For those new to The Sex Lives of College Girls, now streaming on ITV Hub, its appeal might be self-explanatory: a sex-positive, female-led show about the realities of sex and relationships at college. But the show truly excels in its nuanced subjects, like the difficulties facing working class students, which it explores through Kimberly Finkle (Pauline Chalamet).
From the outset, Kimberly is defined by her working class background, immediately getting a job at Sips, the campus coffee shop. Although her resident assistant reassures her that “many students at Essex have jobs”, no other students in her dorm do. Her background becomes a source of anxiety, uncertainty and alienation. She is perpetually concerned about money, a condition the working class student knows all too well.
Going to college leads many students to develop a class consciousness which can be destabilising. This is captured in the first episode, when Kimberly says: “Even if we didn’t know it until we got here, we’re kind of poor.” The wealth divide reaches its pinnacle in episode six during ‘family weekend’, when the girls and their families all have dinner together. Leighton chooses an exceptionally expensive restaurant, ignorant of Kimberly’s precarious financial situation. Kimberly is forced to accept Leighton’s offer to borrow her credit card to cover her family’s portion of the bill. Socially, we are taught that discussing finances is off limits, so this highlights just how anxious Kimberly is about money. Once her mom finds out, the humiliation is transferred as she is horrified that she was made to “look like a street urchin”. Being recognised as working class carries with it a burden of shame which seems impossible to shed in an environment which is tied so strongly to wealth. This is the plight of the working class student who is separated from their family by their schooling and distanced from their peers by their poverty.
Classism pervades almost all aspects of college life, becoming inescapable. Even by the final episode, Leighton remains ignorant about Kimberly’s job, mistaking her for a janitor, while a Sips customer throws trash on the floor to degrade the students working there. The wealth gap on college campuses is vast and classism underpins almost every element of social life. Wealthier students generally lack understanding of the financial strain that working class students are under. They remain ignorant at best and openly classist at worst.
As a result, Kimberly is in many ways excluded from college life, for example when she plans to skip the naked party to catch up on homework. This is never a concern for the other girls. Kimberly is constantly concerned about her classwork, partially because of her ‘sex addiction’ with love interest Nico but largely because of the impossibility of juggling a job and studying. Working class students face an array of disadvantages, constantly having to make the difficult choice between being studious and social, between making friends and making good grades. For these students, the college system becomes virtually impossible; in a choice between academia, socialising and financial survival, one must always be neglected.
At times, Kimberly tries to take ownership of this part of her identity, telling Nico: “I am kind of poor.” However this ownership is never truly internalised. Where her roommates are confident, reassured by their family wealth and connections, Kimberly is self-conscious. This is shared by her co-workers Canaan and Lila and best expressed in episode four when Kimberly attends a Catullan event at which they are working. The interaction between the trio is full of shame and embarrassment as their shared class connection is disrupted for one evening. Eventually, Kimberly announces that Canaan is on a full scholarship to generate more tips for the pair. In attempting to take ownership, working class students are forced to use their shame, becoming almost zoo-like spectacles for the wealthy attendees to pity for the evening. There is something both demoralising and empowering in this — the act of reclaiming their working class identity for financial gain feels in some way subversive but ultimately only continues to highlight the vast wealth divides on campus.
After seeing Kimberly struggle to manage her schedule for the entire season, eventually getting caught cheating in an economics test, the final scene ends with her receiving a decision from the disciplinary board. During her testimony, she admits: “I work five days a week just so that I can afford to go here.” Yet her punishment for breaking school honour code is a revocation of her scholarship. As we leave Kimberly at the end of season one, she is more financially unstable than ever, faced with the impossible task of finding another $23,000 a semester.
The college system is not designed for these students. They face constant barriers to their academic success and social lives through the imposition of work-study schemes rather than sufficient scholarship funds. The accessibility of college is an illusion masking what is in reality a classist system which demeans its students. The board’s decision to punish Kimberly financially exposes a system that cares more about its Russian donors and legacy students than the working class students fighting for an education.
For many students this is the reality to which everything else is secondary. They are refused the student experience romanticised in the media, especially in teen dramas like Gossip Girl. Kimberly is routinely shown to be an outsider, alienated from her family by her college education and rich friends, and from her friends by her working class family. This is the condition of the working student: stuck in a permanent state of in-between. This space need not be miserable – Kimberly still attends parties and dates Nico – but she cannot shake the sense of being an outsider. The only people she can truly relate to are Lila and Canaan. There is a solidarity in being working class on a campus that is filled with so many legacy students and donors.
The Sex Lives Of College Girls is available to watch on ITV Hub
Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?