HBO’s Euphoria is often criticized for its excessive nudity and unrealistic portrayal of adolescence. The graphic sex scenes are also a point of contention. And in many ways, the on-screen depiction of female sexuality is problematic. But it’s also highly relatable, particularly when it comes to female masturbation.
On the surface, Euphoria can appear hyperbolic and, at times, utterly outlandish. The characters often act, dress, and speak in ways that don’t typically align with the high school experience. But rather than being a literal depiction of adolescent life and love, the show is a metaphor. A symbolic representation of how it feels to be a teenager. There’s an underlying emotion behind every over-the-top scenario that resonates with viewers. The wild, drug-fueled parties with hordes of teenagers grinding on one another without any parents (or neighbors) getting in the way? That’s how grandiose it felt drinking peach schnapps with your friends in the basement. The glittery, skintight outfits and perfectly applied makeup? That’s how glamorous you felt wearing winged eyeliner and Abercrombie & Fitch. All those messy, emotional breakdowns? Well, that’s just what being a teenager felt like in general.
When looked at in that light, it’s extremely realistic—sometimes uncomfortably so. As for how overly sexualized the characters are, that too is arguably crucial to the crux of the show. Part of being a teenager is learning to explore and discover your own sexuality. There’s plenty of sex in Euphoria as various characters date, sext, hook up with one another, and masturbate. Again, this sexual exploration is portrayed in an emotionally realistic way, particularly when it comes to female sexuality.
This is perhaps best exemplified by Cassie (Sydney Sweeney). In season 1, episode 4, Cassie is at a carnival, a chaotic and confusing landscape filled with a heady mixture of childhood fun and adult debauchery. She’s envisioned a romantic evening with McKay (Algee Smith), but they get into an argument after he downplays their relationship. When pressed, he admits that he’s not ready to call her his girlfriend given her reputation.
He’s referring, of course, to her overt sexuality. Nude photos and videos of her—the result of her clear desire for approval from her partners—have made the rounds at school and turned her into a joke. Cassie is, understandably, crushed—not only is the guy she loves ashamed of her, she’s being unfairly slut-shamed, having her revenge porn weaponized against her. What she saw as an expression of love is being demonized, sullied with the unpleasant reality of being used and discarded by the men she wanted so desperately to please.
To console herself, she takes ecstasy and resolves to find a hot guy—Daniel (Keean Johnson)—to flirt with. They ride the carousel together and share a kiss before a clearly high and aroused Cassie begins grinding against the carousel horse. It’s a highly sexualized display wherein she not only simulates the act but seemingly brings herself to orgasm. Upon seeing the crowd of onlookers, a mixture of shock and disgust on their faces, and realizing that she’s just masturbated in public, Cassie’s embarrassment is palpable. She’s just climaxed, but in the blink of an eye all pleasure has escaped her, replaced instead by self-loathing. Then, in season 2, when her act is crudely portrayed in the school play, Cassie is humiliated by it once again.
You could argue that the actual experience of being high and accidentally getting yourself off in front of a group of gawking strangers is something most women have never done. We can’t relate to the genuine embarrassment inadvertent public masturbation might bring. Or from the shame of having it re-enacted and mocked. What we can relate to, though, is that juxtaposition between feeling empowered in your sexuality and embarrassed by it. Unfortunately, that is all too relatable.
Female masturbation just isn’t talked about often. As a result, women are often conditioned to feel ashamed of it. While guys often joke about jerking off, it’s far less socially acceptable for women to do so. Instead, it’s used as either a punchline or a way of further sexualizing women, such as when portrayed in porn.
Cassie’s adolescent experience of sexuality, both with partners and with herself, shows just how realistic—and problematic—that is.