Sex, power, Brandy Melville: the gospel according to Rachel Sennott

Twitter's favorite fallen angel on ‘Shiva Baby,’ finding her comedic voice, and her chaotic introduction to the secular world

“I was literally there sobbing in the emergency room and then this girl was like, ‘Are you okay?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah…what’s your astrological sign? I asked EVERY doctor and nurse their sign. And then I asked them if they thought my boyfriend was mad at me.”

Rachel Sennott is Zooming me from her boyfriend’s bed in LA because she accidentally stabbed herself the previous night. She had been attempting to release a Christmas white elephant gift from layers of packing tape when the knife slipped, embedding itself two inches into her thigh. Her boyfriend and his roommates froze, horrified, as she pulled the blade out. “It’s fine; it’s just a little thing!” She declared. But then blood began glug-glugging out.

It was a big-deal night—the first Instagram official holiday with her new boyfriend, who she had recently “soft-launched” on Stories by posting a mysterious, faceless profile image—and she had worn a secretarycore grey miniskirt and blazer set, red Agent Provocateur lingerie, and Air Force 1’s for the occasion (perfect for Instagram, less than ideal for the ER). The stabbing proved to be a neat early-relationship test. He drove her to the hospital, but could not accompany her inside because of COVID restrictions.

“I was freaking out, I’m very glad he was there. But then again, if I didn’t have him, I wouldn’t have been in this situation where I was opening a white elephant gift and stabbing myself with a knife. So in many ways, his fault.”

I have been an admirer of Rachel Sennott’s Twitter and Instagram for just over a year and have published a few of her pieces on, but her chaotic brand of social media-propelled comedy creates such a feeling of relatability and intimacy that I am certain I am not the only 20-something who feels like they’ve known her forever. Though she stars in Shiva Baby, out April 2, and has a leading role on the new ABC sitcom Call Your Mother, her fans know her from Twitter and Instagram, where she has amassed 138.3K and 55.3K followers, respectively. Her online persona falls into the loose category of “hot girl comedy,” whose cohabitants include Twitter stars like Dana Donnelly, Catherine Cohen, and Lili Michelle. Firing bite-sized nuggets of comedic gold from iPhones, they often speak to the absurdity of existing as a woman online during the rise of the attention economy. In a tweet that garnered over 7,000 faves, Sennott observed,

“being a girl is like. no one respects u so then u build yourself up and so for like 5 minutes everyone is obsessed with you but then it’s too much and everyone tries to collectively destroy you. It rocks!”

Sennott has mastered the two staples of Hot Girl Comedy: the overshare and the bikini pic. These two components deal directly with the platforms they are posted on; the candidness about everything from her skin to her weight to her masturbation habits (UGGs stay on) to her carnal brushes with male entitlement challenges the over-curated fantasy world perpetuated by social media, while the bikini pictures point out culture’s preoccupation with, well, the hot girl—not as an individual but as an object for visual consumption. Together, these elements point to the fundamental paradox women face while existing on the internet: the internet rewards selfies and bikini pics with engagement (which can translate to money, so the influencer myth goes), yet also imposes an expectation of manufactured modesty—lest too many Instagrammed selfies in a row read as vanity or worse, tempt salivating weirdos whose horny misogyny congeals into casual rape threats. Key here is that Sennott and her comedic contemporaries aren’t making fun of the behavior of girls who document their picnics in sun-dappled, Glossier You-scented, influencer auditions—they are addressing the culture that encourages this with the promise of sponsored trips to the Bahamas, free minimalist jewelry, and the opportunity for life outside the constraints of the 9am to 6pm.

A hallmark of Hot Girl Comedy is candor regarding frustrating realities of a dating and hookup culture that makes women feel crazy, old, or otherwise undesirable and undervalued by their mediocre male counterparts. Sennott’s comedy resonates with her generation because it is usually based on her personal experience. “When I tweet jokes, pretty much everything is something that happened or it’s a version,” she comments. If the guy she is sleeping with refuses to date her, she will make it into a meme. If another suitor responds to a nude with “I can’t find a good high qual uncut gems ‘holy shit I’m gonna cum’ gif” you can bet that that screenshot is landing on Twitter the next day as evidence that “meme culture has gone too far.” In most cases, she’ll ask permission, but sometimes the target is undeserving. “It’s better now because I’m having better experiences but there was a time when I would be like, I hope you see this because I’m calling you out,” she explains. “There was one guy that texted me, ‘Why are you tweeting this?’ Because it’s exactly what you’re doing. You can’t say anything about it because you continue to treat me this way.”

Not too long before Sennott began tweeting about poppers and jerking off, she had intended to stay a virgin until marriage. As a child she took her family’s Catholicism very seriously, drawing pictures of Hell in her journal and making up rules for herself like don’t step on the blue linoleum squares at school or risk damnation. When she was in eighth grade, she composed an anti-abortion song to the tune of Justin Bieber’s “Baby” from the perspective of an aborted fetus.

