A PhD project exploring intersectionality through fan podcasts

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Some Notes On Episode 19 – 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 19, , we discussed the following texts:

1) Fan podcast – Witch, Please: The Goblet is Political (Listened from 51ish minutes to 62 minutes 30 seconds

Hermione at the Yule Ball uses performative femininity to her own benefit without getting caught up in its trappings. Traditionally feminine appearance makes it easier to navigate the world and she is able to control that without letting it control her. She is still able to retain her personality even after – her passion for knowledge, social justice, standing up for  what she believes is right remains untouched. 

Hermione and SPEW – white/brahmin women who don’t include other intersectional identities and appropriate the feminist movement without acknowledging their privileges 

J. K. Rowling thinks she’s most like Hermione – Hermione uses badges and signs and a manifesto, but it’s all created without the input of the oppressed group she is fighting for. She’s imposing her politics on them and not taking their perspectives into consideration at all. 

Hermione as first-wave British feminist (Emmeline Pankhurst) 

House elves telling her they don’t want emancipation versus all the older men telling Hermione she’s wrong – tensions between this – that everyone tells Hermione the elves like being slaves 

“False consciousness” – Hermione thinks her job is to liberate the house elves from their oppressed identities akin to a white saviour complex. She doesn’t seem to learn from the things she does wrong. 

At the same time, Hermione’s activism is presented quite dismissively – at least from all the other characters. 

They propose that in this book, Rita Skeeter is the secondary villain – her rumours and journalism do active harm in spreading misinformation about Harry which in turn leads to everybody including the government not believing Harry that Voldemort has returned allowing Voldemort and the Death Eaters time and opportunity to solidify their strength. Hermione is the one who catches Rita out and punishes her by trapping her in the jar until she promises not to publish more false information – but the damage has been done and in OoTP, the media takes over from Rita’s work.

Earlier in the episode, they talk about Mrs Weasley as a focal point of domestic labour (Hermione is outraged about house elves but doesn’t notice Molly Weasley’s work) – limited gender roles for women 

 

2) Fan podcast – Witch, Please: The Cleansing Fire (Listened from 66 minutes to 80 minutes)

“The gendered labour of the resistance” – Marcelle

The types of work that the women do – Mrs Weasley – cooking, feeding, emotional labour and caretaking 

Tonks is coded as masculine because she’s not good at domestic work and is thereby connected to the “real” work of the resistance. There seems to be only one way to fight in a way which is considered useful 

When Sirius does the same kind of work that Molly Weasley does, he resents it because he isn’t able to do the kind of work that “matters” for the Order 

Hermione is also largely tasked with managing the emotions of Harry and Ron – even though she is also capable and skilled at so many other things – has to anticipate their emotional needs and be aware of them

The way that women characters seem to distance themselves away from other women – the “I’m not like other girls” ness of it all – means that they’re totally cut off from their emotions and are like men rather than women – at least in the way that it is traditionally portrayed 

Emotional labour is relegated to women’s roles in media and in real life 

Molly seems to be the hysterical, emotional and irrational parent while Arthur is on the side of the children and seems to only be listening to Molly because he doesn’t want to upset her rather than because he’s on her team and they’re parents together. Fathers get to be the fun ones and wives are the boring ones trope 

Hermione isn’t a good ally – her politics emphasise liberation of an oppressed group i.e. house elves but her process is troubling – very imperialistic 

She doesn’t even learn from Dobby who – as a house-elf who is now free – would be her best ally in the cause but when he points out her problematic behaviour and the fact that it won’t work, she dismisses his opinion. She seems to want to save the house elves without allowing room for them to save themselves 

We expect more from Hermione because she’s awesome and should do better. 

 

3) Fan podcast – Witch, Please: The Full-Blood Patriarchy (Listened from 63 minutes to 76 minutes 35 seconds)

Gender and patriarchy in Half Blood Prince. 

There are lots of anti-Fleur attitudes which reminds me of the counternarrative I encountered during my master’s research:

The trope that the pretty girl doesn’t have any female friends because other women don’t like her because she’s a threat 

Femininity as performed traditionally and successfully is subjected to hatred by women who don’t choose to or can’t do the same kind of performance 

Fleur being excited about planning her wedding and bringing Ginny and Hermione and Molly into it is met with dismay because the other girls are supposed to be strong and active 

Pitting women against each other because there’s no room for different kinds of women to just be 

Fleur is complicit in the system in a way that Tonks isn’t. Tonks pushes against the system through her overall nonconformity and that has Ginny and Hermione picking her over Fleur. Ron supports Fleur because he finds her more attractive than Tonks  

Also what is it with all the people in these books marrying so young and all of them marrying full stop! 

Ron slutshames Ginny for having too many boyfriends and is upset that Hermione kissed Krum (though that might have been born out of jealousy) 

He uses Lavender to make up for his insecurity. Lavender is also presented as silly and someone not to be taken seriously – showcased in contrast to Hermione. Why can’t we have both? Clever women can’t be silly? In academia and other professional settings, so much more pressure on women to look and behave a certain way than men 

Increase in structural violence seems to impact women more (not always – as in the case of black men in the US and Dalit and Muslim men in India) but they are weaponised by being made victims – murder and sexual assault 

Just two female Death Eaters – Bellatrix – is Narcissa even a Death Eater? Fascism doesn’t have room for women at the top even when women are complicit in the oppression of other races/castes/religions. In the right-wing movement, women are throwing other women under the bus without realising that they will be next. Same with trans-exclusionary feminists who find right-wing men supporting them.  You can’t be interested in human rights without being concerned about the rights of ALL marginalised humans 

Violence against women being normalised. Hermione being assaulted by Cormac McLaggen is treated as funny; Umbridge and the centaurs at the end of OoTP; gender and violence in the case of Mrs Roberts in GoF

 

4) Fan podcast – Witch, Please: Hallows and Goodbyes (Listened from 85 minutes to 92 minutes 35 seconds)

Gendered labour of women in the resistance

Fleur is glamorous and powerful and strong and is reduced to living in the middle of nowhere making casseroles by herself for her husband and the others – filling Molly’s shoes. There is room for different kinds of resistance and the support and safe space she offers plays a very important role – but is this the only role wives are allowed? Why isn’t she out fighting in the Order? Why isn’t Bill helping with the food? Why doesn’t Arthur? They seem to fulfill very traditional roles

Violence against women in the magical world –  Fenrir Greyback and his creepy attention towards Hermione – rape culture, women as default victims

Arianna Dumbledore – book doesn’t explicitly say the Muggle boys assaulted her sexually but it is implied when they “got carried away” and the trauma leads to lifelong impact 

Helena Ravenclaw’s story – Bloody Baron murders her for refusing his advances. She becomes a ghost and is forced to haunt the castle with her murderer 

Relationship between Snape and Lily – where he treated her terribly out of jealousy and his messed up politics as a young man – and even later, taking it out on Harry – but he sees himself as the wronged one. Sense of entitlement and romanticising the tragic narrative in which Snape is quite terrible 

 

5) Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper: Where Are The Tampons With Tiffani Angus

The absence of women’s bodily functions and concerns in mainstream fiction. We see a little bit of it in The Handmaid’s Tale but not really in a way which provides the women with any sort of agency – menstruation, birth control, navigating the world as a woman is more difficult than going about as a man 

Station Eleven – post-apocalyptic – where are the tampons? Why are none of the women looking for pads or tampons and using it as currency? Even when it’s a woman writing these stories, it’s a default male-centric concern 

What are the things we would be concerned as women in some of our favourite SFF worlds? 

For many people in India and elsewhere, the events of the last few years might have seemed like several different kinds of apocalypses – what problem would the women have in these scenarios? Migrants, pandemic, protests? Compounded by when they’re mothers or carers or pregnant

The predominance of women in publishing too reflects the fact that children’s needs and concerns seem to be relegated to women 

Women’s biological functions are overlooked but women’s ability and need to give birth isn’t – especially in end-of-the-world scenarios 

Blue water used in pad advertisements because red water freaks people – mostly men – out 

The ignorance of men when it comes to women’s bodies and needs 

Very funny in Chalet School books where just barely a hint would be given that the women were tired or busy and suddenly at the end of the book – surprise! Baby! 

Is this considered as gross? How do you normalise it if nobody talks about it and it’s so invisible? 

Things like medication which impacts your life or the lack of medication which impacts your life 

This problem is even worse when you see trans women’s needs – who need hormones during their physical transitioning process – trans men can revert to menstruating 

Women and zombies and armpit hair – shaving hair – what is considered sanitary for which gender – zombies might be considered more unremarkable than women’s sanitary needs 

“Women have been socialised to think that what our bodies do is gross.” – Tiffani Angus

Menstruation – big representation of women’s bodies – armpit hair – small representation – where are women in peril’s armpit hair? 

“We don’t even get to have armpit hair. We’re never going to get to have periods if we can’t have armpit hair.”

Marvellous Mrs Maisel – performs being women – she goes to the bathroom and makes herself up before going to bed 

Female masturbation also seems to be taboo 

How even sex is portrayed – women seem to have orgasms instantly when women don’t really – our bodies don’t work that way – which can also impact women’s own ideas of themselves – women’s crotch hair is missing too

Lack of older women anyway – what about women going through menopause?

 

6) Fanzine – Tonk’s Tale

(I’ve already used this episode as a text for Episode 16. I haven’t made any additional notes for this episode so for the old notes, click here.)

