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August, 2009 : Criticism:

Gender Bending: The Satire of Terry Pratchett

When people think of classic satirists, authors like Chaucer, Jonathan Swift, or Charles Dickens come to mind. These big names in English literature reach us through a shared store of British canon. Among modern satirists, we might mention Stephen Colbert, Garry Trudeau (Doonesbury), or Matt Stone and Trey Parker (South Park), each occupying a prominent position in today's sea of pop culture.

Thought he swims alongside them, Terry Pratchett is somehow left out. Too late to be considered classic literature and too British to quite immerse himself in the American consumer culture. It is Pratchett though, in the style of both modern satirists and classical literati, who has the most to say about women and war.

In his 2003 novel, Monstrous Regiment, Pratchett unfolds for us the story of Polly Perks, who soon becomes Private (and later Corporal) Perks. The name itself is satirical, drawn from the infamous tract, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women by John Knox. From the traditional story of a woman masquerading as a man to join the army, Terry Pratchett crafts a satirical masterpiece and expands the scope to all misogynistic assumptions and stereotypes about women and war.

Satire as a genre traditionally confronts cultural issues. According to Joyce Hammond, works like Amazon and Mothers of Maya Diip build "from their premise that women and men occupy different categories in society...which separates and dichotomizes women and men as opposites" (145, 146). These opposites provide contrast and humor, playing up the idea that strong women are either too stupid to know their own gender or are somehow confused enough that they think they are men (Hammond 147-149).

Hammond's analysis supports a conclusion that "there are two types of reversal in this genre—women depicted in traditional male roles, and the depiction of a society in which women are socially and politically dominant" (quoted in Fletcher 42).

Amazon is the story of a young girl from a tribe of women taking on a traditional male role—that of a hunter and warrior. She is sent to the future so that her matriarchal upbringing provides contrast to satirize American cultural values (Fletcher 42).

The Mothers of Maya Diip features a small island nation populated only by women. The contrast here comes from an outside observer witnessing the power struggles and jealousies the women experience. As in Amazon, the main source of the satire is the juxtaposition of a matriarchal society against "real" social orders the reader would be familiar with.

Amazon and The Mothers of Maya Diip contain both types of reversal in the central storylines, the juxtaposition of a matriarchal society against "real" and familiar social orders. The conflicts between the women of The Mothers of Maya Diip demonstrate a certain underlying, equalizing humanity in the story. No system can completely alleviate prejudice, jealousy, or pride, particularly not a gender-dominated one.

Richard Morrison considers Pratchett's writing very relevant to today's world; "...his 28 Discworld stories—set in a parallel but very recognizable universe—include some of the sharpest social satires penned in the past 20 years" (1).

Pratchett's satire shows the ridiculous aspects of acceptable, everyday, normal practices. If an idea is put forward that "in a war, women should be protected," most people would agree without question, though clearly there is no safe place in a war zone. In Iraq, American female soldiers are instructed to avoid direct combat. When entering enemy territory they are often left to guard the vehicle—an assignment just as dangerous as any other.

Correction of these stereotypes emphasizes the strong undercurrent of feminism in many of Pratchett's books . The policewoman Sergeant Angua (who also happens to be a werewolf) and the witches Nanny Ogg, Granny Weatherwax and Magrat Garlick (Equal Rites, Wyrd Sisters, Witches Abroad) are just a few of his keynote characters. Human nature, not patriarchy, is at the root of inequality in the Discworld.

Lurking between the pages of fast-paced action and witty banter are historical figures important to the real-world feminist movement. The first is the Duchess, a clear reference to Queen Elizabeth I. There is a picture of her in every home, and soldiers must kiss her portrait to enlist. The amount of sheer belief that the common people direct towards her image elevates her to minor deity status, allowing her to "contact" a young woman driven half-insane in a work house. Inspired to join the army and bring her message to the people, Wazzer, (a clear Joan of Arc figure) communicates with the Duchess in a way that makes others noticeably uncomfortable. "I think the world would be a lot better if it was run by women. There wouldn't be any wars. Of course, the Book would consider such an idea a Dire Abomination Unto Nuggan. It may be in error. I shall consult the Duchess. Bless this cup that I may drink of it" (Pratchett 192).

