Warning: Spoilers for Euphoria through episode 7 ahead.
Part of the appeal of Euphoria, besides its rather controversial take on what Generation Z is up to, is the fact that the show manages to address hefty, real-world concepts without being extremely heavy-handed about it.
Euphoria has managed to do this with subjects like toxic masculinity, body positivity, addiction, and more. And now, it’s tackling the idea of femininity, or, more specifically, what it means in modern society to be “a real girl.”
In the show’s most recent episode, Jules (Hunter Schafer) has a conversation with friend-of-a-friend Anna (Quintessa Swindell) and mentions her quest to “conquer” femininity. And while that is the first time the concept of what it means to be feminine has been explicitly mentioned, it’s not the first time the show has examined the intricacies and hazards of this particular and narrow construct. Euphoria has previously addressed the subject through listing what Nate (Jacob Elordi) “likes” in girls, how Maddy (Alexa Demie) navigates that “like” in men to get what she wants, and now how Jules simultaneously finds herself having to adhere to this construct even as she seeks to break it.
Interactions between Nate, Maddy, and Jules have illustrated that one must adhere to the rigid rules and regulations of the gender binary when it comes to femininity or be punished, singled out, or scorned for it. Character arcs for Maddy, Kat (Barbie Ferreira), and Jules challenge all of that, to be sure, illustrating that femininity can be fashioned as a weapon by those who have to live by it. But ultimately, it’s a concept that can, has been, and continues to be twisted to oppress.
This becomes clear earlier in the season when Nate — the avatar for toxic, white masculinity — lists what the ideal girl needs to look like and act like. They should be very “girly,” with ballet flats or heels (no sneakers or dress shoes), tennis skirts, jean cut-offs (no visible pockets), freshly manicured toes in sandals, small noses, large lips, thigh gaps, tan lines, slender shoulders, long necks, fruit-scented body mist, and flower cutouts or any other delicate patterns. But also not too girly so that they are weak and pushovers like his mom (who he dislikes and states doesn’t take care of herself). He also states he hates “girls who sat like boys, talked like boys, acted like boys” and that they presumably don’t fit into what he believes is a proper girl. He also will not tolerate female body hair (something historically linked to masculinity and uncleanliness). He says he was initially drawn to Maddy since she is “basically hairless” and checks all the boxes on his expectations of what the perfect, feminine girl should look like. In this way, Nate assumes the role of the definer of this narrow construct of femininity. Then he quickly becomes, on a good day, its protector, and on a bad day, its enforcer.
Nate’s attempt to protect this brand of femininity mainly manifests in all the violent ways in which he conducts himself to “protect” Maddy, the girl he “loves.” Except, Nate doesn’t love anything and this protection is more about looking after what he considers his. This is on full display when Nate goes out of his way to decimate Tyler (Lukas Gage) for “violating” Maddy’s purity and womanhood (which we’ll get too) — particularly because he’s under the impression that Maddy was a virgin when they met and assumes that he’s the only one she’s been with, and prefers it that way.
He has also shown to not be shy about enforcing said femininity. As soon as Maddy steps out of her role as his girl by embarrassing him in front of his father and calling his mother a c–t, he is quick to enact violence — choking her, slamming her against a trailer, and saying she is “dead to him.” He doesn’t go back to being his normal, nefarious self until Maddy listens to what he has to say about his “confusion” over his sexuality and comforts him.
Which is what makes Maddy’s role in all of this immensely interesting.
As a cishet girl, she shows a keen understanding of the precarious nature of gender constructs and femininity. And tries to navigate accordingly. After watching her mom work herself ragged as an esthetician and her dad slowly drink himself to irrelevance during her childhood, she quickly determined that “there are two kinds of people in the world: people who sit in the chairs with their feet in the footbath, and people who kneel in front of the footbath.” And boys like Nate could help her be the former. This is to say that Maddy similarly loves Nate, but only in so much as what he, his privilege, and power can do for her. She likes that he can get her nice things, take her out to nice dinners, and be at her beck and call. And she has trained herself to be able to perform physically, sexually, and emotionally in whatever way she needs to for him — including copying porn moves and lying about her virginity — because she knows that “if you make a guy feel confident and powerful, they’ll do anything.”
