What the Bold Makeup in HBO’s Euphoria Teaches Us About the Lives of Gen Z

Pop Culture

What the Bold Makeup in HBO’s Euphoria Teaches Us About the Lives of Gen Z

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

Move over millennials, Gen Z is here. Your time in the sun – or at least on the screen – is over, if Netflix is to be believed. From interpersonal social dynamics in Riverdale, Big Mouth, and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina to mental health in 13 Reasons Why, and social awkwardness and anxiety in Atypical, Netflix shows are all about Gen Z. Even if these premises might seem like they’re ticking off a checklist, it’s still a step up from dramas limited to either unrealistic rich juvenile experiences like Gossip Girl or the conventional teen-to-adult trajectory followed by One Tree Hill. The  only exception was the genre-defining British adolescent drama Skins that stood out for its gruelling portrayal of teenage anxieties. Yet, it wasn’t until the release of HBO’s Euphoria earlier this year, that a show really invested in recognising, understanding, and translating the cloud hovering over the permanently-in-crisis lives of Gen Z.

Adapted from the Israeli mini-series of the same name, Euphoria traces the lives of high school students who navigate life, love, and the burden of expectations while confronting their identities and sexualities. The show follows 17-year-old Rue (Zendaya), who befriends Jules (Hunter Schafer), the new girl in town, straight out of drug rehab as their lives intersect with that of the other students. It’s a heart-wrenching roller-coaster ride through new-age American trauma that allows its teenagers to be vulnerable without any judgement. It’s empowering in a way: Euphoria’s female protagonists – Rue, Jules, Maddy, Kat, Cassie – are not limited to the trauma they endure because of drug abuse, bullying, sexual harassment, or body-shaming; there’s more to them. 

Much of the show feels like reassurance, that reminds us that we are constantly shuffling from one emotional state to another. Euphoria overcomes the problems of shows like Riverdale, which hardly scratch the surface and are meant to be consumed and chewed out like pulp fiction. The gap between the world and the current generation of teenagers has never been wider, partly because this is a generation which hasn’t known an internet-free life, and Euphoria, fresh off its first season, is a moving window into their world without pandering to stereotypes

While it might be too early to call Euphoria a landmark show of its generation, its immediate and visible cultural impact is in the almost overnight popularity of its eye-makeup looks, that involve rhinestones, glitter, and lots of neon. It’s influence, that goes beyond being limited to the world of fashion, social media influencers, or celebrities is itself indicative of a new, braver turn in self-expression. Typical of the ever-fascinating, expansive Gen Z universe that considers American singer Billie Eilish its ambassador. 

Much of Euphoria feels like reassurance, that reminds us that we are constantly shuffling from one emotional state to another.

To be fair, the Euphoria look has been around for decades and is heavily borrowed from drag culture. But the show’s 21st-century rendition of the ’60s and ’70s drag-culture-inspired makeup marks an evolution in the use of cosmetics and perception in popular culture. Sam Levinson, the show’s creator, wanted the makeup to act as subliminal emotional messaging, a way for the characters to indicate their development in each episode. This directive is evident most memorably in Jules’s season finale spiky eye look, which embodied a don’t-mess-with-me attitude indicated toward her bully, Nate. In doing so, Euphoria does something inimitable: It optimises the use of makeup as creative expression that isn’t retrofitted to suit as a tool which services the male gaze. Instead, Euphoria posits that makeup is not a disguise, it’s an expression of individual authenticity.

euphoria_hbo_jules_makeup

Sam Levinson’s, the show’s creator, directive for the makeup to act as subliminal emotional messaging is evident most memorably in Jules’s season finale spiky eye look, which embodied a don’t-mess-with-me attitude indicated toward her bully, Nate.

HBO

Pop culture – and by extension, life – has alerted us to the idea that makeup is an aspirational industry, that a blemish corrector will smoothen out the wrinkles in our lives. But it also presumes a lack in someone, based on unrealistic male-approved beauty standards. That’s not the case in Euphoria, where the makeup can be best described as “epicene” (or a lack of gender distinction), even when it’s the show’s women wearing it. 

My favourite part about the show is that it doesn’t even make any passing reference to the makeup that its characters wear scene after scene, not even as a compliment, which feels refreshing in a world where women are constantly made conscious of their appearance. Euphoria treats makeup as an extension of the self. The only moment where its existence is acknowledged is an intimate scene where Jules applies makeup on Rue. But even then, Euphoria accepts makeup as an emotional prop, using it to show and not tell. 

It’s especially persuasive in the culture we live in right now, where the unhealthy reliance on photo-filters and various face-enhancement tools indicates the pressure one feels to “perform” beauty online. But Gen Z’s embrace of glitter, sequins, crystals, bold neon colours defies a restrictive culture of beauty and embodies child-like playfulness – a fun escape from the serious business of owning yourself – that is unconcerned with being online-ready. The fact that Euphoria’s makeup looks have been readily embraced by norm-defying youngsters is perhaps predictable. But its allure across ages and body types, however, is its biggest weapon: The appeal lies in its DIY nature, making it accessible to any woman, irrespective of their fluency in the art of makeup.

Euphoria shows us that makeup is a metaphor for life being theatre.

Still, it would be a long stretch to practice Euphoria-like makeup in a regular or professional environment without raising a few eyebrows. And maybe this has the shelf-life of a trend, a trend which nevertheless indicates a deeper shift away from centring the patriarchy in our conception of beauty. Euphoria nudges us to look at it as more than a means to an end. It shows us that makeup is a metaphor for life being theatre. It’s also the greatest insight one needs in understanding why teenagers lead the lives they do. 

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