Growingup Drag: CrossDressed Heroines in Young Adult Fiction
- Author: Vandana Saxena
- Publish: Feminist Studies in English Literature Volume 20, Issue3, p271~309, 31 Dec 2012
Cross‐dressing complicates the gender and sexual ambiguities already underwrite the process of adolescent growth and development. The cross‐dressed warrior girls in Young Adult fiction ― in Tamora Pierce’s series,
The Song of the Lionessand Terry Prachett’s novel Monstrous Regiment― offer an interesting literary study as their transgendering opens a space to critique the cultural divisions along the female/male as well as homo/hetero axis. Boyhood and girlhood emerge as socially and culturally encoded performances rather than rigid identity categories. Despite the heteronormative trajectory of growth, the cross‐dressed heroines disrupt the naturalization of the growth as heterosexual and gendered. Adolescence becomes a fantastic space and time where the established codes of gender and sexuality are defamiliarized and hybridized.
Tamora Pierce , The Song of the Lioness , Terry Pratchett , Monsterous Regiment , Crossdressing , gender , sexuality , transgression
“D’you think I want to be a lady?” his sister asked. “‘Walk slowly, Alanna,’” she said primly. “‘Sit still, Alanna. Shoulders back, Alanna.’ As if that’s all I can do with myself!” She paced the floor. “There has to be another way.” (
Alanna: The First Adventure1)
This article explores the way female‐to‐male cross‐dressing in two young adult fantasy novels ―
The Song of the Lionessby Tamora Pierce and The Monstrous Regimentby Terry Pratchett ― queers the process of growth and girlhood. Gender and sexual ambiguities that already underwrite the process of adolescence and coming of age are further complicated by cross‐dressing.1 The cross‐dressed warrior girls in the two texts offer an interesting literary study as their transgendering opens a space to critique the cultural divisions along the female/male as well as homo/hetero axis. It not only undoes the female/male binary but also challenges sexual categories, which are often situated along the divisions between heterosexuality and homosexuality.
The implications for the culturally constituted gender roles are complex and yet easy to read. By masquerading as boys, the protagonists gain freedom and liberty that is inaccessible to them as girls; the masquerade becomes a temporary time and space wherein the limitations of socially prescribed gendered roles can be transcended.
At the same time, the figure queers the ‘naturalized’ patterns of sexual growth. Most children’s and young adult literature endorses the dominant cultural perception that “children are (and should stay) innocent of sexual desires and intentions. At the same time, however, children are also officially, tacitly, assumed to be heterosexual” (Bruhm and Hurley 1). The tension between the conflicting impulses ― to preserve innocence and teach heterosexuality ― underwrites children’s literature. The urgent need to teach about sexuality has to be occluded through the discourses of ‘correctness,’ normality, and growth. A cross‐dressed adolescent amid these discourses complicates the culturally legitimate patterns of sexual desire.
The Song of the Lionessand Monstrous Regimentportray the growth of their adolescent protagonists in fantastically homoerotic arenas. In Pierce’s series The Song of the Lioness, Alanna of Trebond, daughter of a nobleman, in order to become a knight rather than a gentlewoman, changes place with her twin brother Thom. Alanna becomes Alan, a knight‐in‐training in the fictional city of Tortall. Similarly in Pratchett’s Monstrous Regiment, Polly Perks becomes Private Oliver Perks (an abomination in the fictional country of Borogravia) to look for her brother. Called “Private Parts” by the Corporal of the regiment, Polly discovers that the entire regiment comprises of cross‐dressed soldiers with names like “Tonker” Halter, “Shufti” Manickle, and “Lofty” Tewt, all fighting under the leadership of commanding officer, Lieutenant Blouse. By placing a cross‐dressed protagonist in intensely homoerotic arena of a medieval knight school and an army regiment, the two texts introduce concerns regarding adolescent sexuality, desires, and ‘perversions’ that defy the heteronormative resolution of the plot. Hence, these fantastic narratives centering on cross‐dressed warrior girls become a space for exploration and experimentation wherein an adolescent can play with the cultural codes. The fantastic narratives of female cross‐dressing not only upset the conventional interpretations of these codes; they also have the potential of undoing the ‘naturalness’ or essentialism associated with categories like masculine/feminine or heterosexual/homosexual. In the process, they sensitize their young readers to the arbitrary nature of these cultural hierarchies. So while consolidation of these socio‐cultural codes is integral to the process of personal maturation and socialization during adolescence, at the same time, the associations with rebellion and transgression make adolescence a fertile ground to explore sexual and gender non‐conformity. Hence, gender and sexual subversion and its cultural containment clash and conjoin in these coming‐of‐age fantasies.
My analysis of these young adult fictions draws on the theories of sexualities, particularly Judith Butler’s contestations of the truth of sexuality and gender. Butler argues that gender is a cultural fiction, a performative effect of reiterative acts, a “repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being” (
Gender Trouble33). Consequently, there is nothing authentic about gendered identity. The gender distinction along the male/female binary further cements sexuality along the hetero/homo axis. Heterosexuality, as a discursive production that rests on the fictional categories of gender, is an effect of the repetitive, stylized performance of masculinity or femininity. Both the texts discussed here engage with the gender constructions and sexual engagements that are ambiguous, multiple, and fluid. Butler’s theory of gender and sexuality is complemented by the theories of cross‐dressing and cross‐gendering. Grounding the narratives in the realm of fantasy further enables a defamiliarization of the established norms, opening up space for exploration and reconfiguration. Hence even though the two texts appear reluctant to abandon the norms and conventions completely, they endorse gender and sexual ambiguities as part of the process of adolescence. The resulting conclusion of such coming of age is a hybridized form of normative and non‐normative gender and sexual identities. The two narratives are able to problematize the act of subject formation, deliberating on what it means to be a girl or a woman after the traditional gender and sexual identities have been deconstructed.
