A PhD project exploring intersectionality through fan podcasts

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Tag: Gender diversity

Episode 19 So What Are We Missing? – Exploring Representations of Marginalised Genders in Media and Society

Episode Resources:

1) Fan podcast – Witch, Please: The Goblet is Political (Listen from 51ish minutes to 62 minutes 30 seconds)

2) Fan podcast – Witch, Please: The Cleansing Fire (Listen from 66 minutes to 80 minutes)

3) Fan podcast – Witch, Please: The Full-Blood Patriarchy (Listen from 63 minutes to 76 minutes 35 seconds)

4) Fan podcast – Witch, Please: Hallows and Goodbyes (Listen from 85 minutes to 92 minutes 35 seconds)

5) Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper: Where Are The Tampons With Tiffani Angus

6) Fanzine – Tonk’s Tale

7) Fan podcast – Fansplaining: Letting Harry Potter Go (Listen from 6 minutes 45ish seconds to 34ish minutes)

8) Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper: Transgender Representation in SFF

9)  Article – What Is Toxic White Feminism

10) Article – Debrahmanising Online Spaces on Caste, Gender and Patriarchy 

11) YouTube video – The Matrix As A Trans Allegory tr

12) Tumblr post – Sameface Syndrome and Other Stories

13) Article – When Will We See Dalit Women Journalists In India’s Mainstream Media?

14) Article – Building A Newsroom Dedicated To Diversity: An Indian Story

15) Article – What Steven Universe can Teach us about Queerness, Gender Identity, and Feminism

16) Article – The Way the Solo Novel Treats Female Droid L3-37 Is Horrifying

17) Research paper – Gender in Twentieth-Century Children’s Books

 

Episode Transcript

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

[Intro music]

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

[Intro music]

My name is Parinita Shetty and you’re listening to the nineteenth episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, Aparna, Sanjana and I chat about different representations of genders, gender identities and gender expressions in media, fandom and the real world. We discuss some difficult issues related to depression, suicide and sexual violence so please consider this a content warning.

In mainstream media and popular culture, women’s representations can be quite limited. Stories about women frequently end up catering to the dominant gaze – full of tropes and stereotypes or examples which exceptionalise. Such representations offer limited conceptions of being a person in the world. If you consider intersections of other identities within gender, the situation is even starker. Moreover, discussions of women’s rights, equality and representation can result in very narrow views of who should be included and who should be excluded.

Much like with intersectional feminism, representations in media need to be inclusive of different identities – not just the most privileged within the marginalised group. Of course, accepting and demanding difference doesn’t always come easily. Unlearning ideas that you’ve been socially conditioned into requires an active effort and is quite realistically a lifelong, ongoing process. Critical and intersectional discussions in fandom and social media provide access to a diversity of experiences. This can help disrupt ideas that were previously taken for granted and draw attention to new ways of thinking about stories and the world. Once this critical gaze is unlocked, it’s difficult to put it away.

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: Hi! I’m Parinita.

Aparna: I’m Aparna.

Sanjana: And I’m Sanjana. And today in this episode we’re going to discuss gender, gender identity, and gender expression in some of our favourite fandoms and pop culture in general. When I was researching for this episode, I came across this article in The New York Times written by Brit Marling. And I’m going to quote directly from it because I thought that it encompassed what we wanted to talk about. The article was about basically her journey in the industry and her journey to becoming an actor. She’s now recently written and starred in a show on Netflix called The OA if I’m not mistaken. She started off with the kind of roles that she would get to audition for and how that hit very badly to how she would look at herself. It was basically talking about the strong female lead and what it meant to her and how that has been skewed. So I’m just going to quote two things from that article before we start. She writes, “It would be hard to deny that there is nutrition to be drawn from any narrative that gives women agency and voice in a world where they are most often without both. But the more that I acted the strong female lead, the more I became aware of the narrow specificity of the character’s strengths, physical prowess, linear ambition, focused rationality and masculine modalities of power. When we kill women in our stories, we aren’t just annihilating female-gendered bodies; we are annihilating the feminine as a force wherever it resides in women, in men or in the natural world in general. Because what we really mean when we say we want strong female leads is, ‘Give me a man in the body of a woman that I want to still see naked.’” And so I was just going back and looking at some of our main leads that we’ve loved. What do you guys think? How has the representation of females in some of our favourite media been?

Parinita: I mean that is the Star Wars syndrome, right? It’s not been a fandom that I’ve really been a part of and I don’t think I would consider myself a part of that fandom even now. It’s something that has such a huge fandom that I felt like I needed to watch it to know things. And if I would have watched it when I was younger, when I wasn’t thinking critically about these things, I don’t know if I would have noticed that. But I’ve been watching it over this last year – it’s been my pandemic companion – and I’ve noticed that so much in terms of the women just seem to be there to represent men in a female body. And also this exceptionalising of, “Oh I’m not like the other girls. There can only be one of me.”

Sanjana and Aparna: Yeah!

Parinita: “Because all the other women aren’t like this.”

Sanjana: Yeah, absolutely.

Aparna: So I very much fell into that trap of the strong female lead. First, before that, whatever I remember reading growing up, the characters that I wanted to be happened to be the boy characters in the books. Because they were just having more fun. And they had the best lines and were doing the most interesting things. So I would quite easily identify with them the most or want to be like them. And when I grew up slightly more, I very much fell into the strong female-lead trap in shows like Buffy where it’s not just a female character, it’s the female character. How she’s the centre of all of the action and she’s more than what anyone else around is; even though she was a flawed character and it was a very three-dimensional character. But just the fact that one woman was at the centre of this entire thing was very fascinating to me, especially after growing up not reading all of this. But now I’m realising that I’m drawn towards shows that have a cast of female characters – shows like GLOW or The Good Fight.

Promotional poster of the TV show GLOW

Parinita: Grey’s Anatomy.

Sanjana: Yeah, Grey’s Anatomy.

Aparna: Yeah. Broad City, Fleabag, Steven Universe. Even Jane The Virgin we really enjoyed the relationships between women because these are the things I feel we were a bit starved of when we were growing up. And so these are the things that now I’m coming around to appreciating the most when it comes to seeing female characters in pop culture.

Parinita: No, absolutely. I agree. Same with me. I fell for the boy character or George in The Famous Five.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Exactly!

Parinita: Who wanted to be a boy because they had more fun. And even recently Wonder Woman.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: As much as I loved that movie – I think we’ve spoken about this either the three of us, or I’ve spoken about it with some other people as well on the podcast where I loved the movie so much. But it is just her – apart from her time on the island, and then she leaves. That’s at the background. And then all her relationships are with men. Or with one man and the other villains and things. And there isn’t a community of women; where, from real life experiences, we know that we need a community of women. We can’t just be the one woman.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Exactly.

Parinita: How horrible would that life be!

Sanjana: Exactly. And as we started watching a lot more of these shows that had so many women characters interacting with each other – not just as friends but even otherwise, as people from different sides of the point but both female characters – it was a lot more enriching to watch and to see than watching that one female in the middle.

Aparna: Exactly! While acknowledging that we’ve come a long way from the years where it took three separate Spider-Men before we got one Wonder Woman, things are definitely changing. But to ensure that we don’t go through this entire process of demanding and looking for and waiting for the right representation, we need to make sure as a community, as a society, that when we finally do reach the point of equal representation, we’re not doing it alone. We are representing all genders and we have to have positive representations of Dalit and Adivasi women, women of colour, rural women, poor women. We have to acknowledge that we share our marginalisation with so many other identities. And while seeking fair representation for ourselves, this needs to be something that is as important as our own representation. Otherwise we’ll just get stuck in this, okay now what’s next on the list and let’s get representation for that figure.  

Parinita: That’s something that I’ve been thinking of just because I’m re-reading the Harry Potter books now. And when I was reading them for the first time, I wasn’t really reading it critically. I was just reading it for fun. So I loved a lot or most of the things that I read. Whereas now I’m reading it with a more critical lens, informed by all the discussions that have been happening in fandom. So one of the things that people talk about a lot is Hermione and her white feminism when it comes to the house-elves.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Or in an Indian context, it would be savarna feminism or Brahmin feminism. Which is looking at only a specific kind of experience. In terms of Hermione, basically, she wants to help liberate the house-elves from their oppression; and the house-elves are oppressed. The wizards and witches treat anybody who is not human terribly, but especially house-elves.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: They’re literally tied to their masters – which in itself is a dubious word which I never picked up on earlier. But at the same time, all the stuff that she does, her activism – everything is completely mocked and dismissed by everybody because everyone has so brought into the status quo that they’re like, “No, no, house-elves like being servants without pay.” So like slaves. “They’re very happy – they would be lost, they would have no identity without the work.” Which is true. But you need to educate house-elves as well and you need to learn from them. She has a very imperialist sort of saviour complex where she’s going in and she’s like, “Oh I know everything there is to know about this culture that I’ve just discovered two days ago.”

Sanjana: [laughs]

Parinita: “And I’m going to be telling them what to do. And if they don’t listen to me, I know better than them so I’m going to trick them …”

Sanjana and Aparna: Yeah!

Parinita: “By leaving knitted socks and hats and I’m going to set them free because that’s what a good feminist does.” [laughs]

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Yeah. I was reading some article in which this thing about how we are being bad feminists because we would rather have like a great body; and we are putting the way we look above the way our mind works so we’re being bad feminists. That space to allow everyone to embrace whatever part of femininity they have to exist in that and still be feminist enough is also what is important.

Parinita: Yeah because you always find reasons why a woman is doing womaning wrong. There’s always that.

Aparna: Yeah!

Parinita: Depending on your social context, like if you’re in the West or in the UK or in a developed society, there’s something else. If you’re in India, if you’re in the city, it’s something else; if you’re in the village, it’s something else. And that’s of course if you’re a cisgender woman which comes with its own set of privileges. If you’re trans or nonbinary, it just gets so much worse. As with everything, all the intersections, any sort of identity that you add, it usually ends up getting worse, especially if you’re a woman.

Aparna: Right.

Parinita: And this kind of limited feminism – the Hermione brand of feminism, I guess, even though I love Hermione a lot … but J. K. Rowling identifies herself as Hermione so you can see where that limited version of feminism is coming from. But that’s the sort of feminism that leads to transphobia, right? You’re looking at trans women as not real women. So your definition of feminism only includes a certain group of women. But then I’m sure that – and I’m talking about specifically in the West – what would they think of, for example, women of colour? Or women with disabilities or any sort of other identity. I remember recently reading about this. In the Black Lives Matter protests that are happening in the US [it was actually in the UK], in one group, a bunch of TERFs – trans-exclusionary radical feminists – they tried to co-opt the movement and basically, they tried to make it about anti-trans sentiments. I’m not sure of the exact details but yeah for them, gender is more important than other identities [I meant sex, not gender] where it should be that all your identities matter. You can’t separate …

Aparna: Exactly. And the fact that seeing other people’s rights as a threat to your rights, is just such a narrow-minded view of equality or of representation in general. I was reading this very heart-breaking but beautifully written article by a transgender woman who’s a fan of Harry Potter. And it was her response to what’s going on saying that, “I understand why she feels threatened but what about my rights?” And then she starts comparing how she saw Harry Potter as a metaphor for her gender identity. How when he enters the wizarding world, even though there are problems there, that’s where he finally feels like himself. Whereas when he’s in the Muggle world, he never felt understood. And how she saw that as a parallel to her own experience that finally when she figured out her identity is when she felt like she’d found her Hogwarts so to speak. We recently discovered something – that despite Sana’s awesome memory, she had forgotten –  that there’s this bit in Harry Potter where girls are allowed in boys’ dormitories but when the boys try to go to the girls’ dormitory, the staircase turns into a slide. So this very specific changing-room phobia that J. K. Rowling has, I mean there were clues even in the earlier Harry Potter books.

Screenshot of Tumblr post. Text says: trans boys in gryffindor being sent to the girl's dormitory and then being delighted when the stairs won't let them up. trans girls in gryffindor being told they can't go in the girl's dormitory (and maybe shown what happens by some cis boy) and then trying it and finding that the stairs DO let them up. Gender fluid gryffindor students falling down as the steps to the girl's dormitory unpredictably turn into a slide. you're a good egg.

Parinita: Yeah for sure. And even the very limited ideas of gender itself in the books. This is something that I wouldn’t have picked up on because of the limits of my experiences.

Sanjana and Aparna: Exactly!

Parinita: As a cis woman it’s really easy to be ignorant of this.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: But then there is a difference between ignorance and malice. Because you can be ignorant and teach yourself these things that are beyond your experiences because so many things are beyond our experiences. But then to be confronted with difference and then decide that oh no, this difference is a threat to me and we should just throw them under the bus. Even if you’re that selfish, it’s still going to come and hurt you in the end. Because the people at the top are just going to whittle down the opposition one by one by turning different marginalised groups against each other because of this idea that there’s a very finite amount of rights so only one group can have all the rights.

Sanjana: Exactly.

Parinita: Ugh it’s really frustrating in Harry Potter and even for that matter in Doctor Who which is another thing I’m re-watching now to inform the project. How the women are represented there is also quite limited in terms of what roles they can play, what they look like, and what the Doctor looks like. Jodie is progress now, but it took how many years for that to happen?

A collage of all the actors who portrayed the Doctor in the TV show Doctor Who

Versions of the Doctor. Image courtesy: Wikipedia

Sanjana: Yeah. Exactly.

Aparna: Yeah absolutely. And all of this stems from just a complete erasure or misrepresentation of these identities in our media. We heard this podcast episode of Breaking The Glass Slipper where they were talking about the erasure of trans people from history or from popular culture. And the statues have been torn down and things like that. It’s true for so many other identities. In India, it’s true for so many Dalit, Adivasi women. A lot of the smaller sections of Indian society have been completely glossed over. Their contributions to the freedom struggle have been completely glossed over. So nobody gets to read about them. There is a very limited idea of what these people, of what all of these identities mean or stand for. One more thing that they said in that episode was it’s okay if we have limited representation, but we want to have good representation. And how quality mattered more than quantity. And that is so true, especially in India where we’ve seen the depiction of transgender people in Bollywood

Sanjana: Oh my god!

Aparna: As being these awful caricature depictions which were treated as punchlines. And it takes a lot of unlearning to ??? these things.

