CW: mental health, drug abuse
There’s just something about those shows. You know the ones – the teenagers being teenagers: drinking, doing drugs, and causing that typical high school drama.
Effy from Skins was basically an idol of mine when I was around 13. Everything from the look and the smudged eyeliner to the attitude and how easily she could down a bottle of vodka. She could get any guy she wanted just because she had that intriguing look in her eye, and she just seemed to have fun constantly.
I was definitely not as outgoing as her at that age, so I’m not trying to say she led me down a dark path or anything. I guess I just wished I could be that level of carefree.
I think a lot of people are going to see Rue from Euphoria in the same way. There’s been a lot of media speculation about whether Zendaya’s character is a bad influence on kids, teaching them that drug addiction and rehab are cool pastimes.
I’m not convinced that young people are going to go out and copy exactly what they see on screen. Just like I was definitely not an Effy, young people who think Rue is something special are probably not going to go to those extremes. I’m not naive – I know that it could be possible for young people to fall into the wrong groups and situations, and get into a bad way.
Something I find more interesting than the ‘bad influence’ debate is the fact that we love these kinds of characters at all. Why is it that we’re obsessed with badass hot messes who get themselves in the worst possible situations, but somehow find their way out of it with a life lesson and good hair? If they were our friends in real life, would we not get tired of the repeated chaos and bailing them out?
In some ways, I think it’s a hope thing. Young girls make up a large proportion of the audience of shows like this. With the pressures put on teenagers and young people in their real lives, they turn on the TV to escape, and they meet these cool, beautiful, funny characters who embody everything society tells them to be. The character falls into some hard times, and the drama of it is so gripping that the audience can’t help but keep watching, hoping that things will get better because the character is the person they want to be – they don’t want their own futures to end badly. They want to know that even when things get rough in their own lives, there will be a way out.
If we look at it in this way, maybe it’s a good thing that these shows touch on some dark, ‘unglamorous’ topics. While a lot of parents are concerned about their kids idolising a young drug addict, in a lot of ways it’s setting a generation up to reconsider the stigma around recovering addicts. It’s showing them from a young age how easy it can be to fall into those traps, and if it’s depicted through a character that they love and relate to, they’ll see that not all addicts are homeless old men in worlds far away from their own.
A similar argument can be made about mental health depictions in general in these shows. I remember Effy’s depressive episode in Skins, how she struggled to get up or wash. Rue in Euphoria showed audiences this reality too, with her raw narration about being too depressed to get up to pee until she gave herself a kidney infection.
Of course, these scenes can be triggering, especially for younger viewers who might never have seen this side of mental health. But in a lot of ways, this is a better education for them than anything they might read in a school textbook. It’s presented to them in a way they can consume, relate to and empathise with.
My opinions have changed on this a lot over time. When I first watched Euphoria, I felt quite uncomfortable about how casually dark topics were handled. I thought it was weird that they’d cast someone so perfect to portray it, and that it glamourised and advertised that kind of lifestyle. It wasn’t until I thought back to watching Skins that I saw the positives – I think my generation is incredibly accepting on a lot of topics, and for a lot of us our first exposure to these things came from that show.
Zendaya, just like Kaya Scodalerio, is going to have a huge impact on young people and the attitudes of the next generation. Let’s just wait and see who the next figurehead is.
Image courtesy of Tobias Tullius