Sex Education is the Show We Need in the #MeToo Era
The new Netflix show Sex Education might seem like just another teenage dramedy. It has a John-Hughes-inspired soundtrack, features an awkward teenage virgin boy protagonist, and a wardrobe with an 80s nod, which the show’s warm lighting casts in a vintage-y, golden hue. However, Sex Education is modern through and through because of the themes it tackles. Asa Butterfield plays Otis, a teenager whose mother Jean (Gillian Anderson) is a sex therapist. After helping out one of his peers in a crisis using the knowledge he picked up at home, he starts a “sex clinic” to help other kids at his school. Otis undertakes this together with Maeve, a cynical, punk-loving feminist and his eventual love interest. While Otis has to find his feet a little at the beginning, he turns out to have a real talent for helping people. In a recent interview, creator Laurie Nunn stated that the series is “pretty universal in terms of those really awkward, kind of cringeworthy conversations that you can't really have with your parents or your teachers or your peers, but it is really essential in order for you to have healthy and open relationships with other people.” This is where the strength of this show lies. The show features themes of gender, toxic masculinity, and sexuality, and does so with a light touch.
While the premise of a teenage sex educator may seem slightly outlandish, the driving force of the series is the way in which the characters learn to communicate about sex and relationships. What’s more, the person orchestrating this is a nurturing and emotionally intelligent teenage boy – a type of male character that is rare in mainstream media. The only other example of this kind of nurturing masculinity that comes to mind is Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which the Pop Culture Detective has analysed in detail. He argues that such types of characters are usually reserved for side characters rather than for leading roles. Like Newt Scamander, Otis has a talent for de-escalating conflicts. He gets a rowing couple to focus on what they like about each other, talks down a boy from a ledge and in the process teaches him about consent and boundaries, and he manages to get the school bully to talk about his feelings. In the current discussion surrounding the #metoo movement and toxic masculinity, Nunn offers young people a way into these conversations and does so without talking down to her audience.
Nunn accomplishes this by using Otis’ story to frame other characters and their conflicts. A few episodes in, Otis learns how to decenter himself in order to get people to focus on their problems rather than on him. Too often, when male characters are allowed to be sensitive, they are broody and self-centered rather than kind and empathetic. Otis listens to people’s sex problems without judgment. Presumably, because of his mother’s line of work, he’s seen it all before, which means he is unfazed by his peers’ stories despite being very inexperienced himself. He also gives them genuinely good sex and relationship advice. No doubt, this has something to with the fact that Nunn consulted actual, professional sex educator, Alix Fox. While the show is incredibly funny, it does not laugh at its characters, but with them. Yes, there are a few moments that might make its audience cringe, but the characters work through their problems by talking about them. The key here is framing and communication.
One of the scenes that shows both framing and the ways in which the characters learn to communicate about sex and relationships is a sex scene between Aimee and Steve. In this scene, Aimee acts as though she is in a porn video and is constantly asking Steve what he wants and thinks of her. Two things stand out in this scene: the first is a girl discovering her own sexual pleasure, and the second is a boy who respects his partner by paying attention to her needs. He reads her body language and concludes she is putting on a performance and asks her what she really wants. This is important in terms of consent: Steve genuinely cares about Aimee’s pleasure and comfort, so he asks her if this is what she really wants, even though they are in the middle of sex. This is in line with the idea that consent is not given once, but is something that should be re-evaluated throughout a sexual experience and can be withdrawn at any time too. In this case, Aimee has not really considered her own pleasure in sex before, and she says that no one’s ever asked her that before. The solution Otis suggests is simple: try masturbation. However, female masturbation is such a taboo topic, as Otis mentions, and it is often accompanied by shame. If it is shown at all in film or on television it is usually meant for male gratification, drawing the focus away from the woman’s own pleasure. Aimee herself also reacts with disgust at the thought of masturbating, but eventually she decides to give it a shot. The frankness with which Sex Education then shows Aimee trying out different ways of masturbation in a montage strips it of its eroticism and subsequently its shame. Then, Nunn shows Aimee clearly communicating to Steve what she has discovered, and instructing him in how to get her off. The way in which Nunn frames this entire character arc is what makes it sex-positive. There are no lingering shots of Aimee’s body, and the show focuses on the humour of the situation without having the audience laughing at Aimee or Steve.
The main theme of the show is communication in romantic and sexual relationships, but it also deals with the dynamic of the teenagers and their parents and siblings. Communication in familial relationships can be equally difficult. Otis is constantly reminding his mother of his own boundaries concerning privacy, which she unfortunately keeps crossing. Adam, the school bully, has an authoritarian father who bullies him, Eric, Otis’ best friend, is raised by a loving but apprehensive family. One of the main character arcs revolves around Eric becoming more comfortable in his queerness and gaining support from his family and community. The show starts with Eric dressed colourfully, but still more masculine than feminine. He is teased for his sexuality, but he doesn’t fight back. After having been assaulted on the way back from a party, he deals with that trauma by acting out violently towards anyone who taunts him. However, he then reaches out for the support of his parents’ church, where he is accepted with open arms. When he meets a black man who asks him for direction, wearing blue eyeshadow and nail polish, Eric finds the courage to explore his own gender expression more. Once he has accepted himself, Eric has a heart to heart with his father as he is dropped off at the school dance, with Eric dressed in full drag. Eric’s father tells him that his disapproval of Eric’s eccentric clothing style was because he himself had to try so hard to fit in as a black man in England. When Eric tells him this is who he is, his father applauds him for being so brave.
In essence, Nunn has created a sex-positive show for teenagers, which provides them with a script to talk about complex topics regarding gender, relationships and sex. Moreover, the show deals with toxic masculinity and offers alternative, more nurturing models of masculinity. Its characters are well-written, and the show gives most of its characters arcs that allow them to grow and learn. Considering the fact that new Gillette commercial about toxic masculinity and the #metoo movement is still so controversial, a show like Sex Education is exactly what we need right now. It seems like the discussion around these issues is hardening, so it is nice to be able to look at these issues in a show that wraps them up in a story arc with a satisfying conclusion, but with a lot of depth nonetheless. As such, I am curious, what can a possible next season of Sex Education have in store?
A bookworm, film lover, and general cultural omnivore. Proud owner of an MA in English Literature (Writing, Editing, and Mediating). Prone to dissecting pop culture, slightly obsessed with Laura Marling, and always ready to launch into a feminist debate.