A PhD project exploring intersectionality through fan podcasts

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Tag: Queer media

Episode 22 This Is Not the Only Story: Expanding Mainstream Ideas of Sexuality and Social Class

Episode Resources:


1) Article – How pop culture embraced sexuality ‘without labels’

2) Fan podcast – Alohomora: LGBTQIA+ In Potter – Beauty In Difference

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

4) Essay – Asexuality Awareness Week: A Feminist Perspective on the Doctor’s Asexuality

5) Essay – The Sexual Ethics of Doctor Who

6) Article – Queerbaiting – exploitation or a sign of progress?

7) Essay – The Problematic Representation Of Queer Masculinity In Disney Films

8) Essay – Representation in acefic

9) Article – Queer Azaadi Mumbai 2020: For whose pride?



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

11) Essay – Confronting the Default: Portraying Homelessness in Science Fiction and Fantasy

12) Essay – Celebrating the Minimum Wage Warriors of SFF

13) Wiki list – Fantastic Caste System

14) Essay – Why Are Bollywood’s Small-Town Heroes Always Upper Caste?

15) Essay – Why is pop culture so disdainful of the ‘conformist’ salaried class?

16) YouTube video – Pass The Mic – Suraj Yengde On Why Caste Matters

17) Article – Urban India didn’t care about migrant workers till 26 March, only cares now because it’s lost their services: P Sainath

18) Article – Lockdown has laid bare Britain’s class divide


Episode Transcript

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. If you would prefer the original, unedited version, please let me know!

[Intro music]

Welcome to Marginally Fannish, a show where we aim an intersectional lens at some of our favourite media and their fandoms.

[Intro music]

My name is Parinita Shetty and you’re listening to the twenty-second episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, Sanjana, Aparna and I chat about how sexual diversity and social class are represented in media and society.

Mainstream media representations influence many people’s understanding of diverse identities. A limited range of diversity among media creators results in a limited diversity of stories. The stories which do exist reflect dominant culture priorities and prejudices. Compulsory heterosexuality as a structural narrative force presents limited ways of existing in the world. The overall absence of working-class narratives means that countless stories remain unheard. When it comes to representations of intersectional identities in media, the situation is even grimmer. These limited stories build an incomplete and inaccurate canon of our imagination.

However, first-person accounts about the politics of representation can help people identify and unlearn different biases and blind-spots. Other people’s perspectives in online and fandom spaces can draw attention to intersectional nuances. By highlighting these default structures, fans can help people analyse favourite media with fresh insight. Multiple interpretations of fictional characters can make canon more inclusive of diverse identities. It can also help people imagine alternative ways of living in the real world. This sort of critical education that fills in knowledge-gaps requires active effort. But once embarked upon, it can kickstart a lifelong questioning of received information and a quest for more complex stories about different people.

Find our conversation about all this and more in today’s episode.

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Sanjana: Hello! I’m Sanjana

Aparna: I’m Aparna.

Parinita: And I’m Parinita. In this episode, we’re going to be focusing on two separate topics. In the first half, we’ll talk about sexual diversity and then explore class – both in media representations and what they reflect and influence in the real world. In both instances, the three of us belong to the dominant group so we’re still in the process of expanding our understanding and unlearning things that we’ve internalised. To kick things off, I thought we could talk about our understanding of gender identity versus sexuality because I think these terms are often lumped together. That’s certainly been true in my own case especially before this last year when I’ve been reading about this more and hearing other people’s perspectives about this more. Now I know the difference properly. But before that, because gender identity and sexuality are often spoken about in the same breath so to speak, if someone would have quizzed me, I wouldn’t have been able to explain what the difference is. Only now do I understand that they are two separate things. So, for example, you can be nonbinary and you can be heterosexual, homosexual, pansexual whatever. Or you can be a trans woman or a trans man and you can be heterosexual. So gender identity and sexuality are two different things. What about the both of you? Have you had this confusion as well?

Sanjana: Yeah. For actually quite the longest time. I think the journey is similar. My understanding came from wanting to educate myself and to understand it better. And so now I’m beginning to get a better sense of the difference between the two. It’s more reading and more people talking around me and meeting newer people that helped me understand this.

Aparna: Even for me. And I think because we’re so far removed from – at least I was – from encountering many of these identities in our daily lives as well. I didn’t end up even trying to find out for a long time. So there was a lot of unlearning that I had to do before I started educating myself because, like you said, all these identities are clubbed together so often. Now it seems so obvious to me that gender identity and sexuality are so completely different. Since we just hear it as one term and always mentioned in the same breath, unless you start looking at more nuanced experiences and read up a little more in detail, it’s hard to be able to figure these things out initially. But when you start to educate yourself, it’s actually all there and it’s quite easy too. I feel like one of the things that I’ve learned is that the more you read and the more you see these identities represented in media, what matters the most is understanding that these are not categories, that these are individuals. Especially when I was reading up and when I read first-person accounts or heard someone who identifies with a particular group speaking critically about representation in media is when I realised how personal these things are. Because we come from a point of privilege of not having encountered any of these oppressions from these angles, I was completely blind to so many of the nuances in media. I want to talk about two terms now – queerbaiting and queer-coding. So initially I feel like because there was obviously a lot of dismissal of these portrayals of media and there was a lot of taboo around it, people who were making media had to do it very subtly. And that was the origin of queercoding. So where it comes from there is a lot of positive to be gleaned from it. Like in Xena The Warrior Princess, Parinita, I think you watch that show so you’ll be able to tell better – that the characters were queercoded.

Parinita: Yeah. Very, very much so!

Aparna: Yeah. [laughs] So a lot of those representations were very positive and gave voice to a large community that was otherwise being completely neglected from being portrayed. But there are also negative aspects to that. For example, I read this article which was exploring how all of the Disney villains were queercoded.

Parinita: Yeah oh my god.

Aparna: Like Scar from Lion King was portrayed as having effeminate characteristics whereas Ursula from The Little Mermaid had more male characteristics. And it had gone into a deeper research of that. So there is a negative aspect of it and the positive aspect of it. And queerbaiting is when a queer relationship is hinted at or teased but never fully realised. Can you guys think of any examples where that might have happened?

Sanjana: Yes.

Parinita: Albus and Scorpius.

Sanjana: Yes! Albus and Scorpius! Yes I had the exact same example. I was reading up about it and I was just generally trying to understand the terms better. And I was like oh my god. And they speak quite extensively on the podcast episode um … which podcast episode was it?

Parinita: The Alohomara one?

Sanjana: Yes, yes! Thank you. Yeah, they speak quite extensively on it. And I love the way they explained it that if you read a scene and you don’t reveal the genders of the two characters and you just read the scene without any mention of the genders, would you read the scene as between two people who are in love?

Parinita: I mean not just reading. So I went and watched the play in March in the Before Times [laughs] when you could still go and watch plays. When I first read the playscript as well, it was very obvious to me – even though I don’t usually queer characters.

Sanjana: Yeah! Same.

Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Image courtesy Vox

Parinita: But it was just very obvious to me like you were saying. But when they act it out on stage, it’s like a love story! I mean I’m all for showing intimate male friendships as well, like really close male friendships. Because I think that one of the arguments against this ship is that oh they’re just really good friends and you need examples of those as well. But I think you can have both. You can have all kinds of relationships. So this is something that we’ve spoken about in a previous episode where both of them are very, very queerbaity. Another thing that we’ve spoken about is BBC Sherlock. Watson and Sherlock in that – the producers have actually hinted at or even said more explicitly that they are queerbaiting the audience. They’re doing it quite purposefully. And they think of it as fun. But they don’t understand the kinds of psychological and emotional violence that it perpetuates always having your readings being made the butt of jokes essentially.

Sanjana and Aparna: Yeah.

Aparna: It also has been swinging a little bit in another direction where people are being called out for queerbaiting where it’s not. I want to give an example of Steven Universe which is one of the most diverse shows I have ever encountered. One of the storyboard artists, Lauren Zuke – I’m not sure if that’s how you pronounce her name – but she posted art about two characters who are shipped in fan circles. And that upset fans of another ship with one of those characters. And she was accused of queerbaiting and was trolled on the internet, so she had to leave Twitter.

Parinita: Oh god.

Aparna: So it also goes in the other direction.

Parinita: Yeah. We speak a lot about the positive aspects of fandom but yeah fandom can be pretty brutal as well. This reminds me of my teenage years where these ships in Harry Potter fandom used to be so intense – these shipping wars. So Harry and Hermione versus – not Harry and Ron, I don’t think that was ever a ship – but Hermione and Ron. And Harry and Ginny or Harry and Draco, and Hermione and Draco. Because all the books hadn’t come out yet at that point so people were still really wanting their ships to come true. I don’t think that it went to this extent, but I think that’s happening more and more over the last decade or so. I think there’s a line between fans being really emotional about these characters and these themes – which we are as well – and on the other side, bullying the creators into going off Twitter and things. Which has happened in the Star Trek fandom for race-related, gender-related reasons. Not Star Trek, Star Wars.

Aparna: Yeah. Star Wars.

Sanjana: Since we were talking about Harry Potter just now, I wanted to discuss the whole need for compulsory heterosexuality. And I wanted to talk about this more through the example of Lupin. I didn’t read Lupin like that but as I was hearing more and more podcasts, I was like yeah, that makes complete sense. The whole point of Lupin made to settle down and marry someone and he seems more included in the entire scheme of things once he’s married and has a baby on the way and those kind of things. I just thought he was an excellent example of this compulsory need to have everybody conform to society in Harry Potter. And this is something that even happens in mythology, for example. And there is a lot of mention of men and men together in mythology.

Parinita: In Indian mythology, right?

Sanjana: Yes, in Indian mythology, yes. Sorry. Like Shiva and Vishnu, if they get together, it is always with one turning into another gender; one switching gender. And this I’ve mentioned in the last episode, that I think Vishnu is genderfluid.

Parinita and Aparna: [laugh] Yes!

Sanjana: The more I read, the more and more I get convinced about the fact that I think he slips in and out – he uses it as a superpower though at this point. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: But yeah. That need again to conform to society basically. There’s this other deity that I don’t know if you’ll are familiar with called Ila who’s a genderfluid deity. And basically is the father and mother of the entire Suryavanshi race which is I think the Kauravas and the Pandavas? No they are the Chandravanshi – sorry. I just get confused which come from the sun and which come from the moon. The Ramayana is from the moon and one is from the sun.

Aparna: Oh!

Parinita: Oh I had no idea. What?

Sanjana: Yeah. We were recently researching the story for something and in that, there’s a king who wants a child. Prays, prays, gets a girl. Does not want a girl – like most stories go. And so somebody changes the gender saying that, okay go ahead, you have a boy. So he raises her as a boy. And one day when this prince is out roaming the gardens and the forests, he enters Shiva and Parvati’s garden. And if you enter Shiva and Parvati’s garden, you automatically get turned into a woman. So this prince gets turned into a woman. And he doesn’t know what to do. To get back his gender, Shiva blesses him saying that you will change your gender every six months. But when you change your gender, you will forget – and this was what was the most interesting because it is in our scriptures – that when you change your gender after six months, you will forget everything from your previous gender so that you don’t have to live with the shame.

Aparna and Parinita: Oh!

Sanjana: Yeah! And when we were retelling the story, I was like, we are not going to do that.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: We are not going to do that. Then she eventually falls in love, has children and that’s how this whole race gets born.

Parinita: Hindu mythology is wild!

Sanjana: I tell you! Yeah absolutely. [laughs]

Parinita: So what you said about the compulsory heterosexuality in Harry Potter, honestly, it’s not something that I had noticed when I’d first read it.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Because of our positions in society, right? And also the script that society gives you especially in India –  you have to study, then you can work for some time, then you get married obviously to a nice boy of the same religion and of the same caste. And then you have a baby. And then that is your life. You buy a house, I guess, if you can in this economy. In Harry Potter, that is totally how it goes. And also the fact that they all marry the people that they were dating in what is essentially secondary school.

Sanjana and Aparna: Yeah!

Parinita: [laughs] I am such a different person from who I was when I was 17 that I can’t even imagine being with the same person that I was.

Aparna: Yes! I read this very funny tweet when I – I don’t know, a long time ago – that the last chapter of the last book of Harry Potter is written as if a fan has written it. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah! Because James and Lily … their children’s names are also his parent’s because obviously Ginny doesn’t get to decide their children should be named. But even in the Yule Ball where they’re all looking for people of the opposite gender to go to the ball with. There’s no mention at all of any same-sex or same-gender couples going together. Not even as friends. Everyone is going there as – well I guess Ginny and Neville went as friends because reasons. But it’s very, very heteronormative in terms of how everyone ends up together. And that’s so limited. Especially because if you just read the books, sure Dumbledore is queercoded. And I know that some people think that Rowling said Dumbledore is gay for attention. I don’t think that’s true. I just think that like with all her other attempts at diversity, it’s very superficial diversity and wasn’t researched enough. It was just there for the sake of one token gay character that we want. But if you just read the books without knowing any of the other conversations that are happening around, you wouldn’t even know that Dumbledore is gay.

Aparna: Yeah. I didn’t notice it. In one of the podcasts, they discuss this at length. And I agree that since we’re seeing it from Harry’s perspective, maybe it wouldn’t have been easy – maybe it’s okay that we don’t know. But the point is if there are other representations, then it’s okay for a silent representation to happen. But if there are no other representations … and initially maybe she did not want to put in an openly gay character for fear of attracting controversy. But, as they mentioned, by book three, she pretty much knew before publishing that all her books are going to sell well. So it’s not like that could have been what was holding her back. So yeah. It’s a bit of a copout.

Parinita: [laughs] Which is why I think like what you were saying earlier in terms of fan interpretations and how they shape how you engage with these characters and books now are so important. Like you were saying Sana, with Lupin or with Dumbledore or whoever. For me, fan interpretations have gone such a long way in identifying and negotiating with these identities. Where fans use fictional characters to explore their real-world experiences which might not mirror mine. I have the most experience with Harry Potter fandom but this is true of other online fan communities as well where fans read characters as queer. And different kinds of queerness as well – so gay or bisexual or even asexual. So now when I read the books, when I was re-reading the series, I couldn’t unsee Harry and Draco. [laughs]

Sanjana and Aparna: [laugh]

Drarry fan art courtesy Fanpop

Parinita: Like Draco’s obsession with Harry and in Half-Blood Prince, Harry’s obsession with Draco. I thought it was amazing. The book became so much more for me. I’m not a huge shipper generally but it’s just such a more fun book. And this is something that fans have taken and play around with these identities in these online spaces. Then if they become writers themselves, or if they are writers themselves, they put that more explicitly into their books. So one of the examples that I read more recently is Carry On by Rainbow Rowell. Do you guys know the book?

Sanjana: No. I have read Fangirl. I haven’t read Carry On.

Parinita: So Carry On was a fanfic in Fangirl. One of the characters in Fangirl was writing Carry On. And Rainbow Rowell decided to make that into a book by itself. And it’s very loosely inspired from the Harry Potter world. And if you know Harry Potter very well and if you read Carry On, you can totally tell who’s supposed to be who.

Sanjana: Yeah. [laughs]

Parinita: And the difference is that it is so much more explicitly queer. And it also engages with these issues that we’ve been talking about throughout this podcast. Things like different cultures within the magical community, diversity in terms of race; also conversations about class in terms of who has more power in the magical community and who has less power. And the person who’s inspired by Draco and the person who’s inspired by Harry – spoiler alert – they do end up together. [laughs] I love that fans take this text that they love that might not be as inclusive as they want it to be, and inspired from this world, they make these texts so much more inclusive.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Absolutely.

Aparna: And also just creators leaving space for interpretations. Even if they don’t end up happily married, even if they don’t end up in a relationship, even if they’re not openly declared as a certain sexuality, even if it’s left open-ended. For example Lord of the Rings, I never read any of the characters in Lord of the Rings as asexual. But I read an article in which Frodo and Bilbo are often identified as asexual. And that makes a lot of sense now when I read what exactly asexuality is and also I remember the characters. It’s completely a valid interpretation of their characters. And just leaving room for these interpretations is super important. Of course, they have to exist alongside specific representation as well. And not just for people to see themselves represented, but imagine if we had more diversity in the media that we consumed growing up; we wouldn’t take till our 30s to learn some of these things.

Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: Absolutely. Just because you brought up asexuality, in the fan podcast episode, they brought up some of the theories of asexuality in Harry Potter fandom. They read Dumbledore as asexual and his attraction to Grindelwald or his relationship – whatever it was – fitting into that because asexuality is a spectrum and you could be attracted to the mind and you could also have a relationship with someone. And Luna as well as well as Charlie Weasley was read as asexual. Which I thought was fantastic.

Sanjana: Yeah. And talking about asexuality, the other thing that doesn’t get talked about enough is bisexuality and pansexuality. I mean bisexuality to an extent I’ve still been familiar with in some places, most recently with Rosa from Brooklyn Nine Nine. And that was done really well. Even within this, there is a lot of gay and lesbian representation; but asexuality, pansexuality, bisexuality doesn’t get talked about that much. Specifically pansexuality because that is something I have learned very recently. We recently started watching Schitt’s Creek. And David in that –  my god I am in love!

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: But David explained it that, “I’m into the wine, not the label.” And that whole scene plus him after that subsequently in every episode … I just I’m in love.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: I also loved in Schitt’s Creek how they disrupted the narrative. I also started recently watching it. I’m a bit behind you guys so no spoilers please.

Aparna: We’ll try.

Sanjana: [laughs]

Parinita: So in the first season, just because of the sort of tropes that we have of gay men, something which the character Stevie within the show also shared – where I think everyone assumed he was gay.

Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: And then it was towards the end when we realised that no, he doesn’t believe in labels, he just likes anybody irrespective of gender.

Sanjana: And I think the way Stevie reacted the next day to it was like a viewer reacting.

Parinita and Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: That’s why it was such a well-done thing because it felt like the creators knew what they were doing. When that scene happened, and she also says, “Um I thought you were into red wine.” And he’s like, “Sure. Red, rosé, or white – whatever. [laughs] I’m into the wine, not the label.” I thought that was just excellent.

Parinita: Yeah for sure.

Sanjana: And so educational!

Aparna: Yeah. And also, I was listening to an interview with the co-creator Daniel Levy and he was talking about how there is this impression that in small towns, they’ll be more close-minded. And it was very intentional for him that the best way to introduce this concept to whomever was experiencing it for the first time was to just show it as completely normal. And completely accepted and celebrated as part of the narrative as any other relationship would be. And that was a really smart decision.

Sanjana: As you watch more episodes, you’ll realise how effortlessly it’s done.

Parinita: I finished the second season yesterday and it’s been pretty good so far. But I don’t want to know – I mean I will know, but I don’t want to know from you two what’s going to happen next. Because we’ve spoken so much about Harry Potter, a similar person in Doctor Who is Captain Jack. I didn’t even realise until we listened to the Woke Doctor Who episode that yeah, he is pansexual. I mean I did realise but I forgot because it is not a big deal at all, he’s just there. Sana, since you’re not familiar with Doctor Who, he is from the 51st century and he’s a time-traveller. He comes back from the 51st century to the Doctor’s time, so our time. And his attitude is that in the future, there is no label for gender and sexuality, the ones that limit us today. So for him, it’s not a big deal. And for the Doctor also, it’s not a big deal because they’ve lived for such a long time and seen everything. So it’s all more fluid and flexible. And Jack just basically flirts with everybody. It doesn’t matter what gender, what species, which planet you come from – he’s just a really flirty person.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: I haven’t watched Torchwood which is the spin-off, but I thought he’s a great representation as well.

