Friday, January 21, 2011

'Skins' Cutting-Edge or MTV Bad Sex Ed & Sexism?

MTV is back in the controversy business.

The show is called “Skins,” an adaptation of the original UK show. It almost comes across as a slick and surreal 'reality series,' but with fast-paced scenes, quick camera cuts and unusually dismal colors.

OK, it has actors, cameras and a script — but make no mistake: This is an abstraction of real life, a complete and utter fantasy — the kind of fantasy that used to be grist for a psychiatrist’s mill, and has already caused controversy for pushing the sexual envelope, some say, waaaay too far.

While the religious right, predictably, shouts that it should be censored, my concern is the message it sends teens about sex, drugs and women in particular. I watched a sampling of the first episode and here's what I thought:

— Boys aged 14 and up were generally only thinking about sex, or thinking about any way possible to have sex, were having sex, then were thinking about how to have more sex, etc.
— Teen girls were one-dimensional, apparently there merely to service the boys [see above.]
— There is NO genuine sex education here.
— Teens were often happily drugged out of their minds, while having sex, etc.
— Teen years here are reduced to sex, drugs, without any attempt to provide the characters with motivation to discover who they are.
— This is an utterly bleak world, devoid of real emotions and actual 'life.'

In an era when the media continues to report kids are having sex at younger and younger ages, it appears this show reinforces that message. It also is very, very close to being misogynistic, without any concern — or perhaps even more troubling — any realization by its producer's of this glaring flaw.

Look, I'm very progressive for my age (54) and hold a very sex-positive philosophy about life. But, I think teens having sex at young ages should not be portrayed in a cavalier fashion, or accepted as the new norm. Kids need to have significant, non-judgmental guidance (gasp!) before they take this big step. If they can't get it from their parents, then they need to talk to a trained sex educator.

In addition, boys should not be pressured to have sex as young teens, or applauded in seeing teen girls as only and totally as their next lay!

I also remain quite horrified at how girls, young women and women are depicted in TV and films. The intense focus on surface beauty, and overt, increasing pressure for women to be thinner and thinner (or get costmetic surgery — even when they're teens!) for the sole purpose that they can be sexually appealing to males is disgusting. Teen girls should be encouraged to explore who they are and what they want out of life, as should boys.

Sex is one of the best gifts of being alive. Every person, of either gender, should make the most of it provided they are emotionally and physically prepared, and both parties consent in expressing themselves in this way. No person, of any age, should be pressured or judged by their choice to have, or to not have sex.

Teen years are about a lot more than just having sex and fitting into skinny jeans. Sadly for me, this show is shallow, as it trivializes and demeans teens of both genders and generally cheapens life's potential.

Without apology, “Skins” presents an alternate world where oversexed kids get high and get laid, where school is an accessory to their fabulous nightlife, and all the grown-ups are blathering idiots who have no idea.

The ringleader of this small circle of hormone-infused yoots is Tony (James Newman), a callow and handsome stud in the tradition of Chuck Bass on “Gossip Girl” and Sebastian in “Cruel Intentions.” His main squeeze, Michelle (Rachel Thevenard), is brilliant and desirable and well aware that she’s both.

They keep company with an ethnically diverse crowd of party hounds, including a crazy girl who takes pills so often she can sleep off a hangover, a mouth-breathing porn addict who is the show’s token virgin, and a Muslim boy who is a very, very bad Muslim.

The first episode is spent, perhaps inevitably, trying to get the virgin laid. Also, Tony auditions for the choir at the Edith Damp all-girls school (and there are more double entendres where that came from). There he is ogled by about 400 sets of eyes.

Bryan Elsley, who created “Skins” with his son Jamie Brittain, is writing the American version with help from “real teens” (so says MTV), and these moments of authenticity are all that separate the unreal teens of this show from the adults, who are mostly caricatures of adults.

Because I have never seen the original UK show, I am reprinting a great column by Latoya Peterson from today's UK Guardian. Read it below, or directly at the newspaper's website.

