Better worlds:
queer pedagogy and utopia in
Sex Education
and Schitt’s Creek

by Tanya Horeck

“Alternatives, hopes, wishes—these are the stuff of utopia, the sense that things could be better, that something other than what is can be imagined, and maybe realized.”
—Richard Dyer, Only Entertainment (2002, 18)

This essay focuses on Netflix feel-good comedies Sex Education (Laurie Nunn, 2019-) and Schitt’s Creek (Eugene Levy and Dan Levy, 2015-2020) as important examples of twenty-first century serialized TV shows that use humour and positive affect to centre queer perspectives. Both series prominently feature gay characters (with Sex Education in particular including a diverse range of LGBTQ+ protagonists), but their more significant intervention, I want to argue, comes from how they challenge heteronormativity as an idealized form of sexual and social relation. Significantly, however, this challenge is not located in social realism or didacticism. Rather, it is delivered through the comedic tone and affective atmospherics of both series, where the narratives locate progressive ideas in the way they develop utopian, queerer worlds.

Sex Education and Schitt’s Creek are the debut series of their millennial creators, Laurie Nunn and Dan Levy. Sex Education is British and is filmed in South Wales but it is set in an unspecified locale called “Moordale.” Showrunner Nunn has said that U.S. teen TV shows and films, including Freaks and Geeks and the catalogue of John Hughes’ movies, influenced her decision to set Sex Education in a fictionalized space and place of a “high school” with a blend of British accents and an U.S. style “ambience” (Dalton 2019). [open notes and bibliography in new page] However, the transatlantic blend did not sit well with everyone: when the first series was released, it was criticized for what some saw as an attempt to pander to U.S. audiences (Salmon 2019; Atkinson 2020). Schitt’s Creek is Canadian, and it is filmed in Canada with a Canadian cast and crew but set in the titular Schitt’s Creek— a small town never precisely located in either Canada or the United States. Its setting has faced less criticism over the writers’ leaving the location of the town unspecified, although many fan comments speculate where it is set (especially, I think, Canadian fans eager to confirm its Canadianness).[1] When pressed about the location, showrunner Levy explains that “pinning the location down wasn’t ever part of the narrative of the show”; it was intentionally meant to “exist in this sort of isolated bubble” (qtd. in Mack 2018).

The unspecified locale of both shows fits with what some view as Netflix’s wider transnational strategy to level out national and regional differences in order to appeal to a global audience (Jenner 2018, 219-40). Though Schitt’s Creek began as a CBC creative venture, its first two seasons were picked up by Netflix in 2017, followed by its full drop release of its subsequent four seasons, in what Levy has described as a “game changer” in terms of securing the show’s worldwide success (Adalian 2020). However, I suggest there is a more critical, subversive edge to the unspecified locales of both Schitt’s Creek and Sex Education, which cannot simply be accounted for—or dismissed—as part of Netflix’s corporate marketing plan. I argue that their non-specific locations are fundamental to the utopic queer spaces carved out by both shows.

In response to the criticism that Sex Education is Americanized, Nunn notes that: “Moordale’s not a real place: it’s almost like a comic book, a teenage utopia” (qtd. in Levine 2019).[2] And the show’s director, and one of its script writers, Ben Taylor, frames this teen utopia in explicitly queer terms:

“I don't think we are a straight show, and I don't think the story of [Asa Butterfield's] Otis at its centre would be believable if you were having this harder-nosed, grey rendering of what it's like to go to school in the UK in 2019” (qtd. in Maine 2019).

Dan Levy similarly frames the utopian world of Schitt’s Creek in relation to its queer politics and pedagogy and in particular to its steadfast refusal to depict homophobia:

“We show love and tolerance. If you put something like that out of the equation, you're saying that doesn't exist and shouldn't exist” (qtd. in Ivie 2018).

While the absence of homophobia as a theme in Schitt’s Creek is a major point of difference when compared to Sex Education’s pedagogical approach to the problem (as I will discuss further), both shows nonetheless operate in what Glyn Davis and Gary Needham refer to as a “queer register” (2008, 6). Their queerness extends beyond the depiction of their explicitly gay characters—to the role of fashion and costuming, the use of mise-en-scene, performance, and the queer re-orientation of communal and social space. Resisting a “TV movie of the week” educational approach, in which moral lessons are derived from limited, time-constrained plotlines involving gay protagonists (who then often disappear),[3] what these series offer instead is a far more radical form of critical queer pedagogy rooted in a serialized dramedy approach committed to decentring heteronormativity across episodes and seasons.

