A PhD project exploring intersectionality through fan podcasts

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Tag: Science fiction and fantasy

Episode 11 She Has To Fight Smart: Representations Of Women Warriors In Media And History

Episode Resources:

1) Essay – We Have Always Fought

2) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Heroines

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

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

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

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

 

Episode Transcript:

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

Lisa owns this art of Mockingbird which has been illustrated by Valentine Barker

[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 eleventh episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I talk to T. G. Shepherd also known as Lisa about the representation of women warriors in media and history.

There are perceived gender roles and gender disparities in different styles of martial arts with some being considered too brutal for women. People’s gender also impacts their experiences in the environment they’re training to fight in. Comics have a long history of representing women warriors who have been aspirational role models for countless young people and adults. However, the overall representations of female fighters in media involve tired tropes rather than realistic, fully-fleshed out characters. This reflects the erasure of women warriors in real-world history which overlooks how women from different parts of the world overcame social, cultural and legal barriers to fight.

Fortunately, there are a growing number of representations of women warriors with different skills, bodies and abilities working together. Magic or advanced technology in science fiction and fantasy worlds limits the role gender plays among good fighters. Mainstream comics are becoming increasingly diverse and often act as people’s first encounters with different lives. Fanfiction has tremendous transformative potential in questioning the norm and exploring alternate possibilities, though even there, gender dynamics play a role in the kind of stories which are taken seriously. The internet and more diverse academic researchers play a huge role in bringing traditionally marginalised stories about women leaders and fighters to light. However, there needs to be more intersectional representations of fighters in science fiction and fantasy to include different ages, races, abilities, religions, sexual and gender identities.

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: I’m so happy to welcome T. G. Shepherd otherwise known as Lisa to today’s episode. T. G. Shepherd is a Canadian writer and martial artist living on the West Coast. She has been training in martial arts since the age of seventeen but was born wishing warrior was still a job description. Her first novel As A God is available to buy on Kindle. But she also publishes a blog on www.tgshepherd.com. It’s called 30 Seconds of Wick which breaks down fight scenes in movies thirty seconds at a time, beginning with John Wick, hence the name. And she can be located on Twitter at @tgshepherdvan where she yells about comic books, fighting and dogs a lot. Amazing. The topic we’re going to explore today is a little different from what I’m used to. We’re going to be looking at how women warriors are portrayed in science fiction and fantasy. I’m a life-long book nerd who has no experience with fighting. And as a pacifist, I don’t think I ever want to experience fighting, unless the specific circumstances involve punching fascists in which case I could be convinced maybe.

Lisa: [laughs]

Parinita: Though I need to wear boxing gloves or something because I need to preserve my hands for holding books and turning pages and maintain my book nerd cred. Lisa is one of the few people who’s both bookish and loves to fight. So could you tell us your own experiences with being a woman fighter, Lisa?

Lisa: Yeah, I started training when I was seventeen in traditional martial arts – taekwondo in particular. And gradually over the years I started to branch out into other things. I branched out into Olympic sword fighting where I took up saber fencing. Which at the time women weren’t allowed to compete in the Olympics in. That’s since changed. It was considered the more brutal art and women wouldn’t want to do it. But obviously we did. And then I took up archery. And then gradually in my 20s, I wound up taking up with a very street-based martial art based on Bruce Lee’s training methods called JKD [Jeet Kune Do]. And the basic principle with JKD concepts is you need to do what works. There are no rules. In the sense that I don’t call my teacher by a formal title, we don’t bow in and out of the mats, we don’t have any sort of formal forms or anything. I call my teacher by his first name [laughs]. There’s no real rank like we don’t wear anything to indicate rank at all.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: You fight who you can fight, you beat who you can beat. And the school that I’m in is very much dedicated to understanding that you’re doing this to survive. If you’re going to use this, you’re doing it to survive a fight, not to win a sporting match. But the reason I train where I train is that when I asked him what his first response to being attacked in the street was, he said, “Run away.”

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: I’ve trained in places that were super macho where I felt very concerned for my personal safety. Because if I acted less skilled than I was, I was going to get beaten up for being a weakling. If I acted more skilled than I was and actually wound up beating somebody, then they were gonna retaliate in a method that was improper. The school that I’m in, I’ve never had any concerns for it. He treats everyone the same way. You’re expected to live up to one standard and he doesn’t put up with any kind of crap like that. Also the school trends a bit older because the arts that we learn, you need to be able to think about things more. I’m a stick fighter, that’s my primary art. We call it Kali. It’s the Westernised form of Filipino stick fighting. It would be called Arnis or Eskrima in the traditional arts. The reason I like stick fighting is that it’s an art where the harder you try to do something, the worse you’re going to be at it.

Parinita: [laughs] Okay. So have you had more experiences where your gender has affected the fighting environment that you’re in?

Lisa: Yeah it’s funny. I have to walk a very fine line with particularly new people in the gym. I’m the senior student, I’ve been with my instructor for about twenty years.

Parinita: Okay.

Lisa: I’m the senior student but there’s no way to tell looking at me that I am. I’m not a particularly imposing individual. I’m a middle-aged white woman. [laughs] So coming in particularly with new guys you have to be very careful around them because I’ve actually had a couple leave after I won a fight.

Parinita: Oh wow.

Lisa: Yeah. And I don’t want to cost my instructor students.

Parinita: [laughs] Right.

Lisa: So yeah you tend to have to be very careful of their egos. [laughs]

Parinita: Wow that’s a problem – I mean now that obviously you’re saying it, it makes perfect sense – but I don’t think it’s something I would have thought would have been a problem faced by women fighters. From your blog, I read a few of your blog posts, and you write a lot about how much comics meant to you not only now but also growing up as a teenager, and your deep emotional relationship especially with Mockingbird.

Lisa: Yeah well, when I took up with my current instructor – and as he specialises in a lot of things which includes stick fighting – I realised about then that I’d been trying to turn myself into Mockingbird most of my life.

Parinita: [laughs]

Cover of Mockingbird #1 by Joëlle Jones

Cover of Mockingbird #1 by Joëlle Jones

Lisa: And hadn’t really realised that. I took up science and biology because I wanted to be her. And I took up stick fighting because I wanted to be her. Now it turns out I’m actually quite suited to stick fighting so that’s okay; it’s one of my favourite things in the world. Mockingbird was one of the first characters I saw in any media who I genuinely felt was an aspirational figure in the sense that that is somebody that I could actually aspire to be. Not simply to admire.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: And one thing I loved about her is she was always unapologetic about being the smartest person in the room or one of the smartest people in the room. She was unapologetic about it but not arrogant. She wasn’t like Tony Stark or something. She wasn’t, “Oh I’m the smartest person in the room all the time.” She was just quietly doing her thing in the corner. One of the first times we meet her in her modern form of Mockingbird, ’cause she existed in a couple of different forms before that in a Hawkeye mini-series that was published in 1982. And towards the end of the mini-series, the bad guy pits Hawkeye and Mockingbird against each other and even the bad guy says, “Well, she’s going to win the fight. She’s a much better fighter than you are.”

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: And Hawkeye agrees basically. “Oh yeah, no if this was a fair fight, she’s going to kick my ass.”

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: And basically she realises ’cause she’s smart that the only person who has a chance to get them out of the whole situation is Hawkeye. So she throws a suicide play. She sacrifices herself so that he’s the one who can get out.

Parinita: Right.

Lisa: Because she realises that the particular combination of circumstances means that he’s the one who can save them. So even then she’s his partner. And I used the word macho earlier. One of the reasons why I love Hawkeye and Mockingbird as a pairing is that Hawkeye is not a macho guy, he’s a masculine guy. And the way I’ve always described the difference is that macho guys are terrified that they aren’t men and masculine guys know that they are.

Parinita: Hmm.

Lisa: A masculine guy knows he’s a man, a macho guy’s terrified that he’s not.

Parinita: Yeah, so the insecurities especially like the ones that you saw in real life.

Lisa: Yeah exactly. And then you see it in real life. I have a bunch of stories about teenage boys in particular, you have to be very careful with their egos. But I’m really well known in my gym for being … I got called a robot because I don’t seem to feel pain.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: And I’m like well no, I’m just not going to show pain to you guys ’cause what would be the point, right? [laughs] Whereas when I’m fighting my instructor, I will show emotion because there’s no critique in it when he and I are fighting.

Parinita: Right.

Lisa: He has no critique of my emotional state. But if you show emotion in front of a lot of dudes when you’re fighting, they attribute it to you being a woman.

Parinita: So I find your connection with comics really fascinating because for me that’s not something I really had when I was a kid. I only discovered comics quite recently and fell in love with them. But for the longest time I was really intimidated by them because I didn’t know where to start.

Lisa: Yeah. And you got a hundred years of history. [laughs]

Parinita: Exactly. And I think that’s a problem a lot of people face. The history itself can act as this barrier for new people to enter. Which is why I love the more diverse kind of stories that there are now. I know diversity is a word that’s been appropriated by a lot of companies and by a lot of brands to sell their brands. But I don’t think I would have fallen in love with comics had it not been for Ms. Marvel, Squirrel Girl, the Lumberjanes.

Lisa: Oh yeah.

 

Parinita: I don’t know that I would have picked up Superman or Batman – I’m not really very interested in those stories.

Lisa: Yeah, I don’t really have much of a connection to the straight white male characters except for a few like Hawkeye, Captain America i.e. Steve Rogers. Again in Mockingbird was the first time I saw a character who was flawed and human but incredibly aspirational. Trauma came later in her history, but when she started, she was a hero because she chose it. She wasn’t a hero ’cause she was sexually assaulted, or a hero because her parents abandoned her. She was a hero because she looked at the world and went, no I want to be that. And that was something that women just weren’t allowed. And that’s one of the reasons why the character resonated with me because it was the choice to be, “I am going to turn myself into somebody who can stand next to a god on a battlefield and not be a liability.” It was a wonderful thing. In comics, I identified more with the people of colour – with T’Challa, with Storm, with Falcon, with Luke Cage. And those were some of the first and most positive experiences I’ve ever had of black characters as well.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: So for me, comic books were this window into a diversity and a richness of the universe that I didn’t see in my everyday life. But also it gave me the chance to go hey look there’s someone who looks like you who you could actually be … and she’s a hero. And that was one of the first times that I was faced with the idea that maybe you can be a hero. Maybe there’s more. Or maybe your path is not to be a mother and a housewife. Because I was born in the 70s and gender roles were still very specific even then in the middle of all this sexual revolution. And one thing I always loved about Mockingbird is that her stats – like they have these lists of stats for all the characters – are ridiculous. In Marvel she’s 5’9” and a 130 pounds? No, she’s not. [laughs] ’Cause she would be the size of a stick.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: But she was never drawn that way.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: She was always drawn as a big, strong, substantial woman. Very sexual, very sexy. But not stick or reed thin. She looked like someone who could stand and train with Captain America.

Parinita: Right. So the role that comics played for you, for me it was children’s books in general and Harry Potter specifically when I was growing up.

Lisa: Yes.

Parinita: And I always saw myself in these bookish fictional girls like Hermione, Anne of Green Gables, Jo March – you know all white Western women.

Lisa: Yes

Parinita: But I still connected with them deeply; though of course I do accept Hermione as canonically black now. But as someone who wasn’t really surrounded by people who seem to love books as much as I did, those were the characters that I most connected with. But now especially in comics where the diversity isn’t imagined. It’s visible. You don’t have to read yourself into it, you know?

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: At least for the more diverse comics now. Like Squirrel Girl. I know she’s white but she’s not stick thin, and she’s fun and she’s irreverent and she looks like me. Not in terms of race but in terms of the body.

Lisa: Yeah.

Image courtesy wbur

Parinita: Of course, I am a complete wimp, and she’s really strong.

Lisa: [laughs]

Parinita: I’m not like her in that way.

Lisa: I also identify with those characters. I’m a reader; I read constantly. It’s one of the reasons why I got into comic books because I was running out of things to read. My mother would dump me at the library for six hours. I read constantly and I identified with the bookish girls too, with the smart ones. Which is why Mockingbird appealed to me because she’s brilliant, she’s a genius. And she’s also a fighter. And that aspect is not something that I ever saw much because when you get into the fighting women thing, you get into these very binary discussions. And it’s such a complex and subtle thing. You get into the binary discussions of male versus female traits and heteronormative versus queer and it’s all like – I could never really find a place to stand on any of those because they’re very complex. And when I was young, I didn’t have the ability to articulate that complexity.

Parinita: Yeah. So you’ve mentioned that apart from writing your own original fiction, you also write a bunch of fanfic and read a bunch of fanfic – enough to fill several books, your writing. [laughs]

Lisa: Yes. [laughs]

Parinita: And I don’t read much fanfic now though I’d love some recommendations. But do you think fanfic can also play a role in questioning these normativities? Either your own fic or even the ones that you read?

Lisa: Oh deeply. One of the reasons why I started the Mockingverse – so I’m on the big platform AO3 – Archive Of Our Own as Ms Mockingbird. My entire work there is Avengers-centric. And it’s based on the idea of – I inserted Mockingbird into the MCU as a specific character. I like them. Some of them are really good. As I’ve said, one of my great desires is to be accused of plaigiarising my own fanfic someday.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: [laughs] I started really getting into it about five-six years ago when it was more reliably available on a couple of different sites. And one of the reasons why I love fanfic and why I got into it and why I started to read it considerably more is that it is transformative fandom at its best. It is taking that which exists as a base and not rejecting it. Saying okay this has value, this has power as a modern myth – as something that’s important in society. And going, “But where are the cracks? What is missing?” So fanfic questions normality by saying, “Well yeah here’s all the things that you could read into that. And we only got one path. But we need to see where all these other paths are.” Obviously a lot of fanfic started from Star Trek and started from the idea of people making queer relationships among Star Trek characters, in particular Spock and Kirk from the original series. And it’s always been overwhelmingly queer and overwhelmingly female. And that’s not obviously true about everything and it’s changed a lot now. But it’s one of the reasons why I feel there’s been – and I use this word deliberately – despised. Because it was very queer and very female and that was not within the heteronormative white male sexuality, white male hegemony of culture that was allowed to exist.

