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.

Your Favourites Are Not Objective

Title is stating the obvious, right? You’d think.

First up, go read this post on Tor.com by Liz Bourke. It’s an old story: a couple of famous white male authors listed their favourite writers. Their lists were entirely white and male. Liz Bourke argues, quite rightly, that this was avoidable, and that people have a responsibility to think about who they’re including or excluding when they make such lists.

Cue the comments, which were flooded with (presumably) white, male readers making the oh-so-predictable response: why should the authors’ identities affect what is their favourite? It sounds reasonable, until you actually apply some thought to the issue.

If I asked you to name your ten favourite authors, could you do so easily, without hesitation? All ten? I couldn’t. Thing is, a lot of authors have very different things that make them good, that are hard to rank directly against one another. I dare say that after the first few names, most people would be stopping to consider whether to include author A at the expense of author B. I myself would probably name author A on one day, and then author B when asked the same question a week later – and both lists would be equally true. “Favourite” is a tricky thing to narrow down, and any list of favourites is going to be, on some level, a deliberately curated selection, not an absolute answer.

So, your list of ten favourites is not actually a list of favourites. But what does this have to do with the diversity of the list? Well, a lack of diversity in your list of favourites can mean a few things. The article above points out that, statistically speaking, a list is unlikely to be entirely white and male by chance alone. If the identity of an author did not factor in at all, lists like that would be far less common. So what are the reasons your favourites are all white men?

1) The books you read are all by white men. This is unlikely to happen by accident – 51% of the population is female – so a bias must exist somewhere. This could be systematic bias in publishing and marketing. It could be that you yourself have a bias – conscious or not – when choosing what to read. And of course it could be because these recommendation lists we’re talking about already disproportionately favour white male authors. (It’s actually all three.) In any case, this suggests you’re not choosing your “favourites” from a representative sample, and you should maybe start to think more about who you’re choosing to read.

2) You like the books you read by white men more. Say this the wrong way and it sounds bad, right? You’re not sexist or racist, it’s just that these books you like happen to be by white men! Think, however, about what this really implies. As I’ve said above, it’s unlikely to happen by chance. There are two explanations: either you’re saying that white men are just better at writing good books, or you’re not reading the right non-white and/or non-male authors. The answer, again, is to pay more attention and try to read more diversely.

3) You enjoy writers of all backgrounds, but you’re choosing to only include white men in your list of recommendations… for some reason. You like author B well enough, but you’re going to put author A on your list. Truth be told, there’s not much between the two, and a list with author B wouldn’t really be less representative of your tastes, but you want to be as close to your absolute top ten favourites as possible. Why should it matter if you then look at the list and realise that decision means your list has no women on it? It’s your favourites, right? Because of points 1 and 2, that’s why. When you could publish a list that included some diversity, without really compromising your tastes, but choose not to, you’re adding to the bias that leads to other people not reading those diverse voices, which continues the cycle of bias in recommendation and reading choices and keeps non-male and non-white writers underrepresented.

Point 3 is why Liz Bourke talks about people having a responsibility to include diversity. The fact that recommendations completely lacking in diversity are so common demonstrates that there’s a widespread bias that goes against the common sense that writers of different backgrounds should all be equally capable of writing good books. This bias is not something that will correct itself, spontaneously, but it something that can only be countered by being more conscious of what we read, and what we recommend others read.

It should be weird to look at the books you’ve been reading and realise they’re all by men. If you write down your favourites and, against all probability, they’re all white men, it should make you wonder what’s been missed out.

Reading Statistics 2014

I was thinking of skipping my annual look at the stats of my reading in 2014, but today I read this article from Book Riot on reading diversely, and decided to go ahead and post some stats again.

This is based on the books in this post, and includes The Godless, which I began in 2014 but only finished yesterday. I’m not posting Excel graphs this time, just dropping the numbers.

Total books read: 25
Year of Publication: 2011 (1), 2012 (1), 2013 (10), 2014 (13)
Most common genre: Epic Fantasy
Most common author nationality: USA (20, 80%)
Books by non-male authors: 17 (68%)
Books by non-white authors: 4 (16%)
Books with non-male PoV characters*: 22 (88%)
Books with non-white PoV characters: 17 (68%)

*I have included one book in this count in which the gender of the protagonist is never specified.

It is interesting to note that this is the first year of tracking these numbers where the number of books I read by female authors was higher than the number by male authors. In the past it has been very much skewed in the other direction. I feel like the sample size is too small to really read much from these numbers, but I can say that I think representation in terms of race and gender within the books I read this year was pretty good. Obviously there was a strong lean toward white authors, however, which is something to think about.

I would have included sexuality of characters in this post, however I have not tracked those details and found I couldn’t decide where to place things from memory alone. Sexuality of authors seemed like it might be a little too personal to dig into.

Thursday Linkdump

A bigger one this week.

1. Authors Responding to Fans
Another one of those topics that stirs up a lot of argument on Twitter, this week it was about whether authors should respond to reviews, or to fan work in general. I’m going to skip most of that and just point you at the post where author Hal Duncan rips apart the notion that authors should keep their noses out of fan spaces. He lays it out in some detail, but his essential point is simple: if you’re working with something he created, he has every right to point out if what you’re doing with it is problematic. Duncan’s post is characteristically long, but worth getting to grips with.

2. Boy Books and Girl Books
At Book Riot, Kelly Jensen talks about the problems we cause when we divide books up into “books for girls” and “books for boys”.

3. The Internet Makes You Dumb
Clive Thompson talks here about how use of the internet and social media is making kids smarter, not dumber.

4. Writing Diversity
Aliette de Bodard shares her thoughts on writing diversity in SFF, another topic that’s been popular recently.

5. Girls and Video Games
Elizabeth Simins has written a great comic about her life as a girl who likes video games. Go read it.

6. Fake Geek Guys
In this video, Jennifer Landa goes to Comic-Con to discover the truth about Fake Geek Guys.

Recently, a lot of the buzz among SFF-related blogs and news sites was about a post by writer Christopher Priest where he criticised the current shortlist for the Clarke Awards.

Too much has been said about it already to bother weighing in myself, but the whole episode prompted Catherynne Valente to think about how very different reactions would have been if a woman had written the same things. In her post Let Me Tell You About the Birds and the Bees: Gender and the Fallout Over Christopher Priest, she makes some excellent points on the big disparity that still exists in the way people react to men and women online.

Yes, I know it’s the net and comments are a festering pile of venom, but you do have to notice that the venom cranks up to eleven when a woman posts. You can tell me well, Requires is so mean! Sady doesn’t say things super nicely! And I will point to all the men who say not nice things, some of whom even call out properties for sexism, and are applauded for their badassery and edginess, for their disinclination to suffer fools, and the total lack of screeching hate speech in their comments.

The fact is, to be a woman online is to eventually be threatened with rape and death. On a long enough timeline, the chances of this not occurring drop to zero.

It’s worth reading; this is a real problem that you see everywhere online.