Sanjana: Yeah no, absolutely. Talking about our encounters and understanding of transness and transphobia, it is an unlearning. Because until embarrassingly late, our views were very, very narrow. Because the only source of knowing or even experiencing or relating to transness was through the Bollywood films that we watched and through how our parents reacted. Or when we would stop at a traffic signal or something and how we would see everybody’s windows being rolled up. [Sanjana was alluding to the treatment meted out to hijras in India]. And that view is what you form as you’re growing up. And, as I’ve realised, when you’re growing up, it really does take a lot of unlearning and a lot of reading to truly understand how wrong your view of such things are. Because it’s not just this, but a whole lot more. Popular culture plays such an important role in our lives that it just becomes this whole trope that you buy into again and again. Because this is what you see not only in films but then you see it play out in real life at weddings in the north and stuff. It’s just made it a them versus us kind of thing. Which it shouldn’t have been from the very first place. It’s a lot of fixing that somebody has to do in terms of representing them just as they are.

Parinita: Intersectional feminism – just being an intersectional feminist – is a lifelong, ongoing process, right? There’s never going to be an end point when you know everything, you’ve unlearned everything, you learned everything there is. So that’s it, my job is over. Because there’s always going to be something new that you discover. Or a new identity that gains a more widespread space in the mainstream conversation and the mainstream media and everything.

Sanjana: Yeah. And truthfully, it makes a difference. Just representation in a normalised ways makes a difference. Because the more shows that we are watching together with the family as a whole, the more normal it is to see a gay couple or see different people onscreen. And the comments within the room have become a lot more accepting of what they are seeing. It started off with, “Arey again? Arey this has become a thing.” I’m just quoting from family members only who probably don’t read as much or haven’t corrected their views. But the fact that they are being represented in such a normal way without making a big deal of it – by not making it the token representation. Just making it more normal is making a large difference to the way everybody started viewing these things. So it does make a difference to consciously represent people a lot better in more normalised ways.

Parinita: Yeah and not just with trans representations. Even that is quite limited. In the “Transgender Representation in SFF” episode, Cheryl Morgan was talking about how there’s a cis-gaze in media because a lot of cis writers tend to write about trans experiences. There isn’t still a huge number of trans writers in popular mainstream media creating their own stories. So even when the representations do exist and when they are trying to make it a point to represent, it still falls into some tropes and stereotypes that a trans writer writing about themselves probably wouldn’t have made. Obviously there’s no monolithic trans experience, just like there’s no monolithic cis woman experience.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: But as Cheryl mentioned, if you’re representing trans people, the focus tends to be on the transition process. Which isn’t something that trans writers or trans media creators themselves are really interested in focusing on because for them, the transition is just them changing their outward appearance to match their inward sense of self. And they’re interested in exploring other aspects of their identity, and their identity itself is just a part of this whole complex version of themselves. If I’m in the UK from India and if everybody just asks me about that, about being an Indian immigrant in the UK, that’s such a limited concept of being a person in the world.

Sanjana: Exactly!

Parinita: And it’s the same with Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi women as well, right? It’s something that I’ve only recently started thinking about – how they are represented in Bollywood. If you don’t know people in real life, that’s what your ideas are shaped by. And the way that it’s represented is so terrible. Looking back, like you were saying, it’s the same with me, it’s such a process of unlearning. Because you don’t even know what you don’t know.

Sanjana and Aparna: Yeah!

Parinita: If nobody’s disrupting that idea; if everyone around you thinks the same, talks the same about other people as well –

Sanjana: Exactly! And no, thinking about the fact that this is us who are actively reading and trying to get a hang of it. This is us still battling what we’ve been learning. Which is why popular media plays so much of a role in the way we think because that is the fastest way we learn and that’s probably the fastest way in which we’ll unlearn everything else as well. Or come up with a broader view of things.

Parinita: And feminism itself, when I was younger, and even not that long ago – until a couple of years ago, my idea of women’s rights and was still so exclusive of most other experiences.

Aparna: Correct.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Not through any purposeful exclusion but just ignorance and extrapolating my experience to everyone’s experiences and everyone’s worldviews. So coming back to Harry Potter, just because that’s something that we’re looking at for the episode and that’s something that all three of us have grown up with and loved so much. But now reading it as an adult and listening to some of these fan podcasts that we listen to, I was listening to Woke Doctor Who, one of their recent episodes and they were talking about how much internalised misogyny there is in Harry Potter.

Aparna: Yes!

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And it’s not something that you pick up on earlier. I’m reading Order of the Phoenix currently and there’s a lot of problems in that book. It’s my favourite Harry Potter book, but in terms of representations, there’s a lot to unpack there. Just a very basic thing I realised that the insults were so gendered. The women and girls are insulted by their looks. Aunt Petunia’s described as having horsy teeth and Pansy Parkinson is always described as having a pug face.

Sanjana: Hmm!

Parinita: But men and boys are fat and dumb. So their intelligence is vilified. Like Dudley or Crabbe or Goyle, they’re like oh they’re so stupid and oh they’re fat. But girls, it’s always looks. It’s a very basic thing but that’s how things build, right? From the most basic things you build up more and more.

Sanjana: Yeah. Talking about women being described, I came across an article which was talking about the portrayal of female professors in Hogwarts and how they are also described very physically through their physical traits. Like McGonagall is someone who can transform into a cat and does these great things but then she’s described with special attention to her appearance with beady eyes, her stern expression and her shrill voice. And the fact that she wants the Quidditch team to succeed is mocked. That part is made fun of. Even Trelawney who is made fun of with the way she looks. Professor Sprout also is defined not by her skill or anything but by how she looks. Like she’s dumpy and Trelawney is bug-like. It’s something that I didn’t even pay attention to. But this is how all the female professors are.

Parinita: Even Umbridge In Order of the Phoenix, Umbridge is the big bad. Based on that Woke Doctor Who episode, I was paying more attention to how people are described and how women are described. Even now a lot of fans, including me, tend to hate Umbridge with more loathing than they hate Voldemort.

Sanjana and Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: So when I was reading, I was trying to unpack why. And it’s just that the narrative positions her so much more intimately and the way that she’s described and the way that all her vile things and vile attitudes and vile behaviour – the way that they are described are going to so much more depth and you see the horror so much more nakedly. Whereas with Voldemort, it’s more macro level villainy. It’s more like, “Oh I hate all Mudbloods and I hate all Muggles. Let’s kill everybody!” Whereas Umbridge, you can actually see how – and I understand why you see that because you’re seeing a fascist takeover of Hogwarts in miniscule and then you see the whole wizarding community being taken over like that. But it’s so easy for to villainise women by calling them ugly because she’s called toad-like and ugly. And also the fact that she is aggressively feminine.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Yes!

Parinita: She likes kittens and the bows and the fluffy pink cardigans, that’s described in such a “Oh my god! Foul!” way. Like why?! Even Parvati and Lavender who are the feminine students in the school.

Illustrated gif of Parvati Patil and Lavender Brown in Divination Class

Divination class with Parvati and Lavender. Image courtesy krispy-bits

Aparna: Yeah. But this extends to many of the other girls in the book who are not Hermione or who are looked at from Hermione’s point of view or how they are always giggling and they are always in a group and they are always drawing hearts and things like that. It’s such a overreaction to girly things and girls are only given girly things and pink is only for girls. And now and then it’s tilted to this complete extreme like if you want to be taken seriously, you cannot like any of these things anymore. You have to rise above all these girly things.

Sanjana: Yeah. Not going into the point that Lavender also joined Dumbledore’s Army.

Aparna and Parinita: Yeah!

Sanjana: She also fought at the Battle of Hogwarts. She died. She died, right?

Aparna: Did she?

Parinita: She died in the movie; in the books, we’re still not very sure.

Sanjana: We’re still not sure. There was one place that described her as being reduced to a plot point to increase the sexual desire around a man. Like she was put there just so we found Ron a little bit more worth a second glance. It was just the saddest sentence ever. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah. And Ron just uses Lavender because he’s insecure and he wants to make Hermione jealous.

Sanjana: Yeah, Ron is a completely different topic on misogyny. But I would like to bring up Molly Weasley. And the misogyny that lies there in many parts.

Parinita: Oh yeah.

Sanjana: One of the episodes that we were listening to mentioned the whole Fleur versus Molly Weasley and how they keep making fun of her. They’re not at all welcoming. I would not like to marry into that family. [laughs]

Parinita: I know! Can you seriously imagine? She’s like this Indian daughter-in-law –

Sanjana: Yes!

Parinita: Staying with this family in a foreign country.

Sanjana: And she’s a kickass person!

Aparna: Yeah, she was in the Triwizard Tournament.

Sanjana: Exactly!

Screenshot of Tumblr post. Text says: siriusblacque: fleur delacour is so important i can't even put it into words. badass girl whose "most previous" was her sister, who despite what anyone might think of her (cough molly cough ron cough hermione cough) looks past any aesthetic unpleasantries because she is completely and irrevocably in love with bill, who willingly risks her life for harry (the seven harrys, anyone???), who manages to create a spot of brightness in the middle of war (wedding!!!), who is feminine and badass at the same time, who opens her home to an entitled goblin and multiple refugees/runaways, who doesn't sacrifice one bit of her integrity or character despite the looming threat of war

Parinita: But again, this is something that the narrative positions you to think. If you’re not looking out for the tricks in the narrative or you’re not looking at it critically …

Sanjana: You would fall –

Parinita: Yeah! You fall for it. So you are also like, “Ugh Fleur. What?!”

Sanjana: We all did. In fact, in one place I read that Molly Weasley – uh Molly was very uh Mrs. Weasley I’m going to call her.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: I don’t know I’m feeling too awkward to full-name her.

Aparna: She just called her Molly and was very uncomfortable calling Molly Weasley by her first name.

Parinita: [laughs] Molly Aunty.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Yes, Molly Aunty. All right. So Molly Aunty was very, very unforgiving to Hermione. And I completely forgot this or didn’t pay even a second glance to.

Aparna: About?

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: In the fourth book when Rita Skeeter is spewing all kinds of things and she writes about Hermione breaking Harry’s heart, that Christmas Ron and Harry get good-sized packages but –

Aparna: Oooh!

Sanjana: She gets a miniscule tiny package from Molly Weasley. Because it has – Molly Weasley again I full-named her – but Molly Aunty is very mean to her. One, it was not true; but even if it was true, Hermione doesn’t deserve to be punished for that. It’s her wish to date!

Aparna: This whole thing in media of I have been victimised by being rejected by a woman. And it is just so present everywhere that oh like in Friends!

Sanjana: Yeah. And we don’t even look at it the second time unless we are trying to dissect it like now. Whereas when I was reading it, I thought haan, theek hai. Because it was okay. [laughs] But it’s not! It’s not at all okay, Molly Weasley. It’s not at all okay!

Parinita: [laughs] Like in Witch, Please what did Marcelle say? Who do you think is the better feminist – Molly or Hedwig? And they chose Hedwig as the better feminist.

Aparna: Yes. [laughs]

Sanjana: And as more I read about Molly, I mean she redeemed herself in the end with that great battle but I’m saying she had many underlying internalised stuff that society tells you this is a place for –

Parinita: Yeah because she’s also the victim, right? Of the society.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Exactly.

Parinita: So it’s violence reproducing violence. Not physical but psychological.

Sanjana: And I’ve seen this in real life. I’ve seen women telling me. But it is so internalised that it is hard to have a conversation and try to tell them that this is not okay, you don’t deserve this. But women have been told that this is what they deserve and so well.

Parinita: I know that patriarchy is this global institution and it affects people differently in different parts, but India is so much more patriarchal I feel –

Sanjana: Oh my god.

Parinita: Than a lot of the West. The problems that we are going through in India, sometimes I can imagine how it must feel for women from rural backgrounds and Dalit/Adivasi/Bahujan backgrounds when we in the cities are talking about our problems. Because that’s what it feels to me sometimes when women in the West are talking about their problems.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: I’m like, you guys have it so much better than we do!

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: I can’t even go out in the street wearing a pair of shorts because it’s hot without worrying whether I’m going to be raped or not.

Sanjana: Yeah. We’re saying it so casually but this is the truth.

Parinita: You laugh about it because otherwise you’ll cry.

Sanjana: I started panicking at the back of a cab  ride once because he wanted to relieve himself is all. Poor fellow, his bladder was bursting.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: But I imagined all sorts of evil things coming from him because … because … yeah because.

Parinita: I mean even this weekend, I decided that for mental wellbeing purposes, I needed to go on a long walk. So I went on this trail near my house which is this 16 kilometre long trail. So it was a bit of an overkill. But at some points, it was very deserted so I could have died. I could have been murdered by the men walking on the trail sometimes. I was making all these different plans and backup plans for what I would do in case somebody – it’s like the first time that the three of us travelled together.

Aparna: Yes, exactly!

Parinita: Where we had to pick up a stone just to feel safe.

Sanjana: Yeah. Not that that stone would have done anything against the five-six men who were trying to follow us. But they were just doing it for kicks. My point is that they were just doing it for kicks because they also have been told that this is normal behaviour.

Parinita: And why should women feel safe?

Sanjana: What reason?

Parinita: They don’t deserve to share the same space as you. It is our space so we can terrorise them by just following them drunkenly on a narrow cliff-face.

Sanjana: And the fact that we’ve been also told to respect a woman if she’s taken, for example. If you’re wearing a ring and you are out in a pub, and somebody is trying to flirt with you, the only reason that they will back off – and I don’t use this unless I’m absolutely pushed to a corner to use it because I don’t want to use a fact that I’m married or something to get out of a situation. But the fact that men would rather respect this man that they’ve never met than the woman’s wishes in front of them; and respect the fact that oh you’re married, that means that I should back off. But they’re basically respecting this make-believe man that I’ve made up.

Parinita: Yeah because if you live in a patriarchal society and you are already marginalised, you use the tools that you’re given to be safe, right?

Sanjana: Exactly.

Parinita: My mom does the same thing. So she’s been divorced for what – since I was thirteen; so seventeen years now. She goes out and works and she’s out and about all day most days in Mumbai – and Mumbai is still one of the safer cities considerably compared to the rest of India. But she also wears a mangalsutra around her neck which signifies that she’s a married woman even though she’s not. And it’s something that we’ve spoken about. But that makes her feel safe. And sometimes that does work.

Sanjana: It does!

