• 'Butterfly' is groundbreaking television. (SBS)Source: SBS
The compelling British info-drama tells the story of 11-year-old Max who wants to live as Maxine.
Tanya Modini

9 Jan 2019 - 12:39 PM  UPDATED 24 Jan 2019 - 11:59 AM

The purpose of Butterfly is to entertain but also to inform. It’s not a documentary but it’s so much more than just a fictional drama. What is so very powerful about Butterfly is the way it directly addresses the range of difficulties and issues that trans children and their families must endure.

Butterfly brings the often hidden experiences of isolation, bullying, self-harm and suicide to the screen, and we see and hear what goes on in the school playground, the family lounge room, the gender clinic. We feel the hurt, the confusion, the determination and the optimism. The visibility and acknowledgement that Butterfly brings for trans children and their families makes it groundbreaking television and a potential lifeline for many people. 

Not just a phase

Vicky (Anna Friel, The Girlfriend Experience) and Stephen (Emmett J Scanlan, The Fall) are the recently separated parents of teenager Lily (Millie Gibson) and 11-year-old Max (Callum Booth-Ford) who identifies as a girl, Maxine.

Maxine is allowed to dress as a girl only while in the house, but wants to socially transition and start secondary school as Maxine. Stephen believes that Maxine’s gender identity is a phase she will grow out of and it shouldn’t be encouraged. But when Vicky continues to allow Maxine to wear girls’ clothes, the real division between the parents occurs and Stephen walks out.

Like most children, Maxine wants to please both parents. She wipes off her makeup and plays football with her father. She talks to him about becoming a footballer or an astronaut, but there is no mistaking that what Maxine really wants in life is to live and be accepted as a girl.

Butterfly not only shows the community reactions that this family have to navigate but also details the conflicting opinions and reactions of the family members themselves. Maxine’s mother is predictably the most understanding and supportive, but is carrying some guilt born out of her lack of understanding of gender diversity. She asks a doctor if she is responsible for Maxine’s gender dysphoria due to something she may have done wrong in her pregnancy.

Maxine’s father and grandmother are both downright hostile. Stephen wants his “boy” to be a “boy” and in a heartbreaking scene, he assaults a dancing, makeup laden Maxine.

Lily is probably the most unfazed and supportive of Maxine’s transitioning. She keeps an eye out for her at school and fights off the bullies, but Butterfly shows the lack of family attention and support she receives while living in the shadow of the family’s focus on Maxine.

Maxine’s well-meaning but misguided grandfather doesn’t know the difference between gender and sexuality. He tries to support Maxine by announcing that Maxine is “just gay” – a now more socially acceptable category that everyone in the family can embrace much more readily.

A stellar production

The quality of the Butterfly production is obvious from the outset. BAFTA-winning screenwriter and playwright Tony Marchant, who wrote Butterfly, is no stranger to bringing trans characters to the screen – he wrote 1996’s critically acclaimed Different for Girls.

International Emmy winner Anna Friel has been pushing conventional boundaries on TV since 1994 when she was half of Britain’s first TV lesbian kiss in Brookside. She has continued this push more recently playing lead roles in controversial series Marcella and The Girlfriend Experience.

Friel chose to play the mother of a trans child in Butterfly so that the visibility of trans children, their families and their issues were highlighted in mainstream media.

“I keep going back to 25 years ago when I was on Brookside and it was ‘dyke, lezzer’… and now no-one would blink an eyelid, no-one would even think about that at all, it’s the norm,” Friel says. “With any new topic that you’re dealing with, you’ve got to think time changes everything. We all talk more, we discuss things…”

While researching their roles and to provide an authentic depiction of the issues in Butterfly, both Friel and Scanlan immersed themselves in the trans community and were enlightened as a result.

Friel discloses, “My first thing was, ‘Well, why can’t we get a real transgender child [to play Max/Maxine]?’ I was educated on the fact that it would really damage them, because in our story you’ve got to go from boy to girl and you’d be asking a transgender girl to go back to being a boy.” 

The importance of representation

British charity Mermaids, a support organisation for young trans people and their families, provided advice and guidance for the Butterfly production and are featured within the series.

And the British LGBTI+ support service Stonewall has publicly urged everyone to watch Butterfly.

“At such a vital time for trans equality, the world needs to hear the stories and voices of diverse trans people. If we’re to change the way people think and feel about trans people, we need more shows like Butterfly – programmes that depict a variety of lived experiences. Butterfly is a positive step towards creating a world where every person sees themselves in what they watch and read and feels confident that their identity is valid.”

The relevance of this series in Australia is clear when in a recent online survey of Australian trans young people, it was revealed that almost 80 per cent (aged 14–25 years) had self-harmed, compared to almost 11 per cent of adolescents in the general Australian population. A staggering 48 per cent had attempted suicide, compared with 2.4 per cent of adolescents in the general population.

In amongst the wider misinformation and hostility that can be directed towards trans communities, television shows like Butterfly allay people’s fears and provide a better understanding of life for trans children and their families.

If you need help supporting your trans or gender diverse child in Australia, contact Transcend.

Stream this fantastic series now with the entire three-episode series at SBS On Demand:

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