The Idol Sam Levinson

The bad feminism of Sam Levinson

Sam Levinson’s The Idol screened its first two episodes at Cannes Film Festival and so far, critics haven’t been kind to it. 

There’s something to be said about festival hype, the phenomenon that often explains why a film gets rave reviews at a film festival before receiving a much more muted reception later on. Film critics often watch several films a day, barely sleeping in between screenings, writing and press conferences. 

It would seem that The Idol, Sam Levinson’s newest TV show starring Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye and Lily-Rose Depp, did not benefit from any kind of festival hype. The series, which will air in the UK on Sky this June, was the object of much ridicule and currently sits on 27% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes

Who is Sam Levinson? 

Levinson, who was moved to tears at the gala premiere of his TV show, is a controversial figure in the industry. The son of Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson, Sam has crafted himself a very successful career in both TV and film. 

Euphoria, the raucous, critically acclaimed HBO show starring Zendaya, is perhaps Sam Levinson’s best (if still flawed) creation, but his feature film efforts have been less well received. Assassination Nation, despite being a lot of fun, garnered a mixed critical reception. Malcolm & Marie, which went straight to Netflix, was seen as a masturbatory attempt to hit back at critics who just didn’t get him. 

Recently, Rolling Stone published a scandalous investigation into The Idol’s production, describing the series as “torture porn” and having gone “off the rails”. They interviewed several people from the production and their anecdotes from the set were harrowing. Filmmaker Amy Seimetz was supposed to direct The Idol, but unexpectedly left the production although most of the six episodes were already filmed. She was then replaced by Levinson himself. Rolling Stone alluded that Seimetz exited the project due to Tesfaye’s growing concerns that the show was adopting too much of a “female perspective”. Ah, those pesky females are at it again, I see. 

the idol

The Idol. Credit: Sky

Tesfaye, who recently decided to abandon his stage name The Weeknd, posted a clip from The Idol as a response to the Rolling Stone expose, ridiculing the outlet for the article. Although The Idol’s cast have said Rolling Stone’s investigation didn’t reflect the truth, it would seem that the end product is a deeply problematic piece of art. Then again, what did we expect from Sam Levinson of all people? 

Euphoria and Assassination Nation

Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Levinson. I don’t know him personally nor have I seen The Idol. I have however seen Assassination Nation (which I like), Euphoria (which I have mixed feelings about) and Malcolm & Marie (which I loved at first and now kind of hate). 


Zendaya in Euphoria. Credit: HBO

Levinson has always centred the stories he tells around women. Zendaya’s Rue is our complex, often unpleasant protagonist in Euphoria and Assassination Nation’s narrative is experienced through the eyes of four young women. That film, more than any other in Levinson’s filmography, comes closest to portraying the terrifying ordeal of being a woman today. Because it leans to a strange fantasy of empowerment and the spectacle of violence, it gets away with most of the things it portrays. 

But there is an uneasy aura to Assassination Nation. For those unfamiliar with its plot, it follows four young women navigating the increasingly escalating violence after their town experiences a devastating cyber hack. With private conversations and photos uploaded on the internet, women become the first target in a town-wide witch hunt. 

Assassination Nation

Assassination Nation. Credit: NEON

In a particularly poignant scene, the town’s police officer shouts “We are good people!” into his radio, dispatching the word to everyone in town via speakers as they chase and persecute these underage women, about to kill them for their transgressions. Much like in more traditional horror films, the sin these women have committed are ones of sexual nature. 

Performative feminism

The Idol, like Euphoria, Levinson’s Emmy-darling, has garnered plenty of criticism for how it portrays sex in the show. Euphoria has been hailed as groundbreaking in the way it represents the lives of teenagers but the graphic sex involving minors has also creeped a lot of people out. 

lily-rose depp the idol

THE IDOL, set against the backdrop of the music industry, centers on a self-help guru and leader of a modern-day cult, who develops a complicated relationship with an up-and-coming pop idol. Credit: Sky

In the first two episodes of The Idol screened at Cannes, Depp’s character is seen masturbating and a selfie of her with semen on her face is leaked. Levinson has always portrayed sex graphically, but it gets icky when we start dissecting whose eyes it’s all seen through. 

When Levinson was asked about the controversy and the Rolling Stone investigation at the press conference at Cannes, his answer was not the one we were prepared for. “When my wife read me the article,” he recalled, “I looked at her and I said, ‘I think we’re about to have the biggest show of the summer.’”

A completely normal response to serious allegations of a toxic workplace and a problematic production. This is where the cracks in Levinson’s performative feminism really start to show. 

sam levinson the weeknd

Sam Levinson and Abel ‘The Weeknd’ Tesfaye attends the “The Idol” Press Conference press conference at the 76th annual Cannes film festival at Palais des Festivals on May 23, 2023 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Sebastien Nogier/Pool/Getty Images)

“We live in a very sexualized world. Especially in the States, the influence of pornography is strong in the psyche of young people. We see this in pop music,” Levinson said at the Cannes press conference. Many critics noted that Depp’s character shares a lot of similarities with Britney Spears. 

What are the critics saying about The Idol

The Hollywood Reporter called the show “regressive”. Variety noted “the shameful way he treats Depp’s character”. Evening Standard thought the series was “troubling”. GQ provided what is probably the most damning opinion on it, calling it “a vapid chasm that’s not nearly as daring as it proclaims itself to be.”

Not everyone hated The Idol. Douglas Greenwood gave it a positive review in Vogue and The Times praised Depp’s performance. Vanity Fair also found it entertaining enough. 

the idol the weeknd

Abel Tesfaye in The Idol. Credit: Sky

Of course, all reviews currently are based off of two episodes, out of a total of six. It’s entirely possible that The Idol becomes a masterpiece in its remaining four episodes, but if it follows the example set by Levinson’s previous works, it’s highly unlikely. 

Levinson’s work is, ultimately, designed and framed for a male audience. His camera often ogles the women in skimpy outfits, rarely adopting any kind of objective lens. Even when he attempts to empower them, like in Assassination Nation, he’s unable to shed the male gaze even as the four women fight back.

What Levinson seems to be particularly skilled at is masquerading deeply-rooted misogyny as feminism. Again, I really like Assassination Nation. It has some great insights into rape culture, but it also can’t help but feed into it as it constantly sexualises its characters. Hari Nef, who will also star in this summer’s Barbie, plays a transgender character in the film who is subjected to the most horrendous arc filled with torture, offensive slurs and violence. 

What is the release date for The Idol? 

The Idol lands on Sky Atlantic on 5 June with weekly episodes. I still hold out hope that there are redeeming qualities to The Idol that aren’t coming across in the reviews from Cannes. Levinson has always been a particularly visual storyteller and there’s no doubt that The Idol won’t look the part. We’re just afraid that it’ll walk the walk all over women, again. 

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