1) Fan podcast – Pottercast: Sorting It Out With Jackson Bird
2) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text: Community responses to J. K. Rowling’s transphobia
3) Fanzine – Harry Potter and the Problematic Author
4) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds: Dumbledore’s Army
5) Fanzine – Tonk’s Tale
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. If you would prefer the original, unedited version, please let me know!
Welcome to Marginally Fannish, a show where we aim an intersectional lens at some of our favourite media and their fandoms.
My name is Parinita Shetty and you’re listening to the sixteenth episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I talk to Tam Moules about different gender identities in science fiction and fantasy. We also discuss how fans learn to identify and question transphobic implications within their favourite media and grapple with transphobic creators of their favourite worlds.
Transphobia is often couched under language that ostensibly speaks of women’s empowerment but fundamentally excludes trans people. This reactionary and limited form of feminism can be seen in mainstream discourse as well as embedded in beloved media. Fan conversations help highlight and decode implicit bigotry in the texts. But what happens when fans imbibe messages of radical inclusivity and equality from their favourite books only to discover that the writer doesn’t live up to these ideals? We see fans either giving up on the media altogether or disowning its creator.
Due to an overall absence of gender nonconforming characters in SFF, trans and nonbinary fans frequently have to read themselves into cisgender characters. Fortunately, there is a small but increasing number of nonbinary and trans characters in media. This representation of diverse gender identities has a particularly important impact in mainstream children’s media. Creating worlds for kids where queerness is the default allows them to recognise themselves or learn about those who don’t mirror their own identities. Queer characters, cast and crew help create a supportive space for marginalised identities which, in turn, impacts which stories are told and how they’re told. When queerness is normalised in a fictional world, no one way feels like the default or the token. Many different ways of being emerge.
Find our conversation about all this and more in today’s episode.
Parinita: I’m so happy to have Tam Moules on the podcast today. Tam is currently a freelance academic with an MLitt in Fantasy Literature from the University of Glasgow. They have written and presented papers at various conferences and have published an essay with the Luna Press anthology A Shadow Within: Evil in Fantasy and Science Fiction. Their essay is called “I have done only what was necessary: An exploration of individual and structural evil in the works of N. K. Jemisin” if you wanted to look that up. Tam and I were studying for a master’s at the University of Glasgow at the same time though not for the same programme. I was there doing an M.Ed in Children’s Literature and Literacies. But as a book and fantasy nerd, I attended some of the lectures on the Fantasy course as well where Tam and I became friends. So today, we’re going to be talking about how different gender identities are represented in mainstream science fiction and fantasy media. And as much as we don’t want to be spending too much time on the transphobic elephant in the room, we’re going to have to unfortunately spend a little time talking about J. K. Rowling before quickly moving on to happier, queerer, more inclusive things. But before we begin with that, Tam, could you tell us a little more about your own experiences with our theme today?
Tam: Hello! About 2017 I realised I was non-binary. And coming to terms with that and existing within academia has been a very weird experience. [laughs]
Tam: I think it’s good that we’re seeing more representation of that within media and so I’m quite excited to talk about that today.
Parinita: Yeah, for sure. I’m cisgender and heterosexual, so for me, it’s also something that I’m learning through media.
Parinita: And through fandom specifically. Because in India, now I know some non-binary, gender nonconforming people.
Parinita: But when I was growing up as a teenager, I didn’t really have any access to this. Even just gay people in general, I didn’t have any access to. And it was largely through fandom and largely through Harry Potter fandom actually that I encountered different people. When I was thirteen, I joined Mugglenet and just read a lot of fanfiction there. Which is why it’s so much more disappointing – okay right, let’s get it out of the way. Back in December, when I hadn’t launched the podcast yet but I was putting it together and approaching guests and fan podcasts, J. K. Rowling tweeted something in support of a transphobe – Maya Forester I think her name is? [it’s actually Maya Forstater]
Tam: Yeah something like that.
Parinita: Yeah. We don’t need to know.
Parinita: I don’t mind if I get her name wrong. J. K. Rowling’s own tweets were couched in transphobic language which, if you don’t know the debates and things happening in the background, you might not have seen anything wrong with that tweet.
Parinita: So there are a bunch of people who decoded that, including one of the fan podcast episodes that we listened to. And she was then silent about it. Silent about all the critiques and all the outrage, right until June this year since when she’s been on this spree of transphobic tweeting. And it’s not even covert anymore.
Parinita: J. K. Rowling is a TERF.
Tam: [laughs] Yeah, it’s been a bit weird the past few weeks. She’s suddenly gone full mask-off and is just saying the quiet part out loud as it were.
