state of the arts

Sex Education gives disabled characters’ love lives the respect they deserve

Spoiler alert! As the hit Netflix series returns, it’s busting more taboos with its intimate scenes between rebel girl Maeve and wheelchair user Isaac – and they go way beyond box-ticking, says Micha Frazer-Carroll

Saturday 25 September 2021 07:42
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<p>George Robinson and Emma Mackey in ‘Sex Education'</p>

George Robinson and Emma Mackey in ‘Sex Education'

Ellen ​​Stohl, who became the first paraplegic person to model for Playboy in 1987, told the magazine at the time: “Sexuality is the hardest thing for a disabled person to hold on to.” Sometimes it can seem as if little has changed since. Sex in the context of disability continues to be stigmatised by many non-disabled people, and these ideas creep into the fictional stories we consume, too. How many shows, films or books can you think of that feature a disabled person as a love interest? I can count them on one hand. But after tuning in to season three of Netflix’s Sex Education, I can now add at least one more to my tally. The series features an intimate scene with a character who uses a wheelchair – something that we scarcely see on TV.

Let’s rewind a bit for context: in season two of the show, which focused on the sexual antics and learnings of a cohort of British teenagers, we were introduced to Isaac (George Robinson), a paraplegic teenage boy who lives on the same campsite as rebel leading lady Maeve (Emma Mackey). In the face of Maeve’s own family and school challenges, her friendship with Isaac became stronger throughout the second series – but we gradually became aware that Isaac had feelings for her. As the season progressed, Isaac was increasingly cast as an obstacle to the romance between Maeve and protagonist Otis (Asa Butterfield) – the nadir came when he deleted a heartfelt and pivotal voicemail that Otis had left on Maeve’s phone. To put it bluntly, Isaac slipped into the role of conniving villain – so far, so normal when it comes to disabled stereotypes on screen.

But in the show’s most recent season, Maeve and Isaac’s connection finally blossoms into a romance, which comes to a climax in episode four, when the pair engage in some pretty intense ear-kissing, undressing and general canoodling. Partly written by Robinson himself, the scene struck me as unusual – it shows Maeve and Isaac discussing what they can do together in a sexual context and exploring what they enjoy (consent is always an explicit theme in the show). Sophie Buck, a friend of mine who uses a wheelchair and runs a magazine on autistic representation in pop culture, tells me that they were also pleasantly surprised by how the scene was written and executed. They mostly put this down to Robinson’s role in writing it, pointing out the importance of involving disabled people in the telling of their own stories.

The encounter begins tentatively, after Maeve and Isaac resolve a fallout and then begin to kiss. “Can...” Maeve begins to wonder aloud, before cutting herself off. It seems like there is an awareness, in an otherwise intimate setting, that Isaac must get questions like this. Sophie tells me that overly personal questions about sex are a real issue for many wheelchair users (they show me a direct message from one of their Instagram followers, asking how their disability “has affected [their] sex fantasies”). But without missing a beat, Isaac pre-empts the question and explains his experience of sex to Maeve. Between the two of them, this information is all on a need-to-know basis, and Maeve doesn’t come off as intrusive or fetishistic. But in the context of the show, it’s worth remembering that the audience is also in the room, and so elements of this scene may still inadvertently feed a sort of non-disabled curiosity.

But the scene is still notable in its beauty. Isaac and Maeve’s liaison is one of the most emotive and romantic moments in the season, if not the whole show so far. The majority of Sex Education’s love scenes are, infamously, anything but sexy (and its almost slapstick approach to shagging is actually what makes it possible to sit down and watch this show with your parents). But when Isaac and Maeve finally get together, we’re spared the slapstick, with composer Oli Julian’s gentle piano score working alongside soft cinematography to make the moment feel intimate and deeply serious. As the pair undress, kiss, and touch, this all feels like a far cry from the infantilisation and desexualisation of disabled people that we usually see in popular culture.

Annoyingly, though, their liaison gets cut short (the smoke alarm conveniently goes off, and there’s a forgotten lasagne in the oven). It’s impossible not to wonder whether the writing room had reservations about taking things further, and if so whether they were about plot ramifications, or ableism, or a bit of both.

George Robinson as Isaac in ‘Sex Education’

But, in the context of the vast underrepresentation of disabled sex on screen, the intimate scene between Maeve and Isaac does ultimately feel subversive, if ever so slightly tick-boxy. As Sophie and I discuss other comparable representations of disabled people’s sexuality – and seriously, there aren’t many to choose from – Josh Thomas’s comedy series Everything’s Gonna Be Okay springs to mind (Thomas’s onscreen autistic teenage sibling, Matilda, arranges threesomes, sleeps with older guys, and gets into a homoromantic asexual relationship). Sophie points towards another Netflix series, Ryan O’Connell’s Special, in which the protagonist (also called Ryan, and played by the show’s creator), who is gay and has cerebral palsy, has realistic sexy sex with a sex worker. Many disabled viewers dubbed the episode “revolutionary” when it was released in 2019, and Everything’s Gonna Be Okay had a similar reaction from autistic people when it debuted in 2020.

Of course, there’s a common denominator between these two shows and this week’s Sex Education scene: they were all written by disabled people. While Stohl was astute in observing that sexuality is the hardest thing for a disabled person to hold on to, it seems that leaps are finally being made in taking that back.

‘Sex Education’ season three is streaming on Netflix now

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