A PhD project exploring intersectionality through fan podcasts

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Some Notes On Episode 16 – 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 16, The Queer Paradise: Exploring Diverse Gender Identities in Speculative Worlds, we discussed the following texts:

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

Jackson Bird, a former Harry Potter Alliance staffer – who came out as a trans man in the HP fandom – discusses Rowling’s tweet in this episode. He acknowledges that he isn’t speaking for all trans folks and is just sharing his perspective. He found out about Rowling’s tweet through his friends and fellow fans messaging him and checking up on him. 

The episode outlines the context in which J. K. Rowling’s transphobic tweets emerged. They refer to a woman who insisted she wouldn’t use pronouns or acknowledge trans people in her work environment. She invalidated their gender identity and so her contract wasn’t renewed. Her transphobia in the office and on her social media made her co-workers uncomfortable. She took this decision to an employment tribunal in the UK to insist that her employer discriminated against her for her beliefs. The judge didn’t think these beliefs were protected and upheld the non-renewal. This judgement created a furore among many people online who started the #IStandWithMaya on Twitter which is what Rowling. contributed to.

Mark Hamill liked Rowling’s tweet and then tweeted an apology that he hadn’t read it properly and only understood its context thanks to the criticism surrounding it. The tweet was confusing – a lot of dog-whistling language that twists words around which, unless you know the debates, you wouldn’t pick up on. Much like the anti-TERF protest I went to in Leeds – the TERFs were shouting “Women don’t have penises!” at random bystanders as they marched around the city – which must have been super confusing to someone who has no idea what’s going on. 

TERF – trans exclusionary radical feminist – a version of feminism which doesn’t include trans women or trans folks. Is this even feminism? Is feminism different from intersectional feminism? Shouldn’t feminism be intersectional at its roots? There’s a vocal and prevalent TERF sentiment in the UK especially in PRIDE and feminist circles. They’re fighting for the rights and safety of women but think trans women pose a threat to cis women – implying that trans women, unlike cis women, aren’t really women and don’t deserve to be protected and are, in fact, the ones who are dangerous. As Jackson points out, it’s more likely that trans women will be assaulted in bathrooms and are also in danger in the outside world. While I was out for my daily lockdown walk in the summer, I saw a trans woman on her phone as she walked. Which made me think whether the phone is a defense mechanism much like the one I use while I’m walking past groups of men/teenage boys. Then I began wondering how difficult it must be to be visibly trans during the pandemic. In the UK, we’re allowed daily outdoor exercise but what about trans folk who want to access the same privilege? How safe do they feel doing this – especially considering how deserted the streets are? It’s unsafe just being trans in the world, sometimes even more so than being a cis woman. 

They discuss a transphobic scene in the second Cormoran Strike novel Silkworm. Lorrie also signposted the Snape Boggart scene + The Gayly Prophet talks about the ways in which Rita Skeeter is described – all transphobic implications. Trans folks weren’t surprised that JKR outed herself as a TERF. They had put the clues together long before. Jackson was used to casual transphobia in his media consumption so he had blocked the discourse out – the book as well as what tweets she liked + the publicly known TERFy accounts she follows. It’s something that I’ve been wanting to give her the benefit of doubt for as well – maybe it is a clumsy, middle-age moment as her PR team claimed but that comes from my cis privilege. Jackson gave her this benefit of doubt too because he couldn’t believe she was bigoted since he, like many others, learned acceptance and unconditional love through the Harry Potter books and its fandom.

They analysed the last two lines of the tweet: “Sex is real.” – a coded way of saying there are only two sexes – male and female. They discussed how this is a misunderstanding of biology and social research which acknowledges that both gender and sex are social constructs. There are people with non-normative chromosomes and hormones; lots of variance exists that scientists are not exploring. What about women who don’t have a uterus or breasts for medical reasons – does that make them less of a woman? They recommend Radiolab’s Gonads episode which delves into this in greater detail.

Gender varies so much depending on what you think and what other people think. Jackson talks about the medical community’s role in looking after trans people but also the social community – family, friends, larger social world – validating the trans identities of people. He lists all the different health organisations which validate that trans people exist and should be accepted and respected just like anyone else + the medical needs they have. This opinion is a consensus among the medical community. Not all trans people want to medically transition but their identities need to be acknowledged and respected, as Jackson says. Mental health impacts, employment and housing impact, violence and murder of trans women of colour – transphobia like Rowling’s tweet contributes to this discourse and violence. The host talks about how cis women’s rights aren’t impinged by trans women getting rights. Trans people are oppressed in different countries both structurally and socially and the life expectancy of trans women of colour is alarming – 20s or 30s. Violence is a constant part of trans people’s lives and Rowling’s statements just add to this violence.

They recommend a Vox article about how TERFs use gender-critical to describe themselves and claim that TERF is a slur – the article explores the history of this in British culture. 

Additionally, the shownotes of this episode have a lot of resources 

They talk about the Potter fandom’s backlash against this tweet – a fandom which has largely supported Rowling for a lot of past controversies. They’ve now stood up to Rowling which shows how the fan community has learned from each other, learned and grown unlike the creator of the text. Jackson acknowledges that Rowling lives in a bubble of wealth and privilege and hopes that she listen and learn like her fans did. However, five months since this, it doesn’t look like that’s happening (this was before what she’s said since June where she’s just doubled down on her statements). They discuss how even the original series as well as Rowling’s new texts aren’t perfect. There are problematic elements with race, slaves, fat-phobia. The fan community is standing against prejudice and bigotry and also against the creator whose books taught them these things. Rowling could be inspired by the fans and choose to engage with uncomfortable ideas rather than just ignoring and dismissing these very real concerns – especially fans from the margins including trans fans who read metaphors from her stories and found solace and hope through the books.

What would a Hogwarts that’s trans-inclusive look like? I think on The Gayly Prophet, they mentioned a trans student looking into the Mirror of Erised and seeing their true identity reflected back at them. 

The podcast received a bunch of letters from fans within 12 hours of the tweet denouncing Rowling’s transphobia. They explore how transphobia not only impacts the mental wellbeing of trans folks but also the transphobic attacks on them are exacerbated. As Jackson says, while knowing trans people makes it easier to be empathetic, you don’t have to know a trans person to treat them respectfully and acknowledge their human rights. He also points out that Rowling probably believes she’s right and is standing up to what she believes are dangerous ideologies which put women in danger. She believes this enough to stake her reputation on it.

They discuss whether you can separate the artist from the art. The host believes it can be done she’s conflicted. Like Jackson says, the books now belong to him and the fans who have created a kinder, more inclusive, more political community and he is unwilling to let go of the books. Do they still love Harry Potter? Both of them acknowledge it’s a complicated question. The host as a cishet white woman feels like even though she is empathetically affected by the transphobia, she isn’t directly impacted by it and feels uncomfortable sharing her love for the series. The episode ends with Jackson’s recommendations on how to be a good ally.

 

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

This complication includes Harry Potter and the Sacred Text’s responses to both instances of Rowling’s overt transphobia and they also recommend charities to donate to which work with trans youth 

In the wake of this, we want you first to care for yourself and for each other. The Harry Potter community is so much greater and more welcoming than the opinion of one person, no matter who that person is. It is perfectly normal to grieve, to be angry, to feel betrayed and sad. It is also okay to still find value in the books that you love.

They emphasise the fandom’s ownership of the text rather than the author’s intent, interpretation and opinions. It belongs to the fans and readers more than it does to Rowling. 

In their response to JKR’s most recent transphobic tweets, they reiterate their earlier support and love for the trans and nonbinary community and ask fans to not financially support the author but still take joy in the world they love. In both instances, they’ve donated to different charities which work with trans people.

This all reminds us of one core principle of what we believe at Harry Potter and the Sacred Text: That ‘sacred’ is an act, not a thing. It is what we do together, as a community, around the Harry Potter books that makes it sacred. It is not these texts that are magic. It is you. That is why we feel comfortable condemning JK Rowling in her transphobia, but still gathering around the books. They aren’t her books, they are ours. And they have inspired us to love more and better. To take care of our friends at the margins. To fight for what’s right. (Maybe JK Rowling should read them.) We understand if you need to take a break from Harry Potter. And we invite you to still love it without supporting Rowling’s capitalistic endeavors surrounding it. Fan art, fan culture, the library, your already owned books – Rowling cannot profit from these things. They belong to us.

In response to JKR’s tweeting in December, trans, nonbinary and LGBTQIA+ allies who are fans of both the podcast and the Harry Potter series sent voicemails and they made a playlist of these community responses:

  • A nonbinary listener didn’t know how to reconcile this transphobia with the books they love – as problematic as they are in terms of lack of characters of colour, fatphobia against the Dursleys, the retroactive diversity with Dumbledore’s gayness, transphobic jokes in the series where men who wear women’s clothes are the butt of jokes. The dorms are divided along very binary lines – would the listener even be welcomed in Hogwarts? What about gendered bathrooms? How would trans students get access to hormones – if they even exist in the magical world? Is there a spell for that? Is queerness accepted or controversial in the wizarding world? There are no explicit queer characters in the books. According to an Alohomora episode, Rowling didn’t think about these issues but thinks that since blood status is more of an issue in the magical world, queerness would probably be accepted – the problematic elements of this assumption and blindness! 
  • A listener who realises they were trans at 16 talks about how important this realisation was for their mental wellbeing; before figuring out their identity, they were suicidal and they think this discovery saved their life. They then began working with local trans organisations. They compare this to Muggle-born students like Hermione who discover this whole new facet of their identity later in their lives – and this identity is rejected within both the magical and Muggle worlds where some people are prejudiced against certain aspects of their identity. They send affirming messages to those who discover their identity later in life and may still be struggling to come to terms with it.
  • A listener affirms that the readers and the fan community are more important than the text itself. A lot of trans and LGBTQIA+ readers have found comfort in the community and the world and these feelings aren’t invalid because JKR is a bigot. It’s the reader’s interaction which matter not the author’s prejudiced declarations. This reminds me of how even several actors of the movies are standing up to Rowling’s bigotry.
  • A cis listener grew up in an abusive household and credits the books for providing escape and a tool for survival – and finding a community of fans online which allowed them to socialise – something they weren’t allowed to do in their offline life. She now struggles with Rowling’s overt transphobia and her own cis privilege which left her blind to the signs earlier. Just as her feelings towards Snape’s feelings towards Lily changed, her feelings about the books have changed too, now that she realises how problematic it is. She offers solidarity and love to the trans community. This nearly made me cry because I have similar feelings though different experiences of an abusive situation in childhood. I gained a lot from the books and the fandom.
  • A listener who works with young people and who has a transgender nonbinary sibling was devastated by the revelation. Hogwarts is supposed to welcome everyone but apparently has no room for trans students. She also reiterates that the book belongs to the readers and to the fans and not to Rowling. She thinks Dumbledore, Luna, and Ginny would be welcoming of queer students. Ron may say something tasteless but Hermione would educate him. Hogwarts remains a radically inclusive space even if the person who creates them isn’t – that’s the power of fans’ connection with the books and with each other.
  • A listener who had a learning disability while growing up had her life changed thanks to Harry Potter and shaped her path towards and in adulthood. She doesn’t know how to reconcile this transphobia with her beloved books and being a good ally. She took a break and realised she couldn’t separate the books from her sense of self and decided instead to donate to organisations which work with trans people. She found a way to be okay with the books which might be different from other people.           

 

3) Fanzine – Harry Potter and the Problematic Author

I know Maia Kobabe through eir graphic memoir Gender QueerLike with a listener on Sacred Text, the books broke through eir dyslexia and allowed them to fall in love with reading. 

The first overtly problematic thing which fans and creators spoke out against was in 2016 with the Magic in North America series on Pottermore which displays an offensive ignorance and stereotypical conflation of indigenous cultures, beliefs and practices. This was compounded by the fact that Rowling didn’t respond to any of the criticisms or attempt to make amends and learn from the criticism against the colonial gaze or apologise for the damage her massive platform does. 

In the same year, Maia discovered two fan podcasts – Witch, Please and Harry Potter and the Sacred Text which completely changed eir engagement with the fandom and the series. They were both critical of different elements of the books because they loved the series. Witch, Please was like a free class in feminism using the framework of eir favourite fictional world which placed social justice at the forefront of their analyses and conversations. It provided em with a new vocabulary to understand both the fictional world and the real world. In Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, reading each chapter through different themes and drawing connections to real-world contemporary social and political issues made the books even more relevant. It also focused on the books themselves and not Rowling’s opinions and additions to the canon. Their repeated engagement with a text they love made it sacred and brought new meanings to light. It also created a community to share these texts and interpretations with.

This was written before Rowling’s overt transphobia but even then, the clues existed about her feelings which were dismissed as middle-age moments. Maia talks about eir inability to give up something so beloved and important to em despite JKR’s toxicity. At the same time, e is determined to learn from Rowling’s mistakes and not do the things she does and own mistakes if e makes them. A lot of fans who grew up reading and falling in love with Harry Potter now create their own fictional worlds for people to get lost in. The difference being that they draw on their own experiences and perspectives and politics to make their worlds more inclusive and compassionate of all kinds of differences. Rowling did inspire a generation of fans to create art and stories and also to stand up to her bigotry. Being able to critique something because you love it is also so important. 

Maia also learned a lot from the books, as problematic as they are, which e think is important to apply in the real world  – the danger of fascism, untrustworthy governments, thinking critically about things you read, question the news, supporting friends through difficult times, organised resistance movements, educating people around em and sharing resources, working together with people across differences, the radical importance of love, the importance of intersectionality and diversity.

The comic recommends the article The Crimes of Grindelwald is a Mess by Alanna Bennet.

 

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

One of the guest academics proposes a theory that when you’re deeply immersed in a fictional world, your guard is down and you’re therefore more open to imbibe messages you may otherwise not have been as receptive to. He and his students looked at how engagement with the Harry Potter series and the fandom impacts readers’ political values. Two other papers have explored whether Harry Potter readers have a negative impact towards Donald Trump and his Islamophobia. Another academic paper found that reading excerpts from acceptance of diversity in metaphorical ways did positively influence young readers. 

Another guest thinks Dumbledore’s Army is an important symbol for activism and empowers young people to educate each other and organise for resistance. Real-world examples of this can be seen in the Harry Potter Alliance (HPA), a non-profit organisation where organisers use the Harry Potter framework to organise fans to raise funds and awareness about a range of social and political issues in the US and around the world. When Andrew Slack, the founder of the HPA, first read the books, he drew direct parallels between the injustices in the magical world and real-world injustices.

Slack began amplifying Jackson Bird’s voice and work as a Harry Potter fan interested in social justice. Birds’s work with the HPA encouraged him to come out as trans in a public way. His coming out video also helped a lot of other fans come to terms with their own identities and provided a role model for those who didn’t have one in real life. Slack and Bird pre-transition used to get into debates about trans issues until he finally came out as trans which forced Slack to confront his own transphobic prejudices in order to be able to support his friend. Watching Jackson’s coming out video encouraged Slack to give up the reins to his organisation for the younger generation. Bird acknowledges that Eddie Redmayne playing a trans woman was problematic but appreciates all the work and research he put into his role which included drawing on Jackson’s own video too. 

A lot of Harry Potter fans are queer which forced the HPA to use inclusive language right towards the beginning. Eric was first sceptical of the HPA but came away humbled through his interactions with them and realised he had been part of a similar organisation when he was younger. 

The episode ended with Rowling’s quote from her Harvard commencement speech about inclusivity and kindness and imagining better. I wish she had applied this lesson in her own thinking. I’m sure she thinks she’s in the right here but it has made her so close-minded to a group who is undergoing so much oppression that she is unable to imagine better. 

 

5) Fanzine – Tonk’s Tale

This comic is a contribution to the fanzine Trans Affirming Magical Care – proceeds of which go to charities which support trans youth. 

The comic imagines Tonks as genderqueer. Their first sign was being able to control whether they menstruate or not – menstruation seems to be such a hot-button topic among TERFs wherein they determine a woman’s womanness in this very limited, essentialist way i.e. her ability to menstruate. Not all cisgender women menstruate either for a variety of reasons. Trans women don’t menstruate and trans men do – it’s not a black-and-white issue and surely such a narrow determination of one’s gender.

When Tonks gets to Hogwarts, a new staircase to a dorm opens for them so they don’t have to choose between the girls and boys dorms. I love how innovative fans are and challenge Rowling’s binary thinking and world. Their favourite part of being genderqueer is being able to change their outside appearance to reflect their inner feelings – which also change frequently. Reminds me of Alex Fierro, a genderfluid character in Magnus Chase, who is Loki’s child and changes their gender frequently too. 

The fact that gender is a spectrum is something I’m only learning about more recently. It isn’t something I thought of as a cisgender heterosexual woman. But unlike Rowling and many other TERFs and transphobes, my immediate reaction wasn’t to exclude even though I was largely ignorant and had to unlearn transphobic ideas. This is the same with many cisgender allies who may not have their own experiences with this but know enough to welcome everyone’s differences.

 

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

This article was written before the fifth and final season of the show was out. 

The show has queerness as default – it starts off with a background lesbian couple – Netossa and Spinerella in the first season but then grows to include Bow’s dads, Double Trouble, and finally, Adora and Catra’s love story. It also includes characters of diverse body types and gender expressions and identities. In a later interview, Noelle revealed that the first season was more subdued in terms of its representation because the producers weren’t ready to commit to a potentially controversial move by making the show explicitly queer. Once the first season received so much adulation from fans, the production company was more comfortable giving the go-ahead. 

While preparing for this episode, I stumbled upon a Twitter thread which featured trans fans reading Scorpia as trans, regardless of what the intent was. They inserted their own experiences into the character. One of the replies even says that seeing Scorpia helped them come to terms with their own trans identity. Another fan reads Perfuma as trans (which some claim is supposed to be intentional by the character designer but it never got written into the show?)

They were literally the final straw that got me to come to terms with the fact I was trans.

I’m tall and not very feminine looking, which is what I always wanted to be. Then after seeing her in that dress I realized tall muscular women can be feminine – @LunaStplChase

And then I’ve also come across the theory that Bow is trans too. 

I think part of it is how gosh darn queer the show is — it just feels right that there’d be half a dozen trans people in the main cast. And also part of that is the depth and complexity of characters, cause there’s many universal experiences we can read our own spin in to. – @Mercy_Main_btw_


Interestingly, it was Perfuma whose original concept artist intended to be coded trans. Noelle has deemed that non-canon because she didn’t know in time to cast a trans voice actor (ditto Bow, despite the fan theories). But in S5, Jewelstar is a trans man and voiced accordingly! – @dour

Noelle Stevenson is also responsible for Nimona and The Lumberjanes – also excellently queer books. 

Double Trouble is voiced by nonbinary actor Jacob Tobia. According to one of the tweets earlier, the reason Perfuma isn’t officially trans is because they didn’t cast a trans voice actor to play her before realising she was illustrated as trans – similarly with Bow. I think sticking with this authenticity is so commendable while at the same time validating all theories and interpretations fans have. Double Trouble is a shapeshifter so, much like Tonks, it makes sense that they would be nonbinary or genderfluid.  

I haven’t watched the original She-Ra and don’t really intend to but I find it interesting that Jacob watched it when they were cast for the role of Double Trouble and sensed campy lesbian energy from the female characters. Earlier – and even now to a great extent – queer fans needed to read themselves into texts because of the lack of queer rep – so I like that She-Ra is so explicitly queer.

The importance of not just a queer cast but also queer creators – as Jacob says they felt safe and supported with their role and the direction they explored since it was run by a bunch of excellent queer people full of trans, nonbinary and gender non-conforming people. 

I think this representation is so particularly important in a children’s show because you’re providing them with access to ideas of gender as a spectrum rather than as a binary right from when their minds are most open and flexible. It’s also important for the people in-charge who may not necessarily be the creators to be open to this representation. Netflix was excited about this inclusion and suggested they make Double Trouble’s pronouns prevalent in the show.

“We want this world to feel alive, and it is a world where gender is generally fluid.” – Noelle.

As Jacob points out, trans, nonbinary, and gender non-conforming characters have always been a part of SFF but not explicitly outlined as such in canon – Double Trouble IS and that’s refreshing 

As a SFF fan growing up, Jacob found role models in characters who may not have been written as genderfluid.

In Yu-Gi-Oh. In Lord of the Rings. In Harry Potter. In all these things I found the gender transcendentalism that I needed. When you think about it, wizards are often quoted as kind of gay, but they’re also quoted as gender nonconforming, especially in the context of a fantasy series. There’s always the brute force people, the Aragorns of the world who ride into battle on a horse and use their strong bodies and their masculinity to fight. Then there’s the Gandalf, who uses his determination and their wit and their dedication and their discipline to do more powerful things than anyone can imagine…with shiny crystals and flowing robes, and long gorgeous locks and femme extravagance. It always felt like a place of recognition that way.

Noelle found recognition in a background character in Star Wars – a female bounty hunter in Attack of the Clones who is there for maybe 5 minutes and not many lines and is killed off. But in a universe which has very limited roles for women, Noelle latched onto Zem Wessell’s androgyny and was hugely influenced by them.

Jacob points out that even before Noelle’s historic leap with Double Trouble, there have been several queer creators who have been working to make this possible. It’s an ongoing communal effort rather than an individual one. 

We’re at a point of visibility that is so exciting. There’s an entire generation of people that have liberated themselves from this idea that gender is only one of two things. There’s an entire generation of young folks that get that gender is nonbinary and that idea itself is really oppressive and shitty. We’ve only gotten it through public education work and the work of artists. The cultural shift that’s happening is overwhelming and permanent in my view. The work is far from done. I don’t want people to think that because we have a character like Double Trouble on a show like She-Ra that we’re done. Visibility comes in stages, and we have many many more to go.

 

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

Because of the diversity of cast and crew and the story itself, Noelle thinks that Double Trouble fits into the show so well and their identity is almost an after-thought – the fact that it isn’t commonplace in mainstream media with a global audience. THIS IS WHY DIVERSITY IS IMPORTANT. Especially in a media landscape where there is such a lack of nonbinary representation, this is such an important step.

They’re creating a world which centers women and queer people in a way where this isn’t a big deal because the world just works that way.

We’re at a point of visibility that is so exciting. There’s an entire generation of people that have liberated themselves from this idea that gender is only one of two things. There’s an entire generation of young folks that get that gender is nonbinary and that idea itself is really oppressive and shitty. We’ve only gotten it through public education work and the work of artists. The cultural shift that’s happening is overwhelming and permanent in my view. The work is far from done. I don’t want people to think that because we have a character like Double Trouble on a show like She-Ra that we’re done. Visibility comes in stages, and we have many many more to go. – Noelle

This is something Jacob appreciated as well that they weren’t the only queer character in an otherwise cisgender heterosexual show – queerness is the default in this world. Noelle acknowledges that every show that includes these diverse representations which haven’t been traditionally represented makes it easier for a new show to take them forward. All representations play an important role. Steven Universe is another show I’ve heard a lot about in terms of queer representation in a children’s show and is a show which has inspired Noelle. Noelle draws inspiration from the queer subtext of the original She-Ra – she saw all these things and made them explicit when she got to recreate the world. 

Jacob believes it’s easier currently to have nonbinary representation in animation rather than live-action with intersection of his gender identity/expression and ethnicity.

When you present as non-binary on camera, it’s a whole other barrier that we have to break through, and I say that specifically as a very clearly not androgynous non-binary person. I have facial hair, I have hair follicles over 75% of my body because I’m Arab-American, I wear lipstick, I look gender non-conforming, but I never look androgynous. So for me, I think there’s going to be an uphill battle to actually be able to be on screen in my gender and that’s gonna take a lot longer.

But the thing that’s so beautiful about She-Ra and about the gifts that I’ve been given to bring the character to life – it helps make that barrier easier to topple over. I think we need to be willing to show trans bodies across a spectrum of size, across the spectrum of beauty, across the spectrum of gender conforming versus being gender non-conforming, and across the spectrum of androgynous to not androgynous at all, but gender non-conforming. I want to see on TV what the actual like non-binary and queer and trans community looks like.

Jacob loved how supportive and queer everyone on the show was which made it such a brilliant experience for them – no stigma or issues; just fun and liberating. Even the show itself, it doesn’t make a big deal of how diverse it is. It just treats this diversity as normal. Why wouldn’t the world include all these different people? 

In another article on Queerty, I found this an excellent summary: 

Superhero films like Marvel Universe have sort of cheapened the notion of what makes a hero—they just look cool, utter witty retorts and save everybody. She-Ra is more complex—she does save the day. There are witty retorts, but rather than making the other characters inept or stupid, her greatest act of heroism is to inspire others to also be heroes. How conscious were you of that sentiment when you were all working?

It’s something I think about a lot, especially in a narrative aimed toward girls. One thing that’s always frustrated me about stories centering on a female protagonist is that there’s this pressure to be perfect and always make the right choice. So you never really get a model to deal with making mistakes in your life. You just feel like I’m not perfect, I must not be a hero. Something I’m doing must be wrong. What I wanted to show was just how much strength and bravery and determination it takes to be a hero. It’s something you have to work at, it’s not something you’re born into. Adora is someone who was raised a bad guy. Every step of the way is her fighting to forge a new path for herself rather than the one she was born into. She makes lots of mistakes and has to find a way forward.

One thing I hear, which is sometimes brought up as a negative, and I find that really interesting: people say She-Ra wasn’t allowed to be as strong as He-Man because her powers were more about healing and transforming her sword and talking to animals and somehow that means she’s not as strong. I don’t agree with that.

Neither do we.

That’s part of what makes her a hero. I think there is so much more to leadership. When we meet Adora, she’s someone who’s like a problem? I’ll punch it because that’s what I know how to do. Her journey is learning to be a leader, learning to not just conquer but to heal. Learning not just to fight but to bring people together. That’s something really important for girls today to see, because it’s something they’re going to have to do. You’ve got to step up and take responsibility and do what’s right and go for it. And you can’t do that alone. It’s something I’ve always ached to see.

 

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

I really like the reading of Janet from The Good Place as nonbinary since they are a machine and they don’t have any concepts of gender. Matches their recurring line “Not a girl” as well (though as we discuss in the episode, this is usually played for laughs than for any serious explorations of gender identity). The video also mentions other nonbinary characters such as the Crystal Gems in Steven Universe and Double Trouble in She-Ra.

The video proposes that the fact that none of these characters are human can present problematic tropes and stereotypes about other nonbinary people in general. I’m not sure I agree with this premise just yet, at least in She-Ra’s world, because other characters also blend human and non-human – Catra, Scorpia, Mermista.

Othering groups of people is a way of dehumanisng them – using the term illegals for immigrants, for example. When you hear them referred to these terms rather than people or human beings, it allows you to distance yourself from them.

I understand the argument but I’m having some difficulty reconciling this with science fiction and fantasy. On the one hand there is the issue of using fantastical creatures as metaphors, sometimes problematically so. On the other hand, I’m not quite sure this argument fits into something like She-Ra. Even with Janet, I love the reading of them as nonbinary but wouldn’t have identified that myself and they’re not explicitly identified as nonbinary in the show from what I remember. I don’t remember if pronouns are ever used with Janet, for example (I’m sure pronouns appear loads of times but my memory is atrocious). I do agree with the fact that if a large proportion of nonbinary characters in the SFF media landscape at large happen to be non-human, there’s a lot of problems to unpack there, similar to the way in which queer-coded characters are usually villains. 

Some Notes On Episode 15 – 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 15, A Fascinating Tension: Multiple Interpretations of Religious Themes and Ideas in SFF, we discussed the following texts:

1) Essay – Introduction to Cruel Miracles

I don’t actually know enough about Orson Scott Card and his beliefs or even his writing until I came across some memes recently in response to JKR’s transphobic comments from fans of Card and Lovecraft welcoming JKR fans into their fold.

This essay proposes that science fiction and fantasy create spaces for religious literature and explorations of literature which might seem contrary to what most people except from such stories. This reminds me of the Faith in Fantasy episode where religious leaders from different faith backgrounds imply that SFF asks and addresses religious questions using different structural frameworks.

He believes that religious literature which is explicitly written and marketed as such doesn’t actually explore religious themes; it simply affirms them for people who already believe. 

Exploring issues of why the world/universe is the way that it is and why people do the things they do – these are ideas both religion and science fiction share. Science fiction may be hostile to existing religions but still grapples with religious ideas in its worlds. His arguments about science fiction having more room to explore religious questions without explicitly calling them religious questions weirdly reminds me of The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber where an English pastor goes to a new planet to minister to alien beings. It draws a more direct link between religion and science fiction.

Card set out to write his own science fiction without including religion even though he was a practising Mormon. He thinks many other Mormon writing primarily deals with writing about doubt rather than exploring different aspects of faith – a very narrow yet dominant conception of religious writing. Card’s stories deal with religious ideas rather than religions – though he didn’t mean to include Mormonism in his stories. 

The essay briefly talks about how in the US, even though it claims to be a religiously pluralist country, the emphasis is on Christian rituals and celebrations like Christmas. This is similar to India which is supposed to be a secular country – secular in a way which recognises multiple religions rather than no religions – but the preference structurally and culturally is to Hindu celebrations and rituals. 

Card thinks that the lack of characters who are religious in not only SFF but also literary fiction is disingenuous considering how important a framework religion is to many people in the US. Is this also similar to India? If everyone was so hostile to religion as our media has us believe – where religion is either invisible or written dismissively or paternalistically – religion wouldn’t survive. 

He began including explicit and realistic explorations of faith and religious characters in his stories including those who don’t believe in religion and how they interact with religion. Sometimes it isn’t the faith that matters, it’s the sense of community. This idea resonated with me. He didn’t just include the good parts of religion either; he also included the more negative parts – but all in an effort to challenge the religious stereotypes and tropes that are prevalent in SFF by including a diverse range of religious people – both good and bad. 

I wonder how this humanist message sits within the context of his – what I’ve recently discovered – homophobic attitudes. 

 

2) Essay – What Does God Need With a Space Station?

Religion is about people. Even if you live next door to heaven. Even if your boss is God’s instrument on earth. Religion is about people, and people shape their gods just as much, or even more, than those Gods shape them.

I like that some facets of this idea that religion is about people and their relationships with each other are explored in Rick Riordan’s vast mythological universe as well as The Good Place + the fact that multiple beliefs can exist parallel to each other.

The essay explores the ways in which faith,  spirituality and religious worship are explored in Deep Space Nine – a science fiction show set in the distant future.

One of the most important themes in Deep Space Nine’s religious storylines, which is also an important theme in religious fiction in general: people get the gods they look for. Winn wants to believe in gods who are wrathful and vindictive, who withhold their love from those who fail to honor them properly, because that’s the kind of god she’d be, and the kind of ruler she tries to be

This reminds me of a similar relationship explored in Small Gods by Terry Pratchett. 

There are different ways to explore morality both through religious and non-religious lenses – examples include Deep Space Nine, Small Gods, The Good Place, The Book of Strange New Things, Station Eleven, even Doctor Who.

A religious story set in a universe in which God’s existence is in question can only describe two scenarios–good people worshipping a good god, and bad people worshipping that god.

One extremely comforting way of looking at it–religion as an emotional crutch, something to help you get through the day, regardless of whether the god you believe in exists or is anything like what you imagine them to be.

One of the comments in this article criticised the depiction of self-serving religious extremists in one of the earlier episodes – which reminds me of the Prophet in Station Eleven. While that is a narrow view of religion, one can’t overlook the fact that such people do exist – especially see this in India with the godmen and godwomen.

 

3) Book extract – Too Like The Lightning 

What the world in this novel proposes is that religion should be deeply personal and individual and nobody else should know about your religious beliefs. Like Ziv’s context note suggests, I find this somewhat problematic as well. For religious people, it’s not only hiding away an essential part of you but it also prevents you from finding community which is the most appealing thing – to me – about religion. As they say in Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, it provides an opportunity to love people despite you not necessarily liking them (since they come from different backgrounds and beliefs). It also vaguely reminds me of how marginalised people are meant to assimilate to the dominant culture and leave behind their beliefs and practices behind in an effort to fit in. While most countries have a dominant religion, other religions are meant to do something similar. 