She always had a flair for the dramatic: growing up in Connecticut she would force her four siblings to act in plays she wrote, Jo March style. She first experimented with her comedic voice by playing the kooky characters in school performances and injecting her personal essays for English class with humor. “I was always playing a role that’s like meant for a 60-year-old woman who’s like, ‘Get in! We’re eating rats!’, or something. The funny character but in a musical, the funny character is, like, a lady with a weird hat. I was like, oh, I like being funny.”

Like the best of theater kids, Sennott landed at New York University’s Tisch to study acting, and like many NYU freshmen, her world was blown open by living in the city. Suddenly the girl who had told her friends she wasn’t going to ever give a man—even her husband—a blowjob because she thought it was sin (“If he loves me he’ll understand”) found herself swiping through Tinder with a friend just to try it (“You need to suck a dick; if you don’t it’s going to be too late.”) “I literally chose this guy because he was an intern at [Late Night with] Seth Meyers, so I was like, ‘Perfect! I’ll blow him.’ ” After finishing the deed, she drank the rest of her wine and left his apartment. “It was probably, like, 20 minutes. And then I called my friend and was like, ‘Yeah, I fucking did it.’ ”

She cites another pivotal moment in her freshman year: after staying out on a Saturday night until 3am, she went to church at 8am on Sunday morning. “I was just sitting there hungover looking around and was like, ‘No one is making me be here,’ and then I left.” She didn’t return to church except for once, when she was going through something and wanted to pray. The doors were locked, however, so she went to Brandy Melville across the street instead. She is no longer anti-abortion, but maybe one day, if we are lucky, she’ll drop the Bieber x Aborted Fetus collab.

“I think it was very messy. Looking back, I’m so glad I’m not in college anymore. It was like I fell through four years. I mean, I was planning my life and figuring out what I wanted to do, but I have so many memories of myself doing stuff, and I’m like—ugh, my god. At the time I was like, ‘This is so fun!’ and now I’m like, ‘That is horrifying.’ ”

While she was experiencing the secular world of sex, partying, and Brandy Melville, she found she wasn’t getting what she wanted from Tisch’s acting program. She had always wanted to do film and TV, and she couldn’t see how guided sessions of rolling around on the floor would make that dream a reality. Professors would tell the class that a day of walking the perimeter of the classroom in the dark would be emotionally intense—one girl would cry, then another and another. “Because everybody wants to say that they’re doing the exercise right, but I was like, fuck this! I’m literally doing laps!

Finding resistance when she approached her professors about tangible career guidance, she took matters into her own hands like a true Virgo. To supplement her education, Sennott turned to student films, taking every opportunity. “Freshman year they literally film scenes of someone like smoking a cigarette and looking out the window. I would do all of those… There’s definitely footage of me smoking a cigarette being like, ‘I love to read!’ ”

Sennott would also star in NYU senior thesis films, which is how she ended up in Emma Seligman’s 2018 short Shiva Baby. Seligman later adapted Shiva Baby into a feature-length film with Sennott maintaining her role as Danielle, who navigates suffocating anxiety as she encounters her sugar daddy, his wife (Dianna Agron), and newborn at a shiva. To complicate matters is Maya (Molly Gordon), Danielle’s high school ex-girlfriend—both a rival who highlights Danielle’s apparent directionlessness in the eyes of their community by going to law school and a former lover unearthing residual, unresolved romantic feelings. Sennott captivates as she rides waves of mounting tension cut with moments of social catastrophe.

At its heart, Shiva Baby is a story of shifting sexual power dynamics: between Danielle and Maya, between Danielle and her married sugar daddy, between him and his wife, his wife and Danielle. “I feel like most young women have experienced that where you think you have the power and then it’s pulled out from under you right away. And sexual power, too, where you’re like, I’m in control, and then you’re like, I’m not in control, and I’m crying in a car.” In many ways, this is a central theme of Hot Girl Comedy. These power dynamics—that make it more consequential for a woman to be outed as a sugar baby than a man as a sugar daddy—have always existed, but now hot girls on Twitter are helping lay them bare. Shame over our bodies, over having sex, having too little sex, having abortions, wearing a bikini, posting a selfie has less power when we are all laughing, cringing, and rolling our eyes at the patriarchy’s struggle to maintain relevance.

The full Instagram reveal of The Boyfriend, actor Logan Miller, took place the day of our interview, and was greeted by over 7,000 likes and a comment section chorus of “Congrats on the hard launch, love this for you” and “LAUNCH PARTY!” The post itself displays a subtle mastery of Instagram persona-building: the first photo in the carousel is of Sennott from the night of the stabbing in a classic kneeling-on-the-beach pose, except she’s kneeling on a piano bench in her grey miniskirt set, martini in hand. The image and caption (“secretary at office Christmas party gets absolutely wasted !”) are typical of her feed. The next and last photo is of her and Miller enjoying a tongue-forward makeout—she with her eyes closed and knee popped and he with his eyes slightly open. “I guess this is a hard launch, but it’s not the hardest of launches because it’s not the first pic, it’s a swipe through,” Sennott explains. “If you really want to go hard it’s a picture of them and you’re like, ‘This is my boyfriend.’ But this is enough for me.”