ABC Family Brings the Real-Life “Transparent” with “Becoming Us” (And That’s Not a Great Thing)

When I first wrote about this show in my preview of upcoming shows featuring trans women, I said that to me, it seemed like it might be a reality show version of Jill Soloway’s hit Amazon show Transparent. I also said I hoped that, unlike Maura’s family in that show, the transgender parent in Becoming Us‘s family wouldn’t be filled with horrible people. While I wouldn’t go that far, after watching the first two episodes I was definitely expecting Carly’s family and the other people in the show to be much more supportive of her and to be better examples of how to act when you have a trans family member than they were. After all, why would you agree to star in a reality show unless you thought it was going to paint a good picture of you? Instead, I found myself crying halfway through the first episode — not because the show was touching my heart, but because I couldn’t believe how Carly was being talked about by her family.

BECOMING US - ABC Family's "Becoming Us" stars Suzy, Ben and Carly. (ABC Family/Jean Whiteside)

ABC Family’s “Becoming Us” stars Suzy, Ben and Carly. (ABC Family/Jean Whiteside)

While Becoming Us is ostensibly among the new wave of TV shows about trans woman, it’s really about a 16-year-old boy named Ben from Evanston, Illinois. Ben has a group of friends, a girlfriend who also has a transgender parent, an older sister, a mom named Suzy and another parent named Carly. Carly has recently come out as transgender and the show is mostly about how Ben and his friends and family are dealing with her transition. It’s about how hard it is when your parent is trans and how you have to learn to deal with that difficulty and accept that trans parent. So, right from the start, this is clearly a show for cis people, and not for trans people. And that’s fine. I do think that there’s some real value in shows for cis people that are about trans characters. It’s an easy way for them to learn some things and test out their reaction to trans people without having to actually react to a real-life trans woman and possibly ruin her day.

At the beginning of the show we’re introduced to Ben, who right away becomes the sympathetic center of the show. We’re going on his journey, we know more of his emotions and feelings than anyone else’s, we’re supposed to be able to relate to him. This is a problem. Ben isn’t exactly taking his parent’s transition well. He’s clearly confused, clearly frustrated and clearly uncomfortable. There’s a scene where Ben is hanging out with his friends and they start talking about trans people and pronouns. They look up a list of gender-neutral pronouns and start listing them off and laughing at them. Ben goes on to say that it’s all so confusing and he’s just going to call Carly “Carly” even though she clearly just uses “she/her” pronouns. This is when I started crying. It wasn’t the only time I would be shocked at how Carly was talked about by her family.

Ben's girlfriend Danielle and her dad. (ABC Family/Jean Whiteside)

Ben’s girlfriend Danielle and her dad. (ABC Family/Jean Whiteside)

There was another scene, this time in the second episode, where Ben was talking to his girlfriend Danielle about his struggling relationship with Carly. She asks if Carly wants Ben to call her Mom or Dad or what. Ben replies by saying that Carly’s asked him to call her Mom, but he refuses to, and that if he can’t call her Dad, than he’s gonna call her nothing at all. This feeling is later reinforced when Ben’s talking to his Mom and she talks about “if you reach out to Carly and you want to continue your dad-son relationship, because I ain’t gonna say mom-son relationship. Ever!” This was hard for me to watch. I can’t even imagine how crushed I would have been if my parents told me that they refused to ever call me their daughter and that if they couldn’t call me their son, they wouldn’t call me anything. I know that this is a change for the cis people in this show, and I know that they’re learning, but they seem to have so little compassion for Carly. And the way the show is set up, it’s like we’re supposed to be on their side.

There were a lot of scenes like this, a lot of times when Ben would talk about how hard Carly’s transition is on him, how difficult this is to process and how much this is messing up his life. All of these feelings are affirmed by his friends and his mom. Danielle shares some of his same feelings, her dad, who is transgender, but still uses “he/him,” the name Daniel and Dad, but seems to be much more willing to learn and grow than Ben. It was very strange watching the people in this show, which seems to be advertised as being good for the trans community, being so actively resistant to embracing its main trans character.

Sutton and Carly bonding. (ABC Family/Lou Rocco)

Sutton and Carly bonding. (ABC Family/Lou Rocco)

There were a few good moments, though. One of my favorites was when Carly was talking to the camera and she said, “you know, I always said, you’re not losing me at all, I’m not going anywhere. Instead, you’re gonna get more of me than you ever got before.” When the narrative around trans women coming out is so often that people are losing a father or son or brother, it’s nice to hear someone word it this way.

Another really touching scene was between Danielle and her dad, who still uses “he/him” pronouns, and goes by Dad and Daniel. They were talking about how unfair it is that Daniel doesn’t feel safe going outside presenting as a woman and you could tell that Danielle just wanted her dad to be able to be himself and be happy. Watching Carly take Daniel to go bra shopping was also really great; it was the first time that Daniel seemed genuinely happy in the episode. My favorite character (out of the cis people, at least), was Sutton, Ben’s older sister who’s getting married soon. Although she’s not Carly’s daughter, there was a really sweet scene where she and Carly went wedding-registry shopping, bonded and had a great time, something I could never see Ben or Suzy doing. Another Sutton highlight was when she and her friend looked up a video of a trans woman getting bottom surgery and she not only corrected her friend when she misgendered the trans woman, but she also was pretty much the only person not “othering” trans women.

