‘In refusing heteronormativity as the norm, chucking aside labels and skewering judgement around sexuality, these shows depict what that world of possibilities might look like in high school’
When I was a barely-teen, sex education in my North London school was an overwhelmingly scientific, underwhelmingly cold tutorial on ‘How Babies Are Made’. The main lesson we extracted was that the purpose of having sex was to procreate within the confines of a male-female relationship sanctioned by a marriage. Abstinence, although not overtly encouraged, as it was in many other schools, was implied and the idea of sex as pleasure was nowhere. Somewhere inside, I knew, as did all the other kids growing up amidst hot, hushed whispers about snogging, fingering and more, that something was amiss in class. Raging hormones indicated there was a point to sex that was solely about sweating up against someone in delight, less about advancing the human race. We figured the teachers had it wrong and Judy Blume’s protagonist in her once-banned novel Forever, Katherine Danziger, a teen who essentially opens up to the idea that she does not have to commit to ‘forever’ after sex (using responsible birth control, no less) with her first boyfriend, was nearer the truth. We passed the book around till it fell apart in tatters, a symbol of the shame that shrouded our too-illicit desires and the conviction that if Danziger could do it, we could get there too.
Today almost 50 after it was written in 1975, Forever, holds up surprisingly well in its depiction of sexual discovery as a teen – all the awkwardness of early intimacy along with insights on everything from periods, to birth control, to premature ejaculation. Yet, thankfully we can now openly point out the dangers of a gaze set on heteronormativity and a heroine stymied by dated notions of consent and a tacit acceptance of male aggression. Danziger’s first attempted sexcapade – famously foiled by her period – feels practically quaint. An embrace of sex-positivity – an attitude that views all consensual sexual activity as healthy and pleasurable and a normalizing of queerness, sexual fluidity and nuanced gender expression is available to today’s teens through a groundswell of storytelling on streaming platforms – shows that reject shame around sex and cast an unwavering gaze on sexual identity across the spectrum. If my generation had had access to Otis and Maeve’s (teen protagonists of the Netflix show Sex Education) sex therapy clinic, early sexual experiences might have been considerably less messy. Sex Education and shows of its ilk have as much to grant adults, often stuck in the sexual mores of their own youth, as they do today’s high schoolers in their portrayals of guiltless intimacy.
Created by English-Australian playwright and screenwriter Laurie Nunn, Sex Education became a critical and commercial success after its first season in 2019, which was reportedly streamed by over forty million Netflix viewers. Season two followed in 2020 and a third season is hotly anticipated this September. The series follows Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield), a gangly teen being raised by his single mother (a brilliant Gillian Anderson) who happens to be a sex therapist, his best friend Eric Effiong (Ncuti Gatwa) who is gay and comes from a religious Ghanaian-Nigerian family and Maeve Wiley (Emma Mackey), something of a social outcast who lives in a caravan, supporting herself in the absence of her parents. The show’s runaway success lies in the fact that Nunn and her mostly female writing team have crafted characters who shed the tropes that often define teen television and are unapologetically the selves which we have had a dearth of on-screen.
Sixteen-year-old Otis struggles with his sexuality and finds intimacy, even masturbation, somewhat repulsive, a counterpoint to Eric, out of the closet and searching for a relationship. Their heartwarming friendship and honest communication about desire is a refreshing antidote to poor on-screen models for boys, that demand sexual assertiveness, if not outright aggression. If Otis is something of a progressive male lead in his empathy (he is a compassionate listener in his sex therapy clinic) and in his earnest efforts to embrace and overcome his insecurities, Eric is a reposte to the stereotype of ‘gay best friend’. He experiences bullying due to his sexual identity but this identity isn’t overly dramatized on screen as is often the case with gay characters. His character, a minority within a minority, is explored in all its complex layers. Sex Education offers vulnerability as an option for boys and sexual confidence as an option for girls. Maeve is more comfortable in her sexuality than either of the boys and much of the class. In spite of being slut-shamed by some of the students, she is someone who we admire for her resilience. Later in the series when she has an abortion, the event isn’t a traumatic, painful experience that will define and damn her but a choice she makes, albeit difficult, that guarantees her a more solid future.