Parinita: Though sometimes it doesn’t.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Sometimes men just man all over the place.

Aparna: Similarly, when you compare … it’s such a process of learning for me. I was reading an article about how women are celebrating the fact that some companies are – firstly I would just like to interrupt this to say that Sana’s husband is not made-up.

Parinita: [laughs] Are you sure?

Aparna: It had been bugging me. So I had to. [laughs]

Sanjana: Listen when this happened, we were engaged but I called him husband. It was easier than saying the whole thing that I’m engaged to be married and so.

Aparna: Okay, okay.

Sanjana: At that time, he was made up.

Parinita: He was made up!

Aparna: To get back to my point, I was reading an article about how women are very happy that some companies in India are giving menstruation leave like a two-day leave or something to women every month and how it was being celebrated. And when you compare it to the same situation for say a Dalit woman and how they would not miss a day of work even if they were given it. And if they had access to say sanitary napkins, they would probably sell them to provide for their family and things like that. And during the whole thing about women who wanted to get into the – they were being denied access to the … which temple was it?

Parinita: Sabarimala.

Aparna: The Sabarimala temple, yeah. When they were on their period. And how it compares to how so many Dalit women or many women from disadvantaged backgrounds, they’re not allowed ever into those temples. And how we have these small victories that it feels odd to celebrate them when there is such a difference between our experiences and so many other experiences.

Parinita: Yeah. I’m very … it’s such a complex topic for me. Just because when you were saying that, I was thinking of how exhausting the world is. And how you sometimes just do need to celebrate even the tiniest of victories – if you can call it, or the tiniest of things. At the same time, you’re aware of how unequal the society is because you can’t separate gender from all the other identities you inhabit like class and caste and religion and whatever. And … it’s just such a two-sided thing that you are aware of these terrible things but then if you never take the time to see how far you’ve come, or see the sort of progress that you’re making, even if it’s very small you’re just going to burn out. And you’re not going to be able to then get up and fight again for anything. So Rebecca Solnit has written this book called Hope In The Dark which talks exactly about that. She’s studied different movements and things and that’s her argument that you do need to see how far you’ve come even from like thirty years ago to the sort of conversations that we’re having now. But you also have to acknowledge your privilege. You also have to be aware that all these things that you’ve gained, only a very small percent of the population has gained. Or a small percent of your gender has gained. There’s still a lot more to be done. But you do need to sit down and say that okay, a happy thing has happened. I’m allowed to be happy. And just feel your feels, you know. And just this all-pervasive male gaze everywhere is so exhausting. So speaking of just being on your period and stuff, in media and in science fiction and fantasy and everything largely just like in society, there’s such an erasure of women’s bodily functions because what – they’re gross? You don’t want to see anything that reminds you that women are human beings. So let’s pretend that they bleed blue blood and [laughs] they have no armpit hair. Let’s pretend that they’re just robot zombies.

Sanjana and Aparna: [laugh]

Parinita: [sighs] It’s exhausting. It’s just exhausting being a woman.

Aparna: It is exhausting!

Parinita: I wanted to talk a little bit about violence against women. I’m taking depressing topics and making them more depressing. But just again women being the default victims. Of course you see that in media, you see that in the things we read, the things that we watch. But just most recently this whole nonsense about Rhea Chakraborty and Sushant Singh Rajput in India.

Sanjana: Oh my god!

Parinita: So just to give people who don’t know what’s going on in India some context –  we have a fascist government currently. But what’s going on more recently in terms of Rhea and Sushant. So there’s a Bollywood actor who killed himself recently. He’s been depressed for a few years now. This was in the middle of the pandemic as well where a lot of people’s mental health, including mine, has just fallen off the cliff. So it could have been such an opportunity to talk about mental health and depression and community and support. But instead, everybody – the government, the criminal justice system, the media, random people on my Facebook profile who are no longer on my Facebook profile – decided that the fault actually is Rhea Chakraborty, his girlfriend – or his ex-girlfriend’s, I’m not sure of the details. And there was such a witch hunt in the very medieval European kind of way where everybody assassinated her character. Everyone was obsessed about this and not about the fact that obviously it was the government trying to distract everybody from the pandemic, from the economy, from everything privatised, from people being killed, from people being arrested. All of it was a distraction – and people fell for it!

Sanjana: Yeah, absolutely. And I read somewhere that somebody was saying that the amount of agencies that were put behind trying to find something on her. If they were looking into you, me or Aparna, they would have found something. They would have found something on anybody. If they look that deeply at anybody, we’ve all done something that they can use against us.

Parinita: Yeah. Because she eventually got arrested for what – smoking weed, right?

Sanjana: Yes.

Parinita: Or buying weed?

Sanjana: Yeah. For being in possession. [laughs] There’s this really funny tweet that I read when this was happening; it was funny and very, very sad. And I’m paraphrasing because I don’t particularly remember the exact words so it says that under the current government, Shiva would have been arrested for possession. And somebody replied to that saying no, he wouldn’t have. Parvati would have been arrested for giving it to him.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: I just thought it was so sad and also so true. [laughs]

Parinita: This Rhea’s hounding, it reminded me so much of Harry’s hounding; the trial that he goes through in The Order of the Phoenix – again, I have short term memory, I’m reading this book currently which is why I’m making all these connections. Otherwise I would not have been able to identify these things. But even in Harry Potter, in The Order of the Phoenix, where the government, the criminal justice system, the school system, media, society – everybody is against him and doesn’t want to believe him. And, of course, he has the privilege of being a man and all in that society. But still. And coming back to Rhea, I’ve read tweets about how Rhea, she’s this upper caste Hindu woman in India. Her father is in the military, I think, or was in the military. She’s in Bollywood. She has all these privileges and she is being treated like that. So everybody else should be really scared. Because the fewer privileges that you have, the easier it is to just have people not care about you, right?

Sanjana: Yeah. Going back to violence against women, this particularly brings up this one episode in Grey’s Anatomy in which Jo was dealing with a rape victim who comes in. And I just wept through that episode. It took so long for me to see an episode in which a victim of rape and the whole thing was portrayed with such honesty that it was just … that episode was really something.

Parinita: Yeah and the hallway of women, right?

Sanjana: Yes! Where she could not see another man, yeah.

Parinita: So the woman who’s been raped, it’s just happened and she can’t bear the sight of a man yet. So the intern Jo – or not the intern, the resident – she’s no longer an intern. The doctor decides to get the help of all the women in the hospital – not just the doctors and the nurses but everybody who works in the hospital – and create a hallway that blocks off all the doors and the windows and just creates this sort of supportive hallway of women just being there. Most of them don’t know why they’re there.

Sanjana: Yeah. They’re just there because they were needed. It was a very strong image. And even the fact that they explain the rights to her and say that if you don’t want to follow this through, it’s okay. But in case you at some point change your mind, you should have everything you can to battle it. To get justice for what was done to you. When rape is portrayed or violence against women or is portrayed even in real life scenarios, I’m not talking about sci-fi and stuff, that’s a wholly different thing, but even then you don’t really get to see the important bits of it. The victim is just the victim and then gets pushed aside and there’s this whole thing that unfurls. But this was so focused on how that one woman was feeling. It was a very strong thing.

Parinita: But Grey’s Anatomy in general, I think, does a really good job.

Sanjana: Especially their recent seasons. The last two seasons, for example, they’ve really upped their game.

Parinita: Yeah but just even just right from the beginning. It’s a giant soap opera. People get killed by falling off planes and bombs and –

Sanjana: Yeah. [laughs]

Parinita: So there’s a lot of this. But I’ve been watching it for what now nearly since it started. So it’s like sixteen years now? So it’s a good chunk of my life that I’ve been watching this show. But even in the beginning, in terms of the cast, in terms of who’s at the leadership positions, in terms of who has agency and who has power, women have always played a role there. And now it’s becoming increasingly diverse as well. So you have women who are Muslim or a transgender man or you have disabled women and women of different races and things. So it’s becoming increasingly diverse and yeah, the last few seasons have tackled more overtly political themes as well.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Which is great. [End part one?] Now I’m becoming more used to thinking about these things, and also becoming more used to having media or looking out for media that has a better representation of women. So then when I go back and look at other media for the first time … like the other day Jack and I, we were watching this new show called Lost Girl. It’s not a new show, it’s new to me. And he had watched it before and he just thought that I’d like it. And it was a fun show but what stood out to me because I’d just come off watching Grey’s Anatomy, I was like all these people are really thin and they’re really very conventionally attractive and they’re all white. It’s a very definitive idea of being a woman. And I’m like hmm. Then I said this to Jack, and Jack is like, “But that’s all media.” Which I guess is true because Bollywood is the same, right? You have to be fair-skinned, if you’re dark skinned, that has class, caste, regional implications like you’ll be South Indian or whatever, you’ll be from a Dalit or Adivasi background or whatever. But once you get used to better, it’s very difficult then to let mediocre get past you, you know?

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Absolutely. This dominant view of women is – and I’m going to use Disney as an example, but it extends to everything. It’s just this unrealistic standard of “Whatever your personality be like, but this is what you should look like.” In fact there was an analysis of all the faces of all the characters of the Disney movies from Snow White onwards. And they had sketched out the faces and all of the women had the same face structure, the same small nose, big eyes, high cheekbones pointy chin. Whereas there was so much variety in the way the male characters looked. I read this excerpt of an interview with the head of Disney animation at some point who said that it was difficult to animate women’s faces because they have to look pretty at all angles and through all expressions. So not only do you have to add expressions to them, you see, you also have to make them look pretty when they’re angry. You also have to let them remain pretty while being angry or sad or happy or confused. Very confused much of the time they will be confused.

Parinita: No but they can be ugly if they’re evil.

Aparna: Yeah, yeah, yeah, of course.

Parinita: They can be old and ugly but then they’re the bad person.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: And even fatness. This is again something that I have only recently started thinking about, just the way that media portrays fat people when it does. That’s why when I was watching Lost Girl, I was like, these are all very thin people. Of all the people that I know, most women don’t look like this. I don’t look like this.

Aparna: Exactly. [laughs]

Parinita: Media doesn’t just affect people in one way. We learn from these different identities but also our own sense of self, right? In terms of different body sizes and all, I know that’s a very basic thing, but fat activism and stuff, that’s what they talk about. This is again something that I’ve been reading and learning about more recently about how when you’re a fat person, you seem to be up for public consumption. And people will make comments about your health. They’ll not see you as a person who is equal, who should get equal respect and deserves the same amount of dignity that any other people do. And a lot of people have spoken about this; like the things that I’ve read, they talk about how fatness doesn’t necessarily have to do with health as well. Even some of our favourite media, like Avatar or Anne With An E or the Marvel movies, Disney movies, Doctor Who whatever, all the women – there might be one or two curves maybe somewhere in the background; but most of them are really thin, conventionally attractive, not like my body at all. There’s nobody who looks like me on it in terms of size.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: It’s such a limited idea that limits your own imagination as well.

Sanjana: Yeah. Going back to the Disney thing Aparna was talking about, how the face shape was very similar. When we were having one of the our previous discussions, you guys mentioned Disney so I was like, let me look. And there was one paper – and I never got through reading the whole paper – but there was this one interesting bit where they had done this categorisation of the jobs that women have had in the Disney movies and the jobs that men have had. But in that they found that the male characters over sixteen different films, there were twenty-six job categories that the male characters had. Whereas there were only four women categories where they had out-of-home employment; where they went outside the home. Which was an actress, sheep-tender thief and a fairy. And [laughs] I was like what?! And then they also examined the depiction of in-home labour and there were twenty-four examples of women performing domestic tasks whereas there were only four examples of men performing domestic tasks. And two of them were from the butlers in Aristocats. That is how much agency is given to women in the Disney films.

Aparna: Yeah. And things that are completely normal for all humans are given such disproportionate screen time in most of the media that we consume whether it’s house work or whether it’s occupying public spaces on the other hand. Something that I wanted to talk about was how masturbation is depicted. So I was hearing this NPR interview of Phoebe Waller-Bridge. And her show in the very first episode has a scene of masturbation. And what she said was that it was funny how shocking it was like it was some big secret and how it’s represented as so normal for men. Especially in comedies, it’s shown as such a routine of something that they just – it’s almost a daily occurrence and they just have to get on with it. But for women, it’s seen as some deeply selfish transgressive thing. It brings me back to what you said about the erasure of women’s bodily functions. And how women taking pleasure in anything is seen as something very subversive but it’s not. It’s normal. It’s a human trait to do that.

Parinita: And even sex! The male gaze comes through in the way that sex is portrayed and the way that women orgasm in sex scenes. Like oh yeah penetration happens, oh instant orgasm.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: So that’s how sex works.

Sanjana: It really doesn’t.

Parinita: Yeah it doesn’t! It doesn’t work like that. And it’s something that you are conditioned so much that you feel like – I spent so many years just thinking there was something wrong with me [laughs] that that’s not what was happening because I was like, arey penetration happened, orgasm nahi hua toh … so why is this not working? And if you only have this very fixed idea of just even – no, not even fixed idea – there’s no consideration given only to women’s pleasures – how women’s bodies work, how women’s anything works. It’s just – we need to get this story thing but the man’s story is more important. Or we don’t need to actually research what sex for women is like. It’s okay whatever, this works for men so it might as well work for women. And again it’s quite a superficial thing but it all adds up, right? It’s all a part of what being a woman in the world is. And if it’s just such a male-centric view of being a woman, then it’s so much more difficult to unlearn that even as a woman who thinks about these things.

