ORIGIN STORY

In the 21st century, media is nearly inescapable. It’s on your phone, it’s in your house; it’s with you when you’re travelling, and it’s there when you’re relaxing. This amount of media exposure unwittingly influences people in different ways. People who possess critical literacy skills can identify these media manipulations. Critical literacy requires people to be active readers of texts rather than passive consumers of ideas. It also entails questioning everything – long-held assumptions, received knowledge, immediate experience, established dominant social, cultural, political, economic norms and ideologies, and commonplace notions of gender, race, class, sexuality, ability, national origin, religion, and age (Bonsor Kurki, 2015; Janks et al., 2018; Kellner and Share, 2005; Luke, 2012; McLaughlin and DeVoogd, 2004; McLeod and Vasinda, 2008; Mulchahy, 2008; Pangrazio, 2016; Shor, 1999; Wohlwend and Lewis, 2011).

Additionally, critical literacy involves being critical about popular culture – you exercise these skills when you investigate whose perspectives are included and whose are misrepresented or missing (Buckingham, 2015a; Livingstone, 2004; Peters and Lankshear, 1996). Analysing, interpreting, and critiquing messages promoted by popular culture allow people to understand how representations can shape opinions in positive or negative ways (Happel-Parkins and Esposito, 2015; Patterson et al., 2016; Scharrer and Ramasubramanian, 2015). Examining a text from multiple perspectives – especially those which are otherwise silenced – is an essential aspect of critical literacy. These alternative viewpoints allow for a more nuanced understanding of the text or issue (Bonsor Kurki, 2015; Gounari, 2009; McLaughlin and DeVoogd, 2004; Mulcahy, 2008; Wohlwend and Lewis, 2011). Another important facet of critical literacy is creating your own texts which challenge dominant narratives and present alternative perspectives. Again, this is particularly important for those whose experiences are under-represented or misrepresented in popular culture (Burnett and Merchant, 2011; Pangrazio, 2016;  Shor, 1999).   

People’s personal, social, and environmental contexts influence the ways in which they interpret texts (Kellner and Share, 2006). The social categories you belong to such as your gender, sexual orientation, race, and age play a role in how you understand texts. Critical literacy isn’t an established, finite entity – it’s an ongoing, evolving process filled with different kinds of interactions without any one correct or universal model which can be applied to all contexts. How and what kind of critical literacy develops is based on the reader’s personal contexts (Luke, 2012; Peters and Lankshear, 1996). Critical literacy isn’t restricted to formal educational settings but critical literacy scholarship is largely framed around the ways in which educators can train students to be critically literate. However, young people are not the only ones who need critical literacy skills. The contemporary environment of media manipulation requires adults to develop them too. Restricting critical literacy to the classroom relies on the educator’s priorities and preferences. These discussions ignore the other ways people develop critical literacies in alternative spaces.

New media enables people to practice critical literacy outside academic institutions. The internet lowers the barriers to creating and sharing multimodal texts with a global audience, which in turn can encourage the development of critical literacy (Peters and Lankshear, 1996). Gounari (2009) believes the fact that this happens in the public sphere beyond formal educational contexts makes critical literacy both more accessible and more empowering. Digital spaces also offer room for a greater diversity of voices. People belonging to marginalised groups can draw on their own experiences and represent them using digital texts. This is a way to counter the erasure of their perspectives in mainstream spaces (Gainer, 2010). In such cases, creative media production can be a cultural and political act (Kafai et al., 2011).

Critical literacy is important for people belonging to both marginalised and dominant groups. Access to under-represented perspectives can make people aware of the ways in which media representations empower certain groups and disadvantage others. This is exacerbated by the fact that a limited number of dominant groups is responsible for producing a large part of mainstream representations. These representations and stereotypes are accepted unquestioningly by a significant portion of the audience and go on to become the norm (Kellner and Share, 2005; Livingstone, 2004). An analysis of cultural texts can lead to identifying the forces which allow the cultural exclusion of groups (Luke, 2012). As scholars contend, dialogue is therefore a fundamental part of critical literacy (Endres, 2001; Luke, 2012; Patterson et al., 2016; Shor, 1999). People can acquire more insight and can more effectively question established cultural and social norms when they discuss the topics collectively. People can engage in diverse conversations and access multiple interpretations.

