The Problem with Euphoria: How Much Nudity is Too Much Nudity?

HBO’s Euphoria is an internet-wide phenomenon, with Twitter analytics declaring that the show is the most tweeted show of the decade so far. With 30 million tweets in the US alone, the show has become well-known around the world.

A screenshot from the TV series Euphoria

Content Warning: This blog will delve into themes of sexual violence, so reader discretion is advised.

Now, I love Euphoria - anything with Zendaya is an instant click for me. I watched the show when it first aired in 2019 and was hooked. The cinematography, the acting, the storylines, the outfits(!) - everything about the show was immersive. You can really understand why Zendaya views the show so fondly, it’s her own passion project and the passion is apparent. However, beyond the aesthetics, clothing, and makeup, the show has a very… invasive problem, that being the sheer amount of nudity it has. 

Now, I know Euphoria is rated 18 for adults so I was expecting the drug use, violence, language and to some extent the nudity, however, I was not expecting the sheer amount of nudity that is in the show. It seems as though every few minutes in every episode there is a shot of someone's intimate region, or a sex scene being used for ‘plot’ purposes. But even with modern television venturing into more risqué forms of performances, I cannot help but wonder if the amount of nudity and intimate scenes we are watching has become too uncomfortable, and if it is uncomfortable for us as viewers, is it safe to assume it has become too uncomfortable for actors? Nudity in television and movies has become the new normal. From horror movies to romance to Netflix originals, we are entering an age of risky cinema and filmmakers trying to give their shows more authenticity and grit. However, to what extent can authenticity and realism be used as justification before actors are coerced into situations they are not comfortable with?

Since the rise of #MeToo and the light shone upon the vulnerability of actresses in the industry, there has been a widespread desire to protect the women of Hollywood and ensure their stories are being taken seriously. As viewers, we are now rightfully scrutinising the working conditions many actors are under and considering whether what we are watching is ethically produced. My concern for the actors of Euphoria, and Sydney Sweeney in particular, arose after I remembered the ordeal that Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke dealt with while working on the show. Clarke revealed that working on the show was not as magical as the show presented itself. Clarke has stated that she had multiple arguments with the show’s producers in which she vocalised her discomfort with the amount of nudity that she had to commit to whilst working on set. Clarke’s recollection of the conversations she had on set was quite frankly incredibly inappropriate and worrying, recounting producers’ rebuttals against arguments she had made regarding wanting to stay clothed for certain scenes, faced with statements such as, ‘You won't want to disappoint your Game of Thrones fans.’ This statement, coupled with the fact that Clarke revealed that she had just emerged into the acting business fresh from drama school and still naive to the inner workings of the industry, reveals an incredibly problematic and worrying reality. As an adult in her 30s, Clarke has said she feels more assured of herself on sets now and knows how to set her own boundaries and keep herself safe, but if this is a lesson Clarke had to learn in her early 20s, then how many more actresses are not aware that they might be being taken advantage of on set? 

A screenshot from the TV series Game of Thrones

Nude and sex scenes on set pose a tricky and messy problem. There are a multitude of considerations to implement and specialists who need to be consulted and brought on to advocate on the actor's behalf. Intimacy co-ordinator Ita O’Brien has stated that on the sets she works on, she has a set of non-negotiable rules to ensure the safety of the actors. This includes genital coverings, no genital touching, a formal agreeance from the actors in advance of the scene, areas of touching are established, and no kissing involving the tongue is allowed.

However, despite the precautions taken to advocate for the actor’s safety, this does not ensure it is consistently or even completely upheld. On a set, there is a huge disparity in power between the director and the actor. As the director, they can take whatever direction or implement whatever narrative they wish, and unfortunately, many actors acquiesce to these scenes as they feel pressured or too inexperienced to argue that they are not comfortable with the scene. Many actors have recounted feeling humiliated and vulnerable on set during sex scenes and not knowing what to do with these emotions as they believe their feelings are inconsequential to the success that the film will generate. 

