On the Gender Binary and Representing the Invisible: A Speculative Project

© Copyright 2020 Richie J Ocean, Ryerson University.

My exploration of visual culture starts with the invisible. Specifically, I am interested in the dual process by which the gender binary as a system simultaneously works to naturalize itself while precluding the possibility of genders beyond the binary. The result of these interrelated processes is that ideas of binary gender are deeply engrained in how we perceive the world—so engrained, in fact, that we tend to take them for granted and assume them to be innate. In this project the aim is to ask how the gender binary as ideology works to erase non-binary and non-conforming gender identities and experiences. By questioning a process that largely happens below the surface of awareness, I am seeking to denaturalize assumptions about the binary. I will be approaching these questions from both a theoretical (drawing from gender and queer studies) and personal perspective, with the goal of making a project that can represent both; of course, such a representation must necessarily always be an incomplete one due to the expansive and subjective nature of the undertaking. I will be making a series of short comics and drawings that visually depicts concepts from the gender binary (for example, the idea that there are only two genders), as well as others that depict what it feels like to be erased by this binary (for example, through the experience of being misgendered). At the time of writing this I must content myself with an incomplete project, but my intention is to keep developing it beyond this and exhaust the limits of what I feel capable of achieving with this project.

The comic format will allow me, ideally, to give viewers a different point of entry into understanding the aforementioned concepts and experiences. Of particular relevance is the way that drawings and the use of colors and space can convey emotions beyond what words can do. My hopes for this project are multifaceted. For myself, it will help me work through how I feel and think about these experiences, because not only am I experiencing them, but I am turning my gaze intently toward them and seeking to inquire and elucidate their meanings. This project is also an act of creating space for myself and representing myself. For others who are familiar with such experiences, they might get the soothing experience of feeling witnessed, of being purposefully given space and presence. Finally, it might also be helpful for people who are unfamiliar with such ideas to be able to grasp them better. I think that giving a visual representation of something that we have come to see (or rather, not see) as inherent can be jarring and destabilizing, which can help spur people into questioning the innateness with which they previously approached (or failed to engage with) the subject.

Here I provide an example comic (see figure 1), inspired by Life Isn’t Binary’s discussion on how sex, and subsequently gender, is categorized at birth essentially by the doctor looking at the new-born’s genitals; in reality, sex and gender are both much more complex than that (Barker & Ianfatti 56-57). When the issue is phrased this way, it is extremely off-putting—and even more so because fundamentally, it is true. On top of such blatant phrasing, I believe that a simple representational drawing can further highlight the bizarreness of such a practice because an image gives it a material existence. The comic format allows me to use words and images as symbols to efficiently paint a picture; I do not have to render every detail to demonstrate the setting I am trying to evoke—I merely need certain signifiers to clue in the reader/viewer. Furthermore, the pink and blue boxes in the fifth panel are an easy and effective symbol to highlight many things: the pink and blue serve to represent the gender binary, and how this ideology permeates so many aspects of one’s life (e.g. painting a “baby girl’s” room pink, the toys the child will receive, etc., etc.); the boxes are a literal symbol for how categorizing someone in such a way is to place them in a box. Finally, the humor of the comic is ironic and serves to further highlight the absurdity of such a system.

 

 

Figure 1: Richie J Ocean. “Assigned gender at birth.” April 2020.

 

 

In engaging with this project, I am engaging with a rich history both in gender and queer studies as well as comic studies and practices. At the intersection of these two, queer comics have been around for over a century (Davidson). When one’s identity is counter to the mainstream, the personal is always political. Life narratives and autobiography are popular comic forms to portray the queer experience. In my work, I am seeking not so much to tell a story, as I am to illustrate ideas, concepts, and feelings. By this I mean: for example, I am drawing inspiration from Pawlik’s Gender Slices to better understand how I want to represent my own experiences with gender, but while Pawlik’s main character is, well, them, mine is not so much about me experiencing something, rather it focuses on representing the experience itself.

