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Last week, I wrote about different roles and styles chosen by women in YA dystopian fiction, so I thought I’d continue the trend by talking about gender roles and style (well, dress vs. armor style, at least) in fantasy!
A lot of women in fantasy (particularly Medieval Europe-inspired fantasy, which a lot of it is – see our discussions about other inspirations here) wear gowns, and their men wear armor. There’s nothing wrong with this, as it’s pretty accurate to historical European settings; plus, you can have diverse and interesting characters who still conform to gender norms. But what about when they don’t? When a woman character is more comfortable in chainmail than velvet? Or when it’s just safer for a girl to crop her hair and use a boy’s name? When a girl has to disguise herself as a boy to achieve a goal? That’s when the gender-bending fun of cross dressing comes in.
No, I’m not talking about RuPaul’s Drag Race – I’m talking about characters like Alanna of Trebond in Song of the Lioness, and Arya Stark and Brienne of Tarth in A Song of Ice and Fire. These ladies find some reason to dress in trousers when their peers are in skirts, are sometimes able to convince those around them they are actually boys, and sometimes suffer mockery when they are revealed.
In Brienne’s case, she never claims to be a male, but still steadfastly refuses to wear women’s clothing. Characters like this break gender barriers in their worlds and make readers question things in our own – sure, a woman can wear pants in America in 2016 without being mocked, but what if a woman wants to be a welder or a man wants to be a florist? Characters who blur gender lines are valuable because they show readers that not all people of one gender share the same interests, clothing choices, and career goals.
-This post includes spoilers for the above series.-
Alanna of Trebond
“D’you think I want to be a lady? ‘Walk slowly, Alanna. Sit still, Alanna. Shoulders back, Alanna.’ As if that’s all I can do with myself! There has to be another way.“
-Alanna: The First Adventure (Tamora Pierce)
I discussed Alanna in my post about birth control in Tamora Pierce books, but just as a summary: tomboyish girl dresses as a boy to train for knighthood. “Tomboy” sums up Alanna pretty well: she’s not transgender* – she has no problems with being a girl – but what she does have a problem with are the expectations in her culture that come with ‘being a girl.’ She finds fighting and breaking bones more appealing than learning to curtsy and raise babies. The issue is, in a patriarchal kingdom where women are ladies and men are knights, there hasn’t been a Lady Knight for hundreds of years, and women are forbidden from entering the training program. Quick haircut and outfit change, Alanna becomes known as “Alan,” the smallest Page in the training class. Through hard work and tenacity, she earns the respect of some of her fellow Pages, and even some Knights. Eventually, when Alanna is revealed as a woman, she has the support of most of her peers. A few are upset and think that a woman has no place on the battlefield, but over the years she earns respect from all but the most conservative.
Alanna breaks a serious barrier in her world- after her success as a knight, the law is changed and women are allowed to join the Page program under their real names and identities. Follow Alanna’s successor, Keladry of Mindelan, the first girl to join the program openly, in the series Protector of the Small. Kel continues to skew gender norms by wearing skirts when she is not training, to remind everyone that she is a girl.
“Ned’s visitors would oft mistake her for a stableboy if they rode into the yard unannounced. Arya was a trial, it must be said. Half a boy, half a wolf pup. […] I despaired of ever making a lady of her.”
-Catelyn Stark in A Clash of Kings (George RR Martin)
I see Arya Stark as similar to Alanna in a lot of ways; a tomboy, Arya prefers roughhousing to embroidery and doesn’t want to be a Lady. She receives a sword as a gift and her father finds someone to train her. However, her donning of boys’ clothing is more for survival than a career decision. Yoren, a member of the Night’s Watch, shaves her head and tells her to be “Arry,” a (boy) street urchin traveling in a group of criminals to the Wall, or at least to the North. As this scene from Game of Thrones shows, Arya faces difficulties keeping her gender a secret. For example, she has to sneak away from the group to pee. Once she separates from the Night’s Watch group, she returns to publicly being a girl, but she still practices unladylike activities such as fighting and murder.
Brienne of Tarth
“It is said that your father is a good man. If so, I pity him. Some men are blessed with sons, some with daughters. No man deserves to be cursed with such as you.”
-Randyll Tarly in A Feast for Crows (George RR Martin)
Brienne of Tarth walks a cruel path. Mockingly called “Brienne the Beauty,” to highlight the fact that she is far too tall, muscular, and strong-featured to be considered beautiful in Westeros, Brienne is the victim of a cruel competition where her fellow soldiers attempt to sleep with her. Even the man that she holds in the utmost respect, considers her a freak. Brienne grew up strong and unladylike, despite her family’s best attempts to ‘civilize’ her. Her fighting powers are undeniable: at sixteen, she defeated an adult knight her father wanted her to marry, and a few years later she came out victorious in a 116-person Grand Melee. She goes on to become a member of a Kingsguard and even inspires one of the book’s main characters to be more honorable. Despite all of the teasing, bullying, and full-on tormenting Brienne receives, she remains loyal to chivalry and causes that she believes in.
*Regarding transgender characters: it is important to note that none of the above women are canonically transgender. One can speculate that maybe Brienne would think her life easier if she had been born a man, but she does not attempt to pass as a man or go by a man’s name. All three women above are cisgender, meaning they are born female and identify as women. Alanna and Arya disguise themselves as male for career or survival purposes, not to make their image match their identity. For an example of a canonically transgender character, check out Tamora Pierce’s Beka Cooper series, which features a woman who believes the trickster god put her soul in the wrong (male) body.
Readers, have you read any fantasy featuring a protagonist who doesn’t conform to gender norms? I’d love to hear about more!
Header image is from the talented Minuiko.
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