1Gender and sexuality figure prominently in the discourses surrounding adolescence since adolescence, by its very definition in most cultures, depends on biological puberty and the accompanying cultural assumptions regarding the age at which adult responsibilities, including marriage and parenthood, can be undertaken. At the same time, adolescent sexuality is frequently marked by discourses of abnormality, pathological states of raging hormones, and deviance.
Too often, the narratives of normative girlhood deal with silence and passivity, with the “transformation of adolescent girls from being outspoken and confident at the age of eight or nine to becoming so concerned with being socially acceptable that they have learned to silence themselves by the age of thirteen or fourteen” (Trites,
Waking47). Responding to the traditional repression of feminine powers, contemporary fantasy centering on an adolescent girl serves as a corrective to these conventional images. Gender switching, along with the elements of the fantastic, complicates the process of adolescent growth. Cross‐dressed heroines and their drag performances create the zone of the fantastic wherein the adolescents can play with the conventions and norms handed down to them.
Though kingdoms of fantasy, familiar codes of gender and sexuality frame Alanna’s and Polly’s growth in Tortall and Borogravia, respectively. The conventions are similar to those in preindustrialized Western Europe. As the children grow up, they embark on training for their adult occupation. These occupations and training for the life to come are situated along the gendered division of labor. Men head the families and also the world of politics, military, and academics (or magic). Domesticity is the women’s realm. In Tortall, among the royalty and elites, women have a significant though ceremonial social presence; for the poorer people, prostitution and healing are the alternatives to domesticity. For Alanna, the daughter of a land‐owning elite family, the only option is to be sent to study “sewing and dancing” (
Alanna2), while her twin brother is to be trained as a knight. In a similar manner, though Pratchett’s Borogravia is ruled by the Duchess (who, several characters believe, has been dead for years), the social life is structured by Nuggan, a whimsical deity whose list of abominations constitutes a “Living Testament” into which material is added on a regular basis. Pratchett satirizes not only the whimsicality of the Nugganite religion but the nonsensical list of abominations (against the color blue, dwarves, garlic, babies, mushrooms, chocolate, and so on). The list also lays down the gender codes of Borogravia distinctly. For instance, the laws of inheritance are clear: “That was the law, plain and simple. Nugganatic law said that men could inherit ‘the Things of Men,’ such as land, buildings, money and all domestic animals except cats. Women could inherit ‘the Things of Women’, which were mostly small items of personal jewellery and spinning wheels passed from mothers to daughters. They certainly couldn’t inherit a large, famous tavern” (55). The abominations structure not only gender and gender roles but also the appearance and performance of those roles: “A woman who could write was an Abomination unto Nuggan” (21), “using a sword was also ‘the work of an Man’ and a woman doing it was an Abomination unto Nuggan” (26), and “It is a Beatitude unto Nuggan that a Woman shall wear her hair short, that the amorous propensities of men be not therefore inflamed” (36). Likewise, “Men dressed like men and women like women; doing it the other way round was a blasphemous Abomination unto Nuggan” (36). Though these abominations are frequently disobeyed, they can be invoked any time to punish the transgressors.
Alanna and Polly don the male garb not out of choice or a desire for freedom that boyhood would bring. Their cross‐dressing is due to the lack of choice. Despite Alanna’s skills, knighthood is prohibited for girls. Though there have been female knights in Tortall, they are too distant in the past to be invoked or remembered. Dressing up as a boy is the only way available to the protagonist. Similarly, Polly joins the army to look for her brother, not only due to her sisterly affection but also because her father’s inn can only be inherited by her brother, Paul. Though Polly has been running the inn, it would pass on to her cousin if her brother is not found. Her fellow soldiers face similar situations. Lofty joins the regiment to stay close to Tonker, who also turns out to be a girl. Shufti, on the other hand, is looking for the father of her unborn child.
Such gender switch, since it does not really alter the protagonist’s perception of herself as a girl, has been dismissed by many scholars as a simplistic plot device that does little to challenge the established representations of gender or sexuality. While a girl may dress up and play at being a boy, become the center of sexual attraction from either of the sexes, and discover a certain amount freedom from restriction, they eventually give it up to return to normative girlhood. The narratives of female to male cross‐dressing ― from
As You Like Itto The Song of the Lioness― tend to end in heterosexual matrimony, wherein the gender and sexual codes are firmly reinstated. Lissa Paul insists that such role reversal, rather than empowering the girl protagonist, merely presents a “hero in drag” preserving the archetypal gender binaries. Similarly, Altman argues that cross‐gendered protagonists like the cross‐dressed female‐to‐male warrior, seem to have simply added “brass tits on the armour.” Though Alanna and Polly are accepted as skilled warriors even after the revelation of their gender, the code of female warriors remains intensely, essentially masculine. Victoria Flanagan claims that cross‐dressing in children’s fiction is carefully dissociated from the troublesome arena of transvestism or transexualism. Such crossdressing, claims Flanagan, “is constructed as a harmless act of childish experimentation and imagination, and its transgression of social mores is recognized, in most instances, through the implicit suggestion that cross‐dressing behavior is somewhat mischievous and naughty ― although this rarely translates as a direct condemnation of transvestism as wrong or immoral” (“Me, Myself, and Him” 59). Hence, the narrative ends with a iteration of the conventional gender categories, which ― whether desirable or oppressive ― structure the world, and the protagonist can become a part of the social and cultural fabric only by accepting these categories.