This isn’t the review of this episode that I wanted to write. While I didn’t think I would fall in love with this show, I thought it would be a great resource and a good example of how to act for people who have a family member or friend who comes out as trans. I thought that it would show a real-life example of how a family reacts to the news that the person they thought was the father is really another mother and how they show that person love, support and affirmation. Instead, I got a show about how hard it is for cis people to deal with the fact that someone they love is trans.

Ben and Carly. (ABC Family/Jean Whiteside)

Ben and Carly. (ABC Family/Jean Whiteside)

I realize that the narrative that Becoming Us shows is pretty typical. A big number of trans people who come out have strained relationships with their families, especially at first. But this isn’t the only narrative, and it’s far from the ideal one. People who have a family member who comes out as trans are going to watch this show, and they’re going to see the way Ben and his mother and his friends talk about Carly and since no one (for the most part) challenges or corrects them, they’re going to think that this is the proper way to react. They’re going to think that if they misgender or disrespect their transgender loved one, it’s not just okay, it’s expected.

I don’t like how much this show reminded me of Transparent. On that fictional show, all of Maura’s children are selfish, immature and kind of just horrible people, so when they misgender Maura or laugh about trans people or do other things that I could see Ben, Suzy and some of the others do on Becoming Us, we know that we shouldn’t look to them as role models. We know that we shouldn’t follow their example. That’s not so clear on this show. These are real people, and Ben is definitely the viewer’s entry point into this world; the show is encouraging us to relate to him.

Becoming Us positions itself as being pro-transgender. It seems very much like the producers and the people who star in it feel like they’re being good allies and they’re doing a public service. Really, I’m afraid that it’s giving people a bad example of how to react when one of your loved ones come out. The moral of the first two episodes seems to be “Trans people are difficult and they cause a lot of stress and drama in their cis loved one’s lives. So it’s okay if you don’t react very well, it’s okay if you’re not supportive right away and it’s okay if you make it all about you,” which is not a message that I want to hear or have broadcast on national television.

I also know that these are real people, and that real people make mistakes and more importantly, that real people can grow and learn from their mistakes. So I do hope that we’ll see some of that growth on this show. The end of the second episode actually did indicate some of this growth from Ben, so I do think we might see more. If it does, I think that this show has the potential to help trans people by giving their family and friends a guide on how to be supportive, something which a lot of friends and family of trans people often look for when someone comes out as trans. That will only happen if people watch the whole show, though (and if it turns into the show that I hope it does). If you were to watch just these first two episodes, you’d get the same ideas that I did, and those ideas aren’t so great for trans women.


Becoming Us, which is produced by Ryan Seacrest, premieres on ABC Family on Monday, June 8th at 9 PM ET/PT


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Mey Valdivia Rude is a bisexual Latina trans woman living in Los Angeles. She's a writer, comic consultant and a trans activist. She's a bruja, a femme, a pop princess and she loves comic books, witches, dinosaurs and crying. She has a cat named Sawyer and a very successful twitter.

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44 Comments

  1. I’m not surprised this show revolves around Ben and his teen angst about having a parent who is transgender. ABC Family is marketed to teens. Every show they have revolves around that. Even the Fosters is more about the kids drama and it is about the two moms. That’s why so many teens watch it, why we are constantly getting Brallie shoved down our throats and why Callie has yet to be adopted by the Fosters. I think I will pass on this show if it’s really going to be all about poor Ben and HIS struggle and how difficult it for HIM to deal with having a transparent parent. I already feel terrible for Carly that she has such a shitty kid.

    • “I already feel terrible for Carly that she has such a shitty kid.”

      I laughed reading this line and I remember having a difficult conversation with my great aunt about her daughter being a terrible person.

      “You’re lovely and I don’t think think it is your fault of parenting that [name redacted] is a terrible person.”

      I can empathize on how ~*~*confusing~*~*~ it is to have a parent that is “different” and I just feel bad for Carly and wish to see more positive and supportive trans* narratives.

    • Hmmm, I seem to recall on the last article on a reality show it wasn’t okay to insult minors? Now it’s fine to call them shitty and place blame for the show they ultimately didn’t have the final say on whether the family would be on and what the narrative would be about.

      Yep, tots fair.

      • Yeah, I agree, Jessie.

        I in no way condone what appears to be hurtful behavior on Ben’s part. But really? Kids are still learning. Many of them haven’t yet become sensitive to the political and personal narratives of marginalization. This reflects less on their intrinsic human value, and more on the culture in which they were raised (which, unsurprisingly, is not exclusively determined by one parent- myriad other factors are at play). And, of course, having a reality TV show trying to extract and incite drama is probably not a great form of trans education.

