That stare. That’s all you see.
On last night’s episode of Billions, which showcases the relentless competition and gritty opulence of the hedge fund world and airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on Showtime, the camera seems to face off with Taylor, the whip-smart intern played by Asia Kate Dillon, in every scene. Behind Taylor’s enrapturing wide-eyed stare, the computer behind the eyes seems to be churning away, absorbing, and processing everything in view.
In Sunday’s episode, Taylor’s ice-blue eyes are the focal point during the company’s emergency all hands meeting, as their slight and shorter frame, hands neatly clasped with an at-ease stance, stands in front of a sea of chest hedge funders.
Billions, which was just picked up for a third season, made history earlier this year when it debuted Taylor as television’s first gender non-binary character who identifies as neither a man or woman. And with only five episodes down and seven more to go, the new character has already sparked a lot of conversation around gender norms, hyper masculinity, and the role of media in challenging the status quo.
“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 audience is first introduced to Taylor at the start of season 2, as an increasingly insecure Mafee (Dan Soder) tries to hold on to the intern who’s helped keep him and Axe Capital afloat. By the season’s second episode, Taylor has gone from the brains behind Mafee to a face-to-face meeting with the show’s villain slash co-protagonist Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis).
Show runners Brian Koppelman and David Levien said they want to avoid being “preachy” when it comes to the issues raised in the show. But in creating a non-binary character, they hoped Billions could have an opportunity to push viewers out of their comfort zones.
“We don’t make these broad social statements on the show, we allow the viewer to make them for themselves,” Koppelman said. “But by introducing a character like this, we figured we would start a kind of conversation that would be useful to have.”
When Billions went to cast Taylor in 2016, the writers didn’t require the actors auditioning for the role to identify as non-binary themselves. But Levien said that Dillon landing the part was a “stroke of serendipity.”
Dillon, who played Brandy Epps on Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, is a double television first: The first non-binary person to play a non-binary character.
It’s a feat in Hollywood for an actor to share their character’s identity. For example, blind, deaf, autistic, or otherwise differently abled characters are often played by actors who don’t have those conditions. Even groundbreaking roles for LGBTQ representation don’t always translate to providing jobs for LGBTQ actors themselves. Trans characters, for example, are frequently played by cisgender actors.
When it comes to gender issues, there are only a few examples of people who, like Dillon, portray characters on television who share their own marginalized identity. This year, Orange is the New Black star Laverne Cox became TV’s first transgender actor to play a transgender series regular in her new show Doubt, after being the first transgender actor to be nominated for an Emmy.
In an interview with ThinkProgress, Dillon said their own experience as non-binary helps them relate to the character’s sense of self-perception.
“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,” Dillon said. “And Taylor has certainly done that…Taylor has a clear understanding of who they are.”
A different kind of representation
The University of Vermont began recognizing a third or neutral gender in 2009, allowing students to select their pronouns and expanded their list again in 2014. News organizations, such as the Washington Post, began using the gender neutral pronoun “they” in 2015. Army veteran Jamie Shupe, 53, became the first legally recognized non-binary individual in the United States in 2016. And this year, former journalist Jen Ramos became the first openly non-binary professional sports executive.
There’s been a steady stream of media stories and personal essays that explore and explain the increased use of singular pronouns and gender non-conforming identities, which make up a fraction of a percent of the population based on the most complete data available.
But when it comes to media, diversity often comes at a cost. Characters from underrepresented or marginalized groups are often typecast, flatly written and disposed of because they aren’t essential to the plot or the lives of the surrounding characters. LGBTQ characters, female characters, and characters of color are routinely killed off on television shows.
Billions seems to be going in a different direction with Taylor, however, setting them up as the highly intelligent moral compass and likely change agent in the macho and highly competitive hedge fund world.
With each episode, Taylor’s presence solidifies them as more than another side character. The young analyst matches Axe’s intellect and challenges the morality and hyper masculinity at Axe Capital. Taylor quickly becomes an asset, as well as a mirror reflecting on everyone around them.
“Just simply by Taylor being there, the conversation around pronouns and or gender identity just starts happening,” Dillon said. “So in that sense, anywhere that Taylor goes, they are going to be an agent for change and conversation simply by them being there.”
