A PhD project exploring intersectionality through fan podcasts

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Tag: Podcast Episode Fieldnotes

Some Notes On Episode 4 – Resources

Some Notes On … is a section which features my autoethnographic fieldnotes as I document my thoughts throughout different parts of my PhD project. Here, I write about the text resources discussed in our podcast episode.

For Episode 4, A Lot of Gold in Gringotts: Representations of Class and Considerations of Gender, we discussed the following texts.

1) Academic paper – Restorying the Self: Bending Toward Textual Justice

According to the paper, the concept of restorying refers to highlighting marginalised perspectives in mainstream media and culture through fan responses to favourite texts. Everybody can insert their own perspectives and experiences in stories which otherwise erase or silence them. While there are conversations happening around diversity in mainstream publishing and media, fandom is such a rich resource where they are already doing it. The collective nature of this practice is what i’m most interested in because it’s what I’ve experienced – encountering other people’s perspectives, as largely a lurker, has expanded my own thinking and helped me decolonise my brain. This happens with both exposure to perspectives in which I’m marginalised and in others where I’m dominant. I love the idea of fandom as an educational resource where you learn both technical and conceptual skills which you may not in institutionalised educational contexts (of course, this is still limited to those who have access to the technology and time to experiment). Even though there is global circulation of texts and fan texts – the West is still privileged – exemplifying and exacerbating cultural imperialism and colonised minds. However, this does have empowering potential as well since you’re encountering ever-diverse perspectives.

Bending –  reimagining stories from nondominant, marginalized, and silenced perspectives, as one form of restorying that draws from and makes manifest embodied, lived realities and identities”

Examples of this include racebending, genderbending, and queering the texts. Young people respond to the lack of representation by inserting their own representations within fandom – both young people and different marginalised groups make space for themselves. According to their research, racebending isn’t just a practice engaged in by fans of colour – white fans who recognise the white-dominated worlds of fantasy media racebend characters as well. Counter-narratives offer perspectives which are different from the mainstream dominant ones. This has a tremendously empowering potential, particularly as a collective activity, as a tool of community-building. Historically, literature and media has been created, controlled and represented a small group of privileged people and everyone else on the margins has had to read themselves into the story and become well-acquainted with narratives and experiences which didn’t reflect their own. This is still the case both within an Indian context but especially globally, with the widespread influence of Western media. Technology and participatory media offers a space for marginalised voices to insert themselves into the narrative and share these counter-narratives with a global audience. 

The article outlines different ways to restory and disrupt dominant narratives and understandings and challenge the dominance of a single story:

changing the time, the place, the identity (race, gender, queer), mode (transmedia storytelling), perspective (counter storytelling), metanarrative (collective storytelling)

These restorying practices employed by fans in informal digital spaces can be used by educators within more formal contexts. Restorying offers a way of promoting empathy, respect and understanding for diverse lived experiences and of challenging inequalities of representation and exclusion of certain groups of people. 

 

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

The paper points out that taste often acts as signifier of social status and class. It interprets the Weasleys as the Irish – redheads, impoverished, lots of children –  which reiterates that there are many things you don’t pick up on as a reader outside the context in which a story is set. This reminds me of a conversation with my Scottish partner who was horrified when he discovered that there’s an Irish character in the series, Seamus Finnigan, who has a propensity to set things on fire and blow things up. I never realised the connection with the IRA.

The middle class in the UK is very different to the middle class in India. To me, everybody here seems pretty well off – even though the Weasleys are explicitly described as poor. Also, there is this perception in India that in the “West” (usually a monolithic construct), everyone is prosperous and people don’t have to worry about poverty. It is definitely a matter of context, that I began to see clearly only after moving to the UK and encountering perspectives and standards of poverty here. A few weeks ago, my partner and I witnessed a neighbour’s encounter with mental illness and how it was (mis)treated by the police. My partner was appalled at the cuts to services which has led to the way things are now. To me, even the existence of such services is such an unthinkable thing, much less the expectation that these services need to function according to a high standard. It’s so good to be able to learn from both privileged and marginalised perspectives because it allows you to see things you wouldn’t have thought of. 

The paper argues that the fixed nature of daemons reflects the lack of social mobility and career changes in the world of His Dark Materials which is an interesting idea. Another interesting idea is pets as a signifier of status. This can be seen in real life as well with what you can and can’t afford when it comes to having animals. For example, I would love to have a menagerie, but I definitely can’t afford to. 

“Harry has been disadvantaged, materially, culturally and emotionally, by the Dursleys, but in the wizarding world he is a lost prince.”

While Harry grows up impoverished, he has inherited wealth and valuable objects, from many older men – his invisibility cloak, the Marauder’s Map, Hedwig – as the co-hosts on Witch, Please and the paper point out. Witch, Please further discusses how a lot of the objects in the magical world seem to have artisanal value where the economy seems to value one-of-a-kind objects rather than mass-produced items, in itself a class marker. Harry has several of these. Hat-tip to Witch, Please again for noting that the accumulation of objects in the magical world seems to be especially common among the wealthy – the Malfoys, Voldemort, the Blacks. Sirius is desperate to get rid of these objects as a further way to cut ties with his family when he is forced to inhabit his family house in Order of the Phoenix.

 

3) Fanfiction – A Wand With Sixteen Strings

Just reading fanfiction again has filled my heart with such joy! I remember doing this as a teenager – just losing myself in Harry Potter fic and finding so much joy and comfort in it. I never did get around to reading fic inspired by other worlds. Going back to that experience even briefly makes me want to simultaneously read and write more fanfiction  – this time, using all the knowledge, interests, and perspectives my PhD research has exposed me to. I like the What If? sections on my co-host episodes allow me to do this somewhat in the form of headcanons. But I would love to explore further.

I didn’t even realise it was a crossover with an existing school story series – The Marlows – until a note hinted at Lawrie being an existing character in Chapter 5. This fic reiterated the gender politics in school stories. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate this while I was bingeing on school stories as a teenager, but I glossed over the more overtly sexist bits of the narratives and enjoyed them because they centred female characters having all sorts of adventures – both domestic and outdoor – and included relationships, drama and all-round interestingness (at least it was interesting to me).

Nicola’s brief friendly conversation with a centaur in the library made me wish there had been more of that in the series! Also, the librarian Madam Pince, in this case didn’t seem daunting, quite helpful if a bit quirky – my kind of librarian representation. I would really have loved the series through Hermione’s point of view. I would have also loved more magical creatures in Hogwarts – an inter-cultural learning community would have been so interesting! Do I need to write this fic?! I also loved the casual inclusion of different religious faiths in this conversation. 

“Does everybody have to go to the Quidditch match?” Nicola was asking Susan, who was leaning over the desk behind her.

Susan shook her head. “Most people do, but the Osmans don’t go because their religion doesn’t think much of witches riding around on brooms showing their legs – you know the Osmans, they’re Gryffindors, one’s a fourth year and the other one’s a seventh – and neither do some of the other Muggleborns. Sally-Ann Perks doesn’t, I know that, because she came in at the end of my clarinet lesson and asked Magister Reed if it was all right to use the music-room, and he said if the Snitch flew in through the window and up her euphonium he’d hold her responsible.”

“Sally-Ann Perks is never a Muslim,” said Nicola, sounding as if she suspected a leg-pull.

“No, but her people do follow some kind of Muggle religion,” said Susan earnestly. “Haven’t you noticed she wasn’t allowed to come to the Hallowe’en feast or anything where people sing hymns, and she got really embarrassed when Lavender Brown was asking when her birthday was, and had to tell her not to send cards to her house because her parents don’t agree with that kind of thing?”

“Well, who’d have thought it,” said Nicola, only mildly interested.

“What are they going to do in the music-room?” asked Tim Keith, strolling over. “I might go and join them.”

“You can’t do that,” said Goyle offendedly. “You’ve got your House to support.”

“And the so-dear Marlows here have two sisters to support,” Tim gave them a bright glancing look, not altogether devoid of malice. “So I suppose we’ll all be there freezing on the stands whilst Sally-Ann Perks and the two best-looking boys in Gryffindor share a nice warm music-room. It’s enough to make me take up that old-time religion.”

The story also featured a refreshingly different perspective of Draco and the rest from a non-Harry POV (I may also have a soft spot for Draco after watching Harry Potter and the Cursed Child for my birthday in March). Altering the POV and highlighting new voices really does allow you to reimagine differently. Is this why I love retellings of all kinds? The potential to expand my imagination? The Hufflepuff POV in this story, a house which is much denigrated in the books, also reminds me that I need to watch Puffs, an off-Broadway play which is available on Prime, which documents the series from the Hufflepuff perspective. 

 

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

The co-hosts believe that the effeminate representation of Draco and Lucius Malfoy signifies bad whiteness. They were aristocratic slave holders and evil. There’s also a link between the Malfoys, the Nazis and the Slytherins. The villains are coded as dandys and queer (Voldemort as well). Snape is also coded is a bad example of whiteness, though in a very different way. I wonder about the class implications of this as well as the blood-status implications. The bad guys congregate in Knockturn Alley which presents an orientalised aesthetic, for example, the objects in Borgin and Burkes. All this is contrasted by Harry’s good whiteness where he comes from a poor background and doesn’t have the Malfoy-level of wealth and privilege supporting him. The Malfoys keeps slaves, Harry liberates them. One is a bad way to be a white person, the other is an example of a good white person. 

However, as they mention in later episodes, Harry is also privileged. Perhaps not with the Dursleys, but certainly in the magical world. He inherits wealth and valuable objects as well as cultural and social status. While he liberates Dobby and is eventually nice to Kreacher, he doesn’t seek to upend the status quo or the system of house elf slavery in the way Hermione does. He develops empathy for those ostracised by witches and wizards – such as goblins and giants who live on the margins of the magical society – but he doesn’t take any radically inclusive measures. (The Jewish co-hosts also identify the anti-Semitic stereotypes of goblins and the overall lack of Jewish characters in the magical world). 

They note that in the movie, the Burrow is vibrant and welcoming whereas Privet Drive is plain and boring. The country is glorified over the suburbs and lower middle class in the suburbs versus lower middle class in the country is very different. They discuss the class commentary of the architecture and visual choices in movies. 

Throughout their podcast, the co-hosts critique the pedagogy employed in Hogwarts. When it comes to the bad teaching in Hogwarts, o students from wizarding families have more of an advantage because they are assumed to have some skills and knowledge? Or even if they don’t acquire these skills and knowledge in school, their family will take care of the necessary education? This has class and race implications, which is similar in real-life educational institutions. 

In terms of gender, they point out that while Hermione in the books is flawed, in the movies, she’s portrayed as god-like. She’s given Dumbledore’s line, not too much is made of her crush on Gilderoy Lockhart, she is physically more attractive as opposed to the books – and just generally she isn’t as flawed and embarrassing as portrayed in the books. They argue that in movies, women are constantly shown as flawed and we rarely get perfect female characters, so on the one hand, it is good to have Hermione as a strong young female character. However, there aren’t enough women characters in popular media to be able to have both – flawed and perfect characters. We would like both characters who we want to aspire to be – perfect and flawless – as well as those we identify with – flawed and complex. Men often don’t have to choose between the two because there’s room for multiple representations. 