As the context note says, the society functions similarly in terms of gender where gender-neutrality is the norm. I chafe at the idea of a norm itself because then everything else is othered – rather than just a space which has room for all kinds of differences. Anything that’s coded as gendered seems to be thought of as arcane and ancient. But I also liked the “they” and “them” being used largely throughout the first four chapters. I didn’t know the gender of many characters which was quite a refreshing reading experience. I had to imagine which gender and then question myself for why I assumed this gender even when it came to the protagonists.

I like Ziv’s point of how religion here, and elsewhere, is always seen as a problem to be solved – because the real world doesn’t yet have a way to have multiple religions peacefully coexist. Is that another failure of imagination in our fantastical and futuristic societies? Or is it because most stories doesn’t explicitly deal with religion or religious questions and so the question of how different faiths can live together isn’t a question that’s explored at all.

With what desperation McKay screamed to those with the power to stop it, “Humanity cannot live without these questions! Let us create a new creature! Not a preacher, but a teacher, who hears a parishioner’s questions and presents the answers of all the faiths and sects of history, Christians and pagans, Muslims and atheists, all equal. With this new creature as his guide, let each man pick through the fruits of all theologies and anti-theologies, and make from them his own system, to test, improve, and lean on all the years of his long life. If early opponents of the Christian Reformation feared that Protestants would invent as many Christianities as there were Christians, let this new creature help us create as many religions as there are human beings!”

I love this idea! 

“A sensayer is”—sobs punctuated his answer like hiccups—“somebody who—loves the universe so—so much they—spend their whole life— talking about—all the different—ways that it—could be.”

“Sir, you are wrong. So wrong that I shall turn the world against you. It’s not the numbers, not these rare psyches you’re charting that stimulate great progress. It’s groups. I’ve studied the same inventors, authors, leaders that you have, and the thing that most reliably produces many at once—the effect you’ve worked so hard to replicate—is when people abandon the nuclear family to live in a collective household, four to twenty friends, rearing children and ideas together in a haven of mutual discourse and play. We don’t need to revolutionize the kindergartens, we need to revolutionize the family.”

Bacon’s ideal, his scientist, was then the honeybee, which harvests the fruits of nature and, processing them with its inborn powers, produces something good and useful for the world. Our Thomas Carlyle, genius thief, co-opted the simile in 2130 when he named the Hive, our modern union, its members united, not by any accident of birth, but by shared culture, philosophy, and, most of all, by choice. Pundits may whine that Hives were birthed by technology rather than Carlyle, an inevitable change ever since 2073 when Mukta circled the globe in fourpoint-two hours, bringing the whole planet within comfortable commuting range and sounding the death knell of that old spider, the geographic nation. There is some truth to their claims, since it does not take a firebrand leader to make someone who lives in Maui, works in Myanmar, and lunches in Syracuse realize the absurdity of owing allegiance to the patch of dirt where babe first parted from placenta.

I read the first four chapters of this book – which you can read for free on Tor.com – and I’m utterly and immediately bewitched and want to read more! I can’t remember the last time I was so enraptured by a world and its characters and the plot. I was SO disappointed I had to stop reading and I reallyreallyreally want to read more – this utopia that reflects so many of the things I would love! I kept exclaiming, “Oh my god I love this!” at Jack, and then had to go and order it from one of my favourite bookshops. 

 

4) Essay – Why There Is No Jewish Narnia

The writer wonders why there aren’t any famous Jewish writers of fantasy or conversely why there isn’t a Jewish fantasy in the way Narnia (and Harry Potter?) is a Christian fantasy. This makes me think of the Faiths in Fantasy episode where they spoke about how people from different religions read their faiths into their favourite texts. One of the comments on this article adds:

MatthewAnish56

February 20, 2014 at 7:54 pm

I refer you to my post = Reflections of a Jewish Tolkienist. Also my poem – Passover at Bilbo’s House. I see the point about the Midlle Ages – but personally I enjoy fantasy. Isn’t the late Isaac B.Singer a fantasy writer in a way? There are occult elements in some of his writing and plenty of out of the ordinary things going on? Some people think Mr. Potok’s novels are fantsy – they have a heavy religious message.

B’Shalom

Matthew Abish

The supernatural does not itself define fantasy literature, which is a more specific genre. It emerged in Victorian England, and its origins are best understood as one of a number of cultural salvage projects that occurred in an era when modern materialism and Darwinism seemed to drive religious faith from the field. Religion’s capacity for wonder found a haven in fantasy literature.

The article proposes that fantasy is largely rooted in medieval European frameworks, a time and place which wasn’t exactly welcoming for Jewish people – which might explain their propensity towards science fiction and utopian fiction. 

To put it crudely, if Christianity is a fantasy religion, then Judaism is a science fiction religion. If the former is individualistic, magical, and salvationist, the latter is collective, technical, and this-worldly. Judaism’s divine drama is connected with a specific people in a specific place within a specific history. Its halakhic core is not, I think, convincingly represented in fantasy allegory. In its rabbinic elaboration, even the messianic idea is shorn of its mythic and apocalyptic potential. Whereas fantasy grows naturally out of Christian soil, Judaism’s more adamant separation from myth and magic render classic elements of the fantasy genre undeveloped or suspect in the Jewish imaginative tradition.

This is such an interesting idea! I don’t know enough about Christianity and Judaism to fully comprehend or explain this myself, of course – but it’s a fascinating thought nonetheless. And it seems to be very different from Hindu mythology as well where we have a lot of magic and fantastical creatures – but not in the way Christianity does since it’s a polytheistic culture with many gods and goddesses and stories rather than just the one.

The essay also proposes that in the 20th century, there weren’t Jewish writers writing fantasy because of the Holocaust. 

For Jewish writers working after the Holocaust, classical fantasy must have made redemption seem too easy. Certainly, the notion of magic and wizards existing in our own world—as in, for example, the Harry Potter books—becomes all but impossible. (Or at least must raise the question of why Hogwarts, like the FDR administration, never tried to bomb the railroad tracks.)

The absence of fantasy writing in Israel is, if anything, even starker than in the Diaspora. The fantasy genre has always been disparaged in modern Hebrew literary culture as being a frivolous distraction from the serious political and artistic missions facing the Jewish people and its writers. Of course, Israelis are just as avid consumers of fantasy literature, film, and games as any other nation. Israelis have flocked to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, their bookstores are filled with Hebrew translations of writers from Tolkien and Rowling to Robert Jordan and Orson Scott Card, and their children play Hebrew editions of Dungeons & Dragons games. And yet none of this production is local. As one writer lamented, in an article in Ha’aretz in 2002 on the absence of Israeli fantasy literature:

Faeries do not dance underneath our swaying palm trees, there are no fire-breathing dragons in the cave of Machpelah, and Harry Potter doesn’t live in Kfar Saba. But why? Why couldn’t Harry Potter have been written in Israel? Why is local fantasy literature so weak, so that it almost seems that a book like that couldn’t be published in the state of the Jews?

This idea about how fantasy is largely structured around a Christian framework and the lack of fantasy which draws from Jewish culture, religion, and worldviews also makes me wonder about the lack of Jewish characters themselves in SFF. It’s something which I only recently started thinking about when someone on Facebook pointed it out in a post. I note the absence at least in mainstream SFF – the ones I read recently and loved that I can think of are The Golem and the Djinni and Spinning Silver.

This article is also very obsessed with a certain kind of fantasy – of the Tolkienesque variety. But hasn’t the dominance of this genre meant that other cultures and beliefs are marginalised anyway – not just Jewish but others too? I think there just needs to be many different kinds of fantasies to the point that no one kind is othered or another is glorified.

Another comment says: 

deborahjross

April 15, 2015 at 4:05 pm

While not a specifically historical, my epic fantasy trilogy THE SEVEN-PETALED SHIELD (DAW Books) draws deeply from Jewish, not Christian, world view and values. I created a culture and characters whose religion is scripture-based, and that scripture contains not only the annals of the people but a creation story that drives the central conflict. Astute readers will recognize the Seven-Petaled Shield (that protects the world from chaos) as a magen-David, with six mystical gems surrounding a unifying center. I used resonances of the Roman conquest, King Solomon’s seals, sacred scripture, the emphasis on literacy, and a solution to the conflict that is based on compassion, not destruction.

In addition, I’ve written a number of fantasy short fiction pieces with specifically Jewish characters. A couple of examples: In “Transfusion” (Realms of Fantasy, and the lead story in my forthcoming collection) an observant Jew befriends and ultimately redeems the humanity of a vampire. I used the historical figure, Gracia Nasi, for “Unmaking the Ancient Light” set in Renaissance Venice (Ancient Enchantresses, DAW).

I hope your readers will take a look at my work.

— Deborah J. Ross

Some more recommendations: 

Marian

March 11, 2019 at 11:57 am

Hi —

Is the writer familiar with Jane Yolan, a fantasy writer and author of “Briar Rose”?

Surely he knows Neil Gaiman, also Jewish? Lisa Goldstein? Ellen Kushner?

Joe

April 18, 2019 at 5:21 pm

I would second the nomination of Lisa Goldstein; her first novel, The Red Magician, was a fantasy novel that dealt with the Holocaust. Both her parents were concentration camp survivors. Peter S Beagle is probably the best known Jewish fantasy writer; his The Last Unicorn is a classic in the field. Isidore Haiblum’s Tsaddik of the Seven Wonders, which combines science fiction elements with Jewish mysticism, deserves a mention. Francine Prose’s early novels were fantasies; her first novel, Judah the Pious, was a fantasy of Jews in Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages; Marie Laveau, her third novel, draws on different magical elements.

The comments and conversations and debates in this essay are an education by themselves – about Judaism and Jewish representations in SFF and fantastical elements in Judaism.

 

5) Essay – Fantasy and the Jewish Question

It begins by pointing out that even Farah Mendlesohn responded – not too kindly – to the above article: 

Don’cha just love utter rubbish? Simply off the top of my head:

Robert Silverberg; Esther Freisner; Peter Davison; Michael Burstein; Neil Gaiman; Marge Piercy (great grand-daughter of a Rabbi); Peter Beagle; Charlie Stross and Michael Chabon (by pure coincidence I have been reading Gentleman of the Road, set in the ninth century kingdom of the Kazars and, as he says in a post-script “Jews with Swords”, all day today).

I am sure others will add more.

However, the essay points out that there still isn’t any fantasy that incorporates Jewish theological ideas in it in the way Narnia does with Christian ideas.

There’s a reason that the golem and the dybbuk get so much play whenever the Jewish fantastic is mentioned–because there’s not much else out there, and very little that is common currency even among Jews.

At the same time, this essay does sympathise with Farah’s frustration at the previous article’s assumptions and generalisations and glossing over history, geography and national identity.

To put it bluntly, there is no way that a Jewish writer working in the early decades of the twentieth century could have produced The Lord of the Rings, a work steeped in a yearning for a lost pastoral world that Jews, who have for various reasons tended to congregate in urban and commercial centers, would have had little or no experience of.  Similarly, the naked didacticism and unabashed proselytizing of the Narnia books is entirely antithetical to Judaism, an anti-missionary religion.  One might as well ask why there is no Jewish Divine Comedy.

Weingard completely fails to acknowledge, however, the famous geographical divide between the two genres, the fact that science fiction emerged in the US and fantasy in the UK.  It’s easy to imagine young Jewish writers in America gravitating to science fiction in its golden age, because its core ethos of rationalism, progress, and can-do attitude was rooted in exactly the same social changes that allowed them to live entirely different, less proscribed and less ghettoized, lives than their European parents and grandparents.  But it’s America that plays the crucial role here, not Judaism.

The essay points out that while the article remarks on the lack of fantasy in the Israeli literary scene and uses that to buttress his argument, there is a similar lack of science fiction as well as speculative fiction of any kind.

Ultimately, what’s most frustrating about “Why There is No Jewish Narnia” is that Weingard is so unclear on what he’s looking for, what his definitions of ‘Jewish,’ ‘fantasy,’ and ‘Jewish fantasy’ are.  Tolkien and Lewis (and many other, less frequently mentioned writers like Hope Mirrlees and Lord Dunsany) were trailblazers, creating a new mode which was deeply informed by their religious preoccupations but which very quickly became dissociated from them in all but its deepest levels, leaving room for unobservant Christian, atheist, and even Jewish (or Muslim or Buddhist or what have you) writers to play around in and sometimes bring their own cultural heritage into. 

The writer wishes there were more Jewish characters and elements both inside fantasy and out of it and also more devout characters who practised Judaism.

A Jewish Narnia, meanwhile, will be nothing like Narnia, and the real question raised by “Why There is No Jewish Narnia” isn’t whether such a work will ever exist–it’s whether Michael Weingard will be able to recognize it.

One of the commenters reads Asterix and Obelix as a Jewish story:

Raz Greenberg said…

A particularly interesting case of “Jewish Superheroes” (and, for that matter, fantasy) took place outside the US: Rene Goscinny, the creator of Asterix (arguably France’s biggest comics hero) was Jewish, and though he denied any influence of his Jewish heritage (or so I heard), it’s really all over: the story may be about French against Romans, but beneath the surface it’s a classic “the smart Jew makes fun of the stupid gentile” story, with the small village the protagonists live in is the classic Jewish town.

In the comments, the writer talks about Superman as a Jewish tale: 

Abigail Nussbaum said…

I think it’s in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay that Michael Chabon has one of his characters sum up the name ‘Clark Kent’ as too WASP to be real, a classic assimilation tactic. And of course, later in that book the Jewish characters, one of whom escaped the Nazis by the skin of his teeth and left his family behind, use their superhero character to battle on page the villains they can’t defeat in real life.

One of the commenters points out that there is a lot of good Jewish fantasy out there but they aren’t mainstream and draws the link between commercial success and Jewish stories:

 Daniel M. Jaffe said…

As compiler and editor of “With Signs and

Wonders: An International Anthology of Jewish Fabulist Fiction”, I’m sort of puzzled by the claims that there are no significant Jewish writers of fantasy, and that there’s little tradition of it in Jewish culture. What about the Zohar and the rich Hasidic tradition?

  1. B. Singer, Cynthia Ozick, Bernard Malamud, Moacyr Scliar of Brazil, Teresa Porzecanski of Uruguay, Angelina Muniz-Huberman of Mexico are all major world-class writers of Jewish fantasy. Steve Stern of the US creates a fantasy Jewish landscape in Memphis! Woody Allen is a Jewish fantasy writer of the highest caliber–the fact that many of his fantasy worlds are created through film doesn’t make him less of a “writer”.

The objection seems to be that Jewish writers might not have chosen to express their fantasy writing in terms of fictitious Middle Earth kingdoms. So? Why must our fantasy tradition express itself the same as any others? “Different” doesn’t mean “lesser.”

Perhaps the measure of “great” is commercial success? If so, then we’re talking less about the nature of the literature that’s been produced than about the audience that chooses to receive it (or not). Is it really a surprise that in the predominantly Christian Western world, Jewish fantasy literature has not been as widely embraced as such Christian literature? Especially when many Jewish readers themselves, apparently, choose not to seek it out.

March 05, 2010 2:32 AM

 

6) TV show episode – Star Trek The Next Generation: Who Watches The Watchers?

The crew goes to help out some anthropologists studying a culture which is at the Bronze age of evolution. The episode explores the idea that their advanced science is perceived as being godly. It reminded me of how in the real world, some people think that aliens were responsible for ancient structures like the pyramids and the Mayan archaeology and civilisation because apparently brown people couldn’t accomplish this themselves?

One of the people from the culture is taken into a spaceship to heal his wounds – the memory wipe doesn’t hold and he believes he died and came back to life completely healed. He believes this is confirmation of his people’s ancient beliefs in these magical beings. This culture has given up beliefs in supernatural beings and fates controlled by stars but now they’ve begun to believe in a god – Picard. When they think that they have inadvertently offended the god, they intend to harm one of the people. Interesting exploration of how trying to understand gods can turn to violence – holy wars, inquisitions, chaos. The episode ends with one of the people shooting Picard to prove that he’s immortal despite Picard’s insistence he isn’t + in an effort to bargain for his dead wife’s life. Interesting picture of how religious violence can erupt for different reasons.

 

7) TV show episode – Star Trek Deep Space Nine: Accession

Towards the beginning of the episode, a young couple comes to see Sisko, the emissary after getting married for his blessings. The emissary seems to be a version of a priest. He’s also in charge of ceremonies but struggles with being a religious icon and is still getting used to it. He is one of the reluctant leaders of the Bajoran faith. Another character, Kira, also follows this faith.

The plot of the episode involves a wormhole which transports an ancient emmisary – Akorem – from 200 years ago to the current time. Kira is astonished that Akorem, one of the most famous Bajoran poets from history, is now in front of her. Akorem wants to bring the practices of his time back to his future which have done away with these practices. This includes (re)establishing a strict caste system like the one which was prevalent in ancient Bajor where people’s occupations depend on which family you’re born into – lots of parallels with Hinduism. A thoroughly relieved Sisko uses previously-foretold prophecies and this new appearance of Akorem to give up his job as emissary and go back to just being a Starfleet officer. 

“That’s the thing about faith, if you don’t have it you can’t understand it. And if you do, no explanations necessary.”

Kira says this while trying to explain the seeming contradiction between acknowledging both Sisko and Akorem as the emissary. It reminds me of what Ziv said in our episode too. 

Akorem is a more conservative emissary and believes they’ve strayed from the path of the prophets which is why he wants to re-establish the caste system. He eventually wants a Bajor society where they will deport people who don’t adhere to the caste system. One of the parts of the Bajoran culture involves doing whatever the emissary asks them to do no matter how difficult. Kira explains her doubts about reinforcing this system at the cost of federation membership and her role as first officer – her caste are farmers not soldiers. The federation doesn’t accept members who have caste-based discrimination. Parallels to UN/EU membership? India is currently not only promoting casteism but also oppression against religion – Islam and Christianity. China is also not a bastion of human rights. I suppose in those cases, capitalism trumps morals? Akorem’s pronouncement has ramifications where people with lower caste designations are making room for and being submissive to people of higher caste designations. One of the people kills a person of a lower caste – who prepares the dead for burial – for refusing to follow orders. More Hindu caste system parallels. 

This causes Sisko to reconsider giving up his position in an attempt to create a more progressive faith tradition than the one Akorem wants to establish. Akorem draws on the prophecies foretold by the ancient texts and believes he’s the true emissary. Sisko doesn’t think he can rely on these and they need to go through the wormhole to the prophets themselves in order to ask who the true emissary is. The prophets appear in the bodies of crew members and speak through them. The prophets declare that the only reason they sent Akorem to the future was for Sisko to presumably make up his mind definitively about his leadership and guidance. Sisko suggests sending Akorem back to his own time unharmed, something Akorem looks forward to so he can spend time with his wife and family. Akorem doesn’t come across as a bad person, just one with practices of his time which are abhorrent in a more progressive future. He seems to believe he’s doing the right thing. The episode was an interesting and nuanced representation of a fictional faith tradition which draws from different religions but explores real issues. 

 

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

(I’ve already used this episode as a text for Episode 3, so I’m supplementing the notes I made then with these new ones. For the old notes, click here.)

With religious texts, canon also relies on individual interpretations and priorities. This is problematised by the fact that it was oral history written down. Which means that what both the writers and readers choose to focus on can depend on their own varying priorities. Retellings and individual/multiple interpretations can expand the text which could, in turn, make room for more voices, especially those which have been traditionally marginalised. Which voices are lifted up as canon? Historically, it’s been patriarchal so men’s voices have been lifted – and only men from a specific group, those who have structural power. How do you negotiate with that today when we have a more inclusive sociocultural context? Now we can look for more of these marginalised voices which were overlooked and erased in history/religion/culture/art. People create their own stories inspired by canon – both religious and cultural texts – as a way to expand the inclusivity of these stories which were limited by its original writers.

 

9) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds: The Canon Revisited

Eric talks about how Star Trek is less action-packed and more philosophical which reflects Gene Rodenberry’s emphasis on lack of conflict. However, this is something which fans grew to critique; they felt the characters and the world needed conflict to warrant an entire episode. 

Similar to Star Wars, Star Trek has a vast canon – the TV show, the books, the movies. What counts and what doesn’t? Eric has mixed feelings about canons – sometimes they can be inclusive where fans find a like-minded community; but a dense deep canon can be intimidating and off-putting to casual fans. I completely agree – it’s something which put me off comics and Doctor Who for the longest time. The new movies aren’t popular among fans because they feel like J. J. Abrams smashed the canon entirely for reasons like believing in a more hopeful and collaborative future. But wouldn’t the new movies also act as introductions to a newer generation of fans? Like New Who did for me? This reeks of fannish gatekeeping to me.

Eric talks to Rabbi Ben Newman who is a geek and Star Trek fan. He discusses how the Old Testament (also known as the Torah among Jews – which I only just discovered!) is the original canon. Rabbis explored the gaps in the stories with the characters and came up with their own interpretations and explanations – these stories are called the Midrash or the Midrashi – a term I first came across in Harry Potter and the Sacred TextMidrash is a bit like fanfiction – if they feel true enough, they become a part of the canon and a part of the story. 

There are further parallels between sci-fi canon and religious canon. The Old Testament has many contradictions and inconsistencies because the stories in it were written by multiple people with different philosophies and interests. The Midrash includes stories which try to explain these gaps. Even within canon, they are responding to each other and to their different interpretations of the people and events. 

With Star Wars canon, Disney came out and announced that the video games, books etc. which came after the movies were no longer valid and they would come up with a whole new canon. This angered fans who consisted these stories as canon – similar to debates among religious costumes? Fans were also divided by The Last Jedi. A lot of them hated the centering of women and people of colour but others thought it violated canon including the mysteries in The Force Awakens + thought it butchered Luke’s character who thought about killing his nephew Ben. The rabbi Ben Newman was really bothered by the film too. One of the critiques was that Rey’s parents were cast aside and that mystery didn’t reach a satisfying conclusion. However, this was only the second movie in a trilogy – bit weird to wash your hands off it without watching the third movie. The Rabbi did love the characters and their interactions with each other but didn’t like that the history and canon were ignored. There’s frustration among fans about who is the true voice of Star Wars – what counts as canon and what doesn’t? 

Ben pointed out that when Christianity first came to be, there were many different ways of understanding the faith and many different interpretations and storie. But one of the meetings decided what counted as canon – similar to Islam where the definitive and authoritative canon is decided by a specific group of people. Now new authors are coming in to write fanfiction or versions of fanfiction to explain gaps and inconsistencies in popular media canon similar to what happens in Midrash.

 

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

I’ve already used this episode as a text for Episode 3 and Episode 13. I haven’t made any additional notes for this episode so for the old notes, click here and here.

 

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

I’ve already used this episode as a text for Episode 3 and Episode 13. I haven’t made any additional notes for this episode so for the old notes, click here and here.

 

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

I’ve already used this episode as a text for Episode 3 and Episode 13. I haven’t made any additional notes for this episode so for the old notes, click here and here.

 

13) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds: Faith in Fantasy

(I’ve already used this episode as a text for Episode 3, so I’m supplementing the notes I made then with these new ones. For the old notes, click here.)

Rachel read a story called The Mists of Avalon which narrates the adventures of Arthur and his knights from the point of view of Morgana rather than Arthur which completely changed the story for her. In terms of the relationship between religion and fandom, multiple perspectives and diverse interpretations allow people to expand the text and explore its nuances. It also reminds me of what Harry Potter and the Sacred Text do so well. 

Different religions have different death rituals which may seem squicky to others not from that background. For example, in Zoroastrianism they leave dead bodies for vultures so as to return the body back to the earth.

Science fiction imagines what the world could be. This idea is something which I keep thinking of along with the idea of faith and hope in human beings rather than a religious text. This sense of hope in the world is such a struggle during the pandemic because you see different sides of humanity. I like to think of all the fantastic things people are doing to make everyone’s lives easier – Some Good News, art, articles, etc. but there is terrible negligence and apathy and lack of empathy too. 

What does it mean to be human? How do you answer these questions? These questions remain even in futuristic and fantastical worlds. Religion is just one lens. For me, it’s definitely through stories. Either fictional stories or people’s stories. 

 

14) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds: The Book of Dune

Frank Herbert, the writer of Dune, incorporates a lot of different religions in his series but seems to draw a lot from Islam. The episode features an interview a Muslim guest from Pakistan now living in Australia who loved the recognition of Islamic elements and representation in this book series. 

Dune, Star Wars and Star Trek were the three major sci-fi stories when one of the other guests was growing up. Eric sees Star Trek as a good utopian world whereas the guest thinks the Prime Directive is condescending and also always being broken. The guest believes it reflected American foreign policy. 

There are so many different ways into a fandom. A guest hasn’t read the Dune books but played a video game and watched a mini series based on the books. That’s when they noticed all the Islamic influences and elements in the series. 

One guest explains the different contexts and meanings behind the word jihad which has now taken on such negative connotations. Jihad can be as violent as against Hindu rulers in India but also as innocuous as jihad against carbs or falling into a Netflix hole. It essentially means a struggle. Jihad is also used in Dune though in less black and white terms.

Eric is surprised that Frank Herbert is spoken of so positively as a white American man writing about Islamic influences. Would his work not count as cultural appropriation? The guests don’t think it’s cultural appropriation; rather, it’s reading Islam through a European lens. It doesn’t involve placing his interpretation as the definitive Islamic sci-fi over a Muslim writer writing about their own culture. They do acknowledge that there are some colonial perspectives and biases which reflect his social and cultural contexts. Frank Herbert was raised Christian but in a fit of rebellion, became Buddhist. This might explain why different religious influences show up in his books. Dune looks at the power of religion but also the dangers of the power of religion combined with the power of the state – something that you see happening today in India.

To what extent do you believe in free will? In Judaism? In Islam? In Christianity? If everything is preordained, what’s the point of trying to do anything? In Hinduism, your good deeds have an impact on future reincarnated lives. These are questions which religion as well as SFF tackles. 

 

15) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text Special Edition: Owl Post and Professor Stephanie Paulsell

Stephanie learned to treat texts as sacred because she grew up with parents who were great readers. Her father used the Psalms while her mother read her Dr. Seuss – both of which felt sacred to her. One is a traditionally religious text which many people find sacred whereas something like Dr. Seuss is less so but feels equally important to her. Even something like Jane Eyre can be a sacred text depending on a person’s individual contexts and priorities. 

They explore the idea of sacred texts being texts which are generative i.e. lead to more responses and texts, sometimes creative ones. Harry Potter as sacred because it leads to so many fan responses in different forms – fiction, art, essays, analysis. Stephanie also sees Virginia Woolf’s books as sacred. Even though Woolf was famously an atheist who was raised in a religious family, she used reading to influence her inner life and gain empathy and knowledge about other experiences and find a community with other people. Harry Potter performs a similar function because it is such an important cultural text for many people around the world. 

They also discuss the difference between perfect and sacred. Since sacred texts are generative, they have to be imperfect. A perfect text doesn’t leave room for exploration and invite other perspectives and interpretations; it’s static rather than dynamic, whereas a sacred text is never done. Treating a text as perfect and not as a conversation can lead to fundamentalism as we see both historically and currently.

“I’m worried that the Vernon Dursleys of the world are going to ruin the world. And you said back to me, no I think we have to deal with the Vernon Dursleyishness in ourselves.” – Vanessa about a conversation with Stephanie 

 

16) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds: Fear of the Borg

Picard’s arch-nemesis is the Borg, a group who want to assimilate all the species into the Borg collective, which sounds similar to the Cybermen in Doctor Who and the Daleks in one of the David Tennant episodes. 

Eric talks to three sci-fi academics who draw parallels between this assimilation and religious assimilation. Sometimes the Federation assimilates cultures as well; in fact, even being a part of the Federation can be seen as assimilation making the Federation a colonising force – something the narrative itself doesn’t seem to suggest. In American culture, assimilation used to have a positive connotation, but there are increasing critiques of this idea of assimilation. What are you assimilating to and what part of your cultural identity is lost? As one of the guests points out, there’s the issue of the power dynamics at play here too. Do you have control or a choice over this process? Assimilation in the lives of immigrants leads to the “erasure of autonomy” where they lose the accent, language, food, clothes, music, culture that is a part of their identity. 

Picard is weaponised where he’s assimilated by the Borg and is used in an attempt to destroy the Federation. He never gets over this trauma even after he’s rescued by the crew. There is a Borg named Hugh (?) who becomes a part of the crew. Some of the characters are more welcoming to him than others. Picard especially isn’t convinced that he is capable of change and plans to use him as a way to destroy his race as a sort of Trojan horse. One of the guests thinks of Hugh as someone who’s being deprogrammed from a cult once they leave the cult and are able to negotiate with their life in this cult. This reminds me of the Sacred Text’s theory of the house elves as a cult and Dobby shows the difference between cult and religion by showing that he can leave it.  Star Trek is fundamentally interested in the moral imagination – what is the line between what we are willing to do and why.

You also see assimilation in the Potterverse where Muggleborns are expected to completely assimilate themselves into the magical world. Nobody cares about their home culture. It must be so alienating! Maybe that’s why Hermione wanted to fill her already-bursting schedule with Muggle Studies – just as a connection with the life she’s grown up with. Muggleborns have to navigate a new language, new culture, new social and cultural norms, and new rules.

Some Notes On Episode 14 – 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 14, We Don’t Know What To Do With Them: Representations of Older Women in Media, we discussed the following texts:

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

Buffy, a small blonde girl who is excellent at physically fighting vampires, challenges notions of what a fighter looks like. I don’t remember the other vampire slayers who end up being included in the show but I wonder how they were represented especially in terms of intersections with gender, body and appearance, ability. It would be great if the world (Buffy’s and the mediascape at large) had more examples of fighters from different identities in terms of race, gender, body size, and disability. 

“I do well in standardised tests. What? I can’t have layers?” – Cordelia 

Offhanded comment which still challenges the idea that beauty/popularity and intelligence are separate – you can’t have both. I thought Booksmart did a good job exploring that as well with more nuanced examinations of intelligence. 

All the adults and parents and other responsible older people are drugged by the chocolate to act as teenagers. This seems to involve largely dancing at the club, lots of alcohol and sex, fighting, car races, and other irresponsible things. This does interestingly explore ideas of what older people are allowed to do, especially since it distresses the actual teenagers. At the same time, it’s a very narrow idea of what teenagers do. How are these ideas of being a teenager complicated now, especially with all the activism being done – climate crisis, gun control, anti CAA, Black Lives Matter? Essentialist ideas of age go both ways – not all teenagers and young people fit into these stereotypical ideas – another reason I love Booksmart so much. These socially constructed ideas of what people of different ages are supposed to do are limiting for everyone and certainly don’t reflect everyone’s lives. 

 

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

The adult actors seemed to have so much fun doing this episode which again goes into the idea of very limited kinds of fun that adults have (if they have any at all) perpetuated by media. As the actress who plays Joyce says, the kind of teenager she plays in this episode was very different from the kind of teenager she actually was – but she loved inhabiting this other identity which she felt was quite liberating. Not fitting into the roles that society expects of you is definitely empowering – how much more empowering if this was an everyday thing rather than a single episode thing. 

This episode led to a lot of fanfiction about Joyce and Giles exploring this under-representation of older romance and sex between older people in media. For example, Joyce having a pair of handcuffs and Buffy not wanting to think about why her mother has these cuffs implies different kinds of sex and sexuality. 

Such a different experience watching this when I was closer to Buffy’s age versus watching this now when I’m closer to her mom’s age. I don’t know what insights I would have gleaned then. It’s similar to my experience with children’s books in general and Harry Potter. I’m able to understand some perspectives and insights so much better now. The hosts think this episode was quite hot and sexy which is different from how they felt when they watched it when they were young. The idea of parents having sex – something which is taboo in media representations too and continues to be taboo since it’s not normalised.

