Beyond the Binary: Question Eight

June 17, 2013 § 10 Comments

Monday afternoon, and time to get back to the answer mill – panel bios here. 



Question Eight:


Is it time to get NB people into media such as soaps and video games, and how can this be done in a way that is meaningful rather than tokenistic?



Jennie: Yes! This is why Trans Media Watch, the charity I chair, is currently working on a specific project on non-binary issues. Within the next couple of months we hope to have an info pack which we will circulate to newspapers, magazines, broadcasters and production companies to raise awareness and highlight positive ways in which non-binary people and issues could be represented. We’ll aim to persuade the likes of soap opera writers that non-binary themes provide interesting opportunities for new storylines, with characters developing over a period of time so there’s room for them to be rounded.



GrrlAlex: Hollyoaks had a character for a while (Kris) and yes, the more we see transgender identities that are not primarily focussed on surgery and hormones (or required to disappear until post-surgery they reappear transformed) the more freedoms we might create for a wider spectrum and diversity of identities, particularly for those whose bodies will always ‘betray’ their history and make ‘passing’ an impossibility, and for those who are not safely able to access such modifications.



Nat: I’d love to see this. All the examples I can think of off hand are literary science fiction, I like to see this also appear in other media and genres. I think the way for it to be done is for us to be involved in creating such media.



CN: I’m afraid that I don’t know much about either soaps or (most) video games, but I think that even simplistic and somewhat tokenistic inclusion can be helpful to at least bring up the issue, if it’s done sympathetically (I realise that that’s aiming the bar as low as is tolerable – obviously, that would be a first step and not a long-term goal). I haven’t seen it myself, but I know that my Nana (in her 80s) and her friends from church very much enjoyed the storyline about a trans teenager on Waterloo Road – she felt that it encouraged understanding and dialogue, even if it wasn’t exactly nuanced or detailed.

What I would worry most about is that inclusion in mainstream television soaps or big budget games would depend on negative tropes associated with trans people, particular trans people who don’t pass/don’t want to pass/have a gender other than ‘male’/’female’ – that we’re confused, that we’re tragic outcasts unable to function – or, if we’re deemed attractive, that we’re manipulative/deceptive ensnarers of unsuspecting/defenceless cis folk.

This is one of the reasons I’m such a fan of Trans Media Watch, and similar projects – I think we need to be educating people on the broadest scale possible, so that it’s no longer viable for people in the entertainment industry to claim ignorance – we need to be putting real people in the place of the trans chimera the media seems to have created for itself.

(On a side note – I’m sure I’m not the only genderqueer person to spend hours tweaking customisable video game characters’ appearances to look as androgynous/genderfuck as possible.)



Hel: I think that most media forms urgently need to become much more representative of the breadth of people that exist in the world – I’m sick of the thing where ‘white straight cis middle-class currently-non-disabled man’ is the Default Everyman, and the rest of us are relegated to Special Diversity Flavours or whatever. And how to do so in a way that’s meaningful rather than tokenistic? As with any marginalised group, I’d like to see more things working on the principle of ‘nothing about us without us’ – so people already in the industry amplifying the voices of non-binary/genderqueer/etc creators, whether that’s giving them platforms to develop and promote their own work, or (at the very least) bringing them in for consultation when writing a work that deals with them.

In terms of genderqueer/non-binary/etc people in soaps and video games specifically – while not considering myself to have much expertise on either, here are a few thoughts.

I think that soaps would need to be careful about how they choose to frame a character’s trans status– there are a lot of nasty tropes out there, like trans people as ‘deceivers’ or ‘mentally ill’. I think there would need to be some form of ‘coming out’ storyline – while I think we’re mostly past needing that for LGB characters, the concept of genders other than ‘male’ and ‘female’ is something that probably needs to be explained to a mainstream audience. From what I’ve heard (and the one episode I saw!), Hollyoaks is supposed to have done a good job with trans representation with the character of Jason, a young gay trans man. In the episode I caught, some other characters were calling him a ‘lesbian’ and trying to set up a (lesbian/bisexual/lady-lovin’) female character with him, on the basis that he was just a ‘confused dyke’ – it was great to see him expressly reject that and say that his gender wasn’t the same as his sexuality, that he’d always liked guys and he still did. Given the prevalent myth that all trans men have a butch lesbian history, I liked that they were doing something expressly different. (I’m not sure how I feel about clichés when it comes to soap representation of non-binary/genderqueer/etc people, though – while the stereotype of a young/urban/traditionally-androgynous person is quite prevalent within certain queer spaces, I imagine that stereotype doesn’t have much currency outside them. But I also imagine that someone androgynous-appearing might be more comprehensible as genderqueer/non-binary/etc to a mainstream audience – so I wonder if it’s inevitable that early mainstream representations will take the form of the queer cultural stereotype, and only once representation and awareness have increased we’ll be able to complicate that sort of representation?) Also, on soaps: although Jason was played by a cis woman, the actress made an effort to engage with the transgender community, which was fab – so, next step, an actual trans actor?

