When HBO’s Euphoria premiered in June 2019, its diverse depictions of Generation Z captivated intergenerational audiences. With clear ties to early-to-mid-2000s teen dramas, including The O.C., Gossip Girl, Secret Life of the American Teenager, and Degrassi (which introduced American audiences to Euphoria’s Executive Producer Aubrey Graham aka Drizzy Drake), the 55-minute drama is being heralded for its unique, thoughtful, and even progressive portrayal of the issues currently affecting teens, including being filmed while performing sexual acts without giving consent, being slut-shamed by sexual partners, and being in recovery from alcohol and drug abuse. As progressive as it may be, though, the series continues an ongoing trend in teen-centered dramas: utilizing trauma to develop Black characters.
Though Rue Bennett is played by Zendaya, a mixed-race Black woman, her alcohol and drug addiction are untouched by the intersections of her gender and race: Euphoria gives her space to navigate the stressors of high school without being classified as a “crackhead” or typecast as the daughter of a “single mother.” Instead, the show grants Bennett a humanity typically only afforded to suburban white teens—both onscreen and off. Her reliance on drugs is presented as a health issue, and her character is one we respect and root for rather than judge. This is largely because the show humanizes her as she attempts to self-medicate through heavy drug use to cope with the loss of her father and manage her anxiety. Unfortunately, the show’s only other core Black character, Christopher McKay (Algee Smith), isn’t afforded the same nuance as Bennett.
Euphoria is primarily set at East Highland High School, but McKay is a college freshman at a local state college, and much of his arc is shaped by the experience of assimilating into university culture as a Division I football athlete. In many ways, his backstory isn’t nearly as “scandalous” or rule-breaking as Bennett, and yet his suffering is hugely present until it gives way to trauma porn. McKay is a record-breaking student athlete who earned a football scholarship to a local Division 1 state school and has dreamed of being drafted to the NFL—until he gets benched in pre-season. His conflicts are catalyzed by his deeply-held identity as a football player, a path forged for him by his father, Fredrick McKay (Cranston Johnson), at a young age. McKay spends the majority of his freshman year of college in his hometown, attending parties thrown by his white best friend Nate Jacobs (Jacob Elordi) and taking his white girlfriend Cassie Howard (Sydeny Sweeney) on dates.
McKay is introduced to viewers through the lens of his relationship with Jacobs. In the pilot episode, Jacobs wants to host an end-of-summer celebration at McKay’s house, excited about all “the fucking pussy that we’re going smash tonight, bro.” McKay argues against the party, citing his mother’s OCD and erratic behavior from Jacobs’s recent ex-girlfriend Maddy Perez (Alexa Demie). Jacobs concludes the conversation with an aggressive, “Shut the fuck up,” and drives toward McKay’s house to begin prepping for the party. In a later scene, McKay is a bystander in Jacobs’s first act of sexual harassment toward white trans girl Jules Vaughn (Hunter Schafer). Here, a secondary conflict occurs. At the party, Jacobs plays a video of McKay and Howard having sex, and McKay tells his brothers to leave the room; Jacobs encourages them to stay and watch.
In general, McKay isn’t supported by his peers when it comes to his relationship because they are largely misogynistic. Jacobs and his peers berate McKay for caring about Howard, as they see little value in women beyond sex. “You fuck her like the whore she is, and kick her ass to the curb,” Jacobs tells McKay. After Jacobs shows the video, there’s a distinctive shift in McKay’s non-verbals: sunken eyes, fallen smile, and absence of emotion on his face. These physical manifestations show the negative impact that his relationship to whiteness has on him: His autonomy is hindered. His little brother is captivated by Jacobs’s dominance. And he can’t even defend his girlfriend in front of his peers.
McKay and Howard’s relationship is racially fraught. In many ways, Howard is the physical embodiment of the white American dream girl: a slender yet curvy, blond hair, blue-eyed woman who embraces the idyllic principles of femininity, as exhibited in her soft voice and submissive behavior. In “The Next Episode,” McKay explains that he desires Howard because he knows dating her will earn him other people’s approval. He enjoys how men turn their heads as she walks by, and their envy of him, because she’s only “his.” In her 2005 article, “Looking behind the Stereotypes of the ‘Angry Black Woman’: An Exploration of Black Women’s Responses to Interracial Relationships,” sociologist Erica Chito Childs explores the gendered and racial dynamics within interracial relationships, a context that we can be used to understand how McKay’s relationship with Howard helps him seek power via proximity to his white peers.
In “Made You Look,” his future fraternity brothers classify Howard as “the baddest bitch in the game” after she participates in a pledging ritual alongside McKay; following this event, the couple says “I love you” for the first time. Her “beautiful” appeal is an asset into his entrance into white fraternity culture—one of America’s exclusionary traditions birthed out of racial separationist practices. In “The Next Episode,” McKaye’s father chants Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay’s America in pee-wee practice in unison with a young McKay (played by Yohance Biagas Bey), the moment a reminder that he’s inherited oppression simply by being a Black man in American. Moments later, McKay is officially initiated into this racial tradition by being called the “n-word” on the field by a disgruntled white football player and McKay retaliates. Afterwards, McKay’s father scolds him for his emotional outburst on the field, saying, “You get emotional, you lose. You get angry. You lose. He’s trying to a rise out of you. That’s his game. That’s the world’s game.”
This moment is reminiscent of “the talk” in which Black parents like the senior McKay push respectability politics in an attempt to ease their child’s assimilation into a white supremacist society, hopeful that respectability politics will create an immunity from violence. “They want to push on you, poke on you, see exactly how much you can take, and that’s what ultimately will define you. The measure of a man is how he reacts,” Fredrick McKay tells his son. His father’s framework of Black masculinity is rooted in an idealistic understanding of escaping racism, but he still fails to acknowledge the very real impact microaggressions are having on his son. McKay’s father’s intentions are good: He hopes his teachings will help his son channel his righteous anger into a successful football career, though we know there are vast socioeconomic disparities between professional Black and white football players. In the same episode, McKay accepts that there is a slim probability that he will become a professional football player, and viewers watch as he undergoes a series of internal conflicts.
“I feel like McKay is searching for identity,’’ Algee Smith, the actor who plays Christopher McKay, told HBO in a behind-the-scenes clip. In his distraught state, McKay invites Howard over for a needed sense of comfort and familiarity, only to be ambushed by a collective of white fraternity members in the middle of foreplay. Restrained on the ground, McKay is sexually assaulted by a fellow white fraternity brother while someone records the assault. Howard witnesses the penetrative act that’s accompanied by chants of “Fuck me, McGay! Sig Pu Nu, Bitch.” After the act of violence is committed, McKay retreats to the bathroom. His body shudders, he trembles, and he shakes as he sobs, the moment a culmination of years of violence inflicted upon him by white men.
The show’s all-white writers room used racial and gendered violence to develop McKay into a modern day depiction of the docile Negro, a sweet and humble one-dimensional Black man whose purpose is to maintain white men’s equilbirum through their non-violent demeanor. One Tree Hill’s Antwon ‘Skills’ Taylor, played by Antown Tanner, and GREEK’s Calvin Owens, played by Paul James, are also examples of this trope. While the majority of the characters on Euphoria face some form of violence, it’s discomfiting to watch a Black character continuously suffer in a majority-white space. In the midst of a Black renaissance in pop culture, where Black creatives are creating, directing, and producing shows like Insecure and A Black Lady Sketch Show, the lack of Black voices in Euphoria’s writer’s room is a misstep. Euphoria misses the mark by using sexual assault and racial microaggressions as the very foundation for a Black male teenager character.
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