Euphoria’s depiction of teen sexuality frames sexual abuse as sexual empowerment
Euphoria is one of the most popular television shows at the moment, with its second season having recently wrapped up airing its episodes. The American drama show is about a group of teenagers, dealing with a wide range of issues, such as drug addiction, and exploring their sexualities.
Euphoria has a diverse cast of characters in terms of race, gender identity, and sexuality, which includes a trans woman, Jules, as one of the main characters, and a female queer relationship between Jules and the main character, Rue, who is a Black woman. The largely-female led show has had significant depictions of mental health and drug addiction. For example, Episode 7 of Season 1 portrays the manic and depressive episodes of bipolar disorder in a realistic way and Episode 5 of Season 2 depicts the real consequences of drug addiction without glamorising it.
Coming-of-age teen stories often include teenagers exploring their sexuality and encountering sexual situations for the first time where they need to figure out what to do. However, Euphoria sometimes forgets its main characters are teenagers and portrays them as equals to adults in sexual situations and their acts of sexuality as those of an adult.
Actor Zendaya who plays the main character Rue has stated multiple times that Euphoria is not intended for teen audiences but for adult audiences, although this probably only encourages more teens to watch the show and possibly get influenced by the messages of the show.
The depiction of teen sexuality is tricky because it risks leading to the sexualisation of teens. Although most actors portraying teens are often adults in real life, there is a big problem with the sexual objectification of many female child stars. Moreover, the sexualisation of teen characters helps normalise the sexualisation of teens in general.
The way Euphoria has depicted acts of sexual abuse of teen girls often frames these acts as sexual empowerment of teen girls.
For instance, in Season 1, Kat’s storyline revolves around her gaining confidence by becoming sexually active. At the beginning of the season, Kat is filmed secretly while she is having sex for the first time and the video is posted online without her consent. However, the show does not explore her feelings about her sexual privacy being violated or how this is a crime. Instead, Kat discovers she enjoys being desired by others and decides to sign up for camming.
Almost all her sexual interactions, including online and in real life, are with men who are older than 18, and those that are online are all middle or old-aged men. Kat is portrayed to reclaim control over being sexually violated through more sexual acts, most of which are actually sexual abuse. Hence, as Kat is underage, these acts are statutory rape or child pornography.
Instead of criticising the violation of her privacy or the rape culture that causes non-consensual filming, the show presents her being violated as something that eventually has a positive impact on her self-love, confidence, and sexuality. Kat becomes an independent, empowered woman as a result of being sexually exploited.
Kat starts to feel confident and comfortable in her body once she starts feeling sexually desirable and expressing sexuality, which equates her self-worth and empowerment only with her sexual worth. This portrayal of sexual empowerment is problematic as it gives the message that women aren’t as worthy or empowered if they are not constantly displaying sexual confidence.
A big problem in Season 1 is that it constantly depicts teen girls in sexual relationships with adult men in a way that portrays the teen girl as responsible for her sexual actions. For example, through a flashback, Maddy is shown to lose her virginity when she is 14 to a guy that is around 40 and Rue narrates in a voiceover that it “in retrospect seems kind of rape-y and weird, but honestly, she was the one in control.” The show promotes the idea that Maddy was the one who had the control and power in the sexual encounter, even though it was statutory rape.
The scene does not feature a younger actress for this flashback but instead uses the regular actress, Alexa Demie, who was in her late 20s during filming, unlike other scenes of Maddy that show her childhood which is played by a different, younger actor. This choice fosters the idea that 14 is not a child, which makes the idea that 14 is old enough to consent more believable. Teenagers being played by actors in their 20s is a common reoccurrence for most teen shows, which helps portray them as adults, capable of making their own sexual choices.
In Season 1, Jules, who is 17 years old, and Nate’s middle-aged father Cal have sex after messaging on a dating app. He asks her how old she is, and she lies saying 22, which subverts the blame from him to her. Not only is Jules underage and cannot legally consent to sex with Cal, but the sex act itself seems to discomfort her. She, therefore, seems to take no pleasure, while he shows no concern for her comfort or pleasure.
The encounter is never explicitly stated as non-consensual. Instead, it is presented as Jules’ choice for meeting with him to have sex, without addressing how there was no consent for that specific sexual act in that specific way, even if there might be consent at the beginning of the sexual encounter.
Jules is portrayed as continuing to have sex with older men and any negative effects of these interactions are not portrayed – the interactions appear as Jules’ own choice for her body and sexuality, instead of what they actually are, which is statutory rape.
Jules and Cal’s interaction is not framed as a problem as part of a patriarchal system of rape culture and teen girl fetishization. Instead, Jules’ interactions with older men are framed as an individual issue of Jules making bad decisions as a teen, as part of the show’s general theme about teens making bad decisions.
The show tries to portray that Jules has struggles dating because of being a trans woman. However, it doesn’t succeed in portraying her interactions in a way that criticises the societal norms that make it difficult for her, instead of blaming her individual choices as bad.
Euphoria continuously presents teens having sex with adults as empowering for them, even though the underage characters seem to not take pleasure but are instead using sex as a way to feel better about themselves, which promotes the idea that uncomfortable sex that only focuses on the pleasure of the man, abusive sex, and sex with power imbalances are empowering. The show does not address how teenagers cannot consent to sexual interactions with adults.
