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[This story contains spoilers from season two of Netflix’s Sex Education.]
In Sex Education’s second season, the Netflix dramedy tackles a tough topic that’s been fueling storylines on television for decades.
Sexual assault, and its aftermath, are straightforward dramatic fodder. The act itself, shown often from a male point of view, offers the kind of violence and shock value that shows hinge ratings on. The trauma that follows — for the survivor, their friends and family, even the assailant at times — serves to script a superficial backstory. It’s the effortless answer to questions of character, motivation, personality and imperfection. What motivates the hero to seek revenge? Why is this woman labeled “damaged goods”?
Sexual assault, when used as a simple plot device, is lazy writing at best, harmful reinforcement of negative stereotypes at its worst — which is why the use of it in the sophomore season of Netflix’s surprise teen comedy feels so revolutionary.
In season two of Sex Education, creator Laurie Nunn weaponizes a familiar trope for the benefit of her characters in unexpected ways. Although this series has never shied away from taboo subject matter, the choice to have the lovable, naïve Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood) endure an unwanted sexual encounter in the show’s third episode marks its first foray into the complicated, rarely-done-well world of sexual assault on TV.
It’s a difficult character arc to chart, especially for a comedic series that often offers lighthearted observations on sex, but the show rebels against any kind of expected formula to confront a bigger issue than just one woman’s disastrous experience on a bus. By showing Aimee suffering through a stranger’s attempt to masturbate on her while taking public transport and by dedicating episodes’ worth of storytelling to examining the aftermath of that incident, Sex Education makes a bold statement about what is and isn’t acceptable when it comes to women’s bodies. And it uses our collective female rage to do it.
For Nunn, the idea of Aimee’s sexual assault storyline sprang from personal experience, and the desire to make a clear statement about women’s shared trauma.
“Just because you are a woman doesn’t mean you’re going to have lots in common with other women,” Nunn tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I think sometimes that’s a narrative that gets put forward when we talk about female solidarity, but this is the one thing that all of these girls can say, ‘OK, we’ll put our differences aside and we will come together for this, because we all understand that on a base level.’”
Sex Education uses Aimee’s assault to bridge a divide between multiple female characters of all ethnicities, from differing backgrounds, to paint a picture of how universal the problem really is. Characters like Maeve (Emma Mackey), Ola (Patricia Allison), Lily (Tanya Reynolds), Olivia (Simone Ashley) and newcomer Viv (Chinenye Ezeudu) each share their own experiences with sexual assault in its kaleidoscope of forms: indecent exposure at a local swimming pool; a groping on the tube; slut-shaming; harassment; stalking. Each of the girls have suffered under the suffocating weight of rape culture in different but equal measure.
“We have a hierarchy of trauma, and if you don’t experience something in the top rung of trauma as a woman, the vibe is, ‘Well, it’s just part of being a woman. Men are like that. You’ve just got to suck it up and get on with it,’” Wood says of how women often compare their experiences with sexual assault. “We think that you just have to push it down and get on with it because otherwise you’re making a scene. You’re taking up space.”
But taking up space and making a scene is exactly what Nunn allows her female characters to do.
While Aimee spends episodes sifting through the ruble of her once safe and secure life, pushing those closest to her away, unleashing her rage and giving into her overwhelming feelings of sadness and confusion, things come to a head in the show’s seventh episode, when the girls are serving detention and begin to bond over “nonconsensual penises.” Aimee’s emotional outburst spurs the women to relive their own trauma, but Nunn pushes past the temptation to focus solely on the painful commiserating of these girls by allowing them to lean into their anger, their frustration, their physical need for release.
“I think female rage is a very interesting thing to look at because I think so many women feel so much sadness and so much anger at the moment,” Nunn says. “It’s a feeling of, ‘I’ve got all of this anger and rage and I don’t know what to do with it because I’m not really allowed to express that in society.’ So therefore, we cry, and then when we cry, we get seen as weak. I wanted to show that, ‘Yeah, women can be angry too, and I think that’s a very valid thing.’”
For Wood, filming the episode’s junkyard scene, when the women express their rage by smashing car windows with sledgehammers and beating old television sets with baseball bats, was freeing in ways she didn’t expect.
“It was really emotional, letting out that beast within us,” says the actress. “We live in a world where we all make ourselves quite digestible and sweet and we don’t take up too much room. We had the written scenes and then we had a montage, and for the montage, [our director] put on some music and said, ‘Do whatever you want. Just fucking go for it.’ It was amazing because you have the lovely, cathartic bit when they’re all in detention together and they’re talking. But I think it was interesting to see both dynamics, the very gentle, soft, caring response and then also this angry, rageful response.”
Women on television are rarely allowed to give into feelings of anger or frustration without a stigma attached. Even when they experience something as violating and life-altering as sexual assault, they’re portrayed as meek, quietly resilient martyrs, characters who’ve survived the worst and emerged stronger, wiser, perhaps more empathetic, but never outraged, seldom vengeful. To be that they’d risk being labeled as “crazy,” “bitter” or “dramatic,” death-knells when it comes to the likability demanded of our female heroes.
But Sex Education is trying to change that.
“I think what’s amazing is that Sex Education says, ‘No, it’s wrong and you’re allowed to feel angry and you’re allowed to feel sad and you’re allowed to feel traumatized by it,’” Wood says. “It shouldn’t be just the way of the world. It shouldn’t be just something that we have to get used to. It shouldn’t happen at all.”
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