A PhD project exploring intersectionality through fan podcasts

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Tag: Sex and sexuality

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

Episode Resources:

1) Podcast – Nancy: The Word Queer 

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

3) Essay – How Fanfiction Made Me Gay 

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

5) Fanfiction – Breath of the Wild drabbles series

6) Fanfiction: Skies of Blue, Red Roses Too

7) Essay – [Elsewhere] Arrows and Aros

 

Episode Transcript

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

[Intro music]

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

[Intro music]

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

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

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

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

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

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

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

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

Parinita: Oh wow!

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

Parinita: Oh that’s fascinating!

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

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

Milena: Yeah.

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

Milena: Yeah.

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

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

Milena: Not a huge amount.

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

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

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

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

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

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

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

Parinita: Yeah.

Photo of the ensemble cast of the TV show Black Sails

Black Sails ensemble courtesy Wiki

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

Parinita: Absolutely.

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

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

Milena: Yeah.

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

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

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

Milena: But I deal with it.

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

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

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

Milena: Yeah.

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah exactly.

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

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

Milena: Their life must be so miserable!

Parinita: [laughs] I know.

Milena: Please find better friends.

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

Milena: Yeah.

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

Milena: Yeah.

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

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

Image courtesy Babylon 5 Confessions

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

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

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

Milena: Yeah.

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

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

Parinita: Um hmm.

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

Parinita: Oh right!

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

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

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

Milena: Yeah.

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

Milena: Yeah.

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

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

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

Milena: [laughs]

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

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

Parinita: Oh my god.

Milena: It’s like why?!

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

Milena: Oh absolutely.

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

Milena: Yeah definitely.

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

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

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

Milena: [laughs]

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

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

Milena: It’s a problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Milena: Yeah.

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

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

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

Milena: Yeah.

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

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

Milena: [laughs]

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: [laughs]

Milena: I was like it’s not good.

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

Milena: [laughs] Yes!

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

Milena: Absolutely.

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

Milena: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

Parinita: Yeah!

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

Parinita: Aww! [laughs]

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

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

Parinita: Oh! Yes!

Milena: [laughs]

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

Milena: It’s on my list.

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

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

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

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

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

Milena: Thank you for having me! Take care.

[Outro music]

 

[Outro music]

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

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

Episode 14 We Don’t Know What To Do With Them: Representations of Older Women in Media

Episode Resources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Episode Transcript:

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

Deb Dimond Young

[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 fourteenth episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I talk to Deb Dimond Young about how older women are represented in media and the impact this has on culture and society.

Mainstream media values youth and ageing is associated with loss and bitterness. But what is old anyway? The idea is socially constructed and varies across historical, geographical, and cultural contexts. Essentialist ideas in media dictate what people of a certain age – both old and young – are supposed to do. The portrayal of women over a certain age is rife with stereotypes – that is, if these representations even exist in the first place. Mothers are represented in limited roles with their identities tied to their husbands and children. These negative tropes influence real-life interactions and mainstream imaginations.

A gendered contradiction means that older men in media are allowed to retain the agency and power that women aren’t. Romance, sex and sexuality is largely absent in portrayals of older women. While there are media examples of women disrupting expectations and going off on their own adventures, these are few and far between. We need more stories and more people telling these stories. Expanding the diversity of ages behind the screen can change the narratives that we value.

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: Today I’m so happy to welcome Deb Dimond Young on the podcast. Deb teaches First Year Integrated Communication and Writing at the University of Northern Iowa and is currently working on a PhD in rhetoric and professional communication from Iowa State University. Her research interests include composition pedagogy, service learning and feminist rhetoric. Deb also has a nerdy interest in the pedagogical possibilities of fandom rhetoric and she recently presented her work on fan podcasting as public pedagogy at the Feminism and Rhetorics Conference and will be presenting further work next summer at the 9th Biennial Slayage Conference on the Whedonverse. All that sounds so incredible and I can’t wait to hear more about your work, Deb. Both of us are nerdy feminists.

Deb: [laughs]

Parinita: So we’re both really excited to talk about the intersections of age and gender today. Specifically, we’re going to be discussing how older women are represented in some of our favourite media and the implication of this on the real world. I know that this is something you have a lot of thoughts about, Deb, so could you tell us a little about your own experiences with this and how and why you got interested in this topic?

Deb: Sure. First of all, thank you for having me today. I’m really excited to talk to you about these issues. I came to fandom later than a fair number of people. I mean I had things that I was a fan of as a child but I really got into sci-fi and fantasy fandom more around college into adulthood for some strange reason. When I was in high school, I had friends who were really into Doctor Who but in the States, Doctor Who aired at really odd times on public television. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Deb: And so I didn’t watch it all that much. But I was a peripheral fan. I had friends who were really into it, so I was aware of that and an occasional viewer. And that was during the Tom Baker years in the United States. I remember seeing David Tennant on the cover of Entertainment Weekly when his run began with the rebooted Who. And I read the article and I was like, “Oh this sounds kinds of interesting.” I hadn’t actually realised that the show had ever gone away.

Parinita: [laughs]

Deb: And so I watched it and absolutely fell in love with it. And then went back to watching the Christopher Eccleston years and have been hooked ever since and I’ve seen every episode since then. And one of the other fandoms that we’re going to talk about today is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And that came out in 1997 when I was twenty-five and not a regular viewer of teen fantasy and horror, so it didn’t even register as a thing to me. But by 2002, when it was heading into its last season and was on syndication, in the US it ran at just totally odd times – as the shows that are in syndication did at that time before cable. I guess cable was a thing in 2002. But I didn’t necessarily have it.

