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Living in a Co-Ed World

Kirkwood writer Sara Thomas talks sex, sitcoms and her generation's take on gender.

I recently watched the pilot for Fox’s new fall comedy series, New Girl.  The premise is that a young woman, Zooey Deschanel, heartbroken over a break-up, answers a craigslist ad for a new roommate, and ends up moving in with the three men who posted it.

What struck me most about this show was how it felt so tailor-made for my generation.

There was no obtrusive laugh track; the nerd character was a girl who wears hipster glasses; the humor was based more on awkward personality traits than humiliating situations; and finally, it was unabashedly co-ed.

Sure, the guys have to take a moment before letting a girl live with them—although one has to wonder if it’s more about how strange and awkward she is than her biological sex—but ultimately, the gender mixing just does not seem that big a deal.

This so-what attitude about gender represents a very real trend with my generation.

At my now-alma mater, Wesleyan University, all the dorms are co-ed.  All the bathrooms in the dorms are coed: I once witnessed a naked guy who didn’t know how to utilize the curtain in an adjacent shower while I brushed my teeth freshman year.

A few years ago, I read an article about the rising prevalence of co-ed dorm options at universities, which gave particular attention to my school, where the trend may well have begun. The article featured an interview with a girl at Wes who was planning on rooming with her straight, male best friend the following year—and an interview with her mother, who argued that the very idea of such a thing was “naïve.”  She meant, of course, that a straight boy and a straight girl living together would inevitably lead to sex, a relationship (and a break-up), or at the very least, sexual tension.

I happen to heartily disagree with her—and so does my entire age cohort, for the most part.

This is not to say that we don’t think the possibility exists—we know it does. But we also know that we know ourselves pretty well—or rather, we know our libidos pretty well.  We know which of our friends we have crushes on, which we don’t, and which we absolutely never could.  Maybe it’s because one time, we walked in on him in the bathroom, or because we know she chews with her mouth open, or because his sense of humor is off-putting—whatever. We just know.

In fact, maybe it’s a little bit more than the individual person. I think my generation is simply accustomed to being co-ed. Our boy friends are in the same group as our girl friends, and, apart from a select one or two, we have no more tension with one gender than the other. We are totally comfortable with our other-gender friends, our confused-gender friends, our same-gender-but-different-orientation friends. We have spent most of the last eight years of education in mixed-sex spaces, and we are totally cool with it.

So while that girl’s mom thinks living in a gender-mixed space is a disaster waiting to happen, that girl has no idea what her mom is talking about.  She takes hot-yoga with her male friends, she goes to parties with her male friends, she’s seen them throw up and they’ve seen her tumble off her five-inch heels onto concrete. What difference will it make if she sleeps in the same room with one of them?

This change has not been sudden. It wasn’t that one minute, everything was Leave it to Beaver gender-segregated, and the next, it was New Girl, five-seconds-of-pause before the guys shrug it off and accept a girl into their ranks.

In fact, most sitcoms that have gone the way of gender-integrated living space up until now have used sex for plotlines. On Friends, when Rachel and Joey live together, Joey ends up falling in love with her, despite the fact that they have lived across the hall from each other for 8-plus years without a hint of romantic tension between them.  On How I Met Your Mother, when exes Ted and Robin move in together (due to her financial need,) they deliberately engage in strings-free sex to resolve all of their arguments, until they (well, duh) realize that this is a terrible idea and decide to talk about things instead.

New Girl has yet to prove that it will remain entirely free of roommate-romance plot lines. Still, I have hope.

The pilot did not single out any of the guys as having any particular interest in the Girl.  They are all fairly indifferent to her in that respect. Instead, they seem to adopt her in an older-brother fashion: at the end of the episode, they discover that she has been stood up, which prompts them to blow off a giant party in favor of comforting her.

So what exactly does this say about New Girl’s target audience? Does it say that we are naïve when it comes to male-female relations? I don’t think so. I think it says that we value friendship. And we aren’t picky about the gender of the person sending it our way.

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