Sex Education: Gillian Anderson proves older women aren’t the problem
Put Gillian Anderson in anything and people will flock to watch – or at least that’s what it seems like. Thankfully for fans of Sex Education, the show is no exception.
Though Anderson is essentially playing an age-appropriate mom role, her character Dr. Jean Milburn is on equal footing with her son and the Sex Education‘s chosen lead, Otis (Asa Butterfield). Not conventional in any sense of the world, we’re introduced to Jean through her own sense of pleasure, having a string of guys at her beck and call while she continues to rise through the ranks of her profession.
It’s a refreshing way to begin a character journey for a character is hovering somewhere around her 50th birthday. In years gone by, the “middle-aged” woman was exclusively reserved for carrying on with some washing up quietly in the background, doting on her 2.5 children, and doing anything she could to make her husband happy. In Jean’s world, self-pleasure can not only come first but take up as much space as her family responsibilities.
Unfortunately, this outdated school of thought still frequently exists on and offscreen. Those who are dedicated fans of Riverdale might argue that the inconsistencies in the writing of characters like forty-somethings Alice (Madchen Amick) and Hermione (Marisol Nichols) could include them in this category. At the same time, it’s a problem we’re seeing play out in real-time – such as Julia Sawalha not being included in Chicken Run 2 because of her age. That’s where Jean comes in, offering up an antidote and a better way of doing things.
Why is Gillian Anderson’s Jean important to Sex Education?
Even before the show began, Sex Education and Gillian Anderson seemed like the perfect pairing.
Casting somebody the entire world finds alluring and attractive is never a bad move – and that’s before Anderson’s versatile range and supreme acting chops are even factored in. She began her time on Sex Education in style, exploding onto the screen in a cloud of vibrant color. Immediately Anderson begins to subconsciously ask her audience to view an older woman differently.
Throughout Season 1, Otis has to navigate around Jean’s way of living. Not only does she dedicate herself to her work, but she has a healthy line of suitors who flit in and out of her life at her own discretion. At the same time, Jean is one of the only parents on a TV show to have an open dialogue with her son about sex – mostly because of her job, but also in part due to her personality. She’s sassy, sexy, witty, and worldly all at once, always looking to enhance her own views as well as those of others.
Leading the charge for the rest of the parents in Sex Education to fully embrace their individual personal lives, Jean exists just as much as a single woman as she does as a single mother. Though Seasons 1 and 2 depict Jean at her best, Seasons 3 and 4 give her the space to break down without judgment. At no point is she the silly, irresponsible woman we see often across film and TV – one who is held on a pedestal for misstepping when she’s old enough to know better. Anderson gives us the chance to see Jean flaws and all, and as a result, she becomes a better person and mum for it.
Building a brand based on fiction
If Jean in Sex Education wasn’t enough, Gillian Anderson has built her own brand off the back of something that clearly resonates.
It only takes people a moment to click on one of Anderson’s social media profiles to see the words “shag specialist” staring back at them. Since the show first aired in 2018, Anderson has also created her own line of drinks known as G-Spot, described as “natural soft drinks filled to the brim with life-enhancing adaptogens and nootropic.” Twitter users send her pictures of vulva-looking objects wherever they find them, and more often than not quickly receive a reply of appreciation or entertainment.
In a way, Anderson has now become synonymous with Jean, with both the actor and Sex Education being better off for it. By fully embracing who Jean is and what she could mean to others, Anderson has given real-life grounding to the kind of woman of a certain age who remains fulfilled, sexually active, and defiant against social norms. In short – she’s reminding the world that life doesn’t stop at 40 and that being a “mess” at any age isn’t just acceptable, it’s expected.
Can the industry be less ageist?
The question isn’t necessarily if the film and TV industry can be less ageist – it’s if they are willing to be.
While Jean is the shining star of positive age representation for women on screen, many roles still lag behind. Female characters over 40 are still fighting against an ingrained sense of duty and perfectionism, while female actors over 40 are merely fighting to be considered for a handful of good-quality roles.
What Sex Education wants its audiences to take away from the show is a feeling of acceptance and expression for young people – but it’s just as much for older generations to take away too. Sex Education is jam-packed with strong and well-written characters, but it’s possibly Jean who brings some of the most rarely seen representation to the table. Anderson and Jean team up together to prove you can have your cake and eat it over 40 – it’s just up to us and the industry to listen.
Sex Education Season 4 is streaming on Netflix now. Check out our other coverage below: