Youth at the centre

Skins’ claim to youthful authenticity is partly established through its content. It focuses almost exclusively on a familiar (and perhaps even stereotypical) set of ‘youth’ concerns. The characters are preoccupied with their place in their peer group, and with romantic and sexual relationships. They suffer from emotional uncertainty and stress as they struggle to find a true or stable identity. They negotiate the conflicting demands of adult authorities (parents, teachers), as they attempt to evade or resist regulation. Their lives are dominated by particular forms of teenage sociality: drinking alcohol, taking soft drugs, getting into fights, dancing and partying. This is the kind of list that would probably feature in any developmental psychology textbook.

Right from its launch and its pilot episode, the programme was keen to announce its ‘youth appeal’, and indeed its affront to conventional notions of youth television. This was apparent not only in its publicity materials, but also in its pilot episode, which seemed calculated to shock older viewers of a sensitive disposition. In the course of Series 1, Episode 1 (‘Tony’), we encounter drug-taking, explicit sex and drinking, and full-strength swearing. One character is seeking his friend’s help to lose his virginity; while another suffers from an eating disorder and a form of OCD. There are ribald jokes about penis size and masturbation; and a comical supporting cast of prostitutes and drug-dealing gangsters.

As the series proceeds, Skins studiously sustains this shocking youth appeal through the manipulation of several staple elements. Very few episodes pass without a mandatory party or clubbing scene, typically followed by sequences of the characters waking up the following morning, hung over, dishevelled and surrounded by semi-naked fellow partygoers. More often than not, parties end in collective punch-ups; and especially as the series proceeds, no episode appears complete without a mandatory sex scene between a new pair of the leading characters. There are copious amounts of bad language, on the part of both teenage and adult characters; and there is a good deal of semi-nudity among both male and female characters, although most of the full-frontal variety is reserved for the adults. All this is carried out against a backdrop of (mostly) current rock and pop music, whose lyrics may or may not be taken to indicate the characters’ inner feelings.

‘Youthfulness’ is also defined in terms of what it is not; and this generally entails the marginalization and mockery of adults. Much of the action in Skins takes place in ‘youth spaces’ – teenage bedrooms, the college common room, bars, pubs and cafes, dance clubs and parties, and houses conveniently left unoccupied by absent parents. Indeed, adults are represented in almost entirely negative terms – as variously ineffectual, self-obsessed, pathetic, uncaring, hypocritical, and in some instances actively predatory. Most of the parents have problems of their own: many of them argue constantly, or split up at some point; while others take up with embarrassing and inappropriate sexual partners. Teachers and other professional carers seem to fall into three main categories: those who try and fail to be cool; neurotic and sadistic authority figures; and those who are drawn into (or actively seek) sexual relationships with their students or young clients. While there are a few adults who are positively sympathetic and caring, this behaviour tends to appear only once the situation has reached crisis point. Significantly, it is often the parents who swear more graphically and profusely than their children – and while this has a comic effect, it’s easy to see how it would have outraged some morally sensitive viewers.

All this might be seen to embody a kind of ‘youth-centred’ rhetoric. Directly and indirectly, it proclaims that this is a series that takes young people’s point of view. It’s interested in what young people are interested in, and it doesn’t give a shit about anything else. It couldn’t care less about adults or teachers, or about what young people are expected to do. As Jacqueline Rose might have argued, it sets up the young person as an outsider to its own process, and unabashedly seeks to draw them in.


Beyond moralizing

A key issue here – as in some of the ‘juvenile delinquent’ movies I considered in an earlier essay – is how the series deals with ‘disapproved’ or risky behaviour. Within youth media, such behaviour can be a focus for voyeuristic fascination, not least on the part of adult viewers; yet it can also provide a vehicle for moralistic messages. As I’ve suggested, Skins set out to avoid the didactic approach of some US teen dramas. While various forms of risky behaviour are represented, these are mostly seen as everyday occurrences that pass without comment. The recreational use of drugs such as cannabis, MDMA and (less frequently) cocaine is seen as a relatively banal fact of life. Sex among the lead characters is also a fairly regular event, which is rarely resisted by either party. Indiscriminate sex is sometimes seen as a sign of desperation, or going off the rails; although it isn’t until generation 3 that there is much evidence of characters feeling uncomfortable or unsatisfied by sex.

In US teen dramas, and indeed in some British soap operas, such activities typically result in damaging consequences that serve as a form of moral warning. To some extent, Skins eschews this approach, although it isn’t always the case that such behaviour is without consequences. In season 3, for example, Effie has a bad trip as a result of eating magic mushrooms, and attacks another character, leaving her hospitalized; while season 4 begins with the suicide of a marginal character who has taken MDMA supplied by one of the lead characters, Naomi. There are two instances where sex leads to an (initially) unwanted pregnancy, for Jal in season 4 and Mini in season 6; although the risk of sexually transmitted infections is mentioned only in passing.