Sex Education dropped its second series—and Schitt’s Creek its sixth and final one—on Netflix during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic and were subsequently received by the mainstream media as being among the “best TV series to binge-watch in lockdown” (Keishin Armstrong 2020). Both TV shows have seemed to provide much needed solace during the stresses of 2020, with Schitt’s Creek almost mirroring the experience of families being locked in together (McNamara 2020). However, what tends to go undiscussed in the celebration of these series as becoming more important during lockdown, is how the comfort they provide relates to their status as queer texts. In her recent discussion of escapist film spectatorship during the pandemic, Caetlin Benson-Allott argues that queer films are especially powerful as a form of escapist viewing because of their “conjuring of alternative temporalities,” which operate outside of “chrononormativity” and its restrictive emphasis on linear trajectories oriented around white heterosexual dynamics and resolutions (2020, 77-78).

In the essay that follows, I argue that Sex Education and Schitt’s Creek offer an effective, politically motivated form of escapist viewing, with their queer utopias fulfilling a desire for an alternative time and future. The queer futurity of these shows are televisual embodiments of theorist Jose Esteban Muñoz’s “critical idealism,” which posits queerness as a “structured and educated mode of desiring that allows us to see and feel beyond the quagmire of the present” (2009, 1, 2). As Muñoz writes in his account of the potentialities of queer futurity,

“queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world” (2009, 1).

In their striving for alternative possibilities, Sex Education and Schitt’s Creek exemplify Muñoz’s argument that utopian feelings of hope are “indispensable to the act of imaging transformation” (2009, 9).

Sex Education

In its two seasons to date, Sex Education displays an array of LGBTQ+ experiences: it explores gay sexuality, lesbian sexuality, bisexuality, asexuality, and pansexuality. Within this smorgasbord of sexualities, it looks at a panoply of sex acts and related practices including but not limited to, penis-vagina sex, fingering, anal sex, oral sex, strap-on dildo sex, masturbation, and BDSM. Additionally, there are episodes that touch upon issues including: sexually transmitted diseases, erectile dysfunction, Viagra-induced erections, vaginismus, anal douching, the morning after pill, homophobia, abortion, porn, slut shaming, image-based sexual abuse, and sexual assault. Sex Education also weaves in the sexual stories and issues of the parents and teachers, which are almost as varied as those of the teens. All of these aspects of sexuality are explored through a comedic modality, and through well-established character arcs and storylines developed across seasons. The cast of Sex Education is notably diverse, as are the writing and production team behind the camera, which is “predominantly female and notably BAME [Black, Asian, and minority ethnic]” (Famurewa 2020).

The premise of Sex Education is that male teenager, Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield), the son of a sex therapist mother, Dr Jean Milburn (Gillian Anderson), starts a thriving business doling out sex advice to his fellow high schoolers. Ironically, while he is very good at psychoanalysing the sexual anxieties and fantasies of his fellow pupils, Otis himself has no sexual experience. The sex advice clinic is the brain child of Otis’s business partner—the entrepreneurially minded, self-sufficient, and ultra-cool feminist intellectual Maeve Wiley (Emma Mackey).

Although the show revolves around the awkward and privileged Otis, who is white, straight, and male, I contend that it does so with a view to denaturalizing heterosexuality. In particular, the sex therapy conceit enables the show to quickly open up to encompass a kaleidoscope of different sexual identities, activities, and practices. Heterosexuality in Sex Education is presented as one of many different kinds of orientation and ways of being in the world. Indeed, within the first five minutes of the pilot episode, viewers are introduced to the gay and black Eric Effiong (Ncuti Gatwa; he playfully questions Otis about Otis’ inability to masturbate; we hear them as the two ride their bikes to school with Eric’s signature raucous laughter echoing in the air. The series resists the token gay black best friend trope by making Eric a central character and exploring his intersectional experiences as a gay man with religious Ghanaian-Nigerian parents. An idea of “difference” is not located in Eric or in any one character who is then made to bear the burden of tokenism for the show.

In other words, Sex Education resists according Otis’s straight white male experience any kind of dominance; instead the plotlines indicate that heterosexuality is as contingent as any other form of sexuality, something which Otis himself strongly recognizes. In fact, the first episode frames white male heterosexual experience in the context of “failure” (Otis’ failure to masturbate and Adam’s [Connor Swindell] failure to orgasm with his girlfriend). However, despite the narrative focus on how people deal with sexual problems or concerns, Sex Education does not fetishize an idea of success. This aspect of the scripting proceeds like the argument developed in The Queer Art of Failure (2011) by Jack Halberstam, who makes the case for the value of failure in regard to queer transformation and counter-politics. As Halberstam argues, a notion of failure resists the “cultural logics of success” and is key to forming an alternative pedagogy “that presumes and indeed demands equality rather than hierarchy” (2011, 13). By exploring the sexual “failures” of its young cast of characters in a humorous light, Sex Education presents what Halberstam describes as a “new kind of optimism” (2011, 5). Such optimism resists the facile mantra of individual “positive thinking” (Halberstam, 2011, 4-5), and instead asks us to consider how failure can be productive in terms of generating new forms of knowledge.

