Euphoria and the Tyranny of “Positive Messages”

Labeling and Rating, Minors

By: Kate Lechtenberg

In HBO’s Euphoria, Rue is a drug addict who lies to her family. Her friend Jules has violent sex with adult strangers she meets online. Another friend, Kat, trades her good girl image in for webcams with adult men for money. Nate beats up someone who slept with his girlfriend in a fit of jealousy.  McKay chokes his girlfriend during sex because he’s heard that’s what she likes.

So Common Sense Media’s review of Euphoria, which is recommended only for viewers over 18, makes sense, right? Teenagers shouldn’t watch something that contains such mature content, especially since it only merits one star for “positive messages,” right?

Not so fast. In this post and in a coming follow-up, I take a look at Common Sense Media’s ratings and reviews about Euphoria and other recent media offerings. Instead, I’d like to challenge the notion that cataloging the “ingredients” of a work of art and rating the value of its messages can both be done using the same five-star rating system. In this blog post, I’ll take a look at Common Sense Media’s rating system and their review of Euphoria’s messages compared to my own assessment. In the next post, “Common Sense Media and ‘Positive Messages’ About Youth” I examine how this rating system treats positive messages more broadly and, as a result, may stigmatize stories about youth. 

How does Common Sense Media rate messages and role models?

Common Sense Media

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit media organization that provides digital literacy resources and media reviews for parents and educators, provides details on “How We Rate”. They emphasize their independence from commercial interests, their “unbiased ratings” and “expert reviewers,” and their (uncited/unspecified) research-based understandings of what is “appropriate” for young people: “We rely on developmental criteria from some of the nation’s leading authorities to determine what content is appropriate for which ages. And research on how kids learn from media and technology informs our learning ratings.” They don’t cite their research sources (though there’s a tab for their own research initiatives on the main menu), but examining their age-based descriptions, it is clear that they view youth through a traditional chronological, developmental stages lens (think Piaget’s stages of development)–an approach critiqued by many critical youth studies scholars who see this approach as a reductive de-valuing of youth.

Common Sense Media awards 1-5 stars to rate the “quantity” of each criteria in a given work of art. As the heading “A lot or a little?” suggests, five stars means there’s “a lot” (of sex, language, drugs, violence, positive messages, positive role models & representations, etc.) and one star means there’s “a little.” The implication is that the ideal rating would be one or zero stars for sex, violence, language, and drugs and five stars for the positive messages and role models.  In addition, the narrative in the reviews usually lists all the curse words used, each instance (or representative examples) of nudity, sex, violence, etc.

Now, I’m a parent, and honestly, I do find the catalog of “bad stuff” to be helpful from time to time when I’m deciding whether to take my nine-year-old to a PG-13 movie or my thirteen-year-old to an R-rated movie.  Yes, as an intellectual freedom supporter, I know that these lists of swear words and nude scenes don’t speak for the work of art as a whole, but they do help me get a sense of whether it’s going to be too much for my kids. I know my kids, and I know what their individual triggers and boundaries are.

So it’s the “positive messages” and “positive role models & representations” ratings that are the most problematic for me. While the “a little or lot” method is clear (though decontextualized) for cataloging the presence of sex, drugs, violence and other countable occurances, the “positive messages” and “positive role models & representations” aren’t treated in quite the same countable, catalogable way. Determining the positive or negative value of the messages in a work of art is a much more nebulous job. And indeed, reviewers for Common Sense Media don’t count messages or positive/negative role models; instead, each reviewer gives an overall assessment of the level of positive messages and role models, and then provides an illustrative example or two to back up her assessment.

This kind of assessment is going to vary from viewer to viewer, as you can see when I respond to Common Sense Media’s comments about Euphoria’s messages below.

Common Sense Media vs. My Sense of Positive Messages

Zendaya, the actress who plays "Rue" [photo by Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 3.0]
Zendaya, the actress who plays “Rue” [photo by Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 3.0]

The Euphoria review was done by Joyce Slaton, who describes herself as a mother, editor, and writer. In her one-star assessment of the show’s lack of positive messages, Slaton says, “Messages are occasionally pro-woman but often couched in so much disturbing material that their reception may be muddled. Rue says at one point about “slut pages” (social media pages of non-consensually shared nudes): “It’s 2019 and unless you’re Amish, nudes are the currency of love. So stop shaming us and shame the a–holes who make password-protected online directories of naked underage girls.”” 

Offering this single example of the “muddled” messages out of context is a classic trick of censors. I could have used Rue’s advice that Jules not send nudes and not meet a random person online as an example of positive messages. Likewise, Slaton focuses more on the negative portrayal of gender roles in the series than on the ways that viewers are set up to receive these messages about gender. Slaton says, “Girls are generally treated poorly by men in this drama. They’re expected to be sexual but are harshly shamed and mistreated when they are, sometimes physically abused as well. Girls also subject their looks to harsh scrutiny (“I literally look disgusting,” says one very conventionally attractive girl, looking in the mirror). For their part, boys are often depicted as leering, abusive louts, subjecting the girls to many different stripes of sexual violence. It’s said about one boy that “He knew he had anger issues, but so did every guy.”

I can’t argue with her overall assessment or examples here, but what is missing is an understanding of how Euphoria invites us to think about these characters. What’s missing is the overall critique that Euphoria creates of the culture at large that creates and sustains such relationships and representations. As I watched the show, the examples made me squirm, made me ache, made me hold my breath…because I recognized these characters as authentic representations of reality, whether I like it or not. Sure, as a TV show it’s heightened, with all the possible teen horrors packed into one circle of friends, in one brief time period, in one community. But why should viewers and reviewers focus on reviewing role models in this show when the purpose is not to shine a light on role models? Instead, I think one of the central purposes of Euphoria is to shine a light on those who struggle to find their way forward in a culture saturated with dehumanizing institutions and cultural patterns.

Who could deny that the challenges that Rue faces–Jules or Kate or Nate–are legitimate representations of the challenges that many adolescents face today? They are not Every Teen, of course, but they are Some Teen (and Some Parent, too). And for me, part of the joy and pain of watching Euphoria was watching the slow, painful, circuitous, never-ending struggles that these fictional-but-recognizable humans experience. They are working hard at life, and Euphoria recognizes that progress and growth don’t happen in a straight line in real life. Works of art are not simply vehicles for morals and “positive messages,” and Common Sense Media’s rating system over-simplifies the relationship between art and virtue.

In the next post, I’ll look more broadly at how Common Sense Media’s rating system for messages are applied across more reviews by the same reviewer.

Kate Lechtenberg

Kate Lechtenberg earned a doctoral degree from the University of Iowa’s College of Education, where her research focused on how teachers select, frame, and facilitate discussions about controversial issues. She teaches courses in young adult and children’s literature, collection development, and critical literacy at the University of Iowa. Find her on Twitter @katelechtenberg.

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