Since the release of the second season in Jan. 2022, over 13.1 million people have streamed the popular show “Euphoria” on HBO Max alone. It follows the life of 17-year-old high schooler Rue, who is addicted to opiates and other drugs throughout the entirety of the series. While substances such as cocaine, molly, fentanyl, oxycontin and marijuana are mentioned in many of the episodes, the main focus of the show is to raise awareness for those suffering from addiction, not to promote these activities, according to the lead actress and executive producer, Zendaya. However, the demonization of drugs that usually comes hand-in-hand with addiction on the screen is absent in this show, which is a phenomenon that some viewers have confused as glorification. While raising awareness for those affected by addiction is very important, drug-influenced media in “Euphoria” causes more harm than good.
Zendaya defended the show in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. She said, “Our show is in no way a moral tale to teach people how to live their life or what they should be doing. If anything, the feeling behind ‘Euphoria,’ or whatever we have always been trying to do with it, is to hopefully help people feel a little bit less alone in their experience and their pain.”
This statement clarified the show’s formerly questioned intentions; “Euphoria” aims to depict addiction in a way that does not demonize it. However, it is a delicate balance to portray an accurate visualization of drug use in a humanizing way without glorifying the lifestyle of someone with a substance use disorder, and “Euphoria” sways too far towards glorification.
While there are brutally honest and painful depictions of the reality of addiction throughout “Euphoria,” there are also many episodes in which Rue and her friends are at parties, elatedly enjoying the drugs they are doing before coming down from the high, feeling worse than before. These scenes make drugs look fun and devoid of additional risks and consequences, such as laced drugs and bad trips, which is not realistic.
Studies have shown that repetitive consumption of media containing depictions of violence, sex and drugs causes desensitization to viewers. To desensitize, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “to extinguish an emotional response (as of fear, anxiety or guilt) to stimuli that formerly induced it.” A plethora of scenes throughout “Euphoria” depict drugs, alcohol, sex and violence, which are all stimuli that would usually elicit such a response. The constant visualizations of drug use throughout every episode run the risk of normalizing drug abuse.
UMW freshman Britney Marble said, “I think the show is trying to show the bad side of drugs, but it’s sometimes counterintuitive because they’re using molly and stuff so freely. They make drugs look fun.” Marble has been an EMT in Spotsylvania for over a year and has seen the adverse effects of drug use. “I’ve probably Narcanned close to 100-plus people as an EMT; most are adults, but a lot of the accidental overdoses are young people. I’ve seen more fentanyl overdoses as time goes on.”
In Nov. 2020, Very Well Mind featured a commentary by Elizabeth Hartney spotlighting the social deviance that is often associated with addiction. The article defines deviance as “a sociological concept referring to behaviors that violate social rules and norms,” and it questions the real meaning of a social norm, discussing how certain expectations and norms are directly related to certain populations. For example, among other avid drug users, an individual doing heroin would not be seen as socially deviant, whereas in the majority of the world it would be. Drug users tend to form their own social sanctions of people similar to them to avoid the ostracization that commonly comes from the general population.
While “Euphoria” seeks to bridge the gap between groups with radically different social norms, this effect detrimentally reaches beyond the screen, normalizing drug use to a point where it becomes glamorized. For example, it’s not just the “troubled” characters that do drugs; almost every character engages in some drug use throughout the show.
Over the course of two seasons, the show’s audience has grown close to the characters, but this relationship they have to the people they see on screen comes with an increased desensitization to drugs. Even though the intention of the show is to make the viewer sympathize or empathize with Rue’s struggle with addiction, other characters do not face this struggle and use drugs recreationally, which weakens the overall message.
Isabel Willis, a sophomore psychology major, discussed the over-depiction of drug abuse throughout the series. She said, “In psychology, after being exposed to those types of activities it desensitizes them and makes it more normal to do those activities. In the end, [“Euphoria”] does kind of paint a negative picture of high school as well, being that there are all negative activities and false, dramatic assumptions for high school norms.”
Even though the show “Euphoria” intends to humanize people with substance use disorders rather than demonize them, the constant drug use desensitizes viewers, weakening the intended message of the show.