The mess and tenderness of care work drives this thoughtful and underappreciated Canadian sitcom. By Jinghua Qian.

Sort Of

Bilal Baig as Sabi Mehboob and Gray Powell as Paul in Sort Of.
Bilal Baig as Sabi Mehboob and Gray Powell as Paul in Sort Of.
Credit: HBO Max

“You wear make-up and bangles and care for children. If you’re not a girl, what are you?” Sabi’s mother asks them in genuine befuddlement. That was the moment when I knew that Sort Of wasn’t going to let anyone get away with thinking that gender identity is something only trans people possess or have theorised.

At first glance, this CBC dramedy appears to be a certain sort of show: the insipid copy on streaming site Stan describes it as “a coming-of-age story about fluid millennial Sabi Mehboob, the youngest child in a large Pakistani family, who straddles various identities”. Okay. Love that word “various”, it really speaks to me.

Still, I figured it was worth a try – there are so few shows with non-binary or gender-fluid protagonists that I have the time to watch all of them. Plus I have a soft spot for the millennial dramedy as a genre. I braced myself, as a worst-case scenario, for a knock-off Girls with a brown, transfeminine lead and a few other slapdash injections of diversity, and, as a best-case scenario, for something to fill the hole in my heart and television schedule since the series finale of Insecure.

Luckily, Sort Of  is crafted with much more care than its blurb. Co-creator and star Bilal Baig’s deadpan humour and emotional restraint lend it a different tone to shows set in New York or California. There’s also little explicit focus on dating, identity and growing up; instead, the show feels more like a family and workplace drama.

The two intersect in the fraught and compelling workplace of the home. Sabi is a part-time nanny to Violet (Kaya Kanashiro) and Henry (Aden Bedard), the school-aged children of Bessy (Grace Lynn Kung), a queer Asian woman, and her straight white-guy husband, Paul (Gray Powell). Theirs is an uneasy relationship dynamic I’ve never seen depicted on television before, and it gets a heaping of extra pressure when a cycling accident puts Bessy in a coma. Sabi elects to take on more hours to help the family get through this crisis.

Where other identity-driven millennial dramedies such as Shrill and Special employ writer protagonists to explore how fatness, disability and queerness shape dating and office politics, Sabi rarely vocalises their feelings on anything. Much is left unsaid: a glimpse of a coffee table book titled The Art of Seeing in the first episode hints without exposition at the power of coded recognition. Rather than providing a mechanism for the main character’s internal monologue, here the protagonist’s work allows for a more subtle contemplation of gender and power as we witness their interactions with both the employer family and their own family.

Sabi’s mother, Raffo, is livid when she discovers their job: “You have so many choices, but you chose to be a nanny?” Her wrath bears all the weight of her status anxiety – her own frustrations and disappointments as a woman, and the hopes as a migrant mother she had for her children. “In this country you’re living like a servant,” she tells Sabi, and later, “a servant to children, to a man”.

Raffo (Ellora Patnaik) recognises that this is women’s work and that women’s work is often demeaning and oppressive, whether it’s allocated through marriage or exchanged in the labour market. Sabi’s best friend 7ven (Amanda Cordner) also challenges the blurry parameters of the job: “You work weekends now for white daddy master?”

Household labour, especially care work, seems to be a bit of an obsession in today’s culture, with stories such as Such a Fun Age, Little Fires Everywhere and Maid using the charged site of the domestic workplace to explore race, class, gender and the power dynamics between women. Many people feel ashamed by the idea of employing someone to work in their home – ostensibly to do something they could do themselves – even as they outsource other chores. Inside the home, anxieties are heightened and privileges and vulnerabilities are exposed.

Childcare is particularly intriguing: such work is systemically undervalued, underpaid and enmeshed in deeply unequal economic structures. At the same time, it often involves genuine intimacy and connection between the worker and the boss’s children. This is skilled labour that is inescapably meaningful – perhaps too meaningful.

For Sabi, there is pride, and even a sense of affirmation, in the work that their mother labels servitude.

They have a real friendship with Bessy, who was “the first person to ask what my pronouns were before I even knew to ask that”, and a tangible influence on the children – especially Violet, who is more open with Sabi than with her dad.

We see similar dynamics between the Black women workers and white children in Such a Fun Age and the television adaptation of Little Fires Everywhere. In each of these stories, however, the real connections rub up against the commodification of diversity, as if a minority carer’s identity provides an enrichment experience for childhood development. As Paul tells Sabi: “Thank you for being so real … I’m glad our kids have been exposed to you.”

As cringeworthy as these moments are, one of the things that’s satisfying about Sort Of is that there are no real villains. Everyone is a bit of a jerk but not totally insufferable; there is the possibility that they will get where they need to go eventually.

For Sabi, Raffo and Sabi’s sister, Aqsa (Supinder Wraich), the journey is an unbraiding of the sort of womanhood they have inherited. It doesn’t deny its history, it just opens itself to transition.

When Raffo asks Sabi, “If you’re not a girl, what are you?”, it’s a neat encapsulation of how many people understand gender as a combination of visual aesthetic, social role and labour relations. It’s a fair question, and one that asks as much of Raffo as it does of Sabi: What are you, if you’re a woman, besides mothering and make-up and bangles? What’s in that container called womanhood?

In answer to Raffo’s question, Sabi claims, “My job has nothing to do with my gender.” It’s an answer, but it’s not the whole answer.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 5, 2022 as "Family values".

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Jinghua Qian is a Shanghainese writer, poet and provocateur living in the Kulin nations.

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