A PhD project exploring intersectionality through fan podcasts

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Episode 19 So What Are We Missing? – Exploring Representations of Marginalised Genders in Media and Society

Episode Resources:

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

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

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

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

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

6) Fanzine – Tonk’s Tale

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

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

9)  Article – What Is Toxic White Feminism

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

11) YouTube video – The Matrix As A Trans Allegory tr

12) Tumblr post – Sameface Syndrome and Other Stories

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

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

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

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

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

 

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 nineteenth episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, Aparna, Sanjana and I chat about different representations of genders, gender identities and gender expressions in media, fandom and the real world. We discuss some difficult issues related to depression, suicide and sexual violence so please consider this a content warning.

In mainstream media and popular culture, women’s representations can be quite limited. Stories about women frequently end up catering to the dominant gaze – full of tropes and stereotypes or examples which exceptionalise. Such representations offer limited conceptions of being a person in the world. If you consider intersections of other identities within gender, the situation is even starker. Moreover, discussions of women’s rights, equality and representation can result in very narrow views of who should be included and who should be excluded.

Much like with intersectional feminism, representations in media need to be inclusive of different identities – not just the most privileged within the marginalised group. Of course, accepting and demanding difference doesn’t always come easily. Unlearning ideas that you’ve been socially conditioned into requires an active effort and is quite realistically a lifelong, ongoing process. Critical and intersectional discussions in fandom and social media provide access to a diversity of experiences. This can help disrupt ideas that were previously taken for granted and draw attention to new ways of thinking about stories and the world. Once this critical gaze is unlocked, it’s difficult to put it away.

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: Hi! I’m Parinita.

Aparna: I’m Aparna.

Sanjana: And I’m Sanjana. And today in this episode we’re going to discuss gender, gender identity, and gender expression in some of our favourite fandoms and pop culture in general. When I was researching for this episode, I came across this article in The New York Times written by Brit Marling. And I’m going to quote directly from it because I thought that it encompassed what we wanted to talk about. The article was about basically her journey in the industry and her journey to becoming an actor. She’s now recently written and starred in a show on Netflix called The OA if I’m not mistaken. She started off with the kind of roles that she would get to audition for and how that hit very badly to how she would look at herself. It was basically talking about the strong female lead and what it meant to her and how that has been skewed. So I’m just going to quote two things from that article before we start. She writes, “It would be hard to deny that there is nutrition to be drawn from any narrative that gives women agency and voice in a world where they are most often without both. But the more that I acted the strong female lead, the more I became aware of the narrow specificity of the character’s strengths, physical prowess, linear ambition, focused rationality and masculine modalities of power. When we kill women in our stories, we aren’t just annihilating female-gendered bodies; we are annihilating the feminine as a force wherever it resides in women, in men or in the natural world in general. Because what we really mean when we say we want strong female leads is, ‘Give me a man in the body of a woman that I want to still see naked.’” And so I was just going back and looking at some of our main leads that we’ve loved. What do you guys think? How has the representation of females in some of our favourite media been?

Parinita: I mean that is the Star Wars syndrome, right? It’s not been a fandom that I’ve really been a part of and I don’t think I would consider myself a part of that fandom even now. It’s something that has such a huge fandom that I felt like I needed to watch it to know things. And if I would have watched it when I was younger, when I wasn’t thinking critically about these things, I don’t know if I would have noticed that. But I’ve been watching it over this last year – it’s been my pandemic companion – and I’ve noticed that so much in terms of the women just seem to be there to represent men in a female body. And also this exceptionalising of, “Oh I’m not like the other girls. There can only be one of me.”

Sanjana and Aparna: Yeah!

Parinita: “Because all the other women aren’t like this.”

Sanjana: Yeah, absolutely.

Aparna: So I very much fell into that trap of the strong female lead. First, before that, whatever I remember reading growing up, the characters that I wanted to be happened to be the boy characters in the books. Because they were just having more fun. And they had the best lines and were doing the most interesting things. So I would quite easily identify with them the most or want to be like them. And when I grew up slightly more, I very much fell into the strong female-lead trap in shows like Buffy where it’s not just a female character, it’s the female character. How she’s the centre of all of the action and she’s more than what anyone else around is; even though she was a flawed character and it was a very three-dimensional character. But just the fact that one woman was at the centre of this entire thing was very fascinating to me, especially after growing up not reading all of this. But now I’m realising that I’m drawn towards shows that have a cast of female characters – shows like GLOW or The Good Fight.

Promotional poster of the TV show GLOW

Parinita: Grey’s Anatomy.

Sanjana: Yeah, Grey’s Anatomy.

Aparna: Yeah. Broad City, Fleabag, Steven Universe. Even Jane The Virgin we really enjoyed the relationships between women because these are the things I feel we were a bit starved of when we were growing up. And so these are the things that now I’m coming around to appreciating the most when it comes to seeing female characters in pop culture.

Parinita: No, absolutely. I agree. Same with me. I fell for the boy character or George in The Famous Five.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Exactly!

Parinita: Who wanted to be a boy because they had more fun. And even recently Wonder Woman.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: As much as I loved that movie – I think we’ve spoken about this either the three of us, or I’ve spoken about it with some other people as well on the podcast where I loved the movie so much. But it is just her – apart from her time on the island, and then she leaves. That’s at the background. And then all her relationships are with men. Or with one man and the other villains and things. And there isn’t a community of women; where, from real life experiences, we know that we need a community of women. We can’t just be the one woman.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Exactly.

Parinita: How horrible would that life be!

Sanjana: Exactly. And as we started watching a lot more of these shows that had so many women characters interacting with each other – not just as friends but even otherwise, as people from different sides of the point but both female characters – it was a lot more enriching to watch and to see than watching that one female in the middle.

Aparna: Exactly! While acknowledging that we’ve come a long way from the years where it took three separate Spider-Men before we got one Wonder Woman, things are definitely changing. But to ensure that we don’t go through this entire process of demanding and looking for and waiting for the right representation, we need to make sure as a community, as a society, that when we finally do reach the point of equal representation, we’re not doing it alone. We are representing all genders and we have to have positive representations of Dalit and Adivasi women, women of colour, rural women, poor women. We have to acknowledge that we share our marginalisation with so many other identities. And while seeking fair representation for ourselves, this needs to be something that is as important as our own representation. Otherwise we’ll just get stuck in this, okay now what’s next on the list and let’s get representation for that figure.  

Parinita: That’s something that I’ve been thinking of just because I’m re-reading the Harry Potter books now. And when I was reading them for the first time, I wasn’t really reading it critically. I was just reading it for fun. So I loved a lot or most of the things that I read. Whereas now I’m reading it with a more critical lens, informed by all the discussions that have been happening in fandom. So one of the things that people talk about a lot is Hermione and her white feminism when it comes to the house-elves.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Or in an Indian context, it would be savarna feminism or Brahmin feminism. Which is looking at only a specific kind of experience. In terms of Hermione, basically, she wants to help liberate the house-elves from their oppression; and the house-elves are oppressed. The wizards and witches treat anybody who is not human terribly, but especially house-elves.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: They’re literally tied to their masters – which in itself is a dubious word which I never picked up on earlier. But at the same time, all the stuff that she does, her activism – everything is completely mocked and dismissed by everybody because everyone has so brought into the status quo that they’re like, “No, no, house-elves like being servants without pay.” So like slaves. “They’re very happy – they would be lost, they would have no identity without the work.” Which is true. But you need to educate house-elves as well and you need to learn from them. She has a very imperialist sort of saviour complex where she’s going in and she’s like, “Oh I know everything there is to know about this culture that I’ve just discovered two days ago.”

Sanjana: [laughs]

Parinita: “And I’m going to be telling them what to do. And if they don’t listen to me, I know better than them so I’m going to trick them …”

Sanjana and Aparna: Yeah!

Parinita: “By leaving knitted socks and hats and I’m going to set them free because that’s what a good feminist does.” [laughs]

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Yeah. I was reading some article in which this thing about how we are being bad feminists because we would rather have like a great body; and we are putting the way we look above the way our mind works so we’re being bad feminists. That space to allow everyone to embrace whatever part of femininity they have to exist in that and still be feminist enough is also what is important.

Parinita: Yeah because you always find reasons why a woman is doing womaning wrong. There’s always that.

Aparna: Yeah!

Parinita: Depending on your social context, like if you’re in the West or in the UK or in a developed society, there’s something else. If you’re in India, if you’re in the city, it’s something else; if you’re in the village, it’s something else. And that’s of course if you’re a cisgender woman which comes with its own set of privileges. If you’re trans or nonbinary, it just gets so much worse. As with everything, all the intersections, any sort of identity that you add, it usually ends up getting worse, especially if you’re a woman.

Aparna: Right.

Parinita: And this kind of limited feminism – the Hermione brand of feminism, I guess, even though I love Hermione a lot … but J. K. Rowling identifies herself as Hermione so you can see where that limited version of feminism is coming from. But that’s the sort of feminism that leads to transphobia, right? You’re looking at trans women as not real women. So your definition of feminism only includes a certain group of women. But then I’m sure that – and I’m talking about specifically in the West – what would they think of, for example, women of colour? Or women with disabilities or any sort of other identity. I remember recently reading about this. In the Black Lives Matter protests that are happening in the US [it was actually in the UK], in one group, a bunch of TERFs – trans-exclusionary radical feminists – they tried to co-opt the movement and basically, they tried to make it about anti-trans sentiments. I’m not sure of the exact details but yeah for them, gender is more important than other identities [I meant sex, not gender] where it should be that all your identities matter. You can’t separate …

Aparna: Exactly. And the fact that seeing other people’s rights as a threat to your rights, is just such a narrow-minded view of equality or of representation in general. I was reading this very heart-breaking but beautifully written article by a transgender woman who’s a fan of Harry Potter. And it was her response to what’s going on saying that, “I understand why she feels threatened but what about my rights?” And then she starts comparing how she saw Harry Potter as a metaphor for her gender identity. How when he enters the wizarding world, even though there are problems there, that’s where he finally feels like himself. Whereas when he’s in the Muggle world, he never felt understood. And how she saw that as a parallel to her own experience that finally when she figured out her identity is when she felt like she’d found her Hogwarts so to speak. We recently discovered something – that despite Sana’s awesome memory, she had forgotten –  that there’s this bit in Harry Potter where girls are allowed in boys’ dormitories but when the boys try to go to the girls’ dormitory, the staircase turns into a slide. So this very specific changing-room phobia that J. K. Rowling has, I mean there were clues even in the earlier Harry Potter books.

Screenshot of Tumblr post. Text says: trans boys in gryffindor being sent to the girl's dormitory and then being delighted when the stairs won't let them up. trans girls in gryffindor being told they can't go in the girl's dormitory (and maybe shown what happens by some cis boy) and then trying it and finding that the stairs DO let them up. Gender fluid gryffindor students falling down as the steps to the girl's dormitory unpredictably turn into a slide. you're a good egg.

Parinita: Yeah for sure. And even the very limited ideas of gender itself in the books. This is something that I wouldn’t have picked up on because of the limits of my experiences.

Sanjana and Aparna: Exactly!

Parinita: As a cis woman it’s really easy to be ignorant of this.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: But then there is a difference between ignorance and malice. Because you can be ignorant and teach yourself these things that are beyond your experiences because so many things are beyond our experiences. But then to be confronted with difference and then decide that oh no, this difference is a threat to me and we should just throw them under the bus. Even if you’re that selfish, it’s still going to come and hurt you in the end. Because the people at the top are just going to whittle down the opposition one by one by turning different marginalised groups against each other because of this idea that there’s a very finite amount of rights so only one group can have all the rights.

Sanjana: Exactly.

Parinita: Ugh it’s really frustrating in Harry Potter and even for that matter in Doctor Who which is another thing I’m re-watching now to inform the project. How the women are represented there is also quite limited in terms of what roles they can play, what they look like, and what the Doctor looks like. Jodie is progress now, but it took how many years for that to happen?

A collage of all the actors who portrayed the Doctor in the TV show Doctor Who

Versions of the Doctor. Image courtesy: Wikipedia

Sanjana: Yeah. Exactly.

Aparna: Yeah absolutely. And all of this stems from just a complete erasure or misrepresentation of these identities in our media. We heard this podcast episode of Breaking The Glass Slipper where they were talking about the erasure of trans people from history or from popular culture. And the statues have been torn down and things like that. It’s true for so many other identities. In India, it’s true for so many Dalit, Adivasi women. A lot of the smaller sections of Indian society have been completely glossed over. Their contributions to the freedom struggle have been completely glossed over. So nobody gets to read about them. There is a very limited idea of what these people, of what all of these identities mean or stand for. One more thing that they said in that episode was it’s okay if we have limited representation, but we want to have good representation. And how quality mattered more than quantity. And that is so true, especially in India where we’ve seen the depiction of transgender people in Bollywood

Sanjana: Oh my god!

Aparna: As being these awful caricature depictions which were treated as punchlines. And it takes a lot of unlearning to ??? these things.

Sanjana: Yeah no, absolutely. Talking about our encounters and understanding of transness and transphobia, it is an unlearning. Because until embarrassingly late, our views were very, very narrow. Because the only source of knowing or even experiencing or relating to transness was through the Bollywood films that we watched and through how our parents reacted. Or when we would stop at a traffic signal or something and how we would see everybody’s windows being rolled up. [Sanjana was alluding to the treatment meted out to hijras in India]. And that view is what you form as you’re growing up. And, as I’ve realised, when you’re growing up, it really does take a lot of unlearning and a lot of reading to truly understand how wrong your view of such things are. Because it’s not just this, but a whole lot more. Popular culture plays such an important role in our lives that it just becomes this whole trope that you buy into again and again. Because this is what you see not only in films but then you see it play out in real life at weddings in the north and stuff. It’s just made it a them versus us kind of thing. Which it shouldn’t have been from the very first place. It’s a lot of fixing that somebody has to do in terms of representing them just as they are.

Parinita: Intersectional feminism – just being an intersectional feminist – is a lifelong, ongoing process, right? There’s never going to be an end point when you know everything, you’ve unlearned everything, you learned everything there is. So that’s it, my job is over. Because there’s always going to be something new that you discover. Or a new identity that gains a more widespread space in the mainstream conversation and the mainstream media and everything.

Sanjana: Yeah. And truthfully, it makes a difference. Just representation in a normalised ways makes a difference. Because the more shows that we are watching together with the family as a whole, the more normal it is to see a gay couple or see different people onscreen. And the comments within the room have become a lot more accepting of what they are seeing. It started off with, “Arey again? Arey this has become a thing.” I’m just quoting from family members only who probably don’t read as much or haven’t corrected their views. But the fact that they are being represented in such a normal way without making a big deal of it – by not making it the token representation. Just making it more normal is making a large difference to the way everybody started viewing these things. So it does make a difference to consciously represent people a lot better in more normalised ways.

Parinita: Yeah and not just with trans representations. Even that is quite limited. In the “Transgender Representation in SFF” episode, Cheryl Morgan was talking about how there’s a cis-gaze in media because a lot of cis writers tend to write about trans experiences. There isn’t still a huge number of trans writers in popular mainstream media creating their own stories. So even when the representations do exist and when they are trying to make it a point to represent, it still falls into some tropes and stereotypes that a trans writer writing about themselves probably wouldn’t have made. Obviously there’s no monolithic trans experience, just like there’s no monolithic cis woman experience.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: But as Cheryl mentioned, if you’re representing trans people, the focus tends to be on the transition process. Which isn’t something that trans writers or trans media creators themselves are really interested in focusing on because for them, the transition is just them changing their outward appearance to match their inward sense of self. And they’re interested in exploring other aspects of their identity, and their identity itself is just a part of this whole complex version of themselves. If I’m in the UK from India and if everybody just asks me about that, about being an Indian immigrant in the UK, that’s such a limited concept of being a person in the world.

Sanjana: Exactly!

Parinita: And it’s the same with Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi women as well, right? It’s something that I’ve only recently started thinking about – how they are represented in Bollywood. If you don’t know people in real life, that’s what your ideas are shaped by. And the way that it’s represented is so terrible. Looking back, like you were saying, it’s the same with me, it’s such a process of unlearning. Because you don’t even know what you don’t know.

Sanjana and Aparna: Yeah!

Parinita: If nobody’s disrupting that idea; if everyone around you thinks the same, talks the same about other people as well –

Sanjana: Exactly! And no, thinking about the fact that this is us who are actively reading and trying to get a hang of it. This is us still battling what we’ve been learning. Which is why popular media plays so much of a role in the way we think because that is the fastest way we learn and that’s probably the fastest way in which we’ll unlearn everything else as well. Or come up with a broader view of things.

Parinita: And feminism itself, when I was younger, and even not that long ago – until a couple of years ago, my idea of women’s rights and was still so exclusive of most other experiences.

Aparna: Correct.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Not through any purposeful exclusion but just ignorance and extrapolating my experience to everyone’s experiences and everyone’s worldviews. So coming back to Harry Potter, just because that’s something that we’re looking at for the episode and that’s something that all three of us have grown up with and loved so much. But now reading it as an adult and listening to some of these fan podcasts that we listen to, I was listening to Woke Doctor Who, one of their recent episodes and they were talking about how much internalised misogyny there is in Harry Potter.

Aparna: Yes!

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And it’s not something that you pick up on earlier. I’m reading Order of the Phoenix currently and there’s a lot of problems in that book. It’s my favourite Harry Potter book, but in terms of representations, there’s a lot to unpack there. Just a very basic thing I realised that the insults were so gendered. The women and girls are insulted by their looks. Aunt Petunia’s described as having horsy teeth and Pansy Parkinson is always described as having a pug face.

Sanjana: Hmm!

Parinita: But men and boys are fat and dumb. So their intelligence is vilified. Like Dudley or Crabbe or Goyle, they’re like oh they’re so stupid and oh they’re fat. But girls, it’s always looks. It’s a very basic thing but that’s how things build, right? From the most basic things you build up more and more.

Sanjana: Yeah. Talking about women being described, I came across an article which was talking about the portrayal of female professors in Hogwarts and how they are also described very physically through their physical traits. Like McGonagall is someone who can transform into a cat and does these great things but then she’s described with special attention to her appearance with beady eyes, her stern expression and her shrill voice. And the fact that she wants the Quidditch team to succeed is mocked. That part is made fun of. Even Trelawney who is made fun of with the way she looks. Professor Sprout also is defined not by her skill or anything but by how she looks. Like she’s dumpy and Trelawney is bug-like. It’s something that I didn’t even pay attention to. But this is how all the female professors are.

Parinita: Even Umbridge In Order of the Phoenix, Umbridge is the big bad. Based on that Woke Doctor Who episode, I was paying more attention to how people are described and how women are described. Even now a lot of fans, including me, tend to hate Umbridge with more loathing than they hate Voldemort.

Sanjana and Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: So when I was reading, I was trying to unpack why. And it’s just that the narrative positions her so much more intimately and the way that she’s described and the way that all her vile things and vile attitudes and vile behaviour – the way that they are described are going to so much more depth and you see the horror so much more nakedly. Whereas with Voldemort, it’s more macro level villainy. It’s more like, “Oh I hate all Mudbloods and I hate all Muggles. Let’s kill everybody!” Whereas Umbridge, you can actually see how – and I understand why you see that because you’re seeing a fascist takeover of Hogwarts in miniscule and then you see the whole wizarding community being taken over like that. But it’s so easy for to villainise women by calling them ugly because she’s called toad-like and ugly. And also the fact that she is aggressively feminine.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Yes!

Parinita: She likes kittens and the bows and the fluffy pink cardigans, that’s described in such a “Oh my god! Foul!” way. Like why?! Even Parvati and Lavender who are the feminine students in the school.

Illustrated gif of Parvati Patil and Lavender Brown in Divination Class

Divination class with Parvati and Lavender. Image courtesy krispy-bits

Aparna: Yeah. But this extends to many of the other girls in the book who are not Hermione or who are looked at from Hermione’s point of view or how they are always giggling and they are always in a group and they are always drawing hearts and things like that. It’s such a overreaction to girly things and girls are only given girly things and pink is only for girls. And now and then it’s tilted to this complete extreme like if you want to be taken seriously, you cannot like any of these things anymore. You have to rise above all these girly things.

Sanjana: Yeah. Not going into the point that Lavender also joined Dumbledore’s Army.

Aparna and Parinita: Yeah!

Sanjana: She also fought at the Battle of Hogwarts. She died. She died, right?

Aparna: Did she?

Parinita: She died in the movie; in the books, we’re still not very sure.

Sanjana: We’re still not sure. There was one place that described her as being reduced to a plot point to increase the sexual desire around a man. Like she was put there just so we found Ron a little bit more worth a second glance. It was just the saddest sentence ever. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah. And Ron just uses Lavender because he’s insecure and he wants to make Hermione jealous.

Sanjana: Yeah, Ron is a completely different topic on misogyny. But I would like to bring up Molly Weasley. And the misogyny that lies there in many parts.

Parinita: Oh yeah.

Sanjana: One of the episodes that we were listening to mentioned the whole Fleur versus Molly Weasley and how they keep making fun of her. They’re not at all welcoming. I would not like to marry into that family. [laughs]

Parinita: I know! Can you seriously imagine? She’s like this Indian daughter-in-law –

Sanjana: Yes!

Parinita: Staying with this family in a foreign country.

Sanjana: And she’s a kickass person!

Aparna: Yeah, she was in the Triwizard Tournament.

Sanjana: Exactly!

Screenshot of Tumblr post. Text says: siriusblacque: fleur delacour is so important i can't even put it into words. badass girl whose "most previous" was her sister, who despite what anyone might think of her (cough molly cough ron cough hermione cough) looks past any aesthetic unpleasantries because she is completely and irrevocably in love with bill, who willingly risks her life for harry (the seven harrys, anyone???), who manages to create a spot of brightness in the middle of war (wedding!!!), who is feminine and badass at the same time, who opens her home to an entitled goblin and multiple refugees/runaways, who doesn't sacrifice one bit of her integrity or character despite the looming threat of war

Parinita: But again, this is something that the narrative positions you to think. If you’re not looking out for the tricks in the narrative or you’re not looking at it critically …

Sanjana: You would fall –

Parinita: Yeah! You fall for it. So you are also like, “Ugh Fleur. What?!”

Sanjana: We all did. In fact, in one place I read that Molly Weasley – uh Molly was very uh Mrs. Weasley I’m going to call her.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: I don’t know I’m feeling too awkward to full-name her.

Aparna: She just called her Molly and was very uncomfortable calling Molly Weasley by her first name.

Parinita: [laughs] Molly Aunty.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Yes, Molly Aunty. All right. So Molly Aunty was very, very unforgiving to Hermione. And I completely forgot this or didn’t pay even a second glance to.

Aparna: About?

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: In the fourth book when Rita Skeeter is spewing all kinds of things and she writes about Hermione breaking Harry’s heart, that Christmas Ron and Harry get good-sized packages but –

Aparna: Oooh!

Sanjana: She gets a miniscule tiny package from Molly Weasley. Because it has – Molly Weasley again I full-named her – but Molly Aunty is very mean to her. One, it was not true; but even if it was true, Hermione doesn’t deserve to be punished for that. It’s her wish to date!

Aparna: This whole thing in media of I have been victimised by being rejected by a woman. And it is just so present everywhere that oh like in Friends!

Sanjana: Yeah. And we don’t even look at it the second time unless we are trying to dissect it like now. Whereas when I was reading it, I thought haan, theek hai. Because it was okay. [laughs] But it’s not! It’s not at all okay, Molly Weasley. It’s not at all okay!

Parinita: [laughs] Like in Witch, Please what did Marcelle say? Who do you think is the better feminist – Molly or Hedwig? And they chose Hedwig as the better feminist.

Aparna: Yes. [laughs]

Sanjana: And as more I read about Molly, I mean she redeemed herself in the end with that great battle but I’m saying she had many underlying internalised stuff that society tells you this is a place for –

Parinita: Yeah because she’s also the victim, right? Of the society.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Exactly.

Parinita: So it’s violence reproducing violence. Not physical but psychological.

Sanjana: And I’ve seen this in real life. I’ve seen women telling me. But it is so internalised that it is hard to have a conversation and try to tell them that this is not okay, you don’t deserve this. But women have been told that this is what they deserve and so well.

Parinita: I know that patriarchy is this global institution and it affects people differently in different parts, but India is so much more patriarchal I feel –

Sanjana: Oh my god.

Parinita: Than a lot of the West. The problems that we are going through in India, sometimes I can imagine how it must feel for women from rural backgrounds and Dalit/Adivasi/Bahujan backgrounds when we in the cities are talking about our problems. Because that’s what it feels to me sometimes when women in the West are talking about their problems.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: I’m like, you guys have it so much better than we do!

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: I can’t even go out in the street wearing a pair of shorts because it’s hot without worrying whether I’m going to be raped or not.

Sanjana: Yeah. We’re saying it so casually but this is the truth.

Parinita: You laugh about it because otherwise you’ll cry.

Sanjana: I started panicking at the back of a cab  ride once because he wanted to relieve himself is all. Poor fellow, his bladder was bursting.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: But I imagined all sorts of evil things coming from him because … because … yeah because.

Parinita: I mean even this weekend, I decided that for mental wellbeing purposes, I needed to go on a long walk. So I went on this trail near my house which is this 16 kilometre long trail. So it was a bit of an overkill. But at some points, it was very deserted so I could have died. I could have been murdered by the men walking on the trail sometimes. I was making all these different plans and backup plans for what I would do in case somebody – it’s like the first time that the three of us travelled together.

Aparna: Yes, exactly!

Parinita: Where we had to pick up a stone just to feel safe.

Sanjana: Yeah. Not that that stone would have done anything against the five-six men who were trying to follow us. But they were just doing it for kicks. My point is that they were just doing it for kicks because they also have been told that this is normal behaviour.

Parinita: And why should women feel safe?

Sanjana: What reason?

Parinita: They don’t deserve to share the same space as you. It is our space so we can terrorise them by just following them drunkenly on a narrow cliff-face.

Sanjana: And the fact that we’ve been also told to respect a woman if she’s taken, for example. If you’re wearing a ring and you are out in a pub, and somebody is trying to flirt with you, the only reason that they will back off – and I don’t use this unless I’m absolutely pushed to a corner to use it because I don’t want to use a fact that I’m married or something to get out of a situation. But the fact that men would rather respect this man that they’ve never met than the woman’s wishes in front of them; and respect the fact that oh you’re married, that means that I should back off. But they’re basically respecting this make-believe man that I’ve made up.

Parinita: Yeah because if you live in a patriarchal society and you are already marginalised, you use the tools that you’re given to be safe, right?

Sanjana: Exactly.

Parinita: My mom does the same thing. So she’s been divorced for what – since I was thirteen; so seventeen years now. She goes out and works and she’s out and about all day most days in Mumbai – and Mumbai is still one of the safer cities considerably compared to the rest of India. But she also wears a mangalsutra around her neck which signifies that she’s a married woman even though she’s not. And it’s something that we’ve spoken about. But that makes her feel safe. And sometimes that does work.

Sanjana: It does!

Parinita: Though sometimes it doesn’t.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Sometimes men just man all over the place.

Aparna: Similarly, when you compare … it’s such a process of learning for me. I was reading an article about how women are celebrating the fact that some companies are – firstly I would just like to interrupt this to say that Sana’s husband is not made-up.

Parinita: [laughs] Are you sure?

Aparna: It had been bugging me. So I had to. [laughs]

Sanjana: Listen when this happened, we were engaged but I called him husband. It was easier than saying the whole thing that I’m engaged to be married and so.

Aparna: Okay, okay.

Sanjana: At that time, he was made up.

Parinita: He was made up!

Aparna: To get back to my point, I was reading an article about how women are very happy that some companies in India are giving menstruation leave like a two-day leave or something to women every month and how it was being celebrated. And when you compare it to the same situation for say a Dalit woman and how they would not miss a day of work even if they were given it. And if they had access to say sanitary napkins, they would probably sell them to provide for their family and things like that. And during the whole thing about women who wanted to get into the – they were being denied access to the … which temple was it?

Parinita: Sabarimala.

Aparna: The Sabarimala temple, yeah. When they were on their period. And how it compares to how so many Dalit women or many women from disadvantaged backgrounds, they’re not allowed ever into those temples. And how we have these small victories that it feels odd to celebrate them when there is such a difference between our experiences and so many other experiences.

Parinita: Yeah. I’m very … it’s such a complex topic for me. Just because when you were saying that, I was thinking of how exhausting the world is. And how you sometimes just do need to celebrate even the tiniest of victories – if you can call it, or the tiniest of things. At the same time, you’re aware of how unequal the society is because you can’t separate gender from all the other identities you inhabit like class and caste and religion and whatever. And … it’s just such a two-sided thing that you are aware of these terrible things but then if you never take the time to see how far you’ve come, or see the sort of progress that you’re making, even if it’s very small you’re just going to burn out. And you’re not going to be able to then get up and fight again for anything. So Rebecca Solnit has written this book called Hope In The Dark which talks exactly about that. She’s studied different movements and things and that’s her argument that you do need to see how far you’ve come even from like thirty years ago to the sort of conversations that we’re having now. But you also have to acknowledge your privilege. You also have to be aware that all these things that you’ve gained, only a very small percent of the population has gained. Or a small percent of your gender has gained. There’s still a lot more to be done. But you do need to sit down and say that okay, a happy thing has happened. I’m allowed to be happy. And just feel your feels, you know. And just this all-pervasive male gaze everywhere is so exhausting. So speaking of just being on your period and stuff, in media and in science fiction and fantasy and everything largely just like in society, there’s such an erasure of women’s bodily functions because what – they’re gross? You don’t want to see anything that reminds you that women are human beings. So let’s pretend that they bleed blue blood and [laughs] they have no armpit hair. Let’s pretend that they’re just robot zombies.

Sanjana and Aparna: [laugh]

Parinita: [sighs] It’s exhausting. It’s just exhausting being a woman.

Aparna: It is exhausting!

Parinita: I wanted to talk a little bit about violence against women. I’m taking depressing topics and making them more depressing. But just again women being the default victims. Of course you see that in media, you see that in the things we read, the things that we watch. But just most recently this whole nonsense about Rhea Chakraborty and Sushant Singh Rajput in India.

Sanjana: Oh my god!

Parinita: So just to give people who don’t know what’s going on in India some context –  we have a fascist government currently. But what’s going on more recently in terms of Rhea and Sushant. So there’s a Bollywood actor who killed himself recently. He’s been depressed for a few years now. This was in the middle of the pandemic as well where a lot of people’s mental health, including mine, has just fallen off the cliff. So it could have been such an opportunity to talk about mental health and depression and community and support. But instead, everybody – the government, the criminal justice system, the media, random people on my Facebook profile who are no longer on my Facebook profile – decided that the fault actually is Rhea Chakraborty, his girlfriend – or his ex-girlfriend’s, I’m not sure of the details. And there was such a witch hunt in the very medieval European kind of way where everybody assassinated her character. Everyone was obsessed about this and not about the fact that obviously it was the government trying to distract everybody from the pandemic, from the economy, from everything privatised, from people being killed, from people being arrested. All of it was a distraction – and people fell for it!

Sanjana: Yeah, absolutely. And I read somewhere that somebody was saying that the amount of agencies that were put behind trying to find something on her. If they were looking into you, me or Aparna, they would have found something. They would have found something on anybody. If they look that deeply at anybody, we’ve all done something that they can use against us.

Parinita: Yeah. Because she eventually got arrested for what – smoking weed, right?

Sanjana: Yes.

Parinita: Or buying weed?

Sanjana: Yeah. For being in possession. [laughs] There’s this really funny tweet that I read when this was happening; it was funny and very, very sad. And I’m paraphrasing because I don’t particularly remember the exact words so it says that under the current government, Shiva would have been arrested for possession. And somebody replied to that saying no, he wouldn’t have. Parvati would have been arrested for giving it to him.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: I just thought it was so sad and also so true. [laughs]

Parinita: This Rhea’s hounding, it reminded me so much of Harry’s hounding; the trial that he goes through in The Order of the Phoenix – again, I have short term memory, I’m reading this book currently which is why I’m making all these connections. Otherwise I would not have been able to identify these things. But even in Harry Potter, in The Order of the Phoenix, where the government, the criminal justice system, the school system, media, society – everybody is against him and doesn’t want to believe him. And, of course, he has the privilege of being a man and all in that society. But still. And coming back to Rhea, I’ve read tweets about how Rhea, she’s this upper caste Hindu woman in India. Her father is in the military, I think, or was in the military. She’s in Bollywood. She has all these privileges and she is being treated like that. So everybody else should be really scared. Because the fewer privileges that you have, the easier it is to just have people not care about you, right?

Sanjana: Yeah. Going back to violence against women, this particularly brings up this one episode in Grey’s Anatomy in which Jo was dealing with a rape victim who comes in. And I just wept through that episode. It took so long for me to see an episode in which a victim of rape and the whole thing was portrayed with such honesty that it was just … that episode was really something.

Parinita: Yeah and the hallway of women, right?

Sanjana: Yes! Where she could not see another man, yeah.

Parinita: So the woman who’s been raped, it’s just happened and she can’t bear the sight of a man yet. So the intern Jo – or not the intern, the resident – she’s no longer an intern. The doctor decides to get the help of all the women in the hospital – not just the doctors and the nurses but everybody who works in the hospital – and create a hallway that blocks off all the doors and the windows and just creates this sort of supportive hallway of women just being there. Most of them don’t know why they’re there.

Sanjana: Yeah. They’re just there because they were needed. It was a very strong image. And even the fact that they explain the rights to her and say that if you don’t want to follow this through, it’s okay. But in case you at some point change your mind, you should have everything you can to battle it. To get justice for what was done to you. When rape is portrayed or violence against women or is portrayed even in real life scenarios, I’m not talking about sci-fi and stuff, that’s a wholly different thing, but even then you don’t really get to see the important bits of it. The victim is just the victim and then gets pushed aside and there’s this whole thing that unfurls. But this was so focused on how that one woman was feeling. It was a very strong thing.

Parinita: But Grey’s Anatomy in general, I think, does a really good job.

Sanjana: Especially their recent seasons. The last two seasons, for example, they’ve really upped their game.

Parinita: Yeah but just even just right from the beginning. It’s a giant soap opera. People get killed by falling off planes and bombs and –

Sanjana: Yeah. [laughs]

Parinita: So there’s a lot of this. But I’ve been watching it for what now nearly since it started. So it’s like sixteen years now? So it’s a good chunk of my life that I’ve been watching this show. But even in the beginning, in terms of the cast, in terms of who’s at the leadership positions, in terms of who has agency and who has power, women have always played a role there. And now it’s becoming increasingly diverse as well. So you have women who are Muslim or a transgender man or you have disabled women and women of different races and things. So it’s becoming increasingly diverse and yeah, the last few seasons have tackled more overtly political themes as well.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Which is great. [End part one?] Now I’m becoming more used to thinking about these things, and also becoming more used to having media or looking out for media that has a better representation of women. So then when I go back and look at other media for the first time … like the other day Jack and I, we were watching this new show called Lost Girl. It’s not a new show, it’s new to me. And he had watched it before and he just thought that I’d like it. And it was a fun show but what stood out to me because I’d just come off watching Grey’s Anatomy, I was like all these people are really thin and they’re really very conventionally attractive and they’re all white. It’s a very definitive idea of being a woman. And I’m like hmm. Then I said this to Jack, and Jack is like, “But that’s all media.” Which I guess is true because Bollywood is the same, right? You have to be fair-skinned, if you’re dark skinned, that has class, caste, regional implications like you’ll be South Indian or whatever, you’ll be from a Dalit or Adivasi background or whatever. But once you get used to better, it’s very difficult then to let mediocre get past you, you know?

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Absolutely. This dominant view of women is – and I’m going to use Disney as an example, but it extends to everything. It’s just this unrealistic standard of “Whatever your personality be like, but this is what you should look like.” In fact there was an analysis of all the faces of all the characters of the Disney movies from Snow White onwards. And they had sketched out the faces and all of the women had the same face structure, the same small nose, big eyes, high cheekbones pointy chin. Whereas there was so much variety in the way the male characters looked. I read this excerpt of an interview with the head of Disney animation at some point who said that it was difficult to animate women’s faces because they have to look pretty at all angles and through all expressions. So not only do you have to add expressions to them, you see, you also have to make them look pretty when they’re angry. You also have to let them remain pretty while being angry or sad or happy or confused. Very confused much of the time they will be confused.

Parinita: No but they can be ugly if they’re evil.

Aparna: Yeah, yeah, yeah, of course.

Parinita: They can be old and ugly but then they’re the bad person.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: And even fatness. This is again something that I have only recently started thinking about, just the way that media portrays fat people when it does. That’s why when I was watching Lost Girl, I was like, these are all very thin people. Of all the people that I know, most women don’t look like this. I don’t look like this.

Aparna: Exactly. [laughs]

Parinita: Media doesn’t just affect people in one way. We learn from these different identities but also our own sense of self, right? In terms of different body sizes and all, I know that’s a very basic thing, but fat activism and stuff, that’s what they talk about. This is again something that I’ve been reading and learning about more recently about how when you’re a fat person, you seem to be up for public consumption. And people will make comments about your health. They’ll not see you as a person who is equal, who should get equal respect and deserves the same amount of dignity that any other people do. And a lot of people have spoken about this; like the things that I’ve read, they talk about how fatness doesn’t necessarily have to do with health as well. Even some of our favourite media, like Avatar or Anne With An E or the Marvel movies, Disney movies, Doctor Who whatever, all the women – there might be one or two curves maybe somewhere in the background; but most of them are really thin, conventionally attractive, not like my body at all. There’s nobody who looks like me on it in terms of size.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: It’s such a limited idea that limits your own imagination as well.

Sanjana: Yeah. Going back to the Disney thing Aparna was talking about, how the face shape was very similar. When we were having one of the our previous discussions, you guys mentioned Disney so I was like, let me look. And there was one paper – and I never got through reading the whole paper – but there was this one interesting bit where they had done this categorisation of the jobs that women have had in the Disney movies and the jobs that men have had. But in that they found that the male characters over sixteen different films, there were twenty-six job categories that the male characters had. Whereas there were only four women categories where they had out-of-home employment; where they went outside the home. Which was an actress, sheep-tender thief and a fairy. And [laughs] I was like what?! And then they also examined the depiction of in-home labour and there were twenty-four examples of women performing domestic tasks whereas there were only four examples of men performing domestic tasks. And two of them were from the butlers in Aristocats. That is how much agency is given to women in the Disney films.

Aparna: Yeah. And things that are completely normal for all humans are given such disproportionate screen time in most of the media that we consume whether it’s house work or whether it’s occupying public spaces on the other hand. Something that I wanted to talk about was how masturbation is depicted. So I was hearing this NPR interview of Phoebe Waller-Bridge. And her show in the very first episode has a scene of masturbation. And what she said was that it was funny how shocking it was like it was some big secret and how it’s represented as so normal for men. Especially in comedies, it’s shown as such a routine of something that they just – it’s almost a daily occurrence and they just have to get on with it. But for women, it’s seen as some deeply selfish transgressive thing. It brings me back to what you said about the erasure of women’s bodily functions. And how women taking pleasure in anything is seen as something very subversive but it’s not. It’s normal. It’s a human trait to do that.

Parinita: And even sex! The male gaze comes through in the way that sex is portrayed and the way that women orgasm in sex scenes. Like oh yeah penetration happens, oh instant orgasm.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: So that’s how sex works.

Sanjana: It really doesn’t.

Parinita: Yeah it doesn’t! It doesn’t work like that. And it’s something that you are conditioned so much that you feel like – I spent so many years just thinking there was something wrong with me [laughs] that that’s not what was happening because I was like, arey penetration happened, orgasm nahi hua toh … so why is this not working? And if you only have this very fixed idea of just even – no, not even fixed idea – there’s no consideration given only to women’s pleasures – how women’s bodies work, how women’s anything works. It’s just – we need to get this story thing but the man’s story is more important. Or we don’t need to actually research what sex for women is like. It’s okay whatever, this works for men so it might as well work for women. And again it’s quite a superficial thing but it all adds up, right? It’s all a part of what being a woman in the world is. And if it’s just such a male-centric view of being a woman, then it’s so much more difficult to unlearn that even as a woman who thinks about these things.

Sanjana: Yeah. Some time back we were talking about how there’s always this Brahminical society and stuff. And so recently we were doing a comic on women pathbreakers in India and I had not heard of any of these women. Any of these women. I think I’d only heard of Anna Mani because I had read a picture book on her. [laughs] Otherwise I had no idea of any of these women. And it was so sad that we didn’t study these women or nobody told us about these women. The first story is about Pandita Ramabai and it just stayed with me – that whole thing that is what we’ve been battling. The story goes that her father was this understudy of a Brahmin teacher who would teach Sanskrit verses to the royals. And he was at this place where he was teaching a Peshwa’s wife and it was being done behind closed doors so that nobody could see a woman reciting Sanskrit verses. But he was standing on the side and it’s from his point of view. And he is looking at it and saying that “This woman seems to be reciting the Sanskrit verses pretty well. Have the Brahmins been lying to us that women don’t even have the capability to learn?” And so the Brahmin men also grew up or the society grew up with being told that women don’t even possess the ability to study or learn Sanskrit verses and stuff. So as an experiment, he went back to try and teach his wife and mother-in-law – wife particularly. And they of course laughed him off and said, “What is wrong with you? We’ll be thrown out of society.” Which eventually did happen because when he did finally try, he was thrown out of society along with his family. Then I went up and started looking at biopics made on women in the last couple of years and a lot of them were a lot of the famous stories. Like the sports stories like Mary Kom’s story was told but it was told when she had just won and she had just gained some popularity and so let’s quickly make one. Whereas we told Milkha Singh’s story which was a story from history. We are not telling a P. T. Usha story; we are choosing to tell Milkha Singh’s story but we are doing Mary Kom because she’s popular right now. She’s current. Even the wrestler sisters in Dangal. Their story was also told when they had just become popular. And we are not telling stories of the past. We are not telling Pandita Ramabai’s story. And even Savitribai Phule’s story, one Kannada film exists which is her story. I feel like there is some role for content creators to play to break or reinforce stereotypes. And to tell these stories. Because they are full of drama. They are really full of drama. They deserve being told, if that’s what we’re missing. They are full of a lot of angst and a lot of struggles and they deserve to be told. So what are we missing?

Parinita: Yeah. In history, we don’t learn these things. Like Savitribai Phule, she’s from Maharashtra and she is the first woman teacher in India. And she was also a Dalit woman. And we don’t learn about the Dalit woman-ness.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: We learn history much in the way Professor Binns in Harry Potter teaches history in Hogwarts.

Aparna: [laughs] Yeah.

Parinita: Where references to goblin rebellions and goblin riots are scattered throughout the lessons and it could be so much better. What you said, Sana, was something Harry said. That, “Oh this could have been so exciting in anybody else’s hands.”

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: But Professor Binns drives you to a stupor. And I think in India or in other parts of the world as well, history is being deliberately used to drive this sense of complacency within the population and not teach people. If history is taught in such a boring way; if Pandita Ramabai, Savitribai Phule, they’re just names that you have to learn with the dates and learn what they did just in a sentence without understanding the context – the social, cultural, political contexts then and now, then you’ll just be – you’ll fall asleep in the class like how you do in the History of Magic classroom. And you’re not going to make these connections.