 

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

(I’ve already used this episode as a text for Episode 5, so I’m supplementing the notes I made then with these new ones. For the old notes, click here.)

Molly provides both food-based nourishment and mental and emotional nourishment to keep people whole not just during their everyday lives but especially so during the resistance from Order of the Phoenix onwards. However, her fears, her role, her knowledge of the world are often dismissed and taken for granted. 

The entire series has an underpinning of maternal sacrifice – Lily, Molly, Narcissa – most of which is dismissed. Or in the case of Lily, her sacrifice is frequently mentioned but she is limited to just that one role. 

“There should be statues all over the world of women making soup for the revolution.”

There are different kinds of activism – Shaheen Bagh in India and now in the Black Lives Matter protests in the US, the UK and across the world. In the migrant crisis in India, different people were practising activism in different ways – promoting resources, coordinating funds, donating funds, making food packets for the migrants, collecting money for their travel. Everyone is finding different ways to help to counter the breakdown of government systems or the historical inequalities perpetuated by social, political and cultural structures. There has been so much news of the different kinds of ways in which people resisted, helped with or showcased their resistance in creative ways both in the US and in India. 

They talk about Molly not really having an adequate self-care regiment. She’s always taking care of other people and not herself. This is also tied to activism since it’s so important. There absolutely need to be moments of rest and relaxation and even joy in the middle of all the fighting and rage just to give your brain and emotions a break. This, in turn, is essential to make activism and advocacy sustainable and not lead to constant burnouts. 

 

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

The episode signposts two articles by the guest:

Motherhood and Erasure 

On Horrific Pregnancies and Dead Mothers  

The episode explores the absence of mothers in science fiction and fantasy with the propensity to die off-screen. Aliette points out that mothers are seen as a hindrance to adventure so it’s easier not to deal with them. Historically, children were more in danger of dying in childbirth than women – though women’s deaths are more prominent in fiction while children get to do the fun bits. Even in Black Panther, Killmonger’s father’s death is a huge plot point but his mother isn’t even mentioned. Mothers are so invisible that you don’t even think about their absence in stories. This reflects the real world where mothers don’t really garner much attention (which explains how fathers who are out and about with their children or doing the most basic parenting are praised because it’s considered to be the exception even though it’s half their responsibility).

In YA books and children’s books, parents may take a backseat naturally since that’s the age when children move away from their parents – but parents don’t necessarily need to be killed off. Disposing of them might be easier but there’s more potential including them in the exploits. They also discuss the trope of the chosen one where lone heroes have to save the world, focusing on individualism rather than community.

“Everybody falls by the wayside but especially the parents.”

Even in She-Ra, a show I love very much which focuses on communal heroism rather than individual heroism, most of the parents are absent. Same with Avatar: The Last Airbender too. 

One of the hosts says that as an only child, her parents were her playmates and adventurers so she thinks parents as fellow-adventurers would make perfect sense to her. Another of the hosts who was also an only child didn’t think her mother could be fellow adventurers in imaginary ways, perhaps reflecting the kind of stories she had been told. These representations give rise to the idea that mothers don’t go on adventures and aren’t imaginative and playful. Aliette purposefully writes stories where children and mothers do things together. Tropes with mother’s representations include saintly dead mother, evil mother, mother who sacrifices herself. When stories which challenge these tropes are written, readers/viewers may find it unrealistic and may criticise it for being unable to connect with them because it’s the kind of stories they aren’t used to.

What makes mothers great mothers? Only things they do for their children apparently. This reminds me of my friend who, after she gave birth, complained about becoming just a milk factory for her kid. Everyone asked about her kid and her relationship with the kid but not herself. This was similar to Aliette’s own experiences after childbirth. Even in media, mothers have their characters only to be in relationship with their children and have no agency by themselves. The erasure of mothers in SFF is compounded when you look beyond cisgender characters. Trans and nonbinary parents are more invisible. There need to be more intersectional representations of mothers where they have a life beyond their child.

Aliette thinks that the term badass characters is gendered masculine where fighting with a sword is badass but taking care of the children isn’t badass. One is seen as a man’s job and the other is seen as a woman’s job signifying heroism as masculine. 

In SFF/historical fiction, women’s roles are limited to – be hot, sleep with men, bear children. But the way in which the world + historical societies are structured, that this is the only way women can gain power. Then why are they being shamed for doing just that? They discussion signposts TOR’s article about women’s role in medieval society and antiquity which challenges the notion that historically, women didn’t do certain things. History is misconstrued to suit agendas which exclude women in stories. What we think we know about history is shaped by imagination and media rather than reality. The kind of stories that are told shape your idea of history – this is also being weaponised by many right-wing groups, of course, as one of the hosts points out about the narrative around Brexit. 

“Everything was better back then.”

Better for whom? There was a lack of medical innovation, health and food standards, along with oppressive social roles. Historical societies were good only for a specific group of people.  

In Star Wars, they discuss Padme who despite living in a technologically advanced society where she has lots of wealth, she doesn’t know she has twins and then dies of postpartum depression. This society doesn’t prioritise pregnancy care or the needs of women. Terry Pratchett has some unconventional mothers – Nanny Ogg, Magrat, Lady Sybil. At one point, Magrat just straps her baby to her back and takes her off to look for Granny Weatherwax. Aliette wonders when mothers take babies on adventures, how do they feed this baby? How do they care of the baby? Another example of motherhood and agency is Piper in Charmed

 

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

(I’ve already used this episode as a text for Episode 6, so I’m supplementing the notes I made then with these new ones. For the old notes, click here.)

Why does most SFF have only young women as protagonists? It’s a limited vision of both the past (fantasy) and the future (science fiction). In medieval fantasy, does it reflect the high birth mortality rate? Similar reasons in a dystopian future – reasons for mothers being killed off? 

A recent Twitter discussion spoke about the presence of diverse characters and writers in SFF and how they’re erased in mainstream discourse. While I agree it’s important to read and raise awareness of niche media, it’s also important to have more diversity in mainstream media which reaches a larger number of people and shapes imaginations to a greater extent. Thanks to most popular SFF media, we largely have this very limited image of older women which then impacts how we see old women in the real world + the stereotypes and expectations we have of them. The obsession with youth and returning to your youth and fear of ageing or death means that everyone is concerned about getting older. This is reflected in both entertainment and advertising media.

One of the hosts points out that there’s a difference among people, regardless of age – both really young and really old characters can be precocious. For me, a recent example of an excellent older protagonist is the grandmother in My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises who has an extremely precocious granddaughter. 

In SFF, it’s not just elderly protagonists who are missing; middle-aged protagonists are also very rarely centered, especially if you’re an old woman. In fairy tales, old women have very stereotypical roles – mentors or villains. The idea of flipping roles where children are wiser than the adults – again, I’m reminded of the granddaughter Elsa in My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises who is much more reasonable and sometimes wiser at seven than her grandmother. Dumbledore is an example of a complex, flawed older character whose life and experiences we understand in great depth rather than just this superficially wise older mentor as he’s introduced in the beginning of the series. While we grow up with Harry, we gain a more nuanced view of Dumbledore. Harry’s faith in Dumbledore is shaken as the Witch, Please podcast argues, where you can draw parallels with religion. 

As with everything else, when you think of intersectional identities of older women, the representation (or lack of representation) becomes even worse. Women have to be able to look after themselves in a patriarchal society anyway. Especially with women who often have to dedicate their lives to their families when they are younger, becoming older could be an act of liberation for them – to be able to do everything they didn’t get a chance to do and explore new horizons. Older women overturning stereotypes reminds me of Judi Dench, an old actress who embroiders on the sets – an activity which is seen to be feminine and docile – though even that’s wrong because it was often used for resistance. But Judi Dench takes it a step further with her sweary embroidery

 

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

I love their interpretation of Mrs. Figg as brave; she’s a woman living the life of a spy and going deep undercover to keep an eye on Harry. On the surface, Mrs Figg is considered mad and batty which feeds into the single old women with cats stereotypes. However, they propose that she is a great liar because she’s a secret agent who’s upended her life for the cause and to look after Harry. She lies for other people about her whole identity to protect Harry from afar. Of course there are problems with this because she could have included Harry in this deception and given him a more decent childhood. Vanessa believes she’s complicit in his abuse to an extent. 

Mrs. Figg plays up to the Muggle stereotypes of crazy cat lady which makes her easy to dismiss and the witching world stereotypes of Squibs where the magical population doesn’t really think about them which also makes them easy to dismiss. She weaponises her marginalised identities and takes advantage of both her age and her lack of magical ability, which is an interesting, empowering reading of the intersection of age and gender. 

“The best thing about turning 50 is that you become invisible to men.” – Stephanie Paulsell

“Women who become socially irrelevant to the patriarchy” – Vanessa 

Vanessa proposes that Mrs Figg lies for a good cause about not being able to take care of Harry in The Philosopher’s Stone because she wanted him to go to the zoo with the Dursleys as a treat since she has seen how they treat him. Arianna likes the theory but is also conflicted about it because she likes the idea of a dotty old woman who doesn’t know how to take care of children. Vanessa believes Mrs. Figg is more fun than she pretends to be

The threat of an older single lady means that people think she’s pathetic because she doesn’t have a man and has to rely on animals for love. This leaves no room for the idea that older women without husbands and children and with lots of cats may be perfectly happy as they are. I like the idea of this trope of crazy cat lady being overturned to exert agency – especially with older women who may not have had many opportunities to do this due to family and societal responsibilities earlier. 

 

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

According to the hosts and guests, Professor McGonagall holds so many different responsibilities and does them all well – educator, Gryffindor leader, Order of the Phoenix member fighting Voldemort, badass boss. She’s a rule-follower but knows which rules need to be followed and which need to be broken. She gets things done – questions injustice, is on the battlefield whenever needed, protects the students physically and from afar. They think she exemplifies being a single (canonically widowed), career woman who models feminism to readers. She doesn’t prioritise her relationships with men. 

McGonagall did have to choose to let go of some things. Women can’t have it all in a patriarchal capitalist society but neither can men. Men usually have housewives to care of domestic things so they’ve chosen career over family too. 

“McGonagall walked so Hermione could fly.”

McGonagall is just as maternal as Molly Weasley though maybe she exhibits it differently because she’s taking care of all of Gryffindor and perhaps even Hogwarts and creates an environment of stability. She is a badass aunty – perhaps not nurturing, but does add an important dimension. She doesn’t have an incomplete or unfulfilling life because she doesn’t have a husband or children. She is an example of a non-sexualised badass woman.

While I more or less agree with the points, this is a somewhat white feminism reading complete with the phrase “leaning in” as one of them mentioned.

 

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

Eric wonders whether people are more willing to go on spacetime adventures with the Doctor when you’re younger than when you’re older? He admits he wouldn’t have gone with the Doctor even when he was a child. 

They discuss one of the companions (Rose presumably) who left her mother to go adventuring with the Doctor across time and space. Rose was willing to leave Jackie in a parallel universe and never see her again too. Both Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant’s Doctor were quite horrible to Jackie – lots of sexist, ageist comments. Why couldn’t a mum be a part of the adventure too? Why is the idea so abhorrent to the young male Doctors? 

They discuss how companions have different kinds of intelligence reflecting their origins from different backgrounds – but they all have empathy and emotional intelligence. Most of the companions have been women and the writers have been white men. There have been criticisms about how Martha Jones’s character – the first black companion – was treated. This reminds me of the episode when she travels to Shakespearan England – her worries about being black then are dismissed and she’s problematically exoticised by Shakespeare. As the first black female companion, her overall arc did a disservice to her character and also garnered some racist backlash from fans.

They episode also features the creator of Whovian Feminism, a Tumblr blog. Stephen Moffat has been criticised because his female characters are treated as plot devices. She spoke about how while the show did include working class companions, other intersectional identities are often overlooked or treated poorly. The show only seems to have room for young women companions – they’re constantly replaced for other young women and there seems to be no room for older women.

Sarah Jane was a popular, feminist companion, unlike the previous damsels in distress. But when she came back as an older woman in David Tennant’s run, she’s pitted against Rose, a younger woman as well as portrayed as someone who’s bitter about being left behind by Tom Baker’s Doctor. She never married because she was hung up on him. However, her reappearance was so popular though that she had a spin-off series for younger fans. 

Donna was a popular companion. She didn’t have a crush on the Doctor and was always blunt with the Doctor. She wasn’t as young as the rest of the companions and was popular among female viewers especially. The way Donna’s story ends was an especially unpopular fate. I was heartbroken about it – her agency and memories taken from her – a fate worse than death because she doesn’t remember how incredible she was. Many companions have died but at least they died on their own terms. Donna lost all control. 

The representation of older characters is becoming better in Jodie’s Doctor run. Graham is a good example of an older companion who’s travelling with his grandson as a way to grieve over his wife’s death. Doctor Ruth is excellent as an older woman Doctor – there have been older male Doctors but not older women Doctors or companions. There are still massive blind-spots and invisible identities though.

 

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

This episode focuses on how ageing is represented in Doctor Who. Ageing is often associated with bitterness – especially for younger  women where they have a longing for being young. Media perpetuates this stereotype where growing older is devalued and only youth is valued. Older women, especially single older women, are often seen as unhappy, pathetic or crazy. In terms of the intersection of age and gender, older women come off worse. For example, Amy Pond ageing versus Rory ageing where Rory doesn’t have the bitterness nor does he physically age. Women who age with bitterness can also be seen in the episode with Sarah Jane and Rose where a younger woman is pitted against an older woman. 

The companions tend to be young, thin, cute women. With ageism in romance, lots of fans prefer Matt or David but the hosts like Peter and River – an example of older romance. The hosts argue that we need o see older people in heroic roles more often. 

Amy is a mom to River but doesn’t age as a companion. They don’t seem to be willing or able to show motherhood properly or ageing as a woman properly. You can only be a woman in media in a certain way. It also skews in a way which privileges older men over older women. The age versus beauty stereotype seems to impact women more than men. With the new companions, there have been different ages and genders though there is still the notable absence of older women. Older men seem to be okay but not older men. In the new season, Graham and Grace offer a representation of older romance but Grace is killed off almost as soon as she is introduced. So there is increasing diversity in the new series and more fans can see their diverse experiences in the series ranging from age, gender, race, disability, and sexuality. This diversity is also being reflected in the writer’s room. 

Some Notes On Episode 13 – 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 12, You Want To See Yourself In That Story: The Impact Of Religion And Regional Origin, we discussed the following texts:

1) TV show episode – Doctor Who: Demons of the Punjab 

There are hints of Partition at the beginning of the episode – an offhanded comment about how the roads aren’t safe. The impacts of Partition and colonisation are still being felt till today. The episode explores different national and regional origin and how it is important in different contexts. Indians and Pakistanis in their home countries may have different relationships/perceptions of each other than in a third country like the UK. 

The episode focuses on Prem and Manish, two Hindu brothers. Hindu-Muslim marriages were and still are considered problematic because of the history of divide and rule the Empire subjected its colonised subjects to. The communal violence we get hints of in the episode, we can see even 70 years later. The characters talk about how arbitrary borders feel when you’ve grown up in one place and have your identity tied to that place only to suddenly be told your religion means you have to move.  I can’t even imagine how it felt for people then in what became India and Pakistan and East Pakistan. Of course, this is still a hugely contentious issue – the arbitrariness of borders and the arrogance of imperial attitudes in Kashmir and the North East of India. Prem blames the British for potential conflict in India – thanks to their slapdash partition over six weeks and thoughtlessness born of ignorance and lack of care.

“Men without a clue are imposing a border like a crack through our country.” – Ambarin

Ambarin who has lived through wars and droughts simply because a country with guns took over a country without them to exploit labour and resources – something that’ can be seen around the world. And it’s something we still feel the impacts of with the line between developed and developing countries. Why are we developing? Who developed and why? And now the oppressed have become the oppressors in the case of India and its attitudes to marginalised groups of people – reflecting ongoing cycles of trauma and abuse.

My quote from the episode notes: God Manish is such an asshole. What combination of things makes people like this? These attitudes aren’t restricted to a particular region either. Fear and hatred of difference of migrants and immigrants is unfortunately a worldwide phenomenon, throughout history. Manish is portrayed as the Hindutva terrorist predecessor, one of whom, of course, killed Gandhi. He declares that Pakistan is for muslims and India for Hindus. These binaries leave no room for nuance and complexity and it means that even now, Muslims are seen to be traitors in India whose loyalties lie with our neighbour. Manish thinks Ambarin and all Muslims no longer belong in India. Tragically, this isn’t even an obsolete attitude. Ordinary households were and are torn apart along lines of religion. Ordinary people whipped into a frenzy of violence – is this any different from what’s happening now? 

Manish kills the Hindu sadhu so that he can’t marry his brother to a Muslim woman, a woman he grew up with. He leads a bunch of Hindutva terrorists to his home to get rid of his Muslim neighbours and to take over the land.

“They’re checking the land for people who don’t belong.” – Manish.

Who decides who belongs? Manish believes Prem and Kunal (his other brother who was killed in the war) fought for religious segregation not integration. This is a bit like how fascists today hark back to glorious military history forgetting the lessons inherent in that history. They pick and choose narrow aspects to focus on without understanding the context of that history. 

Ambarin wanted to start new traditions after independence. She went on to marry a Hindu man she loves officiated by a strange woman she doesn’t know (the Doctor) – so she sort of did. Ambarin also thinks Sheffield sounds like an exotic world in a throwaway line which made me laugh and love how England isn’t centered. Growing up, the England of Enid Blyton and the Britain of Harry Potter did feel like an exotic world to me. 

 

2) Fan podcast – Verity: Angels and Demons of the Punjab

Indian history of the Partition isn’t taught even in many parts of the UK – though Britain was directly responsible for the consequences. Forget Partition, even the more brutal parts of the British Empire is erased in history classrooms in the UK. As one of the hosts says, it’s an optional part of some history curricula. This feeds into the narrative of imagined historical glories and ends up with people romanticising the British Empire and its propaganda of bringing civilisation to the savages. 

The episode deals with the idea of history itself – how there is no one single version and it depends on who’s telling the story and the history. Even that is highly subjective since only one group of people decides what is true in mainstream imaginations. What we know about history isn’t necessarily true, not unless you undertake some comprehensive research. 

The Scottish co-host talks about how while the Empire isn’t glorified by the Scottish people, they distance themselves from their role and success in the Empire.  There needs to be nuance in their role both as victims and oppressors. The Scottish themselves were colonised by the English and their language and culture was attempted to be erased. However, they were colonisers as well and benefited hugely from the Empire and the slave trade. Their denial about their role in the British Empire, but enjoying its accompanying benefits of the profits from the resources of the countries they colonised, continues to this day. She also gives a brief history lesson based on her own research of the Partition and the British role in it as well as the role played by the Muslims and Hindus. She discusses the many different stories – those who wanted one state, those who wanted two, violence and disappearance and mass migration, moderates and extremists on both sides, fear of being oppressed by the other side. This issue wouldn’t exist if Britain hadn’t colonised India and directly led to the impoverishment of an old, rich civilisation by “sucking out the wealth like leeches”. Because that’s what colonisation does – it preys on rich countries to steal from them. She also offers a brief history of Indians fighting in World War II – over a million Indians fought to get independence from the British Empire in exchange. 

The hosts acknowledge they’re three white ladies talking about something which didn’t impact them. They went to look for South Asian responses to the episode and also found historical resources. They signpost the documentary: The Day India Burned (+ other Vinay Patel’s research resources). 

Using stories and science fiction and fantasy to raise awareness about real-world history can make these historical events more impactful – especially when it focuses on individual stories which move them beyond mere statistics. 

They mention how Ambarin as an older woman was such a great character – especially since older women of colour are so rare. They talk about how we know the religions of very few Doctor Who companions – or indeed the faith of the Doctor themselves. We know Yaz is Muslim but we don’t know if it’s religiously Muslim or culturally Muslim. For example, I would consider myself an atheist who is culturally Hindu because I grew up in a Hindu family in a Hindu context. There have been very few writers of colour in the history of Doctor Who – Malorie Blackman with Rosa was the first and now there’s Vinay Patel. This seems to have been a very popular episode on both the Doctor Who podcasts I listen to as well as on the internet at large – or at least the responses I encountered. 

The politics of Veteran’s Day in the US/UK – it’s become a thing which harks back to glories of the military past without interrogating the cruelties of this military occupation of different countries around the world. Wearing the poppies has now been linked to aggressive nationalism. This is similar to India currently where the army plays such a outsized role in the idea of patriotism without actually caring about the lives and circumstances of soldiers themselves. 

Different cultural contexts means that people have different priorities and preferences. What is important or not depends on which country you’re in/which part of the country you’re in. This would be great if one didn’t try to impose its way of life/culture/language/whatever on another. Assimilation into the dominant culture versus just having your own culture a part of the dominant culture is something many societies continue to grapple with – something which is going to be even more important as different environmental, economic and political factors drive migration. 

The episode ends with the Scottish co-host asserting that the unsavoury bits of their history – including imperialism and racism – needs to be a part of their history so that people can come to terms with it and make amends for it. Germany does acknowledge the dark part of their history and they’re better off for it. 

 

3) Fan podcast – Witch, Please: Witch, Please and the Rise of White Nationalism

Marcel had to re-title her talk about Harry Potter and the Rise of Fascism to Harry Potter and Social Justice at a fan expo to prevent being mobbed by white supremacists. This reminds me of India where you have you be so careful about your cultural events and talks. Muslim events/Pakistani speakers have been attacked by Hindutva goons; movies like Padmavati have been boycotted and protested.  Fragile Hindu sentiments, despite being the dominant group in the country, are forever ready to be offended. This also affects universities and writers and other parts of arts and culture. 

Marcel likes talking to fan expos because presenting at academic conferences reaches very few people since they’re so sparsely attended whereas fan expos about popular topics like Harry Potter reach a lot of people. This is similar to my podcast/research aim – to make academic ideas and research more accessible to people. Academic conferences are also expensive – you have to pay to attend, often quite a lot of money. Academia makes everything so ridiculously inaccessible! Marcel also likes interacting with non-academics to get out of the academic bubble, a bubble which academics who engage with popular culture often fall into where they end up only talking to each other about theory rather than engage with fans who don’t necessarily articulate the theory but engage in practice of the theory. Fans also have valuable insights to offer which come from multiple experiences, backgrounds and perspectives. Again, this is something my project is trying to explore. Sometimes academics also look in limited places for resources (for example historical archives rather than on a place like Twitter) and miss out on fan communities who are engaging with the text in different ways. For some people, the idea of being a public facing academic is engaging and fun and an important way to reach the communities they are a part of/studying/including in their research. Other academics would rather think of academia as separate from the public. Marcel advices academics who don’t want to engage with the public to not do it but not wear their academic hat on a public platform like Twitter where people may expect academic engagement from them. People are tired of being talked down to by academics, especially academic writing that is verbose and jargon-laden. The host propose that the difference between journalist and public intellectuals is the latter want to think deeply about ideas and complexities and invite feedback and disagreement and other kinds of conversation.

Germany is an example of a society which has come back from totalitarianism – maybe something to be hopeful about the future as so many countries are run by authoritarian leaders. 

The hosts make fun of the link between free speech and democracy – something that is definitely taken over the public discourse in the US and something which is awful in India in terms of the rampant and very mainstream Islamaphobia, classism and casteism. When I was listening to this episode, I couldn’t help but think about the Kent RO advertisement about maidservants which implied they might be responsible for spreading disease in otherwise clean homes + the meme which linked reservation to COVID-19 demanding that the pandemic should target people from OBC-SC-ST backgrounds first – they’re reserved for the disease. 

The talk discusses Harry Potter and the link to rise in white nationalism hate crimes in the US, Canada and the UK. In India, this is Hindutva versus Islam which is the parallels I was mostly drawing on. Harry Potter teaches lessons about fascism, how to be allies and how to fight fascism. A lot of protests and activists from certain backgrounds use the Harry Potter framework by drawing on these themes and characters. Recently in India with the anti-Citizenship Amendment Bill, there was a post drawing parallels between the Muggle-Born Registration Commission and the CAA.

The talk covers four points – what fascism looks like, how it uses existing systems of power – media and democracy, how to be an ally, how to fight back. The Potterverse uses allegories to fascism – rise of Voldemort, a fascist dictator. This is much more apparent in the Fantastic Beasts films with Grindelwald which made me think of parallels with Modi. I think Modi and the BJP are much more of a fascist government than the situation in the US and the UK; the latter two might be heading there – definitely the US with its response to the Black Lives Matter protests – but we’re already there. The political resisters in HP are called Undesirables – like anti-nationals in India. 

Once Voldemort rises, Diagon Alley is a wasteland, shopkeepers and anybody else who seems to have sympathies with the resistance are disappeared or forced to work for Voldemort – like the students being arrested in India for protesting CAA or the doctor who was sent to a mental hospital for challenging the government on the lack of its COVID-19 prep. Preparing for this episode is making me much more depressed than I would have imagined. 

The education system is also used to prop up fascism – Hogwarts attendance is mandatory and half-blood students are segregated – like what BJP does with its shakhas and how it’s rewriting history books in schools as well as in the architecture of the country – renaming roads, building statues, pushing a narrative of the Mughals (but doesn’t really seem to have a problem with the Empire which was much worse for India?). Muslim and Dalit students are targeted. 

Role of media where The Daily Prophet presents Ministry approved messages without any critical thinking or any criticism – again, what we see happening in media today in India where Islamophobia and propaganda and outright lies are pushed. Media is supposed to hold the media to account and question and challenge their claims. I think citizens also need to do this. But now in India, the mere questioning of anything the government does is tarnished as anti-national and unworthy of existence – what happened in Kashmir, what happened in Delhi – propaganda against Muslims. 

Death Eaters believe in blood purity and consider some witches and wizards better than others; Muggles, Muggle-borns and other magical people (OMP – a term I first heard on The Gayly Prophet) aren’t even seen as human. How is this different from Hindutva terrorists? 

How fascism intersects with gender-based violence – in the books, Bertha Jorkins, Mrs Roberts in Goblet of Fire are targets. Similar in India where Muslim or “anti-national” women who dare question male authority often bear the brunt of the anger. Since Muggles are used as a metaphor for race, the series doesn’t explore the intersection with racialised violence which is where Hermione being racebent can offer more nuanced insights. 

Marcel points out that the Ministry of magic under Fudge isn’t that different from the Ministry of Magic under Voldemort – just less extreme and less overtly bigoted. This is similar to Congress in India. There is no coherent sense of justice and utter lack of human rights considerations when it comes to imprisonment and torture by Dementors (Sirius – POA, Hagrid – COS, Harry – OOTP) + the treatment of Other Magical People like goblins, house elves, centaurs, giants and werewolves. 

Voldemort does use violence and intimidation but he is also very easily able to raise an army to take over the Ministry – just like Grindelwald is able to raise an army in France to fight the Muggles. It’s similar to those Hindus in India who have always had latent Islamophobia but are now much more comfortable voicing this and benefiting from this system. The Weasleys benefit from their pureblood status too – similar to Hindu resisters now (a person beaten up recently who was then told by the mob that they thought he was Muslim). Existing systems of power are designed to privilege a certain group of people already; this is taken advantage of by fascist dictators – Fudge led to Voldemort. 

Since we read the books from Harry’s point of view, we like to think we would do what he did and stand up to fascism. But this isn’t always as easy in real life. Acknowledging your privilege and using this to protect the marginalised people to even begin being an ally is difficult. The Weasleys are good allies. Ron grows up in a wizard supremacist society and internalises some of these ideas (about werewolves, goblins, house elves) but then grows to unlearn some of these problematic ideas thanks to his friendships and his growing awareness of the injustice of the magical world and the existing systems of oppression. Hermione, on the other hand, protects the vulnerable such as Lupin’s werewolf secret and house elves with SPEW because as an oppressed outsider to this system, she recognises others who are also marginalised just as she is – solidarity amongst differently marginalised people.

Different skills to resist – knit (as Hermione does), making protest signs, cooking (Shaheen Bagh) – working together with different skills and abilities and bringing them all together in the resistance movement. In India, different ways of doing this including the kidlit community. 

Alternative media like The Quibbler and Potterwatch raise awareness and resist facism – we see this with Indian media like Scroll, The Wire, The News Minute as well as social media documentation and amplification of news.

Intersections of race (or caste in an Indian context), religion, class, regional/national origin (migrant crisis during COVID-19 – people abroad had a much easier time travelling back home to India than labourers back to their villages – and the former were treated with more compassion and dignity).

The nonsensical first audience question which Marcel shut down asked about a rise in hate crime hoaxes! The All Lives Matter to a Black Lives Matter conversation! UGH whataboutery. 

Another audience question was what makes the wizarding world vulnerable to fascism? Just like our world, society seems to be very invested in protecting some forms of power – white people, wizards/witches, blood purity, upper caste Hindus. “An insistence that difference is bad and not something to be celebrated.” The fear of difference being a part of the structural framework of the society  leading to lack of respect and equality for everyone.

The hosts talk about how vulnerable but important it is to share anti-bigoted and inclusive things on social media networks like Facebook where you have people who you don’t know very well and may not share your political opinion. I think it’s easy to make fun of “armchair activism” but I think this sort of conversation is also important – to share things which are important and to hopefully introduce people to new ways of thinking beyond their echo chamber. At the same time, I’m guilty of just deleting people who are super bigoted and I find it really difficult to call people out on their nonsense because I become very emotional about it.

 

4) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text Owl Post Edition: How to Be in Community with Burns Stanfield [listen till 19 minutes 52 seconds]

(I’ve already used this episode as a text for Episode 3, so I’m supplementing the notes I made then with these new ones. For the old notes, click here.)

During the pandemic quarantine, it was difficult to find in-person community beyond your own household. Then, more than ever, I understood the need for finding communities in different contexts – religion and beyond. In India, this community has recently shown itself through all those people with privilege coming together in different ways to look after the most vulnerable people in the country – migrant labourers, neighbours who didn’t have access to things like food or medicines etc. In the UK too, community groups were looking after vulnerable people in their neighbourhoods. Of course, it’s not always good. Situations like this can also lead to selfishness and panic and fear and hatred – which it did do too. But, as an eternal optimist, I like to think about the positives. 

It’s difficult to be vulnerable about your emotions and feelings with people and easier to just sit with these feelings by yourself. But going beyond that initial mental block is so important. I’m especially thinking of it in terms of the mental health impact of the quarantine and how it has affected people differently. I became socially disconnected from everyone for a few weeks until a couple of my friends checked up on me aggressively and it broke that mental block and respond to them. However, even now, I still feel the effects of my pandemic brain going into self-isolation thanks to anxiety and depression which didn’t manifest in quite this way earlier. As the Reverend says, it’s sometimes easier to be by yourself especially when you don’t have the energy to socialise because of stress or anxiety or whatever. But talking to people is so valuable.

People use art and stories to make sense of the world. Communities come together to treat a text as sacred in different ways and contexts – as they do with Harry Potter. I like the idea of community where you take some time to be together with someone else for some time a week/month just as a form of practising love. Travelling, reading and making this podcast are ways for me to do this to a degree. 

 

5) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text Owl Post Edition: Reclaiming Tradition with Professor Matt Potts [listen till 20ish minutes]

(I’ve already used this episode as a text for Episode 3, so I’m supplementing the notes I made then with these new ones. For the old notes, click here.)

Like Casper, I also had a negative opinion of tradition, because it has been used to exclude and commit physical/psychological/structural violence against marginalised groups of people. I think a balance between old traditions and new traditions is so necessary all over the world, especially in India – to challenge bigoted and misogynist ideas.

A lot of religious texts were written thousands of years ago and reflected the values then. How can these be reoriented to reflect values now? It’s the same with fictional canon. It features the limited perspective of just one creator with the associated blind-spots. Tradition can be seen as flexible and dynamic through retellings which highlight contemporary values and the acknowledgement that these texts are always available to be changed. You can do this through academia as well as art and stories and culture. 

