Sexualized Saturdays: Non-Human Characters Outside the Gender Binary

Lal: “I am gender neuter. Inadequate.”
Data: “That is why you must choose a gender, Lal, to complete your appearance.”

the-offspringOh, Star Trek, you are one of those shows that consistently disappoints me. This conversation from Star Trek: The Next Generation perfectly illustrates how our society tends to view gender in a strict gender binary. In the episode “The Offspring”, the robot Data creates his own android progeny named Lal. He decides to create Lal gender neutral, so that Lal can choose what gender to be. It seemed like a great idea, but it quickly turned problematic when Lal declared gender neutrality “inadequate” before promptly choosing a female gender. For people who don’t fit the gender binary, this statement is wildly offensive. The message seems to be if you aren’t male or female then you are… inadequate. How fucked up is that?!

There aren’t many characters who exist outside the gender binary (that is, the idea that the only genders are male and female) in pop culture and that is a huge problem to begin with, but recently, I was thinking about the few who canonically do exist outside of the gender binary. An entirely new problem presented itself. Here are a few characters (by no means a comprehensive list) that I can think of that are genderqueer characters.

  • Desire (the embodiment of desire, from The Sandman)
  • Dax, and the Trill in general (an alien species, from Star Trek)
  • The J’naii (an alien species, from Star Trek)

Above are three characters that have been, in canon, by the writers and all the Powers That Be, defined as non-binary identifying characters. Desire in Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman comics is the literal embodiment of desire.

To show that Desire represents anything a person could desire, Desire is drawn as being445409-desire3 both male and female in some way, though how that is represented tends to change with Desire’s appearance. The other characters acknowledge this gender-fluidity as well. The other Endless, Desire’s siblings, will refer to Desire as “brother/sister” or simply as “sibling.” Desire is an interesting and complex character, but probably not the best representative of non-binary people, as Desire is exceedingly cruel. Desire rapes Unity Kinkaid and then tries to get Dream, Sandman’s protagonist and Desire’s brother, to kill Unity’s granddaughter Rose Walker, all in an attempt to just bother Dream.

Dax is a character from Deep Space Nine and is part of an alien species called the Trill. The Trill are symbiotes that live inside human hosts. The Trill seem to be either nongender or genderfluid, because they have no preference for what sex their host is. The gender dysphoria and relationship problems (as far as sexuality goes) that accompany this is often discussed in Deep Space Nine. However, even Dax’s gender seemed to mostly be used by the writers to create awkward sexual tension between characters who may have known Dax when Dax was male, but are now attracted to their old friend as a female. Or to justify lesbian relationships by playing them off as not “really” being homosexual, because Dax would only like a girl because Dax used to be a guy. Sure, that makes perfect sense.

jnaiThe J’naii, an alien species from Star Trek, have an androgynous society which views sexuality and gender as perversions. Out of the three examples I’ve mentioned, this is probably the least favorable view of non-binary characters. The J’naii are portrayed as having an oppressive society that shames any type of defined gender expression. In the episode “The Outcast”, when Soren, one of the J’naii, confesses to being female and has an affair with Riker, she is viewed as an abomination and taken by her people to undergo “psychotectic” therapy. Between this and “The Offspring”, I have to wonder if TNG writers didn’t think non-binary people were committing some sort of atrocity just by being themselves. Though I suppose I should be kind and point out that the TNG writers probably didn’t understand much about gender or people who don’t fit the gender binary.

So, there are already very few genderqueer characters, and the few that are in pop culture are often portrayed poorly. And now we get to the other problem. None of these characters are human.

Why is this an issue?

Well it wouldn’t be an issue if, for every nonhuman character who didn’t fit the gender binary, there was at least one human character who didn’t either.