By aiming to provide answers to questions Nunn herself wanted to ask as a teen, Sex Education veers away from what teen shows have done before – romanticize sex through melodrama or darken it with cautionary tales of assault, STDs and unwanted pregnancies that signal the end of the world. Nunn takes teen sex lives seriously, outside of storybook romance and rape. Sex Education’s secondary characters, Otis’ ‘clients’, include a lesbian couple who have issues with chemistry, a girl whose hatred for her body won’t allow her to turn the lights on during sex, another who feels like she is always performing what her partners want in bed and a boy who can’t separate romancing from stalking. The show’s second season gets even better as its queer characters come to terms with their sexuality. Otis’s relationship and subsequent break-up with Ola (Patricia Allison), allows her to affirm that she is pansexual. Adam (Connor Swindells), the frighteningly strict headmaster’s son, is able come to terms with his bisexuality when he finds himself in an agonizing but ultimately rewarding love triangle with Eric. And Lily (Tanya Reynolds) is the perhaps when the show gets it most ‘right’ – she starts dating Ola without feeling the need to clarify anything about her sexual preferences; the way straight characters have walked through life forever.
Allowing characters to just exist in their sexuality without judgement is the greatest strength of a show that presents nuanced takes on the bad girl, the flamboyant gay, the sexed-up jock and any number of other dangerous labels. This lack of judgment is the lens that makes the protagonists of other high school centered shows equally revolutionary in their approach to sex and relationships. In the 2019 HBO show Euphoria, which is in production on its second season, Rue Bennett (Zendaya) and Jules Vaughn (Hunter Schafer) have a bond that quietly and firmly defies norms. In Netflix’s recently released Swedish teen drama Young Royals the relationship between Prince Wilhelm and his love interest Simon Eriksson is refreshing in its centering of a young gay couple in the age-old conflict between love and duty. The ensemble casts of Genera+ion (HBO), in its first season and Elite (Netflix), which will soon see its fifth season, insist that the fabric within which teenagers grow up can be one where sex positivity and freedom of sexual expression are the norm. These shows say this world exists, even if much of society has to catch up to it.
Writer-director Sam Levinson’s Euphoria, set in a dim West Coast suburb, is as bleak and moody as Sex Education is full of pops of color and humor. The show released to widespread acclaim, while courting its share of controversy for being misguided about its audience by presenting ‘adult’ content to teens. Critics have a fair point – Euphoria is rife with graphic sex scenes, non-consensual encounters, underage porn, a plethora of dick-pics and chronic drug abuse. The show’s protagonist is seventeen-year-old drug addict, Rue Bennett, played by such a self-possessed Zendaya that it is impossible to believe she ever cut a chipper figure on the Disney channel. Rue gets through her days by self-medicating with pills until she meets someone for whom she wants to be fully present. This someone is Hunter Schafer’s Jules Vaughn, a young trans student who, we discover, endures painful sexual episodes with older men in an effort to feel wanted. Their fellow students include Kat (Barbie Ferreira) who attains a comfort with her body only when she discovers that she is desirable as a cam-girl (a woman who performs on the internet as a form of adult entertainment) and Maddy (Alexa Demie) who is working through a toxic, abusive relationship with Nate (Jacob Elordi) – a boy who inflicts violence in all his relationships.
Adults might be wise to counsel that the characters in Euphoria are inappropriate role models. On the other hand, we are naïve if we assume that sex, violence and drug abuse have no place in teenage life. Or that telling stories that depict the darkness and complexity available to teens in their sexual discovery is somehow more dangerous than telling stories that encourage conformity and boy-girl meet cutes which uphold an unattainable, and for many, undesirable, reality. Whichever side you fall on, we can agree that every generation of teenagers has felt misunderstood and thirsted for stories that more accurately reflect not only who they are but who they are allowed to be or chose not to be. On this front Euphoria delivers in spades. Jules Schafer is a young trans woman, played by a young trans woman, who doesn’t exist in secrecy. All three of these things are radical, though they should not be. Jules owns who she is and the show quickly moves on to everything else about her, so her identity is multi-faceted. The image of Jules, candy-pink hair, ethereal style, riding coolly through hushed suburban streets on her bicycle, cuts through the darkness of the show with the dazzling self-assuredness that we all craved as teens and indeed adults. An age-old image of teenage-hood, reimagined for a new era of sexual representation.