Sanjana: Yeah. Exactly. It broke so many notions I had formed of popular men from history. Like Lokmanya Tilak. All we’ve learned of him is this Balgangadhar Tilak – great freedom fighter and stuff. But his views on women were atrocious to say the least. And then I narrated everything to my dad and he also holds these people in great esteem and it was just that we’ve been told history in such a wrong way. Even C. V. Raman who is a man of science treated the women  in his lab pretty badly. They were not allowed to go out into public spaces because they would distract the men. They could not rest in the gardens so they would sleep under their tables while doing science experiments. But the men could lounge around wherever they wanted. Some of the stories that came forth during the research and stuff, it’s just heart-breaking; because you’re like, “Oh so cool this scientist person” when you first read about C. V. Raman and then you realise that there’s all these underlying parts of where they were in society at this time. And that history is not told as a whole to keep reinforcing the same thing and not portray the real bits of how these stories unfolded. It was quite heart-breaking to see.

Parinita: Yeah and just in terms of men, you can be both good at some things and bad at other things.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: You’re a human being; you don’t need to be a perfect person. In fact, I would treat a perfect person with a lot of suspicion because you’re not learning anything then if you’re this perfect person.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: If you go and look at women or trans women or trans men or nonbinary folks, that gets so much more invisible. If you see women in history, we are such a token in itself largely. We’re there for token diversity points in most history textbooks and in most history. Or we’re only there in terms of our relationships to the men in history.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: But in schools when do you ever study about anyone from other parts of the gender spectrum?

Aparna: Never.

Parinita: It’s something that I’ve only discovered recently like even what cis and trans means and what nonbinary means. And it’s through my own research because it’s something I’m interested in. But why wouldn’t you want to make this an educational thing – because it is an educational thing – more available and accessible to everybody right from when they’re really young?

Sanjana: Yeah. And just bringing up the role of content creators, this just reminds me of this paper and this discussion that Aparna had at AFCC (Asian Festival of Children’s Content) in Singapore. Where they were talking about the role of the editor in breaking gender stereotypes in general or stereotypes in general in children’s books.

Aparna: Yeah. I’m an editor at a publishing house that publishes picture books. Every editor will have their notions of what kind of books they want to see or what sort of things they stand for. And what me and the person I work with quickly realised was that we believed very strongly about certain things. Every picture book that came to us had the mother in the kitchen and the father reading a newspaper and these are things that are so entrenched. So just a small suggestion to an illustrator or an author that if we could reverse those sort of things would just make them very excited about it. Or sometimes we receive pushback like “But this is what I see in my house.” Which is fair enough. People will draw what they see. But then we get in this cycle of this is what we see and this is what we publish. And then that’s what we see in books and that’s what we see at home. And that’s the only normal that anybody ever knows. But the fact is that some key decisions of when we are showing a busy street to populate the public spaces with equal gender representation in public spaces or sharing of household chores in our books. And since picture book readers are such a young audience, that’s something that they won’t question at all. And if they see it in their books that they’re reading, it’s something that can go a long way in making them question or making them wonder how the society is structured. And those are the sort of conversations that we had a lot with authors and illustrators. And we still do. I feel like it makes a big difference to seeing these things. This is something that I’m also guilty of because like we said earlier, we grew up reading so many books that just had boys in it. Whatever stories we would thereby make up would have boy characters in it. And all of the animals in our stories were always a male gender animal. And it takes so much undoing to change that. And just conversations with authors and illustrators to make them think of it in a slightly different manner makes a world of a difference. Sometimes the only reason that it isn’t a representation of something is that they haven’t thought of it. So as editors, just these sort of conversations and just having conversations about the motivations of all the extra characters – not the protagonists necessarily but how the other people in the book are – goes a long way to changing the way they think about their stories as well.

Parinita: Yeah. Anybody who creates media – especially people who create children’s media – it is such an important responsibility for us to make sure that you’re questioning your own biases and your own assumptions and not reflecting the terrible things, the inequalities that society is rife with. You can imagine a different world and you can show a different world and in many different pockets of society, this different world does exist. You just need to make it more mainstream. But that’s one of the reasons why I love the spaces of social media and fanfiction. I’m a very online person and I love how much I learn from these spaces because you get to access perspectives and experiences about different experiences of being a woman and this makes up for the mainstream entertainment and news media’s structural inequalities.  Rebecca Solnit in her book The Mother of All Questions, she wrote this which I thought was really pertinent to this point. She made the point much better than I could. So this is what she said: “If the right to speak, if having credibility, if being heard is a kind of wealth, that wealth is now being redistributed. There has long been an elite with audibility and credibility, an underclass of the voiceless. As the wealth is redistributed, the stunned incomprehension of the elites erupts over and over again, a fury and disbelief that this woman or child dared to speak up, that people deigned to believe her, that her voice counts for something, that her truth may end a powerful man’s reign. These voices, heard, upend power relations.” Which I think just sums up the potential of social media and even fandom spaces and fandom conversations. That you’re challenging what you took for granted all this while.

Aparna: Absolutely. And it’s sort of levelled the playing field in a way that nothing else could. Because of the power of social media or the internet, it’s just been adopted so many times into the mainstream. There are Twitter pitches for books and so many people who otherwise would not have had access to publishers or wouldn’t know how to go about breaking into this very strange business of publishing have gotten deals out of a Twitter pitch. And the internet is such a democratic place in that sense. People have access to internet. I mean not everyone does but it’s a lot more widespread than say the knowledge of how to approach a publishing house. And writers for very, very mainstream comedy shows have been hired based on their tweets. We ourselves find a lot of illustrators for our books on Instagram because if our story is set in the North East [of India], we want somebody from the North East. So we’ve found some of our favourite illustrators on Instagram because there isn’t a strong network of how to go about it in the more formal or traditional ways of approaching people. It’s so refreshing to see what voices are coming up. Shows like Broad City it was a YouTube show and then it was picked up and made into a mainstream show. And luckily diversity is so buzzy that it’s something that is selling, so the mainstream is buying it. Which is great.

Parinita: I mean it’s still an unsafe place for people; for women yeah, but also for women from more marginalised backgrounds and for trans women and for nonbinary people. As empowering and as amazing the internet is, it also leaves you more open to toxicity and to hatred.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: But I love that I’ve been learning from people. I follow trans people in India and on Twitter and on Instagram. Or Dalit activists so like Divya Khanduri and Priyanka Paul are two people that I really like on Instagram who are constantly challenging my own assumptions about caste and about being a Dalit woman online. And then we also read about Khabar Lahariya which is a newspaper that began in a village from what I remember. And it trained women in rural areas to be journalists who printed the local news in their local languages and diversified not just who tells the stories but also what kind of stories are told and how they’re told. And while they started off as a print newspaper who used to get women to distribute these newspapers as well. Now they’ve done successfully what a lot of big traditional news organisations haven’t been able to do that is transition digitally. So they share the news on Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, Twitter and … well TikTok until the government decided that Chinese apps are no longer welcome in India. But I think that’s so fantastic because we in the cities, we also tend to have a Hermione kind of idea of a lot of women from different backgrounds.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Which is our fault but it’s also not our fault because that’s the society that we grow up in. And just having access to these different voices is so empowering for both – so liberating for both that they’re allowed to say their stories in the way that they want, and we are allowed to learn from them.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Absolutely. So now what are some of your favourite nonbinary, genderqueer, gender nonconforming characters in media?

Sanjana: Alex from Magnus Chase. Who else have I met?

Parinita: What did you like about them? About Alex Fierro.

Fan art of Alex Fierro

Fan art of Alex Fierro. Image courtesy Wiki.

Sanjana: So for me, I think it was the first time I was encountering a genderqueer character. I think the way Magnus interacted with Alex and the way their interactions and their conversations developed, I would look forward to their conversations or their interactions because I thought it was very nicely done.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: I mean it normalised it but also educated; but not in a way that made education a point, I thought.

Sanjana: Yes! Exactly. Which is why it was interesting to see it from Magnus’s point of view because it was probably my point of view also to an extent because he was also in the beginning understanding it. And there were a lot of questions in the beginning and then as the books developed, it just became a lot easier. The development of their relationship was very interesting to see.

Aparna: Yeah and I liked that even before he wrote the book, he knew that it was going to be popular because he’s insanely popular, this Rick Riordan. And the fact that the main character of the book and this was the main well … not just a love interest. But the fact that Alex was the main love interest of the main character of a book that was insanely popular, I think that’s pretty cool.

Sanjana: Pretty cool, yeah.

Parinita: And it’s also influenced children. Recently I’d read a tweet – and I think Rick Riordan had retweeted it – about how somebody sat down with either their child or their nephew or niece to explain pronouns to them – to talk to them about pronouns. Because of I think somebody that they knew or whatever. And they were like, “Oh yeah so like Loki’s children. They’re genderfluid. What pronouns do they prefer? Oh they? Okay, got it.” And this person who tweeted was like oh my god these tiny things that kids pick up on which you’re not …

Screenshot of a tweet. Text says: Me: *starts to explain non-binary gender of close relative* 11 y.o.: Oh, you mean gender fluid? Me: You know "gender fluid"? Him: It's like Loki's kids. They're gender fluid. You know, in Magnus Chase. I know all about it. What pronouns should we use? @rickriordan

Sanjana: But it’s true! It’s just also broadened my thinking. I also feel – which I hope nobody throws stones at my house for this – but I also feel like Vishnu is genderfluid.

Aparna: Ohhh!

Parinita: Oh!

Aparna: Interesting.

Parinita: Yeah that’s a great theory! So my answer to your question, Paru, is in canon She-Ra is this queernormative – a word that I learned today so the opposite of heteronormative – world which has a lot of gender nonconforming characters and a nonbinary character as well. So I just love She-Ra’s world. But I also love that fans – just like Sana, though I don’t know if fan would be the correct thing to say in her case – but like reader interpretation of Vishnu. So I love that.

Poster of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power

Sanjana: [laughs] Fan! Vishnu fan let’s not put that tag.

Parinita: Yeah, I don’t know [laughs] Like a Vishnu fangirl who is interpreting Vishnu as genderfluid. [laughs]

Sanjana: I’ve encountered him so much in research for work that I just feel like I’ve read so much and so many different versions of stories that I feel like it just makes complete sense that he’s genderfluid.

Parinita: So Vishnu expert Sana thinks … [laughs]

Sanjana: [laughs]

Parinita: But I love how people take ownership of these characters that either they know a lot about or they love a lot. Like Tonks – Nymphadora Tonks from Harry Potter is someone a lot of people see as either gender nonconforming or trans or nonbinary. And basically, they’re reading themselves into this character. So if you don’t have these representations in media, or like in Harry Potter where you have very few representations anyway in terms of diversity, but you love the world enough and you love the characters enough that you are making it more progressive by adopting this character and making that character more progressive than they were otherwise.

Panel from the fanzine comic Tonk’s Tale by Maia Kobabe

Aparna and Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: And uh

Sanjana: What about you, Aparna?

Aparna: Yes, thank you!

Sanjana: Were you waiting for us to ask you?

Aparna: Yes I was!

Sanjana: Okay. What about you? What are some of yours? Why don’t you share?

Aparna: I would love to, thank you. So there’s this one picture book called The Rabbit Listened by Cory Doerrfeld –  I think that’s how her name is pronounced. And the kid in that is called Taylor and very intentionally is not gendered. The child has not been referred to by any pronoun and can be interpreted as both a boy or a girl.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: And it was so effortlessly done. Although it is an effort. As an editor of picture books, I can tell you that it takes effort to get that wording right to not use any pronouns. It’s amazing of how the interpretations of it and how people read whatever gender they’d like into it. And how gender is so not important. The story is not going to change because the protagonist is –

Sanjana: The story could have been anybody’s. It belongs to anybody.

Aparna: Yeah. And –

Parinita: So just jumping onto that –  I’m going to let you say your second thing – but you just saying that reminded me of Wild by Emily Hughes.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Yes.

Parinita: Which is also a picture book. I love that picture book and I’d read it for one of my assignments during my master’s. And on my second read of it, I realised that even in that book, they don’t refer to her as a girl. Because she doesn’t see herself as a girl. She sees herself as a wild creature so all the words signified that. Like you were saying, it’s obviously a very deliberate choice which on a first cursory reading, as much as I loved that book, I didn’t even pick up on until I sat down to read it more deliberately.

Aparna: Yeah. Then a few more I’d say before jumping on to my favourite one is how some characters in books or other media have been reinterpreted as belonging to a different gender. For example, the TV series The Night Manager is adapted from a book. In that the character in the TV series played by Olivia Coleman is called Angela Burr and she was originally in the novel, a character called Leonard Burr. In the television series, they cast a woman for it. A pregnant woman at that. And it did not change the story at all. And this was a character that was at times was very difficult and was not likable. And I feel like those decisions, they play so much more interestingly from unexpected actors playing it. And then there was this whole slew of shows where the main characters were unlikable women. [laughs] Like Fleabag and The Good Place and Veep. And after all these years of the way women have been represented, I just find it very freeing to see this. To have women not have to be likable and still be the centre of a show. But –

Sanjana: Are you going to your favourite one?

Parinita: [laughs]

Aparna: Now I’m building up to it.

Sanjana: Since you were going to – I just want to sorry I will let you finish –

Aparna: [laughs] This is the second time I’ve been interrupted on my way to …!

Sanjana: Yeah but we want your favourite to get its importance that you’ve been building up to. But just talking about the fact of flipping gender roles, this just brings out that episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Ember Island Players, where they go to watch this play about their own story.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: And all the characters are very flipped. Like Toph is this huge man. And she is very kicked by the idea because she’s like Toph and tough so there’s this large man. And Aang is played by this dainty woman who’s flying about and being all giggly.

Aparna: Is Aang very insulted?

Sanjana: Yeah, he’s very insulted by this.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: And Katara’s emotions are over-exaggerated. She’s whiny so she’s a bit emotional.

Aparna: Ohh! It was like a satire.

Sanjana: Yeah it was like a satire. But it was like how society would view these characters. And I thought it was very intelligently done in the way that they were portrayed within the play and also in the way that the characters reacted to the way they were being portrayed.

Parinita: So it would be a bit like Vishnu coming here and reacting to your genderfluid theory.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Oh my good lord!

Aparna: “I am indeed. I am indeed genderfluid.”

Sanjana: I have ???

Aparna: “Thank you for noticing this. After all this time.”

Sanjana: Now, Aparna, do tell us who your favourite is.

Aparna: Yeah. So I was building up to Steven Universe. I could spend a whole episode talking about Steven Universe but I’m quickly going to say why I like it. So a lot of the characters are technically not women, they are gems. Crystal gems. So they are actually I guess sentient rocks? I’m not sure. But they present as women. And diversity in any form that you want is available. Whether it is diversity in sexual orientation, there’s diversity in body type, there’s diversity in just the different personalities. There’s just this whole cast of fascinating, well-written, well-rounded women. Which is one of the most refreshing things that I have ever seen. Also what’s interesting is that the main character is Steven who’s a child and who’s a boy. who’s often the most emotional or the most sensitive in the group. And that is something that’s celebrated as a power of his. And just to have these traditionally looked at as feminine qualities present in a boy and have them being placed at a pedestal because these are the qualities that matter and these qualities mean a lot and these qualities are something to aspire to and not belittled; being emotional is not a weakness. And those sort of narratives run throughout the series. It’s quite a delight. It has imperfect mothers and … it’s just a celebration of teamwork and love and hope and it’s a delightful show. I recommend it to everyone. On the flipside, it also has fathers who are nurturing – well the father of the main character – who’s just nurturing and not fussed about being the only man in a group of women. He is often the person on the side-lines and is very happy to be so. It’s just an amazing show.

Poster of the TV show Steven Universe

Image courtesy IMDB

Parinita: I think – and I think Noelle Stevenson would agree – that Steven Universe walked so that She-Ra could fly.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: Because all of these things that you’re saying, that’s the what I love about She-Ra. I think there’s obviously been a lot of inspiration and there’s the fact that there’s not just room for one. Noelle Stevenson very much pointed to Steven Universe and said, if they can do this, why can’t we? Which is why it’s such a fantastic world and which is why we need more of these fantastic worlds.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: So if you watch She-Ra, I’ll watch Steven Universe.

Aparna: Okay, done. And I also wanted to say how diverse the cast is. Because in one interview, the person who plays one of the characters called Pearl, the actor’s name is Deedee. She was talking about how she went into auditions and she met another actor who also happens to be Asian and she’s like, “Oh no then that means I didn’t get the part. Or has there been some mix-up? Because there can’t possibly be two Asian women voicing main characters in a show.” [laughs] But it was. And she’s like, “When I realised that it was, I was like I’ve found my home! I’m in the right place.” So that was very sweet but also sad, I guess.

Sanjana: Now this brings us to … our last section “What If?”

Sanjana and Aparna: [make sound effects]

Aparna: What if, what if, what if? [singsong]

Parinita: [laughs]

Aparna: I did a thing!

Sanjana: Yeah, I saw.

Aparna: Theme song.

Sanjana: Yeah. That’s the theme song for our What If? section

Parinita: Which will apparently keep changing every time we do this segment.

Sanjana: [laughs] Yeah.

Aparna: That’s the magic of What If. What if we have the theme song? The same theme song.

Sanjana: What if the theme song changes next time? What if?

Parinita: [laughs] It probably will.

Sanjana: Which brings us to [sound effect] Now I want you guys to think about what are the things that we would be concerned about as women in some of our favourite fandoms? What if we were right there in the middle?

Aparna: Okay.

Sanjana: And then if you guys think of some fandoms, feel free to ask. Whatever comes to your mind, say fast. I don’t want these great things. We all know what can happen to women in general.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: But let’s begin with something that both of you watch and I don’t watch much of! Supernatural!

Aparna: We’d be dead.

Sanjana: [laughs]

Aparna: We’d be dead.

Parinita: Very violently killed off.

Aparna: We’d be dead and not resurrected as opposed to many of the other men who’ve been dead several times and have always managed to find their way back to the main cast.

Parinita: And we’d be killed to further either Dean or Sam or maybe Castiel’s story.

Aparna: Yes!

Sanjana: All right. Women not faring so well in the Supernatural world. Moving on, how would you fare in Serenity? On the Firefly world.

Aparna: I remember that there was a very complicated social system wherein Inara who was a prostitute was the highest

Sanjana: Rank. Most respected –

Aparna: Most respected profession. And I need to unpack it a little more. But I feel like … I don’t know if I’m comfortable with that. [laughs]

Parinita: I think because I’m brown, I wouldn’t be there.

Aparna: Haan.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Aparna: Sure.

Parinita: Sorry to bring race into this.

Aparna: Arey no you bring whatever you want into this.

Sanjana: You bring it. This is off the top of your heads anyway. So … all right. All right. What if you were part of like the Resistance in Star Wars?

Parinita: I mean we’d have to fight for which of us gets to be the one woman in the resistance.

Sanjana and Aparna: [laugh]

Sanjana: Yeah. That would be true.

Parinita: What if you were one of the Marvel superheroes?

Aparna: Uncomfortable clothes.

Sanjana: [laughs]

Parinita: Lots of wedgies.

Aparna: Cannot conceal weapons.

Sanjana: Yeah. That makes sense. Also, I don’t think we would ever get to lead a team to save the world. We would be there second-in-command types.

Parinita: I mean if we did lead a team, then we would get a lot of hate tweets from angry fanboys on the internet.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Yes.

Sanjana: All right what if you were on the TARDIS?

Parinita: We would be there only until we were a certain age and then we would be very politely be either abandoned or killed off or –

Aparna: Memory will be wiped.

Parinita: Sent back to the past.

Sanjana: All right TARDIS not faring that well for us womenfolk.

Parinita: What about Middle-Earth? What if you were in Middle-Earth?

Sanjana: Oooh!

Aparna: I would either be very, very powerful or invisible.

Sanjana: [laughs]

Parinita: Or growing potatoes waiting for Samwise.

Sanjana: That is invisible only, na?

Aparna: I either have to be the most powerful or nothing at all. I will be lost in the crowd.

Sanjana: Well! Women not faring that well in Middle-Earth either. [laughs]

Aparna: Were there any female Ents? Does anybody remember?

Parinita: No, I don’t think so.

Sanjana: There were none.

Parinita: I mean there were a handful – I think I could count the number of women on my left hand.

Sanjana: You would not be an Ent! You would not be an Orc! You would not be!

Aparna: You would not be! [laughs]

Parinita: Or a hobbit. Oh no, Samwise does marry a girl. So there’s that compulsory heteronormativity.

Aparna: Well done.

Sanjana: Congratulations on getting married, Samwise!

Parinita: [laughs] I mean Frodo and Sam obviously needed to end together but whatever.

Sanjana: Yeah. But Frodo decided to float away. So anyway.

Aparna: He had seen too much okay, Sana.

Parinita: After this pandemic, I would love to find an Elf ship to float to the other end of the sea.

Sanjana: I’m with you. I feel your pain. All right. What if you were in Ba Sing Se? I’m starting to like this commentator voice.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: Game show host voice.

Aparna: What would I do in Ba-Sing Se?

Sanjana: I don’t know.

Parinita: I think I would need to come from an important family to matter. If I was a cabbage seller’s daughter, [laughs] I would just be chasing cabbages everywhere.

Gif of cabbage seller from Avatar The Last Airbender shouting "My cabbages!"

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Probably hidden under the cart

Sanjana: Or run a small tea-shop or something.

Aparna: I was thinking running a small tea-shop.

Sanjana: Yeah just because you wanted to work under Uncle Iroh.

Aparna: [laughs] So!?

Sanjana: All right and my last on the list is … in Gotham City.

Aparna: Oh! Dead.

Sanjana: [laughs]

Parinita: No, no, I would join the – what’s it called? What is the new feminist collective in Gotham City?

Aparna: Birds of Prey?

Sanjana: Birds of Prey!

Parinita: I would join Birds of Prey.

Sanjana: [laughs] Feminist collective!

Aparna: Hello, we are a feminist collective. Nice to meet you.

Sanjana: Well on that note then!

Aparna and Parinita: [laugh]

Sanjana: Thank you for joining us in this section of What If?

Aparna: What If? [makes sound effect]

Parinita: [laughs]

Aparna: Ending theme.

Sanjana: This brings us to the end of our episode.

Parinita: Thank you so much for listening to us wax lyrical about all the problems that we have with women’s representations in the world.

Sanjana: Yeah. Until next time.

Parinita: Bye!

Sanjana and Aparna: Bye!

 

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode on the representation of marginalised genders in mainstream media – both entertainment and news – as well as the real world. Thank you so much Sanjana and Aparna for talking about and listening to so many of the things I’m most interested in. Our conversations have helped make me a better thinker and helped make my politics more inclusive.

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

Episode Resources:

SEXUALITY:

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

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

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

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

5) Essay – The Sexual Ethics of Doctor Who

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

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

8) Essay – Representation in acefic

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

 

CLASS/CASTE:

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

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

12) Essay – Celebrating the Minimum Wage Warriors of SFF

13) Wiki list – Fantastic Caste System

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

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

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

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

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

 

Episode Transcript

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

[Intro music]

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

[Intro music]

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

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

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

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Sanjana: Hello! I’m Sanjana

Aparna: I’m Aparna.

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

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

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

Parinita: Yeah. Very, very much so!

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

Parinita: Yeah oh my god.

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

Sanjana: Yes.

Parinita: Albus and Scorpius.

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

Parinita: The Alohomara one?

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

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

Sanjana: Yeah! Same.

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

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

Sanjana and Aparna: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Oh god.

Aparna: So it also goes in the other direction.

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

Aparna: Yeah. Star Wars.

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

Parinita: In Indian mythology, right?

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

Parinita and Aparna: [laugh] Yes!

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Aparna: Oh!

Parinita: Oh I had no idea. What?

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

Aparna and Parinita: Oh!

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: Hindu mythology is wild!

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

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

Sanjana: Yeah.

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

Sanjana and Aparna: Yeah!

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

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

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

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

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

Sanjana and Aparna: [laugh]

Drarry fan art courtesy Fanpop

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

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

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

Sanjana: Yeah. [laughs]

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

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Absolutely.

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

Sanjana: Yeah!

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

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

Aparna: [laughs]

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

Aparna: [laughs]

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

Aparna: We’ll try.

Sanjana: [laughs]

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

Sanjana: Yeah!

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

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

Parinita and Aparna: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Yeah for sure.

Sanjana: And so educational!

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

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

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

Aparna: [laughs]

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

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

Sanjana: Yes!

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

Parinita: Um hmm.

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

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

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Yeah. And this brings us to …

Parinita [laughs]

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

Aparna: [makes sound effect]

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

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

Parinita: Okay.

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

Parinita and Aparna: Oh.

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

Sanjana: No, no I was –

Aparna: Serenity is a ship anyway.

Parinita: Okay. Um …

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

Sanjana: You missed Aparna’s very excellent joke.

Parinita: Oh! I did, yes.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: What did she say?

Sanjana: She said Serenity is a ship.

Parinita: [laughs]

Aparna: Thank you, thank you.

Parinita: I would ship Serenity with the TARDIS.

Aparna: [laughs]

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

Aparna: The Gundeldorfer is just a hot air balloon.

Sanjana: I know but I –

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

Parinita: Oh! [laughs]

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

Sanjana and Parinita: Yeah.

Aparna: It’s not that absurd.

Parinita: That’s true. Um …

Sanjana: What about people you guys?

Parinita: [laughs] People schmeople.

Aparna and Sanjana: [laugh]

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

Sanjana: Wow that is an excellent one.

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

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

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

Sanjana: [laughs] Oh that is excellent.

Parinita: What about somebody from Avatar?

Sanjana: Hmm.

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

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

Parinita: Neither do I.

Aparna: [laughs]

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

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

Parinita: Hmm.

Sanjana: Little loony.

Aparna: Luna!

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

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

Parinita and Aparna: [laugh]

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

Sanjana: Roasting turnips.

Aparna and Parinita: [laugh]

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

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

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

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

Aparna: Troubled past.

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

Aparna: Make a fire.

Sanjana: Yeah.

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

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

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

Aparna: Brooding.

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs]

Aparna: His ability is brooding.

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

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

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

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

Parinita: Oh I follow her as well!

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

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

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Aparna: Yeah.

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

Aparna: Absurd.

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

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

Sanjana: Yeah.

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

Sanjana: Yeah absolutely.

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

Sanjana and Aparna: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Exactly.

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

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

Sanjana: Yeah.

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

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

Sanjana: Yeah.

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

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

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

Sanjana and Aparna: Yeah.

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

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

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

Sanjana: Yes!

Aparna: Yeah.

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

Aparna: [laughs] Yeah.

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

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

Aparna: Spoiler alert.

Sanjana: Yeah. Sorry.

Parinita and Aparna: [laugh]

Sanjana: I mean Buffy has been –

Aparna: I know I know I was joking.

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Aparna: Yes!

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

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

Parinita: Oh really?

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

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

Sanjana and Aparna: Yeah!

Aparna: But we don’t want to hear.

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

Aparna: [laughs] Yeah.

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

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

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

Aparna: What?!

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

Sanjana and Aparna: [laugh]

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

Aparna: Yeah.

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

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

Sanjana: Varys also has a similar team of spies.

Parinita: Yeah that’s true.

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Aparna: Status?

Sanjana: Status!

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

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Sanjana: No.

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

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

Aparna: Oh yeah!

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

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

Aparna: Which they refuse to share.

Sanjana: Which they won’t share with us.

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

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

Aparna and Parinita: [laugh]

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

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

Sanjana: Oh my god yeah.

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

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Maybe in construction.

Parinita: [laughs] That’s true.

Sanjana: Oh my god.

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

Sanjana: Demolish.

Aparna: Yeah demolition.

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

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: She’s the wrecking ball essentially.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Sanjana: Hmm. All right all right.

Parinita: What do you think Zuko would have done?

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

Aparna: Baker!

Parinita: [laughs]

Aparna: Smelter.

Parinita: [laughs]

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

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

Sanjana: He would be a good weapons-maker.

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

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

Parinita: Haan.

Sanjana: So I thought he could make one.

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

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

Parinita: Religious cult leader.

Aparna and Sanjana: [laugh]

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

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

Aparna: We only talk about kings and stuff.

Parinita: Yeah that’s true.

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

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

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

Sanjana: Yeah!

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

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

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita and Aparna: [laugh]

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

Aparna: Strider Recommends!

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

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Sam!

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

Aparna: Yeah!

Sanjana: [laughs]

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

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

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

Sanjana: Oh wow.

Aparna: Cabbage-bending.

Parinita: [laughs]

Aparna: Salad-bending.

Parinita: Oooh!

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

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

Aparna: Bend all the salad away from me.

Parinita: [laughs] What about Dobby?

Aparna: Oooh!

Sanjana: I think Dobby would make an excellent teacher.

Parinita: Oh!

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

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

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

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

Sanjana: Yeah, right? Dobby for teacher.

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

Aparna: Thank you for asking us to!

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: This has been so much fun!

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

Aparna: [laughs]

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

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

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

Aparna: Better prepared What Ifs.

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

Aparna: Bye!

Parinita: Bye!

[Outro music]

 

[Outro music]

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

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

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

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

As always, thanks for listening!

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

Episode Resources:

1) Podcast – Nancy: The Word Queer 

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

3) Essay – How Fanfiction Made Me Gay 

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

5) Fanfiction – Breath of the Wild drabbles series

6) Fanfiction: Skies of Blue, Red Roses Too

7) Essay – [Elsewhere] Arrows and Aros

 

Episode Transcript

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

[Intro music]

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

[Intro music]

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

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

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

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

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

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

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

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

Parinita: Oh wow!

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

Parinita: Oh that’s fascinating!

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

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

Milena: Yeah.

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

Milena: Yeah.

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

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

Milena: Not a huge amount.

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

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

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

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

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

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

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

Parinita: Yeah.

Photo of the ensemble cast of the TV show Black Sails

Black Sails ensemble courtesy Wiki

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

Parinita: Absolutely.

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

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

Milena: Yeah.

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

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

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

Milena: But I deal with it.

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

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

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

Milena: Yeah.

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah exactly.

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

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

Milena: Their life must be so miserable!

Parinita: [laughs] I know.

Milena: Please find better friends.

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

Milena: Yeah.

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

Milena: Yeah.

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: Yeah.

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

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

Image courtesy Babylon 5 Confessions

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

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

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

Milena: Yeah.

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

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

Parinita: Um hmm.

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

Parinita: Oh right!

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

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

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

Milena: Yeah.

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

Milena: Yeah.

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

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

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

Milena: [laughs]

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

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

Parinita: Oh my god.

Milena: It’s like why?!

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

Milena: Oh absolutely.

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

Milena: Yeah definitely.

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

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

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

Milena: [laughs]

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

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

Milena: It’s a problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Milena: Yeah.

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

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

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

Milena: Yeah.

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

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

Milena: [laughs]

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

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: [laughs]

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

Parinita: [laughs]

Milena: I was like it’s not good.

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

Milena: [laughs] Yes!

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

Milena: Absolutely.

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

Milena: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

Parinita: Yeah!

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

Parinita: Aww! [laughs]

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

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

Parinita: Oh! Yes!

Milena: [laughs]

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

Milena: It’s on my list.

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

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

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

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

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

Milena: Thank you for having me! Take care.

[Outro music]

 

[Outro music]

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

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

Episode 20 Because We Couldn’t See Ourselves: Cultural Representations and Cultural Imperialism in Western Media/Fandom

Episode Resources:

1) Fan podcast – Our Opinions Are Correct: What’s So Bad About Cultural Appropriation?

2) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds: Fantastical Feasts 

3) Fan podcast – Our Opinions Are Correct: Imaginary Immigrants And Time-traveling Refugees

4) Fan podcast – Alohomora: Muggles & Squibs – Not On The List

5) Fan podcast – Woke Doctor Who: Imperialism and the Doctor

6) YouTube Video – Empire and Imperialism In Children’s Cartoons—A Super Light Topic

 

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 twentieth episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I talk to Rita Faire about cultural imperialism in Western media and its online fan communities. As fans from the Philippines and India who have grown up in these fandom spaces, we also talk about how our participation has helped us decolonise our imaginations.

Media fans usually don’t start off by interrogating ideas that they’ve internalised about different cultures – including their own. The norms and structures within both media and fandom dictate which kind of fannish identities and cultures are considered superior. In many Western media fandom spaces, the cultural references and assumptions about people’s origins tend to privilege the US and the UK. For fans from certain backgrounds, online fandoms can erase parts of their identities. These spaces can offer limited narratives of both dominant and marginalised cultures.

However, critical discussions in fandom can help people think about issues in new ways. Encountering fans and perspectives that reflect identities which are otherwise marginalised in these spaces can disrupt taken-for-granted narratives. Talking about differently marginalised and privileged representations can help fans reflect on their assumptions and critically analyse their experiences, resulting in a collective process of decolonisation. It can also help people develop the confidence to challenge cultural inaccuracies and biases. Identifying colonised minds can offer the first step in moving beyond them and go on to diversify imaginations.

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

Happy listening!

 

[Intro music]

Parinita: Today I’m so happy to welcome Rita Faire to the podcast. Rita is a Filipino doctoral researcher and associate lecturer in Edinburgh Napier University’s Scottish Centre of the Book. Her current research is on picturebook co-edition practices in Europe’s periphery publishing environments. Rita is a board member of Researchers Exploring Inclusive Youth Literature (REIYL) and developed ‘Coming into View’, a literacy programme that’s aimed at understanding children of colour’s sense of belonging in children’s literature. She is currently co-developing a critical reading programme exploring the intersections of oppression in the creative industries. A lot of Rita’s work is after my own heart as is her participation in online fandom. And since we’ve both grown up in Asia in different countries, in this episode, we’re going to explore the different national cultures in global online fandom and we’re also going to chat about the different kinds of labour undertaken by fans from marginalised groups, especially when the creator of their favourite fictional worlds shares bigoted views. Before we get into that, though, Rita could you share your own experiences within online fandom?

Rita: Hi! So my experiences in online fandom, I think is very similar to a lot of people in their early 30s.

Parinita: [laughs]

Rita: [laughs] I got into it because of Harry Potter.

Parinita: Yes! Me too!

Rita: Actually, that’s not accurate. Sorry, as soon as I said it, I realised like I don’t think it was Harry Potter that brought me in.

Parinita: Oh!

Rita: I think it was anime. Because my first foray into fan communities was actually fanfiction.net and I was writing anime fanfiction. And then for some reason stumbled into Harry Potter fanfiction and that just owned my soul after that.

Parinita: [laughs]

Rita: So from there, I went into fan art communities that made banners for stories on fan fiction collectives or archives. I did online roleplaying as well in various sites; created online role playing sites as well.

Parinita: Oh my god that’s amazing.

Rita: Oh yeah I was definitely one of those people who lived on the internet and just got a lot of my social interaction from there because it was so different from the daily interactions that I had. I discussed things there that I didn’t discuss in real life.

Parinita: Yeah absolutely. It’s similar for me as well. I’m an extremely online person and I’ve been since I first got a computer. And even before that, when we used to visit cyber cafes in the neighbourhood, me and my friend.

Rita: [laughs] Oh my god.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah that was a thing when I was a teenager. And we used to go and do that. But also what you’re saying about the quality of interactions being so different. I find that even now. I connect most with people who are fannish as in they have that enthusiasm about a text or media or something. Even if I’m unfamiliar with that particular fandom, I’m still connecting to them in a way that I wouldn’t possibly with another person who wouldn’t identify as a fan. Even though now I think because mainstream media is so prevalent in everybody’s lives, everyone is a fan of something. But I think that there’s a difference as well between how you’re a fan online and if you’re a part of a fan community in whatever way, even if you’re a lurker. It’s very different from just, “Oh I like that thing.”

Rita: Yeah. I think at least in the Filipino context, a lot of it has to do with how we view enthusiasm. Or open enthusiasm. ’Cause fan cultures online is a space that really celebrates enthusiasm. You can never be too keen about something. So there’s this concept in the Philippines, it’s called [says Filipino word]. And I guess it translates to keenness. And it’s like when you’re too keen about something or you feel something too much, then that gets kind of looked down upon. And you couldn’t be that massive of a fan in real life ’cause then I don’t know, it would be too vulnerable. It would be too revealing. Something like that. But you’d definitely be judged for it. Whereas online, you get to shed that artifice. And just be your authentic nerdish self.

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs]

Rita: [laughs]

Parinita: In the Philippines, is that just in terms of books and things?

Rita: No.

Parinita: Or is that just fandom in general?

Rita: That’s not even just fandom in general, it’s even in the arts. If you’re a singer and you just feel like you’re such a good singer, oh you’re feeling it too much. And I don’t know where that comes from. ’Cause I’m really hesitant to say that it’s a sense of Asian reservedness because Filipinos are also really well known to be big personalities. We are the karaoke people of the world.

Parinita: [laughs]

Rita: [laughs] I think that’s something that Filipinos are really well known for. We karaoke without shame. And regardless of talent.

Parinita: [laughs]

Rita: So why we would have that kind of reservation when it comes to fandom or when it comes to talent is beyond me. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah that’s really interesting because in India, even though something like  Harry Potter is more mainstream, most people would still read the books and even if they love it, they might not necessarily want more out of it like going online and engaging with fan productions or fan texts or fanfiction or whatever. But we have different regional cinema. So we have a Bollywood which is Hindi language and then we have many -ollywoods depending on which state you’re from. And those have massive fan followings. As in actors and musicians and singers. There were fans of this South Indian movie star called Rajnikanth.

Rita: Um hmm.

Parinita: And there’s this group of fans that went to the US because that’s where he premiered the movie first. So they flew to the US, even though I think the Indian premiere was two days later or something. And they create these altars like not temples in the religious sense, but they might as well be. Because they have the photographs and they put flowers on them and things you would do in a Hindu temple. So there is a huge craze which is quite mainstream in India. But that would be more for movies and singers and things who are more accessible to a larger mass of people than say something like Harry Potter or Doctor Who or these Western media fandoms that we’re talking about. So when I was growing up, I did feel like it was just me because when I was online. Nobody really seemed to say what country they’re from. Or if they did, they largely seemed to be American. Not broader Western but specifically American. So all these references and all the slang and everything that I picked up on was not just through fandom, it was through media as well. And it was largely American. I remember the first and maybe only fanfic that I wrote – it was a Harry Potter thing. And I had made a reference to a Star Trek fan. Do you remember they used to be called Trekkies?

Rita: Yeah but now they’re called Trekkers.

Photo of two men standing beside an altar with a photo of Amitabh Bachchan, Bollywood actor

Image courtesy India Times

Parinita: Yeah. I referenced it in a way that was sort of derogatory. And I had no familiarity with Star Trek. [laughs] I did not know anybody who watched Star Trek. But because if you’re on the internet, you pick up on these references. And the corner of the internet that I inhabited, Star Trek fans seemed to be a very specific kind of fan. And in my fanfiction I’d written a random reference to that without really understanding what that meant. And now my boyfriend, he’s a huge Star Trek fan so I can’t show my fanfiction to him [laughs] because it obviously marginalises him. But yeah just thinking about how you internalise these ideas without really interrogating them.

Rita: Yeah. Well listening to you talk about fandom with the different -ollywoods of India, I started thinking … actually there were instances like that in the Philippines. There definitely were. But they just never were around the things that I liked. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs]

Rita: Or maybe I took pride in not liking those things. I don’t know why. And I think that judgement of how much you’re a fan of is very reserved for a specific identity or like a specific class. I think some of it is definitely attached to class.

Parinita: Yeah.

Rita: But then another part of it I’m now thinking is that that’s slowly being eroded by the fact that the Philippines is crazy over anything Korean. I don’t know if this happened in India. But around the early 2000s, that was when the Philippines stopped being obsessed with Spanish language telenovelas and that’s when we started being obsessed with Asian telenovelas. At first it was Taiwanese with Meteor Garden and F5 And then it became Coffee Prince (?) and stuff like that. And I think at that point I was too into my online fandoms to engage with those fandoms. Because you can only have so much space in your life to obsess.

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs]

Rita: And while you were talking about that internalisation of certain values, I realised that I grew up around fans. ’Cause my two uncles were huge Trekkies/Trekkers. They made models of gundams.

Parinita: Oh!

Photo of a gundam i.e. robot model

Image courtesy whatNerd

Rita: And they had little figurines of Dragon Ball Z stuff. So I grew up around people who really were demonstratively and monetarily engaged in their fandoms. But I find that since I was young when this happened, when I engaged in fandoms, online communities were a free way for me to do that. Because you don’t have to buy the merchandise. I can create art. I don’t have to build models because I can write fanfiction. And those kind of internalised things that you said, I’m thinking now that I think you’re right, we never really discussed our nationalities. Although I can remember in this very distinct instance when I was in the fan art community, I met one Asian person who was very demonstratively Asian. And it’s because their handle or I think it might have been their real name was very distinctly Asian. You could not mistake that for any other kind of nationality or ethnicity. And that was the first time I realised, “Oh there are Asian people like me online.” Because we’re not all just erased of our identities.

Parinita: Yeah.

Rita: And I guess it’s easier for some than others. But then that person was the only person I remember really putting their identity forward. They were Chinese-American and they were writing fanfiction with Chinese-Americans in them. They were making art with Asian faces on them. And at first I thought, it’s not the most popular thing to do. And I never really critically engaged that until now. Now that I think about it, now I’m wondering, whatever happened to this person – are they still a writer?

Parinita: Yeah! And they were way ahead of their times as well.

Rita: Yeah. ’Cause  it was the kind of open reclaiming that you didn’t see as much until now over the last few years.

Parinita: Yeah. I mean now it is more of a thing where people are identifying themselves belonging to not just nationalities but also you know other groups. But especially ten or fifteen years ago, that was not a thing at all. So there were these ICQ chatrooms. Again this is like [laughs] way back when I was a teenager when I first started engaging with fandom. And I think there was this room for fans of books or something – I don’t know. And we were just talking. I think I was like 13 or 14 or something. And that was when someone had recommended Harry Potter to me – not Harry Potter, sorry. Lord of the Rings. And I’d never heard of Lord of the Rings before just because the people that I knew in my offline life, nobody was a big reader and nobody would have known to recommend fantasy texts to me. But this person recommended Lord of the Rings to me because I loved Harry Potter so much and they were like, “Oh you like fantasy so you read this.” And then I think they said they were from somewhere in the US and then I said, “Oh I’m from India. Have you ever heard of India?” [laughs] It was such a colonised mindset. Of course now I would be like, “How could you not have heard of India?” And I would judge someone for not having heard of India if they’re online and they’re an online person and read things and engage with the world. But at that time, I had this mindset because of all the media that I was consuming, not just movies and books and things but also fandom. Because all the fanfiction and everything was set in the West. So it was in the UK or in the US – very Western contexts. So obviously I thought that everybody, even the fans, would only be in that context. And then who cares about India? Why would anybody know about India? Which now thinking back about that, oh my god what a naïve little child I was. [laughs]

Rita: Well to be fair, I still get people who don’t know where the Philippines is. I kid you not. And I have to tell them yeah, it’s in Asia, it’s in Southeast Asia. And people will still confuse Southeast Asia with East Asia and South Asia. I’m glad that now we’re having these discussions. And that we can openly say, “Oh actually, that’s wrong.” And you don’t feel embarrassed for correcting someone. Because that’s usually what happened before. If people mistook you for something else or had misinformation about your identity or anything within your context, you were really embarrassed to correct them. I remember saying that I was Filipino in an online space before and then realising that actually the other person I was talking to was also Filipino.

Parinita: Oh!

