Cinematic Chat: Marginalized identities in “The Sex Lives of College Girls”

by Elsa Ying (’23) | February 14, 2022

In recent years, HBO Max has proven that it is no stranger to producing content for the teen demographic; however, the comedy-drama television series The Sex Lives of College Girls diverts from their traditional high school drama to depict college life through a refreshing new lens with self-awareness and genuine relatability. The representation of various races, ethnicities, sexualities, and social classes might lead some to write it off as overly-saturated with cringy virtue-signaling for the sake of appearing to be “woke.” Nevertheless, because the show allows its characters to be three-dimensional humans instead of solely their marginalized identities, it creates spaces for unique interactions that provide a much subtler commentary than some might expect.

The show follows four freshman roommates from various backgrounds as they navigate life at fictional Essex College. The characters include Kimberly, a work-study student from a predominantly white small town; Bela, an Indian-American who aspires to be a comedy writer and proudly proclaims herself as “sex-positive”; Leighton, a rich legacy student trying to hide her sexual identity; and Whitney, a star soccer player and the daughter of a U.S. senator.

One of the show’s primary ways of conveying intersectional themes involves the blunders and trials of the four protagonists. Kimberly, though school-smart, misses her coworkers’ sarcasm and grim humor. Meanwhile, from the very start of the show, Leighton’s privileged and often rude mindset as a wealthy white woman is consistently called out by the characters around her. Her roommates communicate with her when they feel offended or hurt by her actions, but since their confrontations center their personal feelings and never explicitly connect to a larger social justice movement, the focus stays on the characters as girls who are still learning and growing, rather than serving as a vessel for social commentary.

At the same time, these characters are allowed to succeed and cherish their achievements of all kinds, from Leighton discovering a hidden talent in math to Whitney winning soccer games and growing closer with her previously distant teammates. The roommates also band together to survive an uncomfortable dinner during parents’ weekend, each acknowledging their own parents’ biases and microaggressions, and supporting the other girls regardless.

The characters’ marginalized identities could easily lend themselves to harmful stereotypes or an idealistic erasure of oppression; however, writers Mindy Kaling and Justin Noble center the show as a comedy-drama and allow their commentary to showcase through character interactions instead of the characters themselves. Heavy scenes about discrimination and systemic privilege are balanced with snapshots of the roommates being ordinary college girls and showing vulnerability that isn’t tied to their marginalization.

Likewise, the characters’ and the show’s self-awareness allows the series to make social commentary without being preachy or egotistic. In fact, the script allows the characters to frequently acknowledge the thin line between socially aware and performative diversity with comedic relief quips. For example, when their gay floormate Travis invites Whitney and Leighton to his acapella concert with a preview of his objectively bad singing, he quickly adds that declining would call Whitney’s intersectionality into question. Through similar throwaway lines, the show acknowledges that topics of social justice can easily get too heavy-handed in media, and offers a new take by portraying growing flawed characters.
Of course, some may argue that hard topics shouldn’t be taken lightly and should be depicted to their full potential. There is always room for criticism from marginalized groups when it comes to their representation on screen and behind the scenes. Still, The Sex Lives of College Girls defines itself primarily as a show about the characters’ growing pains during college, and thus frees itself to give genuine commentary.

Categories: Column, Entertainment

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