watch

Euphoria’s Cassie - Why Women Like Her Are Still Judged

Euphoria’s Cassie Howard reminds us how far we haven’t come when it comes to slut-shaming. The show is the most tweeted about of the decade, and a massive chunk of these tweets are takedowns of Cassie. What’s truly revealing is how Cassie’s friends (and the audience) treat her, and the damaging effect this has.

TRANSCRIPT

We’ve gotten better, as a society, at judging women less—but Euphoria’s Cassie Howard reminds us how far we haven’t come. According to Twitter, Euphoria is the most tweeted about show of the decade. And a massive chunk of these tweets are takedowns of Cassie. In season 2, Cassie sleeps with her best friend Maddy’s ex, falls in love with him, and goes bananas. And this behavior really touched a cultural nerve. What felt like one half of Twitter was mad and also kind of excited for the coming catfight; the other talked about the cringe of Cassie’s obsession with guys, especially Nate. In the season 2 finale, during Lexi’s play, Cassie gets up on stage, and it feels like she’s attacking us, the audience, for judging her.

Cassie: “I deserve this, right? Because I’ve actually lived a life?” - Euphoria

Euphoria itself doesn’t have a puritanical view about sex—and to a degree, the characters on the show prize being sexually experienced while making fun of virgins.

Rue: “She was a virgin. She’d told Jules that a week into summer school, and when Kat saw her reaction…”

Jules: “Bitch, this isn’t the ‘80s. You need to catch a dick.” - Euphoria

But it portrays how Cassie is belittled for her widely shared nudes and videos, lest we’d be tempted to mistakenly reason that, in our more “enlightened” era, “slutshaming” is a thing of the past. And in season 2, the situation gets worse. Cassie acts like a cringeworthy pick-me and a terrible friend—and it almost feels like Euphoria is trying to bait fans into judging her.

Cassie’s peers focus so much on judging and making fun of what she does—but what’s truly revealing is how they (and the audience) treat her, and the effect this has on her. Here’s our take on Cassie and what her character arc actually has to say about self-esteem, sexuality, and the “slut” trope in today’s world.

Growing Up Hot Is a Double-Edged Sword

When a character does questionable things, their backstory helps us understand why. We may not feel we’d ever act the same way, but at least we empathize. So we see that Rue’s dad dying is connected to her drug use and Cal is the source of much of Nate’s rage and violence. With Cassie, we’re told early on that her dad loved her, but let her down. The transition from discussing her dad to her love life is seamless, making it obvious how her relationships with guys are a continuation of her relationship with her father.

Rue: “She also never saw her dad again. She fell in love with every guy she ever dated.” - Euphoria

She keeps putting her faith in boyfriends who disappoint her.

But beyond the archetypal “daddy issues” driving promiscuous behavior, there’s part of Cassie’s dynamic with guys that has less to do with Cassie herself and more with the world around her. As we learn from the backstory and Lexi’s play, Cassie hitting puberty was such a momentous event, it affected Lexi, too.

Lexi: “The most defining moment of my adolescence was when my sister went through puberty.” - Euphoria

And there’s a very important observation Rue makes:

Rue: “And it wasn’t just her body that changed. But the rest of the world, too.” - Euphoria

What Rue means here is that it’s not that Cassie fundamentally “becomes” anything other than who she’s always been—it’s that everyone else reacts to Cassie differently, for no reason other than her more womanly appearance.

Uncle Ted: “Look at you, all grown up. Come on, give me a hug. You really filled out.” - Euphoria

These lines show how disturbing it is for young girls when suddenly, everyone starts seeing and treating them as sexual objects. Ironically, Sam Levinson, Euphoria’s creator, was actually criticized for sexualizing Cassie, as she’s the only actress with nude sex scenes in Euphoria, and she has a lot of them. But arguably, the creative choice to show us Cassie having sex a lot has merit, because it reflects the way Cassie both relies on her sexuality and has been perceived as a sexual object her entire postpubescent life.

The curse of “growing up hot” may sound like an infuriating phrase, but from a young age, all anyone talks about when they talk about Cassie is her appearance. At one point, Lexi yells at her:

Lexi: “You look beautiful, Cassie. You look f***ing amazing. It’s literally all anyone’s ever told you your entire life.” - Euphoria

The sentence, “it’s literally all anyone’s ever told you your entire life,” is sad because it seems to suggest no one ever told Cassie anything else nice about herself. (Add to that the fact that, at that point, Cassie is worrying about how her stomach looks because she’s pregnant, which makes Lexi’s remark doubly hurtful). When the only thing anyone sees in you is appearance, you yourself might begin hyper-focusing on it, and internalizing the idea that beauty or being pleasing to the male eye is all that gives you value. You learn to rely on it. That’s why, when McKay is telling Cassie his worries about his football career, she starts kissing him. He gets frustrated, but it seems like she does this because she has learned that giving sex is the easiest way for her to make people happy, so that is her automatic reaction to McKay being upset, an idea which McKay reinforces when he shortly after asks her, very insistently, for nudes.

