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Listen, if you’ve ever read my byline on this website, chances are that I’ve tricked you into caring about Indian movies, music, or dance on more than one occasion. It’s my life’s mission and not-so-secret agenda! Representation is here and it’s happening, baby!
But when I got to Olivia’s (Simone Ashley) sex scene with boyfriend Malek (Armin Karima) in Season 2, episode 3 of sex Education, I was caught completely off-guard. My breath caught in my throat, my heart stopped, I gasped, other things you do when you’re surprised!! I loved it, I hated it? — I feared it, and then I had to come to terms with it.
Until this exact scene of Season 2, we don’t know for sure that Olivia is South Asian, and since her name is Olivia, one can’t infer. (Hollywood’s favorite way to win representation points is to cast a South Asian and give them an easy, pronounceable — i.e., white-passing — name.) What we know is that she’s an “Untouchable” (extreme yikes on that now that she explicitly has Indian heritage), one of the most popular and put-together teens at the top of Moordale Secondary’s social ladder.
In Season 2, Olivia’s ethnicity is introduced in the most ostentatious of ways, with what many will incorrectly call a Bollywood dance sequence. What she’s actually doing is Kathak or mujra, both more traditional forms of dancing that involve intricate, soft hand gestures and nuanced expression. Ashley’s expressions are the one thing sorely lacking in most TV shows’ attempts at Indian dance, and even the bizarre kaleidoscope editing can’t kill that.
Any critique I started to form about the actual dancing and choreography was smartly cut off by Olivia’s mother doing it for me. She calls Olivia’s hands “all wrong,” which is kind of harsh, but extremely authentic in that South Asian parents perceive anything less than perfection as trash. The outfit quality is still not something my mother would let me out dead in, but it’s a far cry from the Yule Ball Crimes of 2005.
After a knock on the door, Olivia races to greet Malek, her “dance partner” — this isn’t ballroom or some style that requires a partner, but rehearsing with others is common enough — and rush him upstairs so they can “practice.” Moments later, we hear the music start to play, and Olivia’s mother returns, content, to her chai (incidentally, I have never related to a TV character more).
We already know what’s going on upstairs, and soon we’re up there with Olivia and Malek, bangin’ it out in formalwear to classical Indian music, probably something royalty-free and composed specifically for generic use in television or film because Indian copyrights are super weird!
It’s no accident that they’re fully clothed when we see so many characters on this show hookup in various stages of undress; there’s a distinct appeal in wearing or removing heavy, ornate Indian formalwear in a sexual situation. Bollywood movies regularly capitalize on the titillation of traditional Indian clothing in lieu of actual nudity or sex scenes.
I loved it, I hated it? — I feared it, and then I had to come to terms with it.
And this is where Olivia and Malek’s sex scene broke me. I cringed at the notes of exoticism in the whole sequence, but there were also many things I loved. In the end, it left me feeling exposed. Enough of my friends have talked about wearing or removing Indian formalwear as a bedroom fantasy that the scene was hardly inauthentic.
For a brief moment, I pitied white people their abundant representation: Is this how it feels? Like having no secrets, no shot at surprising people? Will the next person any of us brings home suggest we don our newest lehenga and ask Alexa to turn up the Shivkumar Sharma?
Ultimately, the scene is of course peak sex Education. Olivia and Malek’s relationship is jittery and loving, and watching them participate in the consensual charade (Olivia’s parents think he’s Indian!) was just classic teen shenanigans with a sartorial twist. A viewer can always come away from a TV show with stereotypical or exotic ideas about the characters portrayed, but sex Ed has always been empathetic and open-minded about which stories to tell and how. Kaleidoscopes or not, this one was lovely.