Elizabeth, a 16-year-old high school student in San Antonio, Texas, has a penis problem. Each day during lunch in the school cafeteria, her phone won’t stop buzzing. They’re not texts from her parents asking when to pick her up from school, or Snapchat messages from her friends bored in class. Elizabeth is being bombarded with porn.
“There’s a thing at lunch where people AirDrop memes,” Elizabeth says. “Sometimes nudes, [but] most of it is some porn actress getting fucked.”
High schoolers’ relationship with porn, nudes and dick pics is just one of the many themes in HBO’s new teen drama Euphoria that have been questioned on the grounds of accuracy. The series, which follows Rue, a 17-year-old recovering drug addict navigating high school, has been criticized for depicting teens as vulgar, drugged-out and sex-obsessed.
“The premiere careens so chaotically, and is so aggressively jarring that it would be completely understandable if viewers tuned out just to avoid the sheer stress of it all,” read a piece in Variety. Refinery29 critiqued Euphoria’s sex scenes, including one in which Jules, who is trans and underage, hooks up with a middle-aged man after connecting on a queer hookup app. “It will mostly be adults watching these graphic simulations of teen sex… and that is, err, uncomfortable to think about,” author Kaitlin Reilly wrote.
Largely left out of many of these Euphoria discussions are the teens possibly experiencing these situations first-hand. I spoke with many high schoolers, like Elizabeth, who believe the show is an accurate, if dramatized, depiction of teenage life. They like that the show feels jarring and uncomfortable because being in high school today is jarring and uncomfortable. “It’s very true that being a teen today is explicit,” Elizabeth says. “At school, we are exposed to very violent fights, drive-by shootings at high school parties and nudes being exposed online.”
Some Euphoria critics question the show’s prolific display of nudity. In a pearl-clutching piece titled “How Much Teen Sex and Drugs Is Too Much,” the Hollywood Reporter described the show as “filled with graphic nudity, violence and drug use among young people … so extreme that one star quit mid-shoot,” while later revealing that the actor was actually scared off by potential gay scenes. The piece also pointed out that one episode featured “a gender-bent homage to the famous Carrie locker room scene,” featuring about 30 (flaccid) penises. This caused backlash (and built hype) over the unprecedented nature of a TV show showing gratuitous male genitalia, especially with characters under 18. But as the Daily Beast’s Kevin Fallon notes of the scene, male nudity is unfairly considered more incredulous than female nudity: “The scene is, truthfully, a bit dizzying and exhilarating, just in the fact that we never see it: ‘Oh wow, look at all those dicks.’ But it’s soon over, and the show continues. There are better things to talk about.”
From athletes in locker rooms to dick pics sent over hookup apps like Scruff, male nudity is common in high schools and depicted as such on the show. “Boys’ dick pics have been leaked too,” Elizabeth says of her high school experience, noting that both male and female students’ nudes are routinely circulated among classmates. Adds Caitlyn, a 17-year-old from a small Texas border town: “I remember just a few years ago, being in middle school, and nudes still being seen as such a taboo and controversial thing. Now it’s seen as no big deal.”
Smartly, Euphoria takes a close look at the culture of teen nudity as experienced by both male and female students. One popular and ostensibly straight male student has a secret stash of dick pics on his phone. Meanwhile, Kat loses her virginity at a high school party only to have the experience secretly recorded and widely shared.
These sexually charged experiences aren’t widely discussed between teenagers and adults because teens tend to keep their burgeoning identities from their parents. “I keep things from them when it involves drugs,” Elizabeth says of her conversations with her parents. “But when it’s something like relationships, I tell them some things but keep the scandalous things out of the conversation.”
That’s a universal experience as any. It’s why even Euphoria’s “troublemaking” characters don’t really feel that “troublemaking.” “I personally knew a Nate and a Cassie, heard tons of stories about people like Rue, Kat and Maddie, so do I think it’s accurate? Absolutely,” says Felix, a 19-year-old from Germany who just graduated from high school.
