Sex Education Review: A satisfying release from stereotypes
Sex Education follows the experience of Otis, and his friends Eric and Maeve after he begins offering sex and relationships therapy in his school. Oh and both his parents are sex and relationship therapists.
There are many ways this could’ve gone horribly wrong. There are ways it did go wrong! Trying to realistically create the atmosphere of a British school, within the format and dress sense of an American High school was a weird choice, to say the least. It’s been said to be an ode to John Hughes, writer of iconic 80’s teen films The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles. However, as the show marketed itself under the guise “if you love Skins” and “Misfits”, not keeping the theme wholly British was a big misstep. Considering how the Inbetweeners’ US adaptation failed miserably with audiences and critics, despite being an almost exact remake of the beloved British show, really emphasises the stark differences between American and British schooling.
More than this, a plotline involving Eric engaging in a sexual act with Adam after Adam had been his bully throughout the entire season was uncomfortable, to say the least. Though I did find myself rooting for them and “aww-ing” at my TV, I also felt a deep worry for the perpetuation of the age-old lie that guys are only mean to you because they like you. I was already cautious of the dynamics of having a white bully vs a black ‘victim,’ and Eric having feelings for Adam after how badly he treated him, eerily showcases the issue writers seem to be having with balancing their white supremacy complexes. Being in love with your oppressor is not cool, nor is it great television. We’ve seen it done more than enough, and if the uproar surrounding Siempre Bruja (Always a Witch) isn’t enough to show you black audiences are tired of it, then I despair for the future of “ethnic” represented television.
This aside, the diversity showcased in the casting was almost as varied as a London train. From a minority perspective, the constant flow of Asian characters, black characters and hijabi’s was refreshing. This coupled with, the inclusion and natural reference to LGBT couples and parents, all contributed to the type of normalcy TV needs to create to rid future generations of discriminatory social conventions.
For myself, I was very impressed in the contrast between the representation of two dark-skinned black LGBT characters: Eric and Jackson’s Mum. Jackson’s mum was shown as married to Jackson’s other mum with no reference to their sexuality - which is an amazing way to show how normal it is. There was something really sweet looking back at how Jackson casually says “my mums”, with no comments about that. I imagine, just as how I was excited to see ethnic representation, there is a kid somewhere enjoying their day a little bit more because Sex Education made their family seem more normal than society sometimes allows. This was a subtle but great addition, and I hope they give Jackson’s mum more screen time next season, so we can perhaps explore the dynamics of being a lesbian black mother, which I haven’t really seen before. Eric was different, and especially having him as a second generation African, meant the show really subverted the expectations of the “sidekick”. I knew I would love him, after he said “AH-AH” in the first five minutes of being on screen, a little shout-out to all the second generation Africans who’ve naturally adopted native lingo. More than this, allowing him to find acceptance and peace within himself after an awful homophobic attack, within the church was also a positive and modern image. The fact his father wasn’t portrayed as having an issue with Eric’s flamboyant, camp behaviour was also key to showing the variety of ways the black experience is not universal, and also not always unprogressive.
Regarding Otis, there are many ways the awkward, pale white boy with dark hair could've been an uninteresting cliché but the stereotype was subverted successfully. The fact that he can’t masturbate, or at the beginning even fakes it because he doesn’t want to, could be the story of many guys, but society over-normalises the hyper-sexual teen narrative. Moreover, when Otis gives his advice, God bless the writers for recognising Google! In procedural series like these, writers often use a clichè troupe, I’ve named “Eureka.” In this context, it would mean whenever Otis had an issue with a client from school, someone would say something in passing, or perhaps his mum would reference a client from work, and “Eureka!” that’s the exact solution Otis needed to find. Instead, the writer’s let Otis read. Sex Education shows Otis researching sex and relationships, and it seems small, but I can’t think of the last time I watched someone research and only find their answer there, without the urge for cinematic dramatics taking over. The autonomy in this, is also a nod to the audience, that if you’re having problems, you can also try google (which did I mention, is free) but also that you should talk to someone about your relationship even if you’re just 16. Overall, it’s fostering a narrative that the key to sex and relationships is probably just communicating that there is a problem and looking for the solution.
To sum: it’s clear I’m a fan, and you’ll have to watch it to fully understand why, but I’m sure you won’t be left without satisfaction.
[Photo credits: SS Young, CC BY 3.0.]