HBO's Euphoria follows a number of struggling, dysfunctional teens: protagonist Rue (Zendaya) is a 17-year-old drug addict grappling with depression and anxiety; Nate (Jacob Elordi) is a toxic male jock using anger and violence to mask his issues with sexuality; Jules (Hunter Schafer) is a young transgender woman fighting to fit into a still unaccepting world. Compared to them, the things Euphoria's Kat (Barbie Ferreira) is contending with may seem tame. She's outspoken and feminist, but sexually inexperienced and struggling with negative body image. The pressure to have sex, feeling insecure — those are both issues teens have historically confronted. But as Euphoria's June 23 episode shows, the vast, open forum of the internet has, for Gen Z, made them increasingly complicated to face.
In Sunday's episode, Kat attends a party eager to lose her virginity. She sees it as something that keeps her from fully relating to her already sexually active peers, and the party provides her with the opportunity to simply shed it like it's a winter coat. Unfortunately for her, things don't go as planned.
Once there, Kat is goaded into taking off her clothes by the McKay twins, Troy and Roy, and a boy named Wes. Intelligence wise, she could run circles around them, and we're told Kat does want to have sex. But from the get-go there's a power imbalance in the room. She's outnumbered, and like any regular teen, she's looking for validation, particularly since she's insecure, and because society is so keen to comment on and put down her body. The boys treat her like an object, and though she's clearly uncomfortable, the pressure to fit in and be seen as "the accommodating Cool Girl" sways her to play along.
In an updated version of the Madonna-whore complex, the boys give her an ultimatum: she must prove she's either "a prude" or "a slut". It's a no-win situation, but Kat realizes that pretending to be a slut will give her more social currency. She is, after all, bigger than her peers, and she'd do anything to feel desirable. The tense scene captures the fine line that exists between a young woman believing she's making a decision about her body on her own terms, and being manipulated through power dynamics.
We find out later Kat slept with Wes, and it was recorded by at least one of the three boys. Whether or not she consented to the recording becomes irrelevant when she finds out the video has been uploaded to Pornhub and shared around school. Her face is not shown in the video, but she knows it's her. Worse, her classmates know it's her. Her very private moment — one she saw as exciting and maybe even empowering — becomes public spectacle, with technology increasing its reach every second. Kat is mortified, and rightfully so: the distribution of sexual images of individuals without their consent is called revenge porn, and it's illegal in 41 states.
Thankfully, the law is slowly catching up with the rapidly changing tech landscape, with punishments for revenge porn (which falls under cyberbullying) ranging from steep fines to jail time. The consequences are even more severe if the individual involved is a minor like Kat. But at the same time, punishing the perpetrator would require actually bringing the issue to court, something that Kat — and many young women today — are disincentivized to do because the social cost is too steep.
The bullying Kat endures while trying to shut down the video on her own perfectly encapsulates the struggles young women face today: unlike men, women are judged for exploring their sexuality, and if something goes wrong — a video is uploaded without consent, or an assault occurs — the woman is blamed for being promiscuous to begin with. In a digital age where it's all too easy to share a private image among friends or screen-cap a convo to start a rumor, rarely are men held accountable for the ways in which they can, and do, damage women and their reputations. (We can see this in the recent case of Bella Thorne being blamed for taking nudes rather than the focus being on the person who leaked them — a double standard that Rue herself calls out in the first episode.)
Kat really has no choice but to try to handle the matter quietly because acknowledging it's her in the video would mean enduring outright, hostile bullying (as we see with Cassie and her leaked nudes) and potentially even jeopardizing her future. The laws may be playing catch-up, but the social stigma of being branded a "slut" is still rampant. Slut-shaming has very real consequences, especially for young, impressionable women, as we've seen with the deaths of Audrie Pott and Rehtaeh Parsons. Kat pretending the video isn't of her may make it seem like she's brazenly taking control of the situation, but it's really just a desperate act of self-preservation.
The episode also explores how difficult it is to wipe something from the internet. Kat manages to get the main video on Pornhub taken down, but despairs when she sees it's already been pirated and re-uploaded in another language. The ease and speed at which private information can be disseminated on the internet is frustratingly scary.
In the end, Kat signs up for a Pornhub membership to become a cam girl. "Upload videos. Get paid," the site's banner promises. On one hand, this can be read as a way for Kat to finally reclaim a narrative that started with her being manipulated by three teen boys and unwillingly exposed online. On the other, Kat is still chasing the same validation she was before — now it's just on a grander, global, and potentially much more damaging scale. As a minor, becoming a cam girl is not a safe forum to be exploring her sexuality in, and unfortunately, the potential that this will end up hurting Kat is high.
Perhaps that's the point: Euphoria is about teens grappling with things that are far more adult than they can or should have to. And with IRL adults failing to properly teach sex ed and consent, or to comprehend the intricacies of social media and cyberbullying, it's no surprise that the kids feel like they have to handle (and often mishandle) these issues alone. Kat makes a bold move to try to regain agency and take charge of her story, but amid a world so increasingly interested in commenting on and controlling women's bodies — especially online — that agency may never fully be hers to claim.