Pansexuality is having a cultural moment right now

Janelle Monae is leading the pansexual movement in 2018.
Janelle Monae is leading the pansexual movement in 2018.
Image: Reuters/Carlo Allegri
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Popular culture overwhelmingly tends to be straight, straight, and straight. We’re still so deeply embedded in heteronormativity that, just last week, the BBC referred to Ireland’s Eurovision gay dancers as “controversial.” So it’s distinctly notable that several cultural figures have recently broke free from the straightjacket of heteronormativity to acknowledge non-heterosexual sexuality: pansexuality.

Pansexuality, which describes a gender-blind attraction to all people, seems to finally be mainstream enough for Hollywood to acknowledge its existence. Yesterday (May 17), Solo: A Star Wars Story writer Jonathan Kasdan acknowledged that the character Lando Calrissian is pansexual. Though his pansexuality isn’t made explicit on screen, Lando is depicted gently flirting with both male humans and female droids, and his sexuality is part of his back story.

”There’s a fluidity to Donald [Glover] and Billy Dee’s [portrayals of Lando’s] sexuality,” Kasdan told The Huffington Post. ”I mean, I would have loved to have gotten a more explicitly LGBT character into this movie. I think it’s time, certainly, for that, and I love the fluidity―sort of the spectrum of sexuality that Donald appeals to and that droids are a part of.”

There’s precedent to this sort of acknowledgment of pansexuality without actually portraying it: In 2016, Tim Miller, director of superhero film Deadpool, said the titular superhero character was pansexual. Indeed, the comic book character Deadpool flirts with both men and women, including Thor, Spiderman, and Lady Death (yes, the personification of death), and seems to be interested in unicorns too. Though the comic’s creators don’t explicitly label him pansexual, fans widely interpret his actions as such. That said, his sexuality doesn’t translate to the big screen. Deadpool 2, was released today (May 18) and in it, as in the first Deadpool film, the character is only shown having heterosexual love interests.

Hollywood’s decision to create characters who are pansexual in spirit if not in actions is better than nothing. But it was even more significant when, last month, musician Janelle Monáe came out as pansexual. She is not the first celebrity to do so; both Miley Cyrus and Asia Kate Dillon identify as pansexual. There are still, though, very few public figures who identify as such, and plenty of people don’t know much about the sexual orientation. Merriam-Webster dictionary reported that searches for “pansexual” spiked after Monáe’s interview.

High-profile depictions of pansexuality is particularly significant for those who identify as such and are often marginalized as a result. There’s been a proliferation of sexual identities in recent years, which reflects a dissatisfaction with the conventional gender and sexuality binary. These labels, as with all language, play a powerful function: “In order to be recognized, to even exist, you need a name,” Jeanne Proust, philosophy professor at City University of New York, told Quartz previously. “That’s a very powerful function of language: the performative function. It makes something exist, it creates a reality.”

When popular culture names pansexuality, it means more and more people are starting to recognize its existence. There’s still, unfortunately, a very long way to go. Ideally, it wouldn’t even be unusual to depict pansexuality and other sexual identities on screen, and throughout popular culture, heterosexuality would no longer be assumed or portrayed as  the norm. These references to pansexuality are just the first signs that popular culture is willing to drop the sexual binary charade.