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Getting Under Your ‘Skins’

Posted on Feb 9, 2011

By Ruth Marcus

American parents owe a debt of gratitude to the upstanding corporate citizens at Viacom’s MTV for their series of public service announcements illustrating the dangers of illegal drugs, excessive drinking and casual sex. Otherwise known as “Skins,” the cable channel’s remake of a British series about a group of teenagers engaging in all the above.

The show’s title, as David Carr of The New York Times described it, “derives from the rolling papers that are used to make the blunts that go with the vodka that washes down the pills that accompany the hookups.”

“Dora the Explorer” this is not.

The Parents Television Council has warned parents against “Skins,” denouncing it as “the most dangerous program that has ever been foisted on your children.”

Because the show features actual teenaged actors (as young as 15), instead of adults playing teenagers, and because it has some sexually explicit scenes and nudity (in the third episode, a 17-year-old actor is shown from the back running naked down the street), the council has asked the Justice Department to investigate whether it violates child pornography laws. In the wake of the controversy, Taco Bell, General Motors, Subway and Foot Locker pulled their advertising.


Square, Site wide

As a mother of two teenagers, I share the Parents Television Council’s worry about the insidious, defining-deviancy-down impact of popular culture. In the Age of Snooki, bad behavior becomes a relative thing.

Middle-school girls casually performing oral sex on middle-school boys is no urban myth—it’s a scary suburban reality. What passes for dancing is closer to simulated sex, in which one partner grinds against the other; at South Burlington High School in Vermont last month, the Winter Ball was canceled in part due to slow ticket sales caused by a ban on “grinding.” If high school kids aren’t drinking at parties, they come to parties already drunk.

And I’m under no illusions about the purity of MTV’s motives in pushing “Skins.” The network runs “Skins” at 10, brands it with a TV-MA rating, meaning it is not suitable for viewers under 17, and asserts that the show is “specifically designed to be viewed by adults.”

If you think that’s a stop sign rather than an enticement, you either don’t have a teenager or have never been one. If you think MTV doesn’t know this, you’ve been rolling some skins yourself. “What ‘Skins’ delivers is kids,” the series creator told AdWeek. “That’s what it delivers to advertisers.” Indeed. According to the Nielsen Co., 1.2 million of the premiere episode’s 3 million viewers were under 18.

This demographic matters. “Young adults 15-17 are excited consumers and extremely impressionable,” MTV tells advertisers. “Now is the time to influence their choices.”

Which is why I find myself, quite unexpectedly, in the pro-“Skins” camp after enduring four unpleasant weeks of watching. Or at least not storming the Viacom corporate headquarters with the Parents Television Council. The show is more lurid and explicit—much more—than its teens-gone-wild competitors. But the lives of teens on a show such as CW’s “Gossip Girl” seem glamorous and exciting; the series portrays the “scandalous lives of Manhattan’s elite,” as the anonymous narrator says at the start of every episode.

By contrast, the kids on “Skins” seem sad, lonely and disturbed, each in his or her own distinctively troubled way. Cadie is a strung-out pill-popper with a stable of inept, pill-dispensing shrinks and parents who are too self-absorbed to pay her much attention beyond suggesting that she take her meds. Chris is a strung-out pill-popper—he’s taken an excess of Erectagra—whose mother abandons him with a scrawled note and $1,000 in cash in an envelope. 

They manage to make sex seem like a dreary, transactional chore—a sex-for-pills exchange is arranged to engineer a loss of virginity—and drugs and alcohol seem like, well, drugs and alcohol, unpleasantly disorienting and prone to induce vomiting.

The parents are either checked-out or margarita-mixing enablers—enough to make your children appreciate you. In theory, anyway. There is nothing in the lives of these characters that teenagers want to emulate—or, if they do, they are already in a heap of trouble.

“Everyone’s going to disappoint you, Cadie,” her one competent psychiatrist says. “They won’t mean to, but they will. Drugs won’t change this.”

For the most dangerous television show ever, that is not a bad message to take away. My soon-to-be-16-year-old pronounced “Skins” boring after one viewing, but I might ask her to endure some more.

Ruth Marcus’ e-mail address is marcusr(at symbol)

© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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Gulam's avatar

By Gulam, February 12, 2011 at 5:55 pm Link to this comment

Children from poor families in the village often come to my study in the
afternoon after school, and a little boy with a bmi of 15 is playing SuperMario
right now on an old laptop. Two little girls were here yesterday, and at one
point the singer they were singing along with was crying “you make me cum,
and cum, and cum.” A little later a song made reference to a “circle jerk.” We are
not in America, but that was the home of the music videos they watch. There
really are no limits to vulgarity, explicit sexuality, or religious blasphemy in
Americans share with the world at the present time.