        So yeah, let’s not attack this kid- or kids in general- as “shitty,” irreparably bad, or incapable of growth, simply because, in their ignorance, they have said some unkind things.

      • Well, I didn’t read the last article so I don’t know what the rule is on discussing minors on reality shows but imo Ben is being a shitty kid right now. I didn’t say he was incapable of being anything but that. He could of course grow out of that and learn to be more understanding as most kids eventually do. And this is only the first couple of episodes so maybe we do actually get to see that growth at some point during the season. But yeah right now he’s being a brat and his mother sounds even worse as she is the actual adult in this situation.

          • I don’t mean to condemn the kid at all. Just commenting on what I’ve seen so far as it is a reality show that has put out for us to consume and comment on. Good or bad. I do realize that he’s a teenager and teenagers by nature are immature and bratty so I apologize if my use of the word “shitty” to describe his current behavior is offensive. I don’t think he’s a bad person forever. That wasn’t what I meant. I was just sympathizing with Carly having to also go through this process and here her family say these things but as has been pointed by others she did sign up for this in the first place so I’m sure she knew what she was getting into.

            As I said, I do expect that Ben will eventually grow from this experience and learn to accept his father’s transition to being a woman. I recognize it’s not an easy process just as I’m sure it’s just as difficult for a lot of kids to accept a parent coming out as gay or lesbian later on life. Unfortunately, for him he has to do that in front of an audience.

  2. This is disappointing to read, but I’m glad you talked about it from the perspective of someone who has come out to their family as trans. It seems like what’s missing from this show is Carly’s own voice, and maybe if we could hear her talk about her wife’s and son’s reactions, that would provide the contextual foil so clearly needed.

  3. I’d be interested to know who’s idea it was in the family to be on the show. I mean, while Ben clearly could’ve brought up the idea, his parents had the last word because he’s a minor.
    I think these kinds of shows are shitty in that it’s probably not in everyone’s best psychological interest to be on national TV while everyone is going through a major transition. See: 16 and Pregnant. Like, I get that it’s educational or whatever, but I think it was a really shitty parenting move for Carly and Suzy to be like, oh hey, we’re going through this major transition as a family, let’s put our child on national TV for it. That’s going to help literally nothing. So yeah, I feel sorry for Ben. Children should not be on reality TV, because they are children. Add to that, a teenager will say and so really stupid shit because they’re teenagers. Add what is clearly Adjustment Disorder to that mix and it’s all doomed for failure.
    Reality TV has a really record of doing any good ever. Jon & Kate Plus Eight, 16 and Pregnant, Real Housewives, etc etc etc. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVEEEE watching shit reality TV, but at the same time, it’s super fucked up.
    I, for one, really like New Girls on the Block. It’s kind of problematic in some ways, but like the familial support piece is AMAZING (Jaimie and her kickass mom, Chloe’s brother, and AiYanna’s come to Jesus meeting with her mom all made me cry) and heartwarming and yeah Robyn’s boyfriend is a total dick and that relationship drives me up a wall and Macy’s wife is really inconsistent and clearly they need to get a divorce but AiYanna and Jaimie are adorable and I think in general the show is more sympathetic to all of the women. I really hope they make it an ongoing series.

  4. It sounds from your description, Mey, like the show handles things poorly. But as an early-in-transition (and in self-understanding) trans* woman who also has an adolescent child who is gender-nonconforming/questioning, I gotta say: This Shit Is Hard.

    My kid and I are each still trying to work out our own stuff, while at the same time respecting the other’s process. With 18 years of verbal habits and social assumptions being questioned on both sides, plus the presence of my parents wo Just Don’t Get It, it’s been complicated and challenging even on our best days. I have to admit that my kid is handling my transition a lot better than I’m handling their questioning.

    Like I said, shit is hard. I’m not surprised that a reality show is having a hard time handling it well.

  5. So in ‘Becoming Us’, we learn that Carly’s cisgender family is having such a hard time with her. In ‘Keeping up with the Kardashians’we learned how difficult it is for the Kardashian family and Jenner family to come to terms with Bruce; and in ‘Transparent’, we get to experience the complete disappointment of an entire Pfefferman family as the main character Maura goes through “her journey.”

    This is what we have as a trans community? Complete disappointment by the cisgender family members while a person who is transgender has suffered their entire life? Is this really the best that TV can offer our community when coming up with “programming.”

    Quite frankly, your best isn’t good enough for us. There are no “Trans Issues,” only “Cis Issues” placed on our backs and pointed back to as “Trans Issues.” We want to be accepted, not the exception.

  6. I’m definitely disappointed to read this, because I have been really impressed with ABC Family’s ability to incorporate queer characters into their popular shows (Pretty Little Liars, The Fosters) without being too preachy or weird. I sort of had high hopes for this.

  7. When I transitioned I had the pastor of the church I was attending tell me I was worse than a murderer.

    I had my now ex-wife take our kids from me on mothers day because my daughter had bought me a card. We were separated at the time.