Sanjana: Yeah. Some time back we were talking about how there’s always this Brahminical society and stuff. And so recently we were doing a comic on women pathbreakers in India and I had not heard of any of these women. Any of these women. I think I’d only heard of Anna Mani because I had read a picture book on her. [laughs] Otherwise I had no idea of any of these women. And it was so sad that we didn’t study these women or nobody told us about these women. The first story is about Pandita Ramabai and it just stayed with me – that whole thing that is what we’ve been battling. The story goes that her father was this understudy of a Brahmin teacher who would teach Sanskrit verses to the royals. And he was at this place where he was teaching a Peshwa’s wife and it was being done behind closed doors so that nobody could see a woman reciting Sanskrit verses. But he was standing on the side and it’s from his point of view. And he is looking at it and saying that “This woman seems to be reciting the Sanskrit verses pretty well. Have the Brahmins been lying to us that women don’t even have the capability to learn?” And so the Brahmin men also grew up or the society grew up with being told that women don’t even possess the ability to study or learn Sanskrit verses and stuff. So as an experiment, he went back to try and teach his wife and mother-in-law – wife particularly. And they of course laughed him off and said, “What is wrong with you? We’ll be thrown out of society.” Which eventually did happen because when he did finally try, he was thrown out of society along with his family. Then I went up and started looking at biopics made on women in the last couple of years and a lot of them were a lot of the famous stories. Like the sports stories like Mary Kom’s story was told but it was told when she had just won and she had just gained some popularity and so let’s quickly make one. Whereas we told Milkha Singh’s story which was a story from history. We are not telling a P. T. Usha story; we are choosing to tell Milkha Singh’s story but we are doing Mary Kom because she’s popular right now. She’s current. Even the wrestler sisters in Dangal. Their story was also told when they had just become popular. And we are not telling stories of the past. We are not telling Pandita Ramabai’s story. And even Savitribai Phule’s story, one Kannada film exists which is her story. I feel like there is some role for content creators to play to break or reinforce stereotypes. And to tell these stories. Because they are full of drama. They are really full of drama. They deserve being told, if that’s what we’re missing. They are full of a lot of angst and a lot of struggles and they deserve to be told. So what are we missing?

Parinita: Yeah. In history, we don’t learn these things. Like Savitribai Phule, she’s from Maharashtra and she is the first woman teacher in India. And she was also a Dalit woman. And we don’t learn about the Dalit woman-ness.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: We learn history much in the way Professor Binns in Harry Potter teaches history in Hogwarts.

Aparna: [laughs] Yeah.

Parinita: Where references to goblin rebellions and goblin riots are scattered throughout the lessons and it could be so much better. What you said, Sana, was something Harry said. That, “Oh this could have been so exciting in anybody else’s hands.”

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: But Professor Binns drives you to a stupor. And I think in India or in other parts of the world as well, history is being deliberately used to drive this sense of complacency within the population and not teach people. If history is taught in such a boring way; if Pandita Ramabai, Savitribai Phule, they’re just names that you have to learn with the dates and learn what they did just in a sentence without understanding the context – the social, cultural, political contexts then and now, then you’ll just be – you’ll fall asleep in the class like how you do in the History of Magic classroom. And you’re not going to make these connections.

Sanjana: Yeah. Exactly. It broke so many notions I had formed of popular men from history. Like Lokmanya Tilak. All we’ve learned of him is this Balgangadhar Tilak – great freedom fighter and stuff. But his views on women were atrocious to say the least. And then I narrated everything to my dad and he also holds these people in great esteem and it was just that we’ve been told history in such a wrong way. Even C. V. Raman who is a man of science treated the women  in his lab pretty badly. They were not allowed to go out into public spaces because they would distract the men. They could not rest in the gardens so they would sleep under their tables while doing science experiments. But the men could lounge around wherever they wanted. Some of the stories that came forth during the research and stuff, it’s just heart-breaking; because you’re like, “Oh so cool this scientist person” when you first read about C. V. Raman and then you realise that there’s all these underlying parts of where they were in society at this time. And that history is not told as a whole to keep reinforcing the same thing and not portray the real bits of how these stories unfolded. It was quite heart-breaking to see.

Parinita: Yeah and just in terms of men, you can be both good at some things and bad at other things.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: You’re a human being; you don’t need to be a perfect person. In fact, I would treat a perfect person with a lot of suspicion because you’re not learning anything then if you’re this perfect person.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: If you go and look at women or trans women or trans men or nonbinary folks, that gets so much more invisible. If you see women in history, we are such a token in itself largely. We’re there for token diversity points in most history textbooks and in most history. Or we’re only there in terms of our relationships to the men in history.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: But in schools when do you ever study about anyone from other parts of the gender spectrum?

Aparna: Never.

Parinita: It’s something that I’ve only discovered recently like even what cis and trans means and what nonbinary means. And it’s through my own research because it’s something I’m interested in. But why wouldn’t you want to make this an educational thing – because it is an educational thing – more available and accessible to everybody right from when they’re really young?

Sanjana: Yeah. And just bringing up the role of content creators, this just reminds me of this paper and this discussion that Aparna had at AFCC (Asian Festival of Children’s Content) in Singapore. Where they were talking about the role of the editor in breaking gender stereotypes in general or stereotypes in general in children’s books.

Aparna: Yeah. I’m an editor at a publishing house that publishes picture books. Every editor will have their notions of what kind of books they want to see or what sort of things they stand for. And what me and the person I work with quickly realised was that we believed very strongly about certain things. Every picture book that came to us had the mother in the kitchen and the father reading a newspaper and these are things that are so entrenched. So just a small suggestion to an illustrator or an author that if we could reverse those sort of things would just make them very excited about it. Or sometimes we receive pushback like “But this is what I see in my house.” Which is fair enough. People will draw what they see. But then we get in this cycle of this is what we see and this is what we publish. And then that’s what we see in books and that’s what we see at home. And that’s the only normal that anybody ever knows. But the fact is that some key decisions of when we are showing a busy street to populate the public spaces with equal gender representation in public spaces or sharing of household chores in our books. And since picture book readers are such a young audience, that’s something that they won’t question at all. And if they see it in their books that they’re reading, it’s something that can go a long way in making them question or making them wonder how the society is structured. And those are the sort of conversations that we had a lot with authors and illustrators. And we still do. I feel like it makes a big difference to seeing these things. This is something that I’m also guilty of because like we said earlier, we grew up reading so many books that just had boys in it. Whatever stories we would thereby make up would have boy characters in it. And all of the animals in our stories were always a male gender animal. And it takes so much undoing to change that. And just conversations with authors and illustrators to make them think of it in a slightly different manner makes a world of a difference. Sometimes the only reason that it isn’t a representation of something is that they haven’t thought of it. So as editors, just these sort of conversations and just having conversations about the motivations of all the extra characters – not the protagonists necessarily but how the other people in the book are – goes a long way to changing the way they think about their stories as well.

Parinita: Yeah. Anybody who creates media – especially people who create children’s media – it is such an important responsibility for us to make sure that you’re questioning your own biases and your own assumptions and not reflecting the terrible things, the inequalities that society is rife with. You can imagine a different world and you can show a different world and in many different pockets of society, this different world does exist. You just need to make it more mainstream. But that’s one of the reasons why I love the spaces of social media and fanfiction. I’m a very online person and I love how much I learn from these spaces because you get to access perspectives and experiences about different experiences of being a woman and this makes up for the mainstream entertainment and news media’s structural inequalities.  Rebecca Solnit in her book The Mother of All Questions, she wrote this which I thought was really pertinent to this point. She made the point much better than I could. So this is what she said: “If the right to speak, if having credibility, if being heard is a kind of wealth, that wealth is now being redistributed. There has long been an elite with audibility and credibility, an underclass of the voiceless. As the wealth is redistributed, the stunned incomprehension of the elites erupts over and over again, a fury and disbelief that this woman or child dared to speak up, that people deigned to believe her, that her voice counts for something, that her truth may end a powerful man’s reign. These voices, heard, upend power relations.” Which I think just sums up the potential of social media and even fandom spaces and fandom conversations. That you’re challenging what you took for granted all this while.

Aparna: Absolutely. And it’s sort of levelled the playing field in a way that nothing else could. Because of the power of social media or the internet, it’s just been adopted so many times into the mainstream. There are Twitter pitches for books and so many people who otherwise would not have had access to publishers or wouldn’t know how to go about breaking into this very strange business of publishing have gotten deals out of a Twitter pitch. And the internet is such a democratic place in that sense. People have access to internet. I mean not everyone does but it’s a lot more widespread than say the knowledge of how to approach a publishing house. And writers for very, very mainstream comedy shows have been hired based on their tweets. We ourselves find a lot of illustrators for our books on Instagram because if our story is set in the North East [of India], we want somebody from the North East. So we’ve found some of our favourite illustrators on Instagram because there isn’t a strong network of how to go about it in the more formal or traditional ways of approaching people. It’s so refreshing to see what voices are coming up. Shows like Broad City it was a YouTube show and then it was picked up and made into a mainstream show. And luckily diversity is so buzzy that it’s something that is selling, so the mainstream is buying it. Which is great.

Parinita: I mean it’s still an unsafe place for people; for women yeah, but also for women from more marginalised backgrounds and for trans women and for nonbinary people. As empowering and as amazing the internet is, it also leaves you more open to toxicity and to hatred.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: But I love that I’ve been learning from people. I follow trans people in India and on Twitter and on Instagram. Or Dalit activists so like Divya Khanduri and Priyanka Paul are two people that I really like on Instagram who are constantly challenging my own assumptions about caste and about being a Dalit woman online. And then we also read about Khabar Lahariya which is a newspaper that began in a village from what I remember. And it trained women in rural areas to be journalists who printed the local news in their local languages and diversified not just who tells the stories but also what kind of stories are told and how they’re told. And while they started off as a print newspaper who used to get women to distribute these newspapers as well. Now they’ve done successfully what a lot of big traditional news organisations haven’t been able to do that is transition digitally. So they share the news on Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, Twitter and … well TikTok until the government decided that Chinese apps are no longer welcome in India. But I think that’s so fantastic because we in the cities, we also tend to have a Hermione kind of idea of a lot of women from different backgrounds.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Which is our fault but it’s also not our fault because that’s the society that we grow up in. And just having access to these different voices is so empowering for both – so liberating for both that they’re allowed to say their stories in the way that they want, and we are allowed to learn from them.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Absolutely. So now what are some of your favourite nonbinary, genderqueer, gender nonconforming characters in media?

Sanjana: Alex from Magnus Chase. Who else have I met?

Parinita: What did you like about them? About Alex Fierro.

Fan art of Alex Fierro

Fan art of Alex Fierro. Image courtesy Wiki.

Sanjana: So for me, I think it was the first time I was encountering a genderqueer character. I think the way Magnus interacted with Alex and the way their interactions and their conversations developed, I would look forward to their conversations or their interactions because I thought it was very nicely done.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: I mean it normalised it but also educated; but not in a way that made education a point, I thought.

Sanjana: Yes! Exactly. Which is why it was interesting to see it from Magnus’s point of view because it was probably my point of view also to an extent because he was also in the beginning understanding it. And there were a lot of questions in the beginning and then as the books developed, it just became a lot easier. The development of their relationship was very interesting to see.

Aparna: Yeah and I liked that even before he wrote the book, he knew that it was going to be popular because he’s insanely popular, this Rick Riordan. And the fact that the main character of the book and this was the main well … not just a love interest. But the fact that Alex was the main love interest of the main character of a book that was insanely popular, I think that’s pretty cool.

Sanjana: Pretty cool, yeah.

Parinita: And it’s also influenced children. Recently I’d read a tweet – and I think Rick Riordan had retweeted it – about how somebody sat down with either their child or their nephew or niece to explain pronouns to them – to talk to them about pronouns. Because of I think somebody that they knew or whatever. And they were like, “Oh yeah so like Loki’s children. They’re genderfluid. What pronouns do they prefer? Oh they? Okay, got it.” And this person who tweeted was like oh my god these tiny things that kids pick up on which you’re not …

Screenshot of a tweet. Text says: Me: *starts to explain non-binary gender of close relative* 11 y.o.: Oh, you mean gender fluid? Me: You know "gender fluid"? Him: It's like Loki's kids. They're gender fluid. You know, in Magnus Chase. I know all about it. What pronouns should we use? @rickriordan

Sanjana: But it’s true! It’s just also broadened my thinking. I also feel – which I hope nobody throws stones at my house for this – but I also feel like Vishnu is genderfluid.

Aparna: Ohhh!

Parinita: Oh!

Aparna: Interesting.

Parinita: Yeah that’s a great theory! So my answer to your question, Paru, is in canon She-Ra is this queernormative – a word that I learned today so the opposite of heteronormative – world which has a lot of gender nonconforming characters and a nonbinary character as well. So I just love She-Ra’s world. But I also love that fans – just like Sana, though I don’t know if fan would be the correct thing to say in her case – but like reader interpretation of Vishnu. So I love that.

Poster of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power

Sanjana: [laughs] Fan! Vishnu fan let’s not put that tag.

Parinita: Yeah, I don’t know [laughs] Like a Vishnu fangirl who is interpreting Vishnu as genderfluid. [laughs]

Sanjana: I’ve encountered him so much in research for work that I just feel like I’ve read so much and so many different versions of stories that I feel like it just makes complete sense that he’s genderfluid.

Parinita: So Vishnu expert Sana thinks … [laughs]

Sanjana: [laughs]

Parinita: But I love how people take ownership of these characters that either they know a lot about or they love a lot. Like Tonks – Nymphadora Tonks from Harry Potter is someone a lot of people see as either gender nonconforming or trans or nonbinary. And basically, they’re reading themselves into this character. So if you don’t have these representations in media, or like in Harry Potter where you have very few representations anyway in terms of diversity, but you love the world enough and you love the characters enough that you are making it more progressive by adopting this character and making that character more progressive than they were otherwise.

Panel from the fanzine comic Tonk’s Tale by Maia Kobabe

Aparna and Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: And uh

Sanjana: What about you, Aparna?

Aparna: Yes, thank you!

Sanjana: Were you waiting for us to ask you?

Aparna: Yes I was!

Sanjana: Okay. What about you? What are some of yours? Why don’t you share?

Aparna: I would love to, thank you. So there’s this one picture book called The Rabbit Listened by Cory Doerrfeld –  I think that’s how her name is pronounced. And the kid in that is called Taylor and very intentionally is not gendered. The child has not been referred to by any pronoun and can be interpreted as both a boy or a girl.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: And it was so effortlessly done. Although it is an effort. As an editor of picture books, I can tell you that it takes effort to get that wording right to not use any pronouns. It’s amazing of how the interpretations of it and how people read whatever gender they’d like into it. And how gender is so not important. The story is not going to change because the protagonist is –

Sanjana: The story could have been anybody’s. It belongs to anybody.

Aparna: Yeah. And –

Parinita: So just jumping onto that –  I’m going to let you say your second thing – but you just saying that reminded me of Wild by Emily Hughes.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Yes.

