CW: addiction, substance abuse, struggles with mental health
Addiction is often misunderstood. Stigmas and stereotypes contribute to an unforgiving and misinformed idea of addiction. This misinformation is encouraged by a variety of sources from politicians, outdated ideas of treatment, and of course, the media.
Rarely do we see an honest, humanizing, and likeable narrative of addiction. Either the addict in question is a selfish, problem-maker from the start or, on the other hand, we have a younger, good looking person whose struggles with addiction are deemed mysterious, making them the party-animal of the group.
Granted, we are slowly seeing stronger narratives about addiction, where the character gets to navigate their addiction in a genuine and complex way — as seen with Rue in Euphoria. It must be acknowledged that addiction is a reality that impacts different folks in different ways, and not one portrayal will speak to all the ways in which addiction can operate. However, Rue is a promising start to what can be a better dialogue surrounding addiction in popular culture.
With that said, the consequences of poor representation remain and many continue to judge those who struggle with addiction. When thinking about the ways in which we are incorrectly informed about addiction, I reflected on the tropes that I saw growing up and the problematic influence they had. As I thought about this, one special person kept coming to mind — Effy Stonem from the British television series Skins.
Effy in Second Generation. Image Retrieved from The Mushroom Head.
For context, Skins aired for the first time in 2007. All three seasons portray different group of teenagers and/or young adults, knows as either first, second, and third generation. Effy (Kaya Scodelario) first appears on the show in season one as a secondary character, playing the little sister to the protagonist Tony Stonem. Even though she had a minor role at first, her partying and drinking is a character-defining plotline in season one. In second generation, or season three and four, Effy is now one of our protagonists, following the story of her and her friends at Roundview College in Bristol. Effy very much falls into the category of manic pixie dream girl. Despite her indifference towards her male friends (who are all, to an extent, in love with her), many aspects of her story and her power as a character revolve around this male attention. From the start of the series, as seen with her relationship with her brother to the very end— even during the spin-off— she is consistently being damsels’d in distress by her male counterparts. However, the manic pixie dream girl trope has been discussed, so let’s focus on a more nuanced issue I have with Effy, or more so the cultural monster Effy inspired.
Examples of Manic Pixie Dream Trope with Effy. Image retrieved from Google Search of ‘Effy’.
Effy somewhat differs in regards to more traditional depictions of addiction. Although her character arc never outwardly addresses addiction, her behaviours and coping mechanisms reflect the qualities that come with an addictive personality. Branded as an aloof party-girl, Effy’s relationship with alcohol and drugs is also rarely discussed by the other characters. Instead, Effy’s struggles and reliance upon substances is portrayed as edgy. Keep in mind, Skins was a show advertised for teens. Similar in some ways to Euphoria, Skins sought to provide an honest representation of what it meant to be a teenager in the 21st century (specifically mid 2000s).
Despite the original show ending in 2010, discluding the spin-off/follow-up series, Effy’s legacy in popular culture continued to live on amongst alternative youths. This legacy especially strived on 2014 tumblr, a time when aesthetics were particularly grunge but also particularly cringe. Effy embodied this fish-net, ‘normal people scare me, and ‘I listen to the Arctic Monkeys on vinyl’ aesthetic many of us so desperately wanted to achieve.
Examples of 2014 tumblr aesthetics. Images retrieved from ‘Tumblr 2014’.
I spoke with my friend Sam, who also remembers this time in our adolescence, about the cultural phenomenon that is Effy. In her opinion, she felt that “so many people are drawn to [Effy] and attracted to her in the show, so a lot of people tried to emulate her…her clothes, her makeup, influenced so many people at the time and tumblr definitely contributed to that… [thanks to] the bruised knees, plaid skirt aesthetic [that already existed on the platform].”
Example of fan edits of Effy and cultural influence.
However, Effy also reflected a more dangerous attitude in regards to mental health and substance abuse. Throughout the series, Effy struggles with her mental health and ends up going to some sort of rehabilitation centre. Despite this opportunity for character development, or even authentic depiction, Effy’s hardships are rarely explained or shared by her. Instead, her pain is more often than not told through the male gaze. Effy’s sadness is seen as intriguing, making her difficult to get to know, in turn keeping the interest of her romantic partners.
This approach to portraying substance abuse was internalized. I felt that many of us wanted to be the misunderstood girl at the party, cigarette in hand, with no interest in the boys who loved her anyways. I recall that —despite wanting to be this— I still held many harsh views on addiction.
In 2014, John Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health released a report on how the public views addiction. The report revealed that “people are significantly more likely to have negative attitudes toward those suffering from drug addiction than those with mental illness, and don’t support insurance, housing, and employment policies that benefit those dependent on drugs.” Moreover, many consider addiction to be a “moral failing”. This somewhat popular attitude is surprising when we consider how we glamourize and romanticize addiction, especially with young women in fictional shows.
We like it when Effy drinks too much because she is cool and pretty, but god forbid we support safe injection sites. People with addictive personalities or who struggle with addiction are not quirky plotlines nor your chance at escapism via a vulnerable teenager.
We need to take a harm reduction approach, both in life and on screen. Narratives about addiction can be emotional, complex, and captivating — but only if we put in the proper effort. To destigmatize addiction, we must do a better job at portraying it, and give our characters the opportunity to be vulnerable, not mysterious.
To hear more of my interview with Sam, listen here: