MHAM: Mental Vs. Physical Well-Being and Confronting One’s Own Failing Support System in ‘Sex Education’ (2019)

Content warning: This article contains references to self harm.

During the first season of Netflix’s Sex Education, the main characters – Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield), Maeve Wiley (Emma Mackey) and Eric Effiong (Ncuti Gatwa) – received most of the attention and in-depth storylines, as is usually the case for freshman shows. The young protagonists are not exactly popular: people become aware of Otis’ existence when he starts running a clandestine sex therapy clinic with the school’s jagged outcast Maeve. Eric – the only openly gay student – completes the trio and provides Otis with constant support. Despite the focus on the core cast, the show shines a light on a few prominent students’ lives, including that of Jackson Marchetti (Kedar Williams-Sterling) – Moordale’s senior class president. Through his relationship with Maeve and his parents,  Sex Education opens up a clear discussion on the comparison between mental and physical health through a redefinition of the classic jock archetype. 

Jackson is Moordale’s swimming champion; he is handsome and sought after by many of the school’s students. One of his mothers, Sofia (Hannah Waddingham), actively helps him in his swimming competitions by training him, whilst his other parent, Roz (Sharon Duncan-Brewster), supports her son from the sidelines. . When Jackson starts dating Maeve, two opposite sides of his relationship with his parents are presented. Maeve sees him as the couple’s golden child, his mothers always behind him in his every success and failure, ready to spur him to work harder and better himself. Maeve’s upbringing is anything but – supportive and nuclear, so she sees her boyfriend as the luckiest teenager on Earth. 

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In spite of Maeve’s view of her boyfriend, he is far from living without worry. On the night Maeve meets Jackson’s parents, he reveals to her he has an anxiety disorder that he takes medication for. Though he is finally opening up to her, Maeve seems to care little for Jackson – all her focus instead  on the smell of the sweater Otis’ gave her before they almost kissed that same night. Maeve does not encourage Jackson to share further, but only values his quality of life based on what is missing in hers. Though it is not her job to take care of her boyfriend’s mental health, she doesn’t seem to consider his feelings as she drags him along in a relationship she is not sure she wants to be in. Her lack of consideration is damaging c as it creates a false sense of security for  Jackson and fools him into thinking that he finally has one space to consider safe.. The kindest thing Maeve could have done in this situation is break up with Jackson, but he ends up doing it himself at the end of the first season when he understands she has not been truthful to him.

As he had mentioned to Maeve, Jackson cannot handle the pressure of being the best swimmer at school, let alone the idea of pursuing it as a career. To avoid upsetting Sofia, who seems to center her life around his aquatic career,   Jackson attempts to find a coping mechanism to deal with his emotions. However,  the one he ends up finding becomes especially harmful as Jackson cannot find an outlet to express his true feelings.  

The first instance where Jackson decides to cause himself harm to get out of a situation is when he binges on alcohol during Moordale’s ball. Having tried to ask Sofia to cut him some slack – craving a ‘regular’ teenage life for just one night – Jackson retaliates by escaping his responsibilities and getting drunk. He has the chance to explain he does not want to train to become a professional swimmer anymore, but does not say anything in order to keep fulfilling his mother’s wishes. Unknowingly, Sofia is instilling in him the notion that as long as he is physically healthy, he should have nothing to worry about and keep training. So when Jackson gets drunk, he does so to physically escape from his training session. After seeing him drunk, rather than listening to what he has to say, Sofia sees his behavior as a lack of discipline – not as a sign of him having reached his limit. At the end of the first season, Jackson is left as a tightly closed character who would rather not inconvenience the pillar people in his life by sharing the way he feels, but instead causes himself physical harm as an outlet for his inner turmoil – a damning crutch for his mental health. Roz sees his struggles and understands them, but does not impose herself onto Sofia in defending their son’s wishes. She does want him to break curfew and go to the ball, and on the night she meets Maeve, her first thought is that Jackson won’t be able to drink the wine Maeve had brought because of his strict training. In both these occasions, Sofia acts as Roz’s opposite:  she is the one to dictate the rules, and her wife barely opposes her. Roz’s inaction is an indicator to Jackson that if even she does not dare to oppose her own wife, for him it would be impossible to do so.

