Matt Wolfson, stop hating on Skins!
In last week’s issue of TSL, Matt Wolfson argued that the new MTV series Skins is a work of fantasy escapism that portrays an unrealistic world to susceptible teens. The show, in his estimation, is devoid of the institutional rules or “everyday polite relationships” that, in reality, should shape how we behave and interact with others.
Aw, the poor teens. They’re going to do sex and drugs forever. They’re not going to know how to grow up. They think the world is exactly like TV—isn’t it so sad?
Stop. Reality check. Besides the fact that I think kids are pretty good—not amazing, but pretty good—at differentiating between what occurs on a screen and what goes on in real life, the show itself is not all that bad. Instead of parading an unrealistic fantasy-land, I think Skins addresses real issues that 16-year-olds run up against when dealing with Wolfson’s beloved institutions.
I will cede that the American version of the show has a little less of the charm and grit of the BBC’s, and that the pilot episode is way more about shock value than exploring real issues. But as the series progresses, the subject matter becomes more significant: each episode centers on one character, delving into the personal background which forms the behavior that seemed so reckless.
In the fourth episode of MTV’s Skins—the only I was able to find on the website and thus the only one I’ve had a chance to watch—the audience sees Cadie struggle through her anxiety issues, battling depressive and obsessive thoughts. We watch her try to interact with her parents, both reduced to caricatures: the mom is an aging beauty queen who struts around the house in a bikini and asks Cadie to feel her ribs; the dad is a passionate taxidermist (uh… yep). Neither parent shows the slightest interest in hearing about her therapy sessions, also led by cartoonish individuals who have no idea how to connect with Cadie (one of them bizarrely confesses that her vagina “has the look and feel of turkey jerky”—way to relate!).
Wolfson argues that Skins renders social arrangements and institutions irrelevant by portraying them as meaningless or absent. I counter that Skins portrays these institutions as very relevant, but reminds us that they’re not always as stable or decent as Wolfson would like to believe. Yes, a lot of the adults in Skins are pathetic caricatures, but they only demonstrate exaggerated versions of the ways adults often really do let kids down through irresponsibility or misinterpretation.
Skins’ authority figures are simply terrible guides. Cadie’s father only reluctantly agrees to bring her on his hunting trip after she insists several times that her therapist told her to spend more time with him. In Skins and in real-life American culture, sometimes institutions forget about the importance and complexity of kids, not the other way around. Cadie gets no guidance from her parents and instructions from her therapists to take more pills. The choices she makes—dealing with feelings of disappointment and depression by slipping into a drug-addled haze—should come as no surprise.
Sex and drugs aren’t, as Wolfson insists, chimerical for many teenagers. And when sex and drugs become problems (read: abused), these problems can’t always be alleviated by blindly following institutional rules. In fact, it’s more likely that surrounding institutions and adults were main contributors to the problem. Skins puts these institutional failings on extreme display, perhaps hyperbolizing the issue, but in a surprisingly accurate way.
Skins shows us the bright side, too. In the same episode, Cadie encounters a therapist who brushes off her lies and excuses, puts aside the psychiatric assessment papers, and speaks to her directly: “Everyone’s going to disappoint you, Cadie. They won’t mean to, but they will. The drugs won’t change that.” Cadie is visibly moved by this and tries not to take drugs, abstaining from them at a party where all her friends are using… until a supposed chaperone makes a sexual advance, triggering her drug use once again.
The Skins kids, like all kids, are faced at every turn with a variety of influences—institutional, peer, social, parental, chemical. They have to work by themselves, either rejecting or succumbing to these pressures as best they can, in order to form their own methods of navigating the world.
Teenagers experiment. Sometimes things go super wrong, like when Chris’s mother (this is the BBC’s version, now) goes MIA and leaves $5,000 on the table, and Chris blows it all in one night on pills instead of going to look for her. But sometimes things go super right, like when Jal’s family is unsupportive of her interest in music, but she keeps practicing with the help of her music instructor and enters a national competition. As for MTV’s version, Cadie clearly hasn’t figured it all out by the end of the fourth episode, but we hope that she’s trying.
If MTV chooses to stay somewhat along the lines of the original series, I promise Wolfson that those impressionable young viewers will get to see at least somewhat realistic characters dealing with institutions that are “good,” “bad,” and everything in between. Let’s trust those viewers—like the Skins kids—to take that information and then figure out for themselves how to live their lives.