Ever since its debut in 2019, HBO’s Euphoria has been plagued with an air of controversy. Each episode begins with a content warning stating that “the following episode contains violence, nudity, and sexual content that may be disturbing to viewers. Viewer discretion is advised.” Right away, its explicit content and mature subjects draw in the morbidly curious teenager, while at the same time worrying attentive parents. Euphoria’s pilot episode begins with the birth of the protagonist, Rue Bennett, cementing her existence in Teenage American Culture by placing her date of birth three days after 9/11. This uniquely American experience immediately begins Euphoria’s magnetic ability to create the incessant need to keep watching. Its beautifully artistic shooting and editing style, undoubtedly backed by one of its production companies, A24 (famous for its production of Lady Bird, Midsommar, Moonlight, Uncut Gems, and more), appeals to the artistic mind as well. Each shot is meticulously planned out and executed by its powerful team of directors, cinematographers, editors, and writers. Nothing is an accident. Ever.
This can also be assumed when discussing its content matter. It is no accident that Euphoria is considered to be one of the most graphic shows catered towards teenagers to air. Provocative TV shows are sweeping the nation right now, especially on a streaming service like HBO Max, which houses shows like Game of Thrones, Succession, The Sex Lives of College Girls, and more. There is no doubt in my mind that HBO Max hoped to profit off of the creation of America’s very own Skins (A British teen-drama that follows the lives of six friends completing sixth form in Bristol, England. Skins is known for touching upon topics previously viewed as being too inappropriate for youth-based television). The issue with developing such a controversial show about teenagers (one that Skins skirted around by artfully fading to black, or keeping as much out of the frame as possible) is that it's almost impossible to cast actual teenagers in these roles.
In Euphoria, the main cast can be boiled down to eight people. There are approximately eight storylines unfolding at the same time (sometimes more, when aforementioned characters interact). Within these eight storylines, it’s guaranteed that the actors portraying these characters will not look like who they’re supposed to be playing. Rue Bennett is a 17-year-old girl dealing with the turmoil of teenage drug addiction, and is played by 25-year-old Zendaya Coleman, most known for her long career with Disney. Jules Vaughn, East Highland’s resident new girl and Rue’s best friend and later love interest, is played by Hunter Schafer, a 23-year-old model. There is a five year age gap between her and her character, which may not seem like much on paper, but to a teenager, this is everything. The differences found in the physicality of a 17-year-old and a 23-year-old are astronomical, and the changes are even more extreme when taking internal emotions and maturity into account. Cassie Howard is 18 being played by 24-year-old Sydney Sweeney, and her sister, Lexi Howard, is 17, while actress Maude Apatow is 24. There has been controversy surrounding the age of Alexa Demie, the actress cast to play Maddie Perez, 17-year-old cheerleader and the beauty queen of East Highland High School. While it is widely believed that Alexa Demie is 24, a yearbook photo of hers emerged on the internet, claiming her graduating year is 2008, which would make her 31. I don’t think this suspicion holds much weight in this article, and I have many problems with the way Hollywood treats aging women, but for the sake of this argument, Alexa Demie could be anywhere from seven to thirteen years older than her character. Her character’s boyfriend, Nate Jacobs, is 18, while Jacob Elordi is 24. There is also a seven year age gap between Barbie Ferreira and her character Kat Hernandez, and an eight to nine year age gap between Angus Cloud and his character Fezco.
There is no doubt that watching these adults play teenagers has a negative effect on the way teenagers perceive themselves, because I know from personal experience that it can be hard to watch these beautiful people play characters who are supposed to be my age. It gets hard to relate to every aspect of a character, especially when being barred from relating to them physically. I understand that logically it would be nearly impossible for real 17-year-olds to be playing these characters; I selfishly wish I could see someone like me, someone awkwardly balanced on the brink of childhood, fill those roles.
An early worry with Rue’s addiction, especially after watching the previews of the first
season, is that it would be portrayed as beautiful. Because of the cinematic excellence, the scenes portraying Rue deep under the influence of drugs do seem hauntingly beautiful. The aftermath, however, is painful to watch. The effects of Rue’s addiction on her family and friends are truly excruciating. She is shown on multiple occasions deteriorating relationships she holds solely because of her drug use. In the third episode of season one, Rue rides her bike to her friend Fezco’s house (the neighborhood’s primary drug dealer and drop out of East Highland High School) in order to pick up more drugs. He says no, presumably because it has been made clear now that he truly cares about her, and it's obvious that his morality has caught up with him. He refuses to unlock his screen door, to let her into the house that she previously treated as her own. He is keeping her from the thing she needs most. She becomes enraged, slamming her fists on the screen door once he shuts her out, yelling insults and obscenities. Left on her own, she becomes even more distressed. “You did this to me,” she cries through the door. “You did this to me, Fez. You f-cking ruined my life.”