Parinita: No, absolutely. And it’s not just then. Even now. I think fanfic has achieved more of a mainstream following, relatively – only if you compare it to how it used to be. I used to read a lot of fanfic when I was a teenager but it was quite niche. Now I think more people know it, but there is still this suspicion of what fanfic actually is. It’s not all sex you know.

Lisa: No.

Parinita: I mean there is sex and that’s also great because that’s also a way of expressing your stories and your interests. But it’s not just that. For example, even in my regular reading, I’m not a person who reads a lot of romance and relationshippy things. That’s not my kind of reading. So if I started reading fanfic, I know that there is a lot for me out there that doesn’t deal with ships and that doesn’t deal with slash.

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: We’ve talked about this in a previous podcast episode about how the majority of fanfic writers are women, and that does play a role in how it is seen by everybody else.

Lisa: Yeah. And the joke is that when a woman writes an homage to a character, it’s called fanfic. And when a man writes it, it’s called pastiche or homage.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Lisa: It’s given some fancy title. “Oh I wrote this response to Shakespeare.” You wrote Shakespeare fanfic dude!

Parinita: Yeah absolutely. Also that does have an effect on the money that people make as well. Men would be much more likely to make money. Like Sherlock, the BBC adaptation, that’s fanfic.

Lisa: Yeah totally.

Parinita: But it got a lot of money and he got a huge platform. Whereas with a woman, even if her fanfic would have been much better than that, she wouldn’t have made as much money or got a similar platform. I mean I love BBC Sherlock.

Lisa: Me too. Oh no it’s fanfic. The new She-Ra cartoon which is a beautiful story about love and joy and friendship and the power of courage and honour and loyalty. But it’s been called fanfic because there’s queer relationships in it. It’s not fanfic! It’s an adaptation. [laughs] You know if a dude did it, you’d call it an adaptation.

Parinita: Yeah absolutely.

Lisa: Fanfic is despised for all the wrong reasons. A lot of fanfic is terrible. There are millions and millions of words of fanfic out there and a lot of it is just awful. And a lot of it is problematic as hell. There’s a lot of consent issues. But some of it is some of the most beautiful writing I’ve ever read in my entire life. Some of it is absolutely brilliant. And it’s an avenue for those who have felt silenced to speak their truth.

Parinita: Yeah, absolutely. Just turning back to representations of female fighters in canon, especially in science fiction and fantasy media, there are a lot of tropes and stereotypes which are over-represented whether it comes to heroes or villains. Are there any specifically that you’re really tired of?

Lisa: Yeah. As I say, there’s this holy trinity of tropes for female fighters which is the cold, ice maiden often usually represented as being kind of like the Brienne of Tarth trope. Although she’s much less of a trope than many others. There’s the willowy femme fatale who kills by stealth and that’s sort of what the Black Widow character can be.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: And I’m using these as references; I’m not saying they specifically are. And then there’s the man but without the male genitalia character. And those seem to be the three that you get all the time. You don’t get a lot of fully-realised women that I would recognise like I have fought that person or I know that person. A lot of my female friends are women warriors. And one of the issues I have with the portrayal of Wonder Woman is that they always talk about oh she’s a warrior for love. And that’s great and I’m really glad that exists but that’s not a very realistic archetype for somebody who’s taken up warrior as a job description.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: You can be a good person, you can be a moral person, you can be a kind person – you can be all of those things. But this “I’m now going to stop in the middle of a fight and coo over a baby” thing is a way for a dude writer to make a character who is very strong more palatable to weak men.

Parinita: Yeah because this is something that we’d spoken about when we were planning our episode – about Wonder Woman. I was telling you I really liked Wonder Woman, the movie, because for me it was the first time that I’d seen something like that.

Lisa: Yes.

Parinita: Where a woman, especially the scenes on the island in the beginning of the movie.

Lisa: Yeah the Amazons are great.

Parinita: Yeah the Amazons. That made me cry.

Lisa: Me too!

Parinita: Just because of the way that it centered her and women in the story. But then you were saying that apart from the director, the production is mostly male-dominated.

Lisa: Almost the entire creative team were men. The writer was a man, the producers were men. A lot of that movie is extremely male-gazey in the sense that it again centers the man’s perspective of what the Amazons are. And as I said, it makes her very non-threatening to dudes. I love that Wonder Woman exists because I love that women got that experience. Because I know so many women who came out of that feeling empowered for the first time by a movie.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: And that’s freaking awesome, I love that. I did not see myself as a fighting woman anywhere on that movie except on Themyscira. That’s where I saw myself. And then once they left the island, I just saw someone who was being led around the nose by the guys. Wonder Woman did it first, Black Panther did it right. Because the women in Black Panther were fully-realised human beings who were warriors in very different ways.

Parinita: Oh they were so brilliant.

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: I loved them.

Lisa: You got Okoye who’s unequivocally the person who’s in charge, who’s the general. You got Shuri who’s the devil-may-care spunky one. You got the spy character, you’ve got the queen mother. You’ve got all these really diverse female characters who were all treated as specific individuals with specific needs and wants and desires and personality traits that included being warriors but were not about being warriors.

The women in Black Panther. Image courtesy Feminism in India

Parinita: So in one of the podcast episodes we listened to, the Imaginary Worlds Heroines one, they spoke about another trope that they’ve come across which is essentially where the woman warrior, the strong female fighter, she’s the exception.

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: So she’s counter to the norm where she’s not like the other girls. She’s the only woman in a very male-dominated field. And last weekend, after our meeting, I watched Rogue One. And I loved Rogue One just because to me, as someone who’s discovered Star Wars as an adult quite recently – or not discovered I guess, I knew about it. You can’t be on the internet without knowing Star Wars.

Lisa: [laughs] Yeah.

Parinita: I knew everything about it. I knew all the spoilers and everything. But I went back to it just because I thought it’s such a huge part of fandom that I should be aware of the story and everything. So I watched the first six – the original and the prequels. But Rogue One is the first time I think I got really and properly invested in the story and bawled at the end. The way that it impacted me emotionally and the way that I cared about the characters, I really liked the movie. But Jyn who was the woman character – the female fighter – I – I don’t know what her job was. Was she a pilot? I don’t remember. My memory is terrible.

Lisa: Yeah. It’s not really other than someone’s daughter. Her existence in the movie is because she’s someone’s daughter.

Parinita: Oh, that’s right.

Lisa: Yeah, she exists in the movie as a reflection of a man.

Parinita: And also, I feel like in terms of personality as well that everyone else there, all the men seem to have other things going on and seem to be more fleshed out. Whereas she was more like … she’s only there to be this badass fighter. And then what? There were no other women. I think there was one woman – a pilot. There’s just room for one.

Lisa: Yeah. There are a couple of women. There’s some women in the council scene. And someone joked that, “I think we just saw more black women in Star Wars than we’ve ever seen in any other movie.”

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: And they were all in the background of that scene.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: And yeah, it was true. Right until The Last Jedi, it was the most diverse movie. I like it too. I walked out of that movie going that was a proper Star Wars film. Because it was very much a feel of a space Western. But yeah, it’s like she’s the exception. That’s one of the other tropes that gets mixed in with all the others is that the woman warrior is a freak, an exception. She’s not like anybody else, she’s the lone figure. Someone joked that it was like well what do we have in the Avengers? We got the archer and the soldier and the scientist and the god and the girl one. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah essentially. Just you saying that, it makes me think of something like She-Ra for example where it’s not just one fighter. She-Ra is the best fighter I think amongst all of them. But when they’re fighting, usually they’re much better as a team. A team of the girls or Bow and it’s done in way where they are leaning on each other and where the group is centered over the individual. And because most of the characters are women, it almost seems to be pushing back against that trope a little bit.

Lisa: Yeah. There’s a diversity not simply in the races and the body types and the sexualities but also in the way that each one of them contributes to the revolution. This is not really spoilers, but at one point, someone asks Adora for emotional advice. Her response is, “Well I’m really more of the punch out your feelings types.”

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Lisa: And I’m like yay that I identify with! [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah, absolutely. You’re so right that there’s room for all these different kinds of characters and all these different kinds of fighters as well.

Lisa: Which men are allowed.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: The male characters are allowed to have the rogue character, the sneaky character, the scientist character, the smart character, the tank character, the kind of calm, cool leader. But the women get the one. So she’s either this one or this one or this one. We can’t possibly have more than one of those.

Parinita: That’s why what I really love about She-Ra is that being a woman in that world is a default. Because I think most of the people that we see are women.

Lisa: Oh yeah.

Parinita: There’s one non-binary character and there are I think a handful of men.

Lisa: There’s Bow and Sea Hawk and some secondary characters. Like Hordak.

Parinita: Hordak, yeah. So it’s not only like queerness is the default but also just being female is the default.

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: Which just brings up so many different ways of storytelling.

Lisa: Oh Bow’s dads! Bow’s dads.

Parinita: Oh yeah Bow’s dads as well.

Lisa: I thought it was really interesting that the vast majority of the online outrage about that show was centered on the fact that the female characters now all looked like actual living beings as opposed to dolls. But nobody seemed to really be freaked out that they made Bow black.

Parinita: Oh! I don’t have any experience with the original She-Ra so I didn’t know he was not black.

Lisa: Yeah in the original She-Ra he’s a white guy. And in the original She-Ra, every single character, all of the women characters looked exactly the same.

Parinita: Right.

Lisa: They just have different colour schemes and different gimmicks because they’re not designed as humans, they’re designed as toys to sell toys to girls, right?

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: And so there’s this huge outrage, there’s still grown adult men angry at a children’s cartoon because they don’t feel that the female characters are sufficiently sexual.

Parinita: And even though they’re what … like fourteen? Thirteen? I don’t know – they’re – they’re teenagers. [laughs] All of them.

Lisa: Yeah. Teenagers. Some of them are seemingly a bit older but barely legal.

Parinita: Yeah. Like you were saying with Wonder Woman, maybe it wasn’t perfect, but for a lot of people that was their first feeling of being empowered. And I know that the original She-Ra was that for a lot of kids and adult women at that time. But now I’m so glad that this She-Ra is so much more diverse.

Lisa: Yes.

Parinita: And so much more explicitly feminist and queer than I think the original She-Ra could be possibly given the industry and the world at that time.

Lisa: [laughs] Swift Wind is basically an angry socialist.

Parinita: [laughs] You’re right! I love Swift Wind!

Lisa: Yeah he basically is just yelling about horse rights. And I love that as soon as he got to speak he was like a complete jerk. And I love it. I love the fact that you made the horse an angry socialist basically.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah. So based on popular SFF [science fiction and fantasy] out there, or even in your favourite stories, what do you think makes for a really bad fight scene? Because I know you’ve analysed a lot of comics and movies and TV shows and novels. Or what makes for a good fight scene even, based on what you’ve seen.

Lisa: It’s funny I actually do panels at conventions about this.

Parinita: Oh!

Lisa: I started a panel at our local convention called How To Write A Fight Scene If You Don’t Know How To Fight.

Parinita: Amazing!

Lisa: I feel like the worst kinds of fight scenes are the ones where the author is obsessed with letting you know how much they know about fighting.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: But the problem also is that usually it’s someone who doesn’t actually know how to fight. But they’ve watched a movie or they’ve watched an online video or they’ve read a book or something. “Oh I took strip mall karate fifteen years ago so I know how to punch.” Any fight scene where I’m confused about the physics in the room – like physically how could you possibly have done that thing that you just described? – is the kind of fight scene I’m talking about. Because at that point I’m no longer reading a book, I’m getting out a piece of paper and trying to chart where everybody is in the room. Like okay how could you possibly have done that? And I don’t mean confusing because fights are often extremely confusing.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: A proper fight is very quick, it is very chaotic, luck factors into it a lot more than people like to think. [laughs] I’ve been in the middle of fighting in my gym in the safest environment you can possibly think, and my foot slips and I lose the fight because there’s sweat on the ground.

Parinita: Oh yeah you wouldn’t think about these things unless of course you were a fighter yourself.

Lisa: Yeah. A good fight scene can have multiple different points. And as I’ve joked, in movies, never let reality get in the way of a good fight scene.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: Because there’s times when you’re just like this is ridiculous but whatever. It looks beautiful. So leave it. Right?

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: Most superhero fights are like, “This is ludicrous but it looks beautiful.” Which is why the ones that are extremely centered in reality impact people so much. Because of the recognition that oh this would work in real life. You could actually have these powers and make them work in real life. And without having to do like six-foot kick flips. [laughs] A fight scene should either move forward character, move forward plot, or both. Or be extremely beautiful. Or have a specific impact on a specific point of that character’s needs. And so I like fight scenes that are very visceral where you can smell and taste it ’cause when I fight, I’m tasting sweat. I’m occasionally tasting blood. I know what it feels like when you scrape a piece of fabric across somebody’s face. I know what it feels like to have that scraped across my face. I know what it feels like to have a deep cut and not know until the fight is over. I do a wrestling art called jujutsu and you wear a white gi in that. You can wear coloured gis, but I often wear a white gi. And I’ve looked down at myself after a fight and literally the front of that gi is red because I’ve cut my lip and not realised it.

Parinita: So you know how in some fight scenes you see that even when a person is what the audience would think would be grievously injured, they’re still up and fighting?

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: Would that be realistic then? Because of the adrenaline or whatever?

