What Lies Beneath “Skins?”

Sarah Seltzer

Is MTV's new show a "gritty" look at teens’ lives without moralizing, or is it an overhyped remake looking for scandal to drive ratings?

Teenagers doing drugs and having sex is nothing new on TV, but it’s usually accompanied by a hackneyed moral message (a la “Secret Life of the American Teenager”) or a complex emotional story (a la “Friday Night Lights”). Teenagers doing drugs, having sex, and having few regrets about it beyond their own self interest, however, is something not seen much on the small screen. And that’s what the marketers of MTV’s new show “Skins” are hoping will draw big audiences: Illicit activity. Teenagers. Res ipsa loquitor.

And if that promise fails to generate enough buzz in a post “Gossip-Girl” era, there’s always a whiff of even tawdrier scandal to boost ratings, arising from the choice to cast “real teens” for this “gritty” scripted drama. This particular scandal arrives thanks to a highly-placed media story (that happens to be sourced anonymously from the network which happens to be looking for a hit) claiming MTV brass is worried that these scantily-clad or half-naked teenage actors may be running afoul of child pornography laws. Taco Bell, that arbiter of decency, has even pulled its ads.

The premise is intriguing, certainly. But does such an uncensored view of teenagedom (aided by the aforementioned young actors as well a crew of young writers and consultants) serve a purpose beyond shock value?

Many who watched the British version of the show, on which this new series is heavily based, say yes. The British “Skins” has developed a cult following on this side of the pond thanks to word of mouth and Netflix streaming. A few months ago, Maya Dusenbery at Feministing joined the growing chorus of Stateside “Skins” fanatics and wrote the post “Seven Feminist Reasons to Watch the British Teen Drama Skins Before American TV Ruins It.” It included this:

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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…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.

The subject matter of the American remake is almost equally frank thus far, and at face value it isn’t such a stretch from many teens’ lives. Teenager live sexual and emotional existences that are complex and full of ups and downs, something we stress here at Rewire all the time. As Jess Bennett wrote at Newsweek last week:

They do have sex; they do experiment with drugs. Three in 10 of them will get pregnant before they turn 20, and 9 percent of them will attempt suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control. They can be angry and volatile, depressed, isolated, and often insecure.

Not everyone agrees with this assessment of “Skins'” accuracy however. At Double X,  Hanna Roisin writes that the show is”a teenage fantasy about teenage life lived at the heady, reckless extreme. Also the show involves traditional narrative arcs which revolve around a different character in each episode. In other words, it’s drama, not realism.” Roisin believes that our concept of “realism” has warped by the fake-real scriptedness of reality tv.

In the comments section of that earlier Feministing post was the most accurate description of the “Skins” aesthetic I’ve seen. It’s not gritty or realistic, because for most teenagers–even the wildest ones– true-to-life depictions would involve a lot of boredom and mindless goofing off sans substances, or plugging away at jobs and at school. Rather, the aesthetic is what the commenter called “hyper-real,” as though weekend upon wild weekend were smashed up against each other, and teenage life was an endless drama of friendship, betrayal, lust and confusion, never thrown into relief by the feeling of the mundane or everyday. In the American premiere, this narrative style was replicated with some glossing and toning, but perhaps to lesser effect (certainly, that was the critical consensus). Even the frenetic opening scene in which the antihero Tony and his father shout at each other over bathroom privileges and loud music seemed like someone had pressed the fast forward button and upped the volume. Perhaps that’s how the writers believe life feels for teenagers, but it was irritating to me as a viewer. And while the slang and quick-wit may not seem as brash in that Bristol British accent, some of it admittedly gets lost in translation, to use the cliche that all American critics are using this week.  Much of the dialogue comes across as canned and not cute.

Personally, I admit to being disappointed in the first US episode because of its stilted, souped-up feeling. But I did not feel that the subject matter was exploitative so much as it cut corners with its characters, showing only the titillating aspects of their lives. Shows about teenagers should definitely cover their sex lives and other taboo subjects, but not necessarily at the expense of everything else. It’s the collision of disparate things–sex and drugs and homework and serving slurpees and family pressure and the boredom of being grounded or forced to babysit and figuring out what your adult values may one day be–that makes teenage life such a fascinating subject for artistic exploration.

Therefore, like many other viewers, if the trend continues on MTV I will likely switch to watching hours of the more satisfying British show on Netflix instead.

What did you think of the premiere and will you stick with MTV’s version this season in the hopes that it will flesh out (forgive the pun) its characters? Sound off in the comments section.

