From a human woman’s point of view the female dwarfs on the Disc have it made. They can be anything they want to be, they are never barred from anything because of their gender. At first the lack of easily distinguishable gender traits between female and male dwarfs on the Disc is played for a laugh. But this all changes when Cheery Littlebottom joins the Watch in Feet of Clay. Through Cheery we come to realise that rather than being super equal, Dwarf society is in some ways the ultimate patriarchy. A culture that places so little value on femininity, no-one is allowed to express it. Because of this, while a woman may hold the position of the High King, she can never further any women’s rights or issues, because her very ability to hold this position is based on denying these things exist.
As a woman who studied and still works in a male dominated field, programming, I spent years rigorously policing my own femininity. I saw first hand the difference between how I was treated and how my more feminine female classmates and coworkers were treated. Especially in college I was assumed to be more capable and received a lot less sexual advances. The cost of this was high though. I hid my love of all feminine things. For example, I always have a book I’m reading in my bag, sometimes this was a romance book or a shoujo manga. On those days, I wouldn’t take it out to read at school in my breaks. I lived in terror of anyone discovering my love of Card Captor Sakura and not without reason. The few times I slipped up and used a feminine expression I was instantly and harshly rebuked. I couldn’t say I was “chatting” with male classmates, only *girls* chat. Men Talk. (I kid you not, I literally got groans from the group for this faux pas and a mansplanation of why I was Wrong™.)
It took me a long time to understand Cheery’s insistence on expressing her femininity. Why, I thought, take that risk? It didn’t help that her first attempts at expressing it are the butt of the joke. While the characters never explicitly ridicule her for it, it’s clear from the text that they *think* she looks ridiculous and are just being nice by not laughing in her face. But such is the strength of Cheery’s conviction that she keeps going and as she finds her own style the jokes disappear. It’s important to note that while the narration might have laughed at her, the fact remains that her colleagues didn’t. They consistently take her side, they lend her lipsticks, they give her pointers, most of all they give her the space to find herself. With their support Cheery becomes one of the front runners of the Dwarfish feminist movement. Slowly more feminine dwarfs show themselves, though they still face conservative opposition. Many moderate dwarfs consider them radicals, rocking the boat too much, pushing for too much too quickly. The further they push, the harsher the opposition grows. Nothing like people trying to claim a space for themselves to really bring out the bigots. The Fifth Elephant, Thud! and Raising Steam all have plots revolving around conservative dwarfs attempting to stage a coup against their more progressive government. With the acceptance of female dwarfs becoming one of the big fighting points after the Low King welcomes the openly feminine Cheery at the end of The Fifth Elephant. While it’s satisfying to see these alt-right dwarfs be defeated time and again, even though in a depressingly realistic way they never truly disappear, what really resonated with me was Cheery’s personal journey.
I initially read the Discworld novels out of order, and I can’t quite remember when I got round to Feet of Clay. Or even if I only noticed this on my first read through… Anyway, while in college and really struggling with sexism, I read the following exchange between Angua and Cheery.
“…Look there’s plenty of women in this town that’d love to do things the dwarf way. I mean, what’re the choices they’ve got? barmaid, seamstress or someone’s wife. While you can do anything the men do…”
“Provided we only do what the men do,” said Cheery.
Angua paused. “Oh” she said. “I see. Hah. Yes. I know that tune.”
This resonated with me so deeply, because here I was, acting more male than I was really comfortable being, constantly scanning my behaviour for any signs of femininity that could get me in trouble. I was “allowed” into this male space, provided I pretended to be male and never challenged their maleness with my girl cooties. This was all the more confusing, because my professors were super aware of my being the first girl to see the degree through and pushed for me to be included in recruitment materials for new students to attract more women. It’s taken me years to get through my fear of expressing femininity and Cheery’s courage and tenacity in pursuing her expression of it were a big help. Seeing her surrounded by friends, willing to stick with her, even when she ends up looking silly occasionally or regrets some of her choices.
I’ve progressed a lot in my understanding of feminism since I first read these novels. Re-reading all of the Discworld novels in order last year, I was struck by a difference between this fight for women’s rights and the one so often portrayed in media. Many empowering tales of women focus on women breaking into male spaces. If there’s one token chick in an all male action team, you can bet that she’s Not Like The Other Girls. The female dwarfs on the other hand are already fully present in male spaces. Their fight is to be allowed to express femininity. To not just be tolerated as “just like men”, but to express themselves without being demoted to the “girl’s corner”. It’s a message I badly needed to hear all those years ago, and I’m forever grateful to Cheery Littlebottom for taking the radical step of being herself in public.