“The best men can be”, Gillette, Piers Morgan and the crisis of masculinity

Gillette’s short film Believe caused quite a stir. When I saw the commotion online, I hadn’t actually seen it yet. So I went to find out what was causing so much offence. To be frank, what I found was pretty underwhelming.

I was expecting something far more radical, to have caused so much fuss. What I found was a pretty reasonable assumption that there are some behaviours typical to the male gender that are in need of improvement. It didn’t suggest that men are intrinsically bad by any stretch of the imagination. 

The troubling behaviour that it brought attention to really shouldn’t have made any half decent person disagree with them, or so I thought. So what’s really going on? 

It shouldn’t be so difficult to acknowledge that the world and gender relations are not perfect. Whether you identify as a feminist or not, this is not mere opinion. This is fact. We live in a world in which female infanticide is staggeringly high in two of the world’s leading economies China and India. It’s not exactly a paradise of equality in the West either. According to the UK Office of National Statistics, 2 women per week are killed by a partner or ex-partner, equating to roughly one murdered women every 2.6 days. An EU-wide survey conveyed similarly bleak results:

  • One in 10 women have experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 15, while one in 20 has been raped
  • One in five women have experienced some form of stalking since the age of 15, with 5% having experienced it in the 12 months preceding the survey. 
  • However, three out of four stalking cases reported in the survey never come to the attention of the police
  • One in 10 women have been stalked by a previous partner
  • Of women in the survey who indicate they have been raped by their current partner, about one third (31%) say they have experienced six or more incidents of rape by their partner
  • Just over one in 10 women experienced some form of sexual violence by an adult before they were 15
  • Most violence is carried out by a current or former partner, with 22% of women in relationships reporting partner abuse

A similar situation can be observed in the US.  

This normalisation of male violence as demonstrated by the “boys will be boys” trope must be the underlying cause here. The comparatively smaller issues such as cat-calling and the like – as shown in the advert – are symptomatic of this blasé attitude to male culpability. I would hope that most men would attempt to distance themselves from these behaviours.  has proved that, even if it isn’t the reaction that feminists were hoping for. If you don’t identify or engage with the behaviours that are being criticised in the advertisement, then surely it doesn’t apply to you, you should actually like the advert? Surely you should agree? 

Evidently not. Piers Morgan, in an article for the Daily Mail, described the advert as an “absurd load of PC-crazed bilge” and asserted that “It’s basically saying that it’s wrong, and harmful, to be masculine, to be a man.” Is there any truth in this? Does he have a point? 

Let’s play Devil’s advocate for a moment. To be sure, there is a lot to unpack here. There are some potential issues, perhaps one could be cynical and view Gillette as attempting to commodify and capitalise on feminist sympathies. Putting said concerns aside, one may then ask: is there, as Piers Morgan has said, a war on men?

Just hear him out: is there a war on men?

Certainly the onset of third wave feminism has brought about some worry on the subject. In fairness, hashtags that promote anti-male sentiment such as  or  would not be tolerated from a liberal audience were the roles reversed. This is not equality, it’s misandry. That is not to say that women don’t experience threats of violence and trolling online. They actually get it all the time. The trouble with  and  is that it is mandated and even encouraged by people who claim to fight for equality. It is somewhat plausible that Gillette could be seen to be pandering to this extreme leftist ideology. Are Piers Morgan and co., therefore, projecting a different issue onto the Gillette advert? Is there a deeper issue that is informing the context of the Gillette debate?

man breaks up a fight between two young boys at a barbecue in Gilllette's Believe

Traditional Masculinity in Decline 

What do we mean by traditional masculinity? Morgan quotes David French: “‘The assault on traditional masculinity – while liberating to men who don’t fit traditional norms – is itself harmful to the millions of young men who seek to be physically and mentally tough, to rise to challenges, and demonstrate leadership under pressure. The assault on traditional masculinity is an assault on their very natures. Are boys disproportionately adventurous? Are they risk-takers? Do they feel a need to be strong? Do they often by default reject stereotypically ‘feminine’ characteristics? Yes, yes, yes and yes.’”

