Some Half-Formed Thoughts on Dwarfs and Gender in Discworld

This is a quick post just to get something out of my head that’s been rattling around since I finished Raising Steam a couple of weeks ago. I tweeted most of this at the time; this is just pulling those thoughts together without the character limit.

On a surface level, the dwarfish race in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld has gender equality: all dwarfs look alike, and gender is considered a secret relevant only to the dwarf theirself and their significant others. This has apparently been the case for the whole of dwarfish history. However, the emergence of female dwarfs who want to imitate female humans’ presentation of gender is a repeated subject of the novels. On the one hand, this is presented as an issue of self-expression in the face of restrictive cultural norms, but the sense is generally there in the books that these cultural norms are not just a restriction of what all dwarfs can do, but a specific repression of females from presenting as such.
But, as I’ve said, dwarfs on Discworld don’t appear to have any cultural history of a gender binary in terms of dress and behaviour. This is something that seems as though it can only have come from outside influence, through observation of human culture on the Disc (significantly, it is the more “modern” dwarfs of the human city of Ankh-Morpork who initiate this movement of female gender expression), however dwarfs in the books are depicted in some cases as harbouring pre-existing resentment of the requirement to present as “male”.

The result of it all is the impression that Pratchett is presenting the gender binary of human culture (specifically the 19th-century cultural analogue of the Discworld) as something that is innate and desirable even by those that have no history of such. In Raising Steam specifically, part of the climax of the book is the Low King of the Dwarfs, Rhys Rhysson, declaring herself to be a Low Queen and adopting a feminine name – an act that makes little sense in a culture that has no history of gendered names, but it’s intended as a symbolic gesture. Following this event we are told a significant number of dwarfs rush to “out” themselves following her example.

This is not to object to the idea of individuals choosing their own gender expression, but it is telling that this is something that only applies to female dwarfs, and the depiction leaves the reader with the impression that almost all female dwarfs have just been waiting for the moment to come where they can begin to openly acknowledge their gender by adopting these human practices. I couldn’t help coming out of the ending of Raising Steam with the feeling that Pratchett was, through the dwarfs, promoting the idea of our culture’s gender binary as something that is right and proper.

Now, I’m a little concerned I might just be showing my ass here, as I’m not sure I have found the best way to express my thoughts on the topic, and I’ve got the lingering feeling I might be reading too much into things. But this isn’t the only area where Pratchett has appeared to show an unquestioning acceptance of stereotypical gender roles and behaviours – he’s quite fond of clichéd marriage jokes in many of the later books, for example – and it seems like this is one of the places where his well-intentioned attempts to reflect real-world struggles for equality and freedoms has fallen foul of problematic implications.

All of this is not intended to take away from the fact that Terry Pratchett was a great writer, and one who was as far as I can tell funny, intelligent, and a genuinely good person. But every one of us has our blind spots and unintentional biases, and even the best of us has moments where those show through despite intentions.

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One thought on “Some Half-Formed Thoughts on Dwarfs and Gender in Discworld

  1. It’s an interesting thought, but it seems to me that not all of the females wanted to be out as females, or to become a human type of female.

    Cheery (and many others) kept her essential dwarfishness, the beard, the awe, the armour, the leather and the modesty. It came across to me as wanting in some way to distinguish themselves from the males, and they adopted some of the human styling (i.e skirts and a comb through the beard) to show it. They also wanted to be able to do something that wasn’t quaffing and talking about gold, which some men, as well as women, were secretly bored of.
    For me it was a clever way of showing how other cultures can rub off on each other and help areas of different society’s see/ do things a different way.

    Although it does get repeated quite often that all creature seem to be becoming human, a merging of many cultures with the more laid back one becoming the template, as it were.

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