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Mind in the Media: Euphoria's Depiction of a Hidden Gay Identity, and its Consequences

Jacob Elodi and Eric Dane

Eddy Chen / HBO / Ellen Lindner

Spoiler alert! This article contains major spoilers for the first two seasons of Euphoria, available on HBO.

Whether they love it or hate it, it seems like everyone is talking about the second season of Euphoria, HBO's raw coming-of-age drama starring Zendaya. Full of sex, drug use, nudity, and violence, the show focuses on a group of teenagers whose every experience is dialed up to 11. While the kids are the focus of a majority of the plot lines, one adult character who's played a key role in the story since the beginning is Cal Jacobs, played by Eric Dane.

Before we knew who he was, we were introduced to Cal as the man 17-year-old transgender girl Jules (Hunter Schafer) met for illicit sex in a motel, an encounter he recorded without her knowledge. Only later did we discover that Cal was the father of Nate (Jacob Elordi), a popular jock at Jules' high school with major anger issues.

While Euphoria's first season established Cal as an outwardly successful man with a secret life, the second season spent two episodes delving into Cal's backstory and then the breakdown he experiences, which included a spectacular telling off of his family, when he can no longer conceal his identity as a gay man any longer.

Like many moments in Euphoria, Cal's meltdown is fraught with intense drama, but it's also a useful prism to explore the psychological consequences of hiding a stigmatized identity for both the person keeping the secret and those they're closest to.

Concealed Stigma

On Euphoria, Cal Jacobs has kept his sexuality hidden his whole life. As an adult, he's married, had two sons, and done well in business, yet he's haunted by the possibility that someone could discover that he's gay.

A great deal of research has documented the overwhelming challenges faced by people with concealable stigmas, which in addition to sexual orientation may include mental illnesses, infertility, unemployment, HIV status, or traumatic experiences such as rape.

People with hidden stigmas must make decisions about who to disclose their stigma to while also trying to determine who suspects them and who doesn't in every social situation in which they find themselves. The stress associated with this has far-reaching psychological consequences as Euphoria demonstrates.

As licensed professional counselor Jennifer Kowalski from Thriveworks explains "Everyone is always as sick as their secrets…if you are suppressing such a huge piece of your identity, obviously it's going to create some issues." Some of those issues include "self-hatred and feeling like there's something wrong with you."

If that weren't enough, studies have shown that concealing a stigma in order to avoid social rejection can actually decrease feelings of belonging, leading someone like Cal to feel isolated and alone. Furthermore, people may believe the consequences of having a stigma discovered would be dire.

Before Cal reveals his sexual identity to his family, he may have feared losing them and compromising his social standing in his small town. The potential for this kind of loss makes the situation even more stressful.

Dissociation and Identity Ambivalence

While it's reasonable to assume that hiding has caused Cal considerable psychological pain, on paper his life is a success. So how was he able to achieve such heights while also dealing with the weight of his secret? According to Kowalski, one thing that many people who are concealing their sexual identity or any other piece of themselves do is dissociate between the person they show the world and the person they really are.

For someone like Cal it's normal "to separate out their persona [or] who they want the world to see, so they project out this image of themselves. For Cal, it would be that he is this really tough guy, well-respected in the community, everybody knows him, he has all these connections. And then the part that they don't see is who he really is and his sexual identity."

Jennifer Kowalski, LPC

Everyone is always as sick as their secrets…if you are suppressing such a huge piece of your identity, obviously it's going to create some issues.

— Jennifer Kowalski, LPC

In fact, research has shown that concealing a stigma can lead to identity ambivalence, an inconsistent view of who one is in different situations and at different times.

In Cal's case, this means he adheres to all the outward traits of stereotypical masculinity in his daily life, only letting his true self come out when he secretly meets men or transgender women or when he's watching his recordings of the encounters in his locked office.

Yet, although Cal has outwardly reaped the rewards of hiding his sexuality, psychologically it's come at a steep cost, including in his likely deeply negative view of himself and in the anger and violent behavior of his son Nate.

Reckless Behavior, Maladaptive Coping, and Toxic Masculinity

Of course, Cal was established as one of the most loathsome characters on Euphoria. He's often shown acting like a bully, treating other people as inferior, and placing unreasonable expectations on Nate.