(Side note: I find this assertion that men are “disproportionately” more adventurous and risk-taking than their female counterparts particularly unconvincing. I have a twin brother and I would say I have always been the more “adventurous” of the two of us. I have travelled to the other side of the world on my own on more than one occasion and met plenty of other solo women (perhaps more than men) while I was there. Solo travel is arguably more “risky” for women than for men, but it doesn’t seem to stop us. Purely anecdotal, I know, but I felt irked by that assumption.) 

Despite all that, there are some fair points made here, that many young men aspire to be leaders and to physical and mental excellence (though, it should be pointed out, so do many women). There should not be an attack on or an attempt to eradicate all elements of masculinity. But it is the issues that come with traditional ideals of masculinity: harassment of women, bravado, cat-calling, female objectification, machismo, violence etc. that we really shouldn’t be sorry to see the back of. A distaste for the potentially harmful and aggressive aspects of what have come (perhaps wrongly) to be associated with manhood, may actually be a good thing for both men and women. After all, machismo and aggression is not equal to strength. These qualities could even represent a weakness of character, a fragile masculinity that needs protection and coddling and cannot withstand challenges or criticism.

Is it not an insult to men’s moral and intellectual agency that they should be debased to such a low standard? Men aren’t violent, mindless, reasonless brutes. Men aren’t inherently bad, so why should anyone be defending the right to act like it? Gillette disputes the idea that physical violence is natural to boys and men. The backlash to Believe, consequently, is somewhat confusing. Morgan accuses Gillette of branding all men “a bunch of uneducated, vile, sexist, harassing predators”. But it seems that he’s missing the mark; Gillette’s point was that this violence and this lack of respect for females isn’t in actuality what is natural, this isn’t what men are. The point is that men are better than that. 

Strength can be more than a simple show of brute force, exerting will over those too physically weak to stop you. It can mean strength of mind and strength of character, and sometimes strength of body used to defend those who need it. There are ways of embodying all that’s right with traditional values of manhood; courage, conviction, protectiveness, without taking it to a violent or oppressive extreme. There is room for both traditionally masculine and feminine traits, both are valuable, both are important, both should apply to both modern men and modern women. Traditionally feminine traits such as compassion do not have to be in conflict with masculinity.


row of middle aged men folding their arms whilst barbecuing in Gillette's Believe

Positive versus Negative Masculinity

You can take the good without the bad. Popular shows such as Brooklyn 99 and Sex Education are very different, but both present modern, healthy versions of positive masculinity. In Brooklyn 99, Sergeant Terry Jeffords – played by Terry Crews, whose testimony regarding his own sexual assault was used in Believe – is a prime example of positive masculinity. He is traditionally masculine in the sense that he is physically strong (Herculean even), he demonstrates leadership in times of crisis, is brave and successful. He also has a family, a wife and 3 daughters, who he loves and cares for dearly. He is sensitive and compassionate as well as being strong and confident, Terry never uses his physical magnitude to unjustly intimidate or control the people around him. He is fine balance of strength and softness. Like Brooklyn 99, Sex Education has been praised for its fresh take and nuanced representation of positive masculinity. Jackson is probably the most traditionally manly character on the show. He’s athletic, he’s man’s man, popular, funny but not possessive or aggressive. Like Terry, he only ever uses his strength and status to protect. He is also open and honest in his love life and conveys emotional vulnerability to facilitate a healthy relationship. Why should any of that be so difficult? Why should that be threatening?

Terry Crews giving his testimony

Terry Crews may be a hero to so many young men not least because he is physically astounding, undoubtedly, he is the real life embodiment of what can be and what is so wonderful about men. He is  a prime example of how feminism can be a force to uplift and empower men as well as women. He stood by other survivors of sexual assault, bravely told his story, knowing that sexism and ignorance could lose him fans and possibly a lot of respect.

Crews made a very important point about how physical strength often is not the most important factor regarding assault, it’s so much more than that, it’s about power. But I digress. Gillette’s clip of Crews saying “men need to hold other men accountable” is extremely significant in that it addresses the “us and them” mentality that surrounds the feminist debate. 