Parinita: [laughs] So for those who don’t know, TERF stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminist. So it’s a version of feminism which doesn’t include trans women or trans folks, like even trans men. For me, even as a cis, straight person, I don’t understand this idea of feminism that doesn’t include all women and all … actually anybody who’s marginalised. Because a non-binary person isn’t a part of the dominant culture; they don’t have privileges that cis people have for example, right?
Tam: Yeah. I mean it’s profoundly reactionary as a form of feminism. It’s inherently self-contradictory in a lot of ways. I don’t know if you read her “statement” about the whole thing but every single point she made was contradicted by a different point that she made effectively.
Parinita: I couldn’t bring myself to read it. As a researcher who’s including Harry Potter in my PhD project and as a Harry Potter fan – I’m still very attached to it because it played such an important role in my childhood
Parinita: I can’t really untie that from my sense of self. I can absolutely untie J. K. Rowling though; how fandom has kicked her out of her own creation.
Parinita: Anyway, I couldn’t read that essay just because I know she’s spoken about domestic violence. And I have experience with domestic violence. I grew up in a house where my mum survived domestic violence. So when I heard the conversation around that I was like, okay I still need more distance because there’s too much going on in the world.
Parinita: Right now there’s the pandemic, there’s the Black Lives Matter movement, there’s migrants just dying in India because of the pandemic and I can’t add this other thing to stress me out. It’s just so disappointing. The response to her transphobia from what I’ve seen – maybe it’s just because of the spaces that I’ve cultivated – but wherever I’ve encountered the responses to her tweets, it’s been very much in support of trans people. And divorcing J. K. Rowling from Harry Potter and reclaiming Harry Potter. There’s this Harry Potter fan podcast I listen to called The Gayly Prophet and one of the hosts there is trans and the other host is a queer person of colour – both American. And both of them said that, “We’re just going to reclaim it angrily for the fans.”
Parinita: And they launched this campaign called Make Harry Potter Gayer 2020.
Parinita: So they’re curating all this trans and non-binary and queer fiction and Harry Potter things and just fighting back against it. Because the thing is a lot of fans who grew up with Harry Potter read these messages of being inclusive in the books. And she’s not seeing that herself? Or it’s only applicable to a certain group of people and not everybody.
Tam: Yeah. In a lot of ways the fan response to it has been really positive and uplifting – seeing all these people saying essentially we don’t care what she has to say anymore. And I also think it’s an interesting test case in the sense that it’s one of the biggest fandoms online effectively disowning its own creator.
Parinita: Yeah. Were you a fan of Harry Potter growing up as well?
Tam: I was obsessed growing up, yeah.
Parinita: [laughs] I know that some people have had more of a difficulty in divorcing the creation from the creator. You know what I mean? For me, I can’t. I can’t let go of Harry Potter.
Parinita: And in the resources that we looked at for this episode, a lot of the fans said the same thing. They had a real difficulty grappling with her hatred and bigotry but also being unable to let go. What has your experience been with this?
Tam: I think on a purely practical level, I have so many books to read. [laughs]
Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.
Tam: That not going back to Harry Potter is quite a straightforward decision. But I have copies that my grandparents gave me for birthday presents and things that I’m still sentimentally attached to.
Tam: And I have good memories of rereading the series. I had a summer job in Germany once where basically I had nothing to do but read. And I ended up going through the whole series in like a week. And I still have good memories of that. But at the same time, it’s also interesting going back to it and seeing like … obviously when I was a kid, I didn’t necessarily notice the actual amount of bigotry that’s implicitly coded into the books.
Parinita: Yup. [laughs] Yup.
Parinita: I’m re-reading the books now just as background research to inform my conversations here on the podcast for the PhD. And I have re-read the books as an adult previously because I used to try and re-read the series annually.
Parinita: I stopped that when I started doing my master’s because you don’t have time to read so much.
Tam: [laughs] Yeah.
Parinita: But even then, as an adult I wasn’t really able to think as critically as I do now. Just decoding the messages, because that’s something that I’m still learning through the internet actually and through fandom.
Parinita: Where I’m learning to be able to critically analyse things and question things and question canon and question the creators. And fans are great for that. Especially Harry Potter fans. There’s this excellent podcast called Witch, Please, The Gayly Prophet does that as well – they apply an intersectional lens to Harry Potter. And oh my god reading it as an adult, it’s quite alarming. [laughs]
Tam: A lot of it is, yeah.
Parinita: I also wanted to talk about some of the more problematic elements in Harry Potter. As someone coming from India and we have our own social problems and social issues there. But currently in the UK, transphobia seems to be quite mainstream.
Parinita: And it seems to be quite a loud part of – I mean maybe it’s a small group, but they seem to be really loud. I live in Leeds. And just recently, last week, the Leeds public library, they were going to … do you know the Drag Queen Story Hour?
