18 Octobris 2006

Do dwarves default male?

(No major spoilers for Discworld books in this post. Extremely minor ones if you don’t know about Cheery Littlebottom and Carrot Ironfoundersson.)

I used to hate the Discworld character Cheery Littlebottom. She annoyed the daylights out of me: a character who didn’t have to behave like a girl who nonetheless wanted to. Dresses, makeup, the whole silly act. Why on earth would anyone…?

Finally I got it. I got what Pratchett was driving at. And it’s so beautifully subversive and clever that I just have to share.

Cheery is a dwarf. Pratchett’s dwarves are a takeoff on the famous note in Tolkien about dwarf women being rare, bearded, and almost impossible to distinguish from male dwarves. Dwarf biological gender in Discworld is so difficult to distinguish in normal interaction that even the dwarves usually aren’t sure who’s which.

A one-gender society could conceivably be behaviorally indiscriminate; all members would say and do things that in gendered societies are associated with different genders. (LeGuin hints at this in some of her Earthsea tales, when male mages who have grown up in all-male Roke do “women’s work” quite naturally, because they’re used to it and don’t realize or don’t care that outside Roke work roles are gendered.) They wouldn’t care about how humans gender behavior; why should they? Nobody needs to know whether the dwarf swinging the axe or rocking the baby is male or female. Dress could also straddle the divide; why not?

But Pratchett doesn’t do that. From a human point of view, dwarf society is exclusively behaviorally male. Dwarves wear their beards proudly, swing axes and throw waybread (a riff on Tolkien’s cram, of course) at the least provocation, ponder gold and mine for it, swagger and brawl and wear lots of spiky metal and generally act in ways that code them male. The only time you see a Pratchett dwarf doing something coded feminine is when Pratchett can make a joke out of the contrast between the male presentation and the feminine social position—e.g. dwarf barmaids.

Check it out, though! Dwarf maleness isn’t what they biologically are, because a lot of dwarves are biologically female! Dwarf maleness is what they do, how they act, and it isn’t just humans who code dwarves male—it’s dwarves themselves; they call each other “he” and “him” and insist that gendered folk like humans do likewise.

Feminist scholars have a phrase for this: “gender as performance.” It’s a viciously hard thing to get people to agree happens, since folks are so invested in the idea that biology determines gender-specific behavior. But Pratchett slips performativity in like medicine in candy. It’s beautiful. My hat’s off to the guy.

Just to reinforce the point, Pratchett highlights the performativity of dwarvishness in the person of Captain Carrot Ironfoundersson. Biologically, Carrot is human; he’s six feet tall and beardless, and was born of (biologically and culturally) human parents. Culturally, he’s a dwarf; he was raised by dwarves, self-identifies as a dwarf, and is accepted by dwarves as a dwarf (though some humans do roll their eyes a bit). Dwarvishness: it’s not who you are, it’s what you do.

And along comes Cheery Littlebottom, who is a dwarf. And biologically female. And decides that she wants to perform femaleness as well as inhabiting it. Do the dwarves accept this, seeing as how they have a one-gender society that is theoretically not limited in its behavior by gender?

Do they hell. They decide that their male-normativity is so important to them that anyone who doesn’t perform maleness threatens the entire dwarvish way of being. Cheery’s behavior causes a huge furor among the dwarves. Some of them (notably, the “deep dwarves” depicted as the ultimate arbiters of what constitutes dwarvishness) consider her non-dwarf. To her credit, she keeps doing what she does, and (minor spoiler) eventually the more cosmopolitan parts of dwarf society learn to cope with their feminine outliers.

If you’re not seeing parallels with the whole Honorary Guy thing, well, what’s wrong with you? Programming cultures, geek cultures, gaming cultures, many other online cultures—they’re theoretically ungendered, but they behave male, and any behavior that codes feminine is automatically suspect—even coming from a bio-guy.

As I suggested in my honorary-guy post, any attempt to question male-normativity in one of these groups automatically codes feminine, and is considered a threat to the group identity itself. The perp gets smacked down hard, if not kicked out altogether. How else to explain why a guy got jumped on for questioning a sexist headline? A little while ago in one of my comics blogs I saw an exactly parallel scenario commented on (and I wish I could find the darn link again!). I daresay most of my readers can dredge up more examples.

Pratchett doesn’t sugarcoat Cheery, and I applaud him for it. There is no mass dwarf regendering in Discworld, though a few brave dwarves do follow Cheery’s example. There is no vanishing of dwarf prejudice. What I love most about Cheery, actually, is that she is herself far from free of prejudice, and there’s more to her than her gender-performative rebellion. She feels whole and real, insofar as a secondary fantasy character can, and she doesn’t offer any easy answers.

There aren’t any easy answers, after all. But at least Pratchett helps frame the right questions.