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Non-Binary Gender Identities Representation in Media

Many know that the term “non-binary” is an umbrella term for people who don’t conform to the normal gender binary of female or male, but there are sub-categories under that umbrella, such as gender-fluid, agender, and more, that are all a part of the LGBTQIAP+ community. The term “transgender” itself is actually the parent category that covers binary trans people and non-binary people. However, the media’s portrayal of transgender people is lacking, which breeds ignorance in society about the other gender identities within this group, along with how it’s all categorized. It is rare for a film or book to represent a transgender identity other than binary trans people, and even when it does, it’s either an inaccurate representation or their gender identity is never explicitly stated, causing assumptions to be made by watchers or readers through stereotypes built around transgender people.

When Ruby Rose was cast as Batwoman, she received backlash. Rose identifies as gender fluid and a lesbian, but the public argued that identifying as a lesbian contradicted her other identification as gender-fluid. The general idea was that Rose was not a girl, therefore could not be a lesbian. However, according to Sabra L. Katz-Wise’s article “Gender Fluidity: What it means and why support matters,” “Gender fluidity refers to change overtime in a person’s gender expression or gender identity, or both. . . This person could be considered gender-fluid, because they experienced one or more changes in their gender identity or gender expression.” Some people switch between identifying as male and female only, while others go between other non-binary identifications. The Oxford dictionary defines a lesbian as, “a woman who is sexually or romantically attracted (esp. wholly or largely) to other women; a homosexual woman.” An argument within and outside the LGBTQIAP+ community is that one is not “bi enough” or “masculine enough,” and in this case, Rose wasn’t “woman enough” to be a lesbian despite the fact that a gender-fluid person can identify as a woman and still be gender-fluid. People misunderstood gender fluidity, interchanging it with being agender, though gender-fluid is it’s own label under the genderqueer category. Rose’s story demonstrates that people have misunderstandings about other non-binary identities not as commonly portrayed in the media. 

It is rare to come across films and the general media representing non-binary people. A study done by GLAAD found in 2017-2018, there were a total of 17 transgender characters on screen, of which only 4 of them identified as non-binary. In more recent years there were no non-binary characters to even count. Similarly, in 2019, GLAAD did another search and found there were no non-binary characters at all in any major films. GLAAD had looked over 118 films from major studios, and of the 18.6% of characters that were part of the LGBTQIAP+ community, none were non-binary.

Although representation is scarce, there are a few films focusing solely on gender. Some state the character’s gender identity, and in others, the gender is never explicitly stated, which leaves room for assumptions that may be made based on gender stereotypes. An example of that happening is Tomboy directed by Céline Sciamma. It is listed under many articles discussing films related to gender, as a film about a transgender kid, but the issue is that the film never states the main character’s gender. New viewers to the film then continue the narrative of it being about a transgender kid, as that’s what it has come to be labelled as in its media coverage. By painting the film in this way, the media misinforms the public by assuming they understand what it means to be transgender based on stereotypes, and also excludes other non-binary identities along the way. 

Non-Binary Gender Identities Representation in Media

Jeanne Disson and Zoe Heran from Tomboy (Image Source: Tomboy Explores Identity)

Alex Fierro, one of the main characters in the Magnus Chase series by Rick Riordan, is another example of a fictional character that misrepresents the gender-fluid experience. A thread was started about Alex and a commenter stated that “I think she can be a portrayed in a bit of a black and white, overly simplistic way. . . from what I’ve read so far, her gender changes in distinct increments of one day, which is not my experience.” While not as drastic as other characters, by simplifying what it means to be gender-fluid, a writer could be taking away the complexity of gender, and in doing so stripping the struggle gender-fluid people are faced with when trying to understand themselves and why there is no pattern to their fluctuating gender.

With all this said, there is hope. The majority of commenters on the thread about Alex agreed that, although Alex’s representation wasn’t completely accurate to their experience, it did give them some insight. For example, Alex states that non-binary people aren’t ashamed of their identity but scared of how others will treat them based on their identity. From The Hammer of Thor:

“The gender thing wasn’t what surprised me. A huge percentage of the homeless teens I’d met had been assigned one gender at birth but identified as another, or they felt like the whole boy/girl binary didn’t apply to them. They ended up on the streets because – shocker – their families didn’t accept them. Nothing says “tough love” like kicking your non-heteronormative kid to the curb so they can experience abuse, drugs, high suicide rates, and constant physical danger. Thanks, Mom and Dad!” 

A commenter’s response to this was, “. . . it doesn’t matter how awkwardly it’s put in there — it’s the fact that IT’S IN THERE.” Other commenters mention that Alex is also a lot more confident in themselves, which makes them happy to see them represented in such a positive light, and be a ray of hope for them. Riordan mentioned in an interview that he knows it might not be the most accurate portrayal, but he tried his best. Riordan mentioned in the same interview that he has always felt the need to bring awareness to different groups, including the LGBTQIAP+, and Alex was his way to give recognition to gender-fluid kids out there.

As Rick Riordan wrote for Alex, “They ended up on the streets because – shocker – their families didn’t accept them. Nothing says ‘tough love’ like kicking your non-heteronormative kid to the curb so they can experience abuse, drugs, high suicide rates, and constant physical danger.” However, as social media comes to the rise, many short films made by people who actually identify as non-binary are released, giving themselves the narrative they want. This doesn’t mean big studios like films in movie theaters and television shows should stop. When portraying non-binary people, newer shows and films can take a look at how Rick Riordan researched on the non-binary experience and wrote Alex like a normal demi-god who just happened to be gender-fluid. Alex was a courageous character shown in a positive light, as the hero rather than a villain, which is what people need — to know they’re valid and not monsters.

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Non-Binary Gender Identities Representation in Media