What’s effective about Cassie’s arc in Euphoria is that it doesn’t just focus on a character who craves male validation, or a character who is stereotyped as a slut, but the way in which these two forces—internal and external—play off each other. It shows us how Cassie learns first to relate to men with the same sad patience she has for her dad—trusting them despite being disappointed by them—and then how the initial objectification Cassie experiences as soon as she hits puberty sets off a kind of chain reaction. Relying on guys for self-esteem leads Cassie to let them push her beyond what she’s comfortable with, which in turn erodes her self-esteem further, which makes her all the more dependent on them. Cassie always has a boyfriend. At the same time, the guys sense her need to appeal to them and interpret it as a willingness to be pushed. A kind of sped-up version of this process happens between Cassie and Daniel. She knows he will shower attention upon her, so she comes to him twice when upset—to be fair, the first time she does this, she is on Molly—but Daniel, sensing that she is using him for self-esteem, demands that he gets to use her back, which culminates in this horrible, incel-like monologue:

Daniel: “You think I’m here because I’m interested in you? In what you have to say?...F**k, are you dumb.” - Euphoria

In the discussion of Cassie’s backstory, we get a strong sense of how uniform the world’s reaction to her is. Everyone says she’s beautiful, sometimes in the exact same words. Every boyfriend asks if they can film her. So while this repetitiveness can make it feel frustrating that Cassie doesn’t ever fight back or change something to snap out of this exploitative pattern, the show communicates how the world has almost conditioned her, through constant repetition, to fall into the rut she’s in: of constantly trying to find love in exchange for her sex appeal, making the same choices and finding herself hurt.

Romantic Taboos: Women Hurting Other Women

In the pilot of season 2, Cassie sleeps with Maddy’s ex, Nate. Nate and Maddy are broken up when Cassie comes into the picture, but only for three weeks and three days. Cassie does not tell Maddy about the situation, but gets outed. Meanwhile, on Twitter, an avalanche of fans call for Cassie’s blood and eventually get what they want. At the same time, there is a shadowy collective of Cassie supporters out there, called the “Cassie hive.”

As a society, we are fascinated by stories of romantic rivals. Two men competing for a woman is the classic love triangle, hailing all the way back to medieval chivalric romances and even older stories featuring men fighting each other to win the heart of a woman, or sometimes of men discovering they may have been cuckolded by another. But when the story is about two women competing over a man (which is less common in older literature), the tone is different. A man “beats” rivals to “win” a woman’s heart. But women are said to “steal” men from other women. This language reflects the way masculine rivalry in love is more legitimized in our society, while the taboo against women quote “stealing” men remains uniquely powerful.

Suze: “I’m pointing out the principle.”

Cassie: “What principle?”

Suze: “The ‘don’t f**k your best friend’s boyfriend’ principle.” - Euphoria

Twitter, or at least, the most vocal parts of it, seem to have taken the story straight—Cassie is the villain for betraying Maddy by hooking up with Nate. But if we look closer, this love triangle actually comments on the way we tend to think about women fighting over men. Even though Cassie is supposed to be the “temptress” in this scenario, she isn’t forward and independent like the women who “steal” men are often portrayed to be. Also, she is a complete romantic. This sweetly naive girl is obsessed with the idea of true love, and believes that to achieve that kind of love, you need to sacrifice everything. Meanwhile, the male “prize” being fought over here, Nate, is a clear villain. The audience knows that really, neither girl is supposed to be with him.

And that’s actually what makes this version of the “other woman” love triangle so tragic. Maddy may be fierce and kind of scary when wronged, but she is an excellent friend to Cassie. So more than the “woman scorned” who’s concerned with keeping her man, maybe she’s a woman who is upset because she loves her friend.

Maddy: “This isn’t about Nate. This is about you, and me, and our friendship.” - Euphoria

Pick-Mes: Cringe and Contempt Turned Inward

After Cassie and Nate hook up, she becomes obsessed with him. This is what set off the other half of Twitter—the ones that didn’t want Maddy to bash in Cassie’s skull, but instead found Cassie pitiable and cringeworthy.

Some pointed out that Nate is abusive and sociopathic, and Cassie must be an idiot for not seeing this. Others focused on the way Nate’s treatment of Cassie indicates that he isn’t even that interested in her. Still others suggested Cassie’s delusional for ignoring hints that he may be closeted (though Nate actor Jacob Elordi commented on how this question is more complicated than a clear-cut matter of orientation, due to Nate’s issues with his father’s sexual behavior.).

