Illustrated by Christopher Ikonomou (Xe/He)
Men love sports. Women love makeup. Nonbinary people love mushrooms, frogs, assigned female at birth (AFAB) thin white bodies in masculine clothing, short hair and they/them pronouns. When people don’t know any nonbinary people in real life, they don’t even question the accuracy of these representations; the internet and media decide the image of the nonbinary community. Internet algorithms and media portrayals all have an implicit bias that upholds the current systems of power and oppression in our society and dictates what the “default” nonbinary person should look and act like.In order to be accepted and brought into mainstream media, nonbinary identities are discussed and framed through the lens of these systems; it is easier to understand “nonbinary” as a third gender added to the existing binary of male and female because it fits into the designated societal systems people are already accustomed to. Creating this collective image of the ideal nonbinary person inherently excludes a huge number of nonbinary people and pressures them to conform to the standards as best they can by changing themselves and consuming the products that promise to validate them. These seemingly harmless stereotypes that try to group nonbinary people together might do more harm than good in the long run. What are the dangers of bringing queerness into the mainstream without first dismantling its harmful, white supremacist, cisheteronormative systems?
In the past decade, online spaces started taking up more space in people’s lives and determining how they see the world. Especially during the pandemic and lockdowns, people’s interactions with new ideas were entirely digital, mainly affecting children and teenagers whose formative years were dominated by the internet rather than real world experiences. For many, TikTok might be the first space that they encounter terms like “nonbinary” and other lesser-known identities. However, the images they are shown of nonbinary people online are not a true representation of the whole community but rather mostly privileged people who benefit from the algorithm. Whiteness becomes the default in the nonbinary community, as TikTok has been known to take down or hide content from Black creators; this is due to racism that is coded into a lot of modern technology and reinforced by the implicit bias of audiences who engage mostly with white creators. While there are many incredible nonbinary creators of color, they have to work harder than their white counterparts to get the same level of reach and influence, fighting barriers of race and queerphobia at the same time. The system feeds itself: racist stereotypes influence which creators are shown to the public, and the abundance of those white, privileged creators helps solidify the racist stereotypes that put them there in the first place.
In traditional media like movies and TV shows, it can be even harder to find nonbinary characters that deviate from the default imposed on them. Since queer mass media is created mostly by companies rather than actual nonbinary creators, profit is prioritized over providing accurate and non-harmful representation. Nonbinary characters are not allowed diversity other than in their gender; they succumb to the societal default in every other part of their identity, being for the most part white, thin and able-bodied. The complexities of intersectional identities are removed; mass media presents a nonbinary person that can pander to cishet audiences while still appeasing queer audiences’ want/need of representation. In most live-action TV shows, the actors that play nonbinary character are white, thin, able-bodied, AFAB and present in traditionally masculine clothing, representing the ideals pushed by the media and the internet. By selling only one narrative of the nonbinary experience and appearance, mainstream media establishes the “right” way to be nonbinary which young people must emulate in order to validate their identities and gain society’s conditional acceptance. In consequence, mass media allows only those who are thin, white, and able-bodied to make that choice to assimilate; people who are a part of other marginalized communities are inherently excluded since they cannot change the color of their skin or their genetics.
Another prevalent stereotype avoids representing nonbinary people as people at all. Even very queer shows like “She-Ra” or “Steven Universe” rely on making their nonbinary characters nonhuman or fantastical. “She-Ra”’s Double Trouble is a nonbinary lizard-like shapeshifter who works as a mercenary and is given agency, power and complexity as one of season four’s main villains. However, making their only nonbinary character a shapeshifter doesn’t allow for viewers to see themselves reflected on screen. Even though Double Trouble is not simply another version of the white, thin, able-bodied AFAB nonbinary person, they don’t actually do anything to broaden people’s perspectives on what enby people look like.
However, “Steven Universe”’s nonbinary character Stevonnie’s appearance is very humanoid and does differ from most nonbinary representation in the media: they are a person of color, have long hair and wear short shorts and crop tops in many parts of the show. Still, they are not human, but rather a fusion of a preteen boy and girl. They exemplify the idea of a spectrum of two polar opposites, with female at one end and male at the other, with Stevonnie somewhere in between. However, nonbinary people don’t all experience gender as simply a mixture of male or female. The spectrum idea excludes those who feel like they don’t fall within the male-female spectrum at all or who feel like their gender can exist on multiple points of it at the same time. Overall, making the only nonbinary characters in a show nonhuman dehumanizes real nonbinary people and restricts them to the world of fiction. Nonbinary identities exist in the real world. People who use the label should not be set apart as though their gender makes their humanity fundamentally different from anyone else’s.