    The local women’s shelter/domestic violence agency found that transitioning was an act of emotional abuse and assist my ex-wife both with finding an attorney and retaining them…including assisting with the down paymnet

    Yeah, it was good times. Good times. I wish it would just have been the name and pronouns.

  8. It is not very surprising to see a 16 year old boy struggle with their Dad becoming a woman. 16 is already a very awkward age and he’s probably feeling like he’s lost his male rolemodel. Girls mature quicker than boys so seeing his girlfriend react better to her Dad makes sense too. She also gets to still call him Dad and use male pronouns which makes the transition a little easier.

    And honestly I would have been devastated if I could no longer call my Dad, Dad. I personally don’t think it isn’t fair to ask your children, who for their entire lives have known you as Dad to suddenly call you something else. I already have a Mom, she’s my only Mom, what I need is a Dad. Even if my Dad is transgender she’s still my Dad. It’s an honorary title that in the end has little to do with gender. I think that boy should be able to sit down with his Dad and be able to talk about these things.

    As the daughter of a trans-parent I just don’t like this article. The author is so unsympathetic to the kid. Yes he’s not acting that nice but he’s a kid. I cried my eyes out when I found out my Dad was transgender because even though I knew she was still my Dad there was this fear that I was losing a part of her. Also, such a huge change is simply overwhelming at first. God knows how I would have reacted if I was 16, let alone a 16 year old boy with an unsupportive mother!

    In the end this is a reality show, with real people, and real drama. There is no perfect family or perfect person. I feel like this author is refusing to put themselves in the shoes of the child of a trans-parent.

      • Emily, I’m the trans parent of a teen daughter (although i transitioned quite a while ago) and I agree with you. You have every right to your feelings about how your family is changing and anxiety about the possible changes in your relationship with your transitioning parent. Those are yours and no one gets to tell you they’re somehow wrong. Period.

        I would like to say that, in general, I’ve had a very solid relationship with my daughter post-transition. We went through some rocky years (some of that was because of the accompanying divorce which was only partly about my transition) but I was always there for her and she’s actually lived with me much more than with her mom. No, I’m not ‘mom’ (except when she’s referring to me in third person situations to friends) and am referred to as ‘Gina.’ I don’t always like that, but it’s a compromise. Calling me ‘dad’ would be absurd and disruptive in most situations and she’s always been very protective of me being misgendered (I’m not saying that necessarily a good thing, but it is what it is). Yes, I think she does sometime feel the loss of a dad and a certain nostalgia for pre-transition me… we had a very close relationship. But in spite of the usual teen/parent head-butting, we have come through a lot. Would she rather it hadn’t happened… honestly, probably. But, in the long run, she’s been amazed how a lot of her friends find our connection inspiring and how strong, empowering and self-aware it’s made her. I wish you the best in your family and hope you can find positives along with some of what you’re going through. (I also recommend the group, Colage, which has some good programs and forums for teens of LGBTQ parents).

    • I strongly disagree with Mey’s take on Ben’s reaction, and I think that the comments saying that Ben is a shitty kind are grotesque. Maybe if any of you actually had had the experience of being a teenager whose parent transitions, or of being the transitioning parent of a teenager, you might have a different reaction.

      I believe that reassuring one’s child (no matter how young or old they are) about the continuity they want and need is the most important thing you can do as a parent when you transition. This is something I wrote 11 years ago, after I came out to my then-14-year-old son (after he had started to drop hints about “knowing more than I think he does”). This was about four years after my former spouse and I separated, and 3+ years after I had begun to transition medically — and about two years after he came out to me as gay, when he was 12:

      So on Father’s Day (not because it was Father’s Day, just a coincidence), I finally had the “talk” with him that I’d been wanting so much to have the last few years. I just came right out and said we had to talk, and that I really had to find out what he meant when he said he knew “more than I thought,” and how he knew what he thought he knew, and that no matter how he found out whatever it was, I wouldn’t get mad at him.

      So he looked at me and said, “I know you’re transgendered.” And I asked him how, and he said he’d known for about 6 months, and that it was a combination of things — taking a peek in the half of my bedroom closet that always stays closed and seeing women’s clothing, and seeing what looked like a prescription or a prescription receipt for estrogen on my desk (which I guess is possible), and, overall, just the fact that I seem to know so much about the subject (like when I had answers to all his questions when we were watching “Soldier’s Girl”). And that, “hey, I’m not stupid, I live with you 3 nights a week, I’m surprised you’d think I wouldn’t know by now.”

      (Since that conversation, he has also admitted that he realized some months ago that I have breasts. So all my efforts to conceal that from him, wearing long-sleeved button down shirts in 90-degree heat, were, in his words, “pointless, Dad.”)

      And because I wasn’t going to lie to him, I told him it was true, and I asked him how he felt about it. And he said he still loves me just as much, and doesn’t care.

