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MTV’s Skins: A Guilty Pleasure or a Pleasure Sans Guilt?

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [hardcore pornography]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.” [U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, concurring opinion, "Jacobellis v. Ohio," 1964]

In one night of teen reverie there was a young homosexual boy who drank a whole bottle of Robitussin and passed out in a closet. There was the 13 year-old girl who, so pumped up with unnamed pills, lost consciousness as she was making out with her new boyfriend. There was the sea of writhing adolescent bodies, exploring their own sexuality on a king-sized mattress in a backroom. And there were the two boys who carved arcane symbols into their arms with a razor blade. This scene was not taken from a movie, or a depraved TV show even; this was taken from real life – my life. I share this little bit of dark decadence and vice to illustrate that teens (not all) often get into all sorts of trouble and immorality without anything more than their own ingenuity and curiosity.

A new, or shall I say imported from the UK and realized for American audiences, TV show titled “Skins” depicting brazen teen sexuality and abandon has predictably caused a great deal of debate and concern among parents and advertisers alike. The show, which in its original form, showed British teens doing all of those things parents don’t really want to think about, like sex, drugs, petty theft, and generally indulgent and bad behavior. The remake is relatively faithful to the original, only that it utilizes a cast of American actors in an unnamed American city (actually it is Toronto, Canada) and engaging in all of the same behaviors, but with a little less emphasis on the explicit. The show, which first aired on MTV (the same network that brought you “Jersey Shore” and “Teen Mom”) earlier this month, has gotten relatively favorable reviews from the press, but quite rabid and disapproving reviews from parental groups like the Parents Television Council, a watchdog group that had blasted the series’ content and condemned MTV for aiming the show at young people, as well as advertisers like Taco Bell and General Motors that chose to pull advertising due to what they deemed as content that was way too racy.

This fairly salacious teenage drama is turning heads, as well as turning off critics, because it shows teen actors in various stages of undress and sexual activity. This has gotten the shows creators in hot water as well as the MTV executives, and charges of child indecency and child pornography are being bandied about. Child pornography is defined by the United States as any visual depiction of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct. In some cases, “a picture of a naked child may constitute illegal child pornography if it is sufficiently sexually suggestive,” according to the Justice Department’s legal guidance. Anyone younger than 18 is considered to be a minor. Under these guidelines, the creative team behind “Skins” (a title that derives from the rolling papers that are used to make the blunts) will likely have some serious last minute edits to perform on upcoming episodes if they expect the series to endure.

But “Skins” is threatening and somewhat revolutionary not only because it depicts a fictional life of teens rife with sex, drugs, and general bad judgment (along with the threat of some child pornography thrown in), but also because none of this transgression is met with much judgment or moral lesson. A more conventional teen show, like “Gossip Girl,” might dally in similar subject matter, but will likely make the characters pay for their indulgence and transgressive behavior. Not so with “Skins.” In the first episode, when a stolen SUV filled with teens in varying states of drug-addled consciousness and being recklessly piloted by an equally unreliable driver, plunges into a river with all aboard, we are not shown fear, remorse, or reprisals. Instead everyone swims to the surface and breaks out in laughter, as if their trampoline broke after too much fun bouncy-bounce. No lessons learned, just laughs and hijinks. This show, like real life and unlike much of the morality-laced TV fare out there, reveals that teens engage in this kind of behavior, not because they are stupid, but because it simply feels good.

“Skins” has a TV-MA rating and MTV has suggested in press releases that the show is “specifically designed to be viewed by adults.” But really, who are they kidding? Whether the show is aimed at teens or whether it endures is irrelevant. The interesting element here is that the show (while hardly worthy of praise) is trying to depict something that more prudent programmers tend to shy away from – teenage abandon and all of the lust and glory that accompany it. I am sure that if the show is allowed to soldier on (the UK version is in its fifth year) there will be all sorts of tragedies and punishments (moral and otherwise) inflicted on these characters, but for now this guilty pleasure portrays a teenage world without repercussions or guilt. In your view, is this necessarily a bad thing? Does TV like this corrupt, or simply shed light on a little immoral part of society? Is it indecent, or even pornography, or is it much ado about nothing?

Read more: Family, Love, Parenting at the Crossroads, Sex, Teens, , , , , , , , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

45 comments

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10:22AM PST on Feb 1, 2011

No one wants to see just how lost our youth has become & how consumed by a corrupt world they have become but the reality is that it is what it is & we have to see it despite all the harsh shows. It is up to us to face it & change things. I don;t like these shows myself but if you did your job as a parent, you should trust your kids to have sense to know that these kids are lost & on a road to failure.

12:46AM PST on Jan 31, 2011

This TV program doesn't interest me, but it's bound to make many parents extremely concerned and nervous about what their teens get up to. I always find it strange that so many successful USA TV programs are copies of the creative ideas that come out of England.

12:13PM PST on Jan 30, 2011

Its a more realistic show than whats out there. I would feel uncomfortable with my child watching it (and i'm only 19) but at the same time parents really should be watching it to prepare themselves for the worst. Oh, and its never hurts to Parent your children!

1:55PM PST on Jan 29, 2011

noted :0

1:49PM PST on Jan 29, 2011

As Dana has stated, "If you don't like the show, change the channel." That is the whole thing about freedom of expression. If you don't like something don't do it. It is not for you to judge what others do unless it is illegal. Premarital sex is against the laws of God, not society.

2:41AM PST on Jan 29, 2011

WTH I put my age 60 & this stupid thing said I was too young to watch, oh well probably not interesting/informative

4:52PM PST on Jan 28, 2011

Watched the show once and didn't approve of these teens' behavior, but then I'm a 51-year old parent of teenagers. However, I do believe the show is a truthful depiction of how many kids really are. If you don't like the show, change the channel.

9:02AM PST on Jan 28, 2011

Parents need to watch they their kids are watching, we do not need to censor the media.

5:26AM PST on Jan 28, 2011

sounds like it needs to be taken off.. this MTV should be taken off along with some others kids are into..

7:20PM PST on Jan 27, 2011

Thanks...never heard of it, never have watched MTV, and never had children.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
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