Euphoria Part I: Spitting Images
Imitation isn't just what Euphoria produces - it's what the show might very well be about.
In my mid-teens, when I discovered the world of YouTube beauty vlogs, I was struck quite suddenly by a sense that somewhere along the line, I had erred from the lawful path. I was newly in high school and profoundly insecure; watching videos of girls my age applying layers of foundation, bronzer, and eyeshadow every morning showed me a world that I had skipped over, and that until that point, I hadn’t known that I was outside of. The pedagogical form of these videos implied that their lengthy (and expensive) routines were axiomatic, part of the everyday maintenance of femininity that I had been neglecting to perform. I hurried to my local drugstore with a list of the products that the vloggers said I needed, and I dedicated hours everyday to watching all the videos that I could find, striving to mirror the image of womanhood that I felt it was my obligation to reproduce.
Today, the 30-minute “Get Ready With Me” videos of YouTube have given way to the snappy TikTok tutorial, and a whole new ecosystem of trends has come to define contemporary Gen-Z culture. Among the most popular are tutorials modelled after HBO’s popular teen drama Euphoria, which first appeared in 2019. Now in its second season, the show has spawned an aesthetic that combines early-2000s glam with the punkish stylings of art school irreverence or a futuristic Prada runway. Makeup artist Donni Davy infuses the normally banal, girl-next-door look of the average high school TV series with colour, graphic shapes, and theatricality — something sorely lacking from the perfection-oriented beauty looks that dominated my own high school years. From Maddy’s rhinestoned eyebrows in season 1, to Jules paraphrasing Mondrian or de Kooning in eyeliner, the unparalleled visual language of the show is essential to its overall success (season 2 premiered to 13.1 million viewers).
Davy’s impact on beauty trends speaks to something indicative of Euphoria’s ethos at large: that is, the power of reproducability. As writer Günseli Yalcinkaya wrote for Dazed earlier this month, the show seems designed to be exportable: “every week it’s the same. We log onto our silly little social media accounts and scroll through the hundreds of #Euphoria memes trending on our timelines […] the memes have been unavoidable. The hunch that each scene has been carefully engineered for maximum social media, even more so.” Yalcinkaya cites the explosion of “when you go to Euphoria high” jokes on Twitter, and Maddie (Alexa Demie) saying “bitch, you better be joking” as examples, or my personal favourite, “she doesn’t even have a pencil or a single book.” Numerous HBO properties have been levelled with the same criticism: in its second season, Big Little Lies seemed to carve out specific moments to be excerpted by Twitter (usually involving Laura Dern’s Renata), and even the tightly-crafted Succession has spawned a small cottage industry of meme accounts.
But memes and makeup looks aren’t all that Euphoria has been said to export; the show’s glittering images of drug use, violence, and graphic sexuality have also drawn ire. Earlier this month, D.A.R.E. released a statement arguing that “rather than further each parent’s desire to keep their children safe from the potentially horrific consequences of drug abuse and other high-risk behavior, HBO’s television drama, 'Euphoria,' chooses to misguidedly glorify and erroneously depict high school student drug use, addiction, anonymous sex, violence, and other destructive behaviors as common and widespread in today’s world.” Whether or not you accept this characterisation, the show has undoubtedly pushed - nay, massacred - any boundaries around graphic images of youth. It is not just that difficult or controversial subjects are being represented, but how stylised they are; overdoses and abusive relationships are lavishly soundtracked, saturated in purple and red light, given to us as sinuous, syrupy, and spellbinding. The concern in some corners is that these behaviours might get reduced to their aesthetics, minimising their harms and leading to imitation.
Euphoria’s gloriously gritty images, however ‘groundbreaking’ they are suggested to be, are nothing new. They come from a long history of what has conventionally been thought of as capital-C ‘Cinematic.’ Season 2, for instance, opens with a montage inflecting the 1970s gangster film, practically all but name-checking Scorsese in the process (Vulture previously documented Scorsese’s obvious influence on season 1). In a later episode, Rue hallucinates herself inside the nave of a spare, sculptural church as filaments of memory echo in voiceover; the mise-en-scène and editing here beg comparison to late-stage Terrence Malick. And the costumes in Season 1’s endlessly memed Hallowe’en party? Rue and Jules’ are from Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet and Kat draws on Abel Ferrara’s ms. 45 (Vulture: “The show follows a proud tradition of teen programming clearly informed by the taste of the 30-somethings making it”). Even the names of episodes this season are borrowed from literature and art: “You Who Cannot See, Think of Those Who Can” and “Stand Still Like the Hummingbird,” or “A Thousand Little Trees of Blood.” Just as Euphoria is said to engender a set of alluringly copy-able images, its visual language (and cachet) is also highly dependent on consciously repeating the tropes of certain familiar, ‘edgy’ media properties.
