Why you so obsessed with me? A semiotic analysis of Euphoria.
The latest season of American teen drama Euphoria recently came to a close, with Twitter marking it as the most discussed entertainment show in a decade and viewership of the series increasing by nearly 100% following the first season. Research & Insight Analyst Rosie Pond takes a deeper look at the hit show, exploring the most discussed moments on social media, digital culture for a Gen Z audience and what brands can take away from the series.
THIS BLOG CONTAINS SPOILERS
Unless you’ve been living under a rock you will have at least heard murmurings of Euphoria, with the season 2 episode drop every Sunday earlier this year causing quite a commotion. Viewership increased by nearly 100% after the first season with over 13m people tuning in to watch the first episode of season two. Viewers turned to search to extend their viewing; there were over 28m global Google searches during the two-month season release with people searching for cast members, the ‘true meaning’ of the episode and how they can recreate looks from the show.
Viewers also turned to social to share key moments with over 15.44m mentions of Euphoria globally on Twitter in two months* and Twitter announced it was the most discussed TV show for a decade, with users discussing everything from plot lines to performances. And the show attracted quite the Instagram following, with the global Euphoria page boasting 7.1m followers. The shiny Gen Z talent cast members like Zendaya (131m followers) are racking up the followers too; Hunter Schafer has 6.5m followers and Jacob Elordi has 12.7m followers.
For those of you who aren’t giving in to peer pressure or are still firmly under the rock here’s some background; Euphoria is an American teen high school drama that follows in the footsteps of UK’s 2013 Skins series. Euphoria features raw insight into the coming of age tribulations that hound this generation, within an up-to-date, desirable aesthetic property.
*(We Are Social’s internal social listening around ‘Euphoria’ globally from January 2022 to February 2022)
So, really, why are we so obsessed with Euphoria?
To answer this question I undertook a broad semiotic analysis of Euphoria’s Gen Z appeal by looking at promotional material from Euphoria’s own Instagram page as well as the most popular earned social peaks on Twitter. I uncovered three key tensions the show explored that resonate particularly with a Gen Z audience:
- Young people are figuring out their way in the world whilst experiencing intense emotions and a whirlwind of media entertainment and advertising. They crave an outlet via authentic connections both online and offline and need to navigate the tension between channelling their emotions in a performative way or finding real intimacy with other people. Euphoria brings both of these to life.
- Gen Z are battling with an incredibly fast paced life cycle of relevancy when it comes to fashion trends and personal style, which are often an indicator of who they are as a person. They are torn between expressing their personalities freely with no fear of judgement or moulding themselves to fit the latest hottest take. Euphoria explores the dynamic between current, culturally aspirational looks and the desire to reference something deeper.
- Belonging somewhere is at the very crux of humanity, something that has been made both easier and harder during the evolution of social media. Younger audiences have a plethora of options when it comes to deciding which crowd or community they belong to, but at the same time there’s an immense amount of pressure not to rock the boat. Euphoria brings this tension to life through character arcs that show both conformist and rebellious behaviour.
1. Freedom to choose or use emotion expression: from intimate moments to spectacular outbursts
Emotional expression is not unfamiliar to a coming-of-age audience. Take hormones. And then take hormones and having to navigate a world where social media, the pandemic, political polarisation, racial unrest and climate change are a reality. It’s bound to be a pretty bumpy ride. Euphoria showcases and validates quiet, intimate moments of expression as well as outbursts that require an audience. Bottling it up isn’t a luxury for these teens.
On one hand, there are the quiet exchanges between Lexy and Fez where both characters awkwardly, but honestly navigate opening up and embracing potential rejection, or Jules’ private moment where she locks herself in a bathroom cubicle to cry in the middle of the school day. Letting someone in or letting something out both display an intimate vulnerability, something that Brene Brown describes as “the core of shame, fear and struggle for worthiness but also the birthplace of love, belonging and creativity”.
This ties in with a younger audience’s preference to ‘feel everything’ as reports suggest Gen Z are increasingly embracing their emotions wholeheartedly, good or bad. This preference for deep connection can also be seen via the most-liked Instagram photos from 2021, which echo this desire to see ‘into the soul’. With 35.7m likes, Cristiano Ronaldo and his partner announced they were expecting twins via a bed selfie one might send to a close friend. The second most-liked post with 26.6m likes was Ariana Grande’s BTS wedding photographs that would otherwise be reserved for a private photo album, and closely behind in third spot with 24.9m likes was Kylie Jenner’s home pregnancy announcement video featuring her at a scan with daughter Stormi.
