Review: ‘The Sex Lives of College Girls’ Offers Witty Take on Freshman Year

At once a subversive commentary and a lighthearted sitcom, Mindy Kaling ’01’s newest show produces laughs — albeit, sometimes strained.

by Alexandra Surprenant | 12/21/21 10:08am

pauline-chalamet-renee-rapp-alyah-chanelle-scott-amrit-kaur
Source: Courtesy of HBO Max

Co-created by Justin Noble and Mindy Kaling ’01, “The Sex Lives of College Girls” provides thoughtful entertainment with a title that promises intrigue.

The show is set at the fictional Essex College, complete with familiar ivy-covered buildings and sticky frat basements. It follows four first-year roommates: Bela (Amrit Kaur), Leighton (Reneé Rapp), Kimberly (Pauline Chalamet) and Whitney (Alyah Chanelle Scott). Each young woman must navigate the challenge of forging a new post-high school identity and separating from parents and hometowns. As Bela declares on move-in-day, “Mom, I’m not taking my teddy bear with me to college. I’m in the middle of my reinvention.” 

Bela seeks a position at the campus comedy publication, “The Catullan,” eager to leave behind her past as a self-described “Indian loser with cystic acne, sweaty armpits and glasses.” Blonde, uptight and a legacy at Essex, Leighton appears to be the classic Upper East Side princess, but secretly meets up with suburban mothers she finds on dating apps as she struggles with her own sexuality. Kimberly balances a campus job and difficult workload as she questions her role at and preparedness for an elite college among her wealthier peers, and Whitney pursues an affair with her assistant soccer coach, defying the high expectations of her senator mother.

The show tackles recognizable themes: misogyny in male-dominated spaces, friction between classwork and social lives, the messy intimacy of a new relationship. Each challenge feels at once identifiable and refreshingly complex.

At one point, Bela experiences sexual harassment at “The Catullan” when her editor turns on a pornographic video during a one-on-one review session for one of her pieces. Scarred but devoted to protecting her position at the paper, Bela grapples with her response. Does she report her editor to the Title IX office? Should she ignore the incident? Warn the other staff writers? In a Dec. 9 panel held with student journalists invited from colleges across the country, Kaur reflected on how the writers embraced the subtleties of this decision.

“I think what’s beautiful about Bella’s journey is that in this situation, what she’s experiencing is gray,” Kaur said. “It’s in the gray area and that’s what the writers really wanted to explore…”

For the most part, “The Sex Lives of College Girls” engages with traditional tropes and character archetypes while challenging the viewers’ expectations of them. Leighton initially seems like a one-dimensional cliché, strutting into the dorm with designer handbags and a scowl. By the end of the first episode, she leaves a frat party to furtively meet up with a woman miles away. She resists being open about her sexuality, not necessarily because she fears parental scorn or judgemental peers, but because of her own ruthless commitment to remaining “conventional.” During the panel, Rapp discussed how Leighton’s relationship to her sexuality mirrored her own. 

“Sometimes it can be that there’s a parental barrier or a religious or a value barrier that they’re really struggling with,” Rapp said. “But something that happened with Leighton, and is more similar to me as a kid, was that it was actually so internal and so homophobic inside her own body, as opposed to outward figures.”

Unlike many shows, “The Sex Lives of College Girls” incorporates details of contemporary social and romantic culture that resonate with college-aged women, such as the habit of looking for a crush among Instagram story viewers. Indeed, the show is not about just sex. Rather, it is a show that explores all the complexities of entering college as a young woman, including sex. Scott spoke about this success at the panel. 

“I think, also, [the show is] just demystifying the idea of women having sex, young women having sex, and not oversexualizing us just because we’re women having sex… and removing the shame around it,” Scott said.

Kaur added that having female writers contribute to parts of the script, specifically ones focused on female sexuality, was “empowering.”

Impressively, the show also finds nuance in its inevitably exaggerated storylines. Kimberly realizes the often subtle implications of her lower class background: arriving overdressed to a dinner, struggling in a high level French class amid students from private schools, worrying about how she will pay the check at a restaurant. The show identifies an important truth — these seemingly small, uncomfortable instances can lead to a greater sense of isolation for some students. 

However, “The Sex Lives of College Girls” occasionally falls victim to overdone storylines. The affair between Whitney and her coach feels uninspired, and inhibits a more rigorous examination into the relationship between Whitney and her senator mother. The show implies that Whitney feels pressure from her mother without fully exploring the dynamic of having a mother in a national position of power.

At times, the show portrays relationships that are unrealistic based on my own experience at Dartmouth and its humor becomes exhausted by the inflated eccentricities of its characters. Self-proclaimed “sex positive” college girl Bela jokes endlessly about her attraction to Seth Meyers or the abs of a crush. Leighton unsurprisingly bribes an administrator to avoid punishment. The show works best when it offers moments of surprise, not anticipated jokes or actions.

Nonetheless, “The Sex Lives of College Girls” is a smart take on the challenges of freshman year, asking what it means to exist in the liminal space between high school and adulthood. 

“It’s often the first time you’re exploring yourself sexually or your identity at all because when you’re at home, you’re held to the ideas of you that already exist by your family or your friends or your peers,” Scott said. “When you go away for the first time, you just exist as yourself. And so you can sort of rewrite your narrative and decide what you are and who you are and how you want to move through the world.”

In the end, the show makes for a humorous and intelligent watch — with a skillful cast, developed characters and engaging storylines. And for Dartmouth students, there is the added pleasure of recognizing the many parallels between Dartmouth and Essex, from the cafe that looks remarkably like Novack to the shifting New England autumn leaves.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Advertise your student group in The Dartmouth for free!