      And I asked him if he understood what “transitioning” was, and he said he didn’t, and I explained what it was, and that it’s something I really hope to be able to do someday, but not till after the divorce is over. (The “timetable” I’ve given him is maybe 6 months or a year from now.) And he said, “you’re still going to be the same person, right, with the same personality, and interested in the same things?” And, “you’ll still have the same face, you’ll just be dressed differently?” And, as importantly as anything, “I’ll till be able to call you Dad?” And I said “of course,” to all those things, that I’ll always be Dad no matter what, and I’ll always be the same person (after all, I’ve always been transgendered), and that my body has changed in the last few years, and that I will be dressed differently, but it’ll still be my face. And I said I understood that accepting all this emotionally and intellectually might be easier for him than seeing the reality of it, and that I would wait till he was ready for it.

      He asked what my name would be, and I told him Donna, and at first he didn’t like it, but said he’d get used to it. And he asked me about surgery, and I explained that I had no plans for SRS (I explained what that stands for) [at the time, I was sincere, since I thought my health problems would preclude it; things changed in that regard and I finally had SRS six years ago], but had had a different kind of operation last fall; he guessed that it was an orchiectomy, and when I asked how he could possibly guess that, he said it was because when we were watching “Soldier’s Girl” and that word was used incorrectly, I knew what it really meant. He said he knew I was a lesbian, and I asked how, and he said he can tell I like girls.

      And then he said again that he loved me, and then he joked that in a few years his having a transgendered father might make a really good college admissions essay, and then he said, “I’m hungry, can you make me lunch?” And that was that, and it was the best Father’s Day I could ever wish for.

      He still calls me Dad sometimes in private, and it doesn’t bother me — I view it as a non-gendered term between us; just a three-letter word that means “I love you and you’re still mine” — but the majority of the time, in public and private, he calls me Donna.

      About a year after I transitioned in 2005, he turned to me one day and said, “you know, you’re still my Daddy.” And told me that the only major change in me was that I’m a calmer person, less frustrated and irritable. (He did say that “instead of yelling, I nag” — but I think that was just his little joke!)

      Three years after I transitioned, in 2008, on a vacation to Italy which was his high-school graduation present, we were sitting on one of the benches overlooking the pool at Hadrian’s Villa, and he turned to me and said, “you know, looking at you now, it’s very hard to believe you were ever anything but a woman.” Possibly the nicest compliment I’ve ever received.

      So it doesn’t bother me at all that in private he still sometimes calls me Dad, and doesn’t think of himself as having two Moms (even though when we’re out together, he has always let people assume that he’s with his Mom, and doesn’t ever correct them). He has given me his love and unquestioning acceptance for the last 11 years; wasn’t letting him call me Dad the least I could do for him?

      Shame on anyone who would have called him a “shitty kid” for not seeing me as his Mom after he knew me for his entire life as his Dad. If I had transitioned when he was a baby, or even a small child, I’m sure things would have been different. But that’s not what happened.

      • I really loved reading your story and take on this. I also loved the line about dad being a non gendered word that means love between you two. I know that’s not going to be everyone’s truth or what they want in their relationship, but it tugged so hard on my heartstrings.

  9. Great review by you as always,
    isn’t it amazing how Cis reaction often boils down to “how hard it is for them ” and other “how could you do this to me, you are wrecking my life” type reactions ..
    Anna

  10. Oh no. No no no no no. It is not a minor child’s job to support a custodial parent through a coming out experience, or protect a parent from society’s oppressions. No no no no. This is not scripted tv. I appreciate that there’s editing, I appreciate that reality tv and reality are two different things, but the parents have made a choice to put their kid in public during this and now we’re criticizing him for not following a perfect supportive script and instantaneously being on board?

    The parent-child relationship is inherently asymmetrical. In my opinion, it’s the job of parents of a trans child to keep their discomfort with their child’s gender out of their child’s face and deal with it privately and follow that perfectly supportive script. But it’s a parent’s job to help their child through family transitions. It’s a parent’s job to help a child learn to identify and deal with societal oppressions, not a child’s job to be a perfect antioppressive protector for the parent. At the very least, it’s a parent’s job to give their teenager privacy to deal with big changes that come their way. And now this kid’s got cameras following him around documenting every time he slips up or is confused or has to take a while to get used to new ideas. And we’re judging what would ordinarily be private moments and conversations – conversations that he might deliberately try to keep away from his trans parent so as not to hurt her feelings! – as public acts because television. When the Kardashians harp on about their feelings it’s different. They are adults and they are public figures already. But we can’t hold some kid’s actual life to the script we wish would happen and then compare him to fictional people who “are horrible”. No. No no no. This is bad.

    • I agree with you how it’s not the child’s responsibility to support the transitioning parent. But I see several posts on here which are trying to make it sound as if the parents foisted this reality show on their teen… an uninformed claim of which I’m extremely dubious. As the parent of a teen, there is very little parents could do to ‘force’ a teenager to participate in something like this. The more I think about it, there is zero they could do to force the teen going in front of a film crew and there is every kind of way a teen could sink the entire production (which, after, costs a lot of money in salaries and equipment rental) if they wish. If you have real facts about them forcing the production on him, please share, otherwise make it clear this is your own fantasy about what happened and not reality.