But mostly, what bothered people about season 2 Cassie was her readiness to go to any lengths to make a guy want her. The beginnings of Cassie’s obsession are shown in her morning ritual—the camera shakes as Cassie manically primps, trying to make herself absolutely perfect just in case Nate notices her. She also begins to dress like Maddy and do her hair and make-up like Maddy, which tells us that her obsession with Nate has completely replaced any sense of self that she has. Donni Davy, the makeup artist for Euphoria, discussed the choices for Cassie’s look in season two, episode seven—quote, “The goal was to sort of shift her whole vibe to the Season 1 era Jules x Maddy x Cassie hybrid that would appeal to Nate or possibly to his subconscious.” Cassie’s hair is blonder, straighter, and more motionless, and her skin much paler, which (according to Davy) “almost suggests that she’s unwell…Gorgeous but weirdly sterile?...” like a “mannequin,” her “youthful innocent energy gone.” All she wants from life is to be Nate’s—to a degree that’s embarrassing to watch.

Cassie: “I belong to you…so I trust you know what’s best.” - Euphoria

Many of the tweets about season 2 Cassie focus on her embarrassing behaviors—the crying, the chasing after Nate, the losing it in public. According to Melissa Dahl, author of Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness, vicarious embarrassment, or cringe, comes in two types—there is contemptuous cringe and compassionate cringe. Compassionate cringe is when you genuinely feel bad that a person is experiencing humiliation. Contemptuous cringe is when you instead feel derision and contempt toward the person. More tweets about Cassie fall into this second category.

We often tend to cringe at things that we recognize, to a degree, in ourselves. Dahl writes, “Embarrassment is what the research typically classifies as a self-conscious emotion, which would suggest that you wouldn’t feel it unless you had some kind of personal investment in the thing that is making you cringe.” So it’s possible that the people making fun of Cassie on Twitter may also, to some degree, be making fun of themselves. After all, the experience of crushing on someone so hard that you devote all of your thoughts and energy to them isn’t unique to Cassie.

Rue: “Even if Nate pretended not to notice her…It was her way of telling him that she was his.” - Euphoria

And Cassie’s losing her sense of self and getting obsessed with a guy after sleeping with him is very common young girl behavior. That feeling of spotting your crush in the school hallway—and that experience where you know you’re being treated poorly, but you tell yourself that you can somehow muscle your way through the bad parts into an actually good relationship—are all instantly recognizable to most of us, even if we don’t like to admit it or dwell on the times when we might have acted similarly.

Death of the Author: What the Show Is Telling Us

At the end of season 2, we watch, along with all of Euphoria High, a play written by Cassie’s sister, Lexi. It creates a kaleidoscopic effect—within the world of Euphoria High that we are watching, there is another, smaller, snowglobe Euphoria, that the characters themselves are watching.

Much of the play is focused on Cassie (or Hallie, as she’s called in the play) and what growing up next to her was like for Lexi. Lexi expresses a lot of the crueler things we tend to think about women who put male attention at the center of their lives—jealousy that they have all that attention, mixed with an insinuation that they are vain, vapid, and talentless.

Hallie: “Uck, I look disgusting!”

Lexi: “Hey, Hallie, I’m in the middle of somethin’.”

Hallie: “It’s just, this dress is so not flattering.” - Euphoria

At the same time, even within the play, Lexi has insight into the fact that the way people react to Cassie-slash-Hallie is not altogether in her control, and that all Cassie really wants is love.

Lexi: “At that age, we all thought we knew what love looked like. None of us had any idea what it actually was.” - Euphoria

This desire to find true love is really at the core of Cassie’s quote “sluttiness”—she acts the way she does, prioritizing guys over friends, centering her life around male attention—to find love.

Cassie’s season 1 arc doesn’t really nudge audiences to have an opinion for or against her. Cassie makes questionable choices, but also terrible, undeserved things happen to her. It illuminates the low self-esteem that drives her behavior, while showing how her every sexual act with a guy is held against her by her peers—and (far from us having moved past slut-shaming behaviors) in our age of nudes and everyone filming everything, the damage to someone’s reputation can be even fiercer and more concrete.

Nate: “She’s a f***ing whore through and through, bro.” - Euphoria

But in season 2, we see Cassie do less and less forgivable things—like be terrible to Maddy, who truly loves her, and sacrifice everything, including every shred of identity she has, for the worst person on the show. It feels like Euphoria is inviting us to judge Cassie, almost trying to bait us into hating her.

Within the snowglobe of Euphoria High, this judgment of Cassie happens on the stage of Lexi’s play. And even though Cassie snaps and jumps up on the stage trying to vindicate herself—yelling at Lexi, and by extension at us—Euphoria still does not make Cassie’s perspective become the primary one, because that would lift the responsibility off of us.

