Episode 9: The Will It Waffle Radio Hour
Sadly it’s not actually an audio version of Jackson Bird’s YouTube show. Instead, we interview the communications director of the Harry Potter Alliance about things like the changing definition of “fan activism,” coming out as trans on YouTube, Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander and Lili Elbe, and whether—if you had to choose just one—you would pick waffles or Harry Potter.
[00:02:11] The Harry Potter Alliance!
[00:02:54] The HP Alliance’s fair-trade chocolate victory even made People magazine!
[00:03:29] Observe the dopey little fandom matrix!
[00:08:17] DestinationToast’s stats blog!
[00:10:43] @flourish still hasn’t put the compiled everyone-on-the-fandom-matrix together, so you should shame her. When she does we’ll put it here.
[00:13:21] Bee tee dubs you can hang out with Jackson on Tumblr @prepstergrunge!
[00:15:30] It’s not clear if the Royal Club of Oz still exists, but they still have a webpage!
[00:21:49] If you haven’t seen the picture a million times, here it is. (And here’s the article that pic comes from in HuffPo.)
[00:34:05] The interstitial music is by Harry and the Potters, used with permission.
[00:34:29] Jackson’s coming-out video.
[00:52:00] It’s the Will It Waffle theme music (used with permission)!
[00:58:22] GUYS, WE ARE NOW OFFICIALLY A MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL FAN PODCAST.
[00:59:57] The outro music is “Electronica: Optimistic” by Paul Tyan, used under a CC BY 3.0 license.
[Intro music: “Awel” by Stefsax]
Flourish Klink: Hi, Elizabeth!
Elizabeth L Minkel: Hi, Flourish!
FK: And welcome to Fansplaining!
FK: This is Episode Nine!
ELM: Yeah, that’s ridiculous. Nine.
FK: And it’s the podcast by, for, and about fandom.
ELM: You kinda did that backwards.
FK: That’s OK. Our listeners will forgive us.
ELM: I don’t know. That’s pretty unforgivable.
FK: Well, we do know you hold grudges, Elizabeth.
ELM: Oh yeah. Wait, did I say that recently or can you just tell from my personality?
FK: Well, we were talking a couple episodes back about our personality types and we’re both judgy.
ELM: Wait! No, yesterday we were talking about how you hold grudges and how I don’t hold them and I just lift them up into the present.
FK: Right, because you’re good at hate-reading.
ELM: I’m hate-reading a book right now, FYI, and I won’t say it’s title but really it’s making me furious.
FK: It’s about fandom, you’ll probably figure it out if you follow her Twitter or read her columns…
ELM: I haven’t said anything about it publicly, that’s why I’ve been literally livetexting my reading of it to you only.
FK: Well surely someday—you have to understand the degree to which Elizabeth hates this book.
ELM: [yelling] IT’S SO BAD, IT’S SO BAD!
FK: She’s just gonna burst at some point, so you have that to look forward to.
ELM: This literally, it’s not even—it’s a bunch of meta that’s not even good or interesting, it’s meta about major pop cultural fandomy science fiction fantasy fandoms, oh, it makes me upset! That’s fine, it’s fine, he has the right to write what he wants. I just got the sense that this book was very quickly greenlighted because of its topic—
FK: So all of that is a way of her saying, She hates it, she hates it, let’s burn it with fire.
ELM: I don’t burn books, Flourish.
FK: I might, though.
ELM: But Flourish holds grudges, but we’re not gonna talk about that, cause she’s playing a long game right now.
FK: What we are gonna talk about, though, is Jackson Bird.
ELM: Yeah, on topic, on topic!
FK: On topic.
ELM: Jackson Bird is our guest for this ninth episode, and he is the communications director for the Harry Potter Alliance, which is a fan activist group ostensibly centered around Harry Potter but I guess around other pop culture stuff—I know they talk about The Hunger Games a lot?
FK: Yeah, I think they started out as being about Harry Potter but have since moved on to a broader fandomy perspective.
ELM: Using the passion of fandom to enact change, is that the basic…?
FK: Yeah, right, and I think it’s important to note that it’s not changing fandom, it’s changing the rest of the world. So for instance they did a project where they lobbied Universal Studios to start using fair trade chocolate in their theme park candies.
ELM: That’s awesome! And it succeeded, I remember that, that was in the news!
FK: Yeah, it was really cool! But also Jackson recently made a splash with his coming out video as trans, which was really cool. I think that since then he’s been particularly interacting with LGBTQ issues in fandom.
ELM: Yeah! That’s what I’m most interested in talking with him about, so hopefully he’s down to talk about that. I guess we’ll find out.
FK: We’ll find out! But before we get to Jackson, we got such an awesome response from everybody on our last episode, I think we wanted to talk a little bit about that.
ELM: Yeah, it was great to see so many people want to talk about—I’m completely losing my train of thought here.
FK: Well, one thing that was super gratifying was seeing people put themselves on the dopey little fandom matrix that we made.
ELM: Oh, oh Flourish! I hope my mom doesn’t mind me mentioning this, but she told me that the matrix really helped her understand what we were talking about. She said that she’s really visually oriented and it was an awesome visual representation that really made everything kind of click for her.
FK: YEAH, SUCCESS! I just blew out my mic so bad, we’re leaving that in.
ELM: All for my mom! I really hope she doesn’t mind that I just shared that. She is really visually oriented, so…
FK: Between that and the French blogger who said that our transcripts really helped her understand what we were saying, I’m just about ready to pat myself on the back and pack it in for accessibility cause we have done our job. We are done. No more! We don’t have to do anything else ever again in the whole world. [Elizabeth laughs]
ELM: Yeah, so no more complaining about the transcript, cause it’s great.
FK: Aw, shit.
ELM: Yeah, people like it! [laughs] Just think about these words we’re saying right now and how you’re gonna transcribe them.
FK: The thing is while I’m transcribing, I’ll listen to us patting ourselves on the back and be like, “This is why we do it—so we can pat ourselves on the back.”
ELM: You’re not gonna double back and be self hating.
FK: I don’t think so.
ELM: Because that’s what usually happens.
FK: That’s true, that’s true. You, dear listeners, didn’t have to be subjected to my hours and hours of self hatred about our last episode, in which I doubted every word I said and though I came off like a jerk and so just so you all know, that’s how the sausage gets made.