 

7) Fan podcast – Fansplaining: Letting Harry Potter Go (Listen from 6 minutes 45ish seconds to 34ish minutes)

(There are a few different HP fan podcast episodes about JKR’s transphobia but this provides some background context in terms of what she said and transphobia’s place in UK feminism)

They discuss the context of Rowling’s transphobia in the context of British mainstream society and feminism – a long history of the feminist movement which excludes diverse gender identities and expressions 

Gender critical feminists who are transphobic – it’s mainstream, not a fringe group – in media, in society, in the queer movement – LGB without the T – not just straight women but largely led by straight white women – in the US, they tried to recently co-opt the Black Lives Matter movement as well 

They signposted this article in their episode

It’s not just women – but it does seem to be born of privilege – middle-class or wealthier 

As Flourish says, that JKR’s opinions have been perceived to be liberal so this can be surprising. Rowling may even consider herself as feminist and out to protect women’s rights and safety. But her idea of feminism and women seems to be very narrow – how far does her exclusionary policy extend – transness? Religion? Sexuality? Race? 

Taking advantage of the fact that women are a marginalised gender but that doesn’t mean you need to throw other marginalised groups under the bus. Where’s the solidarity among marginalised groups? We’re not going to progress unless we do it together 

While Rowling’s transphobia had been hinted at before December, it was her tweet in December #IStandWithMaya which made her views explicit 

As Elizabeth points out, lots of women don’t menstruate and not all those who menstruate are women 

This doesn’t seem to be a topic of mainstream discussion in India – at least from the limited network I have – but JKR seems to have made it to Indian discourse as well – authors who have posted on Facebook about it in quite exclusionary language 

I still haven’t read JKR’s defensive essay because I can’t bring myself to

A lot of trans and nonbinary fans identified with Tonks because they’re able to change her appearance at will. She seems to be non-conforming to ideas of gender (women) and is punk and seems cool and fun to the protagonists 

While Tonks does transform herself to change her hair and nose, there’s never anything about gender. Other transformations include Animagi who change into animals and the scene with the seven Potters where everyone changes into Harry or the Boggart turning into Snape in Neville’s grandmother’s clothes

Elizabeth talks about how she never connected Tonks to gender because there was nothing in the books or her character that made her open to that possibility. Flourish says that with future books to come out, at the time, people were excited about the possibilities – and both were disappointed by Tonk’s story arc where she becomes mousy and small in HBP because she’s in love with Remus who rejects her before getting together later. Failure of imagination in terms of both gender and queerness 

Flourish, a nonbinary fan, read their own interpretations into the books and was excited by the potential but ended up feeling betrayed – so much worse for fans who it directly impacts 

As E points out, JKR is good at showing the hypocrisy and smallness of middle class British people which people who aren’t familiar with that context may not be able to pick up on. Which is true, as in my case in India as in Flourish’s case in the US, but I think people can and do make connections with their own lives and contexts 

They also signpost this articleFrom the article: 

I vividly remember the visceral excitement I felt the first time I read the fifth Harry Potter book in 2003 and met Nymphadora Tonks, a shapeshifter with spiky pink hair, a punk-rock aesthetic, and an insistence on being called by her gender-neutral last name. I was certain that Rowling had written a canonically genderfluid character. Like millions of other Harry Potter fans who dared to project ourselves into the books, I was ultimately disappointed: By the end of the series, Tonks was a married, fully binary woman, softer and gentler, letting her husband feminize her as “Dora” — a name she’d previously hated.

I have always wondered if Rowling set up Tonks to somehow be “tamed” in the later books, from her earlier nonbinary presentation in Order of the Phoenix, and I’ve always written it off as surely not conscious. As a sickening byproduct of Rowling’s transphobic screed on Wednesday, I now realize I was right to have been wary all along. Rowling argues in the essay for the scientifically flawed and emotionally abusive narrative that “gender dysphoric teens will grow out of their dysphoria,” and uses herself as an example of a teen who felt “mentally sexless” before eventually — “fortunately” — growing out of feeling “confused, dark, both sexual and non-sexual.”

I read this passage as a chilling, heartbreaking confirmation that Rowling wrote Tonks not as an affirmation, even a subconscious one, of trans identity, but as a conscious repudiation of it: She deliberately created Tonks as a dysphoric individual so that the character could “grow out of” her dysphoria, subtly perpetuating the transphobic narrative that gender dysphoria is a choice. She consciously created the shapeshifting nonbinary character who helped me figure out (well into adulthood) that I was genderqueer, and then made her “grow” into being cisgender.

Says that this as well as JKR’s essay unlocked the idea that had been at the back of E’s mind about how regressive the books were in terms of gender. Which I kind of agree with but I think that there fans reading more progressive values into the books by exploring the gaps and filling in the missing pieces is also valid 

In her essay, Rowling talks about her own experiences of abuse and domestic violence. I think this is one of the reasons why I haven’t read the essay yet because I have close experience with this and I am appalled that this is being used against a marginalised group 

As Flourish and Elizabeth say, you can feel sorry for her because you don’t want anybody going through the darkness she seems to be inhabiting even now but simultaneously angry because she’s using her voice and power to put people in harm’s way 

Flourish was struggling with their gender identity when they first encountered Tonks. They became comfortable with acknowledging their gender in the course of the Fansplaining podcast. In that context, they saw the progressive potential of the character and drew connections between their own life and Tonks’s life 

Elizabeth – tomboyish characters who are feminised as they grow up because girls/women are not allowed to retain this gender nonconformity when they grow up – according to traditional media, at least 

Flourish talks about how it’s different reading Harry Potter or a book you’re so emotionally connected to and wanting to find your own identities and ideologies within its pages and reading a more progressive book like Orlando which tackles gender in more experimental ways but not feeling that sense of deep connection with it. I think that’s a really interesting point because that’s why these popular media texts are important – you feel so strongly about them as fans that you want them to be better 

Flourish wrote fanfic about Tonks because “she was not doing the things I wanted her to do” in terms of her gender noncomforming nature and taking the possibilities further. They felt a sense of utter betrayal with Rowling’s opinions now. And I completely sympathise and empathise with this pain even as I’m distanced from it since I’m a cis woman from a dominant culture; at the same time, in the country I’m from my gender marginalises me – nuance and complexity when it comes to being marginalised and dominant in different contexts 

The books reflect her worldview and experience – as do most people’s books – but perhaps the fans ended up being more progressive than the author. 

 

8) Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper: Transgender Representation in SFF 

Signposts book: Gender Identity and Sexuality in Fantasy and Science Fiction – an anthology by Luna Press, where Cheryl Morgan has an essay about trans rep 

Issues with trans representation in SFF – cis people write about trans people, partly due to the fact that trans people form such a small part of the population, and they don’t have a great idea about what being trans is about. Most of them don’t get sensitivity readers to go over their books to make sure they do represent it properly 

There also seems to be a focus on the transition process – which isn’t something most trans people are very interested in focusing on – for trans people, the transition is just them changing their outward appearance to match their inward sense of self – and they are interested in other aspects of their identity 

Trans writers writing books also includes in-jokes that only trans people would get – writing for the audience rather than for a cis audience

Cheryl would rather see no representation of trans people than terrible representation which spreads misinformation about the trans experience 

One of the hosts says that she only first heard the term cis when she was 26-27 – and it’s something I definitely empathise with. It’s something I’ve only come across more recently as well, thanks in large part to online conversations and podcast conversations 

You’re not taught about different gender identities and expressions in school/mainstream media so how would you learn without knowing a trans person or inhabiting spaces where these conversations are normalised? 

TERFs hate the term cis – think of it as a slur – because they want to perpetuate the idea that they are normal and everyone else – trans and nonbinary folks – aren’t normal

Cheryl mentions the term normalising is a bit problematic because it makes it sound like things are abnormal – suggests “usalising” instead which is clumsy but reflects it more accurately

Importance of stories which may mean much more to trans people than cis people – which might be a smaller audience, but it’s important nonetheless – just having trans people being a regular part of the science fiction or fantasy world you’re reading about – just mentioning the fact that they are trans but not making a huge issue about it. It’s like with all marginalised groups, I think. There’s room for issue-based books but those can’t be the only kind of representation there is. 

Being trans either in fiction or in real life, like anything else, becomes more difficult when you add other identities like nonbinary, race, class, religion, national or regional origin 

Cheryl talks about the cis gaze – the focus on transition is a form of objectifying trans people + what trans people are “really like” – where you’re “forcing people into stereotypical social roles” It’s a way to other, exoticise or demonise trans people 

A male cis gaze might look at trans women as sex workers while a cis female gaze might have different connotations – especially when it comes to TERFs 

A common trope with trans people rep which trans people are fed up with is the shock reveal where it’s suddenly revealed that the character you thought was cis was actually trans all along – these tropes and stereotypes are something I would never have thought of at all – my own privilege and blind-spots 

Cheryl also talks about trans people in history – focusing on how trans people have always been around the world – different cultural contexts as well where the Aboriginal people in Australia, hijra community in India, Romans, Incans, Native Americans – different ways in which people “incorporated transness in their culture” among other parts of the world – it’s grown in separate parts of the world which implies that it’s a part of the human experience and identity 

Deadnames – the names people are given at birth which is usually taboo – but Cheryl uses this while talking about historical figures because you don’t know what their preferred name was 

We don’t know about these historical figures unless you go looking for them in queer anthologies (which is where I’ve come across them in many cases) which separates them into specific categories rather than just having them as a part of history. We don’t study about them in school. Even the fact that one of the people who started Pride marches, something which is so mainstream now, was a black trans woman in the US – Marsha P. Johnson 

Cheryl says that trans people who don’t get to be famous – no kings or politicians or explorers so didn’t have statues erected 

Whitewashing – ciswashing? – of history where you don’t research into marginalised groups like trans people and present a trans-exclusive version of events. As Cheryl says, she didn’t realise trans people existed in history or in different parts of the world or even in her part of the world, because she had never come across them. This erasure is ever-present. 

