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Photo: ‘Euphoria’/HBO MAX
I think a lot of people can relate to having elaborate fantasies about, say, a gun-wielding lunatic barging into their classroom or workplace and, through a series of awesome and powerful maneuvers, taking down the assailant to emerge a righteous hero.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia had a hilarious take on this in their season 9 episode “The Gang Saves the Day,” in which each of the protagonists, whilst hiding from a robber who’s holding up the convenience store they’re in, have elaborate fantasies about what they would do. Mac (A.K.A. Ronald Mcdonald, played by Rob McElhenney) imagines himself fighting off a horde of Yakuza ninjas in the style of Steven Seagal. He saves the day but dies a heroic death, being greeted in Heaven by a shirtless, sexy, muscular God and two equally sexy angels.
(For those unfamiliar, Mac is a closeted gay man whose inability to come to terms with his identity, combined with his obsession with presenting himself as a tough, manly man, is a recurring joke.)
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Nate Jacobs – Toxic Masculinity in USA
In HBO’s Euphoria, high schooler Nate Jacobs (Jacob Elordi) is also shown to be prone to violent ideations. As part of his character introduction at the beginning of episode 2, “Stuntin’ Like My Daddy,” we see that he often fantasizes about killing men who kidnap or endanger his girlfriend Maddy Perez (Alexa Demie). He tells her, “If anyone ever tried to hurt you, I’d kill them.”
Of course, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia plays it all for laughs. It’s an episodic comedy about a group of amoral, narcissistic friends, once commonly referred to as “Seinfeld on crack.” Euphoria, while also being about a group of people trapped in a toxic environment, is an entirely different show. It’s a twisted, moody, anxiety-ridden story that follows the lives of troubled suburban high schoolers going through a variety of identity crises.
At the end of the day, I’m not a huge fan of how glamorous the parties and how beautiful their attendees are–the coolest parties I ever went to were still poorly lit and filled with average-looking, outwardly awkward teenagers (myself included). However, what sets Euphoria apart is its honest and unflinching portrayal of modern cultural realities, as well as its normalization of things that film & television have hitherto struggled to portray.
The very first scene, in which the narrator and protagonist Rue Bennett (Zendaya) is born three days after 9/11, establishes the fact that Euphoria is not just a story about troubled high schoolers, but one that is firmly grounded in the present day and whose characters are both victims and perpetrators of the modern American landscape.
In this review, I specifically focus on Nate Jacobs and the concept of his toxic masculinity, but it’s important for me to clarify that I don’t believe the term “toxic masculinity” does justice to the complexities of his character–I think its widespread usage has actually hampered the popular discussion of our problematic gender norms by providing a catch-all term referring only to specific behaviors of men, even though masculinity is not only unique between different cultures but also influenced by other factors such as socioeconomic status and race.
This is why Nate Jacobs is more than a boring caricature and why Euphoria has earned my highest respect. Its authentic portrayal of the American youth culture is not only laudable in and of itself, but is important because its characters and their struggles are unique, direct consequents of this culture. In this way, the setting complements the emotional journeys of the characters, while the characters both reflect and criticize the culture to which they belong.
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We’re shown that Nate’s sense of masculinity was nurtured from a young age by his father, Cal Jacobs (Eric Dane). When Nate is just a child, Cal tells him that “no one in this world will ever root for [him],” and although it’s not explicitly stated, this adds a racial component to his identity complex.
It’s not a new concept and he didn’t invent it, but Former President Barack Obama recently expressed the idea that white men believe themselves to be victims. I believe a similar pathology occurs in Nate, who is the epitome of a privileged white man. It’s interesting because, throughout the show, we never see anybody hate Nate purely for who he is. In fact, it’s the opposite–he’s a tall, handsome star athlete, quarterback of the football team, who gets away with an infuriating amount of evil shenanigans. Therefore, this persecution mentality is instilled in him at a young age and influences his development despite being divorced from reality.
Additionally, Cal himself is a closeted gay who secretly tapes his frequent hook-ups with young men and trans women. Nate discovers and watches these at a young age, but still adheres to his father’s philosophy of strength and emotional repression. He grows up with deeply embedded misogyny and homophobia, which eventually causes emotional turmoil as he, too, has closeted gay tendencies.
