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In this week’s episode of Hollywood Remixed, The Hollywood Reporter‘s podcast about inclusion and representation in entertainment, Billions‘ Asia Kate Dillon joins the show to talk about how non-binary representation changes lives – starting with their own.
“When I encountered the character breakdown for Taylor, and it did say ‘female non-binary’… something happened where everything aligned for me,” says the actor, who plays the genius hedge fund executive Taylor Mason on the Showtime drama, whose fifth season resumed on Sept. 5. “I have always felt non-binary, before I had the language to conceive or communicate what that was to other people. And if Taylor, if this fictional character can exist in this fictional world and has been brave enough to get up and get dressed and go out there into the world and be who they really are, then I can too. Whatever hope Taylor gave to other people once Taylor appeared onscreen, Taylor gave me that hope and sense of self first.”
Dillon also discusses with host Rebecca Sun (THR senior editor of diversity and inclusion) their campaign to remove gendered acting categories from awards shows, a move that the Grammys, Gotham Awards, MTV Movie and TV Awards and Berlin and San Sebastian film festivals have already done. “Not everyone identifies within the binary,” they say. “And if we are trying to award art that is representational of everyone, then we need to be representing everyone, and abolishing gendered awards is one part of the change that needs to happen.”
Elsewhere in the show, THR associate editor Abbey White discusses the genres where gender exploration has taken place the most: science fiction – and, perhaps surprisingly, animation. “In animation, because it doesn’t have to ascribe to the physical realism that exists in live-action film and TV, you can be super expressive,” they say, pointing to Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time among other recent examples. “There’s a tiny little calculator known as BMO who is genderless, because why wouldn’t a tiny little calculator be genderless?”
But White notes that representation of gender fluid characters in more grounded, realistic stories is necessary for affording gender non-comforming people their full humanity. “Gender nonconformity has traditionally been a means of exploring horror narratives,” they explain. “Obviously sci-fi is the place where you can explore, but when it’s the only place that you explore gender outside of cisgender identity, you literally dehumanize it.”
Catch up on all the episodes of Hollywood Remixed, including last week’s conversation about Asian masculinity and the martial arts trope with Shang-Chi star Simu Liu, and subscribe to the show on the podcast platform of your choice to be alerted when new episodes drop.
Episode 2×4: Asia Kate Dillon – “Beyond the Binary”
Intro music: Jaunty, upbeat chords interspersed with the sound of a DJ scratching a record back and forth on a turntable. A voice faintly hollers in the background: “Hollywood Remixed!”
Rebecca Sun: Welcome to Hollywood Remixed, a topical podcast about inclusion and representation in culture and entertainment. I’m Rebecca Sun, senior editor of diversity and inclusion at The Hollywood Reporter. If you’re new to the show, here at Hollywood Remixed each episode is dedicated to a single theme – a type of character, storyline or identity that has traditionally been underrepresented or misrepresented in mainstream culture.
This week we’ll be learning about non-binary gender identity and exploring how film and TV represent characters that are neither exclusively male nor female. This episode is inspired by Billions star Asia Kate Dillon, who will join us in the latter half of the show to talk about their groundbreaking character, how they approach their roles and why acting awards categories should be gender-neutral.
I’m also so thankful to my colleague, THR associate editor Abbey White, for coming on as this week’s guest expert to share what non-binary representation has meant to their own identity formation and to teach me about the genres that – perhaps surprisingly – have done pretty well with gender non-conforming inclusion.
Abbey, thank you so much for joining us on this podcast today. It’s nice to actually meet a colleague face-to-face over the internet, finally.
Abbey White: Yeah, I’ve been here for a couple of months and this is our first meeting, so I’m very excited about that.
Sun: You are so gracious to lend your expertise to this topic. And I figured, particularly when it comes to understanding gender identities along the spectrum, that I personally need some table-setting for education. Let’s talk a little bit about definitions so that all of us can understand the parameters of what we’ll be talking about today. This episode is about non-binary identity. I could use a little help and understanding: Is that the same as or different from or similar to gender nonconforming or genderqueer or gender fluid?
White: The first thing that we should know about non-binary is that non-binary is not actually a gender. It’s an umbrella term, and it describes anybody who may have a gender that doesn’t really exclusively fall into male or female – cisgender very specifically – and who may identify somewhere in between that or beyond that. Most of the time when we think about gender, we think about it as a binary. And that’s what the term non-binary is about: It’s more like a sphere that you can walk into, and it exists fluidly. And so that really, depending on who you’re talking to, will influence how they define non-binary and also how they describe their own gender. I have gender fluid friends who say that they’re gender fluid, but also because some people aren’t really familiar with that very specific term, they’ll just choose “non-binary.” Some friends are like, “Nope, it’s not the same.” But it’s always safest to use it as an umbrella term, and then very specifically ask somebody, “What is your gender? I want to make sure that I get that right.”
Sun: That’s great. That’s super helpful. I like “sphere” – I’ve been using the word “spectrum,” but I think “sphere” is even more encompassing of all the different identities that can fall within it. Let’s distinguish today’s conversation: We’re going to be speaking of the identities that fall under the non-binary identity, but it’s different from transgender. I think that there’s been a lot of conversations that specifically talk about transgender representation in Hollywood, and this is going to be everything else, not that.
White: Because I think that gender is a little more fluid for a lot of people, you can be a trans person who’s also non-binary or a non-binary person who is trans, but being trans does not inherently make you non-binary, and being non-binary does not inherently make you trans. My relationship as a non-binary person to my gender – which I don’t even have a very specific label for, I don’t consider myself gender fluid. I still think that might be a good label if you’re trying to describe it to somebody, but for myself, I don’t feel like I have transitioned from one gender to another. I describe my gender identity as always sort of being this way. There was no pathway; it was more or less trying to figure it out. And, mind you, that is not always how trans people describe being trans or encapsulating the trans identity. But I certainly know that my gender is not something, and that’s what makes it clear for me. And there can be trans people who are very succinct and clear about what their gender is, and that can be very different than non-binary folks.
Sun: That’s helpful. I almost feel like as a cisgender person – in other words, somebody who identifies as the gender they were assigned at birth, if I’m defining that correctly – it has been in some ways easier for me to understand a transgender person who still exists along the gender binary. I understand because so much of our world is basically coded through this very firm gender binary. And I realized that once I tried to start learning more about non-binary, it’s like, “Wow, we are so firmly, fundamentally wedded to this idea of this or that, male or female.” That’s why today I really wanted to focus on when you are neither this nor that.
White: It’s definitely interesting when you start to think about how aggressively gendered our culture is. Watching a lot of kids’ cartoons, where there’s increasing conversation about the impact of gender stereotypes and what that reinforces in cisgender and non-binary and trans kids and maybe how damaging that can be when you watch some of these cartoons, it’s not even just “blue is for boy and pink is for girl.” It’s like, a car has to have eyelashes, which is a weird thing because it’s assuming, one, that men and boys don’t have eyelashes. And also that a car, which is an inanimate object, would need to have a gender explicitly. And that’s something that’s kind of imposed on children. I’ve spoken to child development experts about children’s media and gender, and that binary in kids isn’t inherent. It’s learned. And it can be really reinforced by our media. And then we take that with us as we get older. And so it’s really interesting to see some cool stuff that’s happening in animation, very specifically in children’s animation, that’s breaking that down and arguably at the forefront of our conversations about non-binary identity and gender non-conforming identities.
Sun: Let’s go ahead and jump in then, since you brought up animation. You were speaking before we started recording about how that genre – which we’ll say is closely aligned with children’s content. It’s not a perfect circle; there’s animation that’s not for kids and there’s obviously kids’ content that’s live-action. But tell me a little bit about animation’s role or presence when it comes to gender presentation and things like that.
