There’s more to ABC Family than juicy teen dramas like “Pretty Little Liars” and the show that started it all, “The Secret Life of the American Teenager.” Thanks to breakout hit “The Fosters” and unscripted reality series “Becoming Us,” we’re deeming this Disney-owned station the most progressive and accepting basic cable network on television.
According to a 2014 GLAAD study, ABC Family was tied with Showtime as the second-most LGBT-inclusive network. Each network boasting 13 shows in its lineup that included or addressed LGBT characters and issues. The only network with more was HBO, with 15.
Families of All Kinds
Two of ABC Family’s shows stand out as examples of how the network gives equal time and treatment to “non-traditional” family structures.
1.“The Fosters” – This series is in its third season and explores the life of a mixed-race, married lesbian couple and their brood of biological, adopted, and foster children. The scripted drama crosses all boundaries of race, gender and sexual identity, and family structure.
2.“Becoming Us” – Debuting this year, “Becoming Us” is a docuseries about a teen boy and his family’s journey as Dad transitions from male to female. The show follows Ben as he deals with his parents’ divorce, navigating high school, and building a different relationship with his transgender parent.
It’s surprising – and inspiring – that these shows are on ABC Family, a network that unabashedly declares itself as family-friendly in its name. And even more wonderful is that Disney is willing to be attached to these controversial shows.
The Disney Factor
ABC Family has consistently been criticized by “traditional” family values advocates, declaring that a family-centric network shouldn’t be exploring teen pregnancy, same-sex marriage, or homicidal teen conspiracies.
But, just as Honey Maid acknowledged familial diversity with their “This is Wholesome” ad campaign, ABC Family knows that families are not one size fits all.
While many are surprised that a Disney-owned network is the one blazing a trail for unconventional family stories, we should have seen it coming. Disney isn’t known for portraying traditional, nuclear families in its shows and films.
In fact, the majority of Disney’s animated classics include single-parent families or orphans. In stories where there are two married parents, like “Sleeping Beauty,” the child isn’t allowed to grow up with them. Disney has always looked at families through a slightly different lens than mainstream America.
And thanks to their broad reach, there’s no company better poised to lead the way and grab the attention of the general public. Folks who would never flip their TV to LOGO are willing to give a Disney-backed project a chance.
Why It Matters
The world today is drastically different than the world to which “The Fosters” debuted in 2013. Just two years ago, the depiction of a married lesbian couple that was not only allowed to exchange vows but also adopt and foster children, was a far-off ideal for most gay and lesbian couples in the real world. It was also one of the first shows to consistently feature a transgender character.
Today, same-sex marriage is a fundamental right and bigoted views and practices are under fire. Obviously, “The Fosters” didn’t bring about this revolution, but the show’s existence didn’t hurt. One of the best things about “The Fosters” is that it doesn’t showcase controversy or stereotypes. It displays characters who feel like real, three-dimensional people who are mucking through real, three-dimensional life.
ABC Family succeeds where other networks falter by presenting its “controversial” offerings in a matter-of-fact way. Rather than playing up its “daring” choices to boost ratings, ABC Family chooses to quietly rely on good writing, solid acting, and relatable storylines.
“Becoming Us” couldn’t have had better timing. The show came around after American viewers had already fallen in love with Laverne Cox (Sophia on “Orange is the New Black”) and during the dramatic reveal of Caitlyn Jenner.
Where “Becoming Us” stands out is that it presents the challenges and triumphs of transgender issues in the context of an average American teenager. Caitlyn Jenner certainly made a big splash, but very few transgender Americans have the same resources and opportunities she does.
Ben and his family look a lot more like the rest of us and make it easier for us to translate the journey into one we, or someone we know, could very well be on.
Certainly, no television show is going to change the close-minded fabric of the nation or blast through walls of intolerance and bigotry once and for all. But the fact that America’s self-proclaimed family network is opening its arms to all families is a great first step.