A PhD fan podcast which aims an intersectional lens at some of our favourite media and their fandoms.
Episode 16 The Queer Paradise: Exploring Diverse Gender Identities in Speculative Worlds
In this episode, Parinita talks to Tamsin James Rose 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.
Episode 15 A Fascinating Tension: Multiple Interpretations of Religious Themes and Ideas in SFF
In this episode, Parinita talks 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.
Episode 14 We Don't Know What To Do With Them: Representations of Older Women in Media
Parinita talks 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.
Episode 13 You Want To See Yourself In That Story: The Impact Of Religion And Regional Origin
In this episode, Parinita talks 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.
Extremely appropriate cover image courtesy Aparna who doodled it while we were recording.
Episode 12 The International Imagination: Exploring World Politics in the Fantastic Beasts Films
In this episode, Parinita talks 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.
Episode 11 She Has To Fight Smart: Representations Of Women Warriors In Media And History
In this episode, Parinita talks to T. G. Shepherd also known as Lisa about the representation of women warriors in media and history.
There are perceived gender roles and gender disparities in different styles of martial arts with some being considered too brutal for women. People’s gender also impacts their experiences in the environment they’re training to fight in. Comics have a long history of representing women warriors who have been aspirational role models for countless young people and adults. However, the overall representations of female fighters in media involve tired tropes rather than realistic, fully-fleshed out characters. This reflects the erasure of women warriors in real-world history which overlooks how women from different parts of the world overcame social, cultural and legal barriers to fight.
Fortunately, there are a growing number of representations of women warriors with different skills, bodies and abilities working together. Magic or advanced technology in science fiction and fantasy worlds limits the role gender plays among good fighters. Mainstream comics are becoming increasingly diverse and often act as people’s first encounters with different lives. Fanfiction has tremendous transformative potential in questioning the norm and exploring alternate possibilities, though even there, gender dynamics play a role in the kind of stories which are taken seriously. The internet and more diverse academic researchers play a huge role in bringing traditionally marginalised stories about women leaders and fighters to light. However, there needs to be more intersectional representations of fighters in science fiction and fantasy to include different ages, races, abilities, religions, sexual and gender identities.
Lisa owns this art of Mockingbird which has been illustrated by Valentine Barker: valentinebarker.com/