gender // euphoria // shadows // online

Aug 14 · 11 min read
Photo by Sora Sagano on Unsplash

This summer has been one full of euphoria for me. Not only have I been coding interview transcripts with trans youth who have used the phrase “gender euphoria” to describe moments of joy they experience in life, but I have also been watching HBO’s breakout series Euphoria. The first season of the show, which ostensibly centers on the sex and drug-soaked experiences of suburban youth navigating adolescence, also weaves a shadow-side narrative in which viewers are treated to a provocative ongoing mediation centering on dis/connection, depression, identity and, as the show’s title suggests, how each character chases euphoria as a desired state of being. The show is intense both in content and production, and that intensity also acts as a performative device to surround viewers in the often-overwhelming press of euphoria as an affective state. In other words, the show both traces and uses euphoria as a device through which to explore the raw and visceral nature of connections between and among people living, loving, and searching for meaning together.

Although not always the case, euphoria has come to be used as a way to designate “a feeling of intense excitement and happiness.” However, the word, which originates from the Greek euphoros, used to signify the wellbeing produced in a sick person by the use of drugs. In learning this, I paused, wondering what the connections may be between euphoria as an affective state of being-in-the-world and Euphoria as a show. Moreover, I began to wonder how gender mediated both euphoria and Euphoria, being that trans youth had used the term “gender euphoria,” and one of the main characters in Euphoria is Jules, a trans girl played by the trans model and actress Hunter Schafer. What are the gender dis/connections between euphoria and Euphoria? How do drugs act as a metaphor that tethers the these dis/connections? How do drugs-as-metaphor — both from the word’s Greek origins as well as their placement in the show — act as a door through which one can ask questions about trans visibility in the current sociopolitical moment, questions that may encourage us to let go of some of the ways of strategizing we once held to be axiomatic? Additionally, I am wondering how the use of the Internet — the main focus on my current research with trans youth — acts as a form of drug that then induces such euphoria. Might the Internet act as a sort of drug promoting gender euphoria?

I. Gender Euphoria as a Feeling

Gender euphoria: a feeling of intense gender excitement and gender happiness. A fleeting, always being pursued sense of self, one that feels always already out of reach. A feeling that is always being chased, and once it is caught, it is never for too long.

Euphoria is an escapist fantasy. It dabbles not in the real, or the here and now, but in the imagination, and in that which is yet to come. There is, however, a shadow side to imagining beyond, and that is the loss inherent in the current moment. If euphoria signals a desire for that which has not yet come, then it also signals that which is not, and perhaps may never be, here. If euphoria signals a desire for an unreal future tense, then it also signals an unreal present tense. Connected to gender, then, it may seem that euphoria signals both a multiplicity of future possibilities, as well as an always already loss. This confusion of affect, this crashing sense of loss in the present, is notably acute for those of us who are trans girls, women, and femmes.

In Eva Hayward’s piece Don’t Exist, she reminds her readers of the seeming existential impossibility of trans + woman. Not that we ourselves are not-real, or not-women, but that we are constantly and consistently hailed to not exist. In fact, she goes further than this, suggesting that not only are we always brought into being through death — the counting of dead trans women as a signifier of how anti-Black racism has always been a mainstay of transmisogyny — but that even when we do exist, we are told — by individuals, by governments, by policies, by discourses sedimented over time — that we do not. In this way, our being becomes a lie, a fiction in the worst of ways, and we are erased in/from plain sight. We are not trans + woman because we could/can never become trans + woman. This is not just a bodily fact — think of the ongoing murders of trans women as an assertion of such — but an epistemological one, as well. If the mode of being is cordoned off, then the material for being is, too. Trans + woman becomes [trans] + woman, an insertion into a never-could-be material reality, signaling various forms of loss in the present.

Euphoria is fleeting, and marks a liminality, both in the present as well as the future-future, after the drug-induced state wears off. For trans women, girls, and femmes, the loss that is the shadow side of euphoria sounds like terror, the omnipresent low buzz of seething vitriol most politely coming across as, “But what are you really?,” which is a hostile answer in the form of a question, so as to provide a level of plausible deniability to the phobic person discharging the utterance. Sure, we seek euphoria. We always have. We just do it in the shadows.

