Remember back when I used to (try to) write an AEL about almost every art I experienced? I used to start the AEL and add stuff as I went along. But then I wouldn’t finish writing up my thoughts on all those things, and then I’d start another AEL and do the same thing XD So I have all these unfinished entries in my Drafts folder. Since it’s been years on most of them, I’m obviously never going to finish them… so here I’m importing all the thoughts that were in a couple of them, whether they’re finished or not. To reiterate: this was all a long-ass time ago.
Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett — The concept of the Disc’s dwarven culture, a society without gender in which everyone presents in a manner that other Disc cultures consider masculine, is an extremely fascinating one that I honestly wish Pratchett had explored a little more thoroughly. And the character of Cheery Littlebottom probably resonates very strongly with any reader that has ever experienced being even a little different from what society expected them to be. Watching her struggle to be accepted as simultaneously female and dwarf certainly means a lot to me, and she’s one of my favorite Discword characters in consequence. But that doesn’t mean the way her struggle is presented is entirely without its problems.
I will admit that I haven’t the faintest idea how Pratchett could have depicted a woman’s struggle to be recognized as a woman without invoking some gender stereotypes. What is it, after all, that makes women women? I identify very strongly as a woman, but I couldn’t tell you why, and it’s probable that each woman has a different definition of what a female identity really is. So how is a writer dealing with a character coming out as female in a genderless society going to recognizably establish that femininity? By bringing interests and characteristics traditional considered feminine into play, of course.
I get this; I really do; I don’t see a way around it. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t wince pretty hard when Cheery admitted she’d rather discuss hairstyles and clothing than mining and quaffing. I did appreciate the inclusion of “people” as something she’d like to talk about, but I couldn’t help noting that it seemed to be an afterthought to two very superficial things women are supposedly interested in. Additionally, the devil’s advocate in the back of my head was whispering that ‘people’ in this context just means ‘gossip,’ another thing women all supposedly enjoy.
Cheery is then shown trying out various “feminine” things such as earrings, makeup, and skirts. She embraces some and rejects some in a decent show of individualism, but the entire thing still doesn’t quite sit right.
But, once again, what else could Pratchett have done? Could Cheery have said she’d rather discuss literature than mining and quaffing? How about domesticated animals? Watercolors? Politics? Geometry? Could she have tried wearing jeans instead of chain mail? While any of these might well have established her as having interests beyond those typical to dwarves, and therefore borne out her character arc and the general theme to some extent, none of them would have established her as having specifically feminine characteristics.
But, still, hair and clothes? Really?
Real human history has left women with very few positive stereotypes (not that there’s any such thing as a positive stereotype) — very few, if any, ways in which Pratchett could establish Cheery as female that would both convince me of her femininity and simultaneously not make me wince. Women are… women are what? Nurturing? Yeah, sure. Women are intuitive? Right. I’m trying to think of more supposedly positive traits Pratchett could assign Cheery that would be considered typically feminine, and I’m not really coming up with much. Men historically have almost a monopoly on (among quite a few other things) so-called positive stereotypes.
So we’re left with Cheery being interested in hair and clothes as proof of her femininity.
Cheery is a great character with positive and useful qualities, and being interested in discussing hair and clothes and wearing jewelry and skirts is part of that. These are not, in themselves, undesirable traits. I just wish they didn’t have to be the full extent of her gender identity.
There’s definitely a gender binary problem here, too. All dwarves present as what other cultures consider masculine, and therefore, given the two-gender system, the only alternative is female: you’re either a normal male dwarf or a deviant female dwarf. Not only does this place the entire burden of vicious social disapproval simply for being yourself on anyone identifying with any gender expression that other cultures would consider feminine, it also probably pushes any dwarf that doesn’t fully identify with the standard perceived-masculine dwarf image toward a perceived-feminine role because that’s simply the only other choice.
A transition from a genderless culture (whose general presentation is strongly associated with one specific gender in other societies) to a gendered one (under the influence of those other societies where “masculine” is the label applied to this transitioning culture, two genders are considered all that’s available, and a long-established set of expectations goes with each) is the interesting idea I wish Pratchett had explored in more depth. Unfortunately, Pratchett was probably himself working with a gender binary when he came up with this entire concept, so that depth I wish for could probably never be reached.
