What HBO got wrong with the new 'GenZ' drama, Euphoria.

Updated: Aug 26, 2019

HBO: Euphoria Link:

Euphoria is the new ‘teen’ drama from HBO – though it’s a drama about teens, and not for

teens (it is recommended for mature audiences only.) As is often the way of these things,

Euphoria reveals itself to be less an accurate depiction of real, everyday teenagers and more

a bit of sweaty, very sexy, fantastical wish fulfilment from the adults who made it. In

Euphoria, everyone is gorgeous (despite the drugs/booze), wasted (but not so wasted they

can’t have conversations about the existential nature of their lives), having lots and lots of

sex (soooo much sex), and for the most part, really quite unlikeable. And this, as anyone

who has been a teenager, is a teenager, or knows teenagers can attest, this is so not what

being a teenager is like – except for the ‘lucky’ and exceptional few – who probably all end

up on shows like Euphoria.

The protagonist of the show is Rue, played by a luminous (despite all the drugs) Zendaya,

who was born on 9/11. This is actually a really interesting metaphor that doesn’t get

touched up on again (in the first episode, at least.) The idea of young people being born in

the shadow, and paying the price for the mistakes and sins of older generations is a real

source of Gen Z rage that doesn’t get explored nearly enough. Rue’s entire childhood and

then teen-hood is crippled by serious mental health issues (anxiety disorders, panic attacks,

OCD, undiagnosed bi-polar disorder.) She is medicated (‘legitimately’ at by doctors) at first

and then begins to self-medicate with recreational drugs until she OD’s and is packed off to

rehab – all of which she narrates in a sexy Girl Interrupted kind of croak. She is released

from rehab and quickly launches herself merrily down the path of sin again buying drugs

from 10-year old, tattooed Ashtray, running up a $120 drug debt from her affably stoned

mate Fezco – who seems wholly unbothered to discover this, borrowing some clean pee

from her one sober pal to reassure her worried Mum and sis that she’s clean.

Meanwhile the unrepentantly Vile Nate is watching porn starring his classmates, shirtless –

but in a strictly heterosexual kind of way – and they all talk the seemingly sweet Chris

Mackay, that the sex he later has with Cassie – must be of the violent, pornographic kind –

and he attempts to choke her, without her consent, which kind of bums her out – but (and

this is the really worrying implication, particularly for the younger audience that will

inevitably watch this) – but it also turns her on a bit.

Woven into this is the story of fragile Jules, a trans girl, who meets a sinister older man

going by the moniker ‘Dominant Daddy’ in an even more sinister hotel room who has dodgy,

rough sex with her, all the while telling her ‘he envies her generation.’ The big ta-da twist at

the end is DD turns out to the be the, er, Daddy, of Unrepentantly Vile Nate, so this

becomes one of the show’s few laugh-out-loud moments.

All the players meet at a party, where Vile Nate ex-girlfriend puts on a live sex show in a

swimming pool, Kat loses her virginity to some dude or just insulted her and called her fat –

and gets slut-shamed by this when the evidence shows up on social media a nano-second

later (but she is now, according to her friend a member of the ‘slut club’ – so all’s well that

ends well), Jules – who is also new in town – nearly gets beaten up by Vile Nate because he

doesn’t recognise her (introducing himself doesn’t seem to occur to him.) She threatens him

with a knife, and then self-harms in front of the gasping crowd. This puts her in the path of

Rue, who seems instantly (and mutually) attracted to her, and the episode ends with them

possibly about to have sex, and definitely about to get wasted (again.)

There is a part of me that would have liked to enjoy the salacious story-lines, great

soundtrack and gorgeous, trippy direction – but I just couldn’t – and not because it shocked

or offended me – but because it does a massive disservice to Generation Z (aged 12-23) – a

generation I know very well – by offering a totally distorted and inaccurate picture of them.

Like Larry Clark’s Kids, released twenty-two years ago, Euphoria is at such pains to depict

the gritty, nihilistic side of teenagers, it does so at the expense of realism and accuracy.