Emma Watson at the United Nations Headquarters in New York in 2014
Watson at the UN Headquarters in 2014

HeForShe (and SheForHe)

Nearly 5 years ago Emma Watson gave a speech at the UN conveying the importance of feminism as a unifying force rather than a polarising issue for men and women – she received a backlash from feminists and non-feminists alike – this was disappointing particularly for the former. If nothing else, women attempting to possess and put an embargo on feminism is peevish. More than that, it’s not conducive to a health cooperative society. At worst, it could likely lead the gender equality movement to failure. Feminism should be for everyone, whether you like it or not. Feminism is for everyone. That is the only way it can put an end to the problems that affect people of all genders. Divisiveness and the alienation of would-be allies does nothing to help any of us. And, lest we forget, gay men, trans men, men of colour, men with mental health issues etc. are all men too, and can contribute to and benefit from feminist activism.While I understand and acknowledge the argument that the male angle on feminism can derail important conversations about women, I think feminism’s scope should be infinite. We should be able to have conversations about everyone, of all genders, races and orientations, in the context of feminism. Conversations about sexism and its effects on men does not have displace or replace conversations surrounding women’s issues. There is room for all.


“I have realised that fighting for women’s rights has too often become synonymous with man-hating. If there is one thing I know for certain, it is that this has to stop”

– Emma Watson

On the other end of the spectrum, the problem with the men representing a form of toxic masculinity is that they are seeing feminism as the enemy, as a force that tears down men and raises up women, not to meet them but to take their place. To some extent, they are not entirely to blame for this ideology. When women fly the flag of feminism whilst hashtaging “kill all men”, you can see where they’d get the idea that equality isn’t the end game here. A matriarchy is. 

But that’s not what real feminism is, or at least should be. Emma Watson was right all those years ago to point out that we are not vying for dominance. We should be working together to make sure that the injustices that face us, and have faced our ancestors before us, are eradicated. So many men argue against feminism, citing statistics regarding the disproportionate numbers of male suicide and authorities that are in place to help and protect people not taking violence against men seriouslyIt is sexist attitudes like these that silence male victims of abuse and tell men they must be in control, especially in control of women. If they admit to being abused, particularly at the hands of a female partner it’s seen to be emasculating  and they are often ridiculed as weak or as not being a “real” man. It is sexist attitudes such as these that hurt men. These are the ideologies and misunderstandings that caused 50 Cent to mock Terry Crews for speaking out about his assault; the idea that to be assaulted, worse yet, to admit to being assaulted is shameful.

But feminism could be the answer to those problems if we all allowed it to work as it’s meant to for everyone. Feminism could be the antidote to the patriarchal societal values that tell us “boys don’t cry” and that “real men” don’t allow themselves to suffer abuse.  These institutionalised ideas are the root cause of the shocking statistics for male suicide, owing to the inability to voice emotions and the pressure to be “tough”, leading eventually to severe mental illness and death. 


model looks through mirror into the camera

Fragile Femininity?

Morgan asserts in his article that “If I made a commercial aimed at female customers predicated on the generalised notion that women are liars, cheats, psychopaths and murderers (such women exist: I’ve interviewed many of them for my Killer Women crime series) and so every woman has to be taught how not to be those things, all hell would break loose and rightly so.” 

In fairness to those who have found fault with Gillette’s short film, if the tables were turned and it was a women’s beauty/healthcare brand presenting an advert that criticised femininity, some women may have been up in arms in the same way many men have been. But wouldn’t that then be a form of fragile femininity? That would be representative of a fringe feminist group that immaturely denies any fault or possible flaws in females. We should all be able to take criticism. Having said that, equating an advert that claims that women are murderous psychopaths with the critique of toxic masculinity in Believe is a bit of a stretch. Murderers, whether they be male or female, are not common. Female murderers are statistically even less common. Morgan’s very own series alludes to this in its title Killer Women, suggesting that this combination is unusual or even shocking. Gillette has hardly accused men of being sadistic, murderous, bloodthirsty maniacs. Now that really would have been worthy of controversy. It merely shows common behaviours that are generally considered harmless like boys fighting and cat-calling. 

