A poignant drama about gender identity screens on SBS.
Transgender representation in TV has seen a big rise in recent years with grown-ups appearing across Transparent, Pose, Orange is the New Black, Wentworth, and Hit & Miss.
But with a few exceptions, visibility of teens and primary-aged children (where research suggests identity first emerges), has been dramatised far less – The Fosters, Glee, Degrassi amongst them.
Now a 3 part UK drama Butterfly by writer Tony Marchant (The Secret Agent, Public Enemies) puts an 11 year old boy Max (Callum Booth-Ford) at the centre of its universe as his family comes to grips with his desire to fully become Maxine.
The fact that we have this kind of television being made is not just note-worthy, but so is the inescapable fact that all the cast, rippling through to every child extra in the schoolyard, must surely be getting an education on the subject too.
Max is the troubled son of separated parents Vicky (Anna Friel) and Stephen (Emmett J. Scanlan) whose split was triggered by their conflicted parenting of their child. Stephen is constantly troubled by his son’s displays whereas Vicky entertains a little more indulgence, at least in private.
“In our house he gets to do girl’s things but nowhere else,” she says.
Max frequently escapes into a world of music (including Kylie), mythology, fantasy and watching MTV trans teen reality I Am Jazz. But daily life remains in constant turmoil, from what attire he wears to ‘simple’ tasks like going to the toilet at school and anguish over ownership of his body.
“I hate my willie, it gets in the way, I wish it would drop off!” he reveals, also insisting, “I don’t want special treatment. I just want to be normal.”
But he is also keen to see his parents reunited. A perfect home is a long-way off for this 11 year old…
As puberty looms the crisis becomes more pressing for everybody concerned and Vicky and her reluctant partner seek expert advice about drugs to delay such. A visit to trans parent support group Mermaids invariably ends in more disagreement.
In distressing scenes that pack a punch, Max takes drastic action to reach his goal, which compels Vicky & Stephen to put marital differences aside. And it is in moments like this that you realise you are watching something far more confronting than anything in Glee. There is no musical number to snap us out of this one…
The other family member is Lily (Millie Gibson) who must be the most supportive teen sister ever, pushing Max’s case to her parents, watching over him at school and telling him, “I think of you as my sister.”
The performances are solid throughout, especially that of Callum Booth-Ford, beautifully portraying the conflicted, defiant Max, and Anna Friel as a mother torn over making the right decision for her child.
Marchant’s script is insightful and sympathetic to a cause, attempting to dramatise the differences between trans & gay, and how a family -and by extension a community- is affected by gender disparity. That said it does consume almost every scene, and there is room for subplot expansion (or that musical number perhaps?).
While it isn’t always an easy watch at just 3 episodes this is a relatively fleeting commitment in TV terms and is bang on SBS charter for those who have complained of this in the past.
I can’t help but feel there will be families in Australia undergoing the same questions. For Maxine and for them, visibility is integral.
“You can’t be what you can’t see.”
Butterfly airs 9:45pm Wednesday on SBS.