A PhD project exploring intersectionality through fan podcasts

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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? 

Some Notes On Episode 6 – 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 6, “Different Bodies and Different Brains: Depictions of Disability and Ageism in Media” we discussed the following texts:

DISABILITY:

1) Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper Representations of Disability with Marissa Lingen

Disabled people are used as props rather than fully fleshed out characters in the media we consume. They are usually sorted into the categories of either bad disabled people or magically super-powerful disabled people. Another troubling trope of disability is the connection between disability and evil characters where even their physical characteristics become ugly to reflect their villainy. There is a severe lack of different incarnations of disabilities in media. Disabilities are always shown at the extremes and this impacts non-disabled people’s reactions to people with invisible or partially visible disabilities in the real world. For example, partially sighted people are assumed to be completely blind and when people find out they’re not, they act as if the partially blind person is lying. The “all or nothing” representation in media is problematic and has real-world impacts. 

Using magic or technology to fix disabilities in fantasy and science fiction is an uncomfortable idea and reeks of eugenics. As Marissa notes, she is aware that some people with autism don’t view it as a disability, just a difference, and don’t want it to be fixed. Marissa criticises Station Eleven for killing off all the disabled characters in a world post a flu apocalypse where people are building this hopeful new society. It’s a book I loved very much and I hadn’t even noticed this while reading it, which reflects my own biases and blind-spots. If your society in the future has no room for people with physical or mental disabilities, what sort of world is that? The characters of Bran versus Hodor in Game of Thrones also have some problematic elements. Physical disability is contrasted by mental disability and this has class implications where Bran’s experiences and life are ultimately more important than the Hodor’s. Another troubling trope is using a disability to provide characters with magical powers – something you see with Bran. 

A lot of abled writers are hesistant writing about disabled characters. The excuse to not write about them is similar to those people not wanting to write about other cultures and races; they are afraid they would inadvertently offend people or wouldn’t be able to do a good job. But researching unfamiliar cultures – such as a specific disability – would help, just like you would research anything else. As Marisa notes, many stories tend to focus on the carers and family members of people with disabilities rather than centreing the experiences of the disabled people; while the former is a valid perspective, it’s not a perspective which sheds light on the lived experience of the person with disabilities.

 

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

One of the podcasters points out that superficial research leads to stereotyped characters with disabilities – so many similarities between race, caste, disability, age representations – basically anything that’s marginalised in mainstream media and culture. 

Neurodivergent and autistic fans read themselves into the story – much like people of the races who aren’t dominant in their society and in canon. Some fans reads Hermione and Luna as autistic. Hermione for being socially awkward who doesn’t fit in, and is a know-it-all; Luna for talking without considering the social situation, not conforming to normative ideas and conversations, being dismissed for being loony. Furthermore, one of the podcasters reads Luna as both autistic and sight-disabled – intersections of physical and mental disabilities. One of the podcasters also reads Anne of Green Gables as neurodiverse for similar reasons. I love these readings and can even identify with some of them since I identify with all three characters. 

Another similarity is how fans with disabilities find recognition and understanding in fan communities formed of similarly marginalised groups where they realise that they’re not the only one who sees themselves in a particular character, resulting in a communal understanding of fictional characters. Furthermore, it isn’t necessary that characters with mentally disabilities are only relatable to those who have similar experiences; non-disabled people also can read about different disabilities.

Marginalised people so often tend to get isolated in a dominant group when it comes to disabilities, queerness, trans folks or even race. Ableism is a form of oppression – one can draw parallels between ableism and racism.  

“Oppression dehumanises a person.” 

Disability can be seen as a culture whose members need to assimilate to the dominant culture in order to be respected as equal. This is similar to Asians, black people, indigenous and Latinx people integrating to the dominant norm the US. I never considered this idea before! There’s also intersectionality within the disability community – people who are girls, Latinx and black are identified as autistic much later due to medical biases. 

Neville’s parents are stuck in St. Mungo’s forever. Their trauma is never explored as is own thing; it’s only understood through Neville. They are dehumanised in many different ways through their loss of agency and selfhood. With Lupin, there’s the intersection of disability and queerness. He is coded as a gay man who gets the magical world version of HIV. Tonks could easily be genderfluid – again, something I never thought about – especially if Lupin and Tonks are both read as queer. 

Being a Squib in the Potterverse can be seen as a magical disability – the three Squibs we meet are Argus Filch, Mrs Figgs, Ariana Dumbledore (whose disability is implied to be trauma-induced). Filch is seen as a “defective wizard” similar to how people with disabilities are seen as defected humans by some people. Both disabled people and Squibs are stigmatised by mainstream society and culture. According to the panel, Voldemort can also be read as disabled – psychologically disabled and physically disfigured. This interpretation makes me think of mass shooters where if they’re white, people enquire into their mental background whereas people of different races and religions are held as representatives for their whole race or religion. Albeit Voldemort isn’t pure-blood. One of the panelists talks about how fans read Voldemort as asexual and draw parallels with this and his villainy. The panelist speaks of her own experiences of asexuality and how Voldemort’s coding as asexual is heteronormative. 

Education at Hogwarts isn’t at all prepared for people with different learning abilities – which is especially surprising considering that they have a fair number of Muggle-borns who aren’t used to the magical world at all. Crabbe and Goyle are just dismissed as being stupid. Not being traditionally intelligent seems to mean you’re not valued or are considered worthless. Hagrid can also be seen as an atypical learner who would have benefited from more considerations of his educational needs. Popular culture conversations can be used as a way to include diverse marginalised perspectives, particularly in education where the educator isn’t the only arbiter of knowledge.

“The assumption that if you have a disability, it’s a fate worse than death.” 

Or the assumption that if you have a disability, you must be suffering.

 

3) Video – The Gayly Prophet Disability in the Witching World

I didn’t think of the implications of making Filch the caretaker of the school who is responsible for cleaning up all the different kinds of messes when he has no magic and it would be so much easier for someone with magical abilities to do this. It is an employment opportunity, sure, but pretty terrible all things considering. Surely there would be different routes into employment which don’t involve so much work in often humiliating conditions. No wonder he hates the students! 

I believe what Lark refers to is the social model of disability – the disability itself is a social and structural problem and not the problem of the person with the disabilities. Society needs to be restructured to accommodate different kinds of bodies and brains. 

 

4) Essay – J. K. Rowling Illness and Disability

It’s interesting that Rowling says she’s considered issues of illness and disability right from the beginning of the series, because it’s not explicitly addressed in the series. However, as she herself mentions, there are parallels one can draw between characters and real-life conditions (Lupin’s lycanthropy and HIV infections and Dementors and depression, for example).