ELM: I think it’s worth talking about, because we did talk a lot after the episode about—we continued this conversation and had some heated emails. And I don’t know, it was interesting too to see the amount of conversation that it generated. There were a whole bunch of people who wrote longish responses. I’ve been emailing with one of our listeners who gave us a response we read in the last episode—it’s very kind of philosophical discussion, which is reminding me of philosophy class which I was very bad at. [Flourish laughs] What is it about this question that you think strikes a nerve? I’m curious. It struck your nerve.
FK: It did strike my nerve!
ELM: Oh, I’m sorry! If anyone didn’t listen to the last episode, the question was “What is fandom?” And we were tackling it from a bunch of different angles and the matrix had two axes. One went from being more solitary to the more communally oriented fan. And the other, I’m gesturing with my hands which is useless for everyone, the other one went from more invested in canon and privileging of canon, the more affirmational side, and the bottom of that axis was fanon and privileging the conversation that the fans create.
FK: Certainly the thing that felt like it was striking a nerve for me was not wanting to be in any way a gatekeeper or to reject people, but at the same time feeling like when you have a discussion of fandom of any sort there has to be some more focus. So, for instance, when I’m looking at this stuff for my work, it’s usually pretty clear what the focus ought to be, whether it’s a broad focus that’s looking at everybody in an audience as potentially part of a fandom or shading into fandom or whatever, but it’s harder when you’re talking about fandom in the abstract, right? Because then it’s more about self-definition.
And I think that I spend a lot of time wanting to in that context define fandom as much smaller and more community oriented, having that impulse, but then not wanting to exclude people and feeling like a jerk that I had an impulse to exclude people in that way. So that was my little internal breakdown over it.
ELM: Yeah, you accused me of having internal conflict and I sent you that long email explaining how I wasn’t.
FK: Yeah, but you were right. I was misreading—
FK:—the things that you had said.
ELM: IT’S ON THE RECORD!
FK: I say that you’re right all the time! You often are right.
ELM: But this time it’s on the record!
FK: For what it’s worth, I don’t know that I was really having a breakdown for a good reason; I think that there are totally contexts in which it’s OK to cut down one’s view and other contexts in which it’s better to take a broader view, and I think for this podcast we want to take the broadest possible view.
ELM: Sure. And I guess one thing that I appreciated about the last episode is I feel I don’t often get a chance to narrow the view down to my own personal experience, cause I spend so much time writing about other people’s experiences of this stuff. I was involved in a Tumblr discussion with Destination Toast, who I know from the Sherlock fandom—and who is someone we need to have on eventually because of all the great work they do with statistics.
ELM: And also talk about challenging assumptions! The things Destination Toast believes to be true based on reading certain Sherlock fics, assumes about the way the whole fandom is, when you drill down to the numbers it’s always completely the opposite. Which is great to see! It’s a person challenging assumptions and proving themselves wrong with facts. Anyway, we were talking about it and they were asking me why I didn’t comment on fics. And I wrote this long heartfelt response about how I was always this lurker, blah, blah, blah, and I don’t know if I said it in that or if it was privately in conversation afterwards, I can’t remember—but part of it for me is that the kind of stuff that I write about is very antithetical to my own personal experience historically of the time I’ve been in fandom, right.
Part of it is that for a general reader I wanna emphasize the community angle. I just wrote that article about what is fanfiction and the crux was it’s about intent and part of that intent is often it’s communal. And there’s no space for—and sometimes it’s the liminal private–public space of a lurker! There’s no room for that there. But that’s where I am, you know what I mean? Does that make sense?
FK: It makes absolute sense. I think one of the things that we came to at the end of our conversation was that it was really important that you were able to talk about and even narrow down our discussion to that, to your more solitary experience of fandom, and that I’m not very good at—unless I’m really consciously, like when I’m working I really consciously do things like Destination Toast does, to challenge my assumptions at every step, but I’m not always doing that when we’re just talking on Fansplaining, just having a conversation. So sometimes I can really step on that more solitary experience of fandom, because it’s not mine and I don’t naturally gravitate to it. So maybe that’s part of the strength of having both of us here! With very different experiences in that way!
ELM: Yeah, I guess it’s ok. I’ll keep you around.
FK: Aw, thank you.
ELM: I think we have to get on to Jackson now, but the matrix is still out there.
FK: Yeah, put yourself on it!
ELM: It was really cute actually cause no one—it kind of illustrated the way Tumblr works too because someone would reblog it and put themselves on and then a couple more, and then someone else would reblog it from the source and—a dozen people put themselves on that matrix, but it was like five different matrices.
FK: Maybe one of the things I’ll do for this episode is Photoshop them all together.
ELM: Flourish, do you have the Photoshop skills to pull that off?
FK: I don’t know, but we’ll find out!
ELM: All right, I’m ready to see. I could also Photoshop it if you’d like since that’s my job—
FK: You’d probably be better than I am at Photoshop, but I’m willing to try anything once!
ELM: No, I really actually enjoy your Photoshop jobs, I love all the cover art you do, so I trust you.
FK: [laughs] It’s so advanced.
ELM: It’s really good! You just stick that fan on! No, I think you have a nice visual sense. Don’t worry, don’t worry.
FK: Is it time to go talk to Jackson?
ELM: Yeah, let’s call him up.
FK: All right.
ELM: …yeah, but I’m glad that… We can be really efficient with our time.
Jackson Bird: I love efficiency. I used to study the efficiency methods of the father of efficiency, Frank Bunker Gilbreth.
ELM: Why is this happening on the recording before we introduce you? [Jackson laughs]
FK: HI JACKSON!
JB: Put it at the end or something. Hello!
FK: Welcome to the podcast!
JB: Hey, thanks for having me!
ELM: Thank you so much for coming on!
FK: So tell us more about the Father of Efficiency?
JB: Yes, so Frank Bunker Gilbreth, he had twelve children, he’s most famous for being the father of the Cheaper by the Dozen series, but he was the father of efficiency. He used to actually film his kids—this was like the 1920s, but he would film them doing chores and analyze the footage to identify waste motions and then tell them “no no no, you have to do it this way instead.”
ELM: Why did you study this person? Because you wanted to be more efficient?