 

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

Podcasting is a way of disseminating information about feminism. It is also a way to maintain long-distance friendship. Much like Witch, Please, I’m using my PhD podcast to do a bit of both. Hannah McGregor says that podcast listeners and engaging with a community taught her a lot. For Jaime, she’s been having these conversations (like the political feminist ones on Witch, Please) with her leftist queer community in the real-world. Unlike Jaime, I didn’t have access to these conversations in my real life so I am forever grateful for the internet for expanding my mind. Hannah believes that beginning to think critically about things changes your relationship with media in general as well as that thing in particular. You either decide you now hate the thing or continue loving it and enjoy critiquing it. People like having their ideas expanded. This has definitely been my experience. 

However, not all ideas are appreciated by everyone. Listeners didn’t like Witch, Please‘s reading of anti-Semitism in Harry Potter nor did they agree with their reading of fatphobia against the Dursleys. Hannah also pointed out that UK listeners don’t see the absence of Jewishness as a sign of religious erasure because they argue there is no religion in the series despite the series being framed around Christianity. This is similar to discussions about racism in the UK, as pointed out by Woke Doctor Who, where British people seem to think that racism is only a thing which exists in the US. Fat shaming “bad” people even among people on the left is seen as acceptable (Trump, for example). 

Podcasting can act as a community-building site even if the text and creator are problematic. Podcasts act as accessible scholarship where knowledge is shared not just by academics podcasting but also non-academics podcasting. For example, Lark acknowledges that he doesn’t have a college degree. His education comes from talking to people and from the internet. This doesn’t make his voice any less important. Even though I’m researching for a PhD, a lot of my knowledge is derived from the internet as well. I’m still uncomfortable about calling myself an academic because I have a very certain idea of academic knowledge and I don’t feel like I fit into this mould. The internet offers different forms of media to make knowledge accessible to people who aren’t privileged enough to access these through institutionalised means. 

However, as Hannah points out, open access to scholarship isn’t embraced by everyone. Many institutionalised spaces seek to protect and hoard their knowledge. Holding onto privilege, Hannah argues, is a white supremacist act because it links “expertise to wealth and other forms of privilege” – wealth and privilege which in Canada, like many Western countries, have been historically concentrated in the hands of white men. This elitist gatekeeping of knowledge provides the argument that free knowledge/free tuition decreases the “specialness” of knowledge, an idea which needs to be protected. Podcasting breaks down the barriers between who gets to create and disseminate knowledge. It also allows you to talk to more diverse people beyond the limited group of people within educational institutions which usually includes only those who have access to these spaces and resources. Hannah asserts that theory suffers from not exploring lived experience and becomes too abstract, irrelevant, and ivory towerish. I think this reflects my own uncertainty with and perception of academia.

The episode discusses that queer people seem to love Harry Potter which they argue may be a combination of the timing of the series release and the birth of digital fandom. Fans took ownership of the series regardless of what Rowling thinks/says – this is particularly relevant and evident now. They also propose that fans seem to have more ownership of genre fiction (science fiction, fantasy, horror) where they play around in the world as opposed to literary fiction where the writer’s word seems more sacrosanct. 

Two fan text recommendations from the conversation: 

 

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

The popular perception is that fanfiction is trashy and terrible when actually, there is a lot of high quality fic out there. And anyway, even among published books, there are so many terrible books out there! Eric interviews a woman of colour who reads/writes fanfiction because she finds it full of more diversity than mainstream media. Most creators of mainstream media are straight white guys (in the West). Fanfiction expands the possibilities of who creates stories and includes a diversity of perspectives, something that the host Eric hadn’t considered at all. Even for a critical and open-minded thinker, it’s easy to fall prey to cultural stereotypes.

There is definitely a gendered element to this denigration of fanfiction. When men wrote fiction inspired by Sherlock Holmes way back when, as one of the guests points out, the practice wasn’t denigrated. But as soon as it becomes a practice popularly employed by women, censure and mockery abound. Female fans of Star Trek wrote some of the first fanfiction as it is seen today – including slash fic – and they were dismissed by male fans for liking the show too much and for the wrong reasons .

“Where women were more interested in the relationships between the characters rather than the high concept scientific ideas.”

Slash fic is proposed to be a way of writing a lot of queer literature to fill the missing gap in mainstream literature. One of the guests also believes that slash ships written by women allow for equality in relationships i.e. it becomes a way for women to navigate gender politics without the baggage. However, I’ve also come across critiques of this because without doing the proper research, writing about a culture you aren’t familiar with can be problematic. A lot of slash fic tends to be about attractive men – largely white men – written by straight women, and intersectional identities are missing. Not that the whole idea needs to be tossed out, but there is room for questioning it rather than simply touting it as progressive. 

Fanfiction displays an alternative framework to creating stories – communal writing where betas act as voluntary editors and writers take feedback into serious consideration which informs their subsequent chapters and how the story goes. Many fans even prefer fan works to canon which throws into question – what is canon anyway if fanon is equally well-received by a certain portion of people? Archive Of Our Own is a fan-run platform for fans to host fanfiction. It was started in 2007 and won a Hugo award in 2019. Online fandom can be more accessible than offline conventions, which can be expensive and inaccessible to many groups of people for many different reasons.  

A guest speaks about the tension between fanfiction and its commercialisation wherein companies are trying to monetise fanfiction (hello capitalism) which changes the subversive, subcultural practice of fanfiction by making it more conventional and heteronormative to suit the demands of the marketplace. Another tension is about fan entitlement where media creators hold fan backlash responsible for their creative choices. However, historically fans haven’t had large amounts of institutional and financial power. Now, through their fan works, they are able to respond to the media and critique decisions which further marginalise under-represented groups of people – something which some media creators like more than others. 

To quote Sam Winchester: “At the end of the day, it’s our story. So we get to write it.”

 

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

This episode featured an interview with Francesca Coppa, one of the co-founders of Archive of Our Own. She pointed at Sherlock Holmes and then Star Trek as the origins of fanfiction. Women played a huge role in the Star Trek fandom but they weren’t taken as seriously – they were writing fictional stories but were regarded as writing the show incorrectly. Fanzines and sharing VHS tapes was another way of sharing fandom and forming a community. The internet followed. 

Why bully teenage girls for doing something they love?

She also spoke about the gender politics of fanfiction and how it’s mocked for being an arena so largely populated by teenage girls playing with their favourite worlds and characters. She points out the hypocrisy by drawing parallels to garage bands where people get together to play covers of their favourite in their garages. Just like fanfiction, the quality of these creative outputs differs wildly – with some great and some terrible productions. Even when it comes to the idea of Mary Sues where people criticise wish-fulfillment stories written by young girls and women, it overlooks the fact that so many of mainstream male heroes are wish-fulfillment Gary Stus as well – Luke Skywalker and Bruce Wayne, for example. A lot of fanfiction responds to the sexist aspects of their favourite media where there are no female friendships and women are primarily defined through their relationships with men. Slash fic is used to negotiate gender politics by using fictional characters and exploring the relationships between them. Francesca contends that prose allows you to explore feelings in a deeper way than movie/TV. Being a woman on the internet is fraught with risk anyway.

“Anything women do is funny, anything teenage girls do is funny, anything women do with erotica is especially hilarious.”

Archive of our Own was started by fans to own the platform where they wrote fanfic on. Its co-founders were mostly adult women from different skill backgrounds – coders, lawyers, writers. They designed the structure and software from scratch and included things they considered important – spoiler warnings and trigger warnings, for example. It won a Hugo award in 2019. 

Francesca also talks of the benefits of having beta readers acting as editors to improve the quality of the stories online. Many fans are professional writers and an editor is always helpful to all kinds of writers. However, from my own experiences as a teenage fanfiction writer on MuggleNet, I remember that sometimes the community is much more authoritarian. I wrote a very Out of Character fic about a sitcom version of Voldemort and the Death Eaters and the first chapter received a few nice comments, but then the second chapter as well as the fic itself was deleted for not being in character which was extremely demoralising! I shared it on another platform too but it put me off writing more – I don’t have thick enough skin!

Francesca outlines the limits of the marketplace which in turn limit the kind of stories writers on TV shows/books can tell. Fanfiction doesn’t have this problem where there’s room for all kinds of stories. However, the increasing allure of commercialisation of fanfiction due to it becoming mainstream can be fraught with risk. She warns of the dangers of money coming into fanfiction whereby it will be governed by the dictates of the marketplace and advertisers, just as mainstream media is. But considering that a majority of fic writers are female, shouldn’t women be paid for their work? Francesca wants to preserve the playfulness and not make it a job. It is complicated as she admits.

 

8) Fan podcast – Black Girl Nerds “Geek Misogyny, No Totally” (Segment 1 until 1 hour 6 minutes)

The episode explores examples of sexism and harassment while cosplaying. Cosplaying as a woman appears to be fraught with risk (doing anything being a woman is fraught with risk!). Safety from harassment depends on the space; in conventions, it is more frequent in some places than others. They point out the male entitlement where male fans think female fans are there for their benefit and not just because they are fans themselves and cosplaying is simply their expression of fannishness. Women aren’t there just to be attractive to men or get male attention. Is fandom seen as a space for men by these male fans? And that women are just interlopers? Such behaviour makes nervous fans more uncomfortable and can dissuade them from doing this again. It’s a way of gatekeeping who belongs and who doesn’t. When this sexist behaviour is called out, male fans become upset. Conflict is risky in these spaces because just like elsewhere, you don’t know how men will react and when it can get violent. It’s an outright dismissal of women’s experiences and agency and sense of peace! 

As they point out, making space for conversations about this harrassment is important. Giving space for marginalised voices in ALL the contexts is important, especially when they are challenging dominant norms and behaviours which people may have traditionally taken for granted. This isn’t just true in fan spaces, of course. Fan conventions themselves are often spaces with children and young people too and this is a terrible example to set for them. You can offer such a better experience! Why can’t people just be better?! 

I have a very limited experience of fan conventions. My only experience of a con was Eastercon where there seemed to be many measures in place to make it as inclusive as possible. I’ve just been to that one so far because I haven’t been able to afford to go to more, but I hope to in the future because I love the idea of them! I was on some panels at the convention I’d been to and most of my interactions with people were just brilliant. However, since I’m a chronic over-preparer and was super nervous, I’d done a ton of homework. In one panel, this included having a PowerPoint full of images of the books I was talking about because I like showing visuals to people. At the end of my panel, an older man came to me and said, “Oh every time I see a PowerPoint, it just puts me to sleep.” What a thing to say to someone! One of the young female-presenting volunteers overheard this exchange and quickly said that she likes having a visual to support the panel since she doesn’t always catch what the panelists are saying. Is it only up to women to look out for each other? 

The harassment is especially worse if women inhabit other intersectional identities which mark you out as “different”. On the podcast, they speak about racial and body diversity while cosplaying. Plus size cosplayers have even more anxiety while dressing up as their favourite characters in a fatphobic society. It’s something that’s so conditioned – considering fatness as shameful and less than. And not treating fat people as you would a non-fat person. People undergo such different experiences of marginalisation. In terms of fatphobia, it’s only something I’ve recently discovered and I’m still learning about, after hearing an episode about it on Woke Doctor Who and then reading a book called Happy Fat. 

The fake geek girl discourse is a form of cultural gatekeeping by male fans. Male entitlement manifests itself in deciding who does or doesn’t belong in the fan space. Women are targeted by men for not knowing everything about everything; the same doesn’t happen to other male fans. Female fans are treated differently, not just by men but also women with internalised misogyny. Again, this isn’t something I have come across myself just because of the spaces I inhabit. However, I’d internalised male expressions of fannishness when I was younger. I thought I needed to know everything about a series or movie to count as a “real fan”. And it’s taken a few years for me to be all right with my expression of fannishness, which might differ from the male-controlled norm. Shows with huge male fandoms are taken more seriously than those with huge female fandoms. Women (or anybody!) shouldn’t have to prove their fannishness and the value of their interests to anybody. We don’t need men to allow us into their exclusive fan club. Why do some fans have to prove their fannishness? We’re not doing this for approval. Being a fan, playing games, dressing up – we do it for ourselves! Because it’s fun. 

