Content Warning: Discussion of transphobia
Minor Spoilers for Land of the Lustrous
Land of the Lustrous has captured the hearts and minds of many viewers and readers over the years, for its stunning visuals, emotional character arcs, and being a rare example of a series with an entirely non-binary cast. The titular Lustrous are humanoid gem-people who present a potentially interesting space to philosophize about constructions of gender in a post-human future. However, they also potentially perpetuate harmful stereotypes about non-binary gender only being possible in alien creatures and otherworldly settings. This is an old and pervasive cliché that many non-binary viewers find tired and uncomfortable. Yet, at the same time, the story of Phos and the gems resonated deeply with many trans (binary and non) people, and many fans (myself included) find Phos to be a meaningful and exciting example of a non-binary hero.
These may seem like contradicting statements, but they can co-exist. In the discussion surrounding queer representation in fiction, things are not always so simple as stamping a work with “good rep” or “bad rep”. There are many tricky nuances, particularly when it comes to attempting to “represent” an identity that contains as many ways of being as non-binary gender. While the series is not perfect—or perhaps because the series is not perfect—Land of the Lustrous makes a useful case study for reading and critiquing through a queer lens. It’s a multi-faceted dilemma, and in this article I hope to hold the issues at the heart of it up to the light.
What is a non-binary person, anyway?
First, if this article is going to talk about “non-binary representation”, we ought to define exactly what it means to be non-binary. However, pinning down a distinct and singular definition can be a difficult process. Non-binary gender is maybe best described as everything in-between, outside of, and beyond the traditional borders and expectations of “man” and “woman”. It’s not a third gender category with rigid borders, but an umbrella term under which many expressions and experiences of gender fall. Writings about non-binary identity often acknowledge that gender is not as simple as male and female, men and women, masculine and feminine; and gender may even be a unique experience for each person.
There are many different identities under the umbrella that any person might choose for themselves, if said identity label fits how they feel. They also might not vibe with any of those, and be happy with just “non-binary” or another umbrella term like “genderqueer,” or even no label at all. Rather than any kind of clinical classification that comes from outside, the way an individual names themself is the determining factor to whether they “really are” that identity.
So, what does it mean to be non-binary? Every non-binary person may give you a different answer, but that doesn’t make their gender experience any less valid. In fact, I’d say the fact that it contains so many multitudes and possibilities is the really freeing and comforting thing about non-binary identity.
What does a non-binary person look like?
If we’re talking about “representation”, though, your next question might be “well, what does a non-binary person look like? Surely they have to look like something, otherwise how are they to be represented?”
The idea of “looking queer” is something that hangs over every intersection of the LGBQTIA+ umbrella, and a person not meeting the supposed visual standard of their identity is often used to dismiss them as less legitimate. This gatekeeping causes trouble for members of all groups, but can be especially harmful to trans people, who face rigid social demands about performing gender the “correct” way to be accepted as who they are. They’re often expected to follow the narrative of being “trapped in the wrong body”, seeking medical transition, and coming out the other side perfectly intelligible as their “new” gender. As many people have written about at length, pop culture has a damn near morbid curiosity about this whole process.
As well as being harmful to binary trans people (not all of whom can, or want to, medically transition to meet these high standards!), this way of thinking places non-binary people in a void. While many non-binary people do undergo forms of medical transition to ease their dysphoria, uplift their euphoria, or generally become happier in their bodies, not everyone does, and there’s certainly no universal pathway of transition towards an ideal “non-binary body.” What would that even look like? As you can probably expect by now, there isn’t a neat answer to that question—even if social narratives of gender might want there to be.
It could be tempting to suggest that perfect androgyny, or a satisfyingly confusing mix of gendered traits, might be the ultimate “non-binary look”. While some people do opt for that, it’s important to remember that that’s merely their choice of personal aesthetic, and this isn’t feasible nor desirable for everyone. Expecting, and demanding, a visible “lack of” gender becomes prickly very quickly.
For one thing, a so-called genderless appearance often relies on the body in question being White and skinny, and in many cases fashionable “androgyny” comes to mean “soft-featured but with a short haircut and a hip, vaguely boyish dress sense”. You can see this in the tension that AMAB, or otherwise masculine-presenting, non-binary people can face. Conversely, I’ve also seen feminine-presenting non-binary people sidelined—and once, someone’s identity questioned because they happened to have a naturally large bust.
There is a lingering narrative that if you’re not a man, and you’re not a woman, you can’t look like (what society has come to expect from) either. You must look like something else entirely. An alien perhaps. Or a robot. Or a genderless gemstone person with mint-green hair and gold alloy arms?
Is Land of the Lustrous “good” non-binary representation?