To an extent, these objections are clearly relevant to the texts dealing with female‐to‐male cross‐dressing. The cross‐dressed heroine in Robin McKinley’s
Rose Daughteris circumscribed by the fairy tale of Beauty and the Beast which subscribes to the traditional notions of gender. The metanarrative of the fairy tale assigns masculinity to the beast and femininity to the heroine as a part of their nature In Dove and Sword, by Nancy Garden, the active and wild Gabrielle assumes the disguise of a soldier, much like Pratchett’s Polly. However, as the narrative progresses, she not only learns to accept her femininity and her sex role but also the limitations that come along with such understanding. As her disguise changes from that of a soldier to that of a leper and madwoman, Garden’s drag‐heroine becomes an outcaste, an unwanted anomaly in her world. She is repeatedly subjected to threats of sexual violence. She comes to understand that her sex is her undoing: “If you are a soldier, and bested in battle by a woman, must you not think the reason is something more than that she is a better soldier than you? If you think God is with her, you must then think he is not with you ― and so it would serve your interest better to think she is a creature of the Devil” (Garden 329). As she chooses to stay unmarried and become a healer, she is relegated to a place outside the society in a convent. Walt Disney’s martial heroine Mulan is a misfit not only in her own world but also amongst other more conventionally feminine Disney heroines. Based on Chinese folklore, the story explores the traditional role and duties assigned to men and women in Mulan’s culture. The only way Mulan can “give honour” to her family is by getting married. She therefore needs to succeed in the ‘bride test.’ However, she fails comically since she is neither graceful, nor quiet, nor patient ― the virtues priced in the brides. But when her country is threatened with invasion, Mulan runs away to join the army in her father’s place. Her courage, intelligence, and determination offer another way to bring honor to her family and herself. Yet she needs to disguise herself since this way of earning honor is prohibited to girls. Towards the end, even as she is proclaimed the savior of the kingdom, she simultaneously returns to her household, this time as a perfect daughter who has secured a brave husband and the honour of the family.
Hence cross‐dressing in a child’s world is about temporary role playing, a small time‐off from the codes of gender that delimit a child from birth. It does not disturb the feminine subjectivity that is shown to be already in place. Though the protagonists discover a certain amount of freedom by disguising themselves as boys, the narrative voice in both the texts constantly refers to their ‘real’ nature. In
The Song of the Lioness, it is repeatedly reinforced by Alanna’s consciousness about her ‘true’ identity. Alanna is simply “a girl masquerading as a boy” ( Alanna78), “‘a female . . . no matter what clothing [she] wear[s]’” ( Alanna137). The narrative refers to her femaleness as “her real identity” ( Lioness11), her “true sex” ( Hand8), and by herself as what she “‘really’” is ( Alanna130; Woman3, 117). Maleness, as the narrative voice as well as her own consciousness, tells her, is a “masquerade” ( Hand173, 199); her “great disguise” ( Lioness306); George insists on calling her Alanna (rather than “Alan”) when they are alone because, as he tells her, “‘I think you should be reminded of who you are” ( Alanna140). Similarly, her guardian in the palace tells her, “‘I don’t care if the two of ye want t’be dancing bears,’ Coram t[ells] her . . . . Ye’re a girl’” ( Alanna13). The sense of empowerment, especially in Alanna: The First Adventure, frequently alternates with a sense of truancy, that her masculinity and knighthood are not her ‘true’ and ‘rightful’ vocations.
The narrative voice in
Monstrous Regiment, on the other hand, often refers to gender confusion but does not question the subjectivity of Polly as a girl. Polly believes that “‘Even I’m a lie. But I’m getting away with it’” (33). On discovering that Lofty is a girl, she muses on what she could have said to her: “It’s okay, I’m a girl too. You can trust me. We could be friends” (35). In an encounter with the enemy, she plays herself, Polly the barmaid, to fool the enemy soldiers. The text refers to her gender confusion even as the narrative voice continues to refer to her as a girl unambiguously: “she’d felt embarrassed about being caught in a petticoat, even though she had her breeches on underneath. She’d gone from boy to girl just by thinking it, and it had been so . . . easy. She needed some time to consider this” (63). Such gender confusion often surfaces in Pratchett’s text, yet it does not question the essentialism inherent to the gendered categories.
At the conclusion of the narratives, the drag girls, who had taken time off from femininity to play at being men, return to their earlier life once the charade is over. If Borogravia and Tortall are realms of fantasy, then it is clearly not due to the conventions of gender, which are familiar in their repressive nature.
However, it is the figure of the cross‐dressed protagonist, the space and time of adolescent cross‐dressing that has the power to “disrupt, expose, and challenge, putting in question the very notion of the ‘original’ and of stable identity” (Garber 16). It is Alanna’s and Polly’s performances as drag warriors that constitute the element of the fantastic in the two texts. A drag heroine is analogous to the element of the fantastic that Tzvetan Todorov distinguishes from generic fantasy by describing it as the moment of hesitation, a moment “which cannot be explained by the laws of this same familiar world” (25): “the fantastic is always a break in the acknowledged order, an irruption of the inadmissible within the changeless everyday legality” (Todorov 41). A cross‐dressed adolescent therefore functions as an element of the fantastic, as a borderline phenomenon, a sight of strangeness, uncertainty, and ambivalence through which the reader (and not just the protagonist) has to negotiate. Its endlessly open and non‐containable ambivalence poses a dangerous threat to established notions of fixity and conformity, a characteristic that makes the fantastic particularly appealing for explorations of sociopolitical marginality.