Rue and Jules develop a friendship that is tender, loving and safe. When it blossoms into romance, their first kiss feels more climactic than the show’s many more dramatic moments. When Rue tells Jules, lying nose to nose, forehead to forehead, eye to eye, ‘I hate everyone else in this world but you’, it is spine-tingling because it rings bright and true. Their queerness sidesteps its own label and morphs simply into the purity of love. It is accepted by their peers and crucially, their parents, culminating neither in shame nor fairytale romance. In painting, this picture Euphoria takes the pressure off what teens think love is supposed to look like and how it is supposed to unfurl. That Euphoria captures young love so perfectly in a package that transcends gender is crucial for a generation who identifies increasingly less as heterosexual. Rue and Jules get a couple tattoo and completely un-ironically new ‘Rules’ are born.
The gap between Gen Z teens (the demographic born between the 1990s and early 2010s) and the Gen X’ers (born between the mid-60s and early 80s) who are their parents and certainly the Boomer grandparents (born between the mid-40s and mid-60s) is significant and has given rise, in the older cohorts, to a skepticism over whether the sexual fluidity of shows like Euphoria accurately reflects the ‘real’ sex lives of young people. Euphoria’s thirty-six-year-old creator Sam Levinson, admittedly White, millennial and male, has received (perhaps unfair) flack over the authenticity of Rue and Jules’ experience, despite commentary that Rue mirrored his own teenage experience and that Hunter Schafer, a trans woman, had significant input on her character, Jules. Enter Genera+ion, a series crafted by real-life, queer, teenager Zelda Barnz, now nineteen, who took a break from her Los Angeles high school, aged seventeen, to work on creating the show with one of her two dads, Daniel Barnz and Lena Dunham of Girls fame, who executive produced. Genera+ion, drawn from Barnz’s own high school experience, largely does away with Euphoria’s darkness and in doing so makes the equally encompassing sexual experiences of its high schoolers appear less illicit and therefore even more triumphant in the openness that this narrative has previously lacked.
Nothing much ‘happens’ in Genera+ion which has a day-in-the-life feel, revolving around vignettes of pivotal occurrences in the lives of its teens, held together by an improbable, at times hilarious, birthing sub-plot which results in one of the groups delivering a baby that she was unaware she was carrying. The delivery feels like the least remarkable part of the series. Its attitude towards sex and sexual identity – full frontal and not coy – is what stands out. The star of the show, literally and figuratively, is Justice Smith’s Chester – a biracial, gay, crop-top toting, glimmer eye-shadow wearing, water polo king; a character that would have been relegated to the sidelines or heckled to death in teen shows past, if he had been allowed to exist at all, let alone play water polo, realm of the white jock. Chester doesn’t ‘come out’ as queer. Instead, he and the other characters in Genera+ion are inviting us into a new understanding of sexual norms where having to identify as queer, lesbian, gay, bi or otherwise and by doing so illuminating your sexuality for others is obsolete. Like every high school show before it, Genera+ion is packed with hormones, crushes, first kisses and angry rebellions. Unlike these shows, once conventional sexual norms and their prescriptions are dismantled. Nathan’s (Uly Schlesinger) bisexuality is explored without being evaluated (except by the adults) as is the relationship between two of the girls, Riley (Chase Sui) and Greta (Haley Sanchez). The camera hones in on their sexual intimacy and creates drama within their relationships not because of them.
Genera+ion knows it falls somewhere between an education and a stark awakening for those who don’t know what ‘kids these days’ are talking about, the sex they are having and the partying they are doing. The show leans into this, winking at it by making adults as superfluous as they regularly are in teenage lives. The camera rarely captures parents’ faces and when it does the lens is cynical, the judgement turned back on the adults. Their voices and opinions are heard in the background whilst the kids’ experiences are foregrounded. The universe here belongs entirely to the youth. When the kids come together in the final episode to help their friend Delilah (Lukita Maxwell), who is on the verge of giving up the child she has delivered, they stand united in one of the most poignant scenes of the show. More poignant perhaps, because what they have really stood united in all along is a shared language that embraces choice, sex-positivity and a rejection of the heteronormative structures of the past. And yes, the show makes it clear that this is the past as it provides a footprint for a more open-hearted future.