If it’s not born out of ignorance, this erasure is due to people’s deliberate attempts to fit trans experiences into their own understanding and worldview – it’s just a man dressing up as a woman, for example 

You don’t know exactly how to present potentially trans people from history because you can’t discover how they felt about their own identities – especially since trans and intersex discussions weren’t commonplace – and some women genuinely used to dress as men for matters of convenience due to the limited gender roles then rather than being trans men 

Issue of trans women in the feminist movement 

Gender-critical movement within radical feminism in the US and the UK and Australia – part of this is religious beliefs (in the US) – in the UK, history of left-wing socialist feminism where the only struggle which is important is the class struggle – connection to political environment – not intersectional at all since all these struggles are inter-linked. Currently, the iteration is the only struggle which matters is sexism and once that’s fixed, all other struggles will be automatically fixed. Which is ridiculous! 

As Cheryl says, she doesn’t think these TERFs are either radical or feminist – if you go deep enough, they’ll be racist, Islamophobic, classist – you see this recently where the TERFs tried to co-opt Black Lives Matter protests in the US 

Intersectional feminism IS definitely my idea of feminism – that everyone and everyone’s struggles are equally important and need to be addressed and fixed together because one person’s experience isn’t universal 

Cheryl points out that mainstream media seems to be obsessed with the medical aspect of transition but this option isn’t available to most trans people all over the world due to regional, financial, cultural barriers – it’s expensive to access 

I don’t even know enough about the relationship between trans people and history and religion in India 

On the question of whether there’s an obligation for trans writers to write featuring trans people – for Cheryl, she’s been living as a woman for so many years that it’s not an issue which is at the forefront of her thinking on a day-to-day basis but she does acknowledge there needs to be more representation to make up for the underrepresentation and misrepresentation of trans characters in media 

Recommends supporting independent publishers who take more risks and offer more representation than mainstream publishers 

 

Context texts: (So I included these two essays here even though they don’t talk about fandom to maybe think/talk about feminism in a more intersectional manner. I thought drawing on parallels from the US and toxic white feminism/Hermione and house elves, we could talk about Dalit/Adivasi/rural women’s erasure in mainstream feminism in India – maybe even Muslim women? – and how some of them are using the internet to organise resistance. Again, from our position of privilege only because while being a woman in India is terrible, if you add other identities, it’s even worse.)

9)  Article – What Is Toxic White Feminism 

Chose this article to draw parallels between toxic white feminism and toxic savarna feminism – the Indian context with upper caste Hindu women 

Talks about how murder of black women usually goes unreported in mainstream media and the contradiction in terms of how black male suspects are treated versus white male suspects especially when the victim is a black woman

Also discusses the lack of outrage among white feminists – the silence which erases the issue from mainstream discourse. When asked to do so, some white women do use their social networks to spread the news. However, at the same time, there are many white women who become immediately defensive – Twitter exchange between Rukmini Pande, Samira Nadkarni and Anne Jamison where in the middle of a racist and misogynist controversy targeting the former two. Samira wrote long threads calling out the behaviour – and Anne signposted her book where both had an essay, something that Samira called out and something that Anne responded to defensively in the beginning 

Talks about the lack of solidarity among white women for their black counterparts and when asked to intervene, they become defensive and demand acknowledgement for previous actions instead of just doing what is necessary – mix of ego and sensitivity and hurt feelings – reminds me of Serena Joy in The Handmaid’s Tale though the race element there is removed in what seems to be a colourblind society 

Speaks about the history of feminism where black women were often sidelined though when black women were leaders, they fought for all rights 

Going up against liberal progressive white feminists who refuse to let down their guard of “ultimate liberation” to actually learn from women of color—who have been fighting this fight with grit and grace for generations—is the most straining part being a black feminist activist.

Toxic white feminism includes tone policing, demands of unity and peace over real justice, white saviour complex dependent on how well they claim to have treated black women and black men as proof of their solidarity, centering their experiences and comfort all the time 

As these things play out over and over again, it is made painfully obvious that many white women believe that the worst thing that can happen to them is to be called a racist. Let me be clear, it is not. Seeing your child gunned down in the street by the police unjustly is much worse, being turned away for medical care due to race and underlying biases by medical staff, resulting in death, is much worse, being harassed by authorities only to be charged yourself instead is much worse.

Colour-blindness as a way to show how liberal they are 

Points out that true allyship involves acknowledging your privilege and using the privilege to create a space for those with less privilege to fight with and for them and privileging their voices in addressing their needs 

What makes allyship so hard for most? Many liberal white woman have an immediate reaction of defense when someone challenges their intentions. And it is in that precise moment they need to stop and realize they are actually part of the problem. It is never the offender who gets to decide when they’ve offended someone. If you feel yourself dismissing the words or experiences of people of color—because you think they’re “overreacting” or because you “didn’t know” or because “it has nothing to do with race”—it’s often due to your ego, not rationale. Listen and learn, instead.

Dr. Robin DiAngelo, a white woman sociologist who studies critical discourse, reminds us in her new book White Fragility that “the key to moving forward is what we do with our discomfort. We can use it as a door out—blame the messenger and disregard the message. Or we can use it as a door in by asking, Why does this unsettle me? What would it mean for me if this were true?”

In order for feminism to be intersectional and progressive, you need to take different perspectives into view and not just those which are at the top of the marginalised hierarchy 

 

10) Article – Debrahmanising Online Spaces on Caste, Gender and Patriarchy 

Empowerment through/within digital spaces is also a privilege because it requires access to technology, uninterrupted internet connections, and the time and space to be able to navigate these spaces and develop digital literacies which also presumes basic literacy. This doesn’t mean that these spaces aren’t important; it’s just important to remember the limitations of these spaces as you celebrate the possibilities 

Cyber pundits and cyber libertarian social scientists celebrate the role of Information and Communication Technologies in the eradication of rural poverty. On the contrary, low education status, complex social structure and low accessibility to Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have expanded the digital divide (DN, 2001)1. Those connected to the internet are 35% of the population – the social composition of those with access to ICTs is dominant Indian castes, and they stand disconnected from the reality for majority of the Indian society. Thus, it accelerates the gap related with access and social mobility2.

This article focuses on young Dalit people are using the internet to create a space of solidarity for other Dalit people and awareness among non-Dalit people – Twitter, Instagram, YouTube – particularly young Dalit women – artwhoring is the one I can think off of the top of my head and Divya Khanduri who I discovered through BuzzFeed India – talk about both the intersections of caste and gender when it comes to Dalit/Adivasi/Bahujan women 

Are there similar spaces for Muslim women since that’s a group being targeted and maligned in India and all over the world? 

Recent nonsense online with the NRI Indian Hindu woman crying about how she feels her religion is mocked and disrespected because she was challenged by a Dalit woman for her regressive views. Her fans then attacked artwhoring in disgusting ways – Priyanka Paul of artwhoring shared the abuse she received then and continues to receive daily but continues to create examples of Dalit joy in the middle of rage 

These social media posts and presence allow for a lived experience of their various intersectional identities rather than just academic, abstract theorising 

Usually feminism seems to be concerned with elitist concerns rather than ones which affect different women in different ways 

Issue of period leave recently at Zomato being announced and while that is great for the women it impacts, there are millions of other women in India without basic access to period products 

As with anything, while social media allows them to share their experiences and perspectives, also leaves them open to abuse and trolling 

Intellectual + pleasure activism on social media. I remember something Priyanka Paul said on her Instagram that she’s glad she doesn’t fit into the preconcevied notions of Dalit women and strives to keep challenging these assumptions 

A Dalit woman activist argued that “Mainstream media does not publish our ideas. Social media is a major help to us.”

An Adivasi girl student said “Our women are being stereotyped as weaker, but our generation is converting new media into a new form of resistance”.

One of the questions the article asks is whether it’s enough to provide access and raise awareness of their political, social and cultural perspectives online when the most marginalised Dalit/Adivasi/Bahujan women’s lives aren’t improved and structural change isn’t developed? 

An innovative approach can be tailored through channelising the creative energy of Adivasi-Dalit-Bahujan girls/women into that of new media design thinking/practice. Dalit-Adivasi-Bahujan social/political assertions attain new dimension through the creation of counter online sphere to the conservative-caste blind “isms” in India. Internationalisation of their claim to private/public sphere has renewed the question of modernity related to these girls/women of change.

Indian feminist-politics of citation has created certain centers and margins while engaging with Advasi-Dalit-Bahujan politics. In other words, it systematically appeases or ignores the epochal, Adivasi-Dalit-Bahujan feminist interventions. Online sphere of Adivasi-Dalit-Bahujan feminist politics thus have the unique and autonomous arena of political sensibility. One of the central facet of the aforementioned online forums represent renewed understanding on the roots and alternatives related with caste-gender-patriarchy-religion- linked forms of oppression and resistance.

 

11) YouTube video – The Matrix As A Trans Allegory 

More recently, right-wing conspiracy theorists in the West have been using the red pill/blue pill allegory to insinuate that they’ve taken the red pill and now know how the world truly works and who controls it and who their enemies are. So I especially love that the creators have come out to say that The Matrix is actually a trans allegory and thus validating its trans fans for whom the movie has been so important 

In a science fiction/fantasy world, surely the only limits are your imagination because the impossible is possible in so many different ways? So the idea of transformation – which is so limited in many series including the HP books – can be revolutionary – similarly in video games as well where you can choose different players that corresponds with your actual gender and not the gender you were assigned at birth 

Lilly Wachowski talks about how the trans allegory was the original intention, the mainstream mediaspace controlled by corporate interests wasn’t yet ready for what was then considered a taboo topic – and still is to a degree but there is more public discussion about this – not always positive, of course 

“The desire for transformation but it was all coming from a closeted point of view” – Switch was a man in the real world and a woman in the Matrix 

Lilly doesn’t know how much her own transness informed the writing of the Matrix but she does think her identity influenced it to a certain degree 

She talks about how she didn’t know the word for her identity at the time – something which is so much more a topic of discussion now which can help others figure out their own identities – and so always found solace in imaginary worlds – sci-fi and fantasy worlds – Dungeons and Dragons worlds.

