A PhD project exploring intersectionality through fan podcasts

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Tag: Fanfiction

Episode 11 She Has To Fight Smart: Representations Of Women Warriors In Media And History

Episode Resources:

1) Essay – We Have Always Fought

2) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Heroines

3) Fan podcast – Breaking the Glass Slipper The Bechdel-Wallace Test

4) Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper Fight Scenes with Women Warriors with Juliet McKenna

5) Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper Women’s Jobs in Fantasy

6) Fan podcast – Breaking the Glass Slipper Christian Mythology in Fantasy with Jeanette Ng

 

Episode Transcript:

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

Lisa owns this art of Mockingbird which has been illustrated by Valentine Barker

[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 eleventh episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I talk to T. G. Shepherd also known as Lisa about the representation of women warriors in media and history.

There are perceived gender roles and gender disparities in different styles of martial arts with some being considered too brutal for women. People’s gender also impacts their experiences in the environment they’re training to fight in. Comics have a long history of representing women warriors who have been aspirational role models for countless young people and adults. However, the overall representations of female fighters in media involve tired tropes rather than realistic, fully-fleshed out characters. This reflects the erasure of women warriors in real-world history which overlooks how women from different parts of the world overcame social, cultural and legal barriers to fight.

Fortunately, there are a growing number of representations of women warriors with different skills, bodies and abilities working together. Magic or advanced technology in science fiction and fantasy worlds limits the role gender plays among good fighters. Mainstream comics are becoming increasingly diverse and often act as people’s first encounters with different lives. Fanfiction has tremendous transformative potential in questioning the norm and exploring alternate possibilities, though even there, gender dynamics play a role in the kind of stories which are taken seriously. The internet and more diverse academic researchers play a huge role in bringing traditionally marginalised stories about women leaders and fighters to light. However, there needs to be more intersectional representations of fighters in science fiction and fantasy to include different ages, races, abilities, religions, sexual and gender identities.

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: I’m so happy to welcome T. G. Shepherd otherwise known as Lisa to today’s episode. T. G. Shepherd is a Canadian writer and martial artist living on the West Coast. She has been training in martial arts since the age of seventeen but was born wishing warrior was still a job description. Her first novel As A God is available to buy on Kindle. But she also publishes a blog on www.tgshepherd.com. It’s called 30 Seconds of Wick which breaks down fight scenes in movies thirty seconds at a time, beginning with John Wick, hence the name. And she can be located on Twitter at @tgshepherdvan where she yells about comic books, fighting and dogs a lot. Amazing. The topic we’re going to explore today is a little different from what I’m used to. We’re going to be looking at how women warriors are portrayed in science fiction and fantasy. I’m a life-long book nerd who has no experience with fighting. And as a pacifist, I don’t think I ever want to experience fighting, unless the specific circumstances involve punching fascists in which case I could be convinced maybe.

Lisa: [laughs]

Parinita: Though I need to wear boxing gloves or something because I need to preserve my hands for holding books and turning pages and maintain my book nerd cred. Lisa is one of the few people who’s both bookish and loves to fight. So could you tell us your own experiences with being a woman fighter, Lisa?

Lisa: Yeah, I started training when I was seventeen in traditional martial arts – taekwondo in particular. And gradually over the years I started to branch out into other things. I branched out into Olympic sword fighting where I took up saber fencing. Which at the time women weren’t allowed to compete in the Olympics in. That’s since changed. It was considered the more brutal art and women wouldn’t want to do it. But obviously we did. And then I took up archery. And then gradually in my 20s, I wound up taking up with a very street-based martial art based on Bruce Lee’s training methods called JKD [Jeet Kune Do]. And the basic principle with JKD concepts is you need to do what works. There are no rules. In the sense that I don’t call my teacher by a formal title, we don’t bow in and out of the mats, we don’t have any sort of formal forms or anything. I call my teacher by his first name [laughs]. There’s no real rank like we don’t wear anything to indicate rank at all.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: You fight who you can fight, you beat who you can beat. And the school that I’m in is very much dedicated to understanding that you’re doing this to survive. If you’re going to use this, you’re doing it to survive a fight, not to win a sporting match. But the reason I train where I train is that when I asked him what his first response to being attacked in the street was, he said, “Run away.”

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: I’ve trained in places that were super macho where I felt very concerned for my personal safety. Because if I acted less skilled than I was, I was going to get beaten up for being a weakling. If I acted more skilled than I was and actually wound up beating somebody, then they were gonna retaliate in a method that was improper. The school that I’m in, I’ve never had any concerns for it. He treats everyone the same way. You’re expected to live up to one standard and he doesn’t put up with any kind of crap like that. Also the school trends a bit older because the arts that we learn, you need to be able to think about things more. I’m a stick fighter, that’s my primary art. We call it Kali. It’s the Westernised form of Filipino stick fighting. It would be called Arnis or Eskrima in the traditional arts. The reason I like stick fighting is that it’s an art where the harder you try to do something, the worse you’re going to be at it.

Parinita: [laughs] Okay. So have you had more experiences where your gender has affected the fighting environment that you’re in?

Lisa: Yeah it’s funny. I have to walk a very fine line with particularly new people in the gym. I’m the senior student, I’ve been with my instructor for about twenty years.

Parinita: Okay.

Lisa: I’m the senior student but there’s no way to tell looking at me that I am. I’m not a particularly imposing individual. I’m a middle-aged white woman. [laughs] So coming in particularly with new guys you have to be very careful around them because I’ve actually had a couple leave after I won a fight.

Parinita: Oh wow.

Lisa: Yeah. And I don’t want to cost my instructor students.

Parinita: [laughs] Right.

Lisa: So yeah you tend to have to be very careful of their egos. [laughs]

Parinita: Wow that’s a problem – I mean now that obviously you’re saying it, it makes perfect sense – but I don’t think it’s something I would have thought would have been a problem faced by women fighters. From your blog, I read a few of your blog posts, and you write a lot about how much comics meant to you not only now but also growing up as a teenager, and your deep emotional relationship especially with Mockingbird.

Lisa: Yeah well, when I took up with my current instructor – and as he specialises in a lot of things which includes stick fighting – I realised about then that I’d been trying to turn myself into Mockingbird most of my life.

Parinita: [laughs]

Cover of Mockingbird #1 by Joëlle Jones

Cover of Mockingbird #1 by Joëlle Jones

Lisa: And hadn’t really realised that. I took up science and biology because I wanted to be her. And I took up stick fighting because I wanted to be her. Now it turns out I’m actually quite suited to stick fighting so that’s okay; it’s one of my favourite things in the world. Mockingbird was one of the first characters I saw in any media who I genuinely felt was an aspirational figure in the sense that that is somebody that I could actually aspire to be. Not simply to admire.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: And one thing I loved about her is she was always unapologetic about being the smartest person in the room or one of the smartest people in the room. She was unapologetic about it but not arrogant. She wasn’t like Tony Stark or something. She wasn’t, “Oh I’m the smartest person in the room all the time.” She was just quietly doing her thing in the corner. One of the first times we meet her in her modern form of Mockingbird, ’cause she existed in a couple of different forms before that in a Hawkeye mini-series that was published in 1982. And towards the end of the mini-series, the bad guy pits Hawkeye and Mockingbird against each other and even the bad guy says, “Well, she’s going to win the fight. She’s a much better fighter than you are.”

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: And Hawkeye agrees basically. “Oh yeah, no if this was a fair fight, she’s going to kick my ass.”

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: And basically she realises ’cause she’s smart that the only person who has a chance to get them out of the whole situation is Hawkeye. So she throws a suicide play. She sacrifices herself so that he’s the one who can get out.

Parinita: Right.

Lisa: Because she realises that the particular combination of circumstances means that he’s the one who can save them. So even then she’s his partner. And I used the word macho earlier. One of the reasons why I love Hawkeye and Mockingbird as a pairing is that Hawkeye is not a macho guy, he’s a masculine guy. And the way I’ve always described the difference is that macho guys are terrified that they aren’t men and masculine guys know that they are.

Parinita: Hmm.

Lisa: A masculine guy knows he’s a man, a macho guy’s terrified that he’s not.

Parinita: Yeah, so the insecurities especially like the ones that you saw in real life.

Lisa: Yeah exactly. And then you see it in real life. I have a bunch of stories about teenage boys in particular, you have to be very careful with their egos. But I’m really well known in my gym for being … I got called a robot because I don’t seem to feel pain.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: And I’m like well no, I’m just not going to show pain to you guys ’cause what would be the point, right? [laughs] Whereas when I’m fighting my instructor, I will show emotion because there’s no critique in it when he and I are fighting.

Parinita: Right.

Lisa: He has no critique of my emotional state. But if you show emotion in front of a lot of dudes when you’re fighting, they attribute it to you being a woman.

Parinita: So I find your connection with comics really fascinating because for me that’s not something I really had when I was a kid. I only discovered comics quite recently and fell in love with them. But for the longest time I was really intimidated by them because I didn’t know where to start.

Lisa: Yeah. And you got a hundred years of history. [laughs]

Parinita: Exactly. And I think that’s a problem a lot of people face. The history itself can act as this barrier for new people to enter. Which is why I love the more diverse kind of stories that there are now. I know diversity is a word that’s been appropriated by a lot of companies and by a lot of brands to sell their brands. But I don’t think I would have fallen in love with comics had it not been for Ms. Marvel, Squirrel Girl, the Lumberjanes.

Lisa: Oh yeah.

 

Parinita: I don’t know that I would have picked up Superman or Batman – I’m not really very interested in those stories.

Lisa: Yeah, I don’t really have much of a connection to the straight white male characters except for a few like Hawkeye, Captain America i.e. Steve Rogers. Again in Mockingbird was the first time I saw a character who was flawed and human but incredibly aspirational. Trauma came later in her history, but when she started, she was a hero because she chose it. She wasn’t a hero ’cause she was sexually assaulted, or a hero because her parents abandoned her. She was a hero because she looked at the world and went, no I want to be that. And that was something that women just weren’t allowed. And that’s one of the reasons why the character resonated with me because it was the choice to be, “I am going to turn myself into somebody who can stand next to a god on a battlefield and not be a liability.” It was a wonderful thing. In comics, I identified more with the people of colour – with T’Challa, with Storm, with Falcon, with Luke Cage. And those were some of the first and most positive experiences I’ve ever had of black characters as well.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: So for me, comic books were this window into a diversity and a richness of the universe that I didn’t see in my everyday life. But also it gave me the chance to go hey look there’s someone who looks like you who you could actually be … and she’s a hero. And that was one of the first times that I was faced with the idea that maybe you can be a hero. Maybe there’s more. Or maybe your path is not to be a mother and a housewife. Because I was born in the 70s and gender roles were still very specific even then in the middle of all this sexual revolution. And one thing I always loved about Mockingbird is that her stats – like they have these lists of stats for all the characters – are ridiculous. In Marvel she’s 5’9” and a 130 pounds? No, she’s not. [laughs] ’Cause she would be the size of a stick.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: But she was never drawn that way.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: She was always drawn as a big, strong, substantial woman. Very sexual, very sexy. But not stick or reed thin. She looked like someone who could stand and train with Captain America.

Parinita: Right. So the role that comics played for you, for me it was children’s books in general and Harry Potter specifically when I was growing up.

Lisa: Yes.

Parinita: And I always saw myself in these bookish fictional girls like Hermione, Anne of Green Gables, Jo March – you know all white Western women.

Lisa: Yes

Parinita: But I still connected with them deeply; though of course I do accept Hermione as canonically black now. But as someone who wasn’t really surrounded by people who seem to love books as much as I did, those were the characters that I most connected with. But now especially in comics where the diversity isn’t imagined. It’s visible. You don’t have to read yourself into it, you know?

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: At least for the more diverse comics now. Like Squirrel Girl. I know she’s white but she’s not stick thin, and she’s fun and she’s irreverent and she looks like me. Not in terms of race but in terms of the body.

Lisa: Yeah.

Image courtesy wbur

Parinita: Of course, I am a complete wimp, and she’s really strong.

Lisa: [laughs]

Parinita: I’m not like her in that way.

Lisa: I also identify with those characters. I’m a reader; I read constantly. It’s one of the reasons why I got into comic books because I was running out of things to read. My mother would dump me at the library for six hours. I read constantly and I identified with the bookish girls too, with the smart ones. Which is why Mockingbird appealed to me because she’s brilliant, she’s a genius. And she’s also a fighter. And that aspect is not something that I ever saw much because when you get into the fighting women thing, you get into these very binary discussions. And it’s such a complex and subtle thing. You get into the binary discussions of male versus female traits and heteronormative versus queer and it’s all like – I could never really find a place to stand on any of those because they’re very complex. And when I was young, I didn’t have the ability to articulate that complexity.

Parinita: Yeah. So you’ve mentioned that apart from writing your own original fiction, you also write a bunch of fanfic and read a bunch of fanfic – enough to fill several books, your writing. [laughs]

Lisa: Yes. [laughs]

Parinita: And I don’t read much fanfic now though I’d love some recommendations. But do you think fanfic can also play a role in questioning these normativities? Either your own fic or even the ones that you read?

Lisa: Oh deeply. One of the reasons why I started the Mockingverse – so I’m on the big platform AO3 – Archive Of Our Own as Ms Mockingbird. My entire work there is Avengers-centric. And it’s based on the idea of – I inserted Mockingbird into the MCU as a specific character. I like them. Some of them are really good. As I’ve said, one of my great desires is to be accused of plaigiarising my own fanfic someday.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: [laughs] I started really getting into it about five-six years ago when it was more reliably available on a couple of different sites. And one of the reasons why I love fanfic and why I got into it and why I started to read it considerably more is that it is transformative fandom at its best. It is taking that which exists as a base and not rejecting it. Saying okay this has value, this has power as a modern myth – as something that’s important in society. And going, “But where are the cracks? What is missing?” So fanfic questions normality by saying, “Well yeah here’s all the things that you could read into that. And we only got one path. But we need to see where all these other paths are.” Obviously a lot of fanfic started from Star Trek and started from the idea of people making queer relationships among Star Trek characters, in particular Spock and Kirk from the original series. And it’s always been overwhelmingly queer and overwhelmingly female. And that’s not obviously true about everything and it’s changed a lot now. But it’s one of the reasons why I feel there’s been – and I use this word deliberately – despised. Because it was very queer and very female and that was not within the heteronormative white male sexuality, white male hegemony of culture that was allowed to exist.

Parinita: No, absolutely. And it’s not just then. Even now. I think fanfic has achieved more of a mainstream following, relatively – only if you compare it to how it used to be. I used to read a lot of fanfic when I was a teenager but it was quite niche. Now I think more people know it, but there is still this suspicion of what fanfic actually is. It’s not all sex you know.

Lisa: No.

Parinita: I mean there is sex and that’s also great because that’s also a way of expressing your stories and your interests. But it’s not just that. For example, even in my regular reading, I’m not a person who reads a lot of romance and relationshippy things. That’s not my kind of reading. So if I started reading fanfic, I know that there is a lot for me out there that doesn’t deal with ships and that doesn’t deal with slash.

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: We’ve talked about this in a previous podcast episode about how the majority of fanfic writers are women, and that does play a role in how it is seen by everybody else.

Lisa: Yeah. And the joke is that when a woman writes an homage to a character, it’s called fanfic. And when a man writes it, it’s called pastiche or homage.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Lisa: It’s given some fancy title. “Oh I wrote this response to Shakespeare.” You wrote Shakespeare fanfic dude!

Parinita: Yeah absolutely. Also that does have an effect on the money that people make as well. Men would be much more likely to make money. Like Sherlock, the BBC adaptation, that’s fanfic.

Lisa: Yeah totally.

Parinita: But it got a lot of money and he got a huge platform. Whereas with a woman, even if her fanfic would have been much better than that, she wouldn’t have made as much money or got a similar platform. I mean I love BBC Sherlock.

Lisa: Me too. Oh no it’s fanfic. The new She-Ra cartoon which is a beautiful story about love and joy and friendship and the power of courage and honour and loyalty. But it’s been called fanfic because there’s queer relationships in it. It’s not fanfic! It’s an adaptation. [laughs] You know if a dude did it, you’d call it an adaptation.

Parinita: Yeah absolutely.

Lisa: Fanfic is despised for all the wrong reasons. A lot of fanfic is terrible. There are millions and millions of words of fanfic out there and a lot of it is just awful. And a lot of it is problematic as hell. There’s a lot of consent issues. But some of it is some of the most beautiful writing I’ve ever read in my entire life. Some of it is absolutely brilliant. And it’s an avenue for those who have felt silenced to speak their truth.

Parinita: Yeah, absolutely. Just turning back to representations of female fighters in canon, especially in science fiction and fantasy media, there are a lot of tropes and stereotypes which are over-represented whether it comes to heroes or villains. Are there any specifically that you’re really tired of?

Lisa: Yeah. As I say, there’s this holy trinity of tropes for female fighters which is the cold, ice maiden often usually represented as being kind of like the Brienne of Tarth trope. Although she’s much less of a trope than many others. There’s the willowy femme fatale who kills by stealth and that’s sort of what the Black Widow character can be.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: And I’m using these as references; I’m not saying they specifically are. And then there’s the man but without the male genitalia character. And those seem to be the three that you get all the time. You don’t get a lot of fully-realised women that I would recognise like I have fought that person or I know that person. A lot of my female friends are women warriors. And one of the issues I have with the portrayal of Wonder Woman is that they always talk about oh she’s a warrior for love. And that’s great and I’m really glad that exists but that’s not a very realistic archetype for somebody who’s taken up warrior as a job description.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: You can be a good person, you can be a moral person, you can be a kind person – you can be all of those things. But this “I’m now going to stop in the middle of a fight and coo over a baby” thing is a way for a dude writer to make a character who is very strong more palatable to weak men.

Parinita: Yeah because this is something that we’d spoken about when we were planning our episode – about Wonder Woman. I was telling you I really liked Wonder Woman, the movie, because for me it was the first time that I’d seen something like that.

Lisa: Yes.

Parinita: Where a woman, especially the scenes on the island in the beginning of the movie.

Lisa: Yeah the Amazons are great.

Parinita: Yeah the Amazons. That made me cry.

Lisa: Me too!

Parinita: Just because of the way that it centered her and women in the story. But then you were saying that apart from the director, the production is mostly male-dominated.

Lisa: Almost the entire creative team were men. The writer was a man, the producers were men. A lot of that movie is extremely male-gazey in the sense that it again centers the man’s perspective of what the Amazons are. And as I said, it makes her very non-threatening to dudes. I love that Wonder Woman exists because I love that women got that experience. Because I know so many women who came out of that feeling empowered for the first time by a movie.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: And that’s freaking awesome, I love that. I did not see myself as a fighting woman anywhere on that movie except on Themyscira. That’s where I saw myself. And then once they left the island, I just saw someone who was being led around the nose by the guys. Wonder Woman did it first, Black Panther did it right. Because the women in Black Panther were fully-realised human beings who were warriors in very different ways.

Parinita: Oh they were so brilliant.

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: I loved them.

Lisa: You got Okoye who’s unequivocally the person who’s in charge, who’s the general. You got Shuri who’s the devil-may-care spunky one. You got the spy character, you’ve got the queen mother. You’ve got all these really diverse female characters who were all treated as specific individuals with specific needs and wants and desires and personality traits that included being warriors but were not about being warriors.

