Here are five key ways that the final season of Netflix’s Sex Education missed opportunities to send positive messages to teenagers.
This post contains spoilers and mentions of suicidal ideation.
Mel and El have both been huge fans of the Netflix show Sex Education since the release of season one in 2019. The first three seasons are jam packed with authentic representations of LGBTQ characters from a diverse range of backgrounds. They also model great communication skills and consent practices - paving the way for young people to learn and internalise so many healthy messages and ways of relating to others.
Going into season 4 of such an impactful show, and knowing it was the series finale, El in particular was very excited. However the show did not deliver to its usual standard, and disappointingly teenagers have been let down by an array of missed opportunities at best, and damaging representations at worst. There were so many ways that this season of Sex Education let us down, but here are the five that bothered us the most.
Five big ways that Sex Education Season 4 has let teenagers down
1. Cavendish College - 'Where cool is kind'
The season starts with many of the show’s characters heading to a new school, Cavendish College. The school is portrayed somewhat as a Utopia, where all activities, clubs and services are student-led. Students at Cavendish don’t gossip, they preach that they only speak kindly about others. The ‘popular’ group at Cavendish is portrayed as seemingly living strictly by these values. However rather than this being a pleasant portrayal, modelling good communication skills, something about these characters is unsettling. This level of 'nice' feels very unsustainable and inauthentic. The friends - especially the ‘queen bee’ of the group, Abbi - refuse to acknowledge anything unpleasant and frame everything in a positive light. This is an example of toxic positivity, which does nothing to educate teenagers on healthy ways to deal with adversity and navigate stress.
Watching this season unravel, we were really waiting for there to be some massive catalyst that exposed the true struggles of the school community and shone a light on the issues with the way this school was run, in order to show that toxic positivity is not a sustainable way of managing things. However this never came. Sex Education gave us a nod to the fact that this is not the most healthy way of relating, by having Abbi’s character reach a point where she explained her own personal traumas and how her constant positive framing of things is a coping mechanism. However this wasn’t really enough to make up for a whole season of watching uncomfortable, tense, toxically positive interactions. We really wanted a more powerful lesson to come from all this than just one individual’s story, in a school where the entire system seems to thrive on toxic positivity.
2. Otis’s ENTITLED arrogance
Otis was never really the most likeable main character of a show to begin with, in our personal opinion, but this season of Sex Education really took Otis to new lows. He strolls into Cavendish College as a brand new student and decides to set up his sex therapy clinic. This was something that went well for him at his old school and Cavendish is student-led, so it’s not a huge surprise that Otis wants to set up a clinic at his new school, too. Trouble starts when Otis finds out that another student, named O, already runs a sex therapy clinic on site.
Otis takes this to heart, accusing O of ‘stealing his idea’ and challenging her to an election so that the students can vote for which them gets the right to keep their clinic running. This reaction is immature and unfair, and shines a light on the extent to which Otis can’t see his own privilege as a straight, white male. It’s illogical to believe that O may have stolen Otis’s idea of a sex therapy clinic - she has been running this on campus well before he arrived. It’s arrogant to assume that she would have heard of him and copied his work. And it’s entitled of him to challenge her to try to knock her off her post. Sex Education could have used this storyline to educate teenagers on productive and rational ways of communication in a situation like this, instead of creating toxic drama - seemingly just for the sake of drama.
And this isn’t the only situation where Otis acts in an entitled, toxic way. Maeve, a character who has had a very turbulent upbringing in England, is finally given a great opportunity to study writing at a college in the US. Otis, who at the time is dating her, is only supportive when she can reassure him that she won’t stay there forever and will return soon. When Maeve returns to England after her mother’s death, she has lost confidence in herself as a writer and no longer plans on returning to the states. Otis himself is selfishly pleased to hear this, and when his mum Jean has a conversation with Maeve that gives her the confidence to return to chasing her dream in the US, Otis’s initial reaction is outrage that his mother would 'put the idea back into her head'. He cares more about his own wants than his partner’s ambitions, and although he does eventually have a change of heart, it’s not really enough to cement for teenagers in the audience how unhealthy his way of relating is, or to model better communication skills.
It’s only fair to mention here that Sex Education does attempt to address Otis’s arrogance and blindness to his own privilege. His long time best friend, Eric, expresses to Otis that he feels like Otis doesn’t truly understand Eric’s experiences as a black, gay man. However Otis, rather than taking it upon himself to seek out education to better understand other people’s perspectives and experiences, is dismissive of Eric and does nothing to gain more empathy. At the end of the season, Eric and Otis even become friends again, without Otis having done anything to be a more supportive and understanding friend to Eric. Otis could have said something as simple as “Eric, I know I haven’t been the best friend lately, but I really want to change that, so if you want to talk more about how you’ve been feeling, I’d love to listen”, but not even this small opportunity to model good communication skills was taken by the show.
3. A missed opportunity for awareness of red flags for abuse
Many teenagers are entering into intimate and romantic relationships for the first time, and it’s not always easy to identify abusive or toxic behaviours. This is especially true if you’ve never seen them pictured and called out before, or worse if you’ve only ever seen the portrayals typical of 90s romantic comedies, where toxic traits are often romanticised. For this reason, it’s really important that teenagers are exposed to realistic and authentic representations of toxic relationships, so that they know what to look out for, and have examples in mind of things that can be said and done to either support a friend in an abusive relationship, or to seek support for themselves.
