The Brilliant TV Drama ‘Butterfly’ Reveals What It’s Like to Grow Up Trans
‘Butterfly’ is a deeply moving portrayal of a family struggling with the coming out of their transgender daughter. Its broadcast couldn’t be more timely in both the U.K. and U.S.
It’s hard to imagine how the new British drama Butterfly could be any more timely.
Released in the final days of the U.K.’s public consultation over the Gender Recognition Act—and mere weeks before a leaked memo from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services revealed the full breadth of the Trump administration’s attacks on transgender people—the ITV drama lands during a time of crisis for the transgender community at large.
Fortunately, Butterfly is a humanizing, deeply affecting portrayal of a family struggling with the coming out of their 11-year-old transgender daughter Maxine, who still goes by “Max” for the majority of the premiere episode.
But the three-episode drama isn’t just culturally important—it’s also a showcase for the ample talents of English actress Anna Friel, who plays Maxine’s mother, Vicky, and for playwright Tony Marchant, who wrote the series. (Friel is something of an LGBT icon in the U.K., having played Beth Jordache in the soap opera Brookside, whose kiss with girlfriend Margaret in 1994 was the first ever lesbian kiss broadcast before 9pm on British TV.)
Eleven-year-old Callum Booth-Ford brings believable vulnerability to the role of Maxine and Emmett Scanlan, an Irish actor who briefly appeared in Guardians of the Galaxy and British TV soap Hollyoaks, plays separated father Stephen, who moves back home after the child he still perceives as his son self-harms.
Production company Fremantle, which acquired the international rights to the show, provided the first episode to The Daily Beast and confirmed that the show will be coming to the United States, with a broadcaster “announced in the coming weeks.”
At a time when fearmongering about transgender children is all too common in American media—rehashing many of the same talking points used to question gay and lesbian youth in decades past—Butterfly could bring some sanity with it.
In fact, a single conversation between Vicky, Stephen, and a mental health practitioner—after Maxine ends up in hospital for cutting her wrist—provides a more clear-headed view of the complicated issue than many media outlets have managed to produce: Steven says, accurately, that many young children who present gender non-conforming behaviors in early childhood do not end up wanting to transition, expressing hope that his child will be “just like any other boy” as soon as “he reaches puberty.”
“The gender dysphoria might escalate but it might not,” the practitioner informs them.
“And what if it does?” Vicky asks.
“Then you might want to stop puberty—delay it,” is the answer.
That advice is in line with what the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends in its policy statement from earlier this year—namely, a “gender-affirming” approach that supports the child and works with parents to determine the best form of care.
Puberty blockers, as the AAP notes in the policy statement, are “reversible treatments” that have been used “since the 1980s” that can now help “adolescents who experience gender dysphoria to prevent development of secondary sex characteristics and provide time up until 16 years of age for the individual and the family to explore gender identity.”
As The Daily Beast previously noted, much of the controversy around transgender children seems to stem from a conflation of kids who have expansive gender expressions but don’t continue to express a desire to transition—and those who are “consistent, persistent, and insistent,” as many clinicians put it, that they are not the gender assigned to them at birth.
Maxine falls into the latter category—but, as many parents do, Steven and Vicky want badly to believe that their child is “just gay” and that—as Vicky puts it early in the premiere— “puberty’ll sort him out.”
The authenticity of the show can be attributed in part to Mermaids, a U.K. charity for families of transgender youth that advised on Butterfly, putting Marchant and the producers in touch with parents and children who have been through the coming out process.
As such, the series will strike many within the transgender community as a sort of amalgamation of common experiences that have been stitched together into a whole.
“Doing a drama means you can put the perspectives of lots and lots of people without outing anybody,” Mermaids CEO Susie Green told British GQ.
The first episode—which ends with Maxine coming out to her parents after years of privately dressing up as a girl at home, to Steven’s dismay—cannot avoid having a bit of an “after-school special” tone, fastidiously checking the sort of boxes that many pioneering pieces of media about marginalized groups feel pressured to tick off.
Many transgender youth report avoiding restrooms at school because they don’t feel comfortable using them. Maxine does this, too.
Many transgender youth are abused at home. In flashbacks, we see Steven hit Maxine for dancing while wearing a pink top—a memory that brings the father shame.
According to Stonewall, a British LGBT advocacy group, “more than four in five young trans people have self-harmed” and 64 percent are bullied in school. Maxine self-harms, too, and she’s bullied by the boys at school.
However, the strength of the performances—particularly Friel’s—more than makes the show hold together as a single, cohesive narrative, archetypal though it might be.
One scene in which Vicky, crying, wonders whether she could have somehow caused Maxine to be transgender during her pregnancy is as moving as it is revealing of a specific anxiety that women in her position sometimes feel. The bullet points of Maxine’s trauma will indeed prove informative for the many viewers who have only encountered transgender children in news articles, rather than in their own social circles.
But the real artistry of Butterfly lies in the little textural touches: the stumbling over pronouns, the denial and fear in Vicky and Steven’s eyes, the way in which all the adults in Maxine’s life talk about her identity right in front of her, as if she’s not there. Gender is ever the elephant in the room, an unspoken tension cutting through the family.
“You’re a big boy now,” Vicky tells her child at one point, not even thinking about her word choice.
“Am I?” Maxine asks.
Butterfly was always going to be groundbreaking and zeitgeist-y, no matter how it turned out. It’s a testament to the creative power involved that it’s also just plain good.