Eric from 'Sex Education' has taken representation of black, queer characters to the next level
25 January 2019, 13:27
Ncuti Gawa does a phenomenal job as Eric, a gay Nigerian-Ghanaian student whose personality is far more layered than that of a stereotypical TV "black best friend".
Netflix's Sex Education is a "coming of age" story that, for the most part, gets it right. The sex positive show is light, funny, and deeply relatable for anyone who has ever felt insecure or unsure about their bodies or sexual misadventures. Sex Education's lead characters, Otis and Eric, are also a joy to watch on screen. Their supportive and flawed friendship plays well on the show and, thankfully, Eric (Ncuti Gawa) is elevated beyond the constraints of the stereotypical black best friend.
Watching the show from the perspective of a child of West African immigrants, Eric's relationship with his parents and complex feelings about his religious upbringing felt authentic to me. Representations of African families are rare in the "coming of age" genre. In fact, Eric's story is colourful, complex, and emotional in a way that indicates that the writers of Sex Education cared deeply about making sure this character's story was told well.
Typically, when a black character is introduced as the lead character's close friend, viewers are left to fill in the gaps. What are their interests? Attractions?
Think of shows like Riverdale and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, where black characters are practically outlines with no clear interests, motivations, or personalities beyond the occasional one liner.
Hastily thrown together background stories for these black characters often feel like an afterthought. And, unfortunately, this can keep viewers from connecting with them in a meaningful way.
Eric's personality is completely unambiguous. His charm is magnetic but his identity as a queer man of colour with an explicitly West African upbringing add important layers to the character.
While Ncuti Gawa is of Rwandan heritage, he recently had the chance to expand on his character's background in an interview with Vulture. "Eric comes from a Ghanaian-Nigerian household, hence why, at prom, he was in a beautiful kente suit from Ghana and gele from Nigeria," he explained
Geles are a big part of Nigerian culture and seeing Eric wear one to prom was a level of mainstream TV representation that I hadn't even realised I was missing out on.
The fact that Eric has a journey outside of his friendship with Otis is refreshing as well. Eric's sexuality, familial dynamics, recovery from trauma, and religious background are all entry points to this character that allow us to view him through a lens that has very little to do with Otis.
Eric is so much more than a stereotypical black best friend or "sassy gay bff". He is a character written with purpose and with clear identities in mind. When we talk about true diversity versus tokenism, Eric is a solid example of what happens when writers strive to give characters of colour real experiences, backgrounds, and identities outside of their white counterparts.