Normalization vs Glorification in Teen Media

How Euphoria and 13 Reasons Why differ in their delivery of serious issues

Orelia Oiknine, Contributor

*This content addresses challenging topics such as suicide and substance abuse. This content may be difficult to read. We ask that you care for your safety and well-being.

With the recent release of Euphoria season two, teens have been buzzing about the gripping, shocking, and intense drama. Euphoria is a mature teen television show starring Zendaya, created and directed by Sam Levinson. The show premiered on June 16, 2019, and immediately was a huge hit, with people loving the glittery, hazy aesthetics and stellar acting performances. Euphoria recently premiered the first episode of season two on January 9, 2022, raking in 2.4 million viewers across HBO and HBO Max. The show surrounds a group of high schoolers dealing with mental illnesses, violent situations, and unhealthy relationships. As a result, the show showcases several mature topics, such as substance abuse, physical violence, rape, and child pornography.

13 Reasons Why, another teen hit drama, deals with similar matters. These television shows have received tremendous amounts of criticism in the way they depict the aforementioned topics, but they also have received praise for shedding light on stigmatized topics. This begs the question: how are normalization and glorification distinguished in teen media?

13 Reasons Why, a Netflix original developed by Brian Yorkey, follows the story of Clay Jensen and the suicide of his classmate, Hannah Baker. In the show, Hannah explains all of the reasons why she took her life in an assortment of cassette tapes she leaves behind. Until it was met with substantial criticism, the scene of Hannah taking her life was included in the series. 13 Reasons Why received numerous critiques from mental health experts. In an article by Self, Carolyn L. Todd includes the perspective of these experts and shares their concerns about the show. Todd writes about how the drama neglected to provide sufficient suicide prevention resources during each episode. It also did not educate its viewers on suicide, its warning signs, and how to help someone they suspect is struggling. Moreover, Todd explains how the show characterized suicide as a revenge plot and romanticized Hannah’s suicide by depicting it as a vengeful reaction to the bullying she faced. 

In 2017, John Herndon sued Netflix after his daughter, Bella Herndon, committed suicide. He claimed 13 Reasons Why and its inaccurate and severe portrayal of suicide motivated her to take her life. Herndon told Insider in an article on January 11, 2022, that the producers of the drama “target vulnerable children and manipulate them into watching content that was deeply harmful to them.” The judge of the case recently dismissed the lawsuit. 

Furthermore, Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio conducted a study in 2019 discovering that teen suicide deaths increased significantly in the following months after the show’s premiere. The authors of the study told The Washington Post, “The release of ‘13 Reasons Why’ was associated with a significant increase in monthly suicide rates among U.S. youth aged 10 to 17 years. Caution regarding the exposure of children and adolescents to the series is warranted.” Show critics correlate the study’s findings with the show’s presentation and borderline glorification of suicide.

Moreover, Euphoria has also received criticism, such as accusing the show of being ‘too graphic’ or ‘too raw’. However, Euphoria’s team has publicly claimed their commitment to not glorify drug abuse. Sam Levinson told Variety in an interview on June 6, 2019, “I think any time you put anything on the screen, you run the risk of glamorizing it just by the nature of it being on screen. I don’t want [to be triggering], but we also have to be authentic about it. … I think people can tell if we’re pulling our punches and not showing the relief that drugs can be. It starts to lose its impact.” 

Teens have been sharing their thoughts on social media. Katrina Simule, a teenager with a considerable following on TikTok, agreed to share her opinion on the matter in an interview. Simule expressed, “The extent to which one would consider Euphoria a glamorization of drugs and mental illness relies on the personal experience, as well as the level of impressionability that someone might house within their identity. Personally, any show that depicts mental health affects me negatively, Euphoria included. I am impressionable and often irresponsible, so I will not blame the decline of my mental health on this specific show. As teenagers, we often have a difficult time realizing the dangers and ramifications of certain behaviors and can be directly influenced by the events of such shows, despite seeing the consequences. Does that mean that Euphoria should alter its delivery of sensitive subjects? In my opinion, no. Does that mean that Euphoria’s riveting depictions of topics like drugs are inaccurate? Definitely not. As Rue says, drugs have a ‘narrow window of cool.’”