Traditions of marriage – who can get married and how – have evolved. However, some people still cling to one version of tradition and resist change – not just gay and inter-racial marriages, but in India inter-religious, inter-caste, inter-class too. In many parts of the country, people are killed for marrying the wrong kind of person for the sake of so-called honour under the dubious title “honour killings”. 

A lot of the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text listeners aren’t religious but use religious practices suggested by the podcast to treat Harry Potter as a sacred text and to more deeply connect with the themes, characters and books + draw parallels to their own lives and societies. 

Depending on which part of the world/country you’re in, different religions are dominant and different ones are marginalised – how do you negotiate with that while being inclusive? How do I love the world better? Religion is just one context through which to practise this – stories are such an important way to do this and religious texts can recognise this.

 

6) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text Special Edition: Owl Post and Broderick Greer [listen till 18ish minutes]

(I’ve already used this episode as a text for Episode 3, so I’m supplementing the notes I made then with these new ones. For the old notes, click here.)

I like this idea of people speaking back to the text – especially when the text/its creator have a sense of power – both religious or cultural texts, especially when it is done by those who otherwise don’t have a voice. In India, I wonder if plays and skits serve this function with things like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata where people in towns and villages – big and small – create their own versions of the stories by using the familiar story skeleton but adding their own themes and priorities. 

 

7) Fan podcast – Fan podcast – #WizardTeam: Pottermore Edition Part 3 History of Magic in North America

Johnnie Jae is a guest from an indigenous background who engages with a lot of popular culture and its intersection with native American tribes and runs the website A Tribe Called GeekThe hosts invited Johnnie to talk about the Magic in North America series on Pottermore because they wanted to highlight a voice which was actually impacted by it. 

Native people are rarely included. When they are included, it’s usually through problematic representations rife with stereotypes. For this reason, Johnnie was a bit wary of the articles at the outset but had faith in J. K. Rowling whose books address prejudice and activism. She was disappointed by how even there they are always portrayed as primitive people perpetuating false ideas of the culture. There is no monolithic Native Americal culture – there are diverse tribes with their own unique cultures, languages, histories. But media pushes just a singular narrative of Native Americans which reflected in Rowling’s representation. 

One of the stereotypes is that Native Americans are mystical, magical people who don’t actually exist in contemporary USA. Their culture isn’t fantasy but is often represented as such. Other people of colour face similar problems in a white supremacist colonised society. Native cultures are frequently exoticised and treated like they’re museum exhibits rather than living people.

Media exposes people to a certain stereotypical idea of Native Americans without including the nuances and complexities of the culture – shows lack of research and respect. 

In Anne With An E, the Christian missionaries tried to brutally assimilate Native children like Ka’kwet into the Christian norm – a piece of Canadian history where they were stolen from their families and sent to residential schools similar to the Aboriginals in Australia. Her language, name, hair, clothes – all aspects of her culture was stripped away from her and her very identity was taken. The idea that Natives needed to be civilised – Anne With An E, I think, did a good job of educating people about the history and also positioned Anne and Gilbert as trying to learn about the culture, its practices, its medicine without being judgemental about it and treating it with dignity and respect, counter to the others in their community. 

Killing native people wasn’t considered wrong – people were paid to do it. There was no sense of justice for them. Children being stolen to be sent into boarding schools/adopted by white people was their version of “the Native problem” being solved. 

I couldn’t help but draw parallels with Indian tribal and rural cultures. Their ways of knowledge and medicine and culture are dismissed and their connection with the land is ignored. They aren’t considered as equal citizens, especially when compared to the wealthier, urban people. The Indian government acts as a colonial force. The commodification and appropriation of tribal cultures – it’s the same with Indian artisans as well. Urban upper-class shops and artists will mark up these products and sell them without having this money go back to the people who made them. Some people are working against this, of course. The financial impact on artisans is great when these products are produced cheaply by others which means the artisans can’t make a living off their work and the time and effort they put into it isn’t recognised. 

Writers from indingeous communities writing their own stories is important since these stories are missing in mainstream media. Learning through marginalised experiences when something like Rowling’s articles come to light is also important. It is a valuable source of education though it is harmful for these groups to always have to engage with these ideas which are so dismissive of them. 

 

8) Essay – Thor: Ragnarok is a Hilarious Blockbuster About the Evils of Imperialism

The perils of being erased from history can be witnessed through Hela and the damage she wreaks. It’s a bit similar to being falsely represented in history and the impact this misrepresentation has now. Hela’s existence is erased, Loki’s heritage is hidden – both cause damage in different ways because of their true stories being replaced by false narratives. Meanwhile, Odin perpetuates the story of his benevolence. There’s also the intersections of gender and power when it comes to Hela. Who is allowed to wield power? Whose stories are written out of history? Whose power is bound up so it can’t be used? 

Along with Hela, this deliberately constructed history (as much of history is – deliberately constructed, that is) destroys the Valkyries too. There is no female power in the kingdom of Asgard. It’s similar to history of female participation, agitation, resistance, leadership, warriors  being wiped out especially when it comes to women from colonised cultures.

This is a real tactic that powerful countries and peoples employ in an effort to ignore their own participation in subjugation, colonialism, and systems of privilege. History books get rewritten so that events are more palatable. Stories are told to highlight the kindness and inherent rightness of the victors. Holidays are created for people who did abominable things. Resources are mined and historical artifacts are stolen away at night… and those things are never returned or paid for in kind. As Hela says to Thor, standing in the Asgardian throne room—“Where do you think all this gold came from?”

People coming together to fight a fascist/dictatorial/colonial power in the movie is very relevant to current times. The Asgardians become refugees – similar to Aang becoming a refugee in Avatar: The Last Airbender as well as the Doctor as the last Time Lord. This is complicated by the fact that the Doctor is also a stand-in for British imperialism so he’s both victim and beneficiary. People and countries are destroyed on the whims of a ruler/the powerful few and systems of power always oppress huge groups of people. 

Their fear of being toppled from their seat of power means that the other realms are relatively at their mercy when it comes to aid and peacekeeping (aside from Earth, which Asgard seems to have decided to leave alone after driving out the Frost Giants, probably because of its perceived primitiveness). This is also a tactic used by powerful groups in order to maintain their positions of privilege—when empires abandon their colonies, many of these places suffer economic collapse and upheaval, and Asgard’s withdrawal results in much of the same.

Control over terminology is key for people who want to maintain power. It’s part of the reason that no one wants to be labeled as “Nazis” or “fascists” even when their group ideology is directly influenced by Nazi or fascist beliefs—no one wants the bad PR. The Grandmaster can still be a good guy, even if he keeps slaves to fight in an arena for the sake of distracting the masses with entertainment… just as long as he doesn’t call those poor souls “slaves.”

Not just the extremists but also movements like BlackLivesMatter which is being co-opted into All Lives Matter – people who don’t think themselves as racist but who benefit from their privilege and use this to oppress others – Amy Cooper calling cops against a black man for being filmed in the park breaking the rules 

It is hardly surprising that Taika Waititi has pulled all of these threads together to finally give better context to the cost of Asgard’s rule, and the power wielded by many across Marvel’s galaxy. The Maori director, who carefully wove in references to make certain that aboriginal culture was reflected in the film, who made certain that it was shot in Australia and that Indigenous Australians and New Zealanders were hired for the production, has a direct understanding of how imperialism affects the people who are absorbed by or suffer beneath it. Ragnarok is not interested in maintaining the story sold in Thor, that Asgard is a gleaming beacon of culture and advancement led by fair-minded noble aliens who only interfere when their might is helpful to others. Asgard was built on the bones of the people it slaughtered, and no amount of paint can cover that up.

Colonialism has impacted different countries in different ways but still continues to benefit the colonisers – even when their countries are in flames. This actively needs to be dismantled through different aspects of life – culture, economy, society, politics – the stories we tell ourselves shape our lives. The American empire treats war as a capitalist enterprise by looking for oil and resources in different countries and finding ways to destabalise these countries so that it can profit. This is supplemented by American cultural imperialism with food, movies, etc. taking over different countries all over the world. The idea of American freedom and democracy doesn’t hold up when you look at its own borders. When it comes to refugees and the climate crisis, many parts of the world have already been impacted by this and have been left to fend for themselves. People either flee or are subject to conflict in their home countries born out of lack of options. Which refugees matter and where? In India, only Hindu refugees currently seem to matter.

 

9) Fan podcast – Our Opinions Are Correct: What’s the matter with Star Wars? (listen from 32 minutes 29 seconds to 37ish minutes)

This articulates the thoughts I had while listening to the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text excerpts. As an atheist, I use fandom and stories to draw parallels with religion, though I do wish there was an in-person fan community I could be a part of. Or even just a community built on shared interests because that’s the part of religion I am most attracted by. Not just congregating to pray or discuss the text but also other little offshoots built on your interactions and relationships with each other – where you meet people you wouldn’t otherwise have encountered from diverse backgrounds. It reminds me of the Love and Monsters episode of Doctor Who where the group meets to discuss the mystery of the Doctor but ends up forming strong bonds of friendship and community (until *spoiler alert* they’re all subsumed by the alien, of course).

Some Notes On Episode 12 – 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 12, The International Imagination: Exploring World Politics in the Fantastic Beasts Films, we discussed the following texts:

1) Movie – Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them 

Newt really can be read as neurodiverse. He doesn’t make eye contact, is super empathetic, has a strong connection with animals, says that he annoys people. 

A group called the new Salemers army, led by Mary Lou, is trying to find and persecute witches. Does this have a religious context? Is it a Christian group? There is some historical precedent with Wicca being antithetical to both the dominant religion and to patriarchy. There’s no religious mention in the movie. Instead it seems to have a creepy cult-like atmosphere where she is trying to recruit children to her cause, Credence among them. Grindelwald uses a twisted version of this argument – about non-magical people persecuting magical people – to justify his bigotry I guess.

Newt’s fantastic beasts contribute to this problem of potential Muggle persecution when they’re accidentally set loose in New York and wreak havoc. 

Newt wants to oblivate Jacob because he’s seen his magic. The magical world seems to have really questionable ethics when it comes to memory wiping Muggles. 

Goblins only seem to appear in service roles – wand polishing, elevator operator. At one point, there’s a house-elf bartender Is wizard supremacy a thing in the US as well? Are there any non-human creatures in government? The only goblin they interact with seems to be a corrupt mafia boss kind of who sells them out after taking payment.

President of the American Muggles is a black woman which seems a bit odd considering the politics of 1920s USA. Why don’t black witches and wizards try to help black Muggles? Surely they descend from common ancestors and must have a semblance of racial solidarity in the face of persecution – which the Muggles are not half as equipped to deal with as the magical folks. Relatedly, the magical folk seem terrified of exposure and Muggle attacks. Aren’t they more powerful though? 

Apparently they have really backward laws against interactions between No-Majs and witches/wizards in the US where magical folks can’t befriend or marry non-magical ones. Is this born out of fear? Or hatred? Or a combination of both? Is it to protect the No-Majs in case of a war? Unclear. 

Queenie uses her femininity to get what she wants – assisted by her ability to read minds. Lorrie pointed out that this ability almost acts as a disability since she can’t control it. 

The relationship between Credence and Grindelwald definitely reads as queer with magic as metaphor for gayness. Mary Lou beats all the kids she’s adopted but seems to hate Credence the most – beating the magic and/or queerness out of him? 

 

2) Movie – The Crimes of Grindelwald

Grindelwald seems to be just a symptom of wizard supremacy. Many people in the magical community seem to be happy to be facists and rule both the Muggle and the magical world. Much like real-world fascists, Grindelwald recognises the importance of couching true intentions in carefully-disguised language: “We don’t say such things out loud. We only want freedom to be ourselves. For the greater good.” I suppose he was able to convince Dumbledore with much the same ideas. Grindelwald seems just as terrible and powerful as Voldemort. Fascists don’t seem to be able to stop rising in fictional or real worlds! 

Dumbledore warns the minister of magic that his policies of suppression and violence are pushing supporters into Grindelwald’s arms. I’m sure there’s some truth to that but aren’t there more complex reasons to the hatred and bigotry? Surely, it’s been around for much longer than the minister or Grindelwald – though I suppose Grindelwald uses history to manipulate the present and control the future. 

Queenie uses a love spell on Jacob – more questionable choices that magical folks make when it comes to non-magical folks. Jacob is understandably upset when Newt lifts the spell. Her reason for the spell is she wants to get married to him – illegal according to her government’s laws – while he’s looking out for her safety. Love spells and potions seems to be something women resort to in Rowing’s world – there was a student who tried using it on Harry in Half-Blood Prince, and of course, Merope whose actions resulted in Voldemort. Is that supposed to be a woman’s way of enacting violence? Or a really disturbing concept of love? 

Grindelwald manipulates Queenie into joining him by preying on her hopes and fears. I’ve heard the theory that she’s just doing it as a double agent but she may also have been tempted into joining. Not all who join the dark side are evil so it’s nice that they have alternate motivations, just like in real life. 

I love this cross-cultural friendship between Newt and Jacob. I haven’t made up my mind about Jacob’s cross-cultural relationship with Queenie – I suppose it’s showing the difficulties of this – it’s not all roses and rainbows. 

 

3) Essay – Background Remarks: Grindelwald, Fantastic Beasts, and Gay Representation

In the essay, Lorrie mentions how Rowling’s canon is more heteronormative than even the most consevrative estimates of queer people who exist in the real world. 

She made headlines ten years ago with her unplanned announcement that Dumbledore is gay.  On the one hand, the way Rowling got hundreds of millions of people worldwide to love the humanity of a fictional character and then identified him as gay, as just one more aspect of his personhood, is exactly how to combat homophobia and reduce prejudice.  On the other hand, when you identify your one gay character casually, in an author appearance and not your official text, making it clear that you created gay characters but chose to keep that information off the page, that is a textbook case of marginalization rather than representation.

Fans, of course, don’t let this failure of imagination stop them. They not only queer the series and its characters but also accept these headcanons as accurate. 

While Lorrie loves Fantastic Beasts, that doesn’t mean she’s unable to critique to problematic aspects of it – for example, the representations of blackness in 1920s USA as well as the queer-coding of characters. Grindelwald manipulates Credence which has undertones of using his queerness. The Harry Potter series has had anti-gay comments within canon as well. 

“The secret meetings with Graves, the repressive abuse from the parent — these images and emotions are evocative of experience with homophobia.  The film uses gay people’s experience to create a metaphor and draw emotional impact from those associations.  To me, it feels oddly outdated and possibly misleading for Fantastic Beasts to centralize this dynamic so heavily without grounding it in context by naming gayness and showing matter-of-fact gay characters.”

Lorrie is impatient with the inclusion of queer-coded characters rather than just name them as explicitly gay – an impatience I share. It shouldn’t always be upto fans to imagine themselves into canon. It’s something fans have been doing out of a need to see their stories in media but media should also make room for these stories within canon. 

 

4) Essay – Notes on Claudia Kim’s Nagini

Lorrie’s tweet when she found out Claudia Kim was cast to play Nagini:

A Korean woman in Potterverse! *instant identification*

Neville killed me, oh noes

“milk Nagini” GROSSSSSS

Impersonating Bathilda Bagshot’s corpse? That was a lot to ask of a snake!

Ugh, I had to eat Charity Burbage

OH MY GOD I ATE SNAPE

The backlash against Nagini’s storyline and casting felt unintentionally racist to Lorrie, even when it came from those who considered themselves as allies. I was really curious to know more about this from Lorrie’s perspective and was so glad we chatted about this in our episode. As someone who is Indian, I wouldn’t want to impinge my beliefs and opinions on someone from the community who finds something racist – but I’ve been at a position when someone calls a white tourist wearing Indian clothes as cultural appropriation and I disagree with this stance. At the same time, I also realise that I’ve grown up in India so my cultural privileges as someone from the dominant culture there may be different from an Indian-American or a British-Indian’s experiences as someone from a marginalised culture. I find Lorrie’s response to the backlash against Nagini’s casting intriguing – she lists all the other characters who were used and abused by Voldemort, the other tragedies in canon – and interprets the discomfort with Nagini’s role as fans preferring not to see a Korean character in the movie at all so they don’t have to deal with their images of subjugated Asian women. 

Here is what I really hear:

This role should have gone to a white woman for the comfort of viewers who are uneasy with the images in their own heads of Asian women.

What I hear is:  People were happier when there was no Korean woman in Potterverse.  They don’t want us if it makes them feel uncomfortable.

Lorrie also points out that the life and story of a Korean woman in 1920s USA would have historically not been rosy – does that mean these stories don’t matter and shouldn’t be included? 

On Nagini’s deleted scenes: 

I hope more people take a minute to see more of the character Claudia Kim created.  I liked Nagini in the movie, but I loved her in her two beautiful deleted scenes with Ezra Miller.  They’re on the DVD extras — meaning the fullness of her character felt relegated to the margins.  They’re clearly lovers in those scenes.  In one, she encourages him to release his Obscurus peacefully and proves that it can pass through her without harm.  In the other, he sees the skin on her hand turning scaly and he kisses it.  They’re about the core of this Fantastic Beasts story.

I love that Lorrie has offered such a different perspective to the one I otherwise encountered which unfairly influenced my thinking about the Fantastic Beasts movies in general and Nagini in particular. To me, Nagini was just another character in a movie I quite enjoyed – but Lorrie’s analysis and commentary really expands the scope of both Nagini and the movie at large. While I credit fandom with a whole lot including opening my mind up to different possibilities I never considered, fandom discourse may also lead to a closed mind in some contexts – as in this case – and it is something I’m going to be try and be more aware of. 

For its many flaws, Fantastic Beasts is an international story about the oppressions that led to World War II.  The two films we’ve seen so far have been about the stories that those places don’t want to acknowledge:  witch hunts and politicized capital punishment in the U.S., racism and colonialism in France.  I can understand not trusting Rowling and Warner Brothers to tell the story of Korean women during that time.  However.

It is a destructive trap to hold that it’s somehow wrong or improper to tell in public the stories of Korean women who endured slavery and trafficking in the first half of the 20th century.  We’re not the only ones that happened to – not even in this movie series – and the survivors and their younger generations continue to pay the cost, like a blood curse.  Shame and silence only lead to more damage, with the greatest burden on the people who have suffered most already.  This is part of the global story that Fantastic Beasts is telling about then and about now.

 

5) Fan podcast – Women of Harry Potter: Angelina Johnson with Bayana Davis

In the beginning of the episode, they promote a fundraiser for refugees by drawing parallels to Petunia’s lack of empathy and generosity when given the responsibility of bringing up a child left on her doorstep and how people in the US should be better, despite the hostile border and immigration environment. They believe that the people in the US are currently failing just as much as Petunia did. I loved this example of cultural acupuncture – using popular culture texts to draw parallels to real-world events. 

This episode kicked off a mini-series started in response to a fan’s critique of the Yule Ball episode where Parvati and Padma Patil are disposable but something the hosts didn’t discuss because, as they admit, as white hosts, it’s something they didn’t notice. The mini-series attempts to focus on women of colour to make up for the hosts’ blind-spots born of their whiteness. Even in well-intentioned spaces, people can replicate systemic injustices. For example, in the podcast which tries including multiple perspectives, they still unintentionally reify these systems. 

The episode features Bayana from the podcast #WizardTeam and she offers a black fan’s interpretation of Angelina Johnson, a black character in the books. They discuss her roadblocks as a Quidditch captain by both Umbridge as well as Harry. In a Sacred Text episode, they pointed out the gendered difference between Wood’s training style being accepted by the Gryffindor team but Angelina’s being criticised for making them practise in bad weather. Bayana proposes that since Angelina is also friends with the Weasley twins, it reflects her playfulness and sense of fun. 

Both Robyn and Bayana think about Angelina’s hair and the way in which she wears braids all the time. They talk about how, as black fans, they know that people can’t wear their hair in braids all the time because of the tension and stretch and attributes this aspect to Rowling’s ignorance born out of her whiteness and lack of knowledge about black haircare. However, they soon began to consider that since Angelina has magic, she uses a magical haircare routine, shares it with her friends, and they eventually headcanon her into having a haircare business post-Hogwarts. As someone whose hair takes a long time to do up and manage, Bayana likes to think about a magical fix for it. The politics of hair also comes across when Pansy says Angelina looks like she has snakes coming out of her hair – an overtly racist thing to say. Angelina could choose to “pass” with her hair by straightening it and making it resemble white hair, but she chooses not to. Another headcanon is that Angelina’s parents made sure to educate her about her hair and establish a sense of pride. 

Racism in the series is otherwise explored through metaphors with house elves, werewolves and giants. In the case of Pansy’s comment, it is a rare example of explicit racism rather than metaphorical racism – which doesn’t have any impact in the scene and is just passed as an offhanded insult. The hosts make a connection between Hermione’s hair and white privilege where she makes it sleek for the Yule Ball but she’s able to leave her hair bushy otherwise. Bayana interprets Hermione as black, Vanessa interprets her as Jewish. Bayana talks about her own experiences with hair and sometimes just being tired of spending time on her hair and leaving it as is and how society perpetuates this idea of acceptability.

Vanessa can’t believe that Rowling pretends she intended to have Hermione as black all along. Bayana didn’t initially read Hermione as black because she assumed whiteness unless explicitly mentioned. This is similar to my own experience with my colonised mindset and absence of characters who looked like me in the books I read. What black HP fans did in the fandom when they racebent Hermione influenced her mind and made her connect with Hermione even more than she did as a kid. There are parallels between Hermione’s Muggleborn experiences in the magical world and a black woman’s experiences in a white supremacist society. Black Hermione and her founding of S.P.E.W. would make even more sense because she’s able to recognise oppressive structures in the wizarding world and her realisation that she is at the bottom; thereby recognising Dobby and house-elves’ oppression. Their criticism is that Rowling didn’t take it as seriously as she should have, Hermione wasn’t always a good ally but this wasn’t critiqued in the series. her activism was largely mocked. Additionally, she didn’t listen to what the house elves wanted in an example of white feminism. Hermione’s organising efforts in S.P.E.W differ from her efforts in Dumbledore’s Army where the latter i.e. Umbridge’s reign and a corrupt government directly affects her. Can that explain why she was more careful at ensuring the latter’s success? 

Bayana likes imagining how Angelina and black Hermione would interact with each other as two black women in Gryffindor. How would being a witch of colour impact a person’s life? It’s not something that’s addressed in the series. They think the witches and wizards in England profited off the slave trade and colonisation – where did the Malfoy wealth come from, for example?

 

6) Fan podcast – Women of Harry Potter: Parvati Patil with Proma Khosla

Proma identified with the Pail twins. Her viral tweet about how to pronounce Parvati and Padma’s names – to correct how Americans and British people have been saying it – took her fifteen years as a Harry Potter fan to be able to challenge this popular, incorrect pronunciation – an instance of fans of colour giving way to the white, Western-centric nature of fandom? Based on the history, the twins were most likely first or second generation immigrants and their names would be pronounced in the Indian way, only Anglicised outside the home. People in the West do learn to pronounce difficult Western names – it’s a matter of exposure and practice. As someone points out, if you can learn to say Daenerys Targareyn, you can learn how to pronounce an Indian name. 

You only see Parvati through Harry or Hermione’s eyes. She’s not really a character who comes into her own. What we mostly know about her is that she likes to gossip and likes Divination. Proma recommends Hermione and the Quarter Life Crisis, a web-series whose creator thinks Parvati and Lavender should be respected for doing what they love and not dismissed for their likes – the dismissal reflects gendered criticism of their interests. Hermione rejects traditionally feminine things, this doesn’t make feminine things bad – feminism has room for all women and we shouldn’t throw practices which don’t mirror our own under the bus. 

Proma also briefly talks about Bollywood, which needs different kinds of critique since everyone is India is of the same race which is why class, caste, religion and other identities come into play. In the West, representation used to be about visibility which is why these superficial or stereotypical representations weren’t initially critiqued. Now, there are more calls for nuanced representations rather than just mere visibility. 

Proma didn’t dislike the twins’ representation in the books because she didn’t expect the Indian girls to go on adventures. Maybe they could have been happening in the side unbeknownst to Harry? Surely there’s fanfiction out there. She does mention Parvati and Padma’s terrible Yule Ball outfits in the movie and how offensive she finds it – something which I and a lot of Indian fans agree with! In the podcast, a listener called in to critique their lack of discussion about the way in which the twins were tokenised and dismissed in the Yule Ball. They also needed to have more separate identities. Particularly in the movies, they’re conflated and have no real personality whereas in the books, they’re considered cool and pretty and popular who know their worth. When they don;t get attention from their dates, they go find other boys to hang out with. 

Proma also mentions how she wore Indian clothes at a convention by drawing from her own lived experience and wearing Indian formal wear, but people thought it was a costume and thought she and her friend were cosplaying as Parvati and Padma. This reminds her of how she’s upset about Halloween costumes which use cultural clothing –  culture not costume as she says. This may also reflect the fact that many of the convention people’s only experience of Indian clothes might be through the Harry Potter movies. As Arianna points out, people need to expand their ideas of the correct clothes – gender clothing and cultural clothing. 

Parvati wears her bangles and Indian outfit to the Yule Ball which shows she’s comfortable in her own identity and isn’t afraid of bringing attention to herself or to call out behaviour she doesn’t agree with (for example, when Malfoy bullies Neville in The Philosopher’s Stone). Proma loves the fact that Parvati and Padma were one of the first to join Dumbledore’s Army even though their parents want to and eventually do take them out of school Parvati is not afraid to ask questions. Proma thinks Harry would have benefited from being friends with his entire class rather than just Ron and Hermione. Parvati is curious, justice-oriented and good at her school work. She was his first-ever date but he has no real thought of her. Harry’s two dates before Ginny were women of colour, as Proma points out in delight. 

 

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

Kathy Tu proposes that Cho Chang reminds her of the trope of a minority who excels but also suffers in the magical world. She has to be a good student, good at Quidditch, a good “woman” able to attract popular Cedric and Harry. It’s almost like she has an “ethnicity tax” where she has to be exceptional in order to be considered important. At the same time, the character didn’t signal an immigrant experience. There’s no other exploration of her Asianness and she could be read as a white character. It almost reads like superficial diversity. 

Both the host and the guest think that Cho’s defense of her friend Marietta in Order of the Phoenix is something the trio would have done for each other too. But Cho’s actions are met with much less empathy and her act of supporting her friend is dismissed. 

As a young person, Kathy’s mind was blown by encountering Cho’s Asian character with a Scottish accent. She had anticipated a Chinese accent, a perception based on what you’ve previously encountered in media and what you’re used to. 

They talk about how when it comes to marginalised group representations in media, there is lots of pressure on anyone in the public eye whether it be Jewishness or Asianess whereas white people or people from the dominant culture get to be individuals. This is true both in media and in the series. When a Jew has done something bad, the Jewish community wishes the person wasn’t Jewish. Minority cultures are held to higher standards and represent their entire race, ethnicity, religion, culture etc. 

Cho was there as a perfect character and then disappeared when Harry loses romantic interest in her. The female character is just there as a plot point. This is not just common with characters of colour but just women in general. Harry is upset whenever Cho isn’t perfect, for example when she cries on their date as a result of some very real trauma. Both Harry and Cho are traumatised but aren’t able to work through their emotions and trauma and grief together. 

Arianna’s theory that Marietta is in love with Cho which is why she first goes along with her to Dumbledore’s Army and then betrays them is so great. She also believes that maybe they get together eventually – a theory Kathy loves. Fans are so innovative! 

 

8) Fan podcast – #Wizard Team: Blood Purity and Mixed Race Identity

Guest Xandra didn’t feel Asian enough for a previous Asian representation episode with Proma since she is mixed race.

The episode signposts Heroine Training, a programme which takes inspiration from different stories and employs their characteristics and attitudes in your own life.  

Robyn has grown up not fitting in for not being considered black enough. I relate a little bit to this because of my geeky interests as well as my feminism and lack of caring about how I dress, look, whether or not I’ll get married in my middle-class environment in Mumbai (which is different from middle class in the UK or the US) so I always felt like an outsider. Even as a teenager, I found most of my most important connections in online fandom and just the internet in general thanks to encountering other people like me as well as other people who weren’t like anybody I’d encountered in my own personal life. Being a person of colour in a predominantly white space is only something I encountered after I moved to the UK. This is another kind of not fitting in which requires a different kind of code-switching from the one I employed back home. Even in India, I moved between my identities depending on which environment I was in. 

Xandra talks about her own engagement with the series as a mixed-race child reading about half blood witches and wizards in Harry Potter. This feeling could also be related to Muggle-born witches and wizards entering Hogwarts and navigating the magical world where they’re the minority culture for the first time.

All of the feminine characters in Harry Potter are treated as stupid influencing people’s attitudes who treat femininity with distaste. While intelligence and curiosity should be valued, it shouldn’t be at the cost of other things. Fleur, Parvati, Lavender do not have the same interests and values as Hermione or Ginny, but that doesn’t make them worse people or worse girls. Villains in HP are described as ugly or fat. Hermione is singled out by Draco for being Muggleborn. Xandra proposes that this signifies his own insecurity that he’s not as clever as someone from a non-magical background and he’s projecting that on Hermione; something which his father calls him out for when he’s complaining about Hermione in Chamber of Secrets

Hermione is called Mudblood but Dean isn’t – does gender play a role here? Why is Harry considered half-blood when both has parents are magical. It reflects the idea that even a drop of non-pure/non-white blood marks you as other, similar to historical (and potentially contemporary) American attitudes about black people.

Xandra felt like a white girl on the inside and didn’t realise she’s a minority until she was in high school where she was seen as a minority because it was a posh private school and they wanted to include her in their diversity counts. This resulted in feelings of isolation and not fitting in and not being represented in media. She felt like a brown-skinned Caucasian girl – only found recognition in animated characters. Xandra is familiar with the food from her Asian background because she likes it and not because she grew up with it. She has only been to Korea once – “I feel like I’m tip-toeing through my own identity.” She inhabits different cultures.

Xandra finds herself represented in To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. However, unlike that family where the white father wants to instill Korean culture in his half-Korean kids after his wife dies, her own mother’s experience moving to the US as a child was very different. Her parents made it a point to assimilate into American culture and become American – the tension between minority and majority cultures. As a result, Xandra herself grew up quite distanced from her Korean culture and she has some blind-spots about it. She knows some things but knows all the things she doesn’t know – something that I, much like Robyn and Bayana, relate to. I’m the worst token Indian to have in the UK because if you ask me about religion and culture, there’s very little I do know. Or even to cook Indian food. The first time I properly cooked Indian food was in the UK … but I suppose that’s also a way of being Indian. What makes a proper Indian person anyway? 

When Xandra wrote books as a child, all the children were white because that’s what the books she read had. This is so similar to my own experiences. She had to research other cultures because she didn’t think her own culture could be represented in stories. 

She talks about living as a mixed-race American in Scotland with the intersection of national and ethnic origin. When you have to tick off an ethnicity box in the UK, one of the options was British. As Robyn says, “Is British even a race?” That’s the problem though, right? A lot of people in the UK – white people – do think (white) British is a race and they don’t see brown or black or Asian or mixed-race people who were born and live in the UK as British. Xandra talks about the nuances of race and ethnicity and nationality in different contexts. In the UK, class is more of a mainstream concern than race. Different accents and regions have different connotations, something that Robyn learned about by being a Doctor Who fan. The politics of representation of working class Northern accents and Scottish accents plays a role too – something I’ve learned through my secondhand observations of my Scottish boyfriend in England. 

They talk about how white people in the UK don’t consider how black British people are racialised. When Robyn and Bayana identified themselves as black when in England, they were told that that’s not something that’s really done in the UK but they were told this by a white person. It’s something that they know is untrue from their interactions with other black British people – so that ignorance of being racialised comes from a place of privilege. 

 

9) Fan podcast – Woke Doctor Who: Harry Potter and the People of Colour

They talk about how there are very few characters of colour in the magical world. They list the following: 

  • Dean Thomas
  • Angelina Johnson
  • Blaise Zabini
  • Parvati and Padma Patil
  • Cho Chang
  • Kingsley Shacklebolt
  • Lavender Brown
  • Hermione Granger
  • Leta Lestrange
  • Yusuf Kama
  • Nagini
  • Lee Jordan (mentioned in passing)
  • Alicia Spinnet (not mentioned)

Dean Thomas exhibits an intersection with race and half-blood whereas Hermione has intersections of race, Muggleborn origins, and gender. 

They discuss stereotypes about black people in Dean and Blaise Zabini’s parents – black kids who aren’t raised by both parents and black parents don’t stay together. The background story which has Dean’s father being murdered is too close to real life. It’s not enough to have diversity just in the form of characters of colour. There needs to be more nuance and complexity. At the same time, it’s important to not uphold stereotypes with your only black character. They also think it’s weird that the magical world has only two black men, considering the racial make-up of the UK. 

Lorrie’s discomfort with the hostility in this episode has made me think of critiques more critically. I sometimes tend to take other people’s perspectives as valid – which they are – without interrogating my own responses to them. In this case, I agree with some critiques in the episode and don’t agree with others. For example, they speak about Angelina being reminded of her trauma every day of Fred’s death due to her marriage to George Weasley. However, isn’t George’s trauma worse in this case?

They point out that Angelina was the target of explicit racism when Pansy Parkinson says she looks like she has worms coming out of her head. The trouble with race-blindness in the series means like an overtly racist example like this goes without comment – and indeed, it’s something I wouldn’t even have recognised had it not been for this episode and the Women of Harry Potter one. 

They note that Ron had some wizard supremacist sentiments. I think this is more about growing up in a wizard supremacist society which he slowly begins to unlearn. For example, he considers the danger to house elves in the Battle of Hogwarts.

They complain about the casting of the Patil sisters in the movies as one of the actresses was Pakistani or Bangladeshi. This falls into the any Asian will do trope. I disagree with this to an extent. I understand that in terms of East Asian representation it’s different, but India/Pakistan/Bangladesh all have common relatively recent ancestry. Of course, I may think this because I’m Indian and not Indian-American or British Indian so I’m used to being surrounded by representation in Bollywood. Also, people from Pakistan and Bangladesh might not take too kindly with being lumped in with Indians all the time. 

They talk about the widespread use of Latin words in magic which erases the contribution of different religious and cultural beliefs like Chinese, Indian, and students with African or Caribbean ancestry. What are you learning in Hogwarts? Is it just the British system of magic or are there different magic systems? If not in Hogwarts, is there room for this in different parts of the country/world? They admit it’s not something they’re complaining that JKR didn’t include – they’re exploring the gaps in the text because they think it’s fascinating. They discuss how experiences of second generation immigrant children might differ – which the Patils and Cho likely are. These students might mix two cultures together and their different cultural systems of magic. 

They are outraged that there’s just one African school for magic in Nigeria (when even just in west Africa, many different systems of magic are practised, let alone other parts of Africa). There’s just one Asian school of magic in Japan (when in real life Japan invaded China so real-world politics would impact witching world attitudes – as Eugenia says, her grandfather wouldn’t allow her mother to buy Sony just because it’s a Japanese company, similar to Jack’s mum’s attitudes towards Germany in sporting matches, though less extreme). Also, Japan is tiny versus India and China – where do they fit all the students? The distribution of schools is quite Eurocentric. 

“Europe has three schools. Africa has one. Asia has one. All of North America has one. South America has one.” 

They also discuss the problem with Nagini. Both hosts hate what happens to the character though Lorrie loves her. They dislike that she is an East Asian woman who can turn into a snake but eventually will only be stuck as a snake and also becomes Voldemort’s pet and Horcrux who is slayed by two white men – Neville using Gryffindor’s sword. Eugenia is very upset about this layered objectification of this Asian woman. They think that none of JKR’s editors or movie producers would have been people of colour because they can’t see how problematic this is. They discuss superficial diversity and not researching how your choices impact interpretations (in the Fantastic Beasts movies). 

There’s also a lack of people of colour among the adults in the original Harry Potter series. They critique the lack professors of colour in Hogwarts where even creatures are hired over them. Does this reflect a lack of solidarity among marginalised people? It reflects real-life examples of people of colour being passed over for jobs, in academia and elsewhere, as if there’s only room for one. 

They propose that people of colour exist in the British magical world because of slavery and colonialism. Does this erase experiences of early multiculturalism? The Roman Empire was vast and had Egyptian people in England, for example. I do agree that racism may have played a role in the magical world as well due to how it connects with the Muggle world – doesn’t Muggle history and witching history intertwine at any point? 

They mention how JKR has said that she doesn’t write for the audience, she writes what interests her. While this is a valid perspective, this is increasingly at odds with what the fans are interested in and the kinds of diversity they now demand from their media. 

They also discuss racebending Hermione and Lavender Brown and the different implications of this. There was furore against Hermione being cast as black in The Cursed Child but this outrage was missing when Lavender Brown was recast as white in Half-Blood Prince when she got a major part. They also cite the racist outrage against Rue being cast by a black actress in The Hunger Games, even though she is canonically black. 

They conclude the episode by calling for people of different abilities, races, genders, body types to be represented in science fiction and fantasy. They end by asserting their right to criticise the world because they love the world and demand more from it. 

Some Notes On Episode 11 – 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 11, She Has To Fight Smart: Representations Of Women Warriors In Media And History we discussed the following texts:

1) Essay – We Have Always Fought

The article talks about the history of women fighters focusing on how women have always participated in resistance movements either as women or disguised as men. Much like the writer, I don’t have much knowledge of this history – it wasn’t taught to us in schools nor is the narrative prevalent in mainstream media and culture. According to the article, apart from combatants, women played a role in pretty much any profession you can think of. Where are these stories? Much like religion, marginalised voices are to the fore now where these stories are shared. 

Women fought in every revolutionary army, I found, and those armies were often composed of fighting forces that were 20-30% women. But when we say “revolutionary army” what do we think of? What image does it conjure? Does the force in your mind include three women and seven men? Six women and fourteen men?

Women not only made bombs and guns in WWII – they picked up guns and drove tanks and flew airplanes. The civil war, the revolutionary war – point me to a war and I can point to an instance where a women picked up a hat and a gun and went off to join it. And yes, Shaka Zulu employed female fighters as well. But when we say “Shaka Zulu’s fighters” what image do we conjure in our minds? Do we think of these women? Or are they the ones we don’t see? The ones who, if we included them in our stories, people would say weren’t “realistic”?

Of course, we do talk about women who ran with Shaka Zulu. When I Google “women who fought for Shaka Zulu” I learn all about his “harem of 1200 women.”  And his mother, of course.  And this line was very popular: “Women, cattle and slaves.” One breath.

It’s easy to think women never fought, never led, when we are never seen.

This is why representation of this is important in the stories we tell, the culture we inhabit, the media we watch and read and listen to. If we don’t see the diverse stories and histories which exist, it perpetuates the same stereotypes about women which has a very real impact on them. Representing diverse stories allows people to imagine differently. Populating a world with men, with male heroes and their “women cattle and slaves” is a political act. You are making a conscious choice to erase half the world. Questioning the stories you’ve always been told can make the stories and world more inclusive for all kinds of people. 

 

2) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Heroines

(I’ve already used this episode as a text for Episode 5, so I’m supplementing the notes I made then with these new ones. For the old notes, click here.)

There’s only room for one strong female lead in a story in science fiction and fantasy movies and even then, her character is full of tropes and stereotypes which lead to the character not being fully developed. In terms of merchandising, there’s a lack of dolls and action figures of female superheroes as well. The episode mentions that all the Avengers get dolls apart from Black Widow. Relatedly, where are the She-Ra and the Princesses of Power dolls?! They’re amazing superheroes with a fan-base of both young people and adults. 

The contradictory idea that women can’t be too caring or sensitive because they’re too weak to be a strong female character; but if they’re too in-your-face or brusque, they’re termed unlikable. There’s a very narrow scope of acceptable badassery for women whereas men can get away with a lot more. 

The Bechdel test currently seems quite limited. If you pass it, it doesn’t mean the movie is super feminist since it’s such a low bar. And there might be media that doesn’t pass the test which offers better portrayals of women. It’s important how movies treat their female characters – how the men treat the women and whether or not they respect women. For young men who watch media, it can be a way of promoting empathy for female characters and real-world women. This doesn’t always work though – the all-women reboot of Ghostbusters is a glaring example as is reactions to The Last Jedi

 

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

It’s called the Bechdel-Wallace test in this episode rather than the more popularly known Bechdel test because Alison Bechdel wanted to credit her friend Liz Wallace. The test is pretty basic and has three requirements:

i) Does it have at least two women in it?

ii) Do they talk to each other?

iii) Do they talk to each other about something other than a man? 

Even with such a low bar, I’m not sure how many of my favourite stories pass this test. I remember a Witch, Please episode saying that the Harry Potter movies definitely don’t pass this text. What about the books? The only girl who gets a lot of page-time is Hermione and she’s surrounded by boys all the time. Even when she’s talking to Ginny or Luna, the conversations seem to revolve around the male characters. Even Frozen which is heralded as a progressive film has Anna obsessing over boys all throughout the movie and even falls out with Elsa over a boy, as the episode notes. According to the hosts, Lord of the Rings definitely fails the test. As they point out, most movies would pass a reverse Bechdel test. 

The episode explores the limitations of the Bechdel test. Legally Blonde passes the Bechdel test even though it’s full of questionable role models (something I am hesitant to agree with – there are different kinds of role models surely?) but Gravity doesn’t because while it has Sandra Bullock as the protagonist, she’s the only woman character. Thor ostensibly passes the Bechdel test because Natalie Portman’s character talks to her assistant about science when Thor isn’t around – even though they are the only two female characters. Mulan doesn’t pass the Bechdel test because she is disguising herself to participate in an unfair structure rather than trying to overturn the patriarchy. 

Women haven’t historically been well-represented in movies and so we’ve been conditioned to look for basic representations even though we should demand more equality in terms of representation. Coming up with movies with more than two women talking to each other about something that doesn’t involve men shouldn’t be so difficult. 

The Bechdel test is quite contextual. However, it doesn’t include an intersectional analysis. When it comes to other identities, the picture is even more grim. There is a lack of older women characters in media in central roles whereas older men are often centered. Eurocentric standards of beauty are most often represented in Western media. Even in Bollywood, a certain kind of woman is glorified with regional, class, and caste implications. There’s a lack of women of colour, women with disabilities, older women, women of different religions and nationalities. Of course, it’s difficult if not impossible for a single story to include ALL the intersectional identities which is why there needs to be a shift in media practices at large. 

They wonder why F.R.I.E.N.D.S. – which is set in 1990s New York – is so white. In the Ghostbusters reboot, Leslie Jones, the black woman, was the only woman who wasn’t the scientist. While the movie was more inclusive of women, it didn’t center diverse ages and races. They discuss Rogue One which, according to the hosts, fails even the Sexy Lamp test – the female character can easily be replaced by a sexy lamp to reflect the lack of her agency. If you critically analyse any of your favourite stories, you will find things to critique – especially in terms of intersectional identities – since these stories reflect the society they’re created in. 

The hosts suggest a solution that you should just create fully-fleshed out female characters to overturn stereotypes rather than just inserting them as an afterthought. However, I think that good characters should be balanced with actively thinking about diversity too, or as one of the hosts said, there would just be cis white men or cis white women who are over-represented. A minority character’s whole arc shouldn’t be centered around their marginalisation making that the source of the tension rather than that just being one part of their much more complex identity – disability or trans characters, for example. Even background characters should have this level of thoughtfulness. For example, why are all the cops men? This is what stood out to me in Last Christmas, which had so many different intersectional identities included in the movie – including a pair of women cops – without that being the focus of the story.

 

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

At the beginning of the episode, one of the hosts says that women have always fought but we don’t hear about them or see this represented in SFF. This is certainly true in my case. I didn’t know women have always fought because that’s not the sort of stories I was exposed to. There were some stories about Rani Lakshmibai in India who led one of the first revolts against the British Empire but she seemed to be the exception rather than the norm. Now, thanks to Rejected Princesses and the internet, I’ve discovered the different ways in which women fought – physical and/or strategical – in history. 

The guest Juliet McKenna has experience with martial arts as well as LARPing – both of which inform her writing of women warriors.  

Vikings and female pirates are an example of women warriors in history. But SFF doesn’t draw on these historical examples nor imagines its own examples in futuristic or fantastical worlds. As someone points out, it’s important to question which history is being promoted, who wrote this history, and where this history is located. Most history – especially European history – is “written by men, for men, about men”. The perception of women warriors as an anomaly rather than the norm is prevalent in Eurocentric versions history. However, there’s also the perception that if a culture has women warriors, it’s a barbaric culture. But in Indian history, as the guest points out, there are women leaders in the resistance. With Amazons as fighters, historical sources have found that they didn’t fight as men, they fought as women. 

Joan of Arc was also a fighter as well as a religious leader. The idea that a woman can only be a warrior if she is exceptional because she has been blessed by god or was an exceptional fighter. Some stories are highlighted more than others. Joan of Arc is remembered while many others are forgotten. Is this because, as Juliet says, there’s no risk of ordinary women becoming Joan of Arc whereas with other examples of badass mothers etc. might inspire people to upset the status quo.

“Victims write the history but the vanquished write the folklore.” – Juliet

When Juliet mentioned how the availability of materials influence fighting styles – such as steel for armour – I began wondering how these materials can be used to allow women of different abilities to fight by incorporating their accessibility needs while they’re fighting. Maybe to make up for poor eyesight, a limp, having a child, menstruating? You can’t control when you’re in battle or what happens when you’re in battle so planning beforehand can help. It can also make it more accessible for mothers and grandmothers to fight – in terms of fighting skills, weapons, clothes – whatever one would need. 

Juliet says that the male-centred view of battle as a test of stamina isn’t true; it’s more about skill. Therefore, women have certain advantages when pitted against men too. Being a great warrior isn’t dependent on gender – though, of course, sometimes physical strength helps and can be an advantage. I wonder how much different cultural fighting styles also impact the battle – could be either a strength or a weakness. 

Some popular media portrayals of women fighters include Xena with her sword and sorcery, Wonder Woman, Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones, Buffy the vampire slayer. Hermione is both bookish and a good warrior – battling through wands rather than physical combat. Princess Leia was a strategist who chose peace over war but wasn’t afraid to go guns ablaze if her peaceful tactics didn’t work. She was a feminist icon at a time when media was devoid of such examples. 

 

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

The idea that you can believe in dragons in fantasy but not women characters with different and excellent skills is ludicrous. What sort of jobs do women have in fantasy stories? Barmaids, servants, prostitutes, sometimes assassins – very limited range. Is being a witch a job? In Spinning Silver, the protagonist is a successful moneylender. In Harry Potter, women have quite a limited range of jobs too, very few in leadership positions. In Howl’s Moving Castle, Sophie is a hat-maker but she hates that and then becomes a witch. In the Rat Queens, the women are adventurers/mercenaries for hire – a profession that is rare in fantasy.

In fantasy, do women already have existing jobs? Does the society support and reflect that women play a role in the economy? Or is it only the plot which leads to new jobs? We also don’t see women having periods in books and how/if that will impact their jobs – especially in the case of adventurers and the like. 

One of the hosts says that she doesn’t feel as educated as others when it comes to women’s jobs in the past because they have been written out of history and that’s largely been her exposure to these stories. She’s slowly learning about these historically female professions – female Vikings, pirates, for example. This is similar to my experience with history in school where women warriors were largely absent apart from Jhansi Ki Rani. Is it more centered in terms of resistance for independence? There’s also Boudicca and Joan of Arc. There has been recent proof found of female Samurai fighters in Japan and women Viking’s skulls. 

They talk about how in many male-authored fantasies, men are willing to give themselves up to goddesses and female supernatural creatures but not to the women in their lives. This is similar to Indian society where goddesses are worshipped but women are treated very poorly. 

There’s a trope that women can’t seem to be both strong and beautiful. The episode points out that historically, in the Civil War in the US, prostitutes were used as spies and had to use their skills in the war effort. In fantasy, prostitutes seem to be there just as a side-plot for men or a background for the world. Inara in Firefly is a rare example of a legal, powerful prostitute. 

Working mothers in fantasy are also missing. They mention Cersei but she’s been born into wealth. Being a ruler is not a profession. Monarchy can be used to explore power dynamics but it is still essentially a woman in power rather than overturning traditional notions of power. Is having a job a class issue? You’d need to take up a job to make a living. Or maybe because you enjoy what you do but that is also a privilege. Most people don’t get the choice. Mothers are only used as plot devices in fantasy where their role relies on motherhood – i.e. if they aren’t killed off – Lily Potter, Molly Weasley, though Daenyrys overturns this a little bit. In The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, while the female protagonists want to be more than their society allows, they’re constrained by their position in society. However, they do overturn it a little bit by the end and take up roles as a doctor, explorer, pirate, and natural historian. Terry Pratchett’s women can be dragon-rearers, witches, prostitutes – though I need to read more to note down other roles. 

 

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

Jeanette talks about Christian missionaries and their view of meeting people in Asia and Africa and considering them as not really human but fantastical and exotic people who need to be saved. In a lot of popular fantasy, Christianity is used as allegory and metaphor – the underlying framework of the world is one where Christianity is the default and everything else is measured against this. English borrows many words from the Bible and Christianity – which have now unconsciously become a part of the language – godspeed, anointing, crusades, bloody. It’s interesting how language evolves and the role religion plays in this. Hindi phrases also draw from Hindu mythology.

The relationship between religion and patriarchy: in Christianity, women who became nuns and Bedouins sought to escape marriage and traditional womanly lives by turning to religion and using it to talk back to the men in power. Women also wrote and created art and preached throughout history. They found inspiration in religion as well as comfort and escape. They used religion as a way to negotiate patriarchal systems. In traditional mainstream scholarship, women in Christianty have been passive and submissive. However, recent scholarship is unearthing new historical sources which problematises these ideas of women. Scholars are discovering that women were much more active in everyday life. This emergence of new stories reflects academia’s inherent sexism too where knowledge was researched, created and shared by a privileged group of men. Now more marginalised voices get the opportunities to place their perspectives at the forefront. Both academia and religion are more sexist and more empowering than one assumes. The hidden stories and alternate perspectives of Christian stories; which stories you choose to highlight can make it more inclusive now to women. People need to question socially conditioned ideas about women and religion and what they take for granted 

Jeanette likes to use the term “alternate patriarchies” to attack the idea of the patriarchy being ever-present. The patriarchy that exists now isn’t eternal because there have been other settings of power – this idea can be empowering that the current system of power will change too. Western thinking and systems of power aren’t universal and everlasting.

Suspension of disbelief can be limited to your worldview – when you’re reading fantasy, why wouldn’t you be open to alternate roles that women played in religion – even if they didn’t know this was based on history? 

What is considered pagan and how does it fit into a Christian context – faerie folk? Celtic cultures? Not all religions have the same relationship with the text. In Hinduism, people do have mythology which plays an important role in our rituals and celebrations but it is also beyond that. “Pagan” religions have different relationships with gods – instead of worship, you bargain with them or you’re friends with them or like in Buddhism, you don’t have a god in your faith tradition. There are different relationships with god and the Bible in Christianity than perhaps in Hinduism or African faiths or Greek mythology. Polytheism and monotheism have different ideas of god – flawed gods versus a perfect god.

Religion in science fiction and fantasy makes an appearance in Star Trek, Doctor Who with the Doctor as a religious figure, Dumbledore and Harry’s faith in him, The Last Jedi and Buddhist parallels. You can interpret these SFF faith traditions based on your own background.

The episode also looks at institutions like libraries and museums which were founded to provide a secular place of learning and art outside of religious orders. These spaces are under attack now with funding being cut. It’s a democratic issue with the cuts acting as an attack on poorer people. In Christianity and in Hinduism, priests traditionally controlled literacy and access to knowledge. Now that it’s more democratic, we surely have a responsibility to protect these spaces? 

Some Notes On Episode 10 – 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 10, Reclaiming Stories: Representations of Dyspraxia and Autism in Doctor Who/Fandom we discussed the following texts:

1) Fanfiction – Never Change

Robert described his fanfic as follows:

It’s about a teenager having to decide if he should become a completely different person in order to make his distressed mother happy, which *totally coincidentally* is a theme in my life as well. John isn’t really written with dyspraxia in mind, but he is basically me so I guess it bleeds out in that regard. I didn’t really realise its view of family is the active reverse of the one in current Who until it was almost done, at which point I thought “huh”

“Doctor… the things you said, they’re… facts. Not really me, just… things. They made me who I am, yeah, but it’s not… it’s not me. Am I just that? A collection of facts and memories you’re taking from me? I’m more than that. I have a personality, I have desires, ambitions, dreams, goals, fears. Did you ever wonder what I wanted to study in uni? Why I wanted to study? Did you ever ask yourself, what does Bill Potts want?”

It was my first time reading Doctor Who fic and I enjoyed it very much. Based on our previous conversations, the theme of family relationships really stood out to me. Particularly in instances where parents want children to change but children don’t want parents to change. It also made me think about trauma with the Doctor’s past regenerations. I was rewatching the first series of the new Doctor Who at the time and Christopher Eccleston’s trauma is very present through his brief run – even when he’s being fun and lighthearted and thinking everything is fantastic. I can’t remember other deep engagements with trauma off the top of my head but I feel like both Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi had to deal with different versions of it – and Jodie too, especially in her second season. 

When he meets aliens, John is relieved because there’s a reason he finds them incomprehensible whereas with other humans, he should be able to understand them and they should be able to understand him but it doesn’t happen. He doesn’t fit in. Robert said that he didn’t write this with dyspraxia in mind but it makes a good analogy for autism and neurodiversity – what is considered as the norm may not be normal to neurodiverse people. 

“You look incredibly awkward,” said the Doctor. “Maybe I should phrase this as a question. Rosie the Bendolene, a hairdryer bound up in wire. Everything you say she finds totally incomprehensible, and you’d never even consider that she could understand how you feel. And I’m thinking you wouldn’t feel any different,” she said, “if she was still a human person there right now.”

She turned sadly to him, though his eyes were looking away.

“I’m right, aren’t I?” she said. “Everyone’s like a Bendolene to you.”

John sighed.

“You’re right,” he said. “People don’t always think I’m very… peopley.”

“I do!” said the Doctor in mock outrage.

“I know. But it’s like you said; you’re an alien. You’re not like what other people are.”

”In my experience,” said the Doctor, “other people are like a great many things indeed.”

”You know what I mean, though. Like… like you have to keep secrets, all of the time, because if you’re honest about what you’re keeping in everyone’ll just stare?

The cries of the Bendolene the hair-dryer aliens is “I don’t understand” which is as good a metaphor for neurodiversity as any. In both my own experience and in my research, I’ve found that people end up drawing on their own experiences even when they don’t mean to.

“I’ll never be able to forgive myself,” he said again.

“Maybe not,” said the Doctor. “But at least you’ll remember why. And what’s a lot more important,” she said, “is that at least you’ve not stopped being you.”

John frowned. “I don’t think anyone’s ever said things like to me. That I should put myself first, even sometimes. That the things that I am are all fine.”

“Well, it’s a good job you met me, then,” said the Doctor. “Most people’re fine, next to some of the ones who I’ve seen.”

”I don’t think I’ll ever believe that,” said John. “Not when it’s me who I’m thinking of. But you’re right, I suppose. It’ll still be myself who feels guilty.”

“Maybe it isn’t the real world,” she [the Doctor] said. “Maybe there’s somewhere that all of us are the people we’re supposed to be, living lives that don’t feel like they all went a little bit wrong. But we’d miss so much, in that real world where we aren’t. We’re like frosted glass, I think; there’s so much we don’t see if we never have to break.”

Her pager was beeping again, and this call was from Wales. Lorna was fidgiting as she looked up at the clock, and the Doctor realised she’d better hurry up with her wisdom.

“I’d seen the world through so many different eyes,” she went on, “that I’d forgotten they were really all the same. That however much I saw and wherever I would go, I’d never been outside of my stupid head. And that doesn’t change,” she said, “however many heads you end up having. There are so many worlds I can never get to, aren’t there? The one in your head, and your daughter’s, and the rest. So much there that I’ll never really know, obvious stuff which I’ll never get to see. I’ve learned so many things over the years. But that’s the most important one. That I’m like all of you, in the end.”

She smiled sadly.

“I don’t understand.”

It’s true what the Doctor says – it’s impossible for people to understand a person fully, no matter how close you are to them or how well you think you know them: the thoughts going on in their heads every moment, how they see the world and how the world has shaped them – how their interpretations differ – how their experiences differ – how they differ from how you see them. And I think this is more true for people who are currently on the margins of what society upholds as the norm – for example, it’s a very neurotypical world (though even there, not all neurotypical people feel like they fit in but their struggles aren’t compounded by their brains working entirely differently from what is considered normal). This is also true for racialised others, people from different religions, countries, classes, other backgrounds. You just try to empathise with experiences which you can’t fully understand and just respect different ways of being a human.

 

2) Essay – People don’t know about the reality of Dyspraxia. That’s why we need fictions like Doctor Who’s Ryan Sinclair

Robert is blown away by the fact this his disability is represented in a mainstream show like Doctor Who when dyspraxia hasn’t been a disorder which has otherwise made an appearance in mainstream media at all. I’d never known about it until I read this essay a couple of years ago when Robert had shared it on Facebook. Popular media can do such an excellent job in raising awareness and educating people about marginal identities which they may not otherwise encounter in real life. At the same time, it has even more of a responsibility to be careful and sensitive in its portrayals because these representations are so rare. I’m not sure whether this is an unfair burden or not. 

As the essay points out, representation is especially important because what you can imagine has real-world impact. When very few people are aware that the condition exists, there aren’t resources to help people tackle it or representatives to talk about the condition. This might end up isolating the people even more and make them feel more alienated from the world around them. 

Robert could never imagine himself as the Doctor’s companion because he didn’t think he could travel across space and time without causing accidents and disasters – something which reflected his real-life experiences.

Graham’s line in Doctor Who about blaming an alien invasion on your dyspraxia is painful because catastrophe really does seem to follow in our wake … Dyspraxia is a slow stream of disasters that make it difficult to live in the world, which mean you have to let go of any concept of pride or dignity to have any hope to survive.

The essay explains how having dyspraxia contributes to feelings of exhaustion because you’re hiding what you can’t do as well as anxiety because you can’t explain to others why you can’t do certain things.

“It’s hard to explain the reality of a condition that no one knows is real.”

It’s hard enough not having representations of disability in media or the ones which do exist perpetuate stereotypes and tropes. However, I can’t even imagine how difficult it must be to not even have your disability recognised as a disability. It’s similar to what a lot of people go through when different aspects of their identity aren’t represented in media – which other people can’t understand. Media can play an important role in trying to understand experiences which don’t mirror your own, to evoke empathy and respect. It’s something that people from dominant groups may take for granted because they see so many different shades of their experiences on screen or in books. However, for those who’ve never recongised themselves in characters, a glimpse can have such a powerful impact. And it’s not only important for people from marginalised groups but also for people from dominant groups – for different reasons. 

So I want to see Ryan be a hero with dyspraxia, because even now I don’t know what that means. The everyday world can be a terrifying place for us anyway, but lord knows what the Whoniverse would be like: when dimensions can be even weirder than they are almost all the time, where the Daleks can handle the stairs and you’re afraid you’re about to fall down them. It can feel an achievement and an adventure just getting through the day, but I want to know that we can have adventures, too: that the skills we have and the things we can achieve are more important than the things we’re always reminded are beyond us. I want Ryan to save the entire universe, and I want him to keep his dignity when he does. I want him to be the hero I wish existed when I was a child, and who only started to exist yesterday. There are unspoken and unknown things that so many of us are going through.

I want to see that this one can be overcome.

 

3) Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper Representations of Disability With Marissa Lingen

(I’ve already used this episode as a text for Episode 6, so I’m supplementing the notes I made then with these new ones. For the old notes, click here.)

The guest Marissa herself is a disabled person who has vertigo and undergoes many balance problems. This is another disability that isn’t as well represented or well known. 

Media represents misleading ideas of what it means to live with a disability and to recover from it, which in turn, influences how people think about disabilities. The all or nothing representation in media is problematic and has real-world impacts – nobody fits into the stereotype which is perpetuated by media. Even the kinds of disabilities which are represented fall into the extremes – perhaps at the cost of lesser known disabilities like dyspraxia and vertigo. Disabled people are also desexualised and infantilised in media portrayals. There’s also the issue where when there is such a limited amount of representation of disabilities (like of other marginalised groups), the burden is on one text to be perfect. It’s supposed to represent it fully and then is critiqued for not being able to do that. 

Just like token representations of racial diversity, disabled characters also often fulfill that role through superficial and stereortypical representations. In the episode, they talk about how a good way to represent disability is acknowledging that people with disabilities are not like everyone else but also employing the skills they have or their perspectives in seeing the world differently as both a part of the plot but also as a background characteristic, thereby normalising it. They discuss whether mental health is a disability issue. Developmentally delayed people are the only ones seen as having disabilities, who in turn, are shown in ways which evoke horror or sympathy. 

The characters of Bran versus Hodor in Game of Thrones – physical versus mental disability which also has class implications. Bran’s experiences and life are more important than Hodor’s in the story. Bran is mentally sharp and has a lot of agency but Hodor does not. His agency only exists in his final act of heroic sacrifice (which may also be influenced by Bran). Marissa criticises Station Eleven for killing off all the disabled characters in this flu apocalypse where people are building this hopeful new society. I hadn’t even noticed this while reading which reflects my own biases and blindspots – it’s a book I loved very much. But if your society in the future has no room for people with physical or mental disabilities, what sort of world is that? And it’s born from such a place of privilege – this ability to overlook such a key detail, and the ability to not be affected by it. 

Using a disability to provide characters with magical powers or to be extra special – for example, blind people are seen to have gained other sharper senses. Similar with characters of colour who are only there to support white characters, magical characters with disabilities are background props to move the abled character’s story forward. The character of Toph in Avatar: The Last Airbender isn’t exceptional because she is blind but because she is Toph. Her extraordinary earthbending and metalbending skills aren’t due to her blindness – it’s something that can be and is inherited by her daughter.

Marissa says she wouldn’t mind talking to writers and media creators about her experience of vertigo and balance disorder to help them create these characters to contribute to accurate representations of disability in media. Having a character with disabilities in your story shouldn’t just be done to add an interesting quirk or trait to your character – it needs to be properly researched and also addressed by the other characters in the book – in the way they engage with the world. But also, that shouldn’t be the only trait – disability isn’t a personality trait. Marissa found herself bemoaning the fact that she was responsible to represent disability in her stories and nobody else took on the mantle – but she realised she needed to do this 

There’s also a problematic trope of disability and evil characters whereby even their physical characteristics become ugly – Darth Vader is more machine than man and is physically disabled. How does disability intersect with gender and race? These conversations are necessary but are still not happening on a large scale.

 

4) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Caps Lock Harry

Rowling was writing The Order of the Phoenix when 9/11 happened – a crucial moment in Western history. “And they say we shouldn’t teach children about evil.” Rowling says that this is how an email from her editor in New York ended while this was happening. A very one-dimensional view of evil, no? She doesn’t go into this in detail and she may or may not have explored this idea in further detail, but it’s more nuanced than this singular narrative of evil since the US was responsible for a lot of what would be considered evil in Afghanistan and other parts of Asia. It’s a very Western view of evil as well because there’s so much that’s happened thanks to the West even in more recent history. However, I do agree that children are able to handle much more complex and difficult subjects than we give them credit for.

