MTV, proud producer of Jersey Shore, is making waves with its new hit show Skins. Two weeks ago, the media watchdog Parents Television Council pronounced that the wildly popular series was “the most dangerous show for children that we have ever seen.” In response, Skins supporters praised the series for its “frank portrayal” of normal teenage life. Why all the shock, awe, and angst? The New York Times described the show as centering on “the sexual and drug-fueled exploits of misfit teenagers.” Newsweek’s more detailed description of the first episode: “Masturbation. Porn. References to ‘girl-on-girl.’ Parties, vomit, and a whole lot of prescription drugs.” The fact that Skins has provoked such controversy, and has such a healthy viewership, casts light upon American culture circa 2010.
First, it implies that a lot of adults have forgotten what it was like to be in high school, because, unlike what both its supporters and detractors seem to think, the show is not a standard-bearer of gritty realism. It’s actually a prime example of successful escapism: interesting, exciting and bearing no resemblance to adolescents’ everyday existences. The first scenes of Episode 1 pretty much sum up the show’s odd other-worldliness. Tony, the protagonist of the show, wakes up and makes eyes at a voluptuous older woman across the street, who returns the favor. Soon after, he sees his younger sister standing in the road: she is returning from a night of debauchery and needs to get into the house without their parents noticing. Tony cleverly fakes using the bathroom and manages to lock the door from the outside so that his father can’t get in. He then goes downstairs while his father rampages around screaming “I want to take a s—t in my own house!” In the meantime, with the parents distracted, Tony’s sister successfully sneaks into the kitchen. Mission accomplished, Tony glides out of the house and begins texting his numerous contacts to solicit ideas for helping his shy best friend get laid that night. A couple of scenes later, he nonchalantly arrives at class where his psychology teacher Angie—young, blonde and pretty—is sobbing about her relationship troubles while the class laughs. A subplot soon opens up involving Angie’s budding romance with 17-year-old Chris, another of Tony’s high school friends. At one point, a conflicted Angie tells Chris that she really can’t do anything sexual with him because she could lose her job. One gets the sense that Angie hasn’t watched the news recently because she doesn’t seem to recognize that, at the point where she got physically involved with a minor, getting fired would be the least of her problems.
So, to borrow from “Bohemian Rhapsody,” is “Skins” the real life? No, it’s just fantasy. No gritty realism here, just pure escapism. Sex, drugs, and booze—occasional or chimerical for most high school students— are ubiquitous, and there’s a noticeable absence or dismissal of those stable social arrangements and institutions which are actually major presences in our lives, like families, school, and sports teams. All of these are rendered irrelevant by Skins’ insistent barrage of sexual fantasies and illicit activities.
That this type of fantasy is the show of choice for millions of adolescents points to a more disturbing trend. As I’ve mentioned, the Skins world is a weird place. Rules are up for grabs and institutions are meaningless. There are no gradations in the relationships between student and teacher, son and father, and student and student. Everyone is equal, and the only arbiters of existence are bodily desires. On one hand, it makes sense that this type of world would seem attractive to 16-year-olds. When you’re a teenager, you’re enjoying the first tastes of freedom, which makes institutions and everyday polite relationships seem constricting and annoying. But one of the seminal parts of growing up is recognizing that some of the main parts of existence are families, schools, and non-intoxicated interactions. They impose limits—you can’t have sex with your teacher or lie to your parents constantly—but they also give us examples and information that help us live our lives.
Yet Skins doesn’t admit that limits exist or that society is important. Instead, it exacerbates the growing belief that individual wants and desires always trump social norms and mores. In this sense, it purveys a deeply unrealistic view of life to a crowd of people who are most susceptible to believing that such a view of life is possible.
This is a concerning trend not because it makes institutions or regular relationships matter less, but because it makes growing numbers of younger Americans forget how important they actually are. Families, schools, sports teams, and polite society in general give us the values that help us determine how we should act in specific situations, but the characters that Skins portrays exist in a vacuum where these influences remain unseen, both to the viewers and the characters themselves. This leads the show’s characters to act in certain ways without realizing what’s motivating their actions. They party and binge drink and buy weed and hook up and break up, but they never stop to reflect on why they’re making the choices they make. That type of internal disconnectedness is a bad blueprint for 16-year-old viewers. It’s also the product of a society which no longer recognizes how much we depend on stable social arrangements at all levels—from the federal government to the public school system to the local Little League team—to be able to live prosperous and directed lives.