As discussions surrounding nudity on set gets repeated more and more, actors are being candid about their experiences. A very famous example is Maria Schneider who revealed that during her filming of Last Tango in Paris she was left incredibly angry and traumatised but feared speaking up about her discomfort due to the status of the two directors, Marlon Brando and Bernardo Bertolucci. Schneider revealed that the infamous rape scene was not originally in the script, and she felt coerced and pressured by both men to acquiesce to the scene. In a quite frankly horrifying and deeply upsetting interview, Schneider recounts how she felt as though her youth and inexperience was taken advantage of by the two men, and she found herself in a situation that left her traumatised and humiliated. Schneider goes on to recall how she cried real tears during the scene and ‘felt a little raped’ by both men as a result of their inability to communicate with her regarding the scene. According to the actress, the scene was shot, and Marlon did not apologise or console her after the experience. Her takeaway from this traumatising time in her life was that she should have called her agent or her lawyer to come and advocate on her behalf to prevent the assault from taking place. Much like Clarke’s experience, what we witness is, time and time again, young, female actresses being taken advantage of on set by much older and more experienced directors and feeling too inexperienced to advocate for themselves and their autonomy. This is a narrative that is being repeated far too many times and happening to far too many men, who leave the narrative unharmed and without consequence. Maria Schneider was failed by Hollywood, the actress was left traumatised and ostracised after her ordeal, and the men faced no consequences for their actions, Bernardo Bertolucci even admitted in the recent aftermath of public outrage that he intentionally allowed Schneider to be traumatised because he wanted her authentic and raw reaction to the scene. Her action emotions were inconsequential, just a means to an end for his movie.  Stories such as that leave a terrible taste in my mouth; actresses need to be better protected on set. This guise of authenticity and realness is often a veil used to justify the traumatisation and humiliation of young actresses for the benefit of male directors and audiences.

A screenshot from the movie Last Tango in Paris

Now, let’s get back to Euphoria. The show has… a lot of nudity in it. Show star Sydney Sweeney has made continual statements that she has never felt uncomfortable with the amounts of sex scenes in the show and that the show's creator Sam Levinson has allowed her to keep her clothes on in scenes where she did not think being naked was necessary. She has stated that she does not feel that Sam has pushed nudity onto her or coerced her in any way. Whilst it is a great relief that the young actress is able to state her boundaries on set and avoid the situations actresses preceding her have faced, it is still a matter of whether the nudity she does consent to is too much. Fans of the show can attest to the sheer veracity of nudity and sex scenes in the show - these two being separated as sex and nudity are not often mutually exclusive in the show. Often characters will be naked in completely unusual contexts and the nudity serves no purpose other than to be ‘authentic.’ The toilet scene in season two is a great example of this. 

Sweeney’s testament is not one that has been analysed in a vacuum. Stars Chloe Cherry and Minka Kelly have both given accounts of their experiences on set which have cast an unflattering light on the show’s creator. Kelly has revealed that in one scene with co-star Alexa Demie, the actress was supposed to have her dress fall and down be exposed in front of her co-star, who was playing an underage girl. Kelly has stated that, as it was her very first day on set, she didn't feel comfortable being nude - which is completely understandable. In a similar account, Cherry reveals that on her first day on set, she was told she would be completely naked and covered in blood, something the actress was also not comfortable with and asked to be scrapped. Cherry also stated that she would have preferred to have some time to get to know her co-star Tyler Chase before she was made to do a nude scene in front of him. From scrolling on Twitter myself, I can confidently say many scenes would not go amiss if there were fewer cases of nudity on display, with many viewers even claiming that episodes without explicit nudity are superior to those that have it. So, if viewers don’t want nudity, actors are refusing to be nude at all times, and shows are doing well without them, why have we accepted that nudity is the new necessity of a realistic show? 

To collaborate my argument, I compare the show to HBO’s other show The Sex Lives of College Girls, a show about, well, the sexual lives of college girls. For a show that centres itself on female sexuality and experience, there is significantly less nudity in the show than in Euphoria, a show about a teenager's battle with addiction. The former show is a fun, entertaining and realistic portrayal of young adulthood without the unnecessary depiction of sex and nudity. Arguably, this is a show with authenticity, but void of the overconsuming amount of nudity that Euphoria depicts. Nudity in shows and movies is not something that needs to be completely scrapped - scenes often necessitate nudity, and with the permission of the actor they can be done safely and correctly. However, shows like Euphoria threaten to make the same mistakes as previous shows if their creators do not limit the number of explicit scenes they require of their actors. Furthermore, with shows and movies becoming more explicit with their content, many upcoming and new actors may believe that this is the new norm for acting professionals and agree to take part in explicit scenes without the right people there to guide and advocate for them. We need to move in the direction of change, towards safer working conditions for actors. Sets are places of work as much as offices are, and the autonomy and respect of all employees is sacred, no matter the venue.

Written by Valentia Adarkwa-Afari, Digital Student Ambassador, on 31 March 2022.

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