On the other hand, performative declarations including Lexy’s play or outbursts when Rue revealed Cassie’s betrayal are climactic, a tip of the iceberg moment that requires an audience. Using emotion to inspire action feels typical of Gen Z who have been leading school walkouts in protest for the environment and spearheading the use of poetry to highlight systemic racial inequalities. These are examples I would describe as ‘controlled intentional outbursts’, their motives are clear and passion commands public attention.
However, emotion as a spectacle has been perpetuated by reality TV— especially where relationships are the premise of the show— like Love Island and Love is Blind, where we witness dramatised tantrums feign entertainment. Even during the initial social listening analysis of Euphoria, mentions of the biggest peaks in social conversation came during the episodes with the most shocking, emotional scenes as audiences willingly feast on explosive moments and then turn to social to bathe in the collective outpouring of opinions.
2. Visual aesthetics heavily dictate the mood: from vintage styles to current trends
The eye-porn that is season 2 of Euphoria is a ✨vibe✨. Aesthetically, the show has very intentional dark, saturated, fantastical codes; a look that audiences want in on, with 66.6m uses of #EuphoriaFilter on TikTok. The show itself is merging the lines between art and entertainment and the characters’ unique style are aesthetic glitter bombs as a Gen Z audience explore who they are through self-representation. The outfits represent not only who a character is but who they want to be as they grapple with self-expression as a way to explore sexuality, confidence and grittier topics. These grittier topics are what’s contributed to Euphoria being widely categorised as ‘Grimdark’.
The term is used to describe a sub-genre of fantasy, originating from the miniature war game Warhammer 40,000, which uses the tagline, “In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.” It’s part of a wider movement we’re seeing in coming of age series preferred by Gen Z that vehemently rejects cookie-cutter teen-specific narratives of simple boy-meets-girl in favour of a newfound teenage autonomy where everyone’s equally as heroic as they are villainous.
There might not be any fantasy magic in the script but that’s not to say the styling hasn’t been the victim of a spell. Week after week impeccable looks were served, from Jule’s Anime Punk mini skirts and layered mesh tops to Kat’s Vamp Dominatrix leather body belts and chokers and Rue’s dressed down, skater style with oversized hoodies and checkered trousers. No getup is too extreme or too understated for a generation growing up with Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo as audiences turn to social to recreate makeup looks joining the 1.8bn uses of #EuphoriaMakeup, causing items to sell out and spawning dedicated accounts that reveal how audiences at home can recreate the look. In some ways the styling pushes boundaries of self-expression, you can be whoever you want to be, after all. And in other ways, it’s reinforcing the stereotype that appearing as the most perfect, creative version of yourself is the only thing that makes a woman desirable or successful.
Euphoria’s styling might feel oddly familiar to many millennials out there, with iconic early noughties looks that have been given an injection of modernity and episode filters that resemble that of Apollo, Nashville or Lomo-Fi found on a 2014 version of Instagram. The intent to reference a past that the characters and a Gen Z audience didn’t live is not dissimilar to the 2021 plastic jewellery trend that saw Bella Hadid, Dua Lipa and others don a chunky resin ring obsession that looked spits of a Groovy Chick accessory. Childlike jewellery, among other nostalgic trends, are the ultimate daydream for a generation whose youth was stolen by the pandemic and is now seeking comfort.
3. Character relationship arcs: from rejecting the status quo to conforming at all costs
At the very crux of the show, relationship dynamics are what underpins the drama, whether that be friendship or enemies, love or hate, popularity or outsider there are tensions constantly at play. For a digitally native audience who spend at least 3 hours on social media per day, Gen Z’s relationships have been reduced to online interactions and they are faced with societal pressure and online movements daily. They’re using dating apps to find love and video games or texts to maintain social relationships with friends. In a way, their online lives seem bigger, full of potential, anonymity and people with the same niche interests, but much like real life, it’s not always that simple.
