Is it Damaging, or Is It Art? (Extended Version)

Euphoria and Licorice Pizza explore controversial themes


 I will always be a defender of a creator’s freedom to explore all themes in their art, but for many, video media in 2021 is pushing the boundaries of what’s appropriate for the screen. The 2021 movie “Licorice Pizza” raises both eyebrows. The plot centers around an almost-relationship between a 15-year-old boy and a 25-year-old woman in the 70s, who met when she was working as a yearbook headshot photographer. Moviegoers have left the theater halfway through or even boycotted the film altogether. Horrifying, yes, and definitely wrong, but is it moral to show this relationship on-screen? 

On the surface, it’s a romantic, slice-of-life movie, so what purpose does the age gap serve? The writing is witty, and the colors and costume design are captivating, but the plot is a bit endless and rambling. My friend and I went to see the movie, and we were deeply confused from start to finish why it’s been called “the best film of 2021.” What was the message? What was the point? How did this get made in the first place? 

Alanah, the older character, lacks any direction or emotional maturity, while her romantic counterpart Gary is like a miniature businessman, always on some sort of entrepreneurial adventure. They work together on Gary’s projects and share a clumsy friendship.

The movie poster features Alanah, the female lead, holding her romantic counterpart in the palm of her hand. This design choice leads me to believe that yes, the creators were aware of the discomfort the power imbalance creates. There is more than one power imbalance, however, and I might go as far as to say they balance out.

Alanah is just so immature and Gary is so comically like a small adult man that it kind of works. It’s Gary that asks her out to dinner, more so demands. It’s Gary that runs the businesses they impart on together, and despite the 10-year age gap, Alanah is consistently treated as his “lady friend” instead of his business partner. In the 70s, women did struggle to be thought of as equal, and in “Licorice Pizza”, it’s made clear that not even a woman, 10 years older, could ever be equal to a boy. Is it a feminist movie? I probably wouldn’t go that far, but it’s closer to that than to a male fantasy kind of movie. There are definitely times when the creator hints at how, even with the age gap, Alanah is powerless. For her, coming of age is losing her youth, and most of the power she ever had as a woman. Gary, on the other hand, is coming of age into a world made for Garys.

If the genders were reversed, it would lose that delicate balance created by societal context that keeps the movie in the questionable zone and out of the “straight to movie jail” zone. 

Film is all about giving you an experience- some of these experiences are comfortable, but plenty of them are not. Comedy makes you laugh, psychological thrillers makes your brain hurt, and horror makes you scream. I used to hate horror, until, around age 12, I realized that fear adds another layer to a film- it heightens the senses. A well-made horror movie sucks a person right in by expanding the range of emotions it can make you feel. An interpretation of “Licorice Pizza” I’d like to present is that its point was to explore what makes you cringe. Discomfort is definitely a tool- it makes you question, what was it that made me uncomfortable, and what does that say about our world?

The reception of “Licorice Pizza” reminded me a little bit of “Call Me By Your Name.” CMBYN was a love story between a 17-year-old and a 24-year-old, and when it was released, it was met with praise, but in the years following, it was denounced for the age gap. Yes, there’s a power imbalance, but it reflects real relationships. For many, especially queer people, their first love and heartbreak includes an age gap. I’d argue that the more important message of that movie was Elio’s heartbreak, not their romance. Heartbreak was what it meant to grow up queer in the 80s. For me, CMBYN is a movie that reads like a backstory. It’s like it sets you up for why Elio will be the way he will be for the rest of his life, just like any other coming-of-age media. 

After so much anger over CMBYN from film fans, new releases became a headache. Sure, maybe it doesn’t perfectly reflect your experience of the world, but it’s not supposed to. It’s supposed to show you something new. It’s like looking at a Monet and saying, “I’ve seen a more realistic painting of a lake in the dollar section at a thrift store.” That sentence kills art. It’ll kill movies too. 

In the world of TV, Euphoria has received mixed reception- adoration and applause from hoards of teenage and adult fans, along with safety warnings and concerns from others. D.A.R.E. has denounced HBO’s hit show, Euphoria, claiming it glamorizes “drugs, sex, and violence.” Euphoria, in reality, presents an over-dramatized version of some of the most difficult experiences a teenager can experience- abusive relationships, addiction, and family trauma. Just because there’s glitter on the screen doesn’t mean the actions depicted are being glamorized. 

Recently, the ideas of romanticization and glamorization have turned people against entertainment meant to reflect real life in art form. Romanticization is taking something that’s not necessarily desirable or beautiful and portraying it as so, mostly in ways that makes people want to emulate bad behaviors. In Euphoria, the main character, Rue, is a drug addict. She ruins her relationships, goes through withdrawal, and is unable to care for herself because of her addictions. Her declining health, loss of bodily functions, and painful outbursts are accurate. There are other, more grounded criticisms of Euphoria. Actors 30 years old play juniors. High schoolers complain that much of the content is not relatable or reflective of real American high school experiences. Teenagers don’t dress, talk like, or have the experiences that the Euphoria teens do, but that’s what makes it cinematic. Creators are criticized for presenting controversial content, and then criticized for not having any substance to their shows if they don’t. Euphoria wouldn’t be Euphoria without its over-the-top themes, in-your-face styling and oversaturated, glittering colors. It’s what makes it worth waiting teenage years for. Its characters are unrealistic, sure, but they’re memorable. 

The more on-screen content is policed, the more questions arise. Can cigarettes be shown on TV? Should alcohol? Should violence? TV and movies have an age rating for a reason, but beyond age, people need to decide for themselves what kind of content they want to see. An outside source shouldn’t do that for them. In some countries, gay couples can’t even be shown on-screen in the first place. For the same reason why books that were banned throughout history should still be kept in libraries, restrictions on on-screen content shouldn’t be too harsh either.

There is a key difference, though. With books, children are unlikely to happen across content that is too mature for them. Books meant for adults are denser and longer than a children’s book and won’t have the same appeal. It’s not very often you hear of a child accidentally reading “A Little Life” or something. As a child grows up, the amount of written media available to them increases with their reading level. With movies or TV, almost everything is accessible at once. Everything is shorter and portrayed in the same simple language of pictures. In the case of Euphoria, I doubt it could do very much damage to anyone unless someone far younger than the target audience watches it, but that’s a risk and a reality for all video media.