Representation of underrepresented groups in the media is frequently discussed in today’s world. Many find it a tiresome discussion, but this is often because it’s not fully understood why representation is important.
As the saying goes, art is a reflection of life. If we constantly see media without representation of a significant part of ourselves, that says we are somehow not a real part of – well, life. Representation in media states “yes, we do see you, and you do belong,” a message both for the represented and those who would denounce that group.
Magic is no exception to this and has in recent years made huge strides. We have a growing roster of diverse female planeswalkers, POC characters who stand at the center of stories, and of course Alesha, Magic’s first known trans character with her own self-contained story that emphasized her transition as an important part of her life and character.
As an agender person, I typically do not see myself represented in media. I use they/them pronouns, and requesting others respect that is always a roll of the dice as to if I will receive understanding or derision. Many don’t know that nonbinary identities exist, and there are still a vocal number of people who actively rally against these identities. Anyone who’s ever been online has seen the “identify as an attack helicopter” joke at least once.
With both the relatively recent release of the character Hallar, a nonbinary elf who uses they/them pronouns, and the change for Magic cards to say “their” instead of “his or hers,” I wanted to go over Magic’s history of nonbinary character representation. I wanted to discuss, from my own perspective, how these different forms of representation either make the mark, fall short, or fail miserably.
*As a disclaimer, I want to say that I do not claim to speak for everyone within my community, whether that be agender, nonbinary, trans, or LGBT. This is simply my own perspective as someone who happens to identify with these groups.
I figured we could go through this article in chronological order, and Karn would be the oldest member of this list by far.
For those who don’t know, Karn is a silver golem who was created as a probe by the planeswalker Urza to travel through time. He features prominently in many of the older stories based in Dominaria and recently made a return in Return to Dominaria as an expensive modern playable.
In regards to the question of Karn’s gender identity, Mark Rosewater states:
“…as Karn’s co-creator, I can emphatically state that Karn is *not* male and *not* female.” Since Karn was created for the Weatherlight Saga in the 90’s, when “he/him” was considered the default, Karn got male pronouns. We can still respect his lack of gender expression–a trait often shunned by many real-life humans.”
On the one hand, this is thrilling to have this acknowledgment of Karn as a character lacking a gender because, why would he? You don’t need gender to travel through time. Urza only saw Karn as a tool. And yes, you can still be nonbinary while using gendered pronouns.
On the other hand…
As a fantasy writer, I’ve always been best able to explain my thoughts by making up a ridiculous scenario that mirrors what I’m talking about in some way. This method doesn’t work well for household disputes or telling an officer why you ran a red light, but it may work here.
Let’s imagine a world where humans are born with a variable number of eyes. Well, they can in real life too, but let’s imagine that it’s one of those accepted traits that people can just have rather than an indication that something went wrong in-utero. Most people have two eyes, and people with two eyes nearly completely dominate all media.
You are a person with three eyes, and you are looking (lol) for your own reflection in media. In fact, there are lots of people like you with everything from fifty eyes to no eyes seeking representation. While you are all very different, most people consider those like you to be under the same grouping of “not-two-eyes” or “N2E.”
You get news! Your favorite game, Gagic, has confirmed one of their characters to be N2E! One of their most well-known catwalkers, Corn the Robot, was confirmed to be N2E by one of the game developers.
But wait, this hasn’t ever been mentioned before now. Corn clearly looks like he has two eyes, literally everyone refers to him as two-eyed, and there is little to no discussion about his experience as N2E.
However, because he is a robot, he doesn’t actually have eyes. The “eyes” that he appears to have are only aesthetic, added by his human creator because he thought they should be there. He senses his world through other means. Ergo, he is “N2E.”
The point that I’m making here is that Karn as a non-gendered person is never actually explored, not even through a throwaway line. The Amazon Alexa does a better job of asserting their own robotic non-gendered identity than Karn, a fictional character who could very easily have a small scene written that at least touches upon this factor.
And, frankly, saying that the robot character is non-gendered representation is a somewhat tired trope. A lack of gender identity in a robot character is a trait that typically serves to emphasize how unusual that character is as a robot, which does not serve to represent the fact that real human beings do identify in this way.
Ashiok, first featured in Theros, is the character people typically bring up when discussing nonbinary representation in magic. Ashiok is a sinister planeswalker of unknown origin and species who can reach into nightmares and give them real form. They only have half a face, the rest swirling mists.
Both the character’s artist and creators have confirmed that Ashiok’s gender is as mysterious and unknown as the rest of their origin. Essentially, Ashiok is an unknowable being of nightmares and fear, an embodiment in no need of a gender.