Parinita: So they were going to do that here. Just a virtual reading. And then it got attacked by this group on Mumsnet I think along with a Leeds city councillor who started calling it – they were very transphobic and were accusing it of all sorts of things. And they got it shut down. And luckily that has been picked up by lots of media channels after that. But it still happened. They still got it shut down. And especially during Pride Month, all these kids were excited about seeing their own identity represented. Because the books that she read included different identities. She did it anyway on another Facebook page but the fact that institutionally it was shut down because of an institutional TERF was very … ugh!
Tam: Obviously I’m not an expert but I think part of is that homophobia has become socially unacceptable even among a lot of conservatives.
Tam: Not many of them are open about it anymore. But transphobia is still relatively normalised in a lot of ways. And the fact that the UK’s system for treating trans people in particular is horrendously badly run and underfunded and there’s multiple-year-long waiting lists which is part of the problem but also on purpose kind of.
Parinita: Yeah. And it’s also like J. K. Rowling’s tweet and a lot of the words and phrases that they use to couch the transphobia is so unknown.
Parinita: First of all, they think that TERF is a slur. And they want to be called gender-critical feminists. When TERF is actually describing what they are, which is they exclude trans people in their feminism. So in Leeds last year, there was a transphobic march; it was a march full of transphobes who were marching against trans people or to protect lesbians in the LGBT umbrella. So Jack and I went for the anti-TERF protest – it was a march and a counter-protest.
Parinita: And it was so ridiculous because at one point, when they were marching around, they were shouting things like, “Women don’t have penises!” at random bystanders.
Parinita: Who were like, “What? Was this a topic of debate?” Obviously they were very confused
Parinita: Because if you don’t know the history and the background, it is confusing. The Pottercast episode that we listened to had some great resources about that. It was called Sorting It Out With Jackson Bird featuring a trans Harry Potter fan who’s played a big role in the fandom. And they were responding to J. K. Rowling’s transphobia and that had some really good resources to try and understand, unpacking this language a little bit and also presenting the context of it. Even though they’re in the US, they were talking about it from a UK perspective as well. But yeah, it just seems to be so uncomfortably mainstream in the UK and I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all.
Tam: Yeah. There’s a lot of talk of “reasonable concerns” because they end up using so much coded language that people end up taking it at face value basically.
Parinita: Yeah. You were telling me about what happened today with Stephen King. He retweeted something J. K. Rowling said, right?
Tam: She made this big, long thread complaining about stuff and then at the end of it she had like an Andrea Dworkin quote which was clipped out of context. And so he retweeted that quote out of context – removed from both its original context and from the context in which J. K. Rowling was using it – then replied to someone else saying, “Trans women are women.” And J. K. Rowling’s unfollowed him over it. Which is quite funny.
Parinita: Yeah. And before that, when he retweeted her, I think she was so happy that she got some celebrity endorsement that she wrote this long tweet praising Stephen and was fangirlish about it and then she deleted that tweet as well as soon as he wrote trans women are women. And something similar happened in December as well. Because her tweet is couched in language that you wouldn’t find problematic if you didn’t know what was happening. Mark Hamill had retweeted or liked it as well. But he didn’t know the context; presumably neither did Stephen King today. So he was just trying to be supportive of women, I guess, not realising what she was saying. And then he did apologise. He was like I didn’t know what I was doing and this is not what I meant to do. It’s so easy to include people in that or trick people into supporting you when you’re trying to make it seem like you’re including and protecting women but you’re not actually. Or you’re only protecting a certain group of women.
Parinita: And among these TERFs, I don’t even know how many other intersectional identities there are. Not just in terms of gender identity and cisgender versus trans but just race and class and national origin and everything. What would they think of me, for example? A brown immigrant from India. I feel like if you exclude one, it’s so easy then to find problems with other groups as well who aren’t exactly like you.
Tam: Yeah. There’s always someone else to transfer it on to once your original target is sort of legislated away as it were.
Parinita: Exactly! Which is what I don’t understand why lesbians have caught onto this so much; a group of lesbians, of course, not all lesbians. But they think trans women are going to impinge on their own rights. But once they start excluding trans women, they’re going to be targeted by the homophobes as well. It should be a solidarity amongst all marginalised identities, not just in-fighting. And quickly before we move on to happier things, I just wanted to talk about how there are some transphobic implications within the Potterverse which I would never have noticed before J. K. Rowling outed herself as a TERF. Or even without the help of fans identifying this. Like I said, fans have helped me so much in being more critically analytical of things. But there are quite a few transphobic implications not only in the Potterverse but also in J. K. Rowling’s crime books – the Robert Galbraith books.
Tam: Definitely. Well, I think there’s some fairly obvious trans implications with the Polyjuice potion being such a central part of the books. The ability to change appearance and change gender but the fact that you can only copy someone else. You can’t use it to become a new person. You have to use it to become a copy of someone who already exists. It’s interesting because it could very easily be written in a way that is trans-inclusive and is positive. But instead it’s like people have a sort of inherent essence and if they ever stop taking their medicine, they will revert back to that essence. It’s very gender essentialist.
