Despite the proliferation of news stories about bathroom bills and pushes to use gender-inclusive pronouns in classrooms and workplaces, stories about gender expression and identity are still ones that Hollywood can struggle to get right.
It was only last year that Showtime’s “Billions” cast non-binary actor Asia Kate Dillon to play the first non-binary role on an American series, and the transgender community has had a mixed reaction to cis-gender male actor Jeffrey Tambor’s award-winning turn as a transitioning woman on Amazon’s “Transparent” the past four seasons. This season saw “Looking” alum Tanya Saracho’s new Starz family drama, “Vida.” Among its many queer-positive stances is the casting of non-binary talent Ser Anzoategui as Eddy, a woman mourning the loss of her wife while also struggling to have a relationship with her detached stepdaughters. While Anzoategui uses they/them pronouns, their character (at least in season one) is a cis-gender woman.
But if a series wants to do this with a child or teenage
character, its struggles for accuracy can see even added attention.
“If a show’s going to tell a story about kids whose gender expression is something other than typically masculine or feminine, it’s important that they know the difference between gender expression and gender identity,” says Nick Adams, a transgender man who is both the director of transgender media and representation at LGBTQ-focused media group GLAAD and a leader of a support group for trans and gender-expressive kids and their families.
Kids who choose clothing or activities that express a gender other than the one assigned to them at birth are not necessarily questioning their gender identity, Adams says.
This year, he worked with writers on ABC’s “Roseanne” on the character of Mark, a boy who happens to prefer dressing in a way considered typically feminine and is played by cisgender actor Ames McNamara. He also worked with NBC’s high-school musical drama “Rise,” which featured non-binary talent Ellie Desautels as transgender student Michael Hallowell. But Adams stresses that shows must do more than create culturally sensitive writers’ rooms; for example, a show’s social-media manager needs to be aware of proper pronoun usage.
Such roles, naturally, can also affect casting.
“Good Girls” creator Jenna Bans had an eye-opening experience when casting her NBC dramedy. She had originally written Sadie, the tweenage daughter of Mae Whitman’s Annie, as a boy named Ben. When her casting director asked if she’d be interested in seeing a girl for the part of a boy, she was intrigued and hired Izzy Stannard — a young actor who, at the time, seemed to identify with the female gender assigned to him at birth. By the time filming began, Stannard made it clear that he identified as a boy and was using he/him pronouns.
“We realized we had a really great opportunity to tell a story about a character who was gender non-conforming, but at the same time not necessarily have that be what leads the story,” says Bans, who also did her due diligence and consulted GLAAD’s Adams. “What’s most important to the character and the story we’re telling between Sadie and Annie is really about the bond between Sadie and her mom. We liked the idea that the character of Sadie was exploring her gender [expression] in the show, but I think what we responded to more was that the Mae Whitman character just couldn’t care less.”
Adams agrees that compelling stories are the ultimate trump card, particularly if they’re about or for kids. He mentions “One Day at a Time” on Netflix, which this year introduced Syd (played by cis-gender actress Sheridan Pierce), a non-binary love interest for out teen daughter Elena (Isabella Gomez).
“Degrassi,” the long-running teen drama that now lives on Netflix, introduced its first non-binary character last year: cis-gender actress Jamie Bloch as Yael Baron. Several years back, Adams also consulted with the notoriously envelope-pushing Canadian series on its first transgender character, Adam Torres (also played by a cis-gender actress, Jordan Todosey).
“I think it’s incredibly important that shows aimed at a younger audience are showing more diversity of gender identity and gender expressions in their characters,” he says, simply because that’s the demographic that’s least likely to identify with traditional gender norms. But “whether it’s a show aimed at adults or at a younger audience, it’s important that they listen to the authentic lived experience of the types of kids that they’re portraying and represent them clearly.”