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Part 1 – How Fan Culture Is The True Space For ‘Representation’

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In a world where the pop culture that surrounds us is painfully heteronormative—meaning that the default for every fictional character is just assumed to straight and white (until explicitly proven otherwise)—how does someone find diverse representation?

The answer lies with the fans. Fans—or in other words, those who actively consume popular culture and dedicate themselves to a particular book, film, show and so on—are the ones who create an alternate narrative where the one in charge, and the one upon whom the spotlight lies is no longer the straight, white, cisgendered male; and in doing so, they provide us with the representation which is sorely missing in mainstream pop culture.

But let’s first understand what representation, and why exactly it’s important, especially in popular culture.

Why Representation?

Representation is when you see yourself reflected in the media you consume—both in terms of identity and expression. For people belonging to marginalized identities—say, someone of a race other than Caucasian, someone of a gender other than cis male, or someone of a sexuality other than heterosexual—seeing themselves, or any aspect of their identity or social milieu reflected, and represented in popular media is huge, because not only does it gives their identities exposure, but also legitimizes them. In a society where the power balance is clearly tipped in the favour of the straight cis white man, it’s important that any other marginalized or previously ignored identity is given equal importance—especially in popular culture, which is accessible to and influences a large body of people. Hence, when you see a largely straight-white-male franchise like Star Wars get rebooted with a (non-sexualized, stereotype-free) woman and a black and Hispanic man in the lead, it’s more than just diversity—it’s the generations of Star Wars fans who are NOT white or male seeing their dreams be realized on the big screen.

Noma Dumezweni played Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Credit: Blavity
Noma Dumezweni played Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
Credit: Blavity

There’s a reason why I specifically reference the Star Wars reboots here, and that’s because the reactions to them are symptomatic of why exactly representation is important. When the trailer for ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ dropped in October last year, and in the very first frame, introduced it’s black lead (played by John Boyega), straight white dudebros collectively lost their shit—calling the film things like “white genocide” and an attempt “to demoralize and destroy Whites”. They even made the hashtag ‘BoycottStarWarsVII’ trend on twitter. A similar kind of backlash occurred when the trailer for ‘Star Wars: Rogue One dropped last week, and it was revealed that it too had a kickass female character (played by Felicity Jones) in the lead. But Star Wars isn’t the only big franchise to receive hate for trying to diversify representation—Harry Potter too became a target when in December, it was announced that ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ (a play which is supposed to be an extended epilogue of sorts) had cast a Hermione who was black. People justified the backlash by saying that this was going against the canon, and that it was just “unrealistic”.

The emerging pattern that we see here is not just straight white dudes losing their cool over diverse casting but a larger refusal to even fathom the fact that leads of a successful pop culture franchise can be anything other than cisgendered, male, heterosexual and, white. This is because heteronormative whiteness has become so normalized in media, that to even imagine something other than that has become difficult not just for them—but even for us who belong to marginalized identities. Even thinking about diversity in mainstream media seems like something far-fetched, something ‘unrealistic’. And that’s where the problem lies, and that’s why we need representation.

So, going back to my initial question—how do we find the representation we deserve?

Fan Culture — The Liberating, Revolutionary Space We Need In Our Lives

A fan is not just a passive consumer or lover of a form of media, but an active participant in it. They don’t just enjoy reading the particular book, or watching the particular show/movie they are fans of, but engage with them in dynamic ways, and often even create an academic discourse surrounding them. The ways in which fans engage with their ‘fandoms’ (ie, the thing they are fans of) are numerous—it can be through writing fanfiction, drawing fanart, writing in-depth analytical pieces about their fandom (known as ‘meta’), or even making GIFs on Tumblr. This is the alternate narrative they create for themselves—and it’s not just a way in which fans express their dedication and love for their particular fandom, but also make it a medium to challenge and critique the straight-white supremacy of the very popular culture they are eagerly consuming.

Fanfiction—which is the writing of stories (belonging to a plethora of genres—from adventure to angst to plot-heavy novel-length pieces to ‘porn without plot’) about the characters or situations within a certain book/show/film and fanart, which is fan-drawn artwork doing pretty much the same thing, are the most effective ways in which this challenging of heteronormativity and whiteness occurs. These fanworks reimagine the original form of media (what is known as the ‘canon’)—with queer relationships, characters of colour, and characters of diverse gender identities and ultimately, fan culture becomes that liberating space where representation, diversity and inclusivity can be found.