Commentary Race

Black Lives Matter Belongs in Canada, Despite What Responses to Its Pride Action Suggest

Katherine Cross

Privileging the voices of white LGBTQ Canadians who claim racism is not a part of Canada's history or present ignores the struggles of Canadians of color, including those who are LGBTQ.

As I walked the streets of Toronto last month, it occurred to me that Pride Week had become something of a national holiday there, where rainbow flags and the Maple Leaf banners flying in honor of Canada Day on July 1 were equally ubiquitous. For the first time in my many years visiting the city—the place where I myself came out—the juxtaposition of Pride and the anniversary of Confederation felt appropriate and natural.

For some, however, this crescendo of inclusive celebration was threatened by the Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLMTO) protest at the city’s Pride March, often nicknamed PrideTO. The group’s 30-minute, parade-stopping sit-in has since come in for predictable condemnation. The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente dubbed BLMTO “bullies,” sniffed that its tactics and concerns belonged to the United States, and asked why it didn’t care about Black-on-Black crime in Canada. The Toronto Sun’s Sue-Ann Levy, meanwhile, called BLMTO “Nobody Else Matters,” also saying it “bullied” Pride’s organizers and suggesting we all focus on the real object of exclusion within the LGBTQ community: gay members of the recently ousted Conservative Party.

There is a lot to learn from this Torontonian incident, particularly around managing polite liberal racism—an especially important civics lesson in light of the past month’s tragedies in the United States. Privileging the voices of white LGBTQ Canadians who claim racism is not a part of Canada’s history or present means ignoring the struggles of hundreds of thousands, many of whom are LGTBQ themselves.

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Pride has always been a thoroughly political affair. It is, thus, hardly an “inappropriate time and place” for such a protest. It began as, and remains, a public forum for the unapologetic airing of our political concerns as a community in all its diversity. We may have reached a new phase of acceptance—the presence of Prime Minister Trudeau at Pride was a beautiful milestone in both Canadian and LGBTQ history—but Pride as a civic holiday must not obscure the challenges that remain. It is not a coincidence that the majority of transgender people murdered worldwide by the hundreds every year are Black and Latina, and that many of them are sex workers. That is part of the reality that BLMTO was responding to—the fact that racism amplifies homophobia and transphobia. In so doing, it was not just speaking for Black people, as many falsely contended, but advocating for queer and trans people of many ethnicities.

Even so, one parade-goer told the Globe and Mail: “It’s not about them. It’s gay pride, not black pride.” The very fact that Black LGBTQ people are asked to “choose” validates BLMTO’s complaint about Pride’s anti-Blackness, suggesting a culture where Black people will be thinly tolerated so long as they do not actually talk about or organize around being Black.

Indeed, BLMTO’s much-criticized list of demands seems not to have been read, much less understood. While drawing attention to the Black Lives Matter collective, it also advocated for South Asian LGBTQ people and those in First Nations communities, whose sense of not-entirely-belonging at an increasingly apolitical PrideTO it shares.

In each paint-by-numbers editorial, there was lip service paid to the “concerns” BLMTO has about Canadian police forces and racial discrimination, but the inconvenience of a briefly immobilized parade generated more coverage. Throughout, there has been a sense that Black Lives Matter didn’t belong in Canada, that the nation is somehow immune to racist law enforcement and, in fact, racism in general.

Yet to listen to the accounts of Black Canadians, the reality is rather different.

Janaya Khan, one of the co-founders of BLMTO, recently spoke to Canadian national magazine MacLean’s about the activist’s views on structural racism in the country. As a native of Toronto, they were able to speak quite forthrightly about growing up with racism in the city—up to and including being “carded” (a Canadian version of stop-and-frisk, wherein officers have the right to demand ID from random citizens) at Pride itself. And last year in Toronto Life, journalist and writer Desmond Cole talked about his experiences being raised throughout Ontario. He told a story of a traffic stop, none too different from the sort that killed Philando Castile earlier this month, after a passenger in his father’s car, Sana, had tossed a tissue out the window onto the highway. The officer made the young man walk back onto the highway and pick it up.

Cole wrote, “After Sana returned, the officer let us go. We drove off, overcome with silence until my father finally exploded. ‘You realize everyone in this car is Black, right?’ he thundered at Sana. ‘Yes, Uncle,’ Sana whispered, his head down and shoulders slumped. That afternoon, my imposing father and cocky cousin had trembled in fear over a discarded Kleenex.”