MTV's US remake lobotomised Skins

Themes of class politics and societal status that set Skins apart are sadly – but not surprisingly – lacking in MTV's US remake

MTV Skins premiered this week in the US. [Note: Above photograph courtesy of MTV]

By Latoya Peterson

Drugs, drinking and debauchery are receiving a new spin, thanks to MTV's remake of the popular British teen drama Skins. While MTV's reboot feels like a paint-by-numbers remake, there is one key element missing: the honest discussion of class and societal status.

MTV is known for highlighting teen extremes – shows like Jersey Shore and Teen Mom brush shoulders with explorations of wealthier lives, like The Hills, My Super Sweet 16 and Cribs. The super-rich are considered a breed apart – but everyone else falls into the "middle class".

Class is a difficult topic to bridge, particularly in a nation like the US – a country built on promise, mobility and the American Dream, attainable through hard work and struggle. The idea that one's social status may be determined not by hard work but by circumstances of birth and a few lucky breaks is almost untenable to American viewers. To this end, it is remarkable that Skins was imported over from England at all: class issues inform a lot of the characters' background and perception, which is difficult to translate for American audiences.

The excessive use of profanity, often coded as lower-class speech is highly present in the pilot, when Tony's father goes off at him about the stereo. The US version is censored, and his father is remarkably cooler, channelling anger at the action, but not the child (at least, until Tony locks him out of the bathroom).

"Common" is used as an insult, clearly understood in the context of south England – in the US version, the characters have to make a comment about "their kind of people" to distinguish class differences and provide a reason for them to feel uncomfortable at rich-girl Tabitha's party. Back in the UK, the focus is on showing, not telling: Sid hesitates at the door after he is admonished to take off his shoes – the camera reveals mismatched socks with a gaping hole in the toe. The teen's obvious discomfort belies a discomfort familiar to anyone attempting to mute their class background – but the American version doesn't bother with this.

Noting that American society has barely even developed the language to discuss class, the Media Education Foundation's illuminating 2005 documentary, Class Dismissed: How TV Frames the Working Class, focused on three main ways to measure class in an increasingly fluid society:

— Economic class: income and accumulated wealth
— Political class: the power to influence the public and political process
— Cultural class: education, taste, lifestyle

Stateside, any conversations about class focus specifically on income, and occasionally into wealth. The idea of cultural class, while mined often for jokes at the expense of those who do not conform, is not often bridged. But the devil is in the details in Skins: while Tony gets a tongue-lashing from the French teacher at a posh girl's school for being crass, it's the smaller moments of interaction that count. The teens' quiet imitation of their wealthier peers, and their somewhat panicky state about doing or saying the wrong thing, set a different tone to the British party crash. While much of the behaviour in the US version can be considered run-of-the-mill rudeness, the infusion of class-based discomfort offers the UK version a surprising amount of depth.

The MTV remake flirted with greatness: originally, Skins was supposed to be set and shot in the city of Baltimore, Maryland. A hotbed of post-industrial decline, the city would have been a heady choice – the city boasts white working-class enclaves as well as black working-class neighbourhoods and hundreds of different ethnic and racial territories bracketed by the wealthier Baltimore County. Originally, producers eyed Baltimore's diversity as a reason to shoot the series; the gritty urban landscape would have allowed Skins' treatment of class issues to shine.

Alas, the show is set an unnamed Eastern seaboard town; after the producers pulled out of Baltimore, they elected to film in Toronto, which stands in for all types of cities in television. If Skins had been set in Baltimore, it would have inherited a long tradition of quirky snapshots of American life. It would have had the space to grow into a series that wasn't afraid to tangle with the bleakness of life of those with more experience scoring drugs than competing for test scores. But instead, Skins was completely lobotomised: Tony lost his trademark bedspread, his father lost his profanity, American viewers lost Maxxie, and teenagers found their shot at a realistic view of class politics left on the cutting room floor.

Viewer's shouldn't be surprised: while Skins is supposed to present a raw view of the teen experience, class, like nudity, is considered too risqué for MTV.

[Note: Latoya Peterson is the editrix of, a site that explores the intersection of race and pop culture. She writes for Bitch Magazine, The American Prospect, and Cerise when she isn't trying to make the most of her Gamefly membership.]

— The Curator

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