I watched the first episode of the new ITV drama ‘Butterfly’ with interest and growing discomfort.
From the opening credits, where Max removes his lipstick and pink nail polish, to the firm handshakes dolled out by his bearded father, I was especially struck by the programme’s blithe promotion and acceptance of gendered stereotypes.
As Max removes the trappings of femininity, the hair adornments, the nail polish, lipstick and jewellery, the camera pans back and we see his face. This powerful opening speaks volumes: remove the adornments we associate with girlhood and this boy-child is just that: a boy. How could he be anything else?
We learn that Max’s parents are recently separated, and that Max’s penchant for feminine things has played a large part in this split. It’s made clear that Max feels guilty about the split and desperately wants his parents back together.
In a bid to impress his dad on weekend visits, Max tries to enjoy playing football. We learn that he has also cut his hair in an attempt to please his father. And this pretence works, up to a point. But the moment the mask of machismo slips, dad is having none of it. When Max spins and dances in a pink top at home, it become too much for his father, who tries to stop him, first saying,” I’m warning you, Max,” and then striking him.
Dad has made rules in the past about what Max can and can’t do. “There’ll be more rules about it now,” he warns, darkly.
“In our house you get to do ‘girl things’ but nowhere else.”
Even his supportive mum can’t see beyond conforming to conventional sexist stereotypes of how boys and girls should behave, telling Max,
“Outside you’re a boy, you do what boys do.”
Which brings us to the elephant in the ‘Butterfly’ house. At no point does anyone tell Max that he’s just fine as he is, that liking traditionally ‘feminine’ things doesn’t make him any less of a boy. That it’s ok for a boy not to enjoy ‘manly’ pastimes. His grandmother dismisses his feelings as a ‘silly phase’. Grandad, at one point, suggests the family should “all just say you’re gay and it’s no problem at all,” but we all know grandad is old and foolish and the idea that Max might not be the problem is not even considered by any other character. No wonder he thinks he must be a girl. In Max’s world, it isn’t possible to enjoy the things he does and still be male. The message Max receives from everyone around him is that he is not a ‘proper’ boy.
There follows a suicide attempt, brought on by Max’s mother’s attempt to go out on a date. Rushed through the hospital, Max lies like a modern day Ophelia, hair lightly curled, impeccable and perfectly made up, on a hospital trolley.
After this, the family visit a medical health practitioner, possibly from CAMHS, who, on this very first visit, raises the subject of puberty blockers.
When Max’s dad mentions the fact that he’s heard most kids ‘grow out of it’, the idea is dismissed with the ominous prediction, “Puberty can be a ticking clock… gender dysphoria might escalate, might not.”
After dancing in the playground with some girls and being bullied on the way home by some boys, Max’s teenage sister tells him “ I think of you as my sister,” and he is ready to let her take him under her wing.
At the end of the first episode, Max comes downstairs with his sister, in a school skirt, make-up and a hairslide. “How do I look?” he asks his surprised family.
“You look lovely,” manages his mother.
On going to school dressed like this, Max says “I don’t want to do it but I feel I have to”.
It is as if Max has realised that the only way anyone is going to let him express his personality is if he forces himself into the ‘girl’ box.
“She,” he corrects his mother when she refers to him as ‘he’.
“She,” she breathes back.
The influence of ‘Mermaids’ is apparent throughout the first episode. In the opening sequence, Max removes a mermaid necklace and a momentary close up reveals it to be very similar to the one on the ‘Mermaids’ logo. In a visit to an aquarium with his dad, Max imagines a beautiful mermaid swimming over to him and trying to make contact with him through the glass. In a later scene, Max’s parents visit a support group and are told “Listen to your child.” A Mermaids poster is clearly visible in the background.
Jake Hurfurt reports in the Mail that writer Tony Marchant and actress Anna Friel, who co-produced the program and plays Max’s mum, have ‘lavished praise on Mermaids’.
It comes as no surprise that CEO Susie Green, whose son underwent ‘gender reassignment surgery’ at just sixteen, and who advocates for under-16s access to cross-sex hormones, is listed in the credits as a series consultant.
“I can’t even begin to thank Susie Green enough for all the help she gave me.” gushes Friel.
This afternoon, with the first episode of Butterfly about to be released, the homepage of the Mermaids website was promising that their ‘helpline will be open until midnight on the 14th, 21st and 28th of October to coincide with the launch of new episodes.’
Today, Mermaids’ Twitter feed is full of scores of pictures of butterflies and scores of moving quotes from anonymous happy parents who have transitioned their children. Gender critical parents have made their own version of the mermaids hashtag.
In fact, apart from the obvious idea of emerging from a cocoon, I really can’t work out why they called the program ‘Butterfly’ in the first place. “Mermaid” would be a far more appropriate title, as at times the show verges on little more than a glorified advert for the contentious and controversial charity.
For a production with a fair level budget, ‘Butterfly’ isn’t very well put together. The acting is excellent but the writing is weak, a frequent flaw of ‘message pieces’.
While questing to become compelling characters, the actors struggle with the challenge of becoming something more than mouthpieces for the message. This was nowhere more notable than in the painfully gauche scene where Max’s sister tells him he should correct people who refer to him as ‘he’ and that she thinks of him as her sister not her brother.
The editing is also somewhat haphazard. Scenes seemed mashed together, rather than paced, which leaves the viewer feeling as if they’ve just watched one long trailer.
Of course, it isn’t meant to be real. It’s a story. It’s a fictional show. It’s prime time TV drama. But the show pushes the sexist and homophobic narrative that a boy liking dancing, pretty things and pink is reason enough for not just concern, but medical intervention. I wonder to what extent the self-congratulatory adult crew involved with making it have seriously thought about that.
In addition, the beautification and idealisation of attempted suicide in this show, and the way that it gets Max what he wants (his dad moves back home because of it) may give mixed messages to other confused kids. Writer Marchant has suggested that “kids going through this, with or without the support of their parents” might watch the show and get “some sense of what we need to do, that this is ok.”
What he doesn’t seem to be asking is how many effeminate little boys are going to watch or hear about this show and decide that they too must be ‘born in the wrong body’? How many well-meaning teachers will watch the show and wonder if little Tommy isn’t just a bit quiet and effeminate after all- perhaps he is a transgender child?! How many parents, concerned their child might be gay or doesn’t comply with gender norms, may decide it’s because their child is really transgender?
How many of those little boys will end up getting ‘fixed’ like Max?