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The Powerful Portrayal of Intersectionality in Sex Education

This article contains spoilers for all seasons of Sex Education.

Content warning: Sexual assault, thoughts of suicide

 

Various forms of media, including films, TV shows and books, play a crucial role in providing society with valuable insights into different societal concepts. However, it is crucial that these forms of communication uphold integrity, transparency and honesty when representing these concepts, without which there is little authenticity and relatability for audiences accessing the media. Personally, these media avenues have greatly contributed to the exploration and understanding of my own identity, privileges and the barriers I face – in other words, my “intersectionality.” 

In a 2020 Time’s interview, Kimberlé Crenshaw, the lawyer and professor who coined the term “intersectionality” in 1989 perfectly summed up her interpretation of the word:

“​​It’s basically a lens, a prism, for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other. We tend to talk about race inequality as separate from inequality based on gender, class, sexuality or immigrant status. What’s often missing is how some people are subject to all of these, and the experience is not just the sum of its parts.”

Intersectionality is a unique experience with many possible avenues contributing to an individual experience, including skin colour, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, etc. These avenues are effectively illustrated with a “wheel of power/privilege,” which is shown below. It identifies key societal factors that are shaped by an interplay between power and limitations. The identities in the outer part of the wheel represent the most significant limitations (marginalization) and the identities in the inner part of the wheel represent the most significant privileges (power). Based on this diagram and the concept of intersectionality, we can see why, for example, a cisgender Caucasian heterosexual man from an upper-class socioeconomic bracket would have much more power (due to having fewer barriers) in society as compared to a transgender black lesbian woman from a lower-class socioeconomic bracket.

 

Wheel of Power/Privilege

Wheel of Power and Marginalization. (Image Source: Just1Voice)

 

TV shows, in particular, have helped me to understand intersectionality through media due to the longitudinal relationships we, as an audience, gain with the characters in the show over time. In the 21st century, where discussions of equity, diversity and inclusivity are becoming more important than ever, media has also shifted towards trying to represent more diverse and marginalized experiences. For instance, in recent years, TV series like Euphoria, Dear White People and Sex Education have all offered unique explorations of intersectionality from various perspectives.

 

TV Series covers for euphoria, dear white people, and sex education.

Season covers for Euphoria season 1 (left), Dear White People season 4 (middle) and Sex Education season 4 (right). (Image Sources: Retrieved from IMDb and compiled using Canva)

 

The TV series Sex Education (2019–2023) focuses on several specific avenues of intersection, namely sexuality and gender, which many people in society unknowingly believe are the same. The intersection between gender and sexual identity is a consistent and prominent theme of the show, with each season focusing on many unique characters navigating their relationships with sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression as part of their whole identities.

The concepts of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression are often confused in society, which can result in unintentional (or intentional) discrimination in both societal and systemic structures, such as policies and laws. Therefore, it is important to distinguish between these concepts and how they apply to individuals in society. The image below, created by AboutKidsHealth.Ca, offers an excellent summary of sexual identity and the various key differences between gender and sexual identities.

 

Graphical representation of gender identity, expression, biological sex, and attraction.

Concepts of gender identity, gender expression, biological sex, physical attraction and emotional attraction. Each individual can have a unique identity as part of each of these components, which shapes their overall gender and sexual identity. (Image Source: SickKids | AboutKidsHealth)

 

Based on this figure, gender identity can be described as the inward (or personal) alignment with a specific (or non-specific) gender. The key thing to differentiate between gender expression and identity is that an individual does not have to share their gender identity with others in society. Conversely, gender expression is how the individual wants to be perceived in society. Sexual orientation is a separate concept that describes the sexual attraction an individual feels towards others rather than the gender they express/identify as. 

Often, people group the two together, which causes confusion and rejection of these separate expressions and identities. However, it is important to realize that both gender and sexual orientation are unique and separate factors that contribute to an individual’s intersectionality. It is also important to note that sex is not equivalent to gender. Sex is genetic and is determined by the biological makeup (the chromosomes) present at the birth of an individual, while gender is determined by the individual and how they wish to identify.

