An Encounter with the ITV show Butterfly

Picture two children. One of them loves playing with a wooden train set. The other loves playing with a baby doll who wears a blue romper suit, feeding it a bottle and pushing it about in a blue buggy. Both enjoy dressing up, the more sumptuous the outfit the better, and both enjoy playing with a toy kitchen, clattering wooden food into metal pans. They’re fans of Wacky Races, Peppa Pig and the Octonauts, and can’t understand why anyone likes Frozen. Can you tell what gender they are?

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Screened on ITV bang on the 9pm watershed, Butterfly wasn’t exactly family viewing. And doubtless there will be people out there who think it was irresponsible of me to watch it with my 9 and 11 year old, just as Twitter is full of people who found its representation of a young trans girl, assigned male at birth, reprehensible. Is it OK for kids to watch another child their age struggling to navigate her family’s prejudice, the homophobic bullying of school kids and the wariness of health professionals, turning to acts of self-harm in an attempt to still the rage of confusion inside, and befriending another child experiencing the body dysphoria of anorexia, while her parents scream at each other? Well, over the past few years my kids have learned to call their cousin by a different name and male pronouns, as my nephew, assigned female at birth, has begun the slow process of transition. We’ve spent some time in London and Brighton with a child whose Daddy is a trans woman. And the godchild of one of my oldest friends has been hospitalised repeatedly with anorexia. Childhood innocence is a myth promulgated by a society gooey-eyed with false nostalgia and steel-brained with the desire to control. My kids aren’t damaged by knowing about difference and emotional difficulty: I believe they’re strengthened by it, not least in their ability to challenge prejudice in others, which the eldest is already exercising.

Butterfly was a good watch, for all of us, but I had a few quibbles, and after the second and third episodes scuttled straight online to find out what trans people thought of it. The response was encouraging, albeit heartbreaking in what it says about society’s relationship with queer identities. Charlotte Malloy, writing on The Pantsuit, knew as a young child that she was a girl but had to wait until she was 19 before being able to transition; and so she saw in Butterfly: “a very accurate representation of what being a transgender child is like [that] needs to be taken seriously. The shame, the isolation, the repression, the longing, and feeling like the only way out is death.” Words echoed by Shon Faye on twitter: “Butterfly was so good! I wasn’t expecting much to resonate — I was taken aback by how much did. Secrecy. Disapproval. Shame. Fear. Knowing something is off. Even being misinterpreted as gay by helpful adults. It was done really well and I’m glad this was on TV. Especially now.”

Jane Fae, writing in the New Statesman, approved of the way Butterfly’s first episode “contextualised and simplified in a way that abstract ‘debate’ and inquiry does not”, and felt that it conveyed well how the “rejection of body — not an obsession with fashion — is at the core of transness. At least,” she clarified, “binary transness. We may have to wait a while for the non-binary equivalent of Butterfly.” I wish Fae had written about the next two episodes but all I could find on her twitter feed was an exclamation at the dramatic ending to the second episode, when the child’s mother steals money so they can fly to the US to access puberty blockers: “Am impressed that itv dared go there!” And while @ausome_autist raised some intricate criticisms (it’s too “parent/ family-centered”; a cis male actor played Maxine) they none the less “loved Butterfly and thought it was good representation for our community”.

Switching to the perspective of a parent with a trans child, there’s a really interesting feature in M*tro (of all places, given its transphobia in the run-up to the Gender Recognition Act consulation) in which @FierceMum also raises issues with the dramatisation of Maxine’s story, not least in its failure to depict Maxine’s parents building a support network around themselves of other parents with trans children, and its unrealistic portrayal of NHS services. But even she felt “the show has got a lot right; the stress on a family, the denial, the distress and despair, and the courage of a child speaking their truth”.

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Picture the same two children. Both play with Lego, constructing not just objects but imaginary worlds with it. Both enjoy reading, particularly fantasy books, although one favours the kind of fantasy that involves magic and elves, the other prefers dystopian urban settings. Both have read all seven Harry Potter books several times, and prefer them to the films. Both play piano, one better than the other; the child less good at piano is better at recorder (as in, actually good!) and beautifully plays clarinet. One has an A3 sketchbook and is slowly filling it with invented characters; the other has a postcard-sized book of watercolour paper and paints pictures of their favourite foods which they then frame and hang on their wall. Neither likes sport much, although one dabbled in cricket for a bit, the other football. Both like playing computer games: Minecraft, stuff on Friv. What about now: can you tell what gender they are?