A cross‐dressing heroine, therefore, fits in the zone of the fantastic, where there “is a competition for credence in which an assertive ‘anti‐real’ plays against an established ‘real’” (Irwin 8). The category of the ‘real’ gender and its arbitrary nature is brought to fore by the ‘anti‐real’ and fantastic cross‐dressed protagonist. In the process, the distinction between the real and the unreal is undone. Drag, in the contemporary theories of gender and performance, is a fantastical figure:
Hence, gender is produced through repetitive performance of behaviors, physical stylistic gestures, without which the man/woman distinction has no sense. Thus, drag heroines enable the recognition of the mimicry at the base of any structure of identity, and the absence of any authentic source. It is evident in Polly’s careful practice and preparation for impersonating a boy:
Like the fantastic, a cross‐dressed drag performance expresses the ‘anti‐real,’ the unnatural, “that which has been silenced, made invisible, covered over and made “absent’” (Jackson 4). Polly’s exaggerated mimicry reveals masculinity as performance that can be carefully appropriated and practiced. When the Corporal promises tough days of training to the regiment, he uses the notions of feminine weakness and masculine strength: “You’re a sissy little lady until we make a man of you, right? And I dread to think how long that’s going to take. Move!” Polly’s thoughts convert this essentialism towards a masculinity which is about performance and dressing: “I know, thought Polly, as they set off. It takes about ten seconds, and a pair of socks” (40). 2 Like a drag performer, her parody of masculinity points to the fact that, since there is no essential or initial basis of gender identity, a culturally constituted gendered identity can be disrupted, undermined, turned over, resisted, and altered and, as Butler insists, be a subject over which to cause some gender trouble.
Thus, female‐to‐male cross‐dressing in most young adult fiction begins with a gender switch through which an adolescent girl is able to take up the tasks reserved for men in her culture and excel in them. Alanna and Polly repeatedly prove themselves to be brave, skilled in ‘masculine’ sports like swordplay, and cunning on the battlefield. If, as Gayle Rubin in “The Traffic of Women” asserts, the division of work in society is the basis of gender subordination, then such narratives call for a restructuring as the girl protagonists demand roles that are culturally reserved for men in their world. Thus, the narrative focusing on female‐to‐male cross‐dressing highlights the limitations of conventional gender categories and an urgent need to revise them:
As the aberrant figures, in their resistance to the attempts to categorize and fix, cross‐dressed knights‐in‐training like Alanna and the soldiers of the monstrous regiment are the native inhabitants of the realm of the fantastic, which can be understood in terms of the unconventional and the uncustomary. The monstrous regiment, which also includes a vampire and a troll is a befitting name for the regiment of cross‐dressed women. The title appropriates the subversive connotations of the ‘monster’ who is the “harbinger of category crisis” (Cohen 6), “a code or a pattern or a presence or an absence that unsettles what has been constructed to be received as natural, as human” (Cohen ix). Similarly for a culture that had forgotten its woman warriors, the only human point of comparison available for Alanna is that of a male warrior. Hence she is Pierce’s “Woman Who Rides
Likea Man. Later, when she emerges as a woman warrior, she can only be compared to a beast, a lioness rampant, as depicted on her shield ― admirable, yet dangerous. There are no heroes or role models available for a warrior woman as a point of reference.
2Socks stuffed in the trousers become the ultimate signifiers of masculinity in the novel. There are repeated references and jokes equating socks and masculinity.
Pierce’s Alanna belongs to the minority in children’s and young adult fiction whom Jody Norton calls the “transchildren; that is, children whose experience and sense of their gender does not allow them to fit their sexed bodies into seamless accord with a congruent, conventional gender identity” (415‐416). Alanna is capable of being a better knight than her brother since she is more athletic, a better fighter, and more interested in warrior arts like swordplay and archery. Yet, the cultural conventions insist on her confinement to the convent to study magic. The traditional gender codes that derive their force from the bodily sex constrain and circumscribe the trajectory of growth. Bodily difference becomes the center on which gender categories are inscribed. While cross‐dressing in
The Song of the Lionessas well as Monstrous Regimentproblematizes the equation between bodily sex and the person’s gender, the two narratives frequently give in to the force of convention. It creates a gender confusion that reveals the arbitrary and fragile nature of the equation of body, sex, and gender.
From the beginning of
Alanna: The First Adventure, body and its associated gender category are the obstacles that Alanna has to overcome. Thom tries to dissuade Alanna from her plan by citing her bodily transformation as she grows up: “That’s crazy,” Thom argued. “What about your hair? You can’t go swimming naked, either. And you’ll turn into a girl ― you know, with a chest and everything.” ( Alanna2). Alanna is able to elude the convent by hiding away the physical traits that mark her as a girl. Her breasts are bound with bandages and corset. The onset of menstrual cycle is the first time she is forced to reveal her identity and seek help. In one of the early scenes, she defies her bodily changes: “Maybe I was born that way, but I don’t have to put up with it!” ( Alanna44).
Cross‐dressing becomes a greater source of anxiety when associated with the adolescent body. The disguise proclaims clothes and gestures as the prime locus of gendered identity. Linked with the body of an adolescent during the pubertal transformation, crossdressing upsets the clear demarcations of gender and sexuality that adulthood is expected to bring. As Alanna and Polly take up the roles traditionally assigned to men in their culture, their bodies become obstacles. Alanna’s cross‐dressing seeks to arrest the adolescent body during the process of change, change that would make it a part of the gendered acts signification that her culture is prone to. Revelation of her girlhood ― which is marked with the onset of menstruation and other bodily changes ― would make her a part of the cultural discourse that neatly fits her into her binary gender category and hence maps her future for her.
Alanna: The First Adventure, the denial of the body altogether indicates Alanna’s own inability to disassociate body and gender and hence resist cultural meaning ascribed to the body. Alanna herself seems to be under the force of such cultural ascriptions. Hence the constant sense that she is only playing a truant by hiding the pubertal changes. Though she repeatedly vanquishes her enemies and emerges victorious, her encounters are marked with an anxiety of failure on account of her femininity. If Butler insists that every successful performance of masculinity is accompanied by an anxiety of failure (which leads to its infinite repetition), Alanna’s anxiety can be seen as a mark of her masculine performance. Her adolescent masquerading is accompanied with a sense of deception, guilt, and inadequacy ― that though she might surpass the boys, she will never be a boy.