I’ve read an article which focused on the transformative potential of D&D to be able to play with your gender identity as also exists in video games in a relatively safe space

She thinks that creating stories in SFF worlds can be liberating because you’re able to imagine possibilities which don’t exist in real life 

 

12) Tumblr post – Sameface Syndrome and Other Stories

Disney’s Sameface Syndrome – The evolution of Disney princesses and their effect on body image, gender roles, and the portrayal of love

Disney, a major animation studio, has the unfortunate habit of creating princesses with the same face – Elsa, Anna, Rapunzel – and this post points to a disturbing trend in their female characters where the bodies, faces, features all look similar 

Talks about how due to the design shapes and what they imply, character personalities tend to dictate their shapes which means that people who aren’t conventionally attractive either end up being background characters or villains 

they’re typically older, with more visible wrinkles in their faces, and either grotesquely thin or on the heavy side.

You get the idea: the “good” characters are basically always attractive, and the “bad” characters are basically always unattractive. You see a little more variance in movies from, say, DreamWorks (not so much Pixar) but this rule still holds true for Disney.

Points out that one of the critiques of Disney characters is that they have big heads and big eyes but this is usually to make them more expressive. However in its early days, Disney used to model its characters on real women so the proportions used to be more realistic

When The Little Mermaid was released, the now-familiar formula of “big head, big eyes, small nose and mouth, tiny waist” really started to take off… Which was applied in various ways to the rest of the Disney Princess line.

Anna and Elsa’s facial expressions, particularly Elsa’s, were significantly dialed back at the animation stage to prevent their faces from stretching out of shape and making them look “too ugly,” producing the side effect of making them look oddly stiff. Stretching and exaggerating faces to get good overall movement is one of the basic principles of animation, and I’m concerned that Disney decided to throw it out in favor of making their women look slightly more attractive, especially since I haven’t noticed this in any other Disney Princess films.

Ugh why is the way the women look the most important part of this or any movie – especially when this was pushed as the “feminist” Disney movie – even though there have been critiques of that especially in the second movie 

Arbitrary decision which does have a cultural impact that good characters are supposed to be beautiful and also beautiful in a certain kind of way – narrowing the definition of morality and beauty in one fell swoop – narrow waist, wide hips – there was such a huge outrage about Barbie with this – but haven’t really encountered Disney ones – especially given the fact that Disney is such a cultural juggernaut 

Disney is a big reflection of our societal norms, so it’s frankly disturbing that they’re saying that this is what beauty looks like — not because all these girls have an unrealistic body type, but because they all look the same. Because what they’re communicating, in a subtle and subconscious way, is that there’s only one way to look good, and that’s simply not true.

Disney may be in the business of stylizing reality, but that’s just it: they’re supposed to be using reality as a starting point. The world is an extremely varied place, and people come in all shapes and sizes. When you’re trying to improve your diversity, making your characters actually look different is a good place to start.

 

13) Article – When Will We See Dalit Women Journalists In India’s Mainstream Media?

Lack of Dalit/Adivasi journalists in Indian media

Talks about how the problem isn’t just entertainment media but also news media where the people in control usually tend to be privileged groups of men and if it’s women, it’s who belong to wealthy, upper caste Hindu backgrounds. This influences what kinds of stories are considered important and how they are told. The stories which are highlighted tend to reflect the concerns and perspectives of this privileged group whereas the marginalised group may have to turn to social media to make their voices heard 

A report published by Oxfam ‘Who Tells Our Stories Matters’ spanning TV news (Hindi and English), newspaper (Hindi and English), digital media and magazines brings forth startling data that demonstrates the severe under-representation of marginalized groups in the Indian Media. Reliable data is not available to establish the number of Dalit/Adivasi journalists in media; experts say, it is minuscule. Media critics say coverage on issues of caste, gender and class lacks sensitivity because of the absence of journalists from these sections. There is no data available specifically for the number of women in media from marginalized communities.

Lack of diversity among journalists also impacts attitudes – if marginalised journalists are only brought on to talk about issues which pertain to that aspect of their identity, people won’t take them seriously on other issues – similar to race in the UK

Post the Rohit Vemula episode, India has witnessed the Third Ambedkarite Wave, wherein there has been an increasing trend of discussion about discrimination faced by the marginalized community. Media houses started hiring or outsourcing Dalit women journalists to only talk about ‘Dalit and gender issues’, thereby reducing their identity to their caste by making them a ‘quota reporter’ and not a journalist who should be allowed to write about Politics, Culture, Art and Sports.

The Adivasi journalists are asked to cover issues regarding Naxalites, Forests and Left Wing extremism.

Even when women journalists and editors talk about issues like feminism or gender politics, it’s still a limited perspective because they aren’t taking into account the perspective of a majority of the Indian population who are impoverished 

This social and cultural capital is replicated because the networks are so limited that the opportunities are only offered to people from the same groups which means Dalit/Bahujan/Adivasi women don’t have access to these spaces and networks 

Journalists from marginalised backgrounds tend to remain on the margins and don’t get access to mainstream spaces and mainstream influence with their counter-narratives 

Dalit news stories are largely relegated to the violence committed against them – a very one-sided, single story view of their existence 

There are no narratives celebrating the intellectual discourses and movements to counter caste-based biases started by Dalit. The privileged gaze fails to see the resistance. No narratives celebrate their culture and identity. For example, Annual Tribal Festival and Dhamma Pravartan Divas, which are significant in Dalit culture, remain uncovered by the media.

Even in schools and colleges, there is no subject integrated in the curriculum that specifically talks about caste, class and gender to sensitize people regarding the inequality in the society. In such aspects, reservation in private media schools is a dire need to ensure participation of marginalized groups in mainstream media.

The politics of language where English is privileged in media rooms 

“Language was a means of power and control. For language is what reflects and embodies the culture and way of life of people, and to believe that one’s language is inferior, not good enough, not worthy of use is, in fact, to negate and make invisible one’s entire way of being and living. It is precisely through creating feelings of inferiority around local languages and dialects that the powerful maintained the marginalization of subaltern groups”, says a journalist from Khabar Lahriya, a path-breaking media channel comprising Dalit women journalists which primarily publishes local stories.

When I was in my early 20s, I was a freelance journalist and had written an article about Khabar Lahriya, a media enterprise I loved, but didn’t even think of touching on the caste aspect because thanks to my privilege, that wasn’t a topic I gave much thought to 

There’s also a lack of rural women’s stories – reading a book Everybody Loves A Good Drought and following The People’s Archive of Rural India – PARI – on Instagram for stories from rural India has helped expand my knowledge and imagination 

It is much more difficult for women from marginalized communities to enter into the field of media and journalism. Families do not have enough resources to educate them. They also do not consider this as a viable career option. This stream requires women to step out of the home at uneven times and work for long hours, which is usually not acceptable to parents. Women are expected to get married and engage in house work.

The systematic structure of patriarchy is so staunch that women do not even consider being a media person as something remotely plausible. According to a report by Media Rumble and UN women, office spaces are male-dominated and patriarchal in nature. The study also found that women continue to be given what are essentially “soft” beats like lifestyle and fashion, leaving the “hard” beats like politics, economy, and sports. “By thus marginalising women’s voices and perspectives, the Indian media essentially denies nearly a half of the population a chance to influence public opinion. This runs counter to the principles of fairness, equality, and democracy,” the report said.

 

14) Article – Building A Newsroom Dedicated To Diversity: An Indian Story

Features Khabar Lahariya which started off as a newspaper that trained women in rural areas to be journalists who printed local news in their local languages thereby diversifying not just who tells the stories but also what kind of stories are told and how they are told 

Now they share their news on distributes their content on Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, Twitter, and TikTok

Kavita Devi, the founder of Khabar Lahariya started the newspaper in response to the alienation she felt with mainstream media who did not represent her perspectives or experiences as a Dalit woman in a village 

From 2002 to 2015, KL ran an eight-page print in the Bundeli language covering local issues. They would distribute these prints by hand. Funding was difficult and no mainstream papers wanted to help distribute KL. In 2015, they taught their team how to use smartphones and moved their reporting digital, adding video coverage. Their number of readers have gone from 80,000 (while in print) to five million every month.

They’ve been more successful than a lot of big mainstream publications in the shift from print to digital! 

It features underrepresented populations and issues of people who live in rural communities which are difficult to access by mainstream publications 

While they distinguish journalism from activism, their stories do get local level changes done by highlighting issues until they’re fixed

Intersection of caste and gender: 

Safety is still an issue, particularly for Dalit and Adivasi women reporters. Recently, while reporting on a story on gaushalas where cows were being murdered, upper caste men followed KL’s reporters with guns. However, Devi says that they take care of their reporters and put stringent safety protocols into place. She emphasizes that danger shouldn’t stop them from reporting. Safety might not be an issue that is raised if the reporters were men

I love that they focus on issues other than what urban ideas of rural lives and issues are! 

Also runs a podcast called Love Guru covering stories on romance and sexuality that people might be too shy — or afraid of implications — to come on camera for

 

15) Article – What Steven Universe can Teach us about Queerness, Gender Identity, and Feminism

Positive representations in media: Steven Universe

Steven Universe, like She-Ra and other popular media created for children, has found huge resonance and popularity among adult audiences because it explores themes relevant to adult lives too 

The Crystal Gems are gender-nonconforming even though they go by she/her – expanding the concept of gender and the possibilities it holds – so important for a children’s show 

They also represent different body types – fat activism and fatphobia within the feminist umbrella is also a huge topic of discussion at least in the West 

Just like the different gender expressions seem to be a default in this world – not really worthy of comment, it’s the same in She-Ra – it’s not a big deal, it just is 

Fans reading Bow as trans, an interpretation which Noelle publicly supports but doesn’t say it’s canon because they didn’t hire a trans actor to voice him and Scorpia 

Nonbinary characters – Stevionne in Steven Universe, Double Trouble in She-Ra – Noelle said that she was learning through fan responses who said they wished the nonbinary character was human 

Gender is treated with respect and dignity in Steven Universe. The acknowledgment of gender is of particular importance because since the gems identify as female when they are in romantic relationships, queer relationships are illustrated.

