Butterfly landing on ITV is a landmark - putting gender dysphoria drama in a prime time slot is a step forward
Television drama and comedy have a chequered history when it comes to the burning issues of the day, particularly when those issues concern sexuality and gender identity.
In late 1981, America’s Centre for Disease Control identified San Francisco resident Ken Horne as the first patient of the AIDS epidemic in the US — although retrospective research on the remains of St Louis teenager Robert Rayford, who died in 1969, showed evidence of the HIV virus. Yet America was already deep into a full-blown AIDS crisis by the time the 1985 made-for-TV film An Early Frost, the first US TV drama to address the subject, came along.
It took British television until 1987 to air a drama about AIDS, the ITV three-parter Intimate Contact. It was such a lily-livered cop-out, however, that you wish they hadn’t bothered.
Those most affected by AIDS were the gay community, yet Intimate Contact focused on a middle-aged businessman, played by Daniel Massey, who contracts AIDS after having sex with a prostitute during a raucous business trip to New York.
The implicit message seemed to be that viewers would respond more positively to the drama if the AIDS sufferer was a “normal” person, like a straight, white, middle-class male.
Given an attitude like that — as well as television’s notorious history of stereotypically portraying homosexuality as either deviant or something to be ridiculed (up until the mid-Eighties, the best-known gay character on British TV was the mincing Mr Humphries in Are You Being Served?) — it comes as an eye-opener how relatively progressive mainstream TV has been when dealing with gender identity issues.
The sympathetic portrayal of transgender people didn’t begin with Transparent, or even with Coronation Street’s Hayley Cropper, the first transgender character in a British soap. It goes back much further than that.
In 1977, The Jeffersons, the first US sitcom to feature a prosperous African-American family, included an episode in which patriarch George Jefferson discovers an old army buddy called Eddie is now a transwoman called Edie.
It might have been a comedy, but The Jeffersons didn’t treat the character in the same sneering, sniggering way a British sitcom of the day would have — or for that matter, the way RTE’s atrocious The Centre did just three short years ago.
The same year, another US sitcom called All That Glitters featured future Dallas star Linda Gray as a transgender model.
It’s an education to trawl through the history of American TV, if not its British counterpart, and find a startling number of transgender characters scattered across the decades, sometimes in one-off appearances, sometimes as series regulars.
Nowadays, transgender characters have become the norm in everything from Orange is the New Black to EastEnders — although the number of transgender actors working in TV remains far short of what it should be.
But it still comes as something of a surprise to find a series like gender dysphoria drama Butterfly airing on ITV, a network that, if anything, is more bland and anodyne now than it was back in the 1980s. More than that, it’s airing in the prime Sunday night slot.
An even nicer surprise is that it’s excellent. The Butterfly of the title is Max (Callum Booth-Ford), an 11-year-old boy who wants to be Maxine, because he knows he should have been born a girl.
Writer Tony Marchant teases out the conflicts, dilemmas, disappointments and pain enveloping not just Max/Maxine, but also the parents, played by Anna Friel and Emmett J Scanlan, who are struggling to process this change.
A few years ago, you’d have expected something like Butterfly to be shown on Channel 4 or BBC4. The fact that it’s being pitched to the same audience that was watching Vanity Fair just a week earlier is a heartening landmark.
Butterfly continues on UTV/ITV on Sunday at 9pm