Oh Sex Education, you were doing so well. And then you thought – we are nailing diversity! But what about disability? Let’s do that too!
And somehow it seemed like a great idea to create a disabled character who is sexless, child-like and manipulative. And to make that character responsible for an end of series cliff-hanger that kept the two beloved central characters apart.
The public responded like this
To be clear, this was literally the top result on twitter – I didn’t go searching for it. And it wasn’t an exception. Someone on instagram set up an account which posts the same photo every day of the actor who plays Isaac with his face defaced and “I’m dead cos I’m a cunt” written over it.
Netflix must have gone in with good intentions – the actor who plays Isaac is disabled, quadriplegic like the character. But what’s shocking to me is that while (from my limited white perspective) they seem to have thought about and dodged cultural and racial stereotypes with the rest of their diverse cast, they dive into the worst stereotypes of disability with joyous abandon.
I thought initially – ok they’re aware of a too-good-to-be-true, Tiny Tim stereotype and they’ve thought “let’s not do that” & looked no further. It seemed at first like Isaac was a grumpy cripple with a big personality, which is a well-worn stereotype too.
But the more I watched I realised – this character is a baddie, a good old disabled baddie.
The disabled villain is as old as the hills. Richard III anyone? And Dickens is full of them. For centuries it was just too tempting to use a disabled “twisted” body as a reflection of a twisted soul. And in case the reader / audience were in any doubt, it’s often laid out for us like in Richard III’s monologue – being disabled is miserable – stands to reason it’d make you evil too.
How does Richard III become Isaac of Sex Education? Surprisingly easily… Let’s give Netflix the benefit of the doubt: Sex Education may not be showing us a disabled body as a reflection of an immoral soul like Shakespeare. But the other bit of the disabled = evil equation is pretty much alive and well.
Isaac is quadriplegic, and physically reliant on his brother. Physical dependence is still pretty taboo – we like our disabled people independent and preferably sporty. We’re deeply suspicious of relationships in which one adult is physically reliant on another (for a whole barrel of clusterfucks, see Lou & Andy in Little Britain).
So this aspect of his character needed very careful handling. Instead, his dependence is shown as either child-like, or manipulative.
Isaac uses his physical dependence on other people to manipulate them. This is seriously hard to watch. It’s impossible to overstate how pervasive this cliché is – of the dependent disabled person who makes people around them miserable with their unreasonable demands. How hard it is to escape it. To the extent that those of us who do depend on others tend to keep quiet about this part of our lives.
And with Isaac our suspicion of a physically dependent character is justified – he’s an evil manipulative bastard. He has to manipulate people to get an omelette… manipulating them to more dastardly ends is just the logical conclusion.
Just as Richard’s twisted body makes him contemptuous of the able-bodied people around him, Isaac’s dependency is shown as inherently unnatural, leading him to manipulate people in other areas of life. Like deleting that voicemail. Disability leads to evil.
There are ways this character could have been made less egregious. James & I tried to imagine how different it would have been had he been an amputee. The moments that make him seem most malevolent are centred around dependence and access, and these would be less of an issue.
But. BUT! They still would have created a disabled baddie, dragging the rotten history of disabled baddies along with him. (At a time in the UK when disabled people have had a decade of being demonised.) And outside of the parents, he’s the only baddie – there are other characters with flaws, but they all have some sort of internal life, some saving grace. Isaac is really a cardboard cut-out of a character. He refers to his disability constantly – it’s really all he talks about. We’re meant to believe that after 8 years, this is the sort of banter he and his brother engage in privately:
Isaac: why do you always double-knot my shoelaces?
Brother, jocularly: don’t want you running off, do we!
This is a brilliant example of a bit of dialogue written entirely for able-bodied viewers fascinated & appalled by this level of disability, who want reassurance. So we get this weird ham-fisted joke. Which would have got pretty old after 8 years, believe me.
One of the best things about Sex Education is the writing, which gives each character in an enormous cast their own internal life, flaws and all. The creators may think they’ve done this with Isaac too. The actor does everything in his power to conjure it, but it isn’t there.
Think of the most hackneyed racial stereotypes there are. I don’t want to drag other groups down in this, so I won’t be specific. But imagine those stereotypes. Would it be appropriate to create a character of x ethnicity as lazy, or y as money grabbing? How hard would you have to work, having dug down into that stereotype, to redeem the character? And why? Why would you create that character in the first place? What would be the point of the exercise?
I believe the manipulative, child-like disabled person is as pernicious a stereotype.
Back to the social media response. A lot of the memes I came across focused on the wheelchair – the burning one of course, but also an undelightful range of videos & gifs of people being tipped out of wheelchairs.
There’s a subversive joy behind these tweets and memes. Sex Education has allowed them to say the unsayable. This character allows them to hate us. Just as Richard III did 500 years ago. We haven’t come as far as we think we have.
I love Isaac. I like his dry wit. I think he’s funny, and I also find him sexy. I was rooting for him and Maeve. He’s human! If you really loved someone, and you thought maybe you had a chance, or maybe you thought the other person was just going to bring your friend heartache, wouldn’t you be tempted? Plus, he really felt bad. I still hope he and Maeve get together, or even better, I think he and Amy would be cute. Maeve and Otis make me want to puke. I liked Otis and Ruby.
Always good to hear a counterpoint! I wrote this a while ago, before the most recent series. I do think there was a great difference in the depiction of Isaac in the two series he appears in – even the change in the angle they shot him from. It’s fascinating and I need to write a post about it.