White: In animation, because it is such a fluid medium, because it doesn’t have to ascribe to the physical realism that exists in live-action film and TV, you can be super expressive, and I think there’s a long history of people exploring gender intentionally and unintentionally through animation. Two things I’ll bring up. One is unintentional. The other may be unintentional, but it definitely resonated with me, particularly due to the animation style. But I think about Bugs Bunny. I’m not sure if folks are familiar with the anti-gay, anti-LGBTQ codes that were around in television, but there were very specific restrictions around what kind of characters that we could see, and if we did see certain characters, the way in which we could see them. And one thing that I found really, really interesting about animation is that some folks would sort of skirt these rules, because these rules were very human-based. You could have an animated cartoon and you couldn’t have two men kissing, but you could have a rabbit kiss a man, and that wouldn’t be considered this alarming thing that immediately needed to be cut or censored. And so you see a character like Bugs Bunny who dresses in drag. And obviously that is meant as a form of comedy, but I believe even RuPaul was like, Bugs Bunny had an influence on my own understanding of my gender and my presentation and my interest in drag.
And so you have these sort of transgressive representations that come out of bigotry or thoughtlessness or a place of humor. And I wouldn’t count Bugs Bunny as non-binary; I wouldn’t say that. I would say that elements of Bugs Bunny’s representation have gender nonconformity, and that can apply to anybody, not just non-binary people. Another one that I think about a lot and I’ve been thinking about increasingly in the past couple of years is Adventure Time. It’s basically about a boy and his talking dog who go into this Land of Ooo. It’s this adventurey place. And there’s all these different sorts of weird characters. There’s people made out of candy and lemons. There’s actually a lot of gender nonconformity and gender-swapping in this space. There’s a tiny little calculator known as BMO who is genderless, because why wouldn’t a tiny little calculator be genderless? They use multiple pronouns, they are referred to as “boy” and “girl” and all kinds of things. And it’s really this fluid space for this character.
But I remember my first introduction to Adventure Time was actually watching a clip of Lumpy Space Princess, who is this deep-voiced, giant, pink, blobby, fluffy creature who has a lot of attitude and just doesn’t really take anybody’s crap. And she’s kind of sturdy. She’s fluffy and puffy, but she’s sturdy. She’s a funny character, but I remember immediately just latching on. And I was like, “Why am I so connected to this character?” And then I realized that this character is upending gender norms. Having a deep voice but also being pink, being feminine and masculine at the same time, having a body shape that sort of defies what women or men are supposed to look like was really, really appealing to me. And I was like, “Oh, this wild, funny, sturdy, pink character is sort of embodying the ways that I think my gender presents, which is not a binary, it’s not clearly defined. There are things that overlap.” So in that sense, there’s a really, really big opportunity in animation to go beyond what we understand about gender, and I think animation has actually been at the forefront of this.
Sun: How intentional – I mean, it’s probably safe to assume that Looney Tunes, Chuck Jones and those creators weren’t necessarily conscious or fully cognizant of that – but these latter-day animators, this current generation – you mentioned Adventure Time. I think there’s another one that comes up a lot in this subject, which is Steven Universe, created by Rebecca Sugar. Are these more current animated series more intentional on the parts of their creators?
White: Oh, absolutely. The whole idea behind Steven Universe is an upending of gender expectation. Steven is a gender nonconforming boy, and his family are basically these feminine non-binary, non-gendered aliens who are super warriors. They essentially do the thing that we often see men, male heroes, in cartoons do. Meanwhile, Steven – and Rebecca has talked about this, they’ve talked about this rather extensively – Steven is a gender nonconforming boy who’s a little softer around the edges. Pink is his associated color, and his weapons and powers are defensive things. These are things that are normally given to girls when we do superhero or fight fantasy stories. And this is laced in very conscious, purposeful ways throughout the entire series. Steven Universe gets talked about a lot, and I think that’s one of the reasons why.
But I’d also argue that there are a lot of very recent newer cartoons, particularly children’s cartoons, that have followed in Steven Universe‘s footsteps and are very consciously creating. One of my favorites is Summer Camp Island. There is a whole storyline about two aliens; they’re non-binary aliens. They go by they/them. They’re little, they’re super cute and their storyline is basically about how one helps the other feel better but in the process sort of confesses their love for the other one. There’s a sweet, beautiful song. But these two characters are just adorable aliens. They’re not gendered, and the pronouns are very purposeful, and that’s based off, [according to] the experts that I’ve talked to, a really age-appropriate way to reach kids that they can understand.
I think about the characters in Danger & Eggs, which was an Amazon series; Craig of the Creek, which has I think one of the highest numbers of non-binary characters outside of Steven Universe, which just blows everybody away because every gem in that is non-binary. But there are shows now that I think are really stepping up and a lot of creators who are really careful and mindful, and it’s really meaningful for them because these were things they didn’t have when they were kids.
Sun: These aren’t, like, Adult Swim cartoons that come on at 3 a.m. for grownups to watch, but this is children’s programming and is age-appropriate in terms of all the aspects in which that matters.
There’s another genre in which this sort of gender play is more frequently seen than other genres, and that’s science fiction/fantasy. We talked a little bit about Star Trek, and feel free to bring in other examples if they exist, but tell me a little bit about how they have treated this subject of gender expression.
White: Star Trek has always been about exploration and asking questions about identity and community and where we belong and how we belong. While there are characters and storylines in Star Trek that have always been about this exploration of gender non-conformity, I would say that it isn’t really until more recently – also as language has evolved and we’ve really solidified our concept of non-binary as a word to describe people – it really isn’t until the later works, Discovery, that we’ve had explicitly crafted non-binary characters. That’s not to say that characters before who had storylines about changing genders or being forced to identify as a gender that they don’t identify with aren’t a part of this conversation. I very much do think they are.
And I think that’s part of the larger history around non-binary representation in film and television. I think about the concept of the bearded lady, which has been around forever. I think about the concept of angels and demons. Angels and demons are not humans; they’re celestial beings, and so why would they conform to that? Good Omens is a really great example. Neil Gaiman basically said, “My angels and demons? Non-binary. They don’t ascribe to human gender identity.” And in that same space of the bearded woman, there is a gender nonconformity there, right? A woman can have a beard and be a woman, but someone can have a beard and also be non-binary. Someone can have a beard and be trans.
And while their portrayals may or may not have always been respectful, intentional, progressive, I think that this idea that we do not always live within two spaces on a gender line has been persistent. And I think that writers, in particular TV and film writers, have leaned on sci-fi because it’s a lot easier to sell the idea that your alien doesn’t have a gender, right? If you’re pitching a show to an executive and an executive has a very rigid gender binary and doesn’t really understand what you’re saying, you could just be like, “Well, they’re not human, so why would they have that binary?” And that is an easier way to get that through and have that conversation. But I also think that sci-fi and fantasy are about places of imagination and exploration, and in the same way that animation is this place where we do not have to exist within the limits of humanness, it’s an incredible place to explore lots of things, things that we want to see, things that we want to be. And so it makes a lot of logical sense to me that that would be a genre that people leaned into. And it makes a lot of sense that Star Trek, based off of its founding principles that it has carried through its entire franchise over decades, would be progressive in conversations about gender.
Sun: And that really does emerge in so many different topics when we’ve been talking about inclusion is that these are sandboxes that are in some ways – to use this overworn phrase in a genuine way – a safe space to be able to explore some of these stories or identities that mainstream culture wasn’t ready for yet. This is why, when we were talking about the history of pioneering representations of inclusion, a lot of times it starts with sci-fi or it has started with genre.
With Star Trek, just so people know when you talked about the first official representation of a non-binary character, that is Star Trek: Discovery, and that was just this past third season, an actor named Blu Del Barrio, who I believe is non-binary themselves, plays a character who is explicitly identified as non-binary.
