Butterfly, an ITV drama starring Anna Friel, follows a family as they try to understand their troubled gender non-conforming 11-year-old. The ‘inspiration for the show very much came from real-life’, Pink News reports: ‘Susie Green, head of the charity Mermaids, worked closely with the producers of the show and Butterfly mirrors the true story of Susie and her child Jackie.’ In a glowing review on the BBC website by Rebecca Thomas, Butterfly is presented as public service broadcasting in the spirit of Lord Reith: this is drama to ‘entertain, educate and inform’. The ITV mini series ‘will surely have a beneficial effect.’
In an article in the Guardian the writer of Butterfly, Tony Marchant, is clear about the intended audience:
“The primary-colour storytelling palette is, however, intentional. Marchant envisages a family audience, who presumably will watch on catchup since moments of Butterfly are too shocking to air before 9pm. “First, it would be kids going through this, with or without the support of their parents. It’s a positive, affirming message. Then I’d hope it would be parents who aren’t coping with it. After that, maybe just kids with any sort of difference, and their parents. Some sense of: this is what we need to do, this is OK.””
The show not only follows the Mermaids script but appears complete with product placement, branding and Mermaids supporters in small acting roles. Over the credits we see Max’s room, painted an underwater blue, littered with Little Mermaid toys and a mermaid pendant. Visiting the SeaLife aquarium, Max has a vision of a mermaid, an attractive woman with breasts and fishtail costume, swimming towards him. Mermaids of course belong to the pre-sexual world of children’s literature: we don’t and can’t know what happens below the waist.
But in the real world, Max faces strict gender policing: the credits show nail varnish being removed and lipstick wiped off. Turning up to collect Max and sister Lily for a day out, the dad praises Max’s new haircut and calls him a “handsome young chap”. To heal the split in the family, Max tells his dad that when he grows up he wants to be a footballer, adding in a shaky voice that his dad ‘knows’ what he really wants to be. The viewer knows that what Max wants to be is a woman, a career choice on a par with Max’s other two options, footballer or astronaut.
In this drama, femininity is expressed in gender stereotypes. Max doesn’t want chips because he is ‘watching his weight’ (here a sign of femininity that would be worrying even in a slim 11-year-old girl). Back home, Max reveals his innate femininity when he tells his mother that his father’s new girlfriend is “a bit Kardashian”. While Vicky and her daughter discuss Max’s girlyness, we see him dancing alone in his bedroom, wearing a strappy pink top.
The take home message for the viewer is that femininity in a boy points to a transgender identity. There certainly are kids who diverge from the gendered norms associated with their sex and do so despite the culture of the family in which they are raised. Some boys, for instance, display a more extreme form of femininity than would be the norm for girls. In fact we know from robust research that gender atypical boys are far more likely than the norm to turn out to be gay (though most will be heterosexual). The least likely outcome in adulthood is a transgender identity.
At school, Max is called “gay boy” and a girl sticks out her tongue at him. In a flashback, we see Max dancing to music in a fluffy pink sweater and being hit by Stephen – a moment of violence which leads to his father leaving home. Sitting alone in the school playground, Max longs to join a line of girls who are dancing and when he finally does so, encouraged by his sister, we see Max relax is he expresses his feminine side. The inevitable bullying follows: two boys corner Max on his way home to call him ‘Dance boy’ and ‘Gay boy’. ‘Show us your moves’ they taunt. Max replies: ‘I’m a freak.’
Homophobic bullying is a feature of many transition narratives. As Alex Bertie told Janice Turner: ‘“I was known as the ‘weird lesbian girl’ and nobody would speak to me, and suddenly it was just really hard, because I’d never found it difficult to make friends really.” As Turner explains: ‘For three years, she endured shouts of “lezzer” or “you’re a boy” without reporting it, growing ever more troubled. She self-harmed by cutting her legs where her mother wouldn’t notice.’ Researchers have found that homophobic name calling can contribute to a change in a child’s gender identity:
homophobic name calling at the onset of middle school emerged as a form of peer influence that predicted change in early adolescent gender identity from the fall to the spring of the 6th grade academic year.
