Otherworldly Bodies: Non-human Non-binary Characters in YA Fiction

Originally presented at the Young Adult Studies Association online conference, November 2022.

Transcript: Hello YASA, wherever you are in the world! My name is Alex, and I’m recording today from Ngunnawal country. In this paper I’ll be presenting some work from my recently submitted doctoral thesis, which examined non-binary representation in YA through the lens of mythology-inspired fantasy. Specifically, today I’m going to talk about an issue that crops up when representing groups like non-binary people in fantasy, or other speculative fiction: the idea of the non-human non-binary character. This potentially dallies with a lot of negative conceptions, but I argue it’s also potentially a very playful space to explore gender identity outside of the confines of contemporary realism.

The non-human non-binary character is a specific stereotype under the more prominent trope of dehumanising transgender identity by associating it with monstrosity or otherworldliness. Clearly visible in a cinematic history of trans villains (Halberstam, 2005; Serano, 2007), the imagery of trans monstrosity is solidified in various transphobic works. In the radical feminist text Gyn/ecology(1969), for instance, Mary Daly compares gender-affirmation surgery to the artificiality and body horror of Frankenstein’s monster (Eklund 2021, p.83 – 84).

Alongside other complex reclamation efforts throughout the history of queer art, the imagery of trans-as-monstrous has been embraced by some over the years. In the introduction to the collection The Emergence of Trans (2020), the editors call for a movement to ‘reclaim this monstrosity as a source of possibility and determination […] holding on joyously and stubbornly to the power that comes with strangeness and difference’ (2020, p.4). These issues, perceptions, and conversations—and the ways they appear in art and fiction—overlap onto non-binary identity, yet there are also unique problematics. With the broader foundation recognised, it is this specific niche of narrative tropes this section will explore.

So, where does this recurring image of the non-human non-binary character come from, and why is it a problem? A.A. McDonald suggests that ‘one condition for being considered human is adherence to one of two binary gender categories’ (2021, p.83). Thus, non-binary people may be denied recognition as intrinsically human. Though discussing gender constructions in a different context, Judith Butler also observes that ‘[t]he mark of gender appears to “qualify” bodies as human bodies; the moment in which an infant becomes humanized is when the question “is it a boy or a girl?” is answered’ (1990, p.151).

As Caitlin Saoirse O’Shea writes in the personal essay ‘I, Robot?’, dehumanisation may quickly follow the inability to answer that question: ‘It’s not a boy. It’s not a girl. It’s a thing’ (2018, p.14).

These writers draw this conclusion from a sociocultural context, but the issues they observe filter into literature. Following from a greater pattern in which ‘trans people are frequently portrayed as monstrous’ (Pearce et al., 2020, p.3), non-binary fictional characters are frequently portrayed as inhuman, associated with robots (O’Shea, 2018), aliens (Osworth, 2019; Kennedy, 2021), shapeshifters (Lamrai and Greenhill, 2021), uncanny mutants or hybrid beings (Eklund, 2021), or other post- or non-human constructs with otherworldly bodies (Prevas, 2018; Henderson, 2021). 

When looking for examples of what we might now, with modern terminology, class as non-binary characters in literature, many examples are to be found in speculative fiction. The genderless aliens in Ursula Le Guin’s iconic sci-fi novel The Left Hand of Darkness, or the shapeshifting character The Fool—who goes by many different names and identities across the books—from Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlingssaga. Arguably, if we consider Virginia Woolf’s Orlando a piece of fantastic fiction and as an example of a prototypical genderqueer character, it qualifies as well.

For contemporary examples, critics often point to characters such as the sentient celestial supercomputer Janet from Netflix’s The Good Place, or to the alien Gems from Steven Universe, or to the shapeshifter Double Trouble from She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.

Now, the critical and creative dialogue surrounding this historical trend is complex. Looking to both classic and modern examples, many non-binary critics call for fictional representation beyond the non-human model that has become familiar across the identity’s relatively limited pop cultural history.

Lamari and Greenhill point out that often this trope ‘serves only to reinforce binaries by making the [non-binary] character exceptional and noting their unconventionality’ (2021, p.170). Fen Kennedy adds that establishing non-binary characters as alien ‘[allows] their gender to be dismissed as alien too’ (2021, p.241); something that no ordinary human could aspire to. Writing specifically about the case of Janet, author A.E. Osworth ‘long[s] for characters who fall somewhere outside the gender binary simply because they do’, who are ‘gloriously, blessedly human and still defy the contextual categories of the society that has raised them. Such characters are few and far between’ (2019, n.p.).

The issue lies in the fact that ‘[a]t a fundamental level, [non-binary people] are still having to argue for the very ability to exist’ (Vaid-Menon 2020, p.13), and so limiting their representation to constructed beings or non-human entities undermines the validity of non-binary gender in a way that many non-binary audience members understandably find frustrating.

At the same time, however, many feel an affinity with these otherworldly characters and celebrate this sense of connection—including some of the above-cited authors. Just as the editors celebrate a reclamation of trans ‘monstrosity’ in the introduction to The Emergence of Trans (2020), many genderqueer artists play with the imagery of the non-human, embracing and exploring the potentiality within these ‘uncannily appealing’ creatures (Eklund, 2021, p.85). 

