The success of Transparent, Amazon’s award-nominated series about the lives of a middle-aged transgender woman and her grown children, seems to have piqued Hollywood’s interest in new TV shows offering viewers a look at what it’s like to be trans.
ABC Family, the Disney-owned cable TV network famous for its “25 Days of Christmas” movie marathon and tween dramas like Switched at Birth as well as LGBT-inclusive shows The Fosters and Pretty Little Liars, announced it is adding a new reality series about a teenage boy whose parents are divorcing, because his dad is transitioning from male to female.
The series is called My Transparent Life, which Variety noted “sounds like an unscripted counterpart to the Amazon comedy.” The new series won’t be the first time ABC Family viewers have seen a trans character, as nonbinary actor Tom Phelan has a recurring role as young trans man attempting to navigate the foster care system on The Fosters.
ABC Family named Ryan Seacrest Productions — maker of E!’s Keeping Up with the Kardashians — as the producer of the unscripted documentary series. Variety reported that Seacrest, Eugene Young, Rabih Gholam, George Moll, and Paul Barosse are executive producers for RSP.
“At RSP, we love family stories, and we couldn’t be more excited that ABC Family is helping us share this heartwarming story of how an ordinary teenager grapples with a challenging and unexpected family situation,” Seacrest told Variety. “We feel audiences will find Ben’s story relatable on a number of different levels, because at the end of the day, family is family unconditionally.”
The Hollywood Reporter, which broke the story last week, said My Transparent Life will “intimately follow Ben, his family and friends as they support each other through the unexpected journey and watch [his parent] Charlie slowly become Carly, as she experiences the many stages of transition from male to female.” The report went on to describe the series as “a generational story of a loving family and circle of friends, supporting each other through the unfamiliar and unexpected situation.”
According to Variety, transgender stories and characters are becoming more palatable in mainstream entertainment, as evidenced by the multiple Golden Globe nominations for Transparent and its star, Jeffrey Tambor, as well as three nominations for the Writers Guild award for the Amazon comedy’s writing staff.
Of course, Transparent has its basis in reality as well; creator Jill Soloway based the show, in part, on her own life story after her father announced a gender transition. Soloway told Rolling Stone earlier this year she was motivated to “make something that would make the world safer for my parent.”
Conservative news website NewsBusters called the announcement of My Transparent Life “amazing,” given the network’s roots: “Pat Robertson sold his Family Channel to Fox in 1997, and Disney acquired it in 2001. Now Disney is taking it in an entirely different direction. In 2011, [GLAAD] announced that ABC Family was the most pro-gay network of the ten networks it reported on.”
ABC Family president Tom Ascheim told Variety, “We are so proud to partner with Ryan Seacrest Productions to share Ben’s incredible real-life story. While Ben’s family situation is unusual, the themes and coming-of-age issues are universal, and we think our viewers will find a real connection to them.”
“Trans visibility on TV is at an all-time high,” notes the Washington Blade, given the success of shows such as Amazon’s Transparent, and Netflix’s Orange is The New Black starring Laverne Cox. She was the first transgender actor to receive an Emmy nomination for her performance on OITNB.
Cox also recently teamed up with Viacom-owned MTV and Logo to air a documentary about seven young trans people called Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word.
And according to The Hollywood Reporter, more shows are in the pipeline: VH1, another Viacom cable network that has largely abandoned music for original programming, has enlisted America’s Top Model diva Tyra Banks to produce a transgender docu-series chronicling the lives of eight “transgender millennial women,” called TransAmerica.
As The Advocate has reported, HBO has teamed-up with Girls executive producer Lena Dunham for a documentary about the trans clients of a tailor specializing in attire for gender-nonconforming people in Brooklyn, New York.
Wait, there’s even more: Sunday night, Univision and the Pivot network will present Crossing Over: Stories of Immigration and Identity. The story profiles three Mexican trans women seeking asylum in Los Angeles. The documentary will air in Spanish on Univision and in English on Pivot. It’s the latest to be hosted by America Ferrera, best known as the title character in Ugly Betty, the 2007 ABC series which featured a groundbreaking transgender character, Alexis Meade.
If all these programs do indeed get off the ground and into living rooms, mainstream American TV will have transitioned from having zero shows about transgender people to seven — in just under three years.