A PhD project exploring intersectionality through fan podcasts

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Tag: Gender

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

Episode Resources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Episode Transcript:

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

Deb Dimond Young

[Intro music]

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

[Intro music]

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

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

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

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

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

Deb: [laughs]

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

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

Deb: [laughs]

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: [laughs] Absolutely!

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

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

Deb: Absolutely!

Gif of Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer

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

Deb: Yes!

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

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

Parinita: Um hmm.

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

Image courtesy MrRy4n on DeviantArt

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

Parinita: Aaah!

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

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

Deb: Yes.

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

Deb: Yeah. Her corporeal form.

Parinita: Which I found very depressing. Yeah.

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

Parinita: Um hmm.

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

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

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

Deb: Yeah.

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

Deb: Absolutely.

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

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

Parinita: Um hmm.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: And so she had her own adventures.

Poster for The Sarah Jane Adventures

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

Deb: Yes!

Parinita: Which you don’t really see usually.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

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

Young Amy and Old Amy in The Girl Who Waited

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

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

Parinita: But yeah, he looks the same.

Deb: Absolutely!

Rory as the last centurion

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

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Yeah exactly!

Deb: Right?

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

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Wow.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: That’s true.

Deb: She disappears.

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

Deb: Yes!

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

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

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

 

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

Parinita: Absolutely.

Deb: There’s so much space.

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

Deb: It’s one of my favourites.

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

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

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Um hmm.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: [laughs]

Image of Joyce and Giles

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: With a pair of handcuffs as well.

Deb: With handcuffs, yeah.

Parinita: Which Buffy is very uncomfortable about.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

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

Deb: Yes!

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

Deb: Right.

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

Deb: Yes.

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

Deb: [laughs]

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

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

Parinita: Um hmm.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

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

Deb: Yes!

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

Deb: So good!

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

Deb: Yes.

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

Deb: Um hmm.

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

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

Parinita: Um hmm.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

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

Parinita: Um hmm.

Deb: That becomes her role.

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

Deb: Yes.

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

Deb: [laughs]

Parinita: And also during the battle like you said.

Deb: Right.

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

Deb: Yes.

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

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

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: Yup.

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

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

Deb: Right.

Parinita: Perfection is a prison.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Yup.

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

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

Deb: [laughs]

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

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

Parinita: Um hmm.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Absolutely.

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

Parinita: Yeah!

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

Parinita: Yeah she gets that one amazing moment.

Deb: Yeah!

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

Deb: Absolutely.

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

Deb: Absolutely.

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

Deb: Yeah.

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

Deb: [laughs]

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

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

Parinita: [laughs] Oh, I love that.

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

Parinita: Yeah I love that.

Deb: Just because no one accounts for her existence.

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

Deb: Oh, River.

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: [laughs]

Gif of River Song from Doctor Who blowing a kiss

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: Hmm.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

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

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

Deb: Yeah.

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

Deb: Yeah. [laughs]

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

Deb: [laughs]

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

Deb: Yes.

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

Deb: [laughs]

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

Deb: Um hmm.

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

Deb: [laughs]

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

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

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

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

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

Deb: Um hmm.

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

Deb: Um hmm.

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

Deb: Absolutely.

Parinita: Do superheroes not get old?

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

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

Deb: No!

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: Oh my god.

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

Parinita: The phone police you know.

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

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

Deb: Yes!

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

Deb: Absolutely.

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

Deb: Oh god I would watch that absolutely.

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

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

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

Parinita: Yeah!

Deb: I need to go back. [laughs]

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

Deb: It’s fantastic too.

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

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

[Outro music]

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

[Outro music]

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

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

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

Episode Resources:

1) Essay – We Have Always Fought

2) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Heroines

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

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

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

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

 

Episode Transcript:

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

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

[Intro music]

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

[Intro music]

My name is Parinita Shetty and you’re listening to the eleventh episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I talk to T. G. Shepherd also known as Lisa about the representation of women warriors in media and history.

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

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

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

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

Lisa: [laughs]

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

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

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

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

Parinita: Okay.

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

Parinita: Oh wow.

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

Parinita: [laughs] Right.

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

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

Cover of Mockingbird #1 by Joëlle Jones

Cover of Mockingbird #1 by Joëlle Jones

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: Right.

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

Parinita: Hmm.

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

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: Right.

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

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

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

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

Lisa: Oh yeah.

 

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

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: But she was never drawn that way.

Parinita: Yeah.

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

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

Lisa: Yes.

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

Lisa: Yes

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

Lisa: Yeah.

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

Lisa: Yeah.

Image courtesy wbur

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

Lisa: [laughs]

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

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

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

Lisa: Yes. [laughs]

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

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

Lisa: No.

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

Lisa: Yeah.

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

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

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

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

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

Lisa: Yeah totally.

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

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

Parinita: Yeah absolutely.

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

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

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

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

Lisa: Yes.

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

Lisa: Yeah the Amazons are great.

Parinita: Yeah the Amazons. That made me cry.

Lisa: Me too!

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

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Oh they were so brilliant.

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: I loved them.

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

The women in Black Panther. Image courtesy Feminism in India

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

Lisa: Yeah.

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

Lisa: [laughs] Yeah.

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

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

Parinita: Oh, that’s right.

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

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

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

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

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

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

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

Lisa: Which men are allowed.

Parinita: Yeah.

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

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

Lisa: Oh yeah.

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

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

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

Lisa: Yeah.

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

Lisa: Oh Bow’s dads! Bow’s dads.

Parinita: Oh yeah Bow’s dads as well.

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

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

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

Parinita: Right.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

Lisa: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parinita: Oh!

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

Parinita: Amazing!

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

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

Lisa: Yeah.

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita Oh!

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

Parinita: [laughs] Amazing.

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

Parinita: [laughs] Because they killed his dog.

Lisa: Yeah.

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

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

Lisa: It’s a brilliant conceit.

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: That’s true.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Daredevil is blind right?

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

Parinita: Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lisa: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

Parinita: Hmm.

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

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

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

Parinita: Oh yeah.

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

Parinita: Yeah, me too.

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

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

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

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

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

Lisa: Yes.

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

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

Parinita: Yeah. Rani Lakshmibai.

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

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

Lisa: Yeah great book, yeah.

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

Lisa: Yes.

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

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

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

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

Parinita: Um hmm.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Absolutely.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

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

Lisa: That’s Hatshepsut.

Parinita: Oh yeah.

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

Parinita: Oh really?

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

Parinita: Ohhh okay.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Hmm.

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

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

Lisa: Yes.

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

Lisa: Yes.

Parinita: Like not in the bible but –

Lisa: As scholars and keepers of knowledge.

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

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

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

Lisa: Yeah.

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

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

Parinita: Ah of course.

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

Parinita: Can you see Donald Trump?

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

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

Lisa: Yes.

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

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

Parinita: Hmm.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Dora Milaje from Black Panther

Parinita: Basically exoticised.

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

Parinita: Hmm.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

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

Lisa: Yes.

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

Gif of Toph from Avatar The Last Airbender Earthbending

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

Parinita: Wow.

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

Parinita: [laughs] I love it.

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

Parinita: Yeah absolutely.

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

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

Lisa: Yeah.

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

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

Parinita: Hmm.

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

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

Lisa: Yeah.

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

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: [laughs]

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

Lisa: Yeah.

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

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

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

Lisa: Yeah!

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

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

Parinita: Uh huh.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Yeah absolutely. I agree.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Laura Kinney from Logan

Laura Kinney from Logan

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

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

Parinita: Thank you!

