At home hunkered over Netflix I recently encountered what might be the most racially objectifying scene ever.
The Netflix web TV series Sex Education presents itself as unassailably forward-thinking, which should be a cause for alarm right away. From the first scene I was intrigued by the fable-like milieu, the candy design, the alluring evanescence of the lead character Otis (Asa Butterfield), not to mention his mother played by Gillian Anderson, seemingly cryogenically revivified from the X-Files, more charismatic than ever. Yet all of this dissolves in the face of a new kind of sexual morality displayed by the show. Despite professing to have an empathetic and all-accepting vision of teenage sexual discovery, you cannot help but squirm under what feels like a scoldy tone of “Be like I say, or else!”
The show purports to celebrate the endearing confusion of learning to be sexual in a world saturated with erotic imagery and easy sex, a world where sexual coupling is piped pretty much directly into your visual cortex. Anybody familiar with the internet (which is most everybody) knows that you are expected to have an easygoing, emotion-free, throwaway attitude to sex, no matter how young and inexperienced you might be. Never mind that you might feel pain, loneliness, confusion, anxiety and even horror.
The contemporary media largely reframes all of this natural sexual complexity into a moral framework — to “shut up about all of that pain and enjoy!”. The psychological particularity of each person’s sexuality is held to account by this moral framework and if it is found wanting it is dismissed.
In the show Otis is hard put upon by his mother, a sexually voracious sex therapist under whose disapproving gaze he squirms with inadequacy. Otis quite rightly understands that his mother cannot see through to the real him, and regards him simply as a sexually dysfunctional teenager straight out of her social psychology textbooks (the poor 16-year-old cannot even get himself to masturbate). This should make for liberating viewing, you might think.
Indeed, the script seems to explore the particular sexual conundrums of each character, but you are suspended between that which it purports to do, and that which you are aware it is actually doing: holding them all up to the overweening sexual morality of “Just shut up about all of that pain and enjoy!”. In every episode the deep-seated psychological obstacles to an easeful sexuality are given a cursory nod, and then dispelled by directives that belong more to self-help manuals and social engineering than to any form of therapy. Social policy programmes masquerading as psychotherapy: it’s a wicked bit of double-speak.
But all of that might still make for some nice candied viewing to salve the Covid-19 anxiety. Until you factor in Otis’s best friend Eric (Ncuti Gatwa). Here one is presented with a sixteen-year old on the brink of coming out to his parents, who have immigrated from West Africa to the United Kingdom. Of course, Eric’s family are devout Christians, are suffering from chronic culture shock, and look upon this near-stranger Eric with bewildered affection.
It is an excruciatingly racist stereotype: the person of colour struggling to seat himself in a non-binary sexuality, while his “white” female friends can openly date each other, which allows them to explore their particular psychological sexual hang-ups — so constructing them as full human beings, while miring him as no more than a racial manifestation.
Even that might be acceptable to a sophisticated viewing, in which you reframe the series as exploring the process of racist stereotyping itself. That is until the crucial scene, presented as the heart of the film, where Eric and his family reconcile to his homosexuality. The run-up to this scene is a terrible incident where Eric, while walking home in drag from a showing of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, is beaten up by a gay-basher. This catapults his parents from bewilderment to acceptance of his sexuality.
Crucially though, this is only possible, so claims the narrative, because Eric joins them at church after a long absence, and there in a scene lit in sunset glow (you can see the dust motes floating afire with the Holy Spirit) enters a state of religious ecstasy, dancing and singing with his West African immigrant community in full traditional regalia. The gaze on Eric states that is only by embracing his religious roots, family and African ancestry can he win his sexual freedom. Eric is not allowed to be a sexual agent unless he is also constrained as an instance of a race.
Eric is so garishly presented as the Other that the disquiet you have been feeling throughout the series at last ruptures. Crucially, it is that Eric is racially celebrated that confirms the portrayal as racist. In a way, this scene is valuable in that it shows how celebration is, in fact, the most painful way of subjugating those constructed as the Other. Through this scene, you can feel how those inside society have the power to objectify those outside by either vilifying or celebrating them. These are two sides of the same coin in the act of objectification.
You can only conclude that the way the series engages in a dual discourse around sexual anxiety and a new sexual morality that requires we just “shut up about all of that pain and enjoy!”, and the way it falls foul of racism through celebrating the Other, are all part of the same impulse towards social control over the rampant and indefinable human psyche.