After receiving over half a million Instagram likes on a comeback announcement, it’s clear that the hype-train for HBO’s teen drama Euphoria isn’t stopping anytime soon.
The cultural phenomenon’s success partially stems from its use of aesthetics. Hyper-colorful lighting, editorial makeup, and outfits ripped from the vintage runways of Mugler have inspired hundreds of look books and fan edits alike. But, what fans often ignore is how the show tends to over-sexualize teenage girls. Which is what makes Euphoria simultaneously pleasing to the eye and uncomfortable to witness.
Now, this isn’t a new age Puritanism. Teenagers definitely have sex (albeit, less than they used to). It simply wouldn’t be accurate to omit sexuality from the teen show entirely. Moreover, HBO requires all actors to work with professional intimacy coaches, who help safely choreograph sex scenes. There’s nothing at fault with the inclusion of ethically produced sex scenes. However, because the main characters are minors, Euphoria‘s framing can still move into the exploitative.
First off, the actors portraying these characters aren’t even teenagers. This is a long-standing tradition in Hollywood, utilized to curb child labor laws and regulations. This is why actresses like Zendaya (24) and Alexa Demie (25) can still be cast as high schoolers. However, their age also allows them to be filmed in a more mature and explicit manner. Making scenes like when Maddy (Alexa Demie) hooks up with someone in the middle of a pool, appear less awkward and more in line with HBO’s standard content.
This tendency to age teenagers on screen can cause more harm than intended. Actual 14 to 17 year-olds have no chance to self-identify with the adult actors on screen. Which can perpetuate the trend of unrealistic body standards for young people. Furthermore, the adults watching can forget that they’re viewing a situation between two minors. Ultimately allowing them to enjoy the content on its aesthetic merits, instead of wincing at controversial scenes.
Pitfalls of aesthetic excess
Not only is the casting of Euphoria an unintentional minefield, but the show’s predilection for style often trumps its questionable substance.
Slow-motion, colored mood lighting, and perfect beads of sweat are just a few examples of the visual elements that create an artificial atmosphere. Making the sex scenes feel like an over-the-top music video, rather than a genuine exploration of teenage intimacy.
To be fair, Euphoria’s awareness of the digital age could be a defense for this framing. The show seems to understand that most teenagers’ first experiences with intimacy are mitigated by the internet. For example, there’s a scene where Maddy impersonates a porn actress alone in her room to impress her boyfriend. These sex scenes could read as a commentary on the influx of adult content aimed at a younger generation. Which, in turn, causes teenagers to perform maturity.
But, the show loses the benefit of the doubt, as the characters tend to act out these scenes in full. For example, the show forces the viewer to sit through several minutes of violent sex between a grown man and a sixteen-year-old in the first episode. Another girl is shown getting choked during intercourse without her consent at a party.
The show doesn’t bother to include an instance where performativity inflicts harm onto teenagers. Nor does it juxtapose with a more natural-looking sex scene. Therefore, Euphoria‘s cautionary tale implication is never anything but a vague subtext. As a result, the show becomes what it is attempting to critique.
Why teenage girls?
By framing “teenage girls” as aesthetic objects, Euphoria becomes a follower of one of Hollywood’s most detrimental trends: fetishizing teenage girls.
Teenage girl’s bodies, images, and sexuality are already scrutinized as is. From Billie Eilish to Jojo Siwa—the media obsesses over presuming the sexuality and body type of minors daily. Commercial pornography is also a factor, with titles like “barely legal” and “amateur teens” being top search terms on PornHub for over six years. This is a gross trend that Euphoria enthusiastically participates in.
What is empowerment?
Take ensemble member Kat’s (played Barbara Ferraria, 23) storyline. She’s a shy teenager who’s insecure about her weight. Her friends mercilessly tease her for being sixteen and still a virgin. So, she has sex for the first time with a stranger at a party. This man then films them having intercourse and posts it to a porn site. Kat, at first, is rightfully mortified. But then, she glances at the comment section, where she sees anonymous profiles praising her appearance.
Instead of a traumatizing assault, this situation then transforms into an empowerment narrative. With Kat beginning to cam on porn sites regularly. She also takes on a pseudo-dominatrix persona at school. Dressing in leather and purple lipstick for Math class, and suddenly being brave enough to talk to her crush.
While Kat’s backstory is fairly detailed, she is still reduced to her physical appeal throughout the series. She doesn’t deal with the inflicted trauma, but rather, embraces it as the “push” she needs to come out of her shell.
This character development, as well as the romanticization of her cam work, reads as very problematic as season one of the series progresses.
Not to say that sex work is invalid or taboo. But, the UK reported that nearly 600 people under the age of 18 were victims of revenge porn (nude photos/videos posted online without consent) in 2019. Additionally, one in three people sharing revenge porn were also minors. Also, one-third of all young girls experience some form of sexual harassment at school. Making the act not only a form of sexual assault but also illegal participation in the spread of child pornography. Something that real teenage girls have to suffer through every day.
Therefore, Kat’s self-confidence isn’t a problem. Nor is her desire to explore her sexuality. It’s the real-world issues that Euphoria exploits to create characters with “depth.” Without any real commentary to excuse it.
The future of teenage narratives
As Euphoria is gearing up for its second season, I can’t be certain that these problems are going to be solved. Which leads me to ask: why is the show about high school? Why didn’t creator Sam Levinson set the series in a college or university, with students old enough to legally consent? Why create a show that proposes the delicate nuance of a coming-of-age tale, but doesn’t want to do any of the actual work?
Euphoria still does have a lot of good going for it. Its LGBTQ+ representation is unprecedented. Zendaya was also the second black woman (and the youngest woman ever) to win a Lead Actress Emmy for her role. Which has made a huge splash in pop culture and Hollywood representation alike. But, the series’ diversity ends with its limited portrayal of the teenage experience.
The show seems to have an interest in one type of drug-laced, EDM blasting teenage fantasy; never the messy, awkward, and inexperienced truth of adolescence. Making Euphoria’s insistence on authenticity read as empty in the face of actual teenage girls and excruciating for the adults watching.