[Outro music]

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

[Outro music]

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

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

Episode 5 It’s Like She’s Not Even There: Misogyny, Masculinity, and Different Cultures

Episode Resources: 

For this episode we looked at the following texts:

Essay – Ron Weasley Vs Ron Weasley

Essay – Ginny Weasley, The Girl Who Deserved More

Essay – Strong Female Characters: Ginny Weasley

Essay – Supernatural: A History of Violence Against Women

Academic paper – Greek Mythology in English Literature Harry Potter’s Greek Connection

Academic paper – A study on usage of Greek Mythology in the Harry Potter’s series

Fan podcast – Alohomora Folkore & Mythology: A Whole New World

Fan podcast – Witch, Please Episode 9.5: Witch, Please; Live & Unruly

Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Heroines

Fan podcast – Women of Harry Potter Cho Chang With Kathy Tu

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

Fan podcast – Witch, Please Episode 13 C Hallows and Goodbyes

Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text Masculinity: Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes (Book 4, Chapter 5)

Fan podcast – Reading, Writing, Rowling Amy H. Sturgis: Fantasy, Imagination and Indigenous Futurism

Episode Transcript: 

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

Text on black background. Text says: fandom

[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 fifth episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, Anna Raymondou and I talk about representations of gender in the Harry Potter book and movie series and in the TV show Supernatural. We discuss the impact that movie adaptations have on how characters and relationships are portrayed in popular media. We also chat about the different depictions of masculinity and misogyny in both Supernatural and Harry Potter. We discuss social conditioning and women’s internalised misogyny (Fleur Delacour deserved better!) as well as the gendered labour of the resistance (Molly Weasley also deserved better except when she was being horrible to Fleur!).

As Harry Potter fangirls, we like how the series provides us with a new mythology, folklore and culture. Anna discusses the Greek mythological inspirations in the books. We love how the Potterverse can be read through diverse cultural lenses and has room for multiple mythological interpretations. At the same time, fandom has educated us both about the problematic portrayals of other cultures in the Potterverse – specifically the anti-Semitic undertones and the appropriation of Native American beliefs. We talk about the responsibility that creators with a wide audience have in portraying marginalised cultures and learning from their missteps. Finally, Anna chats about the role of fandom in finding a supportive community and how it can make an active difference on people’s mental well-being.

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: “Whether a story is made for pure entertainment value or made to convey a specific issue or struggle, all art contributes to people’s understanding of the universe. All media has an impact on the people who engage with it – intentional and unintentional. Scrutiny of sexist, racist, heteronormative, ageist, ableist and other biased or discriminatory themes within a work is both necessary and important, especially when the show itself fails to contextualise it. By unquestioningly accepting these story aspects, we can end up perpetuating the societal issues they represent.” This quote is from the essay “Supernatural: A History of Violence Against Women” on The Geekiary written by Exorcising Emily. It’s one of the texts that we looked at for this episode and you can find it on the project website marginallyfannish.org. For every episode on Marginally Fannish, my guests and I, we look at a whole bunch of texts which we use as discussion prompts. And all of them are up on the website accompanying the transcripts. This week I’m joined by Anna Raymondou who describes herself as an obsessive fangirl with an extended, deep and what some may consider useless knowledge about everything concerning her favourite fandoms and stories. I wish I could apply this description to myself but my memory is too atrocious to hold much room for deep knowledge really.

Anna: [laughs]

Parinita: About any of my favourite media. So this week, we’re talking about gender in Harry Potter and Supernatural and media in general. As well as depictions of different cultures in Harry Potter and media at large. So Anna, she’s twenty-two and she’s from Greece. So we both have very different contexts that we come from, looking at media that’s largely produced in the US and the UK. So Anna, do you want to start us off by talking about your own experiences with gender and culture as a fan?

Anna: I’ve always been watching stuff from the US and the UK. It was always on our TV and for many years, I thought that was the normal. And what I was experiencing was kind of different. Because you know at school we didn’t have these dances, and we didn’t have boys asking you out or doing the prom thing with the big you know like, “Do you want to be my prom date?” Or –

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Anna: You know any kind of depiction. Like whatever cultural thing I saw was not very similar to mine. So when I realised that oh! Other people may not experience it, what we see on TV, it’s like [gasps].

Parinita: No, I’m the same way. Because in India, as well – I grew up in Mumbai, so it’s a pretty big city. And most of my media engagement has been American TV shows and movies and some British things. So my idea about the US and the UK has largely been shaped by the movies that I see and just exactly like you, it’s so different from my own life in India. So it almost starts to feel like we are missing out on something by not having these experiences.

Anna: Yeah!

Parinita: Whereas these experiences may not even be that common to people in the US as well. The media perpetuates such a very single experience that is the norm. Which is really interesting. That’s why I love fandom conversations because I think if we just saw these TV shows without any contexts –

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: Without hearing responses from other fans, we’d be thinking that we’re the sort of odd ducks who don’t quite fit in. Whereas in fandom, everyone is like, “No, this doesn’t really … this doesn’t represent my life either.” So you find community in fandom which is pretty cool.

Anna: Yeah and it’s great when they say that, “Oh, it’s not what you see.” Like “Not all of us drive a car at sixteen or have like [sighs] uniforms that require skirts and high heels.” Who wears high heels in school?

Parinita: Yeah.

Anna: I can barely make it out of my PJs and wear proper clothes like –

Parinita: [laughs]

Anna: I’m not saying that someone may not wear these, but I think maybe –

Parinita: But there’s room for different representations, right? Like there’s room for different –

Anna: Yeah.

Parinita: Experiences of … anything in media.

Anna: Yeah. Exactly.

Parinita: Which is why I think as I said, for me, fandom was so important. But fandom also allowed me to be okay with critiquing the media –

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: That I love like Harry Potter, for example.

Anna: Yes.

Parinita: I started reading it since I was ten and now it’s been twenty years that I’ve been a die-hard Harry Potter fan. But it’s only much later that I realised that oh wait, it’s not all perfect and it’s not all – there are things that definitely can be better.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: And I love that fandom allows you to call out the problematic elements and I don’t think that this diminishes my love of the media.

Anna: Yeah, no I completely agree. And it took me a while to be able to criticise the things I loved and obsessed about because I thought that I had to like everything that I read or I saw. And take what I’m seeing as something that’s right. And eventually I got to a point of accepting and understanding why other people are calling things out that are not okay. And I think I’m growing as a person from that experience alone you know.

Parinita: Yeah for sure. Because you’re still twenty-two and you seem much more with it than I was when I was twenty-two. Because it’s only been very recently – I’ve been in fandom more or less since I was thirteen. But earlier it was much more the squee part of fandom which is like I’m excited about everything, I want to only hear good things. Whereas now I love the critical commentary. I love the people who come together, who sort of expand the texts and expand my mind a little bit more.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: Just by inserting their own voices and perspectives. Which is one of my favourite things.

Anna: I agree completely. As long as everyone is respectful with each other, it can bring so much – like a different light into your whole perspective about what you’ve grown to love. And I think it broadens your mind in a way.

Parinita: Yeah, for sure. And what we were talking about, about the cultural elements as well, coming from Greece and India.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: For me it’s this whole process of decolonising my mind. Because when I’ve grown up, we read a lot of British literature, so children’s books. And now I watch a lot of American TV shows and movies. And that really makes me think about my own country in a different way. Whereas now these conversations, they’re making me see the problematic bits of Western media and culture as well. It helps me see both the West and India in a different way, if that makes sense.

Anna: Yeah, totally. I agree.

Parinita: So I know you had some thoughts about how the movie adaptations of the Harry Potter series really butchered some characters and misrepresented others –

Anna: [sighs]

Parinita: Through problematic portrayals?

Anna: Um hmm. I have some very strong thoughts on that.

Parinita: [laughs]

Anna: And I’m glad you agreed with me because I love the Harry Potter movies. It’s one of my favourite movie series and I will never stop watching it and re-watching and re-watching.

Parinita: [laughs]

Anna: But oh my god the characters! You miss out so much only by the story because there’s so many books and there’s so many story-lines you cannot convey in a two-hour movie. So you’re like okay maybe they’ll do justice to the characters if not the story. And then you have someone like Ginny Weasley and [sighs] Ginny Weasley in the books is amazing. And she’s such a fierce and strong young woman. And then in the movies, it’s like she’s not even there. And I’m not saying it for the actress or anything because I don’t think it’s her fault.