      • It doesn’t have to be foisted or forced to be the parents’ choice, ultimately. If the teenager was making a series of youtube vlogs about his experience, then it would be different, but the entire family had to cooperate and sign releases for this to happen, and the guardians would also have had to sign on behalf of the minor child. While he is a minor, the decision is still ultimately his parents’. I’m not saying that it’s inherently exploitative for the family, as a unit, to choose to make these moments public. But I am saying that his mom Carly made a choice to expose and be exposed to conversations she was not in the room for, where her kid said some stuff he might not have said to her face or said if he was asked to make a speech about his mom.

        • Are the network assholes for exploiting this family in general? Well, yes. But you could say that about all networks with reality shows. That’s what reality shows are by nature. Exploitative. Reality television has been around long enough these days that teenagers have literally grown up on it and many would do anything to be apart of it. It’s that ingrained in our pop culture. But if Ben were to come out and say that he was forced into this show and hated every minute of it I would take his word for it. Until then, it’s all just speculation on our parts that was he forced against his will into the project by his parents and wasn’t allowed to say “no” to it. There have been cases where minors have said no to being on reality tv and their wishes have been respected. For example, When the Osbornes first did their reality show their oldest daughter Amy wanted no part of it and her parents and the network respected that. The show was an instant hit and now most people don’t even know their even is a third Osborne child. Given the nature of the media and that this is one of the first shows to address this particular topic I’m sure we’ll here more from the family about having this process filmed. And you can be sure that one of the first things a reporter is going to ask them is how and why the parents let this be filmed in the first place. They all get asked. The Osbornes got asked about it. Mama June gets asked. Even Kris Jenner faces criticism about making celebrities out of her youngest girls, who have been on camera since before they were even pre-teens. So lets wait to here from the family themselves about whether or not they felt this was a bad choice for them.

        • “While he is a minor, the decision is still ultimately his parents’”

          And you are continuing to ignore the reality that were Ben not totally on board with it, the production company wouldn’t have used this family– that’s just business sense at its most crass. He is the center of the story (as they’re telling it for ABC Family) and less than full commitment to the project means they’re balancing an entire production, jobs, legal agreements on a potentially hostile subject. This is Ryan Seacrest’s production company, not a war documentary.

          Yes, Carly agreeing to participate exposes her to lots of discussions with which she might be uncomfortable. If you participate in Reality TV, you’re agreeing to the producer’s edit of events (and if you don’t know that, then you’ve received poor advice about signing up). You think a trans woman or a 16-year old don’t understand that? Going on a talk show (no matter how innocuous) means you might have to discuss things you’d just as soon not. What’s your point? I don’t see anyone saying those conversations shouldn’t have existed, have no right to be there or shouldn’t have been included in the final version. And honestly, there are cis people who make public statements about trans people all the time who end up saying unintentionally insulting or dismissive things even with the best of intentions.

          • It absolutely does not matter whether Ben was totally on board with it or not. He’s sixteen (younger, most likely, when this decision was made). He is a child. This is why he cannot make a plethora of legal decisions for himself, because he is not mature enough yet to make them. As I say below, it is the parents’ responsibility to respond appropriately to a child wanting to do something ultimately dangerous and damaging. And Carly and Suzy didn’t do that. In fact, they did the opposite, and joined him in it, which is even worse.
            An example: when I consent for research at my work, I have two forms: one for the parent/legal guardian, and one for the child. The child can sign the form I give them, or not, it doesn’t really matter legally. All that matters is that the parent signs. Full stop.

          • You’re trying to apply an analogy which isn’t apropos. That Ben wishes to be involved is COMPLETELY what’s at stake here. This is not drug treatment, troubled teen ranch or even attending school… it’s where a film crew needs compliance and involvement in the project or it just couldn’t happen. Not the same thing. Yes, minors need to have their parents/guardians/caretakers sign, that has nothing in this instance to do with voluntary participation in a project.

          • My analogy is actually completely appropriate, thanks very much. You keep bringing up Ben’s willingness to be in this show as though it matters at all. My point, which keeps being missed somehow, is that his willingness doesn’t matter. At all. Back to my analogy: if the kid wanted to do a research study that posed too much harm in some way (research isn’t supposed to be like that, but history tells us it still can be, somehow), it’s still the parents’ ultimate decision, over which they have ultimate control, to allow him to be involved or not. It’s THEIR decision, at the end of the day. You can’t fault the kid for choosing to be involved in it. You can’t put the responsibility on Ben to know what’s best for himself in this situation, especially when you add in the allure of being on TV which every kid wants. His parents, however, should know better. And where the fuck was their family therapist? Any therapist worth their weight would tell them that this was a damaging, very bad idea. So if they didn’t listen to their therapist, that, too, says a lot.
            So I’m going to repeat myself, one more time, and then I’m not coming back to this, because it’s ridiculous to have to keep repeating myself just to be misread somehow:
            Whether or not Ben wanted to be involved doesn’t matter. Just because a kid wants to do something, doesn’t mean a parent should let him. Carly and Suzy did not prevent their child, and ultimately, their family, from a dangerous, damaging situation, a situation that will follow Ben for the rest of his life. Nobody wants what they say in frustration/anger/hurt to be on permanent, tangible record forever, especially not if it was said when we were teenagers. AND, nobody wants that picked apart and judged by the masses. And at the end of the day, Carly and Suzy decided to allow that to happen, and be involved in making it happen. And to put it mildly, that’s a shitty parenting move. And it’s a little bit heartless. Ben’s 16, younger when this decision was made. I am absolutely certain that all that he saw was the allure of being on TV.

