Euphoria is a show about a lot of things. Too many things, probably. In its first season, a mere 8 episodes, its themes run the gamut of the human experience: sexuality, addiction, gender identity, class, mental illness, domestic abuse, trauma, grief, shame. A lot of the time, when a show tries to cover this much ground, it ends up seeming heavy-handed and inauthentic. Though I might not exactly describe Euphoria as “authentic” (at least not to my teenage experience, which mostly consisted of hanging out at strip mall movie theaters or reading manga at the Starbucks inside Barnes & Noble), I was surprised by how well this show actually works. What elevates Euphoria beyond your typical melodrama is the kaleidoscopic lens through which it views all of these issues: teenage girlhood.
What do you think of when you think of a teenage girl? Do you think of some abstract notion of what a ‘teenager’ is now that you aren’t one anymore — some terrifying, iPhone-wielding monster who can look you, a grown-ass adult, in the eyeball and make you feel like you’re about two inches tall? Do you think of the girls you knew in high school, the ones you loved, the ones who were mean to you, the ones you were mean to? Or do you think of your own teenage self? Well, whatever you think of, you’re right, and you’re also wrong. Euphoria challenges the idea that a “teenage girl” is a definable quantity.
(Mild spoilers for season one ahead.)
Take Rue, our narrator and our protagonist, played brilliantly by Zendaya (my fellow Virgo and actual queen). We meet Rue as she’s fresh out of rehab from an overdose that nearly killed her, though we quickly learn she has no plans — at least in the pilot — of staying sober. Over the course of the season, we see Rue do some really bad things, both in the past and in the present. She’s selfish in the way that addiction makes a person selfish, and she can be deeply cruel to the people who love her, often in service of getting a fix. And Rue doesn’t just suffer from addiction — she’s struggled with mental illness since childhood, specifically OCD and bi-polar disorder, the latter of which is explored in the season’s brutal sixth episode.
But when I think of Rue as a character, I don’t immediately think of her in terms of how much she’s suffered. Honestly, the first thing I think of is how funny she is. The sardonic way Zendaya delivers Rue’s narration, her flippant responses to her family and her peers when they challenge her, and god, those facial expressions — she’s got the toughened give-no-fucks teenager act down to a science. And yet, Rue also exhibits youthful naiveté more intensely than perhaps any other character on the show, particularly in the longing she feels for Jules: the certainty that their love will stand the test of time, that it can be her cure.
Jules, too, is fascinating in her dichotomy, thanks in no small part to a wonderful performance by Hunter Schafer. Jules is navigating her teenage girlhood with the extra difficulties that come with being trans — but her transness is far from what defines her character. Jules is magical. Her expressiveness in the way she dresses and does her makeup, wild and performative in its fairy-tale-like femininity, shows us that she knows exactly who she is, and it thrills her. She is compassionate and confident and fun and incredibly loving, making her the perfect foil to her newfound best friend, the reserved and lonely Rue.
But even in all of her lightness, there is also a darker complexity inside of Jules that we are exposed to only in pieces. Her confusion about her sexuality — not just who she wants to be with, but how she wants to be treated — reveals an insecurity that we see in no other part of her personality. And there’s also the fear she feels in her relationship with Rue, born of the pressure that comes with being told you’re “good for someone” and the knowledge that a person you love is relying on you and possibly no one else. Jules knows that she has too much power over Rue, but she craves their intimacy enough to throw caution to the wind.
Cassie (Sydney Sweeney) is also a character familiar with that feeling of responsibility, which we learn when we get the heartbreaking backstory of her relationship with her father. While a character with #daddyissues being introduced as the one with the most “scandalous” sexual history might sound like a cliche, Sweeney’s sweet and thoughtful portrayal of Cassie gives her more layers than a character with this archetype is usually granted. Her struggle to be taken seriously and treated well in the face of her near-constant objectification by high school boys is really hard to watch, particularly in a scene where a guy tells her that no guy would want to be with her for anything other than her looks because she’s “stupid.” Obviously, Cassie isn’t stupid, and sometimes she even leans into the knowledge that people think she is.
