By Joyce Slaton,
Common Sense Media Reviewer
Common Sense Media Reviewers
Powerful, complex, mature drama dives into gender identity.
A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this TV show.
Realistic drama examines issues of gender in realistic, nonjudgmental way, covering such areas as gendered clothing and bathrooms, emotional development, bullying, drugs that can be taken to delay puberty, etc. Themes of compassion, tolerance, empathy, acceptance, deep family love predominate.
Positive Role Models
Vicky and Steven have a complicated history and do their best to support their children. Lily and Maxine's relationship is supportive, deep, positive -- an ideal example of how siblings can relate to each other. Maxine is a strong trans girl who values the way she feels over what others think -- she's a fine role model for other trans kids, or those who don't fit into the mainstream for some reason.
Violence & Scariness
A character self-harms in a tense moment; we see bloody lines on their wrist, blood splashed on wall. "I feel better now," he says afterward, and that he cut himself "to calm [himself] down." A child is slapped in the face by his parent in a flashback; in another, the father holds the child's neck roughly in two hands during an argument. Both incidents are prompted by the father's distress at his son behaving in "feminine" ways. A family tickles a dad while he yells "Stop!" and "This is not funny!" Bullies physically menace a much smaller boy.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
Talk about body parts and gender is frank, but mild enough for tweens. "I hate my willy," says Max at one point, to his father's consternation. One half of a married couple has sex with another person secretly, causing problems.
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Language includes "f--k," "f---ing," "boob," "c--k." Language can have connotations of gender and sexuality: "Bitch!" Lily says to Max, implying that he's being gossipy in a stereotypically feminine way. Boys mocking Max call him "gay boy" and "dance boy"; Max calls himself a "freak."
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Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Adults drink wine with dinner, or when spending time with friends. A woman says she had the "odd" cigarette or glass of wine while pregnant.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Butterfly is a drama about an 11-year-old who transitions from being a boy to being a girl. Talk about gender identity and related issues is frank and realistic: A kid talks about hating his "willy" and pees his pants rather than use the boy's bathroom at school; his relatives frown over his "acting out" and "funny ways" (though his grandfather is realistic if a bit reductive and asks what's wrong with "liking a bit of frill and a splash of color?"), and try to stop him from acting "like a girl." Bullies at school call him "gay boy" and "dance boy" and stand over him threateningly. A character self-harms and we see bloody lines on his wrist and blood on the wall. We also see flashbacks to two incidents of parental violence connected with Max's gender variance. Language includes words about body parts ("boob," "c--k"), insulting words about LGBTQ people ("gay boy," "freak"), and other curses ("f--k," "f---ing," "bitch"). Adults drink wine; no one acts drunk. Parents are present and supportive, though they sometimes take a while to get there; Maxine's sister, Lily, is a beautifully compassionate and accepting character. Themes of acceptance, tolerance, diversity, and empathy predominate, and Maxine is a strong character with principles and courage.
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What's the Story?
Like a BUTTERFLY, Max (Callum Booth-Ford) wants to transform himself into Maxine, the girl he feels like he truly is inside. But his mother, Vicky (Anna Friel), and dad, Stephen (Emmett J. Scanlan), aren't so sure that's a good idea. When he was 5, doctors told them to discourage "feminine" activities like wearing dresses and playing with dolls. They hoped that when puberty arrived, Max would be a typical boy. But by age 11, the dissonance between what Max looks like on the outside and feels like on the inside is too much to take -- and now Vicky, Stephen, and sister Lily (Millie Gibson) are on a journey just as much as Maxine is.
Is It Any Good?
When Max wants to be Maxine, his family unravels -- and then knits itself back together, slowly, painfully, and on a foundation of honesty and acceptance in this powerful, moving drama. When Butterfly opens, Max's gender differences are painted as "acting out," particularly by his conflicted father, who, we soon learn, thinks if he can provide a strong role model for his son he can prevent him from changing his identity. But though Max is able to feign a veneer of boy-ness in front of his dad, inside, being called "him" and "he," wearing the drab uniform of other boys at his school, and, most of all, using the boys' bathroom, is eating him up. "I'm lost," he tells his father, who says honestly back, "I don't want my little boy taken away."
But that Max is already gone. It only takes a little bit of support from Maxine's compassionate, accepting sister Lily to get her to admit it to their parents. There's a positively beautiful scene in the show's first episode in which Lily urges a miserable Max, sitting alone at recess to "join in" with the other students. "With who?" he shoots back, indicating the little knots of boys playing games he doesn't want to play, girls relating in ways he's been told not to. "With who you really want to," Lily tells him, and before long he's dancing, exhilarated, with a group of girls. Soon, the newly named Maxine will launch into the gender-variant world, with its hormone blockers and support groups and supportive YouTube videos. But she actually crosses over in this moment, when her private desires triumph over the ill-fitting public persona that was forced on her. In moments like this, and many others, this realistic, complex show is truly beautiful.
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about some of the stereotypes featured in the media about transgender and other members of the LGBTQ community. What is the impact of these generalizations? How do dramas such as Butterfly affect the way people think about them?
What did you learn about the transgender community that you didn't know before by watching this show? What's the difference between "gender" and "sexual orientation"? What is the difference between being gay or lesbian, bisexual, queer, and transgender? What are the controversies surrounding these communities? Why don't all laws in the United States protect their rights?
Gender issues seem to be having a bit of a cultural moment. What other movies or shows can you name that feature transgender characters or that deal with gender-identity issues? How is Butterfly similar to or different from these other representations?
How does Maxine and her family show empathy, courage, and compassion with each other? What are some other character strengths that help people relate to each other despite differences?
- Premiere date: January 19, 2019
- Cast: Anna Friel, Callum Booth-Ford, Millie Gibson
- Network: Hulu
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Brothers and Sisters, Great Boy Role Models, Great Girl Role Models
- Character Strengths: Compassion, Courage, Empathy
- TV rating: TV-MA
- Last updated: October 13, 2022
Did we miss something on diversity?
Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive portrayals in media. That's why we've added a new "Diverse Representations" section to our reviews that will be rolling out on an ongoing basis. You can help us help kids by suggesting a diversity update.
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