Perhaps most worthy of note is two of the examples on the screen: Steven Universe and She-Ra were both developed by non-binary creative leads, Rebecca Sugar and N.D. Stevenson respectively. In the paper ‘From Frankenstein to Genderpunk’, Tof Eklund (2021) catalogues many examples lovable mutated, alien, or robotic characters created through a very genderqueer lens in spaces like independent game design. Collaborative blog sites like Fuck Yeah Monster Enbies call for submissions of art involving ‘[g]enderqueer demons, genderfluid shapeshifters, agender angels, demigirl harpies, trans nonbinary lizard-people, gender nonconforming centaurs: all of them and more come here to hang out’ (2020, n.p.).

Many also acknowledge that while the recurring trope of the non-binary non-human is problematic in many ways, it is also a crucial avenue for non-binary representation. For instance, in some jurisdictions, alien or magical non-binary characters might skirt past censors concerned about more ‘explicit’ depictions of queer content, particularly regarding media aimed at young people, allowing a portrayal of non-binary identity to reach wider audiences and providing this vision of possibility—however magical—to audiences who would not have seen it at all otherwise (Dunn, 2016; Kennedy, 2021).

The otherworldly non-binary character presents both a potential, ideological dehumanisation of non-binary identity and a playful space in which to trouble binary notions of gender and gendered bodies—potentially even a source of empowerment. Rather than accepting a binary of ‘good representation’ in which non-human characters are strictly problematic and human ones are progressive, I argue that the heart of the issue is that ‘only’. Only depicting non-binary characters as otherworldly beings may restrict the public perception of a group still ‘struggling to be conceived as persons’ (Butler, 2004, p.32; emphasis in original). While it is important to interrogate the issues with non-binary embodiment in older works such as The Left Hand of Darkness or Realm of the Elderlings, it would be ahistorical and counterintuitive to discuss these examples and their speculative gender play as ‘negative non-binary representation’.

The solution is not to dismiss the more ambiguous and otherworldly portrayals, but to create new works to stand alongside them that increase the variety of non-binary identity’s characterisation and imagery in the broader field of fiction.

For instance, the increase in human non-binary characters in recent years (especially in fields such as YA literature) is beginning to counterbalance the cliché of non-binary gender only being possible in otherworldly settings and non-human bodies. All the novels on the screen here have non-binary protagonists, and they are all perfectly human. Some of them, like Lakelore or The Honeys, are genre works where these characters end up embroiled in magical elements, but the characters themselves are still human. Arguably, in the field of YA the non-human non-binary character is an underexplored narrative device, despite being noted as an overdone cliché in other media. There is room here to play with gender identity in a variety of fantastical, more escapist, maybe even more monstrous contexts.

As I argue for the potential of this space, I want to argue for the importance of a spectrum; and the importance of nuance when it comes to writing non-binary characters who exist in a fantasy context. When writers step into this creative space, they’re carrying all that literary baggage with them, and need to mitigate the potential issues that come with it. To demonstrate what I mean, I’m going to talk about three YA novels: one that makes a valiant attempt but ultimately falls into those problematic tropes and ideas about gender monstrosity, and two that I argue give us a more nuanced take that shows the value of this trope.

For our first example, let’s look to the depiction of Loki in The Seafarer’s Kiss (2017), Julia Ember’s Norse-inspired YA retelling of The Little Mermaid. Loki fills the ‘sea witch’ role and transforms the mermaid protagonist, putting a cruel twist on her request for legs by turning her lower half into an octopus. Loki is textually non-binary, coded with the use of they/them pronouns and a ‘gender incomprehensibility’ (Dembroff, 2020) generated by their shapeshifting. When they first appear, they are described as ‘slim and elegant, androgynous, with neither soft curves nor rippling muscle’ and the narrator cannot ‘decide if [she] was looking at a man or a woman’ (Ember, 2017, p.95). Loki here fits a standard of visual androgyny/ambiguity that many note is something of a non-binary cliché in itself (McNabb, 2018; Vaid-Menon, 2020; Kennedy, 2021).

The greater issue is that Ember’s Loki, unambiguously cast as the villain, is the only non-binary character in the cast. Loki’s lies and mind games echo the associations between genderqueer identity and deception, amplified when the victim of their cruel deceit is a cisgender woman (forced into non-consensual body-modification, no less). Loki’s gender ambiguity is interlinked with their transformation magic and thus the source of their villainy. While the problems that Loki’s portrayal represent would not necessarily be erased with the inclusion of other non-binary (or binary trans) characters, populating the cast with others would alleviate some issues by providing alternative visions of the identity. Since the only non-binary character is the otherworldly, twisted villain the cisgender protagonist must outwit, the only representation of non-binary personhood lies in this tangled net of negative tropes.