When it comes to depictions of identity outside the male/female binary in fiction, things slide into the Otherworldly real fast. For a long time, the best examples of what we might call non-binary characters came from sci-fi, like the genderless aliens in Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, who shapeshift and gain sexual characteristics only to reproduce. More recently, a non-binary character people might be familiar with is Janet from Netflix’s The Good Place. While it’s exciting to have a femme-presenting character like Janet self-identify as “not a girl,” she’s also not a person.
Speculative fiction presents a freeing space to explore, and play with, the norms we take for granted on modern-day Earth. But repeat these tropes often enough, and a harmful narrative emerges. If non-binary people are only ever depicted as otherworldly, non-human beings, it leaves non-binary audiences with literally no space to exist in fictional worlds. If non-binary people are only depicted with weird, impossible bodies, that grows into the popular consensus of what non-binary “looks like”—and renders people who don’t fit that ideal invisible.
Land of the Lustrous falls into some of these tropes. The gem-folk are clearly not human, judging by how they’re immortal, can breathe underwater, and are made of crystal that can be put back together if it shatters. They’re also a genderless group, something cued in by the use of neutral pronouns in the official subs and dub. The biggest cue, however, is visual. Though some of them sway towards more traditionally masculine or traditionally feminine traits, they are basically as visibly androgynous as you can get—complete with flat chests, long legs, and pale skin. Not to mention, their body types are all uniform, and there’s no variation among the Lustrous. They fit into those ideals of what a “perfect” non-binary body might look like, with no room for diversity.
However, fitting these tropes doesn’t necessarily make Land of the Lustrous “bad representation” in and of itself. Even if none of the characters might identify as “queer” or “non-binary” in their setting and context, it’s still a pretty queer series. Plenty of trans viewers resonated with Phos’ frustration with the roles assigned to them based on their body, a frustration that seemed more nuanced and personal than the go-to “trapped in the wrong body” narrative. Indeed, I credit relating to Phos as one of the things that started me down my own gender journey. Even if Phos and the other gems aren’t literally human, their characterization affords them a great sense of humanity. They’re nuanced, layered, flawed characters, and Phos undergoes a truly heart-wrenching and fascinating coming-of-age story.
On the other hand, the body horror element of Phos’ transformations could be read as an allegory for the perils of transitioning: a cautionary tale telling viewers not to change the body they inhabit, lest they lose their sense of self and become ever more monstrous! On the other other hand, the biggest fans of body horror I’ve ever met have all been trans, and there is plenty of queer resonance to be found in stories about bodies that don’t fit into socially acceptable norms, and the terrors of inhabiting a body that doesn’t feel like “you”.
It could be argued that Phos is becoming more themself as they switch out different body parts and Frankenstein their way to achieving their goals. It could be argued that the series’ main philosophical point is that Phos is still Phos no matter how much their form changes. Maybe most interestingly, Phos begins as non-binary, rather than being made so by their physical transformations—something that troubles that medically-centred model of trans identity noted above, even if the character design simultaneously buys into it in other ways.
There is plenty of potential for reading the series queerly from all sorts of angles. But does that potential negate the tired tropes that the character design and worldbuilding fall into? That, much like the other questions I’ve posed and played with in this piece, is one that doesn’t have an easy answer.
Land of the Lustrous perpetuates rigid expectations about what non-binary people “should” look like, expectations that have negative real-world repercussions and stem from negative real-world ideology. Land of the Lustrous tells an innovative and moving story about non-normative bodies that many trans (binary and non) audiences find a great sense of comfort and resonance in. Both these statements can co-exist, and should. In any conversation about representation in fiction, it’s important to remember that often the discussion goes beyond whether a depiction is simply “good” or “bad”. There’s a world of historical context and nuance to consider.
There’s also the question of variety. Human non-binary characters are slowly appearing more frequently in various works, from live-action shows like Billions to young adult novels like I Wish You All the Best and Euphoria Kids. More and more depictions are also appearing in anime and manga specifically, like Our Dreams at Dusk, Love Me For Who I Am, and the beloved but unfinished Stars Align.
The ultimate goal is a media landscape where Phos and their fellow gem-people aren’t the only answer to “what does a non-binary character look like?” As explored above, there is no single way to be non-binary. An increased variety of fictional depictions of non-binary existence and expression will help highlight this, and take the onus off any one piece of work to carry the torch—and decrease the sting when any one work may fall into stereotypes. The more stories we have, the more room there is for imperfect, messy portrayals of non-binary characters, and the more room there is for complex conversation around what representing non-binary gender may or may not involve ideally.
As an example of non-binary representation, Land of the Lustrous has its problems, but it’s also a valuable addition to the world of queer anime and manga that I think we should critique without dismissing. It’s got cracks and inclusions, but to me it’s still a gem.