Home Technology Euphoria changes the narrative around Blackness and addiction

Euphoria changes the narrative around Blackness and addiction


Euphoria is nothing if not controversial. One of the most salient but also complicated complaints is that the main character, Rue (Zendaya), isn’t having an authentically Black experience.

Since creator Sam Levinson’s show about a group of teenagers dealing with heavy issues like grief, addiction, and intimate partner violence premiered, people on social media have remarked on the lack of realism. Rue, a 17-year-old biracial girl living in an almost completely white world, has been struggling with substance misuse since she was 13. Exacerbated by the death of her father, Rue’s addiction threatens everything that’s important to her, including her relationships and her life. For many, it is the lack of strict supervision and physical abuse from Rue’s Black mother, Leslie (Nika King), that makes Euphoria an inauthentic portrayal of Black families dealing with adolescent addiction.

After watching season two, episode five — which Zendaya described in an Instagram post as part of Rue’s “rock bottom” — some were shocked that Leslie didn’t resort to more intense violence as her panicked and distressed daughter rampaged throughout the house. Leslie had discovered and disposed of Rue’s suitcase of pills, not knowing that without them, Rue might be sex trafficked by drug dealer Laurie (Martha Kelly). Faced with withdrawal symptoms and the likelihood of horrific danger, Rue broke doors, threatened her sister, Gia (Storm Reid), hit her mother, emotionally abused her girlfriend, Jules (Hunter Schafer), and cursed at them all. After Rue shoved her sister, Leslie slapped Rue. Rue then broke down in tears, at which point Leslie became loving and desperately attempted to take her daughter to rehab.

The minimal violence in this intense episode left many viewers incredulous. One Twitter user wrote, “Rue mom is so weak, any real black mom would’ve beat the breaks off her ass.” Some of the tweets seem to suggest past pain, like this user who tweeted, “Rue doesn’t act like she has a black mom but a white one .. I breathe in a wrong way and it’s over,” going on to explain that if she behaved in the same way, “I would be dead.”

As a Black woman who experienced and witnessed parental abuse in all its forms — my mom used to take my door off its hinges if I closed it for privacy, she once kicked me in my skull for having sex at 19 years old, and she allowed the police to take me away after a suicide attempt — I admit that Rue’s relationship with her mother doesn’t match a lot of the relationships I grew up associating with “Blackness.” But associating abuse with Blackness is erroneous, even if our own experiences tell us differently. Not every family deals with issues through physical abuse, and we should demand more from ourselves and the people in our communities.

There have also been comments pushing back on the idea that Rue’s story is not “Black” enough because of the lack of physical abuse. After episode five, one Twitter user wrote, “i need y’all to stop associating patience and understanding towards ur child as whiteness.”

For Sam Levinson’s many writing missteps, lack of abuse and strict supervision does not render a story about a Black family dealing with addiction inauthentic. The response to a sick person who is harming others is not to perpetuate that harm through hyper-surveillance and physical abuse. Instead of thinking that compassion and refraining from hitting a sick child is “not Black,” this is an opportunity to explore how we have grown accustomed to the demonization of Black people with addiction in the media, and why those narratives can and must change. It is also an opportunity to address how abuse has been normalized in our communities as a coping mechanism.

For many Black addicts, Rue’s story is still authentic, even though she is based on the “deeply, deeply personal” experience of Levinson — a white man — dealing with addiction in his teen and young adult years. At the 2019 premiere, Levinson told reporters, “I spent the majority of my teenage years in hospitals, rehabs, and halfway houses. I was a drug addict, and I’d take anything and everything until I couldn’t hear or breathe or feel.”

While other storylines are almost comically poorly written and neglected (whatever happened to Kat after her secret life as a camgirl?), Levinson’s depiction of addiction, as well as emotional and mental disorders, is eerily accurate for many viewers who’ve experienced similar struggles — including myself. I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder at 6 years old and bipolar disorder at 18. While I have not experienced addiction, I can relate to much of Rue’s emotional pain, as she was also diagnosed with bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Levinson masterfully portrays addiction and mental illness as the disabilities and illnesses that they are, rather than the moral and intellectual flaws that society prefers to see them as.

Ashley J., a writer who struggled with substance misuse in her adolescent years, identified strongly with Rue’s breakdown in this past episode. “She was in real danger but never mentioned it, even while single-handedly destroying her house, everyone she knows, and the town,” she tells me. She stressed that sometimes the help family members offer in these situations — like Rue’s mom flushing the contents of the suitcase — can put someone in more danger, but that people experiencing this illness may not be able to communicate this. “I’ve been there. I’ve caused a scene. I’ve disappeared. I said horrible things to people who were trying to help me but actually had put me into a tough situation,” Ashley continues.

Nika King as Leslie, Rue’s mother, in Euphoria.
Eddy Chen/HBO

For 32-year-old Denayja Reese, author of the upcoming memoir Don’t Hurt Yourself: A Memoir Of Healing Through Trauma, Grief & Addiction, Euphoria’s depiction of grief hits hard. “I was 18 when my mom passed away. Similar to Rue losing her father at 15, that is what led me into a spiral of grief, which then led to me coping through drug use and developing addiction until I was 30,” she tells Vox.

And in Rue’s more violent and manipulative moments — many of which are quite shocking, like wielding a sharp piece of mirror at her mother, emotionally manipulating her little sister, and violently kicking in doors during moments of distress — Levinson deftly navigates the shame those with addiction feel, while constantly reminding the audience that this is a disease that causes a person unimaginable pain. In this, he has drawn on his own experiences.

