Trans drama Butterfly is rejection and sexism dressed up as social justice TV

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The final part of ITV drama Butterfly airs tomorrow evening, marking not so much the conclusion of a TV show but the climax of a social justice event, at least if you believe the show’s makers and the largely rapturous notices. Starring Anna Friel as the mother of Max, an 11-year-old who’s born male but identifies as a girl, and broadcast in the last weeks of the government consultation on reforming the Gender Recognition Act, it’s clearly been conceived as an intervention on the side of the angels. Or rather Mermaids: Susie Green, CEO of the charity for families of trans children, was a consultant on the programme.

Max’s story closely tracks that of Green’s child Jackie. Like Jackie, who preferred the Little Mermaid to Action Man, Max struggles to play the part of the “real boy”, choosing pink skirts rather than jeans and dancing rather than football (something dad responds to with violence, leading to him having been kicked out of the family home at the start of the series). And like Green, who took Jackie to America for surgery at 16, Max’s mother turns to the US private system when the NHS gender identity development service (here represented by the fictional “Ferrybank clinic”) refuses to prescribe Max puberty blockers immediately.

What Friel’s Brookside kiss did for lesbians, Butterfly’s makers imply, Butterfly will do for trans rights. And as a Sunday night mainstream drama, it really is an incredible opportunity to take trans politics into the nation’s living rooms. The trans debate is often as arcane as it is furious, conducted in jargon-heavy blog posts, and bitter clashes between feminists who want to discuss the legal and social consequences of gender identity doctrine, and activists who want to stop them (by violence if necessary). Butterfly, though, is storytelling. It’s emotionally appealing. It’s accessible. It’s simple. In fact, it’s very simple indeed, which is why it’s quite boring, and also why it’s dangerous.

That’s a strong word to use of a primetime drama, but consider what Butterfly is telling its audience. It offers a starkly segregated version of childhood: boys do active, sporty things and girls are decorative and pretty. Max’s parents first of all try to “fix” him into having the appropriate interests – his dad with corporal punishment, his mum by treating the “girly” things as a shameful secret to be kept to the bedroom – and, when that fails, they solve the problem instead by recategorising him as a girl. The possibility that Max, like 60-90% of children with gender dysphoria, might simply turn out to be a boy who likes pink, isn’t given house room here.

Then there’s that jaunt to America for treatment. In the show, it’s a high-stakes decision for Max’s mother to make, but one that we’re never supposed to doubt is in Max’s best interests. The Ferrybank, with their advocacy of “watchful waiting” rather than filling out a shopping list of prescriptions, act as the story’s primary antagonists. After all, viewers have already been told unequivocally that Max really is “a girl in a boy’s body”. In the context of the show, any resistance to that isn’t sensible clinical caution, it’s just cruel. The lesson for distressed children and their anxious parents watching the show is: don’t trust the experts who won’t give you what you want.

In the real world, though, things aren’t so easy to call. Gender dysphoria has complex, multiple causes, and in children that usually involves the family dynamic. NHS clinicians, trying to address these delicate cases, increasingly find that anything they want to explore has been pre-empted by the pressure on parents to “affirm gender”: parents have often socially transitioned their child long before they reach the consulting room. Sometimes, parents have even started the medical course privately, via clinicians such as Helen Webberley – convicted this month of running an unregistered clinic, but still linked to by the Mermaids website.

The argument for rushing to treatment, as put forward by Mermaids and repeated by Max’s mum in Butterfly, is “better a happy daughter than a dead son”. In other words, children with gender identity issues are supposedly so prone to suicide that the only option is to stall puberty immediately, starting cross-sex hormones as early as possible. (This maximises the child’s chances of eventually passing as the chosen sex; it also costs them their adult fertility and sexual function.) In the first episode of Butterfly, Max follows this script by making a graphically portrayed suicide attempt.

But the script is false. The startling figures offered by Mermaids for suicidality in trans children are taken from self-selecting surveys that don’t control for comorbidity of mental health conditions. The NHS gender identity development service reports that less than 1% of its patients have attempted suicide; meanwhile, Swedish research has found that transitioning doesn’t remove trans people higher risk for suicide. In other words, the Mermaids version overstates the risk and then demands a cure that doesn’t work.

This isn’t just inaccurate. It’s damaging. In Max’s story, a child questioning their gender will see that suicide gets results: not just medical treatment, but ultimately the reconciliation of Max’s parents (the final scene of the last episode sees Max getting the longed-for blocker injection as his parents hold hands in the foreground, everything as it should be in the straightest of all possible worlds, the violent man back in the family fold). This presentation of suicide goes directly against the Samaritans guidelines for preventing the spread of suicide. Reckless politicising of self-harm is what endangers young people’s lives, not delaying irreversible medical treatments.

