Apr 06

“Sex Education”: Learning Not for Teens Only

Looking for a Netflix series suitable for adults yet mainly about British teenagers finding themselves? Laurie Nunn‘s dramedy Sex Education has two seasons currently available. I found that giving it a chance into the third or so episode pays off.

As Season One began, Allison Shoemaker, rogerebert.com, set up the premise as the following:

…What happens when the sexually repressed teenage son of a sex therapist decides to start doling out some counseling of his own to his fellow high-schoolers? Otis (Asa Butterfield) begins to explore that question at the behest of classmate Maeve (Emma Mackey), an intelligent young woman with a cultivated tough-girl exterior she uses to deflect some of the cruelties hurled at her by the other students. He’s encouraged in this by his best friend Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), an openly gay student whose eagerness to embrace life acts as a kind of armor of his own. What Otis lacks in sexual experience of his own, he makes up for in empathy and secondhand knowledge, the latter accrued over years of living with his mother Jean (Gillian Anderson)…

For deeper thoughts about Jean’s character as well as what sex therapists may actually be like as parents, see my previous post on this topic.

As for her son, who’s actually sexually fearful: “Despite his hang-ups, Otis has a mature head on his shoulders, and his advice to his peers — who come to him with Dan Savage-level questions about orgasms, anatomy and kinks — is always humane and generally spot-on,” notes Hank Stuever, Washington Post.

In other words, somehow this improbable story works. Dan Fienberg, Hollywood Reporter:

…Sex Education knows how ill-formed Otis’ knowledge-base is, never cuts him slack when his kernels of wisdom are short-sighted or deluded and never loses track of how Otis is just as confused as everybody else at his school. The show is wildly empathetic and completely committed to, at every turn, understanding that high school is a time in which people are swiftly defined as one thing and yet are rarely that simple.

…(I)ts messages are usually about the importance of self-affirmation and the necessity of proper communication and understanding. They’re lessons surely worth heeding.

Among the things Sex Ed’s high school students have the benefit of learning (George Chrysostomou, Screen Rant) are the importance of prioritizing friends, seeking support, taking responsibility for one’s actions, learning how to say no, making difficult choices, educating yourself, recognizing that parents and adults have issues too, and dealing with sexual identity as openly and proudly as possible.

Selected Reviews of Sex Education

James Poniewozik, New York Times: “The creator, Laurie Nunn, has managed to make a teen sex comedy I haven’t quite seen before — timely but not hamfistedly topical, feminist, with a refreshing lack of angst about its subject. Sex, in this show, isn’t an ‘issue’ or a problem or a titillating lure: It’s an aspect of health.”

Valeria Sevilla, Screen Rant:“(It) may not be an exact representation of a mother-son relationship or a therapist’s modus operandi, but still manages to address important matters in a comedic, serious-yet-refreshing way.”

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya, AV Club: “Season two packs in an astounding amount of stories that have real heart and skin to them, while also allowing significant space for pansexuality, queer sex and queer desire, bisexuality, and asexuality. It’s sprawling and intimate all at once, like several personal diaries strung together.”

Nov 18

“Moonlight”: Identity-Seeking Across Decades

Three different actors portray three distinct stages of one man’s life and identity search in Barry Jenkins‘s strongly reviewed Moonlight. Noted author Ta-Nehisi Coates has called it the “best take on black masculinity…ever” (Slate).

David Edelstein, Vulture:

…Jenkins puts you inside the head of a closemouthed, fatherless African-American protagonist, Chiron (pronounced Chy-rone), as he grows from a lonely boy to a lonely adult, with a single moment of connection in the middle of the middle section: a brief sexual encounter with a teenager named Kevin on a Florida beach. The movie’s first half builds to that moment, the last half falls away from it. But you can’t pin Moonlight down as a gay-awakening film — or a fear-of-coming-out film or anything centering on sex or love. It’s deeper than that. The title alludes to an idea about the moon: that in its light you realize that only you (not the gods, not other people) can decide who you want to be.

In Part One he’s a child: small, black, fatherless, possibly gay, and living in a poor area of Miami with a drug-addicted mom. Peter Debruge, Variety:

Even before Chiron is old enough to understand the notion of homosexuality, his classmates seem to have labeled him as such. The other kids openly torment the runt-like child (played by Alex Hibbert at this stage), whom they call ‘Little’ and dismiss as ‘soft,’ chasing him to a local crack den, where he’s discovered by a sympathetic drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali, breathing humanity into a stereotype). Since Little refuses to speak, Juan has no choice but to bring him back to the home he shares with his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe, a doll-like beauty with remarkable inner strength) — and in so doing, takes his place as a sort of surrogate father and role model.