In antiquity things developed through a similar cycle with tribes growing into
nations and nations into empires.  Empires became more and more materialistic
over time, basing their power on trade, conquest, and slavery. Over time
women became more and more involved in public affairs. The decadence and
corruption always grew until finally the empire was conquered by “barbarians”
from the desert, who came in, reset the clock, and began again with patriarchal
discipline and strict rules. T. E. Lawrence described this cycle in the Middle East
as “wave breaking on the coasts of flesh.”

America will roll on with its tailgate party and continue to gobble hydrocarbons
and spew filth of every imaginable sort until their crash comes, either military
or economic or both. It is just plain silly to think they are going to vote
themselves back to reality when control of the media is in so few hands. After
the crash everything will abruptly change, for the military will take charge, and
their officers are largely Christian fundamentalists. I think that we can fairly
predict that this orgy of vulgarity that Americans now endure will not last
forever, and the more extreme it is now the more extreme will be the
puritanical backlash to come. Bill Maher alone has raised the intensity level to
come by a measurable amount.

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James M. Martin's avatar

By James M. Martin, February 11, 2011 at 7:03 pm Link to this comment

You write: “In the Age of Snooki, bad behavior becomes a relative thing.” Snooki aside, behavior can only be bad or good in the eyes of the individual perceiver: remember Hamlet saying “Nothing’s bad nor good but thinking makes it so.”  The problem with religious, as adverse to free-thought morality is that its rules are set in stone; in the case of Judeo-Christian morality up to 6,000 or so years ago.  Not only do times change, situations arise/Because of the weather.  Situations arise because of the latter. (With apologies to Lou Reed.)

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By TDoff, February 11, 2011 at 5:02 pm Link to this comment

Wow! ‘Illegal drugs, excessive drinking, and casual sex’. Those could all be problems. Which is why it’s a good idea to show and talk about them. But here in the good old US of A, we have more serious problems. Such as illegal laws, excessive greed, and casual hypocrisy. How about a show that reveals adults in politics, business, religion, as they really are? Can’t do it! Why? Because the vast majority of the ‘powers-that-be’, who buy and own the politicians, who own and control the businesses and banks, and the pious pompousities who run the religions and pretend to know ‘god’, are, for the most part, hypocritical fakers, for whom truth is anathema and money is ‘god’. And they control the media, by owning it directly, and by owning those who advertise. So they control most of what the uncritical, ill-schooled US public sees, ‘knows’, and ‘thinks’.

‘Skins’ could not possibly be as negative an influence on our promising, bright children as their day-to-day observance of American life, especially as they grow and learn that much of what they are, and have been, ‘taught’ in school, is untrue. And it is our promising, bright children we should care most about.

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By dlg, February 11, 2011 at 1:59 pm Link to this comment

I think that most people miss the point about why these teen shows, or any other
TV shows, for that matter, are so popular. It’s because the actors are all thin,
beautiful, and fashionable. It doesn’t matter that the characters are “sad, lonely,
and disturbed,” and that they have nothing “that teenagers want to emulate.” No
way do these people resemble real strung-out, wasted, drug addicts. They all have
fit bodies, perfect skin, styled hair, professionally-applied makeup (with maybe a
little shadow under the eyes to get that Hollywood strung-out look), and designer
clothing. Who cares about the plot or the message? The look is what counts. Who
wouldn’t want to emulate that?

I haven’t seen the British version of this show, but perhaps it is more successful
because the British do seem to utilize talented actors that are less pretty.

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BR549's avatar

By BR549, February 11, 2011 at 11:43 am Link to this comment

The rolling papers and the vodka are merely signposts along someone’s personal trip to oblivion. Marijuana is no more the problem than the vodka is.
“HELL, 100 miles ahead.”

As long as the person still chooses to drive in the same direction, what good does it do to tear down the signs and think that it will in any way alter the path of the car?
“HELL, 50 miles ahead.”

It’s the driver of the vehicle that has to say to themself, “Hey, I don’t want to go here anymore,” before any significant change will occur, and that starts with proper parenting, feeling connected to one’s family and the community, etc., and having the sense that one’s government is providing its citizens with that necessary connection to a larger whole. Right now, Washington’s moral compass is pointing straight down the toilet and anyone with half a hope of becoming a contributing citizen to this culture is left with the sickening reality that they’re adrift on an open sea. So, when we look at all of the symptoms of our sick culture, who do the people in charge, who have supposedly had their finger on the pulse of the problem, decide to blame? YOU, or at least point the finger in any direction that doesn’t include themselves. Instead of seeing a troubled population as the symptom of a troubled government, they have decided to call it a disease and think that removing the offensive blemish will somehow fix what caused it.
“HELL, next exit.”

