How Euphoria season 2 plays into harmful queer tropes
Euphoria has stepped into problematic territory with its portrayal of Rue, Jules, Nate and Cal.
Euphoria’s first season was hailed for its nuanced, queer characters and its representation of the LGBTQ+ experience. From the lack of importance on labels when it came to the relationship between Rue (Zendaya) and Jules (Hunter Schafer), and Jules’ beautiful queer metamorphosis story, to the danger of queer repression through Nate (Jacob Elordi) and Cal (Eric Dane), the season offered complex portrayals of queerness – and quickly became one of most ground-breaking LGBTQ+ shows out there.
But in season 2, which has been widely criticised for falling into style over substance, Euphoria’s representation of its queer characters is becoming increasingly murky. Despite Jules’ transitioning backstory in season 1, in which she tells her therapist that she thinks her need to be seen as ‘feminine’ has been a result of the male gaze and that she actually prefers women over men, season 2 proceeds to define both her and Rue by a new male character – Elliot (Dominic Fike), who manages to seduce Jules and kiss Rue during a dare.
Of course, queer identities are allowed to fluctuate and change, but revolving two female queer characters in a relationship around a cisgender man felt like, at its least-worst, a clumsy dismissal of Rue and Jules’ relationship and, at worst, an embodiment of a harmful trope.
From Chasing Amy, which follows a guy who falls in love with a lesbian, and The Kids Are All Right, to Nikki Boston’s storyline in Waterloo Road – which saw her sleep with a man despite identifying as a lesbian – the trope of a queer female character getting involved with a straight guy and rethinking their sexuality as a result appears over and over in pop culture. Emerging from a mixture of homophobia and misogyny, it reinforces the idea that queer women are a challenge and conquest for men to ‘turn straight’.
Euphoria also steps into problematic territory with its depictions of Cal and Nate Jacobs, who are examples of what is commonly known as the “homophobic homosexual” trope – where a closeted character is so afraid of their queerness that they reinforce their masculinity through homophobia and bullying. Though Nate is not explicitly queer, like Cal is, it’s made clear that he has inherited his father’s homophobic and toxic attitudes.
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This was brought to the fore recently in season 2, episode 7 in the form of Lexi’s school play which, based on her life experiences, dedicated a large amount of time to showing on-screen Nate (played by Ethan) lip syncing to Bonnie Tyler’s Holding Out for a Hero while gyrating with his semi-clad sports team. While it was bizarre, there’s no doubt that it was designed to mock Nate, who Lexi has reason to believe is gay after Maddy revealed she’d found gay porn on his phone in a previous episode.
Euphoria isn’t the first teen drama to use the "homophobic homosexual" trope. From Sex Education’s Adam Groff and Glee’s Dave Karofsky, to The Perks of Being a Wallflower’s Patrick and Brad, TV show creators often write their villains as closeted gay characters: it's an easy shock reveal, and also adds complexity to the character.
But the trope is problematic: it depicts queerness as something negative that, when exposed, finally gives the villains their comeuppance. This is the case in Euphoria, with Lexi’s play unfolding like a takedown of Nate who, humiliated, ends up storming out. "That was so homophobic," he then says to Cassie and, for once, he was right.
The other problem is that, by shifting the blame onto the queer community, it doesn’t address the contributors – prejudices, ignorance and just plain cruelty – that make homophobia the issue it is today. Would it not have been more interesting if Euphoria had chosen to explore the reasons behind straight male toxic masculinity through Nate and Cal rather than making it about being (or worrying about being) gay?
What’s more, Euphoria’s portrayal of Cal also feeds into the homophobic rhetoric that gay men are by nature predatory. From the get-go in Euphoria, Cal is depicted as a violent and sexual monster who records his encounters with young boys and transgender women (one of whom turns out to be 17-year-old Jules) without their consent. On top of this, Nate’s dream in season 2, episode 7 hints at the possibility that Cal molested him as a child. While it’s not clear whether the dream sequence has any grounding in reality, it’s still a disturbing scene that peddles the dangerous myth that queer people are sexually depraved (and more likely to be paedophiles).
While queer characters can, of course, be flawed, as all characters arguably are in Euphoria, LGBTQ+ storylines require the sensitivity and variety we saw in Euphoria's first season (though perhaps we have Schafer’s involvement in Jules’ episode to thank for that, rather than the show's straight and cisgender male creator Sam Levinson) to avoid feeding into the dangerous stereotypes surrounding the queer community and portray LGBTQ+ issues with the respect they deserve.
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Euphoria season 2 continues on Mondays on Sky Atlantic and NOW. If you’re looking for more to watch check out our TV Guide.
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