Parinita: No absolutely. You know I think it’s like in one of the Witch, Please episodes that we listened to

Anna: Um hmm

Parinita: They said that it’s a political choice on how you choose to portray characters in movie adaptations. And they also mentioned Ginny Weasley because like you said that she’s portrayed to be just a romantic interest of Harry Potter in the movies. Which, in the books, she is more her own person. Even though we see her as, just like we see everything else, through Harry’s perspective.

Anna: Um hmm

Parinita: Ginny does seem to be much more independent and has her own life and has her own convictions and she does her own thing. Which is why I wonder – I know in fandom, there are some really strong reactions either for or against Ginny.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: And I wonder if this is to do with whether the movies have influenced their beliefs or the books have influenced their beliefs.

Anna: Yeah, I think it’s a bit of both. Because I watched the movies first and then I read the books. Not all of the movies. But I watched the first two I think, or three, before I started reading the books.

Parinita: Yeah.

Anna: And I didn’t instantly connect who Ginny was because she was so … I’m not going to say a mediocre character, but she was not given the time to shine that she did eventually in the books. And you said that they use her as a romantic interest in the movies. But I think that didn’t even work well.

Parinita: Yeah.

Anna: You barely see her after The Chamber of Secrets. And suddenly in the sixth movie, Harry finds himself liking her. And that didn’t escalate in any way correctly. You know?

Parinita: Yeah because we don’t see her grow as a person. We see her obviously in Chamber of Secrets where she undergoes this really traumatic experience. But even that we’re not shown in as much detail as the books.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: But then we don’t see how she gets over that trauma and how she stands up to her brothers’ teasing and bullying and goes along with it. And the pranks that she plays and all the dating that she does as well. She’s not just hung up on Harry forever. She’s doing these other things. As well as she stands up to Ron’s slut-shaming of her in Half-Blood Prince which was born out of his own insecurities. So she’s –

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: She’s very secure in her own person. She doesn’t need – she’s not just Harry’s crutch.

Anna: I think that one thing that the movies are missing out is that sure you cannot add many things and obviously the story is about Harry. But Ginny is a part of his friend group. She’s his best friend’s sister. So Harry sees her often, he goes to the Weasley house. And why would you take out something so easily adapted. Just have her be around. Make her more visible. Why are you burying her like that? And I think that one of the reasons why they did it is also because they wanted to have one strong female character which was Hermione.

Parinita: Yeah.

Anna: And for some reason they cannot have more room for another great woman you know.

Parinita: Absolutely. There’s just room for one, right? And yeah, one of the essays that we read as well, it said how a lot of Ron’s lines were given to Hermione which diminished Ron’s character as well in the movies. Which reminded me of this other Witch, Please episode that I’d listened to which talked about how in the Chamber of Secrets, Hermione had also received some of Dumbledore’s lines. And it almost seems to portray Hermione as this perfect can-do-no-wrong aspirational character in the movies that you know she’s someone that we should all want to be. Which I also think is a little bit of a disservice because I like Hermione’s flaws and her –

Anna: Hmm.

Parinita: Her authenticity. I would like room for all kinds of representations of female characters. Not just we are only allowed one.

Anna: Yeah. And I think that they tried to put all the great stuff – not great, like the funny quotes or the ideas that someone had and put them on Hermione to make her shine. But the good thing is that even through her flaws, she was a great character in the books.

Parinita: Absolutely.

Anna: So why did they feel the need to add extra stuff when she was already a great, empowered woman in the Harry Potter world. And why did you feel the need to take from someone else? Like okay Dumbledore, he was amazing anyway; he was smart, he was witty and he had great quotes anyway so it’s not like many things were taken away from him. But Ron! I think that the movies – I love Ron anyway but I think the movies butchered him as well. Like many people don’t like movie Ron. And when I say he’s one of my favourite characters and they ask me why, I’m like he has done so many great things in the books. And he’s such a loyal friend. Yeah sure, he has his flaws. But he had a story-line, a character arc, through the books that you do not see in the movies. It’s actually the opposite. He almost goes from a great friend to an awful friend in the movies.

Parinita: Yeah.

Anna: Which is not who he really was. And all that just so you can make Hermione even greater than she already is.

Parinita: Yeah. And I think this strive to perfection is so unnecessary because it’s not like we’re going to – well maybe some people might dislike Hermione because of one flaw. But then those kind of people are probably not liking Hermione for – they just like her for very superficial reasons anyway. But otherwise I mean I think that’s what media needs more of. And in a movie like Harry Potter which has such a wide reach, having more complex and nuanced characters – there was such an opportunity for that and it was really missed unfortunately.

Anna: Yeah, I agree. It would have been great if they could use every single thing from the books but you know if you have so much information to work from, why not put a little more effort to the other characters? Because yeah, Harry is your hero but no story is great with only one character, one hero. You know the rest of the characters –

Parinita: Oh no! Yeah I for sure think that there are –

Anna: [laughs]

Parinita: Like Harry was great and all but no. He would be nowhere – first of all, without Hermione. He would be nowhere without Hermione.

Anna: Yeah!

Parinita: But also just his friendships. And adults as well as young people – I don’t think anything would have been possible without his friendships. And also I think one of the essays mentioned, the female friendships have been completely erased in the movies as well. Like between Ginny and Hermione and Luna and Ginny.

Anna: Yeah.

Parinita: There’s no really examples of those.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: So we’ve largely talked about the female characters in Harry Potter. What about the ways in which masculinity is represented, not just in Harry Potter but also in Supernatural. You did mention that you had good things to say about how men’s emotions are showed in Supernatural.

Anna: I think Supernatural is a very masculine show in the way that you know you have these dudes who drink beer, they will listen to rock music, and they have a great car and they kick ass. And I love that. But it’s not very often that you see men expressing their feelings. And sure, they struggle a lot and they hide a lot of things from each other. But there has been, in my opinion, many great moments that they have let themselves be truthful and vulnerable and share what they feel.

Parinita: Hmm.

Anna: And I think that’s something you don’t really see. And, of course, it’s a show with fifteen seasons. So you do have that kind of time to see that evolving. But it is something that is present in the first seasons as well. And I don’t know, it surprised me a lot when I first watched it. It still does.

Parinita: No, you’re so right because – so I’ve been watching Supernatural since I was sixteen so it’s been with me for a really long part of my life. I haven’t watched the last two seasons. But it’s been something that I’ve been a fan of for a very long time. But I didn’t think about just the emotional life that we see of Sam and Dean because it’s just something … I don’t know. That’s why again, fandom for me is just helpful for me to be able to articulate these things that maybe I knew about in the back of my head or thought about vaguely. But it’s something that gives me the vocabulary to actually actively talk about. Which is, for me, very helpful. So when I was doing my master’s degree, I also studied fan communities. And I studied Harry Potter and Percy Jackson – two Facebook fan pages. And I’d encountered this video called “The Fantastic Masculinity of Newt Scamander”.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: From the Fantastic Beasts movie. And it subjected Newt to this really detailed analysis which concluded that Newt is emotional and empathetic and he offers this positive representation of masculinity in mainstream culture which, like you said, is otherwise populated with really brash and violent fantasy heroes.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: So Supernatural is perhaps one example and Newt as well because you see a very specific kind of hero in most of the media that we consume. So it’s not just with women’s representations, it’s with men’s representations as well. There’s just one way to be a man, I guess. Or a heroic figure.

Anna: Yeah. I agree. And I love Newt. He’s a great character. And as you said, he’s empathetic and I think his love of animals is something that’s helped him to be that. But we shouldn’t have to be surprised when movies and TV series make men seem vulnerable.

Parinita: No, absolutely. Even with women’s representations, right? Like I watched Wonder Woman and I was in tears because I was – that was I think the first time I’d seen a movie like that which centred women’s experiences. It wasn’t male gazey and it was just placing us in the centre in a way that makes you feel so empowered.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: And like I was telling my friends in a previous episode, this is what men feel like all the time!

