Without further ado: Since my tumblr has apparently become a Discworld blog – introducing someone else to a fandom turns out to be surprisingly similar to initial immersion when it comes to said fandom colonising your thoughts all the time – I thought I may as well have my flail about Monstrous Regiment and why it is my faaaaaavourite aside from all my other favourites. Er, and then it sort of turned into a kind of essay like thingy? So be warned :P
Amazing as Terry Pratchett is generally, he’s always been kind of short on LGBT inclusion – oh, there’s any number of characters that could be background gays, but when it comes to named characters and canon sexuality, he seemed a bit flummoxed for quite a while. Aside from Nobby Nobbs’ awkward comic relief cross-dressing, the closest thing for a long time was the fact that Dwarfs, we were allowed to assume, did whatever they did and nobody Mentioned Gender, so really any given dwarf couple were Schrodinger’s Queers. They also got the closet metaphor with the whole “coming out as female” thing, and I believe later there was one named dwarf who was in fact transgender as we would understand it. But at the same time, Trolls, whose genders were usually clear, managed to fail the Bechdel Test as a species.
And then came Monstrous Regiment, the book which increased genderqueer visibility in fantasy fiction by approximately 300%, as well as introducing the Disc’s first proper lesbian couple and quite possibly failing the Reverse Bechdel Test.
The trope of a girl dressing up as a boy to join a traditionally male military institution is old stuff by now, the most salient example in my reading being Tamora Pierce’s Lioness series. It’s a fairly polar trope, really – on the one hand, you get what is usually a fairly badass woman doing badass things and being as good as or usually better than any number of boys (who are not, after all, protagonists) – but at the same time, it means your main character can quite easily be the only female character of note, and as a tomboy in a gender-segregated society she’s not likely to have great relationships with other women who fit into their assigned social roles – conveniently perpetuating the Not Like Other Girls idea that’s partly responsible for the massive difference in popularity between Arya and Sansa Stark.
Now, Tamora Pierce is one of the better writers in that regard – she gives Alanna a mother figure shortly, and eventually Thayet and Buri show up, and then the Protector of the Small series is all about the female solidarity. But, going back to the topic at hand, I can’t help feeling certain there’s more than one trans guy out there who identified with Alanna like mad around the time she hit puberty, and then later felt awkward and disappointed when she Accepted Her Femininity with the aid of conveniently gender-essentialist deities. (Note: Pierce’s LGBTQ inclusion increases dramatically in her more recent stuff. This seems to be a pattern among straight progressive writers of a certain age or, I suppose, writing career timeline as correlated with increased cultural queer visibility; I’m crossing my fingers for Isobelle Carmody.) (Also Note: I’m still waiting for the book where someone gives the finger to some gender-essentialist deities. This sort of happens in Sandman: A Game of You, but it’s not the A-plot and it doesn’t end well… a non-depressing equivalent is sorely needed.)
Back to Monstrous Regiment, where deities don’t really intersect with the gender issues. The first and most obvious area where Pratchett is playing gleefully with the trope at hand, as he does, is the multiplication factor. In basically every other instance of this trope, the girl is all alone. This is normally on account of being the Chosen One, whether in-story or just by virtue of protagonism. The first conceit of this novel is the idea that, hey, given circumstances that would force one girl to cross-dress and enlist, why not two? And given two, why not more? And this is where we get into proper spoiler territory, why not half the entire damn army? Now, Pratchett is obviously having a bit of fun with this idea (EVEN THE HORSE. EVEN THE GODDAMN HORSE) but it’s an incredibly freeing sort of concept. A secondary theme of this book (which Pratchett obviously likes, it’s in a few of them) is the idea that Everyone Is Their Own Protagonist – “while you were watching other people, other people were watching you.” This isn’t just “well, statistically speaking, it’d be a bit weird if there was just one” – this is a statement against point of view character exceptionalism, which is why it works so well doing double time as a statement against Not Like Other Girls exceptionalism. It turns out other girls are not like other girls. And it turns out other people are the heroes of other stories.
Incidentally, it’s also a rather neat jab at the whole idea that if you just get more women into positions of power, it’ll make things better for everyone – or even just for women – as opposed to needing a revamp of the entire system that’s fucking people over in the first place. “Better than the men at acting like men,” Jackrum says to the high command. And this is neatly foreshadowed by the gender performativity fiasco earlier on, when the girls copy male mannerisms so thoroughly that Blouse, the only MAAB in the squad, thinks they’re so male that they’d be incapable of pretending to be women, and in fact the only reason they’re not caught out immediately when they do pretend to be women is by virtue of turning out to actually be female-bodied – because when they’re presenting as male, they’re trying, they’re actively invoking social expectations and gender performance, but when they present as women they’re just being themselves, and their selves aren’t nearly as female as Lieutenant Blouse in drag.
And the capstone on this novel’s theme of gender performance and construction is Sergeant Jackrum. Technically, the social context of Borogravia is such that the actual external difference between a trans man and a woman disguised as a man is practically indiscernible – the technology level means they’re indistinguishable by the bodily modification standard (although now that I think about it, there’s no reason Igors couldn’t perform sex changes, and that’s going in my headcanon now), and there does not appear to be a space in the language for self-identification. So any number of characters could in fact be trans men or non-binary (I really can’t manage to turn Maladict into Maladicta in my head), but Jackrum is the one that really surprises you on your first read-through. Jackrum is the one who fulfils the highly masculine Sergeant stereotype to the bone, who nobody suspects but Polly, and who gets the choice to face his happy ending as a man. I quite liked the pronoun use in that section – throughout the book, Pratchett uses male pronouns for characters Point of View Polly hasn’t found out are female and female pronouns after Polly knows. When Jackrum tells her his origin story, he becomes she for a few paragraphs, but at the end Polly leaves him quite pointedly a him.
After all of that, I still love the book basically for the same reasons I love the whole series – Pratchett’s comedic genius and keen eye for human nature. I cackled when the men in the Keep panicked about Shufti being pregnant, and when Otto did his camera-flash crumble-to-dust-and-reanimate dance, and when Maladict got beans from the sky, and at the running joke about naming food or clothing after generals, and at PrinceMarmadukePiotrAlbertHans-