Aparna: Yes. And Sana, you’d shared this really nice article by the BBC about how it’s being treated like a new trend whenever it’s talked about in the media. Like pansexuality, “Everyone is a pansexual now. This is the new trend. You might be pansexual!” type of articles. But the truth is that the labelling of sexuality is much more recent than the concept of pansexuality. And how people are trying to just rid themselves of those labels more and more now. I’m going to switch to talking about children’s media and how sexuality is represented there because if done well, it should just be a part of our daily lives. And a sure-fire way of doing that is to include various sexualities in children’s media. While everyone is always tiptoeing around it, the success of shows like Adventure Time and She-Ra and Steven Universe which is just completely open and embraces all sorts of diversity, is proof that children are completely open-minded and they don’t see differences, they rather see similarities. So you give them any character or any relationship and they’ll find something to identify with. And that we’ve seen so much in children’s literature as well. They won’t look at something and think it’s inappropriate … until they inherit it from their parents or the people around them. So I want to talk about some good examples of how sexuality and gender has been represented in children’s media. One is Julian Is A Mermaid by Jessica Love.

Sanjana: Yes!

Aparna: Which is a beautiful picture book. That’s fun. And another is Legend of Korra.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Aparna: There was a little flak that it was not very obviously spelt out but I want to read a quote by the writer, Mike DiMartino saying, “The message sent is that queer people are no less wholesome, no less natural, no more implicitly or explicitly sexual and no more dangerous for kids to see than straight people.” This was when Korra and Asami seemingly got together at the end which was confirmed by the creators of the show later. And just effortless and very natural representations like that. In Indian kid lit, there have been a few representations – far from as many as we would like – but it’s always so far been very issue-based. Whenever these representations occur – I’m not talking just about Indian kid lit but overall – they’re either dealt with metaphorically somehow or they’re issue-based or it’s something that’s only vaguely hinted at. And just normalising these depictions is what I think we still have a way to go especially in Indian kid lit.

Parinita: Yeah. Because having issue-based stories is not a problem. Issue-based stories are great because they serve one need. But if those are the only books that there are, then that is the problem. Because then it’s always like your sexuality is a point of conflict is the message that you’re giving both kids and adults. So in terms of children’s media, Doctor Who has a huge amount of adult fans but it is primarily a children’s TV show. So that’s why having Captain Jack in the show is important. The first showrunner, Russell T. Davies, he’s gay as well so I think he obviously made a point to include more in terms of sexual diversity. I think it’s really important in children’s media and I hope that in Indian children’s literature especially there’s more room for different kinds of sexual diversity.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Yeah. And this brings us to …

Parinita [laughs]

Sanjana: [commentator voice] What if? What if?

Aparna: [makes sound effect]

Parinita: [laughs] What’s the what if today?

Sanjana: And this episode’s what if is what and who we would like to ship across universes. So I’m going to start you all off somewhere.

Parinita: Okay.

Sanjana: And start you’ll off on … hmm … Serenity.

Parinita and Aparna: Oh.

Aparna: I thought you were starting us off with a ship

Sanjana: No, no I was –

Aparna: Serenity is a ship anyway.

Parinita: Okay. Um …

Aparna: [mutters grumpily] She did not laugh at my joke.

Sanjana: You missed Aparna’s very excellent joke.

Parinita: Oh! I did, yes.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: What did she say?

Sanjana: She said Serenity is a ship.

Parinita: [laughs]

Aparna: Thank you, thank you.

Parinita: I would ship Serenity with the TARDIS.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Oh my god. That is excellent. I would ship the TARDIS with the Gundeldorfer

Aparna: The Gundeldorfer is just a hot air balloon.

Sanjana: I know but I –

Aparna: The hot air balloon from Fortunately, The Milk.

Parinita: Oh! [laughs]

Aparna: This has got to be the most absurd ship ever. Well, there is a connection. Neil Gaiman is a Doctor Who person and Fortunately, The Milk connection.

Sanjana and Parinita: Yeah.

Aparna: It’s not that absurd.

Parinita: That’s true. Um …

Sanjana: What about people you guys?

Parinita: [laughs] People schmeople.

Aparna and Sanjana: [laugh]

Parinita: I feel like the Doctor – even though fans do interpret them as asexual which I totally buy into – I think the Doctor and Dumbledore would be really interesting together.

Sanjana: Wow that is an excellent one.

Parinita: And also depending on which Doctor as well it would all be quite hilarious with like Peter Capaldi’s Doctor versus Jodie’s Doctor with Dumbledore.

Sanjana: I think Dumbledore would keep up with different lifetimes and stuff.

Parinita: Yeah and they’d both make obscure comments at each other and be all like, “Yeah, yeah!” “Yeah, yeah!” [says it in hoity-toity voice]

Sanjana: [laughs] Oh that is excellent.

Parinita: What about somebody from Avatar?

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: What about Zuko? Who would you ship Zuko with?

Aparna: Sana does not want to ship Zuko with anybody.

Parinita: Neither do I.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: But for the sake of this podcast, we shall forget that Zuko is forever shipped only with us.

Sanjana: Zuko … I want to … I feel he needs someone mad.

Parinita: Hmm.

Sanjana: Little loony.

Aparna: Luna!

Parinita: Oh! [laughs] Oh my god that would be so funny. Can you imagine his grumpy, angsty emoness versus Luna?

Sanjana: I think Luna would burr a hole through that somehow.

Parinita and Aparna: [laugh]

Parinita: Yeah, they’d be quite happy living their own lives as well and just wandering into each other once in a while.

Sanjana: Roasting turnips.

Aparna and Parinita: [laugh]

Sanjana: “I’ll grow the turnips, you roast them with your firebending.”

Parinita: That should be their ship name – Roasting Turnips.

Aparna: [laughs] Roasting turnips is a great ship name.

Sanjana: I think that way Zuko and Neville also would do well. They would be …

Aparna: Troubled past.

Sanjana: Yeah troubled pasts. And then they would sit in this little cottage far away and one would grow stuff and one would like …

Aparna: Make a fire.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: [laughs] You seem to have some pyromaniac tendencies.

Sanjana: Zuko only has one thing to do – make fires.

Parinita: [laughs] Not that he has any other abilities except firebending. I don’t know, I guess he becomes a good king and all.

Aparna: Brooding.

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs]

Aparna: His ability is brooding.

Parinita: Feeling guilty, fighting for his honour, reclaiming his honour.

Aparna: [laughs] I’m suddenly going to switch to a slightly more serious topic. The second half of our podcast is about class and caste. And I want to talk about intersectional solidarity across marginalised groups. So I attended a queer Pride march/gathering in Mumbai I think last year. It seems so long ago it might have been ten years. It was a really nice positive, beautiful event to witness. It was great. It was the first time I’d attended something like that and it was really nice. Now the next day I read articles about the march and then I started realising all these nuanced factions within the organisers of the Pride march and how a lot of them were detained by the police because they were also doing anti-CAA protests at that time. Which is our Citizenship Amendment Act which the whole country – a lot of the people were protesting. There was no solidarity within the group. The organisers were all upper-caste and there was a section which did not give enough time for the trans community to speak. And there was this other section that did not allow anti-CAA protests. I want to connect it to one of the podcasts we heard which was the Witch, Please podcast on class. How the oppressor-class – and I’m not calling them upper-class and lower-class because of one link that Sana had sent us to a Faye D’Souza episode – but now I’m just referencing too many things. But basically, the oppressor-class wants to maintain the status quo. So they give the impression that there is only so much rights to be had. And if you get it then you are taking it away from someone else. There is only so much, so if you want your rights, take them, don’t just try to get everyone else along with you. And the fact is that revolutions are built on community and solidarity. And playing into these notions of dividing ourselves into smaller groups within the marginalised sections – we shouldn’t fall into that trap.

Parinita: I mean this is what the British did, right? Divide and rule? And we’re still doing it now, so many years later. Because it worked so well for them. Where they divided Indians – and I can only speak about Indian history because I don’t know about what they did in the different African countries, for example. Or wherever else … half the world that they ruled. But they divided us along Hindu and Muslim lines so thoroughly that we are still feeling the impacts of that now. And the government, which is now the ruling-class in India, is using both religion as well as caste to divide and to make sure that we don’t work together and topple them. It’s not just within queer communities, it’s within socialist circles in the UK as well. Where you only view oppression through one lens. So in queer communities, it would be just their queer identity – where there’s a hierarchy of marginalisation there as well, right? Upper-caste gay men or upper-caste lesbians in India would have more power than say a Dalit gay person or a Dalit nonbinary/trans person. And there’s people who only view things through the lens of class and don’t take any other identities into consideration. Even though obviously you can’t separate these identities from yourself like race or gender identity or sexuality – all these come to the fore. So you can’t just fight for abolishing class hierarchies by saying that oh if we abolish capitalism, racism is going to go away. That’s totally not true.

Sanjana: Yeah. This is just reminding me of this recent Instagram post that I saw. It was this trans woman who was talking about her identity through her passport pictures. The passport-size pictures that we go to take through school and through adulthood which society demands we have on every document. And how you are told to sit in a certain way and dress in a certain way and comb your hair in a certain way. She’s studying now  to be a doctor; she’s a medical student.

Parinita: Oh I follow her as well!

Sanjana: Yeah. She talked about how it has taken so long for her to get a passport-size photograph that feels like herself. And she shared some of the old passport photographs too now. And it’s something as simple as that that society puts that much importance on.

Aparna: And I was upset when I was a child and I was getting a passport-size photograph taken and the photographer told me not to show my teeth while smiling. I was upset about that! Even now when I look at that close-lipped smile of mine, I’m like but that photographer told me … my problems are very small is what I’m saying.

Parinita: [laughs]

Aparna: But a lot of these factions and these tinier divisions are reinforced by media. This is the complete lack of intersectional identities. Because whenever diversity is explored in sexuality, it’s always upper-caste people or upper-class people who are represented. As you keep going into intersectional identities, there is lesser and lesser representation to be found. And this is linked to many, many misnomers. Like I was reading this article about how there was a judge in the US Supreme Court who thought that all gay people come from affluent backgrounds and live in urban areas. But the truth is that a lot of them are not from a higher-class and a lot of them don’t have very good jobs. Because of their identities, they are discriminated against. And they have to take lower paying jobs, or they are kicked out of their homes and they are homeless because of their identity. So the very thing that people think is true about them, it’s the opposite.

Parinita: Yeah. What you’re saying in terms of media, with India, this is both with sexuality and with class … just unpacking the damage done by Bollywood and unlearning all the things that we learned just through Bollywood representations. Because homosexuality or just anything that’s not heterosexual is always mocked; is always presented not seriously; is always … well now I think it’s changing a bit. I recently watched this movie Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga. Which had Sonam Kapoor in it. And that looks at sexuality in a small town and away from these urban discourses where everyone is apparently assumed to be comfortable with being gay even though that’s not true. So it was done interestingly and having Sonam Kapoor who’s pretty mainstream herself. I read both celebrations as well critiques of the movie. Celebrations because oh mainstream Bollywood is showing this in a sensitive way. But also critiques in terms of the class and the location and everything. We want nuance and complexity but we talk about these things in terms of Western media because they have representations. In Indian media we still don’t have them in terms of sexuality and in terms of class.

Sanjana: No, absolutely. The damage that Bollywood has done for a lot of things is just taking a long time to wind down and drown it out because the wrong things are just reinforced again and again. It’s just very hard. Which is why I think generationally speaking within families from generation to generation, it is becoming harder to have conversations because they have not moved past those things that Bollywood has shown them to be. Whereas we have. And this goes to questioning our own role in the existing class disparity. Because there is. I’m going to talk about how we’ve grown up. We’ve always grown up with people working in our houses. Someone will come to clean your house, to wash your clothes. Now washing machines are there but to the extent of even washing your clothes and stuff there’s always been someone. And we moved every two and three years. And that is how we grew up. And the fact that there was always one plate that was separate and there was always one glass that was separate. And they are given the same food but they’ll always eat on a stool in the kitchen. We never questioned it growing up. We never thought it was weird because we had not seen anything else.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: And so we don’t end up questioning our role in this class disparity at all. And it was very evident even when we went to schools – because Dad got posted to a lot of these remote places, in far east and stuff – the only schools around were the Air Force schools. And we would be there and we would be the only kids who were kids of officers. And everybody else was kids of like the airmen or … anybody, because the fee structure would be the same. So everybody from all stratas would be in the same class which would be great. You would have friends from everywhere. But the point was that even for a parent-teacher meeting, you would get treated much better.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: The respect that our parents got compared to some of our classmates is now that I look back at it, is very …

Aparna: Absurd.

Sanjana: Absurd! It is absurd. And we never question it. And neither did our parents tell us or educate us enough to question it. Because neither did they. And it’s just this non-stop cycle. It is when I got married and had my own home and stuff that when the first time somebody said, “Can I drink water? I’m very thirsty.” And I said, “Yes, please drink.” And I picked up the glass from the glasses that were all together and gave. They were shocked as well and I just stopped to think, why don’t we do this? What is the big deal? It takes a long time to start to question our role in letting this go on.

Parinita: Yeah. Because there’s this idea that classism –  or well casteism but in India that’s very much tied to classism as well – only happens in the villages. In the cities, “Oh we’re all educated, we know these things so we don’t do this.” And then you’ll have separate elevators for maids and delivery people and be like, “You use that and we, the people who live in this building and have earned the right to use this good elevator, use this elevator.”

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: But for me I’m the same. Growing up in Mumbai with my mum, I didn’t grow up with a lot of wealth. So I wouldn’t consider myself privileged in terms of money; I don’t have access to generational wealth, for example. But just growing up in the city and growing up speaking English, growing up being able to navigate all these spaces through the internet or whatever – that is a huge privilege in itself.

Sanjana: Yeah absolutely.

Parinita: Being able to travel without thinking about these things. So I know so little – well in cities I know a little more because in Mumbai, like in any city, you have to interact with people of different backgrounds. But in terms of the rural areas of India and small towns, I know so little. And P. Sainath’s book Everybody Loves A Good Drought and his online project the People’s Archive of Rural India, they have really gone a long way in making me learn about this other part of India and the various kinds of stories that it holds; stories and people which disrupt our notion of what it means to be poor or rural or Dalit or Adivasi in our country. Because we have such singular narratives of what it means to belong to these identities. It’s really opened up my eyes to first of all the sheer levels of privilege that I have. But also that just because you live in a village or just because you’re Dalit or Adivasi, this is not the only story that you have.

Sanjana and Aparna: Yeah.

Aparna: There’s just so much to be unpacked and with all of the oppressed people, it just goes so deep. I am currently in the process of writing a paper which touches upon book access. And I was doing some research and I was reading the AESR (Annual Status of Education) report that’s the educational statistics of India, a report that comes out every year. You know how we keep talking about reading and education is what will get us out of this; will teach us how to question the world around us and will teach us how to rise from our circumstances? And the fact is that so many people just aren’t able to get that education. Because the free and compulsory education – forget about the quality, but the age at which it starts is six. So you already need to have learnt some amount of reading before you join school to be able to read. But a lot of these kids go to anganwadis where they are just meant to take care of nutrition and health and education and everything. So teaching them how to read and write becomes very low on their priority given that they have so many kids that they have to take care of. And they have to prioritise health and food over education in those meagre funds that they have. One by one it’s just such a vicious circle and you have to dismantle or build so many structures to be able to get proper equity for opportunities for everybody to be able to start to get over this. To start to even identify and start to work our way out of the problem. It’s insane how many things need to change for these structures to be completely dismantled and built properly again.

Parinita: I know. It’s been really depressing reading Everybody Loves A Good Drought. He speaks about some of these things. And it’s pretty old, the book; I think it’s about thirty years old now. But some of the problems still exist in terms of access to education, resources, everything. We are so far behind of what we want to be and sometimes it’s difficult to imagine how you get beyond that as well. Especially looking at the country as it is right now. It’s really depressing.

Sanjana: Yeah. And this also ties into the fact that while all this is happening, even the people in the cities are reading literature or looking at media about the elite and the ruling class. Even history is told mostly only through the people who ruled and the people who were the ministers and the poets and the close-knit circle of the emperors and kings. And nobody ever tells the stories of the working-class. Recently Devika Rangachari was talking about her new book Queen of Earth. And she was talking about how she always makes it a point to put someone who would be closer to the masses in her books. And how it’s important to see how they were feeling about what was happening in history and how it was changing in history. I just want to read a little bit from this article which is specifically about Indian literature because I think representation in the West is slightly a tad bit better for these more unheard voices. This was an article about Siddhartha Sharma’s book. And the article is by Samina Mishra. “One of the biggest challenges for English children’s literature in India is the representation of realities from the non-English speaking parts of our society. And it has been a struggle unique to the writers of English in India. And the struggle is to find a self-confident voice that writes in a language given to us by colonialism. Today that extends to the struggle of using that voice to bring stories other than post-colonial inequities. From villages, working class, urban settlements, from forests, tribal lands, how can these mediated stories reflect realities that are so different from that of the readers of those books?”

Parinita: Yeah. Because this unequal representation in terms of how the stories of the oppressed-class of people are told in media reflects the unequal distribution of power which exists, right? Because a small group of wealthy, upper-caste people control and create media which means that the stories that you see in Bollywood or children’s literature or even news reflects the priorities and biases of these creators – which includes the three of us. Because the three of us write children’s books and we write what we know and we write a little bit of what we’re interested in and we’re trying to diversify in terms of the kind of topics that we write about. But it’s still a pretty limited thing. You can’t just have the urban, upper-caste, wealthy, privileged people writing all kinds of stories. You need to create space for people to write their own stories. If we write about poverty, we’ve not experienced the kind of poverty that people in India go through.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Exactly.

Aparna: Yeah. But just being able to write, it’s a privileged choice. It’s a career of someone who has a certain amount of privilege. It becomes the role of creators and editors to support or to find and encourage diversity in your list. This is something that we’ve been very conscious of. But even publishing houses need to hire people who will bring a certain amount of diversity. And it has to start there because that is the best way for people to be able to get meaningful change into the stories. But even in terms of people representing things that are not their lived experiences or giving voice to characters that they might not identify with is it’s a bit of a tricky thing. But it needs to happen in a more meaningful way. So some quote – that I don’t know where it’s from because it’s been passed down to me through so many people – is that and I’m paraphrasing: if you want to write about an identity that is not your own, then you need to surround yourself and if you want to write diverse characters, you need to live in a diverse world. And we all live in a diverse world, but we don’t necessarily have interactions that are with a diverse group of people. So change needs to start there. You need to look inward before you look outward as creators.

