CW: This article covers topics of drug abuse, mental illness, abuse, and suicide.
These next couple pages are going to be absolutely ridden with spoilers, proceed at your own risk.
HBO’s Euphoria is popping off at the moment.
Covering abuse, drug addiction, mental illness and a whole heck more, it definitely leans on the morbid side. Even the cast agree the show can be hard to watch.
Euphoria dares to tell the stories many shows would never touch. The line between romanticisation and representation is one that Euphoria walks like a tightrope.
Many compare Euphoria to Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, which picked up major criticism for romanticising suicide and mental illness.
Following the release of 13 Reason Why, the National Institute of Mental Health reported a 28.7 percent increase in teen suicide,
With mental illness becoming a topic on the media's radar, the difference between romanticisation and representation needs to be established.
Romanticisation is when something is glorified or idealised – when the negatives of something are downplayed.
We’re all familiar with the tortured artist trope (such as Van Gogh) or Tumblr’s obsession with the beautiful sad girl.
It’s a dangerous phenomenon which can lead to consumers desiring harmful situations.
Some will go as far as to even put themselves in these scenarios. It’s also harmful to those who struggle, as it makes light of some really tough situations to be in.
One very clear-cut way to tell if something is being romanticised is to look at the aesthetics going on.
Romanticised media will generally be nice to look at.
Euphoria’s cinematography alone is enough to raise questions about romanticisation.
Many members of the Euphoria cast are models and the only actors who are actually teenagers are the ones playing the children of the show.
The combination of cinematography and cast is what really fuels the idea that Euphoria is romanticising the stories it tries to depict.
We’re all familiar with the concept of representation, which is to accurately portray something.
While the difference between representation and romanticisation should be clear-cut, in a media setting it can be a bit tricky to separate the two.
From film and TV to social media, aesthetics is key to getting views and attention, which is crucial for funding to continue producing content.
Dr Eoin Devereux, media expert and lecturer at the University of Limerick, explains “media representations matter because they shape public beliefs and behaviour”.
People need to see stories like theirs told.
We all should be learning about diverse lives and stories to prepare us (particularly young media consumers) for the wider world and this is what the media’s purpose is meant to be.
When covering heavier topics or stories, this is where a bit of a juggling act comes in.
To continue accurately representing groups, the media needs to get the funds to produce content, which means whatever they’re producing needs to be appealing enough to pull in audiences, but not so much that heavier topics are romanticised.
‘Traumatising to watch’
Euphoria, without a doubt, covers heavier topics. It’s been countlessly described as “traumatising to watch”.
Rue Bennett, played by Zendaya, is the protagonist and narrator of the show.
From a young age, she displays troubling traits and when her parents seek help, Rue is given a list of diagnoses and a handful of pills.
She grows older, and following the passing of her dad, Rue picks up substance issues.
Many argue that Euphoria is romanticising Rue’s lifestyle.
While her character is, of course gorgeous, her story starkly contrasts that beauty.
Rue’s younger sister walks in on her overdosed body.
Rue loses her girlfriend after she finds out that Rue was still abusing drugs.
She loses friends after acting up amidst withdrawals.
Her family are thrown into turmoil when they confront Rue about her drug use.
The rehab facilities are full when needed.
Rue’s mum eventually “gives up” on Rue to care for her younger daughter who’s acting out because of Rue’s addiction.
The show may appear to idealise drugs and mental illness, but nothing about Rue’s life is ideal, and the grim reality of addiction and its connection to mental illness is made clear.
The question is really: Do the aesthetics/cast of the show romanticise or undermine the deeper ideas behind Euphoria?
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Nika Young, the actress who plays Rue’s mum, says, “it's definitely not pretty at all, but Sam (director of Euphoria) realised that that needs to be seen”.
“We need to see this Bennett family really go through it because that's the only way the audience and people who are also going through this in real life understand. And they're like, 'wow, this is authentic. This is real.'"
Like the reality many in our world face, rehab isn’t an option for Rue come the second season.
This is why effective preventative drug education is so important.
In the same interview, Zendaya says: "I think if we can still care about [Rue] after this, then I hope that other people can extend that to non-fictional characters, to real people, or just be a little bit more understanding and empathetic over the experience of addiction and what it does to people, what it does to their families.”
Comments on an Instagram post by Impact, about Euphoria, confirm that to an extent, this is the case.
One commenter wrote: “As someone who lives with complex PTSD, shows like this can be comforting. They explore traumatic situations in a way that’s easy for most people to understand, so when they come across it in real life, they have a general awareness of how someone might be feeling. Makes me feel less alone to know that this is something millions of people are now aware of and can pick up on these signs.”
Some believe only the first season glorified drug use.
“I couldn’t watch all of it and wouldn’t suggest it for people who dealt with substance abuse. But this second season doesn’t at all, another commenter wrote.
“I’ve witnessed abuse since the day I was born, even struggled with it myself. I can tell you this second season feels very validating. It gives the truth. I feel confident that people who watch this show with an open mind could understand my past situations even if they didn’t experience it firsthand. I love this show because it reminds me why I continue to work on my alcohol abuse.”
Another wrote “it feels like a really horrible way to show more diversity and representation that we really need in [the] media. It makes me and lots of other people sick to our stomachs because of the glorification of all types of bad shit”.
Influence of media
Trigger warnings begin every episode (as they should), but there has still been talk on social media of recovered/recovering addicts relapsing because of the show.
Euphoria has picked up criticism by education programme, Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E). It believes the show is guilty of glorifying drug abuse.
In an interview with TMZ, a representative from D.A.R.E says “rather than further each parent’s desire to keep their children safe from the potentially horrific consequences of drug abuse and other high-risk behavior, HBO’s television drama, Euphoria, chooses to misguidedly glorify and erroneously depict high school student drug use, addiction, anonymous sex, violence, and other destructive behaviors as common and widespread in today’s world”.
Zendaya responded to this in her EW interview, stating: "Our show is in no way a moral tale to teach people how to live their life or what they should be doing. If anything, the feeling behind Euphoria, or whatever we have always been trying to do with it, is to hopefully help people feel a little bit less alone in their experience and their pain."
While the creators of the show have stated numerous times that the show is intended for mature audiences, teenagers aren’t necessarily going to listen to these warnings.
As media expert Dr Eoin DevereuxDevereux says “media content matters because it is within media content that the shaping and framing of our understanding and perceptions of the social world takes place”.
Regardless of the intent behind creators of the show, media will always influence viewers.
Should shows such as Euphoria be working with experts to ensure their depictions aren’t harmful?
D.A.R.E says it would be open to working with HBO to push the show towards a less harmful approach.
However, they have a reputation for creating campaigns which aim to scare youth away from trying drugs instead of prioritising education. This approach has since been recognized as harmful, with studies finding the programme ineffective.
These aren’t questions that can be singlehandedly answered.
We’re constantly progressing into a more saturated media landscape, accessed by more people every day.
With the heavy impacts and influence of media, the line between romanticisation and representation certainly needs to be addressed.
The influence the show has and the fears behind it romanticising these behaviours show that the systems we already have in place aren’t strong enough.
If we had adequate healthcare, debates around Euphoria wouldn’t be so significant.
Without a doubt, both the plot of the show and the debates behind it reflect massive gaps in education around these topics.
Top Image: Illustrated by Kimi Whiting
Where to get help:
If you are worried about your alcohol or substance habits, reach out to the Alcohol and Drug Helpline anytime 24/7 on 0800 787 797.
Sexual Health awareness and where to get help:
- 24 hour nationwide helpline Safe2Talk: 0800 044 334
- 24/7 helpline Wellington Sexual Abuse HELP: 04 801 6655
- RapeCrisis directory to services across the country: www.rapecrisisnz.org.nzwww.rapecrisisnz.org.nz
- (Not for crisis support): For education programs around preventing sexual violence: RespectEd
- Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse Aotearoa: www.malesurvivor.nz
- To report your experience to the police, call 111 or the non-emergency line 105
- If you’re a guy who has sex with other guys and wants support to review, reduce or stop your meth-use, check out Rewired - a non-judgemental programme for people using methamphetamine that want to change their relationship with it.
Mental Health awareness and where to get help:
- 1737: The nationwide, 24/7 mental health support line. Call or text 1737 to speak to a trained counsellor.
- Suicide Crisis Line: Free call 0508 TAUTOKO or 0508 828 865. Nationwide 24/7 support line operated by experienced counsellors with advanced suicide prevention training.
- Youthline: Free call 0800 376 633, free text 234. Nationwide service focused on supporting young people.
- OUTLine NZ: Freephone 0800 OUTLINE (0800 688 5463). National service that helps LGBTIQ+ New Zealanders access support, information and a sense of community.