On recently rereading the first book, Neville definitely comes across as neurodiverse. He could even be read as someone with dyspraxia or vertigo. He needs a leg up through the portrait hole into the Gryffindor common room, he isn’t very good at balance and coordination, and is also extremely forgetful. The Gayly Prophet has read him as having ADHD and/or learning disabilities as well. Reading the first book as an adult, the Dursleys’ abuse is so much more noticeable and unsettling – very Roald Dahlesque as The Gayly Prophet pointed out. I’d never thought about the impact of this constant abuse on Harry’s mental well-being. 

Also, surely Hogwarts is terrible for any kind of disability – physical or mental! In the first year, when they are all of eleven years old, their detention not only involves going into a very dangerous forest that is literally forbidden to all students because of how risky it is but they also have to do this in the middle of the night all night?!?!? What sort of school is this?!

The article seems to imply that death, illness, and disability are sort of equivalent; which um … some illnesses sure, but not something like the common cold. The article seems to conflate an injury like a scorpion sting with illness and disability. Regular injuries can be cured but not magical injuries. However, there doesn’t seem to be any mental health provisions which allow people to live in the magical society (for example, Frank and Alice Longbottom). Other disabled characters include Mad-Eye Moody, George Weasley, Lupin with his chronic condition, and Harry’s PTSD in Order of the Phoenix.

I think it’s interesting that Rowling did explore ideas of disability and included disabled characters in her books. But I get the feeling that much like racial diversity in her series, this was very much in terms of an outsider to the culture making superficial efforts at inclusion without any serious considerations of or indeed consultations with people who experience disabilities. 

 

5) Reddit thread – How do physically disabled people travel around Hogwarts?

One commenter seems to suggest that all disabilities are magically fixed when one enters the magical world. However, as Rowling says, this seems to depend on whether the cause is magical or not. Magical effects are harder, if not impossible, to fix (much as a couple of commenters point out by citing Rowling’s Pottermore article). I’m also uncomfortable about the idea that there are magical fixes for disabilities so that they disappear rather than including disabilities and exploring them in the series itself as a way for disabled readers to see themselves in the series – there’s no magical fixes in real life, no? Like in real life, surely the magical society is lacking in making provisions for people with disabilities accessible, thereby othering them and marginalising them. This reminds me of the current Coronavirus implementations. People are now asked to work from home, lectures are moving online, some conferences are being cancelled and online options are being considered. This is what people with disabilities have always wanted – according to the disability rights activists I’ve been reading on Twitter/Facebook. Especially with the technology we have available today, people with disabilities could have easily been included by making systemic accommodations. It’s just that nobody could be bothered or were actively working against it. When forced by a pandemic, suddenly everything seems possible. 

I love all the in-depth conversations and theories that some fans have come up with on the thread to explore the missing gaps in the books:  

“But folks in wheelchairs function perfectly fine in our society for the most part, better since we started designing a lot of places to take their needs into account, and that’s just normal, non magical real life/muggleland where our solutions are limited by our technology. Wheelchairs are cheap and effective. I’d imagine that if there is any form of paraplegia in HP that can’t be magically solved, they could rig up some alternate form of locomotion fairly easily that was much better than a wheelchair (someone would surely have the necessary skills and be willing to do it for money if not out of the goodness of their heart). Like a magical set of leg braces that walked for you. Or a floaty chair, or a really comfy broom.” – noydbshield

 

“Wheelchairs are for muggles. Disabled wizards probably have broomchairs that take them wherever they want to go. Trick staircases are no match for their powers of levitation.” – TheFeury

 

“Worth mentioning that some people don’t want their disability cured. There are those, primarily those who have been disabled since birth, who see it as a part of their identity and would not take a cure if offered. It’s more common in people with high functioning autism, who see what others would consider a problem as a difference in human experience.

It’s not a viewpoint I understand, I’d chuck my wheelchair out at the first opportunity. But it exists. And presumably the magical world wouldn’t force a cure on someone who didn’t want it.” – Destruct-o-Bun

As someone else pointed out, people need glasses in Hogwarts. And it’s such a small thing but glasses not only very much help with my inability to see without them but are also very much a part of my identity. Someone thinks it’s similar to the real world where the eye lens is changing as a teenager and laser surgery is only recommended in your 20s. However, as someone else responds, Dumbledore, Flitwick and McGonagall are definitely older and they still wear glasses. 

“Maybe the children can’t get corrective charms until they stop growing. Maybe the adults that have glasses are wearing them for other purposes, like they’re enchanted to help them see other stuff.” – hybbprqag

 

“Exactly. And why is laser surgery expensive? Because it’s difficult to do.

The eye is very complicated, certainly more complicated than teeth, and there are different types of sight impairment, so I wouldn’t at all be surprised if that type of magic was very difficult to do. Even in the wizarding world, complicated enchantments make for expensive products and services.” – Drajons

 

“I think this too. Possibly medical stuff is free for kids? Dental work on my country is free until we hit 18, then they start charging. I would imagine that medical and dental work will still cost money? Just like most things. I think some people might have a talent for small charms to fix things, the way Luna fixed Harry’s nose, but bigger spells likely require years of education. If spells were so easy to learn, they wouldn’t need 7 years of schooling? They’d just need one year to master the swish and flick of their wand then could just be sent on their merry way with a spell book or two.

I like to think that if my Records hadn’t been destroyed and my Hogwarts letter had arrived, I would be a witch seamstress 🙂 is still charge for my work lol” – MelMelMax

 

I think the main reason we don’t hear about disabled students in Hogwarts is because it’s very unlikely for a child to have been cursed with such dark magic that their injury would be incurable (not counting Harry’s scar), and a curse like that would be the most likely cause for an incurable physical disability in the magical world. – earth199999citizen

 

I think this is a really interesting topic to discuss. So here’s what I’d add to what’s already been said :

  • How likely is it that disabled students would go away to a boarding school that doesn’t have specific provision for additional care needs?

  • If bad eye sight can’t be cured (Harry’s not the only one who starts glasses) can other impairments, however severe?

