A PhD project exploring intersectionality through fan podcasts

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Some Notes On Episode 9 – Resources

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

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

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

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 However, we still had the British Empire’s outdated law in the country where homosexuality was illegal and then it wasn’t and then it was again – there was a back and forth.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

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

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

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

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

 

2) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Imaginary Deaths

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

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

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

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

Lez Hang Out – Bury Your Gays 

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

“It gets better and then you die.” 

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

 

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

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

“Video games have always been queer”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Slytherin is literally just the Nazi school.” 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Notes On Episode 8 – Resources

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

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

1) Movie – Green Book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

2) Movie – Crazy Rich Asians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

3) Movie – Last Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

5) Fan podcast – Woke Doctor Who Crazy Rich Asians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

7) Fan podcast – Black Girl Nerds Asians in Media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

8) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Ghost In The Shell

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

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

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

 

9) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Growing Up Avatar American

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Notes On Episode 7 – Resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended articles:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

8) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Fantastical Feasts 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Notes On Episode 6 – Resources

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

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

DISABILITY:

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Oppression dehumanises a person.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

6) Article – Harry Potter and the Curse of Disability

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

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

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

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

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

 

AGE: 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Some thoughts on the episode:

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

Some Notes On Episode 5 – Resources

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

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

1) Essay – Ron Weasley Vs Ron Weasley

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

3) Essay – Strong Female Characters: Ginny Weasley

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

9) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Heroines

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

Sports and gender dynamics and gender performativity 

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

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

 

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

The episode discusses the representations of Native Americans in science fiction in fantasy, specifically where non-Native Americans use native history and culture in fantasy. The hosts wonder why it’s such a radical idea that native Americans have their own intellectual history. It reminds me of other cultures whose intellectual histories are dismissed and mocked including indigenous forms of knowledge in both western and Indian contexts. In Harry Potter, Muggles and Muggle-born forms a belittled culture.

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

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

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

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

Recommended magazine issue: Strange Horizons – Indigenous Science Fiction

Some Notes On Episode 4 – Resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

3) Fanfiction – A Wand With Sixteen Strings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two fan text recommendations from the conversation: 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Why bully teenage girls for doing something they love?

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

Some Notes On Episode 3 – Resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Magic as a way of intervening in capitalism.” 

How do you embrace a different approach to aesthetics? 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

“Fantasy fiction is limited to our cultural experiences.” 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

  • Eric

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

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

Hussein Rashid 

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

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

Oscar Sinclair

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Broderick Greer

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

Some Notes on Episode 2 – Part 2 Resources

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

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

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

Recommendations from the podcast:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doctor Who episode “Rosa”

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

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

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

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

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

Some Notes On Episode 2 – Part 1 Resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Notes on Episode 1 Resources

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

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

Fan podcast Imaginary Worlds Episode 52 “The Sorting Hat”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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