What we can learn from HBO’s Euphoria
Over the past few weeks, I have asked anyone I have come in contact with if they have watched HBO’s Euphoria. Nine out of ten times, the person responds with: no. Euphoria is a television series created by Sam Levison and based on the Israeli miniseries of the same name. The premise is nothing new. Euphoria follows a group of high school students through their experiences with sex, drugs, friendship, love, and trauma. It is much more Larry Clark’s Kids than Judd Apatow’s (who’s daughter, Maude, is in Euphoria) Freaks and Geeks. Like Kids, Euphoria is laborious to watch. It is especially difficult for adults to watch. The reason being is Euphoria highlights the generational divide that seems to grow every day, where adults don’t understand the kids, and kids see the adults as the reason they are the way they are.
The Kids Are Not Alright
Released twenty-four years ago, Larry Clark’s Kids centers on a group of New York City teenagers who spend all day drinking, smoking, fighting and engaging in unsafe, emotionally empty sex. Kids, an art-house film that received an NC17 rating, earned significant press coverage in-between the OJ Simpson trial and President Bill Clinton. The film prompted an anxious adult conversation about drugs, parenting, AIDS, family values, and sex. It was a compelling wake-up call to all parents: Your kids are not all right. They are doing drugs. They are having unproductive sex. And you aren’t paying attention.
Kids depicted a day in the life of skater Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick) who treats New York City as his backyard, drinking, smoking and sleeping with young teenage (sometimes younger than teenage) girls. Meanwhile, one of his recent “conquest” played by Chloë Sevigny scours the city trying to find Telly to inform him that she is HIV-positive. She recently lost her virginity to him. She only had sex with him. Talk shows and adults across the country called Larry Clark a pornographer and a pedophile. Others praised his film for shining a light on what a group of kids living in New York City was doing and how they were feeling. I first watched Kids at my New York City progressive leaning elementary school.
Meanwhile as Kids became a national conversation, Henry Giroux in his review of the film noted that the Republican Party “promoted legislation that would have added 1.2 million children to the poverty rolls, climate basic health care coverage for 7 million young people, and disadvantage 14 million additional children as a result of cuts in federally funded food and nutrition programs…Even more disturbing is the fact that the largest growing population of homeless in this country is children, and the average age of such children is nine years.”
It is evident that in 1995, much like it is today, many adults refused to listen to kids. They decided it was not worth their time to understand how kids were feeling. Instead, the adults chose to attack a film and its director and start shouting “family values” instead of addressing the core issues. Family values which were anti-gay, anti-sex education, anti-abortion, and so on.
Growing up with Terror
Euphoria opens up with protagonist Rue Bennet (Zendaya) as she narrates how she was born three days after 9/11. She states that the planes crashing on loop on television was her generations first form of entertainment, their first political experience. Rue quickly lays the groundwork for the viewer to understand that we will be watching a bleak series of teenagers born just after 9/11 in a world were terrorism and violence has always been a reality. This is hard for those like me to understand fully. I remember a world before September 11th. I was a junior in High School in 2001.
At seventeen, we learn that Rue is a drug addict and her little sister found her overdosed in her bedroom. Rue informs us she is not a reliable narrator — much in the same way Holden Caulfied said in Catcher in the Rye. Rue proceeds to give us the backstory of the other major characters: Jules a trans girl who recently moved to town, a repressed jock named Nate, and Kat who recently discovers body confidence thanks to her secret Internet life.
As the show continues and more characters enter Rue’s story, we start seeing a similar pattern. The kids aren’t alright, and the reason they aren’t alright is that the adults in their lives either don’t know that they are not alright, are dealing with their own post 9/11 trauma, or their tactics of dealing with their kids are outdated and therefore ineffective. The show is designed to be dark, self-absorbed, frightening, amplified, and uncomfortable. Euphoria is not a show you should enjoy as entertainment. It is a show that very clearly, like Kids, points to problems we refuse to address.
The Adults Don’t Get It
Euphoria has garnered criticism from the conservative Parents Television Council for one episode that contained close to 30 penises flashing on the screen and an onscreen statutory rape of a character. The character is a trans girl who sleeps with an older married man. That older married man has a son who also happens to be in that trans girl’s class. The Parents Television Council criticized the show for marketing “graphic adult content” toward teens.
It is probably no shock, but teenage boys happen to have penises too, and yes, sometimes they see each other in locker rooms. The point the show was also making was the captain of the football, Nate, was uncomfortable with seeing other boy’s penises, because he was trying to hide his sexuality and will-it-away. Oh, and by the way, Nate’s father is the one who slept with the underage girl, Jules. Oh, and Nate is also fascinated by an online Jules who he ends up having an relationship with on Grindr. That’s Euphoria.
