Words by Jasmine Crowhurst
Trigger Warning: References to Sexual abuse and abortion are mentioned.
Contains Spoilers for Euphoria season 2
“Cassie fell in love with every guy she ever dated. Whether they were smart or stupid or sweet or cruel, it didn’t matter. She didn’t like to be alone.”
HBO’s Euphoria is provocative, aesthetically pleasing and a little tragic. The teen drama series is beautifully honest, captivating viewers with its empathetic depiction of teenagers grappling with their identities, personal traumas and explorations of love, sex, and drugs under the umbrella of the high school world.
The show is highly controversial through its summarisation of modern addiction, sexual fluidity, and teen angst in the lives of its deeply flawed characters. This overarching dysfunctionality shown in each one of the characters is what seems to draw us in, scoffing that their chaotic lives are totally outrageous, but the issues these characters deal with aren’t all that far-fetched from that of teenagers in the real world.
Supported by a predominantly female ensemble cast, the show is packed full of diverse representations of young and wounded women. The girls of Euphoria are compelling and divergent and troubled, radiant but equally miserable, but I would like to take a moment to explore just one in focus, Cassie Howard.
Sydney Sweeney plays the sweet yet emotionally troubled Cassie, who perceives her sex appeal as defining her self-worth. It is easy to dislike Cassie for many reasons; sleeping with her best friend’s ex is betrayal, especially when she witnessed first-hand how badly boyfriend Nate treated best friend Maddy.
At the same time, it is hard not to sympathise with her. Her relationship with her boyfriend, Chris McKay, in season one, and her relationships with men overall show that although she appears confident, she has deep-rooted abandonment issues that cause her to be a people-pleaser, and consistently go in harm’s way to feel loved.
She’s flawed and at times naïve, which makes her an easy target for people to manipulate, and we see this exploited by Nate in the later episodes of season two. While she is not entirely the victim in this situation, it’s hard not to empathise with her given her traumatic past.
Her issues seem pale in comparison when you consider the struggles of some of the other characters, like Rue or Jules, but it is still trauma. A victim of revenge porn, sexual coercion, and recovering from a recent abortion, Cassie is coping with deep wounds by masking her pain through a facade of perfection.
She embodies many of the ‘sad white girl’ and ‘pick-me girl’ tropes we see in the media, who we love to hate, but when you look closer, in ways she is just like the rest of us. She reflects the influence society has when it tells women their value is based on the way they look. Here, Cassie is seen to use her pretty privilege and conventionally attractive figure to gain the elusive affection she craves. The show highlights how her beauty is simultaneously a curse and the only thing that keeps her afloat.
Cassie’s best and worst trait is that she loves love. For Cassie, the desire to be loved becomes her object of addiction, like Rue’s is drugs. Her backstory illustrates how her life up until now has primed her to be this way. She grew up with an alcoholic mother and an absent addict dad, with a family that sexualised her at a young age, which shaped her dependency on male validation.
We’re reminded of her deep yearning for male validation and approval as we watch her bordering-on-manic beauty ritual, where she wakes up at 4am to make herself ‘perfect’. We see her aggressively scrub her face each morning, primp her makeup and hair, all too diligently waiting to catch Nate’s eye, so his approval would validate her efforts.
In season one, McKay asks her why she must make everything sexual when they are hanging out, and it’s because she’s been manipulated into thinking that sex is her only value, and she wants to be loved. She has said yes to everything guys have asked her to do in romantic relationships. Their validation means everything to her.
Yet, despite her best efforts to please, McKay cannot admit their relationship to his friends because of the associations surrounding Cassie, which is a pretty accurate depiction of how boys view and treat girls that have sex in secondary school. She is a realistic character who represents many girls who, like her, have personalities outside of being sexual or flirtatious, but no one ever acknowledges those parts.
Whilst male emotions are harshly suppressed, we view them as more ‘real’ and profound when they are presented in the media. In the same environment, female pain is considered overfamiliar and inauthentic in comparison. Nate, for example, despite his deplorable actions, still receives some sexualised attention from the audience. However, Cassie, who’s mistakes pale in comparison to Nate’s severe manipulation, blackmail, physical and verbal abuse to the point where he holds Maddy at gunpoint, is largely shamed by fans on social media.
What is laughable is Cassie’s biggest mistake is not her action alone- it was shared with Nate. Nate chose to be with Cassie, who he obviously knows is his ex-girlfriend’s best friend, and an ex of his own friend McKay. Yet Cassie seems to bear the brunt of the backlash, and her emotional outbursts are met with hostility and even silence from her mother and Lexi, leading her delusional view of the situation to make her spiral further.
Sydney Sweeney’s character falls into the same traps as many infamous chaotic heroines seem to dabble in: promiscuity, deviance, delusion, and wild behaviour. Seen in Serena Van Der Woodsen from Gossip Girl, who slept with her best friend’s boyfriend, her wild erratic behaviour and inner troubles align in similar ways to Cassie.
Elements of Cassie’s behaviour in season two also echo that of Effy from Skins. She was always quiet, her silence making her mysterious and interesting. Similarly, we see Cassie finally explode in the bathroom, paradoxically crying that she has “never, ever been happier”, only to realise this is all in Cassie’s imagination, and in reality she says nothing at all, simply looking ahead in the mirror and fixing her hair.
In the same way Effy’s wild behaviour makes her exciting, and she is perceived as someone that men want to protect, Cassie is used by the men in her life, and she actively seeks this protection and comfort from having a boyfriend figure. These chaotic heroines are romanticised for their mental troubles, which we see even as far back as Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where Ophelia’s fantastical hysteria is driven by the actions of men.
Cassie’s toxic behaviour and poor choices make it difficult to continue to root for her, and it seems by the end of the season that the consequences of her actions have finally caught up to her. Whilst she arguably deserves it, I think a deeper understanding of the complexity of her character is required, and that the show should explore this in future seasons. I hope that things will be better for Cassie, that she will choose herself rather than cling to the supposed ‘love’ of others. She’s done bad things, but Cassie isn’t a bad person, and like the rest of the Euphoria teens—they are still young, living in bad circumstances that have clearly messed them up.