In response to the show’s depiction of “wild” teens (Rue has no intention of keeping clean after a harrowing drug overdose, while Kat willingly becomes a cam girl), the New York Times ran a piece with data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing high schoolers are in fact more responsible — and their lives less debauched — than what’s often depicted in pop culture. The reporters, however, did not speak to teens about their experiences, and the young people I spoke with felt slighted by inital reviews.
Euphoria’s pilot “talked about everything we’re secretly doing or freaking out about, but mostly it was just so funny and real,” says Jake, an 18-year-old. “It was like the only high school thing I’ve seen that didn’t go corny or fake.”
Even if data show fewer teens are having sex and smoking weed, that doesn’t mean these experiences aren’t still part of high school life. Nor does diminishing them to soothe anxious parents do any good. Euphoria is focused on the kids who are fucking and getting high because those are the students labeled “difficult” and too often left to fend for themselves. A 2015 study by the CSG Justice Center found 40 percent of juvenile offenders end up in adults prisons by age 25 for reoffenses. “It might not be everyone’s experience,” says Felix, a 19-year-old who just graduated from high school in Germany, but it’s relevant to “someone out there who is my age or probably even younger.”
The Times piece struck me as more of the “not my kid” phenomenon: parents’ tendency to gawk at struggling adolescents and reassure themselves that their kids are fine. It’s antithetical to Euphoria’s message. “I think that’s what makes it particularly difficult … that kind of very real and big disconnect between parents and children,” creator Sam Levinson told Entertainment Weekly. Or as Felix puts it, “I feel like awareness can’t be raised if we don’t start feeling some kind of empathy towards these kinds of teens.”
Even if today’s high schoolers are the “cautious generation,” as the Times says, that doesn’t mean rule-following teens are immune from trauma. After all, this is the generation where the post-9/11 shift toward widespread American fear (a claim the show makes in the first 10 minutes) was ingrained in their consciousness from day one. (In Rue’s case, day three.)
“I have several classmates who suffer from severe anxiety and ADHD who would do almost anything to find some feeling of ‘safety in their own minds,’ as Rue put it,” says Winnie, a 17-year-old from a rural community outside Tallahassee, Florida. She appreciated the realism of Rue’s panic attacks in the first episode.
Rue, who was put on prescription drugs at an early age, explains (while high) that her recreational drug use started as a way to control her anxiety following her father’s cancer diagnosis and eventual death. “Two years he was gone. Panic attacks stayed, and I found a way to live. So will it eventually kill me? Maybe. But maybe not. I don’t know,” she says.
Though Winnie says she’s never taken recreational drugs, she understands why Rue — and even some of her classmates — have resorted to self-medicating to cope with their trauma. “Rue’s desperation to make it stop is absolutely brilliant and so true to real life,” she says. “When you feel that scared, there’s almost nothing you wouldn’t do.”
The brief allusions to school shootings in the first two episodes struck Winnie as most indicative of teen anxiety. “That’s something previous generations haven’t had to worry about like we do,” she says. She’s noticed safety drills have become more common in the past few years. “Anytime there’s a loud sound in the school, my classmates and I immediately fear the worst.”
There are a few tentpole teen plotlines Euphoria hasn’t broached yet: namely, what it’s like to actually be a student. “I hope there is a good depiction of the academic side of high school life,” Winnie says. “Standardized-testing stress, homework piling up, what being a student can really feel like.” Elizabeth would like to see more discussion of rampant use of the N-word by non-black students (teens like Kyle Kashuv). Felix suggests the show explore the pitfalls of social media. He’d like to see an exploration of “how you can build this perfect-looking life online,” as well as the subsequent “consequences of having big exposure of your private life online.”
These three teens are staunch supporters of the show, despite its critics. Even if Euphoria exaggerates the ubiquity of sex and drugs, its young fans believe the show is an opportunity for adult audiences to dive a bit more into a teenager’s world. “It’s absolutely true that all generations deal with those kinds of issues, but no generation before us has dealt with social media’s impact on those issues,” Winnie says. “We’re in uncharted territory, dealing with things our parents hadn’t thought of.”