Lisa: Okay yeah, humans are a lot harder to kill than people think.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: They’re a lot easier to injure and a lot harder to kill. So John Wick is dead like halfway through the first fight scene in the first movie.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: John Wick is dead. But John Wick’s not human, he’s a superhero. I’ve actually seen a theory – I can’t get into it here because it’s long– but someone’s theory is that the entire John Wick universe is based on the faerie universe. That they’re all fae.

Parinita Oh!

Lisa: And it’s a beautiful tongue-in-cheek breakdown of why certain things never seem to hurt them. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Amazing.

Lisa: So when you got superheroes fighting, it’s fine. I’m going to accept that you can suck up that damage because you’re a superhero, whatever. John Wick is not an action movie series. It’s a series of horror movies. Where John Wick is the unstoppable killer but he just happens to be the guy you’re rooting for.

Parinita: [laughs] Because they killed his dog.

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: That’s the movie, right? I haven’t watched it.

Lisa: Yeah, exactly. So the John Wick movies are horror movies where the unstoppable bad guy is the guy you’re rooting for.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: You’re rooting for Jason, you’re rooting for Mike Myers.

Parinita: I mean I would root for anybody who’s defending the dogs.

Lisa: It’s a brilliant conceit.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: Because see the instant they kill his dog, anything he does to them is now okay. As soon as they kill his dog, he has now free rein to do anything he likes to any of these people.

Parinita: That’s true.

Lisa: Right? So superhero movies are different, it’s fine. I can accept the amount of damage – though I do like the fact that in particularly the MCU, the Marvel movies, the superheroes get progressively more tired and more sloppy as battles go on. Like by the end of the first battle in The Avengers, Captain America is wrecked.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: [laughs] Like he can barely stand. But he’s getting up and fighting. Thor is wrecked. These people are not well by the end of that first movie. Just to quickly go back to just the intersection of really great fighting and something that’s very particularly cinematic is there’s a fight in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – I think Season 4 – Season 5 – where Quake faces off against the big bad guy which was played by Brett Dalton where he turns into an alien villain. And there’s a fight between the two of them that utilises their specific superpowers as they fight. That is one of the best fights I’ve ever seen. Because she has shockwave abilities so she’s using the shockwaves to dodge punches. It’s one of the best fights I’ve ever seen that utilises the intersection between superpowers in real life and actual fighting. Because both of those actors and their stunt doubles are very good. They’ve put in the work. They’re very good fighters and they do very good work. But it was one of the best choreographed fight scenes I’d ever seen. Same way in my blog, I have a description of the Daredevil Season 3 episode which is an intersection of superpowers and physical fighting. It’s one between him and Bullseye in the office where they actually paid attention to what his superpowers were and how it would be affected by his environment.

Parinita: Daredevil is blind right?

Lisa: He’s blind but he has super senses. So smell, touch, taste, balance – which is important.

Parinita: Right.

Lisa: I want people to read the blog posts on my 30 Seconds of Wick blog but there’s the intersection of when you’re fighting in a specific environment and these are your specific skillsets, this is what might happen. And I have nothing but respect for that because it shows a deep, honest and abiding love and respect for the medium but also for the character. And that’s to me a great fight scene, particularly in a visual medium, to show respect for the abilities of the characters. Atomic Blonde just to give another visual reference. So Atomic Blonde was the Charlize Theron movie set in the 60s I believe or 70s, maybe 80s. It’s set in the past in Berlin and she’s the super spy. And there’s an absolutely brilliantly brutal five-ten-minute-long fight at the end. Where she’s just going up and down stairs and hurting this non-combatant in front of her and she’s fighting multiple guys and they’re using their environment and all that. And it was choreographed by Sam Hargrave and his brother who were Captain America’s stunt doubles. I avoid a lot of behind-the-scenes talk about fight scenes until I’ve actually seen the scenes. But one thing they talked about is they wanted to choreograph her as not only becoming progressively more tired and beaten up but having to hit a guy three times for every one punch that he threw. I looked at that and went okay that’s someone who understands. I’m a big, strong woman but I am not physically as strong as a dude my size. I have skill behind me and I have intelligence and I’m very strong so I’m probably stronger than most guys my size ’cause I’ve worked at it and most people don’t, right? But they said, “Yeah, we wanted to show that she had to hit three or four times to have the same impact that one hit that these guys – these big, very big men would have.” And that’s realistic. That’s actually respectful of the character, that’s respectful of the environment, it’s intelligent, it means she has to fight smart. Strongest is not important; stronger is not important. Strong enough is what matters.

Parinita: And that’s such a good point because like you said that perhaps you would be able to defeat a person –  a guy who’s not trained, who’s not fighting, who’s the same size as you. But somebody who has the same amount of training, at that point, it is about just I don’t want to say innate strength, I don’t know if that’s true or not. But male strength versus female strength.

Lisa: Well, yeah. There’s a line in Italian sword fighting which is, “Never underestimate the strength or malice of your opponent.” Because in a fight it is the stronger or more malicious fighter who will win.

Parinita: Oh no. [laughs] That’s a bit alarming.

Lisa: I may not be the strongest person of the room but I guarantee I’ll beat you on malice buddy. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] So until you highlighted this theme of women warriors, I hadn’t really consciously even thought about it. Now that I think back on it, I’m enjoying a lot of media that does have women fighters. But it’s not something I thought about while reading or watching these stories. But while planning our episode, I started thinking about these different kinds of fighters in my favourite SFF and how the fighting scene differs based on either the physical skill of the person or the magical prowess or just the technological access that the woman has. And this includes women fighters of different bodies and abilities as well.

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: So some of my favourite women fighters in comics and graphic novels have been Ms. Marvel, and Squirrel Girl. And I don’t know if you’re familiar with The Dragon Prince at all, it’s a Netflix TV show, it’s by the same people who’ve made Avatar: The Last Airbender. Which again, even in that, there’s a different kind of fighting, it’s something called bending. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that.

Lisa: I am familiar with Avatar. Dragon Prince I haven’t watched. But I’m familiar with a lot of the Avatar stuff because it is brought up as being a very diverse and interesting method of doing combat in animation. And I do respect it.

Parinita: Yeah. And their gender doesn’t seem to play any role in what you’re good at or what you’re bad at.

Lisa: It’s force multiplication. Magic is a form of force multiplication in the same way that a gun or a sword or a stick or an arrow is. When you take the purest level of base physical strength out of something, by allowing a character to have the ability to multiply their force, you remove the gender issue. Or you limit the gender issue. A lot of what I do – the way that we train, because my school, as I said, is very street oriented – it’s very based on reality. After six months, after you have mastered the basics, you are no longer training to fight a random drunk jerk on the street. You’re now training to fight someone who knows how to fight.

Parinita: Hmm.

Lisa: Because you’re training to be able to be smarter and use force multiplication. And as I said, the steps are always run away. If you can’t run away, pick up a weapon. If you can’t pick up a weapon, hit first, hit hard and then run away. [laughs] So it’s like magic and all of these things is often force multiplication. It’s one of the reasons why I think, no matter what the gender is, a lot of magic users are often portrayed as being scrawny or small or weedy. Because they need that force multiplication. And in a non-ballistic society, where you don’t have guns, that’s magic.

Parinita: Apart from Mockingbird, do you have any other favourite female fighters that you’ve come across recently?

Lisa: Well not recently but obviously I do love Xena very much.

Parinita: Oh yeah.

Lisa: She’s a favourite of mine. In media, I love the way Peggy Carter has always been portrayed. Because she’s both been portrayed as very physical and very intelligent about it. I loved the way that Captain Marvel was portrayed in the movie.

Parinita: Yeah, me too.

Lisa: I particularly loved the fact – spoilers – but I loved the fact that she basically drives off an alien fleet by flexing.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lisa: Because that was smart. She demonstrated, “I am very powerful. Are you going to come at me? Okay, good. We’re fine. I’m not going to come after you.” [laughs] It was a demonstration of, “I have this power. Do you want me to use it? Because if you do, I’m not going to stop. Okay, good, fine.” Bernard Cornwell’s the Sharpe series had the problem with the character that she’s very much the exception girl. But they portrayed the Spanish Resistance during the Peninsular war as having a lot of women. And having a lot of women who rode to battle with swords and guns and fought and were great shots and stuff like that. So there’s a female character there. She does get fridged. Spoiler alert for a series that’s been out for forty years – thirty years. [laughs] In fiction, Lois McMaster Bujold writes a lot of great characters and a lot of great women warriors of different kinds. Not necessarily women who can fight but women who understand what they can do to stop a fight or help. Warrior as a mindset is obviously ungendered and it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to be able to fight. You can be a warrior and have no fighting skills. Because you never got trained with them. Women have always fought. I linked you to the Kameron Hurley text We Have Always Fought. Women have always fought. But it’s always been a struggle to even get the training to be able to effectively do that at all. Because we were outlawed and excommunicated and executed and imprisoned and tortured. And we had to go underground, we had to pretend to be men, and we couldn’t even get the training. Legally women weren’t even allowed to touch weapons in many societies.

Parinita: And that has such an impact, right, on the sort of stories that we’re even telling now. If that history even though it exists but it’s completely been erased – well, not completely, I know a lot of people do know about this history. But in terms of mainstream imaginations, the history of women fighters isn’t really very well-known. Which is why you get all these tropes and stereotypes. And the fact that you have to say woman warrior. You can’t say warrior and imagine a woman as much as you would imagine a man.

Lisa: Yeah. It’s like the recent discovery – the recent final proof that those people buried with warrior and general grave goods in Viking graves were women. Well, the chronicles of the time always said that those were women. But the male historians who wrote about them were like, “Oh it’s an allegory!” [laughs] “They can’t possibly have women fighters.”

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah. And in one of the Breaking The Glass Slipper episodes, they spoke about the history of female pirates as fighters as well as samurai fighters in Japan where there were some women there as well. But when we talk about this or even when we represent it in media, in cartoons or whatever, you don’t really represent women as fighting. Or if you do, they would be very much the exception to the norm.

Lisa: Yes and usually it would be the noblewomen, which would be in many cases a little bit more historically accurate because in many cases it would be the noblewomen who would have the social, political and financial cred to be able to demand to do this unorthodox thing. You wouldn’t train women to fight. We get into this whole problem with the gender binary and all that and what people’s roles in societies are. Which is that women are supposed to bleed in child-bed and men bled on the battlefield. It’s the line a lot of men’s rights guys use. That’s again reducing women down to biological determinism and saying, well you have one purpose, you’re not allowed to do anything else. But what if I don’t want children?

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: Which in modern society is more common. What if I can’t have children? What if my children die? Like Boudica being the great example. She was not allowed to be a mythic warrior figure until her children were dead. That’s your only purpose – first, you’re a mother. And of course, in the end, she gets punished by dying. Women warriors in fictional history had two paths. You could eventually give up everything – give up your abilities to marry a dude and become a mother like you’re “supposed” to. Or you could be punished for it like Joan of Arc. In a lot of Western Christian allegory, you could take up arms but only if you then became a priestess afterwards. Or became a mother or died.

Parinita: Yeah suitably punished. You could do it for god and then you could go away. [laughs]

Lisa: But even then, you had to be sacrificed at the end. You couldn’t actually continue with agency. You were not allowed to have agency. You could do a specific thing for a specific reason. But as long as your agency to continue to be somebody who was not what society wanted to be was relinquished. Or you were punished for not relinquishing it. Those were really the only paths that you could have.

Parinita: So I know a couple of the people on the Breaking The Glass Slipper episode as well as the We Have Always Fought article, said that this history isn’t known so we don’t feel as well educated about this.

Lisa: Yes.

Parinita: For example, in Indian history, we do have Rani Lakshmibai who was one of the first resistance fighters in the revolt against the British Empire way back in 1857 in India. And of course, it was all defeated because then there was another hundred years of that. But she is very much a part of our history. And we have some other women’s tales. But they are still the exceptions. They are glorified because they’re so rare. We’re lucky that even those few exist – so we have that capacity to imagine them. But it’s not like, “Oh yeah they could do it just as well as men could do it.”

Lisa: We get the problem with if it’s commonplace, people don’t write about it because this is society – this is the way it’s always been and so why would we mention this? And those coming in from the outside either don’t see it or deliberately erase it because, “Oh that’s weird. Women don’t fight so let’s just pretend that we don’t see those women in armour over there.” Or it’s the extreme outliers that you see like oh there’s this woman who did this, this woman who did this. But it’s always like oh yeah, she was the queen and she died at the end or she defended the castle because her husband wasn’t there. But never really acknowledging that they were doing the same roles that a man would do but they were doing it for motherly reasons or whatever. It’s actually funny – Rani Lakshmi – is that the name of the –

Parinita: Yeah. Rani Lakshmibai.

Lisa: She shows up as a character in the Civilization video game. You can recruit her as a general. I love that. [laughs]

Parinita: So something I told you while we were prepping for this, is the Rejected Princesses blog.

Lisa: Yeah great book, yeah.

Parinita: Yeah a lot of his stories are also available online. But the book Rejected Princesses as well as Tough Mothers is just fantastic. Because first of all, even though he is a straight white dude living in the US, he takes a more international view.

Lisa: Yes.

Parinita: So he’s trying to include more voices and histories in his books. It is more international and it’s also centered on women. And like you were saying earlier, it’s different kinds of fighting. So there are some who go out into the battlefield. But then there were others who because of historical, social, political circumstances, they have to be strategists rather than you know actual physical warriors which was also really important.

Lisa: Yeah you had to wield the power that you were allowed to wield. Like Melisende of Jerusalem, one of the queens of Jerusalem who was queen in her own right, who was her father’s heir had to marry a warrior because she was legally not allowed to lead men into battle even though she had the ability. But she is acknowledged in all of history as being this incredibly powerful female queen who defended Jerusalem and defended her lover and her sisters and everything. And probably killed multiple people by her own hand. But no one’s ever heard of her.