JB: No, when I was in middle school I was in a couple performances of Cheaper by the Dozen and the sequels, so I had to read the books and become familiar with them. But I’ve always liked to be as quick and efficient at things as possible, so I’ve always remembered this. [laughs]
FK: That explains how you get so much stuff done all the time.
FK: Cause you do.
ELM: So let’s, for any of our guests who don’t know who you are, maybe we can start by saying… I don’t know if you want to talk about yourself professionally, personally, how that overlaps, who you are as a fan, what that means to you… That’s a big broad question, I’m so sorry.
JB: That’s a lot of things.
ELM: Go ahead. You have four minutes. Go.
JB: Oh really? Four minutes?
FK: That’s a lot of time!
JB: Yeah, I was like wow, not prepared to just talk on end for four minutes.
ELM: You don’t have to, don’t worry!
JB: Do you just want me to briefly say who I am?
ELM: Yeah, I’d love that.
JB: So I’m the communications director for a nonprofit called the Harry Potter Alliance, which is an organization that basically uses fandom and the power of story to mobilize fans towards social action. When I’m not doing the Harry Potter Alliance stuff, which is a full time and a half job as many nonprofits are, in my “spare time” I do some YouTube things, I like to make some videos about sometimes social justice things or just weird thoughts that I have but also I have a series called Will It Waffle? in which I put random foods onto a waffle iron to see what happens.
ELM: OK, the most important question I have for you. What do you like better, waffles or Harry Potter?
JB: [shouting] WOAH! Oh, man. Um… [FK sings Jeopardy! theme] Quick aside, one time I was at a conference and I had to run back up to my hotel room really quick just to sort some things out for the next program I had to be at, and it just so happened that I had just been at some Harry Potter Alliance program where I had to be dressed as Harry Potter, and I hadn’t changed yet. I had also earlier that day waffled something with someone and so I was trying to clean up the waffle iron and I caught this look of myself in the full length mirror, dressed as Harry Potter carrying a waffle iron, and it was just like “this is my life now.” [all laugh] Um, can I read Harry Potter while eating waffles? That’s the best, right?
ELM: That sounds really lovely actually.
FK: I can do that.
ELM: Do you know I haven’t had waffles in years? Is this shocking news to you?
JB: Come to my house and I will make you some waffles.
FK: Why aren’t we eating waffles right now?
ELM: Flourish, are you allowed to eat waffles?
FK: You can make vegan waffles!
ELM: Vegan waffles. Jesus. Wait, are waffles vegan in general?
JB: Well, I make vegan waffles because I am lactose intolerant. So I just use Bisquick without dairy and vegan margarine.
FK: Yeah! That’s what I’m talkin’ about.
JB: Oh yeah.
ELM: All right, we actually had you on to talk about waffles only, so…
JB: It happens.
FK: But fandom… So tell us a little bit about your fannish life!
JB: I’ve got the fan gene in me from birth. I was very obsessive with my interests as a child, I was in the Royal Club of Oz back in the 90s—were you in the Royal Club of Oz too?!
FK: No, I wasn’t but it sounds so delightful!
JB: You get a certificate signed by the Wizard of Oz, you get a monthly newsletter about all the goings-on in Oz—because if you’ve read more than just the first book, there are fourteen original books by L. Frank Baum and it is an expansive universe and so weird.
ELM: Do you remember this, this was like—I remember this from the back of books in the 80s and 90’s. They’d say “Join!” Like I read every Sweet Valley High book, and they were like “Join the Sweet Valley High fan club and we’ll send you this box of items,”
JB: Yeah, cause I was in the Magic School Bus one too!
ELM: Can I join? I don’t know what I’d want one for, but can I get a certificate?
FK: I would join the Babysitters’ Club thing as an adult if it still existed.
JB: They should really do that again though. You know, fandoms are such a big deal now and so many of us that are in fandoms had those little things growing up, they should totally start doing that. Like, get a Supernatural box in the mail of little tchotchkes.
ELM: But could it be like it’s from the 80s, though? Cause that would be ideal.
JB: Well, I think I’ve just come up with the Harry Potter Alliance’s next fundraising, let me make a note…
ELM: Send us a box to say thank you!
JB: I am actually writing this down.
FK: Well, now I feel like our podcast has justified its existence. That’s it.
ELM: That’s it.
JB: We’re done here.
ELM: Anyway, FOCUS! We’re efficient! So you have been a fan for a really long time, but obviously you work for the Harry Potter Alliance. I’m wondering if this is kind of a chicken and egg question, but did that happen via Harry Potter? Because it’s probably the best known fan activist group out there. Did you come to it because of Harry Potter or because you were looking to do some progressive stuff related to fans?
JB: Mostly through Harry Potter, a little bit through wanting to do something good in the world. I started volunteering with them in college and I think that’s a very common college feeling of “I want to make a difference in the world and be good and”—yeah, it was sort of filling that hole but I came to it through the Harry Potter fandom. Actually weirdly enough it was a little bit more through the Vlog Brothers fandom and the YouTube fandom. I had been in the Harry Potter fandom for years and years and years, gettin’ on MuggleNet in 2002 and all those podcasts and the wizard rock and everything, I wasn’t a participant. I wasn’t the kind of person who posted on message boards or really was active in a social way but I was definitely an observer and a consumer of all fandom things so I was aware of everything.
I assume I had heard about the Harry Potter Alliance once or twice, but I didn’t really remember about them until 2010. They were running a campaign to raise money for disaster relief for the earthquake in Haiti in that January of 2010 and they brought together a whole bunch of like—every wizard rocker, all the fansites and the podcasters, but also a ton of young adult authors and YouTubers and it was amazing to see all these people who I didn’t even realize all knew each other—first of all, that was just cool as a fan to see “Oh, you all know each other and you’re working together!” But because they brought so many people with such huge fanbases together, they were able to raise $123,000 and send five planes filled with relief supplies down to Haiti in partnership with Partners In Health. I actually heard about that whole campaign through one of John Green’s videos.
So it was sort of through them, I think John and Hank because I started watching their videos on 2007, in a weird way they brought me even more into the Harry Potter fandom, and I was so impressed by that effort and it was so exciting to see so many people come together that I just kind of kept an eye on the Harry Potter Alliance for a little bit, and within a few months they had tweeted something about needing a video editor, and I minored in documentary filmmaking so video editing was kind of a freelance trade way for me to earn money or get some things on my reel. So I applied and started volunteering with them, and I volunteered for three or four years? I don’t really remember math or history at this moment. But I volunteered for them for awhile, and after I graduated and had a couple of odd jobs I ended up working for them full time.
