Let’s Talk About “Sex Education” on Netflix
The show’s second season is now streaming, and it’s ready to have even deeper conversations.
I am not an obsessive person, but anyone who has any insight at all into my Netflix queue will tell you that I am incapable of shutting up about Sex Education.
It is not, by any means, the sort of television my partner would normally select for himself, but after binging the first season within the space of two days when it premiered last year, I sat him down and made sure his eyes were glued to the screen.
His response was, after all of half an episode, and I quote: “Damn it, now I’m invested.”
And you know what? Good.
He should be.
All of us should be.
When season two’s episodes popped up this month, there the two of us sat: on the couch, Trader Joe’s cookies in hand, awaiting the exploits of a handful of delightfully fascinating British teenagers.
Allow me to explain.
The Trouble with the Trope
After what feels like eons of romantic comedy tropes and horrifyingly dangerous stereotypes about teenage behavior, I’m pretty done pretending there is any cause at all to justify inaccuracy for the sake of entertainment.
No, you should absolutely not feel pressured to date a person who makes a grand gesture for you.
No, you do not need to have any amount of sexual experience in order to count as a fully fledged teenage human.
Yes, you should definitely report that creep on the bus who behaved inappropriately.
And yes, of course your school’s sexual health curriculum is failing you. That is not even a question.
We can go on thinking that the shows and films of yesteryear and their tired, antiquated, jokester tropes are “cute” and “funny” and “quirky”, but in the same breath, we must also remind ourselves and each other that they are, in many cases, dangerous. There are a few choice scenes from Sixteen Candles I want to forever erase from the minds of us all, not the least of which is the allusion to (yes, folks) date rape.
It’s not cute. It’s not funny. It was harmful then and it’s harmful now.
And this is what I like about Sex Education.
Sex Education has learned.
It sees those harmful scenes, and it twists them. It spins itself on the head of every so-called “classic” and gives you something not only more nuanced and more healthy… but more real.
It sees your painfully awkward nerdy kid, and serves up a sex therapist’s son with exceptional taste in music and excellent emotional communication skills.
It sees your “outsider” exchange student who is not-so-secretly cooler than the lifelong townies, and offers you a veritable crowd of first generation British children of immigrant families (Nigerian and Indian and Iranian and Swedish!).
It sees your blonde, football playing, would-be Romeo, high school heart throb jock, and raises you an all star swimmer head boy of color with two lesbian Mums, panic attacks requiring regular anxiety meds, and an earnest and persisting crush on the trailer park punk he’s not afraid to go against his popular friends to pursue publicly (take that, Pretty in Pink).
I can keep going.
The “untouchable” posh crowd has the pettiest and cattiest of interfriendship drama (accurate).
The young black man dressed in drag for a night out gets attacked by a gang of jerks (heartbreakingly, painfully, horribly accurate).
The kids acting like the biggest idiots at every possible turn are the most privileged (do I even need to say it?).
The quiet, swing band weirdo is an alien fantasy fetishist (HA!).
What’s better, you may even actively notice such played out archetypes and await what you have been conditioned to expect. You may think, “oh, hold on, I know this one — this is the one where they… oh… oh, maybe… maybe not.”
Because Sex Education is ready to talk about the fact that it’s just plain wrong to continue stalking someone after they’ve told you “no”. It’s not okay to profess your feelings in front of the whole school in an effort to emotionally manipulate someone.
There are two (yes, two!) big grand gestures in season one, the first between a couple that actually likes each other and the second between perfect strangers. You can snort into your popcorn all you like over the impromptu cafeteria concert, and then you can cheer your little heart out a few episodes later when the girl being supposedly “wooed” by a persistent little weasel says a clear and resilient “no”!
Sex Education takes great pride in exploring and unpacking every piece of these scenes, unlike the many dozens of teen dramas and rom-coms that came before it, most of which only poked fun at such things.
Self harm is a big deal. Financial instability is a big deal. Slut shaming is a big deal. These are things that everyday high school students encounter all the time. They shouldn’t be laughed at, and they shouldn’t be blithely ignored.
Yes, of course it’s mortifying that so-and-so mass texted a private nude photo to the entire school— how about we get to the root of why that gets so sensationalized while also dropping in a few hints of “you’re going to jail” severity and “we all have private parts” solidarity, hmm?
And it sees both sides.
I may be at the most optimal time in my life to fully embrace a show like this.
I have been out of high school for over a decade, and my daughter is ten years from being seventeen. I am smack in the middle of remembering what it’s like for the teenage characters on the program and anticipating what their parents are going through raising them.
And holy tomatoes, sometimes that is just downright painful.
A perfect example, sans spoilers:
“You think that I’m part of you!” says upset teenager.
“You are… part of me,” says confused parent.
“No, I’m not.”
Ouch. Right in the gut.
I remember that. I know that feeling so well. The young desperation to become independent, the driving force of no longer wanting to be under the full weight of family connection, the desire for liberation from the nest…
And dear God, it’s going to absolutely kill me the day I realize that my daughter feels that, too.
“You are so different,” says the concerned parent of a flamboyant son. “It makes me scared for you.”
“Your fear doesn’t help me. It makes me feel weak.”
We need a new script. We need to hear more open and active conversations about how and why teen experiences are, yes, different from what generations past remember, but still valid. We need to see better, smarter, healthier examples of what life is like for kids everywhere, and we need to acknowledge that we do them all a grave disservice by pretending it’s okay to laugh at their struggles and play into outdated (read: harmful) expectations.
No, of course these experiences won’t all be perfectly reflected in Sex Education’s Moordale High (sad to say, but U.S. kids vape a lot more than these characters), but they are far more accurate, diverse, and worthwhile reflections than we’ve been given in decades gone by.
Fun fact: teenagers are not always colossal morons.
Trailer punk? Supports herself alone with zero aid from her estranged family. She’s arguably the smartest kid in school — with a mental lexicon from the likes of Sartre to Woolf, Austen to Eliot, and Bronte to Plath — and she’s selling grade-A papers to classmates. Not exactly ethical, no, but enterprising, lucrative, and keeps her from losing her home.
Emotionally stunted school bully? Sure, he smashes things to relieve the stress of a crappy home life and a cold father figure, but he doesn’t take a cricket bat to a rogue teapot in the train yard without first donning eye protection!!
And yes, there is a school dance involving contraband alcohol, but as soon as it goes a touch far, these are kids who know how to look out for each other.
“I don’t feel so good.”
“You gonna be sick?”
“Okay. Come on.”
And drunk kid is calmly escorted down the hallway by his date! There is no “how dare you be so stupid” or “you’re on your own, loser” garbage.
And there shouldn’t be.
Because accusatory and dismissive language like that only serves to prove to high school kids everywhere just how out of touch Hollywood can be with their needs.
We need shows like Sex Education to display that not only has the entertainment industry listened, it’s trying to do better. It’s working to provide better examples and maybe, just maybe, encourage us do better ourselves.
It might also teach us a thing or two about STIs while it’s at it.