Prior to that, there have been various examples through the years. My research yielded one such example way back in 1992, so this is 30 years ago. There was an episode of The Next Generation where the Enterprise visits a planet where the gender binary is prohibited. And so there’s a character who comes out to Riker and says that they are actually a she, but then – spoiler alert for a 30-year-old episode! – the government, the planet, the race forces her to undergo a conversion therapy of sorts to go back to a they, which is really interesting. I don’t know, Abbey, if that is way too old of a reference for you, but I was reading back through the commentary at the time – Roddenberry meant it as a LGBT allegory to criticize conversion therapy and forcing somebody to be something that they don’t naturally feel. But at the same time, it’s weird to wrap around because the world is exactly the opposite, right? We have a gender binary-enforced society, and conversion therapy is meant to enforce that binary rather than the other way around. So I don’t know if you’ve you had heard of that.
White: Yeah, I had. So there’s also a famous Star Trek episode that deals with race, where there’s a whole race of people and half of them have white on one side of the face and black on the other. And then for the other half of the race, it’s reversed. That’s a conversation about racism, and it feels weird, right? To some people it feels a little dated, but I think that is really kind of the conversation that we’re having about the history of non-binary identity. Some of it feels a little weird. Some of it feels a little dated. I’m not surprised that this conversation about conversion therapy is being spoken through a gender lens. It’s not that we weren’t having conversations about gender. We’ve always been having conversations about gender. Non-binary people have always existed. Trans people have always existed, so these conversations have happened. But I think the degree to which people understood what their conversation was saying, and personally being informed, has changed.
And I think our media is really representative of how that conversation has changed. Not to hark on animation, but you mentioned adult animation. Adult animation has had gay, trans, non-binary characters. The level of sensitivity with which those characters have been afforded, the level of humanity that they have been afforded, is not anywhere near what it is now. They spend a lot of times being the butts of jokes. And I would argue that live-action non-binary and trans characters have also done this. Gender nonconformity has traditionally been a means of exploring horror narratives. Like, what if I had to be in a place where my gender didn’t align with something that somebody could immediately clock? What is that scary space? There’s also the sci-fi of “gender nonconforming, non-binary people aren’t human.” I mean, obviously sci-fi is the place where you can explore, but when it’s the only place that you explore gender outside of cisgender identity, you literally dehumanize it.
Comedy is also a space where gender – and this doesn’t just apply to non-binary people, this applies to women, even men, honestly, in the sense of the tropes that cisgender men are allowed to occupy. Talking about gender and gender representation is seen as a joke, and it’s not always treated with sensitivity. You can have non-binary people in comedy. They can be in literally anything.
I think it’s the intent and the knowledge that goes into that and the level of sensitivity that actually ultimately matters. And the fact of the matter is whether you’re talking about Star Trek or anything else, sensitivity has changed over time. Knowledge has changed over time. So there are going to be narratives that at the time were incredibly progressive that now we’re just like, “Yikes, let’s not do that again.”
Sun: Another recurring theme in the larger conversation about inclusion. I wonder if it is an inevitable circumstance of evolving understanding. I don’t want to give an excuse and say “trial and error,” but you do see a lot of errors on the interminable road of progress. There are certainly a lot of errors.
White: That’s the weight of the first, right? Representation has always had this weight of the first. The first Black person to do anything is both going to be celebrated and also scorned, because they didn’t do it the right way and it wasn’t enough for everybody. But they’re also the first person to be in the room. And that applies to representation on television and film. I am actually glad that people try. I don’t necessarily like when the attempt is offensive, but to get something right, you also need to know what you got wrong. And I think that’s part of the key to LGBTQ representation, the storied history of LGBTQ representation and definitely non-binary representation. People try with good intentions, maybe not, but they try it. And then people respond. And based off of that response, we get a new crop of representation and each new step opens another door and we get closer to this thing that I think we all want, which is just a diversity of representation.
I think that non-binary identity is really kind of behind other LGBTQ communities on screen. We’ve long had queer villains, but we’re getting queer heroes, queer love interests, smart queer people and strong queer people. I think that non-binary identity is still sort of fresh for much of the industry. We’re still getting very specific visions of what it means to be non-binary, and where that person can be situated in a narrative.
Sun: A lot of times when we’re talking about LGBTQ portrayals, it often starts with whiteness as kind of like level one. And then after you get a few more representations, you start to see depictions of people of color and other intersectional portrayals. But tell me a little bit about the existence of non-binary representations of color. What do we have in the landscape right now?
White: I mean, I wouldn’t say it looks like cisgender racial representation at all.
Sun: Which is already lopsided to begin with.
White: Exactly my point. (Laughs.) Which tells you just how little there is. But I do think that it’s happening. I interviewed a voice actor for a piece. He is a gay man of color, and one of the things that he said really stuck out to me, and that was that queer white people get to be queer, and queer people of color are people of color first, which means that society looks at our race before it looks at our sexuality. And I think the same thing applies when we’re talking about gender portrayals. This applies also to disability representation and also religious representation. Christianity, Catholicism, those are highly represented, usually by white characters. When we think about religious groups that are less white, we see less representation. And when it comes to non-binary identities, I think that also just holds true: White non-binary actors – white characters, really, and that’s really what this is. It’s not even about non-binary white actors. It’s really about white characters getting through the door first. If a white character can do this, then we’ll roll the dice on a character of color.
But I also don’t think that means that we don’t have characters of color that are non-binary. There’s a character, Milo, who’s Black in Danger & Eggs. We also have Xavin, who is an alien but is a non-binary alien in Marvel’s Runaways. We have one character that I really, really love, Bobbie Yang from Rutherford Falls. I love that character so, so much because one of the things that I really struggle with in terms of the way that non-binary is allowed to exist on screen is that most people chalk non-binary up to androgynous. Non-binary people aren’t androgynous, and also androgyny has historically been aligned with masculinity. Like when you go to fast fashion stores and you’re like, “I’m going to get this gender neutral piece of clothing,” it’s not a skirt. It’s a jean jacket.
Sun: It’s like tomboy clothes.
White: Yes, exactly. It is aligned with masculinity. The thing about being non-binary is, you can be hairy and wear lipstick, and that is non-binary. You don’t have to ascribe to this or that. And in terms of Bobbie, as soon as I saw Bobbie on screen, I was just like, This is so much of what I have been asking for in the sense that this is a character that people clearly are not trying to force one way or another. They are not trying to incorporate a character who still ascribes to a gender that people want to force on them. It just felt like, Oh, this is a good step. And that is a character of color in a show featuring indigenous people in a way that indigenous people haven’t really been represented before. And so, again, once somebody else opens that door, the door gets to open for other people. And sometimes you’re just at the last door, which sounds terrible. And it is incredibly unfair and kind of limiting because it means that our stories are limited in and of themselves, but I do think that people of color are increasingly being represented. I obviously would not say to the same degree that white characters are. I would still argue that most non-binary representation is white, but there’s progress. And there’s good progress.
Sun: I’m glad you mentioned Rutherford Falls, because that brings in something you talked about earlier about genre. Do you feel like we’re finally starting to see real-world and more grounded representations, where you don’t need to Trojan horse it into an allegory of a non-humanoid and say this is an alien, this is a soda cup or a car, but non-binary people can exist in practical reality in seeing these characters in more realistic shows?
White: Absolutely. I think about Billions, I think about Vida. It’s definitely happening and happening more and more often, and I think that’s a really big win. Not to redirect to the trans conversation, but I think Pose as a show actually did a really incredible thing by centering trans people, making them leads, showing that they could be like Girlfriends, Friends, Sex and the City. And that creates a ripple effect for other gender identities. We don’t have to confine you in the same way that we always have. That also means that we can put you in dramas and comedies.
I also think this conversation isn’t just about who we’re seeing onscreen or larger cultural narratives changing. It’s also very much about who is writing, who is in the room. Are we at a place where we accept and welcome trans writers, non-binary writers? Do they get to have a voice? Can they have conversations about gender nonconformity and change maybe not only how we think about or write a character that is non-binary, but also cisgender characters. I think one of the greatest gifts of trans and non-binary representation on TV – less so on film, unfortunately – is that by featuring people who do not exist inside the binary, it opens the door for cisgender people to break down their own toxic gender stereotypes and reimagine characters and people and what a man and a woman would look and act like and what kinds of roles they can get. That’s a really powerful part of non-binary representation in media. It was most certainly a powerful part of my own journey with my gender, realizing that I did not have to be this thing because of the gender that was assigned to me and all of the baggage that comes with that. Your characters get to do different things and they get to be different people, and that’s because they’re not conforming to that binary.