  • I once read a fan fiction about a student who used a wheelchair. If she needed to get somewhere inaccessible (eg up steps, into the train) she’d levitate herself (by pointing her wand at herself) then levitate the wheelchair. – caret-top 

 

Even if there are disabled wizards/witches that need to use wheelchairs, I’m sure the magic community could have easily created a product that uses hover charms and the like to help users navigate rough terrain. All a chair would need really is to hover a few inches above the ground and move that way for them to be able to get around Hogwarts and that seems easily doable. Although, like others have said, I don’t think natural physical disabilities like that are common or not curable via magic. – whatxever 

I think there does need to be more systemic and social accommodations for people with disabilities either physical or mental both in the magical world and the real world. If, as one theory says, the community comes together to help witches and wizards with disabilities, why can’t we do that too?! 

 

6) Article – Harry Potter and the Curse of Disability

What this article explores is why I love fandom so much! When fans love a world so much but also want to address its shortcomings and draw on their own experiences and interests to explore it more deeply and add more inclusivity. You can understand a disability or a person with a disability’s life and experience so much through a story they have written themselves, which is essentially what these fic writers are doing.  We’ve spoken about this before, but that’s why we need to have so much more diversity among creators of media – so far the focus has largely been on race in the West and caste in India, but physical and mental disabilities is also such a huge field to explore. There need to be all kind of stories – where the disability is just a normalised part of the story as well as how characters negotiate with their disabilities 

“La Guera, a disabled fanfic author in her mid-twenties, and author of the multi-chapter Potter fanfic Summon the Lambs to Slaughter. It introduces us to 15-year-old witch Rebecca Stanhope, who transfers to Hogwarts from the Disabled American Institute for Magical Studies. Like the author, Rebecca has CP.” 

“It occurred to me, as I read the books, that JK Rowling has representatives of every race and creed, but she has no disabled students of any kind. It struck me as very sad.”

La Guera doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable bits of cerebral palsy in her story which makes able-bodied readers understand her experiences and circumstances, all using the framework of a fictional magical world. She also doesn’t kowtow to the stereotype of a magical disabled person who has extraordinary skills to make up for their disability. The magic of a person telling their own story! Fanfiction has so much room for these different kinds of stories – people born with disabilities and those who experience disabilities after having lived as an able-bodied person. Even with Harry in canon, I don’t know how he appeared so well-adjusted despite all the abuse and trauma inflicted on him by the Dursleys. I suppose it all caught up to him in Order of the Phoenix. I didn’t even make the connection between PTSD and his anger in the series until I was researching for my master’s dissertation and analysing a Harry Potter Facebook fan page where there was a detailed conversation about this – people drawing on their own experiences and making connections between his experiences and behaviour. 

Fanfic is obviously not perfect, as La Guera acknowledges. Just like in mainstream media, lots of preconceived notions about disabilities and stereotypes may make an appearance too. Just like with writing a story for mainstream publication, if you’re writing a fic about a culture which isn’t your own, that surely warrants just as much sensitivity and research. I also like her point where she feels like able-bodied readers won’t connect with disabled characters in mainstream bookshops. Makes me think how much I’ve gone out of my way to look for characters with disabilities to expand the diversity of my reading – not much, shamefully! It’s not that I think I won’t connect with these characters. I think it’s a blind-spot I haven’t bothered addressing. The few children’s books I have read which have disability as the background, I’ve appreciated the inclusion very much … but apparently not enough to go looking for more?

 

AGE: 

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

In children’s literature too, wouldn’t young readers read about cool old people? Even if they’re co-protagonists? Perhaps even the sole protagonist? As one of the hosts says from her own experience, children don’t mind watching TV shows featuring older characters. Reminds me of the David Walliams book Gangsta Granny which is making this idea more accessible to mainstream audiences. I also recently read and fell in love with My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises which features a brilliantly mad old grandmother and her seven-year-old granddaughter. Ostensibly it’s a book for adults; however, as one of the 11-year-old reviewers on Goodreads points out, adults shouldn’t make assumptions about whether or not kids will enjoy the book and consequently overlook it (the reviewer in question enjoyed the book). As someone on the podcast says, I do love Pratchett’s old witches – Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg – they’re some of my favourite characters. Stereotypes are presented but subverted and they very good role models too (even if we, unlike them, don’t have magic). Dumbledore is also a fascinatingly complex, flawed character whose life and experiences we understand in great depth rather than just this superficially wise older mentor. 

Can older characters not go on adventures? Surely that’s a bit of a cop-out. You don’t need to write older characters as just young people in old bodies. I think including their experiences and struggles would make for an interesting story – new challenges to explore. Someone on the podcast proposes that young people make good fantasy protagonists because they’re discovering the magical world anew. But it would be an interesting concept to flip this a bit and have older people discover a new fantasy world too when they’re pretty confident and sure of how the world works and now have to negotiate with a new world. Like if a 72-year-old discovers Hogwarts either accidentally or because, as millions of us hope, their letter was lost in the mail. Or if it’s an old Muggle who discovers it by accident. Or if it’s set in future world, perhaps an older person having to contend with a new future world and new technology and politics and social and cultural environments. I mean even with this Coronavirus pandemic, we’re all getting to know a new world right now. A world that may become increasingly common with the climate crisis and related effects. Just like young and middle-aged people, surely there are different kinds of old people too.

As one of the hosts says, old is quite contextual historically and geographically – some people live much older or die much younger based on the current social and political circumstances. Much like disability, age is also a blind-spot for me. I appreciate the inclusion of a diversity of characters but again, I haven’t really made an effort to actively go out and look for books with specifically those characters. Over the last year, I’ve been trying more or less actively to read fantasy books written by women. It started off unconsciously, then a little more actively, and now I find that I tend to be drawn to them just naturally because I’ve found that I much prefer these books written by women because I feel like they’ve centred women’s experiences at the forefront in a way which fills me with delight. 

 

8) Fan podcast – Woke Doctor Who The Women Who Waited

Ideas about age and disability are particularly pertinent to me with this COVID-19 outbreak where the fatalities are largely among older people and people with underlying health issues. Social distancing is being employed as a way to protect them; at the same time, there are people panic buying or even going on as business as usual without thinking of the ramifications of their actions or inaction on these groups. Some supermarkets in the UK are now opening the shops only to older people for an hour in the morning to avoid the masses of panic-buyers. Panic buying has SO many class, race, age implications. All the Indian and other world food aisles and shops seem strangely untouched. Qwhite interesting. 

