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The Newest Season of Sex Education Is Not As Inclusive As You Might Think

SPOILERS AHEAD!

The third season of Netflix’s Sex Education was released a little over a month ago, and I had the initial reaction that the British television show is the most progressive and empowering television show I have ever watched. For those who don’t know what Sex Education is about, the first two seasons centers two high school students, Otis (Asa Butterfield) and Maeve (Emma Mackey), who start an informal, sex education service for anyone who needs advice at their high school — for a price. Whether it’s about masturbation, intimacy, consent, or self-expression, the show aims to normalize the conversationwithin young audiences about sex and how every person’s sexual experience is unique and individual. One of the key lessons is that everyone’s sexual history should never be viewed as something that is either right or wrong. 

After watching Season 3, I realized how it's extremely rare for a television show to have a season that is better than the previous one. I’m beyond impressed with the writing in the newest season of Sex Education — the chemistry and casting of the ensemble are unlike any other YA show on Netflix, and the growth of each character encourages me to continue rooting for them. I feel like I personally know the characters and that they are my best friends...I just don’t attend Moordale Secondary School with them in England. My favorite story arcs of Season 3 have to be of Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), Cal (Dua Saleh), Jean Millburn (Gillian Anderson), and Maeve’s romantic relationship with Isaac (George Robinson). 

Eric’s embrace of his Nigerian heritage is something I’ve been looking forward to seeing represented since the beginning. I think it was very mature for the writers to discuss how homosexuality is illegal in Nigeria, while still giving Eric that space to express his sexuality when he visits the motherland for his cousin’s wedding. In addition, I am really content with the amount of screen time that Otis and Eric get, meaning the dynamic between them is equal. Eric does not play a supporting role and he is not Otis’s token, gay Black friend. Their friendship is genuine, healthy, and equally beneficial. 

I felt excited with the representation of other Black characters this season. The introduction of Cal is necessary for validating non-binary and genderqueer identities, especially in spaces of academic institutions that police self-expression. I was extremely impressed with Dua Saleh’s breakthrough role as Cal and their ability to express the character’s internal and external dialogue throughout the more intimate scenes.

I would’ve liked to see more of Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling) and his exploration of his identity beyond his role as head boy and an athlete. However, I’m glad to see his friendship with Vivienne (Chinenye Ezeudu) grow and flourish. Vivienne’s short time as head girl exhibits her experiences of being tokenized for diversity and inclusion initiatives, which is the reality for many people today. Because Moordale Secondary is controlled by white administrators, the plot successfully acknowledges the intersectional experience of Black students and their experience navigating spaces that were never made for them. 

The growth of many great friendships in the show makes my heart so warm (such as the one between Maeve and Aimee), but the portrayal of many complicated relationships is refreshing. While I’m excited to (hopefully) witness the romantic relationship flourish between Otis and Maeve in Season 4, I was more thrilled to see the relationship between Maeve and Isaac. I’m not going to sugarcoat the situation and avoid mentioning that Isaac is toxic for going through Maeve’s phone at the end of Season 2, but I think the relationship between the two had a lot of potential. The intimate scenes the two have were beautifully shot and directed, and I think the actors did a wonderful job in portraying what it is like to be in a relationship with someone with a disability. 

While Sex Education centers on the experiences of students at school, it does not shy away from discussing the students’ personal lives and how the state of their living conditions impact their friendships and academic performance (as we see with Maeve and her relationship with her mother). 

Jean Millburn’s pregnancy, in comparison with the Moordale’s new headmistress’s experience with infertility, was an interesting take for the writers. I personally felt like Hope (Jemima Kirke) is criminalized for being a villainous headmistress, and somehow her punishment for it is her not being able to conceive a baby. I think it’s implied that she is a strict and microaggressive administrator because she is upset at the continuous results of failed IVF tests. However, it’s not clearly explained because she has a lot of internal dialogue that is not actively explored. One of the only times where Hope is humanized is when she has a conversation with Otis at the hospital about her history with infertility. I hope audiences get to learn more about her in the upcoming season — especially about her rocky relationship with her husband. 

Although I’ve shared the many reasons why I love the new character developments in the latest season, I think a few of the other major characters needed way more love — especially the students of color.

Asians and Arabs continue to exist as the supporting characters to white protagonists

I was so terribly disappointed, annoyed, and tired to see yet another Netflix show that fails to portray Asian and Arab characters. Does Netflix think that there’s not a single Asian or Arab who lives in the U.K.? Anwar (Chaneil Kular), Olivia (Simone Ashley), Miss Emily Sands (Rakhee Thakrar) and Rahim (Sami Outalbali) simply exist to support the main white characters since Season 1. Anwar and Olivia support Ruby (Mimi Keene) emotionally and socially in an unbalanced, power dynamic. Olivia holds Ruby’s bag at school, and Olivia and Anwar visit Ruby at Ruby’s house after her breakup with Otis. Audiences don’t know who they are as students, nor what their hobbies and interests look like. They’re simply boring characters, which is upsetting because the two British Indian actors are exceptionally talented. Simone Ashley has a pivotal role in the upcoming season of Netflix’s Bridgerton, so at least she’s getting some recognition in another space. However, she’s still going to exist in a white-dominated and controlled space in a period drama that ignores the concept and realities of race, racism, and colonization.

