Conservatives Freak Out Over MTV’s "Skins" -- Teenagers Have Sex. Get Over It.
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That is, they weren’t. For months, American "Skins" fans have dreaded the debut of MTV’s adaptation, which is a straight remake of the first UK series, but set in Baltimore (though, ironically, much of the cast is Canadian, and it was filmed in Toronto). Its debut last week proved we were right to fret: everything that was sweet and human about the teens in the UK show has been stripped away in lieu of exploitative, explosive and faux-controversial in a cynical ratings ploy by MTV. The first indicator was that Maxxie, the Brit version’s charming gay boy, was replaced by Tea, a lusty-looking, super-hot lesbian cheerleader. It was the first sign that "Skins" U.S. would not be as groundbreaking as its UK counterpart, but it would be gunning for cheap thrills and a lowest-common-denominator lasciviousness. Not to discount the benefit of having a lesbian teen on a primetime show, but it’s hard not to think the choice to sub in a gay female for a gay male wasn’t cynical, especially when the show is otherwise line-for-line identical to the UK version.
MTV's adaptation comes with a self-aware slickness that undercuts the vulnerability of the kids in the original. On the UK version, frank talk about sex comes off as hormones, a complicated combo of lust and affection; in the U.S. version, it tiptoes all over misogyny. And in the context of MTV -- not to mention the context of American feelings toward teen sex, and the general notion that they shouldn’t be having it -- the show takes on an exploitative air. If the show illuminates anything, it’s that U.S. attitudes toward sex in comparison with the rest of the Western world are pathetically squeamish, bordering on terrified. How are teens supposed to develop natural, healthy sexuality if they’re told they either must exploit it or repress it? Because guess what! Teens all over Europe bone each other with unhindered regularity, and they’re instructed by adults how to use condoms and good judgment, and everyone’s okay with it.
MTV’s once again banking on our prudish cultural mores to rake in the ratings, and Parents TV Council, whose members have apparently never met an actual teen, played right into their hands, using it as another opportunity to write a press release in all-caps and bold typeface. It’s just another enactment of the empty morality binary, and frankly, it’s boring.
As a "Skins" UK superfan, I’d like to say that while the diehards are the ones who feel most betrayed by the remake, it’s teenagers who get the shortest shrift. Teenagers deserve to have a moderately accurate portrayal of their lives, one that bothers to understand their psyches and problems, that reflects both the joys and consequences of their actions. Instead, MTV handed them a caricature of themselves. Don’t forgo "Skins" because it’s “dangerous” --- forgo it because it’s bad. The original version is available on Netflix. Show that to your kids, then listen to what they have to say.
Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, New York Times and various other magazines and websites.