By Katie Lewis
Representation matters. I don’t think any socially conscious writer in the year 2022 really needs to be told that. However, I want to share the absolute elation I have felt at increasingly seeing characters I can relate to more frequently in recent years. It truly is the best feeling to stumble across yourself in books or media.
The Invisible Years
I identify as non-binary, and my pronouns are they/them. Growing up in the ’90s and early 2000s, I didn’t see anyone like me in the books I read. Some characters got close, but it was never quite right. Essentially, there were two character archetypes that I gravitated toward: the tomboy and the girl forced to dress as a boy.
Both of these types of characters spoke to me. However, it still felt like a language barrier was separating us.
The tomboy is a character often featured in coming-of-age stories. As a result, she would usually grow more feminine by the end of the story to the point where I no longer felt I had anything in common with her.
Even as a child, I understood that the growth from a tomboy to a young woman was a necessary character arc for someone who was becoming an adult. The disconnect, however, came because I wasn’t becoming more feminine as I grew older. My life wasn’t following that character arc, and so I was often left feeling lost in those stories.
Then there’s the girl who is forced to dress as a boy. There’s a lot of historical precedence for this type of story, from the legend of Mulan to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Stories in this vein had a similar but slightly different problem for me.
Namely, there seemed to be this trend in fantasy stories written in the ’80s, and 90’s that I hated. If the story featured a female protagonist, she had to fall in love halfway through. That would have been fine, except it always felt like she spent about a hundred pages pining and forgetting about whatever quest she’d been on initially.
The last book I read like this as a child is still one of my favorites today, even though it contains this frustrating element. In Dragon’s Milk by Susan Fletcher, a girl sets off to obtain literal dragon’s milk from a mother dragon. It’s rumored to be the only cure for her younger sister’s rare illness.
She dresses as a boy for safety during her adventure, only to get completely sidetracked by a cute knight she meets halfway through the book. I remember being ten years old and thinking, “Isn’t your sister going to die if you don’t come home with this soon? Forget about the dude for right now!”
After that, there was a solid five years where I simply refused to read anything with a female protagonist. I gave up. I couldn’t relate to them, and I was done trying. But then, subtlety, things started to change.
Self-Discovery in the Oddest Places
The first time I ever felt like I encountered someone who looked like me and who I wanted to be was in 2005. I went to see Constantine at the theater, mainly because of Keanu Reeves, but Tilda Swinton blew me away.
In the movie, Swinton plays the angel Gabriel who is non-gendered. For most of the film, we see Gabriel in suits with short, coifed hair. At the climax, however, there’s a fight scene where Gabriel takes on their actual angelic form, which consisted of being bare from the waist up aside from bandages to maintain a flat chest.
I remember staring at the screen with my mouth hanging open. For the first time in my life, I saw someone who looked how I wished I had looked. More importantly, it wasn’t until that moment that I understood it was what I wanted in the first place.
I felt like I had stumbled across buried treasure entirely by accident. I rented that movie more times than I remember because watching Swinton in the third act was so cathartic.
That was the first time I realized how vital representation in media truly is. Nothing compares to seeing yourself in a piece of media, especially when you’re not used to anyone like you being present. It’s a bit like a runner’s high mixed with an all-encompassing joy.
Watching Yourself Become Mainstream
Watching yourself become mainstream is odd, but it’s precisely what’s happened with increasing frequency in the last five years or so. More and more, I’m seeing media aimed at both adults and children addressing questions of gender and pronouns.
The one that’s currently giving me the most joy is the character of Jim from HBOMAX’s Our Flag Means Death. Portrayed by non-binary actor Vico Ortiz, Jim is also non-binary. Watching the rest of the characters effortlessly embrace their identity and pronouns was incredibly refreshing.
Even more exciting to me is that I have ease finding characters I relate to in novels for the first time. In fact, sometimes I’ll be surprised by a non-binary or genderfluid character when I wasn’t even aware it was in the story. One example is in the graphic novel Snapdragon by Kat Leyh. I read the book initially because it was about a girl making friends with the town witch named “Jacks.”
I wasn’t expecting “Jacks” to not only be a lesbian but also coded as non-binary. Jacks never identifies as such outright, but she’s gender non-conforming to the point of being mistaken for a boy in flashbacks to her youth. Her character design at any age doesn’t give any outright clues, either. During every page of that book, I thought, “Jacks is who I want to be when I grow up.”
Another snuck up on me was a character named Jeri in Neal Shusterman’s The Toll. Jeri is the ship captain whose gender is dependent on the weather. Literally. When the weather is clear, she is a woman, but when it is cloudy, he is a man. When asked about their pronouns, Jeri replies, “He, she, they, zhey — pronouns are tiresome and lazy things.”
In this futuristic society, Jeri comes from a culture where everyone rejects the gender binary. They even admit, “I never met someone born to a single gender until I was well into my teens. But I’ve come to accept and appreciate your quirky rigidity.” Had this book existed when I was in high school, it would have meant the world to me to read the gender binary referred to as “quirky rigidity.”
Representation in media isn’t just inclusivity for inclusivity’s sake. Including minority characters in your writing isn’t something to do simply to be excellent. Instead, it’s something writers should strive for because there’s someone like me, desperate to see themselves anywhere on the page.
And they’ve been kept waiting long enough.