7 feminist reasons to watch the British teen drama “Skins” before American TV ruins it

If you’re not a fan of British TV show Skins yet, it’s probably time you become one. The popular teen drama is about the make the leap across the pond, and loyal fans are worried—understandably, I think—that MTV will destroy everything that is great about the show.

New York Magazine has already compiled a list of 8 reasons you should watch the original before the American premier in January and Flavorwire offered 10 things MTV should do to ensure they don’t completely screw it up.

Here’s my own list of 7 reasons feminists should watch Skins

1. Skins is written and acted by actual young people. And it was also born out of an intergenerational dialogue. The idea for Skins was hatched when 20-year-old Jamie Brittain challenged his dad Bryan Elsley to pitch an idea for a show that wasn’t “boring and middle-aged” and instead do a “teen show that just for once really has some edge.” His dad took the challenge, hired his son as the co-creator, and brought together a team that includes TV veterans and novice writers—most of whom are the same age as the characters on the show—in a “mentor-and-newbie laboratory.” So if the dialogue seems authentic and the youth slang rings true (I can only assume it does since the British-isms are like a foreign language to my American ear), it’s because actual young people wrote it. The actors are also real teenagers. In fact, every two seasons the cast is almost entirely replaced to ensure they remain the same age as both the characters they play and their audience.

2. Guys and girls are friends on Skins—sometimes “just” friends, sometimes not. The series explores the internal dynamics, friendships, and romances of a tight-knit group of friends made up of guys and girls. They spend a lot of time crushing on each other, dating each other, betraying each other, lusting after each other, or having sex with each other. But sometimes they are just being friends. I know, right? Guys and girls talking to each other about their problems and turning to each other for support! Even when they are not in a relationship! Relatively rare on teen TV shows; pretty damn normal in real life. And Skins manages to give opposite-gender friendships the recognition they deserve, even while acknowledging the constant hum of sex that permeates these 18-year-olds’ lives and complicates their relationships. And it does get complicated: Sometimes two friends need to sleep together to realize they love each other just as friends; sometimes a straight guy and his lesbian friend share a kiss because they’re feeling so damn lonely; sometimes a lesbian offers to sleep with her guy friend so that he can finally lose his virginity. But Skins doesn’t shy away from that fluid line between friends, lovers, and even enemies–and always upholds friendship as the greatest good.

3. The gang is a veritable mosaic of diversity. In addition to a mix of genders, the group of friends includes an assortment of races, religions, classes, and sexual orientations. It’s true that, to the extent that there are any main characters on Skins, they tend to be straight and white. But the format of the show—in which each episode of a season focuses on a single character—helps ensure that each character’s story is fleshed-out and the diversity doesn’t seem tokenizing. Whether it’s realistic is another matter; the creators have admitted that, in the real world, the differences between the friends might prove to be a greater source of tension. The show does touch on some of the potential conflicts—one storyline explores a Muslim character’s struggle to reconcile his faith with his love for his gay best friend—but overall it paints a pretty rosy picture. As co-creator Bryan Elsley notes: “It aspires to a certain way of being.” And it’s definitely a way of being worth aspiring to.

4. Guys’ friendships are complicated. Not only are guys friends with girls on Skins, they’re also friends with other guys—and they do more than play sports and smoke pot together. Sometime they actually talk—even about their feelings for each other! In fact, in many ways, Skins explores the complexities of male friendships even more deeply than female ones. And it certainly debunks any myths about girls having more drama in their relationships than guys. The guys of Skins are bursting—with love, competition, loyalty, insecurities—and are constantly trying to figure out how to express themselves. It isn’t always easy, but, thankfully, guys are allowed to tell each other “I love you” on Skins and actually mean it.

5. There is no moralizing. And no glamorizing. This, of course, is what made Skins ground-breaking—even by British standards. And for American viewers like me, it might be hard to even imagine. Seriously, I had to watch it to really grasp what it looks like when a show presents teen drinking, drug use, and sex as parts of life that are morally neutral—neither inherently good nor bad. As they note at Flavorwire, “…the implication that any kid who consumes any kind of illegal drug does it because they’re deeply messed up is tired, unfair, and plain wrong.” And Skins has none of it—drug use is ubiquitous. But it isn’t glamorized. And it certainly isn’t consequence-free: characters sometimes drink too much, they overdose, they abuse drugs. But the show never turns these mistakes into simple cautionary tales or moral lessons. And the really bad things that happen in Skins—and there are a lot of them—are as random and senseless as they are in real life: a bus that comes out of nowhere, a friend’s illness, a parent’s sudden death.

6. Teen sex is portrayed with nuance and respect and without hand-wringing and slut-shaming. The lack of moralizing extends to sex as well. And there’s a lot of it in Skins. Some sex is between couples, some is between friends, some is between strangers. Some is emotionally fulfilling, some isn’t. Some is physically satisfying, some isn’t. The girls are just as likely to have casual sex as the guys, and the guys are just as likely to want a relationship as the girls. (Suffice it to say, Skins doesn’t buy into any myths about oxytocin.) Perhaps even more importantly, in Skins, characters of both genders have both committed and casual sex at different times. Kinda like in real life! And because neither guys or girls are defined by their sexual behavior, that’s not at all strange. Skins recognizes that a girl who’s been having lots of emotionally meaningless sex can still get chills when she touches the hand of the boy she’s falling for. As Samhita wrote yesterday, “We all have feelings and we all like to fuck…Deal with it.” And Skins deals with it quite nicely.

7. There is an unplanned pregnancy, you guys! I don’t want to completely spoil this storyline for you, so I will just say that the pregnant teen does not automatically have the baby without even considering the evil A-word. And that alone makes Skins more realistic than about 98% of the mainstream American shows that have ever portrayed an unintended pregnancy.

