Tania Evans grew up feeling like “the weird kid”.
“I felt like an outsider in high school because I was academically minded and driven to change the world in some way,” she says.
She wasn't always the bookish type. Growing up in semi-rural Moreton Bay in Queensland, where rates of attainment of a Bachelor's degree is below the Australian and Queensland average, Tania didn't get into books until she read R.L. Stein's Goosebumps.
“I read one of those and was like, 'Oh my goodness – books are amazing!'” she enthuses.
When Tania went to uni, she didn't feel weird for the first time. While that achievement was the sort of thing that was celebrated at her public high school, within her community, she says, people thought it made you a bit of a snob.
“I actually remember not getting a few casual jobs as an undergrad because I was at uni,” she notes.
“But at uni I found other people like me who were interested in thinking about things in lots of depth and being critical.”
After she graduated from QUT with first class honours, Tania contemplated where she should do her PhD.
“Getting paid to learn and teach and share your passion with other people – basically, doing a PhD and becoming a researcher – that sounded like a job I was built for,” she says.
“I was offered six or seven full scholarships, and I chose ANU because of its research focus and my amazing supervisor.”
Her supervisor was Associate Professor Katherine Bode, a literary studies scholar within the School of Literature, Languages and Linguistic.
“I'd sent my research proposal to a lot of unis and Kath was the only one who said, 'Let's make this the best proposal it can be',” Tania recalls. “Even before I was officially her student, she was really supportive.”
At 21, Tania was the youngest in her PhD cohort. She describes that period as terrifying, having left home for the first time and moved to Canberra.
“It was everything all at once,” she says. “Thankfully I found a lot of support at ANU through my fellow PhD students, the Research Skills and Training Team, and my school, SLLL.”
Being so young also presented challenges in terms of going about her research. While Tania was convinced that it was important to work on popular culture that was happening right now instead of looking back in time, she encountered pushback from some older scholars.
“They said it wasn't worth looking at, that I was giving academia a bad name,” Tania says. “At 21 I was like, 'Oh my gosh – what have I done?'”
She persisted. She had found that there was basically no research on masculinity in fantasy fiction, which she thought was crazy, given it's a genre that's thought of as stereotypically masculine.
“I was reading about Game of Thones when it started to become a big thing, in 2013-14,” she says. “I thought, this is a really important show that does interesting things with masculinity and violence. I decided that this was going to be my baby.”
Fast forward five years and, in the lead up to the final season of the global phenomenon, Tania found herself in the spotlight as the University's resident Game of Thrones expert. She was in the newspapers and on radio commentating on the show.
Tania found the experience exciting but terrifying. She was driven by the belief that it's important that women in academia get to contribute to these conversations in the media.
“We don't see a lot of women academics out there in general,” Tania says. “So it was really important to me to be visible in that space and share my research with people.”
“It's important that the research we do as PhDs and academics are shared with the actual people who are engaged with the things we're researching.”
She encountered some online trolls along the way, some of whom said nasty things like how she shouldn't be in academia and that what she was doing was a waste of taxpayer's money. And she's learned from that experience.
“I learned to take criticism and remember that people give you what they have to give. If someone is angry, it might be because they've got something else going on and it has nothing to do with you,” Tania says.
The trolls aside, Tania received positive feedback from her former students who thought it was amazing to see their teacher talk about GoT in the media.
“It was nice to connect research and teaching in that way.”
Tania's parents were surprised by the side of their daughter they saw in the press.
“They see this stuff and were like, 'The quiet Tan has changed so much!'” Tania says, laughing. “They listened to the radio interviews and said I sounded so knowledgable and polished. And I replied, 'Yes I am!'”
Her research didn't just unearth insights relating to the show. Tania also learned a lot about herself in the process: she's been strongly shaped as a feminist by the books and TV she's consumed – along with discovering that she's queer.
“In researching popular culture, you realise it contains so many mixed messages about the kind of person you should be and it's possible to be,” she says.
“Around the second year of my PhD, I started reading a lot of queer theory and realised I was passionate about it and connecting with it. Obviously I realised queer people existed growing up, but living [where I did] it didn't seem like an option.”
She adds that doing her PhD and being in Canberra where it's more inclusive, she saw that you can be queer in a lot of different ways. But the actual moment of realisation came when she was reading Alison Bechdel's Fun Home.
“I was reading the book for work and thought, 'Maybe I'm a lesbian? Actually I am, hey!'” she says.
“It was very much access to and awareness of queer theory and texts that brought me to that conclusion.”
This has profoundly affected Tania's life. She calls it her “Phoenix transformation”. She's even created a Phoenix Club: “When you die as a straight person and are reborn as queer,” she says cheerfully.
Towards the end of her PhD, she cut off most of her hair in accordance with her transformation.
“I felt like it was taking too much time, literally,” she says. “But I also felt that the long, curly hair I'd had made me look really feminine and I didn't feel that way anymore.”
She adds: “I knew from my research on gender that there are definite links between hair and sexuality. So it was a research-based decision!”
Next semester, after graduation, Tania will continue to teach at ANU. She's still researching popular culture and Game of Thrones, in addition to Teen Wolf and queer popular culture such as Ru Paul's Drag Race. She's also working on the book version of her thesis, which is currently under review with Edinburgh University Press.
“My parents have no idea what I'm doing, but they're still very proud of me!” she says.
Tania Evans’ PhD was on masculinity and fantasy in George R. R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire and its television adaptation, Game of Thrones. She has written several essays on gender in popular culture, which have been published in Gothic Studies, Fantastika, and Masculinities: A Journal of Identity and Culture. Follow her on Twitter @_TaniaEvans_