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Spicy or Sleazy? How The Idol Instantly Outraged A Global Audience

What do you get when you combine a problematic premise, jaw-dropping dialogue, and major backlash? The Idol. Holly Mitchell discusses controversies surrounding HBO’s newest television hit starring Lily-Rose Depp and Abel Tesfaye (The Weeknd), and the seemingly endless exploitation of women in entertainment.


Content Warning: Sexual references, and references to rape. 



HBO’s latest string of success in relation to what makes a television hit seems to be scandalous satire. Between hugely popular shows such as The White Lotus and Succession, audiences seemingly cannot get enough of fictional rich people going through it. This formula has caught the attention of Sam Levinson and Abel Tesfaye (better known as The Weeknd) who co-created The Idol, HBO’s newest show that was poorly received prior to release, and described by Rolling Stone’s Cheyenne Roundtree as “twisted, torture porn” [1].


Levinson is best known for creating Euphoria, the critically acclaimed drama series starring Zendaya. Although an international hit, Euphoria was not exempt from criticism due to its graphic content depicting teenaged characters engaging in excessive drug usage and overly sexual activities. Actress Sydney Sweeney, who portrays Cassie on Euphoria, publicly expressed her discomfort with her character for The Independent in 2022, stating “there are moments where Cassie was supposed to be shirtless, and I would tell [Levinson], ‘I don’t really think that’s necessary here’” [2]. This begs the question as to why Sweeney’s character would need to be written in as unnecessarily shirtless in the first place.

 

Cut to June 2023, and the first episode of The Idol has dropped. The main character, Jocelyn (portrayed by Lily-Rose Depp, daughter of Johnny Depp), is seen completely naked for the first 5 minutes of the pilot. Then throughout the otherwise plotless first episode, Depp’s character and her publicity team are dealing with an explicit leaked selfie of her, which the audience are shown in graphic detail. Every nude shot of Depp feels like an excuse to have her naked as much as possible; perhaps it is Levinson and Tesfaye’s warped definition of female empowerment, but unfortunately, as a viewer it feels more like exploitation. 


Prior to numerous production readjustments, the original synopsis of The Idol was a satirical take on the dark side of fame and the music industry told through a female perspective. Drawing inspiration from Britney Spears’ turmoil, a television show exploring the themes of a young starlet struggling with her team, emotions, and fame would easily entice a global audience. It is instead clear that Tesfaye and Levinson considered this concept an afterthought, who instead opted to prioritise shock value and the sex appeal of Depp. 


Four episodes of The Idol have been released at the time of writing, and plenty has been criticised by viewers. The main feedback? Tesfaye’s character Tedros is one consistently creepy and cringeworthy guy. To best summarise Tedros, I will include dialogue (written by Levinson and Tesfaye) from the first episode:


LEIA (Jocelyn’s friend, portrayed by Rachel Sennot): “He’s so rapey”

JOCELYN (Depp): “Yeah, I kinda like that about him” [3]


If you take away anything from this piece, let it be this: no woman would ever say this, and it is unfortunately another blatantly obvious case of a woman being written by men. 



If The Idol did not yet seem questionable enough, the pilot also features what many critics interpreted as Levinson’s dig at his Euphoria criticisms. To recap: Jocelyn (Depp) willingly exposes her breasts during a photoshoot for her newest album when an intimacy coordinator stops the photoshoot. This is as Jocelyn is contracted to only expose certain angles and parts of her naked body. Though Jocelyn insists she is comfortable, the intimacy coordinator explains there is a 48-hour waiting period required to switch this consent in her contract, meaning the photoshoot cannot continue. This leads to Jocelyn’s manager arguing with and locking the intimacy in a nearby bathroom to allow the photoshoot to continue. Many took this as Levinson’s response to his excessive nudity and objectification of female stars such as Euphoria’s Sydney Sweeney, where he gave a metaphorical middle finger to “the very idea of intimacy coordinators and nudity clauses” [4].


Regardless of the direction Levinson and Tesfaye choose to take the show, it is apparent that many members of the entertainment industry continue to ignore the quality stories produced by and telling the perspectives of women and non-binary individuals. This is done in the predominantly male preference for advertising sex and perpetuating harmful societal expectations regarding gender roles and sexual behaviours. 


Will The Idol be a case of a show that had a rocky start with a significant turn-around intended for the remaining episodes of the first season? Or will it continue to be as disturbing and problematic as audiences have seen thus far? I, for one, am unsure how much more I can take of The Weeknd’s character talking about stretching out certain body parts. If you know, you most unfortunately know. 





[1] Roundtree, Cheyenne. “‘The Idol’: How HBO’s Next ‘Euphoria’ Became Twisted ‘Torture Porn’”, Rolling Stone, 1 Mar. 2023, https://www.rollingstone.com/tv-movies/tv-movie-features/the-idol-hbo-next-euphoria-torture-porn-the-weeknd-sam-levinson-lily-rose-depp-blackpink-jennie-1234688754/ 


[2]  Harrison, Ellie. “Sydney Sweeney: ‘I’m very proud of my work on Euphoria – but no one talks about it because I got naked’”, The Independent, 20 Jan. 2022, https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/features/sydney-sweeney-white-lotus-euphoria-b1997058.html?utm_content=Echobox&utm_medium=Social&utm_campaign=Main&utm_source=Twitter#Echobox=1642925236 


[3] “Pop Tarts & Rat Tales”, 2023, The Idol, Series 1, Episode 1. HBO. June 4. 


[4]  Picado, Claudia. “How ‘The Idol’ Creator Sam Levinson Oversexualizes and Victimizes His Female Characters”, Collider, 6 June 2023, https://collider.com/sam-levinson-euphoria-female-characters/


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