Eric read the book as an adult and felt a lot of empathy for Harry’s trauma and feelings. He felt that he needed therapy or counselling but the adults in the book didn’t respond to his needs. The books explored these themes better than the movies did. He does acknowledge that younger people reading this may have not been able to identify these themes – which was definitely true in my case. As a couple of the guests point out, they assumed that Harry’s behaviour in Order of the Phoenix reflected adult notions of teenagers and the ways in which teenagers behaved and communicated. It’s almost become a cultural norm – one I’ve definitely subscribed to as well – that teenagers are terrible and insensitive and self-centred. And of course some teenagers are these things. Just like some adults are these things. But it’s essentialising their experiences. We know from concrete examples that teenagers care about many big, important things. 

Vanessa [from Harry Potter and The Sacred Text] whose grandparents are Holocaust survivors read the series as a Jewish text with the parallels to fascism and the rise of Voldemort whereas her co-host Casper read it as a very Christian text showcasing the ways in which your background and experiences influence how you interpret a text. Harry’s moniker “the boy who lived” as survivor’s guilt post the Holocaust and other collectively traumatic incidents or oppression. I wonder how much of this will be seen in a post-pandemic world.

Eric spoke to people who think Rowling did a great job of representing trauma and PTSD and they recognised their own experiences while reading the series as an adult. It might be difficult to recognise these things when you’re reading it as a kid. I wonder whether it would be different if I read it now – though I do come with the knowledge and interpretations of other people about Harry’s PTSD.

Harry’s trauma includes his parents’ murder, survived a murder attempt, his experiences in the magical world where everybody reminds him of his trauma at every turn. One guest doesn’t want to share the details of her trauma because she doesn’t want people to relate to her only through her trauma. Another guest talks about her own childhood experiences filled with an uncle’s emotional abuse and gaslighting and authoritarianism – parallels with the Dursleys’ constant abuse. She believes that Harry is only able to feel like a real person when he gets his Hogwarts letter and is able to leave the only family he has known. Reading the books as an adult illuminates the everyday abuse of the Dursleys – definitely my own experience re-reading The Philosopher’s Stone

When Harry realises that Dumbledore isn’t perfect, he feels entirely betrayed by this shift in his worldview. As one of the guests points out that Harry behaves like someone who’s grown up in an abusive home – he categorises the adults in his life in very extreme ways – he either trusts them entirely or hates them instantly and refuses to engage with them in any way (Snape). This is especially true in the beginning of the series. It’s something I hadn’t considered. I wonder how my own childhood experiences of trauma and abuse have impacted the ways in which I engage with people as an adult. I was talking to a friend of mine who has had a recent diagnosis of complex PTSD based on her own childhood experiences and how this has impacted her email and texting anxiety among other things. I wonder if I’d have the same diagnosis if I ever went to therapy. 

Caps Lock Harry where Harry is yelling at everyone is a consequence of him having to relive his trauma constantly and acknowledging that Cedric was murdered due to the same person who murdered his parents. Lashing out is how he dealt with all the emotions he couldn’t address. Harry survived in great part due to the support system in the form of his friends and the adults in his life, no matter how flawed they are. He found a new family and engaged with people in different ways than the way he was used to with the Dursleys. In Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a 40-year-old Harry has learned to live with his trauma and is struggling to be a father since he doesn’t have any role models and doesn’t know how to engage with Albus since it is a more difficult relationship than the one he shares with his other two children – how childhood trauma has lifelong impacts on the person. 

 

5) Fan podcast – Witch, Please Episode Rho Live and Professional at Tufts University

(I’ve already used this episode as a text for Episode 6, so I’m supplementing the notes I made then with these new ones. For the old notes, click here.)

Neurodivergent and autistic people read themselves into the story – much like people of the races/castes who aren’t dominant – because these representations are missing in media. They recognise themselves in characters even when they aren’t explicitly labelled as autistic. Characters who are explicitly identified as autistic are usually full of stereotypes and only include social deficits and not their skills and abilities – essentialising autistic characters into their most well-known and well-stereotyped characteristics. Finding characters you relate to in fiction and in media is easy if you’re a part of the dominant group but not when you’re in a group whose identities are marginalised like neurodivergent people. Theory of mind not only applies to abled people but also to disabled people in order to understand their experiences and perspectives. 

“My brain is not the same as yours. My perception is not the same as yours.” 

As Marcel says, it shouldn’t be the job of people with disabilities or of people who are allied with disabilities to read themselves into the text – to use the signposts in the text to make connections with their own lives. These representations should be more explicit and nuanced.

They talk about the intersection of disability with other identities. Historically, in terms of the intersection of gender and disability, women were considered to be more likely to be mentally unstable. People who are girls, Latinx and black are identified as autistic much later due to medical biases (Lydia prefers the term identified to diagnosed because the latter has negative medical connotations). In terms of its intersections with queerness, why isn’t there gayness or HIV within the text rather than just as Lupin’s allegory? To fit into society’s conception of normal, Lupin has to fit into the heteronormative structures i.e. he marries Tonks – herself coded as queer – and they have a child. There’s also racism in disability where white children are identified more than children of colour. There’s also the trope of fat, dumb kids where disability and fatness go together and this fatness and stupidity makes them bullies (Dudley, Crabbe and Goyle).

Neville’s parents are stuck in St Mungo’s forever. Their trauma of being tortured into insanity is never explored and only understood through Neville. They are dehumanised in many ways. They are a narrative device used to explore Neville’s tragedy. Ableism is oppression.

“Oppression dehumanises a person.” 

Lydia points out that in fantasy, there is a critique that non-human creatures play the role of a stand-in for people of colour – house elves, centaurs, goblins. You can only understand the oppression of these marginalised groups in the real world if they’re transposed to these non-human characters which you can pity/empathise with but not actually engage with the real oppression of these groups. In some cases, these metaphors may be unintentional but damaging such as the anti-Semitic tropes of goblins. Hogwarts is so white – the number of characters of colour doesn’t represent British society. In Harry Potter, white characters are used as metaphors for oppression of racialised and otherwise marginalised people in the real world. You don’t need to use a metaphor for black people or indigenous people because there are black people and indigenous people in the world. 

Being a Squib can be seen as an allegory for disability and in that, the representation of magical disability is terrible. Squibs include Argus Filch, Mrs Figgs, Ariana Dumbledore (her disability is born of trauma by being attacked by Muggle boys and who then goes on to become a family secret; she isn’t born a Squib but becomes unable to use magic). Being a Squib is a magical disability. As Lydia points out, disability isn’t something you can get over – it’s not something you grow out of. 

White people are let off violence because you look into their mental health history – which is both racism and ableism. The rate of suicide among people with disabilities isn’t because they can’t live with their disability but because they’re afraid of being a burden on their families or caregivers.

Magical technology like the Quick Quotes Quill can be used in the classroom to improve accessibility. Fred and George can also be read as atypical learners – they are disruptive and don’t fit in with the institutionalised schooling structure of Hogwarts. When they leave school and are allowed to control their own learning, they thrive because they are brilliant magicians. The twins as well as Luna model a different way of being smart – don’t display typical markers of intelligence. Neville proves himself only when he displays a neurotypical kind of heroism i.e. kills Nagini – the story doesn’t explore his own skills and abilities (although he does seem to be a leader of the DA in their seventh year at Hogwarts). Hagrid as an atypical learner with the intersection of disability and half-giant race. He can’t do magic but is that because he was expelled from school? Being expelled imposed a magical disability on him because he could no longer be a part of the magical community. His monstrosity is tempered by his gentleness and usage of traditional markers of femininity – pink umbrella, frilly apron, referring to himself as Mummy with Norbert.

Using popular culture conversations act as a way to include diverse marginalised perspectives especially in education and through the Witch, Please podcast where the educator/host isn’t the only arbiter of knowledge and their position is troubled by listener/student feedback, insights, and experiences. 

 

6) Video – The Gayly Prophet

(I’ve already used this episode as a text for Episode 6, so I’m supplementing the notes I made then with these new ones. For the old notes, click here.)

In the magical world, even being a Muggle seems to be a disability though I think Muggles are able to manage just fine without magic. They have used technology in order to make their lives easier and in some circumstances, it seems to be more efficient than some of Hogwarts’s more medieval technology. There’s no internet in the magical world! Communication can be so much easier but it’s made more complicated. 

Squibs are disabled in a more real way, of course, because they’re from magical families which means they’re supposed to be able to do certain things which they can’t. Why not use Muggle technology to bring them on par with the abilities of witches and wizards?

 

7) Essay – The Future Is (Not) Disabled

Forget in SFF where people use technology or magic to fix disability, that’s happening in the real world as well where it’s supposed to be reassuring that medical advances can fix disabilities and make sure they don’t exist in the future. I hadn’t considered what an act of erasure this is to people with disabilities living today. It’s as if abled people can’t imagine thriving with disabilities which is why they can’t imagine disabled people being okay. 

In an ableist society (just like in a patriarchal or racist or casteist one) it’s very easy to internalise ableism, especially if you aren’t provided with alternate conceptions of representations of being in the world.

“Welcome to our eugenic eutopia: we can see where we’re not wanted.”

Marieke points out that conversations about the need for representation of disabilities in SFF only happen in disabled communities – it’s important that they happen in all spaces, especially nondisabled ones. They draw on Dr Rudine Simm Bishops’s metaphor of books as windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors to assert the fact that they had no mirrors growing up which reflected their own disabled experiences in ways which weren’t othering or offensive. This was especially hurtful since they sought escape in books from the real world where mainstream culture constantly seeks to fix disabilities so as to ensure that disabled people aren’t a burden on themselves or on society. Books also seemed to reiterate the same message. 

The idea of fixing what ails you is rooted in the old-school medical model of disability: people are disabled by their impairments. Take those away and everything will be splendiferous(ly bland). If you can’t take them away, you’re pretty much screwed. More recently, the consensus among disabled people, disability rights advocates, and (thankfully, increasingly) medical professionals is that disability is a result of social barriers. A wheelchair user isn’t disabled by their wheelchair, but by the lack of ramps. A developmentally disabled student is disabled by lack of access and support. The impairments may be medical, but disability occurs because people with diverse body types and neurotypes face ableism, abuse, and inaccessibility.

It’s about an awareness of whose stories are being told and who is allowed to tell those stories, of what the world looks like, of who we think competent or valuable enough to be our heroes.

This reminds me of what Robert wrote in his essay where he didn’t even imagine being a companion on Doctor Who because that different idea of heroism seems so out of reach. By erasing these diverse abilities, you’re reinforcing the idea that people with disabilities don’t have value.

If you take the social model of disability as starting point, disability occurs as a result of social barriers, created due to lack of equal access, stereotyping, and other forms of marginalization. Unless you write a perfect utopia wherein none of those things matter anymore, disabled people will be part of your world. Of course, write a perfect utopia wherein none of those things matter anymore, and people with diverse bodies and diverse neurotypes still both exist and belong.

As they say, it’s a profound failure of imagination to not figure out ways in which fantastical and futuristic worlds can support people with different bodies and brains. 

The pointers they lay out for writing about disabled characters in fiction stand true for our real life attitudes and behaviours too, I think. Questions we can ask ourselves to challenge our own internalised ableist beliefs 

If you wish to insert disability into the narrative, start here: consider how your society interacts with bodies, minds, emotions. What is considered physically normal and physically desirable? What is normal and desirable behavior? Where does our (ableist) sense of normalcy and, far more interestingly, lack thereof intersect with other forms of marginalization?

What happens if someone does not meet the standards society lays out, bodily, mentally, emotionally. Are disabled people laughed at? Shouted at? Spit at? Are they considered valuable members of society? Or only when they are considered useful or productive members of society? Is access conditional? Are they pitied? Avoided? Propped up as inspiration? Do they have agency and voice or are they talked over? Is access seen as a right or a nuisance? Is illness considered weakness? Is life with disability seen as life on the easier setting by those who aren’t disabled?

I should tell you, all those are contemporary examples. If you are nondisabled, where do you think we stand now with regards to disability perceptions and disability rights? Can you answer that question? You should be able to before you write about us. You should listen to us before you write about us.

Consider then what happens in the future if someone does not meet the standards society lays out, bodily, mentally, emotionally. What has changed, compared to today? Why has it changed, or why hasn’t it? Are disabled people still marginalized, are they tolerated, or are they accepted?

Does your economic status influence which options are available to you (if at all)? After all, access is an instrument of power.”

They also provide solutions to the failure of imagination in the form of how to make fictional worlds more accessible which wouldn’t just make the stories inclusive and interesting but would also go such a long way in introducing the ways in which disabled people navigate their lives to nondisabled people – both mirrors and windows and perhaps even sliding glass doors if the writers do a good job in evoking empathy 

Consider instead: technology as access. Think, for example: virtual reality therapy sessions (I would love to see futuristic societies that have normalized therapy and staying in mental shape). Or cyberpunk canes (I want one). Translate your futurism to assistive devices, like service robot dogs, hover wheelchairs, communication devices, or hell, even just ramps everywhere.

They also point out how intersectional identities impact people with disabilities in the real world in ways which privilege some and marginalise others. They also outline how these injustices are further compounded when multiple disabilities intersect. 

In this day and age, we have relatively decent diagnostics for autism spectrum disorder—for white cis boys. White cis girls have caught up in recent years but are still underdiagnosed. Despite there being a higher prevalence of autism spectrum disorder among nonbinary people, access to diagnostics for trans people is complicated at best. And children of color of all genders deal with worse access to diagnostics and are often misdiagnosed or underdiagnosed.

They’re excited about the possibilities of medical and technological advancements to provide better access to people with disabilities rather than erasing disabilities altogether – to include rather than exclude. For them, their disability is very much a part of their identity, one they don’t want to fix.

At the heart of it all, consider bodily and personal autonomy. No matter the technological advances, what if people don’t wish to be cured? Is that not their right? To decide that life with different body types and different neurotypes is both valid and fantastic? Because it may not seem that way to you, but many of us are perfectly fine the way we are. Our happily ever after is not dependent on being abled. I don’t wish to be cured. My cane, my joint braces, my weirdly wired brain are intrinsically part of me. I would take better painkillers, sure. Better access, please. But no one gets to deny my happiness.

Some Notes On Episode 9 – 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 9, Destabilise Heterosexuality As A Default: Queer Representation in Media and Fandom we discussed the following texts:

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

One of the hosts, Ashly, shares her coming out story. She didn’t announce her queerness because she grew up super Christian. Religion seems to be a big reason in the US for hiding any sexual identity that isn’t heterosexual, whereas in India, I think it’s less about religion and more about social pressure and non-acceptance. Of course, this varies, and it’s better in some places than in others. Just after we recorded this episode, there was news of an Indian woman who died by suicide because of conversion therapy-related trauma. Even in bigger cities, a gay couple wouldn’t easily be able to even rent houses without concealing their relationship in most cases. However, I’ve also read stories in rural India where women or men just live together like “husband and wife” and this is just accepted without too much of a fuss. However, we still had the British Empire’s outdated law in the country where homosexuality was illegal and then it wasn’t and then it was again – there was a back and forth. While it’s relatively more accepted now, it’s still not mainstream. There are a lot of pride parades in different Indian cities every year – I went for one when I was in college by myself because I really wanted to support the cause. 

There is a lack of gay content for young people while they were growing up and fanfic was her access to queer content. This is similar to my own experiences where I learned a lot about different ways of living through fandom and the internet. 

Coming out is still such a big deal even among a supportive community because heterosexuality is still the default. However, the hosts acknowledge that coming out to yourself is the biggest moment. According to Ashly, even though it’s difficult and scary and isolating, you become more comfortable when you do announce your identity to other people. Many parents have a very patriarchal, heterosexual idea of a family and worry that their gay children won’t have this experience. Media perpetuates such a singular idea of what a family means and what relationships mean – largely heterosexual, of course, but even when it comes to gay relationships, there aren’t really more ways of being in the world which are shared by media. This obviously impacts everyone – not just gay people and their parents, but also people from dominant cultures. 

There’s also a widespread erasure of bisexual identities both in fandom and even within LGBTQIA+ groups. Even among a marginalised group, there’s a hierarchy of marginalisation. I’ve read similar opinions from bisexual people as well as trans people. 

All the hosts each wrote queer Harry Potter fanfiction which they read out on the podcast and responded to each other’s stories very enthusiastically. I didn’t know this is the genre I needed in my life! All three of them were supremely excited at the thought of writing Harry Potter fanfic. The ships they explored were Draco/Harry, Hermione/Luna, and Cho/Fleur. I like how they say the Cho/Fleur story could be canon because we don’t know how Fleur figures out her clue. Their stories queered the canon much more explicitly than the actual canon does. For example, there aren’t even offhanded comments about Dumbledore in the books or in the movies. Is being gay bad for a child audience? I don’t understand the thinking behind this erasure. Especially since it’s canonical apparently. Even if you didn’t write it into the books, you had an opportunity to include it in the movies even in offhanded comments without making it the crux of the story. 

 

2) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Imaginary Deaths

The episode discusses the phenomenon of characters from underrepresented backgrounds – particularly from marginalised race and LGBTQIA+ groups – are more likely to be killed off in mainstream media. 

Fans feel really emotionally bereft at fictional character deaths. Even I’m forever bursting into tears at fictional deaths – not just deaths but any sort of emotional climax really. The most recent time that happened was with Anne With An E when I was a sobbing mess at many points in the last season. Deaths which you come across as a young person/teenager tend to pack more of an emotional wallop and can have a lifelong impact. In Harry Potter, deaths of Dumbledore, Sirius, Fred, Hedwig – among others – really hurt. You care about these characters both because they matter to you but also because they symbolise other things too which have to do with your real life. 

In Firefly – an inter-racial couple was a big deal to the assistant producer of the show. But Wash being killed off made her feel terrible, especially since there’s not much representation of these relationships in media. Similarly in Buffy, Willow and Tara’s relationship helped one of the guests come to terms with her own sexuality because Willow came out before the guest did. Tara’s death shocked her but she understood why it happened and why it was important to Willow’s character arc. However, killing off gay characters in media is a huge point of controversy. As they point out, people form parasocial relationships with fictional characters to the point where these characters feel real to the people interacting with them regularly. So the deaths have even more of an impact. 

They signpost the podcast Lez Hang Out, specifically the Willow and Tara episode where the co-hosts talk about the problem of LGBTQIA+ characters being killed off in service of straight characters or to propel their stories forward. This is so similar to how disabled characters and characters of colour are killed off. Queer characters are used as plot devices, which is really problematic when there’s such a lack of representation anyway in mainstream media. Based on their recommendation of the podcast and to understand the issue better, I listened to the Bury Your Gays episode. 

Lez Hang Out – Bury Your Gays 

Instead of giving gay characters a happy ending, they get killed off. Lesbians and bisexual female characters in particular seem to be happily done away with in media. Characters tend to be killed off when they’re at their happiest i.e. after they’ve gone through difficult journeys and have come to terms with their sexuality. 

“It gets better and then you die.” 

People don’t seem to understand why it’s such a big deal in terms of killing gay characters off. However, this has a lot to do with the lack of queer representation in media. The representation which does exist is steeped in stereotypes and largely one-dimensional. This is exacerbated by the abrupt, unnecessary ways in which many gay characters are killed off. In terms of Tara’s death on Buffy, they do acknowledge it served an important purpose in terms of the story arc and Willow’s arc. However, the bigger issue, as they say, is how creators handle queer rep and queer deaths. The lack of queer representation in media impacts queer audiences who may not have access to queer ideas and conversations in their lives and may not have come to term with their identities.

 

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

One of the guest’s trans journey began with video games. J wasn’t sure what came first – whether she was questioning her gender before choosing female characters in video games or the other way around. She began with playing male characters because that’s what you’re supposed to do, or at least that’s what she thought because she didn’t have any other frame of reference to imagine doing things differently. The first time she experimented with a different gender  was in The Sims. This contrasts with Eric’s experience who is a straight cis guy – while he’s played female characters before, he didn’t realise what a transformative experience it could be for trans players. From J’s experience talking to other players, she’s found this experience resonated with a lot of people.  

“Video games have always been queer”

Some video games provide a way to try out different identities and a safe space to play with identities, which go beyond the surface level and rely on relationships and interactions throughout the game. In video games, players tend to have a stronger identification with the character, sometimes more than in a book or a movie (though as Jack said, that’s how he reads books and watches movies too). 

For Bo, as a queer nonbinary person, they felt the same resonance while playing video games. They drew on experiences of Octodad – a video game where an octopus is just trying to be a suburban dad but the unruly octopus body gets in the way – as a metaphor for nonbinary and trans people’s engagements with the world. I wonder if this is also similar to queer relationships where you can try out new relationships within the space of video games. 

In Dragon Age, choosing the gender doesn’t impact the story at all. It changes the relationships because not everyone is straight, but otherwise the game play is the same. In Dragon Age, you can choose any identity and race and species – which for the nonbinary guest, was liberating and empowering. In Saints Row, a game which includes transition options in-game, one of the guests appreciates the haircut options in the game where you can drastically change your hair mid-game and no other characters say anything apart from, “New haircut?” which she points out is the best thing you can do as an ally even in the real world when you meet somebody who has transitioned. In RuneScape, the Makeover Mage changes your character’s gender for a price.

For most of the guests, this experience happened during adolescence which is when most kids “deal with complex feelings of gender” as well as enforced ideas of gender and what it means to be a boy or what it means to be a girl. Families are often not a safe space to question these entrenched gender ideas – online spaces and video games can provide these spaces. 

However, there’s also a danger with these online video game environments where it can be really toxic interacting with other players. Voice chat, for example, can be risky which many players will avoid because they don’t want to deal with having to justify their identity to random people every single time. Toxic fandom is also a huge issue especially in video games. However, there’s still room to find a supportive community in these spaces such as guilds in Final Fantasy where for many people J spoke to, finding this supportive community online helped them come out in the offline world.

People can make a queer friendly space in the offline world – a video game shop, for example, where one of the guests wears LGBTQIA+ pins and ended up acting as a role model for a parent of a trans child who was glad to see someone happy and comfortable with their identity. This is similar to Geek Retreat, an excellent board game shop in Leeds which has a trans flag prominently displayed on their window. This inclusivity isn’t without its risks however; I’ve heard they’ve been attacked before but continue to provide explicit support. One of the guests acknowledges that for closeted young people, it’s not alway safe to be yourself depending on who you live with, but you can still be yourself in moments where you’re alone – for example, in video games. 

One of the guests says that video games are trying to be more inclusive in terms of representations of trans and nonbinary characters, but sometimes they do a poor job because of a lack of understanding. For example, in Mass Effect: Andromeda, a character deadnames herself immediately which isn’t something which would happen in casual conversation. Deadname is your name before you transitioned which may not reflect your gender. The same studio made Dragon Age which did have a good representation of a trans character. 

Seeing other queer and trans people in the space provides affirmation. J, as a trans woman, now feels comfortable dressing in both masculine and feminine ways – drawing from her experiences in video games – without having to prove her identity as a woman 

What I really love about this podcast, Imaginary Worlds, is that even though it’s hosted and created by Eric, a straight cis white man, exploring speculative fiction and worlds in different ways, he creates such a great space for inclusivity in terms of the guests he brings on to his show and he’s always open and curious to learn about different experiences, especially those which don’t mirror his own.

 

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

(I’ve already used this episode as a text for Episode 5, so I’m supplementing the notes I made then with these new ones. For the old notes, click here.)

They describe Witch, Please as a combination of fandom, feminism, and Harry Potter. The two hosts, Marcel and Hannah, bring together their work as feminist literary critics in a university and their love of Harry Potter. 

What does it mean to be a feminist critic? It’s difficult to shut off that part of your brain when you’re doing anything you like – watching TV, reading a book, even scrolling through Facebook! I’ve definitely felt this way with intersectionality when for the first year I was just angry at everything and everyone. For me, this is about intersectional feminism at large which helps me also see things through the eyes of other identities i.e. identities which don’t reflect my own – something I may not have done so actively before. Cultural criticism involves identifying problematic elements of your favourite texts and problematising things which may on the surface seem liberal or progressive. You’re trying to understand the layers of texts and characters which might explain divide between fan and cultural critic. However, I think being critical is a part of my fannishness. You tend to critique things you love and incorporate the pleasure of critique. Critiquing things you hate wouldn’t be as rewarding because it’s a lot of work thinking and talking about something you don’t enjoy. Hannah’s desire to critically think about everything she loves hugely resonates with me. 

The series offers comfort to people who feel like they don’t fit in that they will eventually find a supportive community where they’re not only accepted but also find others like themselves. Perhaps this could be one of the reasons for the popularity of the fandom – all the misfits finding each other. 

Dumbledore is trying to create a radically inclusive world in Hogwarts. The problem with the idea of “tolerance” versus inclusivity where in the latter, you actively challenge the prejudices against people who are different from the socially constructed norm – in terms of queerness, race, disability, gender identity, class. Emma Watson identifying as a strident feminist doesn’t seem at odds with Hermione because of the kind of character she portrays and her interest in social justice (though there’s the question of white feminism when it comes to SPEW). 

At one point, they wonder whether any of the movies pass the Bechdel test and don’t think so, though in the Breaking The Glass Slipper podcast episode about the Bechdel-Wallace test, they spoke about the limitations of the test and the need for a more intersectional analysis. The hosts acknowledge that the test isn’t a bar for feminism, just a low bar for the representation of women. 

Calling everything as texts or an archive “because we’re the worst” – this made me laugh because ugh I do this too and don’t just call it media or books or movies like normal people do. Everything is a “text”. 

They think Hufflepuff is the only Hogwarts house that has an ethical approach to pedagogy because it accepts everyone.

“Slytherin is literally just the Nazi school.” 

It’s a political choice to not show Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s relationship in the movies. This may change because there are going to be three more movies but according too the signs, there doesn’t seem to be any room for that relationship. 

On the importance of trigger warnings which emerged in universities in syllabus design not as censorship: instructors have control and making the classroom inclusive for people who may have potential PTSD with a myriad of topics which may crop up during the discussion or the text selection. Even if it is misused, the fact that it is valuable in many contexts is important. As one of the guests says, they’re just a brace for impact because a lot of people want to have these conversations but the trigger warning allows them to prepare themselves for these discussions.

 

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

The episode features an interview with 16-year-old Kaeli, who self-identifies as the school gay. She identifies as pansexual. She uses the term bi, pan, queer and gay interchangeably. I’m assuming everyone has their own different understandings with the term since there’s no monolith queer experience. Kaeli doesn’t want to be stigmatised for either being bi or pan depending on who she’s talking to. She thinks there just needs to be more acceptance and respect and inclusivity across the intersections of different identities.

So this is something I read in a pretty flippant BuzzFeed article which sourced community answers about what young people wish adult writers knew when representing them in YA books. A couple of the answers said that they’re much more experimental about their sexual and gender identities than the adults seem to think. There’s not just one gay person in school, there’s usually several queer people who are open about their identities. I wonder if this is both a generational as well as geographical thing – different in different historical contexts as well as contemporary place contexts. 

Tumblr as a space for gay people because they can be open about their identities and more easily find a community. It’s also more anonymous, has less family and friends on profiles unlike Facebook or Instagram. 

The books resonated with her for their emphasis on questioning the corrupt government. Things young people care about are complex and nuanced and include big important issues as we see with the climate crisis protests, the gun control protests, in India the anti-CAA protests. 

As Kaeli points out, there’s a Harry Potter phase and then a Percy Jackson phase that most readers go through – which I totally went through as well. With Percy Jackson, the books are so much more explicitly inclusive of different kinds of queerness – not just the original series but the spin-offs as well – whereas with Harry Potter it’s all subtext. 

Kaeli read a lot of Harry Potter fanfiction as a lurker. That’s what I used to read as well, though I was never really interested in the relationship bits. However, as a teenager growing up in Mumbai in the 2000s, fanfiction was the first time I came across queerness. Fanfiction provides room for all kinds of experimental ideas which you don’t see in mainstream media – especially queer fic which is a big part of the fandom. In terms of access, it’s all free so as long as you have the tech and internet access (which is admittedly still a barrier). You can read as much as you want. Kaeli considers fic just as if not more important and better than mainstream books – especially with a lot of Harry Potter fanfic. She chafes at the idea that fanfic is rubbish writing. There’s a complaint that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is like fanfic, but actually there’s some really brilliant fanfic out there. And with HP fanfic, it’s taking this huge mainstream text and queering that which is also important even though there is an increasing amount of SFF indie media which is inclusive of different kinds of queerness. 

“Harry Potter is this universal language that you can use to connect with people” – Lark 

What are the intersections of queerness and class and national origin and religion? 

Lark and Jessie acknowledge that the media which exists today is much gayer than they had access to as young people. They’re now in their early 30s and while they were growing up, it was Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Will and Grace. There was also The L Word but it wasn’t Lark’s genre.

Kaeli loves Disney Princess retellings – as do I.  I love taking these old stories and retelling them in ways which place contemporary values front and centre and fanfic does this as well. 

Fandom also provides a space for fans to find important people and a strong community. Kaeli found it through K-Pop fandom. For me, fandom was also so important. Even though I’m straight and cisgender, I still didn’t feel like I fit in until I discovered the internet and found other people who loved the same things I did with the same amount of enthusiasm that I did. 

 

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

Fans read themselves into the text, for instance in examples where they queer Frozen. I’ve come across both interpretations of Elsa being gay as well as her being asexual – both identities are very rarely represented in mainstream media, particularly in Disney. X-Men can also act as queer allegory as well as the magical world of Harry Potter where witches and wizards have been seen as representation of gayness. 

Fan campaigns like Give Elsa A Girlfriend, Oscars So White, Racebent Hermione can make fringe ideas mainstream even if the end content itself isn’t impacted. In the case of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, they did end up casting a black Hermione.  

The writer points out that Frozen 2 has problematic representations of people of colour and indigenous people, something I admittedly didn’t pick up on while watching the movie myself. The movie features intersections of queerness, gender, class, race, national origin. 

“Probably one of the most successful aspects of recent Disney princess films is that audiences often forget that the princesses are, in fact, princesses: Critics of the genre can get caught up with the term as it applies conceptually to a pastel-pink childhood femininity and anti-feminist subjugation. Merida, Moana, and Elsa and Anna are all, in fact, the daughters of kings and chiefs, born and bred heirs to their collective thrones, and the films focus on watching these women train for a seamless transfer of monarchical power.”

As huge and popular a franchise Disney is, it can play an important role in making ideas of inclusivity mainstream ,but it doesn’t go that far. It’s all subtext or conveniently ignored. For example, in Thor, as the article points out, the bisexual actor Tessa Thompson criticised the studio for cutting out a scene which would confirm her character’s bisexuality. 

“So, yes, it matters that Elsa is gay — or interpreted as gay — because that is unwieldy. Her powers, too, make her unwieldy — too much a target, too dangerous, too suspect. Too much, you could say, and, in fact, Grandpapi, the film’s troll elder, says exactly that.”

The article points out that Disney’s lessons from feminist criticism means letting romance take a backseat as the princesses work on consolidating power for themselves without interrogating the problematic aspects of monarchy. This reminds me of the version of feminism which seeks for women to take on the roles which men currently hold in leadership positions without interrogating the structure and finding new ways of being leaders. It also ignores the lives of and impact on women from marginalised backgrounds in the same country and in other countries. Becoming a CEO of a fast fashion brand for example but ignoring the plight of women in developing countries who make cheap clothes for you. Feminism should be about dismantling imbalanced power relationships rather than replacing one form of privilege with another.

Many Disney villains are coded as queer and play up queer stereotypes which has its own problematic aspects. Queerness is seen as other and as monstrous – something which needs to be fixed or as something which needs to be assimilated into “normal” society. Traditionally, powerful women were burned as witches or otherwise ostracised – intersections of gender, power, queerness. There need to be more safe spaces for queer people to be themselves. Many spaces can be legitimately dangerous. For Elsa, the revealing of her identity in the form of her powers leads to outpourings of fear and disgust – in the real world, there are similar reactions to coming out. 

“When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her,” Adrienne Rich once wrote. Taken as a whole, Elsa’s pursuit of truth is presented as the kind of rare (queer, feminist) hero’s journey that reclaims “monstrous” bodies beyond the margins.