Does this reflect male insecurity? Is it a form of dominant culture insecurity about having to share space with new people, about having other kinds of people and stories they have to engage with? This is also similar to broader social, cultural and political spaces at large. The guests point out that the dominant culture becomes angry/offended when marginalised fans create their own space – even though the dominant norms are still prevalent everywhere. They also outline the differences between male fandom (i.e. collecting merch, trivia, knowing the canon) versus female fandom (i.e. transforming canon because they are dissatisfied by their lack of representation). Transformational fandom is usually practised by people on the margins of mainstream culture as a way to insert their own perspectives which are otherwise erased. It is so important to form a community with fellow marginalised fans because they’re concerned with the same things you are within a space where you’ve all gathered to chat about something you love. Diversity isn’t a threat to the things the dominant group likes! It just makes space for more things which others can enjoy. Inclusion doesn’t need to be a contentious issue. 

 

9) Fan podcast – The Gayly Prophet “Three Owls In A Trench Coat: POA Chapter 3” (Listen from 37 to 57 minutes)

Something I hadn’t considered – Stan Shunpike has a class-signifying accent in the UK context. He is portrayed as working class and the character isn’t very flattering. Hagrid has a different regional class accent and is marginalised in different ways. The Weasleys’ lack of money is different from a truly working class lifestyle. Mr. Weasley seems to have a pretty stable job at the Ministry. The hosts don’t think they come from working class backgrounds based on the cues provided about Molly’s family. These are things you wouldn’t pick up on unless you were familiar with the UK class politics. But there are parallels in India with accents and regional variations where urban accents and English is privileged. The series, like much mainstream media, is written from an upper class/middle class perspective which is quite uncomfortable. 

What is the cost of education at Hogwarts? Do all wizarding children go? Is there a cost factor which prevents people from going? Tom Riddle got some sort of scholarship, didn’t he? What about the Gaunts? It may not just be tuition but also buying all the things which go with it. Do you also pay for boarding and food? There’s also the class connotations of boarding schools. In India, my parents and some friends’ parents used to threaten us that if we were bad, they would send us to a boarding school. At the time, we had no concept that a boarding school was more expensive than regular school (and perhaps, the threats rang a little hollow). In the UK, of course, boarding schools seem to be entirely connected with poshness.  

The hosts wonder whether the Knight Bus is a form of transportation only for poor people? It’s an uncomfortable ride, and people seem miserable. Are there different kinds of transportation based on your level of wealth? How much are Portkeys and magic carpets worth? Apparation is free, I suppose, but you assume a level of education. Can you learn to Apparate anywhere other than Hogwarts? Is it restricted only to students who have access and resources to education? You can read Muggles/Muggleborn children as coming from a lower class background because of their lack of access to resources and knowledge. And everything else is so much harder for them in the magical world. Even though Harry was raised by Muggles and was largely impoverished, in the magical world he isn’t financially insecure. As the hosts point out, in Prisoner of Azkaban, he is asked to stay at Diagon Alley in an inn on presumably his own dime and has to pay for his own meals. This presumption of wealth with no consideration given to money matters implies that money is no problem. 

 

10) Fan podcast – Reading, Writing, Rowling “Revela Draconem: Draco Malfoy Revealed” (Listen until 27ish minutes)

Draco and Dudley have certain similarities. They are both bullies, and their behaviour has class implications in terms of their families. Both are over-indulged by their parents who have their own toxic ideas of privilege and wealth and status – though the Malfoys are much more aristocratic than the Dudleys. This has an impact on both Draco and Dudley as well as on Harry. This parenting is also very harmful to both boys; a different kind of neglect and abuse than the one meted out to Harry. Both change as characters by unlearning their family’s social conditioning and develop empathy for other perspectives. They both also undergo traumatic experiences as the series progresses. Draco is depressed in Half-Blood Prince which is born out of expectations and pressure to fit in with parents which he may not necessarily agree with. Being in Slytherin definitely didn’t help him question his beliefs and preconceived ideas. As the hosts in The Gayly Prophet point out in an episode, he would have done well to have been sorted into Ravenclaw and be friends with Luna who would probably have questioned his really problematic ideas. 

 

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

They discuss Hermione’s failure with SPEW where she didn’t consult with the house elves and decided she was going to liberate them based on her own ideas. It was reflective of white feminism and a white saviour complex, both of which were presented uncritically. One of the hosts believes that she’s developed leadership skills and organisational capabilities thanks to her SPEW efforts, which she goes on to apply to the DA in Order of the Phoenix. But she doesn’t actually apply any of these lessons to SPEW. She has a condescending attitude towards house elves and doesn’t talk to them, but she is better prepared with her peers in DA. Is this some unquestioned biases at play even within Hermione – where she considers her human peers more equal than house elves and more able to understand her plans and concerns? Dobby bears the brunt of her good but clumsy intentions – he has to clean Gryffindor tower by himself because none of the other house elves want to be tricked into freedom. Hermione’s tactics show a shocking ignorance and lack of consideration of house elf culture, attitudes, and beliefs. She thinks she knows better than the house elves about their own lives and behaves accordingly. The hosts also believe that it’s important to confront friends when it comes to activism and social justice movements. Harry should have talked to Hermione about her SPEW failures. Looking at her plans for DA, we assume she has learned, but she may not actually have gleaned any lessons. 

In terms of gender dynamics, they discuss the DA where Hermione gives up control to Harry even though she’s the brains behind the operation. This might be a problematic diminishing of female labour but can also be read as needing collective delegation and leadership – a different way of expressing leadership. They also talk about Angelina Johnson’s stint as the Gryffindor Quidditch captain. Vanessa asserts that women are held to unfair standards compared to men especially in terms of men’s comfort versus women’s comfort. The players didn’t complain as much when the previous captain Oliver Wood put them through discomfort. When Angelina has practices in the pouring rain, she earns the intense ire of the entire team. In Hogwarts’ blindly multicultural society, Angelina’s race may not have played a role but in real life situations, the fact that she is a black woman may have had consequences on how the rest of the team follows her lead.  

Some Notes On Episode 3 – Resources

Some Notes On … is a section which features my autoethnographic fieldnotes as I document my thoughts throughout different parts of my PhD project. Here, I write about the text resources discussed in our podcast episode. 

For Episiode 3, “Just Let Me Hug a Tree in the Woods: Wicca, Paganism, and Religion in Fantasy Media”, we discussed the following texts.

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

On a video called “Harry Potter: Witchcraft Repackaged, Making Evil Look Innocent” which is disparagingly referenced in the blog post, the responses of the kids at the beginning sound quite wonder-struck and open to possibilities and to imagine differently. A couple of the responses belie the myth that children, especially girls, are always nice and innocent. I would be more interested in having deeper conversations with the respondents than just pass judgments based on quotes pulled out of context. 

The writer sounds sincerely panicked about the perceived assault against Christianity in the public education system in the US and the risk posed by promoting Wicca in its stead. Not just the Harry Potter series but the internet is also implicated in this Wiccan propaganda where children can easily learn how to practice witchcraft and paganism. Honestly, it’s really easy to laugh at this hyperbole – especially given that despite proclaiming itself to be secular, the US seems to be structured on a Christian framework. However, I’m also aware that to many (not all) of them, this danger may feel very real. I was talking to my boyfriend last week about abortion and how many Christians are against it. And while I am very much pro-choice and think that people should follow their own beliefs, I can understand where the fundamentalist religious worry comes from. If they truly believe in these things and they think they’re trying to save not only their family and friends from eternal damnation but also the society they live in, I can see why they don’t care what others may think about them when they protest abortion clinics. 

When I was younger, I vaguely remember the news of this panic against Harry Potter and  witchcraft in the US being reported in India and online. Whenever I came across it, the news sources seemed bemused by the whole situation so I didn’t take it too seriously either, because it’s not something I live with. However, now seeing the situation in India, where such a huge group of Hindus have fallen for this belief that despite being the majority in India, their values and beliefs are somehow under threat, which means they need to secure their interests – it makes me think of what happened and what’s still happening in the US. It’s a very self-centred view of the world. I’m not religious but my mother is. However, she’s the kind of religious – or maybe spiritual – who believes in all religions. I think she likes having something to believe in, to provide comfort and hope, and to gather in a community with and to practice some rituals for solace. I struggle with the kind of religion which only wants its version of the world to exist. I find fundamentalism of any kind quite scary. 

“Harry Potter provides a basic initiation into witchcraft for a whole new generation. Imagine what the world will be like when they grow up.”

This last line in the essay is really interesting because based on current research and what we’re seeing in protests in India and across the world, young people who’ve grown up with Harry Potter seem to use it to demand more inclusion, social justice, empathy and respect. This is, of course, a gross generalisation and I’m sure there are many Harry Potter readers (and one Harry Potter writer) who doesn’t believe in inclusion for all groups – there is a hierarchy of marginalisation. However, I’m pretty okay with how we’ve grown up. I don’t think it’s the Harry Potter readers that are the problem; it’s the systems we’re currently fighting against which, in many parts of the world, are founded on religious oppression.

 

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

Rowling uses Twitter to confirm that Hogwarts is very diverse apparently. Why isn’t this diversity apparent or engaged with in any meaningful way in the book series itself? I mean I want more explicit – not allegorical diversity. But also within the series itself, the diversity at Hogwarts extends to gender, blood status, and superficially race. What about other kinds of diversity? The goblins complain of witches and wizards hoarding their secrets. But at the end of the series, this status quo remains in place. And in terms of religious diversity, there was so much room to explore that as well. This retroactive diversity is really absurd to me. As I was saying to my friends, I wished she had acknowledged her blind-spots. As a writer, I know very well that you don’t usually think of everything when you’re writing your story. But instead of using this as a conversation-starter or a learning experience, she’s claiming credit for diversity which she didn’t come up with.  

There are Jewish students, and LGBTQIA+ students, and all religions (or even non-belief) it seems. Except Wiccans. Where is this mysteriously diverse cohort hiding? Rowling’s response to someone’s assumption that Hogwarts would be a safe space for LGBTQIA students was to use a fan text, a version of which I encountered, during my Master’s research.

“If Harry Potter taught us anything, it’s that no one should live in a closet”

Again, rather than credit the fantastic work that fans do in expanding the Potterverse and making it more diverse, she seems to just co-opt that work (see also: black Hermione) and present it as her own idea. And, of course, she’s well within her right to do that. However, seeing as how much her words mean to so many people, I wish she was more sensitive and took more responsibility to engage with these issues rather than use flippant tweets.

Anthony Goldstein seems to be the sole Jewish representative. In terms of religion, it seems to be framed around Christianity too. No paganism in sight, no matter what the fundamentalist Christians are afraid of. But Christmas is celebrated very grandly. No other religious celebrations or festivals are given the time of day. There’s Halloween (which seems to celebrate food and carved pumpkins than any form of paganism), then Christmas, then Easter. I remember reading an interview many years ago when I was a teenager and the last two books weren’t out yet. Rowling didn’t say what religion she followed because she said that would make the plot of her final books very clear to astute readers. Harry’s sort-of death and sort-of rebirth was very reminiscent of Jesus and Aslan. 