Also example of found family and a queer feminist family – which goes against normative family structures 

Fusion as a way to represent queer relationships 

Not only are the characters in Steven Universe free to be who they are, but there are also no boundaries when it comes to what it means to be an individual, whether the boy, girl or gem. All the Crystal Gems, feminine or masculine presenting, fight and kick ass when they do. They take on the daunting task of protecting the earth from menaces that often come from their home planet and the universe using their various weapons and powers. At the same time, they love Steven and protect him with all of their beings as well as nurture him and teach him how to be the best Crystal Gem he can be. These are not traditional, one-dimensional female characters; they are relatable to the multilayered women who exist in real life.

Portrayal of male and female characters which don’t correspond to traditional gender roles – Steven compassionate and sensitive – Connie often rescues him – there’s room for different kinds of ways to be a boy or a girl and largely media has just pushed one narrative – now it’s making up for this by presenting more ways of existing in the world – also Steven’s dad is the one who shows his mother how to love rather than the other way around 

Normally, especially in children’s shows, it is the very feminine character who is always swooning and searching for love, and when she finds it she has to soften the heart of her more masculine love interest. But this is not the case in Steven Universe, where this trope is turned completely on its head

The writer of this article loves that the show is full of “non-traditional interactions, relationships, and expressions of identity” – it’s not something which came easily to the creator of the show as she mentions in her interview with Noelle Stevenson – impacted her mental health to always have to fight  for representation and authentic storytelling with the corporate producers – but her efforts made it easier for Noelle Stevenson to make her show and point to Steven Universe as an example 

It amazes me how a show like this is more reflective of the world today, yet it is rare to see such representations on TV, especially in a show made for children. This normalization of same sex (or gender) relationships, non-nuclear families, characters who are not constricted by gender norms, and characters who are allowed just to give me hope that our future will be a little brighter since children are now being exposed to these values.

Steven Universe, and shows like it, are so important for children who are growing up in a society that tells them who they should be, without taking into account who they are. It is essential for kids to understand that there’s not just one way to be a girl or to be a boy or to be feminine or masculine. As an adult who identifies as queer, it reminds me that I’m not alone and that everything is going to be OK. We must all understand that each person is different and it’s not about being pinpointed as “normal” or “other.” We are individuals, no matter what category we choose to fall under (or not to fall under) and it’s refreshing to see this positive treatment of identity displayed on TV.

 

16) Article – The Way the Solo Novel Treats Female Droid L3-37 Is Horrifying

This article discusses how even non-human female characters get a raw deal – where a female droid in Star Wars is robbed of her agency and has to submit to further a man’s story and how male characters manipulate her into saving her friends and doing something which goes against her sense of being and identity

The article explores the concept of consent and the absence of it – which makes me think of the lack of consent even with Leia and Han when he first kisses her. I don’t think Star Wars has a great track record with its women anyway – Rey’s story started off great but ended very dubiously – ostensibly as fan service to a bunch of enraged fans who hated the feminism and people of colour in the second film of the most recent trilogy 

L3’s story is so flawed that it’s hard to pair it with the feminist bent Lucasfilm has been aiming for with their current films. Never mind that her quest for droid rights is painted as a joke, but the fact she ends up voiceless and powerless, trapped on a ship that Han then takes from Lando, is deeply problematic.

We are shown a woman who advocates for social justice having her ability to speak taken away and then she becomes a servant who cannot stand up for herself. If that’s not a bad message to send, I don’t know what is.

This social justice and activism being treated as a joke by the male characters is so reminiscent of Hermione’s outrage against house elf oppression 

 

17) Research paper – Gender in Twentieth-Century Children’s Books

According to this study of a sizeable chunk of children’s books in the 20th century, they found male characters were more prominent than female characters – both in titles and as protagonists 

I wonder how much this has changed now that it is such a matter of mainstream discourse. I would be really interested in a more modern study, especially with Indian children’s books. A lot of writers are more aware of these issues and focus on gender diversity among other forms of diversity but even that can be in quite limited ways. A Mighty Girl produces booklists which feature female characters in prominent roles in different books of different genres and for different ages 

I remember when I was a kid and used to be so upset by the lack of girl names in science and maths textbooks – I would make up girl versions for the boy names and proceed that way. I was too young to have any understanding of feminism then but obviously I still noticed it 

I think it’s also important to see how the genders are represented not just whether they are not. Of course, it begins with mere visibility but there also needs to be more nuance and complexity rather than just superficial gender diversity – and what about children’s books normalising diverse gender identities? 

Are girls going on adventures and doing things which according to traditional gender roles they’re not allowed to do? What about women of all ages and backgrounds? 

Diverse representations of gender are important in children’s media because children are still figuring out and developing their own identities and how these fit within the world they inhabit 

I think have a more diverse group of academic researchers will help diversify the kinds of research that is carried out – in the context of children’s books in India, researchers from different genders, socioeconomic, caste, regional backgrounds can draw on their own experiences and priorities and use these perspectives to identify gaps in children’s literature – using quantitative data to back this up  – and of course, having more diverse writers, editors and publishers push for the change as well 

I think the male/female disparity is important in terms of representation especially in a country like India, huge parts of which are so directly entrenched in patriarchal structures – but I don’t think it’s enough to just focus on male/female at the cost of other aspects of identity which are contextually different and impact people in different ways. For example, Dalit men/black men have less power and are in more danger than a wealthy Brahmin/white woman. And among women, many different intersections of oppression and privilege exist. I wish this study explored other facets of identity 

Some Notes On Episode 18 – 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 18, , we discussed the following texts:

1) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text: Special Edition Owl Post and Marya Bangee (listen from 19 minutes 40 seconds till the end of the episode)

This episode discusses how Hermione has to leave behind her Muggle culture to assimilate into the magical world and how witches and wizards have so many stereotypes about Muggles

One of the listeners believes that Hermione must have thought there were so many easier Muggle technologies to use in the magical world rather than relying on inconvenient magical things. Hermione never talks about her Muggle background and culture, even though so many people in the magical world have some really strange assumptions about and biases against non-magical people. The listener believes that Hermione has internalised the magical world’s dismissal of the Muggle world. She feels like she needs to assimilate to the new culture in order to fit in and consequently leaves her own culture behind. The listener draws parallels between this and her own experiences living abroad where she felt she had to set aside her cultural values and experiences because people in her new culture weren’t really interested in knowing these things. I empathise with this as an Indian immigrant living in the UK. Rarely anybody else seems to really care about what’s happening in India, either culturally or politically. 

There are so many Muggle things that Hermione or any other Muggleborn student could introduce to the magical world and make the world better through cultural exchange. This isn’t just limited to science, travel, technology and communication but also literature and art. Hermione and other Muggleborn students seem to live in a society which largely resembles their society’s history. Nobody in the magical world seems to be interested in making life easier because witches and wizards think they are above learning from Muggle cultures. Visibility isn’t just important for people from marginalised cultures for their own sense of identity but also for people from dominant cultures to understand them in non-stereotypical ways. 

The politics of language – Fudge’s attitude to his Bulgarian counterpart at the World Cup in Goblet of Fire+ goblin languages which are depicted negatively and harshly. Barty Crouch Sr. and Dumbledore seem to be the only ones who speak several languages – shouldn’t this be a more normalised part of the world? Shouldn’t Muggle Studies be a compulsory part of the Hogwarts curriculum?

When Marya Bangee is asked why she thinks Hermione doesn’t always share her Muggle knowledge in the magical world, the guest, a hijab-wearing Muslim woman in the US, relates to Hermione’s insider/outsider status. This is similar to my experience in the UK though I do have the privilege of cultural and social capital. Marya thinks that people don’t always want to point out their differences and want to be a part of the community and connect with other people. She thinks Hermione already has noticeable differences thanks to her origin as well as her intelligence and social justice advocacy.

One of the problems with the dominant culture not having a more nuanced and complex view of marginalised cultures is that it can lead to negative stereotypes. It can also lead to a lack of self-esteem and harmful internalised social conditioning among the marginalised cultures. Witches and wizards in the Potterverse have so many biases against other magical people like goblins, giants, werewolves. What would the magical world be like if there was more cross-cultural exchange? You see more of this in Fantastic Beasts with relationships among magical and non-magical folks but it is still exceptionalised. 

 

2) Tumblr post – Imagine A Muslim Witch

This Tumblr post imagines what the life of a Muslim student in and outside of Hogwarts would be like 

I love this headcanon so much! Even though it speaks specifically of a Muslim Muggleborn witch’s experiences at Hogwarts – something that the books don’t explore at all – it makes me think of other experiences which are missing in the book and how they would fit in within the magical world. This applies not just to real-life religions and cultures but also different magical world creatures and cultures. This is why I love fandom so much. Fans of a popular series like Harry Potter come from such a diverse range of backgrounds. Obviously it’s not possible to represent EVERYONE in the text, knowing Rowling’s own limited perspectives and experiences. But the world is broad enough to host a myriad of experiences. 