Parinita: What Tonks is, that is her ability to change her appearance into anything – across the gender spectrum essentially. That would be so easy to make inclusive of non-binary, genderqueer, gender nonconforming people. In response to J. K. Rowling’s transphobia, this collective of queer Harry Potter fans, launched this fanzine Trans-Inclusive Education at Hogwarts I think it’s called. I’m going to look up the correct name and link it. [It’s called Trans-Affirming Magical Care]
Parinita: But basically they’ve got all these queer fans to write and draw stuff for the fanzine and all the proceeds are going to be donated to charities that work with trans people. And one of them was Maia Kobabe’s work, which is also on Tumblr. That focuses more specifically on Tonks and how they would be gender nonconforming and basically their appearance could reflect on what gender they are identifying with on a particular day. And in Hogwarts as well, how the very binary, very gender essentialist dorm system that they have and the bathroom system that they have would accommodate – how the building itself, the magical architecture itself would change to accommodate their identities or any identities in Hogwarts.
Tam: I think it’s interesting that Tonks, one of the most outwardly queer-coded characters in the whole series is effectively married off to someone twice her age. But also the fact that Lupin as well is a queer-coded character in a profoundly negative way. The fact that her werewolves, where she explicitly describes them as an AIDs metaphor and all but one of them are predators who want to eat children and infect them with werewolfness, is a bit, little, little, tiny weeny little bit dodgy.
Parinita: [laughs] Yeah. He’s the good one. But everyone else … he’s the exception to the otherwise terrible, terrible norm. Keep your children away!
Tam: Exactly. It’s a profoundly horrible thing to put in a children’s book series.
Parinita: And then I just recently finished re-reading The Prisoner of Azkaban. And this is something that one of my previous guests Lorrie Kim brought up about the Boggart scene in Prisoner of Azkaban. Where Neville’s greatest fear is Professor Snape – which understandable, because he’s really horrible. In the series, a Boggart turns into your greatest fear. And the way to defeat a Boggart is to make yourself laugh. So you have to turn it into something funny. And the most hilarious thing to Neville here or to Lupin, I guess, because it was his idea is to turn Snape into wearing his grandmother’s clothes.
Parinita: And that’s such a butt of jokes, right?
Tam: Yeah. I mean it now seems very telling that the first place she went with that was man in a dress. The fact that she thinks that’s inherently humiliating and hilarious.
Parinita: Yeah and when we’re reading it, we’re on the side of Harry and Lupin and Neville, right? We like these characters so we identify with them. So the way that we’re being positioned to look at this scene is that we should find it funny as well and we should find it really strange as well. Whereas not just trans people but even gender nonconforming people can wear or men can wear dresses, right? Why should that be so funny that it defeats this creature that’s supposed to be your darkest nightmare? Anyway, I think that’s enough time that we’ve dedicated in our episode to J. K. Rowling for today. Her books are problematic.
Parinita: She is problematic. I can let go of her; I can’t let go of the books. Do you have any closing thoughts on J. K. Rowling before we move on to happier topics?
Tam: I hope she listens to people and learns empathy and gets better.
Parinita: Yeah. [sighs] I hope so too. I’m really optimistic about most things – I’m an optimistic person. But from the way that she’s been constantly treating trans people. Even today, while we’re recording –
Tam: Oh no.
Parinita: It almost sounds very cultish you know.
Parinita: I was talking to Jack today earlier and he was reading the responses there because he has much more tolerance for this sort of stuff than I do [going through bigoted tweets, that is; not transphobia]. And he was like, “Yeah this just sounds like a cult that she’s been recruited into.”
Parinita: And now she is also doing the recruiting. They’re affirming each other. So she obviously believes that she’s a hundred per cent correct.
Parinita: And that I think is getting in the way and also her privilege is getting in the way of her talking to people.
Tam: Yeah. Definitely.
Parinita: It’s sad, but you can only control what you can control. So we can leave her aside.
Parinita: And maybe talk about other just explicitly nonbinary and trans representations in mainstream science fiction and fantasy. Have you come across any examples of these?
Tam: I have more examples than I can count.
Parinita: Oh brilliant!
Tam: I’ll always recommend Jay Y. Yang’s Tensorate series. They are some of the most varied and interesting books that I have ever read. They’re set in a world that doesn’t understand gender the same way our world does. So kids don’t have a gender. They choose one if they want one when they grow up.
Parinita: That sounds really interesting! And also really unfortunately rare in speculative fiction.
Tam: Yeah. There’s four little novellas and they’re all completely different. So one’s a crime scene investigation, one’s spies and action-based. And one’s just someone recounting their memories of a relationship. And they’re all beautiful.
