This essay was a follow-up to the previous and was the final paper for my Cultural Studies Literature class. I completed it on December 05, 2005. Thanks to: Dad, for introducing me to the books and prereading this; Ken, for his proofreading; and my professor, Tony, for the opportunity to research and write this.
Do not reproduce this essay without my permission.
"Gender-Benders: Queer Characters and Stereotypes in The Death Gate Cycle"
Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman use a queer conflict in their series The Death Gate Cycle, which also features characters that represent queer traits and themes.1 Some of these characters cross-dress or prefer androgynous clothing, behave or speak in ways associated with the opposite gender, and even reference cultural forms popular with modern gay men— traits often assumed to mark people as queer due to stereotypes of "flaming" gay men and "butch" lesbians. The female portrayals are relatively neutral, but several male ones embody negative stereotypes and perpetuate false generalizations about queer people. They associate queerness with characteristics like suicidal and homicidal tendencies, physical weakness, selfishness, and insanity, yet there are some positive aspects to these characters as well. Regardless of how they are presented, The Death Gate Cycle contains a variety of notable queer characters that challenge gender lines.
The magical Patryn race may be the most positive example of this series exploring gender constructs and relations. Patryns are shown to have social acceptance for a wider range of relationships, and the women are not expected to wear certain forms of gender-marked clothing or enhance their appearances to attract a partner. The men and women are physically different, but the social differences seem minimal.
Elven Star first introduces Patryn relationships through a flashback of the Patryn protagonist, Haplo, witnessing a binding ceremony like the one his own parents had taken part in. According to this book, "Binding vows are vows of friendship, closer akin to a warrior's vows than marriage vows. A binding may take place between a man and a woman, between two men, or between two women" (301). While these vows are not equivalent to marriage, they are accepted between opposite- or same-sex partners. Some of this may have been influenced by Denmark becoming the first country to legalize civil unions for same-sex couples the year before Elven Star was written, although Weis and Hickman have not addressed this.
Another relationship form, however, is shown to be more like marriage in its terminology and level of intimacy. Xar, Haplo's lord, proposes rune-joining with Marit, who was Haplo's former lover and the mother of his child. Rune-joining creates a close magical bond between the two rune-mates, allowing them to share thoughts no matter their distance. It is somewhat monogamous and recognized as more permanent than the binding vows, and Xar and Marit thereafter refer to each other as "Husband" and "Wife."2 The intimacy between rune-mates is noted as being more than physical; when Xar performs the magic to join with Marit, Weis and Hickman describe, "He shared her ecstasy, which was of the mind rather than the body. After the ecstasy of rune-joining, sexual coupling is generally a letdown" (Labyrinth 50). Apparently, Patryns also allow same-sex couples to participate in this form of intimacy, since Xar asks Marit, "Have you ever rune-joined with any man or woman?" (49). The idea is presented casually, as if it were viewed no differently if she had joined with a woman instead of a man. A relationship with a same-sex partner would be equally valid.
Marit is also used to show that Patryn women wear the same clothing styles as men, unless there is a practical reason to do otherwise. When she has to disguise as a human, Marit uncomfortably changes into a dress; the scene indicates usual Patryn customs: "'How do those women stand this?' Marit muttered. It was the first time she'd worn a dress" (Labyrinth 95). A footnote describes that "Squatter" women, of a branch of Patryns "who are foragers and gatherers, will occasionally wear skirts that assist them in these tasks. Such skirts are worn over the trousers and can thus be easily removed if the women need to flee or fight a pursuing foe" (95-6). Patryn women, especially of Marit's more active "Runner" lifestyle, apparently never wear skirts for any other reason. While this breaks down many of the social differences between Patryn men and women, it also marks Patryn women as somewhat "butch" in their preference for what many societies would consider masculine clothing— vests and trousers— instead of traditionally feminine forms like skirts and dresses. Within the Patryn culture, however, it probably would not be considered "butch" or "masculine" since that is simply how all Patryns dress.