However, not everyone in digital spaces creates their own media. Participation is a continuum and there are different degrees of media engagement (Ito et al., 2009). Only a few people actively create content; most passively consume it. Moreover, using or creating digital media doesn’t necessarily lead to critical literacy. Using technology isn’t inherently revolutionary or emancipatory and audiences aren’t always critical (Buckingham, 2015b; Gounari, 2009; Hinrichsen and Coombs, 2014; Kafai et al., 2011; Pangrazio, 2016). People on the internet are not averse to displaying bigotry and hatred. Accordingly, unadulterated enthusiasm about the potential of online spaces needs to be tempered with some awareness of the darker side of the internet.

THE FANDOM STORY

Many fans balance both pleasure and critique when it comes to their favourite media texts. Multimodal fan texts can playfully challenge dominant representations and beliefs and raise critical questions and reflections. Fans’ everyday engagement with popular culture can act as a gateway to critical literacy. The diverse motivations and experiences of fans offer space for multiple interpretations and rarely privilege “correct” meanings. Interpretations are flexible and varied, although these can be policed as seen in instances where discussions about racism are met with defensiveness and hostility.

Some fans use digital media to create counternarratives which write against stories that marginalise them. The internet offers these counternarratives a more widespread audience, which in turn can encourage others to imagine alternatives (Curwood and Gibbons, 2009; Gainer, 2010). A few fans turn to writing fanfiction as a response to the lack of diverse, multifaceted representations in their favourite fantasy and science fiction books and TV shows (Sharon, 2015). Others use fan art to respond to the erasure of their perspectives and experiences. Examples of this can be witnessed in the Harry Potter fandom, where a large number of fans interpret Hermione Granger as black and Harry Potter as South Asian. bengaliprincess on Tumblr emphatically argues her reasoning for why she thinks Hermione should be black.

“Literally everything about hermione as a character is made better if she’s black. Made fun of for hair? Ppl can’t pronounce her name and don’t care enough to try? Casual, overt, and institutionalized racism? Rage over house elves? Fight me.”

(Krieger, 2018)
Image: A fan illustration of black Hermione Granger who is dressed in a Gryffindor uniform, smiling, and holding three Hogwarts textbooks
Fan art depicting a black Hermione Granger (Canning, 2018)

In fandom, this is known as racebending, where fans reimagine white characters as characters of colour. The practice is used to expand the diversity of the source text and to push back against the assumption that white is default in Western media. Gilliland (2016) suggests that the prevalence of this discourse within online fan spaces shows that a demand for more diverse representations within canon exists. Fans actively work to recognise themselves in the text when popular culture frequently excludes them (Blay, 2015). Visibility can be a political act. However, racebending isn’t without its controversy. Some fans rail against what they believe is forced diversity. For example, one fan argues that Harry can’t be Indian and Hermione can’t be black because they’re English, thereby equating Englishness with whiteness (Fowler, 2019). Fortunately, this assertion doesn’t go unchallenged.

Image: A fan illustration of Hermione Granger and Harry Potter. Both characters are white.

Text: Hermione points to her skin and exclaims, "I'm English!!! I have fair skin!"

Then Hermione pulls Harry into the frame. Hermione exclaims, "See?! And he's not Indian!!!" Harry mumbles, "Wait, what ...?"
Fan art equating Englishness with whiteness
Image: A fan illustration of Hermione Granger and Harry Potter which reinterprets the previous fan text. Both characters are dark-skinned.

Text: Hermione points to her skin and exclaims, "I'm English!!! I have dark skin!"

