Sam Levinson appears to have taken to heart the old writing adage “write what you know” – and that’s especially evident in “Euphoria.”
He told the crowd at the premiere of Euphoria in 2019: “I spent the majority of my teenage years in and out of hospitals, rehabs, and halfway houses. I was a drug addict, and I’d take anything and everything until I couldn’t hear or breathe or feel…Somewhere around the age of 16, I resigned myself to the idea that drugs could kill me, and there was no reason to fight it; I would just let it take me over and I’d made peace with that. By the time I was 19, I was in rehab, I’d checked in, and was trying to get off of opiates and onto a more productive drug like crystal meth.”
Reportedly clean for the 14 years prior to that speech, Levinson alluded to Euphoria as being a means through which he could share his story and experiences. “Since around the age of 18 or 19, before I cleaned up, I was always playing around with this idea of chronicling a version of myself from birth to, in its own crazy, mad way, discovering drugs and the need for it,” he told the Hollywood Reporter. But do shows like Euphoria cause more harm than good when trying to depict addiction?
A Romanticized Depiction of Drug Addiction
Euphoria is a show centered around a group of 17-year-old girls, consisting of Rue Bennett (Zendaya) and her circle of friends. They’re all troubled in some way or another. You can actually compare it a bit to 13 Reasons Why, except it’s centered mostly around sex and drug addiction rather than suicide and its lingering effects. Rue has been addicted to drugs since before she was 17, and moreover, she’s willing to do just about anything to satiate the addiction, and is generally ambivalent about her own life, much to the frustration of her family. As far as her friends go, it’s not that they don’t care, but they see Rue’s actions as something to be expected – they’re hardly surprised each time she relapses.
Euphoria is a much darker, violent show and has even less involvement from parents and teachers than 13 Reasons Why. Interestingly, both teen dramas were not intended for young children (they’re both rated TV-MA), and yet 13 Reasons Why received incredible mainstream backlash for its romanticization of suicide that could affect young children and teens, despite being decidedly tamer than Euphoria. Meanwhile, the latter hasn’t seen any such backlash.
In fact, Euphoria is renowned for several things: the attractiveness of the cast, the aesthetics, the soundtrack, just to name a few things. Despite the dark subject matter, it’s widely acclaimed and loved by many. How does that happen?
Rue’s drug use and abuse are heavily romanticized or turned into art.
The show is produced in such a way that it seems like it’s trying to resemble a work of art – and it’s important to note, that’s a very deliberate choice. Some anti-drug media was made to exclusively horrify kids and teens: notably Go Ask Alice, which was a diary-turned-novel (supposedly) following a young girl’s descent from an average and happy life into one of drug addiction, rape, and prostitution. The novel didn’t attempt to romanticize anything about the protagonist and made a point of highlighting the horrors.
If Euphoria were gritty and viscerally frightening most, if not all of the time, as Go Ask Alice is, then people wouldn’t watch it – it has to be palatable. The Israeli show of the same name that was the inspiration for Euphoria suffered from it not being palatable and too offensive to the general population, which resulted in a cancellation after just one season. It would appear writer-director-producer-showrunner Sam Levinson took notes.
Rue’s drug use and abuse are heavily romanticized, or at least turned into art. When Rue relapses at the end of season one, it’s depicted as a choreographed music video, where nothing obscenely horrifying happens. It’s similar to an earlier sequence where she’s shown snorting a white powder on her laptop to a song, and then as the song progresses, we see different images of her drinking or drugging herself while wearing glitter makeup. All we see here is a beautiful, suffering girl who’s feeling something good after all the trauma in her life. At least, that’s what the show portrays.
The Justification for the Show's Artistic Representation
Some people say about Euphoria that “the goal isn’t to outrage; it’s to shed light on the anxieties of growing up today in the ever-expanding, and frightening, time of internet culture and social media.”
Sam Levinson himself says that he thinks “the show is far more restrained than our world, and certainly more restrained than the internet.” He suggests culture plays a part in how outraged people get. “There’s always been a puritanical streak in America,” he said. “And just the idea that there is any kind of nudity on screen is always something certain people recoil at.”
This kind of storytelling seems to want to normalize intensely sexual and dangerous situations involving minors.
When the nudity is centered around characters who are minors, we should recoil.
