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Two people — one in a pink shirt with blue hair and the other wearing a yellow sweatshirt and jeans — are sitting surrounded by 4 TV screens. The screens show scenes from the shows Pose, Good Girls, Sex Education and The Chilling adventures of Sabrina.
Most characters in popular media still fall in the gender binary, while genderqueer people are either left out or misrepresented. Photos courtesy: Pexels, FX networks, NBC, Eleven film and Warner Bros Television

Gender

Ghosts to Kidnappers: How Pop Culture Portrays Genderqueer Characters

'If no major actors have been able to come out as queer, one can understand how queerphobic the industry must be.'

In the third season of hit show “Sex Education,” a scene shows the school headgirl asking the students to form two lines based on their gender. A non binary student asks where they should go and the principal quickly retorts asking them to join the girls’ line.

That incident unfortunately hits home for many non binary people including Sasha R.

“This is how I feel every time I’m faced with the gender binary in my life,” the Bengaluru-based writer and artist told Re:Set. The 22-year-old added that he feels this way especially in bathrooms or during security checks where he has to choose which line to join as a trans non binary person who is neither male nor female. 

The umbrella terms ‘genderqueer’ and ‘non binary’ include anyone who doesn’t identify as strictly female or male.

“A lot of people struggle with identity because they’re unable to express themselves freely due to socio-cultural impediments,” said Akruti, a student who requested their name be changed due to the sensitivity of the subject. The 21-year-old non binary person — who uses they/she pronouns — said that gender identity is a wide spectrum, one that cannot be boxed into stereotypes.

But shaping and understanding gender identity is a long, nuanced process, and making the larger public understand this is a longer process — one in which the media plays an active role. 

An image of Sasha dressed in all black with orange hair, silver hoop earrings and a septum ring is set against a green backdrop. The backdrop has a pink circle and a light green square behind Sasha's image.

A lack of non binary characters in popular media has made Sasha feel invisible. Photo courtesy: Sasha R

The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation’s (GLAAD) annual report titled ‘Where are we on TV’ studies the gender identities of recurring characters on broadcast, cable and streaming services. Their 2020-21 report shows that only 29 characters in all media combined were outside the gender binary. “Of the 29 characters counted in this year’s report, 15 are transgender women, 12 are transgender men and two are non binary transgender characters,” reads the report.  

The lack of adequate and fair representation of non binary people does have an impact on the community who already grapple with misgendering and body dysmorphia.

“As a child if I had seen any form of queer representation in media, it would’ve helped me understand and accept my identity more,” Akruti told Re:Set. 

While there has been an increase of queer characters, even the limited representation of genderqueer people in the media have been riddled with problems. “Most trans representation in media is done by cisgender people who, at the end of the day, take off their costume and return to a privileged life,” Sasha said. “It beats me how the oppressor can embody the experience of the people they oppress.”

From Eddie Redmayne’s Elbe in “The Danish Girl” to Jared Leto’s Rayon in “Dallas Buyers Club,” the list of cis-male actors playing trans roles seems to be endless.

“It boiled my blood to see yet another cis man play the role of a trans woman.”

But this phenomenon of cis-male actors playing genderqueer roles take a nastier turn closer to home in India where even as recently as 2020, popular Bollywood cis-male actor Akshay Kumar played the role of Laxmii, an evil ghost of a trans woman in a horror-comedy movie of the same name. And if genderqueer characters are not used as jokes, they still reinforce dangerous, false stereotypes. 

“Super Deluxe,” a critically acclaimed Tamil film — especially for its portrayal of a trans woman — is also guilty of the same. A scene in the movie shows actor Vijay Sethupathi, in his role as a trans woman named Shilpa, confessing to abducting and selling two children she found at a traffic signal for money. This enraged a section of the queer community who demanded that the actor be arrested for adding to the negative stereotypes of the community.

“It boiled my blood to see yet another cis man play the role of a trans woman,” Akruti said. “Shilpa’s character was also badly portrayed, with trauma porn being a big theme of her story.”

So is there no hope for fair and accurate representation of genderqueer actors, especially beyond trans binary characters?

For Sasha and Akruti, hope lingers in shows and movies like “Pose,” “Good Girls,” “Bulbul can Sing,” “Tales of The City,” “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” and “Sex Education,” among others who have managed to portray genderqueer characters with the nuance they deserve, including some characters who are non binary. Apart from casting genderqueer actors to play these roles, these shows have also carefully and realistically shown the challenges faced by these characters in the society, and how they navigate it. 


Also read: Netflix’s “Feel Good” Will Make You Question What You Know About Addiction, Trauma and Love


But are there similar parallels in Indian pop culture?

Both Akruti and Sasha recognize that accurate gender representation is still limited to smaller, independent films and demanding this of mainstream Indian cinema still seems impossible. 

“If no major actors have been able to come out as queer in real life, one can understand how queerphobic the industry must be on the inside. How is it possible that there’s not even a few queer actors?” asked Sasha. “Queer people exist across all walks of life and I want Indian media people to just take a leap of faith and starting casting genderqueer people and give them roles that are positive or neutral.”

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Ghosts to Kidnappers: How Pop Culture Portrays Genderqueer Characters