What would religious diversity in Hogwarts look like? Different lessons in the classroom? Celebrations? Cross-cultural relationships?

 

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

This was quite a gripping episode to be introduced to the show to! I found it very interesting (and scary) about how Christianity was positioned in opposition to witches. And of course, from what I gleaned, it makes perfect sense within the context of the show. But I suppose the connection wasn’t as apparent to me before – Christianity versus Wicca, that is. Is Wicca a Western faith tradition? I’d be interested in understanding how it stands in contrast to other religions. What’s the relationship between other Western and Eastern religions with Wicca? Does it draw from other religions? Like I said, I don’t know enough about even the more mainstream religions – let alone the less familiar ones. 

The characters who act as representatives of Christianity demand that the witches convert to their faith to save their souls. Again with Hinduism, which is what I’ve grown up with culturally, the discourse around conversion to Hinduism isn’t that prevalent. Or at least it never used to be. There are people who converted from Hinduism to escape the oppressive nature of the caste system – and recently there have been efforts by right-wing groups in India to re-convert Christians and Muslims to Hinduism. It’s called Ghar Wapsi. And there’s the moral panic of Muslim men stealing Hindu daughters and how Hindu women need to be protected from this danger which has the tone of both religious prejudice and patriarchal control.

 

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

They discuss how Christianity in the US is the structuring force of most media. This doesn’t leave room for non-Abrahamic religions or atheists. The insecurity with Christians feeling like they’re under attack in the US resembles the attitude of many Hindus in India. I think India and the US have more in common than they realise! 

One of the co-hosts, Toya, follows the Orisha faith which believe in nature-based deities among African people (which is a minority religion even among black Americans in the US most of whom are Christian and then Muslim). Toya chose her religion as a political decision to find deities which resemble her and don’t marginalise her as she felt Christianity does. The new religion also met her desire for faith and community. According to Toya, Christianity has been used to oppress black people wherein black people’s lives are perceived as being punished for their sins. She does acknowledge that for some black people, Christianity has been connected to liberation. However for her, her faith is both a religious and political identity.

Eugenia, the other co-host, is an atheist and connects this with her scientist identity. She discusses the connection between religion and morality whereby atheists are considered amoral. Like Eugenia, I have a different moral code as someone who isn’t religious. However, I do understand those who base their morality on their religion, but I think there could be more critical thinking there. Not all religious people act with kindness, goodness and inclusion. 

When there’s a dominant religion in a country, everything in its media and culture is largely measured against that religion and other ways of being and faith are othered. Different countries feature different religions (Middle East and Islam) or not (China). But even then you can engage in resistant readings where you interpret a text based on your own beliefs. The hosts believe that the UK has more positive representations of atheism in its media. 

They cite a Doctor Who episode which features atheism, another which questions blind faith – The Fires of Pompeii – by providing metaphorical commentary on religion and questioning blind belief.  In his run, David Tennant’s Doctor seems to position religion and curiousity versus acknowledging you don’t know everything including whether or not a God exists. In some episodes, the Doctor acts as a godlike figure – an ancient god who makes mistakes and doesn’t know everything – similar to mythology. Parallels to Gandalf and Dumbledore? Religion as mythology where different groups of people wrote different stories about their understanding of how the world works and how humans exist in it. Faith doesn’t have to be connected to organised religion. Doctor Who raises questions about humanity and what brings us together rather than explore religions in detail. 

In Jodie’s first season, they note that there are lots more diverse faith-based episodes. For example, the faith-based conflict and imperialism in Demons of the Punjab. They wonder if this is because of the diversity of the cast and writers. People can understand each other through the faiths they follow and the beliefs it reveals. Representations of different religions can act as a way to evoke respect and empathy for diverse experiences. 

They notice the absence of Jewish representation in Doctor Who which is similar to this erasure in Harry Potter. They wonder why this is. Someone on my Facebook newsfeed talked about how Judaism only seems to crop up in Holocaust narratives with no room for Jewish representation in other aspects. Though I have read two books recently which had Jewishness at its core without being about the Holocaust – The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker and Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik. 

 

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

Hannah McGregor, academic and podcaster of Witch, Please talks about her new podcast Secret Feminist Agenda and interviews authors/witches Jaya Saxena and Jess Zimmerman to talk about their forthcoming book Basic Witches. Their view of witchcraft isn’t religious but more historical and pop cultural (they aren’t practising Wiccans). They’re trying to reclaim the witch from its historical contexts to a more empowering version in contemporary feminism. They claim that in the book, there is no fundamentally bad way to be a woman. I disagree with this somewhat. If your being a woman involves oppressing other people in any number of ways – women, men, nonbinary folk, trans folk – I think that’s a pretty bad way of being a woman or a person. They acknowledge that there was an essentialist approach to gender in old-school paganism and Wicca where the focus on menstruation and the moon cycle can appear transphobic to contemporary feminists/Wiccans. 

I do agree with their point of people shouldn’t degrade women for being too smart, too frivolous, too unserious, “too standing near a cow and it dies”.  They propose a radical acceptance of womanhood and femininity as a tenet of their version of witchcraft They say that historically, it has been scary for women to have medical knowledge but not men. Is this only in certain contexts though? I don’t know enough but surely there are traditions of women healers in history? They believe in creating rituals and practices as a way to empower the practitioner where the rules act as a framework not as a hard boundary.

Can there be male Wiccans? Or is it just a religion for women? They challenge the notion of aggressive as masculine and emotional as feminine emotions. This can lead to women rejecting traditionally feminine traits in an effort to be feminists. There are also different reactions to getting your periods – different ways of looking at the world. 

They argue that embracing ugliness as a feminist stance. Eurocentric, patriarchal standards and expectations of beauty., where beauty is seen as a marker of morality,  perpetuates a narrow version of beauty. There are so many different ways to be ugly. Beauty is also subjective. Both ugliness and beauty are loaded terms; ugly has severe negative connotations – how do you engage with beauty on your own terms? Why is beauty a requirement? Witches, like feminists and ugliness, lies outside of the status quo. Hagrid as the wizard/witch mid-wife initiates Harry into a new community and rejects any standards of beauty or propriety, firmly situated outside the status quo. 

“Beauty is the dues that you pay for existing in the world.” 

A lot of women or people who are raised as women are conditioned in this way which is similar to femininity as a tax you pay. Beauty is shaped by the advertising and cosmetics industries which are capitalising on beauty.

“Magic as a way of intervening in capitalism.” 

How do you embrace a different approach to aesthetics? 

 

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

The episode began with an excerpt from a sermon after the Brett Kavanaugh hearing in the US which contextualised religion with contemporary real-world issues. For me, who thinks of religion in terms of violence and control, this is a refreshing perspective I did not consider before. Even though, of course, for many religious people, this may be the point – understanding the world through the lens of religion 

Parallel between violence of the Ministry of Magic against Harry in the fifth book where they don’t believe him and the media and the government mock him and gaslighting him and his trauma ] to women’s reporting of rape in a patriarchal society. In Order of the Phoenix, many readers found Harry’s anger annoying – like the responder, I was one of these people too. But in my master’s research, I encountered another perspective of his PTSD and justifications for his behaviour. One of the callers draws parallel to his anger and trauma and existing in a world where you’re being persecuted to the anger of those who are marginalised. I certainly feel this way in the context of India and the UK – I’m so constantly angry about everything, especially reading more news on social media which sends me into simultaneous spirals of rage, helplessness and despair. I went to two protests last year to channel some of that anger. They discuss going through secondhand trauma where even though you’re not being targeted and impacted personally, but you’re afraid of what’s happening in the world. They recommend looking for acts of bravery, kindness, joy and inspiration – little pockets of them – to keep going. 

The deeply personal voicemails listeners of the podcast leave for the show and for fellow listeners creates a form of community where fans come together to make sense of the world and its people through the lens of Harry Potter. This is similar to how people use religion as a lens to understand the world and to form a community around as well. 

Dr Lynn Gurber, a scholar of religion, discusses neo-paganism and Wicca. She cites the influences of feminism, women’s studies, and feminist studies in general in the 80s and 90s when she was growing up. Witches and witchcraft act as a feminist alternative movement – providing a spirtual and social, community life. It’s a way to understand and negotiate misogyny and women’s historical and ongoing oppression and an attempt to understand power dynamics between men and women and between people. Is this power imbalance just against men though? There are power hierarchies among women too which has many class, race, gender identity, religion, disability intersections. She proposes that the Church’s opposition to paganism is also a patriarchal response to women’s agency. Hinduism is very patriarchal as well.

“Claiming a history that people say isn’t important.” 

She also talks of how Wicca is used as a way to grow closer to and learn about the natural world – herbs, food, seasons. It is also a way to practice rituals in a community, where it provides an opportunity to come together with others. As a now non-practising Wiccan, she has kept the spiritual and intellectual practice of claiming the power of possibility and of believing in potentials. She acknowledges that Harry Potter provides a space to cultivate wonder in a way which is important to all people and allows them to imagine differently, and to imagine alternative possibilities.

 

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

“Fantasy fiction is limited to our cultural experiences.” 

This episode features an interview with Malaysian-British author Zen Cho. They discuss how most magic in fantasy media draws on Judeo-Christian practices which results in excoticising and othering non-Western ideas of magic. Zen talks about how for her, reading Regency era fiction as a Malaysian kid in the 80s felt like reading fantasy – the stories were full of new  and unfamiliar norms, vehicles, language. This is similar to my own experiences full of an Indian childhood diet of Enid Blyton and other British children’s literature. Western fantasy hugely influenced her writing but she also drew on her own local stories and folklore. My own ideas of fantasy are so heavily influenced by Western notions. My writing for children is still pretty colonised, I think, though I am slowly unlearning this. The idea of Western magic involves old men with beards hurling incantations. 

Back in the day, you believed in magic because you only half understood what’s happening in the world. Modern magic is more functional where there is a well-defined system of magic creating a more rational approach to magic. More traditional fantasy played with rules and magic wasn’t as well defined. In Zen’s book, magicians use spirits and words where magic is external rather than internal. In Harry Potter, the magic comes from somewhere else. In Terry Pratchett, the wizards have academic magic and witches have community magic where one isn’t better than the other. In Uprooted, there are two different forms of magic – intellectual versus emotional – gendered implications. There are cultural clashes between different kinds of magic (In Harry Potter, Native American magic seems to be superseded by more Western influences which appear superior and have made Native practices obsolete.

Usually Western magic looks at non-Western magic but in Zen’s The True Queen, the roles are reversed where an Imperial subject’s perspective is highlighted. This made me think of my own experiences growing up in India and looking at the UK as exotic and other. She treated British culture as foreign and Malay culture as the norm in her book – used Islam since it’s a dominant religion in Malaysia. God and Allah are loaded terms in contemporary times. You don’t see much fantasy set in tropical countries – language, setting, food, culture, biology etc. would differ and impact the magicians and the writer’s world-building. Growing up with largely Western fantasy narratives, it begins to shape what you think of as proper fantasy and it’s something you take for granted. Christianity’s spread killed off belief in magic in many parts of the world – this may explain fantasy’s looking down at native magic even today where other cultural traditions are denigrated either subtly or explicitly. After the Enlightenment, belief in magic was replaced by belief in science – definitely something I can identify with. It’s something I really chafed against with the Hindu beliefs my upbringing exposed me to. There is a lack of animistic fantasy which acknowledges that humans cannot know everything about the world. How does fantasy differ when created by people who grew up in a “rational” culture versus an “irrational” one? Diversity just makes things so much more interesting! You’re drawing on so many different kinds of cultures and beliefs; this representation is great not only for marginalised but also for dominant cultures. You’re surprised by things that you don’t expect if you’ve grown up with Wetsern habits of magic and culture. 

