The third gender. Genderqueer. Gender non-conforming. Non-binary. These identities have likely existed as long as notions of traditional masculinity/femininity have, with the terms genderqueer/non-binary thought to have been coined in the ‘90s (by gender activist Riki Anne Wilchins) as part of the continued exploration and investigation of gender, sexuality and personal identity.
Despite the prevalence of non-binary and third gender identities throughout the world, representation of non-binary people in Western mainstream media has been sparse, if not outright nonexistent at times. When there is any visibility, it is dominated by what is now a stereotypical androgynous presentation.
Signifiers of aesthetic androgyny often include short, “boyish” haircuts, a lean, angular body, the ability to “pull off” makeup despite one’s actual gender, an affinity for well-fitted suits and nondescript but fashion-forward clothing, and any other visual identifier that can upend notions of traditional masculinity or femininity while still remaining loyal to the masculine-feminine binary so commonly defaulted to in modern society. The dominance of this particular trope ideologically and visually displaces other non-binary identities while obscuring their attendant representations in media.
Non-binary identities are separate from androgyny in that a non-binary individual defines what their identity means to them; there is no one way to visually present the body in such a way that it can be clearly read as non-binary without explicit proclamation of being so. This means that a non-binary person can express themselves through androgyny, femininity, masculinity, and any variety of combinations of traditional or nontraditional gender presentations. They can also reject these categories altogether.
Due to the elusiveness of a strict definition, non-binary visibility runs the risk of erasure in a broader media landscape dominated by a singular image of androgyny.
Misidentification and its Repercussions
The lack of non-binary representation can become especially damaging when overlapped with the overrepresentation of an androgyny that relies on strict masculine-feminine visual cues in media. This is especially true in aesthetic- and body-focused industries like cosmetics and fashion. The beauty industry has commonly centered Eurocentric beauty standards. Relatedly, the modeling industry still favors skinny, white, cisgender men and women. And yet, the beauty industry has been praised for its increased, but still limited, inclusion of any visibility of non-binary gender. This praise often only recognizes notions of androgyny that are framed as a neutral point between men and women. These models and companies unintentionally but nonetheless conform to standard ideas of how androgyny fits within a strict masculine-feminine visual spectrum.
When these ad campaigns are seen by thousands of consumers, the implication is reaffirmed each time that a particular model, or physical aesthetic, is positioned as what a body should look like. In the case of androgynous features, it reinforces the false notion of what gender non-conformity should be, in order for it to be worth gazing upon.
Why Representation Matters
Popular debates about diversity in media typically refer to increased ethnic or racial visibility, binary gender and varied class representations. Given the emphasis on highlighting a broader diversity of identities, what little is seen of non-binary representation is made more disappointing because it remains marginal even within these expanded parameters.
TV shows and movies such as Insecure, Girls Trip, The Handmaiden, Blackish, Fresh Off The Boat, Grace & Frankie, Transparent, Tangerine, Moonlight, Crazy Rich Asians, A Fantastic Women, and many, many more tackle the unique lives and experiences of people of various ages, genders, sexualities, races, ethnicities, socioeconomic statuses and other identifiers. Media centering marginalized characters has enjoyed varying -- but largely positive -- degrees of mainstream success and visibility. These are stories that show the sprawl of life in all its beautiful, messy glory.
These stories don’t prescribe to a monolithic worldview that each member of an identity must adhere to. Nor do they forward a “proper” way to exist in said identities. The key thing is that they exist; not only do they exist, they are multifaceted and vivid depictions of scenarios, struggles, triumphs, loves, deaths, and life experiences viewers can find their realities reflected in.
Moonlight, for example, keenly shows the hopes, desires and pitfalls of being a Black gay youth discovering their sexuality over the course of a lifetime. It is able to tackle poverty, drug use, sexuality, and various older-younger bonds amongst its characters in its two-hour runtime. Similarly, Grace & Frankie deftly tackles coming out in old age, and the repercussions it has on others their lives. Tangerine focuses on low-income transgender sex workers while Crazy Rich Asians addresses socioeconomic clashes amongst young Asian Americans. Every example here can be parsed for important themes and ideas deemed worth seeing represented on screen. Both consumers and critics alike have written about the importance of these various demographic groups being shown a version of themselves they might be able to relate to.
Very little of this representation can be seen for non-binary individuals, and it is often lacking in the humanity and depth other identities get -- if it’s presented at all.
