The Euphoria Problem
It’s time to retire TV's ‘fuckable teen’ trope
I have never been one for moral panics. I grew up in the 90s, a time when television shows like Beverly Hills 90210 and movies like Kids drove adults into full hysterics. Any portrayal of teen sexuality was treated as inherently harmful and deviant, no matter how nuanced the depiction. People were terrified that teenagers would be driven to risky sexual behavior because of what they saw on a screen (or listened to in a song, or played on a video game). As a young person, it was exhausting.
That’s why I’m so surprised to find myself ready to go full killjoy over HBO’s hit series Euphoria. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, or because I have an 11 year-old daughter, but I am completely over how pop culture—and this show, in particular—depicts teenagers and sex.
Euphoria is framed as an ‘edgy’ and ‘real’ depiction of teenagers, but the show feels more like plain old sexual objectification—whether it’s having adults in their 20s (and perhaps 30s) play high school juniors and seniors, storylines better suited for Penthouse letters, or the lingering shots of what are supposed to be underage girls’ naked bodies.
Euphoria’s creator Sam Levinson says the gratuitous nudity and sex is simply ‘authentic’—a reality of teenage life that adults don’t want to deal with. In a 2019 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, he said, “I think we’re authentic to the experience of being young...We wanted to make it feel like it feels.”
But how authentic is it for a breathy teenage girl to lovingly tell the object of her affection, “You can control what I wear, what I eat, who I talk to”? Or for a sexy high school babysitter to get in a hot tub with an equally as beautiful older mom for a little half-naked, wet girl bonding time? I can’t imagine any young girl would see these fairly standard male fantasies as anything recognizable in her own life.
Even the scenes meant to highlight how young women are sexualized manage to become the very objectification they claim to shine a light on. In one episode, for example, a male character has a dream about a girl—one of the most sexualized characters on the show. We see her naked on a bear skin rug, riding the male character topless, and a closeup of her nipple being kissed and licked. She is supposed to be an underage character, and the audience is clearly not meant to be appalled—but titillated.
It’s true that Euphoria takes on real and important issues: Sexual assault, drug abuse, and the dangers of social media, sexism, and violence against women, for example. There’s a trans character, and examinations of how those issues intersect with her identity; the first season had a storyline about a young fat woman finding power and confidence through her own sexuality; and there was a complicated episode about a middle-aged character being unable to come out in his youth. So the show is not without its strengths.
But Euphoria’s ability to feature nuanced depictions of certain issues make the sexualization that much more disappointing, and obvious. (Even some of the actresses have started to talk about it.) In fact, it feels as if Euphoria’s progressive lean is being used as cover for its run-of-the-mill objectification.
Clearly, this is not a problem unique to one television show—plenty of pop culture sexualizes young women. But few have the cultural power of Euphoria, or claim to be ‘authentic’ in the way this show does.
There’s also no perfect solution; censorship isn’t useful, and ending objectification can’t happen overnight. But there is one thing we can do to start us in the right direction: Stop having adults play teenagers.
Sixteen and 17 year-olds do not look like 25 year-olds. At all. And because we’re so accustomed to seeing actors play characters five to ten years younger than their actual age, our culture has a warped view of what teens actually look like.
Real teens look young—awkward and pimply, gangly and baby-faced. Having beautiful, fully-grown, post-puberty grownups play teenagers not only can lead to body image issues in actual teens—it makes it easier for adults to sexualize them.
After all, how different is a show featuring a close up of a 24 year-old’s nipple—a nipple we’re meant to believe belongs to a 17 year-old—to a ‘barely legal’ porn video that throws a 20-something in pigtails? And how can we claim to be a society that believes adults shouldn’t be attracted to teenagers while we consistently pump out entertainment for adults that sexualizes minors? It’s not morally coherent.
Yes, teenagers have sex (though not nearly as much as TV shows would lead us to believe). We absolutely should talk about that fact, and have pop culture that reflects young people’s reality without shame. But why not do it in a way that is truly authentic? No perfect-breasted arched-back blondes or hot moms hot-tubbing with their teen babysitters, but actual young people, awkward pimples and all. A show like that may not be as tantalizing, but if we’re talking about teenagers, maybe that’s a good thing.
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