The following piece contains loads of spoilers for Sex Education series three, so if you haven’t watched it but want to, don’t read on!
Netflix’s Sex Education has been breaking taboos and talking sex in an open and accessible way since it first burst onto our silver screens back in 2019, but amongst its navigation of pleasure, pain and complex human relationships, one thing has been missing: those who sit outside of the gender spectrum.
Non-binary people – that is, broadly speaking, those who sit outside of the traditional spectrum of gender and identify neither as male nor female – have existed for as long as people have, but are rarely represented in the mainstream media. As non-binary people don’t always fit the androgynous image many may conjure up in their head when they try to imagine someone who doesn’t sit within the standard pink or blue, they’re often considered difficult to represent. Non-binary identities can be hugely complex or very straightforward, just like those of men and women… so there’s by no means a one-size-fits-all character that’s easy to write in to any show. Not that this is or should be an excuse, and with the introduction of Cal Bowman into Sex Education series 3, it no longer can be.
Cal Bowman is Sex Education’s first non-binary student, and not before time. Another non-binary student is introduced this season too (Layla) but in a supporting role to the development of Cal. Even so, two in one series? Screenwriters everywhere, take note: it ain’t that difficult!
Played by a non-binary person, Dua Saleh, the casting of Cal could not have been better. Dua is eloquent, artistic and bold – just like the skater, stoner and student they play. Born in Sudan, raised in the US and long a musician and creative, Dua is themselves a hugely nuanced and self-aware person; which is just bloody perfect for this role.
When the new school uniform is introduced to Moordale High, Cal chooses to wear a uniform a few sizes too big to hide their body shape underneath and selects the male option over the female. Almost immediately they are disciplined for this – with the new headteacher having no empathy at all with the fact that there is simply no uniform choice for anyone who doesn’t fit neatly into a gendered box. Then, students are split into male and female for ‘sex education’ lessons (we’re using the term loosely here, they’re essentially classes in abstinence). Cal asks a teacher in which classroom they belong. There is no forthcoming answer. They also continually, but subtly and politely, correct incorrect pronoun usage.
Cal’s interaction with teachers in these storylines are by no means front and centre of the action happening, but provide interesting thinking points for those sharp enough to notice them. These small, awkward experiences are fantastic examples of the difficulties non-binary people are faced with daily. Those who sit more comfortably on the gender spectrum are able to make traditionally gendered choices, without thought, constantly throughout their daily lives. Yet non-binary people can be faced with a challenge at every occurrence.
As Cal’s character develops, their friendship with Jackson (the Head Boy of the school who has been in Sex Education since the first episode) develops into something closer. Jackson, who is by no means a stranger to issues of sex and gender having been raised by two mothers, certainly displays interest in Cal and it is soon obvious that he would like to progress their relationship. Jackson defends Cal’s right to a non-traditional gender role throughout the series and is clearly a good friend; but in the final episode, it is Cal who makes the brave move to not move their relationship any further.
Sitting down to discuss what’s happening between them (if anything), Jackson admits that he doesn’t think he’s queer – but that he’s not sure it should matter. Cal expresses concern that Jackson thinks of them as a girl, and they’re not one, which would hinder any deeper relationship development. Jackson doesn’t deny this but concedes he’s willing to learn and grow. It’s at this point that Cal delivers perhaps the best line of the whole series: “Here’s the thing. I’m still figuring out so much shit about myself, I can’t carry you too”.
OK, so in the real world it’s fairly unlikely that any straight guy would then agree to try and forge a continued friendship, but this is Netflix, so delightfully, Jackson does. (Side note here: this storyline mirrors Eric and Adam’s relationship through this series, but the outcome seems likely to differ). Regardless, this is a lesson that wherever anyone sits on or off of the gender spectrum and whatever their relationship status is, they can learn from. In making room for personal growth and development, Cal prioritises themselves and understands that they’d be unable to properly nurture a growing relationship until they’ve learnt to accept and love themselves. It is no easy decision but it is an essential one. Isn’t that something we all need to consider at some point in life?
There are increasing numbers of non-binary and genderqueer characters popping up in the mainstream media, but certainly not many in series as popular as Sex Education. The first two series were watched by over 40 million people and the third immediately became the most popular on Netflix as soon as it was released. It’s still unclear as to whether there will (or indeed should be) a fourth series of Sex Education, but one thing is for sure either way: Cal has introduced the consideration of non-binary identities to a whole host of people who may otherwise not have yet been exposed to one.
A gender spectrum smashed and done so with a hefty dose of emotional intelligence and maturity? That’s me sold – they’re definitely my new favourite character.