Anna: I know! Didn’t you feel like you wanted to get a lasso and try to grab someone from the street?

Parinita: Absolutely!

Anna: [laughs]

Parinita: It makes you feel so emotional. It shouldn’t be something that needs to be commented on but unfortunately it is because there’s such a dearth of these characters and these stories that place people who’ve – including women – who’ve been on the margins of mainstream media and culture for so long.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: I do see things getting better now so I’m glad that diversity, even if it’s for really commercial reasons, they just want money, I’m fine with that. If it starts that way and then becomes because they actually want diversity and value diversity –

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: That’s totally okay for me. So one of the other things that we listened to, the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text episode on masculinity, that was really interesting because it analysed the Weasleys and how – because it’s like what seven brothers? Is it seven brothers?

Anna: It’s six brothers and one sister.

Parinita: Oh six brothers! Yeah see the memory, it’s just like one thing goes in from one side of the brain and leaks out of the other.

Anna: [laughs] I mean there’s many kids okay like you can forget.

Parinita: Yeah I can’t keep a track of all of them! They come, they go. But they talked about the different ways in which the Weasley boys, they signaled their masculinity. And Bill and Charlie they’re pretty traditionally masculine. So adventurers and treasure hunters and dragon riders and whatever. And Fred and George, they pointed out how they accrue social power through humour and then obviously they have their business as well. So they’re really good businessmen or business wizards whatever. And Percy achieves political status and power. And Ron – so I mean that’s what made me start thinking that yeah Ron is super insecure in the first book when we see in the Mirror of Erised

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: He wants to be better than his brothers and he wants to you know outshine all of them. Which is understandable. But he takes this out on the women in his life. He takes this out on Hermione, he takes this out on Ginny.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: When Ginny points out that he’s only jealous of her and Hermione because he’s never had any sort of romantic or sexual experience. And out of revenge or whatever, he starts dating Lavender as well who he doesn’t really seem to like too much.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: And that’s really unfair on Lavender too. Like she’s just having a relationship whereas he’s like having a revenge relationship or what? I don’t know.

Anna: Yeah it’s sad to think. Because on the one hand you want to – I feel bad for Ron because he has this legacy of brothers before him; that the two of them are doing their thing away from home and they are, as you said, like the traditional masculine types that have dragons and they work in banks and one of them scored the pretty girl. And then you have Percy who is like the how do we call it um the – the Prefect?

Parinita: Um hmm.

Anna: Yeah and he’s very smart and he has a girlfriend. And then you have Fred and George who are very popular and they do all these pranks. So there is a lot of weight on him because he’s not the greatest student, he’s not the prankster or anything. And he’s like before his sister, who apparently Molly really wanted a daughter. So then she went full on on Ginny and everything. So I understand. But then again, you have to work on your problems and yourself and you cannot – just because you feel bad, it doesn’t mean you have to take it out on others.

Parinita: I mean to be fair, he was also a teenage boy. I think I was a pretty – I mean I was not as terrible a teenager, but then again, I didn’t have –

Anna: Yeah.

Parinita: Voldemort threatening to take over the wizarding world.

Anna: True.

Parinita: Although now you see fascism everywhere so I guess teenagers have more to deal with than we did.

Anna: True!

Parinita: Yeah but it’s also how you see in just feminist discourse that the patriarchy harms men as well. It’s not just women.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: Obviously women are much more affected. But Ron’s insecurity seems to stem from just this singular narrative of what makes a successful and popular man. Like having a girlfriend and being successful at sports –

Anna: Um hmm

Parinita: And being successful at school. Whereas there are more ways to be successful and I mean there’s no one right way to be a man. Unless you’re terrible in which case, yeah that’s the wrong way to be a man!

Anna: [laughs]

Parinita: But you know to be a good man, you don’t need to … yeah there just need to be more role models which, in the magical world, in the real world, unfortunately there’s totally a lack of.

Anna: Yeah. But I think what’s a great thing concerning Ron is that he had people who stood up to him. Like Ginny when, as you said he had an attitude about her going out with boys and everything. And she set him straight. And Hermione, when he was, “Oh you’re a girl!” She was like “Yeah thanks for noticing. Goodbye now, I already have a date.”

Parinita: Um hmm.

Anna: I think that having someone – and obviously women because he had a few issues about them – stand up and not let that kind of behaviour go on further, I think it’s very beneficial and I think that’s why eventually his relationship with Ginny got better when she dated Harry because he was like, “Okay, you’re dating my best friend. But you’re free to do whatever because you know I trust you.” And I think that wouldn’t happen if Ginny hadn’t put her foot down and was like, “I’ll do what I want and you have to deal with it.”

Parinita: You’re so right! I wonder because you see Ron’s behaviour in this fictional world, you see it replicated in the real world now. I wonder if you know just with these internet forums and things,

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: Where groups of men congregate. So I just wonder if Ginny and Hermione hadn’t been there, would Ron have been like a wizarding incel? Would he have been all like, “I hate all women because I get no girlfriends” and “Women are the worst!” and “Down with women!”

Anna: I mean dude with that kind of behaviour, of course you’re not going to get any women.

Parinita: Yeah, I’m glad well whatever his problematic misogynistic incel-adjacent behaviour, he grew out of.

Anna: Yeah.

Parinita: And he grew up. So that’s good. But there are other examples of misogyny in the Harry Potter series as well which again, isn’t something that I had considered myself when I read the series when I was younger.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: I’m slowly reading the books again and watching the movies again. And I wonder if it’ll be more noticeable to me now because I think about these things in my real world. So I wonder if I’ll notice it more in the fictional world. But currently it’s all the fan podcasts that I’ve been listening to which have pointed this out. So, of course Ron and the misogyny towards Ginny but then also Ginny, Hermione and Molly’s attitude against Fleur. And this is something because you read it from this limited Harry Potter perspective, I was like oh yeah Fleur is this silly little girl who you know whatever. But now when you look back at it, she is obviously this really smart, capable witch. Because she went into the Triwizard Tournament and she did all these cool things. And she’s also you know she’s kind and loyal. Like she sticks with Bill even though his family is horrible to her.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: And she looks after Harry and the rest when they come into her cottage and just barge in.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: I think in the Witch, Please episode, was it, that they pointed out the gendered labour of the resistance where she’s relegated to the kitchen and making casseroles for the resistance rather than –

Anna: Yeah.

Parinita: You know using her skills and capabilities and being in the front-line of Dumbledore’s Army [I meant Order of the Phoenix].

Screenshot of Tumblr post by siriusblaque. Text says: 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

A fan text I encountered while researching my master’s dissertation

Anna: Um hmm I agree. Well about the first things you said, about Ginny and Hermione and Mrs. Weasley I didn’t think of it at first but I never liked how they treated Fleur in the books.

Parinita: Hmm.

Anna: But I think that they all got so defensive because obviously she was so beautiful and Harry kind of liked her and Ron was very into her for some time. So everyone started getting protective about their people. Ginny, I think, because her brother was so – her brothers – with Bill and Ron watching her and saying oh how beautiful she was. And I think Hermione maybe with Ron because perhaps something was going on. And Mrs. Weasley because she’s like, “Oh that’s my son, where is she going to take him? And where did she come from?” And everything. So I think part of that was because they started feeling very protective over their people and their relationships they had with them. But –

Parinita: Yeah.

Anna: When in the books, when she stayed with Bill even though his face was like you know because of that fight and Fenrir I think it was – that werewolf –

Parinita: Um hmm.

Anna: Scratched his face and she’s like, “He’s beautiful to me and I’m not leaving his side whatever you say.” I think that was such a beautiful like “in your face!” moment for Mrs. Weasley and Ginny and Hermione because I think they believed she was very superficial even – because she was a bit of a snob but that was just her personality. Like one of her personality traits–

Parinita: And also she was this person who was in a new country

Anna: Yeah.

