Wide Angle

How And Just Like That’s Nonbinary Teen Helped Me Come Out

The Sex and the City reboot’s gender identity plot is for confused parents, not their kids.

A teen stands in their room wearing a red backward cap and green-and-blue striped shirt. They look at their phone with their hand outstretched, taking a selfie in their bedroom.
HBO

Starting a therapy session by asking my therapist if they’ve seen the Sex And The City reboot, And Just Like That, is not a moment I’m proud of, yet here we are. My therapist laughed and said no; they had tried to watch the first few minutes, they said, but it was so bad that they couldn’t keep going. They asked me why I brought it up. I had to discuss it with them, I said, because no matter how much I agreed that the show is otherwise not worth the screentime, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. In And Just Like That, I somehow found the thing that makes me most anxious about coming out to my family as non-binary reflected right back at me: the chance that I’ll be de-centered from my own experience. If And Just Like That is any proof, it’s just as plausible that my coming-out moment could become not about me but other people’s reactions to the powerful declaration of the identity I’m trying to share with them. And of all the shows out there, it’s this heteronormative dramedy that nails that particular fear—to its detriment.

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While I’m still not out to my family or many other people, the opposite is true for Charlotte’s 12-year-old child, Rock, who features in a storyline about their budding gender identity—and their parents’ contention of it. Rock is a rare character in whose life I see my own, or at least a hypothetical coming-out future for myself that I can relate to. They’re a bubbly kid who (like me) aligns with pretty much the only representation nonbinary people get to see on TV: white, assigned female at birth, someone who would’ve just been called a tomboy a generation ago. They hate wearing dresses and love skateboarding, and that’s about all we get to know about them. But And Just Like That doesn’t really focus on Rock’s journey, or that of people like them—people like me. Instead, the people the show aims to represent are the well-meaning but uninformed 50-something, straight, cisgender white women, and how they react to and talk about us behind closed doors. This isn’t a show sculpted for me and my generation, in tune with our sensibilities and hoping to help us navigate the mystery that is gender; it’s for my mom’s exact demographic of people who still struggle to see past their deeply-ingrained binary understanding of it.

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And Just Like That spends much of its first several episodes assuring us viewers that yes, the writers are keeping up with the times, thank you very much. Look: Carrie’s boss is nonbinary! Look: Miranda hooks up with them! And look: Charlotte’s kid doesn’t want to wear a dress! If these moments weren’t enough for the writers to toot their own horns about, extending their hands out to the “woke” viewers it’s hoping to attract, they build an entire subplot around this progressive awakening: Charlotte’s child Rose now identifies as “Rock,” coming out out to their parents (not as nonbinary, just as using a new name) via rapping about it on TikTok. Yep, really: TikTok. Rock doesn’t make a big to-do over coming out, but the name change, and its implied shrugging-off of gender, sends the uptight and prudish Charlotte into a tizzy.

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To the show’s credit, Rock’s blasé coming-out moment to their parents might be realistic for today’s younger generation to some degree. Research shows that kids and teens are increasingly comfortable with asserting their diverse sexualities and gender identities. But I couldn’t see an ounce of myself onscreen. There was nothing to see anyway—the writers didn’t bother to portray a single thought or feeling that Rock has about unveiling their new name to not just their parents, but the world. Names and identities are inherently intertwined, which is why it can be so healing for some trans people to rename themselves. Choosing a new name is a reclamation of one’s identity, a way of literally reintroducing yourself. But Rock’s social media-enabled anointment is treated as blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, a quick gag and nothing more. I can’t relate to this rare coming out moment, because there isn’t one.

