The Production of Gender through Fashion in HBO's Euphoria
Euphoria is an eight-episode teen drama TV show released in June 2019. It follows a group of teens through their experiences with sex, drugs, romance, friendship, trauma, and gender performance. Euphoria takes a raw and modern approach to explore burgeoning sexuality and the expectations of gender performance in service of the man through vastly different approaches across the female characters throughout the show. Within the stereotypes and learned gender expectations that these characters face within their high school years, they adjust themselves accordingly to align with the expectations of femininity and masculinity. For the purpose of this essay, I will be focusing on four female characters that I believe illustrate the different pressures of gender performance influenced upon them. Maddy, Jules, and Kat experience gender performance in different ways and react accordingly. Teens like the aforementioned group are learning what it means to be a woman in the context of high school, enabling their relationships with men to dictate much of their performative output.
We learn about each of these characters’ upbringings and constitution through Rue’s narration, which may be influenced by her own point of view, but within this context, we must trust Rue as an all-knowing voice. The teen years shape people’s presentation of themselves, influenced by the media around them, their peers, as well as their family members. Being a woman means so many things, and cannot be quantified or depicted in one instance.
Maddy is a cisgender heterosexual woman, who appears to be genetic perfection to her peers. She has a keen understanding of the constructs of femininity and aligns herself accordingly. She competed in beauty pageants as a child and was confident in herself from a young age, in Rue’s voiceover, she comments,
“she loved pageantry, because you didn't have to be the prettiest or the tallest or the blondest or the whitest. You just had to have fucking confidence.”(“03’ Bonnie and Clyde”).
Her mother worked as an esthetician and her father was an alcoholic. She often sat in the nail salon observing the women who came to receive treatments compared to the people who delivered them. Doing this, she realized her lack of desire for a career, and the urge to live a glamorous life of “doing nothing”. After viewing the 1995 film, Casino, she aspired to model herself and her femininity based on the character Ginger McKenna. She seeks out a relationship with Nate for social, financial, and emotional support. She loves him, but only when he is in service of her desire for power and privilege. Their coupling falls within the high school trope of the football player and the cheerleader falling for each other. Drawing from Butler’s theorization of the compulsory heterosexual matrix, Azzarito makes the conclusion that “... the oppositional and complementary categories of womanhood/manhood represented by the football player/cheerleader aim to maintain a compulsory gender/sex order in sports. Bulter has argued that gender is the social construction that makes sex and sexuality ‘natural’ and binary within a heterosexual matrix, therefore producing compulsory gendered performance” (Azzarito). This existing gender binary predisposed upon them based on the sports they play primes their relationship for adherence to gender roles.
Maddy lies about her virginity to Nate to appear as his ideal woman, pure and untouched. The obsession with virginity is deeply embedded in social constructs around both masculinity and feminity. “Like honour, virginity is the manifestation of a purely male preoccupation in societies where inequality, scarcity... The concepts of honour and virginity locate the prestige of a man between the legs of a woman.”(Mernissi). Maddy provides this virtuous allusion to provide Nate with reassurance within his own masculinity in the reconfirmation of her femininity for monetary, social, and romantic gain.
Once the two engage in a sexual relationship, Maddy works to reinforce the gender dynamic between the two by being his fantasy girl. She developed a persona for herself, enabling her to perform physically, sexually, and emotionally, to make Nate feel confident, powerful, and masculine so that he would continue a relationship in service of her. She watched pornography to learn, analyze, and shape herself like the porn stars on screen, simply for her own gain from Nate, eliminating the aspect of personal arousal.
