The Skinny On Skins

Few scripted television shows have generated as much controversy in recent memory as MTV’s American incarnation of Skins, the British program famous for its frank depiction of sex and other sordid teenage pursuits.

The American version follows the debaucherous adventures of a group of teenagers in Baltimore. It features all the hallmarks of contemporary teenage life- unrequited love, ashamed virgins lying about popping their cherries, attention-grabbing girls taking too many pills, the requisite amount of booze guzzling, and gratuitous hetero and lesbian sex scenes. The Parents Television Council is very much against it, going as far as calling on the Justice Department to investigate whether the show is in violation of federal statutes on child pornography.

Unlike most other shows that feature adolescent characters, the actors on Skins are actually played by real, previously unknown teenagers. Ironically enough, the show carries a TV-MA rating, deeming it inappropriate for the actors themselves to watch, as well as the age bracket of the characters they play.

But, just like with any other teenage pursuit, if you tell them not to do it, it only makes them want to do it more. Case in point-  despite the TV-MA rating, the show’s premier was watched by over one million people under 18, accounting for about a third of the total viewers. However, that number  plummeted by half for the second episode and has been on the decline ever since – though it has shown growth among viewers 12-17 years old.

It seems that controversy may have caused many to check it out, only to discover the critics were blowing a lot of hot air. In a recent article at the Hollywood Reporter, university law professor Ronald K.L Collins decreed that in order for Skins to qualify as child pornography, “evidence would need to exist that children had been sexually abused during production- that, say, a shot featuring simulated masturbation actually involved a real-life teen masturbating”.

Pat Mastroianni as Joey Jeremiah

Call me desensitized, but after screening the first few episodes, I was disappointed that I didn’t find the show very controversial. In fact, it reminded me of a 21st century Degrassi high, albeit with slicker production values and a killer soundtrack. And no one tried to label that as child pornography when Joey Jeremiah paraded his exposed rear end around the gym!

Accurate depictions of adolescence are tricky to pull off, especially on network television. Achieving the right balance between risqué enough to be realistic and tame enough to please censors and parents’ groups is a nearly impossible feat, one that the American Skins doesn’t quite manage to pull off. From everything I’ve heard and read, the British version comes much closer to a realistic depiction of modern-day life as a teenager, succeeding in bringing us characters that we care about, as opposed to their vapid, arrogant incarnations on the American series.

While the show may not necessarily be as groundbreaking as the creators had hoped, I believe there’s still a place for Skins, and other shows like it, on television. Teens were having sex long before television existed, and they will continue doing it, long after new forms of media dominate our culture. By showing these situations on TV and in other forms of the media, it helps youth who may be going through the same issues, thereby giving legitimacy to their own feelings and concerns. It opens up the floor for discussion, especially for sensitive matters pertaining to sex and relationships, and that’s almost never a bad thing.

Who were your influences  when you first started doing it?   Furthermore, do you think TV is causing teens to have more sex??

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  • Interesting Post, Jess.

    I feel like a lot has changed in recent years. Teens were always having sex to be sure – but I feel like it’s taken more as a given that they will now than in decades past.

    I was a pretty innocent junior high-er (embarrassingly so!) and now I’m hearing my younger cousins and their friends using language and talking about things that… well that I wouldn’t have uttered at 13.

    I’d be hesitant to put the full responsibility for this on TV. Some culpability, sure but there are so many sources for information that can take partial credit. The internet springs to mind. Who didn’t tentatively watch their first online porno as a dewy eyed virgin and go “Jumpin’ Jehoshaphat! I NEED to try that!”?

  • Thanks for your insightful comment, Megan 🙂

    I was also pretty innocent, I suppose, at least where sex was concerned… but it was also a much different time back then, especially with regards to what kind of sexual imagery was deemed appropriate on prime time television and advertising.

    It’s difficult NOT to think about sex all the time when you’re bombarded with highly sexualized images of both men and women from all angles – TV, movies, and, the big daddy of them all, the Internet. I feel like this is an issue I can continue to explore in future columns.

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