By this I also mean: I want to take theoretical concepts, such as Judith Butler’s ideas in her text “Imitation and Gender Insubordination” and translate them into comic. Here I provide an example of the type of comic/translation I have in mind. Although the original intent of my examples here does not pertain to gender, I use them here to demonstrate the type of ideological translation I have in mind. See figure 2. The first comic strip, “From Explicit to Implicit,” contemplates how herpes stigma became part of the public consciousness. Very briefly, this is based on the history of herpes discourse in the media, which saw an original moral panic in the early 1980s. The topic was very prominent in print articles around that time. After it largely faded from media discourse, the beliefs were still present because they had been internalized. My comic strip seeks to represent the building of momentum of the discourse, after which it was disseminated throughout public beliefs; the energy was no longer concentrated in the media, but had been dispersed, into everybody’s minds.

 

 

Figure 2. Richie J Ocean. “From Explicit to Implicit” and “Reification.” March 2020.

 

 

 

The second strip, “Reification,” likewise focuses on herpes stigma. Here I am exploring how the constant repetition of such ideas work to reinforce them. For example, every time someone makes a joke about herpes, they are feeding into the long history of shame and stigma and affirming its existence. In the first panel, the yellow character is a depiction of an idea (in this case that herpes is, essentially, gross), embodied to demonstrate how something intangible is given material weight. The second panel is someone speaking that idea. Panels three to five show how that person’s reiteration has given more substance to the original idea. Finally, panels six to eleven demonstrate how each time the idea is reiterated, more weight is given to the idea. It is a process that happens through repetition. Although this image was not originally made with the topic of gender in mind, there can likewise be represented here the way in which gender is reaffirmed by every word, action, etc., we make in the name of gender. In this way, it can show how gender is not a fixed category, but one in which we are continuously investing meaning.

Meg-John Barker and Julia Scheele have worked together to produce two graphic books pertaining to gender and queerness: Gender: A Graphic Guide and Queer: A Graphic History. Although these texts engage both with theory and comics, they do so in a way where the graphics simply work to bolster the text—e.g., a picture of Michel Foucault with a speech bubble, with a simple statement of the ideology he puts forth (Barker & Scheele, “Queer” 72). As far as I have found, these texts are the closest that come to what I am hoping to do, but my aim is for my images itself to convey, in some form or iteration, an idea or concept (although, of course images can be subjective, so I envision texts or quotes or references to authors coupled with the images I would produce, to give readers the possibility of accessing meaning through both words and image).

A simple example of such a depiction is to demonstrate how the gender binary separates everything into boy/girl, compared to the vast array of gender experiences people actually have. In my view, the simplicity of the image allows me to convey an idea effectively and efficiently. I am using the association of girl/pink and boy/blue to my advantage here to depict how gender is perceived by the gender binary; on the next page, still maintaining simple colors but adding more variance allows me to demonstrate how the categorization put forth by the gender binary is severely lacking. See figures 3 and 4.

 

 

Figure 3. Richie J Ocean. “Gender, According to the Binary.” February 2020.
Figure 4. Richie J Ocean. “Gender, Actually.” April 2020.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In this portion I now present some of the gender and queer theory concepts that I am excited to explore in this project as well as why I think a comic format would help to elucidate some of the potential meanings. Of course, Judith Butler’s work is foundational in the question of gender identity. As aforementioned, I am interested in her discussion in “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.” One of the arguments she brings up that is most immediately relevant here is the idea that there is no actual fixed identity, and that in fact everything we do serves to continuously construct this sense of identity; it is a constant repetition. If there is repetition, though, then there is necessarily space in between those repetitions, and, necessarily too, some difference between the first, second, third… iterations.

To draw a parallel (pun intended) with comics, Rifkind and Warley note that

The serial self of autobiographical comics, then, is a visual repetition of a body drawn over and over again to assert its presence on the page as well as a thematic, even philosophical, experimentation with being and becoming a person who lives from one moment to the next (appears in one panel to the next) but is not always self-same. (12-13)

In this way, autobiographical comics, by very nature of their format—that is, the repetition of the self—highlight the differentness of being from one moment to the next, even though the being is understood as one continuous, seamless identity. Likewise, with gender, it is not innate, but something that we are reaffirming continuously through the meanings we attribute to everything we perceive (e.g. associating the color pink with femininity). Furthermore, another important aspect of the comic format is the gutters between panels: this space is not just a void between two moments, but rather opens up possibilities between moments. The reader/viewer of the comic must interpret many aspects of the comic (Rifkind & Warley 10), and pertaining to the gutter, there is a literal need to read between the lines. Coming back to Butler’s argument: if gender is a series of repetitions, then that means there necessarily must be something in between the repetitions—something to read between the lines. I do not know what exploring this idea might look like on paper yet, but for these reasons I believe there is value in attempting to translate some of Butler’s arguments into a comic format—there are possibilities as of yet unknown to open up.