One reading of all this intertextuality would be that Euphoria’s creator/director/writer Sam Levinson has a limited imagination and relies too heavily on aesthetic distractions instead of deepening the plot (the pivots this season from superficial to thoughtful could give you whiplash). Another reading would entail recourse to theories of the postmodern, that stage of late-capitalist hell in which all art is composted-together versions of other art, hinging on our ability to catch references, sometimes with an ironic wink, and at other times coming across as smug or tedious.
But instead of thinking about where these references to other images come from, I am more interested in how they function. Namely, I think that a great deal of the show is about the images that we inherit, and that we desperately try to live up to, especially in our febrile teenage years. That is, the problem of images and their capacity to influence is not just central to the discourse around the show, or to its style, but also, as I am arguing, to within the show itself.
I refer to images both literally in terms of the representations that we get from art and media, as well as more figuratively, as the imagined expectations of who or what we should be ‘like.’ In the case of Euphoria — and reflective of our neoliberal, exhibitionist, social media-engrossed times — the latter is decidedly visual, not just a sense of how a person should be, but what they should or will or might look like, more specifically. Appearance is a ticket to a certain kind of life or goal, and so replicating the former supposedly wins you the latter, a message directed most pointedly toward young women.
In season 2, Cassie Howard (Sydney Sweeney) is lost in an image crisis, one which sees her competing for the attention of her secret paramour Nate Jacobs (Jacob Elordi) against her best friend/his ex, Maddy Perez (Alexa Demie). Cassie begins grooming herself for school at 4:00am, showering, ice-rolling, self-tanning, curling her hair, and testing different outfits (a Buzzfeed article tells me that her fictional routine has since taken off on TikTok). In a single episode, Cassie works through a vast range of possible images of herself, each increasingly unhinged, and all yielding zero returns from Nate. Like the beauty vloggers that I used to watch on YouTube, as well as any number of marketing ploys directed toward young women, Cassie is under the impression that she will achieve her dreams by investing in her image — an image that she is willing to prune with exacting, maddening precision.
Sometimes, Cassie misplays her hand. “Why do you look like that?” Kat (Barbie Ferreira) asks her in the bathroom. “Like what?” Cassie pants. “Like a country music star,” says Maddy. Cassie is despondent — “in a good way or a bad way!?” It is then that we get the famous, “bitch, you better be joking,” from Maddy, and Cassie almost cracks. Trying to live up to a particular, artificial image is trying enough — choosing the wrong image altogether is humiliating. (But not as humiliating as the day she shows up dressed exactly like Maddy.)
For her part, Maddy is also confused about determining who she is and who she thinks that she has to be. In season 1, we saw her watching Scorsese’s 1995 Casino, zeroing in on Sharon Stone’s Ginger McKenna as a kind of personal avatar — she is singularly alluring and glamorous, an image not tarnished but confirmed by her tragic, destructive relationship. The episode title, “"'03 Bonnie and Clyde,” is a reference to a Jay-Z/Beyoncé track, which references a 1967 film, which references the infamous 1930s criminal couple. We see Maddy — and she sees herself — refracted through a prism of other images and associations, until it is no longer clear whether her identification with McKenna or Bonnie is the basis for how she conducts herself, or vice versa.
This season, she isn’t seeing Nate anymore, but she still wonders if they might get back together; she knows that he’s toxic (understatement of the century), but aren’t they supposed to be star-crossed lovers? Maddy confesses to Jules (Hunter Schafer) that she might not be the ‘type of girl’ who has a loving, stable relationship, gesturing to the belief that her fate has been sealed by prewritten stereotypes of the ‘bad girl.’ Nate too is up against an image of himself — as violent, predatory, irredeemable — one that he sees as inherited from his father, and as we learned last Sunday, that his mother identifies in him too.