To really bring into focus why this isn’t always great representation, I’m gonna go back to our multi-eyed people again. So let’s say that Gagic has released a new character that’s a sentient cloud.
An EVIL sentient cloud.
And because in this world people are weirdly obsessed with eyes, people start asking where its eyes are.
The creator of the game again makes a statement, that Evil Sentient Cloud does not have eyes, because as an Evil Sentient Cloud, why would it have eyes? All it needs is to be sentient and go around doing evil things. For this, eyes are not required. Therefore, they are also N2E representation.
This is the trope of robotic characters having no gender identity on steroids, with an added layer of that character’s lack of gender being a part of their frightening persona.
I do want to emphasize that I don’t think that characters like this should not exist – I actually love it when creators do acknowledge the fact that applying gender to something beyond our comprehension is silly at best.
I just don’t think characters like this actually work as nonbinary representation for real people who have these identities. Again, we’re real people, not indescribable incarnations of nightmares.
Well, maybe I am an indescribable nightmare, but my gender identity has nothing to do with that.
3. Yahenni (+ Aetherborn)
Kaladesh gave us lots of things – mostly banned cards – but one memorable thing for me was the introduction of the Aetherborn and the character Yahenni.
The Aetherborn are sentient beings that arise from the mixture of the freewheeling Aether throughout the plane and the smog and debris left over from experiments. They’re basically pollution that can talk, throw parties, and steal your bomb off the top of your deck.
Aetherborn are typically short-lived, and either do whatever they can to prolong their lives, or just YOLO through their lives as shown with Yahenni in particular. They also are specifically nonbinary, which WOTC again confirmed.
Once again, let’s look at this situation with the eye people. You’ve had a robot and an evil cloud. Now, Gagic announces an entire race of people with three eyes, just like you, called the Heytherborn! And they live in the city of Balderdash as citizens with everyone else!
And they’re an entirely different species, who are all three eyed, walking among normal humans who all have two eyes.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved Yahenni’s character. But we have yet again run into the Othering problem. Non-gendered, nonbinary characters are relegated to Not Human, while all Humans have two genders like they are “supposed” to in our world.
When I first heard about the confirmation that Hallar from Return to Dominaria was a nonbinary person who used they/them pronouns, I will be honest, I felt a lot of emotions. This being the same set that did away with “his or hers” on cards to be more inclusive, I knew that it was a strong statement.
Yes, Hallar is an elf, which is technically nonhuman. But in stories, fantasy in particular, different species can serve different storytelling roles, and elves generally fulfill the same role that humans do.
Plus, Hallar being an elf and being nonbinary were not intrinsically linked – there were male and female elves on Dominaria just as there were male and female humans. Hallar’s nonbinary identity works exactly the same way as a nonbinary identity would for a human.
So we now have a humanoid character who specifically identifies as nonbinary not out of some dictation of their species, who uses they/them pronouns, and who even has a compelling backstory to shape their identity.
But…they didn’t get a story.
Return to Dominaria’s story arc has long come to a close, and we barely saw mention of Hallar, much less a story that focused on them. I wanted to see something like Alesha’s story, but I would have been happy with some Cabal person saying “there are only two genders” before getting sniped in the head.
Still, Hallar is a step in the right direction, and there’s nothing stopping WOTC from writing a story in the future in regards to them.
I think that the biggest thing I want to see in terms of nonbinary representation in the future is more prominent representation. We now have a humanoid character who is specifically nonbinary, now we should see characters with central importance to the story who also have these identities. This goes for LGBT representation in general – while we’ve seen more LGBT characters, they’ve still mostly been rarely seen characters. We exist at all levels of society, we’re everywhere, and that should be recognized.
I think some creators worry over the specifics of representation and balancing representation with tokenism. It’s understandable that when you represent a group that hasn’t previously been seen in a particular media, you don’t want to turn that into tokenism, making the entire story about how that character has that particular trait.
However, it seems like so many creators are so afraid of this that they end up going in the other direction, including a character that represents an underrepresented group and then quickly whisking them or their identity away, like holding them out in the audience spotlight for too long will cause the character to harden into a token.
The fact is we do exist, and often our gender or sexual identities are an integral part of who we are. Some who are LGBT or nonbinary in particular consider this trait to be as mundane as one’s height, but I and many others feel that these identities do shape us and inform our character.
And it’s honestly wasted potential, especially for fantasy and sci-fi writers, to either not have characters with these identities or to continue with the tropes mentioned above. What is an LGBT identity like in a world with a very different history from ours, with different opportunities and dangers than what’s possible in our world?
Sci-fi and fantasy have always explored current real-life issues with fantastical proxies, and the issue of gender identity is worthy of exploration, even in stories that add backstory to art on a $60 piece of cardboard.