The women in Black Panther. Image courtesy Feminism in India

Parinita: So in one of the podcast episodes we listened to, the Imaginary Worlds Heroines one, they spoke about another trope that they’ve come across which is essentially where the woman warrior, the strong female fighter, she’s the exception.

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: So she’s counter to the norm where she’s not like the other girls. She’s the only woman in a very male-dominated field. And last weekend, after our meeting, I watched Rogue One. And I loved Rogue One just because to me, as someone who’s discovered Star Wars as an adult quite recently – or not discovered I guess, I knew about it. You can’t be on the internet without knowing Star Wars.

Lisa: [laughs] Yeah.

Parinita: I knew everything about it. I knew all the spoilers and everything. But I went back to it just because I thought it’s such a huge part of fandom that I should be aware of the story and everything. So I watched the first six – the original and the prequels. But Rogue One is the first time I think I got really and properly invested in the story and bawled at the end. The way that it impacted me emotionally and the way that I cared about the characters, I really liked the movie. But Jyn who was the woman character – the female fighter – I – I don’t know what her job was. Was she a pilot? I don’t remember. My memory is terrible.

Lisa: Yeah. It’s not really other than someone’s daughter. Her existence in the movie is because she’s someone’s daughter.

Parinita: Oh, that’s right.

Lisa: Yeah, she exists in the movie as a reflection of a man.

Parinita: And also, I feel like in terms of personality as well that everyone else there, all the men seem to have other things going on and seem to be more fleshed out. Whereas she was more like … she’s only there to be this badass fighter. And then what? There were no other women. I think there was one woman – a pilot. There’s just room for one.

Lisa: Yeah. There are a couple of women. There’s some women in the council scene. And someone joked that, “I think we just saw more black women in Star Wars than we’ve ever seen in any other movie.”

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: And they were all in the background of that scene.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: And yeah, it was true. Right until The Last Jedi, it was the most diverse movie. I like it too. I walked out of that movie going that was a proper Star Wars film. Because it was very much a feel of a space Western. But yeah, it’s like she’s the exception. That’s one of the other tropes that gets mixed in with all the others is that the woman warrior is a freak, an exception. She’s not like anybody else, she’s the lone figure. Someone joked that it was like well what do we have in the Avengers? We got the archer and the soldier and the scientist and the god and the girl one. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah essentially. Just you saying that, it makes me think of something like She-Ra for example where it’s not just one fighter. She-Ra is the best fighter I think amongst all of them. But when they’re fighting, usually they’re much better as a team. A team of the girls or Bow and it’s done in way where they are leaning on each other and where the group is centered over the individual. And because most of the characters are women, it almost seems to be pushing back against that trope a little bit.

Lisa: Yeah. There’s a diversity not simply in the races and the body types and the sexualities but also in the way that each one of them contributes to the revolution. This is not really spoilers, but at one point, someone asks Adora for emotional advice. Her response is, “Well I’m really more of the punch out your feelings types.”

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Lisa: And I’m like yay that I identify with! [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah, absolutely. You’re so right that there’s room for all these different kinds of characters and all these different kinds of fighters as well.

Lisa: Which men are allowed.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: The male characters are allowed to have the rogue character, the sneaky character, the scientist character, the smart character, the tank character, the kind of calm, cool leader. But the women get the one. So she’s either this one or this one or this one. We can’t possibly have more than one of those.

Parinita: That’s why what I really love about She-Ra is that being a woman in that world is a default. Because I think most of the people that we see are women.

Lisa: Oh yeah.

Parinita: There’s one non-binary character and there are I think a handful of men.

Lisa: There’s Bow and Sea Hawk and some secondary characters. Like Hordak.

Parinita: Hordak, yeah. So it’s not only like queerness is the default but also just being female is the default.

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: Which just brings up so many different ways of storytelling.

Lisa: Oh Bow’s dads! Bow’s dads.

Parinita: Oh yeah Bow’s dads as well.

Lisa: I thought it was really interesting that the vast majority of the online outrage about that show was centered on the fact that the female characters now all looked like actual living beings as opposed to dolls. But nobody seemed to really be freaked out that they made Bow black.

Parinita: Oh! I don’t have any experience with the original She-Ra so I didn’t know he was not black.

Lisa: Yeah in the original She-Ra he’s a white guy. And in the original She-Ra, every single character, all of the women characters looked exactly the same.

Parinita: Right.

Lisa: They just have different colour schemes and different gimmicks because they’re not designed as humans, they’re designed as toys to sell toys to girls, right?

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: And so there’s this huge outrage, there’s still grown adult men angry at a children’s cartoon because they don’t feel that the female characters are sufficiently sexual.

Parinita: And even though they’re what … like fourteen? Thirteen? I don’t know – they’re – they’re teenagers. [laughs] All of them.

Lisa: Yeah. Teenagers. Some of them are seemingly a bit older but barely legal.

Parinita: Yeah. Like you were saying with Wonder Woman, maybe it wasn’t perfect, but for a lot of people that was their first feeling of being empowered. And I know that the original She-Ra was that for a lot of kids and adult women at that time. But now I’m so glad that this She-Ra is so much more diverse.

Lisa: Yes.

Parinita: And so much more explicitly feminist and queer than I think the original She-Ra could be possibly given the industry and the world at that time.

Lisa: [laughs] Swift Wind is basically an angry socialist.

Parinita: [laughs] You’re right! I love Swift Wind!

Lisa: Yeah he basically is just yelling about horse rights. And I love that as soon as he got to speak he was like a complete jerk. And I love it. I love the fact that you made the horse an angry socialist basically.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah. So based on popular SFF [science fiction and fantasy] out there, or even in your favourite stories, what do you think makes for a really bad fight scene? Because I know you’ve analysed a lot of comics and movies and TV shows and novels. Or what makes for a good fight scene even, based on what you’ve seen.

Lisa: It’s funny I actually do panels at conventions about this.

Parinita: Oh!

Lisa: I started a panel at our local convention called How To Write A Fight Scene If You Don’t Know How To Fight.

Parinita: Amazing!

Lisa: I feel like the worst kinds of fight scenes are the ones where the author is obsessed with letting you know how much they know about fighting.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: But the problem also is that usually it’s someone who doesn’t actually know how to fight. But they’ve watched a movie or they’ve watched an online video or they’ve read a book or something. “Oh I took strip mall karate fifteen years ago so I know how to punch.” Any fight scene where I’m confused about the physics in the room – like physically how could you possibly have done that thing that you just described? – is the kind of fight scene I’m talking about. Because at that point I’m no longer reading a book, I’m getting out a piece of paper and trying to chart where everybody is in the room. Like okay how could you possibly have done that? And I don’t mean confusing because fights are often extremely confusing.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: A proper fight is very quick, it is very chaotic, luck factors into it a lot more than people like to think. [laughs] I’ve been in the middle of fighting in my gym in the safest environment you can possibly think, and my foot slips and I lose the fight because there’s sweat on the ground.

Parinita: Oh yeah you wouldn’t think about these things unless of course you were a fighter yourself.

Lisa: Yeah. A good fight scene can have multiple different points. And as I’ve joked, in movies, never let reality get in the way of a good fight scene.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: Because there’s times when you’re just like this is ridiculous but whatever. It looks beautiful. So leave it. Right?

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: Most superhero fights are like, “This is ludicrous but it looks beautiful.” Which is why the ones that are extremely centered in reality impact people so much. Because of the recognition that oh this would work in real life. You could actually have these powers and make them work in real life. And without having to do like six-foot kick flips. [laughs] A fight scene should either move forward character, move forward plot, or both. Or be extremely beautiful. Or have a specific impact on a specific point of that character’s needs. And so I like fight scenes that are very visceral where you can smell and taste it ’cause when I fight, I’m tasting sweat. I’m occasionally tasting blood. I know what it feels like when you scrape a piece of fabric across somebody’s face. I know what it feels like to have that scraped across my face. I know what it feels like to have a deep cut and not know until the fight is over. I do a wrestling art called jujutsu and you wear a white gi in that. You can wear coloured gis, but I often wear a white gi. And I’ve looked down at myself after a fight and literally the front of that gi is red because I’ve cut my lip and not realised it.

Parinita: So you know how in some fight scenes you see that even when a person is what the audience would think would be grievously injured, they’re still up and fighting?

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: Would that be realistic then? Because of the adrenaline or whatever?

Lisa: Okay yeah, humans are a lot harder to kill than people think.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: They’re a lot easier to injure and a lot harder to kill. So John Wick is dead like halfway through the first fight scene in the first movie.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: John Wick is dead. But John Wick’s not human, he’s a superhero. I’ve actually seen a theory – I can’t get into it here because it’s long– but someone’s theory is that the entire John Wick universe is based on the faerie universe. That they’re all fae.

Parinita Oh!

Lisa: And it’s a beautiful tongue-in-cheek breakdown of why certain things never seem to hurt them. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Amazing.

Lisa: So when you got superheroes fighting, it’s fine. I’m going to accept that you can suck up that damage because you’re a superhero, whatever. John Wick is not an action movie series. It’s a series of horror movies. Where John Wick is the unstoppable killer but he just happens to be the guy you’re rooting for.

Parinita: [laughs] Because they killed his dog.

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: That’s the movie, right? I haven’t watched it.

Lisa: Yeah, exactly. So the John Wick movies are horror movies where the unstoppable bad guy is the guy you’re rooting for.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: You’re rooting for Jason, you’re rooting for Mike Myers.

Parinita: I mean I would root for anybody who’s defending the dogs.

Lisa: It’s a brilliant conceit.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: Because see the instant they kill his dog, anything he does to them is now okay. As soon as they kill his dog, he has now free rein to do anything he likes to any of these people.

Parinita: That’s true.

Lisa: Right? So superhero movies are different, it’s fine. I can accept the amount of damage – though I do like the fact that in particularly the MCU, the Marvel movies, the superheroes get progressively more tired and more sloppy as battles go on. Like by the end of the first battle in The Avengers, Captain America is wrecked.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: [laughs] Like he can barely stand. But he’s getting up and fighting. Thor is wrecked. These people are not well by the end of that first movie. Just to quickly go back to just the intersection of really great fighting and something that’s very particularly cinematic is there’s a fight in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – I think Season 4 – Season 5 – where Quake faces off against the big bad guy which was played by Brett Dalton where he turns into an alien villain. And there’s a fight between the two of them that utilises their specific superpowers as they fight. That is one of the best fights I’ve ever seen. Because she has shockwave abilities so she’s using the shockwaves to dodge punches. It’s one of the best fights I’ve ever seen that utilises the intersection between superpowers in real life and actual fighting. Because both of those actors and their stunt doubles are very good. They’ve put in the work. They’re very good fighters and they do very good work. But it was one of the best choreographed fight scenes I’d ever seen. Same way in my blog, I have a description of the Daredevil Season 3 episode which is an intersection of superpowers and physical fighting. It’s one between him and Bullseye in the office where they actually paid attention to what his superpowers were and how it would be affected by his environment.

Parinita: Daredevil is blind right?

Lisa: He’s blind but he has super senses. So smell, touch, taste, balance – which is important.

Parinita: Right.

Lisa: I want people to read the blog posts on my 30 Seconds of Wick blog but there’s the intersection of when you’re fighting in a specific environment and these are your specific skillsets, this is what might happen. And I have nothing but respect for that because it shows a deep, honest and abiding love and respect for the medium but also for the character. And that’s to me a great fight scene, particularly in a visual medium, to show respect for the abilities of the characters. Atomic Blonde just to give another visual reference. So Atomic Blonde was the Charlize Theron movie set in the 60s I believe or 70s, maybe 80s. It’s set in the past in Berlin and she’s the super spy. And there’s an absolutely brilliantly brutal five-ten-minute-long fight at the end. Where she’s just going up and down stairs and hurting this non-combatant in front of her and she’s fighting multiple guys and they’re using their environment and all that. And it was choreographed by Sam Hargrave and his brother who were Captain America’s stunt doubles. I avoid a lot of behind-the-scenes talk about fight scenes until I’ve actually seen the scenes. But one thing they talked about is they wanted to choreograph her as not only becoming progressively more tired and beaten up but having to hit a guy three times for every one punch that he threw. I looked at that and went okay that’s someone who understands. I’m a big, strong woman but I am not physically as strong as a dude my size. I have skill behind me and I have intelligence and I’m very strong so I’m probably stronger than most guys my size ’cause I’ve worked at it and most people don’t, right? But they said, “Yeah, we wanted to show that she had to hit three or four times to have the same impact that one hit that these guys – these big, very big men would have.” And that’s realistic. That’s actually respectful of the character, that’s respectful of the environment, it’s intelligent, it means she has to fight smart. Strongest is not important; stronger is not important. Strong enough is what matters.

Parinita: And that’s such a good point because like you said that perhaps you would be able to defeat a person –  a guy who’s not trained, who’s not fighting, who’s the same size as you. But somebody who has the same amount of training, at that point, it is about just I don’t want to say innate strength, I don’t know if that’s true or not. But male strength versus female strength.

Lisa: Well, yeah. There’s a line in Italian sword fighting which is, “Never underestimate the strength or malice of your opponent.” Because in a fight it is the stronger or more malicious fighter who will win.

Parinita: Oh no. [laughs] That’s a bit alarming.

Lisa: I may not be the strongest person of the room but I guarantee I’ll beat you on malice buddy. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] So until you highlighted this theme of women warriors, I hadn’t really consciously even thought about it. Now that I think back on it, I’m enjoying a lot of media that does have women fighters. But it’s not something I thought about while reading or watching these stories. But while planning our episode, I started thinking about these different kinds of fighters in my favourite SFF and how the fighting scene differs based on either the physical skill of the person or the magical prowess or just the technological access that the woman has. And this includes women fighters of different bodies and abilities as well.

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: So some of my favourite women fighters in comics and graphic novels have been Ms. Marvel, and Squirrel Girl. And I don’t know if you’re familiar with The Dragon Prince at all, it’s a Netflix TV show, it’s by the same people who’ve made Avatar: The Last Airbender. Which again, even in that, there’s a different kind of fighting, it’s something called bending. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that.

Lisa: I am familiar with Avatar. Dragon Prince I haven’t watched. But I’m familiar with a lot of the Avatar stuff because it is brought up as being a very diverse and interesting method of doing combat in animation. And I do respect it.

Parinita: Yeah. And their gender doesn’t seem to play any role in what you’re good at or what you’re bad at.

Lisa: It’s force multiplication. Magic is a form of force multiplication in the same way that a gun or a sword or a stick or an arrow is. When you take the purest level of base physical strength out of something, by allowing a character to have the ability to multiply their force, you remove the gender issue. Or you limit the gender issue. A lot of what I do – the way that we train, because my school, as I said, is very street oriented – it’s very based on reality. After six months, after you have mastered the basics, you are no longer training to fight a random drunk jerk on the street. You’re now training to fight someone who knows how to fight.

Parinita: Hmm.

Lisa: Because you’re training to be able to be smarter and use force multiplication. And as I said, the steps are always run away. If you can’t run away, pick up a weapon. If you can’t pick up a weapon, hit first, hit hard and then run away. [laughs] So it’s like magic and all of these things is often force multiplication. It’s one of the reasons why I think, no matter what the gender is, a lot of magic users are often portrayed as being scrawny or small or weedy. Because they need that force multiplication. And in a non-ballistic society, where you don’t have guns, that’s magic.

Parinita: Apart from Mockingbird, do you have any other favourite female fighters that you’ve come across recently?

Lisa: Well not recently but obviously I do love Xena very much.

Parinita: Oh yeah.

Lisa: She’s a favourite of mine. In media, I love the way Peggy Carter has always been portrayed. Because she’s both been portrayed as very physical and very intelligent about it. I loved the way that Captain Marvel was portrayed in the movie.

Parinita: Yeah, me too.

Lisa: I particularly loved the fact – spoilers – but I loved the fact that she basically drives off an alien fleet by flexing.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: Because that was smart. She demonstrated, “I am very powerful. Are you going to come at me? Okay, good. We’re fine. I’m not going to come after you.” [laughs] It was a demonstration of, “I have this power. Do you want me to use it? Because if you do, I’m not going to stop. Okay, good, fine.” Bernard Cornwell’s the Sharpe series had the problem with the character that she’s very much the exception girl. But they portrayed the Spanish Resistance during the Peninsular war as having a lot of women. And having a lot of women who rode to battle with swords and guns and fought and were great shots and stuff like that. So there’s a female character there. She does get fridged. Spoiler alert for a series that’s been out for forty years – thirty years. [laughs] In fiction, Lois McMaster Bujold writes a lot of great characters and a lot of great women warriors of different kinds. Not necessarily women who can fight but women who understand what they can do to stop a fight or help. Warrior as a mindset is obviously ungendered and it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to be able to fight. You can be a warrior and have no fighting skills. Because you never got trained with them. Women have always fought. I linked you to the Kameron Hurley text We Have Always Fought. Women have always fought. But it’s always been a struggle to even get the training to be able to effectively do that at all. Because we were outlawed and excommunicated and executed and imprisoned and tortured. And we had to go underground, we had to pretend to be men, and we couldn’t even get the training. Legally women weren’t even allowed to touch weapons in many societies.

Parinita: And that has such an impact, right, on the sort of stories that we’re even telling now. If that history even though it exists but it’s completely been erased – well, not completely, I know a lot of people do know about this history. But in terms of mainstream imaginations, the history of women fighters isn’t really very well-known. Which is why you get all these tropes and stereotypes. And the fact that you have to say woman warrior. You can’t say warrior and imagine a woman as much as you would imagine a man.

Lisa: Yeah. It’s like the recent discovery – the recent final proof that those people buried with warrior and general grave goods in Viking graves were women. Well, the chronicles of the time always said that those were women. But the male historians who wrote about them were like, “Oh it’s an allegory!” [laughs] “They can’t possibly have women fighters.”

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah. And in one of the Breaking The Glass Slipper episodes, they spoke about the history of female pirates as fighters as well as samurai fighters in Japan where there were some women there as well. But when we talk about this or even when we represent it in media, in cartoons or whatever, you don’t really represent women as fighting. Or if you do, they would be very much the exception to the norm.

Lisa: Yes and usually it would be the noblewomen, which would be in many cases a little bit more historically accurate because in many cases it would be the noblewomen who would have the social, political and financial cred to be able to demand to do this unorthodox thing. You wouldn’t train women to fight. We get into this whole problem with the gender binary and all that and what people’s roles in societies are. Which is that women are supposed to bleed in child-bed and men bled on the battlefield. It’s the line a lot of men’s rights guys use. That’s again reducing women down to biological determinism and saying, well you have one purpose, you’re not allowed to do anything else. But what if I don’t want children?

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: Which in modern society is more common. What if I can’t have children? What if my children die? Like Boudica being the great example. She was not allowed to be a mythic warrior figure until her children were dead. That’s your only purpose – first, you’re a mother. And of course, in the end, she gets punished by dying. Women warriors in fictional history had two paths. You could eventually give up everything – give up your abilities to marry a dude and become a mother like you’re “supposed” to. Or you could be punished for it like Joan of Arc. In a lot of Western Christian allegory, you could take up arms but only if you then became a priestess afterwards. Or became a mother or died.