A more fair equation would be an advert that showed, for example, girls bullying other girls with cruel comments at school or at work. That would be a valid way of showing that girls can do better. Indeed, we can all do better and we should work against the negative stereotypes that concern our genders, rather than deny they exist.  for example does tackle that issue, encouraging and drawing attention to instances where girls and women are seen to support one another and raise each other up, rather than adhering to the traditional stereotype of women deliberately tearing one another down.


row of male friends sit on top of a mountain laughing and joking together

Men Supporting Men 

I thought Believe made some pretty fair points. The focus was not actually on women, it was primarily on men and what they can do to help one another. There was, of course, reference made to the negative impact of female objectification and harassment but the main focus was actually on men treating other men with more compassion. Not bullying other boys/men for being sensitive, calling them “sissy” and not accepting violent behaviour: “we don’t treat each other that way.” Allowing the old “boys will be boys” mentality to continue will impact badly on women, yes, but it may impact worse on men. As stated above, domestic violence in the form of male on female crime are statistically horrific (women are far more likely to be killed by a partner or family member) but men are actually far more likely to be killed by other men than women are: “Globally, 79 per cent of all homicide victims were male and 21 per cent female. The global average male homicide rate is, at 9.7 per 100,000, almost four times the global average female rate (2.7 per 100,000 females). Males lead homicide trends both as victims and as perpetrators.”

Traditional masculinity tends to hurt the men that believe in it most. An attack on traditional masculinity is not an attack on men, it is the opposite. Putting an end to this normalisation of male violence towards one another is beneficial first and foremost to men. 


“Until men stand up and say, “This harassment, this abuse, these assaults are wrong,” nothing will change. Men need to hold other men accountable.”

– Terry Crews


In any case, it cannot be argued that Believe is directly misandrist. It even says “we believe in the best in men” and shows a reel of examples of men exhibiting courage and strength, stepping in and stepping up to behaviour that they don’t deem acceptable. This is chivalry, is it not? This is the heroic ideal in its 21st century form.

Isn’t all this violence, all this hurt, the real war on men?

Perhaps the central question here is: what kind of man do you want to be? What makes a man a man? In these questions, perhaps, you will find your answer. 




* Images are not my own. All images used have been sourced from Gillette’s Believe, the United Nations and Unsplash. No copyright infringement intended.


Dissecting Sexuality and Gender in Netflix’s Sex Education

Warning: Spoilers

So I finished watching Sex Education last night. I was late to the party but made up for it by binging all 8 episodes on Netflix in 2 days.

There was a lot to praise about the show. It could have so easily become a simple, trashy lame excuse for soft porn, but as it turns out, it achieved a lot more. Undeniably, and unsurprisingly, there was a lot of sex. But Sex Education still managed to keep the fine balance between cute, funny and sexy.

Aimee sitting seductively on Adam's bed

An even more impressive feat was tackling issues like homophobia, transphobia, feminism, abortion and class without coming across preachy or pandering. To be sure, that’s a lot of wokeness to cover in 8 hours but the show is subtle in it’s treatment of the problems its characters face. Lessons in building healthy relationships and consent are succinctly woven in, often in simple one-liners such as “You can’t choose who you’re attracted to” and “No means no” that flow effortlessly into the story, never feeling condescending or jammed-in to make sure they covered their bases.

Sex Education also avoids many pit falls that most of its sexed-up teen comedy-drama predecessors fell foul of. The characters are largely free of tired stereotypes and are all granted demonstrable complexity. The whole Otis-Maeve-Jackson love triangle appeared at first to be following a familiar old trope. It goes like this: nerdy but sweet ‘deep’ guy (Otis), falls in love with beautiful, neurotic girl (Maeve), but she’s with the archetypal ‘jock’ popular kid (Jackson). This is something we’ve seen over and over and over again. But this time, Otis doesn’t get the girl in the end (not yet, at least) nor does he believe he is fundamentally entitled to her. Maeve isn’t the done-to-death manic pixie dream girl that serves as a cure to Otis’ problems, she’s a driven character with goals and problems of her own to overcome. Jackson too is a multi-dimensional, loveable and sympathetic character. You could easily be rooting for him just as much as you root for Otis; they are not simply pitted against each other, the good guy and the bad guy- the guy she should be with and the guy who’s got her. There are jealousies, mixed emotions and nuances. Everything doesn’t just revolve around Otis.

