I’ve covered the heroines of Tamora Pierce’s Tortall books previously on Sorting Hat Sunday, and I’ve gender-bent the lead characters of her Circle of Magic books, but I’m beginning to think that I’m long overdue to gender-bend the Tortallan protagonists. For such a quintessentially feminist series, one that makes such a big deal out of subverting gender roles, it seems like a glaring oversight to have not done this already. No time like the present to fix it, though, right?
The first lead protagonist is Alanna the Lioness, and her story begins when she’s a young girl and she decided to disguise herself as a boy to become a knight. Now, that’s a fairly common literary device, but much more rare is the idea of a boy who disguises himself as a girl to do something men aren’t allowed to do (my personal thoughts on why that is: because there’s almost nothing men aren’t allowed to do). But let’s imagine that this is what had happened in this story. Alan disguises himself as Alanna to… do what? Is warfare in this world only permitted to women? Is something else (like magic) forbidden to men? Either way, Alan’s disguise becomes a little different – instead of binding her breasts, he’d learn how to fake them, he’d have to tuck and hide male genitalia, wear a special corset to fake a feminine figure. He’d become best friends with the crown princess and the queen of the thieves, sleep with them both, and eventually marry the thief. A male character not being shamed for having multiple sexual partners is nothing new or groundbreaking, not like it was with Alanna. But Alanna is probably the most masculine in personality of the Tortallan protagonists, so would Alan be a very feminine boy, convincing in his disguise? Or would he stay the same, and be a rather masculine boy and everyone was just oblivious to his deceit? The latter would be more fun for comedic value, but I think the former would be more true to the original story.
Then there’s Daine, a young girl who comes to Tortall as a peasant and learns of her powerful magic, finding herself in the company of the king and queen, a part of the royal court herself. One of the things that got a lot of outrage in her storyline was the huge age difference and (arguably) unequal power dynamic in her romantic relationship with her teacher, Numair. As problematic as those things may have been (I personally never had much of a problem with it), I think there would have been even more outrage if it had been a young man “seduced” by his much older female teacher. Numair, as is, is rather beloved by the fandom (myself included), but I can’t help but feel that this would not be the case were the genders reversed. At any rate, I do think it might be interesting to see a male character with Daine’s wild magic – speaking with animals is often considered a weak or soft power, but she does incredible things with it. It’s not until the end of her character arc that she really uses her power combatively; prior to that she’s much more likely to use it to gather information or sneak around, as a political ploy.
After Daine was Keladry, the character who I most relate to and most love. I admit, I think it would physically hurt me if Kel was a male character. So much of her excellence comes from the fact that she’s a girl and wears dresses and has crushes and still has massive success in this stupid macho world of knights. A man who succeeds despite (or perhaps because of) his masculinity? Boring. A man who enjoys the company of women without scorning or dismissing other men? Super boring. The one thing that could be more interesting is the idea of a man having almost exclusively female mentors and teachers, and I do like the thought of him learning more from these women than just how to fight, and that one of them even (a female Raoul) becomes a surrogate mother figure for him without losing a jot of her own strength. Alanna’s struggles with sexism were a lot less open because she was not openly female. The misogyny that Kel faces is that much more blatant and harsh. But if Kel were a man facing misandry, it might be a terrible thing in-universe, but it would ring hollow for us in the real world.
Then there’s Aly, Alanna’s daughter, and a large chunk of her story is about her problems with being nothing like her mother and her escaping her mother’s shadow. That type of storyline is much more prevalent with male characters than it is with female ones. A young man in fiction is much more likely to try to get away from his father’s influence than the other way around. Now, Aly definitely does some problematic things in terms of her race (although she does learn from them and is really not a white savior or anything), I think those things would bother me so much more if Aly were a male character. The inter-class friendships that form between Aly as a slave and the noble Sarai and Dove felt very real and important to me in the way that there’s not nearly enough portrayals of realistic female friendships anywhere. But turn them into men? Wow, more dudes who are bros. Fascinating. Men who are cunning spies? We have too many of those already. I lament the lack of female spies in fiction, and Aly is one of the few that we have.
Finally there’s Beka, although in her time, a female constable of the law is not unusual, it certainly is in the rest of the Tortall universe that we’ve been previously acquainted with. Yet another man in a mixed-gender police force would not be news to anyone. The rise of the Gentle Mother plot could get interesting if we have a male lead character who has to react to the Gentle Father who preaches ultimate masculinity at all times. He has to deal with the rising pressure to act like a “real man” and conform to gender stereotypes when he really just wants to be himself and get his job done. If done well, it could be a good storyline, but if done poorly it would just be bland. The frequency with which Beka faces off against female antagonists and criminals was also a great aspect of her story as is, so if you turn that into male hero vs male villain, it becomes just like every other cop procedural out there, medieval setting or no.
So there’s the five primary protagonists of Pierce’s Tortall universe books. I only got into the most basic elements of these stories, and much like with the House Sorting, it would interest me to take a look at their love interests, who are fleshed out characters almost as much as the heroines are. But ultimately, I think I’m glad we got the female characters we did – the nature of these characters meant more interesting stories and more rad ladies that I got to look up to as a kid.