People often feel rejected when they do not conform to social norms. Barbara Risman, a sociology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, comments on how a binary system has dominated the United States throughout history. “We’ve never had anything close to a third category” (Wortham, 2018). Those that do not identify explicitly as either male or female (nonbinary people) may feel hesitant because society makes it seem that people can only identify as male or female. Fortunately, pop culture has encouraged people to freely express their gender identity.
In 2014, Facebook updated its application, adding nonbinary as a gender identity and the pronoun “they.” Matice Moore, who identifies as nonbinary, recalls, “I always felt that I have a boy inside me who needs to share space with this woman-facing identity, but I didn’t know how to bring that to the surface.” After hearing about Facebook’s update, Moore said their identity felt “crystallized and important” (Wortham, 2018). Social media provides this platform that makes nonbinary people all around the world feel connected rather than alone.
Pew Research Center, an independent research organization, conducted a one-month survey from January 2019 to February 2019 and found that 76% of those ages 18 to 29 utilize Instagram daily, with 60% checking Instagram several times each day (Perrin & Anderson, 2019). The content that people view on Instagram, such as posts made by celebrities, may have a positive impact on their lives. In 2017, Grammy-award winning singer-songwriter Sam Smith told The Sunday Times newspaper, “I don’t know what the title would be, but I feel just as much woman as I am man.” Fast-forward to 2019, Sam announced on Instagram that their pronouns are “they/them.” Their caption mentions, “After a lifetime of being at war with my gender, I’ve decided to embrace myself for who I am.” Sam understands that mis-gendering will be a common mistake that will be encountered, but Sam urges people to try their best to respect their gender identity (Law, 2019). Those that follow Sam on social media may feel inspired by his post and realize that they do not have to be cisgender if they do not feel like a cisgender man or woman.
Outside of social media, television shows have demonstrated a breakthrough in pop culture by including non-binary characters. For instance, in season 15 of Grey’s Anatomy, when surgical attending Richard Webber met patient Toby Donnelly, he referred to Toby as “she.” Toby corrects him by saying, “I’m a ‘they.’ I’m genderqueer, non-binary.” Although Richard initially appeared to be confused, he later realized how important preferred gender pronouns are. Fans commemorated the show on social media such as Twitter. One fan tweeted, “Grey’s Anatomy is always taking steps to make sure people of different ages, races, sexual orientations, and gender identities are represented. I love this show so much” (Bastidas, 2019).
Pop culture has been reinforcing the idea that representation matters. This is crucial because when people can relate to others on social media or fictional characters from television series, they feel a sense of belonging. Social norms suddenly shrink and appear less scary as people see that other groups exist outside of the traditional standard. There is still a lot that has to be done to make everyone feel included, but we as a society are making progress.
Bastidas, J. (2019). Grey’s Anatomy breaks ground with gender non-binary patient storyline. Retrieved from https://popculture.com/tv-shows/2019/03/22/greys-anatomy-breaks-ground-gender-non-binary-patient-storyline/
Law, T. (2019). ‘My pronouns are they/them.’ Singer Sam Smith changes pronouns to gender-neutral. Retrieved from https://time.com/5677668/sam-smith-they-them-pronouns/
Perrin, A., & Anderson, M. (2019). Share of U.S. adults using social media, including Facebook, is mostly unchanged since 2018. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/04/10/share-of-u-s-adults-using-social-media-including-facebook-is-mostly-unchanged-since-2018/
Wortham, J. (2018). On Instagram, seeing between the gender lines. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/11/16/magazine/tech-design-instagram-gender.html