Parinita: [laughs]

Deb: So it just would run at really odd times. And I had just given birth to my oldest daughter and we’d be up all hours nursing and taking care of her. And so I just turned on the TV and Buffy just happened to be on a fair amount of those strange times. And so again, I got hooked and ended up watching all the episodes and just fell in love with her and with the whole Joss Whedon universe of Firefly and Dollhouse and everything that came after that. And then Harry Potter came out in 1997 when I wasn’t reading a lot of children’s fantasy either. [laughs] But again when I had my daughter, I had friends with older kids who were like, “Oooh keep this on your radar. You’re really going to want to know about this story when Laura gets older. When your kids get older.” And so I read it and again [laughs] I just got hooked. And it became a really wonderful thing. What I really loved about these fandoms and coming to fandom a little more in my adult life is that it’s really become a wonderful thing to share with my kids. My daughters love Doctor Who, they love Harry Potter, my oldest daughter is a huge Buffy fan. So, first of all, I feel like I’ve done an okay job in parenting.

Parinita: [laughs]

Deb: [laughs] But also it’s given us a great way to spend time together and have something to talk about. And so I really loved that aspect of fandom. We’ve gone to cons, we’ve done stuff like that, which has been really fantastic. I’ve gone back to get my PhD in a non-traditional timeline, I guess you could say. I’m hoping to complete my PhD here before I turn fifty – that’s my goal. I turn forty-eight this summer so [laughs] I’m running out of time. But I’ve been able to pull that love of fandom into my work as well and really take a look at how fandom becomes such an incredible teaching tool. Paul Booth describes fandom as, “the classroom of the future.” And how we can use these wonderful things that we love so deeply and so passionately as a way to teach important concepts. And I see podcasting as being a really wonderful way to connect those two worlds. So now I’ve even been able to pull these things into my professional life, which has been really lovely.

Parinita: That’s so good to hear. And that’s so interesting as well because our experiences differ in terms of age because I grew up with Harry Potter and I grew up with fandom as well. And it’s something that I was thinking of while watching Buffy too because I first watched Buffy when it used to air on TV when I was a teenager myself. So I was much closer to Buffy’s age at that time. And now when we watched the Band Candy episode in preparation for our conversation today, I realised that I was seeing things from the adults’ perspective and not really the teen perspective.

Deb: [laughs]

Parinita: It’s the same now when I’m going back to Harry Potter – and even Doctor Who to an extent, but mostly Harry Potter – where I’m looking at it through adult lenses because it’s such a different experience. And what you’re saying how fandom is such a great tool for literacy of all kinds, it’s something that I’m really interested in because when I was in school in India, in Mumbai, in our school – and I’ve spoken about this a little bit before – but in our schools, they didn’t really teach us how to think, they taught us what to think. So critical thinking, critical literacy – that wasn’t really on the radar at all. But I’ve been a part of Harry Potter fandom since I was thirteen years old on Mugglenet which was one of the first few Harry Potter fan websites. And I realised that I learned critical literacy and to think critically through my experiences in fandom; through all these different perspectives not just in fanfiction but also meta and commentary and now, more recently, on podcasts – there’s a lot of commentary where people look at these things that they love more critically. That’s why I started this podcast because I know that this is true based on my own experiences and I wanted to explore that a little bit more. But in terms of age, since that’s what we’re going to be talking about today, to be honest, this is only something that I started actively thinking about in a run-up to a previous episode that we did on this podcast about age and disability. Because I had massive blind-spots then and still do now in terms of representations of older people in media, especially older women. And it’s something that I’m constantly thinking about now – especially the ways in which mainstream media seems to value youth and especially science fiction and fantasy media where ageing is associated with loss and bitterness and the impact that this has on mainstream society at large.

Deb: Absolutely. And I think that particularly the texts that we were looking at to prepare for this podcast have such a really nice set of examples in terms of the way that media can value youth, right? Because we’re dealing with a couple of texts with immortal characters. So in Buffy, we’ve got Angel, Spike, the other vampires who are really just beloved characters. Angel is a vampire with a soul. He’s beloved by Buffy, he’s beloved by the audience. He is forever this example of the perfect love and the perfect man – other than when he loses his soul and becomes evil again and tries to kill everybody.

Parinita: [laughs]

Deb: But that’s the side part. And then Spike is the bad boy we all love to hate. He’s the guy that your mom warned you about but you had a crush on anyway.

Parinita: [laughs] Absolutely!

Deb: [laughs] Actually there’s a great interview with him – with James Marsters not with Spike [laughs] – the actor who plays Spike – on the Buffering The Vampire Slayer podcast, and he talked about how when they were creating the show, he and Joss were trying to see just how far they could push Spike in terms of his evilness. Because everyone loved him so much. He’s supposed to be this mean, evil character and people loved him and loved him and loved him. In spite of what he did! [laughs]

Parinita: I’ll let you continue with your point but that made me think of how when I was watching it as a teenager, I had a huge crush on Spike.

Deb: Absolutely!

Gif of Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Parinita: And similarly in Gilmore Girls – I don’t know how familiar you are with Gilmore Girls – but there’s a character there, Jess.

Deb: Yes!

Parinita: Who was again a bad boy … I obviously had a fictional type. Which now, if I go back and watch these shows again through my thirty-year-old eyes, I don’t know how different my view will be. Maybe I’ll still make poor fictional life choices. [laughs] I don’t know, but it would be interesting.

Deb: [laughs] No, absolutely. And so here are these characters who are eternally young, eternally beautiful. And we love them and we really connect with them. And the Doctor is the same way. So the Doctor – since the reboot at least – has been played by young, attractive actors, right?

Parinita: Um hmm.

An image of the six new Doctors from the Doctor Who reboot

Image courtesy MrRy4n on DeviantArt

Deb: So we have Eccleston and Tennant and Smith and now with Jodie – we’ve got these very, very beautiful youngish people and there have only been two Doctors in the modern reboot – Peter Capaldi and then John Hurt as the War Doctor – who had the Doctor appearing as an older – by no means old, but older – in comparison. And so we’ve got these just really beautiful, eternally young people who are held up as these great heroes and people that we should be looking up to. When I was trying to think about this, I was really searching for an exception of someone who is eternally young in these texts and yet not necessarily somebody that we want to associate with. And the one person I could come up with is in Harry Potter of Moaning Myrtle. Right?