Parinita: Yeah and in news as well, the way that news media portrays poor people or rural people, Dalit people, Adivasi people … like if I tell you just come up with some of the stereotypes that you’ve inherited through media, it’s very singular. I’m sure that all three of us would come up with very similar stereotypes that we have because it’s the same kind of people writing similar kinds of stories which builds the canon of our imagination about people that we don’t perhaps interact with in our day-to-day lives.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Yeah. So let’s talk about some representations of working class, poor, homeless people in the media that we’ve consumed. I will start with Caitlin Moran’s How To Build A Girl. I was recently listening to an interview of hers in which she was talking about how people who are talking about her books are so caught up in the sex and the booze and the music industry and the glamour of it all that they forget – they haven’t noticed that it’s a story about a working-class girl from Wolverhampton, which is a small town, and her journey and how she has dealt with the world. And I thought that was pretty cool because it’s just a deeply enjoyable story but it doesn’t shy away from anything. It’s talking about living on benefits and not having enough to eat and being afraid of losing benefits. And I learned so much about the social structures of that area which is completely alien to me while not even noticing, while being completely removed from that. But also the story just did it so naturally. So that is one of my favourite examples.

Parinita: Yeah because we have this idea of the UK as being all rich, right? No corruption in the UK, everyone is like well-off – not rich but everyone is taken care of by the society and the government. Because that’s the kind of narrative that we get of the UK. Whereas they get like, India poor people, religious problems, casteism. It’s so limited the kinds of stories we tell each other about ourselves.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So for me just because I’ve been immersed in Harry Potter currently re-reading the series – I know the Weasleys are supposed to be working-class which hmm! I didn’t want to focus so much among the class differences within the magical community between the humans but think about how the Other Magical People – which is a term that The Gayly Prophet gave me which is basically encompassing merpeople, house-elves, goblins etc. Rather than calling them creatures, it’s Other Magical People – they’re just not humans. They are the oppressed-class in the magical community. Because they don’t have access to … well first of all education. They’re not allowed to go to Hogwarts. They don’t have access to even the wands so the things that have the most power. They don’t have access to the knowledge. And the people – the oppressor-class which is the witches and wizards, they don’t really learn about these other classes within their school or within even the community. There are so many stereotypes about all these other classes including about Muggles and Muggle-born witches and wizards. I feel like if you look at it through a class lens, it makes a lot of sense as well. So rather than the wealth, it’s magic as a metaphor for wealth where they don’t have access to so many things that the witches and wizards take for granted.

Sanjana: Yeah. Another example –  one toh I think an episode is not complete if we don’t mention some Rick Riordan book and character – is Magnus Chase who’s homeless. Even his friends subsequently are. That never gets done. I’ve never met the main character of the story being homeless. I’ve never encountered that. That was done nicely.

Parinita: But you know saying that, when I was thinking about this some more, because even Percy Jackson – he comes from a single mother household and not too much money.

Sanjana and Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: I know she has a partner/husband – Gabe. But they come from not too much money. But within the books themselves, that’s very brief, both Magnus and Percy’s lack of money. Because after that, once they discover their magical heritage, the lack of money doesn’t really act as a problem. It’s similar to Luke and Rey in Star Wars where they start off as these poor people but when they come into their heritage, they realise that oh they have all this power. They have all this access – both family and otherwise. I feel like even when people try to represent working-class or poor people, it’s still in a very limited way. Like we want it, but we want it to be better.

Sanjana: Yeah. It’s in a very quick way.

Parinita: So the post that we looked at about Fantastic Castes spoke about Avatar: The Last Airbender which is a show that all three of us love and we’ve spoken about really positive examples of it. But they spoke about something that I hadn’t remembered at all that the city of Ba Sing Se in the Earth Kingdom is divided into classes even just architecturally.

Sanjana: Yes!

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: So the war refugees and the poor are cramped into a certain ring and the merchants and middle-class in another. That’s so like ancient Indian society.

Aparna: [laughs] Yeah.

Parinita: I’m saying ancient – contemporary also. We read about all these things in history and even in fantasy worlds like in Game of Thrones for example where the poor have their own neighbourhoods and the rich have their own neighbourhoods and they don’t mingle. Even Zuko, he was a better king than his father and he heralds some more progress and stuff but still. At the end of the day, the Fire Nation doesn’t really change in terms of a revolution. It’s still a monarchy which comes with its own attendant privileges. Harry Potter as well, he saves the world, but he saves the world for the witches and wizards. He doesn’t save them for any of the Other Magical People in the world.

Sanjana: Yeah. Another example is someone who didn’t start out as poor but Buffy post her mother dying.

Aparna: Spoiler alert.

Sanjana: Yeah. Sorry.

Parinita and Aparna: [laugh]

Sanjana: I mean Buffy has been –

Aparna: I know I know I was joking.

Sanjana: Okay. [laughs] But I was like oh no who have I ruined this for?

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: What was interesting was the way in which fans reacted.

Aparna: Yes!

Sanjana: To Buffy having to work and waitress and make ends meet.

Aparna: Yeah. So people are very dismissive of that season.

Parinita: Oh really?

Aparna: In that oh we have to see her personal problems. Like teenage angst is okay but seeing her have to deal with daily problems that we are dealing with.

Parinita: Which everybody – which most of the people in the world go through.

Sanjana and Aparna: Yeah!

Aparna: But we don’t want to hear.

Parinita: I find it so fascinating and frustrating that amongst middle-class people especially, both in the UK and in India, there is this idea that you are closer to being a billionaire than you are to being homeless. Whereas for most people now in the pandemic, you see this so much more starkly, if you miss a few payments from your employer, you are more likely to be at the complete bottom end of the class hierarchy than you ever to the top. It’s not like you’re going to get so much money that you’re ever, ever going to be Jeff Bezos. I think Jeff Bezos level of wealth shouldn’t exist anyway.

Aparna: [laughs] Yeah.

Parinita: Redistribute wealth, topple the societal structure! But I’ve called for revolution in a previous episode also.

Aparna: [laughs] But also there’s this thing that – again I’m going to mention Caitlin Moran because a lot of people say, oh you used to be working-class. And she was like, the problem is that whenever people from a working-class background make something of their lives or change their circumstances, they’re no longer referred to as the working-class. As a result, all depictions of working-class families are this – these sad … And she’s like I still am working-class according to me because that’s the experience that I’ve had. It’s this thing of as soon as you get a certain amount of distance from it, you’re no longer called working-class. So all of the working-class representations are of these tragic, very disadvantaged circumstances.

Parinita: In the UK there’s this whole narrative of them being benefits frauds. So you know they’re actually just lazy and they just want the money from the government for free. They don’t want to work and it’s really toxic. The kind of things that just moving to the UK, I’m learning so much more about both the UK and India. First of all the things the UK takes for granted in terms of looking after its people. And the sort of things that in India we’re still so far behind. In the West, they talk about things like Universal Basic Income and making housing available to everybody and I’m like we are so, so far behind. But on the other hand, just most recently, the most recent scandal in the UK which happened over the last week was the Tory MPs – so the ruling government MPs – voted against feeding vulnerable children over the Christmas holidays.

Aparna: What?!

Parinita: A lot more people have lost their jobs and things. And they voted against it. To justify this ridiculous vote, they have come up with bizarre arguments like oh you know these food vouchers are used for drugs and prostitution. Or oh these parents of working-class families should just go to a class to learn how to cook or they should not eat, they should feed their children. Or in the most recent thing that I read today, why don’t they just sell their phone or their pearls – their pearls! – to feed their children?

Sanjana and Aparna: [laugh]

Parinita: And this is at a time when the MPs voted to give themselves a pay rise. And during this Covid pandemic, they developed an app which people are encouraged to download like a track and trace app. And basically it tells you when you’ve come into contact with somebody who has Covid so they recommend that you isolate and things. And it was such a flop because of some Excel document disaster. But they paid so much money for the app, they paid so much money for the consultants. The consultants are earning an absurd amount of money per day. And they can’t feed children! It’s such a disconnect. When we think of corruption or when the West tells us about corruption, they are like, oh India is corrupt; African countries are corrupt; this developing nation is corrupt. But the kind of corruption that happens in the US and the UK is so entrenched as well in the power structures.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: There’s so much more decolonisation to happen there as well.

Aparna: Yeah. So there are migrant workers who are suffering disproportionately here, there are homeless people who are suffering disproportionately there. And closing public parks and how it’s affecting families that live in really tiny apartments or really tiny homes with a lot of people. And just not considering all of these identities and the problems associated with them is what is so deeply problematic. It’s this trope of the homeless being invisible which is depicted really well in Neverhwere by Neil Gaiman. And also I realised yesterday in Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes has this network of Baker Street Irregulars who are able to gather information because essentially they’re invisible. Nobody notices them. And while good for Sherlock to have a team of spies but –

Sanjana: Varys also has a similar team of spies.

Parinita: Yeah that’s true.

Aparna: Yeah, he recruits children. And the fact that this is an identity that is ignored is just so deeply problematic.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: All right! And now this brings us to the tail end of our episode and that means another What If!

Aparna: What if? What if? What if? [singsong voice and makes sound effects]

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: As we’ve established that the stories get told by all the heads and the rulers and the rulers’ children who’ve run away and the rich people. And so what if you had to flip their profession or their societal …

Aparna: Status?

Sanjana: Status!

Parinita: You mean what if they had to find a new job?

Sanjana: Yeah. What if they had to find a new job? For example, what if Harry had not …

Aparna: Inherited a great amount of wealth from his parents?

Parinita: [laughs]

Aparna: Yeah just like one of the podcasts had mentioned, the tuition is free in Hogwarts, but there is so much stuff they have to buy all the time from Diagon Alley! It’s just not easy to afford it.

Sanjana: No.

Parinita: No. But I think they have some sort of scholarship, no? Because Tom Riddle has to buy everything secondhand but I think there is some sort of fund for deprived children.

Sanjana: Plus as we know from Half-Blood Prince, there’s a cupboard full of old and tattered books that if you can’t get our books, you can use.

Aparna: Oh yeah!

Parinita: Oh, that’s true. I think if Harry was around in 2020, in this economy, I think he would have been on benefits. If there is a magical community benefits because who’s hiring now? The universities are cutting funding, they’re cutting departments in the UK. I don’t know what kind of cash crunch Hogwarts is going through – the Galleon-pound economy. But I’m sure they are also a part of the pandemic victims. So I don’t know

Sanjana: Yeah but as we’ve established before, regular diseases don’t seem to affect them. They have magical remedies.

Aparna: Which they refuse to share.

Sanjana: Which they won’t share with us.

Parinita: No. Because why should they? [laughs]

Sanjana: This What If? has taken a dark turn, you guys.

Aparna and Parinita: [laugh]

Sanjana: I’m going to switch our lens to The Last Airbender and say what if Toph was not from the rich Beifong family? Would she have still made it to the team?

Parinita: I think Toph would have made a great security guard.

Sanjana: Oh my god yeah.

Parinita: Because she loves beating people up. I think that would have been a good job for her.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Maybe in construction.

Parinita: [laughs] That’s true.

Sanjana: Oh my god.

Aparna: No, no, no what’s the opposite? Where you have to knock down?

Sanjana: Demolish.

Aparna: Yeah demolition.

Parinita: That’s a part of it. You can’t construct if you don’t demolish first, right?

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: She’s the wrecking ball essentially.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Sanjana: Hmm. All right all right.

Parinita: What do you think Zuko would have done?

Sanjana: We’ve clearly established that he’s good at fires.

Aparna: Baker!

Parinita: [laughs]

Aparna: Smelter.

Parinita: [laughs]

Aparna: I think actually he’ll make really fine jewellery. It still needs fire and smelting and whatnot. But he’ll do something fine.

Parinita: But he’s not been taught any skills! What has he been taught except protecting his honour and firebending? I don’t know that he could make jewellery.

Sanjana: He would be a good weapons-maker.

Parinita: I mean sure if he goes through some sort of apprenticeship, if someone is willing to teach him. But what are kings taught?

Sanjana: But I don’t know – he seems to know his way around a sword, no?

Parinita: Haan.

Sanjana: So I thought he could make one.

Parinita: Maybe he could take classes. Be a sword-fighting teacher.

Sanjana: Teacher would be nice, yeah. I could see Zuko as a teacher. What about Aang? What do you think Aang did? We know what he did; he had a lot of Avatar business. But what if he wasn’t the Avatar? What would he be?

Parinita: Religious cult leader.

Aparna and Sanjana: [laugh]

Parinita: I think he would go to a cave, achieve nirvana, and just come back. It would be quite a benign cult, no shady stuff happening. Maybe it would be a nice cult to escape to in these times.

Sanjana: All right I’m going to switch over to what would Aragorn be doing?

Aparna: We only talk about kings and stuff.

Parinita: Yeah that’s true.

Sanjana: For the longest time, Aragorn was Freeriding along. So what would he be?

Aparna: Yeah. I feel like he would just be a travel writer.

Parinita: [laughs] That’s true! He gets these really poetic outbursts sometimes.

Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: Yeah, he would be a really good; he would mix genres. It would be quite angsty.

Aparna: Like a Lord of the Rings version of Robert Macfarlane.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita and Aparna: [laugh]

Sanjana: I think he would also be a reviewer of these inns and stuff. And they would be like, “Oh the Black Rider is coming today.”

Aparna: Strider Recommends!

Parinita: [laughs] What about Sam? Since we only talk about the ruling class and that’s enough. Let’s talk about the people who do the actual work.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Sam!

Parinita: I think he’d open a nice restaurant. The theme would be potatoes. Not to box him in.

Aparna: Yeah!

Sanjana: [laughs]

Parinita: But he’d do lots of potato experiments.

Sanjana: All kinds of potatoes! That would be nice. Potato soup. I think he would perfect the potato cheese soup.

Parinita: What about the cabbage seller in Avatar: The Last Airbender?

Sanjana: Oh wow.

Aparna: Cabbage-bending.

Parinita: [laughs]

Aparna: Salad-bending.

Parinita: Oooh!

Aparna: He would invent a new form of bending called salad-bending.

Parinita: [laughs] That would be so much more helpful in today’s world than firebending and all.

Aparna: Bend all the salad away from me.

Parinita: [laughs] What about Dobby?

Aparna: Oooh!

Sanjana: I think Dobby would make an excellent teacher.

Parinita: Oh!

Sanjana: I think he would do a better job of History of Magic. The way he would narrate history and the way things went down.

Parinita: Plus he could come to class in costume. He’d dress up in extravagantly silly outfits and the people would be so much more into the class than with this ghost putting them to sleep.

Sanjana: Yeah, he’d be better than Professor Binns.

Parinita: Oh I would love to have a class by Dobby.

Sanjana: Yeah, right? Dobby for teacher.

Parinita: So, unfortunately, this is very tragic, this is going to be the last episode of Season 1. Hopefully there will be a Season 2 in a couple of months. But for now, this is going to be the last episode. And I’m so happy that I got to do so many episodes with two of my favourite people in the world. Thank you so much for being a part of this.

Aparna: Thank you for asking us to!

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: This has been so much fun!

Sanjana: And not just fun, I have never enjoyed studying so much.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: I have learned so much over the last couple of months.

Aparna: And it’s sad that it happened in the last episode but I got so fully into the preparation this time that when I was drifting off to sleep, I thought of the Baker Street Irregulars and I got up to make a note on my phone so that I don’t forget. That is a sign of things truly getting into my system. It happened after all these episodes and it’s now truly part of my life. So we must continue this.

Parinita: Yes. For sure. Hopefully we’re going to have more episodes and more conversations and more What Ifs. [laughs]

Aparna: Better prepared What Ifs.

Parinita: [laughs] But yes, thank you so much and we’ll see you hopefully soon!

Aparna: Bye!

Parinita: Bye!

[Outro music]


[Outro music]

Like all the other episodes, this one was recorded in 2020 but it has only managed to find its way into your ears now. So some of the references may be a bit outdated but I think that the overall point still stands.

I wanted to get this episode out before I officially complete the PhD that I started this podcast for. I know I keep saying this but I’m so deeply grateful to all my co-participants for joining me on this journey and for making such a valuable contribution – not only to this PhD project but also to critical and intersectional knowledge-making in fandom. All their insights have helped my own brain grow in such incredible ways and I hope that this learning and unlearning process remains with me.

And it’s also just been so much fun! I can’t believe I got to talk to such a fantastic bunch of people and learn how to podcast for a PhD. Thanks to all this, I have so many new ideas for what I want to do next. I’ve loved being able to do this for the last few years. If you’ve been along for the ride, I hope I’m back with more conversations soon but thank you so much for being a part of this so far. If you’ve just discovered this, I hope you’re having fun too.

Do you have ideas for future episodes? Do you want to BE on a future episode? Come make a podcast with me by getting in touch on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram or sending an email to marginallyfannish@gmail.com.

As always, thanks for listening!

Episode 21 Where Else Are You Going to Work Out Who You Are?: Sexual and Gender Diversity in Media/Fandom

Episode Resources:

1) Podcast – Nancy: The Word Queer 

2) Interview – In Conversation: Rebecca Sugar and Noelle Stevenson

3) Essay – How Fanfiction Made Me Gay 

4) Essay – Asexuality and the Baggins Bachelors: Finding My Counterparts in Middle Earth 

5) Fanfiction – Breath of the Wild drabbles series

6) Fanfiction: Skies of Blue, Red Roses Too

7) Essay – [Elsewhere] Arrows and Aros


Episode Transcript

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. If you would prefer the original, unedited version, please let me know!

[Intro music]

Welcome to Marginally Fannish, a show where we aim an intersectional lens at some of our favourite media and their fandoms.

[Intro music]

My name is Parinita Shetty and you’re listening to the twenty-first episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I talk to Milena Popova about representations of gender and sexuality in media and fandom. We chat about some difficult issues related to rape, racism, slavery, queerphobia, transphobia and queerphobic families, so please consider this a content warning.

For many people, it can be difficult to explore sexual and gender identities which fall outside mainstream media and society’s norms. Rare examples of queernormative fictional words in media can act as a revelation in an otherwise heteronormative mediascape. Queer representations can offer an important avenue for queer children and adults to recognise themselves in complex and nuanced ways. However, queer media creators who want to write about queer characters and storylines have to navigate audience, producer and censor expectations in ways that non-queer creators don’t. Many of the queer representations which do exist are often reflected in limited and stereotypical ways through a cisgender and heterosexual gaze.

Queer representations in fandom can offer an important avenue to question these default scripts and to find alternative models. Fans use fiction, art, commentary and critiques to raise awareness of queer experiences and erasure in media and society. For example, fans have collectively generated knowledge about asexuality by promoting asexual interpretations of fictional characters. Participating in such spaces can also help challenge and expand cisgender and heterosexual assumptions. At the same time, as empowering as fandom can be, it’s not inclusive of all identities. Hierarchies dictate whose experiences are privileged over others. Conversations and representations which draw attention to these various issues can help fans see the world in new ways.

Find our conversation about all this and more in today’s episode.

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: Today I’m so happy to welcome Milena to the podcast. Milena has been queer as far as they can tell since they were born, a fan for nearly thirty years, and a fan studies scholar for six. These days, they’re a rogue scholar, warrior poet, and freelancer of many trades. You can find them on Twitter as @elmyra. Today, we’re going to chat about gender and sexual diversity in media and fandom. I’m really excited about our conversation because my perspectives are quite limited as a cisgender heterosexual woman, but media and fandom have been hugely responsible for expanding my knowledge. They’ve also helped me unlearn and relearn some things about gender and sexuality and it’s been an ongoing process of questioning everything that I took for granted. So before we begin, Milena, could you tell us about your own experiences with today’s topics?