When Donald Trump is launching draconian measures against trans people, it seems obvious that the humane and liberal response must be the opposite of whatever he’s doing. But that’s to make the mistake of thinking we can only choose between two kinds of sexism: the patriarchy of the pussy-grabber, or the misogyny of “girls have pink brains”. Butterfly wants to be seen as a model of tolerance, but its lesson is actually a brutal one. As one gender identity specialist who watched the programme points out, Max is told persistently, insistently and consistently by his parents that he’s “wrong” as a boy. “This is not acceptance,” she says. “In fact, this is rejection.” Under the lipstick smile, Butterfly is a charter for something very regressive, and very cruel: the credo that children who can’t perform the “correct” sex stereotypes must change their bodies, or die.

Independent | Yes, Theresa May has been an awful prime minister – but resorting to misogyny is not the answer

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It was a couple of weeks ago, the first time I felt it. An odd twinge of… compassion? Sympathy? No, pity. And the object was Theresa May.

Less than two months ago, May was supposed to the Tories’ biggest asset. In all the campaign materials, her name and face dominated, with the words “Conservative Party” sneaking in at the bottom in tiny print. The Spectator drew her as an iron-clad icon, alongside A N Wilson breathlessly declaring a phenomenon called “Maymania”. “Mummy sweeps onwards, borne in heavenly chariots, floating above painted clouds,” he wrote – “mummy” being a nickname for May among activists. It’s a sentence that sounded fairly insane at the time and utterly deranged now.

May didn’t have to call an election, and she shouldn’t have. She bet national stability (and her party’s fortunes) on the public loving her personal brand, and has found out that twitchily reciting empty three-word slogans isn’t the magic charisma tree she thought. The “iron lady mark two” mythologising has been melted down in no time at all, with former staffers coming forward with damning stories about May’s susceptibility to the toxic influence of her key advisors, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill. Whatever in May looked decisive and commanding at the start of the election, now looks antsy and autocratic.

Read the full column at the Independent

Independent | I’m not surprised that the BBC chastised Jenni Murray over her transgender comments – this is what institutional sexism looks like

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Impartiality is the necessary fiction that allows the BBC to exist. A public service broadcaster that didn’t attempt to hold its head above bias would be untenable, and this is why the BBC’s editorial guidelines make it clear that news and current affairs presenters are not to publish their personal views on “controversial subjects”.

But what do you do when the controversy comes for you? When, however much you’d rather not be the object of dispute, you become the frontier in an ideological war? When what you are – and how you name yourself – slips from neutral to contentious, without you doing anything?

Jenni Murray has presented the BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour for 30 years, and she’s been a woman for even longer than that. At the weekend, the Sunday Times published an article by her titled “Be trans, be proud — but don’t call yourself a ‘real woman’”. Under that headline, Murray criticised some claims of trans activism (and she was careful to say she was talking about the extreme of the debate): that anyone who identifies as a woman has “always been a woman” no matter the age at which they transition, and that references to the female body should be censored in the interests of inclusion.

Read the full post at the Independent

LBC – Stig Abell | Donald Trump and rape culture

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One of the strangest defences of Donald Trump’s 2005 comments (which I wrote about for the New Statesman over the weekend) is the claim that this is “just banter” and “what men do”. As Deborah Cameron explains in a typically excellent post, both those things can be true without diminishing the harm and the ugliness of the things Trump was recorded discussing. I joined Stig Abell on his LBC show yesterday to talk about what this incident tells us about rape culture, and how that affects all women.

Download the show as a podcast (subscription required)

BBC One – Sunday Morning Live | Should sexism be a hate crime?

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The BBC One religion and ethics discussion show Sunday Morning Live hosted a discussion this week about the Nottingham Police initiative to record misogynistically motivated offences as hate crime (a subject I wrote about last week for the New Statesman). Melanie Jeffs of Nottingham Women’s Centre was there to explain the background and intent of the strategy; and Jon Gaunt was there to railroad the discussion into wolf-whistling, because violence against women is just no fun to bloviate about. I supplied some feminist side-eye, and the whole show is on iPlayer now.

