Euphoria: Uncommon, but not Unreal

March, 2022
Lilly Stewart, Blog Correspondent

HBO’s Euphoria is one of the most highly discussed and popular TV shows currently airing. The cinematography, editing, music, screenwriting, and acting have all been praised to no end—and often for good reason. At the same time, the show has received its fair share of backlash due to the ages of its characters depicted (anywhere from sixteen to eighteen years old—high schoolers) in connection with the glorification of drug use, the oversexualization of underage women characters, and its sensationalized violence.

Euphoria follows Rue Bennet, played by Zendaya, a teenager who struggles with a drug addiction. At the end of season one, Rue started going to NA, and was getting clean. But as season two kicks off, Rue has spiraled back into her old habits and is using drugs again, and in episode 5, she hits rock bottom. Zendaya’s performance as Rue, in episode 5 and throughout the show, is a testament to her talent and capabilities as an actress. Rue angrily kicks a hole in her sister’s door, destroys furniture, and yells insults at her mother and sister in between her frantic pleas to regain the suitcase full of prescription pills she was dipping into. In the middle of her angry outburst, Zendaya gives an excellent performance as Rue, oscillating between crying and apologizing to her family before going right back into her angry yelling.

Hunter Schafer, who plays Rue’s love interest, Jules, also had an incredible performance in a special episode of the show that aired before season 2 began. In the episode, which Shafer both screen-wrote and starred in, Schafer portrays Jules in a therapy session discussing her conflicting emotions about her femininity as a trans woman. Through the voice of Jules, she specifically details how women police each other and themselves in upholding a version of femininity that is appealing to men, and assess each other based on a hierarchy where, at the top, there is an ideal and aesthetically pleasing woman who conforms to beauty standards. Schafer’s role as a trans character is an example of on-screen representation of trans people played by a trans actor; this is a standard that TV and film producers should follow. In the special episode, Schafer employs Jules’ character and Jules’ voice to be honest about the use of hormones in transitioning and the physical as well as the emotional effects such treatments have. Although this episode is not part of the official seasons, and unlike most episodes, it is not written by the creator of the show Sam Levinson, the episode captures the essence of Euphoria. At its core, Euphoria is about young people who are struggling to understand themselves and their place among their peers, with the outside influences of social pressures and substance use. At face value, the show may appear as a beautifully filmed glorification of the trials of growing up, while making an aesthetic out of drug abuse and violence.

The use of a film camera for the show, the actresses’ makeup and fashion styles, and the use of color, light, and cinematography lend to an aesthetic effect that is, well, euphoric. While it may not be wholly realistic that high schoolers would come to school every day dressed like supermodels, there should be room for creative expression; the artistic aspects of the show may even be representative metaphors for the rich, colorful, and hazy feel of being intoxicated. Rue’s narration of events in the show gives an honest, comedic, and often melancholy undertone, which gives a more realistic and coming-of-age feel to the show, and balances out the larger-than-life images that characterize the episodes.

Still, the series has come under fire for misrepresenting and glorifying high school drug use. In a condemning statement, Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E) insisted that “‘Euphoria,’ chooses to misguidedly glorify and erroneously depict high school student drug use, addiction, anonymous sex, violence and other destructive behaviors as common and widespread in today’s world.”  While it is true that Euphoria depicts quite a bit of pill popping, coke snorting, weed smoking, and underaged drinking, the insinuation that these behaviors are uncommon is, unfortunately, untrue. According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, “In the 21st Century, opioid-related OD deaths among this age group [12-17 year olds] increased by as much as 30.7% annually.”

Since the show depicts a high rate of opioid use, with Rue being in danger of an overdose, the situation that Rue and her family are in as depicted in the show is both realistic and possible. While it may be hard to believe that high schoolers could be going through the situations the Euphoria characters face, especially concerning sexual violence, abortions, abusive relationships, and an unhealthy amount of drug and alcohol consumption, that doesn’t make any of these situations wholly unrealistic.

Shows like Euphoria may depict an unrealistic version of most high school experiences for a lot of people, though perhaps a not-too-far-off image of university experiences, or life in one’s twenties. Why is the show set in high school, when they could have made the characters older?

Perhaps if the characters of Euphoria were supposed to be early-twenty-somethings with jobs, most likely not living in a suburb, then aspects of every-day life such as financial issues, career trouble, living situations, long-term relationships, questions about their purpose in life (and so on) would have to come to the forefront. In high school, the relationship drama, inexperience, immaturity, and proximity to each other (since they are all still living with their parents) can take center stage, while nitty gritty details, like homework and the fact of their being 17, can fade into the background. However, it is possible for the show to be centered around college students who all live on campus (so the proximity factor still applies) and whose academics can be pushed aside with enough reasonable doubt in favor of focusing on the personal, social, and sexual lives of the characters. They don’t have to be underage.

