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Sex, drugs, & rock ’n roll: how "Skins" continues to make for harmful viewing

Jul. 26, 2018
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The year was 2007. In the absence of selfies and Insta vids, we relied on traditional media for the latest in what was cool and influential. As predictably lazy, impressionable and emotionally haphazard teenagers, we witnessed the solar eclipse of era-defining TV that year; we watched the first ever series of Skins.

At a time when the only shows representing the teenage experience were West Coast dramas and midwestern scandals, Skins burst into our lives with a sexy, irreverent gusto. Telling the story of a group of sexually charged teenagers with emotionally unavailable parents, and alcohol, drug, and body image problems, it seemed for the first time in popular TV that no uncomfortable topic was off limits.

The show broke boundaries by showing the underbelly of teenage sex. Going further than the attractive semi-kisses and bed-sheet tousles of perfect twenty-something actors on The O.C., Skins portrayed the realistic side of early sexual encounters. But it also enacted some irrevocable damage to our collective psyche. Let’s start with the show’s glamourization of drink and drug culture.

I remember the feelings I had while watching the party scenes in Skins. Surrounded by friends and the occasional liberal parent, we watched the show on wintery school nights. And whilst we enjoyed watching star-crossed lovers Effie and Cook cavort with each other on dance floors in the midst of popping pills and looking hot with reckless abandon, we had homework to do, and beds to go to not long after. As a result, while Skins was probably the most exciting show we had ever watched, it also made us feel like shit. 

The advanced sexual and hedonistic progression of its young characters made us feel woefully inexperienced by comparison, and we became desperate to become as cool and as ‘grown up’ as they seemed to be. As we know, when young people feel socially inferior to others, they tend to do anything to compensate and fit in. That’s exactly what certain members of our Skins-watching generation did. And it didn’t matter that the characters we were trying to fit in with were imaginary.

As we placed the show high up on the millennial shelf of generation-defining media, we made it both sanctified and dangerous. The idea that Skins was beginning to be seen as the last true example of wildness and expression was especially dangerous for those of us not impartial enough to have taken it for what it was: a well-produced TV drama that catered to a young audience wanting to be shocked and entertained.

When my generation watched the iconic (and best) first season of Skins, we were the same age the characters were supposed to be. As they had their first drug, first sexual encounter, and first mental breakdown, we did too. This made the whole media consumption experience feel authentic, as if a mirror was being held up to our lives—but which way?

Like the Skins characters, we started to go to house parties. Drugs were taken, often for the first time, and the nights sped by like minutes. We were living the Skins life, and we were proud of it. It wasn’t a particularly aspirational lifestyle by today’s standards of clean-living social media celebs and their private jets, but the ‘Skins effect’ provoked a similar response of awe and admiration for our generation. As we stumbled out from these houses, staggering over grassy mounds as the sun came up, we wondered, was Skins imitating life or were we imitating Skins?

But why did we cling so romantically to the ideals of Skins? The hedonism, the casual sex, the mental and emotional issues these behaviors produced in the show’s characters? I don’t think it was because we had a death wish. I think it was because Skins was the mouthpiece of teen attitude in the boring TV landscape that was the early 2000s. A voice of post-punk-era malaise chic, it stuck a middle finger up to the perfect pop divas of MTV. We liked Skins because of the levels of self-degradation it sunk to as it counteracted its prettified Hollywood counterparts elsewhere.

While this made for disruptive viewing at a time when there were no other programs like it, Skins instilled in young people the ideas that happy and healthy were not ideals cool kids sought out. These thoughts plagued and pestered those of us not yet comfortable in ourselves. 

This also meant that a number of flesh-and-blood teenagers were living a lifestyle that even the fictional characters of Skins couldn’t cope with. By the time most of us realized we were too sensitive for such a hectic and unstable life, the drugs, parties, and immature relationships had taken their toll.

The dark themes shown in Skins do continue to affect its young viewers. But it’s the teenage viewers lurking inside our twenty-something selves that are most at risk. We continue to glamorize the series and our own related experiences that may or may have not have been influenced by the stories. 

Though we may be tempted to safeguard the legitimacy of Skins without scrutiny, we shouldn’t. We must understand that as a TV show, it may be an example of millennial creativity at its best, but it should not be used as a handbook on defining cool-kid legitimacy.

So, in the spirit of 2018 liberalism, let’s be critical about the good, the bad, and the ugly in Skins.