Even the most conventional storylines are being reimagined with a sex-positive spin. And lest you think all this brazen sexiness is emanating from America in the guise of a post-Trumpian cultural wokeness, the Swedes would beg to differ. Created by Lisa Ambjorn, Lars Beckung and Camilla Holter, Young Royals is Netflix’s most recently released (July 2021) addition to the teen drama pantheon. The series (one six-episode season, although I hope there will be more to come) is set in the fictional elite boarding school of Hillerska where a young Prince Wilhelm of Sweden (Edvin Ryding) is enrolled after a scandal concerning him becomes public. Once there, he is taken with Simon Eriksson (Omar Rudberg) – a day student of significantly meager means, in comparison to the other mostly titled and wealthy students. Their budding romance develops against a backdrop of class rivalries and eventually a call to duty for Wilhelm when tragedy strikes within the royal family. As such, Young Royals is the age-old Romeo and Juliet story – one of love obstructed by duty or familial ties, updated for a modern era as Romeo and Julian.
Beyond the surface, Young Royals is much more than this. All the aforementioned shows differentiate themselves by employing actors who tend to be twenty-somethings who could pass for teens, not the thirty-year-olds in stage make-up of a generation ago. This realism has the effect of drawing their ideas from the realm of radical to reality. The cast of Young Royals tends to be even younger and whilst having the requisite movie star attractiveness, they look like actual high schoolers. Some, our lead Wilhelm included, even have the hormone-fueled acne that every teenager knows intimately, which makes it hard to dismiss them as adults, merely playing a part. The diverse casting and range of body types lends further authenticity to the physical intimacy in the show’s couplings. Above all the chemistry between Wilhelm and Simon sparkles throughout the show. When they do have sex the camera approaches it with the measure of tenderness it deserves. The message is that there is nothing here to look away from. There is nothing shameful about sex, irrespective of who is sharing the moment. That message is reinforced when (spoiler alert) a surreptitiously shot tape of the young couple is leaked. The others express shock over the leaking and scandal over it concerning a royal. Neither parents, nor students bat an eyelid over the fact that it is a ‘sex’ tape, that it is between two boys – a non-reaction that is overdue.
Young Royals feels like it could be telling a true story. Euphoria and Genera+ion are firmly embedded in the experiences of their creators and Sex Education, whilst set in a clearly fictional rural town that appears to be in England, in a school that feels decidedly American, earnestly addresses teen issues. Elite, the Spanish Netflix show which preceded all of these – it released in 2018 and recently ended its fourth season – is at a firm remove from reality and yet, it is the most sex-positive show I have come across, its sensational elements providing the gateway to draw people into its progressive ideas.
The Spanish thriller teen drama was created for Netflix by Carlos Montero and Darlo Madrona and is set in Las Encinas, a fictional private high school where the status quo of school romances and hierarchies is challenged by the arrival of three working-class, scholarship students – Samuel (Itzan Escamilla), Nadia (Mina El Hammani) and Christian (Miguel Herran). Samuel (spoilers ahead) falls for the elusive, free-spirit Marina (Maria Pedraza), who winds up in a relationship with his just-out-of-prison, older brother Nano (Jaime Lorente) before she is killed at the end of season one (the whole season is a flash-forward whodunit). Nadia, a young, observant Muslim student is courted by Marina’s brother Guzman (Miguel Bernardeau) and duly abhorred by his girlfriend Lu (Danna Paola) whilst her brother Omar (Omar Ayuso) falls for tennis champ-in-training Ander (Aron Piper). To top things off Christian ends up in a throuple, a three-person relationship (not to be confused with a one-night-only menage-a-trois), with the born-to-nobility Carla (Ester Exposito) and her boyfriend of many years Polo (Alvaro Rico).