ELM: So volunteering does lead to a job!
JB: Sometimes, yeah! Volunteering and internships, they sometimes can. You gotta make sure you’re not overworking yourself or being exploited or anything, but it is definitely worth it to just get out there and get whatever kinds of experience you can in things that you are passionate about.
ELM: So I would love to dive right into it, asking you about fan activism. Are you cool with that?
ELM: All right. So the disclosure is that Jackson and I saw each other over the weekend at BookRiot live, and I’m going to reiterate some questions I had for you then. Do you remember this? Do you remember anything about this weekend? Do you remember seeing my face?
JB: I remember seeing you… Not much! Yeah, I did not get much sleep this weekend.
FK: Translation, Jackson doesn’t remember you or your experience or anything that happened, and it’s all a blur, this is like it’s new.
JB: It is.
ELM: All right, pretend it never happened.
JB: I don’t remember you asking me questions, so this is new.
ELM: It was really early on, it was before your first panel… One thing I think is really interesting about fan activism is, I’m very interested in the increasing politicization of fandom conversation. It seems to be a very delicate, can you walk a delicate line? A very delicate balance or a fine line? A fine delicate balanced line? Between, say, these are the themes of The Hunger Games and this is how The Hunger Games is reflected in real life, to use an example of a campaign you guys have, while trying not to trivialize the actual experiences: it’s still fiction, it’s still just a book. I think that if it’s handled—or to say, “This is my favorite slash ship, and this is why I support gay marriage,” which can really trivialize the experiences of actual gay people trying to get married. I imagine you deal with this tension a lot, and I’m wondering…
JB: Oh yeah. This is a tension that weighs on me all the time, and specifically to the last one: every single time that there’s a pride march or a protest for the latest anti-discrimination bill or something, someone sends me this same picture of a sign saying “I’m here for Dumbledore’s rights” or whatever the phrase is—I know you guys have seen it. Every single time an event happens I get sent that picture, people thinking that it’s from that day, and apart from the fact that people send it to me all the time I don’t quite like it. That’s one of the better ones from other signs that I’ve seen, but it is definitely a delicate balance, a fine line to walk, and one that we are constantly teasing out and working on.
I like to say that with fan activism in the way that we do it, which is sort of drawing parallels and using fandom communities and their intrinsic enthusiasm and organizing power and creativity to mobilize around these things, you have to be careful that you aren’t saying things like “All right, we’re fighting for economic inequality because Katniss couldn’t afford to live in the capital,” or—I don’t know, something like that. More of what it should be is “If you have never experienced this before, maybe recognizing how these characters you love have gone through this or something metaphorically resonant of that can help you unlock compassion for this issue and from there, since you now have a little bit of this interest, let’s teach you the real facts and the real issues and now you can care about the real people who are going through this.”
Or, what we have found increasingly in our community is that the issues that we’re working on affect the people in our community. It’s not so much that they needed these parallels to understand it, but they saw themselves in those characters. They finally were seeing their experiences reflected, even if it is in a metaphoric way or not. So that’s been a really good thing. And it is interesting to look at fandom historically. You did say that increasingly fandom is becoming more political and talking about these issues, and I’m sure that a lot of fandoms already were for a long time, but at least the Harry Potter community and to a lesser extent the Harry Potter Alliance community I think in our early days ten years ago it was kind of enough to say “We’re gonna do this direct service thing and raise money,” or “We’re gonna, like, activism 101 and advocacy,” we’re gonna draw these parallels to the books, and that’s it, everyone’s excited, that’s enough.
But with the post-millennial generation growing up and their being so radical and political and so well informed and just this community in general becoming more aware and political, there is much more that we have to think about now and much more that we are held accountable for in ways that we absolutely should be. And it’s really cool to watch that. I’m really glad that is happening. It’s a bigger challenge now, but.
FK: It seems to me like one interesting thing is, there’s been fan charity certainly and even fan activism I think for as long as there’s been fandom, but the only other—I guess it wasn’t even an activist thing, there used to be a con called Gaylaxicon which was an LGBTQ con for fandom—
ELM: Wait, what was it called?
FK: Gaylaxicon? Like Galax—like Galaxy but gay? Galaxicon?
FK: And this existed and at the time there was a slash community presence there and it was a thing, but other than that before the Harry Potter Alliance I don’t know that there was a real strong pan-fandom activism—it seems like that must be really interesting, to be crossing over between different groups of people with different focused fan interests as well as people who are more in the general Harry Potter Alliance fandom, you know?
JB: One thing I would say going off the back of that is that Henry Jenkins the fan studies scholar, he’s the one who coined “fan activism” originally in his Textual Poachers book in the early 90s—as a student of his you can correct me if I’m wrong on that, Flourish. But when he said that, he meant something more like those—or to a lesser extent just fans protesting the cancellation of the TV show or something that happened in the TV show, and that was fan activism. And then we came along and we take it one step further, where sometimes we will do something where we are protesting—even not explicitly protesting but you know doing a campaign around something the movie studio has done, we’ve done that with getting Warner Bros to make all Harry Potter chocolate ethically sourced.
But more often we’re going totally out of the field and it’s more like we are being inspired by the story but we are working on a totally real world issue that does not exist in that universe. So for the Hunger Games campaign that we’re doing right now, we are organizing around economic inequality in our world. We’re inspired by The Hunger Games, and sometimes we make little jabs at Lionsgate because they make it so easy, but we’re not actually doing anything like “we’re boycotting the movie!” or anything like that. And so Henry Jenkins actually changed his definition of fan activism after seeing how we do it. So that is really cool, yeah.
ELM: I guess going back to my original question it sounds like part of your project is to educate people to harness the—I think we all spend a lot of time on Tumblr and sometimes I feel like the enthusiasm and passionate feelings can trip ahead of facts. Sometimes. When it comes to things. You know? And people’s hearts are in the right place, and it sounds like part of your project is to teach people to harness that enthusiasm into something that can actually enact change.
