The Weird British-American Setting of Sex Education (Netflix)

in july 2019 Netflix announced that it

will be opening a new production hub as

Shepherdson studios in Surrey southeast

England this was the latest in a long

line of news to ramp up the streaming

services UK production capabilities in

2018 and 2019 the company's London

office went from employing less than 20

individuals to around 130 and over the

course of that same 12 months more than

25,000 creative professionals were

employed in making around 40 Netflix

original productions somewhere in the UK

commenting on this expansion Netflix is

director of public policy

Benjamin King stated that the UK is a

major locus for us in production terms

globally it's probably the third most

important behind the US and Canada

continuing that we are confident there's

substantial scope for us to increase our

investment in the UK of course Netflix

has been making TV shows in the UK for a

number of years now since 2016 the crown

has been filmed in the UK both on

location and at Elstree Studios in

Harford share a great deal of Black

Mirror which moved to Netflix from the

British channel 4 in 2015 has also

continued to be filmed in the UK

nevertheless as some of the productions

which have been the result of the

company's more recent expansion efforts

have begun to be completed and released

the increase in UK made Netflix

originals available through the platform

has been palpable the show which has

stood out as being most exciting to me

personally and received the greatest

amount of critical acclaim has been the

teen comedy slash drama sex education

created by Laurie Nunn and starring

Gillian Anderson as a Butterfield and

included Ghats were the show follows

Otis Melbourne the son of two sex

therapists as he opens a clandestine sex

clinic within his school the show has a

big political statement to make in its

for grounding of the ineptitudes of the

sex and relationship education provision

presently available to young people yet

it delivers this thesis in a highly


way well on the one hand it offers a

level of realism often absent in youth

dramas in portraying the diverse sex

lives of young people in an entirely

unmoral izing manner on the other it

engages a heightened style of dialogue

performance and editing which makes the

show a real joy to watch yeah sex

education setting is to put it in highly

academic terms somewhat odd for all

intents and purposes the show is set in

the UK or to be more specific

given the accents of most of the cast

though the show is filmed in South Wales

it seems to be set somewhere in England

nevertheless on watching the show one

finds things to be not quite so simple

as Ellie Harrison wrote in the Radio

Times following the release of the first

season the series is set in a British

school in the British countryside with a

British cast and yet oddly it feels

distinctly American viewers in the UK

might be taken aback for instance by the

fact that unlike the vast majority of

British schools the students at sex

education Moorefield high don't wear a

school uniform

in fact some even wear u.s. style

letterman jackets with the school's

initials emblazoned upon them the

school's hallway is moreover aligned

with the lockers in a manner that is

pretty uncommon this side of the

Atlantic the school also boasts its own

swimming pool something I've never heard

of in a British state school beyond the

school gates to Maeve lives in a caravan

park which in the UK tend in most though

perhaps not all instances to function as

holiday resorts rather than as long-term

accommodation and finally in a manner

that's hard to explain the organisation

and topography of Moorefield simply seem

to evoke rural America just as much as

it does the English countryside

there are likely a whole host of other

American influences on the show that we

could pick out and a great deal of time

could be spent going through sex

education frame-by-frame highlighting

some of these geographical income

Bertie's nevertheless i think to do so

would be to buy into the idea that the

show has done something objectively

wrong in utilizing this aesthetic as

I'll discuss shortly all of this is

intentional and television shows are

simply not required to represent the

world accurately if such a thing is even

possible yet while I will defend sex

education ability to represent the world

in whatever way it sees fit I think it's

interesting to consider what this

mashing together of English and American

culture does to our experience of

watching the show who it implies it is

intended to be watched by and how it

might impact sex education ability to

comment on the state of sex and

relationship education in the present

day before we go any further a quick

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at patreon.com forward slash Tom

