On Bringing More Non-Binary Characters to TV - Nerdist
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On Bringing More Non-Binary Characters to TV

Pose wrapped up its final season this month, leaving behind a legacy for trans representation on television, as well as massive hole to fill for more representation of its kind. As we look to the future of TV, we need more shows that challenge society’s exploration of gender, particularly with non-binary and gender non-conforming identities. While we see more trans characters and actors appear on our screens, it’s important that we remember that trans identity extends so much further than the binary.

A small but growing number of shows have clearly identified non-binary/gender-nonconforming characters. In Billions, Taylor introduces themselves clearly, indicating their pronouns are they/them. Stevonnie is a combination of Steven Universe’s Steven and Connie. And Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist‘s Mo identifies as genderfluid, using he/him pronouns in the first season and also going by she/her and they/them in the second.

These characters represent so many people in this world that don’t fit into the boxes society has tried to put them in. But they’re also nearly drowned out by the heteronormativity in their shows and on their networks. Altogether, these characters’ identities are clearly laid out for audiences, making it that much easier for them to perceive what non-binary and gender non-conforming identities look like.

Mo from Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist wears a robe and laughs merrily.

NBC

However, several other shows with would-be non-binary or gender-nonconforming characters introduce them under the radar, offering no clear explanation of their identities. Admittedly, this can certainly have its pros. But in a world where so many people are quick to judge or misunderstand non-binary and gender-nonconforming people in person, perhaps it’s time to put these characters’ identities in the spotlight instead of shying away from them.

For The Dragon Prince’s Kazi, a non-binary identity was suggested only by the show’s Twitter account. As for The Good Place‘s Janet? The character is played by a cisgender woman, presenting feminine and using she/her pronouns. However, she often retorts “I’m not a girl,” when being called as such by other characters on the show. Her identity as non-binary isn’t official by any means; but fans of the show were quick to point out that non-binary is a pretty damn good explanation of her portrayal.

In the US, an unprecedented amount of bills are circulating in several states targeting trans rights, particularly trans youth. These bills strive to keeping them from playing on sports teams, or to prevent them from getting life-saving healthcare. All of these bills underscore a massive misunderstanding of trans and gender-nonconforming identities. Pediatricians across the country have stated that these bills will harm trans youth, not save them. So what can we do to help people understand the nuances and complexities of gender identity? We can start by putting more trans, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming people in front of audiences, in hopes of repeating what we did with gay rights in the 1990s.

Kazi from The Dragon Prince wears glasses and looks concerned.

Netflix

In June of 1994, gay rights activist Pedro Zamora became the first openly gay man with HIV portrayed in pop culture in The Real World: San Francisco. He died in November of that year, but his inclusion on the series brought international attention to the HIV/AIDS crisis and anti-gay prejudice. Three years later, Ellen DeGeneres came out on national TV, and a year after that Will & Grace was the first sitcom on television to portray life as an out and proud gay man. Not too much later, shows like The L Word and Queer as Folk hit premium cable networks and gave us some of the steamiest gay sex scenes ever seen on TV. All this while America was fighting a very familiar legal battle against people in the LGBTQIA+ community.

Through the ’90s, the country tried to fight against people in the LGBTQIA+ community. We saw President Bill Clinton’s 1996 passing of the Defense of Marriage Act and many individual states approving constitutional bans on same-sex marriage in the years following. But as the shows above started to progress—alongside grassroots efforts, political activism and more widespread effort to educate people about the science behind queerness—so did the views of the nation.

Once again we find ourselves fighting miseducation and a lack of understanding; this time with a focus on gender identity. It’s crucial to make sure that Pose is not the last show to grace our screens with a predominantly trans cast, and that characters’ explorations of their identities aren’t relegated to Twitter or fan theory. To include identities on television is a way to familiarize them to millions of people all at once.

Taylor from Billions wears a jacket and tie.

Showtime

As a non-binary person myself, having only just come to terms with my identity this year, I know how hard it can be to understand any of this. It wasn’t that long ago that I cast doubt on they/them pronouns, only to end up using them today. I was able to do this because somewhere along the way I learned about the fluidity of gender and saw characters like Mo and real-life actors like Alex Newell live their best lives. I envied these people for being able to live their truths. When I saw that they were capable of that, I finally learned: Hey, I can do that, too.

Sometimes you have to see to believe, and that’s why it’s so important that the world sees more trans, non-binary and gender-nonconforming identities on television. When we’re standing in front of you, in all of your favorite forms of media from television to music to books, you can’t help but see us. You, too, might be able to believe that you can live your best life no matter what society tells you is real.

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