Sex Education’s lead female protagonist, Maeve Wiley (Emma Mackey), is probably one of the most beloved and what most would call inspiring characters on-screen right now. From her first appearance in Season One, Maeve just simply radiated cool charisma with her signature dyed streaks, and I-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude. Plus! She’s a HARDCORE feminist. Take this memorable exchange between her and former jock and boyfriend, Jackson Marchetti (Kedar Williams-Stirling):
“What is your thing then?”
Maeve replies with her characteristic wit: “Complex female characters”.
Yes, Maeve’s passion for radically feminist authors is well-known, but just how “radical” is her reading list? So far, in all three seasons, we’ve seen and heard Maeve reading only white female authors, among them are George Eliot, Sylvia Plath, and Virginia Woolf. Not to be unfair, she has twice shown she reads the work of WOC (Women of Colour) – once Otis (Asa Butterfield) lists the Haitian-American Roxane Gay among the authors Maeve would read, and in one shot she’s shown to have Jhumpa Lahiri on her bedside table.
Sex Education, and Maeve herself, may be revolutionary in their advocacy for sex positivity, especially in the suffocating antiquity and ignorance of Moordale Secondary, but it seems like they have much more to show in the area of representation for ALL women, particularly women of colour. It’s not simply a case of Maeve’s whitewashed TBR either.
It is true that out of all the show’s female characters, Maeve is the most “radical” in her thinking: she valiantly supports her friend Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood), after she is sexually assaulted, and Maeve stands up to Hope’s (Jemima Kirke) antiquated sex education curriculum in Season Three, Episode Four. However, Maeve, and the show’s so-called “radicalism” only reaches a certain point. Barely do we have perspectives of the show’s already few women of colour, and their individual experiences of feminism, racism, and sexism, from the lens of their ethnic backgrounds. The closest we get are in Season Two, Episode Three, when we get a slight glimpse of Olivia Hanan’s (Simone Ashley) traditionalist Indian mother. “Don’t stop and talk,” Olivia tells her boyfriend, “remember, she thinks your parents are Indian”.
And in Season Three, Episode Six, Hope makes this casually racist comment: “Having a strong, smart, young woman of colour leading the way shows how progressive we are as a school”. Cue Viv’s (Chinenye Ezeudu) face dropping to make it clear just how obviously racist Hope is being, in case the audience doesn’t get the message.
The intersection between racism and sexism isn’t as clear or defined as one may think, simply because women of colour are not white. This automatically places them lower in the hierarchy of power, and beneath white women. Maybe Maeve should reexamine Woolf’s famous assertion that all a woman requires is “money and a room of her own” to achieve her independence and creative freedom.
White women cannot ignore the privilege they own by merely being a part of the “superior” race, nor can they disregard the role they have played as oppressors. Not that white women haven’t tried, by attempting a show at empathy for women of colour.
In her memoir Tracks, Australian writer Robyn Davidson perfectly exemplifies the obliviousness white women have to their privilege. She claims she understands the “depression” of a young Aboriginal girl (Joanie), after making her own presumptuous conclusion that Joanie shall always have “things that would forever remain out of her reach, because of her colour, because of her poverty…”
It is true that the characters of Sex Education have never made the same presumptions but it still demonstrates the privilege of white women. Yes, Maeve has her own share of struggles with near impoverishment, as well as a traumatic family history. But she still has the privilege of a good education and future opportunities. All she needs is money and a room of her own. How many non-white women have been denied the same privilege, because of segregation and oppression?
Audre Lorde writes: “…white women focus upon their oppression as women and ignore differences of race, sexual preference, class, and age.” And in a following, cutting remark: “A room of one’s own may be a necessity for writing prose, but so are reams of paper, a typewriter, and plenty of time.”
Maeve’s family’s history with drugs, her unreliable mother and brother, and her poverty make her a compelling and inspiring heroine. For a black woman, these would just be seen as a staple backstory. It can be dangerous to preach so much about intersectionality, especially when it makes us forget the differences between white women and women of colour. “But I thought what matters is that we’re all human?” Sure, but it does not change the history of exclusion of women of colour, an exclusion that still persists today.
I do not deny that Maeve’s literary heroines deserve their place in history, but I do question to what extent they have overtaken the positions of ethnic female authors. Woolf, Austen and Plath may have been denied opportunities due to their sex, but they still came from fairly well to-do, middle-class backgrounds. One also cannot ignore Woolf’s infamous antisemitism, classism, and the little-known time when she wore blackface while pretending to be an “African prince”.
How can you preach equality and intersectionality when obvious, historical and persistent signs of white privilege and power exist among white women? You can’t, unless you tell the stories of both sides.
I must repeat myself once more in confirming that I do not deny the significance of Maeve’s favourite authors; Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath are close to my own heart. But they are not the universal encapsulations of what feminism should be, nor do either of them represent the struggles, and achievements, of all women.
Instead of making the brief glance at Olivia’s life about her stereotypically rigid Indian mother, Sex Education could explore the often complex relationship between Asian mothers and daughters (speaking from personal experience here). Or, in fitting with the show’s theme, there could be a discussion of the taboos on sex and sexuality existing in different cultures. It has already made a welcome stride in portraying Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) and his excitement and struggle to experience Nigerian culture, and its stigma against gay people.
Better yet, the show could portray an open conversation between its white female and ethnic female characters. Only then can Sex Education be truly revolutionary in its call for safe discussions around sex, sexuality, and gender.
by Victoria Winata
Victoria Winata is a current VCE student and occasional writer. She’s only recently overcome her film illiteracy through watching Old Hollywood classics; among her favorites are Gilda, Laura (1944), and Rear Window. She loves a good film noir or arthouse movie, and is nursing a love for multilingual films. You can find her soon-to-be published writing in Voiceworks.