Sun: I’m glad you mentioned that. I was having a conversation with a friend recently, and we’re both cis-gender but realizing a lot of how helpful it is to decouple these gendered characteristics. Particularly living in a patriarchy where it’s really useful to decouple, like why does this trait get to be assigned as masculine? Why are men not allowed to access this characteristic just because it’s coded as feminine? I think it really could go a long way towards dismantling a lot of the toxic masculinity as well as some of the limits that women have.
The last big concept I wanted to talk about was this difference between characters and actors. I’m starting to see a few high-profile celebrities come out as non-binary. Demi Lovato I think was the most recent really big announcement. And they are a musician; many of the most famous non-binary celebrities coincidentally happen to be more musicians rather than actors, like Sam Smith, and I think Janelle Monáe has identified as non-binary or gender nonconforming. I’m curious, though, whether or not we will see a trickle-down effect to non-binary performers getting to play non-binary characters or whether their roles will be along binary lines.
I wanted to give a little shout out to an Emmy-nominated actor who wrote a guest column for us in July, Carl Clemons-Hopkins. They are on Hacks and they just received an Emmy nomination for the show and has come out as non-binary. I think their character identifies as a man, Marcus, on the show. So are we going to see some sort of distance and is it appropriate? I think we’re at a place in the general understanding in Hollywood where your actors should come from a background that matches the character, especially when you’re talking about portraying a character that comes from a marginalized background, but what is the line of appropriateness when it comes to gender nonconforming performers?
White: This is really difficult because to have a line of appropriateness, you have to have roles. So one, there’s a shortage of roles and that’s something that can’t be ignored in the conversation about who gets to play who. I’m not an actor, I think asking a non-binary actor about this and about their own experience is very interesting, but I’ve talked to some voice actors, some actors, and they’re still existing in the binary. The roles that are offered to them are gendered, are specifically gendered as male or female, man or woman. And so those are the opportunities that are available to them, so that’s what they can go out for. That’s really all that they have.
But I also think what’s interesting, and I think this circles in about trans representation, is that Hollywood has treated trans people historically like costumes. And I think this applies to lots of marginalized groups, like doing blackface was a big no-no a lot longer than doing cripface. And so some folks have gotten the door to be able to play themselves opened sooner. I think the interesting thing about trans versus non-binary representation is that trans representation has arguably existed more specifically and intentionally than non-binary representation. And so there were roles for cisgender actors to snag, and because they were treated like characters instead of people, trans actors were not considered – and culturally, societally, they weren’t even allowed to be trans. So how would you find a trans actor when your entire government is like, “you shouldn’t exist”? What’s interesting following that and the gates that have opened for trans actors is that trans actors were still kind of operating in that binary of what Hollywood thought a man and a woman really was. But the thing about non-binary identity is that you know that you’re neither of those.
And so it enters this really interesting space where I kind of consider it like “American Girl Doll-ing”, where you’re picking pieces and parts and putting that character together instead of just saying, “white male, 30 to 50s, father,” something that anybody can slide into. These are characters that come with very, very specific personality traits, physical traits. And even if they’re not coming with that, if you’re getting non-binary actors, your vision of that character I think changes a little more because their identity can be so different from one person to the next. And that’s not to say, like, all white men are the same, but because non-binary is this massive umbrella, what that looks like, what that sounds like, how you write that is so distinctively different and specific that I think that there may be, when more roles become available, more opportunities for non-binary actors to get roles and obviously clearly benefiting from all of the work that every other marginalized group has put forth to get these conversations in the rooms that matter. And to have people listen and be sensitive to them.
Sun: To lay the infrastructure, so to speak, for the framework for understanding that these are experiences that exist outside of the personal framework for the decision-makers. And also getting more creators who are non-binary. I’m very curious to see what, for example, Joey Solloway, who I think is probably the most prominent non-binary creator in Hollywood – they made Transparent and were a very respected indie film director prior – what they will do now that they have come out specifically as non-binary and how to advocate for more voices in that space.
The last two questions we ask every guest, the first one is Hollywood Remixed, which is: Is there a prior attempt – since we were talking about attempts – attempt at a non-binary representation that you would request a do-over for? And if so, how should they do it over? And maybe it’s just like, ‘Don’t cast a cisgender actor in this role,” or “don’t portray it in this way.”
White: Okay. I’m gonna wade into this. I’d like to talk about SNL‘s Pat. My mom was an SNL hound. My mom was a pop culture hound; all of my pop culture interests really derived from her and my relationship with her. But I watched SNL religiously. I know all of those characters, and I remember Pat very clearly.
Sun: Pat even got their own movie, didn’t they? It’s Pat.
White: Yes! And I think Pat is really, really interesting, particularly for me, because when Pat was popular, I was young. And I think that age actually does matter in relationship to Pat. I think Pat was a joke. Pat’s gender was literally the running joke. They made multiple skits, they made a movie out of the fact that people could not identify who Pat was. And I remember watching it as a little kid – this is so wild when I think about my own gender journey – and not really needing to ascribe a gender to Pat. I think there are a lot of valid criticisms of that character and what it laid the groundwork for and how it embodied a lot of harmful treatment of gender and non-binary identities in Hollywood. But I also think for people like me, Pat was a door to asking ourselves who we are and really starting to get comfortable – even if no one else around us was – get comfortable personally with not being in that binary, maybe not being the gender that somebody said we were, and maybe not even being the other gender option that somebody said we could be.
But I do think that if I was going to redo one, I would really love to see Pat in 2021, like what would that narrative actually look like? And how would we talk about Pat’s gender and Pat’s partners differently versus when we did it then? Because I do think this running gag of somebody not ascribing to somebody else’s gender expectations is problematic. It’s not really your business, because it’s not your gender. But there’s also something freeing about seeing a character who walks around and is comfortable with who they are. I mean, because the trick of Pat was Pat just was clueless. Everybody else around Pat was obsessed with Pat’s gender, which if you talk to trans people, non-binary people, that’s kind of what the world is like now. People are just very obsessed with figuring out who we are all the time. But Pat was just minding their business and doing their own thing and was comfortable with who they were and their partners. And that seems really radical, tucked within that very problematic representation.
Sun: That is a perfect example. You’re right, it’s sort of this radical premise that was probably problematically intended, because this is the whole thing about comedy: Who is the butt of the joke and what’s the intention and what were you trying to do? I think they were intending Pat to be the butt of the joke, but I would love to see a 21st century reinterpretation where I feel like you could keep the premise almost identical and you’re just adjusting the frame so that the butt of the joke becomes society and the need to put Pat into a binary framework.
White: Yes, exactly. Like, why are you all so obsessed with Pat’s gender? What’s going on? Do you have a job? Do you have somewhere to be?
Sun: Do you have your own lives?
White: And in that you get to explore other people’s relationship to their gender too. Like, why am I a man? And why do I ascribe these essential character traits to being a man? I think that’s honestly one of the most radical things about Ted Lasso. People keep talking about the niceness of Ted Lasso, but that’s because we’re seeing men be nice, and that’s considered radical.
Sun: “He’s not toxic? What’s wrong with him?!”
White: “Oh my God, this is incredible. Who would have thought?” Men don’t have to be toxic. That’s not something that they have to be. So yeah, I think that would be a fun exploration, a modern exploration.
Sun: It’s a great answer. The last question is the Hidden Gem, which is: In the however plentiful this cabinet is of non-binary representations that we’ve had in culture – and it doesn’t have to be fictional because sometimes it’s too sparse – but is there something you can recommend to people who would like to enrich themselves with this theme, a hidden gem that you can recommend them to read, to watch, to check out?
