Maeve and Amy’s argument about the meaning of money highlights how the awkward topic of finances can strain or even dissolve the best of relationships
In the hotly-anticipated third season of Netflix’s Sex Education – known for its refreshing, nuanced storylines about sex and relationships – close friends Maeve Wiley (Emma Mackey) and Amy Gibbs (Aimee Lou Wood) fall out over class. More specifically, the very different relationships, attitudes, and experiences they have with it.
As teenagers, they have little of their own disposable income anyway, but Maeve – who’s disconnected from her parents and lives alone in a caravan park – is working class, while Amy – who is absolutely loaded – is more than well-off. The iconic duo are known for their quick wit and inseparable nature, but due to their class differences, their friendship isn’t without its problems. Back in season one, Amy hid her friendship with the so-called ‘cock biter’ – Maeve’s cruel school nickname – so her reputation wouldn’t be tarnished by Maeve’s appearance and lifestyle. Although Amy eventually ditched the popular crowd in favour of Maeve, their differing backgrounds presented more challenges.
In the new series, while on an expensive school trip to France, Maeve tells Amy how annoyed she is that her sister’s foster mum Anna has paid for her fees to attend the trip – “I don’t need charity,” she previously said of the offer. But Amy reveals that Anna didn’t pay Maeve’s fee – Amy asked her mum to cover it. Expecting Maeve to be grateful, she waves this gesture off, saying, ‘Don’t worry about it, money doesn’t mean anything to me’, but Maeve is furious.
Despite her words, Maeve’s anger has little to do with feeling like a charity case, but is more directed towards the unfairness and financial inequality in the world. This tension is really born from the heartbreaking revelation that while they are close friends, their socioeconomic classes make them ‘worlds apart’, as Maeve tells Amy.
It’s a heartbreaking realisation that I and many others have felt. Growing up, I only had friends like me: working class. I had a single mother who worked numerous jobs to make ends meet, as did pretty much everyone else in my town. I was blissfully unaware of any struggle. But while that meant I felt comfortable, I was also knocked for six when I moved to Surrey for university aged 18 and met rich people for the first time. Among Range Rover-driving, Marks & Spencer-shopping, and tweed-wearing art students, having a huge, slightly broken, and sort-of-poor family suddenly made me the odd one out.
I arrived for my first day in the student halls armed with a cardboard box full of noodles, canned soup, and an obscene amount of freezer-friendly corned beef. My family had thrust it into my arms, telling me I’d be grateful when I run out of money. But once they left, the contents of my designated kitchen cupboard invited questions – and light mockery – from others. “I’d call Childline if my mum made me eat frozen corned beef,” one lad said. It was a comment free of malice but drowned in privilege and ignorance. He later became a close friend, but the small comments continued and never felt any less loaded.
I’m not the only one whose friendships have been strained, or even dissolved, because of class divides. 21-year-old Harmony is working class and grew up with an upper class friend like Sex Education’s Amy. Though they are still friends now, Harmony says their previous falling outs were devastating and “still feel like a thorn in my side”. She tells Dazed: “In a conversation about my family’s lack of funds compared to hers, she said her family was intelligent with money, implying that mine was not.”
At the time, Harmony felt like this was an awful comment. “Even though her parents are university professors and my single mother is a carer, she was completely dismissive of how we might have had different starts in life,” she says, adding that she now knows her friend didn’t intend harm. “There was no malice involved at all – just complete ignorance. She had no idea what I was talking about.”
For 19-year-old Jade, one evening remains stark in her mind when it comes to class divides in her friendships. She was walking home from a night out with her friend – who lived across town in a “fancier neighbourhood” – and as they approached her council estate, he insisted on walking her right to her door, telling her the area was “rough” and “dangerous”. “There was nothing around to imply that the area was dangerous,” says Jade. “It’s literally just a random, quiet council estate. No crime scene, no broken cars. The houses were just small and a bit shit, and he immediately conflated this with danger.” For Jade, the realisation that people thought of her neighbourhood in this way made her worry about being judged; she feared that people would assume she was also “rough”.
