Representing Black Queer Identities in Netflix’s Sex Education

Sex Education debuted as a Netflix original in January 2019, making it one of the newest web television series to date, and particular one of the most contemporary productions in pop-culture depicting both the sexualized facets of adolescence and the complicated intersections of race, gender, and sexuality within. While Sex Education has less direct implications on gender expression and the language of gender and gender non-conformity than a show such as FX’s Pose, there exists much language and content that offers insight into the present media interpretation of gender beyond a binary construction and society’s discourse in approaching issues of racialized sexuality. While the main character of this series is Otis—a relatively small-framed white boy whose mom is a sex therapist and who struggles with being unable to masturbate—much of the work of discourse on gender and intersectional sexuality is performed by Eric Effiong.

Sex Education positions Eric as a supporting feature. In most contemporary film and cinema, such vibrantly queer characters are rarely ever given leading roles outside of films that explicitly target or market to queer audiences with an explicitly marketable queer narrative. While this may be natural, given that some films take on a role of representation for various people of marginalized identity background by nature of the lived identities of characters within the film. This is not the case for Sex Education, which intentionally places a white Otis, a filmed depiction of those who hold the most power in society by his white masculinity, as the focal point of the film. While in no way a radical or liberatory intentional positioning, even Eric’s secondary status gives life to representation on camera.

Shows like Sex Education, while particularly substantive and meaningful in many ways, also contribute to the exploitation of queer identities on and off the screen. Eric, to Otis, represents a traditional gay best friend. The scene is familiar—gay best friend gives girl advice and straight protagonist dresses in drag—but harmful nonetheless. In a media platform where queer people continue to fight for representation, Sex Education promotes the idea that queer characters are only valuable on screen—and in some ways in life—in their role as support for a heteronormative character. The expressions of queerness they present are not valued for their material worth.

The intersectionality of Blackness here offers a framework, especially in the context of the show’s location. The operation of anti-Blackness and its effects on society and culture is nuanced in Sex Education given its base in the United Kingdom. Some may argue that the climax of Eric’s performance in its debut season is in episode five, just over halfway through the season. Episode five offers an active sequence to understand Eric’s role in Sex Education. In Episode 5 [09:00], Eric dresses in full drag. His dad looks at him with surprise, but there also exists a palpable fear in his eye.  A few minutes later [11:02] Eric texts Otis and asks where he is. Eric is standing at the bus stop and is approached by two white men. The scene  immediately sets up a potential opportunity for conflict, but audiences are relieved when one of the men asks, “Is it your Birthday?” Eric responds affirmatively and is passed a small bottle of alcohol for celebration. It is here that audiences may be led to believe that Eric’s expression of gender non-conformity will ultimately be celebrated, but it was not. Otis fails to meet Eric at his bus stop [22:40] before the bus departs, leaving him alone and assumably vulnerable given his identity and expression at the time. In Otis’ absence, Eric sits at the bus stop alone [23:28].

Eric steps away from his belongings momentarily to inquire bus schedules. “Did you see anyone take my coat? It had my phone and my wallet in it?” he asks an onlooker as he devastatingly discovers that his items are no longer where he left them and were assumedly stolen. While walking home, two white men approach Eric from a car [31:29] and yell, “Excuse me, miss! Want a lift?” He proceeds to ask, “You got a penis, miss?” while the other man chuckles in the driver seat. Eric responds and asks to be left alone. Eric frightenedly utters  “Please, please, this isn’t me this is a costume. I was going to a film with a friend I’m not a-“ before he is immediately hit and then spat on by the white man. Otis comes home to see Eric sitting in his living room with Otis’ mother. Otis immediately begins to tell Eric about his experience when Maeve, a romantic interest of Otis, saying he thinks they had a moment and trying to express his excitement for the day that occurred. Otis quickly stops and asks “What happened to your face”? Eric sits observably bewildered and asks disapprovingly, “you were with Maeve?” “You left me alone dressed like this because you wanted to hang out with Mave? You’re so self-centered you don’t care about anyone but yourself!” Otis responds, “That’s not fair, why are you so angry? I’m self-obsessed? You can’t stand it if you’re not the center of attention all the time. You’re only angry right now because I’m getting a life beyond our friendship and you can’t deal with it. Eric prepares to leave, finally arguing, “I rang your mom to pick me up because this is where I felt safe. I think I made a mistake.”