Parinita: Yeah suitably punished. You could do it for god and then you could go away. [laughs]

Lisa: But even then, you had to be sacrificed at the end. You couldn’t actually continue with agency. You were not allowed to have agency. You could do a specific thing for a specific reason. But as long as your agency to continue to be somebody who was not what society wanted to be was relinquished. Or you were punished for not relinquishing it. Those were really the only paths that you could have.

Parinita: So I know a couple of the people on the Breaking The Glass Slipper episode as well as the We Have Always Fought article, said that this history isn’t known so we don’t feel as well educated about this.

Lisa: Yes.

Parinita: For example, in Indian history, we do have Rani Lakshmibai who was one of the first resistance fighters in the revolt against the British Empire way back in 1857 in India. And of course, it was all defeated because then there was another hundred years of that. But she is very much a part of our history. And we have some other women’s tales. But they are still the exceptions. They are glorified because they’re so rare. We’re lucky that even those few exist – so we have that capacity to imagine them. But it’s not like, “Oh yeah they could do it just as well as men could do it.”

Lisa: We get the problem with if it’s commonplace, people don’t write about it because this is society – this is the way it’s always been and so why would we mention this? And those coming in from the outside either don’t see it or deliberately erase it because, “Oh that’s weird. Women don’t fight so let’s just pretend that we don’t see those women in armour over there.” Or it’s the extreme outliers that you see like oh there’s this woman who did this, this woman who did this. But it’s always like oh yeah, she was the queen and she died at the end or she defended the castle because her husband wasn’t there. But never really acknowledging that they were doing the same roles that a man would do but they were doing it for motherly reasons or whatever. It’s actually funny – Rani Lakshmi – is that the name of the –

Parinita: Yeah. Rani Lakshmibai.

Lisa: She shows up as a character in the Civilization video game. You can recruit her as a general. I love that. [laughs]

Parinita: So something I told you while we were prepping for this, is the Rejected Princesses blog.

Lisa: Yeah great book, yeah.

Parinita: Yeah a lot of his stories are also available online. But the book Rejected Princesses as well as Tough Mothers is just fantastic. Because first of all, even though he is a straight white dude living in the US, he takes a more international view.

Lisa: Yes.

Parinita: So he’s trying to include more voices and histories in his books. It is more international and it’s also centered on women. And like you were saying earlier, it’s different kinds of fighting. So there are some who go out into the battlefield. But then there were others who because of historical, social, political circumstances, they have to be strategists rather than you know actual physical warriors which was also really important.

Lisa: Yeah you had to wield the power that you were allowed to wield. Like Melisende of Jerusalem, one of the queens of Jerusalem who was queen in her own right, who was her father’s heir had to marry a warrior because she was legally not allowed to lead men into battle even though she had the ability. But she is acknowledged in all of history as being this incredibly powerful female queen who defended Jerusalem and defended her lover and her sisters and everything. And probably killed multiple people by her own hand. But no one’s ever heard of her.

Parinita: The internet has played a huge role to be able to have those voices that were silenced earlier for a lot of different reasons. Now there is more room for these voices to not only say these things that were erased in history, but also there’s an audience that listens to and then shares these stories. And makes that a part of like the stories that everyone has access to.

Lisa: And the people doing the research into the history have changed. It’s not all just straight white dudes, right?

Parinita: Um hmm.

Lisa: So if I was going to go back to school and take up military history, I would not be looking at the history of straight white dudes in battle. I’d be looking for the outliers because I’m interested in that. I’m not interested in talking about straight white dudes in battle. I’m interested in looking for, “Oh were there women? Was this a thing? How much of it was class?”

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: How much of the women warriors got to be that way because they had the financial, social status to be able to be an outlier? To be a freak?

Parinita: Absolutely.

Lisa: And how much of it is simply the fact that you just didn’t talk about the everyday lives of people. So you didn’t talk about the ones who were there. Kara Cooney, who is an Egyptologist, just wrote a great book When Women Ruled The World. It’s about female pharaohs who were leaders and most of them weren’t ever qualified to lead men into battle. So they had to wield military power at a distance – at a remove. But they were genuine rulers. And that’s a kind of war.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: To rule a nation like Egypt is a kind of warfare.

Parinita: No, I remember there was one female pharaoh. I don’t remember the name. It’s a story I came across in a museum exhibit. And I loved it so much – I mean not what happened. But essentially what happened was like she was this excellent ruler – she was this great pharaoh But then the person who came after her hated that she was this powerful, popular ruler. And hated that she was a woman. So he went and erased her out of all the tablets and all the art.

Lisa: That’s Hatshepsut.

Parinita: Oh yeah.

Lisa: And the interesting thing is that may not actually be fully true.

Parinita: Oh really?

Lisa: Yeah Kara Cooney has done an entire book just about Hatshepsut. And she’s done one about all the female pharaohs –  there were five or six very prominent female pharaohs that we don’t know about. She was only one of them. And there’s some evidence that maybe he wasn’t the one who did that.

Parinita: Ohhh okay.

Lisa: It might have been a later pharaoh. In Egyptian history, there’s the pharaoh Akhenaten, the heretic, the one who took them from the polytheistic deities to a monotheistic deity – the sun god.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: And he was the one who was married to Nefertiti, famously the most beautiful woman who ever lived. And suddenly Nefertiti disappears from the records. But all of a sudden, as soon as she disappears from the records, this male “co-king” shows up.

Parinita: Hmm.

Lisa: And there’s a lot of evidence now that that was actually Nefertiti renamed. Because Akhenaten was losing his ability to rule. And they needed a continuance. Somebody who could continue the administration of the empire and rebuild the temple system back up. But they didn’t just want to overthrow the dynasty. So it’s really interesting new history that’s being seen.

Parinita: That’s exactly what I love. How much ever true or not it was, new details will come out and you can’t erase this out of history. That even now the stories that we don’t yet know about – and obviously there’ll be countless that have completely been lost to history.

Lisa: Yes.

Parinita: Just because we don’t have any documentation. But because of the kind of researchers that there are now and the kind of stories that they’re looking for and are interested in, you do have these stories that were erased coming back to light. And even the debates and the nuances and the complexities that are being explored. But yeah, I love that. I think they’re doing a lot of that in religious history as well. Where we have a very specific idea of what happened in religion. I know more because of the podcasts that we listened to which was looking at Christianity and the role that women played in early Christian history.

Lisa: Yes.

Parinita: Like not in the bible but –

Lisa: As scholars and keepers of knowledge.

Parinita: Yeah. And artists and nuns and whatever whose stories have been completely erased as well. But in the patriarchal society of the time, they were still finding a way to not just get married and have children and die.

Lisa: And in many cases that was the only other option. You went into holy orders. And that was the only way you could get an education in many cases.

Parinita: Yeah exactly. I like what somebody on the podcast called as “alternate patriarchies”.

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: She said that it gives her hope that these ideas are not set in stone. That there were women who were finding workarounds around these established ideas. And now that we have different established – well similar established ideas but in a different format – there will still be another way to live and thrive as a woman.

Lisa: Yeah one of the interesting things is I look back once in a while and try and find records as to any statistical differences between women who lead in combat and men who lead in combat. And you can’t find any records because no one ever kept them.

Parinita: Ah of course.

Lisa: And it’s only until recently that we have women who are combat leaders. And the general emotion I’ve seen is that – and forgive me for being a little bit crude here – but most women war leaders are less likely to get their men killed because they want to prove how big their dicks are. And that’s a very dismissive and reductive way to look at it. I mean that in specific because women are not as bound by the patriarchy and these patriarchal assumptions of power and glory and status, they’re more able to look at something rationally and unemotionally. Like the people who think oh women are very emotional, have you seen a guy whose favourite sports team is losing? Then tell me they’re not emotional.

Parinita: Can you see Donald Trump?

Lisa: Oh go look at any dude who is panicking because you asked him to wear a mask so that people don’t die. Like come on! And people talk about, “Oh testosterone gives you strength, it gives you aggression.” And I’m like okay yeah you’re right. But aggression is also a learned trait. Okay aggression does come from hormones. But aggression is also a learned trait. You can learn to be aggressive. You can teach yourself to be aggressive. And my aggression as somebody who does not have the same base testosterone, it is better than hormonal aggression. Because my aggression is not mindless.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: When I move forward in combat, and again in my gym, I was always renowned as the person who would move into bigger guys. Because my skill was not to snipe at somebody from a distance, it was to get in and hit hard in specific places. My aggression is chosen, my aggression is calm. Aggression does not mean raving madness or anger. Aggression is simply where I am moving into a situation where a bad thing can happen because I am in control of that situation. So my aggression as a woman fighter, as somebody who is capable of going, “Okay I’m not just angry that you made me look bad because now my manhood is in danger” is superior. Because it is not bound by my emotional state.

Parinita: I absolutely agree. While we’re talking about women warriors, I do think there needs to be more of perhaps an intersectional analysis in terms of inclusion and representation. So not just cis, white able-bodied women but fighters of diverse ages, races, abilities, religions, sexual and gender identities. There are now more women fighters being represented in media. More than there used to be, still not enough.

Lisa: Yes.

Parinita: But I think with these other intersectional identities, there’s so much fewer representations of that.

Lisa: Yeah. And there are a lot of issues with the representation of race and warrior women. There are a lot of issues there that need to be dealt with in an intersectional manner. And aggression in warrior women and sexuality. One of the reasons why I maintain some of the secondary characteristics of overt femininity like long hair is that when I did have short hair, I was assumed to be of a certain sexuality. Which is fabulous because all sexualities are wonderful. As long as consent is involved, great. But I’m not.

Parinita: Hmm.

Lisa: And that is something that’s very difficult. It’s one of the reasons why I don’t date because I tend to attract either people who want to dominate me or want to be dominated and I’m not interested in either one of those. I’m not interested in beating you up, I’m not interested in seeing if you can beat me up. I’m interested in us sparring together and then going out hanging out and watching a movie. My gender and my sexuality and my being a warrior are all entwined but they’re not dependent on each other, if that makes any sense.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: But there’s huge issues with race around this because of the way that black women and black women warriors are often portrayed. Which is one of the reasons why I loved Black Panther. Because it completely subverted that. Often people who are not white are either portrayed as sneaky or underhanded. Or you get the very flowery beautiful choreography of the Asian martial arts. But it’s seen as being very cold and clinical even though it’s beautiful. and there’s a specific kind of fighting woman there who’s very sad and destined to die.

Dora Milaje from Black Panther

Parinita: Basically exoticised.

Lisa: Yeah, the Orientalist colonial bullshit that you get. And then women of darker skin colours like Latinx women and black women, East Asian women are very often seen as brutish and oh there’s a hulking brute. With this issue, you get so many intersectional problems. You get the intersection of sexuality and gender and race and class and culture – it’s this huge stew. And as someone who is a writer who writes about warrior women, I have to pick out the things that I feel I haven’t not simply the ability but the right to talk about. And I want to see more people who are not using my voice to write about this

Parinita: Hmm.

Lisa: Because there are certain things where I don’t have the right to talk about race in this relationship except in very basic terms. I want more people talking about it because I’m a middle-class white woman, it’s not my place. So we need more voices and more diverse voices. And race is a huge problem in this area. The vast majority of the women you see are thin, middle-class white women. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: One of my problems with the way that we don’t value physical strength in women is that we specifically don’t value it in our actors. And 99% of all the women you see on the screen as “warriors” are 100 pound thin models.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: It’s not realistic, I’m sorry. It just isn’t.

Parinita: So in one of the episodes, the Breaking the Glass Slipper Fight Scenes With Women Warriors one, the guest Juliet McKenna was talking about how in SFF the availability of materials that are around the fighters influenced the fighting styles.

Lisa: Yes.

Parinita: So depending on which country or culture you’re in, you had things such as steel for armour. But then that got me thinking in terms of intersectionality – how materials that exist not just in historical and medieval stories but also in fantasy and science fiction, how science or magic can be used to allow women of different abilities to fight. So looking at accessibility needs and using that. In The Dragon Prince, the fighter, the commander Amaya, she’s deaf. So she uses sign language – ASL to communicate. But she is a fantastic fighter. And in Avatar: The Last Airbender, Toph she’s blind but she’s the best Earthbender there is in that kingdom. I think this is so important especially in stories where you are able to control these things and write these things. Or even like grandmothers or women who are menstruating or women who have a baby and have to figure out how to fight with a baby on their back just in terms of the skills, weapons, clothes, whatever you need.

Gif of Toph from Avatar The Last Airbender Earthbending

Lisa: Yeah. One of the reasons why I train in the Filipino based martial art that I train in is that one of the greatest warriors in this art in my lineage is a 90-year-old woman. Guys that I know – who literally have murdered people with their bare hands when they were being attacked by someone with lethal intent – describe fighting this woman as fighting smoke.

Parinita: Wow.

Lisa: She wasn’t faster or stronger, she was just never there when you hit her.

Parinita: [laughs] I love it.

Lisa: She knew what he was going to do before he did it. So that’s malice and intelligence. That’s experience coupled with skill.

Parinita: Yeah absolutely.

Lisa: And she was a 90-year-old woman, she was barely mobile in many ways. But she was never there when he hit her. Because she just knew how to move.

Parinita: See you don’t imagine a 90-year-old woman when you say warrior, right?

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: These people exist in real life and they definitely should exist in media especially in science fiction and fantasy.

Lisa: I deliberately crippled the lead character of my second novel. I deliberately took away her ability to use one of her arms.

Parinita: Hmm.

Lisa: Because I wanted to show how she would adapt in a world. She essentially does parkour as part of her combat. And if she no longer has use of one arm, how crippled is she? What has to change, what can she do, what can’t she do. And also it’s a society that uses sign language as a primary communication because anyone below noble status has to cover their face. So to emphasise words, you can’t use facial expressions, you have to use hands.

Parinita: Oh that’s really interesting. And also how then if she has acquired this disability, how that affects her fighting as well.

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: If you’re used to one and have to then get used to another, that’s also a really interesting.

Lisa: And the need to conceal it so because she can’t appear weak.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: And a whole bunch of other things. I am more interested in the limitations and how to work around them. It’s one of the reasons why I find the deity level characters in a lot of books and media to be boring. Because if you have that power, why isn’t the end of every fight, “And then I punched him into the moon.”

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Lisa: You know? And I don’t care. You’re boring. You have no limitations on you? Who cares? “Oh this guy is going to commit genocide. Oh I have to talk to him first.” He’s going to commit genocide! Kill him.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: [laughs]

Parinita: But this is one of the many reasons I love Squirrel Girl. Because canonically, she is supposed to be an amazing fighter. I think she could punch people to the moon [laughs] if I’m not wrong.

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: I mean she’s just really strong. But because of the kind of person that she is, she really wants to befriend people and always wants to give people the benefit of doubt and tries to get them to change their mind. And if they don’t, then she goes and punches them to the moon or whatever the equivalent is.

Lisa: And that’s a great character. That’s just a person that’s a well-rounded character who happens to be a woman who happens to be a fighter.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: You can’t just give people one trait, you have to give them more traits, right?

Parinita: Absolutely. And she’s also sort of living up to your trainer’s thing in a way where she doesn’t run away but she does the verbal equivalent.

Lisa: Yeah!

Parinita: She does fight. First, she tries to do another thing and then if she’s left with no other option, she fights.

Lisa: Yeah. One of the characters I’ve always loved for many, many years has been Steve Rogers – Captain America.

Parinita: Uh huh.

Lisa: And one of the reasons I love him is the very first comic I ever read with him in it was an Avengers comic where they’re fighting essentially a goddess. And he ends the fight by realising that she’s in mourning for her dead husband. And all he does is walk up to her. He offers her no violence and says I’m so sorry for your loss.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: And he essentially ends the fight simply by expressing love and compassion for a being in pain. And I’m like that’s a hero. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah absolutely. I agree.

Lisa: A lot of the characters that I’m going to name, that I could name are characters that are in visual media like you know Buffy, most of the MCU women and stuff like that. But there’s a lot of science fiction and fantasy out there that deals with these subjects very well. So I would just suggest to read very widely. But just in a comment about things that matter and how important representation is, do you know the movie Logan? The last Wolverine movie?

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: So X-23 Laura Kinney that character, I scared the people that I was in the theatre with when I saw that movie ’cause at the final fight when she charges into battle to fight next to her father, I was doubled over weeping. And people were asking me afterwards why was I crying so hard. I said because if I’d seen that movie when I was twelve, literally it would have changed my life. Because that was the first time I’d ever seen a female character, a young girl who was not sweet, who was not nice, who was a vicious, brutal warrior. But who was not immoral or feral or an animalistic character other than in her ability to fight. Who actually had purpose and meaning. If I had seen that at twelve, I would have been a different human being. And that’s why representation matters. It’s because I want every single person to look out at this world that we see and look at fiction and see themselves in some way. And I write and I create and I support creators who speak in diverse voices because I want to be able to see the woman warrior that I want to be, that I never saw as a child.

Laura Kinney from Logan

Laura Kinney from Logan

Parinita: That’s amazing. That totally sums up why representation and diverse representation is so important. And I’m glad you’re creating your own pockets of diversity in your own stories. I’m so happy about that. Thank you so much for coming onto this podcast and chatting with me about your experiences. I learned so much. I always say this to participants and it’s always true. [laughs] It’s become my stock line. But I appreciate it very much. Thank you so much Lisa.

Lisa: Thank you for having me. I’m incredibly honoured and it’s a great podcast. I’ve listened to all your back issues and they’re wonderful. So please if you need anything else from me, I’m always available to you.

Parinita: Thank you!

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode on representations of women fighters in media and history. I’m currently reading two brilliantly fun anthologies which feature female warriors in mainstream comics – Marvel: Powers of a Girl and DC: Women of Action. Who are some of your favourite women and nonbinary fighters in media? As always, I’m always looking to expand my list. Thanks so much Lisa for such a fun and illuminating conversation! And thank you Jack for fighting the editing monster so I don’t have to.

[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 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 9 Destabilise Heterosexuality As A Default: Queer Representation in Media and Fandom

Episode Resources:

1) Fan podcast – Queer As Fiction Harry Potter, But Gayer

2) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Imaginary Deaths

3) Fan podcast – Imaginary World The Power of the Makeover Mage

4) Fan podcast – Witch, Please Witch, Please; Live & Unruly

5) Fan podcast – The Gayly Prophet Queer Children Are Our Future

6) Essay – Deconstructing Disney: The Princess Problem of ‘Frozen II’

Episode Transcript:

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

Photo of Diana Floegel

[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 ninth episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I chat with Diana Floegel about queer representation in media and how fandom engages with queerness.

Media industries and their cultural products reflect the structural heteronormativity prevalent in the real world. Mainstream media has popularised a more palatable version of queerness. It expects assimilation into the heteronormative default rather than exploring alternative structures. It also largely overlooks intersectional identities. Queer media representations – when they do exist – perpetuate limited narratives of being queer. They also promote troubling tropes and stereotypes which further reflect the lack of structural diversity.

Fandom can act as an alternative to mainstream media where people encounter queer ideas and content for the first time. Fan communities explore different sexual and gender identities. Fan campaigns demanding more queer representation in media can popularise fringe ideas and expand mainstream imaginations. Fan spaces feature both debates against as well as examples of the more problematic aspects of queer representation. Even fandom can reinforce dominant ideas when it features different levels of acceptance for different kinds of queerness. However, some fan communities have offered a supportive space for queer people and their experiences.