Dwarven women3 have a masculine physical characteristic that is noted as common for both sexes of their race— facial hair. To prepare for a ceremony, a young royal woman named Grundle Heavybeard performs "the day's most important task: brushing and curling [her] hair and side whiskers" (Serpent 28). Side whiskers are not full beards, but they are hair worn on the sides of the face. Her mother is described as having them as well: "Her side whiskers came almost to her waist and were the honey color, which is extremely rare and prized among dwarves" (25). In many Western societies, women are encouraged to remove or bleach any facial hair because it is considered unattractive; it would also be very rare for someone female to be capable of growing the amount of hair that males can. Among these dwarves, however, it is both a trait of their people and one that contributes to a woman's beauty. Grundle does not reflect what our own society expects her gender to look like, nor does her male elf friend, Devon.
The elven prince Devon replaces his fiancée, Sabia, in what is originally presented as a sacrificial group of royal daughters. In order to spare her, he knocks her unconscious and manages to fool her two best friends (including Grundle) into thinking he is Sabia by dressing in her clothes and trying to mask his voice. Grundle notes the voice change, but "conclude[s] that she [Devon] must be hoarse from sobbing" (Serpent 95). Devon is also careful to keep his face hidden by a scarf, which is helped by the fact that it is nighttime, but he is soon given away when the three "girls" hold hands and his are noticeably different from theirs. Except for occasions when the three friends try to pretend they are all female, Devon has no further need to take on Sabia's role. He is said to look "most uncomfortable" (109) and "uncommonly silly in a dress," since he has nothing else to wear but Sabia's "tight-bodiced, ribbon-bedecked, lace-covered, flower-ornamented gown" (110). The abundance of feminine details emphasizes the contrast between his gender and the clothing he wears. He takes part in this queer-marked activity only out of perceived necessity. Apparently, Devon is ill-suited to and inexperienced with cross-dressing, and his actions have troubling consequences for him and Sabia.
When Devon returns home, he finds the elven nation in mourning because Sabia has committed suicide, unable to recover from believing he had gone to his death in her stead. He later unsuccessfully hangs himself with a vine because of the "terrible grief, the burning guilt, the bitter, gnawing regret that had tormented Devon [...] and had finally driven him to seek solace in oblivion" (Serpent 274). Weis and Hickman do not explicitly connect his previous cross-dressing to his suicide attempt; however, they could have written him as sneaking on board or insisting that he replace Sabia instead of pretending to be her by wearing women's clothing, since it is those actions that led to his and Sabia's situations. As written, his cross-gender acting contributed to his fiancée's death and nearly drove him to his own.
Another royal elf, the villainous Agah'ran, represents the genderqueer and displays many stereotypically gay traits.4 He is written with both effeminate and weak terms, suggesting an exaggerated "queen" or "sissy." The Hand of Chaos describes his indulgence in cosmetics and feminine interests; he is "extraordinarily handsome" (198) and has "painted eyelids" (197), "plucked eyebrow[s]" (200), "polished fingernails" (204), and lips "touched with ground coral" (206), and he enjoys chocolate drinks and scented pomanders. He is very finicky as well, preferring his chocolate drink at "six degrees above room temperature and not a degree higher" (198), and requiring smelling salts to restore him when he is shocked by mundane conversations about human behavior. Shunning physical activity, Agah'ran has slaves to carry him bodily or in a chair across the short distance between rooms and to his bedchambers, as walking exhausts him for days.5 The limp-wristed stereotype is further suggested when he lays his fingers "limply" on a cloth to be cleaned by a slave (197), although he seems to be helplessly limp in body rather than just the wrist. His dialogue is mostly in the "royal we" third person and includes exclamations of his faintness and fatigue. When he is not being pampered, however, he arranges for his own citizens to be murdered, attempts to conquer the human realms through court intrigue, and manipulates people into supporting his actions or risk execution. Agah'ran is not unlike other "gay" villains in suggesting that stereotypically queer traits mark people as a threat to others.6
While Agah'ran is presented as a somewhat comedic figure with his over-the-top helplessness, the Sartan character Zifnab7 is a mix of occasional profound observations and predominantly comic relief. Most of his humorous dialogue and actions, however, mark him as what the character Paithan describes as a "crazy old bugger" (Labyrinth 235); he has moments of lucidity and seriousness, but he otherwise has little sense of reality due to past traumas.8 Some of these moments involve changing gender identity, interacting with others in queer ways, and mentioning pop culture that is embraced by gay men. Overall, Zifnab is the character who most fully represents the queer.
