Are we fed up of watching coming-of-age dramas about skinny British white boys? Netflix doesn’t seem to think so — released last month, “Sex Education” is the latest in a long line of such series.
The show, which currently consists of eight episodes, follows sixteen-year-old Otis (Asa Butterfield), who is essentially a socialized Black Mirror: Bandersnatch psychopath. And while supposedly set in leafy Britain (though its filmed in a Welsh college) “Sex Education” is clearly a remarkably American envisioning.
The British schooling system is stratified, divided between state, grammar and private schools. This means that the house you grow up in — and how much that house is worth — tends to be the strongest indicator for the standard of secondary education you will receive. Class cannot be removed from British schooling because the education system functions to reproduce and accentuate these class lines.
British schoolyard drama has always had a cognizance of this system’s socioeconomic relations, providing a humor pointedly reflective of it. What is so striking about the American lens of “Sex Education” is how rarely class is explicitly the topic of discussion in the show. And yet it is so brazenly in our faces. Manic pixie dream girl Maeve (Emma Mackey), with whom Otis sets up a sex therapy clinic for fellow students, lives with only her older brother in a caravan park. While Maeve must steal gas to cook her dinner, Otis comfortably resides in his big red mansion in the woods. For Otis, the clinic is a chance to live out the career of his therapist-mother (Gillian Anderson) but for Maeve, it is a means of subsistence. Yet this bare economic fact is unspoken and the two share the profits from their joint venture.
Going further, Maeve’s economic precarity becomes Otis’ means of romancing her. Generally incapable of conversing with women, Otis uses running the clinic with Maeve as an opportunity to win Maeve’s love with the classic bumbling British idiot schtick. Who knew hating parties, mistaking a trip to Planned Parenthood for a date and screwing over a best mate were the keys to a woman’s heart?
Let’s talk about that. In episode five, Otis is prompted enough by the guilt of not spending enough time with his gay Black best friend Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), to take him to see “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” for his birthday. Despite both dressing in drag, they never actually go — Otis abandons Eric at the last minute to go and flirt with Maeve, leaving his friend alone and vulnerable. Eric’s money and phone get stolen before he is beaten up in the dark by the roadside.
Later that evening when Otis learns what happened, he calls Eric attention-seeking and smashes some furniture in a tantrum. Otis never quite listens to what went down and, more importantly, he never accepts the damage his actions allowed for. Two episodes later, following his tragic redemption, Eric arrives at his school ball beautifully dressed — suddenly, Otis is friends with him again.
In the meantime, the audience is expected to accept this apology, or lack thereof. We are expected to empathize with Otis as he takes Ola (Patricia Allison) on the worst date imaginable. Ironically, this selective friendship from straight “allies” like Otis is painfully accurate. When we need them to exercise their privilege, they are never there — but when we are at our most fierce, when everyone wants to know us, they magically appear.
On the one hand, it’s a welcome change to see people of color in prominent roles in “Sex Education” — the head boy, the caring teacher, the secretly dirty pro-lifer are all played by nonwhite actors. But not only are people of color still barred from the lead roles, they are treated like shit by the lead characters. “Sex Education” includes queers of color in the series to show a modern liberal friendship, but only succeeds in inflicting symbolic violence at the tragic behest of our unaccountable white heroes.
So many of these type of heroes are essentially just awful men. We’re meant to empathize or fancy them because they are naively terrible. Otis doesn’t know how to talk to women. Otis doesn’t know how to be a good friend. Otis doesn’t know how to come. Give me a break! Can we stop instructing people to admire these privileged jerks?
I’m tired of watching these pricks.