A Cheery… Cheri Post

Transgender day of remembrance is tomorrow, and while I may do a separate post about it, I wanted to take a moment to write on a subject that makes me joyful – the gender-bending casting of The Watch – a televised adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels.

I am a MASSIVE Terry Pratchett Fan, and I have been since childhood. I grew up in his home county, and it is one of my most sincere regrets that I never managed to go and meet him. I have read everything he’s written, and almost everything he’s co-written or posthumously released, and I re-read the entire Discworld series pretty much annually. Except the Shepherd’s Crown. We do not talk about the Shepherd’s Crown. The Shepherd’s Crown is bad, and wrong, and completely misunderstands…

Ok pausing, breathing, moving past it.

We don’t talk about the Shepherd’s Crown.

The Sam Vimes arc of the Discworld novels in being released for television, and the casting list has just gone out. Now I am generally skeptical of television and film adaptations of books, especially books that I love. I was hit and miss on Good Omens (TLDR they miscast Aziraphale – although Sheen eventually got good, they got Death and Anathema all wrong, but Tennant was spectacular and they really honored the book itself), and I think that one of the problems with the show is that Neil Gaiman is not Terry Pratchett, and does not quite present things in the same way. I vehemently dislike the existing Discworld live adaptations, although I have a strong fondness for the audio-books, particularly The Hogfather. Suffice to say that it is likely that I will not watch the show in case it butchers things I love.

But I was very interested in the cast list, because a lot of the cast has been race/gender bent in ways I find particularly interesting.
Screenshot_2019-11-19 New casting announced for TV adaptation 'The Watch' Sir Terry Pratchett
Anna Chancellor playing Lord Vetinari is – for me – an absolute win. She even looks right in the photo! The bullying Vetinari faced during his training at the assassins guild, his non-traditional approach to wielding power, his relationship with the dangerous and shady Lady Margalotta von Uberwald… I can ABSOLUTELY see these playing out delightfully with a female character, in fact I think it will solve some of the issues of bringing such a subtle character to the screen without making him trope-ish or creepy.

Carcer, Sam Vimes and Keel… now this gets more complicated. When the cast list was first released, Kae-Kazim had not yet been decided, and the only major race-bent character was Carcer, thus casting our sociopathic villain as non-canonically black. THAT’S A HUGE ISSUE!!! With the addition of Keel – the heroic mentor figure – the offense dies down for me slightly, but then you have the added complexity that Sam Vimes replaces Keel in the story line (through a time-jumping accident that leaves him the same time and approximate condition of Keel’s body, while Keel ends up dead) and I have NO idea how that’s going to play out on screen. I’d quite frankly have had Kae-Kazim play Vimes, and age him up to play Keel, but that’s just my very non-expert take.

The last character that I’m going to discuss – although quite frankly I have thoughts about them ALL (Dibbler is WRONG and they’ve heteronormative’d Lady Sybil in the same crappy way they did Anathema) – is Cheri Littlebottom, played by non-binary acter [deliberate sp] Jo Eaton-Kent. In this instance I’m less interested in the casting than in the decision to address the specifics of Cheri’s gender and how that shapes her relationship to the world around her.

Screenshot_2019-11-19 New casting announced for TV adaptation 'The Watch' Sir Terry Pratchett(4)Cheri Littlebottom is a dwarf. A female dwarf, as it happens, in a culture that is just on the tipping-point of recognising two genders. Traditional dwarves refer to all dwarves as “he,” and using your appearance or pronouns to signify that you are not male is considered taboo. Cheri is one of a new wave of dwarves flaunting that custom, wearing skirts and lipstick right from the beginning, and changing her name by the end of the first book in which she makes an appearance.

Now Cheri is not a trans character. She has no desire to be anything other than the sex she was assigned at birth, and her deepest desire is for her accepted gender and her appearance to match that sex – she is RADICALLY cisgendered in a culture where being a cisgendered woman provokes violent prejudice and opposition. In honour of that, I don’t think it’s fair to refer to her as a transgender character. But she is a gender non-conforming character, because she refuses to conform to the expectations of gender within her culture i.e. to present and live as male, regardless of sex. For that reason I do consider this a gender-bent casting… and I LOVE that they chose someone non-binary to play her.

Terry Pratchett’s books have a baseline value of acceptance and compassion, from Vimes’s war on Goblin slavery, to the redemption of Orcs, to the Uberworld Temperence League of blood-free vampires to Eskarina Smith’s straddling of the gendered worlds of witch and wizard magic, to Archancellor Ridcully’s impassioned acceptance of homosexuality. In Pratchett’s later life some of these messages became more prominent, even forming the heart of the books – Monstrous Regiment, anyone? But arguably those messages are there in some of the very earliest works in the series.

I absolutely believe that Pratchett wrote Littlebottom as an analogy for coming out as transgender, from the intentional misgendering: “you can see his ankles!” and the fetisization: “…Nice ankles though…” The struggle of choosing a new name; opposition from religious extremists, and the huge pushback of “just don’t flaunt it” that comes from both femme-phobes and well-meaning allies. The choice to have that struggle represented by a non-binary acter is smart and sensitive – Cheri has no desire to become a man, and she is a woman, but she’s a woman with a beard who wants both to respect her culture and to find a new gendered space in it, rather than the space that’s culturally normative and pre-defined. The creation of that space for a new gender within a culture where the norms of gender feel pretty static is an overwhelmingly non-binary experience. I know Terry would have approved.

So a little bit of pop-culture nerdery for you as we go into a very sad and heartfelt day of the year. Good luck to all of you, and my love to everyone affected by transphobic violence. I hope that you have the space to curl up under a blanket with the people you love, have compassion for yourself, and maybe read a book about making the world a beautiful, brilliant and better place. Terry Pratchett would approve of that too.

Remember: De Chelonian Mobile.


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 )

Google photo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s