In 2019, Apple released nonbinary emojis — an almost perfect encapsulation of the new gender norms nonbinary people are expected to abide by. While some celebrated the update as a win for diversity and inclusivity, Apple’s design reflected society’s image of nonbinary people rather than the nonbinary community itself by changing the emoji’s facial structure ever so slightly and giving them short hair and a gray shirt. In the same way the experiences of trans women and men were simplified into the “born in the wrong body” narrative for the comfort and understanding of cis people, nonbinary identities became simplified into another restricted gender that fits the systems and frameworks a cis audience is already accustomed to. While most trans men and women feel pressured to perform more masculine or feminine, respectively, nonbinary people are expected to perform androgyny to be valid. Instead of looking at the nonbinary label as an umbrella term full of fluidity and complexity, society reduces it into a third gender equivalent to woman or man.
However, it’s not just about looks. TikTok and other social media also push little jokes that group nonbinary people together. In the same way bi people became associated with “Sweater Weather” by The Neighbourhood and cuffed jeans, TikTok has assigned nonbinary people their own interests and trademarks. A collective identity was created through countless TikToks; ‘put a finger down’ challenges are a checklist for what you need in order to become the 10/10 perfect nonbinary person. Other videos reinforce these ideals less obviously: despite being funny, referring to nonbinary people as “they/thems” can not only be dehumanizing but also imply that all nonbinary people are aligned with androgyny and separate from a female ‘she’ or male ‘he.’ TikTok introduced a nonbinary aesthetic that linked the identity to mushrooms and tote bags and frogs, making it possible for people who can’t conform to the physical standards to buy their validation instead. However, these people are still never fully included; though these products promise their buyers a solution to their exclusion, they never grant the acceptance their buyer desires. The goalposts keep moving; new trends will create new requirements. No matter how much people buy, they will never be able to complete them all.
“Nonbinary” is supposed to be a fluid label that challenges the boxes we create around ourselves in the first place. There is no one way to properly portray a nonbinary person. That is the problem with today’s media and internet representations: we are shown the community in only one way, rather than having each nonbinary person or character look unique and different and diverse. Society needs to control a group that challenges the very idea of gender and, therefore by extension, patriarchal and heteronormative systems of power. Rather than dismantling oppressive gendered systems that affect everyone, nonbinary people are expected to warp themselves to fit in. Even cisgender women and men suffer from strict gender roles because society refuses the concept of labels without limitations — everything must be contained within its own little box and not allowed to overlap or be expressed in different ways.
Reducing the label into a third gender integrates it into the system and allows for the creation of new nonbinary-specific gender norms; society creates and enforces an image of how a nonbinary person is supposed to look, act and feel. Men and women have to conform to their own gender roles in order to be accepted by society. If the gender “nonbinary” is to be equally valid, they also have to be given their own standards to follow. Still, the threat of social exclusion has always existed; nonbinary people’s oppression was not caused by the community naming itself. In circles that negate the existence of nonbinary people, AFAB nonbinary people are still forced to conform to feminine gender roles and assigned male at birth (AMAB) nonbinary people to masculine ones. For most of history, this was how nonbinary people were, and still are, being policed. However, as the language used to describe queer people shifts and becomes more mainstream, the gender roles enforced onto nonbinary people have changed. In these LGBTQ+ friendly circles, the acceptance of nonbinary people has been accompanied by new gender roles that reflect our society’s systems of power.
Nonbinary people are not a monolith, but people in power want to perpetuate that idea so they can decide who is included and excluded. Instilling the idea of an ideal nonbinary person in people’s minds harms perceptions of nonbinary people both within and outside of the nonbinary community. Capitalism works by making people think they are not perfect, but they could be if only they bought this one product that could fix it all. Ascribing a specific look and aesthetic to nonbinary people is a way to make them buy: a binder or a button up shirt or a trip to the hairdresser’s or a mushroom printed tote bag could be the key to unlocking true validation. In order for the status quo to remain unchallenged, people need to think there is a right way to be nonbinary just as there is a right way to be a man or woman. Though society polices them and their gender expression, the constant influx of the ideal way to be nonbinary subconsciously establishes itself in nonbinary peoples’ brains and creates internalized surveillance that can make them police themselves. The label of nonbinary will never be truly representative if we keep looking at it through a limited cisheteronormative lens. There is no correct way of expressing gender — nonbinary people shouldn’t have to change to fit those narrow, often unattainable expectations. Instead, it’s society that has to change and the systems that need to be dismantled.
Author: Sabrina B R Ellis (Any Pronouns)
Artist: Christopher Ikonomou (Xe/He)
Copy Editors: JQ Shearin (She/Her), Bella (She/They)