Nonbinary Representations in Fiction

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Nonbinary gendered characters are almost not common enough to have tropes associated with them. Almost, but not quite. The idea of a third gender, bigender, or agender is not actually that recent, after all. It seems to emerge independently, time after time. In modern media, these representations arise just often enough to have a handful of common tropes associated with them. Most of these are tied closely to speculative fiction, where one has the great privilege of learning that one’s gender identity is inherently science fictional, alien, unrealistic. Some of them also appear in contemporary setting fictions, although those are less common and even more tied than usual to moral ambiguity.

I won’t spill words explaining what the word nonbinary means, or what nonbinary gender is. Google is free, and the internet can offer a hundred and one lists and lexicons explaining the vast terminology which people use to self-describe as being neither male nor female. Similarly, one can find lists of nonbinary gendered English pronouns everywhere, including on Wikipedia. For the sake of uniformity, I use the singular “they” throughout this post.

Nonbinary characters in fiction usually fall into one of three types: alien, fairy, or human. The latter of which being the least common, for reasons of writers’ unfamiliarity with real living-and-breathing nonbinary people, if nothing else. Alien characters appear in a science fictional context, as literal aliens in space-bound stories or as a post-humanistic representation of Earth’s distant future. Fantastical characters might be literal fairies, or they might be given some other name, but their key feature is that they are thoroughly magical and equally thoroughly inhuman.

Like bisexuality, third gender or agender characters are often characterized as being a feature of either a far-future human society, or a specifically alien thing. In the latter case, it will usually be a global feature, too: not a nonbinary individual, but rather an entire species of aliens who are either completely genderless, or else have a multiplicity of physiological sexes, usually as part of some arcanely specific alien reproductive cycle. Sometimes this will also appear as a form of gender fluidity, with a species that, like certain Earth animals, is able to change its sex at certain points of the life cycle. From a science fictional perspective this is very interesting, but it does detach the concept from the lived experience of gender nonconformity. SF is all about exploring alien cultures, so the specimens who get all the focus are perforce typical examples of their culture of origin.

In a more fantastical setting, especially one deriving straight from the roots of folklore and mythology, the “fair folk” will often have a certain aspect of androgyny. Sometimes this is just by implication, as is sometimes the case with Tolkien-esque elves based on their delicate facial features, waifish build, and inability to grow facial hair (more on that later). Less often, with the darker interpretations of fairies, the use of glamour or shapeshifting imbues them with a gender fluidity that is tacitly tied to their threatening otherness. Variations on Puck of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream might fall under this category.

Fantastical representations are by no means exclusive to the genre of dark modern fairy tales. Trickster characters have a wide range of expression, some of them largely benign while others are amoral, or even threatening in their disregard for usually-mortal lives. While they can make appealing antagonists, they can also drift into the territory of gender nonconforming villains, where dwells subtextual homosexuality and other archaic menaces. Even the Marvel Comics variation on Loki, a shapeshifting trickster god in his origin, has been known to occasionally appear in female form. This trope covers some interesting ground, but also skirts close to some truly embarrassing territory.

Even simple humans tend to be defined by their appearance. Especially in a visual medium, nonbinary characters follow a very specific physical model. This canonical appearance is thin and waifish, narrow-hipped and stylishly boyish in figure. Often pale and almost always short-haired, they give off a generally fey vibe even if they’re technically human. Truly genderless fashion is almost nonexistent, so these characters dress in a “unisex” style that’s actually indistinguishable from men’s clothes.

Perhaps it’s the perils of a visual medium, but this trope seems to rely on the idea that a character’s gender needs to be immediately identifiable, even at first glance. Even if that gender is “unidentifiable gender”. Needless to say, this also conflicts with the lived experience of many nonbinary people in our own reality. Where people will often identify your gender at first glance, but are just as likely to be wrong as right. More likely, if your gender is one they never heard of or thought of.

The trouble with this, of course, is that a canonical nonbinary appearance collides pretty explosively with the very idea of gender nonconformity, that umbrella term under which terms like nonbinary, agender, androgynous or genderfluid exist. It’s essentially the opposite of representation, in a way. Which is not to say that there aren’t any real nb people who are slight, snake-hipped and given to extremely dapper men’s suits. Only that just as in any other case of representation, when there is only one character of your identity to be found, that character’s individual traits begin to embody that identity.

If there is a way to neatly tie this subject up with a bow, I haven’t found it. It’s encouraging to see nonbinary representations on the rise, especially in niche or online media that rely on a small but dedicated following. As always, webcomics lead the way, if only because of the relatively low cost of producing them. Interesting examples of nonbinary characters can also be found in indie games and web series, of which possibly the most interesting is LaFontaine on the web serial Carmilla. I do expect this rising trend to continue, though, and maybe in a couple of years this post will already seem impossibly outdated.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth

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