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By Rook, February 10, 2011 at 11:14 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I would venture to say that the uproar here is about the kids watching the show, backed by the stats that almost 1/2 are, by Nielsen.

But flip the coin over.

The PARENTS are the ones that need to be watching this.  Television is not just a teaching device for children, those children grow up knowing that they can learn from television.  Thus, you have a generation of adults raising kids now who are so unplugged from their children’s lives… but are certainly not missing their Lost, Survivor, or whatever is the latest and greatest “reality” show.

Can this show finally bridge the gap, speak FOR our teens to their parents, make them SEE and UNDERSTAND what their lives are like today?  That is the promise that this show is striving for.  Maybe MTV is serious about the warnings and the timeslot, maybe they are pushing this controversy to GET parents watching it out of concern.

They need to.  Slap some American parents (and yes, I am one) to take their noses out of their Blackberries and iPads and 7am-to-10pm corporate rat races to pay attention to the starving psychological lives that they have brought into this world!

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By tony_opmoc, February 10, 2011 at 8:37 pm Link to this comment

Tonight my wife and I have been out to the theatre to see a brilliant live performance with our friends - and to the pub afterwards which was great fun…

We came back to watch the latest episode of Skins broadcast on E4 whilst we were out…

Over the last few weeks we have seen quite a large number of films one of which is just so completely awesome it is in a league of its own.

Skins has been in a league of its own since it started 4-5 years ago

The closest competitor in sheer drama and originality was the first series of Shameless 7-8 years ago

I honestly don’t think Americans can do this kind of stuff - or even (most) appreciate it.

Its a culture thing.

The British can lay down completely exposed and naked and project their entire heart and soul hiding nothing.

The audience gets warts and all without any deception, and the audience recognises the real human beauty expressed within themselves and the emotion just flows.

Trying to explain this to people is exceedingly difficult unless they have personally experienced it.


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By jltnol, February 10, 2011 at 12:38 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)


I doubt MTV’s version could be any better than the original… probably just
more copycat bad tv,

and why is it that the USA is so hung up on SEX?

Yesterday another US Congressmen had to resign because of it.(not that he
shouldn’t have resigned….) but really folks… can’t we take a cue from the rest
of the civilized world and just Get Over It?

As I’ve said countless times, the notion that on the eve of one’s 17th birthday,
one is totally not prepared to have sex, and then with a good nights’ sleep,
some cake and a present, is ready to procreate is just insane.

(and I agree with the previous poster.. if you can’t manage and educate your
kids, you shouldn’t have them in the first place!)

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By tony_opmoc, February 10, 2011 at 9:59 am Link to this comment

My teenage kids introduced me to the UK version of Skins about 3 years ago. I have not seen the US version.

Skins is so good, that I bought the first two series on DVD as I had missed most of them.

Despite the fact that it is a teenage drama, I think it is by far the best thing on TV. It is completely original, and all the stories get right under the psychological and emotional skin the teenage actor is portraying. Its honesty is shocking and compelling because it portrays teenage life they way it really is. If you don’t want to see a dramatised version of the truth then don’t watch it.

As regards to the American version, at least they are using real teenage actors to play teenagers.

There is nothing worse than to see even a good US drama featuring teenagers being played by actors in their late 20’s.

Teenagers actually look like Children Slowly Becoming Adults, because they are Children Slowly Becoming Adults.

Very few Actors can successfully get away with playing a part of a 17 year old when they re 10 years older, and attempts to do so corrupt the very innocence they are portraying.

Some of the protest movements in America with regards to what appears on TV are totally weird. Its as if these parents were never teenagers themselves.

In my experience of my own teenage children and their friends, teenagers today in general show a much higher degree of personal responsibility, love and friendship towards each other than do most of their parents.

Today, the behaviour of many parents is completely atrocious to their Children. The result is that their Children find love and family within their own peer group of friends - because they receive none from their own parents.

Teenagers actually give the World some hope for the future, because of their own standards of morality sadly lacking from their selfish parents.


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By Everest Mokaeff, February 10, 2011 at 5:11 am Link to this comment

I watched it until recently and found not very interesting even for adults. Though first season was fresh then it came downhill. My complaints have nothing to do with high morals. When people start talking about the de facto censorship on the grounds that they dislike something or find it highly appalling I have to say no to such proponents. Television is not supposed to educate your kids. You are. If you can’t do it may be you should not have them in the first place.

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