While A24 is still a relatively young production company, it has seen some significant success in a short time. One of its most popular projects is the HBO series, Euphoria. Created and written by Sam Levinson, the teen drama centers on the character of Rue (Zendaya), a recovering addict. Its 2 seasons have been critical and rating successes. Audiences have particularly responded to the show’s authentic performances, engaging characters, and creative vision. This isn’t to say Euphoria has been without controversy, though.
There has been concern surrounding how Rue’s experiences with addiction have been portrayed on-screen. Most people are clear about how creative license applies to works of fiction. Nevertheless, filmmakers also have a cultural responsibility for accuracy when adding to the discussion on substance abuse.
We’re going to take a closer look at what Euphoria gets right and wrong about drug addiction.
Signs of Addiction
One of the aspects worth examining is how the signs of addiction are portrayed in Euphoria. This is an important consideration since understanding substance abuse has not exactly benefitted from stereotypes of addictive behavior. Negative and exaggerated media portrayals have historically contributed to the stigma, not to mention that misrepresentations can affect how people effectively recognize addictive behavior in themselves or loved ones.
In Euphoria, Rue’s external signs of addictive behavior are generally quite subtle. She manages to fly underneath the radar in many ways. In season 2, we see her actively making plans to hide her relapses from her friends and loved ones. One of the first things we learn about Rue is the fact her family didn’t notice her active behavior until she experienced an overdose. It begs the question: how accurate is this?
Well, there’s certainly some truth to this aspect of the portrayal. Masking behavior — intentional and unintentional — is certainly common in those living with addiction. People can be relatively high-functioning throughout their substance abuse. They can maintain jobs, participate in education, and pursue relationships with relative success. As with Euphoria, a point of crisis is often what it takes to reveal problems.
Nevertheless, it’s important to also consider what infrastructure would surround Rue’s addiction in the real world. She had already received an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) diagnosis, which involves an element of physician observation. Often, healthcare providers will utilize addiction screening processes to identify patients in at-risk groups. These assessments can get those living with addiction access to early resources that can genuinely make a difference. Rue’s engaging with mental health services could have led to her behavior being recognized earlier.
One of the most important points to consider in portraying the subject of addiction are the methods people use to get help. Audiences need to know there’s a lot of assistance out there. In reality, patients’ needs can receive a more individualized approach. However, many movies and TV shows focus on some of the more familiar and general elements. Usually, the audience’s takeaway is that the treatment options are simply rehab and support groups.
Euphoria sticks to this script for the most part. The portrayal of Rue’s treatment journey focuses on her inpatient rehabilitation and Narcotics Anonymous sessions. There are no nuanced tools being used to address her individual needs or challenges. Though, it’s important to consider the decisions made in the series may revolve around the priority of dramatic arcs. Rue not getting more targeted and relevant help can contribute to more interesting storylines.
In some sense, there is an element of accuracy to Rue’s limited resources. Many people living with addiction don’t get the full help they need because of their lack of knowledge about the full range of options. In the U.S., this can be exacerbated by insufficient insurance, though it has to be said that some Medicaid programs provide greater resources for youths experiencing addiction.
Nevertheless, a more accurate portrayal of the tools available would show the potential for addressing Rue’s specific needs. She may have had transitional outpatient treatment following her inpatient rehab. As well, there are a growing number of addiction recovery resources available for the LGBTQ community. These are more geared toward the unique personal and social challenges this demographic faces with substance abuse. Living in a major city, Rue’s character almost certainly would have been able to access these with relative ease.
Glamorization of Abuse
One of the primary criticisms Euphoria has received is its apparent glamorizing of substance abuse. Some high-profile organizations, like the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E) program, have expressed concern that the show glorifies the experience. We see Rue’s experiences as exciting, dramatic, and commonplace features of youth lifestyles. While the addiction is not exactly made to be aspirational, it’s certainly not treated as a cautionary tale.
This is, of course, a problematic issue. It’s worth pointing out that no TV show or movie causes addiction. However, it would be responsible to consider how these depictions can influence viewers’ perceptions. The fun and escapism surrounding the on-screen substance abuse may feed into the decision-making of people already in vulnerable emotional and mental states.
Is this all to say that Euphoria represents addiction badly? Not really. Part of the danger of substance abuse is that, at least in the beginning, it can feel good. People may experience pleasure or distance from the challenges in their lives. At the end of season 1, Rue experiences vivid hallucinations in an accurate portrayal of what can be attractive about drug use. It may feel like a form of glamorization, but it’s certainly not incorrect.
Euphoria has been one of the most popular teen dramas of the last few years. However, it’s important to reflect on where the show represents reality and how it can fall down on realism. In entertainment, the producer’s priority is, understandably, to serve the narrative. But, it’s difficult to deny that greater realism in relation to the resources available and challenges experienced could be valuable to some viewers of the show.