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Sam Levinson: What Does Hollywood's Latest Controversy Teach Us About Leadership?

Sam Levinson is the straight white male leading force behind HBO’s hugely successful show, Euphoria, which just finished airing its second season.

In the weeks that followed the release of his show's second season, several controversies concerning Levinson’s original intentions for the direction of his characters came to light. Although the actresses involved, Barbie Ferreira and Sydney Sweeney, have recently come forward to debunk these rumours, the attention given to Levinson’s creative choices prompted me to think about the leadership responsibilities he has as the show’s sole writer.

Good Leaders Know When To Ask For Help

Basing the show off his personal experiences with drug addiction, one might expect Levinson to have written a straight, white man for his lead. Instead, he created Rue Bennett, a queer, biracial girl. What are the implications of such a decision? What does it say about Levinson as a creator, as an industry leader, and as a person with a significant amount of privilege, that he feels qualified to capture the voice and represent the experiences of a character so unlike himself?

Anyone should be able to write from any perspective, provided that the story the characters move through is one that the writer is equipped to tell. Levinson is equipped to tell a story about a teenager struggling with drug addiction, which is why his episodes that focus on this subject are some of the strongest in the series; however, Levinson extends his writing beyond the topic of addiction and into the realms of sexuality, race and gender. While, of course, Levinson has his own sexuality, race and gender which he is welcome to explore, one questions whether he is the right person to voice people struggling with the effects of marginalisation when he has never felt them himself.

To credit Levinson, the tenth episode of Euphoria’s first season stands out from the main series as offering keen insight into one of his characters’, Jules, relationship with her trans identity. Hunter Schafer, the trans woman who plays the part of Jules, co-wrote the episode with Levinson, so evidently, though clearly protective of his creative vision, Levinson knows when to consult the people he’s writing about in order to tell their story well and from a place of authenticity. Likewise, Zendaya receives credit as an executive producer for the whole series, suggesting that Levinson appreciates her as a valuable asset when it comes to shaping a character he has very little in common with.

Where Sam Levinson Went Wrong

That being said, Levinson’s decision to develop his minor characters into more of an ensemble cast, while remaining the show’s sole writer, has resulted in a clear drop in quality in the show overall, which supports my initial qualms with Levinson’s overambition to be a voice for everyone. Where Rue and Jules are well-written, multifaceted, interesting, flawed, sympathetic characters, Levinson has also created very surface level archetypes in these minor roles, and does little to subvert or evolve them into original characters.

To give two examples: there’s the hypermasculine, abusive, entitled, rich, high school quarterback, Nate Jacobs, who has anger issues and problems with internalised homophobia; and there’s the hyperfeminine, self-sexualised, self-destructive, blonde bimbo, Cassie Howard, who judges her self worth via male validation. Nate and Cassie are nothing we haven’t seen before, and together they form an obvious couple. While Levinson clearly wants us to enjoy the justice they are dealt during the season’s climax, somehow I ended up feeling sorry for the two of them instead.

We’re provided with a myriad of crimes for which Nate and Cassie deserve to be held accountable, including drink-driving, committing assault, domestic abuse, and blackmail, but confusingly, Levinson chooses to punish Nate and Cassie for the very things that make their characters interesting. We are encouraged, as an audience, to cheer along with some of the more likeable characters in the show as they expose Nate and Cassie’s deepest insecurities, or in other words, only the parts of themselves that they have the least control over — their sexuality and gender.

Jarringly reframed as a victim, Nate calls out his bullies’ homophobia, becoming the second antagonist in the series to attempt to champion gay rights. Hollywood has a long history of queer-coding its villains, and so it's frustrating to see Levinson perpetuating the same model in contemporary work.

Levinson suggests Nate’s potential queerness and Cassie’s toxic femininity to be the root of their problems, wading into unchartered territory in terms of his own lived experience. The show suffers as a result by, ultimately, delivering the hugely problematic message that you can get away with being homophobic or misogynistic towards someone if they’re a bad person who does bad things.

Levinson’s second season is packed with conflict and action but lacking in thoughtful, interesting direction for these characters, which suggests that even the most talented leaders need support from a team of diverse individuals in order to sustain a series like Euphoria that discusses such huge, intersectional issues.

The Fear of Being Cancelled

In this age of cancel culture, gatekeeping, and performative activism, leaders who identify as members of dominant demographics within their industries have developed an anxiety about taking on positions of leadership over minorities. The fear of being accused of misrepresentation, cultural appropriation, or drowning out underrepresented voices is being shared around by those at the top of creative industries, a space traditionally populated by privileged individuals with liberal opinions. I wonder whether Sam Levinson’s attempt to single-handedly write such a diverse range of characters stemmed from his own anxiety at being a straight white man in charge, feeling the need to replace himself with a queer, biracial girl.

Comedians in particular seem interested in exploring this fear through their material. Either, they reject political correctness and denounce it as a form of censorship, citing wokeness as a threat to all comedy, or they use it as an excusatory prerequisite to continue working in their field guilt-free. A great example of this can be found in comedian, Bo Burnham’s, critically-acclaimed Inside (2021), in which he admits in the first ten minutes of the special that people like him have “had the floor for at least 400 years, so maybe I should just shut the fuck up”, before launching into the rest of his highly introspective one-man show. But that’s the joke. Burnham feels trapped in this paradox, confused about whether he should use his privilege to make the world a better place or not. He is, however, unable to resolve the issue beyond drawing attention to it.

This anxiety stems from the huge misperception that creators from privileged backgrounds will be criticised and inevitably cancelled, simply because they’re privileged. There seems to have developed a belief that, because their creative voice isn’t marginalised, it, therefore, isn’t interesting enough to audiences seeking diverse perspectives. But this isn’t the case. Even those considered guilty of real bigotry continue to have their work commissioned, win awards, and receive attention and new opportunities to continue spreading harmful rhetoric.

So where does this anxiety come from if there aren’t any real consequences for those that contribute, whether intentionally or not, to the marginalisation and discrimination of others through their work?

Perhaps a better question would be, why do people feel the need to talk about this fear at all? Because, currently, this conversation is being used as an excuse for those in positions of privilege to avoid actively trying to better the situation. It’s much easier to play the victim or excuse yourself from the conversation than to confront your own ignorance and actively try to change.

What Can Levinson Do To Change?

The success of Euphoria has shot Levinson into the limelight, but an examination of his previous work finds him guilty of similarly poor choices. His 2021 film, Malcolm and Marie, was criticised for using black characters as “shields” for Levinson to attack his critics behind. He uses black voices to complain about his own white problems and equates the experiences of a black man working in the film industry with those of his own.

It could be that Levinson suffers from the same kind of anxiety-inducing guilt that Bo Burnham addresses in Inside, and is worried that his lived experiences aren’t original enough for contemporary audiences. But we will continue to support these narratives for as long as they remain interesting to us. We’re all clearly still captivated by the plight of the dominant demographic, whether it's portrayed as tragic in films like Fight Club and Joker, or comedic in shows like Succession and It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Despite this, Sam Levinson prefers to pander to his audience rather than confront his problematic need to rely on minorities for validation as a leader within the creative industries.

Euphoria contributed to the recent groundbreaking rise in representation for lesbian relationships on TV, and so it's hard to dispute that Levinson’s work has value, but if he is to continue portraying all of his characters authentically, Levinson has to diversify the writing team.

Madeleine Green is a freelance writer, and an intern for The Industry Leaders. She graduated from university in 2020 with a degree in education, and her interests include sociology, literature and current affairs. Connect with Madeleine on LinkedIn.

Main Image: Gage Skidmore


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