Also, why is Netflix so obsessed with coupling Asian women with white men? There are so many Asian women in real life who are in interracial relationships with non-white men. I think Miss Sands can do so much better than the music and choir teacher, Mr. Hendricks (Jim Howick). It’ll be so refreshing to see her possibly become the new headmistress in the upcoming season, rather than a teacher that visibly only supports white students.

Rahim’s story arc in Season 3 has to be the most disappointing of any Arab character in any Netflix series. I think that his personality is so unbelievably cool, and it’s so radical to see a gay Arab man on television. I am assuming that he is of Moroccan heritage because of his last name, so I am annoyed that his identity as a French immigrant takes center stage. In addition, the writers did embed some hinted Islamophobia in his character's background story. When Eric asks Rahim why he is not religious (Season 2), Rahim implies that his previous religion (which I’m assuming is Islam) destroyed his country and led him and his family to take refuge in France, so he doesn’t practice it anymore. 

Netflix has a repeated past with weaponizing and criminalizing Islam for sh*tty character development. One of the cringiest examples I can think of is the Muslim character named Nadia (Mina El Hammani), in the Spanish television show Elite, where she is “liberated” or “empowered” when she takes her hijab off for a white man. How can the writers think of such bad content? I know Wattpad fanfiction amateur writers who can write better.

In addition, Rahim merely exists to support Adam (Connor Swindells) and his struggling relationship with Eric (who is Rahim’s ex-boyfriend). I did not learn anything new about Rahim throughout the eight episodes, so he deserves the absolute best story arc in the upcoming season.

The erasure of Ola’s struggle as a biracial young woman

As a biracial woman myself, I understand what it’s like to not see my experiences represented because there is a constant erasure and devalidation of biracial experiences. I was honestly not surprised when Ola’s biracial identity was unexplored, and like I’ve mentioned before with the Asian and Arab characters, the representation of her tricultural, first-generation experience had so much more potential in representing so many people’s experiences.
The transition of moving into the Millburn home, and having a new baby sister is clearly difficult for her. Audiences witness a heated conversation between Ola and Jean with the assumption that Ola does not want Jean to take on the role of becoming her new mother. I agree with this, but I think it’s deeper than simply because Jean is Jackob’s new partner. Ola now will have a white stepmother figure, which is completely different from her experience growing up with a Black mother. While her father Jakob (Mikael Persbrandt) validates her struggles in adjusting to the new family, I would like to learn more about how Ola feels to be a part of a new family as the only biracial, Black and queer woman.

Is being non-binary an American thing? 

While the representation of Cal is truly radical, I could not help but notice why they have to be American. Why couldn’t the writers create a non-binary British character? I do think that the intercontinental representation is rare, so Cal’s narrative is normalizing the realities of many people. However, the reasons behind Cal and their family’s move from Minneapolis, U.S. to the U.K., are not discussed enough. Are their parents part of the military or starting at a new job? This unanswered question doesn’t help with building Cal’s new role in the show. Are the writers implying that identifying as non-binary and genderqueer is an American thing? There’s this stereotype placed on Americans by Europeans (and white Americans, of course) that people of color, queer, and trans people are “obsessed” with talking about race, gender, sexuality, and the intersectionalities of the human experience. Many of these so-called “too woke for labels” Europeans fail to understand that identifying these intersecting identities helps us navigate the systematic issues that exist in the U.S., which extends to Europe as well. There is a non-binary British student in the show who befriends Cal, but they have an extremely minor role which was disappointing to watch.

The oversexualization of teenagers

Though Sex Education is aiming to destigmatize the many forms of sexual expression, I feel like it’s simply weird that we’ve normalized watching stories about underage characters engage in sex — even if the actors are 10+ years older in real life than the character they’re playing. This is, however, a complicated discussion because how can we normalize the discussion of sex on a large scale if we don’t normalize it in the media?

In television shows like Euphoria, Riverdale, Gossip Girl, The Vampire Diaries (or any CW show for that matter), actors of legal age act in a number of sexual scenes throughout the duration of the show. 

Teen Vogue contributing writer, Gianluca Russo, writes about how writers on Riverdale have repeatedly written in sex scenes for the sole reason of making the show interesting — even if it has nothing to do with the plot. A question I’ve been asking myself recently is what kind of factors or conditions make an empowering sex scene? Are they really necessary in making a story interesting? Read more about why the representation of teenagers having sex can be problematic in her article here.

Even though the issues I’ve mentioned are pretty crucial, I will still celebrate the fact that the show discusses issues within academic institutions that limit the self expression of young people. The censorship and surveillance of students is a collective reality, so the decision of ending the newest season with the students of Moordale successfully taking back control of their school is empowering and presents a hopeful message.

Rehana is a Japanese-Libyan writer and digital storyteller from the Inland Empire, CA. She is pursuing double degrees in Film & Media and Ethnic Studies with an interest in screenwriting, creative non-fiction, and oral histories. A proud Capricorn, she enjoys acting in short films, reading tarot cards and science fiction, roller skating, and visiting museums in her free time.
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