Upon seeing the Netflix banner advertising their new program Sex Education starring Asa Butterfield and Gillian Anderson, I was, as I am with all of Netflix's original programming, confused as to whether it was a series or a movie.
I also remained unconvinced that I needed another high school sex comedy in my life. I grew up on SKINS and Degrassi. I was easily satisfied with the smut that Riverdale was giving me every week, so I didn't think I had room in my life for anything else. Yet, my friend, who has pushed me to watch my favorite shows of the past year (Killing Eve and Marvelous Miss Maisel) told me she loved it, and that I would likely enjoy it too. Within that same day, another person texted me asking if I'd watched it and then hours later someone in a meme page (of course) proclaimed that Netflix had gotten it right big time with this show. It was self-aware, sex-positive and open-minded – all things that are hard to come by in today's media landscape. I was convinced to at least give it a try.
I loved it. I finished it in days (it probably would have been faster if I didn't have work obligations) and in so many ways the show made me gleam with pride over its honest depiction of teenage sex. I was impressed at the depictions of teenagers owning their sexuality and enthralled by the charming characters. Asa Butterfield plays Otis, the son of a sex therapist (played by Gillian Anderson), who is struggling to master his own sexual experiences. His best friend, Eric, is played by the effervescent Ncuti Gatwa who so confidently and maturely experiments with his own sexuality and gender expression. Maeve (played by Emma Mackey), is the outsider who's misunderstood. The world thinks of her as the promiscuous girl at school, but Maeve is brilliant. She makes money by writing her peers essays and is able to support herself despite her absentee parents. She and Otis form a friendship which leads them to open a sex clinic for their peers. Maeve is the business manager, and Otis takes the role of sex therapist because, despite his own lack of experience, the years of eavesdropping on his mother's clinic has given him all he needs to counsel his peers.
The friendship between Maeve and Otis is unlikely, but they bond over their desire to make money while also helping others. In true television fashion, it shows that they're not so different after all. Disappointingly, however, the show falls back on a tired trope – boy and girl become friends, and it quickly turns romantic.
By the third episode, Otis is seemingly falling for Maeve despite her lack of interest in him. In the final episode, Maeve has decided that she must also be interested in Otis, but it's too late as Otis has moved on. This may be the most problematic theme of the show. It's the line that Billy Crystal first uttered in When Harry Met Sally, "Men and women can't be friends because the sex part always gets in the way." This idea that men and women can't maintain a platonic relationship because of sex has been the plot to many a romantic comedy, but in a show focused on sex positivity, it feels incredibly backwards.
And sure, Otis is in a time where he's desperate for his first sexual experience as a heterosexual male, and Maeve is the first girl he may have been close with. He thinks because she asked him to meet her somewhere (it turns out she needed him to accompany her out of a family planning clinic) that she's romantically interested in him. Instead, in this scenario, I want Otis to take the advice he gives to Maeve's partner Jackson – stop treating her like an object. Just because Otis acknowledges Maeve's interests does not somehow mean he's a better man than Jackson, who has a surface view of Maeve. He's still vying for her attention. He thinks that just because he's better than one guy, this means she must choose him. The reality is Maeve doesn't have to choose between them. She does, in fact, have a third option: choosing neither of them.
Friendships between heterosexual men and women don't have to turn romantic. When I think of the most empowering relationships in my life, the ones that have allowed me to learn about my own sexuality through honest conversation, all that comes to mind are my platonic friendships. I firmly believe that Maeve and Otis could be at the beginning of a similarly meaningful friendship. They're two characters who've formed an unlikely bond, and I want to see the antics that can ensue. What I'm not interested in is the same old "will they or won't they," and then they finally get together, and it ends poorly, and then they can't salvage the friendship. Or they get married. Either way, that's where the trope almost always leads, and I'm bored by it.
Instead, steer Maeve away from being a manic pixie dream girl and Otis away from being the boy who uses a girl to become a man. I want to see them support one another, as friends, because quite frankly, I don't see the romantic chemistry. I see a show developing a manic pixie dream girl for their lead man, but it doesn't have to be that way.
When I look at this show at its most fundamental, I absolutely adore it and want to follow the lives of these characters for years to come. However, I want it to take a sharp turn from the direction it's currently headed. For a show that's doing so much right, Sex Education still plays into traditional, heteronormative stereotypes, ones that are at best antiquated and at worst potentially dangerous. I'm rooting for Maeve and Otis but purely because I want to see them get through the painful years of high school alive. This show is so great, it shouldn't waste its time playing to dated romantic comedy plots.
Samantha is a Boston-based freelance writer and restaurant industry professional. She takes her martinis with gin and olives. You can follow her on Instagram @samantharosmangino
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