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18 October 2018

Forget pink dresses – this is what matters most in ITV’s drama Butterfly

Max is trans, which here may manifest in clothes and dance. But that's not why she is trans. 

By Jane Fae

Butterfly. An ordinary everyday tale of trans yoof. Boy identifies as girl. Mum and Dad fall out. Local teen bullies call boy gay. Because that’s what bullies do. Drama. Pathos. Preconceptions challenged. Sorted.

Except it’s not an everyday story. Not at all. Because despite the ubiquity of trans in the media, and in some edgier cinema, this – what happens when a child does identify as trans – has not aired much in the mainstream. And given how much the media likes to opine on trans kids, something, anything that opens the issue up is positive.

What did I like? Most of it. As a good friend (well, an ex) put it the day after, one of the best things was how Butterfly contextualised and simplified in a way that abstract “debate” and inquiry does not.

Children may challenge the identity assigned them in many ways. That includes gender. We know that not all gender-questioning kids go on to be trans. But we do know that many, perhaps most, trans people were once gender-questioning kids (even if many hid it from parents). So the best advice is to affirm. Let the child be, and over time they will sort themselves out. Either they are trans or they are not. It’s not a game in which one transitioner more or less is gain or loss. It’s about giving a child space to explore and arrive where they need to arrive.

The show got that across, albeit in the context of a supportive mental health services appointment that is unlikely to have materialised quite so speedily in real life. The average time a gender-questioning child has to wait for their first gender clinic appointment is two years. At the same time, mental health services for children have been gutted.

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Support for – let alone awareness of – puberty blockers at this stage is unlikely. It’s best practice in many countries: but there is little evidence that best practice has yet infiltrated the NHS. Still, dramatic licence permits, along with a need to set the audience up for what I suspect will be future developments.

New tropes were emerging by the minute. A sterling performance from Anna Friel as Mum Vicky, racked by guilt and asking if her child’s condition was her fault. Dad Stephen (Emmett Scanlan) alternates sensitivity with trying to bully the trans out of his “son”. Hackles up whenever Dad is on screen? Check! So I guess he nailed it.

Lovely sister, Lily (Millie Gibson), gets it the way others don’t: since Sunday she is officially the sister almost every trans person in the UK wishes they’d had.

And then there is Max – shy Max/Maxine – who lights up when allowed to be the girl she knows she is, captured perfectly by Callum Booth-Ford.

Despite this, on social media, the anti-trans brigade – and Mumsnet, natch – still didn’t get it. In one scene, Max wore pink. In another she joined in dancing with the girls. This elicited (I paraphrase) an oh-so-sympathetic: “It’s come to something if a boy can’t wear pink and enjoy dancing without our insisting on lopping his dick off.”

Were these people watching the same show? Because for trans folk everywhere, two lines resonated above all: a hushed, near inaudible comment by Max that she belonged with the girls. And a tearful admission that she “didn’t want to” (transition). But she “had to”.

The point? Max is trans, which here may manifest in clothes and dance. But that’s not why she is trans. Those are but symptoms… and reading it the other way round puts the motivation back to front.

Take when Max expresses distress at having a penis. Because this rejection of body – not an obsession with fashion – is at the core of transness. At least, binary transness. We may have to wait a while for the non-binary equivalent of Butterfly. But as a first outing on a topic that will obsess the commentariat for weeks to come, this was not bad.

Serious. Tear-making. Even a dash of humour. Did the directors really intend the stone-faced grandma who dismissed Max’s transness as “a phase he’ll grow out of” to resemble Germaine Greer? Or is that just my warped imagining?

I have no idea. Though I do know I am now waiting eagerly the next episode of Butterfly on Sunday 24 October.

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