What ‘Euphoria’ Gets Wrong About Consent07/15/2019
Warning: This post contains spoilers for the fifth episode of Euphoria.
• Maddy was at the center of the latest episode of Euphoria.
• The episode rather brilliantly dealt with the fallout of abusive relationships.
• But a smaller detail on age of consent raises a larger concern on the show’s depiction.
Euphoria has earned an unusually long leash, even by HBO’s standards. Orgasms on carousels; fentanyl-riddled encounters with dangerous drug dealers; lots and lots of penises on screen at the same time: all of this is fair game for the new teen drama. But the depiction of sexual relationships between older adults and underage teenagers has stuck out as a consistent eyebrow-raiser on a show where raised eyebrows tend to be the baseline.
The latest episode focused on the character Maddy, played by actress Alexa Demie. The episode, directed by actress Jennifer Morrison, dealt with abusive relationships, and showed how easily some people can become victims of a cycle of abuse. The portrayal was subtle and relatable.
Which makes the problems that Euphoria seems to be developing when handling certain interactions all the more confounding. Just like the other episodes, “’03 Bonnie and Clyde” opened with a look at the childhood of our centric character, with narration from Zendaya’s Rue telling the story. While the narration for Nate’s episode three weeks ago announced that he liked Maddy because she told him she was a virgin, this week showed that she was not being honest with him. “Granted, she didn’t always tell the truth,” the narration states. “Because the truth-truth is that when she was 14 on vacation in Panama City Beach, she met a guy who was, like, 40. Which in retrospect seems kind of rape-y and weird, but honestly, she was the one in control.”
Despite this being a visual and thematic reference to Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film Lolita, based on the 1955 Vladimir Nabokov novel of the same name—both Maddy in the flashback scene and Lolita‘s titular character wear the same oversized sunglasses—it’s still a bizarre, off-message, and jarring (even for Euphoria) thing to be included in the narration from a character who has proven to occasionally be all-knowing in this world.
Because if it weren’t obvious, it should probably be stated: There is no scenario where a 14-year old, of any gender, is “in control” when with a person who is “like 40.” And for a teen drama, let alone any show, to present it that way without consequence or detriment is potentially very dangerous.
That’s not even the first time the show has handled age gaps in a questionable way. The show has depicted a number of its underage characters engaging in physical relations with older characters. Kat, played by Barbie Ferreira, is clearly going through something of a sexual revolution within the walls of the show, but each “relationship” she’s had—a middle aged naked man over a video chat, a former older high school student she met at the fair, and a guy who works in the mall clothing store—appears to have violated age of consent rules.
The “age of consent,” by definition, is “the age at which one is legally competent to give consent especially to marriage or to sexual intercourse.” The age dictated by law varies from state to state (New York, for example has an age of content of 17), but the legal age of consent in California, where Euphoria is set, is 18. The “legally competent” portion of that definition is intrinsically important to understanding this concept: This is age, set by the state, where someone can legally say “yes” to an adult. If the person is any younger, the adult is liable for breaking the law—even if the younger party seems to think they’re “the one in control,” to quote Rue.
The entire series kicked off with a situation of this nature, when Cal Jacobs, played by Eric Dane, had a one-night stand with Jules. Jules lied about her age to Cal, saying she was 22 when in fact she was 17, but the show hasn’t made this a huge issue; instead, it would seem, Cal’s concern is people learning of his secret life involving sex with gay men and transgender women, rather than the fact that he committed statutory rape with his son’s underage classmate.
Last week’s episode saw Cal and Jules come into contact for the first time since their hookup, and once he realized who she was, it was clear how immediately nervous he was. He told her that if she made his secret public, it could ruin his life—but was he thinking this because she was underage, or because his secret sexual interests could be revealed?
“It won’t be a thing,” Jules promised.
The idea of an older adult and an underage teen being sexually together is not uncommon in the genre; the first season of Riverdale depicted its main character, Archie, in a relationship with a teacher. The show didn’t properly call that for what it was (statutory rape), instead depicting it as some sort of forbidden romance that made for steamy TV. Euphoria creator Sam Levinson’s teen satire movie Assassination Nation also depicts a relationship between a teenage girl and an older married man played by Joel McHale. He’s clearly painted as in the wrong there, and a reflective heel turn at the back end of the film at least makes sense of the characters and the arc. (Why a likable and charismatic actor like McHale would take such a thankless role is another burning question.)
Now, we should also consider the fact that we are five weeks into an eight-episode first season, and that there are ways for these threads to clear themselves out. If the show writes in a punishment for any characters who partake in any of this, it could help set things straight; behavior on screen doesn’t all need to be positive, but glorification or normalization of such behavior shouldn’t occur without the proper in-world response or fallout.
It’s also worth noting that while Rue is an omniscient narrator—she knows everything about every character’s back story, and seems to be running the entire story back from some specific end point—she’s still a 17 year old kid, and she doesn’t have the greatest judgment in the world. Even if she thinks someone else’s relationship dynamics are OK, it’s not the same as the show depicting something as OK. But will every viewer be able to detect that nuance?
Euphoria is walking a tricky line here—and maybe it thinks it can get away with it, because this is HBO! It’s the show with all the dicks! But the narration in “’03 Bonnie and Clyde” normalized a behavior that is not only abnormal, but very much illegal. And that’s not cool to do on a teen drama—or any show, for that matter.
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