“Please give transgender talent a chance,” Jeffrey Tambor said earlier this month while accepting the Emmy Award for Best Actor in a Comedy, addressing his speech to Hollywood producers and casting agents. “Give them auditions. Give them their story.”
Modern Family, ABC’s long-running sitcom juggernaut, has heeded the call. Wednesday night’s new episode featured the 8-year-old trans actor Jackson Millarker playing a trans character, a first for the show and—in the casting of a trans child actor—reportedly a first for network television in general. That Modern Family would eventually spotlight a transgender character should come as little surprise given that its conceit all along has been to take untraditional families—gay, interracial, remarried—and weave them into a traditional sitcom. The episode’s director, Ryan Case, announced the news on Instagram a few days before the episode aired, writing that Millarker’s casting was “one of the many reasons I love being a part of this show."
But, as has also been the show’s M.O. all along, this progressive-minded move happened in a supremely gentle and unthreatening manner. Millarker’s character Tom, who viewers quickly learned was once called Tina, said a total of eight words and was on screen for less than a minute in Wednesday’s episode, “A Stereotypical Day.” His main job wasn’t to do the things that activists often say is the goal when calling for trans casting: humanize a cliché and bring visibility. Instead the episode mostly did the very preliminary work of mass media that addresses social change—thinking about how the minority makes the majority feel.
Tom was a friend of Lily (Aubrey Anderson-Emmons), whose dads Cam and Mitchell (Eric Stonestreet and Jesse Tyler Ferguson) were smugly pleased that their daughter was showing tolerance to her playmate. Then they overheard her calling him a “weirdo,” and wrongly assumed—sitcom logic!—that she’d been taunting him about gender, sending them into an existential crisis about their child’s attitudes and their own.
What ensued was a comedy of lightly political incorrect self-reflection. Mitchell blamed Cam’s “hick” family for Lily’s words. Cam told Lily she could be anything she wants—but if she’s a lesbian, she’d better be “the fun kind.” The overall emphasis ended up being not on what it’s like to be a kid who’s different, but on the need to forgive the small errors of parents whose kids turn out to be different.
“Let me ask you guys something,” Jay (Ed O’Neill) at one point said to Mitch and Cam. “If some day Lily wanted to be Lou and had the whole chop-chop, bing-bang thing, how would you be with that?”
Cam stammered out an answer saying that they love Lily (wait, Lou!) and there’s nothing she (wait, he!) could do to change that. But Mitch conceded that he would need some time to adjust to how his own life plan had changed, which set up a gotcha opportunity for Jay: “Well that’s interesting, because the minute it took me to accept the fact that my son was living a different kind of life than the one I was anticipating, Mitchell called me an old, straight, white bigot. And now, you’re just like me.”
Cue handwringing. Cam: “Are we not as open-minded as we think?” Mitch: “But that’s our thing, lording our tolerance over others.” Jay: “I guess what this proves is there’s a little bit of prejudice in everyone.”
Jay’s big struggle of the episode was of a piece with the transgender stuff: He was worried that the black family moving in across the street thinks he’s racist. In both cases, the other—racially or gender-wise—ruffled the seemingly enlightened white guys, not out of intolerance but out of anxiety about seeming intolerant. It was a soothing if limited message for 2016 mainstream America, saying that identity conflicts are mostly just misunderstandings between well-meaning people. The characters here make incorrect snap assumptions about others, but no one gets hurt by them.
It eventually came out that Lily had dissed Tom simply because he’d made fun of the horrible mural that Cam and Mitch had painted in her bedroom. The revelation was a relief, and finally the trans kid was spoken about as something other than just a trans kid: “That rube Tom knows nothing about art,” Cam said. Maybe in future episodes, viewers will get to know more about that “rube” beyond his gender identity. For now, he’s a plot device more than a character—but his presence is still small progress, the kind that Modern Family likes to make.