Euphoria’s Gen-Z: the kids are not alright

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Euphoria’s Gen-Z: the kids are not alright

Vivien Sweet, Staff Writer

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“I’m envious of your generation,” a middle-aged man murmurs as he caresses the face of Jules Vaughn, an underage transgender girl timidly posing as 22, in a seedy motel room. “You guys don’t care as much about the rules.”

The nature of rules, and specifically of rule breaking, is the theme around which HBO’s Euphoria revolves, as characters confront the repercussions and occasional triumphs of growing up in an era of unparalleled social change.

The show’s first season, which premiered on June 16th and ended on August 4th, has been making headlines with its racy themes of teenage sex and drug use, as well as its dazzling makeup, talented young cast, soundtrack spanning from rap to jazz, and the most male nudity ever shown in a single season of television.

With its intensity and shocking scenes, a precedent— established in the first episode with the statutory rape of Jules, portrayed by transgender actor Hunter Schafer—was set. HBO did not create a soapy, predictable coming-of-age TV show, but an uncensored, deadpan depiction of the multi-faceted teenage experience.

The central storyline follows Rue Bennett (Zendaya), a disillusioned, opioid addicted teenager who reluctantly rejoins her peers for their junior year of high school after a summer stint in rehab, and her unconventional friendship with Jules, the new girl in town whose ambitions transcend the boundaries of their Los Angeles suburb.

Rue introduces Jules to her childhood best friend and token unassuming nerd, Lexi Howard (Maude Apatow), who often acts as the only comic relief throughout the eight-episode season. And through Lexi, the series introduces her older sister Cassie Howard (Sydney Sweeney), a cheerleader who gains a promiscuous reputation after explicit images of her are leaked on the internet, her well-meaning but troubled college football player boyfriend Christopher McKay (Algee Smith), and Kat Hernandez (Barbie Ferreira), a body conscious teen who quells some of her insecurity through an internet pornography side hustle.

Hernandez’ character is a refreshing representation of “plus-sized” teenage girls in television; a side plot delving into Kat’s relationship with her love interest, Ethan Lewis (Austin Abrams), does not once reference her weight, and neither is it ever acknowledged by her shapely friends.

However, Yana Gitelman (11) noticed that Hernandez’ identity was more deeply rooted in her body type than other characters, and the show often did not distinguish her external identity from her internal identity, a staple trait of “plus-sized” characters.

“[Euphoria] could’ve expanded more on how her anxiety drove her to seek attention and power online,” she said.

The hyper-masculine archetype of a man who was raised to suppress his emotions and turn to violence in times of emotional distress is not an uncommon villain in television dramas. Euphoria’s antagonist Nate Jacobs (Jacob Elordi) fits into such a description. The simultaneously feared and revered football player epitomizes “toxic white masculinity,” Eliza Bender (12) said.

Nate’s violent nature is rooted in his tumultuous upbringing in which his father, Cal Jacobs (Eric Dane), dominates with an iron fist. Nate’s insecurity results in his physically and mentally abusive relationship with on-and-off girlfriend Maddy Perez (Alexa Demie) and similarly c r i m i n a l behavior toward other peers.

For Gitelman, Euphoria’s raw portrayals of how mental illness, high school relationships, and social media use affect the characters made the show’s depiction of the teenage experience poignant. “In every single event that goes on in Euphoria, I know someone personally who has gone through that, even if it’s to a lesser extent,” she said.

Sogona Cisse (11) agrees that some components of the show are relevant to her and her peers’ high school experiences, mainly in the characters’ proclivity for allowing peer-pressure to guide their decision-making.

“I see elements of girls staying with guys because they believe he loves her even though they’re abusive, like Maddy and Nate,” Cisse said. “I see parts of Rue’s addiction in some high schoolers, and I’ve seen people in a rush to lose [their] virginity because all of their friends did, like Kat.”

Bender, on the other hand, appreciated the use of male nudity in a non-sexual context, like when the football team celebrated after a win in the locker room, as she thought it revealed a very human aspect of the characters.

“Historically, if there is a nude scene, overwhelmingly it will only include female nudity,” Bender said. “Even when the directors don’t mean to do it, it plays on this trope that women are sexual objects.”

Moreover, the show’s soundtrack is the gift that keeps on giving. Paired wi t h t h e characters’ glittery makeup, the majestic background noise makes certain troubling scenes feel more like psychedelic dreams than nightmares.

Other television shows that focus on a group of teenagers, such as “Riverdale on the CW, tend to follow a monotonous, traditional storyline that lacks depth, unlike Euphoria, Mia Calzolaio (10) said.

“Riverdale is just about straight white people coupled up, and no one wants to watch that,” she said.

Yet Euphoria’s lack of normalcy is also its major pitfall.

Every single family in Euphoria is fraught with either severe psychological damage, alcoholism, and/or violence, most of which are explained by Rue in a languorous ten-minute voiceover at the beginning of each episode.

And unlike the teenagers in Euphoria, fewer and fewer teenagers are having sex and using drugs, according to Margot Sanger-Katz and and Aaron E. Carroll of the New York Times. The percentage of high school juniors who have ever had sex has dropped from 62 percent to 42 percent, and only 0.5 percent of sophomores surveyed used a hallucinogen in the last month. Rue and Jules do in the first episode.

Yet we seldom see them cram for an upcoming test or work on their homework together, which is likely what many teenagers do on a school night.

Though the challenges which characters grapple with do mirror those which real teenagers face, the show certainly veers towards the worst case scenario.

“Not every teenager who feels insecure is going to go to the internet to find men to hook up with or please,” Gitelman said. Both Jules and Kat do this on a day-to-day basis.

Not only do the characters’ dark tendencies make the show less realistic, they also make it harder to watch.

“The show was a little brutal to watch at the start because it was so graphic, and the violence was startling,” Calzolaio said.

The beauty of Euphoria lies instead in characters’ nuanced identities; from Jules’ struggle to feel feminine, to Kat’s learning to love her body.

“On other shows, representation is like ‘I’m lesbian and that’s my whole entire life. How do I come out, how do I navigate the world now, et cetera.’” Cisse said. “On Euphoria it’s more like ‘I’m gay, but I do other things besides being gay.’”

“You’re brought to sympathize with everyone in the show,” Gitelman said. We witness Rue spiral into a depression as she watches Love Island, the popular British dating show, for 22 hours straight. We feel Cassie’s pain when McKay refuses to admit that he is dating her to one his best friends. We sympathize with Maddy who can’t help but still love her boyfriend even when he threatens to hurt her.

In an age where teenagers are statistically becoming less prone to their parents’ worst fears—violence, drugs, sex, alcohol, and the perils of the internet—Euphoria seems to turn a blind eye towards to the normalcy of everyday high school life.

Despite its flaws, Euphoria’s message rings plain and simple: Teenagers go through a whole lot more than meets the eye.