Milena: Sure! And thank you for having me. I come at this from a number of different angles. As you said in the introduction, I have been queer for as far as I can tell since I was born. I’m originally Bulgarian. I grew up until the age of ten in Bulgaria and then my family moved to Austria. So I spent my teenage years in Austria in the 90s. Now if you know anything about Austria, or you may not, but it’s a very Catholic country. It certainly was in the 90s. To the point we had crucifixes in the classrooms and things like that. And if you’re familiar with UK culture, you might know that in the 90s, the UK had something called Section 28 which banned teachers from teaching anything about homosexuality in schools in any positive light. Austria was so Catholic and so conservative, it wouldn’t have occurred to them that they would need anything like Section 28. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] India was – and is – the same.

Milena: Yeah. And so this is the environment that I was in trying to work out who I was. My very first problematic fave – and it turned out later that she was a terrible human being – but I spent my teenage years reading Marion Zimmer Bradley’s books. So she’s a fantasy and science fiction author. She was a really, really nasty piece of work with hindsight. But she wrote about queer characters –  gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans – she had a lot of different queer characters. And so that was the first place where I saw myself reflected in media. And the other thing that she did is that she actually edited anthologies of fanfiction stories of her Darkover universe. So that’s probably the first place that I came across the idea of fanfiction.

Parinita: Oh wow!

Milena: I probably actually still have them. A couple of properly bound books that were edited and professionally published of fanfiction of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s work.

Parinita: Oh that’s fascinating!

Milena: Yeah. [laughs] She eventually stopped doing that because she ended up in a massive copyright fight with a fan over a story. And it is very likely that she did try and plagiarise so it’s one of those very, very messy things. But I can credit her for both giving me the first space I had to work out who I was and also the first exposure to fanfiction.

Parinita: I’ve grown up without having anybody who is queer or at least I didn’t know at the time, in my community – among my friends and family. And people in India didn’t really and still don’t – although that’s changing – really talk about queer issues so much unless you’re already in those spaces. Or if you already have those people in your social networks or you follow these media outlets, then you’ll know about these things. But if you don’t know what you don’t know, you’re not going to … or at least I didn’t know until Harry Potter fanfiction as a teenager. Slash was all the rage then and now, I think.

Milena: Yeah.

Parinita: But that’s when I discovered queerness. It’s not something that would ever occur to me. I went to a Catholic school, not for religious reasons but because in India, when I was growing up, Catholic schools were spaces where English was supposed to be a better quality. The nuns teach you better English was the assumption, just because public education was not very good at the time. So in school, they wouldn’t talk to us about even gender so much. We had sex ed classes but in a very academic way; telling us the science behind it but not the culture or social context of it.

Milena: Yeah.

Parinita: But anyway, that was gender in a limited way. But sexual diversity, no way. And it’s only online I realised that, oh this other way of being also exists. And then I think there were some Pride marches as well in Mumbai which I went to because I realised that this exists and they’re also targeted for this, just for wanting to live their lives. But I wouldn’t even have known about it until fanfiction in it’s very not-without-its-problems way taught me things. I’m still continuing to learn; not so much through fanfiction but definitely through fandom. Which is why even the word queer, what it means and who can use it, I didn’t even consider the negative connotations because I didn’t know that there were negative – why would I? I’m completely on the privileged, dominant end of the spectrum there. So it was largely through queer fans talking about themselves that I realised that this is a term that everybody uses. And I did not realise that it’s a hugely loaded term associated with violence until relatively recently.

Milena: Yeah, it’s an interesting word. It’s very, very culturally specific as well. And I these days very comfortably describe myself as queer at least in part because just listing all the different ways in which I’m queer just gets too cumbersome. So at some point, it just becomes, “No I’m just queer as fuck, deal with it.”

Parinita: [laughs]

Milena: But I took many, many years after moving to the UK before I started feeling comfortable using that word for myself. Just because I didn’t feel I had the cultural right to it. Because it is something very culturally specific to the UK and the US where this word has been used as a slur for a very long time and has been then reclaimed by part of the queer community. And again, it is not uncontentious even among queer/LGBTQIA people in that there’s certainly a generational divide. Where all the people in particular who genuinely have had it hurled it against them as a slur. Some of them will have gone “You know what, I’m reclaiming this.” But a lot of them go, “No actually, it really hurts me to use it that way.” I had spent about ten years doing various kinds of queer activism in various kinds of contexts before I felt comfortable enough partly just because I felt more assimilated in British culture, but partly because I felt I had almost kind of earned the right to it. But for me, there’s definitely an intersection here between being queer and being a migrant that makes that word complex and complicated.

Parinita: Yeah that’s really interesting about the cultural specificity because I’m not sure that it would have the same history as well in India. Of course, there are slurs in Hindi and other Indian languages as well that are hurled at people even if they’re not queer. But queer itself, I don’t know, obviously it’s English so it would be in urban spaces largely. But even then I don’t know. Now people use it but now it’s also used in conversations about rights and activism so I don’t know. It’s not something I’ve really been a part of so I might be wrong. But even me as an Indian, if I come from India and someone calls me Pakistani or Paki as the slur is, I wouldn’t be offended by it because I don’t have the same sort of emotional baggage and violence associated with it. I would just be like, yeah we’re South Asian. I wouldn’t know the history and the context in this country and how people who’ve grown up brown in the UK have dealt with it. So I assume it’s similar. Just as different people have different relationships with the term queer based on so many different contexts, there are also multiple kinds of LGBTQIA+ stories in media. And there’s space for all kinds of these stories but there’s also a difference in the kinds of queer stories in Western media and in Indian media. I don’t know how much you’re still in touch with Bulgarian or Austrian media at all.

Milena: Not a huge amount.

Parinita: Have you seen the difference between this in different contexts as well?

Milena: My bio-family, my parents live in Germany. So I do occasionally get exposure to German and Austrian television.  And in all fairness, I actually no longer watch live television in the UK either. Basically have Netflix and I watch YouTube and things like that. Every time I visit my bio-family, I end up watching German television being utterly horrified by the level of particularly transphobia but also other kinds of queerphobia that I see there. It takes me about ten minutes of watching German television before there is some kind of transphobic advert. Where the punchline is, oh look it’s a guy in a dress. And honestly the other big problem in German media or German-language media that I find is racism is also horrific. So I basically try and avoid all of it. I also find honestly that here you have to cherry-pick your media very carefully. Even things that look like they might be good end up being horrendously problematic in some ways. I’m in the process of reviewing and submitting to a journal a book that’s recently come out called Queerbaiting and Fandom. And it’s a collection of academic essays on queerbaiting in media and fans’ relationships with producers, with that kind of media. And there is the whole range from people like producers are deliberately trying to court queer viewers whilst not providing any queer representation to keep the [laughs] Make America Great audience on their side, if you will.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Milena: Which is like we had a two-second dance scene of two characters of the same gender in one of the – I think in the live-action Beauty and the Beast.

Parinita: Yeah which was so much progress for queer representation! [laughs]

Screenshot of Tumblr post. Text says: wittyandcharming: Wow how fucking exciting for us, the Starving Gays, to be given a "short but explicitly gay moment," in the new Beauty and the Beast you know every time I watched the animated film I looked at LeFou and was like "if only he could be the gay representation in this film that we all deserve," because who better to provide us with the inspiration to follow our gay little dreams than the absurd, buffoonish, morally bankrupt accomplice to a rapey narcissist.

Milena: So there’s that. We have things that are actually really quite nasty and aggressive like BBC Sherlock where the producers are constantly deliberately queerbaiting and then laughing at the audience for falling for it as well So that’s a really nasty interaction. And then we have genuinely queer creators, queer producers who are trying, who are doing their best and trying to get stuff onscreen and trying to work out how to do it without getting their show cancelled. And there’s a couple of examples out there. There’s Black Sails which if you haven’t seen it, it’s an amazing show. It starts out looking a bit like a gritty Game of Thrones fun pirate thing and becomes this amazing deep, philosophical thing about queerness, about independence, about our relationship with the state. It’s amazing. Anyway, watch Black Sails. It’s a show that has so many queer characters. I don’t know if you know but there’s this trope in TV called Bury Your Gays.

Parinita: Yeah.

Photo of the ensemble cast of the TV show Black Sails

Black Sails ensemble courtesy Wiki

Milena: So you can show queer people but they have to be dead by the end of it basically. Black Sails has enough queer characters that actually the ones that it buried – and it buried them for good plot reasons, it wasn’t a problem. [laughs] Because there were just so many and it was such a diversity. Yeah it was great. But they also had to tone down some of the stuff that they were planning to do because they were threatened with cancellation because audiences got upset. We’ve got things like She-Ra and Steven Universe both of which have got crossover audiences but they are kids’ shows primarily made by queer creators. If you read what those creators have to say about the process of making those shows, how much of a struggle it was to get that stuff onscreen. And if you think about it, and going back to my experiences as a teenager in very Catholic Austria, it’s so important for kids to be able to see themselves onscreen like that.

Parinita: Absolutely.

Milena: Particularly if you’re living in a queerphobic society, if you’re in a queerphobic family, where else are you going to work out who you are?

Parinita: Yeah. And this is something that is still an issue in India. Now that I’m in the UK, I’m largely exposed to Western media and conversations. And even in India, when I was growing up and otherwise, I was reading largely reading British and American children’s books and TV shows and movies and things. But I was also steeped in Bollywood and Indian culture and society obviously because that’s where I was. But the kind of conversations that we have now – with previous guests on the podcast as well as just the things that I read –  in terms of … well everything. But especially with queer representations in media, and the nuance and the complexity that’s needed and the problems and everything, it still seems so far ahead of anything that we have in India at the moment. Maybe there’ll be independent small productions that explore these issues but we’re still so far back. We’re still just beginning to explore these issues. And in mainstream media, it is largely still very queerphobic, very transphobic, it’s always the butt of jokes or not taken seriously or like, “Yeah why would this even exist?” And it’s so important not just for – like of course for queer kids who are figuring out their identities like you were – but also for people like me and for people like my mum and for people of all ages who use this media to understand and talk about these things. I was talking to my friends about it. With their parents, they sit and watch things and then they use that as a conversation starter. And their parents are relatively conservative. Not maliciously conservative but out of ignorance and privilege.

Milena: Yeah.

Parinita: So for them it’s a starting point to talk about these things. And through exposure they’re understanding more. So they’ll see and initially if they might be a bit hesitant but then talking to their kids about it, they’ll be like okay, fine. But even then, in a previous episode, one of my friends mentioned that they’ll still say that, “Oh why has this become a thing? Why is it everywhere now? Every other show you go, you see a gay character or a lesbian character.” And my friend was talking about how it’s still such a small fraction of all the media that exists in the world. Because it feels like so much more, right, to the dominant culture, if there is even a little bit more than you’re expecting; then you’re like, “Oh this is now everywhere! This is political correctness gone mad!”

Milena: I’ve had this exact same conversation with my father and I have kind of this exact same problem with my own parents who again [sighs] not even conservative, just ignorant, frankly. And to an extent also refusing to engage. And because they have extremely limited media exposure, I struggle to even have those conversations with them because it’s like where do I even start? Particularly when my father goes, “Oh why do they have to just shove it down my throat all the time?” I’m like well, why not? I get to see all of the straight people in media as well.

Parinita: [laughs] I know! All the time!

Milena: But I deal with it.

Parinita: Yeah. This is like a largescale trend; in India in miniscule but I think everywhere else too. Currently we have a fascist government in our country and the majority Hindu population which so vastly outnumbers in terms of just quantity but also in terms of access to resources –political, financial, cultural capital – all the other religions and other … I don’t want to say lower caste but Dalits and Adivasis – different castes which have been traditionally marginalised. But still it’s like, “Oh these people have gotten a little bit more rights than they used to. Oh what? How dare they demand representation and respect and empathy? No! We’re just going to murder everybody.” Which is where India is at. Which is why it sometimes feels like we’re going backwards. It’s nice to be in the UK and talk about these issues but it also then makes me so sad about India because I’m like when are we going to get there? Because in India, especially if you associate historical figures or religious figures with queerness or with anything that’s not the cishet norm, people will come and burn your cinema down or attack you in a bookshop. So it’s so much more fraught there that it just feels like – sorry I just went into a depressing tangent. But anyway, we can get back to less depressing topics.

Milena: [laughs] The world is really depressing at the moment.

Parinita: Yes. That’s true. [laughs] What you were saying about Black Sails, for me She-Ra was that first example of a queernormative world in which in terms of gender and sexuality, there’s so much diversity, that one person being villainised or one person being – there’s no real villain, I guess, they’re all shades of grey.

Milena: Yeah.

Parinita: But having that is not such a big deal. There’s so much queerness in the background and the foreground that it doesn’t feel like the Beauty and the Beast two second dance sequence you know?

Milena: Yes. It is really interesting to me. One of my flavours of queerness is I’m bisexual and bisexual representation in media is worse certainly than lesbian and gay representation and differently bad to trans representation etc. And one of the ways in which it is horrible is that bisexuals tend to get stereotyped horrendously as horribly promiscuous, indecisive, can’t make up their minds etc. And you know what, frankly I’m a greedy, indecisive, promiscuous bisexual. But also …!

Parinita: [laughs]

Milena: And that’s fine! You know what, that is absolutely fine. But I would like to see a range of bisexual characters because again, if my mother watches something like that and goes, “Well all bisexuals are like that.” I’m like, “Well sure I’m like that; but not all of us are like that.”

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah exactly.

Milena: There’s plenty of monogamous bisexuals, there’s all sorts of things. And again having that kind of range different characters rather than the one token bisexual or the one token gay character or the one token trans character is … you know what, I in my real life, if I get all of my friends into a room, probably about at least half of them have some flavour of queer. In a TV show cast, there’s the token queer person.

Parinita: Yeah and they’re all hanging out with the cishet people. As if they don’t want to have their own community. [laughs]

Milena: Their life must be so miserable!

Parinita: [laughs] I know.

Milena: Please find better friends.

Parinita: I know! Where you have to keep explaining your identity and you have the burden of being the gay person

Milena: Yeah.

Parinita: So everything you do is representative of your entire community. I haven’t watched Steven Universe yet, it’s definitely on my list. But Noelle Stevenson I just love her. Her first book that I read was Nimona, a graphic novel which I loved.

Milena: Yeah.

Parinita: Also the comic series The Lumberjanes which I think she was on the co-founding team of. I don’t know if she’s still connected to it. But yeah, like I said in the beginning, it’s just taught me to see the world in such a different way but also expect so much more of my media now that I’m like, “Yeah why don’t we have this?” I think in the interview that we read, Noelle does say that younger queer people which – I’m not really young or queer [laughs] – but younger queer people want things instantly. As in they demand queer stories in nuanced and complex ways now without realising how hard it’s been to fight to get where they are at this point. But sometimes I feel like I’m at that point as well. I’m like, why isn’t all our media like this? Why is there such a process of having to decondition all these things that you’ve been taught right from when you were born?

Milena: Yeah. It’s really interesting to me ’cause I’m heading towards 40 very rapidly. And I’ve seen mainstream media and less mainstream media evolve over the years and I very much agree with those younger queer viewers going, “Give me all the representation and do it properly now!”

Parinita: [laughs]

Milena: But I also understand what it’s taken to get here.

Parinita: Yeah.

Milena: One of my favourite shows growing up was Babylon 5 which as a classic, cult, sci-fi TV show made in the 90s, was ground-breaking in a number of ways. In some ways, it was about ten years ahead of its time in terms of what it tried to do with the medium. It had a bisexual character – well actually I think it had two women who were both bisexual and very briefly in a relationship. And it was so blink-and-you-miss-it. [laughs] Like oh okay, well, I guess that happened. And I tend to watch for these things. Even at that age I was fairly well-attuned to queerness and attempts to represent queerness. And it took me a while – it took me reading the showrunner’s comments to actually work out, “Oh no they weren’t just close friends. They were genuinely in a relationship.” [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Milena: I know. How bad was that? And the other thing we actually didn’t get in Babylon 5 that originally we were meant to was some very potentially interesting trans representation. Where one of the alien characters, as part of a transformation they underwent as part of the plot, was also going to come out of that transformation a different gender to the one that they were originally. And they shot the pilot with the makeup to enable that and then never changed the look of the character for the main show. And the official story was they couldn’t make the voice modulation work. And I’m just honestly not buying it. I think it was 1990 – 91 – 92 that that was shot. I was like, I don’t think you got this past the network.

Parinita: Yeah.

Milena: I think they didn’t like what you were doing and they didn’t let it get past the network. [laughs]

Image from two female characters from the TV show Babylon 5. Text says: Susan Ivanova and Talia Winters helped me reconcile myself with my sexuality. I owe them and the actresses who played them a huge debt.

Image courtesy Babylon 5 Confessions

Parinita: Rebecca Sugar was saying that and Noelle Stevenson as well about both Steven Universe and She-Ra, right? How much they had to fight everything. And it’s so unfair that just your way of existence is – like of course it’s political now because we live in the world that we do – but the fact that it needs to be … it just it feels so aggravating that you can’t just be in a story, especially if you’re a queer writer and you just want to write the stories that have the most meaning to you and make the most sense to you. But you have to think about what the producers want, what the audience wants, what these censors – both official and unofficial – want. It’s just ridiculous.

Milena: And it’s exhausting. And it’s genuinely harmful. If you read what Rebecca Sugar says, it’s genuinely harmful to people’s mental health. And it’s just this constant uphill fight. And that’s true for producers, it’s true for fans. I’ve been an activist for a very long time. I regularly go periods of like I can’t deal with this anymore. [laughs] And how many times you can just keep picking yourself up off the floor is an interesting question that at some point we may find the limit to. But it’s just exhausting.

Parinita: We already live in a world – at least mainstream society and culture – where there is still so much queerphobia and transphobia ingrained in it that for me it’s still a process of decolonising my own brain. Not only when it comes to queerness but also race and things. This is something that you brought up as well in terms of one of the fan texts that we read, but it’s also true with just mainstream fan and media texts in general, where who is the presumed default reader? And the assumption that allosexuality and alloromanticism are natural and compulsory and how much harm this does to everybody.

Milena: Yeah.

Parinita: To both queer and non-queer people just in terms of the expectations that you have and whether or not you live up to them.

Milena: Oh absolutely. This is something that’s very, very close to my heart because another flavour of my queerness [laughs] is that I’m asexual – kind of on the ace spectrum. But also professionally I’m an academic and a lot of my research is around sexual consent. And when you start digging into that topic, one of the things you find out very quickly is the place where we learn how to have sex and what sex is and how to have relationships and what relationships are, is the media.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Milena: Because sex education in schools is abysmal. I think it’s maybe got marginally better since I had to undergo it; [laughs] since you had to undergo it. But overall still abysmal. And again, very different based on country and culture. One of the things that struck me when I was doing this research is in America, a lot of the conversation about sex education is, should we be doing it at all.