Watch the show on iPlayer (sexism package starts at 20:00)

Pink brain blues

Blue brain, pink brain – a graphic from My Life: I am Leo
Blue brain, pink brain – a graphic from My Life: I Am Leo

My girl is eight years old. She is clever and kind and tall and strong and funny and stubborn and beautiful – well of course I think all of these things, because she’s my daughter and I love her. “Am I a girly-girl or a tomboy?” she asks sometimes, and I can never tell from the way she asks which of them she wants to be: she knows that to be a girly-girl is to belong (she has learned from experience that getting “girly” right will be rewarded and protect her from certain kinds of sanction), but she knows too that “boy” things are laudable and tomboyishness has a cachet that girliness does not. Anyway, the answer is always the same: “You’re you, darling. Whatever you like is right for you.” With her long treacle-coloured hair and her undercut, her perfect cartwheels and her graphic novels, her Taylor Swift dance routines and her speed up a climbing wall, on her rollerskates or in her football boots – yes, she is perfectly her.

Last night the conversation took a different turn. She had been watching an episode of the CBBC documentary series My Life, and the subject was a 13-year-old transboy called Leo. In an article on the production, one of the executives explains that making a documentary for children meant they couldn’t be “explicit”: in other words, if Leo has always felt profoundly that he should have a penis, the programme can’t mention that. Instead, the experience of being a boy is crystallised in an anecdote about Leo (then Lily) deciding he wanted short hair and cutting it all off, and the fact that he preferred “boys’ toys”. So I asked my daughter: “How do you know if you’re a girl or a boy?” And she said, repeating the line from the documentary: “It’s the way you feel.” Oh, my girl. How can you know “how you feel” when all your life people have been telling you what you are? When your gender has been constructed for you and your limbs and brain arranged and shaped to fit it, by family, carers and strangers, from when you were the tiniest thing?

So many things we did, none of them wicked but all of them guiding you in the same direction. As a magpie-eyed baby, women on the tram would shake their jewellery at you and then coo over you when you reached out to grab the sparkling trinkets: “Oh, she’s a real girl,” they would say, approvingly. When you toddled, you loved to play with shoes: “Just like a woman,” adults told you, indulgently. (I found a photo the other day of your big brother flapping about in a pair of his dad’s trainers. He liked shoes too – but no one told him that was the proper thing for his sex.) You loved dolls, but then so did your brother: he had to ask for his first Barbie and his baby with a buggy, though, and I felt my good liberal intent quail at the violation of the norms when I got them for him, whereas you have been given a surfeit of big-titted totems and soft-cheeked dummies to practise femininity on.

Not all the encouragement you received has been positive. You did a term of judo, then you stopped because some boys in the class began shoving the few girls who attended. They didn’t tell you this was because you were a girl, but it was because you were a girl: they decided this class was their space, so they pushed you around till they pushed you out. “Push them back, and harder,” I wanted to say – you are going to grow up tall and powerful, and right now most boys your age are smaller than you – but fighting is only going to get you in trouble, and anyway, in a few years their violence will exceed anything you can offer. It’s a fantasy, it’s not an answer. I didn’t have an answer. Dear girl, I am sorry.

The YouTubers your brother watches use “pussy” as an insult. I talk to him about this, but that doesn’t stop his friends from watching, can’t excise this disgust from your social world. You read the covers of the magazines in the supermarket, a litany of male violence and female self-loathing: all this hate for your gorgeous, compact little self, I try to keep it out and it still gets it, it gets in. A lot of it gets in through me. One day, when you were only three, you picked up my razor during bathtime, and while I was distracted, you dragged it up your peachfuzz leg just like you’d seen me do. The cut was shallow but long – your first wound of femininity, and all my fault. (It’s funny, incidentally, how shaving is supposedly masculine. In terms of area, I shave more skin than any man who isn’t a pro swimmer or cyclist. But shaving is not feminine – perhaps because it is not feminine to be hairy in the first place, so it is not feminine to shave. It is just demanded by femininity.)

So in the documentary, when Leo says, “The only difference between [my] life and a born-male boy’s life is, [I’m] trapped in this awful body and [I] have to do loads of medical stuff,” I think about all the things people have done to you because of your “awful” body, the ways they’ve (we’ve) all tamed you because we’re afraid of what your rebellion might mean. And this has been a relatively gentle process so far. Leo says, “One thing that scared me was knowing my body would soon change into a woman’s,” and I think about what the advent of hips and tits will mean for you, the pinching and the pinging and appraising eyes and comments that will fill the air around you with pins and make you squeeze yourself smaller, smaller, smaller when you should be spreading out and taking all the space you need.

