One aspect of what was so refreshing in the first season of Euphoria was its depiction of transness, in that it never felt that trans* experience was being universalised. One of the lead characters, Jules, played by Hunter Schafer, who underwent a process of transition from the age of thirteen, is presented as an individual rather than a symbol. At no point is Jules depicted as an embodiment of the ‘trans experience’, but rather a singular person facing her own unique set of challenges.
Whatever Happened to Jules?
The HBO and A24 series Euphoria is more dysphoric than, well, euphoric for its characters. Navigating the existential crises of a group of Zoomer high-school students, the series created by Sam Levinson has become hugely popular with audiences who see aspects of ‘wokism’ represented positively and strongly. They may be at war with themselves and each other, but there is also a throughline of solidarity and peace with respect to identity.
"at war with themselves and each other"
"an individual rather than a symbol"
Rarely did it feel in that series that Jules was more a victim than her classmates - that’s not to say she doesn’t go through some truly horrifying experiences, but rather that they aren’t always centred on her gender identity and sexual anatomy. For the most part she is accepted and treated as any other female character, excepting her own initial desire to have sex with gay men before exploring her bisexuality with her girlfriend Rue, played by Zendaya.
These experimentations and questions of identity are no different to those faced by many seventeen-year-old girls. More groundbreaking still was the special dedicated to Jules between the two seasons, entitled ‘Fuck Anyone Who’s Not a Sea Blob’, which Schafer co-wrote with Levinson. Here Jules questioned the enforcement of binary identity anyway, wondering why in order to be female there are medical expectations, for example. It’s an episode full of dialectical nuances beyond the realm of Levinson’s experience as a cis man, such as the societal pressure that one must medically transition in a prescribed way in order to be a man or woman.
Ultimately, Levinson is Euphoria’s biggest problem. By taking sole control of the second season, the cracks of auteurism were more obvious than in the first ten episodes, with a number of dead ends and tangled plots emerging as the series progressed. Few episodes demonstrate this better than the two-part finale, the first of which is an almost magical realist exploration of theatrical doubling, which the second doesn’t know what to do with.
Not least in the exclusion or sidelining of certain characters. As demonstrated by Levinson’s Netflix film Malcolm & Marie, in which John David Washington screams about bad reviews for 106 minutes, he’s a man who doesn’t take criticism well. Actor Barbie Ferreira, whose character Kat had a much more prominent role in the first season, is noted to have disputed with Levinson which resulted in her character barely featuring in the second.
Unlike Lexi, played by Maude Apatow, who writes a play called Our Life based on real events prior to Jules’s arrival at her school, there shouldn’t be any pressure on Schafer to make her characterisation of Jules autobiographical. But the power of her character comes through the authenticity having an actor who has undergone a similar process of transition to Jules shines through in ways a cis person does not have the bodily empathy to portray. And that necessity of relatability and understanding should extend to the writing and direction of the character.
"that necessity of relatability and understanding should extend to the writing and direction of the character"
One of the problems that Levinson’s writing creates not just for Jules but all the characters in Euphoria is that they are defined almost exclusively by their sexuality. The personalities of the cast of students are seldom determined by academic or creative interests, focusing instead almost exclusively on who is fucking who and what drugs are fucking them up. While these are important aspects to explore, and gender and sexuality are seldom unpacked in mainstream television to such an extent, they ultimately fail to create fully-fleshed human beings.
This seems to be the issue that Euphoria could not overcome with Jules in the second season. By making Rue the focus of the series, and having the couple drift apart, Jules is relegated to the sidelines. When in a desperate rage Rue tells her that she hates her, the focus is solely with Rue without giving space and time to show how Jules responds and copes with the breakdown of her first relationship with a woman who cares for her.
"they are defined almost exclusively by their sexuality"
Perhaps these problems will be rectified in the show’s third season, and the shift in focus seen during the last eight episodes will change again when it returns. What sits uncomfortably though is that Jules was given a special episode which introduced a number of questions that have rarely been asked in film or television before which have remained undeveloped in the following series. The impression given is that Levinson simply lost interest in Jules’s character.
These questions pertain to the nature of binary gender, and the distinction between identifying as a gendered being and undergoing a process of medical and/or surgical transition. It’s unclear in the second season of Euphoria what conclusions Jules has come to, and whether she did come off Hormone Replacement Therapy as she was considering during the Christmas special.
For an immediate answer, we might turn to Schafer’s own views on the subject. In a think piece for i-D in 2017, she said that 'We are on the forefront of a revolution in which identity and expression will take priority over the labels assigned to us at birth. In which self-identification will take priority over perception. In which gender will fall away entirely.'
By stark contrast to the utopian telos that Schafer here and in the special gestured towards, leaving Jules in a purgatorial state following her therapy session suggests that Levinson is keen not to overturn sociocultural norms just yet. The intricacies of ‘Fuck Anyone Who’s Not a Sea Blob’ revealed the value of allowing Schafer to craft her own character and put thoughts and feelings she can empathise with into a script which otherwise fails to express them. If Jules’s character is to be developed in the third series, then Schafer had better be steering.