These findings are important as they help us to understand Max’s defiant reply when his grandad suggests that he may be gay. “I’m not gay!” Max insists, and his dad understandably responds: ‘So he’s pretty clear about that then’. But Max knows that being gay brings playground abuse and parental conflict. In 2016 actor Rupert Everett revealed that he had consistently dressed as a girl as a child:
‘“I really wanted to be a girl”, he said. “Thank God the world of now wasn’t then, because I’d be on hormones and I’d be a woman. After I was 15 I never wanted to be a woman again.”
Max doesn’t feel he has a choice, but nor do his parents, especially when Max starts self-harming, slashing his wrists at the moment that his mum is about to set off on a date. Self-harm, the script suggests, is a response to Max’s gender issues. But we know – Samaritans is clear on this – that there ‘is no simple explanation for why someone chooses to die by suicide and it is rarely due to one particular factor.’
We also know that the best way to help someone with suicidal thoughts is to listen without imposing a meaning on their actions. But this scene contributes to the idea that transgender children are peculiarly vulnerable to suicide even though we know that ‘Suicide among young children is vanishingly rare’. Max is 11: to get a sense of how rare suicide in this age group is, we need to realise that 10 out of the 3.3 million kids aged 10-14 killed themselves last year. But statistics don’t mean much to parents faced by a child in distress.
In a statement released to the Sunday Times, Tavistock GIDS had this to say about the portrayal of suicidality in Butterfly:
“Suicidality in young people attending the Gids is similar to that of young people referred to child and adolescent mental health services.
“It is not helpful to suggest that suicidality is an inevitable part of this condition . . . It would be very unusual for younger children referred to the service to make suicidal attempts. More positive narratives. . . are important.”
What we see in the first episode is really self-harm, a growing problem among children and young people. But here too there is excellent advice available for parents. We know that a child or adolescent ‘may self-harm to help them cope with negative feelings and difficult experiences, to feel more in control, or to punish themselves. It can be a way of relieving overwhelming feelings that build up inside’. Max says ‘I did it to calm myself down’. We know that parents should try not to overreact. But Max’s parents are frightened and the father decides to return home. For a confused child, desperate to mend a broken family, the message is that self-harm works.
For the viewer, the moral is clear: Max is transgender and the parents must act fast. Vicky tells her GP that the family visited a psychologist to discuss Max’s cross-sex identification when he was five and learned that most children like him will grow up to be gay. ‘You wouldn’t be told that now’, responds the GP. Max will need professional help and possibly puberty blocking medication because ‘Puberty can be a ticking clock.’ Modern clocks, of course, don’t tick, but then a natural puberty is an old-fashioned option.
Butterfly is offered as Reithian public service TV. But the show significantly and dangerously misrepresents current thinking on the care of gender confused children and young people. The ‘watchful waiting’ approach associated with the Tavistock GIDS is not out of date: guidance issued in March 2018 on ‘Supporting transgender and gender-diverse people’ by the Royal College of Psychiatrists:
…acknowledges the need for better evidence on the outcomes of pre-pubertal children who present as transgender or gender-diverse, whether or not they enter treatment. Until that evidence is available, the College believes that a watch and wait policy, which does not place any pressure on children to live or behave in accordance with their sex assigned at birth or to move rapidly to gender transition, may be an appropriate course of action when young people first present. (Emphasis added)
Instead Butterfly suggests that parents of children who self-harm must proceed urgently with transition. Amusingly it caricatures gender critical parents at Transgender Trend in the figure of Grandad. It is Grandad who thinks that Max is gay and who worries about the impact of social media – perhaps with reason for we see Max viewing ‘I am Jazz’ in his bedroom.
If Minister for Equalities Penny Mordaunt tunes in she may discover that only Grandad shares her desire to discover
‘whether the influence of social media is driving more children to consider changing sex, and whether it is appropriate to treat pre-pubescent children with drugs’.
Perhaps it’s too much to hope that Grandad will get on to social media or contact a group like Transgender Trend. Now that really would inject a bit of drama and tension into the series.