At the same time, masculine coded behavioral patterns coexist with the insistence of her ‘internal’ feminine identity. Though she cries, blushes, and faints (following the behavioral pattern encoded to be feminine), she also loses her temper, bristles, curses, and growls. The emphasis on her physical training, her martial skills, and her actual fighting belongs to a traditionally masculine narrative. These three undo her gender identity as a monolithic construct and render it labile. Even after coming out, she “still prefer[s] the freedom of men’s clothing” (
Woman1), which switches clothing from the realm of simple disguise to the realm of choice. Her closest friends are boys and men, who mean the most to her daily life of work, companionship, family, and romance.
Thus in the narrative of growth and development, the self emerges as a patchwork. Alanna is a boy as well as a girl, switching from one to the other, performing the two roles with equal ease before moving on to the hybridized role of a woman warrior. Her earlier denial of body accompanies her fear of magic. Just like the arbitrary and confusing nature of gender that derives force from her own body, the magical gift confuses Alana. It also marks her out as a girl. When she uses her magic to save Jonathan, it manifests itself in a “woman’s voice, speaking from eternities away” (
Alanna165). Indeed as one of the characters points out ― since she is going to learn to shed blood during her training, she needs her magic to heal ― hence combining the ‘masculine’ role of warrior with the ‘feminine’ task of a healer. In the process of growth, the series insists, she needs to learn to accept her magical prowess just as she needs to learn to accept her body. Hence Alanna’s coming of age as a woman warrior interlaces the training for knighthood and the codes of masculinity with the lessons in femininity. Later in the series, Alanna seeks help in ‘learning’ to be a girl, envisaging a day when she would be a woman warrior ― a role that cuts through the neat divisions of work based on gender. Boyhood and girlhood emerge as lessons in the culturally sanctioned modes of being, lessons that can be learnt and performed:
This understanding of gender as a performance comes from the text itself. For instance, one night, Alanna decides to wear a dress because “[t]here was no law that said she had to be a boy on her seventeenth birthday” (
In the Hand137). The use of “be” implies a performative model of gender, an understanding that boyhood as well as girlhood are roles which are played. On the other hand “had to be” implies that these roles are made mandatory by the social and culture codes. Earlier she muses: “‘I’m going to have to be a girl someday. Why shouldn’t I start practicing now?’” ( In the Hand123). Though brief, this repetitive emphasis on the performative model of gender is in conflict with the text’s overt insistence that gender is internal and stable.
Hence, Alanna’s growth indicates the messiness in constructions of gendered identity, especially when its locus is the transforming and fluid adolescent body. The series constantly evaluates the relations among body, sex, and gender, often disturbing the ‘natural’ assumptions that interlink them. The two scenes revealing Alanna’s ‘true’ identity are crucial moments when the associations between gender and body come undone. Rather than simple revelation by word‐of‐mouth, as Alanna seemed to have envisioned, her femininity is revealed through a dramatic bodily exposure. Fighting alongside the Prince against the ancient Immortals, the Ysandir at the end of
Alanna: The First Adventure, Alanna is attacked with magic that seeks to expose her secrets. The moment when the clothes, the signifiers of masculinity, disappear, her femininity appears as weakness and shame: “A girl who hopes to protect her prince? A jest indeed!” ( Alanna: The First Adventure210). Alanna’s subsequent fight as a knight and defender transforms the exposure into a moment of empowerment ― unclothing becomes the moment where the gender binaries of masculinity and femininity are undone. In the later book, in her duel against the evil sorcerer and usurper, Duke Roger, it is the undoing of her clothes once again, this time in a public arena, that reveals her to the larger audience. The moment is again transformed into the moment of victory as Alanna saves the royal family by killing the Duke. Hence instead of taming her into the role of a woman through shame and embarrassment, bodily exposure transforms Alanna into a transgendered figure, a female warrior. Indeed, if, as Butler points out, gendered identity is “an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts” (“Performative Acts” 519), then Alanna’s cross‐dressed figure as woman warrior and her repeated success where other knights fail illustrate the “possibility of a different sort of repeating, in the breaking or subversive repetition of that style” (“Performative Acts” 520).
The figure of a girl knight and later a warrior woman points towards a mode of being that undoes the naturalized difference between sexes. Judith Halberstam insists that “masculinity . . becomes legible as masculinity where and when it leaves the white male, middle‐class body” (1). (Though not middle class in the modern sense of class hierarchies, in the social hierarchy of Pierce’s world, the knights inhabit the middle wrung between the royalty and common men.) Alanna’s excellence in the ‘masculine’ tasks reveals the performative and constitutive nature of male heroism, which can be appropriated and rewritten by a woman warrior. This is in direct conflict with the text’s overt insistence that Alanna’s disguise is based on a self‐denial, that she needs to learn to accept herself as a ‘woman’ (without questioning the category) before she can emerge as a woman warrior. The dissociation of the idea of masculine heroism from male body exists in conflict with this requirement to embrace womanhood and the binary categories of gender identity it seems to reinstate.
Pratchett’s Polly Perks, on the other hand, is free of any guilt or anxiety generated by ‘self’ denial. For Polly, girlhood as well as boyhood is a mask that can be donned for convenience. She can see through the illusory nature of gendered roles and understands how they work. As a girl, she takes care to display clumsiness in her swordplay (as expected by the fact of her girlhood). She overcomes it once she becomes a boy. She learns to write but does not do so in company of others since a girl who writes is an abomination. She diligently plans her disguise to the extent of getting a blunt razor in order to shave in company. Yet she keeps the locks of her shorn hair as a reminder of her femininity. Like Alanna, Polly’s boyhood is a disguise distinct from her ‘true’ perception of herself as a girl. Indeed, often when she behaves ― or needs to behave ― in an uncharacteristically aggressive manner she connects it to the socks: “It must have been the socks talking” (27); “‘Excuse m ―’ she began, and then remembered the socks, raised her voice and tried to sound angry” (47); and “The socks were doing the thinking again” (115). It is ambivalent whether this masculinity is donned with the socks and men’s clothes or is a part of Polly’s self ― her thoughts and emotions. Later, when she disguises herself as a barmaid and begs the enemies to let her go, she feels that there was a certain ‘sock‐ness’ in her which was ashamed.