‘Slash Ships’ And How They Bring Queerness Into The Limelight

One of the biggest, and most powerful ways in which fan culture helps representation is through ‘Slash Shipping’. ‘Slash Shipping’ in fandom is the act of supporting or wishing for a queer romantic relationship between two characters who have same-sex romance potential, but are otherwise made to be heterosexual in canon (often, due to fear of disturbing the status quo). What slash shipping essentially does is challenge the very (homophobic?) inhibitions which ultimately stops a writer or showrunner or director from explicitly making even the most homoerotic of relationships (did anyone else think of Sherlock Holmes and Watson?) explicitly queer in canon. In doing so, it’s enhancing queer representation, and is giving queer fans a means of finally seeing their identities reflected in their favourite characters, and giving them that liberating space. Fanfiction, Fanart, Tumblr GIFs, and pretty much all kinds of fanworks hinge on slash shipping, and portray popular characters with same-sex romantic potential in fulfilling, explicitly queer relationships.

Slash shipping is by no means a contemporary phenomenon—and has been helping queer (and even straight) fans embrace their identities for decades. The earliest forms of fanfiction was written in the nineteenth century, about (no surprises there) Sherlock Holmes and John Watson—fans wrote to each other, discussing plot points, coming up with their own, and, often, imagining these two sleuths in a romantic relationship. In the sixties and seventies, with the cult popularity of Star Trek, it’s lead characters Kirk and Spock were intensely shipped in fan communities, and, extensive fanfiction and fanart was published surrounding this pair. But with the dawn of the internet, the fan community moved online, and grew in size—and it became a medium for more slash shipping, more queer representation, and caused greater interaction between fans from different socio-cultural milieus all across the world. In the 90s, Xena and Gabrielle (from ‘Xena: Warrior Princess’), Buffy and Willow (from ‘Buffy The Vampire Slayer’) and Draco and Harry (from Harry Potter) became the most popular slash ships, with a large body of fanfiction and fanart being produced about them.

Sherlock and Watson. Credit: Deviant Art

Today, slash ships are in abundance, and internet fanfiction and fanart archives are overflowing with them. Whether it be Dean and Castiel from ‘Supernatural‘, John and Sherlock from ‘Sherlock‘ (this is the couple that never loses it’s slash potential, even after so many years), Emma Swan and Regina Mills (together known as ‘Swanqueen’) from ‘Once Upon A Time‘, Clarke and Lexa from ‘The 100‘, or recently, Poe and Finn (known as ‘Stormpilot’) from the new Star Wars—the queer, or ‘slash’ potential of strong same-sex friendships in popular media never end, and hence, the shipping never ends.


Gender And Race Bending

Another extremely important way in which fan culture ensures representation is through genderbent and racebent fanworks. This is, essentially, when fans reimagine popular characters (which are either white, cis or male; or all three) as belonging to different gender and racial identities than that of canon. In racebent fanart or fanfiction, Hermione Granger (of Harry Potter) becomes black, Sherlock Holmes becomes a woman, Dean Winchester (of Supernatural) becomes transgender, and so on. There are endless ways in which characters can be reimagined and reinterpreted, and there’s no limit to the racial, cultural, and gender identities in which they can fit into. This is perhaps one of the best ways of challenging the dominant mindset which assumes that straight, white, cis and male are the default characteristics of a successful protagonist—and helps fans of various identities realize that these characters can be theirs too.

Social media spaces like Tumblr have definitely helped fan culture reach out to a larger group of people and make the influence of fan-generated fiction and artwork much more influential and even, a little bit mainstream. There’s still a long way to go until people embrace the kind of spaces and narratives fans create, and to bring about the representation fan culture provides into the realm of mainstream pop culture. But one thing remains constant—the power of fandom as a revolutionary space for positive gender, race and sexuality representation and conversations, something that fans of marginalized identities can find comfort and liberation in.

Featured image sourced from: Deviant art.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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