5/3/2022 0 Comments
Elessar Younglove (they/fae)
Nonbinary identity is an essential aspect of gender. Incorporating them into the media furthers a culture of inclusion. Culturally, nonbinary people exist as two-spirit, agender, gender fluid, genderqueer, gender-nonconforming, and third sex, among the many other labels we use to describe ourselves. These are more common in non-Western cultures, but specifically Two Spirit people, Fa’afafine, Hijra, to name just a few. Existing as neither male nor female, outside of the binary, is not something of the past and it is certainly not new. Society’s understanding of gender is evolving and its inclusion of nonbinary people is essential to that understanding.
For nonbinary people, gender identity exists outside of the conventional male–female binary. It exists independently of biological sex (which is defined by chromosomes, genitalia, internal reproductive organs,and secondary sex characteristics) and sexual orientation (who one is sexually or romantically attracted to) as a gender identity. Gender minorities include nonbinary and transgender people, but there are some distinctions between the two.
One distinction that is often made between nonbinary people and “binary” trans men and women is the idea that nonbinary people fall outside of the gender binary, whereas “binary” trans people transition from one aspect of the binary to the other, crossing over the boundary from male to female or vice versa. However, many people might identify both as a trans man or woman and as nonbinary at the same time, pointing out that the insistance that trans people label themselves either strictly as binary or nonbinary is, in itself, yet another binary. When confronted with material that contradicts their existing opinions, students may cling to their current knowledge of gender roles “like lifelines in class discussion.” Tackling potential discomfort around the gender binary and informing students creates the most respectable environment for everyone.
It is important that college campuses, a place of learning and growth, respect gender identity and expression in the classroom. Studying and respecting nonbinary identities creates diversity in education that indirectly benefits everyone. Research shows that making learning spaces accessible to non-majority students benefits all students by enhancing creativity and improving problem solving and decision-making. In 2015, The New York Times conducted a study proving that diversity benefits students. Students worked in a classroom to predict stock trends. Participants could observe their counterparts' conduct and decide what to make of it when trading. Interacting with people can lead to the discovery of new ideas, but it can also lead to the adoption of popular but incorrect ones. Students’ performance improved as they spent more time socializing in different groups. They were more likely to copy others in the wrong direction when they were surrounded by people of the same ethnicity or race. Participants in the various groups, spanning nationalities and locations, were more likely to discern between correct and incorrect replies. The answers were 58 percent more accurate when they were in a diverse group. “By disrupting conformity, racial and ethnic diversity prompts people to scrutinize facts, think more deeply and develop their own opinions.” Exposure to diversity is essential to our understanding of the world and each other. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, nonbinary and transgender people exemplify diversity in gender identity. Their representations shape how we understand gender. While trans representation is on the rise, the ways in which trans people are depicted are complex, meaning they can’t be simplified to purely good or bad.
It is rare for a film or book to represent a transgender identity other than binary trans people. Even when it does, it’s often 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. Representation always matters, but one could argue it is even more crucial in youth programming and family-oriented shows that are geared toward, and watched by younger viewers. A national survey by GLSEN found that, “75% of transgender youth feel unsafe at school, and those who are able to persevere had significantly lower GPAs, were more likely to miss school out of concern for their safety, and were less likely to plan on continuing their education.” However, there are positive examples of nonbinary people in the media.
One example of nonbinary representation is the 2017 TV series “One Day at a Time,” which is loosely based off of its 1975 predecessor. An important difference between the two is Syd, the nonbinary partner of main character Elena Alverez. There are no scenes of Syd staring at themself in the mirror in disgust. Instead of dressing Syd in tragedy or making them the butt of a joke, Syd is treated like any other teenager. This isn’t to say their gender identity is ignored. In season three, Syd and Elena discuss the fact that Syd is no longer referred to as Elena's girlfriend because they are nonbinary. The episode is dedicated to the couple coming up with a better term for Elena to call Syd. Various members of the family chime in with suggestions. This support influences how viewers understand nonbinary people. “One Day at a Time” tells cisgender viewers that nonbinary people are worthy of respect and compassion. This increase in transgender representation shapes how gender is viewed. “One Day at a Time” proves the importance of inclusive characters and writers.
When Syd is introduced, they share their pronouns and are met with initial confusion from the adults in the room. Elena explains succinctly, “Gender non-conforming people have certain preferred pronouns,” and that's about it. The characters don’t pause to joke at Syd’s expense. Elena and Syd start dating in that same episode and their relationship continues throughout the season, allowing Syd to recur and develop as a character. Syd is a good example of nonbinary representation because they are a three dimensional character with plotlines and a fleshed out personality. They aren’t limited to only being trans. This important representation was furthered by genderqueer show writer Michelle Badiolo.“It was as simple as representation matters. Nonbinary people exist, Elena would encounter them, and we have an incredible platform from which to shed light on the stories of all kinds of people,” Badillo said. Visible non-binary characters, especially characters who are happy and supported, are important for media representation.
Western society assigns people to the categories of “male” and “female” based on a wide range of biological features; gender is the attributes, behaviors, and roles socially assigned to theses ex categories. In other words, gender is always socially constructed (yes, for cis people too!) and does not equate to sex organs. This concept is essential to understanding nonbinary identities and their representation. Biologist Anne Fausto Sterling argues, “the binary system in which everyone’s sexual organs neatly fit into is deeply influenced by our social understanding of gender.” Concepts of gender are binary in our society, limited to the two categories within the binary system– men and women. People who inhabit both, or neither, of these categories are seen as a threat to social order. Discussions and criticisms of the binary system would be furthered with the incorporation of nonbinary people.
The media likes to make fun of transgender people. (“Trans” is used as an umbrella term for the many experiences of gender variance within the trans community, like nonbinary people.) From 2001 to 2011, most trans representation was only for comic relief at the expense of trans characters. The lack of media representation of transgender people creates a lack of social knowledge of other genders within this group and their classification. Because of this, nonbinary people are often excluded from media representation. As our society’s concept of gender evolves, so must the visibility of nonbinary people. Nonbinary representations in “One Day at a Time” also adds to discussions of trans representation because the show includes trans writers. This emphasizes the importance of gender diversity in the writing room.
With trans writers behind a show, there would be more accurate stories and fewer “trapped in the wrong body” narratives, which are generally written to appeal to cis people while flattening and often misrepresenting the trans experience. When trans characters are “trapped in the wrong body” they don’t see themselves aligning with their gender identity. This furthers the idea that there are only two genders, male and female. The notion is furthered by transnormativity, the concept that trans “success” is defined by “passing” as cisgender (meaning that a transgender person does not look like the gender they were assigned at birth). In both narratives there are two genders: male and female, what you are and what you are not. However, nonbinary people exist outside of the gender binary; our stories and narratives should reflect that.
The queer critique of heteronormativity questions dominant norms surrounding gender, sex, and sexuality. Queerness assumes you have a body, but does not assume your gender identity which questions the gender binary. This is an appropriate area to include nonbinary representation in media because it adds to discussions of homonormativity and transgender representation. Binaries force people to live in boxes. Learning about nonbinary people is significant because it acknowleges binaries and how they do or do not apply to others. Adding further nonbinary representation to the media will widen students understanding of the gender binary and those who exist outside of it. I support adding more nonbinary characters in the media in order to diversify students thoughts on gender and how they interact with nonbinary representation.