The Inbetweeners and Sex Education

Here’s a reflection I’ve been pursuing about contemporary culture, sexual attitudes, mores, popular entertainment, and humour, inspired by two TV sitcoms. You could frame it as an essay question:

Compare, contrast and evaluate The Inbetweeners, (2008-2010) and Sex Education (2019-present).

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The Inbetweeners
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Sex Education

They are apparently similar in being British comedy dramas about teenagers coming of age, and especially exploring their sexual identities, doing their best to look cool to their contemporaries, and to get laid as often as possible.

I quite enjoyed The Inbetweeners when it was first aired. I can’t say the same about viewing it again on Britbox, where it is currently available. Each episode opens with the moral health warning: Contains strong language and adult humour. This isn’t exactly true. The humour is relentlessly adolescent, and I would add, aimed at adolescent males. In the ten years since it first came out, there has been a huge sea change in the way we (or at least, I) react to this brand of humour. Perhaps it has been the effect of revelations about the abuse of women perpetrated by men, the whole #Metoo phenomenon, the language used by Donald Trump and others that sets out to humiliate, degrade and objectify women. I can no longer listen to Will, Simon, Neil and Jay’s conversations with even the wry recollection, “Yes, that’s just what being a spotty adolescent was like, my body raging with lust and hormones.” Now it’s just repulsive and gross.

Sex Education is different. It’s still about teenagers at a sixth form college agonising about sex, identity and the rest. It’s still a jungle in there – why is it that teenagers are often so outrageously cruel to each other? But it’s so much funnier, cleverer, more adult in fact, but without repelling in the same way. You might say, perhaps, that it’s about what the title says it’s about: these young people know more about sex (well, not always – witness among other examples the chlamydia “plague” panic in series 2, episode 1), and it’s also, seriously, about how they learn more. It’s also much more inclusive: girls have sexual desires and experiences as well as the boys. There are lots of strong female characters in the comedy, and they are often shown in a better, more sympathetic light than the boys. Adults have sexual desires and experiences too, and they form an important part of the action. The adults elicit our sympathy but also our disapproval, as they mistreat their pupils or children.

I thoroughly enjoy Sex Education and can watch it again without that disgust that not only The Inbetweeners, but other more vintage ‘comedies’, arouse.

What do others think?

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