If one were writing a TV show about the sex lives of college girls, one should probably check in with actual college girls to make sure one is depicting their sex lives accurately. In developing the very literally titled HBO Max comedy The Sex Lives of College Girls, that is just what creators Mindy Kaling and Justin Noble did, charting research expeditions to Dartmouth (her alma mater) and Yale (his) that informed the world of their show’s fictional Ivy Leagueish Essex College. “We wanted to make sure we got it right, because neither of us graduated college that recently. I mean, we are pretty young and attractive people, but …” Noble told Vulture. “Right before COVID hit, we planned a research trip to the East Coast and set meetings with all these different groups of young women at these colleges and chatted about what their experiences were.” Here, some of the real-life phenomena that informed the world of the show.
On their college tours, Noble and Kaling discovered the students were “down to be completely candid” about their personal experiences. “Mindy and I are, on the spectrum of horniness, a little prudish at times, so it was illuminating,” Noble said. The creators learned the nuances of flirting, particularly when it comes to using apps (the show gets into detail about tracking who’s watching your Instagram stories). In one instance, Noble got into an in-depth conversation with a queer student group at Yale. “It was great to hear the specifics of how they find each other and the messiness that comes when you’re on a small campus and end up dating each other’s exes.”
The exclusionary college comedy club
On the show, Bela (Amrit Kaur) dreams of a career in comedy (and fantasizes about, specifically, Seth Meyers). She tries her hardest to get into Essex’s famed Catullan comedy club, which features a lot of the Harvard Lampoon (home of oh so many Simpsons writers) in its characterization. But Kaling and Noble also drew on their own experiences with the niche world of college comedy scenes; in Noble’s case, he was so desperate to get into one comedy group as a Yale freshman that he wrote a gushing email to one of its members (Elizabeth Meriwether, who would go on to create New Girl). “I think there is always this very cliquish group, whether it’s a comedy magazine or an improv or sketch team, that feels very hard to break into, that does tend to be very white, straight, male,” Noble said. “We thought that felt like a genuine and real obstacle for a goofball from New Jersey to pursue.”
The travails of student-athletes
Among the show’s main characters, Whitney (Alyah Chanelle Scott) comes into college with the most set identity and, thanks to her position on Essex’s women’s soccer team, the largest friend group outside her roommates’ suite. But the team also consumes nearly all of her energy. “Being a student-athlete is a tremendous amount of time and effort, and it gets hard to juggle the rest of your college life,” Noble said. The show also digs into the themes of discrimination Kaling and Noble learned about from students on women’s sports teams — notably, how significantly underfunded they are compared to men’s teams. This becomes a plot point in the fifth episode. “The week we did that table read, the NCAA had a huge issue about female gyms being much smaller than male gyms, and I was like, Oh no, it’s gonna look like we robbed this from the headlines,” Noble said. “Sadly, misogyny hasn’t died and will always be relevant.”
Work-study-induced class divisions
While soccer takes up most of Whitney’s time, her suitemate Kimberly (Pauline Chalamet) arrives on campus with her own obligations: taking on a job as part of her financial aid deal. The students Kaling and Noble spoke to often noted the way work-study jobs can immediately separate students by income brackets. “It seemed like a real issue on campus — a class separation between the kids who come from a lot and the kids who come from not much,” Noble said. On the show, the class difference is most pronounced between Kimberly and Leighton (Reneé Rapp), a legacy student at Essex who’s from a wealthy New York family and whose brother Nico (Gavin Leatherwood) ends up developing a flirtation with Kimberly. “We wanted Nico to feel like someone Kimberly would never have crossed paths with otherwise,” Noble said. “This rich New York boy who wears fancy clothes, this shiny object she can’t help but drift her eye to.”
Leighton’s experience in the closet
As that intimidatingly wealthy legacy student, Leighton comes to Essex with seemingly everything figured out, though she hides her interest in women from her friends and family. Noble himself was in the closet when he came to college, and that story line is the aspect of the show that borrows most heavily from his own experience. “I wanted our show to feel modern and current to 2021 and show that, on these campuses, the vast majority of queer students are out and proud because that’s what our researched showed,” he said. “But I think we have an obligation to tell stories for the people who aren’t quite there yet. If I was a closeted college student and saw a show where everybody was out and proud about it, I would not only not relate to that character, but I would also feel sad, because what’s wrong with me that I am not ready yet?”
In the show’s second episode, Bela enthusiastically tries to get everyone to go to a “naked party,” assuming it will be a fun, sexy event — only to discover that the premise is that everyone stands around pretending not to notice each other’s bodies. Infamously, naked parties are “such a Yale thing,” as Noble put it, often hosted by upperclassmen as a weird sort of joke. Including niche college traditions was a key part of Noble’s pitch for the series. “I sat down with executives at Warner Bros. and was like, ‘The one thing I want to do on this show is an episode where they go to a naked party,’” he said. “Then I had to explain the weirdness of them. You’re pretending it’s the most normal thing in the world, and it’s so not normal! I went to a couple in college, of course, and I was so in my head about going to one that I over-pregamed, and I don’t even remember it.” The larger point being that there are a lot of events in college where students pretend to be adults and fail completely, which makes for good material for a TV comedy.