Red Production Company for ITV. Pictured: (L-R) ANNA FRIEL as Vicky, CALLUM BOOTH-FORD as Maxine, EMMETT J SCANLAN as Stephen and MILLIE GIBSON as Lily.
This review contains spoilers. Don’t say we didn’t warn you
It’s unlikely to have escaped your notice that the UK Government is currently in the process of consulting the public on the Gender Recognition Act. The Act will pass into law the processes and procedures necessary for somebody to be legally recognised as the gender not assigned to them at birth. On the one hand, you have self-identification (to a greater or lesser degree) while, at the other end of the spectrum, the process would involve onerous medical and psychological intervention, not dissimilar from what we have now.
This has caused some debate, not all of it entirely civilised. But uncivilised debate is worse than no debate at all and, perhaps exacerbated by social media, there are those on both sides of the discussion who frequently resort to ‘no-platforming’ and common abuse while taking ever more entrenched positions.
The beauty of fiction, whether on TV, film, theatre or the printed page, is that it can introduce concepts to millions of people in a way that even the most finely crafted documentaries or the most eloquently worded essays cannot. Had Charlotte Brontë written a worthy but dull pamphlet questioning society’s attitude to women, rather than espousing the same ideas through her novels, it is unlikely that she would be remembered today. Instead, her great works, including Jane Eyre, Villette and Shirley and the proto-feminist ideas within them, have hardly been out of print for almost two centuries.
So, to Butterfly, ITV’s latest Sunday night drama, the story of a family and, in particular, 11 year old Max. This is not the first time that childhood gender dysphoria has been addressed on national TV, but never before has a mainstream terrestrial broadcaster scheduled a drama on the much-misunderstood topic in the valuable 9pm Sunday slot. For this, they should be applauded.
Anna Friel stars as Max’s mother Vicki, a teaching assistant trying to get her head around Max’s desire to wear make-up and dresses. As the drama unfolds, we learn that husband Stephen (Emmett J Scanlan) had previously left home because he couldn’t cope with his ‘boy’ not wanting to be a boy.
A bath time flashback, where Max (Callum Booth-Ford) tells his father “Dad, I hate my willy” leads to a burst of anger which, as more is revealed through flashbacks, culminates in Stephen clouting Max around the face, bringing his marriage to an abrupt end.
Max’s closest ally is older sister Lily (Millie Gibson) but even she cannot save her sibling from clumsily uncomprehending grandparents, school bullies and an all-pervading sense of creeping isolation. Something has to give and it does, with Max slitting his wrists and being rushed to A&E, forcing Vicki and Stephen to seek expert advice on Max’s possible gender dysphoria.
This promising first episode covers many of the thorny issues which those of us who do not operate in the trans universe often fail to acknowledge, not least bathroom provision in schools and, of course, the use and misuse pronouns.
But I shall leave the final word to Max’s sister Lily. When asked by a couple of bullies whether Max is her brother, she replies in the negative, only to explain to Max later, “I wasn’t disowning you, it’s just that I think of you as my sister.” This, dear reader, brought a tear to my eye.
Catch Butterfly on your usual catch-up service or right here.