This story, of narrowly escaping the wrath of a white officer on the side of a motorway, could have come from any state in the Union. While Canada has many things to be proud of, it cannot claim that scouring racism from within its borders is among them. Those of us who have lived and worked within the country have an obligation to believe people like Cole and Khan when they describe what life has been like for them—and to do something about it rather than wring our hands in denial.

We should hardly be surprised that the United States and Canada, with parallel histories of violent colonial usurpation of Native land, should be plagued by many of the same racist diseases. There are many that Canada has shared with its southern neighbor—Canada had a number of anti-Chinese exclusion laws in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and it too had Japanese internment camps during the Second World War—but other racisms are distinctly homegrown.

The Quebecois sovereignty movement, for instance, veered into anti-Semitic fascism in the 1930s and ’40s. In later years, despite tacking to the left, it retained something of a xenophobic character because of its implicit vision of an independent Quebec dominated by white francophones who could trace their ancestry back to France. In a blind fury after narrowly losing the 1995 referendum on Quebecois independence, Premier Jacques Parizeau, the then-leader of the independence movement, infamously blamed “money and ethnic votes” for the loss. More recently, the provincial sovereigntist party, the Parti Quebecois, tried to impose a “Values Charter” on the province aimed at criminalizing the wearing of hijab and niqab in certain public spaces and functions. Ask Black francophones if they feel welcome in the province and you’ll get mixed answers at best, often related to racist policing from Quebec’s forces.

Speaking of policing and the character of public safety institutions, matters remain stark.

A 2015 Toronto Star special investigation found hundreds of Greater Toronto Area officers internally disciplined for “serious misconduct”—including the physical abuse of homeless people and committing domestic violence—remained on the force. In 2012, the same outlet documented the excessive rate at which Black and brown Torontonians were stopped and “carded.” The data is staggering: The number of stops of Black men actually exceeded the number of young Black men who live in certain policing districts. And according to the Star, despite making up less than 10 percent of Toronto’s population, Black Torontonians comprised at least 35 percent of those individuals shot to death by police since 1990. Between 2000 and 2006, they made up two-thirds.

Meanwhile, LGBTQ and Native Ontario corrections officers have routinely complained of poisonous workplace environments; a recent survey found anti-Muslim attitudes prevail among a majority of Ontarians.

Especially poignant for me as a Latina who loves Canada is the case of former Vancouver firefighter Luis Gonzales. Gonzales, who is of Salvadoran descent, is now filing a human rights complaint against Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services for what he deemed a racist work environment that included anti-Black racism, like shining a fire engine floodlight on Black women in the street and joking about how one still couldn’t see them.

One could go on; the disparate nature of these abuses points to the intersectional character of prejudice in Canada, something that BLM Toronto was quite explicit about in its protest. While anti-Black racism is distinct, the coalition perspective envisaged by Black Lives Matter, which builds community with LGBTQ, Muslim, South Asian, and First Nations groups, reflects an understanding of Canadian racism that is quite intelligible to U.S. observers.

It is here that we should return again to Margaret Wente’s slyly nationalistic claim that BLMTO is a foreign import, insensitive to progressive Canadian reality. In this, as in so many other areas, we must dispense with the use of Canadian civic liberalism as a shield against criticism; the nation got this far because of sometimes intemperate, often loud protest. Protests against anti-LGBTQ police brutality in the 1980s and ’90s, for example, set the stage for a Toronto where the CN Tower would be lit up in rainbow colors. And any number of Native rights actions in Canada have forced the nation to recognize both its colonial history and the racism of the present; from Idle No More and the Oka Crisis to the 2014 VIA Rail blockade, that movement is alive and well. Indeed, the blockade was part of a long movement to make the government acknowledge that thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women constituted a crisis.

If we must wrap ourselves in the Maple Leaf flag, then let us at least acknowledge that peaceful protest is a very Canadian thing indeed, instead of redoubling racist insults by insinuating that Black Lives Matter is somehow foreign or that institutional racism is confined to the United States. Canada has achieved little of worth by merely chanting “but we’re not as bad as the United States!” like a mantra.

Far from being a movement in search of a crisis, Black Lives Matter and its intersectional analysis is just as well-suited to Canada as it is to the United States. In the end, it is not, per the national anthem, God who keeps this land “glorious and free,” but its people.

Roundups Sexual Health

This Week in Sex: Some Men Base Condom Use on Women’s Looks

Martha Kempner

This week, a study suggests some men are less likely to have safer sex with women whom they find attractive. There's now a study of women's pubic hair grooming habits, and a lot of couples don't have wedding-night sex.

