by Hanna Carney //
The Netflix original Sex Education has been getting a lot of praise for its depiction of sex-positivity and its empowerment of teenagers and adults since Season One was released. Sex Education Season Three was recently released on September 17 2021, and its fan base remains enthusiastic about the series. The show revolves around Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield) as he navigates high school, relationships, and sex. Otis, whose mother is a sex therapist (Gillian Anderson), forms a complicated friendship with Maeve Wiley. Together, they start a small business at their school, educating their peers (and the audience) on sex positivity, safe sex practices, and more.
Although Otis and Maeve are the respectable main characters, the gems of this season were a few side characters: Adam Groff (Connor Swindells) and Ruby Matthews (Mimi Keene). It’s a running joke online that these two carried Sex Education this season. Adam, a bully-turned-sweetheart, is the boyfriend of Eric Effiong, Otis’ best friend. Ruby, one of the popular girls at Moordale Secondary School, is the fleeting love interest of Otis. We see these characters grow throughout Sex Education Season Three, and we come to forgive them for their shortcomings in earlier seasons.
However, there is a key difference in the way these characters develop and “carry the season.” The directors give Adam more agency in his character arc, while the directors expect our sympathy for Ruby to draw from her relationships with men. Despite Sex Education’s feminist efforts to be inclusive of all identities, misogyny still pervades some of their plot lines—particularly Ruby’s.
Adam’s Agency and Growth
Adam starts out Season One as the school bully. He had an unhappy home life with a cold father. He would actually beat up his now-boyfriend Eric regularly until he realized and accepted his attraction for Eric. The directors offer up Adam’s complicated homelife and discomfort with his sexuality as an explanation for his outrage, and the directors hope we accept this explanation. Sex Education Season 3 was dangerously close to employing the toxic enemies-to-lovers trope and glorifying bullying. Remember Kurt Hummel and David Karofsky on Glee? Or, Mindy Krenshaw and Josh Nichols on Drake and Josh? But Sex Education’s deptiction of the bully turned romantic partner is slightly more thoughtful than these other shows. Alan Sepinwall writes in Rolling Stone,
I’ve now mostly let go of my frustration that he [Eric] was paired off with Adam, who was introduced in Season One as a bully who relentlessly tormented Eric. Their stories this year, both together and apart, work very well.
Fast forward two seasons later, and Adam comes across as an endearing young man with a kind heart. He cares deeply for his boyfriend Eric, writes him poetry, and tries harder in school. The fact that Eric forgives Adam helps us forgive him, too. And, if that doesn’t have audience members convinced, you can’t forget the scene where Eric does Adam’s makeup and Adam responds, “I look quite pretty.” Seeing Adam embrace femininity warms our hearts and seals the deal.
Like Sepinwall writes in Rolling Stone, the fact that Eric’s and Adam’s stories work “both together and apart” is a key element in Adam’s agency. He has a story outside of his boyfriend, and Adam puts in the effort to improve himself. He asks his teachers for help, practices sharing his feelings, etc. Overall, he overcomes his masculine outrage from Season One by accepting his identity as a gay man and working to grow as a person. Adam has our admiration, and we accept him with open arms.
A Female Character’s Story Dependent on Men
There’s another character that the directors clearly want us to sympathize with and accept—Ruby. Like Adam, Ruby also has a complex character arc. She’s one of the stereotypical popular, “mean girls” at school, and eventually the show presents her as an independent person that knows her worth. The directors want us to forgive Ruby like we did Adam. However, the directors don’t assign her agency as she grows as a character. Instead, her growth is contingent on her relationships with men.
Adam has a story “together and apart” from Eric. Ruby seems to only have a story “together” with Otis. The season opens by focusing on Otis and Ruby’s casual relationship. Ruby is embarrassed of her sexual relationship with him and spends much of Sex Education Season Three trying to change Otis—his behaviors, his clothing, etc. She is also standoffish about him going over to her house. The directors were purposeful in having the audience wait to find out why Ruby is acting this way.
“Tough Girl with a Soft Heart” Cliché
Then, comes the “big reveal”—Ruby comes from a middle-class household, and her father has MS. How do the directors want us to feel about this? It seems like the directors are playing with a common trope: the beautiful, popular girl with a tough exterior has a secret to make us pity her—suddenly we see she has a heart. But in reality, living in a middle class household or having a close family member with an illness or disability is a normal thing. Why make her father’s experience central to her character? It seems like it should be more his story than hers.
Immediately after this scene comes the vulnerable moment when Ruby tells Otis she loves him… and he doesn’t say it back. As much as we may feel for Ruby and her rejection, the directors over-emphasize her father’s role in this sympathy. They chose to place this scene directly after Otis meets Ruby’s father. As the directors imply, it is a big deal that she is sharing a secret part of her life with Otis, so we should feel even worse for Ruby. But I would argue that we should admire Ruby for other reasons—her confidence, her humor, and her ability to stand up to people. It’s a pity that the directors over-emphasize her relationships with men.
To make it worse, the directors seem to lose interest in Ruby’s character once Otis breaks up with her. She doesn’t really get a story of her own. We are expected to sympathize with her and move on. Her father’s disease and her relationship with Otis takes up too much space in her narrative.
Gender Differences in Character Arc
It’s interesting that with Adam, we get to sympathize with his character for his personal struggles and his agency in overcoming them. For Ruby, the female character, we are expected to sympathize with her because of her association with men and their struggles. This pattern of giving male characters more agency than others is getting a bit old, don’t you think?
Sex Education did an amazing job in Season Three in its representation of all kinds of identities. We saw more non-binary representation, disabled individuals as love interests, and more. However, they fell a bit short when it came to Ruby’s character development. Let’s hope that if Season Four is in the works, the directors will give Ruby more space in the show’s narrative as she deserves.