By the time of the show’s present, we see how Nate has learned to deal with his twisted and repressed identity concepts. He’s outwardly misogynistic and homophobic, as well as having a serious anger problem. This is all in line with the accepted scientific literature on hegemonic masculinity, such as that of the esteemed Raewyn Connell, who pioneered the concept that our culture’s stereotypic ideal of a man results in ruthless, angry, homophobic, misogynistic men.
It’s important to talk about how Nate is as much a victim of circumstance as he is a perpetrator of toxic masculinity, and I’m not only talking about his father’s socialization, nor do I mean to say that he’s ultimately the victim and not a villain because he certainly is. I’m talking about things like football being highly valued in modern American culture and how Nate’s success as a quarterback reaffirms his drive to be a “strong man.” It’s things like his girlfriend Maddy playing into Nate’s dominant fantasies and telling him he’s “the sweetest guy ever” when he tells her that he’d kill anyone who tried to hurt her.
In this way, the show is an incredible examination of how “toxic masculinity” is not just something that men perpetrate among men, but a constantly reinforced aspect of our culture that is as much a symptom as it is a cause. However, Nate is a powerful villain not only because he embodies toxic traits, but because he has the necessary physical strength, social status, and sociopathic qualities to impose these on other characters.
Men Dominating Men to Affirm their Manliness
What really cemented Nate as an incredible villain for me was when he actually carried out one of his violent fantasies. In the pilot episode, we’re introduced to Nate and Maddy at a party in the midst of some petty, temporary break-up. Both flirt and make-out with others in front of each other to elicit jealousy, but Maddy takes it a step further and persuades (with little effort) a random college student named Tyler (Lukas Gage) to have sex in the pool, in full view of everyone there.
Unfortunately for Tyler, Nate takes out his frustration on him. Sometime after the party, Tyler comes home to find Nate waiting for him on his couch. Nate calmly tells him that he’s already collected the kitchen knives and baseball bat that Tyler keeps in his room, demonstrating his methodical, premeditating nature. He gets up and walks at Tyler, who is smaller and weaker, and tells him that there’s no use resisting. He’s going to do to him what he’s going to do, and Tyler won’t press charges because if he does, Nate will turn him in for “raping” Maddy at the party, for which there were dozens of witnesses. After all, Tyler is 22 years old and Maddy is only 17. Tyler can only beg for mercy as Nate steps forward with the cold determination of a Terminator.
Nate beats him within an inch of his life. Later, we see that Tyler has suffered severe, permanent damage–he’s partially blind, suffers from migraines, and can no longer effectively breathe through his nose. Nate, reclining casually in Tyler’s chair, listens with unsympathetic bemusement before cutting him off to tell him that he doesn’t care about Tyler’s condition. Instead, he offers a proposition–Tyler will go to the police station and turn himself in for beating Maddy (which had been Nate’s doing after Maddy insinuated he was gay), or else Maddy will turn him in for the aforementioned “rape.”
In this way, we see that Nate is not merely an angry guy with identity issues, but a dangerous sociopath with the intelligence and ability to wield his privilege and manipulate those around him. We also see how he interacts with other men and thinks nothing of those who are “weak.” In the course of obsessively fulfilling his ideals, he dehumanizes those who don’t adhere to the same. Of course, this only causes severe emotional distress when he himself can’t live up to his standards.
Euphoria gets pretty grim. It tackles a lot of things aside from masculinity, such as female sexuality and mental illness, and each of the characters is a complex, authentic reflection of the kinds of issues that teenagers/young adults experience today.
And yet, it’s important to remember that toxic masculinity is not purely a male phenomenon. Gender norms and ideas come from our collective interactions with each other and with society, and Euphoria does an excellent job of showing how specific aspects of our culture negatively affect the mental health of its adherents.
By Daniel Choi
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Daniel Choi is a writer who’s currently pursuing a BA in Film & Television from New York University. With a background in amateur film production, Daniel is fascinated by how artists’ cultural backgrounds inform their work, subconsciously or not, and how that work is then perceived by different audiences across time and space. He joined Hollywood Insider to promote its mission statement of substantive entertainment journalism, and hopes to enrich readers’ understandings of cinema through insightful analysis.