ITV is to break new ground on Sunday night with its new drama ‘Butterfly’, which explores the issue of gender dysphoria in children.
Starring Anna Friel, it tells the story of separated parents, Vicky (Anna Friel) and Stephen (Emmett J. Scanlan), and their opposing ideas of how to support their 11-year-old child Max, who is increasingly distressed by the body she was assigned with at birth.
Maxine has privately identified as a girl for some time, but she decides she wants to live full time as female, prompting her parents to properly address her feelings and look into the option of transitioning, as puberty looms over her.
With conversation about child gender identity issues remaining a contentious topic in society, we spoke to writer Tony Marchant about how important Maxine’s story is to tell, and the two myths he is hoping it will help to dispel...
What made you want to write this story?
Well, 20 years ago I wrote a feature film called ‘Different For Girls’ about a trans adult, which was a very different thing that stemmed from my interest in gender identity. The opportunity to write about a kid going through this dysmorphia, this pain was part of my sensibility.
What is it about gender identity that makes you want to write about it?
I suppose it’s something quite personal embedded in me. I grew up in the east end as an amatuer boxer for 12 years and when I packed it in at the age of 19, I remember saying to my dad I wanted to write poetry instead, and it was about being aware of what your identity was in a certain kind of way - I didn’t turn out to be the kid I was supposed to be. The idea of exploring the fluidity of gender has always appealed to me. Men always refer to themselves as alpha or beta, which is never really something used to describe females - I found that really interesting.
How do you think things have changed over the last 20 years?
I remember talking to trans adults when they were going through Charing Cross, which is the main place for trans adults to go through hormone treatment and reassignment generally, and it was a very paternal regime. They were told if they wanted to be taken seriously on the road to being female, they should not come to clinic wearing jeans and aim to look a bit more like their wife. When I talked to someone like Tavistock [and Portman NHS Foundation Trust], there’s a sea change in attitudes to trans people and that binary that confines people, they’re very anxious to stop.
What did you do to prepare for writing it?
A lot of research and you can’t be arrogant enough to feel you can make it up yourself and simply do guess work. You have a huge responsibility to get it right, and that can only come from talking to people going through it or their families. The access I got to those families supported by Mermaids [a charity supporting gender diverse and transgender children and young people] was priceless.
Their stories and experiences must have been so wide ranging?
No two experiences are ever the same, but if there is a common denominator, I suppose it was how the presence of mothers and relative absence of fathers. It was the sheer fight that all families went through for recognition and acceptance - whether that be the school, the kids’ contemporaries, or their grandparents. Once they do enter into that journey, they are assessed very vigorously by Tavistock and so, if the drama does anything, it is to dispel two myths - that children are deciding to go through this process because it’s ‘trendy’, because it’s rubbish. So is the idea that it’s a free for all. When children ‘blindly’ decide and the parents accept, that puberty blockers can be given out like sweets and that it’s an easy process. When we get into episodes two and three, you’ll see Tavistock in particular, are not pushovers and are extremely careful in their assessments.
How did you go about casting Maxine?
We took advice from Mermaids over the idea of whether we should cast a trans child to play a trans child, and in the end they thought it would be really difficult and painful for them. It was ultimately a safeguarding issue. For a young child to go through the same difficulties as they were in real life, that was a responsibility that felt too onerous and wrong. Once we took that advice and went forward, we looked at five or six young actors and did sessions with them, and in the end Calum was outstanding as Maxine, especially the chemistry he had with Anna.
How much was Calum aware of the issues at the centre of the story?
That generation are much more accepting of gender fluidity than older generations, but at the same time, we didn’t say to him, ‘Here’s what you should know’’. What Maxine goes through as a character is organic anyway, so in order to play a child who is finding their feet, it made more sense that it was done more naturally. So the actor was exploring the journey of the script and well as the child, so it helped that he came to it fresh and made discoveries as an 11-year-old might.
What was the most surprising thing you learned?
For me, it was the sheer difficulty of transitioning - either as a trans boy or a trans girl. It’s an on-going fight and simply deciding to embark on puberty blockers is only the end of the beginning. There’s a long way to go, as after that, there’s hormones, surgical reassignment. What I took away from it most was that they were so determined and convinced they were making the right choices that they became almost immune to the pain.
We see some quite ugly views portrayed in the show - how hard were they to write?
In episode one, you see Alison Steadman’s character’s point of view, which I suppose is broadly representative of what that generation think. Obviously that changes by the end of the whole show. With Steven, I didn’t want him to be a knuckle-dragging neanderthal. His doubts should feel reasonable in some ways and nuanced. Could it just be a phase, could he grow out of it, is he just gay? Although they aren’t sympathetic to Max’s situation, they are things we would expect ordinary people to have those viewpoints. That doesn’t necessarily make them prejudiced, they may be genuinely worried, which needs to be articulated. In order to make Steve’s journey credible, we do need to see what a lot of fathers feel to get to where we end up. It’s a difficult one for him but you’ve got to reflect some realities, and what I did come across in my research is the fact mothers are much more easily on board with this than fathers were.
In terms of mainstream culture, trans people have still not been well represented on screen as much as lesbian or gay people - why do you think that is?
I think that’s right. The medical attitude has changed, but I still can’t quite believe the level of hostility there is in society to trans people and some of the directions it comes from. It comes from radical feminists as well as the stronger right. There is a similar hysteria now to the trans community which is very reminiscent of Section 28.
It can be a very divisive topic when people speak about trans children, so what are you hoping people take away from the show?
Ultimately, I hope it will do what good TV is supposed to - educate, inform and entertain. I hope people watching it who have had a hostile view are more understanding of what it takes to go through. It’s not a journey you would choose to go on because of how painful and difficult it is, so I hope this is a portrait of an ordinary family who are very much located in a mainstream context. It was really important it had that authenticity so you couldn’t dismiss them as a bunch of bohemians. It’s very much about being relatable. I couldn’t have written it without the help of Mermaids, so if it’s accurate and insightful, that’s because of the time I spent with them and those kids.
‘Butterfly’ airs on Sunday at 9pm on ITV .
Useful websites and helplines:
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