“Using other cultures as set-dressing just to exocticise an unfamiliar culture in your story – frustrating for a tradition which isn’t well-represented in Western culture which is currently global culture.” 

 

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

“Tolkien spirituality. By this term I refer to groups and individuals who, since the 1960s, have developed increasingly sophisticated religious beliefs, practices, and traditions based on Tolkien’s literary mythology.” 

Tolkien spirituality consists of fans using the fantasy series as canon – and reading the books through a religious lens. Religious Tolkien fans who fuse their religious beliefs with their love of Tolkien by practising both their traditional religions (Christianity, paganism etc.) and rituals celebrating Tolkien mythology made me think about the more direct parallels between fandom and religion and fandom as religion. A group of people who took the text and its characters as literally as people would take the Bible or the Ramayana and Mahabharata, for example.There’s a huge cultural influence of popular culture texts like Harry Potter and the boom in online fandom exacerbates this. According to the paper, the hippies adopted The Lord of the Rings as a quasi-religious text and even had wedding ceremonies based on the books. Many people today also include their fannish texts in wedding ceremonies in both subtle and more explicit ways. 

“Two American magicians, known as Arwen and Elanor, allegedly were told by an Ouija board spirit to found a feminist, Elven, magical group and call it “The Elf Queen’s Daughters” – the Elf Queen being a reference to Elbereth, the Star Queen.”

This is similar to Wiccans who are now making the faith an actively feminist practice. This is especially interesting considering the critiques of the lack of female characters and agency in the series. It is also similar to the ecological parallels with pagan religions – looking after Mother Earth – which I can see can have contemporary relevance and attraction with the climate crisis movement for young people. For example, what would reading Extinction Rebellion through a religious lens result in? How about veganism and religion – especially the more fundamentalist aspects in both? 

“The Silmarillion was published, and the wealth of information within this book about the culture and religion of the Elves was a true gift to the emerging Elven movement.”

A way for practitioners to frame their identity. Tolkien’s work was reinterpreted by the Silver Elves to their own contexts and priorities; this is very similar to more traditional religious texts. There are different interpretations of the Bible where some are more conservative and others are more progressive. Similarly, there’s a split in current Elvish theology with some who are Tolkien adherents and others with allegiances to Elves in folklore and mythology – this has some Islamic parallels as well as Christian. I seem to know more about Christianity than Hinduism – based on my education and the culture and media I consume.  They use other Tolkien texts to build and understand their mythology and canon – his letters and other short stories. What canon you follow is so based on who does the editing (as someone on a Harry Potter and the Sacred Text episode once said).

Some Tolkien spirtualists posit that Middle-Earth was prehistoric Earth. I often have this vague thought that if some sort of apocalypse destroyed humanity as it currently stands – what would future Earth inhabitants or even aliens make of our perceived religious and cultural beliefs? It depends on what they find – what texts and media and assorted paraphernalia they encounter. Harry Potter, Marvel, science fiction? What will they think about our gods and goddesses and belief systems? Aren’t current religious systems based on texts written thousands of years ago too? 

“The group claims to have established with magical research that Tolkien was a “Bard of the kin folk”, i.e. that he was a Changeling himself who chose to be incarnated in a human body to tell the truth of the Changelings in fictional form.”

This reminds me of the fan text I read a few years ago, which proposed that Rowling was a witch who now lives as a Muggle to tells us about the exploits of her world. She’s documenting history not fiction. I’m amazed by the sheer creativity of these religious rituals, practices, stories, and myths. A few years ago, I began trying to read more religious texts because even though I’m not religious, I love stories and ancient religions really do have fascinating stories which reveal so much about their beliefs and attitudes towards each other and the world. I’m also an extremely fannish person so reading about religious practices make me draw on fandom comparisons. For example, fans have rituals too like going on pilgrimages to places connected with their favourite worlds, they enjoy engaging deeply with the fictional world, they meet fellow believers, and find online and offline communities. As respectfully as I can say, Tolkien spirituality (and other religious beliefs) read like embodied fanfiction – losing yourself into this world created by someone else where there are enough gaps to explore and fill and interpret based on your own priorities and interests. The paper credits the internet for Tolkien spirtualists being able to find each other more easily based on extremely niche interests and beliefs – more parallels with fandom. The paper also credits the expanding canon to this which offers more room for exploration and interpretation. In fandom, fans expand the canon with their own fanworks, which oftentimes supersedes the original text or intention of the author. 

“It has been reported that some lending libraries in Britain read the prologue in this manner and classified the book, at least initially, as history rather than fiction.”

I don’t know whether this is true and if it is true, whether the libraries did this sincerely or tongue-firmly-in-cheek. However, there’s an interesting possibility of playfulness being considered as seriousness by others. 

“Practitioners of Tolkien spirituality say that it is Tolkien’s normal readers who get him wrong – those who read his works as mere fiction. It is the practitioners of Tolkien spirituality who use Tolkien’s books as he himself intended them to be used.”

More parallels with other religions and fandom with conservative and progressive followers/fans. Fandom as religion could maybe explain the different schools of thought among fans – more traditional fans who uphold the tenets of the original canon and more progressive fans who are open-minded to the disruption and expansion of the original canon. 

 

9) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds “Faith in Fantasy” 

This episode features different faith leaders discussing the role of religion in science fiction and fantasy.

“In the end we’re all stories, make it a good one.”

Minister Oscar Sinclair has used this quote and idea from Doctor Who in numerous memorial services – interesting relationship between faith, death and fandom. Rabbi Rachel Barenblat draws the comparison of Doctor Who regenerations and the Jewish concept of beginning again. Alwaez Hussein Rashid, a Muslim travelling preacher, reads the elves in Lord of the Rings as perpetual outsiders and the Jedi in Star Wars as Sufi mystics. Rachel read a story from the point of view of Morgana rather than Arthur which completely changed the story. This made me think of the relationship between religion and fandom again where multiple perspectives and diverse interpretations can result in the same story being understood in different ways. 

“SFF asks a lot of the same questions that religion asks.” 

  • Eric

They discuss the relationship between faith and rationalism where some people also use faith to rationalise the things they encounter. There are different kinds of faith systems which may not match more traditional understandings of faith – so there’s faith in religion, but also faith in science. A lot of early science fiction explored worlds in which religion did not exist. However, their interactions with unfamiliar and unknowable things ask religious questions (even if they don’t say that). I found this a fascinating concept. It also reminds me of the premise of Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, a podcast which uses the Harry Potter series as a framework to have spiritual conversations and engage in spiritual practices borrowed from different religions. 

“How do you deal with difference? How do you marginalise people who are so different from you?”

Hussein Rashid 

With questions of otherness, community and death rituals  – different writers create different ideas of this in science fiction and fantasy. As someone who isn’t religious, I like the idea of creating your own rituals to celebrate or mourn things. I like the idea of rituals without the religious baggage. 

“How do things end? And what is our response to it?” 

Oscar Sinclair

This made me think of the climate crisis because that’s what I’m most worried about right now. 

Rachel Barenblat wonders whether things are getting better or whether they’re getting worse. In Judaism, the debate is whether the best Jewish scholars are in the past or whether they’re in the future; the second scenario would lead to an expansion of ideas rather than relying on traditional ideas and interpretations. In terms of science fiction – what the world could be – this idea is something which I keep thinking of. I have faith and hope in human beings so I like the idea of things becoming better. 

There are problematic elements in early science fiction writers where straight white men were largely writing for other straight white men. What their future envisions caters to a certain, very limited group of people. To Rachel, the Firangi in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine felt deeply anti-Semitic.  To Hussein, Narnia is a Christian allegory but can also be a Shia/Sunni allegory. Harry Potter can be read as Jesus, Mohammed, or Moses. You interpret the text not only based on the context of the text but also based on your own personal, social, cultural contexts. Hussein recommends some books which use Islamic elements in fantasy which makes me think of how so much fantasy is framed around Judeo-Christian values. But now more diverse writers means more diverse beliefs and worlds. Popular culture stories are taking the space of religious canon. With both religion and popular media and its fandoms, the process involves telling the same kind of stories in different ways, and making them more relevant to different contexts. You find community and metaphors in both religion and fandom.

“Do they become the stories we tell when we’re searching for meaning?”

What does it mean to be human? How do you answer these questions? Religion is just one lens. For me, it’s definitely through stories – both fictional and people’s real stories. 

 

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

Reverend Broderick Greer is an ordained black gay man – unusual in the Church. He believes everyone’s engagement with religion is different; this is also true in fandom. He teaches the hosts the spiritual practice of marginalia. This allows for  different interpretations of the Bible based on who’s ministering. Marginalia literally involves writing on the margins of the Bible and thereby making the text your own. He is inspired by his grandmother’s practice of writing in the Bible. A woman who inhabited so many oppressed identities expressed ownership of the text and had a conversation with the text. This practice sees the Bible as dynamic, fluid, and open to interpretation. 

He acknowledges that one doesn’t always begin with the confidence to speak back to the text. This is especially true with religious texts but also something seen in a massive fandom like Harry Potter. Being comfortable with talking back can come later when you’re more familiar with the text and gain a sense of ownership. For someone from a group marginalised in the text or in culture at large, speaking back to the text and inserting their perspectives and opinions can be empowering. 

As Broderick points out, when you put the text above God, it can be weaponised. He cites the example of the Bible’s disapproval of homosexuality. Which is why he believes that there is no text, just people’s interpretations of it. He also positions fanfiction as marginalia where fans are exploring and filling in missing gaps and forming communities around this which make the stories more accessible and inclusive. It’s more interesting to speculate than have a definitive answer from the author. 

“Who (in our culture) is imagined out of stories and who needs to reimagine themselves back into them?”

Broderick Greer

This applies to a literary text but even to history. The practice of marginalia sees texts as both popular work and democratic work. It explores the questions of who’s allowed to own the stories and who’s allowed to write in the margins.

 

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

What is part of canon and what isn’t – in religion and in fandom (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child? Rowling’s Twitter announcements?). There’s especially a parallel with Judaism. There are debates even among religious scholars of what counts as canon and what doesn’t. As the episode points out, when it comes to canon, the writer isn’t in control, it’s the editor who is in charge. In Jewish texts like the Talmud, the Torah, or the Bible, what stories and voices are included and which are removed? This depends on who’s doing the compiling. With religious canon, you see periods of expansion – when you’re adding more to the canon, or periods when you’re going deep where you’re analysing everything which exists minutely. For a meaningful engagement with the text, there needs to be a balance between breadth and depth. Your interpretation of the canon can be informed by what’s beyond canon and what you’re choosing to not engage with; but someone else may have a different perspective. The Jewish tradition sees itself “as a conversation across time” similar to the Half-Blood Prince’s marginalia and Tom Riddle’s diary which Ginny writes in. 

 

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

Religious pilgrimages involve taking some time out of your real life. Some pilgrimages are following in someone else’s footsteps – writers, religious people, artists, fictional characters. Fans go on pilgrimages either to conventions or to places where the movies/TV show has been shot/or to places which have connections with their favourite fictional worlds. There also pilgrimages that readers take to get to know their favourite writers better. The importance of materiality and artefacts for pilgrims/fans depends on the objects and the people. For me, bookstores, libraries, nature, and museums form my points of pilgrimage whenever I travel to a new place or even when I’m in the same place. They fill me with joy and wonder and also make me actively think of connections with people who are very different from me, led different lives either now or historically. Pilgrimages can also act as a form of building a community where you meet people from different backgrounds and people who aren’t like you – encountering diverse experiences and perspectives which you you. 

