Creators of the new ABC family unscripted show, Becoming Us, must have found former Olympian and reality TV star, Bruce Jenner’s, recent very public transition into Caitlyn, a fortuitous coincidence. Never before in this country, has the topic of gender identity been so openly and consistently discussed, but at the same time so poorly misunderstood. What a perfect time for the network to enter into the discourse with this new series that chronicles the life of an ordinary family, dealing with an extraordinary situation.
Strip away the Kardashian branding machine, the calculated press interviews and the glamorous Vanity Fair cover, and you’ve got Becoming Us. This is a more relatable look at what it’s like for someone to feel gender incongruity all their lives and finally risk it all for the reward of being true to themselves. Becoming Us also explores how this type of decision affects friends and family, and how ultimately, a family can choose to let it destroy them, or emerge from the experience stronger.
Just a Normal Kid
Becoming Us opens with Midwestern teenager, Ben, describing his life. He’s a 16-year-old junior in high school. He grew up with loving parents, a great sister, and he has an amazing girlfriend, Danielle. Ben lives in Evanston, Illinois, a suburb just outside of Chicago There is one exception to all of this normalcy, there’s a fairly new woman in Ben’s life that he’s trying to figure out, Carly. A year ago, Carly used to be Charlie, Ben’s dad. So now Ben, his mother, Suzy, and his sister, Sutton, all have a new normal to contend with, and this is their story.
Charlie spent many years being the prototypical T-ball coaching dad, but it was a lie. Charlie knew he had to make a change or the shame of denying who he really was would lead down a very dark path. Carly says the healthiest part of her life has been making the transition into womanhood. Once she let go of all the garbage and shame, it was incredibly liberating. Not that she doesn’t have regrets. Carly wishes she had been a better husband; been more transparent with Suzy.
Suzy is surprisingly unflustered by the turn her life as taken. Like most middle-aged divorced women, she’s just disappointed that a man let her down. The hows and whys aren’t as consequential other than how it affects her children, particularly Ben. The former spouses may not be best friends, Carly did steal Suzy’s hairdresser, after all. But they’ve got the co-parenting down pat.
One Size Does Not Fit All
My biggest fear is that the people who will watch this show aren’t the people who need to watch it. There is so much misinformation and confusion about what it means to be transgender, and many people get so fixated on the superficiality of being transgender. In Carly’s case this would be the clothing, the makeup, the hair, the boobs. Or they are consumed with surgical details — I believe the show will undoubtedly address a few of these burning questions — or they are obsessed with what it means sexually. Is someone who is transgender gay or straight? Like all human beings, there is no one size fits all, and Becoming Us demonstrates that beautifully.
When Ben sits down to talk with his friends about Carly, he explains Carly identifies herself as a woman. The pronoun game can get a bit confusing, but one of Ben’s friends points out it’s due to an overall lack of understanding. If Becoming Us‘ goal is to get the dialogue going and educate, I think the show is off to a good start. To achieve tolerance, it is going to be up to all of us to seek the answers ourselves, but sometimes it can be difficult to know what questions to ask, and the show lays it all out there.
There’s also chatter about whether Carly sleeps with men or women. I don’t believe this is especially relevant to the idea of gender identity. I’m sure there are straight and gay transgender people, and with each subsequent generation, I think we’re moving away from such strict criteria and labels. Yes, Carly likes women, so Ben thinks Carly is a lesbian.
How far Becoming Us will delve into how beings transgender affects sexual attraction is still a question mark, but my hope is that people learn that whether you’re male or female, your gender doesn’t define every aspect of who you are. No more so than genetics, upbringing, religious affiliation, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, etc..
Also, viewers should be ready to throw away their traditional ideas of what criteria an individual must meet mentally, biologically and anatomically to be considered or viewed as a man or a woman.
A New Kind of Normal
Ben has a strong support group, and he is able to use his girlfriend, Danielle, as a sounding board for everything he’s going through because her father, Daniel, is also transgender. Unlike Carly, Daniel is having a harder time dealing with his gender incongruity, having been slowly making the transition since his daughter was seven.
Daniel is still very conflicted, and part of the problem is his discomfort regarding how he is viewed and treated by others. Danielle puts it best when she states that “People don’t even have to accept it. They just have to tolerate it enough to keep their mouths shut.”
There is a definite disconnect between Ben and Carly, the kid feels like his dad is gone, and when Carly breaks the news that she’s decided to undergo gender reassignment surgery, Ben takes the news hard. To him this last “vestige” is all that’s left of his dad. This subject matter works best in the reality format because no actor could convincingly convey the series of emotions that Ben undergoes in a matter of minutes. He says himself that now there’s no going back, revealing that he believed this might have all been a phase.
Becoming Us is about so much more than being transgender. It’s about first loves, and true loves, the family we’re born into and the one we make along the way. It’s about friends, tolerance and learning to accept what we can’t control and taking control over what we are no longer willing to accept. It is touching, and confusing and awe-inspiring and complicated, just like life.
Becoming Us premieres Monday, June 8 at 9pm on ABC Family.
(Image courtesy of ABC Family)