'Butterfly': TV Review

You want: a compelling coming-of-age story. You get: an itchy divorce drama.

Hulu's sensitive but clinical miniseries explores the conflicts that arise in a family when a pre-pubescent child transitions gender.

Against airy synth-pop, a slight twelve-year-old girl in a pixie haircut, fuchsia lipstick and neon pink eye shadow confidently snaps a butterfly clip into her coif. It's a refreshing, even triumphant sight: Just months ago, she sat knotted and distraught in a bathtub with a glass shard in her hand, threatening to amputate her own penis.

For as much compassion as she elicits, Maxine Duffy — named Max and assigned male at birth — disappointingly comes across more like an amalgam of clinical case studies than a fully-realized child, her personality reduced to little more than her femme gender presentation. Maxine, played by the woefully expressive male actor Callum Booth-Ford, should have been the effervescent star of Hulu's well meaning but antiseptic three-part miniseries, Butterfly. After all, this dramatic serial exists to tell the story of her gender transition and the family conflicts that can arise when a pre-pubescent child comes out as trans. But so much of Butterfly relies on the viewpoints of her warring parents, the narrative probably could have focused on any childhood trauma and still felt like a sensitive, if sensationalized, public service announcement.

By focusing on Maxine's parents, Butterfly  which originated on ITV in the U.K. — asks us to empathize more with family members' pain than the transitioning person's liberation. Anna Friel plays Vicky, a middle-class mom with a Mancunian growl navigating multiple stressors simultaneously, including her contentious separation from bullheaded Stephen (Emmett J. Scanlan), her lackluster career as a teacher's aide and her halfhearted attempts to start a crafting business. Most troubling for her are her son's "eccentricities." (Pardon the misgendering here, they're merely meant to clarify chronology.) We learn that her ex's cruel responses to Max's "effeminate" tastes and behaviors led him to leave the family, though none of the Duffys seem to resent him for it. If anything, consummate pleaser Max feigns interest in sports in hopes of luring his father back home. In his mother's house, however, he regularly wears girls' clothes and inquisitively probes his older sister, Lily (Millie Gibson), about menstrual periods.

The broken family has tread like this for years, but when Max starts secondary school, he soon realizes he's even more isolated than he first imagined. His harassment at school, multiplied by his horror at his parents' impending divorce, leads eleven-year-old Max to slit his wrists.

The child, of course, is neither "Max" nor "he," but Maxine, a young girl on the verge of adolescence. And this attempted suicide (which just straddles the line between "sympathetic portrayal of gender dysphoria " and "trans trauma porn") eventually motions Maxine to claim her true identity and demand a social and medical gender transition. Vicky and Stephen balk for different reasons — she's concerned about Maxine's safety/stability as a trans child, he's appalled at the idea of intervening in his child's natural progress through puberty — and Maxine's body soon becomes the site of a proxy war between the two.

When Butterfly could be richly delving into Maxine's inner life and the emotional sine wave of her transition, instead it doubles down on the itchiness of Vicky and Stephen's bellicose marriage and the ripped-from-the-headlines debates about transitioning during childhood. Some plot points feel like statistics being crossed off a list: the incredulous father; the invisible sibling; the overwrought self-harm; the cringe-worthy relatives. At one point, when their request for treatment is denied in the U.K., Vicky recklessly (and not quite believably) absconds with Maxine to a progressive children's hospital in Boston and immediately gets slammed with child abduction charges — an unctuous plot development with all the subtlety of a tabloid cover page.

It's clear writer and creator Tony Merchant wants to draw a spirited, nuanced portrait of a family in crisis, and in researching this topic, his team met with multiple British families exploring gender transition. Which is probably why the Duffys don't feel quite organic, but rather akin to mosaic cobbled together from the chips of other people's lives: Maxine's heartbreaking attempts at self-mutilation; Vicky's fierce protection of her child at all costs; Stephen's stubborn enforcement of traditional masculinity; Lily's desperate aches for attention. And, of course, the cultural disputes about what constitutes child abuse in cases such as Maxine's.

Most frustratingly, Butterfly medicalizes Maxine's experience to the point where her transition is dragged through viscous language emphasizing her physical experience over her social and psychological one: "pubescent blockers"; "Adam's apple"; "genitals" — not harmful words, of course, but ones that still pathologize her and surreptitiously twist her life into a mere matter of science. Lonely Maxine eventually befriends a young girl with a serious eating disorder, and while I appreciate how the show connects marginalized children, I also wondered if the producers were equating gender transition with illness.

For the most part, Butterfly humanely, delicately and realistically explores transgender issues with as much detail as it can muster in its three brief hour-long episodes. But the serial also spends so much time on Vicky and Stephen's precious feelings that Maxine could have instead been diagnosed with childhood cancer and this alternate McGuffin would probably have had the same functional impact on the narrative. Meanwhile, the producers paint Booth-Ford in bright pink Jon Benet makeup and call it characterization. 

Cast: Anna Friel, Emmett J. Scanlan, Callum Booth-Ford, Millie Gibson, Alison Steadman

Executive Producers: Tony Merchant, Caroline Hollick, Adam Kemp, Nicola Schindler

Premieres: Friday (Hulu)