Still with me? Yes – everyone is beautiful, has insane style and lives in fabulous houses (the three scholarship students have charisma in spades to make up for more modest digs). Yes – a student is murdered at the outset of not one but two seasons and almost murdered in the fourth, multiple drug deals take place, people come in and out of jail. Yes – there is sex in bedrooms, in locker rooms, at parties and in swimming pools. So Yes – it all borders on the very inconceivable. And yet, the acting and character development is both brilliant and surprising and as it swerves through telenovela like plot twists, Elite breaks multiple boundaries. Ashamed to admit the truth, many have referred to the show as a guilty pleasure, for me it was just pure pleasure – not guilty, entirely shame-less.
Elite understands that teenagers are interested in sex, have sex and experiment with sex or most definitely want to. It also understands that young people are capable of more maturity than adults give them credit for and that their approach to sex will set the tone for the future. It looks at sexual dynamics through an ultra-progressive lens and has decided that if wrapping its exploration in a deliciously soapy plot, with eye-popping sets and drool-worthy faces, makes its ideas more palatable, so be it. The show’s sexual themes concern but are by no means limited to idea after idea that crushes stereotypes: Marina is an H.I.V. positive lead who happens to be both wealthy and female (a response to homophobic H.I.V. myths); throuples in not one but two seasons concern two men and one woman, where the woman shares the driving seat and the bisexuality of the men is revealed without being scandalous; more characters appear to be sexually fluid or queer than heterosexual; the gay love story between Omar and Ander is centered throughout the series as its most enduring coupling within which grown-up themes of love, fidelity, loyalty and illness play out; Nadia’s path to sexuality is given equal weight, despite her relative conservatism, without dismissing her Muslim identity. The show even casts its lens on incest, which is not to say that it recommends it, simply that it doesn’t ignore that it happens. Elite’s total refusal to place judgement on any type of sex forces an absolute opening of minds. The show knows it is only in seeing things that we normalize them and it duly reveals all those hidden places.
Not all recent shows concerning the sex lives of teens are created equal. Elite explores sexual terrain that Riverdale’s teens are barely interested in or where the show (inspired by the Archie Comics) is reticent to go, preferring increasingly bizarre plotlines over character development. A new Gossip Girl reboot has characters that are less White and less straight but so wooden that it is hard to get interested in them seducing each other. Ryan Murphy’s eagerly awaited The Politician’s overarching message seems to be that to get a head start in the public sphere in high school and beyond, you need to paper over your identity and sanitize your sexy. The show is chock full of sex – straight queer and non-binary, but its protagonist’s sexual life must be closeted for him to succeed, an idealogy that is counter to the sex-positive messaging of shows like Sex Education, Genera+ion, Elite and others.
These shows are by no means the first to talk teen intimacy so, well intimately – British drama Skins broke the mold on this over a decade ago. The difference is, this time it’s not just the cool kids or the rebels talking sex or having sex, it’s everyone in high school, with the old rules discarded. You could argue that this sex-positive world is a fantasy and that the world of Murphy’s The Politician is closer to the truth, highlighting biases and stigmas. That characters like Sex Education’s Eric or Euphoria’s Jules have a spotlight on television and exist only in the shadows in the enormous numbers of societies where it is dangerous to have a sexual identity that is not straight, not married, not a female virgin, not a macho man and so on. But plenty of content already presents us with this reality. In lieu, these shows, crucially craft a new one and even provide an on-screen path to sexual discovery for older teens, that runs counter to the toxic messaging of porn.
Teenagers are in the enviable position of saluting more optimistic futures, no longer children but not yet bearing the burden of adulthood where ideas become more fixed. In refusing heteronormativity as the norm, chucking aside labels and skewering judgement around sexuality, these shows depict what that world of possibilities might look like in high school. They say that It is okay to have sex or be intimate, as little or as much as you want, with the partner/s of your choice, as long as it is age-appropriate, safe and consensual. And that it is even better to enjoy it. This simple idea seems both wildly radical and entirely natural when we see it play out. Radical perhaps most keenly for the adults who must come unglued from existing notions of sexuality. This generation can embrace it with the fervor that my generation felt for Forever. The Kids Are Alright, it’s the adults that need to grow up.
Soleil Nathwani is a New York-based Culture Writer and Film Critic. A former Film Executive and Hedge Fund COO, Soleil hails from London and Mumbai. Twitter: @soleilnathwani