The writers of Sex Education clearly saw this opportunity, by writing in a storyline where Vivienne (Viv) dates Beau, who turns out to be an unsafe person for her. To an experienced eye, Beau displays red flags for toxic behaviour at the very start of his relationship with Viv, in the form of love bombing. Love bombing has traditionally been portrayed in films and TV shows as being romantic, when in fact it is a potential indicator that a person may tend towards emotional abuse and coercive control. No character in the show ever discusses Beau’s love bombing, which is a missed opportunity for the show to educate teenagers on what this looks like and the fact that it is a sign to be cautious, rather than a romantic gesture.
To the show’s credit, Jackson does eventually realise that something isn’t quite right with Beau and Viv’s relationship, and tries to express this to Viv - who isn’t ready to listen yet. This is a fair representation of the struggle that people can have to identify toxic behaviours in a relationship when they are in the thick of it. Viv eventually comes to agree with Jackson, but it’s only after Beau becomes physically violent with her. This is problematic, as it plays into a misbelief that abuse is only abuse when it’s physical. It would be far more useful to depict for teenagers the subtleties of emotional abuse and coercive control - traits that Beau did already have as a character - without bringing physical violence into the picture. All this does is make it seem like only people in physically abusive relationships have the right to seek support and get out of that relationship, which is a dangerous message to be sending to young people.
4. A damaging trans portrayal
Season 3 of Sex Education provided teenagers, and everyone else in the audience, with two very different yet very authentic representations of trans non-binary students - Layla and Cal. We were very moved by Cal’s character in season 3, as they were a strong, independent young person who stood up for themselves and their identity and was assured in who they were and what they wanted. They were the kind of person who confidently and unapologetically corrected people on their own pronouns. Who walked away from a romantic relationship with Jackson because Jackson identifies as straight, and this made Cal feel like he saw them as a woman rather than as non-binary. Cal was also seen to teach Layla a safer way to bind their chest, taking on somewhat of a mentor role for them. In season 3, Cal was the kind of character who made us, as non-binary people, feel seen, who made us grateful that the next generation will be able to experience a broad range of people reflected in the media they consume, and who moved us when we realised that young non-binary people would be able to see themselves reflected on screen.
Because of all this, going into season 4 of Sex Education, we were particularly excited to see where Cal’s character would go. Sadly, this storyline was potentially the most disappointing of them all. It let us down not only because it didn’t achieve the positive representation of the previous season, but because it actively sent damaging messages about trans experiences. To begin with, season 4 Cal is no longer a confident, self-assured person. The new Cal storyline is a sad trope of the struggling trans person, which we’ve seen for decades. Cal has been waiting for years to get top surgery to affirm their gender, and they don’t seem to be getting any closer to being admitted for the procedure. This leads to Cal falling into a deep depression and eventually contemplating taking their own life.
Now we don’t want for a second to detract from the difficulties that trans and gender diverse people face when trying to access gender affirming healthcare. The reality is that there are insurmountable barriers for trans and gender diverse people across the globe, especially when it comes to accessing gender affirming healthcare, and that this does contribute to very real and very serious mental health problems. So the issue here is not that this storyline was necessarily misrepresentative of a type of trans experience. The issue rather is that Sex Education started with a character who was a very inspiring, reassuring role model for teenagers - someone you could look at as a young, gender diverse person and think “I am going to be ok”. Someone cis people could learn to love for who they are, rather than pity for their struggles. Struggles that stem from systemic injustices in our society - from discrimination against trans and gender diverse people. The show could have tackled these issues by focusing on transphobia and how to challenge it, but instead chose to break down the strength of Cal’s character and base their entire mental health on whether they could access top surgery. The cherry on top of the cake here was when students at Cavendish decided to raise money for Cal’s top surgery. Again, while accessing gender affirming surgery can be life changing and even life saving, Cal’s entire identity and mental health was reduced to this one thing in this season of the show. Their character was boiled down and simplified and the focus was placed entirely on their surgery to 'save them' and improve their mental health. Instead, the show could have highlighted the fact that the way that trans and gender diverse people are treated and misgendered everyday is often one of the biggest reasons that many people seek gender affirming surgeries in the first place, and modelled ways that allies can do better to help prevent these feelings in the first place.
5. A misstep in asexual representation
Asexual characters have only just recently started to receive representation for the first time ever. And when an identity has been overlooked for so long, it’s important that representations are authentic and likeable, otherwise we as viewers can form a negative stereotype about people without any real basis. Sex Education hired Yasmin Benoit, an asexual activist, to consult on O’s storyline - O being an asexual character. Benoit is quoted as saying that:
“The heartless asexual villain was something I was literally in the writers’ room saying we’ve got to be careful because we don’t want this to happen.”
Despite this, the show still went on an portrayed O as just that - a heartless villain. Benoit also claims that O’s character was supposed to have a lot of context to why she did the nasty things she did - like telling everyone in the school when Ruby wet the bed on camp. There were supposed to be scenes where other children were making fun of O for being ‘frigid’, shining a light on ways that asexual people are often singled out and bullied, to contextualise her behaviour as being a result of discriminatory bullying. However this was left out, leaving us with a villain of a character with no real backstory to allow us to understand the ways in which she was also treated unfairly.
In saying all this, we want to be clear that being bullied is not an excuse for bullying others. However, portraying a person in a minority group as a villain without contextualising the reasons that they act in the ways they do, is an oversimplification, and contributes to negative representations of people who are already underrepresented.
These are just some of the ways in which season 4 of Sex Education let teenagers down, and sadly there were many more. It was a real disappointment to see a show that previously had such authentic, positive representations of a diverse group of people let teenagers down by sending watered down, inauthentic and sometimes damaging messages. The show won’t be returning for a 5th season.
Mel Brush [he/they] and Eleonora Bertsa-Fuchs [she/they] are experts in fostering a culture of consent and LGBTIQA+ inclusion. They run training and deliver keynote speeches for schools and workplaces.