How Netflix’s “Sex Education” Fights Toxic Masculinity

Premiered in January, Netflix’s “Sex Education” sets the story of Otis Milburn, a socially awkward teenager raised by a famous sex-therapist single-mother (Gillian Anderson). The TV show follows the story of this introverted virgin boy who, inspired by his mother’s works, ends up becoming a confidential sex consultant at his school. 

Often used by media and feminists nowadays, the concept of toxic masculinity refers in psychology to certain cultural norms that are associated with harm to society and to men themselves. It is not intended to demonize men or male attributes, but rather to emphasize the harmful effects of conformity to certain traditional masculine ideal behaviors such as dominance, self-reliance, and competition. 

As explained by Ellen Hendricksen, a clinical psychologist at Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, toxic masculinity is best described as a box. Its narrow, rigid, and men have to contort themselves to fit inside it. To fit in the man box of toxic masculinity, a man must live by a particular set of beliefs and behaviors like for example : endure pain in silence, have no needs, never lose, show no emotions other than bravado or rage, don’t depend on anyone, don’t do anything that could be construed as weakness, never snitch. The socialization of boys often normalizes violence, such as in the saying “boys will be boys” with regard to bullying and aggression.

As explains Dr. Angela Beard a clinical psychologist at the Veterans Affairs in Texas, “men have never been taught how to identify what their emotional needs are, their thoughts and feelings or to express how someone can help them fulfill these”. For millennial men, in particular, a major challenge is understanding they need help in the first place. Shame, Brené Brown found in her years of research, is the biggest cause of toxic masculinity. Whereas women experience shame when they fail to meet unrealistic, conflicting expectations, men become consumed with shame for showing signs of weakness. 

And that’s how Netflix’s Sex Education is brilliant in its approach to emotions release despite the genders, as well as effects on one’s sexuality. Through his mum’s works and education, Otis, a 16 year-old high school student, is emotionally intelligent far beyond his years. He will discover that aspect of his personality when he will be pushed by his friend Maeve to open a confidential sex-consulting business within their school. As you go through the episodes, it is a wide portrayal of teenagers, at a range of levels of sexual maturity that reveals itself and which is much more realistic than everything that has been done until now. From vaginismus to erectile dysfunction, through the sexual consent and crucial importance of communication to build a healthy relationship, everything is explored. Despite his emotional precocity, Otis has never experienced sex and encounters problems when he wants to masturbate.  

So how does Sex Education fight the concept of toxic masculinity? First of all, the male characters of this tv show are sensitive and are not afraid to show it. For example, Eric, Otis’s best friend. Coming from an afro-american religious family, he goes to school with eccentric outfits, varnished nails and wears make-up without caring about what people think about his appearance. Until one day, he got beaten up very badly by a group of guys, because of his look. All of a sudden, it makes him question his own identity: should he give up and comply to the massive way of thinking and “being a man”? Should he stop wearing what he likes in order to please the general opinion? Should he stop being himself to remain safe?

The main character, Otis, is probably the best example of this non-conformity. He is never scared to show his feelings, to be tender with his mum, to be dressed up in public places as a queer to support and please his best friend. When he dances a slow with Eric at the school party, he doesn’t care everyone might think he is gay too. He is true to himself, sincere and honest. The fact that Otis never experienced sex and doesn’t really want to breaks another stereotype: being a man doesn’t mean you want to have sex all the time. A fulfilled man is a man who has freed himself from injunctions to hyper-sexual virility. 

Resources : 

  • Psychology has a new approach to building healthier man, The Atlantic.

  • The problem with a fight against toxic masculinity, The Atlantic.