“I’ve never met anyone in my entire life like Jules,” says Rue, the tomboy drug addict played by Zendaya on “Euphoria,” HBO’s provocative teen-drama-for-adults and the network’s newest hit of the summer. And chances are, most viewers haven’t either. As the series’ endlessly compelling protagonist, Rue narrates the events of the show in a sleepy voiceover that is equal parts profoundly intimate and archly blasé. Newly sober at 16 after an overdose that nearly tore her family apart, Rue has found the one thing that can rival drugs for her affection: Jules.
Emanating a manic pixie trans girl energy unlike anything seen onscreen before, Jules floats magically through every frame in which she appears. Whether she’s biking giddily through an orchard or reciting Shakespeare in a pool without smudging her killer eye make-up, it’s hard not to fall in love with her. Played by newcomer Hunter Schafer in what will surely become a career-launching performance, everyone on the show — the daddy, the walking embodiment of toxic masculinity, the tomboy protagonist, her confident femme rival — wants Jules. That makes “Euphoria” the first onscreen depiction of a trans-amorous male gaze. And one million people are watching.
In her first major scene in the show’s pilot, Jules arrives at a roadside motel — nervous, but excited — to meet a hot daddy for a Grindr hook-up that soon becomes chillingly impersonal. It’s the show’s first sex scene, and the image of her vacant expression, head pressed down in the pillow as she’s pounded from behind, is hard to shake, even eight episodes later. (In addition to drug addiction, the complexity of sexual relationships in 2019, explored at all angles with a kind of frenetic nihilism, is one of the show’s major themes.)
“Euphoria” was created by Sam Levinson; by all accounts a straight, cisgender, white guy who somehow made one of the most sexually fluid TV shows ever produced by Hollywood. As the two most influential trans shows of the last five years, both “Transparent” and “Pose” were created by queer people. (Jill Soloway, Ryan Murphy, and Steven Canals, respectively.) That makes “Euphoria” the first trans show to employ a straight male gaze, the term coined by Laura Mulvey and popularized by Soloway. Whatever lengths Levinson went to in order to mitigate his perspective (and he consulted transgender sensitivity trainer and actor Scott Turner Schofield extensively) as creator, producer, writer, and director of the series, there’s no denying that “Euphoria” employs his gaze – and it has been met with acclaim.
“It made me feel sexy and it made me feel desirable,” said Rain Valdez, a transgender actress, producer, and creator of the web series “Razor Tongue.” “[Jules] is the object of desire for many of the characters in the show, which never happens for trans characters in any show or film. It’s usually us being rejected, or some sort of violence we’re facing.”
“’Euphoria’ is my favorite show right now. I want to come on and play somebody’s Auntie,” said “Transparent” actress Trace Lysette, who is gearing up for the fall release of “Hustlers,” in which she’ll feature opposite Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu. “I went to the premiere and it initially kind of shocked me. But I understand that that’s what a lot of teens are dealing with these days. I really appreciate how they treat their female characters in particular. I love that they have a trans series regular that is fully formed and she’s right there with [Rue]. I get my entire life off of that show on Sundays.”
Lysette’s character in “Transparent,” Shea, is the closest parallel to a sexually desirable trans character like Jules. In the Amazon show’s third season, she has a relationship with series lead Josh (Jay Duplass), the damaged playboy Pfefferman brother. In an uncharacteristically safe move for Soloway, Josh balks at following through with a sexual relationship after finding out Shea is HIV-positive. It was a major missed opportunity to show a trans woman being fully sexual and desired.
Still, it’s a delicate line to walk, especially when the character is supposed to be underage (though Schafer is 20). Trans women, especially trans women of color, face unprecedented levels of violence, often from sexual partners. With that in mind, how can TV and film portray trans women as desirable without simply objectifying them?
“We have to start somewhere,” said Valdez. “At this point, I’ll take what I can get. If you want to objectify me, objectify me. If it’s the closest thing to being desired…I’ll take that. Cis women have been objectified for many, many years. … Men are so quick to profess their love for cis women. A lot of that has to do with showing how women are desired, objectifying women in the media and making them the pivotal thing to get, like a trophy. So yeah, objectify us.”
The fact that it’s even a question speaks to the depth and breadth of the trans stories finding mainstream success, a reality that would have been unimaginable even five years ago. “Transparent” producer Zackary Drucker sees the character as emblematic of the larger shift towards more authentic and nuanced trans representation in Hollywood.
“Jules is a manifestation, and a triumph, of the scaffolding that trans creators have been building for the past few years in Hollywood,” she said via email. “We have been lobbying for more complex representations of trans people, and ‘Euphoria’ is both a measure of our progress and a successful outcome deserving of celebration.”