‘One Day At A Time’ Has a Nuanced Nonbinary Character

· Updated on May 28, 2018

Last year, Netflix’s One Day At A Time premiered to much critical acclaim, and for good reason. A remake of the classic Norman Lear series of the same name, co-developers Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce updated it to center a Cuban-American family, resulting in a blend of modernity and tradition. The sitcom balances humor with heavier issues (post-traumatic stress disorder, coming out, immigration and deportation) but does so in a multi-camera format, and in front of a live studio audience.

The first season was emotional and realisticdoubly so because I’m half-Latinxand the second season, which premiered last Friday, is even better. One of the most poignant and resonating storylines in season one was when teen daughter Elena (Isabella Gomez) came out as a lesbian to her family who with the exception of her father, all ended up pretty cool about it. In season two, Elena remains a main character as she deals with her first crush and starts dating. What’s particularly noteworthy about Elena’s foray into dating is that it coincides with One Day At A Time introducing its first gender non-conforming character.

2017 was “notably the first time GLAAD has been able to count nonbinary characters” in its annual “Where We Are on TV” report. Though GLAAD only counted four, we’ve seen small strides: Asia Kate Dillon received a Best Supporting Actor nomination from the Critics’ Choice Television Awards for their portrayal of Taylor Mason in Billions while Transparent’s fourth season included Ali Pfefferman’s (Gaby Hoffmann) ongoing gender exploration (which, in some ways, mirrors non-binary creator Jill Soloway’s own experiences). Representation is always important but it can be argued that this representation is even more important in youth programming and family-oriented shows that are catered to, and watched by, younger viewers. Including various marginalized identitiesbe it race, gender, sexuality, or whateverhelps to destroy the negative stereotypes that some of society reinforces. It helps to normalize people who are often “othered.”

Fortunately, some younger-skewing shows understand this, like Amazon’s Danger & Eggs, a children’s cartoon created by a trans woman, which boasts a wealth of inclusive characters: trans youth, gay parents, an agender character named Milo (voiced by Tyler Ford) who uses they/them pronouns. Last year, teen drama juggernaut Degrassi: Next Class (which found a new life on Netflix) included a storyline where teenager Yael (Jamie Bloch) figures out that they’re genderqueer. It’s very Genderqueer 101, as Degrassi tends to be, but it’s a smart introductory episode to any teenager going through something similar.

One Day At A Time, which isn’t specifically a children’s show but a family comedy (and one that lends itself perfectly to marathon-viewing with your own family), takes a different but also-effective approach beginning in an episode cheekily-titled “To Zir, With Love.” When Elena’s “Feminist Gamers of Echo Park” advocacy group introduces themselves to Elena’s family, they do so with their names and pronouns. Syd (Sheridan Pierce) goes by “they/them” while Margaux uses “ze/zir.”

The adults in the room are confused (“My thoughts are ‘Huh?’ and ‘What?’” jokes Elena’s mom Penelope after the rapid-fire intros), but Elena succinctly explains “Because some people are gender non-conforming, they have certain preferred pronouns” and that’s about it. Sure, in true sitcom fashion, there are some jokessuch as an actually funny “Who’s On First”-like exchangebut none are mean-spirited, and all are respectful. One Day At A Time doesn’t pause to debate the legitimacy of nonbinary identities, or to make boring comments about millennials and PC culture. It just moves on.

“It was as simple as representation matters. Nonbinary people exist, Elena would encounter them, and we have an incredible platform from which to shed light on the stories of all kinds of people,” writer Michelle Badillo told me over email when I asked about the conception of the character and storyline. Syd and Elena begin dating in that same episode, and their relationship continues throughout the season, allowing Syd to recur and become a fully-realized character. Syd’s characterization goes beyond their gender identity: They’re an adorable nerd, homeschooled, endearingly awkward, and completely into Elena (and the feeling is mutual). When Syd and Elena are at odds, it has nothing to do with Syd’s identity but just the awkwardness of being insecure teenagers in their first relationship.

Badillo emphasized how important it was to write “respectfully” when it came to Syd’s character and storyline. “We did what we always dopull from personal experience, and reach out to other people to educate ourselves on what we don’t know,” said Badillo. “I am a genderqueer person, and myself and other writers in the room have other non-binary/GNC people in our circles we reached out to over the course of the season to keep us on track.”

This careful attention, and actively seeking out further education, is necessary when successfully and inoffensively writing a character like Syd (and it also proves the importance of inclusive writers rooms, not just inclusive characters), especially when it comes to positive portrayals and relatability. While racing through the 13 episodes, I was thrilled to see nonbinary representation on television, thankful that Elena’s family didn’t misgender Syd with the wrong pronouns or ask invasive questions (and I was jealous that I didn’t have a show like this when I was younger and still trying to figure my own shit out). But at the same time, some smaller moments made me pause: when Elena says “preferred pronouns” (which is common even within LGBTQ+ circles) or whenever someone (including Elena) refers to Syd with the term “girlfriend,” thus ascribing binary gender to someone who is non-binary. In one episode, when Elena, arm around Syd, explicitly says “I’m a girl, who likes girls,” I cringed a bit, thinking of how often that phraseinnocently said by friends, displayed on dating profiles, in the copy of queer eventsmakes me feel like I’m not wanted, or even included.

As it turns out, however, the One Day At A Time writers had “several lengthy discussions about whether Elena identifying as a lesbian or the signifier ‘girlfriend’ were disrespectful to or exclusionary of Syd’s identity.” According to Badillo, the writers ultimately decided that “Syd believes in gender as a spectrum, prefers they/them pronouns to respect their gender fluidity, but uses queer/lesbian/gay interchangeably and thus doesn’t feel boxed in (or boxed out, as the case may be) by the term ‘girlfriend.’”

This explanation resonates (how many of us have interchanged those descriptors in just one week?) primarily because it speaks to the way that our various identities are layered, how they sometimes overlap, and how they can work withor againsteach other. As a nonbinary person, I flinch when I’m lumped in with “women,” but less so when it’s specifically “black women” because growing up black in a woman’s body has informed a great deal of my existence and personality, and because using they/them pronouns doesn’t automatically end racialized sexism. It reminds me of a tweet from comedian Rhea Butcher: “I’m non binary [sic] but I identify WITH women,” a distinctionand frequently a political distinctionthat I think of often in terms of fluidity and the gender spectrum. Maybe Syd thinks the same way; maybe Syd just doesn’t give a shit what they’re called, and that’s fine, too.

“There are as many identities as there are people to have them, and this is how I have personally felt in my life,” Badillo wrote, before adding that the writers reached out to “other queer GNC people to make sure I’m not the only person who doesn’t feel that these identities are necessarily at odds.” What especially strikes me about this plotand Badillo’s thoughtful answersis that it’s reflective of how the umbrella of gender nonconformity is infinite and and always changing. There isn’t one specific way to be non-binary or genderqueerisn’t that sort of the point?and television can be a great way to depict this uniqueness.

One Day At A Time’s Syd is a welcome addition to our excruciatingly slow-growing list of gender non-conforming characters in media, but it’s absolutely not enough. “There’s certainly more representation than ever, but we need more,” says Badillo. “Non-binary/GNC people exist, they are plentiful, and we need to be seen and heard and normalized in all our various glorious complicated forms.”

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