Lexi (Maude Apatow), Cassie’s sister, is the dark horse of the series, a quiet observer on the margins who has been gathering up all of the secrets and drama to spin into an original new play. She too sees everything as a series of images, people as iterable types, and the natural rhythms and trajectories of life as potential narratives. In one scene this season, she walks out of an argument between her parents and onto a film set, calling “cut” and revealing a fantasy in which she can reorganise and redescribe true events as images offered up for art-making. “The sidekicks are usually more sensitive, smarter, more compelling characters,” Lexi explains, as the camera jogs through the set that has been built to tell her life story. In voice-over, Rue adds “Lexi was an observer. That’s who she was.” Characters like Lexi or Maddy are slotted into recognisible cinematic types to make them legible to us, but also to themselves.
Rue (Zendaya), the series’ protagonist, is less beholden to this trap than the other characters (her priority for most of the series has either been getting clean or getting high — although, her suicidal outbursts often come with claims that she doesn’t want to be herself, or anyone at all). But when she tries to narrate the weight of her love for Jules, she can only impart this intensity by recourse to familiar images: they are Jack and Rose from Titanic, Jack and Ennis from Brokeback Mountain, Frida and Diego, John Lennon and Yoko Ono immortalised by Annie Leibovitz. Like all of their peers, and all of us in our hyper-mediated culture, Rue and Jules understand themselves through images, and in turn, so do we.
The coming-of-age genre has a known proclivity for mediation and imitation — characters are trying on identities as they imagine what it is that they want out of life. But the images that we turn to for a sense of ourselves do not come without baggage and do not come freely — they can attach us unwittingly to pressures that constrain rather than expand identity.
Levinson’s orientation to tropes and to reproducing pop culture is perhaps also not so self-conscious or self-critical. As a 2019 article by Jude Dry compellingly suggests, the show’s “gaze” is emphatically his — as the creator, writer, and director of each episode, Levinson lends a decidedly auteurist vision to Euphoria, in contrast to other TV shows that employ a revolving door of directors and a large writers’ room. The results of this singular viewpoint are mixed, and oftentimes, troubling. The protagonists of Euphoria are meant to be underage, and so the regularity of full-frontal nudity, shot indulgently and often in the context of violence or abuse, has raised eyebrows. Four actresses have spoken about asking Levinson to reduce or altogether cut their nude scenes, and while they credit him with being agreeable to their requests, it is worth asking why so much unnecessary or uncomfortable nudity was scripted in the first place. And while Dry finds reasons to praise the ‘trans-amorous’ lens through which Jules is depicted, they also note the potential for such effusive, desirous attention to slip into objectification, especially in a climate of violence against trans women.
And so while the show has opened and reworked certain ideas about gender or sexuality, or brought attention to the pressures with which young people struggle, to differing degrees, Euphoria’s cast of young women are still repeatedly overdetermined by how they look, their bodies exaggeratedly framed and stylised for our attention — attention that is conditioned by the archive of images on which Levinson draws to create a visual style that we will read as ~cinema~. These images are also laden with commercial implications, as the cast have become scions of the modelling industry, pedalling new trends every week for brands like Marc Jacobs or i.am.gia. In the essay “A Woman’s Beauty,” Susan Sontag writes that “a whole society has identified being feminine with caring about how one looks. (In contrast to being masculine — which is identified with caring about what one is and does and only secondarily, if at all, about how one looks).” Sontag is instructive here in teasing out the ways that self-image may be given to us as the paradigmatic, essential focus of young feminised lives; for the girls of Euphoria, presenting the right image — trying to match up an intimate sense of self with a public-facing one, or looking a certain way to meet somebody’s expectations — is the goal around which many a life listlessly circles. But it is also the thing to which these girls are so often reduced, either by the show or its afterlives on social media.
As the art critic John Berger wrote, describing the appearance of women in Western painting:
A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.
And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman.
She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another.
The sense that, as Berger suggests, how a woman appears is taken as “an indication of how she would like to be treated,” constructs an insidious, exhausting logic of self-monitoring and management. This is especially true for Cassie, who tunes her image to get what she wants from Nate, but it also speaks to Kat’s sudden makeover in season 1, from which she builds out a whole new impression of her personality and sexuality. So much of the pressure of high school was, for me, the pressure of being looked at. Image feels like everything, and in Euphoria, this speaks both to how the characters see themselves, and to how the camera sees them as well. If looks obsessively matter to girls like Cassie, they also seem to obsessively matter to Levinson or to HBO, in a way that can undercut possibly meaningful insights.