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: I’m so excited to have Diana Floegel on the podcast today. Diana is a doctoral candidate in Information Science at the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University in the US. Their research generally applies a queer theoretical lens to phenomena surrounding people’s information creation practices, sociotechnical assemblages and information institutions such as libraries. And their dissertation work specifically focuses on queer people who write slash fanfiction. Diana has lifelong love-hate relationships with fandoms ranging from Harry Potter to musical theatre to Batwoman. I love it. Their research interests inspired today’s episode where we’re going to look at queer representation in media and in Harry Potter as well as how fandom engages with queerness. So to begin with, Diana, could you tell us a little bit about your own experiences with the topic either as a researcher, a fan, or even from your own personal life?

Diana: Yeah absolutely. So, hi everyone. So in terms of my personal life, I’ve been a fan since probably before I can remember. When I was younger, I was obsessed with a small selection of picture books and I started writing self-insert fanfiction.

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana: Which is rather embarrassing. [laughs] But I started writing self-insert fanfiction probably in elementary school. And started reading fanfiction in high school. And it was really important to read slash especially then because there was even less queer representation in media than there is now. And so that’s where I found a lot of what I wanted to see in terms of particularly lesbian and gay folks and relationships in fanfiction. And so when I started researching as a career, as a PhD student, there’s some gaps in my discipline that I think fanfiction can fill and thinking about queer-authored fanfiction can fill. Or can start to fill. I identify as a constructivist epistemically and so it made sense to me to do some work around queer-authored fanfiction.

Parinita: That sounds amazing. And it’s also really similar to my own experiences a little bit. Right from writing self-insert fanfic when I was in primary school [laughs]. But I did it in my head. So The Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley, I used to read a lot of that when I was younger. And I created this new school which was very much a copy of both Sweet Valley and The Baby-Sitters Club but I just came up with new characters – all of which I wanted to be and sort of represented me a little bit.

Diana: Amazing.

Parinita: [laughs] Because that’s what you do as a kid.

Diana: [laughs]

Parinita: Queerness is not something that I encountered in school or my family because it’s not something that, at least in my community, nobody really broached these topics about different gender or sexual identities. So my first encounter with these ideas was in fandom as well, when as a thirteen-year-old, I discovered Harry Potter fanfiction on this website called Mugglenet. And even then I wasn’t really a romance reader but you can’t be – or at least then you couldn’t be – a part of the fanfic community even as a lurker which I was – without coming across shipping in some form. Where fans imagine which characters would end up or should end up in relationships. I know you know this, this is just for people who might not know this. [laughs]

Diana: [laughs] Oh absolutely, yeah.

Parinita: So this was before all the books had come out, so the main ships at that time that I first encountered were either Harry/Hermione or Harry/Ginny or Hermione/Ron. There were these huge shipping wars that used to happen which I used to ignore because I used to just read and write really random fic. There were no relationships in it. But it was only when I spent more time in fandom that I discovered slash shipping. So queering canonically straight characters like Harry and Draco – which again, for people who don’t know what slash is. Though when I re-read The Philosopher’s Stone a few weeks ago, I couldn’t un-see that ship now.

Diana: Oh a hundred percent. [laughs]

Fan art of Draco and Harry inter-twined in Christmas lights with Pansy on one side and Hermione on the other. Text says - Draco: I swear to Merlin Parkinson if you don't release me THIS INSTANT I will make you SUFFER I will make your whole FAMILY suffer I will murder you in your sleep and I will make sure it looks like an accident you nasty little excuse for a friend I - Pansy: Oh, DO shut up 'Potter this', 'Potter that'. it has to STOP. We'll be back in two hours. Harry: Hermione - Hermione: I'm SORRY Harry but this is the only thing she's actually right about.

Drarry fan art courtesy Pinterest

Parinita: Right?! I mean I’m not really a shipper myself, that’s not how I read books. Romance is something that’s secondary, it gets in the way of the plot mostly for me. Just in any books. But now that I read it, I was like, “Oh my god Draco definitely has a giant crush on Harry!” [laughs] Even if it’s not romantic, I feel like he definitely wants to be friends with him. Maybe watching Cursed Child – because in that same week, I watched Cursed Child in London – and maybe that had a roundabout effect on my interpretation. But I can’t un-see it now. Draco and Harry, yeah, that’s my ship. [laughs]

Photo of Palace Theatre London with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Palace Theatre, London

Diana: Yeah! Cursed Child is – so first of all, I really relate to what you said about not having any sort of conceptions or examples or representations of queerness around you in your everyday life.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: Or your non-media, non-fandom life. Because I had a very similar experience. I grew up in a family where I’m the only openly queer person.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: And grew up Catholic and in a fairly conservative area and so it was really nowhere. So fandom was very key in that sense. But Cursed Child specifically is so queerbaity! So when I say queerbaiting

Parinita: Oh my god yes!

Diana: Oh my god.

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana: So I mean there’s this very significant, very – particularly to a lot of queer folks – very obvious subtext that these characters are more than friends, right? [laughs] Or more than … in some sort of platonic relationship that never actually comes to fruition.

Parinita: I mean not just to queer folks. I am very cisgender, I’m very heterosexual.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: And Scorpius and Albus are definitely a couple. [laughs]

Diana: Oh my god yes! Jesus!

Screenshot of a tweet by @annabroges. Text says: if you're sad that it's monday just imagine all the holidays harry and draco are going to have to spend together once their sons get married

Image courtesy BuzzFeed

Parinita: Like I said, I don’t usually look for subtext in these things. And after listening to a few of the podcasts, but even otherwise through fandom, I know a lot of queer folks do queer the canon a lot – looking for subtext and things. And with disabilities as well.

Diana: Oh definitely, yeah.

Parinita: I’ve spoken about this with somebody else. Just because you don’t see yourself represented so you do that. And with racebending as well.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: But with Scorpius and Albus, it’s so obvious. There’s no subtext there. Spoilers – but whatever he has a crush on Rose which seems so crowbarred in.

Diana: Oh yeah.

Parinita: Right? Yeah, no. They’re definitely a couple. [laughs]

Diana: They are. And I will also freely admit I am a shipper. I think there’s a little bit of a misconception, particularly from folks who are outside of fandom, that all fic and all slashed or queer fic is ship-related fic.

Parinita: Hmm.

Diana: And it’s not. It’s definitely not. But I am a shipper. [laughs] And I love a good ship fic, I love tropey-ness in ships.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Diana: So I will freely admit that. And my partner and I sometimes get into very happy fun little tiffs about this. When I’ll be like, “Oh they’re definitely a couple.” And she’s like, “All they did was look at each other!”

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana: No, they were meant to be. [laughs]

Parinita: I love it. I think I do this with some things, with middle-grade and young adult fantasy books sometimes. And I think a lot of fandom research does look at shipping – not shipping, but does look at a lot of fanfiction communities.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: At least the research that I’ve come across. So I feel like I’m the oddball who doesn’t ship and who’s not having – I’ve fallen into that mainstream idea.

Diana: [laughs]

Parinita: Because I’m usually a lurker.

Diana: Hmm.

Parinita: I used to write fanfiction as a teenager. I wrote a sitcom version of Voldemort and the Death Eaters [laughs].

Diana: Amazing.

Parinita: So there was no shipping there. But yeah, after years of being a lurker, I’ve come back into creating things with this podcast. But yeah sorry that was a sidetrack.

Diana: Oh no, no.

Parinita: So something that you mentioned as well and something I think in the Queer As Fiction episode, one of the hosts Ashly mentioned, where she shared her coming out story.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: Because she grew up super Christian as well. Which seems to be a big reason in the US for the tension with coming out and finding support. Which I was thinking is so different from India.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: Just the context – or at least the reason for why coming out would be difficult. In India, I think it’s less about religion. It’s more about just social pressures and social conditioning. It’s a very patriarchal, very heterosexual –

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: Well … not traditionally. Not thousands of years ago. But after the British Empire came, we still had their outdated, obsolete laws against homosexuality. And it was illegal and then it was legal again for a bit and then it was illegal again and now it’s legal again. So there was a big back and forth in the Supreme Court in India as well. But it’s still not very mainstream. [Recently, a queer student committed suicide in Goa, India after being forced into conversion therapy by her family]

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: In the big cities in India, we have pride parades and things. And I’d gone for a pride parade as a teenager because – again, because that’s what I discovered through fandom and I was like, “No, I have to support this now that I’m seeing it in my real  community. So I should go and support it as an ally.” With media, I know that in the West there is still a lack of representation of queerness onscreen and in books.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: But so much more than what you’d see in Indian media. Even though now there is more of a push-back against that.

Diana: Yeah. So that’s really interesting. Because I think you’re right. The US context is an interesting one because I mean first of all, we are the colonisers, right? [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana: That’s sort of what the US does. But we have this … [sighs] very limited I think amount of acceptance. Where there are palatable versions of queerness that I think have gone mainstream and have hit mainstream media. And so a lot of that intersects with race, right. So white people who are queer tend to be represented more than people of colour who are queer.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: And cisgender people are represented far more than trans folks and nonbinary folks. And there are very limited ways in which trans people are represented too. And so there’s a lot of this still structural cis- and heteronormativity that happens that can seep into media. And even outside of media, right? It’s always interesting to me that the most known, I would argue, landmark in LGBTQ+ rights has to do with marriage equality, right?

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: And marriage is a traditionally normative institution. And some folks might say – now listen, I say this as someone who thinks that getting married is a beautiful thing for a lot of folks. And also really important in terms of being protected and being with a person that you love etc. But we have to assimilate into what the heteronormative default is rather than think about alternative or reoriented structures.

Parinita: Absolutely. That’s something I was thinking of as well. Because just in terms of all marginalised identities you know.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: This is something we’ve spoken about before on the podcast in terms of disability where even disabled folks have to assimilate into abled communities and the abled view of the world.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: And racial as well. And ethnicity, national origin whatever. But especially with queerness because right now I’m thinking that the most mainstream gay couple that I can think of is in Modern Family.

Diana: Oh yeah.

Photo of Cam and Mitchell from Modern Family

Image courtesy Indie Wire. Photo by ABC-TV/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Eric Stonestreet

Parinita: I mean yeah you have them as this gay couple, but you could have them as a straight couple and it wouldn’t really – it’s not so different. So there’s this very fixed idea of what a family is. [An article presenting an alternative view of the importance of these characters in Modern Family]

Diana: Yup.

Parinita: And I’m trying to read more about these things because it is a blind-spot. Most of my friends are straight and most of my friends are cisgender.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: So I try and read about it because that’s how you learn about these things that you wouldn’t encounter otherwise. And I know that a lot of queer communities are trying to fight for a different way of life. It’s a feminist project as well.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: Not just what you see in the status quo. You just look at different ways of being.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: But the media then just presents this very singular narrative of being queer. So what you were saying, that there’s just one way to be queer and you have to assimilate into that.

Diana: Yeah absolutely. And it’s interesting too when you were talking about coming out stories etc., that a lot of times the dominant conception of coming out is that it’s an event rather than a process. And a never-ending process. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: And always a risks/benefits analysis too, right? Always little calculations like, “Is it worth it to mention something in this context where nobody knows who I am?” Particularly because heterosexuality and being cisgender are the defaults. And also as someone who identifies as nonbinary but who very easily and sometimes frustratingly so – although I also recognize, it gives me a lot of privileges – passes as a cis woman.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: It can be a tricky calculation. It’s not just like I sit some people down on a couch once and have this sort of great confession and then we move on.

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana: Or I’m disowned or murdered or you know whatever the [laughs] sob story would be – but yeah.

Parinita: Yeah absolutely! And it’s also like you said, the risks and benefits. So in one of the podcasts, the Imaginary Worlds one about The Power of the Makeover Mage.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: I think a nonbinary guest was also saying the same thing. And a trans guest was saying that while playing video games, they found this ability to play with their identities – a relatively safe space within the video game to play with their identities.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: And to experiment with their identity. But then when you go into the wider video gaming community, anybody who’s on the internet a little bit or in fandom research a little bit, we know about Gamergate.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: And how toxic the video game community can be.

Diana: Absolutely.

Parinita: I think one of the guests said that if you’re only going to be with this random player for five minutes, you don’t want to be – like you said – coming out or … who do you come out to and why?

Diana: Exactly.

Parinita: Because it’s still the default. If you sound like a woman, then you will have to go through this whole process that may not really be safe to do either. Forget the whole emotional labour that you have to do but it might actually be dangerous.

Diana: Yeah. Definitely.

Parinita: So media does play a role in either normalising or marginalising queerness. And it can shape mainstream imaginations which in turn can then influence culture and then even politics.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: So in terms of queerness, I know that there is more representation in Western media than in Indian media.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: But something that we came across in one of the podcasts was this whole “bury your gays” trope. And is that something that you’ve come across yourself?

Diana: Definitely. Yes. So that’s something that I’ve come across in my own personal media consumption and also that’s something that a lot of my own dissertation participants and participants in other research that I’ve done on queerness and media creation or fandom have talked about. And so it’s basically this idea that sometimes in a piece of media – on television, in a movie, in a book – there will be oftentimes one or two queer characters in a larger sea of cis-hetero characters. And oftentimes you’ll be made to love them or appreciate them or even you’re just super excited because there’s a glimpse of queerness. And then they are killed – oftentimes very violently. And so that’s where this bury your gays idea comes from. And I do think that now there is slightly more awareness that this is a thing. I feel like there was a bit of a shift, honestly when there was a character who was killed off of a television show that in the US airs on the CW that’s called The 100.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: And that got a lot of attention as something that should not have happened because it was shocking and violent and the whole show had kind of built up this relationship and they finally get together and then this one character is murdered.  But what’s interesting too is that even after that happened and after there was this uproar around it, right – some people almost framed that like a last straw kind of thing – there are still a lot of examples of media that have come out after that where this has happened. Where there’s a sudden, unexpected, violent death of the only – or one of the only queer characters in the entire universe.

Parinita: Yeah and especially when there’s such little representation. So the Imaginary Worlds episode that we listened to, about Imaginary Deaths,

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: It signposted this other podcast called Lez Hang Out. And they had a Bury Your Gays episode as well. One of the hosts there, she spoke about Willow and Tara … Tara … Tara? [tries different pronunciations]

Diana: Yeah, Tara, yeah.

Photo of Willow and Tara from Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Tara and Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Image courtesy here

Parinita: Where that whole thing impacted her so much even though she acknowledged that in the scheme of the story, it made sense. And in terms of Willow’s character arc, she liked the character arc but did not like how it was done and why it was done. What she said was, “It gets better and then you die.”

Diana: That’s exactly – yes!

Parinita: It would totally be all right – obviously a lot of straight/cis/hetero characters die and you’re not – you feel an impact because they spoke about parasocial relationships that fans form with these characters that you feel like you know them. I mean even if in a show that everyone dies but if there’s one queer character and they always die – it becomes a trend – it’s very problematic.

Diana: Absolutely.

Parinita: And this is something that again – I know I keep harking back to previous episodes, but there’s such a common thread between all these marginalised representations because this happens with disabled characters as well. Where they’re killed off to propel the stories of abled characters or characters of colour who are killed off to propel the stories of white characters in Western media.

Diana: Absolutely.

Parinita: And of course bury your gays only works if there are gay characters in your story at all. You mentioned that you wanted to talk more about queerbaiting as well and how that’s a huge part of media.

Diana: Um hmm. Yeah, so totally with you on everything that you said and everything from your previous episode as well. It’s interesting to me that bury your gays got a lot of attention and has a specific name too when there are also documented trends of characters of colour who are killed off as well. And I also think there’s an intersection here. So The Wire is a good example of this. Sorry, spoiler alerts!

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana: I’ll get to queerbaiting in a second – but there is another common trend that’s sometimes called a triple threat minority character or something like that.

Parinita: Oh no! [laughs]

Diana: Right. Where you put all of the quote unquote – heavy quotes here – “difference” into one character. And that one character is supposed to be #diversity.

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana: In your otherwise very whitewashed, very cis, very straight, very abled show. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: So that’s an interesting one too.

Parinita: And that places so much of a burden as well, right, on that one character.

Diana: Oh yeah.

Parinita: Because they are the only representations of everything then they have to be perfect. And make everybody happy.

Diana: Yes! One example that I know a lot of folks use is Sara Ramirez’s character on Grey’s Anatomy.

Parinita: Hmm oh yeah!

Gif of Sara Ramirez's character from Grey's Anatomy. Text says: So I'm bisexual. So what? It's called LGBTQ for a reason. There's a B in there and it doesn't mean Badass. Okay, it does, but it also means Bi.

Diana: [laughs] So queerbaiting is an interesting one, right. Because all of these to me are related to – I’m coming from a US context specifically – but structural problems throughout the entire society, right? So very institutionalised whiteness, heteronormativity, cisnormativity etc. And so this sort of necessarily trickles down into media industries, right. And so media industries are producing content that reflects a lot of these institutionalised violent normativities. And so queerbaiting is an interesting one because media creators know that there are queer audiences out there who are thirsty for content.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: And some of them are explicit about it – that they are teasing us with these characters and will say on panels at Comic Con – they’ll make jokes about it. Or there was a video that came out – I think it was Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Holland from the newest Spider-Man movie that involves Tom Holland. There are so many Spider-Man movies!

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Diana: [laughs] That’s a movie that’s been accused of baiting those two characters. And so in this little clip, they actually pretended to kiss each other and then laughed like, “Hahaha so funny! That would never happen in this mainstream Marvel movie!” But first of all, why?

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana: And second of all, that’s a pretty good example of how this is a common industry practice that’s framed as a joke. And that’s pretty violent towards queer audiences and frustrating. So the Supernatural creators have pretty explicitly played into this; on Supergirl they pretty explicitly played into this, right.

Parinita: Sherlock as well.

Diana: Oh my gosh!

Parinita: And there one of the creators, Mark Gatiss, he’s gay.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: But I don’t know if it was with Sherlock or with somebody else, I’ve come across this idea that they feel like they’re doing it as a good thing for their queer fans – without recognising how, like you said, violent it is. You place so much of your emotional everything on these characters that you think are queer and then it’s snatched away from you.

Diana: Exactly!

Parinita: Even if they’re not doing it intentionally, it is such a blind-spot and it is structural, like you said. We talk a lot about the need for having diverse creators in media, so having more queer creators. And obviously it works in some instances. But in other instances – Sherlock, for example, and Doctor Who as well. I think now Doctor Who, I don’t know how familiar you are with it, but it is becoming a little more queer-friendly and in terms of diversity, a diverse cast, diverse writers and everything.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: But traditionally it has – even in the new season, it has been very … yeah like the status quo. Very much what it used to be and very much what all media used to be. Even when you have someone like Mark Gatiss, who is a gay man.

Diana: Yeah. So I’m really glad you brought up the idea of hiring practices in media because this is something that I think is really interesting. There is a good book – it’s an academic book for – to warn listeners who might not want to read that. I understand.

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana:. But it’s called Race and the Cultural Industries.

Parinita: Hmm.

