The experience of a young trans child, even in the best case scenario where support is abundant, can be long and painful. In the U.K., according to the experience of some parents of trans kids, it now takes up to 18 months just to get an initial appointment with an NHS clinic, where it’s then determined whether or not a child should receive hormone blockers. Add all of this to an already delicate situation, and it can shift the family dynamic towards a borderline destructive end. ITV’s Butterfly takes an unflinching look at the emotional toll that these obstacles can take.
The three part series, penned by playwright Tony Marchant, introduces us to eleven-year-old Max (Callum Booth-Ford), whose parents have recently separated. We learn fairly quickly that we are meeting Max in the early stages of a transitional journey. Max’s sister and mother are supportive, encouraging her to wear feminine clothing and makeup at home. However, the same cannot be said about Max’s father, who is uncomfortable with the situation and pushes Max to be more of a “normal boy.”
While Butterfly avoids being gratuitous in delicate scenes where Max expresses extreme distress over her body, it is decidedly emotionally heavy, tackling suicide in addition to bullying at home, and it can be difficult to watch at times.
Anna Friel, who plays Max’s mom, Vicky, notes that one of the aspects that shocked her in her learning about families with trans children, and what convinced her to participate in the project, was the bullying that trans children experience.
“I met so many wonderful people and families. It just opened my mind to the amount of bullying that was going on,” says Friel. “I was absolutely flabbergasted, and actually it was adults to young children. It wasn’t other children in the schoolyard, it was parents to children and adults should know better.”
Most of the bullying depicted in Butterfly is that adult-to-child bullying Friel refers to, which is what makes watching the series both so painful and so realistic. Whether it’s the grandparents making some offhanded comment at Max’s expense, or Max’s dad refusing to acknowledge her request to be addressed by her preferred pronouns, or a stranger’s disapproving glare on the train, the series sheds light on the cruelty that stems from ignorance.
Butterfly, which premiered October 14, presents Max’s dad (Emmett J. Scanlan) as the primary antagonist in her story. Confronting the topic of toxic masculinity was a conscious choice made by Marchant after spending time doing extensive research for the series at Mermaids, an organization that provides support for gender nonconforming youth, their families, and the general public.
“You’d find that the moms were present and the dads were absent. It’s fathers in particular who have an issue,” says Marchant.
However, it was also important that while Stephen behaved poorly, completely rejecting Max at times, he had an opportunity to redeem himself, inevitably finding that Max’s experience really had nothing to do with him personally.
“Men are very caught up in their male identity,” Marchant adds, “and where they feel they are when they judge themselves against other men. It’s a problem, still, for men to own up to their vulnerabilities and insecurities.”
Mermaids plays a large role in Butterfly, both on screen and off. It is featured as the place where the Duffy family finds support, and it was Marchant’s primary source when writing and casting the series. He was advised not to cast a trans child in the role of Max, as it would force them to “go back to the person they were living as prior to transition: to relive something that was inevitably very painful for them.”
At the opposite end of Stephen’s views, we have Vicky, Max’s mother and fierce protector, who when faced with the NHS’s conclusion to deny Max’s request for hormone-blocker therapy, makes a desperate decision to fly to Boston with Max for treatment. It’s a choice that backfires and creates even more conflict with Stephen, who doesn’t feel Max is old enough to make such a life-changing decision, and then takes legal measures by suing Vicky for custody.
The Duffys’ teenage daughter, Lily, eventually feels the strain as well, feeling neglected after realizing her parents’ attention is primarily focused on her sister.
As in any primetime dramatic series, things get a lot worse before they inevitably get better, but the complexities of a family who in the end have their child’s best interests at heart are very real.
The Duffys settle their differences for long enough to be fully present in Max’s journey, and upon a second meeting with NHS–one the entire family shows up for–she is approved for hormone blocker therapy.
While it can be argued that Butterfly wraps with optimism that isn’t always the case for trans and non binary kids, it holds up a mirror to those whose reaction might be similar to that of Max’s family, and it shows the impact their actions have on their children, hopefully inspiring some much-needed conversations.
Butterfly is now streaming in its entirety on the ITV streaming service, and will premiere in Canada on the CBC Network in 2019.