Mainstream media, society, culture seems to value youth. Older/old women are associated with bitterness – even for someone like me who can’t wait to grow older because of all the exciting new experiences I’ll have, it’s difficult not to prey fall to a feeling of panic when everyone in society is telling you to panic – anti-ageing creams, hair dyes to hide the white hair (I’ve had white hair since I was about 13 – it’s only becoming greyer now. I don’t feel the need to dye my hair to hide the white – only to be purple or something). Most of these anti-ageing remedies seem to be marketed to women more than men. It’s even worse when you add other intersections of identities with age – queerness, race, disability, nationality, class, religion. I’m now also thinking of how this impacts participation in in-person activism like Shaheen Bagh. 

Romance between older characters is also rare in mainstream media – it’s not something I considered until they pointed it out and appreciated the relationship between Peter Capaldi and River Song. The show also initially pits Sarah Jane against Rose – age versus youth – showcasing the bitterness of older woman. Amy Pond does give birth but we don’t see her as a mother due to wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff. Donna received critique as a companion on the show initially because people had grown used to “young, hot companions”. Portrayal of Donna’s attraction was played off as comedy while River’s attraction is seen as powerful. 

“We need to be comfortable as a society to see old people – older people in heroic roles.” – Eugenia 

Older people just like people with disabilities are desexualised in mainstream imagination. Older people are perceived to have outlived their attractiveness, people with disabilities are seen as defective – both are seen as lesser than people who are the norm. Life shouldn’t be seen as stopping after a certain age or if your body or brain aren’t society’s idea of perfect.

 

9) Essay – TV Tropes and Ageism: How Kids’ Pop Culture Promotes Discrimination

The essay talks specifically of popular culture’s impact on age-based discrimination, but as the whole core of this podcast and project explores, popular culture and media is responsible for influencing attitudes about so many marginalised communities. There’s also the intersection of age and gender where older women are erased or sidelined in media whereas older men still seem to retain power in society. In Doctor Who, while the Doctors began as old men (in the original series), the female companions tended to be younger and there to provide a damsel in distress character  (for the most part, according to Inside The Tardis). In the new series, we’ve had one older male Doctor but most of the companions have been young women. This is why I love both Donna and River Song who are not old but older compared to the other companions in the show. And now there’s Graham as well as well as Doctor Ruth. 

In Harry Potter, Dumbledore is the classic old white man mentor. But as one of the podcast episodes I listened to on Witch, Please said, McGonagall isn’t described to be particularly old. It’s the movies which have influenced our understanding of the character. In a children’s book, I suppose it makes sense if young people have all the agency and question the authority of older adults. As real life has shown, we adults frequently don’t know what we’re doing, especially those in charge of how the world and its systems function. In Anne With An E, great-aunt Josephine was excellently badass. I loved seeing Marilla and Matthew and Rachel’s interactions too – centering their experiences in the show. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Uncle Iroh was one of my favourites as well. 

In fandom, ageism may work the other way where younger people’s interests and practices are dismissed by older adults. However, within these platforms populated by younger people, they may not appreciate older fans in what they consider their space. 

As the article points out and as is reflected in mainstream media and culture, older women are seen as crazy for subverting expectations of how they’re supposed to behave and live. I think there’s an empowering potential here, but surely craziness should be the norm. Do what you want now that the burden of looking after others and bowing to their demands is largely unnecessary? And should this freedom not be available to younger women too? 

Again, we need to have more older people writing books for both younger readers as well as adult readers to combat stereotypes and undo ingrained social conditioning – same goes with media. Diversity of all kinds just makes life so much more interesting!

I think with the climate crisis and even now with the pandemic, we need to work together as a community, which in many cases means first developing that community and looking after those who are most vulnerable. This is both the very young and the very old and the in-between ones with disabilities and health conditions. Jack thinks the pandemic will force us to restructure our social system even in the future because we’re now being forced to do it and will see that it works. I really hope that’s true!

 

10) Doctor Who episode – Series 12 Episode 7 Can You Hear Me?

Some thoughts on the episode:

  • The show starts with a mental clinic in Syria 1380. Implies a relatively enlightened way in which they treated mental health problems. 
  • Fears being dismissed as mental illness – but turns out to be aliens. For people who are going through the anxiety or paranoia or depression or hallucinations, feels very real. I couldn’t help but think of my neighbour and how we discovered he has paranoid schizophrenia after one night where he had a breakdown and his partner had to call the police. 
  • Mental illness as metaphor – aliens representing this. 
  • But the episode also showed different expressions of illness and different ways of dealing with it
  • Ryan’s friend – good glimpse of male support and friendship when dealing with mental illness
  • Graham’s male friendships and how they’re looking after each other 
  • Mental wellness during the Coronavirus quarantine – even for otherwise healthy people is something that’s at the forefront of the discourse in many parts of the internet 
  • Yaz and Sonya celebrating the anniversary of Yaz’s recovery – or at least her first step towards recovery in being dissuaded from an implied suicide attempt  
  • The image of this old white dude being responsible for all their problems really made me laugh
  • Ryan and dyspraxia – as Robert mentioned in the episode we recorded, dyspraxia is both physical and mental 
  • Yaz’s implied suicide attempt. In the nightmare sister says, “Do it right this time. I won’t be calling anyone. No point. You’re weak.” What people’s brains say to them and the different ways your brain can be your worst enemy
  • Yaz doesn’t think anybody cares about her. She’s bullied in school. Just having someone to talk to you and say “I understand.” Asking for help can be the most difficult step
  • Graham’s double fears – cancer returning and his deceased wife Grace holding him responsible for her death and being unable to save her
  • The episode made me incredibly weepy!
  • I wonder if the metaphorical mental illness representation bothers people with mental illness the same way we complain about representations of race in metaphorical ways
  • Casual diversity – interracial villain who are actually a couple of aliens
  • Tahera’s nightmares become real so she conquers her fear and uses it against her immortal tormentors
  • Group therapy that Ryan’s friend tries out – going out to the supermarket just as an opportunity to talk to someone – the link between isolation, loneliness, and mental health – and how this is being exacerbated during the lockdown 
  • I didn’t like the ending where Jodie is so useless with Graham’s worries and him opening up to her – although I suppose that’s a risk of opening up to someone too and having someone open up to you

Some Notes On Episode 5 – 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 5 “It’s Like She’s Not Even There: Misogyny, Masculinity, and Different Cultures” we discussed the following texts:

1) Essay – Ron Weasley Vs Ron Weasley

The essay argues that the movie adaptation of the Harry Potter book series butchers the characterisation of Ron Weasley. This makes me think about the arguments I’d encountered during my master’s research where people had such different opinions of Ron Weasley as a character and I wonder if this has anything to do with which adaptation influenced people’s perspectives  – the books or the movies. According to the essay, Ron seems to come across as more of a misogynist in the movies than the books. But as Witch, Please points out, he has plenty of misogynist moments in the books too – his treatment of Ginny’s dating history, his incel-ish behaviour against Hermione (think this was raised in Harry Potter and the Sacred Text), his anger towards Hermione going to the ball with Krum (a lot of this may be due to his age and hopefully he grows out of this). Which makes me think of real life examples of misogyny among teenage boys which, if left unaddressed, can lead to truly terrible consequences (shootings, acid attacks etc.)

