Sam Levinson’s Euphoria & The Precarity of Critique of Queer Art

I come to bury Sam Levinson, not to praise him.

Much of the criticism swirling around Levinson exists in one of two categories: personal and artistic. In the individual category, we find complaints concerning his family background (his father is Academy Award-winning director Barry Levinson) and that he’s (assumed to be) a straight white man writing about queer people of color. In artistry, Levinson receives criticism for the over-reliance on “shock value” elements such as nudity and sexuality. Exploitation primarily in the form of underage characters (though the actors are well over 18) and misogyny for writing scenes where female characters are nude in HBO Max’s Euphoria. To back up these criticisms, many point to recent interviews where some of the Euphoria actresses said they were initially uncomfortable with some of the scripted nudity.

Sam Levinson (COURTESY: Getty Images)

At first glance, none of the objections seem unfair. It’s vital to address, through a feminist lens, that we should critique exploiting the female body.

However, I want to argue that, below the progressive facade, these critiques are, in fact, conservative in nature and represent a concerning tendency to censor artists for including “objectionable” material in their art. More importantly, art centered around queer sex & sensuality.

Michel Foucault (I know, I know, I’m sorry) opens the first volume of his History of Sexuality by writing: 

​​For a long time, the story goes, we supported a Victorian regime, and we continue to be dominated by it even today. Thus the image of the imperial prude is emblazoned on our restrained, mute, and hypocritical sexuality. At the beginning of the seventeenth century a certain frankness was still common, it would seem… but twilight soon fell upon this bright day, followed by the monotonous nights of the Victorian bourgeoisie. Sexuality was carefully confined; it moved into the home. The conjugal family took custody of it and absorbed it into the serious function of reproduction. On the subject of sex, silence became the rule. The legitimate and procreative couple laid down the law. The couple imposed itself as model, enforced the norm, safeguarded the truth, and reserved the right to speak while retaining the principle of secrecy… The rest had only to remain vague; proper demeanor avoided contact with other bodies, and verbal decency sanitized one’s speech.

Foucault argues that we are still within the Victorian model of sexuality where sex (and, by extension, the body) are considered verboten. Only capable of being seen and discussed within the context of “the legitimate and procreative couple.” (For more historical background on this process, I recommend John D’Emilio‘s excellent essays or Sherry Wolf‘s fantastic book Sexuality and Socialism, which both outline the historical and political processes that led to the modern understanding of sexuality.)

To put it bluntly, what this results in is a societal complex around sex and the body. Deeply puritanical in nature and can manifest in different ways. For example, returning to Euphoria, the question of “gratuitous nudity” should be unpacked. Why does nudity have to be justified more than any other costume choice? Because American society has a complex about the naked human (but specifically femme) body. It makes us uncomfortable, and if we are to engage with it, we have to see the “point” of the nudity immediately. 

This is not inherently a problem. Indeed, one can argue that every design choice made by an artist ought to drive the art forward. So, nudity should serve a purpose just as much as the set dressing, camera angle, etc. But, the problem with nudity in American art (and this is very different, for example, in European cinema) is that we demand an immediately recognizable intention and artistic value behind the choice. But (especially if done well), many of these subtle creative choices (like clothing, lighting, etc.) should be, well, subtle, which means they probably won’t be immediately recognizable. 

To put this differently, if the costume designer decides to put a character in a hat, they should have a reason for putting that character in a hat. Maybe, for the sake of argument, they are trying to show that that character has something to hide. Then, the artistic hope is that the hat will subtly make the character seem a little more mysterious, thus indicating the character trait being highlighted without coming right out and saying it. The hat, then, functions as subtext rather than text, which is the heart of (most) theatrical/cinematic design: to indicate meaning without outright stating it. 

So, then, it is possible that, when we see nudity in Euphoria, it is being put there for a reason but, because that reason isn’t immediately apparent on first viewing and because the naked human body distresses our internalized Victorian understanding of sexuality, we jump to the conclusion that it is nudity for its own sake.