White: There are two characters who I think are very good, so I’ll mention both of them and then mention a storyline. One show that I got hooked on during the pandemic was Good Trouble, which is a follow-up to Freeform’s The Fosters. There are two non-binary characters on that show – one’s named Joey, the other is Lindsay. The thing that I really love about these representations is that they come at the non-binary identity from two different angles. Lindsay very firmly knows who they are. There’s no question. As soon as they enter the narrative, they are not binary. There is no question about it; everybody else around adjusts. But Joey goes on this gender journey of realizing what their gender is, and they do it with a partner. And what does that mean? What does that look like? What does it mean for you to fall in love with someone, and they fall in love with you, under the assumption that you are one thing and you’re actually the other? How does that change your dynamic? It’s a really interesting representation. It’s imperfect, but I think some of those flaws are intentional because it’s not just about the non-binary character. It’s also about how a cisgender character responds to the partner. And I think those two were really, really interesting looks.
There’s also a storyline involving a character, Gael. He’s a bisexual Latino man, a cisgender man. His sister is trans and this season Gael finds out that he’s a dad. And after having gone on this whole journey with his sister, he makes the conscious choice with his partner to not gender their baby. Baby representation on TV has been a really interesting space in animation and live action. I think about Malcolm in the Middle, the baby on Malcolm in the Middle just did not have a name or a gender for multiple episodes. And obviously this is not an intentional non-binary representation, but –
Sun: It just wasn’t essential for that baby to have a gender.
White: Yeah, because it’s a baby, you know. (Laughs.) And I feel like Hollywood treats babies like props anyway. So it wasn’t really a thing that had to get sorted right away. But I think about this conversation because this is a conversation that I think people are beginning to have. Do we as a parent tell our children who they are? What is that line? What does that look like? Particularly as someone who might not necessarily align with who their child is. I think these are conversations that mixed-race families have too. If you are a white mother and you have a Black daughter, how do you talk to that child about who they are as a Black person in America? That’s a tricky thing. And you can’t really ascribe their race to them. You have to go to sources who are familiar with the way that your child is going to navigate the world. And so I think that this storyline on Good Trouble about Gael deciding that he’s not going to decide for his baby is really relevant and also really refreshing.
Sun: I’m glad you brought that up. I’ve seen that discourse, that conversation starting to happen online and in the real world, but to see that actually written into a show is cool. One of the reasons why those of us who work in this whole inclusion entertainment space, why we care about this, is because there is a validation and an acknowledgement that such a thing exists and deserves to be talked about or heard when it’s represented in entertainment and media. I never want to get too optimistic on this show, but things look like they suck a little less than they used to. And the more we talk about it, the more we can promote the understanding. So, Abbey, thank you for helping expand my understanding of this. I’m so glad we finally got to talk. It was very overdue.
White: Yeah, absolutely.
Sun: It was really enjoyable. Thank you again.
White: Thank you!
Transition music: A short segment from the intro theme.
Sun: Asia Kate Dillon plays the genius hedge fund executive Taylor Mason on Billions, whose fifth season returned on Showtime Sept. 5. Taylor is one of my all-time favorite TV characters – brilliant, complex, surprising and about as moral as you can get on a drama about the cat and mouse game between billionaire financiers and the megalomaniacal government lawyers who love to hate them. Taylor also is non-binary, and in a few minutes you’ll hear about how that character description helped Asia understand and articulate their own gender identity. Asia’s other credits include John Wick 3: Parabellum, Orange Is the New Black and the animated series gen:LOCK.
Asia, thank you so much for joining us today. I am obsessed with Billions. I always have a power ranking after every episode, and Taylor has pretty consistently been my number one character basically since Connerty went to jail and Wendy became incredibly morally ambiguous. But the whole show is kind of morally gray, which is what I like about it.
Asia Kate Dillon: I agree. And thank you so much for having me, Rebecca. It’s really nice to talk to you. I love how much you love the show. That’s awesome.
Sun: I want to start by acknowledging that when it comes to belonging to a marginalized or underrepresented identity, there’s never an obligation to teach others. But I noticed when I was watching your various past interviews, that you’ve been very gracious and very patient in answering questions about what it means to be non-binary, even when I imagine sometimes the questions might grow repetitive or kind of basic. So I wanted to start by asking you, where are you currently at in terms of how you decide to spend your time or energy educating people?
Dillon: When I’m engaging in a conversation with someone who is really wanting to expand their own sense of what gender is and can be, and someone who is approaching that conversation with love and an open heart and with vulnerability, then I am totally happy to engage in a conversation with that person about my personal experience of my gender identity. And it’s pretty clear to me when I’m engaging with people who aren’t coming from that place, who just aren’t coming from a place of love or who aren’t being genuine, and so because it’s generally – fortunately for me – pretty clear who’s coming from where, I’m able actually to put my energy into a place that feels worth it, where I’m getting something out of the exchange too, versus talking to a brick wall that I know is really immovable. Does that make sense?
Sun: Yeah, in other words, I think that there’s a detector for what’s a bad faith versus a good faith question.
Dillon: Exactly. An example of that is when I am misgendered. If I’m misgendered by someone who has just learned my pronouns and they’re obviously not doing it out of malice or to bully me, there is room for growth and learning, of course. But when someone is misgendering me repeatedly, even after I’ve reminded them of my pronouns, then it becomes something else, and it’s pretty clear when that happens.
Sun: It unfortunately is. And I think you can kind of sniff that out. Especially just being exposed to online discourse, anybody who’s online for a certain period of time starts to have a detector for that type of thing.
So I read that when you read the original character breakdown for Taylor Mason, specifically the description that the character was female non-binary, that helped you to put together some pieces for yourself. And so I’m wondering if you wouldn’t mind – I know you’ve told this story before – talking a little bit about what was your framework for understanding yourself prior, and then also, how do you currently identify?
Dillon: I identify as non-binary. My pronouns are they/them. I use non-binary to describe my gender identity because my gender identity falls outside the boxes of man or woman. And because gender is a spectrum. The gender binary does not exist. It was created by colonists and imposed on the indigenous peoples of the so-called United States of America. And sex is not a binary either. And so it is both a means to identify how I feel, how I experience my gender, and also a way of illustrating that the sex and gender binaries are not real.
Prior to encountering the character breakdown for Taylor, I had been experimenting with removing she/her pronouns from online bio materials and just using my name, but frankly, the only trans people that I had been aware of prior to encountering Taylor had undergone some sort of either medical or physical change, whether it was taking hormones or some kind of surgery so that they could live fully as themselves in their identity. And I personally had not felt, and I still don’t feel, that hormones or surgery are a part of my journey. And so I had literally no example of a person who didn’t identify as a man or a woman but hadn’t changed their body. I just had literally no example, but I also knew that she/her didn’t feel right to me, but I also didn’t know how to claim another set of pronouns if I wasn’t changing my body, because I had a sense of what they call imposter syndrome. Like, how can I be this thing if people can’t see it, if I’m not showing it in some way via a physical, medical change?
So when I encountered the character breakdown for Taylor, and it did say “female non-binary,” and of course I’ve encountered the word “female” all my life, and I had encountered the word “non-binary” before, but in that moment I chose to look both of them up and encountered for the first time the clear explanation of non-binary as someone who identifies as neither a man or a woman, neither male or female, and then also female and male are an assigned sex at birth. And that gender identity is placed on top of that assigned sex. And something happened where everything aligned for me. And I was able to step into an identity, my non-binary identity, fully. I mean, publicly step into that identity, knowing that my body is just my body, and it doesn’t signify anything other than it’s my body. And it doesn’t dictate what my gender identity is. Does that make sense?
Sun: It does. I’m remembering one of the earliest interviews you gave, I think it was on the Ellen show where you delineated the difference between the physiology of our bodies and I think what you called gender identity being what is “between the ears.” Something that is more about – I don’t want to put words in your mouth – but I think more about a consciousness, it seems, rather than a biological expression?