 

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

The word “tradition” has negative connotations because it has been used to exclude groups of people. Matt Potts reclaims tradition by using it as a resource of possibility and using it as a framework to see what the future can look like -respecting both the past and the future and using both to build relationships in the present. This perspective looks at tradition as dynamic rather than static. Tradition cannot thrive without changing with the times to suit relevant contexts and settings – this is true for both religion and fandom. Some religious structures are changing to suit the times – for example, the radical church article I read about and linked to in the transcript of this episode. There are also changing traditions of marriage -who can get married and how. However, some people and structures do cling to one version of tradition and resist change. Religion is a meaning-making system where it changes over time in much the same way language changes over time. Whose stories are highlighted? Throughout history, only a certain group of privileged men have had their interpretations become mainstream. The question now is how you can change traditions in order to include people rather than exclude groups of people. Traditions can actively include voices which have been historically marginalised on grounds of gender, race, national origin etc. 

 

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

In this era of social disconnection, people are looking for reasons and ways to build connections. Both religion and fandom offer a sense of and space for community. The interfaith church that Reverend Burns Stanfield runs attracts a mix of people – economically, socially, politically, culturally, and theologically diverse. Religion as well fandom has the potential to draw people from different backgrounds who have to interact with each other. This provides an opportunity which they might not otherwise encounter. The importance of community in combating loneliness but also to practice love even if it is inconvenient and it is people you wouldn’t otherwise have met or agreed with. Different people bring different skills to a community and contribute in different ways, both big and small. Harry Potter and the Sacred Text itself acts as a community which includes multiple voices and perspectives actively through its guests and by playing voicemails from listeners on the podcast. 

 

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

Is Dobby and Winkys faith the same? Dobby has blind faith in Harry while Winky has the same in the Crouches. You see subservience in both. However, Dobby has more agency since it’s something he chooses. Even though Dobby has agency, it’s still not completely empowering. He still doesn’t consider himself worthy of equal payment and leave, for example. He has blind faith in some wizards and wizarding institutions but is there a corresponding lack of faith in himself and his abilities? However, he does have some sense of dignity and value of his own worth because he is seeking work despite rejections and social censure. Winkys faith isn’t considered proper because Barty Crouch Jr is a Death Eater and she is forbidden from “worshipping” him. The episode draws parallels to certain faiths being oppressed historically and even now. 

House elf-dom itself can be read as a religion rather than a species. It’s a religion and not a cult because Dobby has proven that you can leave it. Perhaps it was a cult before that. Which means that Dobby can be read as a religious reformer while Winky is a conservative practitioner. Many world religions have traditions of gendered oppression. Dobby shows that you can choose which parts of the religion you can keep and which parts you can do away with based on new information and contexts. Even non-religious people have faith in something, and similar arguments apply to them. 

Some Notes on Episode 2 – Part 2 Resources

Some Notes On … is a section which features my autoethnographic fieldnotes as I document my thoughts throughout different parts of my PhD project. Here, I write about the text resources discussed in our podcast episode. 

For the second part of Episode 2 “Failure of Representation: Representations of Race in Media and Fandom”, we discussed the following texts.

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

Recommendations from the podcast:

The Shoebox Project, a prequel starring the Marauders which is also super queer and which I now must read. 

The Mary Sue article about characters of colour in Harry Potter. 

Of the two hosts of this podcast, Lark Malakai Grey who is (presumably) white announced that he wasn’t going to be a part of the episode since he would rather it include the perspectives of people who aren’t white. Jessie, the black co-host, interviewed two fans of colour. 

There really need to be counselors offering therapy in Hogwarts! And in the magical world in general. There’s so much trauma – generational trauma too. As Jessie says, the way people seem to deal with their trauma is just lock it away in the Pensieve – super healthy coping mechanism!

Some fans seem to already imagine Hermione as black (including Taherah and Jessie). I wonder if this has anything to do with the sort of environment and conversations you grow up with. As with intersectionality, black people seem to be actively highlighting their perspectives, and working collaboratively with other black people (for example, a network of black podcasters) who offer counter-narratives and respond to the erasure and misrepresentation of their perspectives (Black Girl Nerds is an example of this – their recap of Game of Thrones, a white show which they watch through the lens of the two black characters). Is there a lack of collaboration among other marginalised non-black groups? I want there to be an Indian network! I’m just not aware of others, though they may of course exist. Black people in the US seem to be leading the way with things like intersectionality and solidarity networks. They also inspire others around the world – the Black Panthers and the Dalit Panthers. Is this a product of slavery and dehumanisation? It’s been happening for many generations.

A colonised mind means that you don’t even know what’s possible until you get out of your bubble. This may be physically but could also mean just intellectually through the internet and fandom. In my experience, both provide access to diverse perspectives and make you look at your own culture in such interesting, new ways. Technology and social media allow more marginalised fans to create and share their own media – like the fan podcasts we’re listening to. I now see how Sorting into Hogwarts houses has race, class, caste parallels in the real world. I’ve changed my mind about Sorting based on Paru’s point from our pilot episode and listening to other podcasts since then. All the houses should interact with each other more, sit together and have opportunities to befriend each other. An interesting idea I heard was that students should spend different semesters in different houses and embody the different characteristics the house celebrates and learn about the history and attitudes. How cool would it be to have people more open to learning about cultures which aren’t their own in ways which help them understand it deeply and not just superficially?

Racebending Harry as Indian offers opportunities for exploring the impact of imperialism. How did James Potter, an Indian (according to some parts of the fandom), get to the UK? Interesting possibilities to explore – why are there so many black and brown people here? What does the Commonwealth actually mean? Destroying the economy of the countries you colonised, these countries still suffer from the impact of the Empire while the former Empire is still profiting from both historical measures as well as current ones (museums and tourism). This needs not just fictional but also real-world history lessons. While reading Rule Britannia: Brexit and the End of Empire, the authors propose that students in the UK largely haven’t learned about the Empire and the effects it had and continues to have. This gives people a skewed sense of self and a feeling of superiority over others (Germany makes it a point to learn about their role in the Second World War). Even in India, we learn history in such an abstract way. We’re not taught about the ongoing damage caused by the British policy of divide and rule. 

Prerna mentions that young people often lose themselves in books and media – especially those who feel like they’re on the margins of the society they live in for whatever reason. This definitely reflects my own experience. Thanks to Rowling’s current conversations, Prerna realised that authors don’t always take care of the characters and you can think and demand differently.  The Harry Potter text is still very important to me because it got me through a difficult childhood. I’m even going to watch The Cursed Child in a couple of weeks even though I disliked the play script. But what I truly value now is the fandom conversations and community. I learn so much from these discussions and I’m so glad I discovered fan podcasts last year and get to do my project on something I love. 

I love the meme about rewriting the book titles from Hermione’s point of view. This is also something I realised in fandom – how important she is but how the emphasis is still on Harry and how the entire series is narrated from his perspective which might be much narrower than we believe. 

Parvati and Padma aren’t fleshed out at all. There is no depth to characters of colour. Two things which outraged the desi Potter fandom – the name Panju and the twins’ ugly Yule Ball dresses. Total tokenism. Much like the name Panju, there have been critiques about the name Cho Chang which apparently doesn’t quite make sense – it appears to be a mishmash of Chinese and Korean names. Relatedly, does the snobbery/scepticism about Divination privilege Euro-centric magic? It reminds me of the backlash against Rowling’s appropriation of Navajo traditions in her Pottermore article about North American magic.

Someone on the podcast wished that the Potterverse was expanded so that stories could be told from the perspectives of the characters of colour in ways which actually include their diverse ethnicities. I love this idea and want to actively look for examples of it within fandom. How would the books look like from these different perspectives? Would there be a more explicit questioning of institutional oppression since they might have experience with it? It’s not like the era before Voldemort’s (second) rise to power was great – oppression against house elves, giants, werewolves, anti-Muggle sentiments. Does this change in a post-Voldemort world?  It also reminded me of this more irreverent comic on Black Girls Create.

Prerna points out that Rowling takes credit for diversity after someone else brings it up thereby retconning diversity to make up for absences and blind spots. What would be helpful is to acknowledge these blind spots and use these critiques to begin conversations about how her thinking has grown. As Paru said, it’s the difference between Rowling and Riordan where Riordan has used his status to start an imprint to highlight diverse cultures and stories. In the episode, they counted a grand total of 7 characters of colour in the whole series + Anthony Goldstein who seems to be the lone Jewish character. Aurora Sinistra may or may not be black – she was played by a black actress in the movies but that may have been racebending. We don’t know because we know nearly NOTHING about her, except that she taught astronomy. Let’s not forget that Lavender Brown was played by a black actress in the movies until she became a prominent love interest in Half-Blood Prince and then she was recast as a white actress. 

Blaise Zabini seems to be the token black Slytherin in the white supremacy house. I suppose marginalised people can be prejudiced against others as well as against people from their own groups (coughPritiPatelcough). Even among marginalised groups, there’s a hierarchy, which is where an intersectional analysis is helpful. As there’s no explicit engagement with race in the series and Zabini has said some bigoted anti-Muggleborn things – he definitely sounds like a baby fascist even though I don’t think he becomes a Death Eater. You don’t need to become an official Nazi or neo-Nazi or Hindutva terrorist to sympathise with those causes, do you?

As Prerna says, we didn’t think about these things as teenagers but teenagers now are so much more aware of these things as we see in protests – anti-CAA and anti-NRC ones in India, gun control in the US, climate protests all over the world. Though recently, there was a controversy when Associated Press cropped out the picture of Vanessa Nakate, a Ugandan teenage activist who was there with Greta Thunberg and a few others; apart from Vanessa, everyone else was white. This deletion was rectified after a lot of criticism. AP’s justification was that the building in the background was a distraction. As Twitter would say, it’s qwhite interesting what the media decides is important.

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

Whitewashing is a question of privilege. Casting an actor from a dominant background in a movie or TV show to portray someone from a marginalised background – Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange (who is supposed to be an East Asian dude), Avatar: The Last Airbender (who are clearly coded as Asian characters). In Bollywood, it takes on the form of religion, caste, light-skinnedness – Ranveer Singh in Gully Boy who had his skin darkened to play someone living in Mumbai’s slums; Priyanka Chopra playing Mary Kom, a boxer from the North East of India, a culture which is otherwise also so under-represented in mainstream Indian media and culture. Would the other side of whitewashing be black face and yellow face or straight cis people playing gay, trans roles? Whitewashing and the Western focus of history and mythology where diverse stories are erased; where stories about marginalised groups are present, they are whitewashed (or Brahmin-washed, straight-washed, upper-class-washed, Hindu-washed?)

This is a different argument from non-own voices books because visual media has so much more of an impact on your imagination and perception of communities for people from both marginalised and dominant groups. In books, you have to imagine/insert yourself in roles; onscreen, you can more directly identity with the character or alternatively find it difficult to imagine yourself in their place. Diversity in popular culture helps you imagine alternative possibilities. It allows you to decolonise your mind. Alternatively, the lack of representation leads to an ever-shrinking imagination. Who tells our stories?  

