Feminism on Screen: How Euphoria Gets It Right
By Zach B.
Spoiler Alert: I’ll be including small anecdotes from Riverdale, Scream Queens, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and Euphoria below. The spoilers included range from insignificant to massive. Read at your own discretion.
Seeing feminism break its way into mainstream media during the past five or six years has been a trip. It’s incredible to see that writers and producers alike care enough about feminist values to include them in their work. More and more, it feels as though the feminist presence in pop culture is making headway, and that’s something to be happy about. It’s also been a headache seeing the bumps in the road, the cringeworthy moments where feminism has clearly just been used for a tagline or clickbait. Circa 2013, I was simply happy to see anyone give attention to the things that I cared about, be it feminism, queer theory, or mental health issues. When you don’t see enough content being produced about these topics as a kid, seeing them rise to the forefront of your TV screen later in life means a lot. However, after a while of seeing this happen, it’s become clear that many writers and directors are just throwing feminism on top of their already completed scripts in order to gain points and win public approval.
I’ve seen plenty of examples of this on shows that are otherwise enjoyable.
Exhibit A: Riverdale. Not a show that I watch, but I did catch the first season. What I remember from this show is them introducing the only black female main character, and in the first scene where she has any significant lines, she just launches into how she’s a black woman and the main character is a white male and he can’t understand her experiences. While completely true, this small speech seems completely out of place and thrown in for the sake of feminist points. It makes one of the few people of color on this show seem two-dimensional, just there to state random facts and not exist and intertwine with the rest of the cast. I do believe this changes as the show goes on, but it’s not exactly promising to see that kind of obvious overstating within the first couple episodes of a show.
Exhibit B: Scream Queens. This one is more of a guilty pleasure一 it has a few genius moments but the quality of the writing varies greatly. A few episodes into season one, the show’s mean girl protagonists stop everything in order to rattle off a speech about how women need to stop being expected to smile and accept rude advances from men. They confront a stereotypically fratty guy and eventually beat him up. Again, completely accurate, but this dash of feminist pontification is so painfully obvious it hurts. This scene is admittedly hilarious and probably not meant to be taken seriously in the slightest. However, I can say that I would’ve appreciated it if feminism didn’t make an appearance only in the name of comedy. The show is supposed to be funny primarily, but I can dream. See what I’m talking about here.
Exhibit C: The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. It’s hard to pick one example with this show, because it’s full of cringeworthy moments where the writers are clearly trying to harness the feminist brand. I enjoy Sabrina a lot, but there are moments where I wish feminist themes would be portrayed instead of explained. This show has garnered an audience of plenty of intelligent people who are more than capable of deducing the nuances and aspects of feminism by themselves. There’s a lot of “Women Can Do Anything That Men Can Do And If You Do Not Believe That Then You Are Sexist™.” I agree with the message, but damn, is it too much to ask for them to have creative tact? Can it not just be a show that falls in line with feminist values? Do the writers really have to feed their characters lines from Feminism for Dummies? There’s a scene in season two where Sabrina’s friend Suzie announces that they want to go by Theo now. When Theo’s friend Harvey uses the wrong pronouns, he’s corrected. In all of his shining brilliance, he looks up and goes “Ok. Susie no more. Now, Theo.” Great, thank you for clearing that up for us. I would’ve been lost otherwise. Watch the scene here if you have a couple brain cells to kill.
While I’m not trying to rag on any of these shows as a whole, their attempts at incorporating feminism have come off as awkward and cheap. It appears as though the writers felt a need to fill a feminist quota and threw whatever five-second line they could think of into the middle of their script. We need content where feminist values are integrated and spread throughout, not just written on a coffee cup or a t-shirt.
The show that I’ve most recently been impressed by in terms of it’s ability to incorporate feminist themes throughout the narrative is Euphoria. It centers characters who generally need feminism the most: Femmes, trans girls, people of color, fat girls, etc. It shows their struggles on screen and the way that the structure of our current society takes a toll on them, and it doesn’t ever require a monologue explaining what’s going on and why it’s not okay. It’s refreshing in that it provides an actual story that we can follow and draw our own conclusions from, as opposed to becoming an informational feminist instruction video. I see this when the show’s leading trans character is depicted as being fetishized by the guys she’s hooking up with, or singled out for being trans at a party, and how her behavior changes as a result of that. This is a character who also exudes confidence and passion and is not simply there for trauma porn. It’s so refreshing to see a trans character simply living her life and going after what she wants without anyone making her into an out-of-place spokesperson.
I see this when the head cheerleader struggles with being abused by her boyfriend, not wanting to report the incident and have control taken from her hands, but also hating the fact that it happened. There’s a depiction of the complex reality that people should be intervening, but this character also doesn’t want to become known as the girl who got beat by her boyfriend. There are mentions of things like privilege, gender expression, the spectrum of sexuality, but these are shown more than anything else. They don’t need to be mentioned as much because this is a show that truly centers those narratives and values, and that’s what I want to see.
Having the feminist aspect incorporated into a show and not blatantly stated not only lets us know of the show’s sincerity, but it’s also so much more effective in inciting real-life change. When we see certain themes present enough in modern media, they starts to filter into our society. It’s the same thing with racism. We’ve seen it present in so many shows and movies, but nobody ever said “This is a racist joke.” Embedding hateful ideologies has worked well enough in the past to keep those things within our society, so why can’t we do that with something that’s good? I’m not 100% sure what the full potential of doing this could be, but at the very least it’ll offer us some well-made TV that isn’t pushing feminism just for ratings in the meantime.