Parinita: And she’s in this house and family where everyone else seems to be treating her pretty poorly. So I might have been a bit of a snob in her position as well. I’m like yeah if you don’t take me seriously. And I think you make a very good point because when this happens, I think Hermione, Ginny and Mrs. Weasley, they do soften up to her.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: But there’s also so much to unpack just about our own social conditioning and how we have misogynistic tendencies as well against other women. Just pitting women in competition with each other because you’re beautiful or whatever and you know you’re jealous or you’re competitive about the other people. So yeah there’s more I think to unpack there. But I’m glad again that she was – although she was still stuck in the kitchen.

Anna: Yeah.

Parinita: But then, Mrs. Weasley has been stuck in the kitchen through all seven books of the series.

Anna: I know. I’m so conflicted about Mrs. Weasley because I think her like maternal instincts and everything was something that really helped Harry because he never had something like that.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Anna: So I’m glad that he found someone that would take care of him in the way a mother does – make him food and ask him if he’s okay, if he’s hungry, tell him to wash behind your ear and don’t forget something.

Parinita: [laughs]

Anna: You know that’s a thing I never heard that in real life. I’ve only read that in books.

Parinita: Me neither. And it has never made me want to wash behind my ears. I’m just like oh this is a thing fictional characters don’t seem to do or people in the West don’t seem to want to do.

Anna: [laughs] I know! But then you know she’s clearly a very talented witch because first of all, she can handle five children so that makes her a hero already in my eyes.

Parinita: [laughs] Absolutely.

Anna: And later on she has that amazing scene. I cried when I watched that in the movies. “Not my daughter, you bitch!” was one of the greatest lines in the book and I’m so glad they made it in the movies. And I was like if that’s what happens when she’s angry right now because one of her children were in danger, like all of her children were but you know with Ginny. Like imagine what else she could have done or how useful she could have been in a battle and not stuck behind making I don’t know sausages and whatever she was making all the time.

Parinita: But even if she didn’t want to be a part of the battle, for whatever reason,

Anna: Um hmm

Parinita: I think that her duties, whatever she did, was still very important in the resistance. I think it was the Women of Harry Potter Molly Weasley episode that pointed it out.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: That she provides both food-based nourishment so she’s literally cooking for the resistance.

Anna: Yeah.

Parinita: And she also provides mental and emotional nourishment for both the young people and for the adults. And her labour of nourishing the resistance in such different ways is completely overlooked. Her worries are dismissed. Her hobbies are dismissed as well. She likes reading Witch Weekly, she likes listening to Celestina Warbeck I think is the name?

Anna: Yes.

Parinita: I’m very confident that this is the name but I always have a misplaced sense of confidence.

Anna: Yeah I think – I think that’s it.

Parinita: Yeah and they make fun of her worries and they make fun of her being snappy about just because her stress-born snappiness. And I feel like she deserves so much more respect because it’s so similar in the real world, right? Like women in that position are just taken for granted. And –

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: Even in the resistance, there are different kinds of activism. It’s not just – like in India, currently, we have protests going on which the Coronavirus has sort of put a halt to at the moment. And there’s this group of women – of Muslim women and children who have congregated at this place in Delhi called Shaheen Bagh. And they are basically there just to hold the government to account. They’ve just been sitting there I think for two months. And they’ve been cooking there and having events and things. And these are women from really deprived backgrounds as well.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: It’s not like they are these elite activists who can take the time off work or whatever. But they’re just like if we don’t do this, nobody’s going to do this. And fortunately in India, they have inspired the entire country and there has been more such activism by deprived Muslim women and children in different parts of the country. But yeah I think that is a more stark example. But there are so many more examples like this just in the real world but whose work is just dismissed.

Anna: Yeah and that’s so sad because as you said, you can choose not to go to the battle-front or whatever like Mrs. Weasley stayed back. But don’t dismiss her and not appreciate what she does just because it’s something that she will do every day for you because she’s your mum or your wife or whoever. Like say thank you and don’t be – because I cannot remember like precise examples right now but there has been times you know Ron or someone will be snappy towards Mrs. Weasley because she’s being herself and she is watching out for her kids. They’re like, “Oh we have more important things to do.” Yeah right. If you don’t eat, I’d like to see you try do any of those things you know.

Parinita: I mean you literally had a tantrum in the forest and then left Harry and Hermione because you were hungry, because you’d gotten used to your mother’s really good food and taken it for granted! I know we spoke about Harry Potter a lot but I also wanted to make sure that we touched on the more – much more overt misogyny in Supernatural.

Anna: Oh my god.

Parinita: Which almost seems to act as this structural framework of the show much more than it is in Harry Potter. Because like I said, I’ve been watching it for a very long time. But I’d largely blocked out the uncomfortable history of violence against women. Maybe because of my bad memory – probably because of my bad memory.

Anna: [laughs]

Parinita: But you know that essay that we read, “Supernatural: A History of Violence Against Women”. Oh my god it made me so uncomfortable.

Anna: I know!

Parinita: But in a really good way. Just because it laid out all the different examples of the way that it had treated its female characters.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: And there aren’t that many female characters who survive anyway. But yeah the way that they had been treated, and the way that they had been insulted in a very gendered way.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: Yeah it was really uncomfortable.

Anna: I know. It makes me so angry because when I watched Supernatural, it was like a year ago I started. And I binged it like all the way through to now. And it was so much information at once that I didn’t have time to like analyse what I was seeing properly.

Parinita: Yeah.

Anna: Then I did a re-watch like a month or so later. And usually I don’t analyse things and movies and TV series, apart from Harry Potter because that’s the one thing that I know so much about and because it has the books. But usually I don’t analyse stuff very much. But then I started seeing this pattern of how women were treated. I’m not saying that it’s that they died in the show, because everyone dies. The main characters have died like a thousand times. So that’s not my issue. It’s the way they die every time. Spoilers for anyone who hasn’t caught up, I’m sorry, but you know Eileen [sighs] Eileen is one of my favourite characters and the way she was killed in … I don’t remember was season twelve or yeah – yeah season twelve. It was so brutal and so awful because she’s deaf – a deaf hunter. And by mistake, she kills someone. And they send a hellhound after her. A hellhound is like a dog from hell that you cannot see, you can only hear. And what you send something that cannot be seen to a deaf woman who cannot hear it to like take her apart. And it was like a ten second death scene. You didn’t even see it. That made me so angry. Or with Charlie like the second favourite character

Parinita: Yeah.

Anna: Who got a death in a freaking bathtub full of blood. You didn’t even see her fight. Like she was so amazing. She survived at Oz with Dorothy and whoever it was. She killed so many people, she was so skillful. And then suddenly she dies in a bathtub and we didn’t even see her fight! And what for?! There was no reason for her to die. Absolutely no reason.

Parinita: Yeah and it’s like what that essay pointed out. That it’s the way in which violence against women is used to just further the stories of male characters. It’s almost like that’s what they’ve been created for.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: Which is similar to arguments about characters of colour which are killed off for white characters and queer characters versus cisgender and heterosexual characters as well as characters with disabilities versus non-disabled characters. Where everybody who seems to be on the margin is just this sort of prop to be there just to be discarded when you want to heighten emotions. And there are even examples of this in Harry Potter as well. Which again, something I hadn’t considered but Witch, Please a podcast that I love and that everyone should go listen to.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: They spoke about Ariana Dumbledore, the implied violence against her. So the Muggle children, the Muggle boys, they were violent towards her when she was younger. But there was also this implied sexual connotation to that which I hadn’t picked up on and I want to now go back and re-read that extract.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: But that is what caused Dumbledore to turn against Grindelwald. Not that exactly, but that sort of led to that huge thing.

Anna: Yeah.

Parinita: To make Dumbledore – to give him this tragic backstory. And then there’s Helena Ravenclaw who is murdered by the Bloody Baron because she refused to date him? Like I don’t know. And then she’s forced to haunt this castle with him like she’s not even rid of him in death. With Lily Potter and Snape as well.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: Like that’s really troubling.