Rita: And we never realised. And now the thing I’m thinking about is whether or not we were both Filipino in the Philippines. ’Cause she made a comment on the university I went to. That’s how we realised we were Filipino. I mentioned what university I was going to that I’d just … I can’t remember if I’d just gotten into that university at the time. It was brought up, I mentioned it. And she said, “Oh! Certain comment.” Might have been derogatory.

Parinita: [laughs]

Rita: … Oh actually! Sorry I’m just replaying this entire conversation in my head right now as we talk on a podcast. Which really shouldn’t be the time when you do this. But no, she mentioned which university she was from. And I said, “Ooh!” Possibly derogatory as well. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Rita: So yeah, she was from the Philippines as well! I didn’t even realise it. Oh see now that I’m thinking about it, who else did I talk to who was possibly a secret Filipino?

Parinita: [laughs]

Rita: [laughs]

Parinita: I don’t know if you’re familiar with Rukmini Pande’s work at all? She’s an Indian fan studies researcher who has written this book called Squee From The Margins. And I know you’re not really into fandom studies as much but a lot of her conversation is looking at postcolonialism and race and racism but in fandom, rather than in children’s literature.

Rita: I love it!

Parinita: And she draws on her own experiences as well growing up as a fan in India. And when reading that book, I felt so seen! Because she spoke about the same things that she thought she was the only Indian because like her and unlike you, I’d never met anybody at least in Mugglenet or any of these other spaces, ICQ whatever – who loved the same things but who were also from the same country. I don’t know if you ever had Orkut. Is that a thing that ever made its way to the Philippines?

Rita: I’m not sure now.  I don’t know. I don’t think so.

Parinita: It was huge in India and Brazil of all places. [laughs]

Rita: Oh the intersections of India and Brazil.

Parinita: Yeah. I mean currently it’s fascism so earlier at least it was better. But it was this social networking website. It was strange and really popular for a while. And now that I’m thinking about it, that was very much drawn on national lines. Most of the people that I knew there or had on my friends list or whatever they called on Orkut were Indian. They had things that resembled forum posts and we spoke about Harry Potter in that. So now just thinking about it, that’s the only Indian interaction I had. But I think in my head, because of the colonised mindset – and I obviously wasn’t able to articulate this at the time – but it wasn’t as much transformative fandom as it was just, “Oh we love this thing.” So there would be games and stuff on the forum but not really fanfiction or fan art. Maybe some roleplaying but not really creative things in the way that something like Mugglenet for example would have. So in my head I think I drew a distinction between the two that, “Oh Orkut full of Indian people and obviously not as good as this American website that is full of Americans and I don’t know secret Filipinos [laughs] who are talking about this thing.” So then as a teenager, just because of the social conditioning that you’re prey to, I decided that this was better than the other. And just now talking about it, I’m thinking that, oh wait I did have interactions with Indian fans but just obviously not in a way that I respected. [laughs] Which is hmm!

Rita: Well that’s the thing about it, isn’t it? We remember being outsiders that we associated so much with our experience online that it kind of drowns out the experiences where we weren’t outsiders, where we weren’t the only people of colour in the room.

Parinita: Yeah.

Rita: Or in the online chat as it were. I don’t know if you had the same experience and I would love to hear if you did. When your online and your real-life life crashed together. Your online and your real-life fandom.

Parinita: Hmm. In what way?

Rita: So when I went to university, the continuing saga. This is very chronological now. [laughs] When I went to university, in my final year of university I think, there was and I kid you not, a Harry Potter class.

Parinita: [gasps] What?!

Rita: There was a Harry Potter class. Shoutout to Anne Sangil – Anne Frances Sangil who created this module because it was [chef’s kiss] the most engaged literary criticism I ever experienced in university.

Parinita: [gasps again] I am so jealous!

Rita: It was so good. We discussed things like activism, through the lens of Dobby and freeing the house-elves and that sort of thing. Sorry, through S.P.E.W. I’m trying to think if we discussed race. I’m not sure that we did. But I’m sure current iterations of the module are still doing that. But yeah, it was a really in-depth discussion of Harry Potter. And so everyone in that class was either a huge Harry Potter fan online or they were newbies who thought this was a really easy class. They were very wrong.

Parinita: [laughs]

Rita: But then it brought the stuff that I experienced online into its physical form. Which was we created art, we translated Harry Potter and did a play of Deathly Hallows. That was a thing that I’m still weirdly proud of to this day. [laughs] And then that class introduced me to because that class engaged with Pinoit (?) Potter. Which is the Filipino chapter of the Harry Potter fandom. And so I got to go to events.

Parinita: Oh my god.

Rita: I got to go to a live reading of my professor’s critical analysis of Voldemort’s anti-hero’s journey. Fantastic. We speculated about the last book because it hadn’t come out yet at that point. But instead of doing it in a chat, we were doing it in a real space. Even though we all existed in those spaces.

Parinita: Wow.

Rita: And that was such a surreal experience for me.

Parinita: Oh that sounds amazing. The closest I’ve come to that in my university – so for my undergrad, I did mass media and focused on journalism. But in my second year, we had a module called Culture Studies and it was a very introductory thing because it was just for a semester. But one of the final assignments was to either describe or to write an essay about a specific subculture of anything in the world. [laughs]

Rita: [laughs]

Parinita: I don’t remember the guidelines. But because I was deep into my Harry Potter online fandom then, I thought that Harry Potter fandom would be an interesting subculture to write about. And I ran it by my lecturer and she was like yeah, yeah that sounds great. So I spent so much time putting this together. And I wanted to also not make it a boring essay which I would for any other class because it was something that I loved so much. It was such a labour of love, much like this podcast really, that I wanted to present it in a different format. I made it this whole art thing where I cut out Platform 9 and 3/4 tickets. And I made all these wands and things and just made this huge thing. So she was familiar with the text, with Harry Potter itself. But she wasn’t familiar with the fandom or with me as I found out. I was a maximalist. [laughs] Minimalism has never been part of my aesthetic. So there was just this one small corner that was looking very empty to me so I found the smallest bit of text that I could fit into it which was Accio brain? Accio brain? [tries different pronunciations] I don’t know how you

Rita: I never know how to pronounce it.

Parinita: Yeah, me neither. So whatever Accio – Accio [tries different pronunciations] brain. And I only found that because I literally looked up quotes of Harry Potter, you know how they have these compilations of quotes online. And that was the smallest that would fit. It’s from the fifth book when they’re in the Ministry and they’re running from the Death Eaters and they’re in the brain room.

Rita: Oh yeah.

Parinita: [laughs] So I put that in. But obviously she knew the text enough to take great offense at that phrase because she thought I was implying that she was brainless.

Rita: [laughs]

Parinita: And she failed me on that! And I was the most Hermione of Hermione students. And I was just so heartbroken that my labour of love was rejected so I never brought fandom into any of my other university projects.

Rita: You never brought it into real life.

Parinita: Never again. Well, until my master’s. [laughs] And now. So what about when you moved to the UK? Have you been engaging with fandom now?

Rita: I think it was just being so busy with studies that actually took me out of online fandom.

Parinita: Hmm.

Rita: Because up until the first two terms of my master’s, I was fine with engaging in online fandom. I was still on RP [roleplay] sites and stuff. And I still joined in the discourse, I still created art. But because I got so busy with my dissertation, I kind of disengaged. And I don’t know if you felt that way with online fandom as well but there is that sense of like if you don’t engage enough, you lose relevance.

Parinita: Yeah.

Rita: You do. You quickly disappear from the zeitgeist. Not just in your understanding of the fandom but also in the way that people interact with you. Because you’re no longer a daily part of their life. And there were times when I tried to regain that. To regain that space. But it didn’t really feel like it was my space anymore.

Parinita: Hmm.

Rita: So I kind of gently bowed away. Oh no actually I switched platforms for a while. I went to Tumblr. And I think Tumblr – R.I.P. – was a beautiful, beautiful space for me. Because it allowed me to engage in multiple fandoms at the same time. It wasn’t just a dedicated site anymore. I could do whatever the hell I wanted. So I had a lot of Sherlock engagement, I engaged in a lot of Pacific Rim, there was a lot of Deathless. So I was all over that. And I don’t know how I petered out. It might just be my exhaustion with social media now [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Rita: It’s just I don’t engage with fandoms anymore. But then I realised my engagement with fandom is now just a two-way channel where me and my sister just text random things to each other. In the same way that we used to message people on chat boxes when something happened. So that’s been the extent of my fan engagement now. Which is kind of sad. I don’t want to say, oh you grow up and then you’re no longer a fan. That’s false. That’s completely false. It just kind of lose its place.

Parinita: Yeah. It’s just different ways of engaging with fandom, I think. Because I know there are a lot of older people – older as in like 50s, 60s – who are still active members of online fandom.

Rita: So true.

Parinita: But for me I was the same as you. I have a really obsessive personality. So I was online and in fandom for many years. But then once I got busy with other things, with work and stuff, I just didn’t have enough time and brainspace to dedicate to that. And I was largely a lurker, apart from that one time I wrote fanfiction. And now with this fan podcast. Otherwise, I’ve largely just been listening and reading and looking at art and things.

Rita: Yeah.

Parinita: And even that requires so much more time and brainspace than I had to give at that time. I was a part of Tumblr as well, briefly, but that is a not a good space for an obsessive person.

Rita: Oh it’s really not.  You just get drowned in all of the retumble – what is it called again? It’s not retweet oh god.

Parinita: Uh …

Rita: Reblogs!

Parinita: Reblogs, yes.

Rita: You just drown in all the reblogs and stuff.

Parinita: And it’s a great space for fandom

Rita: Wonderful.

Parinita: But then it just gets a lot!

Rita: Yeah. It gets overwhelming.

Parinita: Yeah. So for me, I also sort of bowed out. But then during my master’s, it was a master’s in children’s literature. But I’m not a huge literary analysis person. Because I’ve worked in schools and with kids and books and bookshops and activities and children’s literature festivals and things separately, so I like more reader response things, and reader interpretation than my solo individual interpretation of the book. So for me, fandom just made sense. And that’s why for my master’s, I looked at Facebook fan pages which were much less demanding than if I’d gone on say Archive Of Our Own or Tumblr or something.

Rita: Oh my gosh yeah.

Parinita: Because that would have been … I would have quickly lost sense of any boundaries. But Facebook is this contained space and it has a lot of screenshots and links to other websites and platforms. So it’s a nice accumulation. And then now for my PhD, I’m doing the fan podcast. And I’ve become a fan of fan podcasts.

Rita: [laughs]

Parinita: I think when I was younger, I used to love fiction and art and now I love critiques. I love the critical fans who love the things that they are watching and reading and whatever.

Rita: So true.

Parinita: But they love them enough to critique them as well. Critique elements that fall short because they want it to be better.

Rita: Well see, now that you’ve put it that way, it just feels like academia especially, kids lit academia, is just fandom.

Parinita: Absolutely!

Rita: It’s just another form of fandom. It’s fandom that’s legitimised by universities.

Parinita: [laughs]

Rita: That’s essentially it. All of this talk of PhDs and fandom, reminds me of when I was on one of the platforms I was part of, one of the admins there was doing her PhD on Victorian literature while actively being part of the fandom. And now in retrospect I think to myself, how the heck did you have time?

Parinita: How!? How.

Rita: [laughs] How!?

Parinita: Oh my god. Maybe it was a way to distract from the endless, [laughs] endless pit of despair that the PhD eventually becomes, as much as you love it

Rita: So true.

Parinita:. Much like fandom. [laughs] Academia, fandom you put in so much into it and you become a different version of yourself.

Rita: Well now I’m starting to think, was Harry Potter part of her PhD? Because a lot of the things that she wrote were very Victorian – the Victorian set or Victorian themes, gothic. Now I’m starting to think, did she do that? Or am I just hoping that she maintained her sanity by doing that?

Parinita: Yeah! Because I know a few people who are doing their PhD – and someone in one of my previous episodes as well – who found herself in an academic block because of the pandemic and the world and everything that’s going on. And she couldn’t really think in terms of academia and couldn’t bring those ideas to the fore. So she just went back to fandom after a break of five years or so and now is just churning out 10,000 word fanfics on a fandom I’ve forgotten. That’s her way to maintain something that she can control, I guess, in a world that you can’t control any longer.

Rita: Just even thinking about that – writing 10,000 words a day. I used to be able to do that in fanfiction. I cannot do that for my PhD. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Because as much as you love your PhD, it’s not the same kind of love.

Rita: Well, you don’t have to cite theory in your fanfiction now, did you? [laughs]

Parinita: But saying that, I think the sort of conversations fans are having is similar to academia – which is another reason for this project, because I’ve learned so much from fandom. After I moved past the – not past the – moved from the fanfiction part of fandom to the more nonfiction, critical aspects of it, I found that the way that they have arguments and articulate these arguments, they do a lot of stuff that I recognise in academia.

Rita: So true.

Parinita: I don’t know how the schools in the Philippines were but at least when I was growing up, the mainstream education system then and even to a large extent now, in India, isn’t really conducive to thinking about things in a way that places them in context with the real world. It’s more like you’re learning these facts.

Rita: Yes! Yeah.

Parinita: And you’re not learning how these facts are relevant or how they work together. You’re not learning how to think. You’re just learning what to think and you’re not learning anything beyond that. And for me, I was really good at that. [laughs] I was really good at learning what to think and memorising these things and spouting them out in exam papers. But it’s fandom that made me think about how to think. And also helped me unlearn some of these things. When you talk about decolonising, for me, that whole process started and continues online and in fandom as well.

Rita: So true. I remember in one of my experiences before, I was either an admin or one of the mods for an RPG site. And one of our members called out the fact that our panellists was mostly white faces. And that was the first time I’d ever encountered that – like think about the faces that you’re putting forward for people to portray themselves as; portray their characters as. If you don’t give them a choice, then you’re whitewashing your community. I don’t think at the time I critically engaged with it. But I did take on those lessons without the theory that academia forces upon us.

Parinita: Yeah.

Rita: But it’s just this real-life realisation like, oh of course you are erasing identities in a way. And I’ve had several experiences of that before where fandom critically engaged me into checking my privilege. Or checking how I portray a world, especially in original RPGs where you do a lot of worldbuilding. Like why is your medieval world so Westernised? And don’t just say it’s because it’s based off of Game of Thrones. Because that’s not an excuse anymore. So yeah it was really, really interesting going through that process. And I feel that the online community we left is so much better than the online community we went into.

Parinita: Absolutely.

Rita: It kind of makes me feel so jealous that I am not part of this online community. Because you’re right, it does critically engage. And one of the major topics that we’re discussing today is problematic authors. And the way that fandom has engaged with this discussion of problematic authors is something that I don’t know if I would have seen a couple of years back; ten years back. I don’t know if there would be fans who would say, no, actually I can disengage from this because this is problematic. And not just say, oh this is problematic but give out reasoned arguments as to why it is. Fans are reading up. Fans don’t just know the book, they know the context that the book exists in and they know the discourses around that book. That’s part of what being a fan is. That’s part of the obsession that comes with fandom. And the fact that they’re marrying that with critical engagement is just something so beautiful and gives me hope for the world in this year of our lord 2020.

Parinita: [laughs]

Rita: [laughs]

Parinita: Not to say that fandom can’t be problematic because it can.

Rita: So true!

Parinita: I for sure in my own podcast and in my own experience as well have largely encountered the more progressive aspects of fandom. It’s a deliberate construction as well like the podcasts that I choose to listen to and the articles that I choose to read and the people I choose to follow on Twitter or wherever. So it’s obviously a deliberately constructed echo chamber, which I’m very happy with. I know echo chambers are dissed frequently.

Rita: [laughs]

Parinita: But I don’t want to engage with the horribleness that exists. I mean the world is horrible enough as it is.

Rita: Well part of the echo chamber is really protecting yourself against harmful discussions that could harm your mental health. And I understand that has detrimental aspects to it but I guess you could say echo chamber is a neutral term. It’s not something bad and it’s not something good. It depends on what it brings back to both sides of it.

Parinita: Yeah. People who are in leadership positions, who influence politics or culture where they have the financial, social, structural capital, is different from someone like a fan. A fan has other contexts as well but we’re not really influencing on a large scale how elections work, for example. Or how media is created and media is made or shared. So I think that it’s okay for us to have echo chambers because I don’t need to know what this terrible person who thinks Indians or immigrants should be deported all the time or thinks like England is for white people. I don’t really want this person in my online life.

Rita: That being said, one of the fan sites that I was part of way back during the Obama versus McCain election, there was an actual thread on the forums that discussed people’s political beliefs when it comes to them.

Parinita: Ah!

Rita: Yeah there were actually political discussions on platforms. I know that Paul Ryan was brought up a lot and fiscal conservativism. There was space for that. And our politics still show in the things that we write, I think.

Parinita: Yeah absolutely.

Rita: In the way that people get reviewed and stuff. But it wasn’t a neutral space. And I think that’s where the fallacy is. We’ve been talking about how online fandom erased certain parts of our identities. But they were never really erased. They were always there. But people either just chose to ignore them or we weren’t part of the discussions where people talked about those identities.

Parinita: Yeah. Also this forum you’re talking about, even in my master’s dissertation, there was this thing about comparing Kingsley and Fudge to the current political leaders. It was something to the effect of I wish we had a Kingsley Shacklebolt

Rita: Yes!

Parinita: Rather than all the Fudges that we have. And it led to this discussion from different countries and also different political leanings. About who is really Kingsley and who’s really Fudge. And there was I think a Pakistani fan and there was an Indian fan. Again, I wasn’t interacting with the fans, so it was mostly through lurking.

Collage of Harry Potter characters Kingsley Shacklebolt and Cornelius Fudge. Text says; We need more leaders like Kingsley instead of all the Fudges we have at the moment

Rita: Yeah. This was the lurking party.

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs] But it was very focused on the US elections at the time. And that was during Obama and Hilary Clinton. Even the forum that you’re talking about, how many fans online would have this kind of discussion with Filipino politics or Indian politics?

Rita: Exactly! Yeah. And the fact that I was a Filipino discussing American politics. To be fair, there is a degree of how much American politics does affect us because of our colonial past. But at the same time, we wouldn’t talk about Filipino elections on that. You’re absolutely correct. That’s one way of almost cultural imperialism that happens in fan spaces. Because the things that we talk about more often than not are US or UK.

Parinita: Yeah.

Rita: I mean in Harry Potter, you can clearly see that because the preoccupations of the Harry Potter fandom is the UK. It’s sounding more UK, using UK terminology, slang terms. If you sounded more British in your writing, then that meant you were a good writer. It didn’t even take into account the story but it’s just like if you sounded – if your work read that way, then you were a good writer.

Parinita: Yeah there was a term for it, right? Brit-picking.

Rita: Yeah! As a Filipino, I remember when I first read Harry Potter at the age of eleven or something, I was so confused when they said jumpers instead of sweaters.

Parinita: Yeah.

Rita: [laughs] There are a lot of things that confused me as a little eleven-year-old. And it’s not just because of my youth. It’s because I never consumed media that called it like that. And because I loved Harry Potter so much it develops this Anglophilia in you.

Parinita: For sure.

Rita: And then you start living this life of aspiring towards Anglicanising yourself.

Parinita: Absolutely. And in terms of cultural imperialism and cultural politics, that takes over all aspects of your life, right?

Rita: So true!

Parinita: It’s not just the things that you read but it’s the language and what sort of food seems cool to you and what seems not as aspirational.

Rita: Exactly!

Parinita: It is so … Eurocentric.

Rita: Yeah. And even when I think about why I decided to go to the UK for my master’s degree, unfortunately because of how language and imperialism works, I spoke English and I was not entertaining learning a different language at that point in my life.  [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah.

Rita: I sincerely regret that. I wish I’d learned a different language. So I was choosing between the US, Canada, Australia and the UK. And, of course, one of the considerations was the fact that education in the UK is actually cheaper. Especially in Scotland compared to all those different countries. But there was also that little tick in my brain, that’s the land of Harry Potter.

Parinita: [laughs]

Rita: And it wasn’t just me that saw that. It was every person that I knew who was like, “Yeah you love British culture; you know British history.” Why was I interested in that? Because of Harry Potter and this thing that it kicked into gear for me. It felt like coming into a place that you kind of already knew.

Parinita: But also what you know is so limited as well, right?

Rita: Exactly! It’s so blinded by –

Parinita: And you don’t learn to identify this when you are not in that context yourself.

Rita: Exactly.

Parinita: When I was in India, I had this idea of the UK and the US – and a large part of Indians do as well – that you know the West! It’s wealthy and they don’t have problems. Because in terms of actual comparison, the kind of poverty Indians face and the kind of poverty the UK faces just structurally, socially, everything is very different. So it would be like comparing apples and oranges really.

Rita: Well you’re talking about poverty, it’s that thing about we were presented with the Weasleys as a poor family.

Parinita: I know!

Rita: But they’re clearly not how I understood poor in the Philippines.  I mean the Weasleys are kind of like landed gentry?

Parinita: [laughs]

Rita: I guess? [laughs] I mean maybe not to that extent but the fact that Bill could inherit a house from his great-grandmother, that they had heirlooms.  [laughs]

Parinita: I grew up without a lot of money. The kind of problems that me and my mum faced, the Weasleys would never have faced. But I was like, oh this is how poor people are in the UK, I guess. [laughs] This is their idea of poverty. And it was only when I moved to the UK, and was engaging with the discourse here and with the kinds of problems that exist here which aren’t transferred to India at all – the news and things don’t communicate any of this to India. I guess why would they? But also then that leads to a very narrow idea of the UK and also a narrow idea of India.

Rita: Exactly.

Parinita: Which I could only disrupt once I was away from that context and in this context.

Rita: Once you absorb the actual context where that culture comes from, yeah, exactly right. For instance when you come here into the UK, you learn that a lot of poor families use food banks.

Parinita: Yeah.

Rita: The Weasleys never had a problem with hunger. I mean it was Molly’s stamp of pride that she always fed her family and she fed poor Harry. There are many living a much poorer life than the Weasleys.

Parinita: Yeah and she didn’t have to worry about what kind of food she was going to be feeding them. Maybe she did like in the background; maybe she was trying to reach into the back of the pantry or something, I don’t know.

Rita: Yeah because they always seemed to have fresh food. They never seemed to eat something that was canned or frozen. And then when you think about clothing and poverty, the Weasleys had new jumpers every year. They had new jumpers. And then when you think about poverty and space, the moment that they needed more space, they could just extend the house through magic.

Parinita: Yeah and each of them had their rooms.

Rita: Exactly!

Parinita: This was me, reading the book, living in this tiny one-bedroom Mumbai flat where me and my mum slept in the same bed.

Rita: Yeah.

Parinita: And I was like oh okay, I guess this is how poor people in Britain live. Because even in the US, when media talks about a person who’s poor in the US or a character who’s poor, they still always have their own rooms. Which to me was unimaginable!

Rita: Forget them, even Harry had his own room. It was a cupboard; but it was a room!

Parinita: But then he moved to a bigger room. I mean he had lots of abuse issues and trauma in that house.

Rita: Yeah Harry had a lot of trauma.

Parinita: But yes, he had his own space! Sometimes he was trapped in it. But it was his. [laughs]

Rita: It was his space. And yeah that’s the kind of thing that you realise when you come here. One of the things that I never really absorbed until I came to the UK, was regional identities. And the fact that if I’m not mistaken, Harry is a Londoner.

Parinita: Oh! That’s true. He is. Yeah, I don’t know where Godric’s Hollow is but yeah for sure he is.

Rita: Yeah. Harry grew up in London. So there are no markers of which part of London he was from. Because that is something that definitely comes into play. When you’re a Londoner, you very much attach yourself to certain parts of London. That’s part of your identity. Regionally, we don’t know who belongs where unless they have an accent that is written out. Like say Seamus Finnigan. Although even Seamus, I’m not sure if he was like Northern Irish or if he was Republic of Ireland.

Parinita: Hagrid as well. We’ve spoken about this before how he was othered for many diff erent reasons. And there’s also a choice between whose identity is reflected and whose isn’t.

Rita: Exactly yeah.

Parinita: I’ve been rereading the books recently and Minerva McGonagall – Professor McGonagall, I didn’t realise she was Scottish until I moved to Scotland and realised what the Scottish tropes are. She wears a lot of tartan.

Rita: [laughs]

Parinita: Has a lot of tartan bags, has a thistle on her hat. And I’m like oh okay, I understand now.

Rita: But see that’s the annoying thing. You’re representing Scotland as just this woman covered in tartan.

Parinita: But also in a way that I wouldn’t have – I didn’t pick up on when I was in India. When I was in India, I didn’t know about the UK politics as well. How Scotland is fighting for independence and how Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have their own issues and Wales has its own issues. I didn’t know all of this until I came here. And what you were saying about regional identity, that is also so superficial or non-existent in the books.

Rita: So true. Now people accept that Cho Chang is Scottish. The only reason why we think that is because a Scottish actress portrayed her in the films. Other than that, Cho Chang is a blank slate. Other than her name and her accent in the film adaptation, Cho Chang is a blank slate of a character. We don’t know any context to her whatsoever.

Parinita: This was something that Jack brought up. He doesn’t read Harry Potter. But somebody he follows on Twitter spoke about this. So this was what written in the 1990s?

Rita: Yeah.

Parinita: And I think this was more of a function of the films with Seamus than in the books where I think he set one or two fires accidentally. But in the movies, they just went with it. Like he was the firestarter.

Rita: The firestarter. [laughs]

Gif from the Harry Potter movies of Seamus Finnigan looking into a cauldron which blows up in his face

Parinita: Yeah. And then that person on Twitter was like, this was not very long after the IRA bombings.

Rita: Oh my god.

Parinita: And people dying.

Rita: That’s true!

Parinita: Yeah! [laughs]

Rita: Oh my god I didn’t even think about that, the implications of making your only Irish character a fire guy.

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs] Which again, I haven’t been keeping that much of an eye on it when I’ve been reading the books. I don’t think it was that big a thing in the books themselves than in the movies. But of course, a lot more people watched the movies than read the books. I think there are a lot of people who only watched the movies and didn’t read the books. So their idea of Seamus must have been this Irish person [laughs] who loves fires a bit too much.

Rita: But even when you think about racial identity – race and ethnicity in Harry Potter – you are not a person of colour unless it’s mentioned explicitly that you’re a person of colour. And the people that were explicitly mentioned as people of colour were very few and far in between. So as fans, we had to imagine a more diverse world than what J. K. Rowling put forward. And I think that’s why there’s this idea that Harry Potter is a diverse world. It’s not because of what she did. It’s because of what fans created after her.

Parinita: When I was reading the books, honestly, I didn’t even have the ability to imagine it to be more diverse.

Rita: So true!

Parinita: I’m still unlearning this but at that time, my mindset was completely colonised. I was like, oh of course the UK only has white people. Oh and there are one or two Indians

Rita: [laughs]

Parinita: And just a vaguely East Asian sounding person. And there are a handful of black people because they’re mentioned as black. And I was like, okay yeah this must be how it is in the UK. I didn’t really question it. I didn’t really think about it. I never identified with Parvati or Padma Patil because they were not really the centre of anything. There are fans who were thinking at a much higher level than me because they were inserting Parvati and Padma into stories or into art and things. And they’re doing that now as well; centering them even though the narrative didn’t. But I had no ability to do that. Then I moved to the UK and I looked around. Scotland is not the most diverse part of the UK, but even Glasgow is much more diverse than what you would find by reading just Harry Potter.

Fan art of Parvati and Padma Patil dressed in saris which match their respective Gryffindor and Ravenclaw Hogwarts house colours

Patil twins by monsieurartiste

Rita: Yeah. And even thinking about Padma and Parvati and Cho Chang. These women of colour that you put into your story, all of them are kind of presented in slightly negative ways in one part or the other. Was it Padma or Parvati who was Ron’s date?

Parinita: Padma, yeah.

Rita: Who was seen as incredibly disappointed that he didn’t want to dance and was just ugh very frustrated with him. And then you had Cho Chang who for an entire book was just crying. I mean reasonably so because her boyfriend had just died. But I always think of her as this moody person.

Parinita: Yeah. I just finished reading Order of the Phoenix a week ago and I would think that Harry who was going through his own depression and trauma would have understood or at least sympathised with her. I know it’s explained to be in a very gendered way like Hermione understands the feelings and Harry and Ron are clueless. But you still have a sense of shared trauma. Cedric died and you both are getting over that. And he is still so quick to dismiss her feelings and to dismiss anything. Of course she’s crying all the time! Why aren’t you crying all the time!? Well you’re yelling all the time; I guess that’s your manifestation.

Rita: Well that’s the thing. Now that I’m thinking about it, I don’t know how many women of colour are dismissed in the text? Or treated dismissively in the text? It’s just a minefield. When you start critiquing these literatures that you grew up loving, you just … I don’t know either it really shatters you and depresses you for a while. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah.

Rita: Or you – no, it’s not an or; what follows is you start looking at things with a more critical eye in the future. It’s not literature fandom, but I was very much a part of the fandom of Bon Appetit Test Kitchen on YouTube. And they went through a reckoning for race and equality because it came out that their producers, their creators of colour were not paid for their appearances or not paid at the same rate. And then after that, I didn’t know why at the time, but I just wasn’t excited to cook anymore. I just felt so like ugh anything will do. And then I only connected it much later when I realised oh yeah because the entire thing about it that made you happy was just shattered into a million little pieces. So of course it’s going to affect you in a very personal way. Because that’s something about fandom; it’s not just discourse, it’s not just objective. It’s interesting because I know someone who is actually studying Harry Potter fandom from a religious perspective, from the perspective of charisma. Anne Taylor shoutout by the way, her research. [laughs] So it makes you think how these things connect to us in such a personal way and in such a formative time of our lives that it’s no surprise that both of us came into really critical careers in our lives. [laughs]

Parinita: Oh, for sure.

Rita: Because we over-analysed Harry Potter to a T!

Parinita: Oh I wouldn’t have been doing a PhD if I didn’t love Harry Potter. Which is why I decided to launch this podcast and start this thing in January. And then of course there was the whole transphobia that began in December and just then carried on from June. Like you’re saying, it’s just made me so … not reluctant to engage; I still love the Harry Potter books because it was such a huge part of me, and it is still a huge part of me. And I can’t untie my sense of self from the books. But I’m now reading it with so much more of a critical lens because I am able to; something I wasn’t able to do even a like a couple of years ago. Before my master’s, I didn’t have the tools to be able to articulate even though fandom itself was doing these things. But it was still a slow journey for me. But in terms of J. K. Rowling, it’s been so depressing but it was very easy for me to cut her from Harry Potter. For me, I can divorce the two. I’m trying to follow the lead of a few of the fan podcasts that I listen to who are talking about how they’re no longer going to financially support her. But then you made a very good point when we were talking about this that even though there’s no financial capital, there is still social and cultural capital that fans help J. K. Rowling accrue which then transforms into financial capital.

Rita: Yeah, exactly. Because by keeping her in the zeitgeist, in the topic of discussion, you are giving air to her property. It was easier to do this before, to divorce an author from their work before because we didn’t consume authors the way that we do today. Like right now, you can say that for instance … name a problematic author of the past.

Parinita: Lovecraft?

Rita: Let’s say Lovecraft. Lovecraft had a platform, yes. Could write things that the fans would consume, yes. But not at the same rate that people consume social media. And it’s also not at the same access of people who are so young. Because even though there are age restrictions on social media, it doesn’t prevent children and young people from still consuming that media.

Parinita: Yeah, because all you have to do is click a tick box saying that yes, I’m over 18.

Rita: Exactly! You just have to lie. And people do that all the time. So they consume her media. And because we were talking about how painful it was for us, how formative it was for us, but we are removed from that formative era in our lives. Whereas a lot of children who are engaging in that still are in that era. So her beliefs would influence their beliefs.

Parinita: Yeah.

Rita: Because we remember what it’s like to idolise someone. And that’s the thing that when we love media now, we idolise creators. People don’t just love Game of Thrones, they love George R. R. Martin. Or people didn’t just love Doctor Who, they loved Steven Moffat. Hmm arguably so. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Rita: It’s a very, very split camp. [laughs] But yeah, in today’s realm of cultural production, we are so connected to the people who create them. And it’s so hard to say I’ll still consume Harry Potter. Because for instance, I’ve made the decision to not support Harry Potter anymore and I think this will be my last public discussion on Harry Potter. Or public like with a platform like this. I’ve decided to disengage from that because when I read Harry Potter now, I do see the gaps in her representations. I see the fact that she doesn’t see people of colour. I see the fact that she has a very skewed idea of what poverty is or what Asian people are, for instance. And it’s hard to say that the media that you love is something that you can still love despite all that. At least for me. It’s really difficult. And who knows? Maybe in the future once … like in the very distant future – not ill-wishing on anything! But once maybe in the future, not in our generation but in the generations after us, when she is much like other authors who have gone and passed, maybe there can be a kind of contextualised consumption of Harry Potter. But today it’s really difficult to do that.

Parinita: Yeah. I’m totally with you. For me, like I said, I’ve reacted to it differently with just as much despondency but not – not even unwilling, unable to let go of Harry Potter, for a lot of reasons. But what you’re saying, I completely am with you there. She’s very directly attacked trans people and trans fans and they are letting go of it but others as well with more privilege; like cis people with more privilege and who are not directly impacted by that but are allies are also letting go of Harry Potter, like you are.  And I completely am with you on that. But for me, because I think fandom – and Harry Potter has always gone side by side with fandom for me, even though I started reading the books when I was ten, and started engaging with the fandom when I was thirteen, so there were a few years there when I was all by my lonesome. But otherwise, I’ve grown up with Harry Potter fandom and on Harry Potter fan platforms. The kind of thinking that I have now, and I’m still growing with fan podcasts like Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, Witch, Please, The Gayly Prophet, who are all undergoing this reckoning of how do you continue to engage with a text when the author’s politics are completely separate and something you abhor? And it’s something I don’t think there’s an easy answer for. And I think it’s very individual as well. I know some podcasts like Flourish on Fansplaining, they’ve said that they can no longer, because it’s tainted completely. It’s too toxic so they can’t engage with it at all. Whereas I think other fan podcasts like the three that I mentioned are still continuing with Harry Potter talking about it but distancing themselves from J. K. Rowling. They are saying that for us it’s about loving the text and not the author. And they try and raise money for trans charities and they try and create a safer space for queer fans and trans fans and nonbinary fans.

Rita: Yeah.

Parinita: But you’re completely right that even if it’s not contributing financially, it is contributing socially and culturally as well. But for me, I’ve also learned so much through these discussions themselves and all these critiques of J. K. Rowling because I didn’t have this idea of transphobia – just all the stuff that she’s saying and all the context that it comes with. Because someone who reads her tweets without any background knowledge or context is not going to really understand how it’s transphobic or why it’s transphobic. And there have been other people much better suited than me who’ve explained and decoded the language and why it’s transphobic and what it emerges from. And for me, it’s been so good to see fans who’ve divorced themselves … I guess they’re more progressive than the author herself is. So even in terms of reading themselves into the text, what you were saying earlier, they’ve made the world more progressive. It’s almost like fandom canon and actual canon are almost separate – not really, but almost.

Rita: Yeah.

Parinita: That there’s room for a more progressive space which in turn has influenced how I see and how I write stories and how I analyse other texts. Because I’m thinking about these things; these conversations they’re so much at the forefront of my mind now that I apply that lens to all the media that I consume. Which for me is too valuable to give up.

Rita: Yeah. And I think to myself as well like one of the questions that we raised in some of the conversations that we had before was can you actually reclaim a fandom from an author? Again, like you said, there’s no easy answer for that. Because it’s easier to answer these things once you have hindsight.

Parinita: Exactly.

Rita: But as we live through the experience, all of the things we do will basically just be the discourse for later on.

Parinita: Yeah. I know. It’ll be a PhD project for a future scholar.

Rita: [laughs] So true!

Parinita: For a future fan.

Rita: Oh my god and you’ll be supervising them. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Oh my god. I’m trying to tear academia down from the inside. I can’t imagine myself – well maybe if I supervise them to make a TikTok thesis or something.

Rita: [laughs]

Parinita: Though not in India because our government has banned TikTok.

Rita: Oh our government is in conversations with Facebook.

Parinita: Oh! Really?

Rita: I’m not sure what’s happening on that front. But there was a direct message from the President to Facebook. So I still have to follow that. How do we process all these things? How do we process the toxic author? How do we move forward? And the progressive work that we’re doing to move forward from this while still engaging with the fandom. I think that’s one of the saddest parts of this entire discourse, the emotional labour that fans have to go through because of the mistakes that J. K. Rowling made. Even before this, when fans were restorying and adding diverse identities into fan texts and contributing to that collective understanding of what the Harry Potter world is. Because we couldn’t see ourselves so we wrote ourselves in. It was the same with the LGBT communities. It’s the same with ableism and disability. Because we don’t see ourselves in this text, we take on the emotional labour of having to add them in. Knowing that the addition is from us and not from her.

Parinita: Yeah.

Rita: And then now with the discussion on transphobia, we are having to take on so much emotional labour to process what’s happened and to decide how we want to interact with the fandom in the future. And again that’s emotional labour that was forced upon us by this problematic fandom. And that’s the other I think reason why I decided to not engage with it anymore because I’m just tired. [laughs]

Parinita: I mean honestly with the timing of it as well. You said this in December and then you were silent for several months about it, responded to nothing to do with it. And then right in the middle of a pandemic, right in the middle of the Black Lives Matter protests in the US and the UK, right in the middle of so many different things like Brexit, that’s when you decide to attack an already marginalised group using your platform and your privilege and all the status that you have to target this vulnerable group of people. Honestly the fans have had so much of a better understanding of the stuff that you’ve written.

Rita: Yeah.

Parinita: Fans have read so much more progressive messages into the books than apparently you meant? Because apparently you didn’t mean that everybody should be equal. Which if you read the books only wizards and witches are equal anyway. Nobody else is equal.

Rita: Oh my god. One of my favourite things that fans have contributed to the text was this Pride poster. I’m sure you know which one I mean. The one that says, “What Harry Potter taught me is that no one should live in a closet!” [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs]

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

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

Rita: The fact that she doesn’t see the connection of how much the LGBT community loved Harry Potter, how much certain members of the LGBT community loved Harry Potter. And to break them down, to break their hearts with such language and such rhetoric, is just ugh it hurts!

Parinita: And also what she’s inspired. It’s not just her. Because of the platform and the privilege and the role that she has in mainstream culture, she has inspired so many – not a lot of people that I’ve encountered, but I know there is a world beyond my echo chamber. So these horrible people are citing her to further erode rights that trans people and LGBTQIA people have so painstakingly gotten. As if that’s what we need in 2020! We have fascism everywhere and then there’s this.

Rita: [sighs] This reminds me of my favourite response to J. K. Rowling’s transphobia. There’s this YouTube reviewer named Dominic Noble who has a Harry Potter persona – that reviews Harry Potter content. And that persona’s name is Terrence. Terrence is a half-blood in the context of this. So at the very end of his response video saying that he won’t engage in the Harry Potter fandom anymore, won’t make any more video, he brings on Terrence who gets a letter from his dad saying, “How are you Terrence? How are you doing? Your mum and I have always told you that you were a half-blood. But we never told you what that meant.” And he pulls out [laughs] this Percy Jackson t-shirt.

Parinita: [laughs]

Image of an orange t-shirt with the words "Camp Half-Blood" and a pegasus on it

Image courtesy Wiki

Rita: And he just has this expression, “Oh my gods?” [laughs] That resonated with me so much because it’s saying that yes, you can love something and let it go. But there are other things that you can obsess about that have less toxic creators. Don’t get me wrong. Percy Jackson has its own problems especially with its representation of disability. But at least its author is not – or at least as far as I know, because god the year of our lord 2020 has brought a lot of surprises on us.

Parinita: [laughs]

Rita: So you never know who’s a secret racist or whatever. [laughs] But yeah you can move on. There are still other texts to enjoy, Harry Potter was not the only thing that we loved. And if we’re disengaging with something, we can transfer all of that love that we had for Harry Potter into something else. And right now, I don’t know how appropriate it is because again this process of decolonisation is lifelong.

Parinita: It is.

Rita: And it goes across all things you consume, not just Harry Potter. So one of the things that my sister and I really, really loved growing up – which is really strange given what the text is – was Frank Herbert’s Dune. Massive fans of it. It was really strange for two eleven- to thirteen-year-olds consuming this massive piece of philosophical sci-fi. Loved it! And now the film is coming out. Well it’s been postponed, which was very sad. But I’m like, oh this is something that I can just redirect my love. Where before it was divided, now I can just redirect all of the things I loved to this and be excited for the release of this. Again, Dune is not without its own problems especially the adaptation does not feature Middle-Eastern or North African characters when the book borrowed so heavily from those cultures. But it’s good because I guess now I’m engaging with these texts by contextualising them, acknowledging their faults, and not having that really blind adulation that I used to have for Harry Potter.

Parinita: Yeah.

Rita: And I don’t know. Is it a sign of personal growth? Or is it just us protecting our broken hearts from being broken again? [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] I think it’s both. We cannot have good things without some toxic everything.

Rita: And I can’t remember who was the creator where I realised that, oh they have problematic views. And I just told my sister one day, “The thing that 2020 has just taught us is never have heroes.”

Parinita: [laughs]

Rita: “Never have heroes! They will all disappoint you!” [laughs]

Parinita: That’s a very chipper note to end this podcast on. But it is 2020 so that’s as cheerful as you’re going to get. [laughs]

Rita: Yeah.

Parinita: Thank you so much Rita for being a part of this project and for this conversation. I know we’ve approached it in different ways and we have different experiences and different reactions as well to Harry Potter and J. K. Rowling. But it’s been so valuable just talking about it as well. And articulating my ideas by talking to you about it.

Rita: I know. It’s great. Especially when you’re decolonising yourself. One of the things we didn’t get to talk about but would have been interesting to talk about as well is we are two people from heavily colonised countries engaging in British texts. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah. So we need to do another episode.

Rita: Oh my god.

Parinita: Just to talk about that because that’s a minefield.

Rita: Oh my god like Harry Potter and Empire is a whole other discussion I could definitely have.

Parinita: Our next episode title has been set. [laughs]

Rita: [laughs]

Parinita: But really thank you again for the time and the conversation. I really appreciate it.

Rita: No problem. I really enjoyed this. Thank you so much! And even though I disengaged with Harry Potter, I’m happy to talk with you about that disengagement.

Parinita: [laughs]

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode on encounters with diverse cultures in Western media and fandom. Thank you so much Rita for sharing your enthusiasms and frustrations. Our conversation has helped me see so many familiar things anew and I hope this process of decolonisation is a lifelong one.

[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 17 See Different Possibilities: Alternative Relationship and Economic Structures in Fandom

Episode Resources:

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

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

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

4) Fan podcast – Verity!: Fanworks Round Table

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

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

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

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

 

Episode Transcript

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

A profile photo of Marita Arvaniti looking upwards to her right

[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 seventeenth episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I talk to Marita Arvaniti about alternative relationship and economic structures in fandom, media, and society.

Fanfiction experiments with different kinds of characters, themes, and stories which are often absent in mainstream media. Fanfiction offers a space for those people who lack access to traditional publishing structures to find an audience for different kinds of ideas. Fans can write any kind of story they want without worrying about whether it will sell. This freedom from capitalist consumption allows fans to imagine alternatives to current systems. However, fandom isn’t without its class politics. The open accessibility of fan texts offers empowering possibilities. At the same time, creating fan texts requires different kinds of skills, costs, and access to technology. Moreover, online fandom features a large number of fans from marginalised groups who offer their time and labour for free. Not everybody can afford to do this work just because they love it. This limits the diversity of voices who can participate.