Diana: And one of the main points that it makes is that we can extend Audre Lorde’s ideas about having a seat at the table to talk more broadly about having a voice at the table.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: And so just because you have people of colour, queer people, disabled people in a room doesn’t mean that they are going to be able to have the same amount of influence in that room as folks who are more structurally socially powerful, right, because societal power dynamics are still going to be at play there. And so it is of course extremely important to diversify media industries, but at the same time, that sometimes is just a band-aid on top of this larger structural problem. Because if you’re not providing overall the equipment or the scaffolding or whatever it is that you want to call it, that marginalised people are going to need in order to succeed and also not burn-out on all of the emotional labour that they’re giving into this industry.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: That’s more than just a hiring process, right? And that sometimes also can require a totally fundamental retooling of how it is that we’re thinking about these institutions, including media institutions. If that makes sense.

Parinita: That’s such a good point. Because what you’re saying, it’s really important, of course, in media industries, but it also reminded me of what happens in fandom.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: So Rukmini Pande is a researcher who’s written Squee from the Margins.

Diana: I love that book!

Parinita: Yeah, me too. And that’s something that actually made me reorient my thinking. I started reading it at the beginning of my PhD a couple of years ago. So when fandom is so white and dominated by white and Western fans.

Diana: Yes.

Parinita: So it’s socially conditioned within you as well. Even though I wasn’t white and I wasn’t Western, like her, I still thought that there’s nobody else like me out there.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: So I’m not going to talk about my identity. Then she’s looked at the racism problem in fandom.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: Where it is the burden of fans of colour to talk about these things. And when they do talk about these things, they’re usually either listened to and then dismissed or just attacked.

Diana: Exactly.

Parinita: And even with slash ships – I know you mentioned this briefly before – but she’s done work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as well as Star Wars.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: She’s researched how white slash ships are more likely to be popular and there are more people who are writing about that versus any characters of colour.

Diana: Absolutely. Pande’s work is inspiring. I think that she’s brilliant. And I’m really glad that she’s publishing and that she’s talking about this because it’s vital. And this is something that’s reflected in my own dissertation data too. I have participants who have told me that they will experience more policing in fandom, for example.

Parinita: Hmm.

Diana: So if they write characters of colour, they will, for example, receive fewer kudos.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: If we’re talking about Archive Of Our Own, the fanfiction platform, kudos are like likes on Facebook. And so they feel like those fics receive fewer kudos. Or they’ll receive fewer comments or the comments won’t be as positive. Even though AO3 in general is branded as a positive environment.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: That’s not the case for fans of colour a lot of the times. And the other thing that’s interesting is – so anonymity is a really interesting concept in fandom and on the internet. I think it’s hard oftentimes to maintain, and some folks don’t want to maintain it. And so I’ve had participants of colour who have told me that they also will face harassment for writing white characters.

Parinita: Hmm.

Diana: White fans will come after them and say, “You shouldn’t be writing for these characters.” Which is ridiculous!

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs]

Diana: And what you mentioned too about Western fandom is extremely true. And I think that because fandom or mainstream fandom spaces are predominantly English language, people who are living outside of Western societies or outside of the Global North have to do a lot more work than folks who are, for example, native English speakers. Or who are more familiar with Western cultural tropes.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: There are more language skills related to writing in English, right. And in order to get readers, oftentimes my participants say that they feel they have to write in English. And also in terms of what a lot of my participants have called “research”.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: And that’s what I mean, they have to research if they want to write a story that’s set in a certain place like how would that be legible or palatable to people who are native English speakers, for example.

Parinita: Also explaining your own culture and everything.

Diana: Yes!

Parinita: What you were saying about native English speakers – for a country like India, because Western culture is now currently global culture, we get a lot of Western media and everything. And we become fans of that. And India has a huge English-speaking population in cities and things.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: But it’s just this colonised mindset still that if you don’t see yourself represented, even in fandom – forget mainstream media, but even in fandom, if you don’t see yourself represented. Which is why Rukmini Pande’s book and her work was such a shift in my perception. Because it’s not something that I’d even thought about. My whole academic fandom research started with Henry Jenkins. And I love his work.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: But then Rukmini problematises it a little bit because it is so white and Western and middle-class.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: Because he’s one of the founding members of fan studies in general, that’s how fandom has gone. And even though I still think fandom can be a progressive space in certain aspects – for me, all my experiences with fandom have been relatively positive. Which is why my project is also looking at the more positive aspects because I’ve learned a lot from fandom. But I know that there are really toxic, really terrible things, some of what you’ve mentioned as well.

Diana: Yeah!

Parinita: And I’m glad that there are more conversations that are veering towards that. But even then, I think there is so much more work to be done and I’m glad that yeah, your research is also looking at that a little bit.

Diana: Yes, no, I’m glad that yours is too. And I fully agree with you. And it’s funny too, fandom is a really useful context through which to problematise the idea of canon.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: Right? But also there is a fan studies canon. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah! Absolutely.

Diana: And fan studies canon is super white and male. I get that Henry Jenkins was a pioneer in fan studies. But also he is kind of a utopian dude and that’s just not real.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: [laughs]

Parinita: So just to move back a little bit to what we were talking about earlier.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: I don’t even know if the retroactive reveal of Dumbledore’s gayness counts as queerbaiting. And obviously I wouldn’t have to ask this question if queerness in Harry Potter wasn’t only subtext and completely missing in actual canon.

Diana: [laughs]

Parinita: And that’s a problem with a lot of media, right?

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: Where fans have to queer the canon. Harry Potter, Frozen, whatever.

Diana: That’s a really good question. [laughs] So I think there is a very imperfect, very, very imperfect division right – I don’t really like binaries so I would not binarise them – but between the idea of queerbaiting and also the idea of queer-coding.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: And so I think that Dumbledore is a queer-coded character.

Parinita: Right.

Diana: He has some of the token, particularly media ideas around … particularly being a lonely queer character almost.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: Loneliness is sort of a common theme. So J. K. Rowling – known TERF.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: Not going to give her any credit.

Parinita: No.

Diana: For anything ever.

Parinita: No.

Diana: I have no problem believing that Dumbledore is queer particularly because one of my goals in life is to destabilise heterosexuality as a default. There’s an assumption, I think, that anyone whose sexuality is not otherwise identified is heterosexual.

Parinita: Right.

Diana: And so I would be very glad to say that Dumbledore’s sexuality is not identified and therefore he could be anything, right. He could be straight, he could be queer, he could be – this fits under a queer umbrella of course – but he could be ace [asexual], right. He could be any of these things.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: But J. K. Rowling going out there and being like, “Oh give me so much credit because I actually wrote a gay character and he was a main character. I just didn’t tell you.”

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana: “Until all of the books were published and I made my millions and millions of dollars.” Absolutely not!

Parinita: But even then, with the movies, in the Witch, Please podcast they’ve said before that it’s a political choice how you represent characters on the screen. So they were talking about Ginny how her character was butchered in the movies.

Diana: Yes, totally.

Parinita: I mean I know there are three more movies in the Fantastic Beasts series that are to come out, but through all indications, it doesn’t look like his relationship with Grindelwald is going to play a role in it. Or is even going to be mentioned as a relationship.

Diana: Yup. You’re absolutely right. See and this is why, again … canon is a very sticky, loose concept. Any sort of move to say that Dumbledore is canonically gay or that J. K. Rowling gave us a gay character … I’m sorry but where’s the proof? Other than J. K. Rowling probably doing a media stunt. Sorry but I don’t see … I have a lot of anger towards her.

Parinita: Yeah, no, and I completely understand why. Because like you said, if he’s queer-coded but if that’s something that is only then picked up on by possibly queer people and queer readers but not somebody like me, then there’s such an opportunity there to very explicitly have a character there which someone like me would also recognise and love.

Diana: Yes.

Parinita: Because I don’t have the tools to be able to identify and find the codes and the subtext that’s there. I know a lot of podcasters that I’ve listened to, Witch, Please, The Gayly Prophet, they read Madam Hooch as queer as well.

Diana: Oh one hundred percent yes. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah, yeah exactly. And now of course I take that as canon. Because I love the fan interpretation. So now when I’m reading the books, that’s what I see.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: But again, if I hadn’t come across this in fandom, I wouldn’t know this. And not everybody is a giant nerd like me who goes on these fandom things.

Diana: [laughs]

Parinita: So what about the more mainstream readers who would love to have this representation. Even if it’s not representation of their own identities, even with race where she co-opted Hermione being black. Because oh she didn’t say anything about Hermione being any other race. But actually, all the characters of colour in Harry Potter, are identified explicitly as being of colour. So the default is white.

Diana: Yup.

Parinita: Just like the default is heterosexual.

Diana: Yup.

Parinita: So you can’t then take credit. There’s this one fan text which I love which – “If Harry Potter taught us anything, it’s that nobody should live in a closet.” I love that.

Diana: Yes.

Image of a person wearing a T-shirt. The text on the T-shirt says: If Harry Potter taught us anything, it's that no one should live in a closet.

A fan text included in my master’s dissertation which looked at two Facebook fan pages

Parinita: What I don’t love is J. K. Rowling co-opting it and pretending as if that that was her idea all along.

Diana: Exactly.

Parinita: And not giving credit to fandom.

Twitter exchange between @wcnderwcmann and @jk_rowling. Text says - @wcnderwcmann: @jk_rowling it's safe to assume that Hogwarts had a variety of people and I like to think it's a safe place for LGBT students. @jk_rowling: .@iaraswinn But of course. [attached image] If Harry Potter taught us anything it's that no one should live in a closet.

Diana: Exactly! So there was a video series that a blog on Tumblr ran before Tumblr died.

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana: It took a bunch of popular movie franchises and just spliced together all of the scenes that had characters of colour speaking.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: And the Harry Potter video I think was like 40

Parinita: 6

Diana: seconds long or something

Parinita: minutes. Yeah.

Diana: Exactly. Yeah.

Parinita: Throughout the whole series. Yeah I’ve watched that video. It was quite sad.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: So in The Gayly Prophet the guest Kaeli spoke about how everyone goes through this Harry Potter phase and Percy Jackson phase while growing up. And I went through – I mean they were not phases, I still love both the book series. But Rick Riordan, even though he is very straight and an old white man basically. He’s very much the person at the top.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: But in his subsequent book series, he’s made such an effort to include diverse identities – when it comes to religion or disability or even queerness. And making it explicit.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: He’s not saying that this is subtext and you have to just figure it out yourselves and congratulations for figuring out these clues that I laid out. But he’s actually saying, no, this character is genderqueer, this character is pansexual. That I think is so much more important.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: He’s writing for middle-grade audiences as well. So he’s not writing for young adults. And he says that it’s very PG – there’s no explicit sex or anything in his books. Just the existence of a gay character or any sort of queerness doesn’t make it political. Or doesn’t make it unsuitable for children.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: Dumbledore being gay doesn’t mean that children wouldn’t come to the movie. That’s not a thing that would happen.

Diana: Right. I mean I think everything is political and so I think it is a huge political act to not represent anyone who’s queer or only represent whiteness, right.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: And to me, that’s the harmful political act. And that being said too, I will say I am with you on the Fantastic Beasts franchise in particular because this is the age when Dumbledore was supposed to be in a relationship with Grindelwald. This is what we were told.

Parinita: Exactly.

Diana: So this is not delivering. I think, and this is reflected in some of my research too, that representation is never the full story, right?

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: And so I do not want to negate or delegitimise anyone’s experience who has found some solace or identification with Dumbledore. But in terms of the larger political consequences of Dumbledore as a character, that was an utter failure. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah, what you said is completely correct. Because I met somebody at a workshop in the university library and she was saying that her kid is nonbinary and they were so happy to find out that Dumbledore is gay.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: Because for them, it was this recognition that they exist – maybe not their specific identity – but there is a different way of being even in the wizarding world. So it didn’t matter for them that it wasn’t explicitly mentioned that Dumbledore is gay. They still found a lot of comfort and a lot of hope. So I think that’s important as well.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: But then I also think it’s important to have more representation. And these conversations are important as well, right.

Diana: Definitely.

Parinita: Because then somebody who doesn’t think about these things might then discover these things. And what I found really interesting as well – that something I hadn’t thought of and somebody mentioned on the podcast – which was magic as a metaphor for gayness.

Diana: Hmm.

Parinita: Which an idea that I had never come across. I think they mentioned it in Harry Potter as well as in Frozen. Again both, Disney and Harry Potter – massive franchises – so much good could come out of including more explicit and not metaphorical representations of gayness.

Diana: Yes.

Parinita: I think everything should be explicit and not metaphoric. Metaphor is great if you are represented all the time in all media everywhere anyway.

Diana: Right.

Parinita: But not when you have to search for your identity every time.

Diana: Definitely. Yeah and I mean Disney – Jesus.

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana: Disney is built on the backbone of oppression, literally. And violence. [laughs] But also recent discourse around Disney has been … fascinatingly frustrating. Because nothing drives me crazier than – I shouldn’t say crazier – nothing angers me more than when Disney gets credit for having two women kiss in the background of a school pick-up scene and that’s the first time there’s ever been a quote unquote “gay kiss” in a Disney film. Wow! We should all be so excited! I am not excited about that.

Parinita: No.

Diana: I think that’s devastating.

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana: I know one of the articles that we read for the podcast was about like Elsa is queer-coded and the Give Elsa a Girlfriend campaign. And that’s never going to happen. [laughs]

Parinita: I think these campaigns do play a really important role because they can make fringe ideas mainstream.

Diana: For sure, yes.

Parinita: So obviously the goal would be for media to be diverse and inclusive of different kinds of identities. But even if the end content itself isn’t impacted now, I feel like these steps would hopefully – I’m an optimist so maybe naively so – [laughs]

Diana: [laughs]

Parinita: But I’m hoping that you know things like #OscarsSoWhite or #GiveElsaAGirlfriend or even the racebent Hermione thing. Which you know started in fandom with racebending Hermione but now it is canon of a sort. Which Cursed Child, the story is ridiculous and silly and absurd. And I don’t know if I actually consider it canon.

Diana: [laughs]

Parinita: But I love black Hermione. And also Indian – a desi Harry – I love that.

Diana: Yeah.

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

Parinita: He’s not Indian in the Cursed Child. But I think these fandom campaigns can have an effect even if media itself isn’t ready to go there yet.

Diana: Yeah. I think that there’s a larger structural intervention that’s required in media.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: And right now a lot of times the work or burden will fall on fans to have these campaigns and to fight for this. And what’s unfortunate I think is that media, particularly in a Western context, is tied to capitalism.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: And so within a capitalist structure, first of all, that’s a huge contributor to these structural normativities. But also in a capitalist structure right now, queerness doesn’t really sell and the queerness that does sell is a very particular brand. And I use brand intentionally there.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: And so we have campaigns like Give Elsa A Girlfriend which I agree can be really good in terms of visibility and in terms of getting people to think. But we also have Disney stopping the Lizzie McGuire reboot ostensibly because the writers wrote a gay character and they were like we don’t want that on our streaming platform.

Parinita: Aaah!

Diana: And so these wider ties to profit motives etc. I think require some actual structural reorientation if we’re going to think about something like equity, for example, in media and stuff like that.

Parinita: No, absolutely. But that’s what I mean. I agree with you. I think everything is political. But just the mere existence of a diverse body or a diverse brain or a diverse anything that is not the norm shouldn’t be political. It is now because that is a fight that we’re all engaged in.

Diana: Right.

Parinita: But the idea that having a gay character on a Disney platform will what? Corrupt the children? Will turn everybody who watches them gay?

Diana: [laughs] Oh no!

Parinita: I don’t understand. Yeah because all those Harry Potter movies I’ve watched, I can do magic, I’m white.

Diana: [laughs]

Parinita: I don’t understand the logic behind that. Just the mere existence of a queer character shouldn’t – it is – but it shouldn’t be political. It should just be “normal” as much as I side-eye that word.

Diana: [laughs]

Parinita: But it should just be the norm. Right?

Diana: Yeah. I’m all for destabilising norms and stuff so it would just be nice if those avenues were more open, right? It would be nice.

Parinita: And what you said about the very specific idea of Disney’s diversity. Frozen is heralded as this feminist – and I love Frozen, I’m a sucker for a feel-good movie. And especially if it’s animated.

Diana: Sure. Oh yeah.

Parinita: But that essay Deconstructing Disney: The Princess Problem of Frozen II, I really liked how the essay spoke about even the colonisation aspect of it. I mean just because you’re a princess, doesn’t make you a feminist.

Diana: [laughs]

Parinita: I mean you are literally in power. You are the status quo.

Diana: Right.

Parinita: You are the privileged end of the imbalanced power structure. And not interrogating the problematic aspects of monarchy reminded me of this version of feminism which seeks for women – largely in the West – but also, for example, in urban, upper-class India, to take on the roles which men currently hold in leadership positions without interrogating the structure.

Diana: A hundred percent, yes.

Parinita: And finding new ways of being leaders. And also ignoring the lives and impacts on women from less privileged backgrounds in the same country or in other countries. For example, “leaning in” and becoming the CEO of a fast-fashion brand but ignoring the plight of women in developing countries who are making these clothes for you for nothing.

Diana: Yes!

Parinita: It’s all very – it all makes me very angry. [laughs]

Diana: Me too! [laughs] That’s my default state.

Parinita: [laughs] So something that they spoke about in The Gayly Prophet made me think about how access to queer content and ideas and people differs over different generations as well as across geographical boundaries. So one of the guests Kaeli she’s sixteen. And this is something that I’ve also read in like – I know Buzzfeed is really easy to make fun of, but I like their community-sourced responses. So they’d written this article just asking teenagers about what they wanted YA writers to know about teenage life. Because young adult writers always seem to have this perception of teenagers which the teenage respondents said like, “Nope. That doesn’t seem like our life really.” Because obviously YA writers are grown-ups. But something that they mentioned was a lot of people as well as Kaeli seem to be much more comfortable experimenting with gender and sexual identity. So it’s not as rigid as it used to be.

Diana: Hmm.

Parinita: And, of course, this obviously depends on certain schools and certain places even in the US. Some parts of the US that absolutely wouldn’t happen.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: India as well. Again, what you said about the intersections. Depending on which country you’re from or which race or even which part of the country – whether you’re in a rural area or an urban area, there’s so much of a difference in terms of what access you have.

Diana: Absolutely. And I think there is a difference in terms of access to knowledge about queerness. There’s a difference in terms of access to media and media production. And there’s also a difference in terms of access even to fandom content.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: So one of the biggest and I think most unfortunate pieces of news in fandom recently has been that China banned AO3.

Parinita: Oh really?

Diana: Yes.

Parinita: I hadn’t heard about that.

Diana: The censorship policies in the Chinese government banned AO3 and so now in China you cannot access A03.

Parinita: Oh wow.

Diana: And that’s I think really a huge loss of course for the fan community in China. But I think AO3 is so tied to queerness. And any fandom space is going to have its problems – but to not be able to access that is a loss. It’s a big loss.

Parinita: Yeah because like you said, and for me, and I’m sure for a lot of queer people all over the world, fanfiction does provide this alternative to mainstream media.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: Which provides access to these queer ideas and queer content and just that bubble is burst that, “Oh wait, this is also a way of being in the world? This is also a way of existing?” And it’s important for both, right. It’s important for queer people who are probably figuring out their identities but also for cis and hetero people for getting a glimpse into another way of life.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: And hopefully understanding and gaining empathy from that. So yeah the fact that any country doesn’t have access to that.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: Because the internet – I mean even the internet is such a privilege.

Diana: Absolutely. A hundred percent.