We’ll never know exactly how Cheery identifies, how other dwarves discovering this idea of gender see themselves, how dwarven society’s concept of gender evolves, or how that interacts with and affects other societies’ concepts of gender on the Disc. What we do get is a genderless character coming out as female — WHICH IS REALLY INTERESTING, despite the stereotypes used to convey it… just not as complex or satisfying as it could have been.
The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan — I was ecstatic to find that the first main character of this book was black, and that a significant number of secondary characters actually reflected, in their race and appearance, the Egyptian content of the story. So tired of white heroes, especially in settings where it’s totally illogical. But then I bought an actual physical copy of the book, and got a look at the cover illustration.
So….. Carter’s got curly dark hair, yes, but what’s with the extreme shadows? Why does he appear to have the exact same skin-tone as Sadie?
I poked around online to see if anyone else had noticed this, and, though I didn’t find any mention of this book specifically, I learned that this is a major, ongoing problem in young adult literature (and probably all other types of literature): characters of color constantly have their race obscured, or are just outright changed to white, for cover illustrations.
What the hell, people.
The thing is, I listen to audiobooks. The covers generally appear only as thumbnails if I ever even see them at all. So not only was I unaware that this was a problem (though I wasn’t even a tiny bit surprised to find that it was), marketing considerations about the cover of a book DO NOT APPLY TO ME. This, perhaps, strengthened my rage and disgust at this glimpse into the minds of publishers.
SERIOUSLY WHAT THE FUCK. This is not appropriate. I can’t even express my disgust that this should be such a significant problem at this point in time. How can we not be beyond this kind of bullshit by now.
Maskerade by Terry Pratchett — I think that by the end of the book, Pratchett made it pretty clear that his intention was to satirize the way fat people are treated, both by themselves and by others. Agnes is characterized as capable, intelligent, and talented, but constantly has to make way for others that, simply put, are not fat. The characters around her that subscribe to this system rarely even question it; the ones that do can’t change things, and at least one of them actually dies. The inability to look past the supposedly unattractive characteristic of being fat is presented as absurd and negative.
HOWEVER. At the same time all of this is going on, in what seems an almost backstabbing act of unkindness, the very fact that Agnes is fat is played for humor. We get offensive descriptions of her, and because they come from the narration, there is no reprieve against it as the narrative voice is, in a sense, out of range of the satire. Even the narration that is closer to Nanny Ogg’s thought processes that allows Agnes to be attractive adds an addendum. All of which lead us to understand that maybe the way fat people are treated is mockable, but just being fat is also pretty hilarious.
For a story that points out the ludicrous treatment to which fat people are subjected, this book is sorely lacking in any kind of fat-positive language.
It’s interesting to me that underweight characters are almost never described in a humorous manner. Occasionally you’ll get an initial description of a skeletally thin character that’s meant to make you laugh — allusions to spiders and clothes hangers are sometimes made — but I can’t think of a single narrative that reiterates the hilarious thinness of a character with the ruthless constancy so often used to describe fat characters.
This is, perhaps, because there is often a mental association between extreme thinness and eating disorders, and making fun of eating disorders is Not Cool; this is a very understandable motive. However, some eating disorders can include overeating and lead to weight gain. Obesity can be a result of psychological conditions that are just as difficult to change as those that lead to an unhealthily low weight. Why is consideration given to people suffering disorders leading to weight loss, but never to people suffering disorders leading to weight gain? Why is too thin pitiable where too fat is laughable?
I suppose there’s also a mental association between extreme thinness and impecunity, and it’s Not Cool to make fun of poor starving people either. All right, that’s fair. But why, then, is it cool to make fun of fat people? Because they have enough money to eat on a regular basis? Oh, the hilarity!!
Anyway, getting back to Maskerade in particular… the way Agnes herself reacts to being fat, while still obviously part of the satire, also bugs me a bit, and it leads into my next point.
All right, I will freely admit that I find the idea of dissociated identities extremely interesting. So does most of the world. The problem with that is that real people have this condition, which is often called a disorder and often makes the lives of those people difficult. The way it’s dramatized, romanticized, and often trivialized (in its use as a plot device rather than a condition with serious repercussions) in various types of fiction seems… problematic.
I get tired of the casual and ill-informed way people talk about, misrepresent, or even claim (facetiously or otherwise) to suffer from the mental condition that I have, and this condition probably doesn’t have nearly as much impact on my life as having multiple personalities would. It must be extremely wearisome and probably hurtful to see your condition represented in the media with little attention to correctness or compassion, and undoubtedly doesn’t tend toward people’s greater understanding of the condition or better methods of response to it.