Nevertheless, fandom exposes people to ideas they may not have encountered in mainstream media and society. Fanfic exploring polyamorous, asexual, aromantic and platonic relationships allows people to imagine family structures other than the heterosexual nuclear family default. Such stories can challenge and expand ideas about the conception of families. Traditional family structures negatively impact women, queer, and poor people in different ways. Developing alternate family structures isn’t just a queer, feminist, and socialist project but also involves a process of decolonisation. Maybe that’s why so many women, including myself, have ongoing fantasies of communes which allow us to envision the kind of lives and communities we want to build.

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: Today I’m so happy to welcome Marita Arvaniti to the podcast whose tweets never fail to make me laugh. Marita took a wrong turn on her way to a theatre career in Greece and ended up as a PhD student in the University of Glasgow. Her research examines the lasting effect theatre has had on the birth and evolution of contemporary fantasy literature with a focus on fairyland fantasy. She holds a BA in Theatre Studies from the National Kapodistrian University in Athens and an MLitt in Fantasy Literature from the University of Glasgow. When she’s not researching or serving drinks and watching shows for free at a Glasgow theatre, she’s the Publicity Officer for Fantastika journal and a committee member for GIFCon. In today’s episode, we’re first going to talk about how relationships beyond the heterosexual nuclear family default are represented in media and fanfiction. Then we’re going to focus on class by looking at alternative economic structures in science fiction and fantasy. So both Marita and I are immersed in different aspects of online fandom. What have been your experiences as a fan and with the issues that we’re exploring today?

Marita: Well I’m mainly in fandom as a fanfic writer, I guess. I do that these days. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: It’s been very strange. I wasn’t involved in fandom for a very long time – for like a solid five years between 2015 and 2020. And before that, I wasn’t that active. But with current everything this year, I’ve just been churning out 10k word fics.

Parinita: [laughs] Amazing.

Marita: So it’s been very strange. It’s always strange coming into fandom as a person who’s not English, I think? [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah.

Marita: Obviously the different language becomes something that you learn through fandom. And I know that a lot of the way that I speak and write and think in English has been very deeply influenced by the fanfic that I used to read. Predominantly fan spaces were the main source of English education for me from one point onwards.

Parinita: How long have you been reading fanfiction?

Marita: God gonna show my age now.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: Gonna just out myself. Um … 2005?

Parinita: Okay.

Marita: Probably. So that’s a solid fifteen years.

Parinita: Yeah.

Marita: I have proof that the first fanfic I ever wrote was at age nine.

Parinita: Oh! Amazing.

Marita: I made a Draco/Hermione comic book.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: With my amazing drawing skills and my colour pencils.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: I just called it Hermione’s Diary because I was nine. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: And my mum has kept it somewhere. And occasionally brings it out if she needs to judge me and my life choices.

Parinita: [laughs] Oh but I love that! And it wasn’t online either. It was just something that you did. My first fanfiction was also Harry Potter fanfiction. Which I wrote when I was older than you – I don’t know if that makes it more or less embarrassing. I liked writing fanfiction at that time. I don’t think there’s anything embarrassing in it anyway. It was a sitcom version of Voldemort and the Death Eaters. [laughs] But I think I’ve lost it. It was on Mugglenet. And it’s not there anymore. But like with you in terms of language, what you developed with fanfiction; for me I think it was more the place and the setting and the context which I was writing was very foreign to me. Because when I grew up, English was my first language. So that wasn’t as much of a hurdle as much as it was just writing in a setting that’s so different and not even being able to imagine that I could write something set in India. Like Harry and Hermione and whoever – all the Death Eaters or Voldemort or whatever set maybe in an Indian magical school system or whatever.

Marita: Yes.

Parinita: Just because I grew up reading mostly British and American children’s books so my idea of stories was very Western. A lot of the fanfiction that I read as well, I don’t know if the writers themselves were from different parts of the world like me who were setting it deliberately in the West. But at least as a teenager I didn’t really read much in terms of diversity. It was very much playing with the same characters that existed. Which I think has changed now.

Marita: I think that’s definitely changed and you see it in the sort of fantasy children’s books that become popular.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Marita: Or get published and are everywhere in bookstores. I read a lot of children’s fiction in general.

Parinita: Me too.

Marita: And it’s delightful to see different things getting published … just not you know all the Brits.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Marita: And the weird public school situations. Not that I don’t like that. I’m a huge Diana Wynne Jones fan; I will defend her to the end of my days. But it’s good to have the alternative.

Parinita: No, absolutely. But also making it your own. Because you know for us in India even now we have a lot of the colonial education system going on. So when I went to school, we also had four houses because it was a Catholic school in Mumbai. I think ours they were named after saints and not the founders [laughs] of the school. That wasn’t weird to me. But I was listening to a podcast and it was an American podcaster and they were talking about how to them it was so weird. Well, the concept of boarding school itself was weird but also the house system was really weird. Which I took for granted. So I guess yeah just having these similar things but in different contexts.

Marita: Yeah. I was also thinking about what you mentioned earlier about not really having the space before fanfiction to write what you know and write what’s familiar to you. And I have another self-own for you that you can laugh at.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: There is a published fic in Archive Of Our Own that I wrote for the Les Misérables fandom.

Parinita: Oh! [laughs]

Marita: Because I’ve been through that hell.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: That is taking the student revolutionaries and placing them in the 1973 Greek student uprising. [laughs]

Parinita: Oh! That sounds really cool. I would actually absolutely want to read that seriously.

Marita: [laughs] It was very self-indulgent.

Parinita: Yeah but that’s what like I really like about fanfiction. There’s no right or wrong way to do it, right? I think that the perception of fanfiction is still a bit dubious. People who aren’t in that space are still a bit sceptical of it. Also because I think in one of the podcasts that I listen to, they were saying that – mainstream media, especially in the West, in the UK and the US talk show hosts and things.

Marita: Um hmm.

Parinita: They tend to find and highlight the raunchiest stories that they can find. And then confront the actors whose characters it was written about.

Marita: Oh god!

Parinita: I think Sherlock was one. Which they’re obviously doing it just to make it this thing that deserves comment and maybe mockery and ridicule. Which is not great. But I think that explains the idea that fanfiction is only about sex and really explicit sex exists. Which it isn’t. I mean a lot of it is but not all of it is.

Marita: Yes.

Parinita: And there’s a lot of other experimental things as well, right?

Marita: Yeah for sure. And you see that in fanfic spaces that talk about fanfiction. It’s always about the transformative work. It’s about transforming the text; it’s not about necessarily just you know dicking down.

Parinita: Yeah. And also I don’t think there’s anything wrong with explicit sex either.

Marita: No.

Parinita: Because like you were saying that it’s indulgent, yes; but so is writing most stuff that you’re not writing with an audience in mind, really. Anything you’re writing for yourself. Which is what I love about fanfiction. When I wrote that Voldemort and the Death Eaters sitcom thing or whatever, I wasn’t thinking in terms of what makes a good story or what other people want to read. I just wanted to write something that I would have fun reading. And it really helped me develop my skills. Because the kind of stories that I write now – I write books for kids – and it’s very much in the same vein. I have never been one who was really interested in relationships and shipping anyway either in fic or in mainstream media generally. I think it’s a great way to experiment and to write things you don’t see represented in media that you want to explore.

Marita: Yeah. And it’s also a way to tie it to the second half of our projected discussions for the day. It’s a great equaliser because you don’t have to go through the publishing grinder.

Parinita: Yeah!

Marita: You can just put yourself out there. And in many cases, they would be thoughts that might not be published or be able to be published either because of their content or because of you as a person who lives in a society and has or does not have the ability to go through the long process of trying to get a book deal. So I think whether it’s like whatever the rating you give your fic is – if it’s lemon or lime or not citrusy at all (this is to alienate the children listening to your podcast, they won’t know what I’m talking about.)

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: It’s always offering different perspectives and allowing you to explore and play with a text in a way that’s free from capitalist consumption.

Parinita: Yeah. Which I think is really interesting. I know we’re going to talk about that more a little later but yeah for sure. It’s basically people who don’t have access to the traditional publishing structures, right? Or even if they do, publishers who are the gatekeepers don’t think that there is room for those voices or those voices won’t sell or whatever. So in fanfiction you can write whatever you want based on anything you want and that’ll reach people; even if it reaches five people or even two people, that’s more than you would have otherwise. Publishing wouldn’t have been able to get your voice out there at all.

Marita: And you see it on the flipside of that. In authors who are published authors but are still active fandom members who write fanfiction. You can see such a divide in the content of theirs that gets published by a traditional publisher and the content of theirs that gets uploaded to Archive Of Our Own. I’m thinking of a lot of fandom wank from … recently there was the whole Tamsyn Muir situation with her Homestuck fanfiction

Parinita: Hmm.

Marita: And then you have authors like Naomi Novik who’s super popular in fandom but doesn’t want her fanfic author pseudonym to be associated with her published work.

Parinita: Ah. Yeah that’s really interesting because in one of the podcast episodes that I was listening to as well, they mentioned a writer who writes for a TV show that has a big fandom. I don’t think they mentioned what TV show it was. The writer is part of the writing team for the show, but also writes fanfiction for that show. Because that fanfiction wouldn’t have been on TV. They wouldn’t have produced that as a story. So she just goes and writes it in fandom itself.

Marita: That’s wild. I love that. I actually love that so much.

Parinita: [laughs] So yeah. I like that apart from everything else or I guess with everything else, fandom also seems to explore relationships that are beyond the dominant structures like I mentioned earlier. And this is again based very much on my research and fan podcasters and things mentioning it. Because I’m not very well-versed within the fanfiction community. I don’t know tropes and genres and stuff through first-hand experience. I haven’t read fanfiction in ages. I’ve read stuff that other guests have recommended to me, but I feel like if I start that, I’m going to lose my entire life to that again.

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] I have a very obsessive personality. Which is why I never got into Tumblr too much either. Because once I started, it was like oh my god so many hours! [laughs] So many hours!

Marita: [laughs] As I said, I have recently fallen back into fandom, reading and writing however many words per week. And it’s very interesting when you go into a new fandom – based on my experience as someone who’s done that recently – how quickly you find the communities of people writing the things you want to read.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: Like within two weeks, even though the person who introduced me to my current fandom likes to read very different things from what I like to read, within literally a few weeks I was in five Discord servers with a bunch of people and we were all writing OT3 and exploring polyamory through fanfic and things like that. I was like yup you know what, I just feel like that sometimes.

Parinita: So do you just want to quickly say what OT3 means for people who’ve not come across that term? Even I only came across that term through the Be The Serpent fanfiction episode.

Marita: Oh okay.

Parinita: I knew OTP which is One True Pairing.

Marita: So OT3 is One True Threesome. Or I guess three-way or thruple or three people. Anyway.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: And you can also find an OT4, you can find an OT5. Once you start adding people it can never stop. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah I find that really fascinating. Because when I was in the fanfic community – which was years ago when I was a teenager – that’s when slash fic was the most popular and that was the most mainstream thing. At that time, I think it was taboo in more mainstream sections especially mainstream media. But people have said it was a way for queer literature to fill the missing gap in mainstream literature. So slash is basically, for people who don’t know, male/male or female/female pairings traditionally. And now that’s changed. So now I love that that’s taken off and yeah they’ve just gone wild with it which is fantastic.

Marita: Yeah no I completely agree. It’s very interesting to see how things that, in my case, from personal experience – how you can see them sort of suddenly show up in mainstream media or suddenly show up in fandom spaces. And you’re like, “Ah! That thing.”

Parinita: Yeah.

Marita: So OT3s specifically or OT-whatever else, is basically the same thing as an OTP only with more people involved. Which is a very good explanation of polyamory in general. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs]

Marita: And I first came across it in the Merlin fandom.

Parinita: Oh yeah!

Image courtesy Pinterest

Marita: Because you have the four main characters and the narrative wants you to ship Arthur and Guinevere.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Marita: And to sort of but not really see the flirty banter with Arthur and Morgana. But then obviously fandom realises that the real emotional crux of the show is Arthur and Merlin.

Parinita: Oh absolutely! Like I said, I’m not even a shipper really. That’s not how I engage with media. But when I watched Merlin, I was like, “Oh yeah, these two – definitely! What are you talking about?” I like the women and things but this is like … I don’t know if they meant to do it, but there was so much more chemistry between Arthur and Merlin than with any of the other characters.

Marita: [laughs] Yeah, a hundred percent. And Merlin’s one of those shows that really capitalised on that in a way that was slightly insidious but like that’s not the point of this conversation. I can rant about the Merlin fandom for ages. But one of the things that I noticed in the fandom was that there was the option of shipping Arthur and Merlin and Guinevere and Morgana. And there was also a relatively prevalent tendency to just throw all four of them together. And be like, “Hello you’re all dating now! Figure this shit out.” Which I do not recommend. Do not try that at home.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: But yeah it introduced me to that as a possibility when I was a wee bairn.

Parinita: [laughs] No that’s so interesting. Because yeah fanfiction seems to be so much more experimental and open to ideas in terms of relationships than not only mainstream SFF but also mainstream society. Because like you’re saying, that’s the first time that you encountered that idea. For me, it was not even through fanfiction because I think OT3s and stuff weren’t really so prevalent at least in my nook of the fandom – ten or fifteen years ago. I don’t know how recently they’ve become more a part of fandom. But when I was within that, I didn’t come across that. So for me slash was this … not revelation I don’t want to say … but where I was growing up, even though I grew up in a big city in India, it was still very narrow in its scope of different ways of existing in the world and different kinds of relationships. So that was my first encounter with even like gay relationships.

Marita: Yes.

Parinita: Or just that idea of, “Oh wait not everyone is …” And it was so normalised as well which was very cool. And now I love that polyamory seems to be the new frontier that’s being explored. [laughs]

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: Because otherwise, if these representations are not predominant in mainstream media let alone mainstream society, most people – young people and adults – wouldn’t be able to imagine other ideas of being in the world, right? Even I only encountered polyamory I think a few years ago in like 2016 or something – just the concept of it on a dating app.

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: Because on OKCupid there seems to be a huge community there of people who want to explore polyamorous relationships. And that was my first … I’m personally not interested in exploring polyamory. I’m really boring and very monogamous. [laughs]

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: Very vanilla. But I was very curious about it. So whenever I would be talking to people, I would use them as this educational resource. [laughs]

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: And I would keep asking them questions like, “Oh so how does it work? So what do you do? Oh no, I’m not … I don’t want to.”

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: And then they’d obviously stop talking to me because they’d realise I was using them as an educational resource. [laughs]

Marita: Ever since I was very young, my reading has been very queer and different versions of queer. I’ve ended up in a situation where I’m other people’s either their gay Yoda or their polyamory Yoda.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: I’m like, “Yes, yes, come to me, child. Ask me thy questions. I will try to answer.”

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: Even though I do think that’s completely unearned. Because I don’t know what I’m doing.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: I’m just reading fanfiction and dating. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah. I mean that’s life, right? That’s adult life in a nutshell. I don’t know what I’m doing. We’ll figure it out.

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: But in science fiction and fantasy specifically, I think there’s so much more room for alternative family and relationship structures. Not fanfiction but mainstream SFF. But I don’t really see a lot of things exploring that. Off the top of my head, I can’t even think of any except how in one of the Woke Doctor Who episodes they mentioned Captain Jack in Doctor Who who is this pansexual, open to different kinds of relationships character. And they call him Captain Jack Sex Jesus. [laughs] Because he’s basically into everyone, regardless of even species. Because he’s from the 51st century. So the labels for gender and sexuality that limit us today no longer exist then according to the show canon. So it’s all more fluid and flexible. But I think that’s the only example that I can think of. Which I think is important to showcase that and normalise that in children’s media specifically. Because  when you’re a kid, you don’t really know how the world works, all the rules yet for grown-up life. And you’re still figuring it out. So if you see examples of that, you’ll be like, oh yeah this is just another way of existing in the world.

Gif of Captain Jack. Text says: I can't tell you what I'm thinking right now.

Marita: No, you’re absolutely correct. I was preparing to have a spiel, but you turned it around.

Parinita: Oh no I’m sorry I stole your spiel!

Marita: No, no! The mention of children’s media because it is still much more sterilised than adult SFF. Because I’m thinking in adult SFF, you have things like Sense8 for example, the Wachowski’s Netflix TV show that features different layers of LGBTQ identities; it features a lot of different kinds of polyamory as well. And then you have N. K. Jemisin whom I love and would die for if she asked me to.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: In both of her main trilogies, both in her Inheritance trilogy and in The Broken Earth, polyamory is present and practised. And often at the core – LOL that’s a Broken Earth joke.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: [laughs] At the core of the relationships that guide the book.

Parinita: Hmm.

Marita: I remember reading her Inheritance trilogy and realising that yeah, the mythology of that world is based on a pantheon that’s queer and polyamorous specifically. And you know feeling very gratified. Very #seen. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: And I did not expect to see something like that in such a successful, mainstream SFF series.

Parinita: Hmm yeah. She’s on my list. I’ve read the first book in her first trilogy. But I need to find out more, maybe haunt libraries or just get more books of hers.

Marita: I have them, I can give them to you.

Parinita: Yeah that would be great!

Marita: [laughs] Even Young Adult SFF is starting to be diverse and more embracing of polyamory.

Parinita: Hmm.

Marita: There’s not a lot but I can think of a few books where it ends in an OT3 kind of situation.

Parinita: Oh right!

Marita: My brain’s literally drawing a blank right now. I think one’s Adaptation? I’m – I’m just – the brain’s not working. But I know I’ve read them.

Parinita: I know. I read constantly. I’m constantly reading but if someone asks me what is the best book that you’ve read in the recent past,

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: I don’t know. What are books? I have no idea.

Marita: Have I even read a book?

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah. No so that’s really cool that that’s happening because I think that in mainstream imaginations, poly relationships seem to be all about sex and lack of commitment. It seems to be a trope if they’re represented or spoken about, mostly from what I’ve seen. And I don’t know as much as you do just in terms of queer readings of anything even in fic or just mainstream SFF. But they seem to be very trope-filled and very stereotype-laden. Poly relationships is one thing but asexual and aromantic relationships as well. They don’t exist either. That’s something I’ve come across even more recently, I think within the last year or two. And again, because of the internet and fandom and Tumblr screenshots that are everywhere.

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: Because I can’t go into Tumblr, so I follow it through Facebook and Twitter. But yeah just the representation of these. And then I think younger people who are aggressively online do have more of the words and the vocabulary for these feelings, which is great. I mean it’s true, it is more accessible but you still need an internet connection, technology. And also you don’t know which space to access. You stumble upon it or you know somebody who introduces you or … there’s still a pocket of people that it attracts and not a mass of people.

Marita: Yeah. No, I completely agree. And it’s also a lot of the content we stumble upon online, we end up absorbing information without any kind of context.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Marita: Or you see something and you sort of do a cursory Google search about it and you end up with very uneven and unequal depth of knowledge and depth of information. And again, as you said, you need to have an internet connection for that; you need to have you know in many cases, a personal computer so that you don’t have to use the family one.

Parinita: Yeah.

Marita: Because in my family, we didn’t have a computer until very late because we’re not very particularly well off financially.

Parinita: Yeah, same.

Marita: So I used to log on to Hi5 – do you remember Hi5?

Parinita: No! I don’t think we had Hi5.

Marita: It was Facebook pre-Facebook basically.

Parinita: Oh right!

Marita: And I used to log onto that from my friend’s computer and I would have to go to her house after school because it was at the time where it was starting to be important to have a presence online.

Parinita: Yeah.

Marita: I didn’t have a computer. [laughs] And then we got a computer, we got a family one that my parents used and that I used and so that was a different kettle of fish. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah. I just actually today just before we started recording came across this tweet about how this person said like, I can’t believe the youth of today can just go on their phone and start reading fanfiction immediately. I had to log on to my computer when my family wasn’t around and print out pages of it to take with me on holiday.

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: They don’t know how lucky they are. I was born in the wrong generation.

Marita: [laughs] I’m not going to lie. I have in my field of vision right now, because I’m in my parents’ house, I’m in my childhood bedroom right now. In my field of vision is my fanfiction binder.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: In which I’d printed all the fanfics that I really liked.

Parinita: Oh my god.

Marita: And kept them.

Parinita: I love it! I wish I’d thought to do this. So we were the same. It was me and my mum growing up. And it was a computer that both she and I used but it was largely me who used it because ever since we got the computer – I think we got it when I turned sixteen – and I used it to do everything. I was a very online teenager and a very online young adult and even now I continue to be super online. But I didn’t even think of my mum coming across it and stuff. Because she just didn’t use the computer in the way that I did. But I know I had so many favourite fanfiction that I wish I’d saved. A binder would have been a great thing.

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: And I just never thought of it. But yeah. For me what’s cool about representing different kinds of relationships like poly or even asexual and aromantic relationships is the possibilities that it opens up to different kinds of family structures. Which you don’t really see in society. And it’s both a queer and a feminist project, right? Just different kinds of family structures.

Marita: Yeah. It’s a process of decolonisation as well because the family structure that we understand as the nuclear family is very white, is very capitalist, is very heterosexual and so on and so forth. And even within whiteness, it is primarily Anglo-American.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Marita: The nuclear family doesn’t represent Greek family structures that well. It becomes so impossible to imagine alternatives to capitalism. Not to wildly paraphrase Mark Fisher but it does become easier to imagine the actual end of the world than it does to imagine the end to capitalism.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: Or alternatives to normal that we are experiencing or we were experiencing prior to 2020 I guess.

Parinita: Yeah.

Marita: And fanfiction and speculative fiction and those sort of highly imaginative creative spaces are a way to introduce alternatives. And I’m thinking of Ursula Le Guin specifically right now. All of her different societies with very different sex and gender equations?

Parinita: Um hmm.

Marita: Can you say that? Is that a phrase? [laughs]

Parinita: You can make a phrase out of whatever you want. I believe in you! [laughs]

Marita: Thank you. But yeah all of the balance between genders and the balance between relationships is something that she plays with so much in her work. And she has that one structure that has been adapted into fanfiction very often into polyamorous fanfiction specifically. Which is the planet of O. [?] In which you have morning people and evening people and a relationship is between two and two. So you’ve got two morning people and two evening people. And they sort of enter into a polyamorous relationship in which they’re all sort of romantically involved but they’re not all sexually involved.

Parinita: Right.

Marita: And I remember reading about this in a Merlin fanfic. And then reading about it again in different fandoms in which people take that structure and play with it and imagine the cast of a very different TV show most often set in our own world and our own reality. And imagine that very different way of approaching relationships as something that is the structural norm.

Parinita: That’s so cool because yeah like you said, it’s so rare to see that representation. But the fact that it exists in fanfiction just allows you to see different possibilities. Because the current way that the family structure is … like you were saying, the nuclear family isn’t great. And in India, in the cities and stuff, we are moving towards that. We’ve traditionally had a joint family thing in certain … we have so many different cultures and there’s so much diversity in India that I can’t speak for all of them. But mostly there have been a lot of traditionally joint families and that’s problematic as well. I’m not saying we should go back to that because it’s very patriarchal. The wife moves in with the husband’s family and sometimes you change the wife’s first name as well. So you lose all sense of your identity. It’s not just your last name, you lose your first name as well. But now in cities, at least, a lot of them are moving toward nuclear families. But that’s not really helpful for everybody. It’s not I think a thing that’s sustainable especially when both partners are working. If it’s a heterosexual relationship and both partners are working and they have children, it still falls on the woman to do most of the work.

Marita: Yeah.

Parinita: And that’s something that there’s more conversation about, especially now with the lockdown and the pandemic. About how much more work women are doing and mothers are doing and how much professional work they’re losing out on because it comes to them. Even in what you would have thought were egalitarian relationships, they’re not really feminist relationships as they’ve found out because they still tend to do a lot of the work. Me and my friends, we have this constant ongoing joke of a future commune where

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: We’ll build … and I’ve discovered that a lot of people seem to have this idea.

Marita: Oh god the dream!

Parinita: Right?!

Marita: The dream.

Parinita: Just go and grow your own food and just have a slower pace of life and live with people that you like.

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: And some of them may be single and some of them may have partners and children. Because it’s so impossible for just a couple to raise a child. It’s so difficult. I’m currently living with my boyfriend’s family, with his mother. He has a sister who’s just had a baby and she has another daughter as well, and they live nearby. So I love how much the families get involved in childcare and just other stuff like shopping for groceries and stuff. Because just one person doing everything is so impossible. Even if it’s a couple. They’re a couple but they’re at work and things so it’s just this different idea of how you can raise a child, how you can be a family. It’s not just romantic relationships, it’s also platonic relationships that are important. So just challenging that notion I think is so important.

Marita: I think it’s very funny how widespread the notion of starting a commune with your friends is.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: Especially in lockdown.

Parinita: Yeah. Ugh yeah.

Marita: That’s just the daydream. I just want a house with some land and at least four other people just existing around me.

Parinita: Yeah, right?! Whoever I’ve spoken with, it’s mostly been women who seem to want to this as well.

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: Which hmm I wonder why this system that was set up by men doesn’t seem to be working for us. That we want to escape it.

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: We’ve been focusing on the positive aspects of fanfiction in terms of how it exposes us to different ideas. But of course while fanfiction can be progressive and inclusive in some ways and towards certain groups, it can also be hostile towards other groups as well, right? I’m thinking specifically – again I’m not a huge part of it but I listen to a lot of fan podcasts, follow Twitter conversations and things. So recently there was this whole discussion about A03 and racism. And how there was this online controversy in the midst of the Black Lives Matter discussions on Twitter and AO3’s complicity in racism. Where queerness and gender are centred, there are more opportunities for that, but race seems to be othered.

Marita: I have sort of complicated feelings about that.

Parinita: Okay.

Marita: It’s definitely not my space really to talk about because I am very white. [laughs] And I don’t have as deep a critical look into AO3’s practices etcetera etcetera as I’d like to have to be able to form a more informed opinion etcetera etcetera.

Parinita: Yeah.

Marita: I definitely think a lot of the criticism that has been made is absolutely fair and very, very much correct. I do think in the response of AO3, I can see where some of that is coming from. Like the argument that nothing can be all things to all people.

Parinita: Hmm.

Marita: And especially if you’re an archive essentially. A lot of the proposed suggestions that I’ve read from people arguing that AO3 is racist and should adopt some different policies. A lot of the policies I’ve seen suggested do not seem feasible to me.

Parinita: Hmm.

Marita: Like we as you said, we’ve talked a lot about the positive that fandom and the fanfic communities as positive spaces. But they are absolutely a space that’s rife with bullying and just general very hateful speech and very hateful mentalities and a lot of targeting of people etcetera for various different things.

Parinita: Right.

Marita: And I think that taking away a lot of that and giving mods more power and making it more structured and less in very, very, very big quotation marks “free” could very much lead to people getting banned over silly things. And a lot of purity culture specifically. I know that’s what a lot of queer people are worrying about around AO3 because you tend to create content that might be questionable in various ways. And I know that there’s a lot of concern about that. Adding the ability to delete comments is great. I love that. Turning off and on comments is also great. It’s just that we have those theoretical conversations and we don’t actually talk about the work.

Parinita: Right. Yeah that’s really interesting. I think conversations are important just to raise awareness about issues and to maybe start thinking about how things can be solved. And again, I’m saying this more as someone who’s been an observer of the conversations without having any sort of investment or stake in it because I just don’t frequent A03 really. So for me it’s just been this abstract, theoretical thing, as you said. So even in terms of feasibility and stuff, I’m really ignorant and I’m just trying to learn from the different perspectives. But what you said about it in terms of just even the work, I think that’s really interesting in terms of fanfiction and just moving on to what we were talking about in the other part of our conversation which is the class politics of fanfiction and fandom in general. Where a lot of it, like you said, is against the capitalistic structures of mainstream media where you’re just writing things because you love it. You love the community, you love the text and you’re playing with the characters. Or you’re frustrated with the text and you’re playing with the characters. Plus there’s this whole community of beta readers who act as editors and things.

Marita: Um hmm.

Parinita: Which I think is great because that’s what the community is. But at the same time, because fanfiction largely has women and nonbinary people, the more marginalised groups … there is so much time and labour that’s offered for free. And it is for the love of the work and the community but people are still … I think there’s that in terms of accessibility there as well. Who can afford to put in so much labour and effort for free for something that you love and who might want to, but may just not be able to because either they don’t have the time or they’re tired from the job that they work in that might not be great but they have to do because they have to pay the rent. And they have to pay the bills, right? And of course, on the other other hand, capitalism wants you to commercialise everything. And some things should just be fun. But it’s just there’s more nuance to that. It’s not just one or the other.

Gif of woman with text saying "The situation's a lot more nuanced than that."

Marita: Yeah. It’s sort of similar to me to how people talk about academia.

Parinita: Hmm.

Marita: Because I’m self-funded and I work. And for the last year I tried to do my first PhD year full-time while at the same time working full time because I needed to be making over 900 pounds per month in order to just be able to pay my tuition and my rent.

Parinita: Yeah.

Marita: And it is for the love of the work because I love what I’m doing. With fandom as well, it is for the love of the content and for the love of the community etcetera. But it is still work.

Parinita: Yeah.

Marita: I am very lucky that I was furloughed during lockdown. I could afford to stay at home. I had a very, very strong academic block. And I couldn’t create the content for my PhD. So I turned to fanfiction. But I had that opportunity because I was furloughed. And because it was the end of the year, so my tuition fees were more or less paid. I would not have had that opportunity if I was an essential worker and I had to keep going to work every day. And like fandom in particular it’s so interesting because on one hand there’s so many young people who are not working, who are in school, who are children. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah.

Marita: Working and creating and just existing in the space. And then on the other hand, you have the older fandom who has a very different dynamic to it. They have very different ways of interacting with the process of creation and the process of being active fan members. And you have responsibilities and you have a family and you have a career and you can’t just be, “Oh I’m just going to use my savings this month and I’m going to spend the entire month writing PWP Drarry fanfiction.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah. No, for sure. Even fan podcasts, because that’s my current fandom I guess. I’m a fan of fan podcasts because I listen to so many.

Marita: [laughs] Same.

Parinita: But that’s such a labour-intensive process as well. Like you mentioned, I don’t come from wealth either. I’ve been lucky in terms of scholarships so I get a small stipend which isn’t enough to live on in the UK but it is something. And I have some money left over from my master’s scholarships that I’m currently using to live. And I realise how incredibly lucky I am that I get to do, like you’re saying, I’ve merged both academia and fandom into my work. Which sometimes can be quite problematic because I don’t know where my PhD ends and where my real life begins. And that’s also – I love to blame capitalism for everything – but that’s also this cult of productivity. Where you feel like your self-worth is tied to how productive you are so if you’re not doing something all the time, you feel like you’re not worthy of things that you get. So that’s definitely a problem where I tend to overwork. But that’s also such a, as we say in India, “first world problem” where you can sit at home and I’m working on my laptop. Whereas Jack, my boyfriend, he was an essential worker – he was working at an Amazon warehouse during the lockdown. So he was going to work every day for eight hours and he’d be on his feet. He was doing manual work lifting things and stuff. Whereas I was sitting at home maybe working for the same time, but I was sitting and doing something that I loved and I’m being paid for it. Not a lot. But I’m being paid for it by my university because I’m doing it as a part of my university project. Whereas other people, other fans, they’re doing fan podcasts and they’re doing them so much more frequently, but how do they get the money?

Marita: Hmm

Parinita: How do they justify that? There’s Patreon and things like that. They ask for donations and stuff but it’s still such a … yeah, you need to be earning enough money from what you’re doing to be able to do what you love.

Marita: Yeah. I work for a fan podcast right now. I do some scribing so I write the transcripts for episodes. And I get paid for that. Which I did not know was going to be a thing. I was very surprised when they told me. Which in and of itself is fucked up to realise that

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs]

Marita: I was not expecting to get paid for the labour that I knew I was going to be doing.

Parinita: Yeah. And it is a lot of labour. I do transcriptions for each of my episode. And it is a lot of work.

Marita: It’s so much!

Parinita: Yeah.

Marita: The term fan podcast is really strange because it is a fan creation and it is a part of fandom, but it’s not free in the way that fanfic is free. Because it takes so much more different types of labour and different types of cost etcetera.

Parinita: Yeah.

Marita: The difference between different podcasts showcases the kind of people who can afford to have the more expensive equipment. And they end up with more polished podcasts and their polished podcasts end up getting picked up by distribution groups like Multitude or Maximum Fun etcetera. And then you have more fan fan podcasts primarily from people who are less privileged in their creative and fan endeavours. And you end up with a Patreon maybe if you’re lucky.

Parinita: Yeah.

Marita: Which is just … you were right, it is capitalism’s fault. Everything comes back to blaming capitalism because it is their fault.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah because then it also limits the diversity of voices in podcasting, right? I’ve done some research in terms of not fan podcasts but podcasts in general. And it does seem to be – at least the more successful ones, the more popular ones which in itself is not a great metric for success but I mean that’s what you get the money and you get picked up like that – is they’re largely Western, a lot of them are American and a lot of men, and pretty white. There is, of course, diversity especially specifically in my project, I try to look for more diverse voices in terms of different identities but it’s still really Western focused. I don’t know of any Indian fan podcasts, for example. That doesn’t seem to be a thing because it is so much work and sometimes if you’re so tired of doing your full-time job and commuting and whatever that you can’t think of going home and just working. It’s still a privilege to even be able to podcast. And I think there’s just not this idea of there can be a different way of living and making a living, I think. Because there are such limited avenues which are getting even more limited now because of all the recession that the lockdowns have led to all over the world.

Marita: Yeah. I’ve been listening to podcasts and consuming a lot of podcasts for a while now. And it has been really interesting to see what gets picked up and what doesn’t. And a lot of work in fan podcasts and fiction podcasts etcetera. What ends up becoming a big thing and who gets to quit their job and become a podcaster full time. Which is still wild for me to consider. Like Harry Potter fandom is very, very big on that because it has a lot of dedicated fan podcasts and people becoming Harry Potter podcasters and that’s their job.

Parinita: I know! It’s so beyond my realm of possibility or imagination. I would love to do that. I would love to be making this podcast full-time which currently I am, but it is for the PhD project. I can’t imagine doing this – like I want to, but I don’t know how to be able to to do this going on after my PhD because then nobody is going to be paying me to do this. So I will need to be doing other jobs to do it. And like in India, I don’t know how it is in Greece, India is very work-obsessed. There doesn’t seem to be a work-life balance. That’s not really a thing that most people worry about.

Marita: As you know, we’re famously lazy in Greece.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: We’ve never worked.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: I’m kidding obviously, please continue.

Parinita: I mean India has some of those stereotypes as well. But for me, I had to get out of India – when I moved to Glasgow for my master’s – to be able to imagine that oh wait, people stop working at 5 and their commutes are not two hours? They don’t spend two hours then travelling back home? And they have weekends off? What?! They can take time off? Just a leave of three weeks or whatever and that’s their annual leave? I mean obviously we have leave and things but it’s just so different. My mother, she had to drop out of college and stuff so she’s been working as a secretary and an administrator at different companies since she was 18. So for her it’s always been a grind. She’s worked through fevers very proudly. She’s like, oh I have a fever, I feel like I’m dying but I’m going in to work. So I grew up with that idea of work and that’s how it is in India. You’re expected to be on your phone and whatever, be accessible to the employer at whatever time in most regular jobs, I guess salaried jobs. Which now especially with the pandemic and things, I’m like I don’t think that that’s the kind of life I want. I think that society is deeply broken.

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: And maybe a revolution doesn’t sound like such a bad thing.

Marita: [laughs] I love how we started our conversation not addressing the elephant in the room which is that everything is broken down because of the pandemic. And then not even an hour later, we’re both like, yeah so society is broken. Capitalism is the pits.

Parinita: [laughs] I mean I knew about society being broken before the pandemic.

Marita: Yeah. It’s no surprise.

Parinita: But I think the pandemic has thrown everything into such relief. We’re hanging on such a balance with everything. When the lockdown just happened in the UK, the first three weeks were ridiculous! People were stockpiling – who could afford to, obviously. Me and Jack were talking about it – who can afford to stockpile? Who has the room? We were living in a tiny flat in Leeds. Even if we had the money to stockpile, where would we put these things? Who are these people? Where are they putting all the stuff that they’re buying? And even in terms of the class dynamics with the essential workers; another term for them had traditionally been “low-skilled” jobs. But suddenly they’re the most important people in the economy because they’re the ones stocking your toilet paper on the shelves.

Marita: So it’s very interesting experiencing the pandemic from two different countries.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Marita: Because as soon as I came to Greece, Greece did not have many cases.

Parinita: Right.

Marita: Greece was not affected more or less by the pandemic. And then they decided – well they didn’t decide, then they had to open borders because so much of our economy is tourism and is the exploitation and the selling out of our islands. So we had to open our borders and as soon as that happened, cases skyrocketed. And suddenly Greece is in the shit. Even though it had more or less escaped. Because there was no feasible way or at least the government didn’t think there was no feasible way for us to survive financially without welcoming a bunch of tourists who did not care for maintaining social distance, did not pay any attention to the policies in place. I was at an island which in and of itself I did not expect to be able to do.

Parinita: Yeah.

Marita: But I was on an island and I went to this bar that was supposedly open air so it was working. And people were just piling in and I had to leave almost immediately because I panicked. And everyone was so unconcerned like corona who? And it was obviously mainly tourists. And mainly people who could afford to be messy in a different country that would not have to care for them if they got sick.

Parinita: Yeah I mean like you’re saying, the two different countries and how they’re handling the pandemic. For me, even though I’m a brown immigrant in the UK – which is pretty low on the totem pole in this country – I’m still pretty privileged because I’m within academia which has its own problems but I’ve been quite lucky. I’ve been in a really nice protected bubble mostly because I’m really oblivious to things that are happening. Maybe I have had microaggressions and racist things happen but I’ve just not been really observant so that’s great that I’ve not noticed them. So I’m pretty privileged here. In India, I’m so much more privileged; even not being in Mumbai because India is still in the middle of a really bad wave – the first wave – and the cases are increasing and things. And Mumbai, my city is in lockdown, and my mum the way that she’s dealing with it all. And she’s also one of the more privileged ones because she has a house, she has a job.

Marita: Yeah.

Parinita: I don’t know if you came across this at all, but there was a huge migrant crisis and by migrant I mean really deprived people who work in different parts of the country; who come from villages but work in cities and construction sites and in industries and as labour. And they were just abandoned by the government. In the beginning, in March and April there were just these awful photographs of people walking thousands of kilometres in the summer sun and collapsing and dying because there was no transport. The lockdown had been announced overnight and there hadn’t been any things put in place to get these people who can’t afford flight tickets or whatever anyway to get them to their homes. They’d been completely abandoned because they obviously don’t matter, right? They don’t have the money so why would they matter? Whereas people who were middle class and upper middle class and wealthier who were stuck abroad, they were flown in via planes. But these poor people stuck in the country in another state weren’t. So it’s just like how much your life matters depends on the wealth that you have. I think in one of the podcasts, they were mentioning about how society now has just created this different kind of aristocracy. At least earlier, at least here and in India, there were horrible feudal landlords but they were spending money in the society that they lived in. Whereas now, you’re taking all the wealth that your employees are creating and then you’re stashing it away abroad. With Amazon what was it, every second he [Jeff Bezos] earns some ridiculous amount of money.

Marita: Oh god! I saw a thing today that was literally the world’s billionaires and how much their wealth has increased in the pandemic. And literally it was that. And it was a sign that said your death is their money.

Parinita: Yeah! Absolutely. But also I think these conversations are more mainstream now, at least if you’re on a certain part of Twitter which I think both of us inhabit – that pocket of Twitter and Facebook – where they’re talking about these things. But a lot of people seem to be completely cut off from this. I remember there was this a tweet where a person who works in Amazon was complaining that he still had to go to work but there were other people who were sitting at home and getting paid. In the UK they’re paying people who are furloughed, right? Well a lot of people who are furloughed, not all. And so he said that, oh these people they’re sitting at home and not doing anything and making money whereas I have to go to Amazon warehouse. And then someone responded to them saying Jeff Bezos is making a million dollars every day or every week or whatever it is. Instead of fighting other people who are just trying to live their lives and might have other problems, why don’t you actually target the people who are completely robbing the world of its money and its resources?

Marita: I just ugh it gets me so angry!

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs]

Marita: Ugh.

Parinita: But that’s why I think there needs to be more representation of this in science fiction and fantasy. I know coming back to that, but I think media representations that’s the reason they’re so important. That they allow you to see a different world but also make connections with your own contexts and how that applies to your world. Because most people I think seem to think that they’re closer to Jeff Bezos than being homeless. Which is so untrue! If you miss a couple of months of rent, you’re going to be kicked out of home unless you have someone else to depend on. It’s not like if you get two extra months of payment, you’re going to suddenly be a billionaire! For most people at least.

Marita: As we were recording this podcast, I got an email from work reminding me that that’s my last furlough payment in August. And I will not be getting paid moving forward. So that just felt very prescient and current.

Parinita: Oh no, that’s terrible!

Marita: Yeah.

Parinita: Ugh!

Marita: They sent it to us in an email that started with an announcement that all of management was getting a raise.

Parinita: Oh my god!

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: Oh my god. Ugh!

Marita: Just in case you needed more capitalism sucks.

Parinita: No, no that’s why we need to start a revolution, right? Earlier when I said a revolution seems like a good idea, I was completely underplaying it. I am ready for a feminist, socialist – intersectional feminist socialist revolution.

Marita: Let’s go.

Parinita: [laughs]

Marita: Let’s go. I am ready. I have been doing push-ups in lockdown so I can punch now.

Parinita: [laughs] That’s great. My skills are very, very limited. [laughs] But I’ll build them, I’m eager to learn. I can write children’s books, I can keep the kids entertained, I guess. [laughs] That’s what you do, right? That’s all you need to do.

Marita: Good. You’ll be responsible for our children.

Parinita: [laughs] This was such a fun conversation even when we were calling for the downfall of patriarchy and capitalism. [laughs]

Marita: That’s what all good conversations do.

Parinita: Yeah well, especially in 2020, of course.

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: There’s no good conversation without that. Thank you so much for being a part of this project and for really giving your time and your expertise with things that I know very little about. And it was such a fun conversation. I think all my podcast episodes going forward need to call for a revolution.

Marita: [laughs] Well, if you need the literature, as I said, I do have a Les Misérables fanfic about it.

Parinita: [laughs] Yes! Coming out of this PhD project if anything, it’s contributed to anything in coming close to the downfall of patriarchy and capitalism, that would be pretty good. And like no pressure! [laughs]

Marita: [laughs]

Parinita: No pressure on our episode at all.

Marita: I will make sure to cite this podcast when I inevitably make my attack on the ruling class.

Parinita: [laughs] Thank you so much.

Marita: Thank you for having me!

[Outro music]

It’s been awhile since the last episode was published. I recorded this episode in August 2020 but it took a total of six months to get it out into the world. I blame 2020 for all of this! I have five more episodes which I recorded with some excellent people over the last year. But as much as I would love for everyone to be able to listen to them immediately, I really can’t predict when they’ll actually be ready for publication. My partner Jack edits the episodes while simultaneously handling a full-time job in a warehouse in the middle of a pandemic and just general worldwide political turmoil. So life may get in the way of our plans and the next five episodes may be irregularly scheduled as well. For this, I blame capitalism! I’m really sorry about the wait and if you’re still listening, thanks for sticking around! You can’t imagine how much I appreciate it. And thank you Marita for your conversation and teaching me so many new things. And thanks, as always, to Jack for managing to edit episodes even while juggling two medical emergencies and a background of cicadas.