Parinita: The internet has played a huge role to be able to have those voices that were silenced earlier for a lot of different reasons. Now there is more room for these voices to not only say these things that were erased in history, but also there’s an audience that listens to and then shares these stories. And makes that a part of like the stories that everyone has access to.

Lisa: And the people doing the research into the history have changed. It’s not all just straight white dudes, right?

Parinita: Um hmm.

Lisa: So if I was going to go back to school and take up military history, I would not be looking at the history of straight white dudes in battle. I’d be looking for the outliers because I’m interested in that. I’m not interested in talking about straight white dudes in battle. I’m interested in looking for, “Oh were there women? Was this a thing? How much of it was class?”

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: How much of the women warriors got to be that way because they had the financial, social status to be able to be an outlier? To be a freak?

Parinita: Absolutely.

Lisa: And how much of it is simply the fact that you just didn’t talk about the everyday lives of people. So you didn’t talk about the ones who were there. Kara Cooney, who is an Egyptologist, just wrote a great book When Women Ruled The World. It’s about female pharaohs who were leaders and most of them weren’t ever qualified to lead men into battle. So they had to wield military power at a distance – at a remove. But they were genuine rulers. And that’s a kind of war.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: To rule a nation like Egypt is a kind of warfare.

Parinita: No, I remember there was one female pharaoh. I don’t remember the name. It’s a story I came across in a museum exhibit. And I loved it so much – I mean not what happened. But essentially what happened was like she was this excellent ruler – she was this great pharaoh But then the person who came after her hated that she was this powerful, popular ruler. And hated that she was a woman. So he went and erased her out of all the tablets and all the art.

Lisa: That’s Hatshepsut.

Parinita: Oh yeah.

Lisa: And the interesting thing is that may not actually be fully true.

Parinita: Oh really?

Lisa: Yeah Kara Cooney has done an entire book just about Hatshepsut. And she’s done one about all the female pharaohs –  there were five or six very prominent female pharaohs that we don’t know about. She was only one of them. And there’s some evidence that maybe he wasn’t the one who did that.

Parinita: Ohhh okay.

Lisa: It might have been a later pharaoh. In Egyptian history, there’s the pharaoh Akhenaten, the heretic, the one who took them from the polytheistic deities to a monotheistic deity – the sun god.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: And he was the one who was married to Nefertiti, famously the most beautiful woman who ever lived. And suddenly Nefertiti disappears from the records. But all of a sudden, as soon as she disappears from the records, this male “co-king” shows up.

Parinita: Hmm.

Lisa: And there’s a lot of evidence now that that was actually Nefertiti renamed. Because Akhenaten was losing his ability to rule. And they needed a continuance. Somebody who could continue the administration of the empire and rebuild the temple system back up. But they didn’t just want to overthrow the dynasty. So it’s really interesting new history that’s being seen.

Parinita: That’s exactly what I love. How much ever true or not it was, new details will come out and you can’t erase this out of history. That even now the stories that we don’t yet know about – and obviously there’ll be countless that have completely been lost to history.

Lisa: Yes.

Parinita: Just because we don’t have any documentation. But because of the kind of researchers that there are now and the kind of stories that they’re looking for and are interested in, you do have these stories that were erased coming back to light. And even the debates and the nuances and the complexities that are being explored. But yeah, I love that. I think they’re doing a lot of that in religious history as well. Where we have a very specific idea of what happened in religion. I know more because of the podcasts that we listened to which was looking at Christianity and the role that women played in early Christian history.

Lisa: Yes.

Parinita: Like not in the bible but –

Lisa: As scholars and keepers of knowledge.

Parinita: Yeah. And artists and nuns and whatever whose stories have been completely erased as well. But in the patriarchal society of the time, they were still finding a way to not just get married and have children and die.

Lisa: And in many cases that was the only other option. You went into holy orders. And that was the only way you could get an education in many cases.

Parinita: Yeah exactly. I like what somebody on the podcast called as “alternate patriarchies”.

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: She said that it gives her hope that these ideas are not set in stone. That there were women who were finding workarounds around these established ideas. And now that we have different established – well similar established ideas but in a different format – there will still be another way to live and thrive as a woman.

Lisa: Yeah one of the interesting things is I look back once in a while and try and find records as to any statistical differences between women who lead in combat and men who lead in combat. And you can’t find any records because no one ever kept them.

Parinita: Ah of course.

Lisa: And it’s only until recently that we have women who are combat leaders. And the general emotion I’ve seen is that – and forgive me for being a little bit crude here – but most women war leaders are less likely to get their men killed because they want to prove how big their dicks are. And that’s a very dismissive and reductive way to look at it. I mean that in specific because women are not as bound by the patriarchy and these patriarchal assumptions of power and glory and status, they’re more able to look at something rationally and unemotionally. Like the people who think oh women are very emotional, have you seen a guy whose favourite sports team is losing? Then tell me they’re not emotional.

Parinita: Can you see Donald Trump?

Lisa: Oh go look at any dude who is panicking because you asked him to wear a mask so that people don’t die. Like come on! And people talk about, “Oh testosterone gives you strength, it gives you aggression.” And I’m like okay yeah you’re right. But aggression is also a learned trait. Okay aggression does come from hormones. But aggression is also a learned trait. You can learn to be aggressive. You can teach yourself to be aggressive. And my aggression as somebody who does not have the same base testosterone, it is better than hormonal aggression. Because my aggression is not mindless.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: When I move forward in combat, and again in my gym, I was always renowned as the person who would move into bigger guys. Because my skill was not to snipe at somebody from a distance, it was to get in and hit hard in specific places. My aggression is chosen, my aggression is calm. Aggression does not mean raving madness or anger. Aggression is simply where I am moving into a situation where a bad thing can happen because I am in control of that situation. So my aggression as a woman fighter, as somebody who is capable of going, “Okay I’m not just angry that you made me look bad because now my manhood is in danger” is superior. Because it is not bound by my emotional state.

Parinita: I absolutely agree. While we’re talking about women warriors, I do think there needs to be more of perhaps an intersectional analysis in terms of inclusion and representation. So not just cis, white able-bodied women but fighters of diverse ages, races, abilities, religions, sexual and gender identities. There are now more women fighters being represented in media. More than there used to be, still not enough.

Lisa: Yes.

Parinita: But I think with these other intersectional identities, there’s so much fewer representations of that.

Lisa: Yeah. And there are a lot of issues with the representation of race and warrior women. There are a lot of issues there that need to be dealt with in an intersectional manner. And aggression in warrior women and sexuality. One of the reasons why I maintain some of the secondary characteristics of overt femininity like long hair is that when I did have short hair, I was assumed to be of a certain sexuality. Which is fabulous because all sexualities are wonderful. As long as consent is involved, great. But I’m not.

Parinita: Hmm.

Lisa: And that is something that’s very difficult. It’s one of the reasons why I don’t date because I tend to attract either people who want to dominate me or want to be dominated and I’m not interested in either one of those. I’m not interested in beating you up, I’m not interested in seeing if you can beat me up. I’m interested in us sparring together and then going out hanging out and watching a movie. My gender and my sexuality and my being a warrior are all entwined but they’re not dependent on each other, if that makes any sense.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: But there’s huge issues with race around this because of the way that black women and black women warriors are often portrayed. Which is one of the reasons why I loved Black Panther. Because it completely subverted that. Often people who are not white are either portrayed as sneaky or underhanded. Or you get the very flowery beautiful choreography of the Asian martial arts. But it’s seen as being very cold and clinical even though it’s beautiful. and there’s a specific kind of fighting woman there who’s very sad and destined to die.

Dora Milaje from Black Panther

Parinita: Basically exoticised.

Lisa: Yeah, the Orientalist colonial bullshit that you get. And then women of darker skin colours like Latinx women and black women, East Asian women are very often seen as brutish and oh there’s a hulking brute. With this issue, you get so many intersectional problems. You get the intersection of sexuality and gender and race and class and culture – it’s this huge stew. And as someone who is a writer who writes about warrior women, I have to pick out the things that I feel I haven’t not simply the ability but the right to talk about. And I want to see more people who are not using my voice to write about this

Parinita: Hmm.

Lisa: Because there are certain things where I don’t have the right to talk about race in this relationship except in very basic terms. I want more people talking about it because I’m a middle-class white woman, it’s not my place. So we need more voices and more diverse voices. And race is a huge problem in this area. The vast majority of the women you see are thin, middle-class white women. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: One of my problems with the way that we don’t value physical strength in women is that we specifically don’t value it in our actors. And 99% of all the women you see on the screen as “warriors” are 100 pound thin models.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: It’s not realistic, I’m sorry. It just isn’t.

Parinita: So in one of the episodes, the Breaking the Glass Slipper Fight Scenes With Women Warriors one, the guest Juliet McKenna was talking about how in SFF the availability of materials that are around the fighters influenced the fighting styles.

Lisa: Yes.

Parinita: So depending on which country or culture you’re in, you had things such as steel for armour. But then that got me thinking in terms of intersectionality – how materials that exist not just in historical and medieval stories but also in fantasy and science fiction, how science or magic can be used to allow women of different abilities to fight. So looking at accessibility needs and using that. In The Dragon Prince, the fighter, the commander Amaya, she’s deaf. So she uses sign language – ASL to communicate. But she is a fantastic fighter. And in Avatar: The Last Airbender, Toph she’s blind but she’s the best Earthbender there is in that kingdom. I think this is so important especially in stories where you are able to control these things and write these things. Or even like grandmothers or women who are menstruating or women who have a baby and have to figure out how to fight with a baby on their back just in terms of the skills, weapons, clothes, whatever you need.

Gif of Toph from Avatar The Last Airbender Earthbending

Lisa: Yeah. One of the reasons why I train in the Filipino based martial art that I train in is that one of the greatest warriors in this art in my lineage is a 90-year-old woman. Guys that I know – who literally have murdered people with their bare hands when they were being attacked by someone with lethal intent – describe fighting this woman as fighting smoke.

Parinita: Wow.

Lisa: She wasn’t faster or stronger, she was just never there when you hit her.

Parinita: [laughs] I love it.

Lisa: She knew what he was going to do before he did it. So that’s malice and intelligence. That’s experience coupled with skill.

Parinita: Yeah absolutely.

Lisa: And she was a 90-year-old woman, she was barely mobile in many ways. But she was never there when he hit her. Because she just knew how to move.

Parinita: See you don’t imagine a 90-year-old woman when you say warrior, right?

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: These people exist in real life and they definitely should exist in media especially in science fiction and fantasy.

Lisa: I deliberately crippled the lead character of my second novel. I deliberately took away her ability to use one of her arms.

Parinita: Hmm.

Lisa: Because I wanted to show how she would adapt in a world. She essentially does parkour as part of her combat. And if she no longer has use of one arm, how crippled is she? What has to change, what can she do, what can’t she do. And also it’s a society that uses sign language as a primary communication because anyone below noble status has to cover their face. So to emphasise words, you can’t use facial expressions, you have to use hands.

Parinita: Oh that’s really interesting. And also how then if she has acquired this disability, how that affects her fighting as well.

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: If you’re used to one and have to then get used to another, that’s also a really interesting.

Lisa: And the need to conceal it so because she can’t appear weak.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: And a whole bunch of other things. I am more interested in the limitations and how to work around them. It’s one of the reasons why I find the deity level characters in a lot of books and media to be boring. Because if you have that power, why isn’t the end of every fight, “And then I punched him into the moon.”

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Lisa: You know? And I don’t care. You’re boring. You have no limitations on you? Who cares? “Oh this guy is going to commit genocide. Oh I have to talk to him first.” He’s going to commit genocide! Kill him.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: [laughs]

Parinita: But this is one of the many reasons I love Squirrel Girl. Because canonically, she is supposed to be an amazing fighter. I think she could punch people to the moon [laughs] if I’m not wrong.

Lisa: Yeah.

Parinita: I mean she’s just really strong. But because of the kind of person that she is, she really wants to befriend people and always wants to give people the benefit of doubt and tries to get them to change their mind. And if they don’t, then she goes and punches them to the moon or whatever the equivalent is.

Lisa: And that’s a great character. That’s just a person that’s a well-rounded character who happens to be a woman who happens to be a fighter.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: You can’t just give people one trait, you have to give them more traits, right?

Parinita: Absolutely. And she’s also sort of living up to your trainer’s thing in a way where she doesn’t run away but she does the verbal equivalent.

Lisa: Yeah!

Parinita: She does fight. First, she tries to do another thing and then if she’s left with no other option, she fights.

Lisa: Yeah. One of the characters I’ve always loved for many, many years has been Steve Rogers – Captain America.

Parinita: Uh huh.

Lisa: And one of the reasons I love him is the very first comic I ever read with him in it was an Avengers comic where they’re fighting essentially a goddess. And he ends the fight by realising that she’s in mourning for her dead husband. And all he does is walk up to her. He offers her no violence and says I’m so sorry for your loss.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: And he essentially ends the fight simply by expressing love and compassion for a being in pain. And I’m like that’s a hero. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah absolutely. I agree.

Lisa: A lot of the characters that I’m going to name, that I could name are characters that are in visual media like you know Buffy, most of the MCU women and stuff like that. But there’s a lot of science fiction and fantasy out there that deals with these subjects very well. So I would just suggest to read very widely. But just in a comment about things that matter and how important representation is, do you know the movie Logan? The last Wolverine movie?

Parinita: Yeah.

Lisa: So X-23 Laura Kinney that character, I scared the people that I was in the theatre with when I saw that movie ’cause at the final fight when she charges into battle to fight next to her father, I was doubled over weeping. And people were asking me afterwards why was I crying so hard. I said because if I’d seen that movie when I was twelve, literally it would have changed my life. Because that was the first time I’d ever seen a female character, a young girl who was not sweet, who was not nice, who was a vicious, brutal warrior. But who was not immoral or feral or an animalistic character other than in her ability to fight. Who actually had purpose and meaning. If I had seen that at twelve, I would have been a different human being. And that’s why representation matters. It’s because I want every single person to look out at this world that we see and look at fiction and see themselves in some way. And I write and I create and I support creators who speak in diverse voices because I want to be able to see the woman warrior that I want to be, that I never saw as a child.

