The Wounded Women of 'Euphoria'

White roses, tinged with pink, dangle from the ceiling and rest on Cassie's (Sydney Sweeney's) shoulder while tears trickle down her face. Rue (Zendaya) traces her path to rock bottom with burnt relationships and take lines. The wounded woman has a new identity in Euphoria. While media encourages women to escape the clutches of their own sorrows from the trenches of self-destruction, women of Euphoria, broken and splintered, question the banality of feminine woes. In doing so, the characters inadvertently address Leslie Jamison's cultural critique of literature and culture in her essay, "The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain."

In her 2014 essay, Jamison explains that female suffering is simultaneously misunderstood and uninteresting. “The pain of women...pales them and bloodies them and starves them, delivers them to death camps and sends locks of their hair to the stars,” she says. But more recently, we see “young women who hurt but constantly disclaim their hurting.” Jamison describes these characters and the women who subscribe to this archetype as the "post-wounded." They are purveyors of implicit sadness. We see them everywhere: Girls, Fleabag, The Good Place. With these women, we render female pain performative when it is explicit. Scars and blisters on a female-identifying body are meaningless unless accompanied by quips about their wounds. We celebrate these characters for their contempt of vulnerability and their armor made of self-depreciation and wit.

Hannah Arendt best explains our cavalier acknowledgment of female suffering with her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on Banality of Evil. She says, "If a crime against humanity had become in some sense ‘banal’ it was precisely because it was committed in a daily way, systematically, without being adequately named and opposed.” Similarly, the wounds on female-identifying bodies, whether self-imposed or not, are committed daily and represented systematically, without being sufficiently named or understood. Stories about female pain are ubiquitous, but that is because prevailing structures of misogyny systemically target women. However, we misunderstand this pain as an intrinsic organ of the female body, as if hurting is interchangeable with our femininity. Therefore, pain is blasé, a mere truism about the female condition.

Euphoria is a reprieve from this mindset.

An HBO original, Euphoria is a teen drama that follows Rue, who returns to high school after a summer spent in rehab. Though Rue is the protagonist and our omnipresent narrator, the show dedicates a lot of its time exploring other characters in her friend group: Maddy (Alexa Demie), Cassie, Kat (Barbie Ferreira), Jules (Hunter Schafer), Nate (Jacob Elordi), and occasionally, McKay (Algee Smith).

Alexa Demie as Maddy in Season 1 of Euphoria.

In a recent episode, "Stand Still Like a Hummingbird" (season two, episode five), Rue runs from her family, parkours over cars, and casually divulges Cassie's secret affair. Chaos is her handmaiden, and withdrawal supplies her with enough stamina to outrun cops. Rue, out of all the women in Euphoria, is the closest to the post-wounded archetype.

In the first season, Rue accepts the extensiveness of her addiction, but that acceptance only leads to a few self-deprecating monologues. However, this season challenges her internalization of hurting. Her jadedness catches up to her, culminating in a stress-inducing and earnest portrayal of drug abuse.

Cassie, Kat, Jules, and Maddy, likewise, indulge in their sadness. The show neither exemplifies nor subjugates female anger to jaded post-woundedness. In doing so, Euphoria does not conflate vulnerability to weakness.

As scholar Angela King puts it, “Gender, specifically femininity, is a discipline that produces bodies and identities and operates as an effective form of social control.” King's argument about controlling the female body explains the policing of female emotions in the media. Euphoria does not regulate these emotions. It thrashes and drowns in a glittering sorrow, embracing us with brokenness universal like the ground under our feet.  

In her book, Unbearable Weight, Susan Bordo explains that any feminine ways of knowing and thinking are considered dangerous or a form of personal regression. Bordo's theory describes our implicit biases toward "feminine" responses. Further, it points to our distinct dissections of male versus female emotions. Even though we harshly suppress male emotions, we also revere them as more profound when represented in the media. Meanwhile, female pain is considered overfamiliar and inauthentic. For example, despite his deplorable actions, Nate does not lose empathy from the audience. However, Jules, who makes relatively less severe mistakes, is lambasted on Twitter to no avail. Comparing the backlash against Jules in season one with the celebration of Nate's storyline as "raw" and "complicated" makes it apparent that misogyny and transphobia alter our perception of a female-centered storyline.

However, Euphoria does not stray far enough from the "Sad White Girl" trope. Waifish girls flood media with melancholia that gratifies racial homogeneity. With 13 Reasons Why, Skins, Fleabag, and Shameless already marketing female pain in skinny, conventionally attractive, and white bodies, our obsession with this trope continues. Projects showcasing pain in a white body are revered and catapulted into mainstream media. And though Kat may subvert the thin ideal, she does not receive any meaningful screentime in season two. Similarly, of the three POC characters (Rue, Elliot, and McKay), Rue and Elliot are light-skinned. McKay, the only Black-male character, is conveniently sidelined this season. Colorism has plagued Hollywood for decades, so it is hardly surprising that Euphoria falls prey to it.

Sexualizing teenage characters has also become a prerequisite for teen dramas. In Euphoria, the excessive nudity and lingering shots of the female body are usually displayed for shock value. Female nudity in media is often comparable to objectification because it often strips women of their personhood. But, open discussions about female sexuality by authors like Sally Rooney illustrate that nudity can be empowering when done right. However, the nudity in Euphoria is not necessarily empowering. Explicit scenes often feature women in submission. The naked female body rarely represents power or agency. Therefore, it fuels the fetishistic and predatory male gaze. Sydney Sweeney's concerns about the impact of her nude scenes on her future roles illustrate that Euphoria does not convey meaningful narratives through the explicit scenes. More importantly, by routinely discrediting female actors for their nude scenes, we also criticize physical renderings of female vulnerability. Male actors do not receive nearly as many demeaning comments about their sex scenes.

As Jamison argues, “Relying too much on the image of the wounded woman is reductive, but so is rejecting it - being unwilling to look at the varieties of need and suffering that yield it. We don’t want to be wounds (‘No, you’re the wound!’) but we should be allowed to have them, to speak about having them, to be something more than just another girl who has one.” Neither the wounded nor the post-wounded woman is disempowering. We need both. Balancing these depictions onscreen allow for a more authentic exploration of the female experience.

In the sixth episode of Euphoria, Rue seeks forgiveness. Her vulnerability illustrates a bond between wounded and post-woundedness. Hurting or beyond hurting, by allowing Rue to encounter her pain with contempt and sincerity, creator/writer/director Sam Levinson does not disparage wounded or the post-wounded woman. Instead, he takes a neutral stance. And for women to fully embody their emotions without shame, we need neutrality and balanced representation.

Thinking of female suffering as an exercise in melodrama reduces individuals to monoliths of vapid sorrow. Depicting our hurting fetishistically or renouncing it can both impede our progress. We need to carve space for all types of suffering. Despite all its issues, Euphoria is a step in the right direction. It is a show recognizing and respecting female pain.

Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons