Film & TV

We Need to Talk About Drake

The rapper's unusual history with teen girls and position as executive producer of 'Euphoria,' which hinges on troubling depictions of underage sex, is a dual status worth discussing.
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Although last year you couldn’t go out without hearing “God’s Plan” rumble through a club or frat house, Drake has kept a relatively low profile in 2019, save for his courtside appearances cheering on the Toronto Raptors and side hustle as a reaction GIF. His most recent role as Executive Producer of Euphoria, a spin-off of the Israeli series of the same name, has spurred speculation on exactly what it is the rapper does for the show (besides throw a really good wrap party). Drake got his start in show business on the mid-aughts teen favorite Degrassi, so he clearly knows his way around some high-school melodrama. However, Euphoria stands out for its graphic depictions of teen sexuality, specifically its full-frontal male nudity that defies cable sensibilities. Less subject to discussion, perhaps because they're more normalized, are the near constant portrayals of sex between underage girls and grown men, encounters one can also call statutory rape. 

Many of the girls in Euphoria are new to their sexuality, looking to express themselves and seek out power through sexual agency. Kat, formerly embarrassed about her weight, starts camming with a sugar daddy and realizes that she can be a sexual being without feeling shame. Unfortunately, exploitation and less-than-satisfying sexual encounters with much older men soon follow this happy realization, and Kat lacks the experience to realize that these interactions aren’t empowering; they’re creepy. In the most recent episode, we learn that Maddy lost her virginity to a stranger at the age of 14, with Zendaya’s disembodied voice insisting that she was “in control” the entire time. No matter how confident, feminist, or “empowered” a fourteen-year-old girl may seem, she is never “in control” of a sexual relationship with an adult man.

Throughout the series, Kat (Barbie Ferreira) gains self-confidence camming for adult men. (c/o HBO)

That first encounter prompted a similar journey for Maddy’s sexual awakening, this time with the cheerleader studying porn not for her own enjoyment, but to learn how to best make her boyfriend feel dominant in bed. Rue, narrating, then outlines several casual flings with other men, all of them presumably older. Like most of its explicit content, the show glosses over these instances without condemning the obvious overlying problem—why are these men so cool with minors? Not once has any of the men in question asked the age of Kat, Maddy, Jules, or any other character for that matter before having sexual relations with them. They don’t want to know the answer, and it’s not the responsibility of the minors to know better because they don’t. These girls are battling body image issues, dysphoria, and endless messaging that their worth is synonymous with their sexual prowess and experience. They’re not even in it for the sex, necessarily—they’re in it for the validation. 

No matter how confident, feminist, or “empowered” a fourteen-year-old girl may seem, she is never “in control” of a sexual relationship with an adult man.

Euphoria is hardly first to shed light on this phenomenon. Grown men have debated age of consent laws long before the dawn of Lolita, touting buzzwords like “sexual agency” and “intellectual maturity” as justification for their predatory inclinations. The “jailbait” kink has never been a kink, but merely a means for the coercion and exploitation of young women who haven’t yet navigated their sexualities enough to know the difference between a positive sexual experience and a negative one. Under the guise of “sex-positive” feminism, all sex is good sex, and men know how to use that to their advantage, whether consciously or not. In Euphoria, the random men in question very rarely have machinations of their own. The girls seem to jump into their arms whenever they’re looking to get back at a boyfriend or show off their new harness. There’s no individual manipulation necessary—if anything, the men are subjects to the coercion. Not only does this misconstrue the reality of these situations, it portrays characters like Maddy and Kat as arbiters of their own demise; according to the show, they're naive and promiscuous schoolgirls who trick unsuspecting men into becoming statutory rapists. 

For a show receiving critical acclaim for its “realness,” Euphoria fails its female viewers with this discrepancy. Sure, none of the events in Euphoria count as an endorsement of degenerate teen behavior, but the neutral mirror theory only works if you show an accurate reflection. Many have already pointed out that although the teens in Euphoria practically drown in sex, drugs, and violence, Gen Z as a whole is one of the tamest generations in history, far more concerned with getting into college and combating climate change than with their body count. Sure, it’s TV, and Sam Levinson (the show’s writer-director) deserves credit for hitting hot-button issues such as adolescent mental illness, addiction, and transgender representation, but sex in entertainment traditionally acts as the distraction from darker subject matter, not the hard-hitting criticism itself. The result lies somewhere between softcore porn and an after-school special, and we aren’t sure where the show draws the moral line.

Maddy (Alexa Demie) often employs older men in efforts to get back at her abusive ex, Nate. (c/o HBO)

This brings us back to Drake. According to cast members, the actor-turned-rapper has taken a relatively hands-off role in the creative direction of the show, and has only made brief appearances on set. He did help to finance cast parties and bestow lavish gifts, but none of these gestures seem particularly out of the ordinary. In his personal life, Drake raised eyebrows for his public advances on ex (depending on who you ask) Rihanna and a rumored relationship with 18-year-old model Bella Harris in 2018 (Harris has denied the relationship on Instagram). The two apparently met on tour in 2016, when Harris was, you guessed it, 16 years old. (For those not counting at home, Drake is currently 32.) Also raising red flags was Drake’s communication with 15 year-old Stranger Things star Millie Bobby Brown. The actress, then 14, reported that the two had been texting regularly, and had a “lovely friendship.” While some may believe that a 31-year-old man can have a normal relationship with a girl less than half his age, others have pointed out that Drake’s behavior looks a lot like grooming, or the predatory practice of older men ingratiating themselves with underage girls in anticipation of when they turn of legal age. Most recently, Drake also posted a picture with singer Chris Brown, Rihanna’s ex-abuser, teasing an upcoming collab. At best, the artist’s behavior the past year and a half is scummy. The danger lies in overlooking an alarming pattern—one that warrants further scrutiny especially as Drake signs his name behind a show that depicts teenage sexuality in a way that's unusually graphic for mass entertainment. 

Teens have sex and they make mistakes. That’s nothing new or even particularly scandalous. Euphoria needs to position itself in the coming seasons as a roadmap to redeeming its mistakes, instead of leaning into them for shock value or the illusion of authenticity. Teen girls will always explore their sexuality, potentially falling prey to misguided male attention in their quest for empowerment. We need to hold the men accountable and show the truth of these dynamics, instead of glossing them over with purple lighting and a deadpan voiceover. For a show with so much promise, here’s hoping Euphoria rights its wrongs in season two. Perhaps it all begins by examining the intentions of one of the show’s biggest benefactors.

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