JB: Yeah, definitely. I usually like to think more that we kind of start discussions, I never want to placate our members. We have members of so many different ages, while we are generally an activism 101 kind of organization and a lot of people who are members of the HPA haven’t been involved in activism or advocacy in any way so we have lots of resources we provide to them, especially through our chapters program, we have resource documents for every campaign that we run, we have a whole training program, we have a training conference, but we do also have increasingly as we’ve been saying so many members who do know about lots of different issues. They are aware of different complex concepts of social justice. We do try to at least lead those discussions into more productive optimistic discussions instead of just venting and ranting and potentially spreading inaccuracies.
FK: One thing I would say about the HPA is that it’s a very optimistic organization. Despite tackling a lot of really difficult issues, it’s one of the few places in fandom where you talk about difficult issues and then it feels like there’s something you can really do about them.
JB: Yeah, that’s something we always strive for. And it has become harder and harder the past year. It feels like every week our social media has to be interrupted by a shooting or the latest in police brutality or… There’s just so much tragedy to cover. So trying to still have some sort of thing that you can take away from it, anytime we’re sharing something that’s heavy we try to find an action that our members can take after they read that and feel something and want to do something. Here’s something you can do. Or at least put a positive spin on like, we’re all working together and maybe one day the world will be a little bit better! Let’s just keep working!
ELM: Have you guys encountered this thing, I don’t know about your personal experience, but I’ve noticed in the last year or so when there’s really—especially with the police brutality and stuff like that—maybe it depends on who you follow. But when some of my fandom friends start to engage with that on Tumblr, you also see a lot of pushback. Like, “I’m just here for things that I like, I’m here for fandom, that’s supposed to be something fun.” Have you guys encountered this at all? Or do you follow people who are more into not just looking to see, like, guys’ asses while they make out? That’s not everything on my dash! But it’s a lot of it.
FK: It seems like I’ve encountered that attitude in the past. It wasn’t always about Tumblr particularly or about police brutality, but about things like people making mild complaints about the way that people of color are portrayed in Harry Potter or whatever. Like in Hunger Games fandom when white fans freaked out about having to face that Rue is Black.
JB: Definitely saw that around The Hunger Games, for sure. And historically as well, we started working on marriage equality in 2007 and there was a lot of pushback from the Harry Potter community around that time. That was too radical of a thing for us to touch, they’re OK donating books and supporting us in those ways but we don’t want to work on this…
As recently as a few years ago, I don’t know about currently, but some of our younger chapters we have one or two middle school chapters that are facilitated by teachers in the Deep South, and when they first started they were like “Is it OK if we don’t do some of your campaigns? Cause that won’t fly at a middle school in the South.” And even now our Facebook, we have a lot of followers on there, people who’ve like the page, who are not necessarily members. It seems from the way they leave comments that they think they liked the official Warner Brothers page. I don’t know. But anytime we post something political we get comments like “I didn’t come here for the politics, UNLIKE!” and it’s like, “Good, that’s not what we’re about!”
ELM: What do they come there for? That’s…
JB: I don’t know! I just think they thought it was like a normal fan page.
ELM: Like a Harry Potter fan group?
JB: Even though we have descriptions everywhere. And we get on Facebook so, so many racists. Oh, it’s bad.
ELM: That’s awful! Like non sequitur racists? Like they just jump into anything…?
JB: No, no. Like, if we post something to do with race.
ELM: All right! Cause they’re both bad, but it would be really troubling if you had random people just trolling about race all the time.
JB: That just sounds like bedbugs you can’t get rid of or something.
FK: It does seem like a complicated issue though, because even for people who don’t have the privilege of being able to ignore these serious political issues every day of their life, people who have to face discrimination all the time, a lot of people in that position as well as people of privilege do use fandom as an escape. It’s a complicated situation because—maybe when I have just gotten done talking to somebody who doesn’t believe that bi people exist, I don’t want to open up my Tumblr and have to argue with somebody about the fact that bi people do exist! I just want to write about my characters and look at people’s asses of both genders! So it seems like you must encounter that a lot as well with the Harry Potter Alliance.
JB: Yeah, from a personal perspective I definitely understand that, and I think that on a Tumblr dashboard that’s a complicated thing cause you don’t want to police anyone else’s content. But I totally, I SO get where you’re coming from in terms of just wanting to escape. And that’s something that I do see people still saying on Tumblr when fandom blogs will get real. I think when it comes to the Harry Potter Alliance, though, that’s what’s on the tin and that’s what you’re going to get. The whole point of our organization is to blend fandom with activism or at least civic engagement. So. That’s just what you’re gonna get.
ELM: I think this is probably a good moment to take a quick break, but we will be right back!
ELM: All right, we’re back!
FK: We’re back!
ELM: So, was it this spring when you recorded a video in which you came out as trans?
JB: Yes. May 13th.
FK: A day burned into your memory.
JB: Yeah. It’s also the date of the Harry Potter Alliance’s 10-year fundraising gala this year, so that date is very burned into my head right now.
FK: Did you do that on purpose?
ELM: Did they do that on purpose?
JB: No, it’s because we discovered there were a lot of Friday the 13ths next year and wanted to do the gala on a Friday the 13th.
ELM: All right, that’s fair. You can go into as little or as much detail as you want but I would be really curious to know anything about that experience for you. Especially the way that you chose to share it.
JB: I almost felt like I didn’t have another option but to share it that way. I mean, I definitely didn’t have an option about being public about it, because my social and professional lives are so intertwined and so public. I’m not like a huge deal on the internet or anything like that, but if I had chose to transition privately, it would have been like—quit my job, stop making videos, quit all my social media, move away… so there wasn’t really an option there.
ELM: Where you movin’ to?
JB: I don’t know, New Hampshire? I always think about going to New Hampshire or Vermont. I dream about that.
ELM:That’s actually a really good dream. That’s nice.
JB: But yeah, so I definitely had to do it publicly to some extent. YouTube has been where I’ve expressed myself and sort of had my most broad contact and discussions with people for several years, so that definitely seemed like the best platform in which to rip of the Band-Aid and make sure that as many people as possible could see it. Cause once you start going through the process of coming out to people one by one, because there are always certain people in your life who deserve that, it’s, ugh, it’s just so exhausting! Every time, it doesn’t get easier and it takes so much out of you, so you definitely get to a point where you’re just like “Welp, everyone’s just gonna find out in one go now!”