The article mentions the example of the Devil’s Snare where in the books Ron’s exclamation of “Are you a witch or not?!” at Hermione helps lead her to a solution. This also makes me think of Witch, Please’s point that movie Hermione seems to have received a lot of lines from other characters in the book (including Dumbledore and either Dean or Seamus). On the one hand, showing Hermione to be infallible and perfect is a good example of female agency in a mediascape where this is rare; but on the other, it doesn’t have room for the nuances, complexities and flaws which make up an authentic and interesting character. They point out that female representations in media (as with representations of other marginalised groups) tend to be either aspirational or identifiable – I love both and there should be enough room for both. I want ALL kinds of women’s rep.

I love the in-depth analysis of this essay. I’m not sure whether this essay was originally written as an academic assignment. But I believe fandom is rife with similar analyses and examples of critical thinking, all born out of intense engagement with people’s favourite texts, characters and worlds.

 

2) Essay – Ginny Weasley, The Girl Who Deserved More

The essay argues that one of the critiques fans have against Ginny is that she’s a “girly girl” which again reminds me of my master’s research where a fan said “You can be both feminine and a badass, it’s not mutually exclusive.” The fan was responding to another fan’s assertion that the movies ruined Ginny’s portrayal by making her too feminine. As the books are so much from Harry’s POV (something Witch, Please keeps reiterating), we only see what he sees. When you’re younger, it’s so easy to get carried away by superficial observations and not really look at the people Harry interacts with and recognise them as whole, fully-fleshed out characters in their own right. 

In the humour section of the essay, the person says that there are no jokes about Fleur from Ginny which showcases her lack of humour in the books. However, this is again something Witch, Please pointed out, the way Ginny, Hermione and Mrs. Weasley treated Fleur was quite awful when you think about it. Why did they seem to dislike her so much? Because she was pretty and feminine? She was also strong and powerful – her school’s representative for the Triwizard Tournament. And she  was fiercely loyal too, apart from being kind and helpful. (Another example from my master’s research was a Tumblr post which pointed out all the ways in which they thought Fleur was awesome and it made me question my own assumptions and prior beliefs – I loved it). 

Again, Witch, Please and Harry Potter and the Sacred Text point out, Ginny does a lot of growing up and overcomes her trauma of being possessed and nearly murdered as an eleven-year-old. She holds her own against her brothers’ teasing, she joins in on the fun, she has her own friends and life, is kind and funny but also won’t stand for nonsense from anybody – not even friends or family. She’s a brilliant Quidditch player, she’s great at spells but in a very different way from Hermione (she’s invited to the Slug Club because she casts a bat bogey hex on someone I believe?). She’s a part of the resistance both in Dumbledore’s Army and in the school in The Deathly Hallows. She has a crush on Harry but then gets over it and doesn’t spend her school life pining from him; she explores her dating options and won’t stand for Ron’s slut shaming. She and Harry are drawn back together based on their shared experience of trauma and a genuine friendship. The movies don’t show the complexities and nuances of Ginny’s characters (as with many other characters) where she’s relegated to the role of love interest and nothing beyond that. I absolutely agree with the article that in a series and media space where there are such few young women characters with agency and complexity, the movies have a bigger responsibility in how they represent them – especially when the source text is full of examples.

I love this essay because it provides such in-depth details about Ginny’s relationships and friendships with Hermione and Luna who I also love. This is erased in the movies in the vein of mainstream media erasing strong female friendships. I love that the essay provides concrete examples and cites sources from other parts of the internet – academic practices in non-academic spaces. 

 

3) Essay – Strong Female Characters: Ginny Weasley

As this essay points out, Ginny isn’t magically a great character; she grows to be one and draws on her experiences and relationships with people. She isn’t really a rule follower and generally tends to ignore parental or institutional authority when it gets in the way of what she wants to do either for fun or for something like overthrowing an unjust government. She’s a well-rounded character without one superficial trait dominating all others – she has time for both work and play. More than Ginny just being there to be Harry’s love interest, I think Cho Chang definitely was there just to fulfill that role – we know very little about Cho and this has both gender and racial implications. 

The article points out that Ginny warms up to Fleur when she realises she isn’t as shallow as Ginny thought. I think there’s room here to explore why Ginny (and Hermione and Molly) thought that in the first place. When we live in a patriarchal society, women are conditioned to have biases and stereotypes too – we all have them. It matters whether we unlearn this conditioning and try to educate ourselves and question our implicit biases. One commenter below this essay says that their biggest issue with Ginny is that she never had to show remorse for some of the things she did. While I would agree with this with her treatment towards Fleur (I can’t remember any other examples off the top of my head mostly because I haven’t re-read the series in a while). But the commenter’s example is Ron – “how much she was kicking Ron down in HBP when he was already feeling down and terrible and yet nothing was said about it. It’s such a far cry from the nice girl who comforted him in GoF.” This I utterly disagree with! Ron was horrible to her and Hermione in Half-Blood Prince for a myriad of reasons which had to do with him and his insecurities and not them. But he still took it out on them and slut-shamed them. It’s not a woman’s job to take care of shitty men full stop. I’m glad Ginny stood up for herself when he was being terrible and didn’t fall for the stereotype/social conditioning of “being nice”.

 

4) Essay – Supernatural: A History of Violence Against Women

The essay points out that violence is a way to control female characters/further male characters stories/objectify women. This is similar to characters of colour/white characters and characters with disabilities/nondisabled characters. 

I was very upset when they killed Charlie too because I loved her and she was one ray of cheerful hope in a series which could get quite dark. She was also one of the only women in the male-dominated show which has a propensity to kill of its women. I don’t know if I was able to articulate why the death upset me then as I can now because I didn’t watch things critically then and didn’t have the vocabulary to put my thoughts in order. This is why I love fandom which is full of people with such different kinds of intelligences that the collective intelligence helps make up for my own blindspots and lack of understanding 

“People can love problematic works, but I think some recognition of the issues are required.”