“Male hormones turn boys into men, and female hormones turn girls into women,” reads Leo from his script. This is not exactly true: male hormones turn juvenile males into adult males, female hormones turn juvenile females into adult females. To become a man or a woman takes the input of a million cultural prompts, the insults and the razors and the praise and the dolls, to make you what this society has determined your sex means you must be. But they are lying to you, my girl. The documentary illustrates the brain-body mismatch theorised to explain transgenderism with a cartoon: a blue, human-shaped figure with a blue brain, and a pink, skirted figure with a pink brain. As if a skirt were a part of your female body, as if your brilliant brain was rose-tinted – and this is gender. Not the way you feel, but the fact of society allocating you to one class or the other, with no chance to escape unless you deny your own flesh. My perfect girl, this hateful world.

Hollering back to Paris Lees

One day, I was beeped by a driver.

Actually, this happens moderately often, generally when I’m running. The car horn is the universal language of street harassment. We all know what it means from the day it starts, and it starts when we’re girls, not even teenagers: “I am looking at you. You are something to be looked at, and I am doing the looking.” Beep-beep. Know your place. Not every woman experiences this as intimidation, of course. Writing in Vice, Paris Lees gleefully declares:

I love catcalls. I love car toots. I love random men smiling “Hello beautiful!” like my mere presence just made their day. I like being called “princess” and ignoring them as I giggle inside. I like being eye-fucked on the escalator and wondering if I’ve just made him spring a boner.

For her, catcalls are a confirmation of her gender and her sexual power. But a power that’s contingent on someone else wanting to do something to you doesn’t feel very much like power at all to me.

One day I was wolf-whistled.

The vocal, public expression of sexual interest is almost exclusively something that’s done by men to women, and in this it’s like other things that are done by men to women: rape, sexual assault, physical violence and murder. Lees writes: “I struggle to see any real connection between rape and the guy who wolf-whistled at me this morning.” I don’t. The conventions of street harassment make it an expression of male autonomy and female passivity, founded on the illusion that women incite it by being attractive. Just like rape. 

One day a man barked at me and my friends.

But catcalls are far from universally complimentary. Lees wants to “make a distinction between harassment […] and harmless fun”, but to my mind, there’s always harm: the harm of women being told that they are being observed, rated, “eye-fucked” in Lees’ words. This stuff gets into you. It tells you that your female body is always under judgement, in a way that a male body isn’t.

One day I was walking through a crowd of football fans to catch a tram and one of them commented on my tits.

The more male-dominated an environment is, the more likely you are to be harassed. Norah Vincent writes about the way that men bond by driving out the feminine within them, and for a group of men, a woman is the perfect foil against which to define their masculinity. It’s not lust, it’s hate. I suppose Lees might say this makes me part of “a certain kind of middle-class woman that finds catcalls particularly galling”. She quotes Nichi Hodgson, who claims: “There’s a sense of being sullied if an uncouth or lower-class kind of man – a white van man, for example – heckles.” To which I would say, my dad is a white van man, so fuck you. Whether it comes from city boys or sports casuals, harassment means the same malicious thing.

One day I was walking to the pub on my own wearing red lipstick. A man, part of a group of men, looked right at me and said, “Whoremouth.” It sounded too Jacobean to be true, but then again it sounded too Jacobean for me to have made it up. I put my head forward and my hand to my mouth and walked right on, burning humiliatedly.

This stuff puts you on guard. How you look, how you act: will it make you vulnerable? Will the thing that you enjoy – gaudy make-up, shiny tights, a pretty dress – be turned against you and used as the occasion to make you feel smaller and less human? And of course, when any individual man hollers a comment at you, he’s doing it as part of a culture where women are harmed because they are women. He may not intend anything greater than causing you discomfort, but that discomfort  draws on the fact that other men do much worse.

One day, in a nightclub, a man in white jeans grabbed my friend’s crotch. She didn’t mention it till later because she didn’t want to spoil the evening.

Every woman I know has an experience that gives her reason to be wary of men asserting their sexuality around her. When a man woops or shouts or whistles at a woman, he doesn’t know if she’s been raped or assaulted and so may find this behaviour particularly threatening – and he doesn’t care. So often what is understood as “flirting” is in reality men demanding a certain reaction from women: sex is understood to be taken by men from women, not something mutually wanted and performed. Catcalling asserts that belief noisily and in public. Lees can enjoy it; others do too. But any pleasure you get from it comes at the expense of those women who know all too well what street harassment is really saying about them.