These are teenage, underage characters, living through a nightmare, experiencing extreme trauma and inflicting it, yet no one in that universe cares (except Rue’s mother, sometimes). It shouldn’t be romanticized or so normalized in a story if you want to drive the message home that drugs and engaging in dangerous behaviors will ruin your life. The fact that it is so romanticized and normal in this world plants a seed of fear in the mind: this kind of storytelling seems to want to normalize intensely sexual and dangerous situations involving minors under the guise of exposing some dark underbelly of society.
The Real-Life Consequences (or the Lack Thereof)
The provided justification just doesn’t add up. If the show is meant to be a reminder of what’s truly going on in real life, there are surely better ways of creating media that serve as an effective cautionary tale. The show supposedly depicts the horror of drug abuse, how it can drive a family apart and endanger you, but it’s not all anguish and sorrow. The disgusting and heavy subject matter comes in a beautiful package. It can leave people, especially a younger audience (we all know children never sneak around to watch shows they shouldn’t), with the wrong impression of what these behaviors lead to, and give the impression that no consequence is that terrifying.
There’s no concerted effort to depict Rue’s drug use in any kind of negative way. Many teen girls may see themselves in Rue, be it due to previous traumas or the current difficulties of adolescent life, and there’s a real risk many may turn to drugs in the same way Rue Bennett does since it seems like an artful experience that’s relatively without consequences.
It’s especially horrifying that in one scene Rue says, “The best thing I’ve ever had is fentanyl” – a character that an impressionable audience could seek to emulate promotes the number one cause of death in U.S. adults aged 18 to 45. “But that’s okay, it’s not meant to be emulated, and it’s purely artistic!” I’m sure some would say that seriously.
One subplot of season two involves Rue getting entangled with a drug dealer by offering to help her sell drugs. One day, the drugs Rue was given to sell go missing, and it’s implied that Rue is going to be trafficked to make up for the loss, but that doesn’t seem to happen. This show, which is supposed to depict real life, fails to portray any significant consequences to something like that.
The disgusting subject matter comes in a beautiful package, and it can leave people with the wrong impression.
Even if a child isn’t watching Euphoria, they can still come across a lot of references to it via TikTok. There are numerous videos (posted with innocuous hashtags like #selfcare and #carnival) of users lip-syncing to a scene where one of Rue’s friends, Maddy, says in an assertion of her confidence, “I’m not supposed to be here right now because I’m dressed like a hooker and none of you like me, but I just wanted to say congratulations.” The majority of TikTok’s user base is children ages 10-19.
Rather than seeing these attitudes and dialogue as some sort of coping mechanism, or manifestations of a high schooler’s pain or trauma, teenagers, and especially children, could see videos like these as examples of confidence and what you need to act like to be seen as sexy or cool.
The impact and gravity of what the teens go through can be achieved without graphic nudity and sex. There’s a scene where one of Rue’s friends, Maddy, is being held at gunpoint by her ex-boyfriend, and actress Alexa Demie described it as traumatic even for her to film. There’s no nudity or sex there, but you see and feel the tension and horror of the situation, and see it as a potentially deadly climax of an abusive relationship. None of the prior sex scenes stick with you as much as this. Maybe it’s more effective than seeing the sex because sex is so routine and commonplace in Euphoria that it’s past the point of jarring.
If you want to shed light on anxieties about growing up and the dangers of drug abuse, there are better ways for children to be introduced to the subject matter than via Sam Levinson’s creepy shows, especially when his depictions of the “average” high school life are disturbing and hardly the norm; many of the cast members, like Zendaya, Sydney Sweeney, and Jacob Elordi lived productive, nondestructive teenage years.
As a parent, it’s important to be the first person to teach your kids about these situations that do happen in real life, and let them know that stories like Euphoria are being produced that can very easily reach them and their friends. If they have access to the internet, they’ll come across it on their own, and it’s important they have an adult to help navigate it. In the case of Euphoria, children need to be taught (before seeing any artistic depictions of the troubling themes) that drug addiction and abuse can and does happen, but it’s not beautiful or romantically tragic, as shows like Euphoria try to depict.
A hypersexualized, grown-up version of what’s basically Peanuts with the nearly non-existent presence of adults is not the norm, and it’s not something to look to for depictions of reality.
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