In Sex Education, these concepts are explored through various characters. For example, some characters in the show are cisgender, heterosexual, Caucasian, individuals from good socioeconomic backgrounds, such as Otis Millburn played by Asa Butterfield and his mother, Dr. Jean Millburn, who is a licensed sex therapist, played by Gillian Anderson. While others, such as Eric Effiong played by Ncuti Gatwa and Cal Bowman played by Dua Saleh, are both queer Black individuals. Eric and Cal suffer from unique challenges with their cultural, familial and religious differences while trying to integrate their own gender identities and expressions. This is not to say that characters like Otis and Dr. Jean Millburn are not faced with their own challenges. Here, Sex Education does an excellent job of integrating the concept of invisible identities and traumas, which haunt both Otis and his mother.

Through a more in-depth exploration of some of these characters, audiences can understand the uniqueness of each character’s identity and how it affects their relationships, lifestyle and opportunities/barriers in society. 

Let’s first look at the main character, Otis Millburn, who is a cisgender heterosexual Caucasian man, and theoretically holds power in society. Otis, who derives expertise in sex education from his mother Dr. Jean Milburn, becomes a sex therapist at his school(s). Due to his background, relationships and identity, he is able to form trustful relationships and uphold his identity as a reputable sex therapist in the show effectively.

 

Still of Otis and Dr. Jean Millburn from Sex Education.

Asa Butterfield as Otis Millburn and Gillian Anderson as Dr. Jean Millburn in Sex Education. (Image Source: Vanity Fair)

 

However, that is not to say that Otis does not face his own challenges. As mentioned earlier, Otis is a character whose complexity is primarily revealed through the idea of “invisible” identities and traumas. For Otis, there seems to be a persistent underlying trauma relating to the helplessness he felt as a child seeing his mother suffer from depression after the cheating and fighting between Otis’ parents. He grapples with this trauma several times in his sexual relationships. Specifically, Otis is unable to have sex because of flashbacks to his unresolved childhood traumas, which seem to persist throughout seasons 1–4 but do not seem to be fully resolved by the end of the series. Collectively, Otis’ intersectionality is compounded mainly by a traumatic upbringing stemming from parental disputes and complex sexual problems associated with these traumas, both of which haunt Otis’ relationships with family, friends and romantic partners. 

We also have Otis’ best friend Eric Effiong, played by Ncuti Gatwa, who portrays an intriguing character that undergoes a dynamic transformation throughout the four seasons of Sex Education. Eric Effiong comes from a Black Nigerian-Ghanaian family that heavily embraces their Christian faith and cultural values. On the contrary, Eric himself is a gay man whose identity is compounded by race, gender and sexual orientation. As a result, his identity is not only deeply different from his best friend, Otis, but also from others in society, even within his own religious and racial communities.

Eric’s storyline throughout the show delves into several important topics regarding sexual identity and intersectionality. For instance, his on-and-off relationship with Adam Groff in seasons 1-3 exposes the audience to toxic masculinity and how it shapes Eric’s gender expression. Specifically, in the context of the queer community, the show delves into the complexities of societal perceptions of queer men through Adam’s journey of coming out as bisexual. Concurrently, Eric grapples with the impact of toxic masculinity on his struggles, attempting to both conceal and maintain his relationship and identity with Adam. This intricate dynamic reflects the tension Eric faces in navigating a closed-off relationship with Adam within a heteronormative society, all while contending with the constraints imposed by toxic masculinity on his exploration of personal expression as a queer individual.

Additionally, Eric also faces challenges within his own cultural communities as he navigates being Christian and gay. The conflict between religion and sexual identity in Eric’s character is prevalent throughout the show, specifically in the final season where Eric grapples with getting baptized in his church, which doesn’t seem to truly support his queer expression. The belief held by the church is made evident as the church turns down financial fundraising support from Eric’s queer fundraiser, even when facing permanent closure due to financial difficulties. As a result, Eric felt rejected by his church. In this situation, the show opens up an intriguing discussion on how religion and sexuality are not distinct to many individuals in society (even if some might think otherwise). Rather, individuals can be part of both groups based on how they practice and identify with any specific religion and sexuality simultaneously.

 

Still of Eric and Pastor Samuel from Sex Education.

Eric alongside his church’s pastor, Pastor Samuel, in season 4. (Image Source: Teen Vogue)

 

In season 3, the audience also gains insights into how Eric’s racial identity compounds his intersectionality, specifically his Nigerian roots when he and his family travel to Lagos, Nigeria, for a relative’s wedding. Here, Eric’s struggle of expressing his authentic self is further intensified by the norms of his culture, which prohibit the open expression of identities rejecting traditional heteronormative values. Rather, the audience sees Eric find a closeted queer individual at the wedding and subsequently see them visiting an underground queer club, which play a key part in connecting queer communities in secrecy in countries where rules and policies criminalize or discourage homosexuality publicly. 

