‘Sex Education’ and Its Display of Transformative Anger
Image source: YouTube
Anger can be both powerful and beautiful. It has the magnificent ability to enrich, to enliven and to enlighten. Its inherent capacity to create waves of strength, mold movements, form and reinforce communities and become a driving force toward any sort of change is unlike any other emotion that we can feel. And while emotions are typically regarded as a private and isolated experience, one that is strictly meant for the individual to endure, I would argue that anger possesses the easiest capability to be a transformative public force as it is anger that usually causes us to get up and do something. But anger’s value shouldn’t be measured solely by its consequential production. Its beauty lies within innate contradiction: the power to be both destructive and constructive.
But, before I can allow myself to delve deeply into the extraordinary qualities of rage, I would like to strongly iterate the kind of rage I intend to discuss: female rage. “Sex Education” does a brilliant job at conveying female rage in one individual scene in one individual episode, “The Girls Smashing Things.” This scene’s depiction of female anger is not meant to reductively restrict the emotion to a state of civility, kemptness or conventional beauty aesthetics, but to reveal its messiness, intensity and substance. Explicit avoidance of its implicit recklessness is absent.
There are so many other general reasons as to why “Sex Education” should be regarded as the freshly unapologetic, coming-of-age series it is already perceived to be. Complex issues such as abortion, teen sex, self-identity formations and crises, intergenerational dissonance within families, and other complicated age-relevant woes, are often over-represented or misrepresented in other teen dramas such as “13 Reasons Why“. But “Sex Education”‘s unconventional yet surprisingly perceptive approach to these dilemmas gives it an alluringly fresh, even feminist, edge.
While I’m quite aware of some of the problematically vexing parts of the show—such as how the show feeds the rather harmful trope that if a person harbors and exhibits homophobia, it actually is an indication of their own unrealized or unaccepted queer sexual feelings—I still think it deserves a solid thumbs-up. One of many examples would be that many LGBTQ+ characters are portrayed as autonomous, multidimensional human beings whose existences are not tokenized by their distinction within this community. Their storylines are loaded with self-revelations and didactic experiences, which are representative of many people’s lives while going through high school.
While I only scratched the surface of applauding “Sex Education,” I’d like to reflect on the greatness of season 2, episode 7, specifically in relation to its conveyance of female rage.
While the episode mostly serves as an extension of the show’s main storyline (as most episodes of television shows are), what intrigued and excited me the most was this phrase in the Netflix episode blurb: “…in detention, the girls bond.”
I was kind of pumped! While all the main-casted women of the show (Viv, Ola, Lily, Olivia, Maeve, and Aimee) attend the same high school, they all are a part of different friend groups and their individual narratives rarely, if at all, intersect. Prior to this episode, all of these characters have never been in a single scene together.
The origin of this confluence of narratives is constituted when the characters are put in a situation where it was insinuated that one of them had written on the wall of the locker room, “Miss Sands is a dirty talking slut!” It was earlier non-consensually exposed that Miss Sands and Mr. Hendricks, both instructors at the high school, were having sex. While it was subsequently affirmed that none of them had actually written such hatefully violating and sexist words, the six women all receive detention in order for the faculty to determine the culprit.
Fast forward to detention, Miss Sands clearly articulates that each of them would remain in detention until the person who committed the graffiti fesses up. Since no one confesses (since none of them did it), Miss Sands orders them to create a collaborative presentation on what “binds them together as women” since “one or all of you wanted to tear a fellow female down” (how ironic). The girls then prove to have a terribly difficult time discovering a commonality.
But it is when Ola and Maeve begin arguing over their respective relationships with Otis (the series’ titular character) that Aimee bursts out in an earnest yet highly charged fit of anger. With tears flowing down her face, failing at any attempt to suppress the strength of her feeling, Aimee yells out, “stop fighting over a stupid boy!” Aimee then divulges to the rest of the group how she was sexually assaulted on the bus to school. By releasing the rage that’s been stewing up for the entirety of the season, Aimee allows herself to reach a state of vulnerability. Her openness permits a space for the other girls to share their personal experiences of sexual harassment and/or assault, indicating the deep connection between anger expression and the ensued feeling of both safety and relief. The realization is then made evident. The answer to Miss Sands’ task, the basis of their conjuncture, is rooted in their mutual experiences of gender-based sexual violence.
This brings me to the climax of this subplot, the reason why I’m writing this article in the first place. The girls then head over to a junkyard after being released from detention to release the fury they all acquire for having realized that their point of similarity lies within assault. This intends to allude to the expected reality of gender-based violence, a cost that women must pay by merely existing within the confines of patriarchy. Sexual violence is, of course, structural violence.
And once they get to the junkyard, they proceed to just smash stuff with bats and hammers like it’s truly nobody’s business.
At first, Aimee was the only one to start breaking things, stating all the reasons why she is angry at that present moment, her voice raising in volume with each passing account. And then they all join her, finally able to translate that pent up rage into satisfying action.