Nicholas with that out of the way

however let's crack on with the video


in an interview with vulture magazine in

2019 Ben Taylor who is one of sex

education stew executive producers and

the director of numerous individual

episodes of the series suggested that

the decision to draw so heavily on

American influences in the show's

aesthetic was made in order to tip a hat

to the work of John Hughes the writer

and director of films such as Ferris

Bueller's Day Off and The Breakfast Club

he told vultured that he'd always wanted

to do a high school rom-com a huge style

high school experience that is not

something that really exists in the UK

writing and rendering if the British

school experience is not traditionally

joyful and for some this will be

explanation enough for the show strange

setting it certainly gives rationale for

many of sex-education stylistic choices

such as it's witty zinging dialogue is

color palette and some of the narrative

tropes that it engages with yep

personally but I think this raises as

many questions as it answers for again

while sex education is under no

obligation to accurately represent the

world as it actually exists the show is

embrace of the mythology of the American

high school from its visual appearance

to its social hierarchy and much more

however enjoyable makes it hard to

conceive of the show as a rendering of

the British school experience at all

some more cynical viewers might argue

that wrenching the show in the

accoutrement of small-town America

reveals lesser desire to represent the

British school experience more joyfully

and more an attempt to ensure that the

show can appeal to and be understood by

an American audience for to draw from

moment on a little bit of literary

theory in his 1974 book the implied

reader Wolfgang Iser argued that

although most cultural texts can be read

watched or viewed by anyone most have in

mind an implied reader either argues

that cultural texts by necessar

assume certain knowledge on the part of

the reader for in this case viewer and

present us with what he calls blanks

which we are required to draw upon our

pre-existing knowledge of the worlds to

fill in the argument here is not that a

text might become entirely

incomprehensible to anyone who is not

this implied reader but simply that

someone who is in possession of the

cultural knowledge needed to fill in

these blanks will get more out of it

than those who don't

and by observing what pre-existing

knowledge attacks does expect us to have

and the knowledge that it feels the need

to explain to us we can identify who the

intended audience for that text is in

such a way one might argue that sex

education 'he's many American influences

reveal an implied reader or again viewer

who has been through or is currently

going through that very experience in

short that the show though watchable and

enjoyable by anyone is constructed

primarily with an American audience in

mind nevertheless

I don't think it's that clear-cut but

one could argue that the dominance of

American culture at least in the

english-speaking world if not elsewhere

too has led to the American high school

experience establishing itself as a kind

of global norm partly through the

success of the teen comedies of John

Hughes and others that have influenced

sex education directly one could argue

that although we are very aware of its

acute geographical and cultural

specificity we have come to view the

experience of our American friends as a

kind of universal essential school

experience which those of us elsewhere

in the world consider our actual

experiences a kind of deviation from

rather than sex education being

specifically targeted at an American

audience then I would argue that the

decision to draw so heavily on American

influences in the show's aesthetic is

more a matter of the show's creators

wanting to avoid it ever becoming too

british well the show does draw on

aspects of particularly English culture

a certain stuffiness particularly around


for example or the green and pleasant

land scape I would argue that the show

evidences of fear of presenting the

viewer with too many blanks to draw an

Isis terminology that's an international

audience more familiar with the American

school system or at least how that

experience has been presented by

pre-existing films television shows

books and other media might not be able

to fill in to kind of sidebar for a

brief moment this is all notable in

relation to the discussion of Netflix's

investment in the UK that I opened this

video with for the UK government like

many national and local governments

across the world incentivizes production

companies to make TV shows and films

within the UK through providing them

with tax breaks and these aren't always

huge in 2018 for instance Netflix

received only 51 thousand pounds as a

reward for the shows that it produced in

the UK it is worth noting however that

there are two reasons that governments

provide these incentives the first is

simply that making a film or television

show involves spending a lot of money

and the amount that a production company

spends during filming more often than

not counter balances the cost of the tax

incentive while also creating jobs the

second is that having films television

shows and whatever else set in your

country or city implies a certain level

of importance to what happens there and

is the steamed good for Joseph S Knight

jr. refers to as a country's soft pal a

show like the crown for instance might

make people from other countries want to

visit the UK or to purchase British

goods and in a looser sense the manner

in which it presents the UK as a major

player on the global stage reinforces

the idea that Britain is a country that

you want the government of your own

country to be on good geopolitical terms

with a sex education is interesting in

this sense for where the crown somewhat

problematically seeks to assert the UK's

soft power through invoking the memory

of Empire

sex education serves as something of a

record of how diminished the country

soft power is in the present day where

once it was possible for the UK through