Parinita: Aaah!

Deb: She’s eternally young. She eternally has her young image but not her body and she’s just miserable. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: And it might be something about the fact that she doesn’t have an actual body, just a form. So maybe it’s the fact that it’s the young body that’s the important part. I’m not really sure.

Parinita: There’s this podcast that I listen to called The Gayly Prophet.

Deb: Yes.

Parinita: Which is a Harry Potter podcast and it’s great. And they propose that when Myrtle was alive, she was severely depressed. And even as a ghost then, she continues to be severely depressed. That mental illness didn’t go away even with her death.

Deb: Yeah. Her corporeal form.

Parinita: Which I found very depressing. Yeah.

Deb: That’s really interesting. So yeah, we have these wonderful characters that we love and adore who are eternally young. And on the flipside of that, your question there about ageing being associated with bitterness – that we have lots and lots and lots of examples, right?

Parinita: Um hmm.

Deb: When you think about the standard maiden, mother, crone triad that you see in literature for women, the crone stage, that section is where we tend to put particularly older female characters. It was interesting on the podcast Women of Harry Potter, Stephanie Paulsell said that, “The best thing about turning fifty as a woman is that you become invisible to men.” And you see that so much in these characters. You think about people like Sarah Jane on Doctor Who who, when we first meet her again in School Reunion when she comes back in New Who, she’s living her life fighting injustice through journalism just like she did before she met the Doctor in her previous incarnation in Classic Who. But when she sees the Doctor and meets Rose, she immediately shifts into jealousy and bitterness. And she talks about how she’s never had a love in her life because no one could compare with the Doctor. She has no children, no family, none of the things that we associate with proper female roles. And she’s lonely and she seems bitter and she kinda takes on that spinstery role even though she’s not that old. [laughs] She’s middle-aged.

Gif of scene with Rose and Sarah Jane. Text says - Rose: I'm not his assistant. Sarah Jane: No? Get you, tiger.

Parinita: Yeah. And it’s this cycle where media influences real life which influences media which influences real life. You only see these examples of older women, especially single older women, who are seen as either unhappy or pathetic or even crazy.

Deb: Yeah.

Parinita: In the Women of Harry Potter Mrs. Figgs episode, they took a more empowered view of Mrs. Figgs. But that’s not really seen in the books; she is seen as this batty old lady who loves her cats.

Deb: Absolutely.

Parinita: And if you only see that, then it socially conditions you, even if that’s not what you want – marriage and kids or whatever, this normative idea of being a woman, especially an older woman. But then you feel that loss yourself just because that’s what everyone around you in real life as well as fictional life has. And it’s just a harmful cycle, I think.

Deb: Absolutely. And one of the things that I do love about what they do with Sarah Jane is that over the process of that episode, it seems like she shifts out of bitterness and into more processing trauma, right?

Parinita: Um hmm.

Deb: She’s one of the few characters that we get to see long term after she’s left her experience with the Doctor. And she seems to be processing through that trauma of what that experience is. And when she leaves the show in School Reunion, she leaves re-energised to take on this new life. Which actually led to a spin-off.

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: And so she had her own adventures.

Poster for The Sarah Jane Adventures

Parinita: Yeah. I haven’t watched the spin-off yet but that’s awesome that there’s this example of an older woman going off on her own adventures.

Deb: Yes!

Parinita: Which you don’t really see usually.

Deb: Absolutely. And one of the things about the spin-off is she adopts a boy. It becomes this found family structure there which is really lovely. And so yeah, it’s really nice to have this woman who does get to have these adventures even though she’s – I don’t even know what age the actress was who played her – in middle-ages, off having adventures and doing great things. Which is much better than the other bitter woman that we see in Doctor Who which is Amy Pond in The Girl Who Waited.

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: When we look at that episode where she gets stuck in an alternate timeline and then she has to survive on her own for thirty-six years and she ages so vividly and gets extraordinarily angry and bitter. And that is the focus, even though she’s so strong and she’s so clever and she’s such a warrior because of her experience. We focus and the show focuses on that bitterness and that anger and that physical disintegration.

Screenshot from The Girl Who Waited of young Amy and old Amy

Young Amy and Old Amy in The Girl Who Waited

Parinita: Which Rory doesn’t get. Her husband, he aged what for two thousand years?

Deb: Absolutely! Two thousand years as the last centurion!

Parinita: But yeah, he looks the same.

Deb: Absolutely!

Rory as the last centurion

Parinita: He’s completely well-adjusted more or less. In the Woke Doctor Who episode they mentioned that she has her daughter – spoilers, sorry, for a show that’s now fifteen years old almost. [laughs] But yeah her daughter, River, she has that relationship without having to go through any process of motherhood or representation of motherhood or ageing or anything. I think the glasses that she gets towards the end of her run on Doctor Who are the only concession towards her age that’s made at all.

Deb: Yup. I mean it really is remarkable. The only time we see Rory age is actually in the episode The Doctor’s Wife when the House traps them in the TARDIS. And is kind of torturing them, messing with their heads.

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: And there you see Rory ageing and become angry and bitter at Amy every time they get separated where he ages and she doesn’t. But we also learn at the end that that was all an illusion. We’re seeing that story through Amy’s eyes, not through Rory’s eyes and so it seems almost more like her processing her guilt and subconscious in some way, more so than something that actually physically happens to him because it turns out to all be an illusion, right?

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: When we see women who are over fifty, we tend to see them as either angry and bitter or daffy and crazy like Mrs Figg, right? Or we don’t see them at all. They just disappear entirely.

Parinita: Yeah exactly!

Deb: Right?