So a lot of people send out an email or post a Facebook status, but this seemed the best route for me. Also, given that I’ve had to do it in this sort of semi-public way being—having a little bit of a platform, and that comes along with so many unique pressures. The thing that makes it a little bit OK is knowing that in that I could also be helping people, so I want to help as many queer and gender nonconforming and questioning people out there as possible but also be able to educate everyone else, that’s sort of what makes me feel a little bit more OK about having to do such a huge and personal thing publicly.
FK: One thing, we had just been talking before the break about interacting with fandom and feeling simultaneously the escape from fandom and also seeing yourself mirrored in fandom, is there any particular fandom that resonated with you over the process of coming out?
JB: Yeah! During my darkest periods of gender dysphoria, I was most heavily in the Glee fandom, and there is so much trans Glee fanfic. Trans AUs and even just, like, Kurt and Blaine, even if they’re both cisgendered, just like the queer representation going on there? All of that, that was my escapism my last two years of college was just like reading every Klaine AU I could get my hands on. And it’s almost embarrassing to admit, but I will totally own that because that’s what helped me survive those years, was having this endless supply of stories about characters that I loved in fresh situations every day, but also situations that really resonated with me that either the show wasn’t tackling or they were doing a shit job of tackling because Glee tried to be everything and sucked at all of it, but.
ELM: I only have seen one episode, so I can’t pass judgment.
JB: I mean, Glee did a lot of great things, it had a lot of missteps, and was not great as a piece of television sometimes, but definitely revolutionary in a lot of ways.
ELM: I really want to ask you about this kind of serendipitous fandom trans connection in what happened with Eddie Redmayne earlier this year. And I also want to know because I know you’ve seen the movie, I don’t know if you’re allowed to talk about it?
JB: Yeah, they didn’t tell me I’m not! So a little bit of background, a couple months ago there was an article with Eddie Redmayne published in Out and it was an interview about him preparing for his role as Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl, who was the first trans woman to ever medically transition on record, at least in Western world records that we have. And he mentioned me by name! He had watched my coming out video as part of his preparation and research on playing a trans character. If he didn’t watch my other videos he at least was sort of like aware of them, cause the way he phrased it he was like “yeah this guy Jackson Bird, he makes lots of videos about Harry Potter,” he might have even said “the Harry Potter Alliance,” I think, it was really nuts. And he was very very nice in everything that he said.
I couldn’t believe that made the cut of the interview, to be honest. And it was great because there’s a lot of controversy with that movie and with pretty much all trans movies and TV shows because there’s a cisgendered person playing a trans role, in this case a cis male playing a trans woman, so there’s some controversy about that—but I think hearing that he had done his research that much, and seeing how well he portrayed Stephen Hawking where there was a little bit of controversy about that, again, an able bodied actor playing someone with muscular dystrophy, but he clearly is someone who does his research and treats people with respect and compassion.
So that interview, while it was like “Oh my God, Eddie Redmayne has watched my videos!” it was a comfort I think to a lot of trans people that he’s being very careful and treating it with respect, but it’s also really cool to the Harry Potter fan community, because Eddie Redmayne of course is going to be playing Newt Scamander, the lead role in the upcoming Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them movies, and it was like wait, wait wait, he’s watched Harry Potter Alliance videos?! This dude’s actually a little in touch with the HP fandom! So now we’re all “how can we get him to come to LeakyCon? We’ve gotta get him more in the fandom!”
ELM: How can you?
JB: I know! We’re working on it! Well, I would have had my chance this past weekend. So I guess maybe because of that interaction or just other things I’ve done I got invited to an early screening of The Danish Girl for LGBT community members in the city and it was Eddie Redmayne as well as the directer Tom Hopper were gonna be there for a discussion afterwards. They were saying “Really intimate, honest discussion, we want your feedback as members of this community for how we did.” And unfortunately I was unable to go because the screening was at the exact time as two panels that I was on, so I was hugely bummed. I was even more bummed to find out that not only was Eddie Redmayne there, Laverne Cox was there!
JB: I missed out meeting both of them! But the filmmakers were very very kind and Focus Features ended up inviting me to the Producer’s Guild screening the next day. So Tom Hopper, the director, was there, I did end up getting to see the movie. Eddie Redmayne was not there, nor was Laverne Cox, it’s OK. And I did go up and I talked to Tom Hopper afterwards.
First of all, the movie was fantastic. Little known fact about testosterone, I am on testosterone as part of my hormone replacement replacement therapy I guess is the medical term for my transition, and when you start T a lot of times you can’t really cry anymore. So I haven’t cried since April, even though I’ve wanted to cry. The muscles sometimes move, on occasion, but no tears come out. I teared up at the end of The Danish Girl. It was the closest I’ve gotten to crying in like seven months. So props to The Danish Girl.
But I spoke to the director Tom Hopper afterwards and I asked him what was the reception from the community yesterday, and he said it was good, and one cool thing that he told me was that the closest trans person that he knows I believe her name was Jennifer White, and she’s a trans woman who was the pianist on the set of Les Mis when he directed it and Eddie was in it, and he said she actually, she was transitioning during filming, and she even played the piano for Eddie while he sang “Tables and Chairs,” so that’s a cool fandom factoid—but also gave me a little more assurance that Tom and Eddie really knew what they were doing, they have a very close friend in their life that they saw go through early stages of transition, so that was really awesome.
And when Tom was talking during the Q&A, the other producers and the moderator were a little uncomfortable and sloppy with their language here and there, but he was hitting every mark, using absolutely correct terminology, even went on a rant about how he hopes that this movie will lead to more compassion, which will lead to inclusion, which will lead to legislation and he was talking about how trans people don’t have the right access to health care or to employment, and I was like, “Man! F yeah! You go Tom Hopper!”
ELM: That’s fantastic! It’s very heartwarming because I heard the beginning of this story over the weekend and I was ready for you to come back and be like “And it was exactly what we feared!” So that’s really…
FK: Yeah! I was really worried about it. When I saw that Eddie Redmayne had mentioned you I was like “Oh no, what if it’s bad? How betrayed would everybody feel?”