Some academic critics have maintained that, in spite of its apparent refusal of adult moralizing, Skins is nevertheless quite conservative. Susan Berridge argues that underneath what she calls its ‘nihilistic ethos’, the series promotes relatively conventional views of gender roles and sexuality. However, her argument is based on a partial analysis of the first two seasons, and many of her assertions are contradicted by the evidence of later seasons. For example, season 1 does indeed centre around a dominant heterosexual white male character (Tony). However, at the end of the season, he is literally run over by a bus, and throughout season 2 he effectively has to learn a less arrogant and manipulative way of relating to other people. In the following two seasons, his dominant role is taken by his younger sister (Effy), although she too loses this position when she succumbs to mental illness. Likewise, Berridge’s argument that the female characters are seen to be without independent sexual desire is manifestly not borne out as the series proceeds; and her claims about hetero-normativity are equally unfounded, especially when considering the key relationship between two lesbian characters, Naomi and Emily, that evolved over seasons 3 and 4.

The details here – which were debated at length by fans on online forums – are less important than the broader point, which is about the serial nature of the narrative. As in soap operas and other long-running serials, the consequences of characters’ choices and actions are often manifested over the longer term, and in indirect as well as direct ways. In the case of Skins, this is facilitated by the two-season structure: the second season of a given pair (thus, seasons 2, 4 and 6) is typically ‘darker’ and less comical than the first. Both Tony and Effy, for example, encounter the consequences of their actions only some way into their second seasons. Meanwhile, the generational structure of Skins also enables it to avoid the overt moralism of ‘coming of age’ narratives, which are particularly prevalent in teen film. The characters get older, they learn things, but we do not follow them beyond school age: they move on and out before they reach any kind of mature, adult state. The narrative resists closure – and particularly any kind of closure that might enforce a simplistic moral lesson.

A good example of this can be found in the Naomi and Emily storyline mentioned above. As Deborah Hunn points out, narratives of young gay relationships frequently conclude with the moment of ‘coming out’. Some fans of these characters clearly hoped for a kind of idealized ‘happy ever after’ ending – which, as they reasonably pointed out, would make a change from the ways in which queer relationships are often depicted. Yet Skins’ serial narrative meant that it could – and needed to – continue past this moment. As the characters evolved, we saw the relationship fall apart and then come back together; and we also saw other characters’ perspectives. In this respect, the series deals with queer relationships in the same way as heterosexual ones – and this is accentuated by the fact that queer and heterosexual characters occasionally ‘experiment’ or hook up with each other, contributing to a sense that sexual identity is inherently fluid and subject to change. Indeed, if there is a message here, it is about the inevitable instability and fragility of personal relationships, irrespective of sexuality.

At the same time, I would not agree with Berridge’s claim that the programme has a ‘nihilistic ethos’. The characters do routinely engage in behaviour that might in other contexts be portrayed as risky or harmful; and in many instances, they do not experience negative consequences, let alone punishment. These activities are not seen primarily in moral terms, nor are there any overt moral lessons that might be reinforced by adult authority figures. However, this does not imply that such behaviour is always condoned. There are certainly characters – like Cook in seasons 3 and 4 – who are inclined towards destructive (and self-destructive) behaviour, and don’t seem to care less about the consequences. But while the other characters may occasionally be willing to go along with Cook and get ‘off their faces’, they do not consistently share his attitude, let alone celebrate it.

In response to the moral concerns that arose in relation to Skins’ US adaptation, Brian Elsley insisted (as well he might) that the characters are in fact ‘intensely moral’. I’m not sure this is quite correct either: few of the characters appear to observe any external religious or moral code. Nevertheless, I would argue that Skins does convey what might be called an ethic that particularly pertains to friendships and to love. It is an ethic that is premised on honesty and integrity, and indeed on fidelity – and it is infidelity and dishonesty (or simply misunderstanding) that fuel the motor of narrative. While the characters have sex frequently and often spontaneously in a range of locations, the programme by no means celebrates ‘casual’ sex or promiscuity: on the contrary, sex without love is almost always a source of unhappiness and narrative complications. Relationships are frequently destroyed by thoughtless acts of sexual infidelity or ‘experimentation’, or by characters’ inability or unwillingness to tell each other the truth. Yet these qualities of fidelity and honesty are difficult to achieve, and are forever challenged and compromised. As Patard argues, the series displays a kind of ethical idealism: the central challenge the characters face is to learn ‘how to love well’, but this is something they struggle to maintain.

To some extent, this is part of a broader search for identity – although this too is seen as something that may never be finally achieved. Seasons 3 and 4 in particular are replete with characters urging each other to ‘be honest’, to ‘face the truth’ or ‘tell the truth’. ‘Who are you?’ they ask. ‘You don’t know me,’ they exclaim, ‘I don’t know who you are’. Romance – rather than sex alone – is the key source or locus of identity: finding who you really are is frequently equated with finding who you really love. Nobody, it appears, is complete or comfortable or fully themselves if they are alone; and much of the narrative is driven by the coupling and re-coupling of the principal characters. And yet, through all this, true identity and happiness are seen as necessarily temporary and provisional.

In all these ways, Skins actively moves beyond easy assertions about right and wrong: it seeks to generate a continuing debate, not least by including multiple viewpoints. Any ‘messages’ it might put across cannot be summarized in simple moral homilies. Indeed, as Patard suggests, what the characters learn is rarely defined in words, but more frequently in images and symbols. The programme shows us the confusions and uncertainties of relationships, and the vulnerability, awkwardness and discomfort they often entail – not only for young people. Yet rather than seeking consent to a singular moral position, it encourages viewers to engage with the characters’ dilemmas, and thereby to reflect on their own experiences.


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