put it?

Parinita: I think both. Actually both times would have been a great time because like this bunch of students getting together secretly to resist fascism and to overthrow the government.

Photograph of a protest sign. Text says: Death Eater in the Ministry is not the part of Harry Potter I wanted true. #NoCAA #IndiaForAll

Image courtesy batsaboutcats from a December 2019 protest in Azad Maidan, Mumbai, against the National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship Amendment Act

Sanjana: Absolutely.

Aparna: Yeah!

Parinita: You know?

Sanjana: I think the Harry Potter like a Hogwarts in today’s scenario would be very helpful.

Parinita: Yeah! I mean like they could collaborate with the Muggles and you know like the Muggles and you know the Muggle students and the wizarding –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Like one of the things I think in Harry Potter, which I didn’t realise at the time when I was reading it, but now through conversations in fandom and stuff, like the hierarchy like they talk nicely about like egalitarianism and all are – all people are equal and you know like oh yeah Mudbloods are people too and things like that. And giants and house elves and everything. But still Muggles are still much lower on the hierarchy. Like there’s – like there’s this really paternalistic attitude like wizards and witches are –

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Better than Muggles and you know?

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So maybe in the Indian sort of scenario, there could be more cross-cultural links between Muggles and like whatever they would be called in India. Because I know in North America, they’re called No-Majs. [snorts]

Sanjana: Yeah that’s a terrible one. I’m sorry but that’s terrible.

Parinita: No, no you know what is terrible? It is – what’s more terrible – well, maybe not more terrible but equally terrible is that in the Cursed Child, whose kid?

Aparna: Yes!

Parinita: Was it Parvati’s kid?

Aparna: Panju!

Parinita: Panju!

Sanjana: Yes! Oh my god yes!

Aparna: Why do people think those are the sort of names we have?!

Parinita: It’s not even a real name! I mean like what? Is he – is the father from Punjab?

Sanjana: Like if –

Parinita: Like is it a nickname? What’s happening?

Sanjana: It was Ron’s kid! It was –

Parinita: Was it?!

Sanjana: Ron’s kid! Ron’s kid.

Parinita: You’re right! It was an alternative timeline.

Aparna: Ohhh.

Sanjana: Yeah

Parinita: Again spoilers.

Sanjana: Yeah. But I just would like to say that this means terrible – like even if you had blinked an iota of a research, you would have found a better name. Like it’s like –

Parinita: But that’s like –

Sanjana: It has got to be on purpose.

Parinita: No but remember the Neil Gaiman’s book? I forget the name

Book cover of Cinnamon written by Neil Gaiman

Cinnamon, written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Divya Srinivasan

Aparna: Cinnamon!

Parinita: Cinnamon! Like yeah that’s what we name our children in India. Cinnamon!

Sanjana: Yeah like ice creams.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: Like what would you name them in the UK? It would be like naming a kid Fish And Chips or something. Like or Haggis, I don’t know. Like it’s just so ridiculous!

Sanjana: If there was an Indian Hogwarts we would have like people, like we should have like a little roll call of the Indian things and have the foreign students’ names just for kicks –

Aparna: I actually would really like to get to know someone called Haggis.

Parinita: [laughs] I’ll try and work on that.

Aparna: Thank you.

Parinita: Like put out a call on Scottish Twitter: “Hello! Any Haggises around?”

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Anyway I think this brings us to –

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: The end of our –

Parinita: Um hmm.

Sanjana: Our –

Aparna: Episode. Next week we’re going to be talking about race.

Parinita: Yes. And lots of different sort of aspects of race –

Sanjana: Yeah sort of.

Parinita: Among us and in India.

Sanjana: And sort of taking off from our last discussion of Hogwarts, I think we would like to dive a little more into that in the next episode. So –

Parinita: Yes.

Sanjana: Yeah. So.

Parinita: So hopefully this was a helpful start to introducing what the podcast will be about. And I’m really excited to talk to you guys about – and be angry about things that we hate in the things that we love.

Sanjana: Yes.

Aparna: Yes.

Sanjana: We shall do this.

Parinita: So I’ll talk to you next time.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Alright.

Parinita: Bye!

Aparna: Okay, bye!

Sanjana: Bye!

[Outro music]

Thank you so much Paru and Sana for being a part of this PhD experiment with me and for always being there when I need to discuss shocking plot twists or geek out about my new favourite thing. I had so much fun chatting to them that I nearly forgot I was doing this for Proper Academic Research. And a huge thank you to Jack McInally for helping me with the editing!

Since this a PhD project in Education, as a researcher I’m really interested in the process of creation, that is how as a podcast newbie, I’m learning on the fly by experimenting and playing around. So please bear with the awkward bits – I hope we get better as time goes on! This is also why I haven’t edited out my inadvertent mention of the term Mudblood though I’ve felt guilty about saying it ever since we finished recording (and I don’t think that feeling will ever go away – slurs in fictional worlds only make me think of their real-world counterparts and fill me with unbearable shame).

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

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

[Outro music]

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