Parinita: Oh that’s awesome! So I have a couple of examples but mine are a little different just in terms of the framework of the world. The Lumberjanes – I don’t know if you’re familiar with that comic series.
Parinita: So that has a nonbinary character, Barney, as well as a trans girl character, Jo. But it’s incorporated in such a way that that’s not a big deal at all. That’s just “normal”. That’s just one of the many identities that you can be. And there’s never a coming out storyline at all. It’s just yeah this is what it is. You just accept it, which I love. And also there is a slightly different example. In the Magnus Chase series by Rick Riordan
Parinita: There’s a genderqueer character, Alex Fierro. They’re the child of Loki who, I think, in Norse mythology, has been known to vary across the gender spectrum – from what at least Rick Riordan tells me. [laughs] I don’t know much about Norse mythology.
Parinita: But I love that both these are a very mainstream series. And both of them are mainstream series for children. So you’re normalising it completely by making this a part of your story without making it a big deal as well. Which I love.
Tam: Yeah. I’ve heard a lot about the Rick Riordan series. I haven’t read any of them since I was a teenager. But I think he’s sort of the anti-J. K. Rowling in a lot of ways.
Tam: The fact that he uses his pull within the publishing industry to highlight marginalised writers who don’t necessarily have the kind of name recognition that he has.
Parinita: Yeah, he started a whole imprint just for people to write about their own mythologies which he wasn’t comfortable writing.
Parinita: He’s basically the status quo – old white man in the US. So he has all this privilege which he recognises and tries to include as many people and as many stories and experiences as possible. Which I love. And then, of course, there’s – so I know we’re going to be talking more about them later – but Double Trouble in She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. And She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is just one of my favourite shows ever. Just because they’ve created a world where queerness is the default, where they centre and normalise female and queer characters in the story. And Noelle Stevenson who is the creator of She-Ra in terms of the new adaptation, she has also written a graphic novel called Nimona which is excellent.
Tam: Nimona is so good!
Parinita: That was my first experience with her. And then she was also one of the founding teams of The Lumberjanes as well
Parinita: So I love her.
Tam: I really didn’t expect to love She-Ra as much as I do. I think I first heard about it because people on the internet were mad about it. [laughs]
Parinita: Oh really? So see I think I either have really giant blinkers on or I just manage to very carefully avoid the negativity because I’ve heard about this. I’ve heard about all the hate She-Ra got but only secondhand. I’ve never come across it myself.
Tam: Yeah. So I think when they shared some promotional images before the show came out, there was a whole bunch of the usual right-wing weirdos who were all mad that this animated child wasn’t feminine enough.
Tam: And they were destroying culture by remaking something. And I just thought, well if they’re upset about it, it’s probably going to be good.
Parinita: [laughs] Yeah. I mean I’m a huge fan of animated things anyway.
Parinita: I read a lot of children’s books, I watch a lot of children’s programming as well. But this story is so refreshing. I know refreshing is an overused word.
Parinita: I am very guilty of this. I use this word a lot. But just because it’s so rare where they are so central. It starts off, of course, with a background lesbian couple – Netossa and Spinerella in the first season. But then that grows very organically, very in a not “this is a big deal!” kind of way to include Bow’s dads.
Parinita: Then Double Trouble and finally – spoilers for those who haven’t watched the fifth season – Adora and Catra’s love story as well. And it includes characters of diverse body types and gender expressions and identities and it’s just so good!
Parinita: I don’t know if you’ve come across this theory, there was a Twitter thread recently where trans fans read Scorpia, one of the princesses, as trans. They were basically inserting their own experiences into the character.
Tam: All right.
Parinita: Just in terms of how she’s this very uncomfortable but also really cuddly person and wants to be friends with people. But she’s also not very sure of how she would be accepted among the other princesses as well.
Parinita: And one of the fans in this thread also actually said that looking at Scorpia and seeing her represented helped them come to terms with their own trans identity. Which I loved! And actually, one of the artists in the show had created Perfuma, another princess, as trans.
Tam: All right.
Parinita: Which Noelle loves; she loves the idea and actually she’s acknowledged all head canons as valid including reading Bow as a trans boy as well.
Tam: Yeah. That was the one I was always on board with from the beginning.
Parinita: Yeah because it’s very obvious right? You can see it … even for me who is very used to seeing very cis, straight characters in my media, I could see that immediately because that made complete sense to me. But Noelle, as much as she loves these head canons, in one of the things she said that she didn’t want to take credit for them because it wasn’t explicitly mentioned on the show. So they’re completely valid but she doesn’t want to pretend like she came up with this idea because she didn’t make it canon. With Double Trouble, there was a nonbinary actor portraying Double Trouble. So that was a very definite choice.