Sex Education disseminates knowledge about queerness (Parsemain 2019) through consistently destabilizing a notion of heteronormative sex in two important ways. First, it depicts a range of what Freud might term “polymorphously perverse” (Rycroft 1968, 121-122) sexual practices and activities in a nuanced, sensitive, and funny manner. Second, it models responses to non-normative sex acts and issues through the calm, open, and rational therapeutic responses of Jean and Otis. Both Jean and Otis, in their different ways, use their therapeutic practice to open up a dialogue with their clients, rather than assume a position of superiority and dominance over them. As a TV show Sex Education does much the same, resisting hierarchies of knowledge and casting “education and social transformation as mutually dependent” (Halberstam 2011, 14).

Sex Education’s exploration of an array of queer sexualities and activities that are not commonly given media representation has been rightfully heralded critically. To give one example, the show has been praised for its depiction of an asexual character, Florence (Mirren Mack), in season 2, episode 4. Florence feels worried and isolated because she does not share the same desire for sex as those around her. Jean accurately identifies Florence as asexual; when Florence says that she feels “broken” because she does not want to have sex with anyone, Jean tells her: “Sex doesn’t make us whole. And so, how could you ever be broken?” In another example from the pilot episode, Jean notices that Otis has been faking masturbation and tells him that he can talk to her about it because “this is not a place of judgement” but a “safe space.” While it would be impossible for any TV show to create an entirely “safe space” for all, Jean’s remark nonetheless encapsulates Sex Education’s approach to instructing its young audience about sex. It eschews cautionary tales and the heterosexual strictures of so many coming of age teen films and TV shows as it opts for an openly queer—and feminist—approach to sex education.

It is instructive to consider how Sex Education’s pedagogy relates to new ways of thinking about Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) for young people. For example, the UK, from where I am writing, has recently had an overhaul of sex education, and a new mandatory RSE was due to be introduced in schools in September 2020 (its official launch postponed by Covid-19). This revamped RSE is designed to take into account LGBTQ+ identities and relationships, acknowledge the digital context and lack of distinction between “online” and “offline” for young people, and stress “the importance of recognising and having a zero-tolerance policy towards sexism and sexual violence” (“Sexplain’s Response” 2019). However, Sex Education is able to go considerably further than the RSE curriculum—which even in its new guise still tends to depict sex through the frame of monogamous relationships/marriage and it deemphasizes notions of pleasure (ibid.). Often, the time spent by youth now viewing screens comes under attack, especially in terms of worries over young people’s isolation (family members in different rooms watching different programmes on different screens and devices) and access to damaging material (porn etc.).[4] In this moment, queer TV can have a role in public pedagogy, using a “sex positive”[5] approach to sex education and emphasizing the pleasure, diversity and fluidity of consensual sexual experience.[6]

Striking a balance between the sweet, the sexually frank, and the educative (Phillipson 2019) is something that Sex Education does adeptly through its creation of a certain comedic tone and mood. According to film theorist Robert Sinnerbrink, mood

“is how a (fictional) world is expressed or disclosed via a shared affective attunement orienting the spectator within that world” (2012,148).

Indeed, serialized TV arguably has even more space and time to build, develop, and consolidate its fictional world than film does, creating atmospherics through repetition over the course of episodes and seasons. The affective tone and mood of Sex Education is central to how it positions both queer and non-queer audiences to occupy the shared space of its utopic queer world.

My exploration of how Sex Education directs viewers to engage affectively with its queer reorientation of sex draws from Carrie Rentschler’s definition of affect as an emphasis on “how things feel, for whom and with what potential” (2017, 12). As an example, consider Episode 3 of the first season. Lily (Tanya Reynolds), a female teen who writes tentacle porn in her spare time, goes home with Eric after band practice in the hopes that, to borrow her wording, he will put his penis into her vagina. When a shocked Eric tells her he is gay, a momentarily flummoxed Lily, who has taken her top off, puts it back on, shrugs, and suggests they do a make-over instead. A few scenes later we are back in Eric’s bedroom where Eric and Lily have dressed in flamboyant attire and adorned themselves in sparkly makeup. At Lily’s request, the pair are watching gay porn together, specifically, gay “rimming” porn. “What’s that? Oh, I see,” Lily says, tilting her head in interest, running her tongue across her lips as there is a flash of the act in question on Eric’s computer. The scene concludes when Eric’s father, Mr Effiong (DeObia Oparei) enters the room with tea and biscuits. Upon seeing the two watching gay porn in their colourful costumes, he suggests it’s time for Lily to go home, and then he tells Eric he needs to grow up and that his son should wash the make-up off before his mother gets home. The father is notably restrained in his scolding and shows a level of care and understanding as he hands Eric the cup of tea he came to bring him in the first place.

In a twist on the classic makeover trope of teen film, after Eric and Lily make themselves over they watch gay porn together. It is a surprisingly wholesome scene which captures Lily’s sexual curiosity. Mr. Effiong scolds Eric but also shows him care.