The transgender merchandising machine kicked into high gear last week when Caitlyn Jenner graced the cover of Vanity Fair and proclaimed “I am Caitlyn.” Not letting a good opportunity go to waste, ABC Family is keeping the momentum going in a new series that airs tonight called, Becoming Us. According to ABC Family, this is a ” groundbreaking new unscripted drama series “Becoming Us” centers on a teenager named Ben who is learning to live with his dad becoming a woman.”
“Becoming Us” follows the Lehwald-Crawford family from Evanston, Illinois which includes their son Ben, 17, Ben’s mother Suzy and “his once father Charlie, now Carly.” Told through the eyes of seventeen-year-old Ben, the docu-series allows the viewer a first-hand account of how Ben struggles to come to terms with Carly’s transition and how the family dynamic has changed.
Ben learned of Carly’s decision to transition at the age of 13 when he was told that his parents were going to divorce. Ben’s girlfriend Danielle also has a parent that is transitioning allowing for a common bond between the two friends. Ben’s older sister Sutton, who is recently engaged and visiting home for the wedding, is also visibly upset about Carly saying that she wants her wedding “to be about me, not Carly,” although a large segment of the program was dedicated to Sutton and her wedding plans.
Much like the Amazon series ‘Transparent,’ Becoming Us is not really about Carly’s transition as much as it is about how the family is put through the burden of having a parent that is transgender. In other words, this is the story of Carly told through the eyes of her son Ben, “I was blindsided by the whole thing,” he said, “It was hard to keep my head above the water. For a while, I held a lot of my emotions in, trying to get rid of the thoughts in my head. I couldn’t take it.”
Ex-wife Suzy states, “It was a good three or four months where I had to make some real serious adjustments and process lots of things that were coming at me,” she continued, “The loss of my husband, loss of my marriage, being concerned with my son.” When it came to what Ben was going to call Carly, “mom” was out of the question according to Suzy. “I earned that,” Suzy said in an interview on Nightline, “I earned that title in many ways.” Ben settled on calling her Carly instead of “Dad.”
The show, however, is problematic. The opening credits have Ben talking about how great his life was “until she came around,” she of course being Carly. Both Ben and his mom Suzy reiterate how their “lives were turned upside down” when Carly came out, and Ben’s step sister Sutton states, “I’m really proud about her decision Sutton” once again pushing forward the trope that being transgender is a decision or lifestyle choice.
Sadly, there are scenes in the show that could be considered trigger warnings for people who are transgender. In one scene, Ben is hanging with his friends talking about pronouns and being transgender while looking up gender neutral pronouns, they begin to laugh while listing them off.
When Carly finally told Ben that she had made the decision to have SRS [sex reassignment surgery], Ben selfishly replies, “The person that made me will no longer have the thing that made me” then continues to mope around for the next few scenes.
In typical teenage fashion, Ben is often heard talking about how difficult this transition is on him and how much it is messing up his life. His mother and his friends agree with Ben’s complaints which in turn, re-enforces that transitions need to be easier on the family with little to no concern over Carly’s feelings. These are scenes we have seen play out in Transparent and Keeping Up with the Kardashians.
Transparent focuses on how a dysfunctional families life is further complicated by the main characters transition, while the Kardashian’s are seen struggling with Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out as transgender. All three shows appear to pull the sympathy card in favor of the “suffering family,” but in Becoming Us, there seems to be a level of emotional realness that both spouses and children of people who are transgender genuinely experience.
Last year, Laverne Cox from Orange is the New Black, became the first transgender person on the cover of TIME magazine titled, The Transgender Tipping Point.” Cox told Time, ““We are in a place now,” Cox tells TIME, “where more and more trans people want to come forward and say, ‘This is who I am.’ And more trans people are willing to tell their stories. More of us are living visibly and pursuing our dreams visibly, so people can say, ‘Oh yeah, I know someone who is trans.’ When people have points of reference that are humanizing, that demystifies difference.”
One year later, this appears to be coming true because OITNB and Becoming Us are not the only program featuring real trans people on TV. New Girls on the Block will debut this year on E!, All that Jazz featuring Jazz Jennings will premier on TLC, In July, I Am Cait will hit the airwaves, and in the new pilot series Endgame on NBC, Michelle Hendley from Boy Meets Girl fame will once again star as a trans person playing a trans role.
Michelle told Planet Transgender about being cast in trans roles, “It’s exciting! I love seeing more trans roles coming about, and I’m thrilled to see actual trans actors snagging those parts! While I’d rather not get stuck in a type-cast as only “the trans girl,” I really am just fine portraying trans characters for now.”
At first, Becoming Us seemed to be just another instance of cis-people struggling with the coming out of a trans parent, however, it does have the potential to create more visibility for the trans community and provide an insight to the struggles we as individuals encounter when we are forced to transition as a result of our dysphoria. Honestly, I was prepared to hate the show and wound up identifying with Carly and what she is going through with her family.
Becoming Us was fun at times, disappointing at others and the MTV like edits between segments are a typical ABC Family production technique to appeal to the kids, but there does seem to be an unbreakable bond between the Lehwald-Crawford family as they try to understand their new normal. As Carly puts it best to Ben, “You’re not losing me at all … you’re going to get more of me than you ever got before.”