Laura Kinney from Logan

Laura Kinney from Logan

Parinita: That’s amazing. That totally sums up why representation and diverse representation is so important. And I’m glad you’re creating your own pockets of diversity in your own stories. I’m so happy about that. Thank you so much for coming onto this podcast and chatting with me about your experiences. I learned so much. I always say this to participants and it’s always true. [laughs] It’s become my stock line. But I appreciate it very much. Thank you so much Lisa.

Lisa: Thank you for having me. I’m incredibly honoured and it’s a great podcast. I’ve listened to all your back issues and they’re wonderful. So please if you need anything else from me, I’m always available to you.

Parinita: Thank you!

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode on representations of women fighters in media and history. I’m currently reading two brilliantly fun anthologies which feature female warriors in mainstream comics – Marvel: Powers of a Girl and DC: Women of Action. Who are some of your favourite women and nonbinary fighters in media? As always, I’m always looking to expand my list. Thanks so much Lisa for such a fun and illuminating conversation! And thank you Jack for fighting the editing monster so I don’t have to.

[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.

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

Episode 6 Different Bodies and Different Brains: Depictions of Disability and Ageism in Media

Episode Resources: 

For this episode we looked at the following texts:

DISABILITY:

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

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

Video – The Gayly Prophet Disability in the Witching World

Essay – J. K. Rowling Illness and Disability

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

Article – Harry Potter and the Curse of Disability

AGE: 

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

Fan podcast – Woke Doctor Who The Women Who Waited

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

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

Episode Transcript: 

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

 

Illustrations of an old person on a flying broom modified as a wheelchair

Image via Tumblr: milkystreet on Harry Potter Disability Headcanons

[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]

You’re listening to the sixth episode of Marginally Fannish. This time, I chat with Sanjana and Aparna about ableism and ageism in media. As fans from dominant groups in both instances (we’re young, able-bodied, and neurotypical), the three of us have massive blind-spots. But we’re trying to educate ourselves, and we’ve learned a lot about disability and age-based discrimination through fandom discussions. We love that fans do such an incredible job in raising awareness about so many issues!

Some of the things that we discuss in this episode include:

  • How disability is equated with villainy in fictional universes
  • The ableist and exaggerated representations of disability in stories which often reflect harmful tropes
  • The problematic impacts of “fixing” disabilities in science fiction and fantasy worlds by using technology or magic
  • Some of our favourite characters with disabilities
  • The social model of disability and how both fictional worlds like Hogwarts and the TARDIS as well as the real world need more accommodations to make them more accessible to all kinds of people
  • The parallels between the disabled community and other marginalised cultures, especially ableism and ageism
  • How older characters in Bollywood are used as comic relief
  • Our favourite older characters in media
  • The trouble with media and culture valuing youth, particularly at the cost of older women
  • Ageism in children’s literature and in fandom.

In our What If? sections, we wonder what the experiences of an elderly Hogwarts student would look like. We also age-flip characters to imagine what a young Minerva McGonagall would represent, how fun a hundred-year-old Aang would be, and what would happen if Grandma took some muffins to little Red Riding Hood instead? (We also accidentally discover our calling as Red Riding Hood fanfic writers).

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: Hi, my name is Parinita.

Aparna: I’m Aparna.

Sanjana: And I’m Sanjana. And today we are here to discuss the depiction and the lack of depiction where disability and age are concerned in some of our favourite shows and books. And at the onset, we would like to acknowledge that we probably have huge blind-spots since none of us have any personal experiences with respect to either of the two topics. For example, until I heard Marissa Lingen talk on Breaking The Glass Slipper, I didn’t realise how problematic some of the portrayals were because I was taking it as my only – that this is how it probably goes. But as someone who doesn’t have any direct experience, I realised how important it is for us to have it right in popular media. And we’re going to talk about it a little more But this was one of the main things that came across to me that it was something that didn’t even strike me. And I think that’s a huge blind-spot right there.

Aparna: So I also realised that I was very out of my depth as far as talking about this is concerned. Mostly when people started describing how they saw, for example, autistic characters in the way Hermione is, they saw a form of autism or the way Luna is. And I realised that was completely lost on me. And that’s when I realised that there would be a big gap in my understanding of representation right away.

Parinita: I mean in this case, the thing is that all three of us are very much a part of the dominant group, right?

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Where we’re learning about the lives and experiences of groups who are marginalised in culture. So the last time when we spoke, we were the ones on the other side. Whereas here, we’re able-bodied, no diagnosed mental illness. And all three of us are young enough that the media still offers characters who tell our stories.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: But we’re old enough that our thoughts and opinions aren’t dismissed. So we’re not really young women either.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: And I was thinking, when I was reading about disability, that it’s something that I’d encountered when I was a children’s bookseller in Mumbai. Where if I recommended a book which has a character with a visible disability on the cover, a couple of parents – not everybody – but a couple of parents instantly dismissed that book because their child doesn’t have a disability.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: So presumably their child doesn’t want to read about a character who has a disability. Which is obviously ridiculous because first of all, reading about diverse experiences which don’t mirror your own is great. And secondly, just because a character is disabled, that’s not their only personality trait.

Aparna: Exactly!

Parinita: Right? The story can be about so many other things. But then that made me wonder, now especially, how much I’ve gone out of my way to look for characters with disabilities to expand the diversity of my reading. And really, not much – shamefully. It’s not that I’m doing it purposely. It’s not that I’m thinking that I won’t connect with this character because they are disabled, either physically or mentally. It’s just it doesn’t occur to me. Like you said, Sana, it’s totally a blind-spot.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: And with age as well, I love the inclusion of all kinds of diversity. So I really appreciate it in the media that I see. Even with age, we’ve spoken about this before with Doctor Who just having more age groups on the show. But again, I’m not going out of my way to read these things. Whereas last year, I think I just started reading fantasy that was written by women. And it just started off unconsciously and then I realised I really liked these types of books.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: These books that are written just by women and centre women’s experiences in different ways. And now I feel like I need to do another reading experiment which fills in a bit of these blind-spots, these missing gaps.

Sanjana: Yeah, absolutely. Like you’re saying with parents looking at a book and dismissing it because it had a disabled character in it, this was a conversation that happened in our house only where somebody gave us some game. And I have a two-year-old so it was a spotting game. One of the people playing the game on the cover was a person in a wheelchair. And my mum looked at it and said, “Why do they need to show someone in a wheelchair?” And both of us said, “Why not? Why shouldn’t there be someone on a wheelchair?” And it was so easy to explain it to a two-year-old and it isn’t even that important, that daily a part of our lives. And just that much small representation in things makes a difference.

Parinita: And just normalizing it, right? Having that conversation.

Sanjana: Exactly! Like he’s sitting there and playing the board game, that’s all that matters. There doesn’t need to be a whole discussion around it. And with age, as I was listening to everyone talk about it, I realised that how much I love a flawed older character. And the importance of having a flawed older character and to take them away from this whole older age trope that keeps coming back to us.

Parinita: Of a wise mentor.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Exactly. Of a wise mentor. That realisation as I read and I heard more is something that maybe now not a blind-spot but was, probably.

Parinita: But also just flawed, complex and nuanced characters of all kinds of abilities as well.

Sanjana: Absolutely.

Parinita: Age as well as disabilities. You don’t need to be this perfect, aspirational character because you have a disability so you’ve suddenly, magically transformed into this –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Ever-patient, ever-kind. But then on the flip side of that is where disabilities are being equated with being villainous. Which is something that I hadn’t considered before and it’s something that I think Breaking The Glass Slipper the podcast that we listened to, that mentioned. How characters with disabilities are equated with being villains.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And I’d heard this about queer-coded characters before. So the example that I can think of off the top of my head is Ursula in The Little Mermaid.

Image of Ursula from The Little Mermaid

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: Who I love. I love female villains.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: I love over-the-top villains. But she is coded as a drag artist.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: Which is something that I had, again, never thought of but I was like oh that’s interesting!

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And it’s actually quite horrifying to think about that just because you have a disability, it makes you a villain.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Yeah exactly. Because the interesting point that they brought up was that it’s like trying to show – mirror the inner feelings physically. And then we started listing down characters and examples and there were –

Parinita: Yeah, like Voldemort.

Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: It’s something that I hadn’t thought of. I never thought of him as a person who is disabled.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: But then they spoke about how he’s both psychologically disabled because of his childhood.

Sanjana: Hmm

Parinita: Which we don’t really know has been traumatic. We know that Harry’s has been full of abuse.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: But Voldemort, sure he was in an orphanage, but it seemed more that he had delusions of grandeur than any –

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Any mistreatment there. But he was also physically disfigured, just like you said, and that’s become a joke, right? His noselessness like he doesn’t have a nose.

Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: And he looks like a snake. When they were talking about that on the podcast it also made me think of how in the US, when there are these mass shooters who if they’re white, people will enquire into their mental background.

Aparna: Yes.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Whereas people of different races and religions, they’re held up as representatives of their whole race or religion. So even Voldemort, sure, the psychological trauma he might have had, but I don’t think that that was cause for going on a genocidal rampage.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Yeah, not justification enough.

Parinita: [laughs] Another example I thought of was Captain Hook

Aparna: Yes!

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Which I hadn’t thought of. And his disability, it didn’t clock as a disability, but of course it is very much a disability.

Image of the Disney version of Captain Hook from the animated movie Peter Pan

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: And he’s also being terrorised by the crocodile who was responsible for this disability. Can you guys think of any other examples?

Sanjana: I thought of Zuko and how his whole arc changes when he gets the scar on one eye and is disfigured and how it becomes this whole villainous thing. And up until then, I’d not at all thought of it. And Darth Vader.

Image of Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender

Aparna: Hmm.

Sanjana: Is another good example.

Aparna: And you guys had an interesting discussion about Bran and Hodor and the difference between their characters as well, right?

Parinita: Yeah because Bran has a physical disability that he’s acquired and Hodor has a mental disability that Bran … may have been responsible for?

Sanjana: Pretty much.

Parinita: I’m not quite sure with all this time travel thing. Spoilers but yeah.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: And also I was really interested in the class implications of this as well.

Sanjana: Yes!

Parinita: Because Bran’s disability is obviously more important. Bran is more important than Hodor who is this disposable person because he’s a servant and he has to die to protect Bran so that he can become a king?

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: Not problematic at all.

Sanjana: Yeah and how his disability becomes this thing that gives him all this power and becomes this underlying reason for him being this all-knowing, all-seeing –

Parinita: Yeah, that’s true. Because he becomes this magical person because he is disabled.

Sanjana: Yeah, exactly. It’s that that causes like, you can still do it. Let me give you some abilities.

Image from the TV series Game of Thrones featuring the character of Hodor carrying the character of Bran on his back

Parinita: And I think this would have been fine if there had been a whole array of disabled characters in media to choose from.

Sanjana and Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: So that you know there’s room for villains and heroes and just regular people who just I don’t know want to eat some cake in a café but oh no New York is being attacked by aliens again!

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: So you know that would have been fine. But it’s just that there are such few representations of disability. And the ones that there are aren’t great.

Sanjana: Haan. Going back to what we were discussing, as you’re saying, that the importance to normalise it and to just have characters going about their business is very important. Because popular media has this underlying purpose that they feel the necessity to over-compensate and fix the disability with these little things or big things which is really problematic.

Parinita: Yeah, for sure. Especially in science fiction and fantasy, where you’re using either technology or magic to fix a disability. And that’s a bit troubling because in the real world, you don’t have this magical ability to fix a disability. And surely people with physical or mental disabilities deserve to see themselves represented.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: I think on the Witch, Please episode they said that, “The assumption is that if you have a disability, it’s a fate worse than death.”

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: That if you have a disability, you’re suffering.

Aparna: Or that if you have a disability, you’d want to get rid of it. Like your prime aim in life or the dream is to be rid of that disability or somehow be cured. What had got me thinking about that was the difference between physical and mental disabilities and how mental disabilities are considered more a part of your identity than physical disabilities are. Nobody would think of fixing with magic an OCD if you have an obsessive compulsive disorder. Whereas if you are in a wheelchair or if you have hearing loss, then people will magic it away instantly is the assumption – is how the characters seem to be written in Harry Potter for example.

Parinita: Yeah and in that Reddit thread that discussed disabilities in Hogwarts and basically about how physically disabled people would travel around Hogwarts, a lot of comments wanted to do that as well where they were envisioning these magical solutions to fix disabilities. But I really liked that there were people who pointed out, exactly as you did Paru, that for some people, it is very much a part of their identity and maybe they don’t want it to be fixed. But they have magical solutions so instead of wheelchairs, perhaps it’s a broomchair. And they’re able to levitate so those moving staircases which are a health hazard even for a person who is able-bodied.

Aparna: [laughs] Yeah.

Parinita: For them just to be able to navigate Hogwarts, to make life easier for them, and not just make it difficult.

Aparna: Yeah. And the more you notice how disability is represented in media, it’s always exaggerated and it’s always the extreme. Just during my reading, I came across this thing of how disabled people are always put in one of three categories. In that either they’re celebrated for doing something completely normal like, “Oh you graduated!” and then they celebrate it for that. Or there is too much pressure to be extraordinary. Like the character is written such that all people who can’t hear should become great composers. And the third is to just generate sympathy for the protagonist because they have somebody in their circle of friends or family who has a disability of some kind and then that makes them look like a more empathetic character. So I wanted to discuss a few well-written disabled characters or well-written characters.

