Fresh off the back of their collaboration with House of Holland, we talk to the cast about puberty, growing up, and the importance of self love.
Brit designer Henry Holland has never shied away from the risqué. His slogan T-shirts have become synonymous with his brand, boasting declarations like 2006’s “Flick Yer Bean For Agyness Deyn” and the rather more current, “I’m Yours For a Tenner Kendall Jenner”. Now, it’s the turn of zeitgeist show, Netflix’s latest original production, Sex Education to get the Holland treatment. “It’s my vagina” reads the T-shirt created by Holland in collaboration with the programme; a now iconic line that was birthed from a ingenious moment on screen, think Spartacus but for genitalia.
“It holds a really strong message of empowerment, for men, women and young people: that they’re in control of their own bodies and are able to choose what it is they do with them,” enthuses the designer, and it’s this subversion of the tight-lipped British treatment of sex, along with the rewiring of the typical high school romantic drama format that makes Sex Education so commendable. Playing Maeve — the rebellious female lead with an interest in punk music and complex female characters — Emma Mackey explains, “It’s great to see those tropes dissolve a little bit: the jock’s got anxiety, the most unpopular girl in school is popular for all the wrong reasons, but she doesn’t give a shit… It’s just great. I love it.”
The result is something hilarious, heart-warming and, as Mackey says, “political, and important.” The show takes on a litany of teenage subjects — vagina shaming, female masturbation, nudes — and deals with them in refreshingly relevant ways. “It’s my vagina” is defiantly declared by every girl in the school assembly in order to protect the victim of a circulated naked photo from being named and shamed. It’s no longer cool to say “you can’t sit with us” à la Mean Girls, solidarity is the name of the game in 2019.
A potentially awkward scene in which the protagonist Otis’ best friend Eric (brilliantly played by Ncuti Gatwa) rejects the advances of a female classmate because he’s gay ends in them sharing a moment of self-expression, dressing up and doing each others’ make-up. Lily, the girl who approaches him, is the author and illustrator of an expansive volume of erotic space cartoons, a fantasy which she eventually lives out at the show’s conclusion. The narrative strands of romance, argument and friendship are interwoven with valuable life lessons to serve teens, all told without a hint of condescension or didacticism. By contextualising these real-life problems within a compelling plot, the show normalises them far more effectively than any actual Sex Ed class ever could.
In one of the most poignant scenes of the show, Aimee Lou Wood’s character, Aimee has her eyes opened to masturbation. The subsequent montage (whereby every corner of her room is “re-discovered” with this new goal in mind) showcases Sex Education’s simultaneous dedication to empowerment through humour, allowing Wood’s character — who for much of the series is a member of the school’s “cool” gang — a sensitive, accessible moment when afforded this revelatory information.
“You think that she’s so confident and sexually liberated,” Wood explains, “but she’s actually the most sexually entrapped. She’s just having sex for the guy, she’s performing, using it as a currency, rather than enjoying it. There were so many boys and girls at school that had this sort of sexual confidence, and you just think now, was anyone actually enjoying it?”
It’s this ability to make viewers reflect on their experiences and question them that makes the show so vital, and by no means reserved for a specific demographic. “Watching the first episode,” Mackey says, “people ask: ‘Where is this set, they’ve all got phones but look like they’re in The Breakfast Club?’ But then they get over it.” She continues, “It’s in its own bubble. It’s always sunny there, you don’t know whether it’s summer or winter or what year it is, but I think that’s the point. When it comes to the more potentially dramatic elements of the story, it makes you focus on the characters more, and that’s why it works so well.” This lack of temporal or geographical specificity opens the show to all ages, a multi-generational education in sex and relationships.
Wood recalls the shock of her mother and her friends when they witnessed her say “wank”; the very notion of female masturbation was completely unavailable to many from their generation of women. “They had never heard a girl speak about pleasure, or getting theirs, ever,” she explains. “It made me so happy that that storyline was encouraging older women too. If Aimee’s story makes my mum and her friends start going home to their husbands and saying, ‘I demand this, this is what I actually like but I’ve just not told you for years because I’ve been embarrassed,’ then that’s amazing.”
Despite its name, Sex Education is not just about sex, but about growing up, and the show rejects the genre’s tendency to only afford white, heteronormative characters a coming-of-age story. The plot takes us inside the house of Eric Effiong, the queer, black best friend of Otis, and Gatwa cannot speak enough on the importance of his character.
“There’s shame attached to so many things in this world,” he says. “Whether it be your sexuality, religion, race, someone’s always got something to say. The more we show these things as normal, the better.” It is not only the inclusivity that Gatwa thinks is vital, but the way in which the show treats his plot. “There’s lots of different story lines in Sex Ed,” he continues, “Eric’s experiences, the fact that Jackson has two mums but it’s never a thing… It’s assumed as normal. Yes, it’s diverse, and this might not have been seen that much before, but it’s also normalised. And when it’s normalised, I think it gives power to what we’re watching, it’s actually reflective of real life society.”
Sex Education’s collaboration with Henry Holland will debut at London Fashion Week.