Parinita: Accessing the technology and the internet and even overcoming that. But then not having access to a space that you could have otherwise been happy in and found a supportive community in.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: That’s really terrible. But you also mentioned that you had noticed different levels of acceptance for queer people in fandom.

Diana: Um hmm. Definitely. So what’s interesting to me is that fandom is transforming canon media content.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: And so some of the limitations to canon media content make their way into fandom. And this is something I’ve noticed and this is also something that my dissertation participants have talked about. So one example that we’ve touched on already is that fandom is very whitewashed not only in terms of who are the most prominent or well-known participants but also in terms of the characters that are being written about.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: But another example is that on AO3 for example, there are far more M/M works – so in slash fic, M/M meaning male/male pairings – than femslash. Or than relationships that do not involve cis men or cis women, trans representation etc. Part of the reason here, I think, and this is also reflected in my own data is that characters who are men tend to be more fleshed out in canon media. And so you have more to draw on when you’re writing about them. Whereas female characters are sometimes just inserted as an afterthought or as a performative thing. Or they’re not as well-developed. And there just overall are more men in media content than there are women. And so there are great femslash works out there but they are few and far between compared to M/M works. Also polyamory is perhaps less represented, although interestingly in Marvel fandom, polyamory is kind of a big thing.

Parinita: Oh!

Diana: But the other thing is that there is unfortunately a tension around ace identities.

Parinita: Right.

Diana: So asexuality is a spectrum. But there are some folks in fandom, who I think they are very wrong, but who don’t include ace identities under a queer umbrella.

Parinita: Oh.

Diana: And so don’t necessarily write ace characters. Or think that ace characters should be considered under queer fic. Further, because heterosexuality is such a default, oftentimes folks won’t even necessarily think that a character is ace. They’ll just think that they’re heterosexual and not partnered or something like that.

Parinita: That’s something that I’ve thought about in terms of Elsa.

Diana: For sure.

Parinita: I mean I love that the Give Elsa A Girlfriend campaign exists. But what if she doesn’t want a girlfriend?

Diana: Exactly.

Parinita: I mean she might, she might want companionship.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: But yeah what if she’s ace? Surely that should also be something …  but yeah, what your research has found, something that people probably don’t think about.

Diana: Absolutely. That’s a really good example. The other example that I have a lot is Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock in the BBC reboot.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: And then the other thing that I would just want to mention is that not in terms of sexuality but in terms of gender, there are some real limitations, first of all to – right so trans is a spectrum. Being trans is a spectrum as well.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: And so there are some real limitations to trans characters in fandom. And so when trans characters are depicted, and this is something I’ve noticed as a nonbinary person, but also something that my participants have talked about, first of all, it’s not common to have nonbinary characters. Whether you’re queering them – so whether someone is canonically cis and you’re queering them as nonbinary or whether they are canonically nonbinary, although there are very few canonically nonbinary characters right now. But also in terms of if folks are trans women or trans men, some of the same sort of dominant narratives around trans experiences are reflected in fandom. And this can be especially interesting in explicit sex scenes. A lot of times if you have a trans man or a transmasculine person, they will have had top surgery if they’re doing a sex scene.

Parinita: Hmm.

Diana: Whereas your physical features don’t have anything to do with your gender identity.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: That’s also complicated and so some of these mainstream ideas are also, what my participants were saying, over-represented in fic – when they’re even there.

Parinita: Yeah. So it sounds like even when marginalised queer identities are included in fic, it is still this monolithic experience that everyone must fit into and full of stereotypes as well. Or there’s no exploring the nuances and complexities of these different identities.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: And I think a question that you asked which was really important was – especially in the context of the series that we’re talking about – is whether we can divorce the creator from the work. So what are your thoughts about that?

Diana: Oh god that is one – that’s a really, really hard question.

Parinita: Yeah. I know I mean I’ve gone through nine – no eight episodes I think, I’ve gone through just glossing over what do we think about J. K. Rowling. But just because we’re talking especially about queerness, and since you brought it up as well.

Diana: Absolutely. And I will admit I’m someone who does have trouble divorcing the creator from the creation.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: And so there are things that I will no longer interact with after learning things about the creator. And there are things that I will not interact with to start because I know things about the creator.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: And J. K. Rowling, I don’t like her. Right?

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: She is a … TERF. She has said things that are extremely racist like but I think that there is … and no binaries here – so I think that there’s some nuance for me at least and this is sort of very personal in that – and I’m also not going to lie, there’s some nostalgia tied up in this and that’s problematic. Nostalgia is a sometimes a real troublesome idea.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: Because it tends to actually perpetuate normativity and I recognise that. But I think that to me, the Harry Potter canon has been so deeply influenced by the fandom or the fanon. that J. K. Rowling’s original works don’t necessarily have the same significance to me as some other original works because my experience is so tied to fandom.

Parinita: Hmm.

Diana: And fandom is a vast range of creators right. Many of whom say F U to J. K. Rowling.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: And so the bottom line is that even though maybe I should, I just will never cast off Harry Potter [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] No, I totally – I’m with you completely. Because like you, there’s some people like H. P. Lovecraft, for example,

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: After I discovered that he was terribly racist and things, I’m like yeah, I don’t think I need to read any of his works. I’m okay, I’m good. I have other stuff to read.

Diana: Right.

Parinita: So not entering into a relationship with anybody who I know stuff about. But J. K. Rowling – with Harry Potter, it played a really formative role – it had this huge role when I was growing up. I started reading the books when I was ten. And it was my solace during a really difficult childhood.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: So I can’t … even now as much as I don’t like J. K. Rowling, and I don’t. I’m very open about that.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: But I can’t – like you said, nostalgia can be problematic. But for me, it’s so much more also tied into I think my own sense of self and my identity.

Diana: Yes!

Parinita: And everything.

Diana: Absolutely.

Parinita: And fandom as well. What I’ve found in fandom.

Diana: Yes.

Parinita: That in that specific case, I can divorce the creator. But I really like what some fans are doing. So The Gayly Prophet is this queer Harry Potter fan podcast.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: And the hosts had appeared on this other podcast that I listen to called #WizardTeam after Rowling’s TERFy tweet.

Diana: Okay.

Rowling’s transphobic tweet

Parinita: And in response to her tweet, they said that they were going to be divorcing the series from Rowling by choosing to actively create a community which queers the series more.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: And they call it the #MakeHarryPotterEvenGayer2020 campaign.

Diana: [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] And they want to leave Rowling behind and not give her any more money, so they refuse to buy official merchandise; they’re only going to buy stuff on Etsy and things that fans create. And they’re also collecting queer and trans specific Harry Potter fan works and, what they call, “angrily reclaiming our space in the fandom” Because for them, the community has played such a huge role. They’ve found so much in the community.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: And their podcast, in turn, from what they mentioned, has created this space for queer fans to figure out their identities, become more comfortable, find a space for others like them

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: So I think that that’s important as well. It’s such a difficult topic. And I completely understand people who want to just throw her out and throw out Harry Potter. Because there are other book series as well, right. There are many better book series now where writers who have been inspired by her but now do better. They write better books, they write better stories.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: Yeah. Ugh it’s – it’s – it’s very

Diana: It’s a really hard one for sure [laughs]

Parinita: Especially as Harry Potter fans. Especially as people who have such a strong – and fans, right? It’s not just this obsessive squee about a thing.

Diana: Yes!

Parinita: It’s having this deep, emotional relationship with something that becomes really difficult to untie from your sense of self as well.

Diana: Absolutely.

Parinita: Just before we wrap up, you also wanted to talk about fandom and COVID-19 – the pandemic – where fandom could be a refuge or on the other side, could exacerbate inequities.

Diana: Yeah. So I think that right now, we’re in the midst of the pandemic.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: And so I personally believe that no good social science research will come from this until at least ten years from now. We all need some perspective.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: I don’t think that it is wise to be rushing into COVID research unless you are someone who is developing a vaccine. In which case [claps] keep going!

Parinita: Please do. Quickly! Yeah. [laughs]

Diana: But I do think that, and this is something that, without my asking, has come up in my dissertation data. And it’s an interesting context through which to think about how global events and … disruptions – I don’t think that’s really the word – affect fandom communities. And maybe online communities more generally. And so what’s interesting is that I think that – and I mean you can even get this from going on Twitter, right. For a lot of folks, fandom and fic and reading fic and writing fic are cathartic experiences.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: And so that is something that becomes more salient when we are in a period of fear and uncertainty and death, right. And so this is something that’s really important. And it’s interesting to watch also infrastructurally how this is affecting things because for example Archive Of Our Own has had some issues because there are so many people overloading the server, logging on.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: And so just let me just quickly plug that if you can, donate to the Organization For Transformative Works right now.

Parinita: Yes.

Diana: Because AO3 needs it. So that’s one thing which is on the positive side, right. Not the infrastructural stuff but the cathartic nature of fandom playing a really salient role here.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: But on the other side, as much as some folks want to divorce fandom from capitalism and from any sort of monetization, that is absolutely not true. And we don’t need to get into sort of the ins and outs of that but one way that that manifests is that a lot of creators and fan creators make a living or part of their living off off selling materials right.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: Off off selling fan works. So art, fic, plushies that have to do with their fic etc. at conventions and online and things like this. And with mass cancellations of conventions and with uncertainties around the risks of having things shipped to you etc., folks are losing a lot of income.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: For fans who tend to be marginalised people anyway and so statistically they are going to be more socioeconomically disadvantaged.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: This is sort of a real problem.

Parinita: Yeah that’s a really good point. And also a really sad point [laughs]

Diana: I know, I know!

Parinita: No, we’re not going to end on a sad point. Do you have any media recommendations that highlight queer voices that you think do a good job of it?

Diana: Yeah. So I know you had asked about podcasts.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: So Queer As Fiction – they’re tragically not making new episodes right now. But it’s a fanfic writing podcast and it is very good.

Parinita: It is so good! I’m so glad you recommended that to me because after I heard the Harry Potter one, I heard the Disney Princesses one.

Diana: Uh huh.

Parinita: And I did not know this is a genre that I needed in my life. Where people are just writing fanfic and collectively collaborating on it and just reading it out to each other.

Diana: Um hmm. It’s so good. I love it.

Parinita: Ugh yeah. Me too.

Diana: I also really like a podcast called Queery that a comedian named Cameron Espesito runs. It’s like an interview podcast

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: And she gets some really good guests on there. There’s a podcast called Back Talk that’s run by Bitch Media. And they do a really nice job, particularly examining things from an intersectional lens. They run the gamut from media to politics etc. And there’s another called One From The Vaults that’s actually a podcast about trans history.

Parinita: Oooh!

Diana: And the woman who runs it is a really good storyteller.

Parinita: Ooh excellent.

Diana: So yeah I recommend that one. In terms of books, I mostly at this point, read academic things and so I won’t recommend those.

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana: But there’s a really, really sweet YA book that I read recently that’s very popular – so folks might already know. But it’s called Red, White and Royal Blue.

Parinita: Oh yeah, I’ve heard of it.

Diana: It’s kind of a private as like a real-world AU [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana: So that was good. TV-wise what’s been good? Feel Good was interesting on Netflix. The Batwoman television show is a CW superhero show but it’s very enjoyable.

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana: Killing Eve just came back.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: Um … of course I’m blanking. I watch so much television and I’m blanking.

Parinita: No, no I can understand. Can I add some more recommendations to that as well?

Diana: Oh please.

Parinita: Because this is somebody from the outside but loving all kinds of diversity and inclusivity.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: So TV show – She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.

Diana: [gasps] I love She-Ra!

Parinita: I love it very much.

Diana: Me too!

Parinita: And podcasts The Gayly Prophet, I mentioned it before, but it’s really good because they apply this queer intersectional lens to Harry Potter and they’re reading each chapter and their commentary is really funny. Sometimes really sad, but mostly really funny.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: So that’s great. In terms of books, I’ve become obsessed with the Lumberjanes comics series.

Diana: I love Lumberjanes!

Parinita: Yeah it’s excellently queer.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: And recently I also read Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe.

Diana: Yeah!

Parinita: Which was a graphic novel that was really interesting about just coming to terms with your identity, which for me was really illuminating. And it was great. And another book that I read was The Gender Games by Juno Dawson.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: About her identity, about her transitioning and just coming to terms because she used to write under James Dawson.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: And really popular YA books. And she’s really open about her identity and also really fun but also sometimes really sad as these things go. [laughs] But really good for I think both people who are questioning their identity but also for someone like me who’s looking to learn about different identities.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: And an excellent picture book that I love is Julian Is A Mermaid by Jessica Love because I’m a huge children’s literature nerd so I have to recommend children’s books.

Diana: Yeah!

Parinita: And just one last recommendation was something that I came across recently. It’s a fanzine called Trans Affirming Magical Care where a bunch of people came together to send contributions to it essentially as a response to J. K. Rowling’s TERF sentiments.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: And it’s a fanzine about trans students in Hogwarts and all the profits are going to be donated to a trans charity.

Diana: Oh I love that!

Parinita: I’ll link to it in the transcript. But yeah that’s something that I’m really excited to buy once it’s safe to send mail again, because it’s based in the US.

Diana: Yeah. And if we are talking specifically about books that I think do a good job discussing various aspects of queer experiences I recommend anything by Janet Mock. She has two memoirs out right now. They are both very, very good. Tillie Walden does some good autobiographical comics for folks who like comics. I enjoy her work a lot. Jacob Tobia just put out a memoir fairly recently. I think it’s called Sissy but I might be wrong. Their perspective is quite good. And Vivek Shraya who’s a trans musician from Canada just put out a YA book that’s supposed to be quite good.

Parinita: That’s an excellent bunch of recommendations and a great way to end the episode.

Diana: Awesome.

Parinita: Where we got really angry at some things. [laughs]

Diana: I know. [laughs]

Parinita: But in a good way. Thank you so much Diana.

Diana: Oh thank you!

Parinita: This was such a fantastic conversation. I loved chatting with you about all these things.

Diana: Same here.

Parinita: And I learned so much from your research as well.

Diana: Oh thanks! Yours as well!

Parinita: [laughs] Thank you.

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode on queer representations in media and fandom. What are some of your favourite queer media recommendations? My ever-expanding list of things to read and watch is always hungry for more! If you want to read more about Diana’s work, visit their website at dianagfloegel.com. You can look for their articles – “Write The Story You Want To Read”: World-Queering Through Slash Fanfiction Creation in the Journal of Documentation and Entertainment Media And The Information Practices Of Queer Individuals in Library and Information Science Research. Find the links to all of this in the transcript. Thanks so much for the excellent conversation and company, Diana. And thank you Jack for all the work you do with editing the episodes.

[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 4 A Lot of Gold in Gringotts: Representations of Class and Considerations of Gender

Episode Resources: 

For this episode we looked at the following texts:

Academic paper – Restorying the Self: Bending Toward Textual Justice

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

Fanfiction – A Wand With Sixteen Strings

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

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

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

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

Fan podcast – Black Girl Nerds “Geek Misogyny, No Totally”

Fan podcast – The Gayly Prophet “Three Owls In A Trench Coat: POA Chapter 3”

Fan podcast – Reading, Writing, Rowling “Revela Draconem: Draco Malfoy Revealed”

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

Episode Transcript: 

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

Photo of Alison Baker

[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 fourth episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I talk to Alison Baker about social class and cultural capital in the Harry Potter series. We introduce our individual class backgrounds in different British and Indian contexts. We chat about how literature and media perpetuate singular narratives about wealth in both India and the West. We discuss the class connotations of boarding schools, sports, accents, and jobs in both the magical world and the real world. We wonder what the cost of education at Hogwarts is. We explore how bad educational spaces (hello Hogwarts!) disadvantages certain students. We talk about the class implications of freely accessible public scholarship in alternative sites of education.

We also discuss the gender dynamics in both online and offline fan spaces. We love the way fanfiction encourages us to question the way things are. We talk about the different reactions to male interests and female interests in fandom. We chat about the gender politics of fanfiction, and the differences between male and female expressions of fannishness. We end the episode with book recommendations for children and young adults for those who are uncomfortable reading the Harry Potter series due to Rowling’s recent problematic declarations.

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: I’m so thrilled to welcome Alison Baker on the podcast today. I first met Alison at a children’s literature conference in Dublin. And then again at a science fiction and fantasy fan convention in London, where she was one of the excellent people in charge of organising the whole thing. So we both have academia and fandom in common.

Alison: Yay!

Parinita: And we’re also both Harry Potter scholars.

Alison: That’s right.

Parinita: And that’s largely what we’re going to be focusing on today. So just to give you a little bit of information about her, Alison is a senior lecturer in education at the University of East London. And she’s also writing her PhD thesis about white working-class children in children’s fantasy fiction. And I can’t wait to read that thesis when it’s done.

Alison: [laughs]

Parinita: It sounds amazing. She has ten years’ experience of teaching on undergraduate and postgraduate teacher education programmes. And she’s also taught in Early Years, Primary, and Special Needs settings in both London and Yorkshire. And she’s likely to explain that the Weasley family have considerable cultural capital in Harry Potter’s world with the slightest provocation, whether at a fan convention or not. [laughs] I am very excited to hear all your thoughts about class and capital in Harry Potter and in fandom. And the ways in which this intersects with gender. But before we go there, do you want to briefly introduce your own experiences with social class?

Alison: Yeah sure. I would count myself as a lower middle-class person. My mother’s parents were factory workers. My dad’s dad was a sort of very minor civil servant. He worked for the Inland Revenue. And I grew up in an area of Hertfordshire – south west parts – which is just outside Watford. And I went to comprehensive school. And I am the first woman in my family to go to university and complete a degree. My mum did a teacher training qualification but she never did her degree. And so a lot of what I experienced at university was extremely alien to my –

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: My lived experience. And certainly when I first started going into fandom, it was very much university-based fandom.

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: The people I met all seemed to already know each other. I’d gone to a college with higher education, not a university. It is a university now. And everybody there in fandom seemed to be so much better educated than me, so much cleverer than me, and they all seemed to know each other. And it was a very male-dominated space. In particular, very male STEM dominated.

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: So everybody there that I met, they were early internet adopters in the 90s. I didn’t have a computer. I’d never grown up with a computer. I felt very, very alienated. And I also experienced sexual harassment in fandom spaces. And one of the things that’s so wonderful to me since coming back into fandom, because I went away for ten years – it was just too awful.

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: When I came back, one of the most wonderful things is firstly how much more diverse fandom is. Those people I was first encountering are much more now the older fans. Younger fans don’t put up with that kind of stuff as much. And while certainly some spaces in fandom, as I’m sure we will discuss –

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: Can be really toxic and very alienating for women, by and large the fandom circles that I move in are much more intersectional, much more aware of white privilege.

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: And male privilege and the privilege of the able-bodied versus people with physical and mental disabilities. And while I do think class privilege is very much still there, it is getting better. That is something that I love. It’s really important to me.

Parinita: For me, I’ve seen that as well because my experiences with fandom have largely been online.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: I’ve learned so much in fandom just through access to these diverse perspectives that otherwise I wouldn’t ever have encountered.

Alison: Hmm.

Parinita: In terms of class, it was only when I moved to the UK, that I really realised the different contexts of class in this country as compared to my experiences in India.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: So in India I grew up lower middle-class which in India is very different – it has a very different connotation here in the UK. In British terms I think it would be working-class, perhaps upper working-class.

Alison: Right.

