Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Why MTV Skins Resonates with Teens

MTV's Skins Resonates with Teens
But is the Real Reason Deeper than We See?
by Brian Housman

By now you've heard the uproar from parent groups protesting (and rightly so) the new MTV scripted hit teen drama, Skins. The show certainly hits all the right buttons to cause anxiety in even the hippest of parents. These are the same parents, myself included, who grew up under the theatrical tutelage of film maker John Hughes. We
didn't freak out over Anthony Michael Hall getting high in detention (Breakfast Club), Molly Ringwald going to a drunken party (Pretty in Pink) or Eric Stoltz blowing his college savings for a date (Some Kind of Wonderful).

As a matter in fact, we heralded Hughes as a genius who understood us as teenagers. Whether we were the jock, the nerd, the misfit or the invisible kid at school, finally someone was able to put into words how we all felt.

Now I'm hearing the same argument for Skins. Teens describe it as "nothing more than this generation's teen movie." Show creator Brian Elsley practically called it innocent. "Skins is a very simple and in fact rather old fashioned television series. It's about the lives and loves of teenagers, how they get through high school, how they deal with their friends, and also how they circumnavigate some of the complications of sex, relationships, educations, parents, drugs and alcohol," stated Elsley.

The writers of Skins, several purported to be nineteen-year-olds themselves, know teenagers and are able to put words to many of their struggles. Even so that doesn't excuse the rest of the show's content. The overt drug usage, blatant disregard for authority and unhealthy sexual relationships are not the proverbial fly in the ointment. They are the ointment. One can not simply gloss over the content because of the beneficial insights into teen culture.

So is Skins as innocent as Elsley makes it out to be? And even if it's not, is there anything we can learn from it?

Pushing the Limits

With its display of marijuana smoking, pharmaceutical drug usage and excessive drunkenness and sexuality, Skins shows teenagers in situations living without any sense of boundaries. To say there are no limits to their activities is not far from reality. Besides the teen lesbian kissing and discussions of sexual partners, the real "pushing the envelope" part of the show is this is the first US show to show teens in these types of situations in which the actors themselves are teens. The voyeuristic and jumpy camera angles give the show a reality show feel making it appear even more lifelike.

Case in point is episode 3. The episode focuses on Chris as he discovers his mother is out of town for a few days. She leaves him an envelope with a thousand dollars and a note telling him not to get into trouble. He uses the money to buy black market Viagra and other drugs then throws a party to end all parties with the rest of the money. He has an adverse reaction to the drugs that leads to an extended erection that is visible to all throughout the episode. When everyone is gone the next day he gets locked out of his house while naked and proceeds to walk down the street with his backside exposed to the camera (remember the actor is a minor).

While cleaning up his house from the party (and getting clothes from a friend), Chris discovers that his mother isn't gone for a few days. She is gone forever and left him alone. At first the thought brings him elation but that quickly gives way to fear, embarrassment and depression.

Understanding the Teen Heart

At a casual glance it's easy to conclude that all of the above activities are what gives the show it's high ratings among teens. But perhaps it's the show's insight into how teenagers attempt to deal with the brokenness of their lives. Don't misunderstand. I find the at-risk teen sexual activity deplorable, and the writer's portrayal of the character's actions as normal and "old-fashioned" inexcusable. Yes, some teenagers do drugs and yes, some teenagers have sex but Skins makes it seem as if this is what all (or even a majority) of teenagers do when no study bares this out.

With its flawed portrayal of teens, Skins still dials in on what is at the heart of teenagers--a need for belonging, purpose, and affirmation. There is a poignant scene when Chris realizes his mother is gone...for good. He is standing in front of his mother's empty wardrobe when he hears his friends coming up the stairs looking for him. He climbs into the wardrobe to hide from his approaching friends as a look of embarrassment and shame sweeps across his face. Shame that maybe he isn't good enough to have a mother love him. Shame that maybe it's him who is broken and not her.

Later, sitting on the ground, Chris describes a memory as a kid when his brother saved him from public humiliation. He had wet his pants while being bullied. His older brother saw him in distress, took him into a public bathroom, and gave Chris his shorts to wear. Chris concludes, "It was the best day of my life," as the camera pans back to see him sitting next to his brother's graveside. The sense of loss and abandonment becomes very concrete.

The episode closes with Chris showing up at his teacher's house. We learn that he is attracted to his teacher but that's not the reason he is there. Instead, Chris is hoping she might be the one adult that could give him stability and structure. The one that would treat him like a real person.

This is the real draw of Skins. Sure the sex, drugs and alcohol are what we see, but its the insight into the fears, failures and dysfunctions of teens that pull them in and says, "I get you."

Moving Beyond the Shock Factor

To compare
Skins to an 80's teen flick is a stretch. Likewise, to call Skins a realistic portrayal of the teen experience is simply irresponsible and belittles the lives of actual teens. But teens need to be understood and heard. And for a long time MTV has attempted to keep a pulse on teen culture. In many regards they have done a better job than we have as parents. What if it were us as parents and responsible adults that did a better job of relating to teens? What if we said, "I get you. I receive you. I hear you." Instead of turning to pop culture to find someone who understands them, they could turn to us. After all, what they so long for is an actual relationship with a real person who values them to begin with.

No comments: