“The Sex Lives of College Girls,” created by Mindy Kaling and Justin Noble, follows a close-knit, yet turbulently intertwined group of suitemates studying at an elite, private university. The show’s Essex College resembles Harvard University in many ways — the exclusivity, the social climbing, the pervasive effects of an immovable aristocracy in its student body. Of course, these traits are not particular only to Harvard, but to the Ivy League at large. The show is something of an Ivy League melange, especially considering creators Kaling and Noble attended Dartmouth and Yale respectively. A major function of the show is to incentivize and imagine the possibility of legitimate change within the context of these powerful institutions.
One undeniably similar aspect between the fictional Essex College and Harvard University is the depiction of “The Catullan,” — a longstanding comedy publication and a parody of The Harvard Lampoon, a semi-secret sorrento square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine. A major arc of the series follows Bela (Amrit Kaur) as she tries to join the lauded comedy magazine, overcoming a series of obstacles within the patriarchal environment.
As a result of Bela’s conflict with “The Catullan,” Bela, along with fellow female comedy writers on campus, create a female-centered comedy magazine that launches to acclaim and fanfare. This vision illustrated the possibility that an independent comedy magazine run by people who identify as women and non-binary people could achieve a comparable level of recognition to the more prominent publication that is financially bolstered by wealthy alumni. Bela and her friends make a brave choice to start another publication, while undermining the senior magazine. Whereas The Harvard Lampoon remains the dominant comedy presence at Harvard, the show questions whether the status-quo has to be the only reality.
A statue of an imposing male figure dominates the Essex College landscape, reminiscent of the statue of John Harvard. Leighton (Renée Rapp) receives 100 hours of community service for vandalizing the statue. Her internal conflict about her sexuality is projected onto the statue, a symbol of the patriarchal norms and heteronormativity cemented within the campus — largely by fraternities and sororities. Harvard’s oldest, most well-to-do final clubs continue to perpetuate this restrictive binary, allowing men the space to act upon their whims and garner more power among themselves. On the other hand, other co-ed final clubs and RSOs at Harvard accept a wider, more diverse range of people. The idea of the patriarchal statue dominating the institutional landscape remains as these exclusive clubs still stand and perpetuate antiquated social norms.
The irony of Leighton’s predicament is not lost, given her legacy status; her parents attended Essex College and encouraged her social climbing, urging her to join a sorority in order to climb the ranks, ultimately forcing her to conform to more rigid social standards. Like Essex College, a major pillar of Harvard is its acceptance of legacy students. Data from 2014-2019 indicates the increased likelihood for legacy applicants to be accepted to Harvard. Yet, Leighton finds her wealth and legacy status as a divisive point in her personal relationships, especially with Alicia (Midori Francis), her partner by the end of the second season. Leighton tries to buy her way out of conflict — to her own detriment. In depicting the dichotomy of her search for identity, the show has avoided overly sensationalizing her privilege.
Besides portraying conflict with patriarchal institutions, the show captures the value of deep female friendships that are developed between very different people that are thrown together. The unlikeliness embodies one of the best parts of the college experience — one that brings people together from a range of backgrounds and upbringings. Harvard, like Essex College, facilitates these interactions through the melting pot of cultures represented in its student identity.
Yet, the arc of the show seems to favor Kimberly (Pauline Chalamet), a white woman from a lower class background who struggles to acclimate to academics of the university, seemingly due to her public high school education. She reaches out to her suitemate’s brother ostensibly for tutoring and sets herself up for failure by taking classes she isn’t prepared for, which she gets through by cheating. As her sexual encounter with her tutor propels her towards more situationships with physically attractive men, she joins her suitemates in self-sabotage. Although private high schools certainly provide an advantage, it would be unrealistic and unfounded to say that a student that attended a public high school would be unable to academically succeed in a private college like Harvard. According to a survey of the Class of 2019, 63% of students responded that they attended a public high school before enrolling at Harvard. It would be a gross over exaggeration to say that more than half of the student body is academically unprepared based on that factor. In this way, Kimberly’s personal choices set her up for failure, as opposed to her public school education.
Kimberly’s relentless acquisition of the show’s hottest prospects is questionable, given that her other two roommates that are attracted to men, Bela and Whitney (Alyah Chanelle Scott), are women of color. Her bumbling innocence is reminiscent of “Gilmore Girls” Rory (Alexis Bledel), where her character’s selfishness lies in her pursuit of solely her own desire, without taking into consideration her friends’ needs.
In this way, the show highlights the inequity found in the type of institution it depicts by lending the straight, white main character the privilege of the show’s greatest capital — sex.
“The Sex Lives of College Girls” lives up to its name, though not too much beyond it. The main characters spend most of their mental energy worrying about sex and romance. Admittedly, intellectual pursuits do not often make for great entertainment, so the academic aspects of these girls’ lives are not developed as meticulously as their sex lives.
The “Sex Lives of College Girls” allows for a mainstream exploration of emotional and sexual growth of young women within the context of an elite institution. Under the guise of sex, the show explores more issues faced within a college environment that, on the surface, might not make for good television. The “Sex Lives of College Girls” questions that notion and throws its audience into the reality of what it means to attend a private university with a long history of legacy, money, and patriarchy.
– Staff writer Sophia S. Pasalis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.