Tam: Oh and that’s so good as well. They cast a nonbinary voice actor to play Double Trouble.
Parinita: Yeah exactly! And the fact that Noelle Stevenson doesn’t want to say that yeah I thought of these characters as these diverse identities, because I didn’t. I love that you thought of it and it’s totally valid but because I didn’t do the homework and I didn’t cast a trans actress to play Perfuma, for example, so now I can’t claim Perfuma as trans. Which I love. That’s such a different perspective of diversity altogether, right?
Tam: Yeah. Again it’s kind of the anti-J. K. Rowling. She’s not taking credit for other people’s theories.
Parinita: [laughs] Oh my god you’re so right! Because I’ve spoken about this so much – about J. K. Rowling just co-opting everything. Like, “Black Hermione, oh yeah totally my idea!” And I also love that Noelle Stevenson will randomly tweet, “I love trans people!!!!!” with five exclamation marks.
Parinita: And just devoid – no, not obviously devoid of context, she knows very much what the context is. But it won’t be in response to somebody; it’ll just be like yeah these are my feelings. This is out there.
Tam: Yeah. She’s honestly such a positive force on Twitter. She is absolutely delightful as a person.
Parinita: Yeah. I agree. Even just reading Nimona, I was like, “Okay the brain that made this, I want to be this person’s friend.” Because she also uses the correct amount of exclamations which is more than one.
Parinita: Which is how I talk. That’s that’s how I talk to people. But also Noelle and Jacob Tobia, who voices Double Trouble, they did talk about the overall absence of gender nonconforming characters in science fiction and media which causes fans to read themselves into their favourite worlds.
Parinita: Some of the examples that they said were Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. And I was reading this essay today in a book which, of course, the name I’m completely blanking on because my memory is swiss cheese. But they were talking about how they have all these trans head canons while growing up. They read Luce – Luce?! – Luke Skywalker as both trans and ace – asexual. Just because you don’t see all these identities represented in your media so you have to write those identities in the media.
Tam: Yeah. I think I quite like the theory of Luke Skywalker as ace because he doesn’t show attraction to anyone.
Parinita: Um hmm.
Tam: He doesn’t seem to evidence any interest in the usual hero’s journey of kill the bad guy and get the girl kind of thing.
Parinita: I mean in the first movie, they sort of did that and then as soon as he realised [laughs] that Leia was his sister, he was like okay that’s enough. I tried it. It’s not for me. This is not the kind of relationship that I want to have.
Parinita: They also read Tintin as a trans guy and Frodo as trans and asexual. I love that because it’s also very similar to Luke Skywalker’s life as well. The book is called The Secret Loves of Geeks. I’ve looked it up.
Tam: Ah okay. I’ll have a look at that.
Parinita: I love that – I mean I don’t love that fans have to do this but I love how creative fans are that they do do this. Even with racebending and genderbending and queering characters and everything.
Parinita: But, at the same time, I love that queer people now are creating their own stories and they’re in charge. They’re queering mainstream media essentially so that there’s more representation than they had when they were growing up.
Parinita: And another one I’ve seen was Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts.
Parinita: Which I don’t think they have any gender nonconforming character. They have a gay protagonist but … I mean that’s also great but now She-Ra has set the bar so high that I expect more.
Parinita: I expect everything and everybody to be queer.
Tam: Yeah. I think it’s really quite astonishing what She-Ra has accomplished; what Noelle Stevenson and the people who worked on it have accomplished in terms of taking like a toy commercial from the 80s effectively –
Tam: And turning it into this huge story about queer relationships.
Parinita: And also just like a different kind of heroism.
Parinita: And a different kind of friendship. Well not a different kind of friendship but a different representation of the kinds of friendships that you have. There’s no individual notion of heroism. She-Ra is powerful but she’s not – if it was only up to her, Hordak would have won in Season 1. It’s such a communal notion of not only saving the world but also being good friends with each other. And they look at that so much in terms of not just focusing on romantic relationships but relationships of all kinds. Which I think is also so lacking in most media.
Tam: Definitely. I think that it does a really good job of showing that people don’t have to be in relationships as well. A lot of them are just really good friends.
Parinita: Absolutely. And they never make it a big deal. No aspect of identity in that world is ever commented upon. It’s just because queerness is the default. And also because there are so many female characters, that also seems to be the default. Usually science fiction and fantasy media is very male-dominated
Parinita: Star Wars being the prime example.
Parinita: But here, because it has that as the default, there are so many more potentials and so many more ways of being. Not any one way feels like a trope or a stereotype. And none of it feels like you need to really make a big deal out of it.
Tam: Pause. Yeah. I think in any other show, a detail like … I can’t remember their names … Kyle and Rogelio from the Horde. Them having a crush on each other in the background. In another show, that would be kind of the Marvel thing where there’s some queer background characters and we can cut them out for edits in different countries kind of thing. But in this, it’s one among many.
