April 19, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

How TV shows like ‘Star Trek’ fall short on gender nonbinary

When GLAAD releases its annual report on LGBTQ+ visibility on television next year, 2020 likely will be dubbed a milestone for the prevalence of nonbinary characters on the small screen. From “P-Valley’s” Uncle Clifford and “Star Trek: Discovery’s” Adira to “Big Sky’s” Jerrie Kennedy and “Good Trouble’s” Lindsay Brady, there are more characters on TV whose gender identities and expressions fall outside of the incorrectly understood man-woman binary than ever before. But Jacob Tobia, the nonbinary author of the memoir “Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story,” which is being developed for TV by Showtime, isn’t yet applauding Hollywood.

“I’m really Shania Twain about the whole thing: That don’t impress me much,” they said, describing a vision for nonbinary characters who aren’t secondary on shows and aren’t created or written primarily by people who aren’t nonbinary themselves. Tobia is withholding their praise until nonbinary people are telling their own stories.

Tobia’s declaration reflects similar calls from members of other marginalized communities who long for cultural productions that accurately reflect their lived experiences, whether it be Black and Latinx people, people with disabilities, immigrants or others. “Nothing about us, without us,” has become a popular refrain in recent years. But the promised land that such communities are working toward might be farther away than it appears, especially in terms of nonbinary representation.

Having nonbinary characters on TV is still a fairly new occurrence. Just three years ago, for example, Showtime debuted one of television’s first nonbinary characters, played by Asia Kate Dillon, during the second season of “Billions.” Today, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation tracks about a dozen nonbinary characters either currently on or coming soon to broadcast and cable television and streaming platforms, according to Nick Adams, the organization’s director of transgender media.

“There definitely has been a rise in nonbinary characters on television,” Adams said unequivocally. “But I think you can also see in looking at the characters that there is a wide-ranging understanding about what the label ‘nonbinary’ means.”

Considering that identity and language are deeply personal and can shift depending on time and space, “nonbinary” can be defined in as many ways as there are nonbinary people. For some, nonbinary is a gender presentation or expression, a way of describing their behavior, mannerisms or appearance. For others, nonbinary refers to their gender identity, an assertion that they are something other than, or beyond, a man or a woman. Some nonbinary people are also transgender, while others are not, and they can use masculine, feminine or gender-neutral pronouns.

Jacob Tobia, author of the memoir “Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story,” which is being developed for TV by Showtime, isn’t impressed by Hollywood’s handling of nonbinary characters and stories.

(Blake Jacobsen)

Such a purposefully complex understanding of identity is commonplace in LGBTQ+ communities because of how important it is to self-identify in a world that forces labels and categories upon everyone. That complexity, however, isn’t always reflected in shows with nonbinary characters, Adams said.

“Most people, when they come to me, they just think, ‘We’re going to write a nonbinary character,’ but they have not thought it through further than that,” he continued.

In response, Adams created a checklist of questions aimed at helping writers and producers be more intentional — figuring out the sex their characters were assigned at birth and whether the characters are also trans, as well as asking about the characters’ sexual orientation. The overall goal, Adams said, is to get people thinking more deeply about the nonbinary roles they’re creating in hopes of having fully developed characters that feel like real people.

When nonbinary characters don’t appear to be informed by a real nonbinary person’s experience and perspective, Tobia says, it’s “foolish to get so stoked” about their proliferating number. They say the industry has a long way to go to represent the fullness of nonbinary experiences, especially their own.

“I feel like Hollywood only really has space for soft nonbinary identities,” Tobia said, describing the ways in which the nonbinary-ness of some nonbinary characters, and people, is inherently more palatable to an audience than that of others’. “Those nonbinary identities are valid, obviously, but they don’t push people quite so hard [and] live in a space that [cisgender, heterosexual] folks are more comfortable with.”

For instance, many nonbinary characters are framed as androgynous, a presentation long deemed fashionable, while nonbinary identities at the other end of the spectrum — what Tobia calls “sharper, or harder nonbinary identities,” involving hairy bodies and other stereotypically less desirable attributes — aren’t reflected onscreen. “People who are thinking about nonbinary folks are never really thinking of someone like me,” they said.

Bex Taylor-Klaus played a nonbinary character on Fox’s now-canceled "Deputy."

Bex Taylor-Klaus played a nonbinary character on Fox’s now-canceled “Deputy.”

(Tiziano Lugli)

The resulting feeling is that “there is a new wave of Hollywood producers — mostly cis, some queer — who want their show to feel edgy and contemporary, and the way they do that is by adding a nonbinary character but not doing the work to really flesh out that world,” said Tobia, who voiced a nonbinary character on Netflix’s “She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.”

“I feel some kind of way about that because if you’re going to have a nonbinary character in your show, you need a nonbinary person, with veto power, in the writers room,” they added. “If you put that challenge out to people, I think what would happen is that most of the nonbinary characters might disappear.”

Adams noted that when there isn’t a nonbinary or transgender person in a show’s writers room, it’s even more important to hire a nonbinary or trans actor for the role. That way, the actor can give input on the character’s development, much as Bex Taylor-Klaus, who played a nonbinary character on Fox’s now-canceled “Deputy,” has done throughout their entire career.

“What’s really interesting is I’ve played a lot of characters that, if they were written this year or last year, they’d likely be nonbinary,” Taylor-Klaus said. “It’s been really fun to watch over the last five years as it’s become more and more possible for the characters I play to have [their nonbinary identity] be, rather than subtext, actual text.”

Even two years ago, Taylor-Klaus said, they had a conversation with a director about making a character nonbinary. They say they were told, “‘No, that’s just too much. That’d be too difficult.’” Luckily, the project they’re currently filming, ABC’s “Triage,” “is one of those where the creators are conscientious and learning and working their butts off to make sure” the character is fully developed, Taylor-Klaus added. “I went to talk to our showrunner about if we get picked up, making sure we’ve got a nonbinary person in the writers room, and she was like, ‘Absolutely, I’ve already got a list of names.’”

Beyond hiring nonbinary people to help craft nonbinary characters, though, Taylor-Klaus believes the industry must also begin to give a platform to nonbinary and other queer and trans creators.

“Once we start giving unknowns a chance to tell their stories, the world will change,” they said. “Because if we keep hearing the same stories from the same people who have the same experiences, it’s never going to be right.”