Euphoria and Sex Education
Two ends of the Teen Melodrama Spectrum
Coming of age movies, high school dramas and rom-coms in today’s context are to a large extent the actuality of the growing up GenZ. Among the many teen melodramas available today, the Netflix show Sex Education and HBO’s Euphoria are the buzz among adolescents and adults alike. While the former is a sunny, indie and vibrant version of today’s teens, the latter is the trippy, psychedelic and dark one.
Both these shows have a cosmic viewership which comes with a myriad of opinions, adoration and criticism. They cover the trials and tribulations of issues like mental health, exploring sexuality, substance abuse, tackling insecurities and psychological challenges rooted in unhealthy relationships with parents. Normalising queerness and dealing with the subject of teen sexuality- the ultimate TV taboos gives both- Sex Education and Euphoria a wider acceptability and fondness among teens. Emotional realism is the core element in both these shows.
After the Game of Thrones, HBO's Euphoria became the most tweeted about show in 2019 delivering hyperreal explicitness covering teen life that rattled parents, even as it drew in young audiences. While Sex Education slowly carries the audience through honest insecurities among teens as they explore sexual intimacy, Euphoria is bluntly dark when it comes to this. Power, abuse, violence and toxicity are the four horsemen of sexual intimacy on Euphoria. The show’s depiction of teens having sex further seems to contribute to the already existing sexualisation of them. Such portrayal of teen sexualisation and predation is damaging to the viewership as this subconsciously moulds their perspective on bodies, sex and intimacy.
Packed with disturbing stories, probably the most hated character of the decade Nate Jacobs is a manipulative and conniving person- the perfect embodiment of a toxic white male with daddy issues and extreme anger management problems. After catfishing Jules for over 3 weeks, he formulated an intricately messed up takedown where he threatened Jules for child pornography and reaching out to the police. On the other hand, Sex Education’s approach on sex is compassionate, educational, understanding and holistic.
What sets these shows apart are the aspects of responsibility and maturity. Both of these shows encircle the different and unique experiences of adolescents around sex but also sexual assault, revenge porn and related trauma.
“Yet again Sex Education continues to teach us more about sexual assault and consent than we actually learnt whilst at school.” said a popular pop magazine about Sex Education’s Aimee Gibbs’ experience with assault while riding the bus. The show deals responsibly with the psychological trauma and discomfort that a victim of harassment goes through.
Although Euphoria given an unblemished picture, the most pressing issue with it is its troubling statutory rape problem. The show begins with one of the main characters- Jules, the young trans teen who is new to the town has sex with a middle aged man- Cal Jacobs. Apart from teen predation, paedophilia and grossly uncomfortable and painful depiction, the graphic representation of toxic masculinity and abuse one witnesses is extremely distressing. Circulating nudes and sextapes is turning out to be an unfortunate phenomenon surrounding GenZ. Both- Sex education and Euphoria provide an eye-opening picture of the reality of revenge porn. On Euphoria, the character, Kat has sex for the first time in a party where she is filmed and the video is posted on a porn site without her knowledge or consent.
On both shows, these high-schoolers distribute and watch revenge porn of their classmates. We learn that Sex Education's mean girl Ruby, whose faceless nude picture has been sent to the entire school as punishment for “bitchy” behaviour, is actually being blackmailed by her own best friend Olivia, whom Ruby perpetually demoralizes. Euphoria’s Cassie too is a victim of revenge porn culture and assumptions confused for consent.
Criticism and Applause
In a particularly harsh review on Euphoria by the New York Times, it was called “the horror chamber of life in contemporary suburban America and the essential uselessness of parents.”
Sex Education and Euphoria target a feverishly defensive, zealous and emotionally charged viewership. The hyper sexualisation, unsolicited sex in violent, inappropriate and mortifying forms is indeed a subject of criticism. Although the show is not “meant” for the teenage audience, it obviously doesn’t deter them from engaging, glorifying and watching it. Parents watchdog groupings call out HBO for the extreme explicitness which upto some extent in their opinion glorifies rape culture and the divisive channelling of power. It has been called unrealistic, overly explicit, over the top and boundary pushing; to some extent, rightfully so.
In a stark contrast, Sex Education as the name suggests had an educational value in the eyes of the parent community. The positive feedback it has received often goes to the extent of calling it one of the best teen shows of the decade. The beautiful writing and encouraging dramatics of the show undoubtedly impacts the audience of every age group tackling many sexual taboos on television. No surprise that many people go on to call Sex Education their comfort show as they feel a certain amount of relatability in being insecure of the very elements that make them unique and gradually accepting themselves.
Euphoria and Sex Education deal with uncertainity and anxiety that comes along with the trials of figuring out sexuality, intimacy, desires, acceptance and resignation that teenagers face without judgement. The description of actual issues teenagers face in a bleak fashion as in Euphoria in contrast to Sex Education’s light heartedly serious ways is a huge difference. Intelligent writing and a strong plot without glossing up sexual identities, they bring forth the most eye-opening, adorable, heart-breaking and stirring stories. However, while it’s important to explore this sexuality on television, it’s equally important to avoid sexualizing the underage characters themselves.
As the New Yorker comments, “Euphoria” is a stomach-turning, hectic, maximalist experience: an audacious mess that, if not always pleasurable, is impossible to dismiss or look away from.”
Trying to explore realism through Euphoria is impractical. The most cynical thing about it is that a girl’s face might be pushed roughly into a pillow as a boy goes at her aggressively from behind, but her elaborate, inventive makeup job will continue to look tutorial-worthy, even if her face expresses misery. Indeed, an hours-long, manic beauty routine that Cassie obsessively practices in Episode 3 of this season, in order to draw Nate’s attention to her, it organically tips over into Carrie-at-the-prom-like levels of hysteria in the show.
A concept intricate to these shows is empathizing and humanizing even the most toxic of characters, even if it may be Cal Jacobs or Jean Milburn making it known to the audience why they are the way they are. Euphoria’s season two also gave Cal Jacob’s character, formerly a very one dimensional villain, a story from the past.
Emotional realism haunts the audience every second, inducing an understanding of the deep rooted emotional effects highschool experiences may have on us. Unlike the regular “shock and lecture” culture of teen shows Sex Education and Euphoria mould it into one of empathy and realism; but not abrupt justification. The subtle aspects of the two shows lend it a sense of lucidity even as its portrait of modern teen life grows more dreamlike and dramatic. These shows double down on staking their claim as the classiest, most artistic form of the lowbrow high school teenage dramas. What lies beneath the debauchery and kinky problems is a powerful, real dramatic core.
~ Vanshika Agarwal