Dillon: I was told my whole life that my body meant that I was a girl and a woman, so I really couldn’t conceive of how to separate my experience of myself versus what I was told I was supposed to be because of what my body looked like. And so just coming to an understanding that a body is a body, and also male and female as biological sexes are so much more complicated even than just male and female. And so I identify as neither a man or a woman or male or female, because those binaries aren’t real. We are bodies, minds, consciousness; it’s all much more nuanced and complex and beautiful than we have been taught. I don’t know if that answers your question. (Laughs.)
Sun: It does. And I think that we’re kind of hitting the tip of the iceberg of what was almost verging on a very metaphysical discussion about the separation between body and soul and things like that. Our producer, Matt, is going to kill me if I do a three-hour conversation about metaphysics, but what I love is that Taylor – now that Taylor has been on the show for four seasons – the representation of Taylor is awakening that kind of consciousness to an untold, an innumerable number of people who get to watch Billions. But the very first person that Taylor had an impact on was actually yourself, which I think is kind of beautiful.
Dillon: I have certainly said that very phrase, that whatever hope Taylor gave to other people once Taylor appeared onscreen, Taylor gave me that hope and sense of self first. This is a good segue into representation, frankly, but it’s like, there was nobody like Taylor before Taylor. And so the first time that I saw my identity reflected was when Taylor came my way. I have always felt non-binary, always, before I had the language to conceive or communicate what that was to other people. I have always experienced myself that way. And it really feels synchronistic to me that Taylor came into my life at a time when I was really ready to say, “I have to be brave. It’s time to be brave.” And if Taylor, if this fictional character can exist in this fictional world and has been brave enough to get up and get dressed and go out there into the world and be who they really are, then I can too. And it’s past time. And so here I fully am.
Sun: It’s an incredible example of life imitating art. What kinds of conversations have you had with the showrunners, Brian Koppelman and David Levien, about how they even came to creating Taylor, who quickly became a major character in the universe? This is not a side character who just happens to be non-binary to check a box. And what kinds of ongoing collaborations do you have with discussing this aspect of Taylor’s character and their storylines?
Dillon: The aspect of gender identity, specifically?
Sun: Yes, thank you. Specifically as it pertains to gender identity. Taylor has a lot of storylines, and I love that most of them actually are not centered around their identity, but do you have input?
Dillon: Yes, I would say when I was first cast as Taylor and I was talking to Brian and David about the character, they told me that Taylor was going to be a major player in the show, that Taylor was going to play a really important role. And frankly, that is one of the reasons that I really wanted to play the part, not only as an actor getting to play a character who is integral to the storyline, but a non-binary character who is integral to the storyline is extraordinarily important because then that character’s story isn’t just maybe a one- or two-episode arc. And it’s not about their gender identity. You get to see them as a full human being.
In terms of the ongoing conversation around Taylor’s gender identity over the past four seasons, I would say there has been very little, because that is just one part of what makes up who Taylor is. And because it is not the focal point of Taylor’s storyline on the show, the things that I talk with Brian and David about are financial stuff, stuff that has to do with the financial world, or what Taylor knows or doesn’t know about certain things with regard to the job. And I’ve said this before there, there were a handful of times, particularly season two, season three, and there will occasionally still happen where there’s some phraseology that comes out in a script or a certain word. And I say, “Well, Taylor wouldn’t say ‘policemen,’ they would say ‘cop'” or some gender neutral version of whatever the word is. And I feel really grateful that it’s always felt like a very safe space to do that. I feel like I can talk to Brian and David about anything, ask them anything. They are available to me. And so that is very special, but yeah, we talk about mostly where Taylor is coming from emotionally and why they are the way they are and why they are behaving the way they’re behaving and doing what they’re doing. (Laughs.)
Sun: Some lucky Billions podcast is going to get to grill you about all the specific moves that Taylor has made. Taylor has moved around a lot across the seasons, but for the purposes of this general podcast I will have to restrain myself.
Dillon: Yes, no spoilers here.
Sun: I will give people a spoiler alert if I go into that. So, to be honest, after Taylor was introduced, I was kind of bracing myself for some sort of subplot or at least a plot point that was revolving around bigotry, the kind of “very special episode” type of trope. And we really haven’t really had much of that. I remember Danny Strong’s character, Todd Krakow, making some snide remarks while he lost to you at the poker tournament. But do you think it was significant that Taylor hasn’t had a major plot line that’s been centered around trauma or bigotry or that type of experience?
Dillon: Yeah, I think it’s essential. We know that there is a reality in which trans, non-binary, intersex, gender nonconforming people are the targets of hate, bigotry, violence, discrimination, whether it’s job discrimination, housing discrimination, they have higher rates of bullying and suicide than any other marginalized group. And so it is important to have those stories, but growing up, and up until honestly a few years ago, those were the only stories that existed. And so – and this is a statistic that Laverne Cox said in an interview a little while ago – I think 85 percent of Americans say they’ve only encountered a trans, non-binary, gender nonconforming person through the media. And I would say, you’ve encountered them in your real life, you just don’t know it. But it’s through the media. That’s how the majority of Americans learn about the queer community. I’ll just say “the queer community” at large, but particularly and specifically trans, non-binary and gender nonconforming people. And so we need all different kinds of stories. And the problem up until now has been that there has been the majority of one kind of representation. And so for that not to be part of Taylor’s story on the show, to not have that special trope episode, it’s like, Thank goodness. We’ve had enough of that. The balance is too far on one side for now.
What we need are visions of trans, non-binary, gender nonconforming people not only surviving but thriving and being loved and having loved and being fully formed characters and human beings, so that when viewers are watching, they can relate to us as full human beings and hopefully learn to love and care about those characters, which I know translates to love and care for trans, non-binary, gender nonconforming, intersex people in real life. And I know that because that’s been reflected to me by people who have reached out to me on social media or come up to me on the street. I’ve had people straight up admit to me, “I was homophobic and transphobic, and I love Billions, and I love your character, and now I just wish the best for you and I love you. And my heart and mind have been opened.” I know that sounds like it’s made up, it sounds too good to be true, but I have the screenshots. I have the receipts. It’s really quite extraordinary.
Sun: That’s so moving to me to hear, that is extraordinary. And I think particularly on a show like Billions – which as I shared before we started recording, I came to with a lot of preconceived notions and prejudices about what a universe that is constructed of hedge fund traders and wheeling and dealing politicians would be like – it’s kind of refreshing and I’ll admit a little bit surprising. It was surprising to me that nobody in the Billions universe has really struggled with or had trouble respecting Taylor’s gender identity. We’ve had Axe very matter-of-factly correct people’s pronouns and things like that. And it’s a little remarkable given that the characters are otherwise all kinds of assholes. (Laughs.) I say that with a lot of affection, they’re like sociopaths. To your knowledge, have people told you whether or not that’s actually true to life of the real-life hedge fund world? And more importantly, what’s the significance of having characters like the guys – it’s mostly guys – the characters at Axe Capital be able to normalize gender fluidity acceptance in this way?
Dillon: There have been cases on the show where Taylor has been purposefully misgendered, and it’s been done to reveal something about the character who is misgendering Taylor. Like when that happens, we don’t see Taylor being cut down by that, it just reveals that the person who’s doing it is horrible. (Laughs.) And doing it purposefully to try and disrespect Taylor, which is so clear because the writing is brilliant in it and the actors who do that are brilliant. I’m thinking of John Malkovich’s character, who misgenders Taylor and it’s like, well, that makes sense in that context. In season two, we have Axe in that scene where Taylor introduces themself and says, “These are my pronouns,” and Axe just says, “Okay.” And Mafee is the other person in that scene, who we already know is sort of Taylor’s BFF, very quick BFF, so we see Axe accepting Taylor in that moment and just moving on and being like, “Okay, on to business.” And then there is Axe I think correcting Dollar Bill in a subsequent episode. And so I think one of the incredible complexities that the show holds about this character of Bobby Axelrod is that, as you said, he’s all the things. He’s an asshole, he’s vindictive, he’s also a human being. He is able to also hold respect for this person who presumably is the first non-binary person he’s ever met, because he actually just sees Taylor as a tool that he can use to achieve his ultimate goal. Taylor’s gender identity doesn’t get in the way of his ultimate goal. And I think that holds true for the entire Billions world, which is, if whatever’s going on with you doesn’t in the way of you making money or you making someone else money, then it’s not really actually a big deal.