Sara Ahmed’s work Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others is also of particular interest to me. Although in her work she is primarily discussing how people are queered by their sexual orientation and their race, many of her ideas are easily applicable to gender non-conformity as well. Ahmed’s use of phenomenology to explore queerness appeals to me because I firmly believe that one’s experience of moving through the world is shaped by the material environment—the body, others, our relationships to everything. Because of the materiality of phenomenology, I likewise believe the comic format is an ideal medium because it can bring these phenomenological ideas onto the physical plane to some degree, as opposed to remaining in the realm of written language. Drawing allows for a different way of exploring space and the physical experience by virtue of representing it more tangibly. Furthermore, there is a certain physicality that can accompany feelings of dysphoria, although it is not something I know how to convey in words—at least not for myself, not at this time. The hope here is thus that I can explore what it means, as a gender non-binary person, to navigate (in a figurative and literal way) a world that is closed off to possibilities beyond the binary.

Ahmed’s work highlights the importance of perspective and argues that where our focus goes, our experience shall follow. Therefore, if we are oriented towards the idea of binary gender, then we must necessarily be turning away from countless other possibilities of gender. To have something in perspective means that something must necessarily be outside of our perspective. Ahmed notes:

We can think, in other words, of the background not simply in terms of what is around what we face, as the “dimly perceived,” but as produced by acts of relegation: some things are relegated to the background in order to sustain a certain direction; in other words, in order to keep attention on what is faced. Perception involves such acts of relegation that are forgotten in the very preoccupation with what it is that is faced. (31)

This argument underlines the double process of erasure I opened this project with. As it pertains to gender, genders outside of the binary are made invisible because we do not pay attention to them; by focusing on the gender binary we are relegating other gender experiences to the background. Of importance is that the gender binary requires this relegation in order to sustain itself; one frank look at the system involves questions and involves the necessary recognition that the system is not in fact as sturdy as it attempts to be. And, significantly too, the very act of relegating other genders to the background is also an important part of how the gender binary can maintain itself as a structure; by making the relegation a seemingly natural part of the human experience, there is no room to question it, for it does not even appear in one’s consciousness—it simply happens.

The writing of this speculative project makes me eager to continue it. Although it is with regret that I am not presenting a fully formed project, I also recognize that this is something that is important to me beyond the bounds of an academic course. Gathering my ideas here is showing me that there are many possibilities for how this project can expand, and it is something I am looking forward to nursing, to investing time and energy into. The actual creation of the drawings and comics is a welcome challenge, as it is forcing me to question how I understand the concepts and experiences I am exploring and is encouraging me to allow creativity to come through in unforeseen ways as I figure out how to move beyond words.


Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke University Press, 2006.

Barker, Meg-John, and Alex Iantaffi. Life Isn’t Binary: On Being Both, Beyond, and In-Between. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2019.

Butler, Judith. “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.” Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay  Theories, edited by Diana Fuss, Routledge, 1991, pp. 13-31.

Davidson, Heather. “Beyond Bechdel: A Brief History of Comics.” Book Riot, 5 May 2016. https://bookriot.com/2016/05/05/beyond-bechdel-a-brief-history-of-queer-comics/. Accessed 1 March 2020.

Julia Scheele, illustrator. Gender: A Graphic Guide. By Meg-John Barker. Icon Books, 2019.

Julia Scheele, illustrator. Queer: A Graphic History. By Meg-John Barker. Icon Books, 2016.

Pawlik, Jey. Gender Slices. Topaz Comics, 2019.

Rifkind, Candida and Linda Warley, editors. Canadian Graphic: Picturing Life Narratives. Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2016.


Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.