We have talked before about certain nonhuman characters who really should be portrayed as outside of the gender binary. Data is a robot—the idea that he would have a gender, that any robot would have a gender, or at least a strictly defined one, seems a bit odd. At the very least I would like to know how and why Data decided to identify as male. Loki often shapeshifts between male and female forms—does that mean that Loki identifies as both male and female, neither, or is the idea of gender itself like a costume for him? And speaking of shapeshifters, we have also discussed Xavin, from Marvel’s Runaways, before. Xavin is a Skrull, an alien species that can shapeshift. Yet despite their ability to shift from one sex to the other seamlessly, they still, for some reason, only identify along the gender binary. Wouldn’t a race of aliens that can easily change their sex have a different concept of gender? The same can be said about Castiel and the other angels from Supernatural—as an angel, a wavelength of celestial intent, wouldn’t the idea of gender be foreign or at least different to Castiel?

zfwLrnlDyqgfHaving nonhuman characters who don’t fit the gender binary can be a great thing, because, in the same way that Wonder Woman, brought up in a matriarchal society, can critique the patriarchal organization of our society, nonhuman characters who don’t fit the male/female binary can critique our society’s false ideas about gender.

But if the only non-binary identifying characters people ever see aren’t human characters, people start to wrongly assume that only nonhuman characters can be defined as anything other than male or female.

A perfect example of this wrong assumption is Captain Jack Harkness. Not because he is nonhuman or non-binary identifying, but because he is pansexual. Pansexuality, as defined by Wikipedia, is “sexual attraction, sexual desire, romantic love, or emotional attraction toward people of all gender identities and biological sexes.”

So why is Captain Jack Harkness a great example of prejudice against non-binary Jack_flirts_with_Chanthoidentifying people? Before I started watching Doctor Who or had even heard of Torchwood, people told me I should watch the show because Captain Jack Harkness is pansexual. (Later I would discover that most of the writers on Doctor Who and Torchwood actually view Jack as bisexual.) I eventually found out that most people labelled Jack pansexual because he was attracted to aliens as well as humans—not because he showed attraction to genderqueer people. Some people have even angrily commented that there are no real pansexuals because pansexuals can’t be with sentient non-human species. These people mistakenly think pansexual means attracted to all life forms, and aliens haven’t yet been proven to exist. This argument not only erases the sexual identity of pansexual people, but it also erases the gender identity of non-binary identifying people by claiming that no humans fall outside the gender binary.

Let’s be very clear: there is actually no gender binary. Human beings do not fit into little male and female boxes. A person does not have to be an alien, a robot, or an angel to identify as a gender other than male or female.

It is very, very rare when any non-binary identifying characters show up in pop culture, and the few who do show up are almost never human, perpetuating the lie that humans are only male or female. I would love to see a story that finally depicts non-binary characters in a way that is actually true to their experiences—that actually shows that humans can be human without being male or female.

11 thoughts on “Sexualized Saturdays: Non-Human Characters Outside the Gender Binary

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  6. I’d like to see a more in-depth exploration of pansexuality vs. polysexuality vs. bisexuality in the media.

    I host (way too many) fanvideo collaboration videos, aka “collabs”: http://vidders-vidding.wikia.com/wiki/Luvtheheaven#Collabs_-_Participating_.26_Hosting and well, one of the collab groups I host collabs in is “uniquecreationsprodz”. My co-host and I always host multi-fandom collabs and try to have each collab have a different theme.

    Within the next few days, we’ll be posting a completed “bisexuality & pansexuality” themed collab set to “Define Me” by Ryan Amador ft. Jo Lampert (here was the sign up vid: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ouPLKaPtTuY ) and one of the participating vidders chose to vid Captain Jack Harkness, asking if it was okay because he was actually pansexual. I originally called this a bisexuality collab in the title of the sign-up vid with the caveat that pansexuality or polysexuality would also be allowed, but I only mentioned this lower down in the video description. I also said I’d allow characters who do not define their sexual orientation explicitly, but who can clearly be described as not simply monosexual.

    I did this because I was kind of under the impression that virtually all media only considers people to have 2 possible genders, so possibly being pansexual or polysexual is somewhat nonsensical in a binary-only world… and idk.

