This Sunday will see the premiere of Butterfly, a new ITV drama starring Anna Friel. The show centres around Maxine, an 11-year-old transgender girl (played by Callum Booth-Ford; more on the casting later), and her family's reaction to her transition. Friel plays her mother, Vicky, as the Radio Times reports, while Emmett J. Scanlan plays Maxine's father, Stephen, who rejects his daughter's transition. Millie Gibson plays her sister, Lily. But is ITV's Butterfly based on a true story, or is the family entirely fictionalised?
According to Pink News, the characters and story of Butterfly are fictional, but the story was inspired by a real family. The charity Mermaids, which supports transgender children and their families, was founded by Susie Green; her daughter Jackie identified as trans at a young age. Like Maxine in Butterfly, Jackie (now 25) experienced acute transphobic abuse growing up, Susie Green told the Mirror; she attempted suicide multiple times. Green, who served as an advisor on Butterfly, told the paper, "When she was 13 years old she was walking home from a friend’s house and got beaten up by two 40-year-old guys. She had an egg cracked on her head by a girl in the middle of the street."
A central plot line in Butterfly is the conflict between Anna Friel's Vicky and her husband, Stephen, which also mirrors aspects of Jackie and Susie Green's lives. In the show, Stephen leaves their home because he objects to Maxine's transition, while Susie split with her husband Tim when Jackie was six. "My split with my husband wasn’t about Jackie," Susie told the Mirror, "but when we split, I did have more freedom to allow her to express herself at home." She told the Guardian, "It is mainly dads who struggle, particularly with kids who identify as female."
Pink News reports that Jackie Green was the youngest British person to undergo gender reassignment surgery (which, it should be noted, is a contested term; Stonewall's Trans Advisory group says it should be "reviewed"). She received surgery in Thailand in 2010, at the age of 16. In 2012, meanwhile, she participated in Miss England. "I hope to be a role model for kids struggling with gender issues," she told Pink News. "There are not many people for them to look up to and thus they fear for what might happen to them. I want to show people that trans people are very normal and that there is hope."
Susie Green served as a consultant on Butterfly, and told the Guardian that the show corrects fear-mongering about trans children perpetuated by the media. "Unfortunately the press gives this impression of children being fast-tracked down a medical route, which isn’t the case," she said. "That’s why Butterfly is so important — it demonstrates that that doesn’t happen."
Trans representation in pop culture is frequently problematic, often stereotyping or stigmatising. Owl Fisher, a writer, film-maker, and non-binary trans campaigner, told the Guardian, "Popular media has often portrayed trans people as objects of horror, disgust or as victims." They continued, "Trans youth are such a vulnerable group and there are many misconceptions around them," adding, "That’s why Butterfly is massively important: it is authentic representation that humanises us as opposed to demonising us."
Speaking about the show on BBC Radio 4, author Juno Dawson noted, "The voice that we never really hear from in these stories is the children themselves." She continued, "What Butterfly does really poignantly is put Maxine at the very heart of the story."
Notably, Maxine is played by a cis male actor, Callum Booth-Ford, a casting choice that could be perceived as problematic. All too often, cisgender actors are cast as transgender characters — like Eddie Redmayne playing Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl, for instance, or Scarlett Johansson accepting the role of Dante "Tex" Gill, a trans man, in Rub & Tug (after public outcry, Johansson eventually backed out of the part).
Writing for them, Meredith Talusan sets out exactly why this practice is so harmful. "If trans people are not even deemed 'qualified' or 'talented' enough to portray their own experiences," Talusan explains, "it becomes impossible to envision a world where trans actors can be on equal footing with cis actors." The trans actors who have achieved success, she says, citing Laverne Cox, Jamie Clayton, and Elliot Fletcher, have been limited to playing trans roles. "To cast a cisgender actor in a trans part thus amounts to closing off the industry even further to a set of people who already have multiple and systemic disadvantages when it comes to achieving success in the film industry," Talusan explains.
Susie Green of Mermaids told the Guardian that the decision to cast a cisgender actor in Butterfly was a conscious one, however, because the role could have been traumatising for a young trans actor. "It would have forced them to go back to the person they were living as prior to transition: to relive something that was inevitably very painful for them," Green told the Guardian.
Juno Dawson, meanwhile, said the show gets a "pass" because of Maxine's age. "They were going to struggle to find a trans actor that young I think," she said, continuing, "If it was an adult role I would always rather they cast a trans actor, because there are some wonderful trans actors out there — from Rebecca Root, to Jake Graf, to Nicole Gibson. So there’s no need to cast a cisgender actor."
Butterfly airs on ITV on Sunday, October 14 at 9 p.m.