Parinita: If you see in real life, there’s so much potential because for a lot of women, because of social conditioning and just because of the way that society is structured, you do have a lot of women getting married young – youngish and then having kids, being married – going through this whole thing. But then after a certain age, when you don’t have the responsibilities of the children and perhaps even of your husband, there is so much that could be done. In stories especially, you could explore this whole theme of liberation as well. You can go and do these things that you were not “allowed” to earlier – especially like in a more traditional society. India, for example, in a lot of contexts, women don’t have that power to be able to talk back to social norms. There are some women who do have that agency but most women don’t. When you become older, you’re almost free to do what you couldn’t do when you were younger. And you could explore all these different things. Especially in science fiction and fantasy where we’re supposed to imagine these alternative possibilities anyway.

Deb: And that’s the thing. As people are living longer, it just seems like there are such great possibilities. What we’ve considered middle age of you know forties-ish – fifties-ish is truly middle now, right?

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: We determine middle as forty and fifty, and then you live until seventyish or so, maybe eighty. But by then your body and mind may not be at the point that’s allowing you to do lots of things. I have a relative who is 102, I think.

Parinita: Wow.

Deb: I think she just turned 102 and her mind is sharp as a tack and fifty-one was literally mid-life for her. Now that we are living longer, we have this great opportunity. And there’s so much that you can play with in terms of stories for that life afterwards. An example, who’s not one of the ones we’re talking about because she’s not sci-fi or fantasy, is Miss Marple from Agatha Christie.

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: The whole reason she was able to have these great adventures and solve these great crimes as an older woman is because nobody paid attention to her, right?

Parinita: That’s true.

Deb: She disappears.

Parinita: One example from real life that I really love that I came across a few years ago was Judy Dench who apparently embroiders on the sets.

Deb: Yes!

Parinita: Which again, is an activity that you see very much associated with women. And a docile, submissive sort of image that you have. And she actually embroiders really sweary stuff. [laughs] Which I love. That would be a character that I want to put in a book.

Deb: Honestly, I took inspiration from that. I also cross-stitch feminist cross-stitching. [laughs]

Parinita: Amazing. We have to see a picture of that in the transcript of the show.

 

Deb: I can get you a picture of some of the things that I’ve done. But yeah, that idea of subverting what is considered a traditional female activity in a way that actually disrupts, I just absolutely love. I think that’s really fun. And it’s unfortunate that in sci-fi and fantasy, we don’t see that disruption very much. Because there is so much there to do!

Parinita: Absolutely.

Deb: There’s so much space.

Parinita: Science fiction and fantasy and also just media in general perpetuates such essentialist ideas of age, right? Like what people of a certain age – both old and young – are allowed to do or are supposed to do. Which is why in Band Candy, the episode that we watched for this show in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, where some magical chocolate ends up making all the responsible adults behave like teenagers – for people who don’t know what this episode is about.

Deb: It’s one of my favourites.

Parinita: And I love that. It’s such a good episode. I thought it in a really interesting way challenged that notion of what proper grown-ups are supposed to do. But it also, to some extent, exceptionalised it. Because it was very temporary, right? It was just that one episode where they could do these things. I don’t remember what happens later. I haven’t watched the rest of the series recently. You suggested we watch this episode for our conversation today. What did you think of it?

Deb: This is absolutely one of my favourite episodes. And especially watching it now when I associate far more with Joyce and with Giles.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Deb: Than I do with Buffy and Willow and the Scooby Gang.

Parinita: [laughs]

Deb: It looked like so much fun to film. But yeah absolutely, you’re right about the exceptionalising idea, right? Because in everyday – everyday! – in other episodes [laughs] Joyce is not a real person here.

Parinita: [laughs]

Deb: But in her regular life, Joyce is a single mom, right? She has a job where she works in a gallery but we never see her in the gallery. She refers to it occasionally, she sometimes has boxes of materials around and so there’s reference to it. We know that she has this life outside of the house. But we very rarely see her physically outside of their house. The few times that we do, it tends to be things like driving Buffy to school, right? So she’s still doing mom stuff. Even though she must have this life outside of being a mom, we never ever see that.

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: We see her in very what you think of as that stereotypical middle-aged mom attire.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Deb: Skirts and dresses, slacks and cardigans – that sort of thing. She rarely dates. [laughs] One episode where does date, she actually dates an evil robot who tries to kill everybody, so her experience is not great. And she’s never seen as a sexual character until the very end of her arc just before – spoilers here again for a twenty-year-old show – but she dies. That’s the point where she finally gets to start to have this life outside of the house. They’re finally starting to refer to that. And then she’s killed off.

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: But in Band Candy, when she eats the evil candy, and regresses to her former self, you see before the candy is eaten, both Joyce and Giles are enforcing the rules and they’re holding Buffy to account and they’re very stern and this is what we’re doing. But after eating the candy, they don’t care. They’re breaking the rules. We don’t see Joyce in the house after she starts eating the candy. She is entirely out of the house. That’s why it’s so shocking that Buffy comes to check on Giles and Joyce is at Giles’s house. Because Joyce never leaves the house other than to do mom things. So she’s not in the house at all, her attire changes dramatically. It becomes very sexy and partially stolen.

Parinita: [laughs]

Image of Joyce and Giles

Deb: And she looks fantastic and her hair is big and fabulous. And Giles starts wearing eyeliner for some reason.

Parinita: [laughs]

Deb: We start seeing them out on the streets of Sunnydale. And Joyce herself becomes a very sexual being to the point where she actually has sex with Giles on the hood of a cop car.

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: Which is off-camera and only implied until later when they come back and do confirm it happened.

Parinita: With a pair of handcuffs as well.

Deb: With handcuffs, yeah.

Parinita: Which Buffy is very uncomfortable about.

Deb: And just very, very different. But then again when the candy wears off, all of a sudden Joyce and Giles are reverting back to their normal selves, their normal clothing. We see Joyce picking Buffy up from school again and going back to her mom behaviour. And she’s really embarrassed about her behaviour. Both of them claim that they don’t really remember but given comments in the episode, clearly they do. So they’re kind of acting like they don’t remember as a way to hide what they did. And so yeah, it really reinforces that idea that there is normal Joyce and then there is candy Joyce, right?