But what, I would say, the most brilliantly pleasing aspect of this entire scene are their facial expressions. I couldn’t perceive an attempt made by the show at masking the intensity of feeling etched across all their faces. There is no attempt at minimizing the magnitude of the anger felt and utilized, which is so blatantly discernable by their facial expressions. We see ferocious yelling, furrowed eyebrows, gritted teeth and all-around communative glory. Least to say, it was somehow restorative being able to watch women not only be angry, but unapologetically display anger in all its unconventionally stupefying beauty.
We live in a structure where women’s anger is thwarted, stifled and suffocated for it to be compacted into a socially digestible package, one where anger becomes unnoticeable and invisible. It is not “ladylike” to be angry and actively show it. The turbulence latently riddled in the webs of rage must be suppressed in order to maintain the comfortability of those around her. To remain civilized in the wake of bubbling sensations replete with this emotion is the marker of being a “genuinely feminine woman.” We make it so femininity is devoid of any proclamation of rage, while masculinity holds jurisdiction over the solely expected model of anger expression.
And do not even get me started on the portrayal of anger as it pertains to Black women. In a structure where Black women constantly run risk of being labeled as intimidating or unwelcoming for simply being, what makes anyone think that they are socially allowed to declare their own anger without fear of harsh retribution, especially when they are the ones that deserve to be the most angry? Because of Anti-Black patriarchy, there is the notion that Blackness undermines a woman’s femininity, that Black women are not only less feminine than white women, but are also emasculating. Black women are constantly placed in a position to prove their womanhood. But Black women then exhibiting their anger determinately strips them of it.
But what’s so great about this “Sex Education” scene, no matter how short it may be, is that while there are no obvious efforts at concealing female anger for the sake of feminine preservation, the audience is bereft of experiencing any sort of preconceived judgement at the supposed lack of feminine performance. The audience is not meant to judge this display of rage, but to identify with it. We are angry right along with them. We are not meant to dislike or view the characters negatively after this scene. We are to be joyous at this rageful act of camaraderie.
I now would like to shift gears a bit and drift away from the socially prescribed containment of women outwardly demonstrating anger—this could be any feeling of anger from dropping your $6 iced matcha latte onto the floor because you were attempting to take your keys out from your backpack to showing anger when finding out you got a B+ in a class when you were expected at least an A- —and focus on a specific type of rage. I wish to now differentiate between everyday, at times trivial, anger felt by women, and the internalized bridled rage that women feel toward certain systems of dominance.
I’ve previously mentioned that I wish to recognize that beauty, power and sense of unity lies within female rage. But there is a particular kind of female rage that I would like delineate: the anger of the aforementioned scene of “Sex Education.” This is a rage established by events that happen to women because they are women constantly moving through a sexist space (the same sentiment applies to women of color who have to navigate both a sexist and racist space). The rage depicted by the female characters of “Sex Education” is a response to their shared experiences of unwanted sexual advances, an egregious byproduct of institutionalized violence against women in our society. Other examples of this rage include rage targeted at the insurmountable number of women and girls, especially Black and brown girls, who are trafficked on the daily in this country, the fact that trans Black women continue to be murdered without any form of justice and so on and so forth.
I am going to call the anger in opposition to the rage I explained above as male anger, specifically speaking to cis whie male anger. I can understand why this name may not be totally descriptory or all-encompassing, but I simply have no idea what else to call it. So “male anger” roots itself within broader workings of current systems of oppression, such as patriarchy, racism, anti-blackness, classism, etc. When this male anger presents itself, it usually is an anger founded in retaliation against structurally oppressed groups taking up space. Well-known examples would be the 2017 Charlottesville white supremacist and neo-Nazi rally, the 2014 Isla Vista massacre, the 2015 Charleston church shooting or the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting. It should also be acknowledged that this “male anger” not only perpetuates systems of oppression, but is actively nurtured by certain institutions, such as the State, therefore making it institutionalized. What this looks like: Trump calling those neo-Nazis “very fine people,” or politicians or law enforcement using the rhetoric of “lone wolf” or “it was because of violent video games” to describe mass shootings that are clearly informed by systems such as anti-Blackness, homophobia and misogyny.
“Male anger” maintains hegemonic structures, while female rage, specifically the kind that provoked the aforementioned scene of “Sex Education,” can engender freedom from these structures, given that they provide the foundational reason for why we harbor this kind of anger in the first place. Bluntly stated, the former sustains while the latter helps dismantle and liberate.
My point in all this remains that this iteration of female rage is fundamentally justified in its configuration as self-defense against frameworks meant to repress. Its ability to generate bonds, foster communities and enact change should be celebrated, not mutilated. It is okay to be angry. Let yourself feel angry. Because we sure have things to be angry about.
“We use whatever strengths we have fought for, including anger, to help define and fashion a world where all our sisters can grow, where our children can love, and where the power of touching and meeting another woman’s difference and wonder will eventually transcend the need for destruction” – Audre Lorde