Then Hermione pulls Harry into the frame. Hermione exclaims, "See?! And he's Indian!!!" Harry mumbles, "Wait, what ...?"
Response to the above-mentioned fan art

Other fans argue that racebending is a superficial solution to a systemic problem, which does not engage with marginalised identities in concrete ways (Gilliland, 2016). Nevertheless, visibility can be quite powerful. Alanna Bennet (2015) writes about how she connected to Hermione and the blood politics in the series as a biracial child reading the books, but was unable to recognise herself in the character. Bennet always pictured Hermione as white. Bennet acknowledges that she had to actively train herself out of the whiteness-is-default assumption as an adult when she began noticing the lack of diverse representations in mainstream media. Racebent Hermione helped her view the character she loved from a different perspective.

Racebending demonstrates the “restorying” process proposed by Stornaiuolo and Thomas (2018) where young fans who don’t recognise themselves in the series write themselves into the story in order to increase the diversity of the source text. As Megan Justine Fowler (2019) points out, in the Harry Potter series, the few characters of colour which do exist are explicitly identified whereas the race and ethnicity of others isn’t mentioned, thereby suggesting whiteness as default in the British wizarding world. Fans can employ critical literacies to question the larger systems, assumptions, and dominant norms which surround the text as well as the reader so that they can uncover the ideologies which perpetuate social inequalities. Fan texts act as counternarratives which use the fictional framework to not only question the established norms of the fictional world but also use it as a gateway to discuss real-world issues. Through restorying, young people use digital media to retell stories from multiple and diverse perspectives, and offer alternate interpretations (Stornaiuolo and Thomas, 2018)

Discussions of race and racism are not always pleasant in fandom, but they can have beneficial results. RaceFail was an incident in online fandom in 2009 where media fandom had to confront those whose perspectives it otherwise marginalised (Pande, 2017). Jemisin (2010) describes it as a conversation which spanned several months, spawned hundreds of essays, and included thousands of participants – all of whom deliberated over issues of race, racism, and representation in science fiction and fantasy works. Some of these discussions revealed problematic assumptions about race among writers and fans. However, these conversations also resulted in an increased awareness and engagement with the issues in fan conventions, conferences, the publishing industry, and among writers and readers. This occurred in a community where previously conversations about race and racism had been dismissed or shut down and white fans had argued that the field had no racism (Klink, 2010). RaceFail also allowed fans of colour to discover each other, build coalitions, and address the ways in which fandom and their favourite texts engaged with people of colour (Pande, 2017).

MY STORY

The first time I encountered the term “critical literacy” was during my master’s degree. My lecturer discussed how important it was for educators to develop these critical literacy skills among their students and the ways in which this could be done using children’s books. But, in my school in Mumbai and most mainstream schools in India, critical literacy was an alien concept. I was taught what to think rather than how to think and questioning anything was not appreciated by most teachers. However, when I started reading about the topic, I realised that I had encountered multiple examples of critical literacy in different informal contexts online. Digital spaces – including but not limited to fan communities – are full of instances of critical literacy. While critical literacy wasn’t a skill I developed in school, it is an approach I discovered and I’m still learning on the internet.

When it comes to Western-produced books like the Harry Potter series, I was one of the many fans who assumed whiteness as default. I wasn’t remotely curious about the two characters of Indian descent in the series – Parvati and Padma Patil – because they didn’t seem as interesting as all the other white characters. Encountering discussions of race and representation in online fan communities made me aware about issues I hadn’t previously considered. These conversations allowed me to challenge my own preconceived notions and biases. I began analysing all my favourite media texts and noticed the astonishing lack of diversity, not just in terms of race, but also other marginalised identities. Once you become aware of this dominant gaze, it’s difficult to un-see it. I now constantly seek and appreciate books, television shows, and movies which include diverse representations. This project draws on my own experiences with critical literacy and seeks to investigate it within the context of fan podcasts which highlight the voices of those on the margins of mainstream culture.