One of the few mainstream instances of non-white genderqueer characters is in the space fantasy cartoon Steven Universe. The Crystal Gems characters are all technically non-binary (though coded as female), and Stevonnie (a fusion between main characters Steven Universe & Connie Maheswaran) is canonically non-binary. Showrunner Rebecca Sugar recently came out as non-binary as well, explaining their decision to develop characters with complex genders and relationships in a children’s TV show. Steven Universe is often lauded for its topicality with regards to identity, especially with Stevonnie-led episodes. Common themes that receive praise include learning to understand and exist in a body that has previously been unseen and interacted with.
Though none of the examples provided go without warranted critique, the scant amount of non-binary representation is befuddling in a time where media has started to not only welcome, but champion non-white and non-cis characters and stories. Popular media is commonly one of many formative factors in understanding who one is. By not seeing important facets of one’s identity in the media they consume, non-binary persons (and especially those of color) can be left in a fragmented state, constantly searching for representation in an accessible mainstream.
Personal Effects and Positive Progression
How does a lack of mainstream visual representation affect people on an individual basis?
As a Black non-binary person myself, the issues I’ve discussed here have often led me to feeling incomplete, unseen, and as a constant outsider in daily interactions. These feelings are even sometimes reinforced by the friends and family that generally make me comfortable. Responding to this environment, I have often succumbed to defining myself as “masculine-presenting,” despite the only instance of that being true is being assigned male at birth. Additionally, without prior knowledge of who I am, most people would likely assume I am a cisgender man.
When I do this, it’s always to make other people more comfortable with me and how I present, despite my rejecting a strict gender binary in every other instance. My body is typically framed with feminine, form-fitting or revealing clothing. I do this, in part, as an armor against being read as anything other than, at the very least, queer. It is my small but personally important way of holding onto my non-binary identity when it is so commonly erased or misunderstood. Being a man or woman simply doesn’t fit who I am. Being muscular or having facial hair doesn’t change that.
I know I’m not alone in this sentiment.
Estimates anywhere from 0.58% (from a 2016 UCLA Williams Institute report) to 3% (according to GLAAD’s 2017 Accelerating Acceptance report) of the American population identify as transgender, with an approximate 25-30% of that group identifying as neither male nor female, or some combination of both (which accounts for many non-binary identities). These numbers vary amongst region, likely due to varying ideologies within different sections of the United States. However, the amount of people who identify as transgender and/or non-binary in these reports increases among younger generations, especially millennials (the youngest category of people surveyed).
With the ever-increasing amount of people living their truths and owning their gender, why are non-binary people still not more frequently seen in the media we consume? Why are we still left to feel invisible, to not be commonly or accurately represented in the many bodies moving across the many screens people see daily? Is anyone doing anything about this?
The answer, briefly: yes and no. While most forms of mainstream media have yet to truly embrace LGBTQIA people healthily in media, trans people, and especially non-binary folx, are still left out. Pockets of the internet, however, are working on not only changing the perception of non-binary people as being inaccurately synonymous with whiteness and androgyny, but placing their identity and lives in the forefront of conversations across the world.
Twitter hashtag #nonbinaryisntwhite had a recent moment of popularity online, with the many lovely non-white faces demonstrably proving non-binary people exist among Black, Asian, Latinx, SWANA, fat, disabled, and more. In early 2018, The Daily Dot ran the article “The whitewashing and erasure of non-binary people,” written by Rae Gray, a self-described “brown non-binary trans woman.” In larger, traditional media outlets, articles on non-binary identities have been run by Teen Vogue, The Huffington Post, and The New York Times to name a few.
All of these efforts at visibility are a great start in inciting a positive trajectory into the world of representing non-binary identities. We do, however, exist offline. I am not quite convinced we will be given the opportunity to define our own presentations by people in positions of power (who often utilize our stories and bodies to commodify identity and delegitimize our existence through the almighty dollar). Without being given larger platforms, non-binary individuals will likely never truly have the broad-reaching space to let themselves be known to the world. One next step in the media landscape becoming more accommodated to non-binary individuals is to simply be given the opportunity have our reflections in and on pre-existing forms of media. We need room to tell our own stories, and to let other people know who we are, what we do, and how we live.
Non-binary identities deserve the space and presence we have thus far not been given room to receive. It’s time to make it easier on every non-binary individual who has yet to feel as though they fully exist.
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