After the release of the much-awaited third season, critically-acclaimed hit series Sex Education was trending on Netflix India at #1 — and for good reason. The show, known for effortlessly tackling subjects considered taboo, has returned with a mission to highlight even more perspectives, and with a Dolores Umbridge of its own.
Following the dismissal of Moordale Secondary’s detested headmaster Michael Groff, the school decides to bring in a new headmistress, responsible for rebranding the institution and undoing its image as ‘Sex School.’ At first impression, Hope Haddon seems progressive and exciting, keen to include the young voices that constitute the school and truly take the institution forward. With time, however, it becomes apparent that she is more than the students bargained for. For Hope, furthering Moordale Secondary only means improving the school academically. Starting with lines and notices asking students to walk in a single file and bright yellow lockers painted over with grey, Hope goes to great lengths to ensure that the school is nothing more than a one-track, serious place to learn. In no time, she implements uniforms and begins to punish students for any display of individuality: from hair colour and makeup to LGBTQ+ pins. In an attempt to tackle the lack of comprehensive sex education, Hope introduces an outdated ‘Growth and Development’ course, consisting of videos that discourage homosexuality and women that preach abstinence. She disallows the students any agency or free will, insisting that school is the time for education and not distractions or sexual exploration.
It is no surprise, then, that Sex Education has found such a wide audience in a country that entirely skips over the eighth grade biology chapter revolving around reproduction. It is beyond normal for schools in India to monitor students’ uniforms, keeping an eye on the length of their skirts or whether they have nail polish on. In the school that I attended, girls with hair below their shoulder had to double their braids up. If they didn’t wear black ribbons or oil their hair, they were called aside after the assembly and punished. Even mehendi could not be worn without permission — piercings, tattoos, or hair colour were out of the question. If students were found carrying cellphones to school, their phones were confiscated — often even unlocked and gone through — for as long as the institution liked, paying no heed to the fact that they were students’ private property, and may be required in some cases. At Moordale Secondary, when Hope confiscates three students’ cellphones for a week, Indian students didn’t see the scene as a horrifying dystopian hell, but a reminder of the good, old days of school. It also felt normal when students were repeatedly reminded that they are ‘representing the school’ on a trip — a statement that, in my school days, always made me feel trapped – like I was an incomplete person bound by a single institution.
One of the reasons for Sex Education‘s popularity has been the immense diversity of its characters. The show expertly conquers realistic storylines revolving around queerness, race, gender, and disabilities. With this season, it takes things further byintroducing its first non-binary character: Cal. Cal is black, non-binary, and has moved to England from Minneapolis. Played by Dua Saleh — a non-binary Sudanese-American recording artist, songwriter, poet and actor — Cal stands up against Hope after being forced to wear a uniform that didn’ align with their gender expression, and is repeatedly disrespected, disregarded and even locked in a classroom for their refusal to back down and conform. Their fight for acknowledgement is frustratingly realistic, showcasing that simply ‘accepting’ genderqueer people is not enough — it is just as important to educate oneself to make them feel comfortable and safe. Jackson Marchetti, head boy and former swimming champion, tries his hardest to do exactly this because he cares deeply for Cal. Through this plot, the show also points out how marginalised individuals are often pitted against each other by people in power. When Cal refuses to wear a skirt but a younger non-binary student is too afraid to stand up for themselves, Hope is quick to label the latter as ‘good.’ In truth, Cal is neither ‘bad’ or a troublemaker for defending what they believe in, and there isn’t anything wrong with the other student for preferring to stay quiet. It is easy, however, to divide and rule: marginalised individuals are often prepared for cut-throat competition, as there are apparently only a few that can be successful. The privileged — cisgender, straight white people like Hope — easily take advantage of this.
