Arts & Culture

Feeling Out Euphoria

Even if you haven’t seen the second season of Euphoria, you’ve probably seen the TikToks, memes, and tweets that have taken the internet by storm since its release on January 9. At Tufts, the show’s popularity has brought people together for weekly watch parties and heated debates about the show’s depiction of teenage life.

Euphoria premiered in the summer of 2019 but had to pause production in 2020 due to the pandemic. The second season picks up on New Year’s Eve, the same December that Season 1 left off on. Rue, the main character played by Zendaya, struggles with addiction throughout both seasons. Rue is also the narrator; each episode begins with her telling of another character’s backstory which gives context to the characters’ actions in the present. 

Having garnered tremendous online attention, Euphoria has evolved into a source of creative inspiration for young adults that are active on social media platforms. For example, young people have created a new TikTok trend commenting on Euphoria’s costume design. In these videos, TikTokers appear dressed in comfortable, casual clothing, until an audio featuring Spongebob‘s Squidward comes in, asking: “And why aren’t you in uniform?” Then, the person walks off camera before returning dressed in a trendy and revealing outfit in the style that Euphoria has become famous for. The trend points out the stark contrast between ordinary clothes worn in real high school versus Euphoria’s off the wall fashion. After watching enough of these TikToks, you can see that most high school students certainly do not dress like Euphoria characters. 

But perhaps the goal of the costumes lies beyond realism. In an interview with Vogue, Euphoria costume designer Heidi Bivins explained how she designs each outfit to correlate with the characters’ emotional state in the episode, imagining how their feelings would influence how they get dressed in the morning. Bivins also recalled that when she was beginning to costume the pilot episode, Euphoria creator Sam Levinson told her that he doesn’t “give an eff about reality.” This gave Bivins the artistic license to dress characters in outfits that the majority of high school students wouldn’t wear to school, or have the budget for. 

“[The outfits are] so representative of each character… portray[ing] their arcs and explor[ing] [the characters’] identit[ies],” said freshman Hami Trinh. 

By taking part in the “And Why Aren’t You in Uniform?” trend, young people are imagining what they would look like if they attended what the internet has deemed “Euphoria High.” The styles popularized by the teenage characters on the show may not reflect everyday outfits, but they influence how young people have fun with clothing and makeup, even if just to post online. “The glitter and sparkles and jewels that defined season one really exacerbated maximalist makeup trends that we saw in 2019 – 2020, especially on sites like TikTok,” Trinh said. 

Season 2 has a slightly different look. The clothing continues to evolve with the characters, becoming even more detached from conventional high school attire, and the makeup is bold but less glittery. The most recent trend of posting Euphoria-inspired outfits online is a thematic progression of 2019’s widespread Euphoria-themed parties. The dress code at these themed events was to dress like the characters in the show, with dramatic under-eye glitter and vibrant colors. However, today’s Tiktoks are not only concerned with celebrating Euphoria’s fashion. They also highlight the juxtaposition between “normal” clothing and Euphoria clothing in order to mock the show’s “unrealistic” depictions of teen fashion, and even behavior. Much of the internet is now saturated with jokes, jabs, and serious criticisms about Euphoria’s authenticity.  

“Sometimes I’m like, ‘Mmm is this realistic?’” said freshman Miguel Caba. “‘Is a high school really doing this?’ It’s a very entertaining show at the very least; the ridiculous stuff going on—like Cassie on the carousel—[kept] me engaged.”

There are usually several plotlines within a single Euphoria episode, leaving viewers with a sense that everything in the world of “Euphoria High” is pure chaos. The series has been criticized for the sheer amount of nudity and sexual content, especially since the characters are mostly minors. Sydney Sweeney, who plays Cassie, revealed in an interview with The Independent that she asked Levinson to cut some of her character’s nudity, and he was receptive. Freshman Amina Meckel-Sam weighed in: “I think some of the sexual scenes are very graphic… I don’t think it’s ethical to do that even though the actors are adults.”

Meckel-Sam also questions the effect of such shocking plotlines in a show that engages with serious real-world issues. “A lot of the time, [Euphoria] exploits… real issues,” they said. “People want to be uncomfortable, so the sensationalism continues to make [these real issues] something shocking and horrifying.”

DARE, which stands for Drug Abuse Resistance Education—a program that organizes “police-led… classroom lessons” and originated in the Reagan era—recently issued a statement to TMZ, accusing Euphoria of “glorifying” substance abuse and other “destructive behavior” the show portrays. Students, however, push back on this narrative. “People say [Euphoria] glamorizes [drugs] because of the cinematography overall, but I think it does show the effects that doing drugs can have on other people in your life,” Trinh said. 

Much of the online remarks and discourse surrounding Euphoria has been about whether it is realistic to portray such serious issues in a show about people so young. “It does draw from real experiences,” Trinh said. “Obviously it’s exaggerated, but I feel like if you’re from a similar place [you would relate].” For instance, Levinson, the show’s creator, based much of Euphoria on his own experience with addiction in high school. 

The series also lacks relatability due to the experiences it chooses not to portray. Despite being set in a high school, we rarely see the characters in class or doing homework. In many tweets about the show, users mention their school-related stresses as reasons they don’t relate to Euphoria. Tufts students echo these sentiments. To the question, “Where’s the homework?” Caba replied, “If I were going through all that, I would not be able to do any school.”

Although they don’t find the show to depict their own high school experience, freshman Isa Arabia related to the character Kat, who embodies many different selves throughout the series. “She always makes me laugh. I love her. I love her journey of self discovery,” Arabia said. 

Many people also find the show relatable because they see their identity represented in the show. Euphoria is often celebrated for its LGBTQ representation. The character Jules Vaughn, who is trans and played by trans actor, model, and activist Hunter Schafer, is involved in an on-and-off relationship with the Rue. “[Having a trans girl as a main character] is groundbreaking for a show this popular,” Arabia said. Caba also noted: “It doesn’t feel very label-ly. [Jules] is just a girl and Rue just falls in love with [her] because she can actually find a connection.” Schafer herself echoed this in a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly: “I don’t think we’ve ever bothered to even try and label Jules’s sexuality because I think it is genuinely as fluid as it can be. She’s still experimenting, she’s still learning.” 

At the same time, some have criticized the show, saying it lacks positive or genuine representation. In addition to the praise of the LGBTQ representation in Euphoria, there has been criticism of how the show’s queer characters’ relationships are flawed. “I just wish they’d portray a healthy queer relationship,” Meckel-Sam said. Some argue that various Euphoria characters fall into racist, fatphobic, and homophobic stereotypes, and that creator Levinson has failed to portray diverse identities with depth and accuracy. 

Euphoria’s lack of Asian American characters has become the subject of several memes, with many people on social media posting selfies and proclaiming that they are willing to be the show’s first Asian American female character.  

Relatable or not, popular media deserves close scrutiny. “We know that children, adolescents, and even emerging adults are affected by the images they see and hear,” Julie Dobrow, Senior Lecturer at the Tufts Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development said. “Through [Tufts Children’s Television Project’s] interviews with people who create content, we know that many media creators are taking [the issue of representation] seriously and making changes in the content.” As young people consume the content TV creators serve, their takeaways are evident in their expressions, whether on TikTok or at the lunch table. It is imperative that we pay critical attention to these expressions and identify exactly what it is these young viewers absorb—the fashionable, the positive, and the harmful.