Aesthetics in the Void: Euphoria and Latin Sexuality

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HBO Euphoria captured the attention of fans and critics alike, attracting an audience of 6.6 million for the only Season 2 Finals. From a 30 football post-workout locker room streak – originally supposed to be 80 — penis, to lolita-esqe” sex between 50-year-old men and underage girls, Euphoria has never been afraid to use sexuality as a means of exploration and examination.

Director Sam Levinson uses sexuality to guide the audience through each character’s life. Some argue that to achieve this, Levinson often oversexualizes the characters, making their roles on the show partially, if not entirely, dependent on their mobility as sex agents.

While the sexualization of teens isn’t new, Levinson aestheticizes it, using sexuality as a stylistic point of reference on the show. Take for example the character Cassie (played by Sydney Sweeney) who, according to Rohitha Naraharisetty of The Swaddle, takes on the role of, “an unmistakable sex goddess shown bouncing, twirling and shoving her way through Nate’s fever dreams with abandon.”

Levinson uses the aesthetic to portray each character’s sexuality in a way that is not explicitly revealed through dialogue. Take, for example, the barren, dimly lit skating rink where Cassie imagines herself to be while having an abortion. Although nothing is said, the audience can gauge how she feels based on the music and the tone of the stage, not to mention her movement on the ice.

If the point of the scene is not to sexualize her, that is precisely the point: she is in a desolate and barren ice rink, somewhere where she spent her childhood. This feeling is juxtaposed with the fact that she is aborting a child. While the scene isn’t meant to shed a negative light on abortion, it does highlight Cassie’s loneliness — both sexually and physically — right now.

While this situation deals specifically with Cassie’s relationship with her body, a similar situation occurs in season two, with a relationship montage for Rue and Jules. The two characters are portrayed as various famous couples – Jack and Rose from TitanicYoko Ono and John Lennon, and Jack and Ennis from Brokeback Mountainto name a few, as a way to communicate current conflicts in their relationship.

One of the couples they represent in this “lover’s montage” is Frida Kahlo (Jules) and Diego Rivera (Rue). This scene is followed by an intimate close-up of Jules as Kahlo in “Self Portrait as a Tehuana” (1943), with a drawing of Rue on his forehead where Diego Rivera sits in the original.

While some fans see this edit as an attempt to subvert gender stereotypes––using queerness as a way to redefine celebrated works of art––it made me wonder how aesthetics can really be separated from the identity behind the work, especially for artists of color. The artist is inseparable from his work. So why does Levinson think it’s okay to use the work of artists of color to aestheticize queer experiences and sexualities, especially for queer people who are white?

As a both queer and Hispanic person, I felt more disconnected from this montage than anything else I’ve seen in Euphoria. Levinson isolates aesthetics from Latinx culture, drawing specifically from artists of color and tropes of Latinx sexuality, to define characters who are not only in the Latinx community, but also those who are white.

In an interview with Artnet News, director of photography for Euphoria Marcell Rev, talked about how he and Levinson was inspired by the early 20and-century mexican murals to film Cassie’s scene in season two where she is introduced as a virgin or saint. Sweeney is surrounded by pink roses to complement her eyes, nose and lips, which all sport the same pink hue.

Levinson takes a lot of his inspiration from artists of colorbut where is the line between celebration and appropriation?

While I don’t think it’s inherently wrong for Levinson to draw inspiration from artists of color, he never pays homage or comes to terms with the fact that the art in question is used to further character development whites. In doing so, Levinson allows the scenes and artworks that inspired them to exist in a vacuum, separating the aesthetic of the creator from the work and the culture that surrounds it.

But what about characters who aren’t white? What about characters, especially women, who are Latinx?

Latinx women have long been hypersexualized and stereotyped in the media as loud, obnoxious, overtly sexual and aggressive. With hypersexualization also comes virgin status, a dichotomy represented by the Madonna-Whore complex. Levinson exploits these gender stereotypes as strategies for portraying Latinx characters in Euphoria, without promoting character development. He sequesters them in an identity that is recognized and reproduced solely for its aesthetics.

The three dominant sexual tropes available to Latinx women are those of the whore, the mother and the virgin. Levinson hides behind a boundary-pushing aesthetic, only to reinforce these three sexual tropes with the show’s Latinx female characters, delivering mediocre representation if you can even call it representation. (*cough* *cough* You don’t need to play Selena in the background to indicate the character is Latina…)

Maddy Perez, played by Alexa Demie, embodies each of these three tropes at different points in the show. From the “whore” who is shunned by Nate’s family for dressing provocatively at carnival, to the “mother”, when she gets a job as a babysitter in Season 2. Maddy embodies every dominant trope of Latina sexuality.

She lies about being a virgin when she first had sex with Nate, although it is later revealed that she probably lost her virginity at the age of fourteen to a forty-year-old man. . The specific scene in which Maddy first has sex with Nate is important for this idea as well because she is not only explicitly depicted as a virgin, but presented as such, as she stares at Nate while stroking the cross around his neck, drawing attention to a religious, and perhaps conservative, perspective on sex in Latin culture.

The same can be said for Kat Hernandez, played by Barbie Ferreira. Kat achieves her sexual awakening online while writing queer fanfiction and later through camming. Kat and Maddy are both over-sexualized and under-sexualized, as they are both presented on the show as virgins and embark on journeys of sexual promiscuity that depend on age-old tropes of Latinx sexuality.

Levinson applies the same tropes to more minor Latinx characters, such as Barbara “BB” Brookes, played by Sophia Rose Wilson. BB is celebrated by fans for her brief one-linerslike the iconic “Maddy, beat his ass!” She fucked your boyfriend! During the first season, she becomes pregnant, which fits more into Latinx gender stereotypes, as pregnancy isn’t even used as a central plot point, but as a complementary factor to BB’s character.

That being said, there’s something admirable about how Levinson embraces sexuality as a way to navigate life and relationships. He is not afraid of the intimacy and vulnerability that sex and sexuality can bring. This provocative presentation can be empowering, especially when it uses aesthetics to draw attention to the theatrics of sex, destigmatizing a seemingly unattainable intimate act.

However, there is a difference between celebrating sexuality in a generalized sense and employing an aesthetic based on racialized sexual tropes that harm Latina women. Euphoria maintains its status as a show that pushes the boundaries in large part because of how it approaches the subject of sexuality. But it also constantly isolates this conversation from race and the stereotypes that inform how Latinx characters are portrayed on screen. Aesthetics shouldn’t exist in a vacuum, nor should the conversations we have about the characters that aesthetic embodies.


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