JB: Yeah. You know, I still am trying to put together my thoughts. I think that there still are a few things that I might have changed or that I might question… the thing with Lili Elbe is that all the accounts that we have of her life, even though some of it is from her diaries, because it was all published in like the 30s there’s still a lot of sensationalism around it, so things that we take as fact still might not even be fact. Most of the accounts I’ve read of her sort of paint her as almost becoming a bit of an airhead after she transitioned, and I really doubt that that’s true. That wasn’t too much the case in the movie, but there were certain things like sort of focus on the surgery that I think could’ve been not quite as much of a focus—but then again the whole point of her story is that she was the first person to undergo these surgeries, so I don’t know. It’s complicated.
What I will say is it is hands down in terms of cinematography the most beautiful movie about a transgender person that exists yet. And it was handled so well in so many ways, the characters are—you love them, you feel for them… One thing I might say is that it might be a little too much from the perspective of her wife Gerta, which is a thing that happens with a lot of movies and TV shows about trans characters even if it’s technically from the trans lead person’s perspective. Subtextually it’s really still like “Oh, cis people and their response.” Sorry, I’m rambling a lot. There’s a lot to say!
FK: It’s OK!
ELM: And I think that’s pretty common across the board with, if it’s ostensibly supposed to be about a particular minority, I don’t want to use the term “minority,” but even with—it’s supposed to relate to the straight white cis man, or it’s not relatable. Even though they’re not the majority of the audience, so.
FK:Yeah, that’s accurate.
ELM: I want to ask you more trans questions, but I’m worried that I’m going way too far afield of fandom things. And in that danger of going too far afield of fandom, I would be really curious to know this year—what a year to come out so publicly as trans, this year in particular. I don’t know if that timing was deliberate, if you felt like you were waiting for the right—if it was entirely personal or if it was just coincidental, but I’m wondering what this year looks like to you when—I mean, I’m sitting next to my cat that I named Orlando six years ago after becoming obsessed with the book around the year 2000 at a time when it felt like something that I would never ever talk about gender identity stuff back then with almost anyone. And now the climate is so drastically different, I wonder what that looks like to you. That’s kind of a huge, huge, big old huge, uh… You can just talk about my cat if you want. That’s fine.
JB: I do love Orlando, both the cat and the book. Well, to link slightly back to The Danish Girl, an interesting thing I found out is the producers actually optioned it back in 2000. So they’ve been trying to make this movie for 15 years, and I think it’s completely obvious why it was hard back in those days. And Tom Hopper actually he got on board back in 2008. He had actually said that after the success of The King’s Speech and Les Mis and some of his other films, like, blockbuster financial success, he felt that he was in a place where he could take on a passion project that might not make any money and that’s when he was like “let’s move forward seriously with this project The Danish Girl.” And it’s so funny because I think they still kind of had that idea even as they were filming it, but now things have just blown up so quickly that everyone’s like “of course you’re making this, getting on the bandwagon!” So it is funny how quickly—
ELM: It’s not like, you can rush a book to press in a couple months, but you can’t rush a movie to screen. Well, maybe you can.
JB: Well, let me tell you that this one is so gorgeous I do not think that they did—sorry, film nerd. In terms of my coming out, it was pretty much a coincidence, that’s just personally how timing worked out. I did kinda make the decision that I was going to get on hormones and come out to everyone and go public with things in January, and just because of my own professional schedule things were on a very particular timeline of when I was starting hormones, when I came out, when I was gonna do this and that, but it didn’t have anything to do with more trans people being in the media at all, although that did become so much more helpful.
And it might have even pushed me a little bit, because with it becoming such a bigger discussion it was so hard for me to not openly talk about it. Especially being someone that people knew was very knowledgeable about different LGBTQIA issues, people would want to come to me to talk about these things, and it was so hard to have that discussion with them. Or it was so hard to bite my tongue and not be able to say things that like you can’t say as an ally. And so I think that did push me a little bit further to “OK, I gotta come out now.” And it was helpful in coming out to people, because I had so many people be like, “Oh, this is like this character!” or “Oh, I figured this thing out by watching this character!” Or watching Caitlyn Jenner’s interview, or things like that. So it has been very helpful.
The one thing I think we’re experiencing right now is that because we’re suddenly on this fast track with trans awareness, there’s some growing pains happening, sort of in the way we were talking earlier about how on Tumblr some people get so excited and enthusiastic that sometimes they might actually be doing a little bit of damage instead of more help. And so I think that happens a lot. With a so long misunderstood and complicated thing as being transgender is, the idea that all representation is good representation is absolutely not true and it’s very hard sometimes to get good representation, and there’s not much of it out there, but we’re definitely getting closer.
ELM: And you have people coming to you and saying that even just a little bit of representation is really helping them.
JB: Yeah, yeah it is really helping.
ELM: That is really interesting. I’m probably preaching to the choir, like, everyone listening to this agrees that having more diversity in our media is really important. I don’t know. Thank you for letting me grill you on non-fandom things.
JB: No problem.
FK: It seems even if we didn’t pull everything back directly to a fandomy place every moment, it seems like it’s pretty relevant to a lot of ongoing discussions across fandoms, and obviously Jackson is kind of a prominent fan person in many circles. So I think that we’re in the clear—I think that it’s all right that we could just talk about whatever we wanted!
ELM: It’s our podcast, we can talk about whatever we want.
JB: Exactly. That’s the first important thing. And I would also just say that having been someone involved in fandom whether personally or in fandom communities my whole life, my worldviews are so much shaped by fandom that it’s still relevant.
ELM: Totally! Anyway. I do actually think we are out of time, which is a tragedy—
FK: You say that every time, and it always sounds like you’re being sarcastic, but you always actually mean it.
ELM: [sarcastically] Yeah, it’s a real freakin’ tragedy, we’re outta time.
FK: [laughs] Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Jackson, and putting up with our sarcastic asses!
ELM: Yeah, I appreciate it. [sarcastically] I really appreciate it.
FK: [wails] Oh no!
ELM: Thanks, Jackson. Bye!
JB: Thank you!
FK: Thanks so much!
FK: So that was awesome!
ELM: Yeah! It was super awesome. Very quick initial reactions, I think one of the things I thought was the most interesting about the trans rabbit hole that I dragged us down was how it still managed to connect to fandom. When Jackson was talking about how valuable reading all those AUs was, which I think was really interesting.
