“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.