Consider, by contrast, other contemporary YA novels with non-binary characters and fantasy elements. In Alison Evans’ Euphoria Kids (2020), the non-binary protagonist, Iris, grew out of a seed in their mothers’ garden rather than being conceived biologically. This grants them the ability to speak with fae and forest spirits, and Iris can see their deuteragonist, Babs, even when she is cursed to be invisible. Examining Iris, it is not incorrect to draw the associations between non-binary gender and otherworldliness. However, Iris’ non-binary identity is never tied to their magical origin in a way that suggests cause-and-effect. Iris is not non-binary because of this connection to magic, rather the magic provides a non-normative space to explore and affirm their identity.

Iris first learns of non-binary possibility from a local dryad named Vada. The dryads don’t have a concept of binary gender as humans do—echoing the speculative genderqueerness of fictional groups like Le Guin’s aliens. Iris asks Vada if Iris can also exist as neither a boy nor a girl, and the forest spirit says, of course. It’s a sweet scene in which a marginalised young person gets validation from a supernatural creature: the promise that they aren’t alone, that beings like them have always existed, even if they’ve existed outside the borders of “normal” society. A lot of Euphoria Kids takes place in these borderlands, with enchanted forests and magic back gardens providing a magic-touched metaphor for the kinds of alternate safe spaces queer youth often seek out.

Iris and the dryads provide an example wherein non-binary possibility is opened via the magical, but not universally associated with it. Otherworldly creatures outside of the gender binary exist in the story world, but they are not the sole depiction of non-binary identity in the novel nor the sole place that Iris gets their information.

Iris also encounters queer identity outside of the magical space, in the ‘real world’: Babs is a trans girl and perfectly human (albeit under a spell), and the midpoint of the novel introduces a trans boy with no connection to magic at all. Each of the three youths have a different relationship to gender and are at a different stage in their gender explorations and transitions, representing a spectrum of binary trans and non-binary experience that does not leave the depiction anchored in any one character. The trio (and Iris’ magical mentors) also form a spectrum, playing with the potential intersections of genderqueerness and fantasy elements while also avoiding anchoring non-binary identity to the fantastic.

Similarly, in Hal Schrieve’s Out of Salem (2019) genderqueer protagonist Z begins the novel freshly reanimated as a zombie. However, their identity as a member of the living dead and an individual under the genderqueer umbrella are never connected. Early chapters establish that Z was exploring their gender identity before their death/rebirth. Thus, as with Iris, Z is not non-binary because they are otherworldly; it is something intrinsic to who they are as a person, the exploration of which is facilitated by the fantasy elements. While Z is the only textually non-binary character in the novel, Salem features several binary trans characters cast as their friends and mentors, providing Z with a sense of solidarity.

Z’s liminal state between life and death makes a quirky allegory for their in-between gender identity, and the body horror elements of their fraught relationship with their living corpse make for a grotesque and sympathetic exploration of dysphoria—an example of authors reclaiming the imagery of the trans monster and using it for self-expression and social commentary rather than for insult and othering. In contrast to the safe, magical spaces of Euphoria Kids, Schrieve uses the fantasy elements of their world to explore the way certain groups are deemed as monstrous and as dangerous social others, and how those ‘monsters’ come together and form communities to keep each other safe. 

Again, Z’s zombification has elements of queer metaphor, and Z being hunted by upstanding members of the community who want to destroy them holds a frightening metaphor for transphobia. But these speculative elements aren’t stand-ins for these real things. Zombie-ness is not a metaphor for being queer, Z is queer. The fantasy aspects give the author a wider canvas to paint their story of gender exploration and social othering, allowing them to get into some gory nitty-gritties they just wouldn’t be able to in contemporary realism.

These examples build upon the rich history of writers using speculative fiction to explore non-binary possibilities, but also draw upon more contemporary sensibilities that call for non-binary representation anchored in humanity and realism. These allow for reader identification with the supernatural as well as a more realistic reflection of contemporary, real-world non-binary experience. In their magic-touched genderqueer characters, Hal Schrieve and Alison Evans work to reclaim and evolve the idea of the non-binary non-human, paving an intriguing path for the future of non-binary YA.

Works cited

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Eklund, Tof. (2021). Uncanny, Abject, Mutant, Monster: From Frankenstein to Genderpunk. The Australasian Journal of Popular Culture, 10(1 & 2), 79 – 101. https://doi.org/10.1386/ajpc_00040_1

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Osworth, A.E. (Oct 24th, 2019). Our Luggage: A Non-binary Ode to The Good Place’s Janet. Autostraddle. https://www.autostraddle.com/our-luggage-a-non-binary-ode-to-the-good-places-real-janet/

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Pearce, Ruth, Gupta, Kat, Moon, Igi, and Steinberg, Deborah Lynn. (Eds.) (2020). The Emergence of Trans: Cultures, Politics and Everyday Lives. Routledge.

Prevas, Christine. (May 9th, 2018). We Need More Nonbinary Characters Who Aren’t Aliens, Robots, or Monsters. Electric Literature. https://electricliterature.com/we-need-more-non-binary-characters-who-arent-aliens-robots-or-monsters/

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Vaid-Menon, Alok. (2020). Beyond the Gender Binary. Penguin Workshop.

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