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Skins: realistic…or tragic?



The Parents Television Council receives many e-mails each day. Most are supportive of our efforts to encourage responsible behavior by the entertainment industry and protect children from violence, sex, and foul language on television. A smaller proportion expresses vehement disagreement with our principles, often employing multiple tedious and profane expletives in doing so. But few letters have been as poignant as one which the PTC recently received:


Dear Editor,


I am a British teen living in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. I came across the aforementioned article [TV Trends review of BBC America’s program Skins] this morning, and began reading with some alacrity. Today's generation of teenagers drink, smoke, take drugs and have sex. They did this before Skins came along, and they will continue to do so long after the programme has finished…Skins does not glorify or promote drug use or irreponsible sexual practices in any way; it merely portrays them in a realistic manner. Though this may not resonate with American audiences, here in England we can definitely identify with the characters and the decisions that they make. This is what makes the programme so popular; its believeability. Simply because Skins is not believeable and not as easily accessible to an American audience is no reason to criticise the programme. You don't understand it: We do. It was made in Britain, for British teenagers. It uses our slang, our culture: it incorporates our fears and our hopes. What seems farfetched and unrealistic to you, is real and true-to-life for us. We all know a Sid or a Tony; this makes the programme work.


One may reasonably question the assertion that Skins’ portrayal of teenage life in Britain is entirely accurate. Do most teens, even in Britain, really say to their parents, “You’re f******* useless, aren't you? You sodding idiot. You stupid bastard! You f****** stupid bastard!”? Do they call one another “f****** flat-chested, c***-sucking spastic horse –f*****,” or smuggle drugs in their anal cavities? Do British art teachers really tell their students, “I was modeling in the morning, stroking him to thrilling climax in the afternoon. Enid, he said, you will never be an artist, but your breasts are tremendous,” or “Do your f****** homework or you’re f*****”?  And while it is doubtless true that many British (and American) teens do in fact use drugs and have sex, it is equally true that many do not.


Many scientific studies have shown that what teens watch on television does influence their behavior and their perception of the world around them. This sobering fact should be of concern to parents, and motivate them to monitor the media their children are consuming and limit it if necessary. It should also, of course, cause the creators and producers of such entertainment to deemphasize violence, sex, and drug use on their programs. The entertainment industry never tires of patting itself on the back when its promotion of causes like “green” energy use or awareness of global warming cause viewers to change their behavior. In those cases, the industry applauds itself for inspiring its audience members to act more responsibly. Yet when it comes to sex – an area which science has shown inspires negative and dangerous behavior among teens – TV programmers wash their hands of their responsibility, shrug, and say “It’s just a TV show.”    


Thus, both the strict factual accuracy of Skins (and such American teen-targeted soap operas as Gossip Girl and 90210) and the supposed lack of harm caused by such programs may be questioned. But what cannot be questioned is the obvious and deeply-felt emotional connection that the writer of the above letter, and many other teens, feel with Skins; a connection echoed by that of many American teens towards shows like Gossip Girl.


Thus, the “accuracy” or lack thereof displayed by such programs is in one sense beside the point. The point – illustrated so well by the above letter’s writer – is that many teenagers believe that these programs are accurate…and even more, that such programs mirror the inner feelings that many teens have about life. But while it is true that adolescence is often characterized by feelings of unhappiness, the portrait of teenage life painted by Skins is uniformly depressing and grim.  


To some extent, this emphasis on gloom is merely reflective of a major difference between British and American culture. Americans are more aspirational, more concerned with material possessions and progress, and generally more hopeful than their British cousins. To most Americans, “the good life” would mean having the security, the increased possessions and the freedom that more money would bring; but few imagine that other parts of their lives would change much otherwise. By contrast, while many Britons undoubtedly would enjoy having more money, there is an indefinable something in the British psyche which appears to say that merely having more money still would not wholly satisfy.


For example, during the 1980s, Americans were enamored of prime-time soap operas like Dallas and Dynasty, which featured ultra-wealthy individuals. In each episode, cameras focused lovingly on the opulent cars, clothing, houses and possessions of the lead characters. This tendency carries over to today’s soaps for teens; Gossip Girl‘s female fans enthusiastically follow the fashions portrayed on the show, as revealed by Bloomingdale’s fashion director Stephanie Solomon, who claims that Gossip Girl “may well be the biggest [fashion] influence in the youth culture market." In Gossip Girl‘s world, teens wear the most expensive clothing, and are ferried to their sex-and-drug orgies in chauffeur-driven limousines.


By contrast, iconic British nighttime soaps like Coronation Street and EastEnders have always focused on the travails of working-class individuals. It is almost as if Americans optimistically fantasize about how much better their lives could be, while Britons prefer to watch those less fortunate and say, “At least I’m not as bad off as that lot.”


Yet even given this cultural tendency, the doom-laden perspective of Skins is depressing in the extreme. Nothing ever goes well for the teens on Skins: after Sid finally has a heart-to-heart talk with and comes to understand and admire his father, the father immediately dies. Tony is hit by a bus and becomes mentally impaired. Chris dies of a brain hemorrhage, while his girlfriend Jal aborts their baby. While nobody’s life is perfect and many teens are often unhappy, few real lives are as unremittingly bleak as those shown on Skins


And that, above all, is the real tragedy of Skins. While its anti-family attitudes, its mind-numbing emphasis on sex, its constant portrayal of drug use, and its unending profanity may negatively influence the actions and worldview of teenage viewers, it is the atmosphere of hopelessness pervading the program which makes Skins so dangerous…and so sad.


Adolescence is a difficult time, bringing with it tremendous challenges – physical, mental, and emotional changes; pressure to succeed in school and choose a life path; finding and keeping friends and learning about social interaction; and perhaps most of all, discovering oneself and one’s own goals and desires. More than at any other time in their lives, teenagers need hope – hope that they can succeed, that they can be happy, that their lives will turn out all right.  With its unrealistically downbeat portrayal of life, Skins robs teens of the hope they so desperately need…and by convincing them that its portrayal is “realistic,” it can encourage them to despair.



TV Trends: This column was compiled from reports by the Parents Television Council’s Analysis staff.


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