What would a Parvati’s-eye view of Hogwarts and her home life be like? And Cho Chang? I’d also love to see Hogwarts welcoming in non-human creatures within its walls too. What about a Hogwarts full of centaurs, merpeople, giants, werewolves, goblins and house elves – as students and teachers? Even for those who don’t have access to the witch/wizarding magic, surely there are some things which don’t require magic? Does making potions always require a wand? What about learning from their skills – which may not necessarily be magical or may be a different kind of magic but interesting and important all the same? Why don’t the witches and wizards learn about the others who share their world – their cultures and beliefs? Harry thinks merpeople might eat humans or murder humans when they’re actually lovely. And this doesn’t come of bigotry – as some of Ron’s beliefs do – but just pure ignorance.

Even in terms of food, language, culture, and religion, surely Hogwarts and the magical world has room for different kinds of people from diverse backgrounds? Maybe they have their own magical traditions that they could share and raise awareness about? What about vegetarians at Hogwarts? Vegans? People with allergies or other food restrictions? It doesn’t just have implications on food but also Potions and spells in Charms and Transfiguration which seem to employ a lot of different animals and birds. 

Through the years, though, things she never considered comes up. Like how she’s basically a vegetarian at Hogwarts in her first year cause the house-elves don’t know about halaal meat, or how everyone looks at her funnily when in Third Year she gets special permission from Dumbledore to break from classes for prayer (and she learns to be quiet for Fajr when her roommates complain).

Or how Madame Pomfrey gets worried about her fasting in Ramadan, and the house-elves are insulted when she won’t eat their food until she explains, and then stuff her full of food half an hour before Fajr and at Maghrib.

Or that she takes to healing the muggle way because not all those potions have ingredients that she can ingest, and she talks to a sheikh for advice on if salamanders and bat eyes are actually halaal.

In one of The Gayly Prophet episodes, they wondered about vegan substitutes for some of the Potions and spells which need animals and animal products. Surely there are magical researchers looking into these things? It may be a slow process like real-world academia but that’s why we need more diverse researchers, no? How about magical researchers from Muggle backgrounds who find ways to incorporate both magical and non-magical aspects into new discoveries? 

And how annoying it is when the only holidays that get celebrated are Christian ones, and that’s when she makes friends with Anthony Goldstein, who agrees that there should be more religious diversity so he can really enjoy Hannukah at school. 

This is something that we briefly spoke of in Episode 7 – where’s Diwali and Ganesh Chaturthi and Pateti other desi festivals? Surely it’ll be a more fun, diverse, multicultural environment where everyone gets to understand and try different kinds of customs, clothes, and – to me, most importantly – food? 

The politics of language rears its head here in a way I’d never considered before. English is the dominant language even in magical spells which draw from Latin words. Super Eurocentric. It’s also strange that people in Hogwarts don’t study other languages to not only talk to foreign witches and wizards but also to British magical creatures who speak different languages like goblins and merpeople, for example. Dumbledore and Barty Crouch Sr. know several languages, but I’m assuming they studied it on their own time. There’s also no study of Muggle culture in Hogwarts which is strange since they live in a Muggle-dominant society. 

She gets in trouble for saying her spells in Arabic instead of English, to the consternation of all her professors who don’t understand the language and insist that its dangerous if they can’t govern her spell-casting.

So she starts a duelling club, and Padma joins her and casts spells in Punjabi, and Anthony who does his spells in Hebrew (they’re not making up spells, just changing the language, and isn’t it funny that the spells are always a teensy bit different?), and others trickle in, and new magic gets practiced under the supervision of a Ministry hire who encourages them and speaks sixteen different languages.

Again, I am so in love with this headcanon exploring religious diversity at Hogwarts in different ways. Ugh I love fan creativity so much! 

She worries about the practical non-existence of Muslims in Wizarding Britain, and will that affect the jobs she can get, because wizards and witches are a bit funny about religion?

Muggles are also RIDICULOUS about religion – does magical Britain inherit the same prejudices as their Muggle counterpart? 

 

3) Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper: Cultural Traditions of Magic

This episode talks about how most popular fantasy is so Western and Christianity centric and what non-Western fantasy worlds and creatures could look like. They do refer to the guest Zen Cho’s books but you don’t need to have read the books to make sense of the conversation – it brings up some really interesting points

(I’ve already used this episode as a text for Episode 7, so I’m supplementing the notes I made then with these new ones. For the old notes, click here.)

While popular Western fantasy has taken over the world, we still manage to imbibe our own cultural traditions of fantasy and storytelling as non-Western fans. In India, we have our mythological texts which are very much a part of our culture as well as popular folktales which we’ve grown up with. At the same time, we were also exposed to Western fairy tales and mythologies, so there’s a lot of cultural mishmash. 

The language used in these Western SFF texts is unusual for people outside the context. We had to fill in the gaps of our knowledge when it came to words that were used in Harry Potter and Enid Blyton – jumpers, food etc. These things didn’t get in the way of the story but readers had to work harder to build a contextual understanding. This reflects systems of power too – which readers are used to/open to doing this about unfamiliar cultures? Relatedly, what ideas of magic have we internalised? Which elements do we take for granted that we can’t imagine a fantasy world without? A shift in perspective by setting the fictional world in another country/culture or focalising it through a non-Eurocentric lens is valuable because it disrupts our notions of what we take for granted and allows us to examine why we feel discomfited and find it so unfamiliar. What feels like it’s the default and what is othered? 

Zen Cho mentions using Malaysian English whereas we have Indian English. I grew up wanting to perfect the British version of English reflecting my school and society’s priorities and emphasis on the “Queen’s English” even though India has been independent from the queen for several decades! We have to fit the language based on ideas of who and what you believe to be superior. You end up feeling inferior because your language doesn’t match this aspirational other and you also end up dismissing what makes your own language unique. There are several versions of English so what does standard English even mean? It used to be an issue (and still is for some) in children’s books where examples of Indian English were looked down upon. This also impacts what things which you consider exotic on the printed page. Words and phrases are italicised even if you’re writing for an audience which wouldn’t consider those words and phrases unfamiliar and foreign. 

Zen Cho mentions that in Malaysia, even middle-class or wealthier, urban, educated people believe in spirits. They don’t see anything contradictory between these different beliefs; they’re just different aspects of their identity and they see no need to separate them. She also mentions how she’s grown up with certain cultural superstitions which impacts how she thinks about the world. It reminds me of similar superstitions we have – some of which are universal and others of which are very specific to India. Totally resonate with Zen Cho when she says she doesn’t believe in spirits but sometimes she worries that the spirits don’t care whether she believes in them or not! It’s interesting dating a Scottish man and coming from such a different background not just nationally but also regionally – I’m from a big city, he’s from a small town (those sound like song lyrics!) – and how we make room for our different cultural habits and experiences. In terms of language, we used to get into arguments because the way we converse is different. For him, as a Scottish person (and perhaps as a man), someone interrupting him while talking is super rude. For me, interrupting someone while talking is how you show you’re engaged and active and listening to the conversation. 

What terms are considered normal and which are considered political? As one of the hosts says, “people have opinions” if you use Allah instead of god, for example. This controversy itself is also very contextual, historically and geographically. People in the past or in other parts of the world may not take umbrage with the same things. Different religions and cultures have different ideas of the importance of magic and who is allowed to use this magic. I loved The Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho because it so organically incorporated both British and Asian magical cultures and creatures – along with explorations of race and national identity as well as a badass powerful older witch and a fantastic female protagonist.

 

4) Article – Through Sci-fi And Fantasy, Muslim Women Authors Are Building New Worlds

This article lists some recent popular fantasy books and series written by Muslim women who move beyond the traditionally white, Eurocentric fantasy worlds and incorporate their own mythologies, stories, and religions into the narratives 

I love that there’s this surge in science fiction and fantasy which doesn’t focus on primarily Western, Eurocentric cultures. This article specifically talks about Muslim women writing SFF, drawing on their own perspectives, experiences and knowledges. But increasingly, there’s also been room for other cultures. Rick Riordan’s imprint, for example, does a brilliant job promoting lesser-known cultures on the world stage. He’s using his privilege and voice to promote those who don’t have the same power as him.

The women writers mentioned in this article disrupt traditional notions of Muslim women in their books and automatically address the lack of diversity in SFF. This is why you need to not just increase diversity in terms of representation but also who’s doing the representing. These women are drawing on their own cultures and histories and storytelling traditions:

That’s a change from the past, when speculative fiction was dominated by stories that drew on Norse, Christian and Arthurian sagas and mythologies.

A lot of these books have also been popular enough to launch online fan communities complete with fanfic and fan art. I love that diversity is becoming mainstream in this way! I wonder how many of these writers were inspired by popular books like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings etc. which have huge fandoms but not a huge amount of diversity. Were they perhaps inspired to create their own worlds in which they could see themselves reflected? 

The article mentions Ms Marvel’s creator. I only got into comics relatively recently. I didn’t know where to start until I picked up the first in the Ms Marvel book in a Leeds public library a couple of years ago and had my mind completely blown. The representation of a desi superhero felt so completely authentic and not tokenistic, and it’s someone I recognised even though I grew up in India and I’m not Muslim. 

In 2007, G. Willow Wilson — then a journalist writing on the Middle East and religious affairs, now a top comics writer most known for co-creating Kamala Khan, Marvel’s first Muslim character to headline her own comic book — published the magical-realist thriller “Cairo.”

The dense urban fantasy played with Islamic and Arabic mythology, from jinns to flying prayer rugs to Arabian Nights, while also commenting on Arab-Israeli politics.

This extract reminds me of the article which studied Arab fans of Game of Thrones and how they used the fictional framework to explore the geopolitics in the world they inhabited. The flying prayer rugs reminds me of Ali Bashir in Goblet of Fire whose name keeps cropping up because he wants to import flying carpets into the UK as a family vehicle – something that’s currently illegal in the British magical world. Perhaps an unintended hint of British cultural imperialism even when it comes to ideas of which modes of magical transportation are appropriate?  