Kowalski says that while Cal's behavior is extreme, it demonstrates that one way or another, the psychological consequences of hiding a major part of the self are going to come. "It's either going to go outward or it's going to go inward," Kowalski observes. "So if it's going inward, that's going to result in more depressive symptoms, more anxiety, more of that holding it in, and they're going to feel terrible about themselves. If it is going to come outward, yes, you might see some of that toxic masculinity [that Cal displays towards others]."

The reason Cal's negative feelings result in him lashing out at those around him is probably rooted in his own family history. In a flashback in the third episode of season 2, "Ruminations: Big and Little Bullys," to when Cal is 18 years old, it's hinted that Cal's father instilled specific standards about what it means to be a man in him; standards that he feels he has to adhere to.

There is a moment in the flashback in which it seems that young Cal (Elias Kacavas) may be preparing to embrace his sexual identity after a night with his best friend Derek (Henry Eikenberry). However, when his girlfriend reveals she's pregnant, his life goes in a very different direction, a direction that made him feel that he had to suppress his sexual identity.

As a result, there's an extent to which he likely resents his wife and kids for trapping him in a family that feels more like a prison. This is yet another reason for his behavior.

Hollywood vs. Reality

Kowalski notes that although many people with a hidden stigma may act out or behave in reckless and even self-destructive ways, it's rare that someone's behavior reaches the level of intensity that Cal's does.

"There's probably a spectrum of realistic behavior, and I would put Cal probably on that extreme [end] of it," Kowalski remarks, "where he probably has these very toxic masculine traits where he's expected to be a jock, where there's these stereotypes associated with that where he's not allowed to be soft or gentle or caring or understanding or show emotions. He has to present himself in a certain way and, for him, it's probably making him act out in these more extreme ways."

Kowalski emphasizes that most people who are repressing their identities would likely be partaking in behaviors in secret, or portraying themselves in a way that was inauthentic to their true identity, but in most scenarios the behavior would not be as extreme as Cal's.

It's also important to note that even though Cal's behavior is negatively impacting both himself and his family, what he's doing still qualifies as a form of coping.

As Kowalski explains, "it's just maladaptive coping. So Cal, in this case, is doing what he needs to do to feel better about the situation. And so up to this point, he's been making really bad choices. He's been having affairs. He's been filming people… He's been putting himself in situations that aren't the best and they're not really getting him to a place where he wants to be…, so he's settling for something, but it's not quite enough."

Failing to Break the Cycle

Sadly, Cal's bad choices have negatively impacted Nate, who, like his father, seems to have internalized the same toxic standards of masculinity while also being attracted, at least to some extent, to men. Kowalski says this is a continuation of a negative cycle of toxic masculinity, even though on some level, Cal probably believes passing on the same ideas about masculinity that his father ingrained in him was the "right thing to do."

When Cal finally melts down in "You Who Cannot See, Think of Those Who Can," the fourth episode of the second season, and announces the truth of his sexual identity to his family, he also tells Nate that living a double life isn't his biggest regret, Nate is.

It's a heartbreaking moment and surely adds to the psychological damage he's done to his son. However, Dane, the actor who plays Cal, said that even though Cal resents his son, what this declaration really indicates is that Cal "resents himself for continuing the cycle of handing down the terrible attributes that were handed down to me by my father."

Kowalski's interpretation of that moment is similar. Cal has spent most of his adult life suppressing a major part of who he is but it isn't until his breakdown that he seems to be able to truly see the terrible consequences it's had on his family, especially Nate. And as the person in his life who's most like him, Kowalski believes Cal regrets failing to "break the cycle" and allowing Nate to be who he really is.

None of this means that the revelations about Cal have redeemed the character or make his previous behavior forgivable. However, Euphoria's depiction of his situation at least makes his behavior understandable. While the second season of Euphoria is about to come to an end, Dane has said that we will see Cal again. (The show has already been renewed for a third season.) Kowalski, for one, hopes that means "we'll see a better version of Cal… because he's not going to have that rift between who he wants to be and who he's had to pretend he is all this time." Knowing Euphoria, no matter what Cal's like when he resurfaces it's going to be dramatically over-the-top.

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