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Sex Education
Courtesy of Netflix

Sex Education’s Maeve gets the character arc TV’s hot bad girls deserve

From The L Word to The O.C, women who don’t play by the rules are rarely shown to be complex human beings with a backstory for their rebellion – but Sex Education is breaking down the two-dimensional trope

The third season of Netflix’s Sex Education, like its other instalments, has made headlines for subverting tired stereotypes about sex, bodies, and identity. What’s sometimes lost is how well it handles other, less steamy aspects of interpersonal relationships – mixed families, abusive parents, divorce. The reality depicted through Maeve Wiley, the bad girl with a heart of gold played by Emma Mackey, is a less sexy, but still necessary one. Maeve’s exterior reinforced a kind of enjoyable, clumsy stereotype, but ‘bad-girl-is-secretly-soft’ is a time-honoured cliche. Beneath her oversized nosering and occasional snarl, Maeve is a smart kid desperate to be a kid, and I found myself rooting for her more than anyone else.

At the end of season two, Maeve’s sister was driven away by social services after Maeve reported her mother’s relapse to the police. She’d spent the season taking care of her sister and mother while trying to balance being a kid with being unfairly forced into the role of adult. Through it all, she had to navigate Otis’s feelings and deal with him booting off at a party and calling her “the most selfish person” he had ever met, a fundamental untruth, and a cruel one at that. Maeve wasn’t selfish – she just didn’t have the time to deal with a jealous, privileged boy who couldn’t understand her situation.

Maeve is described as a “bad girl”, and sure, she looks like a naughty teen. But while Maeve’s peers are running about shagging, she’s mostly stuck at home being an adult in the absence of one. After running the sex advice clinic with Otis, her fun comes to an abrupt end, and she spends most of the series putting her own future second in service of her sister. Nobody seems to understand the gravity of her situation, and in season three, when her mother kidnaps her sister, Otis and Isaac take centre stage, scrapping in front of the police. She isn’t selfish, or boring, or rebellious – she’s just rightfully a bit pissed off. Beneath that exterior is a scared girl barely raised by an absent, selfish parent. She isn’t cold, but scared to be seen and vulnerable. She’s never known the warmth of being cared for, and when her friends try, she’s not sure whether to trust them.

Played by Mackey to dry perfection, Maeve oscillates between humour and fear, letting herself be known for only a second before snatching herself closed again. She is reminiscent of Alex, the emancipated love interest of both Seth and Marissa in season one of The O.C. Seth treats Alex, a tough bartender with a streak in her hair, like shit. He has no comprehension of the complexity of her life and responsibilities, and she has a job and zero patience. Similarly, when Marissa bickers with Julie Cohen, she moves in, unprepared for the stress of laundry and not having a walk-in closet.

Nobody seems to quite care why Alex is so mean and tough, but they want to be in her ‘cool’ world. Alex doesn’t get the ending she deserves, but we do get to see her soft side when she pulls off an anniversary party for Seth’s parents, the ones she wishes she had.

Another sapphic quote-unquote bad girl, The L Words Shane (played by Kate Moennig), is a white vest and choppy haircut-sporting soft butch with a trail of broken hearts in her wake. Shane’s tough shell is softly chipped away at throughout the series as we learn that she grew up in foster care, that she hustled hard to survive, and that her negligent parents never gave her much of a chance. Shane’s wayward father returns only long enough to fuck up her life and dump her brother on her, but she steps up, raising him until her dad changes his mind. Every chance for happiness is snatched away from Shane: her brother, her would-be-wife Carmen.

In the second season of new series Generation Q, there are hints that Shane might get just a little shred of joy, and it’s all I really want for any of these women.

“These women, beneath their kind of lazy, stereotypical bad girl exterior, portray a reality for a lot of people who had to grow up too fast”

In Fresh Meat, the Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain student comedy, Zawe Ashton plays the mysterious, tough Vod. In season three, her chaotic mum, Chris, comes to visit, and at first her friends think she’s cool, but that veneer fades as they see her snipping at her daughter. Chris tries to convince the housemates that Vod is evil, that she ruined her life. Vod believes it, but her friends tell her, tenderly, that her mother isn’t actually normal; that, actually, mums should take care of you.

One night, Chris gets drunk and lashes out viciously at the household. Vod reassures her friends that it’s just “The Beast” – that she has two mums. Howard tells her that, actually, she has one mum who drinks too much. Strengthened by that validation, Vod finally tells her mum that she’s shit, and she tears the house apart. In the morning, it’s Vod’s friends, in lieu of a parent, who clean up, the The The’s “This is the Day” playing as they quietly scrub the evidence of her mum’s explosion. We learn, through Vod, Shane, and Maeve, that family isn’t always the people who brought you into the world, but the people who support you in it.

These women, beneath their kind of lazy, stereotypical bad girl exterior, portray a reality for a lot of people who had to grow up too fast. I love them all, and while they so rarely get a happy ending, it seems like Maeve finally might. The third season ends with her staring longingly out of a bus window, confirming, once and for all, that she is the main character. She finally has something to call her own: a stable bed in her sister’s foster mother’s house, a trip to the US, a chance at a future. Most importantly, she opened herself up to the possibilities of true love from the person who cares for her most: Aimee. When Aimee pays for Maeve’s school trip, Maeve struggles to accept the kindness. But they grapple it out, promising to be one another’s mums in the absence of one reliable one.

Every scary hot girl is just a scared, vulnerable kid who wants to be loved, and Maeve is one who got the ending she deserved.