In its eighth season, Modern Family is still pushing boundaries. According to Time, an upcoming episode of Modern Family will feature an openly transgender child, which makes the series the first show in television history to cast an openly transgender child actor. But this casting is more than historic; it also plays into the show's reputation as one that explores the dynamics of families in 2016 by once again pushing for the inclusion of LGBTQ storylines. Allowing Modern Family to focus on a story that is rarely, if ever, told on broadcast television shows that networks are working on increasing their representation and actually trying to make the TV world more like the real one.
In the episode, “A Stereotypical Day,” airing Sept. 28, 8-year-old Jackson Millarker plays Tom, a transgender boy Lily becomes friends with at school. But, after her parents Cam and Mitchell think they hear her insulting Tom, it forces the family to have a conversation about acceptance. It's a conversation that a lot of parents are likely having with their children, and is relevant to society now more than ever with the fight for transgender rights becoming the latest civil rights movement in the United States. It's also an important conversation to be having on a television show that has become a cultural touchstone for families across the United States.
Modern Family, the Emmy winner of Outstanding Comedy Series four years in a row (2010-2014), is a show that families of all shapes and sizes actually watch together. The show has gotten a lot of praise for changing how people feel about issues like gay marriage by encouraging viewers to see how we're all more similar than we think. For those who thought LGBTQ rights were not theirs to care about, Modern Family showed them why it should be. Earlier this year, Jesse Tyler Ferguson spoke to Variety about how Modern Family helped change the perceptions on gay couples by being an "easy and safe way to expose audiences to many different relationships in a way that doesn’t feel threatening."
For some, that may be the problem with Modern Family — that it plays it too safe. (It wasn't until 2010 that the series showed Cam and Mitchell share their first kiss onscreen.) But Modern Family's focus on exploring the definition of family in the 2000s is something special. Despite that delayed first on-screen kiss, the series showed Americans two men who happened to be in love, two men who were defined by so much more than who they love. As Ferguson told Variety, the show's creators aim to be relatable to everyone watching. "In the pilot, you’re meeting Mitch and Cam when they’re becoming fathers for the first time. And that’s the most interesting thing about them; their gayness is about sixth on the list of their qualities," he said. "They’re fathers, they’re sons, they’re a lawyer and a teacher — they’re also gay, but the series does not lead with that."
Now, the show is ready to tackle — and perhaps even lead once again — a conversation surrounding another aspect of LGBTQ culture that doesn't get a lot of screen time, especially on networks like ABC.
In 2015, GLAAD looked at LGBT representation on television and found that there were no transgender characters on broadcast television, three recurring trans characters on cable, and four on streaming platforms like Amazon (Transparent) and Netflix (Orange Is The New Black, Sense8.) Those troubling statistics are exactly why it's exciting to see ABC, a Disney owned broadcast network, trying to bring trans-visibility to such a mainstream show. Not only that, but Tom's character also gives visibility to transgender boys and men, which is a true rarity on broadcast TV; GLAAD found in its 2015 study that, out of the seven trans characters counted, six are trans women while only one is a trans man.
A show like Modern Family, which attracts all different kinds of families from all across different parts of America, incorporating a transgender character shows that there is a push for inclusion and representation on mainstream television. Transgender characters can be on shows that reach the huge audiences that Modern Family does, not just the smaller, more niche audiences watching Transparent and Orange Is The New Black. Even better, this push is coming from a major network like ABC that is putting a lot of its focus on sitcoms that deal with many different examples of family experiences, with series that focus on an Asian American family (Fresh Off The Boat), an African American family (black-ish), Irish Catholic family (The Real O'Neals), and a family living with disability (Speechless). With this latest casting, ABC's powers that be have shown how interested they are in bettering trans representation on TV.
It's something other networks will also be doing in the coming year. Orange Is The New Black's Laverne Cox will make history by becoming the first transgender actress to portray a transgender series regular character on broadcast TV in CBS' Doubt, and Nashville is also set to introduce a recurring transgender actress when it returns for its fifth season on CMT in January.
But, while Modern Family's casting news should be celebrated, it's also important to point out that too often LGBTQ storylines are used for very special episodes, where the characters stop by to teach the main cast something. In these cases the story is less about the visiting character's story and more about the rest of the characters on the show learning to accept that person or people. This episode of Modern Family definitely seems like it's hinged on that idea, with Tom being a way for Lily to learn about treating trans people with respect. The casting is a historic step forward to cast a transgender child actor, but a perfect next step would be for the show to include this character in future episodes that don't focus just on the fact that he is trans. It would be better for Modern Family to show, like they did with Cam and Mitchell, that people can't be and shouldn't be narrowly defined by sexuality or gender.
Taking that step to make sure trans characters are seen for more than one episode would be a real win in the fight for trans-visibility, and a win that would take the series into even more historic territory.
Image: ABC/Ron Tom (2); Giphy