On Monday night, ABC Family premiered a new reality docuseries — a rare occurrence for the network that usually focuses on scripted shows and the occasional reality competition. After watching Becoming Us, I'm so glad the network broke from its usual programming, because it is an honest, respectful look at a real family with a transgender parent. Becoming Us focuses on Ben Lehwald and his parents, Suzy and Carly, who recently divorced after Carly revealed she was transitioning into presenting as a woman. The show never feels exploitative or disrespectful, and I think its success is all due to the simple fact that Becoming Us lets the Lehwalds tell their own story, and offers many different perspectives.
Ben is the central focus of the show, and though his relationship with Carly and struggle to deal with her transition is clearly emphasized, we also get to see him spending time with his other parent, sister, girlfriend, and friends, making it clear that neither Ben nor Carly is defined by her transgender status. Between various scenes from Ben's life, we often get talking heads from the Lehwalds and friends, letting each of them express their own emotions, in their own words. Sometimes, they don't use the right pronouns when talking about Carly, or use problematic phrases when describing her gender, but I find those issues to enhance the authenticity of Becoming Us. It doesn't feel like there is someone off-camera coaching them, or like they've memorized their words. They are truthfully discussing their feelings, letting viewers see what their lives are really like.
Sometimes those feelings can be difficult to watch. In the first episode, Carly tells Ben that she is planning on having surgery to treat her gender dysphoria, and Ben does not react positively. He explains that to him, the surgery finalizes Carly's transition, and that it's essentially the final sign that things won't "go back to normal." As much as Carly expresses her love for Ben and tries to reassure him that she's the same person, Ben can't help but struggle with what to him, feels like a big change. Later in the episode, Ben affirms that he loves Carly, but says that it doesn't mean he understands what she's going through.
Becoming Us doesn't gloss over Ben's feelings, but it doesn't present them as right or pass judgement on them at all. It just shows them to you, along with Carly's own feelings and Suzy's. It even presents a totally different narrative, as Ben's girlfriend Danielle also has a transgender parent, though unlike Carly, he still uses male pronouns and has not changed his name from Daniel. By letting all of these people share their own stories and not filtering their emotions, Becoming Us successfully lets viewers into the life of a real family with a transgender parent, without glossing over the messy times or over-exaggerating the good. If it continues with this truthful depiction of the Lehwalds, ABC Family's new show has the potential to make an enormous, positive impact on the transgender community by helping those outside it understand the many different journeys people like Carly, Daniel, and their families go through.
Images: Jean Whiteside/ABC Family (2)