Maeve and Otis sit by the indoor pool

Dissecting Sexuality and Gender in Netflix’s Sex Education

Warning: Spoilers

So I finished watching Sex Education last night. I was late to the party but made up for it by binging all 8 episodes on Netflix in 2 days.

There was a lot to praise about the show. It could have so easily become a simple, trashy lame excuse for soft porn, but as it turns out, it achieved a lot more. Undeniably, and unsurprisingly, there was a lot of sex. But Sex Education still managed to keep the fine balance between cute, funny and sexy.

Aimee sitting seductively on Adam's bed

An even more impressive feat was tackling issues like homophobia, transphobia, feminism, abortion and class without coming across preachy or pandering. To be sure, that’s a lot of wokeness to cover in 8 hours but the show is subtle in it’s treatment of the problems its characters face. Lessons in building healthy relationships and consent are succinctly woven in, often in simple one-liners such as “You can’t choose who you’re attracted to” and “No means no” that flow effortlessly into the story, never feeling condescending or jammed-in to make sure they covered their bases.

Sex Education also avoids many pit falls that most of its sexed-up teen comedy-drama predecessors fell foul of. The characters are largely free of tired stereotypes and are all granted demonstrable complexity. The whole Otis-Maeve-Jackson love triangle appeared at first to be following a familiar old trope. It goes like this: nerdy but sweet ‘deep’ guy (Otis), falls in love with beautiful, neurotic girl (Maeve), but she’s with the archetypal ‘jock’ popular kid (Jackson). This is something we’ve seen over and over and over again. But this time, Otis doesn’t get the girl in the end (not yet, at least) nor does he believe he is fundamentally entitled to her. Maeve isn’t the done-to-death manic pixie dream girl that serves as a cure to Otis’ problems, she’s a driven character with goals and problems of her own to overcome. Jackson too is a multi-dimensional, loveable and sympathetic character. You could easily be rooting for him just as much as you root for Otis; they are not simply pitted against each other, the good guy and the bad guy- the guy she should be with and the guy who’s got her. There are jealousies, mixed emotions and nuances. Everything doesn’t just revolve around Otis.

Screen Shot 2019-02-03 at 19.13.57

Sex Education acknowledges and reflects the realities of love, sex and dating, using the “sex clinic” as a vehicle to explore the highs and lows young people experience as they reach sexual maturity. Unlike so many teen shows it reminds us that sex isn’t always…sexy. Sometimes you vomit while you’re giving a blowjob, sometimes you can’t ejaculate and sometimes you have to ask your partner to go and get your Mum. The show charmingly demonstrates that though sexual blunders are embarrassing, they’re normal, they happen to everyone and it is not the end of the world if you don’t know exactly what you’re doing.

The show also thankfully avoids stereotyping young men as singleminded, sex crazed creeps, and young women as judgemental, bitchy and sex averse. Lily, for one, point-blank propositions her male peers for sex. Maeve is a particularly indispensable character for a femme millennial audience. Not necessarily even likeable, definitely not soft or kind, she is unapologetic, pragmatic and smart. Her reaction to discovering that she is pregnant whilst at a house party is somewhat surprising, though very well-handled. There’s no crying, no hysterics. Maeve is a 17-year-old having to support herself whilst trying to achieve her potential at school, she is in no doubt as to what is the right decision for her. Equally, the abortion scene is sensitive without being sensational and totally medically accurate. It is not, however, dealt with heartlessly, the gravity of the situation and pre-op anxiety are palpable, but at the same time, it is not a scene wracked with shame or doubt.

Maeve is strong. She’s socially ostracised, relentlessly bullied and slut-shamed, nicknamed “cock biter” and though it’s clear that it hurts, she never comes across as a victim. She’s a fighter. She, frankly, has bigger fish to fry than making her classmates like her and she works hard to remain afloat under financial and academic pressure, whilst juggling a drug dealing brother, a new relationship and friendships. Maeve is the pivotal voice of the show’s overt feminist message. Her assertion of her own intellectual ability: “I’m really smart.” is imperative. She does not water it down. She does not say “I work really hard” or “I think I’m quite smart”, she knows she is smart and that she deserves the opportunity to reach her potential.