This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

Men Less Likely to Have Safer Sex If Partner Is ‘Hot’

The old adage “Never judge a book by its cover” is apparently easily forgotten when it comes to judging potential sex partners. A new study in BMJ Open found that men said they were less likely to use a condom if their potential partner was hot.

In this small study, researchers showed pictures of 20 women to 51 heterosexual men. The men were asked to rank how attractive the woman was, how likely they would be to have sex with her if given the opportunity, and how likely it was they would use a condom if they did have sex with her. The results revealed that the more attractive a man found a woman, the less likely he was to intend to use a condom during sex with her.

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Men also rated how attractive they consider themselves, and the results showed that this was also related to condom use. Men who thought of themselves as more attractive were less likely to intend to use a condom.

Researchers also asked the men to estimate how many out of 100 men like themselves would have sex with each woman given the opportunity and finally, how likely they thought it was that the woman in the picture had a sexually transmitted infection (STI).

The results of these two questions turned out to be related: The men assumed that women whom other men would want to sleep with were more likely to have STIs.

This did not make the men in the study any more likely to intend to use a condom with those women. In fact, the men were most likely to intend condom use with women they found less attractive, even though they considered these women less likely to have an STI.

This was a small study with a relatively homogenous group of men ages 18 to 69 near Southhampton, England, and it measured intention rather than behavior.

Still, the results could present a challenge for public health experts if men are making condom decisions on a broader scale based on attraction rather than risk assessment.

How and Why Women Groom Their Pubic Hair

A new study published in JAMA Dermatology is the first nationally representative survey of U.S. women’s pubic hair grooming habits. The study included more than 3,300 women ages 18 to 64.

Overall, 84 percent of women had engaged in some pubic hair grooming. Pubic hair grooming was more common among younger women (ages 18 to 24); among white women; and among women who had gone to college.

Before you start thinking everyone is out getting Brazilians, however, grooming means different things to different women. Only 21 percent of women said they took all their pubic hair off more than 11 times, and 38 percent of women say they’ve never done so. Moreover, waxing lags behind the most popular hair removal methods; only 5 percent of women say they wax compared with 61 percent who shave, 18 percent who use scissors, and 12 percent who use electric razors. (Respondents could choose more than one answer in the survey.)

Most women (93) do it themselves, 8 percent have their partners help, and 6.7 percent go to a professional.

The researchers were most interested in the most common reason women groom their pubic hair. The most common reason was hygiene (59 percent), followed by “part of my routine” (46 percent), “makes my vagina look nicer” (32 percent), “partner prefers” (21 percent), and “oral sex is easier” (19 percent).

Tami Rowen, the lead author of the study and a practicing gynecologist at the University of California, San Francisco, told the New York Times, “Many women think they are dirty or unclean if they aren’t groomed.”

But while people may think that, it’s not true. Pubic hair actually exists to help protect the delicate skin around the genitals. Rowen and other doctors who spoke to the Times believe that women, especially teenagers, are taking up grooming practices in response to external pressures and societal norms as reflected in images of hairless genitals in pornography and other media. They want young people to know the potential risks of grooming and say they’ve seen an increase in grooming-related health issues such as folliculitis, abscesses, cuts, burns, and allergic reactions. As some may remember, This Week in Sex reported a few years ago that emergency-room visits related to pubic hair grooming were way up among both women and men.

This Week in Sex believes that women should be happy with their genitals. Keeping the hair that grows does not make you dirty—in fact, it is there for a reason. But if shaving or waxing makes you happy, that’s fine. Do be careful, however, because the doctors are right: Vulvas are very sensitive and many methods of hair removal are very harsh.

Wedding-Night Sex May Be Delayed, But That’s OK With Most Couples

Summer is a popular wedding season, with couples walking down the aisle, exchanging vows, and then dancing the night away with friends and families. But how many of them actually have sex after the caterer packs up and the guests head home?

According to lingerie company Bluebella—about half. The company surveyed 1,000 couples about their postnuptial sex lives and found that 48 percent of them said they did “it” on their wedding night. Most women in those couples who did not get it on that night said they were just too tired. The men, on the other hand, said they were too drunk or wanted to keep partying with their friends. (It is unclear whether the survey included same-sex couples.)

By the next morning, another 33 percent of couples had consummated their marriage, but about 10 percent said it took 48 hours to get around to it.

But whenever couples did have that post-wedding sex, the overwhelming majority (84 percent) said it lived up to their expectations.