It’s not simple because nothing’s ever as easy as it seems, like when Maddy admits that “90% of life is confidence. But the thing with confidence is nobody knows if it’s real or not.” Suggesting that the strongest, baddest character is in fact, faking it till she makes it. The desire to be in the incircle no matter what also applies to the complicated love triangle between Nate, Maddy and Cassie. A secret that spans multiple episodes which is so fragile as Cassie’s fears of being ostracised outweigh any potential for honesty, with only chaos and broken relationships as the outcome when things finally do come to fruition.
Conforming at all costs and an overwhelming desire to fit in, is echoed and embedded in influencer culture as we know it. With the rise of the ‘Instagram face’ and cosmetic surgery procedures, it’s not just influencers who feel the immense pressure of fitting in— people under 34 are having more cosmetic work done than 51-64-year-olds and legally anyone as young as 18 can undergo procedures. The pressure to fit in is particularly heavy when members of the elite, inside circle speak out against the expectations they feel they’re being unfairly held to. Take Jesy Nelson who took audiences through the cyberbullying she experienced whilst being a part of Little Mix in her documentary ‘Odd One Out’. Even when things look impeccable on the outside, more often than not it’s probably not the case.
So if we’ve got the disciples of popular culture, naturally next we encounter the rebels. Those who push back against the status quo, independent free thinkers and those who aren’t afraid to own a narrative. Take centre stage, Lexy, who social media hailed as single-handedly breaking up Nate and Cassie and Rue who, albeit under the influence, exposed Nate and Cassie’s secret to friends and family. Being the antagonist might be impressive but I doubt it’s easy. Taylor Swift had to wait 10 years before taking back ownership of her music by re-releasing every song, and she still isn’t in control of her full library. Michaela Cole refused a tempting $1m Netflix deal in favour of retaining at least a 5% copyright to her work— I May Destroy You went on to win an Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing which Michaela wrote, directed and starred in. Going against the grain or disrupting the way things are in favour of how they should be is something Gen Z strives for especially when it comes to representation.
In conclusion, maybe Gen Z is so obsessed with Euphoria because it speaks directly to them, referencing the choices and issues they are faced with daily. It is relatable as they see themselves or somebody they know in the characters. It is wholeheartedly honest, flaws and all, humbling humanity. On top of providing much-needed escapism, as most entertainment does, it is confrontational and aspirational to an audience who naturally turns to social to discuss topics. Euphoria is a television series made for a social media audience.
So what can brands take away from this?
1. Tell human stories, not just brand stories
The emotional intensity in Euphoria validates a spectrum of emotions that speak to everyone’s (but especially Gen Z’s) internal conflicts. Brands have long since used emotional advertising as a way to win over an audience not convinced by facts, but brand values have always been owned by the brand. Euphoria taps into the desire to consume content that is emotionally messy, hyper-relevant and not for consumption. Brands need to take cues from culture— like Football Beyond Borders which used poet Abi Simms to express what it was like to be black and sixteen during a time of racial turmoil and the pandemic— and use creators in culture shaping their own self-expression if they want to tell emotional stories to this cohort.
2. Stop controlling branding and start creating assets that have playfulness intended
A huge part of Euphoria’s success is the rejection of normality in favour of distinct, visual worlds that audiences can borrow from, remix and adopt. Its highly stylised aesthetics offer escapism by mixing references of the past and the present and Balenciaga is a brand that does this brilliantly. Their latest runway show established existing, long-standing, high fashion codes, yet ran in tandem with Kim Kardashian’s Balenciaga branded caution tape stunt for a social savvy audience. It won’t be a case of reinventing the wheel when it comes to branding, but instead, create different versions of assets or promote stunts or creators who are having fun with it.
3. Help Gen Z fit in and stand out at the same time
Finally, Euphoria battled with being on the right side of right via relationship arcs, as we saw an equal dose of characters who resisted against the status quo and those who sacrificed their beliefs in favour of inclusivity. Brand challenges echo this sentiment as they pledge the juxtaposing notion that consumers will feel inclusivity and exclusivity. A brand that got the balance just right was Label Cortiez which facilitated a last-minute product drop in the middle of London. But there was a catch, you could only get a new jacket if you traded the branded one off your back. Using innovative ways that bring people ‘in the know’ together whilst also rejecting traditional forms of— in this case— payment is great at promoting the brand and prompting buzz online.