Sun: It is also great to see that – spoiler alert – when Taylor briefly breaks away and sets up their own rival firm for a while, basically Axe and Wags spent an entire season plotting how to take you down, but at no point did they entertain weaponizing gender identity against you or anything like that. It was just not a thing.
Last season, we got to learn a little bit more about Taylor’s past when Kevin Pollak recurred as your father. And, you know, again, as with all of the relationships on the show, the dynamic between the two characters was very complicated, very nuanced. The Masons – and these are just mild spoilers –
Dillon: “The Masons”! (Laughs.) It sounds so parochial, “the Masons.”
Sun: Yeah, it does. (Laughs.) The Masons – Doug and Taylor are somewhat estranged, but it’s primarily because of the clashing ambitions between these two incredibly brilliant people, but still there were moments throughout that arc where I feel like viewers got a little sense of what Taylor’s coming out was like for both father and child. I’m curious about whether you had any input in shaping that backstory, and would you be comfortable sharing whether or not any of it was informed or inspired by your own personal experience?
Dillon: Unless I’m misremembering, I had nothing to do with the writing of that scene. What I remember is receiving that script and reading those scenes and crying and thinking, This is exactly right on for Taylor, for Taylor’s father. It is exactly the kind of conversation that I believe that they would – it just rang so true for the characters, and I thought it beautifully handled a father who genuinely loves his child, genuinely wants to be there and to learn, and admitted within the scene that he’s trying, you know? And of course you have Mafee there sort of defending Taylor to their dad, which I thought was beautiful. All of it to me is a great example of how it could go. If you have a kid who comes out as non-binary, you get to watch this father actively work from a place of love to learn to love his child again, or in a new way, or something. And you see Mafee defending Taylor, which is important for people to watch. I knew it would be incredibly impactful. And the teaching moment didn’t hit anyone over the head with “this is the righteous way to be” because it rang true to the characters, and I think that is a credit to the extraordinary writing we have on the show.
Sun: Absolutely. Again, given the context of the things that we’ve seen all of the characters do and what we know that they’re capable of, I think those moments certainly hit me more when you see something like that, and that was a beautiful scene, and I really loved that arc.
So now going beyond Billions and talking a little bit more about your whole career as well as the industry, in your experience and to your knowledge, how much opportunity is out there for non-binary or gender fluid or genderqueer actors to be able to also play non-binary characters?
Dillon: I have to be honest about the fact that I’m not a casting director and I’m not an agent and I’m not a manager, so I’m not seeing scripts come across my “desk,” quote-unquote, every day. So I don’t have the honest answers. I don’t know. I don’t know other than – how do I know? What is my frame of reference? (Laughs.)
Sun: Or even, since Billions, is there a change in the types of things that you’re reading for?
Dillon: Yes, certainly. I would say there are certainly more non-binary characters being written, and there are more non-binary actors being cast in those roles. And I know that just from Instagram or reading something on Variety or Deadline or The Hollywood Reporter, that’s the way that I learn about that. “Oh, this person is starring in this thing. That’s awesome.” And it’s been awesome to see that so far, peripherally, they are integral characters to the storyline, the story isn’t about their gender identity necessarily. It’s also been really incredible to see trans and non-binary people, particularly people of color, Black and indigenous people, having control of their own stories and being the ones who are writing them, directing them, producing them. That is certainly a change in the last couple of years and the more of that the better. Let’s keep going. There’s still not enough, so let’s keep going.
Sun: Absolutely. With John Wick 3, you were able to get the director, Chad Stahelski, to agree to make your character, The Adjudicator, canonically non-binary. Even if nothing in the script or the filming changes, what’s the significance of a move like that?
Dillon: Thank you for asking about that. It’s incredibly significant and the significance of it sits alongside something that is a bit difficult for me, which is the fact that according to GLAAD – they have this poll about whether or not there have been any trans or non-binary people in a major Hollywood film – because The Adjudicator, the character that I play, is never referred to as they/them, which are the pronouns The Adjudicator uses, that’s what the script was changed to reflect that, it doesn’t count as representation because nobody watching the movie knows that. They just know that this person appears in makeup and feminine attire, and a pronoun is never used. So why would anyone know that person is non-binary? So that’s GLAAD’s poll, and also people saw the movie and tweeted at me or messaged me and said, like, “I can’t believe there’s a non-binary character in this movie.” I mean, every press release that came out about the movie where I was talking about it, I was very upfront: This character is non-binary, it wasn’t written that way, the studio and Chad Stahelski and Keanu, they loved it. They changed it, because why not? The John Wick movies have always been very representative of all different kinds of people, whether it’s ethnicity or sexual orientation, and so it just felt really right for the world to have gender diversity as well.
And there is a part of me that’s like, Gosh, I wish… I know it’s historically significant and extraordinarily important, and I’m really proud of it, and there is something about it that feels a little bit tainted by the fact that GLAAD doesn’t qualify it as trans representation. Because I feel like it’s also extraordinary to have a character who’s never referred to by a pronoun. What is shown in the story is you don’t know that person’s gender, and hopefully the lesson is, “Don’t assume.” Don’t assume someone’s gender just because someone is wearing makeup or dressed in historically feminine attire, whatever that means. That doesn’t mean you should assume that person’s gender identity. And that to me is also historic and something I’m really proud of. So thanks for letting me… (Laughs.)
Sun: No, I appreciate that. And I think that that even what you shared is emblematic of the fact that there’s an evolving understanding and hopefully, like you said, in the future when it becomes more normalized, then the non-assumption will be normalized because I noticed that oftentimes the burden is specifically on non-binary people to offer their pronouns. Whereas for people who fall into that gender binary neatly, they don’t have to.
Dillon: I encounter this – and it doesn’t matter what room I was in specifically – but where we’re going around and saying our names, and I am the only person that will offer my pronouns. And even if I’m not the last person in the proverbial circle to go, very rarely do other people follow suit. And I think these are rooms with people who are somewhat familiar with gender identity or the concept of pronouns, or certainly when I use mine could be like, “What did that mean?” So yes, I’m just relating to the fact that, as you said, the burden is always on or predominantly on non-binary or trans people, gender nonconforming people, to say, like, “Here’s how I’m different” instead of the burden – or the joy actually – on all of us getting to self-determine, be autonomous and have that respected. Everyone has a gender identity, actually. And I don’t know what anyone’s is until they tell me.
Sun: The invisibility of being part of the majority.
Dillon: Ooh, yes.
Sun: I cribbed that from – ah, which scholar coined “the invisibility of whiteness”? – I’m adapting from that. As an actor, as a performer, do you have any preference towards playing characters whose gender identity matches your own? You have played female characters in the past, such as Brandy on Orange is the New Black, and any concerns about whether or not that runs the risk of reinforcing a gender binary?
Dillon: I will play whatever part I am the right actor for. Whatever that role is that speaks to me, if I’m the right actor for that role, that’s what will happen. And if every character I played from now until I die onscreen or on the stage was non-binary, that would be awesome. That would mean that those characters are continuing to be written and that they are continuing to be integral to whatever story they’re a part of.
But there are certain roles that I will never play because it’s not right for me to play them. I will not play a character where it’s essential that you have to see that person’s body, and that person was assigned male at birth, and that person has not medically transitioned in any way. I know I’m being really specific, but I think it’s okay. That’s not a part that I’m going to play. But someone where you never see their body or the body is not representative in the story of a binary necessarily, and/or someone’s gender identity is just man or woman or male or female, again, it really is going to be specific to the story and the character, but if it’s right for me, then it’ll be right. I hope that wasn’t too rambling.