Cassie: “You never even f***ing lived! That’s why you’re able to stand up here and judge all of us!” - Euphoria

As Cassie is speaking, she is interrupted by the play-version of herself.

Hallie: “I just love f***ing everything.” - Euphoria

This scene alludes to the infamous carousel scene from season 1 in which Cassie overdoes it with Molly and gets extremely horny on a merry-go-round, while being ogled and filmed by onlookers. Cassie snaps and attacks her play counterpart. And this vision—a woman seeing a version of herself being made fun of for public entertainment, snapping, and being again put on display for snapping—is very recognizable in our culture. Euphoria knows that culturally, we are obsessed with watching women go off the rails, especially if these women are beautiful and popular. The public and the media were mesmerized in the aughts by the very public unravelings of women like Britney Spears, Amanda Bynes, Lindsay Lohan, and Amy Winehouse.

The public’s reactions to Cassie’s descent into madness prove that, perhaps, we’re still just as susceptible to treating the sight of a popular woman in pain as pure entertainment as we were then.

It’s easy enough to empathize with a girl like Cassie to a degree, for a little while—as long as she eventually gets her act together and stops making the same stupid mistakes on repeat while baselessly expecting the outcome to be different. But can we still maintain empathy and respect for her if she doesn’t snap out of that cycle? Ultimately, Cassie’s arc in season 2 of Euphoria is a challenge, almost like we were asked: will you stay with us through the points we’re trying to make, or will you again get seduced and distracted by the spectacle of a beautiful girl going nuts, and again forget to actually feel for her? Judging by reactions online, both things happened. There’s a spirited debate going on between those disgusted and embarrassed by Cassie and those who are feeling for her—and that in itself is progress.

SOURCES

Alarcon-Najarro, Monica. “‘Euphoria’s’ Hypersexualisation of Cassie Howard Is Problematic.” The Commonwealth Times, 2 Feb. 2022, https://commonwealthtimes.org/2022/02/02/euphorias-hypersexualization-of-cassie-howard-is-problematic/.

“Britney Spears’ Infamous Attack Umbrella Hitting Auction Block.” TMZ, 26 July 2017, https://www.tmz.com/2017/07/26/britney-spears-green-umbrella-attack-auction/.

Finke, Tracy. “How Angelina Jolie Stole Brad Pitt from Jennifer Anniston: The Secret Revealed.” DemotiX, 1 Apr. 2020, https://demotix.com/angelina-jolie-stole-brad-pitt-from-jennifer-aniston/.

Fleeman, Mike. “Britney Spears Apologizes for Umbrella Attack.” People, 5 July 2007, https://people.com/celebrity/britney-spears-apologizes-for-umbrella-attack/.

Hardwick, Jack. “Britney Spears Stayed up for Three Days Straight on Prescription Drugs during Meltdown, Says Ex Adnan Ghalib in New Doc.” The US Sun, 28 Sep. 2021, https://www.the-sun.com/entertainment/tv/3750690/britney-spears-drugs-meltdown-ex-adnan-ghalib/.

Lutz, John. “‘Euphoria’ Has Reportedly Become the Most-Tweeted About Show of This Decade.” Collider, 26 Feb. 2022, https://collider.com/euphoria-most-tweeted-series-2020-zendaya/#:~:text=Per%20Twitter%2C%20HBO%27s%20Euphoria%20is,in%20this%20decade%20thus%20far.

Koop, Annie. “The Controversy behind ‘Euphoria’ Creator Sam Levinson.” Empoword Journalism, 15 Mar. 2022, http://www.empowordjournalism.com/all-articles/entertainment/the-controversy-behind-euphoria-creator-sam-levinson/.

Mason, Melissa. “Why Is ‘Euphoria’ Hyper-Sexualising Cassie through the Male Gaze?” Grazia, https://graziamagazine.com/articles/euphoria-male-gaze-cassie/.

Nicholson, Barry. “A Most Modern Tragedy: Why We’re All to Blame for the Death of Amy Winehouse.” NME, 23 July 2018, https://www.nme.com/features/a-most-modern-tragedy-why-were-all-to-blame-for-the-death-of-amy-winehouse-756784.

Smith, Lizzie. “Angelina Jolie Admits She Stole Brad Pitt from Jennifer Anniston.” News.com.au, 19 Oct. 2008, https://www.news.com.au/entertainment/angelina-admits-she-stole-brad-from-jen/news-story/6799f6f5b52d3074b01b0f3e54bc66a4.

Waters, Lauren. “A Tale of Two Tubs: The Bathtubs of ‘Euphoria.’” Collider, 3 Mar. 2022, https://collider.com/euphoria-cassie-ashtray-bathtub-themes-explained/.
“We Owe Britney Spears an Apology.” Her Campus, 3 Mar. 2021, https://www.hercampus.com/school/ufl/we-owe-britney-spears-apology/.