Anna: [sighs] I never liked Snape even after his arc. I’m like oh okay you were a great spy but I still didn’t like him and I don’t understand how people forgive him so easily because he was a Death Eater and he believed in everything that Voldemort or everyone was on about. And he had no problem admitting it. And I think that Lily felt she had to be his friend because you know he was the one she met back then when she didn’t know exactly what was going on and he helped her. But like he made some awful choices. And he treated her so badly. And that’s one of the things that I think is very common that when someone is  say bullying you, they’re like, “Oh my god, he likes you, that’s why he’s mean to you.” So what kind of excuse is that? Like oh okay I’m going to leave this person and let him be awful to me because he likes me? So I think that that was thing that I noticed with Snape and with Lily that because he liked her, he bullied her.

Parinita: So I love the character of Snape just because the way that the character is created has so many complexities and so many flaws and just like the character arc, I love it.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: But the character of Snape that is his interactions and his relationships, he’s a pretty shitty character.

Anna: Yeah.

Parinita: And you know it’s like with Lily, it’s not her job to reform him. Like if he can’t work on himself and be better there’s no reason for her to put up with it. So in one of the essays that we read about Ginny Weasley, one of the comments, somebody had said that they were upset with Ginny because she didn’t show remorse for what she had done. And the example that they presented was that when Ron was going through a really tough time, Ginny hadn’t supported him and hadn’t been nice to him. And I was like uh it is not Ginny’s job to be nice to her brother who is being a bit of an asshole. So I’m glad Lily and Ginny stood up to these terrible, terrible men.

Anna: Um hmm, I agree. And I think it’s a refreshing thing to see that eventually – even though she tried, you know she didn’t let’s say abandon her friend instantly with the first difficult thing between them – she stood up for herself after he called her a Mudblood. I think she cut ties with him if I remember correctly

Parinita: Yeah and because he wouldn’t give up his Death Eater friends and Death Eater beliefs.

Anna: Yeah.

Parinita: So if she is the only exceptional – if he hates all that she stands for but he only likes her because she is the exception to the rule –

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: Why should she put up with it? This is just like in real life where you know in terms of racism, in terms of homophobia whatever. You need to respect the entire community, you can’t just respect one person from that community. And I think these conversations are so important especially because of the huge role that popular media plays in influencing our attitudes and behaviours. As some people pointed out in the Alohomora podcast as well as some of the other texts that we read, Harry Potter as well as other media – but Harry Potter especially provides this new form of mythology and folklore.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: Which people are using to make sense of the world.

Anna: Yeah.

Parinita: I was just thinking of it in terms of protests that we’ve seen. So I mentioned the protests happening in India. But also protests that are happening in the US as well as some of the climate crisis protests where you see a lot of Harry Potter themed signs there which I love.

Anna: Um hmm.

Photo of a teenager holding a protest sign which reads: We grew up on Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, Marvel and Star Wars. Of course w'ere fighting back.

A photo from the March For Our Lives protest in the US

Photo of a young girl holding up a protest sign which reads: When Voldemort is President we need a nation of Hermiones

A photo from the Women’s March in the US

Parinita: Which I know a lot of people make fun of because they’re like, “Oh this is not the Harry Potter world, it’s the real world.” But in terms of religion, for example.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: People use religious texts so much to try and figure out the real world; to draw parallels between the religious texts and the real world.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: And with Harry Potter, I think a lot of people do the same. Because it was such a powerful part of many people’s childhoods or adulthoods and it’s just something that – you use stories that play a huge role in your life. And you use them to make sense of everything else in your life. That’s definitely something that I do. And I see that a lot in my generation and other generations have done that as well.

Anna: Um hmm. And I’ve read somewhere that there was a study of some sort that said that people who read Harry Potter are usually more accepting and they will stand up to things they believe are unfair. And I think that’s a great thing that just proves the point. When you see signs like, “Dumbledore would never let that happen” or something like that. It’s like yeah, these books and not just Harry Potter but everything that you can get that you know broadens your horizon, doesn’t get you stuck in a specific mindset. It’s wonderful and great to see that from such a small thing like a kids’ book that you – because many people would call it that because it has magic and it’s not in the real world and apparently we can never read anything else because it’s magical. I don’t know but –

Photo from a protest highlighting a sign which reads: Dumbledore wouldn't let this happen

Another fan text I encountered while researching my master’s dissertation

Parinita: [laughs] Well, as someone who thinks both children’s literature and fantasy are very, very important, I would have to disagree with all these people.

Anna: Yeah, thank you!

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah. I know a lot of people talked about how Harry Potter has created its own mythology and rituals.

Anna: Um hmm

Parinita: Not only in the fictional world but also in the real world. But you pointed out that Harry Potter has drawn a lot of inspiration from Greek mythology as well.

Anna: Um hmm. Yeah that was one of the first things that made me go like oh wow, I recognise that thing. Because there are many names from Greek mythology or the constellations that are – people are named after that in the Harry Potter world. And you know that’s not something you see. I certainly don’t see that very often in any kind of American or British – English text. That’s not something you see very often. And I was very surprised because they were like hidden gems and everything that that were very interesting. I think there’s a constellation that’s called Orion. I’m not sure if I’m saying that correctly.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Anna: And one of the stars in the constellation is called Draco. So I think – don’t one hundred per cent quote me on that – I’m going to check it. But –

Parinita: No, I know there is a constellation [I meant star] named Draco. I don’t know which belt it lies in. But yeah. Sirius as well is a constellation [I meant star again]. The dog star.

Anna: Oh! I think that’s the – yeah, you’re right. So Orion is a constellation and Sirius is a star in this constellation. And Sirius’s dad was named Orion.

Parinita: Hmm.

Anna: So like Sirius is part of this … you know how it goes.

Parinita: Yeah.

Anna: And there is so many things like that. Mandragora – mandrakes and the sphinx and the –

Parinita: Yeah the creatures like unicorns, griffins, the centaurs, the phoenix as well.

Anna: Yeah.

Parinita: Yeah. And also the name I think Sybil Trelawney whose ancestor was Cassandra Trelawney?

Anna: Cassandra.

Parinita: Yeah.

Anna: Yeah, yeah, yeah. She was a very powerful witch. She wasn’t a witch – wait. I think that was … oh she was meant to be –

Parinita: A seer? Like a prophet? She gave prophecies?

Anna: Yeah well … hmm … I think I may … no I think I’m like ninety per cent sure. She was a woman who was cursed by a god to have visions of things but people would never believe her.

Parinita: Yeah.

Anna: And she was in Troy – the Trojan War something. She was ugh I should know that! That’s so embarrassing.

Parinita: No, you know this happens with me with Indian mythology as well. Just because I seem to know more about like Christian mythology – Christian beliefs and Christian things more because that’s such a part of Western media. And I also went to a Catholic school so it’s something that I grew up with. But yeah this happens to me all the time. I’m like, “I don’t know details about my own mythology!”

Anna: Oh yes, she was – she was the daughter of the queen of Troy. Yeah.

Parinita: Ah right.

Anna: And she was sister to Paris, yeah. Yeah, yeah I knew that, okay. I knew that.

Parinita: And there’s Fluffy as well who is the –

Anna: Yeah Cerberus!

Parinita: The dog that guards the gates to hell. But what I also found interesting. So in one of the papers that we read, she compared the mythology of the Hogwarts founders to Greek gods and goddesses as well as houses being like the god and goddess cults of ancient Greek society. Whereas me and my friends, we were talking about how to us, the four house systems remind us of the Hindu caste system. Which is you know there’s like different segregation that happens based on birth and you are – once you’re in that particular caste, you can’t intermingle with other castes. Like traditionally. And you can only stick to the people in that community and you can do the same kind of job and you can’t be more than what your birth entailed.

Anna: Oh okay.