Then there is our hero, Polly. Self-sufficient, practical, and hard-working, she is not escaping an intolerable situation, nor does she have dreams of glory or victory. Her only wish is to find her brother—joining the army is simply the most expedient approach. To do so, she needs a disguise. The traditional cutting of hair and binding of breasts (both symbolic transformations from female to male) are secondary to the socks she receives from a helpful, anonymous soldier. "You don't bulge where you shouldn't bulge. That's good. But you don't bulge where you should bulge, either. You know? Lower down?" (Pratchett 31).

From here on, socks are a recurring symbol of male identity and stereotypes. Courage, impulsivity, sarcasm: all stem from "the socks." When Polly "wears" them she is imbued with these qualities. By turns they are the liberator of women and the source of everything that is ruining the proud nation of Borogravia. As we travel with Polly and Wazzer deeper into war, the fiction of socks is needed more and more often, by an ever increasing number of "recruits."

When Polly visits a "tent of ill repute," she compares the fate of unattached women to the fate of soldiers without a commanding officer. "A woman by herself is missing a man, while a man by himself is his own master" (Pratchett 242). "Trousers, that's the secret. Trousers and a pair of socks. I never dreamed it was like this. Put on trousers and the world changes. We walk different. We act different. I see these girls and I think: Idiots! Get yourself some trousers" (Pratchett 242).

Gender roles are increasingly confused closer to the front lines. When the regiment (nicknamed the Ins-and-Outs) is attacked by a Zlobenian border patrol, Polly dons a petticoat and "masquerades" as a woman. Accosted by one of them, she uses the dress as a distraction to knee him in "the socks." When the Ins-and-Outs disguise themselves as washerwomen to free imprisoned soldiers, Lieutenant Blouse declares that none of his "men" are feminine enough to pose as women, insisting that only he is capable of fooling the guards (due to his theater experience). "I shall act in a feminine way and I have this stage trick, d'ye see, where I make my voice sound quite high-pitched, like this…No, if we need a woman, I'm your man" (Pratchett 217).

Blouse's feminization is blatantly ridiculous, but his over-acting fools the guards easily. Other women easily see through his pretense, but men—unused to paying attention to women—are fooled to the point that one of them tries to arrange an assignation with Blouse, but they classify the women of the regiment as boys.

Their ruse revealed, the women of the regiment must face their superior officers as themselves. In an inexcusable abuse of deus ex machina, Pratchett's strongest character (the seemingly eternal and sock-dispensing Sergeant Jackrum) appears and orders select officers out of the room, revealing everyone else as female.

This conclusion is probably the strongest feminist message Pratchett could send. Women are not superior in Pratchett's view, but precisely equal, to the point where they are interchangeable with men. In a very real sense, socks make the man, though Blouse's masquerade proves that the opposite is also true. When war again threatens, Polly returns to the army as a woman, terrorizing young male recruits and securing her status as an amalgamation of male and female—neither fully one nor the other in terms of gender roles.

This blended conclusion is not for everyone; for most "male" and "female" are associated with the idea of opposites. "Masculine is defined as non-feminine and feminine as non-masculine" (Hammond 146). By accepting this, women become the negative reflection of men, putting tradition before good sense. It is more convenient to pretend to follow the rules rather than challenge them openly. The central conceit of Monstrous Regiment is that once we can move past seeing people as men and women, we will realize that everyone is only human.

Works Referenced

Fletcher, M. D. "Women in Charge: Sex-Role Reversal as Utopian Technique." Social Alternatives. 13.2 (1994): 42-44.

Hammond, Joyce D. "Gender Inversion Cartoons and Feminism." Journal of Popular Culture. 24.4 (1991): 145-160.

Morrison, Richard. "Pratchett’s World Enters Prize Orbit." The Times. 13 July 2002.

Pratchett, Terry. Monstrous Regiment. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2003.

Copyright © 2009, Hillary Henson. All Rights Reserved.

About Hillary Henson

Just a lowly college student trying to make it on Ramen noodles and Weis-brand soda. Literature Studies is my major, but writing is a passion of mine as well. This seems like a good place for both.


Aug 8, 01:01 by IROSF
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