Sex Education season 2 tackled toxic masculinity with Otis's character arc

Max Farrow

From Digital Spy

Note: Contains MAJOR spoilers for Sex Education.

Sex Education is remarkable for the way in which it has fearlessly tackled the topics that many other TV shows dodge.

From asexuality to assault, these issues arise through the hormone-fuelled antics of Otis Milburn's (Asa Butterfield) classmates. But as the new season widens the hit show's cast and its scope, the programme doubles down on its deconstruction of Otis.

Photo credit: Netflix

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As he barrels towards adulthood, Otis experiences the usual trials, heartaches and awkward situations. But he has not had any any steady male template to follow so far. The most prominent men in Otis's life are undoubtedly his flighty, Lothario-esque father Remi Milburn (James Purefoy) and Michael Groff (Alistair Petrie) the bullying headmaster of Moordale Secondary School.

These two adults may seem different, but they are actually two sides of the same coin. Michael heavily typifies the stereotypical masculine notions of strength and control, whilst Remi similarly embodies emotional detachment and virility. These qualities are at odds with the kind, yet intensely repressed and sensitive Otis – but this contrast is key to what unfolds in the series.

Photo credit: Sam Taylor/Netflix - Netflix

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Throughout season two Otis increasingly falls back on these old-fashioned definitions of manliness as his situation becomes more complicated. He bristles at his mother Jean's (Gillian Anderson) role at his school and repeatedly snubs her new lover Jakob Nyman (Mikael Persbrandt).

Increasingly threatened and torn between Ola (Patricia Allison) and Maeve (Emma Mackey) Otis focuses inwards and begins treating his loved ones ever more carelessly.

After Ola dumps him, Otis makes a final effort to prove how "chill" he is by throwing a house party, which proves to be as exorbitant as his spree of wanking in the series opener. In a toe-curling display, Otis gets drunk and openly critiques Ola and Maeve in front of his guests, before he has casual sex with his classmate Ruby (Mimi Keene).

Photo credit: Netflix

This is not to say that Sex Education condemns these more raucous activities, yet it does take great pains to draw a line between Otis, Groff and Remi to highlight the toxic path that the teen is starting on.

Moreover, in the same way that Otis' angst is peeled back, so too does our understanding of Groff and Remi deepen in season two. The uncompromising and self-righteous headmaster doesn't just leave his students' education wanting – Michael has proved to be so unfeeling and suffocating that he is kicked out of the family home by his estranged wife (Samantha Spiro) and son (Connor Swindells).

And though Remi is a womanising successful author – since we witness him promoting his rather tellingly entitled book 'Is Masculinity In Crisis?' towards the season's end – his affirmations of men "owning their intention" and "manning up" are proved to be toxic.

Another of his marriages has broken down, and it's clear that Remi's pattern of infidelity and ignorance have caused him (and others) lasting emotional pain instead of happiness.

Photo credit: Sam Taylor - Netflix

As such, Sex Education highlights the real problems that toxic masculinity causes for men in their everyday lives, as well as those closest to them. The recent Future Men survey found that 67% of men aged 18-24 had felt pressured to demonstrate hyper-masculine traits (via a 2018 Future Men survey), much as Otis does in Sex Education.

Without the right guidance, "Sex Kid" opted to follow this age-old gender role, which was obviously unsuitable and unfulfilling for such a gentle person. Likewise, Michael and Remi's fondness for control and detachment are also hallmarks of toxic masculinity, with real world experts confirming that suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45 (via the BBC), with a factor being that they are taught from a young age not to express any forms of weakness or vulnerability.

This is reflected in the show when, by attempting to win favour with an uncompromising, unflappable attitude, Otis inadvertently pushes his peers away.

Photo credit: Netflix

Related: How Sex Education season 2 broke new ground with this one Otis storyline

Thankfully, the second season of Sex Education ends with a lighter resolution for its lead. At Remi’s urging, Otis returns to being open and honest with himself and his loved ones. The last episode is rounded off by Otis publicly defending Jean from Groff's wild and slanderous claims, before he reveals the true depth of his love for Maeve in a voicemail on her phone. Otis also apologises for his meanness towards Jakob, and it's no mistake that it is the caring yet burly plumber who can recognise Otis's inherent decency.

With tenderness and integrity at the forefront of Otis's arc, Sex Education is not just a heart-warming coming of age story: it's a vitally important parable. Like the titular "Sex Kid", boys and men don't have to be hemmed in by outdated notions of what a man 'should' be.

They should be allowed to open up – instead of being told to "man up" – and become something more.

Sex Education seasons one and two are streaming now on Netflix.

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