There are lessons in the recent success of Netflix’s Heartstopper that Sex Education can use to resolve problems in season 4, problems caused by the use of a particular trope in the latter’s earlier seasons. Both Sex Education and Heartstopper explore sexuality in a British school setting, and both have been praised for the sensitivity with which they handle important topics. However, Heartstopper avoids repeating one of Sex Education’s shortcomings.
Gay relationships are central to the stories in both shows. Eric, played by new Doctor Who actor Ncuti Gatwa, is openly gay in Sex Education. Adam (Connor Swindells) bullies him for this in season 1. However, as the show progresses, Adam realizes he’s bisexual, and the pair date in season 3. In Heartstopper, Nick (Kit Connor) also comes out as bisexual and enters a gay relationship. Importantly, Nick’s approach to his sexual identity is much healthier than Adam’s.
Heartstopper never uses shame and internalized homophobia to justify abusing gay characters. Sex Education instead relies on the familiar trope of bullying being a sign of secret affection. Adam has shown a lot of growth from season 1 to season 3. In season 4, Sex Education must force Adam to confront his abusive behaviors from the past. If he does not, the show risks condoning them. Heartstopper has successfully illuminated the challenges of coming out, without indulging in any of Sex Education’s toxicity.
Nick And Adam Both Struggle With their Sexuality
There are many parallels between Nick and Adam: both are in the spotlight at school; both have cute dogs; both grew up under the assumption they were heterosexual. However, the characters differ in the way they handle questions around their sexual identity. In Sex Education, Adam resorts to both verbal and physical abuse. Nick, however, is able to develop a healthy and meaningful relationship with Charlie. When Adam is confronted about his sexuality, he lashes out. Nick only resorts to violence when defending Charlie from homophobic abuse. Crucially, Charlie is never the target of that violence.
The biggest difference between Heartstopper’s Nick and Sex Education’s Adam can be seen in their treatment of openly gay people before they consider their own sexualities. Adam bullies Eric for years, and he only stops when his sexual desire for Eric overpowers his desire to punish him. Nick begins his journey as Charlie’s “supportive straight friend.” When his friends are homophobic, he calls them out. This does increase when he realizes he is bisexual, but the foundation is clearly laid before this point. When Charlie is abused by Ben, Nick intervenes, but in Sex Education, Adam is Eric’s abuser.
A Confused Sexual Identity Is Not An Excuse For Abuse In Heartstopper
Neither Heartstopper nor Sex Education glosses over the difficulties of coming out. They confront the risks in meaningful ways: Eric is assaulted for wearing drag; in Heartstopper, which has been renewed for seasons 2 and 3, Tara and Darcy are viewed differently for being lesbians. Both shows create an environment that explains why people may be uncomfortable to come out. However, Sex Education uses this discomfort as an excuse for poor behavior. Heartstopper does not.
Ben, Charlie’s first romantic entanglement in Heartstopper, uses being in the closet to manipulate him. Ben denies his own sexuality, verbally abuses Charlie, then attempts to kiss him despite Charlie’s protests. Whenever his actions are addressed, he weaponizes being nervous to come out. This abuse causes Charlie to later doubt his relationship with Nick. Heartstopper does not shy away from the consequences of homophobia.
On the other hand, Sex Education often uses Adam’s reluctance to come out as a justification for toxic behaviors. When he does eventually come out, he is still shaped by shame. He confronts Otis about this, saying, “I didn’t grow up in a naked family.” While amusing, this line shows Adam is still trying to hide behind his upbringing and is not showing accountability for his own actions. This is something Sex Education needs to address in season 4.
How Sex Education Can Learn From Heartstopper To Complete Adam’s Redemption Arc
Despite some persistent failings, Adam in season 3 is a different person to the Adam audiences met in season 1. He applies himself in school, tries to develop meaningful non-sexual relationships with people, finds hobbies, and learns how to be a partner in a gay relationship. “I don’t want to hurt him anymore,” Adam confesses to Otis. While this is an admission of wrongness, it isn’t an apology. Adam and Eric break up at the end of Sex Education season 3 for a multitude of reasons, partially because Eric cheated on him, but partially because he wasn’t out enough. “I feel like I’m ready to fly and you’re just learning to walk,” Eric tells him. How Adam handles their break-up in season 4 will be instrumental in completing his redemption arc.
At the end of Heartstopper season 1, Nick is in a happy, public relationship with Charlie. Like Adam, he wrestles with shame, but he prioritizes Charlie’s emotional wellbeing over his own temporary discomfort. In Sex Education season 4, Adam must show he is capable of treating gay people, including himself, without prejudice. At the end of season 3, he handles being dumped without being verbally or physically abuse to Eric. This shows immense growth compared to how he handled being dumped by Amy in season 1.
It is unlikely that Adam and Eric will be friends in Sex Education season 4. However, Adam has begun to develop a friendship with Eric’s ex-boyfriend, Rahim. In Heartstopper, whenever Nick handles a situation poorly – like abandoning Charlie after their first kiss – he always seeks to apologize and make amends. Adam needs to learn how to recognize his toxic behaviors immediately after they happen, rather than waiting years to stop bullying Eric because he happens to find him attractive. Adam is no longer a bully, but that doesn’t erase the trauma that Eric carries. In Sex Education season 4, he cannot resort to violence in order to handle negative emotions.
As Adam becomes more comfortable with his sexuality, he should follow the example Heartstopper, originally adapted from a graphic novel, establishes with Nick. Adam has slowly learned how to treat other people with kindness, something which Nick has always done. However, Nick accepted his bisexuality without self-loathing. Adam must learn how to treat himself with kindness in Sex Education, and realize that while his sexuality is not a cause for shame, his history of abusiveness is.
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