Alexa Demie as Maddy Perez & Sydney Sweeney as Cassie Howard in Euphoria (COURTESY: HBO Max)

So, then, what is the point of nudity in Euphoria? Without making this essay a close reading, I think the first question viewers should always ask themselves when presented with a piece of art is “how do I feel?” For many, the answer to how they feel about the large amounts of teen nudity and sex in Euphoria is a very understandable “uncomfortable.” Once we realize what our feelings about the art we are experiencing are, then we have to (until proven otherwise) assume intentionality. We, in my view, owe it to artists to not assume that we know more than they do or that they are making mistakes (again, until proven otherwise.) So, assuming intentionality, what is the point of the nudity on Euphoria? I think, in part, to make us uncomfortable. 

Perhaps discomfort with the show’s content and feeling like it is over the top is a commentary on how the stories being portrayed aren’t glamorous or romantic. Perhaps some of it is a commentary on how being a teenager makes us feel naked and exposed, or a commentary on how some characters rely on their sexuality to solve their problems. Maybe, it’s a commentary on gender, desire, and youth. All this is to say: we cannot categorically state that the nudity on Euphoria (or any other work of art) has no point without a fuller examination of the work itself or a discussion with the artists involved about their intentions. 

There is a part of this criticism that is, in my view, rather chilling. The internet’s seizure of a few interviews quotes from actresses saying they were uncomfortable as evidence of Levinson’s misogyny or the set’s alleged toxic environment, ignoring the actual context of the statements these women have made. For example, one of the most cited interviews by Levinson critics is that of actress Sydney Sweeney, who very frequently will appear nude on the show. In the interview, Sweeney says that she never feels uncomfortable on set, appreciates that there is an intimacy coordinator on set and that it is much better than other sets she’s been on where she “want[ed] to go home and scrub myself completely raw because I feel disgusting… I didn’t feel comfortable with my castmate or the crew, and I just didn’t feel like my character would be doing it. That made me even more self-conscious. I didn’t feel like I was able to speak up.”

Sydney Sweeney as Cassie Howard in Euphoria (COURTESY: HBO Max)

However, the viral part of the interview (which is frequently quoted out of context) is when she said that “there are moments where Cassie was supposed to be shirtless and I would tell Sam, ‘I don’t really think that’s necessary here.'” This was picked up and spread around the internet as proof that Levinson was the predatory misogynist that many seem to want him to be. What was ignored, however, was the second half of the quote where Sweeney said that, after she voiced her discomfort, Levinson “was like, ‘OK, we don’t need it.” Now, on it, I’ve never felt like Sam has pushed it on me or was trying to get a nude scene into an HBO show. When I didn’t want to do it, he didn’t make me.”

In our inherently patriarchal and white supremacist society, it is not uncommon that actors of marginalized identities and genders feel uncomfortable with the material they are asked to perform. What happens in most of these cases is that the actors suck it up because they need a job and don’t want to rock the boat. When actors speak up, they are often met with pushback, gaslighting, and even retaliation. 

But Levinson isn’t being accused of doing any of that. In Sweeney’s interview and interviews with other actresses where they expressed initial discomfort, they all follow up that feeling by saying that they voiced it to Levinson and he accommodated them. No one involved in the production has accused him of anything other than being unprepared on set — a professional frustration for sure but not a moral one by any stretch of the imagination. In every single story about nudity in the scripts, Levinson responded to actor concerns exactly how directors should respond to actor concerns. He spoke with them and then changed things to make the actors comfortable. To restate this, Levinson changed it when women came to him to tell him they were uncomfortable with the amount of nudity in his script. And not just the stars of the series, but supporting and guest performers as well. 

This is not the act of an abusive showrunner but, instead, a collaborative and respectful artist. We should be celebrating this, pointing to it as an antidote to the decades of white cis male auteurship that victimized femme bodies to create their art. This isn’t Bertolucci assaulting Maria Schneider on camera, nor is it Stanley Kubrick pushing Shelly Duvall to the breaking point. This is a respectful and collaborative relationship between actor and director. Where, very evidently, Levinson has created a culture on set where actors feel comfortable voicing their feelings. This is, unfortunately, an anomaly in Hollywood. Something Sweeney cites in the same interview when she talks about another production she worked on where the director refused to change anything when she said she felt uncomfortable.

Shelley Duvall and Stanley Kubrick on the set of The Shining (COURTESY: Warner Bros.)

Using these interviews to attack Levinson and the show, what internet discourse is doing is punishing the performance for the candor of the artists involved. Now the statement by these actresses is a problem for the show — a problem that some say should be solved by Levinson writing less nudity but which will, most likely, be solved by fewer actresses publicly discussing situations where they advocated for themselves. Because now the fact that actresses on Euphoria advocated for themselves and the director listened is being spread around the internet as a negative rather than a positive. 