Zendaya’s acting is exhibited in these high tension scenes, where her interpretation of Rue’s emotions are completely seamless. She is shaking, her movements are erratic. Tears are streaming down her face. “If you don’t open the door, I swear to God, I will hate you ‘till the day I f-cking die,” she says, while moving between anger and sorrow. There is no beauty to be found here. Rue’s addiction is laid bare. She is fully consumed by her need for drugs. This is what makes it real. This is what takes Rue’s narrative past the point of acting.
There is a turning point within the show where it's apparent that Nate Jacobs, the resident jock and certified a-hole of East Highland High School, isn’t entirely to blame for his actions. Now, I am in no way a Nate Jacobs Apologist, but I think it's important to understand every facet of his personality and the way this affects him. Nate’s father, Cal Jacobs, seems to be the unofficial proprietor of East Highland. He owns most of the real estate in the town, and has deep connections politically, financially, and socially as well. This extension of control reaches all through Nate’s life, keeping him trapped in a terminal cycle of masculinity fueled by his father’s conflictive sexuality. Paired with Nate’s exposure to American Football culture as well, he has effectively been fully immersed in a cycle of toxic masculinity that eats him alive. Nate’s neuroticism keeps him from allowing himself to experience high school as a teenager would. The anger and aggression he feels inside is forced out of himself in violence, in misogyny, in ways that are horrifyingly desperate. He is an awful person with an awful past, but the ways he displays his masculinity are entirely accurate to teenage boyhood. There is a toxic culture that surrounds high school football teams, especially because of the aggressiveness they promote. Studies show that there is a correlation between high-contact school sports and dating violence/sexual assault committed by players. This is a long-bred issue within highschools, specifically the neglect of attending to the effects that aggressive sports have on developing youth. Nate’s character as a whole represents a multitude of failures that society implements on the mental health of teenage boys.
Season one of Euphoria begins with Rue’s family picking her up from rehab. On their drive home, while Rue looks out the car window, she sees someone riding their bike along the side of the road. It’s Jules Vaughn, the new girl of East Highland High School. She and her father moved from the city into the suburbs, effectively culture-shocking Jules. She is used to the diverse community that a big city brings, and she is thrust into a small town where everyone seems to already know each other. This, paired with her transness, enables her feelings of ostracization. She is undeniably different. Throughout the season, Jules goes back and forth between her attraction to women, and the need for male validation that is ingrained in the minds of girls from a very young age. She also looks towards the validation of men in order to cement herself in her womanhood, which is why she is seen meeting men from the internet on multiple occasions. Her emotions surrounding these situations are certainly raw, proven in an hour long extra episode of Euphoria that follows Jules throughout a therapy session. “I think Jules is in constant search of affirmation and ‘love.’ Jules being transfeminine and having this relationship to womanhood, seeing women in her life being treated a certain way by men, and a certain dynamic playing out in almost every interaction she’s witnessed…I think it goes back to something deep-rooted, like transitioning, wanted to be treated a certain way by a man in order to feel like a woman in this very binary vantage point,” Hunter Schafer says in an interview for Euphoria Unfiltered. The inner turmoil that comes with being a teenage girl, and a transgender teenage girl at that, is properly represented throughout her storyline. HBO Max also pushed past Hollywood’s affinity for casting cisgender actors as trans people (Hillary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry, Jared Leto in Dallas Buyer’s Club, Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl, and too many more to list), by casting Hunter Schafer in Jules’s role. While my first instinct was to give props to them for this, the sad fact is that this is quite literally the bare minimum. When creating media about the trans community, especially when said media is based specifically on one’s transness, it is entirely unethical to allow a cisgender person to fill this role.
Throughout the show, narration of the inner thoughts of many different characters allows for the voicing of feelings, thoughts, and opinions that aren't seen as acceptable, but certainly are realistic. When looking at a whole, it suffices to say that as a representation of teenage life in America, Euphoria (for some people) is as good as it gets. That being said, I do believe that like most TV shows, it has its issues. No TV show could ever exactly depict the teenage experience, because everyone’s is different. Euphoria offers a sort of comfort to those who haven’t previously seen lives like theirs portrayed on television, and although it is certainly not a show made for young teens, its cult following proves its ability to entrance viewers, while also asking them to look within themselves. To question actions and beliefs they previously deemed acceptable. Euphoria can be watched on HBO Max, with new episodes of season two coming out every Sunday.