[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 16 The Queer Paradise: Exploring Diverse Gender Identities in Speculative Worlds

Episode Resources:

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

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

3) Fanzine – Harry Potter and the Problematic Author 

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

5) Fanzine – Tonk’s Tale

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

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

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

 

Episode Transcript:

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

Left – Double Trouble from She-Ra and the Princesses of Power; Right – Janet from The Good Place

[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 sixteenth episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I talk to Tam Moules about different gender identities in science fiction and fantasy. We also discuss how fans learn to identify and question transphobic implications within their favourite media and grapple with transphobic creators of their favourite worlds.

Transphobia is often couched under language that ostensibly speaks of women’s empowerment but fundamentally excludes trans people. This reactionary and limited form of feminism can be seen in mainstream discourse as well as embedded in beloved media. Fan conversations help highlight and decode implicit bigotry in the texts. But what happens when fans imbibe messages of radical inclusivity and equality from their favourite books only to discover that the writer doesn’t live up to these ideals? We see fans either giving up on the media altogether or disowning its creator.

Due to an overall absence of gender nonconforming characters in SFF, trans and nonbinary fans frequently have to read themselves into cisgender characters. Fortunately, there is a small but increasing number of nonbinary and trans characters in media. This representation of diverse gender identities has a particularly important impact in mainstream children’s media. Creating worlds for kids where queerness is the default allows them to recognise themselves or learn about those who don’t mirror their own identities. Queer characters, cast and crew help create a supportive space for marginalised identities which, in turn, impacts which stories are told and how they’re told. When queerness is normalised in a fictional world, no one way feels like the default or the token. Many different ways of being emerge.

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: I’m so happy to have Tam Moules on the podcast today. Tam is currently a freelance academic with an MLitt in Fantasy Literature from the University of Glasgow. They have written and presented papers at various conferences and have published an essay with the Luna Press anthology A Shadow Within: Evil in Fantasy and Science Fiction. Their essay is called “I have done only what was necessary: An exploration of individual and structural evil in the works of N. K. Jemisin” if you wanted to look that up. Tam and I were studying for a master’s at the University of Glasgow at the same time though not for the same programme. I was there doing an M.Ed in Children’s Literature and Literacies. But as a book and fantasy nerd, I attended some of the lectures on the Fantasy course as well where Tam and I became friends. So today, we’re going to be talking about how different gender identities are represented in mainstream science fiction and fantasy media. And as much as we don’t want to be spending too much time on the transphobic elephant in the room, we’re going to have to unfortunately spend a little time talking about J. K. Rowling before quickly moving on to happier, queerer, more inclusive things. But before we begin with that, Tam, could you tell us a little more about your own experiences with our theme today?

Tam: Hello! About 2017 I realised I was non-binary. And coming to terms with that and existing within academia has been a very weird experience. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Tam: I think it’s good that we’re seeing more representation of that within media and so I’m quite excited to talk about that today.

Parinita: Yeah, for sure. I’m cisgender and heterosexual, so for me, it’s also something that I’m learning through media.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: And through fandom specifically. Because in India, now I know some non-binary, gender nonconforming people.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: But when I was growing up as a teenager, I didn’t really have any access to this. Even just gay people in general, I didn’t have any access to. And it was largely through fandom and largely through Harry Potter fandom actually that I encountered different people. When I was thirteen, I joined Mugglenet and just read a lot of fanfiction there. Which is why it’s so much more disappointing – okay right, let’s get it out of the way. Back in December, when I hadn’t launched the podcast yet but I was putting it together and approaching guests and fan podcasts, J. K. Rowling tweeted something in support of a transphobe – Maya Forester I think her name is? [it’s actually Maya Forstater]

Tam: Yeah something like that.

Parinita: Yeah. We don’t need to know.

Tam: [laughs]

Parinita: I don’t mind if I get her name wrong. J. K. Rowling’s own tweets were couched in transphobic language which, if you don’t know the debates and things happening in the background, you might not have seen anything wrong with that tweet.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: So there are a bunch of people who decoded that, including one of the fan podcast episodes that we listened to. And she was then silent about it. Silent about all the critiques and all the outrage, right until June this year since when she’s been on this spree of transphobic tweeting. And it’s not even covert anymore.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: J. K. Rowling is a TERF.

Tam: [laughs] Yeah, it’s been a bit weird the past few weeks. She’s suddenly gone full mask-off and is just saying the quiet part out loud as it were.

Parinita: [laughs] So for those who don’t know, TERF stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminist. So it’s a version of feminism which doesn’t include trans women or trans folks, like even trans men. For me, even as a cis, straight person, I don’t understand this idea of feminism that doesn’t include all women and all … actually anybody who’s marginalised. Because a non-binary person isn’t a part of the dominant culture; they don’t have privileges that cis people have for example, right?

Tam: Yeah. I mean it’s profoundly reactionary as a form of feminism. It’s inherently self-contradictory in a lot of ways. I don’t know if you read her “statement” about the whole thing but every single point she made was contradicted by a different point that she made effectively.

Parinita: I couldn’t bring myself to read it. As a researcher who’s including Harry Potter in my PhD project and as a Harry Potter fan – I’m still very attached to it because it played such an important role in my childhood

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: I can’t really untie that from my sense of self. I can absolutely untie J. K. Rowling though; how fandom has kicked her out of her own creation.

Tam: [laughs]

Parinita: Anyway, I couldn’t read that essay just because I know she’s spoken about domestic violence. And I have experience with domestic violence. I grew up in a house where my mum survived domestic violence. So when I heard the conversation around that I was like, okay I still need more distance because there’s too much going on in the world.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: Right now there’s the pandemic, there’s the Black Lives Matter movement, there’s migrants just dying in India because of the pandemic and I can’t add this other thing to stress me out. It’s just so disappointing. The response to her transphobia from what I’ve seen – maybe it’s just because of the spaces that I’ve cultivated – but wherever I’ve encountered the responses to her tweets, it’s been very much in support of trans people. And divorcing J. K. Rowling from Harry Potter and reclaiming Harry Potter. There’s this Harry Potter fan podcast I listen to called The Gayly Prophet and one of the hosts there is trans and the other host is a queer person of colour – both American. And both of them said that, “We’re just going to reclaim it angrily for the fans.”

Tam: [laughs]

Parinita: And they launched this campaign called Make Harry Potter Gayer 2020.

Tam: [laughs]

Parinita: So they’re curating all this trans and non-binary and queer fiction and Harry Potter things and just fighting back against it. Because the thing is a lot of fans who grew up with Harry Potter read these messages of being inclusive in the books. And she’s not seeing that herself? Or it’s only applicable to a certain group of people and not everybody.

Tam: Yeah. In a lot of ways the fan response to it has been really positive and uplifting – seeing all these people saying essentially we don’t care what she has to say anymore. And I also think it’s an interesting test case in the sense that it’s one of the biggest fandoms online effectively disowning its own creator.

Parinita: Yeah. Were you a fan of Harry Potter growing up as well?

Tam: I was obsessed growing up, yeah.

Parinita: [laughs] I know that some people have had more of a difficulty in divorcing the creation from the creator. You know what I mean? For me, I can’t. I can’t let go of Harry Potter.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: And in the resources that we looked at for this episode, a lot of the fans said the same thing. They had a real difficulty grappling with her hatred and bigotry but also being unable to let go. What has your experience been with this?

Tam: I think on a purely practical level, I have so many books to read. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Tam: That not going back to Harry Potter is quite a straightforward decision. But I have copies that my grandparents gave me for birthday presents and things that I’m still sentimentally attached to.

Parinita: Yeah.

Tam: And I have good memories of rereading the series. I had a summer job in Germany once where basically I had nothing to do but read. And I ended up going through the whole series in like a week. And I still have good memories of that. But at the same time, it’s also interesting going back to it and seeing like … obviously when I was a kid, I didn’t necessarily notice the actual amount of bigotry that’s implicitly coded into the books.

Parinita: Yup. [laughs] Yup.

Tam: [laughs]

Parinita: I’m re-reading the books now just as background research to inform my conversations here on the podcast for the PhD. And I have re-read the books as an adult previously because I used to try and re-read the series annually.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: I stopped that when I started doing my master’s because you don’t have time to read so much.

Tam: [laughs] Yeah.

Parinita: But even then, as an adult I wasn’t really able to think as critically as I do now. Just decoding the messages, because that’s something that I’m still learning through the internet actually and through fandom.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: Where I’m learning to be able to critically analyse things and question things and question canon and question the creators. And fans are great for that. Especially Harry Potter fans. There’s this excellent podcast called Witch, Please, The Gayly Prophet does that as well – they apply an intersectional lens to Harry Potter. And oh my god reading it as an adult, it’s quite alarming. [laughs]

Tam: A lot of it is, yeah.

Parinita: I also wanted to talk about some of the more problematic elements in Harry Potter. As someone coming from India and we have our own social problems and social issues there. But currently in the UK, transphobia seems to be quite mainstream.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: And it seems to be quite a loud part of – I mean maybe it’s a small group, but they seem to be really loud. I live in Leeds. And just recently, last week, the Leeds public library, they were going to … do you know the Drag Queen Story Hour?

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: So they were going to do that here. Just a virtual reading. And then it got attacked by this group on Mumsnet I think along with a Leeds city councillor who started calling it – they were very transphobic and were accusing it of all sorts of things. And they got it shut down. And luckily that has been picked up by lots of media channels after that. But it still happened. They still got it shut down. And especially during Pride Month, all these kids were excited about seeing their own identity represented. Because the books that she read included different identities. She did it anyway on another Facebook page but the fact that institutionally it was shut down because of an institutional TERF was very … ugh!

Tam: Obviously I’m not an expert but I think part of is that homophobia has become socially unacceptable even among a lot of conservatives.

Parinita: Hmm.

Tam: Not many of them are open about it anymore. But transphobia is still relatively normalised in a lot of ways. And the fact that the UK’s system for treating trans people in particular is horrendously badly run and underfunded and there’s multiple-year-long waiting lists which is part of the problem but also on purpose kind of.

Parinita: Yeah. And it’s also like J. K. Rowling’s tweet and a lot of the words and phrases that they use to couch the transphobia is so unknown.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: First of all, they think that TERF is a slur. And they want to be called gender-critical feminists. When TERF is actually describing what they are, which is they exclude trans people in their feminism. So in Leeds last year, there was a transphobic march; it was a march full of transphobes who were marching against trans people or to protect lesbians in the LGBT umbrella. So Jack and I went for the anti-TERF protest – it was a march and a counter-protest.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: And it was so ridiculous because at one point, when they were marching around, they were shouting things like, “Women don’t have penises!” at random bystanders.

Tam: [laughs]

Parinita: Who were like, “What? Was this a topic of debate?” Obviously they were very confused

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: Because if you don’t know the history and the background, it is confusing. The Pottercast episode that we listened to had some great resources about that. It was called Sorting It Out With Jackson Bird featuring a trans Harry Potter fan who’s played a big role in the fandom. And they were responding to J. K. Rowling’s transphobia and that had some really good resources to try and understand, unpacking this language a little bit and also presenting the context of it. Even though they’re in the US, they were talking about it from a UK perspective as well. But yeah, it just seems to be so uncomfortably mainstream in the UK and I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all.

Tam: Yeah. There’s a lot of talk of “reasonable concerns” because they end up using so much coded language that people end up taking it at face value basically.

Parinita: Yeah. You were telling me about what happened today with Stephen King. He retweeted something J. K. Rowling said, right?

Tam: She made this big, long thread complaining about stuff and then at the end of it she had like an Andrea Dworkin quote which was clipped out of context. And so he retweeted that quote out of context – removed from both its original context and from the context in which J. K. Rowling was using it – then replied to someone else saying, “Trans women are women.”  And J. K. Rowling’s unfollowed him over it. Which is quite funny.

Parinita: Yeah. And before that, when he retweeted her, I think she was so happy that she got some celebrity endorsement that she wrote this long tweet praising Stephen and was fangirlish about it and then she deleted that tweet as well as soon as he wrote trans women are women. And something similar happened in December as well. Because her tweet is couched in language that you wouldn’t find problematic if you didn’t know what was happening. Mark Hamill had retweeted or liked it as well. But he didn’t know the context; presumably neither did Stephen King today. So he was just trying to be supportive of women, I guess, not realising what she was saying. And then he did apologise. He was like I didn’t know what I was doing and this is not what I meant to do. It’s so easy to include people in that or trick people into supporting you when you’re trying to make it seem like you’re including and protecting women but you’re not actually. Or you’re only protecting a certain group of women.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: And among these TERFs, I don’t even know how many other intersectional identities there are. Not just in terms of gender identity and cisgender versus trans but just race and class and national origin and everything. What would they think of me, for example? A brown immigrant from India. I feel like if you exclude one, it’s so easy then to find problems with other groups as well who aren’t exactly like you.

Tam: Yeah. There’s always someone else to transfer it on to once your original target is sort of legislated away as it were.

Parinita: Exactly! Which is what I don’t understand why lesbians have caught onto this so much; a group of lesbians, of course, not all lesbians. But they think trans women are going to impinge on their own rights. But once they start excluding trans women, they’re going to be targeted by the homophobes as well. It should be a solidarity amongst all marginalised identities, not just in-fighting. And quickly before we move on to happier things, I just wanted to talk about how there are some transphobic implications within the Potterverse which I would never have noticed before J. K. Rowling outed herself as a TERF. Or even without the help of fans identifying this. Like I said, fans have helped me so much in being more critically analytical of things. But there are quite a few transphobic implications not only in the Potterverse but also in J. K. Rowling’s crime booksthe Robert Galbraith books.

Tam: Definitely. Well, I think there’s some fairly obvious trans implications with the Polyjuice potion being such a central part of the books. The ability to change appearance and change gender but the fact that you can only copy someone else. You can’t use it to become a new person. You have to use it to become a copy of someone who already exists. It’s interesting because it could very easily be written in a way that is trans-inclusive and is positive. But instead it’s like people have a sort of inherent essence and if they ever stop taking their medicine, they will revert back to that essence. It’s very gender essentialist.

Parinita: You saying that makes me think of Tonks as well. Any Metaphor – Metaphorgo -? Okay I don’t know how to pronounce that word [laughs]. [I was trying to say Metamorphmagus].

Tam: [laughs]

Gif of Ginny and Tonks. Tonks has changed her nose into a duck (?)

Parinita: What Tonks is, that is her ability to change her appearance into anything – across the gender spectrum essentially. That would be so easy to make inclusive of non-binary, genderqueer, gender nonconforming people. In response to J. K. Rowling’s transphobia, this collective of queer Harry Potter fans, launched this fanzine Trans-Inclusive Education at Hogwarts I think it’s called. I’m going to look up the correct name and link it. [It’s called Trans-Affirming Magical Care]

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: But basically they’ve got all these queer fans to write and draw stuff for the fanzine and all the proceeds are going to be donated to charities that work with trans people. And one of them was Maia Kobabe’s work, which is also on Tumblr. That focuses more specifically on Tonks and how they would be gender nonconforming and  basically their appearance could reflect on what gender they are identifying with on a particular day. And in Hogwarts as well, how the very binary, very gender essentialist dorm system that they have and the bathroom system that they have would accommodate – how the building itself, the magical architecture itself would change to accommodate their identities or any identities in Hogwarts.

Tam: I think it’s interesting that Tonks, one of the most outwardly queer-coded characters in the whole series is effectively married off to someone twice her age. But also the fact that Lupin as well is a queer-coded character in a profoundly negative way. The fact that her werewolves, where she explicitly describes them as an AIDs metaphor and all but one of them are predators who want to eat children and infect them with werewolfness, is a bit, little, little, tiny weeny little bit dodgy.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah. He’s the good one. But everyone else … he’s the exception to the otherwise terrible, terrible norm. Keep your children away!

Tam: Exactly. It’s a profoundly horrible thing to put in a children’s book series.

Parinita: And then I just recently finished re-reading The Prisoner of Azkaban. And this is something that one of my previous guests Lorrie Kim brought up about the Boggart scene in Prisoner of Azkaban. Where Neville’s greatest fear is Professor Snape – which understandable, because he’s really horrible. In the series, a Boggart turns into your greatest fear. And the way to defeat a Boggart is to make yourself laugh. So you have to turn it into something funny. And the most hilarious thing to Neville here or to Lupin, I guess, because it was his idea is to turn Snape into wearing his grandmother’s clothes.

Tam: Yeah!

Gif from Prisoner of Azkaban of Boggart Snape turning into Snape wearing Neville's grandmother's clothes

Parinita: And that’s such a butt of jokes, right?

Tam: Yeah. I mean it now seems very telling that the first place she went with that was man in a dress. The fact that she thinks that’s inherently humiliating and hilarious.

Parinita: Yeah and when we’re reading it, we’re on the side of Harry and Lupin and Neville, right? We like these characters so we identify with them. So the way that we’re being positioned to look at this scene is that we should find it funny as well and we should find it really strange as well. Whereas not just trans people but even gender nonconforming people can wear or men can wear dresses, right? Why should that be so funny that it defeats this creature that’s supposed to be your darkest nightmare? Anyway, I think that’s enough time that we’ve dedicated in our episode to J. K. Rowling for today. Her books are problematic.

Tam: [laughs]

Parinita: She is problematic. I can let go of her; I can’t let go of the books. Do you have any closing thoughts on J. K. Rowling before we move on to happier topics?

Tam: I hope she listens to people and learns empathy and gets better.

Parinita: Yeah. [sighs] I hope so too. I’m really optimistic about most things – I’m an optimistic person. But from the way that she’s been constantly treating trans people. Even today, while we’re recording –

Tam: Oh no.

Parinita: It almost sounds very cultish you know.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: I was talking to Jack today earlier and he was reading the responses there because he has much more tolerance for this sort of stuff than I do [going through bigoted tweets, that is; not transphobia]. And he was like, “Yeah this just sounds like a cult that she’s been recruited into.”

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: And now she is also doing the recruiting. They’re affirming each other. So she obviously believes that she’s a hundred per cent correct.

Tam: Unfortunately.

Parinita: And that I think is getting in the way and also her privilege is getting in the way of her talking to people.

Tam: Yeah. Definitely.

Parinita: It’s sad, but you can only control what you can control. So we can leave her aside.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: And maybe talk about other just explicitly nonbinary and trans representations in mainstream science fiction and fantasy. Have you come across any examples of these?

Tam: I have more examples than I can count.

Parinita: Oh brilliant!

Tam: I’ll always recommend Jay Y. Yang’s Tensorate series. They are some of the most varied and interesting books that I have ever read. They’re set in a world that doesn’t understand gender the same way our world does. So kids don’t have a gender. They choose one if they want one when they grow up.

Book covers from the four books in J. Y. Yang's Tensorate series

Parinita: That sounds really interesting! And also really unfortunately rare in speculative fiction.

Tam: Yeah. There’s four little novellas and they’re all completely different. So one’s a crime scene investigation, one’s spies and action-based. And one’s just someone recounting their memories of a relationship. And they’re all beautiful.

Parinita: Oh that’s awesome! So I have a couple of examples but mine are a little different just in terms of the framework of the world. The Lumberjanes – I don’t know if you’re familiar with that comic series.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: So that has a nonbinary character, Barney, as well as a trans girl character, Jo. But it’s incorporated in such a way that that’s not a big deal at all. That’s just “normal”. That’s just one of the many identities that you can be. And there’s never a coming out storyline at all. It’s just yeah this is what it is. You just accept it, which I love. And also there is a slightly different example. In the Magnus Chase series by Rick Riordan

Tam: Yes!

Barney and Jo from The Lumberjanes

Parinita: There’s a genderqueer character, Alex Fierro. They’re the child of Loki who, I think, in Norse mythology, has been known to vary across the gender spectrum – from what at least Rick Riordan tells me. [laughs] I don’t know much about Norse mythology.

Tam: Yeah.

Alex Fierro

Parinita: But I love that both these are a very mainstream series. And both of them are mainstream series for children. So you’re normalising it completely by making this a part of your story without making it a big deal as well. Which I love.

Tam: Yeah. I’ve heard a lot about the Rick Riordan series. I haven’t read any of them since I was a teenager. But I think he’s sort of the anti-J. K. Rowling in a lot of ways.

Parinita: Absolutely!

Tam: The fact that he uses his pull within the publishing industry to highlight marginalised writers who don’t necessarily have the kind of name recognition that he has.

Parinita: Yeah, he started a whole imprint just for people to write about their own mythologies which he wasn’t comfortable writing.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: He’s basically the status quo – old white man in the US. So he has all this privilege which he recognises and tries to include as many people and as many stories and experiences as possible. Which I love. And then, of course, there’s – so I know we’re going to be talking more about them later – but Double Trouble in She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. And She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is just one of my favourite shows ever. Just because they’ve created a world where queerness is the default, where they centre and normalise female and queer characters in the story. And Noelle Stevenson who is the creator of She-Ra in terms of the new adaptation, she has also written a graphic novel called Nimona which is excellent.

Tam: Nimona is so good!

Parinita: That was my first experience with her. And then she was also one of the founding teams of The Lumberjanes as well

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: So I love her.  

Tam: I really didn’t expect to love She-Ra as much as I do. I think I first heard about it because people on the internet were mad about it. [laughs]

Parinita: Oh really? So see I think I either have really giant blinkers on or I just manage to very carefully avoid the negativity because I’ve heard about this. I’ve heard about all the hate She-Ra got but only secondhand. I’ve never come across it myself.

Tam: Yeah. So I think when they shared some promotional images before the show came out, there was a whole bunch of the usual right-wing weirdos who were all mad that this animated child wasn’t feminine enough.

Parinita: [laughs]

Tam: And they were destroying culture by remaking something. And I just thought, well if they’re upset about it, it’s probably going to be good.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah. I mean I’m a huge fan of animated things anyway.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: I read a lot of children’s books, I watch a lot of children’s programming as well. But this story is so refreshing. I know refreshing is an overused word.

Tam: [laughs]

Parinita: I am very guilty of this. I use this word a lot. But just because it’s so rare where they are so central. It starts off, of course, with a background lesbian couple – Netossa and Spinerella in the first season. But then that grows very organically, very in a not “this is a big deal!” kind of way to include Bow’s dads.

Tam: Yes.

Parinita: Then Double Trouble and finally – spoilers for those who haven’t watched the fifth season – Adora and Catra’s love story as well. And it includes characters of diverse body types and gender expressions and identities and it’s just so good!

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: I don’t know if you’ve come across this theory, there was a Twitter thread recently where trans fans read Scorpia, one of the princesses, as trans. They were basically inserting their own experiences into the character.

Tam: All right.

Parinita: Just in terms of how she’s this very uncomfortable but also really cuddly person and wants to be friends with people. But she’s also not very sure of how she would be accepted among the other princesses as well.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: And one of the fans in this thread also actually said that looking at Scorpia and seeing her represented helped them come to terms with their own trans identity. Which I loved! And actually, one of the artists in the show had created Perfuma, another princess, as trans.

Tam: All right.

Parinita: Which Noelle loves; she loves the idea and actually she’s acknowledged all head canons as valid including reading Bow as a trans boy as well.

Tam: Yeah. That was the one I was always on board with from the beginning.

Parinita: Yeah because it’s very obvious right? You can see it … even for me who is very used to seeing very cis, straight characters in my media, I could see that immediately because that made complete sense to me. But Noelle, as much as she loves these head canons, in one of the things she said that she didn’t want to take credit for them because it wasn’t explicitly mentioned on the show. So they’re completely valid but she doesn’t want to pretend like she came up with this idea because she didn’t make it canon. With Double Trouble, there was a nonbinary actor portraying Double Trouble. So that was a very definite choice.

Tam: Oh and that’s so good as well. They cast a nonbinary voice actor to play Double Trouble.

Parinita: Yeah exactly! And the fact that Noelle Stevenson doesn’t want to say that yeah I thought of these characters as these diverse identities, because I didn’t. I love that you thought of it and it’s totally valid but because I didn’t do the homework and I didn’t cast a trans actress to play Perfuma, for example, so now I can’t claim Perfuma as trans. Which I love. That’s such a different perspective of diversity altogether, right?

Tam: Yeah. Again it’s kind of the anti-J. K. Rowling. She’s not taking credit for other people’s theories.

Parinita: [laughs] Oh my god you’re so right! Because I’ve spoken about this so much – about J. K. Rowling just co-opting everything. Like, “Black Hermione, oh yeah totally my idea!” And I also love that Noelle Stevenson will randomly tweet, “I love trans people!!!!!” with five exclamation marks.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: And just devoid – no, not obviously devoid of context, she knows very much what the context is. But it won’t be in response to somebody; it’ll just be like yeah these are my feelings. This is out there.

Tam: Yeah. She’s honestly such a positive force on Twitter. She is absolutely delightful as a person.

Parinita: Yeah. I agree. Even just reading Nimona, I was like, “Okay the brain that made this, I want to be this person’s friend.” Because she also uses the correct amount of exclamations which is more than one.

Tam: [laughs]

Parinita: Which is how I talk. That’s that’s how I talk to people. But also Noelle and Jacob Tobia, who voices Double Trouble, they did talk about the overall absence of gender nonconforming characters in science fiction and media which causes fans to read themselves into their favourite worlds.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: Some of the examples that they said were Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. And I was reading this essay today in a book which, of course, the name I’m completely blanking on because my memory is swiss cheese. But they were talking about how they have all these trans head canons while growing up. They read Luce – Luce?! – Luke Skywalker as both trans and ace – asexual. Just because you don’t see all these identities represented in your media so you have to write those identities in the media.

Tam: Yeah. I think I quite like the theory of Luke Skywalker as ace because he doesn’t show attraction to anyone.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Tam: He doesn’t seem to evidence any interest in the usual hero’s journey of kill the bad guy and get the girl kind of thing.

Parinita: I mean in the first movie, they sort of did that and then as soon as he realised [laughs] that Leia was his sister, he was like okay that’s enough. I tried it. It’s not for me. This is not the kind of relationship that I want to have.

Tam: [laughs]

Parinita: They also read Tintin as a trans guy and Frodo as trans and asexual. I love that because it’s also very similar to Luke Skywalker’s life as well. The book is called The Secret Loves of Geeks. I’ve looked it up.

Tam: Ah okay. I’ll have a look at that.

Parinita: I love that – I mean I don’t love that fans have to do this but I love how creative fans are that they do do this. Even with racebending and genderbending and queering characters and everything.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: But, at the same time, I love that queer people now are creating their own stories and they’re in charge. They’re queering mainstream media essentially so that there’s more representation than they had when they were growing up.

Tam: Absolutely.

Parinita: And another one I’ve seen was Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts.

Tam: Yes.

Parinita: Which I don’t think they have any gender nonconforming character. They have a gay protagonist but … I mean that’s also great but now She-Ra has set the bar so high that I expect more.

Tam: [laughs]

Parinita: I expect everything and everybody to be queer.

Tam: Yeah. I think it’s really quite astonishing what She-Ra has accomplished; what Noelle Stevenson and the people who worked on it have accomplished in terms of taking like a toy commercial from the 80s effectively –

Parinita: [laughs]

Tam: And turning it into this huge story about queer relationships.

Parinita: And also just like a different kind of heroism.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: And a different kind of friendship. Well not a different kind of friendship but a different representation of the kinds of friendships that you have. There’s no individual notion of heroism. She-Ra is powerful but she’s not – if it was only up to her, Hordak would have won in Season 1. It’s such a communal notion of not only saving the world but also being good friends with each other. And they look at that so much in terms of not just focusing on romantic relationships but relationships of all kinds. Which I think is also so lacking in most media.

Tam: Definitely. I think that it does a really good job of showing that people don’t have to be in relationships as well. A lot of them are just really good friends.

Parinita: Absolutely. And they never make it a big deal. No aspect of identity in that world is ever commented upon. It’s just because queerness is the default. And also because there are so many female characters, that also seems to be the default. Usually science fiction and fantasy media is very male-dominated

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: Star Wars being the prime example.

Tam: [laughs]

Parinita: But here, because it has that as the default, there are so many more potentials and so many more ways of being. Not any one way feels like a trope or a stereotype. And none of it feels like you need to really make a big deal out of it.

Tam: Pause. Yeah. I think in any other show, a detail like … I can’t remember their names … Kyle and Rogelio from the Horde. Them having a crush on each other in the background. In another show, that would be kind of the Marvel thing where there’s some queer background characters and we can cut them out for edits in different countries kind of thing. But in this, it’s one among many.

Parinita: Yeah!

Tam: You can’t really accuse any of the characters of being bad queer representation because they’re not the only queer characters in the show.

Parinita: Yeah absolutely. And I think Jacob Tobia – Tobia? Is that how you pronounce it? I think. I should have checked, it’s terrible.

Tam: [laughs]

Parinita: Jacob Tobia, they mentioned in one of the interviews that we read about how it’s so important not just to have a queer cast but also have queer creators and crew.

Tam: Yeah, definitely.

Parinita: Because that has such a huge impact on the story. Like exactly what you were saying, this background and just the whole world. As someone coming in in the first season, they felt completely safe and supported and included. They didn’t feel like they had to hide any aspect of their identity which for them was so radical and so empowering.

Tam: Yeah I’ve got the quote here. They said, “I expected to feel like a rainbow thread in an otherwise pretty bland tapestry. But I found that I was a rainbow thread in just already most colourful, incredible queer trans garment I could want.”

Parinita: Oh yes I love that. I made a note of that quote as well. Imagine if all media was like this.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: Because that’s what we want to be, right? Not just in terms of queer representation but in terms of different races and ethnicities and religions and physical abilities and disabilities and mental abilities, age – everything. Basically all the intersectional identities. We want it to be a place where no one identity is the norm and there’s room for everybody. She-Ra is such a great example of showing how that world can be.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: So I know we’ve spoken about our love for She-Ra a lot. But also I know that you wanted to talk about Double Trouble specifically and their story arc in She-Ra.

Tam: Yeah. Obviously I love the character and their role in Season 4 specifically. But I felt a little bit betrayed by season 5 in terms of … I don’t know if it was just my overly high expectations but the fact that they were relegated to a background character almost. They show up for one episode and then a little moment in the ending montage. And I don’t know – I just wanted them to have more of a role in the story.

Parinita: Yeah because until you pointed this out, when we were talking about our episode, I didn’t even notice, unfortunately for me, like my own blind-spot. Because I was so caught up with the rest of it. And especially the Adora and Catra ship.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: I was shipping them right from day one. And that’s happened. And I was so taken aback [in a good way] by how much queerness was central in the story that I didn’t realise that Double Trouble was quite backgrounded in the end. And I think it would have been easy for Double Trouble to have a bigger part in the story.

Tam: Definitely. There’s so much of the fifth series that is effectively espionage. They’re sneaking around the planet trying to evade capture.

Parinita: And they’re so good at it!

Tam: Yeah. I think it would have been very easy to write them in as Horde or something. I think there was something said about the fact that they tried and then couldn’t ’cause of the hive mind thing. I don’t know. I think it would have been quite easy to write them into a bigger role. So I don’t know if there was something going on behind the scenes there that meant that they were sort of pushed towards the background or if it was just that they wanted to focus on Adora and Catra for the final series.

Parinita: But even though they did focus on Adora and Catra because they split up, I still feel like the other characters, the other princesses and even new characters like the clones – the new Horde Prime clone whose name I have forgotten –

Tam: Wrong Hordak.

Parinita: Yes! [laughs] Wrong Hordak. They did have a role. It felt like they were a part of the story even if they weren’t onscreen all the time, if that makes sense. And with Double Trouble, I didn’t even remember – I remembered the last glimpse of them that we saw when they’d changed themself into one of the clones. I didn’t even remember until you reminded me that we’d seen them earlier in the season because they’d spent most of it undercover which is fine because that’s what their character is for. But that would have been such a perfect opportunity to recruit them.

Tam: Yeah. That’s what I thought was happening. And then they just disappeared.

Parinita: Yeah. I mean like you said, it’s not a “bury your gays” kind of thing in this world because everybody mostly is gay or at least is queer. So you can’t accuse the show of doing that. But the good thing is about fans – that’s the part that I love most – is that you are able to critique things because you love them and you want them to be better.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: And you want them to represent your own interests and preferences and priorities more.

Tam: I haven’t looked but I’m sure there is a fanfic of Double Trouble going around sabotaging Horde operations behind the scenes.

Parinita: Oh! You’re so right.

Tam: That’d be good.

Parinita: Yeah.

Tam: I would watch a series of that. Like a spin-off show.

Parinita: Yeah, me too! I’m so sad that it’s ending – or it’s ended.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: I completely respect the fact that she’d written it to last over five seasons and her story is done. But there’s so much potential for a spin-off. I want to watch that rather than a new He-Man that they want to spitefully create.

Tam: Ugh.

Parinita: In response to She-Ra.

Tam: Well I think honestly they should give the He-Man reboot to Noelle Stevenson as well.

Parinita: [gasps] That would be amazing!

Tam: Just make it as gay as possible. That would be incredible.

Parinita: Oh yeah. That’s the only way I would accept He-Man. [laughs]

Tam: But instead Kevin Smith is doing it which is possibly just the worst choice.

Parinita: Oh no! I don’t think I know who Kevin Smith is. His name sounds familiar.

Tam: He’s done quite a lot of films. Clerks and Dogma I think are his two most famous ones.

Parinita: Oh, I watch next to no movies so.

Tam: [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah, I’m very bad at this. I think it was the same faction that thought Noelle Stevenson was ruining She-Ra that wants He-Man back?

Tam: I don’t know. But Kevin Smith specifically has a very crude juvenile sense of humour.

Parinita: Oh, that’s sad.

Tam: A lot of fart jokes and stuff.

Parinita: Oh right. So, it’s not going to be the queer paradise that we want it to be. [laughs]

Tam: [laughs] Unfortunately not.

Parinita: This diverse little world. It might be but I doubt it. We’ve spoken about what we love about nonbinary representations and the increasingly queer representations in media. But the video Aliens, Monsters, and Faceless Demons: The Dehumanisation of Nonbinary People In the Media spoke about … well exactly that.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: How nonbinary people aren’t as … I don’t want to say respected but treated as well as cis characters.

Tam: Yeah. I think the video does a really good job of bringing up the idea that nonbinary characters are inhuman as well like looking outlandish or demonic or just straight-up not having a face kind of thing. My wishful thinking theory about Double Trouble is that they’re not actually an inhuman lizard creature. They are human and they just choose to look like a lizard creature because that’s how they’re most comfortable.

Parinita: Oh! That’s a great theory.

Tam: That’s my personal wild theory there.

Parinita: [laughs]

Tam: I think in isolation it’s not an issue that a particular nonbinary character is depicted that way. But I think overall as a trend, like you’ll see books recommending lists of nonbinary characters in science fiction and fantasy and you have Martha Wells’ Murderbot series which are great books but they’re also explicitly about a character who is not human and does not want to be human.

Parinita: Yeah. And Janet as well, right? In The Good Place like the video brought up.

Tam: Janet’s an interesting one because she obviously does look human and she uses she/her pronouns and presents in quite a feminine way. And I think that’s in some ways quite an interesting bit of representation, the idea that nonbinary people don’t necessarily have to be androgynous or outlandish looking. And I think that is good. But I also think that the fact that the show didn’t necessarily intend Janet to be nonbinary, the fact that she says, “Not a girl” constantly is more, “I’m not human” than “I’m not a girl”.

Parinita: And it’s not something that is framed as something to be taken seriously.

Tam: That too, yeah. It’s a running joke.

Parinita: Yeah. It’s something that you can easily ignore or overlook.

Tam: I wish they had done that differently. I wish Janet was more explicitly nonbinary. Because I think even the fact that she’s a female-presenting character in a huge network sitcom that constantly says, “Not a girl” I think that’s in itself a little bit ground-breaking. But it also could have been better.

Parinita: No, absolutely. Because until I watched that video, I hadn’t even thought of Janet as nonbinary.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: Because of exactly some of the same things that you’ve said about how she presents, the pronouns that she uses. But also my own blind-spots you know?

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: Because for me, as a cisgender woman who’s used to seeing – maybe not in terms of race and things – but I’m used to seeing representations of women, even though male representations take precedence. But it’s still increasing in terms of women. But yeah nonbinary representations are so lacking. And I think you’re right. If it’s a trend, then it is really problematic. Like you said, with Kyle and Rogelio, it’s not a problem if it’s one amongst many.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: At the same, even with Double Trouble, because in that world, there’s like Rogelio, there’s Catra, there’s Mermista who go against that human-ness. There’s cat and mermaid and Double Trouble. So I think within that world, it’s still more acceptable than within the larger mediascape where it’s falling into a trend.

Tam: Yeah, that’s true.

Parinita: The book that I talked about, which is The Secret Loves of Geeks, it’s essentially an anthology of love stories.

Tam: All right.

Parinita: But also different kinds of love and across the gender spectrum as well as across the sexual orientation spectrum as well. And it’s also comics and it’s nonfiction and it’s different kinds of essays and things. So it’s really good. I would definitely recommend that.

Tam: Sounds good. I’ll have a look for it.

Parinita: Thank you so much, Tam, for being on the podcast.

Tam: That’s okay.

Parinita: One of the things that I love about this project is that I just get to chat about things that I love with people that I like.

Tam: Yeah.

Parinita: So it doesn’t feel like work at all. And thank you so much for not making it feel like work.

Tam: Thank you for having me. It’s been good fun.

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode on the representation of diverse gender identities in science fiction and fantasy media. Thank you so much Tam for being a part of this project and chatting with me about some of my favourite things. And thank you Jack for all the homemade memes which shame me for not replying to texts on time (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!

Episode 15 A Fascinating Tension: Multiple Interpretations of Religious Themes and Ideas in SFF

Episode Resources:

1) Essay – Introduction to Cruel Miracles

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

3) Book extract – Too Like The Lightning 

4) Essay – Why There Is No Jewish Narnia

5) Essay – Fantasy and the Jewish Question

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

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

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

9) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds: The Canon Revisited

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

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

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

13) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds: Faith in Fantasy

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

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

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

 

Episode Transcript

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

Photo of Ziv Wities

[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 fifteenth episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I talk to Ziv Wities about the representation of religion in speculative fiction. We also discuss Jewish faith traditions: how they are similar to fandom culture and how they diverge. In the beginning of the episode, we talk about Orson Scott Card’s ideas about humanism in religion but don’t explicitly mention or criticise his homophobic views – so I’m taking this opportunity to clarify that we abhor his bigotry.

It’s rare to find religious representation in mainstream fiction. If religious people do exist in science fiction and fantasy, their portrayals are quite extreme and they’re often featured as antagonists. Religion is largely used as an excuse for people to do terrible things without any other context or explanation. While religious zealots do exist, by always linking religion to violence and irrationality, mainstream media perpetuates a limited idea of religion.

For many people, religion is the lens through which they make sense of the world and engage with ideas of morality. Science fiction and fantasy explores several themes that religion is also interested in. An increasing number of people use popular culture to engage with moral issues and navigate the world they inhabit. Religious fans read themselves into non-religious media to address their underrepresentation and misrepresentation in fictional worlds. These interpretations offer a way to learn about religion as well. There are some instances where faith is represented in nuanced and complex ways which explore multiple perspectives of religious canon. But we need more stories which grapple with how ideas of religion, pluralism and humanism fit together and how people of different faiths can co-exist.

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: Today I’m so happy to welcome Ziv Wities on the podcast. Ziv is Orthodox Jewish and lives in Israel. At various times, he’s lived on kibbutz, in Jerusalem, on Mount Gilboa, and mostly in the country’s centre, orbiting Tel Aviv. Besides programming and fending off his three loving children, Ziv is Assistant Editor at Diabolical Plots, and Associate Editor at PodCastle. You can find him on Twitter @QuiteVague or on his website. In this episode, we’re exploring representations of faith in speculative fiction. As I’ve mentioned many times on this podcast, I’m not really a religious person which is why when I’m reading or watching fantasy and science fiction, I don’t usually actively think about religion and whether or not it is present in the world or the way in which it is present. Which is why I’m so glad to be able to chat with someone who is religious and who does think about these issues. Even going through the really thoughtful texts that Ziv recommended has expanded my mind in so many ways. So before we begin, Ziv, do you want to talk about your own engagement with this topic?

Ziv: [laughs] It’s an interesting question because I feel like there’s not been a lot of it. I always feel that I’m looking for it and it’s so rare to actually find religious representation in mainstream fiction. There are a few notable exceptions; a few places that lit up and I said, “Oh my goodness that’s what I’ve been looking for.” More recently there’s been things like Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota series which addresses it in really interesting ways. It kind of talks around it, not going into any specific faith but rather about the need and the role of faith in community. One story that stuck out for me in one of the Hyperion books. It’s a book that’s built of multiple shorter stories and one of them is about a scholar who is writing about the sacrifice of Isaac when Abraham is ordered to sacrifice Isaac to god. And the whole story is framed as him debating the morality and trying to understand what we’re even supposed to learn from that story. And I loved that because it connected to me so deeply to how we think about it. One of the things [laughs] and probably the author I’ve seen talk about this most and most explicitly is Orson Scott Card – who has addressed it in great detail and also is a huge can of worms.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Ziv: [laughs] So I feel like he has very unusual insight as a very popular – at the time when I was reading him in the nineties – a very popular and influential author who definitely had this in his fiction in different ways [laughs] and everything that comes with that.

Parinita: Before we read the Introduction to Cruel Miracles, I didn’t actually know enough about Orson Scott Card and his beliefs or even his writing until I came across some memes recently.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: In response to J. K. Rowling’s transphobia.

Ziv: J. K. Rowling – yes! [laughs]

Parinita: From fans of him and Lovecraft welcoming Rowling’s fans into their fold.

Parinita: I really enjoyed his essay because of the way that he approached it and his arguments made sense. He says that the lack of characters who are religious in not only science fiction and fantasy but also literary fiction is a bit weird considering how important a framework religion is to many people. Not just in the US and India and Israel but all over the world, right? A lot of people use religion to make sense of the world and it plays a really important part in their lives. And if everyone was so hostile to religion as these texts that we love seem to lead us to believe, then obviously religion wouldn’t survive.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: If everyone was above religion as most of science fiction seems to think, there really wouldn’t be a role for it. And what I really liked in the blog post, What Does God Need With A Space Station? was that she spoke about how religion is about people. Sure it’s about god as well, but it’s mostly about interactions with each other and with your idea of religion and your idea of god and how that impacts your own life. I thought that was a really nice idea of religion, since I’m not a religious person but come from a deeply religious country. In India, religion plays a huge role – different religions, not just Hinduism.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: More so now than ever before, I am keenly aware of how much religion can be weaponised and is weaponised and used to exclude groups of people, right? I’m sure you’re well aware of that as well.

Ziv: Absolutely.

Parinita: I am also really interested in the humanistic idea of religion which Orson Scott Card’s Introduction delved into a little bit. He was talking about religious themes and ideas rather than this one true religion – even though he’s Mormon. Or was Mormon. I don’t know.