Conversely, Cassie’s sister Lexi (Maude Apatow) is dealing with the pressures of being the “good” girl, the “smart” girl, and the decidedly “not cool” girl. Lexi’s trajectory is definitely the most similar to my own high school experience, and as soon as she showed up for the sexy Halloween party dressed as Bob Ross, I was certain that she is my Euphoria surrogate. We learn that Lexi and Rue grew up together as best friends until Rue got into partying and Lexi didn’t, and now they mostly see each other when Rue needs Lexi to pee in a cup for her. What’s interesting about Lexi is that she lacks the judgmental holier-than-thou qualities of many “good girl” characters we’ve seen before, which makes the careful reconnection she and Rue cultivate over Rue’s journey towards recovery all the more tender.
Our other “nerdy” character ends up on a distinctly different path than Lexi. Kat, portrayed by model Barbie Ferreira of both Tumblr and Instagram fame, is introduced as the originator of the Larry Stylinson fanfic community (and if you don’t know what that is, I can’t even begin to explain it to you, so go read this article and get back to me). I just have to take a moment and express how exciting it was to see the enormous community of teen fanfic writers finally being acknowledged by a show about teenagers. Obviously, I haven’t seen every show about teens, but I’ve never seen fanfic addressed this openly, and my closeted fanfic teenage self felt. So. SEEN.
Anyway. Kat’s story might start with fanfiction, but it goes much further in its exploration of sexuality and roleplaying on the internet. Kat probably goes through the greatest transformation of any of the characters during this season, and what I like about her storyline is that it isn’t about something as simple as “body positivity.” Kat is the only one of our main characters who is fat, and while her self-consciousness about that plays an important role in her arc, it’s not as simple as Teenage Girl Learns to Love Herself. Kat is figuring out how to think of herself as a sexual being, an object of desire in the eyes of men. She wants to be wanted, but only in a way that she can control, because for Kat, vulnerability is directly linked to her deepest insecurities. So, even as we watch her learn how to take the reins and broadcast her confidence and sex appeal, we can see how much she’s struggling to reconcile this new version of herself with one who can have close relationships with other people, romantic or otherwise. One of the most heartbreaking moments of the season is when Maddy, Kat’s best friend, tells her that she misses the “old Kat,” the one who “had a sense of humor and wasn’t a cunt.”
Of course, Maddy (brought to iconic life by Alexa Demie) is upset for reasons beyond the changes she sees in Kat. Out of all the relationships we see on this show, Maddy’s romance with Nate (Jacob Elordi) is by far the most troubling. He is a textbook abuser, emotionally and physically, but she stays with him anyway. Euphoria is doing something with its portrayal of an abusive relationship that we don’t often see in pop culture, which is that the character being abused is also the character we perceive to be the most powerful girl in the room. Maddy is the epitome of the term “bad bitch.” She’s the leader of the pack, the head of the cheerleading squad, performatively sexy and a little bit scary — she’s the aforementioned idea of “imposing teenage girl with iPhone.” And yet, she is still trapped in the cycle of abuse, a victim of the ideas young girls are spoon-fed about what love is supposed to be.
With Maddy, we also see Euphoria delving into an exploration of classism and racism, especially in the way her relationship with Nate is treated by his rich, white, conservative parents, who seem to think Maddy is just a phase. We see a little bit of Maddy’s home life, and learn that she’s determined not to end up like her own parents, which gives us even more insight into why she stays with Nate and what she’s willing to do to get ahead, even at the expense of others. And although she can be power hungry, scheming, and downright cruel, Maddy is other things too: she’s supportive of her friends, she’s a talented performer, and she’s more open and accepting of others than we might initially expect. She’s the closest thing Euphoria has to a “mean girl,” but she’s not really a mean girl at all.
We’ve talked a lot about the importance of well-written female characters both on the blog and on the podcast, but I always find myself coming back to the idea of scarcity — what it means when the content you’re consuming only has one or two women representing the entirety of the female experience. That’s not good for anyone, because it puts a lot of pressure on those characters to be the least cliched and most powerful people on the screen. But everyone has some traits that are stereotypical, and everyone has some that are surprising, and on a show like Euphoria, when you have a main cast of six fully-formed female characters, there’s so much more room to explore these girls not just as ‘types,’ but as people.
Euphoria allows teenage girlhood to be so many different things. It also doesn't spend too much time pitting these girls against each other, and instead puts its energy into exploring who they are as individuals and what connects them. And no, it’s not a flawless show by any means, but I think its an important one, in all of its messy, glittery glory. I’m very glad that it’s been renewed for a second season, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the writers continue to expand upon its themes and strengthen these characters. Until then, I’ll be over here, gluing foreign objects to my eyelids #forthegram.