Nate Jacobs, both Maddy and Jules’ love interest explicitly describes his expectations of what a woman should be (and what she should not). Both Maddy and Jules seek to adhere to this social construct, while simultaneously fighting the urges to break past it. According to Rue’s voiceover, Nate’s expectations include the following:
“He made a long mental checklist of the things he liked and disliked about women. He liked tennis skirts and jean cut-offs, but not the kind so short you could see the pockets. He liked ballet flats and heels. He hated sneakers and dress shoes. What was fine was sandals, as long as they were worn with a fresh pedicure. He liked thigh gaps, hated cankles. He liked tan lines, long necks, slender shoulders. He liked good posture and fruit-scented body mist. He liked full lips, and small noses. He liked chokers, but the lacy ones with flower cutouts or delicate patterns. He hated girls who sat like boys, talked like boys, acted like boys. But there was nothing on planet Earth he hated more than body hair. That's one of the first things he noticed about Maddy. She was basically hairless...He also liked that Maddy was a virgin, that no guy had ever put his penis in her. “(“Stuntin Like My Daddy”).
Nate’s list of standards of femininity is representative of the societal expectations of the woman: thin, well-groomed, and untouched. His looming voice does not simply represent his views, but the widely generalized views of the woman that are especially prioritized in a high school setting. According to his standards, Maddy checked all of the boxes he developed to define femininity, through this entitlement, be becomes an enforcer of these constructs upon both Jules and Maddy. When Maddy defies these rules, and embarrasses him in front of his mother, daring to break the mold of a quiet obedient woman, he is quick to enact violence upon her (“Shook One Pt.II”). Jules on the other hand, passes his test only partially, leaving him confused with his attraction, he is both enamored by her while at the same time hellbent on destroying her life with revenge porn. He is “an abusive and controlling, misogynistic gender essentialist” desperately clinging onto a gender binary that does not apply to all women (Kent).
Jules is a transgender woman played by a real-life trans actor, Hunter Schafer. In the realm of transgenderism, gender performance and the roles associated with it plays a major role, especially for a teen navigating their place. “If Nate is a definer and protector of femininity and Maddy is a veteran navigator of it, Jules is a disruptor. “(Kent). Jules plays into many of the social norms associated with being a woman, but instead of the emphasis on being popular or wealthy, it is for her own safety. Gender, sexuality, and public perception align in varying different ways when comparing cis to trans gender experiences. She bases her gender performance in the ways that she observes male-female relationships and embodies that role through sexual relationships and submissiveness in order to be treated as a woman in a hegemonically dominated binary world. Unfortunately, this puts her in unsafe, undesirable, and sometimes even violent encounters with men. According to the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, “Across the board, the few transgender youth in the sample reported some of the highest victimization rates of physical dating violence, psychological dating abuse, cyber dating abuse, and sexual coercion”(Dank et. al). Defying the binary through transitioning puts Jules into many precarious situations, but because of her passing privilege, she generally does not face much backlash from the general population at her new school. Passing privilege “refers to the ability to be perceived as one’s affirmed gender. In other words, if one is perceived to pass, the risk of transphobia is reduced, reducing stress on the relationship, and lowering the risk of depression.”(Mizock, Hopwood). Jules never explicitly "comes out" in the show as transgender, it is simply implied through flashbacks and subtle hints.
Largely rooted in her gender dysphoria, Jules has dealt with severe depression since the age of seven, even being institutionalized before her teen years. She began her transition at age 13 and explored her newfound confidence and gender performance by engaging in sexual relations with older, unavailable married men. With each encounter, she is both trying to discover and present herself in relation to gender expectations. Jules dresses in a hyper feminized way, falling in line with many of Nate’s gender expectations, her dress is bordering on childlike with a delicate“school girl” aesthetic.
This can be equated mirroring herself to align with sexualized symbols in a similar way to how Maddy studies porn for the physical aspects. Maddy studies porn for one person to see her femininity specifically, whereas Jules is providing a public gender performance to be accepted as the gender she feels represents her. Jules’ primary concern is to become and to be treated like a normal teenage girl, but her position as a trans woman challenges gender expectations, roles, and the binary. In the final episode, Jules states, “If I can conquer men, then I can conquer femininity.” (“And Salt The Earth Behind You”). Thus, if she can conquer men via sexual relations or social acceptance, then she can finally defeat the gatekeeper of femininity and live life without fear of the gender binary.