In the book Into the Labyrinth, Zifnab answers accusations by the Patryn lord, Xar, that Zifnab was following or spying on him: "I don't believe so. Can't think why I would. No offense, old chap, but you're not exactly my type. Still, I suppose we should make the best of it. Two girls left at the altar, aren't we, my dear? Abandoned at the church door..." (273). The comment that Xar is "not exactly his type" leaves out an explanation of just what Zifnab's type is— not Xar's gender, not Xar's age, or not Xar's personality, which does not exclude the possibility that Zifnab's type may actually be men. Zifnab also uses the unusually familiar phrase "my dear," once used between men who were close friends, or by a man to a younger woman. Not only does Zifnab characterize himself and Xar as "girls" abandoned by their partners, but Zifnab had indeed recently been left behind by his long-time male companion, who is usually known as "the dragon" or "the gentleman" when in human form.9 Zifnab's use of "the altar" and "the church door" suggests that an almost marital relationship exists between him and the dragon. When Xar questions why Zifnab said "abandoned," Zifnab says, "Dumped is more like it. So I won't get hurt. 'You'll be safe here, sir.' Thinks I'm too old and frail to mix it up in a good brawl anymore" (Labyrinth 273). The use of "dumped" is curious since that is a term commonly used by people whose partners have ended their romantic relationship.
Zifnab's exchanges with the dragon often suggest a master and his butler, as the dragon calls Zifnab "sir," defers (or pretends to defer) to him in some situations, and worries about his physical well-being; at other times they squabble and even threaten each other. However, when they briefly parted before this conversation with Xar, their dialogue showed deeper concern for each other:
The old man looked alarmed. "Will this end up in a fight?"
"I trust not, sir," said the dragon. Then its voice softened. "But I'm afraid I may be gone for some considerable length of time, sir. I know that I leave you in good company, however."
Zifnab reached out a trembling hand. "You will take care of yourself, won't you, old chap?"
"Yes, sir. And you will remember to take your warming drink at night, won't you, sir? It would never do to have you irregular—"
"Uh, yes, yes. Warming drink. Certainly." Zifnab flushed and glanced askance at Paithan and Roland. (Labyrinth 222)
It is not clear what this "warming drink" is or why Zifnab needs it, thus it is difficult to determine why he might be embarrassed by it.10 This may be related to a scene in Elven Star where the dragon cautions Zifnab to "think of [his] colon," to which Zifnab retorts, "My colon's none of your damn business!" (71-2); Zifnab later says that the dragon is often "making rude remarks about the state of [his] digestion" (272), although the irregularity may refer to his mental state rather than his physical. Zifnab and the dragon are soon reunited after the dragon is injured in battle with Xar's companion. As the gentleman, he says that Zifnab should go have his warming drink, which the human female would be happy to make, but Zifnab is not happy:
"Of course she'd be happy to! Make her day! But she won't!" Zifnab whined querulously. "She doesn't know how. No one makes it the way you do."
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. I'm very sorry, sir, but I won't be able to... fix your drink tonight." The gentleman had gone extremely pale. He managed a wan smile. "I'm not feeling very well. I'll just take you to your bedchamber, sir..." (234)
It is not clear if the dragon hesitates because he is exhausted and wounded, or if he thinks of saying something besides "warming drink." Regardless of these unspecified details, these scenes both display how the dragon and Zifnab are reluctant to part, hope the other will not come to harm or illness, and know each other better than they know other characters.
Michael Flood suggests in "Men, Sex, and Mateship" that "men's homosocial relations are constituted as homoerotic in a variety of historical and cultural contexts" (2), which may be why close homosocial bonds like the one between Zifnab and the dragon are often read as having a homoerotic element. Perhaps the queerest and most homoerotically-suggestive scene with Zifnab and the dragon is in The Seventh Gate, when Zifnab mistakes himself and other characters for those in The Wizard of Oz. The significance is easily missed by those unfamiliar with The Wizard of Oz as a "camp" favorite, and apparently the source for using the name "Dorothy" and the phrase "friend of Dorothy" as slang for a man who is homosexual.11 Corey K. Creekmur and Alexander Doty write that queer readings of the film see its "fantastic excesses [...] as expressing the hidden lives of many of its most devoted viewers, who identified themselves as 'friends of Dorothy'" (3). The Zifnab scene alludes to The Wizard of Oz and also contains themes similar to previous scenes:
The old man simpered, gave a curtsey, extended his hand. "My name is Dorothy. A small-town girl from a small town west of Topeka. Like my shoes?"
