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“The Sex Lives of College Girls”— Relax and Enjoy the Feminism

If The Sex Lives of College Girls feels very familiar, it’s because, to any Gen Xer or older millennial who went, or knows someone who went, to an elite university, it’s supposed to be. 

Ostensibly set in 2021 (but without COVID, because that’s what they’re doing in TV-land), the show’s world of the fictional Essex College in Vermont feels very 1997–with a gently woke update. 

For instance: Women’s Centers have the same kind of painful open mic nights they once did, but now everyone says their pronouns. Yes, acapella is a deathly competitive sport. Yes, some algorithm tried to figure out an ideal freshman rooming group and yes, it only sort of worked.  And yes, college is a time to recreate yourself, trying on a new identity and see if it fits, only to discover that you still are very much yourself.  

Sex Lives, which comes to us from the mind of Mindy Kaling, focuses on a rooming group of four young women: Bela, a comedy nerd whose conservative Indian parents think she is studying neuroscience; Whitney, a soccer jock whose mother is a prominent Black senator; Kimberly, a valedictorian from small town Arizona whose working-class parents struggle to send her to Essex even on scholarship, and Leighton, a closeted wealthy Upper East Side blond princess with a brittle exterior and a heart of…at least brass.  

Like many campus novels, shows and movies, the main and secondary characters feel, in part, designed to check a series of boxes. Hot frat boy with a 6 pack and a killer smile who flashes it at Kimberly? Check. Gay neighbour who is deep into acapella?  Check. Queer multi-ethnic Women’s Center director?  Check. Weird too old for college international RA?  Check. And, in a very 2021 moment, hot influencer in a wheelchair? It doesn’t actually feel tokenist because it’s everyone.

The one nonbinary character, Tova, is the show’s representative of Judaism on campus, which is fine (but surely at some point someone goes to a friend’s shabbat dinner at Hillel?)

Even the most agonizing decisions are made with a smile and a group of friends to hold your hands (or hold back your hair).

But the show remains committed to exploring tough topics, especially an honest look at the kinds of antiBlack and antibrown discourse that happens daily at such institutions, alongside more explicit examples of the effects of racism. It looks hard at class as well as race, with the resident fish-out-of-water character who wins hearts and minds through her honesty about her background and her struggles. It deals with both everyday sexist and predatory behavior in a way that doesn’t moralize around sex but makes it clear who the bad guys are. (It’s college. There’s a lot of bad guys.)  But all this happens gently, gently. Even the most agonizing decisions are made with a smile and a group of friends to hold your hands (or hold back your hair). 

That doesn’t mean bad things don’t happen: they do, and plenty of them, particularly around the titular sex and men, many of whom are sexist; some of whom are cheaters; a few of which are abusive; and at least one of which is, if not a rapist, certainly something very close (yes, all of this also still happens in college). But in the end (and the beginning, and the middle), this is a rom-com from rom-com queen Mindy Kaling, so it’s probably all going to be okay.

So relax. Enjoy the show: sharp, with clever writing and quippy dialogue.  While there are plenty of stressful moments, the athlete is always going to score the key goal, or if she doesn’t, it’ll still (SPOILER ALERT) be okay. The problematic affair is not going to be revealed, or if it is, the student won’t be blamed; the closeted character will find a girlfriend, and even if she isn’t ready to come out, she will be; the woman accusing the man of sexual assault will be believed (eventually), and the man will be punished. 

Bela is probably the most actualized of the characters, likely because she is the proxy for Mindy Kaling herself, an Indian-American comedy nerd who went to Dartmouth. Bela’s also, despite delivering the corniest quips and throwing herself most enthusiastically into having a sex life in college, the one whose character develops the most; while all four of them encounter ethical conundrums and resolve them in various ways, effectively or otherwise, Bela takes longer to make the calls, but she does make the right ones.  And while the show ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, we know it’s all going to be fine in the end, or at least by the end of Season 2.