HBO’s new series Euphoria is being advertised, reviewed, and talked about as a bleak, shocking, and provocative show about teenagers, drug abuse, and sexual promiscuity in the social-media age. It is all of those things, at least based on the events of the pilot episode, but I also don’t think it’s a show that requires that a bunch of middle-aged white guys like myself reckon with their youth or see Euphoria as evidence that we are woefully out of touch because back in our day teenagers didn’t battle a potent combination of depression and addiction; because teenagers didn’t seek validation by sleeping with much older people; or because teenagers didn’t cave to peer pressure and “catch a f*ck” because a sh*tty teenage boy negged an insecure teenage girl into sleeping with him.
We saw all of this in the work of Brett Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney, or Jim Carroll in the ’80s and ’90s, we saw sanitized versions of this in the work of John Hughes. I mean, hell, we saw much of this in crappy ’80s comedies like Porky’s, only it was played (wrongfully) for laughs. Next week’s episode will reportedly feature 30 dicks or about half the number of boobs in a Porky’s movie. That’s not provocative; that’s equality. For decades, men and boys have taken charge of their sexuality, largely at the expense of women; they have mined their experiences with drugs for great movies and novels; and they have cut against the grain of contemporary mores to become the flawed heroes of their own stories.
The difference in Euphoria is that Zendaya’s Rue is playing Robert Downey Jrs. character from Less than Zero, that a trans woman, Jules (Hunter Schaefer) is f**king an older man instead of Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate and that my favorite character (so far) Kat Hernandez (Barbie Ferreira) is transforming a decision she made out of insecurity into an opportunity to redefine herself in an empowering, body positive way.
That’s not the takeaway we’re supposed to take from an experience like that, according to every movie ever. A bad first sexual experience leads to greater insecurity, a downward spiral, and years of acting out those insecurities with sh*tty men. Not this:
There were parts of the pilot that made me uncomfortable as hell (the statutory rape, obviously, and Maddy asking Chris not to choke her … unless she gives him permission), and while the power dynamic gave me pause for obvious reasons, I tried to examine what it was about some of those situations that made me uncomfortable. In most cases, it was because I wasn’t accustomed to seeing women in these roles. I was used to seeing James Van Der Beek or Leo DiCaprio, and while those roles may have been provocative for their time, they never made me feel uncomfortable.
Granted, trafficking in the currency of nude selfies is new for this generation, and the social media age undoubtedly generates peer pressure that is more intense and immediate, but the biggest difference in these stories, so far, is who is taking charge, and who is controlling the narrative. When the drunken jock — jealous because his ex is f**king another guy in front of him — rage strokes at a party and tries to humiliate Jules, I had been conditioned to believe that she’d shy away or run away crying or worse, that he’d sexually assault her while the partygoers egged him on. Instead, Jules uses her own power to turn the tables on him. While I wasn’t crazy about the fact that she had to cut herself to get out of a jam, it was a nevertheless the kind of baller move we’re not accustomed to seeing marginalized characters make. Jules bootstrapped power out of a weak position, and so far, that’s what I appreciate most out of Euphoria: Characters who not only own their identities, but wield them as a weapon. That’s not provocative or bleak, that’s goddamn inspiring.
Header Image Source: Getty