The gender binary is limiting our imaginations

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Jun 21, 2018, 1:00 PM EDT

Gender is a social construct created to categorize and control bodies. It is deeply rooted in the structures of society, but, to the surprise of some, how and which genders are identified varies greatly by society.

Prior to colonization, which brought with it a narrowly defined binary gender system, many cultures throughout history recognized three or more genders, including the Medieval Egyptians, some Native American tribes, and the Tagalog culture that worshipped Lakapati, trans goddess of fertility and agriculture who watched over the people and crops.

It's time more of genre harnessed this great diversity of genders. So often the settings of genre stories are imaginative and diverse. Complicated plots unfold in space, other dimensions, and in whole fictional realms untethered from our society. So why do we project the gender binary, a phenomenon peculiar to our dominant society, onto fictional realms?

There are so many examples of characters who have been forced into the gender binary in genre who certainly could have a nonbinary gender identity, but there are a few categories of characters that bug me the most: cosmic entities, celestial beings, human-adjacent characters, and plain ol’ humans. These are the beings and people who can and should have fluid or nonbinary genders, but instead are described with only cisnormative pronouns and images. The question I can’t shake is: Are characters limited in their gender because they are truly one of the binary identities, or does the lack of nonbinary characters actually reflect the limited imaginations and experiences of creators, editors, and executives?


Cosmic entities

In both Marvel and DC comic books, and a ton of other media, cosmic entities are personified in human-like bodies. Generally speaking, these entities conform to the gender binary and tend to ascribe to dominant, normative pronouns (he/him and she/her). 

Take, for example, Sandman, a being more powerful than a god who personifies dreams, storytelling, and reality. Though Sandman is the name given to several characters in DC Comics, Neil Gaiman retconned his Sandman aka Dream aka Morpheus as the one true Sandman who inspired or influenced all the other Sandmen.

Though Dream appears to people in many forms, mimicking what is stylistically appropriate for the region and time in which he appears, he is generally considered to be a man. Never mind that he appears as a black cat, never mind that he can shape reality to his will, never mind that Gaiman looked in the mirror and thought, “Damn, I’m so handsome I should be in comic books,” and then designed the character to look like him, as well as a few of his crushes (including The Cure’s Robert Smith). Dream is legitimately 100% a dude, and don’t you forget it.

Wait. So an entity more powerful than a god, who rules over the realm of the Dreaming which connects him to the dreams of everyone and grants him passage to anywhere where a dreamer dreams, is a dude. He can change the color of his skin to match those around him, he can appear as various animals, he can appear as a cat-headed god, but he must be a man. Sure. It makes perfect sense.


Credit: Lions Gate Films 

Ethereal beings

Another class of powerful villains and heroes, which I’m calling ethereal beings, includes demons and angels. (Ah, religious metaphor, I’ve missed you since Divinity School.) Almost always, these ethereal beings fall into the gender binary. They also fall into the good/bad binary, which is another issue we can get into some other time.

Even Alan Rickman’s angel Metatron, from the satirical film Dogma, discusses how he lacks genitalia, not due to castration but by God’s own design. In a particularly odd moment, he pulls down his pants to show someone his “Ken doll” anatomy to prove he won’t rape her (which is all kinds of stupid, because that’s not how rape works). Yet still, Metatron remains a “he.” Of course, genitalia are just one possible gender marker, but the point is that Metatron could be fluid, could choose different pronouns at different times, could be any gender, but instead this incredible, unimaginably powerful being is stuck ascribing to the gender binary. 

Kevin Smith does get a nod for flipping the convention of gendering God as male on its head. He creates a God who uses she/her pronouns, played by Alanis Morissette; however, this omnipotent, omniscient, skee-ball-loving deity still conforms to a cisnormative gender identity.


Human-adjacent characters

One of the things I adore about genre is all the characters who are human-adjacent. We’re talking humanoid aliens, demi-gods, (some) superheroes, and hard-to-categorize characters—like my all-time favorite, Swamp Thing.

Ever since Alan Moore began writing The Saga of the Swamp Thing in 1984, Swamp Thing has undergone a major shift. Moore threw out the old origin stories and gave us something truly imaginative.

When Alec Holland’s lab blows up, the biological formula he'd been developing infects the swamp around him, creating a sentient being mimicking a human. Swamp Thing even develops vegetative organs that look human, like what Holland had used to breathe and pump blood, but really are just vegetable fibers incapable of moving blood or oxygen. Once Swamp Thing begins to understand that Holland’s humanity is not really Swamp Thing’s at all, but rather, the echoes of a dead man, Swamp Thing is freed and integrates more fully into the “Green,” the life force that creates vegetation and acts as a collective consciousness-slash-circulatory system connecting all things, well, green.

Swamp Thing becomes so at one with the Green that the being almost ceases to exist and only returns to an individual consciousness in order to defend the Green against an intruder. After thwarting the oh-so-sinister Floronic Man, Swamp Thing develops a relationship with one of Holland’s old friends, the witchy Abby. The two become close and when Abby wants to get freaky, the Swamp Thing offers her not a physical embrace, but a psychedelic tuber produced by Swamp Thing’s body that takes them both on one hell of a trip through the Green.

You might have noticed that I haven’t used a pronoun to refer to Swamp Thing. Despite the fact that Swamp Thing is generally referred to with he/him pronouns, I won’t conform because I’m not buying it. Swamp Thing is the Green come to consciousness, makes love by feeding someone a piece of their body, and knows that they are not the man Alec Holland. Swamp Thing is so obviously nonbinary that using he/him pronouns to describe them is insulting. 


Plain ol’ humans

Hopefully this one is the most obvious of all. Our human characters must be representative of the various genders, no gender, and fluid gender identities of the people who actively live on this planet. You can open almost any comic book, turn on just about any TV show, and you’ll see a tableau of binary characters. If you’re lucky, there might be a trans character, but even then, you’ll find men and women—and no one in between or outside of that binary.

For example, take Rick Sanchez of Rick and Morty fame. One of the basic premises of the show is that there is an infinite number of realities, dimensions, and versions of every being on Earth. There is even a place called the Citadel of Ricks where all the Ricks from all the different dimensions and realities come together to hide from the Galactic Federation. There’s an alien Rick with three eyes, a reptilian Rick who can scale building, a cowboy Rick with a dope bolo, and even a very stupid, Doofus Rick who gets along with Jerry. Never once, though, do we see a nonbinary version of Rick—we don’t even get a woman. Infinite realities and not one gender diverse Rick. C’MON!

It’s time we kicked our gender game up a notch. And, lest you think I’m only pointing out characters who have been ascribed a male gender, I’ve written elsewhere about the gender identities of Shiklah and Death who are both typically depicted as female and use she/her pronouns.


That’s not to say there aren’t representations out there that are good. In Original Sin and Loki: Agent of Asgard, Loki is gender fluid—and even stodgy old Odin recognizes and honors their gender identity. Lumberjanes features children who do and do not conform to gender norms, and Bitch Planet addresses transphobia and toxic cisgender culture beginning in issue #8. When we enter the world of novels, writers have been including nonbinary characters and themes in their stories for decades. 

Even some of the examples I’ve critiqued have provided a pathway for gender inclusivity. (Honestly, I’d punch someone to get a Swamp Thing who embraces their nonbinary identity.) The problem is not that there aren’t examples out there, or that we don’t have coded nonbinary characters, but rather, there are not enough characters who are openly nonbinary, gender fluid, or gender-nonconforming. The gender binary is limiting our imaginations in genre, and it’s our responsibility to fight back.

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