Aesthetic in a Vacuum: Euphoria and Latina Sexuality

By Allison Armijo

HBO’s Euphoria caught the attention of fans and critics alike, attracting an audience of 6.6 million for the finale of Season 2 alone. From a post-football practice locker room sequence of 30 — originally supposed to be 80 — penises, 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 the lives of each character. Some argue that to achieve this, Levinson often oversexualizes the characters, by making their roles in the show partially–if not entirely–reliant on their mobility as sexual agents. 

While sexualizing teenagers isn’t new, Levinson aestheticizes it, using sexuality as a stylistic point of reference in the show. For example,  take the character Cassie (played by Sydney Sweeney) who, according to Rohitha Naraharisetty from The Swaddle, takes on the role of, “an undeniable sex goddess shown bouncing, gyrating, and thrusting her way through Nate’s fever dreams with abandon.”

Levinson uses aesthetics to portray each character’s sexuality in ways that aren’t explicitly revealed through dialogue. Take, for instance, the dimly lit, sterile ice rink where Cassie imagines herself to be while she gets an abortion. Although nothing is said, the audience can gauge how she is feeling based on the music and tone of the scene, not to mention her movement on the ice. 

While the goal of the scene is not to sexualize her, that is just the point: she is in a desolate, barren ice rink, somewhere she spent her childhood. This sentiment is juxtaposed by the fact that she is in the process of aborting a child. While the scene is not meant to shine a negative light on abortion, it does highlight Cassie’s loneliness – both sexually and corporeally – in this moment.

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While that 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 Titanic, Yoko Ono and John Lennon, and Jack and Ennis from Brokeback Mountain, to name a few—as a way to communicate the current strife of 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 her forehead where Diego Rivera sits in the original.

While some fans see this montage as an attempt to subvert gender stereotypes––using queerness as a way to re-define celebrated artwork––it made me wonder how aesthetics can really be separate from the identity behind the work, specifically for artists of color. The artist cannot be separated from their 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 individuals who are white?

As someone who is both queer and Hispanic, I felt more disconnected from this montage than anything else I’ve seen in Euphoria. Levinson isolates the aesthetic of 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 Rév,talked about how he and Levinson took inspiration from early 20th-century Mexican murals to film the scene of Cassie in season two where she is framed as a virgin or saint. Sweeney is surrounded by pink roses to complement her eyes, nose, and lips, all of which carry the same rose-colored tint.

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

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

But what about the characters who aren’t white? What about the characters, specifically the 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 the virginal status, a dichotomy represented by the Madonna-Whore complex. Levinson exploits these sexual stereotypes as strategies to portray Latinx characters in Euphoria, while not furthering any character development. He sequesters them to an identity that is recognized and reproduced solely for its aestheticism.

The three dominant sexual tropes available to Latinx women are that of the whore, the mother, and the virgin. Levinson hides behind a boundary-pushing aesthetic, only to reinforce these three sexual tropes with the Latinx female characters in the show, providing mediocre representation if you can even call it representation at all. (*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 times throughout the show. From the “whore” who is shunned by Nate’s family for dressing provocatively at the carnival, to the “mother,” when she gets  a job as a babysitter in season 2. Maddy embodies each dominant trope of Latina sexuality. 

She lies about being a virgin when she first has sex with Nate, though it is revealed later on that she probably lost her virginity when she was fourteen years old to a forty-year-old man. The specific scene in which Maddy first has sex with Nate is important to this idea also because she’s not only explicitly described as a virgin, but presented as such, as she stares up at Nate while stroking the cross around her neck, calling attention to a religious, and possibly conservative, perspective of sex in Latinx 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. Both Kat and Maddy are hypersexualized and undersexualized, as they both are introduced in the show as virgins and embark on journeys of sexual promiscuity that are reliant 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 curt one-liners, such as the iconic, “Maddy, beat her ass! She fucked your boyfriend!” During season one, she becomes pregnant, which falls further into Latinx sexual stereotypes as the pregnancy isn’t even used as a central plot point, but as a factor to complement BB’s character.

With that being said, there is something admirable about the way Levinson embraces sexuality as a way to navigate life and relationships. He doesn’t shy away from the intimacy and vulnerability that sex and sexuality can bring. This provocative presentation can be empowering, especially when uses aesthetics to call attention to the theatricality of sex, destigmatizing an intimate, seemingly inaccessible act.

However, there is a difference between celebrating sexuality in a generalized sense, and employing an aesthetic built on racialized sexual tropes that harm Latinx women. Euphoria maintains its status as a boundary-pushing show in large part because of how it tackles the subject of sexuality. But it also isolates that conversation from race constantly, and the stereotypes which inform how Latinx characters are portrayed on screen. Aesthetics should not exist in a vacuum, and neither should the conversations we have about the characters such aesthetics embody.