Tam: You can’t really accuse any of the characters of being bad queer representation because they’re not the only queer characters in the show.
Parinita: Yeah absolutely. And I think Jacob Tobia – Tobia? Is that how you pronounce it? I think. I should have checked, it’s terrible.
Parinita: Jacob Tobia, they mentioned in one of the interviews that we read about how it’s so important not just to have a queer cast but also have queer creators and crew.
Tam: Yeah, definitely.
Parinita: Because that has such a huge impact on the story. Like exactly what you were saying, this background and just the whole world. As someone coming in in the first season, they felt completely safe and supported and included. They didn’t feel like they had to hide any aspect of their identity which for them was so radical and so empowering.
Tam: Yeah I’ve got the quote here. They said, “I expected to feel like a rainbow thread in an otherwise pretty bland tapestry. But I found that I was a rainbow thread in just already most colourful, incredible queer trans garment I could want.”
Parinita: Oh yes I love that. I made a note of that quote as well. Imagine if all media was like this.
Parinita: Because that’s what we want to be, right? Not just in terms of queer representation but in terms of different races and ethnicities and religions and physical abilities and disabilities and mental abilities, age – everything. Basically all the intersectional identities. We want it to be a place where no one identity is the norm and there’s room for everybody. She-Ra is such a great example of showing how that world can be.
Parinita: So I know we’ve spoken about our love for She-Ra a lot. But also I know that you wanted to talk about Double Trouble specifically and their story arc in She-Ra.
Tam: Yeah. Obviously I love the character and their role in Season 4 specifically. But I felt a little bit betrayed by season 5 in terms of … I don’t know if it was just my overly high expectations but the fact that they were relegated to a background character almost. They show up for one episode and then a little moment in the ending montage. And I don’t know – I just wanted them to have more of a role in the story.
Parinita: Yeah because until you pointed this out, when we were talking about our episode, I didn’t even notice, unfortunately for me, like my own blind-spot. Because I was so caught up with the rest of it. And especially the Adora and Catra ship.
Parinita: I was shipping them right from day one. And that’s happened. And I was so taken aback [in a good way] by how much queerness was central in the story that I didn’t realise that Double Trouble was quite backgrounded in the end. And I think it would have been easy for Double Trouble to have a bigger part in the story.
Tam: Definitely. There’s so much of the fifth series that is effectively espionage. They’re sneaking around the planet trying to evade capture.
Parinita: And they’re so good at it!
Tam: Yeah. I think it would have been very easy to write them in as Horde or something. I think there was something said about the fact that they tried and then couldn’t ’cause of the hive mind thing. I don’t know. I think it would have been quite easy to write them into a bigger role. So I don’t know if there was something going on behind the scenes there that meant that they were sort of pushed towards the background or if it was just that they wanted to focus on Adora and Catra for the final series.
Parinita: But even though they did focus on Adora and Catra because they split up, I still feel like the other characters, the other princesses and even new characters like the clones – the new Horde Prime clone whose name I have forgotten –
Tam: Wrong Hordak.
Parinita: Yes! [laughs] Wrong Hordak. They did have a role. It felt like they were a part of the story even if they weren’t onscreen all the time, if that makes sense. And with Double Trouble, I didn’t even remember – I remembered the last glimpse of them that we saw when they’d changed themself into one of the clones. I didn’t even remember until you reminded me that we’d seen them earlier in the season because they’d spent most of it undercover which is fine because that’s what their character is for. But that would have been such a perfect opportunity to recruit them.
Tam: Yeah. That’s what I thought was happening. And then they just disappeared.
Parinita: Yeah. I mean like you said, it’s not a “bury your gays” kind of thing in this world because everybody mostly is gay or at least is queer. So you can’t accuse the show of doing that. But the good thing is about fans – that’s the part that I love most – is that you are able to critique things because you love them and you want them to be better.
Parinita: And you want them to represent your own interests and preferences and priorities more.
Tam: I haven’t looked but I’m sure there is a fanfic of Double Trouble going around sabotaging Horde operations behind the scenes.
Parinita: Oh! You’re so right.
Tam: That’d be good.
Tam: I would watch a series of that. Like a spin-off show.
Parinita: Yeah, me too! I’m so sad that it’s ending – or it’s ended.
Parinita: I completely respect the fact that she’d written it to last over five seasons and her story is done. But there’s so much potential for a spin-off. I want to watch that rather than a new He-Man that they want to spitefully create.
Parinita: In response to She-Ra.
Tam: Well I think honestly they should give the He-Man reboot to Noelle Stevenson as well.
Parinita: [gasps] That would be amazing!
Tam: Just make it as gay as possible. That would be incredible.
