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Mae Martin Discusses the Fluidity of Gender Identity in CBC Doc

Fluid: Life Beyond the Binary expands the conversation about being non-binary

10 mins read

Being non-binary might be a contemporary concept for some people, but a new documentary shows that the fluidity of gender identity has been around all along. Fluid: Life Beyond the Binary invites audiences to let go of binary conceptions of male and female. Hosted by acclaimed comedian Mae Martin, who identifies as non-binary, with Michelle Mama directing and Robert Lang producing, Fluid takes a scientific approach towards debunking the social construct of gender binaries.

“In the current climate, a lot of the hysteria around gender identity comes from this perception that it’s a very wishy-washy ideology,” says Martin, speaking with POV via Zoom. By looking at plants, animals, and hormonal changes in cisgender humans, among other biological norms, the documentary can challenge that perception and “show that the idea of a strict binary is not really true, or represented nature,” adds Martin. “Maybe it’s just a convenient way of categorizing things that has worked for a while, but maybe it’s time to rethink that.”

The Role of Comedy

The series draws from Martin’s catalogue of wry humour with clips from their stand-up comedy routines reflecting upon the spectrum of gender identity in, say, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. One can be ultra-masc like the burly Gaston, hyper-feminine like bookish Belle, or share Martin’s sentiment as falling somewhere in between them as the effeminate mustachioed candelabra Lumière. Instead, Martin sees Fluid as a useful tool that can help audiences understand why it’s perfectly normal to feel as if one doesn’t fit into one of two boxes on the gender spectrum.

“I never finished high school, so I can’t really present myself as an earnest scientist,” they laugh. “It felt like such a great opportunity because it was so well put together and well researched. I felt confident speaking to experts and that [comedy] could be helpful in keeping it light, which would make it accessible and a little less daunting to people to absorb.”

Birds, Bees, and the Binary

Fluid explores the roots of non-binary life as biologist Joan Roughgarden introduces viewers to a ginger orchid that, thanks to being a hermaphrodite, can self-pollinate by using both its male and female parts. On the safari, female hyenas sport “pseudo-penises” that serve the same functions that the penises of their male counterparts do. As Martin notes, Roughgarden’s research identifies these hyenas as intersex—a gender identity in which someone has traits of both male and female genders—which is only recently gaining mainstream attention in western culture.

“I always knew that, culturally, having this strict gender binary was a recent colonial thing, and I knew that other cultures recognized and even revered multiple genders,” observes Martin. “But it was really validating and reassuring to hear about the biology of it. I knew that there were intersex people and variances in hormone levels and things, but I didn’t how fluid those things can be. It’s more the rule than the exception to not fit into that very polarized binary.” The doc recaps harmful research throughout history that forced people into boxes, and looks at new science that debunks these myths, like the idea that men and women have distinct brains. They don’t, just as their lungs or kidneys are the same.

The Cisgender Angle

Fluid also turns the mirror on people who might not think the conversation applies to them. The documentary considers how cisgender people experience gender on a spectrum through the natural effects of aging in which hormonal changes during puberty and menopause. One remains a woman while experiencing menopause, but neuroscientist Gillian Einstein tells Martin how that phase changes one’s relationship to the social construction of femininity, which overly emphasises the ability to bear children as the gender’s defining and idealised trait.

“There’s sometimes a perception that only trans people have a gender identity,” notes Martin. “To empower people to think about their own and realize that everybody has a gender identity and preferences and sexualities that can evolve and are meant to change over time—hopefully that’s empowering.” By offering an inclusive conversation, Fluid expands the ways in which even cisgender people challenge the cleanliness of the binary.

A Timely Doc

The inclusive approach feels notable given that Fluid debuts in a climate in which transgender rights are increasingly under attack. The doc situates the conversation within the moral panic related to people finding the tools and language to better the fluidity of gender at a younger age. Fluid features child psychologists who provide breaking research that shows how gender is simply one of many facets of children that change as they age. Martin also leads a candid conversation with young trans/non-binary people about what it means to grow up outside the binary in 2024. But the reality is that, despite these tools, the young people face a new set of challenges as gender expression becomes a polarised public debate.

“They have more language and access to community online, so it’s easy for me to be, like, ‘They really got it better than I did,” says Martin. “On the other hand, it is public discourse now and we’re slipping backwards in terms of trans rights, and it’s a really tenuous time. I’m grateful that I was able to have my youth without having to defend myself constantly and having our lives and autonomy debated so fiercely in the media. It sucks.”

An Inclusive Conversation

Martin’s own work has been crucial to shaping the conversation about non-binary normalcy. Their 2020 breakout comedy series Feel Good proved a radical mainstream hit as it brought a story of a non-binary comedian (played by Martin), who found love with a woman while wrestling with addiction. Their gender identity was simply one part of a multifaceted character. Martin says it was a great experience being a part of that breakthrough.

“I was sort of going through those realizations in real time as I made the show,” says Martin. “When we wrote season one, it was really about a queer person dating a closeted person, and that struggle. There were hints of gendered dysphoria I was experiencing, but then season two really made me look at myself and where I wanted to go, so by the end, to have that character come out and identify as non-binary felt authentic because I was really going through that.” Martin also says that getting to play a flawed, annoying, and fully-realized character sweetened the experience. “It’s tempting to have heroic queer characters who are bullied and ostracized. And, really, queer people are deeply flawed as well, just like all three dimensional human beings are.”

Speaking from Experience

On the heels of Fluid, Martin will host the Canadian Screen Awards on CBC. The show extends the conversation of this documentary because the awards ceremony is one of several that shifted away from the binary to present gender-neutral acting prizes. Martin draws upon their own experience to illuminate it’s an important change.

“I was lucky to be nominated for a BAFTA for Feel Good, but I was nominated for Best Actress,” they say. “I understand the worry that the categories won’t be balanced, but it did one-hundred percent take away from my enjoyment and celebration because it felt so bizarre to be in a category that I felt I didn’t belong in. It is just great when people can calmly think about how to rectify that.”

It all circles back to Fluid and its aim for inclusivity. “Giving one group rights doesn’t mean taking away someone else’s,” says Martin. “Inclusivity is only ever positive. There really is space for everyone.”

Fluid: Life Beyond the Binary debuts March 28, 2024 at 9 p.m. (9:30 NT) on CBC and CBC Gem.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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