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You might have heard of “Euphoria,” HBO’s newest teen drama, because of its graphic depictions of sex, substance abuse, violence, and trauma. Or maybe you’ve seen the dazzling young cast on social media, led by the beautiful up-and-coming actress Zendaya. Regardless, this new show is turning heads not only for its raunchiness and shocking promiscuity, but also for its raw portrayal of mental health issues and the ways in which teenagers in 2019 confront them.
If you have not had the chance to watch yet, “Euphoria” is based on an Israeli miniseries that follows a group of high school students as they navigate through blurred lines, dark secrets, and unhealthy relationships. The main character, Rue Bennett (Zendaya), is a 17-year-old recovering drug addict who becomes unlikely friends with Jules Vaughn (Hunter Schafer), a transgender girl who just moved to town. Their other friends include a girlfriend stuck in an abusive relationship, a local drug dealer, a financial dominant, an athlete dealing with his sexuality and masculinity, and a girl with a reputation for “getting around.”
While all the storylines intertwine, the audience most closely follows Rue’s journey with depression, addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention deficit disorder, general anxiety disorder, and bipolar disorder, which culminates in a perceived manic episode. The unique portrayal of Rue is inspired by show creator Sam Levinson’s own experiences.
Levinson battled with drug addiction when he was around 16. He discusses how his past influenced his distinct decisions in making the show: “I was trying to capture the heightened sense of emotion when you’re young and how relationships feel. The world feels like it’s just constantly bearing down on you. That anxiety, and those sort of mood swings, I think, are inherent to being young — but even more so when you struggle with anxiety and depression and addiction,” he told Entertainment Weekly. Levinson’s intentions for the series play themselves out in his unique direction, cinematography, and plot construction, which all depart from archetypal depictions of mental illness in the popular media.
In many films and television, people with mental disorders are stigmatized, thus perpetuating certain stereotypes. For example, characters appear visibly distraught and deranged, act with violent tendencies, and very rarely show progress towards recovery. A study conducted by Professor Don Diefenbach of the University of North Carolina reveals how characters suffering from a mental illness are 10 times more likely to commit violence than unaffected characters, and 10 to 20 times more likely than a real person with a mental illness. Additionally, the media portrays mental disorders as all equally extreme in level, and mental hospitals are propagated with a connotation of evil, horror, and insanity. The asylum trope is featured in many current shows, including “Riverdale” and “American Horror Story: Asylum.”
“Euphoria,” on the other hand, makes the audience love, laugh, and develop compassion for Rue, rather than pathologize her. We empathize with her experiences and understand her oftentimes sporadic actions. Furthermore, because Rue is the narrator, the audience observes and participates in her bipolar tendencies with her, such as her easily excitable behavior and her 22-hour binge-watch of Love Island. Her mannerisms are amusing without being glamorized, and many teens can relate to her nuanced character. Andrew Beau Simon, a student at the University of Chicago, writes, “Rue places little to no value on her own life: She regrets her overdose not because she could’ve died, but because she hurt her little sister in the process. This twisted sense of familial duty driving Rue’s will to live and improve encapsulates well young people’s conception of the negative aspects of suicide and depression.”
“Euphoria”‘s first season sparked much controversy from critics and parents, yet its ratings have thrived and proved especially popular among the younger adult audience. This no doubt has something to do with the complex characters, refreshing openness, and honest depictions of mental health that are plentifully sprinkled within.
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