How The Male Gaze Sabotages ‘Euphoria’
‘Euphoria’ became dependent on hypersexualizing female characters and weakened their storylines.
This essay contains minor spoilers for HBO’s “Euphoria”
By Melanie Ojwang
HBO’s new hit series “Euphoria” has been lauded by many for its structural creativity and its genuine, but explicit, view into teen life in the suburbs. The story follows Rue, a 17-year old fresh out of rehab, as she readjusts and combats drug addiction. However, showrunner and sole writer Sam Levinson has done very little work to develop any character outside of three central players — Rue (Zendaya), Nate (Jacob Elordi), and Jules (Hunter Schafer). “Euphoria” can’t seem to decide whether it wants to be like “Degrassi,” where the entire ensemble gets a chance for growth and development, or “Dear White People,” where viewers are aware of multiple students but key stories focus only on a select few. This confusion creates a strange middle ground where viewers are presented with intimate, but undeveloped details about characters who are ultimately left fairly flat.
Secondary characters like Kat (Barbie Ferreira), Cassie (Sydney Sweeney), and McKay (Algee Smith) can sometimes feel out of place because their stories aren’t directly linked to the main plot. The cloudiness of their storylines is amplified in the episodes when viewers are shown a peek of their individual pasts, yet hardly see them for the rest of the episode. At times it feels like the background sequences that open each episode are information dumps, which are useful for actor motivation but feel disconnected from the rest of the plot, as the insight given to viewers doesn’t really lead to further character development.
The girls on the show collectively get more screen time than the male characters, but much of that time is spent looking at their individual experiences with sex and does so by hypersexualizing them in a way male characters never are. The male gaze is roaringly strong. Frequently, we are shown teen girl characters in sexual situations so detailed or prolonged (like Kat’s cam session scene) that it leaves me wondering at what point the line between radical storytelling and objectification is crossed.
The issue isn’t that sex among teenagers is present in this show, that’s realistic. But for large chunks of the plots about the girls’ present developments, sex is their only focus. In episode three, we see about thirty exposed penises in a full-frontal locker room scene with Nate. The exposition in this scene is pertinent to explaining Nate’s internal turmoil with his sexuality, but did so without him or the other football players being hypersexualized. We’re given insight into his thoughts through this locker room scene, but also through the way he views/sexualized girls and women, especially his girlfriend Maddy (Alexa Demie), and through his relationship with his father.
Maddy’s backstory sequence is split into “childhood” and “life with Nate,” with the latter category featuring a scene in which Maddy mimics sexual acts she learned from watching porn. We’re told that she is a “really good girlfriend” and this is defined almost entirely by her being sexually available to Nate and embodying his misogynistic, paternal male fantasy. She is otherwise presented as vapid and any relationships outside of hers with Nate are hardly ever mentioned or explored. There are moments throughout the season showing the details of Maddy, Cassie and Kat’s friendship, but they are fleeting. Often the girls are only shown together because of a failed romantic interaction with someone else or because they are pre-gaming before a party or event.
At the end of season one, I was left questioning what messages “Euphoria” was trying to send, with the plotlines about the female characters being mostly centered around sex and also drawing a direct connection between sex and their self-worth. Levinson could be attempting to make a strong statement about gender, teen relationships, sexualization, and agency with this narrative, but I doubt it. This is the same show which insists that Maddy was somehow “in control” of her first sexual experience with a 40-year-old when she was only 14.
Levinson has consultants and coordinators to help tackle more sensitive issues within the show, and there’s power in that, but he really needs diverse a writer’s room. The potential of these stories loses strength when filtered through one voice. Having a seat at the table as a staffed writer means having a permanent space with the influence to make a consistent change as opposed to being limited as an invited consultant. A consistent roundtable of varied voices is what helps to build a story and characters that are rounded, not just shocking and explicit.
In season two, “Euphoria” needs to move beyond its current pattern and show more details of the girls’ lives, like the intimacy of their friendships. An inability to build these girls beyond their sexual exploits speaks to a weak story dependent on hypersexualizing female characters. Although the girls end the finale with shifted world views, ultimately, the entire season was spent sexualizing them rather than developing them as complex, fully-formed characters in other respects.
“Euphoria” is presenting gritty realism, but what the screen time is being used for is questionable. In the end, potentially impactful social commentary is muddled when pushed through flat characters and truncated storylines. The characters given depth, detail, and room to grow outside of a hypersexual existence demonstrate which characters, and ultimately which stories, are deemed valuable.
Melanie is a child of the South, life-long learner, writer and podcast co-host. Her writing focuses on Blackness, gender & sexual identity, social commentary, and fandom exploration.
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