The most interesting transgender character on television doesn’t utter the words “I’m trans” until three episodes into her show.
The show is Euphoria, HBO’s controversy-courting teen drama, and the character is Jules, a charismatic young transgender girl with Rapinoe-pink hair and a heart that looks for love in all the wrong places. Jules is brought to life by transgender model Hunter Schafer, acting the hell out of her debut role opposite Zendaya, who plays Jules’s best friend Rue.
Euphoria is a series that clearly wants a reaction, regularly touching hot buttons like 9/11, the opioid crisis, and sexting—and a reaction Euphoria will get. But years from now, long after the hot takes have cooled and the show itself has been reduced to a blur of sex scenes in our collective cultural consciousness, we will still remember Jules. A character like her is hard to dream up, harder to portray, and harder still for a creator to handle with care.
The fact that Jules is transgender isn’t exactly a secret in the episodes that HBO has aired thus far. The context clues are all there: a few oblique references in the dialogue, a handful of visual cues. Whereas the (still-groundbreaking) Orange is the New Black seemed to go out of its way to announce that Laverne Cox’s character Sophia was transgender in every single scene, Euphoria trusts its audience to pick up on the hints and follow along.
“Yes, she’s transgender,” the show seems to say. “But that’s not all there is to her.”
Indeed, Jules—like transgender people more generally—is so many things besides simply transgender. She is silly and has a strong sense of style. She likes to ride her bike through the orange groves, even at night. She spends way too much time on her phone. She melts under attention, even when it’s coming from people who could prove dangerous.
It’s not that Euphoria refuses to acknowledge Jules’s gender identity or to use it as a plot point. The show does both. But it does so without reducing the rich complexity that is Jules to her transgender status and—so far—without trotting out the same tired transgender tropes that have plagued Hollywood since the days of The Crying Game.
Whereas that 1992 film revealed that a character was transgender as a plot twist, Euphoria is set in a high school where the Gen Z student body seems to already know, more or less, about Jules. Viewers who missed context clues might be surprised when Jules vocalizes that she’s trans in the third episode—in a conversation with Rue, who cuts her off, because it’s not new information—but Euphoria doesn’t treat the revelation like a rug to be pulled out from under the audience. If you knew, fine. If you missed it, catch up.
And although Jules’s gender identity certainly plays a role in how the other characters treat her—be it sexual assault, verbal harassment, or erotic fetishization—Jules as a character is allowed to do so much more than endure violence and discrimination.
Narratively, she has spent much of Euphoria so far being courted via text message by an anonymous boy who found her profile on a gay dating app. The boy goes to her school. Drama predictably ensues. But Jules is most captivating to watch in her many richly-textured scenes with Rue, who develops a crush on Jules while struggling with drug addiction. Euphoria likes to take big swings, and it misses some of them, but the show always returns to this tender friendship between a cisgender young woman and her transgender BFF, who bond not just over shared histories of trauma but through bike rides and sleepovers and lunchroom banter.
Zendaya and Schafer capture the beauty of this cis-trans, platonic-romantic bond with a chemistry that arguably hasn’t been seen on TV since the Emmy-nominated web series Her Story. (In an interview with W Magazine, Schafer said that she and Zendaya had formed “a really special bond—and it shows.)
“I hate everyone else in this world but you,” Jules tells Rue, forehead to forehead, right before one of Euphoria’s most gut-wrenching moments to date.
It’s clear that these characters love each other—or, at least, that they need each other in ways deeper than teenagers possesses the emotional maturity to express. But nothing about Euphoriasuggests that this will be a fairy-tale romance in which Rue and Jules run away from their insular town and start a new life together. The show’s prevailing atmosphere of doom will come for them, too. But for now, their bond is gorgeous and, quietly, a step forward for transgender representation writ large.
too. But for now, their bond is gorgeous and, quietly, a step forward for transgender representation writ large.
Euphoria, along with the very different show, Pose, is proving what many LGBTviewers have known all along: There are far more interesting things for transgender characters to do aside from get hurt. It should be obvious that transgender people are people first: people who have friends, people who love, people who yearn for lives bigger than the constraints of their current realities. Pain is unavoidable, so at least let us dream.
Yet showrunners and filmmakers still too often use transgender characters as empty rhetorical vehicles to make some broader point about injustice. While well-intentioned, this approach elides the humanity of these characters—and of the community they represent. They become mere cardboard cutouts to be knocked down, so that the show can then say, “See? That was wrong!”—when, in fact, the best way to humanize a marginalized group is to show them being, well, fully human.
In that respect, much credit goes to writer-creator Sam Levinson, who directed Hari Nef in Assassination Nationlast year—another piece of media that deftly acknowledges a character’s gender identity without making it the central fact of her existence.
But it should be no surprise that Schafer herself reportedly helped Levinson “fill in little pieces” of Jules, as the actress toldW, because the character feels authentic, lived-in, and, most importantly, complicated. The result isn’t just the most interesting transgender character on television right now, but one of the most interesting, period.
Jules, much like Schafer herself, is a sign that we are finally entering a time when being transgender can be a footnote instead of the whole story.