At what point does the use of adult actors progress from utility to a loophole allowing writers/directors/Hollywood at large to portray content they’d otherwise have to clear from their internet search history?
Critics and Twitter obsessives alike will agree that Euphoria season 2 was the hottest show of 2022 thus far. Known for its cosmic visuals, stellar costume design, and exquisite soundtrack, the Zendaya-led production seems to check all the boxes for a hit show in the modern era. Yet rumors and controversy surrounding Sam Levinson’s proclivity for nude scenes and seemingly erratic script adjustments have many viewers wondering if there’s even more drama behind the scenes.
For many viewers, the pull is the constantly elevating drama. Euphoria centers on Rue, a 17-year-old dealing with drug addiction on top of all the typical high school growing pains. There are the love interests — Jules and Elliot — the mean girl Maddy and the mean girl’s best friend turned boyfriend stealer, Cassie. The list of characters goes on, and Levinson gets credit for fleshing out each storyline. I have to confess that I, who tuned in to only the first few episodes of season 1, have a pretty firm grasp on the plot via coded Twitter synopses and playing the entire soundtrack on repeat. And while it may seem shady for me to write a think piece without watching the show in full, the reason I’ve skipped on catching up is something worth talking about: I’m uncomfortable with all the sex.
Adults have long played teenagers on television and often with good reason. For starters, adults can work longer hours and don’t have to break for tutoring sessions, meaning shoots can be more time and cost efficient. Continuity is another issue, with casting directors noting how hard it is to shoot actors who are going through puberty and might look different from one episode to the next. Plus, having adult actors means there’s more subject matter on the table. Ethically and legally, actors have to be legal adults to convey more explicit subject matter like sex, drug use, and violence. It also reduces the potential for any inappropriate interactions off-screen as well.
So why the discomfort? It has less to do with whether Euphoria’s many plots are believable and more about how often Levinson opts for the explicit portrayal of intimate and raunchy scenes rather than the implication of events that took place. My brain is constantly at odds. Euphoria has started countless important conversations regarding the discourse around people who struggle with addiction. It’s platformed some incredible actors. And the show, though highly dramatized, highlights a less illustrious schooling experience than television generally does.
That being said, using “misaged” actors perpetuates unrealistic beauty standards for all age groups. And like porn, adultifying teenaged intimacy scenes contributes to false perceptions of what sex should be like. Just because using adult actors means you can get away with mature subject matter doesn’t mean you should. And I’m not alone in feeling this way.
Many of the show’s actors themselves have communicated in interviews and on Twitter that while Sam Levinson did a lot of his own re-writing, the cast was requesting some adjustments of their own. Sydney Sweeney is perhaps the most vocal and blunt about her desires. Her character Cassie has had the most nude scenes of anyone aside from Alexa Demie’s Maddy on the show. Sweeney mentioned to The Independent earlier this year that she felt audiences and critics disregarded her acting work in Euphoria because people paid attention only to the clothes she was not wearing. She does note though that Levinson was quick and willing to nix the scenes the actors were uncomfortable with.
Austin Abrams, who plays Ethan, also had concerns about his more provocative dance scene in Lexi’s play and is grateful the shots were mostly nixed without his having to ask. Minka Kelly also shared that the original script included her getting nude her very first day on set. She quickly told Levinson that baring it all seemed unnecessary for the scene.
It’d be remiss to make a definitive claim on Levinson’s proclivity for provocation although Hollywood has shown us no shortage of times directors and screenwriters use their television sets to enact their own sexual fantasies. It also serves to mention that Levinson’s track record beyond Euphoria like Malcolm and Marie or Deep Water includes other sexually-charged, often explicit content embedded with power imbalances. Sophie Gilbert of The Atlantic fleshes out the tensions of Euphoria’s graphicness in season one saying, ” Levinson’s proliferation of graphic sexual imagery is defensible as a way to communicate how much it saturates life online [but] in other scenes, though, Levinson seems only to want to scandalize.”
Gilbert goes on to acknowledge how challenging it is for media to portray controversial, explicit content as making a statement greater than the sum of its parts. If the show’s target audience finds the content extreme, can Euphoria claim to be that representative of modern teenage relations? Can it justify its use of nudity that makes even its actors uncomfortable? If a central part of the plot in a show about teenagers is teens having sex on screen, in often unnecessary vividness, at what point does the use of adult actors progress from utility to a loophole allowing writers/directors/Hollywood at large to portray content they’d otherwise have to clear from their internet search history?
Euphoria is not the first show to toe this line. Hit Spanish show Elite‘s most recent season had scenes that were practically pornographic (many involving the mean sister with a soft spot Carla Díaz). And while sex and lust had long been a point of palpable tension in the series, this was the first season where scenes were particularly vivid. It wasn’t long before some of these scenes ended up on adult entertainment sites from PornHub to Reddit with the tag “#teen” attached every time. And I have to wonder, how does the centering of sex and the hyper-sexualization of these adult actors playing teenagers affect audiences young and old?
Shows like Sex Education reveal that being both a little raunchy and a lot humorous can actually generate productive conversations around gender, sexual wellness, and intimate relationships. The evolution and demise of main character Otis’s on-campus sex advice business captures this balance well. At its height, he’s known as “the sex guy” parroting his actual sex therapist’s mothers knowledge to his group of peers.
The notion is portrayed as quite silly — a teenager afraid of having sex is also the most educated on sexual well-being at his school. Inquiries range from “am I sexually attracted to aliens” to “what is douching?” But the show expands on its comical nature, unfolding insightful conversations about kink and safe practices to the importance of articulating to your partner what sexual health measures you are and you are not familiar with.
While Euphoria, does not need to have the aspiration of being educational, it does need to have more self-awareness of who its target audience is and who may actually be watching.
I don’t think the answer is to cancel these shows by any means, and I do not think audiences need to feel guilty getting hyped for #EuphoriaDay. Despite discomfort, I still finished the last season of Elite and will probably watch the next because I am already invested in the plot line. Actors are not necessarily to blame either. As Sweeney also pointed out in her interview with The Independent UK, doing nude/explicit scenes as a woman is always complicated. Audiences want it and ridicule you for it in the same breath.
When I see television’s potential, I have a hard time settling for less. This is not to say that every show that’s streaming these days needs to be more campy than hard hitting drama, or that every show needs to reveal something profound about society. However, Hollywood can do more to add nuance to its scripts and progress into 2022 on and off screen.
UPDATE 4/1/2022: Edited for formatting and syntax