Aoife Daly reviews the Netflix series Sex Education, one to binge-watch during this Easter.
Sex Education, set somewhere in a foggy in-between of an American high school and British secondary school, follows the story of Otis (Asa Butterfield), an awkward, gangly school reject. The show’s premise stems from Otis’ astute insight into sexual dysfunctions, learned from his open-minded yet socially oblivious mother, Jean, a relationship therapist (Gillian Anderson). Otis’ wisdom is put to use with the help of an unlikely business partner, misfit loner Maeve (Emma Mackey), as the pair set up a sex educative therapy for fellow sixth form students. What results is an eruption of students vocalising sex-related concerns which range from more problem-solution based queries, such as treating vaginismus, to queries that more bluntly seek a reassuring answer to each question’s subtext of “am I normal?” (to which the answer is invariably “yes”).
The writing, direction and acting of the show ensures that the discussions about sex feel candid, omitting shame or embarrassment. Sexual experiences that might seem abnormal to real-life teenagers are normalised – transformed from individual problems to deviations of a tricky stage in sexual development that is experienced by nearly everyone. The show’s production team took particular steps to achieve this, and in doing so set the bar for a standard of care for that should be incorporated into any T.V. or film production that produces sex-related content, especially when involving young people. At a pre-production level, this included the involvement of a sex educator in the (nearly entirely female) writing room, who was hired solely to check writing was both sex and body positive. In terms of the show’s direction, an intimacy director was hired to create a safe workplace environment for actors and ensure sex scenes were authentic. In the same way that actors are often trained for carefully controlled fight scenes, the Sex Education actors underwent training to detach themselves from each scene and curate carefully staged performances. The resultant sex scenes are thus more realistic and less titillating than what is often produced by day-to-day directors, which tend to be male-gaze driven and based on imagination rather than diversified experience.
The frank delivery of sexual references in Sex Education sharply contrasts its surreal, phantasmagoric setting. Though filmed in Wales, the vividly colourful valley exceeds realistic expectations of what one would hope to find holidaying around Britain. The seemingly endless summer acts as a backdrop to the even more disorientating costume and set design choices. The aesthetic appearance of Moordale High School draws largely from 80s high-school movies, with letterman jackets and vintage prom dresses creating visuals more Pretty in Pink than Waterloo Road. The characters themselves are products of this delirious space-time compression, forming Americanised character tropes including the jock, the bully, and The Untouchables; the UK’s answer to The Plastics. Show creator Laurie Nunn states one of the desired effects of this was to highlight the universality of teenage sexual angst, irrespective of time or place. In actuality, the final result is a dream-like setting that seems so far detached from any particular time or place that it’s relatable to no one but is exciting to watch nonetheless.
Aside from championing sex and body positivity, the show deserves recognition for its depiction of platonic relationships. Throughout the series, Maeve and Aimee’s (Aimee Lou Wood) friendship goes from strength to strength, and their love for one another is nurturing and supportive. However, it is the show’s depiction of male friendship that stands as one of its sweetest achievements. Otis and Eric’s (Ncuti Gatwa) relationship is loving, sensitive and vulnerable. This friendship is epitomised in a scene set at the school prom, as their slow dance sequence physically expresses the gentle, loving nature of their platonic intimacy. If I were to attempt to place this scene at my own school prom, I struggle to imagine a scenario in which the boys aren’t to some degree stifled by a fear of platonic male intimacy, and afraid of falling victim to homophobic slurs. In an attempt to avoid this, the physical intimacy of the situation would likely be made a joke of, rather than embracing its potential tenderness, as is exhibited in Otis and Eric’s dance. This friendship represents an example of what needs to be seen more on-screen; male friendships that support the emotional capacities of male characters and relationships, and that are further supported and normalised by other characters, rather than questioned or berated.
If there is a relationship that is somewhat disappointing, it is that between Otis and Maeve. The season-long development of Maeve’s feelings for Otis is uplifting, as both characters are likeable, and therefore, as nigh on every on-screen story goes, are ‘destined’ to be together. What this storyline mimics, however, is the oversold heteronormative tale of the relatively plain ‘nice-guy’ male lead winning the interest of whoever he sets his eyes upon, irrespective of how complex said character may be. As kind and thoughtful as Otis is, his character seems to end there. Excluding an occasional witty remark, he fails to exist much beyond his emotional literacy and peculiar sympathy to sexual predicaments. Maeve, on the other hand, exists in infinite versions of herself; she is intelligent, emotionally literate, both kind and firm, hard and warm; she has had a difficult upbringing that has delivered her myriad obstacles she has seemingly overcome alone. Otis’ awkward persona is endearing and sweet, though in the social context of heteronormative storylines so often pairing a relatively run-of-the-mill, ‘likeable’ male lead with women who have to jump through series of hoops, it seems tripe to centre the season around the pivotal action of the can-do-it-all female lead falling for the fairly-nice male lead. It feeds into two interrelated narratives; that the ‘nice guy’ should and inevitably will get whatever he wants based on the feat of him being ‘nice’, and that women have to meet far more extensive criteria than men do in order to be ‘marketable’ to men.
On the whole, Sex Education is a feminist success that acts as a means to educate young people and encourage open discussion on sex. The precedent of the quality of characterisations and relationships have been set for season two. It will be interesting to see the directions next season takes for each character; for Maeve and Otis’ relationship, where character complexities are unequal, for Eric and Adam’s relationship, which has been left on a cliffhanger, and for Aimee’s personal growth, which has been as comical as it has been empowering.
Illustration by Domi Rybova.