Photo: ‘Sex Education’
On September 17th, Netflix’s hit series ‘Sex Education’ returned for its third season. If you haven’t already watched season one and two, do yourself a favor and go watch them and stop reading this. There will be no major spoilers for season three ahead, but I really need to talk about how great this show is. The Guardian agrees with me, saying, “Sex Education is a defiantly hopeful show, one that insists that the young people who are struggling to navigate their hormones and an often unjust world are fully capable of true emotional growth.”
Season two left off with several unfinished storylines, including the longstanding romantic tension between Otis and Maeve. Otis goes to Maeve’s home to tell her that he recipercates her feelings and loves her back, then leaves a voicemail for her declaring this. Isaac deletes the message before Maeve ever hears it. She is also struggling with her mother’s relapse and reports her to social services in order to protect her baby sister Elsie. Mr. Groff is on leave as school administrator after the school put on an alien-themed sexually charged musical adaptation of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ with Jackson as the star.
‘Sex Education’ – The Importance Of Representing Teenagers
In recent years, the importance of seeing diverse representation on screen has been stressed. Different communities have spoken up, celebrating characters that reflect aspects of themselves that aren’t often featured. And while there are plenty of shows that portray teen problems, there are few that delve as deeply into the intimate lives of high schoolers as ‘Sex Education’. The writing provides complex characters with rich personal history, and each person is given an opportunity to be more fully developed. According to Collider, “Sex Education’ has never shied away from destigmatizing sexual topics that are typically deemed shameful or taboo. The British dramedy series has been praised for its celebration of sex and sexual identity in all forms, particularly in how it has explored sensitive storylines about sex that are often underrepresented in media.”
The storylines are nuanced portrayals of discovering personal identity, showing key aspects to understanding one’s sexuality, gender, and relationships with friends and family. The characters remain relatable, facing problems that every teen has dealt with, while still hitting on key components of individual experience that ring true for specific audience members. ‘Sex Education’ is a great example of intersectional representations of young people and what a high school could look like if we talked more openly and honestly with one another.
Sexuality And Gender Identity
As the name suggests, the show does focus a lot on the sexuality of young people, a topic that has in the past been too taboo to talk about. The show is a combination of information in the form of therapy from a 16-year-old Otis, and entertainment in the classic teen-comedy sense. The show’s sheer amount of representation of the LGBTQIA+ community is something that has never been done before, or with as much care, as this one. According to Collider, “The Netflix hit is clearly not afraid to dive headfirst into conversations that are typically swept under the rug due to embarrassment, ignorance, or a combination of the two.” In season three, I found the newly introduced character Cal Bowman to be particularly impactful.
Cal is a transfer from Minneapolis who uses they/them pronouns and identifies as non-binary. Over the course of the season, they blossom into an engine for the plot and are shown with complexity and grace. The Guardian calls Dua Saleh’s debut “one of the most assured debuts I’ve ever seen”. Cal struggles with the uniforms put in place by the new headmistress, and is scolded for not wearing the “appropriate” attire. According to Newsweek, “This, in turn, becomes problematic for the school’s non-binary students, who are not only forced to conform to the gendered dress code, but are also made to choose between the line for “boys” and the one for “girls,” and are taught about reproductive health in a very gendered way, that discounts their identity.”
The most poignant scene in the series in my opinion was not a major plot point. It is a moment between Layla, another non-binary student who has complied with the new rules, asking Cal for help with their binder. Cal, despite previously showing annoyance with Layla, helps them and gives them their own chest binder, a safer version of the Ace bandages Layla was using before. Chest binding is a practice done to flatten one’s chest and create a more masculine or gender non-conforming appearance. When done correctly, it can help alleviate the discomfort of gender dysphoria.
However, when done incorrectly there are many health risks, which is causing physical pain to Layla, and which Cal recalls almost broke one of their ribs. According to Insider, adolescent pediatrician Ellen Selkie, who specializes in LGBTQ+ youth at Michigan Medicine, said, “When done incorrectly, you may risk-averse health effects like obstructed breathing and cutting off circulation to your extremities.” I have never seen chest binding, or really any other problems associated with gender identity, discussed as frankly as on this show.
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Treating Sexual Assault With Tenderness
The show explores sexuality, especially in teenagers who are at a very formative time in their lives. According to Collider, “In light of recent shows that explore the dangerous or scary side of sex, ‘Sex Education’ and its atmosphere of sex-positivity is a welcome reprieve. It teaches the importance of knowledge, honesty, and consent, and it also teaches about pleasure, about not feeling shame for who or what you like.” The show stresses that sex is a natural part of life, and what you like or don’t like is entirely an individual education. What’s important is sharing with your partner(s) and having open communication. But the show is about much more than that, it’s about relationships; those we have with our friends, with romantic partners, with family, and with ourselves. The show is about navigating those relationships and the trouble that can come with them, alongside the good. Body positivity is an important theme in the show, as Otis says in season one, “Everyone has bodies, right? It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
On the other hand, the show does not shy away from the negatives of sex or sexual encounters. In season two, Aimee experiences a sexual assault. It is incredibly traumatic for the show’s sunniest character and in season three she is still dealing with the repercussions of the assault, which is having effects on her relationships with her boyfriend as well as her own body. Laurie Nunn, the creator of the show said to NPR, “It was important to me that that storyline didn’t just drop away because – anyone that’s experienced sexual trauma, you’re going to carry that with you throughout your life. And it’s about finding ways to kind of grow from that experience and cope with that experience and live with that experience.
And that’s what I wanted to explore.” Over the eight episodes, Aimee goes on a journey to reclaim her body as her own. She even makes “vagina cupcakes” as a way to celebrate each body’s uniqueness. It’s not easy for her though, and her story is something that many audience members can relate to. Nunn based Aimee’s journey off of her own traumatic experience. Nunn said, “Series two, I went into the writers’ room and spoke to the writers that I was working with on that series and said this is something that had to happened to me a few years before, and I sort of felt that I wanted to explore it in a cathartic way. And through that conversation, it quickly became very clear that every single woman in that room had had an experience that was similar.”
Aimee’s journey to healing is aided by Jean, Otis’s mother the sex therapist, support from her best friend Maeve, and reassurance from her boyfriend. The show’s examples of both positive and negative sexual experiences are important, and Aimee especially makes as a great representation for survivors of sexual assault. Aimee Lou Wood, the actress who plays Aimee in the show, told E!, ”There are things that happen to us in our lives that just stay with us forever, and they change us, and it’s really emotional playing someone who is going through such tectonic shifts within herself.” The combination of the two women forging this storyline and treating it with tenderness and care created something that was extremely powerful.
Teenage Experience Shaped By Multitudes Of Things
‘Sex Education’ does not only focus on sex, but rather the totality of being young and the experience of growing into yourself. Its characters each have their own individual struggles and it affects the way they think and act with the world around them. Sexuality is for sure one aspect of this, but there is also a commentary on children who are supporting themselves or their families, students who are below the poverty line, different family structures, and mental illness.
The Guardian writes, “The series covers a lot of ground – as well as the emotional and hormonal journeys we also see how disability and poverty hamper people’s ability to use their talents and intelligence to the full, the importance of heritage and racial identity and the difficulties of navigating so many streams as they cross, and much more.” The intersectionality of these characters is especially what makes this show so incredible, they are more than what meets the eye and their struggles are both unique and universally understood. There is joy and humor and love mixed with the pain of becoming an adult, and the product is something worth watching.
By Kylie Bolter
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