    A couple participating vidders chose to vid pansexual characters like this one from Torchwood or a pansexual girl on on Degrassi, and now I am reminded of Franky on the UK show Skins who I think is also pansexual. I think she is pan because she explicitly rejects the labels “lesbian, straight, or bisexual”, but Franky is an interesting example too because of her rejection of female gender norms and I think she could have been a non-binary character but the show never really chose to fully explore that side of Franky’s character. She is bullied for how she dresses in the first episode of her generation – she doesn’t dress girly enough – and she doesn’t like being assumed to be a lesbian, and over the course of the show mainly only shows sexual/romantic interest in two guys, a pair of brothers, although it’s hard to tell for sure what’s going on with Franky’s character.

    I was thinking, though, about how even bisexuality is often portrayed in kind of… odd ways on almost every TV show I can think of.

    Too many shows consider characters who have had heterosexual relationships in the past to suddenly “be” gay (especially: lesbian) once they fall for the same gender. I appreciate Callie on Grey’s Anatomy being surprised by her feelings for women but still feeling her feelings toward men were legitimate, because Santana on Glee, Kerry Weaver on ER, Stef on The Fosters, Willow on Buffy, etc seem to just ignore bisexuality as a possibility.

    In a similar manner, many shows that actually have characters who could be considered canonically bisexual do not use the term “bisexual” or even “bi” ever. Some of these might be realistic, or actually portrayals of pansexuality. But they never use that word either. Usually the characters say “I don’t define myself”, “I just like people”, “I’m flexible”, “I’m nothing”, or it just isn’t really explicitly mentioned, like the college-aged Haddie on Parenthood “coming out” as dating a girl in the Parenthood season finale this year. Her 13-ish-year-old brother Max asks their mother “If two girls are kissing, does that make them lesbians?” and he never gets an answer. The correct answer would be “in Haddie’s case, probably not, since we saw her be in love with 2 different boyfriends years prior” but they never clarify on the show, so who knows what the show was thinking? Sara on Arrow also is one of those bi characters where the word is never used. She is clearly able to have feelings for both women and men in the present, and maybe they don’t want to be awkward about using the term, but it’s just SO rare to hear “bisexual” used on TV at all, or even “Bi” alone.

  7. Hey, the big two do have a whole one non-binary human character. Ragdoll II (Peter Merkel Jnr) is… I have no idea, beyond non-binary, and honestly I don’t think he does either. He’s a pretty awful example, since his gender identity is probably caused by trauma and abuse as a child, and he’s a mentally unstable psychopath (albeit an adorable one) but he does exist. And Xavin, from the Runaways, is straight up gender-fluid, and bitches people out when they try to shame them about. Yes, Xavin is an alien, but he is at least a possitive alien!

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  9. Really awesome article, being genderfluid myself, I often get very frustrated by the lack of or awful representation in the media. Just one thing though, and this is a common misconception, bisexuality is not the sexual attraction to females and males. I’m bisexual, and in the bi community we define it as the attraction to the same and different genders (because yes bi means 2, same + other(s), still works). Pansexuality means all genders, bisexuality means two or more.

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  11. On the subject of Data’s gender, it’s been shown that he is made in the image of his creator Dr Soong, who seems to be somewhat egocentric, which explains why Data identifies as both male and seems to be heterosexual. Soong just made Data to be like him. It’s a bit boring and unimaginative in my opinion for an android to identify as a straight man, but that’s mainstream 80s sci fi for you.
    I love Xavin, and I’d love to see more of the character and a deeper look at gender and Skrull society. I don’t recall other Skrulls being so fluid in gender as Xavin. Possibly despite being able to mimic the appearance of either/any human gender, Skrulls may possibly still reproduce in rigid male/female ways. That’s my perception of what we’ve seen. The Skrull society in comics seems to have pretty old fashioned gender roles. Young Avenger’s Hulkling’s mother was a Princess, the daughter of an Empress. I never really felt like Xavin was female, to me it read as if Xavin was male but happy to present as female so that Karolina would have a relationship with him. Karolina’s interpretation that Xavin was female just because s/he shifted to female that time to me read as Karolina trying to convince herself of that.

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