In Freudian psychology, trauma is known as “any excitations from outside which are powerful enough to break through the protective shield” (Freud 23). Lacan theorizes that traumas are what ultimately create our identity (Lacan). Euphoria (2019-present), an HBO television series, created by Sam Levinson, delves deeply into the individual traumas of each character, while simultaneously presenting the realities of being a teenager in this generation. The series displays a realistic depiction of Generation Z, people born between 1997-2012, by interweaving excess into the narrative. Levinson’s refusal to shy away from graphic nudity and heavy topics, such as drug addition and sexual assault, creates a world constructed to be unfortunately realistic.
While often viewed as sensationalist, Euphoria embodies Linda Williams' argument that excess can act as a structure; a framework for the generation in which it portrays (Williams 603). Gen Z, by nature, is exposed to excess; excess which is normalized and exacerbated through social media and within a post 9/11 sense of lost safety (Moscrip 3). Unable to ignore it, Gen Z requires a space where shared traumas can be recognized, related to, and validated. Levinson’s use of excess in Euphoria essentially creates the reality that this generation is already experiencing.
Similarly to how viewers had no choice in seeing 30 prosthetic penises (figure 1) on screen in “Stuntin Like my Daddy” (1.2), Gen Z does not have the option to ignore the excessive nature of the world around them. They are more connected than ever through social media, possess an everpresent vigilance in the wake of mass shootings and terrorist attacks, and can easily access images of violence and pornography online, specifically on social media platforms like Twitter and Tumblr (McKracken 156). Rue’s narration shows a deep understanding of her generation and her peers, allowing viewers to make sense of the characters’ behaviors and what motivates them. Each character within Euphoria is affected by trauma, whether the trauma be of their own doing, or in a response to something else.
“I know it may all seem sad, but guess what? I didn’t build this system, nor did I fuck it up”
While Euphoria’s teenagers are faced with mature issues, the conception of those issues vary in tragedy. Kat, for example, can be perceived as one of the more stable characters (figure 2). She grew up with both of her parents and “had a relatively good life” (1.3), contrary to other characters like Nate and Cassie, who experienced parentally rooted wounds. The trauma Kat faces is that which most young people do: being rejected by her crush. However the rejection was deeper than a crush not being reciprocated, it was perceived to be a response to her weight gain, thus creating a deep sense of insecurity within Kat and dismantling her Freudian established protective shield (figues 3 & 4). In response, Kat deeply indulges in a world where she cannot be seen, that of Tumblr, a popular blogging platform that lends itself to anonymity (McKracken 153). Kat’s viral Tumblr post of a One Direction fanfiction earned her praise, which in turn made her feel more confident. Being positively reinforced by a faceless community allows her to sink deeper into escapist behaviors, where she ultimately creates a new online identity. This identity spills into her reality, expressed through excessive costuming and sexual behavior (1.5) (figure 5).
Despite being an ensemble cast, Euphoria is successful in attending to the storyline of each character, by means of presenting their trauma both individually and in relation to one another. The manifestation of each characters’ individual traumas is further observed through their interactions. Rue’s childhood best friend, Lexi, maintains a seemingly “normal” persona, despite experiencing the same trauma as her sister, Cassie. Both sisters grew up in an environment riddled with generational trauma, exploitation of the body, and substance abuse (figure 6). While Cassie’s trauma manifests through promiscuity, Lexi instead responds to her feelings of loneliness, insignificance, and abandonment through escapism.
“She was an observer. That’s who she was. She often imagined that her parents were not really her parents, her sister wasn't really her sister, her house isn't really her house, that it was just a movie. One that she was writing.”
Escapism, as described by Gabbiadini, enables one to grapple with their reality through the creation of fantasy (Gabbiadini). In Lexi’s case, her desire to escape results in the production of her high school play, “Our Life” (figure 7). For other characters, escapism is not exemplified in the healthiest, or most appropriate way. For Rue, her drug addiction can be linked back to her father's death, which in turn creates a tumultuous home life for her sister, Gia, and her mother, Leslie. Likewise, the Howard sisters’ absent father is the cause of Cassie’s outward expression of sadness and desperation (figure 8) and Lexi’s silent self-degradation. Euphoria succeeds in showing the unraveling of trauma, allowing viewers to link the characters’ behavioral output to the source.
Generationally specific behaviors exhibited throughout the entirety of the series, like the spreading of nude photos or useage of dating apps, are absent from other teenage television shows, such as Dawson’s Creek or The O.C. Gen Z teenagerhood is tackled in Euphoria without shying away from its harsh, explicit realities. Showcased nudity, drug use, abuse, and topics relating to mental illness create a sense of realism for the generation and viewers. Levinson, who observes and represents Gen Z through his own millennial lens, has been criticized for exploiting trauma to generate attention, slipping into the realm of “trauma porn.” However, he is not simply obsessed with displays of gratuitous sensationalism; rather, he intentionally recreates this excessive environment that already exists, allowing for insight on the issues, images, and realities of adolescence in the internet age. Competing with the attention of uncensored, all-accessible social media, Euphoria strategically uses excess to level the playing field: “the excess is a comment on the calamity of adolescence” (Kirkland).
Freud, S. (1961). Beyond the Pleasure Principle. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Gabbiadini A, Baldissarri C, Valtorta RR, Durante F, Mari S. “Loneliness, Escapism, and Identification With Media Characters: An Exploration of the Psychological Factors Underlying Binge-Watching Tendency.” Front Psychol. 2021 Dec 15.
Kirkland, Justin. “The 30 Penises Scene from 'Euphoria' Was Pointlessly Gratuitous When It Didn't Have to Be.” Esquire, Esquire, 2 Nov. 2021.
Lacan, J. (1998). The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
McCracken, Allison. “Tumblr Youth Subcultures and Media Engagement.” Cinema Journal, vol. 57, no. 1, 2017, pp. 151–61.
Moscrip, Amanda Nicole, "Generation Z's Positive and Negative Attributes and the Impact on Empathy After a Community-Based Learning Experience" (2019). UNF Graduate Theses and Dissertations. 908.
Williams, Linda. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess.” Film Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 4, 1991, pp. 2–13.
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