II. Gender Euphoria in the Shadows

Gender euphoria: the production of a brief, altered state of being-in-the-world as trans.

Shadows feature prominently in the lives of trans people, especially trans women. For example, in two recent television dramas featuring trans women — HBO’s Euphoriaand FX’s Pose — there is both the strategic use of shadows in the production of the show (i.e., Euphoria) as well as a discourse of shadows as a gatekeeper to public life (i.e., Pose). In Pose, daytime is ascribed to realness, thus conjuring a tacit connection between darkness and shadows as unreal, or perhaps read in a more forgiving way, as superseding the realness imposed by a heteronormative daytime society. In the darkness of the ballroom, trans women can be real on their own terms. They can mock white cisheteropatriarchy through mimicry and play acting, holding the fragility of those who project their nontrans genders to be stable, immutable, and natural as an object with which to tinker.

These profusions of queer- and transness in the dark are stretched to their limits in Euphoria, a show that takes place mostly in the shadows. Evening parties, the darkness of rooms, a nighttime county fair, and apps hiding behind darkened phone screens are the locations through which Euphoria’s characters come to life. In particular, Jules, a white trans girl who is a central figure through the series, seeks and develops her own sense of (gender) euphoria in the dark. In one episode, she asks her friend Rue — played by the immensely talented Zendaya — to take nude and semi-nude photos of her, all of which are taken in her darkly shadowed bedroom. When she goes back to the city she had lived in previously, Jules shows signs of freedom, of heightened euphoria, upon returning. We, the audience, witness this through Jules’ sticking her legs out of her friend’s car window, and standing up through her friend’s car moonroof, singing and dancing as she does. It is, as you may have guessed, nighttime.

In one fairly intimate scene, the first in which Jules actively addresses her growth into her trans femininity, she is laying on her back while a new friend (or is she a love interest?) applies eyeshadow and eyeliner. As she is getting made up — having femininity caked onto her, for, as Eric Plemon’s workwould remind us, the face has become the place where gender has moved as a main site of determining femininity — she talks about her trans becoming. She states:

I remember being in Sears with my first pair of heels in my backpack and my heart was fucking racing…and I got home and went straight to my room and locked the door, put ’em on, and it just felt like I was collecting herbs and making potions in order to up my mana, you know? Like, it started with that and then it was clothes and then it was makeup, and eventually hormones. Um, I just kind of kept leveling up.

Here, Jules is making a specific reference to Magic: The Gathering. Although there are ways to build decks online, it remains — as it was when I was growing up — largely a tabletop game. And still, Magic: The Gathering is a decidedly virtual world, one to which Jules can — and clearly does — escape to in search of her own gender euphoria. Magic: The Gathering is her virtual conduit, a shadowy nexus through which she can continue to level up her own femininity, becoming the trans woman she is — that is simultaneously foreclosed by society — and desires to be. Shadows converge to shine a light on Jules’ transness. The dimly light room in which she is laying for her makeover; the dark corners of Magic: The Gathering as a virtual landscape, an alternate universe where she collects herbs and mixes potions to level up her transfemininity; the way that she is seen best, and reveals herself most, in the dark palette of the show itself.

Not only does Jules chase the euphoria of her own transgirlhood in the dark, but she is always shown as being happiest in the shadows. And this, to me, is a vital aspect that must be addressed in thinking about the possibilities for what, where, when, and how gender euphoria may be imagined as any prolonged state of being.