"Excuse me, sir," the gentleman interrupted. "But you are not—"
"And this," the old man cried triumphantly, flinging his arms around the gentleman in black, "is my little dog Toto!"
The gentleman appeared extremely pained at this suggestion. "I'm afraid not, sir." He attempted to extricate himself from the old man's embrace. (Seventh 49)
Again, Zifnab mistakes himself for female, although it is now a specific queer-significant character portrayed by gay icon Judy Garland. When Zifnab identifies himself as Dorothy, the dragon becomes a "friend of Dorothy,"12 marking them both as possible homosexual representations. Zifnab's closeness with the dragon is also displayed again in this scene, but now it is physically expressed; this contact is perhaps the source of the dragon's "extremely pained" expression, which "appears" to (rather than definitively) result from the suggestion that he is a small pet. Rather than embarrassment, it could be genuine pain that Zifnab is again reducing their relationship to master and subordinate rather than equals. In a parting from Elven Star, the dragon said to him, "You mean a great deal to me, sir" (67), yet Zifnab talked about the dragon as a "pet" and "my dragon"— although "my dragon" could also be an endearment, as the dragon's "my wizard" may be. The references to The Wizard of Oz further add to what is already a queer exchange.
Zifnab is a comedic character because of his apparent insanity, although this also makes it problematic to read him as queer. His benevolence and assistance to other characters do not stand out as much as his more bizarre behavior. Because of this, some may view his queerness as linked to his mental state. Queer characters are often portrayed as pathological or unstable, and some Christian fundamentalists suggest that homosexuality is the result of trauma; Zifnab does have a traumatic past that resulted in his instability, although it is not the familial abuse that is proposed by those theorists.13 His gender-confused antics are just a few examples of his disconnects with reality, yet they are still used to identify him as a "lunatic." He variously believes himself to be James Bond, Luke Skywalker from Star Wars, and another insane wizard named Fizban from Weis and Hickman's work on the Dragonlance series.14 Once while identifying himself as James Bond, he thinks the dragon is a female character from that series, and says when he hears the dragon approach, "That's probably only Moneypenny. Got the hots for me" (Labyrinth 221). Zifnab's queerness rarely involves lucidity. The emotional parting between him and the dragon is one instance of Zifnab in an almost clear-headed moment, albeit still with some humor in the "warming drink" concerns. Weis and Hickman may have suggested how we are to interpret the source of Zifnab's behavior when he says, "Stress. Does queer things to the mind"15 (Elven 240); this is something else they have never commented on. He may not be the most positive representation of queerness since his is generally linked with undesirable traits, but he is a light-hearted character who assists others while displaying his queerness.
The Death Gate Cycle's conflict, as well as characters besides some of these, may offer more affirmative readings to queer readers than those of the male characters who gender-bend. It may be a matter of appreciating that the queer is visible versus preferring only certain forms of visibility; after all, these readings offer few inspirational or admirable representations. Queerness is not ignored in The Death Gate Cycle, but gender issues and variations are seldom presented in flattering ways.
1 The protagonists, Haplo and Alfred, have to be excluded from this essay since they would each require more complete readings than could be included with these.
2 Whether or not rune-joining should be considered monogamous is difficult to answer. Patryns are not to take on additional rune-mates while a rune-mate is alive, but the series suggests that multiple sexual partners are not taboo; "monogamy" is not the most specific word since it can refer to either only having a single sexual partner or only being married to a single person. However, the narrative notes that Xar ignores the prohibition on having multiple rune-mates at one time, as he considers the magical bond useful to him rather than seeing it as an expression of his emotions and commitment to someone. The gender of his other rune-mates is not specified.