          • I don’t think anyone is trying to say he was forced or coerced into this, but he consented to do this show in as much as any teenager could, with the expressed authorization of his parents. The majority of teenagers do not have the maturity of their parents, so it is their parent’s responsibility to make decisions for them, especially during an emotionally vulnerable time. He may look back and wish he had more space to process what he was going through and that he wasn’t so exposed.

      • Yeah, that’s a total exaggeration/misunderstanding of the criticism stated above. I, for instance, said, “I mean, while Ben clearly could’ve brought up the idea, his parents had the last word because he’s a minor.”
        And that fact remains. Ben is a minor. Ben’s parents, including Carly, are the adults in the situation. They make the final decision. In the end, THEY are the ones with the control. And they CHOSE to either put, or allow, their child to be on national TV during a life-changing transition in the middle of his teen years. IN WHAT WORLD is that a smart idea? Neither is it at all a wise, good parenting decision.
        It doesn’t matter if it was his idea in the beginning. I wanted to do plenty of shit as a teenager. Every teenager does. And it’s the caregivers’ job to say no to dangerous, harmful situations. And if you are given the chance to say no, and don’t, and not only that, you join in on it, then yeah, it’s your responsibility when everything goes to shit. And that’s exactly what happened in this situation.
        I just see a lot of this review, and the comments, framing Carly as a poor, innocent victim, and Ben as a heartless villain. It’s just not that simple. The parent-child dynamic does not work like that.

        • He’s a 16-year old not Alana Thompson. Get serious.

          I don’t think Carly is in any way a victim or someone who didn’t have agency over her involvement. Nor do I blame Ben for his opinions (remembering that we’re not even seeing the full extent of his opinions or feelings… it’s an edit). What I do see the criticism being about is how the stories are framed. Which is ultimately what all Reality TV shows are about… not the participants but the company which made the production and why they want to show the participants in a certain light or even focus on them at all. So, if you want to tell anyone to screw off, tell that to Ryan Seacrest.

          As to characterizing this as “all going to shit,” I haven’t seen the program. As with most Reality TV (at least those dealing with social issues and some kind of vaguely good intentions, there are positives and negatives which come from it and I doubt it falls into one extreme or the other. In a world where many trans people continue to lose total custody or visitation with their children, just showing an intact family working their way through their issues is something.

        • I completely agree, K’idazq’eni. Teenagers are not just miniature adults. Their brains are still developing, and because of these changes, they make decisions that are more impulsive and ignore risk in a way that adults don’t. When it comes to signing a waiver to occur on a reality TV show, it’s not fair to say, “well, they should know what they’re signing up for” because their brains aren’t to the point where they can make those informed decisions. Their developing brains do make everything feel overly dramatic and unfortunately, sometimes they act like selfish jerks.

          When I became a teenager, my parents suddenly started putting a lot of heavy stuff on me—their affairs, their drug use, financial problems. It took me a long time to stop feeling guilty for not knowing how to handle this because I was still actually a child, even though both my parents and I felt like I was so mature. Now I know that it is never the job of a child to parent the adult. I wish I had known it sooner because it doomed a lot of my relationships as I tried to be the parent in them.

          I don’t think Mey was being unnecessarily harsh in her review, but I do think some of the comments here cross the line. Think about all the poor decisions YOU made at that age and think about how far you’ve come!

          • “Their brains are still developing, and because of these changes, they make decisions that are more impulsive and ignore risk in a way that adults don’t.”
            Firstly, who is saying they are ‘miniature adults’ no one… absolutely no one. Second, the idea that a teen can’t possibly know about how they truly feel in such a situation or about the realities of their family and the right course of action is exactly the kind of condescending bs outsiders say when trans kids express a need to transition. How about minding your own business. Obviously the teenage brain isn’t fully developed (and a lot of adult brains will never be fully developed either). Don’t try to use science to explain how there’s no rational way the family could have wanted to participate in this project.

            Neither of you know this family. Neither of you know their therapist or support systems. You’re both projecting a whole load of your own issues onto them. You’re both engaging in pure conjecture, nothing more.

            Also, no, not every teen wants to be on tv or reality shows. Funny, because I just heard a discussion between my daughter and a bunch of her 17-year old friends about this very topic and none of them had any interest in doing that, being a part of it, any interest in reality tv etc. But way to generalize.