On video games – I recently read this open letter to BioWare’s David Gaider about trans representation in video games – it might be a good starting-point for thinking about the barriers that the industry has in place. (Also, this parody of the original David Gaider post is hilarious.) But, given their often-fantastical nature, I think there might be quite a lot of for genders other than ‘male’ and ‘female’ to appear? Djuna Tree gave a talk at Spotlight on Genderqueer called ‘Processing the Genderqueer Other’, which I found very interesting – as with the Caroline Walters paper on femme, there’s no video online yet, but the Storify is here. Among other things, the paper discussed the character Liara in the game Mass Effect, which did not allow same-sex relationships: Liara is a member of a mono-gendered species (although socially read as female), and is able to be romanced by a male or female iteration of the player-character. Could this be seen as some form of genderqueer representation, or is the ‘genderqueerness’ of Liara is simply being used as a workaround to allow ‘lesbian’ relationships? (And if so, is this ‘for’ the usually-presumed-heterosexual-male audience, where female/female relationships function as erotic spectacle, or is this ‘for’ queer female gamers? Is the ‘problem’ here the presence of f/f erotics as a spectacle for the male gaze, or the absence of m/m relationships due to the way homophobic anxieties often focus on the more ‘threatening’ figure of the gay man? Or a combination of both? I feel like these factors work in concert – but anyway, getting off-topic!)

Getting back on-topic: Dr Liara is an example of an alien species that’s expressly different from (the incorrect presumption of) human sexual dimorphism, which is pretty awesome. I think that science fiction and fantasy can be great for challenging cultural norms, because they can give a detailed depiction of cultures which work very differently, or show a future/alternate world in which our current cultural norms are taken to extremes, and so on. But within that, I think there’s a potential danger of genderqueer/non-binary/etc characters being made into the sole province of the sci-fi/fantasy other, and not appear in other ways or in games which aren’t set in sci-fi/fantasy worlds. It might be easy to depict (and easier for audiences to accept) Xendrax of Klib, whose people have a three-gendered system or a mono-gendered system – but that’s likely to ultimately do much less for non-binary/genderqueer/etc representation than having actual, human, Earthling people who don’t identify as uncomplicatedly ‘male’ and ‘female’.

But I think that non-binary/genderqueer/etc representation probably going to happen faster in video games than in soaps – my impression of soaps is that they are very much mass-media products, while there is a thriving world of indie video games where small games created on a budget can still become incredibly popular, thanks to the internet and distribution platforms like Steam. Anna Anthropy / @auntiepixelante ‘s autobiographical game dys4ia was all over the nerdier sections of my social media last year, and there are also trans/queer game-makers like Merrit Kopas and Porpentine who are making cool stuff. So while the big-label video game developers may still be quite resistant to change, I think that the broader world of video games is doing better?

I’m not sure how much of this response was useful to you, but I hope it was at least interesting!

§ 10 Responses to Beyond the Binary: Question Eight

  • helgurney says:

    Oh! CN, your comment about tweaking player-characters’ appearances reminded me of something else I was going to mention: the very interesting character creator in Saints Row, which has gender on a sliding scale alongside race and age (!) and allows some pretty genderfucky choices. Anna Anthropy has written about it here:

  • Unquiet says:

    RE: species with different gender systems in computer games

    This made me think of Star Trek Online.

    Two of the playable races actually have alternative genders in canon – the Rigellians have 5 genders, and the Andorians have 4. Despite this, you can still only choose M or F for your Andorian characters. And disappointingly, in original canon two of the genders are seen as “male” and two as “female” – so it’s hardly as cool as it could have been.

    (My full rant is here if you are interested in learning more:

    Fallen London/Echo Bazar politely asks for your character’s gender when signing up. Your three options are “a lady”, “a gentleman” or:

    “My dear sir, there are individuals roaming the streets of Fallen London at this very moment with the faces of squid! Squid! Do you ask them their gender? And yet you waste our time asking me trifling and impertinent questions about mine? It is my own business, sir, and I bid you good day.”

    This is an elegant and flavour-ful way to allow a third option, and is so much fun that I expect plenty of folk who’ve never heard of NB were intrigued into choosing it.

    (Fallen London is wonderful:

  • J McK says:

    You’re not the only GQ person to sit there tweaking characters, though in games with few sliders and with massive differences in build there’s only so much you can do. Still, this is an interesting read:

  • Hilarion says:

    Before I read Hel’s addendum comment, I was aware of exactly one video game in which you can create and play an explicitly non-binary character: Ultima 3, released way back in 1983. At character creation, the “Sex” field gives you the choice of “Male”, “Female” and “Other”. Though because of the game’s very limited graphics, plot and character development (by today’s standards), the choice has no impact on the game beyond the character creation screen (as far as I can gather; I haven’t played it myself).

  • Ruth says:

    Great news – the video of Djuna Tree from “Spotlight on: Genderqueer” (as mentioned in Hel’s answer) is now available. It’s an utterly wonderful talk and I thoroughly recommend watching it!

  • helgurney says:

    Djuna Tree’s talk (which I mentioned in my response) is now up online here:

  • […] Is it time to get NB people into media such as soaps and video games? […]

  • […] Is it time to get NB people into media such as soaps and video games? […]

  • airda6 says:

    It seems as if we might already have some nonbinary people or characters in some of the media. For example, Scout seems to be transgender in ” To kill a mocking bird.” Mulan in the Disney movie dressed as a man when she fought for her country as a soldier.quite a few females playing the main role tend to be tomboyish or like one of the guys such as miss congeniality, Beverly hillbillies,

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