The Showtime series Billions is first and foremost about the corruption of Wall Street bankers. Predictably, it is dominated and driven by characters who epitomise stereotypes of masculinity. This makes the recent introduction of Taylor, the first non-binary character played by a non-binary actor on television, all the more important and refreshing.
The erasure of trans people in television is long standing and obvious, yet it is a consistently ignored problem. Transgender characters are commonly and undeniably used as the punchlines of jokes. Sketches from Little Britain, comedy plot lines from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and derogative comments from shows as innocent as Miranda are representative of the kind of visibility that trans people are given on screen.
Even when intentions are good, far too often the personality and identity of trans characters are defined by their gender. Removing the complexity and subsequently the humanity of these characters is perhaps more violent than the original exclusion. Instead of their story being made of joy, loss, relationships, strengths and flaws, it is made up of an often voyeuristic narration of their transition.
One programme which provides a welcome exception to this is Orange is the New Black. Laverne Cox plays Sophia Burset, a transgender woman living in Litchfield Prison. In Burset, the creators of the show have written a complex, interesting character with many aspects to her identity. Needless to say, the infallible Cox portrays this beautifully. Despite her gender being a key part of her story line, the programme recognises that she is a person with a nuanced life and character beyond that.
However, Billions portrays a trans experience that shows such as Orange is The New Black have thus far failed to. Taylor, played by Asia Kate Dillon, does not conform to a binary gender. This is the first time a non-binary character has appeared on a TV show such as this, and Dillon, who identifies as non-binary themselves, has explained the importance of this new visibility. ‘I feel very proud to represent something on television that hasn’t been represented before. I know it would have meant a lot to me, as a younger person, especially. Visibility and education are so important — particularly now in the face of the current administration.’
This representation does not only benefit non-binary people. In a world in which the notion of binary gender is being questioned and deconstructed, audiences will surely soon begin to tire of seeing only the people who occupy a very small part of a spectrum, occupy the whole of their screen.
The importance of this diversity is inadvertently alluded to by Billion’s Axe, the manager of the hedge fund. Addressing Taylor, he says ‘What you don’t realise, Taylor, is that glass — it’s not a barrier, but a lens. It’s an asset. It’s what makes you good. You see things differently. That’s an edge’. Axe acknowledges the oppression which Taylor has had to face due to their gender, but he flips it on its head, emphasising the perspectives they have to offer as a result.
More mainstream television should start acknowledging this. When we include characters of all genders and no gender, we are including new voices, an asset which can only make for a more engaging and interesting programme. The reluctance of television programmes to give more time to such characters makes little sense. Not only do they perpetuate the erasure of people whose gender falls outside of the binary, but they put up barriers for themselves. By denying non-binary people a voice, they deny themselves the nuance and layers required to successfully comment and reflect upon the real world.
Image: Debby Wong @ Shutterstock.com