I totally agree with all media – Supernatural, Harry Potter, Enid Blyton. You can love something and still be able to acknowledge its faults. One doesn’t diminish the other. And if it does, maybe the thing you love can be put aside and you can look for something new to love which is more deserving of your attention. We’re hardly lacking for choices now (though for people on the margins, the options are still quite limited).

“To clarify: the issue isn’t that women die within Supernatural. Everyone dies within Supernatural, including the male characters. The issue is how and why characters die, what the story is telling us with their deaths, and how Supernatural treats them when they are alive.”

I like the point this essay raises about how men’s deaths are framed to showcase their heroism while women’s deaths are framed to showcase their vulnerability – this is a major problem with not only Supernatural but with popular media in general, as the writer argues. Especially since popular media and culture plays such a huge role in influencing attitudes both of adults and young people. The framework of the show not only relies on the male gaze but it also makes me think of how white the show is. 

“Whether a story is made for pure entertainment value, or made to convey a specific issue or struggle, all art contributes to people’s understanding of the universe. All media has an impact on the people who engage it—intentional and unintentional. Scrutiny of sexist, racist, heteronormative, ageist, ableist, and other biased or discriminatory themes within a work is both necessary and important, especially when the show itself fails to contextualize it. By unquestioningly accepting these story aspects, we can end up perpetuating the societal issues they represent.” 

Examples of literally demonising the women characters and then justifying all the abuse – physical, mental and verbal – against them because they’re “monsters” says more about the creators of the show and their attitudes towards women than anything else. This essay made me really uncomfortable in a really good way. I think the points it raises about misogyny in Supernatural (and other media) are things which have been in the back of my mind but it’s not something I have actively negotiated. All the examples laid out and the ways in which their characterisation was portrayed just makes me feel sick to my stomach. A lot of the vile quotes in these examples seem to be uttered by the villains – but as a writer, you control what your villain says. They don’t come up with these things themselves. And when you have them say such demeaning awful things, that’s really on you. It doesn’t make you edgy or cool especially since all evidence points to the fact that Supernatural has a predominant audience of young women (not that it would be better if the audience was all men – in that case, this would be equally if not even more harmful). 

 

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

I never thought about the connections between Harry Potter and Greek mythology – even though they’re quite obvious. A few years after I started reading Harry Potter, I got hooked onto the Percy Jackson series which has a much more direct link with mythology and makes it contemporary and fun. And I fell hard for mythology then – including exploring Indian mythology. I love exploring all the ancient stories of different cultures and civilisations that were written thousands of years ago and are still passed around today.  

Some examples borrowed from Greek mythology in Harry Potter – the creatures (sphinx, werewolves, griffins, unicorns, chimera, centaurs, phoenix), the prophecy and how it propels the plot, Fluffy, names (Luna, Remus Lupin, Cassandra and Sybil Trelawney, Argus Filch, Minerva McGonagall, Pomona Sprout, Aurora Sinistra among others). 

What I love is that the interpretation is valid because it reflects the reader’s engagement with the series, but there’s also room for multiple interpretations. So if I read it from the lens of another culture’s mythology, it would be interesting to find out what I’d discover. 

 

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

Proposes that the Hogwarts houses are similar to the cults which grew around worshipping different gods in ancient Greek cultures – again, I like that you can interpret texts in different ways because when I was talking to two of my Indian friends about this during an earlier episode, we thought of how the houses reflect the Hindu caste system – which was quite an uncomfortable thought! About how they’re segregated right from the moment they enter and they don’t have many interactions to truly interact with each other in meaningful ways which leads to more tribalism 

Another way  that fan practices resemble academic practices – room for countless interpretations based on the reader’s own priorities and preferences 

The mythology of the Hogwarts founders akin to Greek gods and goddesses

The magical objects perform functions similar to objects in Greek mythology – Rowena Ravenclaw’s diadem, the Deathly Hallows, Veela as Sirens

As she traces the lineage of Fleur’s Veela heritage – “As Apolline Delacour a half-Veela, thus her children Fleur and Gabrielle are quarter-Veela, and Fleur’s children Victoire, Dominique and Louis are eighth-Veela” – it makes me also think of indigenous people and how multiracial families 

 

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

The hosts explore the similarities between different civilisational myths as they travelled over the world. They propose that Harry Potter provides a new form of mythology and culture by providing a new way of understanding the world and making sense of its people and events. This makes me think of contemporary examples of activism which draws parallels from Harry Potter (and other popular texts) as a form of protest. The hosts draw parallels between the philosopher’s stone and the fountain of youth, and Gryffindor’s sword and the sword in the stone. One of the hosts points out that you can apply multiple mythological lenses to the same character and it still works. The series creates a new mythology of death as well building on previous mythologies of death. What food you eat also differs and your good often represents your culture in different ways. Customs, traditions, rituals, ceremonies like weddings and deaths differ from culture to culture. Not just Harry Potter, but Disney movies can also act as a space of mythology.

 

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

A feminist critic has to contend that while watching or reading their favourite media, they can’t turn the part of their brain that identifies problematic representations and storylines. Despite Harry being a white middle class straight cisgender able-bodied protagonist, he still begins the series as an isolated outsider to the society in which he lives. Marcel’s theory is that this is why the fandom has attracted so many people from groups which are traditionally on the margins of mainstream media and culture. They argue that Harry Potter isn’t an inherently feminist text because it centres the story of Harry but it has room for feminist interpretations. For me, this has largely come through fandom. Cultural criticism involves identifying problematic elements of your favourite texts and problematising things which may on the surface seem liberal or progressive – you try to understand the layers of texts and characters. There’s a pleasure of critique when it comes to critiquing the things you love. 

In Order of the Phoenix, Harry is being gaslit by society, the government and the media which minimises and dismisses his trauma. The hosts believe that this is a good example for readers both young and old about not letting their trauma be dismissed. In the same book, however, there is a terribly racist trope where the centaurs reflect harmful stereotypes of indigenous people. The same text can have both good and bad elements within it. Molly Weasley is usually relegated to the kitchen and her emotional labour isn’t acknowledged and often dismissed so the hosts appreciate that she got to kill Bellatrix while protecting her daughter. 

