Glitter, tension, trauma and trash?

Euphoria. The glitter. The tension. The trauma. We lap it up, undoubtedly for the masterful works of cinematography and soundtrack to match.

Euphoria has enjoyed widespread success in the West. It helps that it’s easy to access and consume: you don’t need a degree to navigate the heavy themes it deals with. As a pop cultural product, Euphoria occupies a position of radical potential; the potential to spotlight marginalised identities and to highlight for mass audiences the issues with which they grapple.

Many have lauded the show for its inclusion of marginalised identities – those maligned for their ethnolinguistic heritage, immigration history and sexual and gender identities. 

However, Euphoria merely includes these identities and … that’s about it. They’re there. 

Characters like Rue and Maddy could easily be swapped out for white actors with little to no impact on their story. Rue is a Black girl in America. However, there is little consideration for the role of American structural racism in her drug addiction within her storyline. Similarly, Maddy is a daughter of immigrant Mexican parents in a lower-socioeconomic household. But these do not factor into her experience of assimilating into (and, indeed, dominating) the social hierarchy within her high school, nor her relationship dynamic with a wealthy, but abusive white man.  This ‘colourblind’ approach to casting is a nod towards the gravest issue with Euphoria: that beyond all the glitter and trauma, Levinson’s text says no more than ‘three identities walk into a bar’.

Euphoria, it seems, is Levinson’s own story in the skin of a diverse cast. Despite the seeming diversity of the cast, the show still perpetuates neoliberal cultural ideals and does little (if any) justice in critically representing the experiences of the marginalised identities in question. Histories of racism, homophobia and transphobia are reduced to a curious moment of parity. Levinson’s text is premised on the neoliberal fiction that all individuals are equal; the specific structures that have historically oppressed BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ people bear no weight on the present experiences of such marginalised groups. 

This is especially problematic when it is precisely these historically specific factors that distinguish the experiences of marginalised groups from non-marginalised white, cishet people. Ignoring these factors mean that we fall into the fallacy of believing that the playing field is level across all individuals, and that those from oppressed groups can easily ‘catch up’ if they work hard enough.

Levinson’s fantasy disregards so much of what real BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ activists, both separately and unitedly in intersectional movements, have fought for. Levinson’s fantasy takes neoliberal carnality and offers it to us as a cute, subversive Gen-Z aesthetic. 

‘Three identities walk into a bar’, says Levinson, ‘and that’s all folks!’ 

His BIPOC characters are put in a fictional position of parity with characters who have never experienced racism, and his queer and trans characters are put in parity with their cisheteronormative counterparts. Movements championed by BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ people have centred themselves on liberation from structures of oppression. The fact that Levinson’s characters are given total and un-critiqued parity with their oppressors is contrary to the radical goal of such movements; instead of dismantling the structures that oppress them, Levinson’s characters assimilate and conform to them, and in doing so, contribute to their perpetuation. 

And so we ask, how do we respectfully and accurately represent BIPOC stories? How do we respectfully and accurately represent queer stories? What does the neoliberal world of Euphoria tell us about the liberation of BIPOC and queer people? Do the oppressed want parity with their oppressors? Or do they want to obliterate all structures of oppression?

These questions can easily be applied to the experiences of the different marginalised identities within Levinson’s text.

Like other cultural products under neoliberalism, Levinson’s text emphasises the importance of the individual. Levinson’s world is devoid of any collectivist commitment to the people who surround and shape the individual, a commitment that is at the heart of many non-Western cultures and one that many POC have fought hard to preserve. For example,in Levinson’s fantasy, the family is treated as an obstacle, rather than a valued relationship. Euphoria, it seems, is an empty narrative that compounds the problems trans people, queer people and people of colour have been grappling with since their oppression was compounded by colonialisms of old.

Euphoria remains largely written and created by white people, with stories that align closer to the experiences of white, cisheteronormative audiences. For this reason its radical potential is undermined. It is no surprise then that the writing of Euphoria reflects a world where the marginalised only want to emulate oppressors. 

If Levinson’s text has done anything well, it has constructed a teenage sex-scape fantasy characterised by unquestioned carnality and individualism. Youth is remembered as nothing more than memories of salaciousness. And for these reasons, Euphoria is a car crash, a cautionary tale at best. ‘Look’, says Euphoria, ‘this is the extent of human carnality, make of it what you will. And like a car crash, we find it hard to look away.’

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