Source: Unsplash by Mariia Shalabaieva
By Olivia Garrett.
If you were hopeful that Sex Education’s latest series would excite (not in that way), the chances are that you were impressed in every area but one.
As a show that is often way ahead of the curb in terms of TV bravery, Netflix’s Sex Education is a paint by numbers of exemplary script writing. Before Squid Game came along with its frightening helmets and desserts, Sex Education’s latest series understandably topped the Netflix charts (https://www.forbes.com/sites/paultassi/2021/09/19/sex-education-season-3-tops-netflix-so-will-season-4-be-greenlit/?sh=467054df6547) and was feverishly binged by thousands. With its usual amount of ground-breaking discussions and in-depth representation, the show has maintained its royal status. However, as hinted in the trailer, this series also saw a shift in direction centred around a shiny new antagonist: the replacement teacher Hope Haddon (Jemima Kirke). Great things were expected from this, and yet where the show usually likes to explore all the onion-like layers of a character’s emotional (if not horny) depth, for me its newest character was an unfortunate flop, with layers thinner than the pages of Gene Milburn’s new book.
Dancing her way into the show, Hope starts off the series as the high-strung ball-busting type who would remind anyone of their least favourite high school teacher. While her chanted desire to get Moordale ‘back on track’ has a fairly ominous and Trumpy air to it, her insistence that the students call her ‘Hope’ feels very real, and is reminiscent of the difficulties many women face in the workplace; wanting to appear powerful but not bossy, friendly but not soft. This means that, although the trailer may have already given away her antagonistic status, it is easy to understand her Ofsted motivations and type A attitude in these opening episodes. In reality, every British teen has encountered the teacher who sadly obsesses over skirt-length and corridor clutter. Her villainy comes through in the nuances of Kirke’s performance, the brilliant line ‘I understand I’m a feminist’ when Cal is arguing for gender neutral clothing, exposes her for the fake smiler and performative liberal she is. In short, she’s bad, but in an everyday way, one that the audience can see and enjoy.
However after the disastrous, and wretch-inducing (thanks Sex Education), visit to France in episode five, Hope goes from a slight Karen to a raging Umbridge. From hanging shame signs around the necks of students to locking one in a classroom, her character becomes a hyperbolic and abusive mess who suspends all belief in the reality of the show. And, look, I know Sex Education is set in this weird aphrodisiacal realm where Welsh valleys meet English accents and American lockers, but no head teacher these days lives without the fear of being sued, or worse Tweeted about. Yet the writers expect us to believe that a grown educator would happily fight a child on school premises? From this point, all our empathy and believability of the character flies away and, like Apollo 13, we are forced to watch Kirke desperately try and ground her.
And what motivation do the writers give to this violent transphobe? Why that tired adage: fertility issues. This unhealthy screen relationship between IVF and blaming women is so tightly bound that not even Friends or Gavin and Stacey could unravel it. Where fertility issues are common, and right to be discussed on a show like Sex Education, using it as an excuse for bullying and abusive behaviour does not wash and the writer’s should know better than to succumb to the barren women are monsters approach. We have gone past the stage where private tragedies are a suitable justification for a teacher’s bad behaviour, *cough* Snape apologists *cough*. Are we supposed to root for a woman like that to become pregnant? God knows what kinds of shame and humiliation that child would have to go through if they didn’t conform to Hope’s neurosis. Overall, this layer feels tacked on and a last ditch attempt to bring some humanity to a character who has already floated off into the realm of melodrama.
Her one-dimensional nature shows these until now indomitable writers falling into the unfortunate trap of flaky TV villainesses. Like Jaime and Cersei, and Spike and Drusilla before them, the female villain is so often left a cold, unlikeable husk, while the male is afforded a moving redemption arch. In this series’ case Mr Groff (Alistair Petrie), an abusive father and bad husband, is given a tragic backstory, new hobbies, and second chances with ex-wife Maureen, all the while clambering back up the sympathy ladder. But why was Hope not afforded this same sympathetic treatment? Why was she plain evil and not equally complicated? So often we see the villain find new love, new priorities and a better status in the show, yet the woman remains there to be purely disliked and devoid of improvement. Where the villain is given humour and charisma, the villainess is dark and lifeless, where the villain is given a backstory, the villainess is given small excuses, and where the villain is saved through a woman’s love, the villainess is left lonely and empty. If this series is to continue for years to come, I sincerely hope they start giving attention to the characters who need it.