Parinita: Oh yeah. That’s the only way I would accept He-Man. [laughs]
Tam: But instead Kevin Smith is doing it which is possibly just the worst choice.
Parinita: Oh no! I don’t think I know who Kevin Smith is. His name sounds familiar.
Tam: He’s done quite a lot of films. Clerks and Dogma I think are his two most famous ones.
Parinita: Oh, I watch next to no movies so.
Parinita: Yeah, I’m very bad at this. I think it was the same faction that thought Noelle Stevenson was ruining She-Ra that wants He-Man back?
Tam: I don’t know. But Kevin Smith specifically has a very crude juvenile sense of humour.
Parinita: Oh, that’s sad.
Tam: A lot of fart jokes and stuff.
Parinita: Oh right. So, it’s not going to be the queer paradise that we want it to be. [laughs]
Tam: [laughs] Unfortunately not.
Parinita: This diverse little world. It might be but I doubt it. We’ve spoken about what we love about nonbinary representations and the increasingly queer representations in media. But the video Aliens, Monsters, and Faceless Demons: The Dehumanisation of Nonbinary People In the Media spoke about … well exactly that.
Parinita: How nonbinary people aren’t as … I don’t want to say respected but treated as well as cis characters.
Tam: Yeah. I think the video does a really good job of bringing up the idea that nonbinary characters are inhuman as well like looking outlandish or demonic or just straight-up not having a face kind of thing. My wishful thinking theory about Double Trouble is that they’re not actually an inhuman lizard creature. They are human and they just choose to look like a lizard creature because that’s how they’re most comfortable.
Parinita: Oh! That’s a great theory.
Tam: That’s my personal wild theory there.
Tam: I think in isolation it’s not an issue that a particular nonbinary character is depicted that way. But I think overall as a trend, like you’ll see books recommending lists of nonbinary characters in science fiction and fantasy and you have Martha Wells’ Murderbot series which are great books but they’re also explicitly about a character who is not human and does not want to be human.
Tam: Janet’s an interesting one because she obviously does look human and she uses she/her pronouns and presents in quite a feminine way. And I think that’s in some ways quite an interesting bit of representation, the idea that nonbinary people don’t necessarily have to be androgynous or outlandish looking. And I think that is good. But I also think that the fact that the show didn’t necessarily intend Janet to be nonbinary, the fact that she says, “Not a girl” constantly is more, “I’m not human” than “I’m not a girl”.
Parinita: And it’s not something that is framed as something to be taken seriously.
Tam: That too, yeah. It’s a running joke.
Parinita: Yeah. It’s something that you can easily ignore or overlook.
Tam: I wish they had done that differently. I wish Janet was more explicitly nonbinary. Because I think even the fact that she’s a female-presenting character in a huge network sitcom that constantly says, “Not a girl” I think that’s in itself a little bit ground-breaking. But it also could have been better.
Parinita: No, absolutely. Because until I watched that video, I hadn’t even thought of Janet as nonbinary.
Parinita: Because of exactly some of the same things that you’ve said about how she presents, the pronouns that she uses. But also my own blind-spots you know?
Parinita: Because for me, as a cisgender woman who’s used to seeing – maybe not in terms of race and things – but I’m used to seeing representations of women, even though male representations take precedence. But it’s still increasing in terms of women. But yeah nonbinary representations are so lacking. And I think you’re right. If it’s a trend, then it is really problematic. Like you said, with Kyle and Rogelio, it’s not a problem if it’s one amongst many.
Parinita: At the same, even with Double Trouble, because in that world, there’s like Rogelio, there’s Catra, there’s Mermista who go against that human-ness. There’s cat and mermaid and Double Trouble. So I think within that world, it’s still more acceptable than within the larger mediascape where it’s falling into a trend.
Tam: Yeah, that’s true.
Parinita: The book that I talked about, which is The Secret Loves of Geeks, it’s essentially an anthology of love stories.
Tam: All right.
Parinita: But also different kinds of love and across the gender spectrum as well as across the sexual orientation spectrum as well. And it’s also comics and it’s nonfiction and it’s different kinds of essays and things. So it’s really good. I would definitely recommend that.
Tam: Sounds good. I’ll have a look for it.
Parinita: Thank you so much, Tam, for being on the podcast.
Tam: That’s okay.
Parinita: One of the things that I love about this project is that I just get to chat about things that I love with people that I like.
Parinita: So it doesn’t feel like work at all. And thank you so much for not making it feel like work.
Tam: Thank you for having me. It’s been good fun.
You’ve been listening to our episode on the representation of diverse gender identities in science fiction and fantasy media. Thank you so much Tam for being a part of this project and chatting with me about some of my favourite things. And thank you Jack for all the homemade memes which shame me for not replying to texts on time (and also for the editing).
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
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