Sex Lives of College Girls: Eric and Male Accountability

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As audiences anticipate the second season of Mindy Kaling’s well-loved comedy series, The Sex Lives of College Girls, let’s reflect on its success. One of the most triumphant parts of the show was how it handled the issue of a male in power being a sexual assaulter. One of the main characters of the series, Bela (Amrit Kaur) gets accepted to join the prestigious campus comedy publication called “The Catullan.” After one of the group meetings, Bela finds herself alone with Ryan (Conor Donnally) who is one of the two senior editors and leaders of The Catullan. While they are alone, Ryan sexually assaults Bela. Soon after, Bela learns from one of the only other women in the club, Carla (Isabella Roland), that she had the same experience with Ryan. When Carla quits The Catullan the following day, Bela decides to take action and speak up.

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Bela meets with the other leader of the club, Eric (Mekki Leeper), and another senior member, Evangeline (Sierra Katow), to tell them what happened. Eric and Evangeline respond with shock; Eric reacting with more confusion and defensive behavior than Evangeline. Eric and Ryan are known for being best friends and roommates, in addition to the two club leaders. So, it can be understood that anyone would have this initial reaction of anger and denial upon finding out that their best friend hurt and violated someone else. And in this case, did that to more than one person. Eric grows especially defensive and worried when Bela mentions she already spoke to the Title IX office about the issue, even though she said she didn’t file an official claim yet. Eric states that he doesn’t want to be involved in this situation and that he thinks it could all be a misunderstanding.

Bela informs Eric that it wasn’t a misunderstanding because Carla was in the same situation, and that is the reason she quit the club. This is when Eric gives into his state of shock and disbelief, telling Bela that he has known Ryan for years, and he is not the kind of person to do that, so he doesn’t believe her. Through Evangeline’s response of “Shouldn’t we be believing women?” Kaling sneaks in a nod to the movement to shift our culture to believing women when they speak up about assault, instead of interrogating them and finding reasons to silence and invalidate them. Eric responds, “I’m constantly believing women, but this is different.” This is a crucial statement that is very reflective of the behaviors that have been indoctrinated in society such as not questioning peers when they make problematic decisions. This perpetuates another unhealthy idea that women are to be believed so long as their accusations don’t result in upheaval for the direct lifestyle or social circle of men. Men want to show support so long as they don’t have to deal with the discomfort and disappointment that comes with holding their friends and themselves accountable.

Before Eric storms out of the room he tells Bela, “Next time maybe write us an email or give us a little warning before you come in here and drop a giant bomb on us.” A generous analysis of Eric’s response is that, from a leader’s position, he is someone who must make decisions that keep the best interest of others at the forefront, so warnings about harmful members or events would be useful to take the exact necessary steps to handle the situation safely and responsibly. The unfortunate and cruel reality is that women will never get a warning that someone who is supposed to be their peer actually does not respect them and will take advantage of them. So, leaders and community members must be willing and ready to act whenever women get a giant bomb dropped on them. Fortunately, at least Evangeline reassures Bela that she did the right thing by informing them of the truth.

The next day, to Bela’s surprise, Eric seeks her out to apologize. He admits, “My initial reaction yesterday sucked. As an editor and sometimes very awkward and thoughtless person, I’m sorry. I handled myself poorly. I believe you and I will do something about it.” This moment is pivotal, leaving audiences feeling just as “wow-ed” as Bela’s facial expression shows in the scene. It may be one of the first times on screen that a man, especially one in power, goes out of his way to show to a woman that he silenced her, that he is regretful of his response, and ensures change for her. This is so important because it shows that when men (or anyone) get angry about an assault situation involving a friend, that anger can be internalized, turned around, and used to create justice for the victim as opposed to taking it out on them.

Eric holds a meeting with Evangeline, Bela, and Carla to confront Ryan and tell him he is kicked out of The Catullan because of his actions. Ryan adamantly denies the claims and tries to shame Eric for “taking their word over mine”. Ryan even brings up some of Bela’s sexual experiences to make a backwards claim that since she shamelessly enjoys having sex, she is not trustworthy in this sexual assault case. This is when Eric really steps up and shuts him down by responding, “Who cares? It doesn’t make her any less credible.” This is another notable moment in Eric’s character change throughout this issue because it is very rare to see a man on-screen go out of his way to ingrain in someone (especially a fellow male) that a woman’s sexual history does not reflect her morality, character, and therefore, credibility. He also fires at Ryan that it makes no sense for two different women to be making up something so serious just to take him down – something they have no reason to want to do, to begin with. The icing on the cake is Eric telling Ryan he will not ignore the women’s claims, and tears Ryan’s co-editor plaque off the wall, sealing the deal.

At the end of the season, Bela and Eric catch up briefly. Here, Eric tells Bela that he is not doing great because he had to “irrevocably end his relationship with my best friend, and I have to move out of my apartment because it’s his”. This moment with Eric ties up his part in this situation for viewers because it shows that these experiences are not ones to be immediately moved on from. They have aftereffects and emotional phases that one must go through for an undetermined amount of time. There are also typically a string of decisions and actions one must take to shift and change their lifestyle after cutting someone deceptive and abusive out. Eric is depicted actively experiencing these negative, difficult waves of emotions, yet is also shown to be actively making changes to better his life at the same time.

The internal and external dynamics of these scenes are very important as they depict realist reactions, especially on Eric’s behalf. It is uncommon to see this normal flow of emotions and reactions considering how life-changing this information truly is. It is vital to have these reactions acted out because it is only normal to be confused and upset after discovering your best friend is not who you thought they were. But, those feelings of incredulity cannot be given into, and the situation cannot go under the rug. In this time when the unfortunate reality of how common sexual assault is has become regular in our conversations, it could be momentous for audiences to see how the leader of an organization like Eric stepped up to the plate for the better. Even though he had a different reaction initially, and the consequences meant losing a friend. Eric ultimately realizing that one cannot take these things lightly and that it is much more important to take action to protect the victims that so courageously spoke up, is a moment that can be revered as a great example of male accountability and a great example that anyone can be a vital force of change.

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