Content Warning: The following article contains spoilers for the HBO show Euphoria, as well as discussions of abuse, drug addiction, gun violence, self-harm, and suicide.
Zendaya, the Spider-Man: No Way Home actor and star of HBO’s new show Euphoria released a warning to her fans before the series premiere; “Euphoria is for mature audiences. It’s a raw and honest portrait of addiction, anxiety, and the difficulties of navigating life today. There are scenes that are graphic, hard to watch, and can be triggering” (according to Today) – she certainly wasn’t exaggerating.
Euphoria makes most teen dramas that came before it seem meek and mild in comparison. Show creator Sam Levinson will certainly be provoking some audience members with the rather depressing teenage world he’s written, but also could be building to something deeper. Just what is it about this show that’s sparking all the controversy?
Update on March 11th, 2022, by Hannah Saab: Two seasons later and the Euphoria controversy continues. The scandalous pilot was only the beginning for the teen drama, which hasn’t shied away from depicting topics like drug addiction, abuse, and suicide. The reasons why Euphoria is so controversial are still stacking up and the way things are going, fans can expect this trend to continue in the highly-anticipated third season.
One of the first things fans learn about Zendaya’s character Rue is that she’s a drug addict. In fact, before the action of the show has even begun, audiences learn that she’s just spent summer in a rehab clinic following an overdose. However, through her own admission, Rue has no intention of quitting and one of her very first scenes post-rehab is her re-stocking on pills.
But the pilot also sets up a very interesting debate: Rue has OCD and has been taking medication for it all her life. While neither type of drug is comparable, there’s an irony developing with her mom forcing her to take drug tests and also supplying her with behavioral medication. Her drug addiction has continued to affect her relationships in Euphoria, with her family and friends unavoidably getting impacted by her actions.
Part of what makes Euphoria so compelling is its sprawling cast of characters. Rue may be the focal point, but Levinson’s script jumps between several different social groups all of whom seem to be addicted to something. Whether it’s alcohol, sex, status, or just good old-fashioned narcotics, everyone in this show seems to have a vice.
Levinson is really creating a world of addiction here, in which parents and kids, friends and relatives can draw many different double standards. Addiction is so completely the norm here it almost makes question anyone who isn’t addicted to something.
Euphoria has its own special brand of teen nihilism. These kids aren’t just partying and smoking their lives away because they don’t care, but because of the time they live in, they realize, that there’s no point in doing anything else. One memorable line from Rue has her comment, “The world’s ending, and I’m still supposed to go to high school.”
High school is hard enough for these characters but it must be even worse when it looks like there’s no point in even going anymore. Aside from the likable character Lexi, no one else seems to really care about school or studying, as it’s the parties, sex, and drugs that are more appealing.
Born Into Trauma
The episode opens with a very glib voice-over from Rue describing her own birth, just three days after the 9/11 attacks. Introducing the lead character via a world-famous terrorist attack is a pretty bold move but serves as another key way for understanding the world of these characters.
People wouldn’t often associate such a disaster with new life and it’s clear that Rue’s parents struggled a lot with it too. The pilot suggests that Rue was born into trauma, and it took her parents to get over that before they could dedicate the proper attention to her. While no one is directly blamed for her drug addiction, it can’t be denied that the show implies she was doomed to suffer from the start. Fans will notice a similar trend among other characters who each seem to have their own tragic backstories in Euphoria.
Nudes Are Normal
There is a lot of nudity in Euphoria and a lot of discussion about nudity, particularly regarding sending nudes to one another. At one point Rue says “I know your generation relied on flowers and father’s permission. But it’s 2019, nudes are the currency of love. So stop shaming us.” Part of the show’s controversy seems to be pointing out that controversial things just aren’t that scandalous anymore.
Instead, the series explores these concepts in a way that highlights their positive and negative aspects. The way sending nudes has become normalized is understood as a generally good thing for sex positivity, but it doesn’t come without its risks. Fans may recall how Jules’ nudes are used against her in a dramatic fashion, causing even more emotional damage to the already hurting character.
Porn Vs. Real Sex
HBO is no stranger to showing graphic content audiences won’t see on many other TV shows. In Euphoria, not only do characters openly talk about porn, the show intercuts porn clips between some scene changes. But, again it also sparks a discussion point: most of the kids on the show learn about sex via porn and they can’t always tell the difference between what they see and the real world.
This lesson is highlighted through Kat’s storyline, which is still one of the most hotly debated narratives in the series. Her story arc has sparked even more controversy around Euphoria, as it raises important questions about how minors are influenced by graphic sexual content they can access online.
As with all teen dramas, there are different social groups; not least the jocks – Euphoria has a lot to say about this particular group. From the very introduction of football star Nate, it’s clear that he’s quite a scary guy. Recently dumped, Nate is described as being “on one” which involves nearly running girls down in his car, threats of violence, bullying, describing his classmates as animals, and “teaching” his friends how to treat girls.
He is one of the worst perpetrators of the atmosphere of toxic masculinity and he is not seen as a sympathetic, loveable (if annoying) jock. It has only gotten worse over the past two seasons, as Nate has done some of the worst things on the show. Far beyond toxic masculinity, he has openly displayed physical and emotional abuse, gun violence, and even goes so far as to get someone wrongfully imprisoned.
If viewers ever needed more of a reason not to watch this with their parents, then it would be the inclusion of a BDSM relationship. The show is not trying to shock fans with the relationship, but rather who it involves. Jules is the new girl in school and she’s introduced by going on a date to meet a much older dominant. By the end of the episode, it’s clear that this is setting up a main plot point but it’s yet another example of the bare-boned rawness that Zendaya was warning about.
It only gets worse when audiences realize that it was clearly an illegal act between an adult and a minor, and things only become messier when it’s Jules who bears the brunt of the troubles that come from that night. It’s only one of the several unhealthy, illegal, and toxic partnerships or just affairs on the series.
Perhaps one of the most unsettling elements of Euphoria is the violence. The pilot episode doesn’t go deep into violence (although it does manage to fit in a character nearly getting stabbed at a party) but it does create an environment where violence appears to be lurking everywhere: bruises on Jules’ thighs, darker side to Nate’s personality, it’s present in sex and in relationships.
The biggest villains like Cal and Nate are often the worst perpetrators of physical and emotional violence and abuse on the show, but there are also other forms that can be just as jarring when they come from likable characters – there’s Jules’ sudden self-harm in Nate’s kitchen and Rue’s intense threats to kill her mom with a piece of glass. These violent scenes only add to the Euphoria controversy, and it’s not hard to see why.
It’s really not surprising that given the chaotic situations they often find themselves in, the characters in Euphoria need help with improving their mental health. What the show does very well though, is draw the line between sensationalizing and empathizing with the behavior of these teens. This balance is what gives the show its overwhelmingly dark and apocalyptic feel; each character is equal parts thrilled and repulsed by their own desires and actions. And the audience too is meant to feel equally entertained and saddened by what they’re watching. In fact, most of the show’s conflict comes from the paradoxical psychological state within each of its characters.
The teen drama toes the line between glamorizing and properly depicting issues surrounding mental health, which is especially evident in Rue’s case. While it has been criticized for starting out by showing how drugs can be used as a tool to escape or have fun with friends, Euphoria has obviously also shown how addiction can affect mental health, relationships, and life in general in extremely negative ways.
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