Television

The Joy of Watching a Messy Lesbian on TV

Instead of trauma or repressed yearning, it’s a story about hangovers, ex-girlfriends, and STIs.

Reneé Rapp on The Sex Lives of College Girls.
Reneé Rapp on The Sex Lives of College Girls. Katrina Marcinowski/HBO Max

As far as its premise, The Sex Lives of College Girls is about as clichéd as you can get: Four students arriving at college to party hard while finding their feet is a sitcom done to death. And yet I found myself hooked after watching the first episode, with its four charismatic leads, witty script, and sensitive handling of issues like student debt, sexual harassment, and racism in academia some of the reasons why it’s pulled in some of HBO Max’s best ratings.

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Leighton Murray (Reneé Rapp), a snobby math major with a penchant for designer clothing and family wealth “tied up in several racehorses,” was an unanticipated favorite. I initially warmed to her because I tend to gravitate unashamedly toward queer characters. However, Rapp’s charming portrayal drew me in to what I now think of as a quintessential example of queer joy.

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Sex Lives’ first season focused on Leighton’s journey out of the closet. At the fictional Essex College in Vermont, she meets punky feminist Alicia (Midori Francis) through school-mandated volunteering with a campus women’s group. The pair enjoy a brief relationship before they break up due to Alicia’s discomfort with dating someone closeted.

Season 2 witnesses a more in-depth exploration into Leighton’s postcloset life; she comes out to more friends, finds her place in the campus queer scene, enjoys a much-deserved “ho era,” and inadvertently gives several of her classmates chlamydia. Halfway through, the show changes pace, with Leighton meeting and pursuing her doppelgänger (dubbed the “twincest” stage of coming out). After a crescendo of sexual tension spanning several episodes, she gets together with her “doppelbanger” Tatum (Gracie Dzienny) only to realize that she’s outgrown aspects of herself that Tatum reminds her of, and reconnects with Alicia in the show’s final episode. Leighton pivots from an unshakably cool power femme to someone a little softer; in letting down some of her walls, she finds herself stronger than ever.

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This season is what I’ve been describing to friends as a “satisfying queer mess.” Leighton comes across as the most confident woman on campus; in a heady montage of hookups, she’s shown to date “around 30” girls at once, dump a woman for sending one too many GIFs, pick girls up in math lectures, and explain that “it’s my turn to catch up” after hiding her sexuality for so long. For many lesbians, she’s an icon, owning her identity and classic messy ex-girlfriend drama with deadpan humor and without a speck of shame.

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Leighton’s journey with her sexuality, supported by several ancillary queer characters, is relatable and well rounded in a way not many previous shows have captured. In fact, I don’t think I had ever seen a lesbian with an STI on a TV show, full stop, never mind the fact that her friends refuse to judge her for having one.

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What struck me the most about Sex Lives is that while Leighton’s plotlines contain so much exploration of her sexuality, it’s clear being queer is not the be-all and end-all of her character. She’s never the token queer friend, and her story is never one-dimensional. There’s tragedy in her bursting into tears while coming out to Kimberly (Pauline Chalamet), telling her, “I don’t want my whole life to change”; there’s joy in her whole life actually changing, and in her becoming happier for it.

Her messy college antics are juxtaposed with a genuine pathos that makes her so watchable; scenes showing Leighton giving Kimberly—whom she previously described contemptuously as “podunk”—the hormone shots needed to donate her eggs over the course of a week is a tender moment that balances out times when Leighton has tipped from charmingly bitchy into a little cruel.

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What makes Leighton special is the duality of her personality, which encapsulates the experiences of a huge portion of the LGBTQ community. She is terrified to come out to her friends in Season 1—and is still not out to her parents, despite her friends’ acceptance —then becomes the most sought-after queer girl on campus. She presents as an untouchable Upper East Sider but has several awkward moments with crushes. She relishes her sorority status but leans into her nerdier side.

The finale, for me, proved how right Sex Lives got its writing for a queer audience. Managing to avoid being overpoweringly saccharine, it gives its primary LGBTQ character a satisfying ending, seeing Leighton get back together with Alicia, outgrow her sorority, and find her true place at the campus women’s center, saving it from closure with a $30,000 check, all while dressed in a truly iconic Carol outfit.

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The final two episodes were honestly all I wanted for a character I’ve come to genuinely care about. While Leighton’s confidence in going after her doppelgänger—having said, while describing her type, “I would be happy with a ‘me’ ”—was great to see, it raised several questions: Did she literally desire herself through crushing on her doppelgänger, or did she desire the “cooler” version of herself that she saw in Tatum? While I loved their initial chemistry, I was glad to see things go south between them. Breaking things off with Tatum proved that Leighton doesn’t need to attain a “better” version of herself, and moving away from the more “judgmental” aspects of her personality illustrated how much she’d grown into accepting her authentic self.

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Throughout the show, we’ve seen Leighton work through the closet, find love followed by casual relationships, and bag the elusive doppelbanger, but to me, it’s in Leighton’s evolving personality that I’ve seen the most moving example of queer joy. From starting the series as a closeted sorority elitist who hooked up with housewives in secret, to being somebody who happily discusses her sex life with her roommates, somewhat more reluctantly opens up to her father, and unabashedly nerds out about math extracurriculars, Leighton’s growth in just one season has shown her to be one of the most well-rounded lesbian characters on TV.

Too often, queer storylines center on death, trauma, or abusive families, while the biggest joys we get are Portrait of a Lady on Fire–style tales of forbidden yearning. Seeing this authentic depiction of a girl going through typical college crises fueled by hangovers, ex-girlfriends, and STI scandals felt refreshing. Rapp herself is bisexual, describing this season as “empowering” and “celebratory,” and to me, watching her hedonistic highs filled with casual sex, and her lows racked with anxiety when faced with coming out to her father, felt like a celebration of queer messiness.

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With much discussion in the US over both queer-baiting in film and TV and the ban on teaching about LGBTQ identities in Florida classrooms, an in-depth and sex-positive portrayal of a queer woman is pretty groundbreaking, and the fact that Leighton’s storyline on Sex Lives is so centered within the show is exactly where I hoped LGBTQ representation would be in 2022.

In all, Leighton’s story is a reminder that lesbian representation doesn’t have to be found in overcoming tragedy or in an epic love story. The biggest queer joy of all can be found in a gorgeous math nerd running through campus in the snow at midnight, arm in arm with her friends.

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