Netflix’s Sex Education combines all of the tenets of a coming of age cult classic: a diverse cast, relatable awkward sex moments, and even a few subtle life lessons sprinkled throughout. But with all of the things the show does extremely well, there was one character who didn’t get the Season 2 ending she deserved: Vivienne "Viv" Odesanya.
Viv, played by Chinenye Ezeudu, is a brilliant plus-size Black girl focused on her future. She’s a member of the school’s quiz team and, as such, is asked to tutor the school’s swim team champion Jackson Marchetti (Kedar Williams-Stirling). An unlikely friendship blossoms between Jackson and Viv, one that never fully transitions into a romance — though at times it feels like it should.
“Guys like you never see girls like me,” says Viv in Episode 5. “All of your conquests look like they’ve been made in a lab. It’s transparent.” After defending himself by listing non-physical characteristics he liked about his ex-girlfriend, Jackson finally acknowledges Viv’s assertion. “I do see you,” he says.
There are scenes like that between Jackson and Viv throughout the season—brief, vulnerable moments that would make any teen swoon, followed by a very firm sign of friendship. While platonic friendship has its value in this fictional world, I couldn’t help but think that had Viv’s character been thinner, her connection with Jackson would have at the very least culminated with a quality smooch at the end of the season.
Fat femmes are often treated as sexual objects.
Experiences of fatphobia are rarely blatant. In fact, most fat people will tell you it happens in the little things that go unsaid: the random child watching you eat in a public place, the woman letting out a deep sigh when she realizes she’s seated next to you on a plane, or the people you date that are willing to have sex with you, but would never consider you for an actual romantic partnership.
“Fat women are in a unique position to discuss body image and sexuality because they are hyper(in)visible, in that fat women tend to be simultaneously hypersexualized through fetishization of their fatness and desexualized by society based on notions of what the ‘ideal’ woman should look like,” write researchers Zoe Howland and Avery Santiago in the abstract for their 2019 project entitled Unruly Bodies and Sexual Pleasure: An Exploration of the Relationship Between Body Image and Physical Intimacy in Fat Women.
In a cringey scene at a local video game store, Jackson attempts to help Viv land her crush, an abrasive fellow member of the quiz team named Dex. Jackson pokes his chest out and wraps his arm around Viv as she tells Dex they’re just friends. “We have casual sex sometimes,” Jackson adds.
Viv is overjoyed when Dex takes the bait and asks for her number after the brief exchange. But I couldn’t help but notice that, given an opportunity to showcase Viv’s beauty and brilliance to her crush, her “friend” Jackson chooses to instead fake a sexual relationship. What if Jackson had showcased Viv’s knowledge of video games? Or if he’d suggested that she and Dex study for the quiz team together? What if, instead of trying to help Viv secure a relationship with the rudest character on the show, Jackson reminded her that she could do better?
The show did nothing to redeem this moment. Viv was casually fetishized by a trusted friend. Even as arguably the most intelligent character on the show, viewers are meant to believe that Viv would be happy with this turn of events—never questioning her friendship with Jackson or Dex’s intentions. For fat characters on TV, intelligence, for some reason, doesn’t extend to social situations. And that’s just not how things work in the real world. Jackson’s behavior in the video game store should have at the very least led to Viv asking him why he’d diminished her in that way.
Can these kinds of storylines affect young people’s self-esteem?
Licensed marriage and family therapist Saba Lurie says that representation in the form of characters we relate to, or the lack thereof, can have a profound impact on our feelings of self-worth and have further ramifications in our romantic relationships.
“Not seeing ourselves on screen has been clinically proven to lower our self-worth in general,” Lurie tells O.school. “If a fat person never sees a fat character with a romance narrative, it can be harder for them to see themselves as a sexual person. Low self-esteem when it comes to love and sex can also result in increased sexual risk-taking and other dysfunctions.”
For me, it wasn’t that fat women in movies and TV were completely absent. It’s that, when they were present, they were undervalued or the butt of a joke.
I try to imagine a world where fat women and girls I watched on popular television programs weren’t the funny friends, the over-the-top sexual characters, the mean enforcers, or the nurturers who got nothing in return. Would my peers and I have approached love and sex differently if we’d seen more complex depictions of women like us?
For instance, my favorite show growing up was Moesha. Moesha, played by Brandy Norwood, was thin and smart and all of the boys loved her. Her best friend in the show, Kim Parker, wasn’t as thin as Moesha. She wasn’t written to be as smart as Moesha either, and she always provided comic relief. In fact, part of her characterization was that things consistently went over her head. And while boys flocked to Moesha, Kim awkwardly tried to chase the boys she liked.
Kim may have been portrayed as awkward and absent-minded, but she still managed to be one of the most beloved characters on the show. So much so that the network gave her a spinoff about her life after graduation, The Parkers, in which she lived with her plus-size mom, played by Mo’nique. One of The Parkers’ main storylines featured Mo’nique’s character pining over a professor at the community college she and Kim attended together. She chased the professor, harassed him, watched outside his window when he was on dates, and even tried to fight some of his girlfriends—all while the professor dodged her advances and ran from her.
My friends and I laughed at the show until our bellies ached. But I can’t help but think we may have internalized those themes in harmful ways.
I don’t think I’ve ever chased romance with people who were blatantly rude or uninterested in me, but I can remember feeling surprised when someone showed romantic interest in me.
I was a size 12 in high school and felt a lot larger than my peers. I knew I was worthy, but I was still skeptical of people’s intentions. Nothing I’d ever seen in popular culture prepared me to believe I could be pursued.
Generation Z deserves better. What if Viv had the same relationships and awkward sexual experiences as her thinner friends at Moordale Secondary School? Her character had the potential to do what plus-size characters rarely do on mainstream TV: have a romantic connection that doesn’t revolve around the size of her body. It would set the tone for a generation of girls to believe they are the desirables and don’t have to settle for whatever attention they get. They don’t need help from jocks to forge romantic bonds. They’re humans deserving of love and worthy of being pursued.
I can't help but want justice for Viv, and all of the young people at home binge watching the second season of Sex Education. Maybe we’ll see a shift in Season 3. Maybe Viv will finally get the love (and sex) coming of age story that young fat Black femmes have always deserved.