But Maddy, by her own Rue-narrated admission, is also aware of how scary men like Nate can be if she steps out of the bounds of this traditional definition of femininity. She’s not totally okay with it either — she mentions the fact that he’s an “a–hole” and that she fantasizes about punching him, but knows that he will hit her back because of “who he is as a person.” And she’s probably aware that her life would be a little less complicated if she didn’t have to deal with all the rules and regulations of being feminine and navigating as a proper girl. But, unlike Jules who seemingly wants to challenge and dismantle this definition, Maddy is more concerned with how to navigate it without getting burned herself.
It’s why she doesn’t turn Nate in for choking her even though she should. It’s why she is okay with assisting in Nate destroying Tyler’s life, even though she earlier hooked up with Tyler to make Nate jealous. It’s why she is most likely aware of Nate having done something wicked to get Jules to corroborate both of their fictional stories about Tyler being the one to choke her but doesn’t bother to confront him about it. Because doing so would disrupt the life she’s managed to carve out for herself despite the oppressive status quo of what being a real girl means.
Which is why Jules is an interesting foil to them both.
Jules is primarily concerned with leveling up and becoming the person she was always meant to be — which is a normal teenage girl. But her status as someone who happens to be trans challenges conventional gender roles, gender constructs, and puzzles gender binary proponents like Nate.
If Nate is a definer and protector of femininity and Maddy is a veteran navigator of it, Jules is a disruptor. Like Maddy, Jules recognizes and plays into certain norms, but in her case, it’s more about safety than climbing the social ladder. As a trans girl, Jules has to play ball to minimize backlash that can come with defying binary thinking and living outside the gender binary for people like Cal (Eric Dane) — who displays fear seeing her outside the confines of his motel room — or Nate — who seems to be obsessed with her while also actively trying to destroy her life. Jules doesn’t check off half the things on Nate’s proper girl list, but that means she does check off the other half and that seems to be confusing and infuriating for an abusive and controlling, misogynistic gender essentialist like him.
Jules reflects that she looked forward to feminine things like heels, makeup, clothing, and even eventually her hormones. “I just felt like I was collecting herbs, or making potions in order to up my manna, you know?” she explains to Anna. “I just kind of kept leveling up.”
Jules’ relationship to feminity is no doubt complicated by the fact that “passing privilege” (i.e. a trans person’s ability to be not be perceived as trans, but instead as the gender by which they identify) is something that is perpetually at play when discussing the expectation that trans people should look a certain way in order to be accepted by the cishet masses.
Jules also understands the limitations of femininity and how adhering to gender constructs can lead to suffering unnecessarily. She observes as much in Nate and his dad when she experiences both of their shady, confusing behavior firsthand. Knowing it would be the easiest way to cut a person like Nate to the bone, she calls him a “f—ing f—-t, just like your daddy.” She also observes as much in herself when she discusses her relationship with men. She does not engage with them much outside of hooking up with them, but she states to Anna that “if I can conquer men, then I can conquer femininity.”
Jules recognizes that boys like Nate and even men like Cal, as insecure as they are, are the proctors and gatekeepers of femininity. And if she can conquer them, via sex or other means, she can finally access said femininity and live her life the way she really cares wants without having to care about what boxes she’s checking off on anyone list of what is or is not feminine.
When challenged on why she would need men like that to make her feminine and what would happen next if she indeed “conquered” being feminine, Jules explains: “It’s not like I even want to conquer it. It’s like I want to f—ing obliterate it. And then move on to the next level.”
By declaring this, Jules — and by extension, Euphoria itself — is effectively rejecting what it means to be a real girl to instead be her own girl. Of course, even in 2019, this comes with the understanding that 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.