Parinita: Which is also a picture book. I love that picture book and I’d read it for one of my assignments during my master’s. And on my second read of it, I realised that even in that book, they don’t refer to her as a girl. Because she doesn’t see herself as a girl. She sees herself as a wild creature so all the words signified that. Like you were saying, it’s obviously a very deliberate choice which on a first cursory reading, as much as I loved that book, I didn’t even pick up on until I sat down to read it more deliberately.

Aparna: Yeah. Then a few more I’d say before jumping on to my favourite one is how some characters in books or other media have been reinterpreted as belonging to a different gender. For example, the TV series The Night Manager is adapted from a book. In that the character in the TV series played by Olivia Coleman is called Angela Burr and she was originally in the novel, a character called Leonard Burr. In the television series, they cast a woman for it. A pregnant woman at that. And it did not change the story at all. And this was a character that was at times was very difficult and was not likable. And I feel like those decisions, they play so much more interestingly from unexpected actors playing it. And then there was this whole slew of shows where the main characters were unlikable women. [laughs] Like Fleabag and The Good Place and Veep. And after all these years of the way women have been represented, I just find it very freeing to see this. To have women not have to be likable and still be the centre of a show. But –

Sanjana: Are you going to your favourite one?

Parinita: [laughs]

Aparna: Now I’m building up to it.

Sanjana: Since you were going to – I just want to sorry I will let you finish –

Aparna: [laughs] This is the second time I’ve been interrupted on my way to …!

Sanjana: Yeah but we want your favourite to get its importance that you’ve been building up to. But just talking about the fact of flipping gender roles, this just brings out that episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Ember Island Players, where they go to watch this play about their own story.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: And all the characters are very flipped. Like Toph is this huge man. And she is very kicked by the idea because she’s like Toph and tough so there’s this large man. And Aang is played by this dainty woman who’s flying about and being all giggly.

Aparna: Is Aang very insulted?

Sanjana: Yeah, he’s very insulted by this.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: And Katara’s emotions are over-exaggerated. She’s whiny so she’s a bit emotional.

Aparna: Ohh! It was like a satire.

Sanjana: Yeah it was like a satire. But it was like how society would view these characters. And I thought it was very intelligently done in the way that they were portrayed within the play and also in the way that the characters reacted to the way they were being portrayed.

Parinita: So it would be a bit like Vishnu coming here and reacting to your genderfluid theory.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Oh my good lord!

Aparna: “I am indeed. I am indeed genderfluid.”

Sanjana: I have ???

Aparna: “Thank you for noticing this. After all this time.”

Sanjana: Now, Aparna, do tell us who your favourite is.

Aparna: Yeah. So I was building up to Steven Universe. I could spend a whole episode talking about Steven Universe but I’m quickly going to say why I like it. So a lot of the characters are technically not women, they are gems. Crystal gems. So they are actually I guess sentient rocks? I’m not sure. But they present as women. And diversity in any form that you want is available. Whether it is diversity in sexual orientation, there’s diversity in body type, there’s diversity in just the different personalities. There’s just this whole cast of fascinating, well-written, well-rounded women. Which is one of the most refreshing things that I have ever seen. Also what’s interesting is that the main character is Steven who’s a child and who’s a boy. who’s often the most emotional or the most sensitive in the group. And that is something that’s celebrated as a power of his. And just to have these traditionally looked at as feminine qualities present in a boy and have them being placed at a pedestal because these are the qualities that matter and these qualities mean a lot and these qualities are something to aspire to and not belittled; being emotional is not a weakness. And those sort of narratives run throughout the series. It’s quite a delight. It has imperfect mothers and … it’s just a celebration of teamwork and love and hope and it’s a delightful show. I recommend it to everyone. On the flipside, it also has fathers who are nurturing – well the father of the main character – who’s just nurturing and not fussed about being the only man in a group of women. He is often the person on the side-lines and is very happy to be so. It’s just an amazing show.

Poster of the TV show Steven Universe

Image courtesy IMDB

Parinita: I think – and I think Noelle Stevenson would agree – that Steven Universe walked so that She-Ra could fly.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: Because all of these things that you’re saying, that’s the what I love about She-Ra. I think there’s obviously been a lot of inspiration and there’s the fact that there’s not just room for one. Noelle Stevenson very much pointed to Steven Universe and said, if they can do this, why can’t we? Which is why it’s such a fantastic world and which is why we need more of these fantastic worlds.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: So if you watch She-Ra, I’ll watch Steven Universe.

Aparna: Okay, done. And I also wanted to say how diverse the cast is. Because in one interview, the person who plays one of the characters called Pearl, the actor’s name is Deedee. She was talking about how she went into auditions and she met another actor who also happens to be Asian and she’s like, “Oh no then that means I didn’t get the part. Or has there been some mix-up? Because there can’t possibly be two Asian women voicing main characters in a show.” [laughs] But it was. And she’s like, “When I realised that it was, I was like I’ve found my home! I’m in the right place.” So that was very sweet but also sad, I guess.

Sanjana: Now this brings us to … our last section “What If?”

Sanjana and Aparna: [make sound effects]

Aparna: What if, what if, what if? [singsong]

Parinita: [laughs]

Aparna: I did a thing!

Sanjana: Yeah, I saw.

Aparna: Theme song.

Sanjana: Yeah. That’s the theme song for our What If? section

Parinita: Which will apparently keep changing every time we do this segment.

Sanjana: [laughs] Yeah.

Aparna: That’s the magic of What If. What if we have the theme song? The same theme song.

Sanjana: What if the theme song changes next time? What if?

Parinita: [laughs] It probably will.

Sanjana: Which brings us to [sound effect] Now I want you guys to think about what are the things that we would be concerned about as women in some of our favourite fandoms? What if we were right there in the middle?

Aparna: Okay.

Sanjana: And then if you guys think of some fandoms, feel free to ask. Whatever comes to your mind, say fast. I don’t want these great things. We all know what can happen to women in general.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: But let’s begin with something that both of you watch and I don’t watch much of! Supernatural!

Aparna: We’d be dead.

Sanjana: [laughs]

Aparna: We’d be dead.

Parinita: Very violently killed off.

Aparna: We’d be dead and not resurrected as opposed to many of the other men who’ve been dead several times and have always managed to find their way back to the main cast.

Parinita: And we’d be killed to further either Dean or Sam or maybe Castiel’s story.

Aparna: Yes!

Sanjana: All right. Women not faring so well in the Supernatural world. Moving on, how would you fare in Serenity? On the Firefly world.

Aparna: I remember that there was a very complicated social system wherein Inara who was a prostitute was the highest

Sanjana: Rank. Most respected –

Aparna: Most respected profession. And I need to unpack it a little more. But I feel like … I don’t know if I’m comfortable with that. [laughs]

Parinita: I think because I’m brown, I wouldn’t be there.

Aparna: Haan.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Aparna: Sure.

Parinita: Sorry to bring race into this.

Aparna: Arey no you bring whatever you want into this.

Sanjana: You bring it. This is off the top of your heads anyway. So … all right. All right. What if you were part of like the Resistance in Star Wars?

Parinita: I mean we’d have to fight for which of us gets to be the one woman in the resistance.

Sanjana and Aparna: [laugh]

Sanjana: Yeah. That would be true.

Parinita: What if you were one of the Marvel superheroes?

Aparna: Uncomfortable clothes.

Sanjana: [laughs]

Parinita: Lots of wedgies.

Aparna: Cannot conceal weapons.

Sanjana: Yeah. That makes sense. Also, I don’t think we would ever get to lead a team to save the world. We would be there second-in-command types.

Parinita: I mean if we did lead a team, then we would get a lot of hate tweets from angry fanboys on the internet.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Yes.

Sanjana: All right what if you were on the TARDIS?

Parinita: We would be there only until we were a certain age and then we would be very politely be either abandoned or killed off or –

Aparna: Memory will be wiped.

Parinita: Sent back to the past.

Sanjana: All right TARDIS not faring that well for us womenfolk.

Parinita: What about Middle-Earth? What if you were in Middle-Earth?

Sanjana: Oooh!

Aparna: I would either be very, very powerful or invisible.

Sanjana: [laughs]

Parinita: Or growing potatoes waiting for Samwise.

Sanjana: That is invisible only, na?

Aparna: I either have to be the most powerful or nothing at all. I will be lost in the crowd.

Sanjana: Well! Women not faring that well in Middle-Earth either. [laughs]

Aparna: Were there any female Ents? Does anybody remember?

Parinita: No, I don’t think so.

Sanjana: There were none.

Parinita: I mean there were a handful – I think I could count the number of women on my left hand.

Sanjana: You would not be an Ent! You would not be an Orc! You would not be!

Aparna: You would not be! [laughs]

Parinita: Or a hobbit. Oh no, Samwise does marry a girl. So there’s that compulsory heteronormativity.

Aparna: Well done.

Sanjana: Congratulations on getting married, Samwise!

Parinita: [laughs] I mean Frodo and Sam obviously needed to end together but whatever.

Sanjana: Yeah. But Frodo decided to float away. So anyway.

Aparna: He had seen too much okay, Sana.

Parinita: After this pandemic, I would love to find an Elf ship to float to the other end of the sea.

Sanjana: I’m with you. I feel your pain. All right. What if you were in Ba Sing Se? I’m starting to like this commentator voice.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: Game show host voice.

Aparna: What would I do in Ba-Sing Se?

Sanjana: I don’t know.

Parinita: I think I would need to come from an important family to matter. If I was a cabbage seller’s daughter, [laughs] I would just be chasing cabbages everywhere.

Gif of cabbage seller from Avatar The Last Airbender shouting "My cabbages!"

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Probably hidden under the cart

Sanjana: Or run a small tea-shop or something.

Aparna: I was thinking running a small tea-shop.

Sanjana: Yeah just because you wanted to work under Uncle Iroh.

Aparna: [laughs] So!?

Sanjana: All right and my last on the list is … in Gotham City.

Aparna: Oh! Dead.

Sanjana: [laughs]

Parinita: No, no, I would join the – what’s it called? What is the new feminist collective in Gotham City?

Aparna: Birds of Prey?

Sanjana: Birds of Prey!

Parinita: I would join Birds of Prey.

Sanjana: [laughs] Feminist collective!

Aparna: Hello, we are a feminist collective. Nice to meet you.

Sanjana: Well on that note then!

Aparna and Parinita: [laugh]

Sanjana: Thank you for joining us in this section of What If?

Aparna: What If? [makes sound effect]

Parinita: [laughs]

Aparna: Ending theme.

Sanjana: This brings us to the end of our episode.

Parinita: Thank you so much for listening to us wax lyrical about all the problems that we have with women’s representations in the world.

Sanjana: Yeah. Until next time.

Parinita: Bye!

Sanjana and Aparna: Bye!

 

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode on the representation of marginalised genders in mainstream media – both entertainment and news – as well as the real world. Thank you so much Sanjana and Aparna for talking about and listening to so many of the things I’m most interested in. Our conversations have helped make me a better thinker and helped make my politics more inclusive.

[Outro music]

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

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

Episode 21 Where Else Are You Going to Work Out Who You Are?: Sexual and Gender Diversity in Media/Fandom

Episode Resources:

1) Podcast – Nancy: The Word Queer 

2) Interview – In Conversation: Rebecca Sugar and Noelle Stevenson

3) Essay – How Fanfiction Made Me Gay 

4) Essay – Asexuality and the Baggins Bachelors: Finding My Counterparts in Middle Earth 

5) Fanfiction – Breath of the Wild drabbles series

6) Fanfiction: Skies of Blue, Red Roses Too

7) Essay – [Elsewhere] Arrows and Aros

 

Episode Transcript

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

[Intro music]

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

[Intro music]

My name is Parinita Shetty and you’re listening to the twenty-first episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I talk to Milena Popova about representations of gender and sexuality in media and fandom. We chat about some difficult issues related to rape, racism, slavery, queerphobia, transphobia and queerphobic families, so please consider this a content warning.

For many people, it can be difficult to explore sexual and gender identities which fall outside mainstream media and society’s norms. Rare examples of queernormative fictional words in media can act as a revelation in an otherwise heteronormative mediascape. Queer representations can offer an important avenue for queer children and adults to recognise themselves in complex and nuanced ways. However, queer media creators who want to write about queer characters and storylines have to navigate audience, producer and censor expectations in ways that non-queer creators don’t. Many of the queer representations which do exist are often reflected in limited and stereotypical ways through a cisgender and heterosexual gaze.

Queer representations in fandom can offer an important avenue to question these default scripts and to find alternative models. Fans use fiction, art, commentary and critiques to raise awareness of queer experiences and erasure in media and society. For example, fans have collectively generated knowledge about asexuality by promoting asexual interpretations of fictional characters. Participating in such spaces can also help challenge and expand cisgender and heterosexual assumptions. At the same time, as empowering as fandom can be, it’s not inclusive of all identities. Hierarchies dictate whose experiences are privileged over others. Conversations and representations which draw attention to these various issues can help fans see the world in new ways.

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: Today I’m so happy to welcome Milena to the podcast. Milena has been queer as far as they can tell since they were born, a fan for nearly thirty years, and a fan studies scholar for six. These days, they’re a rogue scholar, warrior poet, and freelancer of many trades. You can find them on Twitter as @elmyra. Today, we’re going to chat about gender and sexual diversity in media and fandom. I’m really excited about our conversation because my perspectives are quite limited as a cisgender heterosexual woman, but media and fandom have been hugely responsible for expanding my knowledge. They’ve also helped me unlearn and relearn some things about gender and sexuality and it’s been an ongoing process of questioning everything that I took for granted. So before we begin, Milena, could you tell us about your own experiences with today’s topics?

Milena: Sure! And thank you for having me. I come at this from a number of different angles. As you said in the introduction, I have been queer for as far as I can tell since I was born. I’m originally Bulgarian. I grew up until the age of ten in Bulgaria and then my family moved to Austria. So I spent my teenage years in Austria in the 90s. Now if you know anything about Austria, or you may not, but it’s a very Catholic country. It certainly was in the 90s. To the point we had crucifixes in the classrooms and things like that. And if you’re familiar with UK culture, you might know that in the 90s, the UK had something called Section 28 which banned teachers from teaching anything about homosexuality in schools in any positive light. Austria was so Catholic and so conservative, it wouldn’t have occurred to them that they would need anything like Section 28. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] India was – and is – the same.

