A House of One’s Own: Feminism and Furnishings in “Sex Education”

May 9th, 2020     by Morgan Bimm     Comments

Jean Milburn inside her house. Image from Everett Collection via PopSugar

It takes a lot for me to want to bingewatch an entire season of television, but when the second season of Sex Education appeared in my Netflix queue back in January, it didn’t last the week. I’m far from the first person to be utterly charmed by the show’s ambiguous British setting and progressive storylines on everything from STD stigma to sexual assault, but the show also has another massive selling point: Jean Milburn’s house.

To be fair, pretty much everything about Jean is incredible. Played by a silver-haired Gillian Anderson, Jean Milburn is a no-nonsense single mother and sex therapist who is almost always bedecked in the most incredible power outfits (to quote one character, “I covet [her] pantsuits”). As we continue to follow the adventures of Jean’s son Otis and his ill-advised sex advice business into its second season, however, we begin to learn even more about Jean, and their house blossoms into a character unto itself.

The house in question is an idyllic Norwegian-style chalet located on the border of England and Wales, overlooking the River Wye (a real place!) and the nearby hamlet of Symonds Yat East (also real! Britain is wild). If that wasn’t charming enough, as of quite recently it’s also available for short term rental. You too can throw on a hand-painted silk dressing gown and brunch like Jean Milburn.

As epic as those exterior shots are, though, it’s the inside of Jean and Otis’ home that makes me want to make myself a cup of tea, curl up on the perfectly squashed floral sofa, and stay forever. The main space of the Milburn house is a low-ceilinged, open space decorated with no fewer than four different William Morris wallpapers. There’s an impossible number of plants, even more books, and enough wicker furniture to confuse viewers into thinking they stepped into a different decade. Jean’s home office is just as maximalist as the rest of the ground floor, with bonus vagina art, a leather desk chair that definitely skews “bucket,” and a charmingly out-of-place landline phone.

Jean Milburn’s living room. Image from The Custard TV

All this to say that when Jean arrives home late in the season to find Otis had thrown a clichéd high school rager and trashed the place (right down to the sofa faintly smoking with the leftover cigarette butts of his classmates), I literally covered my face in dismay. My investment in this fictional interior took me by surprise and I was left wondering why, exactly, this little house had captured my heart.

My emotional response was quickly clarified by the other content I was happily binging through those dark January days: standup. In comic Katherine Ryan’s special, Glitter Room, she tells the story of how proud she felt finally purchasing an apartment in London for herself and her young daughter. Not only that, but how thrilled she was to decorate that new space exactly as the two of them wanted.

“I chose with my daughter a space that was just ours — taking up space is very important,” notes Ryan. “We chose florals on florals, dark Scandinavian florals, rose gold, brushed copper, blush. And I found a builder and I showed him my plans. And — in my house! — he said, ‘No, you cannot do this. If you do this, no man will want to live here.’ I was like, ‘Do you promise? Get it on the wall.’”

I don’t think that it’s an accident that these two spaces — the Milburn house and Ryan’s London apartment — seem to share a lot of aesthetic qualities, nor do I think it’s a coincidence that both women are single mothers, fictitious or not. Excessive florals, clashing patterns, and indulgent finishes are all choices that fly in the face of tasteful, minimal design, to be sure. But they’re also choices that, as Ryan’s builder tactlessly points out, might grate against a more traditional masculine design sensibility. These women mark their spaces intentionally, signalling the choice to prioritize their own joy and indulgence rather than worry about appealing to the tastes of a potential male partner. There’s something really magical about seeing those values manifest, quite literally, in the places and spaces these women occupy on a daily basis.

Jean, who spent most of Sex Education’s first season kicking a steady stream of men out of the house before her morning coffee, begins this season in the early days of a relationship with Swedish contractor Jakob. In a glorious slow-build breakup that takes a back seat to protagonist Otis’ shenanigans, we see Jean’s gaze linger on Jakob’s mess and the loose change he leaves on every available surface. She finally snaps (spoiler alert) in episode five, as he tries to noisily upgrade her kitchen storage in the middle of one of her famous vagina workshops. “You… are… everywhere!” she exclaims. The subtext? This is my home and you’re trying to change it.

Apart from the inconvenience of her workshop — and design tastes — being disrupted, there’s another, explicitly political, aspect to Jean’s discomfort. A woman owning her own home is a relatively recent historical and legal possibility; up until the mid and even late nineteenth century, women were subsumed as legal subjects under what were known as coverture laws. The social impacts of these laws, of course, have lasted much longer. Even today, issues of housing and ownership affect the genders disproportionately. The widespread lack of affordable housing is often a deterrent for women to leave violent or otherwise unhealthy relationships and, in large cities like Toronto, cheaper rent is often reason enough to consider moving in with a partner when you otherwise might not consider cohabitating at all.

Having your own space has been central not only to women’s independence, but also to unlocking their creative potential. In the late 1920s, Virgina Woolf wrote that all women need a guaranteed basic income in order to create great art, and “a room of one’s own” in which to create it. Girls and young women have also benefited from having their own space. According to cultural studies scholars Angela McRobbie and Jenny Garber, girls have historically participated in music, art, and other subcultural scenes from the privacy of their own bedrooms. The idea of autonomy and home have been central to feminism from the start; that Jean is uncomfortable with Jakob taking up so much space in her house reads to me as less of an overreaction, and more of an assertion of her own unshakeable sense of self and the boundaries she has drawn around what is unequivocally hers.

In another Sex Education subplot from this season, loner character Maeve is asked to write a reflection paper on her ten year plan. While other students outline plans for college, Maeve’s wishes centre on her desire for a real home after years of living in a trailer park: “In ten years, I want to live in a house with big windows. I want the house to be large enough to have a kitchen table with four chairs, but not too roomy to ever feel the depth of my aloneness. Because I’ll probably be alone.” From Maeve’s perspective, living alone would feel like a failure, but Jean’s storyline seems to hint that the privilege of owning and occupying one’s space exactly how one likes is anything but.

Jean’s romantic situation at the end of this season of Sex Education is ambiguous. Viewers are left unsure whether her and Jakob will get back together, but a twist ending gives the writers more than enough ammunition to make that happen. I, for one, am rooting for a resolution that lets the women of the series stay in charge of their own spaces (and hang as much eccentric wallpaper as they’d like).

The importance of feeling safe in your own home is more relevant now than ever, as many countries report climbing rates of domestic violence amid global orders to stay indoors and restrict social interactions to help curb the spread of COVID-19. According to a number of Canadian service providers, a recent drop in calls and reports are likely due to an increase in the occurrence and severity of gendered violence, with even fewer chances to call for help. To learn about what resources are available, visit Shelter Safe.

About the Author: Morgan Bimm is a writer and feminist media scholar living and working in Toronto/Tkaronto, where she spends many hours every day staring lovingly at her rose gold radiator. Morgan is currently writing her dissertation on marginalized genders in 2000s indie music and film culture, and you can learn more about her academic work on her website. Her writing has appeared in A.Side, Feminist Space Camp Magazine, and various zines.

Tags: gillian anderson, jean milburn, media savvy, sex education, television

« Rust Belt Femme: An Interview with author Raechel Anne Jolie

Shameless is hiring a volunteer arts editor! »