I just finished watching the first episode of Series 5 of the popular British show, Skins. Followers of this poorly updated blog, know my affinity for good (and not so good) teen drama.
This first episode titled “Franky” reminded me again of what a great, pretty accurate and I would argue—feminist show Skins can be.
By now everyone has heard of MTV’s controversial USA remake of Skins, which with only airing 2 episodes has had multiple ads pulled, possibly broke child pornography laws and inspired an SNL skit this week.
The US version has also got feminists talking, such as Mia Fontaine’s article “Sex and Sexism and Skins" on the Ms. Magazine blog. Fontaine argues that the show is "glaringly sexist." (Note: If you haven’t watched Skins, there will be spoilers ahead)
Fontaine, specifically looks at the MTV version of the show, as any viewer of the British version probably expected it to be complete shit. And Fontaine’s observations of the US version, are correct. Watching the first episode of MTV’s version felt like a watered down knockoff. While the show doesn’t shy away from sex, drug use and drinking—the MTV version plays up the shock value, not necessarily as a part of the narrative or representation of these teens lives. While not all of our adolescent experiences were as booze soaked or sex-filled, I think that in some senses this is probably more representative of actual teenage life than more sanitized teen shows I grew up with like Saved by the Bell.
Fontaine also brings up Tony’s treatment of his girlfriend, Michelle, specifically the nickname he uses for her “nips.” Tony calls Michelle this because he says that her nipples are funny looking. While I completely agree with Fontaine that Tony’s treatment of Michelle is emotionally abusive, I think it is unfair when she critiques MTV’s description of Michelle as clever: “Note to self: MTV defines clever as someone who sleeps with a partner who continuously degrades her.” At least in my experience, when I was 16/17 I didn’t necessarily have the confidence to end cruel comments from boyfriends. And if abuse is happening, it can be hard or scary to break those patterns. In that respect, I think that Michelle is (and unfortunately so) representative of a lot of teenage girls out there who could be in similar situations.
Whether or not the US version takes the same trajectory as the British version, Tony’s insufferable and awful behavior does come with SEVERE consequences as the first series goes on. But I feel like the British version’s female characters are dynamic and fully realized—the MTV version has only aired 2 episodes, and I haven’t watched the second episode “Tea,” I don’t know if they will have these same kind of characters.
For example, in series 1-2, I loved Jal. She was smart, focused and didn’t take any shit. When Jal gets pregnant, she weighs her options and deals with it in a realistic and smart manner. In series 3-4, the relationship between Naomi and Emily, was at times really messed up, but always felt real. Especially for them both coming out to their families about their relationship. And even after just watching this first episode of series 5, I am rooting for Franky, who is already an interesting, different and strong female character. When the “it girls” are terribly to Franky, instead of just hiding or taking their shit, she stands up for herself against them. But Skins always has, for me, given non-cookie cutter representations of teen girls ranging from the physical aspects to their unique personalities. And if this had aired when I was 16/17, I would have really appreciated all these different girls being represented, who I could actually relate to unlike Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield.
I also always felt like when sex was on the British version, it showed these teen girls wanted to have sex just as much as their male counterparts, and a lot of the time they were the ones initiating it. Showing teen girls as agents of their own sexuality—and enjoying it, is a pretty subversive and radical thing to see represented on TV.
Personally, I hope that people don’t write off Skins after watching the MTV version. I think it is (well, the British version) truly an excellent and genuine show and a fairly accurate portrayal of teen life in general, being a teen girl and has continued to be subversive.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons