Was Terry Pratchett a Feminist?

Terry Pratchett is one of the most prolific authors of our age. When he died yesterday (March 12, 2015) he left behind a massive oeuvre: more than 70 books, most of them about the Discworld, a flat planet carried on the back of four elephants who themselves stand back of the great turtle A’Tuin as it swims through space.

About a month ago I began re-reading Pratchett’s Discworld books. As I did so, this question kept roiling around in the back of my mind: Is Terry Pratchett a feminist? He most likely fielded that question during one of his many press appearances, but I’m more interested in exploring the question solely on the basis of a reading of his books.

Book cover image for Equal Rites by Terry PratchettHis earliest Discworld novels – The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic – don’t even pass the Bechdel test. The few female characters consist mainly of damsels in distress and femmes fatales.  But beginning with Equal Rites, Pratchett applies one of his great comedic tools – reversal – to the issue of gender. The premise of the book itself rests on just such a reversal. A dying wizard seeks out the eighth son of an eighth son to inherit his magical powers. But he bequeaths his staff to the baby without realizing that she is a daughter, not a son. And thus begins the story of Eskarina, a girl who challenges the gendered nature of magic on the Discworld.

The midwife who delivers Eskarina is none other than Granny Weatherwax, a powerful and experienced witch and one of the most popular characters of the Discworld series. She’s dead set against Eskarina becoming a wizard.

 “It’s the wrong kind of magic for women, is wizard magic, it’s all books and stars and jommetry. She’d never grasp it. Whoever heard of a female wizard?… “Witches is a different thing altogether… It’s magic out of the ground, not the sky, and men never could get the hang of it.”(1)

This characterization of witchcraft (for women) and wizardry (for men) creates a kind of uneasy gender essentialism that won’t fly with many feminists – including me. And yet Pratchett satirizes both kinds of magic and the people who practice it. Neither one is superior, and each has a laughable understanding of the other:

If you define a witch as one who worships the pancreative urge, that is, venerates the basic – the [wizard] began, and continued for several minutes. Granny Weatherwax listened in impatient annoyance to phrases like Mother Goddesses and primitive moon worship and told herself that she was well aware of what being a witch was all about, it was about herbs and curses and flying around of nights and generally keeping on the right side of tradition, and it certainly didn’t involve mixing with goddesses, mothers or otherwise, who apparently got up to some very questionable tricks. And when the [wizard] started talking about dancing naked she tried not to listen, because although she was aware that somewhere under her complicated strata of vests and petticoats there was some skin, that didn’t mean to say she approved of it.(2)

This passage is especially amusing when you consider that it was written just before the neopagan revival of the 1990s. Pratchett explodes the romantic notion of witchcraft popularized during this movement, creating instead a character who is deeply conservative in her beliefs, one who relies more on “headology” and has no time for the gods and goddesses so venerated by modern Wiccans.

In later books – most notably Wyrd Sisters and Witches Abroad – Pratchett satirizes other witchy stereotypes. There’s Nanny Ogg, the matriarch of a sprawling family and an undisclosed number of husbands, the kind of witch most likely to take a young woman aside before her wedding night and tell her what to expect. And then there’s Magrat Garlick, the kind of witch who owns lots of occult jewelry and believes in nature spirits – in other words, the kind of witch I myself was twenty years ago. Pratchett’s hallmark is satire, and  he applies it liberally to all his characters. His witches are no exception.

Book cover for Feet of Clay by Terry PratchettOther story lines in the series are less female-centric. The Ankh-Morpork City Watch – home to Sam Vimes, one of my favorite characters of the series – is a world almost entirely populated by males. Male trolls, dwarfs, golems, and vampires, to be sure, but still overwhelmingly male. And yet even here, Pratchett engages in some interesting explorations of gender. Introduced in Feet of Clay, the dwarf Cheery Littlebottom defies dwarfish cultural expectations by openly living as female. In dwarf society, being female is rather like being gay in the world we know: it’s tolerated, as long as you don’t talk about it. Dwarfs understand that females are essential for creating more dwarfs, but it’s certainly nothing to be discussed in polite society.

But Cheery finds herself – as Pratchett puts it – at the frothy front of a wave of dwarfs who buck these expectations. This conversation between Cheery and the only other female member of the watch illustrates Cheery’s awakening:

“Look, there’s plenty of women in this town that’d love to do things the dwarf way, [said Angua.] “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 do only what the men do,” said Cheery.

Angua paused. “Oh,” she said. “I see. Hah. Yes. I know that tune.”

“I can’t hold an axe!” said Cheery. “I’m scared of fights! I think songs about gold are stupid! I hate beer! I can’t even drink dwarfishly! When I try to quaff I drown the dwarf behind me!”

“I can see that could be tricky,” said Angua.

“I saw a girl walk down the street here and some men whistled after her! And you can wear dresses! With colors!(3)

Pratchett is primarily a satirist. As such, he takes situations from the real world and turns them sideways. This passage in particular can be read in a number of different ways. Is he saying that women should embrace their sexuality and femininity? That they should appreciate street harassment? Or is he pointing out the absurdity of cultural expectations around gender performance? I’m inclined to believe it’s the latter.

The issue of openly female dwarfs figures prominently in the story lines of several books, most notably in The Fifth Elephant and Thud, where religious conservatives respond in ways remarkably similar to the response of Christian conservatives to the GLBT community in the United States. In Raising Steam, a book Pratchett wrote in spite of early-onset Alzheimer’s, the Low King of the Dwarfs finally outs herself as female.

Book cover for The Wee Free Men by Terry PratchettA number of  Pratchett’s other books also explore the issue of gender, perhaps most notably Monstrous Regiment. This follows the exploits of a company of raw recruits – the ragged ends of the defeated army of a failed state – who one by one turn out to be female. And the Tiffany Aching books – about the exploits of a young witch living in a place that rather resembles England’s South Downs – give us a strong, independent young woman who demonstrates resourcefulness and bravery. In many of his books, Pratchett takes old stories and retells them in unexpected ways, and he does the same with The Wee Free Men. In this the first of Tiffany’s exploits, she rescues the son of the local Baron from the fairy realm, but when they return, people assume it’s the other way around. Pratchett presents a number of alternatives to the damsel in distress in these books, including Tiffany’s grandmother, a sort of proto-witch and unacknowledged community leader who spends most of her time in heavy boots up on the Chalk, tending to sheep. In one particularly poignant moment, Tiffany brings her Granny a ceramic figurine of a shepherdess which illustrates the difference between ideal and real gender performance:

Granny Aching had probably never heard of shepherdesses. People who cared for sheep on the Chalk were all called shepherds…

The china shepherdess had an old-fashioned long dress, with the bulgy bits at the side that made it look as though she had saddlebags in her knickers. There were blue ribbons all over the dress, and all over the rather showy straw bonnet, and on the shepherd’s crook, which was a lot more curly than any crook Tiffany had ever seen…

This wasn’t a shepherdess who’d ever worn big old boots stuffed with wool and tramped the hills in the howling wind with the sleet being driven along like nails… This wasn’t a shepherdess who’d kept up with the champion shearer for seven hours, sheep for sheep, until the air was hazy with grease and wool and blue with cussing, and the champion gave up because he couldn’t cuss sheep as well as Granny Aching. No self-respecting sheepdog would ever “come by” or “walk up” for a simpering girl with saddlebags in her pants. It was a lovely thing but it was a joke of a shepherdess, made by someone who’d probably never seen a sheep up close.(4)

This passage sums up Pratchett’s portrayal of gender on the Discworld. It points out the absurdity of the cultural expectations of femininity while portraying the very real strength and value of women who buck those expectations. It’s proof of the way in which Pratchett’s understanding of gender has evolved over the course of his long career and it supports my conclusion that – regardless of whether the man himself would agree – his books embody modern feminist ideals.

1) Pratchett, Terry. Equal Rites. HarperCollins e-books, 2007. p. 10
2) Ibid. p. 33-34
3) Pratchett, Terry. Feet of Clay. New York: HarperCollins, 1996. p. 92
4) Pratchett, Terry. The Wee Free Men. HarperCollins e-books, 2007. p. 122-123

For a complete listing of the Discworld books, visit the Discworld Wiki

Photo of Terry Pratchett courtesy of Myrmi via Wikimedia Commons

3 Replies to “Was Terry Pratchett a Feminist?”

  1. I somehow was utterly unaware of Terry Pratchett before yesterday. But reading the outpouring of testimonials and appreciation — so many, like yours, with long, illustrative passages from his novels — has left me feeling quite enchanted. Do you have a book you’d recommend I start with, if I decide to dig deeper? Thx!

    1. Alice, I’m glad I could introduce you to his work. It’s a very daunting list of books for sure. I recommend starting with Wyrd Sisters or Night Watch. They do a good job of introducing you to the Lancre Witches and the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, and they’re two of the best written books in the series.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: