Does Euphoria have a substance abuse problem?
Responding to D.A.R.E.’s criticisms of the hit teen-drama, Kristie Taylor suggests that Euphoria‘s depiction of substance abuse isn’t quite as simple as has been made out.
Becoming HBO’s most popular premiere with over 2.4 million viewers and hitting almost a 100 per cent increase in audience size for season two compared to season one, Euphoria has grown into one of the most talked-about shows among young adults. However, with regards to its depiction of substance abuse, as well as many other issues, is there validity to claims made that the show may be doing more harm than good?
The series covers a variety of controversial topics: abusive relationships, the videography of sexual intercourse involving a minor, the influence of violent pornography on expectations during sex and, perhaps most prominently, substance abuse.
Scenes from the first season, such as that depicting the young Cassie (Sydney Sweeny) high on MDMA whilst attending a carnival, taken alongside those from this most recent one, such as the newcomer Elliot’s (Dominic Fike) introduction as a young man making large sums of money through music and subsequently using it to supply both himself and his peers with illegal substances, there at times fails to be a clear explanation as to what audiences benefit from this exposure.
The show’s aesthetics have become increasingly appealing to young audiences
This year, the organisation D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) has expressed concern at this most recent season’s portrayal of ‘destructive behaviours as common and widespread’, suggesting that this is actually only adding to the pressures on school-age children who already face ‘unparalleled risks and mental health challenges’. In a generation in which substance use has decreased largely in the past year, the graphic depiction of substance abuse has raised concerns of it being presented as an option as opposed to turning viewers away.
From its exuberant fashion and makeup to its recent use of the vintage film stock, Kodak Ektachrome: the show’s aesthetics have become increasingly appealing to young audiences and, consequently, criticism has been levied that Euphoria’s ability to set trends, in which many young people want to participate, has increasingly become intertwined with its dark themes.
However, many viewers would argue the line between the show’s glamour and the realistic portrayal of substance abuse and further societal issues is not to be mistakenly blurred.
The show primarily focuses on Rue (Zendaya), a 17-year-old, self-medicating teen suffering from anxiety, OCD and depression. In this latest season, Rue’s battle with addiction has seen her spiral to new depths, explicitly manipulating friends and damaging relationships as desperation leads her to take ever greater risks.
Throughout Rue’s journey, audiences are afforded an insight into her troubled psyche; one special, an hour-long conversation between Rue and her mentor Ali (Colman Domingo), himself a recovered addict, is dedicated to uncovering and understanding the reality of substance abuse. As a result, viewers become increasingly aware of the harm caused by society’s failure to address substance abuse as a disease and witness those suffering being treated blamed for their most destructive actions, rather than helped.
These more informative moments, alongside the addition of detailed backstories for once-peripheral characters such as Fezco (Angus Cloud) and Cal (Eric Dane), enable an increasing focus on circumstance and, taken with the show’s attempts to push how far a character can go before being disliked, evidences Euphoria’s overriding intent: to emphasise the importance of empathy.
In total, the show’s varying qualities leave the benefits of its impact up for debate
Zendaya, taking the lead role but also working as an executive producer on the show, has expressed a hope that audiences view her character as ‘worthy of their love’ and emphasised the educational value of a ‘greater understanding of the pain they (victims of substances abuse) are facing’.
Alongside this, creator and showrunner Sam Levinson has shared his desire to utilise his own past struggles with substance abuse, to enable the raw depiction of both the relief recreational drug use can provide but also the chaos endured by addicts and those around them.
In total, the show’s varying qualities leave the benefits of its impact up for debate.
On the one hand, it is inevitable that the series will be accused of causing harm. This is because it pursues media trends and intentionally depicts of the desirability of certain lifestyles, whilst simultaneously attempting to address subjects as serious as substance abuse.
Yet, through its growing audience’s exposure to its more insightful aspects, new understandings may contribute to an increasing empathy across society. Here, there really is an opportunity to enhance our collective ability to communicate and support those who may otherwise feel alone.