Parinita: In a single-parent household. So my mother owned the house that we lived in so we didn’t have to worry about housing. But we definitely lived quite precariously in terms of her salary. So there were some weeks where we couldn’t afford proper food and she had to scrape together the tuition for my undergraduate education. She doesn’t have a degree as well. She really wanted to but she had to drop out because she had to work and earn some money. And she had to borrow money a lot while I grew up.

Alison: Hmm.

Parinita: But it’s so contextual because in India I know that there are so many people who are so much worse off than I ever was.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: Because I grew up in a big city, I grew up in Mumbai, so you know that comes with its own associated privileges.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: But I also knew people in Mumbai who were a little or even significantly better off than me and never had to worry about money. So I’ve grown up without a lot of money and that has really influenced how I see the world now.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: And how I engage with money. And in India, I think a lot of people, including me, have this monolithic perception of the West. Where in the US and the UK in particular because both countries have such a hold on our imagination.

Alison: Hmm.

Parinita: And we have this idea that Western countries are extremely prosperous. And people don’t have the problems that we have with money and poverty. And it was only when I moved here to the UK and spoke to people and read and educated myself, that I began to realise the different kinds of systemic economic problems that exist. And it’s really helped me see both the UK as well as India in different ways.

Alison: Yeah and conversely, we have in Britain in particular, something I have a lot of problems with in our primary education in particular.

Parinita: Hmm.

Alisonl: Is we do see – obviously when we see India on the news, it tends to be when there are problems.

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: So for example, you know with the rioting going on at the moment, and we did see a lot about the Delhi rape case – gang rape case.

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: And things like that. But we also do tend to see India and other developing countries through charitable ways –

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: Of looking at things. So we think of everybody as being very poor. And, of course, while there is huge poverty in India, there’s also you know there’s people who live very comfortable lives. And also people who are extremely wealthy. We tend to forget there’s a middle class in India.

Parinita: Yeah. And I suppose the culture and media, it perpetuates this idea so much. Like in India, it perpetuates this idea of the West, and in the West, it perpetuates this idea of India-

Alison: Hmm.

Parinita: And other developing countries. Like you know what the dominant narrative is.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: And especially with things like literature and media, where this privileged group like this middle-class, upper middle-class groups usually tend to create media. So we have a very singular narrative almost. My understanding of the West was largely shaped by the literature that I read.

Alison: Hmm.

Parinita: So poverty isn’t really addressed. Except like maybe Jacqueline Wilson books. Those are the only books I remember reading in the West that dealt with poverty in any real sort of way.

Alison: We’re talking here about the dangers of a single story, aren’t we?

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: That I know that you’ve discussed a couple of podcasts ago?

Parinita: That’s right.

Alison: But this is also a feeling that I have. This is my part of the hypothesis of my thesis is that actually we don’t see working-class characters in British children’s literature very much.

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: And when we do, it is through social realism like Jacqueline Wilson. Who I think is amazing.

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: The research that I’ve done with student teachers is that a lot of my students who define themselves as white working-class women, Jacqueline Wilson was so important to them growing up. Reading books about girls like themselves.

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: How important that is. Theoretically this is Rudine Sims Bishop’s the window, the mirror and the sliding glass door.

Parinita: Absolutely.

Alison: With children seeing themselves.

An image with the covers of all Jacqueline Wilson books

Image courtesy @FansofJWilson

Parinita: So this made me think of Harry Potter, what you’re saying, that in realistic fiction it’s present, but not so much in fantasy fiction.

Alison: Yes.

Parinita: And in Harry Potter I know that you can read Muggles and Muggle-borns as well as house elves – you can read it through a racialised lens.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: But I think you can also read it through a class lens as well. Coming from a lower-class background, they lack access to the resources and knowledge that children from wizarding families really seem to take for granted. And –

Alison: Absolutely.

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: I think this is really evident – you can see it very much in the Deathly Hallows book. Where Ron’s insider knowledge is important but also the fact that Hermione has had to research.

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: Because she has the intelligence but she doesn’t have the cultural capital that comes with being from a wizarding background. And, of course, Harry to an extent also lacks that. I mean he is the sort of the eyes of the reader.

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: We see everything through his perspective. Because it’s a limited third-person narrative, we need to have that perspective of someone who’s explaining to us all this stuff that we can’t see.

Parinita: Right and with Harry, it’s something that you mentioned in your paper, which I’ll link to in the transcript, as well as in Witch, Please they mentioned that even though he’s been disadvantaged, so he comes from an impoverished background with the Dursleys, but he’s actually pretty privileged in the magical world.

Alison: Yes.

Parinita: Because he has inherited so much wealth and valuable objects.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: The Marauder’s Map, his Invisibility Cloak, Hedwig as well. He’s still pretty privileged in terms of class as well.

Alison: Oh yeah.

Parinita: Because he doesn’t have to worry about money.

Alison: Yeah. He’s a lost prince. And he’s a jock you know.

Parinita: Yeah, that’s true. [laughs]

Alison: Yeah. In the Muggle world, obviously, which is sort of not really a mimetic world because in the real world we don’t, unfortunately, we don’t have magic.

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: The world that J. K. Rowling privileges which is in the magical world, he is an enormously powerful character. He’s naturally good at Quidditch. Which is something that gives him a lot of cache in the school. He is wealthy. He has all of these people around him telling him how awesome he is.

Parinita: [laughs]

Alison: How important he is. So in that world, he is incredibly important. And actually the character that is the poor and maltreated character is Neville.

Parinita: Yeah! That’s true.

Alison: So you know in the wizarding world, while he comes from this old wizarding family and therefore has a lot of cultural privilege, he isn’t wealthy and he is sort of weedy and a bit nerdy and pretty rubbish at a lot of things. And so he’s kind of the foil to Harry’s success.

Parinita: I was also really interested – So in Witch, Please, I’ve been listening to a few of their podcast episodes.

Alison: Oh they’re really good.

Parinita: And they talk about how Filch and Stan Shunpike and even Snape to a degree in his non-Hogwarts avatar, are sort of examples of working-class or lower-class sort of –

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: In the wizarding world, their status is pretty… and the way the narrative positions it, it positions some kinds of working classes, for example, the Weasleys, they are always shown to be as poor. Everyone talks about their poverty.

Alison: Hmm.

Parinita: But they have a lot of like you said cultural capital.

Alison: Yeah they’re landed gentry. They’re not poor. And I think this is where people reading Harry Potter from countries where there is a lot of land, and land is not necessarily expensive.

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: Like outside cities in the US, land is not expensive.

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: It’s hard for people who don’t understand that we don’t have a lot of land. We’re a very small country. And so land is actually extremely expensive. So any family that has a house with six or seven bedrooms – I can’t remember how many bedrooms –

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: The house has. That has a paddock and an orchard are not poor –

Parinita: [laughs]

Alison: In Britain. I mean that’s land that’s going to be worth maybe around a million pounds.

Parinita: You’re so right! And that’s something I never even thought of when I was reading it. So as an Indian reader, I miss a lot of class signifiers that you know –

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: That a British audience would probably recognise. But even as an Indian reader because of I guess my own experiences with not having a lot of money, the Weasleys seem to be doing pretty all right to me. Like the father, Mr. Weasley has this stable job, doesn’t have to worry about getting paid on time. They all seem to have enough food and clothes and you know I was like what are they complaining about? Is this the idea of poverty in the West? [laughs]

Alison: Yeah! And also you know having your brothers’ hand-me-downs at school is a very, very big advantage.

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: Yeah you know Ron is teased for it and some of his stuff is … you know his wand is a bit rubbish and so on. But it does save a lot of money for the Weasleys to have older brothers who can pass things on. And the knowledge that is passed on to him.

Parinita: Yeah absolutely.

Alison: It’s really helpful to him. There’s other forms of privilege as well. I mean I was very struck when re-reading The Philosopher’s Stone that the animals that children are allowed to take to school. In the first book, they’re allowed an owl, a cat or a frog.

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: No rats!

Parinita: [laughs]

Alison: But somehow Ron gets to take a rat to school? So there’s got to be some kind of privilege going on there as well. That he can bend the rules a bit.

Parinita: That’s true. He knows what rules are allowed to be –

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: Pushed and what not. And it’s true, it’s like people from a working-class background or in India like a middle-class, lower middle-class background, we don’t know this. We don’t have this possibility that we can imagine because these possibilities don’t exist for us, right?

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: So we don’t know what’s possible and what’s not.

Alison: Yes, so you don’t know which rules are the really, really important rules and which rules are the less important rules.

Parinita: Exactly!

Alison: Or you don’t know the workarounds for it. And that’s the kind of cultural capital and the cultural privilege that Ron’s family have.

Parinita: Yeah absolutely. And also even just with boarding schools, the class connotations of boarding schools.

Alison: Yes!

Parinita: Which I only realised again after moving to the UK. Because in India, when I was growing up, for me and my friends with similar sort of financial backgrounds, boarding school was this thing that our parents threatened us with. [laughs]

Alison: [laughs]

Parinita: When they’re like oh if you’re bad, we’re going to send you to boarding school. Like it was this form of punishment for us. And at the same time, we didn’t think of the cost and all these other factors. Because even in India, boarding schools are pretty elite usually. They’re for the wealthier sort of person.

Alison: Hmm.

Parinita: But I grew up reading Enid Blyton school stories. Like the Chalet School as well. And Malory Towers. So for me I had this romantic notion of boarding schools. But they’re actually so expensive!

Image of book cover. Text says: First Term at Malory Towers by Enid Blyton Image of book cover. Text says: The School at the Chalet by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Alison: Yes. I longed to go to boarding school as a child. It just felt like you know reading the books, it seemed like so much fun.

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: And I grew up reading comics as a very small girl. I learned to read through reading comics really. And my favourite comic was called Bunty. There was a long-running serial in Bunty. I’m really showing my age here.

Parinita: [laughs]

Alison: Which was called The Four Marys. It was about four girls, all called Mary, who went to boarding school. And every week they had an adventure. You know there was something amazing like catching a smuggler or –

Parinita: [laughs]

Alison: A spy. Or working out that what seemed to be a ghost in the bell tower was actually you know the boyfriend of a maid or something –

Parinita: [laughs]

Alison: Like that. And they would just sound brilliant to me. I thought that would be a wonderful thing to do. Go to boarding school and catch smugglers.

Parinita: Absolutely! Me too!

Alison: Yeah. But funnily enough, the research – the fieldwork that I’m doing in school at the moment, the children that I’ve been reading Harry Potter with – they’re ten and eleven. They don’t want to go to Hogwarts. They think it sounds awful.

Parinita: Oh really?!

Alison: Yeah. But I think it’s partly because they haven’t grown up reading boarding school stories for one thing. And for another thing, I think it’s also a social class issue for them.

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: One of the boys said to me, he didn’t want to go to Hogwarts because they play Quidditch. And he plays football. So I think that’s a way of him explaining how he feels he wouldn’t fit in at Hogwarts.

Parinita: That’s so interesting! Because another thing was something that I took for granted is cricket.

Alison: Yes!

Parinita: Which in India, cricket is very much a common person’s sport.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: Like we play it in the street and just because of colonisation I guess, we’ve just inherited our love for the game And whereas when I came here, so my boyfriend, he’s Scottish. And for him football is the common person’s game and cricket is this elite sort of thing where you need all these – it’s a posh sport essentially.

Alison: Yes. Quidditch I think has a lot in common with cricket. But also it’s like polo. Because you know you’ve got to have a broom, you’ve got to have the space.

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: I mean I grew up playing cricket on the street as well. We would have stumps chalked on a garage door and –

Parinita: Yeah, yeah.

Alison: I would bowl and bat against those. Also I think it’s the weather. [laughs] You know we don’t –

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Alison: We don’t have the – the long summer days without rain are quite unusual [laughs].

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah, I have noticed.

Alison: Yes. And so football is ninety minutes. You can run around in the rain for ninety minutes. It’s not necessarily pleasurable but it’s doable. But yeah all you need in order to play football is a ball and two things that you have decided are goal posts.

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: Which were, where I was growing up, it was usually someone’s gate. That was the goal.

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: We used to play on the road you know with houses on one side of the road and the houses on the other side of the road and that you’d kick the ball and try and hit someone’s gate.

Parinita: [laughs]

Alison: You’d usually get shouted at.

Parinita: [laughs] Well … as one does.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: That really makes me wonder whether … so in The Gayly Prophet episode they mentioned that Stan Shunpike, his accent, had class connotations –

Alison: Yes, it does.

Parinita: Just because of the way that it was written. And this is not something I would have ever picked up on. His and Hagrid’s as well.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: Hagrid’s is more regional?

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: And they propose that Stan Shunpike hadn’t gone to Hogwarts because nobody in Hogwarts speaks like that. Which made me wonder, is there a cost of education to Hogwarts? Would they charge tuition? Boarding? Food? Like is it all free? Who pays for this?

Alison: I know. It’s very odd. Because … do you remember the character of Colin Creevey?

Parinita: Yeah, yeah.

Alison: Because he bounces up in a very unsubtle J. K. Rowling way. Says, “Cor blimey eh I’m Colin Creevey!” [adopts accent]

Parinita: [laughs]

Alison: “My dad’s a milkman!”

Parinita: Oh yeah that’s right.

Alison: And again that’s a British thing. I don’t know whether an American or an Indian person reading those books would know what a milkman was. But it’s a traditional working-class job.

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: As is Stan Shunpike’s working on public transport –

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: Is a typical working-class job. And so maybe there are working-class people at Hogwarts. We don’t know whether there’s tuition fees paid because Harry never gets a bill, does he?

Parinita: That’s true.

Alison: On the other hand, he has so much money that – well actually, no, we – I mean we know a lot about his financial position. So maybe if there is a tuition fee, we would know about it?

Parinita: But even if there isn’t any tuition fee, you still have to buy so many things.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: Like books and cauldrons and all these things. So even if you don’t have to pay money to be educated, you still need all these things that –

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: A person who has a lot of gold in Gringotts won’t have to worry about.

Alison: Absolutely. You have to buy everything, don’t you? You have to buy your robes, you have to buy … I mean in Britain you know people have to buy school uniforms. There are very limited situations in which there would be a grant to help extremely impoverished –

Parinita: No, India is the same. We have school uniforms as well.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: My mum had enough money for uniforms like that’s not something that I had to think about.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: But I know there were people in my school who – so I went to a Catholic school, which in India, it’s called a convent school.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: And that’s essentially for people from lower middle-class and middle-class backgrounds who want their children to be educated in good English.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: Because English was also such a status thing and it’s still a status thing in India.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: Because they think the nuns teach us good English. [laughs] Which, again, lots of colonisation things to unpack there. Another thing is Draco Malfoy and Dudley Dursley.

Alison: Yeah!

Parinita: Just in terms of – so they come from privilege and status.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: So that’s very evident. They bully Harry and they bully people all around them. But they also have these over-indulgent parents.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: And they undergo abuse and trauma of a different form than the one that Harry goes through and come through at the end of the series more empathetic and more … I suppose respectful of different exp – maybe not respectful. But at least understanding of different experiences.

Alison: Yes. I mean the Malfoys live in Malfoy Manor.

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: Which again, they have inherited land. We know that Lucius Malfoy is extremely connected to the government.

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: And definitely has a lot of social capital. The Dursleys, on the other hand, are nouveau riche.

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: So they’re kind of newly arrived into sort of the upper middle class but are not accepted yet. So again this is something that British people would pick up on, particularly British people my age.

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: Because I’m nearly the same age as J. K. Rowling; I think she’s a little bit older than me.

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: But the very socially conscious or class-conscious sitcoms of the 70s and 80s in particular in The Chamber of Secrets where Dobby turns up and ruins the dinner party that Petunia is trying to give to her husband’s boss and his wife.

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: They are very, very class conscious.

Parinita: Ah.

Alison: That shows that they’re social climbers and wanting to sort of elevate themselves. The way the décor is described is very much kind of a nouveau riche décor. And compared to sort of the old money aristocracy of the Weasleys.

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: And that shabby but comfortable house.

Parinita: Yeah because –

Alison: Of the way –

Parinita: I think in the Witch, Please episode – or was it The Gayly Prophet one? But they noticed the comparison between The Burrow versus the Dursleys’ house and how in the movie – it was Witch¸ Please – in the movie, they showed it as stark and boring and it looked like the same house that everyone else had in the suburban streets. Whereas The Burrow was welcoming and warm and –

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: You would want to live there.

Alison: And idiosyncratic.

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: It’s not the same as everyone else’s house. And so –

Parinita: Ah.

Alison: Yeah it’s not been bought off the peg. It’s something that has been inherited and added on to. Have you ever read any Georgette Heyer?

Parinita: Yeah!

Alison: Yes. So the way that the houses of the aristocrats in the old houses, in particular, A Civil Contract. The house in that that had started off as a kind of a Tudor house but then a Stuart bit was built on to it. And then a Queen Anne bit was built on

Parinita: Right.

Alison: And then another bit was added. So it’s a big hodge-podge of building styles.

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: And you know it’s got long, drafty passages. It’s very inconvenient. But you know the family love it and they will do anything to preserve it.

Parinita: Yeah and just even having a house that you don’t have to worry about like being kicked out of –

Alison: Yes!

Parinita: Or not affording rent, surely that elevates you above poverty. Like –

Alison: Oh! So much! Yeah.

Image of The Burrow from the film Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Image courtesy Reddit

Image of the Burrow from the movie Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Image courtesy the Harry Potter Wiki

Parinita: In the books, class is mentioned only as a way of good versus bad, like positioning good wealth versus bad wealth.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: Harry’s own wealth is passed without commentary really. And in the Witch, Please thing as they mentioned, the Malfoys are a representation of bad wealth. Whereas Harry is this – he’s come and he’s you know liberating house elves whereas the Malfoys, they have house elves. But Harry liberates Dobby and you know he’s nice to Kreacher and stuff eventually, but he doesn’t really try to upend the system of house elf slavery at all.

Alison: No.

Parinita: Like he’s not – there’s no radical measures in his idea of class.

Alison: Yeah!

Parinita: I guess.

Alison: Yes. He doesn’t challenge it in the way that Hermione challenges it. Although I think Hermione goes about it in a very white feminist way.

Parinita: Yeah!

Alison: She tries to trick the house elves into becoming free by leaving little knitted hats and scarves around the place. And that’s really wrong. Also she’s not their master. So she can’t free them anyway. Because she –

Parinita: And also this is something that we spoke about before and it’s something that I’ve been listening to in the podcasts, that she doesn’t have any conversations with them. Like it’s never about what they want. And when they do express what they want which is like they don’t want to be free, she just assumes this attitude of oh no you don’t know your own lives and it’s something –

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: I know better so I’m going to come and I’m going to liberate you. There’s no attempt at trying to raise awareness in a way that act – like including them in the decision.

Alison: No!

Parinita: It’s just I’m going to come here and I’m going to decide for you and your life will be great, thank you very much.

Alison: Yes! [laughs] And without any kind of idea of like well you know if they lose their place at Hogwarts, where are they going to go? What’s going to happen to them? And even when she sees what has happened to Winky, it doesn’t stop her. It’s a very uncomfortable thing for me to read.

Parinita: And it’s also presented, again like Harry’s perspective, it’s presented quite uncritically.

Alison: Yes!