Everyone has blind spots but social media has made these conversations more mainstream. As Jaime mentions in the episode, encountering conversations about popular culture representations as well as their own diverse lived experiences has helped me confront my own blind spots and biases about LGBTQIA+ groups and disabilities too. You’re allowed to make mistakes – as the episode mentions, Jake Gyllenhaal regrets his portrayal in the Prince of Persia movie. You need to be open to learning, listening to critiques and rethinking assumptions. 

You also want different races, castes, religions, genders, sexual orientations, abilities telling all kinds of stories – not just ones which explicitly deal with their identities and associated struggles and triumphs (though those are important too). More diverse stories of all kinds! The internet and fandom helps but mainstream media has the most visibility. The current mythos consists of movies, TV shows, and books – more diversity is necessary which subsequently has such an impact on people’s attitudes and opinions. We need diversity in Disney and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Sure Black Panther was an extraordinary hit but that was set in an African nation. What about normalising diversity? Everyday diversity? 

Whitewashing impacts both dominant and marginalised groups in different ways.  While there was racist backlash against the casting of a black actress as Rue in The Hunger Games (even though she’s explicitly mentioned as black in the books), there wasn’t a similar controversy with Jennifer Lawrence being cast as Katniss who’s described as someone with olive skin in the books. To quote Twitter again, the reason for this one-sided outrage is qwhite interesting. One of the co-hosts mentioned research which shows that in the future, most people will be mixed-race, something which she proposes Suzanne Collins was going for with her character’s skin/race descriptions.

One of the hosts of Black Girl Nerds calls Rowling a woke white lady with regards to the Hermione comment and casting a black actress to play her in Cursed Child. I disagree because I think it reads more as taking credit and diversity points for gay Dumbledore and black Hermione. Even such superficial nods to diversity can have surprising impacts though. I spoke to someone at a workshop in university whose child is nonbinary and they were thrilled to hear the news that Dumbledore is gay. To them, the representation felt very real and had a great impact even though it isn’t really present in canon. 

Some other racebending canon examples – 007 as a black woman in James Bond and an older black woman as the Doctor. The hosts spoke of wanting 007 to go and seduce men to contrast James Bond – but why not women?! That would add an extra layer to the character and to conversations about diversity. I, for one, love the Doctor/Yaz ship in fandom. Flip all the scripts! First, the media. And then the real world. 

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

Even before watching the Rosa Parks Doctor Who episode, one of the co-hosts Toya (a black American woman), was hesitant about it because white people loved the episode and she thought the episode must not require them to challenge their own privilege.

“Difference between art which is created for black people and art which is created about black people for white people’s consumption” – Toya.

This has so many parallels within an Indian context too, the most glaring of which might be poverty porn and tragedy porn.

A previous episode on Woke Doctor Who called Screw Season 10 raged against the ending Bill got. The black companion was turned into a cyberman (like Danny, another black character). She was literally dehumanised and made terrifying to other people, so much so that CyberBill tells a terrified white woman that she can protect herself with a gun. The hosts draw connections to police shootings of black people in the US and argue that this lack of sensitivity reflects a lack of black people in the writing team; a lack of diverse creators. 

In this episode, they discuss the implications of a British show exploring American racism. In schools, British students learn about American racism but don’t explore racism within their own shores or how black people came to the UK. As Toya mentions, Yaz is Pakistani and Ryan is black. There is room to explore their contemporary experiences of racism rather than historical racism in the US. Furthermore, the episode doesn’t properly negotiate with racial dynamics and the setting and time period – Yaz and Ryan in Alabama. The two hosts critique the episode for its simplified depiction of racism and for diminishing Rosa’s role. They argue that sitting down in the segregated bus doesn’t cure racism and this fact isn’t addressed in the episode. Racism still exists. Things have changed but not enough. 

They worry about white people teaching Ryan about Rosa Parks, in a way which centres white people in a narrative about racism. They also critique the absence of black women who were the crux of the civil rights movement both then and now (Black Lives Matter, Me Too). The episode erases their agency. Even when they show a meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Rosa’s home, there are no women present. The hosts emphasise that Rosa didn’t do what she did alone; she was a part of a community of activists. Rosa herself was an activist and not a tired seamstress; it wasn’t a spur of the moment decision but was a well-planned act. The episode lacked nuance, complexity, and the people involved. Instead of black people saving themselves, white people played an instrumental role in the episode (the Doctor and Graham). Like in other social and political movements, Rosa was a representative or figurehead just like Hitler in Nazi Germany, Modi of the Hindutva movement, Trump and the Neo Nazis. The movement isn’t dependent on just one person. In social justice movements, every activist matters – not just the figureheads. The way the episode is framed makes you feel triumphant and good – though not if you’re black and American – which is who the episode was about. 

As the hosts point out, why are there white supremacists in the far future of the 71st century? Why are black people still at the bottom all that while away? It’s a failure of imagination.

Doctor Who episode “Rosa”

I re-watched this episode after listening to Woke Doctor Who‘s opinion about it. The prologue seems to show Rosa’s own journey – where she tried resisting bus segregation 12 years before the pivotal 1955 moment.

The Doctor’s flippant comment, “Don’t kill the vibe, Graham” reminded me of accusations hurled at progressive activists – feminist killjoy, anti-racist killjoy – can’t make jokes anymore etc. 

The episode makes you uncomfortable about racists in 1950s Alabama, but not all racists today are so explicit. They have changed their language and use dog whistles to reflect the attitudes of the time, but the undercurrent of racism (as well as other forms of bigotry) still exists.  

The episode does explore how dangerous it is to be black or brown in Montgomery, Alabama. Ryan gets slapped by a white man and is threatened with lynching. It’s Rosa Parks who rescues him and tells him about Emmet Till. Later, they also have to sneak into a hotel because the hotel doesn’t host people who aren’t white. In the bar, they’re kicked out because they don’t serve “negroes and Mexicans” i.e. Ryan and Yaz. As for Woke Doctor Who’s critique of Ryan’s lack of knowledge about Rosa Parks,  to me it reflects more on the educational system and the way history is taught in such an abstract way than it appearing as if Ryan isn’t smart. If anything is taught badly, or in a way which doesn’t make it easy for you, it’s difficult to retain it well into adulthood. Yaz mentions that people thought Rosa wouldn’t stand because she was tired going back home from work but she wasn’t. It’s a glancing mention of activism but it’s there. Ryan also complains that Rosa Parks didn’t stop racism – he still gets stopped by the police and Yaz gets called a Paki or a terrorist. “Never give them the excuse” is something both Ryan’s Nan and Yaz’s dad warn them about behaving so they aren’t targeted as black and brown people in the UK. The episode does somewhat explore racism in contemporary contexts. Rosa didn’t come across as a tired seamstress to me. She knew the consequences of her actions (she gets arrested, then loses her job), perhaps even better than the companions realised. As the Doctor points out at the end of the episode, it was a lifelong struggle but she kept resisting. And she did change the world and make it a better place. She may not have cured racism but small actions slowly move the world in a more progressive direction. 

I understand their critiques of the episode, but I still loved it. I think we can use texts with gaps to spark conversations with both young people and adults. One of the schools I worked in wanted to get rid of all the princess fairy tale books because they promoted stereotypes. I talked them out of it because children will encounter these stereotypes in culture anyway. Instead, it’s fruitful to use these texts as an opportunity to question, learn, and unlearn. This is especially true with a TV show episode of a popular mainstream show like Doctor Who.

Some Notes On Episode 2 – Part 1 Resources

Some Notes On … is a section which features my autoethnographic fieldnotes as I document my thoughts throughout different parts of my PhD project. Here, I write about the text resources discussed in our podcast episode. 

For the first part of Episode 2, “Failure of Imagination: Representations of Race in Media and Fandom”, we discussed the following texts

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

Reading this thread reminded me of Rukmini Pande’s research which shows that canonical characters of colour are often ignored in the fanfiction communities of different movies and TV shows. There have been conversations about the problematic representations of race in science fiction and fantasy. This culminated in an event called RaceFail in 2009 which encompassed many online platforms and fandoms. According to Pande, this was also the time when fans of colour began recognising each other. According to both anecdotal evidence as well as research, many fans get very defensive when the topic of race crops up. Most fans of Western media fandoms assume everyone is white and from the US (this included me until this tendency was explicitly pointed out to me). Pande proposes that the shift to platforms like Twitter and Tumblr helped fans of colour assert their diverse identities and find like-minded others.

One of the responses in this thread asked fans of colour to write their own fic to make up for the absence of POC. As if representation is only our concern and shouldn’t be something which matters to everyone! Moreover, fans from dominant cultures may argue that they don’t connect with or recognise themselves in stories which highlight marginalised characters. As if fans from marginalised groups haven’t been doing this ALL the time! There is the risk of exoticising/stereotyping characters of colour or from marginalised backgrounds by people from the dominant culture. In the West, this would be weird Indian stereotypes; in India, these would feature stereotypes about different regional and cultural differences since mainstream culture is largely dominated by urban Hindu upper class, upper caste perspectives which is such a small fraction of diverse lived experiences prevalent in India.

When one of the commenters in the thread describes her experiences of her race being ignored and feeling alienated because of that, it reminds me of my experiences in England where most of the people I know are white and nobody seems to know how hyper-aware I am of my skin colour here as I’m walking around the city. Even with Rowling implying that the series doesn’t mention Hermione’s race and then a black actress cast to play her in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, there isn’t a lot of negotiation with that aspect of her identity. Prejudice is spoken of in metaphorical terms as Muggle-borns, house elves, giants, and werewolves 

Another of the responders says, “People don’t like being called racist in fandom” which reminds me of the Brexit vote. Based on research, a lot of people voted to leave the EU because they thought it would control immigration. People in areas which have fewer immigrants were more likely to vote leave. So if you don’t know immigrants, you’re scared of/dislike them. Even then, most people (except perhaps in comment threads on news websites and Facebook) will reject the notion that immigration played a role in the vote to leave. The UK in general focuses more on class than race and doesn’t acknowledge or deal with its racism. It tends to points at the US where the racism is so much more visible. This is similar to India where so many people, especially in big cities, believe casteism is no longer an issue. I used to be one of these people in my early 20s sitting in my Mumbai bubble. Educating myself about this, mostly on the internet, has helped me move beyond this bubble and view. Dismissing another person’s experiences with racism or casteism is so easy to do when you’re the one with privilege and haven’t had it impact your life. There seems to be this perception that it’s only racist or casteist if somebody exhibits the most negative, most extreme behaviour. We live in a structurally racist/casteist society so it’s conditioned into you, and it’s something we need to actively unlearn. We can begin by actively reading and understanding marginalised perspectives and experiences which we may not have otherwise encountered. For me, the internet and fandom are great tools to do this 

“People view the mere existence of people of color as political.” – vibridropp

This reflects many contexts where a specific dominant culture is seen as the norm and every other group is measured against this one. Non-white, for example. Another responder argued that in their stories, they aren’t trying to force diversity because they’re not trying to educate readers, just entertain them. Does diversity necessarily equate to an educational lesson? Can’t diverse characters also be entertaining? Or is their presence read as inherently political?

Responses to this thread were defensive when it came to issues of representation and why it’s important. People were also being super sensitive and over-cautious about offending marginalised people through their representations (which can be solved by researching and listening to perspectives online). Or they had colourblind statements like they were more interested in focusing on the character and not their race. I think this is a patently ridiculous and extremely alienating (as in explicitly treating diversity as an alien other) argument. One of the responders argued that the lack of POC in fandom reflects lack of diversity in mainstream publishing and in canon. However, fanfic plays with canon all the time – queering characters, genderbending characters, even racebending characters. 