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: They’re very different in that way. Which really does reinforce that idea that normal Joyce is the one that we want. Normal Joyce is the stable, standard mom character. That is the one we should be thinking about and this is the one-off experience.

Parinita: And in the episode, in the Buffering the Vampire Slayer episode, they spoke about how there’s a lot of fanfiction of Joyce and Giles based off of this episode

Deb: Yes!

Parinita: Which again made me think of how obviously it’s exploring this under-representation of older not just romance but also sex and sexuality, which you don’t really see not only on this show but in media largely. This idea of young people being disgusted by the thought of their parents having sex. [laughs]

Deb: Right.

Parinita: How do you think biology works? [laughs] But this episode made me think about the fact that there’s also this very limited idea of teenagers as well.

Deb: Yes.

Parinita: Of sex and drugs and alcohol and dancing and being irresponsible. Whereas the teenagers at least in this episode were pretty alarmed by everything. I understand why they were alarmed, because they were their grown-ups. But still I can’t even imagine Willow doing these things on a regular basis. Until she goes Dark Willow for a bit.

Deb: [laughs]

Parinita: But generally, she wasn’t really that kind of teenager anyway. And especially now when we are seeing real-life teenagers take on these really monumental roles in a way that adults – a lot of adults don’t; with the climate crisis and with the Black Lives Matter protests, in India there were the anti CAA protests and even in the US the gun control protests. I feel like this normative idea of what being a teenager is needs to be challenged. I know we’re talking more about older women today but that’s why this episode really made me think of both ends of that spectrum.

Deb: Absolutely. I teach mostly first-year college students so in the US – that would be eighteen-nineteen years old.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Deb: And thinking about this image of what teenagers are and thinking of the students that I work with every year, yeah drastically different. Not that teenagers don’t do silly things.

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: But yeah there are so many examples of teenagers who are, as you said, doing these amazing things. And it’s not recognised and they’re not given credit for what they’re doing in part, I think, because of this sort of imagery. That, like you were saying earlier with our over-saturation in media of images of older women as being bitter and angry, when we have these images of teenagers as being spoiled and reckless and so forth. Then we see when teenagers doing great things in the world, it’s so hard to try to pair those two concepts and hold space for both of those because what we’re seeing doesn’t match with the images that are bombarding us so continuously. And that’s really detrimental!

Parinita: Oh yeah, absolutely. And this is one of the reasons that I love this movie called Booksmart. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it.

Deb: Yes!

Parinita: I love it so much because when I watched it for the first time, it was doing that. For those who haven’t watched it, go watch it now.

Deb: So good!

Parinita: Yeah. It just takes these ideas of teenagers and flips it on their head and just has room for so many diverse experiences. There’s so much nuance and complexity in those representations – you don’t have to be this binary one or the other. You can be everything; you contain multitudes, as they say. It’s just a movie that I love very much.

Deb: Yes.

Parinita: Of course, like we were talking about in a lot of mainstream science fiction and fantasy media, mothers like Joyce and older women are completely missing in roles where their identities aren’t tied to their children or husbands. If you’re a woman over a certain age in media, like Stephanie Paulsell says over the age of fifty, because media is still mostly controlled by men, the way that your identity is defined is super limited.

Deb: Um hmm.

Parinita: In Breaking The Glass Slipper, Representations of Motherhood episode, they said that mothers are almost seen to be this hindrance to adventures. Mothers are not allowed to go on adventures.

Deb: Right. Well, there’s a wonderful book by Kathleen Rowe Karlyn called Unruly Girls, Unrepentant Mothers: Redefining Feminism On Screen that talks about this a lot. And she argues that older women are frequently absent from pop culture just because we don’t know what to do with them, right?

Parinita: Um hmm.

Deb: And kind of what they were saying in Breaking The Glass Slipper, right? That women or mothers in particular, are supposed to be this hindrance. They’re those who are enforcing the rules, they keep you from having those adventures. And so we just don’t deal with them. We don’t know how to deal with them at all. And that’s one of the reasons why I think Minerva McGonagall is such an interesting character. Because there are clearly older female instructors at Hogwarts, but she’s the one that we spend a lot of significant time with. And so it’s really interesting to parse apart her concept and what she is in this role. And what’s fascinating is that we still mostly think of McGonagall as a nurturer to children, right?

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: Because she is a teacher in a school, becomes headmistress at the school. She’s a different type of mother than say a Molly Weasley.

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: She’s not the huggy, cuddly, nurturey one. She’s the strict, hold-the-line mother figure. But in doing that, the kids at the school know she is the one that you can count on. In the Women of Harry Potter episode, they talk about the fact that it’s when McGonagall goes away that suddenly Harry freaks out. “Wait a minute, there’s a serious problem here.”

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Deb: ’Cause the one that is always here, the one we know we can always count on has left. And that means there’s trouble. We think about her so much in terms of her work with children. So we’re still holding that essential concept of what women are there to do. Even in her battle, she’s protecting the school, she’s protecting the kids. And so that’s still the description that we give. Vanessa Zoltan in Women of Harry Potter makes a great comment. “McGonagall is just as maternal as Molly because she has to take care of all of Hogwarts.”

Parinita: Um hmm.

Deb: That becomes her role.

Parinita: I think they mentioned this in that episode as well that she knows when to break the rules too.

Deb: Yes.

Parinita: In the fifth book when she whispers to Peeves, “It turns from the other side.” I think it was her. When he’s trying to undo the chandelier during the reign of Umbridge and she tells him that yeah it unscrews from the other side.

Deb: [laughs]

Parinita: And also during the battle like you said.

Deb: Right.

Parinita: She’s the one who’s at the forefront and she’s always there to stand up to things and stand up to people. But also she’ll sometimes just offer Harry Potter some biscuits [laughs] because that’s what he needs.