The Parents Television Council were not the only ones uncomfortable with Euphoria. A lot of critics were too. Entertainment critic Willia Paskin wrote, “Euphoria frames itself as showing us the real experiences no one else has the heart to show, the unvarnished, gnarly truth, and there’s something sticky and queasily self-punishing about this vision of a world where everyone is empty and miserable, and they’re only 16. Before you succumb to the idea that high school students are joyless, self-numbing, in or about to be in a sex tape, though, I recommend that you a) lay eyes on an actual 16-year-old, who just by looking so much younger and gawkier than the actors in this show will remind you of the awkward physical comedy of youth or b) watch a semi-decent teen movie, like Booksmart….That it’s easy to buy into Euphoria’s nihilistic vision of adolescence as distilled misery says more about us than it does about teenagers: Some people just love a good scare.”
Paskin isn’t completely wrong. Or at least I don’t entirely disagree with her. Euphoria is giving us a highly dramatized version of experiences high school kids are dealing with today, that is the point. Where I disagree with her is that many of the experiences are what kids in many parts of this country are dealing with. Many high school students today are dealing with sex in ways previous generations never had to. In one episode we see the young Latinx character, Maddy (Alexa Demie) practice making the same sounds in the same positions as porn stars so she can make the guys she sleeps with happy. Unfortunately this is a reality even for the much younger, gawkier looking 16 year old.
Kids today feel that older generations have ignored them, and because of it, they are ill-equipped for their futures. Important life lesson on how to succeed in a post-high school, post-9/11 world are not being taught. Kids are feeling that anxiety about falling behind, about not being heard or understood, and not succeeding. The superhuman syndrome is becoming a systematic problem. Kids are being told they can achieve anything if they try, and yet the more they work, the less they can make.
Maddy trying to look like, act like and fuck like a porn star ultimate gets her bruises on her neck and much whispered about in school when it all comes to out.
Kids These Days
It’s exhausting being a kid these days and it’s because we created a world that is exhausting for them. We have instilled a consumer sentiment of pressure. That pressure is leading to a burnout culture which causes anxiety and depression. We are seeing higher suicide and overdose rates among kids. Kids are living in a perpetual state of panic, and there are no signs of it abating. Anxiety and stress are increasing due to their time poverty. They are being told that they can do it all but continually falling short of the pressures we and things they see on the Internet continue to put on their shoulders.
A lot has been written and discussed on the attention economy. There is a lot of stimuli and content that we are all subjected to. However, many of us who are old enough to remember a time before cell phones and wireless internet cannot relate to people living in a world where there is an overabundance of content. The attention economy today, from cable news to social media to streaming services are proving to be toxic and causing infinite anxiety. Media companies sole job is to sow anxiety so we all continue to tune in. Just look at CNN. Everything is breaking news. They want us to think if we miss a minute of their program that we will be left behind. It is toxic.
If you listen, Generation Z is telling us what they want. On the political side, we know they want our action and our support to pass legislation that protects them. Kids want climate action and gun control action. They are also begging us to curate. To not give them so many options, and instead to help them stay focused. Today’s kids don’t want to go into a store and have to pick between 40 colors; they want us to give them 5 to chose from. If we continue to provide them with 40 options, they will continue to experience choice paralysis and ghost the situation.
Climate change activist Greta Thunberg said it best when she said “I don’t want your hope. I want your panic. I want you to feel like I do every day.”
We need to listen to Greta. We need to listen to the stories in Euphoria. And we need to start solving the systemic issues affecting our youngest generation. Instead of getting into the weeds about whether or not a penis should be shown or whether kids overdosing on opioids is an appropriate storyline for teenagers, we should be listening to them and helping them. We can’t keep ignoring kids or telling them they are wrong and shutting them out of the process.
You should watch Euphoria
You should watch Euphoria because it is uncomfortable. Sometimes the things that are most uncomfortable to watch are the most symbolic and culturally significant. Like Kids, Euphoria may become a cult-favorite that addressed the fundamental shortcomings of parents and our political leaders. A show that 20-years from now (if Climate change or weapons of war hasn’t killed us) that will make us question why we didn’t do anything when it aired. You do not need to like what you are watching but should understand where it is all coming from.
You should also watch Euphoria because Zendaya and friend of Highlark’s Hunter Schafer have breakout performances. We had the pleasure to work with Hunter last year during the Women’s March. The relationship between Zendaya’s Rue and Schafer’s Jules is the gemstone of the show. How Levinson addresses issues around gender highlights how younger people see gender and identity and how much more accepting they are then older generations.
We watched Euphoria with horror but also a lot of pride. We are super proud of Hunter, and everyone else associated with a groundbreaking series that pushes the boundaries while educating us, so we don’t keep ignoring our youth, but instead provide action and support.