Recently, audiences have argued that some of the most popular young adult TV shows like Euphoria should not be set in high school due to their mature nature. Instead, they contend that for a more realistic take on teen sexuality, more shows of the genre should take place in an older setting.
The “Sex Lives of College Girls” on HBO Max not only caters to these audiences, but also provides an entertaining and compelling portrayal of the first year of college.
Throughout the show, we watch as roommates Bela Malhotra (Amir Kaur), Kimberly Finkle (Pauline Chalamet), Leighton Murray (Renee Rapp) and Whitney Chase (Alyah Chanelle Scott) navigate their first year at the elite and fictional Essex College. We see them deal with everything from romantic to academic issues, all with the witty and charming humor that Mindy Kaling — the show’s creator and writer — is known for.
The best thing that the show has going for it is its realistic depiction of the messiness of coming of age in a new and stressful environment. That’s definitely not a bad thing, considering how well the show is able to capture the essence of college.
Everything from the clubs to the beginning of classes to the obnoxious parties feels very realistic and grounded. The extracurriculars seem like they could easily be located at the Stephen Robert ’82 Campus Center, and it feels like the four roommates could have easily been living in Keeney Quad.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise considering that Kaling attended Dartmouth College and her co-creator and writer, Justin Noble, attended Yale University. Although not completely based on their own college experiences, both Noble and Kaling have said that many of the show's plots and scenes are based on the fellow Ivy League schools. In fact, one of the show's best moments — the naked party — was pulled straight from something that happened at Noble’s alma mater.
This allows the show to maintain a perfect balance between being realistic and having an absurd, witty sense of humor that provides an excellent watch. It’s especially fun and satisfying for those that are in college and are experiencing the same formative events.
Moreover, the show strongly displays the dynamics between its main characters. While it’s fun for each of the characters to navigate their journey through Essex College, one of the best parts of the show is watching the relationship between the four roommates develop. The girls have excellent chemistry and are able to stand out with their unique personalities. By the end of the show, it’s difficult not to feel some warmth in your heart when you see that they came from practically ignoring each other's existence to trusting each other with some of their most vulnerable insecurities.
Despite all of the compelling storylines and representation, some of the plot points are presented in a way that feels outdated and out of place.
Leighton’s character arc is a prime example of this. The privileged Manhattan 18-year-old is a stereotypical mean girl that could belong in any CW show. But the twist here is that despite her wealth and seemingly old-fashioned demeanor, Leighton is actually a closeted lesbian. While it may seem like an original take on the stereotypical portrayal of lesbians on TV, it is actually the opposite of that.
“If you google a gay person the first thing that autopopulates after their name is gay. It becomes their new main characteristic,” Leighton argues amidst an emotional fight with her secret girlfriend Alicia in episode nine of the series. While Leighton’s not wrong, this unfortunately happens to her own story arc in the show. She hooks up with girl after girl and spends all of her screen time either trying to hide her hookups or feeling guilty about them. That’s pretty much all of her storyline. We see her excel at a math class in the early episodes and act spitefully against her high school friends but we don’t get much beyond that. Meanwhile, we see all the other girls have additional problems with school and extracurriculars that are tied together with their sex lives.
This is not only hypocritical, but also bad in terms of representation, especially if you consider that the other LGBTQ+ characters in the show fall almost too perfectly into stereotypes.
The worst part about this portrayal is that in a show that centers around sex in college, an LGBTQ+ storyline has so much potential. The show could have opted to take a more nuanced approach and have one of the characters explore bisexuality or have one of the main characters be a confident lesbian. Instead, they choose an option that feels reminiscent of the first one-dimensional LGBTQ+ characters on teen TV, and it isn’t as interesting and compelling as the other girls’ storylines.
Still, this is not something that dooms the quality of the show. The show stands out as an entertaining watch despite some of its more evident flaws. With the series being renewed for a second season by HBO Max, it has the potential to fix Leighton’s storyline by expanding her character. Plus, it also has the room and time to explore sexuality in “The Sex Lives of College Girls” and provide audiences with more nuanced storylines.