The thread included debates about the term “POC” or person of colour. It’s a very US-centric term because everywhere else in the world, we’re not measured against white people. Suggested alternatives to POC included diverse ethnic backgrounds or non-white. However, in response to critique for this term, a responder shared a video about the origins of the term woman of colour which outlined it as a political designation and not a biological one. Video features Loretta Ross who describes why the term came to be a form of solidarity among different groups of oppressed women. She argues that the origin has been forgotten because history isn’t documented, preserved, and taught. You can see this in protests in India, where there was this excellent video by Raghu Karnad which talks of how people in India don’t learn about the history of student protests. The BJP wants people to believe that protests are anti-national even though that’s precisely how they came to power.

Someone pointed out that in conversations about diversity, there tends to be a heavy focus on race – however, this isn’t always a bad thing. While conversations in fandom and children’s publishing and even intersectionality began with talks of racial diversity, it has now expanded to encompass other marginalised identities. At the same time, I do agree that the overall focus is on race and sometimes the other identities are overlooked. 

“Rarely ever see different religions in fanfiction. Trying to represent a Jewish family.” – Nommatic

This lack of Jewish representation in media isn’t something I ever considered before encountering a similar observation by someone on my Facebook news feed, who has excitingly agreed to talk about it in a future podcast episode.

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

“The role of imagination in addressing racism and exclusion.” – Darren Chetty

The metaphorical racism he talks about is also seen in science fiction where aliens and robots usually take the place of other races and cultures. In colonising new planets narratives, there is a lack of engagement with diverse racial and cultural experiences among humans. If you don’t have actual diversity in future worlds (which aren’t metaphorical diversity with aliens and robots) what does that say about the society you envision? Does it have no room for everyone? As Jack says (and this is apparently backed up by research according to this episode Black Girl Nerds), everyone in the future will be light brown anyway because of all the mixed-race relationships. 

As this episode of Woke Doctor Who points out, black companions Martha and Bill travel to the past on separate occasions with the Doctor but the show doesn’t explore the impact of this. There are casual inter-racial relationships in societies where, based on the historical time period, this would definitely have been controversial. Again, this almost feels like tokenism where there is lots of representation but no exploration of what this representation means and how this came to be or what the impact of it would be. In the Rosa Parks episode, Ryan and Yaz are targetted because of the colour of their skin but the whole episode was about racism so it’s almost like the colour of your skin doesn’t matter until it does. In real life, your skin isn’t something you can make invisible. Recently, however, I was listening to a Verity episode which mentioned the casual diversity in the “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror” episode of Doctor Who, and suggested that history is much more multicultural and diverse than we’re led to believe. Now this podcast is hosted by white women while the former is by women of colour. However, I think both points are good ones in ways which challenge my views about history in different ways. 

In Harry Potter, there is token diversity as well where there is no engagement with characters who aren’t white. There are characters of colour but they are very much in the background and their different ethnic identities play no role or aren’t even addressed in canon. As Darren asks, are there any professors who aren’t white? This reflects the UK educational system which is very white-dominated. Everyone has blind spots, of course, based on where you live and who you’re encountering, but Rowling doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge or address hers. Darren calls this “a failure of imagination” a theme which cropped up a lot throughout the episode and in accounts of diversity (or lack thereof) in media. It’s also a phrase I absolutely love, and all three of us unanimously decided it should be the title of this episode. 

Chetty includes a video at the end of his thread which has a clip of all the times a character of colour speaks in the Harry Potter movies. The video runs to a grand total of 6 minutes and 18 seconds, which honestly encapsulates this argument pretty well. 

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

I identified with Hermione even though she was white (bushy hair, bookworm, large teeth). I was so used to doing that because I grew up largely reading/watching Western media. In fact, I still do this. With the global reach of Western media, it’s not just marginalised groups in the US/UK who are impacted by lack of diverse representation – it’s people from all over the world. Alanna Bennett had to train herself out of seeing white as default for fictional characters. It’s something I still struggle with; it’s like a blind spot in my brain which needs explicit information about a character’s race before accepting the character as something other than white – it’s something I definitely need to train myself out of too. I have a colonised brain which I’m slowly learning to decolonise.

The term racebending has negative roots. M. Night Shymalan, the director of the live-action remake of Avatar: The Last Airbender, an animated TV show with heavy Asian settings and influences, cast all the actors as white except Zuko. Could this be internalised racism or a failure of imagination? 

Racebending Hermione makes the metaphorical racism in the Potterverse more explicit. Explicit engagement with racism in science fiction and fantasy is important for creating a greater impact and drawing attention to real-world parallels more directly. According to many fans, it makes sense for black Hermione to be so outraged about house elf slavery and for being a social justice activist working to end this oppression, even though it’s not a popular cause and routinely dismissed by her friends. I love this interpretation of black Hermione. However, I’ve been listening to other perspectives on fan podcasts – especially Harry Potter and the Sacred Text where this has cropped up a few times. They critique her experiences with SPEW as a very white feminist thing to do (or in India, savarna feminist) where she thinks she knows what’s best for the house elves without taking their opinions and feelings into consideration. Hermione isn’t being a good ally. 

In the BuzzFeed article, a Katrina Kaif gif was used to represent Hermione as another form of racebending. However, Katrina is a light-skinned Indian woman, and this is the dominant representation in Bollywood movies. Bollywood and mainstream Indian media has its own set of problems with race, caste, class, and regional implications evident in casting decisions. 

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

Who tells our stories? Earlier, diverse picture books were largely written by white authors. This may be a product of the time when such conversations around We Need Diverse Books and Own Voices weren’t mainstream. Even though they were written by dominant culture authors, they allowed marginalised young people to see themselves in the books they read. A Guardian video about inclusive children’s literature featured Guardian journalist Grace Shutti who identified with Amazing Grace, a story about a “little black girl who loved stories and wanted to do everything”. Even though this book was written by a white woman, it was the only book where the journalist felt seen. 

Now, we definitely need better representation. There was a recent backlash against American Dirt, written by a middle class woman (with part Latina heritage) who wrote about the South American refugees as well as a controversy about American bookstore Barnes and Nobles’s decision to reprint classic books which are out of copyright with covers which featured diverse protagonists – thereby inserting diversity into a text which didn’t have any. This is racebending in a slightly problematic way, a bit like J. K. Rowling pretending she intended her canon to be more diverse than it is. Definitely a bit patronising. It reeks of tokenism – just having a character of colour to tick off the necessary diversity points, like critiques levelled against The Snowy Day publishers 

In Indian children’s publishing, who gets to write what stories? There needs to be more room for diverse creators, writers, media makers in both Indian and international contexts. But can dominant voices never write about marginalised ones? Allyship involves passing the microphone and not speaking for those less privileged, but it’s such a complicated question! 

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

This article discusses non-own voices books and the different kinds of representation within them. There need to be a multiplicity of experiences and diversity of representations – there is no monolithic experience or representation when it comes to marginalised voices. However, they often have the burden of one voice representing all others because there’s so few of them – dominant culture representations don’t have this problem. 

A problem with non-own voices writing could be problematic stereotypes, representations, exoticisation, fetishising of unfamiliar cultures – you see this in Harry Potter and Doctor Who to an extent. To make up for the fact that you don’t have lived experience in the culture you’re writing about, you need to research the culture thoroughly to familarise yourself with the contemporary and historical debates, discussions, and perspectives. The internet makes this, if not easy, then much easier than it ever has been. 

Dominant culture voices (what is dominant depends on what part of the world you’re in) are unfortunately over-represented and it’ll be a while before this system changes – non-own voices can be good allies by drawing attention to marginalised experiences and exploring them through the kinds of stories they tell. The article provides examples of two non-own voices books which are doing a good job of research and representation – so it IS possible to write in a way where cultural insiders would recognise their experiences and identities. This not only broadens the perspectives of dominant groups but also allows marginalised groups to recognise themselves in the media they consume. There is room for all kinds of stories. In an ideal world, different kinds of stories would flourish so there isn’t a dominant versus marginalised debate. But we’re not there yet. 

Some Notes on Episode 1

While typing up the transcript and then listening to Episode 1, these are some of the stray thoughts that came to mind.

1) All three of us took turns introducing ourselves. While introducing myself, I mentioned my academic background but not my fannish one. It was a subconscious decision rather than a deliberate one which makes me wonder – is the nature of my project and my own imposter syndrome making me seek to establish my academic credentials and legitimacy? To make some amends for that, I used to write and read Harry Potter fanfiction as a teenager. I don’t really read any fanfiction anymore but I engage with fandom in many different ways (including through my PhD research)

2) Based on something S said, why can’t you change Houses once you’ve been Sorted? Does Pottermore have more legitimacy than not only random BuzzFeed quizzes but even what you yourself identify as? Alternatively, do the quizzes introduce you to an aspect of your identity you didn’t previously recognise?

3) There are different interpretations of Sorting when done in a less arbitrary fashion (and its parallels to caste, race, religion, gender etc.). It brings you a sense of community, something to support – but quite arbitrary based on only some and not all aspects of your identity. There is the danger of exceptionalism and/or othering.

4) The British Empire has a continuing influence on Indian, British, and global education, literature, and culture.

5) There are different contexts of racism, prejudice, and oppression in India as opposed to the UK, leading to different readings of Enid Blyton, Harry Potter, and Doctor Who based on which context you’re most familiar with.

6) The politics of food where British and even American food has colonised our imagination thanks to the media we’re exposed to. This is also related to the politics of language in terms of which language you speak and how you speak it (for example, in many of my personal contexts, English is dominant and a certain kind of English and a certain kind of accent is dominant within that).

7) I’ve learned to critique what I may not have initially found problematic as I’ve grown up and encountered new perspectives. Early attitudes are largely a result of social conditioning and it is an active, ongoing process to unlearn and question assumptions.

8) S’s brief commentary on the mainstream Indian education system where draconian Umbridge measures would probably be the norm in many schools today.

9) I feel terrible about using the term Mudblood. I felt guilty about it for days as soon as we finished recording. I really debated editing it out, but decided to keep it to acknowledge it and learn from it.

10) On Panju and Cinnamon: it’s interesting what names people choose to represent unfamiliar cultures and what this choice reveals about their thoughts (or lack thereof) about, for example, India and its culture and food and history.

11) On Japanese internment camps in the US – a similar demonisation of a certain group of people is currently prevalent in India too. If any Muslim person critiques anything in India, they’re often met with the response. “Oh just go to Pakistan!” or “Just send them to Pakistan!” The way people are othering Muslims in both insidious and explicit ways, we’re not far off from building camps for all Indian Muslims (the project to detain some of them has, of course, already begun).

12) The Sorting camaraderie/divisiveness dichotomy has historical and contemporary Indian parallels with British divide and rule and current politics. Belongingness to a certain group could be about working towards something together with other groups where you’re going beyond the groups you were born into to build a community with people like and unlike you. However, it could also very easily be taken advantage of, as witnessed in Indian (and world history and current events).

13) We mentioned that neither the 1990s and 2020 are very safe. However, this is a statement from a position of privilege coming from all three of us since for millions of people, India has never been safe. Coming from the dominant groups, we’re just more aware of this now (though not completely aware of the dire reality so many Indians face).

14) When McGonagall decided to lock the Slytherins in the basement, it implied that if the parents are Death Eaters, the children would be too. However, the children may not follow in the Pure Blood supremacy footsteps. This can be seen in many real-world examples where the racist, homophobic, xenophobic attitudes of parents aren’t always accepted unquestioningly by the children.

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