On the other hand, in her earlier life, she remembers how she stuck to the role of a good girl:
Analogous to Pierce’s convent, where girls go to learn magic, Pratchett’s Girl’s Working School, or the “Grey House,” is the place where the ‘Bad’ Girls go to atone for their wickedness. An asylum to discipline and punish the girls who transgress against the Nugganite laws, it teaches the conformity and submissiveness that mark a good working woman. The inmates reside under harsh restrictions, working long hours, and are subjected to physical abuse. Polly recognizes the effects of physical confinement and violence in various forms in Tonker, a girl who maintains that “it boiled you hard and gave you a shell,” Lofty, a shy, quiet girl who turns out to be an arsonist, and Wazzer, who claims to hear the voice of the Duchess who is suspected to be dead.
Just as Alanna saves herself by taking on a disguise as a brave lad training to be a knight, being a ‘good girl’ is Polly’s disguise to escape the Working School. Social signifiers continue to define gendered identity. Language, gestures, behavior, and ellipses in all this semantic communication work as signs of gender. Polly recognizes Wazzer’s gender when she performs a curtsy rather than bow to the picture of the Duchess. Shufti’s language gives her away ― she swears by sugar. Flanagan insists that “
Monstrous Regimentingeniously exposes how gender ideologies are inscribed and reproduced through language usage and behaviour” (117). Once their sex is revealed, the women get kicked out of the army because “Men take over. It is probably because of socks” (201).3 This often repeated joke, this time referring to men rather than cross‐dressed women, indicates that masculinity is a masquerade, even for men. Monstrous Regimentparodies the elision of gender roles and other formulaic categories of heroic fantasy. By the end of the book, all the heroes of Polly’s regiment have publicly revealed their genders. Despite the fact they single‐handedly saved all of the officers and turned the tide of the war, they are considered an embarrassment. They are given a choice between leaving the army with a generous package or continuing with their disguises ― choices that are unacceptable to them. Polly insists on serving as a soldier openly without resorting to hide what she believes she is. The stalemate is broken by the Sergeant Jackrum’s revelation that most of officers, including the General, are women. Gender insubordination and transgression turns out to be a fairly common secret of the Borogravian army. However, while the officers and generals decide to continue with their cross‐dressing, Polly and the rest of the regiment, it is agreed, would serve the army as women, thereby undoing the neat division of labor along the axis of gender that Borogravian army is structured upon. Pratchett’s monstrous regiment is bound together by the secret of shared female gender: “[T]hey were no longer marching alone. They shared the Secret” (75). Their triumph, their shared sisterhood ― all these seem to redress the gender imbalance. The triumph belongs to the monstrous regiment, which is unmasked as a women’s regiment and then becomes a part of the army as such.4
So, even as the texts preserve the gendered subjectivities, these performances confuse the neat distinctions of gender, culminating in queer hybridized forms of masculinity and femininity. These upset the conventional notions of gender and sexuality and call for a revision. Pratchett as well as Pierce misses engagement with one of the central questions lying behind the acts of gender transgression ― what it means to be a man or a woman. Is gendered identity an extension of the bodily sex, or is it a social construction? Despite the frequent jokes that refer to the socks as the substitutes of masculinity, gender for Pratchett, as well as for Pierce, is co‐extensive with the bodily sex. However, at the same time, Polly’s and Alanna’s success implies that gender distinction is a cultural construction rather than an extension of their bodily sex. This confusion overlays the textual constructions of gender as wells as sexuality.
3This turns out to be an ironic observation though Polly is unaware of it at the time. A third of the commanding officers, the men who take over, are women in disguise. 4Yet this idea of ‘progress’ and change is ambivalent. While the commanding officers decide to retain their cross‐dressed male identity, they are referred to as women by Polly and by the narrative voice.
If adolescent growth is marked in terms of the growth away from childish solipsism into intersubjective relationships, then friendships and romance form the core of such development. And since such network of relationships with others precludes a stable identity, a coherent location of selfhood, they are dependent on the constructions of gender and sexuality. At the same time, while “sexual awakening is a common metaphor for empowerment of adolescent literature,” most young adult fiction simultaneously conveys the message that teenage sex “is more to be feared than celebrated” (
Disturbing86). Teenage sexuality is frequently represented as a threat, a perversion that is to be held at bay till adulthood is reached. The course of growth in the two series reveals fissures in the culturally ‘correct’ trajectories of growth. It challenges the traditional notions about teenage sexuality in an overt manner ― Alanna is a sexually active and willing partner, and at no point does she suffer for or apologize for her sexuality. Her lovers include Prince Jonathan, Shang warrior Liam, and the rogue, George Cooper, and contraception is discussed in a matter of fact manner. Premarita l sex does not lead to social or emotional devastation. There is no moral judgment that castigates Alanna. Moreover, the story of Alanna and Polly, as the cross‐dressed protagonist begins with the border crossing ― a transgressive entry from the female sphere into the male arena. Alanna, as a knight‐in‐training, becomes a part of the close‐knit group of boys who surround Prince Jonathan. Similarly, all the members of Polly’s regiment follow the ritual of kissing the picture of the Duchess to become a part of the Borogravian army. Yet, the two texts end with a reassertion of gender and sexual categories. However, the course of the narrative hints at gaps and incoherencies that render such a conclusion fragile. This section explores the way cross‐dressing further complicates and queers adolescent sexuality.
The two narratives are marked by a strong and insistent heteronormativity. Despite placing a female‐to‐male cross‐dresser in an intensely homoerotic arena of medieval knight school where boys live and train together, where the pages and squires have to render any services demanded by the knights, Pierce’s series shies away from the taboo of homosexuality as it moves towards a heterosexual conclusion. Indeed Alanna’s uneasiness when she has to dance with other women in the court may hint at the homophobia underlying the text. As she grows, Alanna’s desire to be a knight and go on adventures becomes interlaced with her longing for love and family.
