HBO Max’s The Sex Lives of College Girls follows Kimberly (Pauline Chalamet), Bela (Amrit Kaur), Whitney (Alyah Chanelle Scott), and Leighton (Reneé Rapp) as they begin their freshman year at the fictional Essex college in Vermont. Throughout the 10-episode first season, which takes place over half of the first semester, the girls face an incredible amount of challenges and difficulties. Kimberly is caught cheating and nearly expelled from the college, Bela is sexually assaulted by the Co-Editor of the comedy zine she has joined, and Whitney is forced to deal with the fallout of an inappropriate relationship with her Assistant Coach. The series has more than proven that it’s capable of tackling important topics, and another one that is particularly touching to many fans is Leighton’s journey as a closeted lesbian. Over the course of the season, Leighton’s struggle with accepting her sexuality (which is more than likely to continue into the second season) is handled beautifully with such care and compassion put into every moment.
When the series begins, Leighton seems like your average spoiled, pretty, rich, blonde girl from the Upper East Side — think a combination of the best parts of Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester) and Serena van der Woodsen (Blake Lively) from the original Gossip Girl. But, this is quickly shown not to be the case. She arrives at Essex prepared to room with her two best friends from high school, both of whom quickly ice her out after secretly arranging to not be in the same dorm with her. Their reasoning? Their friendship with Leighton never felt real, like she always had some wall up to keep them from seeing the real version of herself. When Leighton ditches her roommates to go to a bar and sleep with a woman she met on a dating app, everything clicks into place.
Though Leighton doesn’t continue trying to make things right with her old friends, she puts up the same wall with her new friends, unwilling to share parts of herself. Even when Leighton begins a secret relationship with Alicia (Midori Francis), who is out and proud, it eventually crumbles because Leighton isn’t willing to come out. Her need to stay closeted is causing Alicia to struggle, putting both young women in a very tough spot. The show doesn’t villainize either of them but shows they’re both coming from very different but valid places. Plus, as romantic as it can be sometimes for the closeted partner to come out for the other and the two to be together, it’s also important to see the reality that relationships often fall apart when one person is in the closet, even if both sides really want it to work. (Whether Leighton and Alicia will make it work in the future remains to be seen, but their story in the first season is beautiful but tragic, making it all the more compelling)
Altogether, Leighton’s story is being handled in a way that feels so refreshing for television, despite it being both heartbreaking and devastating to see her struggling so much with who she is and unable to accept herself. It feels real, and it’s being given the time to breathe, making Leighton finally confiding in someone — Kimberly, of all people — about who she is and her feelings over losing Alicia in the season finale even more impactful. Too often, a series will push its characters out of the closet after only a few episodes before dealing with the mountains of emotion and inner turmoil that come with the territory for many. While all coming out stories are incredibly important, it’s so significant and actually incredibly satisfying to see a coming out journey that, like in the real world, isn’t taking place over just a couple of episodes.
Another unusual aspect of Leighton’s coming out story is that her struggle is primarily coming from inside herself. Coming out stories are often depicted with homophobes around the closeted person, making them fear coming out and potentially being humiliated and ostracized by their family and friends. However, in The Sex Lives of College Girls, this doesn’t seem to be the primary factor in Leighton’s struggle. (Of course, it’s still a factor and always is, but it’s not nearly as prevalent as with most coming out tales.) From what we’ve seen of Leighton’s parents and her brother Nico (Gavin Leatherwood), there are no warning signs that her coming out would turn any of them against her. Essex is, so far, a very accepting campus, though with issues like any other. And, Leighton spent a lot of her time during the first season at the campus women’s center for her mandated volunteer hours, where she was interacting with many people in the LGBTQ+ community.
There are numerous out characters in Leighton’s life, including the girls’ friend Travis (Betti) in his fabulous “twink” shirt who often hangs around their dorm, but Leighton’s internal struggles have never seemed to impact how she treats others in the LGBTQ+ community. Instead of fearing backlash for coming out and being true to who she is, Leighton is primarily struggling with internalized homophobia and societal expectations, crushed with fear over losing her sense of self in what others think of her (because she believes that the first thing they’ll think of is that she’s gay).
In a way, Leighton’s coming out story is a first for television. It’s tackling the intense pressure one puts on their shoulders when accepting their sexuality, rather than solely focusing on the external factors and how those affect someone in the closet. This makes it even more inspiring to watch as she slowly but surely blossoms into who she is supposed to be. The internal battle that rages on within is just as important to coming out as dealing with the external, and it’s quite sad that it has taken this long for television to give this the attention it deserves and show others that they aren’t alone. Leighton’s story is special. The fact that she ended the first season still mostly in the closet is actually kind of exciting, as it gives the show even more time to depict one of the rawest and most real coming-out stories told on-screen.
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