Frozen 2 deals with questions of colonisation and indigenous people’s rights which also have LGBTQIA+ parallels in the form of a grandfather being a colonising bigot and then Elsa being his legacy. There is more queer subtext with Elsa abdicating to stay with Honeymaren in Frozen 2. However, as the writer points out, this means that the monarchy in Disney’s eyes can’t have a queer queen – it reifies heteronormative constructs of power.

Part of me says: yes. Leave, go off with your new girlfriend Honeymaren, ride horses on the river. Leave, and never come back, except to see your sister: This is, actually, the life I’ve lived for years. What is there for you, once you know who you truly are? What can man do to me? (Psalm 118:6). As a lesbian, I, of course, want to see Elsa define herself for herself; I want to see the kind of heroine whose example conjures up the words of Audre Lorde: If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive. 

But this is Disney, which means that the ending is ultimately about the preservation of the (rightful rulers of the) nation-state, and for that to happen, we need a stable, obedient body — at the very least, one that doesn’t hear voices, shoot ice out of its hands, and have no interest in procreation. A cisgender, heterosexual body. Enter: Anna, the younger sister whom Elsa has no problem giving her throne to. Anna is royal, perfectly in the line of succession, and very much about to marry a man. 

Frozen II does, see, end with a happy (heterosexual) ever after.

I didn’t even consider the problematic aspect of giving a white character Native lineage retroactively, presumably in response to criticism about how otherwise white the popular movie is. This is compounded by the fact that Elsa doesn’t even get to be the half-Native fully-queer queen of the realm. In Disney, representation often comes at the price of assimilation into the status quo, as the writer points out. 

There’s a reason, of course, for all of this, and it’s often because, even as diverse as marginalized groups are, Disney stories are, generally, about the preservation of tradition, of the status quo. Disney stories, generally, protect the “good” people who are in power; the “villains” are the disruptive ones, those who are chaotic or power hungry, who seek to upend the way of things. Where is there space for folks on the margins? There is no revolution here, and expecting it from Disney is a fool’s game.

The writer talks about how it felt when she was watching Frozen 2 in the cinema and Elsa flinches when she sees a memory of herself singing Let It Go in the first movie – a scene which meets with laughter in the cinema – but a scene which for the writer was important and emotional and personal and the erasure of which is hurtful on many different levels, as someone who watched the first film after coming out and splitting up from her fundamentalist Christian husband.

It felt like I’d been hit in the chest. 

A moment beloved by queer audiences, and fundamentally interpreted as queer, got played for laughs. No, this wasn’t important to her. No, this didn’t count. No, you didn’t see what you thought you saw.

She reiterates that she continues to read Elsa as queer and wants to reclaim that interpretation from Disney – something which I love the idea of – that even if mainstream media isn’t ready to include you, you insert yourselves into it anyway. And that’s something which thrives in fandom especially with fans taking on popular texts where they don’t see themselves and writing themselves into the story.

I love everything she means to LGBTQ+ audiences. I have a deep investment in queer joy, in seeing myself and my community on-screen, in seeing many versions of ourselves, in fact; in indie media, indie film, and even the occasional reboot of an early 2000s TV show, and even in Disney films, even in spaces where they so obviously don’t want us but where we emerge anyway — because this is real life and when you commit to telling a real story, there will be queer people in it. Elsa might be too much for Disney: too powerful, too traumatized, too independent, too gay. That’s all right. She can sit with the queers anytime.

Some Notes On Episode 8 – 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 8, Whose Stories Are Being Told: Centering Racial Diversity in Mainstream Hollywood Movies we discussed the following texts:

1) Movie – Green Book

This movie set in the 1960s is based on a real-life friendship. There’s lots of casual background racism in Tony’s working-class Italian family against the black handymen. His father and brothers come to keep his wife company because they seemingly don’t trust black men with a white woman. Tony is as racist as his brothers and father where he throws away the glasses the handymen drank out of though when his wife notices the glasses in the trash later, she just rolls her eyes and takes them back out. It reminded me of how people in India do the same for people they consider to be of a lower class or caste – maybe not throwing glasses away but having a separate category of glasses reserved for a certain group of people. Tony’s wife is also clearly not comfortable with the racism but never questions or challenges him about it. It’s uncomfortable calling out people you’re close to – but important. 

Tony’s new prospective employer is a black pianist called Dr Don Shirley who is about to embark on a concert in the deep south and needs a driver/personal assistant.  The titular Green Book refers to a guide for hotels in the deep south – which ones allow white and black people to stay together in the same hotel and which don’t. It is a necessity for travelling while black. Even when he’s being interviewed for this, Tony is full of racial slurs for Eastern Asians and Asians he’s encountered in the building. The movie is set in New York, a diverse multicultural city even in the 1960s – but this proximity to diversity seems to have had little impact on racist attitudes. Don is part of a trio with two white men playing bass and cello. Before they start travelling, Tony immediately chums up with them presumably because they’re white. Dr Don speaks in Russian to his cellist which Tony casually assumes is German and makes some very anti-German/eastern European comments. Outwardly one might appear as “tolerant” but the person is actually racist which is shaped by living in a structurally  racist society. Does Tony even realise he’s racist?

The journey features constant tension between the rich black musician used to getting his way and the poor white driver who’s used to seeing black men in inferior positions. Lots of intersections of race and class where both Tony and Dr Shirley are marginalised and privileged in different contexts. Dr Don has a more traditionally classical education as opposed to Tony’s more workaday engagement with the world. Don is worried about Tony’s accent, language and vocabulary when it comes to interacting with rich, educated people. Don even proposes changing Tony’s last Italian name for other people’s convenience because it’ll be too difficult to pronounce; a problem often encountered by people of colour in all-white settings or with South indians in North Indian settings. Everything is so contextual. I like that the dynamics here are flipped on their head, though Tony’s racial and situational privilege means he refuses to make this adjustment and insists on his last name being kept the same.

The movie shows both Tony and Don (but mostly Tony) unlearning prejudice through their interactions with each other. Tony assumes Don should know all the popular black music and is shocked he doesn’t because “these are your people”. Tony also steals a jade rock at a garage that had fallen on the ground claiming he found it so it doesn’t count as stealing; but Don makes him put it back. Another example of overturning stereotypes where usually black people are considered to be untrustworthy. There are more casual stereotypes about black people’s food/music which Tony shares with Don and that Don doesn’t fit into – fried chicken, collards, and greens. Don is offended by the assumptions to which Tony responds that he wouldn’t be offended if Don said all Italians ate pizza and pasta – this is negotiated more lightheartedly than anything. Stanley does try (very uncomfortably) eating some Kentucky fried chicken with his hands – “It’s so unsanitary.”  However, he is willing to learn from Tony a little bit and try new experiences. 

Tony eventually feels some sort of loyalty to Don and gets into a scrap with a white worker at a venue who is also casually racist. Tony also experiences a segregated hotel for coloured people and he can’t believe the decrepit condition. Don gets beaten up by racist white people in a bar in the deep south when all he wanted was a drink. Tony is forced to confront racism thanks to his job and confront some of his own prejudices. At one point, their car breaks down in front of a field full of black workers who stop and stare at a black man so unlike them and Don stares back presumably thinking about how he’s only a couple of generations removed from this and still not fully exempt from the racism. When they’re in North Carolina at a fancy hotel, the owner says that he asked his help for what Don would like and serves home-cooked fried chicken much to Don’s chagrin. At the same hotel, Don is directed to the outhouse reserved for black people and not the indoors toilet for white people. He would rather go back to his motel to use the toilet there than put up with the humiliation. 

Tony is offended when Stanley implies he’s the same as the racist white people in power they encounter. He obviously doesn’t consider himself as racist as the deep south. The cellist tells Tony to behave himself because Don asked to play down south despite being able to earn more money in the north. Tony wonders why. Don places himself in actual danger maybe because he’s using a soft-war approach to confronting racism and presenting a black person who upturns their stereotypes. This exceptionalism isn’t without it’s problems either – the idea of a good black person worthy of respect as opposed to all the other black people. You don’t need to prove your humanity by assimilating to white culture. It reminds me of the instance of Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper recently where she tried to call the cops on him in a New York park. However, a lot of the responses to this involved writing about what a handsome, accomplished black man she tried to get arrested and potentially murdered was. That’s not the point. All black people – regardless of their looks, education, wealth, status – need to be treated with the same amount of respect and humanity as everyone else. Of course, even with black people – like with everyone else – there’s a diversity of experiences. There is no monolithic black experience.

We find out later that Don was pressured by his record company to play popular music because people wouldn’t accept a black man playing a piano or classical music due to their own preconceived notions that they would rather not disrupt. The movie features other everyday humiliations such as Don isn’t allowed to try on a suit in a shop in Georgia (presumably because he has black people cooties?) but is welcome to buy it and have it altered (because capitalism must go on).

Don also is gay – as we discover when he’s caught with a white guy at a YMCA in Georgia and threatened with arrest – and therefore doubly marginalised. Reminded me of Shy Baldwin in Marvellous Mrs Maisel who is also a gay black man beaten up for these identities and uses make-up to cover up his bruises. Don assumes Tony will be homophobic as well as racist but Tony surprises him with his open-mindedness – including unlearning his bigotry. 

Tony punches a cop who calls him half a nigger for being Italian which shows the different kinds of prejudice which exist. Both he and Stanley are arrested and then released when Stanley calls Bobby Kennedy who in turn calls the governor to free them. Don may be marginalised by his race and sexuality but he’s also massively privileged in terms of his wealth and social connections. This provides little comfort though as Stanley has an existential crisis about not being black enough, not white enough, not man enough. He feels like he doesn’t fit into any of the roles he’s born into and which have been socially constructed. In the last club in Birmingham, Alabama, Stanley isn’t allowed to eat even though he’s playing there later which causes him to refuse playing there, an action Tony wholeheartedly supports. At the end of the movie, Tony ends up calling out racism in his own family 

 

2) Movie – Crazy Rich Asians

In 1994, the Young family from Singapore aren’t allowed to book a hotel in the US after the manager sees they’re Asian and suggests they should look in China Town – only to find out they’re the new owners of the hotel. The perception that Asians can’t be wealthy or even deserving of occupying the same space as wealthy white people. 

I found lots of parallels between the Singaporean/Chinese community in New York and Indian community in general. .Beginning with – as soon as one person finds out that Nick Young and Rachel Chu are a couple, the news immediately spreads from young people to their parents and eventually to Nick’s mother in Singapore. When discussing Nick’s mysterious family, Rachel’s mother proposes, “Maybe his parents are poor and he sends them all his money. That’s what all good Chinese sons do.” Very Indian thing to do! Chinese Americans aren’t seen as really Chinese – pursuing passions is seen as American, living for your family is seen as Chinese. Nick’s grandmother is very mother-in-lawish to his mother – and she does the same to Rachel. Rachel has the same problems she did where Nick’s mother doesn’t come from the right sort of family, so she’s cruel to Rachel in turn too! More similarities with Indian culture! 

I loved encountering the different experiences of Chinese people in the US versus in Singapore. Rachel doesn’t know Nick’s family is rich because Nick doesn’t behave like a rich person – even stereotypes about wealth exist which may not always be true. However, in Singapore, rich people have an entirely distinct culture which we discover through Rachel’s eyes – they live in another world! I can easily imagine this in an Indian context too. The market they go to eat food as well – Singapore and India are such different countries but the street food culture is so similar. I also enjoyed that the glimpse into the culture through its food was done without exoticising it – through a cultural insider lens rather than an outsider. 

I wonder how long bachelor/bachelorette parties have been common in Singapore (and India) and how widespread their popularity is. It’s definitely a Western cultural influence, I think, where western culture is global culture. An example of cultural imperialism? At the same time this blends in comfortably with Asian culture as well. Is calling an older woman aunty a thing in all Asian cultures? Rachel’s friend’s mother has decorated the house with  lots of tacky gold to showcase wealth – so desi! 

The movie also features class tensions where Astrid and Nick both have “commoner” partners which, in Astrid’s case, also intersect with gender and idea of masculinity – Astrid has far more money than her husband which makes him insecure. There’s also comments about old money and new money – the Youngs are old money – new money Taiwan Tycoons, Beijing Billionaires. Then there’s also impacts of presumably colonisation – even if you’re rich in Asia, in the US, the UK, you’re judged by the colour of your skin – whether it be Chinese or Indians. Rich people do appear ruthless though where Rachel is accused of being a gold-digger and is treated horrifically. 

Ken Jeong’s character makes fun of Chinese accents. The difference between cultural outsiders and cultural insiders making fun of specific cultures. Who’s representing the culture and which audience is it for? It includes a lot of themes, food and activities which are common in the Chinese community but not so common in Hollywood representations (for example, the dumpling-making, mahjong).

It’s interesting that they get married in a church which is decorated as a paddy field. I thought that China didn’t really have a religion largely. Perhaps this signifies Singaporean influences? The big fat Chinese wedding was also super familiar – big fat Indian weddings are everywhere. More similarities with Indian and Chinese cultures include the scandal of an extramarital affair for a woman which forces Rachel’s mother to run away from the anticipated violence of her husband. Of course, there’s the gender disparity too because Astrid’s husband doesn’t face the same censure or social ostracism but also the class factor where Astrid is able to weather the storm in a way Rachel’s mother couldn’t do. 

 

3) Movie – Last Christmas

I love that the three movies have different kinds of diversity – casual inclusion without mention, all-diverse cast, and a story with diversity as the crux. But I love that the movies are also not about the diversity (except in Green Book) and are also full of jokes and fun – the kind of movies I would watch even if I didn’t have to for this episode. 

This movie features the casual inclusion of a lot of diverse, intersectional identities – including interracial relationships, mental health and trauma, immigrants, working-class families, trans woman doctor, romance between an older couple, lesbian relationship, disability, homelessness, women cops. In all instances, the inclusion was done in humanising, complex ways rather than mere tokenism.

I think two of the Asian actors in this movie also made an appearance in Crazy Rich Asians. Maybe this implies that there may not be as many Asian actors around. I’ve read that British actors of colour move to the US because it has more opportunities but the critique has been that this leaves less room for black American actors. Is it similar with Asian actors in the US? Structural racism within the movie industry might mean there’s only very limited room for actors/writers/directors of colour. 

Santa – aka Huang Quing Shin – a Chinese (?) immigrant keeps changing her name based on where she works, similar to the experience of Chinese students in the UK who have to adopt Western names.  Kate’s sister Martha, as a child of immigrant parents, had to become a lawyer because that was mother’s dream. Immigrant stories are so similar all over the world. Of course, there’s racism even within the immigrant society as the movie – a romcom – shows more lightheartedly. Kate’s mother, an Eastern European immigrant, watches a Brexit rally on TV and thinks the people hate them and want to send them away. This sympathetic moment of her worries is broken by “I blame the Poles” which made me laugh out loud – not because xenophobia against Polish people is funny but the situation was quite ludicrous – as reflected in Kate’s expression. Towards the end of the movie, there’s a scene in the bus where a white couple (possibly Eastern European) are speaking in a language that isn’t English which attracts the notice of a white man. He shouts, “Why don’t you lot go back where you came from?” at them followed by “Speak English or get out of my sodding country!” Different kinds of discrimination. 

“There’s no such thing as normal. It’s a stupid word. Does a lot of damage.” – Tom

 

4)  Essay – Racism through the BAME protagonists in Ichiro and The Hate U Give by Hibiki Hashizume

Hibiki wrote this essay for a children’s literature module which focused on the representations of race and racism in two YA books exploring two different cultures – Ichiro in Japan and The Hate U Give in the US. He drew on his own experiences of racism in the UK, his first experience of racist discrimination as someone who’s grown up in Japan which is largely ethnically homogenous as opposed to the UK which is more diverse. 

The essay explores racism in both Japan (anti-Korean) and the UK (anti-people of colour) – where he is a part of the dominant group in the former but marginalised in the latter. His essay allowed me to learn a lot about the culture and racism in Japan, something I haven’t really encountered otherwise. Racism exists in the form of anti-Korean attitudes among both racist groups as well as the regular people who have been influenced by their propaganda. There is also an affinity towards white, blonde, blue-haired white people living in Japan. This is similar to India where the colonial mindset still remains where Western and white is seen to be superior, but people from neighbouring countries are discriminated against. The essay proposes that one of the reasons racism isn’t addressed in Japan is because racism is seen to be an issue which exists outside the country between white people and black people; this overlooks the dominance of other kinds of racism within their own societies. Again, this is similar to India where black isn’t welcome even if it is Western and there are different shades of racism even within the country based on which part of the country you come from – skin colour, language, accent, food. It also notes the ignorance among Japanese people about racial insensitivites like blackface. That makes me think about how cultural contexts are so different in that what may be taboo in one culture may not be in another because they don’t have the same background knowledge and historical contexts. 

The essay also briefly explores racism in the US and UK and talks about the link made between Islamophobia and terrorism in mainstream media (Whereas mass shootings by white people or other acts of violence aren’t called terrorism by the media). It points out the role of media in perpetuating these Islamophobic stereotypes and anti-black attitudes. You can see some of the latter with the recent Black Lives Matter anti-police protests in the US in how certain news outlets frame the narrative. 

The essay talks about how reading diverse children’s books can impact young people in ways which make them more respectful and empathetic towards different races and cultures. It points out the lack of BAME characters in children’s literature in the UK and in the US – which don’t have proportional representation to reflect their increasingly diverse populations. The essay uses two YA books to explore the representations of race and racism. Ichiro is a graphic novel which explores the experiences of the titular protagonist, a Japanese-American boy who moves to Japan from the US and encounters unfamiliar food, culture and language and faces discrimination and othering – though he has his own racist stereotypes as well. The Hate U Give, a YA novel, features the life of 16-year-old Starr who grapples between her two homes of a poor black neighbourhood full of violence and an elite private school largely dominated by white students and staff. She has to constantly code-switch not just her language but her entire being as she moves from one place to the other. The book looks at police violence against black people and protests similar to the Black Lives Matter movement. The essay also points out the ignorance of these racial issues among white people in the book and in real life. 

The essay talks about how things like narrow eyes are used to discriminate against East Asian people – something Hibiki himself experienced in the UK. This made me think of how even when you look the same, sound the same, follow the same god such as in Ireland and the United Kingdom, you still find people to hate on some grounds – Catholic/Protestant. The essay talks about the compounded problem of racism where even when you’re verbally targeted, you may have to choose to ignore the assault or escape the racists so as not to be physically attacked. In the UK, the pandemic has increased racism against East Asians because COVID-19 originated in China. This is also happening in India where North East Indians, many of whom have physical features resembling East Asians, were faced with racist attacks. In the US, the president keeps trying to call it the China virus and this representation has impacts on the mainstream imagination. In India, the pandemic is being used to target Muslims.

The essay notes how racism can be internalised among marginalised groups as well, especially if it is inherited within families. Ichiro thinks someone wearing a turban is a terrorist conflating the turban with a skullcap and also associating all Muslims with terrorism – similar to Hibiki’s own experiences where he had an anti-Chinese slur hurled at him even though he is Japanese. Ichiro also faces negative reactions from an older Japanese neighbour who is against his mother marrying a foreigner i.e. an American man – an attitude which is apparently common among elderly Japanese people, according to the essay. What counts as foreigner depends very much on the context. Even in the US, everyone is an immigrant apart from the Native Americans. Identifying someone as a foreigner or related to a foreigner serves to immediately exclude – as in Ichiro’s case who is considered to be different since he doesn’t speak Japanese properly and doesn’t look Japanese enough for the people discriminating against him. Presumably, it will never be enough because you’ll find something else to criticise if the instinct is to other rather than include. With the dominance of language, it isn’t just English as evidenced in the example where Ichiro is bullied for being unable to speak Japanese as fluently as native Japanese would. The difficulties faced by people who move to Japan from another country is similar to different parts of India where language is political – Maharashtra and Marathi, north India and Hindi, South India and not embracing Hindi as a political act. Different cultures even within the same country – in Japan, in the US, in India, in the UK – where one group has stereotypes about the other on the basis of race, religion, national origin etc. 

White people – like any dominant group – expect to be given the benefit of doubt without making any concessions or changes themselves – for example, Hayley claims to be offended when accused of racism by both her best friends and claims ignorance. Why is it never the dominant group’s responsibility to place themselves in the shoes of marginalised groups in order to evoke compassion and empathy and demand justice? The essay notes that the stereotypes go both ways – the black characters also have some fixed notions of what white people like, dislike and do based on their conversations in the book. 

Referring to Hayley and Chris’s responses in THUG which also applies to real life contexts:

“There are a number of white people who do not know what racism is, what makes minority people suffer and how those people feel.”

While white people may not realise racism exists because of their racial privilege, black people don’t have the same privilege to ignore the existence of racism since it impacts them on an everyday basis, oftentimes fatally. The essay also notes that Chris really learns from his experiences of being the only white person in Starr’s black neighbourhood – this embodied experience of being a minority isn’t practical for everybody – but children’s books and media in general can do a great job of understanding lives which differ from your own. 

Curiosity about other cultures instead of suspicion; cultural exchange instead of cultural imperialism – the absence of this impacts both the marginalised and the dominant groups. However, this doesn’t undo generations of oppression and it shouldn’t be the burden of the marginalised to seek empathy and inclusion. People need to access diverse stories which both reflect and differ from their own lives and experiences in order to get to know other cultures which you may or may not encounter in real life. But this needs to be an active, ongoing, and lifelong process of seeking to educate yourself. 

 

5) Fan podcast – Woke Doctor Who Crazy Rich Asians

Eugenia, a Chinese-American talks about her experiences of watching Crazy Rich Asians. She was excited about the Asian representation in a mainstream Hollywood production. This representation wasn’t just reflected in the cast but also in the creators – which, as E points out, is almost more important than having a diverse cast since the creator makes so many of the choices. E acknowledges there have been some critiques of the movie – including the lack of Singaporeans in a movie taking place in Singapore. Singapore is a diverse society with lots of Chinese, Malay and Indian inhabitants in the country. E points out that since the movie deals with the lives of rich Chinese people, she saw what she expected to see i.e. diversity in service roles – maids, guards etc. – which reflects the lives of the elite much like in Jane Austen where we don’t see the lives of the working class characters represented. The books which the movie is based on is often referred to as Jane Austen with Asians.

E expresses her frustration about criticism that calls the movie racist for this lack of diversity. She points out that the movie centers the Chinese-American experience through Rachel Chu’s character who travels to Singapore and is considered as a foreigner. This is similar to all Asian-Americans who go back home where they don’t fit in even though they may, to an outside gaze, look the same. This is similar to my experiences after a year and a half abroad in the UK and probably reflects the experiences of an increasing number of young people who are educated abroad and return to India. Fitting in and being different is a such a universal theme – though in this case, it is particularly important since it focuses on the lives and experiences of a group which has not traditionally been represented in mainstream Hollywood media. As Toya says, she found it very relatable too – even though she’s a black American. E points out that Asian-American experiences are always erased or minimised in the US. They’re considered as model minorities and their accusations of racism are overlooked. E thinks the simplistic criticism of racism has a harmful impact on people for whom the movie was made, especially with a movie with an all-Asian cast, an Asian writing team and director.

These criticisms make me think of how movies like this are tasked with a bigger burden to do all the job of representation perfectly since there are such few fully-diverse movies out there. Rather than making room for different kinds of diversity and stories, the few diverse media which do exist are supposed to fix the imbalance. E talks about how she’s been starved by Asian faces in media and devoured stories which had even the least bit of diversity – superficial or otherwise. Which is why this movie was so important for her. She talks about the American show Fresh Off The Boat, which has found a love-hate reaction from Asian-Americans. The title is a slur and the stories are farcical but Asian-Americans are still so starved for representation. E almost wishes only Asian-Americans could watch this show because the jokes are the sort they can laugh at but not white people: “There’s a part of it which feels minstrely.” E talks about how she became emotional about even small representations of her experiences – food and visits to the market.

She also recommends To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before and the important role it has played in normalising East Asian characters and all the possibilities for cosplay with Lara Jean and Halloween costumes. One of E’s issues with the movies is the three sisters who are supposed to be half-Korean. However, out of the actors who portray these characters, one is Vietnamese, one is half-Filipina and only one is half-Korean. As they’ve mentioned in previous episodes, they don’t like the implication that all Asians are the same. Even if white audiences don’t realise it, Asian audiences do. Which means that the imagined audience doesn’t include their perspectives. However, E was still happy to see the representation. 

E talks of the experience of watching Crazy Rich Asians with her mother, who has lived in different parts of Asia and who pointed out different things like food and songs which she recognised and loved in the movie. The conversation made both the hosts teary because they both understood how important and impactful representation can be. E also acknowledges the impact of the representation of Asian single mothers which is rarely seen on-screen or even in real life, and which reflects E’s own relationship with her mother. As E reiterates, there may be places where the movie lacks and has some flaws, but this doesn’t diminish the powerful impact it can have on Asian-American audiences. According to E, the creators of this movie had to fight to cast an Asian-American actress in the lead rather than a white actress because the producers couldn’t conceive how an Asian-American would be a fish out of water in Singapore, completely erasing the very real experiences of Asian-Americans who go back home. 

E loves the representation of language. One of the characters says “Go to hell” in three different languages which blew E’s mind because that’s how she thinks – in Chinglish. But that is never represented in media, an experience which I relate with as well, as an immigrant in the UK who is mostly surrounded by white people. 

E also talks about the tension about rice paddy fields where older generations of Chinese people are very conscious of this and want to distance themselves from it. They use skin whitening creams to ensure they don’t look like they’ve worked in the rice fields, their hands have to look good too. However, this culture has been embraced by younger people who don’t have a directly contentious relationship with the rice fields. In the movie, the wedding scene happens with rice field decorations which is shunned by the older Chinese characters but embraced by the young people. These nuances can be understood by people who have background knowledge of this history and I loved learning about it through E’s perspective. This also makes Toya emotional again because she remembers her own family history where two generations ago, they were sharecroppers and now she is able to do so much that was unimaginable before. Different histories but similar emotions. 

E talks of the experience of her and other immigrants to the US bringing their culture’s food to school which is ridiculed by people eating peanut butter sandwiches. This is similar in India where non-vegetarian food isn’t allowed in some schools and in others, vegetarians may treat it with disgust. This happened to me in school as well. E felt this shame even with Chinese music. I wonder if this is why I cling on to my Indian clothes and language and food and music in the UK because I feel like I’m not surrounded by this otherwise. Asian music may be regarded with suspicion by white people but K-Pop and J-Pop has been embraced by white audiences – something which goes unremarked on.

Both hosts criticise Awkwafina’s blaccent which she code-switches in and out of like many other people. This isn’t something I noticed which points to the different contexts of racism and ignorance. Toya has an issue with what is becoming a cultural norm and thinks there needs to be a conversation about using another culture’s language/accent as a prop or as clothing. She doesn’t hold this against the movie because she loved the movie and was happy E got to experience what she herself did with Black Panther. 

“We want to see all black casts. We want to see all Asian casts. We want to see the diversity of the world on screen.” – Latoya

 

6) Fan podcast – Black Girl Nerds  Geek Misogyny, No Totally, and Con Coverage (listen from 1 hour 06ish minutes to 1 hour 34ish minutes)

The guest is Shaun Lau who hosts a podcast No, Totally about movies – and more recently has become an Asian-American activist. He talks of “coming out” as an Asian-American, an identity which he hadn’t talked about on the podcast, and now actively engages with this identity on his podcast and with his other interviews. It’s interesting that he felt he needed to come out presumably because people thought he was white. He describes instances of of virtue signalling where people’s comments of “I don’t care if you’re Asian or not” was followed by unfollowing Shaun on Twitter when he spoke about Asian issues. This reminded me of The Hate U Give where Hayley unfollows Starr on Tumblr for her black activism. You’re allowed to be diverse but only in a very narrow, predetermined way which doesn’t make the dominant group uncomfortable or hold them to account.

Shaun talks of how important it is for him to have Asian representation in media and critiques the whitewashing in media. This representation is incredibly important to non-Asian-Americans who don’t consider Asian-Americans have the same kind of American experience as they do. Shaun himself thinks he’s more American than Asian. He talks of incident where a woman speaking Mandarin on public transport in Arizona was attacked and told to go back to her country. This othering is compounded by the lack of representation on screen because other Americans don’t consider Asian-Americans as American – especially if the only representation which does exist peddles stereotypes.

“It not just affects how people see you but also how you see yourself.” – Shaun

Shaun speaks of the mental health impact these stereotypes had on him where he didn’t feel like he could be seen as anything other than the stereotype despite everything else he accomplishes in his life. It can have a professional impact as well where employers may fall prey to these stereotypes which influences their opinion about potential employees. He appreciates that there are Asian-American actors and other creatives talking about the need for this representation which will influence younger generations of Asian-Americans, as well as white Americans. 

He discusses how Tilda Swinton’s casting in Doctor Strange is supposed to be a progressive move because it’s genderbending the character. However, it’s a white woman replacing an Asian character. Shaun points out that white male creators consider every identity which isn’t theirs as the same – in a way where casting a white woman instead of an Asian man still counts as diversity. Marginalised communities have the same goal of increasing diversity, but it’s ALL kinds of diversity, not just of one group but all groups. He also mentions that the #OscarsSoWhite movement and others are reaching the creators who have to respond or address these issues. While it is still a small number of creators, it’s a step in the right direction where diversity is now increasing in media. On the other hand, this diversity seems to aggravate people from dominant groups who think even superficial diversity is both a threat and simultaneously enough representation. He mentions how exhausting it is to be fighting for this all the time when everything moves so slowly and there is such a backlash against it constantly. 

“The media, the way that they write about these issues can play a role or plays probably the biggest role in normalising the dissent of people of colour being misrepresented.” – Shaun 

He also discusses the fact that Asian isn’t a monolith – the perspectives and experiences of an Asian from Asia would be very different from an Asian-American. For Asians, representation in Hollywood movies may not be as important or sensitive an issue like it is for Asian-Americans since they have other media which represents them. For example, Ghost in the Shell’s controversial casting of Scarlett Johanssen isn’t considered to be a big deal in Japan, as the episode of Imaginary Worlds finds out. 

 

7) Fan podcast – Black Girl Nerds Asians in Media

The episode featured a panel of guests of Asian descent who have different experiences with media – as creators and/or fans – as well as different intersectional identities. In the beginning the host acknowledges that one of the potential guests had said some problematic things against black women which caused her to drop the idea of that guest. She admitted her mistake and thanked the community for drawing her attention to this. Even people who talk about marginalisation and inhabit a marginalised identity can be racist towards others – as can be seen with the conversations about anti-blackness in Asian communities in the US and the UK. 

They discuss the whitewashing of Asian characters where white actors are cast to play Asian characters to be able to make the movie more “marketable.” This is of course imagining a predominantly white audience for the movie when globally, Asians outnumber white people. Furthermore, this assumption that actors who aren’t white won’t draw in audiences is ridiculous. At the same time, however, audiences who are riled up because of what they perceive as enforced diversity can target a movie and its actors – sexist attacks of the female reboot of Ghostbusters and the racism against the black actress Leslie Jones.

One of the guests talks about how Hollywood seems to assume Asian-Americans don’t exist and this lack of representation won’t be met by any censure anyway. Does this feed into the model minority myth? Any censure which does exist is met with half-hearted apologies which imply that they’re only sorry because people got offended and not because they did something offensive. In the live-action remake of Avatar: The Last Airbender,  M. Night Shyamalan completely whitewashed the movie despite being Asian himself. He presumably also grew up not seeing himself represented in media, though I suppose this depends on what sort of media he was exposed to growing up. There’s also internalised racism/colonised mind where you think white is better or more marketable. Maybe he wasn’t even in control of these decisions as Diana Floegel pointed out in Episode 9 about structural racism in movie industries. 