Parinita: So the most recent example that I can think of was in The Dragon Prince. I think her name is Amaya. She’s a military commander so she’s in charge of the troops of the humans in that show. And I know you both haven’t watched it so I’m not going to give you spoilers.

Aparna: Thank you, thank you.

Parinita: [laughs] I know how important spoilers are to all of us. But just in terms of how her character is, she’s deaf and it’s not either made into this exceptional thing or it’s not something that gets in the way of her job either. It’s just a part of her identity. And she has an interpreter so I’m assuming they’re using American Sign Language in the show since it’s American. But that American Sign Language isn’t translated either. So it’s like we are the ones who are glimpsing into their culture but there’s no need for them to explain their culture or their language.

Aparna: Oh yeah, that’s pretty nice.

Parinita: Which I thought was really interesting and really well done.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And she is also just this really fantastic character and she makes these jokes and things while she’s signing which someone who does speak that language, will have a greater insight into. So they’ll have that double layer of identification whereas for us, we’re a little bit on the outside looking in, but it’s still not in a way that’s voyeuristic at all.

Gif of Amaya and Janai from The Dragon Prince. Janai says: We are not ... friends. She is my prisoner. Amaya's responds by signing to the listeners but her signing is untranslated.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: It’s just a regular part of her. So I really like her.

Sanjana: Toph comes to mind from The Last Airbender. When I was listing down just general representations of disabled characters, I didn’t even put her down as an example because I forgot completely that she was blind. I just in general forgot about the fact because the fact that she’s disabled is so normal that it just becomes part of conversation. Though she does learn to bend really well because she can’t see. And that maybe falls into the over-compensating part. But she’s not this great character in terms of relationships and just because she is blind, she’s not this –

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: You know uh –

Aparna: Sad character.

Sanjana: Sad character who everybody adores and everybody likes. And even as she grows up, even in Korra, she has flawed family relations

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: She has a flawed relationship with her children and there’s a lot of realness to her character because that is how most relationships go and it’s very refreshing to see her character.

Gif of Toph and Sokka from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Sokka says: I found something that you're not going to like. [He flourishes a piece of paper] Toph replies: Well it sounds like a sheet of paper. But I guess you're referring to what's on the piece of paper.

Parinita: And, of course, these are the same people who made The Dragon Prince as well.

Sanjana: Exactly!

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: So they’re probably doing something right.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aparna: Yeah. And another person who I feel does right in terms of just the way he writes characters is Rick Riordan who’s written the Percy Jackson series and the Magnus Chase series and everything.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aparna: And just I was very struck by how in the first Percy Jackson book at the beginning before we find out that he’s a demigod, he basically is a kid who has ADHD. And it’s just explained in such a cool way of, oh he has battle reflexes and that’s why he isn’t equipped for just the regular world. Which I find is just such a fascinating way of exploring it and explaining it. And that’s when when I read further, I realised that he has a son with ADHD. Am I right?

Book cover of Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief

Parinita: Yeah.

Aparna: Yeah. And that means he has a lived experience of it and how it makes such a big difference to have people who either know what they’re talking about via personal experiences or through research but just have done their study before writing characters. Even –

Parinita: He also has a deaf character in the Magnus Chase series.

Aparna: Yeah, I was just going to say that.

Parinita: Hearthstone.

Aparna: Yes.

Parinita: And it’s such a mainstream set of books. Rick Riordan books, they’re not cult or niche or anything. They’re hugely popular all over the world.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Which is why I love it even more where there is this explicit representation of all different kinds of diversity.

Aparna: Exactly.

Parinita: But also yeah, since we’re talking about disability, of specifically disability.

Aparna: Yeah. And the problem is that in the media, what it lacks, like you said, this wouldn’t be such a point of discussion if we had so many examples that some of them were a bit problematic as compared to others. But when its representation is so lacking, what’s missing is nuance and that’s what makes all of this seem very one-dimensional. And just the way it reflects in literature or any media that we consume automatically has a vicious cycle with the real world. I’m an editor of picture books and we have this author called Salil Chaturvedi who is disabled and he was talking about his book. And there’s one very cool thing that he said that was, “To be a disabled activist, all you have to do is be active. Because when people see you out and about and when you are more present in the real world is when people will – public spaces will cater to you.” And I feel like it’s a similar relationship with media and the more that you see disabled people in books and movies and TV shows, the more … the way they are treated in society will start to change.

Parinita: Absolutely. And what you said about nuance as well, I think it’s something Marissa Lingen brought up in her podcast where she was critiquing the all-or-nothing representation in media.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: When it comes to disability. So there isn’t nuance in the representation of disabilities when it does exist because it’s always shown in the extremes. So you know it’s either you’re blind or you’re deaf or you’re unable to walk, and this impacts non-disabled people’s reaction to people with either invisible or partially-visible disabilities out in the real world. So the example she gave is when partially-sighted people are assumed to be completely blind and if there is anything that non-disabled people see that goes against their preconceived notion about blindness or about sightedness, then they become angry at that other person because they think they’re not disabled enough. Or they act as if the person is lying. Or if someone with a chronic condition needs to use a wheelchair sometimes, but not all the times, and can walk sometimes. So if a person sees them going from one state to the other, they think that oh this person has been making it up all along. So there are very dangerous implications for people with disabilities.

Sanjana: Yeah. When we were reading up and listening to some of the fan podcasts in preparation for this episode, one of the themes that kept being  repeated and being echoed through all of it was that there is a lack of space given to disability to exist within futuristic and fantasy worlds. And I was discussing this with Paru the other day and she told me about Afrofuturism and how there is this genre born out of the fact that there isn’t enough representation of black people in futuristic worlds. And how it’s strange that people don’t think that racism would be something that gets solved in the 2100s. And how this is similar to disability being portrayed because it doesn’t leave any space for normalcy to exist. You just said that Marissa Lingen points out that most people get their window into disability through popular media. And so it is important for that portrayal to be right because otherwise every other person who meets a blind person in the real world for the first time will expect them to have this great hearing because that’s all we’re shown in popular media. It’s very important to make accommodations for disabled people in society and in media and in speculative fiction in general.

Parinita: No, absolutely. And we were talking about Harry Potter, for example. So one of the articles that we read about J. K. Rowling’s view of disability in the magical world. And how she did think about disability when she was writing the book series.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And you do see some disabled characters in her books. So there’s Mad-Eye Moody who has a very visible disability.

Sanjana: Haan.

Parinita: Then there’s George Weasley who acquires a disability with his ear –

Sanjana: Correct.

Parinita: Later in the books. Then there’s Frank and Alice Longbottom who have this really tragic story because their disability seems to have completely taken them outside the society.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And outside their son’s life and there doesn’t seem to be any way to …

Sanjana: Yeah and absolutely and it becomes this reason for Neville’s life being so horrible. It, at the end of the day, leaves them as just a plot point. They aren’t really explored in any other way. So you don’t know much about what they are and how they –

Parinita: Yeah and it’s a bit like – it’s they are there and their disability is there to almost give Neville a tragic backstory.

Aparna and Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So they’re centering an able person – although in the Witch, Please episode, they did read Neville as neurodiverse. So I re-read the Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone book recently. And when I was reading it, I did think that he could be read as neurodiverse as well.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: Perhaps someone with dyspraxia or vertigo. Because he constantly needs a leg up through the portrait hole to get into the Gryffindor Common Room. He’s not very good at balance and coordination. He’s also really forgetful. Like all these traits that could be read as … and again this is not something that I would have otherwise ever been able to read into the series. It’s just that I’ve been talking to people and listening to disabled people’s perspectives.

Gif of Neville Longbottom from the first movie Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Neville says: "I'll fight you."

Sanjana: Yeah, absolutely right.

Parinita: And in that case, Neville’s disabilities, if he can be read as a disabled character, they’re mostly played off for laughs. They’re not …

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: He’s this comic fodder. And that makes it even sadder.

Sanjana: Yeah, it does. And you’re right. And the fact is that you have these popular characters, the ones that you are falling in love with, making fun of the characters that possibly aren’t written as up-to-the-mark or cannot cope with everything that’s happening around. And that is where lies the problem. Because you end up as a kid reading it for the first time and you end up looking at and siding with the ones who are laughing. And the ones who are making fun of these characters and that’s how you grow up.  You end up doing that and by no fault of yours.

Parinita: No, of course. And just as you were saying that, it just made me think that Neville’s parents as well that they’re very much – they have no agency. They have no sense of anything except to make the reader feel sad for Neville.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Because Harry feels sad for Neville.

Aparna: Um hmm.

Parinita: And that’s all. That’s what they’re there for.

Sanjana: Yeah. That is it.

Parinita: So you know when I was doing my master’s, I was also researching fan communities. And in that, one of the things that I came across, one of the fan texts, there was a huge comment thread about it, was about Harry’s behaviour in Order of the Phoenix.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: Which I remember, when I was reading it as a teenager, when it first came out, I was also like why is Harry so angry and so grumpy throughout this whole book? He’s shouting at everybody. And then there was this whole nuanced discussion about how he has PTSD in the book because of Cedric’s death in Goblet of Fire.

Sanjana and Aparna: Hmm.

Parinita: And there were people who were identifying all the different behaviours and signs and symptoms because they have experience with PTSD. And that made me think of the character in this whole other way. Because again, especially in a children’s book, but even otherwise in mainstream media at large, if it’s not explicitly mentioned, then people who don’t have the vocabulary for this, like us, who don’t have any experience with these disabilities or illnesses, we will never be able to understand that this is what’s going on.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Because it’s not our experience and we’ll never learn then that that’s also an experience that exists and that’s something that he was going through which might make us more explicitly empathetic, if that makes sense?

Sanjana: Yeah, absolutely. No, it does, because I till date keep citing the fifth book as my least favourite because it has Harry just whining through the whole thing. And when you pointed this out and we discussed this last time and it just – it really does throw things in a new light and it really does help understand the development of the character or what the character is going through a lot more.

Parinita: Absolutely. And I think in The Gayly Prophet video that we watched, Lark spoke about – or somebody had written into the podcast and they’d seen being a Squib

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: In the magical world as a magical disability.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Which, again, makes perfect sense but something that we would never have thought about.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Because the Squibs in the series are again played off as these you know nutty –

Sanjana: No but really, one of the first notes that I made for this podcast was when I was trying to find examples in Harry Potter especially, so I was writing down stuff and I suddenly said wouldn’t Squibs be akin to being disabled in the magical society. They are born supposed to be magical, they are supposed to be able to do something which they are not.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: Which basically reads into the definition of being disabled. When you sent this video they, of course, went a lot deeper into it and made some very good points.

Parinita: Yeah because Argus Filch –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And how he’s seen as this defective wizard. He’s stigmatised by mainstream wizarding society, by all the students that are in Hogwarts. And the only two Squibs that we see are ones again who are made fun of.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So there’s Mrs. Figgs, there’s Argus Filch.

Sanjana: And they made an interesting comparison to real life about how he ends up doing janitorial duties because that’s all that he’s good for in the magical world. Which draws a comparison to the real world, how kids with certain disabilities are given a certain kind of job because that’s all that’s expected of them.

Parinita: But also Filch, he doesn’t have any magical powers and he’s given this job to … he seems to be the sole caretaker of Hogwarts.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: This giant school which would have been so much easier to do with someone with magic, right? Wouldn’t you think?

Sanjana: Yeah, and it feels like a bit of a punishment.

Parinita: Yeah!

Sanjana: To be given that job.

Parinita: No wonder he’s angry and hates everybody.

Sanjana: Yeah, absolutely.

Parinita: I would be pissed off as well if that had been me. But also, just reading about all these different perspectives on disability, it made me think of how it’s so similar to our conversation about race. Where the representations have some of the same issues. Because it’s like this marginalised culture which you can’t just include superficially in your stories. So to tick the diversity quota, you can’t just have a person with disabilities. You need to properly research the culture and you need to understand the harmful tropes and stereotypes so that you don’t perpetuate them before you can represent them sensitively. And then there’s also the issue with metaphorical representations of disability. With Harry Potter, Lupin being a werewolf.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: J. K. Rowling has said that that’s akin – in her head when she was writing it, she was drawing the comparison between blood illnesses like HIV, so chronic conditions.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: And so obviously it’s a metaphorical thing. And in the Doctor Who episode that we watched, it was aliens and mental illness. That was a metaphorical representation of it.

Aparna and Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So I wonder whether – and I can’t speak for people with disabilities – but if this metaphorical mental illness representation or chronic illness representation bothers people with these conditions in the same way how we complained that the representations of race in metaphorical ways is not enough to understand the issues.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: See, I have no problem with metaphorical representation if they do something with it. If it’s a subversion. But if Lupin as a werewolf is treated badly, it just reinforces what is already happening in society. It’s not a comment on anything, it’s not a subversion of anything. Which is when I’m not really a fan of the way it’s treated.

Parinita: I completely agree with you. Though when I was thinking more about this, I was thinking that in Hogwarts, Dumbledore does make a special accommodation so that Lupin, in spite of being a werewolf, can have a semblance of a normal life. When we were talking about this, this hadn’t occurred to me. But then I was listening to this other podcast, Reading, Writing, Rowling and they were talking about werewolves. So in that they mentioned how Lupin, he was bitten when he was four years old. And his parents were afraid that he wouldn’t be accepted into Hogwarts because he’s a werewolf so everyone else would be afraid of him. But then Dumbledore is the one who went to Lupin’s family and said that he planted the Whomping Willow and built the Shrieking Shack and accommodated the Hogwarts society to be able to accept someone with his condition. And that’s where Lupin found a community and friends, really good friends. But then, like you were saying Paru, when he went out into the wizarding society, there was nothing. It was replicating the same real-life things.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: So he had no work and he had no prospects. And when it was revealed that he was a werewolf, he had to quit Hogwarts as well. So he’s just had a really sad life.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And in the Witch, Please episode, so this was another thing that I hadn’t thought of which again made me think of parallels between marginalised cultures. So in that they mentioned disability, people with disabilities, it’s like a culture which needs to assimilate to the dominant culture to be respected as equal. So the dominant culture in this case would be able-bodied and you know non-disabled people. So it’s similar I feel in the US, how anybody who is not white and not Christian, so Asians or Latinx people or you know anybody – queer – everybody has to assimilate to this certain idea of being American. In India, it’s similar as well. Like you have to have – although we have a lot of different cultures depending on which part of the country you go to. But to be respected as equal and to be treated as equal, you need to … be a certain kind of person.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So that I found really interesting and also really uncomfortable.

