Let’s Talk About Why It’s Time For a Non-Binary Revolution at the Movies

     June 8, 2020

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Here’s the plain and simple truth: We need a non-binary revolution at the movies. Look, I spent a good 30 minutes debating how to begin this discussion with you, but screw it, I’m coming in hot. I’m a non-binary person who happens to love the heck out of movies (dare I say, I’m a cinephile?) and I’m saying this now, during Pride Month, because I know it’s what I and those who identify as such deserve.

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Image via Netflix

Non-binary folks exist. This just needs to be stated right off the top because, if you’re going to come with me on this ride, you need to understand this. There is nothing scary or troubling or weird about being non-binary. Similarly, there is nothing scary or troubling, or weird about identifying as agender, genderqueer, genderfluid, gender non-conforming, or any other gender identity outside the traditional male/female binary. There’s lots of us who’ve been brave enough to come forward and speak about our identity who just so happen to be famous: Cara Delevingne (Carnival Row), Indya Moore (Pose), Brigette Lundy-Paine (Bill & Ted Face the Music), Lachlan Watson (Chilling Adventures of Sabrina), Jill Soloway (Transparent), Amandla Stenberg (The Eddy), and Ezra Miller (Justice League). We are here and we’re existing and we’re talking about who we are.

For as long as there have been movies, the subject of queerness and the people living gloriously queer lives have been depicted onscreen to varying degrees of candor (and varying degrees of success). Whether that queerness is overt or implied, we can generally see the roots of queer cinema dating back to the late 19th or early 20th centuries. Now, depending on when you check in with queer cinema over the course of the last 100 or so years, you can expect movies to basically mirror the attitudes of their times. As you can probably guess, a majority of those attitudes are less than progressive.

But those attitudes, in all of their shades, have often presented gender as it intersects with sexuality in a fairly binary manner. No matter which corner of the LGBTQ spectrum you place yourself, if you’re a character in a movie then chances are good you are male or female. You present as one of those two genders. You use he/him or she/her pronouns. Even with the major progressive leaps forward queer cinema has made in the last decade or so, the gender binary remains intact, which means little space and screentime is dedicated to depicting non-binary characters in an honest, accurate, and sensitive manner. Even today, in a time where we as a society are more openly discussing what it means to be non-binary and all of the shades of the non-binary identity, cinema is failing to put us onscreen at a rate consistent with other LGBTQ characters. This is not to chastise creators for putting the latter onscreen, either. Instead, I mention this merely to highlight queer cinema and, more generally, cinema overall needs to step it up and even the playing field.

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Image via NBC

I couldn’t tell you right now of any current movie, at any stage of the production process, which includes a non-binary character or focuses on the life of a non-binary person. Sure, there are performers, directors, writers, and folks across various positions in the movie industry who identify outside the gender binary, but are we putting characters like them on screen in a meaningful way? Television is lapping movies in this regard. I can name a number of shows which have featured non-binary characters and, in some cases, take time to explain what a particular character’s non-binary/agender/genderfluid/genderqueer identity means to them. From Steven Universe to She-Ra and the Princesses of Power to Good OmensThe Good PlaceYoungerVida, and most recently Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, television is helping bring visibility to those who identify outside of the male/female gender binary by giving characters a place, voice, and fleshed-out arc with more traits than just their gender identity to help them tell their story. This is what we desperately need in movies.

On the flip side, I can count the number of non-binary characters in movies on one hand. On the more problematic side of this group, you have Benedict Cumberbatch‘s All from Zoolander 2. All’s androgyne/non-binary identity is very obviously played for laughs, with Owen Wilson‘s Hansel asking very invasive and rude questions about All’s genitalia. (To this, I can only groan.) On other side, where non-binary characters are given a much fairer and positive shake, you have Asia Kate Dillon as The Adjudicator in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum and Kai Bradley as Jaime in Upgrade. Dillon requested their John Wick character be canonically non-binary within the John Wick universe and, true to this request, The Adjudicator moves through the world of Parabellum with their gender identity recognized, accepted, and it’s implied all characters they interact with understand how to use their pronouns appropriately. For Bradley’s Upgrade character, Jamie, they boldly state they do not have a gender and Jaime is not their real name upon crossing paths with the movie’s protagonist played by Logan Marshall-Green.

In addition to these three characters, there a handful of non-binary characters depicted in lesser-known indie works: Moises Arias plays an agender character in 2013’s Kings of SummerKaitlyn Alexander plays a non-binary character named S. LaFontaine in The Carmilla Movie, a feature adaptation of a Canadian webseries; Rhys Fehrenbacher’s J in the 2017 indie They is a trans teen who, in one scene, describes feeling sometimes male, sometimes female, and sometimes neither gender. But this, to date, is it. Six characters we can point to in movies who have spoken aloud their gender identity and whose pronouns (and/or other aspects of their identity) have been acknowledged onscreen.

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Image via Lionsgate

“But, Allie, why does it matter?” you may be asking. “Doesn’t this recent emergence of non-binary characters kinda make sense since people have only recently begun identifying as non-binary?” Nope! Non-binary folks have existed since the dawn of time, baby, and the gender-neutral pronouns we often use have been around for damn near the same amount of time. Yes, in the actual world, throughout time and all across this great globe, people have identified as non-binary. So, to have a majority of art forms bringing in the perspectives of folks who identify outside of the male/female binary — including contemporary ones like video games, comic books, and yes, TV — but movies still lagging behind for some reason, it’s only right to ask for the industry to step up and become conscientious about the stories that are being greenlit and the characters populating those stories.

If movies are meant to be an extension of or mirror to the world we exist in on a daily basis, then how could it be anything less than expected that I would call for better non-binary representation onscreen? This is a reality. This is my lived reality. This is the lived reality of so, so many people and we come to the table with a variety of experiences related to our non-binary identity — a fundamental part of who we are. The real kicker (and you’ll find this is the case with many folks who aren’t cis, straight, white, and/or male) is that my experience as a non-binary person is not the same as the next non-binary, agender, genderfluid, genderqueer, or other gender non-conforming person you meet.

It is not just about our pronouns or how we present or how we speak or how we move throughout the world. It’s about putting characters like us, in all our many different non-binary forms, onscreen so we can see our lived experiences depicted on screen. To bring non-binary characters into the cinematic medium in a meaningful, overt, visible way is to destigmatize and celebrate us. Like I said before: Non-binary folks are here and we exist. It would be nice if movies recognized that, too.

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