Parinita: So what I found really interesting is that the Harry Potter world is so full of potential to be read from multiple mythological lenses. If I read it through Hindu mythology or Indian mythology whereas if you read it from Greek mythology, we could still come up with many different things and they would be both valid because there’s room for multiple interpretations. Just like in fandom. Which I thought was pretty cool. So, some of the fan podcasts, I don’t know if you’ve thought about this – I hadn’t. Just because the context is so Western. But some of the fan podcasts did point out the more problematic representations of different cultures in the Potterverse.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: So specifically, they spoke about goblins and how the goblins – like there’s a lack of Jewish characters in the Harry Potter books. I think there’s one – Anthony Goldstein. Which the Witch, Please episode pointed out. They’re both Jewish co-hosts in Witch, Please so they look at it through a Jewish lens. And they think that the goblins are a really anti-Semitic representation of what Orthodox Jewish people are supposed to be. And this is not something that I thought of growing up in India because we don’t have these cultural contexts that we think about.

Anna: Yeah, same here.

Parinita: Yeah. And centaurs as well. So the other episode that we listened to which talked about just indigenous people in the US, so like Native American cultures and you know their beliefs. Witch, Please also codes centaurs as indigenous people – all the tropes and stereotypes that are used about centaurs, which I’ll link to in the transcript – the episode. But I found that really interesting because it’s so contextual. Like you know the things that are written in a context that is not yours, you don’t know these things. But then just hearing discussions of things from people within those contexts, it’s just like this informal school on the internet. Which I love.

Anna: Yeah. Um hmm I agree because for many years, I didn’t even know what anti-Semitic means because I’m sure it happens here but that’s not something I ever encountered or even discussed with anyone. So when you mentioned and when I listened to the podcast and you know through many things that I’ve read you know through the years I was so shocked. I’m like that’s so – that’s offensive!

Parinita: Yeah! No, absolutely. And me too! I had not thought of this. I only discovered this within the last couple of years, I think. You know all these stereotypes that apparently people here – because now I’m currently in the UK. So there are apparently a lot of stereotypes about Jewish people.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: But for me, I don’t even know what the stereotypes are. Because it’s not something that I’ve ever come across in India. So you know when there is something that people say is anti-Semitic because it perpetuates these stereotypes, I’m like, “Oh! I didn’t even know this was a stereotype about Jewish people!” Like I would have never made that connection.

Anna: Yeah. I only know one stereotype about them like with the money and something but I don’t even know the stereotype. It’s something I’ve heard maybe once or twice or I’ve seen on TV or something. And that blew my mind away. I was like oh my god – how is that even allowed to be a thing?! Like I don’t –

Parinita: That’s the thing. I think with J. K. Rowling, as you said, you know about the study that I’ve read as well, reading Harry Potter makes people like according to the study, more empathetic and respectful of different experiences. But I think that’s what the readers have taken from it. And what some of the readers have taken from it. Because now obviously fans are also calling out J. K. Rowling –

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: For being unfair and unjust. Like you said, you know, fans stand up to injustice. The most recent ones of course have been about transphobia.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: But before that, on Pottermore, where she’d written about magic in North America. And the Reading, Writing, Rowling episode that we heard about “Fantasy, Imagination and Indigenous Futurism”.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: And that episode was so good because it was such a good encapsulation of all the arguments against Native appropriation that J. K. Rowling has done and she’s never apologized for it. She’s never even addressed the critiques. Because you would think when you have that much power and that much influence –

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: You do acknowledge your mistakes. Because obviously everybody makes mistakes. I think she can hire a research assistant. She has enough money to hire a research assistant and do the work for her.

Anna: Yeah.

Parinita: But she obviously just wants to write it all herself. But then she doesn’t put in the work, she doesn’t research the cultures that she’s talking about.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: So she just has this token diversity – like she’ll just have this mention of a diverse community or a diverse person but not actually go in-depth about anything. And anything that she does include is stereotypical. And is offensive.

Anna: Um hmm I agree. I think she used to put more work when – I’m not going to say that the fame got to her head, but maybe it did. What’s the quote? “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Parinita: [laughs]

Anna: Is that from Spider-man?

Parinita: Yeah.

Anna: I think.

Parinita: Yeah, yeah.

Anna: So you have so many people following you and loving your work and you know when you’ve done something wrong or even if you didn’t realise – when people are telling you that you know this is wrong, you shouldn’t be saying – don’t try to cover it up by adding something that does not follow up with what you’ve done already. Just to say that oh you know I fixed it. Just say you’re sorry and actually try to search in-depth what it is that people are telling you you’re doing wrong. And learn from it!

Parinita: And it’s not that difficult now. Like I understand when you were in the nineties and when she was writing these books, and there wasn’t this mainstream conversation about diversity. There wasn’t really the internet and social media where people from these marginalised backgrounds could talk back to creators and could insert their own opinions and perspectives. Which is what a lot of Native American fans from a lot of different Native American cultures have been calling her out. And obviously a lot of trans fans and trans allies have been calling her out for her really problematic views and what she’s said. But she doesn’t take stock of any of this. And she doesn’t acknowledge that, exactly as you said, that she has so much of a responsibility especially because I think like the Witch, Please episode pointed out, that the Harry Potter fandom seems to attract all these people who are on the margins of society in some way or the other. So a lot of queer fans, a lot of fans of colour, a lot of fans with disabilities and things. And if they except more from you because Harry Potter has played such an important part in their lives, I think you need to take that trust so seriously. You need to be accountable to them. Just because you are now this powerful person, that gives you more of a responsibility like you said. Now that you’re famous and so influential, you have to be more careful.

Anna: Yeah. And it’s heartbreaking because you know she created this beautiful world and she has an amazing imagination. And she’s brought so many people together. And now she’s doing all these things and it breaks my heart because you know I looked up to her because I love writing and I love creating things in my head and you know I was like oh that’s great. And she’s done all this charity. And now she’s [sighs] she’s letting go of all this because she’s not willing to study. And she doesn’t take into consideration what people are telling her.

Parinita: Yes, this absolutely shows, I think, just a lack of empathy.

Anna: Yeah.

Parinita: And just a failure of imagination to think about people who are not as privileged as you, how their lives are. Like I know she’s had a difficult life as a single mother and things. But there are people who are still having as and much more difficult lives that they are going through. And she’s not making it better.

Anna: Yeah.

Parinita: She’s making their lives inherently worse.

Anna: You manage – not you – like her – managed to get out of this difficult life she was living and now she has a voice. Why can’t she help other people? She’s done charity and everything but … ugh give your voice to the people who don’t have one. So when they tell you you’re doing something wrong, don’t beat around the bush. Just listen to what they say and just try to be better. Because you have the ability to do so. If you say you know oh I have made this mistake and I’m fixing it, because of who you are, people will listen. And that’s not something that happens very often.

Parinita: Some people listening to us and indeed this entire podcast may think, why do we hate the things we’re talking about so much?! All we do is critique them. But we’ve both talked about the positive impacts of fandom. And for me this podcast and like I said, just critiquing the things that I love, is very much a part of the love of the thing itself. What is the positive stuff that you’ve received from fandom?

Anna: Oh my god there’s so many. I have met some of my best friends because of fandom and the online community and social media thank god. I have met some great friends that I’ve met in real life as well. But one thing that I can say for sure, I’m gonna speak about Supernatural mostly.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Anna: Because of how great the family behind it is you know both cast, crew but also the online family. They got me into volunteering for a great organisation. It’s called I’m Alive. And it’s a crisis intervention hotline. But it’s mostly online and I got sponsored by Random Acts which is the nonprofit organization from one of the actors that play on Supernatural. And they paid for my training and now I’m volunteering every week online. And I think what’s great is that you can make a difference, you know actively make a difference. Because speaking and talking and you know preaching maybe is – is awesome and it can be very inspiring. But it’s not very often that you see people actively doing something and I think that even if it doesn’t come from the cast or the people who create the show, the actual community behind it can do so much good. So if there is a fandom or something that you love and you have found people behind it that you go along with then you’ve made friendships, try to do some good because there’s so many people behind a family and a fandom. It’s not just you. You all can make a difference. We all can make difference in this world and god knows, we need it.

Parinita: Absolutely. And that just sounds so amazing, the work that you do and the family that you’ve found through fandom. It’s something that I think I’ve read a lot about as well and it just makes me really so emotional

Anna: I know.