Kat is an unexpected major player in the representation of femininity in Euphoria. She is a body-conscious teen at the beginning of the season, but she breaks out of her insecure shell when her sex tape gets leaked without her permission. She became extremely popular online and took that attention to modify herself in a way to become more confident and explore her sexuality. Rue’s voiceover gives us an insight into when Kat’s insecurity surrounding her weight began. She went on a Caribbean vacation when she was eleven and drank 72 piña coladas, causing a 20-pound weight gain. When she returned back to school, her popular boyfriend broke up with her and she was outcasted by her peers.
Kat began writing erotic One Direction fan fiction, and she began to rise to the top of Tumblr with over 50 thousand followers overnight. This online popularity is paralleled in her recently uploaded sex tape, but with this fame, she capitalizes on it.
She begins working as a cam girl and a financial dominatrix. Writing fanfiction in the first place was not from a position of shame or sexual repression, as most plus-sized women are expected societally to act, but instead a means of exploring sexuality with the power of an entire teen-girl fandom behind her (“Stuntin Like My Daddy”).
Before this rise in fame, we see Kat being treated like an object by the people at her school as she desperately tries to fit in as the “cool girl”. When she transitions to a more confident, unapologetic version of herself, she can be viewed as a feminist anti-hero, that both conforms and rejects feminine tropes and the bind of the “cool girl” title. The “cool girl” is a modernized version of femininity derivative of a “messy suturing of traditional and neoliberal discourses” that “(re-)present[s] [desirability] as something to be understood as being done for yourself and not in order to please a man” (Gill 261).
In episode three, Kat describes this transition, “What I realized is that like... my whole life, all I've tried to do is take up less space, Tried to hide from guys like, who might like, whisper to their friend, under their breath, as I walked by. I spent my whole life afraid people were going to find out that I was fat. But honestly, who gives a shit. There's nothing more powerful than a fat girl who doesn't give a fuck.”(“‘03 Bonnie and Clyde”). Unlike many media representations of plus-sized women, Kat’s storyline does not solely revolve around her weight, she is not the unwavering, supportive “fat friend” trope we see all too often. Visibly, throughout the show, Kat makes the most significant alterations to her appearance. Instead of the trope of the skinny friends imposing a weight loss transformation and a makeover to fit within conventional feminine beauty standards, Kat gives herself a new look embodying her newfound sexual awakening epqipped with body harnesses, latex, leather, and mesh. The persona she dons when camming is not dissimilar from who she was all along. She takes on the role of a powerful, dominant woman who can bend men’s will and drain their bank accounts. Kat exploits her subcultural femininity as a commodity, “Cam girl sites are an example of the way that many girls see their feminine image as a tool to be used towards the goals of economic and social success, power and self-actualization.” (Shields Dobson 125).
The character arcs for Maddy, Kat, and Jules challenge social constructs of gender, each illustrating a different coming of age story dictated by their performance of gender. Femininity is a concept that has been developed for the purpose of oppression, but for Jules, Kat, and Maddy, it can be weaponized against the patriarchy for personal gain. Jules wants to challenge and dismantle the definition of womanhood, Maddy is more concerned with how to navigate and manipulate it with the greatest return, and Kat who’s newly discovered confidence redefined what femininity meant to her. With the different representations of gender performance from each of the characters within Euphoria, the show is effectively rejecting gender expectations and individualizing these coming-of-age experiences. Although, through this process, “enforcers like Nate and navigators like Maddy may very well punish Jules’ radical disruption of gender constructs because — even if they do suffer under it as she does (and they surely do) — maintaining the status quo that grants them tenuous but assured power is more important to them than the freedom to exist on their own terms, with no power or relative privilege at all.”(Kent). Teen years shape the way people present themselves and under the constant pressures of stereotypes and societal expectations in high school, those experiencing it are deeply influenced by their peers, family and the media. “Hell is a teenage girl” (Diablo). Being a teenage girl is pushing and fighting against a world structurally developed to deconstruct and reshape you according to standards set by men about your way of dress, your body, and your sex life.
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xo Alysha Autumn