Ashleigh Brink // Columnist
Storytelling is one of our most fundamental and powerful methods of communication. No matter the medium, whether it is a song, a show, a movie, a book— it can convey almost any message or emotion. More importantly, it provides a window into another world—somebody else’s world. With the globe growing ever more distant, and hatred seemingly on the rise, these glimpses into different experiences are increasingly important. But as important as it is to learn about others’ lives, it is even more important to see stories similar to your own being told. For those who grew up seeing characters just like themselves in movies, books and plays, and hearing themselves in the music they listen to, this may not seem like a big deal. But for those who didn’t, like many in the LGBTQ+ community, the recent surge in honest representation is extremely meaningful. For much of modern history, especially in Western society, the only stories that have had a real platform were those of straight white men. Oftentimes gay men and women were reduced to nothing more than token characters. Background filler. Always told through the lens of somebody else. Or worse, used as a punchline. Only in the past 20 years or so have we started truly hearing from other voices, such as POC, women and LGBTQ+ individuals.
The recent HBO show Euphoria is on the cutting edge. It is a quintessential example of powerful, accurate representation in current popular media. While at first glance it may appear to be just another vapid teen drama, nothing more than HBO’s attempt to join the myriad of shows that are style over substance, it is so, so much more. Euphoria is undoubtedly an aesthetic masterpiece. It is filled with breathtaking cinematography, amazing costume design (excuse me while I try and inevitably fail to do some of those gorgeous makeup looks), and one of the most pitch perfect soundtracks I have ever heard. Cumulatively, it is stunning work, capable of evoking an emotional response from its surface alone. Unlike many other shows in its genre, Euphoria holds up when you peel back the pretty, Instagram-worthy exterior. It is a raw, very honest story that addresses a lot of delicate and downright dark subject matter. And it’s the way it handles those subjects—with brutal honesty—that makes it such a compelling show.
From the very beginning of the first episode, Euphoria doesn’t pull any punches. While the explicit content may feel gratuitous to some, it is still an unapologetically real story. In particular, it examines how the internet has deeply impacted this generation’s adolescence. Featuring violence, drugs, sex, nudity, toxic masculinity, struggles with mental health, and relationships, among other things, Euphoria hits just about every major trigger point that young people today can encounter. The show takes it all in stride, always tries to tell an authentic story, no matter how unglamorous it may be. It refuses to gloss over the ugly sides of life just to keep the audience comfortable within their own ideas of adolescence.
Most importantly however, Euphoria is a pinnacle of positive LGBTQ+ representation. Even those appalled by its graphic nature cannot deny it paints a deeply authentic picture of queer people in a way that many shows have been unable to capture. One of the main romantic plots is a love story between two girls, Rue (Zendaya) and Jules (Hunter Schafer), and it’s presented as just that, a love story. Euphoria also handles the character’s sexualities extremely well. This is mostly rooted in the show’s notable lack of labels. They are not mentioned once. And as such, the characters are never boxed into stereotypes—they are allowed to just be. The characters have space to develop and be themselves. Perhaps the most impressive thing, though, is the handling of the character Jules. Her transness is not the focus and entirety of who she is, but one aspect of her identity. That, along with casting Hunter Schafer, a transgender woman herself, to play her, makes for an extremely humanizing character.
Perhaps the biggest reason that Euphoria’s LGBTQ+ characters feel authentic in all the right ways is due to the show creator, Sam Levinson. He took the radical (yes, radical) step of actually listening to LGBTQ+ people, really hearing their experiences, and subsequently bringing that to the characters. This is in stark contrast to many characters we see in popular media, where it’s men trying to tell women’s stories, white people attempting to tell POC’s stories, and of course, straight people trying to tell LGBTQ+ people’s stories. We’re inundated with them. And frankly, it’s condescending, and always misses the mark.
The show is not without its missteps. Some of the storyline can admittedly feel exaggerated with just the sheer breadth of what happens in eight relatively short episodes. But most of the backlash seems to be from older generations who would rather sweep anything different or difficult under the rug. At its core, Euphoria’s handling of hard subject matter and authentic portrayals are what make it so human. And it’s these very human stories that need to be told.