Deb: Yes.

Parinita: Or make him the Quidditch Seeker because First-Year rules are only for some people, not for others. [laughs] But yeah she really cares about things and she’s not this one-dimensional, strict, nunnish character.

Deb: Right. Yeah you think about when Harry flies and breaks the rules and her response is to make him Seeker of his team. [laughs]

Parinita: Or she’s like please, we have to win the Quidditch match, I can’t face Snape otherwise. [laughs]

Deb: [laughs] Absolutely. We still have her taking on these caring, nurturing, traditionally feminine roles which is really interesting. But the other side of that question that you mentioned is the idea of the absent mother that we just make them go away entirely. And so you got a couple of really great examples of that too. Lily, of course, from Harry Potter being the perfect example. By dying protecting her child, she’s the ultimate sacrificial mother. It also means that she’s eternally perfect. In the eyes of her child and her community, she’s always young and pretty which is why people are constantly commenting on her eyes. Those eyes never got wrinkles around them.

Parinita: [laughs]

Deb: [laughs] She was always young and pretty.

Parinita: Yup.

Deb: And her love is so extraordinary that it even protects her child after her death. And it really is interesting that as Harry grows and learns more about his parents, James becomes fallible in Harry’s eyes. He still loves him but he begins to learn that James is fallible. But he never learns that about Lily. Lily is always perfect.

Parinita: That’s true! And she’s almost placed on this pedestal, glorified to such an extent that she’s not even a real person anymore.

Deb: Right.

Parinita: Perfection is a prison.

Deb: Yeah. She will never change. She will never grow and so because of that, as a character, she falls into the same trope that we so often see with women in literature that they don’t get a full life.

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: They don’t get a full character arc. We learn James’s backstory in terms of the trouble that he got into and mischief that he got into with his friends. We learn Lily’s backstory that she was a really nice kid and she was a really talented witch and she befriended the nerdy kid that nobody else liked. And that’s about it. [laughs] Right?

Parinita: Yup.

Deb: She never gets this rich, complicated backstory that James does. Which is really unfortunate.

Parinita: And even with Molly, she is taken so much for granted by her children. Yeah, she is this excellent character. But just within the context of the story, they love her but they take her for granted. She’s always at the background. And in terms of parenting, she’s always positioned as the strict one whereas Arthur Weasley can get away with shenanigans.

Deb: [laughs]

Parinita: Because he’s the man and he’s the husband and being strict and boring is Molly’s job. And that’s how it comes across. Obviously that reflects a lot of real life as well where men going out with their babies in a pram sometimes are seen as heroes. Like “oh my god wow you’re parenting your child!” Whereas women are supposed to do that.

Deb: Yeah and I think that it’s interesting again on that podcast Women of Harry Potter, Vanessa Zoltan really does a nice job of trying to complicate Molly a little bit and describes what she does as radical hospitality.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Deb: And I really, really love that descriptor because there’s that old saying that an army marches on its stomach. And the revolution against Voldemort doesn’t happen without Molly Weasley keeping everyone fed, clothed and happy.

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: She’s making sure that the Order is functional both psychologically by sitting and chatting with Tonks and helping her work through her feelings. She’s keeping the kids fed and under control and working through. She’s making sure that everybody has what they need. And kinda pulling that to the world that we’re living in right now, I’m thinking about in the US right now we’re experiencing large-scale protests against police brutality and systemic racism like we haven’t seen in a really long time. And I saw a tweet recently that really struck me in terms of Molly. And it said that, “The revolution isn’t one lane. There are many lanes to a protest and you can’t be in all of them at once. But they all move the revolution forward.”

Parinita: Absolutely.

Deb: And I like that idea paired with Molly and this idea of radical hospitality, right? Her lane may be seen as this traditionally feminine lane but it’s absolutely vital to move the revolution forward. Without her, it all falls apart. And so what’s really frustrating to me is what you said just a minute ago that it’s just not recognised. She gets mocked for all her work, for the things that she thinks are important. Her work is taken for granted. She’s just dismissed as a character in the story. Even though she’s a total badass.

Parinita: Yeah!

Deb: I mean she’s out there [laughs] and she kills Bellatrix. The great, “Not my daughter, you bitch!” moment. That’s so fantastic!

Parinita: Yeah she gets that one amazing moment.

Deb: Yeah!

Parinita: But in the Representations of Motherhood episode in Breaking the Glass Slipper, they point out that heroism is seen in such a gendered lens.

Deb: Absolutely.

Parinita: Oh you’re this fighter and you’re this brave warrior, that makes you a hero; but taking care of your children and nourishing them spiritually and emotionally and physically – that’s not seen as heroic.

Deb: Absolutely.

Parinita: In the Women of Harry Potter episode about Mrs. Figgs, I love their interpretation of it where she’s weaponising her marginalised identity.

Deb: Yeah.

Parinita: Where she’s playing up to these Muggle stereotypes of crazy cat lady which makes her really easy to dismiss as well as the witching world stereotypes of Squibs where the magical population doesn’t really think about her at all and she’s again easy to dismiss. But she’s using that to act as a spy and also to protect Harry which is semi-successful.

Deb: [laughs]

Parinita: Because Harry grew up in a super abusive household. But yeah, I just like this trope of crazy cat lady being overturned to exert agency. Especially with what I was saying with older women who may not have had many opportunities to do this due to family and societal responsibilities earlier. They take this old age as a way to throw off all these social shackles and do whatever they want to do.

Deb: Yeah. Mrs. Figgs becomes the Miss Marple of the Harry Potter world. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Oh, I love that.

Deb: Because everyone dismisses her, she’s able to do and get away with things that nobody else could do.

Parinita: Yeah I love that.

Deb: Just because no one accounts for her existence.

Parinita: [laughs] So what are some of your favourite characters in media who challenge these traditional conceptions of age and gender? We’ve spoken about a few of them earlier but if you had any more that you’d like to share.

Deb: Oh, River.