When it comes to movie adaptations, it’s a political choice about which characters are highlighted and which are minimised – for example Ginny Weasley’s portrayal in the movies. The characters in movies influences people’s beliefs not only about the character but also about the real life personas of the actors portraying them. For example, Emma Watson identifying as a strident feminist doesn’t seem at odds with Hermione. In the books, Harry is an unreliable narrator and the reader’s perspective grows with him. Ginny becomes important when she becomes important to him. Fandom has polarisingly different perceptions of Ginny. Does this depend on movie adaptations? Or their feelings towards Harry and/or Hermione? Is this born of shipping as one of the hosts theorised?

 

9) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Heroines

Misogyny is inherent in the representation of female characters – they tend to be exceptional and counter to the norm, have stereotypical masculine traits and pride themselves in not being like other girls. There’s only room for one strong female lead in a story.

When the guests spoke about the lack of dolls and action figures of female superheroes, it made me think of Juno Dawson’s memoir The Gender Games and how she had to rely on the limited selection of female hero action figures to fit into the mould of being a boy. Gendering of toys (or anything) is harmful in so many ways. 

Sometimes, female audiences have multiple perspectives on the same character/plot. Black Widow considers herself a monster not for all the people that she’s killed but because she’s been sterilised and can’t have children. This led to debates among feminists online – some critique this storyline whereas others are happy there is a badass female character with a dark past. Similarly, in Mad Max Fury Road, there was a debate between some critiquing the representation of feminism as something which means women riding fast cars, cursing, drinking, and doing drugs. Others love action movies and would prefer seeing ones where the female characters are well represented and respected. There is a need for diverse women creators to have diverse nuanced complex representations of women in ways which could satisfy different perspectives. 

 

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

Cho acts as the token representation of diversity who is good at so many things but we don’t know anything about her apart from the fact that tragic things seem to happen. She could also fit into the model minority stereotype – she is perfect at everything and is idolised by Harry. Both Harry and Cho have been traumatised by Cedric’s death but he very uncomfortable about her bursting into tears. Hers is a different expression of trauma and PTSD, mainly through tearful outbursts as opposed to Harry’s angry ones. As one of the hosts points out, Cho is a minority who excels but also suffers. 

Casting a Scottish-Asian actress to play Cho Chang shines a more nuanced light on her character when watching the movies. As a young person, Kathy anticipated a Chinese accent for the character which, as she acknowledges, troubled her own preconceived notions. However, the character doesn’t signal an immigrant experience. There is no other exploration of her Asian identity; she could be read as a white character. It’s a superficial inclusion of diversity. She was (through Harry’s eyes) presented as a perfect character – Harry was upset whenever she strayed from the perfect perception he had of her – and then disappeared. 

As the hosts point out, when it comes to marginalised groups’ representations – Jewish, Asian, black – in media, there is lots of pressure on anyone in the public eye whereas white people get to be individuals who don’t represent their entire race. 

Her relationship and defense of Marietta – who made a mistake but was punished and ostracised so much – exemplified her support of a friend. Sometimes you do have to call out problematic things your friends do though but we don’t know if she’s done this after. One of the hosts proposes the theory that Marietta is in love with Cho, queering the text based on her own priorities and preferences and using textual evidence.  

 

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

Molly Weasley provides both food-based nourishment and mental and emotional nourishment. Her work has been important not just for the resistance but also since the beginning where she made a family for Harry and provided a supportive maternal figure. However, her emotional labour is overlooked and her fears and her role are taken for granted. Her hobbies – reading Witch Weekly, listening to Celestina Warbeck, being dazzled by Gilderoy Lockhart – are belittled and dismissed. Different kinds of activism need to be acknowledged and celebrated rather than just one narrative of heroism. For example, the women of Shaheen Bagh in India have provided a new template for protest. All kinds of activism – both on the frontline and in the background – need to be respected. However, they are usually neglected in the series and in the real world. 

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

 

12) Fan podcast – Witch, Please Episode 13 C Hallows and Goodbyes (Listen from 85 minutes to 98 minutes 46 seconds)

The hosts discuss the “gendered labour of the resistance” whereby Fleur Delacour’s role is minimised. She’s relegated to a far-off cottage making casseroles rather than playing an active role in the fighting. Why isn’t she a more active part of the Order of the Phoenix? She’s a powerful witch after all. Implications of both gender and national origin perhaps? It’s similar  to Mrs Weasley’s role.

The hosts also discuss the themes of violence against women in the series. They draw parallels between rape culture and Fenrir Greyback’s sexualised predatory violent threats against Hermione specifically rather than Harry or Ron. This could also have multiple implications – is this due to her gender or her Muggle-born status or both? They read Ariana Dumbledore’s assault by Muggle boys in her youth as not just physical violence but sexual violence. They also discuss Helena Ravenclaw’s murder by the Bloody Baron because she refuses his advances. She then has to haunt a castle with him and isn’t rid of him even after she dies. Finally, they briefly discuss the relationship between Snape and Lily which romanticises men’s violence against women. 

 

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

They explore stereotypes of masculinity, how masculinity is constructed, and what it means to act like a man using the Weasley family as an example. The Weasley men signal their masculinity in different ways – Bill is the strong adventurer; Charlie works with dragons; Fred and George are popular and have social power through humour, business acumen; Percy tries to achieve political status and power; Ron places a lot of importance on his Quidditch fandom. Ron also signals his masculinity by dating Lavender when Ginny points out that he’s only jealous of her and Hermione because he’s never had any sort of romantic or sexual experience. 

Sports and gender dynamics and gender performativity 

The hosts discuss how you need to stick to your lane and perform the right markers of your gender to fit into society’s mould. This is especially true among women where they can’t be too feminine because that is belittled but you can’t be too masculine. Displays of traditionally feminine markers among men is also frowned upon. Gender expectations harm men, women, and nonbinary folks. Molly does the emotional labour of parenting while Arthur always signals that he’s on the childrens’ side and threatens to get Molly involved whenever he wants to be strict. Bill’s long hair and earring playing with gender in a way which makes him more masculine. This implies that gender rules can be played with only if you’re already really secure in the dominant version of masculinity. The hosts propose that Bill being different allows Ginny to be different. 

The hosts also discuss Bertha Jorkins’s disappearance which doesn’t raise an eyebrow and draw parallels to how white women going missing is taken more seriously than women of colour going missing. There are gendered and racialised cultural assumptions about crime which is why it’s even more important to question our own preconceived notions about crime, victims and criminals.

 

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

The episode discusses the representations of Native Americans in science fiction in fantasy, specifically where non-Native Americans use native history and culture in fantasy. The hosts wonder why it’s such a radical idea that native Americans have their own intellectual history. It 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, Muggles and Muggle-born forms a belittled culture.