After having broken up with Maeve and with constant pressure to break swimming records, Jackson impulsively breaks his hand under weights while one of his swimming mates is exercising. Following the incident, his mothers  ask him if he is doing fine, but Sofia’s insistence on his healing for the sole purpose of going back to training ingrains  the idea that unless he is constantly injured, he will never be able to escape the pressure of his training. Both his mothers, one by not actively listening to him, the other by not voicing her doubts to her wife, do not put his mental health as a priority, which directly impacts both his mental and physical health. Once Maeve notices his broken hand, she finally shows concern for Jackson’s health, but also notes that thanks to his impairment Jackson will not have to swim anymore, which she knows he hates. She shows more empathy towards his injury than she did when he confessed to her to have an anxiety disorder.

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Thankfully, Viv’s (Chinenye Ezeudu) entrance in Jackson’s arc marks a turning point in the recognition of his mental illness. In her, Jackson finally finds someone he can confide in without having his passions and doubts being questioned or ridiculed. Being someone who does not know much about Jackson’s background – except that he swims professionally – Viv is able to minimize Jackson’s worries on what his parents would think if he told them he was considering to stop swimming. She is the first one to give him options, and to tell him that even if he was to continue, as an athlete his career would not last long, giving him an eventual escape route. On top of that, she helps him out by rehearsing the lines of the school’s play, and although at first she doubts Jackson’s intentions, she teaches him about Shakespeare when he asks for help and she looks proud of his improvements once she sees him on stage. Their friendship takes a turning point when Viv catches him almost hurting himself during Otis’ party. Unlike Maeve, Viv is not afraid of Jackson’s parents – the former ran away in the middle of the dinner where she met them because she felt inadequate – and although she knows her friendship with him might end because of this, she decides to tell Sofia and Roz what the thought of swimming triggers in their son. She is the only character in the show to have recognized Jackson’s disorder as a real illness, and to not only focus on his career – as the school’s principal and Jackson’s mothers do. She knows she is unable to give him the tools to get better, so she turns to his support system instead.

“You both just need to get a divorce.”

Jackson finally utters what he thinks about his moms during one of their recurring fights. The discussion escalates, and he confesses that Sofia is pushing him and Roz away. Later, when he has the chance to have a one-on-one conversation with an outraged Sofia, it turns out – as already hinted by Roz’s difficulty in communicating her thoughts regarding Jackson’s training to her – Sofia’s insistence on being so heavily involved in their son’s swimming career is rooted in the fact that he is not her biological offspring. Roz knows about Sofia’s insecurity, and therefore does not intervene when her wife makes decisions for their sons, for fear that Sofia would not feel like a proper mother. Finally confessing her fears to her son, Sofia explains that knowing that swimming was a passion they have in common, so she decided to push Jackson into a swimming career to spend as much time with him as possible. She imposed her own fears onto her son without listening to his own concerns,  therefore alienating him in the process. It takes Jackson finally vocally reassuring Sofia that he loves her to make her understand that parenting is more than having one interest in common with their child; they have to be willing to listen and understand in order to build a mutually strong connection.

What is unique about Sex Education’s approach to self-harm and anxiety disorders is that they address what had been started in season one, meaning the lack of awareness of Jackson’s condition comes to the surface. Though Sofia’s attitude was detrimental to Jackson’s mental health, and therefore confrontation was needed at some point, it wouldn’t be expected for a teenager to do so openly and be heard. The show demonstrated how harmful it is for a parent to put their own anxieties onto their children, but also how simple it is to alleviate those anxieties by communicating and listening. Surely Sofia’s and Roz’s parenting will have long lasting effects on their son, but as a teenager he no longer has to deal with the baggage of having to succeed at all costs. It is possible for parents to fail, but they have to be willing to recognize those failures and own up to them to be the solid support system a teenager needs. 

Header image courtesy of Netflix