Ziv: Yeah. He is, yes. Very much so. I think that the comparison to Rowling and to Lovecraft are apt in a certain way. But I feel like for the people who were strong Card fans, it was so much a shock or a gradual awakening. I understand there are people who saw him as problematic much, much earlier. But to a lot of readers, Card was the great humanist. If you look at works like Ender’s Game and the sequels, which have such a theme of learning to recognise wider and wider bands of beings as being people.

Parinita: Hmm.

Ziv: And I think that his saying of hey, religious people are in that category too; they are also in a category of people that should be recognised and empathised with and seen as yet another  way to look at the world and another place that people come from. Certainly as a reader of his fiction, it spoke to me very strongly. [laughs] And if we look beyond that, you can certainly see his later activity and opinions as feeling very contrary to that.

Parinita: I mean that’s similar to J. K. Rowling, right?

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: I’ve grown up with her books like a lot of fans now and they’re like, “But your books taught me to be inclusive and open-minded and kind and compassionate to everybody and now … you’re not?”

Ziv: Yes. [laughs]

Parinita: Okay we thought your books were talking about one thing. But apparently it only existed for a certain group of people. Well, we’re rejecting that. We’re still going to keep the message and maybe divorce you from your text.

Ziv: Absolutely.

Parinita: And also the question of author’s intent versus fan interpretations, right? Fans might have not taken what the author meant for them to take.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: So now people are going back to the text and they’re like, “No, there’s lots of problems.” Not only now,  this has been happening earlier too but because I’ve been listening to podcasts recently …

Ziv: Gradually because it’s been so popular.

Parinita: Yeah. I started reading Harry Potter when I was ten and it was hugely important to me for many reasons.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: When you grow up with something, you don’t have the ability or the vocabulary or even the thought processes to identify these things. And now I’m re-reading it as an adult and I’m like, “Oh! Okay. All right.”

Ziv: [laughs]

Parinita: I still love it but …

Ziv: Always dangerous.

Parinita: Yeah. But I’m able to criticise it because I love it.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: And all the problematic elements including transphobic jokes where men in dresses are often the butt of jokes in the series.

Ziv: Yeah. Ugh.

Parinita: Which, without knowing her views now, I would never have thought too much about it. But now I’m like, “Oh! Okay.”

Ziv: [laughs] Yup.

Parinita: And then, of course, going to the other end where if religious people do exist in speculative fiction, many times the portrayals are quite extreme. You mentioned this trope that religious people are seen as adversaries to the protagonist. Were you specifically thinking of Station Eleven?

Ziv: It’s one of the more recent books that I’ve read where this was a strong element. It’s a trope that you see over and over where there’s some science fictional concept in the world, there are aliens, but there’s a religious sect that think that the aliens are evil. There are robots, but people think that robots are soulless and a travesty. There is cloning but there is a religious sect that thinks that this thing is a bad thing. And when you define religion in that way, it comes out as incredibly shallow. Because what you’ve basically said is there are religious nuts who will believe anything. And I’m going to create one whose set of beliefs is very specifically what I need for the story. It’s kind of a statement that rational people would not object to this thing. The reader who is rational will be on my side – he will recognise nuance, the reader will understand that this is an important thing or an interesting thing or something that has a lot of potential. But those religious zealots, they are going to just reject it out of hand with no thought. And they’ll do it because somebody has told them that it is a religious principle and that’s all there is to it. Like religious people or some religious people are a kind of blank slate that you can just give a random order to and they’ll go, “Yup, I’m going to believe that.” With no context! [laughs] With no nothing else.

Parinita: Yeah! And I find it really interesting as well because, until you mentioned that you wanted to talk about Station Eleven a bit, I didn’t even think of it. I’d read this book a few years ago, so I didn’t really remember it very well. I have a terrible memory so every time I re-read a book that’s not Harry Potter, it’s like, “I have no idea what happens!”

Ziv: [laughs]

Parinita: So I went back to the book and I read it, and I encountered the Prophet character, who is the one that is this religious zealot and like a cult leader almost. The first time I read it, and even when I was re-reading it, keeping your comments in mind –  the brief comments you made in our emails.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: I was like, “Oh yeah, but people like this do exist.” In India, you see this with godmen and godwomen who are like this, especially now when we have this Hindu fascist government, a Hindu supremacist government in power, you do see more of that more explicitly. But then when I was thinking about that more, I thought but if that’s your only representation of religion not just in the books –

Ziv: Exactly.

Parinita: But in mainstream media at large, I mean of course, these people exist. But then how is that different from tropes about different races or disabilities or religions as well. If you say all people belonging to a certain religion or just religion at large are these extremist fundamentalist zealots, then that’s also doing a great disservice to religious people and religious fans who aren’t like that.

Ziv: Yeah, absolutely. And the reason I brought Station Eleven as an example is it’s a good book, it’s a compelling book, it’s a book with a lot of appeal. But if you look at how the Prophet is constructed, it’s a character who is presented as being intensely unlikable. This is not a charismatic person. And yet, somehow, he has converted town upon town, community on community, to do exactly what he says even when he’s not around, by no mechanism. All the mechanisms of religion are mechanisms of community; of having a community that acts in certain ways and in certain interests. But you get the impression of the Prophet as somebody who is kind of this spoiled kid. But he comes to a place, he says, “I’m a Prophet and you should behave in these horrible ways and punish everybody who disagrees.” And apparently everybody just goes along with that for no apparent reason.

Parinita: Well, one of the reasons in that is violence, right? They have a lot of access to guns, I believe. That’s how they’ve seem to have cowed down a lot of towns.

Ziv: So that’s definitely brought in but first of all, that’s not a religion. That’s just violence. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: In order to get those and in order to get the people who are with him, if he was the leader of a gang of thugs who found the first weapons cache and just built on that, that would make sense. But putting it into the trappings of religion, it just doesn’t follow any of the natural progression that a faith or a community does. It’s just using the clothing of religion in order to say we don’t actually need to justify why these people are being so horrible. Rather, religion is something that gives people permission to be horrible, and that’s the only explanation you need.

Parinita: I mean I definitely saw the Prophet and his followers the people who are too scared to not follow him as more of a cult than a religion. And of course a lot of cults are based in both traditional as well as non-traditional religions in India, in the US, in different parts of the world.

Ziv: Um hmm yeah.

Parinita: So in Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, one of the episodes they looked at house-elves as a cult and a religion. Basically they were like the house-elf community could be a cult but Dobby, by leaving it, showed that it’s not. Because he was able to leave it. That’s how they differentiated between a religion and a cult. In a religion you wouldn’t be killed or you wouldn’t be ostracised – I mean you might be, depending on which part of the world you’re in – but you’re able to leave a religion and either not be religious anymore or find a different religion. Whereas a cult if you leave, like in Station Eleven –

Ziv: The cult will retaliate.

Parinita: They’ll put graves down for you.

Ziv: Yeah. And I think that’s exactly it. The blurring of the line, the equation between a religion and a cult is exactly what a lot of these stories do. Because it’s definitely common to see a religion in this sense where some of the adherents are not actually faithful. But they’re just too afraid. But the way that a cult works – cults have specific dynamics of how they target people who are vulnerable, about how they isolate them and keep them away from being able to possibly leave. Cults almost by definition are pretty small because in order to scale up [laughs] to the degree that they can isolate each and every one of their members and keep people from being able to leave, that’s just not possible at large-scale.

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: That’s exactly what I feel is so harmful is saying that religions and cults are basically the same thing. Each one of them has their problems but they’re very different ones.

Parinita: In these instances where religion is portrayed negatively, there seems to be a perceived conflict between humanism and religion. Like you’re saying, religion is very much framed in a cult-like manner where there’s not really any engagement with religious themes and ideas that a lot people would consider as religious themes and ideas.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: I know a group of people could be more fundamentalist in their beliefs but, again, that’s the problem, right? If your mainstream media and culture only shows that aspect of religion and the violence that’s done with it, then that’s a problem as well. Because then you’re painting everyone with the same brush and you have this toxic idea of religion.

Ziv: Yeah. I think it’s vanishingly rare for any of these religious portrayals or portrayals of cults or spirituality as being something that you can have any sympathy with being attracted to. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: They’re never portrayed in a way that you can say, “Well, I can see why some people go with this.”

Parinita: Yeah. It’s like a very irrational sort of thing. There’s already this idea that religion is irrational.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: And when I was younger and I was growing up in this religious household – my mum is super religious, but the kind of religious who believes in different kinds of religions. So it’s not so much a thing that oh this religion is the correct religion but because she’s had different influences – she went to a Catholic school, grew up in a Hindu household, and culturally, India is very Hindu. She also goes to mosques and things – basically [laughs] any sort of religious thing that would have her, she’ll go. And she’ll find solace in that. But for me, as a teenager, I really chafed at that because it didn’t make sense to me. She wasn’t learned and neither am I in theology or religion from a scholarly point of view. So all these questions that I had like why must we do this? A lot of Hinduism and or at least a lot of people who culturally follow Hinduism, there are a lot of patriarchal ideas there. So things like, for women, for example – this is the thing that I remember I first started fighting about – when women are on their period, you can’t go into a temple because you’re considered unclean.

Ziv: Uh huh.

Parinita: And this was something that didn’t make sense to me. And I was all like, “No, if you have a correct answer, I’ll give you the benefit of doubt. “

Ziv: Um hmm. [laughs]

Parinita: But she obviously didn’t have an answer because she didn’t know enough about it even to be able to give an answer. Her answer was, “No, this is the way that it is.” And I was like, “Nope, that’s not happening with me.” [laughs]

Ziv: [laughs] Not enough, not enough.

Parinita: Which is why I started questioning religion. And I think earlier I was much more anti-religion than I am now. And I think it was because of that; because I grew up feeling like religion was imposed on me. So I chafed at that.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: And I think that the danger is that atheism can also become a kind of fundamentalism. A lot of atheists do have that toxic side where it’s, “Either the way that we think is correct or you’re wrong. You’re stupid. You’re irrational. You’re not someone worth talking to.” I don’t think I was quite that far gone, but I was heading in that direction until I found more of these ideas that, “Wait, no, not all religious people are like this.”

Ziv: [laughs]

Parinita: Not all religious people are “irrational”. It’s just like you said, a way of making sense of the world. You’re using religion as a way to engage with the world, to engage with people, to engage with these ideas of morals and just what it means to be a good person.

Ziv: Um hmm. A lot of that is definitely there. I feel like the kind of die-hard atheism – the angry atheism is not too much part of the landscape in fiction just because those are pretty uninteresting stories of religious people are stupid. You definitely see it or it slips in sometimes. I keep going back to the lyrics to Imagine where he wishes for no religion too. I’m like, “Well I don’t appreciate that!” [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah, I’m with you on all the peace and harmony and stuff but why can’t religion be a part of that?

Ziv: I think it’s a fascinating tension. But that’s one of the lines that just stands out to me as just like wait a second, if your definition of peace and harmony specifically excludes me, then I’m not sure about it, am I?

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: And in similar ways I think to some extent, it’s just not on people’s radar. People who are not devout, who are not faithful, who don’t have a particular spiritual practice, don’t have a sense of how that affects a person’s life or how that’s a sympathetic point of view. And so they don’t put it in because they’re not aware of it. Which is similar to a lot of other blind-spots that people have.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Ziv: And another part of it is particularly in fiction, I think religion is a particularly challenging thing to put in because it kind of requests or requires that people buy into a whole additional worldview but also keep it at arm’s length and be able to differentiate between the physical reality that is being described and the spiritual side that is being attested to. And if you’re going to do all that and it’s not going to be a huge issue in the story, then a lot of stories leave it out. I think in a similar way to the way a lot of marginalised communities and identities get left out because people are like, “Well, I could make the character gay but if it’s not important to the story, that will be putting a lot of effort and it won’t pay off in any way.” And in a similar way putting in religion is as difficult or more difficult because it’s literally a different perception of reality. Or a different way of living.

Parinita: Plus I think the tension is that because religion forms the social and cultural framework of so many countries, I feel like it’s not seen as marginalised in the same way that being gay or being disabled in fiction can be.

Ziv: Absolutely. Oh, it’s so different.

Parinita: Yeah. This is something I hadn’t really thought of until I was preparing for this episode and went through a few of the texts that you had suggested as well as a few of the other texts that we looked at. I realised then that’s also so problematic where religion is so invisible or so irrelevant in your world. That does end up marginalising religious people all over the world.

Ziv: I want to be very careful here because there are ways in which the comparison or even the use of the same terminology is very wrong. Like in Israel, you cannot say that Judaism is marginalised or that Orthodox Judaism is marginalised. It’s absolutely the opposite. Religious people have tremendous power, ultra-Orthodox people have tremendous power, the Rabbinate has tremendous power including who can get married or who can get divorced. It’s not a marginalisation in most terms that we’re used to speaking about.

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: But in terms of visibility and portrayal or how much it’s assumed to be within consensus or within the default in mainstream media, it’s very, very different. [laughs] It’s just a strange place to be.

Parinita: India is the same. That’s why I really liked the book Too Like The Lightning by Ada Palmer – I’m saying the book, I’ve read four chapters – just extracts of it. You can read the extracts for free on Tor.com. But you suggested reading a bit of the book and I just couldn’t stop reading.

Ziv: [laughs]

Parinita: I was so utterly and immediately bewitched by it not just because of the worldbuilding and the characters and everything but because of the way in which religion seems to play such an important role … but also not really.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: This novel proposes that religion should be deeply personal and individual and nobody else should know about your religious beliefs. That’s the premise of this futuristic world.

Ziv: I found that fascinating. It immediately captivated me because it speaks so directly to the tension that we were talking about. To the tension between faith and the way that faith is. If you say, well I believe in this thing, it’s very difficult to say no, no you don’t. But at the same time, what right does that give you to exert power over other people? So this attempt to say, well okay, you can have faith but it needs to be entirely personal, is fantastic, in the best way of exploring an interesting idea.

Parinita: And the Sensayer as well.

Ziv: Yeah. The Sensayer is this concept of a personal spiritual adviser who never expresses his own opinion but guides an individual through his own spiritual thoughts and points them to various religious beliefs that have been adopted or discussed in the world and throughout history. So he helps everybody craft their very own personal, individual religion which they can’t tell anybody else about. [laughs] And I found it absolutely delightful. Some of it is so attractive – the idea of having faith without impinging against anybody else. And in some other ways, it just makes no sense [laughs] because if that particular approach doesn’t actually work with your beliefs, then can you limit yourself to it? If you read the entire book, it addresses similar themes on a lot of different topics. But it reminds me a lot how during the enlightenment period I think it was, there was a common saying in Judaism that you should be a Jew in your home and a man outside your home; to keep your religious persona entirely distinct from who you are in the outside world. And there are things that I think resonate very strongly with that and things that are also kind of horrifying about that. About the idea that you can believe something very strongly and that it be such an influential thing on your life but also you can’t make that known in any way. Or people will think badly of you.

Parinita: No, I’m with you there totally. The idea is super interesting. I’ve ordered the book because I want to read it and find out what happens because the book is amazing [based on the extract I read]. It just caught me off-guard. But, at the same time, this idea that nobody else should know about your religious beliefs is quite problematic as well because it prevents you from finding community.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: Which, for me, is the most appealing thing. I’m non-religious but for me, this idea of finding community and meeting together to talk to people who may not be from the same social, cultural, even political backgrounds but you’re all still coming together to … I don’t know have a meal or just do something in a church or in a temple or whatever. In Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, that’s something that they explore a lot where they have people from different religious and faith backgrounds come and talk to them through the Harry Potter framework. But they emphasise the community aspect so much as well. Where it is a way for them to provide this community – the podcast itself for people from both religious and non-religious backgrounds. Whereas in Too Like The Lightning it has this vaguely uncomfortable idea of how marginalised people are meant to assimilate to the dominant culture. And leave behind their beliefs and practices in an effort to fit in.

Ziv: Yes.

Parinita: In most countries, of course, there’s a dominant religion. In India, Hinduism is the dominant religion. So a bit of what you’re saying about Jewish people during the Enlightenment period would be now applicable for Muslims or Christians in India.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: And it’s much more difficult because of the names. In Mumbai, where I am from, there’s this huge, horrible thing that people with Muslim names find it much harder to rent flats because housing societies don’t want Muslim people in their community. Imagine that level of social and structural persecution.

Ziv: Absolutely.

Parinita: So yeah. This idea of “Oh yeah you don’t need to talk about your religion at all” is a bit problematic.

Ziv: And honestly, I think that’s often where religious stories shine most – when you’re a persecuted religion. When you’re a minority. And I think that’s often when religion shines most as well. It’s kind of a way to unite a group that is persecuted. It’s very, very different than when you’re a dominant religion and being religious means you get to dictate religious rules.

Parinita: Yeah. With Judaism, it’s something that I’m very new to – not Judaism itself but Jewishness.

Ziv: [laughs] Um hmm.

Parinita: In India, we’re not really taught so much. Our understanding of Jewishness is very tied to World War II and what happened there. But this book that I was reading called Anti-Judaism explores the history of Jewish persecution which went much beyond that. It went right to two thousand years ago. A history which I was completely unaware of.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: And I currently live in the UK where anti-Semitism is a part of the mainstream conversation. But for me, I don’t recognise a lot of what would be anti-Semitic. Because I don’t know what the tropes and stereotypes are, which someone in the West may take for granted. And, of course, in Israel, like you said, being Jewish is the dominant religion.  But not in other parts of the world. It’s the same with like Hinduism, right. In India, even though I’m not religious, because of my name and my background, I’m a part of the dominant culture. But in the UK, I’m suddenly othered.

Ziv: Yup.

Parinita: That’s why I really like this idea that there’s this huge potential of exploring religious themes and questions in science fiction and fantasy even without perhaps explicitly calling it religious themes. It’s something that Orson Scott Card said in his Introduction and it’s something that the Faith in Fantasy episode of Imaginary Worlds explored as well where it was a panel of different faith leaders who were discussing the role of religion in science fiction and fantasy. And Eric, the host, said that science fiction and fantasy asks a lot of the same questions that religion asks. I loved that idea. And it’s something that I hadn’t considered before listening to this podcast a few weeks ago.

Ziv: Yeah. Absolutely. I think it’s fascinating in that way and I honestly think that fiction nowadays gives a similar outlet or place of discussion – a different forum to talk about the same questions. A lot of the things that they raise are, “Is there a purpose to being? Is there a plan? Are our actions pre-ordained in any way? What is free will?” are all questions to a large degree of faith. And you don’t necessarily have to believe to find them meaningful. You don’t have to believe in order to ask yourself, “Are things going to work out because that’s the way the universe works? Or are we all a cosmic accident that might be eaten by a black hole tomorrow and nobody would know.” And how do I want to act because even if I do believe that we could all be wiped out by an asteroid tomorrow. I don’t necessarily want to behave as though that is true even if I technically believe it is. Because I don’t think that that’s right. I don’t think that many people do behave as though none of our actions matter.

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: Or as though you can be immoral in private as long as nobody finds out.

Parinita: Absolutely.

Ziv: I don’t think that’s true of anybody. I mean I’m sure it’s true of some people, but I don’t think that that’s how morality works regardless of faith. I don’t think that’s how people grasp it or behave.

Parinita: Absolutely. I completely agree. Because, for me, morality has never been tied to religion, for example.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: I don’t remember being religious. I went to Catholic school and grew up in a Hindu household so I have those rituals and traditions that I have a connection to or I have experience with but never that idea that … like in Hinduism, there is the idea of karma.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: Where if you do good things now, you’ll be rewarded in your next birth – in your reincarnation. The evils that you’re suffering now is a result of your past life. And again, like I said, rebellious teenager, this never made sense to me. So I was like, “But why would I just do good things for the future self? Why wouldn’t I do good things because I like people?” I think kindness is more important than yeah, I don’t want to be born as a cockroach or whatever. Sorry, I don’t really know so much about Hinduism in a scholarly way so sorry Hindu people listening to this podcast.

Ziv: [laughs]

Parinita: But I love stories – both fictional and real. That’s the framework that I use to make sense of the world. I know there’s a lot of literature about how fiction does lead to empathy among readers. I don’t know how true that is empirically but I have found that true for me. I’ve been reading since I was five or something and haven’t stopped. I love this idea of fans treating non-religious popular culture texts as sacred in much the same way as religious people treat religious texts as sacred.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: We’re doing a little bit of that in this podcast but Harry Potter and the Sacred Text does it so much more explicitly.

Ziv: [laughs] Yes, very much so. I think it’s a really interesting observation. Because first of all, I agree entirely. I think just literally the question of what is good, what is behaving well, what is virtue – is easy to say is a religious question. It isn’t a religious question. But it’s a question that religion talks a lot about. [laughs]

Parinita: Um hmm.

Ziv: And if you don’t get into spirituality or metaphysics, if you stick with strictly what is observable or what is utilitarian, it’s just harder to discuss. You can feel personally that you’re a better person for behaving well, even if it has no consequence without needing to justify that. It’s not a matter of faith necessarily but it is a matter of belief, in a way. I’m connecting with what you’re saying about how the way that people analyse stories now – fiction – in order to figure out to a better extent if a character is good, in what way are they good? If somebody was good and then a bad thing happened, is that how things work? The way that people use fiction now in order to talk about morality is really interesting. And I think it’s very, very similar to what is done in religion where stories and the interpretations of those stories are a lot of the basis for understanding what is good behaviour.

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: You gave some interesting examples where people really compared for example the construction of Midrash which in Judaism are these fairly far-out interpretations of biblical texts that seem very disconnected from the original text or what it simply means. And they add in all kinds of fantastical things and elements that seem very far-removed from the original text. But they often come in response to something, to some question. In Hebrew you call it a [speaks Hebrew] – a difficulty with the original text that they feel they have to explain. For example, if you look at the biblical text there’s very little about Esau actually being in any way offensive or hurtful towards Jacob – towards Yaʿqob. But most people remember them as bitter enemies and Esau as somehow being a very vile person and unworthy successor. And most of that is not the plain text. It’s Midrash. It’s interpretation. And it’s fairly well-accepted that the reason for all those Midrashi interpretations are because people felt so uncomfortable with well, why is Esau being treated in this way and being neglected in this way and being punished in all these ways if he didn’t do anything bad? He must have done something to deserve it. And the comparison that these podcasts were making were that fanfiction often works in very similar ways. There are ways that people want to bring text more into sync with how they experience life. Or they’re missing something in the text and they want to add it in. And so they add something to it. And that’s a very interesting comparison. My [laughs] immediate reaction to some of this is that there is still a very fundamental difference between trying to interpret something that you are assuming baseline is true or is meaningful or is divine versus something that an author has written and you know is very likely flawed or has mistakes or just hasn’t been completely edited or all kinds of things like that.

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: There’s a fundamental difference. But I do agree that the approach of wanting to fix it has a lot of similarities.

Parinita: Just to add to that, in this Anti-Judaism book that I was talking to you about, so the author is a Jewish historian. He was looking at the history of anti-Jewishness in culture, religion and just in mainstream society right from, I think, the ancient Egyptian civilisation. That’s where he began. And he was talking about how even the religious texts – and this is true even in Hindu religious texts – that what is treated as canon is subjective because it was written a hundred or a hundred and fifty years after the historical events happened. It depends on who had control of canon; who decided which interpretations are more valid than others. And he was talking about how in Jewish scholarship, there are a lot of debates about that. And again for me, it’s all through second-hand experiences – it’s all through people like him and even on these podcasts that I learn these things. Like the Imaginary Worlds episode where the Rabbi spoke about canon in Judaism; and even in Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. But I thought that was really interesting. Which groups of people are considered to be more privileged than others and how that changes 2,500 years after the events.

Ziv: I can’t speak to other religions but in Judaism you feel that very, very strongly. Because so many of our texts are a) edited or very clearly edited. Like the entire Talmud which is the basis of modern Halakhah – modern Jewish law, it’s literally a summary of various versions of: this Rabbi ruled this way, this Rabbi ruled the second way – well, was it the same case? There’s this one difference. Maybe there was a difference and that’s why they ruled differently. It’s these long and very highly, very clearly edited discussions of what the rulings were in a lot of different cases. And you can see how the framing of that, the person or the people who did the editing and who composed it, the person whose argument they bring last is generally considered to be correct. So it’s the editor who’s deciding what the actual ruling is or should be. I think that’s one of the interesting things. Judaism always seems to be a very argumentative religion. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs]

Ziv: Which is one of the things I really love about it. It’s very explicitly founded on, “Yes, we believe in a truth but there are many of us and we believe in many different truths.”  Or many different variations on the truths. And that’s built in very, very strongly from the sacrifice of Isaac where god says okay, you sacrifice him. But no, actually not really. To Abraham arguing over whether or not god should destroy the sinners in Sodom. And on through the Halakhic construction of the Talmud. It’s so baked in that religion happens through arguments. There’s a wonderful Midrash, I guess you’d call it a fable, about a rabbi who was arguing with another group of rabbis over what a certain ruling was. And the rabbi said, “Well, if I’m correct, then a voice would come out of the heavens and say I, this rabbi, he is correct.” And a voice came out from the heavens and said, “Yes, he is correct in this ruling.” And the other rabbis say, “Yeah, but we don’t determine Halakhah by voices coming out of the heavens. We determine them by arguing.”

Parinita: [laughs]

Ziv: “So we disagree, so Halakhah is what we say.” And that’s the kind of character that a religion or a community can have that makes it unique and different from other cultures. I’m sure that first of all, any other religion will have its own fundamental stories and own fundamental self-definitions of how they think and how the world works and how virtue is decided and how decisions are made. And even within a certain religion, you’ll have many, many different views and variations and interpretations. Even if they have a common base, they will still have their own interpretations of how the world works and how religion is decided and what the faith should be. That’s precisely the kind of nuance that I feel is so often absent and missing and neglected. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah. So in Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, a few of the episodes that we listened to spoke about the idea of the sacred text and the difference between sacred and perfect. Where perfect doesn’t really leave any room for arguments and questions and debates – like this is the one truth, there isn’t room for different truths, like you were saying. And with Hinduism, we were speaking about this on a previous episode. I’m completely ignorant about all religions but I have friends who, even though they’re non-religious, they know more about it than me. And one of my friends was talking about how even within Hinduism, depending on which part of the country in India as well as different South Asian countries you go, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, those are our two texts – mythological stories which form the basis for a lot of Hindu religion. And based on where you go, the lens through which you view is different; which characters are important are different. In some places, they even look at it from what is traditionally the villain’s point of view. You have Rama and Ravana in the Ramayana and Ravana is supposed to be the demon king and he’s supposed to be the villain, as simplistic as that sounds. But there are some parts of the country and even parts of south Asia that look at him as the hero and at the others as coming and almost like taking over the culture and taking over the country basically. So a bit like colonisation before it was colonisation. [laughs] I don’t know enough about it. But that’s what I find really interesting – which voices come to the fore is so culturally, socially and even historically determined. Now, there are so many more scholars, not just in Judaism but in Christianity, in Hinduism and different parts of different religions that are looking for these stories that were invisible and belonging to these marginalised groups and trying to bring those to the fore as well. Which I love. And that’s what I also love about fandom which is essentially doing the same thing. Like Harry Potter for example, very white, there’s a handful of people of colour just for diversity points, but there are people and fans who feel so strongly about this world that they read themselves into the story. For example, Hermione Granger is black, that’s a huge part of fandom. And Harry Potter is half-South Asian.

Ziv: Yeah.

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

Parinita: Similarly, going back to religion, religious fans are reading themselves into seemingly non-religious science fiction and fantasy texts as a way to address their under-representation or misrepresentation. Otherwise the way that religious characters are represented is so one-dimensional that when you’re not talking about religion, you almost see yourself in it more. We’ve spoken about something similar with disabled characters and with characters of different races as well. In a few of the comments of the posts that we read, they were looking at Tolkien as well – Lord of the Rings and how Judaism fits into that and someone read Asterix and Obelix as a Jewish story. [laughs]

Ziv: Interesting.

Parinita: Yeah. It was in the comments of Fantasy and the Jewish Question. They said that, “The story may be about French against Romans but beneath the surface it’s a classic the smart Jew makes fun of the stupid gentile story with the small village the protagonists live in as the classic Jewish town.”

Ziv: [laughs]

Parinita: Which again, I don’t know enough about Judaism, but I thought it was really interesting that a Jewish fan would read it as such and Superman as a Jewish tale as well. And in the Faiths in Fantasy episode, they saw Doctor Who regenerations as the Jewish concept of beginning again and the Jedi as Sufi mystics. You’re just reading yourself into the story. Even Harry Potter and the Cursed Child being read as either Jesus or Mohammed or Moses – I find that really exciting. Because I’m also learning about religion through those interpretations.

Ziv: Yeah. That was definitely a foundational text for me because it made me realise how much a story’s structure has so many assumptions just baked into it. And how it’s often said of Jews that our most primordial story is, “They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat.”

Parinita: [laughs]

Ziv: It’s the constant repeating Jewish story. The kind of recognition of how so many common adventure narratives or fantasy or science fiction narratives are so completely alien to that. They’re so often like, “Oh no there is a disruption to the natural order.” Whereas [laughs] if you look at Jews through the ages, the natural order just isn’t so good.

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Ziv: When you start recognising those patterns, it makes you notice them a lot more. And it makes you realise that every culture and every community probably has their own patterns that you shouldn’t just take for granted are the same as yours. And it makes you look for them a lot more and recognise a lot more when one of them keeps repeating.

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: I think themes of persecution are very easy for Jews to identify with ’cause a lot of our stories are really there. I keep joking that as far as I’m concerned – a lot of this was in the context of an article called The Jewish Narnia

Parinita: Um hmm.

Ziv: Where a reviewer – I forget the name – was asking why are there no Jewish authors writing something as popular, as enduring as Narnia. And some of the answers being that the basic fundamental Jewish stories are very different from the adventurous stories that we’re used to seeing. And I said that A Series of Unfortunate Events, which is about a couple of kids –

Parinita: [laughs]

Ziv: Three kids whose parents were killed and are running for their lives and they keep getting into horrible situations and needing to navigate a morally grey field of what is actually the right thing to do – that’s a story that I identify with my texts and my culture.

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs] I love that. I’ve gotten a lot through fandom myself. But even now I’m constantly learning especially with fan podcasts because there’s so much to learn. People from backgrounds that aren’t represented largely in mainstream media and culture are inserting their own perspectives and their own experiences and I love it. Because it’s just like this giant school for free – I mean you do need internet and stuff

Ziv: [laughs]

Parinita: But otherwise it’s free. Despite the overall absence of religion in SFF, there are a few instances where faith is represented. Sometimes fictional faiths, but they do draw parallels to real-world religions.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: So I found the two Star Trek episodes that we watched for this really interesting – one was Who Watches The Watchers? in The Next Generation. I’m not really very familiar with Star Trek even though my boyfriend is trying to get me into it.

Ziv: [laughs]

Parinita: He’s a huge Next Generation and Picard fan. I found that one so interesting just because of the question that it had about what counts as religion and what just counts as advanced science. And how you can mess up stuff. But I think it showed religion in a much more agnostic way than the other episode – Accession – did. In Deep Space Nice – Deep Space Nice? [laughs] – Deep Space Nine – it had faith as a much more normalised – even though normal is a word that I’m very suspicious of – but as a much more normalised part of the world. And I don’t know the context of the world because I watched those episodes in isolation. Whereas in the first episode, religion seemed to be something that they were trying to distance themselves from.

Ziv: Exactly.

Parinita: It was much more like a regular everyday part of their lives.

Ziv: Right. The episode of Next Generation, if I recall correctly, it’s got them accidentally contacting a more primitive culture and the primitive culture thinking of them in religious terms or as gods. And it was so important for them to not create those superstitions or those false beliefs. That’s certainly an interesting conflict. I don’t think there’s any basis of morality where you want to be confused accidentally for a god. And it brings an interesting discussion of what is faith, what is worth believing in, what is a religion? But it does definitely have the underlying current of, “We don’t want to encourage this.” In Deep Space Nine, basically a character comes out of nowhere and is immediately kind of crowned a spiritual leader and he tries to bring a very spiritual culture back to a previous state that they’d had with a caste system and with older beliefs. And a lot of what the episode is about is how readily this spiritual culture agrees to that and plays along with it even though it’s devastating to them.

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: But what that episode does which I feel is very, very unusual is it has sympathy and understanding for the people who want this to work. It doesn’t have us wanting it to work. It doesn’t have us wanting the Bajorans to go back to a caste system. But it does show us why people might be willing to do absurd things because they believe it. [laughs] Honestly, I don’t think there’s an argument more than that. They do it because they believe it. But they do it because of trust. And I think that’s a lot of what the episode is about because a lot of the conclusion is when this character goes away and Sisko realises that this whole thing has been kind of to nudge him into doing better at his religious position which he doesn’t want. But one of the key points is that he asks Kira – who is a sympathetic but spiritual character –he asks her, “If I told people to do that, they you know they would do all this for me?” And Kira says, “Yes because you’re the Emissary because you have this religious role.” And I think that speaks to the responsibility and ability that religion has to shape people’s lives and communities. Because in good hands, I think that’s what religion in its best form is capable of being – a way for a community to come together and shape itself to be better and to help itself.

Parinita: Yeah. And I found that episode really interesting because first of all the caste system which is fictional in this but Hinduism has a huge problem with the caste system in exactly the way that the conservative leader was trying to get the people back to. Where you’d only do the jobs that you were born to do. I could find so many parallels because in one of the scenes, someone was murdered because they belonged to a lower caste. They took care of the dead bodies; they prepared them for burial. So this person was immediately from that family – even though they didn’t do that job anymore. But everyone had switched so instantly to this idea of the caste system that because the character didn’t show the due respect to a person of a higher caste, this person pushed them down the railing and the character died. And that’s very similar to what happens in huge parts of India even today where some castes are seen as lower and some castes are seen as dirty and you can’t have interactions among castes. And you are only allowed to do certain jobs and you’re only allowed to inhabit certain parts of the village or the city or whatever. But what I found interesting in this episode was that but also that it was almost a thing between the conservative understanding of this religion versus a more progressive understanding of this religion. I guess spiritual, not progressive – a more spiritual understanding of this religion. But even the conservative leader – I think his name was Akorem – they didn’t show him to be a bad guy. They didn’t show him to be this power-hungry person. He really believed in what he was doing. Which, of course, that’s dangerous in itself.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: Because a lot of religions believe in what they’re doing and that leads to a lot of violence and conflict and war historically and even now. But in this case, he just wanted to do good by his people. And when they go to the prophets, who appear in the bodies of the crew members, and speak through them, he realises that he had it wrong. And he was quite okay with it. He didn’t start a civil war or anything. [laughs]

Ziv: [laughs]

Parinita: He was like, “Oh okay that’s cool, I guess, it’s fine.” So I thought that was really interesting that it was the tensions between a faith but not in a way that had a good guy and a bad guy. It was just everyone believes that they’re doing the right thing and some may be mistaken and some may not and even that is so contextual.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: Amongst certain fans, they might have thought Akorem should have been the one who won. It depends on your own personal politics and beliefs.

Ziv: I like that episode because even though it definitely leans very hard into the – if I said earlier that a lot of portrayals of religion portray religious people as cultish and blindly obedient, I mean this episode has a lot of that. But it also pays a lot of attention to where that’s coming from. To the emotions that make people be willing to go along with something. To how it’s a position of trust a lot more than irrationality.

Parinita: Um hmm.

Ziv: To be absolutely clear, that trust can be misplaced,

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: The consequences can be horrendous. [laughs] The fact that people trust a leader and the fact that the leader is well-intentioned does not mean that things will work out.

Parinita: They’re not all wrong. [laughs] Yeah.

Ziv: [laughs] I feel like the appreciation of this is something that a person can connect to. It’s what shifts it from being an exaggerated portrayal to being something that’s more realistic.

Parinita: Yeah and there’s more room to explore, like you said, the nuances which are so missing in most religious portrayals. And even in real life really. In real life media, religion tends to be in the news only at the extremes. And that’s how I’ve spent a large part of my life – understanding religion through that framework.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: Just because I’ve not studied religion. I’m now more interested in reading about religion through books and podcasts; not because I want to find a religion for myself but I want to understand how religious people make sense of the world. And I think there’s a lot of similarities with the way that I make sense of the world. So it’s really interesting to me. Which is why I think a lot of non-religious people are really sceptical of religion. Because that’s the only exposure that they’ve had.

Ziv: Right. Yeah, the exposure that they have is always antagonistic.

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: Almost always. Or neutral. Like you can have a religious person working with you and they’ll never offend. They’ll always be right there but that’s not a positive. You’re not privy to their own spiritual world or to what connects them to their own spirituality. Unless you’re very nosy or they’re very open. And yet somehow not annoying.

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs] And I remember when I moved to the UK, so I stayed in Glasgow for a year and a half when I was doing my master’s. And Scotland in general but Glasgow in particular has a lot of sectarian violence between Protestants and Catholics. And when I was in catholic school in India, it was a convent school. So basically in India when I was growing up, a convent school was for many people less about religion but we believed the nuns taught English the best. [laughs] In terms of public education, they were seen to be better than government schools which is why a lot of parents send students to convent schools. Now, of course, you have a lot of international schools and there’s class hierarchies there.

Ziv: Honestly, I think, that you see that in a lot of places in a lot of ways. I know in Israel there’s certainly a lot of places where the religious schools are seen to be better.  And I think a lot of that is because a lot of religious people go to be teachers. Or because the religious groups, the religious government parties are able to get more funding. There are a lot of reasons [laughs] for an imbalance. But definitely winds up as kind of, “Okay the religious schools are better and therefore we might send our kids to religious schools even though we’re not religious.”

Parinita: I mean in India it was very much a thing of colonisation. It was still very much a colonised mindset because, “Oh nuns yeah Christians, they must know English better. So why don’t we send them there.”

Ziv: Right. [laughs]

Parinita: But my interaction in school was we had Protestants and we had Catholics but they were all lumped together in the same group. They used to go for religious services in one area and all the non-Catholic and non-Protestant people, we had other classes during that religious studies class. And so for me, when I moved to the UK, I was like, “Oh wait, you’re fighting amongst yourselves? I thought you believed in the same thing.” And then again Anti-Judaism, I keep harking back to that book but it’s because I learned so much from it. It’s quite a dense book so I would recommend it to listeners only if you have a lot of commitment to reading it.

Ziv: [laughs]

Parinita: But it was very enlightening. And he briefly touched on the Reformation and the violence that was there between Catholics and Protestants and I didn’t know a lot of this European history. And I was like, “Oh no wonder you guys seem to hate each other so much! I see what’s happening.” And now I understand why there’s so much more of a conflict in the UK even though to me it seems like you just want to find someone to hate and fight along lines of differences when you believe in the same god.” But Hinduism is the same and other religions are the same.

Ziv: It’s one of the ways that I feel it brings home that religion is not merely the question of what god you believe in or what text you believe in. So much of it is culture and geography. If I come from a city whose dominant belief is X and somebody else is from a city whose dominant belief is Y, then I might feel uncomfortable. And some of those I will attribute to religious reasons – and some of those will be strongly connected to those religious reasons because those two cities might really different ways of behaving and different values and different approaches. But it’s also connected to … just religion and culture. They are hard to tease apart.

Parinita: Yeah like India and Pakistan, right? Because again colonisation – I blame the Empire for everything. [laughs] But we’re on the brink of war with each other and we have been at war with each other a lot after the Partition which led to tremendous violence as well. But if I meet a Pakistani person here in the UK, we both have no enmity; we don’t hate each other And we’re so culturally similar with this desi South Asian culture. We’re both othered in similar ways in this country because of the colour of our skin but we also recognise similarities in each other. I’ve spoken in Hindi and called people Uncle and Aunty in the same way that I would in India even though they’re from Pakistan. Whereas when I’m in India, the news media has such terrible reports of Pakistan – which I don’t believe in anyway.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: But that’s full of this Hindu-Muslim conflict and Pakistan-India being enemies. I’m not religious so I guess it might be easier for me and I’m not patriotic either. I love India but my sense of self isn’t tied to my country.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: I would be friends with you if you’re from Pakistan or wherever anyway, but we also share so many similarities. We watch the same movies, we like similar kind of food, we have similar cultural things that we share so why wouldn’t we be friends? We have more in common now. And, of course, I’ve also grown up with a lot of Western media so I have that with white English people and white Scottish people as well. Finding commonalities and finding things to connect over rather than differences is something that I think can be used like that with religion in stories as well. Why is it always conflict and why is it not sometimes just compassion?

Ziv: Absolutely. It also works the other way around. If you have a society that seems homogeneous, that everybody believes the same things, then very often you’ll see a schism or you’ll see a separation which will play out along religious lines as well. It starts from small things like you say that you know for every two Jews, you have three synagogues. And you literally see this in actual synagogues. I live in a city with a lot of religious people. But always there are more and more people trying to open up new synagogues and small little synagogues because they don’t want to pray the way that this place does it.

Parinita: [laughs]

Ziv: And the city cannot fit these synagogues and still they will not have a single place that’s close enough for what they want. Part of it is because religion is such a big part of religious life so that’s one of the place where fault lines will appear. And part of it is because religion reflects the rest of life and so if you have people that you’re uncomfortable with, you won’t want to go to the same place of prayer that they do.

Parinita: Which is a pity. I mean I do understand why it happens but I I like this idea of people from different backgrounds coming together.  I read an article – a few articles I think – and also watched Queer Eye [laughs] where they’re talking about churches and because in the US, Christianity is the framework of that country, it was about churches with diverse pastors. I think there was a gay pastor in one of the newest episodes of Queer Eye and he grew up in a very homophobic faith tradition in his church that he went to as a young person. But now he’s trying to make it more inclusive to people who are like him – to kids from different sexualities and gender identities. And there’s a growing group of people who are trying to do this. Even in the UK, for that matter, I’ve seen a lot of secular, humanist churches where they invite people from all traditions, all faiths or no faith and come together to just share a meal and talk to each other. I wish that there were more of that. It’s fine to also have things that you believe in and a separate pocket of that. But then that can get dangerous, right? If you only have that and no interaction with people who believe differently from you, I think that’s also important.

Ziv: I’ve been on the edges of different things like that. And it’s a very interesting dynamic. Because when you have an inter-faith initiative of any kind, the first people you will actually come into contact with is other people who want an inter-faith initiative. Which is a very particular group. It’s not the same as actually coming into contact with the full variety. You’re actually coming into contact with people who are most like you but not necessarily in the same faith.

Parinita: That’s true.

Ziv: Which can be interesting. It can be fantastic and it can be very, very valuable but it’s a thing of its own.

Parinita: Yeah. No, I agree. It’s just – I think I’m a very optimistic, idealistic sometimes very naively so person so I like this idea of learning from other people in real life.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: Just having that physical community rather than just a virtual one. I love the podcasts, I love reading about things, but it’s also nice to have something like how you and I, we’re talking.

Ziv: Yeah.

Parinita: We come from such different backgrounds but just talking about things that we believe in, essentially. I wish that was a more normalised part of society. And you’re right, with inter-faith things, it’s a very self-selecting audience. [laughs] If you believe in it, you’ll come; if you don’t, you won’t. So it’s difficult to reach across that boundary but yeah … I don’t know, maybe someday. Maybe that’s the kind of stories that I need to write. Because I write children’s books but with no religious anything.

Ziv: Um hmm.

Parinita: Because like you said, it’s a blind-spot because I’m not religious, so like trying to understand that would be so difficult. I’d need to research things and then write about it. But yeah, it’s interesting.

