Neon Nudity: A Euphoria Paradox
BY ALICIA GU '23
Trigger Warning: non-graphic descriptions of underage sex work and sexualization of minors
Whether you have watched the show yourself or seen the entire plot unfold through TikTok edits, you most likely have found yourself enthralled by Euphoria’s drama, which returned in January after two years of anticipation. Euphoria’s visually stunning storytelling has seemingly created its own genre, featuring complex characters decked out in glittery, neon makeup and shot on film cameras. The HBO series is centered around Rue, a 17-year-old drug addict and the intertwined storylines of those around her. However, from Cassie and Maddie throwing it down to the maddeningly slow burn of Fez and Lexi (aka Fexi), Euphoria’s second season introduced unexpected plotlines that intrigued some—and appalled others. Despite the show’s explosive success, creator Sam Levinson has faced a surge of criticism due to the very scenes that gave Euphoria its relevance; Euphoria’s reliance on beautiful, dark visuals inevitably results in the romanticization of dangerous themes for emotional shock value, therefore contributing to the misogyny it attempts to critique.
The most common praise for Euphoria stems from its vivid portrayal of teenage experiences; the show never hesitates to illustrate raw scenes, distinguishing it from countless other teen dramas. However, while common topics such as addiction and sexual deviance are shown to be the underlying sources of trauma for many characters, some characters seem unaffected. Obvious examples include Kat’s part-time job as a camgirl, performing erotic acts online for clients, and Jules’ sexual activities with older men, both of which serve as outlets for the characters to cope with inner turmoil. While season one portrays an insecure Kat “getting that bag” by seducing men online, her endeavors are never mentioned in Season Two. The portrayal of underage sex work as “empowering” implies that camgirling is a way for teenagers to reclaim their sexuality and make easy cash, as Kat’s supposed sexual liberation supersedes all the long-lasting trauma that young girls in the sex industry face from being groomed and sexualized by older men. Similarly, throughout Season One, Jules has sex with older men as part of her journey to conquer femininity, yet no lasting emotional effects are addressed later, despite the fact that she was repeatedly exploited as a 17-year-old without the ability to consent. Euphoria does diverge from its blatant romanticization of harmful behaviors by illustrating the emotional damage of Rue’s drug addiction, but Levinson’s attempts at character development for the other girls leaves much to be desired. Euphoria’s depiction of minors engaging sexually with adults as a form of empowerment and profit is dangerous due to its inherent romanticization of nonconsent, crafting a false narrative for young girls who do not yet fully grasp the sex industry’s exploitative nature. Viewers should question who truly benefits from illegal sexual activities: girls like Kat and Jules, or the men who take advantage of them?
Another way that Euphoria perpetuates harmful expectations of teenage sex is its tendency to force its actresses into extremely explicit scenes. The hypersexualization of female characters is nothing new (e.g. Megan Fox in Transformers); Hollywood was built to cater to the male gaze, with white men producing 95% of films. Although the series was written to parallel his own struggles with addiction, Levinson’s ability to identify with his characters ends there, severely undermining his handling of female representation. He follows the age-old trend of male directors exploiting women’s bodies for viewership in a manner that men are not subject to: there are no close-up shots detailing every inch of Nate Jacobs’ glittering body under neon lights like there are for Cassie. Yes, both male and female nudity appear in every episode, but the angles, editing, and implications of the scenes are wildly different. Some argue that Levinson’s intent is to force viewers to see Cassie in the way that men who objectify her do; however, his obsession with showing her nude in every episode is excessive and unproductive in an industry that profits off of that tendency. There is a fine line between subtle commentary and perhaps unintentional reinforcement of misogynistic ideas ingrained in pop culture, and Levinson crosses that line every episode. By glamorizing underage sex work and painting female characters as subservient to the male fantasy, Euphoria contributes to the objectification of young girls in media by directly participating in it.
While Euphoria’s depictions of teenagers fail to diverge from Hollywood’s norms as some claim, these aren’t reasons to boycott the show altogether. The show is a rare source of comfort for many teens who see themselves in the suffering of characters like Rue, Lexi, Kat, and even Nate; however, viewers should at least be aware of the subtle misogyny written into the vast majority of media today due to its overwhelming influence on large audiences.
If you are looking for more shows/movies like Euphoria that are written by women and maintain a similar sense of raw teenage crudity, watch Sex Education, The End of the F***ing World, Grand Army, and Lady Bird.