TV

How Sex Education gets representation right by going all the way (almost)

When I studied GCSE and A Level Media at school, a lot of the very basic curriculum, at least back then, was about representation in film and television. It was kind of bleak. We learnt how women were typically always saved by men in romantic comedies, how POC tend to be the bad guys in action movies, and we didn’t even learn about representations of sexuality. I know that’s how mainstream media was (still is?), but we weren’t really taught how that’s changing or why it should change, or better yet how we, 16-18 year old students in the early 2010s, could change it.

Representation in indie/art house films and TV started progressing a while ago, while mainstream media is very, very slowly changing with the times. But it’s not perfect. The whitewash during the current film award season, full of mostly male and white nominees, is enough to show that it’s not moving as quickly as it should. There are special films and television shows out there though. I believe Netflix’s Sex Education is one of them. People throw the statement that a piece of media is “culturally important” around a lot, I do it all the time, but I truly believe Sex Education is one of the good ones. *Possible season 2 Sex Education spoilers below*

 

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I think Sex Education is pretty perfect in terms of representation and promoting healthier sexual health. Here are just some of the different types of representations I found while watching season 2, though I’m sure there are more:

  • Different races
  • Sexuality: heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, pansexual
  • Disabilities
  • Different body sizes
  • A lot of well-written women
  • Different types of consensual sex

By having the above it doesn’t mean Sex Education is 100% there. I don’t recall there being any trans or non-binary representation so far, which is a shame. Neither does it show different disabilities, just one young man in a wheelchair.

The representations that do feature are given a lot of depth and time which a lot of the biggest, most popular television shows don’t even touch upon.

Take Eric for example. A black, openly gay, teenage boy who is unapologetically himself. In both seasons he learns valuable life lessons, which is another reason why Sex Education is so good – all of the characters have flaws too. I won’t get into why I’m unhappy with how Eric’s storyline ends in season 2, because I’ll start an angry rant, but just know other than his ending I think he’s one of the best characters.

Let’s also look at Ola this season too. Firstly, she becomes a main character which is always good to see more central female leads. She also discovers she pansexual. The scene she realises is a nice moment. Ola does an online quiz to find her sexuality and everything clicks into place once she recognises the word for the way she feels is pansexual. Nothing changes, it just makes sense.

A new character I adored in season two of Sex Education was Viv. I love a smart girl, specifically smart girls who are unashamedly smart. Ones who go out of their way to learn more and brag about it, because they should. Viv is on the quiz team, knows Shakespeare and maths, will likely get into Oxbridge and doesn’t care who knows it. Viv is black and not skinny, neither or which are part of her storyline and rightly so, but it’s another type of representation that I feel is important. More smart black girls in my media please!

In Viv’s storyline, she asks popular jock Jackson to help woo her crush on the quiz team, while offering to tutor Jackson in return. It’s an unoriginal setup: popular guy and nerdy girl, but it feels fresh. Viv goes against Jackson’s wishes to tell his parents (a lesbian couple) that he’s self-harming. Some would disagree with her going to his parents, but as Viv stats people who self-harm are more likely to commit suicide. She’s not afraid if she loses a friend by telling Jackson’s parents, because Viv knows what the right thing to do is and has a good heart.

I thought Chinenye Ezeudu who plays her was fab. I really hope we see more of her in either another season of Sex Education or more TV.

Lily too, played by Tanya Reynolds who is pictured here with Ezeudu as Viv, returns in season 2 and is better than before. She’s meant to be the stereotypical ‘weird’ girl; into comics, cosplay, isn’t fussed about having lots of friends, etcetera, etcetera. But Sex Education shows that Lily isn’t weird for being different. It’s weirder to be ‘normal’, because there’s no such thing as normal anyway.

 

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Season 2 of Sex Education is getting a lot of praise for its depiction of an asexual character. Asexuality (defined as: the quality or characteristic of having no sexual feelings or desires) is rarely ever seen in film or TV. I can’t even think of a TV show with an asexual character before.

Student actress Florence is cast as the lead in the school production of Romeo and Juliet: The Musical as leading lady Juliet, but her friends criticise her acting because it doesn’t look like she wants to have sex with Romeo (played by Jackson). She goes to Jean for sex advice, declaring that she must be broken for not having any sexual feelings for people and is met with the best moment from the series:

Sexuality is fluid. Sex doesn’t make us whole. And so, how could you ever be broken?
– Dr Jean F. Milburn

It’s an emotional scene, but one that I hope helps a lot of people watching.

These characters are only a few of the exceptional examples of representation Sex Education gets right. What I want to commend the most is how the show does it.

Having a gay character is something a lot of TV shows can do, but to write them authentically and feel natural to the story is only achieved by a few. The diversity in Sex Education feels realistic. While there are a lot of characters to give screen time to, no small story feels cheap. Take Miss Sands (played by Rakhee Thakrar), one of the teachers at Moordale High. I wouldn’t describe her as a main character, given that she doesn’t appear in every episode, yet each time she’s featured Emily Sands feels real. Being a teacher, she says she never feels ‘sexy’ so wants her sexual partner Mr Hendrix to talk dirty to her. He doesn’t understand it at first, but once he learns why she likes it they manage to continue enjoying sex by doing what each other like. Even when she’s not seen having sex like talking to her Quiz Heads team, Miss Sands is smart, confident, and a joy to watch.

The best part of the diversity in Sex Education though is what it means for audiences.

There are young people out there watching this television show (in a widely accessible, international format: Netflix!) and feeling seen through these representations. They could be confused about their sexuality or fully engaged with what their sexuality is, either way it will feel reassuring to see how they feel depicted on screen. Seeing characters who are POC with storylines that have nothing to do with the colour of their skin, hopefully feels refreshing and comforting to young people too.

For all these reasons above, I feel Sex Education is worthy of the praise it’s getting. I hope people feel represented through the characters and stories told.

 

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