3 They are not people with dwarfism; they are the fantasy race of "dwarves."
4 "Genderqueer" or "gender queer" is not necessarily the same as transgender or transsexual, although genderqueer individuals may be in or identify with those in trans communities. The term is used here to refer to someone who does not fit into the social constructs of "man" or "woman," instead falling somewhere between them. It is somewhat ambiguous since it is used to mean several things. For example, see <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender_queer>.
5 However, he apparently does not avoid heterosexual relations; he has "fathered more illegitimate children than he could count" (Hand 202). Presumably, he is not the one who exerts himself in these activities.
6 For an analysis of film and television villains, see "Gay Stereotypes, Homophobia, and On-Screen Villains: A Match Made in Hollywood?" at <http://www.afterelton.com/movies/2005/3/gayvillains.html>.
7 "Zifnab" is not his real name, but one he adopted since he cannot remember his own.
8 Zifnab chose to remain on Earth when it was destroyed and thus witnessed millions of deaths; he was also cast into the Labyrinth, which was analyzed in my previous paper, by his fellow Sartan for refusing to support the Sundering. Paithan's description of "crazy old bugger" reflects his affinity for Queen's English slang, although "bugger" is significant in this context because of its Victorian/Edwardian meaning of someone actively homosexual.
9 The "dragon" is not actually the typical reptilian fantasy creature, but one of the embodiments of "order" and "good" in the universe. However, the books refer to him as "the dragon" because it is the usual physical form of his species and how he usually appears in the plot; he is called "the gentleman" only when shown as human. He should not be thought of as a talking animal, but as a sentient being who often takes on an animal form. Zifnab has also become one of these beings, apparently the dragon's "familiar," though Zifnab was born a Sartan. His change probably happened sometime after he met the dragon following his own escape from the Labyrinth.
10 It was also mentioned in Elven Star during a more comedic scene of the two parting; the dragon asks if an elf will see to it "that [Zifnab] has his warming drink first thing on awakening? My wizard, you see, suffers from irregularity-" in response to which Zifnab was "howling imprecations and making a run for the dragon" (67).
11 For a recent example, see the Arrested Development episode #18: "Missing Kitty." The sexually-ambiguous Tobias Fünke is referred to as "Dorothy" by prison inmates, who also call themselves "a friend of Dorothy." An episode of The Colbert Report on 30 November 2005 also referenced it by suggesting that Pope Benedict XVI looks like "a friend of Dorothy" when wearing his "red slippers." Wikipedia has a brief article about the phrase at <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friend_of_Dorothy>.
12 Into the Labyrinth does not actually use this phrase at any point.
13 This is proposed by organizations such as the Family Research Institute, Focus on the Family, and the American Family Association, who link homosexuality with psychological and/or sexual trauma, especially by relatives.
14 Fans commonly assume that Zifnab is in fact Fizban because of their similar personalities and anagrammatic names, how Zifnab started to call himself "Fiz-" in Elven Star, and how he references other Dragonlance characters. His name is presumably changed due to copyright reasons, and the authors themselves point out that the name Fizban is a copyright of TSR, Inc. However, both have also identified him as a separate character whose nature is not identical to Fizban's, saying his Dragonlance references are the result of being well-read in the pop culture of his home world and birthplace, post-20th century Earth.
15 He says this to characters when trying to fool them into thinking they only hallucinated Haplo using magic to rescue them. While the context suggests that "queer" is intended as "strange," it does not exclude reading queer in other senses.
Creekmur, Corey K. and Alexander Doty. "Introduction." Out in Culture: Gay, Lesbian, and Queer Essays on Popular Culture. Ed. Corey K. Creekmur and Alexander Doty. Durham: Duke UP, 1995. 1-11.
Flood, Michael. "Men, Sex and Mateship: How homosociality shapes men's heterosexual relations." Proc. of (Other) Feminisms: An International Women's and Gender Studies Conference, 12-16 July, U of Queensland. Daphne Toolkit. 30 Nov 2005.
Weis, Margaret and Tracy Hickman. Elven Star. New York: Bantam Books, 1991.
---. The Hand of Chaos. New York: Bantam Books, 1993.
---. Into the Labyrinth. New York: Bantam Books, 1994.
---. Serpent Mage. New York: Bantam Books, 1993.
---. The Seventh Gate. New York: Bantam Books, 1995.