As a science fiction editor, Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali says her biggest grievance was seeing stories about imaginary worlds where only white people exist.

“It really bugs me to see a far-off future-flung store, and everyone is white, and everyone is assumed to be Judeo-Christian or atheist,” the World Fantasy Award-nominated editor said. “Because we are in this world. I don’t believe that 100 or 200 or 400 years in the future, we will cease to exist, yet we don’t show up in stories about the future.”

Muslim and Indian history has had such a huge impact on events as well as scientific and technological advancements, but you’d think it was only the West that ever contributed anything to society. This creates false attitudes not just within Western audiences but also Eastern ones – superiority versus inferiority.

“It became very important to me as I was learning to be a writer myself, to write worlds where the people I loved and the cultures I find beauty in were present and real,” Intisar Khanani told Religion News Service. “Because we have the right to take up space in this world, and in our imagined worlds.”

A new wave of Muslim speculative fiction writers is chipping away at outdated notions of what belongs in the genre. Their stories often feature strong Muslim women protagonists and integrate themes from Islamic theology, folklore and history. 

Mainstream entertainment and news media has such limited ideas of what it means to be a Muslim person or a Muslim woman and have an inaccurate version of Muslim history and beliefs. Normalising these cultures by letting Muslim women write their own stories is a fantastic way to disrupt biases and assumptions.

“I chose this word to reflect the fact that these women are claiming their history and their traditions to themselves and refusing to be erased from it or suppressed in this world,” Ausma Zehanat Khan said. “I wanted to take the Islamic tradition and put it in the hands of women and have them be its defenders.”

These writers have also used the framework of SFF to explore feminist themes within their culture:

“The genre allows them to break forms, imagining these utopian spaces where women can have certain kinds of power, often magical or otherworldly powers, that we can see as ciphers for a kind of critique or a reflection on women’s empowerment,” Hashem said.

And by drawing on Islamic history and culture in their settings and characters, Hashem argued, many Muslim authors implicitly rebuke anti-Muslim ideas of Islam as backward, while also critiquing notions that speculative fiction was born out of the European Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution.

“Oppressed people are primed to imagine what things could look like if they were not the victim of so many different systems of oppression,” Safiyah Cheatam said. “I think we see a wider range of what futures could be available to us.”

Some Notes On Episode 17 – 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 17, See Different Possibilities: Alternative Relationship and Economic Structures in Fandom, we discussed the following texts:

1) Fan podcast – Be the Serpent: You and Me and Our Boyfriend Makes Three

I learned a lot through this discussion especially since I’m not familiar with the communities and cultures they describe. Balanced triads – each person is in a relationship with the other two people; V relationships – one person is in a relationship with two people who don’t have relationships themselves. These queer relationships are about love and not reproduction. All the people in the relationship offer different perspectives and strengths and skills to each other. They also have a different notion of family from normative nuclear families. Found families is an important concept.

In the episode they talk about the fanfic genre of OT3s (or one true threesomes) and how different kinds of polyamorous relationships are depicted in fiction and real-world media. In fandom, OT3 is like OTP (one true pairings) with threesomes – the pairing of threesomes that you love best in fiction. 

In fiction, OT3s work best in longform mediums like TV shows and book series where there’s more time and space to explore different facets of the relationships. Alternatively, in fanfiction, you’re creating an alternative canon based on a fictional world someone else has created.

Examples of potential triads include Harry Potter, The Hunger Games (lots of YA!), and Star Wars. Imagining polyamorous relationships opens up the potential for so many different kinds of relationships rather than the Team Edward/Team Jacob debates of yore. 

The fact that these representations seem to be predominant only in fanfic and not in mainstream media means that most people – young people and adults – can’t imagine other ideas of being in the world. Even I only encountered polyamory a few years ago on a dating app. 

The hosts point out the absence of this in speculative fiction particularly. They believe that SFF doesn’t build alternative family and relationship structures for the most part – only economic and political alternatives. The two person family/romantic/sexual unit is the default which you would think speculative fiction has so much room to explore. In 2020, you would think there would be more explorations of relationships especially in fiction to reflect it becoming more mainstream in the real world.

Is polyamory a queer thing, a millenial thing, a generational thing? Where is it more acceptable as the norm and where is monogamy the default? The norms hurt certain groups of people so they step out of these normative structures to explore other kinds of relationships and families. Seeing representations of this, as with other marginalised cultures, helps both the dominant and marginalised cultures – to understand themselves and others better. 

 

2) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds: Fan Fiction (Don’t Judge)

(I’ve already used this episode as a text for Episode 4, so I’m supplementing the notes I made then with these new ones. For the old notes, click here.)

Fanfiction fills such an important need in terms of representation which is absent in mainstream media – particularly fic written by fans from marginalised groups.

Fanfic is an example of communal writing where betas act as voluntary editors of fic. There’s also implications on the intersections of class, fanfiction and gender. So much time and labour are offered for free. This happens for love of the work and the community but people also need to pay the bills. On the other hand, capitalism wants you to commercialise everything and some things are just for the fun of it.

They talk with Francesca who more recently has been at the centre of online controversy in the midst of the Black Lives Matter discussions on Twitter and her and AO3’s complicity in racism. Fanfiction can be progressive and inclusive towards certain groups but hostile towards others – queerness and gender is centered but race is othered.

I like that fanfic offers a space for these alternative stories and perspectives and cultures which defy the normative dominant ones, but I also wish it wasn’t the only space in which these stories thrived. Fanfic isn’t accessible to everyone even on the internet; you have to discover it yourself. Mainstream media can also be inaccessible but more accessible than fanfic.

Fan entitlement – fans may not have institutional power but they are now able to respond to the media and critique decisions. Can fans influence mainstream decisions? Is the new Star Wars trilogy an example of fan or media company feedback? 

 

3) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds: Fan Fiction (Special Edition)

(I’ve already used this episode as a text for Episode 4, so I’m supplementing the notes I made then with these new ones. For the old notes, click here.)

“Women like the show too much and in the wrong way”

What’s wrong with fanfiction that focuses on a lot of sex and romantic relationships? It’s a perfectly legitimate form of expression and exploration of self-identity. Fans are writing/reading things they’re interested in which centres their perspectives and desires in ways which mainstream media doesn’t.

What is taboo in fanfiction often differs from what’s taboo in mainstream fiction. This is also historically contextual and can change. For example, slashfic, real person fic was taboo but now less so within fandom. Wincest – incest fic in Supernatural might be considered taboo in mainstream and possibly even in fandom. 

Archive of our Own was started by fans to own the platform where they wrote. They designed the structure and software from scratch. However, the initial group of co-founders had their own blind-spots and biases which undergirded the framework of the website which has now become such a mainstream space for fanfic online. 

 

4) Fan podcast – Verity!: Fanworks Round Table

Definition of fan works differs based on different perspectives and interpretations. Fan works take any elements from the original fictional world and play with it – inspired by or based on any piece of media. I think fanfic is a huge topic of conversation within fandom and mainstream conversation and even fan studies. I’m more interested in critical commentary such as fan podcasts and even Tumblr posts or other social media posts which analyse characters, worlds, events, themes etc. 

As one of the hosts points out, mainstream media seems to discover fanfiction anew every few years in a way that is vaguely if not outright derisive. They point out that slashfic used to be very taboo. Even fanfic itself used to be seen as something shameful. In mainstream minds, there’s a stigma against fanfic where it’s perceived to only be about sex; a view which is exacerbated by mainstream media critics and hosts who find and highlight the raunchiest examples of fanfic they can find. I don’t read a lot of fanfic so only know what’s normative and marginalised within that space through research I’ve read which in turn is also subjective and reflects a limited number of experiences.

Now, less people seem to object as much as they used to and fanfic seems to be more acceptable and accepted. It’s increasingly more from a sense of curiosity and sometimes even attributing their own interpretations which don’t take into account the nuances and complexities. For example, KPop fandom disrupting Trump’s rally being celebrated without including/understanding the prevalence of anti-blackness and racism within the KPop fandom. In slashfic, m/m slash is more dominant than femslash or slash featuring characters across the gender spectrum. Perhaps this reflects the lack of these representations in media. Or it reflects the hierarchy of marginalisation even within seemingly progressive spaces. Can  things like fan podcasts push back against this marginalisation a little bit maybe? Especially those which foreground an intersectional analysis? 

 

5) Fan podcast – Our Opinions Are Correct: Can We Survive Capitalism?

Can we survive capitalism is a superbly pertinent question especially these days of the pandemic! Even India is becoming more capitalist from a more socialist country and the results are awful. Whose lives matter? Whose comfort matters? Who needs to sacrifice for whose comfort? Over-consumption is a way of distracting people from what’s actually going on in the real world including issues of social, political and economic justice. Overall, people are blind to where your goods and your food comes from. You don’t have the context in late-capitalist societies. This is true in India too where even small rural societies are impacted by capitalism. Development projects like dams, canals, electricity, water, mining cause millions of people to forcibly migrate. At the same time, people in urban areas don’t think about where our services come from.

Capitalistic structures prevent class solidarity. Current example of this during the pandemic where a person tweeted their disgruntlement about going to work for Amazon when others were getting money for staying at home (hbomberguy’s response pointed out how much money Jeff Bezos makes every day) – pitting the marginalised groups against each other to prevent coalitions.

Commodity fetishism exists in science fiction too with illusions of branding and advertising. Dystopias seem to deal with class warfare and exploitation more than other speculative fiction. The Hunger Games features oppression through divide and conquer. There are examples of class warfare in Game of Thrones too and social uprisings in Star Trek and Doctor Who with the Ood. 