Fingers crossed that some the best aspects of the British Skins find their way into the American version—but I’m not holding my breath. In the meantime, you can catch up on the original on Netflix.

Atlanta, GA

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. Maya has previously worked at NARAL Pro-Choice New York and the National Institute for Reproductive Health and was a fellow at Mother Jones magazine. She graduated with a B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. A Minnesota native, she currently lives, writes, edits, and bakes bread in Atlanta, Georgia.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

Read more about Maya

Join the Conversation

  • http://feministing.com/members/megs528/ Megan

    That’s why I love this show. It’s complex…and it makes you think and question. I love that. I hope that MTV doesn’t ruin it. American versions are rarely as fun as the British counterparts, but it’ll be especially hard with this show, because it is truly unique and realistic.

  • http://feministing.com/members/nancyshrew/ Nancy Shrew

    It had Cassie. That was reason enough for me (I haven’t watched since the second series ended).

    I don’t think it’s going to translate very well in American television.

  • http://feministing.com/members/treefinger/ Candice

    I don’t really agree with the “no glamorizing” thing. Everyone on UK Skins is impossibly beautiful and goes around having all sorts of sex and taking drugs (not that these are BAD, but read on). Perhaps I’m naive because I didn’t grow up in a city, but no, life is not that interesting or sexy for average British teenagers. There’s plenty of other shows (albeit comedies rather than dramas) that better encapsulate teen life, like The Inbetweeners (sometimes called the anti-Skins), which depicts the life of the protagonists as far more everyday, and their drinking/attempts to get sex as disasters. I don’t recommend The Inbetweeners to feminists, because the main characters are all dudes and they do nothing but obsess over the female characters as sex objects. But it’s a billion times more realistic.

    I agree with all the other points you raised though. Skins is an over-the-top “gritty drama”, but it deals with the issues it brings up very respectfully and with sensitivity.

  • http://feministing.com/members/qqob/ qob

    I wouldn’t think Skins is realistic: more hyper-real. It’s as if it takes all the crazy parties and gossip from the 6-8 years of teenagehood and adolescence and crams them into one series. Overall, though, it is a great aesthetic. (plus one series also deals pretty heavily with mental illness).

    I also recommend Misfits (again from C4) for points 2,3, 5 and 6: the characters are adolescents, slightly older than 18, and scifi element makes some of the plotlines much more stark.One character, for example, has the sexual equivalent of the Midas touch.

  • http://feministing.com/members/kathleen/ Kathleen Lewis Greenwood

    Oh Nooooo! Pleeeease don’t become fans! I was a teenager in Bristol, the city where Skins is set, when the first series came out, and the show’s target audience here went from being viewed as edgy and provocative to cringe worthy by its target audience in less than three episodes.
    1. The dialogue doesn’t seem authentic and the youth slang definitely does not ring true. Bristol is a stoner city par excellence, and the show lost a lot of credibility in the first episode for calling cannabis “spliff”. I think the “Skins” was chosen as the title as it can mean both condoms and rizzla (cigarette papers), but this isn’t a usage I ever heard in 7 years of being a teenager in Bristol!
    2. Tony is an arrogant, philandering, conceited asshole who bullies his best friend and publicly humiliates his girlfriend, giving her a nickname about her breasts, and while the show deserves credit for representing the complexity and blurred boundaries that characterize teen relationships, I think there’s a pretty clear hierarchy implied, and that Tony and Michelle gain their “Alpha” status within the group partially because they’re in a long term, relationship with each other.
    3. It’s true that there is diverse in the sense that the writers have included black, gay, anorexic and Muslim characters, but they’ve done an extremely poor job of exploring the issues surrounding class and race in contemporary UK society. Jal is easily the most likable character, but she and Anwar are mouthpieces for the most superficial ideas of identity crisis for most of the 1st series. Incidentally, Dev Patel was one of the few non-local actors, despite Bristol having a large Muslim and Asian population.
    I’m also concerned that on a FEMINIST website, no one has yet drawn attention to the fact that Cassie’s serious anorexia (she has just been released from an in-patient unit at the start of the series) is viewed as being an endearing element of her kooky personality, rather than a disease with a 15% mortality rate. Please don’t endorse a program that has a girl telling a boy she didn’t eat for three days to prepare for her date with him.
    In the interests of full disclosure, Bristol is a city where everyone seems knows everyone else, and my opinions may have been influenced by the fact that one actor bullied my sister’s friend in primary school, and another was extremely rude to a girl from my school in a night club.
    PS. Misfits is EXCELLENT, and if you want to see a show that truly represents teen sex in a realistic, non-glamourising way, I heartily recommend the Inbetweeners.

  • http://feministing.com/members/kathleen/ Kathleen Lewis Greenwood

    I forgot to mention it, and it would probably be impossible for American readers to get hold of, but Dominic Savage’s drama “Dive”, would be a fantastic counterpart to Skins, if any of you could see it. A genuinely beautiful, sensitive portrayal of teenager’s facing big life issue and feelings, dealt with in a massively more mature way than Skins.

  • rebeccajk42

    Hmm, sounds really interesting, as I was just thinking I need a new series to watch. Kathleen, I appreciate your comments too, I’m curious to watch the series now and see both sides of the picture. I was wondering how I can watch it in the US (without buying DVDs), and found out if you have Netflix you can instantly steam the first few seasons. Interesting note: it’s rated here as TV-MA!

    • http://feministing.com/members/kathleen/ Kathleen Lewis Greenwood

      It’s definitely megavideo-able. (and I’ll be happy to provide an episode by episode rant!)