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Growing pains and the second season of ‘Sex Education’

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If you’ve seen season one of Laurie Nunn’s “Sex Education,” you’re in for an even wilder, more heartbreaking and gut-wrenching ride this season. While the first season operated mainly on the singular main plot of Otis and Maeve’s rocky friendship, the second season has decided to breathe life into each and every other character’s own narrative as well. Season two of “Sex Education” achieves the difficult and often impossible task of threading together multiple narratives of equal weight from vastly different storylines. As a result, all eight episodes come together to create a refreshing multidimensional take on adolescence, what it looks like to grow up and losing and finding your identity again. 

Most, if not all, movies or shows about adolescence have a predictable and one-dimensional storyline: The main character is an underdog who finds their niche in the insular community that is high school. Now, this formula can either go in a bland direction or an invigorating one. The bland option is the most we’ve seen — someone portrayed by an actor who clearly does not appear to be an underdog whatsoever and rather conforms to the heteronormative “Adonis” Hollywood feels comfortable with. It’s a formula for statistically likelier success, it doesn’t cross any boundaries, and it’s a guilty pleasure we can’t deny ourselves. Girl meets boy, boy is too cool for girl, girl discovers through sidekick best friend that she does not need boy. This is a feel-good narrative to feed the soul. However, that can only provide so much of the sensory and emotional experience we crave in this constantly changing world.

“Sex Education” takes this skeleton of a narrative and challenges the boundaries of convention. It gives life to characters who have always been on the sidelines and celebrates those the world is too afraid to celebrate — all while educating its audience that it’s okay to be this way. Season two is Eric’s love triangle with new kid Rahim and school bully Adam; Ola figuring out her pansexuality and pursuing a relationship with her best friend Lily; Jean’s loneliness as a single mother, yet running away at the first sign of intimate commitment; Aimee dealing with sexual harassment trauma; Jackson standing up for his passion against his mother’s expectations; Viv’s realization that boys aren’t all they’re cut out to be, but friends are; Otis fearing an inevitable fall into toxic masculinity like his absentee father; and Maeve’s toxic relationship with her drug-abusing mother. On the surface, high school may just be about that unattainable crush. But when we think about what we really went through in our adolescence, it is as the show humanizes it — it’s about the nuances of unrequited love that will perhaps never be attained, shame culture around virginity and sexual trauma, not knowing what to do with your own body other than what the world around you tells you.

It is through all of these developing characters and heart-wrenching narratives that the show does what its titular claim is: educate. “Sex Education” is a prime example of teaching through narrative. We really do learn the most from stories of other people. One of the most important takeaways of this season is its critical examination of shame culture. It should not be shameful to be a virgin, but it should not be shameful to want to have all the sex you want, either. It should not be shameful to have been sexually harassed, with all the agency stripped away from the victim, it should not be shameful to have to buy a morning-after pill and it should not be shameful to talk about sex with each other. Being sex positive means doing whatever you want with your body because it is your body. Time and time again, the show re-informs and re-empowers sex not as taboo but as one’s own to define. You can have casual sex like Jean does, or you can wait for the person you love to do it right like Otis wants to. Run your own race, he always reminds himself. It is key that what the show doesn’t do is glamorize hookup culture like most shows about college do. Rather, it celebrates sex simply by taking away the shame of it. 

I admit, though, that the tragedy of Maeve’s ending does upset me, as well as Jean’s lack of a resolution. While most loose ends were tied up effortlessly and heartwarmingly in the last few minutes of a montage, it frustrates me that the two loneliest women still end up tragically alone. This is certainly a theme in many recent films staking a claim in female independence, as we see this in “Little Women” and other feminist discourse — that women should not define their identity based on another partner. However, in both Maeve’s and Jean’s cases, the decision to be independent was stripped away from them.

But perhaps a happy ending is not what we need. Frankly, a happy ending is not what usually happens. The somber, inconclusive and, above all, unsettling ending may suggest a third season, but despite it all, it does strike us with reality. “Sex Education” seeks to teach its audience the ins and outs of physical and emotional intimacy, and it surely has. We must also learn, then, that life does not work out how we want it to all the time. Life is sometimes — oftentimes — very lonely, and very painful. But it is how we weather the pain, perhaps, and emerge from it that truly empowers us.

The show does not solve any of the problems of sexuality adolescence presents. However, it does the next most important thing — it humanizes these stories and gives a space to the underdogs, the marginalized adolescents, and validates their struggles that seem to be clouded with so much shame and anxiety in today’s world. What the show is saying is something we all need to hear, something I wish I heard more often myself — that it’s okay. After all, “Sex doesn’t make you whole. So how could you be broken?”

Contact Angelina Hue at ahue ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Angelina Hue is a staff writer for Arts & Life’s Film beat. She likes to poke and prod films as it is, so she’s happy she can write those thoughts down here. One of her favorite things to examine is how visual storytelling synthesizes art and narrative. She enjoys all things film, television, and books. Contact her at ahue ‘at’ stanford.edu, or find her on Twitter: @anjialina.