Ziv: I guess I kind of just want to sum up to say that I think that religion is a very, very wide subject, a subject that touches on so many different aspects of life. And it’s one that is often very difficult to understand from the outside and [laughs] it’s hard for me to criticise those who don’t understand it very well, who don’t sympathise with it very much. And it’s also a topic that has so many issues and problems and difficulties because it does very often – and not in all versions of faith but in many versions of faith – have real clashes with humanism and pluralism and respect for other identities. And those can all be so challenging to grapple with. To me personally, that’s exactly why I want to see them grappled with. I feel like we need the voices who want to grapple with them, who want to figure out how we can have religion and pluralism at the same time; how we can acknowledge both the people of particular faiths and also the people outside them and respect them both. I feel like the onus of this should fall first and foremost on pluralistic religious people. Although [laughs] I feel very often like that is a small and isolated and beleaguered community.

Parinita: [laughs] I love it. That’s why I enjoyed our conversation so much. Even before we spoke, I knew I would enjoy our conversation just because of the kind of texts that you recommended.

Ziv: I’m glad.

Parinita: And the kinds of points that you brought up because like I said, I believe in a more pluralistic, humanistic version of religion which has room for all religions and no religions as well. And yeah that’s something I got a lot out of our conversation today. So thank you so much for being a part of this project and for just expanding my mind – I know I keep saying this but it’s true with everybody that I speak to, especially with people from different backgrounds – that I learn so much just through conversations and I really appreciate everybody and you coming onto this podcast. Thank you very much!

Ziv: I’m so glad. This has been really wonderful for me too. I mean this has been in the back of my mind for months since you first put out the call and I was like well what do I wanna talk about? What do I think about this? And this has helped me articulate certain points quite a bit. And also helped me figure out what else I want to articulate and can’t quite yet. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah.

Ziv: And this has been fantastic. Thank you so much.

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode on religious representations in science fiction and fantasy. Thank you so much Ziv for challenging and expanding my beliefs about religion and for offering such thoughtful conversation. And thanks as always to Jack for discovering a dinosaur wonderland (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!

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!

Episode 13 You Want To See Yourself In That Story: The Impact Of Religion And Regional Origin

Episode Resources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9) Fan podcast – Our Opinions Are Correct: What’s the matter with Star Wars?

Episode Transcript:

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

Doodle of an angry face. Text says: me, during podcast recording

Extremely appropriate cover image courtesy Aparna who doodled it while we were recording.

[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 thirteenth episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I talk to Sanjana and Aparna about how religion as well as national and regional origin intersect in both the real and fictional worlds. We also discuss how governments and mainstream media weaponise these topics to oppress people. Since these issues are very relevant to current global events, please be warned that I go on several angry rants throughout this episode. Thanks to our impassioned discussion, in the beginning of the episode we begin talking about Demons of the Punjab without mentioning that it’s a Doctor Who episode about the Partition of India and not about actual demons – though I’m sure you can find people who’ve called the British Empire much worse.

Who writes history and whose version of history is portrayed by mainstream media has contemporary real-world impacts. Media can provide multiple stories and versions to counter false narratives. Alternatively, it can emphasise divisive accounts with damaging consequences for relationships among diverse groups. Fictional-world politics also have real-world parallels based on religious and national demographics. An increasing number of people are beginning to question the underlying assumptions of religious and national stories. Retellings can reclaim tradition to make it radically inclusive to historically marginalised groups of people.

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Sanjana: Hello! I’m Sanjana.

Aparna: Hi! I’m Aparna.

Parinita: And hi! I’m Parinita. In today’s episode, we’re exploring the themes of religion and national or regional origin. In previous episodes, we’ve looked at how specific themes are represented in some of our favourite media but this time we’re taking a slightly different approach. All three of us are from India, though I currently live in the UK. And none of us are religious. So it didn’t really make sense to us to analyse religious representations. Instead, we’re looking at how religion and which country you come from or which part of the country you come from is weaponised by mainstream media as well as several governments including our own. So, you know, a super light-hearted topic to explore. Since this is a fan podcast, we’re going to be drawing on examples from our favourite stories and fandoms as we chat. And just to give you an idea of my mood, we were supposed to record this episode three days ago. But the research for it and the current news events depressed me so much that I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. It’s the 7th of June, we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, migrants in India are dying because the government is failing them miserably on all fronts, protesters in the US are marching against police brutality and the police are responding by tear-gassing them or running them over in cars or shooting them with rubber bullets. In India, anti-government protesters are being jailed but people who shot or beat them up aren’t and J. K. Rowling is back to tweeting some transphobic bullshit again because apparently everybody was just too distracted by everything collapsing to pay attention to her. [sighs] I’m just so tired you guys.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Oh my god. That sounded very, very exhausting. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah. So considering where the world’s currently at, I thought the intersection of religion and national or regional origin is especially relevant.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So all three of us come from huge positions of privilege. I’m not religious but I come from a non-Dalit Hindu background. I don’t actually know my caste and this ignorance itself is an immense privilege, as is being able to ignore my religious background. So if I go to rent a flat in a Mumbai housing society, the agent won’t look at my surname and say that this society doesn’t rent homes to Muslims, as happens frequently.

Sanjana: Yes.

Parinita: And I’ve never been discriminated against because of my caste. We’re also pretty privileged in terms of what part of the country we’re from. So you both are from Bangalore and I’m from Mumbai, both big cities which tend to take more than their share of resources from rural areas. And the Indian government at the moment is actively oppressing people based on their religion. So you’re only the correct kind of person if you’re Hindu. And even if you’re Hindu, you’re only the correct kind of person if you’re upper-caste. And you also have to be from the correct country otherwise the government hates you.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And even if you’re from India, you have to be from the correct part of India and you have to be from the correct class. So if you’re middle-class or wealthier stuck abroad during the pandemic, the government will rescue you with planes. If you’re working-class or poorer stuck in cities thousands of kilometres from home, well, you’ll just have to walk back to your villages in the summer sun. Or pay for a train which has no food or ventilation or sell your life’s possessions to afford a ticket for a flight and a taxi to the airport just to find out that the flight has been cancelled. So yeah, I thought that talking about how fascist governments weaponise religion and national or regional origin was a super timely topic. What do you guys think?

Sanjana: Yeaaaaah. Pretty much. [laughs]

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: If it could get even more exhausting, you did make it.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: With the specifics of how exhausting the world is right now.

Aparna: In the whole world, the majority is suddenly inexplicably feeling attacked. Like they’re losing their identity and everything is just going nuts. So yeah. It is super timely is putting it mildly.

Sanjana: Pretty much. I feel like religion in history has always been like this tool to use to just make it easier for you to rule. And move things forward. Basically, most people that benefit from it are the ruling people in power so to speak.

Parinita: Yeah and we have all these stories in history of people using religion against each other.

Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: Where are all these stories or historical narratives where people of different religions live together somewhat harmoniously?

Aparna: Yeah!

Parinita: They exist. I’m sure they do.

Sanjana: Yeah especially because they do. So just going back, the way you were describing the people trying to make their way back to their house, a lot of people on social media and other places did draw comparisons to the Partition. When people had to migrate in these huge numbers and there were eerily similar pictures of that time versus this time.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: And really it shouldn’t be happening now. And in fact, it brings us to one of the Doctor Who episodes that we looked at for this episode – Demons of Punjab. What did you guys think of the episode?

Aparna: I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it as much as everyone seems to based on all the reviews that I read or all the people we heard talking about it.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: I didn’t think they exactly trivialised it, but the issue is so complex for us – I think maybe that’s why I felt like it fell a little flat in the way that it was dealt with. There is no one episode that could have probably done justice to it, but it felt like it was over with very quickly – the explanation of what’s happening. Whereas for us, it’s such a loaded time in our history.

Sanjana: Yeah. And one of the things that was very evident to me is whose story is being told? Because when we watched the Doctor Who Rosa episode for our podcast episode on race, we loved the episode right at the onset.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: And when we heard the Woke Doctor Who episode where they spoke about the episode and all the problems with the episode, we were like, “What?! Yeah! You’re absolutely right.” With comparison to how they loved Demons of Punjab and we didn’t quite love it. We weren’t in love with it. We did have problems with it. And I think that’s basically how the way history is consumed becomes very limited and subjective to how it’s being told and to the people whose story it is – who were directly affected by it. When I was watching the episode, I thought of how there were so many stories. Our grandparents came from Pakistan to India when the Partition happened – my mum’s grandmum, my dad’s grandmum. I remember my dad telling us stories about how they dug the walls of these large houses that they had and put in all their possessions into the walls and cemented it back in hopes that they would get back there someday. And it was huge amounts of migration and it felt a little bit like let’s just tell this one tiny part of this countryside story of this one woman who – which is fine, which is whose story we were there to tell. But except for those uh for the um the what – what were the creatures who were mourning the dead?

Parinita: Oh I don’t even remember.

Sanjana: The alien witnesses [they’re called the Thijarians]. Except them saying that they were there because a lot of death was about to happen, there was no other mention of the enormity of what was going to happen – of that part of history.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Yeah, I completely agree with you. I didn’t hate the episode. I didn’t think it was offensive.

Sanjana: Absolutely, yeah.

Parinita: It was just a bit meh episode.

Sanjana: Yeah exactly!

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: We’ve grown up with these stories. For you it was through grandparents. For me it was just culturally and in history class and things. We know about all these different stories. So for us it’s much more of a lived experience than I think this 45-50-minute episode could even hope to achieve. But what I found really interesting in a good way was in the Verity fan podcast episode that we listened to which discussed this episode, the three women there – I think one was British, one was American, and one was Australian, I believe. Or Tasmanian?

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And they acknowledged their positions that they were three white ladies talking about something which didn’t impact them. They really loved the episode, but more than that for them, it was a way to educate themselves about this history that they had no idea of – except the Scottish host; she knew a little bit about it. But the other two hosts didn’t. And I loved that they took the time to look for all these different resources and try to fill the gaps that they had in their own knowledge. Because even us, though we know a lot of Western history because colonial impact and cultural imperialism.

Sanjana and Aparna laugh.

Sanjana: Of course.

Parinita: So we know a lot about American history just in general. But there are huge parts of world history that even we don’t know, right? Even though we were colonised, I don’t know a lot of African history, for example. All the different countries there. Or even East Asian history. So the fact that this story allowed them the opportunity to get to know these things, I really loved that.

Sanjana: Yeah, no absolutely. So what the episode did in terms of creating dialogue, I feel like yeah it certainly did. And the whole thing between the two brothers did show two sides of the same religion as well. It wasn’t an all bad episode; it was quite a decent episode. Yet lacking in some places which is just the comparison between how we reacted to the Rosa episode.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: Which absolutely goes to show how – whose story it is, their reaction to it is so vastly different.

Parinita: Yeah. Even as meh as I found the episode, I found it super depressing also. Just because of Manish who is this Hindutva terrorist predecessor.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Absolutely.

Aparna: After all this time, it’s just the most important thing in the country still for some reason.

Parinita: Yeah. And it’s become mainstream now. This hatred, this distrust of Muslims. This Pakistan-India sort of binary.

Sanjana: Yeah. This just reminds me of one of the things that mum told me about my grandfather and how he grew up. So he had this habit of reading the Ramayana every day in the night before he slept. It was a thing he did. And he did not know how to read Hindi. His Ramayana was in Urdu. Because when he grew up, his early years were in Pakistan, in Punjab, and he grew up reading only Urdu so his Ramayana was in Urdu. He he read it from back to front. And I thought it was just the most interesting thing. Nobody even knows about these little things. The way media portrays religion in general is so divisive that these little things just don’t – nobody even knows these things. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah that’s so lovely. And just history in general, right? It’s something that they mentioned on the Verity podcast, where in the UK, the history of the Empire in general, but the Partition as well, it’s not really taught so much in school. It’s this elective thing that you can do. Which is why I think this lack of history or historical knowledge and their role in historical oppression has created this false narrative of past glories in the head of a lot of British people today.

Sanjana: Exactly.

Parinita: Which is similar, I think, to India where not knowing these nuances and the kinship and community that we have not just with Muslim people in India but also Pakistanis has created this terrible, terrible narrative where we see them as enemies.

Sanjana: Exactly.

Aparna: Yes, and it’s still happening. Because we’re still reading in the news that in UP and Rajasthan, they are changing textbooks to remove Nehru’s name or adding the Swacch Bharat campaign mentions into school textbooks. This is what people are reading. This is what people are consuming, this is what kids are consuming. So the narrative is changing even before it’s history. It’s already being written to favour the majority all the time.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Yeah and you can’t really learn from your mistakes in the past without acknowledging them. Right?

Aparna: Exactly!

Parinita: You’ll be doomed to repeat the same thing. Can you believe that people are defending Nazis what 60-70 years after the war that was supposed to end all wars? People are defending fascists or people are being fascists in all these different ways. In Indian contexts, Muslims and Hindus were fighting together to kick the British out of India and this is what we’ve come down to now. We have this internal enemy. And the way that history is taught in schools is so rubbish.

Aparna and Sanjana: Yeah!

Parinita: The importance is the dates and the events rather than the context of those dates and events. I think we’ve spoken about this briefly before but yeah, if you don’t acknowledge the mistakes that you’ve made and the nuances and the complexities that were there in the past, how are you going to learn from it and not repeat those same mistakes?

Sanjana: Absolutely.

Aparna: I read this interesting article on Tor about Thor: Ragnorak and it made a statement of how Hela was erased from history by Odin. And it’s also an erasure of everything. It’s trying to rewrite and simplify the past so that his authority is not questioned because his mistakes have been quickly brushed over. Which is fascinating because that’s exactly what happens in real life also.

Parinita: Yeah similar to that I think in an American context – well, also Australia and Canada. Just wherever the colonisers went where they were basically oppressing the indigenous people and suppressing their knowledge and their culture. So the Native Americans in the US and Canada and the tribals in Australia and New Zealand. This is not something that we know a lot of in India – at least I didn’t – about Native American culture and history. I’m not really very well-versed with it. But because J. K. Rowling –  I think it’s been a couple of years now – wrote Magic in North America, this Pottermore article to promote the Fantastic Beasts films.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Um hmm.

Parinita: And that created this huge backlash because of the way that it portrayed Native Americans as these primitive people which was perpetuating these false ideas of the culture where Europeans were the saviours basically and they brought all this knowledge and culture and completely erasing the Native culture, languages and histories. And that’s something that’s been critiqued a lot in terms of J. K. Rowling’s representation. But when I was watching Anne With An E.

Sanjana: Yes.

Parinita: What I really liked is – we’ve spoken about this before, the way that they’ve made this story that was written in the 1800s more inclusive and more contemporary and more relevant to the social and cultural contexts of today. And in Anne With An E, I really loved Ka’Kwet’s whole storyline. And how they showed how the Christian missionaries tried to brutally assimilate Native children into the Christian norm. This is a piece of history where they were stolen from their families and they were sent to these residential schools and these boarding schools. So it is very much a part of history where their language and her name, her hair, her clothes – all aspects of her culture were stripped away from her and her very identity was taken in this really violent way. It’s something I think now in Canada and in Australia and in New Zealand, they’re coming to terms with it more, this horrible part of their history. But it’s generations of erasure and generations of oppression. And this can’t go away instantly. This work has to be done actively to reverse this oppression.

Gif from Anne With An E. Text says - Anne: It's funny how people are so quick to point out differences when there are so many ways we're all alike. Ka'Kwet: Alike.

Aparna: And we can only start doing that work by telling these stories. Which is finally changing because for so long we’ve just been consuming media that has been created by a majority. So the white guys will be the good guys in everything that we’ve seen from when we were kids. And it’s only now that we’re starting to see diversity in the stories that are being told or the stories we’re consuming. And it’s because of the diversity of creators and things like that. But this is the first step. Acknowledging everyone’s stories is the first step to changing the narrative that’s been in everyone’s minds for so long.

Parinita: Yeah absolutely. All these conversations that happen in the West, in terms of diversity and all these cultures on the fan podcasts that we’ve listened to but also just in general online, they always make me draw Indian parallels because that’s what I know more of. So this Native American erasure of their culture and knowledge made me think of parallels with Indian tribal and rural cultures.

Sanjana: It did, yeah.

Parinita: Where their ways of knowledge and medicine and culture and their connection with the environment, the land, everything is erased, is marginalised. And the Indian government is almost the colonising force. The oppressed became the oppressors.

Sanjana: Yeah. What you’re saying is reminding me of the book Year of the Weeds. Where Siddhartha Sharma basically talks about the same thing as to how the hill being a religious entity for them is so hard for anybody to understand or even take seriously. It just doesn’t even fit into the context of even being looked at or considered as something in the large scheme of things. We need this done, who cares. Whereas if it had been a temple there and nobody in the government, then there is no bauxite.

Aparna: [laughs] The government would have never thought of doing that.

Sanjana: Absolutely.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: If we want to build a road and if a temple was there before the road, the road goes around the temple in this country. And this was similar to when we were discussing what happens in Avatar: The Last Airbender with the monks and the Fire Nation and how they are completely obliterated. It’s the same parallel to that.

Parinita: Yeah. I listened to an Imaginary Worlds episode called Growing Up Avatar-American. It had an Asian-American guest who was talking about how he didn’t find any Asian representation in media while he was growing up especially Asian-American representation. Because Asian-American is different from Asian. So a Bollywood movie is different from a Hollywood movie made with Asians.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: Because for us, we’re the dominant group. We don’t have erasure of our own identities. I mean obviously there are caste and class and religion – maybe those intersections. But in terms of seeing brown faces on screen, we don’t have that problem.

Aparna: Correct.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Whereas for him, he’s East Asian. And he was talking about how he and a lot of Asian-Americans in the US saw Aang’s story as this refugee/immigrant story where like you said, Sana, he’s the only surviving Airbender whose people are murdered in a genocide led by the Firebenders. And one of the guests on the episode considered his escape by flying away on Appa similar to Vietnamese history where one of the guest’s parents fled on boats. And so they were drawing analogies to this trauma of the loss and ethnic cleansing of home and culture and people. As well as to the Japanese cultural occupation, the Chinese cultural revolution, the Cambodian genocide, surviving Hiroshima. Because there’s such a lack of these stories told in media. Also in science fiction and fantasy, it’s very Western, Euro-centric, so all these other histories are erased. So seeing fans interpreting it based on their own histories is pretty cool.

Aparna: And the reason that everyone wants to see themselves represented, it’s not a coincidence that the people who are not seeing themselves represented are also the people who are disproportionately affected by any crisis that happens in the world.

Parinita: Absolutely.

Aparna: It’s not a coincidence that now everyone is recommending picture books or children’s books that are created by black people and feature children – just stories of diverse experiences. Right now, they’re everywhere. On Instagram, I’ve seen three a day for the last few weeks. Because it has to start there. Once those experiences are completely similar, once we start seeing everyone as part of our growing up, is when we’ll realise that there shouldn’t be any difference in how people are treated as well. Because whether it’s the COVID crisis or whether it’s the climate crisis, everyone who’ll be first affected will be the people who are poor or the people who are a minority in any sense of the word.

Sanjana: Yeah. In fact it was today only that I was listening to a conversation with someone – I don’t remember the name now – but there was this student of psychology and she was talking about the need for dialogue that mentions intersectional and marginalised communities in classrooms and otherwise for society’s mental health. It is so important for mental health because the moment you don’t see yourself represented or the moment you don’t see anyone else even remotely understanding what you’re saying, you immediately shut off. And you don’t want to have that conversation anymore because you’re not seeing it being mirrored back. And to start dialogue at a classroom level with all of this very subjectively told would make so much of a difference in the long run leading to just a much better society.

Parinita: No, absolutely. I agree. And I think that intersectionality in these conversations is so important. Paru, you mentioned the environmental crisis which would affect – is already affecting people. I’m in the UK so all this Extinction Rebellion and the climate crisis, climate strikes and everything, it’s ongoing. Well, not now because the pandemic has stopped that for a little while.

Aparna: [laughs] Yeah.

Parinita: But it’s ongoing in terms of that we don’t want this to happen to us. But it has already happened to a lot of countries. Like the Syrian refugees, a lot of their conflict was sectarian – was religious conflict. But I’ve read articles about going back to the root causes of it. It was because there were consecutive droughts in consecutive years and how that impacts the politics of a country. So we already have climate refugees from different parts of the developing world. And the developing tag is because of colonisation, right?

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: We’re still facing these impacts where the developed world and not only the developed world but also in India, the cities, we have the luxury to think we don’t want this happening in the future. Even though in India, we’re breathing in polluted air and we have water shortages and whatever but still we have a certain level of comfort in that we’re not completely abandoned yet. But there are so many parts of India, there are so many parts of the world where people have to leave their houses. And all these migrants, why are they in cities in India? They had to leave their farms. They don’t want to live in these cramped fifteen people to a tiny room accommodation in the cities.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: Exactly.

Parinita: But they’re leaving it because the climate crisis has already affected them. And they are further being harmed because of the pandemic and it’s just yeah it’s – sorry, I went on another rant. [laughs]

Aparna: No, but it’s true. Even within the city, if there’s a water crisis, it takes much longer for a water shortage to hit an apartment complex versus somebody who’s living in a more temporary settlement. Or it’ll take even longer for them to hit corporate tech parks. Because the more money you have, the easier it is to just get water during a crisis.

Parinita: Yeah. And even now, in the pandemic where the compassion and the dignity that is accorded to you is based on how much money you have.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And what class you’re from. Or what part of the country you’re from. You didn’t see Indians returning from foreign countries coming to the airport being sprayed down by pesticides [it was disinfectant]. You didn’t see them having to walk for thousands of kilometres but migrants had to go through this. The poorer migrants had to go through this. Everyone who’s living in another part of the country is a migrant but I mean the poorer migrants who had to go through this.

Sanjana: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely.

Parinita: They didn’t even have this dignity and compassion and humanity accorded to them. On the other hand, what I really do like, just because I know we’re going to be talking about this a little bit later – the connection between religion and community and fandom and community.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: But what I liked because I am an optimistic person even though I’ve ranted a lot today [laughs] and I’ve been really angry this last week and this last year. And these last six years.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: I don’t know I’ve just been increasingly angry. But at heart I’m an optimistic person. So I like focusing on the positives, and I like that in India, this community has recently shown itself through all these people – well, not all, a lot of people with privilege – who came together in different ways to look after the most vulnerable people in the country. So be it people doing fundraisers to fly migrants back to their villages or making food packets to pass it to them on the roads or water or using whatever resources that they have. And they’re still doing this in India. To make sure that people who don’t have this privilege do get a little bit more help.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Because the government systems are completely failing them. Going back to what I first started off with which was basically fascism and resistance, I really loved the episode Witch, Please and the Rise of White Nationalism.

Sanjana: Yeah even we.

Parinita: But also it stressed me out.

Sanjana: Yeah absolutely!

Parinita: [laughs] So one of the co-hosts Marcel, she used the Harry Potter series to draw real-life parallels with fascism and resistance and I loved that she used the Potterverse like this. Like I said, I was very distressed about how many of these are evident in India as well as other parts of the world especially along the lines of religion and national and regional origin. So her talk covered four points – what fascism looks like, how it uses existing systems of power – media and democracy and education – how to be an ally, and how to fight back. All of her examples were from the Harry Potter books and the movies but she was talking about it mostly in terms of the rise of white nationalism, hate crimes in the US, Canada and the UK. But again, I drew parallels to India. In India, it was so obvious this parallel with the rise of Hindutva versus Islam versus just Dalits which is why I was really depressed.

Sanjana: [laughs] Yeah. Because they at some point said this pureblood supremacist cult. What I found interesting was their dialogue around the Ministry of Magic and how its role changed over the different books as the story progressed from just being this entity which showed these government employees. Because our only link to it was through Mr Weasley. And then when it is taken over by this supremacist cult, it becomes this evil entity that is trying to cause all kinds of mayhem by being this ruling class. From how it becomes this bumbling government office [laughs] to this really complex leader and supremacist entity. It was rather interesting.

Aparna: Yeah. What I found most scary was when she suggested that Trump is possibly not Voldemort [laughs] but Fudge.

Parinita: Yeah.

Aparna: Because these are the systems that already have to be in place for a Voldemort to appear. For a Voldemort to be able to step in and claim this world as his own. There are some systems that have to have been in place for so long and things that are so fundamentally just broken. There is so much undoing to be able to fix it.  At the end of the story when it returns to normal, their version of normal is not safe. It’s still leaving room for this to happen again.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Yeah because I think when Kingsley Shacklebolt becomes Minister of Magic, he gets rid of the Dementors but what about the house-elves? What about the centaurs? What about the giants? What about the goblins? It’s not addressed. Going back to normal even during the pandemic everyone is saying that oh we want to go back to normal.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: But the normal is only working for a very specific group of people.

Aparna: Exactly! And normal is what created the sort of environment where Voldemort has risen.

Parinita: Yeah!

Aparna: So normal was not great.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: This is all going to happen again.

Parinita: When she was talking about that, where basically Fudge allowed Voldemort to come to power, Fudge’s Ministry where the existing systems of power were designed to privilege a certain group of people already.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: I was thinking about it in terms of the Congress in India. Now because we have the BJP in power, compared to them, everything else seems better.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: But the Congress definitely did lay ground for the BJP to come to power. It wasn’t like they were doing all these great things to radically restructure society in a way that made it inclusive for everybody.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: Absolutely yeah.

Parinita: So that’s why the BJP is in power now. And who knows where we’re going to go next?

Aparna: Exactly.

Parinita: If we take Modi out of the picture, if we take Trump out of the picture, it’s not going to go away. I think they said Voldemort, he does use violence and intimidation, but he’s also really easily able to create this army of people who seem to hate Muggles and who seem to hate Muggle-borns and are really happy.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: It was all very scary. And also when they were talking about how the media is co-opted like The Daily Prophet presents Ministry-approved messages without any critical thinking or any criticism.

Sanjana: Yes!

Parinita: Again what we see happening in most mainstream media in India as well as WhatsApp media now that that’s a new genre of news.

Sanjana: Totally.

Aparna: Oh god! [laughs]

Sanjana: Because you said WhatsApp media, it just brought about this constant struggle at home where every time our parents give us this piece of great information, I turn back and say what is your source?

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: Where did you get this information?

Parinita: I do this with my mother as well. I’ll call her to chat because she living by herself in Mumbai and Mumbai is really hit by the pandemic. So she’s really freaked out. So we try and have more regular conversations than we used to. But now rather than comfort, it’s more like trying to decode news sources. I’m giving her a course on media analysis.

Sanjana: Yeah. [laughs]

Parinita: “Let’s go back. Why do you think this? Why that?” I’m using all my PhD research.

Sanjana: [laughs]

Parinita: And just like your parents, she’s not an Islamaphobe. She’s not a bigot.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: But it’s this everyday benign sort of bigotry which has come to the fore.

Sanjana: Yeah exactly.

Parinita: But I also like that lest this thing get too depressing – which it is, because the world is very depressing. But I also liked that in the episode they also spoke about how to resist this. So she spoke about how different people in the witching world use different skills to resist. So like knitting and Hermione – although her S.P.E.W. has some problematic tendencies but she was well-intentioned.

Sanjana: [laughs]

Parinita: Although sometimes intent, good intent has damaging impacts. But whatever. Knitting and making protest signs and cooking and resistance. They were drawing parallels to the real world where all these different skills can come together. Even online putting all these resources together to donate, or putting all the resources to educate yourself. Because not everyone begins from this same spot, right? We didn’t grow up thinking like this.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: It was a process – a huge process of learning and unlearning things.

Sanjana: I was going to use our parents as a segue into us talking about this. [laughs] Because I think all three of us have had a very similar relationship with religion wherein all of our religion comes from what our parents told us and what our parents said we should do. I think the just one generation before this, there was not much questioning. I feel like we’re questioning a lot more. And so our relationship with all of the religious stuff in our house is a lot different from when our mum and dad grew up. And I think a lot of our religion was mostly based on what was taught to our parents and which they then tried teaching to us and we did it for quite awhile.

Aparna: Yeah and I don’t think they were particularly religious either.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: I feel like they were just, yes I will do because my mother did it.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: Yeah. Because my mum, she’s the kind of religious who believes in all religions and I understand where her need to believe in all these things comes from because she, like me, she went to a Catholic school – the same Catholic school actually – but grew up in a Hindu household.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And she’s had a really difficult life in terms of family. A lot of trauma and a lot of abuse from different kinds. So I get her need to hang on to religion as a form of solidarity.

Sanjana: Yeah absolutely.

Parinita: So that’s the way that she gets comfort and things. But for me I never really found that in religion. I don’t know when you guys started questioning this, but I don’t think it ever made sense to me.

Sanjana: [laughs]

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: I remember in primary school, I used to be like, “But why?” My question used to always be, “But why? This is not logical. This is not rational.” And because like your parents, she didn’t have this sort of scholarly knowledge.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: And by scholarly I mean just the access to texts and the stories and things. So she didn’t have a response to me and this stubborn only-child brain of mine was like, “Then oh, no, I must be right!” [laughs]

Sanjana: [laughs]

Parinita: “No you can’t explain.” And also in school, there was one teacher in particular, our maths teacher who used to teach us to question things. And I used to hate maths but I used to love her and she made me tolerate maths for the time that she taught us. And she used to teach us to question things. For example, in Hinduism where you are on your period, when you’re menstruating, you can’t go to temples. And we had a class, I remember, it was a free period I think, where we were just talking. And she was talking about her own experiences and she said that she and her daughters when they’re menstruating, they go to temples; they just don’t tell anybody about it. It was just something for them to know. Maybe she was religious? I think I stopped going to temples years ago. Unless it’s just to look at the nice architecture or whatever.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: Yeah. I think after a point for us it became that we didn’t want to offend our parents so we didn’t say much and after a point, we were like, “You’ll go, we’ve seen. It looks beautiful from outside.”

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: “We are waiting here, no problem. We don’t want to climb the five hundred steps, go ahead, we’ll sit here.”

Parinita: You were much nicer than I was. I used to be like, “No! Religion is oppression!”

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: “It’s the opiate of the masses!”

Aparna: We are like that now.

Sanjana: We are like that now.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: I feel like it took a little longer to question it as much. We listened to a bunch of the podcast episodes just to understand. I didn’t want to write off religion completely when we were reading up about this. And a couple of things that jumped out from some of the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text episodes was that religion has this sense of giving a sense of community and belonging. And the other day we were watching an episode of House where there was this priest that was one of the patients. And at some point House said, “Religion is the placebo of the world.” [laughs] Both of us looked at each other and I made a mental note of it.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: Because it was such a simple way of explaining religion to someone who doesn’t get the need to get up every morning and pray to this god and or to a whole slew of gods.

Aparna: [laughs]

Sanjana: It’s a good enough reason if it’s giving you some sense of belonging and some sense of peace somewhere. It definitely doesn’t give us a sense of peace and maybe for me, my questioning started when I started working on writing and retelling these stories. I work for Amar Chitra Katha and they essentially tell stories of gods and goddesses. We’ve been doing that for a long time. And it’s because the mythology is so rich with stories. Except that after a point, after reading a couple of things, I just can’t see these entities as gods. Or whatever the definition of god is. [laughs] I just can’t get behind the whole – I can’t get behind a text that’s derogatory to women. I can’t see – I just can’t – I’ve said the word can’t so many times that it’s lost all meaning.

Aparna and Parinita laugh

Parinita: Is it even a real word anymore?

Sanjana: Yeah it’s just that’s the only way I can describe it.

Aparna: Yeah.

Sanjana: For a lack of better word, I just can’t you guys.

All three laugh

Parinita: As the kids these days say, I can’t even.

Sanjana: I can’t.

Parinita: [laughs] No I’m completely with you. I’m very angry on this episode because I’m just angry today and, like I said, I’ve been angry this week a lot. But I’m not one of those fundamentalist atheists because I think atheism can also become fundamentalism just in the way religion can become fundamentalism where you are so caught up with the ideology that you believe in, that you are forcing that ideology upon other people and you see other people as lesser than or not as equal to you because they believe in something different. I know that there’s this huge problem within atheism online and there’s this intersection of atheism and patriarchy. And there are these hero atheists who just make everyone feel stupid. Or try to make everyone feel stupid.

Aparna: There’s an intersection of everything with patriarchy.

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs] Essentially.

Sanjana: [laughs]

Aparna: We would be hard-pressed to find something that does not intersect with the ever-present patriarchy.

Parinita: Yeah. But I wouldn’t want to write off religion either. Because I like the idea of some of the things that people who are religious find from religion.

Sanjana: Yeah absolutely.

Parinita: For example, like community. I love the idea of finding this sense of community. I love the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text podcast. The hosts are I think graduates or they teach or work with the Harvard Divinity School in the US. And one of the hosts Vanessa, she’s from a Jewish background, but she’s not religious. And Casper, the other host, is from a Christian background but he’s also not religious. I don’t know if they consider themselves atheists, but they’re not religious. But they are humanist ministers, I think, where they live. So it’s this sort of secular practice. And in the podcast itself, they draw on a lot of religious practices from Judaism, from Christianity to analyse Harry Potter like that. So they use Harry Potter in the way religious people would use the Bhagavad Gita or the Bible or the Torah or the Quran. They use the characters, the themes, the events to make sense of the world. And I love that because they started this off with an in-person group and their podcast is so popular that it’s created these Harry Potter and the Sacred Text chapters all over the world. Where Harry Potter people – Harry Potter people like not the people come to life.

Sanjana and Aparna laugh

Parinita: Harry Potter fans meet and they do these different practices. But it’s just a way to come together with people that you wouldn’t otherwise have met like they would have done in temples or these sort of bhajan sessions and things that my mom goes to and meets people. Or in churches. Where people find that sense of community.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: So I love that idea of finding this community as a way to combat this disconnection that we have.

Sanjana: One of the episodes spoke about tradition in particular.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: Tradition and religion. And I really loved what they said about tradition. That all of us have the permission to reach in and take something that means something to us.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: And I felt that was really interesting because it is what I think the way our relationship with religion progressed, at least for us. It’s not that we obliterated it completely. There are bits and pieces of it and mostly only because of the traditions not of the religious aspect but more like we do these little things on Diwali.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: And that’s something probably that I want to continue following as general because especially with now having a kid, it’s just some bit of what we did or what we celebrate or something about just a little piece of our identity that I would like for my kid to have as well. And it’s not at all steeped in religion but it’s just this sense of sitting down together and making little stars and putting up lights or whatever.

Aparna: It is despite religion.

Sanjana: Yeah. It is despite religion that we celebrate [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah, it’s more cultural right?

Sanjana: Yeah exactly.

Parinita: Like in Harry Potter, the way that they celebrate. There are debates on this that Harry Potter itself is a Christian text because J. K. Rowling is Christian.

Sanjana: Right.

Parinita: And Harry and the comparisons with Jesus and Aslan in Narnia.

Aparna: Yeah.

Parinita: He comes back to life and sacrifices himself. But also Christmas and Easter in Hogwarts. Yeah they celebrate these Christian celebrations but it doesn’t seem to be in a way that’s really religious.

Aparna: Exactly.

Parinita: It seems to be the way that you’re saying, Sana, it’s cultural. And I’m the same.

Aparna: Or like we celebrate Christmas as well is exactly like they do in Harry Potter.

Parinita: Yeah. Because now I am in this foreign land where I am the minority and nobody – I mean I’m sure there are people who speak the same language and stuff but I don’t know them here except one person. But it makes me want to celebrate these things. Just for me, celebration has to involve food. So it’s just putting that together. So like Diwali or Ganesh Chathurthi because in Mumbai that’s a huge thing that I’ve grown up with. In my housing society, we used to have these celebrations. So it’s more about that – about past memories and cultural identities than religion. So I love celebrating that here especially because there isn’t really a community here that I can celebrate it with. So it’s like something that I’m – I’m –

Sanjana: Like a bit of yourself, yeah.

Parinita: Exactly.

Sanjana: Absolutely. Because all said and done, it is somewhere a part of our identity and the way we see the world or from where we see the world to some extent.

Aparna: Which is why the parallel between religion is so interesting. I find it very fascinating because whatever media I consume – the books that I read, the shows that I watch – is the way I relate to the world. So that is more part of my identity than anything else. So being a part of fandom, gives me that feeling of being part of a community. The sort of feelings that people get from religion – the positive feelings – without any of the negativity [laughs] for me.

Parinita: Although negativity does exist in fandom.

Aparna: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It certainly does.

Parinita: Like the toxic bits

Aparna: Yeah. So I was listening to this podcast called Our Opinions Are Correct and in that they were talking about that possibly this is because religion doesn’t occupy the same kind of space in public that it used to, especially with younger people. And that’s why people engage more in fandom and how there are people who accept or respect only what’s in the canon versus people reinterpreting it to make it your own. Which is exactly the sort of relationships that people have with religion.

Sanjana: Yeah. And this brings up an interesting thing that we did recently. So we recently did a book called Rama’s Ring. And it basically has these various stories taken from the retellings of the Ramayana. So the original Ramayana exists and then there are all these communities and all these tribes who have made Ramayana their own.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: They have created this completely different world with the main characters within it. So the first story is about how Rama’s ring gets lost. And every time a Rama’s ring gets lost, it’s the end of that Rama’s era. And then it goes on to say so hence there are so many Ramas in the world. This was in an essay written by A. K. Ramanujan, if I’m not mistaken. The whole point that I’m trying to make is what you’re saying –  what connection people have with the original versus any retelling, and the conflict in wanting to accept anything else from that deviates from the original is really astounding. Because the amount of feedback that we got from people because a lot of our readers are people who are Hindus.

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: Because we’re telling that mythology. And a lot of them wrote back to us saying, “How can you tell these fake Ramayanas? And how can you tell the story of these things?” Except that to everybody in that community, that is as real as it will get. Because it has little bits of their tradition and a little bit of their thing within that Ramayan. Like there’s one I’m not remembering the exact tribe – I think it’s Gond tribe – where Lakshmana is the main character. And he is the hero of the whole Ramayan. And he’s this person who lives in the jungle, one with nature – which is basically how they are. And so they’ve taken this great epic and made it their own because they’ve put little bits of their tradition into it. And that’s basically what a lot of the fandoms do for you. You take little bits of it and put little bits of yourself in it because at the end of the day, you want to see yourself in that story.

Parinita: Yeah. And I’ve also heard of a cultural tradition which sees Ravana as the protagonist.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: It’s told from Ravana’s perspective And that also has implications, right? Social, cultural and political implications in terms of historically with the Aryans and the Dravidians and how that plays a role. Skin colour and national and regional origin … sorry to bring it back to that. [laughs]

Sanjana: [laughs]

Parinita: But it just struck me now. I shouldn’t be apologising, that’s what we’re talking about! But basically how the mainstream cultural story may be oppressive to your identity and your culture. Or erasing you completely; erasing your perspectives and your traditions and whatever.

Sanjana: Yeah. Absolutely.

Parinita: And this is not just in the Ramayana but world religions all over.

Sanjana: Yeah. And it’s not just about even national origin and stuff. There was one version of the stories which is from Tamil Nadu which was a version of the Mahabharata. We did versions of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. In it, it’s not Krishna’s divine power that comes and saves Draupadi from the Vastraharan but it’s women who stand up in the court.

Parinita: Oh I love that!

Sanjana: Yeah! And we loved the story and the version so much that we had to put it into the book. And we put it into the book but the problem people have with that is that we’ve removed the divine out of it.

Parinita: [sighs] [laughs]

Sanjana: In a sense you’ve taken the one divine element that is Krishna who comes and saves everything.

Aparna: No, but they’re all just stories. Why can’t people just mind their own business? You like a story better just read that version of the story and leave everyone else alone!

Sanjana: No and it was interesting. Even that Imaginary Worlds episode that we heard where they discussed faith in fantasy

Parinita: Yeah.

Sanjana: And there was one part where they were talking about Narnia and it was very interesting how people from the two different faiths saw bits of their own faiths being reflected. Like the Shia culture and Jesus.

Parinita: Yeah and the Shia, Sunni thing as well, right?

Sanjana: Exactly. And how rebirth there and then there’s rebirth here and how it’s like the replacement of an imam. It was very interesting to see how the one exact same episode meant two different things to people from two different religions.

Parinita: Yeah and I’m sure it would be the same … I’m not – like I’ve made it very clear that I’m not Hindu

Sanjana: Yes.

Parinita: I don’t know our cultural stories as much as both of you do even because both of you have worked with Amar Chitra Katha so you’ve done the research and you know things. But I’m sure if I knew a lot more, I would have been able to read Harry Potter and draw on Hindu connections. We did briefly with the whole caste structure and the Hogwarts houses. But yeah that’s why I really like this idea of reclaiming tradition.

Sanjana: Yes.

Parinita: In that episode with Matt Potts, the Sacred Text one, they spoke about how tradition can be oppressive. Usually you have these negative connotations of tradition. Well some people have negative connotations, some people want to go back to the traditional way of life.

Aparna: [laughs]

Parinita: But traditionally tradition has been used to exclude groups of people. And now there are more people who’ve been on the margins otherwise are now trying to make a more inclusive kind of tradition. Whether it be religious or fandom as well, it sees tradition as dynamic rather than static. So it’s not going to become worse. It’s actually going to become stronger, because it’s open to more change. And just like the parallels with fandom and religion, there are some people who are more conservative and who want to adhere to canon. And what they consider as canon and that correct version of canon and no deviations should occur. Whereas there are others – with fans as well as with religious scholars and religious leaders and religious practitioners – who are now trying to find those marginalised voices in canon and highlight those and make it more inclusive. Like what you were saying about the Mahabharata with Draupadi – rather than this man coming to save her with his divine power, it’s a community of women who are standing up to the injustice that she’s facing. And that solidarity is what helps her. That puts so much more agency on women rather than having everything where they are just props and set dressing.

Sanjana: Exactly. Yeah. That is why that particular retelling was so important because sure, it was written some centuries later but the point is that it exists and someone wrote it and there are some people who read that as their truth.

Parinita: Yeah. And this is what fanfiction does as well, right?

Sanjana: Exactly!

Parinita: And even fan podcasts like this one and the ones that we’ve been listening to. We’re trying to go to these voices that are hidden or are invisible or are only known to a certain group of people. We have blind spots with queerness, we have blind spots with disabilities. But now that we are actively thinking about these things, because queer people or people with disabilities have told us their perspectives using fandom as a framework, now we think about these things more as well.

Sanjana: Yeah absolutely.

Parinita: I don’t know if you guys got a chance to listen to the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text with Broderick Greer. So he’s this Christian reverend and he’s black and gay which historically hasn’t been a position of power in the Catholic church. But he is using his position in the church to make it more inclusive. He practices this thing called marginalia which was inspired by his grandmother who would make notes in the margins of her bible so she was basically talking back to the bible using her own perspectives and using her own history. And his grandmother had a lot of these oppressed identities because she was this black woman in the US who was growing up in a time when black people – even now, black people in the US aren’t accorded with the same rights –  but then even more so. So this talking back to canon while respecting it because obviously she was this religious person so respecting but also talking back to it. And that’s something that fandom does as well in terms of fans talking back to their creators. This is a tweet that I saw today that J. K. Rowling has taught us to stand up to bigots like her.

Sanjana and Aparna laugh

Screenshot of tweet by @katiejoyofosho Text says: what's insane is that jk rowling essentially raised us to stand up to her bigotry

Parinita: Which I loved. Which is so true because her books ostensibly preach diversity and kindness and whatever.

Sanjana: Yeah

Parinita: But she doesn’t do that herself. So now there are all these fans standing up to her transphobia and her bigotry and whatever. Which I really love. My self-care routine as again, the kids these days say, yesterday was turning off and disconnecting from news and everything and watching Queer Eye on Netflix because the new season is out.