In its third season, Sex Education‘s storylines are grittier, darker and more mature. The show feels less like the teenage dramedy it used to be, as it goes through serious issues like Maeve’s mother’s addiction, Aimee’s ongoing recovery from being sexually assaulted the previous season, and Adam’s navigation of his sexuality. Maeve and Otis’ characters almost take a backseat for the entirety of the season — and Adam surprisingly emerges as the character we sympathise with the most.
The moments between Adam and Eric are the most heartwarming of all: the two understand and enjoy each others’ company, and Adam is clearly comfortable being himself when he is alone with Eric. His commitment to improving — not just for his boyfriend, but for himself — is touching, and we cannot help but feel for him when he bashfully tries to write Eric poetry, asks Miss Sands how he can be better at school, and tries his hardest to communicate well at all times. He also strikes an unlikely friendship with Eric’s ex boyfriend, Rahim, and stands out as having one of the best character arcs of not just the season, but the show so far.
Along with Adam, we also sympathise with his father, Michael Groff, the villain of the last season. Until now, it had been easy to dislike Michael Groff — but Sex Education refuses to create one-dimensional, cartoonish characters. Instead, it now shows us Michael’s side of the story, and with it, tackles topics like toxic masculinity and generational trauma. Adam and his father both end up in somewhat the same place: unhappy, distant, and unable to express their emotions. But in this season, they both attempt to break past this cycle, finding things that bring them joy.
In season two of the show, Michael Groff’s ex wife, Maureen struck an unlikely friendship with Otis’ mother and sex therapist, Jean Milburn. In this season, their friendship only strengthens as the two put unconditional trust in each other. The female friendships in Sex Education become a ray of hope as everything else collapses. Aimee and Maeve are inseparable, constantly guiding each other towards what is best. Ruby — who begins to date Otis — is also supported fiercely by her friends, as she navigates a relationship like never before while also being a caregiver to her sick father. In its very deliberate way, Sex Education provides relief from the female rivalries we are so used to seeing in mainstream media, especially in high school stories.
Isaac, Maeve’s friend and love interest, had become one of the most hated characters on the show after he deleted the voice message where Otis confesses his love for Maeve. It seemed cruel of Netflix, then, to turn the one disabled character from the show into a villain. In the new season, Isaac’s perspective is explored more as he comes clean to Maeve, and admits to always feeling unseen and alone without her. His redemption undoubtedly works — we not only forgive but also sympathise with him. George Robinson, who plays the character of Isaac, has talked about how it was shaped around him. “A lot of it was just having these open conversations about my experience with disability. Laurie [creator and writer of Sex Education] also spoke to a lot of people within the disabled community and various charities,” he told Digital Spy. “It feels like that’s the approach with all the characters on Sex Ed. It’s a really open, collaborative experience. I think that’s part of what makes the show so vibrant.”
Sex Education has repeatedly proven that its representation is not tokenistic. A majority of the characters in the show come from marginalised backgrounds, and their stories are told with honesty and openness. The show casts disabled people as disabled characters, non-binary people as non-binary characters, and does not restrict itself to light skinned black people. It also subtly tackles the issue of tokenistic representation, when Hope chooses Vivienne to represent the school because she is a “strong, smart, young woman of colour”, and then admits that it is, in fact, about how progressive it looks. It seems cruel to use mere teenagers as pawns, but the situation is unfortunately not far from reality.
The third season of Sex Education is even bolder than the first two, once again breaking the mould, and cementing itself as one of the best young adult shows out there. It is real, heartbreaking, and at times, euphoric. The downside to this is that it does feel a little distant, as beloved characters begin to grow up and apart. Ultimately, though, it is the perfect representation of why we need a show like this, and why we need sex education. As Indians, we are used to adults telling us that now is not the time to focus on “all of that.” We are brought up believing that education and relationships are mutually exclusive — as if we cannot have a life outside of studying. Sex Education is a realistic depiction of institutions and how they attempt to control us by leaving students with little freedom or agency. It is also a depiction of how we, as a society, can move past this, to experience the euphoria that comes with being honest and open about subjects that have been considered taboo for far too long.