Parinita: [laughs]

Deb: Everything River. We can’t talk about women and age and sci-fi and fantasy and not spend a few minutes glorying in the wonder that is River Song.

Parinita: [laughs]

Gif of River Song from Doctor Who blowing a kiss

Deb: Oh I love River. So if we go back to Karlyn’s book, she has a great line. She defines an unruly woman as “a cluster of attributes that challenge patriarchal power by denying norms of femininity intended to keep a woman in her place”. And if that doesn’t define River, I can’t think of something that does, right? Because her body is unruly and her speech is improper. Her body is so unruly because like Time Lords, she can actually regenerate into completely different forms. Even when she’s in prison, she doesn’t stay put. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: She has all of these different adventures – so many adventures – as many as anybody else on the show. We don’t see them unfortunately most of the time.

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: But I think about the episode where Rory comes to get her and he’s dressed as the centurion and she’s swanning in having just been skating on the Thames with the Doctor in Victorian England.

Parinita: [laughs]

Deb: And you think about all these wonderful adventures. There’s that great line and I can’t think of what episode it’s in, where somebody says basically, “Isn’t it frustrating having to spend your days in prison for a crime you didn’t actually commit?” And she says, “The days can be theirs, but the nights are mine.”

Parinita: Hmm.

Deb: And I just really love that image. We often think of women, particularly women who are middle-aged and older ’cause Alex Kingston is by no stretch of the imagination old.

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: They’re not sexual beings. And according to Karlyn, a woman whose behaviour is loose and sexual is again that unruly woman. And again, we see that in River. She’s the sexiest character in Doctor Who by a landslide. She kisses as a weapon. That’s how she originally almost kills the Doctor, it’s how she escapes from prison. Because of her hallucinogenic lipstick. She has multiple husbands and wives and an implied array of other partners that we don’t necessarily see. She can rock a sequin gown like nobody’s business.

Parinita: [laughs]

Deb: And it doesn’t hurt that she’s played by Alex Kingston who’s just gorgeous. But she is clearly a woman who is very confident and comfortable in her body. And relishes in it in many different ways including sexuality. And that’s just so unusual. She forces herself into the centre of attention and revels in that attention once she’s there. And again, that’s not something that we typically associate with female characters in general but particularly middle-age and older female characters. And so River’s just the best. [laughs]

Gif of River Song in Doctor Who. Text says: What else are you gonna do? Spank me?

Parinita: I agree. And also what you were saying earlier in terms of the shifting parameters of what even middle-aged means.

Deb: Yeah.

Parinita: Because it’s so socially, historically, geographically constructed. It’s so different in different contexts. Even now, what’s middle-aged in the US would be so different from what’s middle-aged in India. And different parts of the US and different parts of India and which intersectional identities you belong to. Because there are some that are so much more oppressed than others. When I say older, I don’t even know what that bracket is.

Deb: Yeah. [laughs]

Parinita: It’s when you become invisible to the patriarchy essentially, right?

Deb: [laughs]

Parinita: Like Stephanie Paulsell said. Another person like that in Doctor Who is Donna.

Deb: Yes.

Parinita: I loved her. She’s one of my favourite companions and when I first watched it a few years ago, I guess she was older. But now I’m like no, actually how old was she even?!

Deb: [laughs]

Parinita: She must have been in her thirties and I’m like, that’s not old. [laughs] It’s just because in Doctor Who, you’re so used to young companions – that’s all they had in the beginning. The Doctor was allowed to be old but the companions were not allowed to be old. They all had to be young women, young skinny women, young white women.

Deb: Um hmm.

Parinita: And then there was Martha and Bill, and now Yaz. But yeah it was a very specific and definite idea of a companion. And now it’s becoming more diverse, especially with Jodie’s run. Even in terms of older romances, you have Graham and Grace – one of whom was tragically killed. And one of the Doctors that I love the brief little glimpse that we get of is Doctor Ruth who seems to be this really badass older black woman Time Lord. Who’s very mysterious – we don’t know a lot about her. We get a few clues at the end of the most previous episode. But she’s so different from all the Doctors’ regenerations – apart from Peter Capaldi a little bit – who I also love. He’s been this grump of a Doctor. And she also seems to be this really stern person who doesn’t really hold with nonsense whereas Jodie is all nonsense mostly.

Deb: [laughs]

Parinita: So that comparison between the two of them was really fun for me to watch.

Deb: Yeah, I hope we get to meet her again. I hope that she comes back in some way because that would be absolutely fantastic to get to explore who she is.

Parinita: Yeah. We have no idea but I have hopes. I know the new season has gotten some critiques as well but I think it’s still trying to do more in terms of including diverse identities than any previous shows have. It’s becoming more and more inclusive and especially when we talk about older women representations in media, we’re just talking about it just in terms of age and gender. But if you have any other identities in it like race or cis versus trans or class or sexuality or sexual orientation, that’s even worse. There’s so much lesser out there for that. Which is why I love fandom.

Deb: The more marginalised identities you add in, the less people who seem to appear in these productions and these media. I think one of the things that Chibnall’s done, particularly with Doctor Who since that’s what we’re talking about here, is that he seems to have done a really great job diversifying behind the camera, diversifying in the writers’ room, diversifying the directors. And I think that in addition to diversifying the acting staff – which is wonderful and fantastic, being able to see different faces and different types of people on camera – changing what happens behind the camera changes the stories that we tell, right? Changing the acting folks in front of the camera changes how we tell those stories, but we’ve got to start with all the way back to what are the stories that we write? What are the stories that we decide are worth putting forward? I would be very interested to know what sort of age breakdown they have in the writers’ room because specifically focusing on questions of age, as we are here, because particularly in sci-fi and fantasy, the writers’ rooms tend to pretty young, they tend to be pretty white, and they tend to be pretty male.

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: I know that he’s done a lot of work diversifying in terms of race and ethnicity, and in terms of gender in his writers’ room which is fantastic. I would be very interested to see if there’s also been diversity in terms of age so that we’re looking at what stories we even value and even want to tell.

