Much of the attention given to HBO’s buzzy new drama Euphoria has centered on how much it’s going to terrify parents. The show, which zeroes in on the lives of several high school students shows how they navigate a world filled with various kinds of violence, from overt bullying and sexual abuse, to the more private pain of neglect, anxiety and loneliness. Told from the perspective of 17-year-old drug addict named Rue, who is played with restraint by ex-Disney star Zendaya, the series is a compassionate examination of adolescent longing, as well as an indictment of a culture that is setting young people up for hopelessness.
Certainly, the challenges facing these teen characters are in some ways universal: first sexual feelings, the longing for connection, and curiosity about alcohol and drug use are standard fare in young adult storytelling. And yet, Euphoria is set in a world that looks distinct from the one that was experienced by older generations: the constant hum of active shooter drills, for example, as well as the ubiquity of violent internet pornography. The world of Euphoria is scary not because kids are making poor choices (even though they often are) but because the world that young people today are given looks pretty terrifying. Even Rue’s birth is framed in sadness. She is born just three days after 9/11, her parents holding her while looking on as the Twin Towers fall over and over on the TV.
Rue is, of course, a thoroughly unreliable narrator who is completely tethered to her own experiences as a young drug addict. She doesn’t have the historical context or wisdom to understand how many of the feelings she is experiencing aren’t at all specific to the time in which she is growing up, any more than she understands just how much her addiction is hurting the people she loves. And yet, Rue’s unflinching look at what it means to come of age in 2019 gives Gen Z, a generation that has simultaneously been upheld as a beacon of activism and also bemoaned for their supposed arrested development, a chance to explore grief at what it means to grow up at a time when so much seems so bleak.
Unlike other teen shows that pride themselves on realism, Euphoria is more interested in providing viewers with an emotional experience and it’s best to view the series as a mood rather than a guide to Gen Z behaviors. After all, according to researchers like Jean M Twenge, today’s teen is more likely to be lonely and experience anxiety, but also less likely to drive, have sex, or try drugs than previous generations. Heck, teens today are less likely to go out shopping or to a movie without parental supervision. In this way, Zendaya’s Instagram post about the show is more indicative of Gen Z values, than the world her character espouses, “There are scenes that are graphic, hard to watch, and could be triggering,” she warns, “Please only watch if you can handle it. Do what is best for you. I will still love you and feel your support. Love, Daya.”
It may seem odd to suggest that a show that features full frontal male nudity and statutory rape is less interested in shocking viewers than comforting them, but beneath the show’s explicit exterior is a tender core and Euphoria is at its most successful when it is exploring gentleness as opposed to brutality. One of the most interesting examinations of this is through the show’s look at Rue’s close friend Jules, a transgender girl who seeks out risky sex with much older strangers, but also yearns for love. Jules, who is played brilliantly by Hunter Schafer, may struggle with depression and self-harm, but she is also earnest and kind and her relationship with Rue is marked by adolescent yearning at its most pure.
Together, the two young women hold hands while they walk through the halls of their school and sleep together like little otters, wrapping each other tight in each other’s arms. In one early episode, Rue explains how she started crying when Jules told her that all she ever wanted was a close female friend to love and trust. Many of the show’s most intimate moments are conveyed through smartphones and we see how characters rely on the medium in order to relay their deepest emotions to one another. Jules’s interaction with a prospective love interest, for example, is presented with beautiful subtlety as she smiles secretly to herself and cradles her phone on her lap, waiting for the next message to come in.
In contrast, most male expressions of love and sex in Euphoria are unrelentingly brutal. A jock character strives to protect his ultra-feminine girlfriend and concocts fantasies about punishing anyone who touches her, while also going back and forth between treating her like a princess and throwing her against walls. Even the nicer athlete approaches a first-time sexual encounter by grabbing his young partner by the throat, assuming that she is going to like it. “I don’t mean to be sex negative or anything” Rue says, wryly in voiceover, as she explains how scenes like this are common in pornography and often bleed over into real-life sexual encounters, “I’m just saying. This shit isn’t out of left fucking field.”
Perhaps it’s not, which is why the unrelenting dreariness of the sex on Euphoria struck me as cliche, rather than truly subversive. One of the things that works in exploring Rue’s addiction is that you see her love/hate relationship with getting high. In contrast, sexuality is presented as so bleak and anti-female that you wonder how any of these guys are ever getting laid at all, despite funny moments like when Rue gives a health-class style lecture on the etiquette of dick pics. Most of the expressions of heterosexual female sexuality are depressing, but are also kind of formulaic, with girls being cast aside for being prudes or sluts and “empowerment” being confused with catering to male desire (one lonely young girl becomes a cam girl and gives herself a makeover complete with a removal of her nerdy glasses, for example).
This seems like an odd choice at a time when shows like Big Mouth, Sex Education and Pen15 are able to offer nuanced looks at female sexuality that aren’t just about male pleasure and female submission. My hope is that as the series continues, Euphoria allows its female characters the space to do more than just respond to male sexual demands. This is not because I want Euphoria to be a substantively different show than the one it already is, but because I think Euphoria’s power doesn’t just come from its look at darkness, but from its insistence on drawing our attention to those moments of brief intoxicating light.