It was December 2016, I was about to turn 23, and if you told me I was trans I wouldn’t have believed you.
I was listening to an interview with Pamela Adlon on my favorite podcast, Aisha Harris’ Represent — a Slate podcast about representation in media. Adlon was discussing her new show, Better Things, which had just finished its first season. In the finale, Adlon’s character Sam navigates her middle daughter Frankie getting sent home from school for using the men’s room.
“She’s not identifying shit,” Adlon said. “She’s 12-years-old. So she’s just dressing like Buster Keaton and she’s got short hair.”
Adlon went on to explain that the actress, Hannah Alligood, was nothing like Frankie. She had to work hard to capture her voice, body language, and energy.
Being a good ally, I was disappointed by Adlon’s answer and this information about Alligood. I knew trans characters should be played by trans actors. And I knew trans people were certain of their transness long before they turned 12.
I was right about only one of those things. Exactly five months later I’d come out to myself for the very first time.
The next two years Better Things joined shows like Transparent and One Day at a Time — shows I adored but that carried an asterisk for casting a cis actor as their most prominent trans character. Like those shows, Better Things cast trans actors in other parts — notably Jen Richards and Ser Anzoategui — and, additionally, had a trans editor, Debra F. Simone. But that asterisk still existed.
It felt like such a shame, because Better Things was otherwise a remarkable show. From the beginning, people framed it as a sort of female version of Louie — Louis C.K. was Adlon’s long-time collaborator and co-created her show. This, of course, provides another asterisk, but I don’t blame women for the abusive men in their lives, and artistically I think this comparison is limited. Yes, they’re both semi-autobiographical dramedies with surrealist touches. But the former show’s bawdy mean-streak is replaced here with wit and warmth. Better Things may in fact be the female version of Louie, but only if male and female are played out to their most basic cultural extremes.
Better Things captures mother/daughter relationships with a striking specificity. Frankie, her older sister Max, and even her younger sister Duke can all be nightmares like teenagers are prone to be. But Sam meets them with an imperfect patience — it’s imperfect, because she’s not a saint, it’s still patience, because she leads with love. This is a show where Sam and Max can angrily shout “cunt” at each other before bursting into laughter. There’s so much screaming. There’s so much trying. It’s all so painful and tender.
The season three finale featured one of the show’s most brutal conflicts. Frankie leaves home and completely shuts Sam out. Sam desperately wants to be there for her child, but Frankie responds with increasing cruelty. She chooses instead to spend time with the character played by Ser Anzoategui. It seemed as if the show was finally going to do what I’d feared for two years — they were going to solidify Frankie’s transness.
We see Duke get a text from Frankie that refers to herself as “your brother, Francis” and Anzoategui’s character tells Sam how difficult they were on their mom when first transitioning.
This episode works, because it’s not about Frankie — it’s about Sam. She’s trying to be there for her child and she’s not able to be. We see growth from the season one finale when she met Frankie’s suspension with annoyance. It took Max explicitly saying, “Mom, Frankie is a boy.” Only then did the possible reality start to settle in. But now it’s settled and she still isn’t who her child turns to for support. It’s complicated and painful and ultimately hopeful — that’s what the show does best.
But despite this episode’s success, I went into the fourth season filled with dread. I didn’t want to see a transition story — not with an all cis writing staff, not with Alligood in this part. What I really mean is I didn’t want to see a conventional transition story. Luckily, Better Things has never been conventional.
Season four starts with Sam picking up Frankie and Duke from the airport after a visit with their father. The tension from the previous season seems to have subsided. Frankie’s appearance has moved one notch femme on the masc spectrum.
She asks her mom if she can have a quinceañera since she’s about to turn 15. She never had a Bat Mitzvah — her culturally appropriate entry into womanhood — and now it’s too late. It seems as if the show is dropping everything it built in the previous season. Once again Sam just has daughters. Once again they’re just the girls. Frankie even wants to celebrate her womanhood.
Sam walks in on Frankie in bed with a boy. Confusing sexuality and gender like a cishet mother might, she says to Max, “I thought you said Frankie was a boy.” Max quickly dismisses her.
I started to wonder if someone had talked to Adlon and told her to drop this storyline. I felt relieved, but also saddened by this supposed dequeering of Frankie. But shifting this storyline doesn’t mean Frankie isn’t queer or even trans. It’s just allowing the storyline to be messier than we’re used to seeing.
Because discussion around trans youth is still so fraught, the stakes can sometimes feel too high for complexity. It can feel like the only responsible story is one where a trans teen is certain of their identity and is allowed to transition. But that’s not the experience of so many kids both trans and cis.
This show is about Sam and through Sam we see a model for how parents should behave regardless of their child’s future labels. After Max tells Sam that Frankie is a boy, Sam goes into Frankie’s bedroom and comforts her. She spends the next two seasons letting Frankie dress and act the way she wants. She even comes to terms with Frankie’s absence at the end of season three.
She insists on talking to Frankie about the boy in her bed, but she let’s Frankie approach her on her own terms — even when those terms involve holding pillows in front of their faces during the discussion. Frankie says she just wanted to get it out of the way. She says she doesn’t want to do it again for a while. She says it felt clinical. Sam just asks if Frankie is okay — and if she can take her back to the gynecologist.
Frankie’s labels don’t matter. What matters is that Sam is there for her child. What matters is that she helps Frankie navigate her identity on her own without pressure. One day Frankie is a boy, the next she’s a girl and having sex with a boy. Someday she might be a boy having sex with a girl. Sam doesn’t get to control that. She can only control how she responds. She can choose unconditional love.
Frankie does end up having a “Batceañera.” She wears a men’s suit based on something worn by Frida Kahlo. She’s also wearing lipstick.
Towards the end of the party, Sam walks by Frankie at the top of the stairs holding some girl’s hand. Sam just makes a face. She will truly never be able to predict her children. Later she sees Frankie and the girl again, this time even more intimate — Frankie’s hand is on the girl’s thigh, she leans over and whispers something in the girl’s ear.
It’s obvious that Frankie is queer. We don’t know what that means for her and neither does Sam and that’s okay. Some 15-year-olds know exactly how they want to be identified and those children should be listened to and trusted. But a lot of 15-year-olds aren’t sure. They should be listened to and trusted also.
During the Represent interview Adlon shared that Frankie is based on her own child:
“My middle daughter went through a phase where she was gender dysphoric. It was not tomboy — it was Target boys department corduroys, Polo shirts, braces, bifocals… She was just that. Now she looks at pictures and she’s pissed at me. She’s like, Mom why did you let me. I’m like, I was letting you be the thing you were being!”
Every parent should let their kid be the thing they are being. I’m grateful that’s the story Adlon chose to tell.