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I wanted to read reviews by trans people because I have no skin in discussion around transgender experience. There are feminists who believe that simply being a mother gives them privileged insight into the lives of gender non-conforming children: I’m not one of them. I’ve spent the past few years paying careful, grateful attention to the words and thoughts of trans and gender non-conforming people I’ve met through work: naming a few, performance-maker Emma Frankland, playwright Jo Clifford, theatre-maker and consultant Griffyn Gilligan, writer and performance-maker Travis Alabanza, poet Harry Josephine Giles, plus all the people on twitter they’ve linked me to over the years. And then there’s my nephew: I’m not close with him but my mum is, and she tells me repeatedly what a positive difference living male has made. Understanding that has been a long journey for my mum, and one I supported her on, although now she has her own support network online, including following @FierceMum on twitter.

None of this means I know anything in particular. I’m just writing about Butterfly as someone who engages with a lot of art, mostly live/performance, thinks about culture and politics, and tries to write about both. I say this not because I want to apologise for having an opinion on the show (although I realise that’s how it’s coming across), but because the — I don’t even know what to call it, debate is far too placid a word — cultural war between (some) trans women and (some) cis women is terrifying and induces an anxiety that is silencing. Occasionally I’ll take a deep breath and think about saying something related to feminism and trans women, and then I’ll just exhale and close my mouth. Which is fine, you know? The world doesn’t need me chucking my pennies in on anything (and yet, here I am…). Or maybe it does: in the performative space of social media, if you’re not demonstrably calling people out on one side and signal boosting people on the other, then you’re so far from allyship you might as well be an enemy. But the world, feminism, both sides of this war might just need a conversation that is more nuanced than that: robust but also delicate, and characterised by care — both care for each other and intellectual interest. (Like the conversations I occasionally get to have with Emma Frankland.) A really great start might be for cis women to stop talking about penises, and for trans women to stop dismissing anything womb-centric as intentionally and reprehensibly excluding. The only thing this obsession with genitalia engenders is reproductions of misogyny.

Inevitably, it’s to genitalia that Butterfly goes in its depiction of Maxine. In one of the scenes most difficult to watch, she sits in the bathtub, door locked, with a curved blade of broken glass, willing herself to slice off the penis that feels so alien to her. It’s a difficult scene for another reason: it plays into a particular transphobic narrative, that the visibility of trans people and trans representation is harmful to children, giving them false ideas about their bodies, and encouraging self-harm. This narrative wilfully obscures the fact that it’s not trans narrative or representation that damages kids: it’s received notions, patriarchal and misogynistic, defining what constitutes masculinity and femininity. It’s the use of the word “normal” to describe and reinforce those received notions. It’s the advertising and other media that distributes those notions. It’s the biological arguments for those notions, which insist that gender is binary and not a spectrum. There are other arguments — like that presented in Cordelia Fine’s book Delusions of Gender, which dismisses the notion that men and women have different brains, arguing instead that the brain is plastic and absorbs external influence that moulds identity — but they’re yet to expose mainstream thinking about gender as patriarchal codswallop.

One of the things that interests me about Butterfly is how much harder it is for Maxine to present as female than for my nephew to pass as male. And I wonder if it’s to do with the pervasiveness of masculinity, the ways in which patriarchy has equated the masculine with the universal, making it the site of “normality” from which the female or feminine deviates. Look at unisex clothing for children: it’s trousers being sold as unisex, not skirts. Last year, it was announced that 80 state schools across the UK, including 40 primaries, had adopted a genuinely gender-neutral uniform policy giving all children the choice to wear skirts or trousers. This is an amazing start, but there are that many schools just in the borough of London I live in: hardly anyone has adopted this. More schools doing so — and adapting their sex and gender education to match — would make an extraordinary difference.

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OK, try this. Both children have mid-length hair, one longer than the other. One of the children wears mostly black, the other quite a lot of blue and green. Both favour hoodies, T-shirts and loose-fitting shorts in summer, although what both like most of all is pootling about in a onesie. One dabbled in nail varnish for a bit, the other tried it a couple of times and decided it wasn’t for them. Neither wears make up, although one quite enjoys playing with face paints. Does knowing a bit more about how they look and dress help you in figuring out what gender they are?

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Maxine is a strong character, but she’s not a dramatic character. She knows who she is, and just keeps restating this fact. That creates fantastic scenes: there’s a terrific one when her transphobic grandmother (who, Jane Fae points out gleefully, might be styled after Germaine Greer) spits that Maxine is “no grandson of mine” and the child cheerfully replies: you’re right, I’m not. What Maxine doesn’t have is a development arc in her own right. Instead Butterfly’s main dramatic arc belongs to Vicky and Stephen, Maxine’s parents. @ausome_autist is right: at the heart of Butterfly isn’t Maxine the trans child but a question about parenting. Vicky and Stephen present two extremes: Stephen is resistant, violent in his rejection (there are flashbacks to him hitting Maxine), waiting for the day when puberty hits and Maxine “grows out of it”; Vicky is more accepting, understanding and flexible — and therefore, according to her sterner mother, indulgent. And Maxine is lodged between them: literally so in a scene I really didn’t like, in the NHS gender clinic, when Maxine sits between her two parents and they shout at each other over her head while two — two! — NHS professionals watch them in silence. I have no idea if this is realistic, but as television it felt horribly, over-emphatically contrived.

