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The Trans Heroes of Euphoria and Assassination Nation

Hunter Schafer as Jules in Euphoria.
Hunter Schafer as Jules in Euphoria. Photo: HBO

In the first episode of HBO’s Euphoria, Jules (stunningly portrayed by first-time actress Hunter Schafer) is confronted at a house party by Nate (Jacob Elordi), a raging jock looking to take out his anger on the most vulnerable person he can find. “I know what you are,” Nate whispers as he threatens Jules, a seeming allusion to her transness. Her visible fear and his imposing figure create a gut-wrenching sense of danger, at least until the scene takes a turn: Jules grabs a knife from the counter, scares him off, then slices her own arm and holds it up as it bleeds. “I’m fucking invincible!” she yells, as Nate recoils.

For queer audiences, there are always pangs of fear when a trans woman is onscreen — fear that, like in real life, her mere existence may solicit violence from the men around her. But then comes Jules in Euphoria: pink hair and neon eyeshadow, practically a superhero as she makes a bully squirm and assures him, herself, and the audience that she can’t be hurt — that there’s nothing to fear — even if we know the danger is still very real. When Jules announced her invincibility, I immediately knew that Jules was going to be something special in TV’s still incredibly limited pantheon of trans characters.

After the initial controversy around Euphoria’s salacious content, I was thrilled to find that unlike Netflix’s similarly controversial hit 13 Reasons Why, Euphoria doesn’t seem particularly interested in using teens to act out gruesome horrors in the name of “awareness.” Like many other moments in Euphoria, the confrontation between Nate and Jules was grounded in reality. “Oddly, that’s a true story,” series creator Sam Levinson told EW. “I was the person who didn’t want to get the s— beaten out of me,” he recalled, explaining that he used the same knife tactic to save himself. Sex, drugs, and violence exist in Euphoria because they exist in real life, and the show, which begins each episode with a deep dive into a different character’s history, seems most concerned with the why behind that reality. Why does Rue, portrayed by Zendaya, seek the absence of feeling she gets from using drugs? Why does Nate resort to violence at every turn? Why does Jules hook up with older men in seedy motel rooms?

The series makes few judgments about the darker side of teenage experiences, and instead just asks questions — along with acknowledging that some of those questions can never be definitively answered. This kind of ambiguity marks a notable shift away from the moral messaging of Levinson’s 2018 film, Assassination Nation. Both works share obvious thematic threads: the impact of violence, toxic masculinity, and what happens to individuals and a community when we try to escape the truth about ourselves. But they diverge in their attempt to grapple with the resolution of these struggles, something illustrated well in the differences between Jules and her predecessor in Assassination Nation: Bex, portrayed by trans model and actress Hari Nef.

As the film — touted as a modern retelling of the Salem witch trials — devolves into violent chaos, we get no assurance that Bex is invincible. After one of the straight guys in her school is exposed for having a relationship with Bex, she is targeted, kidnapped, and nearly hanged by a group of teen boys in a series of truly horrifying scenes. Bex’s only crime in the eyes of these men is living honestly, which is perceived as an attack on the status quo to which they feel compelled to conform.

Traces of this idea resonate in Euphoria. As its first season progresses, we come to understand that Nate perceives Jules as an enemy largely because he is haunted by discovering his father’s secret, life-long sexual encounters with trans women. In a behind-the-scenes clip, Jacob Elordi explains that in Nate’s mind, Jules “poses a threat to masculinity and to order and to everything that is conventional and straight.” Jules and Bex pose a similar threat to the male characters around them simply because of who they are, suggesting that Levinson is fascinated with transness primarily as a kind of truth-telling that makes men like Nate afraid. Nate, and those like him, see the cis, straight precepts of gender and sexuality as immutable forces that we all have to submit to or be punished. As is often true in the real world, this makes those living truthfully like Bex and Jules an inherent threat to the patriarchal status quo.

Assassination Nation’s plot hinges on an anonymous hacker releasing private messages and photos belonging to nearly everyone in the film’s suburban setting. Early on in the story, leaked photos reveal that the town’s homophobic mayor often dresses up in women’s clothing and hires male escorts. The subsequent public humiliation leads him to commit suicide, which acts as the set-up for the moral quandry at the film’s center: Bex and the film’s protagonist, Lily (Odessa Young), arguing over whether they should feel sympathy for him and his struggle with his identity. “He was a hypocrite. I have zero sympathy. People like me kill themselves every fucking day and bigots like him aren’t shedding tears,” Bex says. Lily responds with the film’s thesis: “I think you can disagree with him and still feel empathy.”

Assassination Nation suggests that oppressors are worthy of the empathy of the oppressed, an idea for which Bex becomes an apparent avatar. At the end of the film, when she’s finally been saved by her friends, Bex and Johnny— Assassination’s proto-masculine equivalent to Nate, played by Cody Christian — have a final confrontation in which he begs for his life while she holds a gun to his head. Though Johnny rallied the mob that tried to kill her in cold blood, and though she and her friends just gunned down several of his peers without blinking, Bex decides to show him mercy. It’s a choice that attempts to further illustrate that violent men are victims of toxic masculinity’s harm as much as they are the purveyors of it, and that they do, at least in this telling, deserve empathy from the people they’ve hurt.

What makes Jules revolutionary by comparison to Bex is that she’s not asked to be the arbiter of her oppressor’s condition. Nate catfishes and later blackmails Jules to protect his father’s secret, but their stories largely diverge: While Jules and Rue pursue a passionate relationship, unlocking new facets of Jules’s queerness and allowing her to stop seeking the affirmation she once sought from men, Nate doesn’t get the luxury of a resolution with Jules, or her forgiveness. As we watch him and his father finally come to blows in the season finale, we see Nate as the traumatized child he really is: Pinned down by his father, he slams his head against the floor and wails in a devastating and truly frightening performance. As Nate later rampages through their home, his father withdraws to his office. The camera pans knowingly to the locked drawer where he kept the tapes of his affairs that Nate found as a child. The moment is a more powerful assessment of an oppressive figure because the question — answerable or not — of why Nate is the way he is, and whether he deserves empathy, is placed squarely on the shoulders of the character who is responsible for failing him, not on Jules.

Where Bex’s narrative is largely shaped by her ability to empathize with men’s struggles, Jules’s story is about finding the freedom to live a more expansive life apart from violent men and the havoc they wreak on her life. She isn’t burdened with absolving Nate of his crimes or teaching us a lesson about forgiving the people who oppress us; she gets to be angry, to run away, to be in love with two girls at once, to yell “Fuck Nate Jacobs!” and throw her middle fingers up while her girlfriend imagines shooting him. In spite of all the fear and danger and harm that surrounds her, Jules is revolutionary because she gets to believe she’s invincible in spite of the world she lives in, and because we get to believe it too.

The Trans Heroes of Euphoria and Assassination Nation