FK: Absolutely. I think that fandom probably plays a role like that in a lot of people’s lives, whether it’s because they’re in a dark time and having trouble in their life and need a way to escape, or whether it’s because they can be exposed through fanfiction to people behaving in ways and living lives that they don’t see in their own. I know it’s functioned that way for me sometimes, has it functioned that way for you?
ELM: Yeah, and I guess I’m more interested in the latter of those two. I’m interested in them both, obviously, but the latter is very interesting to me because I’m so interested in exploring the kind of overlap and sometimes tensions between fanfiction or fanworks and real life politics. Just look at the ways that fanfiction changes the text. Look at the trends. Definitely an inclination to make things a whole lot more queer, right? On the whole, just in big broad strokes. And just the idea of being able to use that as a place to explore something that you can’t find in the mainstream media, and can’t find in yourself, for whatever reason, whether you’re not ready to go to that step…
FK: I think that’s really interesting partially because fanfiction hasn’t always been completely coded as queer, you know? I think that when it really got started being thought of internally and externally as being primarily about queerness to the extent that people often associate it that way was in the 90s, because before then—of course there were people writing slash, lots of them, but it wasn’t always as central to the discussion, at least the outward discussion.
It was only in the 90s that Henry Jenkins wrote the book Textual Poachers, which a lot of people cite as sort of the major academic book about fanfiction, especially early on, and that centers slash and queerness. But there was another book that was also written at about the same time called Enterprising Women by Camille Bacon-Smith, which took a completely different view of it and really focused on het fic. There are lots of issues that people in the fan community had with Camille Bacon-Smith’s book, it has different strengths and weakness than Henry Jenkins’ book did, but it’s really interesting because I think that if her book had been centered in the way we talk about fanfic, we’d have a really different academic discourse about it at least, if not an internal fandom discourse.
ELM: Yeah, but I just have to wonder, I feel like prior to when I started writing about this I never knew fan studies existed, I’d never heard of Henry Jenkins, you know? And I definitely think in terms of fan studies and the academic discourse that’s probably true, but I think that they have more of an observational role than an influencing role. We’re talking about millions of people writing stories, not a few thousand people in an academic community.
FK: Of course. But then I think that there’s also millions of people who don’t think of fanfiction as particularly queer. We always have that problem where people say “slash” and they mean “het fic” and we’re like, “what?”
ELM: Like 96% of journalists who write articles?
ELM: About those weird slashes? That’s why when I said this initially I said—I guess I meant like a tendency. If you’re gonna say “How’s this text gonna be changed in fanfiction?” it’s gonna intersect with identity politics. I hate the term identity politics. It’s gonna intersect with facets of identity. It’s more likely to be queered in some way.
FK: I think there’s also an argument that the het fics that people are referring to actually do place women and women’s concerns more centrally than the original texts do. Even if they’re het romance fics, yeah, but in 90% of the original canons you don’t have women as material characters anyway, so by writing a romance you’re fundamentally making it at least more feminine if not more queer.
ELM: Right. I think that people definitely don’t give het the subversive credit that it’s due. You can assume that just because you’re slashing two dudes you’re being super subversive, but a lot of times you aren’t, you’re actually being pretty conventional. Especially in the context of how many fanworks are written about some of these pairings. This is an additional rabbit hole. Do you want to keep going?
FK: This is an additional rabbit hole! I think it also intersects interestingly with trans issues because, you know, that’s an identity that’s not a sexuality identity and there’s all sorts of questions—but that’s another rabbit hole that we probably should have talked about with Jackson if we were gonna talk about it, and we didn’t. Because we were having too many other good conversations.
ELM: Next time.
FK: Next time.
ELM: We always say this “next time” with all these guests. A year from now, are we gonna have the same exact guests?
FK: Probably not.
ELM: Five years from now? Do you think we’re gonna have this podcast in five years, Flourish?
FK: I’m gonna say it, I think we’re gonna have this podcast for five years. We’ve already gone way longer than we thought we would.
FK: I am not a dedicated person.
ELM: Are you saying I’m a slacker who doesn’t follow through on anything?
FK: I’m a slacker who doesn’t follow through on anything. Fortunately I have you to wield the whip.
ELM: Don’t forget, the transcript’s due Friday.
FK: Yes ma’am.
ELM: OK, I think we should probably wrap up cause we are running short on time. Next episode we’re gonna have Evan Hayles Gledhill, gothicbodies on Twitter, who is an academic who is going to take a more historical view of fandom—at least I hope, we shall find out. And then I get to go to England!
FK: I’m so excited!
ELM: OmiGodomiGod Flourish! I’m so excited. So I’m staying with a few friends and yesterday one of them messaged me and said, what day do you arrive? Do you want to go to a Muppet Christmas Carol singalong screening?
ELM: On the eighth which is the first day that I’m there, and that is literally my favorite movie. And you know what, so I was thinking about it, I am having a lot of feelings. Ten years ago I was living in England, I couldn’t get anyone to have Thanksgiving with me, and so I made Thanksgiving dinner alone, all the things… I know, how sad is this! All the Americans were like “I don’t want to do this” and the British people were like “I’m busy” cause it’s like Thursday. So I made Thanksgiving dinner alone and then I sat in my little dorm room and I watched Muppet Christmas Carol and I felt very sad and lonely.
FK: Oh my God I’m so sorry.
ELM: And now I get to go to a singalong at my favorite place in the world.
FK: I’m so happy for you! I can understand why you’re basically doing a little happy dance right now.
ELM: My Muppet Christmas Carol fandom is more important than all my other fandoms.
FK: I love Muppet Christmas Carol too, for what it’s worth! I love it the most.
ELM: It’s at that theater where they do the singalongs in the West End!
FK: Yeah! Muppet Christmas Carol, it’s not Christmas without Muppet Christmas Carol.
ELM: Correct. Correct.
FK: That’s one thing that we agree on, folks. Elizabeth and I agree on A Muppet Christmas Carol.
ELM: That’s it! Let’s just rename the podcast We Love A Muppet Christmas Carol. All right, all right. I could actually talk about that for ten more minutes so we should probably say goodbye now.
FK: All right. I’ll talk to you next time, Elizabeth.
ELM: OK bye!
FK: The opinions expressed in this podcast are not those of Stratus Media Ventures, Chimera Media Group, Chaotic Good, or our clients, or our employers, or anyone’s except our own.