Last year saw more projects on display from non-binary and gender-non-compliant creators than ever before.
By Valerie Ettenhofer · Published January 18, 2022
This article is part of our 2021 Rewind. Stay tuned as we explore the best and most interesting movies, shows, performances and more from this very strange year. In this post, Valerie Ettenhofer explores the many contributions of non-binary creators to our pop culture in 2021.
If The Matrix Resurrection teaches us one thing, that binaries are the worst. Okay, that may not be exactly the message in Lana Wachowski’s blockbuster action sequel, but the director’s message of powerful love beyond a binary reality still resonates with both LGBTQ + and straight fans.
In fact, 2021 was a big year in general for movies and series that reject gender classification. Despite working in an industry that is still clearly built with rigid gender binary conditions in mind (see: acting categories in awards ceremonies; research into gender inequality that completely ignores non-binary people), non-binary creators seem to was able to tell more stories than ever before.
There have always been queer and gender mismatch stories available for those who knew where to find them, but by 2021 it was starting to get a little easier to find them. The Critics Choice-nominated documentary I’m Pauli Murray explores the life of a 20th century vital lawyer and activist and sheds light on their non-binary identity in the process.
Non-binary actors and non-conformist 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 If Moore. And while the year contained some setbacks – Noelle Stevenson‘s Nimona customization, 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 see them.
Before we jump in, though, two quick notes.
First, the spectrum of gender identities outside the binary of men and women is enormous and constantly evolving. The talented creators on this list can identify as non-binary, but they can also identify as transgender, gender-neutral, 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 that is really not our case. There are no doubt working filmmakers who do not feel comfortable sharing their non-binary gender identity with the public, and that is entirely their right. So far, in this article, we will specifically celebrate filmmakers with unique perspectives, all of whom have publicly revealed their pronoun preferences or gender identities.
Hopefully, lists like this will only continue to grow as talented filmmakers who do not match open Hollywood gates for all the talented who want to get through.
Who made it: Mae Martin (de / hun) plays the main role in the series, which they also helped to create and wrote together
Where to see it: Netflix
Mae Martin’s semi-autobiographical romantic comedy series ended this year after two excellent seasons, but not before delivering a final 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 get out. In the second season, the series continues to struggle with these issues, but it also unpacks some of Mae’s traumas as they receive a PTSD diagnosis.
On top of everything else, Mae begins to explore their gender identity. The topic comes up in a sweet scene where Mae says that the way they feel about themselves is “not really a thing”, and George tells them to Google “non-binary.” “You tell me and I want to use the right words,” George tells Mae, and in that vulnerable moment it feels like one of the most romantic things one can say to another.
If I can not have love, I will have power
Who made it: Halsey (she / they) wrote the film, which they also star in, and perform music for
Where to see it: HBO Max
When singer Halsey became pregnant, they said on Instagram that they “thought pregnancy would yield [them] very strong, binary feelings about ‘femininity’ “, but that the experience is actually” leveled [their] complete gender perception. “Later in the year, Halsey brilliantly unpacked some of these complex emotions with an hour-long visual album that sees the singer assume a Marie Antoinette-like role as a pregnant character held on a pedestal, persecuted and punished on The visuals that accompany the concept album are dark, decadent and mysterious, addressing the mysteries of childbirth and gendered expectations directly, while Colin Tilley acts as the film’s director, Halsey’s vision emerges crystal clear.
Who made it: Natalie Morales (she / she) directed and co-wrote the film
Where to see it: He VOD
Natalie Morales directed not one, but two major films in 2021. Language teaching is a drama shot entirely during the pandemic lockdown. The film stars Morales as a Spanish director taking a new student to virtual lessons. The student is Adam (Mark Duplass), a man whose husband bought the tuition for him as a gift. Over the course of several lessons, the couple maintains a constantly evolving relationship and eventually reveals painful secrets to each other from a distance. The film is completely dependent on the ability of the two actors to maintain a connection without being in the same place, and unlike many films from the Zoom era, it actually achieves what it is trying to achieve.
Who made it: Natalie Morales (she / she) directed the film
Where to see it: Hulu
Morales’ second film from 2021, Plan B, is a bold, outrageous teenage comedy about two friends (Victoria Moroles and Kuhoo Verma) who take on a chaotic road trip to Planned Parenthood after one of them unexpectedly loses their virginity to a party. Plan B is the type of lifelike teen movie that comes far too infrequently. Its protagonists are clever, caring and unapologetically dirty, and they face adult problems in the only way they can: together. As it unfolds, the film struggles maturely with topics such as sexuality and religion, before delivering a belly beat of a climax that reminds viewers what the story was about to begin with.
In a way
Who made it: Bilal Baig (de / dem) helped create and contribute to the series, and wrote several episodes
Where to see it: HBO Max
This CBC co-production flew under the radar when it premiered on HBO Max this fall, but it shouldn’t. The drama follows a sex-fluid millennial named Sabi (Baig) who navigates the expectations of their Pakistani parents, their jobs as a nanny and bartender, and their own non-gender identity. “I never feel good,” Sabi tells their friend Bessy (Grace Lynn Kung), and that discomfort turns into quiet anxiety as Bessy is seriously injured early in the series. It all sounds dramatic, but the beauty of In a way comes from its ability to remain low-key, immerse viewers in its world and casually groundbreaking, while remaining true to its distinctive voice.
Who made it: Shatara Michelle Ford directed the film
Where to see it: Starz
Few first-time directorial debuts hit as hard last year as Shatara Michelle Fords Test pattern. The film follows a black woman named Renesha (Brittany S. Hall), who must navigate a traumatic and helpless system as she wakes up in a hotel room, disoriented after a night on the town. Her white boyfriend Evan (Will Brill) takes her to a hospital, where the couple requests a set of rapes. From there, the tense film only gets more tightly wounded as Renesha is thrown into a seemingly endless chain of frustrating and dehumanizing next steps. All the while, her relationship, which is suddenly more fragile than it was before, hangs in the balance. Test pattern is a powerful, shocking drama and a confident debut by Ford.
We’re all going to the World’s Fair
Who made it: Jane Schoenbrun (he / she) directed and wrote the film
Where to see it: On HBO Max later this year
Jane Schoenbrun’s nervous story of growing up will technically not be widely available until it hits theaters and HBO Max this year, but it picked up lots of enthusiastic fans at the 2021 festival circuit, including several people on the FSR team. On the surface, the film is about a teenager, Casey (Anna Cobb), who is engrossed in the online history of a game called World’s Fair Challenge. But as the eerie story unfolds, it is clear that it avoids simple description. As Casey dives deeper into the online community around the challenge, the film plants itself in the vulnerable space between childhood naivety and adult fantasy. It is as painful as it is eerie and painfully familiar to anyone who grew up unattended on the internet.
Related topics: 2021 Rewind
Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV lover and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics’ Choice Association’s TV and documentary departments. Twitter: @aandeandval (She her)