Maeve angrily facing up to heckler

The show also does a good job of representing a healthy attitude towards women and relationships in young men. Otis and Jackson represent the very antithesis of toxic and fragile masculinities. We often see Otis making the case for feminism. Particularly note-worthy is his exasperated outburst while Jackson is changing for swim practise “She’s not an object! You keep describing her as inanimate objects, but she is a person.” Otis points this out in a male locker room, symbolic of course of ‘locker room talk’ and it’s traditional function as an exclusively male space where women are discussed in often degrading terms. He further solidifies his role as an ally to women in his dealing with Liam and his romantic obsession with Lizzie. He is sympathetic to Liam’s unrequited attraction, “Sometimes the people we like don’t like us back, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” But sympathy does not come at the expense of the woman’s right to say no; “I know it’s hard but if you’ve asked her and she’s said no, then I think you’ve got your answer.” This is significant in a world that so often encourages young men to ‘never give up, never stop trying to get the woman of your dreams.’ Teen rom-coms as a genre are particularly guilty of encouraging young men to persevere, to make the “grand gesture”, even when they’ve been refused on multiple occasions. Sex Education turns this Hollywood norm on its head, conveying how ludicrous it truly is in a valuable lesson about respect and consent. Notably, Otis’ defence of women is almost always when they’re not there to defend themselves.

Otis smiling whilst at school prom

The women of Sex Education are not damsels in distress, they are on the front lines, defending themselves. Maeve, for example, fends for herself in episode 1 when some moron keeps heckling her with objectifying banalities such as “Nice rack, Wiley” she proceeds to kick him in the groin. Jackson is there and as we find out he is attracted to Maeve and it is clear that he disapproves of his classmate’s harassing comments from his facial expression. He could play the hero, he could jump to her defence. But he doesn’t, he steps back and allows her to handle it herself. When she has left, he tells his peer that he deserves what he got. Remarkably, Jackson is never possessive or controlling towards Maeve, even when he suspects she has feelings for Otis. There is never a big show of aggressive testosterone-fuelled rage. There is never a “you’re my woman and I own you” moment. Jackson is in fact much more emotionally vulnerable than most romantic male leads. As Sophia Benoit points out, “the guys who are unsuccessful on the show have one thing in common: they’re deeply isolated and closed-off emotionally”. Adam is a prime example of this. His lack of confidence in himself, emotionally abusive father and inability to communicate his wants and needs effectively have transformed him into a bully. He becomes isolated and dejected, having seemingly no one to turn to, and takes out his frustrations on Eric. The message is clear: communication and openness is key to healthy relationships (whether sexual or otherwise).

Adam in abandoned bathroom looking dejected

Despite all this, the school is hardly a feminist utopia of gender equality and sex positivity. As aforementioned, there is bullying, harassment and plenty of slut-shaming. Most significant may be the revenge porn incident in episode 6. Popular mean girl Ruby is betrayed when a picture of her vagina is leaked to the whole school. It transpires that Ruby’s supposed best friend Olivia was intending to shame Ruby publicly as a punishment for her cruelty. This episode, however, is surprisingly significant – counterintuitively – in terms of providing examples of girls protecting other girls. In spite of Ruby’s appalling treatment of her, Maeve is determined to find out who leaked the explicit photo and to prevent Ruby’s public humiliation; “This kind of thing sticks. And it hurts, and no one deserves to be shamed, not even Ruby.” The salient point here is a valuable one. Even though you may not like someone personally, your fundamental values have to be the same. You have to be on their side in a case of injustice, Otis and Maeve acknowledge that everyone deserves the same rights to dignity and privacy whether they like them or not. Significant too is the potentially iconic “it’s my vagina” scene. When students start suspecting that the pornographic image is of Ruby, Olivia attempts to take the hit, she stands up in assembly and claims that the picture is of herself. There is then a Spartacus-esque example of solidarity, with most female students and Jackson standing up and proclaiming that the vagina in question is their’s.

Perhaps the most interesting character arch, though, is Eric’s. Again, on the surface it appears as if we are confronting another worn-out stereotype: the gay best friend (only this time, the male lead’s side-kick). But where rom-coms and chick-flicks have failed, Sex Education succeeds in dealing with gay men as actual multi-dimensional people, with real emotions and facing very real problems. Eric is a departure from Sex and the City’s Stanford and Mean Girls’ Damien. He encompasses everything that was right with those characters inasmuch he is hilarious, witty, and stylish. However, what is crucially different in Sex Education is that we actually witness some of the painful realities of growing up gay. The show also briefly touches on some trans issues, though, it should be noted that there are no trans characters featured. Eric and Otis both dress in women’s clothing and wear makeup for an outing on Eric’s birthday. One unfortunate situation leads to another, and Eric ends up walking home alone at night.

