Last week, MTV’s teen soap, Skins, garnered attention from bloggers and media outlets based on rumors that its producers may have violated child pornography laws by shooting its underage actors in inappropriate scenes. As we, like most everyone who has opined on this topic, haven’t seen the footage and don’t have expertise on this issue, we’re going to leave this issue alone…
But not surprisingly, the collective conversation on Skins quickly turned away from this legal issue towards a theme we’ve heard before: teen TV has gone too far. As I read and watched commentary, I couldn’t help but develop a sneaking suspicion that most of those who claimed that Skins had crossed the line hadn’t actually seen the show. Many of the most passionate blog comments came after the caveat, “I haven’t seen the show, but…” Seemingly under-informed commentators professed that Skins was “smut” (as one morning hostess noted), and that its producers should be “rounded up” (as one TV editorialist professed). The narrative surrounding Skins seemed to trump any conversation about the story of the show itself.
All of these critiques made me wonder, “will teens even like this show?” Our data shows that most teens have taste when it comes to TV. They get blamed for Jersey Shore, but more of them tune in to House. They watch Lost, but pass on The Bachelorette. They give Gossip Girl a chance, but they really go for Glee.
But after watching Skins, we think teens might continue to tune in. Here are a few things we heard about the show, and here’s what we saw:
- All they do is have sex! Skins shows a lot of kissing, and a little provocative dancing, but we’ve seen that before. And there is a lot of talking about sex - and it’s crass, raw and not so eloquent. It’s an adolescent version of fart jokes and potty humor. But it sounds pretty true to how teens talk about sex – more testing their knowledge than putting words into action.
- They make it seem like everyone is having sex and doing drugs…Actually, in episode one, the show’s suave star, Tony tries to persuade Stanley to lose his virginity before he turns 18. And – SPOILER ALERT – by the end of the episode, Stanley takes a pass. Stanley does buy drugs for a party but he’s hardly a seasoned pro. Far from being confident and cool, he’s terrified by the bizarre and decidedly unglamorous drug dealer who he meets (in the suburbs, no less). He’s so frazzled that he buys way more than he intended and leaves more shaken than self-satisfied.
- They’re acting as though all teens act like this. Actually, in this first episode, the show’s central characters explicitly differentiate themselves from the “rich” kids who don’t do drugs, and seem to live in a whole different world. Within their group, each character has a very different relationship to sex and drugs. And their appeal might be, in part, that they seem to be outsiders. Tony does have the chameleon-like ability to gain entrée into the prep school world, but he finds he doesn’t quite fit in when he shows up to a prep school party with his rag-tag group of pals.
- These characters have no redeeming value. Yes, Skins is more about socializing than the SATs. But the characters are far from shallow or one-dimensional. They’re rebellious and cool, but also vulnerable and confused. And mostly, they seem to be seeking the kind of love and stability that the adults in their lives aren’t providing (parents and teachers are frequently shown as “on the verge” – fueled by out of control rage or neediness),
Maybe the most subversive thing about Skins is that it feels real. We see the angst that we know teens experience. We see the moral dilemmas they wrestle with, and we witness how teens make decisions – sometimes the right ones and often the wrong ones. We see a world that doesn’t exactly mirror that of Skins’ teen viewers, but one that contains the elements that they can recognize and relate to (likely because the writers tapped into a poised panel of teen experts in the development of the show to make sure they got the language and the nuances just right). Real authenticity is sometimes harder to accept than reality TV.
Whether teens feel that Skins gets it right or not, it seems to us that this is the kind of TV that’s worth considering before dismissing. Adults might prefer shows that show teens a more aspirational view of their lives (one in which a song cures all ills and risks are easily avoided). But we think teens deserve entertainment that makes them think, reflect and even laugh at an approximation of reality on their own terms.