Euphoria’s tendency to emphasise the choice of the teen girl even in abusive situations portrays consent in a problematic way, which puts all the responsibility of choice on teen girls.
Again, in Season 1, both Maddy and Cassie are in toxic, abusive relationships. During Maddy and Nate’s relationship, when he cannot control her social behaviour or clothes, he chokes her and uses violence to exert his control and power. Afterward, he emotionally manipulates Maddy, who does not testify against him when the police question her.
Euphoria attempts to portray the complexities of an abusive relationship on not only physical but emotional and mental levels and demonstrates how the person being abused may not realise the abuse or may still want to be with their abuser because they have been emotionally manipulated to think that this is what they deserve.
However, sometimes the show portrays them as equally toxic or Maddy’s wrong actions as the reason for Nate’s abuse. For example, Nate breaks into Tyler’s house and beats him up, for having sex with Maddy, believing that he raped her, but this happens as a result of Maddy saying that she was blacked out during sex, when in reality she was conscious and remembers everything.
In the episode ’03 Bonnie and Clyde, Maddy and Nate start meeting in secret and lie to the police and everyone else that Nate was not the one who choked her, instead setting up and forcing Tyler to take the blame. The episode title refers to Maddy and Nate’s relationship, which romanticises their relationship and represents their relationship dynamic as equals, and their actions as equally bad, criminal, and mutual, which ignores the realities and the power imbalances of Nate abusing Maddy. The ways in which the abusive relationship affects Maddy are not really addressed.
Moreover, Maddy is portrayed as lying, including about being a virgin, as well as using sex to manipulate and deceive Nate to get what she wants in the relationship, such as gifts, which further portrays them both as toxic, taking attention away from Nate’s abuse.
In the last episode of Season 1, while Maddy and Nate are dancing together, Rue, Jules, Cassie, Kat and Lexi talk about how “they will probably get married and divorced three times, but still live a happy life,” which romanticises their relationship, as if getting back together and ending up together no matter what is a good thing, and that they can eventually be happy. Many fans have romanticised the relationship despite its abusive nature, which demonstrates how viewers can be affected.
In Season 2, it almost seems like the reason Maddy and Nate aren’t back together is that Nate is seeing her best friend Cassie in secret, and not because Nate has continuously abused Maddy, which is barely mentioned throughout the season. As Maddy’s friend, Cassie never feels bad about being with Nate because of his past abusive actions towards Maddy, only because they have a romantic past. It’s almost as if the abuse never happened.
In Season 1, prior to her relationship with McKay, Cassie is pressured into filming during sex a few times by guys in her school, who later post these videos and photos of her online without her consent. During literal locker-room talk, the male students show each other the non-consensual content and slut-shame Cassie.
The show attempts to portray and critique rape culture and toxic masculinity. However, Rue’s voiceover reveals that she almost always said yes to being filmed even though she didn’t always enjoy it and that she knew most guys would share the photos and videos after they broke up, which diverts the blame to Cassie’s bad decision-making.
McKay is continuously ashamed of being with Cassie because of her sexually active past and he uses her sexual history as an excuse to act aggressively during sex, either because of his assumptions due to her past or almost as a way to punish her.
Although the show attempts to criticise the abusive behaviour of Nate and McKay towards Maddy and Cassie, it also sexualises Cassie and Maddy constantly and shows them cheating on their partners, as if their cheating is the reason they get abused or being cheated on is equally bad as being abused.
A significant theme within especially the first season of Euphoria is sexuality, specifically sexual exploration and sexual abuse. However, all acts of sexuality seem to be depicted in the same way, whether actually abusive or empowering, as if part of the journey every teen girl has to go through.
Season 2 has been better in portraying teens exploring their sexuality, as well as depicting drug addiction without glorifying it. However, even Season 2 almost had more paedophilic scenes and more nudity for the teen characters. Thankfully, the script was changed after the pandemic delayed the shooting. Many Euphoria actors have expressed that they were uncomfortable with the amount of nudity in the original script.
These examples (especially from the first season), demonstrate how the representations of teen sexuality in Euphoria reflect neoliberal values of individuality, choice, and empowerment, which portray women as always sexually empowered and making decisions for themselves, even when they are sexually objectified or their consent not fully respected. Because of the emphasis on the autonomy and sexual agency of the woman, the sexual violence and abuse are portrayed as partially the woman’s fault and the negative effects of experiencing sexual violence on women are never explored.
Teen shows tend to centre teen girls’ independence, where they often portray teen girls as adults, facing adult issues, making important decisions by themselves, and responsible for their own choices, including in their expressions of sexuality. Teen girls are depicted as equals with the adults around them.
In Euphoria, which has more sexuality and dark themes than the typical teen drama, this translates into portrayals of sexual relationships between teen girls and adult men as equal, consensual relationships. These representations normalise and even romanticise abusive behaviours.
Although Euphoria has meaningful representations of diverse characters, mental health, and drug addiction, at the same time, the sexual exploitation and abuse of teens in Euphoria are often portrayed as the sexual empowerment and agency of teens.