  11. I read this, and am trying really hard to stay in the place that’s big enough to hold and acknowledge all the big feelings going on about this story and the people involved. I feel for both the description of what Carly is going through and her experience transitioning with a teenage son and with the son going through all the feelings around the transition, and I’m not sure if I want there to be more shows about the complexity of the coming out process (not just trans, but all across the spectrum of coming out topics) or not, because clearly it seems to be filmed in an awkward way that really exploits true life people.

    What I thought about, though, is how children develop a sense of self, attachment, based off their parents. And how that sense of self, or their world or their universe, gradually lessens over life as they begin to take more internal charge of their being. And how difficult that must be, as a teenager, with maybe a ‘solid foundation’ of self and then all of the information changes. While it’s not the same, it reminds me of people I know who have learned as teenagers that they are adopted. This idea that mom is my mom, but isn’t my mom, all at the same time. And how it could feel like all the solid ground beneath you is sandy and it’s dropping away and you’re treading water, and acting out because you feel like you’re drowning. The questions of ‘was I being lied to my whole life?”

    In college my friend’s parents got divorced and divulged that they had fallen out of love YEARS before, but stayed together ‘for the kids.’ We were in COLLEGE, and my friend said some really really shitty things about her parents. Really shitty. She was hurting. And if there had been a camera, it would have made everything that much worse and would just show the narrative ‘divorce is bad and hurts people.’

    God, I want there to be a reality TV show of an already transitioned parents, with a kid who learned when they were young and the honesty was a place for them to build their sense of safety and self off of. Maybe that would help the narrative. I don’t know. I want Carly to be accepted and I want America to empathize and see the transition as valid and good and something that will help them accept their own family members or friends through transitions. I also know that emotions are so complex and big and teenagers are particularly challenged at keeping them all in a neat package that is always supportive.

    • “I want there to be a reality TV show of an already transitioned parentsf”

      And people in the trans community have, for years, wanted shows about already transitioned persons and their world, but media just won’t hear of it. Even when someone like Janet Mock talks to Oprah, et al. it will always involve her transition. Virtually all depictions of trans people involving their transitions or aspects of themselves which cis people view as “unfinished… should be changed” is a substitute for the old world freak show. We’re really no better than a two-headed calf because, other than that aspect of us, we’re an annoyance and disposable.

  12. Thank you for your review. While I found it hard to swallow I like you also hope that the show will reach the potential you refer to and that the viewers will hang in there.

  13. Mey, Thank you for this review! I appreciate that it’s YOUR review, and you shared YOUR reaction with some context. Thanks for including the parts you liked – that was very generous, I think. Did I say thank you? Thank you!

    Here’s my cis-person opinions: when a major media company misrepresents a show as being more progressive and helpful than it is, and wants props for including trans people in their show that is written for cis people, while trans artists’ work is relatively underfunded and undersupported, to me that seems like a slap in the face. Others have said this better and before me.

    As for sixteen year-olds, when I was sixteen I FAKE-cried through my dad’s second wedding because it wasn’t gonna be a happy wedding on my watch, goddammit. But it wasn’t on television, and no one was telling my dad (who is a layer cake made entirely of over-represented identities) ‘see, see, we made a show, isn’t that what you wanted?’

  14. There seems to be a lot of tension in the comments, and so I just want to point one thing out:

    Reality TV can be complicated to discuss because it represents real individuals with their specific experiences AND it represents an addition to this genre of media. So the people can’t be critiqued like we do with written/constructed characters; that kind of analysis shifts towards the way the show is framed/constructed.

    So when addressing the real people: Yes, it’s unrealistic to expect Ben to fully understand & support Carly’s identity. I mean, come on, he’s a teenager being raised with male privilege in a cisnormative society. He not a “shitty kid” just for acting the way general society acts towards trans women.

    But when looking at the show through the lens of ~trans representation in the media~: This show (at least in the two episodes Mey has reviewed) seems to be adding to the narrative of “trans people will hurt their cis relatives with their transition”. It’s adding to the pool of media about trans folks that focuses on cis feelings. And well, duh, that not cool!

    So let’s make sure we don’t conflate these things!

    Thanks for this review and your perspective Mey!!

    • You still don’t seem to get that it’s not simply that the kid is “a teenager being raised with male privilege in a cisnormative society”; it’s that there’s nothing wrong with the child of a transitioning father needing the continuity of his father still being his father, and still being “Dad,” even though she’s a woman. (I should emphasize that I haven’t seen the show, and am only commenting on that specific aspect of the kid’s reaction.)

      In focusing on the cis-trans dynamic, you’re ignoring the asymmetry and power differential between child and parent, as well as the responsibility of any parent to focus on and take into account their child’s feelings during the process of any major life change. And it’s rather naive to think that a show about a transitioning parent and their teenage child is not going to show the child’s feelings (which you dismiss as “focusing on cis feelings”). Would you rather have the show be dishonest and pretend that everything is always easy?

      I find no inherent contradiction in being a female father. (See my own story in my comment above in this thread.)

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