As Tourmaline has reminded time and again, it is irksome — to put it lightly — that the rise in trans visibility in the United States — particularly for trans women of color — has coincided with the ongoing rise in trans women of color being murdered. In Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility — which she, Eric Stanley, and Johanna Burton edited — there are constant reminders that one cannot make a direct line between visibility and liberation. Not only have trans people been visible for generations — inviting readers to ask, “To whom must one be visible, and in what form, for it to matter?” — but being visible to broader nontrans publics is not a way to generate safety. Similarly, Dean Spade has written painfully about how the exposing of queer death has led to the U.S. nation-state further funding the police and prison industrial complex, both of which continue to harass, arrest, lock up, harm, and kill trans people, particularly trans women of color.

For Tourmaline, Stanley, and Burton, the trap door of trans visibility that their anthology explores is one that both offers new possibilities and amplifies ongoing violence. The trap door as a metaphor provides a platform for thinking about the ongoing ways trans people are trapped in the violent realities of being visibly trans in a world saturated with transphobia, transmisogyny, and transmisogynoir. And yet, the notion of the trap door also provides a threshold across which we — namely trans people — may be able to move to experience life in fundamentally different, freer, and more liberating ways. Not that such liberation is permanent, but there are ways, places, and times in which we may hold loosely to a visibility that works for us, and on our terms; where we may have our own prolonged experiences of gender euphoria. Enter the Internet as one potential trap door through which trans people may have these prolonged experiences.

III. Gender Euphoria on the Internet

Gender euphoria: gender wellbeing produced in a person experiencing dysphoria by the use of the Internet.

As I have been thinking about/through euphoria — and doing so while watching Euphoria — I have wondered if the way we can get closest to gender euphoria as trans women is to carve out spaces in the darkness, to find the shadows and steal away there, where we can collect our herbs and mix our potions to up our mana. And, in my research with trans youth, I am beginning to recognize the potential of the Internet as that shadowy place. That is, while there is a lot of justified conversation about the Internet as a mode by which to democratize information and bring things into broader public view, it also acts as a private, highly curatable space through which trans people can seek and experience gender euphoria. And, even though such a seeking signals a present loss, I do wonder if the prolonged time trans people may spend online could be a recognition that perhaps we are able to stretch the fleeting nature out, even just a bit. That is, if the Internet acts as a metaphorical drug by which trans people can chase, find, and try to capture gender euphoria, and if trans people keep on engaging online — and do so in particular ways that fit their/our own particular needs — then maybe the time in which we spend is a signal of trying to have those gender euphoric moments last…longer.

In the research that grounded my book Trans* In College, Jackson, a trans college student, told me, “The Internet is basically my hometown.” In thinking about gender euphoria as affect, how Jules is moving through the shadowy world of Euphoria, and my current research exploring how trans people are using the Internet as a site for experiencing gender wellbeing through curating future possible selves and community with others, Jackson’s comment makes perfect sense. If our current condition as trans is one framed by loss, by the always already inaccessible existential possibility of existing, then why wouldn’t we set up camp in those places where we can hide in the shadows and chase, seek, and experience gender euphoria? Why wouldn’t we use online platforms and virtual landscapes in ways that let us envision beyond our bodies, or allow us to think our bodies in completely new ways? Why wouldn’t we go to the place where euphoria feels a bit more possible, and lingers a little bit longer, and allows us to be with others who are a little bit more like us?

While there is much more to excavate through the data I and several others are currently analyzing and theorizing around related to being trans online, there is one important point that ought to be made: this isn’t an either/or proposition. What these data, what my theorization, and what these ongoing conversations are most decidedly notsaying is that trans people need to exist either on the Internet or “in real life.” This is the trap of the trap door metaphor. Instead, the research, theorizing, and pairing of the two with images of trans women through popular culture provides a trap door through which we can imagine more, different, and beyond the violence framing our lives, that cries out, “Don’t exist.” There isn’t an “easy” answer here. It isn’t about being on or offline. What it is about is perhaps recognizing the possibilities that pervade throughout, while also holding loosely to the complex realities that, for some who are heavily invested in white cisheteropatriarchy, we were never meant to — and indeed do not — exist.

And yet, here we are, proliferating in the shadows.

Z Nicolazzo

Written by

Assistant Professor, Trans* Studies in Education, Center for the Study of Higher Education, University of Arizona

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