Today's Sci-Fi Oddly Adheres to Strict Gender Norms

SENSE8

The Wachowski sisters' remarkable Netflix series, Sense8, is now in its second season. It is an elaborate envisioning of another race of humanoids, homo sensorium, who communicate telepathically and live among us.

These come in “clusters” that are scattered around the world, and from its opening credits, Sense8 is careful to present the viewer with the enormously diverse quilt that is humanity itself. The opening credits roll over a stunning montage of multicolored crowds, couples, celebrations, and rituals from around the globe (yes, the show has a break-the-piggybank travel budget).

The cluster of eight we follow is diversity itself — a Kenyan, a German, an Indian, an Icelander, people of color, a Brazilian gay man, and a Bay Area transgender woman. In nearly every episode, a cluster character denounces humanity’s unfortunate propensity to fear and oppress those we see as different, as the “Other.”

And yet…

Not a single genderqueer person anywhere. Not in this cluster. Not in the others. Not in any character they interact with. Even the crazy underground computer hacker named Bug is, like everyone else, quite gender-normative.

Apparently gender difference is the Other that must not speak its name. And this is from a team where not one but both siblings have bravely and publicly transitioned to be trans women. Et tu, Lana and Lilly?

Moreover, all of this occurs in science fiction, a genre invented to let creative imaginations run wild with possibility. Apparently veering from the gender binary is not among the possible. And in this, Sense8 is hardly alone.

In the latest installment in the (now interminable) X-Men series (Logan), everyone is comfortingly gender-normative. In the latest installment in the (now interminable) Alien series (Covenant), everyone is comfortably gender-normative — some have pointed out that even the mysterious "engineers" feature male and female versions. And in the latest installment of the (now interminable) Star Wars series (The Force Awakens), everyone is comfortingly gender- normative (even Jabba the Hutt was not only male but totally hetero — across species!).

Let this sink in — because it shows exactly what genderqueers are up against.

Mutants cannot be us. Even droids like C-3PO cannot be us. Even dark, scaly alien creatures that are perfect killing machines, that drip acid for blood, come with nasty double mouths, that burst from the human chest during birth, and drip gobs of gooey saliva before puncturing our skulls are nicely, neatly divided up into boys and the girls (the girls lay the eggs, of course).

In short, even our best creative minds are simply unable to imagine, under any circumstances, on any world, in any galaxy, in any alien form, a character who is nonbinary and/or profoundly gender-nonconforming (no, please do not feed me Whoopi Goldberg as Guinan on Star Trek: The Next Generation).

This implicitly promotes binary male/female as some sort of unavoidable, universal, and implacable natural law, from which there is no escape. As with the Borg (yes, they were binary too), “resistance is futile.”

One of the few exceptions was Jaye Davidson's role in the '90s sci-fi flick Stargate. Alas, Jaye’s genderqueerness was introduced as evidence of otherworldly evil — all the “normal” people were binary. Even in the totally different universe, at the other end of the stargate, all the aliens turned out to be boys and girls just like us (the girls did the cooking and offered themselves up to the boys, of course).

Perhaps for a truly genderqueer sci-fi character we must wait for Taylor on Showtime’s series Billions to don a space suit and launch a hedge fund on Tatooine.

It is sadly to be expected that cisgender people cannot imagine us. But it is beyond sad that even when we are behind the camera and behind the typewriter, as with Sense8, we cannot imagine us either. And this blind spot is especially disheartening in a show that so pointedly wears its inclusive politics on its sleeve.

One has to wonder if there’s a coming split one day in the trans community between those of us who are trans and gender-conforming, and those who of us who are trans and gender-nonconforming. Right now we’re all at sea together politically, and so we’re more or less rowing in the same boat.

But that was once true of the gay community too. Then they started mainstreaming, and the genderqueers and trans people were pushed toward the back so that gender-normative gays and lesbians could be out front.

Will the trans movement go the same way? Will we split into those who are normatively binary and those who are genderqueer? How can we stay together when some of them can’t even imagine that some of us exist?

RIKI WILCHINS is an author and advocate.

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