Milena: Yeah. And so this is the environment that I was in trying to work out who I was. My very first problematic fave – and it turned out later that she was a terrible human being – but I spent my teenage years reading Marion Zimmer Bradley’s books. So she’s a fantasy and science fiction author. She was a really, really nasty piece of work with hindsight. But she wrote about queer characters –  gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans – she had a lot of different queer characters. And so that was the first place where I saw myself reflected in media. And the other thing that she did is that she actually edited anthologies of fanfiction stories of her Darkover universe. So that’s probably the first place that I came across the idea of fanfiction.

Parinita: Oh wow!

Milena: I probably actually still have them. A couple of properly bound books that were edited and professionally published of fanfiction of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s work.

Parinita: Oh that’s fascinating!

Milena: Yeah. [laughs] She eventually stopped doing that because she ended up in a massive copyright fight with a fan over a story. And it is very likely that she did try and plagiarise so it’s one of those very, very messy things. But I can credit her for both giving me the first space I had to work out who I was and also the first exposure to fanfiction.

Parinita: I’ve grown up without having anybody who is queer or at least I didn’t know at the time, in my community – among my friends and family. And people in India didn’t really and still don’t – although that’s changing – really talk about queer issues so much unless you’re already in those spaces. Or if you already have those people in your social networks or you follow these media outlets, then you’ll know about these things. But if you don’t know what you don’t know, you’re not going to … or at least I didn’t know until Harry Potter fanfiction as a teenager. Slash was all the rage then and now, I think.

Milena: Yeah.

Parinita: But that’s when I discovered queerness. It’s not something that would ever occur to me. I went to a Catholic school, not for religious reasons but because in India, when I was growing up, Catholic schools were spaces where English was supposed to be a better quality. The nuns teach you better English was the assumption, just because public education was not very good at the time. So in school, they wouldn’t talk to us about even gender so much. We had sex ed classes but in a very academic way; telling us the science behind it but not the culture or social context of it.

Milena: Yeah.

Parinita: But anyway, that was gender in a limited way. But sexual diversity, no way. And it’s only online I realised that, oh this other way of being also exists. And then I think there were some Pride marches as well in Mumbai which I went to because I realised that this exists and they’re also targeted for this, just for wanting to live their lives. But I wouldn’t even have known about it until fanfiction in it’s very not-without-its-problems way taught me things. I’m still continuing to learn; not so much through fanfiction but definitely through fandom. Which is why even the word queer, what it means and who can use it, I didn’t even consider the negative connotations because I didn’t know that there were negative – why would I? I’m completely on the privileged, dominant end of the spectrum there. So it was largely through queer fans talking about themselves that I realised that this is a term that everybody uses. And I did not realise that it’s a hugely loaded term associated with violence until relatively recently.

Milena: Yeah, it’s an interesting word. It’s very, very culturally specific as well. And I these days very comfortably describe myself as queer at least in part because just listing all the different ways in which I’m queer just gets too cumbersome. So at some point, it just becomes, “No I’m just queer as fuck, deal with it.”

Parinita: [laughs]

Milena: But I took many, many years after moving to the UK before I started feeling comfortable using that word for myself. Just because I didn’t feel I had the cultural right to it. Because it is something very culturally specific to the UK and the US where this word has been used as a slur for a very long time and has been then reclaimed by part of the queer community. And again, it is not uncontentious even among queer/LGBTQIA people in that there’s certainly a generational divide. Where all the people in particular who genuinely have had it hurled it against them as a slur. Some of them will have gone “You know what, I’m reclaiming this.” But a lot of them go, “No actually, it really hurts me to use it that way.” I had spent about ten years doing various kinds of queer activism in various kinds of contexts before I felt comfortable enough partly just because I felt more assimilated in British culture, but partly because I felt I had almost kind of earned the right to it. But for me, there’s definitely an intersection here between being queer and being a migrant that makes that word complex and complicated.

Parinita: Yeah that’s really interesting about the cultural specificity because I’m not sure that it would have the same history as well in India. Of course, there are slurs in Hindi and other Indian languages as well that are hurled at people even if they’re not queer. But queer itself, I don’t know, obviously it’s English so it would be in urban spaces largely. But even then I don’t know. Now people use it but now it’s also used in conversations about rights and activism so I don’t know. It’s not something I’ve really been a part of so I might be wrong. But even me as an Indian, if I come from India and someone calls me Pakistani or Paki as the slur is, I wouldn’t be offended by it because I don’t have the same sort of emotional baggage and violence associated with it. I would just be like, yeah we’re South Asian. I wouldn’t know the history and the context in this country and how people who’ve grown up brown in the UK have dealt with it. So I assume it’s similar. Just as different people have different relationships with the term queer based on so many different contexts, there are also multiple kinds of LGBTQIA+ stories in media. And there’s space for all kinds of these stories but there’s also a difference in the kinds of queer stories in Western media and in Indian media. I don’t know how much you’re still in touch with Bulgarian or Austrian media at all.

Milena: Not a huge amount.

Parinita: Have you seen the difference between this in different contexts as well?

Milena: My bio-family, my parents live in Germany. So I do occasionally get exposure to German and Austrian television.  And in all fairness, I actually no longer watch live television in the UK either. Basically have Netflix and I watch YouTube and things like that. Every time I visit my bio-family, I end up watching German television being utterly horrified by the level of particularly transphobia but also other kinds of queerphobia that I see there. It takes me about ten minutes of watching German television before there is some kind of transphobic advert. Where the punchline is, oh look it’s a guy in a dress. And honestly the other big problem in German media or German-language media that I find is racism is also horrific. So I basically try and avoid all of it. I also find honestly that here you have to cherry-pick your media very carefully. Even things that look like they might be good end up being horrendously problematic in some ways. I’m in the process of reviewing and submitting to a journal a book that’s recently come out called Queerbaiting and Fandom. And it’s a collection of academic essays on queerbaiting in media and fans’ relationships with producers, with that kind of media. And there is the whole range from people like producers are deliberately trying to court queer viewers whilst not providing any queer representation to keep the [laughs] Make America Great audience on their side, if you will.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Milena: Which is like we had a two-second dance scene of two characters of the same gender in one of the – I think in the live-action Beauty and the Beast.

Parinita: Yeah which was so much progress for queer representation! [laughs]

Screenshot of Tumblr post. Text says: wittyandcharming: Wow how fucking exciting for us, the Starving Gays, to be given a "short but explicitly gay moment," in the new Beauty and the Beast you know every time I watched the animated film I looked at LeFou and was like "if only he could be the gay representation in this film that we all deserve," because who better to provide us with the inspiration to follow our gay little dreams than the absurd, buffoonish, morally bankrupt accomplice to a rapey narcissist.

Milena: So there’s that. We have things that are actually really quite nasty and aggressive like BBC Sherlock where the producers are constantly deliberately queerbaiting and then laughing at the audience for falling for it as well So that’s a really nasty interaction. And then we have genuinely queer creators, queer producers who are trying, who are doing their best and trying to get stuff onscreen and trying to work out how to do it without getting their show cancelled. And there’s a couple of examples out there. There’s Black Sails which if you haven’t seen it, it’s an amazing show. It starts out looking a bit like a gritty Game of Thrones fun pirate thing and becomes this amazing deep, philosophical thing about queerness, about independence, about our relationship with the state. It’s amazing. Anyway, watch Black Sails. It’s a show that has so many queer characters. I don’t know if you know but there’s this trope in TV called Bury Your Gays.

Parinita: Yeah.

Photo of the ensemble cast of the TV show Black Sails

Black Sails ensemble courtesy Wiki

Milena: So you can show queer people but they have to be dead by the end of it basically. Black Sails has enough queer characters that actually the ones that it buried – and it buried them for good plot reasons, it wasn’t a problem. [laughs] Because there were just so many and it was such a diversity. Yeah it was great. But they also had to tone down some of the stuff that they were planning to do because they were threatened with cancellation because audiences got upset. We’ve got things like She-Ra and Steven Universe both of which have got crossover audiences but they are kids’ shows primarily made by queer creators. If you read what those creators have to say about the process of making those shows, how much of a struggle it was to get that stuff onscreen. And if you think about it, and going back to my experiences as a teenager in very Catholic Austria, it’s so important for kids to be able to see themselves onscreen like that.

Parinita: Absolutely.

Milena: Particularly if you’re living in a queerphobic society, if you’re in a queerphobic family, where else are you going to work out who you are?

Parinita: Yeah. And this is something that is still an issue in India. Now that I’m in the UK, I’m largely exposed to Western media and conversations. And even in India, when I was growing up and otherwise, I was reading largely reading British and American children’s books and TV shows and movies and things. But I was also steeped in Bollywood and Indian culture and society obviously because that’s where I was. But the kind of conversations that we have now – with previous guests on the podcast as well as just the things that I read –  in terms of … well everything. But especially with queer representations in media, and the nuance and the complexity that’s needed and the problems and everything, it still seems so far ahead of anything that we have in India at the moment. Maybe there’ll be independent small productions that explore these issues but we’re still so far back. We’re still just beginning to explore these issues. And in mainstream media, it is largely still very queerphobic, very transphobic, it’s always the butt of jokes or not taken seriously or like, “Yeah why would this even exist?” And it’s so important not just for – like of course for queer kids who are figuring out their identities like you were – but also for people like me and for people like my mum and for people of all ages who use this media to understand and talk about these things. I was talking to my friends about it. With their parents, they sit and watch things and then they use that as a conversation starter. And their parents are relatively conservative. Not maliciously conservative but out of ignorance and privilege.

Milena: Yeah.

Parinita: So for them it’s a starting point to talk about these things. And through exposure they’re understanding more. So they’ll see and initially if they might be a bit hesitant but then talking to their kids about it, they’ll be like okay, fine. But even then, in a previous episode, one of my friends mentioned that they’ll still say that, “Oh why has this become a thing? Why is it everywhere now? Every other show you go, you see a gay character or a lesbian character.” And my friend was talking about how it’s still such a small fraction of all the media that exists in the world. Because it feels like so much more, right, to the dominant culture, if there is even a little bit more than you’re expecting; then you’re like, “Oh this is now everywhere! This is political correctness gone mad!”

Milena: I’ve had this exact same conversation with my father and I have kind of this exact same problem with my own parents who again [sighs] not even conservative, just ignorant, frankly. And to an extent also refusing to engage. And because they have extremely limited media exposure, I struggle to even have those conversations with them because it’s like where do I even start? Particularly when my father goes, “Oh why do they have to just shove it down my throat all the time?” I’m like well, why not? I get to see all of the straight people in media as well.

Parinita: [laughs] I know! All the time!

Milena: But I deal with it.

Parinita: Yeah. This is like a largescale trend; in India in miniscule but I think everywhere else too. Currently we have a fascist government in our country and the majority Hindu population which so vastly outnumbers in terms of just quantity but also in terms of access to resources –political, financial, cultural capital – all the other religions and other … I don’t want to say lower caste but Dalits and Adivasis – different castes which have been traditionally marginalised. But still it’s like, “Oh these people have gotten a little bit more rights than they used to. Oh what? How dare they demand representation and respect and empathy? No! We’re just going to murder everybody.” Which is where India is at. Which is why it sometimes feels like we’re going backwards. It’s nice to be in the UK and talk about these issues but it also then makes me so sad about India because I’m like when are we going to get there? Because in India, especially if you associate historical figures or religious figures with queerness or with anything that’s not the cishet norm, people will come and burn your cinema down or attack you in a bookshop. So it’s so much more fraught there that it just feels like – sorry I just went into a depressing tangent. But anyway, we can get back to less depressing topics.

Milena: [laughs] The world is really depressing at the moment.

Parinita: Yes. That’s true. [laughs] What you were saying about Black Sails, for me She-Ra was that first example of a queernormative world in which in terms of gender and sexuality, there’s so much diversity, that one person being villainised or one person being – there’s no real villain, I guess, they’re all shades of grey.

Milena: Yeah.

Parinita: But having that is not such a big deal. There’s so much queerness in the background and the foreground that it doesn’t feel like the Beauty and the Beast two second dance sequence you know?

Milena: Yes. It is really interesting to me. One of my flavours of queerness is I’m bisexual and bisexual representation in media is worse certainly than lesbian and gay representation and differently bad to trans representation etc. And one of the ways in which it is horrible is that bisexuals tend to get stereotyped horrendously as horribly promiscuous, indecisive, can’t make up their minds etc. And you know what, frankly I’m a greedy, indecisive, promiscuous bisexual. But also …!

Parinita: [laughs]

Milena: And that’s fine! You know what, that is absolutely fine. But I would like to see a range of bisexual characters because again, if my mother watches something like that and goes, “Well all bisexuals are like that.” I’m like, “Well sure I’m like that; but not all of us are like that.”

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah exactly.

Milena: There’s plenty of monogamous bisexuals, there’s all sorts of things. And again having that kind of range different characters rather than the one token bisexual or the one token gay character or the one token trans character is … you know what, I in my real life, if I get all of my friends into a room, probably about at least half of them have some flavour of queer. In a TV show cast, there’s the token queer person.

Parinita: Yeah and they’re all hanging out with the cishet people. As if they don’t want to have their own community. [laughs]

Milena: Their life must be so miserable!

Parinita: [laughs] I know.

Milena: Please find better friends.

Parinita: I know! Where you have to keep explaining your identity and you have the burden of being the gay person

Milena: Yeah.

Parinita: So everything you do is representative of your entire community. I haven’t watched Steven Universe yet, it’s definitely on my list. But Noelle Stevenson I just love her. Her first book that I read was Nimona, a graphic novel which I loved.

Milena: Yeah.

Parinita: Also the comic series The Lumberjanes which I think she was on the co-founding team of. I don’t know if she’s still connected to it. But yeah, like I said in the beginning, it’s just taught me to see the world in such a different way but also expect so much more of my media now that I’m like, “Yeah why don’t we have this?” I think in the interview that we read, Noelle does say that younger queer people which – I’m not really young or queer [laughs] – but younger queer people want things instantly. As in they demand queer stories in nuanced and complex ways now without realising how hard it’s been to fight to get where they are at this point. But sometimes I feel like I’m at that point as well. I’m like, why isn’t all our media like this? Why is there such a process of having to decondition all these things that you’ve been taught right from when you were born?