Screen Shot 2019-02-03 at 19.13.57

Sex Education acknowledges and reflects the realities of love, sex and dating, using the “sex clinic” as a vehicle to explore the highs and lows young people experience as they reach sexual maturity. Unlike so many teen shows it reminds us that sex isn’t always…sexy. Sometimes you vomit while you’re giving a blowjob, sometimes you can’t ejaculate and sometimes you have to ask your partner to go and get your Mum. The show charmingly demonstrates that though sexual blunders are embarrassing, they’re normal, they happen to everyone and it is not the end of the world if you don’t know exactly what you’re doing.

The show also thankfully avoids stereotyping young men as singleminded, sex crazed creeps, and young women as judgemental, bitchy and sex averse. Lily, for one, point-blank propositions her male peers for sex. Maeve is a particularly indispensable character for a femme millennial audience. Not necessarily even likeable, definitely not soft or kind, she is unapologetic, pragmatic and smart. Her reaction to discovering that she is pregnant whilst at a house party is somewhat surprising, though very well-handled. There’s no crying, no hysterics. Maeve is a 17-year-old having to support herself whilst trying to achieve her potential at school, she is in no doubt as to what is the right decision for her. Equally, the abortion scene is sensitive without being sensational and totally medically accurate. It is not, however, dealt with heartlessly, the gravity of the situation and pre-op anxiety are palpable, but at the same time, it is not a scene wracked with shame or doubt.

Maeve is strong. She’s socially ostracised, relentlessly bullied and slut-shamed, nicknamed “cock biter” and though it’s clear that it hurts, she never comes across as a victim. She’s a fighter. She, frankly, has bigger fish to fry than making her classmates like her and she works hard to remain afloat under financial and academic pressure, whilst juggling a drug dealing brother, a new relationship and friendships. Maeve is the pivotal voice of the show’s overt feminist message. Her assertion of her own intellectual ability: “I’m really smart.” is imperative. She does not water it down. She does not say “I work really hard” or “I think I’m quite smart”, she knows she is smart and that she deserves the opportunity to reach her potential.

Maeve angrily facing up to heckler

The show also does a good job of representing a healthy attitude towards women and relationships in young men. Otis and Jackson represent the very antithesis of toxic and fragile masculinities. We often see Otis making the case for feminism. Particularly note-worthy is his exasperated outburst while Jackson is changing for swim practise “She’s not an object! You keep describing her as inanimate objects, but she is a person.” Otis points this out in a male locker room, symbolic of course of ‘locker room talk’ and it’s traditional function as an exclusively male space where women are discussed in often degrading terms. He further solidifies his role as an ally to women in his dealing with Liam and his romantic obsession with Lizzie. He is sympathetic to Liam’s unrequited attraction, “Sometimes the people we like don’t like us back, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” But sympathy does not come at the expense of the woman’s right to say no; “I know it’s hard but if you’ve asked her and she’s said no, then I think you’ve got your answer.” This is significant in a world that so often encourages young men to ‘never give up, never stop trying to get the woman of your dreams.’ Teen rom-coms as a genre are particularly guilty of encouraging young men to persevere, to make the “grand gesture”, even when they’ve been refused on multiple occasions. Sex Education turns this Hollywood norm on its head, conveying how ludicrous it truly is in a valuable lesson about respect and consent. Notably, Otis’ defence of women is almost always when they’re not there to defend themselves.