Whilst rampant recreational drug-taking, drinking, smoking and casual sex with multiple

partners was more representative of teenage-life in Larry King’s 90’s Kids, Generation Z are

doing these things less than any generation of teenagers since the ‘60’s. In fact, spend time

with real-life Gen Z’s and you find a generation who lots of them won’t even get a bit tipsy

(32% of 16-24 year olds are teetotal), let alone black-out, vomiting wasted or drunk. One of

the biggest concerns raised by Gen Z-ers across the social spectrum during my years of

research is how much their and grandparents drink. Wine with dinner and pints in the pub

might be par for the course Gen X-ers and Babyboomers – not so for, Gen Z-ers who are

more likely to be following #cleanliving Instagram accounts on their laptops than doing lines

of coke off their laptops – which Rue of course does in Euphoria.

As Hayley, 17 confirms, “almost none of my friends drink often or much – I’ve seen my

Mum’s friends drunk more than my own.”

Which brings us to the nudes and slut-shaming so graphically depicted in Euphoria. I’ve

researched this issue extensively and one of the main reasons Generation Z’s – and

especially the girls – avoid getting drunk/wasted is their paranoia about having an

unflattering picture/video taken of them and/or being filmed in an uncompromising

positions. In Euphoria, Maddy willingly and gamely puts on a live sex-show in a swimming-

pool to a flank of camera phones, to get back at her ex-boyfriend, Vile Nate. In reality, there

is so much fear, shame and horror over public and online slut-shaming, that the idea a girl

would be the gleeful architect of this is unrealistic in the extreme – and also a bit offensive

to all those young people who have been shamed and had lives ruined after sharing nudes

or intimate moments with people they trusted – which is generally the way such things find

their way into the public sphere in real life: Amber (16) – “A girl in our class was filmed

giving a boy head and it got put online. It got so bad for her, she had to leave school, and

then move away. I heard she was suicidal – but none of us really spoke to her again.”

Similarly the depiction of teen-sex in Euphoria is wrong in so many ways – and the bits they

do get right – for example, the extent pornography is warping real life sex and expectations

of sex – gets lost in all the wrongness. The aforementioned choking scene could have raised

a really interesting and much needed conversation about consent and boundaries, but

instead it ends up tipping a cheeky wink at the camera, about how the girl enjoyed the kink

really. This sends out an appalling message to the (inevitable) teen audience, basically

aligning itself with all the porn they (really are) watching in vast quantities.

Likewise, the disturbing meeting and sex Jules has with Dominant Daddy rang rather untrue

to me as Generation Z who are somewhat sheltered, and extremely security and safety

conscious compared to previous generations. The idea that a seventeen year old trans girl –

a demographic who are exponentially more vulnerable to violence than almost any other –

would go an meet an older (presumably straight) male for sex – with little concern for her

safety, was another example of Euphoria sacrificing realism for ratings.

Euphoria was right to centralise mental health as a modern crisis for young people – it is

ravaging them, with 22% of girls and 8% of boys in the 17-19 in the UK age bracket having a

mental or emotional disorder. Exacerbating this crisis is diminishing mental health services

available for young people, especially when they become 16, and leave the critical child

category. However, shows for/about teenagers that depict mental health are rarely brave

enough to show the really ugly, brutal nature of it, and so the sufferers tend to look wide-

eyed and elegantly wasted, rather than what sufferers of mental health really look and feel

like – and Euphoria definitely falls into that trap.

Euphoria will inevitably be compared to its older British cousin, Skins – which showed a

nuanced and interesting depiction of teen life – but as most British teenagers of that era will

confirm, still way more glamorous than reality. In fact, despite its white male-centredness,

The Inbetweeners (not getting laid or served in pubs, naff school discos, and terrible caravan

holidays) was closer to the ‘average’ British teen of that era than the photogenic and

exciting lot in Skins and now Euphoria.

What I compared Euphoria most to – and unfavourably – was the criminally underrated

American Honey – a film with a lost female protagonist, and kids from the economic

underclass getting wasted and laid – but it took you on an interesting, richly storied journey

and built characters not caricatures. Euphoria is so at pains to be ‘real’ it’s ended up being

quite unreal and depicting a fantasy – a bit like the pornography it is so at pains to show you

is damaging young people.

Naima 17, watched Euphoria and points out, “I wish my life was that exciting – but mine is

far more stressing about exams and watching too much Netflix,” and Naima’s observation is

a salient one. Average teenage experiences aren’t going to make exciting HBO series, and

though it raises some interesting issues and discussion points, it is a how made by and

ostensibly for adults – and it shows. We all look back and tell ourselves that our teenage

years were perhaps more interesting than they were, but for those currently living it, the

reality is a little less euphoric.

Chloe Combi, Author and Generation Z expert, Thought Laboratories