“Even though her parents are university professors and my single mother is a carer, she was completely dismissive of how we might have had different starts in life” – Harmony
Psychologist Rebecca Lockwood says it’s not unusual for friends coming from two different class backgrounds to have a strained relationship. “It can be difficult to understand each other when everyone has a different model of the world,” Lockwood tells Dazed. “Some find it a challenge to accept that.” She says the triggers that usually set off arguments like the one we see play out in Sex Education, can vary. “It is mostly about miscommunication, because each of them sees the world differently based on their upbringing and the things they had available to them.”
Of course, this isn’t to say that friends of different social classes are headed for an inevitable break-up. Two people of any background can be lifelong friends and serve each other the way friends are supposed to. But in the case of friends like Maeve and Amy – or like Harmony, Jade, and their friends – open communication about finances and a shared understanding of each other’s privileges (or lack thereof) is the deterrent for fallouts. In most cases, mishaps like these are down to a lack of knowledge: it’s not that your middle class friends don’t care about your situation, it’s that some well-off people are so well-insulated that they don’t think too deeply about other people’s situations.
For others, opening the door to conversations about wealth and family-afforded comfort generates so much guilt that they’d rather avoid it. British culture is also typically hush-hush about money, family, and politics, leaving many people viewing important discussions as taboo. But when those topics are the source of your friendship’s power imbalance, it’s detrimental to not speak about it.
Maeve and Aimee are also my chosen family. pic.twitter.com/KGbSXpbCxe— Netflix (@netflix) September 29, 2021
Amy, Maeve, and all the non-fiction friendships who have felt challenged by class barriers could have avoided issues with better communication, and compromising in situations where those differences can’t be ignored – like choosing somewhere affordable to go out. In these cases, relationship therapist Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari says friends from different classes can face problems choosing where to go out, as the well-off friend may unintentionally suggest an unaffordable venue for the other person. Ben-Ari says how people show up and how they meaningfully connect in these situations is important. “When there is an intimate friendship (with good communication), one can tell the other, ‘I wish I could join you at X, but I can’t afford that. How about I make us dinner instead?’”
26-year-old Sophie* is “the rich friend”, and admits she was ignorant to other people’s backgrounds for most of her life. “It wasn’t until my friends and I were buying our first cars and starting to look at universities that I realised I was getting a way better deal,” she tells Dazed. Sophie feels guilty about it now, but initially she laughed when her friends revealed that their parents couldn’t afford to buy them cars. “I was so wrapped up in my own world, I didn’t realise people really had kids without putting those funds aside,” she says. “I feel so embarrassed for ever thinking that and for upsetting people.”
Like Sex Education’s Amy, Sophie closed the gap by buying drinks on nights out, paying the tab, and other financial gestures, but stresses that you must make sure that your friends actually want this. “My friends and I have had that chat, and it’s fine for me to do,” Sophie explains. “There are also more subtle ways to do it, like getting the tequilas in, (rather than paying for someone to go on) a trip without asking.”
“It can be difficult to understand each other when everyone has a different model of the world” – Rebecca Lockwood, psychologist
Situations like Sophie’s could be avoided if communication about family backgrounds was encouraged from the get-go, rather than inevitably awkward conversations happening during life’s milestones. The more friends know about each other’s lifestyles, the more compromising and understanding they can be with their attitude, offers, and the plans they make. This means having difficult conversations about money, where it comes from, family situations, home life, and the resources you have available. Ben-Ari notes that “people must be less rigid in the way they view friendships, and more flexible in their attitude” if they want to lessen tensions.
Lockwood appreciates that these conversations can be tricky, especially as emotions tend to run high when discussing money, family, home, and upbringing. “In the case of Sex Education, Maeve should have taken time to understand why (Anna and Amy) wanted to help,” says Lockwood, “and Amy should have listened to why the help wasn’t wanted.”
Ben-Ari says it’s important to recognise that people from different backgrounds may have different wants, needs, and struggles, but ultimately friendship is about the specific people and their ability to connect and communicate with each other. As a collective, we encourage working on romantic relationships – and even seek therapy to strengthen them – but when it comes to friendships, we can be lazy or assume the worst when challenges occur. But, as Ben-Ari says, “once you have a strong connection, friends can honestly and openly share how they feel. Then they can understand each other’s worlds”.
*Name has been changed