Sexuality in Color: Euphoria

If anyone had told me when I was younger that thirty-something Chanté would be binge-watching teenage television dramas in 2019, I sure would have been surprised. But I also wouldn’t have predicted there’d be something to watch like Euphoria, HBO’s new teen drama released just in time for summer.

The first thing that hit me was the main character, Rue, played by the one and only Zendaya: she reminded me of myself and some of my friends I grew up with back in Iowa. The list of our similarities is longer than our differences. Like me, Rue is a cisgender⁠ , biracial girl being raised in a single-parent household in the middle of white suburbia. She’s also the eldest daughter and a protective big sister with a small chip on her shoulder. Rue’s independent mind and her strongwilled nature remind me most of myself. I relate to her slight defiance, especially as someone who also was very much an independent thinker who often resisted the popular opinions of my high school peers.

Our subtle differences (like the fact that her father is absent due to him dying, while mine was incapable of taking care of us due to his own substance abuse⁠ ) didn’t really get in the way of me relating to Rue’s narrative and those of the rest of the cast. In fact, there were many subnarratives that felt super familiar to me and compelled me to continue watching.

I was excited to see what would unfold as Rue shared more of her mixed girl narrative.

I know how important it is for brown and Black young people to see characters who look like them, and I know how much I longed for someone who looked like me and had a not-so-perfect home life to tell the rest of the world what it can actually like to be a biracial teenage girl. When I was seventeen, I craved raw honesty about what it meant to grow up in a place where kids were isolated but also privileged. I also secretly hoped someone would be brave enough to share what it meant to be a little unruly, and how easy it was to be enticed by drugs, alcohol, house parties and sex⁠ .

At the end of the day, I just remember wanting an alternative to the whitewashed narratives that were constantly being rerun on TV. I grew up during an era when shows like “My So-Called Life”, “Saved By The Bell”, “Dawson’s Creek” and “The Real World” were constantly playing in the background. None of those shows were a true depiction of what was really happening in my life. I brushed them off and didn’t really take any of them seriously.

I recently came across this article — Euphoria And The Black Girl’s Coming Of Age — by Zeba Blay: she shared feelings about Euphoria that really resonated with me:

The dearth of coming-of-age stories about black girls is heavily predicated on the fact that, so often, black girls aren’t given the space to even be girls. They’re often hyper-sexualized from an early age, and if they take the initiative to be intentional about exploring their sexuality, they’re deemed as “fast.” Unlike white teens, black girls are rarely given room to mess up, to make mistakes, to grow. Rue is a game-changing character in this sense because she is, by her own admission, the ultimate fuck-up. Since the story is told from her point of view, we’re put in a position where we can empathize with her.

Rue runs the narrative, indeed. But it’s also powerful that Rue’s story isn’t simply the main story ― the lives of the other characters are also under her control. This storytelling approach further cements her importance, her necessity, her voice.

That sums up a lot of why I’m so excited about the potential of this series. We finally have access to a more honest first-person narrative led by someone who doesn’t have blue eyes and blonde hair and who isn’t growing up in a picture-perfect home tucked away in a gated community. While some viewers may not relate to Rue ethnically or racially, there’s a big chance many viewers will relate to the realities of growing up in a single-parent household or being a teenager (or having a friend) who’s struggling to overcome addiction.

Every single episode is packed with typical coming-of-age themes: sex, gender⁠ , high school drama and gossip, relationships, experimentation with drugs, beauty standards, conflicts with parents and so on. But even these familiar themes don’t feel so predictable in this context. The rawness and the intersectionality of Euphoria seem to have the potential for relating to a wider range of teenagers and young adult viewers. Paired with the rich backstories we were introduced to in this first season, there are plenty of opportunities for this series to exhibit the true diversity of the characters and to explore even very traditional themes in very non-traditional ways.

I believe that honest narratives beget honest conversations among young people, which is what we need whenever we’re talking about core parts of our identity. I think they also allow us to feel more empathy and compassion with our own intersectionalities and more importantly, with those of others, which are usually more difficult to relate to.

Hats off to the writers, producers, directors and the cast who've done an excellent job so far of showing us it is possible to capture the tenderness of adolescence while still being honest and making space for its characters to explore, experiment and evolve. I didn’t think it was possible to lure me back to teenage drama, but Euphoria has proven otherwise. I’m totally a fangirl and am very impatiently waiting for season two!

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