“Euphoric” Heroes

“I know your generation relied on flowers and fathers’ permission,” says Rue, the protagonist of HBO’s Euphoria, “but it’s 2019, and unless you’re Amish, nudes are the currency of love, so stop shaming ...

“I know your generation relied on flowers and fathers’ permission,” says Rue, the protagonist of Euphoria, “but it’s 2019, and unless you’re Amish, nudes are the currency of love, so stop shaming us.” Euphoria, HBO’s controversial first foray into teen content, may be just what we need to launch ourselves into another feminist porn war. But a Generation Z porn war won’t be waged against an industry thought to propagate violent and misogynistic images, or against the “fallen women” who have cast their lot with the pornographers. The next battle will be waged against ourselves: specifically, against the smut studios we carry around with us all the time, in our pockets.

Blurred shots of no-budget pornography—grainy bodies slamming into each other, cameras shaking, as the hands that hold them extend from the bodies doing the slamming—interrupt the neon-bathed visuals of all eight episodes. Euphoria makes it clear that American teenagers are watching porn, filming porn, critiquing porn, imitating porn, and using porn to seek revenge. And the hand-wringing about each of those acts came swiftly, even though Rue—perhaps more a reflection of the straight cis white millennial male who wrote her character than of any Gen Z queer person of color you might encounter at an American high school—speaks clearly to the viewers about why this new “currency” is valuable.

The show has no illusions about the historical critiques of pornography. In fact, Rue explains the violent misogyny that it often depicts in a manner that could easily be boiled down to scapegoating porn (and the show’s critics have followed her lead): “Everyone on the planet watches porn. Fact. And if you were to click on the 20 most popular videos on Pornhub right now, this is basically what you’d see.” Her narration continues after a series of intercuts between open laptops, unzipped pants, and porn videos featuring women being brutally dominated by their male partners.

Sam Levinson, Euphoria’s creator, acknowledges that teens today interact with sex on-screen in a way that “precedes human interaction,” creating a “pressure” to have sex that lives up to porn’s standards.1 And porn’s standards, as Rue shows us, are often misogynistic and violent. The irony is, HBO apparently failed to secure rights and permissions for some of the porn scenes, effectively outing all the sex workers/performers featured on international television.2 Talk about violence, dehumanization, and misogyny.

Clearly, there is much about the show that can and should worry viewers. But if we are wringing our hands about sex on Euphoria, what we may be bristling against is a cast of young women who do what they want with their bodies, within the constraints misogyny has placed on their available choices. As a culture, we must move beyond the question of whether or not porn is to blame for that misogyny. What Euphoria depicts is not, in fact, porn causing misogyny or hurting women; instead, it is a manifestation of socioeconomic systems beyond the control of individual characters. But the show also depicts porn, especially for female characters, as, occasionally, a tool: for information, for pleasure, and for power.

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The show’s critics have been quick to express concern about Rue’s belief that porn is the “currency of love.” The “thesis of Euphoria is that porn and the digital age have created a perfect storm for teens,” claims Refinery 29 critic Kaitlin Reilly. “They no longer just have sex, they perform it, both in private interactions … and via the photos and videos they pass around.”3 But like Rue, these critics ignore research showing that teenagers today are having far less sex than the generation that supposedly relied on fathers’ permission.

And yet, Reilly’s assessment isn’t entirely off base. Sex sometimes seems an afterthought to the show’s characters. For instance, over a montage of Maddy (Alexa Demie) watching online porn—not because it turns her on, but because it’s a great way to accrue sexual “secrets”—Rue narrates that porn itself is “a ventriloquist controlling [Maddy’s] body, moving her hips and arching her back in just the right way.” Rue goes on to explain that Maddy gives herself over to the ventriloquizing force of pornography because “she want[s] [her boyfriend] Nate to feel good about the way he fuck[s]. Because if you make a guy feel confident and powerful, well, they’ll do anything.”

The overwhelming critical response to scenes like this has been that Euphoria features a cast of victimized girls, and that these characters would be enjoying far more wholesome activities if they weren’t being manipulated by toxic teen boys. But this response ignores the powerful ways Euphoria’s girls navigate their sexual realities, marked indelibly as they are by, yes, misogyny. We could moralize about Maddy’s motivations for watching porn (she does not seem to be inspired by a feminist embrace of her own pleasure). But the fact is, Maddy uses porn as a tool and her body as a means by which to manipulate boys—not, crucially, to be manipulated by them.