Milena: Yeah. It’s really interesting to me ’cause I’m heading towards 40 very rapidly. And I’ve seen mainstream media and less mainstream media evolve over the years and I very much agree with those younger queer viewers going, “Give me all the representation and do it properly now!”

Parinita: [laughs]

Milena: But I also understand what it’s taken to get here.

Parinita: Yeah.

Milena: One of my favourite shows growing up was Babylon 5 which as a classic, cult, sci-fi TV show made in the 90s, was ground-breaking in a number of ways. In some ways, it was about ten years ahead of its time in terms of what it tried to do with the medium. It had a bisexual character – well actually I think it had two women who were both bisexual and very briefly in a relationship. And it was so blink-and-you-miss-it. [laughs] Like oh okay, well, I guess that happened. And I tend to watch for these things. Even at that age I was fairly well-attuned to queerness and attempts to represent queerness. And it took me a while – it took me reading the showrunner’s comments to actually work out, “Oh no they weren’t just close friends. They were genuinely in a relationship.” [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Milena: I know. How bad was that? And the other thing we actually didn’t get in Babylon 5 that originally we were meant to was some very potentially interesting trans representation. Where one of the alien characters, as part of a transformation they underwent as part of the plot, was also going to come out of that transformation a different gender to the one that they were originally. And they shot the pilot with the makeup to enable that and then never changed the look of the character for the main show. And the official story was they couldn’t make the voice modulation work. And I’m just honestly not buying it. I think it was 1990 – 91 – 92 that that was shot. I was like, I don’t think you got this past the network.

Parinita: Yeah.

Milena: I think they didn’t like what you were doing and they didn’t let it get past the network. [laughs]

Image from two female characters from the TV show Babylon 5. Text says: Susan Ivanova and Talia Winters helped me reconcile myself with my sexuality. I owe them and the actresses who played them a huge debt.

Image courtesy Babylon 5 Confessions

Parinita: Rebecca Sugar was saying that and Noelle Stevenson as well about both Steven Universe and She-Ra, right? How much they had to fight everything. And it’s so unfair that just your way of existence is – like of course it’s political now because we live in the world that we do – but the fact that it needs to be … it just it feels so aggravating that you can’t just be in a story, especially if you’re a queer writer and you just want to write the stories that have the most meaning to you and make the most sense to you. But you have to think about what the producers want, what the audience wants, what these censors – both official and unofficial – want. It’s just ridiculous.

Milena: And it’s exhausting. And it’s genuinely harmful. If you read what Rebecca Sugar says, it’s genuinely harmful to people’s mental health. And it’s just this constant uphill fight. And that’s true for producers, it’s true for fans. I’ve been an activist for a very long time. I regularly go periods of like I can’t deal with this anymore. [laughs] And how many times you can just keep picking yourself up off the floor is an interesting question that at some point we may find the limit to. But it’s just exhausting.

Parinita: We already live in a world – at least mainstream society and culture – where there is still so much queerphobia and transphobia ingrained in it that for me it’s still a process of decolonising my own brain. Not only when it comes to queerness but also race and things. This is something that you brought up as well in terms of one of the fan texts that we read, but it’s also true with just mainstream fan and media texts in general, where who is the presumed default reader? And the assumption that allosexuality and alloromanticism are natural and compulsory and how much harm this does to everybody.

Milena: Yeah.

Parinita: To both queer and non-queer people just in terms of the expectations that you have and whether or not you live up to them.

Milena: Oh absolutely. This is something that’s very, very close to my heart because another flavour of my queerness [laughs] is that I’m asexual – kind of on the ace spectrum. But also professionally I’m an academic and a lot of my research is around sexual consent. And when you start digging into that topic, one of the things you find out very quickly is the place where we learn how to have sex and what sex is and how to have relationships and what relationships are, is the media.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Milena: Because sex education in schools is abysmal. I think it’s maybe got marginally better since I had to undergo it; [laughs] since you had to undergo it. But overall still abysmal. And again, very different based on country and culture. One of the things that struck me when I was doing this research is in America, a lot of the conversation about sex education is, should we be doing it at all.

Parinita: Oh right!

Milena: It’s terrifying. So yeah sex education is abysmal. Let’s face it, parents aren’t very good at teaching this stuff to their kids either. And so what you do is you pick it up from the media. And if the media doesn’t tell you that being asexual is even an option, it just presents you with this default view of how relationships work which is you are cisgender, you find somebody of the other gender who is also cisgender, you shack up together, you must have sex, you must move in together, you must get married, you must have children. It rules your entire life plan. It teaches you some really harmful things about how to have relationships. And it takes so long to unlearn that once you’ve internalised it and to realise that you know what, actually no, I don’t have to do any of these things. Whether that’s have sex with people, whether that’s have relationships with people, whether that’s have a relationship that fits that particular model or have a relationship with the person that that model tells me I should be having a relationship with. It’s just so insidious. And trying to unlearn it is a lot of effort. And for me, fandom has been one of those places where I have made steps towards unlearning it. One of the things I miss terribly is Tumblr. Tumblr – for those I’m going to say about 5-10 years that it was the community that it was – was such an amazing place where different but overlapping communities existed. So fandom, queer communities tended to overlap to find bits of each other to interact with. And one of the things that Tumblr gave birth to in many ways was asexual activism. Not entirely, but it is one of the places where ace communities thrived and generated so much new knowledge about asexuality, about people’s experiences, about the harmful effects of that default script. I don’t know if you’re familiar with … ugh I can’t remember the scholar who came up with it – the idea of compulsory heterosexuality.

Parinita: Oh no! I did actually come across this scholar’s name just earlier this week. But again, my memory is terrible, so I don’t remember either.

Milena: It’s Sunday night, that’s going to be our excuse. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Milena; But the Tumblr ace community built on that and came up with this idea that actually, it’s not only that you have to be compulsorily heterosexual; it’s that you have to be compulsorily allosexual. You have to experience sexual attraction. And there is no other model at all. And that is probably the kind of starting point of all of the harmful stuff that pop culture tells us about sex and relationships that we then have to … if we’re lucky, we find spaces where we can unlearn it. And if we’re not lucky, we kind of go along with it and are miserable.

Parinita: Yeah! What you’re saying, it’s resonating so much with me. So the texts that we were going through and even before, I’ve been reading more about it, within the last year specifically, but even more a little before that. But just like you were saying, I got the default script from media. And fandom and the internet at large have been such a fantastic resource for me to identify what I’ve been conditioned to believe. Because you don’t even know right? If that’s the only script you’ve been given, and that’s what you see everybody around you doing, you don’t know that there is another way of life or another way of living. When I was growing up and as a teenager – I know we’re going to be talking about asexual interpretations of characters a little more in a bit – but at that point, I didn’t even know this was a way of living. When I was growing up, I wasn’t really very interested in relationships. I did have boyfriends at that time as a teenager and as a youngish adult but it wasn’t like everybody else around me who seemed to lay so much emphasis on romance and sexuality.

Milena: Yeah.

Parinita: Whereas for me, that was just a very small part of all the other things I was doing. My life was full of lots of different kinds of things and romance was never a thing that I’d centred around. Which is why reading about these things like your interpretations you’ve written about Katniss, as well as just the discourse in general, I’m like, “Am I on the ace spectrum as well?” And obviously it’s a spectrum, right? So one person’s experiences don’t always reflect another person’s experiences exactly.

Milena: Yeah.

Parinita: But I’m like, this makes so much more sense to me than the other script that I’ve been shown and told that this is how it is and this is how relationships are and this is how a healthy relationship is supposed to be. I think that if you’re really happy in your relationship but it’s not following the script that has been dictated to you by society, you might find things or you might reconsider your relationship because it’s not matching the idea that society has given. On the other hand, I think that the emphasis and focus on relationships and not being alone and this very singular idea of a family and a couple means that you will also stay in terrible relationships. Because what is the other option than being this pathetic person that media tells you you are if you don’t have a partner?

Milena: Oh no, I’ll happily have ten cats.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah. And books! Just so much more money and time for books! When I was growing up, everybody was so into the idea of getting into a relationship and so unhappy at not being in a relationship. And I was like, this is fine. When I was a teenager, I was like, I’m playing Neopets, I don’t really have time for a relationship. [laughs]

Milena: [laughs]

Parinita: Or I’m reading this book or I’m really into this new TV show. And also the idea that I have to get married at a certain age. And in India this is much worse as well I think because it’s still so deeply patriarchal. That a woman’s worth is very much tied to marriage and then babies. I think people are unlearning that idea a little bit now, only those with the privilege to do so obviously in urban areas and things. But even within urban areas, even within wealthy, privileged spaces, there is still this idea that has a huge hold on people’s imaginations.

Milena: Yeah. Actually it’s really deeply alien to me. When I was growing up in Bulgaria, Bulgaria was communist. And it certainly did a lot to paper over some of the gender inequality stuff. Between that and some of the oddities of my own upbringing … and obviously I was raised as a girl. Even though I’m not, but this is what happened. So this whole idea that if you’re a girl, you have to marry and have babies etc., it completely passed me by in my upbringing. Partly because of my family, partly because of kind of growing up under communism. So moving West, and I understand that it is much worse and more deeply ingrained in India, but actually from my perspective, it’s actually pretty damn bad over here. There’s this thing in Austria where I had a couple of school friends, girls, who went on to study medicine and at least one of them certainly genuinely wanted to be a doctor. But there’s the running joke that the medical schools in Austria are the biggest dating and marriage – they’re almost like matchmakers. Because women go to them to meet doctors; to meet male doctors to marry and to then never become doctors themselves. [laughs]

Parinita: Oh my god.

Milena: It’s like why?!

Parinita: [laughs] Oh no. Oh man. Ugh yeah why indeed. I mean it’s a bit surprising because again, this colonised mindset, right? When growing up in India, you have this – or at least I did – this very specific idea of the West. And obviously it is because of the kind of Western media and cultures that we’re exposed to in India that makes it very clear that, “Oh you in India, not as good as we here in the US and the UK.” I had this idea of the West being much more progressive and socially and culturally – everything than us here poor folks here in India. And then I moved to the UK. [laughs] And I was like, oh I see. I see that this was all propaganda.

Milena: Oh absolutely.

Parinita: And I see that you guys don’t have things figured out at all. It’s still a process of unlearning. And my partner is Scottish so it’s a really interesting cultural clash as well like some of the things that I took for granted and some of the things that he took for granted and how we are both learning to unlearn things. And both of us, we would consider ourselves progressive, left-wing, open-minded and things. But still it’s all these biases and assumptions that society ingrains in you and that is so difficult to unlearn.

Milena: Yeah definitely.

Parinita: [laughs] So in terms of asexuality, specifically in canon and fanon and the different representations and interpretations of it, you’ve written about Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. And I came across Frodo and Bilbo in The Lord of the Rings. You said that The Lord of the Rings was a fandom that used to be a huge part of your life. When you were reading it, did you ever think of it at all in terms of reading them as ace?

Milena: Honestly, no, because when I read them, I was way too young. They read perfectly fine and natural to me and they were very good stories at the time and those were great characters; they had great adventures. But I don’t think I quite realised that romantic relationships and sexuality were a thing at that point. Because I got The Hobbit put into my hands when I was 8 or 9 and then The Lord of the Rings when I was 10. I don’t think I had read many books at that point where romance was a central feature anyway.

Parinita: Yeah. I think this is one of the reasons I really like children’s books because [laughs] romance doesn’t usually get in the way of the story. They’re going off on their adventure and more important things in life than romance. So see this is why, the more I think and talk about it, I’m like, hmm it’s almost like things are making more sense to me about myself now.

Milena: [laughs]

Parinita: When did you start thinking about asexual interpretations? I find this idea really fascinating because it’s been my experience and a few other fans’ experience from what I’ve read about figuring out your identity through fictional characters. Either by reading your own experiences into them or by reading other people’s interpretations about these characters.

Milena: Yeah. So actually I didn’t work out my asexuality until my 30s which again that is a social crime that I will not forget or forgive society for ever. And some of it was coming across those Tumblr communities, some of it was coming across other ace people in my actual real life, and some of it was characters like Katniss Everdeen. [laughs] My running joke is that you will take aro-ace Katniss Everdeen from my cold, dead hands.

Parinita: [laughs]

Milena: People complaining about the love triangle in those books, I’m like the love triangle doesn’t exist. It’s entirely manufactured for the media.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah oh I loved your essay about it.

Milena: Yeah. She just doesn’t have a single romantic or sexual bone in her body.

Parinita: [laughs]

Milena: [laughs] So I have a very passionate interpretation of Katniss Everdeen as aro and ace.

Parinita: I also loved this Tor essay about asexuality and the Baggins bachelors and how this writer had different interpretations for both Bilbo and Frodo because again asexuality is not a monolith either so you have different kinds of relationships and different kinds of priorities. Whereas Bilbo had a really content life and everything Frodo had a queer platonic partner in Samwise, as the essay proposes. I mean Frodo did go to the other end of the sea or ocean or whatever but yeah it was a huge part of both their lives.

Milena: Yeah definitely. And getting those kinds of different interpretations or representations is really interesting to me. And one of the things that certainly about the Katniss Everdeen example strikes me is that I don’t know if she did it on purpose. If she was written as ace on purpose. I can’t quite tell. I can’t work it out. And it’s one of those things where to what extent does authorial intent matter? I have days when I’m very much, “The author is dead and I can do with the text whatever the hell I want!”

Parinita: [laughs]

Milena: It is mine now. But I also have days where I’m like, atually no. Authorial intent matters to the extent that it matters that people should want to put good representation into the world and it matters that we get canonical representation in media and not just fanon. Because again, we come back to that the conversation I can’t have with my parents; the conversation so many kids can’t have with their parents because those parents have never seen a queer character on television.

Parinita: Yeah for sure. Because like I was saying, it’s something that people figure out – like media is such a tool for education as well, right? Both positively and negatively. Because formal schooling for most people ends at a certain age and then it is just media that is your school. And of course it’s been weaponised massively in lots of different countries in lots of different ways but

Milena: It’s a problem.

Parinita: Yeah! It’s not without its problems at all. It’s actually quite a big problem especially news media. But also in terms of fictional media, like you were saying how important it is for canonical representations because if it is either the butt of all jokes or even if it is like queer characters don’t get to be happy, they just die in terms of bury your gays. Then what does that say to both people who are queer and people who are not queer? That this is the life that either you will have or your friend or child or whoever is going to have. It’s just so problematic. Problematic is an overused word – I overuse it a lot – but it is! It’s very problematic.