Parinita: Oh right!

Milena: It’s terrifying. So yeah sex education is abysmal. Let’s face it, parents aren’t very good at teaching this stuff to their kids either. And so what you do is you pick it up from the media. And if the media doesn’t tell you that being asexual is even an option, it just presents you with this default view of how relationships work which is you are cisgender, you find somebody of the other gender who is also cisgender, you shack up together, you must have sex, you must move in together, you must get married, you must have children. It rules your entire life plan. It teaches you some really harmful things about how to have relationships. And it takes so long to unlearn that once you’ve internalised it and to realise that you know what, actually no, I don’t have to do any of these things. Whether that’s have sex with people, whether that’s have relationships with people, whether that’s have a relationship that fits that particular model or have a relationship with the person that that model tells me I should be having a relationship with. It’s just so insidious. And trying to unlearn it is a lot of effort. And for me, fandom has been one of those places where I have made steps towards unlearning it. One of the things I miss terribly is Tumblr. Tumblr – for those I’m going to say about 5-10 years that it was the community that it was – was such an amazing place where different but overlapping communities existed. So fandom, queer communities tended to overlap to find bits of each other to interact with. And one of the things that Tumblr gave birth to in many ways was asexual activism. Not entirely, but it is one of the places where ace communities thrived and generated so much new knowledge about asexuality, about people’s experiences, about the harmful effects of that default script. I don’t know if you’re familiar with … ugh I can’t remember the scholar who came up with it – the idea of compulsory heterosexuality.

Parinita: Oh no! I did actually come across this scholar’s name just earlier this week. But again, my memory is terrible, so I don’t remember either.

Milena: It’s Sunday night, that’s going to be our excuse. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Milena; But the Tumblr ace community built on that and came up with this idea that actually, it’s not only that you have to be compulsorily heterosexual; it’s that you have to be compulsorily allosexual. You have to experience sexual attraction. And there is no other model at all. And that is probably the kind of starting point of all of the harmful stuff that pop culture tells us about sex and relationships that we then have to … if we’re lucky, we find spaces where we can unlearn it. And if we’re not lucky, we kind of go along with it and are miserable.

Parinita: Yeah! What you’re saying, it’s resonating so much with me. So the texts that we were going through and even before, I’ve been reading more about it, within the last year specifically, but even more a little before that. But just like you were saying, I got the default script from media. And fandom and the internet at large have been such a fantastic resource for me to identify what I’ve been conditioned to believe. Because you don’t even know right? If that’s the only script you’ve been given, and that’s what you see everybody around you doing, you don’t know that there is another way of life or another way of living. When I was growing up and as a teenager – I know we’re going to be talking about asexual interpretations of characters a little more in a bit – but at that point, I didn’t even know this was a way of living. When I was growing up, I wasn’t really very interested in relationships. I did have boyfriends at that time as a teenager and as a youngish adult but it wasn’t like everybody else around me who seemed to lay so much emphasis on romance and sexuality.

Milena: Yeah.

Parinita: Whereas for me, that was just a very small part of all the other things I was doing. My life was full of lots of different kinds of things and romance was never a thing that I’d centred around. Which is why reading about these things like your interpretations you’ve written about Katniss, as well as just the discourse in general, I’m like, “Am I on the ace spectrum as well?” And obviously it’s a spectrum, right? So one person’s experiences don’t always reflect another person’s experiences exactly.

Milena: Yeah.

Parinita: But I’m like, this makes so much more sense to me than the other script that I’ve been shown and told that this is how it is and this is how relationships are and this is how a healthy relationship is supposed to be. I think that if you’re really happy in your relationship but it’s not following the script that has been dictated to you by society, you might find things or you might reconsider your relationship because it’s not matching the idea that society has given. On the other hand, I think that the emphasis and focus on relationships and not being alone and this very singular idea of a family and a couple means that you will also stay in terrible relationships. Because what is the other option than being this pathetic person that media tells you you are if you don’t have a partner?

Milena: Oh no, I’ll happily have ten cats.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah. And books! Just so much more money and time for books! When I was growing up, everybody was so into the idea of getting into a relationship and so unhappy at not being in a relationship. And I was like, this is fine. When I was a teenager, I was like, I’m playing Neopets, I don’t really have time for a relationship. [laughs]

Milena: [laughs]

Parinita: Or I’m reading this book or I’m really into this new TV show. And also the idea that I have to get married at a certain age. And in India this is much worse as well I think because it’s still so deeply patriarchal. That a woman’s worth is very much tied to marriage and then babies. I think people are unlearning that idea a little bit now, only those with the privilege to do so obviously in urban areas and things. But even within urban areas, even within wealthy, privileged spaces, there is still this idea that has a huge hold on people’s imaginations.

Milena: Yeah. Actually it’s really deeply alien to me. When I was growing up in Bulgaria, Bulgaria was communist. And it certainly did a lot to paper over some of the gender inequality stuff. Between that and some of the oddities of my own upbringing … and obviously I was raised as a girl. Even though I’m not, but this is what happened. So this whole idea that if you’re a girl, you have to marry and have babies etc., it completely passed me by in my upbringing. Partly because of my family, partly because of kind of growing up under communism. So moving West, and I understand that it is much worse and more deeply ingrained in India, but actually from my perspective, it’s actually pretty damn bad over here. There’s this thing in Austria where I had a couple of school friends, girls, who went on to study medicine and at least one of them certainly genuinely wanted to be a doctor. But there’s the running joke that the medical schools in Austria are the biggest dating and marriage – they’re almost like matchmakers. Because women go to them to meet doctors; to meet male doctors to marry and to then never become doctors themselves. [laughs]

Parinita: Oh my god.

Milena: It’s like why?!

Parinita: [laughs] Oh no. Oh man. Ugh yeah why indeed. I mean it’s a bit surprising because again, this colonised mindset, right? When growing up in India, you have this – or at least I did – this very specific idea of the West. And obviously it is because of the kind of Western media and cultures that we’re exposed to in India that makes it very clear that, “Oh you in India, not as good as we here in the US and the UK.” I had this idea of the West being much more progressive and socially and culturally – everything than us here poor folks here in India. And then I moved to the UK. [laughs] And I was like, oh I see. I see that this was all propaganda.

Milena: Oh absolutely.

Parinita: And I see that you guys don’t have things figured out at all. It’s still a process of unlearning. And my partner is Scottish so it’s a really interesting cultural clash as well like some of the things that I took for granted and some of the things that he took for granted and how we are both learning to unlearn things. And both of us, we would consider ourselves progressive, left-wing, open-minded and things. But still it’s all these biases and assumptions that society ingrains in you and that is so difficult to unlearn.

Milena: Yeah definitely.

Parinita: [laughs] So in terms of asexuality, specifically in canon and fanon and the different representations and interpretations of it, you’ve written about Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. And I came across Frodo and Bilbo in The Lord of the Rings. You said that The Lord of the Rings was a fandom that used to be a huge part of your life. When you were reading it, did you ever think of it at all in terms of reading them as ace?

Milena: Honestly, no, because when I read them, I was way too young. They read perfectly fine and natural to me and they were very good stories at the time and those were great characters; they had great adventures. But I don’t think I quite realised that romantic relationships and sexuality were a thing at that point. Because I got The Hobbit put into my hands when I was 8 or 9 and then The Lord of the Rings when I was 10. I don’t think I had read many books at that point where romance was a central feature anyway.

Parinita: Yeah. I think this is one of the reasons I really like children’s books because [laughs] romance doesn’t usually get in the way of the story. They’re going off on their adventure and more important things in life than romance. So see this is why, the more I think and talk about it, I’m like, hmm it’s almost like things are making more sense to me about myself now.

Milena: [laughs]

Parinita: When did you start thinking about asexual interpretations? I find this idea really fascinating because it’s been my experience and a few other fans’ experience from what I’ve read about figuring out your identity through fictional characters. Either by reading your own experiences into them or by reading other people’s interpretations about these characters.

Milena: Yeah. So actually I didn’t work out my asexuality until my 30s which again that is a social crime that I will not forget or forgive society for ever. And some of it was coming across those Tumblr communities, some of it was coming across other ace people in my actual real life, and some of it was characters like Katniss Everdeen. [laughs] My running joke is that you will take aro-ace Katniss Everdeen from my cold, dead hands.

Parinita: [laughs]

Milena: People complaining about the love triangle in those books, I’m like the love triangle doesn’t exist. It’s entirely manufactured for the media.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah oh I loved your essay about it.

Milena: Yeah. She just doesn’t have a single romantic or sexual bone in her body.

Parinita: [laughs]

Milena: [laughs] So I have a very passionate interpretation of Katniss Everdeen as aro and ace.

Parinita: I also loved this Tor essay about asexuality and the Baggins bachelors and how this writer had different interpretations for both Bilbo and Frodo because again asexuality is not a monolith either so you have different kinds of relationships and different kinds of priorities. Whereas Bilbo had a really content life and everything Frodo had a queer platonic partner in Samwise, as the essay proposes. I mean Frodo did go to the other end of the sea or ocean or whatever but yeah it was a huge part of both their lives.

Milena: Yeah definitely. And getting those kinds of different interpretations or representations is really interesting to me. And one of the things that certainly about the Katniss Everdeen example strikes me is that I don’t know if she did it on purpose. If she was written as ace on purpose. I can’t quite tell. I can’t work it out. And it’s one of those things where to what extent does authorial intent matter? I have days when I’m very much, “The author is dead and I can do with the text whatever the hell I want!”

Parinita: [laughs]

Milena: It is mine now. But I also have days where I’m like, atually no. Authorial intent matters to the extent that it matters that people should want to put good representation into the world and it matters that we get canonical representation in media and not just fanon. Because again, we come back to that the conversation I can’t have with my parents; the conversation so many kids can’t have with their parents because those parents have never seen a queer character on television.

Parinita: Yeah for sure. Because like I was saying, it’s something that people figure out – like media is such a tool for education as well, right? Both positively and negatively. Because formal schooling for most people ends at a certain age and then it is just media that is your school. And of course it’s been weaponised massively in lots of different countries in lots of different ways but

Milena: It’s a problem.

Parinita: Yeah! It’s not without its problems at all. It’s actually quite a big problem especially news media. But also in terms of fictional media, like you were saying how important it is for canonical representations because if it is either the butt of all jokes or even if it is like queer characters don’t get to be happy, they just die in terms of bury your gays. Then what does that say to both people who are queer and people who are not queer? That this is the life that either you will have or your friend or child or whoever is going to have. It’s just so problematic. Problematic is an overused word – I overuse it a lot – but it is! It’s very problematic.

Milena: Yeah. No, definitely. [laughs] We need to fix media in general.

Parinita: Ugh yes! Completely, completely we need to fix. I’m all for just breaking down all the systems and starting from scratch again but that’s not going to come without its violence and things. It’s a very complicated subject. But anyway, in terms of fan representations and discussions and commentaries and critiques, I’ve learned so much from it right since I properly got into online fandom when I was 13. And even though I grew up in a big city – I grew up in Mumbai, which comes with a huge amount of capital and resources and knowledge. But your life and experiences and knowledge are still limited to the bubble that you inhabit. Like my mum’s community and family is also quite limited and conservative as well. So the kinds of conversations that I’m having now, there’s no way I would have gotten it in my family, community or in my school. And fandom has been such a massive tool of education for me which is why I believe so passionately that it can be a force for good. But I also know unfortunately it can be a force for bad. Like I was telling you, I was attending the Fan Studies conference last week. And I’ve been catching up on the things and there was a racism in acafandom panel by Rukmini Pande and three other fan scholars.

Milena: I know that it happened. I do have to catch up on that because that sounds like it was amazing.

Parinita: It was really good but it was also so sad. Because on my podcast and in my own life as well – so I used to write fanfiction when I was a teenager, but then I was largely a lurker after that. I was on Tumblr for the briefest of times because I have a very obsessive personality so I would have spent too much of my life on Tumblr. As I did on Neopets. So now I get a lot of these Tumblr conversations and things through Facebook fan pages and Twitter screenshots. But for me, I’ve very carefully and deliberately curated a more positive, more progressive, more nuanced space in terms of who I follow. It’s a very deliberate echo chamber that I’ve created because it is my space, so I’ve not faced the kind of horrible things other people face. On that panel, they were talking specifically in terms of racism because that was the theme of the panel. But I know that there’s lots of transphobia and queerphobia and stuff in fandom spaces. Fandom likes to see itself or some people see fandom as more progressive and I’m focusing on the more progressive and more positive parts of fandom through fan podcasts and things. But I know it can be a really terrible place as well for queer fans too.

Milena: Yeah. And like you, I tend to curate my fannish spaces to not be unpleasant. But it’s definitely not always a fun happy place. I can think of a couple of examples, actually of things going horribly, horribly wrong in fandoms. One of them is I spent a good three-four years in hockey RPF fandom – ice-hockey RPF. And about [sighs] three or four years into that stint, half of the biggest pairing in that fandom – because it’s a real person fandom, it’s like yeah your fave is going to be problematic. And we kind of knew that he was problematic. And then he got accused of rape. And the way that that fandom fell apart with some people just not wanting to see it, was genuinely horrifying. But the other interesting thing for me coming back around to the racism in fandom question is, I did my PhD research on sexual consent in fanfiction. And one of the things I did was I interviewed a bunch of fanfiction readers and writers. It was in a particular fandom – the Dragon Age video game. There’s a significant subgenre of slave fic in that fandom. And one of my interviewees brought it up as a “Oh yes this is a great way of exploring issues of consent.” And it has never sat right with me. Because obviously slavery is something that in the real world is a deeply racialised history that something many people still feel the after-effects of today both in the US and in Britain and in other places around the world. And taking that concept and going, “Oh let’s enslave the pretty elves, and then have fun sexy times with them” never quite sat right with me. And I have kind of worked out since then – it’s taken me a little time to work through it – why and how it’s a problem. A lot of the reasons it is a problem is this is the kind of fic that is primarily written by white women, maybe occasionally nonbinary people. And they may be queer, they may be straight, I don’t know. But it’s the kind of thing where white women get to take this trope, completely divorce it from its historical context and from its real-world effects today, get to deracialise it, and then make it part of their ooh exploring consent issues toolbox. Whilst just completely ignoring both the trauma that that inflicts on fans of colour and the general reproduction of white supremacy it perpetuates. So yeah fandoms are not always not always fun and happy places. And it’s very difficult sometimes to have those conversations.

Parinita: That’s so disappointing because when fandom wants to do something well, it can and does do something well. The two fics that you recommended me, one of which was your own, The Legend of Zelba – uh Zelba? [laughs] the Legend of Zelda drabbles that you wrote. I have never played the game, I know very little about the characters, and I’ve also never experienced discomfort with the gender that I was assigned at birth. And like I said earlier, I’m not super into love stories either. But your story made me so emotional because it was just so lovely. I was reading it and was like I wish everybody had this sort of experience if they wanted it. That it was accessible to them in mainstream media.

Milena: Yeah.

Parinita: Now of course fans have to go and write this themselves. But people are so creative in fandom – fanfiction writers like fan critiquers and things, they’re so creative in the ways they engage with issues. Why isn’t there more mainstream awareness, recognition and reflection of this? The other thing that you recommended as well, Skies of Blue, Red Roses too which was this Ranma ½Steven Universe crossover, again, which I loved so much. So for those who don’t know, Ranma ½ was this anime –  I don’t know if it’s still ongoing – but it was this anime that I used to watch when I was growing up. Ranma was assigned male at birth according to this story, but he was a boy in canon. And he had a grandfather and they’d gone through some martial arts training which meant that if cold water was or hot water was dropped on them – I – forget the details.

Milena: I can’t remember which way around it was.

Parinita: Yeah. It was either if hot water was dropped on them, the grandfather turned into a panda, as you do. And Ranma, the boy, turned into a girl. And then they revert back to their original form if the opposite temperature water was dropped.

Milena: Yeah.

Gif from the anime Ranma 1/2 where male Ranma has water thrown over him and turns into female Ranma

Parinita: This was a terrible explanation. [laughs] I shall link to a better and more succinct summary. But because I’m cisgender, I didn’t think of the gender implications of this text at that time. I used to love that anime without interrogating anything in it. It was just this weird little thing that I loved that even now when I try to explain the concept of it to people, they think I’m making it up. [laughs] Like I had some sort of fever dream.

Milena: [laughs]

Parinita: Because it’s so bizarre! But in this story, they do a crossover with Steven Universe and with Ranma sort of negotiating internalised transphobia a little bit but also coming to terms with her trans identity as well. Which I thought was amazing!

Milena: It is really interesting to me. A significant number of my friends have watched Ranma. I’ve got a friend who has this theory about Ranma that if you really, really love it, it’s probably because you’re not cis because it’s not that good an anime.

Parinita: [laughs]

Milena: And this friend is more than ten years younger than me. And to an extent, for that generation they have a point. For me, when I was watching it in the late 90s-early 2000s, that was one of six anime we had over here. So for our generation, it is a classic. So there’s probably cis people of my generation who enjoyed it for just being an anime. But yeah actually, if you’ve got access to more anime and better anime, then yeah if you like Ranma, you’re probably not cis.

Parinita: [laughs]

Milena: When I got this fic recommended, my partner made this comment that if you’re using Ranma to kind of do your gender exploration, the state of trans representation in media is really dire, isn’t it? I was like, yeah, yes it is.

Parinita: [laughs]

Milena: I was like it’s not good.

Parinita: No, especially because that’s something that the fic brought up which I didn’t remember because I’ve not watched Ranma ½ in years – more than a decade for sure. But how she was treated when she’d been turned into a girl either as a pervert for then reverting back to her boy body. Or the kind of sexual harassment and sexual assault that was a very regular part of her life.

Milena: [laughs] Yes!

Parinita: Yeah. Of course I was … I don’t know 13 – 12 at that time, so I wasn’t thinking about these things. If I go back now and watch it, I don’t know if I’ll love it as much as I did then. It just captured that very specific time in my life.

Milena: Absolutely.

Parinita: Yeah. This fanfiction writer has made it so amazingly contemporary. And also, so obviously they’re exploring gender and sexual diversity through their story – through Steven Universe and Ranma ½. And I’ve not read the whole thing – I’ve read the first few chapters, but in the second chapter I thought it was really interesting, their author’s notes at the end, where they said that they removed the State Trooper and replaced him with a community watch member because “fuck cops”.

Milena: Yeah.

Screenshot. Text says: Edit: Removed the State Trooper and replaced him with a community watch member. Because fuck cops.

Author’s note from Chapter 2 of Skies of Blue, Red Roses Too

Parinita: I’m assuming they’re US-based but also in other parts of the world including India, there’s huge police brutality. But it was a very political, very deliberate reconstruction of their own story to go in line with their politics and what’s happening in the world – which I thought was amazing.

Milena: Yeah, no absolutely. I love that story. I love what they’ve done with both the source material but also kind of how they’re bringing real-world politics into it and actually making it matter. But also one of the things I love about that story is actually how unapologetically just fluffy it is.

Parinita: Yeah!