In the middle part, states Eric Kohn, Indiewire, “…Chiron is an alienated teen (Ashton Sanders)” whose despair and anger culminates in a tragic turning point. And by the finale:

…he has undergone a dramatic transition into young adulthood and taken on the nickname ‘Black’ (Trevante Rhodes). But he still hasn’t quite figured out how to express his deepest feelings, and therein lies the movie’s greatest source of intrigue. Jenkins and his extraordinary cast generate powerful suspense around questions of when, and how, the repressed character might find emotional liberation.

The trailer follows:

Selected Conclusions

David Edelstein, Vulture:

 Moonlight isn’t weighed down by psychologizing, but you can infer all sorts of things about the effect of an absent father on Chiron’s sense of self (the name evokes the centaur — half-man, half-horse) and the power of a culture given to crushing all manifestations of male sensitivity (let alone gayness). You can infer the dire impact on Chiron of a crack-addict mother — she does, tearfully, in later scenes, when the damage is done and his character formed. But it might be better just to think about the moon — and how all our choices of who to be might look in its pitiless light.

David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter: “All the clichés of the coming-of-age movie have been peeled away, leaving something quite startling in its emotional directness. And though the movie is never sentimental, while watching you become aware how rarely we get to see black male characters onscreen in such an emotionally revealing light.”

Stephanie Zacharek, Time: “…leaves you feeling both stripped bare and restored, slightly better prepared to step out and face the world of people around you, with all the confounding challenges they present. There’s not much more you can ask from a movie.”

Mar 25

“Sexual Fluidity” By Lisa Diamond: New Thoughts About Identity

It would be an amazing thing if a thirteen year old went into health class was told, “you are at the beginning of an incredible journey. I’m going to give you some tools and strategies for figuring out what you want and how to get it. But you are in the beginning of an adventure and it’s going to be great!” That would be a really profound transformation. Lisa Diamond, author of Sexual Fluidity

Is sexual fluidity pertinent to your life?  Might be, particularly if you’re female.

Psychology professor Lisa M. Diamond, PhD, has researched and written the book on this topic. It’s called Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire (2008). “Probably the most surprising finding of the study was how often women changed the way that they thought about their sexual identity over time,” she told Big Think. Rather than stability of identity, the norm was changeability of identity, often back and forth.

Sexuality counselor Ian Kerner lists on CNN Health the three main characteristics Diamond says are part of sexual fluidity:

– Non-exclusivity in attractions: can find either gender sexually attractive
– Changes in attractions: can suddenly find a man or woman sexually attractive after having been in a long-term relationship with the other
– Attraction to the person, not the gender

Although women aren’t alone in this, men are thought to have less of this capacity. More research is needed on this, though.

A basic breakdown of her argument, as described by the book publisher:

…(F)or some women, love and desire are not rigidly heterosexual or homosexual but fluid, changing as women move through the stages of life, various social groups, and, most important, different love relationships. This perspective clashes with traditional views of sexual orientation as a stable and fixed trait. But that view is based on research conducted almost entirely on men. Diamond is the first to study a large group of women over time. She has tracked one hundred women for more than ten years as they have emerged from adolescence into adulthood. She summarizes their experiences and reviews research ranging from the psychology of love to the biology of sex differences. 

Publishers Weekly notes that Diamond admits her sample wasn’t fully representative. This doesn’t mean, though, that her findings lack substance.

Sexual fluidity does not equal bisexuality, though there can be overlap. Diamond doesn’t even use the word “bisexual” because of the difficulty defining it in a way that is widely accepted and understood. She uses instead the term “non-exclusive attractions.”

It’s important to note here that sexual identity is a self-defined construct. Just as there are those who would identify as heterosexual or homosexual non-fluidly, there are those who would identify as bisexual non-fluidly. Alternatively, as was found by Diamond, many people with any of these three orientations might find themselves on the fluid spectrum.

There are so many possibilities. So, why label at all? Why not just be open to the journey? This is a question younger people in general are more likely to ask than older ones. At least figuratively speaking, give them boxes to check and they’ll often ignore them, make up their own, or show disdain.

Ritch C. Savin-Williams, author of The New Gay Teenager: “Diamond challenges both traditionalists and radicals—if you want to understand female sexuality, listen to what women say.”