As a five-year-old in the late 90s,when I saw Shah Rukh Khan swinging his arms and singing and dancing in the fields of Punjab or the Scottish Highlands, I thought this is what love felt like: a celebration of all things nice and glorious in life. I spent my adolescent and teenage years craving for a similar kind of all-consuming romance which would kind of elevate me from the drudgery of everyday life.
What I didn’t realise was that in reality, love was messy and fraught with conflicts and desire was not without nuance. That attraction might not translate into love, that even if you loved someone, you still might not envision a future with them, that even if the universe conspired to align your stars, there still may be misunderstandings which are difficult to clear.
What I didn’t realise was that in reality, love was messy and fraught with conflicts and desire was not without nuance.
I wish the show Sex Education had released when I was a teenager, when the Biology teacher in my all-girls missionary school could barely muster up the courage to explain what menstruation is, let alone educate us about safe sex and contraception.
The eight-episode show revolves around the life of awkward high schooler Otis Milburn, who lives with his eccentric sex therapist mother and he increasingly struggles to keep his mum from interfering in his personal life. Otis is a virgin, but the show’s tonality doesn’t make a big deal out of it, neither does the protagonist himself. But in several instances in the show, even when he has his masturbating paraphernalia in tow (just to get done with it), he is unable to perform.
As luck would have it, towards the end of the first episode, Otis finds himself in a discarded school bathroom with the prodigious and spunky Maeve Wiley, (who is also a social outcast), listening in on the plight of the headmaster’s son Adam Groff who has had a couple of Viagra pills in anticipation of having sex with his girlfriend. As Otis calms down Adam from outside the toilet cubicle, enquiring why he feels that he can’t please his girlfriend otherwise, Maeve hatches the plan of running a sex therapy clinic in school with the sex therapist’s son.
In Otis’s head, Maeve is way out of his league and he is anxious about the idea of being in such close proximity with her. In fact, he not only has a wet dream about her, but also gets an erection in a swimming pool after she had merely flattened his eyebrow. To keep him from freaking the hell out, his best friend Eric replies, “You jizzed your pants, you’re not Hannibal Lecter.”
Maeve, whose drug-addict mother is in prison and brother has eloped, has her own share of misgivings. She is sleeping with the school’s head boy, but is intimidated by the idea of commitment. She informs him sternly – “We’re just f***ing, Jackson. We don’t need to know each other’s postcodes.”
Sex Education doesn’t romanticize teenage angst, it acknowledges and empowers it. Because it is okay to feel lost and confused in such a formative period of one’s life. The show never sugarcoats youth as this glorious time, when one is truly invincible
Instead, it shows us how it’s quite the contrary – that icky rumours spread during your teenage can stick with you for the rest of your life, that teenage aggression is often a manifestation of acute vulnerability, of never feeling you’re good enough. It doesn’t shame young women or men for having sexual desires, and acting on them.
Undoubtedly, Eric was my favourite character from the show. As a gay man of colour, his character arc was so beautifully complex and layered that I constantly wished I could see more of him. His friendship with Otis was based on honesty and mutual affection. Coming from a religious African family, I almost hollered in my room as he reconnected with his faith in a meaningful way, and drew strength from his community.
This is a show which will stay with you long after you have binge-watched it the first time. It is a memorable and accurate depiction of teenagers who are so much more than precocious, entitled individuals, as they are often portrayed to be.