Parinita: Yeah that’s such a good point because who gets to tell the stories is just as important as who gets to represent them visually. So I was thinking of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power on Netflix, where Noelle Stevenson is the showrunner and she’s also written this excellent graphic novel that I love called Nimona and The Lumberjanes and she’s this queer, young author. In She-Ra’s world, the default is queer and the default is female. Most of the characters there are girls and women. But now thinking about it, in terms of age, they’re all young.

Deb: Um hmm.

Parinita: Parent figures are completely absent. There are a few here and there but they’re not at the centre of the story. There’s one old woman – this batty, absent-minded old lady – who is a sort of mentor figure. But she’s mostly going on doing her own thing and she’s a really interesting character. But her story isn’t at the centre of it. Which in a world like She-Ra where they give room to a lot of different kinds of stories like it is very much about communal heroism rather than individual heroism, so they’re all coming together and all their stories get a lot of centre-stage – except old people. There aren’t really that many. There was one mother who sacrificed herself because, you know, that’s what you do. And she was a very mother mother even though she was the queen of the kingdom. So yeah, I think the age breakdown is interesting. Unless you’re an old white dude in the West or an old Indian dude in Bollywood – that’s the only sort of old you’re allowed to be. You’re not allowed to be an old woman writer or an old woman actor. Which hopefully gets better. And I think it will. There was a thread on Twitter which I’ll try and find and I’ll link to. It was basically talking about these things about diversity where they do exist, but they’re in more niche science fiction and fantasy stories and not too many people know about it.

Deb: Um hmm.

Parinita: Which is great. But I also think it’s equally if not more important to have this representation in mainstream popular media. In the Avengers, what if there was an old superhero fighting? Why do they all have to be young?

Deb: Absolutely.

Parinita: Do superheroes not get old?

Deb: The only time we see an old superhero is when Captain America comes back in the last Avengers movie. And then he’s done fighting, right?

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: He’s retired, he’s done, he’s lived his life. And he comes back basically to say goodbye. So yeah, when you think about it in terms of writers’ rooms, the way I would have written a fifty-year-old character at twenty and the way I would write a fifty-year-old character now are drastically different, obviously.

Parinita: Absolutely. When you’re that young, you find anything beyond a certain age – “oh that’s far too old” – you can’t even imagine that. Which is not their fault.

Deb: No!

Parinita: You just need to have diversity in terms of ages.

Deb: Absolutely. I think about when I was first teaching, I had a student. They were doing an ad analysis – just a basic rhetorical analysis assignment – and he was comparing iPhones and a product called the Jitterbug which I don’t know if you have that in the UK or not but basically it’s a phone that’s targeted for older people that has limited functionality. It’s meant to basically be an emergency phone. [laughs] And he was writing in his paper that clearly the iPhone is targeted for younger audiences like people under forty because older audiences just get confused by technology. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Deb: And at that time, I was thirty-nine.

Parinita: Oh my god.

Deb: I had just started teaching; I was thirty-nine. I was like, do I have to turn in my phone next year? What happens? Does my brain …

Parinita: The phone police you know.

Deb: Yeah. Do I suddenly stop understanding how to push buttons at that point? I mean iPhones don’t even have buttons so I don’t even know why that would be a problem. But yeah, I just found that idea that at eighteen years old, forty looks ancient. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah, but that’s why the representations are important, right?

Deb: Yes!

Parinita: It’s not just for older people to see themselves but it’s also for younger people. It’s always in terms of the dominant and marginalised. It’s not just important for the marginalised people to see themselves represented; it’s for dominant groups to also gain some perspective and gain some empathy and respect for these experiences which don’t mirror their own. And I think an older person going on adventures and having these amazing sort of stories about them would be a great story.

Deb: Absolutely.

Parinita: It would make for such a fantastic story. I would totally watch River going along on her adventures.

Deb: Oh god I would watch that absolutely.

Parinita: [laughs]

Deb: The adventures of River Song would be the best show ever! [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Deb: I mean this is just a topic that I could go on and on forever. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah.

Deb: Because it’s just so interesting to get to dig into these characters. It’s been a lot of fun to go back and revisit some of these things that I haven’t watched for awhile. I went back to watch some of the River episodes just to get them in my head. And my daughter came up and was watching them with me and we’re like, “Oh now we got to start over again, don’t we? We have to go back and rewatch all the Doctors.”

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah that’s the feeling I’ve had with Buffy.

Deb: Just start at the Tennant years again. It’s just like yup I missed these people, I missed having them in my life.

Parinita: Yeah!

Deb: I need to go back. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Absolutely. I need to get acquainted with Giles again. I’m surrounded by British accents here in the UK because that’s where I’m studying but Giles’s accent set the bar for me in terms of my introduction to Britishness and everything. [laughs]

Deb: I know. Absolutely. Giles might be the reason I fell in love with tweed.

Parinita: [laughs]

Gif of Giles. Text says: Do you want me to answer that, or shall I just glare?

Deb: He’s just such a great character. I adore Giles so much. Anthony Stewart Head is brilliant – just brilliant. And since you mentioned Giles’s accent, I love the terrible cockney accent of James Marsters as Spike.

Parinita: [laughs]

Deb: It’s fantastic too.

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs] Absolutely. But thank you so much, Deb, for being on the episode today and for having such a fun conversation and being such a fun person to talk to about these things that I love. Thank you so much for being a part of this project.

Deb: Thank you so much. It was really great to be on and talk to you.

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode on the intersection of age and gender and the ways in which the portrayal of older women in media influences real-life – and vice-versa. Huge thanks to Deb for sharing your experiences and perspectives and expanding my own. And for being such a fun person to talk to about nerdy feministy things! And thank you Jack for buying me picture books whenever you go to the supermarket by yourself (and also for the editing).

[Outro music]

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

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

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