Moreover, Alanna’s sexual and gender difference becomes heroic by the stereotypical depiction of conventional femininity. The court ladies like Delia of Eldrone, who courts Prince Jonathan, is a
femme fataledescribed as one of the women who “like to break up men’s friendships” ( In the Hand50). She turns out to be in league with Duke Roger, seeking to depose the rightful ruler of Tortall. In Book Three, Alanna trains the first women shamans of the Bazhir tribe. Kourrem and Kara, who had been the outsiders in the tribe due to their magical skills, look up to Alanna with a sense of wonder and awe as Alanna successfully negotiates her way through the tribes disapproval of her, as a “woman who rides like a man,” and her disciples. Though Alanna succeeds in installing them in influential positions as shamans of the tribe, in their awe, fear, and also in their choice of the veil, they remain limited in a text that upholds the “woman who rides like a man” as a role model to emulate. Elevation of masculine performance, and hence installation of a masculine role model, reinstates the gender divide. It excludes the formation of bonds of feminine friendship and companionship for Alanna. Similar to her denial of her body, her sense of superiority over Kara and Kourrem indicates that though Alanna might resist her gendered role, her subjectivity exists within the patriarchal structures, though in a vexed relations with them.
Heteronormativity is assumed. Alanna becomes a squire to Prince Jonathan. She learns wielding the dagger from the rogue George Cooper. She also learns Shang fighting, a kind of martial art, from the Shang warrior, Liam. All these men also become her lovers. The series seems to suggest that as Alanna cannot be a man, she must desire them. The relationship is transformed from identification to desire. The erotic triangles strengthen homosocial bonds between Alanna’s lovers. In her reading of the erotic triangles figuring prominently in European fiction, Eve Sedgwick Kosofsky mentions dynamics of power that structure the rivalry between the male lovers, where the “bond that links the two rivals is as intense and potent as the bond that links either of the rivals to the beloved: that the bonds of ‘rivalry’ and ‘love,’ differently as they are experienced, are equally powerful and in many senses equivalent” (48). Heterosexual relationships therefore become the medium through which male bonding is cemented. Alanna strengthens Jonathan’s claim to kingship not only by being the King’s Champion but also by bringing together diverse but powerful figures ― Prince Jonathan, the legitimate ruler of Tortall and George Cooper, King of the Rogues, the ruler of the city’s thieves and criminals, and Liam, the trained Shang warrior who is never known to stay at one place. Although she rejects Prince Jonathan to marry George Cooper, the rogue is converted into a respectable courtier and nobleman. Other romantic couples are also all heterosexual: Myles and Eleni, Coram and Rispah, Jonathan and Thayet, and finally Alanna and George are all matched up.
Like the anxiety that powers the masculine performance, such energetic insistence on heteronormativity often exposes it as not necessarily inevitable or mandatory. Homoeroticism, latent in the knights’ school, is evident in the earlier book. Young Alan is treated with a tenderness by her fellow boys that often borders on explicit homoeroticism. When Jonathan has a bad fever, he calls for Alan (
Alanna86). When explaining why he wants Alan to accompany him on a trip, Jonathan says, “‘Because he’s my friend. Because I always know where he stands, and where I stand with him. Because I think he’d die for me, and ― and I think I’d die for him’” ( Alanna177). This kind of reciprocity evokes lovers rather than peers; if peers, it evokes the kind of male friendships in boarding school stories where relationships have passionately homosocial and latent homoerotic elements. When Jonathan has a fever, Alan strokes his temples as part of trying to cure him ( Alanna92). “‘Look at me,’ Jonathan commanded. / That she would not do. He put cool fingers beneath her chin and lifted her face” ( Alanna63). Physical touch, long before the boys know that Alan is a girl, often hints at romantic desires. Jonathan often touches her hair and offers Alan his hand ( Alanna79). George tells Alan early on, “‘I like your looks. We don’t see many with eyes like yours’” ( Alanna48). Raoul’s fondness for her includes a noticeable disclaimer: “Alanna had become a favorite with Raoul, and he didn’t care who knew it” ( Alanna56). This might be an overt justification for Alan’s age ― he is a page while the others are squires ― but the attitude seems appropriate for homosocial bonding as well. There is no physicality between other boys or the need to defend attachment; this kind of attachment centers only on Alan. Such homoeroticism is overtly nonexistent because Alanna is ‘really’ a girl. But it convolutes the insistence on absolute heteronormativity. Alan, the unreal fantastically cross‐dressed knight‐in‐training, is an ellipse that undercuts heterosexuality, which is limited to actual couples and sex acts.
Hence, cross‐dressing constitutes a transgression that simultaneously reinforces and undercuts the gender and sexual binaries. Though Pratchett’s text does not concern itself with the issues of romance, a heteronormative subtext seems to underlie the narrative. Tonker and Lofty are the only same‐sex couple in the monstrous regiment. They are psychologically damaged. Tonker is full of rage, while Lofty is a pyromaniac and an arsonist. This, the narrative explains, is due to the abuse they suffered at the Girl’s Working School and in their later life. Lofty, Tonker tells Polly, was raped by a miller who employed her. Her child was then taken away from her at the Working School. When Polly sees them holding hands, it seems to be out of fear. The portrayal hints at the stereotype of same‐sex desire as a manifestation of abuse, hurt, and fear. Their relationship lies on the peripheries of the narrative. This kind of transcendence is a political strategy deployed by a young adult narrative when confronted with the issue of homosexuality: “it recognizes the homosexual content of the work but then relegates this content to a peripheral position, emphasizing ― usually with much vigor ― that the novel is ‘really about’ something else” (Fouss 168). It is a conscious political strategy since it relegates homosexuality to the peripheries reinstating the normative codes of ‘correctness’ as the center.