Milena: Because yeah Ranma worked through a whole bunch of issues but it’s constantly much like Steven Universe the original show, it’s very much … it’s positive, it’s upbeat, it’s optimistic, we can solve these problems. Steven Universe, his superpower is he will solve anything by making people talk about their feelings. I love it.

Parinita: Aww! [laughs]

Animated gif. Text says: But you always seem so upbeat, you're a real champ, Steven Universe

Milena: As somebody who didn’t learn to talk about my feelings until I watched Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Parinita: Oh! Yes!

Milena: [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] So currently I’m watching Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts on Netflix.

Milena: It’s on my list.

Parinita: Highly, highly recommended. Because she does the same. She wants to solve problems by talking about them and making friends and being aggressively friendly. [laughs] And I’m like yes! These are the kind of heroes I need in my life. And of course, they’re all in children’s media so I’m like yes, this is my life now.

Milena: Yeah. We really need unapologetically fluffy, hopeful, optimistic media. The world is on fire and sometimes you just need to be able to curl up in a corner and go I’m reading this fluffy thing and I’m just going to make myself feel better doing that. And then I’m going to go and fight the rest of the world.

Parinita: You’re so right! Because the fluffy makes the fight possible. You can’t fight without your comfort food and your comfort media.

Milena: Thank you for having me, it’s been so much fun.

Parinita: Thank you so much! It’s been a year and just talking to people has been such a light in my life. And talking to you especially today has just been so fantastic. I got to talk about all these stories that I don’t really get to talk to people about. And the conversation has been so good for my brain. Thank you so much for being a part of this project.

Milena: Thank you for having me! Take care.

[Outro music]


[Outro music]

I’d love to hear from you and talk to you – so any feedback, comments or critiques are very welcome! Get in touch with me on social media, leave a comment on my blog, or email me at edps@leeds.ac.uk. If you’d like to follow the podcast or the PhD project, visit my website marginallyfannish.org. Here you’ll find the podcast episodes, transcripts, episode resources and links, and my research blog. You can also receive updates on Facebook or Instagram at Marginally Fannish or on Twitter where I’m @MarginalFannish. I share episode resources on social media so you can find a bunch of excellent fan podcasts and essays to look up. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share it with anyone you think will enjoy it too.

Thanks for listening! Tune in again next time for all things fannish and intersectional!

Episode 9 Destabilise Heterosexuality As A Default: Queer Representation in Media and Fandom

Episode Resources:

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

2) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Imaginary Deaths

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

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

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

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

Episode Transcript:

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. If you would prefer the original, unedited version, please let me know!

Photo of Diana Floegel

[Intro music]

Welcome to Marginally Fannish, a show where we aim an intersectional lens at some of our favourite media and their fandoms.

[Intro music]

My name is Parinita Shetty and you’re listening to the ninth episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I chat with Diana Floegel about queer representation in media and how fandom engages with queerness.

Media industries and their cultural products reflect the structural heteronormativity prevalent in the real world. Mainstream media has popularised a more palatable version of queerness. It expects assimilation into the heteronormative default rather than exploring alternative structures. It also largely overlooks intersectional identities. Queer media representations – when they do exist – perpetuate limited narratives of being queer. They also promote troubling tropes and stereotypes which further reflect the lack of structural diversity.

Fandom can act as an alternative to mainstream media where people encounter queer ideas and content for the first time. Fan communities explore different sexual and gender identities. Fan campaigns demanding more queer representation in media can popularise fringe ideas and expand mainstream imaginations. Fan spaces feature both debates against as well as examples of the more problematic aspects of queer representation. Even fandom can reinforce dominant ideas when it features different levels of acceptance for different kinds of queerness. However, some fan communities have offered a supportive space for queer people and their experiences.

Find our conversation about all this and more in today’s episode.

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: I’m so excited to have Diana Floegel on the podcast today. Diana is a doctoral candidate in Information Science at the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University in the US. Their research generally applies a queer theoretical lens to phenomena surrounding people’s information creation practices, sociotechnical assemblages and information institutions such as libraries. And their dissertation work specifically focuses on queer people who write slash fanfiction. Diana has lifelong love-hate relationships with fandoms ranging from Harry Potter to musical theatre to Batwoman. I love it. Their research interests inspired today’s episode where we’re going to look at queer representation in media and in Harry Potter as well as how fandom engages with queerness. So to begin with, Diana, could you tell us a little bit about your own experiences with the topic either as a researcher, a fan, or even from your own personal life?

Diana: Yeah absolutely. So, hi everyone. So in terms of my personal life, I’ve been a fan since probably before I can remember. When I was younger, I was obsessed with a small selection of picture books and I started writing self-insert fanfiction.

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana: Which is rather embarrassing. [laughs] But I started writing self-insert fanfiction probably in elementary school. And started reading fanfiction in high school. And it was really important to read slash especially then because there was even less queer representation in media than there is now. And so that’s where I found a lot of what I wanted to see in terms of particularly lesbian and gay folks and relationships in fanfiction. And so when I started researching as a career, as a PhD student, there’s some gaps in my discipline that I think fanfiction can fill and thinking about queer-authored fanfiction can fill. Or can start to fill. I identify as a constructivist epistemically and so it made sense to me to do some work around queer-authored fanfiction.

Parinita: That sounds amazing. And it’s also really similar to my own experiences a little bit. Right from writing self-insert fanfic when I was in primary school [laughs]. But I did it in my head. So The Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley, I used to read a lot of that when I was younger. And I created this new school which was very much a copy of both Sweet Valley and The Baby-Sitters Club but I just came up with new characters – all of which I wanted to be and sort of represented me a little bit.

Diana: Amazing.

Parinita: [laughs] Because that’s what you do as a kid.

Diana: [laughs]

Parinita: Queerness is not something that I encountered in school or my family because it’s not something that, at least in my community, nobody really broached these topics about different gender or sexual identities. So my first encounter with these ideas was in fandom as well, when as a thirteen-year-old, I discovered Harry Potter fanfiction on this website called Mugglenet. And even then I wasn’t really a romance reader but you can’t be – or at least then you couldn’t be – a part of the fanfic community even as a lurker which I was – without coming across shipping in some form. Where fans imagine which characters would end up or should end up in relationships. I know you know this, this is just for people who might not know this. [laughs]

Diana: [laughs] Oh absolutely, yeah.

Parinita: So this was before all the books had come out, so the main ships at that time that I first encountered were either Harry/Hermione or Harry/Ginny or Hermione/Ron. There were these huge shipping wars that used to happen which I used to ignore because I used to just read and write really random fic. There were no relationships in it. But it was only when I spent more time in fandom that I discovered slash shipping. So queering canonically straight characters like Harry and Draco – which again, for people who don’t know what slash is. Though when I re-read The Philosopher’s Stone a few weeks ago, I couldn’t un-see that ship now.

Diana: Oh a hundred percent. [laughs]

Fan art of Draco and Harry inter-twined in Christmas lights with Pansy on one side and Hermione on the other. Text says - Draco: I swear to Merlin Parkinson if you don't release me THIS INSTANT I will make you SUFFER I will make your whole FAMILY suffer I will murder you in your sleep and I will make sure it looks like an accident you nasty little excuse for a friend I - Pansy: Oh, DO shut up 'Potter this', 'Potter that'. it has to STOP. We'll be back in two hours. Harry: Hermione - Hermione: I'm SORRY Harry but this is the only thing she's actually right about.

Drarry fan art courtesy Pinterest

Parinita: Right?! I mean I’m not really a shipper myself, that’s not how I read books. Romance is something that’s secondary, it gets in the way of the plot mostly for me. Just in any books. But now that I read it, I was like, “Oh my god Draco definitely has a giant crush on Harry!” [laughs] Even if it’s not romantic, I feel like he definitely wants to be friends with him. Maybe watching Cursed Child – because in that same week, I watched Cursed Child in London – and maybe that had a roundabout effect on my interpretation. But I can’t un-see it now. Draco and Harry, yeah, that’s my ship. [laughs]

Photo of Palace Theatre London with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Palace Theatre, London

Diana: Yeah! Cursed Child is – so first of all, I really relate to what you said about not having any sort of conceptions or examples or representations of queerness around you in your everyday life.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: Or your non-media, non-fandom life. Because I had a very similar experience. I grew up in a family where I’m the only openly queer person.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: And grew up Catholic and in a fairly conservative area and so it was really nowhere. So fandom was very key in that sense. But Cursed Child specifically is so queerbaity! So when I say queerbaiting

Parinita: Oh my god yes!

Diana: Oh my god.

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana: So I mean there’s this very significant, very – particularly to a lot of queer folks – very obvious subtext that these characters are more than friends, right? [laughs] Or more than … in some sort of platonic relationship that never actually comes to fruition.

Parinita: I mean not just to queer folks. I am very cisgender, I’m very heterosexual.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: And Scorpius and Albus are definitely a couple. [laughs]

Diana: Oh my god yes! Jesus!

Screenshot of a tweet by @annabroges. Text says: if you're sad that it's monday just imagine all the holidays harry and draco are going to have to spend together once their sons get married

Image courtesy BuzzFeed

Parinita: Like I said, I don’t usually look for subtext in these things. And after listening to a few of the podcasts, but even otherwise through fandom, I know a lot of queer folks do queer the canon a lot – looking for subtext and things. And with disabilities as well.

Diana: Oh definitely, yeah.

Parinita: I’ve spoken about this with somebody else. Just because you don’t see yourself represented so you do that. And with racebending as well.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: But with Scorpius and Albus, it’s so obvious. There’s no subtext there. Spoilers – but whatever he has a crush on Rose which seems so crowbarred in.

Diana: Oh yeah.

Parinita: Right? Yeah, no. They’re definitely a couple. [laughs]

Diana: They are. And I will also freely admit I am a shipper. I think there’s a little bit of a misconception, particularly from folks who are outside of fandom, that all fic and all slashed or queer fic is ship-related fic.

Parinita: Hmm.

Diana: And it’s not. It’s definitely not. But I am a shipper. [laughs] And I love a good ship fic, I love tropey-ness in ships.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Diana: So I will freely admit that. And my partner and I sometimes get into very happy fun little tiffs about this. When I’ll be like, “Oh they’re definitely a couple.” And she’s like, “All they did was look at each other!”

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana: No, they were meant to be. [laughs]

Parinita: I love it. I think I do this with some things, with middle-grade and young adult fantasy books sometimes. And I think a lot of fandom research does look at shipping – not shipping, but does look at a lot of fanfiction communities.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: At least the research that I’ve come across. So I feel like I’m the oddball who doesn’t ship and who’s not having – I’ve fallen into that mainstream idea.

Diana: [laughs]

Parinita: Because I’m usually a lurker.

Diana: Hmm.

Parinita: I used to write fanfiction as a teenager. I wrote a sitcom version of Voldemort and the Death Eaters [laughs].

Diana: Amazing.

Parinita: So there was no shipping there. But yeah, after years of being a lurker, I’ve come back into creating things with this podcast. But yeah sorry that was a sidetrack.

Diana: Oh no, no.

Parinita: So something that you mentioned as well and something I think in the Queer As Fiction episode, one of the hosts Ashly mentioned, where she shared her coming out story.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: Because she grew up super Christian as well. Which seems to be a big reason in the US for the tension with coming out and finding support. Which I was thinking is so different from India.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: Just the context – or at least the reason for why coming out would be difficult. In India, I think it’s less about religion. It’s more about just social pressures and social conditioning. It’s a very patriarchal, very heterosexual –

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: Well … not traditionally. Not thousands of years ago. But after the British Empire came, we still had their outdated, obsolete laws against homosexuality. And it was illegal and then it was legal again for a bit and then it was illegal again and now it’s legal again. So there was a big back and forth in the Supreme Court in India as well. But it’s still not very mainstream. [Recently, a queer student committed suicide in Goa, India after being forced into conversion therapy by her family]

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: In the big cities in India, we have pride parades and things. And I’d gone for a pride parade as a teenager because – again, because that’s what I discovered through fandom and I was like, “No, I have to support this now that I’m seeing it in my real  community. So I should go and support it as an ally.” With media, I know that in the West there is still a lack of representation of queerness onscreen and in books.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: But so much more than what you’d see in Indian media. Even though now there is more of a push-back against that.

Diana: Yeah. So that’s really interesting. Because I think you’re right. The US context is an interesting one because I mean first of all, we are the colonisers, right? [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana: That’s sort of what the US does. But we have this … [sighs] very limited I think amount of acceptance. Where there are palatable versions of queerness that I think have gone mainstream and have hit mainstream media. And so a lot of that intersects with race, right. So white people who are queer tend to be represented more than people of colour who are queer.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: And cisgender people are represented far more than trans folks and nonbinary folks. And there are very limited ways in which trans people are represented too. And so there’s a lot of this still structural cis- and heteronormativity that happens that can seep into media. And even outside of media, right? It’s always interesting to me that the most known, I would argue, landmark in LGBTQ+ rights has to do with marriage equality, right?

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: And marriage is a traditionally normative institution. And some folks might say – now listen, I say this as someone who thinks that getting married is a beautiful thing for a lot of folks. And also really important in terms of being protected and being with a person that you love etc. But we have to assimilate into what the heteronormative default is rather than think about alternative or reoriented structures.

Parinita: Absolutely. That’s something I was thinking of as well. Because just in terms of all marginalised identities you know.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: This is something we’ve spoken about before on the podcast in terms of disability where even disabled folks have to assimilate into abled communities and the abled view of the world.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: And racial as well. And ethnicity, national origin whatever. But especially with queerness because right now I’m thinking that the most mainstream gay couple that I can think of is in Modern Family.

Diana: Oh yeah.

Photo of Cam and Mitchell from Modern Family

Image courtesy Indie Wire. Photo by ABC-TV/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Eric Stonestreet

Parinita: I mean yeah you have them as this gay couple, but you could have them as a straight couple and it wouldn’t really – it’s not so different. So there’s this very fixed idea of what a family is. [An article presenting an alternative view of the importance of these characters in Modern Family]

Diana: Yup.

Parinita: And I’m trying to read more about these things because it is a blind-spot. Most of my friends are straight and most of my friends are cisgender.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: So I try and read about it because that’s how you learn about these things that you wouldn’t encounter otherwise. And I know that a lot of queer communities are trying to fight for a different way of life. It’s a feminist project as well.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: Not just what you see in the status quo. You just look at different ways of being.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: But the media then just presents this very singular narrative of being queer. So what you were saying, that there’s just one way to be queer and you have to assimilate into that.

Diana: Yeah absolutely. And it’s interesting too when you were talking about coming out stories etc., that a lot of times the dominant conception of coming out is that it’s an event rather than a process. And a never-ending process. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: And always a risks/benefits analysis too, right? Always little calculations like, “Is it worth it to mention something in this context where nobody knows who I am?” Particularly because heterosexuality and being cisgender are the defaults. And also as someone who identifies as nonbinary but who very easily and sometimes frustratingly so – although I also recognize, it gives me a lot of privileges – passes as a cis woman.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: It can be a tricky calculation. It’s not just like I sit some people down on a couch once and have this sort of great confession and then we move on.

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana: Or I’m disowned or murdered or you know whatever the [laughs] sob story would be – but yeah.

Parinita: Yeah absolutely! And it’s also like you said, the risks and benefits. So in one of the podcasts, the Imaginary Worlds one about The Power of the Makeover Mage.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: I think a nonbinary guest was also saying the same thing. And a trans guest was saying that while playing video games, they found this ability to play with their identities – a relatively safe space within the video game to play with their identities.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: And to experiment with their identity. But then when you go into the wider video gaming community, anybody who’s on the internet a little bit or in fandom research a little bit, we know about Gamergate.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: And how toxic the video game community can be.

Diana: Absolutely.

Parinita: I think one of the guests said that if you’re only going to be with this random player for five minutes, you don’t want to be – like you said – coming out or … who do you come out to and why?

Diana: Exactly.

Parinita: Because it’s still the default. If you sound like a woman, then you will have to go through this whole process that may not really be safe to do either. Forget the whole emotional labour that you have to do but it might actually be dangerous.

Diana: Yeah. Definitely.

Parinita: So media does play a role in either normalising or marginalising queerness. And it can shape mainstream imaginations which in turn can then influence culture and then even politics.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: So in terms of queerness, I know that there is more representation in Western media than in Indian media.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: But something that we came across in one of the podcasts was this whole “bury your gays” trope. And is that something that you’ve come across yourself?

Diana: Definitely. Yes. So that’s something that I’ve come across in my own personal media consumption and also that’s something that a lot of my own dissertation participants and participants in other research that I’ve done on queerness and media creation or fandom have talked about. And so it’s basically this idea that sometimes in a piece of media – on television, in a movie, in a book – there will be oftentimes one or two queer characters in a larger sea of cis-hetero characters. And oftentimes you’ll be made to love them or appreciate them or even you’re just super excited because there’s a glimpse of queerness. And then they are killed – oftentimes very violently. And so that’s where this bury your gays idea comes from. And I do think that now there is slightly more awareness that this is a thing. I feel like there was a bit of a shift, honestly when there was a character who was killed off of a television show that in the US airs on the CW that’s called The 100.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: And that got a lot of attention as something that should not have happened because it was shocking and violent and the whole show had kind of built up this relationship and they finally get together and then this one character is murdered.  But what’s interesting too is that even after that happened and after there was this uproar around it, right – some people almost framed that like a last straw kind of thing – there are still a lot of examples of media that have come out after that where this has happened. Where there’s a sudden, unexpected, violent death of the only – or one of the only queer characters in the entire universe.

Parinita: Yeah and especially when there’s such little representation. So the Imaginary Worlds episode that we listened to, about Imaginary Deaths,

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: It signposted this other podcast called Lez Hang Out. And they had a Bury Your Gays episode as well. One of the hosts there, she spoke about Willow and Tara … Tara … Tara? [tries different pronunciations]

Diana: Yeah, Tara, yeah.

Photo of Willow and Tara from Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Tara and Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Image courtesy here

Parinita: Where that whole thing impacted her so much even though she acknowledged that in the scheme of the story, it made sense. And in terms of Willow’s character arc, she liked the character arc but did not like how it was done and why it was done. What she said was, “It gets better and then you die.”

Diana: That’s exactly – yes!

Parinita: It would totally be all right – obviously a lot of straight/cis/hetero characters die and you’re not – you feel an impact because they spoke about parasocial relationships that fans form with these characters that you feel like you know them. I mean even if in a show that everyone dies but if there’s one queer character and they always die – it becomes a trend – it’s very problematic.

Diana: Absolutely.

Parinita: And this is something that again – I know I keep harking back to previous episodes, but there’s such a common thread between all these marginalised representations because this happens with disabled characters as well. Where they’re killed off to propel the stories of abled characters or characters of colour who are killed off to propel the stories of white characters in Western media.

Diana: Absolutely.

Parinita: And of course bury your gays only works if there are gay characters in your story at all. You mentioned that you wanted to talk more about queerbaiting as well and how that’s a huge part of media.

Diana: Um hmm. Yeah, so totally with you on everything that you said and everything from your previous episode as well. It’s interesting to me that bury your gays got a lot of attention and has a specific name too when there are also documented trends of characters of colour who are killed off as well. And I also think there’s an intersection here. So The Wire is a good example of this. Sorry, spoiler alerts!

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana: I’ll get to queerbaiting in a second – but there is another common trend that’s sometimes called a triple threat minority character or something like that.

Parinita: Oh no! [laughs]

Diana: Right. Where you put all of the quote unquote – heavy quotes here – “difference” into one character. And that one character is supposed to be #diversity.

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana: In your otherwise very whitewashed, very cis, very straight, very abled show. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: So that’s an interesting one too.

Parinita: And that places so much of a burden as well, right, on that one character.

Diana: Oh yeah.

Parinita: Because they are the only representations of everything then they have to be perfect. And make everybody happy.

Diana: Yes! One example that I know a lot of folks use is Sara Ramirez’s character on Grey’s Anatomy.

Parinita: Hmm oh yeah!

Gif of Sara Ramirez's character from Grey's Anatomy. Text says: So I'm bisexual. So what? It's called LGBTQ for a reason. There's a B in there and it doesn't mean Badass. Okay, it does, but it also means Bi.

Diana: [laughs] So queerbaiting is an interesting one, right. Because all of these to me are related to – I’m coming from a US context specifically – but structural problems throughout the entire society, right? So very institutionalised whiteness, heteronormativity, cisnormativity etc. And so this sort of necessarily trickles down into media industries, right. And so media industries are producing content that reflects a lot of these institutionalised violent normativities. And so queerbaiting is an interesting one because media creators know that there are queer audiences out there who are thirsty for content.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: And some of them are explicit about it – that they are teasing us with these characters and will say on panels at Comic Con – they’ll make jokes about it. Or there was a video that came out – I think it was Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Holland from the newest Spider-Man movie that involves Tom Holland. There are so many Spider-Man movies!

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Diana: [laughs] That’s a movie that’s been accused of baiting those two characters. And so in this little clip, they actually pretended to kiss each other and then laughed like, “Hahaha so funny! That would never happen in this mainstream Marvel movie!” But first of all, why?

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana: And second of all, that’s a pretty good example of how this is a common industry practice that’s framed as a joke. And that’s pretty violent towards queer audiences and frustrating. So the Supernatural creators have pretty explicitly played into this; on Supergirl they pretty explicitly played into this, right.

Parinita: Sherlock as well.

Diana: Oh my gosh!

Parinita: And there one of the creators, Mark Gatiss, he’s gay.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: But I don’t know if it was with Sherlock or with somebody else, I’ve come across this idea that they feel like they’re doing it as a good thing for their queer fans – without recognising how, like you said, violent it is. You place so much of your emotional everything on these characters that you think are queer and then it’s snatched away from you.

Diana: Exactly!

Parinita: Even if they’re not doing it intentionally, it is such a blind-spot and it is structural, like you said. We talk a lot about the need for having diverse creators in media, so having more queer creators. And obviously it works in some instances. But in other instances – Sherlock, for example, and Doctor Who as well. I think now Doctor Who, I don’t know how familiar you are with it, but it is becoming a little more queer-friendly and in terms of diversity, a diverse cast, diverse writers and everything.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: But traditionally it has – even in the new season, it has been very … yeah like the status quo. Very much what it used to be and very much what all media used to be. Even when you have someone like Mark Gatiss, who is a gay man.

Diana: Yeah. So I’m really glad you brought up the idea of hiring practices in media because this is something that I think is really interesting. There is a good book – it’s an academic book for – to warn listeners who might not want to read that. I understand.

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana:. But it’s called Race and the Cultural Industries.

Parinita: Hmm.

Diana: And one of the main points that it makes is that we can extend Audre Lorde’s ideas about having a seat at the table to talk more broadly about having a voice at the table.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: And so just because you have people of colour, queer people, disabled people in a room doesn’t mean that they are going to be able to have the same amount of influence in that room as folks who are more structurally socially powerful, right, because societal power dynamics are still going to be at play there. And so it is of course extremely important to diversify media industries, but at the same time, that sometimes is just a band-aid on top of this larger structural problem. Because if you’re not providing overall the equipment or the scaffolding or whatever it is that you want to call it, that marginalised people are going to need in order to succeed and also not burn-out on all of the emotional labour that they’re giving into this industry.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: That’s more than just a hiring process, right? And that sometimes also can require a totally fundamental retooling of how it is that we’re thinking about these institutions, including media institutions. If that makes sense.

Parinita: That’s such a good point. Because what you’re saying, it’s really important, of course, in media industries, but it also reminded me of what happens in fandom.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: So Rukmini Pande is a researcher who’s written Squee from the Margins.

Diana: I love that book!

Parinita: Yeah, me too. And that’s something that actually made me reorient my thinking. I started reading it at the beginning of my PhD a couple of years ago. So when fandom is so white and dominated by white and Western fans.

Diana: Yes.

Parinita: So it’s socially conditioned within you as well. Even though I wasn’t white and I wasn’t Western, like her, I still thought that there’s nobody else like me out there.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: So I’m not going to talk about my identity. Then she’s looked at the racism problem in fandom.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: Where it is the burden of fans of colour to talk about these things. And when they do talk about these things, they’re usually either listened to and then dismissed or just attacked.

Diana: Exactly.

Parinita: And even with slash ships – I know you mentioned this briefly before – but she’s done work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as well as Star Wars.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: She’s researched how white slash ships are more likely to be popular and there are more people who are writing about that versus any characters of colour.

Diana: Absolutely. Pande’s work is inspiring. I think that she’s brilliant. And I’m really glad that she’s publishing and that she’s talking about this because it’s vital. And this is something that’s reflected in my own dissertation data too. I have participants who have told me that they will experience more policing in fandom, for example.

Parinita: Hmm.

Diana: So if they write characters of colour, they will, for example, receive fewer kudos.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: If we’re talking about Archive Of Our Own, the fanfiction platform, kudos are like likes on Facebook. And so they feel like those fics receive fewer kudos. Or they’ll receive fewer comments or the comments won’t be as positive. Even though AO3 in general is branded as a positive environment.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: That’s not the case for fans of colour a lot of the times. And the other thing that’s interesting is – so anonymity is a really interesting concept in fandom and on the internet. I think it’s hard oftentimes to maintain, and some folks don’t want to maintain it. And so I’ve had participants of colour who have told me that they also will face harassment for writing white characters.

Parinita: Hmm.

Diana: White fans will come after them and say, “You shouldn’t be writing for these characters.” Which is ridiculous!

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs]

Diana: And what you mentioned too about Western fandom is extremely true. And I think that because fandom or mainstream fandom spaces are predominantly English language, people who are living outside of Western societies or outside of the Global North have to do a lot more work than folks who are, for example, native English speakers. Or who are more familiar with Western cultural tropes.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: There are more language skills related to writing in English, right. And in order to get readers, oftentimes my participants say that they feel they have to write in English. And also in terms of what a lot of my participants have called “research”.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: And that’s what I mean, they have to research if they want to write a story that’s set in a certain place like how would that be legible or palatable to people who are native English speakers, for example.

Parinita: Also explaining your own culture and everything.

Diana: Yes!

Parinita: What you were saying about native English speakers – for a country like India, because Western culture is now currently global culture, we get a lot of Western media and everything. And we become fans of that. And India has a huge English-speaking population in cities and things.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: But it’s just this colonised mindset still that if you don’t see yourself represented, even in fandom – forget mainstream media, but even in fandom, if you don’t see yourself represented. Which is why Rukmini Pande’s book and her work was such a shift in my perception. Because it’s not something that I’d even thought about. My whole academic fandom research started with Henry Jenkins. And I love his work.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: But then Rukmini problematises it a little bit because it is so white and Western and middle-class.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: Because he’s one of the founding members of fan studies in general, that’s how fandom has gone. And even though I still think fandom can be a progressive space in certain aspects – for me, all my experiences with fandom have been relatively positive. Which is why my project is also looking at the more positive aspects because I’ve learned a lot from fandom. But I know that there are really toxic, really terrible things, some of what you’ve mentioned as well.

Diana: Yeah!

Parinita: And I’m glad that there are more conversations that are veering towards that. But even then, I think there is so much more work to be done and I’m glad that yeah, your research is also looking at that a little bit.

Diana: Yes, no, I’m glad that yours is too. And I fully agree with you. And it’s funny too, fandom is a really useful context through which to problematise the idea of canon.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: Right? But also there is a fan studies canon. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah! Absolutely.

Diana: And fan studies canon is super white and male. I get that Henry Jenkins was a pioneer in fan studies. But also he is kind of a utopian dude and that’s just not real.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: [laughs]

Parinita: So just to move back a little bit to what we were talking about earlier.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: I don’t even know if the retroactive reveal of Dumbledore’s gayness counts as queerbaiting. And obviously I wouldn’t have to ask this question if queerness in Harry Potter wasn’t only subtext and completely missing in actual canon.

Diana: [laughs]

Parinita: And that’s a problem with a lot of media, right?

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: Where fans have to queer the canon. Harry Potter, Frozen, whatever.

Diana: That’s a really good question. [laughs] So I think there is a very imperfect, very, very imperfect division right – I don’t really like binaries so I would not binarise them – but between the idea of queerbaiting and also the idea of queer-coding.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: And so I think that Dumbledore is a queer-coded character.

Parinita: Right.

Diana: He has some of the token, particularly media ideas around … particularly being a lonely queer character almost.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: Loneliness is sort of a common theme. So J. K. Rowling – known TERF.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: Not going to give her any credit.

Parinita: No.

Diana: For anything ever.

Parinita: No.

Diana: I have no problem believing that Dumbledore is queer particularly because one of my goals in life is to destabilise heterosexuality as a default. There’s an assumption, I think, that anyone whose sexuality is not otherwise identified is heterosexual.

Parinita: Right.

Diana: And so I would be very glad to say that Dumbledore’s sexuality is not identified and therefore he could be anything, right. He could be straight, he could be queer, he could be – this fits under a queer umbrella of course – but he could be ace [asexual], right. He could be any of these things.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: But J. K. Rowling going out there and being like, “Oh give me so much credit because I actually wrote a gay character and he was a main character. I just didn’t tell you.”

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana: “Until all of the books were published and I made my millions and millions of dollars.” Absolutely not!

Parinita: But even then, with the movies, in the Witch, Please podcast they’ve said before that it’s a political choice how you represent characters on the screen. So they were talking about Ginny how her character was butchered in the movies.

Diana: Yes, totally.

Parinita: I mean I know there are three more movies in the Fantastic Beasts series that are to come out, but through all indications, it doesn’t look like his relationship with Grindelwald is going to play a role in it. Or is even going to be mentioned as a relationship.

Diana: Yup. You’re absolutely right. See and this is why, again … canon is a very sticky, loose concept. Any sort of move to say that Dumbledore is canonically gay or that J. K. Rowling gave us a gay character … I’m sorry but where’s the proof? Other than J. K. Rowling probably doing a media stunt. Sorry but I don’t see … I have a lot of anger towards her.

Parinita: Yeah, no, and I completely understand why. Because like you said, if he’s queer-coded but if that’s something that is only then picked up on by possibly queer people and queer readers but not somebody like me, then there’s such an opportunity there to very explicitly have a character there which someone like me would also recognise and love.

Diana: Yes.

Parinita: Because I don’t have the tools to be able to identify and find the codes and the subtext that’s there. I know a lot of podcasters that I’ve listened to, Witch, Please, The Gayly Prophet, they read Madam Hooch as queer as well.

Diana: Oh one hundred percent yes. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah, yeah exactly. And now of course I take that as canon. Because I love the fan interpretation. So now when I’m reading the books, that’s what I see.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: But again, if I hadn’t come across this in fandom, I wouldn’t know this. And not everybody is a giant nerd like me who goes on these fandom things.

Diana: [laughs]

Parinita: So what about the more mainstream readers who would love to have this representation. Even if it’s not representation of their own identities, even with race where she co-opted Hermione being black. Because oh she didn’t say anything about Hermione being any other race. But actually, all the characters of colour in Harry Potter, are identified explicitly as being of colour. So the default is white.

Diana: Yup.

Parinita: Just like the default is heterosexual.

Diana: Yup.

Parinita: So you can’t then take credit. There’s this one fan text which I love which – “If Harry Potter taught us anything, it’s that nobody should live in a closet.” I love that.

Diana: Yes.

Image of a person wearing a T-shirt. The text on the T-shirt says: If Harry Potter taught us anything, it's that no one should live in a closet.

A fan text included in my master’s dissertation which looked at two Facebook fan pages

Parinita: What I don’t love is J. K. Rowling co-opting it and pretending as if that that was her idea all along.

Diana: Exactly.

Parinita: And not giving credit to fandom.

Twitter exchange between @wcnderwcmann and @jk_rowling. Text says - @wcnderwcmann: @jk_rowling it's safe to assume that Hogwarts had a variety of people and I like to think it's a safe place for LGBT students. @jk_rowling: .@iaraswinn But of course. [attached image] If Harry Potter taught us anything it's that no one should live in a closet.

Diana: Exactly! So there was a video series that a blog on Tumblr ran before Tumblr died.

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana: It took a bunch of popular movie franchises and just spliced together all of the scenes that had characters of colour speaking.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: And the Harry Potter video I think was like 40

Parinita: 6

Diana: seconds long or something

Parinita: minutes. Yeah.

Diana: Exactly. Yeah.

Parinita: Throughout the whole series. Yeah I’ve watched that video. It was quite sad.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: So in The Gayly Prophet the guest Kaeli spoke about how everyone goes through this Harry Potter phase and Percy Jackson phase while growing up. And I went through – I mean they were not phases, I still love both the book series. But Rick Riordan, even though he is very straight and an old white man basically. He’s very much the person at the top.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: But in his subsequent book series, he’s made such an effort to include diverse identities – when it comes to religion or disability or even queerness. And making it explicit.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: He’s not saying that this is subtext and you have to just figure it out yourselves and congratulations for figuring out these clues that I laid out. But he’s actually saying, no, this character is genderqueer, this character is pansexual. That I think is so much more important.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: He’s writing for middle-grade audiences as well. So he’s not writing for young adults. And he says that it’s very PG – there’s no explicit sex or anything in his books. Just the existence of a gay character or any sort of queerness doesn’t make it political. Or doesn’t make it unsuitable for children.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: Dumbledore being gay doesn’t mean that children wouldn’t come to the movie. That’s not a thing that would happen.

Diana: Right. I mean I think everything is political and so I think it is a huge political act to not represent anyone who’s queer or only represent whiteness, right.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: And to me, that’s the harmful political act. And that being said too, I will say I am with you on the Fantastic Beasts franchise in particular because this is the age when Dumbledore was supposed to be in a relationship with Grindelwald. This is what we were told.

Parinita: Exactly.

Diana: So this is not delivering. I think, and this is reflected in some of my research too, that representation is never the full story, right?

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: And so I do not want to negate or delegitimise anyone’s experience who has found some solace or identification with Dumbledore. But in terms of the larger political consequences of Dumbledore as a character, that was an utter failure. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah, what you said is completely correct. Because I met somebody at a workshop in the university library and she was saying that her kid is nonbinary and they were so happy to find out that Dumbledore is gay.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: Because for them, it was this recognition that they exist – maybe not their specific identity – but there is a different way of being even in the wizarding world. So it didn’t matter for them that it wasn’t explicitly mentioned that Dumbledore is gay. They still found a lot of comfort and a lot of hope. So I think that’s important as well.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: But then I also think it’s important to have more representation. And these conversations are important as well, right.

Diana: Definitely.

Parinita: Because then somebody who doesn’t think about these things might then discover these things. And what I found really interesting as well – that something I hadn’t thought of and somebody mentioned on the podcast – which was magic as a metaphor for gayness.

Diana: Hmm.

Parinita: Which an idea that I had never come across. I think they mentioned it in Harry Potter as well as in Frozen. Again both, Disney and Harry Potter – massive franchises – so much good could come out of including more explicit and not metaphorical representations of gayness.

Diana: Yes.

Parinita: I think everything should be explicit and not metaphoric. Metaphor is great if you are represented all the time in all media everywhere anyway.

Diana: Right.

Parinita: But not when you have to search for your identity every time.

Diana: Definitely. Yeah and I mean Disney – Jesus.

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana: Disney is built on the backbone of oppression, literally. And violence. [laughs] But also recent discourse around Disney has been … fascinatingly frustrating. Because nothing drives me crazier than – I shouldn’t say crazier – nothing angers me more than when Disney gets credit for having two women kiss in the background of a school pick-up scene and that’s the first time there’s ever been a quote unquote “gay kiss” in a Disney film. Wow! We should all be so excited! I am not excited about that.

Parinita: No.

Diana: I think that’s devastating.

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana: I know one of the articles that we read for the podcast was about like Elsa is queer-coded and the Give Elsa a Girlfriend campaign. And that’s never going to happen. [laughs]

Parinita: I think these campaigns do play a really important role because they can make fringe ideas mainstream.

Diana: For sure, yes.

Parinita: So obviously the goal would be for media to be diverse and inclusive of different kinds of identities. But even if the end content itself isn’t impacted now, I feel like these steps would hopefully – I’m an optimist so maybe naively so – [laughs]

Diana: [laughs]

Parinita: But I’m hoping that you know things like #OscarsSoWhite or #GiveElsaAGirlfriend or even the racebent Hermione thing. Which you know started in fandom with racebending Hermione but now it is canon of a sort. Which Cursed Child, the story is ridiculous and silly and absurd. And I don’t know if I actually consider it canon.

Diana: [laughs]

Parinita: But I love black Hermione. And also Indian – a desi Harry – I love that.

Diana: Yeah.

Fan art of Indian Harry Potter, black Hermione Granger, and Ron Weasley

Parinita: He’s not Indian in the Cursed Child. But I think these fandom campaigns can have an effect even if media itself isn’t ready to go there yet.

Diana: Yeah. I think that there’s a larger structural intervention that’s required in media.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: And right now a lot of times the work or burden will fall on fans to have these campaigns and to fight for this. And what’s unfortunate I think is that media, particularly in a Western context, is tied to capitalism.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: And so within a capitalist structure, first of all, that’s a huge contributor to these structural normativities. But also in a capitalist structure right now, queerness doesn’t really sell and the queerness that does sell is a very particular brand. And I use brand intentionally there.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: And so we have campaigns like Give Elsa A Girlfriend which I agree can be really good in terms of visibility and in terms of getting people to think. But we also have Disney stopping the Lizzie McGuire reboot ostensibly because the writers wrote a gay character and they were like we don’t want that on our streaming platform.

Parinita: Aaah!

Diana: And so these wider ties to profit motives etc. I think require some actual structural reorientation if we’re going to think about something like equity, for example, in media and stuff like that.

Parinita: No, absolutely. But that’s what I mean. I agree with you. I think everything is political. But just the mere existence of a diverse body or a diverse brain or a diverse anything that is not the norm shouldn’t be political. It is now because that is a fight that we’re all engaged in.

Diana: Right.

Parinita: But the idea that having a gay character on a Disney platform will what? Corrupt the children? Will turn everybody who watches them gay?

Diana: [laughs] Oh no!

Parinita: I don’t understand. Yeah because all those Harry Potter movies I’ve watched, I can do magic, I’m white.