Otis smiling whilst at school prom

The women of Sex Education are not damsels in distress, they are on the front lines, defending themselves. Maeve, for example, fends for herself in episode 1 when some moron keeps heckling her with objectifying banalities such as “Nice rack, Wiley” she proceeds to kick him in the groin. Jackson is there and as we find out he is attracted to Maeve and it is clear that he disapproves of his classmate’s harassing comments from his facial expression. He could play the hero, he could jump to her defence. But he doesn’t, he steps back and allows her to handle it herself. When she has left, he tells his peer that he deserves what he got. Remarkably, Jackson is never possessive or controlling towards Maeve, even when he suspects she has feelings for Otis. There is never a big show of aggressive testosterone-fuelled rage. There is never a “you’re my woman and I own you” moment. Jackson is in fact much more emotionally vulnerable than most romantic male leads. As Sophia Benoit points out, “the guys who are unsuccessful on the show have one thing in common: they’re deeply isolated and closed-off emotionally”. Adam is a prime example of this. His lack of confidence in himself, emotionally abusive father and inability to communicate his wants and needs effectively have transformed him into a bully. He becomes isolated and dejected, having seemingly no one to turn to, and takes out his frustrations on Eric. The message is clear: communication and openness is key to healthy relationships (whether sexual or otherwise).

Adam in abandoned bathroom looking dejected

Despite all this, the school is hardly a feminist utopia of gender equality and sex positivity. As aforementioned, there is bullying, harassment and plenty of slut-shaming. Most significant may be the revenge porn incident in episode 6. Popular mean girl Ruby is betrayed when a picture of her vagina is leaked to the whole school. It transpires that Ruby’s supposed best friend Olivia was intending to shame Ruby publicly as a punishment for her cruelty. This episode, however, is surprisingly significant – counterintuitively – in terms of providing examples of girls protecting other girls. In spite of Ruby’s appalling treatment of her, Maeve is determined to find out who leaked the explicit photo and to prevent Ruby’s public humiliation; “This kind of thing sticks. And it hurts, and no one deserves to be shamed, not even Ruby.” The salient point here is a valuable one. Even though you may not like someone personally, your fundamental values have to be the same. You have to be on their side in a case of injustice, Otis and Maeve acknowledge that everyone deserves the same rights to dignity and privacy whether they like them or not. Significant too is the potentially iconic “it’s my vagina” scene. When students start suspecting that the pornographic image is of Ruby, Olivia attempts to take the hit, she stands up in assembly and claims that the picture is of herself. There is then a Spartacus-esque example of solidarity, with most female students and Jackson standing up and proclaiming that the vagina in question is their’s.

Perhaps the most interesting character arch, though, is Eric’s. Again, on the surface it appears as if we are confronting another worn-out stereotype: the gay best friend (only this time, the male lead’s side-kick). But where rom-coms and chick-flicks have failed, Sex Education succeeds in dealing with gay men as actual multi-dimensional people, with real emotions and facing very real problems. Eric is a departure from Sex and the City’s Stanford and Mean Girls’ Damien. He encompasses everything that was right with those characters inasmuch he is hilarious, witty, and stylish. However, what is crucially different in Sex Education is that we actually witness some of the painful realities of growing up gay. The show also briefly touches on some trans issues, though, it should be noted that there are no trans characters featured. Eric and Otis both dress in women’s clothing and wear makeup for an outing on Eric’s birthday. One unfortunate situation leads to another, and Eric ends up walking home alone at night.

A violent experience ensues, in which Eric is verbally and physically abused and his assailants spit on and humiliate him. It is a chilling and all too realistic account of the dangers that face trans and queer people. The encounter sees Eric temporarily lose a part of his identity, his confidence is shattered, immediately after he abandons his outlandish neon outfits in favour of a muted khaki hoodie and loose jeans. He also loses his ability to brush off his peers’ cutting insults and punches Anwar, “the only other gay in school” in the face. This could be more poignant than simply giving a bully some payback for all the hurt he’s caused, it is perhaps a metaphor for Eric’s struggle with, and attack on his own queerness in the wake of his own assault.