The only person to escape the insistent gender attribution in Pratchett’s text is Sergeant Jackrum, a war hero with sixty years of service, “steeped in deviousness, cunning and casual criminality” (219). His masculinity is, at the same time, shrouded in ambivalence. From the beginning Jackrum is extremely protective of his regiment, which he refers to as his “little lads”: “You make your mark on this document and kiss the Duchess and you’re
mylittle lad, you understand? My name is Sergeant Jackrum. I will be your mother and your father” (6). He creates a small family unit as he takes care of the weaker ‘lads,’ pushes the stronger one, takes important strategic decisions, and leads the regiment despite the presence of Lieutenant Blouse. It is easy to write him off as an undesirable person: “The word ‘fat’ could not honestly be applied to him, not when the word ‘gross’ was lumbering forward to catch your attention” ( Monstrous4). While the unmasking of the rest of the regiment and the commanding officers is accompanied with the revelation of their true names and the pronoun switches to female, Jackrum escapes this treatment. Female body appears to be a minor obstacle in the Jackrum’s absolute manliness. Polly goes as far as to suggest that he approach his long‐forgotten son as father rather than mother. Yet, complexities underwrite the absolute masculinity of Sergeant Jackrum. While Lieutenant Blouse and the rest of the regiment readily dress up as washer women, the idea is rejected vehemently by Jackrum. The very idea of donning a skirt is abhorrent: “No, lad. You won’t get me in skirts. Everyone has their place, right? The place where they draw the line? Well, that’s mine.” (170). This violent rejection filled with more energy than necessary hints at a sense of fragile masculinity, as if just by the change of the garments, the other (the feminine) could take over. Halberstam insists self‐alienation is not a rejection of the body, but of the naked one, since sexual identity is “a complex act of self‐creation in which the dressed body, not the undressed body, represents one’s desire” ( Female106). In the end, it is Jackrum’s story that is most clichéd. He is the only one who enlists for love. The portrayal of Sergeant Jackrum inverts the romance plot that usually accompanies cross dressing. His absolute masculinity, which seems to be left intact at the conclusion, is undercut by several strands of the narrative.
While the triumph redresses the gender imbalance in the army and the social organization of Borogravia, it evades the issues of transvestism and homosexual desires that repeatedly resurface throughout the narrative, especially in its humor subplots. Lieutenant Blouse rejects the offer of the regiment to dress up as women since he has noticed little details in behavior that would give them away. For his performance as a woman he draws on the experiences of his boyhood: “Fine old tradition, men dressing up as gels. In the sixth form, the chaps used to do it for a jape all the time” (150). It leaves Wazzer wondering, “D‐does any woman sway that much?” Though the regiment is skeptical, Blouse is able to fool the soldiers at the Keep as a washer woman. The date that Lieutenant Blouse disguised as a washer woman sets up with the guard, the maid’s attraction for Private Perks ― these are routine elements of a cross‐dressing plot. Similarly, Polly dressed as Private Perks in turn dressed as a barmaid knees Prince Heinrich in the groin and renders him immobile ― an incident that makes the regiment famous. Though humorous, these incidents create sexual confusion and raise the possibilities of homoerotic attraction. It may be allayed by knowledge of the ‘real’ sex of the cross‐dressed protagonist. But the cross‐dressed protagonist who is the center of attraction is a manifestation of desires that cannot be fulfilled since cross‐dressing blurs the line between heterosexual attraction and homoeroticism. The unconscious and complicated eroticism generated by the masquerade makes the transvestite a “space of desire” ― “what is left of absolute demand when all possible satisfaction has been subtracted from it” (Garber 75). Alan, in
The Song of the Lioness, is the space of such desire that vanishes before the conclusion. It lingers on in Pratchett’s text ― in the shape of the ‘little lads’ who return in the end as a group of boys enlisting in the army dressed as girls. Polly as Private Perks instantly appoints herself as their guardian: “‘Certainly,’ said Polly. She put a hand on a shoulder of each girl, winked at Maladicta and added: ‘You are my little lads ― or not, as the case may be ― and I will look after . . . you’” (244).
Butler insists that in repetition also lies the potential of resistance. The re‐enactment of the hero’s story by a cross‐dressed heroine offers space for its critique ― a space that the narratives like Pierce’s or Pratchett’s explore even while they overtly follow the pattern of acculturation. The discomfort and uneasiness that crossdressing arouses is smoothed over by the narrative. The disguise is a need of the hour; Alanna and Polly become boys because they have no other alternatives. By becoming boys they appear to preserve the social and gender distinction even as they challenge it. Similarly, the heterosexual conclusion that follows the unmasking is meant to quell the uneasiness of the reader. Marjorie Garber underlines the ideological implications behind the unmasking of the cross‐dressed protagonist:
Yet the cross‐dressed protagonist emerges as a site of the fantastic wherein “the gaps and fissures are opened up as the constitutive instabilities in such constructions, as that which escapes or exceeds the norm, as that which cannot be wholly defined or fixed by the repetitive labor of that norm” (Butler,
Bodies that Matter10). Despite the heteronormative trajectory of growth, the cross‐dressed adolescents disrupt the naturalization of the growth as heterosexual and gendered. Adolescence becomes a fantastic space and time where the established codes of gender and sexuality are defamiliarized and hybridized. Such queerness that inheres in the heterosexual trajectory of growth is important, indeed essential, if queer as a paradigm has to overcome the hetero‐homo divide. Rather than understanding queer as homosexual, the cross‐dressed adolescent emerges as a hybrid who ruptures the straitjacketed heterosexuality. She undoes the gender and sexual subordination that accompanies the cultural binaries and reveals the possibilities of openness and fluidity within heterosexuality. Challenging the naturalness associated with heterosexuality and gender, the queer growth of a cross‐dressed adolescent explores multiple genders and sexualities that inhere within heterosexuality.