A violent experience ensues, in which Eric is verbally and physically abused and his assailants spit on and humiliate him. It is a chilling and all too realistic account of the dangers that face trans and queer people. The encounter sees Eric temporarily lose a part of his identity, his confidence is shattered, immediately after he abandons his outlandish neon outfits in favour of a muted khaki hoodie and loose jeans. He also loses his ability to brush off his peers’ cutting insults and punches Anwar, “the only other gay in school” in the face. This could be more poignant than simply giving a bully some payback for all the hurt he’s caused, it is perhaps a metaphor for Eric’s struggle with, and attack on his own queerness in the wake of his own assault.

Eric having an emotional conversation with his father whilst sitting in their car

Eric reasserts his sense of self in two unexpected places. First, he encounters a man trying to find his way to a wedding. This stranger wears a flamboyant patterned gold blazer, electric blue eyeshadow and “fierce” blue nail polish. The exchange seems to inspire a resurge of confidence in Eric and demonstrates an unapologetic form of black gay manhood, one in which a person express their identity as they choose. Later, Eric joins his family at church and there, perhaps most surprisingly, he regains his self. Organised religion is rarely a healing force in LGBT+ stories. It is seldom even explored other than as an obstacle representing fundamentalist and traditionalist values that usually serve to oppress and shame queer people. Here, however, is a refreshing reminder that things do not necessarily have to be that way. The church scene strips the Christian message back to its very core, what this means to Eric and maybe to all LGBT+ people could be momentous:

“Jesus loves! His love is greater than fear. His love is stronger than uncertainty. His love is deeper than hate. Jesus said: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Yourself. Yourself. Love starts here. We must all learn to love ourselves before we truly love others. Who are you to not love yourself?”

The pastor embraces Eric, “You are welcome any time. This is your family.” Contrary to the painful, though oftentimes accurate, portrayal of religion as a primary source of self-loathing and oppression in a gay person’s life, Eric is not dismissed or disdained, he is uplifted. It may be true that this scene is more about community and Eric’s reconciling his identity as a gay black man, than it is about religion in essence. But it is a commendable effort in beginning to harmonise seemingly disparate aspects of identity, that many queer people from religious backgrounds can struggle with.

Race is actually one of the most under-explored concepts in Sex Education. However, relatable, finely-drawn characters such as Jackson, Ola and (principally) Eric may stand as testament to the show’s commitment to portraying underrepresented groups. There is, however, a particularly beautiful sequence that explores the immigrant experience in Britain. When Eric gets dressed up for the school dance in an unapologetically African, unapologetically gay outfit with glittering makeup, a colourful suit and a traditional West African Gele (head tie), it unclear how is his conservative Ghanian-Nigerian family will react. His appearance is met with cliff-hanging silence, which is then broken by his father: “Wait. I’ll drive you.” Eric’s father gives him a lift to the dance but appears to lose his nerve as Eric approaches the school. At this point, the oft alluded to rift between first and second generation immigrants is explored. It becomes clear that Eric’s father is a good man, his fear is informed by his own experiences and his own struggle to acclimatise to a new culture and country. He knows how much he had to change, to fit in and he fears for Eric. It is an honest fear, not a prejudiced homophobia, coming from a place of love and concern. He wants to protect his son from a world that he knows can be harsh on difference.

Eric in drag wearing leopard print dress, purple eyeshadow and yellow earrings

This is, no doubt, a very common fear amongst the parents of LGBT+ kids. No matter how accepting you may be of your child’s orientation, it can be difficult to shake the fear that they will be discriminated against, abused or worse. This fear is dealt with sympathetically, Eric’s father is given a chance to articulate his fears and his understandable urge to protect his son. But ultimately Eric is able to convey to his father that fear does not help him and suppressing the way he expresses his identity is not the answer. Eric tells his father “this is me.” He represents a generation of immigrants that refuse to change who they are to fit in. Eric clearly gets through to his father and a mutual respect and understanding is reached. “Maybe I am learning from my brave son.”

Indeed, there is a lot to be learned from this show. Sex Education is very much a product of its time. It speaks to and for a generation where feminism is mainstream, as is the call for sexual and racial diversity, representation and sex positivity. Ncuti Gatwa (Eric) affirms the show’s positive influence, telling The Sunday Times, “I’ve had so many DMs and messages from people saying that Eric has inspired them to be what they want to be. He presents masculinity in ways we’ve not seen before.” Emma Mackey (Maeve) concurs, “This show is quite revolutionary and political in its own right, and I think it could have a big effect on young women and men.” The show’s impact on its audience and on other film and television could be radical, it could even be revolutionary. Sex Education has set itself a high bar, it will be interesting to see where the show takes us next.

 

 

Sex Education is available to watch now on Netflix. Season 2 is set to be aired in Spring 2019

*Images are not my own. Copyright: Netflix, 2019

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s