One of the guests talks about how Tilda Swinton’s character in Doctor Strange takes away even their stereotypes (the Asian character she represents was very much a stereotype). Is there a difference between stereotypes written for the cultures they’re stereotyping versus for the dominant culture? Insider/outsider perspectives? Including people in the joke versus excluding people by marginalising them – depends on who’s doing the writing,  I guess, as well as who the intended audience is. Crazy Rich Asians seemed to have a lot of insider jokes and stereotypes which I only recognised because they’re so similar to Indian ones. It depends on which lens is being used – white people versus Asian people. Whose experiences are being centered and whose are being othered? While I was listening to this episode, Jack wondered whether Doctor Strange could be an example of white saviour tropes as well. 

They discuss whether erasing characters of colour/whitewashing stems from wilfull ignorance or malicious intent. Even when creators aren’t doing this on purpose – for example yellowface – the intent doesn’t matter when the damage is very real. They need to be more sensitive about how you portray diverse characters and how you include diversity in your story. One guest proposes that whitewashing happens because the default is white – everything else, including Asianness, is othered and not considered normal. Doesn’t this have a dehumanising effect on the non-dominant groups? Another guest talks of the trope of the model minority when it comes to Asians where Asians are the “well-behaved” diverse group which in turn marginalises other people of colour as well as Asians who don’t fit into the tropes and stereotypes this construct imposes. One guest adds that the model minority myth may also impact casting decisions because creators may think the Asian-Americans won’t complain. It’s difficult for Asian-Americans to write their own stories which reflect their experiences and perspectives if there’s no room for them at the creator table or an opportunity for them to enter the room. When Asian characters are represented, their stories are in the background whereas white characters are placed at the forefront; one of the reasons why Crazy Rich Asians was so empowering to Asian-Americans. Another guest points out that even in the background in a post-apocalyptic world, there are no Asians.

“It’s the unspoken rule of sci-fi. You can have Asian culture but no Asian bodies. And you can have black bodies but absolutely no black culture.” 

The failure of imagination when it comes to what kind of stories can include Asian-Americans means that there’s a very limited scope of representation. This includes immigrant experience/Asian gangster/I really like white girls. Another stereotype sees all Asians as martial artists don’t need to be as limiting as they have been if you give more depth to the characters and don’t essentialise the character into that one tropey trait  The Asian-American experience isn’t an all-encompassing umbrella – there should be room for different kinds of stories. One of the guests points out she hadn’t ever seen a dark-skinned South Asian descent actor have more than a line which wasn’t played for comic effect before Mindy Kaling. There’s nuances even within Asian representations. In India too, fair-skinned representations in Bollywood movies are predominant which has class and caste connotations. 

On the sexual politics of Asian-Americans, they talk about how Asian sexuality is only seen as something for non-Asian consumption. Asian experiences are erased and straight Asian male characters aren’t shown in romantic/sexual roles. When it comes to mixed-race Asian people, there are even more nuances where they are further marginalised. There advocate for more representations with other intersectional identities such as increased visibility of queer Asians or Asians with disabilities.

They discuss the unfair burden that the few shows/movies which have Asian-American protagonists have on them. Everyone has high expectations of the show because there are few other choices – this might be at the cost of the story the show/movie itself wants to tell. On the other hand, many of the culturally specific themes might find universal appeal because even if you approach it differently, a lot of things reflect your own concerns. This is different from dominant culture’s experiences with shows which reflect them and their lives. As one of the guests points out, white people watching FRIENDS aren’t worried about whether they got it right in the same way Asian-Americans watching something like Fresh Off The Boat would 

 

8) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Ghost In The Shell

The episode discusses the backlash against casting Scarlett Johanssen in one of the roles, another example of whitewashing in blockbuster movies to make it more “marketable”. How can Asian actors become “bankable” movie stars if they don’t cast them? 

Another aspect of this is that whitewashing may be much more important to Asian-Americans than Asians elsewhere. For example, the episode talks about how people in Japan were baffled at the whitewashing controversy. Since they have a thriving industry with lots of Japanese representation, they didn’t think it was a big deal. Some thought that Hollywood is a little silly anyway whereas others believed anime doesn’t outline the race of characters anyway so it was all right. They talk about the Astroboy creator who thought anime characters should be racially indistinct or draw influences from Western cartoons to have a broad global appeal. This inspired other Japanese anime creators. This also has a connection with post-second-world-war Japan when they were aware of the negative anti-Japanese stereotypes and sentiments in the US so their cultural exports were as benign as possible in terms of representation. At the same time, the characters spoke Japanese, ate Japanese food, engaged in Japanese practices – but their racial identity didn’t reflect this. One of the guests proposes that this reflects the shame and humiliation a lot of Japanese people felt after the Second World War. 

Asian-Americans, on the other hand, embraced anime because they were otherwise starved of representation in Western media. Anime presented them with familiar names, food, and culture which is what is important to them. As Eric says, when anime is done well, it doesn’t feel like cultural appropriation, it feels like cultural exchange where everything seems both foreign and familiar at the same time. This would reflect in the interpretations of both Asian-Americans as well as white audiences.

 

9) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Growing Up Avatar American

Guest Sam Kaden Lai talks about his perspectives as an Asian-American fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender, an animated show with heavy Asian influences. He discusses how Asian-Americans have such few people of colour to dress up as for Halloween reflecting the lack of representation in media. He is largely alienated by the SFF genre which is largely white and Eurocentric. Which is why he found Avatar so refreshing. The show offers a different kind of fantasy where the vibe is Asian-American even though the creators of the show aren’t Asian-American themselves. They are white guys who are really influenced by Asian culture. This could otherwise be problematic but Sam thinks they pulled it off. He thinks it’s the perfect Asian-American show because while the context of the show is very American, the culture is very Asian. For example, fliers in the show have Chinese letters, the food is Asian. Sam says that Asian food in American contexts is his strongest memory from childhood. As Sam points out, in a fantasy world, they could have made up the food but they chose to incorporate Asian food. They did their research and represented it in a way which found excited recognition among Asian-American audiences.

This research is reflected in other aspects of the show too, martial arts, for example. A lot of Asian people worked on the show and tried to make it as authentically Asian as possible. The show signposted Asian elements in this fictional fantastical world, similar to how Game of Thrones signposts England but also incorporates its own elements. Sam points out that the show conflates a lot of different Asian cultures which would otherwise be problematic but the hybrid Asian identity and mash-ups reflect the Asian-American experience. Even spirituality in the form of Buddhism was slipped into a mainstream American children’s show – something that is very rare in Western TV. It also has Indian influences – the word avatar comes from Indian Hinduism to mean reincarnation (though that’s in Buddhism too). 

Aang’s story as a refugee/immigrant where he is the only surviving Airbender whose people were murdered in a genocide led by the Firebenders. He escaped by flying away on Appa which one of the guests considers similar to Vietnamese history where one of their parents fled on boats. The trauma of the loss and ethnic cleansing of home and culture and people draws analogies to the Japanese cultural occupation, the Chinese cultural revolution, the Cambodian genocide, surviving Hiroshima – a great Asian-American story as Sam argues. However, some of his friends poked holes in this theory – so not everyone considers the show as such. 

Sam points out that many white people don’t see the difference between Asian films and Asian-American films. An Asian making a film set in Asia will be completely different than an Asian-American making a film set in the US. In the former case, Asians aren’t minorities. Even in Avatar, the Asians aren’t minorities; in fact, there aren’t any minorities because there are so many different cultures. But this is what Sam loves because nobody is a foreigner and nobody is marginalised for their culture. At one point, Aang finds a food disgusting but he doesn’t make fun of the food and instead tries to hide his feelings. It displays an encounter with unfamiliar cultural elements within an inclusive space.

The episode briefly touches on The Legend of Korra which ends with an implied gay couple between dark-skinned Korra and East-Asian Asami. According to one of the guests, this affirms both queerness and ethnicity. They didn’t confirm this couple on the show but they did in the comics (presumably because mainstream networks still not comfortable with queerness in children’s media which is changing as is evident in She-Ra and Kipo). 

“If you’re trying to represent a group instead of relating to them, then basically you’re placing them in the position of the other.” – Eric

 

10) Essay – In Immigrating from Japan, I Lost Language, Home, and Pokémon 

The writer Nina Coomes talks about her love of Pokemon while growing up in Japan. She then discusses how moving to the US to rural Illinois at the age of 7 meant that she couldn’t communicate anymore and the discomfort that came with that. 

“In essence, I went from being completely linguistically comfortable—reading, writing, and speaking at grade level—to being functionally illiterate. I could say that I was hungry, that I wanted to go to the bathroom, but I couldn’t read or write.”

The politics of language where only the dominant tongue confers the aura of intelligence and an ability to exist and communicate comfortably in society. It’s the marginalised person and language who has to do all the hard and extra work. The dominant groups and languages expect assimilation. The essay explores the immigrant experience in an all-white space where your personality is affected if you don’t speak the language – both linguistically as well as culturally. 

Nina felt a spark of hope when Pokemon arrived in the US but this was soon extinguished when she realised she didn’t recognise any of the names. They had been translated from Japanese to English, an experience which succeeded in further alienating her. This experience also served in pushing her away from Pokemon because it compounded the feelings of loneliness and not fitting in – she became an anti-fan. The things that you lose and find when you shift to a new culture and the things which retain or lose importance is interesting and sad. Nina unexpectedly reconnected with her beloved childhood media as an adult and found her childhood feelings of wonder, adventure and joy. Perhaps it signified now being comfortable with a different language, culture, and country.

“I did not at all expect to be completely suffused with giddy, effervescent euphoria, but that’s what Detective Pikachu did. In Detective Pikachu, I saw Pokémon inhabit space as if they were real. During the first establishing shots of Rhyme City, I watched agog at the many Pokémon that filled the screen. Their vibrant furs ruffling in movie wind; they slithered, fluttered, and meandered down streets. They walked, flew, and swam alongside humans, cawing, chirping, and roaring. Seeing this somehow bypassed the memories of sadness and pain I associated with the franchise, and accessed instead that old, unlikely joy.” 

Some Notes On Episode 7 – 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 7,  There’s Never Chicken Tikka Masala At Hogwarts: Different Cultures in Fantasy Media we discussed the following texts:

1) Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper Cultural Traditions of Magic with Zen Cho

The fantasy fiction that exists depends on which culture is dominant in the real world. The magic systems and fictional worlds it creates and that we eventually grow used to as being the norm depends very much on this dominant culture and religion. This also means that cultures, religions, and practices which aren’t dominant are othered, exoticised and generally marginalised. Traditionally, the dominant framework in the West has been Judeo-Christian and since Western culture has been globalised, this has an impact all over the world. This is definitely true in my case where I grew up reading British and American literature and I still read largely Western fantasy, so this shapes my mind. However, I am trying to look for more diverse fantasy books now. 

My experiences are similar to the ones Malaysian-British author Zen Cho describes. As someone who grew up in a former colony, we had access to British books. She says that reading Regency fiction was like reading about a new world – different language, food, customs, technology. For me, this applies to even things like Enid Blyton or the Baby-Sitters Club, for example. It’s all a foreign world. 

Her writing is influenced by both – a mix of British fantasy traditions as well as local Malaysian folklore, as is mine (maybe less folklore, but Indian contexts for sure). What is magic like in Western fantasy? What ideas have we unwittingly internalised? When I sit to write, I don’t deliberately think about only using one or the other because I grew up in India but largely consume Western media – as did many people – so it’s a mix of both.

In Discworld the wizards were academic magic whereas the witches were community magic. There’s also a rational approach to magic versus wild magic (for example, in Uprooted by Naomi Novik where the Dragon’s magic is intellectual and bookish whereas Nishka’s magic is emotional and earth-based). Does this reflct gendered beliefs and/or Western/pagan belief where Western is academic and proper? There are elements of colonisation where non-Judeo Christian magic is almost considered to be not as good as Western conceptions of magic. Where Western ideas replace the native magic, similar to what we see in Rowling’s Magic in North America controversy. Even within the West, as Jack says, there are many Celtic beliefs which are largely overlooked. I don’t even know what an Indian idea of magic would be. I feel like my brain is so full of other ideas of magic that I’d need to do a lot of research to familiarise myself with Indian magic. Do our ideas of magic change depending on historical contexts as well? Or just what we read first and which imprinted on our mind?

Zen’s world explores cultural clashes in terms of moving to a different country and encountering the different magic systems there. But she also reversed that in a way which I find very interesting. In the True Queen, she goes from Malaysia to Britain and British systems are seen as foreign rather than what is traditionally the other way round where other countries and cultures are considered unfamiliar and exotic. Zen points out that the way the air feels, the light looks, the landscape is, the climate, the food – the default has been European and not tropical. Using Malaysian English, eating Malaysian food, the kind of drinks – all this troubles the conception of what we take for granted – no hard bread and cheese. Enid Blyton’s food has shaped SO much of my brain and Indian imaginations in general. 

As Zen points out, Western culture is more or less global culture now. And media is our glimpse into cultures you’re not familiar with – even if you are from that culture yourself, like me in India. Media shapes your ideas of the place you inhabit as well. In Western culture, it appears like the Enlightenment replaced earlier ideas of magic – we’re now rational and don’t believe in magic – except if it’s religion, I suppose. I think this is similar to my experiences as well where when I was younger I railed against any ideas which went against rational and scientific – which is basically against what is prevalent in most of India, including with my mother. It’s just a different way of understanding the world and I was very snobby about it – convinced I was correct and was so unbearably self-righteous. (Though I’m still very impatient with what I consider irrationality so maybe I’ve only changed the slightest bit). 

Magic is universal and every culture has different ideas of it – but for a lot of people, it’s no longer acceptable to believe in these ideas if you’re a certain kind of person (urban, educated, middle-class/upper-class). Shamanic magic appears in different parts of the world. You do need to be respectful of people who still practise these and believe in this. Places where they consider the world less knowable. For people in the past, religion played a much more central part of their life than it does now (though this is very contextual, of course; large parts of India are extremely religious). So perhaps writing a fantasy set in the past, or the fictional past, may include everyday engagement with religion in the background of fantastical magic – as Zen does in The True Queen where she deliberately chose to show that magic and religion co-existed. But in her world, British culture is foreign whereas Malay culture is the norm, which is why she uses Allah rather than god since Malay culture is predominantly Muslim. This seems like such a little thing but has such a significant impact. The way that god is normalised but Allah is political. As one of the hosts mentioned that in Texas, the Harry Potter books were banned because of their associations with paganism and witchcraft (whereas it clearly is based on a Christian framework). 

 

2) Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper Islands in Speculative Fiction: Live from WorldCon

According to the panelists, some favourite fictional islands include Earthsea, Abarat, the Odyssey, the Voyage of the Dawn Treader in Narnia visiting different islands where the islands are different magical spaces full of different creatures and rules, Circe, the Amazons (with the last two, islands with women being more empowering and potentially feminist spaces). I can also think of Neverland, Gullstruck Island (Frances Hardinge), Lost … Terry Pratchett had one too, I think? And George R. R. Martin had his isles which were far-off and mysterious too.

Vida Cruz, a writer from the Philippines, which consists of several islands, offers a non-dominant view of the islands and cultures – centering an islander perspective rather than a mainlander one.  She points out that when most people write about islands, they write about the ocean or the sea with fear as opposed to the one in Abarat or in Moana, the sea is a friend which can sometimes be dangerous but isn’t something which you only engage with fearfully. Two panelists connect islands as mysterious and magical. Exoticising islands as someone who doesn’t come from an island culture reflects mainland stereotypes and notions about islands and the people who inhabit them.

“The view of islands as isolated and a place of exile is a very mainlander view of viewing islands.”Vida 

As Vida points out, she comes from a community which has always lived on the archipelago, so it has never occurred to her to feel like it’s isolated or fearful. The water itself isn’t considered to be something which separates the islands, but something which connects them. Constructed bridges only appeared with the colonisers. For her the island is just normal. The exoticisation of islands is something which is common with mainlanders who view the islands as an escape. However, they are dismissive of the disruption caused to the ecosystem and lives of the people who actually live on those islands. They do bring tourism and economic benefits with them but it should be in a way that is sustainable and does not destroy the island infrastructure and ecosystem. This is similar to colonisers’ view of the places unfamiliar to them as well as contemporary tourism from wealthier countries to more impoverished countries and cultures. Vida’s opinion is that for people in the West, they were the last to “conquer” water whereas other seafaring cultures saw it in terms of providing and mutual relationships with water. This reflects the former’s land-locked nature. They looked at the sea with fear since it was unknown. And this has shaped how people today also view islands versus mainlands. 

One of the panelists says that in fiction, islands are seen as spaces where rules can be amended or broken down (Lord of the Flies? Robinson Crusoe?) – “Do we need distance to imagine new ways of living?” A questionable trope because it reiterates preconceived notions of “the other” – one person’s exotic is another’s norm. As another of the panelists says, you can think of both how other cultures are different from us as well as how they are similar to us – the combination of the two can go a great way in evoking empathy for different experiences. Vida’s points educated the others on the panel – but some appeared more on board than others. 

Swiss Family Robinson is a very colonial story of island-living – I disliked the book very much, in a way which I wasn’t able to articulate why – but all of it made me very angry! I think I was expecting something very different – and I love some of these books written more than a hundred years ago – Lucy Maud Montgomery, Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott. The idea of Lord of the Flies is a very limited conception of what would happen in a crisis situation with a group of white teenage boys – which goes against documented examples of what happens in real life instances where people tend to come together. The recent Guardian article about a group of boys who were stranded on an island is a popular example. Also the meme of how everyone thought a dystopian pandemic would involve looting and murder but the real-life version includes lots of free art and baking. Istead of being scared of each other, you’re helping each other and trusting each other. We’re all cut off in our own separate islands/homes but still connected to others (of course, this is speaking as someone with immense privilege which many Indian migrant labourers don’t share).

The Spanish colonisation of the Philippines ruined the egalitarian relationships between men and women – reflective of other cultures and countries. In traditional fantasy, islands are always secondary spaces whereas the focus is always on the mainland. Vida proposes that islands are places for resources, where you can steal these resources from. While I was listening to this podcast, Jack pointed out that the popular idea of islands as new frontiers comes from a Western perspective i.e. the American Wild West – somewhere where you can be a new person and have a new life. Is this similar to Western people retiring to islands in different countries? 

Islands can also be used as spaces to highlight cultural diversity, diversity of thought and lifestyles. Vida says that when she visits a local Philippines island, it had its own culture of magic and customs which are unfamiliar to her. 

As one of the panelists who is Welsh and whose husband is from Ireland points out, even within the British island, there are different countries, cultures and politics. Ireland was the first decolonised country of the British empire. She proposed that Ireland was able to retain its independent culture and customs more easily than Scotland and Wales which shares a land border with England. The water border allowed for independence – both politically and culturally – thereby making separation a positive thing. This made me think of internet islands full of different spaces with different cultures – where you can be isolated in your own bubble but can also use it as a bridge of communication with other cultures. Can fandoms be seen as islands with different cultures in different fandoms? 

 

3) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Do You Speak Conlang?

The episode explores the history of constructed languages or “con lang”. People have been inventing languages for fun for several centuries but they usually died out because of a limited reception. With fictional worlds, imaginary languages also belong to imagined cultures which provide a more in-depth engagement with both the language and the culture. How do you encounter and get to know an unfamiliar  culture (fictional + real) through its language? Studying the language of a new culture allows us to understand the culture and the things it considers important. It also allows us to look at our own language and culture with a fresh perspective and question things we otherwise take for granted. When you’re creating a new language in a fictional world, you’re creating at a whole new history for the people through its lexicon – what is important, how the people engage with the world and with each other, their ideologies and politics. To me, moving to the UK achieved this, but not everyone can just up and move to a new country. Travel does this as well, but only if you’re inhabiting the place and engaging with the language in an active way. 

I find it interesting that people take so much effort to learn a fictional language like Elvish and Klingon to understand and engage with a fictional culture but not a real unfamiliar culture. For me, I usually have these phases of wanting to master languages I know but don’t speak super well – Hindi and Marathi is something I’ve completely lost practice with. I want to read more literature in both Hindi and Marathi and now that I’m in England, I don’t even really watch Hindi movies that much (except sometimes on Netflix and once memorably in a theatre in Leeds where I went to watch Gully Boy with Jack and, as a white Scottish man, he was the minority in this desi space). 

The politics of language is interesting – especially in India where English has so much more status than any other language. My neighbour had a school interview in an international school for her young son and she was so nervous because she doesn’t speak English much and was so ashamed of it. She was worried her lack of language skills would have a negative impact on her son’s education and future. In many cases, English is linked to intelligence. Even in my own case, my parents began speaking to me in English at home so that it helped me in school – a convent school. It worked – English is my first language, but at the cost of other languages – I am terrible at Tulu because nobody really taught me Tulu. 

 

4) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds In Defense of the Star Wars Holiday Special

Now I love The Star Wars Holiday Special very unironically because it’s such a wonderfully terrible movie. And I enjoy analysing things that I love – so this episode made me very happy. The force – as one of the religions/faiths in the Stars Wars world – this is so obvious now that I think about it; especially after watching some more Star Wars movies – Rogue One in particular – where the parallels with Buddhism are much more apparent. Throughout the movies, you get brief glimpses into different cultures. In The Holiday Special, the Wookie culture, society and religion are centered so the audience is knee-deep in this and has to navigate their own way through it. 

One of the guests reads it as a refugee story in the middle of its goofiness. The Wookie planet has been taken over by a hostile force which doesn’t care about its happiness or its civil liberties. It’s really easy to laugh at the movie for its absurdity especially the untranslated Wookie dialogue – which constitute the first twenty minutes of the movie. But then thinking about it critically, this reflects the experiences of immigrants, people with disabilities, marginalised races and religions all over the world when they’re either trying to or are forced to assimilate with the dominant culture. It reminded me a little bit of The Arrival by Shaun Tan – a wordless graphic novel featuring an immigrant to a fantastical world. But it can also be read as just an immigrant encountering a land, animals, food, and language that is alien to him – and learning to navigate this.

There’s also a parallel here where people from dominant cultures often don’t make the same effort when visiting/inhabiting another region/country/culture. For example, the group of British people living in Spain who voted for Brexit who think that foreigners who don’t speak English should be kicked out of the UK when they don’t bother learning the language of the country they are living in. The arrogance which comes with cultural imperialism. This is true of Americans as well where the culture of American exceptionalism for many means a very American-centric view of the world even when they do travel. This is certainly true in India where the dominant urban or northern group centers their own lifes, experiences and languages when travelling to other parts of the country. This also reflects such a limited view of cultural exchange – multiculturalism which means you have to assimilate to the dominant culture rather than having a mix of cultures thrive with different food, language, clothes, customs – all equally respected and valued. 

 

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

(I’ve already used this episode as a text for Episode 5, so I’m supplementing the notes I made then with these new ones. For the old notes, click here.)

“The radical idea that native Americans have their own intellectual history” – this reminds me of other cultures whose intellectual histories are dismissed and mocked including indigenous forms of knowledge in both western and Indian contexts. In Harry Potter, Muggle culture is much belittled.

As the episode points out, Rowling relies on tired stereotypes and centres the experiences of white European wizards. She includes Native American history and culture in a cursory way without doing proper research. People shouldn’t write about indigenous (or any unfamiliar) culture without researching them. Rowling’s article exoticises the native people and treats them as if they are no longer around. This isn’t equivalent to ancient Greek mythology whose practices aren’t around whereas native culture and lives are very much a part of contemporary contexts. They think that JKR probably wouldn’t do this with other religions – maybe not with religions, but definitely with cultures, races, and countries. It displays a British colonial perspective. Rowling doesn’t listen to critics and learn from.their point of view even when called out on her ignorance/offensive understanding of certain marginalised aspects of the real world. It exhibits a lack of empathy as well as a failure of imagination by erasing people’s cultural, historical and social experiences. 

As the episode discusses, “Magic in North America” treated native people as set-dressing in their own environment by centering the lives, perspectives and technologies of white people. It also implied that white magic is superior to native practices because that’s when magical history begins. Apart from this, it features a mishmash of Native cultures without doing any research into their actual individual and separate beliefs. Native beliefs and cultures are seen as a museum object – not something which is alive and practised by people even today. It’s disrespectful and full of tropes. While she researched things like Greek mythology in great detail and drew heavily from in the form of fantastical creatures and fantasy history, Native American experiences are not accorded the same respect. It reeks of a European coloniser attitude where native Americans eventually just disappear from her world. 

They also discussed how Native Americans were given new names and language in the residential schools, something which Anne With An E provides a heartbreaking glimpse into. I also found this similar to Chinese students in the UK, all of whom have an English name that they use. Presumably in the latter case, they have more agency that Native American children did; however, the role of cultural and social pressures isn’t to be discounted. 

As the episode asserts, parody without subversion can be harmful, especially when it’s targeting cultures and groups which are already marginalised or oppressed. “Cultural short-sightedness or cultural myopia” is born out the restrictions of your experience and imagination – which is understandable. What is less understandable is when this goes hand-in-hand with a lack of engagement or curiousity about unfamiliar cultures.

Amy and Katie – the guest and the host – are historians, so they know better than to be snobby about popular culture and popular things. What has been popular has changed and what is now popular culture was often considered high culture. Popular doesn’t necessarily mean bad. 

Towards the end of the episode, they discuss the term wonderworks as an alternative way to envision science fiction and fantasy. Wonder is a question not an answer so it provides a perfect framework for speculative fiction – what if? You don’t come with preconceived answers and are willing to go beyond your knowledge and experiences to discover things you may not have otherwise considered. Indigenous futurism and Afrofuturism which imagines indigenous people and black people as present and respected in visions of the future.

Recommended article: Amy Sturgis’s article about Rowling’s failures.  

Besides this, the episode recommends a bunch of Native American writers who write science fiction and fantasy stories.

 

6) Fan podcast – Reading, Writing, Rowling Harry Potter Voices Across Borders

The guest is in this episode is Dr. M’Balia Thomas, a scholar and fan of colour. She proposes that Harry, Hermione and Muggle-born students as foreigners and border-crossers to the wizarding world where they have to grapple with a new language, new cultural, social and political contexts and learn to navigate these as outsiders. This is similar to English language learners who have to navigate new rules sometimes in new contexts – things that they didn’t grow up knowing and have to learn. She thinks this analogy and imagined context can be used to evoke empathy in real life contexts where people have to experience this as well i.e. where people are growing accustomed to difference (in terms of race, religion, immigrants, migrants, class). Using a popular cultural text like Harry Potter where many people are familiar with the characters and the world, is very valuable. 

When Hermione enters the new magical universe, she reads ALL the books about it to understand it so that she can fit in. Of course, this does come from a place of relative social and intellectual privilege, but this privilege intersects with the lack of privilege as an outsider who is seen as lesser than by some purebloods in the community she is about to enter. Her approach is different to Harry’s who learns about the new world through an immersive experience rather than an intellectual one. Colin Creevey holds onto his camera, Dean Thomas holds onto his football posters and teams. This reveals a diversity of experiences while navigating a new world. Muggle-borns don’t represent a monolithic culture – similar to real-world English as a Second Language learners who come from different backgrounds. It can be helpful to use this as an analogy with TESOL (Teaching English as a Second Language) students who may not know people for whom English isn’t the first language. Delving into the personal histories and diverse contexts of the characters can be compared to the students’ own multiple experiences. 

Is Hermione such a stickler to rules because she is an immigrant to this new world and doesn’t want to mess things up? This may be similar to teachers of colour in predominantly white spaces as well. Dr. M’Balia’s experiences reflect this where she struggled to fit into these new spaces and drew on the experiences of Hermione, Harry, as well as Lupin and the challenges he faced. 

Dr M’Balia read the books through a teacher’s perspective and really identified with the teachers in Hogwarts. This especially came to the fore in her role as a teacher educator. As a teacher-educator, she and her students studied the educators and pedagogy employed at Hogwarts. It’s interesting how different this is to the Witch, Please hosts who discuss the pedagogy of Hogwarts as educators too, but they don’t think it reflects well on the teaching practices at Hogwarts. Perhaps there’s lessons to be learned from how not to do things too. There’s also an analogy between Hogwarts teachers, Muggle-borns and teachers of colour in academic spaces as border-crossing which may involve racial prejudices, doubting their ability, and fighting lots of Death Eaters in these spaces. “Mediating experiences through characters helped her find her voice.”

Western media fandom itself is a white-dominated spaces where fans of colour work to disrupt the cultural and racial hegemony through their fan works and discussions. This is similar to navigating academia as a scholar with any aspect of difference. Both the host and the guest encourage scholars studying popular culture and Harry Potter. As one of the many valuable examples, they point to wizard rock such as Harry and the Potters, a band which now engages with social and political issues and activism. This is similar to Harry Potter scholarship and fandom which is increasingly concerned with social and political activism. Fans use Harry Potter as a way to make meaning in our culture. They think that its popularity shouldn’t be held against it. I think the popularity makes it even more important because it makes the themes and discussions accessible to a larger group of people which can include people from wildly different backgrounds. 

Recommended articles:

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Pedagogy in Harry Potter: An Inquiry Into the Personal Practical Knowledge of Remus Lupin, Rubeus Hagrid, and Severus Snape by Dr. M’Balia Thomas.

Trauma, Harry Potter, and the Demented World of Academia by Dr. M’Balia Thomas

7) Article – How Knowledge About Different Cultures Is Shaking the Foundations of Psychology

The article explores how psychology, like many academic disciplines, has a Western focus and tends to apply Western studies, populations and insights as universal principles, overlooking the fact that a person’s cultural context impacts their psychology, attitudes and behaviours. The latter idea is something which psychologists have been arguing more recently – called ‘cross-cultural psychology’. 

According to the article and some research, Western participants tend to display an analytical thinking approach whereas Eastern participants display a holistic thinking approach. Of course, this is also essentialising both the West and the East without interrogating the nuances and complexities inherent within both environments – neither the West nor the East is a monolith. 

“Subsequent studies have shown that cultural differences in thinking styles are pervasive in cognition – affecting memory, attention, perception, reasoning and how we talk and think.”

Even something like mental health and what is considered “normal” differs in diverse cultural contexts – what is normal in one culture may be weird in another – what impact does this have on what is considered mental illness and how this is addressed?  This article is also as good a reason as any to question our ideas of normal and what we take for granted – it is so situationally dependent. What’s normal when I live in India is very different from my life in the UK. Even within the UK, what is normal in Scotland is different from what is normal in England – and it’s such a tiny island anyway!

 

8) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Fantastical Feasts 

After we planned our episode, I listened to this episode which explores what food can reveal in fantasy worlds. One of the guests engages in this thought experiment when creating a new fantastical world:

Imagine how a character in your world would boil water and include all the steps in the process. Is there a well? How do you draw water? Is there engineering? A heat source? Stove/fire? 

What kind of food are you eating when you’re travelling/on the road? Not the same as when you’re stationary. 

In a scarcity economy (in fantasy or in a dystopian universe), characters will care where their food is coming from because they’re constantly hungry 

“An abundance of food can be used as a social critique” – Eric

Food in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (both scarcity in Charlie Bucket’s family and abundance in the chocolate factory), Narnia, Enid Blyton’s books which results from the rationing culture after World War II. 

In SFF, food can be used to express xenophobia where the food is unfamiliar when a person enters a new world. In the real world, the food of people from non-dominant cultures is often met with disgust and/or exocticisation. To flip this concept, the character can be made to eat this unfamiliar food and eat it badly and it’s just how you negotiate unfamiliar things rather than treat them as alien and with disgust. There was a scene showing just this with Aang in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Even food from the past is unfamiliar – not just food from different parts of the country and world. 

Food is politics – supply chain logistics – class warfare – environmental crisis – reimagining food may not just be necessary for creativity in the future but it may be important for survival. During the pandemic, we also have a different relationship with food based on what’s available – flour is disappearing – panic buying – people with resources and time can afford to panic buy – what do you make when you have the time to cook things from scratch? Or have the brainspace and energy to envision healthy meals? 

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