Unfortunately, the condition of having dissociated identities is not well understood; it’s a controversial and hazy branch of human psychology. As such, I think people consider it less scientific, less real, and therefore more exploitable. And the presence of a character with multiple personalities can make for an extremely interesting and involved story, so authors continue to include them.
I’ve done it. I’m afraid I’ll never stop wincing in retrospect at a certain Quest for Glory fic I wrote once upon a time wherein the Hero had multiple personalities in order to embody every available RPG class at the same time, and this was played for extreme humor (though, looking back, it was never actually that funny). Much more recently, I used Lady Une of Gundam Wing specifically because I wanted a character with multiple personalities, and I’m not entirely sure I’m proud of having done so.
The thing is, a lot of people agree that the dissociation of new personalities happens a lot of the time in response to some traumatic incident or set of circumstances. “Traumatic” being the key word: this isn’t, many people agree, something that just happens on its own, or that happens in response to something less than harrowing. Something terrible. But in Maskerade, not only do we have the beginnings of a dramatized dissociation of personality, it’s in response not to trauma, but to the set of socially acceptable behaviors and attitudes Agnes has adopted to make up for being fat.
Did you get that? Agnes is on her way to becoming dissociative (and the next book about her will confirm that she is dissociative) because she’s fat.
I’m sorry, Pratchett, but I’m not buying it. As a fat woman, particularly, I’m not buying it.
Yes, of course, this is part of the satire: because the only positive comment society is willing to offer about Agnes is that she has a “wonderful personality,” she has separated that wonderful personality from the less wonderful aspects (the ones she feels she can’t display because they don’t work toward making up for her unacceptable fatness the way the others do); the comment is, “Look how far society has pushed this woman in refusing to even consider accepting her the way she is.” But in doing so, Pratchett is painting being fat as a traumatic experience that can lead to a serious mental condition that can fuck up someone’s life, and casting this all in a comedic light.
I would feel a bit better about all this if a positive statement resulted from this overall theme. Unfortunately, the message, by the end of the story, seems to be, “A fat woman will never be recognized for her good qualities, and might as well give up on everything she’s really interested in doing and resign herself to what others expect of her.” That I consider witches some of the biggest badasses (and those we’ve met some of my favorite characters) on the Disc doesn’t change the fact that Agnes set out to make her way in the world and a name for herself using her talents, failed solely because people refused to recognize those talents on account of her being fat, and had to settle for something she didn’t really want to do with people she didn’t really want to work with.
Sure, she’s probably better off in the long run, and will probably eventually be happier as a witch than she would have been as an opera singer… and of course we know that in the next book she features in, having Perdita more fully dissociated is specifically useful… but that doesn’t change the overall, depressing message this book delivers.
I’d like to mention Henry Slugg briefly as well, just as he presents such an interesting contrast to Agnes. He too is fat, and gets shamed just as much as Agnes, but his talent is specifically recognized. The running theme of true self vs. societal perception is maintained, and in this he’s another great parallel for Agnes and Walter; but I can’t help noticing than where Agnes, a woman, is judged by her physical appearance, Henry, a man, is judged by his class origins. Agnes is forced to hide her appearance (i.e. sing through Christine), whereas Henry was forced to disguise his class (i.e. pose as Enrico Basilica), in order to succeed.
I don’t think it’s necessarily inaccurate or lacking in incisiveness to portray a woman as having her worth determined by society based on her looks and a man as having his determined by society based on his (at least perceived) financial quality; but I do feel that, in handing a female character an insurmountable set of difficulties as a result of being fat, but allowing an equally fat male character to succeed without any apparent difficulties in that area, the narrative is reinforcing, just a little bit, the idea that males and females should be judged on different standards.
Getting away, to a certain extent, from the social issues, let’s talk about the rare specific and direct parody that’s present in this book. Maskerade‘s Christine is a hilarious character, and an incisive poke at shallow and self-centered people. The problem I have with her is that she is one of Discworld’s rare specific and direct parodies rather than the more general type that are much more common in this series — and I feel that, as a parody of Christine Daaé from Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera, she misses the mark a bit.
Leroux’s Christine is, it must be admitted, a trifle naive.
Pratchett’s Christine, in hearkening back to the flatter versions of Christine Daaé that came after Leroux’s original, substantiates the shallower interpretation at the expense of the real thing — in fact perpetuates the general perception of Leroux’s more well developed character as the bubble-head that others (Weber in particular) helped to replace her with.