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Instead, it was watching Charlotte and, later, her husband sputter that rang more true than anything else.The first time Charlotte discusses Rock’s gender at all is with her friend Anthony, the stereotypical mean gay guy, a trope that’s somehow alive and kicking in 2022. At this point, Rock hasn’t changed their name or said anything to Charlotte about their identity besides saying that they sometimes “don’t feel like a girl,” but this small amount of information is enough for Charlotte to pull Anthony aside and ask him: Is this something? Do we have to confront this? Anthony gets annoyed and waves it off, downplaying Rock’s desires as temporary. In Anthony’s dismissive exchange with Charlotte I see one of the many ways I fear a conversation about my coming out would go the second I’m out of earshot. The combination of confusion and minimization is a unique one, and uniquely painful at that, making me—the stand-in for the child in question—feel both misunderstood and minimized.

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Charlotte is really trying to understand that her child no longer aligns with their mother’s image of them, and I can sympathize to a degree: Gender is a confusing, infinitely personal subject. But Charlotte is not discussing acceptance here; she’s asking how to acknowledge Rock’s feelings at all. The best possible outcome for mother and child in this situation, for Rock’s gender identity to be recognized by their family, is a low bar; recognizing their gender is a single step above ignoring it. But what makes it worse is that when Charlotte asks Anthony if she should ignore it, he says yes, makes a predictable joke about being a fairy, and … that’s it. The scene ends. The idea of Rock even questioning their gender is met with Anthony’s comical comparison to a kid wanting to be Tinkerbell or a dog—that is, either something fictional or inhuman.

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Later, once Rock announces their name change, Charlotte and Harry go down to Rock’s school to essentially complain to the administration about their child’s new name. We’re treated to a scene, again played for comedy, in which the parents wonder if a child so young can even know themselves well enough to do this or if it’s just a ploy for attention. The teachers gently correct Charlotte and Harry and tell them that Rock’s feelings are serious—the first reasonable adults we see portrayed in this situation. But the second that Charlotte and Harry leave the classroom and walk alone down the hall, Harry goes back to questioning Rock’s intentions. “Hearing people who aren’t you talk about your kid to you is the most humbling experience I’ve ever had as a father,” he tells Charlotte. Unintentionally, he’s acknowledging that this is yet another conversation about Rock between people who aren’t Rock, when they should be communicating with their actual child and doing the work to better understand them. Harry doesn’t come off as if he’s “humbled” by how much he has yet to learn about gender from his child—instead, he uses it as if to mean “defeated” or “overwhelmed.” During his conversation with the teachers, Harry seems unsure of the mere idea that some kids are trans; his starting point for coming to terms with Rock’s gender is even lower than Charlotte’s. What Harry is working on instead is the idea that there is, in fact, a gender spectrum. Through this, the show establishes that Charlotte and her take on gender will make her the  “good guy,” a position that hardly feels earned.

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Rock’s gender identity isn’t the plot nearly as much as Charlotte’s handling of it, which is understandable to a degree, since she’s one of the show’s three main characters. In so doing, the show centers on how well-meaning, cishet, self-proclaimed “allies” react to those of us who are nonbinary or nonconforming, mostly without success. I know that Charlotte loves her child, but the difference between love and understanding is the ability to view Rock’s identity—or mine—as a truth about who they are, rather than something trivial, attention-seeking, or maybe even, the dreaded words, “a phase.” What the show is doing here is not outwardly transphobic in this way. Instead, it’s awkward, surface-level, and protective of a generation that didn’t grow up encouraged to explore their identities. How does someone like Charlotte’s heteronormative, perfection-seeking form of motherhood intersect with gender? How can it?

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But for as much as this grates on me, Charlotte and Harry’s rendering of their child as a road bump in their own lives after Rock comes out does strike me as uncomfortably realistic. It mirrors my biggest fear in coming out: To my parents, maybe I won’t be me. Maybe I’ll just be something to process instead of someone to see. Maybe I’ll be a plot point. I’ve watched that plot point of my own anxieties play out episode after episode, to the point that And Just Like That has almost served as exposure therapy. I’ve seen the closed-door conversations that I fear, and if I can stomach those, I think I can handle my mom’s reaction. I think. I hope.

And just like that … I’m out. I know you love me, mom. I love you too. Just please don’t talk about me at brunch.

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