Netflix’s “Sex Education” is a progressive coming of age story

Graphic by Kinsey Ratzman ’21

Graphic by Kinsey Ratzman ’21

BY CHLOE JENSEN ’20

Who among us does not enjoy a good binge-worthy Netflix show to soothe post-finals stress? I know I certainly do. After re-watching several episodes of “Gilmore Girls” and “Stranger Things” over winter break, I found myself craving a new, exciting, bingeworthy show. On Jan. 11, Netflix released its original series “Sex Education,” a funny, heartwarming and honest British show.

“Sex Education” revolves around teenager Otis who, after watching his sex therapist mother improve people’s lives, decides to open up an informal sex therapy clinic of his own within his high school. Otis advises his peers to develop a more positive relationship with their bodies and question their sexist assumptions about sex, and in the process, learns more about sex and his own relationship to it.

“Sex Education” is unlike any coming-of-age narrative I’ve ever seen. Most stories of this genre involve the same arc: a “popular” boy meets a “quirky” or “funky” girl. Throughout the story, the boy “chases” the girl, but in the end, she eventually reciprocates his affection. The two supposedly learn about rejecting social norms while still conforming to typical gender and societal expectations. Although such stories are cute and heartwarming, they rarely offer anything new from which teens can learn and grow. But “Sex Education” is completely different from its predecessors: the series unpacks and confronts subjects like female desire, rape culture and sexuality and desirability, turning the typical “boy chases girl” narrative upside down.

Representation in “Sex Education” is meaningful and genuine. Creator Laurie Nunn devotes significant screen time to Eric, Otis’ best friend. Although Eric is a young, gay black man, he never serves as a punchReview: Netflix’s “Sex Education” is a progressive coming of age story line or a caricature, nor does he exist solely to fulfill a diversity requirement — his character is full of personality, well-developed and complex. Fearing that it will make him stand out even more than he already does as the child of immigrants, Eric begins to hide his feminine side in one of the show’s later episodes. However, when he sees another black man driving a car with painted nails and a colorful shirt, he is immediately inspired to spice up his wardrobe, picking bright colors and makeup palettes that make him feel like himself. In this way, Eric is not a made up, twodimensional character who exists inside a traditional gay narrative. Rather, his confidence ebbs and flows, much like it does for many gay teenagers.

I desperately wish that my peers and I had a character like Eric to look up to when we were growing up: a complex and thoughtful human being who made mistakes. Instead, many gay adolescents were left with Santana and Kurt, Ryan Murphy’s shallow and stereotyped characters in “Glee.”

“Sex Education” exemplifies representation in every sense: it not only features diverse characters, but it projects, uplifts and emphasizes diverse voices and stories. This is not only true of Eric and the way he explores his femininity and gayness, but also of the show’s female characters. I was struck by the progressive discussion of gender and misogyny in “Sex Education.” In my viewing of mostly mainstream movies and shows aimed at teenagers, I had never seen a storyline where a character considered having an abortion and actually decided to go through with the procedure before “Sex Education.” In the United States alone, nearly one in four women decide to have an abortion in their lifetime, according to the Guttmacher Institute. And yet, women are met with very few, if any, positive and honest representations of abortion. Maeve’s decision to undergo an abortion in “Sex Education,” however, was rooted in neutrality and positivity towards the subject — its depiction never shamed her for making this decision.

The show’s inclusion of female masturbation is equally groundbreaking. Although I’ve seen so many representations of young men experiencing a sexual awakening with a box of tissues and a bottle of lotion, I have never so much as heard a reference to a woman pleasuring herself in any show. According to the 2009 National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior from Indiana University, women masturbate much less frequently than men. Many believe that this is at least in part due to the stigma associated with female masturbation, and with what little frequency it is discussed in media or popular culture. Whereas most American movies focus on a man’s advances, without depicting the woman’s libido, “Sex Education” inverts this narrative, portraying several female characters explicitly talking about sexual desire. This is exactly the show that all young teenagers, regardless of gender, need to see as they learn to navigate their relationships with sex.

“Sex Education” teaches the lessons that I could have benefited from as a teenager. The confidence that each character exhibits, comfortable expressions of female sexual desire, representation and meaningful discussions of issues that teens frequently confront leaves viewers feeling fulfilled and entertained. So please, lend yourself eight hours to watch this show — you owe your 16-year-old self a meaningful coming-of-age narrative even in your college years.

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