Zendaya’s “Euphoria” Commentary Fights Addiction Stigma

Zendaya attends HBO's "Euphoria" Season 2 Photo Call at Goya Studios on January 05, 2022 in Los Angeles, California.


Zendaya’s “Euphoria” Commentary Fights Addiction Stigma

Lexi McMenaminFEBRUARY 22, 2022Jeff Kravitz

In this op-ed, Teen Vogue News and Politics editor Lexi McMenamin explores how Zendaya’s “Euphoria” comments fight addiction stigma and bring harm reduction to the screen.

There’s a lot to be said about the latest season of Euphoria: The record-breaking show’s plot is basically nonexistent, it appears to be hitting its sophomore slump, and as for its storylines, well… as succinctly put by the New Yorker’s Naomi Fry, “One shouldn’t watch Euphoria for its realism.” Season two has evinced a lot of problems with the show, some seemingly baked in and others able to be traced back to a likely source: Showrunner Sam Levinson. Perhaps most problematic, as the excellent Drew Gregory explained in a 2019 essay for Autostraddle, that Levinson, a “cis straight white man who grew up in the skewed world of Hollywood,” is “[filtering] his experiences with addiction through a character who is a middle class queer black girl with a single mom.”https://player.cnevids.com/interlude/teenvogue/iframe/?pageURL=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.teenvogue.com%2Fstory%2Fzendaya-euphoria-harm-reduction&pageType=amp-article&tags=Euphoria&embeddedVideos=60f5905542b5f07c46fd6967&intcid=inline_amp&hasCompanion=0&analyticsUrl=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.teenvogue.com%2Fstory%2Fzendaya-euphoria-harm-reduction&section=Identity&ampTargeting=%7B%22cnt_copilotid%22%3A%5B%22620fba6a156bd5e8f50d878d%22%5D%2C%22cnt_platform%22%3A%5B%22amp%22%5D%2C%22cnt_tags%22%3A%5B%22zendaya-euphoria-harm-reduction%22%2C%22wellness%22%2C%22euphoria%22%2C%22article-settings%22%2C%22ContentHeader%22%2C%22variation%22%2C%22TextBelowCenterGridWidth%22%2C%22Euphoria%22%5D%2C%22ctx_page_channel%22%3A%5B%22wellness%22%5D%2C%22ctx_page_slug%22%3A%22zendaya-euphoria-harm-reduction%22%2C%22ctx_template%22%3A%22amp-article%22%2C%22partner%22%3A%5B%22amp%22%5D%2C%22pos%22%3A%5B%22mid-content%22%5D%2C%22pos_instance%22%3A%5B%221%22%5D%2C%22slot_name%22%3A%22mid_content_1%22%7D#amp=1

But amid its myriad issues, recent episodes of the show did something worth celebrating: The series, in part centered around main character Rue’s substance use disorder, showed how important harm reduction is.

Harm reduction is (as defined by the National Harm Reduction Coalition) “a set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug use,” and “a movement for social justice built on a belief in, and respect for, the rights of people who use drugs.” While there isn’t really a universally agreed-upon list of harm reductionist policies, a harm reductionist approach focuses on the humanity of people who use drugs, and works to destigmatize both drug use and dependency in hopes of saving lives. Another way to put it, via Maia Szalavitz, author of Undoing Drugs: The Untold Story of Harm Reduction and the Future of Addiction: harm reduction is “radical empathy.”

Examples of harm reduction in real life are becoming increasingly visible, such as safe injection sites. In my hometown of Philadelphia, a safe injection site was planned to open before it was stalled by ongoing litigation. My cousin, who struggled with substance use disorder for many years, got sober and became an addiction support specialist, then during the pandemic began using again. She overdosed and died at home in June 2021, six months after a court ruled against Philly’s safe injection sites. The proposed safe injection site was in the neighborhood where my cousin picked up the drug she overdosed on.

Euphoria’s approach to harm reduction isn’t as explicit as safe injection sites, but it’s obvious both on the screen and in Zendaya’s (who plays Rue) public comments about the show.

Episode five focuses on Rue’s search for drugs while fleeing an attempted intervention and going through withdrawal. The episode seems to be in direct response to complaints that the show glorifies drug use and dependency, which have seeped into its coverage. In a statement shared with NBC News, the zero-tolerance program D.A.R.E accused Euphoria of “misguidedly glorify[ing] and erroneously [depicting] high school student drug use, addiction, anonymous sex, violence, and other destructive behaviors as common and widespread in today’s world.” There are obvious issues with this analysis. For one, as any number of Twitter users pointed out post-episode 5, Rue’s withdrawal-failed intervention-search for drugs night may serve as a greater deterrent to drug use than any D.A.R.E. course could ever hope to.

On top of that, Zendaya herself spoke out in response to D.A.R.E., telling Entertainment Weekly, “Our show is in no way a moral tale to teach people how to live their life or what they should be doing,” rather describing its goal as “hopefully [helping] people feel a little bit less alone in their experience and their pain. And maybe feel like they’re not the only one going through or dealing with what they’re dealing with.” This focus, reiterated repeatedly in Zendaya’s public comments on the series — in Instagram posts before episodes, in statements like this to the press — brings a harm reductionist approach to the show’s depiction of addiction, one thing I will credit Levinson in part for.