It’s undeniable that the show’s boys often treat the show’s girls with cruelty. For example, Nate (Jacob Elordi), a red-pill misogynist of the first order, forces McKay (Algee Smith) to watch a sex video of the girl he likes, Cassie (Sydney Sweeney). The video is taken by an ex-boyfriend and posted to her “slut page,” a fictional website where such videos are cached. On the same night, Kat (Barbie Ferreira), eager to lose her virginity, has sex with a male classmate, while his friends secretly film the encounter and make it available online.

Even Rue, one of the only characters who isn’t explicitly involved in a revenge porn scenario, describes Nate trying to “finger [her] on the dance floor without [her] permission” at a school dance freshman year. She excused the behavior because “like … it’s America.” The banality with which these teens respond to sexual violence is perhaps the most shocking aspect of the show, which isn’t short on shock value.

critical response to “Euphoria” ignores the powerful ways the show’s girls navigate their sexual realities, marked indelibly as they are by, yes, misogyny.

If this were the end of the story, an indictment of Euphoria’s sexual politics would be as clear as Women Against Pornography in the 1980s, rallying around Robin Morgan’s battle cry: “Pornography is the theory, and rape the practice.” But to understand the proliferation of pornography on Euphoria and figure out how we should respond to it, we need to think about the ways the show’s female characters navigate the digital afterlives of their sexual encounters, which they have outright accepted as a fact of life in 2019.

Moralizing critics of the show might take a cue from Cassie, who won’t let her leaked sex videos ruin her life, because “by the time she [gets] out of college and [starts] looking for a job, 99 percent of the population [will] have leaked nudes, anyway.” Let’s face it: it isn’t just America’s youth. In yet another context, we are the 99 percent.

Cassie’s story is instructive throughout. In her first sexual encounter with McKay—and the first of many sex scenes together—he wraps his hands around Cassie’s throat. As she starts to choke, Rue’s narratorial voice halts the scene, assuring viewers that we aren’t about to witness a rape, just moments into the show’s pilot episode. We are meant to see that McKay was simply imitating what he’d seen in porn (and also what he saw in a nonconsensual video of Cassie being fucked by one of his peers, which Nate forced him to watch earlier that night).

However, as the scene progresses, Cassie demonstrates the power of negotiating consent, a rare moment for teen sex on screen. Rather than taking it—an act the show does explore in plenty of instances, including the heartbreaking close-up of Jules’s (Hunter Schafer) tortured face as an older man she met online fucks her roughly—Cassie yells, “Stop!” McKay listens and immediately lets go of her neck.

When Cassie asks why he would grab her like that, McKay gives her the “porn is evil” excuse: he thought she’d like it like that (based, we infer, on what he has seen in videos). He apologizes. He promises he won’t do it again, and he doesn’t (at least for the duration of the first season). Cassie presses him, “Just don’t do it again. Unless you ask me first. Or I ask you.”

Overwhelmingly, American high school students don’t receive sex education that can help them figure out how to gain active and ongoing consent. But in this instance, Cassie shows McKay, and any teens watching, how it’s done.

The scene opens into a realistic depiction of how consent might be easily violated, even by those with the best of intentions, if not negotiated. Cassie holds space for the possibility that she would desire a sex partner who choked her or behaved roughly in bed, but she wants to request it herself, or be asked first.

Unfortunately, the occasion for that lesson is not the innocent exploration of two fumbling teens. And absent porn—both professional and amateur—it’s possible that Cassie and McKay wouldn’t have found themselves in such murky territory. Regardless, Euphoria places Cassie back in a position of power, even after the boys who shared her sex video attempted to divest her of it.

Sydney Sweeney as Cassie Howard in Euphoria. IMDb

During a scene in which Kat and Maddy discuss what Sarah Kessler has called their “HET-WORTH”—their “quantifiable value in a straight economy of desire”—Kat vastly undervalues herself, revealing the havoc her adolescent weight gain has wrought on her self-confidence. Giving them a pep talk, friend BB tells the two girls, “Y’all need to walk into this party like your pussy costs a million dollars.” Maddy, a character who has used feminine labor as a means of social and economic advancement since she was a preteen, responds, valuing her sexuality at “fifty grand.” Kat also responds, assigning herself a much lesser value: “Four Corona Lights and some non-rapey affection.”