Milena: Yeah. No, definitely. [laughs] We need to fix media in general.

Parinita: Ugh yes! Completely, completely we need to fix. I’m all for just breaking down all the systems and starting from scratch again but that’s not going to come without its violence and things. It’s a very complicated subject. But anyway, in terms of fan representations and discussions and commentaries and critiques, I’ve learned so much from it right since I properly got into online fandom when I was 13. And even though I grew up in a big city – I grew up in Mumbai, which comes with a huge amount of capital and resources and knowledge. But your life and experiences and knowledge are still limited to the bubble that you inhabit. Like my mum’s community and family is also quite limited and conservative as well. So the kinds of conversations that I’m having now, there’s no way I would have gotten it in my family, community or in my school. And fandom has been such a massive tool of education for me which is why I believe so passionately that it can be a force for good. But I also know unfortunately it can be a force for bad. Like I was telling you, I was attending the Fan Studies conference last week. And I’ve been catching up on the things and there was a racism in acafandom panel by Rukmini Pande and three other fan scholars.

Milena: I know that it happened. I do have to catch up on that because that sounds like it was amazing.

Parinita: It was really good but it was also so sad. Because on my podcast and in my own life as well – so I used to write fanfiction when I was a teenager, but then I was largely a lurker after that. I was on Tumblr for the briefest of times because I have a very obsessive personality so I would have spent too much of my life on Tumblr. As I did on Neopets. So now I get a lot of these Tumblr conversations and things through Facebook fan pages and Twitter screenshots. But for me, I’ve very carefully and deliberately curated a more positive, more progressive, more nuanced space in terms of who I follow. It’s a very deliberate echo chamber that I’ve created because it is my space, so I’ve not faced the kind of horrible things other people face. On that panel, they were talking specifically in terms of racism because that was the theme of the panel. But I know that there’s lots of transphobia and queerphobia and stuff in fandom spaces. Fandom likes to see itself or some people see fandom as more progressive and I’m focusing on the more progressive and more positive parts of fandom through fan podcasts and things. But I know it can be a really terrible place as well for queer fans too.

Milena: Yeah. And like you, I tend to curate my fannish spaces to not be unpleasant. But it’s definitely not always a fun happy place. I can think of a couple of examples, actually of things going horribly, horribly wrong in fandoms. One of them is I spent a good three-four years in hockey RPF fandom – ice-hockey RPF. And about [sighs] three or four years into that stint, half of the biggest pairing in that fandom – because it’s a real person fandom, it’s like yeah your fave is going to be problematic. And we kind of knew that he was problematic. And then he got accused of rape. And the way that that fandom fell apart with some people just not wanting to see it, was genuinely horrifying. But the other interesting thing for me coming back around to the racism in fandom question is, I did my PhD research on sexual consent in fanfiction. And one of the things I did was I interviewed a bunch of fanfiction readers and writers. It was in a particular fandom – the Dragon Age video game. There’s a significant subgenre of slave fic in that fandom. And one of my interviewees brought it up as a “Oh yes this is a great way of exploring issues of consent.” And it has never sat right with me. Because obviously slavery is something that in the real world is a deeply racialised history that something many people still feel the after-effects of today both in the US and in Britain and in other places around the world. And taking that concept and going, “Oh let’s enslave the pretty elves, and then have fun sexy times with them” never quite sat right with me. And I have kind of worked out since then – it’s taken me a little time to work through it – why and how it’s a problem. A lot of the reasons it is a problem is this is the kind of fic that is primarily written by white women, maybe occasionally nonbinary people. And they may be queer, they may be straight, I don’t know. But it’s the kind of thing where white women get to take this trope, completely divorce it from its historical context and from its real-world effects today, get to deracialise it, and then make it part of their ooh exploring consent issues toolbox. Whilst just completely ignoring both the trauma that that inflicts on fans of colour and the general reproduction of white supremacy it perpetuates. So yeah fandoms are not always not always fun and happy places. And it’s very difficult sometimes to have those conversations.

Parinita: That’s so disappointing because when fandom wants to do something well, it can and does do something well. The two fics that you recommended me, one of which was your own, The Legend of Zelba – uh Zelba? [laughs] the Legend of Zelda drabbles that you wrote. I have never played the game, I know very little about the characters, and I’ve also never experienced discomfort with the gender that I was assigned at birth. And like I said earlier, I’m not super into love stories either. But your story made me so emotional because it was just so lovely. I was reading it and was like I wish everybody had this sort of experience if they wanted it. That it was accessible to them in mainstream media.

Milena: Yeah.

Parinita: Now of course fans have to go and write this themselves. But people are so creative in fandom – fanfiction writers like fan critiquers and things, they’re so creative in the ways they engage with issues. Why isn’t there more mainstream awareness, recognition and reflection of this? The other thing that you recommended as well, Skies of Blue, Red Roses too which was this Ranma ½Steven Universe crossover, again, which I loved so much. So for those who don’t know, Ranma ½ was this anime –  I don’t know if it’s still ongoing – but it was this anime that I used to watch when I was growing up. Ranma was assigned male at birth according to this story, but he was a boy in canon. And he had a grandfather and they’d gone through some martial arts training which meant that if cold water was or hot water was dropped on them – I – forget the details.

Milena: I can’t remember which way around it was.

Parinita: Yeah. It was either if hot water was dropped on them, the grandfather turned into a panda, as you do. And Ranma, the boy, turned into a girl. And then they revert back to their original form if the opposite temperature water was dropped.

Milena: Yeah.

Gif from the anime Ranma 1/2 where male Ranma has water thrown over him and turns into female Ranma

Parinita: This was a terrible explanation. [laughs] I shall link to a better and more succinct summary. But because I’m cisgender, I didn’t think of the gender implications of this text at that time. I used to love that anime without interrogating anything in it. It was just this weird little thing that I loved that even now when I try to explain the concept of it to people, they think I’m making it up. [laughs] Like I had some sort of fever dream.

Milena: [laughs]

Parinita: Because it’s so bizarre! But in this story, they do a crossover with Steven Universe and with Ranma sort of negotiating internalised transphobia a little bit but also coming to terms with her trans identity as well. Which I thought was amazing!

Milena: It is really interesting to me. A significant number of my friends have watched Ranma. I’ve got a friend who has this theory about Ranma that if you really, really love it, it’s probably because you’re not cis because it’s not that good an anime.

Parinita: [laughs]

Milena: And this friend is more than ten years younger than me. And to an extent, for that generation they have a point. For me, when I was watching it in the late 90s-early 2000s, that was one of six anime we had over here. So for our generation, it is a classic. So there’s probably cis people of my generation who enjoyed it for just being an anime. But yeah actually, if you’ve got access to more anime and better anime, then yeah if you like Ranma, you’re probably not cis.

Parinita: [laughs]

Milena: When I got this fic recommended, my partner made this comment that if you’re using Ranma to kind of do your gender exploration, the state of trans representation in media is really dire, isn’t it? I was like, yeah, yes it is.

Parinita: [laughs]

Milena: I was like it’s not good.

Parinita: No, especially because that’s something that the fic brought up which I didn’t remember because I’ve not watched Ranma ½ in years – more than a decade for sure. But how she was treated when she’d been turned into a girl either as a pervert for then reverting back to her boy body. Or the kind of sexual harassment and sexual assault that was a very regular part of her life.

Milena: [laughs] Yes!

Parinita: Yeah. Of course I was … I don’t know 13 – 12 at that time, so I wasn’t thinking about these things. If I go back now and watch it, I don’t know if I’ll love it as much as I did then. It just captured that very specific time in my life.

Milena: Absolutely.

Parinita: Yeah. This fanfiction writer has made it so amazingly contemporary. And also, so obviously they’re exploring gender and sexual diversity through their story – through Steven Universe and Ranma ½. And I’ve not read the whole thing – I’ve read the first few chapters, but in the second chapter I thought it was really interesting, their author’s notes at the end, where they said that they removed the State Trooper and replaced him with a community watch member because “fuck cops”.

Milena: Yeah.

Screenshot. Text says: Edit: Removed the State Trooper and replaced him with a community watch member. Because fuck cops.

Author’s note from Chapter 2 of Skies of Blue, Red Roses Too

Parinita: I’m assuming they’re US-based but also in other parts of the world including India, there’s huge police brutality. But it was a very political, very deliberate reconstruction of their own story to go in line with their politics and what’s happening in the world – which I thought was amazing.

Milena: Yeah, no absolutely. I love that story. I love what they’ve done with both the source material but also kind of how they’re bringing real-world politics into it and actually making it matter. But also one of the things I love about that story is actually how unapologetically just fluffy it is.

Parinita: Yeah!

Milena: Because yeah Ranma worked through a whole bunch of issues but it’s constantly much like Steven Universe the original show, it’s very much … it’s positive, it’s upbeat, it’s optimistic, we can solve these problems. Steven Universe, his superpower is he will solve anything by making people talk about their feelings. I love it.

Parinita: Aww! [laughs]

Animated gif. Text says: But you always seem so upbeat, you're a real champ, Steven Universe

Milena: As somebody who didn’t learn to talk about my feelings until I watched Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Parinita: Oh! Yes!

Milena: [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] So currently I’m watching Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts on Netflix.

Milena: It’s on my list.

Parinita: Highly, highly recommended. Because she does the same. She wants to solve problems by talking about them and making friends and being aggressively friendly. [laughs] And I’m like yes! These are the kind of heroes I need in my life. And of course, they’re all in children’s media so I’m like yes, this is my life now.

Milena: Yeah. We really need unapologetically fluffy, hopeful, optimistic media. The world is on fire and sometimes you just need to be able to curl up in a corner and go I’m reading this fluffy thing and I’m just going to make myself feel better doing that. And then I’m going to go and fight the rest of the world.

Parinita: You’re so right! Because the fluffy makes the fight possible. You can’t fight without your comfort food and your comfort media.

Milena: Thank you for having me, it’s been so much fun.

Parinita: Thank you so much! It’s been a year and just talking to people has been such a light in my life. And talking to you especially today has just been so fantastic. I got to talk about all these stories that I don’t really get to talk to people about. And the conversation has been so good for my brain. Thank you so much for being a part of this project.

Milena: Thank you for having me! Take care.

[Outro music]

 

[Outro music]

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

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

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

Episode Resources:

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

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

3) Fanzine – Harry Potter and the Problematic Author 

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

5) Fanzine – Tonk’s Tale

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

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

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

 

Episode Transcript:

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

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

[Intro music]

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

[Intro music]

My name is Parinita Shetty and you’re listening to the sixteenth episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I talk to Tam Moules about different gender identities in science fiction and fantasy. We also discuss how fans learn to identify and question transphobic implications within their favourite media and grapple with transphobic creators of their favourite worlds.

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

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

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

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

Tam: Yeah.

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

Tam: Yeah.

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

Tam: Yeah something like that.

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

Tam: [laughs]

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

Tam: Yeah.

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

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: J. K. Rowling is a TERF.

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

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

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

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

Tam: Yeah.

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

Tam: [laughs]

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

Tam: Yeah.

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

Tam: [laughs]

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

Tam: [laughs]

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

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

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

Tam: I was obsessed growing up, yeah.

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

Tam: Yeah.

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

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

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Yup. [laughs] Yup.

Tam: [laughs]

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

Tam: Yeah.

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

Tam: [laughs] Yeah.

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

Tam: Yeah.

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

Tam: A lot of it is, yeah.

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

Tam: Yeah.

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

Tam: Yeah.

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

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

Parinita: Hmm.

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

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

Tam: Yeah.

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

Tam: Yeah.

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

Tam: [laughs]

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

Tam: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

Tam: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

Tam: [laughs]

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

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

Tam: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

Tam: Yeah!

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

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

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

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

Tam: [laughs]

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

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

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

Tam: Oh no.

Parinita: It almost sounds very cultish you know.

Tam: Yeah.

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

Tam: Yeah.

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

Tam: Unfortunately.

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

Tam: Yeah. Definitely.

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

Tam: Yeah.

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

Tam: I have more examples than I can count.

Parinita: Oh brilliant!

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

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

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

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

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

Tam: Yeah.

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

Tam: Yes!

Barney and Jo from The Lumberjanes

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

Tam: Yeah.

Alex Fierro

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

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

Parinita: Absolutely!

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

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

Tam: Yeah.

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

Tam: Nimona is so good!

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

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: So I love her.  

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

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

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

Tam: Yeah.

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

Tam: [laughs]

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

Tam: Yes.

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

Tam: Yeah.

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

Tam: All right.

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

Tam: Yeah.

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

Tam: All right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tam: Yeah.

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

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

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

Tam: [laughs]

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

Tam: Yeah.

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

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

Parinita: Um hmm.

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

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

Tam: [laughs]

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

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

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

Tam: Yeah.

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

Tam: Absolutely.

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

Tam: Yes.

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

Tam: [laughs]

Parinita: I expect everything and everybody to be queer.

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

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

Tam: Yeah.

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

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

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

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: Star Wars being the prime example.

Tam: [laughs]

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

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

Parinita: Yeah!

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

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

Tam: [laughs]

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

Tam: Yeah, definitely.

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

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

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

Tam: Yeah.

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

Tam: Yeah.

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

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

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

Tam: Yeah.

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

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

Parinita: And they’re so good at it!

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

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

Tam: Wrong Hordak.

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

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

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

Tam: Yeah.

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

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

Parinita: Oh! You’re so right.

Tam: That’d be good.

Parinita: Yeah.

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

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

Tam: Yeah.

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

Tam: Ugh.

Parinita: In response to She-Ra.

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

Parinita: [gasps] That would be amazing!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tam: [laughs]

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

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

Parinita: Oh, that’s sad.

Tam: A lot of fart jokes and stuff.

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

Tam: [laughs] Unfortunately not.

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

Tam: Yeah.

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

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

Parinita: Oh! That’s a great theory.

Tam: That’s my personal wild theory there.

Parinita: [laughs]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tam: Yeah.

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

Tam: Yeah.

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

Tam: Yeah.

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

Tam: Yeah, that’s true.

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

Tam: All right.

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

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

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

Tam: That’s okay.

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

Tam: Yeah.

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

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

[Outro music]

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

[Outro music]

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

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

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