Nonbinary. It’s a word that’s being thrown around a lot at the moment. The acknowledgement that there are, and always have been, more than two genders is incredibly important. However, we still aren’t seeing a huge amount of nonbinary representation in mainstream media, and when we do it’s a little vague – take Steven Universe, brilliant in many ways, but still failing in clear nonbinary representation.
So why is it so hard to really represent nonbinary gender in media? Of course, there are the obvious “political” reasons for this: there are still a lot of people that think that nonbinary genders aren’t “real” and it’s pandering to the hippie liberal crowd – these people are wrong. But I think that a lot of people really shy away from it because they’re not sure how they should do it. How do you show a gender that isn’t a single, easy to fit in a box gender? (Not that any gender is easy, or fits in a box, but that’s a discussion for next time).
For me, this is something very close to my heart. Being nonbinary myself, I want to see more representation, but I want to see it done well, and that’s the hard part.
When you say nonbinary, most people think of David Bowie, Tilda Swinton, and predominantly male coded androgyny. I myself fall into this category of the elfin, Peter Pan-styled youth, and have on many occasions had people tell me that I “look non binary,” to which my response is, “how does one look nonbinary?” And I mean it, seriously, how do you look nonbinary? You can be femme presenting and be NB, you can be hyper masculine and be NB, you can be anywhere in-between or right off into outer space and still be NB. So you see the problem. It has been decided — somewhere — that the look for nonbinary humans is skinny, hipster pixies with cropped pastel hair or Annie Lennox look-a-likes and that just isn’t right. So how can you signpost that a character is NB “without saying it out-loud”?
Well, you could simply say it. Or at least that’s how I tackled it. Writing a nonbinary character into the second series of my audio series, Ray Gunn and Starburst, was something I had wanted to do from the get-go. I didn’t want to get it wrong, or shoehorn it in. So I waited until I had time to explain and go into detail about nonbinary gender. I also made sure that the character was correctly gendered from the beginning, using their chosen pronouns. In fact the only misgendering of the character is done by the villains of the series, as a clear indicator that you should not do this. Really, I drove the point home. But I guess for me it was a bit easier, using my own experiences as a nonbinary person to help create the character. Also, we have no visuals in the series – being on radio and all – and made no official character art, so that the cast, especially Kes, the NB character, could look however people wanted them to look, and therefore didn’t have any stereotypes to adhere to or worry about.
Ok, so that’s one thing. I managed to avoid using visuals and therefore it was easier for me to create a nonbinary character who didn’t conform to the usual stereotypes. I think it’s time to look away from my own work – I mean, of course I’m going to think I did an ok job.
Talking to fellow creators of NB characters all of them made the same point: the best thing to do is to just say it. Their characters range from knights fighting dragons, to androids, to kids just trying to live their lives and back again, the same as cisgendered characters. And you know what? They all said it was easy because they didn’t try to be clever, they didn’t hide it in subtext or try to wrong foot their audience, they simply laid it out, clear as crystal. These characters are nonbinary. That’s it. All of them avoided the problem of “does this person LOOK nonbinary” by deciding that it doesn’t matter what they look like — if they say they’re nonbinary, then they are. Wow. What an amazing solution! Stating things plainly in the text! Too often people avoid the obvious solution, in favour of cryptic tweets and comments after the fact.
So why is the mainstream media so scared of representing nonbinary people when indie media has sussed out how to do it? Well, unfortunately, it’s because we are living in a society that is still coming to terms with the fact that being anything but a cis, white, middle-class man is ok. We’re still struggling to get good, strong, gay and lesbian representation, and real trans representation is still rare, so I think we’re still in the queue for getting our faces in the big blockbusters; sad but true.
But fear not, if the representation you seek is not in the mainstream then look to the indie media; it most definitely has your back. All you need to do is support it. You want good LGBTQ+ representation? Show the creators who are making it that, like Discord comics, Jammy Scribbler, My Gender Adventures, Moth Girl and the Kestrel Black Feather Trilogy. Give them your likes, your love, your shares, and if you have it to give, your money, because if you support indie media then eventually it will become mainstream media.
Grass roots and community support is how change happens, and seeing NB, and all LGBTQ+, people in movies, on TV, in comics, etc, is no different.