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'The Sex Lives of College Girls': Mindy Kaling HBO series breaks the 'Hollywood notion' of being a college girl

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While The Sex Lives of College Girls, co-created by Mindy Kaling and Justin Noble (first two episodes on Crave in Canada Nov. 18 with a weekly release), is another HBO show centred around four women, like Girls and Sex and the City, but you haven’t seen this unique journey through our awkward, raw college years before, with Canadian actor Amrit Kaur as the fierce “revolutionary” character Bela.

“I love that she's a woman that’s sexual and that we're seeing a brown woman be sexual,...to the extent that Bela is sexual,” Kaur said. “We've seen brown women just be submissive, or Asians in general, we have to be these submissive like little women and this woman, she is a revolutionary character.”

“I hope that this will change the narrative of South Asians and Asians in general in media, that we have sex and we have dominant raging sexuality.”

Reneé Rapp, Alyah Chanelle Scott, Pauline Chalamet, Amrit Kaur in the HBO Max original series
Reneé Rapp, Alyah Chanelle Scott, Pauline Chalamet, Amrit Kaur in the HBO Max original series "The Sex Lives of College Girls"

Who are the girls in 'The Sex Lives of College Girls'?

As the title suggest The Sex Lives of College Girls tells the story of four girls who start school at Essex College in New England and end up being assigned as roommates: Bela (Kaur), Leighton (Reneé Rapp), Kimberly (Pauline Chalamet), and Whitney (Alyah Chanelle Scott). All on their own complicated journey, this series shows the reality and uniqueness of women exploring this new independence away from home.

Bela, ultimately feeling liberated by being away from her parents who want her to pursue a path in neuroscience, is exploring her aspirations of being a comedy writer but she is met with the harsh reality of the racism and misogyny at the school’s prestigious comedy magazine.

Leighton is from New York City and she makes sure everyone knows it, with a family legacy at Essex College who initially presents herself as a self absorbed, trust fund mean girl.

“You often just see the surface of what's going on...and you never really know what somebody’s going through behind closed doors,” Reneé Rapp said.

“I think that's a big problem with Leighton because she is super ignorant… I think that's important to also be portrayed because Leighton operates like she is the main character all the time, and the only one [whose] feelings are important.”

Pauline Chalamet and Amrit Kaur in the HBO Max original series
Pauline Chalamet and Amrit Kaur in the HBO Max original series "The Sex Lives of College Girls" (Jessica Brooks)

Kimberly is naive but has a lot of heart, on a scholarship to attend the school. Kimberly and Leighton are basically complete opposites in terms of their personality but also socioeconomic struggles, with Kimberly having to take part in the work-study program to be able to afford her education.

“I remember so well what it felt like to be so unsure of yourself and so want to fit in,” Pauline Chalamet explained.

“It’s true that Kimberly and I really have different upbringings, but that sort of wanting to fit in, feeling out of place financially, those are things that I really related to her in and I really enjoyed being able to go back to that time and look at different scenarios and different scenes and situations in which she was in, the kind of insecure side, and really understand why she was acting that way.”

Whitney is the daughter of a senator (played by Sherri Shepherd) and a college soccer star, but while facing pressure from her mother and her athletics, she’s also trying to navigate a messy relationship with a soccer coach.

“I think it's very real to see a young woman not know, to see a young woman desire the wrong things or to see her like a sort of attention that maybe isn't good for her in the long run,” Alyah Chanelle Scott said.

“I think each of the characters has a complicated, in different ways, very different ways, complicated sexual experiences and that's sort of what makes the show, and watching the show, so exciting and good.”

Alyah Chanelle Scott, Pauline Chalamet, Amrit Kaur in the HBO Max original series
Alyah Chanelle Scott, Pauline Chalamet, Amrit Kaur in the HBO Max original series "The Sex Lives of College Girls" (Jessica Brooks)

Breaking the 'Hollywood notion' of what it's like to be a college girl

This is truly the most honest depiction of what it’s like to be a college girl, showing the complexities of friendships (particularly with people you’re forced to interact with), sexuality, socioeconomic pressures in that time of your life and, frankly, the fear that comes with discovering yourself outside of your parents' world.

“We really have this notion of, like a Hollywood notion, of what those four years of college are,...nobody lives that [very structured] time in college,” Chalamet said. “I think this show had a real bonus in its writers room...there were all these women, they had such different backgrounds, such different college experiences, and I think that brought a lot to the script.”

“I tend to not really be afraid to speak my mind and I know that when I felt like I needed to say something I did, and that, I think, is an environment that was really conducive to being able to share all these different experiences.”

Girls may have had us dancing to Robin’s “Dancing On My Own” with our roommates, but The Sex Lives of College Girls takes it up a notch. Ultimately pushing us one step closer to being OK with our sexuality, talking about sex and love, and all the complexities of relationships in between, and understanding that no two women will have the same journey when navigating their college years.

“I wish I had talked about [sex] and learned more about different levels of sex and sex education when I was a kid,” Rapp said. “I grew up in the South so comprehensive sex education also was just, not a thing.”

“I hope the show inspires people to talk about it more because...that's how we all got here, so might as well talk about it.”

Reneé Rapp and Gavin Leatherwood in the HBO Max original series
Reneé Rapp and Gavin Leatherwood in the HBO Max original series "The Sex Lives of College Girls" (David Giesbrecht)

'For real people, sex isn't always sexy'

The Sex Lives of College Girls steers clear from the path of putting the story of women under the “gaze of a man,” as Alyah Chanelle Scott, who plays Whitney, so accurately puts it. These are not just stories about young women, but actually stories told by young women.

“I think something that's so great about it is that it's about four young women, but it's not at all told from the gaze of a man, it's very much told from their points of view, you really see them walk through the world,” she explained. “Reading the script, I loved that they weren't inherently sexual beings.”

“They weren't walking around selling sex on screen and I thought that was very, very important to me. In order to be a part of the show, they had to be real people. For real people, sex isn't always sexy. Sex is messy, sex is odd, sex is awkward.”

The actor added that she was used to seeing a common theme of Black women being “hyper-sexualized,” highlighting that Whitney is “just a girl like every other girl” with a messy and awkward sex life.

“When you would see a Black woman in a sexual situation it was so done up in a way that I felt like I could never live up to because I'm just a girl, like any other girl,” Scott said. “You would often see the white women get to have the complex stories, and the white women get to have very honest and messy and real things, and the Black woman just be hot and heavy sex.”

“To be doing the thing that I wish I had seen growing up, it's very exciting to be able to do this for other young Black women who will get to see someone who's just a girl navigating it, isn't inherently hot or sexy, is just a person in these situations and can be messy and odd and awkward and weird in them, I think it's so cool.”

For Amrit Kaur, there were no boundaries for playing Bela, explaining that she believes there are “too many boundaries” put in front of women.

“I think when we're f—king in our private lives, we don't have boundaries in the bedroom so why should this character have boundaries?” she explained. “So that's my bravery, I have to be brave and act the way I f-ck and show that on the screen.”

“We're savage in the bedroom, it doesn't matter how we look like, what size we are, what colour we are. We all have sex. We haven it all, equally, dominantly, crazily, weirdly, quirkily, all of it.”

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