At the premiere, Levinson also said that at his lowest points, he was disturbed at his own actions and the legacy that he might leave behind if he died of his addiction. “It really spooked me in a sense that if I were to die today, who would I be? I’m a thief. I’m an addict. I’ve been shitty to almost every person in my life that I love,” he recalled.

Implying that addiction can be addressed through physical violence or more strict parenting, and then equating those parenting tactics with Blackness, erases and demonizes the experience of Black addicts, who have long been disproportionately viewed as immoral and deficient for their struggles with addiction. As a child, Julia Craven, health reporter and creator of the Make It Make Sense newsletter, witnessed firsthand how addiction can impact people we love, and that it is truly a disease that we have minimal control over. For Craven, comments that state Rue’s addiction could or should be addressed with “Blacker” (i.e., more abusive and controlling) parenting “ignores that many Black people who did experience ‘Blacker’ parenting have suffered from addiction, or they still are.”

She continues: “Addiction is complicated, and most of us don’t understand it. But if parenting style could cure addiction, somebody probably would have written a manual for that by now.”

It’s also harmful to conflate abuse and control with Black culture. It has cast a heavy shadow over us, Reese acknowledges, in large part because of the generational and ongoing trauma of violence enacted on us by enslavers, racist authority figures, and police.

“So much of this comes from what we’ve survived. So many things about our culture are rooted in trauma and the ways that we have had to protect ourselves and protect each other,” Reese says, noting that she had several family members who struggled with addiction. “Think about what the crack epidemic did to our families. I think as Black people, we have so much more shame around drug use than white people.”

It’s time to escape the bondage of that colonially imposed narrative. And more and more of us are doing that work, so it’s understandable that as a character, Leslie might be struggling to parent in a different way than what she may have seen growing up. Mary Heglar, a Black writer and co-host of the podcast Hot Take, tells me, “I think it’s perfectly believable that Leslie would not hit her, or only do so begrudgingly. She’s in a generation where people are trying to undo family cycles.”

While Levinson nails so many aspects of dealing with addiction and mental illness, he doesn’t seem to have the range to accurately portray how this would specifically impact a Black girl. For instance, Rue’s interactions with law enforcement are never deadly, and she is never warned by her mother or anyone around her about the disproportionate negative consequences of her addiction in comparison to her white peers.

Dr. Ayana Jordan, who specializes in addiction psychiatry and culturally informed care to racial and ethnic minoritized people at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine, says that this is an area where Euphoria is deeply lacking. “Not just Black adolescents, but Black people in general are more likely to have negative interactions with police, including violence and as we’ve seen quite publicly even death,” she explains. Jordan, who has published research on the criminalization of Black addicts, continues: “Black people, including adolescents and emerging adults up to 25 years old, are more likely to be accused of criminality, referred to jail/prison because of drug use, and less likely to be referred to treatment because of their substance.”

I’m not making a case to see Rue face criminal consequences or for her to be harmed by the police. But to not have the fear surface during interactions with the Black people who care for her feels inauthentic. During episode five, at one point, Leslie threatened to call the police on her daughter. This is shocking given all we know about the risk Black people with mental illness face of being killed by police when they are acting erratically. It seems a wild thing for someone’s Black mother to threaten.

But it still doesn’t make it inauthentically Black. Mothers of all races do call the police on their mentally ill children. My mother has threatened the same, when I posed a danger to no one. My mother, however, has a background and beliefs that make her decision to do that clear to me and anyone who knows her. Levinson, in his shortsighted writing, has failed to give us any kind of insight into Leslie that would help us understand her motives.

Heglar agrees. “This is why Leslie needs a backstory,” she says. “We need to see how she got to the point of threatening to call the police.” Of all the criticism of Levinson’s writing, this appears to be the most pressing. Storylines that are begging for nuance, backstories, more dialogue, and emotional investment are often abandoned in favor of glitzy shots and a strange hyperfocus on the white — and eerily dysfunctional and abusive — Jacobs family, which features pedophile and sex offender father Cal and domestic abuser Nate. Viewers — especially Black ones, judging by social media — are hungry for more context into Rue and her family.

D.A.R.E. released a statement criticizing Euphoria for its choice to “misguidedly glorify and erroneously depict high school student drug use.” While there are many valid criticisms of the show, this is not one of them. In fact, many scenes seemed pulled straight from D.A.R.E. commercials I saw in my youth, designed to frighten us into never picking up so much as a Tylenol. Euphoria does not glorify drug use, but it also doesn’t demonize drug use or drug users, and that is what makes people so uncomfortable. We are used to narratives that portray Black addicts as irredeemable, morally bereft, responsible for their own demise, and lacking qualities like humor and heart. In contrast, Rue is a character who shows us all of the frightening aspects of her disease, but as an audience, we are pushed to have empathy for her anyway.

This is what Zendaya expressed in her aforementioned Instagram post ahead of episode five. “It’s my hope for people watching that they still see her as a person worthy of their love. And worthy of their time, and that she has a redemptive quality still, and that we still see the good in her even if she can’t see it in herself,” she wrote. “Remember that we are not the worst mistake we’ve ever made. And that redemption is possible,” Zendaya concluded.

As a society, we must learn to increase our empathy toward Black people who are struggling with addiction — not just fictional young women in prestige dramas, but also Black people who are dark-skinned, trans, queer, low-income, sex workers. Euphoria has taken a huge step in that direction by portraying a Black girl character who, despite her illness, remains someone we root for. Watching her mother beat her would not add to the story — it would likely only reinforce the harmful narratives that have surrounded our communities for so long.


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