I have been writing about gender for years. I obsessively read gender related material (like this), I constantly look for new media featuring people who don’t conform to gender norms. I would have thought that entertainment in general had already covered the bases on that topic. But I keep being wrong about everything.
I downloaded PokémonUranium this weekend. It’s a fan made Pokémon game almost a decade in the making and it’s a game that’s nearly indistinguishable from the stuff that Game Freak and the Pokémon company have put out in years past, which is a serious compliment from such a Pokémon nerd as myself. There is one big difference at character creation though.
You can play a non-binary character.
There is the boy on the left, the girl on the right and the non-binary character in the middle. I heard about this choice before I downloaded the game and dismissed it as trivial for me because I don’t identify that way. I’m a transgender woman, and I want to play someone like myself, so I’ll just pick the girl, obviously.
And then it came time to make the choice. And it took me a while staring at the screen and asking myself- if you had your choice, when you were a tween, what would you have looked like? It was obvious. The one with the spiky hair and comfy clothes who looks less concerned with appearance but definitely isn’t a boy. And in that moment I honestly forgot about the fact that this was supposed to be a non-binary option, I was just picking the person I wanted to look like the most.
Then the character’s story started being told and the gender neutral pronouns started coming out, and everyone just used those when talking to my character. And it was strangely empowering. I showed the character off to people when I showed off the game, pointing out just how cute my character was. I was strangely proud of this character design that I had literally no input on, and I felt more like myself running around the new Tandor Region of the game than I ever had in a Pokémon game.
This is the effect of representation in media. We constantly drive home that we need representation from minority groups, but it’s often raised in academic sounding articles and high-minded rants with the best intentions. But it’s crazy to me how much more it meant than I expected it to.
And let me be clear, I’m pretty secure in my womanhood. I would feel as awkward about gender neutral pronouns as I do about male pronouns. In fact, while writing this article I kept wanting to call my character a girl. I kept erasing words like “she” and “her” when describing the character because I’m playing them and I identify with them so I want to see my own gender there.
No, I think what was important is that the character is overtly on the spectrum by being specifically non-binary. Not trans exactly, but kind of close enough for me. People like me are represented in this video game that I associate with my childhood, and it makes me feel included. For once memories of my childhood don’t have to include this gendered section that mars their value to me. And it makes the game mean something to me.
And yet again, I find myself surprised that people I admire know what they’re talking about. They say all these things need to be more inclusive. I agreed philosophically, but I always had the thought “but we don’t need to be thinking about that now, there’s a lot more to be done first.” Honestly, I’m shocked that I ever trust my first instinct anymore.