In addition to Eric’s struggles with his identity, the audience is also able to appreciate and celebrate Eric’s growing confidence throughout the four seasons. Eric embracing his identity and personality as a flamboyant Black gay individual with a bold fashion sense makes a brave statement against traditional gender norms, which are an issue of concern in 21st-century society. By the final season, audiences see Eric truly embrace himself as he finds a network of queer friends who he feels supported alongside, even when he struggles with the intersectional challenges discussed earlier.

 

Still of Roman, Eric, and Abbi from Sex Education.

Sex Education season 4 queer stars Roman portrayed by Felix Mufti (left), Eric Effiong portrayed by Ncuti Gatwa (middle) and Abbi Montogemery portrayed by Anthony Lexa (right).  (Image Source: Tudum)

 

In seasons 3 and 4, audiences are also introduced to the character of Cal Bowman, played by Dua Saleh. Cal is a non-binary character who is struggling with their gender identity and expression while also navigating a new school environment. Audiences also see Cal struggle with opening up about this, specifically to their mother, who seems to represent the familial support for Cal. This lack of communication regarding gender expression ties into Cal’s sexual identity as they struggle in their sexual relationship in season 4 with Aisha, who is in an existing open relationship and wants to explore things further with Cal. However, here, Cal is unable to do so as they face serious gender dysphoria while they try to cope with the side effects of the testosterone they take.

Cal’s dysphoria and sexual conflicts are also associated with the top surgery (i.e., breast feminization or masculinization surgery based on how the individual wishes to be identified) they want but can’t afford. When Cal asks Roman, a transgender male at their school, how long he had to wait for top surgery, he replies that he had to get it done privately because the public wait times were from 3–5 years. Cal is visibly disappointed as they can’t afford the costs of going private. 

Cal’s anxiety and depression get increasingly worse as they isolate themselves from all their friends and family, run away from home and think about taking their own life. Finally, Eric finds Cal at the edge of a cliff, where the audience sees an honest moment between Eric and Cal. Eric allows Cal to lead the conversation and share what they are comfortable with. Finally, the audience sees the fundraiser, which was earlier supposed to raise money for the Church (but was turned down) switch to raising money for Cal’s top surgery, allowing some moments of closure. Thus, Cal portrays several avenues of intersection that compound to shape their whole and unique identity, including gender identity, sexual conflicts and economic struggles relating to their transition.

 

Still of Jackson, Eric, and Cal in Sex Education.

Kedar Williams-Stirling as Jackson Marchetti (left), Ncuti Gatwa as Eric (middle) and Dua Saleh as Cal (right) in the final season of Sex Education. (Image Source: HuffPost)

 

Overall, the portrayal of intersectionality in Sex Education breaks significant ground in mainstream media. The show bravely navigates the complexities of identity, with particular emphasis given to sexual and gender identities (as the series title suggests), underscoring the multifaceted nature of individual experiences. It goes beyond the binary, exploring the various shades of human sexuality and gender identities.

Through characters like Cal and Eric, who grapple with their identity amidst societal expectations and personal conflicts, it brings forth the dialogue around gender and sexual dysphorias and openness in relationships. The series paints a raw, honest picture of the struggles faced by individuals in their journeys toward self-discovery. Yet, it also highlights the power of supportive networks, depicting how empathy and understanding can offer a lifeline in the face of despair. While some characters’ journeys do, unfortunately, remain unresolved, like Otis and Cal, their reconciliation with their support networks suggests a hopeful note for their future.

This nuanced and sensitive portrayal of intersectionality in Sex Education has been an important concept for me to learn about personally. Right now, the concepts of gender and sexual identity and expression pertaining to sexual and gender minorities are more important than ever. Society is actively trying to limit the exploration and portrayal of such concepts and discrimination is just as prevalent. This is clearly not limited to any specific country but is an issue that is faced by individuals worldwide. Therefore, media representation and discussions about such topics are important to ensure that our future remains knowledgeable about these sensitive concepts, especially when navigating their interactions with gender and sexual minorities faced by intersectional discrimination.

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