By: Lana Power
“Hello, I’m Taylor. My pronouns are they, theirs, and them,” says Taylor Mason, a non-binary tech intern played by Asia Kate Dillon on the hit Showtime series, “Billions.” Taylor is the first non-binary character to be represented by mainstream media, and the first character I have seen introduce their pronouns on TV, ever. Better yet, Dillon is the first openly non-binary actor to play a role that actually represents their identity.
“Billions” is a world of billionaire hedge fund managers and politicos, a backdrop of competitive and destructive hyper masculinity in which Taylor lives. We are introduced to them as an intern at Axe Capital, a Wall Street hedge fund. While they’re only an intern, their acuity is quickly noticed by Bobby Axelrod, Chief Investment Officer. Upon learning Taylor is planning to leave and pursue a master's degree, Bobby launches into a pitch to keep them, he comments that being an outsider and “see[ing] things differently” is “not a barrier; it's a lens, it's an asset, it's an edge, it's what makes you good.” Taylor’s ability to survey, analyze, deconstruct, and recapitulate financial market trends is requisite with the fact that they have had to do the same with their whole life, with themselves and their gender.
Both Asia and the character they play, Taylor, identify as non-binary people, as neither men nor women. Our first and only non-binary character, Taylor represents the possibility of embodying a perceptive outside of assumptive and socialized masculinity or femininity. When Bobby commissions Taylor to play for him in a high stakes charity poker game, Taylor is hesitant, saying: “The whole ‘My dick is bigger than yours’ thing, it [isn’t] for me. That kind of competition [makes] me sick.” Despite their contestations, Taylor ends up in the game.
They are in a face off with Bobby’s nemesis, Todd Krakow, who cannot detach from the importance of proving himself against Bobby. Krakow is angry, flustered, and he becomes easy to read. This costs him the game. When crowds of people are intently watching the game with millions of dollars at stake, Taylor’s resolve remains steady and unaffected. Refusal to align themselves with the expectations of gendered behavior while everyone else is subsumed into normative masculinity gives Taylor the distance they need to think. They have room to be more than a caricature of affirming and performing a fixed identity. This is really their ‘edge,’ what makes them ‘good.’
The context of Taylor’s queerness in the show is one where we don’t typically see queerness flourishing. Many characters quickly adopt Taylor’s pronouns, which aren’t centered as a plot point. As politics and finance are some of the slowest changing institutions of power on a social and global scale, the fair ease at which the “Billions” world accepts the identity of a non-binary person feels refreshing. It may be because Taylor’s exceptional skill and intellect makes them invaluable, and therefore respectable, to the financiers, but what the show presents is quick acceptance. In one scene, Bobby is quick to correct a misgendering. There are other minor hiccups, but Taylor’s gender is only a small part of their character development throughout the season.
While Taylor’s mainstream presence onscreen is historical, it is important to note that Taylor was written by two cis men. Looking to include someone who was exceptional and different, the writers of “Billions” wrote Taylor, and released the first casting call for a “female non-binary” actor. Asia didn’t realize they were non-binary until the “Billions” casting call. In an interview with Showtime network they recall, “When I saw the breakdown for the character, I thought, oh my gosh. There I am. There I am. There Asia is. It gave me the language to describe something about me that I’ve never been quite able to put together.” Dillon’s personal revelation could be foretelling of certain audience responses, the shock wave of identification is undetectable at this point.
After an Emmy nomination for their role in “Billions,” Dillon was given the opportunity to chose the category they would be submitted under, either ‘best actor’ or ‘best actress.’ In a letter to the Academy, they question the necessity of the categories, “If the categories of ‘actor’ and ‘actress’ are meant to denote assigned sex, I ask, respectfully, why is that necessary?” Dillion chose to compete as an ‘actor,’ a non-gendered term, which is how they self-identify their profession. Dillon stated to Variety magazine, “I think this is a really good place to start a larger conversation about the categories themselves, and what changes are possible and what may or may not be coming.” Since their letter to the Television Academy, MTV has eliminated gendered categories for best performance. At the 2017 MTV Movie and TV Awards, Dillon was asked to present the best performance award.
Trans and gender non-conforming characters have historically been played by cisgender people who do not share their characters identity. Casting cis people as trans characters perpetuates the dangerous and fraudulent assumption that trans people are really the gender they were assigned at birth. In a 2016 Twitter statement, trans actress Jen Richards from the web series “Her Story” addressed her disappointment with the casting of Matt Bomer as a transwoman in the 2017 film “Anything.”
She tweeted, “Cis audiences... see being trans itself as a performance. When @MattBomer plays a trans sex worker, he is telling the world that underneath it all, trans women like me are still really just men. And that is going to lead to violence. Not to me, likely, but to girls already most at risk.”
Until recently, Hollywood has been complicit in cis-washing its characters, minimizing trans or gender nonconforming people’s identities to performances. It was not until 2013 that Laverne Cox, the first trans actor to play a trans character, was cast in the prison drama “Orange Is the New Black.”
Representation is a powerful, if not the only, tool for creating opacity to people whose identities have been denaturalized, fetishized, and appropriated by the mainstream. Trans and gender nonconforming people in our media show us not only that people are not always the gender they were assigned at birth, but also that people can identify outside the limited options between male and female. As of now, trans people may appear as anomalies, but as our culture shakes away some of the dogma of cis-normativity, more individuals may have the tools to recognize who they really are, as Dillon did. We may collectively begin to naturalize trans-ness as much as cis-ness. This imagination beyond the binary holds the potential to challenge audiences not just beyond gender, but beyond a dogmatic doctrine of how people can be embodied in the world.
In an interview with ThinkProgress Asia expressed, “Anyone who has gone on a journey of self-discovery with specific regard to either their gender identity or their sexual orientation, I think has had to look at themselves from sort of every angle.” The multi-angular vision of oneself required by a marginalized perspective is one that all people along the gendered axis can learn from. If Taylor Mason can crack open presumptions about gendered subjectivity in our most patriarchal institutions, we too can imagine beyond the binary.