How does speculative fiction imagine alternative economies? How does it imagine capitalism? What are the different economic and social systems in SFF which are an alternative to capitalism? I just don’t know of enough examples, I think. They describe how in Star Trek, it’s seemingly a post-money economy but not everywhere in the universe. Star Trek features a post-scarcity society, a sort of socialist utopia where people aren’t obsessed with things and have gotten rid of basic human needs. A post-scarcity society implies endless resources or immortality. 

As one of the hosts points out, we can’t seem to imagine a post-capitalist society without some miraculous invention/system which takes care of current issues and needs. Does that make it more unrealistic or just real in fiction? As the same host points out, we have enough resources now but those resources are concentrated in the hands of the very few rather than being redistributed amongst other people. Are there examples of this in fiction? Does this seem more unrealistic than a magical solution? Utopian and dystopian post-capitalist worlds seem to be the norm – not worlds in-between who have eliminated some needs but not all.

Capitalism and colonisation – stealing resources from a group of people and using them to create more wealth only for a certain group along racial, class, gender lines or in science fiction, along species lines. Capitalism and environmental destruction – unsustainable production and pollution. Thinks like fast fashion and food – who pays the social and environmental costs for things like this and who benefits? Capitalism as an unsustainable system where you’re growing and growing and at some point you need to stop; same with environmental destruction. But we’re fobbing off the problem for the future even though it’s impacting people terribly all across the developing and developed world. 

During the pandemic, the idea of essential service workers changed but the class dynamics remained. Those who could afford to be in jobs that allowed them to work from the safety of their homes heralded those who had to put themselves into danger like NHS doctors and nurses or dismissed others like supermarket workers – all in a way which doesn’t involve radically restructuring society to benefit the ones who do the most important work in society. The false idea of meritocracy is still the dominant ideology which guides us. 

Labour which isn’t acknowledged or paid in a capitalist society include parenting, emotional labour. The costs of the pandemic are impacting women’s work more than men. A better way of capitalism would compensate people for educational labour, healthcare labour, and caregiving labour accordingly instead of paying people who do so little so much.

How do we imagine worlds beyond capitalism? 

One of the hosts thinks we still have ages to go before we topple capitalism as an economic system – which makes it even more important to imagine alternatives in our fiction so it’s something which seeps through to mainstream consciousness. This reminds me of the Accidentally Left-Wing Twitter account which presents some of these “dangerously radical” ideas such as abolishing rent and tuition and healthcare costs and universal basic income – ideas which essentially seek to protect everyone and provide them with the tools to live their best lives. Even things like access to parks, food and money in the UK during the lockdown – will post-pandemic speculative fiction address this collective trauma in ways which explore the class imbalances and imagine alternatives which bridge the gap?

 

6) Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper: Magic, Wealth and Power with Vic James

Vic James talks about her own books where magic is a form of wealth and wealth inequality. Magic is concentrated in the hands of the 10% of society and the remaining people have to give ten years of their lives to contribute to their society through physical labour. There’s an unequal distribution of power, which James believes is similar to mortgages and student debt. People are locked into economic relationships born out of necessity not choice. The story came to the fore in the wake of the Occupy protests as well as her own concern about her personal lack of wealth and a grim future. She drew on the history of inherited wealth and class imbalances in British society. There is now a new form of aristocracy where wealth now is completely locked away in offshore bank accounts from the context in which it was created. There is no circulation of wealth to boost the local or national economy only to boost individual self-worth. 

Access to education also depends on class. Class can’t be seen devoid of other contexts and intersectional identities. What sort of work gets you a lot of money? Not artists even though art is so important to so many people – something you see during the pandemic. The conversation draws connections between SFF and the real world in ways which make sense to current contexts. The rich keep getting richer sounds like a cliche but it’s true and ever-present and seemingly insurmountable. Lack of awareness about the impacts and causes of wealth inequality means that average people are seduced by the wealth and power of the elite because they don’t see the source of the conflict in their lives. They want to join the elite without realising they’re closer to being destitute than enormously wealthy.

 

7) Fan podcast – Woke Doctor Who: Captain Jack Sex Jesus

Jack offers a sex-positive representation in a mainstream children’s TV show like Doctor Who. Jack was Eugenia’s first encounter with such a positive representation of being open about and enjoying sex. As a first-gen Chinese-American, she didn’t encounter these ideas in real life. Jack offers a representation of a pansexual man who is attracted to men, women, other species 

Jack is from the 51st century so the labels for gender and sexuality that limit us today no longer exist then and are more fluid and flexible as seen in Jack. This idea takes advantage of a sci-fi show and all the potentials it offers. There are different conceptions of bodies as well. Jack makes an off-the-cuff remark of being pregnant once and doesn’t go into it. This can signal new possibilities in future worlds where technologies overcome present limitations where only trans men can be pregnant, not cis men. What does time and space do to the human body? 

Need representations of alternative relationships and family structures in children’s media as well. Jack has a found family in Doctor Who and another one in Torchwood. The mere presence of diverse sexualities and families in children’s media doesn’t require adult supervision just like the mere presence of heterosexual couples and normative families doesn’t. It can allow children to imagine and accept different ways of being in the world. 

 

8) Essay –  The truth about polyamory in India – ‘it isn’t about sex and fun’

Absence of representation of polyamory or alternative relationship structures when you’re young means that you won’t be able to articulate your own desires or imagine another way of existing in the world.

“Polyamory advocates honest, open, inclusive and egalitarian relationships between multiple partners.”

Consent, knowledge, and communication is important for all relationships but so much more important in poly relationships. Idea of poly relationships in mainstream imaginations is being all about the sex (just like fanfic) and lack of commitment. But poly relationships require deep commitment and may not always focus on sex. What about ace/aro poly relationships? Poly relationships share similarities with monogomous ones – setting boundaries and open and constant communication. However, poly partnership is about both emotional and physical needs and require people to be mindful, self-aware, and self-reflexive for it to succeed. Even though it’s becoming more mainstream, it’s still a marginalised culture (though more people are open about it now, at least in my encounters).

“This open and expansive interpretation of love and relationships may not be for everyone. It requires a great deal of self-exploration and constant communication. Whether one agrees with polyamory or not, it is difficult to dismiss the essential pillars it is built on. For good communication, generous love and equality among partners are worthy goals in any relationship.”

Polyamory challenges societal conventions, norms, systems and expectations because they don’t work for you, particularly the imbalanced power structures in most traditional relationships. Poly relationships offer a way to get different needs and desires met without placing the burden of these on a single individual who may not be able to fulfill these. Co-habiting and raising children with different partners is an unfamiliar family structure but people can make it work. 

“People who practise polyamory can create families and that is a proven fact,” Ley said. “Is it more difficult? Maybe. Because there aren’t many examples out there and they face stigma. However, things like co-living, parenting or long-term plans can benefit from polyamory, because you are likely to have a support network and a community and not just rely on one person to do all this with.”

Some Notes On Episode 16 – Resources

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

For Episode 16, The Queer Paradise: Exploring Diverse Gender Identities in Speculative Worlds, we discussed the following texts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

3) Fanzine – Harry Potter and the Problematic Author

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

5) Fanzine – Tonk’s Tale

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neither do we.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Some Notes On Episode 15 – Resources

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

For Episiode 15, A Fascinating Tension: Multiple Interpretations of Religious Themes and Ideas in SFF, we discussed the following texts:

1) Essay – Introduction to Cruel Miracles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

3) Book extract – Too Like The Lightning 

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

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

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

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

I love this idea! 

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

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

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

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

 

4) Essay – Why There Is No Jewish Narnia

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

MatthewAnish56

February 20, 2014 at 7:54 pm

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

B’Shalom

Matthew Abish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another comment says: 

deborahjross

April 15, 2015 at 4:05 pm

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

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

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

— Deborah J. Ross

Some more recommendations: 

Marian

March 11, 2019 at 11:57 am

Hi —

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

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

Joe

April 18, 2019 at 5:21 pm

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

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

 

5) Essay – Fantasy and the Jewish Question

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

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

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

I am sure others will add more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raz Greenberg said…

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

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

Abigail Nussbaum said…

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

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

 Daniel M. Jaffe said…

As compiler and editor of “With Signs and

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

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

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

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

March 05, 2010 2:32 AM

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

9) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds: The Canon Revisited

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

13) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds: Faith in Fantasy

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Some Notes On Episode 14 – Resources

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

For Episiode 14, We Don’t Know What To Do With Them: Representations of Older Women in Media, we discussed the following texts:

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

The episode signposts two articles by the guest:

Motherhood and Erasure 

On Horrific Pregnancies and Dead Mothers  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Everything was better back then.”

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

“McGonagall walked so Hermione could fly.”

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Some Notes On Episode 13 – Resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Some Notes On Episode 12 – Resources

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

For Episode 12, The International Imagination: Exploring World Politics in the Fantastic Beasts Films, we discussed the following texts:

1) Movie – Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

2) Movie – The Crimes of Grindelwald

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

4) Essay – Notes on Claudia Kim’s Nagini

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

A Korean woman in Potterverse! *instant identification*

Neville killed me, oh noes

“milk Nagini” GROSSSSSS

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

Ugh, I had to eat Charity Burbage

OH MY GOD I ATE SNAPE

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

Here is what I really hear:

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

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

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

On Nagini’s deleted scenes: 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Notes On Episode 11 – Resources

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

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

1) Essay – We Have Always Fought

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

2) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Heroines

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

ii) Do they talk to each other?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Notes On Episode 10 – Resources

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

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

1) Fanfiction – Never Change

Robert described his fanfic as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She smiled sadly.

“I don’t understand.”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I want to see that this one can be overcome.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

4) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Caps Lock Harry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oppression dehumanises a person.” 

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

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

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

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

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

 

6) Video – The Gayly Prophet

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

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

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

 

7) Essay – The Future Is (Not) Disabled

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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