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Skins: The Most Dangerous TV Show?
Alice Markham-Cantor
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I heard about Skins for the first time about four months ago. A friend told me, “You have to see this show. The main character is so attractive! But…the show’s kind of inappropriate.”

We watched the first episode of the show online. The basic plot was that the main character’s best friend is still a virgin, and the main character is determined to help his friend find a girl who will change that. At the time, only the British version of the show was available and it was, as my friend had said, full of sex, drugs, and hard-core partying. In just the first episode, the characters do drugs, buy drugs, and overdose on drugs; they also smoke, try to have sex, party, brawl at a party, steal a car, and almost drown.

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But it was relatively entertaining with good-looking actors, and I could see how it would appeal to some teenagers. Unlike some other teen shows I’ve seen—like Gossip Girl, where everyone is fashionable and rich—it portrayed teens’ lives frankly. The characters in the show do drugs; so do teens I know. The characters have sex, and while the amount in the show is probably exaggerated, there are certainly teens I know who are sexually active.

Parental Furor

When a U.S. version of Skins was launched on MTV this past winter, it spurred enormous controversy. The Parents Television Council (PTC), an organization that alerts parents to potential dangers in the shows kids are watching, thinks that it’s inappropriate, racy, and too edgy to be shown on TV. They called it “the most dangerous television show for children that we have ever seen,” and have even pressed the U.S. Department of Justice to open an investigation into whether Skins has broken child pornography laws, since the actors actually are teenagers and are scantily dressed in several scenes.

I’m a little skeptical of the PTC’s approach. It sometimes seems parents don’t want their teens to see “adult content” because then they might have to admit that their teens are becoming adults. All the same, I might understand parents’ anger and worry if the U.S. show was like the British Skins, since that version is definitely R-rated. But in the U.S. version, the visuals have been quite literally covered up.

For example, in both versions, the main male character watches his female next-door-neighbor get dressed in the morning. In Skins U.K. she’s nude, and the audience sees it. In Skins U.S., there is a sloping roof and conveniently placed bar across the window, so that the audience doesn’t see her breasts. If that broke a child pornography law, then so has every minor who’s ever worn a bikini. Also, the F word is bleeped out on the MTV version.

image by MTV Networks

But even with private parts and naughty words taken out, the show still upsets the PTC because it’s about teens doing things that parents don’t want them to do. Unfortunately, a lot of teens already do those things. Leaving aside the fact that it’s a TV series—so of course it’s going to be dramatized and played up—Skins is essentially truthful to the lives of some teenagers. (In fact, all of the plots of Skins U.S. are discussed and worked out with the help of a group of “real teen advisors.”) You might not like what it says about our culture, but given that these behaviors are out there, censoring it from teens who know this stuff is going on anyway probably isn’t going to make much of a difference.

No Consequences

Of course, this is not everyone’s life. I interviewed a number of teens to ask what they thought of the show. Shahlo, 18, said, “I don’t think things are that crazy in real life.” On the other hand, Anthony, also 18, believed that the show resembled his life and the lives of his friends “to some extent. I don’t party OD…but it’s the same type of scene, where kids are drinking and doing drugs.”

Whether or not they’ve found themselves in Skins-style situations, teens 16 and older generally aren’t shocked by the show in the slightest. However, there is another issue at stake: Sometimes, the show seems unrealistic to the point of being a parody. At least in the episodes I’ve watched, characters don’t face realistic consequences to their actions. In fact, there are no consequences. Any teen who has, for example, pulled an all-nighter and realized that focusing in school the next day isn’t as easy as their friend promised will easily see how the show is misleading.

But some younger teens may not see that. Problems could arise if younger teens or preteens take the show to heart, and decide that they want to be just like the characters in the show.

Of course, there’s another way to look at this. Darlyn, 16, felt that “The whole show is negative,” but suggested that younger viewers might learn from the characters’ mistakes. Yet Shahlo countered, “What would they learn? How to take drugs? How to fight at a party?” Shahlo added that she wouldn’t want her 15-year-old sister watching the show.

What’s the Fuss About?

image by MTV Networks

There was one thing all the teens I questioned agreed on: The more parents forbid their teenagers to watch something, the more the kids will want to see it. Forbidden fruit is always sweetest, and if parents (or the PTC) try to censor a TV show, kids immediately become curious. The more controversy and parental screaming the show elicits, the more kids will want to watch it. They’ll want to know what all the fuss is about, and they will find a way to tune in (as 3.3 million viewers did for the first episode; 1.2 million of them were under 18).

Let’s put it this way: Parents can cancel cable subscriptions, and kids will watch it online. They can put up a firewall, and kids will watch it on their friends’ computers. If MTV gets rid of Skins, teens will be driven to the undiluted British version online.

Smash the Taboos

I think the best thing parents can do is probably what my mom did when my brother and I started watching Rome (which is also full of nudity and sex): She watched it with us. It certainly took away any mystery or taboos for me—my mom was there in case I wanted to ask her any questions or the show’s content made me uncomfortable.

In fact, parents, there’s a solution: Tell your kids that they can watch Skins as long as you can watch it with them and can talk with them about any themes—love vs. sex, drugs, girls as sexual beings vs. sexual objects, masturbation, etc.—that might make them (or more likely, you) uncomfortable. If they say “yes, great!” you can help counteract whatever pressure the show exerts on kids to do wild things. They’ll be able to watch it and satisfy their curiosity, but by talking it over with you, they’ll be spared the idea that doing drugs won’t mess up their brains.

On the other hand, if your kids say “no” to watching the show with you, then your problem is also solved—unless, of course, they watch it behind your back. But even in that case, they will probably get a positive message from you, because the offer was made, taking away taboos.

The PTC should also remember that Skins is not the only “inappropriate” show out there. Neither Shahlo, Darlyn, or Anthony had heard about the controversy over Skins, and when I explained that some parents thought it was too explicit for teenagers, Anthony looked at me as if I were crazy.

“So why don’t they take away Jersey Shore?” he asked. “It’s just as sexual.”

This story is part of the media/news literacy series, which is generously supported by the McCormick Foundation.

(NYC-2011-04-03)