Sanjana: Yeah and J. K. Rowling does this with Lupin. Because they also mention the same thing that eventually he gets married and he has a family and he does all the normal things to be looked at as a whole character. And it would have been fine if he hadn’t had that part of his story arc. But for him to feel normal, the need to give your character all those things to make him – because that is what society expects of you – is what is problematic.

Parinita: Yeah, absolutely. But I really like that even if creators themselves are failing us a bit, again, fandom is filling the gap when it comes to representation and awareness about disabilities.

Sanjana: Yes.

Parinita: So that BBC article that we read about “Harry Potter and the Curse of Disability” which featured these fanfiction writers.

Sanjana: Yes.

Parinita: And this was written, I think, a long time ago – early 2000s.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So I’m sure there’s more now. I haven’t gone looking for it. But basically fans who have disabilities but don’t see this represented in the fiction that they like, specifically Harry Potter.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Because one of the disabled fanfic writers, La Guera, was quoted as saying, “It occurred to me as I read the books that J. K. Rowling has representatives of every race and creed -” Which, side note, yeah that’s problematic as well.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah. “… but she has no disabled students of any kind. And it struck me as very sad.”

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So to counter this, she herself wrote a story about someone with cerebral palsy and the nitty-gritties of it. So what a difference it makes to, like you were saying Paru, for someone who has either the lived experience or is close to the lived experience, when they represent it themselves, it makes so much of a difference.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Yeah, absolutely. And going back to the Reddit thread that we were discussing earlier on, one of the users made a very interesting – caret-top he was. He made a very interesting – he/she I don’t know – made a very interesting observation. Because it was a whole discussion about how Hogwarts doesn’t have any disabled people. And how magic would cure a disability and he seemed to be the only one saying that how many people would actually send a kid to a school that doesn’t cater to their disability? Or doesn’t make room for their disability. And that got me thinking that how much does Hogwarts or the TARDIS make room? How inaccessible it is to disabled people.

Parinita: Yeah, absolutely. Because travelling through space and time, what accommodations are there in place for people with either mental or physical disabilities to travel and have adventures? Do they not want to do all these things? Like surely –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Although me and Jack, we have this conversation, he’s very against time-travelling and I’m very pro-time-travelling.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: Because he thinks I’ll mess up the timeline and it’ll result in all these consequences. So those are just ideological differences. But I’m sure even among people in the disabled community, there must be people who want to go on adventures, right?

Sanjana: Yeah, absolutely. So how many disabled characters have you guys seen on the TARDIS? I don’t watch Doctor Who so I can’t …

Parinita: In the New Who, in the new Doctor Who, I can only think of Ryan, who is the companion in the most recent avatar.

Aparna: Haan.

Parinita: So Jodie. And he has dyspraxia which is mentioned early on in the show, when he comes on. And it’s dealt with a little bit but then we’ve not really heard about it for a long time now.

Sanjana: Okay.

Parinita: Paru, can you think of any?

Aparna: No, I can’t actually.

Parinita: Yeah, I don’t –

Aparna: Generally, any people travelling have always been very able-bodied.

Parinita: But perhaps that’s because, something like you’re saying Sana, which is that you’re not making any accommodations for –

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: People and it’s like in society as well, right? I think in The Gayly Prophet episode, he called it the social model of disability. Which is, I believe, it’s what disability rights activists refer to. So basically that disability itself is not – it’s a social and structural problem. It’s not the problem of the person who is disabled. It’s the problem of society that can’t accommodate these different bodies and different brains in their daily functioning.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: So they’re inaccessible to anybody who doesn’t fit the norm. Who is considered to be the norm? Which body is considered to be normal and which brain is considered to be normal?

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Correct. Which brings us to the other part of our episode today. Which is age. And there’s a reason that we combined age and disability into one category. Because it’s another section of society that’s dealt a pretty bad hand both in terms of representation in the media and in terms of just how they’re treated in society. And there are a few obvious similarities in the experiences in being treated as secondary citizens or are either someone to be pitied or someone who does not somehow make it to being a protagonist but always close by. And again, sorely lacking in nuanced representations. Like all grandmothers bake and knit and spoil their grandkids. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Aparna: If you had to generalize, that’s just how you would picture a grandmother, and that’s not a coincidence. And there are some interesting additional parallels that we discussed like the way they’re desexualised.

Parinita: Yeah because older people have outlived their attractiveness, right?

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Yeah! [laughs]

Parinita: Once you reach a certain age, no that’s all, there’s nothing. No romance, no sex, we want nothing. And people with disabilities are anyway seen as asexual.

Aparna: Correct.

Parinita: And people can be asexual and disabled people may also be asexual. But not all disabled people are asexual. So just the diversity of representations is missing.

Aparna: Exactly.

Parinita: Or they’re seen as lesser than people – basically both people beyond a certain age are seen as lesser than the norm. And people with disabilities are seen lesser than the norm. So you don’t cater to society’s idea of what is the regular person.

Aparna: Correct. And Sana, you also brought up the point that sometimes even old people are used as comic relief in stories. Many times in Bollywood movies, this happens.

Sanjana: Yes.

Aparna: Because they’re used for comic relief. Someone who is just out of their depth when the discussion is going on between the main characters.

Sanjana: Yeah. Or they have this older person and the loss of hearing. That’s been used so much that it’s not even funny anymore. The fact that oh he’s older, and then the only bit of his conversation is him mispronouncing the words and re-pronouncing them and adding to the general confusion and comic relief. Which is a bit tiring now.

Parinita: And not being able to handle technology. “Aaaah technology! No! I can’t!”

Sanjana and Aparna laugh.

Sanjana: Yes!

Aparna: Whereas that can happen to young people also.

Parinita: Absolutely.

Aparna: I’m talking very much about myself.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: And the onset of this episode where we spent ten minutes in angst about technology.

Aparna: Was it only ten minutes, Sana?

Sanjana: [laughs]

Parinita: It felt like – like this month [March, 2020] it’s just felt like ten years. Those ten minutes felt much longer. And going through all these fan podcasts and essays and comments and everything that we’ve been looking at, I couldn’t help but draw parallels to our current situation just in terms of the pandemic and the implications of social isolation as well as the virus on both physical and mental health. So not just the virus itself but with the lockdown to contain it as well.

Aparna: Yeah

Parinita: Now people are being asked to work from home, university lectures, at least here in the UK, are moving online and some conferences are being cancelled and online options are being considered. And this is what people with disabilities as well as people who are less mobile due to age or even caregiving circumstances – for whatever reason – they’ve been asking this for a really long time. I’ve been going through these threads and conversations on Twitter and Facebook and they have always wanted more options just for accessibility

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And especially with the technology that we have available today, people with disabilities could have easily been included as well as older people who may not be able to get to where you are for whatever reason. But there have been no systemic accommodations made. But now suddenly now that everybody has to go through this, oh suddenly, it’s really easy to do all these things. Oh yeah you can totally work from home, oh yeah we can totally do university … everything basically online.

Sanjana: Absolutely.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. It’s easily suddenly shoved down everybody’s throat and they’re like ohhh hmm, is this what you were talking about?

Aparna: So let’s do the same exercise that we did for disability representation with age representation. Can you name some well-written old characters? For example, I’ll start. The witches in the Discworld series, especially Granny Weatherwax is one of the most [laughs] I think just the characters in the Discworld series are very lovely-ly written because all their attributes … it’s not like they cease to matter but they just seem to celebrate whatever they are. Even if they are an orangutan who’s a librarian.

Sanjana: And another show, which clearly I seem to be giving only as good examples so they’re clearly doing something very correct, is I thought Avatar: The Last Airbender had some very good older characters. They have this whole underlying society of older people which was very cool. For a kid’s show, they were very present. I love Uncle Iroh.

Aparna: Uncle Iroh!

Sanjana: He’s such a complex but fascinating older character. And he’s one of my favourite fictional characters of all times.

Gif of Uncle Iroh and Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Uncle Iroh says: You're looking at the rare white dragon bush. Its leaves make a tea so delicious it's *heartbreaking*

Parinita: I think in Anne With An E, they had some fantastic older characters.

Sanjana: Yes, yes!

Parinita: Great-aunt Josephine was excellently badass. I loved her.

Sanjana: Yes.

Parinita: And I also loved seeing Marilla and Matthew and Rachel’s interactions as well.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Even though it’s very much about Anne and young people, but I loved the way in which older people were also – their lives and their relationships and all the complexities and everything within the way that they engage with the world was also shown.

Image of Rachel and Marilla from Anne With An E

Aparna and Sanjana: Yeah!

Sanjana: Absolutely.

Aparna: Actually, all parents were given just a lot of – even Diana’s parents had a whole story.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aparna: They had a lot of personality.

Sanjana: And I really like the scene where they are helping Bash with the newborn baby and then one of them says, you know we’ve done this, we’ve raised our kids, we are not built for this anymore. We are old!

Parinita and Aparna laugh

Parinita: Yeah!

Sanjana: We don’t want to do this anymore. And I just thought that was just so … it was so normal.

Parinita: Exactly! And it was shown in a way like they weren’t – it wasn’t their relationships with somebody else. It was just their lives and how they engage with everything else.

Sanjana: Absolutely.

Parinita: Which I think in Woke Doctor Who, they mentioned about how media, just like society and culture, seems to value youth so much. And older women especially. So you know it’s age and there’s also that intersection with gender there where older men are allowed to play a more active role in media and society than older women. Once you hit a certain age as a woman, yes goodbye. We have no need for your services anymore.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And if they are, they’re associated with bitterness and they’re pitted against younger women. And they’re either jealous or they’re competitive or they’re just sad that, oh no, my youth has gone. My life is over. Whereas in this, in Anne With An E, there was so much more. They weren’t sad about their lives. They just had their lives and they were going on living it.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: They didn’t have the same experiences as the younger characters had but there was room given to explore both of them. And yeah, I loved it.

Aparna: Yeah. And in non-fantasy, I also wanted to mention that two characters that I really like are Diane in The Good Fight, which is a lawyerly show. But she’s older, very well-written. She was a supporting character in another show and she got her own spin-off. But she’s not at all like a sympathetic character always. She’s a very grey character and she’s definitely an older woman trying to … She’s always the meanest person in the room.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: And doesn’t take any crap from anyone. She’s a very well-written character. So that’s one. And House from the show House is also oldish I guess. He is not old really but –

Sanjana: Old only.

Aparna: He’s older than most protagonists tend to be.

Parinita: Hmm.

Aparna: And has a disability and is a really, really well-written character. At least in the initial seasons of the show.

Sanjana: Yeah in the initial seasons, yeah he is.

Aparna: And it’s just a very well-rounded, non-sympathetic character. I always like these non-sympathetic characters.

Parinita: [laughs]

Aparna: Who tend to win my heart eventually.

Sanjana: And somebody made a very interesting point on one of the podcasts that we heard. Which was I think Breaking The Glass Slipper only; the episode in which they spoke about age. And the whole Harry and Dumbledore relationship was very interesting. I had not seen it like that at all. But as the books go, and Harry grows up, he sees from Dumbledore being this older mentor in his life, he becomes this flawed character who had a lot of things going on in his old age.

Parinita: Yeah, he starts off as this stereotypical wise mentor in the first few books.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: But especially in Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows, we realise that uh okay maybe he might have been a genocidal maniac as well for love, I guess.

Sanjana and Aparna laugh

Parinita: Except then he came back.

Sanjana: And also their relationship becomes from being the mentor to Harry calling him out on his crap. And saying that you’re being stupid about this. And just speak to me! And open up!

Parinita: And don’t be so useless. You don’t need to be so cryptic.

Sanjana: Yeah!

Aparna: Exactly!

Parinita: You could have given us more information and helped us along faster.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: No need for all this drama and all this mystery.

Sanjana: And now! It is time for our ever so famous uh

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: Thing.

Parinita: Amongst a total of three people!

Sanjana: That we must do on all podcasts [laughs] is our What If? section.

Aparna: I feel like it should have some theme music.

Sanjana: Yeah, I think we’ll come up with some theme music.

Aparna: I always suggest [makes sound effect]

Parinita: [laughs]

Aparna: Because it’s like a question mark. But you guys have been very dismissive of it in the past so I’m not going to do it.

Parinita: I feel like we can look for better music, Paru. [laughs]

Aparna: Just because you got fancy art of yourself, Parinita, now you want better music.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: Well … so! Welcome to the What If? section. Let me turn my page to where we have made some notes.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: Okay! So this What If? takes you down a journey where we flip the age of some of our favourite characters. To see how their life might have played out or how their characters might have played out or how their temperament may have been different if they were of a different age. We start in the world of Hogwarts with McGonagall.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: Parinita, would you like to start?

Parinita: Yeah, so for me, I thought it would be really interesting – so again, like I said I was re-reading the Harry Potter book. When Harry first meets McGonagall as an eleven-year-old, she’s described as having black hair. The movies have influenced our brains and our imaginations so much because she’s this obviously much older person. But I thought it would be really interesting if she had been this young, badass, stern teacher.

Sanjana: Absolutely! Yeah.

Parinita: And a capable witch who’s commanding respect. Because especially in a situation like a male-dominated like … well life. Male-dominated life.