If the show were set in college, the ages of the actors—all in their mid to late twenties—would also be more believable. Especially considering the amount of sexual content in the show, which sets up an unrealistic expectation of what high school is like for many people, and often caters to the male gaze by objectifying and oversexualizing underage female characters—played by adult actors, no less. This isn’t to say that high schoolers don’t have sex, but the teenage awkwardness of both discovering the sexual parts of themselves and having first sexual experiences with other people is cast aside in favor of steamy scenes between characters that are represented as well-experienced and always confident.

For example, Sydney Sweeney, who plays Cassie, has several scenes in both seasons where she is having sex with male characters. Her entire character arc revolves around her relationships with men, and she is often set up as the less intelligent nymphomaniac, often in some state of undress. At the same time, Sweeney’s portrayal of Cassie, such as in episode one of season two, is very realistic and compelling—especially in the scene where she hides from Maddy, her best friend, after hooking up with Maddy’s ex-boyfriend, Nate. Cassie’s character is contrasted with her sister Lexi, played by Maude Apatow, who is framed as the bookish, inexperienced, “innocent” girl who observes from the background. These demeaning stereotypes about women are unfortunately all too common. Most female characters—except Rue, whose storyline is focused on the loss of her dad and her drug use—has their character development framed directly through the abuse they face from men. The age-old ‘woman suffers sexual and/or romantic trauma in order to become a well-rounded individual’ trope. That being said, every character in the show is realistically naïve, immature, and flawed, while also being vibrant protagonists who the audience cares and roots for. Rue and Jules are both well-rounded individuals, and of the two, only Rue is not oversexualized (I would argue).

A comparable show to Euphoria is Skins. Skins was a British TV series that aired in 2007 that followed high schoolers. Skins is similar to Euphoria with regards to its portrayal of relationship drama, drug use, and a female lead suffering with mental health issues while being placed in dangerous situations. The show featured drug use in a more normalized way than Euphoria. The character Freddie casually did coke while doing his homework, and their frequent use of drugs was rarely represented as a potential life-altering danger for the characters, but rather, as an element of aesthetic-building for the show, and an explanation for certain characters’ erratic behaviors. Drug use in Skins may have helped push the plot along, but it was mostly background noise. In Euphoria, drug use is at the apex of the show, for better or for worse.

Even if drug and alcohol use is somewhat glorified in both series’, since Euphoria is aimed at adults with common sense, should networks be responsible for spoon-feeding us moral lessons? In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Zendaya noted that “Our show is in no way a moral tale to teach people how to live their life or what they should be doing. If anything, the feeling behind Euphoria, or whatever we have always been trying to do with it, is to hopefully help people feel a little bit less alone in their experience and their pain.”

Of course, Euphoria can potentially be triggering for those who have suffered with addiction, or who know someone who has—especially the scene in season 2 episode 5 where Rue takes out her anger on her family. This was arguably the show’s most honest and heart-wrenching episode since the beginning of the season, and possibly, of the entire show. Euphoria certainly isn’t supposed to encourage people to do drugs or relapse into them, although it may inadvertently have that effect on younger viewers; but the show is not designed for extremely young viewers. The show is about teenagers, so naturally, it will attract teenage viewers.

On Twitter, where most of the Euphoria fanbase, conversations, and memes about the show take place, some have argued that Euphoria isn’t realistic for high school behavior. Others have said that there are plenty of communities where high schoolers like the characters in Euphoria exist, though perhaps the show adds a touch of aesthetic exaggeration. Euphoria is meant to be entertaining after all, from the high production value, beautiful cinematography, unique makeup looks which have come to be known as “Euphoria makeup,” to the jaw-dropping drama (not to mention a lot of nudity, which has received backlash because the characters are supposed to be 17, even if the actors aren’t). Whether or not Euphoria is an example of how the media damages the minds of young people is in the eye of the beholder. Regardless, the actors, are talented, and they deserve recognition for their performances even under the shiny surface that the show presents.

Zendaya noted that “Our show is in no way a moral tale to teach people how to live their life or what they should be doing. If anything, the feeling behind Euphoria, or whatever we have always been trying to do with it, is to hopefully help people feel a little bit less alone in their experience and their pain.”

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