Diana: [laughs]

Parinita: I don’t understand the logic behind that. Just the mere existence of a queer character shouldn’t – it is – but it shouldn’t be political. It should just be “normal” as much as I side-eye that word.

Diana: [laughs]

Parinita: But it should just be the norm. Right?

Diana: Yeah. I’m all for destabilising norms and stuff so it would just be nice if those avenues were more open, right? It would be nice.

Parinita: And what you said about the very specific idea of Disney’s diversity. Frozen is heralded as this feminist – and I love Frozen, I’m a sucker for a feel-good movie. And especially if it’s animated.

Diana: Sure. Oh yeah.

Parinita: But that essay Deconstructing Disney: The Princess Problem of Frozen II, I really liked how the essay spoke about even the colonisation aspect of it. I mean just because you’re a princess, doesn’t make you a feminist.

Diana: [laughs]

Parinita: I mean you are literally in power. You are the status quo.

Diana: Right.

Parinita: You are the privileged end of the imbalanced power structure. And not interrogating the problematic aspects of monarchy reminded me of this version of feminism which seeks for women – largely in the West – but also, for example, in urban, upper-class India, to take on the roles which men currently hold in leadership positions without interrogating the structure.

Diana: A hundred percent, yes.

Parinita: And finding new ways of being leaders. And also ignoring the lives and impacts on women from less privileged backgrounds in the same country or in other countries. For example, “leaning in” and becoming the CEO of a fast-fashion brand but ignoring the plight of women in developing countries who are making these clothes for you for nothing.

Diana: Yes!

Parinita: It’s all very – it all makes me very angry. [laughs]

Diana: Me too! [laughs] That’s my default state.

Parinita: [laughs] So something that they spoke about in The Gayly Prophet made me think about how access to queer content and ideas and people differs over different generations as well as across geographical boundaries. So one of the guests Kaeli she’s sixteen. And this is something that I’ve also read in like – I know Buzzfeed is really easy to make fun of, but I like their community-sourced responses. So they’d written this article just asking teenagers about what they wanted YA writers to know about teenage life. Because young adult writers always seem to have this perception of teenagers which the teenage respondents said like, “Nope. That doesn’t seem like our life really.” Because obviously YA writers are grown-ups. But something that they mentioned was a lot of people as well as Kaeli seem to be much more comfortable experimenting with gender and sexual identity. So it’s not as rigid as it used to be.

Diana: Hmm.

Parinita: And, of course, this obviously depends on certain schools and certain places even in the US. Some parts of the US that absolutely wouldn’t happen.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: India as well. Again, what you said about the intersections. Depending on which country you’re from or which race or even which part of the country – whether you’re in a rural area or an urban area, there’s so much of a difference in terms of what access you have.

Diana: Absolutely. And I think there is a difference in terms of access to knowledge about queerness. There’s a difference in terms of access to media and media production. And there’s also a difference in terms of access even to fandom content.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: So one of the biggest and I think most unfortunate pieces of news in fandom recently has been that China banned AO3.

Parinita: Oh really?

Diana: Yes.

Parinita: I hadn’t heard about that.

Diana: The censorship policies in the Chinese government banned AO3 and so now in China you cannot access A03.

Parinita: Oh wow.

Diana: And that’s I think really a huge loss of course for the fan community in China. But I think AO3 is so tied to queerness. And any fandom space is going to have its problems – but to not be able to access that is a loss. It’s a big loss.

Parinita: Yeah because like you said, and for me, and I’m sure for a lot of queer people all over the world, fanfiction does provide this alternative to mainstream media.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: Which provides access to these queer ideas and queer content and just that bubble is burst that, “Oh wait, this is also a way of being in the world? This is also a way of existing?” And it’s important for both, right. It’s important for queer people who are probably figuring out their identities but also for cis and hetero people for getting a glimpse into another way of life.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: And hopefully understanding and gaining empathy from that. So yeah the fact that any country doesn’t have access to that.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: Because the internet – I mean even the internet is such a privilege.

Diana: Absolutely. A hundred percent.

Parinita: Accessing the technology and the internet and even overcoming that. But then not having access to a space that you could have otherwise been happy in and found a supportive community in.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: That’s really terrible. But you also mentioned that you had noticed different levels of acceptance for queer people in fandom.

Diana: Um hmm. Definitely. So what’s interesting to me is that fandom is transforming canon media content.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: And so some of the limitations to canon media content make their way into fandom. And this is something I’ve noticed and this is also something that my dissertation participants have talked about. So one example that we’ve touched on already is that fandom is very whitewashed not only in terms of who are the most prominent or well-known participants but also in terms of the characters that are being written about.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: But another example is that on AO3 for example, there are far more M/M works – so in slash fic, M/M meaning male/male pairings – than femslash. Or than relationships that do not involve cis men or cis women, trans representation etc. Part of the reason here, I think, and this is also reflected in my own data is that characters who are men tend to be more fleshed out in canon media. And so you have more to draw on when you’re writing about them. Whereas female characters are sometimes just inserted as an afterthought or as a performative thing. Or they’re not as well-developed. And there just overall are more men in media content than there are women. And so there are great femslash works out there but they are few and far between compared to M/M works. Also polyamory is perhaps less represented, although interestingly in Marvel fandom, polyamory is kind of a big thing.

Parinita: Oh!

Diana: But the other thing is that there is unfortunately a tension around ace identities.

Parinita: Right.

Diana: So asexuality is a spectrum. But there are some folks in fandom, who I think they are very wrong, but who don’t include ace identities under a queer umbrella.

Parinita: Oh.

Diana: And so don’t necessarily write ace characters. Or think that ace characters should be considered under queer fic. Further, because heterosexuality is such a default, oftentimes folks won’t even necessarily think that a character is ace. They’ll just think that they’re heterosexual and not partnered or something like that.

Parinita: That’s something that I’ve thought about in terms of Elsa.

Diana: For sure.

Parinita: I mean I love that the Give Elsa A Girlfriend campaign exists. But what if she doesn’t want a girlfriend?

Diana: Exactly.

Parinita: I mean she might, she might want companionship.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: But yeah what if she’s ace? Surely that should also be something …  but yeah, what your research has found, something that people probably don’t think about.

Diana: Absolutely. That’s a really good example. The other example that I have a lot is Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock in the BBC reboot.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: And then the other thing that I would just want to mention is that not in terms of sexuality but in terms of gender, there are some real limitations, first of all to – right so trans is a spectrum. Being trans is a spectrum as well.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: And so there are some real limitations to trans characters in fandom. And so when trans characters are depicted, and this is something I’ve noticed as a nonbinary person, but also something that my participants have talked about, first of all, it’s not common to have nonbinary characters. Whether you’re queering them – so whether someone is canonically cis and you’re queering them as nonbinary or whether they are canonically nonbinary, although there are very few canonically nonbinary characters right now. But also in terms of if folks are trans women or trans men, some of the same sort of dominant narratives around trans experiences are reflected in fandom. And this can be especially interesting in explicit sex scenes. A lot of times if you have a trans man or a transmasculine person, they will have had top surgery if they’re doing a sex scene.

Parinita: Hmm.

Diana: Whereas your physical features don’t have anything to do with your gender identity.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: That’s also complicated and so some of these mainstream ideas are also, what my participants were saying, over-represented in fic – when they’re even there.

Parinita: Yeah. So it sounds like even when marginalised queer identities are included in fic, it is still this monolithic experience that everyone must fit into and full of stereotypes as well. Or there’s no exploring the nuances and complexities of these different identities.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: And I think a question that you asked which was really important was – especially in the context of the series that we’re talking about – is whether we can divorce the creator from the work. So what are your thoughts about that?

Diana: Oh god that is one – that’s a really, really hard question.

Parinita: Yeah. I know I mean I’ve gone through nine – no eight episodes I think, I’ve gone through just glossing over what do we think about J. K. Rowling. But just because we’re talking especially about queerness, and since you brought it up as well.

Diana: Absolutely. And I will admit I’m someone who does have trouble divorcing the creator from the creation.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: And so there are things that I will no longer interact with after learning things about the creator. And there are things that I will not interact with to start because I know things about the creator.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: And J. K. Rowling, I don’t like her. Right?

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: She is a … TERF. She has said things that are extremely racist like but I think that there is … and no binaries here – so I think that there’s some nuance for me at least and this is sort of very personal in that – and I’m also not going to lie, there’s some nostalgia tied up in this and that’s problematic. Nostalgia is a sometimes a real troublesome idea.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: Because it tends to actually perpetuate normativity and I recognise that. But I think that to me, the Harry Potter canon has been so deeply influenced by the fandom or the fanon. that J. K. Rowling’s original works don’t necessarily have the same significance to me as some other original works because my experience is so tied to fandom.

Parinita: Hmm.

Diana: And fandom is a vast range of creators right. Many of whom say F U to J. K. Rowling.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: And so the bottom line is that even though maybe I should, I just will never cast off Harry Potter [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] No, I totally – I’m with you completely. Because like you, there’s some people like H. P. Lovecraft, for example,

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: After I discovered that he was terribly racist and things, I’m like yeah, I don’t think I need to read any of his works. I’m okay, I’m good. I have other stuff to read.

Diana: Right.

Parinita: So not entering into a relationship with anybody who I know stuff about. But J. K. Rowling – with Harry Potter, it played a really formative role – it had this huge role when I was growing up. I started reading the books when I was ten. And it was my solace during a really difficult childhood.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: So I can’t … even now as much as I don’t like J. K. Rowling, and I don’t. I’m very open about that.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: But I can’t – like you said, nostalgia can be problematic. But for me, it’s so much more also tied into I think my own sense of self and my identity.

Diana: Yes!

Parinita: And everything.

Diana: Absolutely.

Parinita: And fandom as well. What I’ve found in fandom.

Diana: Yes.

Parinita: That in that specific case, I can divorce the creator. But I really like what some fans are doing. So The Gayly Prophet is this queer Harry Potter fan podcast.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: And the hosts had appeared on this other podcast that I listen to called #WizardTeam after Rowling’s TERFy tweet.

Diana: Okay.

Rowling’s transphobic tweet

Parinita: And in response to her tweet, they said that they were going to be divorcing the series from Rowling by choosing to actively create a community which queers the series more.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: And they call it the #MakeHarryPotterEvenGayer2020 campaign.

Diana: [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] And they want to leave Rowling behind and not give her any more money, so they refuse to buy official merchandise; they’re only going to buy stuff on Etsy and things that fans create. And they’re also collecting queer and trans specific Harry Potter fan works and, what they call, “angrily reclaiming our space in the fandom” Because for them, the community has played such a huge role. They’ve found so much in the community.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: And their podcast, in turn, from what they mentioned, has created this space for queer fans to figure out their identities, become more comfortable, find a space for others like them

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: So I think that that’s important as well. It’s such a difficult topic. And I completely understand people who want to just throw her out and throw out Harry Potter. Because there are other book series as well, right. There are many better book series now where writers who have been inspired by her but now do better. They write better books, they write better stories.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: Yeah. Ugh it’s – it’s – it’s very

Diana: It’s a really hard one for sure [laughs]

Parinita: Especially as Harry Potter fans. Especially as people who have such a strong – and fans, right? It’s not just this obsessive squee about a thing.

Diana: Yes!

Parinita: It’s having this deep, emotional relationship with something that becomes really difficult to untie from your sense of self as well.

Diana: Absolutely.

Parinita: Just before we wrap up, you also wanted to talk about fandom and COVID-19 – the pandemic – where fandom could be a refuge or on the other side, could exacerbate inequities.

Diana: Yeah. So I think that right now, we’re in the midst of the pandemic.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: And so I personally believe that no good social science research will come from this until at least ten years from now. We all need some perspective.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: I don’t think that it is wise to be rushing into COVID research unless you are someone who is developing a vaccine. In which case [claps] keep going!

Parinita: Please do. Quickly! Yeah. [laughs]

Diana: But I do think that, and this is something that, without my asking, has come up in my dissertation data. And it’s an interesting context through which to think about how global events and … disruptions – I don’t think that’s really the word – affect fandom communities. And maybe online communities more generally. And so what’s interesting is that I think that – and I mean you can even get this from going on Twitter, right. For a lot of folks, fandom and fic and reading fic and writing fic are cathartic experiences.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: And so that is something that becomes more salient when we are in a period of fear and uncertainty and death, right. And so this is something that’s really important. And it’s interesting to watch also infrastructurally how this is affecting things because for example Archive Of Our Own has had some issues because there are so many people overloading the server, logging on.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: And so just let me just quickly plug that if you can, donate to the Organization For Transformative Works right now.

Parinita: Yes.

Diana: Because AO3 needs it. So that’s one thing which is on the positive side, right. Not the infrastructural stuff but the cathartic nature of fandom playing a really salient role here.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: But on the other side, as much as some folks want to divorce fandom from capitalism and from any sort of monetization, that is absolutely not true. And we don’t need to get into sort of the ins and outs of that but one way that that manifests is that a lot of creators and fan creators make a living or part of their living off off selling materials right.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: Off off selling fan works. So art, fic, plushies that have to do with their fic etc. at conventions and online and things like this. And with mass cancellations of conventions and with uncertainties around the risks of having things shipped to you etc., folks are losing a lot of income.

Parinita: Yeah.

Diana: For fans who tend to be marginalised people anyway and so statistically they are going to be more socioeconomically disadvantaged.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: This is sort of a real problem.

Parinita: Yeah that’s a really good point. And also a really sad point [laughs]

Diana: I know, I know!

Parinita: No, we’re not going to end on a sad point. Do you have any media recommendations that highlight queer voices that you think do a good job of it?

Diana: Yeah. So I know you had asked about podcasts.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: So Queer As Fiction – they’re tragically not making new episodes right now. But it’s a fanfic writing podcast and it is very good.

Parinita: It is so good! I’m so glad you recommended that to me because after I heard the Harry Potter one, I heard the Disney Princesses one.

Diana: Uh huh.

Parinita: And I did not know this is a genre that I needed in my life. Where people are just writing fanfic and collectively collaborating on it and just reading it out to each other.

Diana: Um hmm. It’s so good. I love it.

Parinita: Ugh yeah. Me too.

Diana: I also really like a podcast called Queery that a comedian named Cameron Espesito runs. It’s like an interview podcast

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: And she gets some really good guests on there. There’s a podcast called Back Talk that’s run by Bitch Media. And they do a really nice job, particularly examining things from an intersectional lens. They run the gamut from media to politics etc. And there’s another called One From The Vaults that’s actually a podcast about trans history.

Parinita: Oooh!

Diana: And the woman who runs it is a really good storyteller.

Parinita: Ooh excellent.

Diana: So yeah I recommend that one. In terms of books, I mostly at this point, read academic things and so I won’t recommend those.

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana: But there’s a really, really sweet YA book that I read recently that’s very popular – so folks might already know. But it’s called Red, White and Royal Blue.

Parinita: Oh yeah, I’ve heard of it.

Diana: It’s kind of a private as like a real-world AU [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana: So that was good. TV-wise what’s been good? Feel Good was interesting on Netflix. The Batwoman television show is a CW superhero show but it’s very enjoyable.

Parinita: [laughs]

Diana: Killing Eve just came back.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Diana: Um … of course I’m blanking. I watch so much television and I’m blanking.

Parinita: No, no I can understand. Can I add some more recommendations to that as well?

Diana: Oh please.

Parinita: Because this is somebody from the outside but loving all kinds of diversity and inclusivity.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: So TV show – She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.

Diana: [gasps] I love She-Ra!

Parinita: I love it very much.

Diana: Me too!

Parinita: And podcasts The Gayly Prophet, I mentioned it before, but it’s really good because they apply this queer intersectional lens to Harry Potter and they’re reading each chapter and their commentary is really funny. Sometimes really sad, but mostly really funny.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: So that’s great. In terms of books, I’ve become obsessed with the Lumberjanes comics series.

Diana: I love Lumberjanes!

Parinita: Yeah it’s excellently queer.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: And recently I also read Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe.

Diana: Yeah!

Parinita: Which was a graphic novel that was really interesting about just coming to terms with your identity, which for me was really illuminating. And it was great. And another book that I read was The Gender Games by Juno Dawson.

Diana: Um hmm.

Parinita: About her identity, about her transitioning and just coming to terms because she used to write under James Dawson.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: And really popular YA books. And she’s really open about her identity and also really fun but also sometimes really sad as these things go. [laughs] But really good for I think both people who are questioning their identity but also for someone like me who’s looking to learn about different identities.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: And an excellent picture book that I love is Julian Is A Mermaid by Jessica Love because I’m a huge children’s literature nerd so I have to recommend children’s books.

Diana: Yeah!

Parinita: And just one last recommendation was something that I came across recently. It’s a fanzine called Trans Affirming Magical Care where a bunch of people came together to send contributions to it essentially as a response to J. K. Rowling’s TERF sentiments.

Diana: Yeah.

Parinita: And it’s a fanzine about trans students in Hogwarts and all the profits are going to be donated to a trans charity.

Diana: Oh I love that!

Parinita: I’ll link to it in the transcript. But yeah that’s something that I’m really excited to buy once it’s safe to send mail again, because it’s based in the US.

Diana: Yeah. And if we are talking specifically about books that I think do a good job discussing various aspects of queer experiences I recommend anything by Janet Mock. She has two memoirs out right now. They are both very, very good. Tillie Walden does some good autobiographical comics for folks who like comics. I enjoy her work a lot. Jacob Tobia just put out a memoir fairly recently. I think it’s called Sissy but I might be wrong. Their perspective is quite good. And Vivek Shraya who’s a trans musician from Canada just put out a YA book that’s supposed to be quite good.

Parinita: That’s an excellent bunch of recommendations and a great way to end the episode.

Diana: Awesome.

Parinita: Where we got really angry at some things. [laughs]

Diana: I know. [laughs]

Parinita: But in a good way. Thank you so much Diana.

Diana: Oh thank you!

Parinita: This was such a fantastic conversation. I loved chatting with you about all these things.

Diana: Same here.

Parinita: And I learned so much from your research as well.

Diana: Oh thanks! Yours as well!

Parinita: [laughs] Thank you.

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode on queer representations in media and fandom. What are some of your favourite queer media recommendations? My ever-expanding list of things to read and watch is always hungry for more! If you want to read more about Diana’s work, visit their website at dianagfloegel.com. You can look for their articles – “Write The Story You Want To Read”: World-Queering Through Slash Fanfiction Creation in the Journal of Documentation and Entertainment Media And The Information Practices Of Queer Individuals in Library and Information Science Research. Find the links to all of this in the transcript. Thanks so much for the excellent conversation and company, Diana. And thank you Jack for all the work you do with editing the episodes.

[Outro music]

You can now listen to Marginally Fannish on SpotifyAppleGoogle, or SoundCloud. I’d love to hear from you and talk to you – so any feedback, comments or critiques are very welcome! Get in touch with me on social media, leave a comment on my blog, or email me at edps@leeds.ac.uk. If you’d like to follow the podcast or the PhD project, visit my website marginallyfannish.org where you’ll find both the podcast episodes and the blog. You can also receive updates on Facebook or Instagram at Marginally Fannish or on Twitter where I’m @MarginalFannish. If you enjoyed the podcast, please share it with anyone you think will enjoy it too.

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