The gritty, controversial, and highly-acclaimed HBO series, Euphoria, a reimagining of the Israeli series of the same name, endeavours to encapsulate the realities of being a teenager in the late 2010s.
There’s a lot that Euphoria’s disquieting honesty gets right about what it’s like to be a modern teen, but there is also much that the series gets wrong.
The Sober Generation
Despite its masterful interweaving of an array of compelling narratives deriving from this talented ensemble cast, it’s the addiction story of the young omniscient narrator, Rue, strikingly portrayed by Zendaya, that is the series’ central focus.
Indeed, so rampant is the use of drugs and alcohol by the majority of the young characters in the series that one would imagine that substance misuse was as natural as breathing to Gen Z. Perhaps not surprisingly, such depictions have drawn criticism.
The most notable of the series’ critics on this front is the prestigious anti-drug organization, D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), which has condemned the series for its purported glamorization of underage drug and alcohol use.
To be sure, Euphoria’s storylines, and not only those focused on Rue, are saturated with depictions of teens getting drunk and high on a regular basis. It is in this that the widest gulf between fiction and reality can perhaps be found.
While there is no doubt that substance abuse has been prevalent among teenagers for generations, with Gen Z proving no exception, there is also mounting evidence that this generation may, in fact, be more sober than its predecessors.
The evidence further suggests that drinking among Gen Z has dropped precipitously in recent years. This seems to reflect and reinforce the sobriety trend in America and around the globe, as ever-increasing numbers of adults and teens begin to grapple with their addiction and seek new paths free of dependency.
Expressions of Queerness & the Lack of a “Coming Out” Story
As important as the story of Rue’s struggles with addiction may be, Rue’s love story with Jules, a trans female powerfully portrayed by trans model, actress, and activist, Hunter Schafer, is equally as significant.
The complex love triangle between Rue, Jules, and Jules’ sometimes paramour, Elliot reflects the fluidity of both gender identity and sexual orientation that appears to be a prevalent feature of Gen Z.
Studies have shown that while more members of Gen Z identify as LGBTQ+ than any other generation, gender and sexuality are conceptualized as highly fluid.
Thus, unlike previous generations, in which the “coming out” story marks a period of transition into a new, but largely, fixed identity, the amorphousness of gender and sexuality as practiced by Gen Z equates to queerness and, ultimately, the eschewing of stable and well-defined taxonomies of identity.
This appears to be well-represented in Euphoria not only in Jules’ transition story but also in her polyamorous relationships with both biological females and biological males.
Teens’ Online Exposure to Sexual Content and Sex Work
For many adult viewers, especially parents of teenagers, the ubiquity of online sexual content in the characters’ lives may be the most shocking and disturbing aspect of Euphoria’s often unsettling subject matter. The series represents the characters as being deeply an inextricably immersed in a world saturated by online pornography in general and online sexual exploitation in particular.
For these characters, phenomena such as revenge porn, “dick pics,” and online fetish sites are as natural and commonplace as girly magazines and Harlequin romances were to previous generations.
Indeed, the characters seem to take such a laissez-faire view of online pornography that they seem to view their own online sexual exploitation not as a potential threat but as an inevitability, not a question of whether it is going to happen but when and how.
The characters, in other words, seem to expect to be embroiled in the world of online porn to some extent or other, whether as the subject of a revenge porn video, the recipient of sexual solicitations online, or the producer of fetish videos starring themselves or their friends.
As for whether such representations accurately depict the lived realities of modern teens, the evidence is mixed. To be sure, sexual content and solicitation are highly prevalent online.
Research has shown, for example, that approximately 20% of children aged 17 and younger have been exposed to unwanted sexual materials online, while just over 10% have been sexually solicited online.
Nevertheless, modern teens seem to be savvier than ever before in their use of technology to find romantic relationships on their own terms. Indeed, unlike previous generations, many teens are not forging relationships face-to-face, particularly in the wake of the pandemic lockdowns. Rather, they are looking to online dating apps to find a romantic partner.
The Absence of Parental Authority
If you’re a parent watching Euphoria, you may be taken aback and even appalled by the seeming absence of parental authority from the characters’ lives.
Adolescence is, of course, defined as the stage in which children begin to separate from their parents in preparation for the transition to adult life. Thus, teenagers of every generation seem to have lived lives of which their parents were largely (and blissfully) unaware.
Euphoria, however, represents the dynamic between parents and their teens as often woefully dysfunctional, with parents seemingly grappling with many of the same afflictions that are besetting their children, such as addiction, trauma, and sexual and domestic violence.
Once again, though, while there is certainly a strong kernel of truth in Euphoria’s representations of the separation between parents and teens today, the news is not entirely bleak. There can be no doubt that many teens are living multiple existences, some of which their parents simply are unaware of.
This is often particularly true of teens’ online lives, the internet providing a robust and often addicting platform for subverting the status quo, cultivating an identity, and building a digital life in defiance of societal (and parental) norms and expectations. Thus, the internet, as was noted in a recent article in IndieWire, makes Gen Z a largely unknowable generation.
Nevertheless, parents do not appear to be entirely checked out when it comes to their teenagers, despite what Euphoria’s poignant plotlines might suggest.
Indeed, the power of the family dinner conversation appears to be alive and well, even in these tumultuous times. This is evidenced, for example, in the increasing interest that families are paying to the cultivation of the family dinner ritual.
This can also be seen in consumers’ growing interest in designing kitchen and dining spaces that are ideally suited to fostering nightly family gatherings and connections.
Euphoria’s acclaim, as well as its controversy, are well-earned. It is a stark, haunting, and often deeply disturbing glimpse into the lives of teenagers today.
While there is much that the series gets right about the rising generation, however, there is also much that is either grossly exaggerated or, conversely, deceptively oversimplified and lacking in nuance.
What are your thoughts on Euphoria? How do you perceive the teen drama’s depiction of adolescents? Do let us know in the comments below, we’d love to hear from you!