Sun: I think it was incredibly thoughtful. I think that that’s one of those things where when you are describing it to that extent, I think it indicates that you’re really thinking about the intention of why you’re taking on something and or why you’re not.
Before we get to our final two questions, I definitely wanted to make sure that we get to talking a little bit about your advocacy in the campaign to eliminate gendered award categories. This is something that you’ve been speaking about for several years. For those who aren’t already familiar with this argument, I almost want to save time and just tell them to Google it. But how about this: Because I know that your position has modified or evolved somewhat from 2017 and 2018, when you received back-to-back nominations for best supporting actor at Critics Choice Awards, and the Emmys allowed you to submit in the supporting actor category, and that was something that you did at the time – where are you right now in terms of how you feel about this whole situation, this whole issue?
Dillon: Thank you again for asking about it and letting me talk about it. In 2017 – and again, if you Google this, I’m basically quoting – but that’s okay. In 2017, when Showtime asked me how I want to be submitted for an Emmy, actor or actress, I thought, Well, I know that I use the word “actor” and always have, because “actor” is a gender-neutral word that has existed for at least a century before the word “actress” came into being. And so to me, “actor” historically is a non-gendered word and that’s the word I’ve always used, but I needed to pose the question to the Emmy board, what “actor” and “actress” meant to them. Did it mean “male” or “female,” did it mean “man” or “woman,” and if they were dividing people by sex or gender, respectfully, why were they doing that? What does gender identity and/or assigned sex at birth have to do with the way in which we are awarding art? And they came back and said, There’s never been any rule. Anyone can enter either category for any reason. And I thought, Great. I can enter the actor category because the word “actor” is non-gendered and that works for me.
And then I don’t know exactly when it happened, but I think probably last year, I can’t pinpoint it exactly, I really came to an understanding that the choice between actor and actress in the context of award shows where those words only mean “man/woman,” “male/female” gender or assigned sex, asking non-binary or intersex or gender nonconforming people to choose between those categories is a false choice. And the categories existing within the context of the awards show are exclusionary and it is erasure of anyone who exists outside of the gender binary. The male/female categories uphold the gender binary, which is ultimately extraordinarily dangerous for anyone who identifies outside of it. I got to speak to NPR about it, and I’ll just repeat something that I said there, which is like, Okay, so then if Denzel Washington can enter as an actress and Viola Davis can enter as an actor, then the Emmys themselves have shown the categories to be absurd and archaic and ultimately meaningless. And I applaud the Gotham Awards for abolishing their gendered acting categories. And I really think it is only a matter of time and truly not that long until the Tonys, the Emmys and the Oscars follow suit.
Sun: Just to set the scene for people, this isn’t like a quixotic quest. Like you just said, the Gotham Awards just announced that they’re abolishing it, the MTV Movie and TV Awards, you were the very first person in 2017 to present a gender-neutral acting category, and I believe that both the Berlin and San Sebastian film festivals have gender-neutral categories. So it’s realistic to think that we might see this someday.
Dillon: Totally. It’s about making space for everyone. Not everyone identifies within the binary. And if we are trying to award art that is representational of everyone, then we need to be representing everyone, and abolishing gendered awards is one part of the change that needs to happen. We also need to see more roles for women, especially and particularly women of color, trans, non-binary and gender nonconforming and intersex people. We need to see roles written for them that are Emmy-, Tony- and Oscar-worthy. It isn’t just about abolishing the categories. It’s about changing and evolving the material that is created within quote-unquote “Hollywood.”
Sun: Precisely. I think a lot of times the awards nowadays are about acknowledging some superlative performances and craft, but they’re also like a litmus test to see how have we been doing in terms of having enough substantive parts for people who don’t fit into that dominant identity.
So our last two questions that I ask every podcast guest, I’m going to give them both to you, because I’ve realized that people get really confused when I only ask the first one. So I’ll give them both to you at the same time. The first question is the Hollywood Remixed, which is: Is there a depiction of a non-binary character in pop culture that you would order a do-over for, and how? This is generally a setup to be like, is there something problematic you want to call out, but we don’t have to put it that way. And then the second one is going to be the more positive spin, which is the Hidden Gem. Is there a work that you would recommend?
Dillon: Frankly, if I’m allowed to promote myself and the show, I would say, if you haven’t watched Billions, watch Billions. I’m incredibly proud of Taylor as a character. I don’t think of Taylor as a hidden gem, but maybe they are.
And then what representation would I change? Honestly, I feel like I don’t have an answer for that, because I don’t think there’s anything that I would throw under the bus. Nothing has come my way where I’m like, “God, that feels really awful.” And that may just be because I haven’t seen it, like someone might call or write into your podcast and be like, “Well, you have to watch this because it exists and it’s awful.” And then I will, and I’ll be like, “Oh God, that is pretty terrible.”
Sun: That’s okay. That’s a message of self-care, is what you’re saying: Don’t expose yourself to problematic portrayals. And also it has probably just seldom been attempted, to be honest. I think that there are more examples of attempts at transgender portrayals. I combed through this in the first half of this podcast with one of my colleagues who is non-binary, and there’s not a long history.
Dillon: So you actually just gave an example of a thing that came to my mind that I want to say. What I can think of as problematic is when non-binary characters are written – and I’m not saying I’ve seen evidence of this – but when non-binary characters are written without anyone consulting a non-binary person, whether it be actors they are considering for the role, but frankly it needs to happen before then. It needs to happen because there is a non-binary writer who’s been brought in, a consultant, a producer. I’m preaching to the choir, obviously, but the more diverse your writers’ room is, your production team is, the more diverse your whole project is, the more accurate your representation will be. And you will frankly eliminate the likelihood that you have a non-binary character that I’m going to go, “God, you really need to do that over because that was bad.”
If you see a non-binary character where the representation is just about their identity and/or they die in some horrific manner and/or they only have one episode, that is evidence to me that there was no non-binary person involved in that project except the actor who was cast. And perhaps in that instance, for whatever reason, that actor didn’t have the agency to influence ultimately what the story was. Actors need to act, actors need money. Don’t hate the player, hate the game, you know what I mean? And so if you want to avoid being the answer to a do-over question, expand your universe to have it be more inclusive and look more like what the world actually looks like. You know what I mean?
Sun: That’s a such a universal maxim. And I was thinking that Taylor can be held up in many ways as a universal example of that positive representation not just for non-binary identity, but for so many of the characters on Billions, I feel like the writers have done a great job of making them authentically and organically the identity that they have, whether it’s racial or gender or different ways, but it’s never the focus of what their storyline or what their character is all about. It’s a masterful way of showing a multidimensional, incredibly complex, awesome character that I think many performers would kill to play. And guess what, this character is non-binary.
I love Taylor. Asia, thank you for letting me indulge my inner fan for so long. This was such a pleasure. Billions season five is currently back and airing on Showtime on Sundays. Check it out. Thank you again.
Dillon: Thank you so much, Rebecca. That was a real pleasure. Thank you for your really thoughtful questions. Thank you for doing all the research you did before coming into this. I love that you work with a non-binary person. I felt really comfortable and safe this whole time, and that doesn’t always happen. So thank you.
Sun: That means a lot to me. Thank you very much. I’m definitely still learning. It’s amazing how much, while prepping for this episode, I was like, Wow, it’s really hard to decolonize your brain from the gender binary. It’s very difficult for me to dismantle it, I’ll be honest. It’s worthwhile practice though. So thank you so much.
Dillon: Thank you so much.
Transition music: A short segment from the intro theme.
Sun: Thanks again to Asia Kate Dillon and THR associate editor Abbey White for joining us on Hollywood Remixed today. You can watch Asia on Billions, whose fifth season is airing now Sundays at 9 p.m. on Showtime. Next week, we’ll explore narratives about undocumented immigrants with Blue Bayou filmmaker and star Justin Chon. Please subscribe to Hollywood Remixed on the podcast platform of your choice so that you don’t miss it.
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