Parinita: There’s no – it’s not like she is an example of a bad feminist. In fact, her activism isn’t really taken very seriously by anybody including the narrator. Like there’s no –

Alison: No.

Parinita: Yeah. So yeah, it is uncomfortable. But speaking about the cost of education at Hogwarts I just wanted to slightly shift to discussing the class implications of public scholarship.

Alison: Yes.

Parinita: Specifically how alternative sites can act as sites of education and politicisation. So in Hogwarts, Dumbledore’s Army provided that space where they were you know resisting Umbridge and so –

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: Teaching themselves Defense Against The Dark Arts. And Fudge was really afraid that Dumbledore was radicalising the youth.

Alison: Yes.

Parinita: And in the real world, the internet in general and fandom and fan podcasts in particular, can act as spaces of education. At least I’ve found that in my experience. I’ve learned a lot in these informal digital spaces. And this seems pertinent given that we’re in the middle of these university strikes in the UK.

Alison: One of the things sort of as a side note is how bad the education is at Hogwarts.

Parinita: [laughs] Yes!

Alison: So it’s interesting that the school is sort of the only school that we know about in Britain. And yet it is so bad. And the only good examples of teaching that we see are by Lupin who is promptly sacked because he’s a werewolf.

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: He is a good teacher. He is very encouraging, the lessons that are described have logical progress, there’s a clear outcome. He assesses them, the students, and he gives positive and encouraging feedback to them. And the other one is Harry.

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: Harry as a teacher we see him growing in his pedagogical understanding, we see him planning his lessons, and it is peer-to-peer. And he has a lot of peer-to-peer learning in the lessons that he gives the students. And thinks about who will work well with who. Who will encourage who. And the students really learn from him. And there are other examples of alternative peer-to-peer education. Because Hermione is in the role of a teacher a lot.

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: Hermione is a good teacher. She does teach Ron and Harry. And we know that because she’s often told off for helping Neville, that –

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: She is involved in peer education with Neville. But yeah all the very powerful examples of learning within the books are from you know the outsider teacher. And from peer-to-peer education.

Parinita: I think this bad teaching in Hogwarts, as you said, it’s the only school in the UK. And especially for students from Muggle-born families –

Alison: Yes.

Parinita: They’re at such a distinct disadvantage. Students from wizarding families, they have the skills or are they assumed to have some skills and knowledge? Or even if you have bad teaching in Hogwarts, it doesn’t matter, because your parents can you know make up the difference.

Alison: Yeah. You’ll get a job at the Ministry of Magic anyway.

Parinita: Yeah – or you know you can just have our wealth and you’ll have a house and that’s fine. You’ll have all this inherited wealth and objects. And it’s so similar to real life educational institutions as well. Like where children from families that have these class markers and status and the knowledge to … you know like reading, for example. Just reading to children. It gives so many benefits.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: But not everybody can do this. Because not everyone knows to do this or not everyone has the time to do this. Because if you’re working all the time and you really don’t have time to do this extra thing because you’re cooking or whatever.

Alison: Yeah and the confidence as well.

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: The confidence to know what to do in order to help your child. And particularly parents who had a poor educational experience themselves. Then they don’t necessarily know how to help their children with homework. Parents who aren’t confident in maths for example, wouldn’t have a clue how to support their children with maths homework.

Parinita: Yeah for sure. And also critical thinking. In India, mainstream education doesn’t really teach you how to think. It teaches you what to think and it teaches you to learn the answers byheart –

Alison: Yes.

Parinita: And parrot them out in the exam. So you have no contextual knowledge. You can’t apply the knowledge that you learned to any situation.

Alison: Hmm.

Parinita: And even in terms of history. And it’s just – I think a lot of the problems that we’re facing now are due to a lack of education and not questioning what you’re told.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: But for me, I’ve found so much liberation online in the internet and podcasts and fandom. Hannah McGregor from Witch, Please says that it’s this form of accessible scholarship. She positions her podcast as making feminist scholarship accessible in a way by using Harry Potter and making it relevant to people’s lives. And not just in this ivory tower talking amongst themselves. And I find that so empowering because that’s been my experience with knowledge. Just because from my background, I wouldn’t have had this knowledge otherwise. And that’s why for me, I love doing this [podcast] as a part of my PhD research project, because I had this perception of academia as well. That they only talk amongst themselves and don’t engage with people and what people like. And for me, fandom and the internet has been such a fantastic educational resource that’s free, largely. You still have barriers because you still need access to technology.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: Or the language and time to be able to play around with these things. But if you have that, it makes it so much easier to be able to get this information and knowledge even if you don’t have a very good formal education. Or even if you don’t have formal education.

Alison: Yeah, I agree with you. One of the things that I found very exciting working with children in school because I discuss the books with the children I work with.

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: But they also create something. So there is an outcome. So either they make something or they draw something. Or we do some drama. Using these books and using in particular Harry Potter and the other books I’ve been reading with the children to interrogate their understanding of social class and class markers within the books –

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: Has been really exciting and really interesting. It’s the way that the children have really taken to doing these things has made me think a lot about my pedagogy and the way that I teach my students at university. And the way that we can use creativity to draw out critical thinking in learners at all stages of their learning.

Parinita: Yeah! Absolutely. Just because I think critical thinking and just exposure to knowledge and questioning authority and different ways of thinking is so important. So with the university strikes in the UK, it was my first experience of striking and just talking to people on the picket line about the condition in the UK higher education –

Alison: Hmm.

Parinita: System. And it was so shocking to me because again you know this colonised mind. Like in India we think the West has it all figured out and has it all sorted out. So someone on the picket line was telling me about how in this neoliberal university where essentially students consider themselves to be consumers

Alison: Yes.

Parinita: Rather than learners. Again in the Witch, Please episode, one of them said how in the real world, governments and universities are using tuition and debt to deradicalise students.

Alison: Yes.

Parinita: So that young people don’t get together to overthrow the status quo and to overthrow the system.

Alison: That’s so true. And the way that – I haven’t had this experience so much but I’ve heard from other colleagues who are lecturing in other disciplines – the way that students, some students almost seem to want to be taught for the test. They are asking, “Do I have to – is this going to be in the exam?” Or “Am I going to have to write an essay on this text?”

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: And therefore don’t want to explore widely outside of what they are going to be graded on. And that entirely comes from this neoliberal ideal of education as market and students as consumers. And wanting to not challenge themselves or challenge anything because what they want at the end is their good grade. That they can then go on and be part of a neoliberal market. And use their scholarship in employment. And –

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: It is profoundly sad. And so the lack of willingness to challenge received ideas and ask what is education for? What is my education for? Is the way that we’re going about this the best way? And of course, the way that students are asking that if their tuition fees are not going towards paying their lecturers, where are they going?

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: What are they being used for? And certainly in some universities, students seeing their lecturers striking while looking at a big new fancy building being built probably have the right to ask those questions.

Parinita: Yeah absolutely. Because literally the lecturers and the admin staff, they’re responsible for delivering this education to you. If they’re not well-paid, if they’re worrying about having to work another job just to pay the bills. Is that what you want? Is that what you really want from your education?

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: Which is why I think fandom, there’s so much potential there to be able to learn to question things that you regularly would take for granted. For example, for me it has been fan podcasts. But also fanfiction because as a teenager I used to read and write Harry Potter fanfiction.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: And I learned so much there in terms of questioning things as – questioning canon, first of all. And then just that took me to – oh if canon is not this set thing, it’s dynamic, and fans have a say in it – maybe other things as well. So just the dialogue and the conversations that fans have. I don’t read a lot of fanfiction anymore. But I know that it’s played such a huge role in shaping what I think about the world. Just because it highlights marginalised perspectives; perspectives which are marginalised not only in canon but just in mainstream media and culture in general.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: So when did you first encounter fanfiction? What has your experience been?

Alison: I wrote fanfiction myself from a very young age before I really knew what fanfiction was.

Parinita: Ah.

Alison: And my fanfiction was school stories. I wrote Chalet School fanfiction and I also wrote Antonia Forest’s fanfiction about her family – the Marlows.

Parinita: Ah.

Image of book cover. Text says: Autumn Term by Antonia Forest

Alison: And that’s what I grew up doing. Making my own stories really. And also the way I played as a small child. My dad is a huge fantasy and science fiction fan as well. And so he read me all of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings books and the whole of the Narnia series before I went to secondary school.

Parinita: Amazing.

Alison: And so I played out battle scenes from Lord of the Rings with my Barbies.

Parinita: [laughs]

Alison: And my other toys. My Barbies were hobbits.

Parinita: [laughs]

Alison: I always laugh a little bit when and this is again common – this is a gender thing in the way that boys’ interests versus girls’ interests are privileged. And that the assumption that girls who are playing with dolls are reenacting traditional femininity. Firstly, well what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with being feminine? Just because girls like you know – and this is again a Hermione thing – just because Hermione wants to look pretty –

Parinita: Yeah. Or just because Fleur is feminine and badass at the same time. Ginny is feminine and badass at the same time.

Alison: You can be both!

Parinita: Yeah. You can be both.

Alison: So yeah that’s sort of my fanfic really. When I read the fanfiction A Wand With Sixteen Strings

Parinita: Um hmm.

Alison: How I loved that because it was the Antonia Forest characters in Hogwarts. And it was so brilliant. It’s so perfect.

Parinita: Yeah. And just school stories in general like they place – so I know a lot of these school stories, Malory Towers, Chalet School, they have some problematic gender dynamics. But when I was reading it when I was younger, for me, I glossed over that completely. And I loved that girls were going on adventures –

Alison: Yes!

Parinita: But were also having these domestic things and midnight feasts and sports and plays and like at the centre of their stories. Which I loved because I think –

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: And that’s why it makes me so mad when fanfiction is denigrated by people because it is largely female dominated. And it is largely, like a lot of teenage girls writing fanfiction. And you know this whole thing of the Mary Sue as well. It just drives me crazy.

Alison: Oh my goodness yes! As if when you read you know a lot of thrillers written by men for men, we can see the Mary – well the Marty Stu all over those.

Parinita: Yeah!

Alison: We can see the kind of rugged and handsome and incredibly clever and incredibly strong and always-gets-the-girl hero.

Parinita: No but even in that Imaginary Worlds episode that I listened to, what’s his name Luke Skywalker! Bruce Wayne! Batman! How are they not – like they call it Gary Stu but yeah Marty Stu is good as well. How are they not this embodiment of – it’s wish fulfillment. And men are so used to that being the norm that in fanfiction when women are trying to resist that and you know centre their own perspectives and experiences, that’s something to be mocked and that’s something to be ridiculed and not taken seriously.

Alison: And a thing that is of interest to girls is automatically considered to be of low quality and a bit silly.

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: If a teenage boy has his walls plastered with Led Zeppelin posters and again here I am showing my age.

Parinita: [laughs]

Alison: That’s somehow okay because he’s idolising the guitar playing and the lyricism and the musicality. But when a girl – a teenage girl – like when I was a teenage girl, I had Duran Duran and Adam Ant posters all over my bedroom wall. But you know it would be assumed that I was doing that because I fancied them.

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: Which yes, I did.

Parinita: [laughs]

Alison: But that wasn’t the only reason. It was also that sense of camaraderie of being around other girls who shared my interests.

Parinita: Yeah absolutely. This is why I’m so happy that the Archive Of Our Own they won the Hugo award. It’s such a fantastic space because it was started by largely women –female fans.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: And they coded; they had lawyers; they had writers; they designed the structure that they wanted in a way so they had trigger warnings, they had spoiler warnings.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: They normalized all this in the structure of their platform because they wanted to own their own platform. And especially in a space like science fiction and fantasy. I know we’re running out of time but I do want to talk to you about your experiences with that quickly just in terms of gender in offline fandom. Because I know that you’re more familiar with that than I am. My experiences have largely been online fandom.

Alison: Yeah. One of the things that I think has been evident for quite a long time in terms of gender and offline fandom is quite exactly what we’ve just been talking about. It’s the way that anything that is of interest to girls and women is assumed to not be of good quality. Anything that is of interest to men is assumed to be of amazing quality and for everybody. It’s a very, very interesting perspective. And I’m delighted that that has been overturned because of the amount of women’s writing that is being recognised in … and particularly – I know you’ve discussed the term women of colour – the way that black women and East Asian women, their writing has been recognised – and disabled women, actually.

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: Within the Hugos in particular. And that’s been wonderful. And that has to be because more people are engaging with the writing – writing by women. And it’s not just seen as – writing by women is not just writing for women. It’s writing for everybody in the way that writing by men has traditionally been seen as writing for everybody. And, of course, within that we’ve got nonbinary and LGBTQ people’s writing being valued far more than it ever has been. And while you know there are reactionary groups springing up and claiming that this writing is only being recognised because it is by women and nonbinary people. Well, you know, too bad. Those kind of ideas are now becoming in the minority, I hope.

Parinita: Yeah. And I’m so happy about it. So in the Black Girl Nerds episode, one of them proposed that the difference between male fandom and female fandom is that male fandom is about collecting merchandise and trivia and knowing the canon completely.

Alison: Yes.

Parinita: Versus female fandom which is transforming the canon because –

Alison: Yes.

Parinita: Often women are dissatisfied by the lack of nuanced and complex representations of their identities!

Alison: I love that! Because that was another – you know when I first joined fandom, I was in my 20s and had a really, really bad experience of it. There was so much gatekeeping around you know these kind of almost like these sphinx’s riddles that you had to answer before you were allowed in through the door.

Parinita: [laughs]

Alison: Of the pub or wherever the meeting was. And it was sort of testing – this idea of testing. It’s not enough that you say I like Batman. You have to know the number of the comics, that which number of the comics did The Joker first appear in. Or where was King Tut from. And it is so frustrating. It’s a bit like some of those trading card things. It’s got to be one-upmanship.

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: I think around my women and nonbinary friends, conversations are not all about one-upmanship and about knowing the sort of niche bits of knowledge.

Parinita: Yeah just loving the thing is enough. Just being passionate about it. And you know –

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: Just being excited about talking to somebody about a thing that you love, that’s enough. You don’t have to prove that you’re a real fan or you’re a proper fan.

Alison: You’re sharing your connection to it. And that’s so important. Which is where the transformative fandom comes from. Because I think women and queer and nonbinary people and trans people have always had to find the back door into the thing they loved. If you’re watching Star Trek for example which is where, of course, transformative fandom many would say started.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Alison: It’s a very male-dominated space. So you have to find your way into it. And I did love original Star Trek but my Star Trek enjoyment from fandom came through much more Deep Space Nine where it was a much more wider variety of people. And the person I saw in Doctor Who fandom was always the companion.

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: And my Doctor was Tom Baker. And my companion was Sarah Jane Smith. Who was a brilliant character. You know she’s feminist, she’s not there just to scream and fall over. She was the person that often suggested different ideas to the Doctor. And different ways of looking at things to the Doctor. And I loved Sarah Jane. And it was really through her that I became a Doctor Who fan. I mean I was watching Doctor Who when I was six-seven-eight. You know I was a very small child. And –

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: Sarah Jane has always been the person who stayed with me.

Parinita: That’s why I’m so excited that Jodie is now the Doctor.

Alison: Yes!

Parinita: Because my Doctor Who journey started with New Who. So I only started with Christopher Eccleston. And I loved it. But I loved it in a way that I didn’t really see myself in it.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: Even when there were the companions and things. I was just like oh yeah this is fun, this is an adventure. But ever since Jodie’s run, I’ve noticed that there’s this sort of very deliberate increase in the diversity. Just even casual diversity as well as the companions. And I love Jodie’s interactions as well. I feel like they’re not trying to just make her a man in a woman’s body, you know?

Alison: Yeah!

Parinita: She’s emotional and enthusiastic and has relationships and it’s – I identify so much with her and with the companions and just with the stories now that she is my Doctor even though I love all the Doctors that I’ve met. But she is definitely my Doctor.

Alison: Yeah. I loved Rose when New Who started. But actually Donna was –

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: I see myself in Donna.

Parinita: Absolutely.

Alison: She’s older, she’s you know she is a working-class girl, and you know I love the way she was very down to earth. And not always overly impressed with the Doctor

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: As Rose often was. And then you know –

Parinita: And it wasn’t about a romantic relationship.

Alison: No.

Parinita: Which usually you always need to have someone fall in love with someone for it to –

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: For their presence as a woman to count.

Alison: Yeah. There was much more of a buddy relationship – a collegial relationship. And I really appreciated that.

Parinita: Do you have any final thoughts that you sort of wanted to say?

Alison: I do want to acknowledge the problematic and frankly transphobic nature of a lot of what J. K. Rowling has said at the moment. And the transformative works aspect of Potter fandom is something that continues to give me joy. And I do think that now Harry Potter’s ours. He belongs to the fans. I’m not so sure about the Fantastic Beasts aspect. Although my stepson loves Fantastic Beasts. He loves Newt Scamander. I see a lot of my stepson in Newt as a neurodiverse child.

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: So I do love that. I sort of did want to acknowledge that there are other amazing books for children and young adults around at the moment. That if people feel uncomfortable still reading Harry Potter then I suggest they look at Patrick Ness’s The Rest of Us Just Live Here which is a brilliant book. Also I’m reading at the moment Scarlett Thomas’s Dragon’s Green and other books in that series. Also I love, although I acknowledge that some people have been very critical of Rebecca Roanhorse, but I love her book Trail of Lightning. So there are other things out there that people can look for and enjoy.

Parinita: Thank you for the excellent recommendations! I’m just going to add a book that I just finished reading yesterday. It’s called Nevermoor – The Trials of Morrigan Crow.

Alison: Yes!

Parinita: By Jessica Townsend. And I love it because it’s sort of like Harry Potter but also Jupiter North very much gives me a Doctor energy.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: So it’s like a combination of two of my favourite things and it’s much more explicitly diverse. I don’t have to racebend or I don’t have to contend with just seeing white as you know the protagonists.

Book cover image of Dragon's Green by Scarlett Thomas Book cover image of Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend Book cover image of The Rest Of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness Book cover image of Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: So I love that. And I absolutely agree with you. I think J. K. Rowling … I’ve lost the feeling of affection that I used to have for her.

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: And it’s been happening for quite a few years but this completely you know I’ve completely disconnected from her. But the series itself, it was something that really saved me during a very difficult childhood.

Alison: Yes.

Parinita: And it’s something that’s given me so much that I still love the books. And like you said, I think they belong to us. We don’t have to like her, we don’t have to agree with anything that she says. They belong to us because she’s put it out there and it’s changed so many people’s lives. But also I’m glad you recommended other books as well. Because there are more inclusive, more progressive books out there. And to quote someone on a podcast that we listened to, who quoted Sam Winchester from Supernatural, “At the end of the day, it’s our story. So we get to write it.”

Alison: We do.

Parinita: Which I think is a very good fandom encapsulation. And just yeah it’s a good way to think of Potterverse. Thank you so much for being on the podcast!

Alison: Thank you!

Parinita: And for the company! This was amazing. I’m so glad I got to chat with you.

Alison: I’m so glad you asked me. Thank you so much. I’ve really enjoyed it.

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode on social class in Harry Potter and gender in fandom. You can listen to the first three episodes of Marginally Fannish wherever you find your podcasts. Thanks again Alison for being a part of this project and allowing me to think about the world through the lenses of both class and gender. And thank you Jack for doing a stellar job with the editing even though the audio quality was sometimes terrible.

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