In the aftermath of her own leaked sex video, Kat acts with vigilance and competence to downplay its effect on her social standing at school. Like various other characters, she uses the (il)logic of child pornography laws—which make it illegal in many states for minors to distribute their own sexually explicit images—to convince the boys involved to stop the distribution of the video and instead spread a rumor that it featured another girl. When her high school principal confronts her about the video, she deftly accuses him of body shaming and he quickly retreats.

Despite her ability to orchestrate her own innocence in the face of potentially damning evidence, Kat does not develop a new value for herself until later in the show. After the digital distribution of her losing her virginity, she discovers that her sexuality has value in an online marketplace (if not among the boys in her high school).

Let’s set aside the fact that Kat becoming a successful cam model overnight is nearly impossible: she’s underage, for starters, and cam sites require legal ID verification to work. Moreover, it takes years for online sex workers to build up the kind of client base that falls into her unassuming teenage lap. (Tellingly, the show hired a trans consultant to work with Levinson on Jules’s storyline, but no sex work consultant to realistically depict Kat’s.4)

Still, it’s hard not to cheer her on when she starts to cash in on her sexuality. She realizes that boys and men are going to sexualize her no matter what she does; she may as well take their money. The pleasurable sound of the “cha-ching!” on Kat’s iPhone—when her “pay pig” starts sending her bitcoin—resonates with Chanelle Gallant’s essay “Fuck You, Pay Me” in adrienne maree brown’s collection Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good. Gallant writes: “More than anyone else, sex workers teach us that our sexuality is our property (not his), that it is valuable (not priceless, the opposite of priceless actually), and that we have a right to unbridled joy about getting something for it.”

I don’t intend to glorify an underage girl’s entry into online sex work as an ideal way to find self-worth. Downplaying the dominatrix aspects of Kat’s arc, Barbie Ferreira has called it Kat’s “body-positivity journey.”5 Still, it’s impossible to read her sexual awakening outside its occurrence within the only industry that values fat femininity: pornography.

If Levinson had written Kat as a character who first met love interest Ethan (Austin Abrams) and proceeded to gain confidence within a heterosexual formation, her body-positivity journey would be more legible. But it would also be more unbelievable, given the ways that fat femininity is devalued. As a dominant, sex-positive fat girl, Kat is more likely to find men who will value her online than in the halls of East Highland High, and no one knows that as well as she does.

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Euphoria’s teenagers are capable of living with and living through the distribution of their nude images. Cassie’s sex video doesn’t destroy her; instead, it leads her to demonstrate the show’s most clear articulation of sexual negotiation and consent. Kat not only handles her leaked sex video in a way that her parents would likely be unable to but also turns it into a mode of power, both erotic and financial.

The issue now, as Rue explains, is that “nudes are the currency of love.” Gen Z feminists will be fighting an entirely different porn war than the one that was fought in the 1980s and continues to emerge again and again, sex-shaming women like Maddy, Cassie, and Kat; sex workers; and girls who enjoy sex, either for pleasure or for power. In this porn war, teens like Maddy, Cassie, and Kat may not be fallen victims. They might be our heroes.

 

This article was commissioned by Sarah Kessler. icon

  1. Kaitlin Reilly, “The Euphoria Sex Scenes Are the Show’s Biggest Problem,” Refinery 29, June 14, 2019.
  2. Gustavo Turner, “Violet Monroe Surprised by Kink.com Audio Cameo in HBO’s ‘Euphoria,’” XBIZ, June 18, 2019.
  3. Reilly, “Euphoria Sex Scenes.”
  4. Drew Gregory, “I Love ‘Euphoria’ and I Hate It,” Autostraddle, August 5, 2019; Jude Dry, “Is ‘Euphoria’ a Rare Positive Take on Sex Work, or Yet Another Pornographic Male Gaze?,” Indiewire, August 13, 2019.
  5. Christopher Rosa, “Barbie Ferreira Is Ready for More ‘Hot and Secure’ Fat Girls on TV,” Glamour, August 30, 2019.
Featured image: Alexa Demie as Maddy Perez and Barbie Ferreira as Kat Hernandez in Euphoria. IMDb