Parinita: Because for me just the internet and just being a part of the fandom has given me a lot in terms of how I think about things myself. And just you know expanded my mind in all these different ways. But then hearing stories like yours, and then there’s also I think John Green and Hank Green’s Don’t Forget To Be Awesome.

Anna: Um hmm.

Parinita: They have a super awesome community as well who do a lot of volunteering and educational things. And I think there’s a Harry Potter group as well. Is it called Imagine Better?

Anna: No – I don’t know.

Parinita: I will have to look up the group which I’ll add to the text [it’s called The Harry Potter Alliance]. But I’m glad that just fandom brings all these people from such different backgrounds together to do things you would never have imagined yourself doing otherwise.

Anna: Yeah and it’s not just actively volunteering. Like the community itself can help people. You don’t have to pay money to do something. So you know Jared Padalecki who plays on Supernatural, he did this campaign a few years back. The Always Keep Fighting campaign. And I’m very sad I wasn’t around for it. But that phrase has helped so many people and it’s something that’s going around every day. Because I’m very involved in the fandom and I speak with people from it daily and we’ve made good friendships. But it’s not just the cast or the crew or whoever is creating this. It’s the people behind. And to see that you don’t have to pay money, you can just talk to someone because you both believe that you can always keep fighting and being strong and knowing that you’re not alone is so important. And you know just – keeping that in mind is a thing that’s very helpful and says a lot about the people behind the fandoms.

Parinita: I’m so glad I got a chance to talk to you about all the things but especially about just fandom and what it’s meant for you. Because to me, it just makes me so happy that there are so many different ways that you get joy and pleasure out of just being a fan online and things that wouldn’t have been possible without the internet and without discovering this community. Thank you so much Anna for being a part of this project and for talking to me about your experiences.

Anna: Thank you for having me!

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode on representations of gender and unfamiliar cultures. For anybody wondering, the non-profit group inspired by J. K. Rowling’s world that I was talking about but had forgotten the name of is called The Harry Potter Alliance. You can listen to the first four episodes of Marginally Fannish wherever you find your podcasts. Thanks again Anna for being such a fantastic person to talk to about some of my favourite things. And, as always, thank you Jack for taking care of the editing.

[Outro music]

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

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

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

Episode Resources: 

For this episode we looked at the following texts:

Academic paper – Restorying the Self: Bending Toward Textual Justice

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

Fanfiction – A Wand With Sixteen Strings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Episode Transcript: 

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

Photo of Alison Baker

[Intro music]

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

[Intro music]

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

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

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

Alison: Yay!

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

Alison: That’s right.

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

Alison: [laughs]

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

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

Parinita: Hmm.

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

Parinita: Hmm.

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

Parinita: Hmm.

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

Parinita: Hmm.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Hmm.

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

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

Alison: Yeah.

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

Alison: Hmm.

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

Alison: Yeah.

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

Alison: Right.

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

Alison: Hmm.

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

Alison: Yeah.

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

Alison: Yeah.

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

Alison: Yeah.

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

Alison: Hmm.

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

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

Parinita: Hmm.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

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

Alison: Hmm.

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

Alison: Yeah.

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

Alison: Hmm.

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

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: That’s right.

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

Parinita: Hmm.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Absolutely.

Alison: With children seeing themselves.

An image with the covers of all Jacqueline Wilson books

Image courtesy @FansofJWilson

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

Alison: Yes.

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

Alison: Yeah.

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

Alison: Absolutely.

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Hmm.

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

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

Alison: Yes.

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

Alison: Yeah.

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

Alison: Oh yeah.

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

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

Parinita: Yeah, that’s true. [laughs]

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

Parinita: Hmm.

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: Yeah! That’s true.

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

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

Alison: Oh they’re really good.

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

Alison: Yeah.

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

Alison: Hmm.

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

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

Parinita: Hmm.

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

Parinita: Hmm.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

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

Alison: Yeah.

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

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Yeah absolutely.

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

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: No rats!

Parinita: [laughs]

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

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

Alison: Yeah.

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

Alison: Yeah.

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

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

Parinita: Exactly!

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

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

Alison: Yes!

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

Alison: [laughs]

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

Alison: Hmm.

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

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

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: Absolutely! Me too!

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

Parinita: Oh really?!

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

Parinita: Hmm.

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

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

Alison: Yes!

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

Alison: Yeah.

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

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Yeah, yeah.

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

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

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

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah, I have noticed.

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

Parinita: Hmm.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: [laughs]

Alison: You’d usually get shouted at.

Parinita: [laughs] Well … as one does.

Alison: Yeah.

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

Alison: Yes, it does.

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

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: Hagrid’s is more regional?

Alison: Yeah.

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

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

Parinita: Yeah, yeah.

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

Parinita: [laughs]

Alison: “My dad’s a milkman!”

Parinita: Oh yeah that’s right.

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

Parinita: Hmm.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: That’s true.

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

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

Alison: Yeah.

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

Alison: Yeah.

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

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

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

Alison: Yeah.

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

Alison: Yeah.

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

Alison: Yeah.

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

Alison: Yeah.

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

Alison: Yeah.

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

Alison: Yeah!

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

Alison: Yeah.

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

Alison: Yeah.

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

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Hmm.

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

Parinita: Hmm.

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

Parinita: Hmm.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: They are very, very class conscious.

Parinita: Ah.

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

Parinita: Hmm.

Alison: And that shabby but comfortable house.

Parinita: Yeah because –

Alison: Of the way –

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

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: You would want to live there.

Alison: And idiosyncratic.

Parinita: Hmm.

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

Parinita: Ah.

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

Parinita: Yeah!

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

Parinita: Right.

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

Parinita: Hmm.

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

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

Alison: Yes!

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

Alison: Oh! So much! Yeah.

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

Image courtesy Reddit

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

Image courtesy the Harry Potter Wiki

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

Alison: Yeah.

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

Alison: No.

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

Alison: Yeah!

Parinita: I guess.

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

Parinita: Yeah!

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

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

Alison: Yeah.

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

Alison: No!

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

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

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

Alison: Yes!

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

Alison: No.

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

Alison: Yes.

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

Alison: Yeah.

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

Alison: Yes.

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

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

Parinita: [laughs] Yes!

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Hmm.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

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

Alison: Yes.

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

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

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

Alison: Yeah.

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

Alison: Yeah and the confidence as well.

Parinita: Yeah.

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

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

Alison: Yes.

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

Alison: Hmm.

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

Alison: Yeah.

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

Alison: Yeah.

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

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

Parinita: Hmm.

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

Parinita: Hmm.

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

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

Alison: Hmm.

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

Alison: Yes.

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

Alison: Yes.

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

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

Parinita: Hmm.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

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

Alison: Yeah.

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

Alison: Yeah.

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

Alison: Yeah.

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

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

Parinita: Ah.

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

Parinita: Ah.

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

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

Parinita: Amazing.

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

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

Alison: You can be both!

Parinita: Yeah. You can be both.

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

Parinita: Um hmm.

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

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

Alison: Yes!

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

Alison: Yeah.

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

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

Parinita: Yeah!

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

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

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: Which yes, I did.

Parinita: [laughs]

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

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

Alison: Yeah.

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

Alison: Yeah.

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

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

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

Alison: Yes.

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

Alison: Yes.

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

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

Alison: Yeah.

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

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

Parinita: Um hmm.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

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

Alison: Yes!

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

Alison: Yeah.

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

Alison: Yeah!

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

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

Parinita: Yeah.

Alison: I see myself in Donna.

Parinita: Absolutely.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

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

Alison: No.

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

Alison: Yeah.

Parinita: For their presence as a woman to count.

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

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

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

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

Alison: Yes!

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

Alison: Yeah.

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

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

Alison: Yeah.

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

Alison: Yeah.

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

Alison: Yes.

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

Alison: We do.

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

Alison: Thank you!

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

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

[Outro music]

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

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