Bra-shopping, texting, and endless parent-child FaceTime chats punctuate the first two episodes of ABC Family’s Becoming Us, the reality show about Ben and Danielle, two teens with newly out trans parents that feels perfectly timed to our current cultural tipping point — and to counter the inevitable backlash. What better timing for the premiere of a reality show about two rather unassuming trans women supporting their teen kids in Illinois than the day after the publication of a noxious New York Times op-ed assailing trans women as some sort of threat to feminism?
No one in their right mind can witness Ben and Danielle’s families and see them as a threat to any gender. Viewers might fall asleep, but the only thing threatened will be bigotry. Indeed, at first watch, Becoming Us appears as bland as any other heavily packaged reality show on a teen-friendly network, executive produced by Ryan Seacrest of all people, might be — including the requisite long conversations about tiny misunderstandings that feel very much manipulated to dramatic effect.
Yet the show’s embrace of all-American reality TV tropes seems engineered to be a step forward for acceptance. Advocates have lamented the dearth of highly visible trans people who are neither victims of violence nor glamorous celebrities. Becoming Us steps into that missing space, with its average Midwestern dads who are transitioning into becoming average Midwestern “moppas.” Nothing tragic occurs in the show’s early narrative (although it’s quite often poignant anyway), and there’s nary a character who might orbit the Kardashian universe. These kids ride bikes, not BMWs. And even the difference between the existences of Ben’s dad Carly and Danielle’s dad SallyDan (formerly Charlie and Dan) is effective at counteracting false narratives about trans women, with the two parents are clearly making different choice about names, pronouns, gender presentation, and even surgery. Without even trying, Becoming Us points out that gender is a spectrum.
Ben, age 16, is a sullen but affable teen, gawky yet charming, who occasionally avoids texts from Carly, occasionally ignores his tutor, ditches dates with Danielle, and frequently resorts to exasperated sighs and groans to express his feelings. “Who knew my dad would become a woman at the same time I was becoming a man?” he says in his voiceover, although during the action of the show itself Ben is more likely to say “gahhh” than anything else. A cast of supporting pals, including one cosplay-loving teen who looks to have come straight out of central casting for Twilight extras and says disturbingly dark things, are there to help Ben process the “gahhhs,” talking in that classic teen register that vacillates between profoundly wise and profoundly moronic.
Furthermore, the family conflict is of the passive-aggressive, constantly discussed variety. No unearthing of major secrets here. Even Ben’s divorced parents make a conscious effort to get together civilly to talk about Ben’s future. His grades are slipping, and they say they are frustrated because he’s frequently 15 minutes late to a variety of activities, including tutoring. This constitutes his rebellion, one strictly of the sullen variety. Indeed, Ben’s biggest moment of acting out after he finds out his dad is getting “the surgery” involves shouting from a rooftop in Chicago. The horror!
The show’s stars are people trying hard to be decent in front of the cameras. Young Danielle — she and Ben started dating when mutual friends set them up, noting their similar experiences — in particular is so accepting, despite evident pain, that the show sometimes verges into oddly gender-normative territory: an emotionally intuitive teenage girl and her stunted boyfriend. Yet away from the cameras, we learn that the show was Ben’s idea, and that both he and Danielle pushed their families into it because they wanted to help and educate the public. And their statements come across as delightfully inclusive: “[Carly] is free, and she’s happy. I’m getting more of who she really is because Charlie was — Charlie wasn’t happy in his skin,” Ben told reporters. “It’s all about love, and at the end of the day family is family, and that’s the bottom line.” Danielle sounds similar: “I want kids out there to know that even though your parent could be transitioning, your brother could be transitioning, your sister, or whatever, that they’re still who they are,” she said in the same article. “Just because they’re different gender doesn’t make them a different person… You got to love them.”
Arguably, the producers of the show are trying too hard to emphasize the so-called ordinariness of these families, and centering that ordinariness on Midwestern whiteness. It’s on-the-nose, sure, but some of their framing is effective — particularly when you see the kids defending their parents from teasing instead of what’s expected, which is the other way around. When Danielle says, of her father, “It’s my dad and he’s a person, you’re making him feel bad” (SallyDan uses male pronouns), the producers are ably summoning our tears. And when they try to summon our laughter, by assembling a group of suburban-type white ladies (Ben’s family) to watch a gender reassignment surgery on YouTube, with big glasses of wine and open mouths, they’re doing further normalization work. These “ordinary” women are educating themselves, and the message is that we should do the same.