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Analyzing Nate Jacobs: Toxic masculinity incarnate

In HBO's "Euphoria," both the writing and Jacob Elordi's performance show there's more to Nate Jacobs' violent misogyny than meets the eye. – Photo by Film Updates / Twitter

Nate Jacobs from "Euphoria" is Hollywood’s favorite villain at the moment, and actor Jacob Elordi is the prime face of the show next to Zendaya. After all, who doesn’t love a 6-foot-5-inch, hot, brooding jock? 

On the surface, Nate seems to be the classic, a**hole hot-shot football player of the high school. He dates it girl Maddy Perez, played by Alexa Demie, making a power couple who are well known at school and consistently attend notorious college-level bangers.

But Nate is not all that meets the eye. Even Elordi, who plays Nate, was surprised by the depth of his character’s morbidity. 

While the other characters have more clear-cut reasons for their behavior, Nate’s actions seem to contradict one another. As much as he is intelligent, cunning and a master manipulator, he’s deeply tortured, insecure and unaware of who he truly is. 

Though Nate is still developing as a character in real time, here are some of his most interesting psychological facets.

Traits of psychopathy

Psychopathy is defined by having “deficient emotional responses, lack of empathy and poor behavioral control” that leads to “criminal behavior," according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

While we can't diagnose Nate with anything, many of his actions fit into this, and on the surface, it seems to be the perfect descriptor for him. He’s aggressive, ruthless in the pursuit of his goals and has a brooding presence.

He uses misogynistic slurs routinely, and his disturbing lack of morals is established rather quickly — within the first episode of season one, narrator Rue Bennett, played by the aforementioned Zendaya, informs us that he attempted to assault her during their first-year formal. 

In the next scene, Nate is shown sexually harassing Jules Vaughn, portrayed by Hunter Schafer. Catcalling her out of the window, Nate asks her to “come and ride on this d***,” and when she falls off of her bicycle, he laughs.

Within a few seconds, it’s evident that Nate has a deeply sadistic side, and without spoiling too much about season two, viewers would know that this barely scrapes the surface of Nate’s vile relationship with women and control.

But the more interesting (and disturbing) displays of his illness are when the show examines his warped sense of morality, particularly through his unorthodox relationship with Jules.

In season one, we see that Jules is one of the only people who is able to make a real impression on Nate, and she even induces fear in him — when otherwise, Nate is typically the intimidator. 

When Nate first meets Jules at a party, he attempts to embarrass her in front of everyone. But Jules resists this: Instead, she threatens Nate with a knife, screams at him and even rubs her blood on his shoulder. For the first time, we see a crack in Nate’s facade: He frantically asks her not to hurt him and even jumps onto the counter to avoid an attack.

Jules is Nate’s undoing — whereas his girlfriend Maddy is a prize he seeks to own. Under the guise of “ShyGuy118” on a dating application, Nate shows a genuine interest in comforting Jules and takes an interest in her life, even if it’s in a perverted way.

In season two, we see more of Nate’s twisted morality: In trying to do right by Jules for how he hurt her, Nate returns her sex tape to prevent it from falling into the hands of the police — but at the cost of harassment and nearly killing someone.

For people like Nate, morals are a grayscale that shift to justify their means, not principles to live by. And it’s these extremes that he’s willing to go to that establish Nate as the formidable force that he is.

Controlled volatility 

Contrary to the stereotypical jock persona that one might think of, early in season one, Nate is established as a ruthless achiever and a disciplinarian. Nate started religiously working out at 12 years old, quickly excelled in football and enjoys the praise he receives from doing well, according to Rue’s narration.

In Nate’s eyes, people are his pawns to get what he wants: His girlfriend Maddy is someone who he keeps a close grip on through calculated manipulation. His friends are a means for status and praise, while his relationship with his brother is nonexistent, as Nate perceives him as less than.

He even miraculously evades abuse charges through strategic blackmail of those who could bring him down, such as Jules or the college student who hooked up with Maddy at the party where he and Jules had their confrontation. At his core, Nate is intuitive and has a strong grasp on human psychology — which helps him learn how to make even his enemies work in his favor.

Nate isn’t sloppy in his execution. He isn’t a meaty jock and is rather intelligent. Most villains tend to be.

But unlike the calm and cool trope one might associate with a psychopath, Nate is actually very emotional. He smashes a glass and takes shots when he finds out Maddy allegedly slept with another man, and even goes as far as to invade his home. He’s violent, but not aimlessly: His enemies are strategic, and any harm he does is deeply personal.

Controlled volatility may seem contradictory, but I think it perfectly summarizes Nate’s behavior. Who he is fundamentally is someone who's always a hair away from losing his fragile grip on sanity, and therefore, he'll go to any lengths to establish control and dominance in any situation he can.

Toxic masculinity

Oftentimes, we see clear as day what toxic masculinity looks like. But what “Euphoria” does really well is establish the context as to how toxic ideas of what it means to be a man develop over time in men as early as childhood. 

It’s rather obvious that Nate is a misogynist. That motif is established time and time again from his lewd speech to the countless times he harasses women in the show.

But once you examine why Nate is what he is, it makes his struggle with masculinity a bit more nuanced.

For one, Nate’s very early exposure to his father’s pornography begins the onset of Nate’s struggle with sexuality. As noted in Rue’s narration, Nate couldn’t stand the sight of seeing his teammates without clothes on in the locker room, yet he exhibits signs of hypersexuality with women.

Additionally, for many men, their first understanding of how to relate and speak with women is based on their relationship with their mother, and Nate’s is evidently strained. Rue notes that Nate despises his mother for being weak and a pushover, which leads the viewer to see why he associates the women around him with fragility and is made uncomfortable by the women who don’t fit that mold — such as Jules.

Why does it matter that we understand Nate? 

Some might think that caring to understand villains makes us sympathizers of them. Evil is evil no matter how you slice it, right?

But I’d argue that having a black-and-white perception of human nature is exactly why villains are so effective. And it's only until the blood is shed or the divorce is filed that we realize our lack of nuance in understanding others — both good and bad — is detrimental.

Nate is a prime, though extreme, example of how patriarchy and hegemonic masculinity distorts reality for men, and why they're so prone to falling into these illnesses.

In a study published in the National Library of Medicine, “Mean-level differences showed that men had higher levels of latent factors related to antagonism and social dominance. In terms of total score, men reported significantly higher mean levels of Machiavellianism.”

This isn’t to villainize men or suggest that they’re inherently like Nate. I’d argue that Nate is an exception. That being said, we live in a society that fails to hold men like Nate accountable for the damages they cause, so it’s important to recognize these toxic behaviors when we see them.

Nate is an awful person, point blank, period. Trauma is never justifiable for heinous, criminal behavior.

But the examination of why villains are the way they are can make us more aware of what to look out for — especially for young, vulnerable women who are much more likely to get into relationships with men like Nate — in terms of manipulation tactics men they use. It also allows us to reflect on the social systems in our society that perpetuates these behaviors.

Change can’t happen without understanding, and learning how Nate's view of the world came to be what it is might just be what we need to do to incite social change.


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