Modern Family Welcomes a Transgender Character: The Importance of How We Speak and Listen
By Gisell Álvarez, LPC-Intern
One of the privileges of learning a second language, especially one as universal as English, is the chance to enjoy TV shows and movies in their native tongue. When they are translated there are always elements that you lose: the jokes are not the same, the irony doesn’t display the same dynamic, and some dialogue doesn’t have the same impact. When I was back in my native country, Colombia, I saw Modern Family “in Spanish.” Voice actors interpreted the original English dialogue, and even though their acting skills are awesome, the spirit of the sarcastic and ironic humor so characteristic of Modern Family wasn’t there. Therefore, I felt frequently uncomfortable and sometimes even offended by the show’s content.
And then I came to the United States and started to learn English. Once I saw Modern Family in English, it was like seeing a totally different show. I found it brilliant, hilarious, and very refreshing. Modern Family generates very contemporary reflections of and discussions in our society. It is a conversation that I consider extremely necessary. From the quirks of the gay parenting journey to the adventure of living in a multicultural family, this show helps us, as unique individuals, to connect with diversity. This diversity, by its very nature, presents some elements distant from us and others very close to our own realities.
Of course, Sofia Vergara’s role is especially important to me, given that she and her son in the show (Manny Delgado) are Colombians, as am I. They have shared some of our Christmas traditions and our values, and Sofia has put a spotlight on our cultural flavor with so much grace and humor. Now that we are on the map, more people know we exist beyond narcotrafficking and violence. This new exposure feels very nice; as a Colombian, it feels inclusive, and, as a Colombian living in the United States, it feels welcoming and accepting.
This is the power of media: the representation of cultural niches or minorities in TV shows and movies generates a sort of globalization that puts diversity in the middle of a society’s daily routines. Through its content, and its inclusion in our realities, it brings diversity to the discussion we need to have to embrace minorities and accept them. This on-screen visualization that is different from the normative cultural expressions could potentially encourage acceptance, and, maybe more importantly, self-acceptance for those who feel newly included.
As a clinician, the different cultural elements around and inside a client are determinant of a real understanding of the person: their struggles, their needs, their strengths, their preferences, fears and joys. I’ll be ambitious and even say their entire realities. Some who are part of a minority constantly crave inclusion, a feeling that may be magnified when you are not only ignored, but also rejected. When working with clients that belong to a minority, the acknowledgment of these cultural characteristics can be very vital in the rapport establishment process, as well as in the construction of an accurate picture of their life or situation.
Modern Family exemplifies how to establish this dialogue. Instead of making assumptions, I will show willingness to hear what you have to say, and I will acknowledge it and include it in our therapeutic work.
A couple of weeks ago Modern Family featured one of TV’s first transgender children, a character portrayed by transgender child actor Jackson Millarker. This wasn’t only groundbreaking, but terribly necessary, too. The message was that transgender girls and boys are part our realities, part of our families, and more importantly, they are welcome in the media representations of the family dynamics.
But there is something else. This episode was not only about a transgender character, it was also about making the statement that transgender actors have a place in our pop culture and that transgender talent matters. For a minority that is so frequently rejected, and for whom employment options are so dramatically limited, this visualization represents hope and the chance for inclusion and equality.
Other TV shows and films have included transgender adults; however, transgender children remain in the dark. When I have worked with transgender clients, this lack of referents and sources of identification is one of the main challenges, not only for the client but also for me, as a therapist. As I mentioned above, self-acceptance is a very present struggle for many minorities, and for transgender children it’s a constant fight: “is there something wrong with me? Am I normal? Did I deserve to be loved? Am I allowed to go to school, college? Will somebody hire me some day?”
These are constant questions and doubts that frequently result in symptoms of anxiety and depression, self-harm actions, feelings of isolation and even suicide. The fact that our society is now willing to work on the visibility of the transgender community and express it through medias give us new therapeutic elements that we should be eager to provide to our clients. As clinicians, it’s our duty to take initiative and invite our clients to include cultural elements in the therapeutic work, though it will be their decision how deeply they want to explore.
If you are struggling with any of the feelings mentioned above, whether you are transgender on not, please don’t hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional.
Gisell Álvarez, LPC-Intern is a psychotherapist based in San Antonio, Tx. She is currently under the clinical supervision of Mary Contreras, LPC-S.
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Therapy Goes POP
Perspectives on therapy and mental health as viewed through the lens of popular culture