This article is part of our 2021 Rewind. Follow along as we explore the best and most interesting movies, shows, performances, and more from this very strange year. In this entry, Valerie Ettenhofer explores the many contributions of non-binary creators to our pop culture in 2021.
If The Matrix Resurrections teaches us one thing, it’s that binaries are the worst. Okay, maybe that isn’t exactly the message of Lana Wachowski’s blockbuster action sequel, but the director’s message of powerful love beyond a binary reality still resonates for LGBTQ+ and straight fans alike.
Actually, 2021 was a big year overall for movies and shows that reject gendered classification. Despite working in an industry that’s still clearly built with rigid gender binaries in mind (see: acting categories in award shows; research on gender inequity that totally ignores non-binary folks), it seems like non-binary creators were able to tell more stories than ever before.
There have always been queer and gender non-conforming stories available for those who knew where to find them, but in 2021, finding them started to become a bit easier. The Critics Choice-nominated documentary I Am Pauli Murray explores the life of a vital 20th-century lawyer and activist and sheds light on their non-binary identity in the process.
Non-binary and gender non-conforming actors delivered some of the most indelible performances on television, from Yellowjackets’ Liv Hewson to It’s a Sin’s Olly Alexander to Pose’s Indya Moore. And while the year included some setbacks — Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona adaptation, we hardly knew you — it also included some amazing works by non-binary writers and directors. Below, we outline several of our favorites, with notes on where to watch them.
Before we jump in, though, two quick notes.
First, the spectrum of gender identities outside the binary of men and women is vast and ever-evolving. The talented creators on this list may identify as non-binary, but they also might identify as transgender, agender, genderqueer, genderfluid, or gender non-conforming, or they might simply prefer to use gender-neutral pronouns. In an upcoming episode of Netflix’s podcast The Gay Agenda, director Natalie Morales even jokes, in perfect deadpan, that they identify as “an old typewriter.”
This brings me to my second note: gender is extremely personal, and it’s really none of our business. There are no doubt working filmmakers who don’t feel comfortable sharing their non-binary gender identity with the public, and that is absolutely their right. For now, in this article, we’ll specifically celebrate filmmakers with unique perspectives, all of whom have publicly disclosed their pronoun preferences or gender identities.
Hopefully, lists like this one will only continue to grow as talented gender non-conforming filmmakers bust open the gates of Hollywood for anyone talented who wants to come through.
Who made it: Mae Martin (they/she) stars in the series, which they also co-created and co-wrote
Where to watch it: Netflix
Mae Martin’s semi-autobiographical romantic comedy series came to an end this year after two excellent seasons, but not before delivering one last dose of intensity. When we last left them, Mae and George’s (Charlotte Ritchie) whirlwind romance was in jeopardy due to Mae’s addiction and George’s unwillingness to come out. In the second season, the series continues to grapple with these problems, but it also unpacks some of Mae’s trauma when they receive a PTSD diagnosis.
On top of everything else, Mae starts to explore their gender identity. The topic comes up in a sweet scene where Mae says the way they feel about themself is “not really a thing” and George tells them to Google “non-binary.” “You tell me and I’ll use the right words,” George says to Mae, and in that vulnerable moment, it feels like one of the most romantic things one person can say to another.
If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power
Who made it: Halsey (she/they) wrote the film, which they also star in, and perform music for
Where to watch it: HBO Max
When singer Halsey got pregnant, they said on Instagram that they “thought pregnancy would give [them] very strong, binary feelings about ‘womanhood,’” but that the experience actually “leveled [their] perception of gender entirely.” Later in the year, Halsey brilliantly unpacked some of these complex feelings with an hour-long visual album, which sees the singer take on a Marie Antoinette-like role as a pregnant character who is held on a pedestal, pursued, and punished in turn. The visuals that accompany the concept album are dark, decadent, and mystical, addressing the mysteries of childbearing and gendered expectations head-on. While Colin Tilley serves as the film’s director, Halsey’s vision comes through crystal clear.
Who made it: Natalie Morales (she/they) directed and co-wrote the film
Where to watch it: On VOD
Natalie Morales directed not one but two great films in 2021. Language Lessons is a drama shot entirely during the pandemic lockdown. The film stars Morales as a Spanish instructor who takes on a new student for virtual lessons. The student is Adam (Mark Duplass), a man whose husband bought him the lessons as a gift. Over the course of several lessons, the pair maintains a constantly evolving relationship, eventually revealing painful secrets to one another from a distance. The film relies entirely upon the two actors’ ability to maintain a connection without being in the same place, and unlike many Zoom era films, it actually accomplishes what it’s trying to achieve.
Who made it: Natalie Morales (she/they) directed the film
Where to watch it: Hulu
Morales’ other 2021 film, Plan B, is a bold, uproarious teen comedy about two friends (Victoria Moroles and Kuhoo Verma) who take a chaotic road trip to Planned Parenthood after one of them unexpectedly loses their virginity at a party. Plan B is the type of true-to-life teen flick that comes around all too rarely. Its protagonists are clever, caring, and unapologetically dirty-minded, and they face down adult problems the only way they can: together. As it unfolds, the film grapples maturely with topics like sexuality and religion, before delivering a gut-punch of a climax that reminds viewers of what the story was all about to begin with.
Who made it: Bilal Baig (they/them) co-created and stars in the series, and wrote several episodes
Where to watch it: HBO Max
This CBC co-production flew under the radar when it premiered on HBO Max this fall, but it shouldn’t have. The dramedy follows a genderfluid millennial named Sabi (Baig) who’s navigating their Pakistani parents’ expectations, their jobs as a nanny and bartender, and their own identity outside the gender binary. “I’m never comfy,” Sabi tells their friend Bessy (Grace Lynn Kung), and that discomfort turns into quiet anguish when Bessy is grievously injured early in the series. This all sounds dramatic, but the beauty in Sort Of comes from its ability to remain low-key, immersing viewers in its world and casually breaking ground while remaining true to its distinct voice.
Who made it: Shatara Michelle Ford (she/they) directed and wrote the film
Where to watch it: Starz
Few first-time directorial debuts hit as hard last year as Shatara Michelle Ford’s Test Pattern. The film follows a Black woman named Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) who must navigate a traumatizing and unhelpful system when she wakes up in a hotel room, disoriented after a night out. Her white boyfriend Evan (Will Brill) goes with her to a hospital, where the pair request a rape kit. From there, the tense film only grows more tightly wound, as Renesha is thrust into a seemingly never-ending chain of frustrating and dehumanizing next steps. All the while, her relationship, suddenly more fragile than it was before, hangs in the balance. Test Pattern is a powerful, roiling drama and a self-assured debut by Ford.
We’re All Going To The World’s Fair
Who made it: Jane Schoenbrun (they/she) directed and wrote the film
Where to watch it: On HBO Max later this year
Jane Schoenbrun’s unnerving coming-of-age story technically won’t be widely available until it hits theaters and HBO Max this year, but it picked up plenty of enthusiastic fans on the festival circuit in 2021, including several folks on the FSR team. On the surface, the movie is about a teen, Casey (Anna Cobb), who becomes engrossed in the online lore surrounding a game called the World’s Fair Challenge. But as the uncanny story unfolds, it’s clear it evades simple description. As Casey delves further into the online community surrounding the challenge, the film plants itself in the vulnerable space between childhood naivety and adult imagination. It’s as aching as it is eerie and painfully familiar for anyone who grew up unsupervised on the internet.