There is a lot of animosity around harm reduction, but much of it seems based on racist, ableist, and false narratives. For example, right-wing commentators framed the news of the White House opening up $30 million worth of grants allocated towards harm reduction as Biden spending “millions” to give out “crack pipes.” In response, instead of actually practicing harm reduction and focusing on funding things that prevent death and disease — which, the research shows, includes providing clean pipes — the White House put out a statement clarifying the funding would not be providing pipes.


There is a death toll to disregarding harm reduction. As Zachary Siegel recently wrote, both the U.S. and Norway saw comparable upticks in fatal overdoses over 2020, but their approaches, and results, are different. Per a study released this month from the Scandinavian Journal of Public Health, Norway saw a “more rapid return to baseline” and “much lower overdose deaths” overall compared to the U.S., which, according to Siegel, is because “Norway does have consumption sites, Norway does have universal health care, and therefore, much easier access to life-saving medications.”

Given the stakes, I can’t help but celebrate a portrayal of substance use disorder that is openly attempting to engender radical empathy with its audience. Growing up, the only show people ever compared my family to was Showtime’s Shameless, a satirical comedy that shared with my own family lots of kids, elder children helping parents, and family members struggling with addiction. (To be clear, I haven’t even seen more than an episode of the show and I’m not here to discuss its merits or otherwise.) Not only was it painful to have my life compared to a spectacle finding dark comedy in my real-life experience, it also was ironic: Shame was the dominating experience of growing up in the shadow of substance use disorder. No one wants their most painful experiences to be turned into a joke. As my siblings age I’m desperate for ways to save them that pain. Seeing someone as beloved and acclaimed as Zendaya living through scenes I’ve seen in my own life a million times was cathartic but also hope-inspiring.

Zendaya’s public commentary has embraced the difficulty of witnessing addiction, something that anyone with a loved one who has struggled with substance use can attest to. “​​How much can we tolerate her?” Zendaya posed, in a recent interview with them. “How far can she go? And can we still love her through it, and can we still root for her and know that at the core of who she is, she’s a good person?”

Before episode five aired, Zendaya shared another message to her Instagram: “It’s my hope for people watching that they still see her as a person worthy of their love. And worthy of their time, and that she has a redemptive quality still, and that we still see the good in her even if she can’t see it in herself,” Zendaya wrote. “I think that if people can go with her through that, and get to the end, and still have hope for her future, and watch her make the changes and steps to heal and humanize her through her sobriety journey and her addiction, then maybe they can extend that to people in real life.” I share Zendaya’s hope.

My praise is complicated by the continued lack of nuance, which I believe is caused by Levinson as sole writer, whose apparent commitment to pulling from his own experience cannot accommodate a fully complex portrayal of a Black queer teen struggling with substance use disorder and mental illness. As Nylah Burton recently dug into for Vox, episode five elicited a number of responses that suggested Rue’s mother Leslie not resorting to violence was somehow a less “Black” depiction of addiction — a notion Burton disabused readers of. “As a society, we must learn to increase our empathy toward Black people who are struggling with addiction — not just fictional young women in prestige dramas, but also Black people who are dark-skinned, trans, queer, low-income, sex workers,” Burton wrote. “Euphoria has taken a huge step in that direction by portraying a Black girl character who, despite her illness, remains someone we root for.”

So, another hope I have for this show includes giving the perspectives represented in the show’s cast substantive representation in the writers’ room and behind the camera. It would be useful if the show chose to publicly partner with Black-focused and -led harm reduction efforts, rather than largely relying on Levinson’s perspective. (The show’s potential when Levinson shares creative control was previewed in the sole episode with a co-writer, Jules’s standalone 2021 episode, co-written by Hunter Schafer.) Another area where the show could choose to lead rather than follow, as covered by Siegel for the Nation, would be illustrating harm reduction in practice by depicting drugs like methadone and buprenorphine, commonly used in the process of withdrawing from opioid addiction — which Rue is now in the throes of. Most shows, including Euphoria so far, show rehab and Narcotics Anonymous (a 12-step program like AA that requires sobriety) as the only moral next step in her recovery.


The decision to bring back Colman Domingo’s Ali in episode six, and show him giving Rue forgiveness, was an explicit celebration of both harm reduction and the importance of offering Rue and her family (as put by actress Nika King in the episode’s post-show) a vision of a Black addict surviving. We know that the series shines when it taps into underserved stories. But in the meantime, I want to celebrate what is being done well, and to me, anything that promotes the humanity of those that use drugs serves to save lives.

Zendaya concluded her missive, “I think it’s important that we have characters that are flawed. And remember that we are not the worst mistake we’ve ever made. And that redemption is possible.” 

I’ve seen it happen. Maybe watching Rue will help others see, too.

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A Natural Light and Pro Light Photographer who enjoys Photography and the world around it.

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