Sanjana: Hmm.

Parinita: And the first episode was about this gay minister, a Lutheran minister in church who was coming to terms with his identity. He came out much later in life. And they had such an amazing thing about with queerness and the church. There was this trans minister and this other gay minister as well who came to talk to him about how they can come together to make the church a more inclusive space. Because it’s been so hard for them. They grew up in a tradition where religion actively excluded them. And they now want to be open. They’re still religious but they’re also queer. So they want to make church this radically inclusive space so that other queer people now don’t face the same discrimination that they did. Which I loved so much and I cried a lot – lots of cathartic crying happened yesterday.

Aparna and Sanjana laugh

Parinita: But I loved the idea of that even with religion just in general and fandom as well, just listening to those voices which didn’t have a voice and bringing them to the fore rather than having just the same privileged group of people talking to themselves.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Aparna: That is basically the solution. Just for the people who’ve been talking for so long to just shut up for awhile.

Sanjana: [laughs]

Aparna: And listen. And let everyone else tell their stories.

Parinita: Just for a little bit.

Aparna: Just sit. That’s all that’s required for a while.

Parinita: Yeah because there are so many possibilities now to counter these narrow canonical narratives. What is canon anyway? Who decides? Just a group of people who had decided it thousands of years ago and now we’re like, “Oh yeah they’re completely correct! There’s no questioning them.” So I love that through media, through fanfiction or even through religious retellings, like Amar Chitra Katha comic books, you are highlighting these voices which are marginalised or erased and highlighting these diverse perspectives and interpretations to make it radically inclusive. Because even if society currently isn’t radically inclusive, why can’t we imagine our fiction to do better? Or our retellings to do better? We can imagine blue police boxes travelling across time and space or this complex magical world in Britain.

Sanjana and Aparna laugh

Parinita: But we can’t imagine Muslims and black people and Dalit people and transgender people and poor people are worthy of equal respect and dignity and compassion? I thought I’d gotten the ranting out of my system. [laughs] But apparently not.

Sanjana: Clearly not.

Parinita: [laughs]

Sanjana: But on that very correct note, [laughs] the three of us bid you bye-bye and we hope to see you soon.

Aparna: Yes.

Sanjana: Ranting some more.

Parinita: [laughs] Probably. With the way the world is going, there’s going to be a lot more ranting.

Sanjana: Yeah.

Parinita: But yes. Goodbye!

Aparna: Bye!

Sanjana: Buh-bye!

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode on religion and geographical origin and the ways in which both intersect with class, caste and dominant political norms. Thanks again to Aparna and Sanjana for helping me get all that ranting out of my system and making me feel better about the state of the world. The world is still terrible but being angry with friends is cathartic. And thank you Jack for also listening to my various rants both about the real world and various fictional worlds (and also for the editing).

[Outro music]

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

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

Episode 12 The International Imagination: Exploring World Politics in the Fantastic Beasts Films

Episode Resources:

1) Movie – Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them 

2) Movie – The Crimes of Grindelwald

3) Movie – Deleted scenes featuring Nagini from The Crimes of Grindelwald

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

4) Essay – Notes on Claudia Kim’s Nagini

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

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

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

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

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

 

Episode Transcript:

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

Lorrie and her Nagini funkopop

[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 twelfth episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I talk to Lorrie Kim about how people of colour are represented in the Potterverse and how much Lorrie loves and identifies with Nagini. We also discuss the real-world parallels in Crimes of Grindelwald. This includes mentions of rape, exploitation and human trafficking so please consider this a content warning. Lorrie proposes that the Harry Potter books – written for children – and the Fantastic Beasts movies – written for adults – deal with similar themes in very different ways. The allegory of fascism is ever-present but is less escapist. The international politics in Crimes of Grindelwald draw from historical as well as contemporary colonial, racial and sexual violence in the real world.

A book authored by a single creator reflects their cultural, social, and political limitations. However, in movies, the actors and crew become co-creators of the story, which can sometimes make up for the author’s blind-spots. Deleted scenes in movies marginalise female characters of colour whose stories are seen as expendable. Fans’ discomfort against how these characters are portrayed can end up erasing them from the story entirely. Many fans dislike the Fantastic Beasts movies and Nagini’s story arc for lots of different reasons. While fan interpretations often differ, mainstream fandom discourse isn’t always nuanced and inclusive of multiple perspectives. Fandom has tremendous potential to promote critical thinking, but fan opinions can also influence people in limiting ways.

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

Happy listening!

[Intro music]

Parinita: Today I’m so thrilled to be able to talk to Lorrie Kim about our shared love of the Potterverse. Lorrie is a second-generation Korean-American, bisexual woman, three years younger than J. K. Rowling. She’s married with two kids. She’s also the author of Snape: A Definitive Reading. She has enjoyed speaking at Harry Potter conferences since 2008. I’m especially excited to have Lorrie on the episode because in our brief conversations while planning the episode, she’s shown me such a different perspective of some of the critiques which are really popular in the Potter fandom. Like me, Lorrie is able to balance love and critique when it comes to Harry Potter, but some of her opinions are quite different from what I’ve encountered in mainstream fandom. So I’m really happy that Lorrie is here to expand my mind some more. Before we get to those bits though, I wanted to discuss how your initial opinions about the books are influenced by how old you were when you first read them. That’s something that you mentioned while we were planning the episode. So I read The Philosopher’s Stone when I was ten and grew up with the book series and I only came to consider and understand the more problematic aspects of the series as an adult through my engagement in fandom. Lorrie, you mentioned that you first read the series as an adult so that impacted your experience in a different way.

Lorrie: Yeah, because I’m almost the same age as J. K. Rowling, and I think I was maybe 32-33 when I first read the first five books ’cause six and seven hadn’t been written yet. I was identifying with the author somewhat because I knew her life experiences were generationally similar to mine. I’ve noticed that people who grew up with the series, as their perspectives changed into adult perspectives, they’ve re-visited them and what they remembered from the series is not necessarily what they see now when they read it as adults. And there’s a lot less of that for me because I was already an adult reading.

Parinita: So you already saw the problematic aspects when you first read them. [laughs]

Lorrie: Well when I first read them, it was very much very clear to me that I was reading something written by a white, British, heterosexual, married woman, a Christian mother. I didn’t have kids when I read the first five books, I had a kid by the time the sixth book came out. And then I was pregnant when the seventh book came out. And re-reading them as a mother changed my perspective a lot, especially around issues of pregnancy and being connected to small infants and infant development.

Parinita: Oh interesting! Did your kids grow up with the books as well?

Lorrie: They did. And what I didn’t expect – they were small children during the time that we switched over from Harry Potter books being written to all of them being written and all of the movies being finished. So I had a couple years when I wondered how old they would be before I let them read the books, not realising that by the time kids are in kindergarten and they run around together playing in the playground, they’re shouting spells at each other.

Parinita: [laughs]

Lorrie: So you know they’re spoiled for the series. So all of these concerns I had as a reader, I wasn’t taking into account what the reality was going to be for them. So by the time kids entered kindergarten, they’ve heard of something or other from Harry Potter.

Parinita: Yeah that’s a really interesting generational difference as well for people – for kids who had the entire canon. Well not the Fantastic Beasts canon but the entire Harry Potter canon that does not include the new tweets and the Pottermore stuff. But you’re so right. For me, growing up, reading this it was so different from what you picked up on in the books because none of that is anything that I’d noticed. I didn’t even notice how white the books were, just because I was growing up in India when I was reading this so I couldn’t really articulate those sort of conversations. Because I grew up reading a lot of British children’s books anyway and American children’s literature. So most of my reading diet consisted of Western books where most of the characters – where whiteness is default essentially. So I didn’t really question that in Harry Potter as much. Now, of course, when I moved to the UK, I see that the UK, even in the early 90s, would have been much more diverse than what the books show.

Lorrie: Yes.

Parinita: In The Prisoner of Azkaban, just the brief clip that I watched, there is so much more diversity within the classroom. And I was really surprised because that’s not something I had noticed when I was watching the movies because I was very much focused on the trio because that’s what the books focus on as well. So even as an audience member, that’s what I was watching. But now I was like, “Oh wait! There are a lot more people of colour in the movies!” I know with Lavender Brown’s casting, that’s had a bit of an issue where she was a black girl in the beginning.

Lorrie: Yeah.

Parinita: And then in Half-Blood Prince, suddenly when she was a main character – well not a main character but she was adjacent to a protagonist, she was suddenly a white character. But then you picked up on these themes and that didn’t dampen your enthusiasm for the books, right?

The changing faces of Lavender Brown. Image courtesy Reddit

Lorrie: Any book from authors of any culture will show the perspectives of the author and their limitations. It’s not like there’s some other country or racial identity people can come from where everything is automatically superior and they know how to write every kind of person. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah. I feel like now with the internet and social media when these conversations are so mainstream – because for me, that’s what really made me decolonise my own mind a little bit. Growing up in India – and India still has quite a colonised mindset because we still think what the West does is better. At least in urban India and certain parts of rural and small-town India. So we would think that the US or the UK would have it all figured out. It’s just because of colonisation obviously that we still think this. Although now with the politics and the way the situation is going on both in the US and the UK, that may not be as true anymore. But in India, we have a fascist leader as well so we can’t really complain. Speaking of fascism, I’m turning to Fantastic Beasts now. One of the mainstream fandom opinions I’ve encountered before – and you came in and smashed this perception to pieces – is that most Harry Potter fans, at least the ones I’ve read and listened to on podcasts, don’t seem to think too highly of the movies. And I have to admit that these really strong opinions unfairly influenced me and put me off watching Crimes of Grindelwald for the longest time what with the critiques of the movie itself but also the whole Nagini controversy, which we’ll talk about a bit more later. But just to introduce your own thoughts about the movies, I know that unlike most fans I’ve encountered, you love the new films, right?

Lorrie: I love them! Crimes of Grindelwald is my favourite of the Potterverse films.

Parinita: I watched Crimes of Grindelwald a few days ago after consciously not watching it because of all the negativity in the fandom. And I was so surprised by how invested I was in the movie just because of how much everyone seems to dislike the movie, I thought that I would as well – which is obviously really silly now that I think about it. But yeah, I really enjoyed the film, more than the first Fantastic Beasts movie.

Lorrie: I’m curious – can you tell me what some of the things that were most compelling to you in the Crimes of Grindelwald movie?

Parinita: So I loved the characters.

Lorrie: Yeah.

Parinita: I loved Leta Lestrange, I loved her whole story. I also loved Newt right from the first movie. I loved the way that he treats other people as well as other animals. I loved his cross-cultural friendship with Jacob and how respectfully and empathetically he not only treats him but just the world in general. And I also loved the glimpses into the French Ministry of Magic. We’re used to the British magical system because that’s what we’ve grown up with. And then we saw a little bit about the American magical system in Fantastic Beasts. And I’m loving these glimpses of how different countries do it differently. Of course, it’s still very Western currently. It might change in the three other films. But I’m loving this exploration of new worlds but also the return to old ones. They came to Hogwarts and there was McGonagall for the briefest of instances in the scene and I was like, “Aaaah McGonagall! I love you!” So I liked the balance. The more alarming bit of it was I could recognise Grindelwald’s speeches – the way that he couched his bigotry and prejudice in more politically correct terms, I was like, “Oh yeah this is what happened in India. This is what’s happening in many parts of the world. This is not scary at all!” You’d mentioned that it is a film for adults as opposed to Harry Potter which is for children. And I think I really appreciated that.

Lorrie: Yeah I felt like I’m the audience for this. And that many times as an adult reading or watching the Harry Potter stories, I had to tell myself, well I’m not the audience. As an adult, this isn’t the story that I wanted. I have to remember that she’s speaking to young people between ages six and seventeen.

Parinita: Yeah. But you did say that you’d noticed some similar themes in Harry Potter – even though it’s for children – and Fantastic Beasts which is for adults. Could you tell us some of the themes you picked up on?

Lorrie: Yeah. In my opinion, it’s actually the same story. It’s just that Harry Potter is a fairy tale and that’s why when Harry goes looking for his own story, he always finds something. He wants to find his mother and father, he finds them. He finds the people who give them back to him. When children are angry and murderous in Harry Potter, an adult comes and saves them from becoming murderers. They don’t actually kill, they get stopped in time because adults are there to do their jobs. In Fantastic Beasts it’s the same but the children actually commit murder and adults are just as ineffective as we know them to be in real life. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Lorrie: And the sexual assault in Harry Potter is often coded or softened in some way. And especially when it’s sexual assault of men on women or girls, Rowling very carefully wrote it so you can read it as sexual assault or not. She did very careful word choice so what you see there is something you need to read according to your experience and to your age. For example, there is a child of coercion in Harry Potter who is Voldemort.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lorrie: And she carefully made it so that it was a female character coercing a male character. I think she was trying to get away from the over-emotional tones of making it statistically what’s more common of men coercing women. So it’s very careful. And it’s not the common story that we encounter in real life. And in Fantastic Beasts, we have a child of coercion but oh there’s no cushioning this. What we see is some of the grossest, starkest ways that this is common in real life. Both with race and national, colonial violence as well as gender.

Parinita: Spoilers for those who haven’t watched Crimes of Grindelwald, but until you pointed that out to me that this is what happens with Leta Lestrange’s family as well as – I’ve forgotten her half-brother’s name …

Lorrie: Yusuf.

Parinita: Yusuf. Yeah!

Lorrie: Cama.

Parinita: Yeah Yusuf Cama’s family, it is rape where a white man essentially stole a black woman or kidnapped or enchanted – I think it was an enchantment.

Lorrie: It is the Imperius curse.

Parinita: Oh yeah. And essentially raped her and I think she died in childbirth? From what I remember.

Lorrie: Yes.

Parinita: Yeah. And it’s not something that you might catch on first watch, because so much happens after that scene. That revelation happens towards the end of the movie and then after that, there’s a lot of action and drama and everything. It’s like you were saying, you had to watch the movie three times to unpack all the things that are happening in that movie. I don’t know why this is – but maybe that’ll change now because academia is such a long process –  but there doesn’t seem to be as much critical analysis of these movies in academic publishing or even on the internet as much as the books have received. And I don’t know if it’s because a lot of people don’t like the movies. I have no idea why I haven’t seen so much critical analysis. Because otherwise the internet is full of Harry Potter critical analysis. The smallest of scenes is unpacked so much. Whereas the movies I don’t seem to have encountered that so much.

Lorrie: I think part of it is that with the stories we’ve had a long time to get used to the starkness and the appalling parts of the Harry Potter story, that there’s a baby that was almost killed. Some of that is really hard to deal with but it’s been awhile so we’ve accepted that part of the story, I think. The even harsher realities shown in these movies, it’s going to take a while for them to settle in. There are a lot of parts of the Fantastic Beasts and Crimes of Grindelwald movies that people rejected just ’cause the stories which are true you know [laughs] accurate stories about the world.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lorrie: They take a while to accept especially because and this was [laughs] obviously not planned but those movies came out in 2016 and 2018 during times that really fascist politics were happening in the US and the UK. And in fact the first Fantastic Beasts movie premiered during the week that Donald Trump was elected. So when you see the interviews that Rowling and the cast do in Carnegie Hall in New York to open the film, they all look really stunned and sickened.

Parinita: [laughs] Oh no.

Lorrie: I actually have a friend who had tickets to go see them talk in Carnegie Hall. And when she walked there, she had to walk past Trump Tower and there were huge police barricades all over a block of Trump Tower because there were so many protesters. So it had been less than a week. And if you look at the interviews and you see the faces of the actors, they all look like they don’t even know what to say because they had thought that this would be allegorical – an allegory about fascism. And it’s a lot less escapist. There are parts of the world where Harry Potter was never escapist. But in the US and the UK, the Harry Potter stories were for a while more stark than a lot of people were living. And now they’re not escapist at all. [laughs]

Parinita: No. And what you were saying about the difference between writing for adults versus writing for children, so in one of the podcast episodes I think they propose that witches and wizards in England must have profited off the slave trade and off colonisation – that was their reading into it. Because families like the Malfoys must have become rich like that – exploring how intertwined the Muggle world and the witching world is. And now it seems to be much more explicitly there in terms of the Lestrange family and in terms of even Nagini where these different ethnicities in the US and in the UK have – well I don’t know if Fantastic Beasts explores the UK as much. The Lestranges – they were French right?

Lorrie: Yeah.

Parinita: Yeah so then it’s much more explicit. And I wonder then if what you were saying about fans who’ve grown up with this and there’s a lot more metaphorical racism in the Harry Potter series rather than the more overt racism here. It’s all couched under house-elves and goblins and Muggle-borns. Whereas here … well I suppose here things like the magical president in the US is black. One of the critiques in the movies was that in 1920s, having a black leader when there weren’t many black people within the Ministry itself would have been strange, right?

Lorrie: That was a major … [sighs] that was one of those cases where it’s tokenism. If you’re going to have a black woman as the president but you don’t show an established structure of black wizarding culture, if she’s going to be the only black woman in high office and she’s the president, it feels a little amateur. Like okay I want to have a person of colour but without doing the enormous work of having to delve into accurately portraying all of the tensions there so I’ll make her president. That’s a strong independent position but it’s not supported.

Parinita: Especially if she was out in the Muggle world, her experiences would have been so different from her role and position in the wizarding world in the US. And that tension I think was glossed over like, “No, no let’s not think about it. She’s the leader. That’s all.”

Lorrie: And there is a place for that kind of symbolism in fantasy. Because there’s also very much a tradition in fantasy literature of, “Well if we think about real life in the 1920s for certain kinds of people, it’s heavy. But people were just as inspired and brilliant then as anywhere any time. Let’s imagine a fantasy where this is how it would have looked.” The problem is who’s writing that and how much do they know about what they’re portraying?

Parinita: Yeah.

Lorrie: And it’s tokenism because … this is where I think some of the criticism of J. K. Rowling is a little out of context. It’s true that I don’t trust her to write people of colour. It’s a very ambitious project to take this deeply imagined white British magic system that she’s invented and then try to expand that to be an international story. But I couldn’t do that. If I were gonna write a story that went to other countries that I’ve never lived in, I wouldn’t do any better. And I’m not sure how many people would. And if that means that that nobody should ever try, that doesn’t seem like the right answer to me either.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lorrie: But this is where I think the movies deserve a little more credit than they’re getting because what happens then is you go from a novel format where it’s a single author creating everything in the Harry Potter books to the Fantastic Beasts stories which only exist as films. And therefore there cannot be a single creator. And even though the stories are definitely still created from this white US-UK perspective, even so the actors in their bodies and their faces and everything that they bring to their roles, their experiences, become much greater co-creators of the characters than the actors were when they were bringing Harry Potter novels to the screen.

Parinita: Yeah. One of the things I personally saw related to that was Newt. I know that this is a theory within fandom, I don’t know if he was written like that, but he can be read as neurodiverse.

Lorrie: He has confirmed that.

Parinita: Oh he has?

Lorrie: Eddie Redmayne, yes.

Parinita: Yeah. I didn’t know if it was just the actor’s choice to portray himself like that or whether it was intentionally written into the script. I think he’s one of my favourite characters in the Potterverse, not just in the Fantastic Beasts films. With the second movie, it’s so much starker – the focus on fascism like you were saying, the fascist framework of these movies. And Grindelwald is such a symptom. He is evil and he uses all this propaganda and everything, but he’s just a symptom. Whereas so many people in the wizarding community, they will happily be fascists themselves and rule both the Muggle and magical world, as we saw in the French system. I’m sure that’s the same in the US and in the UK and wherever else they head to next. That was so scary because that was so true. And it so reflects real life. If we get rid of Trump, if we get rid of Modi, that’s not going to stop what’s happening in the US or in India, right?

Lorrie: Yes and no because also what those kinds of leaders are exploiting is fear and prejudice and tendencies that humans always have within us. And that’s overpowering empathy and generosity that we also always have within us. So partly if there’s encouragement of certain elements in human nature backed up by politics, backed up by the law and enforcement, humans we can be manipulated [laughs] in a number of different directions. We have a lot of that in us already. But the same people that can be manipulated to be very, very bigoted could also in other contexts or just through peer pressure be made to be much more accepting.

Parinita: Yeah, that’s true. What you said about stoking fears and preying on hopes is something I thought was very interesting. Again, spoilers for Crimes of Grindelwald but what happens with Queenie and how Grindelwald uses her fears of not being able to marry Jacob because the society that she comes from doesn’t allow relationships with people who are not witches and wizards. Queenie is supposed to be this really empathetic and generous and open-hearted person. And the reason that she joins Grindelwald turns that against her. I know there’s a theory that she’s a double agent. And maybe she’ll come back. But I find it more fascinating that she would have joined him because she’s doing it for what for her are the correct reasons.

Lorrie: Oh, I have so many theories about Queenie. [laughs]

Parinita: Oh really? What are some of your theories?

Lorrie: Well I think she was drugged.

Parinita: Hmm. With the tea that she had in the house? Yeah maybe.

Lorrie: And also just because she’s neurodiverse, she can’t control her Legilimency and it causes her daily discomfort. It causes discomfort in her closest relationships and she can get overwhelmed. I think she’s vulnerable. When we see her first meeting Grindelwald, the moment he walks into the room, she is trembling. She leaps to self defense and she says, “I know what you are, stay away.” And just through sheer power, he overpowers her during that scene. He just keeps walking toward her, she lowers her wand. By the time he’s done talking, he’s won her over. He’s just more powerful than she is.

Parinita: Yeah. And Grindelwald is really good at manipulating and overpowering even someone like Credence, of course, who is much younger – there’s that age dynamic there. But he was the same with Dumbledore. And that was one of Dumbledore’s origin stories where he fell for … what was the phrase? I’ve forgotten that very fascist phrase that he used.

Lorrie: Oh, for the greater good.

Parinita: For the greater good, that’s right. So I mean if Dumbledore can fall for this – which from the narrative, Dumbledore is supposed to be wise and critical and everything but yeah he fell for this as well. So why wouldn’t other people?

Lorrie: Well what we see about Dumbledore is that he already had those wishes in him and Grindelwald just allowed him to suppress his conscience so that he could give in to those wishes. And that’s why Dumbledore says it has to be Newt to fight against Grindelwald because the kind of personality Newt has, he doesn’t have the kind of vulnerabilities that Grindelwald is used to exploiting.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lorrie: Even middle-aged Dumbledore, when he looks in the Mirror of Erised, his deepest desire is to go back to being melded with this man who is his equal even if he is also the most evil person. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah. Grindelwald seems to be just as if not more terrible and powerful and evil as Voldemort. Okay you defeated a fascist forty years ago and here comes another which again, no parallels with real life at all! [laughs] Which was again much starker in the movies – maybe it’s also the visual component and maybe it’s deliberate, but the parallels with the real world and the magical world were much starker. You mentioned that you really liked the internationally political aspect of the movies where it explores both real-world racial and fictional world Pureblood politics and prejudices? Something that you’d mentioned which I found really interesting was the Korean perspective and Korean history.

Lorrie: Oh boy yeah. I think you can’t have an international story without delving right into the middle of the huge upheavals in racial and colonial violence that have shaped world history. I don’t think you can have an international story without that. And especially because this film series is about the international tensions that gave rise to World War II. So it has to be about race, about fascism, about genocide. That’s the story that she’s taking on. And then what I love what she’s doing with the Fantastic Beasts films so far based on our sample of two movies. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Lorrie: She goes to a place and she tells you the story that that place does not want to talk about. So when she takes you to New York, there’s American capital punishment, there’s puritanism and witch hunts. And then she takes you to France and there’s this horrendous colonial violence, racial violence. When a culture feels guilty about a story, it wants to put it away or suppress it and that’s the theme of the Fantastic Beasts stories – other creatures, are they beings or are they monsters? And Grindelwald says they’re not inferior, they’re other. Nagini and Credence are both perfect examples – how would you classify them? Newt and his textbooks explore that question perfectly. Do you classify this being as a beast or as a person? You have the centaurs who say, “Oh we could be classified as people but we don’t want that. We reject that. Put us with the beasts.” And in the first movie especially when we saw people talk about Credence, some people said “it” and some people said “he”.

Parinita: Oh yeah, that’s right.

Lorrie: And that’s the difference between Newt and the executioner Grimmson. Grimmson is all excited to go hunting. And Newt is horrified. [laughs] So when we see the circus, which is another beautiful melding of fantasy and real history because the circus of course is a place where humans who are or were freaks find a life that is both better and worse than a mainstream life. And definitely a culture where people who are freaks bond together. And put up with some really frightening, exploitative conditions. So Skender, who’s the circus master, talks about them as his freaks and as his under-beings. And he’s exploiting Nagini as a freak and as an under-being. Even though there are a number of reasons why this isn’t true, but for my feelings Nagini is the first Korean woman in Potterverse. And one way in which that might not be true is because we’re not sure if Cho Chang may have been meant to be Korean.

Parinita: Right, yeah.

Lorrie: And the thing about Cho Chang, of course, is she’s written so that she’s of no race. You could put any race on her and she’s –

Parinita: Generically East Asian.

Lorrie: Yeah.

Parinita: She’s just an East Asian name.

Lorrie: It’s an amateur move from a writer who’s not familiar with a culture and trying to portray it and it comes off as strange tokenism.

Parinita: I mean Parvati and Padma Patil were similar as well. They could have been white. There was nothing there.

Lorrie: And that’s why when we say that Hermione is black, Hermione is a beautifully written character of colour because she’s a full human. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs]

Fan art of black Hermione

Fan art of black Hermione

Lorrie: And her story has elements of being a minority. But when Rowling sets out from the top to write somebody who is signalled to be a person of colour, then that’s not something that you trust as being confident and full.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lorrie: So to me, Cho Chang is not of any particular race. And I’m not angry about it either. I’m just like, well that’s as much as that author can do. And I’m not going to waste my time expecting her to do any better because I don’t think she can. And I have seen improvements in Rowling’s ability to write people of colour and the improvements are so slow [laughs] and incremental and small and not a direct line of improvement either that it [sighs] it’s … you know be realistic. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah. And I suppose again that reflects maybe just the maturity that you had as a reader and as an adult when you first read the series versus say someone like me and a lot of fans who are younger than me who demand instant change. Maybe not instant change but we want her to be better sooner than or maybe even more than she’s capable of. I would be happier if she hired a research assistant or a co-writer or someone who is from the culture to write with her. Just so that there would be more authenticity. On the other hand, with fandom discourse, I get a lot of my ideas from fandom because – I’ve mentioned this on the podcast before. So in India, mainstream education isn’t really equipped to teach you how to think critically. That’s not something that’s in the curriculum. So I didn’t grow up learning how to think; I grew up in school learning what to think and parroted those answers in exams.  And it’s only fandom that through its multiple perspectives and diverse opinions and questioning of canon and expanding canon and exploring all those missing gaps, it allowed me to imagine differently. And that’s another reason I’m doing this PhD project. But thanks to you I realised, which is why I’m so excited to have you on board here as a participant, is that fan discourse isn’t always as nuanced and inclusive of multiple perspectives as I give it credit for. And one of the things that you’ve completely given me a different perspective from mainstream fandom is of the character of Nagini. And I know that you were uncomfortable about the hostility exhibited by some of the fan podcasts that I’d suggested which made me think that even though I credit fan discussions to expanding my mind in many ways, it’s still quite limited. And sometimes one narrative takes over and you might not get a chance to explore other opinions. With Nagini I think the controversy was that she represents a stereotype and a trope of Eastern Asian women in Western media, if I’m not wrong.

Lorrie: Oh. [sighs] It’s hard to represent what the objection to Nagini was because it’s not the same as what I think I saw on the screen. As I was saying, I didn’t think there was a Korean woman in Potterverse. So then when it was in 2017 when they announced that a Korean woman is going to be playing Nagini, I was so thrilled. And so from that day I have a tweet.

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs]

Lorrie: “A Korean woman in Potterverse. *instant identification.* 1) Neville killed me, oh noes 2) [gasps] “milk Nagini” GROSSSSSS 3) Impersonating Bathilda Bagshot’s corpse? That was a lot to ask of a snake! 4) Ugh, I had to eat Charity Burbage! 5) OH MY GOD I ATE SNAPE”

Parinita: [laughs]

Lorrie: And I just started laughing and laughing and laughing. And it was so much fun. I followed Claudia Kim on Instagram and she posted a screencap. The movie of Chamber of Secrets was on her TV and she showed herself running to watch like “Oooh oooh oooh!” And then she showed a picture of little twelve-year-old Neville and her caption was, “Oh no Neville! Aaaaah!”

Parinita: [laughs]

Lorrie: [laughs] And when she wrote about Nagini, she would write, “Nagini, I love you.” And I was so excited. I had seen her before so I was so interested to see where this would go. And then it was like being punched repeatedly in the stomach when there was this huge outcry like, “Oh no this is terrible. If we have a Korean actress in Potterverse, then the story has to be about stereotypes and it’s racist and get the Korean woman out of there.” People were writing that her casting had ruined the franchise. [sighs] And they hadn’t even seen the movie yet.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lorrie: The more nuanced issue which I understand is that Nagini the character was written to be from Indonesia. And there had been a famous Indonesian actress cast and she couldn’t play the role ’cause she was pregnant. So they had to find another actress and eventually the one they found happened to be Korean. That’s partly like, “Oh well you know any Asian will do.” And that I understand. But what was not intended and yet happened in my mind that this makes Nagini Korean to me. And she’s not Korean-American. She’s Korean. She has a career at home and a following. And so it’s exciting that a Korean actress is going to become a part of this enormous international franchise. Let’s see how this happens. And the thing is if you think about Korean women in the time leading up to World War II, there was no Korea. Korea was colonised by Japan and you do not want to be colonised by Japan. Oh my god!

Parinita: [laughs] Yup.

Lorrie: So this is a political issue that is actually very divisive between Japan and Korea currently. And is responsible for major diplomatic conflicts and trade wars between Korea and Japan right now – that as part of the colonisation, the Japanese military plundered Korean female populations for human trafficking. And this is actually something that the Japanese military did with a number of Asian countries leading up to and during World War II including Indonesia. But really the bulk of it was huge numbers of Koreans. And there are a couple of those women that are still alive. And the degree of human trafficking obviously is something that a lot of Koreans don’t want as the thing to represent the country in the international imagination.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lorrie: Because it’s just too incredibly painful. But there’s a problem with that which is that it can go into shame and silencing the actual people who went through that. And wanting to hide their stories. I don’t want to single out anybody on social media because there is a whole lot of outcry against the whole concept of Nagini being played by a Korean woman. But some of the kinds of critiques that I saw said things like, “Oh yeah sure great what a positive, strong, independent woman!” And to me what that said is okay then you tell me then how do you want us to be shown in the story for your satisfaction? You make up the character that you can tell me, okay now you can come be in the story. And then people said something that is absolutely not true, absolutely not supported. Which is that they said, “Oh Nagini was his lover” No. There was nothing like that with Voldemort and Nagini. “This is his slave. She served a white man.” Okay I don’t actually think that race was the major component of the Nagini-Voldemort relationship. [laughs] First of all species, not race.

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs] And presumably she only met Voldemort after she got trapped in her body as a snake. This is just conjecture, I don’t know.

Lorrie: Yeah, we don’t know. Because at the time that this movie Crimes of Grindelwald was taking place, Voldemort has just been born. And we know that in Goblet of Fire, he shows that Nagini is his mother figure. So we don’t know if there’s some sort of substitution in Voldemort’s story. We have no idea where this is going to go. But it made me think [sighs] we don’t actually know a lot of the Nagini story but people have images in their minds of Asian women stereotypes that they’re uncomfortable with and they don’t want them. And to me that came down to this role should have gone to a white woman so that viewers wouldn’t be uncomfortable. And people are saying, “Well this is a terrible story. She dies in captivity. And this is racist.” And I thought how is that different from like half the Potteverse characters who have the same kind of death?

Parinita: Yeah. Because you’d written that in your blog post. Your blog post was really so illuminating. I watched the movie and then I watched Nagini’s deleted scenes. For me, Nagini was just one of the several characters that I was really interested in. I was actually interested in all of the characters in Crimes of Grindelwald just because they all added something different to the story in a very different way than what I was used to from the Harry Potter movies. Because obviously I’ve always read the books first. So I know exactly what’s going to happen in the movies. Whereas here, like you said, they’ve only ever been movies so I don’t know what’s going to happen in the new movies. It’s almost like being a teenager again when we were waiting for the new books to come out. In Crimes of Grindelwald I loved the last scene – I don’t know if it was the last scene – where there’s Nagini, and I think Yusuf and Newt and this whole ragtag bunch of people at Hogwarts. And presumably they are going to go on further adventures in the other three movies which I’m really waiting for. I like that they’re from different backgrounds magical, non-magical, Obscurial – well, Credence is not there anymore in that ragtag team but he will play a role. I’m just interested in how they manage to pull all of that together and I’m excited to see that. But getting back to your blog post, it was so illuminating to me because it included this perspective about especially how there are so many characters who are used and abused by Voldemort. And all these other tragedies that exist in canon in Harry Potter. But just focusing on this one character to almost erase her out of the story where they would rather not have her than have her in what they think is a problematic way.

Lorrie: Well I mean if considering the story and the era it’s – you know history was problematic. [laughs]

Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.

Lorrie: There were some critiques of her storyline that I think are willfully untrue. Simply false. If people are saying well she doesn’t have agency, when you look at the actual plot line of Nagini in this movie, it’s amazing. So she is exploited. And just like your classic Harry Potter message, she joins forces with someone else who is powerless. And through their bond of affection and resistance, they escape their imprisonment. And we don’t have a lot of people in the Potterverse who are able to manage their own prison break.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lorrie: But these two do it. And neither one of them could have done it alone. They plot together, they make a strategy and there’s a moment when Skender is trying to get her to perform and she’s just making him look stupid. She’s not responding because she’s having eye contact with Credence like, “Is this going to happen? Are we going to bond? Are we going to go from being two captives to being free? Is our bond strong enough?” And to me that was a huge wish fulfillment because she’s being sexually exploited obviously with all the emphasis on how beautiful she is. But she’s in a way protected by the bars – the audience can’t touch her. And she can turn into a snake that can attack Skender and her best friend is an Obscurial.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lorrie: And I thought oh this is a good fantasy. And then they escape together. And then the two deleted scenes – I had a sorrow and anger when I eventually saw the deleted scenes because to me that’s a classic example of when a woman of colour’s story is marginalised. These scenes were written and filmed and they were taken out of the main movie. Fortunately, we got them in the deleted scenes but the fact that they were edited out is marginalisation.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lorrie: And her story is so much more full. This happens with Leta also. So in one deleted scene with Nagini, she and Credence are stealing food. They’re caring for each other. And she’s trying to hide from him that her skin is becoming more and more scaly. Because the Maledictus curse is in women through the female line, where there’s a curse on your family and eventually you turn into an animal. Which is as strong a human trafficking metaphor as any. So she doesn’t want him to see the scaliness because she’s afraid and ashamed and he makes her stop hiding it and he kisses it. And it’s so much like, beast or being, I see you’re a person, I love you.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lorrie: And then there’s a parallel to that in the other deleted scene which to me is so beautiful. I wish they had kept it. We see them waking up in the morning and Credence is sleeping in Nagini’s arms and you realise this is the most closeness he’s ever had in his life. He’s found peace, he’s found something. But then also every time Nagini sleeps, she has to turn into a snake. And every time she turns into a snake, she has a harder and harder time turning back. So there’s a close-up on her eyes. She hasn’t been sleeping. She has lain with Credence and comforted him so he could sleep. But she has stayed awake because she wants to be with him as a human. And that’s such a feeling of oppression – that hyper alertness.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lorrie: And then she tells him, “Make it happen because we’re free.” So he’s clearly told her about the Obscurus. And he’s never brought it forth voluntarily before. And then she does something that is so beautiful I can’t even stand it. It’s so beautiful where she lets it pass through her. At first it flies around in a way that you’re like you know what, this is beautiful too. The Obscurus has beauty in it. And then it passes right through her body showing, “What you are, this thing that’s the worst of you, it can’t hurt me. I can take it. I can take all of you.” And that acceptance to me. Their relationship is so powerful. And then she goes with him to look for his mother, which is such an emotional scene.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lorrie: And she can sense that there’s something wrong the whole time and that hyper-alertness. There’s a Korean word [says Korean word] and I thought this is one of the reasons why Nagini as acted, Nagini the character as co-created by the script writers and the actress reads to me as so Korean, is that she acts out the character so much non-verbally with micro-expressions that I recognise from Korean culture. And this is something you can’t get in a novel. Or you can if the author is really in tune with that deep, nuanced identification with that kind of character, which we know J. K. Rowling can’t do with a lot of people of colour. But if you hire an actress, who’s a really good actress, she’ll do it for you.

Parinita: I love that you’ve shared this nuanced analysis and exploration of Nagini because I wouldn’t have been able to pick up on any of this. Just as someone who isn’t familiar with Korean culture. You are so you could pick out on these micro-expressions and things that Claudia Kim acted. And just even the minute details, you’re right, it fleshes out the character so much and it’s such a tragedy that it didn’t make its way into the actual film. And of course, there are three more films that are going to be coming out so hopefully she will have a bigger role to play. I think she will especially since Credence has now gone over to the dark side as we saw in the second movie. It’s quite sad that he didn’t choose Nagini’s better influence and fell prey to Grindelwald, but I have hope that will change. It’s such a refreshing perspective to be able to see things in a different light. That’s why I started this podcast and that’s why I love fandom and fan discussions and fan criticisms. Just because it allows me to see the same text in so many different ways based on who’s the one who’s interpreting it. Viewing it from different cultures. And I love that you have this really detailed and nuanced analysis of Nagini, which makes me like her so much more as well.

Lorrie: I love her. And she gets a line that shows she has the same beliefs as Dumbledore. When Credence is leaving her, he says, “He knows who I am.” And Nagini says, “He knows what you were born, not who you are.” And that is exactly what Dumbledore teaches Harry.

Parinita: Yeah.

Lorrie: And with J. K. Rowling, there are times when she gives characters lines to say that let you the reader or viewer know okay this is where the real message is. It’s important that this line comes from somebody who really is enslaved or trafficked or powerless. Because that’s actually the core message of both Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts – listening to the truth in each being no matter how powerless or how much of a freak or under-being they are.

Parinita: Oh, I love that.

Lorrie: You know something that I didn’t ever think until just now when we were talking, is that when you talk about the ending group shot of all of these ragtag people after most of them have lost something or someone – that division that happens when some people join Grindelwald and others don’t, it’s very much South and North Korea after the Korean war situation.

Parinita: Oh!

Lorrie: Which I’m sure happened in so many different countries, in so many parts of history where there’s a conflict that goes right down the middle. And I think you can go to any war and find that. Where there’s individual families, siblings – sometimes it’s because their beliefs are different. Other times it’s just plain chance or tragedy. You know I have relatives that I’ve never met. And just you were so close and the next day you’ll never see each other again and there’s no telling – you don’t know if they’re alive or dead.

Parinita: I mean we had something similar. It’s not as drastic as North Korea where you can’t get in and you don’t know what’s going on but with Independence, we had the Partition in India where India was divided into India and Pakistan.

Lorrie: Yup.

Parinita: And that had this same kind of thing where overnight people, depending on their religion or just which side of the border they fell on, it didn’t matter where they felt home or where they felt was the most comfortable place to be. They had to move, they had to upend their lives and we are seeing the impact of this still today. Where now of course politicians are taking advantage of this and making those lines much starker between Hindu and Muslim and Pakistan and India which all goes back to things that you didn’t really have control over. Or some people had more control over others. And ugh just the violence of colonisation

Lorrie: Yeah.

Parinita: Which yeah you see in this movie as well. And you wouldn’t see it perhaps so starkly like you said in the books. And I’m really excited to see what happens next. Well, there might be a lot of tragedy coming so excited might not be the correct emotion but I’m looking forward anyway.

Lorrie: I want the story. The reason that Credence leaves even the greatest, the only nurturing affection he’s ever known, he has the same greatest driving force as Harry Potter did. He wants to know his story. He doesn’t care about anything compared to that. And Harry too, the one thing that was the most powerful driver for him was, I want to know my own story. That was even more powerful than his saving people thing. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah. [laughs]

Lorrie: He wants his birth-right back. And Credence will give up anything – even though he knows that this is the worst person in the world who’s already betrayed him. And at one point he says, just give me my story, then you can kill me. He doesn’t even care about being alive as much as he cares about his story.

Parinita: Oh, I love that parallel between Credence and Harry. And it’s not something that I thought of but yeah such different directions. And such different origins as well.

Lorrie: Yeah. I think it is the same story but for adults because one of the critiques of Harry Potter the character was like oh well for someone who was treated that badly, he sure seems normal and healthy. And well, it’s a fairy tale. But in real life, you go through what Harry went through, you’re much more likely to find Credence. [laughs]

Parinita: Yeah that’s true. Oh now I really want the story as well. I want to know what happens next.

Lorrie: I can’t wait for it.

Parinita: Crimes of Grindelwald was such a surprisingly good movie. Surprising based purely on my own sort of preconceived notions that were influenced by fandom. But I loved that movie and I want to know more. Lorrie thank you so much for being a part of the project and just even for the conversation and expanding my mind in so many different ways. Thank you so much for being here!

Lorrie: Thank you. Thank you for giving me something so fun to think about during this time that we’re all locked up at home [laughs] during a plague!

Parinita: Yeah, I mean Harry Potter is something that I’m returning to right now just because it’s something that’s given me so much comfort while I was growing up. It’s also giving me comfort now during the pandemic. As much as I criticise all the problematic elements of it, I’ll still do that, but I still love the books.

Lorrie: I think the reason why people including me feel so bitter and heartbroken and enraged when Rowling shows prejudice or shortcomings is because when she knows what she’s talking about, when she’s confident and she’s on target, the glory of the truths in her stories feel so satisfying. That thrill. And then when that resounding satisfaction stops in such a rude and shocking way, it’s heart-breaking. Why can you do this for some parts of the world and not others? We want you to keep providing it. And that’s a very harsh distinction between the satisfaction of feeling the story and the recognition that one person churning out stories is going to have one person’s limitations.

Parinita: Yeah but just following up on that – I’m also glad that she seems to have raised fans that are willing to stand up to her bigotry. When she tweets out something transphobic, as she did in December.

Lorrie: Oh boy.

Parinita: I know we didn’t have time to go into that but we did talk about it during our planning and just for those listening, both Lorrie and I are very stridently against transphobia of any kind and against J. K. Rowling’s transphobia specifically. I don’t think I’ve encountered any part of the fan community that hasn’t stood up to her blatant transphobia. I might just inhabit some really nice spaces, I guess, but I love seeing that everybody took the fact that Harry Potter was so important to us and we keep that but J. K. Rowling’s transphobia and her prejudice and bigotry, yeah, we can do without that.

Lorrie: Yeah. She can’t live up to the ideals. That doesn’t make the ideals untrue.

Parinita: Ah I love that! That’s a great way to end this episode. Again, thank you so much for being here.

Lorrie: Thank you!

[Outro music]

You’ve been listening to our episode on how women of colour are represented in the Potterverse in general and in Crimes of Grindelwald in particular. Thank you so much Lorrie for helping me see things in a different light and for reiterating how important multiple and nuanced perspectives remain in conversations and critiques. You should definitely check out her blog at lorriekimcom.wordpress.com. And thank you Jack for helping me climb a tree for the first time in my 30-year-old life (and also for the editing).

[Outro music]

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

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

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