Eric’s devastation in this scenario juxtaposed to Otis’ relative happiness offers a stark affirmation of the idea that Eric’s character, as a Black queer, is to be punished while Otis can participate in the same behavior and face little consequences or even be celebrated. Otis frantically chases a student to inquire on his role in the spread of school gossip, but does so also in full drag. The student asks, “Otis, why are you wearing that?” and Otis responds with “I’m Hedwig!” Otis explains that Hedwig is iconic in the LGBTQI community. Even in this brief interaction, Otis is allowed to enlighten another white man on queer pop culture while Eric is left to bare the brunt of trauma for entertainment.

Some would find this dramatic of a plotline to be entertaining and often awe-inspiring. In many ways, the scene of the assault on his identity was representative of many of the traumatic experiences queer people undergo. Many queer men have been assaulted on the basis of their identity. Most of these conclusions fail to factor in the element of race and anti-blackness, so the intersectionality of these two identities in an assault scene is both representative and traumatizing.

The usage of black queer bodies to simply dramatize a movie scene is in effect lazy. It reduces the effort it takes to make scenes with compelling and content that meaningfully represent progressive understandings of marginalized backgrounds rather than generational tropes. One of the most sinister tropes is that of Eric running back to Otis and his mother. In many ways, Sex Education positions Otis as essential for Eric’s survival. If Eric is to even exist on the show, he is subjected to a secondary plot feature only about Otis. Language like “master” here could be brash, but historically illustrative. As soon as Eric leaves the context of Otis, he fails. He is beaten and suffers. Then he just returns to Otis, whose once again depicted as a villainous hero.

It is dangerous for media, especially popular media, to exacerbate trauma against marginalized bodies for the benefit of a privileged protagonist. While some may consider the writing to be a form of representation for the real experiences of marginalized people navigating systems of opression in an everyday context, other critics might suggest that it is representative of the experience of the oppressor and not the oppressed.

Jason Okundaye further explores this idea in reviewing Sex Education’s role as a display of Black queer adolescence. He writes “While the presentation of Eric’s reaction to the assault was appropriately sensitive and sympathetic, by reducing the incident to a petty argument between Eric and Otis, the show has missed a vital opportunity to document how straight and/or white ‘allies’ can and must do better to protect their black and queer friends from harm” (Okundaye). The writers of Sex Education missed both an opportunity in episode five and throughout the whole series to not only display Black queerness for widespread consumption, but to use the show’s platform to advance justice by depicting what allyship can look like in action. Rather than using Eric’s trauma for its value in constructing an interesting and arguably real narrative, they could have weaponized that trauma to pioneer a sequence that extends beyond a historic narrative of white saviorship and the disposability of the personhood of marginalized peoples. 

Okundaye identifies a critical cultural expression in Eric’s role though the lens of a West African immigrant family. Sex Education delivers Eric’s character with a visible relationship to his Nigerian roots. He dresses in traditional cultural garments in both his masculine and feminine presentations. His father, when confronting him about his femme appearance, alludes to the challenges that Black immigrants face in West Britain and expresses his worry that Eric’s queerness will bring him further harm. Eric’s relationship with his father is one of the most intersectional rhetorics present in Sex Education. Not only does Eric’s father understand the dangers present in the world for his Black son, he also recognizes the intersectionality of compounding marginalized identities that equals greater harm to his son. 

Not all depictions of Black queerness are exploitative. Some critics have stated that Sex Education is at least close to sufficient in representing the rhetorics of race and queer representation on screen. Dahaba Ali Hussen writes “Sex Education’s approach to inclusivity does a subtle job amongst the widely celebrated, staunchly black-led films in the spotlight such as Black Panther. But the type of normalisation done by Sex Education, to me, feels quite natural – and most importantly, incredibly relatable in terms of the issues it tackles such as friendships, relationships and coming of age” (Hussen). Hussen’s acknowledgment of the relatability of the rhetorics presented is particularly important in understanding the saliency of the show and its ability to influence wider social discourse on the intersections of race and gender non-conformity. Sex Education is marketed to a younger adult audience that has experienced expansive progress in social acceptance of queer identities in a comparatively short timeframe compared to their older generational counterparts. In Sex Education, interracial relationships are normalized and forego many of the historically fetishizing representations of interracial love in media. Culturally speaking, this show follows the marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in Britain—the recent interracial relationship and marriage in British royal history. If nothing else, Sex Education works to continue expressing evolving rhetorics on culture in British society.

Arguably, the most fulfilling moment of Sex Education’s engagement of Eric is when he gets to experience joy not at the hands of a dominant white protagonist, but from a Black queer individual that animates him upon sight. James Poniewozik writes for the New York Times that “Eric, exuberant but naïve, isn’t just discovering his sexuality but learning what he likes and how to present himself in the world. There’s a great small moment where Eric, who is black, admires the ‘fierce’ nail polish on an older black man who cheerfully advises him, ‘Stick to the jewel tones’” (Poniewozik). Eric is finally afforded the representation that many characters around him experience as an omnipresent reality.

There are many rhetorics to be understood in Sex Education, but it is the most mundane instances of representation that speak loudest on the rhetorics of contemporary society. Eric crushes over another character of color without racial motivations being the defining subplot. LGBT relationships are depicted throughout the series in both instances of romantic context and sexual scenarios—not the degree of hypersexualization that is so frequently imposed on queer identities in mainstream media.

Sex Education, in its medium, delivers powerful rhetorics on race, sexuality, gender, gender non-conformity, and the intersection of these identifiers, particularly during a critical point of adolescent development. The show falls short of being a social justice-centered drama on the realities of race and gender but makes strides in advancing the dialogue of these rhetorics in media. While Eric’s role is certainly imperfect, and is victim to many of the same abuses that the trope of the “gay best friend” or a more racially appropriated “kween,” he also experiences joy at times that is palpable to an audience in a way that brings animation and vitality to his character and in turn his representation of queerness. There is much work to be done in advocating for a just and culturally appropriate portrayal of marginalized people to their privileged counter parts, and Sex Education offers a show that can serve as a comparatively evaluative model for the progress already made in media representation and the rhetorics of intersectional justice for gender non-conformity and queerness.

Works Cited

Ali Hussen, Dahaba. “Netflix’s ‘Sex Education’ Is Doing Bits for Race Representation on TV | Gal-Dem.” Gal-Dem, 20 Jan. 2019, gal-dem.com/sex-education/.

Gilbert, Sophie. “The Thoughtful Raunch of ‘Sex Education’.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 9 Jan. 2019, http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2019/01/netflix-sex-education-review/579487/.

Mangan, Lucy. “Sex Education Review – a Horny Teen Comedy … and so Much More.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 11 Jan. 2019, http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2019/jan/11/sex-education-review-netflix-asa-butterfield-gillian-anderson.

Okundaye, Jason. “Sex Education’s Vital, Complex Portrayal of Black Queer Teenhood.” Dazed, Dazed Digital, 22 Jan. 2019, http://www.dazeddigital.com/film-tv/article/43014/1/sex-education-eric-netflix-black-queer-teens-ncuti-gatwa.

Poniewozik, James. “Review: ‘Sex Education,’ a Sweet Teen Comedy of Modern Lust.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 9 Jan. 2019, http://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/09/arts/television/sex-education-review-netflix.html.

Sepinwall, Alan. “’Sex Education’ Review: Brit Teen-Sex Comedy Covers All the Bases.” Rolling Stone, 11 Jan. 2019, http://www.rollingstone.com/tv/tv-reviews/sex-education-review-774591/.

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