hard military power to force much of the

world to view its culture or at least

that of its ruling class as being a kind

of universal standard sex education

deference to the cultural ideals of its

former colony America reveals that with

the Empire a thing of the past

Britain's ability to present itself as

central to global culture is although

not entirely absent somewhat fading

nevertheless even if we view sex

education zin per ace of American

influences as less an attempt to endear

the show to an American audience in

particular and more as an effort to

appeal to a contemporary notion of

universality this still raises some

questions for at the heart of the show

is a pretty weighty political point a

2016 report by the Terrence Higgins

Trust a UK charity which campaigns for

better services surrounding sexual

health found that half of young people

felt that the sex and relationships

education that they received in school

to be either poor or terrible 95% were

not taught about LGBT relationships 75%

were not taught about consent and 89%

had experienced sex and relationship

education which failed to ever mention

the fact that it might be in any way

enjoyable sex education the TV show

evidently wants to say something about

this yes it might also want to provide a

joyful representation of school life but

essential part of its thematic fabric is

the notion that sex and relationship

educational sre as it presently exists

in the UK and elsewhere in the world is

not up to scratch by extension the show

seems to want to make the case that a

more inclusive sex positive approach to

sre would be beneficial for young people

sexual and mental health the very facts

that I'm making this video suggests that

on a very basic level the show makes

this point fairly successfully although

it occasion

he deviates from this the standard

narrative arc of an episode of sex

education is that at the opening one of

Moorefield high students is struggling

with an element of their sexual life and

after visiting Otis orb in season two

his mother Jean for advice they usually

end up if not entirely solving the

problem at least with a deeper

understanding of whatever it is they're

grappling with notices advice is

certainly never perfect

yet the experiences of the show's

characters generally in further talking

about sex and relationships in an open

and honest way is a good thing towards

the close of season two however the show

begins to tackle the ethical questions

intrinsic to a young person with no

training other than what he has picked

up from listening to his mother's

therapy sessions running a sex therapy

practice in an abandoned toilet block

within his school and throughout both

seasons we are made aware that this is

not the ideal scenario the existence of

Otis's practice if we can call it that

is a workaround made necessary by how

dire the school's official sre provision

is nevertheless the show never makes it

particularly clear why the schools sre

provision is so lacking the show

alternates between falling back on

notions that this is simply the way

things are and implying that it as a

result of the stuffiness and awkwardness

of the school star and in doing so the

show somewhat simplifies the challenges

that exist here for while it may be a

factor what is taught in schools

regarding sex and relationships is

rarely simply a matter of an individual

head teacher being a little bit awkward

instead it is primarily the result of

inadequate policy at the government

level for as the report I mentioned a

moment ago stressed one of the problems

with sre as it exists in the present day

is how variable it is in some places it

might be great in others entirely

non-existent oftentimes decent provision

is reliant on voluntary groups like the

UK charity sex pression convincing

schools to allow them to

with their young people for a morning or

afternoon and while such groups often

embody exemplary practice and represent

a far far better intervention than that

provided by Otis's makeshift clinic this

is still obviously not ideal there is a

reason that the Terrence Higgins Trust

were so jubilant when in 2018 it was

announced the sre would become

compulsory in all UK schools and that is

because necessitating such provision at

the national level is pretty much the

only way to ensure that it becomes

available to everyone while the

antagonism between the diverse sex lives

of Moorfields young people and the

awkwardness of mr. Groff the head

teacher may make for a fun narrative

then it's somewhat elides the

complexities of the show central theme

even the greater role that Maxine the

chair of the Moorefield High Board of

Governors plays in season two never

quite leads to the show considering

these broader questions of what a more

lasting solution to the inadequacies of

sex and relationships education in

contemporary school systems might be and

this leads us back to the issue of sex

education setting for although the

reason that the show doesn't engage more

deeply with the matter of why the

students of Moorefield high don't have

access to better sre may simply beat you

to the show's creators not wanting to

get their joyful rendering of school

life bogged down in the intricacies of

government policy one wonders whether

the manner in which the show of voids

ever being too specific in its setting

would have ever allowed them to for

engaging with such political issues on

anything other than a surface level

requires an acknowledgement of

specificity it necessitates taking into

account of specific policies affect

specific people in specific places sex

education however is essentially set

nowhere and this means that for all the

interesting questions it raises about

the sex and relationships education

provision available to young

people in the present day it is

ultimately unable to dig too deep into

the question of how this might have come

to be and what might be done to rectify

it thank you for watching this video if

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calm for word slash Tom Nicholas thanks

so much for watching once again and have

a great week