It briefly discusses how indigenous populations are depicted in Star Trek in literal and metaphorical ways which reflect colonialism, imperialism, and removal of people. Rowling’s Pottermore essays about magic in north America borrows from Native American cultures. It erases their agency and presents a superficial exploration of their beliefs. It includes imperial narratives of non-Native wizards introducing them to innovation and makes it appear as if their practices are extinct or historical. Rowling relies on tired stereotypes and centres the experiences of white European wizards over Native magicians. She includes their culture in a cursory way without doing proper research. In doing so, she exoticises the Native people and treats them as if they are no longer around. As the hosts point out, this is not equivalent to ancient Greek mythology whose practices aren’t around whereas native culture and lives are very much alive – they aren’t museum exhibits. This portrayal is disrespectful to existing Native traditions. The hosts don’t think she would have done this with other world religions whose practices would be treated with more respect and sensitivity. They argue that this belies a colonial perspective, similar to what the British Empire did. Writing about an indigenous (or any unfamiliar) culture, especially when it’s already marginalised, without researching it can contribute in erasing people’s cultural, historical, and social experiences. It also exhibits a lack of empathy and a failure of imagination.

Other metaphors include cultural theft (goblins), removal from land (giants), instituionlised racism (werewolves). A Native fan has reacted to this by calling it cultural genocide. However, Rowling hasn’t responded to any of the critiques she has received or try to learn from them. Critique doesn’t mean you can’t still love the world, but maybe you question the author’s intentions. 

The hosts also discuss the potential of science fiction and fantasy to imagine a better future and alternative possibilities. They introduce the alternative term wonderworks  since wonder allows you to ask questions and doesn’t seek to provide answers. It allows you to consider what if? There are several indigenous nerds, geeks and comic cons which negotiate with the issue of decolonising SFF. 

Recommended short story: Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience by Rebecca Roanhorse 

Recommended magazine issue: Strange Horizons – Indigenous Science Fiction

Some Notes on Episode 1 Resources

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

For Episode 1 “More Inclusive: The Journey of Three Indian Fangirls”, we discussed two texts.

Fan podcast Imaginary Worlds Episode 52 “The Sorting Hat”

As a ten, then an eleven-year-old Harry Potter fan, I desperately wanted a letter from Hogwarts (I still kind of do as a nearly-thirty-year-old). I didn’t even consider that an Indian magical school might exist. The idea of British boarding schools may seem strange to American readers – as someone in the podcast mentioned – but the system at Hogwarts was something I completely took for granted.So much of my childhood is shaped by British literature (especially Enid Blyton), and now much of my adulthood is shaped by American culture.

When I was a younger reader of the books, I always identified as a Gryffindor because that’s how the books and Harry’s perspective position you. I was in the Red House in my school and I was very proud of the Gryffindor connections because all the heroes and good guys are in Gryffindor right? So in school inter-house sporting events, I was convinced we were the heroes. As I grew older, I realised I was obviously a Ravenclaw (as attested by several online Sorting quizzes I’ve taken over the years). It was only a few years ago, that a few then-new friends convinced me I had many Hufflepuff qualities, which is why I now identify as a RavenPuff (and I’m proud of both these identities). I’m unsure of why these fictional characteristics seem so important to my sense of self – what sort of framework they provide for my identity.

Why is Harry Potter so important to our generation? We who’ve grown up with the series? I suppose it offers a huge cultural, global resonance regardless of religion and national boundaries. I know of many other people who identify with their Hogwarts houses and Sort their friends into houses too.

The books are extremely biased when it comes to the four Hogwarts Houses. It’s only the conversations in fandom which introduced me to the biases and expanded my brain to alternative possibilities. Slytherin is othered to a ludicrous degree – the comparison in the podcast to the Second World War Japanese internment camps in the US made me think of real-world implications of vilifying a group of people so single-mindedly.

I love the theory that someone on the podcast proposed that the Sorting Hat chooses students with a diverse range of qualities to go to a House to make them a stronger team. For example, Hermione brings Ravenclaw qualities to Gryffindor, Luna brings Hufflepuff qualities to Ravenclaw, Harry brings Slytherin qualities to Gryffindor. Thus, the Hat performs a pedagogical function in this school of witchcraft and wizardry where it sneakily imparts lessons to the students about being more broad-minded about the characteristics you identify with. It does make me wonder though, how many students actually receive this message? Perhaps the Hat needs to be more explicit in its song-writing. Another real-world theory someone in the podcast proposed was that Harry Potter is making people more team-focused than individualistic, in terms of the examples of the Houses. However, I think it’s more Dumbledore’s Army than the Houses which do this – by having a group of students working together in the resistance to fascism. Real-world parallels in this case are much more pertinent to our current times. This also made me think of similarities between being a fan and being a citizen. As a fan, you critique your favourite media because you love them and are so invested in them. As a citizen, you critique your government and country because you want what you love to do better, to be better.

Hogwarts may not prepare you for a career in the magical world (as the episode pointed out, your job options are quite limited once you’re out of full-time education. However, Hogwarts does (well, sometimes) fulfill a broader role of education – it helps the students how to learn and think. Admittedly, some teachers do this more successfully than others, and the pedagogy employed by Hogwarts may have some significant gaps, but this isn’t unlike educational institutions in the real world.

The Last Jedi Killed My Childhood, and That’s Exactly Why It’s Great

“Ruined my childhood” is an extremely contentious term for different reasons in the Harry Potter fandom (with Rowling’s increasingly problematic statements) and in the Doctor Who fandom (a small part of which is railing against the “forced diversity”). In the former’s case, I think the series belongs to us, the fans. As soon as Rowling released it out into the world, it was no longer just hers. Especially since it’s had such a huge impact on countless lives (including mine). I refuse to let the series go but I am less reluctant to let her go. With the latter, I’ve been lucky not have witnessed the really toxic side of fandom, largely due to the spaces I inhabit (I like my safe-space-echo-chamber thankyouverymuch).

“We don’t want our heroes to get supplanted and old.” Could this explain some of the backlash against Harry Potter and the Cursed Child?

“Belongs to a new generation of kids to love.” Lots of parallels with Doctor Who, where Jodie’s Doctor and the increasing diversity in the series is resulting in drawing in brand new audiences. In my own case, this has also been true with comic books – both of well-established DC and Marvel franchises as well as emerging new stories. I’ve discovered that comics are also written for someone like me – and I’ve been devouring them ever since I stumbled upon the first volume of Ms. Marvel in a local Leeds library.

 

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