Sex please, we're British
Sex Education, Netflix’s first hit new show of 2019, made waves in more ways than one.
For those yet to see it, it revolves around Otis (played by Asa Butterfield) and his sex therapist mother Jean (Gillian Anderson). When the kids at school discover Otis’ mum’s unusual career, he, despite being a virgin and masturbation evader, stumbles into the position of the school’s unofficial sex therapist, coaching his classmates to overcome their sexual insecurities, all in order to win over the girl of his dreams and hopefully realise his own sexual ambitions.
It’s a formula that obviously works: Sex Education is one of the first shows for which Netflix has released viewing figures, revealing that 40 million households were on track to have viewed the series within the first four weeks following its release. An impressive feat.
But don’t be fooled; this isn’t just another stereotypical coming-of-age drama. Sex Education recognises the impact that John Hughes’ films had on the pre-millennial generation – to which the lockers, Letterman jackets and 80s vintage stylings pay homage - and updates it for today’s socially-conscious Gen Z teens. The show’s popularity speaks to a larger cultural need for ‘stuff’ to expose the complex systems of oppression and class domination we experience today; it’s a modern take on sexuality and representation of intersectional, queer identities that are a truer reflection of the varied teen experience of discovering and exploring their sexuality.
Through the guise of sex education, the show educates us on intersectionality in an accessible way. Says Kimberlé Crenshaw, a pioneer in critical race theory: it’s a “metaphor for understanding the ways that multiple forms of inequality or disadvantaged sometimes compound themselves and they create obstacles that often are not understood in conventional ways of thinking.” We’re encouraged as viewers to think about identity and how the convergence of stereotypes around gender, race, class and sexuality play out in the classrooms and homes between teachers and students, students and their families.
Take Eric, Otis’ best friend, who is black, gay and comes from a religious family; the show doesn’t shy away from exploring the complexities of Eric’s intersectional identities, reflecting his experience in an authentic way but also celebrating him and his friendship with Otis; it’s a nuanced portrayal that never fetishises or ‘others’ him gratuitously.
At a time when true crime and reality TV are taking over our screens, what’s not to be loved about a show that allows us to escape into a world of warped reality, where the school, its characters, and the various anachronistic references exist almost outside of space and time altogether, inhabiting a place where those typically ‘othered’ by conservative attitudes towards sex are free to explore their bodies and express their sexuality – and we’re free to join in.
Sex Education takes a positive step in helping to normalise screen representations of these oft-ignored identities, and in doing so, truly is providing its viewers with an education on these important issues.
Max Durston and David Hopkins, Flamingo