Mental Health and Queer Representation in Euphoria

There has been much hype about the relatively new HBO TV series Euphoria, which premiered on the streaming service over the summer. The series features actress and singer Zendaya and is produced by Drake. Euphoria has gotten attention for its incredible bold and dreamy make-up by Doniella Davy and its unique fashion aesthetic.

The show also is known for its uncompromising look at the Gen-Z high school experience. The Gen-Z experience is characterized by the role of social media and the internet in mediating one’s reputation and image. Such issues as the effect of dating apps, social media, porn, and nude photos on relationships are discussed in particular, giving the show the some of the content and explicitness of the American TV show Shameless (2011). These and other typical stories and topics are given the spotlight, making the show both more explicit and less conventional than other high school dramas. However, despite this fresh look at modern relationship issues, I really appreciated the show for its depictions of mental illness and queer issues.

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Accurate Look at Mental Illness

The main character Rue (Zendaya) is shown struggling with drug addiction as she navigates (and resists) rehab and recovery after an accidental drug overdose. However, one of the main reasons Rue got into drugs into the first place to find relief from mental illness symptoms. Not only had she been experiencing random panic attacks since she was little, but her father had died from sickness only a few years prior. Addiction is Rue’s unhealthy coping mechanism for her intense anxiety, OCD-related tics, and bipolar mood swings.

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The episode “The Trials and Tribulations of Trying to Pee While Depressed” has Rue narrate her experience with depression: binge-watching reality TV due to depleted motivation, wasting of days from an inability to out of bed, and distancing herself from friends and family. In the same episode, Rue alternatively talks about her periods of mania, comparing it to being a detective in a crime mystery thriller, feeling hyper-aware of how all the little pieces fit into a larger picture.  Writer and producer Sam Levinson drew from some of his own experiences for the show, particularly for Rue’s character, which highlights Euphoria's commitment to realistic representations of mental illness.

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Showing mental illness in such a sympathetic character revolutionarily overturns the fearful and condescending stereotypes of mental illness by society and the media. Through Rue and Euphoria more broadly, mental illness is reframed as something that happens to you, rather than something that defines you. Because of her sensitivity and persistent anxiety, Rue is shown to be vulnerable through the face of her mental illnesses. Even when she is adorably energetic during a manic episode, Rue is merely experiencing a different type of uncontrollable high. Rue is able to achieve a state of stability, even if only temporary, with the help of the support and care of her family and friends, helping her spunky, confident, and fiercely protective personality to emerge. 

Centrality of Trans and Queer Characters

The other thing about Euphoria that I love is how the show brings trans and queer characters into the central plot. Rue’s friend Jules (fashion model, actor, artist and LGBTQ+ activist Hunter Schafer) is an of icon for the show because she showcases much of the aesthetics and issues mentioned throughout Euphoria. She wears experimental, femme make-up and fashion taken from Gen-Z social networks and combines it into her own aesthetic as an expression of her identity. Her obsession with an online dating app marks her own commitment to the Gen-Z preoccupation with social media. The dating app usage also partly characterizes and fuels her ease of falling in love (vulnerability) and disregard of personal safety leading to self-destructive behaviors.

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For example, in the first episode, Jules meets up with a guy from a gay dating app at a hotel at night without telling her dad where she’s going. As a millennial, this situation raises serious red flags, so Jules’s later admission that the date was a negative experience felt distressingly inevitable. During my initial viewing, I almost gave up the show completely because the hotel room scene of sexual violence felt so gratuitous when associated with that obvious message of knowing the dangers of dating apps. However, discovering Jules was a trans girl who had recently transitioned and was actively grappling with her gender and sexuality changed my interpretation of the hotel encounter. Jules was somehow overcompensating, tragically associating sex with men as a verification of her own femininity. Because of her own internalized low esteem and transphobia, she assumed she couldn’t search for meaningful, personally fulfilling, and sexually satisfying relationships in her normal life, settling for a series of hook-ups. However, throughout the show, Jules proves less dependent on others in defining her own identity.

As a powerful, magnetic, and deeply autonomous figure in this series, Jules is a really positive and complex depiction of trans women for a mainstream media such as HBO to be depicting. Euphoria opens up the conversation on queerness and questioning one’s sexuality and gender expression, as well as very much exploring social discomfort with non-heteronormative identification.  

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Euphoria proves that high school is very much a time of transition and identity formation. Like its name implies, Euphoria is a look into various obsessions, their highs and their sources of abuse or self-destructive behavior that lead to personal pain. Yet the characters holding these obsessions are humanized by being shown through a sympathetic and honest lens.