Watched as a drama about motherhood, Butterfly is fascinating — and depressing. It emerges in the final episode that Vicky’s mother was a “bad” one (as if her tendency to say the most brutally insensitive thing hadn’t already revealed it): she admits that during Vicky’s childhood, she lavished her love on her husband, hoping to keep him from other women, neglecting her daughter in the process. Whereas Vicky is the opposite: lavishing her love on Maxine, willing to do anything — including steal away to America without telling Stephen — in pursuit of her child’s happiness. This is the myth of perfect motherhood — or, as Aminatta Forna phrases it in her book of the same title, the Mother of All Myths — that blights the lives not just of mothers but all women, in fact most people. The Perfect Mother, Forna writes, “must be devoted not just to her children but to her role. She must be the mother who understands her children, who is all-loving and, even more importantly, all-giving. She must be capable of enormous sacrifice.” That is Vicky exactly: always home when her children arrive from school, so focused on domesticity that the one time we see Stephen doing a household chore he jokes that they’re gender-swapping.

That devotion makes the irony of the way in which Vicky neglects Maxine’s older sister all the more dramatic. In being the “perfect” mother to one child, Vicky becomes a “bad” mother to the other. But this feels like a compelling dramatic complication: it doesn’t doesn’t disturb or challenge the myth of perfect motherhood put forward by Butterfly. Forna is incisive on the roots and tenacity of this myth, beginning with Rousseau and travelling through the Victorians to reach the present day: “The current maternal ideal is simply the product of a particular time and place, and at its height lasted no more than a few years from the end of the Second World War until the early 1970s. It just happens to be the version that was in place when most of the people who are now running the country were born.” These are the people in political power “in an era of perceived instability and uncertainty”, when mothers are “taking the brunt of our fear and despair over a collective failure towards the next generation. All this mother-blaming is a displacement activity for all the problems we can do nothing about, from corporate downsizing, to urban decay, to the emergence of new world economic powers which disrupt domestic economies and employment patterns.”

Forna published Mother of All Myths in 1998. I don’t think very much has changed.

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The two children I’ve asked you to picture, as you’ve probably guessed, are my own. You might even have guessed that one is male, the other female, but can you tell which is which? What difference would it make if you could?

When the kids were a few years younger, a friend who also has a son and a daughter roughly the same ages told me at a party that the brilliant thing about having “one of each” was seeing how innate gender is: how boyish the boy, how girly the girl. I found this astounding, because it wasn’t my experience at all. When I think about which of my kids is most like my friend’s, the similarities are to do with age, not gender. My older girl like his older boy. My younger boy like his younger girl. Any boyishness or girliness my kids display in accordance with their assigned gender, they acquired through socialisation at nursery — and, more perniciously, through me and other adults in their lives. Two things I’m enduringly ashamed of is not buying my son a nightie when he wanted one, and telling him a flouncy red polka dot frock in the dressing up box was for girls before my husband pointed out that was daft. Right now I’m ashamed of using the words boyish and girly on the assumption that anyone reading would understand from them a child who is active/boisterous/rough and a child who is softer/cuddlier/cute. A lot of the work I’m trying to do with language is in getting away from such reductiveness.

Generally I think I’m a poor parent: selfish, too preoccupied with work, inconsistent, constantly making promises that I break. Of course I think that: it’s what the motherhood myth has taught me to believe. “The rhetoric of motherhood has remained unchallenged for so long that it has become woven into the fabric of our consciousness,” writes Forna. “This vision of idealised motherhood still permeates every aspect of life from the division of labour at home, to our employment laws, policies and legal rulings, and it drips down continually through popular culture, books, television, films and newspapers.” I’d do anything for Maxine, says Vicky. Of course I would: I’m her mother.

I’m glad my kids watched Butterfly with me, glad it was made. I hope it’s not the last such programme: I hope to see representation of trans masculine children, and children who reject binary gender altogether. I hope to see representation of trans and non-binary children who are fat, trans and non-binary children of colour. I hope, too, that Butterfly’s complicated representation of motherhood becomes one that rejects altogether the tropes of bad/neglectful and perfect/self-sacrificing. Feminism, in Forna’s view, has done a shoddy job of challenging the perfect mother myth, “believing that if all the available political energy was devoted to increasing women’s career choices and achieving economic independence, motherhood would somehow take care of itself. At the same time, another school of popular feminism actually bolstered myths about motherhood by arguing women’s moral and social superiority in relation to men and laying claim on behalf of womanhood to qualities such as creativity and emotional sensitivity.” There are so many myths about womanhood, or femininity — and indeed manhood/masculinity — that need busting: doing it will take patient work, attention to detail, and quelling anxiety, as I’m trying to do here.