Accordingly, Euphoria works best when it takes up fault-lines rather than through-lines, when characters fail to live up to their typologies, and expected images turn flaky and die. While some episodes indulge in Rue’s drug-fused benders, others refuse to look away as she aches through withdrawal and leaves a trail of destruction in her slobbery, blood-streaked wake; these scenes are brutal and forthright, and Zendaya’s un-self-conscious performance is extraordinary. Jules also brings a richness to the show without which it would suffer terribly; her honest, complex negotiations of gender and sexuality push back against constraints and inherited perceptions. In Jules and Rue, as well as season 2 newcomer Elliot (Dominic Fike), Euphoria also explores queer, alternative modes of sociality and love that are not so weighed down by the social performances demanded of its straight couples.
We are consistently told, especially when we are young, that alignment with predetermined norms is the seat of happiness and fulfilment — part of growing up is realising that this isn’t true, or at least it was for me, when I stopped watching YouTube tutorials and came to understand how these market-driven, essentialising images of femininity were produced and circulated. In Euphoria, the most interesting tensions come out when characters negotiate the desire to imitate idealised images with trying to wriggle out from under their weight. (It’s worth mentioning, after all, that what makes the makeup looks so incredible is in part how daring and un-pretty they are often willing to be.)
Euphoria’s investment in reproducability is both one of its most interesting concerns, and one on which it is not always able to get a hold. Characters’ existential struggles often match up with their archetypes, or become a backdrop to the parties and heists. Realisation or growth come as explosions — massive fights, parties, overdoses, threats, break-ups, drunken rants, families collapsing — and not through the everyday minutiae of being a teenager, which is itself already overwhelmed by drama.
The best of the show remains, in my view, the ‘special episodes’ that dropped last Christmas as a bridge between seasons 1 and 2. In the first, “Trouble Don’t Last Always,” Rue sits in a diner with her sponsor Ali (Colman Domingo) debating whether or not to get clean, and whether or not to find hope in living anymore. The hour-long conversation is mesmerising and emotional, an opportunity for the show to slow down, to take its time, and give its characters an expansiveness that feels liberating. The same is true of Jules’ follow-up, “F*ck Anyone Who’s Not a Sea Blob,” another lengthy bottle episode in which Jules talks to a therapist about love, gender, depression, and self-worth (Schafer co-wrote the episode with Levinson). Breaking with its usual storms of neon-lit violence, Euphoria took a moment to acknowledge the serious trauma lying underneath, to let things (and people) grow more complicated. Taking a more sobering tone felt right; privileging specificity over stereotype is what makes the show work, and when it’s good, it’s great. These slower moments also give the spectacular flourishes more weight, rather than becoming an endless barrage of images for their own sake without anything meaningful to ground them.
Euphoria, love it or hate it (and for most viewers, it’s a heady mix of both), is an interesting object lesson in the rhetoric of images and the ways that we reproduce, remix, or resist them, whether as consumers of media, creators of art, or people in the eternal, turbulent throes of becoming someone.
Stay tuned for Part II: Ahead of the season finale, I will be bringing a special guest to No Outlet to chat about how Euphoria depicts relationships.
Reading: This week, I read Annie Ernaux’s Happening, a memoir of pre-legalisation abortion in France. Ernaux’s images of abortion are straightforward and unflinching, visceral without being sensational. I was struck by how intense some of these images are, but also how this leads Ernaux toward writing — there is no established language for what she has experienced, because it isn’t something that gets written about or published (she wrote this book in 2000). It is also an examination of the relationship between gender, class, and education, particularly how working-class French girls were read by the medical community. / I also recently read Ann Petry’s masterful, iconic, and utterly devastating The Street for class — it is a harrowing account of a single mother in 1940s Harlem who negotiates the pernicious constraints of poverty, racism, and sexism. / Over my holiday this week, I will be trying to finish Adriana Cavarero’s Inclinations and Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ Undrowned for some theory, and might dip my toe into either Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond or Sunetra Gupta’s The Glassblower’s Breath for some fiction.
Watching: I saw Steven Soderbergh’s Kimi last weekend — I liked the first half, creatively exploiting silence and a single location, leaning into the limitations of COVID, but the second half felt like sloppy stock footage with a too-neat ending… however, as everyone must surely agree, all tongues that rise against Zoë Kravitz shall fall. / Shortly thereafter, I watched Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut Passing, based on the novel by Nella Larsen. This got mixed reviews, but I found it really well-executed, so restrained and precise, with great use of cinematography and sound.
Listening to: The new album from Big Thief, amazingly titled the very long Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You.