In one scene, Taylor confidently announces their pronouns before pitching a potentially lucrative short — which is something Taylor does over and over again as the season progresses.
That’s an experience many minorities can relate to: challenging a dominant culture with their presence. But, as Dillon pointed out, “The burden of explanation should not only be on the oppressed.”
“Just simply by Taylor being there, the conversation around pronouns and or gender identity just starts happening.”
“Allies are really key whether it’s talking about Black Lives Matter, gender identity stuff, or sexual orientation stuff. Whatever it is, we need the allies out there speaking up so the people who are being oppressed can have a little bit of the weight lifted off of them,” they said.
In Billions, Axe immediately became Taylor’s ally, wasting no breath correcting others in the firm who misgendered or otherwise attempted to disparage Taylor’s identity.
That was intentional, according to co-creator and show runner David Levien.
“We wanted to hit early on the realities of the differences of where these people were coming from culturally,” he said.
“These hedge funds are set sort of, attitude-wise, top-down. And we just have always seen Axe as a guy who is value oriented. A lot of the time, that can be seen as a bad thing, like oh it’s purely a numbers based thing. But what if that is a great equalizer also? What if that is the road to acceptance for certain people?”
Getting it right in the writers’ room
Bringing TV’s first non-binary character to life wasn’t easy — a mixture of the right inspiration and a lot of research — but it was something Billions’ creators knew they had to get right.
So the team sought outside help.
There was diversity in the writers’ room, Levien said: women, people of color, but no one to represent diversity on the gender identity spectrum. So they did their research and invited gender non-binary individuals to help consult and shape Taylor’s character even while shooting this season.
“We were able to meet some gender non-binary people who were generous enough to sit with us and field our fumbling questions and sort of explain the path to that and explain the world. It was something we really didn’t want to get wrong,” Levien said.
For co-creator and writer Brian Koppelman, learning how to enter into the conversation about gender identity started with his children.
“My kids both had friends at different schools who identified as gender non-binary, and they each told me about it. So we started to ask those questions and learn,” he said.
His son, Sam Koppelman, wrote a piece for the Harvard Crimson on a youth homeless shelter and shared his experience with his father of how teens automatically introduce themselves with the pronouns they use.
Koppelman said his daughter, who was then in the 10th grade as season 2 was being written last year, had a similar experience. Teachers invited students in her classes to regularly announce their preferred pronouns, he said, “in case anyone has had a new development or in case anyone has realized or decided to acknowledge something.”
That’s no surprise to Dillon, who plays Taylor, and noticed how apt young people are to dive into these nuanced discussions.
“I really feel like the younger generation is not only primed for this conversation, meaning the conversation around gender and identity, but they seem to already be having it. And they seem to not only be already having it, but really feel like it is not a big deal,” Dillon said.
“Just that acknowledgement of feeling like you’re not alone, like you’re being seen, is really powerful. It saves lives.”
“They are like, ‘Oh yeah you’re gender fluid? You use ‘they’? Great! You know, let’s move on,” they added. “I think that young people may be for that reason a little more practiced in, for instance, using the singular pronoun ‘they’ where as those of us who are a little older, it takes a little bit of reprogramming in our brain.”
The work that the writers’ room put into the character is paying off. Dillon said the response from fans has been overwhelming as people from all over the world are connecting with Taylor’s identity and storyline—particularly young people.
Now, there’s an entire generation growing up in a world where Moonlight, a story of a young black boy coming of age and into his sexuality, won an Oscar for best picture, and where a hit cable news show embraced the gender identity conversations they’re already having every day.
Dillon emphasized the importance of this media representation for people struggling to figure out where they fit in the world.
“Whether it’s a young person, or a person of any age, who is struggling in some way because their identity or their sexual orientation, or whatever [their struggle] may be, may not be reflected to them in their immediate community. Then they go to the movies and on the screen they suddenly see someone that is a reflection of them,” Dillon said. “And just that acknowledgement of feeling like you’re not alone, like you’re being seen, is really powerful. It saves lives.”