TV Is Teaching America How to Treat Trans Kids

How a new slate of TV shows are using jokes and touching storylines to normalize trans and gender nonconforming youth.

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Jul 6 2017, 12:52am

The cast of 'The Mick,' with Jack Stanton (Ben) in red. Photo by Patrick McElhenney/FOX

In a recent video produced by GLAAD and ScreenCrush, trans comedian Ian Harvie succinctly points out why trans representation matters so much. "For many young or closeted trans people," he says, "film and television is the first or only time they see themselves."

Given that, as the video also informs us, only 16 percent of Americans personally knew a trans person in 2015, this means that the majority of cisgender Americans are also forming conceptions about trans people based on what they see on screen. Series like Orange is the New Black and Transparent have been pushing audiences to reexamine their biases and preconceived notions of this misunderstood (and actively discriminated against) part of the LGBTQ community. While those shows have centered on the adult trans experience, a new generation of shows are beginning to tell stories about what it's like to be young and trans.

These are narratives that highlight the disconnect between what trans or gender nonconforming youth know about themselves and what's imposed on them by society at large. They serve as cultural touchstones that model for audiences the kind of parenting these kids need (or, in some instances, the kind of parenting they don't), becoming a kind of 21st century version of the "very special episode" model that once introduced TV audiences to so-called taboo subjects.

At the forefront of this new kind of trans visibility is a family-aimed series which has been deftly handling LGBTQ storylines since its 2014 premiere. The Fosters, which returns July 11th for its fifth season, centers on Stef Foster, her wife Lena, and their blended family which includes several foster kids and teens they've taken in over the years. Last season, audiences got to see a character called Aaron (played by trans actor Elliot Fletcher) face, with quiet dignity, the hurtful if still supportive family he'd left behind, all the while exploring a budding romantic relationship with Callie Adams Foster (Maia Mitchell).

"It was important to us not to exoticize this part of Aaron, not to 'other' him," said Peter Paige, the show's executive producer. "Ultimately, we thought it was an incredible opportunity to have a character like Callie—our heroine, who has a young and impressionable fan base—enter into an intimate relationship with a trans man without a significant amount of can-I-do-this?"

In keeping with much of the earnest, non-comedic storytelling found elsewhere in The Fosters, Aaron and Callie's storyline functions as an instructive moment for viewers. "This is where broadcast TV writers feel they should be," said professor Cáel M. Keegan, author of the upcoming book Lana and Lilly Wachowski: Sensing Transgender. "Like, 'Well, we can't just drop a trans character into a show. We have to help the audience learn how to navigate that situation.'"

Revealing the limits of that storytelling approach—which is presumably directed at cisgender audiences—two new series have begun pushing trans youth storylines even further. Given their comedic sensibilities, though, they mine for laughs the sheer hypocrisy that runs through much of institutionalized anti-trans sentiment.

Fox's sitcom The Mick stars Kaitlin Olson as Mickey, an irresponsible woman saddled with caring for her niece and nephews when her (very rich) sister and her husband are forced to flee their home to avoid the Feds. The youngest of these kids, eight-year-old Ben (played by Jack Stanton) has, over the course of the show's first season, begun dressing in gender nonconforming styles. The sitcom crafted an entire episode around it, which never treated it as a punchline. In the episode, Mickey stands up for Ben's decision to wear his mother's heels to school, and ends up passing him as "Beth" to get him into the all-girls school next door. Later in the episode, she becomes a fierce advocate for the rights of trans kids to use their preferred restrooms.

Much like Callie's progressive attitude, Mickey's fired-up advocacy shows audiences what trans allyship can look like in an ideal world, even when the show never quite gives Ben much in the way of storytelling agency. In fact, it's his sister Sabrina who ends up spelling out the greatest lesson from Ben's gender nonconforming ways: "He's not transgender," she reasons. "He just likes to wear girls' clothing. If anything he's genderfluid."

Likewise, VH1's Daytime Divas, a new scripted show centered around a talk show that looks suspiciously like The View, introduced a subplot that features a trans child who functions more as a plot device than a well-rounded character. Just like the Barbara Walters show it is skewering, Daytime Divas's fictional talk show features the requisite conservative blonde host, Heather Flynn-Kellogg (played by Fiona Gubelmann), who, as the show's opening titles tell us, is "a real slice of American pie who puts faith in family first." Her youngest, who loves wearing pink dresses and a tiara, bristles when Heather refers to them as "Brian." "Uh, I'm Ella!" they complain. "But just at home, remember?" Heather tells them.

Heather understands her child ("She's a girl since the first day she understood the word," she hisses at her husband at one point), but her decision to keep their gender nonconforming behavior within the domestic sphere, regardless. Given how self-aware the show is with regards to Heather's problematic behavior, and how bad she comes out looking by the end of it, Daytime Divas serves to model how not to parent a gender nonconforming child, pointing out how damaging such rigid approaches to gendered behavior can feel to an impressionable kid.

But where these fictional takes suggest a new kind of acceptance within certain segments of society (The Fosters, The Mick, and Daytime Divas all take place in liberal urban enclaves), they also can only ever scratch the surface when it comes to accurately portraying what it means to grow up trans. Enter Jazz Jennings: From the 2011 documentary I Am Jazz: A Family in Transition, to her TLC reality TV series, I Am Jazz (now in its third season), she's acted on the conviction that sharing her story is about, as she says in last year's GLAAD-produced "The Movement for Acceptance" PSA, "sharing my voice and being a voice for the kids who don't have one." Throughout the show's run, she's openly discussed getting breast and bottom surgery, and talked at length with friends about bathroom bills and bullying. Yet at heart the show is the life of a teenage girl, with plenty of talk of boys, homework, and driving.

"I knew I was a girl trapped inside a boy's body," she writes in her book Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen. "There was never any confusion in my mind. The confusing part was why no one else could see what was wrong." Shows like The Fosters and storylines like those found on The Mick and Daytime Divas are clearing up that confusion, paving the way for the kind of acceptance many of us take for granted. While they're still a bit too close to the "very special episode" model for complete comfort, they're broadening conversations about trans youth that will hopefully soon make way for trans kids to better see themselves on screen.

Follow Manuel Betancourt on Twitter.

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