Sanjana: Yeah. [laughs]

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: You know younger women do have to … like all three of us are lucky that we work in predominantly women – most of our co-workers are women. But I’ve heard from other places, in education as well, just women have to prove themselves so much more in this male-dominated structure, any sort of structure. So the idea of McGonagall being young and badass and just commanding respect wherever she goes, as a young woman in this old-man school.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Where there are some really terrible people.

Sanjana: Um hmm!

Parinita: She would be really cool. She would be this young, powerful woman and everyone loves her but is also very afraid of her. Which is how I think all women should be treated.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: You love them and you’re a bit afraid of them.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Absolutely. I agree. I couldn’t agree more. Okay. So our second example takes us to Aang and the fact that what if under the ice – maybe not a hundred years but he had aged; not stood still in time. But what if he had come out of that – the big block of ice – a little – a much older person? And he was the main protagonist of this kid’s show. How would that have played out? Aparna?

Aparna: It would have been pretty cool. We were discussing this and, like you mentioned, to see like an older Aang learning from all those kids and them being the mentor for him would have been really nice to see. And also I feel like he might have been taken more seriously. I don’t know or he would have more – Aang would have had more angst because –

Sanjana and Parinita laugh

Aparna: He would actually have lost a lot of his life in the ice.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: So he might not have been as silly or mad like the way he is.

Parinita: I would have loved had he been a hundred and eleven years old and been as silly and mad. But then he gets to do all these –

Aparna: Yeah! Because mind-wise –

Parinita: And he’d be all, oh no old bones!

Aparna: [laughs] Yeah! If he was physically old but then he had not aged otherwise, it would have been quite fun.

Sanjana: Yeah, it would have been quite fun to watch.

Parinita: Yeah, I would have loved to!

Sanjana: A hundred-year-old man going around learning from kids and being a kid and making air scooters and things, that would have been really fun.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: And he’s discovering this new world as well.

Aparna: Yeah, exactly.

Parinita: Which is the future! So all these new things. Oh I want to watch this show now!

Sanjana: Yes! I totally do.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: And our last What If? takes us to the world of fairy tales. And to a particular one with a wolf and a girl in a red hood. And [laughs] yes you guessed it right, it’s Red Riding Hood.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: I’ve taken this What If? section very seriously.

Parinita: I love it!

Aparna: And yet you did not like my theme music.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: I didn’t say anything to it!

Aparna: You scowled at it.

Sanjana: Anyway! Going back to our little Red Riding Hood – and this was Aparna’s idea which was brilliant – is that what if Grandma was taking some muffins to Red Riding Hood? And Red Riding Hood had been gobbled up? What would have happened then?

Aparna: Firstly I don’t think grandma would have spoken to a stranger.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Hiding in the forest and given her a dress.

Sanjana: Absolutely.

Aparna: So that’s one thing.

Parinita: I think the grandmother would have been wiser and would have been able to realise that it’s a wolf in a dress.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: And not a human. Like excuse me little Red Riding Hood, I realise that you’ve been this sheltered child. But do you not know the difference between skin and fur?

Sanjana: [laughs]

Aparna: He was wearing her grandmother’s clothes okay!

Sanjana: Maybe she forgot her specs that day.

Aparna: Yeah!

Sanjana: And couldn’t see clearly.

Parinita: I think you’re giving her too much credit.

Aparna: Actually that would make more sense.

Sanjana: It would.

Aparna: Than a little girl not being able to tell the difference between her grandmother and a wolf – a hairy wolf.

Parinita: A grandmother who she’s presumably met before!

Sanjana: I also think the grandmother wouldn’t have needed the hunter to come to her rescue.

Aparna: I agree.

Parinita: Oh I would have loved a romance between the grandmother and this young hunter.

Sanjana: Wow! That would have been fun.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: That’s a fairy tale we should have read.

Parinita: Yeah! Maybe we should write fanfiction, you guys. Red Riding Hood fanfiction.

Sanjana: Yeah, this is totally what we should do.

Aparna: [laughs] Red Riding Hood fanfiction! We’ve found our calling.

Sanjana and Parinita laugh

Comic of Red Riding Hood standing outside the window and the wolf dressed as grandma in bed. Red Riding Hood says: ..I've left a basket of food outside for you grandma! The wolf says: F*****g COVID!

Speaking of Red Riding Hood fanfiction [we didn’t come up with this one]

Aparna: But that brings me to what I wanted to talk a little bit about was ageism in children’s literature. So does ageism refer to discrimination based on age? That’s it right? It can be against younger people as well?

Parinita: Yeah.

Aparna: So I feel like children’s literature is born out of the fact that children don’t have any agency in the real world. They aren’t taken as seriously. So it’s the most successful fighting of ageism I’ve ever seen.

Parinita: [laughs]

Aparna: But within children’s literature, the way old people are treated especially – so going back to fairy tales – how eternal youth is this big reward in a fairy tale. Or these stereotypes of these mean old witches or these old crones who are just out to get you because that is what they do. And all those stories that are so old and have very problematic treatments of the way old people are represented in that they either are evil or they need help. I understand why. Even when I’m writing, I want to quickly dispose of the parents somehow. Which is what even Roald Dahl used to say, that the adults in his story, he wants to somehow make them go away as soon as possible in the story so that he can get on with telling the story. But I don’t remember where it was that we encountered an example of children enjoying a story with an older protagonist in it.

Parinita: It was Breaking The Glass Slipper as well.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: The ageism episode.

Aparna: Yeah. What was the show, I haven’t written it down.

Parinita: It was some British show or something that I’ve never heard of. For people who are super enthusiastic, they should go listen to the ageism episode and try to figure out what it is.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: We just open the gates to inspiration.

Aparna: Yeah but also, you both mentioned Gangsta Granny by David Walliams. And how basically children can enjoy stories that have grown-ups because actually even grown-ups don’t know what they are doing. The image of grown-ups having a handle on life now that we’ve grown up, we know that it’s not true.

Parinita: Especially in the real world where we’re seeing now younger people who are fighting against the problems that older people and adults have left for them.

Aparna and Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: I’ve been studying children’s literature. So I did the master’s and in that I came across this really interesting idea which also makes me a little uncomfortable. Which is essentially like you said, Paru, that children’s literature is where children have agency and young people go on their own adventures and do their own things. But there is this whole strand of discussion within children’s literature scholarship that actually, it’s still adults writing these. It’s all adults who are controlling children’s literature. It’s adults writing about adult ideologies of childhood. And all three of us, we are also complicit in this because we’re all writing children’s books.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And it’s what we think children want or children need and children would like. Which is why I started looking at fan communities in the first place for my master’s because in that, it was more young people’s response to these adult-authored texts. Not that I’m saying that we all need to give up our jobs and not write for children anymore.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: But for me, it was really interesting to just think of this. I was like, oh yeah that’s true. It’s nice to make all these arguments as the people who are – who you know –

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: Where it’s like, “Oh yeah, we’re doing such great work, aren’t we!”

Sanjana and Aparna laugh

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So yeah, sorry about throwing a little bit of a spanner in that. But what you were saying about just age-based discrimination and children’s literature being a part of that, I also see that in fandom. Not me specifically. But I’ve heard arguments about that. Where ageism in fandom works both ways. So it may work where young people’s interests and practices are dismissed by older adults so they’re like, oh fandom, there’s nothing to do here, please grow up. But on the other hand, it could also be because fandom is seen to be young people’s culture.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So if you’re above a certain age, younger people may not appreciate older people coming into their space.

Aparna: Hmm.

Parinita: And might be really protective about this. So there is this podcast that I listen to called Fansplaining and they’ve had some conversations and listener letters about this topic. How this perception is that fandom is full of teenagers but actually there are many people in their 20s, 30s and 40s enjoying fannish things as well. Like the three of us – I don’t think we’re never not going to be fannish even when we’re ninety-two.

Sanjana: Yeah

Parinita: Though I’m saying that a bit optimistically that the world is going to be around till we’re ninety-two.

Sanjana: [laughs] Ninety-two directly haan!

Parinita: [laughs] Some people may have discovered fandom later in life so they’ve not grown up with it. And a show like Supernatural which has this massive fandom even now but which has been around for fifteen years. So there are two different generations of fans. In one of the Fansplaining episodes, they were talking about how now the younger people who are into Supernatural now who are teenagers, they’d be looking at Sam and Dean as father figures.

Aparna: Oh god!

Sanjana: Oh my god!

Parinita: Which I’m like oh yeah that’s true because they’re pretty old. We’re – we’re getting old as well. [laughs] But it’s also interesting if there isn’t this discrimination, that fandom then becomes a space full of fans of all different ages who are interacting with each other in ways that they may not otherwise do. Because as an adult, there are a very fixed number of spaces where you have this cross-age interaction in a way that’s not controlled.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Yeah, absolutely. You’re right. You make a good point. Towards the end of our episode, it feels only right that we do another What If? Surprise!

Parinita: [laughs]

Aparna: [makes sound effect]

Parinita and Sanjana laugh

Aparna: Is that the same sound I made last time?

Sanjana: No, now it sounded like a spaceship.

Aparna: [makes sound effect] Oh no that’s more spaceship.

Parinita: [laughs]

Aparna: Okay never mind.

Sanjana: Going back to the uh

Parinita: This sound is growing on me.

Aparna: Yay! It’s also changing all the time so it might be a different one that’s feeling weird. I’ve forgotten what I was doing.

Sanjana: What If?! She said, bringing your attention back.

Parinita: [laughs]

Aparna: Okay.

Sanjana: Basically an older person’s perspective of entering a new world or entering an unknown world. And specifically, how about an older student going to Hogwarts? Like Parinita, you had mentioned, their letter got lost. The number of owls and things went awry and so they got their letter when they were thirty-five or forty probably.

Parinita: Or seventy-two.

Sanjana: Sure. Or seventy-two. And so they said, “Hmm, this seems like a fun thing to do now. I have magic! This explains a lot of my life! Let me go to Hogwarts.” And so they end up going to Hogwarts. And so what happens? What do you think? How different is their experience? I’m guessing very. But in what way?

Parinita: I would love to see one of the witches from Discworld whose names I have – I’m completely – Granny Weatherwax! I would love to see Granny Weatherwax in Hogwarts dealing with Snape.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: She is in Gryffindor because she’s obviously in Gryffindor.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: And just Snape trying to dock points off her for being … well her. And how she would deal with it. I think that would be fantastic. And I think she and McGonagall would just be the best of friends.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: In my case, the younger McGonagall.

Aparna: The younger McGonagall, yeah, even I was just about to say that.

Parinita: They would just be best friends.

Aparna: [laughs] I honestly was actually thinking about it very practically. And I thought firstly, all the professors would be wholly unconcerned that there is one student in the class who’s much older than either the rest of the students or even them. Because I couldn’t think of one teacher who would change the way they teach because of –

Parinita: Umbridge.

Aparna: [laughs] No, I do not consider her … as part of the … she’s not teaching there anymore okay, keep quiet.

Sanjana: [laughs] She didn’t do much teaching, haan.

Aparna: And I also thought practically, what if someone says oh they shouldn’t be allowed to play Quidditch. Because –

Parinita: How dare you!

Sanjana: [laughs]

Aparna: Yeah, they’re taller and they’re stronger or something like they’ll be able to reach places faster because their arms are longer. I can think of some whiny Slytherin students saying this is cheating, I’m not –

Parinita: Unless the old person is in Slytherin in which case, yes! All the old people will be playing.

Aparna: Exactly. Then I also thought students would take their help to get books from the Restricted Section. That’s an age thing, right?

Sanjana: Oooh! Of course!

Parinita: Yeah!

Aparna: I thought that would be a useful thing and everyone would ask them to get –

Parinita: Oh that’s true! They can be the book supplier.

Aparna: Exactly, like a side business.

Parinita: For all the junkies like Hermione.

Sanjana: And they wouldn’t need the Invisibility Cloak anymore.

Parinita: Oh my god! Can you imagine if one of the trio was really old?

Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: How much more practical they would have been? I know we want to go against this trope of old people being wise but they just have more life experience.

Aparna: Yes.

Parinita: And you know how we were when we were teenagers or younger.  We were not very … I mean we know better now.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: Although to be fair, Sirius was a terrible example. So Sirius would not have been a good, no he would not – none of the Marauders, I think.

Sanjana: No, none of them. [laughs]

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: But you guys make some interesting points. I agree. I never thought of the Restricted Section.

Aparna: It was one of the first things that I got excited about.

Sanjana: [laughs] But I was also thinking that the probability of a letter getting lost with the way the first book went and Harry’s letters went would be …

Aparna: Do you think they do that with all students or only he was a special case?

Sanjana: Hmm!

Parinita: Letters they must send to everybody.

Aparna: No but those many letters.

Sanjana: So many!

Parinita: Oh yeah! So this other podcast I was listening to, they were talking about how Harry’s definitely not a Ravenclaw because he was so bad at just –

Aparna: Yeah!

Parinita: Grabbing a letter and just reading it. There were so many letters – so many! Everywhere!

Aparna: Yeah! He couldn’t read one! He was such an idiot.

Sanjana: Well with that Harry bashing, we come to the end of the episode. And thank you so much for listening to us. And goodbye! Until next time.

Aparna and Parinita: Bye!

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode on representations of disabilities and old age. It’s a strange time to be making a podcast – especially an episode on ableism and ageism. I’m slowly getting used to the new normal, and I hope you are too. It’s something that I initially really struggled with. I love the new sense of community this pandemic has brought about. The creative new ways in which we’re looking after each other, especially the more vulnerable members of our society, including older people as well as people with physical and mental disabilities. That’s one of the things filling me with hope in these lockdown days – that maybe, after all this is over, we’ll remember what it was like and we’ll end up working together in a better, more just world.

As one of my favourite writers Arundhati Roy recently wrote,

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

[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.

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

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