So why is this all happening? Why are everyone’s knives out for Sam Levinson, who by and large seems like a mensch on set — if one who could probably use more support in the writer’s room and behind the camera? In my view, it’s because putting Levinson in a box helps us resolve our own discomfort. We are made uncomfortable by Euphoria‘s explicit use of sex. We feel uncomfortable that the characters are teenagers, and we feel uncomfortable that this AMAB person with a famous dad and wife is writing about queer people. This discomfort is valid. But what isn’t valid is to attempt to resolve it by forcing the artist producing the work that makes us uncomfortable into a box. We want to label Levinson just a straight, white man who is doing what straight, white men do: abuse less privileged members of society. But, we don’t know that Levinson is straight, we don’t know that he’s a man, and we have very little evidence of Levinson abusing anyone. By forcing these labels onto an artist whose work we find uncomfortable, we are salting the earth for artists to come. Now, seemingly, artists have to prove their queer credentials before they are allowed to make art that features queer people — let us not so quickly forget that, for over a decade, many believed that the iconic lesbian film Bound was made by two cishet men only to discover it was made by two pre-transition trans women.

Hunter Schafer as Jules Vaughn & Zendaya as Rue Bennett in Euphoria (COURTESY: HBO Max)

In addition, now a precedent has been set where, if a collaborator voices their discomfort, that means the artist has done something wrong. This will do nothing to help rehearsal rooms, sets, or critical discourse. Because, already, the dynamics in society are such that, as Robin DiAngelo outlines in White Fragility, many members of empowered groups will react to feedback from members of disempowered groups as if they are being attacked for doing something wrong. This isn’t helpful in any way. It makes the empowered artists more defensive and, thus, less receptive to needed feedback and it makes disempowered artists more hesitant to voice their discomfort, for fear of causing a problem. We should demand that artists create sets where collaborators are able to openly discuss their discomfort with the work being created in order to develop that work into something that is mindful of different perspectives and experiences. Levinson didn’t do anything wrong by writing the nudity because, when he was given feedback about it from his female collaborators, he changed it. That’s how collaboration works and that’s a process we can’t use to criticize Levinson or we run the risk of poisoning the well of collaboration between people of different experiences and backgrounds. It’s a good thing that Levinson is clearly listening to the feedback from women on set and it’s a good thing that they are voicing their discomfort. This is how checking identity-based bias happens and we should celebrate it.

But, now, it’s a problem. For Levinson, for the show, and likely for the actresses who have now been assigned feelings by the discourse that they never expressed. So, who is this all for? All this outrage, who is it for? Not the artists involved, nor for artists to come who will surely face a more precarious minefield to walk culturally if they want to include sex and nudity in their art and not disempowered artists who now are being told that if they talk openly about their process of collaboration their words will be taken out-of-context and used to attack their collaborators. The outrage is for no one but the audience, who would rather moralize than simply stop watching the show. If you don’t like a piece of art, if it makes you uncomfortable, if it feels gross to you, you don’t have to attack the artist, you don’t have to politically justify your subjective reactions, and you don’t have to rally opposition to the art. You can just stop engaging with it. Euphoria isn’t a great social evil, it isn’t the apex of misogyny on television (however, Bachelor franchises that would like a word,) and no one is pointing out the abuse there. It doesn’t need to be a culture war, it can just be a show you don’t like.

All of this essay isn’t to say that you have to like Euphoria, Sam Levinson as an artist, or the portrayals of nudity and sexuality on that show. There are many valid criticisms of all of them. But, by turning our criticisms of a piece of art into moral outrage and directing that moral outrage at a specific artist, we make it harder for subversive artists of all stripes. Levinson will be fine; he’s rich, successful, and famous. But there will be artists who aren’t. And we need to create an artistic atmosphere where subversion, challenging social norms and making controversial art is welcomed rather than looked at skeptically. And we won’t do that by tearing Sam Levinson apart for making a show that we don’t like. Criticize him for what you think he’s worthy of criticism for, but let’s not assume our discomfort with sex, nudity, or anything else means that it’s automatically problematic to depict or that artists have to justify their use of provocative content as explicitly as we are asking Levinson to do.

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