Eric having an emotional conversation with his father whilst sitting in their car

Eric reasserts his sense of self in two unexpected places. First, he encounters a man trying to find his way to a wedding. This stranger wears a flamboyant patterned gold blazer, electric blue eyeshadow and “fierce” blue nail polish. The exchange seems to inspire a resurge of confidence in Eric and demonstrates an unapologetic form of black gay manhood, one in which a person express their identity as they choose. Later, Eric joins his family at church and there, perhaps most surprisingly, he regains his self. Organised religion is rarely a healing force in LGBT+ stories. It is seldom even explored other than as an obstacle representing fundamentalist and traditionalist values that usually serve to oppress and shame queer people. Here, however, is a refreshing reminder that things do not necessarily have to be that way. The church scene strips the Christian message back to its very core, what this means to Eric and maybe to all LGBT+ people could be momentous:

“Jesus loves! His love is greater than fear. His love is stronger than uncertainty. His love is deeper than hate. Jesus said: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Yourself. Yourself. Love starts here. We must all learn to love ourselves before we truly love others. Who are you to not love yourself?”

The pastor embraces Eric, “You are welcome any time. This is your family.” Contrary to the painful, though oftentimes accurate, portrayal of religion as a primary source of self-loathing and oppression in a gay person’s life, Eric is not dismissed or disdained, he is uplifted. It may be true that this scene is more about community and Eric’s reconciling his identity as a gay black man, than it is about religion in essence. But it is a commendable effort in beginning to harmonise seemingly disparate aspects of identity, that many queer people from religious backgrounds can struggle with.

Race is actually one of the most under-explored concepts in Sex Education. However, relatable, finely-drawn characters such as Jackson, Ola and (principally) Eric may stand as testament to the show’s commitment to portraying underrepresented groups. There is, however, a particularly beautiful sequence that explores the immigrant experience in Britain. When Eric gets dressed up for the school dance in an unapologetically African, unapologetically gay outfit with glittering makeup, a colourful suit and a traditional West African Gele (head tie), it unclear how is his conservative Ghanian-Nigerian family will react. His appearance is met with cliff-hanging silence, which is then broken by his father: “Wait. I’ll drive you.” Eric’s father gives him a lift to the dance but appears to lose his nerve as Eric approaches the school. At this point, the oft alluded to rift between first and second generation immigrants is explored. It becomes clear that Eric’s father is a good man, his fear is informed by his own experiences and his own struggle to acclimatise to a new culture and country. He knows how much he had to change, to fit in and he fears for Eric. It is an honest fear, not a prejudiced homophobia, coming from a place of love and concern. He wants to protect his son from a world that he knows can be harsh on difference.

Eric in drag wearing leopard print dress, purple eyeshadow and yellow earrings

This is, no doubt, a very common fear amongst the parents of LGBT+ kids. No matter how accepting you may be of your child’s orientation, it can be difficult to shake the fear that they will be discriminated against, abused or worse. This fear is dealt with sympathetically, Eric’s father is given a chance to articulate his fears and his understandable urge to protect his son. But ultimately Eric is able to convey to his father that fear does not help him and suppressing the way he expresses his identity is not the answer. Eric tells his father “this is me.” He represents a generation of immigrants that refuse to change who they are to fit in. Eric clearly gets through to his father and a mutual respect and understanding is reached. “Maybe I am learning from my brave son.”

Indeed, there is a lot to be learned from this show. Sex Education is very much a product of its time. It speaks to and for a generation where feminism is mainstream, as is the call for sexual and racial diversity, representation and sex positivity. Ncuti Gatwa (Eric) affirms the show’s positive influence, telling The Sunday Times, “I’ve had so many DMs and messages from people saying that Eric has inspired them to be what they want to be. He presents masculinity in ways we’ve not seen before.” Emma Mackey (Maeve) concurs, “This show is quite revolutionary and political in its own right, and I think it could have a big effect on young women and men.” The show’s impact on its audience and on other film and television could be radical, it could even be revolutionary. Sex Education has set itself a high bar, it will be interesting to see where the show takes us next.



Sex Education is available to watch now on Netflix. Season 2 is set to be aired in Spring 2019

*Images are not my own. Copyright: Netflix, 2019


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